Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Through the Looking Glass: Kafka, Orwell, Trump, in No Particular Order

The Republicans have been good at "controlling the message." Donald Trump gravitated to them because he has a similar, though more gargantuan, approach to information: BURN THE MESSAGE DOWN.

I've been watching -- all of us have -- as Donald Trump attacked language and turned it on its head. Either he's a genius at it or is simply the most over-reactive human alive. One way or another, we're going to regret he got anywhere near the presidency.

Karl Rove said something back in 2004 or so, quoted, more or less, in a Ron Suskind magazine article:
The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. "That's not the way the world really works anymore." He continued "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."
I of course appreciated the utter and audacious narcissism of Rove's view, that he was something like a Master of the Universe and the rest of us not even relevant to be considered "actors" on history's stage. Rove still matters on the margins of politics, but the comeuppance Rove and the whole George W. Bush presidency received makes his arrogance, in the end, somewhat digestible.

Enter Donald Trump. What clarifies the mind with Trump is the rapid -- if we've accomplished it at all! -- new understanding we had to undergo as we watched him actually win the presidency. So we're left scrambling to get a handle on a Trump style, if that little word can even encompass it.

I started by turning Hitler's notion of The Big Lie into Trump's Big Lies, as we had to deal with Trump's near-constant lies and distortions, in order to grasp what Trump might be up to, to find an organizing principle. (And yes, we can utter the names Hitler and Trump in the same sentence, and not simply to discuss their particular notions of propaganda.)

I've been helped lately by Masha Gessen's insights -- she regularly steps in, for me at least, ever since the battles of the disintegrating Yugoslavia -- into what Trump's up to, even if Trump himself might not explicitly understand it. Definitely listen to her appearance on NPR's On the Media in which she, correctly I feel, defines Trump's Way as controlling reality through constant distortion as if it were his superpower.

Referring to Soviet propaganda and the impoverishment of language it caused, Gessen asks:
How do you use the word freedom when you've used it to lie for all those years? Fact is you don't.
By the way, Gessen is Russian, so she knows of which she speaks. Knowing Putin as she does, she warns us of Trump:
Right. Most Americans and the media certainly didn't believe there was even the possibility that Donald Trump could be elected president. And I think that part of the reason for that disbelief was an inability to look around at the world and consider the possibility that the United States was part of a worldwide trend of reversal of democracy, and a worldwide trend of right-wing populists coming to power.
Holy shit. Think Putin, Ertogan, Poland, even Brexit. Then add Trump. Speaking of chess champion turned activist Garry Kasparov's metaphor using chess, Gesson goes on:
It's like playing chess with someone who keeps knocking figures off the chessboard...When you've got a candidate who's lying more than 90 percent of the time, then checking each one of his lies is probably not the best way to go. Probably the best way to go is "Okay, so, what is he trying to say by lying 90 percent of the time?" What is this new game we're playing?.. This is where, actually, Putin and Trump are incredibly similar...One thing they do share is the cacophony of lies that they produce and I think the larger message there is "I claim the right to say whatever the hell I please." That's a really important thing to understand, that the lying is the point, not in the sense that Trump really wants you to believe that millions of people voted illegally, but the point is that "I will say whatever the hell I want and that is also a component of my power."
Rovian-based reality writ even larger. Gessen goes on to say that we need to call him out and not "normalize" his lies as campaign rhetoric or hyperbole but instead look to the larger story, and that is that they -- Putin and Trump -- are autocrats.

Autocrats. That's the larger story, and they reinforce it through chaos, and in particular the chaos of language, of information. Putin used it in Ukraine, and in his smaller way, Trump used it with the Carrier incident. Where next? (And he's not even president yet.)

It's Trump's goal that we can't get a grip on his next move because he smothers us in non-sense. How does a man alienate China one day, then the next claim a Japanese business decision made months ago as if he were just now responsible for it, and then the next day or moment hear the CEO of Boeing criticizing him and then tweet a complete distortion of the facts of Boeing's plans on building the next Air Force One in order to recommend canceling the deal -- based on those distortions in the tweet -- as if he were already the Deal Master? It's almost too much to take. In fact it is too much. And he wins. He wins the point, the day, the news cycle, while we sit around saying what the fuck is he up to. He's up to no good, but we're too discombobulated to absorb it. Then it's on to the next news cycle.

