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Monday, January 22, 2018

Total (Political) War

The current shutdown exercise--emphasis on "current"--is a relatively minor skirmish in the larger battle for power which is going to be fought--in the trenches, in the air, on the beaches--for 34 more months, without any break, and at tremendous financial expense.

Setting the Stage, Sticking My Neck Out with Prediction
The ultimate objective is the 2020 election, one which may determine the long-term future of this nation.  I do not believe I exaggerate: If after all this chaos, dysfunction, and madness, the Trumpian Republicans can succeed in retaining power in 2020, I would view our future to be an accelerating downward spiral into insularity, a diminishing role in global affairs, and constant domestic strife, aggravated by massively increasing inequality and an exploding debt.  To keep power, the oligarchy will move toward despotism, and what is left of our rights and freedoms will become a sad joke.  We can see some portents of their ways, and the lengths to which they would go, in the recent examples of the manipulation of the Supreme Court nomination process, in 2016 and 2017, and the efforts to suppress votes which the Republicans are attempting in several states where they have the power to do so,

2020 is the great prize, and although we are looking at it from great distance (in political terms),  there is every reason to think it will be a banner year for the Democrats.  For one thing, in the same way that the Democrats will be defending many Senate seats this year in red states, in 2020 the Republicans will be on the defensive, trying to hold seats in states that tilt Democratic.

I would guess there is better than a 50-50 chance that the US economy will be either in recession or not long out of it by 2020, with the most likely scenario in the meantime being a ramping up of inflation.  That would be due to the growing budget deficits, to suppression of trade leading to higher import costs, and the labor shortage-- incredible in this age of shrinking demand of labor, but created by the public's demand for more jobs and the politicians' willingness to bend policy to support the desire--which is now finally driving up wages.  The Fed is trying to move up low interest rates sufficiently to contain it, but politics are making it hard:  first an unneeded tax cut, and next will be a burst of additional spending on "infrastructure"--likely to end up being a massive pork-barrel spending on low-priority developments to further pay off well-connected Trump sycophants. If inflation starts surpassing acceptable levels, there will be little choice but to jack up rates, and that will lead to the recession I would predict for 12-24 months from now.  I don't think it will be a mild one, either:  the bursting of the bubblicious markets, the return of consumer overindebtedness, and the failure to learn enough lessons from the last recession in reducing the risk in our financial structure suggest to me that this will be one that leads to stagnation, a sharply weakened dollar and a sharp increase in unemployment.

Then there is the destruction of the Republican brand which the GOP and its alleged leader, the accidental President, are just doing to themselves.   Even with all the basic measures of the US economy going great right now, the public is disenchanted with this one-party government, with the performance of the President, and with the direction the country is going.

Thank goodness for that!  If it were otherwise, if this past year somehow conned a majority of Americans into thinking they were being governed well, then there would be reason for despair.  Instead, we are encouraged, we are furious, and we will not be bought off by something like the phony appeal of the recent tax bill. 

2018: A Historical Analogy
This year's midterm elections are an important and necessary phase in this war, though it is unlikely to be a decisive one. The Republicans would need a substantial reversal in the current trends to be able to maintain the degree of dominance they have today in both the Federal and state governments, while the Democrats' absolute best outcome would be to reduce their deficit in governorships and state legislatures while gaining narrow majorities in the House and, more unlikely, in the Senate.  It is inconceivable that we will come out of 2018 with the Republican side not in control of the Federal judicial and executive branches. Almost certainly, this year's result will be a closer contest for governmental power, with no reprieve at all from the continuous war of words, and immediate transition to the early stages of the 2020 general election.  Still, the contests this year will be critical in setting the terms of the legislative battles to be held in the 2019-2020 Congress, and of  contests in basically all the swing states, like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Arizona, Minnesota and Florida:  all of them have contested battles both for the governors' office (and control of state legislatures) and for a Senate seat (and for some, two Senate seats).

If I were looking for a historical reference to which to compare this stage of the war, I would say that 2018 could be the equivalent of the Battle of Stalingrad for the opponents of the Drumpfenreich;  the event that turns the tide, the one that gives its opponents a view of a possible victory, though the path ahead be long and bloody. Stalingrad was a long, cruel campaign of attrition and destruction, and the Democrats will have to endure, cold-bloodedly, months of hardship, tremendous cost, and frequent setbacks, just as the Soviets did. 

The 2018 campaign will have three fronts--the Senate, the House of Representatives, and the state elections (the great majority of states have their governors' races in the midterm).  There are different conditions in each battle.  With the states, the Republicans have a huge lead which will certainly be reduced; in the House a great deal of uncertainty is present, but the Republicans are on the run; and in the Senate the Republicans have an edge, in terms of the relatively small number of seats they need to defend, while the Democrats have to defend both many seats and many in which their party is the weaker one in the state.  More on this later.

The Current SNAFU
I expect the current shutdown to be resolved quickly--maybe today.  It is about getting agreement on the short-term legislative agenda in Congress:  how long to temporarily fund the government this time, when the immigration debate will be held and under what rules.  It is true that both parties' stubbornness created this dysfunction and thus share the blame; it is also true that both sides are effectively taking hostages:  the Democrats are using the shutdown to force a debate on immigration, and specifically on the status of the DACA recipients (children of undocumented immigrants who have long maintained residence here, but who have been exempted from deportation--at least, until Trump's executive order will take effect in March).  The Republicans' hostages are the DACA "Dreamers" themselves--they are using the Democrats' commitment to preserving, or improving, the Dreamers' status in order to get more immigration restrictions, and Trump is using it to get funding for his Stupid Wall with Mexico--something the Democrats would never otherwise consent to doing.

The Senate Democrats are on dangerous ground:  forcing this shutdown--and it is true that they did do that, by withholding their votes Friday night from allowing a continuing resolution to come to the floor for a final vote--should not backfire on them in a big way.  On the other hand, though, the actual debate on DACA will be painful for them, as the Republicans will try to load up as much misery as they can onto a relatively straightforward question of allowing them to stay--something the Republican leadership and the President have said they are willing to do.  A large portion of the Republican Congressional contingent is against that, though, and they will force their leadership to add more border restrictions, funding to start the Stupid Wall--and then they will still vote against it.  If this bill gets loaded down excessively with poison pills, or worse, if it does not pass--and the relevant history of the past two decades is that, as an immigration bill gets broader, its support gets weaker--then the Democrats will be in a bad spot.  They cannot afford to let go the small bit of leverage they have, with must-pass government funding, until they get what they want, and that might mean a longer, more brutal shutdown later.

The fact is that the Republicans have the trump cards (sorry!) in this deal, and the Democrats are in a somewhat desperate position, having made commitments that they do not have the power to fulfill.  The turtle/weasel cross heading the Senate, the talking sphincter in the White House, and the epitome of white male privilege in the House Speaker's chair are going to seek revenge on the Democrats for making the Republicans' governance look ineffectual.  The fact is, though, the Republicans own their inability, and this first year of Drumpfite chaos only confirms what was apparent during the Bushite Misrule (2001-09):  the GOP is no longer fit to govern, and becomes less so each year.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Excerpts from The Saga of the Talking Presidential Sphincter

Was this the tipping point finally?   I could easily see Trump pull a Sarah Palin on the whole country and pass the baton to Mike Pence.  Bad as Pence would be, I have to prefer that to this monstrosity and embarrassment.

I've heard a lot of criticism of Michael Wolff, and it may be warranted, but I really enjoyed the article in New York Magazine about the Trumps on Election Night (an excerpt from the book).  Wolff makes a great analogy Mel Brooks' movie "The Producers"--the campaign that was intended to lose dramatically failed to achieve its objective.  And won instead.

My wife:  "Stephen Miller is a putin'bot."

Nicholas Kristof  said in a Times editorial last weekend argued that 2017 was the best year in History.  He's right in a statistical and globalist sense, but it's a very misleading lede.  Short term great, but by any other measure of time, a disaster.
 He gets to the point about two-thirds of the way through, which is that the potential human value present in this moment provides urgency to do something about the threats to it.
He's right, but our focus should be on addressing the "mortal threats" he mentions briefly.

Josh Marshall had it right:  It just doesn't matter whether Trump is mentally ill--if there were any doubt.
Here's a quote I liked from a Washington Post update this morning:

He's one of multiple Trump picks who couldn't pass muster with a GOP-controlled Senate, yet continues to wield immense authority within the government. 

--James Hohmann, "The Daily 202", Washington Post, Jan. 18, 2018, talking about Sam Clovis, who was humiliatingly recalled from a nomination for the US Dept. of Agriculture.   I like the phrase "multiple Trump picks" and variations of it:  "multiple Trump pricks", "multiple pump tricks"

An interesting question from the respected Quinnipiac polling agency asked respondents to give him a grade from A to F, a much better one than whether someone approves of him or feels we're on the right track:  much more information value.  This poll, before the "shithole" comment had 39% grade him an 'F', then 17% a D, only 11% a C, 16% a B, and 16% an A.  (Clearly the 'I don't know/No answer' portion is omitted from their quote.)  My calculation of their average is a 74, right in the middle of the 'D' range.

If we consider our expectations about a Trump presidency after Election Night, I would agree with this rating:  he hasn't gotten us into a new stupid war--yet.

