Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

How conservatives and liberals both miss the boat on poverty

December 3, 2019

Ask Americans about “poor people” and they’re generally sympathetic. About “people on welfare?” Not so much.

Those on the right tend to see social spending as basically taking from deserving people and giving to the less deserving. Who are thought mainly responsible for their poverty. It doesn’t help if they’re less white.

For the left “inequality” is a cri de couer. But while “poverty” used to be one too, that’s actually largely forgotten. They seem obsessed not about the poor but the rich, and how much they have (with big dollops of resentment and envy). That’s their inequality concern. And also their focus is less on the poor than the middle class. Where their own bread happens to be buttered; but it makes political sense too because that’s where the votes are. Poor people are smaller in numbers and they don’t vote much.

We could argue over how the middle class is actually doing. But, even with admitted challenges, they’re able to live a life that’s, well, middle class. Which in a rich 21st century country, historically speaking, is quite decent. It’s the poor — around 15% of the population, depending how you measure — anyway, those on the bottom — who are obviously in tougher shape. Tougher, indeed, than the corresponding population slice in other advanced countries. This is a special American problem. Concerning our fellow human beings.

“Inner city poverty” was long seen as a thing. But as a recent report in The Economist highlights, “outer-city poverty” has become a bigger thing. Poverty too has been moving to the suburbs. While a lot of the non-white poor do remain urban, the suburban poor includes more whites and Hispanics. And it’s harder to deal with, because while big cities can deploy resources, smaller non-urban jurisdictions tend to be cash-strapped and lacking the necessary public infrastructure.

Sneering at poor people as responsible for their plight is easy when you’ve been handed all the advantages. Mostly, people are poor because they’ve been dealt lousy cards. Poverty is heritable: growing up in a poor family, especially in a poor neighborhood, messes you up in a thousand ways that make it much much harder to achieve the American dream. One pilot study showed that just moving a family from a poor neighborhood into a more affluent one results in 31% higher income for their kids in adulthood.

So let’s focus on children. You cannot argue that children, at least, who are in poverty are somehow personally responsible for that. And even put altruism aside. The fact is that a person who grows up into lifelong poverty costs us all a huge amount — for all the welfare, social services, health services, and don’t forget the cost to society of the crime that goes with the territory. Compared against one who becomes a contributing member of the community, holding a job that grows societal wealth, and pays taxes.

So doesn’t it make sense to invest in kids, so they’ll grow into the latter, not the former? The payoffs would vastly exceed the costs. One California study calculated that the cost to end deep child poverty by simply handing out enough cash would be a quarter of what the state spends on prisons. Not doing this was deemed “insane” by the study’s author.

Education looms large here. America’s poverty scandal is mainly an education scandal. Rather than investing to lift children out of the poverty trap, we disinvest, actually giving poor children inferior education.

Liberals won’t face up to this. They assail charter schools for “draining” money from public schools, which they idealize — as though public schools were providing decent service to underprivileged kids. They are not. Many parents in poor neighborhoods see charter schools as their only hope of escaping the school-to-prison pipeline.

School segregation is a big factor. Poor minority children do poorly when ghettoed in their own schools; better when educated with middle-class kids, whose schools tend to be fine. It’s because those, their own schools, are fine that liberals battle for public schools and against charters. And while liberals notionally endorse integration, they seem oblivious to the reality that America’s schools in recent decades have grown ever more segregated.

That segregation is partly a consequence of high rents in better areas with better schools. “Affordable housing” is another liberal cry. Yet their prescription for it is snake oil: rent control. Sure, it’s tempting to regulate rents to prevent gouging by greedy landlords. But it doesn’t take an economic genius to realize rent control disincentivizes landlords from maintaining apartments and building new ones. This results in housing supply shortages which of course actually drive up rents. Keeping poor people poor — and out of decent schools.

Conservatives meanwhile say all this talk about education is futile because the real problem is families. A kid won’t do well in school if his family situation is dysfunctional. And conservatives blame parents for that, being again averse to helping people whose problems are perceived as their own fault. So for the kids: tough luck. While liberals, for their part, are unwilling to see anything to criticize concerning single motherhood.

So what’s the answer? We have to get past our ideologies and do what it takes to get kids born into poverty onto a better track. This does mean attention both to schools and to family. But that’s not some utopian fantasy. An excellent model for it is Harlem Children’s Zone, a private effort spearheaded by Geoffrey Canada, which has produced great results.

America is a very rich country and can amply afford to do this. We really can’t afford not to; it would actually make us even richer, with every dollar spent coming back many times over. And anyhow, the cost would be far less than what we spend on welfare for the rich.

“Treated very unfairly” — a Trump trope

November 26, 2019

“Treated very unfairly” is an incessant Trump trope. Like he’s a great stickler for fairness.

