Friday, January 11, 2019

The Creep

No, not that creep — albeit the creep you're thinking of may be poised to accelerate the creep I'm thinking of: the creeping accretion of presidential power.

Every American child learns about the three branches of government, and the idea of "checks and balances."  Formulated by the Founders as a check on tyranny, it seemed like a pretty good idea at the time.  What they failed to foresee was the advent of the professional politician, and how that development would throw their plan for checks and balances into disarray.

Politicians hoping to win reelection do their best to avoid any action that might stir controversy: they much prefer to leave such actions to the President.  The last time Congress used its constitutional power to declare war was in 1941, following the bombing of Pearl Harbor; and all our current conflicts – in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia – are unconvincingly based on the Authorization of Military Force against al-Qaeda, enacted in response to the 9/11 attacks.

 Congress also allows the President to act without its approval in cases of national emergency, but national emergency has never been well-defined.  Until now, presidents have used it primarily to impose economic sanctions on specific governments and individuals — actions Congress could have initiated on its own had it been so inclined.  In those instances, Congressional inaction may have been motivated more by laziness than by political peril, but still served to accelerate the creep of authority from the Legislature to the Executive.

Currently, Our President is very likely to use his emergency powers to build his wall, diverting the needed funds from Army Corps of Engineers projects currently budgeted to help victims of recent hurricanes and wildfires.  Most congressional Republicans seem ready to allow it, even though doing so would mean ceding fiscal authority to the executive — thereby compromising the single most important legislative check on executive power and further eroding what remains of our putative democracy.

Congress does have the authority to stop it, under the National Emergency Act of 1976; but that would entail Mitch McConnell, that most professional of professional politicians, letting a challenge reach the floor of the Senate.  He won't.

And the creep goes on.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Meanwhile, elsewhere...

Preoccupied with the chaos of our own national politics, it's easy enough to ignore the political chaos going on elsewhere.  Despite the best efforts of Our President, America certainly can't claim a monopoly on dysfunction; so let's take a moment to check in on a couple of our friends overseas.

If the test of a true compromise is that neither side is happy with it, Theresa May's Brexit deal passes with flying colors, unable to gain majority support even within her own Conservative party.  It is scarcely less contentious among Labour and Liberal MPs; only UKIP remains committed, and that minority party of xenophobes and neo-imperialists appears to be in rapid decline.  In the meanwhile, it looks like the UK is headed for a hard Brexit – with no negotiated exit plan – at the end of March.

Most economists agree that a hard Brexit will damage the British economy, but most Britons, like most Americans, pay scant attention to economists: typically, economic arguments just aren't visceral enough to sway the average voter.  Brexit is an ideological controversy that somehow managed to detach itself from party politics; and since the political parties are divided, no coherent approach to addressing it has emerged.  While a second Brexit referendum seems like the only logical approach to resolution, it probably would further divide the British public.

Nevertheless, the British deserve a new referendum, given that the first one was largely based on lies.  This time, the choice is more clear: between a hard Brexit with none of the advantages of EU membership, and remaining within the bloc, accepting the restraints membership entails.

Meanwhile, in France, Emmanuel Macron has been gobsmacked by the yellow vest movement, a genuinely populist, virtually leaderless series of protests by working class citizens — despite the best efforts of Jeanne-Marie LePen on the right and Jean-Luc Mélanchon on the left to jump out in front and lead the parade.  Even though the protests are dying down, the sentiments underlying them remain strong.

Macron was supposed to be France's savior — the new leader of a new party that would sweep away the old dysfunction.  When he turned out to be yet another entitled rich boy with strong corporatist tendencies, the French were sorely disappointed.  Unlike our own entitled rich boy, though, Macron has been smart enough to make some concessions.  Will they be enough to salvage his political career?  Probably not.  His tax cuts for the ultra-rich seem firmly entrenched.

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Chaos notwithstanding, the multi-party democracies of Western Europe at least hold out the possibility of compromise and change.  In the US, though, it seems that our entrenched two-party system only can generate more division and more chaos.  The next two years of divided government are bound to be what the apocryphal Chinese curse calls "interesting times."

Monday, December 31, 2018

The Shutdown

When is a wall a penis?

Shortly after the current government shutdown began, Nancy Pelosi suggested that Our President viewed the battle over the Great Wall of Tr*mp as a test of his manhood.  All indications are that she was right on the mark.

The border wall, from the first days of the Tr*mp campaign, has been more symbol than substance.  Anybody who pays attention understands that migration is driven primarily by push factors — intolerable conditions in the migrant's country of origin.  When one escape route is shut down, migrants inevitably find others.  Neither concrete nor steel slats nor pits filled with crocodiles will stop them.

A wall is a powerful symbol, though.  For Tr*mp's xenophobic base, it embodies Fortress America, protection against the terrifying Other threatening its comfortable concepts of all that is good and true (and white.)  To Tr*mp himself, it really has come to embody his aggressive, hyper-macho, and increasingly threatened sense of self.  If he didn't happen to be President of the United States, it  would be pitiful.

To the 800,000 government workers currently going without pay — plus who knows how many private contract workers who never will be paid for their lost hours — that presents a major problem.  How long will it take before Our President tires of flashing his increasingly shriveled little penis at the world?  And how long will it take before Democrats offer whatever token concessions he'll need to at least tuck himself back in, if not zip his fly?

Your guess is as good as mine.

Sunday, December 23, 2018


The Mattis departure
While some are wondering whether the multi-talented Mick Mulvaney will be adding Defense to his expanding portfolio of responsibilities, there are potential candidates who could be a good deal worse.  The Air Force Academy at Colorado Springs is replete with Evangelical Christians in the mold of Franklin Graham, who will happily implement Our President's plans to purge the military of transgender troops, make life extremely difficult for out gays and lesbians, and do everything in his power to hasten the Apocalypse.