I remember feeling somewhat similarly about Dubya in mid-2001 (actually writing it--probably in eRaider.com)  The difference is that those who would've given Dubya an F would probably only grade him in the 60-75 range, while Trump is probably distributed uniformly over the 0-75 range.  Actually, that's very generous to him, as is the 60 average I gave him in coming up with the 74 average:  I would personally give him an overall rating (not compared to my expectations) to be about a 17.+



"Archie Bunker with a twitter feed"
 - Josh  on Don Lemon, CNN

+Obama would probably be about a 93--topic for another day, based on a measure that is not subjected to my interest but to humanity's, and to the notion of a free, somewhat democratic America's as a key factor in our species' continued viability.) The randomness of Trump's behavior is wholly negative from the point of view of the world, but not entirely so from the American one (first, if only narrowly or currently so).

Thursday, January 04, 2018

2017: My Year in Songs

My New Years Eve was spent at home:  we were working on a plan to go to see Murder by Death downtown, but as the freeze deepened, we made a late decision to bag it.   The highlight of the evening was the performance by Keith Urban (yes, Nicole Kidman's husband) at a Nashville Eve rally, playing--basically solo guitar--and singing trademark songs from among the musicians who died in 2017.  It included a verse and chorus or two from--among others--Chris Cornell (of Soundgarden), Glenn Campbell, Chuck Berry, and finished with a performance of Tom Petty's "Free Fallin'".

I should have mentioned Petty's passing earlier, but I can't count myself among his foremost fans.  I don't think I ever purchased a product just of Petty and/or his Heartbreakers, nor did I attend any concerts:  for example, this year at New Orleans' JazzFest I watched Lorde, though Petty was playing at the other end of the Fairgrounds.  With hindsight, I'd have to say that was an error, though it's not a criticism of Lorde:  she may well have multiple decades of performing ahead of her, while Petty had barely a season.

I always respected his music, though.  He's a genuine American rocker of merit.  As a keyboard maven, I loved how well much of Petty's music featured Benmont Tench.  My favorite song was the one which I would say initially brought him into the big time, "Refugee".  It doesn't get much play anymore, as it's kinda politically incorrect both toward the object of his scorn and to impoverished foreigners, but I love the edgy energy in it.  I would also mention "Breakdown", "The Waiting", "Even the Losers', "Runnin' Down a Dream", and "Listen to Her Heart". 

 "Where's the Revolution?"-- Depeche Mode
You see the theme, though from Tom Petty's music:  modern American male angst.  He's dealing with interpersonal relations, performing the essential popular music functions of expressing empathy and providing consolation, but he's not making a statement of any kind.

There was too much of that in 2017; I am a little disappointed, but I think to some extent the shock of the 2016 election and what it means to us all has been a little hard to process.  Rock musicians' minds were elsewhere, not paying much attention, and for the most part haven't snapped to it yet.  I'm not even sure it will happen in 2018, but I feel confident the rage (or counter-rage, if you prefer) will rise by 2020.  I would guess the one most likely to voice it is Bruce Springsteen, but we shall see--maybe Bob Dylan's songwriting brain hasn't given up the ghost yet.  Of course, it took rap no time at all to react, in variously virulent and vicious voice.

Yes, veteran Brit rockers Depeche Mode did put out and promote a song with the above subtitle.  The style was quite typical, the radical, provocative words clearly enunciated (as opposed to the usual mumbling or vocal distortions all too present in all popular music genres these days, though the lyrics now can easily be found by the curious on the Internet); however, I don't think D.Mode ever got their answer, and I'm not too many heard the question.

A couple of honorable mentions from foreign bands that can afford to take a stand:  Arcade Fire--their new album "Everything Now" continues the social commentary, disguised in disco format, with the title song and with "Creature Comfort", but that's both Canadian and not really new content from them.  Still much appreciated.   U2's new album is more topical than their previous one and has some oblique references to the fact that the nature of this republic today is contrary to their concept of America.  Again, foreign and not a new theme for them.

What was a little more surprising to me was the lyric to the Killers' "Run for Cover", as that all-American band is among the last I would look to for political commentary.    It includes the lines, "It's even worse when the dirtbag's famous" and "he's fake news".  But, unfortunately, Brandon Flowers does not seem to be referring directly to Trump but seems to be voicing the complaint of a guy whose girlfriend is ditching him for a Trump voter.  Still, some political conscience from a rock band.

Radio, Radio
I got a car this year with Sirius XM, and it has no CD player!  As a result, I have been listening to digitized radio a lot this year.  Here are my top 10 stations (I'm going with the minimal rental level, but I am not just grifting off their free feed):
10.  ESPN Radio
9.  CNN
8. Deep Tracks (SXM #28) - offbeat playlist of obscure cuts from whenever and whoever
7. 820 am - I'm getting NorMan Goldman better than ever. No FM interference from the local Polish station on this feed.
6. Lithium - grunge and near-grunge
5. Classic Vinyl--'60's and '70's, good stuff only; way better than the 80's based Classic Rewind (the cassette period), which plays too much bad Zeppelin.
4. 101.1 FM
3. 93.1 FM -- my Chicago rock stations; gotta set the radio to these when I go in the parking garage.
2. altNation - yes, my chosen genre
1. Spectrum - goes across it; past and present, mostly good selections

And please don't waste your effort by advising me to go with some ipod or Apple tunes or Spotify or Pandora, etc.  Don't need it, not buying it.

(Additional note--1/11/18:  I did this list spontaneously, without reference to my Sirius dial, and butchered it somewhat.  I forgot to include '80's New Wave station '1st wave' (belongs between #4 and 5 above), and Billy Preston (The Beatles--belongs between #8 and 7, as it works--sometimes--in variably-sized doses, but sometimes is impossible), but I should've had NBA and MLB Radio paired--'clubbed', as some might say--with #10, which I mislabeled, and probably should've found a mention for NPR and some of the jazz stations--disappointingly mainstream--as also mentioned. ) 

My Top 5 Songs of 2017, with some Additional Notes (and links to them)

5) "Feel It Still" - Portugal. The Man.  Revival music--I prefer that to "throwback"--is doing just fine, though Amy Winehouse is gone and Adele dormant.   This group achieved overnight success after 20 years of effort.  I mention also New Orleans Revivalists' "Wish I Knew You" and Rag 'n' Bone Man's "Human".  But 'Feel It Still" is something special, and I like the reminder that there was once a 1966 (or was it 1986?)

4) "Dear Life" - Beck.  The Grammys are hard to figure.  Back in the '70's and '80's, they were so good at recognizing the value of the big acts after they reached their peak.  Now that they are finally cottoning onto rap, it makes me wonder what's the next big thing.  In the case of Beck, they gave him the album of the year for the wrong album for his unexciting product "Morning Phase", then two years later he puts out "Colors", which brings back the verve and variety of his early work, with some lyrics that actually tend toward intelligible meaning this time around (though the wordplay is no less).  The best song is "Dreams", but that came out two years ago.  This song is a very respectable one, though; it's title is a play on the cliche phrase "holding on for dear life".  Beck asks, musically, Why?

3. "No Roots", Alice Merton.  Not a rebellion against roots music.  Really, it does have a rootsy feel, but it's  self-referencing metaphor.  She's a young woman has lived the itinerant life of which she sings, or so she says.  Not to be tokenist, but I should also cite 2017 efforts from some other rising young women of alternative rock, such as Lana del Rey, Lorde, and Julia Michaels.

2. Napalm, Conor Oberst.   The prolific transplanted Nebraskan lives at the conjunction of rock, folk, and country, and in his current format mixes styles from song to song.  On 2017's "Salutations" album, the best song for my money is this anarchist chika-chika rocker which seems like somewhat overt homage to Bob Dylan in his "Rainy Day Women" period:  full of fun and meanness both, ready for trouble.  His lyrics are pushing boundaries but he admits he's "still on the fence":  basically, his political instinct centers around trusting none of them.

1) The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness, The National.  The initial appeal was the musical composition, with some interesting tone sequences, a very strange guitar lick repeated every so often, and a canonical guitar solo I would describe as thrilling.  The lyrics are somewhat impenetrable, especially the title, but seem to be about a deep interpersonal crisis of some kind, delivered convincingly.  I've heard it many times, and it always provides an emotional lift. At the end of the day, though, to quote the song, "I can't explain it...ah...any other/Any other way..."   and that is why we need music, after all.

Honorable Alt-Mention:  2017 was also a good year for alt-J, LCD Soundsystem, 
War on Drugs, Cage the Elephant, and Spoon. 





Tuesday, December 12, 2017

They Can Do No Right (continuing thread)

Grover Norquist and Donald Trump shared a dream, and it has come to life in the form of the Republicans' tax bill.   It combines a hatred of public services (Norquist) with faulty economics (Trump).  Every day reveals new monstrosities hidden within it.  It favors fossil fuels and looks to handicap renewable forms of energy; it also opens the Arctic to spoilage through oil drilling. It is actively hostile to our prized higher education system in a variety of ways.  It will create a situation in which the Republican Congress will be "forced" by budget restrictions to do things like cut the cost of living adjustment for Social Security, and find cuts in Medicare.  Of all the many bad provisions, the worst I have heard yet is one that would facilitate dark money political contributions (not publicly reported) becoming tax-deductible.

