Archive for January 2016

Trumbo Not Trump

January 31, 2016

Dalton Trumbo is a name most people might not recognize. Trumbo the movie, however, will be a movie many will remember. This memorability, hopefully, will be tied to disgust over the shameful past associated with the Congress’ “House Un-American Committee”.

HUAC is a testimony to wanton disregard for the individual protections embodied in the Constitution. Regrettably, HUAC is written indelibly into our past. Or is it?

Dalton Trumbo was a prolific (and successful) Hollywood screen writer in the late 40s and 50s, just as the cold war began. Trumbo had been a member of the Communist Party and was an unashamed believer in socialism. Following World War II and the great fear which the axis “Communism versus Capitalism” was generating, the US political stage was set for hypocrisy, demagoguery, and self serving fear mongering.

And on this stage many including Richard Nixon, Joe McCarthy, and in the Hollywood world, Hedda Hopper and John Wayne, all danced to tunes designed to reinforce fear, and maintain status quo.

HUAC used subpoena powers to accuse Americans from all sorts of backgrounds with the famous question, “are you now, or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party”. Those subpoenaed were ask to “name names” when in fact the names were already known.

HUAC goal seemed to be characterizing certain fellow Americans as somehow untrustworthy if not outrightly a danger to the greater country. There were even proposals that these “communists” be rounded up and put in interment camps. Hmmm.

Slowly Americans grew resistant to the constant fear mongering and began to see both the injustice and the outright lies which HUAC was spreading. Screen writers like Trumbo, writers like Arther Miller, and entertainers like Pete Sieger were once again recognized for their talents and not their past (legal) political affiliations. A great sigh could almost be heard across America as the 60s broke.

And now, a relatively short time later, we are seeing and hearing the use of fear and convenient Constitutional ignorance return. As in the past, fear provides a political crutch to many who seek a greater role in governance. To be sure they seek “governance” their way with Constitutional adherence optional.

Donald Trump has offered the most polished and effective populist rhetoric, but he has been closely followed by the rest of the GOP field. For at least part of the American voter segment, Trump’s tirades work. Draped in the American flag, these Americans cheer when Trump promises to deny basic Constitutional protections to many Americans simply based upon religion or ethnicity.

Trumbo, the movie, shows us the problem is not with the hypocritical, demagogical, fear mongering politicians, rather it is with a weak and unthinking public. The time is approaching when Americans can muster strength from just thinking, and reject the HUAC past.   When Americans visit the voting booth, they can speak loudly and clearly.

Hmmm.

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Is America Going The Wrong Direction?

January 28, 2016

The 2016 political season has given new energy to the opinion that “America is on the wrong path” or “American is going the wrong direction”. Candidates say this without providing any explanation or examples of what makes them say these words. Of course, their tag line is “and when I am President, I will change all that”. Hmmm.

Independent polling has confirmed that most Americans are dissatisfied with Congress, the President, and life in general. Where is the American Dream?

Income inequality is well documented. Benefits (like pensions and healthcare), long taken for granted are disappearing or sharply reduced by corporate actions and State laws for public sector employees. At the same time, education costs have skyrocketed. Recent graduates are entering their productive years with huge debt loads before they take on mortgages and car loans.

Sounds like the candidates and poll information are confirming that America is on the wrong path. Or does it

Has anyone asked a few simple questions like what other country represents the “ideal path”, the path America has somehow strayed from?

How about, what other country’s economy is growing faster than the America’s?  And would you like to live there?

What other country offers more freedom or expression or religious tolerance? Is this a place you are ready to join?

This “wrong direction” malaise does not seem to reflect reality if one looks globally. To be sure, many people feel it and most politicians are only to willing to feed these anxieties. But ask the question, what does “going the right direction” look like?

  • Does the wrong direction seek to prevent Pharmaceutical companies from raising prices as high as the market will bear, even when these same companies sell the same drugs in other countries for substantial less?
  • Does the wrong direction support healthcare systems which attempt to insure everyone while providing world class costs?
  • Does the wrong direction include greater protections for pensions and retirement planning?
  • Does the wrong direction involve tax codes where the wealthy do not pay the same (flat tax) as those earning minimum wages?
  • Does the wrong direction involve constraints upon unlimited campaign spending and open solicitation of special interests and lobbyists?

Well if this is what the 2016 Presidential candidates are thinking, then sign me up.

I have the unmistakable, however, feeling that “America is going the wrong direction” means American has not gone far enough in giving carte blanch to drug companies, spent enough on healthcare nor denied coverage to those who can not afford insurance, or that the current tax code is not skewed enough in favor of the wealthy, or that the intimacy between our elected officials and special interests close enough. Hmmm.

