Sunday, July 14, 2019

Meanwhile, on the Arabian peninsula...


Given all the craziness going on in the USofA lately, our news media have paid scant attention to the ongoing crisis in Yemen — so you may have missed it when the UAE announced that it is ending its military cooperation with Saudi Arabia and withdrawing its forces.  After four years of war, it seems that the Emiratis have concluded that fighting the "Iranian threat" posed by the Houthis just isn't worth the effort and the expense.

This leaves the Saudis in an awkward position: they actually will have to learn how to use the hundreds of billions of dollars in weaponry purchased from the US over the past ten years in order to have any hope of winning their genocidal war, and they will have to take over the task of corralling and controlling the numerous and fractious "pro-government" militias fighting in Yemen.  Given the leadership style of Saudi Crown Prince MbS – macho incompetence – there is little reason to expect the Saudis will achieve those goals.

Emirati forces already have been withdrawn from the port city of al-Hudaydah, where international agencies offload food and medicine to relieve the suffering of the Yemeni people.  Whether the Emirati withdrawal will result in more or less aid getting through remains to be seen.  What is clear, though, is that Our President – who admires macho incompetence – will continue to support the Saudi war effort until a veto-proof majority in Congress acts to stop him.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

The Epstein Affair


It's hard to believe Jeffrey Epstein kept all those young girls to himself: he seems like a man who likes his consumption to be conspicuous, and so felt compelled to share some of his "conquests" with men he wanted to impress.  I suspect that the main function of the sweetheart plea deal he got from Alexander Acosta was to keep the names of those men confidential — men Acosta thought too powerful to touch.  Since the deal provides immunity for Epstein's co-conspirators, both named and unnamed, one does wonder just whose names were in Epstein's Rolodex.

Meanwhile, Attorney General Dan Barr may have set a new record for "un-recusing" himself from the Epstein prosecution — assuming that "un-recusal" is something that ever happened before.  While it is understandable that Our President has a problem with Attorneys General recusing themselves from investigations, Barr's instant turnaround does make one wonder if there might be more involved in his decision to take charge of the case.

It's hard to imagine any Americans over the age of twelve believing that their country provides "equal justice for all," and the Epstein plea bargain was just one more piece of evidence in support of that belief.  At the moment, Epstein's goose appears to be well-cooked — as a registered sex offender, just the trove of kiddie porn found at his New York townhouse is enough to put him behind bars for years.  The real question now is whether other powerful men will be sucked down in his wake.

Now that Dan Barr has taken charge of the case, I imagine the panic level in the corridors of power is down a notch or two.  Nevertheless, a coverup in 2019 may prove a lot more challenging than the coverup of 2008.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Choices


For quite a while now, Americans have had a sense that something has been going wrong in their country — but they're not at all sure what it is.  In 2008, they took a chance on "Hope and Change." Those voters got cautious incrementalism, and the banks that had tanked the economy got a bailout.  In 2016, America wanted change again, and got Tr*mp and his insane reality show of a presidency.  Corporate America got its massive tax cut, political polarization sharpened, and that sense of "wrongness" grew more acute.

While the super-rich might prefer a Republican candidate with a more rational approach to international relations and trade, they are stuck with Tr*mp for 2020.  Meanwhile, Democrats are sorting through two dozen contenders — but the basic choice they have to make is binary: either a return to the cautious incrementalism of the reigning Democratic establishment, or a sharp move to the left.  Those worried about "electability" have to figure out just what it is that will motivate voters this time around.  Are they still hungry for change, or sufficiently traumatized to long for the unsatisfying but predictable patterns of the past?

Joe Biden, widely considered the anointed candidate of the Democratic establishment, looked terrible in the first debate: not just old, but confused and unprepared.  Perhaps he'll do better next time, but it's hard to imagine him ever being exciting.  Still, it's not too late for some other "moderate" to gain institutional support.  On the left, Sanders would be the easiest target for Republican scare tactics, but Republicans will happily call Tulsi Gabbard a  socialist should she somehow happen to win the nomination.