I don't expect that it will matter that the tax cuts for individuals will fade out while the corporate tax cuts are permanent:  most of these provisions will be repealed when the Democrats regain control, which I expect will happen in the 2020 elections.  But that will be OK for the Drumpfsters; their intention is merely to facilitate some massive short-term wealth for themselves; in Trump's case, it would seem that the key provisions are the reduction in pass-through taxes for his businesses and in the reduction or abolition of the estate tax.  Then the oligarchs will be able to watch from secured enclaves as the inflation-recession-social unrest which will eventually follow from this abomination of public policy continues to consume our democracy, even after the venal scumbags are gone from office.

The Republicans' conference committee will hash out the relatively minor differences between the two bills; things like repealing the individual mandate (added by the Senate, it would indirectly save a few hundred million in health care subsidies, which can be plowed back into more benefits for the rich) will be taken on; the conference committee report can not be filibustered by Democrats;  the compromises offered to Sen. Collins for her vote can now be ignored (unless McCain or Flake flake off from their pro-Tax Scam votes); the only question is when.  I am betting against it being before the end of the year, inspired by the general incompetence, but the odds are against me.

Moving on:  What do you do if you have a piece of responsible gun legislation, backed by both parties, and even by the NRA, to close loopholes such as the ones that facilitated the massacres in Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs?  Why, pollute it with a ridiculous "reciprocity" provision allowing the worst concealed carry states' laws to prevail over more reasonable ones!

What do you do if there is bipartisan agreement, and a prompting from President Drumpf himself, to provide legal status for Dreamers to remain in the US (through the so-called DACA program)? Why, pollute it with a requirement for Democrats to fund the stupid, totally unneeded, provocative and dysfunctional Wall with Mexico! That way, none of these things ever come to pass, and Trump can blame the failure to fulfill his campaign promise on Democrats' unreasonable demands.

Alabama Values
Roy Moore says that he wants to "bring Alabama values to Washington", as though that would be some sort of improvement.  Tonight, we will find out which are the values a majority of Alabama voters may have.  I don't think it's a question of Moore's State Christianity advocacy:  that would probably pass easily there.  Instead, it seems to be a question of whether picking up sixteen-year-old girls is consistent with their values, and the answer is not clear-cut.

As I have said before, do not trust the polls on this one:  people will lie to pollsters about their willingness to vote for the child molester.    I suspect that the Fox News poll which has Jones ahead by 10 points that came out yesterday (!)  was what i would call a troll-poll:  designed to draw out Republican fence-sitters and make Democrats complacent.  It is easy to produce such a distorted result through sequencing questions strategically:  Q1:  Would you vote for a candidate who is accused of molesting children?  Q2:  Will you vote for Roy Moore? 

In predictit.org, I have a small amount of money on Jones (at 20% probability), hoping against my expectations.  In other bets, I am expecting a margin in the 4-8% range, that 5-10% of votes will be write-ins, and that Moore will win Mobile county but lose Madison county (Huntsville area). 

Again, this is a very important election--no comparison to the previous special election House races in its importance for the 2018 campaign cycle, which has now officially begun.  Even in a wave election, which 2018 may well be, the Democrats will be hard-pressed to take back the Senate.  This is because of the numbers of seats they must defend, and the level of difficulty for many of those states, as opposed to the relatively few opportunities.  More on this later.

Trump Stuff
His slimy stance with regard to the Moore candidacy tells it all:  no principles, no consistency, even of message.  Confused by conflicting advice, his actions accentuates the contradictions in his brand.  His interests compel him to seek that vote in the Senate; his inclinations drive him to believe the man against his female accusers; but he'd just as soon not be seen in public next to the creep.  Still, the Moore campaign, and the resignation announcements of Rep. Conyers and Sen. Franken have revived the issue of Trump's own accusers, who may finally have their day to air their grievances, apart from the chaos of last year's campaign.   I don't expect these to bring him down--he certainly would not have the dignity or sense of shame to resign, as Franken has done--just as I don't expect the Russia investigation to lead to impeachment, but I am encouraged by the wear and tear on his psyche and body and the paralysis these things tend to create in his White House.

My ranking of the most likely ways we will get rid of him:  1)  Defeat in 2020 by Democrats; 2) Rejection for re-nomination by the Republicans after the disastrous 2018 election; 3) Death; 4)  He just quits, due to health, sufficient wealth gains, or he just gets bored or frustrated with it; 5) Forced out due to insanity; 6) All other ways, including impeachment.

Hats off to Emmanuel Macron for creating a program to give grants to scientists to "Make the Planet Great Again"--nobody can devise a better insult than a Frenchman.  Have at 'im, E-Man'!

Donald Trump, "I fart in your general direction!"--a French poseur, in Monty Python's Holy Grail 

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Fall Movie Preview 2017

It's after Thanksgiving, and we are finally getting to 'The Good Part" of the 2017 film season.  The rush at the end of the year is as bad as ever; OK, I'm used to it by now.  The one thing that bothered me this weekend was that the Winston Churchill dramatization (Darkest Hour), one of my three must-see movies of the season, was not available to be seen locally this weekend--it had been promised.  Maybe it's a new strategy of delayed gratification, but if so, count me as an opponent.

So Far This Year
I've been pretty much absent from the box office, particularly for the big hits.  I did see Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (#3 in 2017 box office) and Lego Batman (#11), sequels I chose to watch based on my appreciation of their predecessors:  both were disappointing, mediocre.  I caught Wonder Woman (#2) on a plane; it was probably a bit more substantial and entertaining than I expected.

Next, three charting movies that I saw and have to credit--for some intrinsic quality and for the courage to stand up and show themselves before the last month of the year.  Blade Runner 2049 (#29) was a reasonably good follow-up to the 1982 cult sci-fi classic.  It preserved the look and feel which made the original one special.  The plot was excessively convoluted--in that regard, not that different from the first--the special effects lived up to expectations, and (slight spoiler) I was so happy to see Edward Olmos (in a cameo).

Dunkirk (#10) is the real standout from the first 11 months--Christopher Nolan proved himself once again as one who can dramatically realize ambitious action concepts in a way that is pleasing to the public. I don't know about others' impressions, but I didn't see many true surprises, though there were some impressive jolts.  I would expect it to be among the top nominated films but not finally a winner of many Oscars.   Timing will be a handicap; everyone loved it last summer, but the spotlight has moved on.

There there's Get Out (#12)Satire is my favorite film genre, but I would say it barely qualifies, either for quality of the humor or for that scary, offbeat caricature of reality that the best ones achieve.  I would call it a well-made horror film with the usual quota of surprise, which is often enough for success:  the one unusual aspect was that it was a splatter film told from a black man's perspective, and thus notable for that difference. It will probably get more recognition than it really deserves.

Other films I would endorse but that didn't do quite so well financially:  Wind River (#63), The Zookeeper's Wife (#92), Their Finest (#139), The Florida Project (#130), and the documentary Jane (not ranked, that I could tell).  The last of these shows the art of the documentary, putting together nearly-lost clips from Jane Goodall's initial efforts to live with the chimps back in the '60's, along with interviews with her and others some 50 years later.   Florida Project turns the Disney ideal on its head with a touching story of kids in a seedy Orlando motel--amateur actors, except for Willem Dafoe's excellent performance as the only true adult on the scene. Their Finest and Zookeeper's Wife are stimulating tales set during World War II, worthy but not much celebrated.  Wind River is an under-appreciated film, scenic and well-photographed, a fair portrayal of the intersection of Native America and Capitalist America with strong lead performances by Elizabeth Olsen and Jeremy Renner.

The Big Three
Darkest Hour (Nov. 23?) - For Gary Oldman, a veteran of many and varied roles, this is the chance of a lifetime and he took it seriously.  It should be compared to Lincoln; like Daniel Day-Lewis' performance, Oldman has the chance to take this portrayal of a first-tier Great Man and make the character his own.  Lincoln won only one Oscar, for Best Actor for the title character, Darkest Hour might have the same result. Regardless, I'm most eager to see it.

The Shape of Water (Dec. 1) - This is Guillermo del Toro's bid to join fellow Mexican directors Inarritu (Birdman, Revenant) and Cuaron (Gravity, Children of Men) atop the field of auteur-superstars.  It's a somewhat supernatural tale set in a 1962 research lab.  del Toro has done some good films in the past--Pan's Labyrinth was visually interesting, and commercial products Pacific Rim and Hellboy have earned some favorable comment, but this is something different, bigger, and more promising.

Phantom Thread (Dec. 25) - may not end up pleasing very much--it's a romance set in the 1950's, in a context of fashion, none of which is among my sweet spots--but I will see anything starring Daniel Day-Lewis, made by Paul Thomas Anderson, so i guess this will be the one.  Could be the one I end up rooting against, but I need to give it a fair viewing.

Out Now or Soon--May or May Not Be Actually Coming Soon to a Theater Near You
The movies coming out in the current time period are the ones where Hollywood is putting out a small bet, in the hopes they can catch fire.
I saw Murder on the Orient Express last night--you should put the Agatha Christie/Hercule Poirot story on the side, either you like such things and you know the outcome or you don't---the main balance is between the scenic pulchritude of the train passing through incredible landscapes (for me, positive), and excessively close and extended views of Kenneth Branagh's overgrown Poirotesque moustache (for me, not so much).  It features a monster cast, and I was so happy to see Derek Jacobi in a good role.

