American Pessimism

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3/30/19

The Muller investigation is finally concluded, but it’s hard to say that anything is really settled.  In the opinion of the Washington Post, fallout and follow-up to the report is, “… likely to propel Washington into a period of prolonged and even more heightened partisan combat.”    

Oh, great.  But how long is “prolonged”?  Multiple years?  Maybe even decades? 

As a nation, we seem to expect the worst. For example, late last year the Pew Research Center asked Americans to predict what our nation would look like in the year 2050.  (Sure, many of us won’t be around to find out—and that may be a fortunate thing. But countless kids and grandkids will.)

Overall, 68% of Democrats and 62% of Republicans say the political divide will be worse in 30 years than it is now (hey, look--we can agree on something!)  In a separate study, 77% of Americans aged 65 or older—in other words, those old enough to remember—say that things right now are as bad or worse as during the Vietnam War—the benchmark in living memory for a country seeming ready to burst at its cultural seams.

The Pew study gets more intriguing if you dig into people’s reasons for their pessimism:

(1) Money Matters.  By 2050, 73% of Americans think the gap between rich and poor will be wider than it is now.  Structurally, 46% say the middle class will shrink even further, while 28% believe it will grow.  And on an individual level, 49% expect there to be less job security, compared to 14% who say more.

(2) The Top Three.  Maybe surprisingly, among the choices offered by Pew, both Democrats and Republicans agreed on the three things that are most needed to improve quality of life:

 
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While this might look like a form of consensus, the problem here is a vast difference between party voters.  Across the board, Republicans see virtually all issues as significantly less important than their Democratic counterparts.  And nowhere is this more apparent than with climate change.  This is a deep concern for 42% of Dems…but only 13% of Republicans.  In 2016, Gallup had the split even wider—75% to 27%.


(3) Who can fix this?  Aside from Vladimir Putin, no one really wants our country to be this divided.  But who do we think can solve all this? (again, from Pew):

 
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In other words, more than half of us see no one or nothing capable of fixing things. So, it’s hard to argue that the country isn’t toxic--and getting worse. For example, soon after JFK was shot, 77% of Americans said they trusted the federal government. That plunged during the inflation-scarred 80’s…but in the wake of 9/11, 60% of us still believed Washington was working in our interests.
 
Today, that number is 18%.
 
The fundamental poison is this lack of trust. Cynicism and suspicion have been injected deeply into the veins of the body politic. Relentless forces are at work to divide us.
 
Certainly, there is violent disagreement on who’s to blame. But right now, few would say that America is great again--and we don’t expect it to be anytime soon.

Boeing Betrayals


American Pessimism

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Beyond safety, Boeing has much to answer for...

The Pacific Northwest loves its icons.  But before Amazon…before Microsoft…before Starbucks or Nordstrom or the Space Needle…there was Boeing.  She is the mother of them all. Proper, upright and kind of nerdy, she meshed perfectly with Seattle’s original Scandinavian ethos.  If you worked there, you felt proud.  And even if you didn’t, you were proud Boeing was around.

And then it all changed.
 
And I’m not talking about whether Boeing was complicit in faulty design or faulty software that may or may not have caused two 737 Max 8s to plummet helplessly to Earth.  Those determinations are yet to be made. 

Because in reality, Boeing’s betrayal of its own image…and of the region where it was founded…is long in the making. 

(1) The Import/Export Bank. Inside the D.C. beltway, this Americaentity is better known as the “Boeing bank”.  It exists to loan money to foreign entities, so they can use that money to buy American goods on credit--mostly Boeing's airplanes. (Sort of like the government loaning you money to buy a boat.) The U.S. Chamber of Commerce says the bank actually makes money.  The Congressional Budget Office claims otherwise--that it will cost taxpayers $2 billion in a decade.  In any case, both Barack Obama and Donald Trump campaigned against the bank.  Both changed their minds once in office. Boeing execs and lobbyists are very convincing.