Breaking The Gridlock?

January 25, 2016

Late last week, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg confirmed he was considering (again) a run for President as an Independent. The Wall Street Journal reported that Bloomberg is studying the situation and will not run unless he believes he could win. I wonder what that means?

The Bloomberg “best case” scenario would pit Donald Trump (or Ted Cruz) against Bernie Sanders (or a wounded Hillary Clinton). In such a general election matchup, Bloomberg’s “fiscal conservative, socially liberal” positions could appeal to many independents as well as significant portions of both Democrat and Republican Parties. Hmmm.

The path to a Bloomberg Presidency would not be easy. He would need to win enough States’ popular and electoral college votes outright in order to gain a majority in the Electoral College. Popular vote totals alone simply do not translate into Electoral College votes. With the Electoral College majority hanging already upon a handful of States, Bloomberg’s candidacy raise also the chance the election being decided by the House of Representatives instead of the national vote. I guess this is what pundits call a “high risk, high reward” strategy.

One obvious take away is there could be a candidate who appealed to both Democrat and Republican voters. (So oil and water can mix?)

Even more to the point is that a fiscal conservative, social conservative candidate has lost the last two Presidential elections.  General election voters preferred a fiscal liberal, socially liberal candidate. I wonder why Democrats and Republicans have not figured out that social conservatism (lack of inclusiveness, religion driven social policies) is a fast track to defeat on a national basis.  Fiscal conservatism is much harder for the general population to understand but economic policies that raise all boats will attract voters.

Congress has demonstrated well where fiscal conservatism combined with social conservatism leads… gridlock and unresponsive policies.

A Mike Bloomberg candidacy might spell out the fast track to end gridlock. Hmmm.

Getting A Grip

January 23, 2016

News reports have been sounding a lot like “chicken little” recently. To be fair, news reports are just that, they are mostly reports of statements made by politicians and occasionally by those who claim to be financial experts.  If the report is sensational and full of sound bites, all the better.

For example, the Presidential candidates have attributed every foreign or domestic situation as either the fault of a President Obama policy or the lack of one.  Financial gurus are unable to explain the large drop in the markets and alternate between “China is not growing fast enough” to “oil prices have dropped too far and too fast”.  Between the politicians and the financial experts, what is one to do?

Let’s begin with China. China’s growth has been spectacular to be sure. But it is useful to note that China did not build a better mouse trap and the world beat a path to its door.  Rather, China managed to build an export economy by converting uneducated and untrained peasants into productive workers making everything from dresses to gym shoes to furniture etc., items already being produced somewhere else in the world.

China’s growth resulted from producing goods at a low cost and selling it to other nations whose citizens wanted those items. For many of China’s customers, it was good products at lower prices. For others it was products they could finally afford. China’s growth rate averaged about 10% per year, a growth rate which is mathematically unsustainable for extended periods. No one should be surprised that these heady days had to end.

News reports indicate that China is shuttering many of its factories. This can only mean that world demand for more Chinese produced products in not there. While some other low wage countries are probably taking some of China’s share, the main factor is the world is just not buying as much as it did before. In other words, the slow down is not a producer problem but instead a consumer problem. So forget about blaming China and start asking why aren’t consumers outside the US buying more?

But what about oil, isn’t low price good news? No, we are told. Oil has dropped to much and too fast. Hmmm. Of course the price of oil is mainly the result of supply and demand, and right now the world’s oil producers are bent on pumping and selling at what ever price prevails. Hmmm.

OPEC has had life quite comfortable for oh so many years, raising price when ever the urge seemed right. Oil sales were the primary engine for growth in the quality of life for their citizens. Then along came fracking and the Canadian Tar Sands, spurred on by the high price of oil. Hmmm.

Suddenly the supply side was tilted above the prevailing demand. And as any capitalist knows, when there is more of something than what consumers want, the price goes down. The Saudis, for reason of their own, chose to keep pumping and not reduce their output. The Saudis said they did not want to lose “market share”. Hmmm.

The good thing about capitalism is while a supplier can act irrationally, for example lowering the selling price below the cost to produce, there are consequences. One the Saudis have found is that maintaining market share has not prevented oil revenues from falling.  Revenues have fallen so much that their national budget has a deficit now. Hmmm.

While it might seem appealing to gloat at the Saudi misfortune, one might be wise to hope that they are able to adjust their national budget (which means reducing entitlements for their citizens) and avoid popular unrest.

Just imagine that another Sunni group replaces the royal family and what chaos might ensue (like when Saddam Hussein was toppled in Iraq). Imagine if the new rulers were called ISIS (they are Sunnis too).