Personally, I believe we should reserve our strategic voting for general elections, and cast primary votes based on our beliefs and values. If we don't, our beliefs and values might never matter at all.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

"Electability"


Joe Biden had a long, successful political career in Delaware; in part because he's good at local retail politics, in part because of consistent support from corporations and LLCs that flock to Delaware for tax advantages.  With regard to legislative decisions, Biden's approach has been "go along to get along" — a habit he likes to call "bipartisan cooperation."

Joe and Clarence, 1991
In national contests, Biden has been far less successful, due in large part to a bad case of foot-in-mouth disease.  He is notoriously gaffe-prone, and not especially good at explaining himself afterwards.  Needless to say, political junkies are gleefully anticipating his performance in the upcoming debate.  With nine others on the stage, though, he won't have time to say much of anything at all – so he's likely to survive.

So far, in the current presidential campaign, Biden's missteps have not resulted in any crippling pratfalls, but they haven't passed unnoticed.  For Anita Hill, it was much too little, much too late.  Then, there was his overnight reversal on the Hyde Amendment — just a little too fast to claim he'd "evolved" — and one only can wonder how he'll defend his strong support of the pro-bank, anti-consumer "bankruptcy reform" legislation of 2005.

As for working with arch-segregationists Eastland and Talmadge, he really had no choice: they were senior legislators at the time, and Biden was very junior.  Still, it was totally tone deaf to choose them as his examples: and anyway, they were Democrats.  Couldn't he name any conservative Republicans to trot out as his examples of collegiality, like Ted Stevens or John Tower?  That's what his campaign managers would have advised — if he'd asked.

Yes, it's understandable that many long for the relative sanity of the Obama administration, but too many people had had enough of that by 2015 — and Biden is unlikely to inspire the younger voters Democrats will need to win back the Senate.  Americans wanted change in the last presidential election, and they want it even more this time around.  Biden is just more of the same.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Déjà vu all over again


Clearly, I'm not the only one who started flashing back to 2003.  Remember Colin Powell at the UN with his tube of fake anthrax?  (We geezers also remember the Tonkin Gulf "incident" of 1964.)

This time around, the pastiche of "evidence" consists of a grainy black-and-white video and a lot of "trust us" from a pack of known liars.

Apparently the earlier attacks, discussed in my previous post,  were not sufficiently impressive.  The attackers escalated a bit – enough to create some better visuals and edge up oil prices, but not enough to impede traffic through the Straights of Hormuz.  Nobody died.

Most of the rest of the world is extremely skeptical of the claim that the Iranians are going out of their way to provoke a war with the US; a war that would be a lot more damaging to Iran than Tr*mp's punitive sanctions.  That leads many of TV's talking heads to opine that the attacks were carried out by "the more radical elements in Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps" rather than its central authorities – slightly more plausible, but not by much.

According to Mike Pompeo, intelligence sources have concluded that no non-state actor could have launched the attacks, presumably excluding the Houthis and Hezbollah; but certainly not excluding the Saudis or the Emiratis, who have purchased more than enough high-tech weaponry from the US.  As for the skill set, Erik Prince and his Academi mercenaries are conveniently located in Abu Dhabi.

Of course, there is another state actor with very close ties to Erik Prince: the Tr*mp Administration, which may see open conflict with Iran as a means to gin up nationalist sentiment and distract from its leader's increasingly apparent dementia and/or psychotic breakdown.

Yes, this is a conspiracy theory: I have no solid evidence of its validity.  It is possible that Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who turned 80 in April, is battier than Tr*mp; or that somebody else's conspiracy theory is closer to the mark.  What is certain, though, is that the whole truth remains unavailable.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

The "threat" from Iran


How do you win a war without actually fighting one?  You don't.  You can, however, create the appearance of war: engage in a lot of bloviating and sabre-rattling, and then declare victory.  You don't need a real war to "wag the dog."