(2) The Tax Heist.  Washington State governor and longshot presidential candidate Jay Inslee also changed his mind—but the opposite direction.  In 2013, Inslee was cheerleader-in-chief for Boeing when he convinced the state legislature to grant the company a total of $8.7 billion in tax breaks—the largest corporate gift in U.S. history.  Without it, Boeing was threatening to move production of a new model (and thousands of jobs) out of Seattle to union-free South Carolina.  So, the legislature swallowed hard and agreed to set a new mark for corporate socialism—and then Boeing took the money and moved the jobs anyway.  Donald Trump and Boeing CEO Dennis Mullenberg have become fast friends.  Birds of a feather, and all that. 

(3) Revolving Door. On the weapons side of Boeing’s business, the frequent movement of people between the Defense Department and the company has long been scandalous.  But the current appointment of Patrick Shanahan as acting Secretary of Defense is perhaps the most galling example.  Shanahan has minimal history in government--a short spell as assistant Secretary of Defense, for which he is now under investigation for improperly steering business to Boeing. In all, he has 30 year’s experience figuring out how to use taxpayer money to underwrite many of Boeing's contracts.  Shanahan claims he will recuse himself from Boeing matters as the full SecDef—but how will we really know?  Would we be overly cynical to doubt his sincerity?  

Right now, these are background considerations in the wake of the two fatal airliner crashes, where detailed reporting has pointed the muzzle of blame directly at Boeing.  (The first disclosures came from this groundbreaking work by Dominic Gates of the Seattle Times.) In short, the revolving door was in full swing--even if lives were put at risk. You see, the FAA granted Boeing itself the job of assuring the safety of the Boeing model involved in the tragedies. And it gets even worse.  The New York Times reports that the planes involved were not equipped with two small safety features that might have prevented the disasters. They weren’t there because Boeing insisted on charging extra for them--on planes that already sell for more than $100 million apiece. 

After going to the mattresses for several days, Boeing finally responded publicly with a largely self-congratulatory full-page ad (not coincidentally, placed in the Seattle Times). CEO Mullenburg promised that a software fix and more pilot training is coming “soon.”  In addition, he lauded the company’s “amazing people”, their “deep sense of commitment”, and vowed to continue “upholding and living our values.”

The fixes better be coming. Grounded planes and cancelled orders don't make any money. 

But as for promoting their upright values?

In terms Boeing might understand, that just won't fly. 

3 Things

To get into college, only a few bribe--but everyone pays...

Are you incensed over rich people cheating to get their kids into 'elite' colleges?

Yeah, me too.

Thus far, my two “favorite” examples are: 1) the investment bank CEO who bought his kid a water polo ball and cap on Amazon…and then had a photoshopped picture of said kid displaying said gear to support submission for an athletic scholarship; and, 2) actress Lori Loughlin not only paying bribes to get her kid into USC…but also demanding the fixer fill out the entrance application because she and her daughter couldn’t figure it out. 

But what really bugs me about all this is that the schools involved apparently will pay no penalty whatsoever— “hey, that was our athletic director, not us!  We didn’t know!”  Good teaching moment there. Shameful. 

So, three things this week are devoted to the overall scam of college costs, particularly at the most elite schools:

  1. Endowments.  Four of the top five cash balances in American education belong to Ivy League schools.  The biggest one, at Harvard, contains more money ($39 billion) than the surplus on hand for any state (most of which are in debt).  The guy who runs it makes $6 million a year.  What’s more, these prestigious schools regularly use offshore “blocker corporations” to avoid taxes and hide dubious investments from the prying eyes of students and the rest of the world.  Harvard has so much money that it could fully pay the tuition for all its undergraduates for more than 100 years. 

  2. Student debt.  Two out of every three undergrads walk off campus with a degree—and heavy debt. The average is more $29,000 (higher for private schools).  Those willing to perform public service can reduce or eliminate that load.  Last year, 1.17 million applied for this relief.  Fifty-five (55) succeeded. 