There could be other unanticipated consequences of prolonged low oil price. Those companies and countries that have invested in new capacity have done so by borrowing. With income far lower than expected, the chance of default is high. Hmmm.

I wonder whether these lending banks are too big to fail? Hmmm. And who looks demon-like now over the XL Pipeline?

Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” predicts that natural events will correct supply-demand imbalances, and argues governments should not intervene. Keynes, on the other hand, recommends government spending to restart a sluggish or stalled economy. For the past 6 years, by default, the US has followed more the invisible hand approach. In effect the Country accepted higher unemployment for a longer period in exchange for unremarkable but steady growth. Said differently, there is no “bubble” in the US economy to burst now.

In comparison to the rest of the world, except China, the US economy is performing the best. Hmmm.  I wonder what the GOP Presidential candidates will say about the economy?

Icarus The Trump

January 19, 2016

It will be a sad day in many a media executive offices when Donald Trump finally flies to close to the sun. Yesterday, he came close while performing a public service. Trump spoke at a mandatory convocation at Liberty University (a Evangelical Christian university founded by Jerry Falwell).

The public service was probably unintended. Trump gave a fairly standard version of his stump speech to a cheering group of students. The casual observer quickly got to see just how close to christian values these bright young students seemed to be. Not so close.

Trump’s poll numbers still show no signs of exhaustion while his competitors all appear to have peaked. Ben Carson, Marco Rubio, and even Ted Cruz appear to be losing ground to the Donald. Media’s last hope is a rebirth of Jeb Bush’s campaign but Jeb is stuck in single digit poll numbers. Hmmm.

If one listens to Trump’s rhetoric, one can imagine a candidate running (or flying) as fast as possible, so fast that his words can not catch up to him. Polls still show that Trump could win the GOP nomination and most likely get thrashed in the general election. Why? Trump has gained his following by marginalizing so many general election voters that his opponent will have an almost insurmountable lead.

But the main issue for Trump is can he keep from self distrusting long enough to gain the GOP nod?

There are no indications that Trump has another gear. He seems to be in fourth gear and his foot is on the pedal. Sooner or later, while racing at full speed, Trump will need to introduce something new. Trump will need to say something more outrageous (headline grabbing) so that he can keep his current supporters and gain just enough more to claim the nomination. This is where the danger zone lies for the Donald.

Like Icarus, Donald is the son of a successful father and in his own way has been a successful business man himself. Sporting wings of feathers and wax, Donald has soared in the GOP primary just like Icarus. Also, just like Icarus, Trump may lose sight of his objective and soar to close to the sun. The rest will be the same as the fate of Herman Cain.

IMO, a President Trump will not be as wise or effective as Trump now promises. His Presidency will also most likely not turn out to be a bad as many predict. It would certainly be entertaining.

So if Icarus the Trump can keep his mind on winning the primary and not flying as high as his feathers and wax will take him, America may get to learn whether Icarus the Trump can lead.

A Tortured Path To The Democrat Nomination

January 18, 2016

Last night’s Democrat debate in South Carolina underscored the difficulty Hillary Clinton will have if she is to become the first woman President. Simply stated, Clinton must win the primary process in the face of deja vu all over again. ABC’s Rick Kline described the Clinton-Sanders contest as a race between the Party’s heart and its mind. Remember Barack Obama’s appeal in 2008?

Sanders has chosen two factually sound positions (controls for too big to fail banks, and universal healthcare).  Both issues are enormously difficult to message in sufficient detail for the electorate to quickly grasp.

Banks which gamble with depositors money are inherently dangerous and enormously unfair to tax payers who must bail out the banks should their “bets” go bust. There must be some consequence for any large bank that seeks a bail out, like a complete replacement of its board and chief executives (with clawbacks on past bonuses), and the loss of complete shareholder value. Breaking up existing “too big to fail” is an option but so would a set of consequences which could minimize these death wish strategies that nearly brought the worlds banking system to collapse in 2008.

Sanders second issue, universal healthcare, could not be more founded on fact. Regardless of whether someone feels healthcare is a right or if someone feels healthcare is a privilege, the unvarnished truth is Americans spends twice as much for healthcare than another modern country in the world and receive no better health outcomes. Obamacare goes a long way in achieving healthcare as a right, but has not made a significant dent in the per capita cost. A universal healthcare system like Germany or France’s would make that correction…. but would turn the current system on its head. How can we expect a Sanders proposal to suddenly pass in Congress when President Obama can’t get Federal Judge nominations through committee for a vote?

