Archive for the ‘GOP’ category

The French Message

April 24, 2017

Yesterday France held the first step in electing its next President. In the French system all candidates run in round 1 and if one candidate receives more that 50% of the votes, that person becomes President. If not there is a round 2 between the two top finishers. The results were: the top finisher Emmanuel Macron, about 24% and Marine Le Pen, about 21%. Said differently, a centrist, not aligned with either of the two major parties and a far right (formerly fringe) candidate will meet in the run-off.

Macron, is a new comer who has never held a major elected position, garnered more votes than all the other 10 candidates. Early pundit predictions say Macron should win the run-off and become France’s next President. Le Pen, however, has been attempting to steer her far right party back towards the middle and may take advantage of unexpected events over the next month.

So what should Americans take as the message from this election?

For France, jobs and border security were key concerns of the electorate. As in America, jobs are a spotty issue. For those unemployed, it is a big deal while those with jobs don’t see the urgency.

Le Pen cites globalism (France First) as the unemployment problem’s root. For Le Pen the answer is leaving the EU and enacting protectionist measures. Macron, on the other hand, sees the world as global and that France must become more competitive in order to lower unemployment.

Border security is another matter. Le Pen used this term to explicitly call for restriction on Muslims including deportation of French Muslim citizens (two passport holders) under certain situations. Le Pen also paints these mainly North African Muslim immigrants as job takers and social services sponges. Macron is relatively silent on this issue reflecting the majority of French citizens (live and let live) attitudes.

France, population-wise is a bi-modal country with one large, densely populated city (Paris) and all the rest. Paris which most tourist flock to is also the center of banking and business. The rest of France is mainly agrarian and in certain cities home for large factories (like auto and air industries).

France has a strong socialist history featuring today the 35 hour work week and a highly developed set of regulations around work rules (pay, benefits, transfer, lay-offs, and firing). In short, it is easier (and often less costly) for a French company to not hire when demand increases. Consequently, even when times are good, one should expect less hiring in France.  The French social contract is well appreciated by French citizens and proposals to change it present a large challenge.

Blaming the EU misses entirely the point and returning France to the French franc will only acerbate the economic situation (where will investment come from?) and open the door for economic policies convenient to the ruling party but ruinous to the country.

So what are the messages relevant to the US?

  • Muslim baiting is not a sure winner. North Africans and other Muslims have had a difficult time fitting into French society.  They look and act differently than the traditional French population. It is true that unemployment and economic distress are higher amongst these Muslim groups but connecting these residents to the overall French malaise is not self evident. (Hmmm, do you think undocumented US residents from Mexico have anything to do with the employment rate in the coal industry?)
  • Jobs is a complicated subject. The idea that closing borders will increase employment is a tough sell (what about exports or reprisals from other countries?). Proposals to increase specific sectors present risk to other sectors. French citizens realize this. (Hmmm, do you think rhetoric will return jobs to the coal mining industry, or tax cuts for the wealthy will translate into lower unemployment?)
  • Voters lack confidence in their legislators. The rejection of the left and right traditional national parties confirms the lack of confidence that traditional leaders can improve the overall French life. (What do Americans think of a Congress which has voted almost 50 times to repeal Obamacare and cannot agree now on what to replace Obamacare with, even though Republicans have control of both houses of Congress and the Presidency?)

One must be careful to not read too much into the French first round election results. French voters have traditionally been volatile people living amongst general apathy. At this point, the French seem to have acted prudently.

Vive La France.

Public Option?

April 21, 2017

The GOP and the Trump White House are beating the healthcare drum again. The President promises a really good plan for replacing Obamacare. According to a report in the Washington Post, Trump said, “We’re doing very well on health care.” “The plan gets better and better and better, and it’s gotten really good, and a lot of people are liking it a lot.”  “We have a good chance of getting it soon. I’d like to say next week, but we will get it.” Hmmm.

I suspect those Americans who loose their coverage or those who subsequently find out their coverage covers a lot less will not think their health plan got “better and better”.

Republicans are now debating behind closed doors a plan which seeks to bring together conservatives (Freedom Caucus who do not want any hint of entitlements in healthcare and would prefer for the government to not be involved at all), and moderates (The Tuesday Group who fear sharp political retribution if the benefits of Obamacare are rescinded). The Tuesday crowd are offering weasel words that would allow States to opt out of certain Obamacare services. Hmmm.

The overall facts appear unchanged. The American Health Care Act, even as amended, will provide less coverages to fewer Americans than Obamacare and will provide huge tax savings for the wealthiest Americans. The GOP’s embrace of “the best healthcare money can buy” is a sad replacement for the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). Is that the best we can hope for?

