Update : Bernie, Trumponavirus, Chomsky, Arizona, Back Home, Teaching Troubles, Research Rewards, and a Nice Note

It has been some time since my last article on either Algo-Stats or its companion activist site Scire Populum et Potentiam.  Since leaving Microsoft last August, I’ve relocated to Tucson, Arizona to reduce the proximity to family and to return to graduate school, hopefully for the last time this century.  I’ve been extraordinarily busy with teaching and coursework, along with qualifying exams, so much so that I’ve neglected a few book reviews I’ve intended, as well as a more critical analysis of the Democratic primaries, debates, and caucuses.  I would, however, highly recommend Democracy Now, David Swanson’s continued exceptional critical work, and the ongoing articles and tweets from Dean Baker on the Center for Economic Policy.

Democratic Races : Burying the Hatchet… Deeply in Bernie’s Back

I very much would like to comment more on the coalescing of Democratic candidates to defeat Bernie Sanders, despite the fact that Pete Buttigieg was performing decently leading up to Super Tuesday, only to resign the night before, joining Beto O’Rourke in an astonishing about-face, both candidates celebrated for following Bernie’s campaign strategy in accepting no PAC nor corporate donations.  My best friend back from my hometown, like many Beto supporters, was heartbroken, scraping bumper stickers off of his and his wife’s vehicles.   Buttigieg made a decision, the likes of which analysts such as Michael Moore quoted in Newsweek, decry as fear-mongering and unheard of in primary politics.  As Bernie has repeated, he has won the ideological debate, yet two now unemployed young Democratic politics, Mayor Pete and Congressman Beto seem to have betrayed the grassroots movements propelling them into their positions.  What did the DNC say to coerce Buttigieg, who claimed on NBC how he loved Bernie before “it was cool“, to about-face claim that Bernie wanted to “burn down the system.”  Salon labels the logical fallacy we can associate with Buttigieg’s absurd claims, the straw man argument.   The majority of Americans have a desire for a return to New Deal government (anti-socialists need take note that democratic socialism is nowhere near the cartoonish totalitarianism advertised in circa 1950s McCarthy brochures.)  But Democrats voting in the primaries fear Biden is the better candidate–yes, a misleading sounding sentence.  If you’re interested in misleading coverage, search for Bernie on Google, and all so-called “liberal” media, excepting a few genuinely progressive journals, all are dripping with “get the hell out of the way of the big man on campus”,

and so on and on and on.  When the reverse was true, and Bernie seemed like he could form a coalition, the best we could get was constant attacks (and attacks) on Medicare for All by CNN, with very little attention to where we could find endless money, namely, runaway military spending and endless war, described in a piece by Common Dreams.  The Physicians for a National Health Plan have long described all the relevant numbers one consider, and if we had such a plan in place now, we could expect a smaller death toll from COVID, a topic to which we’ll return.  The paucity of pro-Bernie articles such as Columbia Journalism Review’s “Coverage of Bernie Suffers from a Lack of Imagination require some internet digging.  Speaking of Common Dreams, they appear to be the only journal I’ve found so far which asserts a simple argument that CNN and NYT, for all their fantasy liberalism, seem utterly incapable of speaking this central truth: Bernie performs much better with independents and progressive-independents.  And as a strong and long-time supporter of Bernie’s, I receive a good deal of communication from the campaign arm, and as of a week ago, Bernie began asking for contributions NOT for his campaign, but for COVID relief.  That’s class.  Bernie’s fireside chats and speeches of late channel Franklin Delano Roosevelt, easily most important president in American history, with the obvious neck-in-neck Abraham Lincoln; we need Bernie’s socialism (or just New Deal policies) now more than ever.  I could go on and on about Bernie’s monumental role in reshaping the Democratic platform (Biden suddenly seems to be embracing everything Bernie embraces, but with the wink and nod that he’ll fold unnecessarily  to “scorch-the-earth” Republicans (even Paul Krugman agrees) once he steps back into the White House.)  Don’t get me wrong–a Biden administration, or an administration of any suit-wearing primate one might choose perhaps, would be better than the nest of oozing, craven, ignorant, festering, collusive cronies.  (And no, I’m actually holding back on my words here.)

Trump : He Knew He Was Right In Being Wrong, or Something Like That…

We can slacken blame on Herbert Hoover for policy ineptitude–he was a brilliant engineer, but a without a wonkish grasp of economics, say after the brands of John Maynard Keynes and Harry Dexter White, he was only minimally able to mitigate the crisis of the Great Depression, his .  Trump, by contrast, loathes studies and knowledge.  He believes he knows everything, and that his actions have created the stock market gains since he assumed office.  And in the space of a few weeks, this one metric is  I saw in a gone.  Peter Wehner, a Republican who served in the administrations of Reagan and both Bushes, wrote in The Atlantic that “the Trump presidency is officially over“, as COVID leaves him badly unprepared after a gutted several agencies specifically in place to manage disaster and needed relief.  But never fear, I noticed a ticker on CNN last week or so that Jared Kushner, magical expert in all policy things, was “advising President Trump,” a president who wanted the world to know that coronavirus is the fault of the Chinese, not of the Americans.  Phew–for a moment there I was worried what we ought place on our headstones.  Trump, along with his enablers in Congress and the disgraceful far right organizations masquerading as media, has consistently downplayed the coronavirus outbreak, with references numbering too far to recite here.  A decent rundown appears in Rolling Stone, leading to his recent claim that he always knew it was a “pandemic.”  If the consequences weren’t so dire, I’d insist on laughter at Republican lawmaker Matt Gaetz mocking the outbreak by wearing a military gas mask during the relevant House votes, only to contract the virus a few days later.  These corrupt government officials ought be in jail.  How about global warming is a Chinese hoaxScientists are evil, per terminally ill hatemonger medal of freedom recipient Rush Limbaugh.  I read a copy of his book The Way Things Ought to Be several years ago, and his siding with the infinitesimal minority of scientists in denial was a retread of his debate with Al Gore that atmospheric chlorine released in a volcanic eruption dwarfed all possible chlorine since the industrial revolution.  Of course, the whole book read like talking points, mostly false.  I doubt he surrenders that he dodged the Vietnam War draft with an in-grown hair on his wide rear-end.  He never corrected that volcanic chlorine is water soluble, yet chlorine released through factory processes is not.  Rain won’t help us, it would appear, as weather is now much more extreme thanks to catastrophic climate change, but at least he’ll get out early.  I daresay when he passes, I’ll feel the urge to channel Gore Vidal, or maybe with more gentility, Noam Chomsky on the passing of William F. Buckley.

University of Arizona : The Home of Noam

Speaking of Noam, I’ve had the unique and special privilege of sitting in two of his courses at the University of Arizona, and, for reasons too inexplicably wonderful to imagine, I had my first sitdown discussion with him on a research aim near to his heart.  I won’t offer any details now, as he and I don’t want the let the cat out of the bag yet, but it’s a dream I couldn’t have ever envisioned.  Unfortunately, due to the outbreak, he is rightly quarantined, as the nonagenarian is robust, but nonetheless a nonagenarian.   I’ll have more to offer in the days ahead, depending on how the work goes.noam_neil One can note the large image of Bertrand Russell, a leading antiwar and progressive intellectual and activist in the United Kingdom, jailed for his iron opposition to the so-called “Great War,” later renamed, much like Star Wars IV: A New Hope, to World War I.  Speaking of Star Wars, I recall Yoda admonishing Luke that “wars don’t make one great.”  In any case, I’m seated next to the man in whose very large image I’ll have in my office, academic or otherwise, in the future.  A half-century of life experience sits between us, and I’m honored beyond words.

Arizona

I certainly have lost clarity around faith over the past several years, not, strictly speaking, because the evangelical tradition in which I was raised obviously would ostracize or mutilate me for my homosexuality, but rather because I simply could not reconcile a good-willed deity who would permit the ghastly, overwhelming third world suffering most of us in the western, or first, world will never know.  The story of Job offers nothing but confusion, as God and Satan bet on Job’s faithfulness, the story resolving with Job beckoning and thus foretelling the coming of the Intercessor, or Christ.  My aunt and uncle are (sort-of post)-evangelists who traveled about the world for many years.  I accompanied them on many spiritual meetings, and I’ll confess I’ve seen many, many things leading me to conclude that there’s much more to the human mind than we can imagine.  I’m in the process of helping them prepare a semi-exhaustive list of what you might think of as miracles, mind-reading, and the like, which I can promise you very well could be an extension of what little we understand about the warm goop between our ears.  John Cleese, a steadfast agnostic such as myself, discussed a series of studies during his fascinating interview at Google which demonstrate that the brain has predictive power over certain randomized experiments as conducted by Dean Rabin at the Institute of Noetic Sciences and other researchers at Cornell.  Whatever the case is to extrasensory perception, my aunt and uncle are the honest kind of ministers–they have only the long list of friendships they’ve cultivated, but no golden toilets or other Robert Tilton-styled frivolity (though sometime I’ll tell an interesting story involving their past interactions with him.)  I say all of this to point out that moving to Arizona to improve health conditions, return to school, volunteer music work with and be supportive of my aunt and uncle, be closer to my husband’s family in Scottsdale, and actually have this opportunity to work with Noam is incredible.  And in light of COVID, this is exactly where we should be.  But university work isn’t without its share of pitfalls, a topic to which we’ll return below.

Back Home for Tragedy

It’s rare I would delve into so much personal material in this venue, as I would rather keep to the title, the power and the people, but this is a time of personal challenge for us all, and the stories are common.  I returned home  to north Texas following the passing of my Uncle Allan, a successful businessman in Boston, Chicago, and Texas.  I brought my Uncle Charles along to surprise his sister Dowleen, Allan’s now widow, as I figured she would need some emotional support.  It was a grueling and terrible month of waiting and watching after Allan underwent emergency surgery to repair an aortic aneurysm, an operation from which he didn’t recover.  It gave me the opportunity to see my mother, her husband Tony Shotwell (a red town Democratic council member so beloved they named a center in his honor), sister, and my best friend Robin, his wife Molly, and my godchild Samantha.   Below from right counter-clockwise: sweetest of sweet little red-headed Sam (grinning with new teeth!), Molly, me, Uncle Charles, my sister Lindsey, Tony, my mother Tisha, her sister my aunt Dowleen, and Robin.)

Gainesville_Dowleen (2)Further, I had the blessed opportunity to see some of my favorite schoolteachers, my calculus teacher from high school E. Clyde Yeatts, and my college US history professor Pat Ledbetter.  Sadly, my other notable teachers from that region are retired and relocated (Candy, I’m thinking of you) or have passed on.  See below for our reunion picture–I reminded my former professors  that they are the good guys, and we need to stick together through this mess of political recklessness.  Both Clyde and Pat are amazing folks, so generous with their time and stewardship, and Pat is still teaching at North Central Texas College, where she helped to utterly transform my world-view.  Clyde has fully retired after an incredible career of teaching high school and college courses. Gainesville (2)

Teaching Again : The Migration Online, Shock and Reshock with Neither Awe Nor Aww

I had planned originally to do a more in-depth post on my return to the teaching clique after a five year mission to tech in the northwest, but other issues came up.  It seems like a good time to bring it up now, as the COVID pandemic leaves university leaders scrambling to relocate academia into cyberspace.  My teaching philosophy is actually relevant here, though I haven’t posted it before.  Before considering the current mess, I should pause to comment on my initial impressions in returning to teaching last semester.

To give a little context, I’ve worked in mathematics instruction either as a tutor, a teaching assistant, a teacher, a supervisor, or mentor since 1994.  I tutored my mother when she took elementary statistics from Clyde in the photograph above back in 1995.  I’ve very much enjoyed most of my teaching and mentoring experience, and coworkers know I’m happy to explain, perhaps in excruciating detail, artifacts of some oddball mathematical model.  And it’s something I do well.  A student of mine from Georgia Tech told me I was the best teaching assistant he’d known in all his four years of undergraduate study.  It was very, very touching to hear that.

Bear with me, as I should point out that most of what I’ll say here is pretty negative.  But if you’ve already read my political commentary earlier, this might not even surprise you.  And I probably wouldn’t have bothered to post about it had it not impacted me personally; I was, I suppose, expecting something of a song and a dance, as it was an opportunity for them to have a teacher return from the “real world” of industry to impart wisdom.  Ha.  What a narcissist I’m becoming.  On the contrary, I’ve come away feeling quite dissatisfied with the monolithic bureaucratization in the twenty-first century.

