On the road, on taxes, on times that need a-changin

Oh, but it’s all right, it’s all right
For we lived so well so long
Still, when I think of the road
We’re traveling on
I wonder what went wrong
I can’t help it, I wonder what’s gone wrong

And I dreamed I was dying
And I dreamed that my soul rose unexpectedly
And looking back down at me
Smiled reassuringly
And I dreamed I was flying
And high above my eyes could clearly see
The Statue of Liberty
Sailing away to sea
And I dreamed I was flying

Oh, we come on the ship they call the Mayflower
We come on the ship that sailed the moon
We come in the age’s most uncertain hour
And sing an American tune
Oh, it’s all right, it’s all right
It’s all right, it’s all right
You can’t be forever blessed
Still, tomorrow’s going to be another working day
And I’m trying to get some rest
That’s all I’m trying to get some rest

-American Tune, by Paul Simon  1973

Those words were written and poignantly sung during a time when you could say our national innocence was being lost. In the previous ten years, we witnessed the assassinations of JFK, RFK, and MLK. We were staggering to the end of our disastrous war in Vietnam.  We had learned that our government could not be trusted to tell us the truth or to do the right thing. Watergate was revealing that the president was, in fact, a crook.

Yet, Congress rallied and reassured us that the Constitution and the rule of law still prevailed. There were lines that could not be crossed, depths to which we would not fall.

Until recently, I have believed bulwarks still stood that would protect the country from self-destruction. The most recent proof of this was surviving the financial crisis of 2007-2008. The U.S. and possibly the world economies were pulled back from the brink of meltdown by the courageous actions of administration and federal officials from both Bush and Obama presidencies. Subsequent bipartisan (Dodd-Frank) legislation sought to prevent future such calamities.

Since then, however, the political currents have been increasingly contaminated with twin pollutants– money and lies– which is enfeebling our democracy and emboldening the ever-growing hegemony of corporations and the ultra-rich. Citizens United gave the green light (and abolished speed limits) to a buying spree of political influence and elections. Meanwhile, politicians, in service to their corporate and rich donors, have been practicing and perfecting a deceitful sleight of hand. Show your base what they want to see, tell them what they want to hear, all the while scheming to enrich the wealthy at the expense of, well, everyone else.

About a month ago, we learned about the Paradise Papers, a trove of over 11 million financial documents, leaked from an anonymous source to a German newspaper and then given to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). Together with the Panama Papers, released a couple of years earlier, they contain details of some of the estimated $20-30 trillion that is kept in tax-free havens around the world by companies and wealthy individuals, large numbers of whom are American.

I mention this only as a backdrop for this week’s craven display in the Senate with the GOP tax bill. No hearings. No meaningful debate. No opportunity for Senators to read the over 500 page bill, let alone to have public reaction. Get it done as quickly as possible to avoid scrutiny and evaluation. In spite of the mantra of talking points– tax cuts for the middle class, grow the economy– this legislation is blatantly skewed to favor the very same bunch who are already avoiding taxation on much of their trillions.

Naturally, there must be some on the right in Congress whose motivation is not primarily to further plump up donor fat cats. It is clear that some are also guided by a belief that government must be starved and shrunk. They may see enduring a mad president as a worthwhile tradeoff for the decimation of departments such as the EPA and State. Just as our stalwart senators have held their noses with one hand while grasping their long-sought tax “reform” with the other.

So, now we find ourselves in another “age’s most uncertain hour” and we wonder if Lady Liberty will stick with us again, long enough for us to muster new defenders. And, if so, who will they be?

Last evening, as the tax bill loomed closer to passage, Steve Schmidt, Republican consultant and former McCain campaign (2008) manager, tweeted this:

Indeed. Though there are plenty of Boomer sexagenarians and quinquagenarians (honest, I looked it up!) on the Senate floor as well.

I’m wondering if there has not been some hubris in my stating, more than once, that the purpose of this blog is to help leave things in better shape for our younger generations. After all, Boomers and older who are in power, whether corporate or political, are far more likely to be endemic to the problem than key to the solution. As for the rest of us, well, we have had our chance … and Trump is in the White House. When he spoke of “American carnage” at his inauguration, it turns out to have been in the future tense. And here we are.

