Archive

February 19th, 2017

American Hellscape

    In case you were wondering what Republicans have planned for the environment, it’s now clear.

    Some of the ideas aren’t new — like mining and logging our national forests. Or giving the green light to controversial oil pipelines like the Dakota Access Pipeline, which threatens the drinking water and sacred sites of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe.

    But apparently those ideas came from a more restrained Republican Party which still had to get its laws signed by Democrat Barack Obama. Now the gloves are off.

    Why just mine and log our national forests when you can also drill for oil in our national parks, as one bill would allow? Parks at risk under the bill include the Everglades, the Grand Tetons, and the Flight 93 National Memorial.

    Or, heck, just get rid of the whole Environmental Protection Agency. I mean, what was that hippie Richard Nixon doing establishing it in the first place? Sure, the Cuyahoga River was so polluted with industrial waste that it literally caught fire — but what do we need rivers for, anyway?

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Will Trump Save the Jews?

    Dear President Trump:

    These are the moments that make or break a presidency.

    First you were tested by a rival — Russia — and utterly failed to appreciate the corrosive impact on our democracy of your indulgence of Russia’s hacking our election. And on Wednesday you’re going to be tested by a friend — Israel — and its prime minister, Bibi Netanyahu. Can you appreciate the corrosive impact on Israel’s democracy of what it’s now doing in the West Bank? I ask because you may be the last man standing between Israel and a complete, self-inflicted disaster for the Jewish state and the Jewish people.

    Let me explain it in terms you’ll appreciate: golf.

    Did you happen to follow the story involving Barack Obama and Woodmont Country Club? Woodmont is the mostly Jewish golf club in Maryland, just outside D.C., where Obama played as a guest several times during his presidency. Near the end of his term it was rumored that Obama would seek membership there.

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Why Republicans can't ignore protesters

    Republican members of Congress are feeling a bit under siege right now. Their office phones won't stop ringing, and their town hall meetings are mobbed by people angry about health care, the travel ban, various Donald Trump cabinet officials, and more.

    Their reaction? Utah Republican Jason Chaffetz said the huge turnout at his town hall meeting last week was filled with people shipped in from other states -- "more of a paid attempt to bully and intimidate" than genuine constituent sentiment. This echoes what Trump himself tweeted earlier in February:

    Indeed, some Republicans have been making this charge since the rallies immediately after the election in November. It is, of course, false. Just as with the Tea Party protests in 2009, there are national efforts -- such as the "indivisible" movement -- to supply the infrastructure of protest for angry rank-and-file citizens, but all of that would be worthless if a large number of citizens weren't actually angry to begin with. And we can be pretty certain there's no proof, or even evidence, of "paid protesters" for the simple reason that if Republicans had such evidence they would be supplying it every chance they got.

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Trump asked what African-Americans had to lose; they're waiting to see the gain

    In Donald Trump's new hometown Sunday night, there was a homicide. Thirteen gunshots were fired in a neighborhood less than four miles from the White House. When D.C. police showed up, they found Kenny Bell, a 30-year-old black man, dead on the grounds of the Ferebee-Hope Recreation Center in southeast Washington.

    The rec center is in Ward 8, which is predominantly black and scarred by deep pockets of poverty but also home to a vibrant middle class. Of the 135 homicides in the city last year, 46 were in Ward 8. During President Trump's campaign, he referred to such crime-plagued areas as "a living hell."

    Now he was just a 10-minute motorcade ride away from one, having pledged to curb violence, reduce unemployment and improve schools in such places.

    "I will produce for the African-Americans," Trump said.

    Did he mean it?

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Sorry, FDR and LBJ: Trump is about to make America awful again

    President Donald Trump has only just begun his term in office, and so far he's stuck to executive orders that by nature can't make sweeping changes to the structure of government programs. The most concrete glimpse we have of the shape this larger policy agenda, then, are his cabinet picks and other key advisers. And so far, all of these selections point in one clear direction: undoing the biggest gains for equality over the last century.

    Two eras -- policymaking under Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson, characterized as the New Deal and Great Society, respectively -- brought the country the most significant changes in how we provide social insurance and protect Americans with the least. Yet Trump is making America great again by choosing people who have pledged to dismantle them.

    We can't know yet exactly what Trump's Cabinet members will do; they could turn out to be as mercurial as the man himself. Yet Trump's team has long been intent on repealing the achievements of the New Deal and Great Society.