But it is worth mentioning a couple upgrades since I last dabbled in instruction.  On the side of light, the powers that be (or one single power, it would seem) here in the University of Arizona Department of Mathematics have (has) evolved the more basic classes into mostly participatory labs.  Students discuss problems and try to reach solutions.  It’s a cool idea with much promise, but it slows progress a bit.  One might think an extra credit hour is needed.  There also is an online tool the students must use something called ALEKS, though this part of the grading occurs outside of instructor or teaching assistant oversight.  Now on to what isn’t working.

It is apparent now that one person largely controls all teaching assignments, and chairs of the sub-departments aren’t willing, at least not to me, to asking for exceptions.  This is a conscious decision on the part of academic faculty to cede power to non-academic administration.  I don’t believe I’ve ever experienced this, nor did I know it was a thing.  I do recall when I was a graduate student at the University of Texas at Arlington that professors were quite unhappy with departmental proceedings on uniformity across classes.  And in those cases, it was faculty and some academic oversight.  I find this new norm to be curious, as I was permitted, as a TA, to teach my own classes any way I saw fit, including managing graders and crafting homework, lesson plans, and exams.  It’s the extreme opposite here–despite years of experience, one must do as one is told, and that includes other faculty who have much more on-hands teaching experience than myself–literally, when I asked to teach my own class, the explanation I was given was that, “you need to learn about our student population.”  I still don’t know what that means.  Perhaps I should have asked for clarification.  Instead, I accepted the beginning role, expecting things to change after they observed my work with my students.  What happened instead I won’t say explicitly here, but human resources is now involved.  It’s hard not to think that expressing my opinions, generally in a nicer version than you’ll see them here, is the culprit behind any difficulties I have with administration.

Returning to my rant, coordinators are very insistent about grading policies, requiring 2000 (!) fall students to take tests at exactly the same time on exactly the same day, with a logistical nightmare to assign rooms, proctors, and an essential guarantee of a late evening exam time.  And why?  They’re certain the students will cheat.  Smart phones and email and yada yada make it so easy to cheat on a twenty question multiple choice test.

Now I just listened to Carl Sagan mention in Cosmos that the human genome perhaps could express more individuated humans than can ever live in the history of our civilization.  But we can’t randomly permute questions on a multiple choice test so that answers don’t line up, nor are they the same on corresponding questions?  With twenty questions and four answer choices each, even if you had exactly the same questions, there are simply too lazy (they admitted this to me themselves) to generate different tests, or, heaven forbid, take the extra step of trusting students not to cheat, or for that matter trust instructors to run and grade their own classes the way they see fit.  These tests are unavailable to the instructor of record, as though even he/she is considered untrustworthy.  Hmm, we’ll return to that word later.  And the histrionics around student dishonesty is quite ingrained–the coordinators require a sitdown meeting preceding every midterm to repeat the same drivel about correct proctoring.  It seems like more thinking goes into preventing cheating than into nurturing learning.

From a game theoretic perspective, there are easy answers that don’t require factory solutions : I read an interesting experiment in which students were permitted to take tests unsupervised, and of course it’s immediately obvious which students cheated.  A similar strategy could work here.  Or perhaps simply have several versions, maybe individualized to each student but with essentially the same concepts.  Again, we can randomly generate these tests.  If they cheat with outside help, does it really matter?  The onus on extremely large classes to catch cheaters seems unfair, as it’s much easier to notice in smaller classes.

Further, they require the students stay in the room until half-way through the exam, and when I queried whether they understood that we probably couldn’t legally require they remain, I was told that these students are used to doing what they’re told, so threatening them was fine.  Other policies are shockingly broken–we were advised during teaching training that if a student expresses suicidality, we ought more-or-less personally take them into custody ourselves to take them to student health services.  I put my foot down in the orientation, explaining my opinion the very real danger in coercing kids, mostly 22-26 years-old with no psychiatric or counseling training, to assess the risk in attempting something so stupid.  I insisted that you call the police, period.  My husband is a psychiatrist, and that is his strong warning.   On the altruistic front, you don’t permit this suicidal student the opportunity to harm oneself or others, and purely from the perspective of protecting the university, you let professionals immediately take over the situation.  The half-hearted response was that students’ records could be tarnished if you require a police escort, so the risk is worth it.  Sigh.

Moving on, technologically, they’re required to buy a TI-83 calculator, evidently because anything with symbolic manipulation is a bridge too far, while graphing and performing mild-to-moderate calculations are too hard but symbolic manipulation isn’t.  I’ve reminded them that I have worked extensively in math and science since buying my TI-89 some years ago, and I never used it after school.  Because of path dependency, they compel the students to use the same technology I used a quarter century ago in high school algebra, trigonometry, and calculus.  Wow, am I really that old?   In any case, this would have been akin to my having to use a slide rule while in those courses, as one could argue that button mashing somehow left more to the machine than to the man.

Perhaps it’s better to ask what the goal is in requiring all the students to learn college algebra, when they’ll forget the material in the months to follow?  A class in logic would be far more useful for many if not most of the students required to take this class, as it is the last math signpost in the road.  Fact is I couldn’t even get a straight answer from what the coordinators believe the students should be learning and retaining.

I suppose the reader can sense me baring my own frustrated narcissism, but I can report that the lecturers to which I’ve been assigned very much have appreciated my jumping in to help them teach.  Yet the powers that be don’t bother to observe this interaction.  And I’ve received praise from my students for teaching them concepts in a uniquely clarifying style. Can you imagine my frustration when someone young enough to have been in grade school when I managed these very classes myself telling me that I was not trustworthy to the department?  Furthermore, to my knowledge, no one has taken complaints I’ve flagged seriously.  My cynicism tells me that my offering advice on how to run the ship better was very poorly received.  I get that–it’s human nature, as is my reviling against unfair criticism.

My sincere hope is that if anything positive comes out of COVID, it forces most business and classwork to more easily migrate online; this is the future.  Rich corporate executives might think otherwise, but work-from-home is a very good idea, and admits less stress.  We’re very much unprepared for this scenario, so it’s no time like the present to invest resources centrally into solving all of these problems across the board.  And it seems that may be happening.  I’m discovering that the powers that be are having to adopt suggestions  I made during orientation, as students may or may not have access to printers or their TI machines.  So we migrate to a paperless, online experience with exams proctored through the Zoom tool.   (Incidentally, Zoom stock has ballooned at the time of this writing.  Another missed opportunity to get rich, I suppose.)  And I’m helping students edit PDFs using online opensource tools since the department has no obvious solution, and their expectation in the past was that students would print out worksheets, write in their answers, then scan them into PDFs.  This, of course, was another component for which I had suggested we provide an end-to-end digital solution.  Can you imagine, even before this crisis, how badly that had gone with every assignment?  Badly.

So what’s the lowdown on all of this?  Is it that I feel insulted and not heard?  Or is it the overall risk to and effects on my students?  And they are my students, are they not?  Education is less and less what I recognize.  A university course is a sacred trust, a bond between the teacher and the taught, the scholar and the students.  You and your teacher work together to succeed.  I think the answer is both and all.  I feel insulted, and I don’t mind commenting publicly when the effects are deleterious to my students.

It is a deep shame, and many other educators, current and retired, have shared similar stories with me.  Junior college and university level instruction, to say nothing of that of secondary and below, seems to be fraying, and though I’ve always cared about teaching a great deal, as my teaching_philosophy clearly indicates, hope is waning, as we have many, many other battles to win in the days ahead.  So let’s now turn to the rest of the good news about returning to school.

Research Opportunities Everywhere

I’ve joined the department at a good time, certainly.  In the department of statistics, we confront the immense growth and demand for statistics.  My chair Joseph Watkins recently netted the university an immense grant for a data science foundation, an operation which will transcend the many research departments across the campus, including astronomy, biology, epidemiology, genomics, optical sciences, engineering, computer science, applied mathematics, and so on and on.  It’s an incredible grant he, Helen Zhang, and many others had quite a hand in creating.  I’m very honored to have the rare opportunity to offer a little bit of input here and there, and I plan to put my industry experience to good use.  I’ve noted how data science, statistics, and machine learning finds application across logistics, operations research, technological performance, market and ads testing, and community operations.  This is indeed exciting.

And another incredibly important piller here is the newly-appointed chair of applied mathematics, one Dr. Misha Chertkov, a faculty member from Los Alamos with an impressively varied research pedigree and an inslakable thirst for ground in the most fertile and forward reaches of applied mathematics, statistics, computer science, engineering, machine learning, and the like.  I think it’s safe to say I may have discovered my advisor.  Other interesting possibilities include astrophysics research, and of course, the project I mentioned earlier with Noam.

So I would argue, obviously, that returning to school was the correct decision for me.  And I’m incredibly blessed to be here.  So I’ll end on some more inspirational themes.

“Look for the Helpers”

As the late great Mr. Rogers said, “look for the helpers”, and you’ll know there is hope.  There are many good people out there doing good work to help each other.  This is a time through which we can demonstrate our resolve, both as Americans and as a species.  We can join together with countless others to look for the new political narrative, perhaps one like that described by George Monbiot, to ease our passage through this critical junction in our history.  COVID demonstrates how much alike we all really are, and, like the more ominous catastrophic climate change, how little discrimination and division makes any sense in today’s world.  Looking for something gentle to watch last  night, we returned to the original Cosmos series, and I was actually quite surprised at how moved I found myself in listening to Carl Sagan’s gentle words in the opening and closing pieces of the episode.  In closing to said series, he offered the following inspiration, and I’d invite you to listen.  I genuinely believe our species is worth saving, and maybe this is our opportunity to move forward.  With that, please, please be safe.  Here’s a beautiful sunset in Tucson right outside my door–enjoy.

sunset

On The Third Day of Chomsky

chomsky_booksToday is the ninetieth birthday of Noam Chomsky! Though impossible to summarize such an incredible life with a few short articles, I hope that our conclusion of commemorations is icing on the cake for the Chomsky aficionado while a pique to the interest for newcomers.  Today’s selection of videos glimpses his many discussions on geopolitics, activism, and history.  And I conclude with a very special gift for Noam, so please read on.

Manufacturing Consent : C-SPAN

Noam appeared on C-SPAN some years ago to discuss Manufacturing Consent, a media critique, his seminal media critique co-authored with the late Edward Herman.  Central to the book, the propaganda model identifies means through which corporate media must serve power in contravention to the stated purpose of a free press.  The book itself is a good deal more technical than most of his later analytic books, so it might serve just to watch the documentary.   Here, we present the book review.

Noam and Howard

Chomsky’s very close friend Howard Zinn was a titanic American historian who, to his professional peril, articulated the appropriately named A People’s History of the United States.  Having met in the 1960s while working within the civil rights movements, Noam and Howard appeared in many interviews over the years, and here’s a great one from April of 2007 appearing on Democracy Now.

In September of 2004, Chomsky and Zinn together in Boston discussed whether there was “Hope in These Times” for Spare Change street paper and the Homeless Empowerment Project.

Chomsky chatted about Zinn not long after his passing.  His reflections evoke heart-wrench, as Howard was a close personal friend.  The world is lesser without him.

1995 : Contract with America, NAFTA, and Other Idiocies

Noam spoke on campus in 1995 to Doug Morris for an hour on contemporary American politics; NAFTA, Gingrich, and other topics of the day dominated the discussion.

Self-Destruction of the Species?  Institutions versus People

Chomsky spoke in April of 2001 at MIT on the question of species self-destruction, arguing the crucial role of institutional stupidity.  See the section below on Daniel Ellsberg for more.

What is Anarchism?

At a philosophy forum at the Czech Palacký University Olomouc, elder Chomsky discusses his take on anarcho-syndicalism and possible latter forms.  One uppity whippersnapper argues that he’d prefer to be told what to do, with Noam’s response a rather clever one.

Chomsky on Dershowitz : “Just A Comic Figure”

Alan Dershowitz has recently indebted jingoists everywhere in his zany legal defenses of Donald Trump on Fox.  Chomsky  has debated Dershowitz several times through the years, describing him to me as “just a comic figure, desperate to defend his two clients, himself and the State of Israel, but smart enough to know that both are guilty as sin.”  This was a reference to particular points of contention he and I were discussing regarding Israel’s illegal occupation of the West Bank and Dershowitz’ often ludicrous defense of it.  “All this smoke that was blown…” is a great derogation Chomsky uses in the following debate in 2005 at Harvard’s John Kennedy School of Government.

Dan and Noam

Daniel Ellsberg was a government analyst working within the RAND corporation during the Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations.  He met Noam while working within the peace movement in the late 1960s.  Here’s a picture of Noam, Dan, and Howard together in the 1970s.

ellsberg_zinn_chomsky

In 1971, Noam defended his friend Daniel Ellsberg publicly after Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers, the hidden, vicious history of the Vietnam War.  This release significantly contributed to the growing public discontent with the negligent, criminal actions of the Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations.  Be prepared to be annoyed as hell at the Buckley-esque cross-examiner, clearly more interested in hearing his own voice.  I don’t even care enough to look up his name.

