Trump Appointees: Part 3 – posted 1/16/2017

January 16, 2017 5 comments

In this concluding piece on Trump appointees, I examine some appointees who have garnered insufficient scrutiny. Again I will utilize the 10 ranking scale, with “10” excellent and “1” poor.

Wilbur Ross is Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Commerce. A 79 year old billionaire, nicknamed “King of Bankruptcy”, Ross is a veteran of Wall Street. He has specialized in buying failing companies, squeezing them dry by firing workers, filing bankruptcy and maxing out profits. He can accurately be described as a vulture capitalist.

Ross was a major player in foreclosing on thousands of Americans during the Great Recession. In 2007 Ross bought up American Home Mortgage Servicing Inc.. Part of the deal was that he bought the servicing rights which included the right to modify or foreclose mortgages. This covered about $132 billion in loans. The company was the second largest servicer of subprime loans in America.

Ross outsourced its mortgage documents operation to a company named Doc X which was later criminally prosecuted for foreclosure fraud. Doc X forged millions of mortgage assignments, claiming to be the officers of different banks. Documents were fraudulently signed after the fact to recreate a chain of title that lenders broke. American Home Mortgage Servicing Inc. changed its name to Homeward Residential and it was bought by another company, Ocwen. Ross was on Ocwen’s Board of Directors.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, created under President Obama, fined Ocwen $2.1 billion for “systematic misconduct at every stage of the mortgage process”. Investigative reporter David Dayen has written that the crimes included: charging borrowers unauthorized fees, failing to apply borrower payments to loans, failing to maintain accurate accounting statements, imposing insurance policies on borrowers who already had them, deceiving borrowers about loan modifications and robo-signing foreclosure documents in fraud upon state courts.

Ross stepped down from Ocwen’s Board and was able to sell $72 million in stock right before it dropped 20% in price.

Of particular note to working people, Ross’s firm was in charge of Sago Mine in West Virginia when the mine blew up in 2006. Twelve miners died. Prior to the explosion, the mine had received multiple citations for substantial violations of safety regulations.

In the Department of Exploitation, Ross is no slacker. A savvy operator, I rate the King of Bankruptcy a “3” because I am feeling generous.

Gary Cohn is Trump’s new director of the National Economic Council and he will be an assistant to the President on economic policy. A registered Democrat, Cohn is president and chief operating officer at Goldman Sachs which is the number two position at the company. He has been with Goldman Sachs since 1990.

Although during the campaign Trump frequently vilified Goldman Sachs as part of a sinister global conspiracy to rip off Americans, that former posture has now dropped off. Cohn is reportedly very close to Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law. He is also supposed to be at odds with Steve Bannon who considers Cohn a liberal.

Since becoming Goldman Sachs’ president and chief operating officer in 2009, filings show Cohn made at least $123 million in total compensation. He will walk away from Goldman Sachs with $266 million in stocks and awards amassed from his over 25 years at the investment bank.

The journalist Matt Taibbi has exposed Cohn’s role in helping Goldman Sachs get out from under the mortgage crash by dumping its disastrous mortgage investments on its own clients as it bet against them. The maneuver, famously called “The Big Short” was detailed in a report conducted by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations chaired by Michigan Senator Carl Levin.

Taibbi shows that while the whole financial world collapsed, Goldman higher-ups profited. While Goldman laid off 3,200 lower level employees, Cohn made $67.5 million. Taibbi calls Goldman Sachs the Vampire Squid. Cohn rates a “4”. Like Wilbur Ross, Cohn was a foxy swindler who made a fortune off of the misfortune of others. However, I do not see a Ross level of deceit.

Carl Icahn is Trump’s pick to serve as Special Advisor to the President on Regulatory Reform. According to Forbes, Icahn’s net worth is $21.6 billion. Now 80, Icahn has a long history with Trump dating back to the early 1990’s when Icahn helped Trump retain power and some ownership of the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City. Icahn bailed Trump out of huge debt and for a while the Trump Taj Mahal was profitable.

Trump owed billions of dollars in non-casino loans and he had to give up his private jet and mega-yacht. Trump was forced to limit his personal and household spending to $450,000 a month. Trump was ultimately grateful to Icahn:

“I have a lot of stuff right now that I would never have if it wasn’t for Atlantic City…I walked away with a fortune”.

Icahn became infamous in the 1980’s for hostile corporate takeovers. In 1985, he won control of the now defunct Trans World Airlines (TWA). He stripped its assets and pocketed nearly $500 million in profit, leaving the airline with more than $500 million in debts. Former company chairman C.E. Meyer called Icahn “one of the greediest men on earth”.

Icahn favors rolling back government regulations. He has publicly complained about the costs his refinery investments face to comply with renewable-fuel mandates. Icahn will be in a position to shape rules affecting businesses in which he has a stake. Icahn Enterprises includes Hertz, the rental car agency, and Herbalife, a personal-care provider. Icahn also has stakes in industries including railroads, casinos, hotels, tires, and oil.