Here’s a dream.  “Medicare for all” could be a next step in healthcare. Compared to the “oh so many” for-profit insurance companies today (which stand between you and your doctor), Medicare, which insures post 65 year old Americans, and fits seamlessly into existing doctors, hospitals, and pharmacies, could offer “a ready to go” alternative.

Of course Medicare is not without some problems, namely how it is funded. Republicans will decry the expansion of government and seek ways to defund Medicare. Cooler minds, however, might see Medicare as the ideal vehicle to determine what is basic healthcare and how to pay for it, especially if Medicare became the standard package for employer provided healthcare.

No sane discussion of healthcare reform should avoid the obvious elephant in the room. Americans spend more on healthcare than any other country in the world and receive mediocre healthcare outcomes in return. The difference in cost is significant (greater than two times).

An additional revelation is that balancing the Federal Budget can not be achieved unless there is a fix for Medicare and Medicaid, both of which collect less in tax revenues than they spend on healthcare benefits. With “Medicare for All” there is one program providing basic coverage with significant negotiating power with healthcare providers. Existing insurance companies could continue to “administer” Medicare benefits but would be unable to set different conditions around services.

Most likely efficiencies associated with a single payer would be insufficient to assure Medicare would be solvent. Consequently tax reform coupled with healthcare reform could be seen as reforms aimed at serving all Americans and not as ploys to pass on huge tax breaks to the already very wealthy.

Despite wrong headed GOP motivation on both tax reform and healthcare, Democrats, unfortunately, appear willing to simply play for a tie (defined as thwarting the American Health Care Act thereby keeping Obamacare) and rejecting tax reform unless the proposal is revenue neutral or positive.  Hmmm.

The can is poise for another kick down the road.

The Jobs Promise

April 17, 2017

President Trump campaigned on the promise to make America great again and a key step was creating lots of great jobs. As these words rolled off Trump’s tongue, one would have thought jobs would be growing on trees when Spring arrived. Hmmm.

As the 100 day mark approaches, a period far to short to measure President Trump’s jobs performance, all that can be said is that the Trump Administration has done nothing to change the former President Obama’s job creation momentum. Frankly this should not be a surprise and President Trump’s ultimate performance is an event for the future.

Most everyone has heard (and seen) the President’s strong arm on the auto industry as well as other American manufacturers like Carrier Air conditioners. Plenty of “new” jobs have been promised but there has been a deafening silence by these same companies on whether they were promising “net” job increases or just a gross number overlooking job cuts, layoffs, and retirements.

The ironic aspect of Candidate Trump’s jobs promise is his selection for domestic cabinet appointments and his much ballyhooed budget proposal. His cuts to the EPA, FDA, Lobor, Energy, and Commerce will (if enacted in the budget) be a real jobs killer, especially when one considers the zealous nature these new Cabinet heads are bringing to the job. To be sure beefing up Homeland Security will add some jobs but the net impact appears to be significant jobs decrease.

President Trump’s ace in the hole has been his infrastructure proposal. A robust infrastructure investment would certainly mean a lot of new jobs, both direct and indirect in support of those working directly on infrastructure activities. Trump’s challenge will be how to get a reluctant Republican conservative faction to go along with his plan.

To understand President Trump’s quandary, one has to understand who are really his constituents. Let’s begin with the unavoidable truth that President Trump’s most important supporters are not voters like the coal miners or the out of work/under employed rust belt workers either. The people who moved heaven and hell for the Republican majority are deep pocketed conservative and libertarian Americans. It is with their money, filtered through an alphabet of foundations, charities, and 401 c (4)’s which turn these charitable donations into ammunition for faceless operatives who in turn destroy the political careers of anyone who does not vote the way this dark money wishes. (Read “Dark Money” by Jane Mayer for a fuller accounting.)

So, why wouldn’t these moneyed interests not also want infrastructure work?

The very best one could say is that these rich interests are agnostic about infrastructure work, providing they do not have to pick up the bill. From an ideological argument perspective, dark money participants do not want the debt expanded. So the question is how to pay for this trillion dollar investment?  Hmmm.

President Trump’s path forward, however, must be as cynical as these rich people. This group seeks less regulations so that their business interests can make greater profits, and they want lower tax rates so that they can keep more of their businesses’ profits.  Accordingly, these dark money leaders approve of Trump’s draft budget and the aggressive roll back of regulations.

