Friday, January 12, 2018

Shorts

Fire and Fury
Unlike many other commentators, I suspect, I actually read Michael Wolff's chatty and frequently amusing chronicle of his sojourn in the Tr*mp White House.  Anybody who's been paying attention cannot be surprised by any of it — including the general consensus among White House insiders that their boss, in the words of his Secretary of State, is a "f*cking moron."  (Granted, the brutality of their contempt for Jared Kushner exceeded expectations.)

I did wonder what combination of hubris and alcohol inspired Steve Bannon to babble his way into a schism with Rebekah Mercer, his primary financier.  Breitbart, apparently, concluded that its association with the Mercer billions far outweighed its association with Bannon.  If Bannon makes a comeback, it would be evidence that his "populist" movement was more grassroots than astroturf.  Don't hold your breath.

Sh*thole countries
Yes, the asterisk is absurd — but necessary for stylistic consistency with my spelling of "Tr*mp."  In truth, the vulgarity itself was less meaningful than Tr*mp's invitation to Bob Goodlatte, Tom Cotton, and other anti-immigration extremists to his meeting with Lindsey Graham and Richard Durbin to discuss their bipartisan proposal for action on immigration.  Tuesday's televised bipartisan dog-and-pony show was, after all, on Tuesday.  Somebody else must have bent Our President's ear in the intervening two days — most likely Stephen Miller.

Tr*mp, predictably, went to Twitter to deny saying what he said, but the outlook for DACA recipients is not good right now — and the same may be true for an agreement to prevent a partial government shutdown on January 19.

The Koreas
One truly must admire South Korean President Moon Jae-in for crediting recent diplomatic rapprochement with the North to Our President's infantile bellicosity.  Granted, the ploy was so transparent as to be laughable, but nobody ever lost a nickle by overestimating the Tr*mpian appetite for praise.  Presumably, we are safe from nuclear holocaust — at least until after the Winter Olympics.

It would be nice if the Senate finally got around to confirming Dr. Victor Cha's appointment as ambassador to South Korea.  Unlike certain other Tr*mp appointees (see Pete Hoekstra), Cha has both the experience and the expertise he needs to do the job.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

The Mess in Iran


To begin understanding the current situation in Iran, it may help to remember some history.  In 1953, US and British intelligence agencies fomented a coup against Mohammed Mossadegh, the democratically elected Prime Minister.  When Mossadegh nationalized the Iranian oil industry, the oil companies thought they'd rather do business with the Shah, unencumbered by democracy.

Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi ruled a police state until he was ousted in 1979.  Under his rule, Iran westernized and secularized; the cities prospered and women got the vote, while enemies of the state – Islamists and Communists – were executed or forced into exile.  Resistance to the police state came to be associated with resistance to westernization, so Islamic clerics came to lead the political resistance, and conservative Shi'a Islam became the ideology of revolution.

In the quarter-century the Shah was in power, though, a lot of urban Iranians came to lead quite secular lives.  While the rural population welcomed Islamic rule, city dwellers never quite came to terms with rule by the Ayatollahs. Still, US support for Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq War helped maintain their support for the Islamic Republic.

Teheran, though, has remained relatively quiet in recent days; the strongest opposition to the regime comes from the small cities and towns far from the capital.  The most loyal supporters of the Ayatollahs now are expressing the greatest discontent.  Economic problems caused by mismanagement and corruption are the focus of their concerns, problems magnified by economic sanctions that were loosened but certainly not eliminated by the Iran nuclear agreement.  Exclusion from the US banking system makes trade even with willing partners very difficult.

A few demonstrators are reported to have called for a return of the Shah, but the largest number of Iranian monarchists currently are growing old in Los Angeles, and no news organizations are clamoring to interview the Crown Prince.  Our President's tweets "in support" of the protestors help only the current regime: any Iranians who long for a return of Anglo-American petroimperialism are well-advised to their heads down.

Word is that the budget documents that sparked the current unrest were leaked to the public by Hassan Rouhani, to call attention to large expenditures on religious institutions and the Revolutionary Guard.  Iranians might have tolerated a reasonable amount of graft and cronyism in a better economic climate, but not while living standards continue to decline.

The thing to watch for now is how the demonstrations alter the balance of power between Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's archconservatives and President Rouhani's moderate reformers.  Security forces are likely to put an end to the demonstrations quite soon, but the political impact on Iran remains to be seen.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

As the year ends...


Pundits traditionally dedicate year-end musings to making excuses for the things they got wrong.  Not me!  Here's what I wrote on January 2:

We can expect revisions to the tax code to make the party's benevolent billionaires even richer, at the expense of the rest of us.  We can expect windfalls for military contractors, the banking industry, any company that takes advantage of "public-private partnership" opportunities and, of course, property developers. Deficit hawks will insist such expenditures be "paid for" with spending cuts in other areas.  The most "obvious" places for cuts already are being eyed hungrily by GOP ideologues: environmental protection, health care (including Medicare and Medicaid), Social Security, the tattered remains of the rest of the social safety net, and regulatory enforcement. 

Many hope for a Democratic "sweep" in the midterm elections,  but those elections still are a year away.  In the meanwhile, the religious right is aggressively advancing its agenda in increasingly accomodative courts.  In Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the Supreme Court will decide if bigots may cite "religious conviction" to justify discrimination against a minority group.  Although portrayed in the media as a gay rights case, the Court's opinion could establish a principle in law applicable to any category of persons.  Religious belief was offered as justification for racial discrimination in the 1982 case of Bob Jones University v. United States.  The Burger Court rejected that argument eight to one, but that was 1982.