Icahn has conflict-of-interest issues just like Trump. For being rapacious and cold-blooded, he gets a “2”. You don’t make $21 billion without crushing people. Remember Honore de Balzac: “Behind every great fortune lies a great crime.”

Trump ran as an outsider and a change agent but his appointees show that is nothing but a false image. The Cabinet and his picks are a collection of Masters of the Universe. The 17 people Trump has picked for his cabinet or for posts with cabinet rank are, together, more wealthy than the poorest 43 million American households combined. The idea that billionaires will maintain concern for the needs of everyday Americans is like belief in Santa Claus.

To quote John Maynard Keynes:

“Capitalism is the extraordinary belief that the nastiest of men, for the nastiest of motives, will somehow work for the benefit of us all.”

While not all of Trump’s appointees must be approved by the Senate, it will be interesting to see if white collar crimes and excesses are even looked at.

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Trump’s Picks: Part 2 – posted 1/8/2017

January 8, 2017 Leave a comment

In a recent piece in the Monitor published on January 1, I ranked a number of Trump appointees on the 10 scale. I was assessing Trump’s worst pick. There were quite a few I did not get to who also deserve consideration. Because of the importance of the positions and because some of the names have escaped sufficient scrutiny, here is part 2.

Just to refresh recollection on my 10 scale, I rate 10 as superbly well qualified and 1 as abysmally unqualified.

Billionaire Betsy DeVos is Trump’s pick for Secretary of Education. This is a head scratcher pick. DeVos went to Holland Christian High School and Calvin College. She never taught in a public school or administered one. Nor did she ever send her children to public school. It is not clear she has ever set foot in a public school.

DeVos promoted a voter referendum in her home state of Michigan to allow state residents to use public funds to pay for tuition at religious schools. Her education advocacy has focused on expanding charter schools and on using taxpayer funded vouchers for private and religious school. A religious zealot, DeVos sees privatizing public schools as a way to “advance God’s Kingdom”. First amendment questions, anyone?

In the Draining the Swamp Department, it is impossible to ignore DeVos’s role as a Republican donor. DeVos is an heir by marriage to the Amway fortune. She and her relatives gave twenty current Republican senators $818,000 in campaign contributions. These are all senators who will be voting on her nomination once it clears committee.

I designate her a Swamp Fox. She is a 2. I don’t consider being a billionaire and an opponent of public education relevant qualifications. Her appointment is payback though for all the campaign cash she and her family gave to Republican candidates.

At the Energy Department, we have the nomination of former Texas governor and Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry. When Perry ran for president in 2012, he advocated abolishing the Department of Energy. Perry’s most famous moment was when, during a debate, he forgot the name of the department he wanted to abolish. He remembered he wanted to abolish Commerce and Education but he could not recall Energy. I guess Trump has a sense of humor. He must have liked appointing Perry to a position in a department he could not remember.

During the campaign Trump made fun of Perry for his glasses. He mocked that Perry wore the glasses to try and look smarter. At the same time, Perry called Trump “a barking carnival act” and ” a cancer on conservatism”.

Whether Perry or Trump were aware of it, the Energy Department has major responsibility for dealing with nuclear weapons. The last two energy secretaries, Ernest T. Moniz of M.I.T. and Stephen Chu of Stanford had high-powered academic careers. Dr. Chu had won the Nobel Prize. Perry, on the other hand, had an appearance on the television show Dancing with the Stars. He was eliminated in an early round.

Perry is a board member and owns stock in Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners, the company trying to build the much-disputed Dakota Access pipeline. Perry is a climate change denier. He gets a 1.5. It is a jump from Dancing with the Stars to nuclear weapons. God help us.

And then there is Rep. Tom Price of Georgia who is the pick for Secretary of Health and Human Services. Price, an orthopedic surgeon, has been a leading foe of Obamacare. He also favors privatizing Medicare and Medicaid. He opposed the Children’s Health Insurance Program, calling it “government-run socialized medicine”. He is a member of the Tea Party Caucus. He has introduced bills to bar federal funding for Planned Parenthood and he has wanted doctors to be able to enter into private contracts with Medicare beneficiaries so that doctors would be able to charge more than the amounts typically allowed by the program.

Price’s proposed overhaul of Obamacare does not require insurers to cover pre-existing conditions. He also opposes the Obamacare provision that mandates birth control access. Price opposes same-sex marriage and abortion rights.

A report in the Wall Street Journal has raised questions about Price’s conflicts of interest. He has traded medical stocks while working on health care legislation that could affect stock prices. Senate Democrats want to investigate whether there was insider trading.

The dude seems like something out of the 1950’s but he is hardly alone in that respect. I give him a 3.5. He gets 3 for being a doctor and .5 for breathing.