If I am despairing of our politicians, it looks like I am turning to our songwriter-poets. Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A Changin:

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s the battle outside raging
It’ll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changing
Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly aging
Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand
Cause the times they are a-changing
Maybe a little premature, but I think this is where we are heading. A friend, a reader of this blog, sent me a link to a post from yesterday’s The Atlantic It starts with, “The baby boom is being evicted from the penthouse of American politics. And on the way out, it has decided to trash the place. That’s probably the best way to understand the generational implications of the tax legislation Republicans are driving through Congress.”
It echoes Steve Schmidt’s tweet in saying that younger generations are destined to be the biggest losers in this bill. “What’s very clear through all of this is that the group that most pays are the younger people,” according to Eugene Steuerle, the co-founder of the non-partisan Tax Policy Center. Yet, by 2018, more Millennials than Boomers will be eligible to vote. By around 2024, more Millennials will be turning out to vote than Boomers. Post-Millennials, those born after 2000, will start voting in the same time frame, widening the generational advantage. Incidentally, “While about 80 percent of the baby boom is white, over two-fifths of Millennials and nearly half of the post-Millennials are not.”
That looks to me like times will be a-changin. The energy and vision will come from those younger than we are. Our role will be diminished, but need not disappear. Our old road is rapidly aging. Once sturdy bulwarks are in disrepair. When younger generations are building new ones, will we get out of the way or lend a hand? In a couple years, when Paul Ryan or whoever announces the “Entitlements Reform Act”, will we stay in our aging road and fight for ourselves? Or, will we accept some personal losses and fight to save Social Security and Medicare for future generations? Will we embrace changing times? Will we work to restore an America of the people, by the people, and for the people?

Vandals in the White House

An oil refinery in Marcus Hook, Pa. The United States is the biggest carbon polluter in history. Credit Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg

There are vandals in the White House. The past fortnight has made it clear. All it took was a little distance for perspective. A revealing trip abroad. A self-satisfied rejection of the Paris climate change accord, infused with contempt for 190 countries. Throw in a dramatic buildup to the announcement scheduled for the odd time of 3:00 EDT so it can play live, prime-time, in Europe.

There are vandals in the White House. The evidence has been there all along, but for me it took seeing it through eyes from outside this country to really get it. Our media paradigm can limit our understanding by its familiar narrative of left vs. right and our tendency to focus on national news, lacking a solid international context. It was unsettling, jarringly so, to read commentary and comments from Europe today.

I was embarrassed for our nation while Trump attended the NATO conference in Sicily. His signature heedless arrogance was distilled in the 20 second clip-gone-viral of his pushing past the Montenegro prime minister for the group photo. J.K. Rowling’s assessment, also viral, was apt: “What a tiny, tiny, tiny, little man.”

That was mere boorishness. More meaningful was his decision to substitute a scolding of the attendees for not paying their fair share in lieu of the requisite recommitment of the U.S. to the organization’s common defense. Even so, the European leaders managed to overlook his slights and obliviousness and tried to impress on him the overriding importance of remaining in the Paris climate change accord.

Yesterday my embarrassment was superseded by shame. The vandals in the White House smashed the agreement we had in collaboration with every other country in the world, save Nicaragua and Syria. But it was obvious today that the damage went well beyond that. Trump’s words, in his role of president, were so emphatically dismissive of any concern for the rest of the world’s population that they have been rightly seen as an abdication of moral and political leadership.

There are vandals in the White House. Like I said, the evidence has been there all along. Exhibit A is Steve Bannon and his ambition for the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” It looked for a time that Bannon’s star was fading, but the recent turmoil over the Russia investigations have resulted in his reinstatement close to the president’s ear.

Bannon was one of the advisors pressing Trump to trash the Paris accord. He has also talked candidly about the need for the administration to deconstruct via the elimination of regulations, particularly those that were put in place during the Obama presidency. He even plainly said that many cabinet picks had been made for the express purpose of dismantling the regulatory authority of their agencies.

Naturally, that was only stating the obvious. Consider first those whose background showed them to be hostile to the agency they would lead: Scott Pruitt for EPA, Tom Price for Health and Human Services, Rick Perry for Energy, Ryan Zinke for Interior, Betsy DeVos for Education. Then there is Ben Carson, whose obvious lack of qualifications make his effectiveness to lead HUD questionable.

Rex Tillerson was a controversial, but defensible, choice for State. But since his confirmation, the department has been decimated of experienced career staffers and managed in such a way that morale is reported to be at an all-time low. Tillerson himself has made it clear he has little interest in the institutional memory and protocol of the department.

