Thursday, March 16, 2017

Life and death.

I’ve never heard of anyone here in this rich land “of opportunity” or anywhere else express the ambition of being poor.  We don’t have to be economists or social scientists to know that, beyond its impact on our daily existence, where we are on the economic spectrum is a matter of life and death.  As reported in a recent the Harvard Gazette article, “Being poor in the United States is so hazardous to your health…that the average life expectancy of the lowest-income classes in America is now equal to that in Sudan or Pakistan.”  Researchers found that the richest American men live 15 years longer than the poorest; the richest women 10 years.  While people at the top are doing better than ever and the gap between them and everyone else continues to widen, eight out of ten American workers make $10.50 or lower in hourly wages.  The idea that the poor don’t work is a heartless myth.  They do, and often at more than one low paying job.  Despite all the hours, they have no guarantee of staying, much less climbing, out of poverty.  Perhaps the majority of us are living reasonably (or even very) well, but a huge percentage of our fellow human beings live at the precarious edge.

We have spent considerable time since November pondering the impact and dangers of Donald Trump’s ascendency.  But without the rise of the twenty-first century GOP and its prevailing rightest orientation, there would be no Trump presidency.  He is a natural progression, not an anomaly.  That brings me to the current House generated healthcare overhaul proposal and the accompanying debate.  While not sharing their point of view, I can understand an argument for smaller government or greater state empowered federalism.  What boggles the mind is why the contemporary Republican mindset seems so heartless and mean spirited.  It is an ideology which, beyond all else, is particularly harsh on the least fortunate among us.  Their reluctance first to expand and now to attack Medicaid in the currently proposed legislation is but a metaphor for a larger and more profound poor-punishing agenda including, but certainly not limited to, a frontal assault on public education. 

The purposeful, and in my view criminal, disregard for environmental science and its potential dire consequences will also disproportionately have life and death consequences for the less well off.  I was reminded of that in a weekly farmer’s market conversation with a fellow relocated New Yorker and lifelong Democrat.  An affluent retired surgeon, he vehemently opposed Trump’s candidacy and was set on edge by his victory.  He told me last week that he and his wife are so concerned that they are actively considering relocating to Canada.  He added, and here is the point, “because we can afford it, something which sadly most people can’t.”  He was talking about politics but also about the advantage of wealth.  When it comes to the environment, that's a life and death differentiator.  Those with means will surely suffer from climate change, but they can move from the coasts and shield themselves more from polluted air – perhaps not for ever, but longer than others.  The poor will disproportionately lose their shelter and on the Coasts will likely helplessly drown as seas rise.  They will go hungry first when parched inland soil no longer yields sufficient food for survival.  That current 15/10-year differential in male/female life expectancy is likely to expand further if heartless no-action or regressive environmental policies are put into place. 

Presidential budgets, regardless of who issues them, are routinely “dead on arrival”.  Only Congress can initiate and pass budgets.  What they do tell us is the president’s intent, his philosophical mindset.  Despite pious campaign and continued pronouncements that, for example, everyone will be covered by and pay less for healthcare, Trump’s budget carries no good news for the poor or for the many more who live at the hazardous margin.  They won’t be seeing any greater return for their efforts.  According to a 2015 piece by economist Robert Reich, more of these people are working, and working harder than ever.  In contrast, at the top more of the rich are living on inherited wealth and among them the trend is working less.  Heratio Alger’s children and grandchildren are well taken care of, thank you.  They have more disposable income and time on their hands than they, or their heirs, can ever use.  Yes, I’ve never met anyone who aspired to be poor, to be a victim of the heartlessness that abounds in the land these days.

Public policy is headed in the wrong direction with these people in charge.  Trump’s faux populism may still resonate at his ongoing rallies, but it’s born of systematic disinformation, the kind that feeds on, though not exclusively, a fear of “the other”.  But authentic fact-based populism is bound to follow.  People may be fooled once or even a couple of times, but not for ever.  At some point, they do reach that “can’t take it anymore” moment.  It will require a response, one that is both openhearted and substantive.  Clocks can’t be turned back even  if the current leadership gang is working so diligently to do just that at this moment in time.  As I write, the train of our future certainly hasn’t yet departed, but be sure it is already waiting at the station.  It’s in our national power to keep it from leaving.  How we care for those who have less, how much extra life we afford them, will ultimately determine our future and well-being.  It’s really a matter of urgency, of life and death.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Under attack.

Make no mistake, Donald Trump and company aren’t simply bent on repealing the ACA, they seek to repeal the Obama presidency.  But that’s an executional detail.  The real story – and worry – is that our democracy and its institutions are under attack.  The assailant sits in the Oval Office, our most sacred seat of power.  In an effort to inflate his own mandate, he’s challenged the veracity of (and thus undermined) the ballot box.  He has attacked the credibility of the press, the integrity of the judiciary and has alleged extralegal over reach by the executive.  Is the legislative branch and process next?  We’re seeing the first signs.  In an effort to thwart questioning the Republican devised ACA “repeal and replace” that he supports, the White House is trying to preemptively attack the widely respected and independent Congressional Budget Office.