I am looking forward to seeing Lady Bird; I've seen a lot of previews and hope the full-length version will contain still more surprise. Last Flag Flying may or may not be a winner (though director Richard Linklater has a good track record), but the featured cast of Lawrence Fishburne/Steve Carell/Bryan Cranston is sure interesting.  Call Me By Your Name (Nov. 24?) has a strong critical buzz, an auteurist (Luca Guadagnino) adaptation of a serious (James Ivory) script set in Italy.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and Mudbound are ones I would see in a cinema if I can, but I have my doubts.  Three Billboards features Coen Brothers' favorite actress Frances McDormand in a very different kind of role, angry and profane, as she challenges the police's failure to investigate the crime in her family; Mudbound focuses on families, a poor black one and a landowning white one, in pre-segregation Mississippi.  Both are getting the "limited engagement" treatment, which will probably be swiftly followed by a move to premium cable.  There's I Love You, Daddy, which stars Louis C.K. in a creepy role and was pulled just before its scheduled release when his creepy true-life story came out recently:  I presume I will not be seeing that one at all.   Woody Allen's Wonder Wheel (Dec.1) has the usual strong cast and a familiar movie setting (old-time Coney Island); could be a little "too Woody", though I am not one of those who will reject the art for the misdeeds of the artist (Roman Polanski's The Pianist permanently cured me of any tendency in that area) Finally, there's Roman J. Israel, Esq. an offbeat Denzel Washington vehicle about a straight, nerdy lawyer whose life goes off the rails.

Squeezing In Later
The P.R. for these late-month partial-release Oscar trickers is just now gearing up.  I see a couple of Best Actress nominees coming from these films, briefly noted:
Molly's Game (Dec. 25)  has Jessica Chastain (underappreciated in Zookeeper's Wife, above) in a lead role as a real-life woman who hosted huge-money poker games in Vegas and New York , and presumably survived to tell the tale.
Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool  (Dec. 29) - stars Annette Bening in a special role as an aging English star who takes on a younger man, who presumably lives to tell the tale.
Downsizing (Dec. 22) - is a near-future satire along the lines of Honey I Shrunk the Kids or Land of the Giants or Fantastic Voyage, if you recognize those versions (on the comedy/sci-fi spectrum) of people literally getting small, in a relative sense.  I saw the preview last night; it looked fun.
All the Money in the World (Dec. 22)  is not going to be much fun, but could be meritorious.  The true story of the kidnapping of the grandson of the richest man in the (1970's) world, J. Paul Getty, who was incredibly stingy; it could be somewhat grim and/or gruesome.  I hope it is not pulled because it has Kevin Spacey as Getty.
Two more full-length documentaries of note, which should make that race interesting:
Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars (Nov. 24) --Those are musical time bars, I presume, but they could be the alcoholic ones, too. Clapton's life is quite a roller coaster and some aspects of his autobiography are controversial.
The Rape of Recy Taylor (Dec. 15) --A study of a black woman kidnapped and raped by white males in 1944 Alabama.  Very timely.

My last mention is The Post, which combines Steven Spielberg's direction with two of the greatest stars of our times, Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, to tell the story of the 1971 release of the Pentagon Papers (secret documents about the Vietnam War) by The Washington Post.  Streep plays Katharine Graham, publisher of The Post, and Hanks plays Ben Bradlee, the executive editor.   I feel that Spotlight, the 2015 Best Picture winner, may have gotten to this subject area (embattled media) first, but the star power is undeniable Oscar bait.  This one's timing and content (challenging the state) could be tricky--Mr. Fake News Drumpf may attack it.  That could have the double effect of limiting the box office (those three don't really care) and stimulating the resistance juices of the Hollywood voting types.   They need a distraction from the sexual harassment stories, which is tarnishing their brand.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

A Sticky Subject

When i was growing up, other guys would speak admiringly of some miscreants they knew, saying, "He don't give a shit."  The idea was that those non-giving individuals were fearless in their transgression, or at least heedless of the consequences of their actions.  I tended to avoid those folks, because I did (give a shit).   I figured those people would get me in trouble, probably for doing things that I didn't care about and dragging me down with them.

Those shitfull folks (not giving same, not scared shitless)  had what I would call a developmental flaw:  little or no impulse control.  It is not at all uncommon in young people; it usually is something that adults can master, if they choose to do so. One can hope they somehow could have skated through without serious harm, something I was fortunate enough to have done on some occasions--I was/am no angel--but I know that was not the case for many, particularly the ones who imagined that they could do whatever without any regard for those who might object, or who might have been harmed.

Sex Crimes
The current rash of sexual assault/harassment/rape allegations exhibit a peculiar phenomenon in our society:  People (so far, all men) whose impulses toward misbehavior have been reinforced by their positions of power, so that they feel immune from the consequences.  What they were not immune from, though, was a sickness that made this kind of behavior habitual, with all kinds of plotting,  premeditation, and some use of threats to insulate themselves. Such appears to have been the case with Bill Cosby, Bill Clinton, Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein, Roger Ailes, Bill O'Reilly, Mark Helperin, Louis C.K., Anthony Weiner, and (for me, most tragically) the brilliant actor Kevin Spacey, as well as others still prominent but not household names.

Boys being bad is, unfortunately, a widespread fact of today's life and I would say further, part of the weird mating rituals we have in many societies.  What is different in these cases was that these guys' positions of power acted as a deterrent to their victims' normal ability to fend off or respond to unwanted advances; what is different now is that these persons have decided not to suffer in silence anymore.  I applaud their courage, and I am somewhat impressed by the broader community's effort to try to change this ugly aspect of the very sticky and complex intersection of sex and power, a discussion that is going who knows where.  It is beyond my ability to predict; it is going well beyond the cases of famous people and having effect on all workplaces.   I can see some liberation coming out of this, for women and maybe even for men, who may learn to play the mating game more adroitly and less crudely in the future.

The Al Franken case is a bit different: Franken's story is a unique one, as I cannot think of any other comic who has made the transition to an active political career.  Comedy generally has a dark side, which makes it more affecting to the emotions, and comedians generally have to find their way to humor through trial and error--some lines work, some don't, and some offend. At the time of Franken's offense against Leann Tweeden, he was a humorist, not yet running for office; the victim of his naughty, harmful pranks was someone who, frankly, was putting herself out as an object of sexual desire (I was unfamiliar with her career; just Google her and you will see).  At this point, unless there is some evidence of a more widespread pattern of behavior, I would cite this as an isolated incident of lack of impulse control:  this is not to excuse it, he has apologized, he will no doubt be punished (probably more than others, because of his willingness to own up to it), and I think it will limit his career. 

What I object to is Donald Trump making judgments on Franken when he has failed to own up to his own behavior, even to the point of refusing even to acknowledge the many complainants or just calling the women liars and mocking them,.  It's outrageous, but that's just the norm for this miserable excuse of a human being whom we have mistakenly (and somewhat accidentally) elevated to a position of supreme power.

The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean-brain 
The case of Roy Moore, the Senate candidate from Alabama, is yet another. I denounced this obtuse, hypocritical bigot weeks ago when none of the allegations of borderline pedophilia had yet surfaced.  I rejoice that these women have come forward to address the pattern of stalking and groping underage girls which he exhibited (though he has denied the sexual assault aspects, the pattern of searching out, dating, and seeking to seduce the girls is factual); it makes the likelihood of the horror of him serving in the US Senate much less--they have performed a public service.

There is some difference from the pattern of the others' behavior--the events were some forty years ago, he was at most locally famous back then, and it seems as though he may have outgrown that infatuation and borderline criminal behavior.  (A 14-year-old is underage, even in Alabama.)  He seems to have been faithful to his wife of some 30-plus years, who was 24 when they married.  So, I don't oppose his taking office because he's sexually creepy, I oppose him because he's a monster in every regard.

All Eyes on Alabama
Lots of focus on the state that is "the South's South", as John Oliver memorably put it.  The U. of Alabama's Crimson Tide football team took its accustomed place at the top of the standings last weekend after a memorable combination of #1 and #3 losing while #2 Alabama squeezed out a narrow road victory over Mississippi St.  I couldn't imagine how Georgia could have been rated above any Alabama team when both were undefeated, but that's all over now.  Alabama still has tough tasks ahead, including an intra-state showdown vs. Auburn, the team that defeated Georgia, next weekend, but the path to yet another national championship for them is now clear.

The special election in Alabama next month will be the beginning of the midterm battle, with hugely important stakes.  To some extent, Moore's race (the election one, not the racial one) mirrors a possible 2020 national election if Trump is still in office and running for re-election.  Radical right-wing Republican nominee running against the establishment sector of his own party, and that establishment totally flustered and uncertain how much to oppose him.  A plausible but less-known Democrat hoping to benefit from the chaos, in either a two-way or three-way race.

The current race could go in any of several different directions:  a Washington Post article lays them out nicely, and ranks them in likelihood.  For me, the only acceptable outcome is 2b):  the race goes forward, as is, and Moore loses.   We must all do what we can--without provoking Alabama voters too much, so that they vote against their interests in a defensive stance against outside interference--to make that happen.  I gave to Democrat Doug Jones' campaign long ago; I think the money is flowing in nicely for him and he will run a sane campaign without stooping to the salacious, looking to let Moore flounder and sink in his tar pit.

