Friday, April 27, 2018

The Problem With Governing Humans

Comes now my next newspaper column:
Unprecedented stock market volatility. Poorer than expected jobs reports. Layoffs. Businesses still sending jobs out of country, working people still struggling to get by, an extra ten bucks a week notwithstanding. The only difference between Trump’s and Bush’s tax cuts, and the other Bush’s, and Reagan’s, is that its economic shortcomings are becoming evident sooner than usual. Maybe because the others figured on two terms.  
Readers seem to like calling me a communist when I point out the obvious about what’s needed to make capitalism work. In addition to showing how unaware they are of the meaning of the term, they refuse to provide examples of my alleged affinity. Which is understandable: there aren’t any. Capitalism has been good to me. In turn, unlike Trump, I’ve been good to capitalism: pay my taxes, follow the law, don’t cheat people or go bankrupt. Invest in good companies. Recycle. Minimize polluting. 
Communism and unfettered capitalism do have something in common, though: they both assume a level of goodness inherent in humankind that doesn’t exist. Self-designations to the contrary, there’s never been a communist country. Purely socialist, yes; and they’ve failed. Other than a few collective farms, the USSR was never communist. It wasn’t even in its name. Same with China. It’s an unworkable, borscht in the sky system.  
Over here, a few hippies and transcendentalists tried to live “from each according to ability, to each according to need,” (communism’s essential definition) but they dispersed after acrimonious collapse. As a whole, notwithstanding examples of individual selflessness, humanity simply isn't good enough to manage it.  
Since the point is philosophical rather than economical, this isn’t the place to discuss how upside-down and ill-timed Trump’s tax cuts were, other than to point out that with a humming economy after President Obama rescued it from Bush, with corporate profits at record highs, with crumbling infrastructure and escalating economic inequality, money extracted from revenues and handed to corporations and, therefore, to their investors but mostly no one else, while causing untenable increases in budget deficits and national debt, could have been much better spent to guarantee the survival of our system, by creating jobs and raising wages for real rather than a couple of impermanent boni. (There. I devoted only one sentence to it.)  
Communism doesn’t work because humans are inherently greedy and jealous. Pure socialism doesn’t work because most people need incentives to be excellent, and when the government controls all production, there aren’t any. (That, plus the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev, not Reagan, is why the Soviet Union ultimately failed.) Capitalism works, but does so to the extent it’s mated with regulations providing reasonable restraint on the worst human tendencies. 
America has experienced unregulated capitalism. It led to abuse of workers (including children), disregard for the environment, the Great Depression, and, as is happening yet again, sequestration of too much money in the hands of too few. It’s the opposite of what drives successful capitalism: average people having the means to buy stuff, and rules mitigating corporate greed. And it’s where Trump and his invertebrate congress are taking us, yet again. 
For Trump’s part, maybe the wrongness of his tax cuts derives from his ingrained disinterest in educating himself. Republican Congressfolk had to have known though, from experience; they just don’t care. By action and inaction they’ve signaled their intent to take the money and run; and since they don’t see preserving our planet as remunerative, they figure they may as well take it with them, too. What they’ve done, while being decidedly pro particular donor capitalists, is demonstrably anti capitalism. Proof is everywhere. 
There’s one thriving system of governance that’s designed to improve the lot of its citizens, giving them a voice in the process while confronting the strengths and weaknesses of humanity: “democratic socialism,” a better name for which might be “democratic kinda socialistic capitalism.” Countries demonstrating it regularly top lists of health and happiness. Also, they invented telephone handsets, implantable pacemakers, medical ultrasound, three-point seatbelts, zippers, and dynamite.  
“Godless” liberals, foolishly counting on human decency, call for shared sacrifices to help all Americans, while the party claiming an inside track to Jesus Himself gives itself over to human nature’s darkest side, legislating every man for himself. (Woman, not so much.) Liberals get called communists by people who think Trump loves America. And Mick Mulvaney admits it’s all about bribery.
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Friday, April 20, 2018