Noam and Daniel met at the University of Arizona this past spring to discuss Dan’s latest book, The Doomsday Machine, a book I hope to review here soon.  These icons don’t pull punches in their scathing condemnation of nuclear proliferation.  Don’t be depressed.  This is a call to action!

9/11 and the “Rebel Without a Pause”

In 2005, filmmaker Will Pascoe produced Rebel Without a Pause, a documentary detailing the sharp uptick in Chomsky’s speaking requests after the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York (not to be confused with the September 11, 1973 terror attack in Allende’s Chile.)  Chomsky discussed his book on the former attack at the fifteenth anniversary of the Fairness in Accuracy and Reporting (FAIR).  Almost overnight, institutions, agencies, citizens spanning America and beyond expressed desperation in understanding what would motivate a group of criminals to murder thousands of civilians, killing themselves in the process.  Listen for the most plausible explanation available, a summary and analysis of intelligence data and the historical, documentary record.

Bernie and Noam

Bernie Sanders is the most favorable political figure today, according to the far right news media Fox.  Though Bernie’s 2016 campaign for president didn’t reach out to Noam for analysis, commentary, and so on (Noam told me this himself), they’ve crossed paths throughout the years; in 1985, Chomsky delivered a talk called “Deciphering Foreign Policy Jargon” at Burlington City Hall.  Millennials will cheer when Bernie introduces Noam.

Noam and Gore

Noam and gay hero and activist Gore Vidal only occasionally appeared together; on the passing of Gore, Noam told me,

We were on similar paths,
but they didn’t cross 
much.  Moved in different 
circles.  We did have a 
long videotaped 
discussion once, arranged 
by Jay Parini, a novelist 
who’s a common friend.  
Don’t know what happened to it.
A fine person, in my view.  
And outstanding novelist, and 
honest and often discerning 
analyst.

Well, it just so happens I found that video for him.  Yesterday, we included Gore later recounting how no American media organization would release the video, not even in “San Francisco on a Sunday morning at four a.m.”  In other words, not even the most “liberal” district featured mainstream media brave enough to challenge the recently deceased George H.W. Bush’s criminal aggression in Iraq.

Requiem for the American Dream

A very recent work of Noam’s called Requiem for the American Dream  considers principles of wealth concentration in the post-industrial, neoliberal era.  Documented in the same-named compilation of interviews with him, the instant classic was quite hard to find in theaters, even in the tolerant urban sprawl of Seattle.  My husband and I could find only one venue, somewhat distant, and a cash-only operation.  So much for the bastion of liberalism.  One can find the full-length documentary here.

Randall Wallace and Chomsky Speaks

Randall Wallace, grandson of former vice president Henry Wallace, believes Chomsky to be perhaps the most important intellectual of the past century.  To that end, he founded Chomsky Speaks, a project aimed at capturing as much of this incredible man on film as we can in Noam’s time with us.  I’d invite you to take a look for yourself.

My Friendship with Noam

nps_anc_2_cutWhile studying computer science and the Georgia Institute of Technology, I came across Noam’s work repeatedly in courses on the theory of computation.  In a purely academic pursuit, I searched the internet for discussions of his professional work; I then stumbled on his activist work, finding for the first time an author and thinker who spoke my language.   Encyclopedic, diligent, and driven by integrity, his powerhouse talks became a significant time drain on me.  I began ordering his books by the satchel, eager to consume every detail-packed tidbit he had to offer on geopolitics, critical analysis of foreign policy, and prescriptions for a better future.  We began corresponding in 2012, remaining pen pals for these years since.  I believe there isn’t a man I respect more, past or present.  And it isn’t hero worship, as I, like Noam, stringently object to gladiators and saviors.  Noam’s role as activist has been, and continues to be, an analyst, a curator of history, and a staunch defender of victims everywhere.  Though he’d never admit it, it actually gratifies him to hear how his works have inspired generation after generation of activists.  It isn’t immodesty.  Each of us need validation that what we’re doing is meaningful, however minor or however impactful.

nps_anc_cutHere was my eager first meeting with the man himself.

So as Noam enters his tenth decade, let me close these three days of celebration with a song I composed and performed just for him; here are the lyrics.  And the recording is below.

 

 

Happy birthday, dearest Noam!!!

 

Marking a Solemn Week in A Sea of Solemnity

This week marks the seventy-second anniversary of an event showcasing both the ascent of the human species to the top of the evolutionary ladder and its descent into what could be the darkest and final chapter of our roughly 200,000 year run on this planet : the bombing of Japan by the United States with nuclear weapons.

On August 6, 1945, the United States Air Force deployed the atomic bomb over Hiroshima, incinerating a few thousand acres of densely populated city, killing anywhere from 70,000 to 100,000 people in the blast; perhaps another 70,000 died from exposure.  On August 9, the U.S. continued by dropping a plutonium bomb on Japan over the city of Nagasaki, killing maybe 40,000 instantly and another 40,000 from the aftermath.  American apologists offer that these mass murders were essential in ending the Second World War while minimizing Allied casualties.  Certainly, that’s what I learned growing up, the pertinent question being whether this is true; it wasn’t until I took world history under Dr. Pat Ledbetter, longtime activist, jurist, and professor, that I ever heard the decision to deploy the atom bomb against Japan come into question.

Quite relevant today is Donald Trump’s quite harsh rhetoric toward the nation of North Korea as reported by the New York Times.  His outrageous words,

[t]hey will be met with fire
and fury like the world has
never seen[,]

as usual exhibit the uncensored, grotesque gaffes we’ve come to expect from him.  They also eerily echo similar words by Harry S Truman, president at the conclusion of the Second World War :

[the Japanese can] expect a
rain of ruin from the air,
the like of which has never
been seen on this earth.

The parallel may have been on purpose, as Trump seems to fancy himself the most accomplished president of our time, and Truman, in Americana, is widely regarded to have successfully ended the single most destructive conflict in history.  Trump can rest at ease spiritually, according to “faith leader” Robert Jeffress : contravening Romans chapter twelve’s directive to refrain from repaying evil for evil, he suggests that God’s instructions don’t apply to the government, and thus this same, loving “god” has bestowed upon Trump license to obliterate North Korea.  Certainly some hearts, are indeed, “desperately wicked.”

Though the philosophies of extremist devotees of Trump might not be all that surprising in their rapacity and blood-lust, the the claim that the atomic bombs were necessary to save American lives at the conclusion of the second world war, is, in fact, propaganda.  It turns out that the Japanese had suggested a surrender months before the bombs landed, asking only that they keep their emperor, largely a figure head and cultural symbol.  Washington refused, despite General Eisenhower, among others, urging Truman that

it wasn't necessary to hit them
with that awful thing … to use
the atomic bomb, to kill and 
terrorize civilians, without even 
attempting [negotiations], was a 
double crime[.]

Additionally, Admiral William Leahy, Truman’s chief of staff, apparently argued that

[t]he use of this barbarous weapon…was
of no material assistance in our war
against Japan[;] [m]y own feeling was
that in being the first to use it, 
we had adopted an ethical standard common 
to the barbarians of the Dark Ages [...] 
I was not taught to make wars in that 
fashion, and wars cannot be won by 
destroying women and children.

The Nation suggested in an investigative report released on the seventieth anniversary of the bombings quite accurately that we Americans need to face the ugly truth that the war was ready for a bloodless conclusion before Truman ordered the mass execution of hundreds of thousands of people.  Military head after military head uniformly agreed that the bombing was unnecessary, raising the more serious question of why one would wreak such horrendous havoc unnecessarily on civilians, and why no one exacted a political price for it.

One can easily point to an incredible misinformation campaign demonizing the Japanese as subhuman, feral monsters, documented by Anthony Navarro in A Critical Comparison Between Japanese and American Propaganda during World War II.  He offers a critique of both sides, but the imagery is striking.  Lingering resentment about Pearl Harbor eased propagandizing Americans, despite the attack being retribution for America freezing supply lines in Manchuria and conducting war exercises a few hundred miles off the coast of Japan, facts conveniently missing from the American consciousness.  We Yankees, perhaps, simply didn’t think the Japanese deserved to live.

It’s reminiscent of the euphoria when Barack Obama announced that Osama bin Laden was dead, murdered by a special operation in Pakistan which incidentally risked nuclear war; elite media and governments alike believed murder of a suspect without a trial was a monumental achievement, documented on Wikipedia‘s summary of official statements.  It seemed lost on interested parties that constitutional protections, inherited from Magna Carta, simply don’t matter in certain cases where the state deems them unnecessary.  I myself was stunned at the hysterical outpouring of happiness on Facebook and other social media.  I found myself nearly alone asking whether the dissolution of basic human rights in the case of a defenseless suspect made any sense.  It’s true that if he were actually guilty of masterminding the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, his was a vicious, malevolent crime.  But then again, Harry S Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush committed atrocities, uncontroversially, so far off the spectrum by comparison that it’s impossible to even imagine, documented by Noam Chomsky.  Standing next in line are Barack Obama with the drone assassination campaign, Bill Clinton in Serbia, and, yes, even dear Jimmy Carter in complicity in the Indonesian invasion of East Timor under Suharto, documented by Joe Nunes.

In any case, historian Hanson Baldwin argued in The Great Mistakes of the War that Washington’s “unconditional surrender” demands needlessly cost lives and lengthened the duration of the war; he wrote

[b]ut, in fact, our only warning
to a Japan already militarily
defeated, and in a hopeless
situation, was the Potsdam demand
for unconditional surrender issued 
on July 26, when we knew Japanese
surrender attempts had started.

Even the conservative Mises Institute editorializes that the bombing was one of the greatest crimes ever committed; John Denson argued in The Hiroshima Myth that the bombing was knowingly unnecessary.  In a more recent article, Ralph Raico continued the critique with a quote from physicist Leo Szilard, one of the originators of the Manhattan project :

[i]f the Germans had dropped atomic
bombs on cities instead of us,
we would have defined the
dropping of atomic bombs on
cities as a war crime, and we
would have sentenced the Germans
who were guilty of this crime to
death at Nuremberg and hanged them.

Dr. Szilard was making the obvious point that what evils others do seem to resonate while our own crimes either languish in the vat of forgotten history or simply cease to be crimes.  I’ve long argued that if Hitler had won the war, we would have eventually either forgotten his crimes or exalted them; after all, isn’t this precisely what we’ve done with Truman and the atomic bombs, Jackson and the Trail of Tears, Washington and the extermination of the Iroquois in the Sullivan expedition, and so on.  At worst, state apologists would argue that these events, like the tragedies of the Vietnam and Iraq Wars, were perhaps strategic blunders rather than the more deserved casting of “fundamentally immoral,” a description with which 52% of Americans surveyed in 1995 by Gallup agreed; that of course requires the events to even remain in public consciousness.

Returning to the atomic bombs dropped in 1945, Japanese historian Tsuyoshi Hasegawa summarized a lengthy search through official Japanese records, communiques, and memoranda in a 2007 article appearing in The Asia Pacific Journal, titled The Atomic Bombs and the Soviet Invasion: What Drove Japan’s Decision to Surrender?“,

what decisively changed the views
of the Japanese ruling elite was
the Soviet entry into the war [...]
[i]t catapulted the Japanese
government into taking immediate
action [...] [f]or the first time,
it forced the government squarely to
confront the issue of whether it
should accept the Potsdam terms.

That is, the overwhelming evidence is that the Japanese military elites acceded to the Potsdam requirements because of fear of Soviet aggression, further undermining the assertion that the nuclear bombs ended the war.  The hideous irony is that the Allied forces permitted Japan’s emperor to remain in place at the time of surrender, the only condition the Japanese leaders required in their earlier attempts.

The historical question is whether the Japanese really would have surrendered; I’ve unfortunately seen monstrous commentary online to this effect, suggesting that hundreds of thousands of lives were easily forfeit next to a demand made by the Allied leadership eventually tossed by the way side.   If there were even a chance for peace by accepting what really was a trivial request by comparison to the massive loss of life to follow, shouldn’t we, as activist David Swanson often suggests, give peace a chance?

Establishing that the dropping of the bombs wasn’t necessary to end the war seems academic; further, we know now the architects of said wanton decision were even aware it was unnecessary.  So why carry out such an action, as we asked earlier?  It turns out that the answer is akin to why a child might pull wings of of butterflies : just to see what happens.  Echoed later by Deputy Chief of Mission Monteagle Stearns in Senate testimony about escalating the bombing of civilians in Laos after Lyndon Johnson ordered a halt on the bombing of North Vietnam in 1968, the rationale boiled down to

[w]ell, we had all those planes
sitting around and couldn’t
just let them stay there with
nothing to do.

