Draining the Swamp

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“Pssst – Do you think they’ve given up?” The slime monster arose from the fetid waters of the Potomac swamp, trailing tendrils of foul-smelling algae from its scaly skin. “Do you think they’ve stopped trying to drain this wonderful environment?” the creature asked me, as I was sitting alongside the tidal basin on a fall afternoon.

“That’s difficult to say,” I replied, only slightly startled to be addressed by a creature that should have been typecast to come out of Tokyo Bay instead of DC. “It looks like their plan is proceeding very well, and succeeding beyond their wildest dreams. By using a master of distraction to rivet the nation’s attention, no one seems to be paying heed to all of the shenanigans happening behind the curtains.”

“That’s good to hear,” said Slimey (or so I named him, though he had not referred to him (or her)self as having a name). “Mind if I sit beside you? It gets a little cold down there in the water this time of year, and it’s good to warm my bones.”

“Help yourself,” I said, though I did scoot down a bit towards the end of the bench, as much to get away from the drips streaming from Slimey’s arms and torso instead of out of concern for Slimey’s clawed limbs. I said, “You know, we don’t often get to see your kind around here. What brings you out of the depths?”

Slimey stretched, wrapped his tail over the side railing of the bench, and sat silently for a bit, as if pondering the question. Then, he shrugged and said, “Last year we heard they wanted to drain the swamp in DC. Kept hearing it again and again. When he won, we figured that we needed to move somewhere else where we would be appreciated, like maybe lower Manhattan. But then, we heard about the people he brought in, and we kept going, that fellow isn’t going to drain the swamp. He’s going to expand it. We just didn’t get it.”

I nodded, understanding the confusion. I told Slimey, “We were surprised as well. He kept talking about how the nation was being taken over by Goldman Sachs during the campaign. Berating Ted Cruz for his and his wife’s ties to Goldman. Complaining about Hillary being beholden to Goldman since she gave a speech to them. Then, POW, onto the Trump team comes Cohn, and Mnuchin, and Bannon, and other underlings, all from Goldman Sachs. The art of deception. Say one thing, then quietly implement the opposite.”

Slimey sighed. “Then there’s all that talk about how bad the banks were during the campaign, how they were getting away with murder after the financial crisis, and he was going to break them up. Do something good for the little people. But once he took office, all we hear about is breaking up the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, and freeing up the banks from Dodd-Frank. ” Slimey held up a front limb to shield his eyes from the sun. “Don’t the “little people” see that he’s helping their enemies, and destroying their friends?”

I turned my head for a moment, looking back over the monuments of our nation’s history. I realized that never had our founders anticipated such a bizarre disruption of our national character when the avenues of this town were laid out. Then, realizing that Slimey was looking at me in anticipation of my answer, I said “Those “little people” don’t see it. They are used to only listening to their leaders on TV and the radio, and following what they say. They’ve lost their ability to analyze what they are hearing and seeing, they only believe what comes their way on Facebook. How else can they keep believing their ears when their eyes see the opposite?”

Slimey nodded, his crest flapping loosely atop his head. He turned to me and said, “There’s one thing I’m glad to see, though. That Pruitt guy at EPA, he seems like he’s our best friend.”

“How so?”, I asked.

“Well, he just seems to be turning the clock back on all of the environmental regulation of the past. We figure it’s just a matter of time before he rescinds the regulations on pollution in the Chesapeake watershed, and when he does, we’ll get all that luscious nitrogen and phosphorus coming back downstream. You wouldn’t believe how good that is for all of the green glop we love.” Slimey licked his chops as he thought of the bonanza he expects to come sliding on downstream in a year or two.

I pondered what this basin would look like festooned in green and blue growths of algae in the turgid waters. The odor it would create would match the mood in the city. Suddenly I grew tired of the conversation, and straightened my body against the bench. Slimey sensed my mood.

“Friend, I’m going to go on back to my kind” he said. “But before I go, there’s one thing I wish you’d help me to understand. Why was it that all of those evangelicals, who oppose the sins of the flesh, supported someone who cheated on his ex-wives, who curses in public, who oozes greed and lust? Someone who waxes wrath on twitter any time he’s criticized. I’ve never seen someone who epitomizes all seven of the deadly sins at once. And he’s the one with the control over the most massive military force the world has ever seen? Can you explain that to me?”

I nodded, finally having an answer that I know would satisfy this creature. “He wasn’t Hillary,”

Slimey stood up, bowed stiffly to me, and said. “Of course. That explains everything.” Then he stepped off into the tidal basin, disappearing into the dark waters, never to be seen again by me.

 

Both Sides?

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My apologies to Judy Collins. The words about both sides being equally guilty of fomenting hatred and violence caused my inner earworm to focus on her song, and my brain worked to find new words.