Trump’s bizarre charge that President Obama ordered him wiretapped conforms to a pattern, one that also employs outright lies and intentional misinformation.  Put together, his actions and words thus far echo the ways of autocrats.  Equally disturbing, and again part of the same playbook, his campaign tactics riled up supporters who continue to have blind faith in him.  If history is any lesson, these are people – a kind of private army – who might take to the streets, perhaps violently so, should his presidency seem threatened.  And such a threat is not inconceivable as law enforcement or Congressional investigators dig into the Russia connection and, at some point in the future, his obvious conflicts of interest.  Alan Greenspan famously described what he saw as an out of control stock market as the product of irrational exuberance.  What we’ve seen from the new president are irrational tweets, the kind that might get us into deep trouble at home or abroad.  If I thought before that all of his seemingly undisciplined behavior was calculated, I am only more convinced of it now.  Whether the calculation originates with Trump himself or his alt-right strategist Steve Bannon makes for interesting speculation but ultimately is beside the point.  It’s the result that counts.

There is no way to put a positive spin on this new administration.  As he himself might put it, Trump scares the hell out of me.  I’m often asked what my late father, who saw the coming danger early on and as a Berlin rabbi vocally opposed the Hitler regime in the 1930s, would think of our current situation.  While it is always risky and often misleading to speculate on what past leaders might make of the present, answering this question is a no-brainer.  He would have found Trump’s world and actions familiar ground, a bright red flag to be taken seriously and whose potential for ill dare not be underestimated.  For eight years, I have been getting regular emails from the White House.  I loved being kept in touch.  As an Obama contributor, I made the list.  You likely are on it as well.  I still get White House emails – guess they forgot to remove my name – and it’s always a bit of a shock to see that they are alerting me to some news or action of Donald Trump.  The Office, for which I have great respect, just isn’t the same with its encamped crew of “alts” led by the unpredictable.

Add to that the administration is already under a cloud.  I watched Deputy Attorney General Nominee Rod Rosenstein’s Judiciary Committee hearing.  It was unusual to say the least because, just weeks in, the Attorney General has had to recuse himself from an inquiry where he will undoubtedly be a person of interest.  If confirmed, it would fall to Rosenstein to take charge of the investigation.  Appointed as an US Attorney by George W. Bush, he went onto serve under Obama for the last eight years.  Supported now by his state’s two Democratic senators, he appears to be a public servant of great integrity.  No one on the committee seems to have doubts about that or about his apolitical reputation.  That said, Democratic members believe the inquiry into Russian influence on the November election, and the role played in it by the Trump campaign, demand an independent special counsel.  They also want Jeff Sessions, who may have committed intentional perjury during his confirmation hearing, to resign.  At the very least, he should return for a round of follow up public questioning.

This is not the first administration to fall under congressional investigation, nor is the current Attorney General the first to be under a cloud.  (If they think the Nixon administration is good company, so be it.)  But I don’t know of a case where it has happened so early.  That’s both troubling and encouraging.  Troubling for obvious reasons, but encouraging because perhaps, despite the systematic attacks, checks and balances are neither dead or intimidated.  Trump may be the master of distraction, and may be as calculating as I contend, but he is also inexperienced in the ways of government in general and Washington in particular.  Why anyone would take on the press, security services and judiciary and not expect substantive consequences is a real mystery.  Moreover, in demanding that Justice add Obama’s alleged bugging into its enquiry only adds fuel to the incipient flame.  Investigations, by their nature, take on a life of their own, one that will be out of Trump’s control.  Tweets may inflame, but they won’t determine the end point.

That end point remains unknown.  Echoes of authoritarianism may not turn into the real thing.  But with so-called populism led by rightists on the rise, we have good reason to be concerned.  Historian Holly Case doesn’t name Trump in her current thoughtful Aeon Magazine The New Authoritarians article discussion of Russia’s Putin, Turkey’s Erdoğan, and Hungary’s Orbáns, but it’s not a stretch imagining him in that company.  Remember how he characterized the former KGBer’s’ leadership in contrast to Obama’s during the 2016 campaign.  Perhaps deep down I don’t believe it can’t happen here, but we can’t take that for granted.  So far, Trump has said and done a lot of things that I thought impossible, certainly unlikely.  He’s being described as unconventional.  I think that’s a dangerously benign description.  His attacks on our essential institutions are too serious and those attacks are ultimately on all of us.

Thursday, March 2, 2017


One carefully crafted and staged “normal” address doth not an unconventional and alarming presidency change.  Certainly, not the man who gave it.