I would be remiss if I did not mention David Friedman, Trump’s choice for US ambassador to Israel. A bankruptcy lawyer, Friedman is so right wing he makes Benjamin Netanyahu look like Karl Marx. An opponent of a two state solution, Friedman favors stripping the Arab citizens of Israel (21% of the population) of their citizenship.

Friedman believes no settler should be removed from his “home” even if that “home” is located on the private property of Arab farmers. As a Jew, I am horrified by the type of ultra-nationalism and racism Friedman represents. Friedman’s brand of extremism will set back any hopes for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Friedman represented Trump in his past bankruptcy proceedings. He is the type who will promote Israel being a full apartheid state, supporting annexation and showing no concern for the rights of the Palestinians or Israelis who want peace. This choice is bankrupt. Friedman is a 1, a most reckless selection.

Steven Mnuchin, Trump’s national finance director during the campaign, is his pick for Treasury Secretary. Mnuchin has unusual qualifications. He ran a national bank, OneWest, that foreclosed on tens of thousands of Americans during the Great Recession. Many of these foreclosures were illegal, ruthless and fraudulent. OneWest engaged in systematic racial discrimination and predatory practices that particularly harmed seniors. Ironically, he will now be in charge of dismantling the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Mnuchin was a co-founder and manager of the hedge fund, Dune Capital. He also made partner at Goldman Sachs where he had worked for 17 years. Trump got a lot of mileage during the campaign out of attacking Clinton’s speeches to Goldman Sachs but then he picks a Goldman Sachs alum for his Treasury Secretary.

This pick is a perfect example of Trump’s phony populism. Mnuchin also rates a 1. Guy is the prototype avaricious capitalist, a regular Gordon Gekko clone. We have very short memories if we can overlook all the misery caused by Mnuchin’s fraudulent foreclosures. He heartlessly profited throwing thousands out of their homes.

Finally, I did want to mention South Carolina Rep. Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s choice for head of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). OMB is a little known but very important federal agency. As head of OMB, Mulvaney will be responsible for reviewing the budgets of all federal agencies and for ensuring they align with the administration’s priorities. He will also be doing cost/benefit analysis of federal regulations.

Mulvaney is a Tea Partier and a founder of the House Freedom Caucus. When the House Republicans shut down the government in 2013, Mulvaney saw the shutdown as “good policy”. He is among the group widely credited with pushing former House Speaker John Boehner out of power in 2015. He is an advocate of deep spending cuts. It remains to be seen whether Mulvaney will support a Trump infrastructure spending bill. This is a person who sees spending cuts as more valuable than spending itself. Human needs do not appear to be part of his equation. Mulvaney rates a 3. He is extreme but at least he is not a Klan member.

I am not giving any awards today. Is there such a thing as an anti-award?

Trump ran as a populist but he is filling his cabinet and important positions with billionaires and extreme right wingers. It is like he is trying to fulfill a stereotype Marxist fantasy of who is the power elite. Unfortunately, being extremely rich does not typically translate into being in touch. Usually it is the opposite.

One can only hope the Senate actually vets these folks.

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Some Thoughts on Fame and the Political Ascendancy of Donald Trump – posted 1/2/2017

January 3, 2017 1 comment

Probably for a long time people are going to be trying to understand why Donald Trump won the presidency.

So far, most of the answers I have seen are neither satisfactory explanations nor are they very probing. We are talking about electing someone who has been a television reality game show host, someone with no relevant political experience. True, he has been a businessman and a real estate magnate but his focus has been selling his own brand for personal profit.

Trump used fame and celebrity to catapult himself ahead of the pack. He believed there was no such thing as bad publicity. This was epitomized by his statement that he could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and he would not lose voters.

By tweeting outrageous things almost everyday and by following that up with complementary speeches, he made himself the story. He obtained massive free publicity this way. What he said became daily news. None of his opponents could grasp or imitate it.

Although Trump has constantly been demeaning reporters, ironically, it was the media’s non-stop coverage that moved him ahead of his Republican rivals. The media played into Trump’s hand by giving him so much free coverage. Of course, they had their own cynical reasons. Trump jumped their ratings. People tuned in to hear the next outrageous thing he said.

I think Trump’s rise is tied directly to the increasing influence of celebrity culture. In America, we pay disproportionate attention to stars whether they are in TV, movies, music or sports. As a TV star for years and as someone who worked hard at staying in the public eye, Trump had no problem with name recognition. He had been a character in Doonesbury for 30 years. For many candidates, just becoming known is a major challenge.

Trump knew that being a celebrity was also a way to sell his brand. Celebrity is fundamentally a marketing tool. Doubters should check out the massive literature on celebrity branding. Association of stars with a brand is a primary way to make the brand more popular and sometimes edgy. In Trump’s case, he used his celebrity to sell himself like a commodity. Mixed into the campaign was his selling of Trump steaks, wines, golf courses and hotels. Reflecting a new level of crassness, there was no degree of separation of private businesses from the campaign.