Further, Truman felt a display of force was necessary to place the tenuously-held alliance with Moscow on notice, intended to restrict the Soviet sphere of influence once the spoils of the Second World War became available, as Howard Zinn argues with much historical evidence in his final book, The Bomb.

The myopic jingoists over at The National Interest argue otherwise, suggesting the savage butchery of hundreds of thousands was an understandable price to pay :

would even one more Allied
death have been worth not dropping
the bomb, in the minds of the 
president and his advisors, after
six years of the worst fighting
in the history of the human race?

Tom Nichols goes on to argue that Truman would have faced impeachment if he’d revealed the existence of the bomb later to war-weary Americans, and that they would have thirsted for blood if they learned of a more expedient conclusion.  His argument is approximately the same as that from a propaganda piece from The Atlantic published in 1946, seventy years earlier : physicist Karl Compton argued, seriously if you can believe it, that the Japanese wouldn’t have ever surrendered, as a “well-informed Japanese officer” told him

[w]e would have kept on fighting
until all Japanese were killed,
but we would not have been
defeated[.]

Both arguments are absurd, as Americans can easily learn that a more expedient, less destructive conclusion was available as of May 1945, and yet only a few of us in the margins believe Truman should have faced a war crimes tribunal.  In a similar vein, the Taliban in Afghanistan offered to hand over Osama bin Laden, provided we offered him a fair trial and not continue to bomb their country.  Would they have?  We’ll never know, as Bush scoffed in his repulsive drawl, “We know he’s guilty.”  But then again, what is a couple hundred thousand Afghans, or 200,000 Japanese lives to America-first chauvinists, a question now coming to haunt us with Trump’s incisive, menacing rhetoric?

As we’ve discussed previously, nuclear war is one of two existential threats looming over human civilization, both of which the Republican party has committed to accelerating : escalate both ecological catastrophe and the growing atomic maelstrom.  Trump’s threats toward a small nation with whom we can genuinely pursue peace imperils millions of lives and risks war with both China and Russia.  Our series on Cuba aims to demonstrate that harsh sanctions, imperialism, and aggression universally backfire, as one can see with one example after another in our history, and to further expose the many near-misses the nuclear age has wrought on a hapless species, many of which appear in The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, gatekeepers of the Doomsday Clock.

So during this solemn week, let’s remember that history can repeat itself if we allow it.  We Americans can stop Trump and the warmongering political elites, if only we organize and resist.  Some decent references on getting involved to move us to a nuclear-free world are Waging Peace, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and the Simon’s Foundation.

We’ll close with words from the only officially recognized survivor of both nuclear blasts, Tsutomu Yamaguchi :

[t]he only people who should
be allowed to govern countries
with nuclear weapons are mothers,
those who are still breast-feeding
their babies.

 

The Conservative Nanny State : A Book Review Part One : An Introduction

In a series of posts, we’ll be analyzing and reviewing Dean Baker’s The Conservative Nanny State, an excellent discussion of the mythology of conservatives with respect to the government, corporations, and economics.  Instructive is how this mythology can apply in recent events, a review of which follows.  Donald Trump may serve an ideology of nothing more than “me first,” but behind the scenes, the nanny state machine continues to perpetuate a heavily propagandized mythology of markets, capitalism, and government..

All in a Day’s Work : Conservative Market Mythology

Donald Trump’s recent tantrums around the Republican failure to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act adorn the craven, viciously insipid strategy of the Paul Ryan / Mitch McConnell crowd : for eight years, they’ve vowed incessantly to supplant Obamacare with a better version upon gaining both majority power in Congress and a rubber stamp in the White House, yet in those eight years, they’ve managed to formulate absolutely nothing in the way of a cogent substitute.  This bears repeating : despite more time than is necessary to complete a doctorate in the most abstract, difficult theoretical fields in mathematics, the devout acolyte of Ayn Rand that is the vapid Paul Ryan has formulated absolutely no solution to our healthcare quagmire, aside from the tired, intellectually bankrupt admonishments of impotency about poor people being lazy and workers not trying hard enough.  Subject to the market fanaticism they worship so completely, they should be fired immediately for such astonishingly blatant incompetence.  Trump, by slight contrast, seems to care nothing for the details, wanting only to piss all over every last accomplishment of Obama; never mind all the campaign promises of universal healthcare.  He prefers to destroy Obamacare now, perhaps unaware of the malevolence and cruelty in destabilizing the exchange and kicking off coverage at least twenty to thirty million people, a estimate reported by NPR.  He’s apparently too busy

and so on.  His character assassination of Sessions for attention seems to be the last straw among a mountain of bundles, drawing ire from his shrieking media base of support (documented in The Atlantic) since Sessions is an alternative right folk hero.  Noteworthy is a quote from an arch-conservative writer for The American Conservative, Rod Deher, who didn’t support Trump but bears rather preposterous ideas :

I believe the Democratic Party today wants to
do as much damage as it possibly can to social
and religious conservatism. I believe the
Democratic Party would empower some of the worst
people in America. But at least you know what
they’re going to do. Trump really is an unstable
lunatic whose word means nothing, and who sees no
higher obligation than serving himself.

Certainly, the fact-free fantasy land of the conservative establishment is nothing new, ranging from the Powell memorandum discussed in earlier posts, to Reagan’s supply-side blather denounced even by George H.W. Bush as “voodoo economics”, to Trump’s mind-numbingly stupid insistence of widespread voter fraud by illegals, to Mike Pence’s insistence that smoking isn’t harmful,  to Pat Robertson’s claims that Trump represents God’s will, and the list continues.  Supply-side economics, like the young earth hypothesis, seems immortally immune to the colossal three-decade record of failures, long documented by the Center for American Progress.  Take the recent shenanigans in Mississippi and Kansas : both state governments slashed taxes with the promise of economic boosts, and both states have subsequently slashed services, some with disastrous import, such as curtailing of medical school faculty salaries.  Astoundingly, the party of so-called “fiscal conservatism” seems not to understand why less water flows when one turns the faucet down.

Big Government and the Poor : Supervillains

Conservatives and so-called new Democrats have long argued that so-called “big government” is universally a bad thing, indicative of avaricious largesse at best and vicious totalitarianism at worst; from my early life, I’ve heard conservatives in my home state of Texas bemoan the overwhelming burden of government regulation and taxation asphyxiating an otherwise highly efficient, wealth-and-job-creating small businesses. They argue further that welfare, otherwise known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) poisons the resolve of potential workers and feeds a lazy, repulsive underclass always in the market for cheating hard-working business owners out of their hard-earned profits.  So deep was the racism and disdain for welfare recipients that we greatly feared the marginalized black community in my hometown, despite having been on the welfare rolls ourselves soon after my mother and father divorced back in 1987, the irony being that we as poor whites had more in common with the poor blacks than we did upper middle class Texans.  Despite my college curriculum lifting partly the veil of ignorance, at least with regard to history, I nonetheless took my first “big-boy” job at a defense contractor believing, rather naively, that the conservatives there really were serious about eliminating government waste and pursuing honest efficiency to benefit the organization.  Imagine my surprise to discover that almost the exact opposite is the case : with some notable exceptions (see my LinkedIn connections), the organization was rife with effete, wasteful protectionists, all-too-willing to bend contractual obligations with the U.S. government to butter their own bread and conceal their incompetence.  Supplanting genuine concern for the government customer was a sneering cynicism at even their most sacred public institution of all : the military.  They held contempt even for arch-conservative Dick Cheney himself, as he had a long history of opposing the Osprey V-22 program in the first Bush administration.  In the more religious pockets of my social sphere of those days, welfare recipients were the target of ire, with the lobotomous justification that “the heart is desperately wicked… who can know it?”  That is, the innate wickedness of the human creature discussed in the Bible suggests that helping a poor person ever is a mistake contravening the will of the Most High; only the filthy rich deserve a second thought.  Then again, local faith leaders in my home community offered social commentary on a vast array of topics, including dubious claims that Santa Claus, in fact, is a woman masquerading as a jolly old man (Santa somehow sounded female), that Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer, is in fact an alcoholic (owing to a condition known as telangiectasia), and perhaps most intriguing, that devotees of Catholicism are, believe it or not, addicted to cats.  Serious analysis aside, ahem, Pat Robertson would no doubt explode with pride, as wealth is godliness in his refined estimation; after all, why else would Operation : Blessing feature more return shipments of diamonds from than food shipments to impoverished Zaire?  His cozy relationship with bloodthirsty Mobutu Sese Seko clearly paid dividends.  All of this seems underscores a profoundly destructive paradigm in which we measure a person’s worth, exclusively, by her capacity to generate capital.  Whether the means by which she raises the capital is good for society is largely irrelevant, but if she fails to generate said capital, she’s discounted.  The industrial revolution heralded this cruel dogma; Noam Chomsky suggests that though feudalism and slavery were horrendous, brutal tyrannies, the intrinsic value of a person in each caste at least wasn’t taken for granted; the caste values were viciously low,  but the value wasn’t questioned.  Post-industrial revolution and with the abolition of slavery, industry leaders discovered more profit in shrinking compensation for workers below that of a living wage.  Though the natural knee-jerk response to such a statement is understandable, one must bear in mind the effects of our state capitalist system on the global population, not just those in our own country.  Also bear in mind this is in no way an endorsement of either of the aforementioned antiquated, monstrous frameworks, but it’s worth noting the shift in values and its origins, something we’ll discuss later in this series.

Enter Dean Baker, Economist

It turns out that laissez-faire market ideology and small government are, in fact, grand hoaxes, the former of which we’ve discussed in a little depth previously as we referenced American-flavor state capitalism.  Quite instructive on the latter topic is The Conservative Nanny State : How the Wealthy Use the Government to Stay Rich and Get Richer, written by Dean Baker, economist and co-founder of the Center for Economic Policy and Research.   Weighing in at just over one hundred pages, the book is a treasure trove of powerful evidence-based arguments targeted at refuting the myths surrounding what he calls the conservative nanny state, an apt and resonant depiction of big government in support of the overclass.

He discusses in awesome detail

  • the sly yet devastatingly powerful protectionism for upper-income earners such as doctors, lawyers, and technocrats accompanying the better-known globalization and immigration policies leading to downward wage pressure on lower-income earners,
  • the union-busting governmental muscles flexed to diminish collective bargaining in America,
  • the skyrocketing CEO pay in the United States stemming from the corporation, a legal fiction conferred enormous power by the government,
  • the government supplied monopolies on inventions and creative work through patents and copyrights,
  • the government punishment of debtors down on their luck accompanying happy-go-lucky freedom from debt corporations enjoy, both a product of a thing dubiously labeled “bankruptcy reform,”
  • the government crackdown on individual’s capacity to sue run-away corporations and the decidedly one-sided nature of the two-way street of eminent domain and government investment,
  • the government protections for small businesses which are actually quite harmful to the economy and the environment,
  • the government coddling of high-dollar tax evaders while systematically demonizing recipients of the safety net,

among many others.  In this series of posts, we’ll analyze his arguments, addressing additional points and more recent evidence.

Why the Democrats Keep Losing

Donald Trump is arguably the most disliked president in the history of modern polling, according to Five-Thirty-Eight.  Haphazard, mean-spirited (even by Trump’s own admission) healthcare proposals, blatantly racist travel bans, and the growing Russia scandal leave Trump in a very weak bargaining position with respect to Congress.  Or perhaps the intention is to distract with whatever vulgar offering Trump and Bannon provide on Twitter away from the Paul Ryan/Mitch McConnell plot to eviscerate social programs and keep the rich rolling in the fat, as suggested by Noam Chomsky in an interview with Truthout.  Whatever the Republican strategy (or lack thereof), Trump’s extreme unpopularity has heralded close calls for Democrats in a few of the four special elections held this year which would otherwise be very strongly Republican.  Yet their strategy is broken.

Jon Ossoff very slightly lost a heavily Republican district very close to where I lived some years ago, and his defeat has predictably emboldened the hopelessly flat Trump to proclaim a landside 100%+ mandate for himself and his stupefying agenda.  More appropriately, the closeness of the race in Kansas, to which we’ll return shortly, demonstrates profound dissatisfaction with Trump, something no doubt imperceptible to the mad king in his choking fog of self-congratulatory reverie.  Georgia’s is the fourth special election in the months since Trump has become president, and this is the only one the Democratic National Committee cared to notice.  Vox noted rather cleverly that Ossoff’s loss occurred because of a lack of substantive policies, permitting sleazy, establishment career politician Karen Handel to smear him on where he lives, who’s funding him (mostly small-time donors through Act Blue), and the like, despite his being raised in the district and her not and her receiving heavy donations from the corporate Republican machine.  The issue becomes, rather strikingly, the simple fact that Ossoff, like Obama in 2008, ran only on the “I’m not Trump/Bush and never will be,” rather than actually offering strong policy.   One can visit Obama’s 2008 campaign website to find rather scant policy content, mostly platitudes about changing politics and rhetoric.  Obama, unlike Ossoff, won because of the previous increasingly frustrating years with warmongering liar Bush in charge, and that McCain, a fresh(ish) departure from Bush, was probably unelectable with Sarah Palin on the ticket.  Of course, if Obama had run for the House against McCain and Palin, or McCain and a gorilla for that matter, in Georgia’s sixth district in 2008, he would have walked away with a striking defeat.