Rows and flows of orange hair

And ice cream two scoops in my chair

And tweet storms flowing everywhere

I’ve looked at hate that way

 

But now it only hides my truth

The media says I’m uncouth

So many things done in my youth

But hate got in my way

 

I’ve looked at hate from both sides now

Antifa and the alt-right, wow

It’s hate’s delusions I recall

I really don’t know hate at all

 

Crowd so loud, how good I feel

They love me, now I feel their zeal

That protestor, he is a heel

I’ve looked at me that way

 

But now, I cannot make them go,

They vote their way, they just say no,

Repeal, replace – they are so slow

I’ve seen Congress that way

 

I’ve looked at politics right now

No give, all take yet still somehow

No politics for me this fall

Politics – I will not play ball

 

Leers and jeers and feeling wowed,

To see them fail, that I have vowed

They have their schemes, I have my crowds

My enemies I slay

 

But now they say I’m acting strange

I laugh at them, I’ll never change

Well let them wail, I’m still orange,

I hate them every day

 

I’m President for both sides now

I won they lost and still somehow

I keep the Russians in my thrall

I really don’t know life at all

Flo and ebb on the coast

For those who live in towns designated as ports of call on the ocean coasts, there are two totally different tides that rule their lives. The timeless ebb and flow of the waters, first flooding the marshlands of the coast, then pulling away, running backwards out to sea. Life has been nourished through this endless rhythmic cycle.

Then there is the human tide, unleashed when a cruise ship opens its umbilical cord to the welcoming greeting of the coastal town’s inhabitants. These residents are dependent upon the flow of money emanating from the cruise ship passengers, waiting for their share of the fertilizer that will be left behind in their wake.

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For some towns, the arrive of a ship’s passengers is scarcely noticed. Large enough to absorb the swell of the human tide, they offer many options for the passengers who only have a few hours to partake of the culture of the port. But for a small port, the flood of passengers can become a tsunami, overwhelming the limited facilities available. The crowds cause delays, impatience grows, and both the passengers and residents resent each other. Still, the residents are dependent upon the monetary opium left behind by the passengers.

The tide recedes, the passengers pass back through the ship’s umbilical cord, and wthe ship sails away with a blast from it’s horn. The residents of the port of call can settle back into their natural rhythm of the tides, awaiting the next time when a human tide is unleashed upon their shore.

Note to readers. My wife and I just finished a wonderful cruise from Boston to Montreal, and stopped at multiple ports of call on our way. It was the first ocean cruise either of us had ever taken and thus we had no basis for comparison. We loved the attention we received from the mainly Indonesian crew, but more than anything else, we loved the serendipity from our dinner companions. If you wished to dine in the dining room, it was necessary to make reservations, and we chose to agree to share dinner with strangers. The last night of our cruise, we shared a table with two other couples. We are from South Charleston WV for reference. The first couple was from Bluefield WV, at the far southern end of the state, where he was a EN&T surgeon, and his wife was a nurse in his practice. The other couple we ate with was from Boca Raton Florida. Their connection to West Virginia was that the wife was related to a very prominent dental family in the Charleston area who are continually advertised on the television.

We did not find exceptional coincidences on the trip. I grew up in Lincoln Nebraska, which is about ready to experience the totality of eclipse. We saw a gentleman wearing a University of Nebraska shirt and when we enquired, found out he and his wife are from Beatrice. That is at the height of totality, near where Bill Nye the Science Guy will be hanging out on August 21. But we did not find anyone that we knew on the trip (I did try to figure out the mathematical odds of meeting someone I knew on the cruise, and swiftly gave up due to the complexity of the computation). But we did find more like-minded individuals who were opposed to the current US administration than we found who supported it.

As this was my first ocean cruise ever, I will wish to share some observations later. But for now, may you have a bon voyage as we had on our Holland America cruise from Boston to Montreal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Of Subtle Snares and Nanny States

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Why is it whenever I try to explain a log-normal distribution to folks, eyes start to glaze over? You’d think that such a useful concept would be intuitively understood by everyone, right? Well, the correct response is that very few people have the background in mathematics, and particularly statistics, to understand how a log-normal distribution works, and why it is important.

Log-normal distributions are one thing. Understanding compound interest is something else altogether. That is a consumer survival skill in this day and age where it can work both for you and against you. It works for you if you use it early in your lifetime to start saving for retirement. It works against you if you depend upon borrowing in order to make it through your life. And what is amazing is the “legitimate” financial growth industry that has developed out of what the mafia used to call loan sharking. Payroll advance services, legal in many states, charge an annualized rate of interest of up to 780% (don’t use one of these services in Louisiana). But the people who use these lenders of last resort are the poor who are just trying to stave off eviction or keep the lights on, or fix a failing vehicle. They are indeed the ones who have the least math literacy, and our free enterprise business system takes advantage of their illiteracy by trapping them in a cycle of loans and renewals of loans. Then there’s the car title businesses – I don’t even want to know the details of their business model.

