Friday, March 24, 2017

Half-Baked, Cruel & Craven

One of the essential explanations for mounting economic inequality in the United States is the increasing monopoly power over the economy.” Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols, People Get Ready: The Fight Against a Jobless Economy and a Citizenless Democracy

As I write this, House Republicans are gathering to cast votes to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act with a half-baked, cruel, craven and crass alternative. I have never understood why the ACA -- a scheme cooked up by right leaning think tanks -- engenders such animosity and hysteria in Republicans. Is it simply because the ACA became known as ObamaCare, and that moniker alone is enough to make Republicans foam at the mouth? Listening to Paul Ryan one would certainly think the ACA has been ruinous to the American character.

Ryan, of course, is purported to be the GOP’s Big Thinker, but this is only because the intellectual bar in the GOP’s ranks is set six inches from the floor. In a room full of dimwits, a nitwit stands out.

The Russia-tampered-with-our-sacred-electoral-process story, and its myriad offshoots, continues to skitter around the newscycle. I still don’t buy it. From the very beginning, the story lacked coherence, and the passage of time hasn’t made it less so. Too many things don’t add up.

Trump’s Supreme Court justice nominee, Neil Gorsuch, gives me the willies.

I wonder if we could have one day with no American made munitions falling anywhere in the world.

Here in Santa Barbara, jewel of the Central Coast, hipsters and gentrifiers, under the encouraging gaze of city planners, continue their assault, demolishing the old, erecting the new; rents are high, vacancies almost non-existent, and tenants are making noises about their rights, some going so far as to whisper the dreaded words, “rent control” out loud, an utterance that freaks out the owner class. There are decent landlords in SB -- I am fortunate to rent from one -- but the stories of greedy, unscrupulous, shitbag property owners are the stuff of legend around here. Many a prospective renter has responded to an advert promising a “spacious, airy, upper East Side cottage offering lovely appointments and off-street parking,” only to discover, on inspection, a cramped, dilapidated hovel with water stains on the ceiling, piss-stained carpeting, peeling paint, and a shower infested with mold.

I was thinking about the online retail behemoth Amazon the other day -- as I was searching for a book -- and got to wondering how many different businesses all over the nation Amazon has sundered. Macy’s is closing stores, including one here in the retail core of SB, and Sears/KMart may be on the brink of the same fate. Technology is a wonderful thing, but technological advances rarely fail to produce unintended consequences. Amazon is too big for our good, but the same can be said for any number of industries which have been allowed to become virtual monopolies. For this we can thank the political duopoly. As a mechanism for checking the size of corporations and their raw power, antitrust laws are a laughing stock.

If I possessed a magic lamp and could make one wish, only one, I would wish that the 99% of American citizens who have been losing economically for 40 years, whether white, black, Latino, female, queer, straight or trans, wake up to the fact that our need for decent employment, health care, affordable education, and housing unites all of us far more than our identity differences divide us.

Are the stock market averages still rising? Are we headed for another burst bubble? Economic growth is anemic and yet the casino economy hums right along. Bankers are delighted. Seems like a warning sign.

And Trump is still in the White House.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Dangerous and Stupid: The New Normal

“Fascism says, disregard the evidence of your senses, disregard observation, embolden deeds that can’t be proven, don’t have faith in God but have faith in leaders, take part in collective myth of an organic national unity and so forth.” Timothy Snyder

While the world watches the bumblings in Trump’s Washington, people in Yemen are dying of starvation. The nation was poor before the US-supported war began, dependent on food imports, and years of war have made the situation dire. The chances for a negotiated ceasefire seem slim. The innocent people caught between the warring factions have no place to turn.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe, the disaster that is Fukushima goes on. It’s now six years since the earthquake and subsequent tsunami crippled the nuclear facility. The Japanese government and the operator of the facility have shoved their heads into the radioactive soil. Nothing to see or fear except radioactive water, sludge, and tons of contaminated soil. Return, dispersed former residents, and pick up your lives where you left off. In a few years we will host the Olympic Games and show the world our resiliency!

The world isn’t getting the full story about Fukushima.