The Ping Pong Presidency

My next newspaper column:
They say the best contract is one in which both parties think they got screwed. (They also say, “Ruby you’re like a dream,” which I quoted in the introduction to my college biology research thesis, but that’s not important right now.) The point is that James Comey has managed to anger both political parties, which, by the aforementioned standard, suggests he did something right.  
My feelings are mixed. Unintended outcome it may be, but his actions in the months leading up to the 2016 election, by not revealing that Russia was helping Trump get elected, yet making a last-minute disclosure of what turned out to be nothing new in the Clinton email scandalette, thumbed the scales. Even Kelleyanne Conway accidentally admitted Comey swung the election to Trump. That email announcement was a momentum changer, by the accounts of many informed observers and pollsters.  
But I have sympathy: like President Obama when Bush left him with only bad choices in Iraq, all the options Director Comey faced were lose-lose. Had the “discovered” emails contained damning material, it’d have been a blot on the FBI’s and, sure, the election’s integrity, assuming Secretary Senator Clinton had won. Still, having withheld the Russia information, the standards look a little doublish. 
In that sense, it’s odd that popular-vote-loser Trump, and Trumpists, see Comey as a villain. Almost as much as they do Putin, voter ID laws, and the Electoral College, the creation of which was intended to prevent the seating of an amoral reprobate like Trump, they owe him for their win. And he has retrospectively admitted concern for rightwing chatter might have influenced his decision publically to criticize Hillary Clinton back in July.  
Mr. Comey might come off as self-serving, but it’s unmistakable that, unlike Trump, he’s not an inveterate liar. In a he-said/he-said competition, who’s more credible: a person recognized, throughout decades of government service, as one of integrity, selected for high office by presidents of both parties, approved all but unanimously more than once by the world’s formerly greatest deliberative body; or one whose business career and personal life consisted of shady deals, lying, cheating, adultery, serial bankruptcies, being sued thousands of times, suing hundreds, and who, since taking office, has disgorged falsehoods at a documented average rate of six per day? It’s not a close call. 
In matters large and small, critical or not to our security, it’s untenable to have an American “president” about whom the default assumption, at home and abroad, based on repeated observation, is that he’s lying. 
Which brings us to Syria.  
When you’ve lost Alex Jones… (Warning: decidedly, emphatically, hilariously NSFW) Unlike Jones, and Russia, I’m no conspiracist. But right after Trump proclaimed he wanted out of Syria immediately, (remember when he and the rest of the rightwing screamers castigated Obama for announcing withdrawal plans?) Assad used chemical weapons. Then Trump announced missiles would be coming sometime soon, giving Putin and Assad time to hide their ass…ets.  
Ignoring SecDef Mattis’ appeal to get Congressional approval, Trump loosed the missiles. And then… what, exactly? No after-action reports, no cool damage-assessment videos. Was anything there? What was accomplished, and in whose interest? It was done to protect the Syrian people, Trump assured us. After which, confirming his definitely not-fake Christianity, he announced plans to welcome refugees. (Kidding. I kid. But he did proclaim, without irony, “Mission Accomplished.”)  
Later, Nikki Haley declared tougher sanctions on Russia were coming. But wait, there’s less! Donald's mouthpieces said she was confused (back on which she pushed, angrily), and he assured the Russians they’re not. This is nuts: it’s presidency as omnishambles, with North Korea talks coming next.  
Narcissistic above all, Trump has no coherent policy. Impetuously, he pulls out of the TPP. Realizing he gifted economic supremacy to China, he wants back in. Then, like plans to fire McMaster, denies it. His treasury department reported last week that China and Russia aren’t unlawfully manipulating currency, after which he says they are. This isn’t, as my friend Mike the Trumpist says, crazy like a fox. It’s crazy like crazy.  
By what criteria can anyone -- friend or foe, edified or Foxified – believe anything Trump says? Rejecting expertise, preferring sycophancy, he basks in the company of toadying crooks, incompetents, and Fox talking heads. This diminishes us all. It diminishes America. It’s Ping-Pong policy by a Ping-Pong president.
[Update: Russia claims it dictated what targets in Syria were acceptable. Unsurprising, isn't it?] 

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Monday, April 16, 2018

Bombs Away

Interesting sequence: 
  • Trump announces he wants troops out of Syria, ASAP.
  • Assad uses chemical weapons.
  • Trump warns Putin missiles are coming.
  • Congresspeople demand prior congressional approval.
  • Trump fires off missiles.
Interesting prequel:
  • Trump is in deep shit domestically.
Now, I'm the furthest thing there is from a conspiracist, but it's hard not to wonder how the Foxolimjonesians would be characterizing events were "Trump" replaced with "President Barack Hussein Obama." Because there are several separate but equal issues, all of which have been brought up in the past, when roles were reversed:

First, announcing intended pullout. There were screams, including from the person currently staging an occupation of the White House, when Obama said he'd be leaving Iraq (as negotiated by the previous administration.) Don't let the enemy know your plans, they wisdomed. Haven't heard any on the right suggesting, as they did previously, that there's any connection to Assad's move.