When I saw the first photographs of the damage done to those oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman, I was, to say the least, incredulous — describing the damage as "minimal" is an overstatement.  No oil was spilled; no flames; no casualties.  Compared to the attack on the USS Cole in 2000 or the attack on the Limburg tanker in 2002, the recent acts of sabotage were flea bites.

All four tankers were able to proceed under their own power: there was no disruption of traffic in or around the port of Abu Dhabi, to the great "relief" of the Emiratis. If the Iranians truly were responsible, it's evidence that they're too incompetent to present a credible threat to anybody. Just the same, the "attacks" helped to justify the accelerated buildup of US military force in the region and the sale of $8 billion worth of offensive weapons to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In the absence of any evidence implicating Iran, the obvious question is qui bono? — and the obvious answer is Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and the Tr*mp Administration.

Then there is the "intelligence" indicating Iran presents a "credible threat" to US forces in the region.  Such intelligence always exists: what changes is its interpretation, depending on what those who control it want it to say.

Those who want evidence of Tr*mpian "collusion" with a foreign government will do better examining the Saudis than the Russians.  Everybody expects Saudi support for Jared's "peace plan" for Israel and the Palestinians (and nobody will be surprised if the plan seeks to institutionalize apartheid in the name of "economic development.")

One final note: Erik Prince runs Academi, the successor to Blackwater, out of Abu Dhabi — and he employs a substantial number of former Navy Seals.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Meanwhile, in Alabama...


Alabama's new abortion law, legally, is extremely problematic; but there's one big problem Alabama lawmakers may not have considered.  It probably violates the Alabama State Constitution.  Why?

It fails to criminalize the women who have abortions.

The ruling of the Alabama Supreme Court in Ex Parte Ritter, a case decided in 1979, is clear: "[A]ll persons concerned in the commission of a felony, whether they directly commit the act constituting the offense or aid or abet in its commission, though not present, must hereafter be indicted, tried and punished as principals."  Not merely "present" at their abortions, women are the initiators of the felony defined by the new law.  If their doctors are subject to sentences of up to 99 years, those women must be subject to the same penalties.

Other states, like Georgia, have not made the same mistake — but, needless to say, have downplayed the fact that recipients of abortions can expect time in prison.  While the religious fanatics behind the war on abortion may not be bothered by that fact, plenty of their fellow travelers will be encouraged to think twice.  Politically, jailing women who have abortions is a losing proposition.

Conservative states already are jailing women for behaviors that potentially endanger an embryo or a fetus.  Most often, those behaviors involve use of controlled substances; so they enjoy little sympathy from the general public.  Jailing a 14-year-old for aborting Daddy's baby is sure to provoke a far stronger response.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Briefs

Iran
Anybody who was paying attention back in 2003 should be experiencing an ominous sense of déjà vu about now.  One big difference is that the news media are a lot less likely to be suckered today than they were last time, so Bolton's regime change plan for Iran shouldn't go over quite as well as the plan for regime change in Iraq did.   Given the suffering US policy has created for the Iranian people, it's hard to imagine how any democratically elected government in Iran could be friendly to the US.

Trade War
Congress is less partisan about Tr*mp's tariffs than it is about most issues, although Republican opponents are not especially vocal about it.  It makes perfect political sense that a Rust Belt Democrat would back the tariffs, but I suspect some other Democratic supporters just want Our President to crash the economy in time for 2020.  The main sticking point in negotiations seems to be US insistence on changes to Chinese law, an embarrassing compromise of Chinese sovereignty.  Such changes hardly seem necessary: Xi is just as likely to ignore Chinese law as Tr*mp is to ignore American law — but a lot less likely to be called on it.