First it was National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, “treated very unfairly” Trump said — after he himself fired Flynn for lying. Flynn was later convicted.

Then he pardoned racist Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, convicted of defying a court order.

Then it was Paul Manafort — also fired by Trump, as campaign manager. Later convicted by a jury for illegally concealing his work for foreign dictators, and failing to report the income to the IRS. But somehow he was “treated very unfairly,” said Trump.

Others he’s said were “treated very unfairly” include right-wing propagandist Dinesh D’Souza, who he pardoned after pleading guilty for a campaign finance felony; Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh; Veterans Affairs nominee Ronny Jackson; National Intelligence Director nominee John Ratcliffe; Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy, facing recall; and various others including, of course, Trump himself, unremittingly whining of “very unfair treatment” in innumerable instances. He said he’s changing his residence to Florida from New York because he was treated unfairly there. He’s even said the writers of the U.S. Constitution treated him very unfairly; even that Fox News has treated him very unfairly!

Of course he never says why, exactly, something was unfair. It never works that way with him. It’s enough to just say “unfair.” One of his many forms of lying.

Now it’s navy SEAL Edward Gallagher, court-martialed for war crimes in Iraq, convicted by a military jury, and demoted. Trump ordered Gallagher’s rank restored. He also pardoned two other soldiers punished for misconduct. “Treated very unfairly.”

War is hell, and bad stuff happens. But America has long insisted on the highest standards of conduct by our military. Trump’s actions shred that honorable tradition, sending totally the wrong message. That’s why they horrified our military; higher-ups said this would undermine maintaining good order and discipline, calling this a crisis in military governance.

They pushed back, scheduling a review board to consider Gallagher’s expulsion as a SEAL. Trump tweeted he wouldn’t permit that, and Gallagher is being allowed to retire as a SEAL with no demotion. But meantime, Navy Secretary Richard Spencer, who opposed Trump’s action but tried to work something out with the White House, has been fired. His resignation letter said he’d been given an order he could not in good conscience carry out.

“Treated very unfairly?” Gallagher, convicted of war crimes? Or Spencer, ousted for trying to uphold standards of honor?

And how about Trump himself, his endless business history of screwing people? All those left holding the bag in his bankruptcies? Victims of his “Trump University” fraud? All the contractors and workers he just stiffed? Were they not “treated very unfairly?”

And how about our former Ukraine Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch — our longest serving envoy with a sterling record of exemplary service — smeared by Trump as prelude to abruptly yanking her from her post. To serve his corrupt political scheme. And then, right amid Yovanovitch’s congressional testimony, Trump tweets idiotic juvenile insults. “She started off in Somalia, how did that go?” She was a junior foreign service officer there, as if that made her responsible for Somalia’s mess. She went into a very tough, dangerous situation, serving her country, and that’s the thanks she gets from the President of the United States.

“Treated very unfairly?”

Normal human beings have some basic sense of what fairness means. Trump does not, and uses the word with perverted cynicism. Those he calls “treated very unfairly” are typically scumbags, like Flynn, Arpaio, Manafort, D’Souza, actually getting what they deserve. While upstanding people like Spencer and Yovanovitch are in fact treated very unfairly, by Trump.

One more way in which Trump’s is a bizarro world, where black is white and white is black; wrong is right and right is wrong.

Medicare for All: a critical look

November 21, 2019

Bill Hammond gave a talk on this to the Capital District Humanist Society. He’s the Empire Center’s Director of Health Policy, and is critical of the single payer concept. CDHS members being mostly well to the left, Hammond was received like a skunk at a picnic.

He started by quoting Bernie Sanders that “Health care must be recognized as a right, not a privilege.” Which Hammond said nobody really disputes; but Sanders and his fans equate it to a “single payer” system. (The “single payer” — seems they’re afraid to say this plainly — would be government, responsible for all health care.)

Hammond noted that a “right to health care” would have been unintelligible to our founders. Health care itself was not even a concept; he described how George Washington was really killed by the medical “care” he received. We’ve advanced a lot since. But meantime they saw “rights” as things the government should notget involved with, whereas for Sanders backers a right means an entitlement. And his “Medicare for All” plan goes even beyond a “universal access” model (e.g., schools, libraries, and indeed existing Medicare), with only government being allowed as a payer for health services.

Hammond also saw equality of access as a big part of it; the idea that people should get the same care regardless of income. This, he said, is a kind of extreme egalitarian moral reasoning we don’t apply in any other sphere (for example, food).

He presented some figures illuminating the status quo. Private insurance penetration is 67%, the bulk of that employment-based. Most of the rest is public coverage — Medicare and Medicaid. Medical costs are paid roughly half from private sources and 42% from taxes. Nine percent is self-pay and charity care.