And yes, we can call it Putinesque, or Hitleresque, or Trumpesque, whatever we like, because we need to figure out what's really going on, what the bigger thing he's trying to say. And, so far, it's I control reality, and you don't, so, as Rove had said, "and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

I can only hope that we do get a handle on Trump and stop him, the way we inevitably stopped Bush, though that came a bit late for so many people and so many countries, and so many of our troops, not to mention the lives of so many in the Middle East. What mischief can Trump get into? Frightening thought.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Trump and Carrier: Buying Jobs with Taxpayer Money. Hmm...Isn't That Socialism?

Mike Pence -- still technically the governor of Indiana, where the Carrier plant is located -- apparently offered tax incentives to keep jobs and make Trump look good. Very conservative!

When the Dear Leader does from on high, it's okay?

The reality-TV hits just keep coming -- did Trump give Romney a red rose, perhaps, at dinner last night? -- with the latest being Trump's Pence-induced entreaty to pweeze-pwetty-pweeze keep your jobs in Indiana, pwetty-pweeze, Carrier.

The art of the deal is apparently enhanced when you can throw in tax breaks and such. And yet, as Paul Krugman points out, not much bang for your buck, Dear Leader.

Other Tweeters point out the inherent contradictions:

Then the inevitable conclusion:

I'm beginning to figure this out: Dear Leader threatens (looking TOUGH) -> Company makes offer (gimme MONEY) -> Dear Leader takes deal (stupid deal, but ME LOOK GOOD) -> People screwed (Hey, look, A PONY).

Heckuva jop, Trumpie. (And he's not even president.) Art of the deal my ass.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Good News (Reversable?): We've Grown Rich Since 1970 While Seriously Cleaning Our Air

While some cities in the U.S. remain threatened by air pollution, we've made great strides over the decades. Do we want to reverse our progress?

The Central Valley's Bakersfield, CA worst in the nation. Who knew?

The above picture shows we're not finished yet with cleaning our air, but since 1970 we've made tremendous overall progress as a country. That prompts one to ask: If we can become an even wealthier, more successful economy while drastically reducing air pollution, what's the argument that further cleaning the air of greenhouse gases will damage our economy? Our history says different.

Check out this blog post on the subject to find some great graphs that are very illuminating. (Thanks to Paul Krugman for pointing to this.)

Speaking of Paul Krugman, one of the arguments for deregulation is that it hurts manufacturing. Paul finds a graph that puts the lie to that:

The point here is that while we have lost manufacturing jobs, we haven't reduced manufacturing's share of the economy. And that's more a function of productivity gains than shipping jobs overseas.

Would we like more and better paying jobs in this country? Sure. But saying so isn't the same as having them. There is a way, however. It's called serious infrastructure spending and encouraging and investing, as a nation, in the whole gamut of alternative energy sources.

I bring this up in the context of the threat from the new Trump administration to trim the EPA, reduce funding at NASA for global warming research, and encourage more fossil fuel production, partly by expanding leases on federal lands, not to mention the rolling back of regulations on coal-burning power plants while chanting "clean coal, clean coal..." And don't get me started on Trump's phony infrastructure plan. It's more like a textbook example of crony capitalism at the public's expense.

Moral? We're making progress. Let's don't stop. And by the way, there is no such thing as clean coal, but we knew that.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Accept It: Socialism Is Simply a Word That Describes How to Provide a Public Good.

Capitalism is very much the opposite. It describes a process for skimming money off the top of providing goods or services. Like it was a good thing! (Sometimes yes, as an incentive! But often corrupting...)

Single-payer healthcare doesn't mean Trotsky is coming for our children.

I taught Economics on the high-school level, so many of my economic principles are pretty lean. But one thing that's struck me as true, not just from studying economics but from observing human nature and history: We're better when we use a mix of systems. For example, a command economy, which is dictated from the top, falls prey to fascism and authoritarianism. A laissez-faire, capitalist economy is open to corruption in unregulated "free" markets, where capital gets hoarded and inequality is rampant. Econ texts generally point students to mixed economies that seem to function well in democracies.

Fine. So what's a mixed economy supposed to look like? Ideally, we'd have a mix of public and private commerce, in which public goods -- like roads, bridges, water systems, transit, ports, etc. -- are built to remain part of the public sector because it's meant to benefit all of the people on some level. Sure, importers and exporters gain more from the ports and transportation systems then, say, teachers do, but in general citizens gain from the availability of goods not produced in their neighborhood, like food, for instance.

So the state creates and maintains the public systems so that private enterprise prospers. A robust private sector can do many of the things government isn't good at, like manufacturing the myriad of goods and providing the many services that a top-heavy government would only get bogged down in trying to handle.

