Food Stamp Cuts Reflect a Class War Against the Working Poor – posted 3/19/2017

March 19, 2017 Leave a comment

Senate Bill 7, a Republican-sponsored bill that would significantly reduce the number of people who can receive food stamps in New Hampshire, has passed the New Hampshire Senate on a party-line vote. Given the Republican majority in both Houses, it is expected the bill will pass and Governor Sununu will sign it.

The bill is mean-spirited, callous, and without any sense of compassion. I think it is likely to increase hunger and malnutrition in our state. The bill is expected to deprive 17,000 low-income families with children of food stamps. This is literally taking food from the mouths of poor children.

When these families lose their benefits, their food need will not stop. That is one thing that can be said with certainty.

When low-income people have food stamps, they can spend the money they do have on other basic needs like housing or utilities. Without food stamps, precious dollars have to go to food, leaving less for other essential expenses. With inadequate cash, the question becomes where does remaining money go: housing, utilities, medication, school expenses, clothes or child care? Where is the most compelling need, all things considered? It can be a Sophie’s choice.

Right now food stamps is probably the most important public benefit reaching masses of people in the United States. It is so short-sighted to cut this program. Food stamps is a bulwark against hunger, malnutrition and absolute destitution. By leaving available income for other needs, food stamps actually protect against utility shutoffs, evictions and homelessness.

Contrary to conservative fantasy world, great numbers of food stamp recipients are working but they are not making enough money to pay all basic expenses. Yet that does not stop some conservatives from calling food stamp recipients “welfare slaves”. You have to wonder what happened to the moral sense that no one should go hungry.

The program is not perfect and there is some fraud but it remains the most effective and targeted public benefit ever devised in the United States.

New Hampshire had opted for a slightly more generous income and assets test that allows more families to obtain food stamps but any generosity for low-income families is apparently too much.

Hunger and malnutrition aside, Senate Bill 7 is fiscally stupid, downshifting costs from the federal government to cities and towns. 100% of food stamp benefits are paid by federal funds. If people lose their federal benefits, they have the right to go to their home city or town for help and those cities and towns must assist under our local welfare law.

Of course, many probably will not go to local welfare for different reasons (including lack of awareness about the local welfare legal obligation) but if they do, the law mandates cities and towns to “relieve and maintain”. Food need falls squarely within the mandate of local welfare law.

Senate Bill 7 is a direct hit on the local taxpayer but the bill’s sponsors avoid that fact. They talk airily about promoting freedom – freedom from food, actually. They also talk about work requirements. They seem to forget that the Food Stamp program already incorporates work requirements.

There is unintentional irony in this bill. Republicans invoke Hew Hampshire values and state’s rights but this bill is anything but a New Hampshire bill. The bill is forcing the state to adopt a federal asset test. New Hampshire has long had a state waiver which gives the state more flexibility to respond to changing economic circumstances.

Readers of the Monitor may have seen the March 3 letter to the editor from Mary Anne Broshek of Andover. Broshek, who is a genuine expert on food stamps (she was in charge of eligibility at the Department of Health and Human Services for many years) certainly did not see Senate Bill 7 as a New Hampshire bill. She wrote that the bill prohibited state flexibility and sought to solve a problem that does not exist.

She also pointed out that the Republican bill sponsor, Sen. Avard, co-wrote the bill with a lobbyist representing a conservative group pushing similar measure in statehouses around the country. The lobbyist outfit, the Foundation for Government Accountability, is a right wing think tank based in Naples Florida. The bill template for Senate Bill 7 was lifted from a template on their web site with room for fill-in-the-blanks.

The Foundation for Government Accountability is a member of the State Policy Network, a coalition of groups that pressure for a hard right wing agenda in statehouses nationwide. It has close ties to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the billionaire-funded organization of Koch Brothers fame, dedicated to free market fundamentalism.

In her brilliant book of investigative reporting, Dark Money, Jane Mayer unmasks the role of many groups like the Foundation for Government Accountability. Over a period of the last 50 years or so, ultra right wing billionaires have created a powerful network of well-funded think tanks to protect the interests of the 1% and to push radical right wing policies and legislation. They are about overturning all the protections created for working people since the New Deal.

By any objective measure, the right wing has been extraordinarily successful in gaining control of statehouses across America. Republicans now dominate state governments. They control both chambers in 32 states, including 17 with veto-proof majorities. Democrats control the legislature in just 13 states. Only 5 of those chambers have veto-proof majorities. Republicans control the governor’s office in 33 states and Democrats control 16 with 1 state having an independent governor supported by the Democrats.

