Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

Freedom of Speech

I am not a libertarian nor am I a member of the ACLU, but I generally agree with them on the importance of free speech. This, I believe, is a real and growing problem on college campuses:

Students affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement crashed an event at the College of William & Mary, rushed the stage, and prevented the invited guest—the American Civil Liberties Union’s Claire Gastañaga, a W & M alum—from speaking.

Ironically, Gastañaga had intended to speak on the subject, “Students and the First Amendment.”

The disruption was livestreamed on BLM at W&M’s Facebook page. Students took to the stage just a few moments after Gastañaga began her remarks. At first, she attempted to spin the demonstration as a welcome example of the kind of thing she had come to campus to discuss, commenting “Good, I like this,” as they lined up and raised their signs. “I’m going to talk to you about knowing your rights, and protests and demonstrations, which this illustrates very well. Then I’m going to respond to questions from the moderators, and then questions from the audience.”

It was the last remark she was able to make before protesters drowned her out with cries of, “ACLU, you protect Hitler, too.” They also chanted, “the oppressed are not impressed,” “shame, shame, shame, shame,” (an ode to the Faith Militant’s treatment of Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones, though why anyone would want to be associated with the religious fanatics in that particular conflict is beyond me), “blood on your hands,” “the revolution will not uphold the Constitution,” and, uh, “liberalism is white supremacy.”

This went on for nearly 20 minutes. Eventually, according to the campus’s Flat Hat News, one of the college’s co-organizers of the event handed a microphone to the protest’s leader, who delivered a prepared statement. The disruption was apparently payback for the ACLU’s principled First Amendment defense of the Charlottesville alt-right’s civil liberties.

Organizers then canceled the event; some members of the audience approached the podium in an attempt to speak with Gastañaga, but the protesters would not permit it. They surrounded Gastañaga, raised their voices even louder, and drove everybody else away.

Two comments… First, as Gastañaga learned (assuming, and it may be one hell of an assumption, that the message sunk in), giving in to this sort of bullying, as with any kind of bullying, doesn’t mean the bully looks on you with more sympathy. It doesn’t even mean they save you for last. Bullies simply aren’t that smart, nor do they have that sort of self-control. They sense only strength, or its absence. Second, I’ve often wondered how Chinese people of a certain age explain the Cultural Revolution and the Red Guards to their children. I guess I will find out first hand. Sooner or later, when my son is older, I will have to explain this nonsense to him. I just hope it has run its course by then.

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Right Wing Propaganda Tank IPI Likes the Trump Tax-Cuts-for-the-Rich “framework”

Right Wing Propaganda Tank IPI Likes the Trump Tax-Cuts-for-the-Rich “framework”

There’s no surprise here.  The Institute for Policy Innovation (IPI) is a right-wing “think” (i.e., propaganda) tank that has consistently argued for tax policies that favor multinational corporations and the wealthy.  So IPI has a posting on Sept 29 that is supportive of the so-called “tax reform framework” put out by the Trump administration.

As an earlier post noted here, the Trump framework is a wish list for the wealthy, providing one tax cut for the ultra rich after another:

  • elimination of the estate tax (that only affects the heirs of estates worth more than $11 million);
  • territoriality (that advantages multinational corporations that actually operate from the U.S. but claim headquarters in low-tax jurisdictions);
  • a flat 25% rate on “pass-through income” that gives almost a 15% rate cut to wealthy owners of partnerships in the real estate, joint venture, oil and gas and other businesses (and affects very few true small business owners whose effective tax rate is already no more than 25%, if that much);
  • elimination of the top rates on the progressive individual rate structure (reducing the top rate from 39.6% to 35% (or less));
  • reducing the statutory rate for corporations to a low 20%, when corporations already pay much much less in taxes than they have generally paid under the income tax system while making record profits and paying their key managerial personnel the kind of salaries and percs that have exacerbated the increasing income inequality gap in the U.S.;
  • elimination of the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT), a provision that was enacted to ensure that wealthy taxpayers are not able to use so many loopholes and special provisions that they escape taxation altogether on their income (the elimination of the AMT being a pro-wealthy tax cut that ordinary folk in the lower two-thirds of the income distribution will benefit not one whit from); and
  • permitting immediate expensing for five years of equipment and similar expenditures by businesses (another provision that will allow mega corporations to make even more profits that can be shared–through bonuses, higher salaries, and share buybacks with the wealthy managers and shareholders of the enterprise and a provision that runs explicitly counter to the actual economics of the business, in which new equipment stays at close to original value in the early years with wear and tear actually economically backloaded onto the last years of the useful life).