Major flaws in the existing landscape include millions uninsured; out-of-pocket costs too high even with insurance; a fragmented, poorly integrated delivery system; and health care is 17% of our economy, an excessive burden far above other countries’, with no corresponding benefit in health outcomes. Hammond said “single payer” would not tackle the latter two problems.

He also cited some misconceptions. First, that our private insurance model is the cause of high costs, with too much profit. One audience member, a friend of mine, insisted no one should be allowed to profit providing something as vital as health care. I would turn it around: why should anyone be forced to provide her with any service (let alone one so vital) without compensation? People get paid for their work (she does). Those who expend effort to set up, invest in, and operate health care systems surely deserve compensation in the form of profits too.

But are they excessive? Hammond presented numbers showing that while compared to other countries, our health care overheads, including all administrative costs, arehigher, they’re only about 8% of total outlays, with the bulk of the cost difference being what we actually spend on care. And that’s not for more or better care but, rather, in the prices paid for care — mostly due to much higher salaries for medical professionals than in other advanced countries.

It’s also often asserted that all other advanced nations have single payer systems. Not so. Most actually have mixed systems (which ours is), but are more tightly regulated (hence their lower price levels). Obamacare was a step toward convergence with those other countries. But Hammond noted that even in Britain, which does basically have a single payer system, you’re still allowed to buy private insurance, which many Brits do. Sanders (and Warren) would disallow that.

Another notion is that their plan would merely be an expansion of the existing and successful Medicare system. Hammond pointed out that existing Medicare actually entails a lotof cost sharing; it’s far from free*, and there are out-of-pocket costs at point of service too.

He also discussed the proposed New York Health Act, seemingly on the verge of passage. In Hammond’s telling, this would be a “Medicare for All” plan on steroids; a “carte blanche” with the state simply paying allhealth related costs for all residents. He presented various studies attempting to estimate the costs. While there might be some cost savings, increased demand for health services would likely raise overall spending levels. Total taxation would have to double or triple. Hammond acknowledged that a majority of New Yorkers would probably come out ahead after higher taxes are set against lower health bills. But this would require richer people paying dramatically more. (A notion garnering vocal approval from attendees; but it was pointed out that rich people could simply leave the state.)

A comparable federal plan would, he said, entail similar ramifications. [Though presumably richer people would be less apt to leave the country than the state — FSR.] Hammond cited an Urban Institute estimate that over ten years, $34 trillion in higher federal taxes would be required, replacing $27 trillion in current outlays.

Questioners from the audience gave Hammond a rough time. My own question said I agreed with him about single-payer, but that we’re a rich country and can afford to somehow make sure every citizen gets a minimum level of basic care. (This elicited applause!) Hammond responded that actually this can be achieved with modest tweaks to our existing system. In particular, the Medicaid program already aims to do it for low income people; a problem is that many of those eligible simply don’t sign up for it. [Also, Medicaid requires money from states; red state Republican regimes hate it and try to limit it — FSR.]

Hammond concluded with a story about Fidelis Care, a New York health insurer run by the Catholic Church, which received a $3.75 billion buyout offer. Long story short, Gov. Cuomo figured out a way to get control of $2 billion of that, which he used as a kitty to hand out goodies to favored entities in the health care industry; in return for which he glommed unprecedently large political contributions.

Hammond said that single payer advocates seem to imagine that having the entire health care industry under government control would be a good thing. They idealize government. But the Fidelis story is a cautionary tale about how things really work; tending to be run for the benefit of insiders; and big players in this industry have tremendous clout to make it work for them.

After his talk, Hammond was taken outside, where he was tarred and feathered.

* My own monthly Medicare payments were high enough that I opted out.

Foreign service heroes and patriots, telling the truth

November 13, 2019

Foreign service professionals normally toil for their country under the radar. Now some are at the center of a storm. Trump has tried to keep them silenced, to bar them from giving evidence to Congress. But their loyalty to the nation, and its rule of law, comes first.

Testimony from them — dedicated professionals like former Ambassadors William Taylor and Marie Yovanovitch, and Alexander Vindman, George Kent and others — has already been devastating. They’ve documented factually how Trump’s Zelensky phone call was just the tip of an iceberg of corruption: a lengthy scheme to force Ukraine’s government to give Trump political dirt (likely trumped up), in exchange for military aid. All the foreign policy professionals who became aware of this were horrified.

Let’s be clear. Of course aid to a country is often conditioned on its doing things consistent with U.S. policies. But serving a president’s private political interests is entirely different. In fact, literally a crime — it’s against the law for a foreign government to give anything of value to a U.S. political campaign. That’s what Trump sought from Ukraine. Not just a quid pro quo, but extortion. Soliciting a bribe.

Moreover, what he did actually undermined U.S. policies and security interests, by hampering Ukraine’s defense against Russian aggression. Saying he was really concerned about corruption in Ukraine is a laughable lie.