The other, and perhaps most significant issue in many urban/suburban districts is a systematic, widespread campaign of voter suppression, long documented by investigative journalist Greg Palast of Democracy Now and of course in outstanding work by Ari Berman in Give Us the Ballot.  These two analysts unearth mountains of evidence of persistent voter suppression in the United States against minorities, quite remarkable in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections in that they very likely cost the Democratic candidates Al Gore and John Kerry, respectively, the electoral college.  Forms the suppression take are

  • extreme gerrymandering to weaken or dilute minority districts, such as a drawing ruled unconstitutional in North Carolina in May and likely unconstitutional in Wisconsin soon (interestingly the defense before the court was “partisan advantage”, a euphemism for racial discrimination, much like the role the term “states’ rights” has served with respect to various forms of local tyranny),
  • purging voter rolls because of fuzzy matching of voter names with those of convicted felons,
  • deceptive polling location announcements,
  • dilapidated voting machinery,
  • insufficient staffing, paper ballots, or machines,
  • early polling place closures,
  • legal yet highly unethical barriers to voter registration (see Kasdan below),
  • persecution of volunteer registrars, a widespread form of suppression documented by Diana Kasdan of the Brennan Center for Justice (an instructive read, as it turns out many state and local governments prefer for voting drives not to happen),

and so on.  Earlier, more hostile tactics included barring entry of African Americans to polling places at gun point, unbelievably difficult literacy tests, violence, murder, intimidation, and the list goes on and on.

Returning to strategy, the fundamental issue is that the DNC seems to think the pretty people with Hollywood money and empty platitudes will persuade heartlanders and southerners to pull the lever for a tepid return to establishment politics.  Despite Trump’s shriveling popularity, it seems unlikely that they’ll abandon him for an outsider with a shallow platform.  And though the Citizens United decision makes the Republican attack ads about outside money all the more absurd and hypocritical (after all they happily gobble up contributions from outside corporations and tycoons, as Think Progress has pointed out), public relations experts in the Republican camp certainly know how to twist that knife by portraying Ossoff as a “San Francisco candidate.”  The DNC’s push to moderate Ossoff’s position essentially tied his hands with respect to combating the unremitting propaganda machine, as he’s left largely silent on policy while being forced to defend its outlandish accusations.

The DNC had an excellent opportunity in filling the seat left by CIA director Mike Pompeo in Kansas : James Thompson lost to Ron Estes by four points in a district Trump carried by 27 points, despite virtually no underwriting from the DNC but a strong, populist anti-establishment message.  If there was an opportunity to be had, this was it.  Kansas folk likely felt at home with Thompson, a local civil rights attorney with deep community ties.  Ossoff’s defeat, by contrast, was by a larger percentage margin than Hillary Clinton’s in that same district.

The DNC continues to favor centrist, establishment figures, neither of which Trump’s working class base wants.  Bernie’s ascendancy and Trump’s slight electoral victory last year indicated a strong preference among younger and working class people from both parties for an attempt from outside the Beltway.

Though Trump is extremely unpopular, bland establishment shills won’t tempt moderate Republicans, even if they dislike Trump.  Though Trump may compulsively pat himself on the back for the victories, they’re actually quite revealing of his unpopularity, as Republicans have atypically only slightly held their seats with a new Republican president in office; Democratic leadership has yet to discover how to leverage it.  True upstarts who challenge politics as usual with authentic advocacy for constituency is much more likely to convince people to abandon party and energize activists; as usual, they begin locally.

We’ll return to Cuba next time.

The Spanish Pearl Part One: Trump’s Gambit

Donald Trump, with modest pomp and circumstance from American media, honored a campaign promise this week in reversing the Obama administration’s 2014 decision to begin normalization of relations with Cuba, surrounded by a militant cadre of Republicans hankering to hurtle us back to the good old days of the Cuban missile crisis.  From a New York Times/CBS News poll conducted last year, we have that a majority of Americans support lifting the decades-long embargo imposed on Cuba, yet Secretary of State Rex Tillerson offered the tough guy stance on continued human rights abuses within the island nation.  Aside from the official response from Cuba reported by CNN  detailing the myriad human rights abuses within the U.S. going on right now,  one need not look far for the craven double standard present not just in Trump’s bungled, clumsily heavy-handed foreign policy, but in American foreign policy generally traversing the (narrow) political spectrum of post-war administrations.   For example, despite myriad internal abuses documented over the years by Human Rights Watch, perpetration of massacres in Yemen, generation of radicalized ISIS militants as documented by Patrick Coburn of the Independent, the murderous tyranny Saudi Arabia’s monarchy enjoys broad American dispensation; Trump gleefully boasts, disingenuously according to the Brookings Institute, of multi-hundred billion dollar Saudi arms deals after a visit featuring a sword dance and a strange glowing orb.  Cuba, by stark contrast, somehow continues to draw the ire of extremists both inside and out of the American political aristocracy.  Though we may face temptation to hypothesize that

none of Trump’s foreign policy, though perhaps unusually egocentric and idiotic, is particularly shocking when placed in proper historical context.  When George W. Bush delivered his first state of the union address in 2002, he thumbed his nose at Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, declaring them to be an “axis of evil,” reversing the meager efforts by his predecessor Bill Clinton in thawing relations with Pyongyang in the so-called Agreed Framework.  Bush, like Trump to follow and Reagan to precede, seemed to have only a very slight understanding of geopolitics or the incredibly dangerous, malevolent game of poking-the-bear that is harsh sanctions and embargoes.  Indeed, this unique combination of ignorance and possible malevolence is worth examining, notable resource being Neil Buchanan’s recent discussion in Newsweek.  But returning to Cuba, fully appreciating the gravity of Trump’s intention to frustrate normalization requires investigating the deeply intertwined history with the rest of Latin America, the United States, the Soviet Union, and indeed the European imperialists who conquered it 500 years past.  Over the next handful of articles, I’ll detail the post-colonial history of what was once called the “Pearl” of the Spanish Empire in the hopes that of sharing the moral and ethical legacy demanded of us as citizens responsible for our government’s deeds.

In 1492, Italian explorer Christopher Columbus, on behalf of the Spanish monarchy, landed in Hispaniola and Cuba searching for a shorter trade route with the East Indies; upon arrival, he immediately set to the task of conquering and later exterminating the Taíno, the native peoples, installing a colonial government to oversee crop cultivation, resource extraction and, a very, very distant priority, Christianization of the fast-dying peoples.  An aside, one can find an instructive first-hand account of Columbus and his initial expedition in Howard Zinn’s Voices of a People’s History of the United Stateswith thematically familiar vignettes of generous, open-minded natives offering succor and sustenance to their strange European visitors, only to be repaid with savagery, rape, pestilence, and butchery.

For over two centuries, Spanish dominance remained in play despite frequent attempts at usurpation by other European powers, but for a brief interlude in the eighteenth century during the Seven Years’ War in which the British claimed Havana, introducing tens of thousands of African slaves to the island.  Demographically, non-white Cubans constituted roughly forty percent of the population in 1775, cresting at fifty-eight percent in the first half of the nineteenth century.  Liberation movements stirred, partly due to the French revolution and independence of the thirteen British colonies to the north; contributing perhaps more resonantly was a slave uprising in Haiti in 1791, together with independence efforts by both whites, blacks, and so-called mulattos, or mixtures.  Under pressure to close the slave trade (Britain had outlawed slavery in its colonies in 1807), Spain weakly complied, spurring uprisings throughout the middle decades of the 1800s.  Of particular note, documented by Jose Canton Navarro in his History of Cuba, was the Conspiración de La Escaleraa vicious campaign to quell slave revolts with torture, murder, and exile owing its name to torture involving a ladder and a whip.

Instructive is the influence beginning in the nineteenth century of the independent thirteen colonies to the north on Cuba, to which we’ll return in subsequent articles.

Cap Contritely in Hand for the Environment

A few days ago, Donald Trump predictably announced his unilateral decision to toss aside the Paris accord, an agreement which in of itself probably fails to adequately address the existential threat of ecological catastrophe.  It’s worth remembering that the agreement is non-binding, essentially expecting each signatory to commit to, well, whatever to which that signatory commits.  It may sound like a tautology, and that’s precisely what it is.  After all, imagine if the strategic arms limitations talks (SALT) had simply been voluntary on the part of the old Soviet Union and the United States.  That is to say, perhaps both countries would come to the table to agree that each would reduce the number of nuclear-carrying ballistic missiles by x% and y%, respectively, and each could assign that number at their leisure.  It’s almost a prisoner’s dilemma, each side deciding later how to assign their number.  Trump’s simian, chest-thumping “I get to play at the big people’s table” nonsense is all bluster: he just as easily could have played nice, then cut the commitment to zero.  The Breitbart-Bannon crowd welcome Trump’s slash-and-burn America-first policy-making approach, no doubt euphoric at their bitter flavor of ignorance finally reaching institutional gravitas.  Trump, clearly unaware of consequences, revels in his promise-keeping capacities.  Too bad they don’t extend to truly defending the security of Americans by ignoring the Pentagon’s recognition that climate change is a threat,  to  say nothing of “draining the swamp”, as Trump and his cabinet have so many conflicts-of-interest that the rigor mortis of normalization is firmly in place.

More disconcerting is the relentless propaganda of the past thirty years with respect to the environment.  I can remember sitting in computer science courses listening to a naive professor expel the gassy strawman that environmentalists simply don’t want anyone to have a job, as though completely eradicating chances of decent survival of the human race can’t compete with the tacit assumption that full employment is an essential feature of a successful society, as we’ve discussed previously.  I’m reminded of Al Gore discussing imagery of a balancing scale with Earth on one plate and gold on the other, a slide from a presentation at a corporate consortium discussion on global warming.

When I was in elementary school, I recall the final chapter in my fifth grade science textbook explaining air and water pollution, acid rain, the ozone layer, and anthropogenic climate adjustments through introduction of wildlife to untouched ecosystems, industrialization, habitat destruction, and the like.  I specifically remember my fifth grade teacher, Carolyn Hassell, remarking that she felt the textbook ends splendidly in suggesting that we, the youth of today but adults of tomorrow, have the power to save the environment and our future.  That was spring of 1991, twenty-six years ago, in a rural, quite conservative town in Texas.  Certainly no one could accuse any of my elementary school teachers of being particularly liberal, yet none could imagine any other conclusion than human beings influence the environment in quite potent ways, and that wisdom and judiciousness are requisite in deciding policy.  A striking irony is that the Republican party, an organization dedicated to opposing environmentalism in virtually all of its policy manifestations, bears the moniker “conservative,” a label originating with Theodore Roosevelt and his passion for conservationism, noteworthy in his creation of the National Conservation Commission.

Recognition of industrial pollutants has certainly been in public consciousness more recently.  Since the dawn of the industrial era, mass production and increasingly large factories have released more and more toxins into the air, water, and soil.  Corporations, concerning purely with profit, are institutionally compelled to transfer the costs of waste to the environment, and ultimately, to the ecosystem; this phenomenon is something called an externality, in the parlance of economics.  That is, market systems consider mostly the first order effect of a transaction, ignoring higher order effects.   The example often discussed by analyst Noam Chomsky is perhaps you sell me a car for some fixed sum, and maybe we each get a good deal;  an externality, among many, is that the additional car may result in more traffic, pollution, and the like, yet the original transaction fails to reflect any of these additional factors.  In the more extreme case, industrialists need not consider dumping waste into local rivers, as they may not face any direct financial consequence for doing so.  Quite infamous is the burning Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, symbolic of the effects of runaway industrialization on nature; the Stokes brothers, one the mayor of Cleveland, the other a federal congressman, jointly lobbied for passage of the Clean Air Act signed into law by Richard Nixon in 1972.  The United Kingdom beat the United States by sixteen years: in 1952, rare weather conditions permitted a heavy concentration of sulfuric acid, emitted from coal-fired power plants, to coalesce in the atmosphere over London.  For four days in December, the smog refused to lift, killing at least 12,000 people and poisoning 100,000 more.  Four years later, Parliament enacted the first serious legislation aimed at curtailing emissions.  Recent work by Texas A&M uncovered more detail in the specific mechanisms, but certainly the causes remain fairly obvious.