A glutton for punishment, I watched Donald Trump’s entire February 16 seventy-seven-minute rambling press conference.  That’s the one to which “fake news” outlets like the NY Times, CNN and Politico were invited.  It was hard to listen without thinking again about president’s psyche: his thin-skinned megalomania combined with a good dose of Nixonian paranoia.  It’s become common to call Trump’s performance and tweets disjointed and erratic, but I don’t buy it.  I see them as smokescreen theatrics.  As I’ve written before, behind the bravado and seemingly of-the-cuff outlandish is something both calculated and purposeful.  He knows exactly what he is doing and why.  The sheer volume is meant to distract and to overwhelm, it’s seemingly uninformed moments meant to make us underestimate him.  It’s a deft act, that got him elected president.  He seems intent on carrying it through his presidency.  Exit stage left.

Enter stage right.  Marching down the aisle of the House comes a seemingly different and more “presidential” Donald Trump.  A shorter performance: 60 minutes.  On the surface this non-state-of-the-union was the measured and more uniting address one would expect, the kind he failed to deliver at his far from record breaking attended inaugural on January 20.  While the free-wheeling press conference came off as erratic ad lib, the February 18 talk was carefully scripted.  He stayed with the text.  It was staged rather than vintage Trump, another bit of premediated theater. 

It’s fair for anyone who listened to these Jekyll and Hyde February performances to ask, which is the real Trump?  Is it the tweeting one who appeared at the press conference or the measured one who spoke at Joint Session?  Based on what we’ve witnessed during the campaign and in the first weeks of his tenure, I’d say the man who spoke on the Hill was the out-of-character exception, the outlier.  It’s hard to believe that scripted persona will sustain beyond the occasional carefully calculated performance.

More important, the different tone did not mask a message that was consistent with his campaign or actions since taking office.  While the words “America First” may have been absent, the intent and self-centered protective content remained.  His promise to “repeal and replace” Obamacare remained, accompanied by the expected Republican applause.  His pledge to build a “great wall” along the US/Mexican border was repeated.  His focus on violent crimes perpetrated tellingly by immigrants followed the xenophobia of his campaign as did his characterization of trade deals as one sided disasters.  Disaster is his favorite word, the “mess” he inherited.  Of course, here too his intent is clear.  If everything was a mess, he can claim full credit for “cleaning the (so-called) swamp.  He already credits himself for things that were underway or even completed before he took office.  Interestingly, the one initiative that would garner enthusiastic Democratic support, a major infrastructure program, is unlikely to be enacted by the Republican controlled Congress.  Ironically, unlike promises to “bring back manufacturing”, rebuilding our roads and bridges might actually result in many thousands, even millions, of new jobs.

Neither the speech nor the long press conference weeks before have changed the trajectory of the new administration.  Its underlying theme remains rightist disruption.  Experience does not seem a prerequisite for appointment to lead, indeed it almost seems a disqualifier.  Putting in place people who have been critics of the agency’s mission they are to head is a common thread, the intention to destroy or turn back transparent.  Whether or not Jeff Sessions is a racist or colluded with the Russians during the campaign, he is a man who opposes most of the advances that you and I probably cherish as progress.  Betsy DeVos, who seems bent on destroying it, has no basic knowledge of, or experience with, public education.  They are the norm of the Trump team.  There is nothing wrong with taking a fresh look, but an uninformed look is nothing less than reckless.  Reengineered speech optics don’t change the character of the leader or a cabinet that will soon be fully confirmed and in place.

I keep on waiting for some good news from this presidency, some authentic outreach to the majority of Americans who voted for Hillary, or even if you take his alternate view, the minority who didn’t vote for him.  His continued and clearly systematic attack on the press leaves me more troubled that I can ever remember.  All the signs of a would be authoritarian leader/regime remain in place and only he can lay those fears to rest.  Thus far, I see no sign of that happening.  He claims to speak for the working folk, but his wife appears in the House gallery in a reported $10,000 outfit.  His preferred appointees are generals and billionaires, hardly “of the people”.  He hasn’t yet outfitted White House bathrooms with his signature gold fixtures, but that may yet come.  His budget, dead on arrival or not, calls for unnecessary additional defense spending and a cut in domestic programs.  The environment isn’t even discussed and the march on deregulation, especially the kind that protects all of us, is on big time. 

Some tiny signs of pushback can be seen on Capitol Hill, but nothing that is either meaningful or would be real grounds for hope.  That doesn’t mean I’ve totally given up.  People like Trump tend to over reach.  But we should have no illusions.  This is likely to be a full-term presidency.  We’ll continue to be asking ourselves, in what kind of an America do we live?  For now, and perhaps for some time to come, a changed one, and not for the better.  I hope our Courts and our elected officials will ultimately stand up to protect our endangered democracy, but they will need to be pushed in that direction.  That’s our job because, in the end, it’s always up to “we the people”.