The general election will be different. The GOP has already scoped out extreme and provocative positions with which either a Hillary or a Bernie will stand in sharp contrast. Of the two, Bernie’s passion around healthcare and the banks will fade when confronted with GOP attacks on healthcare, Medicaid, Social Security, lower taxes for the rich (leading to more budget pressure on entitlements, and a return to neoconservative policies which got America into the Iraq War and the morphed nation building role in Afghanistan.

While many are “feeling the Bern”, in a general election campaign either candidate will be judged more as the opposite of the GOP and its platform than for what they might advocate during the primaries. The months ahead will determine whether it’s Hillary or Bernie but it is doubtful that universal healthcare or breaking up the banks will decide the general election.

The Evolution Of Political Sanity

January 17, 2016

The Republican Presidential Primary process has once again tested the limits of commonsense. In 2012, Republicans fielded a group of candidates which resembled more a Vaudeville act than a serious contest to pick the most qualified. Never the less, the GOP did select Mitt Romney who was certainly both qualified and heads and shoulders a better choice than the likes of Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, or Herman Cain. The elephant in the room in 2016 is who or will anyone emerge who can be viewed as a serious candidate?

Supporters of Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio see their preferences as the inevitable nominee, while Chris Christie and John Kasich’s fans are sure their pick will be the last person stranding and gain the nomination. Ben Carson and Jeb Bush’s clubs are gently sleeping, while Carly Fiorina, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, and Rand Paul are secretly hoping a natural catastrophe sweeps all the others aside. And as if nothing each of these candidates have promised is relevant, House Speaker Paul Ryan has now announced the Republican controlled House of Representatives will construct the GOP Presidential platform. Hmmm.

I wonder who is taking who seriously?

Mainstream media is gradually changing its tone on Donald Trump. After a succession of polls have steadily boosted Trumps standing versus the rest of the pack, the media is now beginning to suggest Trump might win the nomination outright and save the party from a brokered convention. This recognition must be tough for the legitimate press given the widely unconventional campaign tactics and outrageous statements Trump has used so far. Can you think of one sensible and well articulated domestic or foreign policy position that Donald Trump has articulated? But I bet you can recall any number of inflammatory and relatively meaningless charges and counter charges he has made to gain personal attention.

Up to this point, the GOP candidates have been eating Donald Trump’s dust. As a candidate gained traction and rose to challenge Trump’s leadership position, the glare of the public spotlight revealed critical weaknesses in each.

Jeb Bush (with an exclamation mark) was the first to rise and fade. He was followed quickly by Ben Carson. While Carson is finished, Bush still could become the nominee in a brokered and exasperated convention. Both Cruz and Rubio are now receiving the blow back from the Donald. IMO while both Cruz and Rubio are mortally wounded by their own position statements when it comes to the general election, they are also looking weaker when compared to Trump.

Christie and Kasich are still low enough in the polls that they are not drawing Trump’s daily attention and are neither being helped or hurt by any comparisons. Both are trying to find some niche where their political and executive experience can be shown superior to Trump’s “smartest guy in the room” approach. Both of these men must be hoping for a brokered convention.

Florina is another issue. On paper she is intelligent, someone with proven executive experience, and of course is a women at a time when one of Hillary Clinton strongest appeals is her gender. Fiorina, lacks political experience and her work experience showed an arrogant leader, with a sort of rock star persona, a more “go it alone” person. So far in the primary process, Carly has not shown a warm, be my friend side. She is not likely to overcome this and attract a larger following.

Huckabee, Santorum, and Paul offer nothing that will attract a majority either in the primaries or in a brokered convention. They are just spending money and taking up space.
So what will the GOP do?

“Deer in the headlights” comes to mind. After 8 disastrous years with George W Bush and another 8 years with candidates running on anti-woman, anti-immigrant, anti-gay, balanced with pro-wealthy, pro-evangelicals, and pro-extreme conservative platforms, it is no wonder the GOP has drifted into a party of extreme views representing small segments of the electorate which individually cannot get along with each other.

The GOP top guns have dug themselves into a huge hole and don’t know what to do.
Consequently each candidate is trying to call out the other candidates for the silliest of contradictions while they smugly look in the camera and say “I’m more qualified than that bozo”. Hmmm.

The shenanigans the American public is witnessing reflects personality, not genuine policy differences. Trump is Trump, Cruz is Cruz, Rubio is Rubio, etc. If one steps back and thinks about the GOP of Regan, or George H W Bush’s day, there would be no confusing them with Democrats or Democrat Party policies.  These past GOP Presidents would have stood upon a rational, far more moderate, and inclusive Republican Party platform.

It is hard to see how the GOP can stop digging and get itself out of this dysfunctional evolution of political sanity.