Sunday, November 19, 2017

A Pressing Concern


The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has been giving some thought to the disturbing fact that Donald Tr*mp has the power to order a nuclear first strike against North Korea — or, perhaps, Venezuela or Iran or Nigeria (having confused it with Niger.)  Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts has proposed legislation that would limit that power to attacks on countries upon which Congress had declared war.

Don't hold your breath awaiting passage.

Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) protects the United States against nuclear attack just as well today as it did when the Soviets first acquired the bomb — better, since now we can respond with submarine-based missiles even if our ground-based capacity is destroyed in a first strike.  That also means no other country would risk involvement should Our President get it into his head to lob one at Pyongyang.  Kim Jong-un really does need his own bombs and delivery system.

The utility and safety of our submarine-based capacity also makes our ground-based missiles unnecessary and obsolete.  It certainly is not worth replacing them, as proposed, at a cost of $100 billion.  The submarines also make it possible to delay a response to an attack — long enough so that the decision does not have to be made by one person.  The choice to engage in nuclear war, at the very least, should be a decision by a nonpartisan group of trusted individuals.

Yesterday, Gen. John Hyten, head of US Strategic Command, said he would disobey an "illegal order" from the President to launch a first strike.  It's a nice sentiment, but the Air Force Academy at Colorado Springs produces plenty of graduates who are both military leaders and Christians eagerly awaiting the Apocalypse.  No matter what Hyten would do, somebody would obey joyfully if an apocalyptic command came from Tr*mp.


Monday, November 13, 2017

Can the Middle East get even worse?


Sure it can — and the cheerful young man you see here is just the one to bring that about.  Now apparently in complete control of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman already has exacerbated regional turmoil, and promises to do more.

For the past four decades, Saudi Arabia was stabilized by oil revenues, religious authority, and gerontocracy.  MbS, as he's known, aims for continued stability, with special emphasis on the stability of monarchical rule.  He very much enjoys being the man in charge — of everything.

Admittedly, keeping Saudi Arabia stable will not be simple for anybody, direct descendant of Ibn Saud or not.  MbS needs to diversify the national economy away from oil and gas while engaged in a complex contest for power with Islamic authorities.  Ultraconservative Islam has been the foundation of his family's rule, but also its most significant rival for power.  Attempts to relax the Kingdom's medieval interpretation of Sharia Law are met with powerful opposition.

The greatest potential for making things "even worse," though, arises from MbS's efforts against regional rival Iran.  After over two years of war crimes in Yemen (with US collusion) and spending many times what Iranians give Houthi rebels, he has produced what the UN calls the worst humanitarian crisis on Earth, and no sign of resolution of the conflict.

Nobody doubts considerable Saudi pressure on Saad Hariri when he announced his resignation as Prime Minister of Lebanon from Riyadh, nor that the move was intended to delegitimize Iranian ally Hezbollah's role in Lebanese government.  Apparently, MbS thought the pleasure of sticking a finger in Iran's eye was worth the risk of the Syrian Civil War spilling over the border into Lebanon.

The boycott and blockade of Qatar continues, punishing the Qataris for the sin of conducting diplomacy with Iran, with which they share vast natural gas reserves under the Persian Gulf.  The pure, spiteful pique involved is positively Tr*mpian.

Actually, it was just after a sleepover party with First Boy Jared Kushner that MbS seized all police power for himself and had about two hundred potential rivals arrested, including the oft-mentioned eleven princes.  The White House is quite fond of MbS, who exercises the kind of arbitrary authority Our President wishes he could have for himself.  In return for American support, we can expect MbS to weigh in on upcoming Israeli-Palestinian "negotiations," pressuring the Palestinians to accept whatever Bibi deigns to offer them.  (The Tr*mp "negotiating team" consists of three Orthodox Jews and a Coptic Christian.)

Saudi Arabia has potential as a manufacturing center because of its energy resources — including a huge and uninterrupted supply of solar when the oil runs out.  All MbS will need is a reliable pool of cheap labor.  Saudi men are unlikely to take those jobs, so "progress" in allowing women to work outside the home is a strong possibility, provided religious authorities can be brought along.  Failing that, there are bound to be plenty of impoverished Palestinians in the neighborhood.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

The Tax Plan

It was never a convincing argument, but now we're hearing it again: reduce their tax load, and businesses will create more jobs and pay more in salaries.  It's never happened, and it never will.

Businesses expand based on increased demand for their products; demand increases when consumers (read workers) have more money to spend.  In the absence of increased demand, businesses sink extra cash into stock buybacks, shareholder dividends, and executive bonuses.

Right now, American corporations have a lot of extra cash just sloshing around, providing no economic stimulus at all.  They don't need more cash; they need more affluent customers.  The Republican tax plan may provide a fleeting infusion of cash into some middle-class wallets, but most of the $1.5 trillion addition to the national debt will wind up in the pockets of the very rich — as usual.

Still, there are some features of the plan that make good economic sense: most notably, the cap on mortgage interest deductions.  It is hard to justify subsidizing the McMansions of the "comfortably well-off," their claims to middle-class status notwithstanding.  Builders will complain – McMansions are much more profitable than the kinds of homes families earning less than six figures might afford – but an impetus for builders to provide more affordable starter homes and fewer rococo monstrosities is long overdue.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Shorts

The Future of the Fed
Credit for recovery from the financial crisis of 2008 belongs almost exclusively to the Federal Reserve.  The fiscal stimulus Obama managed to extract from Congress was just barely large enough to register, so monetary policy had to be stretched beyond its previous limits.  Led by Bernanke and Yellen, the Fed had to use unorthodox mens to engineer our long, slow recovery.