Fame has now become a dominant value in our culture. Consider all the TV shows like Access Hollywood, Entertainment Tonight, The Kardashians, and Celebrity Apprentice. It does not matter that celebrities may be all about empty glitz. While some may be extremely talented in a discipline, that is certainly no requirement. No positive human value necessarily attaches to celebrity.

A study published in the journal Cyberpsychology documents a societal shift in dominant values among young people over the last 20 years or so. In 1997, dominant values demonstrated in their survey were community feeling and benevolence. By 2007, fame came in first, followed by achievement, image, popularity and financial success. By 2007, in the aspirational value ranking, community feeling fell to 11th place and benevolence was 12th out of the 16 values ranked. In 1997, fame had been 15th out of 16.

A 2006 survey from the Pew Research Center aimed at 18 to 25-year-olds found that 51% cited being famous as either the first or second most important life goal for their generation.

The writer George Monbiot has written that the principal qualities in a celebrity are vapidity, vacuity, and physical beauty.

Trump embodies the vacuous nature of celebrity. His career has been about the pursuit of money and self-aggrandizement. He appears to have an unquenchable appetite for self-praise and for being flattered. At the same time, he is utterly lacking in intellectual curiosity, empathy, or any sense of compassion. His strongest feelings run toward revenge.

In spite of all the awful things Trump has said, you know he stands for nothing except his own self-promotion and wealth. He seems to get most upset when anyone questions how rich he is. He would, no doubt, reverse almost any of his positions if he decided that was advantageous. He used to be a Democrat and he was pro-choice. When he decided to become a Republican, he shed his old positions like a snake shedding skin.

Never has a candidate for President had less regard for the truth. That is an assertion that is hard to question. People now talk about living in a post-truth environment. It is hard not to think of George Orwell:

“Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

The best articulation of Trump’s message that I have seen comes from the law professor and writer, Stanley Fish. Fish described Trump’s message this way:

“…I am Donald Trump; nobody owns me. I don’t pander to you: I don’t pretend to be nice and polite. I am rich and that’s what you would like to be; I’m a winner; I beat people at their own game, and if you vote for me I will beat our adversaries; if you want wonky policy details, go with those losers who offer you ten-point plans; if you want to feel good about yourselves and your country, stick with me.”

I would have to acknowledge the message worked – at least to the extent of obtaining an electoral victory if not a popular vote victory. While I see the election result as a failure of critical thinking, it was a product of what was widely perceived as a bad choice between two actively disliked candidates. Both had hugely high unfavorability ratings. So many people voted against the other candidate. This worked both ways.

It remains to be seen whether Trump will function as a normal-type conservative, business-oriented President or whether he will veer in a quasi-fascist, authoritarian direction like an American Putin. His scapegoating tendencies are profoundly disturbing. When things go south, as they inevitably will, he will be looking for others to blame.

An unfortunate aspect of celebrity is its profoundly demobilizing character. I think it is true that the people most interested in celebrity are usually those least engaged in politics. Celebrity is a spectacle, a distraction from everyday life, and a way to tune out difficult realities. For the viewer, it is a relationship of passivity.

It is too early to know whether Trump will seek to mobilize his more fanatic followers in brown shirt fashion. The idea this one-percenter will take more than token symbolic action against income inequality remains highly dubious.

As for fame, I will leave the last words to Mark Twain:

“Fame is a vapor; popularity an accident; the only earthly certainty is oblivion.”

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Ranking Trump’s Appointments: Who Is Worst? – posted 12/18/2016 and published in the Concord Monitor on 1/1/2017

December 18, 2016 5 comments

Some commentators have remarked upon the “fox in the chicken coop” quality of President-elect Trump’s appointments. A number of the new appointees are opposed to the mission of the agency to which they have been appointed. Too often it seems like Trump went for the worst imaginable choice.

The question arises: who is the worst appointee? Clearly, there is robust competition.

To properly assess things in a Trumpian way, I suggest using the 10 scale. This was the scale Trump previously used when ranking women on their looks. Think back to that interview when Trump said, “I view a person who’s flat-chested as very hard to be a 10.” Since turnabout is fair play, I think the 10 scale works in this context.

At 10, we have supremely qualified, knowledgeable and vastly experienced. At 1, we have abysmally ignorant, inexperienced and totally unqualified. There are quite a few contestants for this Celebrity Appointee competition. Let the games begin!

As our nation’s chief law enforcement officer and an early pick, let’s begin with the selection of Alabama Senator Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III for Attorney General. Accusations of racism have long dogged his career. In 1986, a Senate committee rejected Sessions for a federal judgeship. His former colleagues testified he used the n-word and joked about the Ku Klux Klan, saying he thought they were “okay, until he learned that they smoked marijuana.” Sessions denies the racism accusations.

