Archive for August 2017

The Wheel Goes ‘Round

August 16, 2017

A useful exercise for any person, 8 months into the Trump Presidency, might be to recall or read recounts of George W Bush’s 8 years. While there is little similarity between “W” and the Trumpster, as individuals, there are all sorts of signals that the Trump Administration is stumbling down a similar, risk infested path. Time will tell if the outcomes repeat those of “W”.

George W Bush was elected in a contested race with a minority of the popular vote and a generous assist from the Supreme Court to garner a small majority in the Electoral College. Despite this modest victory, the Bush team treated his win as a mandate.

The Bush White House asserted the country demanded change and “W” would bring it.
The Bush White House began its term with a positive Federal Budget, but that did not last long. Lock step with his Republican controlled Congress, “W” sought and received Congressional OK for tax reductions (actually 2). The tax reductions were intended to “pay for themselves” but as surely as supply side economics does not work, “W” cuts drove the Budget negative and the Federal Deficit began to grow.

Then world events entered the picture. Terrorists hijacked four airliners and crashed three of them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The fourth aircraft was intentionally crashed just east of Pittsburg when passengers attempted to take back control.

But 9/11 set off a series of inexplicable events fully unforced White House errors.
With most of the world’s countries acting as allies, the US undertook a police action in Afghanistan and in short order, decapitated the Taliban government which had allowed Osama ben Laden and al Qaeda to operate openly. Then without notice or debate, the police action morphed into regime change and nation building. Oh, and by the way, more spending without any budgetary method of paying, hence the deficit grew even faster.

Bush and his Congressional colleagues were also certain there was over regulation from previous administrations and simply too much government. “W’s” approach was department budget cuts and even better, to appoint department leaders who would look the other way on their Departments administrative duties. Hubris took on new meaning.

Unfortunately, nature sent its own message in the form of Hurricane Katrina.

With the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) headed by an inexperienced Michael Brown, the nation got to see a leader more concerned about his appearance than possessing the competence necessary for “managing” a response to a natural devastation.

On a different matter, to this day, there exists no credible explanation for why “W” allowed the US to invade and occupy Iraq. For sure there are attempts to attach the Iraq War to faulty intelligence but strategically there has never been a credible explanation.

The War cost the US the better part of a trillion dollars, resulted in thousands and thousands of severe casualties and deaths, and most glaring, unleashed the Islamic schism, Shiite versus Sunni, on the world. (Talk about opening Pandora’s box). Had President Bush not stacked the Defense and State Department key advisors with “yes men”, one would hope cooler minds could have steered the US clear of this foreign policy and humanitarian disaster.

But “W” saved its most ignominious transgression of commonsense for his unbridled encouragement of free enterprise, particularly in areas of banking and Wall Street. The notion that decisions made by chief executives and boards of directors had both the Country’s and their personal well being in mind turned out to be naive and without merit. Without clear sensible rules, corporations and Wall Street were ships without rudders.

The emerging culprit was a red hot housing mortgage market put on steroids by Wall Street securitization. Incredibly, everyone (administration and Wall Street) believed that said buying and selling “security packages” with contained a “piece” of hundreds of individual mortgages (combined into one security) was guaranteed to minimize, no dare I say, eliminate the risk mortgage failure. With no government set of rules, and no government authority watching the foxes in the hen house, the recession of 2007/8 soon grew to the near depression of 2008/9.

Now fast forward to 2017. The US has another Republican President elected with a minority of the popular vote and who thinks his policies flow from a national mandate. “The American People” spoke and President Trump is here to put those demands into action. Hmmm.

Similarly to 2000 when former President Bush took office, a set of domestic policies which favor the already wealthy and pander to the conservative minorities has emerged from both the White House and Congress.

The President and his Cabinet secretaries have reverse dozens of former President Obama’s domestic policies. From National Parks and Monuments to oil and gas exploration to Wall Street risk reduction regulations to FDA heath and safety controls.

But not satisfied with this list of high risk, low return policies changes, out are also the Trans Pacific Trade Pact, the Paris Global Warming Agreement, and NAFTA. Hmmm.

The inescapable teaching from the Bush years was that “no regulations” was extremely dangerous in the complex global world we live in. Society and corporations need clear rules with bright lines that cannot be crossed. The absence of rules and the reinforcement of the notion that government or the private sector can be trusted leads to the worst kind of outcomes… where the average person suffers while the wealthy thrive.

The answer to this quandary is not necessarily a Democrat Administration. Over regulation comes with its own set of problems. The country, instead, needs pragmatic, fact and science based policies. Polcies which blindly please one set of constituents such as labor unions, environmentalists, or anti-war groups could have as devastating consequences as those favoring Wall Street, Corporations, religious zealots, and xenophobes.

What is needed is a President and a Congress that values measured responses, recognizes social changes, and follows policies which allow American businesses to thrive in a global economy.