So far, so good. Where we get in trouble is not knowing where to draw the line. It should be pretty clear, but it's not. Here, I think, are some clear examples: police and fire services should be public because a profit motive would distort that. What if you had to subscribe to get police protection? What if your house burnt down because you let your subscription to the fire department lapse?

We actually do subscribe to get police and fire services. It's called paying taxes. Simple enough? Yep. Governments collect taxes to provide for the public good. That goes for roads, bridges, water systems, as well. Taxes and fees take care of it.

Back to drawing the line. The U.S. and western Europe, in fact much of the world, have benefited by codifying how all this works. It's called the rule of law. There's also an element of culture or general practice. We don't have a law that says the police should be provided by cities and counties and states, but it's just become common practice.

The point of all of this is to simply point out that citizens counting on their government, trusting their government, agreeing that their government provide for the common good is called socialism. Sure, some people have a problem with that word because alarmists and fantasists conflated the word with communism during the Great Red Scare in the 40s, 50s, and 60s. By now we should just be grown ups and work together for the common good.

Sorry, but a lot of damage has been done in our ability to trust the government to do these things. And that wasn't an accident. Those who wish capitalism and unregulated free markets to operate freely -- in order to build wealth, in some cases to frightening proportions -- have sown the seeds of mistrust of government in order to frighten people into voting against their own self-interests. In fact, these same forces have brought people to doubt the media as somehow distorting information against the citizens' own interests. Funny, though, how this distrust of media tends to reinforce the wonder of free markets versus government-provided public goods.

So as a way to judge what's what, I suggest you look at places that the capitalistic-oriented search for profit expands the availability and affordability of a needed good or service, and places where the search for profit inhibits or reduces availability and affordability. This is especially a good test for goods and services that are vital for living a good, safe, and healthy life.

The U.S. has gotten stuck with health care on the wrong side of this mix. Insert profit motive into health care, and people die if they don't have the money. It's pure and simple. It's not complicated. So, yes, we should socialize medicine. Don't let charged words obscure what's best for a society.

Socialism. A political and economic theory of social organization that advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole.

Capitalism. An economic and political system in which a country's trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit, rather than by the state.

Either political and economic system would run afoul of citizens' interests alone because of a tendency toward corruption and/or stagnation. A mix works. Celebrate that, and work hard to know what works best with what and where.

This isn't rocket science, but it easily falls prey to bamboozlement.

Bamboozlement. a state of deception or mystification.

Don't fall for it.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

I Used to Teach School. I'd Hate to Be Doing It Now Under Donald Trump's Gang.

It doesn't hit you in the face, but our nation's schools have just become the battleground of battlegrounds.

In public schools, we're not in Kansas anymore.
Hell, Kansas isn't even in Kansas anymore.

Teaching in public schools, a career I came to late in life, was a great gift and quite a proving ground. It's not for the faint of heart, even in the best of times.

One of the gifts I received was an appreciation of diversity. Schools I taught in were incredibly diverse, with whites, blacks, Hispanics, Filipinos, Pakistanis, and more. In fact, towards the end, my school district's kids were over half Hispanic. Wine country draws a lot of field workers.

I grew to appreciate Hispanics. They have a rich family life. All the immigrant families seem to have that, possibly because not perfectly fitting in means needing each other more. I'm guessing there, but it fits with what I saw. Anyway, I didn't "get" Hispanics growing up. Teaching them ended that. They're people, fine people.

(Believe me, I know how dumb that sounds, but I'm aware of implicit bias. It's real, and it's me, not somebody else.)

But holy hell, I'd hate to be in those classrooms now. A lot of those kids are either relocated from Mexico or Guatemala, or U.S. citizens with undocumented parents. They must be terrified now, absolutely terrified. Barack Obama, with his support of the so-called Dreamers, made these people safe and hopeful toward the future. That's wiped out now.

But there's more than just the renewed tension that your parents, or even yourself, might get deported at any minute. It's also that those whites you've been studying with are suddenly emboldened, have been listening to the TV or their parents droning on about how they hope Trump builds the wall and sends the Mexicans packing. This is not their country, even if it actually is or should be (we stole a lot of land from Mexico in a couple wars).

Now those kids are saying "Go back to Mexico" or "Take that dumb scarf off, raghead!" And the kids answer back "I was born in Sacramento" or "I was born in Fremont, I'm a Sikh." Next, there's a swastika or two scrawled on the wall along with "Go Home!" and nobody knows who did it, but the damage is done.

Maybe I'm wrong -- hard to say after hearing the chants of "Build that wall!" -- and maybe things will quiet down and maybe Donald Trump will stop with all the anti-Mexican rhetoric, and even decide the Dreamer thing was okay and who wants to bust up families anyway? We can hope for that.