As a result of these provisions, the wealthy who own the vast majority of financial assets (including stock in corporations and partnership interests in real estate and other partnerships) will enjoy hundreds of thousands of dollars of tax cuts.  In fact, the major portion of the tax cuts will go to the very wealthy who need them least.

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Trump’s Inadequate Response to Hurricane Maria and the Posse Comitatus Act

by ProGrowthLiberal  (originally published at Econospeak)

Trump’s Inadequate Response to Hurricane Maria and the Posse Comitatus Act

Credit to Matthew Yglesias for his discussion of the incompetence of Donald Trump as well as the excuses for it from his defenders including:

Officials have also cited the Posse Comitatus Act as a complicating factor that helps explain why Trump was so much slower to dispatch assistance to Puerto Rico than the Obama administration was to send help to Haiti after it was devastated by an earthquake in 2010.

Except this 1878 Congressional Act does not bar the President from calling in the military as Michael Spak and Donald Spak note:

Before 1878, it was common for the United States Army to enforce civilian laws. In frontier territories, the army was often the only source of law enforcement, supplemented by occasional U.S. Marshals. Over time, marshals and county sheriffs regularly called upon the army to assist in enforcing the laws… By the time of the 1876 presidential election, Southern states were reconstituted. Many Southerners opposed both Grant, the outgoing Republican president, and Rutherford B. Hayes, the Republican presidential candidate. Federal troops actively assisted U.S. Marshals in patrolling and monitoring polling places in the South, claiming to be enforcing the federal election laws and preventing former Confederate officers from voting (as was the law at that time). Following bitter election contests in four Southern states, Hayes won the presidency by one electoral vote. Many felt that the federal troops, which supported Hayes and the Reconstructionist Republican candidates for Congress, intimidated Southerners who would have voted for Samuel Tilden, the Democratic candidate. The resulting Democratic Congress was at odds with the Republican President Hayes. In response to what was seen as undue influence over the 1876 election, Congress outlawed the practice of posse comitatus by enacting the Posse Comitatus Act (PCA) (as 20 Stat. 152) as a rider to the Army Appropriation Act for 1880. The act stated: “Whoever, except in cases and under circumstances expressly authorized by the Constitution or Act of Congress, willfully uses any part of the Army or the Air Force as a posse comitatus or otherwise to execute the laws shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than two years, or both.” Congressional debates indicate that the PCA was intended to stop army troops from answering the call of a marshal to perform direct law enforcement duties and aid in execution of the law. Further legislative history indicates that the more immediate objective was to put an end to the use of federal troops to police elections in ex-Confederate states where civil power had been reestablished.

In other words, this PCA is an outdated piece of legislation. But there’s more:

Others suggest the act is obsolete and should be repealed because numerous legislative exemptions have eroded the underlying policy and left the PCA a hollow shell. Others insist that although there are many exceptions, the act is essential to bar misuse of the military by civilian authorities and to prevent a military dictatorship from assuming control of the nation through use of the armed forces. Still others argue that the act means only that federal military forces may not be commandeered by civilian authorities for use in active and direct law enforcement as a posse comitatus. If local authorities need military personnel for specialized operations enforcing state laws, it is argued, they may call on the state governor for the assistance of the state National Guard.

There are many exceptions and no one would think giving aid in a time of need endangers either military dictatorship or the misuse of the military by civilian authorities. This pathetic excuse from Team Trump is just another example of how he turns everything into a culture war.

