Archive for September, 2018

Idlib: the coming holocaust

September 17, 2018

Idlib is the last part of Syria still holding out against the Assad regime. Which, together with its Russian, Iranian, and Hezbollah allies, is readying a final gotterdammerung bloodbath, against what will likely be equally ferocious resistance. This will not be good for the two to three million civilians there, who will be blasted, incinerated, poison-gassed, starved, and sucked into Assad’s vast torture-industrial complex. Survivors will be made homeless refugees. Where they can go is unclear.

The words “never again” ring ever more hollow.

It was President Obama’s worst mistake to fail to act at a time when there were actually still good options in Syria; compounding it by failing to act even when Assad crossed Obama’s own declared chemical weapons red line. Instead Obama let himself be snookered by a phony Putin-engineered deal. That itself crossed a red line that gave Assad and Putin a green light to act with impunity.

But after hundreds of thousands of deaths, and millions of refugees, even now it is actually not too late to do something right.

Trump, who conceives himself the total anti-Obama, did ding Assad with airstrikes for a chemical weapons attack. But it was just a pinprick and in reality Trump is actually following Obama’s policy — or non-policy. Indeed, only more so, because his Putin ensorcelment stops his pushing back on anything Russia does.

And Trump’s “policy” makes even less sense than Obama’s because at least Obama was pursuing an arguably desirable strategic objective of engagement with Iran. Trump trashed that, but doesn’t see how his anti-Iran efforts are at odds with his Syria behavior. His only aim in Syria is to defeat ISIS. But ISIS is fighting Iran, and Iran’s client Assad. If Trump really wanted to torpedo Iran, he’d act to stop the victory of the Iran-Assad axis.

And we could. We have the military capability. Some serious bombing could annihilate Assad’s air force and military command-and-control infrastructure. Also what Iran has deployed in Syria.

Trump did apparently, at one point, order Assad’s assassination. Defense Secretary Mattis ignored the order; it was in fact an illegal order (in a normal world, by itself grounds for impeachment). Nevertheless, bombing a presidential palace would be a nice thing to do. If Assad happened to be home, boo-hoo.

NEWS FLASH: Just as I was about to post this, I heard a news report of some kind of deal by Russia and Turkey to establish an Idlib “buffer zone” and put the offensive on hold. Both are bad actors who cannot be trusted.

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Readers’ poll

September 17, 2018

1. Trump recently tweeted that the Department of Justice should not have indicted two “very popular” Republican congressmen for crimes before the mid-term elections, thereby putting in doubt two “easy wins.”

• Agree

• Disagree

2. Trump recently tweeted that only around 18 Puerto Ricans died due to Hurricane Maria, not the nearly 3000 subsequently calculated, which is a conspiracy by Democrats to make him look bad.

• Agree

• Disagree

Richard Wolff in sheep’s clothing, on capitalism versus socialism

September 14, 2018

I heard Richard Wolff again on “Alternative [left-wing] Radio.” He’s the “Marxist” economics professor whose LOL take on first class airplane seats I wrote about. Wolf saw them as though created by God but unfairly handed out by dastardly airlines to rich folks, forcing plebeians to suffer in coach. In actuality, the rich subsidize the rest. That’s how airlines make their money. Without milking richies via vastly overpriced premium seats, they’d have to charge coach travelers far more, which wouldn’t fly — literally.

Wolff couldn’t see that reality. But he is a glib talker. His latest was on capitalism versus socialism. He thinks capitalism’s badness will cause socialism to triumph.

A chief theme was “socialism” getting a bum rap because people don’t understand it. This is part of the effort to sugar-coat socialism, making it seem innocuous — a wolf in sheep’s clothing. (We saw this with the Bernie campaign.) It’s the trope that if you like public roads and libraries and fire departments, etc., anything government does, why, that’s socialism!

Except that it isn’t. Providing necessary services that a free market cannot (at least not well) is just any government’s job. Socialism instead is government substituting for (and disallowing) a capable free market.