Now, the future of the Fed is in the short-fingered hands of the author of The Art of the Bankruptcy.  His personal swamp of banker-advisors care only about curtailing the Fed's regulatory powers, and with four open positions on the Fed's seven-member Board of Governors, there is a strong possibility that technocratic non-partisanship could be swept away.

Right now, most attention is focsed on who will serve as Chairperson.  Since the very competent Janet Yellen was named to the post by Obama, and Tr*mp is temperamentally incapable of letting anything Obama did stay in place, she won't be reappointed.  That leaves candidates John B. Taylor, who would like nothing better than to destroy the institution entirely, and Jerome H. Powell, who would be content merely to destroy the Fed's regulatory function.  The smart money is on Powell, the "compromise" candidate.

The Opiate "Emergency"
Our President has it all figured out, once again demonstrating just how smart he is: if nobody ever started using opiates, nobody ever would become an addict!  The obvious means to achieve that goal is an advertising campaign.  Let's see, we'll need a really clever and original catchphrase.  Oh, I've got it!  We can use Just Say No!

Clearly, no Federal money can be spent on addressing the opiate crisis: it's hard enough already coming up with ways to offset the costs of tax cuts for the rich, and the Good People really have little interest in helping a bunch of junkies — even if most of them are white.  Hey, does anybody remember where we stashed those promos from Nancy Reagan?  It's time to run them again.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Briefs

"Not my fault"
He still can't find Niger on a map, and still doesn't know it's different from Nigeria, but that wasn't the problem.  "Why can't they give their kids names someone can remember, Kelly?  Tell me that!"

NAFTA
It's a real dilemma when the guy who wants to slash your taxes also insists on screwing up your supply chains and demolishing your agricultural exports — not to mention the little problem of a five-year renewable trade agreement being the same as no trade agreement at all.

Tax Reform
Reagan exploded the deficit and the debt, so Republicans just might be willing to do it again to satisfy their wealthy patrons.  With mortgage interest, charity, and 401K deductions proclaimed "safe," and elimination of the deductions for state and local taxes on thin ice, the "deficit hawks" might have to reveal themselves as the hypocrites they've been all along.

Sexual Politics
Predatory behavior by powerful men may suffer a setback in light of scandals in Hollywood, the tech sector, and at Fox News, but America still has a long way to go to overcome its stubborn belief in female inequality.  Who's going to "reform" the religious right?  Mike Pence?

The Republican "Rebels"
It would be nice if some Republicans who weren't about to retire (or die) were willing to point out some of their nominal leader's glaring flaws, but things may have to get a lot worse before that happens.  Self-interest continues to outweigh the interests of their party or their country.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Representative Government?


The sock puppet you see here is Lee Zeldin, a Republican from New York's 1st Congressional District, the east end of Long Island.  I live there.

Zeldin was elected in our Tr*mp-leaning district by a collection of xenophobes afraid of our Latino immigrants, religious bigots afraid of our homosexuals, and rich people who just don't want any of their money spent on anybody who isn't them.  Based on his voting record in the House, he needn't worry about being "primaried" from the right. 

One might say Zeldin's supporters got what they wanted, but they're about to get something they won't like at all.  Long Islanders pay seriously high state and local taxes, and Zeldin soon will vote to make those taxes non-deductible.  Why?  Because Zeldin's party loyalty is absolute.  The people he "represents" don't matter.

Ours is a swing district, so if Democrats mount a competent campaign,  Zeldin's vote on taxes ought to cost him his seat in 2018.  Most congressional districts, though, are not swing districts: they are heavily gerrymandered "safe" districts whose "representatives" can safely ignore the needs of their voters.  Only the deep-pocketed donors who dictate party policy positions must be satisfied.

Voters in very different districts have very different needs.  If legislators were truly representative of those who send them to Washington, far more legislation would be the product of bargains, trade-offs, and compromise.  Today's extreme partisanship is a clear indicator that our democracy is broken.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Leaving his mark


Do you remember this guy?

He's Stephen Paddock — and in case you've forgotten, Stephen Paddock was the guy who brought an arsenal to his Las Vegas hotel room and shot all those people at the country music concert.  He would have been quite upset had he anticipated you would forget his name so quickly, consigning him to a broad category of "mass shooters."

I think I understand his supposedly mysterious motive: Paddock was 64, rapidly approaching that magical age of 65 when many men believe their lives are effectively over.  It's a time when we older gentlemen are likely to observe that our greatest accomplishments are behind us — and not especially memorable.  Most of us greet that observation with a shrug and a sigh.

Stephen Paddock's accomplishments at 64 actually were admirable.  Starting as a low-level postal clerk, he rose to become a comfortably wealthy landlord and investor who was enough of a high-roller to earn comps at various Nevada casinos.  He should have been satisfied with the arc of his life, but he was one of those poor suckers who found his late-life existential crisis especially irksome.

If you want to leave a mark on history, it's a lot easier to do it as a monster than as a hero or a saint.  All it takes is one especially heinous act (preferably record setting) to "win" your place in the books.

I can think of another old man with an unhealthy desire to leave his mark on the world.  He has no great regard for how he does so as long as he's the "winner" — and he's a man who controls a much larger arsenal than Stephen Paddock did.  Let's hope somebody can stop him from making his existential crisis into ours.