  3. Textbooks.  In recent years, the cost of college textbooks has jumped more than three times faster than the consumer price index…and well more than twice the cost of housing.  The average yearly cost for books is now more than $1,100—just for books! And if you’re old enough to remember the wisdom of buying used books (hopefully with someone else’s notes neaty included), know that those days are fast disappearing.  Many texts today come with online access codes connecting students to added require reading, and even exams.  Those codes are one-time-only…which means your shiny and expensive new book is useless to anyone else. 

The truth is, almost all parents want a good education for their kids.  It’s just that most of us aren’t willing to bribe and cheat to get it.

For everyone entering college, there’s just one guarantee: you may or may not get a good education.  But you will get soaked.

3 Things

Weak End at Bernie's?...

Today’s “things” are all questions…and all directed at the same man—Bernie Sanders.

A U.S. Senator from Vermont who runs his campaign out of Brooklyn…a defiant independent who periodically joins the Democratic party when he wants to run for President…he either answers these…or deserves the support of no progressive.

(1) Do you swear that, under no circumstances, will you run as a third-party candidate?  If you don’t, you know you represent the literal “Trump card” that will again generate chaos and guarantee the current occupant a second term.  If defeating him is, as you’ve claimed, your highest priority, then you should have no problem making this promise.

(2) Do you swear that, should you lose the primary, you will do everything in your power to elect the eventual Democratic nominee?  That means not vilifying other candidates in a party to which you temporarily belong; it means offering more than a limp-handed “endorsement”; and it means sincerely encouraging your voters not to do what you did last time—bitterly muttering as you faded into obscurity, sitting on your hands in service of the GOP. 

(3) Do you swear that, during the campaign, you will directly explain your sad and cowardly voting record opposing logical gun control?  As a professed progressive, your history on gun issues is an embarrassment.  Are you honest enough to now explain why you did all that?

Your campaign issues the last time around deserve credit for moving the conversation into areas where it needs to be—particularly on income inequality.

But without assurances on the three questions above, you are a textbook example of, “right song/wrong singer.”

3 Things

Do deficits matter any more?

For a long time, progressives in D.C. have argued (with justification) that their conservative GOP counterparts only complain about deficit spending when Democrats are in power.  When they themselves hold the reins, deficits run wild.  But now, could we suddenly have achieved consensus between the parties? 

Let’s review a couple historical highlights:

  1. Trickle Down Economics.  The idea of spending tax dollars that don’t exist isn’t exactly new.  But Ronald Reagan brought back to life an old economic theory called “trickle down”, one that the likes of Mark Twain was mocking a half century earlier.  The idea was that giving rich people even more money would pay dividends, because those rich people would spend it in a way that benefitted non-rich people.  Amazingly, that didn’t happen.  Even the man who conceived Reagan’s plan, budget director David Stockman, eventually admitted it was a disaster.  The federal debt exploded.

  2. Trump Tax Cut.  Not to be outdone, 30+ years later Donald Trump and his Congressional minions pushed through a $1.5 trillion tax cut (largely benefitting corporations and wealthy investors) that delivered only a temporary sugar high—84% of businesses reported their tax gifts did nothing to change their hiring or capital investment plans.  The projected growth of the national debt because of this robbery is, coincidentally, as much as $1.5 trillion.  In other words, every dollar that Trump gave to the largest corporations and wealthiest billionaires eventually is going to have to be paid back by current taxpayers—and their descendants.  Once again, the debt exploded.

Between these two disasters, a couple other things happened.  First, Bill Clinton went to great lengths (perhaps too great) to compromise with Republicans and balance the federal budget. Thus, there was momentarily this odd thing called a surplus.  And later, Barack Obama rode to the rescue of a cratering economy presided over by George W. Bush.

So, by this point, everything seems pretty clear, doesn’t it?  Republicans create fiscal disasters, and Democrats have to come in and clean up the mess.  This is something Democrats could comfortably run on in 2020.

But not so fast.