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Here's how President Trump will change Obamacare

    Promises made by Donald Trump and Republicans in Congress to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act are proving to be more complicated than they sounded on the campaign trail. With reality now setting in, what's most likely to happen?

    I expect to see Republicans stage a dramatic early vote to repeal, with legislation that includes only very modest steps toward replacement -- and leave most of the work for later. Next, the new administration will aggressively issue waivers allowing states to experiment with different approaches, including changes to Medicaid and private insurance rules. At some point, then, the administration will declare that these state experiments have been so successful, Obamacare no longer exists.

    In other words, the repeal vote will be just for show; the waivers will do most of the heavy lifting.

    I predict something like this will happen because of two core challenges that stand in the way of Republicans' replacing the ACA through legislation: the need for so-called community rating and the need to have 60 votes in the Senate to pass a comprehensive new health-care law.

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Gerrymandering is the biggest obstacle to genuine democracy in the United States. So why is no one protesting?

    There is an enormous paradox at the heart of American democracy. Congress is deeply and stubbornly unpopular. On average, between 10 and 15 percent of Americans approve of Congress - on a par with public support for traffic jams and cockroaches. And yet, in the 2016 election, only eight incumbents - eight out of a body of 435 representatives - were defeated at the polls.

    If there is one silver bullet that could fix American democracy, it's getting rid of gerrymandering - the now commonplace practice of drawing electoral districts in a distorted way for partisan gain. It's also one of a dwindling number of issues that principled citizens - Democrat and Republican - should be able to agree on. Indeed, polls confirm that an overwhelming majority of Americans of all stripes oppose gerrymandering.

    In the 2016 elections for the House of Representatives, the average electoral margin of victory was 37.1 percent. That's a figure you'd expect from North Korea, Russia or Zimbabwe - not the United States. But the shocking reality is that the typical race ended with a Democrat or a Republican winning nearly 70 percent of the vote, while their challenger won just 30 percent.

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Trump's voracious appetite for cable news is troubling, but that's not stopping him

    In the heat of the 2016 campaign, "Meet the Press" host Chuck Todd asked Donald Trump whom he spoke to for military advice.

    "Well, I watch the shows," Trump responded. "I mean, I really see a lot of great - you know, when you watch your show and all of the other shows, and you have the generals."

    Trump's campaign insisted that he was misunderstood - that he spoke to lots of military advisers in addition to watching them on television.

    Maybe. But what has become very clear in the intervening months - even as Trump stunned the world by winning the presidential election - is that he a) watches massive amount of cable TV and b) regularly reacts to it and borrows ideas from it.

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February 18th

Economics profession gets a presidential demotion

    The question of who Donald Trump will choose to head his Council of Economic Advisers now has an answer of sorts: It doesn't really matter. The CEA chairman will no longer be included in the president's Cabinet. Economics has officially received a demotion.

    Instead of simply deriding the administration as economically illiterate, we should look at this decision as part of a broader trend -- the waning of economists' prestige and influence.

    This is a difficult trend to measure objectively. It's well-known that much of the public disagrees with most economists on a few high-profile issues, especially free trade. But there's also enormous demand for the econ major at the undergraduate level, which is one reason economics professors get paid higher salaries than most other academics. It often seems like one's opinion of economics is a marker of social class in the U.S. -- if you respect economists and listen to their ideas, you're a member of the educated, globalized elite, while if you decry them you're part of the unwashed masses.

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Voters worldwide don't like cutting corporate taxes

    On Sunday, Swiss voters rejected a reduction in corporate tax rates by a 59 percent to 41 percent margin.

    Some of the factors that drove their decision were unique to Switzerland and this particular referendum. The tax change had been forced on Swiss politicians by the European Union and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which don't like the preferential treatment the country has been giving to multinational corporations with operations there. It was a complicated proposal, and Finance Minister Ueli Maurer (of the right-leaning populist Swiss People's Party) doesn't seem to have done a great job of selling it. There were ramifications related to local-government finances that, well, I'm not going to pretend to understand.

    Still, there do seem to have been some more universal factors at work. This was also a vote, as Markus Hafliger of the Zurich-based Tages-Anzeiger newspaper put it (translation mine), "against globalization, against opaque corporations, against a managerial caste perceived as out of touch with the real world."

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