Tr*mp's decision to withdraw US troops from Syria, pretty clearly, was a gift to Recip Tayyip Erdogan.  Abandoned by the United States, the Syrian Kurds will need somebody to protect them from an impending Turkish onslaught — and the only game left in town will be Bashir al-Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies.  It's not hard to imagine a deal being made that will offer the Kurds some degree of autonomy; and it's no harder to imagine the effect that can have on the Kurds in Iraq.

It's certainly true that US troops have been fighting in Afghanistan for far too long, but the decision to sharply reduce US forces at least should have been discussed with the NATO allies whose forces are serving there before the announcement was made.  It's been clear for a long time that the only resolution of the long war involves power sharing with the Taliban, but the upcoming withdrawal eliminates any motivation the mullahs may have had to negotiate.  Has anybody mentioned to Tr*mp that he's about to become the loser of America's longest war?

Monday, December 17, 2018

Just some idle conjecture...

So why should cable news commentators have all the fun?  I figure I'm just as good at idle speculation as any of them, so here's some evidence-free guesswork that's been amusing me lately.

Michael Cohen didn't enter into a plea agreement with the Mueller investigation, nor with the Southern District of New York.  A plea deal, it seems, would have required him to confess all his crimes, beginning with the Milky Way he stole from the corner store when he was nine years old.  That would include criminal acts predating his employment by the Tr*mp Organization, and it's hard to believe there weren't quite of few of those.

His pre-Tr*mp income has been reported as $75,000 a year, which could have been low enough to get him drummed out of the Bar Association.  How did he finance those taxi medallions, not to mention those investment apartments in Tr*mp Tower?  Did his association with Russian mobsters from Brighton Beach have anything to do with it?  It seems like a pretty safe bet.  My guess is that he'd have ended up doing more time with a plea agreement than without it.  I'm also guessing that the prosecutors from SDNY had pretty much the same idea – just not enough evidence to charge him – and that's why their sentencing recommendation was so unfavorable.
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Nobody expects James Mattis to be Secretary of Defense for much longer, but there may be a new requirement for his replacement: dropping charges against former Green Beret Major Matthew Golsteyn, who confessed (on Fox News!) to murdering an Afghan civilian who already was in custody of the Army.  The man had been fingered as Taliban by a neighbor – which, in Afghanistan, only means the neighbor had a beef with him.  After watching a sympathetic interview with the Major on Fox and Friends, Tr*mp immediately began tweeting about a pardon.

"Bad optics" doesn't seem to bother Our President, but other Republicans are just a little bit more sensitive; so avoiding the presidential pardon may be a way to cram yet another desperate finger into the crumbling dike that is the current administration.  It may be a futile effort – it's probable that Tr*mp really wants to use his pardon power in this case – but sea levels are rising, and the MAGA seawall looks shabbier every day.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

The Last Honest Republican

Now that George Herbert Walker Bush is in the ground, I think we can lay off the eulogies and take a realistic look at what he actually did.

Well, he certainly picked a good time to die.  Although nobody actually put it into words, it was inevitable that he would be compared to the current occupant of the White House — and by that standard, even William Howard Taft would have come off well.  We also shouldn't forget that he had the advantage of leading in far less threatening times, when the Soviet Union was collapsing and Islamic holy warriors were our allies in Afghanistan.

I give him full credit for not invading Iraq after pushing Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, and I wish he hadn't subscribed to the parenting style of letting one's children make their own mistakes.  Did he resent Dick Cheney?  If not, he must have been very nearly as saintly as his eulogizers claimed.  I like to remember him, though, as the last honest Republican: the man who coined the phrase, "voodoo economics."

Ever since Arthur Laffer first drew his magical curve, Republicans have espoused the fiction that tax cuts "pay for themselves" by spurring economic growth that increases government revenues.  Variously called "Reaganomics," "supply-side," and "trickle-down," this big lie has justified every transfer of wealth from ordinary Americans to the ultra-rich for forty years, culminating in the recent tax travesty that will send our budget deficit over one trillion dollars next year.  George H. W. Bush knew it was a lie — and when push came to shove, he violated his "Read my lips: no new taxes" pledge, and became a one-term president.

I can admire that.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

A little bird told me...

So, Our President went to the G-20 and had dinner with Xi Jinping; since they didn't release a joint statement, it's safe to assume there wasn't much of an agreement.  Nevertheless, Tr*mp did some enthusiastic tweeting on his way home from Argentina, and markets rose.

What actually was said at that dinner?  Here's my guess: Tr*mp volunteered to hold off for ninety days on the new tariffs he'd promised, then presented his wish list of what he hoped for in return.  Xi smiled and nodded, but committed to little more than a few soybeans.

So why were Tr*mp's tweets so enthusiastic?  Most likely because he's in the habit of claiming victories he hasn't won — but there could be another explanation.  Barely more than a day later, he sent out his "tariff man" tweet, which sent the major stock indexes crashing down over three percent in one day; and certain predictable stocks lost even more.  If you had shorted some of those shares on Monday, you could have made a lot of money on Tuesday.

Personally, I missed that opportunity, and I suppose you did too — but there might be individuals, LLCs, and/or hedge funds with more "insight" into what Our President might tap out on his phone than your average Wall Street algorithm has.  Previous Presidents took great care to minimize the impact of their statements on financial markets.  It doesn't seem to matter to Tr*mp.

Then again, it might matter to him a great deal.