  1. MMT.  We live in an era of new acronyms.  Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is “AOC”.  Her Green New Deal is “GND”.  And pundits are now adding to that with “MMT”, or “modern monetary theory."  This is the magic budgeting elixir that is going to pay for all AOC wants—nationalized health care, a guaranteed wage, free public college tuition, and of course, a revolution in combatting climate change.  (Note: my comments here do NOT concern the desirability or wisdom of these proposals—many of which I endorse.) But like every other purchase, there is a cost—unless, of course, the laws of economic gravity can somehow be suspended.  AOC’s financial mentor says they can--all that needs to be done to pay for all this is to print more money:

“If you control your own currency and have bills that are coming due, it means you can always afford to pay the bills on time.  You can never go broke, you can never be forced into bankruptcy.  You’re nothing like a household.”

To some, this sounds splendid.  But it also sounds exactly like what David Stockman was pitching in the ‘80’s…and what Trump’s people promised late in 2017.  In fact, while sometimes necessary, all deficits create risk--sometimes great risk. 

By choosing to align with the wasteful policies of the GOP in the past, the GND wing of the Democratic party is forfeiting not only the rhetorical high ground—but also promoting the type of risk that again endangers our entire economy.

Right now, mainline Democrats are wondering exactly what to do with AOC and her supporters.
The GOP has no such confusion.  It gleefully celebrates her every step.  Because fiscally speaking, she validates them.

3 Things

What do you make of these statements?...

Three things this week are actually three quotes.  In Oakland, a bunch of young men of color were lectured as follows:

  1. “A lot of hip and rap music is built around me showing how I got more money than you, I can disrespect you and you can’t do nothing about it.”

  2. “If you are really confident about your financial situation, you probably are not going to be wearing an eight-pound chain around your neck.  If you are very confident about your sexuality, you don’t have to have eight women around you twerking…”

  3. “Some communities need more police, not fewer…”

Some will say this is entirely true.  Some will say it’s insulting.  Others will judge it at least borderline racist.  Many will conclude it’s some combination of all three.

Would you personal opinion change if you found out these were all uttered by…Barack Obama?

Although the words quoted above are entirely accurate, I confess to taking them slightly out of context, because Obama’s overall message, during his fifth annual My Brother’s Keeper initiative, was one proclaiming empowerment for young men.
  
This is more reflective of his overarching opinion:
 

Often times…racism in this society sends a message that you are ’less than’, and weak…so we feel like we’ve got to compensate by exaggerating certain stereotypical ways that men are supposed to act.  That’s a trap that we fall into—that we have to pull out of.  If you’re confident about your strength, you don’t need to show me by putting someone else down.  Show me how strong you are in that you can lift someone else up, and treat someone well, and be respectful.”
 

To me, the beauty of this is that while he was talking to a specific demographic, the message is universal.  It applies to all ages, genders and races.   

Man, I miss that guy…
 

3 Things

It's a troubling time for people of faith--and everyone else...

At this year’s National Prayer Breakfast, President Trump announced plans to join with his close pal Jesus to fight abortion…and also to “abolish civil rights” (yes, he really said that—apparently a dispute  with his own teleprompter).  This, unfortunately, helped obscure other religion-based news that was far more important:
 

  1. Southern Baptists: we learned that they’ve spent two decades covering up widespread sexual abuse among their leaders.  By the numbers, more than 700 victims (mostly children) have been violated by 380 different spiritual mentors—and these are the numbers of those convicted, not merely accused.  The association of Baptist churches knew about this back in 2006…but decided it couldn’t keep a master list of those falling far short of doing God’s work.  Subsequently, some three dozen of these known child molesters were simply allowed to leave town…and go to work at otherer Southern Baptist churches in other states.

 

  1. Catholics: apparently, despite all the recent work done to dry clean and mend its soiled robes, Catholicism is not going to let anyone steal its thunder when it comes to holy sexual abuse.  The Pope himself now admits than an order of nuns in France was subjected to “sexual slavery” at their hands of priests--and that similar crimes have existed in churches in Africa, Asia and Latin America.  In some cases, nuns were either forced to have abortions…or booted from the church to raise children who were never again connected with their holy fathers. 

