Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Never Forget

Today, August 9th, marks the 72nd anniversary of the atomic bomb strike on Nagasaki, Japan. This was the second use of nuclear weapons in world history, just 3 days after the first use on the city of Hiroshima. Early on the morning of August 10th, Japan conditionally accepted the conditions of the Potsdam Declaration, effectively ending World War II. Evidence now suggests that Japan would have surrendered even without the bombing of Nagasaki due to the Russian declaration of war on August 8, 1945. The Supreme Council of Japan was already in session discussing surrender at the time Fat Man was dropped on Nagasaki.

For decades that constant refrain has been that nuclear weapons are a deterrent against future aggression. There were even aspirations that we were entering a post-war existence in which major nuclear powers would never again fight conventional battles.

A year ago, in May 2016, President Barack Obama became the first sitting American president to visit an atomic bomb site when he gave a speech at Hiroshima. In his speech he attempted to inspire his audience to imagine a world in which war is no longer the solution to conflicts between nations. It's nearly inconceivable that just 16 months later, his successor has us on the precipice of a nuclear war with North Korea. Rather than giving diplomacy time to work, the UN Security Council imposed new sanctions on North Korea on August 5th, our president threatens war. This without having yet appointed an Assistant Secretary for East Asian Affairs or an Ambassador to South Korea (the most likely first strike target of any North Korean aggression - Japan is second).

Yesterday, August 8th, Donald Trump stated that if North Korea continues its aggression toward the U.S., "they will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen." He says this 2 days after the 72nd anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and 1 day before the 72nd anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki.

It is conceivable that in less than a year from assuming the presidency, Donald Trump will make the United States of America the only country in the world to use a nuclear weapon ... three times. At that point we will have lost all credibility as a world peace keeper. The millions who would die in nuclear conflict with North Korea would include millions of North Koreans, South Koreans, and Japanese. All innocent in this conflict. And for what?

As someone who grew up during the cold war and hasn't woken up in a cold sweat over nuclear annihilation since high school, I am dumbfounded that we have reached this point so quickly. But this is what happens when you elect a completely unqualified, incurious bully to the most powerful position in the free world.

I remain,

A Concerned Citizen

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Trump's Russian Ties Getting Tighter by the Day

Well, that didn't take long. I'm now writing my first stand alone critique of the Trump administration.

Just 25 days into the Trump administration, a cabinet member has resigned in disgrace. General Michael Flynn, whose son was fired from the transition team for pushing the Comet Ping Pong PizzaGate conspiracy among other fake news stories, has resigned.

General Flynn, while still a private citizen, called a Russian official the day before President Obama levied sanctions against Russia for their interference in our elections. It's illegal for private citizens to communicate with foreign governments in this way. However, conviction for such a crime is extremely uncommon.

As we might expect from this administration, which has demonstrated zero integrity, Trump and his surrogates took to the airwaves to defend Mike Flynn from the accusations that his calls were inappropriate. Flynn claimed not to have discussed the sanctions with the Russian ambassador. Even Vice President Mike Pence went on record to state that Mike Flynn had not discussed the sanctions.

Of course, that was not true. Mike Flynn did discuss the sanctions. Either he did not inform Pence or the administration knew he spoke about the sanctions and decided to lie to cover for him. My suspicion is the former. I don't think Pence knowingly lied for Flynn. I think Flynn was not forthright with Pence (who knows about other members of the administration) and Pence ended up embarrassed.

Remember Sally Yates? If you don't, it's not surprising, because the administration's still behaving like a 5 year old on a sugar high in a room full of musical instruments. Sally Yates was the acting attorney general who was fired by Trump on January 30th (16 days ago) for refusing to enforce his now deemed illegal Muslim Ban executive order.

Turns out Sally Yates, who emerged as the first hero of the Trump Resistance, warned the White House that Mike Flynn may have been compromised by the Russians. When did she do this? Sometime between January 23rd (23 days ago), when she finally got James Comey to agree to informing Trump, and January 30th, when she was fired.

So the White House new for more than 2 weeks that Flynn may have been compromised by the Russians due to a series of communications with the Russian ambassador during the campaign and transition. And yet Flynn was still in top secret briefings until ... yesterday.

Remember Paul Manafort? He was the Trump campaign chairman who resigned on August 19, 2016. Why? Turns out he failed to disclose that he was working as a foreign agent, covertly lobbying to sway American favorability for the pro-Russian Ukrainian government. But wait there's more, Manafort's name appeared in secret ledger of recipients of cash paid by the same Ukrainian government. How much was he paid? $12.7 million.

While we don't yet know the depth or extent of Trump's Russian ties, this is not going to end well. For any of us.

Until next time I remain, a concerned citizen.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Stars and Stripes in Distress: week 3

Day 16 (Saturday, February 4, 2017): Donald J. Trump went to Florida for the weekend while his aids continued to try to get their travel ban reinstated, but the news of the day probably came from Saturday Night Live, who cast Melissa McCarthy as Sean Spicer in an incredibly hilarious send-up of the administration's press briefings. This administration has certainly made SNL relevant (and funny) again. 

After midnight, early Sunday morning, a federal judge denied the request to reinstate the travel ban. Trump, of course, took to twitter to criticize the judge. Par for the course.