Now, if you think that’s a good idea, fine, try to persuade us. But socialists must doubt its persuasiveness, else why do they constantly hide what they really advocate, under false camouflage about roads and fire service?

Richard Wolff-in-sheep’s-clothing epitomizes this, again saying people misunderstand “socialism.” He repeatedly mocked the idea of any association with Stalin’s crimes. He stressed that “socialism” is not limited to any single categorical definition. But did he ever actually say what it does mean?

Nope.

But, talking about “capitalism,” Wolff did exactly what he criticized — painting it as one limited thing — which, typically, was a gross caricature.

I was struck by the contrast with a book I happened to be reading, Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism, by historian Joyce Appleby.* Indeed, its key theme is that “capitalism” has been not one discrete concept but endlessly flexible, adaptive, and evolving, with vastly varying iterations — its great strength.

This is clear from the first great book on the subject — titled Capital — by Karl Marx. I will not deride Marx as a fool. He was in fact a brilliant thinker, observer, and analyst, who had some important insights. But he was fundamentally wrong in predicting capitalism’s future. Marx saw an “iron law of wages” always pushing them down to bare subsistence, just enabling workers to stay alive to produce the golden eggs for the capitalists, until they’d revolt. Marx did not imagine the mass affluence capitalism (and the associated industrial/technological revolutions) would bring forth. Even amid all today’s lamentations about inequality, and capitalism’s supposed injustice, the fact is that workers in industrialized societies were able to gain a large enough share of the economic pie to give them living standards unimaginably cushier than the bare subsistence Marx posited.

That’s because the pie has grown so spectacularly. And because of democracy. “Democratic socialism” is really a contradiction in terms because the two ideas have proven in practice to be fundamentally incompatible. That’s due to socialist systems concentrating so much power in government, whereas free market societies distribute power widely. Socialism is not the antithesis of fascism or communism. All three have the central idea of valorizing the collective over the individual, thus being inherently coercive and repressive.

No type of society or system will deliver justice and equality free from the depredations of people who will always try to exploit it for their own advantage. That’s certainly been true in all socialist or communist systems, wherein some individuals always amassed great power over others — using the machineries of the state and its monopoly on violence (legitimate in free societies, but not in others). A free enterprise system at least does not allow that. Instead, there you gain advantage by (in the main) creating value others voluntarily pay you for, making society as a whole wealthier. That’s how Steve Jobs, for example, got so rich. It’s how the whole industrialized world — including its workers — got so much richer than Marx foresaw.

Richard Wolff (Yes, socialism IS for dummies)

Such prosperity has never been produced by socialism. China is a very instructive case. It has two economic systems functioning side-by-side: a socialist one of state-owned firms, and another of very free enterprise. The latter runs rings around the former. It is the source of China’s phenomenal economic advancement, lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty in the last few decades.

* She’s no right-wing free marketeer; plenty critical of capitalism’s negative aspects, especially environmental. Appleby is often a trenchant observer, but I can’t let pass how many annoying bloopers I noticed. Like, “Ingenuous people found a new way to exploit electromagnetism.” Really? I thought that was disingenuous.

Vote for the homo, not for Cuomo

September 12, 2018

In the 1977 New York mayoral primary, Mario Cuomo was running against Ed Koch — unmarried and rumored to be gay. Shortly before the vote, posters appeared saying, “Vote for Cuomo, not the homo.”

Cuomo disavowed them, but the culprit was never identified.

Cuomo’s son, Governor Andrew, got the legislature, in the dead of night, to name the new Hudson River bridge the “Cuomo Bridge,” after his father. (His newsman brother Chris Cuomo has said their dad definitely opposed having things named after him.) But Andrew obviously expected reflected glory from having the Cuomo name on the bridge. (And some voters don’t seem to know one Cuomo from another.)

So the other day — just before Thursday’s gubernatorial primary — Cuomo had a Big Deal ceremony opening the new bridge. Except that it turned out the bridge was not yet actually ready for traffic. Cuomo wasn’t going to let a detail like that stop him from preening and taking credit.