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Oxfam America President Abby Maxman Questions Slow Aid Response to Puerto Rico

Oxfam is a global organization working to end poverty. Its goal is to help people build better futures for themselves, hold those responsible accountable for the failures of people in power and/or government, and work in disaster areas. Their mission as stated is: “ To create lasting solutions to poverty, hunger, and social injustice.”

Earlier in the week Oxfam acknowledged the ongoing tragedy in Puerto Rico. Oxfam President Abby Maxman said:

“Oxfam has monitored the response in Puerto Rico closely, and we are outraged at the slow and inadequate response the US Government has mounted in Puerto Rico. Clean water, food, fuel, electricity, and health care are in desperately short supply and quickly dwindling, and we are hearing excuses and criticism from the administration instead of a cohesive and compassionate response. The US has more than enough resources to mobilize an emergency response; but, it has failed to do so in a swift and robust manner. Oxfam rarely responds to humanitarian emergencies in the US and other wealthy countries; but as the situation in Puerto Rico worsens and the federal government’s response continues to falter, Oxfam has decided to step in to lend our expertise in dealing with some of the world’s most catastrophic disasters.”

And still what Trump thinks about during a visit to the island is the debt owed Wall Street. “They owe a lot of money to your friends on Wall Street and we’re going to have to wipe that out. You’re going to say goodbye to that, I don’t know if it’s Goldman Sachs but whoever it is you can wave goodbye to that”. Trump was and is holding Puerto Rico hostage to getting aid on behalf of Wall Street.

Abby Maxman continues:

“Oxfam will join forces with Puerto Rican leaders to appeal to Congress and other federal agencies in Washington to dedicate resources to the response and remove barriers that are keeping aid out, and to commit to long-term support to help Puerto Rico build back better. We’ll also engage policy makers about the roles inequality and climate change are playing.

In addition, Oxfam has sent a team to San Juan to assess a targeted and effective response. We are currently determining how best this response could benefit from our expertise, such as meeting the needs of rural communities who face increasing risks of disease like cholera without clean water, providing shelter and meeting other immediate needs.”

Where are our Congresspersons and Senators? The population of Puerto Rico are US Citizens. I would urge people to write your representatives and senators pushing them to pressure the President to move quicker and forget the banking and financial sector Main Street bailed out. If this were a white population, no one would stand for this type of treatment.

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Jon Chait and Alex Pareene

Lifted from Robert’s Stochastic Thoughts:

Jon Chait and Alex Pareene

I have a Jon Chait problem. I generally agree with him on most issues. I find him very provocative. I am very sure that no one cares about my opinion about Chait’s latest post. That includes me. I don’t want to waste time thinking about the exactly how far I agree with him. But here I am.

I also have a vaguely favorable view of Alex Pareene, but don’t read him much. I was very entertained by his mild mannered amused Phillipic on Chait “You Are Jonathan Chait’s Enemy”.

There is one marginally interesting sub-topic. It appears that Pareene and Chait can’t both be right, but I am confident they are.

Pareene wrote “I say “you” because his conception of the left almost certainly includes you. … He means basically anyone to the left of Bill Clinton in 1996. ” Chait wrote ” (I allegedly oppose “basically anyone to the left of Bill Clinton in 1996,” which is odd, because I was to the left of Bill Clinton in 1996, and still am.)”

I see no contradiction. I think Chait was to the left of Clinton in 1996 and also that he considers anyone who goes out of her way to note that she is to the left of Clinton’s positions as of 1996 to be a dangerous lefty. So the “basically” is a vague hint at “who is to the left of Bill Clinton in 1996 and says so even when not accused of being as far right as Bill Clinton in 1996”.

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A thought for Sunday: of basic decency and humanity, and how the economy is shoring up the GOP

A thought for Sunday: of basic decency and humanity, and how the economy is shoring up the GOP

A few threads of the Trump malAdministration came together this past week.