Back home in Trump-Land, the Republican majority in Congress, led by the heartless Paul Ryan, is on the cusp of maiming, if not killing, the hated Affordable Care Act, the insurance- industry friendly legislation touted as one of Barack Obama’s signature accomplishments. Since the passage of the ACA, Republicans in Congress have labored to kill it by shrieking hysterically about “socialized” medicine and “government takeover of our healthcare system”. What they actually object to is the ACA’s funding mechanism; the GOP’s pathetic replacement is a boon to the wealthy, who hardly need more tax relief. But this is how kleptocratic regimes operate -- they plunder the state in order to reward their cronies.

Damn the poor, the elderly, single mothers, children.

The cruelty of Trump and the Republicans is staggering and we are only in the early stages. Trump’s budget plan, euphemistically titled his “America First” budget, includes huge cuts to a range of social programs, almost all federal agencies except the military and the internal security apparatus, the arts, public broadcasting, foreign aid (surely Israel will be exempt) and even Meals-On-Wheels. Any voter who cast his or her ballot for Tiny Hands Trump must now have at least some inkling of how utterly they were conned.

Trump blathers on about safety, security and protection, as if our country is under constant siege from within and without; the Big Bad World is targeting the US and only Tiny Hands can save us from the blood-thirsty hordes. If it wasn’t so dangerous, Trump’s strongman posturing would be hilarious. I wonder if Trump and his cabal are preparing the ground for a Gulf of Tonkin type pretext and imposition of draconian measures in the name of “security.” It could happen. Like all authoritarians, Trump is fixated on strength, on appearing strong, never weak or soft, on winning grand victories, whatever this means in his muddled, second-class brain. His language is violent, reactive, and overwrought, his posture and facial explanations are those of a classic bully.

And what word from the Democrats? Have they learned how to speak to ordinary people yet, to step outside their wonky, insider bubble and articulate what they are for rather than what they are against? Do the Democrats realize that if they slide left, away from banksters and corporate donors and the military-security complex, they could become relevant again to millions of voters. If Democrats talked about making the economy work for the 99% rather than the 1%, they might find a reason for their continued existence.

The US has held the title of most dangerous nation on the planet for a long time. Now we are stupid as well as dangerous, a combination that is sure to produce terrible consequences.

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

The Deranged Matador

“For more than an hour, Trump resembled a man on electronic detention, going cautiously through the motions, careful not to violate the terms of his invitation: no freelancing or potshots, no vulgarisms or mad gesticulations. For the most part, his big speech, in both substance and tone, could have been given by Jeb Bush or Hillary Clinton. It was pure political boilerplate." Jeffrey St. Claire

I remain skeptical about the hysteria surrounding Russian influence of the November election, a very sacred process according to our Imbecile-in-Chief, because hacking the DNC seems a weird route to take to tip an election. If it can be proven that Russian operatives corrupted voting machines and flipped votes from Clinton to Trump, that’s a different story.

My second observation about this entire controversy is the sheer hypocrisy of US ruling elites. How many foreign elections has the US meddled in over the last half century? It’s never an issue when we do it, but when the tables turn we get all sanctimonious and reverent about democracy. The fact is, like ruling elites anywhere in the world, “democracy” in America is tolerated as long as it doesn’t interfere with business interests, including the business of war, and private property.  

Third, the Russian angle diverts attention from a simple fact: Hillary Clinton ran a terrible campaign based on nothing more than not being a petulant man-child by the name of Trump. The fact that millions of Americans are sick and tired of the neoliberal economic policies favored by the Democratic Party since the early 1970’s, turbo-charged under Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, never penetrated Hillary Clinton’s thick arrogance. Utterly tone deaf and out of touch, Clinton believed she could coast to the White House by pledging more of the same.  

There has been no reckoning in the Democratic Party, no reflection on what really went south in November or why Republicans rule, not only the White House and Congress, but a majority of state governments. Like someone lost in the woods, Democrats need to find a clearing and reorient themselves to the sun, and what that means is they need to turn left -- away from Clinton and Obama -- and return to being a party of working people.

Not to worry, they won’t, Democrats are far too obdurate and tied to corporate and Wall Street money.

Trump is a buffoon and a joke and an embarrassment, but as I’ve written many times, he is a logical product of neoliberalism, of corporate media and a culture awash in infotainment and fantasy, of corrupt politicians and purchased elections. William Greider, a writer I have long admired, wrote recently in the Nation that Trump is not the worst president we’ve ever seen, and though this may be true, Trump is the worst president in my lifetime and the shit he’s hawking will impact the lives of my children, and that bothers me.