Day 17 (Sunday, February 5, 2017): Trump goes on Fox News' O'Reilly Factor for a pre-Super Bowl interview.  He inexplicably makes a statement suggesting he considers America and Russia to have moral equivalence in how we function as countries. This after Bill O'Reilly says, "Putin's a killer." Trump replies, "What do you think? Our country's so innocent?" Leaving aside the mysterious deaths of political opponents and journalists, which may not be able to be tied back to Putin himself, the Russian military is currently engaged in conflicts with neighboring countries for no reason and is adding Syria's Assad in killing his own people. Add to that the fact that Russia is an unapologetic autocracy with corruption from top to bottom and just decriminalized some forms of domestic violence and you have a country with such moral degradation that it's hard to imagine any American president considering us equivalent to them. Shameful.

Day 18 (Monday, February 6, 2017): During his morning toilet twittering, Donald Trump claims "all negative polls are fake news" - do you have to have any more evidence of this man's ego? That's just such an absurd claim, I'm not going to comment further. 

More troublingly, later in the day, while visiting Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, Trump claimed the media was intentionally not covering terrorist attacks. The White House later released a laundry list of 78 terrorist attacks by Islamic radicals (with the words attack/attacker misspelled a cumulative 22 times as attak/attaker), claiming these were not reported by the American media and as for the media "they have their reasons" for not reporting these attacks. Many of the attacks had extensive media coverage worldwide and of the 78, fact checking organizations were able to find national mainstream media reporting on 76 of them. The two that were not reported by US media were non-fatal (one had zero injuries) and both occurred in Africa. This continued assault on the media is just wrong on so many levels. Reporters put their lives on the lines in conflict zones around the world to get these stories and Trump has the gall to claim they're being covered up.

Day 19 (Tuesday, February 7, 2017):  Betsy DeVos, a billionaire GOP donor, was confirmed for Secretary of Education by the Senate. A 50:50 tie was broken by VP Mike Pence, ensuring the installation of the least qualified cabinet appointee in modern American history. Betsy DeVos, now in charge of our public school education system, never attended public school, did not send any of her children to public school, and has been a strong advocate for "school vouchers" and "charter schools", which are dog-whistles for segregation and allowing failing urban schools in poor communities to continue failing while well-to-do suburban children use state dollars to go where they like. Only 2 GOP senators, both considered moderate (and both female), voted against DeVos.

News came out that Melania Trump was suing the UK's Daily Mail for libel over a story that suggested she may have been an escort at one time. She claimed that this story put at risk her opportunities to make substantial profits in her role as first lady. This just goes to show, once again, that the Trump family is first and  foremost interested in personal gain. Shockingly un-First Lady-like. She also settled a claim against a blogger ... yes a blogger ... for an apology and a "substantial sum", which for a blogger is probably around $38. 

News also came out on Tuesday that Trump's Labor Secretary nominee, Andrew Pudzer, employed an illegal immigrant for a number of years. Back during the Clinton and Bush years, this was cause for disqualification. In the Trump administration, that should be a "go to jail" offense. Which means we can fully expect Pudzer to be confirmed by this GOP Senate that really can't be bothered with going against the president at these early stages.

Late Tuesday night, during confirmation hearings for Jeff Sessions for Attorney General, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell silenced Senator Elizabeth Warren for reading a letter from Coretta Scott King, wife of MLK, on the floor of the Senate, because Mrs. King used harsh language about Mr. Sessions history of racism. The Senate has a quaint rule that is quite civil in that Senators cannot impugn the character of other Senators. However, Elizabeth Warren was reading the letter from a civil rights hero, not sharing her own opinion. This backfired on the GOP leadership as "She persisted" became an instant battlecry for the feminist movement and Elizabeth Warren's private reading of the letter in the Senate hallway was watched millions of times on YouTube by mid-day Wednesday.

Day 20 (Wednesday, February 8, 2017): Sticking with the self-enrichment theme of the Trump family, Donald tweeted angrily at Nordstrom's for dropping his daughter, Ivanka's, line of luxury goods. Once again, just as he's done with other private firm, Trump has criticized a private firm for making a business decision. Nordstrom later cited dropping sales figures and revealed that Ivanka Trump has been aware of the decision for some time. This time it appears not to have damaged the brand like it did when he tweeted about Boeing. Nordstrom's stocks were up at the end of trading Wednesday. There doesn't seem to be much understanding among the Trump family that Donald's bullying and bile is not going to make most people want to buy their stuff. By all accounts Ivanka is a lovely human being, but her father is not winning her many fans these days. 

Day 21 (Thursday, February 9, 2017): Congratulations, we've made it to 3 weeks without a nuclear winter. In fact, Thursday may have been the first time we saw signs that the courts may keep Donald Trump in check as the 9th district court in Seattle, Washington, made the injunction against the travel ban permanent. This will, of course, be appealed to the Supreme Court, but in the meantime the Trump administration is now being encouraged by other Republicans to go back to the drawing board and devise an immigration policy that will comply with constitutional rigor. Trump and his supporters, of course, went apoplectic at judicial independence. 

In other news, White House spokesperson Kellyanne Conway may have violated ethics rules by going on TV and telling Americans to go buy Ivanka's products. Not only are the Trumps interested primarily in self enrichment, they have people working for them that don't understand the basic rules of governance. 

Day 22 (Friday, February 10, 2017): News reports revealed that Michael Flynn may have violated federal laws by communicating with Russian authorities the day before the Obama administration instituted sanctions against Russia for tampering with the US election.This investigation could lead to what we have all been wondering: what exactly did Russia and the Trump campaign communicate to one another during the election. 