The Bob Jones decision inspired Christian conservatives to seek political power, and now they have it.  This time the Court's decision will be much closer than eight to one, and may effectively overturn the earlier decision.  With unabashed hypocrisy, the plaintiffs seek to sway Anthony Kennedy's vote with claims that baker Jack Phillips is a "cake artist," and that  bigotry is "free speech."

Everybody knows how Tr*mp appointee Neil Gorsuch will vote.  My New Year's wish is that his egoistic grandstanding so alienates his conservative colleagues that they join with the liberals, just to put him in his place.  (It's New Year's, and I'm allowed to dream.)

 

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Notes for a Counterrevolution


With the passage of the Republican tax bill, the economic coup by the plutocracy against the people of the United States is nearly complete.  All that remains is to shred what is left of the safety net in the name of fiscal responsibility — and we can anticipate a concerted effort to accomplish that before the midterm elections.  What can Democrats do about it?

A coup requires a counterrevolution, not incremental "improvements."  None of the suggestions that follow are remotely possible before the 2020 elections, and even then they stand little chance of implementation: not all plutocrats are Republicans.  It's nice to dream, though.

First, the corporate tax rate should be reduced to zero.  Next, virtually all income, including wages, pass-through income, dividends and capital gains should be taxed on the same progressive scale.  Income reinvested in businesses thus would be tax-free, but all income distributed to individuals would be taxable.  Interest income, which encourages savings and the loans that finance economic expansion, would be tax-free.  Payments to foreign investors, who own a bit more than 20% of the US economy, would be taxed at internationally competitive rates.

All income should be taxed to finance Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, and all caps on taxable income should be removed.  To make American businesses more competitive with each other, anti-trust laws must be strengthened and vigorously enforced.  Vertical as well as horizontal combinations need closer scrutiny.

The devils can be worked out of the details with implementation, but since none of this is likely to happen anyway, I'll just leave the details to the economists.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Briefs

The Tax Bill
 I guess there never were any real deficit hawks, and apparently no Republican is willing to stand in the way of what is best described as an economic coup d'etat: a massive transfer of wealth from those who work to those who profit from investments.  Action to cut social safety net programs is likely to come quite soon: cuts may not be possible after the midterm elections.

Alabama
While Roy Moore's appetite for young girls certainly played a role in his defeat, his racism may have proven the decisive factor.  Democrats have taken black voters for granted for too long, but outreach to typically disinterested or fatalistic black voters in Alabama made the Jones victory possible.  Perhaps Democratic leaders will recognize that pandering to the racially resentful Rust Belt children of Reagan Democrats is not the best way to win elections.

R.I.P. Net Neutrality
Since most broadband access in the US must be purchased from monopolies or duopolies, Ajit Pai's free market promises of investment and innovation are just the usual hypocritical Republican blather in service to the plutocrats.  Changes won't come immediately, but drawing on their experience providing cable TV, ISPs can be expected to nickle and dime us into significantly more expensive internet access over time.

Impeachment
If the Democrats can win the House in 2018, the president could be impeached; albeit not convicted by two-thirds of the Senate.  It certainly would exacerbate Our President's paranoid tendencies. leading to even more outrageous outbursts that would damage his party — but do we really want him to be more paranoid?  North Korea will still have its nukes, you know...

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Jerusalem: Why now?


Are you ready for the end of the world?  The core voters of Tr*mp's base not only are ready, they can't wait!

Christian fundamentalists have eagerly been anticipating the onset of the Apocalypse at least since 1947, when the creation of the state of Israel began to fulfill one of its preconditions: the return of the Jews to Jerusalem.  When the End of the World arrives, they expect to be "raptured" straight to heaven, while the other 90% of the world's population is relegated to eternal damnation.  That makes Tr*mp's recognition of Jewish suzerainty over the "Holy City" a very encouraging development.

Meanwhile, in Alabama, Roy Moore's campaign still is threatened.  For Moore to win, substantial numbers of Alabamian Christian conservatives will have to choke back the vomit and vote for a child molester.  Tr*mp's recognition of Jerusalem as capital of Israel is a reminder to support their favorite President's agenda by electing his fellow sexual predator — and Moore's vote may be required to pass the tax bill.

At the same time, Tr*mp is providing a much-needed political boost to Bibi Netanyahu, who has been fighting corruption charges; and, certainly, moving our embassy to Jerusalem will make Sheldon Adelson happy.  All in all, it was a smart political move, especially since most of America doesn't care one way or the other.  Hopefully, the ensuing chaos will be confined largely to the Middle East.  If not, well...  I'll see you in Hell.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

The Bull Market


The American economy really doesn't need the stimulus of a tax cut right now – but it does need a redistribution of wealth that is the exact opposite of what the Republicans are doing with their tax bill.  Don't worry though!  Stock values will continue to rise because inequality is really good for the market.

Corporate America has been quite profitable for years now, but new investments to expand production remain rare.  That's because corporate America has found "better" uses for its money.  With added wealth from tax savings, we can expect even more stock buybacks, more monopolistic mergers and acquisitions, and higher dividends paid.  All of those make stocks more valuable — but even so, most 401Ks still won't add up to enough to finance a worker's retirement.

Since the tax bill increases the deficit and the debt, the next "obvious" step is to reduce them with cuts to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other safety net programs that might come in handy even before your 401K is used up — and cuts to entitlements just might push the markets even higher.

 The temporary cuts to taxes on some less lofty incomes might create some temporary consumer demand; but short-term demand won't justify new investment and expanded production, and producers won't bet on the cuts being extended.  When demand falls again with the consumer's disposable income, corporate managers will respond with more stock buybacks.  The markets won't suffer — because the transfer of wealth will be complete.