These wealthy people speak glowingly about America and the American dream but at the end of the day its about how they personally can make more money and keep more of it by paying less taxes. To be perfectly clear, this large donors care not a dime about average Americans or anything that even hints at fairness. The most important issue, morning, noon, or night is freeing their businesses from government rules and regulations and lowering the tax bill.

President Trump, if he is perceptive, will realize that if he pushes through tax “reform” and delivers for the top 1/2 of 1% wealthiest earners, these greedy interests will lose interest in the rest of the President’s agenda.  The infrastructure initiative which could create lots of new jobs will be last year’s fashion.  The President will suddenly find no friends in Congress where each Republican Congress member will worry more about reelection than doing their job.

The “jobs promise” was a cruel trick to play on voters.  The dark money behind financing the election wants less regulations to make more money, not to create new jobs. The dark money wants smaller government in order to pave the way for their businesses to operate without oversight or burdensome (in their opinion) rules.

Why?

Greed is just that. Greed consumes and often consumes so much that the greedy person does not see it consuming themselves. A lot of voters are expecting a much more dynamic labor market and are very likely to be disappointed.

In time, the dark money trail of revoked regulations leading back to the prime sources will be documented and reveal the unpleasant fact that certain wealthy persons and their businesses were never interested in creating more jobs, just making more money for themselves.  IMO, the grass roots disappointment and disgust could become so big that by 2020 voters throw out this GOP set of bums and give the reins of government to the bums of the other party.

The North Korean Test

April 15, 2017

Is it Deja Vu all over again? The Trump Administration appears to be facing a similar “going nuclear” threat former President George W Bush saw before invading and occupying Iraq. There are some key differences, however. North Korea is already nuclear so there is no need to doctor the intelligence reports. Hmmm.

North Korea appears to be its own worst enemy. North Korea runs a bizarre isolated State where there is the Kim family and a close group of associates and everyone else. Starvation and deprivation are common conditions while the elite eat well and the country spends billions upon armaments and nuclear research. But what separates North Korea from other two bit authoritarian States is its willingness to tell the world of its plans. Irrational maybe but secretive, not.

If one plays along with the North Korean narrative, one should expect to see North Korea soon with tactical nuclear bombs and delivery devices (submarines and intercontinental rockets) capable of reaching any country who threatens North Korea (read US). What then one might ask?

Does anyone think North Korea could survive and exchange of nuclear bombs? Does anyone think the US would sue for peace if attacked by North Korea? Don’t think so.

So, if that is North Korea’s stated strategic intent (nuclear weapons and delivery systems), to what end would this capability be put? Does North Korea still seek to unite the Korean peninsula under their leadership? And would that be the end or would there be further territorial targets, like pay back goals such as attacking Japan or Russia?

Who knows what evil lurks in men’s minds?

One can see even better now what a poor example the Iraq Invasion and Occupation serves. To be sure a nuclear capable Iraq would have been a highly destabilizing factor in the Middle East. But the Iraq War was never really about potential nuclear weapons, there were none. The Iraq War was about enormously misguided neoconservative views about establishing a democracy in the heart of Arab fiefdoms, a shining light so to speak in a dark part of the world. The Iraq War would also show the rest of the world how powerful the US was and consequently make it much easier for the US to exert its will in other trouble spots. Oh, if that had been true?

North Korea is much different, or is it? What might happen if the US (even with China’s tacit approval) launched a pre-emptive attack. What if, as a result of this attack, there was regime change. What might follow? Would there emerge a lawless State bent on disrupting everyday life in South Korea or even China, sort a pirate like Asian Somalia.
Or would the US (and South Korea and Russia) accept Chinese occupation of the North in order to provide law and order. Or if one is really dreaming, would China (and South Korea and Russia) accept US occupation?

Hmmm.

This is the mess facing President Trump. Clearly North Korea is a failed State and if magic could rule, North Korea should be transformed into a peaceful nation. But there is no plan or expectation of this positive outcome at this time.

So, does the Trump Administration just watch and hope for the best? Does the Trump team work on China in hopes of forming a combined effort to change North Korea’s behavior? And what role, if any, does Russia play?

Logic would demand that the three great powers work together and resolve the North Korean threat. North Korea’s nuclear weapons could be aimed at anyone. But working together requires trust and tell me how much trust exist betweens Russia, China, and the US at present?

Arguably the North Korea Test is one the Trump Administration is least able to handle. President Trump has a career of “bullying” tactics, followed by a deal, followed by selective reneging. Is that the type of person Russia and China might want to make a deal?