Raising public awareness in 1962 was marine biologist Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring in which she discusses the deleterious effects of pesticides on bird populations; it’s possible her volume influenced the founders of the Environmental Defense Fund, an organization which immediately took up the task of curtailing pesticide use after its founding in 1967.   The EDF’s influence in policy certainly reverberates throughout the early days of the popular environmental movement, including underwriting a study linking cancer in New Orleans to water contaminants which presaged the passage of the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 and lobbying to ban lead in gasoline beginning in 1985, a measure which predictably better protected children from the ghastly effects of exposure.  Interestingly enough, the risks to pregnant women and children were understood as early as 1966 when Lyndon Johnson’s surgeon general William Stewart testified to Congress:

Existing evidence suggests that certain
groups in the population may be particularly
susceptible to lead injury. Children and
pregnant women constitute two of the most
important of such groups. Some studies have
suggested an association between lead
exposure and the occurrence of mental
retardation among children.

Two decades and much public pressure finally wrested regulatory control from corporations, including Associated Octel, responsible for poisoning the population.  Much data was available earlier from studies in New Zealand on the toxicity of lead, yet American lobbyists stubbornly allowed gold to weigh more than earth, borrowing from the earlier imagery.

Tracing the history of the runaway greenhouse effect as we understand it today, we have that Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius first proposed in 1896 that by-products of fossil fuel combustion could gradually warm the planet.  After some back and forth in the mid-twentieth century, scientists settled in 1988 on the proposition that atmospheric temperatures were higher than anytime since 1880, a warming trend due primarily to industrialization.  The mechanics of industrial release of carbon dioxide and oceanic resorption were by then largely understood, and the recognition that industrial activity was releasing more carbon dioxide than could be absorbed was beyond question.  A coalition of international scientists formed the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an organization representing perhaps the largest peer-reviewed scientific cooperation in history.  More recent scientific studies, including reports in 2014 and 2016 by the Coastal Resources Commission in North Carolina Coastal dispense with the propagandized claptrap of fossil-fuel underwritten think tanks such as Koch Industries, arguing the scope and damage of rising sea levels is perhaps inevitable now at the current rate of warming.  North Carolina is perhaps most striking in its proactive stance toward climate change: in 2012, they simply outlawed it by denying local governments from enacting ordinances or legislation with respect to an earlier report.  So much for permitting local governments to make their own choices, a frequent conservative refrain with a host of betrayals, such as the instructing all state and local governments how to define how people can associate in the Defense of Marriage Act, denying local governments the right to protect vulnerable immigrants through Gestapo-like tactics by the Immigration Customs Enforcement, and the like.  One can’t help but ponder the tired argument that the Civil War was about states’ rights rather than slavery, despite the slave states happily supporting the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, a preposterous piece of freedom-trampling legislation compelling citizens in free states to form militias to return runaway slaves.

Returning to the environment, denialism actually dates back to explorations by Exxon Mobile in 1979 into the implications of climate shifts due to fossil-fuel combustion, an understandable venture given policy could affect their bread-and-butter; in the following years, they vehemently funded a campaign of disinformation to postpone any meaningful action.  No strangers to controversy, their almost suicidal foot-dragging and propaganda campaigns permitted horrendous accidents such as the Exxon Valdes spill, a near impossibility with a more decentralized sustainable energy system.   Early governmental agreements, such as the Kyoto Protocol, would have required signatories to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases such as the aforementioned carbon dioxide, chloroflourocarbons (CFCs), aerosol chemicals known to damage the paper-thin shield of ozone gas absorbing some of the sun’s more harmful ultraviolet radiation, and a handful of other pollutants and toxins.   Not unexpectedly, George W. Bush pulled out of the agreement, citing economic needs of American business were more important than the environment; his advisers came to regret the unilateral cowboy decision, as it, like Trump’s blustering parallel move this past week, further galvanized the rest of the world in their perception that America is the selfish, bully child demanding more than its fair share.

Though one could read myriad books on the subject of human contributions to environmental destruction, I’m more interested here in discussing the persistent issue: mountains of evidence, virtual unanimity among scientists regarding these issues, together with palpable, very visible effects seem insufficient to overcome the static friction of apathy.  Though we can point to indoctrination and diminished sources of information in the past, online media has somewhat mitigated this problem in recent years, provided one knows where to look for peer-reviewed summaries.  A 2015 study by Yale University reports distributions of awareness and concern throughout the world about climate change, noting that 40% of people in the world have never heard about it, obviously mostly in third world nations, and that 48% of Americans aren’t worried despite having heard a good deal of evidence.  Certainly that pattern persists across the developed world : awareness perhaps weakly correlates with concern.  So one might ask, logically, how it is possible that seemingly rational people can deny the overwhelming scientific evidence?  Is it simply because they deny science?  Is it because they follow the lead of their favorite pundits and politicians?   I would tend to believe the problem is both institutional and sociological, the former being the more obvious antecedent, the latter based on fairly recent research, to which we’ll return.

Corporate disinformation is a major institutional factor : science discovers some mechanism through which environmental manipulation harms ecosystems, imperiling the food supplies and the quality of water and air, next industrial corporations mostly responsible for the devastation dispatch their public relations people to the airwaves and their lobbyists to Washington to “control the narrative,” or rather supplant or obfuscate truth.   One can literally go case after case to find the same pattern: if there’s an agency or cache of talking points aimed at undermining environmental concerns, typically the underwriting comes from none other than the corporations poised to lose the most if policy reflects said concerns, as we mentioned earlier.   One can note that as of June 6, 2017, Exxon itself buys ad space on Google if one searches for “Exxon climate change denial;” the page is an exercise in public relations spin mostly lambasting environmental groups dedicated to reducing consumption of fossil fuels in energy production, suggesting they and the media are somehow part of an outlandish conspiracy theory discussed by Paul Krugman in a recent op-ed in the New York Times.  Krugman’s arguments extend to more than just climate change, which we’ll discuss momentarily.   Greenpeace provides a fascinating timeline of Exxon’s early research in the 1960s and 1970s, initially with Elmer Robinson and R.C. Robbins presenting a report to the American Petroleum Institute about the dangers of excess carbon dioxide raising sea levels and re-architecting marine ecosystems, James Black of the research division circulating reports internally about the greenhouse effect, writing in 1978 that

[p]resent thinking holds that man has a time window of
five to ten years before the need for hard decisions
regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical,

and so on into the early 1980s.  In particular, meeting minutes released from a task force on climate change organized by Exxon, Mobil, Texaco, Shell, and others suggested agreement with the realities of greenhouse gas emission and climate change, along with concession of the responsibilities they would bear going forward.   Roger Cohen, a scientist at Exxon, wrote in an internal memo in 1983, later leaked,

[t]he consensus is that a doubling of atmospheric CO2 from
its pre-industrial revolution value would result in an average
global temperature rise of (3.0 ± 1.5)°C [equal to 5.4 ± 1.7°F]…
There is unanimous agreement in the scientific community that
a temperature increase of this magnitude would bring about
significant changes in the earth’s climate, including rainfall
distribution and alterations in the biosphere.

Cohen decided to reverse his position later, joining a denial think tank created by Exxon. Disinformation campaigns have emerged over time from various industrial leaders, the Koch leaders being a particular example.  In the academic field of climate science, near unanimity of the scope and risk of ecological catastrophe is easy to find, documented heavily by various non-partisan organizations such as Skeptical Science.   The majority of scientists in other fields and government scientific agencies also agree with the consensus, documented by NASA.  Astonishingly, as the consensus has solidified and global temperatures have risen steadily by easily understood anthropomorphic mechanisms, the Republican party’s official position has shifted increasingly in the direction of mind-numbingly stupid denialism.  Vox offered an intriguing look at the evolution of the Republican position on environmentalism in an April 22 article, tracing the perspectives as beginning with more sound acceptance of scientific research, gradually eased out by right-wing think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation in the 1970s and both the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy in the 1980s, along with a tidal wave of anti-establishment politics in Reagan’s 1980 electoral victory.   Ann Gorsuch, mother of Trump’s recent far-right appointee to the U.S. Supreme Court, headed the Environmental Protection Agency with a penchant for dismantling the regulatory and administrative state shared by the nationalist Bannon contingency in today’s executive branch.  She later resigned amidst threats from the Democratic-led Congress to investigate allegations into corruption; a SCOTUS decision in Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council 1984 broadened agency interpretation of legislation, reversing somewhat Reagan’s efforts at deregulation.  Nonetheless, institutional denial has increased as the science has become more certain; analyst Noam Chomsky points to institutional bias of corporations as a partial culprit, pointing out that a CEO of a multinational corporation, even if aware of the overwhelming dangers, cannot risk profits, even at great moral cost.  Anglo-American legal precedent offers evidence in Dodge v. Ford in 1919, codifying the position that corporations granted charters in America must pursue profits above all other considerations, meaning the rest, as I would imagine most people know, is public relations.  We’ll return to the contradiction of rising denialism corresponding to increasing uniformity in the scientific consensus momentarily, but to circle back to Krugman’s editorial, the official Republican party position has become increasingly fact-free, or perhaps more appropriately fact-abhorrent.  As he points out, whether it be environmentalism, the budget, healthcare, and the like, Trump’s programs, and by a marginal difference, the Paul Ryan fiscal wing, are almost completely without any constructive intent.  Trump’s own leaked internal analysis of his first stab at healthcare reform had even more dire projections than the Congressional Budget Office’s assessment, despite all the bluster to the contrary.  As Chomsky has pointed out previously, the Republican party no longer follows parliamentary procedure, nor does it care about the opinions of experts, scientists, or anyone offering anything challenging their fragile, fantastical world-view, echoing conservative analysts Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein in declaring the “unparty” to be a “radical insurgency”.  This madness extends to the stubborn, Republican position that curtailing fossil fuel consumption would destroy jobs, no longer supported by any facts since renewable energy job projections far exceed any job loss associated with older energy programs, reported by Fortune; even today, the number of jobs in renewable energy exceeds that of non-renewables, according to a Department of Energy study.  In older arguments I’ve heard throughout my life, conservatives have pointed to the high cost of investment in renewable energy, again ignorant of the pervasive state capitalism model we’ve discussed previously : heavy government investment in the technology sector during the more expensive phase of research and development, followed by private interests cashing in once the technology becomes marketable.  So in summary, every argument offered by Republicans contravening meaningful action against ecological catastrophe folds like a cheap card table under the enormity of scientific consensus and thorough economic analysis.

So certainly we can point to institutional corruption and the shift rightward of both major political parties, placing one center right and the other in outer space, in explaining part of the propaganda campaign against environmentalism, but how do we explain some of the more curious phenomena with respect to attitudes and beliefs?  Sociologist Kari Marie Noorgard of the University of Oregon has an interesting set of answers in her 2011 book Living in Denial.  She compares a few competing theories on denialism: the first theory, for instance discussed in Harriet Bulkeley’s paper in 2000 on Australian attitudes, suggests that denialism is rooted in disinformation campaigns of corrupt institutions and ignorance of the population, neatly a problem of information. The more astonishing theory, echoing work in Norway by Hellevik and Barstad in 2004, asserts that willingness to solve climate change diminishes as public awareness grows.  Similar work in the United States by Kellsted, Zahran, and Vedlitz finds a similar, stunning trend : the more people know about the problem, the less responsible they feel for it.  Aside from the 26% of Americans who stubbornly refuse to accept the overwhelming scientific consensus, coincident with Trump’s more galvanized nativist base, many of us simply refuse to take responsibility for it, and thus fail to pressure the political elite to ignore intensive lobbying from fossil-fuel firms.  In fact, I found in reading the theory that I, too am part of the contingency; though I drive an electric car to reduce emissions, aim for aluminum can consumption rather than plastic bottle since aluminum is cheaper and easier to recycle, lobby officials on behalf of environmental causes, and eat virtually no meat, I nonetheless have a much larger carbon footprint than do most people, mainly in very frequent air travel to see family scattered across the continent.  It occurred to me in thinking about the problem that I, too, feel a sense of resignation in the defeat of either more environmentally-friendly or more malleable candidates, such as Clinton in 2016 (more the latter than the former, as the Democratic party barely addresses the climate concerns), and thus somehow feel less responsible for the damage done either in the manufacture of products that I buy or not more vehemently pressing local, state, and federal representatives to pursue more sustainable policies.  Calmer, more educated conservatives point to this contradiction as part of the problem of framing, as in the American Conservative.  They complain that liberals, if that term even makes sense anymore, appeal to social justice, uplifting indigenous populations vulnerable to sea rises, and the like, notions argued to be viscerally repulsive to their less educated Christian conservative brethren.  It’s rather stunning to me that one could profess to be Christ-like yet be unconcerned with social justice, but then again most flavors of religion offer a mixture of dogmatism, progressivism, oppression, liberation, and so on, depending on where you look.  Certainly Christian conservative politicians fall off the spectrum, with such notables as Jim Inhofe saying,

God is still up there... arrogance of
people to think that we, human beings,
would be able to change what He is doing
in the climate is to me outrageous.