Sorry for not linking to everything quite so thoroughly this time, but it's overwhelming just trying to keep up with all the nonsense that happens each week. Still working on my presentation.

Thanks for reading.

Until next time, I remain, a concerned citizen.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Stars and Stripes in Distress: week 2

My plan is to do these updates weekly, but I reserve the right to alter the pattern, timing, and topics over time. I may end up doing daily sometimes and broad stories at other times. Either way, the kakistocracy and kleptocracy (or kleptokakistocracy - "rule by the worst thieves") seems to be accelerating.

Day 8 (Friday, January 27, 2017): Donald J. Trump signs an executive order barring citizens of 7 predominantly Muslim countries from entering the US until the refugee vetting policies can be reviewed and strengthened. People on the right immediately came out and said, "he made good on his campaign promise" while on the left were calls of racism and Islamophobia and reminders that the US was built on immigration - give us your tired, your poor, your huddle masses. Where there was almost universal agreement, even if whispered among GOP politicians, was that the roll-out of the executive order was botched, badly. The timeline was immediate, which gave people actually in-flight from these countries no option but to arrive in the US and be denied entry. Further, instructions Department of Homeland Security (DHS) were unclear or confusing. Green card holders who had lived in the US for decades were not allowed to return to their homes, families, and careers.

Quietly as this was grabbing all of the headlines, chief political strategist Steve Bannon was appointed to the Principals Committee of the National Security Council while the director of national intelligence and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff were told they do not need to attend the meetings except when issues involve them. This runs directly contrary to both the purpose of the NSC and precedent. President George W. Bush expressly did not want his chief political strategist, Karl Rove, present at NSC meetings, because he wanted to maintain a separation between domestic political decision-making and foreign policy - "politics stops at the water's edge" as it were - Trump clearly has no such compulsion. Most likely because he's in way of his head and his his primary counsel comes from ... Steve Bannon who now seems to be consolidating power in the White House.

Day 9 (Saturday, January 28, 2017): As word emerged that citizens of the 7 countries prohibited by the previous day's EO were being detained and denied entry into the US, spontaneous protests began to arise at airports all over the country. ACLU lawyers flocked to the airports offering to represent detained travelers while other ACLU lawyers immediately filed injunctions against the statute. Thousands of protestors showed up at New York's JFK airport and NY taxi drivers, who are predominantly Muslim, performed a one hour "sit down" in which they refused to drive to or from JFK.  A federal judge based in NY issued a temporary injunction on the EO, which was subsequently echoed by a judge in Massachusetts.

Day 10 (Sunday, January 29, 2017): Protests continued at airports around the country including American veterans coming to the aid of stranded immigrants and refugees. Two prominent GOP Senators who have long been critics of Donald Trump, John McCain and Lindsey Graham, released a joint statement claiming that Trump's Muslim ban was harmful to US interests overseas. They went on the weekend talk shows to make their case and did so compellingly. Some of those detained were actually former military interpreters that had bravely risked their live to help the US military communicate with local Islamic leaders. The further point is that the ban could easily serve as an ISIS recruitment tool. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama were both consistent in their message that Islam was not the enemy. Donald Trump's Muslim Ban does the opposite - it makes Islam the enemy, which is exactly what ISIS and other extremist groups have been claiming for years.  Sunday, Trump took to twitter to defend his "ban" by claiming it was temporary and "not a ban" (he has subsequently called it a "ban" multiple times).

Perhaps the story that will have the longest legs from Sunday was Trump's first authorized military action since taking office. He authorized a raid in Yemen, which killed a US special forces soldier and at least 10 women and children including an infant and an 8 year old girl whose older brother had been killed by a US strike last year.  Reports have begun coming out of the White House that Trump was not fully involved in the decision, did not seek alternative options or opinions, and was not present in the situation room at the attack was under way. Turns out the site had been reinforced with al Qaeda soldiers, which repelled the attack. Critics are claiming this action was botched and could easily have been avoided. Trump, predictably, blames President Obama. President Obama had left this action unauthorized when he left office. Liberals are already referring to this as "Trump's Benghazi" ... I personally want to know more before casting judgment, but it's certainly an inauspicious start.

Day 11 (Monday, January 30, 2017):  In a full on obvious example of "kakistocracy", Donald Trump signed an executive order that requires that if any government agency proposes a new federal regulation, it needs to be accompanied by 2 existing regulations that can be removed. This evidence-free approach to government is emblematic of the long, slow "small government" Grover Nordquist type attack on our civil society in which you slowly bind the ability of the federal government to provide effective governance, which then allows you to demand further cuts to make a smaller, less effective government, eventually completely crippling the ability of the government to do anything at all that's substantive and meaningful in preventing corporate aggression or providing for a safe and secure environment for its citizens. That's not to say all government regulations are good or needed, but it is to say that we should be using best evidence and an evaluation of the cost-benefit of the regulation to determine if its needed - not require that 2 other regulations have to go in order to implement a new one. That's just foolish.

Day 12 (Tuesday, January 31, 2017): Donald Trump had his first, and perhaps only "The Apprentice" moment of the first month of his presidency when he made a live, prime-time announcement of his Supreme Court nominee, conservative Neil Gorsuch.The handshake between the men was supremely awkward in typical "bully" fashion for Mr. Trump, but Gorsuch stood his ground and then made a very grown up speech about the purpose of the courts. Given that he replaces Anonin Scalia and has similar philosophies, but without Scalia's acerbic side, I expect that should Gorsuch be confirmed he will continue the court's recent pro-business, anti-woman positions, but with much less animosity. While I was hoping for Thomas Hardiman, who would likely be a centrist, Gorsuch is likely who we will get.