Venezuela
While plenty of Venezuelans – especially the more affluent – would love to dump Maduro, they don't seem to be especially enthusiastic about Guidó either.  It's unclear just what kind of compromise Swedish diplomats hope to facilitate, but it won't be an easy task.  Any deal will have to satisfy two belligerent incompetents: Maduro and Tr*mp.  Guidó doesn't count anymore.

Friday, May 3, 2019

Meanwhile, at the Fed...


It's been obvious that Our President values "loyalty" over competence, so nobody could have been especially surprised when he proposed two incompetent sycophants for seats on the Fed.  Both Cain and Moore, though,  turned out to be too horrendous even for some otherwise dependably sycophantic Republican senators.  Let us all breathe great sighs of relief.

The Fed is struggling with an unprecedented problem: ten years of economic growth with little to no inflation.  That may seem like a great thing, but that low inflation – combined with a prolonged but slow growth rate – has made it nearly impossible to push interest rates higher.  Yes, that still sounds like a good thing, but it's robbing the Fed of its most important tool for coping with an economic downturn: with interest rates so low, there's no room to meaningfully cut them when the next downturn arrives.

Assuming capitalism hasn't outgrown the business cycle, recession is inevitable — and given the length of the current expansion, it can't be too far away.  The Fed fights recession by significantly cutting interest rates; but with rates already so low, there's not enough to cut to create adequate stimulus.  It will be forced to try quantitative easing again; and economists still aren't sure how well that worked last time around.

The two empty seats on the Federal Reserve Board have to be filled by individuals who not only are expert in monetary policy, but are creative enough to come up with new strategies to prevent a downturn from spiraling into a crash.  Frankly, I'm not sure anybody can come up with the needed answers right now — but I am sure we can do better than a pair of political hacks.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Catching up...


The Mueller Report
As Leon Festinger, father of cognitive dissonance theory, could have predicted, Mueller's report didn't change anybody's mind about anything.  When people make a public commitment to a belief, they are not likely to change their minds just because of a little evidence — and the current level of polarization in the USofA has encouraged a lot of public commitment  That leaves the choice of our next president to the people who haven't been paying attention.  Democracy: ya' gotta love it.

Biden
One thing every old person has plenty of is history, some of which one just as soon would forget.  Although I like the way Joe Biden led off by characterizing the 2020 election as a battle for America's soul, it's hard to go into battle carrying 50 years of baggage.  Maybe he's a "decent" guy, but if he did win the presidency, Biden would fill the White House with the same old gang of neoliberal Clintonistas.   I don't know about you, but I've had more than enough of the 1990s.

Impeachment
Elizabeth Warren is right: if there is enough evidence to justify impeachment, the House is morally obliged to open an impeachment hearing. That means House Democrats have to decide between morality and politics — and, so far, politics is winning.

The Democratic Primaries
Did you know Tulsi Gabbard is a Hindu?  Did you even know she's running for president? The major media really have been focusing nearly all their attention on the white male candidates: Kamala Harris got a brief spurt of publicity when she announced, but that lasted about two days — and Beto's tabletop antics get more media attention than Warren's detailed policy proposals.  The unwieldy, overloaded "debates" scheduled for the end of June can't do much to change the situation.  Will the media change their ways?  Don't bet on it.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Julian Assange


The transformation of Julian Assange from classic British twit to old-prospector-with-a-man-bun is amusing, but irrelevant; and his expulsion from the Ecuadorian embassy in London had nothing to do with either his cat or his skateboard.  Ecuadorean president Lenin Moreno, despite his name, is notably less leftist than Rafael Correa, his predecessor.  Pressured by the US, Moreno was willing to make a deal.

Meanwhile, Chelsea Manning has spent the past year back in jail for refusing to testify in secret to a grand jury — although she is willing to testify in public.  One only can hope that Assange's arrest will speed her release.  (Don't bet on it.)  At Manning's trial in 2013, there never was any suggestion that Assange helped her access the CIGINT files published on Wikileaks, but that is the basis for the current charge against Assange.  His real "crime" was embarrassing the US military and intelligence agencies — and they want revenge.