But his White House staff choices say different, and his cabinet picks say different, so we're right to be worried.

To all my teacher friends still in the business, stay strong, reassure the kids, keep everybody's hopes up. You've got some choppy seas ahead. I'm hoping the best for you, and here's a hearty thanks in advance.

Medicare Is Vital for the Middle Class, and Not Just for Seniors

People think, I suppose rightly, that Medicare is for those aged 65 and above. But its benefits accrue to people of all ages (and not just the disabled).

A family home. It can be yours, if mom and pop don't go broke first.

You're only as good as your latest catastrophe. I think I just made that up, but truer words were never spoken.

So let's imagine a USA without Medicare. Instead of healthy parents and grandparents fully covered against medical bankruptcy, yours are flat broke, with medical bills still piling up. What's your own future like?

You were doing fine, or at least okay. You got married last year, and starting a family sounded nice. Living on one income would be a stretch for a while but worth it to have that family both of you want. Better, though, that you bought a house now, big enough for a couple of kids.

Then dad got pretty sick, needed heart surgery, then relapsed, needed another operation. He's pulled through all right, but his medication is pretty expensive and he needs continuing care. Mom called and said they were worried about losing their house.

You're a good son (or daughter), and you couldn't just let their lives fall apart. Where would they go? So you rent their place out, and your folks move in. Everybody fits, but just barely. You still think about buying a house, but you can't afford one that's big enough for kids and mom and dad. So why bother?

You decide it's a bad time to start a family. You certainly need two incomes right now, what with having to maintain your parents' health insurance. Can't let that lapse. Medicare was great until the Ryan Plan turned it into a voucher system and rising costs blasted right through the voucher value. The medigap plan that cost a pittance before now runs $1500 a month. And what with dad's shaky health, that insurance is all that's keeping him alive. And mom's meds aren't cheap either.

Okay, enough of the fantasy, but that's in fact what the reality will be if the Republicans blow a hole through Medicare as they plan to now that Trump's in charge.

Medicare is not just about keeping mom and pops alive longer. It's about the older generation not being a burden weighing down the dreams of the younger ones. It means freedom from worry for the middle class, so you can even be middle class.

Josh Marshall makes the reality pretty clear in this post:
[...] Medicare is a hugely important and hugely successful social insurance program for tens of millions of Americans and Republicans aim to repeal it in about six to eight months using a mix of bamboozlement, word play and lies. When I say tens of millions I am speaking of current beneficiaries. But assuming the program is not abolished the overwhelming majority of us will be beneficiaries in the future. Less appreciated is the way Medicare protects money that goes to buying homes and raising children from being spent on the health care of indigent, bankrupted parents. These intergenerational benefits are under-appreciated but profound. If Medicare is abolished in 2017 it will be a calamity.
[...] The final point should be the most obvious. Donald Trump won the presidency promising to defend the economic interests of ordinary people from the 'crooked' elite on Wall Street and in Washington. Whether or not he believes or believed that he has rapidly allied himself with the Paul Ryan privatizers who want to eviscerate the federal programs which are the bedrock of the American middle class. Social Security and Medicare are at the top of that list. If you look at the faces in the crowds at Trump's most poisonous speeches I guarantee that you that very few of those people thought they were voting to lose their Medicare.
So as we move into the next administration, watch out for that bamboozlement Josh is talking about. Ryan has already laid the foundation last week, declaring that Obamacare weakened Medicare -- when it actually strengthened it and extended it -- so he's got to fix it. No he doesn't, and, no, he doesn't intend to. He wants to privatize it, meaning adding a profit stream that will stop it from being affordable.

Don't let it happen, and fight tooth and nail. And let your congresspeople know where you stand.

Don't worry, Medicare's got dad's surgery covered -- for now.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Just Asking: Why Wouldn't the Richest Nation on Earth Expand Affordable Health Care? (Answer Below.)

Answer: The Republicans don't want us to have universal, affordable health care. That's, er, socialist!

People waiting for flu shots in Petaluma, CA, before the ACA came into effect.

I don't have any story to link to or any list of statistics. Just know that if you let the Democrats design a health-care program without interference, it would look like a socialist European/Canadian-style single-payer system, at about half the cost of what we pay now. If you gave the Republicans a chance to design a health-care program without interference, they would slowly take away your health care, make it completely insurance-based, and shrink Medicare and Medicaid as much as they could.

Where am I wrong? We don't need Google to know the answer.