He is hardcore anti-immigrant, a climate change denier, and a military hawk. He was one of the first members of Congress to endorse Trump and Trump sometimes rewards loyalty. I rate him a solid 3. Loyalty has its virtues. If you are Black, Latino or a woman, you need to look for friends elsewhere.

Next up: Lt. General Mike Flynn, Trump’s choice for National Security Advisor.He has tweeted that “Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL”. In July, he falsely claimed that Hillary Clinton wore a hijab in solidarity with Islamic terrorists. In October, he retweeted a false claim that the UN was attempting to create a one world church that prohibited Christianity. He has actively called for the imprisonment of Hillary Clinton and he led chants of “lock her up” at the Republican National Convention.

Flynn had retweeted the fake news story about Hillary Clinton’s involvement in sex crimes with minors. After that crazy guy, looking for sex crimes, shot up a Washington pizza place, Flynn and his son both deleted the tweet. Flynn’s son got dismissed but Flynn Sr. stays on. Flynn is buddy-buddy with Vladimir Putin. Seriously, with Flynn, you have to wonder: is there is a screw loose? And I am not even mentioning the anti-semitic tweet. Without equivocation, I give Flynn a 1.5. Who needs Dr. Strangelove?

And let us not forget Stephen Bannon, Trump’s choice for chief strategist. Bannon was head of Breitbart News, a far right conservative site that has provided a haven for white nationalists. Let’s not mince words: white nationalist equals Nazis, Klan and assorted white supremacists.

Bannon denies that he personally is a racist and an anti-semite. Does that make me feel better? As we saw a couple weeks ago at the Washington conference, these folks are Sieg Heiling in their private rooms. Bannon gets a 1. Being a comrade of racists and anti-semites while denying your own racism is not reassuring. Step aside Darth Vader and Dick Cheney.

Moving on to government agencies, I need to mention Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson. Tillerson has been ExxonMobil CEO. While much media attention has focused on his ties to Putin (Tillerson was awarded Russia’s Order of Friendship in 2013), the deeper story is what his nomination means for climate change. Tillerson is at the heart of fossil fuel extraction. Will he recommend pulling out of the Paris Agreement? Or will he go forward with pipelines like Keystone XL?

Tillerson has acknowledged that burning fossil fuels does contribute to higher temperatures but he has been part of the oil industry effort to manufacture doubt about climate change. Because he is not a right wing nutcase but a savvy businessman, I rate him a 4, which is generous. Like Trump, he is all about the money.

Also, in the world of agencies, there is the nominee for Labor Secretary, Andrew Puzder. As CEO of fast food chains Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s, he has a reputation for exploiting his workers. He opposes raising the minimum wage. He has also opposed Obama’s attempts to update overtime pay rules so that more low wage workers will get time-and-a-half for working over 40 hours a week.

Puzder is a devotee of Ayn Rand. He and his wife donated $332,000 to Trump’s campaign. He is a 2 and a likely winner of the Marie Antionette “Let Them Eat Cake” award.

Then there is Dr. Ben Carson, the nominee for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). It is hard to know what to make of this pick. When his name was floated, Carson said he felt unqualified to run a federal agency. He was a brain surgeon with no relevant experience.

During the campaign, Trump said horrible things about Carson. He said Carson had an incurable pathological temper. He likened Carson’s pathology to the sickness of a child molester. But, I guess bygones are bygones and Trump needed a token African American (his African American!) among his cabinet of billionaires and generals.

I guess Carson has lived in a house in an inner city neighborhood so that gives him housing experience. I give him a 1. Experience counts. Carson takes the Alfred E. Neuman “What, Me Worry?” award.

And finally there is the nominee for the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt. Pruitt has been Attorney General of Oklahoma. He is known for his close ties to the oil and gas industry. According to a 2014 article in the New York Times, since 2010, Pruitt had received $215, 574 from energy industry donors.

Former Republican Congressman Bob Englis, a conservative environmentalist, had this to say about Pruitt:

“It really is a crazy thought to have somebody who disputes the science of climate change heading up the EPA. It’s like having the president of Delta Airlines be somebody who doesn’t believe it’s possible for humans to fly. It doesn’t work.”

As Oklahoma Attorney General, Pruitt sued the EPA at least 13 times in 5 years. In 2014 he sent a letter to the EPA saying that federal regulators were grossly overestimating the amount of air pollution caused by energy companies drilling new natural gas wells in the state. Devon Energy, one of Oklahoma’s biggest oil and gas companies authored the letter. Pruitt copied it onto government stationery with a few word changes. It is no wonder the oil and gas companies love him.

Christine Todd Whitman, George W. Bush’s EPA chief, went on record about Pruitt:

“I don’t recall ever having seen an appointment of someone who is so disdainful of the agency and the science behind what the agency does.”