The scheme was only stopped by the whistleblower’s blowing the whistle. Only then was the Ukraine aid finally released. It’s questionable whether Trump even had the authority to withhold it in the first place.

Not an impeachable offense, say Republicans? If this isn’t one, nothing ever could be. Manipulating $391 million in Congressionally-mandated foreign assistance, to get another country to smear a political opponent. A worse abuse of power is hardly conceivable.

And anyone inclined to give it a pass should consider the defendant’s record. This vileness is just the latest in a long sickening string of one vile thing after another.

Republicans who bray that this is a sham, a witch hunt, a hoax, disgrace themselves. By saying it, they’re the ones perpetrating a sham, a witch hunt, a hoax.

The whistleblower, and the foreign service officers who are testifying, telling the truth, in the teeth of presidential intimidation and threats, are courageous patriotic heroes. They show that the American ideals, which Trump so travesties, are not dead yet. Republicans who vilify them as shameful treasonous partisan hacks are themselves the shameful treasonous partisan hacks.

Bolivia, China, and 1984

November 12, 2019

Bolivia’s longest-serving President Evo Morales was first elected in 2006, a left-winger, of indigenous background, former head of the Coca growers union. He held a referendum to change the constitution to allow him to run for a fourth term. Voters said no. He ran again anyway. Typically for such autocrats, he got a packed court to legalize this. But voters said no again. When Morales tried to fiddle the election results, huge protests ensued. On Sunday, the military — Morales had not consolidated his co-opting it — finally said he must go. And Morales actually did step down; as did three others in his line of succession.

So it’s still possible for citizens to get rid of a seemingly entrenched regime. This is very encouraging. Yet the global trend is unfortunately contrary. Such regimes are perfecting the techniques for staying in power, neutralizing opposition. Look at Venezuela. The Maduro gang is literally destroying the country, impoverishing the populace, yet still it seems impregnable. There, unlike in Bolivia, the army is totally in bed with the regime. They’ve got the guns, and aren’t squeamish about using them.

It also helps to have at least some citizen support. In Venezuela, there are actually still a lot of people who actually believe the regime’s propaganda and back it. And they go into the streets and use organized violence against regime opponents.

It is indeed dismaying how so many people, everywhere, can be so misguided in their political allegiances. Look at Brazil. Its last presidential election had a run-off between right-wing and left-wing extremists — because in the first round few people would vote for the sensible, responsible moderate choice. So they wound up with an absolutely terrible person. The Brazilian Trump. Then there’s the Philippine Trump. Not to mention, of course, the American one.

But the godfather of authoritarian regimes, consummating the techniques for holding unchallengeable power, is China’s. PBS recently ran an exploration of Artificial Intelligence; one segment, titled “The Surveillance State,” focused on China’s use of AI to suppress any and all dissension. In its largely Muslim province of Uighuristan, it employs AI to intensively profile every citizen (or, more accurately, subject), and anyone suspect has been put into “re-education camps.” It’s estimated that that’s a million people. Meantime, nationwide, China is perfecting facial recognition technology to keep tabs on everyone, deploying a “social credit” system giving every inhabitant a score for subservience. Those with low scores are being treated accordingly. To make the whole system truly pervasive, China is deploying — wait for it — surveillance cameras — six hundred million of them.

Hong Kong is in revolt against all this. It’s widely feared that this must end with China’s regime violently cracking down, like in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Maybe; but I suspect that will not happen because it’s not necessary for China’s regime. There is simply no way for Hong Kongers to gain the democracy they seek. The Beijing bosses can just sit tight doing nothing. And the vast majority of China’s population is actually already so brainwashed that they support the regime — fervently —against the Hong Kongers.

Nineteen Eighty-Four may have been too optimistic. At the book’s end it was clear it was looking back on a regime that was no more.

Elizabeth Warren’s candidacy

November 9, 2019

Democrats love government; Republicans hate it. Of course that’s a big oversimplification. But in this respect Elizabeth Warren is the quintessential Democrat.

I was long a Republican, with a libertarian/conservative perspective. Not hating government, but seeing unconstrained government power as a problem. Warren doesn’t share that viewpoint.

The word “socialist” is thrown around a lot by people who don’t actually know what it means. It’s not “social welfare” or government regulating the private sector; it’s government replacing it.

Warren says she’s no socialist, and seems to mean it, actually having good things to say about the role of the private sector in creating economic dynamism. At least in concept. However, she does propose what amounts to socialism for one major economic sector: health care, prohibiting private insurance.

There’s much to hate about private health insurers. Typically in free market capitalism, a company makes money by making customers happy. But health insurers perversely make money by limiting what customers get. Nevertheless, it remains a principle of a free society for people to choose for themselves, and many Americans seem satisfied with their health insurance arrangements.