Then it was revealed that his campaign had targeted Jewish voters with a mailed flyer all but accusing his opponent, Cynthia Nixon, of anti-semitism. (Nixon is raising her kids Jewish.) The campaign says it will send out a correction mailing. Which will arrive after the vote.

Cuomo insists he had nothing to do with the despicable mailing. If you believe that, there’s a bridge over the Hudson I’d like to sell you. (I’m not the first with that line.) But it’s funny how Cuomo, the great micro-manager, never seems to know anything about any of the nasty stuff in his administration that gets exposed (like bribe-taking by his “third brother” Percoco.)

Cuomo is a dirty man running a dirty campaign.

Cynthia Nixon is gay. Vote for the homo, not for Cuomo.

The New York Times “Anonymous” Op-ed

September 10, 2018

I defer to another guest column, by Francis Wilkinson in Bloomberg Opinion. Every word is on target. Edited by me for brevity:

Some people in the White House think Trump is ignorant, dangerous and unhinged. They told author Bob Woodward that, though not allowing him to use their names. One wrote a New York Times op-ed about Trump’s deranged reign — also anonymously.

Basically, everyone in the political business, including lots of people who collect taxpayer-funded salaries to pretend otherwise, know that Trump is a malicious, incompetent buffoon.

But 63 million voted for him, some venting their resentments and insecurities. Others hoped Trump, upon taking office, would magically rise from the ethical sewer in which he had spent a lifetime.

Nothing in the Times op-ed, or in comments to Woodward, alters GOP political dynamics. Republican insiders tell one another Trump is an abomination doing an abysmal job. What they tell their voters is something else. Eight in 10 — or more — Republicans approve of Trump’s performance. And because Republican leaders have spent years telling their voters to distrust legitimate news media and to believe only loyal partisans such as Fox News, there is no reason to expect the op-ed or the Woodward book or any other manifestation of truth to penetrate the carefully constructed unreality.

The Republican Party had already become ideologically extreme; contemptuous of inherited social and economic policy; scornful of compromise, of conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and of the legitimacy of its political opposition.

Now it has embraced Trump’s rampant personal corruption and attacks on blacks and Hispanics and women. The party has escalated bad-faith attacks on news media that accurately chronicle Trump lies, and on institutions that resist the almost daily assaults on the rule of law and public ethics.

A nuclear holocaust has thus far been averted — thanks for that, Anonymous. But other acts of aggression, from the Muslim ban to voter suppression, continue undeterred.

The Trump administration planned and executed a policy of seizing infants from their parents at the U.S. border. It did so with such grotesque callousness that it is thus far unable to reunite hundreds of literally kidnapped children with their parents.

Not one Republican in Congress has held a hearing to find out how this crime occurred, and who is responsible. The corruption of the party is endemic. Anyone who thinks they escape the moral and political taint of this administration by murmuring anonymous misgivings about Trump is a fool as well as a coward.

The dishonest Kavanaugh charade

September 7, 2018

Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh says Roe v. Wade is “settled law.” Well, settled law is what the Supreme Court says. “Separate but (supposedly) equal” was settled law for 57 years until in 1954 the Court said it wasn’t. Kavanaugh refuses to admit that he would (with alacrity) provide the needed fifth vote to overturn Roe.

In fact that’s precisely his nomination’s raison d’etre. A lot of voters abide a stinking piece of shit as president just to get a Supreme Court that will end abortion rights. Trump is delivering on that devil’s bargain.

Kavanaugh’s record makes it a sure thing that he’d vote to reverse Roe. That was clear from Senator Hirono’s questioning. In one case Kavanaugh ruled that having to file a two-page form was an “undue burden,” while in another it wasn’t an “undue burden” on a woman to be held in involuntary detention — where in both cases the result was to prevent abortions.