Now, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) issued proposed regulations in 2016 that would cut down the maximum annualized interest rate, including fees for lending, all the way down to 390%. It also is requiring that lenders be prohibited from issuing new loans (with additional fees) for borrowers to pay off their old loans, and also that they verify a payer’s ability to repay a loan. Those regulations were put out for comment back in June 2016, and comments were supposed to close in October. Then November 2016 happened, and now the CFPB is engaged in an existential struggle with the Trump administration. The CFPB has been flagged as a flagrant excessive regulation generator. So as of today, no proposed final regulations have been issued.

Very few issues highlight the ideological divide between Republicans and Democrats like the issue of the CFPB. Republicans invoke the ideology of the free market, and view any interference with its exercise as a violation of their unwritten social contract to allow any predation upon society as a whole, as long as it is deemed legal. Look at sites like Forbes as exemplars of the capitalist ideal in order to receive indoctrination that the CFPB only desires to reduce the choices that poor consumers with no credit options have to meet daily needs. The CFPB is epitomizing the nanny regulatory state that is holding back economic growth.

Democrats on the other hand view the efforts of the CFPB as biblically based social justice, where the poor are protected from being preyed upon by the powerful and moneyed interests of the nation. Yes, there is an element of “We know what’s good for you” in this, in the perspective of the Democrats. Does this version of a nanny state mentality outweigh the monetary crack offered by the payday loan businesses that has resulted in the virtual slavery to the customers of the payday loan complex?

It is obvious in a capitalistic society, keeping score matters. The ultimate score keeping in this instance is the share price of the publically traded companies involved with payday loan operations. Since the CFPB announced potential regulation in June 2016, one would assume that the share price of these companies would have gone down since then had they taken the possibility of these regulations coming into effect seriously. But for two of the largest publically traded companies, their share price does not reflect much of a fear premium. In the past year, two of the largest companies have seen their share price go up by 51% and 14% apiece. In the realm of Trump, it is obvious that for the free market, anything goes.

It is doubtful that the administration of President Donald Trump will allow an agency to issue final regulations that are so opposed to the core interests of the moneyed aristocracy occupying the cabinet. So we will remain with a patchwork of state regulations – in some states, strict prohibitions against this parasitic industry are in effect, and maximum loan interest is capped at 30%. In many others, it is a wild west of freedom, and libertarians can celebrate their freedom to choose to pay annualized interest rates of 600-800% for the honor of accepting a payday loan.

What neither party recognizes is that the demand that built the payday loan industry into a $50 billion annual business is real, and we need to acknowledge that and work to provide real world business solutions. Republicans insist that the exorbitant prices charged by the payday loan providers is necessary to serve the market, since there is a high risk of default. Democrats insist that the providers of the service not be abusers of their customers, profiting exorbitantly on the backs of those who can least afford it.

I ask why do people find it necessary to resort to these lenders of next to last resort? What are the societal issues that keeps people needing to rely upon exorbitant interest and fee rate lenders, and how can we mitigate this need? It galls me to see a huge industry develop over the past few decades where it is touted as an investment opportunity, but it builds its profitability upon the backs of our poor. In our Episcopal hymnal there is a hymn which resonates with me whenever I hear it. It says,

For sins of heedless word and deed, for pride ambitions to succeed, for crafty trade and subtle snare to catch the simple unaware, for lives bereft of purpose high, forgive, forgive, O Lord, we cry

Far too often the rules in our society are stacked against the poor, and those with less education. And then we in our arrogance, blame these victims while we reap the riches they provide to the companies that profit from the subtle snares.

Ghosting, or Sloth? You Decide

Targets

We are in the midst of a target-rich environment. There are so many manifestations of incompetence and evil in the current administration that it is difficult to single out one as representative of the whole. So let’s bore in on a single area that most reasonable people feel is important. Let’s look at the number of roles in the Department of Defense that require Senate confirmation, where a nominee has been confirmed and is serving. The Department of Defense has 55 such roles. As of April 24 (last date I could find easily through search engine), guess how many people had been confirmed.

Give up? Exactly 1, Secretary of Defense General Jim Mattis.

How many of the 55 roles have had people nominated? Again, as of April 24, exactly 4, and two of those failed confirmation. How many more have been announced, but the nomination has not been transmitted to the Senate? Exactly 7, and one of those nominations for Secretary of the Army (replacing one of the failed nominations) has been withdrawn since April 24.

How many positions remain to be announced, nominated and confirmed? Forty-three positions are in Trump-limbo, awaiting any action to be taken. Now, this is the Department of Defense. Few people would argue that this is one of the governmental functions that should be staffed expeditiously in order to ensure that the department is able to perform its prime directive of keeping the nation safe. And yet here we are, 3 1/2 months after the inauguration and nearly 80% of the roles needing Senate confirmation have not even had an announcement of a candidate for the role.