In other words, if God chooses to let us burn, we shouldn’t buck His divine plans.  Fervently religious, the Republican candidates in the 2016 presidential election all denied climate science, with the exception of John Kasich and tentatively Jeb Bush, despite admonitions from the Good Book about protecting mother nature. Neither  of the “adults in the room” thought we should do anything about it, incidentally.  And it’s debatable whether Trump has ever read any book, let alone one on science of any kind beyond Little Golden Books.

In any case, Noorgard’s research suggests to me that most of us, whether we’re knowledgeable or not, bear responsibility for what happens with regard to this existential threat.  Admittedly, convincing the unscientifically-minded and the institutionally-indoctrinated of the gravity presents challenges, but we’re fast running out of options.  Facing believers and non-believers alike are

and the terrifying list grows.  And unlike in the mortgage crisis of 2008, the stock market crash of 1929, the savings and loans disaster of the 1980s, the automotive crisis of 2008 to 2010, and other “free market” disasters, corporations primarily responsible for ecological destruction will find no nanny state riding to the rescue when the elites finally ask for help, cap contritely in hand, to borrow an expression from Chomsky.

Austerity : A Propagandist’s Weapon

Investigating the federal budget blueprint promoted by the Trump administration of late certainly wouldn’t suggest candidate Trump had even the slightest populist inclinations, to say nothing of promising universal healthcare and a more relaxed student loan schedule.  Serious policy analysis from various agencies and organizations declare his budget to be a sharp, deep kick to the solar plexus of the poor rural whites, a constituency which, according to Bloomberg, largely carried its bitter class enemy to electoral victory.  Budget chief Mick Mulvaney assures us that all of this is in the interest of prioritizing the “taxpayer” rather than compassion for the recipients of soon-to-be decimated social programs; that is, as analyst Noam Chomsky cleverly puts it,

Tough love is just the right phrase: 
love for the rich and privileged, tough for everyone else.

Notably, education, housing, human services (above and beyond the ACA repeal underway), and labor agencies will face erosion; among the biggest losers are

  • the poor with cuts to food stamps, temporary assistance for needy families (TANF), and housing subsidies,
  • children with cuts to the children’s health insurance program (CHIP),
  • the disabled with cuts to social security disability insurance, contravening Trump’s promise to protect social security and medicare,
  • women with cuts to healthcare and family planning services if they even mention abortion,
  • college students with cuts to student loans,

and so on.   Social security disability insurance is of particular note, as candidate Trump and traditional conservative dogma suggests rampant fraud. In reality, SSDI fraud occurs in no more than one percent of cases, despite a media campaign to marginalize the disabled and eligibility requirements more stringent than anywhere else in the developed world, tying with Japan, Canada, and South Korea.  Though we could spend some time unearthing every ghastly, despicable policy choice and respective consequences to the population in what appears to be one of the most malevolent, destructive budgets offered by any administration in recent memory, I’d rather discuss the broader economic dogma of austerity, both in fact and in form, to which we’ll return.

A former teacher and dear friend of mine remarked recently that the costs of her health insurance, provided through the Texas Teacher Retirement System, are skyrocketing, “thanks to the Texas legislature [and those] who only vote on issues like abortion or bathroom use.”  In fact, I need not look far among my own friends and family to find victims of an increasingly austere social policy, including retirees, disabled family members, and the like.  It turns out that even those who supported Trump very much so will not escape unscathed, as suggested in earlier posts.  Particularly of note to me are rare agency reports praising Trump’s budget : the conservative Heritage foundation dispatched their usual lockstep ideologues to praise slashing aid for the poor in the interest of meeting economic projections, bolstering the already grossly over-funded military in overestimating non-nuclear threats to our safety, and building of exceedingly costly walls along borders to protect us from the imagined terrorism of Mexicans.  An analyst named Adam Michel, in admittedly what is a shock even to me, repeats the tired, heavily disproved supply-side argument that tax cuts increase revenue; some years ago, Neera Tanden pondered rather lucidly this seemingly immortal economic theory, if one can dignify it with a legitimate scientific label.  Trump’s melodrama around corporate tax rates is particularly Quixotic, considering that the share of the federal budget funded by corporate taxes has fallen to ten percent over the last sixty years, according to Americans for Tax Fairness, and so many of the largest corporations pay no taxes at all.  Speaking of Quixotic hysteria, Heritage complains that the military budget isn’t receiving a sufficiently large bump to combat our imagined enemies; we’ve discussed previously how military spending is mostly state capitalism, or transfer of public monies to corporations largely unconstrained by Lippman’s “meddlesome outsiders,” so we’ll leave it at that.

More troubling than the expected bias from Heritage is an op-ed I found on CNN by Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former chief of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).  He concedes early that Trump’s budget is a mixed bag yet omits any specific criticism, rather defending the heavy-handed assumption that entitlements are out-of-control, and thus must be curtailed to support programs envisioned by the “Founders… as the actual responsibilities of government,” including security, research, and the like.  That is to say, retiree pensions and programs supporting the vulnerable members population must be subjected to stark economic constraints to offer incommensurate support for Holtz-Eakin’s interpretation of what the government should be doing : pouring money into private firms for defense research, weapons manufacture, and so on.   Though this catastrophizing around entitlements may seem isolated amidst a sea of negative analyses of Trump’s disastrous budget, it is in fact a persistent and essential feature of the austerity dogma, one tinging even more balanced critiques of his budget.

Austerity is an economic policy which mitigates national debt and capital shortages through either increases in taxation or slashing of government spending, usually social spending or entitlements.  John Maynard Keynes, perhaps the most influential economist of the depression years and co-architect of the financial regulatory apparatus codified in the Bretton Woods agreement, famously quipped,

the boom, not the slump, is the right time for austerity,

as discussed by political scientist Mark Blyth in his book Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea.  As Blyth illustrates, nations have nonetheless attempted to implement austerity measures often at the wrong time, such as during recessions, depressions, and the like, often to cataclysmic consequence.  On the more moderate side of error, Franklin Roosevelt implemented austerity in 1937, much too early in the Great Depression to salvage the meager restoration of money flow.  On more extreme examples, we have starvation of third world nations through both transfer of debt from corrupt, undemocratic leaders to the unwitting population and neoliberal antilabor policies driving wages down and forcing migrant workers and farmers off the farms and into crowded factories with diminished protections and standards, as we’ve seen in Pinochet’s Chile after the CIA-backed overthrow of Salvador Allende, various Latin American countries through violent overthrows, Argentina, China under trade policy with Europe, Japan, and the US, Mexico under NAFTA, north Africa, and the like; Riad Azar discusses the uncomfortable relationship between neoliberalism and authoritarianism in many of these cases.   Elites in these nations generally tell their populations that times are tough, thus we must all give up a little luxury here and there to cover debts.  In the past forty years, we’ve experienced the same here in the United States; president after president has asked us to surrender more and more of the entitlement programs enacted under the New Deal, citing imminent fiscal meltdown and an absurd promise that somehow cutting taxes on the rich will more than meet the shortfall.  Paul Krugman, economist at the New York Times, lambasted the theoretical support for austerity in an article for the New York Review of Books a few years ago, demonstrating flaws in the arguments of austerians and exhibiting data from the international monetary fund (IMF) demonstrating both the disastrous results of austerity measures in Greece, Portugal, and other European countries, and the low cost of deficits for nations capable of expanding their own currency, the USA being a principal example.  So if so much evidence abounds weighing against austerity, why does it persist?

Krugman cites Andrew Mellon’s suggestion to President Herbert Hoover at the beginning of the Great Depression to

liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate farmers,
liquidate real estate... 
it will purge the rottenness out of the system.
High costs of living and high living will come down.
People will work harder, live a more moral life.
Values will be adjusted, and enterprising people will
pick up from less competent people,

indicating a belief that the depression was a natural consequence of the largesse of the 1920s.  Naturally his position among the banking elite of the day obscured from his sight that income inequality was stark in that roaring decade, rivaling today’s lopsided wealth distribution; the Americans hit hardest by the Great Depression were those farmers victimized by the Dust Bowl, poor city dwellers, and, of course, marginalized minorities, most of whom weren’t participants in the immoral ways torturing Mellon’s lily-white soul.  Krugman cites this example, along with The Great Deformation, David Stockman’s multiple-page content-free rant against economic excesses, and others as the innate need for elites and others to interpret the goings-on of economics as a “morality play,” despite Keynes’ claims to the contrary.  Austerians, Krugman contends, grasp at any opportunity to fortify their central thesis, expecting that punishment is in order to correct the moral balance of society.  With even a cursory glance, one can find striking evidence of a desire to excise reliance on government services among Trump supporters, elitists, and the like: for nearly thirty years, I’ve listened to the Trump supporters in my family bemoan abuses to the system by black recipients of welfare, despite years worth of nonpartisan General Accounting Office (GAO) studies suggesting that most recipients of welfare are on the rolls less than two years, and those remaining are mostly elderly and children.  Most seriously, entitlements intended to buttress the poor make up an almost trivial amount in the budget: food stamps alone account for maybe three percent, depending on how one counts it.  Any analyst serious about cutting expenditures should tackle the most obvious offender, the military.

Krugman and Blyth offer an excellent critique of austerity within an economic framework, but my thinking is that the problem is actually far more elementary.  As suggested earlier, military spending is an undemocratic transfer of wealth to corporations, somehow magically shielded from the harsh, requisite market principles applied to retirees, the disabled, and so on.  A confluence of interests largely explain the pervasiveness of the dogma, including

Circling back to Holtz-Eakin’s claim, even argued in the Washington Post op-ed included above, that entitlements will run out of gas in a few decades, I’m astounded by the almost cultish adherence to market ideology, which taken to its natural conclusion, leads to a key, immoral tenet of austerity : liquidity over livelihood.  Human life apparently isn’t worth a balanced budget.  In any case, I would argue that even without Krugman’s rather elegant take-down, the theoretical underpinnings collapse by virtue of sheer hypocrisy: somehow defense, very much overblown and over budget well beyond necessity, as repeatedly discussed by peace activist David Swanson, enjoys exemption from the natural law of markets, it would seem.  Even more absurd is that avaricious financial institutions somehow earn special dispensation, such as a sizable bailout in 2008 following a crisis of their own making, to say nothing of the economic protectionism of the Gilded Era, the post-war years, and the Reagan years, discussed previously, and that the super wealthy should receive enormous tax cuts at the expense of social programs on the merits of the debunked supply-side thesis as they did in 1982 and 2002; somehow, we’re told, these unusual events perfectly harmonize with the inscrutable free market ideology.  The alarmist perspective of extremists, the Republicans, (and some centrists, the Democrats) in our government holds that despite experiencing enormous growth in wealth over the past four decades, the top tier must receive more than those below, and furthermore democracy cannot overcome the natural order of market ideology.  That is, once entitlements run aground as currently financed, there simply is no way to transfer monies downward, as this would violate the sacred natural order.  No amount of votes or popular pressure should overcome this dastardly outcome, so naturally, elderly and disabled people, along with children unfortunate enough to be born into poverty, should simply suffer.

Frankly, only an imbecile would assent to these ludicrous notions.  First of all, there is no natural law of markets, well-argued by Kerry Anne Mendoza.  Second of all, there is no shortage of capital.  To create the obvious analogy to hopefully emphasize this point, suppose one hundred people are marooned on an island without outside help and no way to escape, yet the island offers enough food and water to support these hundred people.  Further, consider that by some fluke exactly one person on that island manages to control 90% of the precious food and water, yet since he’s unwilling to share even a crumb with his fellow inhabitants, a shortfall in the next year is a guarantee for the remaining 99.  What law of markets or private property justifies the greed of one person at the expense of the others?  To sketch the analogy further, suppose the other 99 inhabitants perform most of the work to accumulate the food and water over time, yet they cannot partake without his magnanimous permission.  As outrageous and unrealistic as this may sound when the problem appears so concretely, it is precisely what we’re facing with the entitlements crisis.  Compounding the lunacy of the hysteria is that money isn’t a precious, limited resource like drinkable water, breathable air, and consumable food stuffs; it’s a construct, or an abstraction designed to provide an intermediary exchange for goods and services, something which the US can expand and contract freely as it has since the founding of the Federal Reserve.  And even without artificially inflating capital, there is plenty to go around.  I’ll repeat, as this is crucial : there is no real shortage of capital.  Unfortunately, there isn’t a surplus of morality and principle where most of this capital lives; in its place is a malignant, metastatic greed leeching resources and wealth away from the workforce and vulnerable recipients of these entitlements; I’m reminded of a quote by Martin Wolf, economic correspondent for the Financial Times, repeated by Chomsky,

an out-of-control financial sector
is eating out the modern market economy
from inside, just as the larva of the spider
wasp eats out the host in which it has been laid.