Bake Me A Cake

August 14, 2017

Jack Phillips is a baker from Colorado who denied serving a gay couple who asked him, in his capacity as a bake shop owner, to bake them a wedding cake (as he would for anyone else). Mr. Phillips claimed his deeply held religious views, which see homosexuality as a sin, prevented him from serving the gay couple. Colorado Courts have held against Mr Phillips but never the less, Mr Phillips has (clearly with outside support) appealed his case to the Supreme Court. Hmmm.

In the political world, pandering is a high art form. Some on the Supreme Court have been searching for a case to strengthen the First Amendment’s religious freedom clause and may see Mr Phillip’s case as a way to make a statement. IMO, the Supreme Court is entering very dangerous waters, especially if they should uphold an individuals right to discriminate.

Will the Court decide that in the cases of the LGBT community, discrimination (denial of service based upon sexual orientation) is acceptable?

What about deeply held religious views on race, gender, or white supremacy?

No one is saying Mr Phillips or any other holder of deeply held religious views cannot believe them or cannot lead their own life based upon these views. What should be at stake is that in a secular society, no one, regardless of how strongly held their personal religious views might be, has the right to impose their personal views on anyone else.

Regrettably, with the Hobby Lobby decision, the Court has already erred and may find this case too tempting and will reverse the Colorado Courts decision.

I wonder how the Court would rule if Mr Phillips had denied service to, say a Catholic or Baptist or Muslim for similar reasons?

Getting Respect You Deserve

August 13, 2017

On Facebook, some “friends” of mine like and share right wing posts which usually follow the same design. “DO YOU THINK PRESIDENT TRUMP IS GETTING THE RESPECT HE DESERVES?” The post asked the reader to like and share.  This is a question, however, that is difficult to answer.

This past week our President tossed out one after another totally unpresidential and irresponsible epitaphs aimed at North Korea. “Fire and Fury” and “Locked and Loaded” make absolutely no sense in a diplomatic environment and almost assuredly will have little or no impact upon North Korea.  This type of rhetoric is just as opaque to our allies and adversaries.

Trump’s aggressive words, in this case, appear aimed not at North Korea but more likely at his domestic political base. Your President is no whip!

President Trump, a Vietnam service avoider, like the George W Bush and his cabinet, speak tough but their words are about sending other people’s children into harms way. And you can probably bet your house that most Trump friendly groups who adore the President will not be volunteering for the military anytime soon.

White House spinners suggested that President Trump’s message was aimed at China, directly encouraging them to solve the North Korean problem. After a few days, China issued a smart message. China said it would not support North Korea if they provoked the US. China would, however, support North Korea if the US preemptively attacked North Korea.

And in a few words, China flushed the Trump rhetoric down the drain.

Over the weekend, more of President Trump’s chickens came home to roost. In Charlottesville, Virginia, a white supremacy demonstration ended in chaos and violence as pro and anti groups predictably clashed. As the dust settled, President Trump spoke denouncing violence but not white supremacy. The Trumpster decried violence by both sides in this matter.

So to the over arching question, is President Trump receiving the respect he deserves, one must say the President is receiving at least as much as he deserves and maybe more.

When People Think Differently

August 8, 2017

The idea of “universal, single payer” healthcare seems so obvious as both the most efficient and least costly method of delivering a nation’s basic healthcare, it seems incredible that there are so many Americans who do not embrace this notion. Why would that be?

Fewer and fewer Americans remember the time before the wide spread availability of insurance company provided healthcare. Yet the US system of “for profit” healthcare insurers is a relatively recent happening. Following WWII, employers began offering health insurance as an employee benefit designed to retain employees in a period of relatively full employment. Health insurance as a benefit caught on and employers have found it difficult to retain workers without offering health insurance. Hmmm.

Also escaping most Americans knowledge is the cottage industry which is necessary to support the multitudes of healthcare insurers. Healthcare service providers (doctors, hospitals and drug companies for example) must carefully keep track of each patient and how much service that patient has consumers, report those services using each insurers different set of codes on each insurers specific form, and then argue with each of these insurers to insure they receive reimbursement for the services already provided. This entails millions of more healthcare workers who do not themselves provide healthcare. Hmmm.

More than two dozen other modern countries (like Germany, France, England, Japan, and Canada) utilize a single payer, universal healthcare service delivery system. These countries all offer “best in class” healthcare services at about one half the total cost experienced in the US. These countries also report excellent healthcare outcomes and boast longer life expectancies than the US. Oh, and these countries provide this healthcare to all residents. Hmmm.

So, why would anyone not be in favor of universal healthcare?

In the US there are many who decry the idea of universal healthcare. They predict unacceptably long wait times to see a doctor or receive treatments. They ask the question “if healthcare is so good in other countries, why do people from Canada travel to the US for medical care?”, and “Why should we put the government between you and your doctor?”, the ask.