Roe was a legal case but abortion is a political issue. If you want to curtail abortion rights, then at least have the honesty to say so — instead of hiding behind this “settled law” crap, which makes the whole process a dishonest charade.

Of course, honesty is the last thing we can expect from the Trump administration. There’s not an honest bone in its body.

For the record, I’m not pro-abortion, and always thought Roe was both badly decided and politically bad. Abortion rights were inexorably progressing through normal democratic processes, until the Court’s action made the issue toxically divisive. But for it to turn things upside down again now, by reversing Roe, would be even worse, unleashing political Armageddon. Saner heads on the Court should recoil from doing that.

But, like honesty, sanity is in short supply among today’s Republicans.

The Trump Tax on cars

September 6, 2018

NAFTA was a bad deal, the worst deal ever, sending jobs to Mexico. Our imports exceed exports, a bad thing. Trump’s tough talk of tariffs against Mexico made them give us a better deal. A big win. So much winning!

That’s the Trump story. Every word is a lie, including “the” and “to.”

NAFTA reduced trade barriers among Canada, Mexico, and America. This enabled Mexico and Canada to produce and export more — thereby becoming richer, and hence a bigger market for stuff we produce. (After NAFTA we export more to Canada and Mexico than we import from them.) Low production costs in Mexico enable Americans to buy stuff cheaper, and thus to buy more. Which creates more jobs — more than the ones lost to Mexico. That’s how free trade makes everybody better off.

That’s Economics 101. Which Trump flunked. (He got rich as a con artist.)

But isn’t Trump’s new deal with Mexico better for America? No, it’s worse — and worse for Mexico as well. Mexico agreed to it because the Trumpian alternative of full punitive tariffs was worse still (and Mexico’s incoming and outgoing presidents both wanted this issue resolved before the handover).

Cars are the main target. Trump’s deal will make Mexican car production costlier, so more production will occur in America. Good, no? No, because North American car makers don’t compete just against each other, but against the whole rest of the world. Making North American car production more expensive makes it less competitive against cars from all those other countries. And Trump’s idiotic trade policy raises the costs of not only Mexico’s car production, but our own. Cars use a lot of metal, and tariffs on metal, like aluminum, raise prices for it. Surely a plan for killing both U.S. and Mexican jobs and making us all poorer.

We don’t know yet how things will wind up with Canada. But meantime it’s estimated that Trump’s “great deal” with Mexico will add over $2000 to the cost of your next car purchase. Call it the Trump MAGA tax. (But don’t forget the big tax cut he gave millionaires.)

My New York primary endorsements

September 3, 2018

I enrolled last year as a Democrat, to vote in primaries to keep the party from veering too far left. That is complicated in New York because of the Cuomo corruption effect.

For Governor:

Nixon

Actor Cynthia Nixon is challenging Governor Cuomo’s renomination, from the left. I previously criticized her for trying to out-“progressive” Cuomo, when her big issue should be public corruption. In their August 29 TV debate, almost the first word out of her mouth was “LGBT.” It should have been “Moreland.”

That refers to the blue-ribbon commission Cuomo convened, pursuant to the Moreland Act, to investigate Albany corruption. Which was stinking to high heaven. Cuomo meant for the commission to focus on the state legislature. But when it started to look at his own office, Cuomo abruptly shut it down! Declaring it was his commission, and he could do whatever he wanted with it. (Actually, his fig leaf was that the objective had been accomplished with the legislature adopting some ethics reforms. Of course those reforms were a shell game, not even nibbling at the problem.)

Nixon did pronounce the word “Moreland,” just once, later in the debate. She had previously pledged to convene a new Moreland Act commission. But failed even to mention this.

The debate’s headline moment was when Cuomo told Nixon “Can you stop interrupting?” She shot back, “Can you stop lying?” “I will when you do,” he said. So he had been lying. Probably not an admission he intended. But sometimes the tongue is more candid than the brain.

Regarding leftness there really is little to choose between the two. But Cuomo is a repellent person whose corrupt approach to politics defines him (as I’ve detailed). Voting for Nixon is a no-brainer.