The Truitt nomination was particularly jarring because it came the day after Trump met with Al Gore. I have to rate Pruitt a .5. Apparently the word “pollution” is not in his vocabulary.

There are so many others I am going to have to pass on. Tom Price, Betsey Devos, Wilbur Ross, General Mattis, John Bolton and Rick Perry – sorry about that. They deserve grades too.

I know others will disagree and there is plenty of room for argument but I have to go with Scott Pruitt as the worst appointee. Let’s face it: it is not everyday that the polluters’ best friend, someone described as ” an existential threat to the planet” can become head of EPA.

Time will tell who is the true winner of this contest but we already know who will be the real loser – the American people.

Getting up off the floor: The Democrats – posted 12/4/2016

December 4, 2016 3 comments

Probably like a lot of people, I did not see the presidential election result coming. I too was in denial. I just did not see the American people electing Donald Trump. Trump ran one of the worst presidential campaigns ever.

The shock has only somewhat worn off.

Make no mistake about it: this was an epic defeat and the consequences are likely to be grave. I expect Trump will set us back 50 years – not just 10. At this point, it is impossible to know how bad it will be.

I think those of us who opposed Trump need to do some serious soul-searching about what went wrong. How was it possible that this deeply flawed man won the presidency?

Instead of superficial excuses, we need to look hard into the reasons for this debacle. The candidate picked by the Democratic Party was widely disliked. Even before the general election, her negatives were extraordinarily high.

It has to be asked: why did the Democratic Party establishment push forward such a widely disliked candidate, someone whose baggage had baggage? Whether the reasons for the dislike were fair or not, the reasons were there. Why did the Democratic Party ignore that?

I ascribe it to arrogance. The Democratic Party knew best. Except it did not. The Democratic Party proved to be utterly out of touch with the American people. And they were clueless about how out of touch they were. If you look at a map of the voting, it is shocking how little of rural America the Democrats won. Not to mention the battleground states.

In New Hampshire, we had the odd spectacle of virtually every Democratic Party leader in the state endorsing Clinton followed by Sanders winning the primary by 22 points. Not exactly an example of a leadership in sync with the rank and file.

While Clinton won primaries, the lack of enthusiasm for her candidacy was widely noted. Millennials overwhelmingly supported her rival, Bernie Sanders. Bernie captured the enthusiasm factor. As Clinton was the realpolitik candidate, party leaders rationalized how tepid and lukewarm her support was.

The Democrats promoted a status quo candidate in a change election. Where Trump said “make America great again” , Clinton’s response was “America is already great”. That was the wrong message this year. Saying America is great already translates into there is not much that needs to be done. For a party that is allegedly progressive, that is a disastrous message.

Trump had a better handle on the harm that has been done to American working people. Even though he is a demagogue and a chronic liar, he spoke to needs. People liked that he appeared to buck elites and speak his mind. He emotionally connected better than her.

We live in an era defined by income inequality. Clinton was not a credible foe of income inequality. It was hard to know what she stood for. As Wikileaks showed, she believed in having a public and private position on difficult issues. She and her husband had amassed a fortune of over $130 million. Add in the speeches to Goldman Sachs and it was hard to see her as a defender of working people.

Her campaign ran against Trump on the grounds of his unfitness, his lies, racism and misogyny, without articulating a compelling vision for what she would do as president. That failure to offer a resonant message for how the lives of everyday Americans could benefit from her presidency, as evidenced in pivotal rust belt swing states, was a fatal flaw.

I think her worst moment was the basket of deplorables comment. That smacked of elitism and class bias. She came off as looking down her nose at people. Unbelieveable as it seems now, she never even campaigned in Wisconsin, a critical swing state. It was an egregious mistake to assume working people had no choice but to vote for her.

American working people have been getting royally shafted for at least 35 years now. Is it any wonder that so many people end up dead early or addicted to opiates? Yet the Democratic response to this tragedy has been so weak.

I hold the Democratic party establishment responsible for the enormous loss sustained. They themselves said it was the most important election of our lifetime. They committed political malpractice. The patient died. It is not just at the presidential level either. Democrats have been losing in governorships and state races all over.

The Clinton wing needs to go. They managed to lose to the worst candidate in my lifetime. The damage is incalculable.

Give the Bernie Sanders-Elizabeth Warren wing of the Party a chance. They at least have a bold message and vision.

The same old does not cut it any more. Finding some Clinton centrist clone who relies on big money from corporate interests is a repetition compulsion. Liberalism of the rich devoted to the interests of the professional class is a recipe for failure in the future. Democrats must not abandon working people as they have.

People who think Trump will shake things up are in for a big disappointment. He has surrounded himself with right wing extremists and crony billionaires. This is “draining the swamp”? We will see how hard Trump fights for working people. His track record is the opposite. He must be held accountable.