The politics of healthcare is even more fascinating and not easy to understand. Progressives are for a universal system and conservatives are not. Conservatives point to Progressive’s record of entitlements and using taxes to fund the cost. Conservatives see creeping socialism behind the call for universal healthcare and the resulting dependency of Americans to look for government to solve all their problems. And worse, universal healthcare will bloat the government making what is already (in their opinion) too big, even bigger. And even worse, conservatives don’t want their tax dollars going to pay for healthcare for someone else. Hmmm.

Hmmm. What could be simpler. Big government, less choice, poorer quality, and offering out of control cost increases, conservatives claim.

Why do conservatives think that way when there are so many examples around the world that prove otherwise? Why don’t conservatives recognize that some Americans already have “universal healthcare”. These Americans, of course, are over 65 and are enrolled in Medicare.

Is this a subject of “the glass is half empty, or half full”? Do progressives and conservatives see the same problem (basic healthcare available to all Americans) or do they see different solutions to different problems (basic right versus small government with low taxes)?

If Americans see the same problem, conservatives may still view the delivery of basic healthcare too difficult a task for “American thinking” and from their perspective, a universal healthcare system must inevitably end up with poorer healthcare and higher costs. Progressives could, alternatively, see no problem too great for Government to solve and therefore discount totally conservatives’ warnings.

The recent Congressional fight over repeal and replace for Obamacare should make conservatives take notice. The conservative sponsored alternatives largely failed because they offered less coverage for the poor, those with pre-existing conditions, and the elderly.   Voters representing those groups made their views known. Progressives and conservatives would be wise to heed this warning.

Healthcare is not free and does require funding. Most other countries employ a “prevention” oriented healthcare philosophy, inhibitions towards uncontrolled price increases, and utilize a consumption tax (value added tax) to fund healthcare along with modest co-pay requirements.

Obamacare could be a starting point were Republicans to acknowledge that Obamacare was based upon Romneycare (Massachusetts) and that was based on a proposal from the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank.

If conservatives can’t agree with progressives on what the problem really is, voters make make the choice for them. The 2016 Presidential elections was a clear sign that the electorate was dissatisfied with both parties and threw its support to a total outsider.

What will voters do next time?

Up Next, Tax Reform

August 7, 2017

The President and the Republican controlled Congress agree (for now) that “tax reform” is the next target for action. Tax reform is a umbrella term, and like any good umbrella, tax reform could mean many different things. Soon Americans will know what Republicans have in mind.

There will be two parts to the reform, corporate and individual tax codes. For corporate taxes, there is a rich world of exceptions, exemptions, and deductions which could make anyone dizzy trying to figure out which ones apply to which businesses. Not surprisingly, President Trump has promised to lower corporate rates from 35% to 15% claiming the current US tax rate of 35% is the highest in the world and puts American businesses at a significant competitive disadvantage. Hmmm. (I wonder what the President will propose about the existing dog’s breakfast of loopholes, deductions, exemptions etc which contribute to the current average business tax rate of 14%, far below the starting point of 35%. Which buasinesses will be winners and which one will not?)

An important aspect of corporate tax deals with pass through taxes and carried interest taxes. Both of these options create tax favorable situations for certain wealthy business owners (lowering their overall tax liability). What will the GOP propose for these during tax reform considerations?

For the individual tax code, it is hard to imagine a more complicated set of rules. The individual tax code is used to generate tax revenue on earned income after certain exemptions and deductions are taken into account. When the adjusted income level is determined, individuals fall into tax brackets and the tax is calculated. For many tax payers (but still a minority over all), pass through and carried interest income plays a role in lower the overall bracket.

Some very wealthy Republicans want a straight “flat” tax of say 10% on all income, no exceptions, and no deductions of any kind. Others argue for less deductions and lower bracket rates but, of course, argue certain deductions are still important. Hmmm.

What is normally never discussed under the heading “tax reform” is what would be the consequences. On the plus side, tax reform is often argued as a route to stimulating the economy.  Some even say a tax cut (their idea of a reform) would pay for itself by growing the tax revenue even at lower tax rates.  Yes, believe it or not, a free lunch.

And unmistakably, there are those who plead for tax reform for various purposefully sounding reasons, in truth only seek a tax cut for themselves.

The more insidious consequence resides in what the government will not be able to afford on lower tax revenues.  Will a GOP controlled Congress lobby for healthcare and entitlements cuts too?

The current tax code has something for everyone to find wanting. The tax code seems to complex. There must be something wrong when an average person needs the help of tax experts to file ones income tax.  Corporate taxes are too high we are told yet American business, on average pay about the same tax rate as foreign businesses.  And, the tax code seems unfair to both the wealthy and the average person.  So “reform” seems a reasonable goal.