Taking that freedom away, with a government-only system, is not only wrong but unnecessary. Let Democrats instead create a government option as an alternative. If, as they believe, it’s so much better, it will outcompete private insurers and put them out of business that way. Warren’s refusal to accept that logic is politically stupid. Pointlessly so, because her plan can’t be enacted.

She targets inequality, her centerpiece proposal being a wealth tax (also impossible to enact). This reflects the standard left wing mindset of seeing the problem as what the rich have, as if it’s gotten at the expense of the rest (a basic fallacy). Thus their approach of beating down the rich rather than finding ways to uplift the others.

Actually, Warren does have some proposals in the latter vein, and some are actually reasonable. And I actually agree that richer people like me should pay more tax, especially after Trump’s disgraceful tax giveaways. But a wealth tax is a terrible idea, as several countries trying it have found out. Will an army of federal assessors be sent out to evaluate the worth of all rich folks’ assets — all the mansions, yachts, art collections? Which would invite stratagems to hide wealth and otherwise avoid the tax.

Far better to resuscitate the moribund estate tax. That makes much economic and social sense, and the counter-arguments are bogus. But the estate tax has gotten politically toxic. Though I cannot fathom how a wealth tax sounds better.

More broadly, a cause of inequality is corporate power, which Warren seeks to curb. And I find much to agree with here, free market champion though I am. “Free market” really means free, with open competition. With that, consumers capture the lion’s share of wealth creation. But too many big corporations use their power to squelch competition, especially by enlisting government in that effort. It’s one of the reasons I’m leery of government in general. Warren does have some plans, like stronger antitrust enforcement, breaking up “crony capitalism,” that I endorse; yet her idealization of government seems oblivious to how it’s in the very nature of big government to be captured and suborned by powerful businesses in the ways she herself decries.

And when it comes to coddling businesses, Warren herself does exactly that with her protectionist stance toward trade. Historically, Democrats were the party of free trade, understanding how that benefits consumers and the country as a whole, whereas Republicans were the protectors of businesses. But somewhere the left lost its way on this issue — while Republicans saw the light — until Trump came along and blinded them. Warren would not roll back his insane trade policies, that so harm the global economy and our own.

But most fundamentally, I don’t like the tenor of her campaign. The us-against-them stridency. That if you’re not on board with her program, totally, you stand for nothing, you’re weak, part of the problem, even morally deficient. It’s just this sort of scorched-earth partisan bloody-mindedness that’s tearing the country apart. Warren’s favorite word is “fight.” I think America’s had enough fighting; let’s have some peace.

I have endorsed Joe Biden, whose moderation and centrist reasonableness are far more in line with what we so desperately need. And, notwithstanding all the whining about Biden’s supposed electoral weaknesses, I continue to see him as the best candidate to beat Trump. (That’s why Trump viciously targets him.) National polls show Biden beating Trump soundly; with Warren it’s a toss-up. Her high-octane ideological shrillness (not to mention, alas, her gender) turns off a lot of voters. Whereas Biden is seen as a calm safe pair of hands, an antidote to the sturm und drang of Trump’s presidency.

Pete Buttigieg scores even higher on centrist reasonableness. He’s actually by far the best of all the candidates. His being gay would repel some voters, but I think most would be able to get past that when they see his admirable qualities. I believe he too would do better against Trump than Warren. And if Buttigieg did manage to rise to the top and get the nomination, it would be America at its best. Gosh how I miss that America.

And if it’s Warren nominated? What’s at stake in this election far transcends matters of ideology or policy. America’s soul will be dead if — after every monstrous vile thing he’s done — Trump is re-elected. It would repudiate every good principle this country used to embody. Warren understands those principles, and is everything Trump is not: honest, well-informed, competent, responsible, a decent and sane human being. For all I’ve said against her, we’d be far better off with her than Trump.* Another four years of him would be the end of America.

An imperfect world presents imperfect choices. If it’s Trump versus Warren, I will support her more strongly than I’ve ever supported any cause in my life.

* And if Republicans’ Trumpmania winds up resulting in their worst nightmare of a left-wing president, it will be poetic justice.

Facebook: helping to destroy civilization

November 5, 2019

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg says he won’t stop running political ads — even lying ones. Trump has already run ads falsely smearing Biden. But Zuckerberg says Facebook banning or censoring such ads would violate freedom of speech.

He’s wrong. Freedom of speech (embodied in the First Amendment) means government may not squelch what anyone says. Facebook — big and powerful though it is — ain’t the government (yet). “Freedom of speech” in no way obligates Facebook to make itself a platform for lies. (Twitter’s chief Jack Dorsey, trying to be a more responsible citizen than Zuckerberg, is stopping political ads on Twitter.)

We now know how thoroughly Facebook was manipulated by the Russians in 2016 to get Trump elected. It went way beyond political ads. Among other ploys, they also set up vast numbers of seeming Facebook user groups to spread disinformation and dissension.