Republicans, Trump included, have a long history of supporting the 1% at the expense of the 99%. It is a matter of class interest. Trump can work the media and make symbolic gestures but he will not deliver. The Republicans remain a backward-looking party mired in climate change denial, opposition to voting rights, and softness toward white supremacists.

At least the Democrats remain on the right side of most critical issues. They now have to protect Medicare from vouchering and privatizing schemes designed to weaken the program. God only knows how awful Trump will be on the environment. The same could be said about a laundry list of areas. The Democrats must resist.

Maybe losing the election can shake the Democrats out of their timidity. For so long they have been the play it safe party. I no longer think that is possible.

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Sharon Jones (1956-2016) – posted 11/29/2016

November 30, 2016 2 comments

In most respects, 2016 has proven to be a wretched year. I think of the John Oliver video “Fuck you 2016”. In the video some of the famous people who died this year are mentioned. Muhammed Ali, Prince, and David Bowie, among others.

One name that now needs to be added to the list is Sharon Jones. She died tragically on November 18. She was only 60.

As a fan, I am having a hard time accepting Sharon’s death. I always looked forward to her albums. She had a powerful way of singing and the lyrics to her songs connected. It seems way too early for her not to be here. She did not start her musical career with the Dap-Kings until she was 40. She only got her first Grammy nomination for “Give The People What They Want” in 2014.

In the 1980’s she had played in wedding bands. She worked for many years as a corrections guard at Riker’s Island and also as an armored car guard for Wells Fargo. She could never break in. She had been told repeatedly there was no market for soul music.

For those who are not familiar with her music, I would recommend her album “Miss Sharon Jones! O.S.T.” This album includes the music from a new documentary of the same name. Barbara Kopple, who has won two Academy Awards, produced and directed the documentary.

The documentary provides a window into Sharon’s last years. Sharon was battling stage two pancreatic cancer. At the same time, she and the Dap-Kings were having their greatest musical success. They had put out the knockout album “I Learned the Hard Way” in 2010. They were finally getting recognized after twenty years of playing together.

The movie shows a very down-to-earth view of Sharon’s medical battles. Going back to 2013, her eyes had turned yellow and she had been losing weight. She got the pancreatic cancer diagnosis which has to be one of the worst diagnoses someone can get. She fought back, desperately trying to regain her strength. After her surgery, she had six months of chemotherapy. The movie shows Sharon slowly regaining her strength and really struggling.

The band was depending on her and she knew it. Like other poor musicians, the Dap-Kings needed to perform. There was a world tour planned for 2014 and Sharon needed to be well enough to do the tour. The movie showed how everything took her longer to do. Watching the movie, you realize how the lyrics for some of the songs flow right out of Sharon’s life.

Her energy on stage was unsurpassed. That was part of the reason she has often been compared to James Brown. In the movie, she tells a nice story about how she met him in Italy. James said, “God bless you, daughter.” Sharon talked about the inspiration she derived from him.

One of her backup singers described Sharon’s voice as “like a train, you better get out of the way”.

The last song on Miss Sharon Jones!, “I’m Still Here”, is autobiographical.

“All the things I’ve been through just to
sing this song
All the people I’ve seen come and go as
I kept pushin on
I had to work as a prison guard telling
men to do what they were told
‘Cos some record label told me I was too
fat, too short, black and old
I had to direct the choir to let my voice
out
That was the only place I could sing and
be proud”

The music on the CD of “Miss Sharon Jones! O.S.T.” includes some of her great songs. I personally like “Tell Me”, “Longer and Stronger”, “100 Days, 100 Nights”, and “Stranger to my Happiness”. I have listened to the album a ridiculous amount and I still enjoy it. Both the movie and the album are well worth it.

According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, Sharon suffered a stroke as she watched the election returns. Gabriel Roth, one of her bandmates, said, in laughing fashion. “She told the people that were there that Trump gave her the stroke.” Roth said Sharon wanted to sing in her last days. The Dap-Kings were with her when she died.

Sharon complained bitterly that the music industry did not honor and recognize soul music. When you think about who wins awards, it is crazy that Sharon did not win a bunch of Grammys.

Categories: Uncategorized

The Black Panthers, Revisited and Reconsidered – posted 11/20/2016

November 20, 2016 Leave a comment

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Black Panther Party. Founded by two college students from Oakland, California, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, the Panthers went on to become the most famous and controversial radical group that came out of the 1960’s.

I had heard a story on NPR and I had seen a couple news stories about this anniversary but nothing that I believe does the subject justice.

I think the Panthers were probably the most misunderstood 1960’s political group. Widely condemned, the Panthers had horrible press. Images of the Panthers invariably focused on shootouts with the police and on political trials where Panther leaders were defendants. Even though their ideology was expressly anti-racist, they were portrayed by much of the media as a black nationalist hate group.