The mystery is what will the GOP think constitutes reform?

Russian Troubles

August 4, 2017

Former FBI Director Robert Mueller’s “special investigator” status has been questioned directly and and the subject of tweets.  Is the special prosecutor’s tenure in doubt?

The President, of course, sees the investigation as “witch hunt” and “totally a fabrication”. And, the President who gratuitously leads his campaign style audiences to chant “lock her up”, prefers to deflect any personal involvement, other than being a victim. So, what might be really happening?

Anyone who has been awake since January 20th when Donald Trump became the 45th US President must know one thing. The President is pathologically incapable of telling the truth on even the simplest of subjects. On that basis, one must assume there is substance to the “Russian Collusion” charges, what exactly the breadth and width of collusion remains to be shown.

Some suggest that the Mueller investigation will lead to “obstruction of justice” charges rather than actually collusion with the Russians. Again, anyone who has been watching or listening to the White House shenanigans knows there has been obstruction. What the lay person does not know is whether President Trump’s actions rise to the level of criminality.

Unlike the greedy bankers or ethically corrupt subcontractors with whom businessman Trump is used to dealing, Director Mueller is no fool when it comes to investigations, and can tell a bluff when he sees one. If there is a case, Mueller will find it.

But what happens if Mueller finds grounds for criminal charges?

Many might say “impeach the bum and good riddance”. Others might caution that a President Mike Pence will bring less dysfunction but his extreme views on religion and his ease with imposing them on others is as great a danger or even greater than President Trump.

The game is in motion and the “cards” will speak. If the charges are weak, Mueller’s report to Congress will go no where. If, on the other hand, Mueller’s charges are substantive, then impeachment becomes a real possibility.

Under these circumstances, America needs a modern day Solomon. Why, wouldn’t cards speak?

President Trump was narrowly elected by a surprisingly divided country. His supporters despite copious examples of mistruths, boorish behavior, and unprincipled threats, still are fully in the President’s corner. President Trump can do no wrong for these voters.

Therefore to impeach and remove the President could be seen by 30-40% of Americans as a coup and one more example of the unfairness of the Federal Government. It is unimaginable that President Trump would resign and urge his followers to support what ever followed. More likely would be a movement to change the Constitution and allow ex-President Trump to be reelected at the next general election. Not only would the country face a Constitutional crisis, it would face a schism so strong that armed militia reprisals are not out of the question.

And for what reason?

Trump supporters in one way or the other see the American pie as not fairly being divided. Political correctness makes no sense to them other than as an unjustified power grab. Taxes only take money from them (factually not true) and give it to the lazy, immigrants, and undeserving. Congress members (except theirs) are just stuffing their pockets with cash while ignoring working people’s problems. But not President Trump, he cares about them. Hmmm.

Well, cards do speak. The Mueller investigation will go where it will go. If the case is strong enough President Trump may be impeached.  The ex-President will not only have brought America the most unprepared and temperamentally unfit President, he may provoke a Constitutional crisis of unknown dimensions.

If the Trump “35%” learns from this Pied Piper and recognize Trumpism is not the answer for their dissatisfaction, all will not be for naught.

Head To Tail Thinking, Oops, And Wrong Again

August 3, 2017

President Trump joined Senators Cotton and Perdue at the White House in announcing his support for a change in US immigration law. The proposed legislation would sharply reduce the total number of immigrants allowed to enter each year and completely alter the mix of immigrants. The President boasted that this plan would dramatically improve US economic competitiveness and quickly put even more countries in the US rear view mirror. Hmmm.

The essence of the proposed legislation was to reduce the total number of immigrants, and to select immigrants based upon economic, educational, and sought after skills (a meritocratic policy). Current US immigration policy favors family and friends of current immigrants without regard to any special qualifications. So what’s wrong with this approach since most of the rest of modern wealthy countries use a system similar to what Senator Cotton and Perdue have suggested?

The President offered a clue when he said the lucky immigrants would have to already speak english. Of course there is nothing wrong with welcoming immigrants who speak english but farm laborers and hospitality workers (maids, janitorial, etc) most often speak Spanish or some Eastern European tongue.  The President was more interested in looking to bolster his white only, english only view of America.

That is not what is really wrong with this proposal. Rather, it is the total number of immigrants (guest workers) is set far below what the economy needs. While trying to bump up programmers and other technical employees is a good idea, shorting the manpower needed to harvest crops or process foods or keep hotels clean will not lead to a desired outcome.

The absence of any mention of “comprehensive immigration reform” confirms that the President is far from serious about immigration. But the President is serious about using whatever dog whistles he can find which communicate to his political base the same message, “I care about you and the other side doesn’t”.

Dog whistles are effective political tools. These euphemisms and half baked policy statements mislead the base and set the stage for a crashing disappointment when these policies come home to roost.