Consequently, the Trump Administration is left with a “wait and hope” that China can/will apply more pressure on North Korea so that North Korea voluntarily muzzles its provocative statements and puts into moth balls its current efforts to weaponize its nuclear capability. The North Korean Test, far more than the Syrian civil war, teaches the basics of, like it or not, the US cannot be an isolationists (America first), and being a globalist is an extremely difficult act.

Fake News

April 14, 2017

Conservative pundits and speech writers have created some catchy phrases. Do you remember the “lame street media” taking liberty with “main street”. Now the focus is around “fake news”. Hmmm.

Fake news has taken on a life of its own. Most people recognized the term when completely made up (nonfactual) “news” articles appeared in social media.  Technically speaking, any article which is not properly sourced could be considered “fake”. Fake news, as referenced here is not an accident of weak reporting but an intentional effort to mislead.

Real news is based upon actual reporting with named sources. Sources, however, can be wrong whether intentional or accidental. For example, a report might read, “according Dr Joe Blow, chief scientist at NASA, the moon is in fact made of Swiss Cheese”. This report could be newsworthy because Dr Joe Blow was an eminent scientist or that his statement contradicts accepted theories. In a similar vein, “Senator John Doe claimed today in Congressional testimony that global warming is a myth and scientifically unproven”. Again this report could be news (eg Senator John Doe is chairman of an important Senate Committee). Senator Doe’s comments, however, like Dr Joe Blow’s need to be put in context of other scientifically determined findings if the reporting is to be responsible.

President Trump and his advisors have given new meaning to fake news. The President appears to feel no responsibility to speak in a literally truthful manner.  I wonder whether he is taking advantage of the news media since he knows that what ever he says will be considered “news”. As a consequence, President Trump can put in play unfounded assertions and ask the public to consider his statements with the same weight as peer reviewed scientific journals.

But these instances do not fit the President’s description of fake news. President Trump, rather, sees any news as fake, no matter how well the reports may be sourced, if in his opinion, the reporting takes the public’s eye off of what the President wants the public to consider (often a totally different subject). In other words, the President defines “fake” as not a government sponsored “subject”, and not whether the news report is correct or constructive in pursuit of discovering fact.

Fake news is dangerous for several reasons. First, fellow Americans may accept the fake news as real and make decisions accordingly. Second, the fake news report may enter the public space and become a citation someone else will use in the future to “source” an even futher excursion from reality. Third, Americans may learn eventually that the President’s words (or any other news source reporting his misinformation statements) are untrue and misleading. Soon the public will become cynical and distrust these news sources (eg Congress and the Presidency itself). The third consequence presents a dangerous risk for our society.

President Trump’s recent application of “fake news” when the news media does not report (or does not emphasize enough) the President’s agenda, has a 1984 feel to it.

The President is well within his prerogatives to claim the media or certain parts of it are biased. Most people now realize that a steady diet of Fox News, or MSNBC, or CNN, while comfortable, may not provide the whole story (fair and balanced?). People do expect, however, that these organization may lean left or right, but will filter out “real” fake news.

Let’s hope so.

Metamorphous?

April 12, 2017

When the US sent Tomahawk missiles streaking towards a Syrian airbase, the impact on the American media was startling. “OMG, President Trump had reversed himself, maybe he was not an isolationist after all”. Like one rose does not make a summer, the same can be said of the Trump presidency.

There appears to be several seismic forces at work (behind the scenes) in the White House. Unlike the irresponsible (eg Bannon, Miller, and Flynn) early influencers, a much more seasoned and predictable group has been gaining control and access to President Trump’s ear. Appointments such as Secretary of State Tillerson, Defense Secretary Mattis, and Director of National Security McMaster along with Vice President Pense have brought a certain amount of deliberateness to policy.

Of course, one bombing raid does not make a sustainable foreign policy either.

It would be easy to ascribe the early White House disarray to what is euphemistically called a “populist” perspective and the feeding of those views to the President. It is just as likely, however, to consider President Trump as a person without any specific world strategy and flying by the seat of his pants, so to speak.  In other words, President Trump can be swayed in any direction if the public reaction is favorable. With the President’s current advisors, the White House is on an asymptotic path toward George W Bush’s world view.  Hmmm.

Many might think this change is a huge slap down for President Trump. Unlikely.

President Trump wants to be a two term President and in doing so validate his narrow 2018 election. Mrs Trump may have had some dumb children but Donald J was not one of them. He sees the more conventional foreign policy as conducive to enacting more of his domestic priorities. Hmmm, President Trump has a domestic agenda?