Then there's the warning. Intent may be a subject of speculation, but there's no doubt it gave Putin time to shelter his ass. Ets. Same with Ass-ad's. 

Wisely or not, President Obama said the use of chemical weapons was a "red line," and he's been roundly criticized, including by popular-vote-loser Trump, for not following up. The thing is, wiselier or nottier, Obama went to Congress for approval and, as with all things Obama after Republicans took control, it was refused. That particular fact gets mentioned infrequently if at all on right-wing "news" sources.

And whereas we're hearing some dog-wagging from the left, I haven't seen or heard it, as there was incessantly in times not long past, from the right. In fact, if I were Alex Jones (speaking of whom, yikes!), I'd be saying the whole thing has been a "false flag" from the beginning: Trump got his pal Putin to get his pal Assad to use chemical weapons so Trump could respond, to get the news off the actual shit in which he finds himself, wherever he looks.

But that's not who I am. 

Russia, though: that's another story.

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Friday, April 13, 2018

An Offer He Can't Refuse?

My next newspaper column:
Dang. I had a nice medical school memory all teed up for publication, and then the feds raided Trump’s consigliere, Michael Cohen. Following which, Donald weighed in, affirming, yet again, how dangerously little he understands or cares about how our constitutional democracy works. Immediately thereafter, Fox “news,” Trump’s policy fountainhead, waved its reciprocal ignorance like a pirate flag. 
“Attorney-client privilege is dead,” Trump said. “It’s an attack on everything we stand for,” he whined. (Like “lock her up,” Donald?) Well, depending on what he meant by “we,” he could be right. There’s “we” America, and there’s “we” his collection of arrant liars and grifters. In Trump’s mind, apparently, anything but deference constitutes an attack on America.  
Attorney-client privilege has never been a shield for criminal activity by an attorney. Nevertheless, the relationship is highly protected, as it ought to be. To have done what the FBI did would have required scrupulous documentation of probable cause, enough to win the approval of a federal judge and the responsible US Attorney. The law was followed. If early reports are true that Cohen had made recordings of conversations and that they were among the items seized, it’s not hard to understand why the Trump gang’s dudgeon is turned up to eleven. 
If there’s a god – and if it’s true He put Trump in the White House, there probably isn’t – you’d think at some point Trump’s words would melt his tongue. “It’s an attack on our country in a true sense,” he declared. No, it’s not. It’s the opposite. It’s the epitome of the founding values of America, of what it has, until recently, always stood for: the rule of law. The idea that no one, not even those in the tallest towers of power, is above it. What it is, is DEFENSE of our country in the truest sense; a reflection that America was established by people who abhorred autocracy, who put in place enduring (so far) mechanisms to prevent it. (Devin Nunes just announced his intention further to tear them down.)   
Trump claims, and Trumpists believe, it’s a witch hunt. (With Trump, the distinction between claims and beliefs is squishy. He still claims, for example, there were millions of illegal votes in his historically immense popular vote loss; who knows whether he believes it, or just figures his excusers will?) It wouldn’t be unprecedented, after all: other than Monica Lewinsky and Clinton’s lies about her, Ken Starr’s $80 million investigation, about which I don’t recall Republicans upping themselves into comparable arms, turned out to be one. 
But none of us yet knows. There looks to be more smoke than was recently pouring out of Trump Tower, and for a guy who claims innocence, Trump is acting pretty nervous lately. If, in his heart or the space typically containing one in primates, he’s certain there’s nothing to fear, and had he found himself a competent capo, one might think he’d quiesce and let the process unfold. Eventually, it will, and at the witching hour we’ll all be there to see.  
If America isn’t about the rule of law, it’s about nothing. Claiming a constitutionally empowered investigation into possible governmental malfeasance is an attack on America, after more than a year of literally attacking America by claiming our free press is an enemy of the people, by attempts to discredit our electoral system, and by facilitating the gutting of public education – that might be Trump’s most blatant gaslighting yet. To the extent Trumpists buy it, they endanger us all, especially themselves.  
In the meantime, here’s some advice for liberals who excitedly comment on various online fora: stop with the prematurely gleeful ejaculations. Stop predicting impeachment if Democrats regain control of Congress. Let facts play out first. Even if there are theres there, impeachment is a long shot, and not something any of us on either side ought to want to see become a purely political process. Besides which, behind Trump is dangerously theocratic, failed governor Mike Pence. 
The electoral objective in November is restraining a Party bent on undemocratic entrenchment, no matter the damage to our institutions, while enriching itself and its bankrollers at the expense of the general welfare. If enlightened voters achieve that, dayenu. I’m unaware of any Democratic candidates running on ex-ante promises of impeachment. The truth is out there. We can wait.
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Friday, April 6, 2018