I assume from Trump’s recent allegation that Barack Obama ordered the electronic eavesdropping of Trump Tower last fall (a ridiculous claim) that there may be something to the whispers and hints of contacts between Trump campaign officials and representatives of the Russian government. The timing of the allegation struck me as a classic attempt to divert the media’s attention from the very real possibility that Attorney General Jeff Sessions lied under oath. The move was so typical of Trump, and reminded me of a deranged matador waving a cape to draw the bull’s attention. Does Trump sense that a noose is tightening around his neck?

Let us hope.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Red Meat Schizophrenia

“Hitler issued an endless stream of slogans to win potential supporters over. He would make Germany great again. He would give Germans work once more. He would put Germany first. He would revive the nation’s rusting industries, laid to waste by the economic depression. He would crush the alien ideologies—­socialism, liberalism, communism—­that were undermining the nation’s will to survive and destroying its core values.” Richard J. Evans
At the recent Conservative Political Action Conference, better known by its acronym CPAC, Donald Trump tossed chunks of raw meat to the mostly white audience. America first! Check. More money for our “beloved military.” Check. Winning. Check. Tax cuts for all! Check.

Listening to Trump’s scattershot remarks, one wonders if his people brief him beforehand or if Trump simply gets a feel for the crowd and the occasion and shoots from the hip.

One thing is certain: Donald Trump is lousy at basic math. His pledge to pour even more of our national treasure into the Pentagon is ridiculous on a number of levels, but first and foremost, the only way Trump can slash taxes and increase military spending is to gut other federal agencies, like the EPA and the State Department, and maybe make a backdoor run at Social Security and Medicare. Perhaps Trump doesn’t realize that big tax cuts and increased military spending have been tried before, and all they have produced is massive budget deficits that sooner or later are closed on the backs of the most vulnerable. It’s called austerity, and it’s cruel and stupid and a form of class warfare.

Trump proposes hiking the Pentagon budget by some $54 billion. I wonder if anyone has mentioned to Trump that the US now devotes about 54% of its budget to the military, a figure that dwarfs the military spending of any other nation. What the US spends on the military makes Russia and China look minor league by comparison.

And what, exactly, is the point of Trump’s military build-up? Prosecuting the never-ending War on Terror doesn’t require more fighter jets, aircraft carriers, ships or tanks, so who is Trump preparing to fight? China? Russia, if the generals and Neocons around Trump have their way? Iran? Mexico? And will all this increased spending bring our 16- year-old war in Afghanistan to an end?

The most hilarious moment, for me anyway, came when Trump announced that the GOP would from now on be the party of working Americans. Forget the fact that the GOP has for decades been the party of capital, not labor; ignore the fact that the GOP has been hostile to labor unions, in both the private and public sectors; forget that many of the GOP’s leading oligarchs made their fortunes by exporting jobs to low-wage countries, leaving American workers to fend for themselves; forget that the GOP is hostile to minimum wage increases and sneers at the idea of living wages.

This is America! Workers are not entitled to living wages!

I’m sorry to say that my pointy-headed west coast liberal bias is emerging, but honestly, how misinformed does one have to be to believe this nonsense? Donald Trump is never going to place the interests of working people ahead of the interests of capital. Never. Trump is many things, but he’s not a traitor to the ruling class -- his class. Trump has surrounded himself with wealthy people who don’t give a damn about working people.

Almost as chilling as the fascist overtones -- protect the borders, build the military, America first -- were the all-white overtones. When Steve Bannon speaks about the American “culture” his meaning is very clear. He’s talking about racial purity, some mythical Ozzie & Harriet, Doris Day time in America when Negroes knew their place, Mexicans mowed lawns and cleaned homes and picked vegetables and kept their mouths shut, and women were grateful for a self-cleaning oven and a new washing machine, and to bake cookies for little Johnny and Jane when they came home from their safe, orderly, all-white school.

People like Donald Trump and Steve Bannon don’t rise spontaneously, they are always present, lurking on the fringes, other times out in plain site. Our soil has been waiting for a seed. America has from the beginning had a racist strain, and we added nativism and nationalism along our path to empire.  At times we move away from these evils, other times we move toward them, as if doing so will solve our problems. They won’t. Our root problems are unregulated capitalism which enriches the few at the expense of the many and devalues anything that cannot be priced as a commodity, aligned with militarism and imperialism. Trump and his gang will only exacerbate our root problems.