As with foreign policy, there is a perennial conservative strategy for domestic policy too. Lower tax (for the wealthy), smaller government/less regulations (for wealthy businesses), and all sorts of perks for the evangelicals (to gain the votes needed to reward the wealthy with less government and lower taxes).  Gutting the EPA, FDA, and the Justice Department are distractions.  Why the lack of clarity on a plan for the perennial favorites in favor of the slash and burn items?

President Trump will be 100% in favor of any domestic policy unless the public opinion runs strongly against him (like with Obamacare). Remember President Trump wants two terms and if the votes aren’t there, neither will be Trump.

IMO, the change the media has highlighted with the Syrian raids is not a metamorphous at all. Rather it is a group of competent statesman shouldering out populous agitators. In time, the infamous rules specifically designed to block Muslims from America will go silently into the night. These rules are impractical and represent a lot of effort and unfavorable blow back with no measurable gains to be seen. A similar fate most likely awaits the Mexican border fence too.

Sooner or later, the Trump Administration will get to domestic policies.  The enormity of the task of tax cuts coupled with large infrastructure spending can not be overstated.  Tax cuts (or as it will be pitched) are about the greedy taking more and the average American paying the bill.  Infrastructure spending could be very positive for employment and overall productivity but it will be expensive.  Republicans will almost assuredly be unable to agree upon how to finance the tax cut and infrastructure policies. Hmmm.

So, one last question. Does the apparent resoluteness exhibited in the Syrian strike capture the Trump we should expect next week, or next month, or next year? Unlikely, because Donald Trump is a on-off, transactional person who won the election on an unachievable platform.  President Trump will not take predictable set backs lightly and will try with other domestic policy subordinates.

But at least with the foreign policy team, he should make far fewer bozo policy moves.

2017 and World War I

April 9, 2017

The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art (PAFA) is currently hosting a show titled “World War I and American Art”. The show, timed to coincide with America’s entry into the European war, is compact, contains timely reminders of what man can do, and reminds us of our liberties. Most of us have some acquaintance with horrors of trench warfare and the introduction of chemical (gas) killing methods, both made famous in the great war.

World War I made no sense to most historians but each of the belligerents gave it their all. Deaths and traumatic injuries left people around the world hoping WW I was the war to end all wars.

The show traces America’s involvement with paintings designed to glamorize the “going to war” attitude. There are “posters” advocating every man’s duty to register for the draft, for women to chose some line of work which supports the war effort, and astonishingly, encourages and praises the participation of “the colored boys” (even though US troops were segregated).

Some American artists were embedded with military units and recorded everyday life at the front along with heroic acts against the enemy. It wasn’t, however, until the war ended that art critical of war, especially depicting broken men and senseless slaughter appeared. Why might that have been?

America was extremely divided over entry into World War I. When the Germans began indiscriminately sinking US shipping after three years of war, the tide shifted and Congress declared war on Germany and its allies. And that was not all Congress did.

Congress passed “The Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918” both of which violate 1st Amendment rights. Congress’ intent was to intimidate and silence opposition to the war and keep the nation focused upon the fight in Europe. Speech, writings, and art which opposed the government or its efforts were subject to fines, confiscation, and detention.

Fortunately the war ended about a year and a half after the US entered. Then the flood gates opened and so many artist produced paintings, pictures, and sculptures depicting the unglamorous, horrific realities of the War.   War’s real message could no longer be suppressed.

“World War I and American Art” completes its display with a cross section of works clearly showing what price so many people had to pay. As we know, the war to end all wars failed and most historians say World War I actually precipitated an even more horrible war, World War II… and in turn the Korean War, the Vietnamese War, and Gulf Wars I + II.

In 2017, Americans can again see war from the comfort (and security) of their living room. Americans also feel they can protest in person or write anti-government works with no fear of repression. So why is the PAFA show so important?

Civil liberties can be ephemeral. Most Americans enjoy life and do not spend free time researching where their freedoms came from. Ideologues, on the other hand, are so sure they are correct in their goals that any means are justified.  Rejecting refugees and making it very difficult for certain peoples to enter the US is an early warning signal about civil liberties.

Words are strong, pictures are stronger, and art can be the strongest of all in telling or warning what is or what might happen. World War I teaches us allowing only one set of words, photos, or art works (meeting some government standard) informs us of all we should know.  Rather, we must consider pros and cons, reports from sources we trust and sources we are uncomfortable with. Most importantly suppression of information or expression has never benefited society regardless of how dangerous the enemy is described.

Civil liberties are elusive and can disappear quickly.   Ends never justify means.