Our Gullibility Crisis

Tomorrow's newspaper column, today:
We’ve just survived another April Fools’ Day, when people question what they see online and on TV. 
Once a year isn’t enough. Skepticism ought to be Point A for everyone, always. Having a president who lies constantly is a serious problem; worse is the fact that his supporters don’t care. But even after Trump’s hopefully brief time in office, his and his party’s threatening legacy will remain: our crisis of gullibility. 
It’s plausible the Republic will survive Trump and his weak-kneed, bought-off Congress; especially if this year’s election reflects an awakening to the danger we face. In question, however, is long-term sustainability with a significant portion of the electorate increasingly unable, unwilling, or uninterested in separating truth from fiction. Not by accident, the answer begins to sound like “no.”  
Born in the brain of Steve Bannon, bankrolled by the right-wing billionaire Mercer family, Cambridge Analytica is the final horseman of the information apocalypse, joining Fox “news,” right-wing radio screamers, and Russian troll farms. Trumpets are sounding, to ears that are deaf.  
Cambridge Analytica, as everyone but Fox viewers knows by now, is an offshoot of the shady SCL group, a British outfit engaged by various autocrats and militaries around the world to produce psychological warfare against enemies and to bend elections. Having started technologically early in the game, their methods were variably effective. By the time Bannon saw the potential of mining social media, though, things had changed dramatically. 
C.A. set up a shell corporation in Delaware, continuing to work overseas, digging up information on tens of millions of people via Facebook loopholes, computing their hot-buttons and vulnerabilities, and targeting them with massive amounts of specifically-curated disinformation. Their management is on record gloating that it didn’t matter whether their offal was true; just that it was believed. Sexual blackmail was a tool, too. 
It’s worth knowing they were hired in the U.S. only by right-wing players, including Trump’s campaign and his newly-announced, Fox-featured National Security Adviser. “Crooked Hillary” was their invention. Made people forget who the real crook was, didn’t it?  
The effectiveness of such efforts is undeniable: bogus stories spread like oil-slicks, about Obama, the Clintons, their foundations; belief by the befuddled that Trump has never lied, has fulfilled each of his campaign promises; that he turned around a wrecked economy; that millions voted illegally for Hillary Clinton. The legality of Cambridge Analytica’s methods is in dispute, as is its impact on the election. (A just-published study suggested fake news influenced enough voting behavior to have changed the outcome.) To be determined is the connection, if any, between Bannon’s baby and Russia; it’s noteworthy, meanwhile, that Russia seems to have had the same targeting information and tools as C.A., and that C.A. has offices in Russia.  
There’s a psychological phenomenon known as “the backfire effect”: the tendency of some people, when shown data disproving a preferred belief, to believe it even more strongly. Though not confined to a single demographic, studies show prominence among self-identified conservatives, a convenient fact for exploitation by “truth doesn’t matter” political purveyors. (Liberals’ information-processing deficits seem mostly to revolve around “alternative” medicine, anti-vaccination, and anti-GMO nonsense. Bad enough; but at least it doesn’t elect autocrats, kakistocrats, and theocrats.)  
When I respond to false memes by providing a reputable source and indisputable facts, liberal senders acknowledge and rescind it, embarrassed. Unfailingly, Trumpists reject the source as fake, out of hand, never addressing the information provided. That’s an ominous difference. Given enough people behaving this way, democracy fails.  
The counter to the gullibility crisis is to maintain skepticism, to retain and protect the means for separating truth from falsehood. Everywhere -- in the White House, Congress, on the air, online -- we see coordinated efforts against doing so. 
Surpassing Russia and right-wing media, Trump has become the alpha purveyor of fake news. (Recent example: his attack on Amazon was lies piled on falsehoods.) His definition, though, is news he doesn’t like, and he’s made that the touchstone for his acolytes. The notion that CNN, NBC, The New York Times and Washington Post are fakery while Fox and Sinclair are sooth is laughable. And deeply dangerous.  
Recognizing their disadvantage on the issues, Trump-likes have, for years, created in their base a penchant for fake news and a disdain for accurate reporting. Democracy’s last line of defense is education. 
Enter Betsy Devos.
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