The latest attempt to overturn Obamacare confronted Trump with a choice between his two main goals: basking in a Trump triumph vs. erasing all of Obama’s programs from the history books (in retaliation for Obama humiliating him at the White House correspondents’ dinner in 2011).

At the beginning of his presidency, Trump opposed the “repeal and run away” Congressional GOP objectives for Obamacare, telling them he wanted a “replacement” plan with more coverage and lower premiums. He wanted, in short, a Trump triumph.

After 3 failures, however, Congress’s 4th try at dismantling Obamacare has no replacement features. Things like guaranteed coverage of pre-existing conditions were stripped away. The bill in essence simply repealed Obamacare, punted the issue to the States with instructions to not even think about enacting something like universal coverage, and gutted Medicaid to boot. In short, it was very much “repeal and run away” (with a fig leaf).

Trump’s support for the bill showed that he will even eschew a Trump triumph if the alternative obliterates an Obama accomplishment.

Another thread of the Trump presidency is its nearly constant failure on the test of basic decency and humanity.

One of the places where it had been safe to avoid the rancid circus of Washington was The Weather Channel. Not this past week, where it more than any other media outlet highlighted the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico, which appears to be approaching Katrina x 10. When an outlet as innocuous as The Weather Channel feels compelled to implore Washington to DO SOMETHING! you know that those in power have plumbed a new low in the banality of evil.

I have a feeling, however, that conditions in Puerto Rico are going to get much worse — and maybe finally noticed by the actual news media — before they get better.

Which brings me to the final thread. Polling for Trump has been waxing and waning within a limited range for half a year now. It waxes when there he rails against foreign or domestic enemies, like North Korea or uppity nonwhite malcontents, and wanes when his basic lack of decency and humanity is in the forefront. To wit, here is the latest update from Gallup:

Why hasn’t it sunk any lower?

Paradoxically, Trump and the GOP are benefitting from the pretty decent Obama economy — which is still in place, on autopilot, because the GOP has accomplished exactly zero legislatively on economic matters.

And the ongoing Obama economy at the moment has a 4.4% unemployment rate, is still adding about 150,000 new jobs a month, has real median household income at its highest in a decade, if not forever, and real hourly wages for nonsupervisory workers at their highest in 4 decades. In short, civil society may be going to hell, but the economy? Not too shabby.

Historically, in the absence of either war or civil unrest generating a real death toll that dominates the headlines (like Korea, Vietnam, or the race riots of the late 1960s), an economy with these numbers generates reasonably good numbers for the incumbent political party. The benefit of that — of Obama’s economy — is currently going to the GOP!

But if Trump’s approval is in the 35%-40% range with a decent economy — and the Congressional GOP polling at the worst ever — just imagine what the polling is going to be like when the economy as it must eventually turns down.

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Genes, Violence, and Testing

The abstract of an article in Molecular Psychiatry entitled Genetic background of extreme violent behavior reads as follows:

In developed countries, the majority of all violent crime is committed by a small group of antisocial recidivistic offenders, but no genes have been shown to contribute to recidivistic violent offending or severe violent behavior, such as homicide. Our results, from two independent cohorts of Finnish prisoners, revealed that a monoamine oxidase A (MAOA) low-activity genotype (contributing to low dopamine turnover rate) as well as the CDH13 gene (coding for neuronal membrane adhesion protein) are associated with extremely violent behavior (at least 10 committed homicides, attempted homicides or batteries). No substantial signal was observed for either MAOA or CDH13 among non-violent offenders, indicating that findings were specific for violent offending, and not largely attributable to substance abuse or antisocial personality disorder. These results indicate both low monoamine metabolism and neuronal membrane dysfunction as plausible factors in the etiology of extreme criminal violent behavior, and imply that at least about 5–10% of all severe violent crime in Finland is attributable to the aforementioned MAOA and CDH13 genotypes.

Now, we are in the early phases of something that will be one day be termed a genetic revolution. Whatever is known about genetic influences on crime (or anything else, for that matter) pales in comparison to what will be known in a couple of decades. We may not be far from the point where a journal article tells us about eighteen, twenty or fifty three genotypes that explain 85% or 90% or 99.9% of all severe violent crime in Finland. So it pays to think about the big questions early.