It appears that one of the guiding principles of this administration is that they consider governmental agencies to be grossly overstaffed, and therefore substantial savings can be made by refusing to fill roles within the government. But to this outside observer, failure to staff essential roles will soon lead to paralysis within governmental agencies, leaving them unable to fulfill their duties. Many small-government champions may view this as a victory in the case of departments like Labor, or Education, or other similar agencies viewed as hotbeds of excess regulatory activity. But the Department of Defense?

If the act of leaving roles requiring Senate confirmation vacant is a deliberate decision being made as part of a strategic process to force administrative shrinkage, then let that be announced and we can debate the merits of the strategy. But if what we have is the Trump administration simply ghosting the agency positions, deliberately ignoring the need to fill them so as to hope that they go away, then we have yet another glaring example of the incompetence of the Trump administration.

There is one other possibility that comes to mind. What if there have been attempts to identify candidates for these roles, but either those candidates refused to be considered, or they were considered and then failed their background and security clearance process? Given the nature of this administration to be an information black hole, we may never know the full story.

So this is one simple example of how this administration has hit the ground and immediately assumed the prone position. An administration led by a caricature of a leader, who only knew how to drive his businesses into bankruptcy. An administration which found an eager legislative partner, looking for ways to implement Randian philosophy and effect a total reversal in government direction. This is where the discussion of evil comes into play. There are undoubtedly sincere conservatives who still believe that the country ran off the rails of Constitutional intent when the New Deal was adopted. That is a valid perspective, and it could be debated through the electoral process.

But this election offered a bait and switch. Campaign promises to drain the swamp of undue influence by banks like Goldman Sachs, only to reverse that pledge and fill the swamp with hordes of Goldman Sachs employees and alumni. Campaign promises to get this great new improved health care system that will cost less and provide better services. These promises were co-opted by the Ayn Rand wing of the Republican party into the AHCA, and once the bill passed the first step in the legislative process, they celebrated with Bud Light as they had designated bus drivers take them down the mall towards the White House. You know, that last bit may be the worst of all of this. To think that Republicans believe Bud Light is actually beer says more about them than all of their pronouncements of the moral inferiority of those who develop pre-existing conditions.

We now have a massive tax cut for the truly wealthy disguised as a revamp of health care legislation. If failure to staff the government is one of the manifestations of incompetence of this administration, then allowing this reversion to the bad old days of insurance company death panels represents the evil side of the administration. And still, the true believers do not realize that they have been trolled by experts as they pledge undying support for their supreme leader. If this legislation actually does pass, then their undying support will likely turn into dying support as states requesting waivers to the mandated treatment standards remove drug abuse treatment from insurance. The waivers will reinstitute lifetime caps on payments. But for those who are fortunate enough to remain healthy, they will save a pittance, and the Republicans will say, “See! We came through for you!”

Hum along with Spring

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Hummers are here! The hummers have landed. We put our feeders up on April 30, and shortly afterwards heard the low-pitched hum of their wings at about 80 hz and heard the chirping sounds of their approach. We must truly be turning the corner towards summer now that these amazing creatures have returned in our midst.

This past Sunday, we saw a soap opera performance in our front yard. A bluebird love triangle played out before our eyes. Early this spring, we had a bluebird couple appear, and the male drove other birds off away from the birdhouse. Then, we saw only a female reappear, and a week ago, began hearing the excited chirps of the young bluebirds each time the mother appeared with food.

On Sunday, a male appeared with another female. The male wanted to take possession of the nesting space, but the female who had been tending the nest would have none of it. We had aerial combat on the power wires, up in the branches, and on the walkway going to the street. I could see in the shadows on our lawn that the combat was continuing up above the house. Flashing wings thrashing against each other in a flying struggle. I could just do an anthropomorphization of the situation. “You left me pregnant, no help with the children. And now you bring your hussy and want to take over my home? How dare you!”

The winner appears to be the female who had been tending the nest. We haven’t seen the male and his other squeeze for two days now. Virtue and honor is upheld in the bird world.

Spring has blossomed in its vibrant glory. Visits to the garden center and farmer’s market have caused our hanging baskets, gardens, and containers to share the colors of the rainbow with the rest of the world. If only we can keep them watered throughout the year so that we can still see the colors in October as they are in early May. Meanwhile, the hooved rats have struck, eating only the purple blossoms from one lantana plant among four that we set out in containers. Lantana is supposed to be deer resistant, but the purple flowers must have lost their resistance.

