What is Mr. Trump Accomplishing?

April 6, 2020

Trump insists on painting a rosy picture. He’s great. He’s solved every problem. We were the first to stop people coming from China. We have great tests. And medical professionals have all they need.  Things are so good that America will be going to church for Easter. And it would be a shame not to have sports to watch.

That’s a happy picture. The risk is that people will abandon fears and get together without worrying about social distance or washing their hands, avoiding groups or contact. Cabin fever isn’t fun. It takes character to stay at home and find ways of getting needed supplies without going into grocery and drug stores and other places that have what we might need.

When I have to leave my home in Albany, I see friends staying six feet apart, chatting, obviously enjoying each other, but without ever getting close. People give me a wide berth or I give them one. Yes, occasionally a friend or neighbor and I will talk across the lawn, hedge, or drive, but we stay much further apart than we ever would were it not for the virus. And by the way my neighbors are angels, offering to shop for us, given that the difference in our ages means they are probably less vulnerable to the virus than we are. For the most part, we’ve found ways of getting what we need without exposing ourselves to the virus. And I also want our neighbors to be able to do the same and avoid any place where they could pick it up.

We check with folks in New York City. They tell us that people there also give each other a wide berth when they need to leave the house. Some are lucky enough to have a yard, balcony or somewhere they and their families can get fresh air and stretch their legs without contact with others, risking their health or becoming carriers for anyone else. But otherwise, there too, they’re staying home. And yes, the kids can’t go to school and everyone’s working from home.

So thanks to Governor Cuomo for making clear what needs to happen and laying down rules to see that it does. We have our differences on some issues but he is doing his level best to take care of New Yorkers. It’s not about how great he is and how he’s thwarted the virus, but about what we all need to do.

Not Trump. At least until recently, he didn’t bother to keep a social distance in his daily prime-time campaign appearances. He boasted about his good health and how he didn’t need to follow the rules. And he doesn’t fret about the people who will follow his example.

So the question is whether it will make a difference? It could make a big one. His loyal followers could suffer the virus disproportionately. That will give the virus a second life wherever people ignored the rules, and then contact will bring it back all over the country. This time we won’t have the Chinese to blame. He’s turned the Governor down on respirators, refusing to accept the professionals’ understanding that the way to fight this disease is to kill it wherever it is, before it spreads and gets to the rest of us. Is he trying to play politics with who is vulnerable to the illness? Or is he leading his own supporters along with the rest of us into the hell of coronavirus pneumonia?

I realize that the president, and some representatives, do not want to recognize that where health is concerned, we are all in this together and no one is an island. But nature will make it clear. We have to help each other or perish together.

— This commentary was scheduled for broadcast by WAMC Northeast Report, on April 7, 2020.


Paying for the Virus

March 31, 2020

In his discussion of the financial consequences of the pandemic to New York, Gov. Cuomo has not mentioned that New York isn’t permitted to borrow the money it needs. The reason is a New York State constitutional prohibition. Many states prohibit borrowing except for capital expenses. When states were permitted to borrow for current expenses, they ran up large debts and the practice needed to be stopped. So, many state constitutions barred the practice. New York requires a law to be submitted to the voters for specific purposes. The Governor does not have the time to satisfy New York’s constitutional rules. For the moment, he’s stuck.

The same prohibition does not apply to the federal government. Economists understand that fiscal stimulus is an important tool for dealing with economic downturns. But clearly the feds have misused it, giving large tax cuts to the wealthiest people and corporations, cuts not used in any way to stimulate the economy but that did significantly increase the national debt. That was the kind of misbehavior that led states to take the power away.

This, however, is an example of a time where deficit spending is completely appropriate. Dealing with the virus is expensive. The feds have provided some relief though politics has affected who got what. But there is an additional problem – with a large part of the workforce ordered to stay home and businesses shuttered, there is a very large downturn in tax payments flowing to government. The federal government can borrow to fill that gap and it can provide relief to the states. But most states can’t help themselves. The result, as usual, is that this becomes another way for Republicans to force everyone to cut what they spend on services – in this case, because the big budget item is education, the feds are forcing states like New York to cut funding on schools. Whoopie – isn’t that great planning for the future.

The Federal Reserve is trying to stimulate the economy but chairman Powell has been very clear that the Fed cannot solve our problems because the financial system is not the main problem, not even close. There are supply side, demand side and income problems. The Federal Reserve’s tools provide little help on the income side. It’s a little too simple to say that the Federal Reserve has no fiscal powers because it can lend to the federal government, but it can’t force the federal government to borrow, or to put that in its budget. So unless Congress and the Administration decide that there is a need to help the states meet the costs of running their school systems and other necessary services, the states are stuck doing what Republicans always want them to do – cut their services to the people. If they do that, then rich folk won’t have to bribe their kids ways into college because only the rich will have kids sufficiently educated to go to college, and all the disparities in America will get even bigger.