Not only does Facebook blow it as a gatekeeper on all that, it even does so on it’s own mis-named “news feed.” More accurately a garbage feed. Because to increase traffic (and hence ad revenue) its algorithms parlay user information to show people stuff calculated to push their buttons — whether true or not. And much is not.

In fact Facebook’s system rewards falsity. I heard a radio interview with one guy who candidly explained how he cooked up a false report about Hillary vote fraud, and made thousands from it. This is called “clickbait” — whenever someone clicks on such a link, not just Facebook, but the link’s creator too, make money from ads.

Some time back, a Trumper I know indignantly distributed a bunch of quotes from leading Democrats slamming the Constitution. Obviously (to me) fake quotes. But instead of ignoring it, I did some googling and quickly found the source, a lying website, and the debunking. This was just one small taste of a monster phenomenon.

Manufacturing phony quotes or vote fraud reports is easy enough, low-tech lying. But now you can create fake video. Like the recent “drunk Pelosi” clip. But worse yet, you can even cook up footage showing someone appearing to say whatever outrageous things you want to put in their mouths. Watch for this in the 2020 campaign. How will the average voter know what to believe?

In the internet’s infancy, we naively imagined it would make people better informed. Instead, it’s a fountain of weaponized lies, and most people (like my Trumper friend above) just don’t have the capability for vetting all the stuff coming at them. This poisons the well of information influencing our voting decisions. Democracy cannot function this way.

It’s exacerbated by having a president who — instead of trying to confront the problem — is himself a big part of the problem.

We are headed toward a world where there’s no such thing as truth or reality. Or so it will seem. But, of course, no matter what rubbish fills minds, there will still actually be a reality out there. And voters with rubbish-filled minds will make for a pretty ugly reality.

Trump is just a harbinger.

Political follies across the river in Rensselaer County: Maddening, wilting, laughable, but real

November 3, 2019

Madden

Patrick Madden is the Democratic mayor of Troy. Last time he won the primary against Rodney Wiltshire, an African-American, by only a handful of votes. This year Wiltshire lost the Democratic mayoral primary again, but is running on the Green and Independence party* lines. Tom Reale, a State Senate staffer, originally wanted to run for city council but Republicans persuaded him to be their candidate for Mayor.

Wiltshire

Then the party’s local bosses, led by Rensselaer County Exec Steve McLaughlin and his henchman Richard Crist, had a meeting with Reale and bullied him to exit the race. Why? They’d decided Wiltshire had a better chance to beat Madden. In fact, they’d already previously connived Wiltshire’s Green party nomination, getting Republicans to register as Greens and write in Wiltshire’s name — not Reale’s. Other local Republicans are getting in line with this Wiltshire ploy.

Not only are these guys making themselves look terrible with these machinations, but for no purpose. Because Madden is sure to beat either challenger anyway, in now solidly Democratic Troy. How idiotic can McLaughlin and company be?

McLaughlin

Just this morning a tape of the meeting came out, in which McLaughlin, preening his power, his every other word an f-bomb, browbeats, belittles, and threatens Reale.

But bullying is McLaughlin’s style. Previously a state legislator, he was then recorded being loudly and vulgarly abominable toward a female staffer. But in the age of Trump, such behavior no longer matters — among “family values” Republicans. So they promoted him to County Exec. He continues to spew out bombastic Trump-like tweets.

Reale

Reale initially bowed to McLaughlin’s pressure and stopped his campaign. But then, with just a week to go, Reale reversed himself, publicly calling out McLaughlin’s bullying tactics, which we already knew about.

Meantime, the state has now instituted early voting. Rensselaer county’s population is concentrated in the city of Troy, which has a lot of non-whites and Democrats. But the county government, thanks to rural votes, is still controlled by Republicans. And, following the Republican playbook of striving to deny minorities the vote, they put the county’s early voting site not in Troy but out in the boondocks, difficult for city dwellers (especially the many without cars) to get to.

In Troy, in 2016, a black motorist, Edson Thevenin, was killed in a hail of bullets by a white cop, Randall French, under dubious circumstances. The Republican District Attorney, Joel Abelove, quickly brought French before a grand jury with no waiver of immunity, guaranteeing he couldn’t be prosecuted. Abelove was criminally prosecuted himself, by the state attorney general, for his role in this. Meantime the local police department also whitewashed French. But then, due to widespread public outcry, a Troy police captain, Joseph Centanni, was engaged to review the case. He courageously wrote a report concluding that the killing was unjustified, French lied about it, and the Troy police department conspired in a cover-up. (This was also the conclusion of the state attorney general, in prosecuting DA Abelove.) But Mayor Madden didn’t like the Centanni report, so not only did he hide it, even from the city council, but he also hired yet another guy to conduct of a review of it. And guess what? That second report tried to poke holes in the first one. But Mayor Madden refused to release that report too, refusing even to reveal how much the city government spent on it.