Ever hopeful, I’ve planted the tomatoes and peppers out on the deck. Looks like if we make it past this coming weekend when the temperature may threaten frost, we will have gotten a jump on the growing season. It is funny how the dream of a juicy tomato to grace a salad can seem so overpowering in May. By September, I may be going “Are they STILL producing?” But tonight, we had our first green onions and radishes from the garden in tonight’s salad. And nothing can compare to the taste of the vegetables grown through one’s own efforts.

Spring calls for ever more things to do than there is time to do them in. The gas grill is awaiting its annual cleaning. Our siding has turned a subtle shade of green on the north side, so a scrubbing with a cleaning solution is at hand. And this is the year when I need to clean, then reseal our 20 year old deck. When we bought our home in 1992, the deck was about 20 years old then, and it looked it. Rough wood, splinter inducing, and seemingly on its last legs. Four years later we replaced it, and it is reaffirming that it still has smooth surfaces and looks like it can stand for another 20 years. We must be doing something right.

This past Sunday, it was snake day at the house. Our smaller black cat Blinky was out on a slope and was riling up some creature that was shaking the lenten roses and faded daffodils. I went out there, and saw about a 3′ long black snake that was trying to avoid contact with the cat. I have never seen a bigger snake on our property since we moved in. I managed to get our cat away from the snake, then later in the day, both black cats were bothering another snake out on the driveway. I went out and saw an 18″ garter snake trying desperately to get into the shelter of the grass. I convinced the cats that I was going to give them food inside and got them away again, then went out and looked at the snake, making sure that it was uninjured. I have gone years without seeing a snake on our property, and seeing two in one day was an aberration. I thought of my mother, who was massively phobic about snakes. She would have required that both snakes meet their master that very minute. But since she left us on New Year’s Eve, I didn’t have to yield to her past wishes. Both snakes went on their way, and I may never see them again.

The grass that we planted 10 days ago has sprouted underneath its blanket of straw. Tiny narrow green sprouts are beginning to poke up through the straw. We’ve kept it moist enough to prevent the death of the sprouts. It will be good if we can keep it in good shape till the grass is able to stand on its own. We miss our hemlock tree, but life and growth must go on. What is encouraging is that the garden does not listen to or heed any political pundits. The only spin in this zone is the tree seedlings that spin in a whirligig fashion as they seek a fertile landing point. Yesterday after a strong rain storm, the wind picked up, and then the air was full of tree stuff. You could see leaves falling amidst the tiny specks of pollen. It looked like a snow storm, there was so much pollen and spent tree flowers, and other miscellaneous organic matter. My old Prius got coated once more in its annual yellow dusting.

Spring! The hopeful season. May it bring a rebirth for all of us in this time of trouble.

 

 

We Are Living In A Cartoon

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On one of the internet bulletin boards I frequent is a user who has an acronym as a handle. It is WALIAC – We Are Living In A Cartoon. I nod in agreement with that image as yet another week passes and our Narcissist-In-Chief demonstrates repeatedly the reasons why he should never have taken the US government hostage. And yet. And yet he can set up another campaign rally where he denigrates all media as fake, drawing fawning adulation from his supporters who had nothing better to do than get in line at 1:30 AM for a 7:30 PM event. Those who believe in Donald Trump have not been swayed from their allegiance because of the events of the past 3+ months.

I maintain that we have a national case of cognitive dissonance. We as a nation hold two completely contradictory views of the Trump administration. His supporters see a man who works tirelessly on their behalf, one whose progress is being held up by the fifth column within the Republican party, or the immoral judiciary who dares to contradict their leader’s dictums, or (gag) the Demoncrats and / or the lyin’ media.

His detractors see the incompetence and internal squabbles of the administration playing out in firings, reassignments, strategic pronouncements followed immediately by bumbling retreats, and revealed hypocrisies. They see a changeling in front of the camera, a troll and not a man, who has not learned how to string two complete sentences together. If Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland made the “Hey, let’s put on a show!” meme famous, this is the group that put together “Hey, let’s put on a Federal government!” with just as much forethought.

Only the consequences of having this gaggle of historical illiterates in charge of the levers of power are so fraught with peril, that it makes survival within the cartoon iffy at best. And the imagery is getting worse. Just this week as part of the media crush to commemorate the centennial of days of this administration, came an observation from our President that the constitution is getting in the way of effective and efficient administration of the nation. You know, those pesky checks and balances that have worked for nearly a quarter of a millennia. This is where the real risk comes in, when an outlandish idea can be presented that is completely contradictory to our founding principles, but due to the cult of personality being developed, it gains traction.

That is the only way I can describe what is happening now in our nation. We are in the beginning of the creation of a cult of personality around Donald Trump. We’ve seen this happen in the past across the globe and the results are never good. First comes the normalization of the bizarre conduct. I have seen that especially in the financial arena where all of the inconsistency and incompetence is swept under the rug, just because “this administration is friendly to business”. Commentators who originally disdained Trump due to his persona during the campaign, have grown to accept him and all of his foibles, because his policies will make them money if they are adopted.

