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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.

Religious Freedom

April 22, 2017

In a recent issue of the New Yorker, there is an article on Leonard Leo. Mr Leo is not a household name although maybe he should be. Mr Leo’s most recent claim to fame is his successful “shepherding” of Judge Neil Gorsuch through the Senate approval process. Mr. Leo, however, is not one to thirst for the spot light, preferring instead to operate at the periphery of public discussion.

And operate Mr. Leo does.

As the Executive Director of the Federalist Society, Mr Leo has spearheaded conservative interests in most matters of government but with a clear focus upon the courts, especially the Supreme Court. As an “originalist”, Mr Leo supports Constitutional interpretations which purport to represent the “founding fathers” views. Hmmm.

The Federalists speak, not for wild and crazy people, but for reasoned, conservative, traditionalists. Within these ranks, however, hide moneyed interests who see “originalist” views as conducive to their personal business and financial well being. Nothing like the braggadocio associated with a high minded principle which conveniently puts money in your pocket too.

From the New Yorker article, Mr Leo’s hands appear clean although someone must be paying his lawyering bills. Rather Mr. Leo is presented as a congenial, non-confrontational person who seeks and befriends up and coming conservative legal minds. The article claim Mr. Leo was a close friend of the late Justice Antonin Scalia.

So where is this post going?

Mr. Leo is also a conservative Catholic who is strongly pro-life. Mr. Leo was an early supporter of Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito, both pro-life advocates. The prospect of over turning Roe v Wade (long established law) suddenly does not seem that impossible.

Mr. Leo says that the Constitution was silent over specific rights to abortion and therefore to his reasoning, the US Supreme Court has no rightful place making a woman’s right to an abortion the law of the land.

At this point, one could argue contrarily that in fact the freedoms expressed in the Constitution as well as the Amendments recognize the rights of a woman to make her own reproductive decisions.

Within the thought, why not point out what seems even more obvious. The first Amendment speaks to “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”, and that should be enough.

Mr. Leo, Chief Justice Roberts, and Justice Alito are more than free to hold sincere “pro-life” religious beliefs. They are all free to practice such views in their own lives but the Constitution does not provide them the right to foist their personal religious views on anyone else. (Admittedly, someone who is against all forms of life ending acts, including the death penalty, wars, and suicides has a moral argument which rises above religion dogma but in the end, addresses only their own behavior.

Justice Kennedy is thought to be the deciding Justice should the current John Roberts Court consider another Roe v Wade challenge. If Justice Kennedy should decide to retire while a Republican President is in office, another Gorsuch/Alito/Roberts Justice is almost assured. In such a situation, the true color of these jurists will be seen.

Will these Jurists over turn Roe v Wade in favor of States self determination, or will they become religious zealots and side with some future Congressional law which outlaws all abortions and denies States the right to decide?

The irony of this Roe v Wade debate is that the real “federalists” were extremely concerned about the excesses of organized religion. The closest most of the founding fathers came to religion was some recognition of a higher spirit. Consequently, if the Supreme Court should overturn Roe v Wade, we should recognize the “originalist” principle is purely a crutch designed to deny some Americans individual freedom.

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.

Impeachment, Probably Bad Idea

April 19, 2017

Allan J Lichtman, Professor of American political history at American University in Washington, DC, has an unusual claim to fame, he has picked the Presidential winner each election since 1984.

Lichtman has also just published a new book titled “The Case for Impeachment” in which he lays out an argument that the impeachment of President Trump is not about “if” but rather “when”. Hmmm.

Professor Lichtman has been making the rounds of 7/24 talk shows claiming his book is non-partisan and is quick to point out… unless President Trump changes his ways, impeachment is inevitable. Think President Trump will change?

Professor Lichtman has underscored what quite a few others have said. President Trump is hopelessly entwined with conflict of interest issues. Lichtman says that unless the President acts soon and decisively to separate himself from these conflicts, he will be impeached and likely found guilty in the Senate. Those are powerful words although not without some speculative aspects.

There would appear no doubt that the President has conflicts of interest like Carter had little liver pills. The mind bending part for Trump is that he continues to support the “appearance” of further developing these conflicts of interest, not unwinding them. For example, Ivanka Trump received two brand licenses in China on the same day she and President Trump had dinner with China’s President Xi. While most world leaders were distancing themselves from Turkey’s President Erdogan, President Trump who has large interests in Istanbul, called President Erdogan to congratulate him on his victory. Were these events chance or part of a concerted effort to profit as much as possible from his time as President?

The case for impeachment was clear on day 1, but both the public and the Congress were not interested. Hence, no action.

Time, however, has a way of changing opinions and making events once thought not possible, now possible.

Suppose Republicans realize that there is no winnable path to repeal and replace Obamacare, and the GOP also realizes that tax reform, at least the kind associated with a President who will not release his own tax returns, is a non-starter. Oh, and President Trump still pushes an unfunded Infrastructure investment maddening “dark money” libertarians. And don’t overlook that Wall Street could begin to vote with a sustained bear market.

Suppose Education Secretary DeVoss garners a large amount of public distrust as she pushes for vouchers and grants no relief to usurious college loan debts. Or, EPA changes its rules enabling energy companies to frack and drill without government checks, and it just so happens there is another oil drilling catastrophe. Or, use your imagination about what could go wrong with over the top border enforcement or Homeland Security extending its reach into the public’s everyday travels. Hmmm.

The picture might become clearer to Congress that the President is a liability and not a positive face for the next election. With dark money in the background, Congress might just conclude that an impeached President Trump and a new President named Mike Pense is a winning idea. All this could happen comfortably before the 2020 election. Hmmm.

For Republicans this might be a dream idea, but for Democrats and Independents, this appears more like a nightmare. A President Pence brings the same public policy bent as President Trump (and adds a religious evangelism on top), but Pence could be seen by the public as needing a fair chance. The GOP controlled congress might escape the public’s judgement over proposed tax reform (gift to the wealthy), efforts to kill Obamacare (insuring less Americans with less coverage while delivering a generous gift to the wealthy), and ignoring recklessly overturned rules and regulations by blaming President Trump. There is no reason, however, to expect a President Pence to pursue different domestic policies.

For Democrats, an impeachment scenario is a greater than zero possibility, and should it happen there is nothing Dems could do to stop Vice President Pense from taking over. In a dark way, Democrat 2020 prospects might shine brighter with no impeachment but plenty of bad press.

A wounded (self inflicted) Presidency might offer the best Democrat 2020 prospects.

The 2016 Presidential election should never have gone to President Trump but it did because Trump made a more compelling case to enough voters. Democrat leaders had better use the time created by the White House turmoil to get their message in order and begin now defining the 2020 narrative against an ineffective and probably corrupt President Trump  rather than a squeaky clean President Pence.

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.