 

  1. Muslims: OK, we know who the real bad guys of religion are--because Mr. Trump tells us.  His Department of Homeland Security just finished a draft report urging extended surveillance of suspect Sunni Muslims entering the U.S.  Trump has stated (and tweeted) that three-quarters of terrorist attacks in America were authored by people born elsewhere.  But as John Adams said, the facts are stubborn things. The control group Trump cited consists of two dozen attacks of varying severity committed over a 15-year period.  This stands feebly against the totality of what’s actually happening.  U.S. attorneys have indicted more than 1,400 domesticterrorists—and the FBI currently has 1,000 active investigations of white terror groups. (New indictments were returned against 44 white supremacists in Arkansas on Tuesday).

This may outrage you—but there’s a silver lining in these celestial clouds. Because underlying our knowledge of all this is a common denominator—excellence in journalism.  This is an essential need of democracy and can be found on many different levels.  Consider that these three stories were authored by (in order): the medium-sized Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News, working in collaboration; the nearly obscure, Vatican-sanctioned Women Church World; and the powerhouse Washington Post.  Journalism matters on all levels.  Without diligent reporters, do these stories ever see the light of day?

3 Things

Today's installment is brought to you by the letter "K"...

(1) Kamala

Regular readers know my perpetual disgust with the way the media cover elections—it’s all personality and inside baseball instead of policy.  (Solution via The People’s Platform here). So, I’m guilty of hypocrisy now by making a ridiculously early horse race prediction: unless Kamala Harris trips and falls, she will be one of the last two finalists for the Democratic nomination.  And even if she falls short of top billing, she’ll be the consensus VP pick.  (Full disclosure: I also “guaranteed” that Hillary would win, so there's that...)  If Harris prevails, it will be entirely deserved.  Plenty of time to expand on why later.

(2) Kremlin
Already we’re seeing back channel slams against every Democrat who throws—or even ponders throwing—a hat into the ring.  The latest is the panic that, “Hillary might run!”  Even though she’s never even hinted that.  Which leads me to ask the obvious question: have we learned nothing?  Most of the rumor, innuendo and nit-picking likely has a common source—a troll farm managed by Vladimir Putin.  Here’s how to fight it.  Only trust direct quotes from candidates, their rivals or their spokespeople…or others who are willing to be publicly identified.  If there's no clear source, there's no story. When the media fails at this, let them know. Don't allow Putin to decide another election.

(3) Koch family
These bastards are wolves in creep’s clothing. Their latest program promises to “fix” America’s schools—and this time they say they’ll be nice to the teachers and their unions—the people they’ve vilified all along.  Don’t fall for this.  The far-more-sincere billionaires Bill and Melinda Gates have failed miserably three times at this task, and so will the Kochs.  And for the same reason—they have no clue what, if anything, is wrong with education in the first place.  But what they prescribe will certainly be wrong. More on the “fixing education” myth here.  Also, the perverse motivations of the Kochs are included both here…and in the masterwork Dark Money by investigative reporter Jane Mayer.  The Kochs are the worst of the worst. 

3 Things

Moving above the headlines...

The government shutdown (for now) is over.  Roger Stone is under indictment for obstruction, proving (at least to a grand jury) that collusion with Russia did, indeed, exist.  New candidates declaring for the presidency in 2020 are struggling for air time amidst
a runaway news flow. 

This morning, I’m thinking on a higher level…

(1) Warfare.  While we continue to waste obscene amounts of tax dollars on weapons that will never be used, the battlefield has conclusively moved online—and so far, Russia is winning.  The Stone indictment lays out a legal case that suggests the Soviet government worked with the Trump campaign via Wikileaks to sink Hillary.  But that’s hardly news to most people, since Trump had publicly invited it.  Russia also conducted similar electoral mischief to the original Brexit vote in the UK.  Was Merkel’s departure in Germany…and Macron’s current problems in France…also spurred by the Soviets? 

While America should be confronting, we are cowering.  Sanctions against Russia are being softened…or eliminated.  Are we still the home of the brave?
 