There is another side to the Panther story that has been little told. That is the story of the Panther rank and file – not the leaders. The Stanford historian Clayborne Carson put it this way:

“The irony of the Black Panthers is that the image is one of a Black man and a gun. But the reality is that the majority of the rank and file at the end of the 60’s were women.”

The Panthers created a number of survival programs that spoke to unaddressed needs in the Black community. The best known of these programs was the Free Breakfast for Children program. Back in the day, Panther chapters across the country served about 20,000 meals a week. The program became the inspiration and blueprint for schools throughout the country to provide free breakfast and lunch.

The Panthers went to churches, small businesses, and grocery stores to seek out food and cash donations to support the program. It was a total volunteer effort. Additionally, some chapters of the Party sponsored grocery giveaways. Hunger and malnutrition remained community concerns.

With access to quality health care a major problem, the Panthers operated People’s Free Medical Clinics that provided basic health care. These neighborhood-based clinics had staffing from volunteer medical professionals. Among the services provided were screening for sickle cell anemia, well-baby exams, pediatric care and gynecological exams. Also, the clinics did first aid, and testing for high blood pressure, lead poisoning, tuberculosis and diabetes.

With so many in jail, the Panthers ran a free busing-to-prison program to enable family members to see their relatives who were incarcerated.

In Oakland California, which was a Panther stronghold, the Panthers started the Oakland Community School which had a powerful positive effect in the broader Oakland community. The school operated from 1973 until 1982 and in 1977 it received an award from the California state legislature for educational excellence.

We now know that the FBI and the FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover targeted the Panthers through a counterintelligence program known as COINTELPRO.  Hoover was on record saying the Panthers were the number one threat to national security. The FBI and local police did everything they could to destroy the Panthers. They used infiltration, dirty tricks, harassment via the legal system and illegal force. Even in the absence of evidence, they repeatedly raided the homes of Panther leaders in an effort to neutralize and put people behind bars. They forged correspondence, sent false anonymous letters, and worked to create tensions and hostility between factions in the black liberation movement.

Those with a pollyanna view might be surprised how far the FBI went. The law became an obstacle for the FBI. Through what amounted to psychological warfare, they successfully worked to create a sense of fear and paranoia among Panther members.

in the 1970’s, the Church Committee of Congress investigated COINTELPRO. Congress ultimately wrote a scathing denunciation of the FBI’s conduct which was completely contrary to constitutional rights and civil liberties.

In this connection, I have to mention the case of Fred Hampton, a charismatic Panther leader from Chicago. In one of the most disgraceful moments in FBI history, the Chicago police, with FBI assistance, engineered the assassination of Hampton and his fellow Panther leader Mark Clark. They were shot and killed in bed. Hampton was 21 years old at the time. A fuller account is presented in Jeffrey Haas’s book, The Assassination of Fred Hampton. The Hampton assassination is a case study for law enforcement in how it can go horribly wrong.

Any honest assessment of the Panthers must acknowledge the illegal and reprehensible conduct of the FBI and Hoover. At the same time, the Panthers also had a dark side. The best account I have seen is in Hugh Pearson’s little known book The Shadow of the Panther.

Pearson shows how the Panthers in the Bay Area degenerated into thuggery. The obsession with guns and violence was ultimately self-destructive. Huey Newton, who had initially been an inspirational leader, got lost in substance abuse.

The Panthers had many self-inflicted wounds. Pearson tells some shocking stories. He, with justification, concluded that the Panthers became more about defiant symbolism than about concrete achievements. It was not all repression that killed them. Like other radical groups of the era, the Panthers actively contributed to their own demise.

Like so many things about the 1960’s, fairness requires full disclosure. In my opinion, the positives about the Panthers have never been adequately recognized.

Admittedly, I do not write in a disinterested academic way. When I was a college student living in Hartford Connecticut, on Saturdays, I used to sell The Other Voice, an underground newspaper of that period. Over a period of time, I met and got to know some Panther members who were selling the Black Panther newspaper downtown. I never personally saw the alleged anti-white attitude of which Panthers were accused. The Panthers and I bonded over good places to sell papers on the street. We often talked politics. This was long before social media.

People who are serious about progressive change in the 21st century should study and learn from the experience of the Black Panthers. That learning should include both the positive and negative lessons. I do think the Panthers’ focus on guns scared away many people who might have otherwise been sympathetic. At the same time, the Panthers’ defiance, their speaking truth to power, attracted masses of young people. Many former members still talk about the purpose and meaning they derived from their commitment. The Panther ten-point platform still resonates.

The Panthers inspired a generation to stand up and fight racial oppression, poverty, and inequality at the local level. Long before Black Lives Matter, and in a much more hostile environment, the Panthers audaciously motivated and organized people to fight for their human rights. .