Make no mistake, the outcome of this race is extremely important.  The two-vote Republican margin in the Senate (really, three-vote with Mike Pence remaining as the tiebreaking vote) will be very difficult to overcome in 2018 without this seat.  The Democrats really only have two likely candidates to pick up seats in 2018 as things stand today (Arizona and Nevada), and plenty of difficult ones to defend.  In this Thanksgiving season, I have to give Turkey-neck Majority Leader McConnell a modicum of credit for coming out strongly against Moore, even at the risk of losing a critical vote for his agenda;  it was strategically and morally more important for him to retain something of the high ground on this issue of sexual harassment, and to protect the Republican establishment's interest in defeating this radical upstart.

 One cautionary note:  I would not put any stock in the polls which show the Democrat Jones leading--there are doubtlessly people who will not admit to pollsters that they will vote for Moore despite what a monster he is (I call this "the David Duke effect"); the unknowns are if there will be a meaningful alternative for those who would prefer not to vote for either Moore or Jones, the extent to which that unknowable effect is present, how many will come home to the Republican as Moore's backers try to counter the perv problem, and how many Republicans just stay home.  Clearly, the Republicans start with a large potential majority in this race, but they are squandering it with their unwise choice of a nominee.


Final note; I was preparing a line about how President Trump should use his traditional Thanksgiving ritual of pardoning a turkey for one of his own house turkeys, like Jeff Sessions (who I would say is in serious danger of proceedings against him for lying in public to Senate committees); Jake Tapper got there first with this week's "State of the Union" cartoon on CNN (which he draws himself!).  Tapper concluded with the suggestion of Michael Flynn, who was in fact an (undisclosed) lobbyist for the foreign nation with the same name as the animal. Bravo, Jake.

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Our World? ... The 21st Century Reality (Take 2)

Falling Back
I will celebrate the autumn's gift of an hour (or repayment of the hour loaned in the spring, if you prefer) to provide a high-level view of our current retreat-while-advancing posture in the global community.  I will limit the time for writing this screed to one hour, at which time i will need to board a plane.  
I would attribute the US’ dominant position to three distinct factors--principal components, in the mathematical terminology.  One could cite many others, but I would hold that the others are largely the result of these three.
  1. Plentiful, Inexpensive, High-Qaulity Labor -  America’s development has been boosted throughout its history by a continuous flow of immigrants, many of them imbued with the American Dream of hard work leading to prosperity, others gratefully escaping an unfavorable situation in some other country, and, very significantly, others still (and their descendants) coming unwillingly into servitude here and being forced to work for little or no compensation.  All three have produced value beyond the cost of their effort, which has often been reinvested, building up the nation’s store of capital.  I would add one more source of low-cost labor, the conscription of men into our military services, principally in time of war--more about this later.
  2. Free Institutions and Associations - I think this is the area for which Americans can justifiably feel proud and somewhat exceptional.   I don’t mean free in the sense of low- or no-cost as in 1), but freedom: Voluntary participation, active involvement without excessive coercion or regulation, and, in the case of government, gradually progressing access to government services, meritocratic employment, and participation in the electoral process.  Though we are not a particularly cultured society, this freedom has produced remarkable achievements in the arts, in science, in higher education, in inventions which have improved the quality of life worldwide, and enhanced the aura of that Dream mentioned in 1).  Factors 1) and 2) have combined to produce a military force--now even without the involuntary servitude of the draft-- which, in this era, no nation would dare to challenge in open conflict.
  3. Bountiful Resources - Herein the great treasure and fortune of living in this beautiful land.  Thanks to the light touch of the inhabitants prior to the establishment of the nation, the Native Americans and--to some extent--Hispanics who have been massacred, worked to death, infected, hunted down, expropriated, crowded out, and otherwise dispossessed, today's Americans inherit a land with huge mineral resources, including abundant fertile land, water, natural plant and animal life.  We can enjoy these 'gifts", along with a climate that is generally favorable, and the fruits of factors 1) and 2) applied to 3), but the manner of the acquisition of this bounty should give us some pause from being overly proud, and we should feel responsible to be good caretakers of this part of our heritage and leave something for those who follow us here.
So, let’s take a reading on these three elements which together have Made America Great--their current status, their trend, and the outlook, short-term and long-term for them to persist.  (32 minutes)
With regard to 3), I am cautiously optimistic:  If we are mindful, we can preserve the immense agricultural capacity, the abundance of freshwater (think of the Great Lakes, or our great rivers), while preserving more of our remaining fossil fuels through expanded use of plentiful, naturally renewable sources of energy.  Certainly our current national government provides daily setbacks for this objective, with its aversion to environmental protection and eagerness to defy the trends toward conservation which have prevailed in the past few decades; however, even eight full years of Drumpfication (to think the unthinkable, near worst-case scenario) should not be sufficient to irreparably destroy our favorable initial condition in this area.
By contrast, I am very worried about 2).  The Trump Administration is highly corrosive to all these civilized virtues, and his personal, malign influence is causing great harm from which we will not easily recover.  In particular, he is putting every institution of government (with the possible exception of the military, at least so far) in disrepute, either through his aspersions, his cynical appointments, or his misuse of the levers of power.  I am speaking of the trashing of various executive branch departments, the lack of respect for the legislative and judicial branches, his attempts to undermine voting  rights, the abuse of the free press, and his blatantly venal and dishonest approach toward government by and for the benefit of the wealthy. It is shocking that he and his kind have sought to turn public opinion against our world-class universities; the fraudulent Republican tax plan includes a proposal to tax the endowments of these non-profit (private) institutions, something which would reduce opportunity for the underprivileged and endanger our status as a world leader in research.
And I am afraid that those of us who have not kowtowed or been duped by the spurious appeal of the Drumpfenreich have not so far been sufficiently united, forceful, and effective in our opposition.  Responsibility for our failure which occurred in 2016 lies on those who voted for Trump, but the remedy lies, in part, with those who did not (and on those who can rouse themselves from their torpor, stupor, or other forms of mental inactivity which caused them to support him in the first place).   (47 minutes)
Which brings us to 1)--will our supply of plentiful, inexpensive, high-quality labor persist?  And, does our persistence in the top rank of nations require it?  I have my doubts about the latter, and I see the Trump Administration’s effect to be adverse to a favorable answer to the former.  The negative consequences of a sustained campaign to reduce both legal immigration and the ability of those undocumented who would wish to stay here and contribute could be serious for our economy, but they would be more severe if it were not the case that ruthless re-engineering and progressive automation were reducing the demand for labor. My conclusion is that this is very much an open question, and one that will probably not be resolved when the Wherever Man slinks off to his eternal reward (most certainly infamy, damnation if there is a just God).  (52 minutes).
I am something of an optimistic--generally a step back for America has been followed, eventually, by two steps forward. Right now, though, in stepping backward we have made an awkward stumble, and there is the danger we may fall--hard.
On the Good Foot
Speaking of the Gang of Four (..."two steps forward--six steps back, six steps back", from their song "At Home He Feels Like a Tourist"), this leaves me only eight minutes to mention the nation that shows the ability to Spring Forward (to complete the allusion).  China has emerged from a disastrous century or so of exploitation, civil war, invasion, and strife primarily through its exercise of factor 1), along with some steadily improving capability for central planning--something I would definitely not credit our country with having. Like America has, the Chinese have a strong sense of their identity and belief in their nation's "manifest destinay" of greatness (in their case, fully justified by millennia of history).  Despite the absence of factor 2), and with a somewhat negative stance toward the conservation of its resources,  China’s current administration has been able to produce continued economic expansion, combined with a determined approach to combatting the most serious forms of official corruption, and a newfound will to exert itself more powerfully on the global stage.

I visited Shanghai last month, for the first time in nearly 20 years.  My colleagues  there asked me, what was different?  My answer, it’s just so much more of the same.  That city is just enormous; it’s big and bold and modern, and it goes on endlessly.   Every day, we had the “China Daily” in our breakfast room--we called it the “Daily Propaganda”; it is published by the Communist Party, in English.  Yes, it was propaganda, but not filled with lies, only self-serving interpretation of the news.  The Communist Party was having its major party congress during that time;  Xi Jinping was re-elected as President for another five years, and the question is whether he will give up power vountarily after his second term, following the practice of the last couple decades. It is a question comparable to the one American presidents faced historically (before FDR and the Constitutional amendment which followed that now prevents its consideration).   Xi is aiming for his legacy to be the #3 of the triad of national party heroes, after Mao and Deng Hsiao-ping.  Chou En-lai is still remembered well, as someone who maintained some degree of humanity among the brutal power struggles of the early Communist state.  I think people are interested in freedom, as it relates to their personal lives, but basically have little interest in participating politically.

The modern culture that has developed in the past 20 years looks a lot to me like Hong Kong's, but without the free association. It is highly materialistic; shopping is very big, housing is an absolute prerequisite, and there is plenty of (carefully-monitored) pop culture, use of smartphones and the Internet. Social media and browsing have been limited to domestic, vetted sites. One difference is cars: China has followed American culture in going whole-hog for them, preferably big and--surprisingly--American. One positive development encouraged by the government is rapid expansion of electric cars--if you are having trouble getting your Tesla delivered, it's probably because Chinese people are paying more for them and therefore rate higher on the prioritization table.