The other offices present tougher dilemmas.

For Lieutenant Governor (in primaries we vote for that office separately):

Hochul

Kathy Hochul, the incumbent, was Cuomo’s choice of a running mate. That was before he decided his political bread was buttered on the left side. Hochul was actually a nod to a more conservative upstate sensibility. I’ve heard her speak and have a pretty positive impression of her.

Her challenger is Nixon’s running mate, Jumaane Williams, an African-American NYC Council member. I knew, like Nixon, he stresses “progressive” issues, and has had some financial/business problems. Open-minded, I welcomed seeing a long interview on PBS’s New York Now.

At first I thought there was something wrong with my TV, but then realized it was not the picture twitching, but Williams himself. “He’s got Tourette syndrome,” I said to myself. By and by the interviewer said, “Viewers will notice your twitching.” Williams replied, “I have Tourette syndrome. And ADHD.”

Well, OK. I’m willing to contemplate some affirmative action there. That he’s gotten where has in politics despite his disabilities says something. The guy did speak normally and well, and showed some positive qualities of energy and civic commitment.

But the lieutenant governor has no importance, other than the possibility of becoming governor. So I ask myself, which of the two would I rather have as governor? I can’t see Williams being ready for that. Despite Hochul’s having been picked by Cuomo, she is not actually his creature. She’s the better choice.

For Attorney General:

With four candidates, it should be easy to pick one. Barbara Underwood was installed by the legislature to replace Schneiderman, who resigned for beating up women. But Underwood isn’t running. None of the actual candidates wanted to be picked by the legislature, seeing that as the kiss of death. Which tells you the esteem in which our legislature is held.

James

Letitia James is the NYC “Public Advocate” (the #2 elected position), the party’s official candidate, backed by Cuomo. Otherwise she might be an attractive candidate.

Now, James started her political career winning a city council seat running only on the Working Families Party line. (I’ve always thought that party name was great marketing, but really smarmy.) In 2014, Cuomo managed to get the left-leaning WFP to back him over his left-leaning challenger Zephyr Teachout. But this time the WFP went rogue and backs Nixon. Infuriating Cuomo. So he’s insisted that Letitia James turn her back on her WFP roots. This isn’t going down well. I couldn’t vote for her anyway because Cuomo wants her.

Leecia Eve

Sean Patrick Maloney is an “openly gay” Congressman, running for both re-election and Attorney General simultaneously — which isn’t going down well. Leecia Eve is the African-American daughter of Arthur Eve, who was a powerful longtime Buffalo assemblyman. She’s been “mentioned” for practically every big gong that’s come up in modern times. Eve did sound reasonable in the one short clip of her I saw. But in polls she lags far behind the others.

Teachout

Then there’s Zephyr Teachout, white and not actually gay (recently marrying a man, how retro is that?) yet nevertheless still a “progressive” darling, who lost races for governor in 2014 and Congress in 2016. I admit to feeling Teachout fatigue. I didn’t like her blast against charter schools. Her campaign has been boosted by endorsements by Saint Alexandria and the New York Times (neither of which move me).

I originally wrote this thing saying I’d vote for Teachout anyway. Then yesterday’s Albany Times-Union (which interviews the candidates) surprised me, with a strong endorsement for Eve. It was quite persuasive on her relevant broad experience and capabilities. She is independent of Cuomo, and not a “progressive” ranter like the others. So I was persuaded — power of the press!

*    *    *

The November choice will be equally difficult. Cuomo’s Republican opponent is Marc Molinaro, who is actually quite a good candidate, who says he did not support Trump. An absolute must if I’ll consider voting for a Republican. Still, I believe the whole party is so poisoned by Trumpism that it has to be electorally exterminated. Then there’s Stephanie Miner, former Syracuse mayor, another excellent candidate, who should have run in the primary, but instead chose a pointless third party run. And Larry Sharpe, the Libertarian, and also a really excellent, dynamic guy.

We’ll see.