Democratic Senators have promised to filibuster the Gorsuch nomination, but my personal position is that he may not be the time to use this approach. He's an accomplished judge and well respected. However, payback for Merrick Garland ought to play into the calculus and it will be fun to watch.

Day 13 (Wednesday, February 1, 2017): February 1st marks the beginning of Black History Month and Donald Trump stuck his ignorance in it almost immediately, praising Frederick Douglass by saying, "Frederick Douglass is an example of someone who has done an amazing job." Mr. Douglass has been dead for 122 years. Donald Trump has no idea who he is. Nor does his press secretary Sean Spicer, who bumbled his way through a reply about Douglass, saying, in part, “I think he (Trump) wants to highlight the contributions that he (Douglas) has made, and I think through a lot of the actions and statements that he’s (Trump) going to make, I think the contributions of Frederick Douglass will become more and more.” "More and more" what exactly is not clear, but then again, nothing is clear with this bumbling administration.

Day 14 (Thursday, February 2, 2017): Congratulations, everyone. We've made it 2 weeks into the Trump administration without declaring war on anybody, though Trump's buddy Putin has begun military action in Ukraine, almost as if on cue. Without President Obama, a strong NATO supporter, Putin is now testing the resolve of NATO and Europe generally.

Locally, Donald Trump went to the National Prayer Breakfast and spent entirely too much time criticizing Arnold Schwarzenegger's "The Apprentice" reboot. It's really hard to imagine any president in near or distant memory who is this egomaniacal and unprepared for the job. News of his "hangry" spat with the Australian Prime Minister also echo this lack of character fit for the job.

Oh, and the Trump administration appeared to ease sanctions against Russia over the cyberattacks that helped him win the White House. The sanctions eased were specifically on the Russian spy agency that lead the cyberattacks. Big surprise there.

Day 15 (Friday, February 3, 2017): Adding an extra day to this post so I can get through the previous week's news and leave the weekend twitter storm to lead off next week's post.

Friday we learned Donald Trump is considering rolling back many of the financial regulations that were put into place in the wake of the mortgage backed securities crisis that lead to the global economic meltdown. This is no surprise as his "buddies" at the banks need some freedom so they can make money and all of that amazing wealth can trickle down (it won't).

Additionally, the Trump administration issued new sanctions against Iran, perhaps for their shady missile test, though of course, nothing is crystal clear with this administration.

And finally, a Seattle judge issued a nationwide injunction on the Muslim Ban, which had rescinded in the neighborhood of 60,000 to 100,000 previously issued visas to citizens from the 7 affected countries. We'll see how that ends up playing out in the weeks ahead.

During this week the GOP controlled Congress also passed many retrograde policies, such as rescinding rules requiring clean water standards near coal mines and requirements for energy companies to disclose payments to foreign governments. So things are are about to get much dirtier both physically and ethically in our energy industry, but that should be no surprise to anyone who actually pays attention to policies rather than just being right-left partisans.

Things are rolling down hill faster and faster.

Until next time, I remain ... a concerned citizen. 

Friday, January 27, 2017

Stars & Stripes in Distress: week 1

When I changed my Facebook profile picture to the "distress flag" for the inauguration of Donald J. Trump, I thought it was a one day thing. I now realize that I may need to fly this flag until Donald Trump is out of office. He was inaugurated a week ago today and the sheer number of retrograde actions he's taken is shocking even for someone like me who had very low expectations from him to begin with. I’ve decided to use this blog as a log of his poor decisions. 
Day 1 (Friday, January 20, 2017): Donald J. Trump gives his inaugural address, written by Brietbart editor Steve Bannon and Trump senior adviser Stephen Miller (just 32 years old), to a crowd estimated at between 300,000 and 600,000 people by crowd scientists. The speech is bleak and nationalist, even referring to “this American carnage” ... which is shocking since crime and poverty are at historic lows relative to the past.