Grabbing all the goodies for fewer and fewer people seems to be the dream of those who finance Republican campaigns, but I can’t see why any of the rest of us would accept it – unless Trump pulls the wool so far over people’s eyes that the people don’t understand that he and his Republican friends are using the epidemic to make most of us even worse off than we were before.

This commentary was scheduled for broadcast by WAMC Northeast Report, on March 31, 2020.


A House Divided Cannot Stand

March 3, 2020

Trump’s base thinks they can make America great by kicking out people they don’t like, people with different heritage, faith or color. Yet the evidence is that there are more and better jobs available in communities with more recent immigrants. A larger economy creates jobs and opportunities. It needs more goods and services. By contrast the effort to get rid of people is what economists call a deadweight loss. Deadweight because it is costly but produces nothing. We accomplish more working together than working against each other.

America’s great accomplishments have all come from making it easier to work together. Even before the Constitution, the states gave each other’s citizens all the “privileges and immunities” they gave their own. Sadly, they left most African-Americans in slavery, but they created a common economy to take advantage of America’s size and scale. The Constitution tightened and enlarged those promises. A single economy gave us the resources to do what a great nation must do and do well.

Before we could adopt what were called internal improvements like roads and canals, we had to learn that jealousy beggars us all. Projects wouldn’t pass without spreading the benefits to the vast majority of us. The Washington Administration designed the first American financial system. The Jefferson Administration purchased the Louisiana territory from the French and built what they called “the national road,” connecting the seaboard with the Ohio River valley. Steps like that laid the foundation for America to connect the oceans and stave off the European powers that still kept land and garrisons to our north, west and south.

The Civil War threatened everything but for the fact that Lincoln kept the British from intervening on behalf of Confederate cotton, and he kept the Union together.

American power solidified after the Civil War made ours one country, ended slavery, and Lincoln signed, in 1862 alone, the transcontinental Railroad Act, the Homestead Act and the act that built the great land grant universities, which together laid the agricultural, commercial, industrial and intellectual basis for America as the dominant twentieth century power.

We can’t have a great nation by fighting among ourselves. We can’t maintain national infrastructure by jealously keeping others from the benefits. We can’t maintain a great educational system by fighting over whom to keep out. We can’t continue to grow and prosper by jealously excluding each other from important national institutions. As Lincoln told us, “A house divided cannot stand.”

Armed ethnic, religious and racial animosities threaten American power and success. We’re all threatened by domestic terrorists who target people because of the color of their skin, the words and language they use to pray, or where they came from.

America’s strength has always been Americans’ ability to work together. Our major institutions understood the importance of cross-cultural cooperation. The U.S. Army worked to unify soldiers with different heritage, faith or color and who spoke different languages so that all could work as a team. Corporations unified their workforces, capped with ceremonies in which new Americans stepped out of what were labeled melting pots. Major sports leagues learned to take advantage of talent regardless of where it came from. Schools taught each new wave of Americans about democracy and gave them the skills to participate in our government and our economy.

It’s time that all Americans get with the program for the greater good of all of us – including any orange-Americans.

—This commentary was scheduled for broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 3, 2020.

 

 


Trump’s wrong approach to Iran

January 7, 2020

What’s wrong with Trump’s approach to Iran? Let me count the ways.

First, Trump’s claims about stopping Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani’s plans make little sense. What had been planned can take place with or without him. Iranian strikes are more, not less, likely now.  This is too similar to the prelude to the war in Iraq except that Trump isn’t taking the time to try to convince anyone. We just have unsubstantiable and probably false claims as a basis for very costly decisions.

Second, the timing is suspicious. War threats blew impeachment out of the news. In other words, everything is PR.

Third, Trump’s stated policy is tit for tat. But where does it end? If we need to have the last strike, why don’t they? Most important he has crushed any diplomatic path to peace as a way out.

Fourth, this was totally unnecessary. President Obama created a path to peace in the Middle East. Only Trump thought the Iranians weren’t obeying the nuclear agreement – those who actually went and looked agreed the deal was working.  But Trump shredded the existing path to peace, revived animosities that made it useless to stay in Iraq, provoked Iran by increasing sanctions after destroying the legal basis for sanctions and is now delivering the Middle East to other foreign powers like Russia and China. Iran has been measured and restrained by comparison.

Fifth, the military is not united on this. Trump has found people in the military who will work with him while other high-ranking and responsible brass react that his missions are not properly vetted and do more harm than good. Disagreement is fine but the possibility that Trump is reshaping the Army so that it can’t threaten a Trump takeover scares me most. Then we are all in the sewers, concentration camps or gas chambers. If you think that’s not possible, that’s exactly what does make it possible. We have to stop him, not ignore him.