I had a record number of corrections and edits to make after posting this the first time (including the last paragraph, for which I ran out of time to write the first time). I have decided to re-post it for those who suffered through version 1, and I add my apologies to them--I will not repeat that experiment. I will now delete the first take, as being unworthy.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Breaking: Drying Swamp Yields Ugly Reptilian Creatures

As the Shining City Sinks Slowly Out of Sight....
The current battles on Capitol Hill are struggles between entrenched interests over getting a larger share of the pie.  One major vote showdown came on a proposal to overturn the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau's ruling that bank contract provisions with consumers preventing their ability to have recourse to class-action suits should not be allowed.  The CFPB was overruled on a 51-50 vote (Mike Pence breaking the tie); it was a victory for banks' interests over those of the lawyers who are the principal beneficiaries of class-action suits.  The Democrats argued that the opportunity to join class-action suits provided ordinary folks an ability to strike back at big companies who systematically abuse the public trust, such as Wells Fargo with their bogus accounts and Equifax losing our private information; they voted as a united bloc and got a couple additional votes from defecting Republicans, but the more powerful bloc won.

Similarly, the fighting over the tax cut proposal--which to me now seems likely to pass in some form, since the budgetary authority to facilitate its passage through Congress has now been approved--is basically a question of which rich people will get a bigger cut of the benefits.  The basic principle in this "reform" is to make the rich richer--though not all rich people; those to whom the Republicans are beholden are the intended beneficiaries.  There will be more work to pinpoint the individuals who will gain most, and some half-hearted effort to make some others pay more.  That last will probably not succeed, because they will need some votes from blue-state Republicans in order to get it passed, and so there will be some compromise and restoration of imperiled deductions, like state and local taxes and 401k contributions, but there will be the untouchables:  reduction of the top tax rate, of corporate tax rates (the benefits go to shareholders), and tax benefits for capital investors.  The main result will be reigniting inflation (generally a positive for equity investors) and making benefit programs more difficult to fund in the future.  I suppose I will end up having some net benefit, but the outcome I would appreciate most would be if it makes my taxes a little less difficult to prepare and file (not likely).

I will hold off on interpreting the news that Special Counsel Bob Mueller's investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election  has obtained some (still-secret) indictments from a grand jury.  The significance of that news will depend on further developments, though I welcome the continued paralysis this will help produce in the Drumpfenreich.

The Return of Meaningful Elections
Some of you may have noticed an absence of any comment in recent months about the special elections held in several House districts. That is because there is precious little of value to say about them:  their importance was always overstated, the expenditures were ridiculous, the outcomes basically foregone and trivial in importance.

They represent a few isolated data points, but those soundings do show that the disastrous start to the Trump Administration has so far not dissuaded most rank-and-file Republicans from continuing to support the party.  One should not expect anything different, really; though there may not be anything that seems likely to reward them for their blind loyalty, there has been no flash of light which would open their eyes or jolt their optic nerves into function.  I am still holding to my explanation of "Why Democrats Lose":  too many Republican voters, many of them deluded.

Along these lines, I offer this assessment from recently-retired Bereley linguistics professor, George Lakoff, famous for his theory of how effective politicians frame values to gain support, who nailed his prediction that Donald Trump would win the election with 47% of the vote:

 If they start re-framing Trump’s promise as “getting rid of two-thirds of federal protections — and spell out what some of those environmental and health and water quality “protections” are — there might be less support for repealing federal regulations, Lakoff said. “Every progressive knows that regulations are protections, but they don’t say it,” he added. Similarly, “taxes” are actually “investments in public resources.” 
So, here's the thing, as I see it.  Lakoff is right, the principle is well-expressed, Democratic politicians would do well to frame things better and express some vision and enunciate their values better, but I don't see that frame moving many voters. Too many American agents of electoral power (contributors/voters/candidates/family patriarchs) don't want protections:  they have guns. They don't want public resources; they want more $$ in their own accounts. I am waiting to be proven wrong.

I am somewhat surprised to have found an election this year into which I do want to contribute--basically I have been holding out, except for a regular small contribution to the DCCC, keeping that portion of my powder dry until next year. The opportunity to replace Alabama's Senate seat with someone antithetically opposed to previous incumbent Jeff Sessions and his reactionary, racist politics--his name is Doug Jones, a Democrat--with the alternative of someone even more awful than Sessions--has moved me to action, even if it is something of a longshot (currently at 12% chance on predictit.org).  The special election is December 8.   Depending on the poll, Jones may or may not be within striking distance of this neo-Fascist clown (Judge Roy Moore). Moore was too extreme even for Trump in the Republican party primary, though the Drumpfster had no problem stamping his approval upon Moore when it was clear he had it won.  In some recent elections, there have been candidates too flaky to effectively rally the GOP, and Moore certainly qualifies.

A related story is the recent attacks on Trump by Senators Corker and Flake, who combined their denunciations with announcements that they would not run for re-election in 2018 because of the harm he is doing to their party--implied was a recognition that they felt unable to combat the degrading trend.  Noble were their words, but cowardly the effect of their actions:  if they were truly against the Trumpification of their party, they would run as independents against the eventual Tea Party nominee and represent themselves as the "true Republicans".  I still hope for such a movement to emerge--this may occur if the potential disaster for the party comes to pass in 2018-- but it is apparent that, for the time being, the true Republicans are Trumpists, and that those who oppose him within the party, as Corker and Flake recognized, are now being relegated to the sidelines.

There is one other US election in 2017 worth mentioning:  the battle for control of the statehouse in Virginia.  New Jersey and Virginia are the only ones that have their regular statewide elections the year after the Presidential contest, but New Jersey looks certain to end the two terms of the anomalous Republican occupation of Trenton's gubernatorial office in the person of self-abased Chris Christie.  As for Virginia, its history is to go against the result of the national election:  based on that, and an increasingly strong trend for Democrats there, moderate Democrat Lt. Governor Ralph Northam should be favored over former Republican party head Ed Gillespie.  Gillespie has been moving further and further in a Trumpward direction as the campaign  moves toward its climax, seeking to undercut Northam with racial and anti-immigrant ads.  It does appear to be close (though polls show a lot of variation; predictit.org has the Democrats' chances of winning at 71%).  Taking control of Virginia, both the governor's office and also of  the state's legislature, would be significant, and the kind of progress the Democrats need over the next couple election cycles; however, as was pointed out on Fivethirtyeight.com, the state's result will not necessarily provide a good indication of the 2018 election trends. The outcome of those midterm elections is  hugely critical to the fate of the Trump administration, and, thus, to our future.

More about that soon--in the meantime, we can hope for good turnout in Virginia and a surprise in Alabama.

There have been a number of national elections and referenda of various kinds in European countries.  A couple of generalizations;  referenda in Catalonia (Spain) and in Lombardia and the Veneto in Italy reflect a new form of stress, in which the more-wealthy regions are reacting against central governments which are transferring benefits toward the less-wealthy ones. I am generally against strong nationalism, but I can't feel this trend is favorable to those nations' population, nor even, in the case of Catalonia, which now seems headed for direct rule (instead of the autonomy they previously enjoyed) and civil strife, to the region itself.  Something like Brexit, on an intra-national level.  General elections in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic show fragmentation of voter support for parties, weakening of the center, and increasing difficulty in forming national government coalitions.

I will post next on China and East Asia, with some observations from my recent trip there.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

An Excess of Calamities

Quite a string of bad news for America these days:  Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria, and Nate, all affecting our states and/or territories; the massacre of innocents in Las Vegas; the wildfires in Northern California, stunning in their severity; and, most embarrassingly, the US Men's National Team of soccer and their improbable elimination from World Cup qualification.

This lastt, man-made calamity required a very unlikely combination of events, all of which happened within a course of a half-hour:  the US had to lose to Trinidad and Tobago, the worst team in their qualifying group; Mexico had to lose to Honduras, and Costa Rica had to lose to Panama.  All three games were being played simultaneously, and at halftime Mexico and Costa Rica were winning, while the US was, incredibly, losing by two goals.  i am a bit suspicious:  perhaps Mexico and Costa Rica, both of which already had their qualification assured, got the word that maybe they could arrange for the hated us rivals to get shut out, and they did the necessary:  lose.  Of course, the most important element was the USMNT's own letdown--after a fabulous victory over Panama a couple of days before--without which the rest of it wouldn't matter.  Maybe it was Putin (Moscow will be hosting the games in 2018)?   I blame Trump.

Our America'Nero
Not a typo, referring to a hero, of which we have many, but to Nero, the Roman emperor who, according to a famous criticism, "fiddled while Rome burned".  Our guy played golf while Hurricane Maria destroyed Puerto Rico's underfunded infrastructure; he has since compounded the problem with his lame efforts on the that territory's behalf.  Just as bad as our ignorance of Puerto Rico's calamity, largely in the media, and more by this administration (though the military did its best to provide relief) was the weak response to Irma's devastation of another US territory in the Virgin Islands.

I don't begrudge Houston the attention given Houston after Harvey, at first clumsy, but then more effective; or Florida, also victimized by Irma, though not as badly as feared, or Las Vegas, site of yet another mass assault of gun violence in America.  But Trump showed clearly that the problems of these disenfranchised citizens--unable to weigh in on any Federal elections, though full citizens--mean less than our states'.  And let's not even talk about his level of concern for Guam, a territory with a disproportionate share of military enlistees and inconvenience, one that Trump seems very clearly willing to sacrifice if it will tease out a foolish military action from the North Korean dictatorship.