Trump loyalists may find out how easy it can be to choke on a chunk of red meat.

Friday, February 24, 2017

The Deep End of the Pool

But you cannot have freedom without the risk of its abuse.” I.F. Stone

In December, Lake Cachuma, the main water source of Santa Barbara, was at 7% capacity. Three days ago, Cachuma reached 40% capacity and water was flowing in the Santa Ynez River for the first time in years. On Anapamu Street, near where we live, a trio of century old Italian stone pines, weakened by the long drought, toppled over, downing telephone poles and lifting concrete sidewalks; one poor fellow’s pickup truck was caved in. For the better part of three days the whine of chainsaws was constant.

The heavy rain was a welcome distraction from the latest outrages perpetrated by the Trump regime. It’s unsettling to realize that the President is a man who is proud of his disdain for books and knowledge, and who seems to believe damn near anything he watches on Fox News. What to think about a man who says, “Nuclear holocaust will be like no other”?

Trump is a fool floating on a leaky raft in the deep end of the pool. He represents the psychosis of our celebrity-obsessed consumer culture. He is a member -- albeit one who until now has roamed the fringes -- of the oligarchy that owns this country and seems determined to rob it blind and run it into the ground. Neoliberal capitalism, supported and nurtured by Republicans and Democrats alike for decades now, has corroded and corrupted human values and priorities and we are living through the predictable results; the situation is likely to become much worse for many people before it improves.

Echoes of another dark time, when Americans saw communists around every corner and under every bed, in the halls of our universities, in the State Department, and in Hollywood; the lives of many innocent people were destroyed, not for what they had done, but merely based on suspicion of what they might do. Guilt by circumstance, by association, by rumor and innuendo. Now we fear Muslims, Mexicans, and anyone else deemed an “other.”

According to Trump, hordes of evil people are streaming across our borders intent on mayhem. The fury emanating from Washington about illegal immigration is bizarre. It’s as if we are under attack every day -- as if innocent children are being yanked from their beds in the middle of the night and sold into slavery -- or murdered.

The psychotic Trumpian worldview oscillates between fear and belligerence.

Trump is compelled to hold a “rally” to feed his need for adulation. When was the last time you saw a new American president hold a campaign-style rally within the first month of assuming office? I can’t remember, and I’ve lived through a fair number of administrations, including that of Richard M. Nixon. Nixon, it should be noted, was insecure and paranoid but he was, for the most part, a rational actor. The same can’t be said of King Donald. Trump is not only insecure, paranoid, narcissistic, misogynistic, crude, and vindictive, but appears to be mentally unstable. While I don’t perceive him as a puppet, I do worry about the influence upon him from advisors such as Steve Bannon. Many odious people surround Trump, but to my mind Bannon is the most dangerous of the lot.

For the record: I continue to read, watch and listen with dismay to the hysteria about Russia’s alleged theft or manipulation of our presidential election. As historian Peter Kuznick said at a recent lecture sponsored by the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, Hillary Clinton lost because she was a lousy, over-confident candidate.

What I’m reading: The Master and Margarita and The Best of I.F. Stone.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Incredible Progress

The presidency is serious. The presidential electoral process, however, is a sick joke, in which everyone loses except the people behind the rope line.” Matt Taibbi

Life goes on in Trumpland. Babies are born, elderly people die, children have birthday parties, people get married, divorced, kids go to school. One can almost forget that a con artist slipped through the barriers erected by the oligarchy and became president. Forgetting is easier if one maintains a total media blackout.

But if one is any kind of citizen, a media blackout is next to impossible. My inbox is jammed every day with appeals for action and money to block this and fight that; I’ve given money to Truthout, Truthdig, the ACLU, the Democratic Socialists of America, and Common Cause. I remind myself that there are more good-hearted people than bigoted people. Trump and his band of kleptocrats and Christian zealots, I also remind myself, are symptoms of a diseased system. Even if Trump goes, forced out by scandal or because he is clearly unfit to be president, the system remains; another servant of the oligarchy will either step or be pushed forward. At the moment, Mike Pence is next in line.