Sixth, it is now much more likely that we are headed for war. Trump has managed to move the Iranian people from blaming their own government for their troubles to blaming the U.S. So the political pressures in Iran are now all on the side of action again the U.S.

Seventh, Iran does have the capability to react. They are well-organized for asymmetrical or unconventional warfare. American power is based on throw weight and mass destruction; Iranian power is based on secrecy and guerilla tactics. Military conflict with Iran will be very costly, a view strongly held within the military. Taking them on militarily makes little sense when there are better ways of managing conflict.

The real problem is to find someone who behaves like an adult in the White House. That makes the impeachment process more urgent and important. And by the way, the Constitution demands a trial. Trials in America are based on testimony under oath. Trial without witnesses is an oxymoron, another way Senate leaders insist on ignoring the Constitution – because they know testimony would be very damning to Trump.

For those interested, here is a link to expert commentators and the views of the organization of former Peace Corps Volunteers who served in Iran.


The Supreme Court on the Trump Subpoenas

December 17, 2019

The Supreme Court decided to hear the Trump Administration’s appeals from lower court orders that tax returns and other documents be provided. What does that mean?

The Court set the case for argument in March. The Court has a lot of control over timing. But generally, decisions are announced when the various opinions are finished.  That can take a long time in controversial cases. So sometime in June is likely.

Four members of the Court can set a case for hearing. Those who vote to take a case don’t have to vote for the side requesting it but, if they are favorably inclined, those four are only one vote short. Statistically, the Court decides in favor of the party requesting review between two-thirds and three-quarters of the time. That suggests Trump’s team probably wins.

But given the importance of the decision, the Court might just feel that it should make the final decision. Trump has belittled and attacked lower court judges. It would be harder for him to attack the Supreme Court.

A Supreme Court decision for the Administration could affect momentum. Deciding for Trump could anger Democrats and bring more to the polls, making Democratic victories more likely in 2020. It could also lead some Trump supporters to relax about the election, also making a Democratic victory more likely.

It will be difficult for the Court to justify deciding for Trump. The cases aren’t in his favor. Other presidents have had to comply with subpoenas. Deciding for Trump will make the Court seem totally political. Some members of the Court’s conservative majority would regret that. They think of themselves as judges, not partisans. Chief Justice Roberts explicitly said the Court is composed of judges, not partisans. Of course, we’ll see.

Legally, what’s already been disclosed makes a very strong case that Trump violated the Constitution, and broke the law, in ways that justify impeachment. As I’ve described, Trump put his personal interests above the national interest. He had previously decided to support and ship arms to Ukraine, stopping only to get a campaign message in his favor from the Ukrainian president. He changed back only when the story of the phone call came out. Everything was about his campaign and nothing about American interests.

Republicans talk about calling the whistle-blower. That would compound the violations of law, and the whistle-blower has nothing relevant to offer. Any decent judge would sustain objections to calling the whistle-blower to testify. All the evidence has now come from others. Not a single fact comes from the whistle-blower, who could only testify about what he or she heard or saw in the transcript. Other people heard the call, and saw the transcript. With the investigation done, the whistle-blower has nothing to offer. Most of what he or she said was hearsay and is inadmissible. Law enforcement uses hearsay as a tip – it checks on that tip by going back to people with direct knowledge and verifying or contradicting what the whistle-blower said. Here, the whistle-blower’s allegations were repeatedly corroborated. The whistle-blower’s relevance ends at that point.

Juries sometimes ignore the law and vote to dismiss what is clearly established. That’s the real relevance of the subpoenas. I doubt Senate Republicans will do their duty on the current record – most have made it clear they don’t care whether Trump is innocent or guilty. But additional disclosures could make it politically as well as legally impossible to ignore the evidence.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 17, 2019.


Impeachable Offenses – Disloyalty and Denial

December 10, 2019

Arguments about what should be in articles of impeachment divert our attention from the main point. Donald’s phone call with the new president of Ukraine should have made clear to all of us that the president is disloyal to America, willing to sell our security for a foreign leader’s press conference to make Donald look like a wizard instead of a duck. If we can’t trust the patriotism of the president, we can’t trust him to get anything right – except by accident.

His defense? Republican members of the Judiciary committee brought Professor Jonathan Turley to the stand to criticize Democrats for rushing when there are a lot of other witnesses with knowledge of Trump’s misbehavior. If there is anything favorable to Mr. Trump in what they would say, it has always been in his power to have them say it – it was Donald who told them to shut up, Donald who told them to stiff the subpoenas, Donald who threatened anyone who showed up to testify. It is perfectly appropriate for us to conclude that whatever they would say would make it even worse for Donald. Republicans are asking us to buy a completely irrational argument – that witnesses that Donald prevents from appearing would testify in his favor. Only if the Democrats were preventing witnesses favorable to Donald from testifying would their behavior be unfair. Instead, the Republicans are insisting that the Democrats are unfair because they refuse to fall into that trap. That’s Republican clap-trap and no American with their wits about them would fall for such nonsense.