I don’t live in Troy, but if I did, I’d vote for Reale.

* There’s nothing “independent” about it, this is a shill party actually cooked up by Republicans.

Two kinds of Trumpers

October 31, 2019

He famously said he’d lose no votes if he shot someone on Fifth Avenue. Recently one of his lawyers actually argued in court that if he did it, the law could not touch him.

I’ve written a lot about confirmation bias, an aspect of human psychology whose importance seems growing. It’s the proclivity to embrace information agreeing with one’s beliefs, and shun anything contrary. Smarter people are actually more susceptible. Education makes some think they’re know-it-alls. And they’re more skilled at confabulating rationalizations to justify their stances.

We see this in anti-vaxxers. The more science proves them wrong, the more they dig in. And these are not dumb people. Again, smarter than average. Too smart for their own good. “The greatest deception from which men suffer is their own opinions,” wrote Leonardo da Vinci.

Groupthink also operates. You get yourself in a group of like thinkers, and they reinforce each other. In fact, studies have shown a tendency for such groups to be pulled toward the views of their most extreme members.

All this is epidemic among Trump supporters. Like some relentless commenters on my local newspaper blog — fountains of what they think are facts and information, talking points from the right-wing groupthink echo-chamber. These guys are all full of the Steele Dossier*, FISA warrants, spies, Hillary-this and Hillary-that, demonizing Adam Schiff, deep state conspiracy theories, all soon to be proven, dastardly Democrats demolished, Trump totally triumphant.

All foolish fantasy.

Just as they’re blind to Trump’s big con, equally are they impervious to actual facts. Like his disgusting business history of rip-offs, Trump University fraud, inheritance tax fraud, charitable foundation fraud. Everything in the Mueller report proving how Russia subverted our election, and how Trump conspired to obstruct justice. Now the shocking proof about his mis-use of Ukraine aid. Trump’s blatant brobdingnagian record of lies and other swineries. And so on and on and on, it would fill many ghastly pages. All dismissed as “fake news.”

Nothing will break the spell. They’ll go their graves waving their arms still bleating about the Steele Dossier and all, while the rest of the world has moved on. History will look back on them like we look back at flat earthers and The Inquisition.

John Maynard Keynes said, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” Mindful of that quote, and the phenomena of confirmation bias and groupthink, I strive to avoid those pitfalls. I was a lifelong conservative Republican. But when in 2016 the Republican party, and what went by the name “conservative,” drastically changed, I changed my mind. I don’t laud myself. It was forced upon me, by reality.

So why don’t most Republicans see what was so clear to me? Are confirmation bias and groupthink really that powerful? Apparently so, and it’s extremely disturbing. An unprecedented extreme of political loyalty — to a man of unprecedented vileness. There’s no Trump depravity they won’t defend or excuse, no idiotic attack of his they won’t parrot.

It’s partly explained by that very muscularity of badness, all previous politics seeming weak tea in comparison. Between a strong horse and a weak one, people by nature prefer the strong horse (said Osama bin Laden). Even if the strength is in monstrousness.

Then too, hate is stronger than love. These folks are infused less with Trump love than with hatred for the other side.

And for the people I’ve described, Trumpism has become central to their human identity, their very existence. It’s the reality they’ve constructed for themselves to inhabit. Like the religious beliefs most of them also hold. Oliver Cromwell told an opponent, “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.” These people cannot think it possible, neither regarding religious faith nor Trump faith.

But such zealots are actually a small minority of Trump voters. Most are just, well, ordinary normal people. For whom politics just isn’t that important. The Steele Dossier? Never heard of it. It’s all just a blurry buzz in the background of their lives. To them, Trump may appear to be doing a good job. Shaking things up like he said he would. The economy is OK. He’s not a politician — a good thing. A “successful businessman” — ditto. All the arguing is just a lot of noise. Democrats are all effete socialists.

The world order that Trump’s blowing up is far outside their consciousness. The basic American ideals he’s shredding had become so commonplace, so deep in the background, they’re no longer even visible — hence their destruction doesn’t even register.

So, unlike those who actually refuse to see how horrible this is for America, most Trump voters don’t see it because . . . they simply don’t see it.