Jeff Sessions was an obvious pick for Attorney General only in that he was an early and loyal Trump supporter. His early pronouncements and orders have confirmed the suspicion that for him “Make America Great Again” really does refer to white America. Preferably pre-1960s.

It remains to be seen if Trump’s “Team of Vandals” will have any role other than demolition. Judging by the Vandal-in-Chief, it would seem unlikely. Coming up on 5 months into his term, there is little evidence of anything of substance that Trump proposes doing. Only what he wants to undo.

Of course, he talks in vague terms about infrastructure, tax reform, health care, and building a wall. But the only significant new policy he actually tried to implement, the Muslim travel ban, is still hung up by injunction due to its unconstitutionality. Infrastructure and the wall, tangible building projects that are at least somewhat connected to his past experience, remain nebulous and seem far off at best. His tax reform plan, when finally released, turned out to be a single page of bullets and tons of white space. But it had a White House letterhead. For months he claimed to have a really great health care plan. Naturally, he had no such thing, leaving it to the House Republicans to come up with it. He continues to demonstrate that, even now, he has little knowledge or interest in what is actually in the plan.

And so it is with the Paris accord as well. No one really expects that Trump has any meaningful knowledge of the pros and cons of the the climate change agreement. What we know for sure, though, is that he is offering nothing better. He said nothing during his speech about the threat of global warming. Nothing about the science. Nothing of our responsibility to future generations. Instead, his message was the equivalent of taking a can of neon spray paint to the agreement and scrawling  “USA! USA! USA!” across every page.

Way to go Mr. President. Everyone got the message.

 

Just Turn the Lights Off: A Trumpian Metaphor

If it weren’t happening against the backdrop of a potential Constitutional crisis, it would be humorous. Well, it’s actually kind of humorous anyway. But it is also a perfect metaphor for the Trump administration, as you will see.

On Tuesday, in an apparent attempt to match his boss’s classy behavior in notifying Director Comey of his firing via TV news, Sean Spicer and staff kept trying unsuccessfully to inform the press of the same news via an email statement, according to an article in the Washington Post. Finally giving up, after three hours of technical problems, Spicer stood in his office doorway and shouted an announcement to the reporters who were within shouting range. He then ducked inside and his staff locked the doors.

The White House was reportedly taken aback by the speed and harshness of the blowback, with criticism building from Republicans as well as Democrats. Having previously said there would be no more statements, Spicer and two staffers “were suddenly speed-walking up the White House drive to defend the president on CNN, Fox, and Fox Business,” where their reporters and camera crews did interviews with the White House itself as backdrop. Upon completing those, the intrepid press secretary was facing a conundrum.

It was now after sunset and Spicer found himself hiding in the hedges in the dark, wanting to hightail it back to his office. But between the bushes and the building were “a swarm of reporters wanting to know why President Trump suddenly decided to fire the FBI Director.”

After a few minutes, he sucked it up and emerged, telling the reporters he would answer some questions. But only with the cameras off.

“‘Just turn the lights off. Turn the lights off,’ he ordered. ‘We’ll take care of this. Can you just turn that light off?’ Spicer got his wish and was soon standing in near darkness…with more than a dozen reporters gathered around him.” After ten minutes of Q&A, he abruptly turned and escaped.

See what I mean? Metaphor, ready made. (If I thought the president might read this, however, I would definitely spell it out. You know what I mean if you saw the May Day interview of Trump in the Oval Office by CBS’s John Dickerson. Dickerson commented on the quote by George W. Bush regarding the office being oval and having no corners to hide in. Trump agreed that there are no corners, so the room has a certain openness and anyone outside looking in the windows would be able to see him, but of course no one could get that close. Dickerson started to explain that it was a metaphor, but gave up.)

But, back to Spicer’s metaphor. This anecdote unintentionally encapsulates the Trump administration modus operendi. Everything will be fine if we can just shed a little darkness on it. Fine for Trump. Not so much for our democracy.

Democracy Dies in Darkness

James Comey was just the most recent career law enforcement official to be fired by Trump while engaged in unwelcome investigations. Preet Bharara, the US Attorney for Southern New York, and Sally Yates, the acting US Attorney General, were let go with similarly suspicious timing. They, like Comey, had reputations for independence and integrity and were seen as threats to his independence.