Day 2 (Saturday, January 21, 2017): Donald J. Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer criticized the media for underestimating the crowd sizes, unequivocally claiming, “This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period.” Every evaluation of available information clearly demonstrated that President Obama’s historic inauguration as our first black president drew a crowd approximately 3 times that of Trump. Couple that with the fact that Washington, DC, is a very liberal city (just 4.1% voted for Trump), and Republican presidential inaugurations are typically smaller than Democratic inaugurations, and it’s clear that Spicer was trying to create a false narrative. It was later revealed by Spicer himself that Trump was “demoralized” over the crowd size estimates - not shocking from a narcissist like Trump. 
Also on Day 2, Trump visited CIA headquarters at Langley where he: A) whined about crowd size, B) told attendees he was “at war with the media”, C) suggested we should have violated international law and kept Iraqi oil after the invasion, D) admitted he did not finish his CIA Director interviews after meeting with his nominee, Mike Pompeo (R-KS). Just so we are clear, none of those things are presidential. Or acceptable. 
Finally, on Day 2, the Women’s March on DC was attended by more than 500,000 men, women, and children, and an estimated 4 million more marchers appeared in hundreds of cities across the United States and even internationally. As expected, Trump took to twitter to criticize the women’s march crowd size estimates compared to his own inauguration crowd.
Day 3 (Sunday, January 22, 2017): In an interview on “Meet the Press”, Trump senior adviser and former campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, coined the term “alternative facts” when referencing Sean Spicer’s crowd size claims. She went on to claim that the press’s job wasn’t to question the veracity of statements made by the president or his press team, but to report on what was said. By Tuesday, George Orwell’s “1984” would top the Amazon Best Seller list with its infamous “Ministry of Truth”. 
Day 4 (Monday, January 23, 2017): On the first full weekday of his presidency, Donald J. Trump pulled out of the TransPacific Partnership (TPP), which was an ambitious 12 nation trade deal that would have given the US a strong economic relationship with Pacific nations including Japan, Australia, and South Korea, exclusive of China. The deal, which had become a political hot potato during the election, was likely dead anyway, but Trump threw away the chance to use the TPP as leverage against China. Now China is free to create partnerships with former TPP member nations to the exclusion of the US. 
Also on Day 4, Trump vowed to cut $10 trillion from the federal budget over the next decade with a budget plan pulled whole cloth from the conservative Heritage Foundation. This budget includes the end of the National Endowment of the Arts, National Endowment of the Humanities, and gutting many other programs in federal agencies that protect the health and well-being of American citizens. 
Finally, on Day 4, Trump met with lawmakers and repeated the lie that he lost the popular vote due to millions of unlawful votes by illegal immigrants. There is no evidence of voter fraud on any scale, let alone the scale that he refers to. Another “alternative fact” from the Trump regime.
 Day 5 (Tuesday, January 24, 2017): Donald J. Trump confirmed he would restart the Keystone XL and Dakota Access Pipeline projects, overturning President Obama’s decisions to halt those projects to protect the environment and native lands. Reports also emerged on Tuesday that the Trump administration had decided to restrict scientists working with several federal agencies from communicating with the public. Most notably, the USDA and EPA were issued gag orders. Further, the EPA was instructed to freeze all active grants and contracts pending a review by the administration. This freeze is expected to be lifted by Friday, January 27th, but that remains to be seen.

Further, Trump threatened to “send in the Feds” to the city of Chicago to stem the crime in that city, which had an uptick in its murder rate in 2016 after decades of decline. This reinforces his false narrative that urban America is a hellish place despite violent crime nationally being at historic lows.
Day 6 (Wednesday, January 25, 2017): Donald J. Trump doubled down on his lies about voter fraud, vowing to launch an investigation into the millions of illegal votes. He also signed an executive order to build his border wall, a move that Congressional Republican, Will Hurd, from Texas District 23, replied to the news with, "Building a wall is the most expensive and least effective way to secure the border.” Another executive order stripped federal grant money from “sanctuary cities” that do not prosecute illegal immigrants and issues sanctions against countries that will not take back their undocumented immigrants. 
On Day 6, Trump also claimed “torture works” and said he was open to the possibility of allowing the CIA to reopen “black sites” - secret CIA prisons for interrogation and confinement around the world. 
Marches were announced by opposition groups focusing on: another women’s march scheduled for Tax Day (April 15th), a scientist march (April 29th), and a gay pride march on DC Pride Weekend (June 10). 
Day 7 (Thursday, January 26, 2017): The Mexican president canceled a scheduled trip to Washington, DC, over Donald J. Trump’s persistent calls for a border wall coupled with a call to renegotiate NAFTA and threaten a 20% import tax on Mexican goods. This devolving relationship with our 4th largest trading partner (13.5% of all US trade involves Mexico) does not bode well for the US economy. 
The NY Times revealed that Trump strategist Steve Bannon tells US media to “keep its mouth shut” and that it’s the opposition party against this administration. This unprecedented description of the media as not the 4th estate, but as an opposition party in this political environment represents a damaging departure from the norms. Bannon, who has previously declared that he wants to destroy government institutions, is making good on his promise to tear things down by attempting to further divide the public from the media on which the public relies for information. 
That’s week one.
More to come as things get worse ....

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Howard Zinn on Civil Disobedience

Howard Zinn, Professor of Ameican History, wrote the Zinn Reader in 1970 about his motivations for being a strong anti-war and pro-labor protester. Below is a chapter from the Zinn Reader that I believe is as apropos today as it was then. We have a systematic repression of our constitional rights, particularly free speech and assembly, by "the law." Zinn writes in supprt of civil disobedience as a form of speech speech. I urgre anyone who is intersted in how and why civil disobedience matters to read this chapter.

I post it here, without permission, becuase I believe Dr. Zinn would have wanted it that way.



The Problem is Civil Obedience

The Zinn Reader (1970)

Howard Zinn


I start from the supposition that the world is topsy-turvy, that things are all wrong, that the wrong people are in jail and the wrong people are out of jail, that the wrong people are in power and the wrong people are out of power, that the wealth is distributed in this country and the world in such a way as not simply to require small reform but to require a drastic reallocation of wealth. I start from the supposition that we don't have to say too much about this because all we have to do is think about the state of the world today and realize that things are all upside down. Daniel Berrigan is in jail-A Catholic priest, a poet who opposes the war-and J. Edgar Hoover is free, you see. David Dellinger, who has opposed war ever since he was this high and who has used all of his energy and passion against it, is in danger of going to jail. The men who are responsible for the My Lai massacre are not on trial; they are in Washington serving various functions, primary and subordinate, that have to do with the unleashing of massacres, which surprise them when they occur. At Kent State University four students were killed by the National Guard and students were indicted. In every city in this country, when demonstrations take place, the protesters, whether they have demonstrated or not, whatever they have done, are assaulted and clubbed by police, and then they are arrested for assaulting a police officer.