Clearly, Julian Assange is an asshole — but being an asshole is not a crime.  The real question is whether or not Assange is a journalist, and freedom of the press demands that he be given the benefit of the doubt.  That decision may be made in the UK, as Assange faces extradition, but the Brits have plenty of problems of their own right now.  Fortunately, they do have another option: they can extradite him to Sweden, to face charges of sexual assault.  If their government retains any functionality at all, that's exactly what they'll do.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Creepy Uncle Joe


Just wondering: if Joe Biden were Josephine Biden, would he be in trouble right now?

Like most other male persons of Biden's generation, I learned to maintain a substantial "personal space" — for me, it's about three feet.  When I greet another male person, we typically reach across the void to shake hands.  Two women, I've long observed, are not obliged to operate under the same constraints: women who are little more than casual acquaintances may think it appropriate to greet each other with a hug.

Of course, interactions between the sexes are subject to far more stringent restraints; but women still enjoy more latitude than men do.  Biden's "touchy-feely" approach always has violated cultural norms; but those violations never before impeded fifty years of success in politics.  His recent apologia on Twitter leaves one with the impression that he still feels his unorthodox displays of intimacy have "worked" for him.  Perhaps they have, in the past.

I find it hard to believe that Biden's behavior reflects a sense of "male entitlement," nor a propensity to abuse his "masculine authority."  I think it is far more likely that some peculiarity of his brain chemistry or his early socialization made him an outlier on the normal curve; but I also believe that, were he a woman, the current brouhaha never would have materialized.  Sexism cuts both ways.

If his recent problems dissuade Joe Biden from seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, I won't mind at all: I'm hoping for a candidate who is a lot more progressive, dissociated from Clintonian "moderation." Some have suggested that Biden is the victim of a left-wing "hit job" aimed at derailing his candidacy — and if that's true, it certainly violates my sense of ethics.  Still, if it works...

Monday, March 25, 2019

Mueller disappoints Dems



The Mueller report finds no evidence of collusion, and I can't say I'm surprised.  Here's what I wrote back in July of 2017 regarding the notorious "Tr*mp Tower meeting":

As I've previously observed, Russia never needed any help from Tr*mp and Co. to interfere in the American election — but certainly had no qualms about compromising individuals who might become part of a future Tr*mp Administration.  Given the high levels of both cupidity and incompetence on the Tr*mp team, the Russians didn't have to try too hard.

This doesn't mean Putin lacks kompromat on Our President — and I don't mean the "piss tape."  The Republican base has shown itself totally willing to ignore Tr*mp's sexual peccadillos, and paying hookers to pee on a bed isn't even a crime.  Money laundering, on the other hand, is a crime, and developers of high-end real estate are especially well-situated to participate.  Ongoing investigations of Deutche Bank just might turn up evidence that does some real damage to our Grifter in Chief — albeit most Americans can't comprehend financial crimes much more complex than bank robbery.

In the meanwhile, Our President can chalk up a victory — a victory that will make it far more difficult for Democrats to use future investigatory revelations to their political advantage.  The disappointing fact is that  Tr*mp never was a "foreign agent" — he's just one more corrupt businessman willing to make a quick buck.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

College Admissions Q & A


Q.  Was anybody even remotely surprised by the recent college admissions scandal?

 A.   You must be kidding me.

Q.  Why would a coach at an important school want to take a bribe?

A.  Jealousy, pure and simple.  Resentment of the salary pulled down by the football coach.

Q.  If the kids were chronic "underachievers" even with all the private tutoring and fancy private schooling their wealthy parents must have given them, how did their parents expect them to graduate from a top-tier school?

A.  They were paying full tuition — of course they were going to graduate.  It's much harder to get into a top school than it is to graduate from it.


Thursday, March 14, 2019

Red-baiting returns!