An independent investigation of Russia’s influence on the Trump election by definition would shed much needed light. In spite of his erratic behavior regarding Clinton email, Comey’s FBI effort was seen as the best hope for that light and an honest report. On the other hand, the president and the Republicans on the congressional committees charged with that investigation have made their target anyone who can be found who has leaked information.

If these actions weren’t enough to prove the point, Trump tweets spell it out. With increasing stridency, he broadcasts his demands to stop the Russia investigation and find those who talk to reporters instead.

The battle lines are becoming clear. The Washington Post ran a front page article on Wednesday to give a more complete picture of all that transpired in the previous 24-48 hours. They cited 30 sources from the White House, Justice, and the FBI. Thirty. 3-0. These people don’t like what they are witnessing and want the rest of us to know about it.

Ah, yes. The press. To be fair, it is a thorn in the side, a pain in the neck (and lower) to all administrations. Their job, when they do it well, is to keep the government honest by keeping klieg lights on its activities. No one likes to be that exposed. But that is the price of democracy. And the media isn’t perfect, nor are politicians, so at times we just muddle through and count on checks and balances to keep the country on the rails.

What is brand new in 2017, totally unprecedented, is that this Oval Office occupant has declared war on the press and is waging that war daily. Consider:

  • Trump used his rallies and tweets for months to repeat epithets and slogans to demonize and undermine the press. This message became gospel for his congregation.
  • The ugly language and constant refrain of “fake news” aimed at the media continued and was amplified after assuming office.
  • In this environment, the State Department was stripped of most of its senior officers and staff, and a Secretary of State installed who refuses to engage with the press in any meaningful way.
  • The president’s spokespeople reflect his contempt in their own interactions with the “mainstream” media.
  • Numerous federal departments, under Trump appointees, instituted gag rules, prohibiting staff to communicate with the press or even with Congress. Some but not all of these have been walked back.
  • Access by the press to Spicer’s communications department has been restricted, at times with favorable access rewarding favorable coverage.
  • Updated item on May 12:        

I mentioned the Washington Post earlier. If you have read it in the past couple of months you have probably seen their masthead. Since February, they have added a motto for the first time ever. I was surprised to learn that it has been in the works for about a year, so was not a direct response to the Trump presidency. But it could have been and it resonates.

The executive branch clearly hates the glare of the light. The legislative is in the hands of a party that has shown little interest in flipping the switch yet. Fortunately the judiciary has so far shown a willingness to stand up to the challenges it has received. And the fourth estate is under attack. But, it seems that many in the press see this moment for what it is. A time to stand in the breach. A time to just turn the lights on.

 

Resisting the Bully

How do you stand up to a bully? In schools, we teach children to find an adult and report the bullying. Then, in an effective school, there are clear rules which are applied to stop the bullying behavior. Perhaps there’s a lesson there for the resistance movement.

Make no mistake. We have a bully in the White House. He has made that clear over and over: in his campaign rallies, in tweets, and recently in person when he threatened Republican (!?) lawmakers who were voting ’No’ on Ryancare. However, the atmosphere in the Capitol is so politicized and the politics so dysfunctional, it is difficult to see where the courage and cooperation will come from to stand up to Trump.

Let’s look instead at the other Washington, which is a hotbed of sanity in contrast. When the first Muslim ban was issued by Executive Order just one week into the new administration, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson, state Solicitor Noah Purcell and the rest of the AG’s team were prepared. Their lawsuit was successful in blocking a cynical, cruel, and unconstitutional action, masquerading as an anti-terror measure. Two  separate courts ruled against the administration.

This was a case of the adults dealing with the bully by applying the rules.

It is happening again right now. Seattle, one of numerous so-called sanctuary cities, has been threatened with loss of federal funding if it does not comply with demands from ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and the Justice Department to help round up and detain undocumented immigrants.

Instead, the city announced on Wednesday that it will file a lawsuit against what it is calling an illegal demand and threat. The mayor, city council, and chief of police are united in this response. The adults are confronting the bully with the rule of law.

The LA Times described Donald Trump’s “shocking lack of respect for those fundamental rules and institutions on which our government is based. His contempt for the rule of law and the norms of government are palpable.” This contempt has been on full display in his reaction to Seattle “so-called” Judge Robart who issued the original injunction against the first Muslim ban and in his virulent commentary on the judiciary in his recent rallies.