Trump’s denial of science won’t make it into articles of impeachment, but is one of the most important reasons to get rid of him. Scientists test – will this work? What will happen if we do this or that? They can’t promise us a conclusion. Just the facts; sometimes good news and sometimes not. Trump just picks the conclusions he likes.

Mama didn’t get to choose her diagnosis. If she could have, she would certainly have preferred the family physician who told her that lump on her breast was arthritis. But I have lived with the belief that had he gotten the science right, had he told us the bad news, she might have lived to meet her daughter-in-law and her grandchildren and they her. And oh the joys they’d all have shared.

Remember Trump’s claim that he could get away with murder on 5th Avenue. The environmental damage Trump is doing to favor the short term profits of his rich friends will drive millions of people out of their homes if they’re lucky, or kill, starve or suffocate them if they’re not, dwarfing the death toll in Hitler’s concentration camps, and we will all be his victims – the working men and women, laborers, middle class – all the people Trump has fraudulently claimed to help. Mass murder is the highest of crimes and the strongest of reasons to impeach a president.

People on other continents have been converted from poachers to defenders of our natural patrimony with well-targeted incentives. But it won’t be done by an Administration that stimulates violence, encourages global warming and seeks to rid the world of everyone but his storm troopers.

Doctors would properly be stripped of their licenses. Presidential malpractice in the face of impending calamity should cost him his office.

The president is disloyal. He is arranging the death of innocent men, women and children on 5th Avenue and everywhere else. His congressional supporters have lost their minds and want us to throw ours into the trash heap with theirs.

We’ve got to clean up the White House and the environment with the method that Mary Martin made famous in South Pacific – we’ve got to wash those men right out of our hair – and every place else!

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 10. 2019.

 

 


Time to Fight Fire With Fire

November 19, 2019

We’re in the middle of a campaign about whether Democrats should nominate a centrist and reject people like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, who understand who and what is hurting most people in America – citizens, middle class and struggling, guests, refugees, union members, farmers, and consumers – most of us. Elizabeth and Bernie are the reasonable ones while most others avert their eyes or hold their noses. Three cheers for reasonable, straight talking, clear-eyed candidates.

What should Congress do? Compromise isn’t possible. Republicans can’t even accept surrender if Democrats’ names are on it. Negotiation isn’t possible no matter how much Republicans blame their own intransigence on the Democrats.

Congressional Democrats need to take a page out of the Republican playbook to copy Gingrich, fight fire with fire and refuse to pass essential legislation, including the budget, unless it has everything Democrats stand for and need for the welfare of all of us. I’d insist on language that eliminates any and all judicial seats from the moment the holder dies or leaves – no more appointments for Trump no matter when the election, no more judges who refuse to deal with the unconscionable ways that corporations eviscerate the lives of honest, hard-working people. Unconscionable, by the way, is a legal term that judges refuse to use when ordinary people are being shafted.

What will it do in the presidential campaign? Energize the party. It’s time Democrats stopped gagging themselves to stay closer to the middle, allowing the so-called “middle of the road” to drift further to the wrong, further away from what reasonable, real people need.

We need to stand up for each other, for our friends and our neighbors, for people who care for America, who actually believe in the Declaration of Independence and in the ideology of America, not the weakened and destroyed America that Republicans at the racist, billionaire and Tea Party tables happily let crumble. It’s time to show we really care about the harm that Trump and his lackeys are doing and stop it. No compromise with hatred, racism and the corruption of a selfish official with an ego so weak that he can’t stand truth and resorts to calling everyone else fakers, from scientists to journalists.

Tax cuts for the wealthy are obscene – their tax rates are already a fraction of what they were in America’s most productive times. So-called entrepreneurs don’t stand on each other’s shoulders – they stand on the shoulders of a government that created or financed the most important advances of modern life, from medical discoveries to the internet and the GPS system before making it available to private firms. No, we cannot have a decent or fair country if wealthy egotists can’t stand the idea of paying for decent public education. Yes, we can provide health care for everyone like most of the free world. Yes, we can rebuild our country’s infrastructure before it crumbles and takes America down. No need to worry about the billionaires and their crocodile tears about misnamed “entrepreneurs” who don’t need the rest of us to take care of them and don’t use their tax breaks to create jobs.

It’s time to stand on principle. And let’s be clear – principle is attractive and inspiring. We can help everyone from farmers and miners to doctors, teachers, nurses, truckdrivers and food service workers. It’s time for all of us to stand up for each other and show the selfish rich and their enablers what decency and principle really look like, while we show them the door out of Washington and the state capitals and send them to places where they can live the lives of refugees.


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