Nero, the last of the familial line of emperors beginning with Augustus, had a fairly disastrous end to his reign; historians of the era blame him for unsound executions, lowering the prestige of the office, and even for possibly starting the great fire in Rome, as a means to facilitate his urban renewal program. He was ultimately deposed by a rebellion, condemned to death, after which he committed suicide.  Just saying.

My comment above about Trump (and Putin) was facetious, but I do want to comment on one thing. Drumpfenreich is bad in almost every way, but one positive outcome is that it may retrain us some from thinking that every good (or bad) thing that happens is due to our President.  We have invested too much power in that office, but beyond that, too much emotional dependence.  We just had the best President we could hope for, and it was not enough:  not for his supporters even, certainly it was not in his power to convert his opponents.  Time to be a little more realistic in our expectations.

The Motive for Evil
Aside from the usual bootless wrangling over gun control--it seems some sort of ban on the "bump stocks" used by the killer to increase the rate of firing may be a concession that the NRA and its obedient servants in the Republican party could agree upon this time, though apparently not a limitation on the number of rounds in the ammunition clips which were just as important--most of the other discussion has been a search for what drove the ignominious killer to do what he did in Las Vegas, gunning down dozens at a country music festival from the safety and advantaged angle of a 32nd-floor hotel room.  There was no ISIS or al-Qaeda link to him, no criminal record or history of violence,  no obvious signs of insanity.

On the other hand, there is abundant evidence of premeditation and planning for the massacre. There is a lot of discussion about his motivations; also a school of thought that says it doesn't really matter, for policy purposes. I'm calling him out as an 'ammosexual':  loves his guns, hates people.  He went for the record, and to his discredit, he got it.  His brother said, "I'd like to be able to say he was a miserable bastard..." but he couldn't.  I have no problem saying it, with confidence.



Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Excluding the Wall

The Way off the Bottom--Look to the Surfacing Merkel
Once again, the unexpected.  The alliance between Schumer & Pelosi and the Dreadnought Drumpfster to pass a DACA bill--of some kind--is a surprising and meaningful victory if it comes to pass.  It supports the improbable but enormosly attractive concept of a center-left alliance. Relative to our current posture flat on our back at the bottom of the sea it looks quite OK.  It is as temporary as Trump's moderate stance may be, which is bigly temporary.

What is a shining gem of hope and moderation shining in the far-off, translucent distance is, for Trump, a shiny object, or more precisely, a high-value poker chip he may play against the hand, the one of his opponent, way to the right.  Still, the only way back to the surface is up, for the bottomed-out fleet of S&P and Our Captain, the Wherever Man.

As this lunatic kleptocracy twitters away its first and best-enabled session of Congress on all other topics, the fact that governance = Democratic governance does not seem to be emerging as it might.

In fact, this agreement seems to be limited to this particular arrangement:  the form of re-authorization may be tied to an increase in the debt limit,. It is highly appropriate to separate the question of building a wall from the literal security of these peoples' lives.  Just that makes the deal worthwhile for any reasoning Democrat or independent.  However, once this may be done I am expecting the usual fiasco to resume.

The right will throw everything they have at this.  Yet there will be a few Republicans who dare to vote for common sense.  The vote may be close, needing a dozen or so of them to make 60 votes and close debate.  McConnell will be happy because he gets to play referee, this time.  Can't you just see him ref-ing a kids' basketball league with a vertical black-and-white top and a whistle?

I think I've gone far enough trying to empathize with the Republicans.  I draw the line trying to imagine what's going on in Trump's head at this point; the change in his thinking probably has something creepy to do with Bannon leaving--what was he feeding him?

In the old days, a guy like Trump would have a royal taster to protect him a little.  If it were anybody but Trump I would worry, but poisoning is probably one of the best ways out for all concerned.  I meant poisoning Trump:  I wasn't advocating it, just sayin. Who can he trust to taste for him now, Melania?

And Now...Back to Exuding the Wall
I really do recommend that--exuding the wall, building it out of the orange turds Donald and his sons produce everyday.  A half-mile's worth of Wall a l'Orange, it would be a great monument to the Trump Presidency.

Merkel Goes for Third*
Angela Merkel is in position to win a third term in the German parliamentary elections in a couple of weeks.  She appears to be in position to push back what seems to be a half-hearted run against her from the head of the Socialist party, Martin Schulz, the former head of the European Parliament.  He was the only one from all the other parties with sufficient name recognition and stature to be a serious threat to her as a potential prime minister. So, I think it was more about whether the Germans opted for a change, and it looks from the polls as though she will prevail in a fractured electoral contest.

Merkel has been in a center-left coalition the last term with the Socialists; she will have a variety of choices and probably will be able to pick and choose among variegated alternative parties.  Probably The Left and neo- Alternative for Germany are out, which may leave the Free Democrats, or even the Greens, as alternatives to Socialists, in the Trumpian sense I described above.  But her situation is quite different from Trump's is, after this remarkable success for her.  Hers would be the German equivalent of FDR's successful run for a third term in 1940 in its historic significance; in the complicated decision logic of third parties, being associated with her is probably more valuable, more attractive to their brands, than the inevitable co-optation as they lose their distinctiveness.  Merkel's one of the major figures of this time, and underrated as such, comparable to  Nikita Khrushchev in as a meaningful change leader, in her case both owning and symbolizing the achievement of demonstrating the successful reintegration of East Germany and bringing the country to the forefront economically.

*Seth Myers just described Trump lawyer Cobb, with his handlebar mustache, as "the starting pitcher in 1908". I am reminded of a Merkel from 1908, actually a Merkle, Fred Merkle, of "bonehead" fame.  He was the unfortunate who failed to go for second after what should have been the winning run, causing the Giants eventually to lose the championship of baseball.



Monday, September 04, 2017

Labor Day

Labor Day is becoming one of my favorite holidays, if not the very favorite.  First, it is very favored by the calendar:  late summer/early fall is one of the most beautiful seasons of the year, here in the temporate zone.  It is the only holiday on the calendar between the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving (Halloween/All Saints Day doesn't count). It always provides a blessed three-day weekend, one of the most popular opportunities for a short getaway; among all the major holidays, it is the least overhyped, the least an excuse for commercial overreach. The only downside it has is being one of the busiest days on our highways. So, it provides a welcome, needed break for us still in the labor force, and I suggest celebrating in your current hometown.

From the entertainment point of view, this is the traditional beginning of the new season on television. That's changed somewhat, with seasons being launched at all times of the year now, but there is still a noticeable change, as key programs return from their summer break periods.  Film is a little different: the best films are coming out later, and it's even too early for most of the previews of the best movies--most of the ones I saw this weekend (prior to viewing the beautiful, harrowing "Wind River") were schlocky horror films for the annual splatterfest.  The one exception was "Suburbicon", a Coen Brothers-written farce directed by George Clooney and starring Matt Damon and perennial favorite Julianne Moore.  It's premiering now in the Toronto Film Festival, and this is the time of year for those upcoming stalwarts looking for major studio backing to appear among these parties for connected insiders and critics.

If we're talking sports, this is one of the best seasons for activity:  biking, running, playing outside.  As a spectator, it's pretty good, too.  See below for some comments on the current activity.

On the History of the Holiday
The establishment of the September Labor Day holiday is one of the great political triumphs of the US trade-union labor movement of the late-19th and early-20th centuries.  It reflected the power of labor in major US cities during that period, the mayors of which yielded to demands to give the workers a day off to march together.  That political effort, eventually adopted nationally, was assisted by a carefully-considered strategy of timing, separating itself clearly from the Socialist International movement, with its selection of May 1, Mayday, and its revolutionary objectives.  Labor Day, in contrast, represents the accommodation American labor made to support our constitutional republic and help contribute to its success.  (Labor Day is celebrated the same day--first Monday in September--in Canada, and on the seasonal equivalent, in March, Down Under; the UK stayed with the original program(me) and Labo(u)r Day is on the first Monday of May.)

Nowadays, though this almost-uniquely American holiday (like most of ours are unique, excluding Christmas, New Year's, and now Halloween) seems secure in its status and time of year (in contrast to rapidly-disappearing Columbus Day, once the other paid holiday on the fall calendar), the meaning of the holiday (and of the word "labor") is disappearing.  The percentage of workers in US unions is lower than it has been in more than a century; unions' stronghold is basically the "trade" of working for the government; and, if you've been following this blog, you know I feel that the size of the US workforce itself is shrinking inexorably. My feeling is, those who are overemployed should celebrate both their day off and their ever-increasing productivity, while those underemployed (now the majority) should fight for the continued existence of productive, fulfilling labor in the face of ruthless market forces which marginalize them.

Harvey:  Honest Feelings about the Hurricane in Houston
I have plenty of empathy for the people affected by the hurricane and its subsequent flooding.

I was in their soggy shoes once;  after hurricane Camille devastated much of Cuba and the Gulf Coast in August, 1969, it went inland, dumping Harveyesque levels of rain on the Piedmont, Blue Ridge, and Shenandoah Valley areas.  Over 100 people were killed in our area in the flooding and landslides which followed.  My family and I were evacuated by motorboat as the usually-placid South River (southern feeder into the South branch of the Shenandoah River) surged ferociously overnight both behind and in front of our house, rising several feet inside it as we escaped.  The house, the riverbanks, and the flood control system upstream were never the same, and we eventually moved to the top of the hill; many of the houses in our development were eventually condemned (because the flood insurance was prohibitive or impossible to obtain).  Anyway, that's where I was while Woodstock was happening in the Catskills.