Now, I have been studying very closely what happens every day in the courts in Boston, Massachusetts. You would be astounded-maybe you wouldn't, maybe you have been around, maybe you have lived, maybe you have thought, maybe you have been hit-at how the daily rounds of injustice make their way through this marvelous thing that we call due process. Well, that is my premise.

All you have to do is read the Soledad letters of George Jackson, who was sentenced to one year to life, of which he spent ten years, for a seventy-dollar robbery of a filling station. And then there is the U.S. Senator who is alleged to keep 185,000 dollars a year, or something like that, on the oil depletion allowance. One is theft; the other is legislation. something is wrong, something is terribly wrong when we ship 10,000 bombs full of nerve gas across the country, and drop them in somebody else's swimming pool so as not to trouble our own. So you lose your perspective after a while. If you don't think, if you just listen to TV and read scholarly things, you actually begin to think that things are not so bad, or that just little things are wrong. But you have to get a little detached, and then come back and look at the world, and you are horrified. So we have to start from that supposition-that things are really topsy-turvy.

And our topic is topsy-turvy: civil disobedience. As soon as you say the topic is civil disobedience, you are saying our problem is civil disobedience. That is not our problem.... Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is the numbers of people all over the world who have obeyed the dictates of the leaders of their government and have gone to war, and millions have been killed because of this obedience. And our problem is that scene in All Quiet on the Western Front where the schoolboys march off dutifully in a line to war. Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world, in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves, and all the while the grand thieves are running the country. That's our problem. We recognize this for Nazi Germany. We know that the problem there was obedience, that the people obeyed Hitler. People obeyed; that was wrong. They should have challenged, and they should have resisted; and if we were only there, we would have showed them. Even in Stalin's Russia we can understand that; people are obedient, all these herdlike people.

But America is different. That is what we've all been brought up on. From the time we are this high and I still hear it resounding in Mr. Frankel's statement-you tick off, one, two, three, four, five lovely things .~ about America that we don't want disturbed very much. But if we have learned anything in the past ten years, it is that these lovely things about America were never lovely. We have been expansionist and aggressive and mean to other people from the beginning. And we've been aggressive and mean to people in this country, and we've allocated the wealth of this country in a very unjust way. We've never had justice in the courts for the poor people, for black people, for radicals. Now how can we boast that America is a very special place? It is not that special. It really isn't.

Well, that is our topic, that is our problem: civil obedience. Law is very important. We are talking about obedience to law-law, this marvelous invention of modern times, which we attribute to Western civilization, and which we talk about proudly. The rule of law, oh, how wonderful, all these courses in Western civilization all over the land. Remember those bad old days when people were exploited by feudalism? Everything was terrible in the Middle Ages-but now we have Western civilization, the rule of law. The rule of law has regularized and maximized the injustice that existed before the rule of law, that is what the rule of law has done. Let us start looking at the rule of law realistically, not with that metaphysical complacency with which we always examined it before.

When in all the nations of the world the rule of law is the darling of the leaders and the plague of the people, we ought to begin to recognize this. We have to transcend these national boundaries in our thinking. Nixon and Brezhnev have much more in common with one another than - we have with Nixon. J. Edgar Hoover has far more in common with the head of the Soviet secret police than he has with us. It's the international dedication to law and order that binds the leaders of all countries in a comradely bond. That's why we are always surprised when they get together -- they smile, they shake hands, they smoke cigars, they really like one another no matter what they say. It's like the Republican and Democratic parties, who claim that it's going to make a terrible difference if one or the other wins, yet they are all the same. Basically, it is us against them.

Yossarian was right, remember, in Catch-22? He had been accused of giving aid and comfort to the enemy, which nobody should ever be accused of, and Yossarian said to his friend Clevinger: "The enemy is whoever is going to get you killed, whichever side they are on." But that didn't sink in, so he said to Clevinger: "Now you remember that, or one of these days you'll be dead." And remember? Clevinger, after a while, was dead. And we must remember that our enemies are not divided along national lines, that enemies are not just people who speak different languages and occupy different territories. Enemies are people who want to get us killed.


We are asked, "What if everyone disobeyed the law?" But a better question is, "What if everyone obeyed the law?" And the answer to that question is much easier to come by, because we have a lot of empirical evidence about what happens if everyone obeys the law, or if even most people obey the law. What happens is what has happened, what is happening. Why do people revere the law? And we all do; even I have to fight it, for it was put into my bones at an early age when I was a Cub Scout. One reason we revere the law is its ambivalence. In the modern world we deal with phrases and words that have multiple meanings, like "national security." Oh, yes, we must do this for national security! Well, what does that mean? Whose national security? Where? When? Why? We don't bother to answer those questions, or even to ask them.

The law conceals many things. The law is the Bill of Rights. ;'~ fact, that is what we think of when we develop our reverence for the law. The law is something that protects us; the law is our right-the law is the Constitution. Bill of Rights Day, essay contests sponsored by the American Legion on our Bill of Rights, that is the law. And that is good.