The first type are a lost cause. But not so the latter. I continue to believe that the great majority of Americans are (like humans everywhere) good people. While we must, alas, write off the former group, the latter we must embrace, as our neighbors and fellow countrymen, to find commonality, to get us all past this ugly interlude of our history. We need a new president for whom this reconciliation is a top priority. In the words of Lincoln, “With malice toward none, with charity for all . . . let us strive . . . to bind up the nation’s wounds . . . to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

* For the record: The claim is that a dodgy dossier, paid for by Democrats, was behind the Russia investigation. Steele was a former officer with Britain’s intelligence service who’d previously given ours much useful material. Democrats hiring him in 2016 didn’t taint his work. When he gave it to the FBI, it fit with what they were already seeing. Though allegations of Trump hotel sex hijinks couldn’t be documented, Steele’s detailing how the Russians had long been working Trump certainly merited investigation. It would have been a scandal if the FBI had not followed up. And there was loads of other evidence for Russia’s efforts to manipulate our election, justifying the investigation — which proved it. This was no hoax or witch-hunt. It’s Barr’s investigation of the investigation that’s a hoax and witch-hunt.

Trump and Republicans: how vile can it get?

October 25, 2019

Before Trump took office, I wrote that power doesn’t make bad men better. Since, I’ve kept repeating: it will get worse. And so it goes.

Trump’s every word about the Syria situation perverts reality. He now says he’s lifting sanctions on Turkey because they’ve “agreed” to stop their military action. The action Trump green-lighted, and called a great victory for civilization. Actually, Turkey is ending it because it’s achieved its aims. But Trump boasts Turkey’s “agreement” means the picture in the region is now one shaped by America. Actually, it’s a Turkish agreement with Russia, America removed from the picture.

Trump meantime pats himself on the back for “bringing our troops home.” Actually, they’re redeployed elsewhere in the Middle East.

He says he’s saved thousands of lives. Actually, hundreds have been killed and over 160,000 forced to flee. Trump has oceans of blood on his hands. The atrocities apparently continue despite the supposed cease-fire. It’s a horrific human tragedy. He says it’s a U.S. foreign policy triumph. Actually, it’s a giant foreign policy debacle. Betraying our long time allies*,  rewarding the mass murderer Assad and dictatorial Erdogan. ISIS ranks are replenished. Others in the world will now think twice before trusting America about anything. Trump’s betrayal is explicable, if at all, only as serving the interests of our enemy Russia. It is treason simpliciter, and merits impeachment.

But Trump’s being impeached for a different abuse of power. Though one Trump apologist is quoted saying abuse of power is not a crime.

There’s an old lawyer line: if the facts support you, pound the facts. If the law supports you, pound the law. If neither, pound the table.

With facts and law increasingly leaving Trumpsters with no place to hide, they’re pounding the table, frantically, attacking the legitimacy of the impeachment process. Trump says it’s a lynching. Lynching entailed a mob hanging a usually innocent black person, normally with hideous torture, including cutting off genitals and forcing the victim to eat them.

But speaking of mobs, a mob of Republican congressmen literally stormed a secure room to disrupt for hours a committee hearing therein. The hearing was being conducted behind closed doors in a secure facility to protect sensitive national security information under discussion. That’s standard congressional practice. The Republican mob used actual violence and breached security by bringing in forbidden electronic devices. Their pretext was bogus, as if Republicans were being somehow shut out of the hearing; in fact, of course, Republican members of the committee were always in the room, with full rights to question witnesses and otherwise participate. And open public hearings on everything are scheduled to follow.

The more undeniable Trump’s monstrousness becomes, the more unhinged do Republicans become in their denial. Their mob violence was intended to distract attention from the testimony of Ambassador William Taylor, which was devastating and shocking. Taylor was a professional brought out of retirement by Pompeo to man the Ukraine embassy after our ambassador, Marie Jovanovich, was improperly removed at Trump’s order. Taylor’s testimony detailed how Trump improperly outsourced U.S. Ukraine policy to a rogue actor, Giuliani, because nobody in the proper chain of command would do the slimy stuff Trump wanted. Namely, extorting Ukraine’s complicity in smearing Biden and Democrats as a quid pro quo for releasing $391 million in Congressionally-mandated military aid that Trump was improperly withholding. (Aid to help Ukraine fight  Russia!)

Another effort to distract from Ukraine is Attorney General Barr’s now opening a “criminal investigation” of the Mueller probe’s origin. Trump always called it a hoax and a witch-hunt, based on various absurd conspiracy theories. Now his stooge Barr is resurrecting all that nonsense, launching an investigation of his own Justice Department. This  is a hoax and a witch-hunt. “History repeats, first as tragedy, then as farce.”

If Trump’s actions concerning Ukraine weren’t wrong, then the word has no meaning. No president before ever did anything remotely so malign. The impeachment inquiry is being lawfully conducted by the lawfully elected House of Representatives, pursuant to express constitutional provisions. There are no violations of due process or anyone’s rights. What is being revealed, rather, is destruction by Trump and Republicans of every principle this country used to stand for.

I was a Republican for 53 years. What has become of the party is tragic. It must be defeated.

* Correction: I wrote previously that the Kurds had lost 11,000 men fighting ISIS on our behalf. Should have said “men and women.” Sorry.