Houston is certainly one of the great cities of the US; fourth-largest, last time I checked, with plenty of pride and plenty of things to be proud about.  Built on the growth of the oil drilling industry, it has been earnestly trying to transform itself into something broader and deeper--healthcare is one notable example of forward thinking.  Houston distinguished itself exceptionally in its welcoming of the disaster refugees from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. It has one of the most diverse populations you can find anywhere, including a disproportionate number of undocumented aliens:  the notion that President Trump, after his photo opportunity visits there last week, would then dispossess the people who will be so critical to any rebuilding that happens there, seems unthinkable but oh-so-Trump. Still, I think he will take the stage, say the outrageous, then pass the buck of the cruel decision to Congress, where legislation to follow through on his legless directive and actually deport the Dreamers will not pass.

The heroism of those helping with the evacuations, maintenance of order, and medical relief are inspiring. Still, I am little inclined to open my checkbook for Houston's relief.  The Federal government, controlled as it is by Republicans, will ignore the libertarian leanings of the state's political leaders and offer whatever logistical and financial support is asked.  The immense public exposure (something we in Camille's tail-end destruction didn't really ever get) will ensure the private donations of Americans, many of them well-heeled Texans on dry land, will be huge, as well.  Clearing the mud and debris will take months.

Then, one must ask, what will be the public policy taken toward Houston, its sprawling suburbs, and the low-lying, poorly-drained areas by the Gulf?  The hidden cost of this disaster will be an enormous increase in the social expense of flood insurance everywhere it is needed; the program would not exist any more without its Federal subsidies, and those will now need to be increased.  The alternative is to name a lot more areas as being in flood plains--those ones that require some imagination to be so classified, which mortgage lenders would then require homeowners to pay, are what pay the freight for those areas that are repeatedly subjected to floods.  Many suburbs in Houston's previously rapidly expanding sprawl will now be understood to be unsupportable; some destroyed homes will not be rebuilt or whole areas may be abandoned, as occurred in the aftermath of Katrina.  I am a strong supporter of building on stilts, in areas like the coastal cities of Galveston and Corpus Christi, if homes are to be built at all, or as a condition for flood insurance.

Finally, there are some big questions:  is the frequency of Category 4 and 5 storms in the Atlantic increasing, as a form of release of the energy building up globally from "warming"?  The example of Camille informs us that, though Harvey seems without precedent and has been cited as such, there have been such outsized storms in the past, but if the extent and frequency are increasing (as I write, another Category 4, Irma, seems headed for the Caribbean and the US' Southeast), it will have a long-term effect, one which will only become clear in the same longer term.  Still, if the mirage of recent history changes the perception of stubborn climate deniers, it will have produced at least one positive outcome. Another might be a change in the perception of a certain class of Texans that they are some kind of standalone sufficient society, one that does not need anything from the Federal government--never mind that the state's ratio of Federal benefits received to taxes paid is already one of the highest.

Sports Update
Let me get a couple of others out of the way, then I will focus on the three sports of greatest interest to me in this moment:  tennis, baseball, and "football" (soccer).  As for the "other" football, I am willing to participate in the boycott of Kaepernick-less NFL, but I hardly think they will notice:  I never watch any preseason anyway, and only a handful of regular season games before the decisive December-January period.  The college game has more interest, but only marginally, and not in the early part of the season, either:  I liked the idea of that first weekend Alabama-Florida St. inter-conference showdown held Saturday, but my impression from the small portion I watched is that it was really a live warmup game, not a blowout like the ones most of the top teams schedule, but one whose outcome could be dismissed later if it goes contrary to the performances in the games that really matter later.

As for basketball, the offseason trading period in the NBA was one of the most interesting and high-profile I  have seen, but the end result, as we go into the new season late next month, does not look very different from how we finished the 2016-17 season.   The biggest change is that the Boston Celtics, who had the best regular-season record in the East last season, have strengthened vis a vis their chief competitor, LeBron's Cleveland Cavaliers, coming out a bit ahead in their teams' direct trade (Kyrie Irving for Isaiah Thomas + others) and signing rising star Gordon Hayward.

In the West, Minnesota (with Jimmy Butler added) and Houston (with Chris Paul) have improved noticeably but are still not seen as threats to the developing Golden State dynasty (my surprise prediction: the Warriors will not represent the conference in the finals in one of the next two years). The Paul-less Clippers (they also didn't sign Paul George, who went to Oklahoma City in what looks to be an interesting  one-year rental supporting role for one-man-team star Russell Westbrook) do not actually seem as weakened as you might think; though they remain terribly frustrating to their fans, at least they have more to cheer than those of their crosstown rivals  (the Lakers) or those of the other two top metro areas, New York/Brooklyn and Chicago, which show little sign of progress from abysmal teams (I could add Philadelphia to the list of largest metro areas with bad NBA teams, which could become a financial problem if not eventually corrected).

There now, that wasn't so brief, was it?

Tennis-- The US Open enters its second week today.  The big news is how wide-open both singles tournaments are:  the women's because of the absence of Serena Williams (who gave birth last week--congrats!), the men's because of the absence of two of the top four (Djokovic, Murray) due to injuries, and the placement of the other two (Federer, Nadal) in the same half of the draw.  In the men's, this means a probable showdown in the semifinal of the two top Grand Slam winners, who--amazingly!--have never met in the US Open before (?), while the other half will have someone who is seeded no better than #12:  Carreno Busta of Spain is the highest remaining seed in the bottom half; American Sam Querrey is another possibility in the final.  As for the women, four Americans not named Serena have made the final eight; it is theoretically possible that those four could comprise the entire semifinals contingent.
Predictions:   Federer (I always pick him; lately it has been a good bet, though Nadal looks very intimidating) over Querrey in the final; on the women's side, I have an incredibly bad record with picks on the Racket Bracket contest on Tennis Channel (my rating is usually in the "top 90% of entries")--I'll go with a non-American who might be the sentimental pick, Petra Kvitova of Czech, who has made an impressive comeback after a burglar in her home badly cut her (dominant) left hand just months ago.

Baseball -- This has been a season of a few outstanding good teams, a few outstandingly bad teams, and a whole lot of mediocre teams.   Four of the six division races are over (with Cleveland and Houston in the AL, and Washington and Los Angeles in the NL as winners); the other two (Boston in the AL East and Chicago in the NL Central) have significant but not decisive leads, and one Wild Card spot in each league is basically reserved for a team (New York in the AL; Arizona in the NL) with enough quality and a lead large enough to be a strong favorite.  That leaves only the second Wild Card spot in each league being truly up for grabs:   there are a half-dozen possible grabbers for the AL spot and 2-3 realistic ones for the NL. Of course, only one will be able to snatch that ring, but that team, even if it has a mediocre record and will have home-field disadvantage throughout, will come in with considerable momentum.  A lot of the outlook depends on that one Wild-Card game; the Yankees have a solid ace, Luis Severino, so I like their chances for that game, if it happens that way.  The NL Wild Card game is likely to be high-scoring and unpredictable, especially if it's Arizona vs. Colorado, two teams with decent-not-great starters, high-scoring offense, and band-box parks.
Predictions:  I will stick with my preseason pick for the Series (sorry, not published here), the punchline of which was as follows:
World Series - Indians over Nationals (6 games)
GNorman - this is for you, man!: I'm going with Indians winning the World Series before Donald Trump croaks, but it could be close. Maybe both could happen this year. 
("GNorman" is our longtime friend Norman Goldman of progressive talk radio.)

Soccer:  The new season should be an exciting one in the Premier League.  Defending champion Chelsea (my team) didn't improve, while the two Manchester teams did so to a great extent.  Chelsea lost interest in keeping its productive center forward from last year, Diego Costa (very talented, always a major distraction, frequently a downer) and failed to replace him fully (though Morata will do).  Man City was the preseason favorite, but I like Man U's chances, with former Chelsea coach Jose Mourinho and former players Matic, Lukaku, and Mata.   There are other points of interest in the league, too, with Tottenham and Liverpool both highly competitive, while I am excited to see unusual teams such as Brighton, Crystal Palace, and Huddersfield in the top division.
In North America's MLS, there is some excitement in Chicago for the first time in over a decade with the arrival of dimmed, but still bright, German superstar midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger on the Fire.   The World Cup qualifying is heading for an exciting climax, with perennially competitive teams such as Italy, Holland, Argentina, and the US all on the verge of failing to qualify for Moscow 2018.  No doubt some or all of those will squeak through (Holland is in the weakest position), but the risk makes this phase more exciting.
Predictions:  Chicago Fire makes the final of the MLS championships;  Premier League is a close 3-way competition until April, when Chelsea surges ahead to win by 4 points! Thanks to a late-season win over Chelsea, which causes a 'nervy' finish for the Blues, Liverpool takes the fourth spot and a Champions League berth. (totally unbiased view /s)

Walter Becker
Yesterday the guitarist and co-founder of Steely Dan died at the age of 67.  I had seen Steely D. a couple of years ago, and based on that, I'm not too surprised--Becker was there but in a more limited role, and he didn't look well.  I will save the retrospective for another occasion but will complain now that the Dan do not get the radio play their music still deserves.  Maybe that will change now?   Here is a very measured, fair, and loving statement from his partner in crime, Donald Fagen.