But there is another part of the law that doesn't get ballyhooed- the legislation that has gone through month after month, year after year, from the beginning of the Republic, which allocates the resources of the country in such a way as to leave some people very rich and other people very poor, and still others scrambling like mad for what little is left. That is the law. If you go to law school you will see this. You can quantify it by counting the big, heavy law books that people carry around with them and see how many law books you count that say "Constitutional Rights" on them and how many that say "Property," "Contracts," "Torts," "Corporation Law." That is what the law is mostly about. The law is the oil depletion allowance-although we don't have Oil Depletion Allowance Day, we don't have essays written on behalf of the oil depletion allowance. So there are parts of the law that are publicized and played up to us-oh, this is the law, the Bill of Rights. And there are other parts of the law that just do their quiet work, and nobody says anything about them.

It started way back. When the Bill of Rights was first passed, remember, in the first administration of Washington? Great thing. Bill of Rights passed! Big ballyhoo. At the same time Hamilton's economic pro gram was passed. Nice, quiet, money to the rich-I'm simplifying it a little, but not too much. Hamilton's economic program started it off. You can draw a straight line from Hamilton's economic program to the oil depletion allowance to the tax write-offs for corporations. All the way through-that is the history. The Bill of Rights publicized; economic legislation unpublicized.

You know the enforcement of different parts of the law is as important as the publicity attached to the different parts of the law. The Bill of Rights, is it enforced? Not very well. You'll find that freedom of speech in constitutional law is a very difficult, ambiguous, troubled concept. Nobody really knows when you can get up and speak and when you can't. Just check all of the Supreme Court decisions. Talk about predictability in a system-you can't predict what will happen to you when you get up on the street corner and speak. See if you can tell the difference between the Terminiello case and the Feiner case, and see if you can figure out what is going to happen. By the way, there is one part of the law that is not very vague, and that involves the right to distribute leaflets on the street. The Supreme Court has been very clear on that. In decision after decision we are affirmed an absolute right to distribute leaflets on the street. Try it. Just go out on the street and start distributing leaflets. And a policeman comes up to you and he says, "Get out of here." And you say, "Aha! Do you know Marsh v. Alabama, 1946?" That is the reality of the Bill of Rights. That's the reality of the Constitution, that part of the law which is portrayed to us as a beautiful and marvelous thing. And seven years after the Bill of Rights was passed, which said that "Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech," Congress made a law abridging the freedom of speech. Remember? The Sedition Act of 1798.

So the Bill of Rights was not enforced. Hamilton's program was enforced, because when the whisky farmers went out and rebelled you remember, in 1794 in Pennsylvania, Hamilton himself got on his horse and went out there to suppress the rebellion to make sure that the revenue tax was enforced. And you can trace the story right down to the present day, what laws are enforced, what laws are not enforced. So you have to be careful when you say, "I'm for the law, I revere the law." What part of the law are you talking about? I'm not against all law. But I think we ought to begin to make very important distinctions about what laws do what things to what people.

And there are other problems with the law. It's a strange thing, we think that law brings order. Law doesn't. How do we know that law does not bring order? Look around us. We live under the rules of law. Notice how much order we have? People say we have to worry about civil disobedience because it will lead to anarchy. Take a look at the present world in which the rule of law obtains. This is the closest to what is called anarchy in the popular mind-confusion, chaos, international banditry. The only order that is really worth anything does not come through the enforcement ... of law, it comes through the establishment of a society which is just and in which harmonious relationships are established and in which you need a minimum of regulation to create decent sets of arrangements among people. But the order based on law and on the force of law is the order of the totalitarian state, and it inevitably leads either to total injustice or to rebel lion-eventually, in other words, to very great disorder.

We all grow up with the notion that the law is holy. They asked Daniel Berrigan's mother what she thought of her son's breaking the law. He burned draft records-one of the most violent acts of this century- to protest the war, for which he was sentenced to prison, as criminals should be. They asked his mother who is in her eighties, what she thought of her son's breaking the law. And she looked straight into the interviewer's face, and she said, "It's not God's law." Now we forget that. There is nothing sacred about the law. Think of who makes laws. The law is not made by God, it is made by Strom Thurmond. If you nave any notion about the sanctity and loveliness and reverence for the law, look at the legislators around the country who make the laws. Sit in on the sessions of the state legislatures. Sit in on Congress, for these are the people who make the laws which we are then supposed to revere.

All of this is done with such propriety as to fool us. This is the problem. In the old days, things were confused; you didn't know. Now you know. It is all down there in the books. Now we go through due process. Now the same things happen as happened before, except that we've gone through the right procedures. In Boston a policeman walked into a hospital ward and fired five times at a black man who had snapped a towel at his arm-and killed him. A hearing was held. The judge decided that the policeman was justified because if he didn't do it, he would lose the respect of his fellow officers. Well, that is what is known as due process-that is, the guy didn't get away with it. We went through the proper procedures, and everything was set up. The decorum, the propriety of the law fools us.

The nation then, was founded on disrespect for the law, and then came the Constitution and the notion of stability which Madison and Hamilton liked. But then we found in certain crucial times in our history that the legal framework did not suffice, and in order to end slavery we had to go outside the legal framework, as we had to do at the time of the American Revolution or the Civil War. The union had to go outside the legal framework in order to establish certain rights in the 1930s. And in this time, which may be more critical than the Revolution or the Civil War, the problems are so horrendous as to require us to go outside the legal framework in order to make a statement, to resist, to begin to establish the kind of institutions and relationships which a decent society should have. No, not just tearing things down; building things up. But even if you build things up that you are not supposed to build up-you try to build up a people's park, that's not tearing down a system; you are building something up, but you are doing it illegally-the militia comes in and drives you out. That is the form that civil disobedience is going to take more and more, people trying to build a new society in the midst of the old.