It is well established how Donald Trump’s misogynistic and xenophobic words and deeds have loosened the restraints from many of his followers. I’ve seen it on the internet forums where anti-semitism and racial hatred have been unleashed. We saw it during his rallies where he all but called for his followers to beat up demonstrators in the rallies. After all, he said he’d pay the bail and legal fees to “knock the crap out of them.” Society has a very thin veneer, and it seems as though Donald Trump is deliberately pouring solvent over the top of an antique table, looking to peel off the surface beauty in order to reveal the crude wood surface below.

Now, with a charismatic (to some) head of the government mumbling about the inefficiencies of our constitutional system of government, and with the movement already in place to hold an article V convention of the states colliding, bad things can happen very quickly in this country. An article V convention refers to the process whereby if 2/3 of the state legislatures have called for a constitutional convention, then such a convention will be convened. That means if 34 state legislatures call for a convention, one will happen, and once that happens, all bets are off. Know how close the Koch brothers backed forces are to getting their desired convention? The 29th state legislature supported it just this spring. Although many of the legislatures have called for only a convention to propose a balanced budget amendment, once such a convention is called, there are no constitutional constraints on its content.

So be afraid. Be very afraid. And speak up through whatever means you have to prevent a constitutional convention from being called, because if it is, fascism and dictatorship may soon follow.

 

Laughing at Laffer

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Image from R&G Brenner Income Tax Blog

 

Apparently, Republicans share one belief. That belief is that math does not matter. Only in the fantasy world they inhabit can they believe the failed mathematics of the Laffer curve, where reductions in tax rates magically foster geysers of growth in the economy, thus generating more income for the government than was present before the tax rates were cut. Despite the history of the last 36 years, where this experiment was carried out multiple times and failed to deliver each time, this commandment of the Republicans to cut taxes has surfaced its head once more out of the murky swamp of Washington. Donald Trump’s desire to make his mark on the presidency as the “Greatest of Them All” has led him to sound the processional trumpets announcing the Greatest Tax Cut of All Time.

And so, the political party that decries deficit spending appears poised to partake in an orgy of increased deficits for as long as the eye can see, all in the name of what? To reduce the taxes on the haves of the nation. Ayn Rand has truly taken over the philosophy of the Republican party nowadays. According to her philosophy, not only should each of us be selfish, but it is immoral to compel us to engage in a process to provide support for anyone other than ourselves and our immediate family. Indeed, it is only through unfettered capitalism that mankind can achieve its highest capability.

Well, the supremacy of selfishness has sure stuck, and with it, the philosophy of “I got mine, you must get your own” is omnipresent within the Republican party. There seems to be a lack of recognition within the Republican officials that we live in a society with a wide range of capabilities and limitations. Let this quote from Rep. Roger Marshall (R-KAN) speak for itself: “There is a group of people that just don’t want health care and aren’t going to take care of themselves. He added that “morally, spiritually, socially,” the poor, including the homeless, “just don’t want health care.”” And the comment from Rep. Jason Chaffetz about the poor giving up the latest I-phone to invest in health care, as if the costs were comparable, is as tone deaf as I’ve ever heard.

When you hear over and over that the only reason why people cannot afford health care is because of their own moral failings, and those words are coming from elected representatives, you realize what a gaping gulf there is between the reality facing millions of hard-working Americans who cannot afford this irrational health care system, and the plutocratic class they’ve elected to represent them. So the first pass of the tax reform plan reported this week does provide limited relief to those in the bottom two quintiles of the income distribution. But it delivers major income gains to those who have already won the economic lottery in this nation. And it further exacerbates the income inequality within this nation, without addressing the fundamental problems of the economy.

Those problems include the decades long deficit in infrastructure investment. Back in the 1950’s and 1960’s (you know, the time when America was great), Federal grants for infrastructure averaged about 0.5% of GDP. That has declined over time to about 0.3% of GDP. And with the decline in the spending on infrastructure has paralleled the decline in the condition of the national investment. I do not know what spending rate is correct for a nation, but 0.5% should serve as a starting point for Federal investment in infrastructure commitment.

So if we have a deficit in spending that grows at a rate of about $40 billion a year, and the deficit is now decades old, you quickly come up to the trillion dollars that is being bandied about as a fix. So far the plans for infrastructure investment have not been released, but the information that has seen the light of day indicates that private/public partnerships with significant tax credits will work to leverage the minimal amount of Federal money that would be spent. I would agree that there are some large-scale projects that could use this approach, and that the public would be willing to support being charged through tolls or other cost recovery methods. But the bulk of our deferred maintenance involves fixing rusting bridges, repaving existing roads, safeguarding and modernizing the electric grid, replacing leaky water mains and sewer lines, and making sure our dams are not ready to collapse and flood us. Very little of that lends itself to a private/public partnership. No, what is needed is a true commitment to a long-term increase in spending and grants to local and state governments to tackle the backlog of deferred maintenance. I for one do not enjoy worrying whether the bridge I drive across will pull an I-35 and collapse on me.