And this abstract raises one big question: what if we have the tools to detect those most likely to commit the worst of the worst violent crimes? Biology is not destiny, and some percentage of people who have a tendency toward violence (a big percentage? a small percentage?) may have the fortitude or wherewithal not to follow through. Or to avoid getting caught, which legally amounts to the same thing, though not for the victim(s). That makes widespread testing for these traits problematic, particularly if it were mandatory.

On the other hand, if the genetic link with violence turns out to be sufficiently strong, one can imagine situations arising where people formed associations whose membership is based on disclosure of results of tests for specific genetic traits. I’m guessing parents of young children would join en masse. Exactly what those voluntary associations might look like, and whether they could actually exclude those who “failed” or “tested positive” for the wrong thing might be something future courts will be considering. As long as nobody was being coerced, such situations might be deemed legal. All sorts of things seem to be legal depending on the context. For instance, age discrimination is illegal when it comes to jobs, but seems to be perfectly acceptable when it comes to determining who can live in a retirement community.

One additional tidbit of information worth considering. Despite a number of silly articles in the early oughts that violated all semblance of common sense, not to mention some insane drivel coming out of a few corners of academia today, increased levels of testosterone are associated with aggressive behavior. Testosterone, of course, happens to be the primary male sex hormone, and that’s a big part of the reason that in just about every human society, at just about every point in time, males have been the perpetrators of the overwhelming majority of the violence. (It goes for other primates too.)

Anyway, what can, what should, and what will be done may be three separate questions in a few decades. That’s all too far out for me to have a good idea of the shape of what is to come, but it will tremendously affect society and how we live.  What are your thoughts?

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The Kurdish Independence Vote

The Kurdish Independence Vote

Buried on the back pages of this busy week has been the news that in Iraqi Kurdistan on Monday there was a referendum on independence reportedly supported by 92% of the voters.  I imagine that is not inaccurate, and that there was strong support for this referendum, even as Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Massoud Barzani says that it is only advisory and a prelude to negotiations with the central Iraqi government.  As it is, this vote is not being treated as such, and there has been a tremendous negative reaction not only from the Iraqi central government but from all of the neighbors of the KRG, with even their usual ally, the US, not supporting the vote (if not threatening hostile actions against it), with only Israel openly supporting it. The hostile reactions of neighbors and especially the central Iraqi government may well lead to war, even as ISIS remains not quite completely defeated within Iraqi territory, with up until now the Kurdish Pesh Merga having been working with the Iraq National Army as well as various Iranian Shia militias against ISIS.

Let me be clear that I have enormous sympathy with the aspirations of the Kurdish people for having their own nation.  The 35 million Kurds have long been described as “the largest ethnic group without a nation” (although technically some larger ones merely have a state in India).  They were promised a nation at the Versailles conference back in 1919, but the machinations of the British, French, Turks, and Persians (now Iranians) led to that promise not being fulfilled, and the Kurds being spread among Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran today, and a history over the last century of being crushed and abandoned and lied to by many nations.  They speak an Indo-European language related to Farsi/Persian, and are mostly Sunni Muslim although with a Shia minority.  However, they are largely not as religiously fanatical as most people around them, and the parties representing them in Turkey tend to be secular and leftist.

The three provinces with a Kurdish majority in northeastern Iraq began achieving a de facto autonomy during the first Gulf war, after Saddam Hussein had used gas against them during the 1980s, leading to some of them fleeing to the US, including some to my city of Harrisonburg, Virginia, where they have a large community.  The US supported this autonomous government with a no-fly zone over it, and it achieved a more official autonomy, although not independence from Iraq, after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime.  During the US invasion, the Kurds were the strongest allies of the US, and their Pesh Merga has been the strong arm of the anti-ISIS military movement in both Iraq and Syria, working especially closely with the US in that.

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Trump’s Refusal to Release His Own Tax Returns and California’s Legislature

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