While this behavior from a sitting President is certainly a danger to our democracy, it is also a vulnerability that could be his undoing. The same disregard for the rule of law that makes him believe he can get away with anything also exposes him to the consequences of breaking the law. His presidency should be consumed in litigation, challenged at every step with public protests and investigations.

A school always hopes to change a child’s bullying behavior. But, with a 70-year old child who has been a confirmed bully for decades, there may eventually be no choice but to expel him.

From Russia With Love

[Originally posted on Facebook, March 21, 2017]

It isn’t just Trump who is wobbly on Russia.

If the Trump campaign cooperated with or encouraged Russian interference in the 2016 election, it is obvious how serious and unprecedented a crime it would be. But, even if all the circumstantial evidence ultimately leads to no direct evidence of such collusion, it is still a fact that we and other Western countries have been and remain targets of such interference. Russia’s ongoing efforts to undermine democratic processes should be sufficient cause for a united desire to expose it and prevent its recurrence.

Yet, the fear that an independent, thorough investigation might more tangibly implicate and delegitimize the Trump campaign and administration resulted in a House Intelligence Committee hearing yesterday in which not a single Republican member asked FBI Director Comey or NSA Director Rogers any questions about possible connections between the campaign and the Russians.

Instead of using the day to investigate and shed light, half of this so-called oversight committee sought to discredit and distract from the actual investigation by the intelligence agencies. Near the end, Rep. Turner even charged that by exposing the truth about Russian interference, we would be damaging the country and advancing “the Russian interest of trying to destabilize democracy and cause a lack of confidence in our system.”

We need an independent commission, or say goodbye to ever learning what really happened. Or, if you are the optimistic sort, expect it soon after whatsizname’s taxes are released.

Note: There is a link to the entire hearing transcript in the second paragraph of the Slate article. Didn’t read it all (ugh) but enough to confirm some of the quotes in the article.

On Monday, the House Intelligence Committee interrogated FBI Director James…
SLATE.COM|BY WILL SALETAN

Inauguration Speech

Inauguration Day 2017 and the Women’s March the next day may mark the birth of a new spirit of activism in this country. Trump’s speech was at least a wake up call that we ignore his challenge to democratic principles at our peril. I’m reposting this from Facebook because it represents my first public expression of conscience. January 21, 2017

Dear Senators Murray and Cantwell, Congresswoman Del Bene, State Senator Palumbo, and Representatives Stanford and Kloba:

(This letter is being emailed to each of you individually, to the Seattle Times, and posted on Facebook.)

I saw off my wife, Ann, to the Seattle Womxns March this morning, torn about accompanying her or not. I decided to stay and write to you instead. Neither of us has been particularly active politically before. But, Donald Trump said at least one thing on Inauguration Day that I agree with: “It’s time to get to work.” That is true for us and it is particularly true for you. 

I have thought it a curious debate when people have differed on whether Trump is or is not “my President.” Like it or not, he was going to be. However, when I listened to his speech yesterday, it became clear. Donald Trump is NOT my President. Not my choice, but his, and that is true for most Americans whether they realize it or not.

In his final opportunity yesterday before taking office, he yet again disqualified himself from doing so legitimately. Certainly, the intrusion of Russia and the FBI cast shadows on the outcome of the election. But, far more damning is the fact that, ever since becoming Birther-in-Chief, Trump has built his prominence and candidacy on a foul foundation of lies and manipulation of public audiences and the media. That he has been able to manage that so successfully as a private citizen makes the prospect of his ascension to power with access to nearly unlimited resources truly frightening.
Surely, Trump’s inaugural speech must have sent shivers through you as well. He painted a stark and false portrait of today’s America. He conjured nonexistent existential threats from which he promises to save us, when in fact HE is the threat from which the country must be saved.

That’s where you come in. My wife and I voted for each of you. So did a majority of those in the state and your districts. We chose you to stand in our place in Washington and Olympia. It seems that role may be more vital than at any time in the past 60 years. Congress and state legislatures must be a check and a safeguard in the face of a dangerous Executive Branch. Politics as usual must be abandoned. Not only must the party find a coherent and unified strategy (and perhaps a bit more backbone), you must find creative and effective ways to communicate with and enlist Republican colleagues who will be willing to put country above party. For once, winning re-election cannot be the highest priority for anyone in either house.

On the other hand, if we are any indication and if the women’s marches around the country today are any indication, courageous leadership on your part will be recognized and rewarded. We’re counting on you.

Sincerely,
Mike and Ann Massengill
Bothell, WA