This is what is truly worrying about the political divide and the non-functioning of our legislative institutions. No one is thinking strategically. No one is coming up with a proposal that will work to restore this country to what it should be, and get people back to work in the heartland of the nation doing honest labor fixing these problems. No, what we get is proposals that will widen the deficit and enrich those investing in private/public partnerships, but will barely scratch the surface of the needs we have.

We built the infrastructure of this country. It catapulted us up into the status of the wealthiest nation on earth. But for most of the last 40 years, we have coasted on past achievements. Meanwhile, entropy keeps attacking our achievements in the form of rust, erosion, and potholes. Let’s use the opportunity of tax reform to include securing funding for a significant increase in funding for infrastructure repair. This is not something that you can throw an unlimited amount of money at, because the capability in the private sector is limited to do the work. That is why we must insist on a logical long-term plan and carry it out over a decade or more in order to fix our problems with the infrastructure, and just maybe solve some of our problems of providing jobs outside of the urban centers where much of the work needs to be done.

Emporer? What a Tailor!

Panmunjon 1976

North Korean border building circa 1976. Credits: Wikipedia

And so it continues. The national nightmare is approaching its second hundred days. Just released Monday is an unbelievable transcript of an interview that the President had with the AP. To say that the interview was extraordinary would be the understatement of the decade. It seems that the interview was an opening into the soul of one Donald Trump. You could see the neural net firing away in random fashion, traveling from one subject to another while neither leaving the old subject nor engaging with the new subject.

Just try to parse this linguistic gem: ” So the Republican Party has various groups, all great people. They’re great people. But some are moderate, some are very conservative. The Democrats don’t seem to have that nearly as much. You know the Democrats have, they don’t have that. The Republicans do have that. And I think it’s fine. But you know there’s a pretty vast area in there. And I have a great relationship with all of them.”

I defy anyone to be able to give a coherent translation of this set of words masquerading as eloquence from our elected leader.

Out of this mental miasma, Trump’s supporters see vindication of their selection of him as their choice to lead an American renaissance. Certainly, in those departments where Donald Trump has actually deigned to name individuals to enact policy, minions are attempting to affect change. In ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), changes brought into effect have unleashed the agents to take a much more confrontational approach to enforcement. It now appears that instead of focusing exclusively on immigrants with violent criminal activity, ICE is also focusing on those immigrants whose criminal history is solely based upon status crimes (falsified documentation as an example). This increased enforcement activity is resonating with Trump’s core constituency, as visible evidence of him keeping his pledges.

In cases where campaign rhetoric could be easily converted to policy positions, and where the flexibility to change direction is within the purview of the administrative branch of government, it is possible to begin to implement the public face of the Trump agenda. But where the campaign rhetoric leaves open what the specifics of policy will be, and the cooperation of the legislative branch is required for success, the inexperience of the Trump administration is showing. Combined with the Republican’s approach of not bringing up legislation to the House floor without assurance of majority support solely within the party, and the stage is set for yet another legislative quagmire. One can only hope!

It is in the foreign policy sphere where the chief danger exists going forward. When you have a leader of the nation and its armed forces who is so blatantly ignorant of all historical context, and who becomes a tabula rasa willing to change policies based upon the images he receives from the television, the danger for the world rises exponentially. Combine these thoughts with the propensity to adopt a bullies swaggering persona, and the risk of a flashpoint within the world igniting and creating an uncontrollable wild fire is magnified.

I actually was at one of these flashpoints 30 years ago when I visited my brother who was stationed with the Corps of Engineers just south of the DMZ. I took a tour where you were able to see the North Korean building housing the guards, a wonderful marble facade of a building presenting an imposing sight for those on the southern side. But in looking at the building, it became obvious that the building may have been hundreds of feet long, but was at most 15 feet thick. It was quite literally a facade, and with the loudspeaker coming from the northern border proclaiming the glories of the socialist paradise, presented quite an image for those of us on the tour. It was when we actually got to go into the room where negotiations were held, and were able to cross over the border line into North Korea that the reality of the suppressed conflict became evident. I have never seen naked hatred in facial expressions, but while in that building I could see pure hatred emanating from both the American and North Korean soldiers facing off across the border. Now, 30 years later, and the risks of a blowup grow ever higher. Since the rhetoric has heated up with Trump’s term of office, and the North Koreans growing ever more desperate with ever more powerful weaponry, it does not bode well.