(2) Wealth.  In the 2016 campaign season, people who favored Trump had a clear second choice.  Obviously, it wasn’t Hillary.  But neither was it another Republican.  The guy they liked second-best was Bernie Sanders.  Which raises the question: what is it that combines the appeal of the corrupt-est capitalist and the scruffiest socialist?  The answer wasn’t hard to find.  Pollsters just asked them.  It was resentment over how the very wealthiest of Americans were violating the lower class…and exterminating the middle class.  Income equality was the name of the game back then, and it still is now

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-Kardashia) is annoying on several levels—but she’s also often right.  A 70% tax on the very wealthiest in our country (as long as it taxes wealth, and not just income) is exactly the kind of argument the Democrats, and the rest of the county, should be having.  Right answer?  Maybe, maybe not.  Right question?  Absolutely.
 
 
(3) Climate.  As I write this, the forecast today for us in the dreary Northwest is pure sunshine, and temperatures in the 50’s.  In January.  Dallas is also supposed to stay in the 50’s.  And so is Orlando, along with a 100% chance of rain.  I know all of this is meaningless if you’re in Boston or Chicago, bracing for another “life-threatening” frostbite blast later this week. 

To this point, it’s been possible to dismiss all this as just an anomaly, or a small sample size.  But this time it’s different.  There are pictures; there is evidence.  Thermal imaging shows the polar vortex—that cyclone of air that revolves high up in the atmosphere above the North Pole—has broken apart, with a section of it headed south over the U.S. 

One hundred and ninety-five nations signed the Paris Accord in 2015, a first step in trying to save Earth's climate.  Of those, only one—the U.S., the world’s second largest polluter—refused to sign.  Trump said it put too many onerous regulations on business.  And he continues to mock “global warming” when things are so cold. 

Maybe he should check the weather in Australia.Record breaking heat this month has killed at least 40 wild horses. Fruit on the vine is “burning from the inside." Temperatures have reached 121 degrees.
 
This is the right-wing horror show—maybe Al Gore was right.

3 Things

Looking ahead...

This isn't a "year in review".  It's not even a set of predictions for 2019.  Instead, these three issues are changes that will evolve well into the future..with meaningful next steps possibly becoming more prominent in the year ahead.

(1) Designing Your Children.  In 2018, a Chinese scientist announced he'd altered the DNA of twin babies to make them resistent to their father's HIV.  This created a firestorm in scientific circles because the scientist disregarded all accepted standards and ethical guidelines by not even mentioning what he was doing beforehand.  This moved society further along a path to confront an ethical dilemna that will last for generations.  Instinctively we recoil against such "eugenic" ideas.  But what about the friend of one of my friends who was just diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer?  He's 26.  Would you prevent your child from ever having to face that?

(2) The Employment Paradox.  The economy right now is "good", based on the number of help wanted signs surrounding us.  And political feuds aside, it should continue getting better.  But the future promises not more, but fewer jobs...based on the abilities of AI and robots to take on more of our labors.  And not just in factories--much of the work done currently by doctors and lawyers can also be absorbed by computer-based entities.  What will we do when there are not enough jobs to go around?  How will society incorporate even the highly skilled and highly educated who "aren't working"?

(3) Rebuilding the Budget.  America is the richest nation in the history of the world. Yet we see exploding deficits and national debt--which is preposterous. Logically examining how we spend (and overspend) our wealth inevitably begins with buzz phrases like national security, entitlements, welfare and capitalism.  This argument is certain to spring back to life as Democrats in Congress leverage their role to design all spending measures...but will also increasingly determine future elections as the inevitable bills come due.  

As Donald Trump incessantly maneuvers to continue dominating headlines, these are issues that will be largely tamped down benearth the surface for the time being...but are certain to persist in the national debate for generations.  

(p.s. Shorter term, it's obvious that 2019 will begin the process of winnowing down a large field of Democratic contenders to run for President in 2020.  To make that process more fair, productive and collaborative, I urge you to consider "The People's Platform", if you haven't done so already.)

Happy New Year--winter issue coming January 12th....

diderot