It took a long time to get to this place. A lot of dominoes had to fall to make Donald Trump possible. If you watched Trump’s press conference on February 16 you know the man is insane, not within a country mile of contact with reality. “Incredible progress,” said Trump about his first month in office, and all the assembled reporters could do was gasp or text “WTF” to their colleagues. Trump resides in his own hermetically sealed universe, where he is the all-knowing, virile, and infallible leader.

If Trump is still in office a year from now I will be shocked. Another batshit performance like he turned in on the 16th and it’s likely the GOP will turn on him with the ferocity of a cornered wolverine. Trump is ill-mannered and ill-tempered, and so stupid that he makes George W. Bush look intelligent.  

The impact of the Trump regime hasn’t plopped on my doorstep yet, but these are early days and Trump’s fine-tuned machine (try not to burst out laughing) of an administration isn’t firing on all its diabolical cylinders yet. Once the Trump gang figures out how to turn the lights in the White House on, order a sandwich and a glass of milk, and get an extra blanket from the housekeeping staff, the insane ideas and stupid policy proposals will really start to flow, and the ugliness will begin in earnest.

I haven’t seen any evidence that the Democratic Party learned anything from its humiliation on November 8, 2016. As yet no mea culpa for abandoning working people 40-odd years ago in favor of corporate and professional class interests; no public rejection of Clintonism; no honest appraisal of how badly the DNC fucked up. Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi are still in positions of authority, which isn’t saying much in a party that only operates on the margins. What this shows me is how out of touch Democrats are with the needs, fears, and concerns of ordinary citizens. They don’t listen to us and they sure as hell don’t speak a language we understand.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Compromised Equilibrium

“I have found that, to make a contented slave, it is necessary to make a thoughtless one. It is necessary to darken his moral and mental vision, and, as far as possible, to annihilate the power of reason.” Frederick Douglass

Subtlety isn’t part of the Trump toolbox. First the White House issues a cruel and ridiculous travel ban targeting people from seven predominantly muslim nations, and then they begin to attack the corporate media for not fully covering all the acts of terror (committed by deranged muslims, of course) that occur around the world. The media quickly and easily proves that most of the attacks were reported, some of them extensively, but facts hardly matter in this sad new world.

Trump and Co. whip up FEAR of muslims by design, thus justifying, after the imperial decree, the ban and at the same time further casting the corporate media as lazy, biased, incompetent, and so on. Common tactic of totalitarian regimes: debase the press, make the people look to the strong man for answers. Trust Trump and only Trump.

To justify its existence and share of the federal purse, the US military-security-surveillance apparatus must always have an enemy at the ready, and that enemy must be painted as implacable, lethal, and omnipresent. At the moment the Trumpsters are fixated on ISIS, but when that interest fades (or is no longer useful) there is Iran (always a target) and perhaps, now that making war on Russia appears less likely, China will emerge as our Enemy No. 1.  

Who knows?

The learning curve for Trump’s is steep; he lacks even rudimentary understanding of the Constitution and the system of checks and balances between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government. Trump is accustomed to issuing orders and having them obeyed; he views any dissent -- from the press, the courts, or state governments -- as affronts to both his office and his person. How dare underlings question the CEO of America, Incorporated! Trump has even less respect for democracy or the will of the governed. He is an oligarch who sincerely believes, at his cellular level, that having come from money, or having earned money (no matter by what means), makes one smarter and more deserving than someone of lesser means. In an unmoored, exploitative, and predatory system of capitalism this sort of thinking, however warped and narrow, makes a perverse kind of sense. When every human activity is judged and measured by a dollar sign, having money equals nobility.

I worry about protest fatigue. I also worry that sooner or later a protest will turn violent or destructive and play into the hands of the security state, kept on edge and high alert by Trump’s authoritarian logic, leading to a smothering of all dissent. When a country’s equilibrium is already compromised, it takes relatively little to tip it over. I worry that people will focus so much on Trump that we lose sight of the desperate need to advocate for radical systemic changes that promote the general welfare, shrink the footprint of the US empire by drastically cutting the Pentagon budget, reduce poverty and income inequality, and protect the environment from further degradation.

The early actions of the Trump gang are ominous. As Andrew Levine wrote for Counterpunch recently, “Nearly everyone who is not filthy rich is going to suffer.”