So the dichotomy of the US electorate continues. The Trumpian supporters who think that he’s done just fine, just needs a little more time to implement his plans, vs. those who see only a parade led by a naked leader. I am one of the latter group, and I am screaming about the nakedness as loudly as I can, but I am losing hope that the scales will ever fall from the eyes of the Trump supporters. I only hope that it does not take an existential crisis to disabuse his supporters of believing that the Trump presidency is a good thing.

 

 

Sprung Spring

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The digital switch for the trees flipped from 0 to 1 in the last two weeks. Trees that were barren of leaves, now wear the unique chartreuse of spring. Views are now attenuated since leaves block sightlines. Once the leaves return, it is difficult to remember how the trees looked with their wooden fingers extending from their massive trunks.

The daffodils have come and gone already. The first daffodils showed up in late February, weeks earlier than normal. We normally have the littlest daffodils bloom first, coinciding with the late crocus bloom, then the normal daffodils unveil their yellow sunbonnets. But the warmth of February induced both to bloom simultaneously. They held sway until the first of April, but when their grace faded to brown, the white of the jonquils with their multiple heads turned on. We have fewer jonquils, but since they have 2-4 flowers per stalk, they appear to have as many blooms as the daffodils. But now, since the 20th of April, all of them have turned brown and shriveled. Now we have only the greenery of the daffodils remaining, using photosynthesis to feed the bulbs below ground getting ready for next year.

We are in the midst of replacing a hemlock tree that shielded our porch from the street ever since we moved into the house. This is a tree that got topped by a derecho back in 2012, and spent the next several years slowly dying from the top down. If we were sitting on our porch, the branches appeared lush and green, but above that, the branches were slowly dying. So we paid to have the tree removed and to have the roots shredded. It finally was time to gather up the remains of the roots, and use them for mulch on our sloped garden. It takes a long time and a lot of effort to rake up and shovel multiple wheelbarrows of mulch, then spread them onto newly weeded slope. Now new topsoil has been placed, and I will actually attempt to grow a section of monoculture grass. We will come back with some small decorative trees to replace the graceful hemlock at least in spirit.

Spring is when you take stock of what needs to be done for this year’s projects. A few weeks ago, I was outside on our porch when I heard the unmistakable sound of a tree beginning to give way. I was in the right position to see a giant hemlock take its death plunge across the narrowly incised creek bed, and onto our property. It took with it a second smaller hemlock, and a beech tree. The beech tree shattered onto our property about 30′ down the hill. That immediately became my first priority for a long-term project. In the 25 years since we’ve lived here, I bought firewood exactly once, and that was the first year when we moved in during the fall. Ever since I’ve been able to maintain a 1-2 cord stash of firewood either from trees fallen on our property, or from trees felled within the neighborhood. There was one year when I saw evidence of a microburst on our property, with multiple trees down pointing in different directions from the same storm. Cutting and storing and burning your own wood is satisfying. Splitting logs with a maul is a wonderful way to vent frustration. It’s funny, but ever since I’ve retired, I haven’t had the visceral need to split wood. Still, it is fun even if it is a lot of work.

It looks like we’ve been successful this year to gain tenants out in our birdhouses. A chickadee couple has taken residence in a small house at the edge of our porch, while a bluebird couple has resumed residence in the birdhouse we have on our beech tree in the front yard. The electric blue of the male bluebird is a tint that is unmatched in nature on an animal. This is probably the same pair that built a home two years ago in the same birdhouse. I’ve already seen our hunter cat out there by the tree, looking up at the sounds emanating from the house. We will do our best to allow the fledglings to survive the close proximity with our hunters.

We made our pilgrimage out to the lawn and garden department of our local Lowes today. Flowers will soon be gracing our flower baskets where last year’s shriveled corpses remained after the fall and winter. We have a little more birdseed and suet to put out, then we will retire the feeders until the fall, leaving only a thistle seed feeder for the summer bird rush. And within a week, we will hang out the hummingbird feeders, completing the transition from winter to spring / summer.

The first radishes of the year will be harvested this week. I am finally learning how to space these early season crops out so as to lengthen the harvest season and not be overwhelmed with produce at one time. There is nothing quite as good as the first produce of the year. Of course, with our chives, we’ve been harvesting them all year. The chives overwintered and are now in beautiful purple bloom. I’ll try to harvest the seed, then plant another crop for this year in our herb baskets. Cilantro and basil are emerging from their seed cases, and the oregano has awakened from its winter dormancy.

Retirement is good especially when you can spend the time and effort to keep after the growth of spring when the green can outpace your ability to corral it. I am behind on my lawn right now and will wait for the dry weather of next week to allow me to catch up. Then I will need to get right out on planting the remaining vegetables and get the peppers and tomatoes started. Back before retirement, I had to try to squeeze the time in after work and on weekends. It is so nice to not have to rush things, but work on all of the tasks in their own time, and be able to take the time to watch the bluebirds as they begin to feed their hungry nestlings over the next few weeks.