The irony here is the far-right hysterics’ fanaticism with apocalypse doesn’t seem to extend to the real threats : terminal nuclear war and ecological disaster; instead, I feel their motives are clear.  Like those textile mill workers of 120 years ago, we can lament in this second gilded age

the new spirit of the age...
gain wealth... forget all but self.

We need not surrender now.

 

 

 

Trump : Symptom or Cause?

The major news in recent weeks has featured prominently the ongoing investigation into Russia’s manipulation of last year’s presidential election, the possible complicity of Trump’s campaign in said manipulation, and Trump’s repeated snafus, contradictions, and rather astonishingly public twitter meltdowns. With so much ground to cover, it can be a bit difficult to decide where to begin.

If ever there were an argument against the fitness of a particular holder of the office, we have a collection of problems whose astonishing proliferation parallels the severity:

and the list continues. We have a dangerously unstable man occupying the White House with the power to intimidate, imperil, and harass with minimal Congressional oversight. In fact, the Republican response to each new abuse of power, though glacially warming from their lackluster tepid beginnings, contrasts immensely with mass hysteria among Congressional Republicans during Clinton’s sex scandal or Obama’s healthcare proposals, nicely captured by the analysts at the morally bankrupt Fox news. Certainly it evokes the astonishingly forgiving attitude of arch-conservative faith leaders such as Pat Robertson toward Trump when damning Access Hollywood tapes surfaced, recording his sexual objectification of women as things to abuse at his pleasure.  Robertson, like his high-minded counterparts of the past complicit in the Nazi ascent, offers spiritual cover for Trump even amidst major scandals.

The mainstream media, though largely responsible for placing Trump in the center seat with high-volume, free news coverage throughout 2015 and 2016, somehow found its voice once Trump slithered into the White House with a slight advantage in the obsolete electoral college, no doubt because of his incessant attacks on the press. Nonetheless, what bothers me most about the current state-of-affairs is not the alleged collusion, which I’d easily wager truly did happen (think : Trump entreated Russia to steal Hillary’s emails, not to mention the snowballing investigation mentioned above), nor is it the insanity of Trump himself, a condition so blatantly obvious that mental health professionals around the world, including three university professors who implored Obama to institute a mental fitness test for incoming presidents, and country have drifted from the Goldwater rule, an APA convention designed to depoliticize psychology.

Trump’s shenanigans and abuses of power, together with the ineffective, simpering cronies in Congress, uncover some of the more fearsome deficiencies in the American government. A continuing dialog by CBS with a group of voters tracks the evolution of public viewpoints since the election, revealing a remarkable characteristic among Trump’s most ardent loyalists : they believe law enforcement and government agents should swear an oath not only to uphold the U.S. Constitution, but offer unconditional support to the U.S. President. Though this received very little press coverage, it struck me with great alarm, as I recall learning even as an elementary school student in social studies that the principles of freedom articulated in the Constitution greatly exceeded any one leader in authority; though the transition into adulthood taught me how unfairly protectionist elite sectors happen to be, quite striking for example in the application of austere, lofty market principles to the poor and vulnerable while greedily hiding behind the nanny state to guarantee a good, yet non-market outcome, hearing even lower middle class and perhaps poor people hope for some sort of totalitarian pledge to an office of increasingly diminished constraint frankly frightened. In fact, the cavalier attitude of Trump’s strongest supporters, both in Congress and the population, toward his many abuses of power, incompetence, violations of the emoluments clause, leveraging his position to enrich companies owned by him, his daughter, and his son-in-law, nauseating affection for vicious, murderous dictators such as Putin, Duterte, and Erdogan, and highly suspect entanglements with foreign agencies indicate either deeply entrenched partisanship or discouraging ignorance. An obvious example was in questions lobbed by Senators James Kennedy, John Cornyn, and Ted Cruz at Sally Yates about Trump’s ill-fated, first amendment-violating Muslim ban, in defiance of the purpose of her testimony, a discussion of Russian interference into the election, to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Kennedy mocked her by asking, “Who appointed you to the supreme court?”, blathering rather idiotically that no agent sworn to uphold the Constitution can argue with or overrule a despotic president ordering violations of that same document. It certainly gives one pause to consider that the racist underpinnings of Trump’s bans fly in the face of a multi-hundred billion dollar arms deal with Saudi Arabia, the key source of “Wahabized” Sunnis fueling ISIS, according to regional expert Patrick Coburn. Obama had previously blocked such a sale because of the atrocious Saudi record of human rights violations, something a toady such as Kennedy might not know. Of course, though the ignorance of a petty sycophant in the Senate may be an acute example of the brokenness of the system, it hardly tells the whole story.

The House of Representatives harriedly passed a bastardization of healthcare reform in a desperately rushed, craven attempt to hand Trump some meager legislative victory before the Congress Budget Office could offer a sobering analysis delivered for the first variant of Trumpcare. I watched in utter astonishment as Representative Mark Sanford admitted not reading the entire bill; others confessed they simply wished to punt healthcare to the Senate. Honestly, I’ve often wondered how it was possible that public approval of the branches of the federal government negatively correlates to the democratic quality of the branch; that is, the House is the most hated, followed by the Senate, then the Supreme Court, then the White House. Yet listening to men whose only job is to propose, amend, read, understand, and approve/disapprove legislation affecting the entire country concede that their constitutional oaths to office, purported devotion to constituency, and their juicy six-figure salaries are meaningless in the face of a tantrum-throwing imbecile so set on any victory that slicing the throats of his own supporters with cuts to Medicaid, student loan subsidies, small business subsidies, and elimination of ACA protections seems perfectly reasonable. The worshiped, fabled checks-and-balances of our government, as usual, are only as powerful as the people enforcing them. So far, no success, despite the carefully laid out responsibilities of each branch listed in the Constitution, let alone the more serious constitutional pressure valve of impeachment.

Speaking recently to an educated family member whose devotion to Trump defies imagination, I attempted to outline the case for such an impeachment, suggesting that a narcissistic conman with near unconstrained war-making power and a profound ignorance of climate science can harm not just the vulnerable and the poor, largely unimportant to my relative, but also his own children’s chances of decent survival. His two retorts, utterly stunning, included a dismissal of corruption and abuses of power of both Trump and, appropriately parallel, Nixon as “not really a big deal,” and that all existential threats to humanity are resolvable through “population control.” That is, if there were fewer people on planet earth, nuclear weapons would magically no longer pose a threat. Though the effects on climate from exponential gains in population are noteworthy, it seems almost as ludicrous as simply asking the sun to turn down the heat, as it’s impossible to solve a population problem in the near term without anything short of genocide. I reminded him that the distribution of consumption and massive pollution of militaries and multinationals are more appropriate targets in mitigating ecological disaster. He even proffered population control as a means of ensuring enough employment for everyone, expressing loyalty to an outdated and outmoded economic paradigm derided by former Greenpeace CEO Paul Gilding as unsustainable. Even more astonishing is that my family member receives most of his salary through government safety net programs, seemingly oblivious to the self-inflicted wound supporting Trump’s heartless, destructive budget proposals happens to be, as mentioned above.

Much public discussion of impeachment has appeared in light of more recent revelations, including a courageous act by black Representative Al Green to call for and draw up articles; he has since received threats of murder and lynching, steeped in racial epithets.  Yet despite Trump’s turbulent relationship with media, it isn’t hard to pinpoint the two key weaknesses in the fourth estate’s watchdog role : Trump’s not-so-state-of-the-union address and his unilateral dropping of MOAB in Afghanistan and the bombing of a Syrian airfield. In each of these cases, the media tried, I think genuinely, to support him moments before the eruption of a new scandal. In the case of the former, they seemed excited he was behaving “presidential” by sounding less insane in his speech, demonstrating their societal function of continued subservience to power; in the case of the latter, violent military action tends unfortunately to generate a rally-around-the-flag effect, despite being an obviously impeachable offense. Intriguingly, Obama refused to act unilaterally in Syria because of threats by Congress to impeach him, yet the Republican leadership and mainstream media welcome with euphoria a completely ineffective airstrike which imperils relations with Russia and other players in the region. Also, MOAB, the most powerful non-nuclear bomb ever created, devastates anything within a mile of its target, a vicious and malevolent display of aggression against an almost totally destroyed country. Of course, I’d agree if Obama had acted as such, he should have been impeached. In fact, every president since the second world war should have faced impeachment for some military action or another (think the invasion of Iraq, the drone assassination campaign, and so on), raising perhaps one of the most disconcerting developments in the past eighty years.

In the post-war era, Congress and the Supreme Court have increasingly broadened war-making powers of the President under the guise of national defense, offering

"[t]he President shall be Commander in Chief of
the Army and Navy of the United States, and of
the Militia of the several States, when called
into the actual Service of the United States"

as crucial constitutional support. Yet something happened at the conclusion of the second world war unforeseen by the framers: with the beginning of the nuclear age and the Anthropocene epoch, mankind for the first time was uniquely positioned to extinguish itself. The President of the United States, the single most powerful person in the most powerful institution to ever exist, can precipitate terminal nuclear war with the tenuous argument that it is necessary to provide the common defense. Dangers have abounded in the past, including orders by Nixon’s chief of staff Alexander Haig that no last minute nuclear strikes should occur without approval from himself and Henry Kissinger as the Nixon presidency collapsed under Watergate. We’ve discussed near-misses such as the Cuban missile crisis and Operation : Able Archer before, but the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists is certainly worth remembering.

Watching as scandal after scandal shreds public institutions further, it again reminds me to ask why we need these institutions in the first place. Obama prosecuted more leakers under the Espionage Act of 1917 than all previous administrations combined, and Democrats and non-Trump Republicans cheered, such as denouncing Edward Snowden to be a traitor after he revealed a mass surveillance operation leveraged by the NSA against the American population. Now, whistle-blowers from within the so-called “deep state” reveal information almost daily that acquaint us with the desperately precarious position in which we find ourselves, and the media and many Democrats cheer. The fact remains that though one can argue “state secrecy” as justification for concealing any information in the name of security, it again illustrates a fundamental distrust of the population that government representatives and elite media generally share. Leaks have always been an essential feature of elite power systems desperate to self-sustain even at odds with institutional charters, as Carl Bernstein pointed out in a recent op-ed. Certainly the decades-old “state secret” argument dovetails nicely with John Yoo’s doctrine on near constraint-free torture even against children and with white supremacist Stephen Miller’s claim that Trump’s authority “cannot be questioned”

Trump therefore happens to be especially acute in the danger he represents, but the problem persists as systemic; after all, if he’s guilty of abuse of power and obstruction of justice, aren’t all or most of his cabinet, Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, Devin Nunes, and the like? They too either refuse or offer tepid support to investigate what should be substantive news; admittedly, the U.S. has interfered through violence, subversion, subterfuge, and a host of other mechanisms in elections across the globe throughout are history. It certainly isn’t as fun when someone else does it to us.  Analysts argue back and forth as to whether his obstructions carry the requisite criminal intent, an almost laughable debate considering that quashing an investigation into your own possible criminality is by definition criminal intent.  It’s worth noting that even highly respectable analysts such as Glenn Greenwald suggest the possibility of no smoking gun in the case since Trump would be rather stupid to draw attention to himself in firing Comey; of course, he tacitly ascribes a rationality to Trump obviously missing when one applies even layperson psychology.  So we have a crazy, destructive narcissist running the White House, laying bare frailties of the crumbling public institutions before our very eyes.  How do we fix it?

An apparent strategy, and perhaps not beyond what is achievable in light of the many abuses of the White House, is to substantially curtail the power of the executive, increase the size of both the Supreme Court and Congress, and (with greater difficulty) adjust the Constitution to match the needs of a modern society. Watching as the media and Congress wait with breathless abandon for the president to set the agenda is laughable; why does the White House set the legislative agenda? How can corrupt gerrymanderers in North Carolina who think arguing that partisan advantage justifies racial discrimination garner a single vote from the Supreme Court, let alone those of Alito, Roberts, and Kennedy? How is it that the U.S. Senate can sit idly by while Trump, a serial liar, continues to violate the Constitution and obstruct investigations into his own corruption? If we survive the time Trump is in office (and I’m increasingly convinced that time will be very brief), we should try to solve the serious inadequacies of our system, and that right soon.