But what about voting and elections? Civil disobedience-we don't need that much of it, we are told, because we can go through the electoral system. And by now we should have learned, but maybe we haven't, for we grew up with the notion that the voting booth is a sacred place, almost like a confessional. You walk into the voting booth and you come out and they snap your picture and then put it in the papers with a beatific smile on your face. You've just voted; that is democracy. But if you even read what the political scientists say-although who can?-about the voting process, you find that the voting process is a sham. Totalitarian states love voting. You get people to the polls and they register their approval. I know there is a difference-they have one party and we have two parties. We have one more party than they have, you see.

What we are trying to do, I assume, is really to get back to the principles and aims and spirit of the Declaration of Independence. This spirit is resistance to illegitimate authority and to forces that deprive people of their life and liberty and right to pursue happiness, and therefore under these conditions, it urges the right to alter or abolish their current form of government-and the stress had been on abolish. But to establish the principles of the Declaration of Independence, we are going to need to go outside the law, to stop obeying the laws that demand killing or that allocate wealth the way it has been done, or that put people in jail for petty technical offenses and keep other people out of jail for enormous crimes. My hope is that this kind of spirit will take place not just in this country but in other countries because they all need it. People in all countries need the spirit of disobedience to the state, which is not a metaphysical thing but a thing of force and wealth. And we need a kind of declaration of interdependence among people in all countries of the world who are striving for the same thing.


Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Bust Up the Big Banks! Here's Why.

In 1933, in the wake of the Great Depression, as a way to prevent the kind of reckless speculation that drove that economic calamity, the Glass-Steagall Act was signed into law by FDR. Among other things, including the establishment of the FDIC, the Act prohibited commercial banks, which took customer deposits and issued loans, from practicing investment banking, or issuing securities. This law worked beautifully for 66 years, preventing risk-taking with customer deposits while allowing investment banks to generate securities and trade to their heart's content.

Beginning around 1980 the banking industry began lobbying for the repeal of Glass-Steagal. In 1987 the Congressional Research Office issued a report, which concluded that there was a significant conflict of interest between issuing credit (lending) and using credit (investing) within the same institution. The report further argued that depository lenders possessed enormous power in holding other people's money and they needed to be prudent in their activities using that money, while securities investment was a risky endeavor. Congress did not act on the repeal at that time. 

But in 1999, the banks got their way. The impetus for repeal? Citigroup (a commercial bank) merged with Travelers (a conglomerate with investment activities) in 1998. According to law, Citigroup had to divest itself of the non-depository divisions within 2-5 years. But it took them less than two years to bribe Congress into repealing the act. 


This figure displays what happened to our banking system in the wake of the repeal of Glass-Steagal. Within a single decade the commercial and investment banks had merged into four behemoths, which represent an enormous proportion of all banking activity in the United States.

At the same time, complex derivatives have become the stock and trade of these investment banks. Remember, these derivatives in the form of mortgage backed securities, crashed the global economy in late 2008. They're largely unregulated, often referred to as shadow banking. Banks make enormous fees for originating, selling, and managing new derivatives vehicles. This derivatives business has become unfathomably large.   

Add to this the investment bank Goldman Sachs, and you've got 5 institutions that combined hold approximately $5 Trillion in assets. That's $5,000,000,000,000. That's a lot of money.That's more money than the yearly GDP of any country in the world save the U.S., China, and Japan. So where's the problem? 

The trouble is in the derivatives market. In 1996 the derivatives market represented approximately $30 Trillion in investment exposure, which was about 4 times the entire U.S. GDP. According tot the Comptroller's Office, that investment exposure currently sits at $249 Trillion in the U.S. alone. Now here's the startling part - 96% of that risk is held by the 5 largest banks. $239 Trillion against $5 Trillion in assets. They're leveraged at nearly 48:1. 

Now there's an financial trick known as bilateral netting, which essentially means that a bank holds a collateralized debt obligation (CDO) and then buys insurance against that CDO with a credit default swap (CDS). Therefore, presumably, their risk is minimized since they will not lose all of their investment. If the CDO fails, the CDS pays out. According to the same OCC report, bilateral netting currently covers approximately 90% of the exposure in the derivatives market. It doesn't matter. On the eve of the crash in 2008, bilateral netting covered 84% of all derivatives. It still brought down Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, and Merrill Lynch. It destroyed AIG. But for a ton of bailout money and more Federal Reserve support, the largest insurer in the world would have vanished from the face of the earth. At that time the bulk of the risk was spread accross 12 banking institutions. Today it is concentrated in just 5. 

So if Europe goes down the drain - and Europe is going down the drain - our 5 biggest banks' exposure to European banks, European sovereign debt, and European derivatives stands to bring these banks to their knees, again. And our economy with them.

The Dodd-Frank Act was passed as a bandaid for the hemorrhaging wound that is our banking system. It's done next to nothing. It is not protecting our citizens from the risk inherent in the combination of commercial and invsetment banks. It is not protecting our economy from the recklessness of these banks with derivaties ... remember how mortgage backed security derivatives brought down our economy in 2008? At that time our national exposure was approximately $180 Trillion. In just 3 years that figure has risen 38%. So rather than reining in the risk taking on Wall Street, things have continued to grow unabated.  

Ready for another bailout? Ready for another recession? Ready for our current first world problems to look meaningless in the face of the second major financial crisis in less than a decade?  

It's coming. Unless we act.