Anybody who came of age during the Cold War will remember "red-baiting" — the practice of tarring liberals and their ideas with the brush of "communism."  Needless to say, "communism" and "socialism" were used interchangeably; so even a popular socialist program like Medicare (1966) was attacked as a threat to "democracy" by "the red menace."

Red-baiting died down somewhat with the collapse of the Soviet Union, but if you're too young to remember it at its worst, don't worry — because it's back, and likely to play a major role in the 2020 election cycle.  It was the central thrust of the President's recent speech to CPAC, and most of his party already is on-board.

n truth, totalitarian communism has more in common with monopolistic capitalism than with democratic socialism.  In one, a tiny elite controls the government, which controls business and industry.  In the other, a tiny elite controls business and industry, which controls the government.  The Soviets needed more democracy; the United States needs more socialism.

The new red-baiting may be a good sign: an indicator that socialist ideas have become thinkable again.  The “Green New Deal,” “Medicare for All,” and free higher education are mainstream ideas today, and steadily growing more popular.  There is reason to hope that red-baiting will be far less effective in today’s politics than it was in the past.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Ilhan Omar


Let's get one thing straight: criticism of Israel is not the equivalent of antisemitism, and criticism of AIPAC is even less so.  It has been years since the American Israel Public Affairs Committee could be said to lobby on behalf of the State of Israel.  Today, it lobbies on behalf of Israel's Likud Party and, more specifically, on behalf of Bibi Netanyahu.

“It’s all about the Benjamins baby!”
It's true that AIPAC itself makes no political contributions: it merely "suggests" that favored candidates for office enjoy the largess of wealthy Jewish (and Evangelical) supporters and those supporters write substantial checks to favored candidates and their superPACs.  (I can't help thinking that part of the problem with Omar's remark was that "Benjamin" sounds like a Jewish name.)  Pelosi forced an apology for that one, even though much of the uproar was motivated by prejudice against Muslims.

"Allegiance to a foreign country"
Dual loyalty is a "Jewish stereotype" that, frankly, I'd never heard of before.  I do remember people questioning whether John F. Kennedy would be more loyal to the Constitution or the Pope, but somehow I missed the part about Jews and Israel.  (Granted, my Hebrew school taught more Zionism than Hebrew, so I guess it's plausible.)  Notwithstanding all that, "allegiance" was a very poor choice of words.

Congressional support for Israel, not limited to Jewish members, is more a conditioned response than a true allegiance.  The US has supported Israel since 1948, usually with ample justification; but Netanyahu's Israel has become a different country.  The Palestinian "territories" are governed like the bantustans of apartheid South Africa, and Bibi is forming political alliances with open racists — not just the closeted ones.  This is happening with the encouragement and support of American conservatives, not all of whom are Jews.

The rebuke of Ilhan Omar seems to be intended as a warning to other young, progressive Democrats who might have the temerity to suggest American support for Israel might become a little more conditional.  I hope they don't knuckle under: it really is time for a change.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Cohen


I listened to the Michael Cohen's testimony on and off, and caught the highlight reels later on.  You'll have heard much of the endless commentary.  What I don't understand is why nobody, Cohen included, is not mentioning the most obvious reason to believe him: if he's caught lying to Congress again, they'll throw the book at him.

In his heart of hearts, I'm sure he's still a sleazebag – but he's in no position to misbehave.  It would be very surprising if the Southern District of New York didn't have a laundry list of charges they still could bring; they had a reason to ask for a longer sentence than the one recommended by Mueller.

Cohen's performance was impressive   He seemed a lot more intelligent than he was back when he still was a Tr*mp mouthpiece., butI guess that's easier to do when you don't have to do riffs on the lies of an idiot.  Now he'll have three years of otherwise unproductive time to work on his book.  Maybe I'll read it.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Extra brief briefs


  • National Emergency: He lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, but this weekend he's golfing at Mar a Lago again.
  • The Green New Deal: Market forces will not address climate change, so radical action is required.  More to come.
  • Blackface: If you can't recall any stupid, insensitive things you did when you still were in your twenties, you're still in your twenties. Northam should not resign.
  • Amazon: The company plans to add 5000 jobs at its New York headquarters – most likely more – with no bribery required.  Other cities and states should take note.
  • Brexit:  The question nobody seems to be asking is cui bono – which powerful individuals and corporations in the UK will profit from a "hard" Brexit?
  • Ilhan Omar: Antisemitism?  What she forgot to mention was that AIPAC doesn't represent Jews, or even Israel; it represents Likud.
  • Howard Schultz:  Just what we need! Another messianic billionaire!

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Venezuela


Venezuela is a mess — and in a list of countries that could benefit from a coup d'état, Venezuela would be pretty close to the top.  That said, it should be their coup d'état, not ours.

The Venezuelan economy was not destroyed by socialism: it was destroyed by incompetence. Venezuela's oil fields were nationalized in 1976, but by the late 1980s they once again had fallen under the control of foreign multinational oil companies, with profits going primarily to big oil and Venezuelan plutocrats.  Hugo Chavez came to power in 1999, on a promise of returning oil profits to the people — and he did.  There were massive improvements in education, health care, and other social goods.  The main beneficiaries were the poor.

That's when the incompetence kicked in.  Valuing loyalty over expertise (sound familiar?), Chavez replaced virtually everybody who knew anything about running an oil company with a political supporter.  As time went on, maintenance was neglected, equipment wasn't replaced, corruption flourished, and production fell steadily.  Persistent US economic sanctions (the oil companies were really pissed!) didn't help at all.

The Bush Administration organized a coup attempt in 2002, which accomplished nothing but alienating most of Latin America — even though the Bush team at least tried to be sneaky about it.  When Chavez died and Nicolás Maduro took over, oil revenues continued to fall, and so did the fortunes of the Venezuelan people.  Maduro seems to have no goal other than to stay in power.

Juan Guidó recently claimed the presidency following an encouraging phone call from Mike Pence; and John Bolton cheerily applauded the impending privatization of Venezuelan oil.  Guidó comes from a far-right political party that represents only a fraction of Maduro's opposition, but a lot of Venezuelans seem willing to take what they can get, provided it's not Maduro.  Even many of the poor are deserting the Chavezistas in the face of economic catastrophe.  The oil barons are licking their lips.

If Guidó does come to power, at least Venezuelans will get an influx of sorely needed economic aid.  Hopefully, he can do it without the American invasion Our President says is "on the table."  Maduro is right when he says it could turn into another Vietnam: numerous past US interventions in Latin America have left us few real friends south of the border. Of course, Tr*mp might invade just to distract attention from the Mueller investigation.

We'll have to wait and see — probably not for long.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

State of the Union



I'm sure we're all looking forward to Our President's State of the Union address, wondering how he'll manage to put a positive spin on recent events, and ready to count how many standing ovations he gets from the Republican side of the aisle.  They'll do their best to look enthusiastic, I suppose, despite the damage he's done to their party — not to mention their country.

I confess that the shutdown lasted twice as long as I expected: it turned out that McConnell was more adroit at ducking the blame than anticipated.  Eventually, though, there were enough pointing fingers to poke him into action.  Plutocratic fingers, of course, are especially pointy — and McConnell's first and foremost goal as Leader has been to keep the dark money flowing (and dark.)  It's not unreasonable to suspect that some of those extra-pointy fingers started poking pretty hard.

I won't presume to predict what will happen when the temporary funding bill expires.  Will the Congressional conference committee toss Our President enough crumbs to save a smidgen of face?  Will Tr*mp decide a "state of emergency" will shore up his base and distract attention from the Mueller inquiry?  Will some brand new craziness emerge over the next three weeks?

I don't know about the first two options, but number three seems like a safe bet. The state of the union, as I'm sure you've noticed, is wack.

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."