I would submit that the powerful network created by the billionaire class has had much to do with the Republican success. I do not think liberals and progressives appreciate the scope and depth of this network which has been deliberately hidden by the Kochs and their super-rich allies. Mayer, who writes for the New Yorker, lays it out in Dark Money. I think the book is required reading for Democrats and progressives. Democrats do not have anything that remotely matches up against this juggernaut.

We should not see Senate Bill 7 outside the context of a national effort to shred the safety net. The billionaires are making a concerted effort in all states to take away working class gains. Whether it is Steve Bannon talking about deconstructing the administrative state or Grover Norquist saying he wants to reduce the size of government to the size where it can drown in a bathtub, the vision is the same.

President Trump’s budget is a defining document of the ultra-right wing vision. It is a search and destroy mission for almost any federal program that helps low-income and working people. Whether it is Meals on Wheels, Legal Services Corporation, Corporation for National and Community Service (Americorps), School Breakfast and Lunch, Community Development Block Grants, U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, Weatherization, or Low Income Home Energy Assistance, Trump wants to zero them all out.

It is no exaggeration to say Trump’s budget is an act of class war where the billionaires bludgeon working people. Trump is spitting in the face of his working class supporters. He is showing himself to be the huckster and con man many suspected he would be. He fancies himself like Andrew Jackson but he is more like P.T. Barnum. Bills like Senate Bill 7 and the Trump budget are designed to drive millions more into extreme poverty and hopelessness.

When Senate Bill 7 was in front of the New Hampshire Senate, Republicans pushed an amendment that passed. Instead of affirmatively cutting 17,000 families off immediately, they gave the Joint Health and Human Services oversight committee the right to do it. Speaking on the senate floor, Senator Dan Feltes of Concord gave the perfect response:

“In the words of Ann Richards, ‘you can put lipstick on a pig and name it Monique it’s still a hog'”.

Senate Bill 7 is soulless and needlessly cruel. It flies in the face of what we know about increasing economic inequality and it will only make that inequality worse.

Xenophobia is an American Tradition – 3/5/2017 and published in the Concord Monitor on 3/17/2017

March 5, 2017 1 comment

In understanding racism in America, we have paid insufficient attention to xenophobia. Fear and irrational dislike of people from other countries has a long tradition in America. Even though we are a nation of immigrants, episodes of xenophobia have kept recurring.

Trump’s travel ban on refugees and nationals from seven (now six) ┬áMuslim-majority countries as well as his threats to deport millions is not an aberration in American history. It is only the latest example of a long-standing historical pattern.

Going back in American history, nativists and white supremacists have long had an obsession about screening out and deporting those perceived as “undesirables “. Trump is just the latest incarnation.

In the 19th century, proponents of Manifest Destiny, the belief that settlers were destined to expand across North America, often argued the superiority of white Europeans over Indians, Blacks, Mexicans, and Chinese. Although the history is obscured and forgotten today, eugenics was behind much of the racist ideology.

Racists saw ethnic mixing as leading to degeneration, a big 19th century concern. Newspapers and periodicals of the time frequently ran articles arguing against race-mixing. There was much discussion of selective breeding as a means to improve the human stock.

Some scientists of the mid-19th century expressed concerns about inferior stock polluting the nation’s racial order. For example, Dr. Josiah Nott, a southern surgeon and phrenologist, advocated the need for eugenics to keep the white race pure. To quote Nott in 1844:

“Whenever in the history of the world the inferior races have been conquered and mixed in with the Caucasian, the latter have sunk into barbarism.”

Slavery and 19th century racism relied heavily on pseudo-scientific justifications. I think racism based on fraudulent science was also the ideological backdrop for the nativism and xenophobia that characterized our later 19th century immigration policy. From the 1880’s through the 1940’s, racist, restrictive immigration policies became a norm.

In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. This was the first act to restrict entry of a specific ethnic group. The law prohibited Chinese laborers from entering the United States for ten years under penalty of imprisonment and deportation.

Prejudice against the Chinese was widespread especially in the West Coast states. Whites could rob, beat, and murder Chinese people with impunity. Anti-Chinese riots and lynchings were part of the picture. Many Americans saw the Chinese as taking their jobs.

While Chinese workers were widely seen as reliable and willing to work without complaint, they were scapegoated by politicians for allegedly depressing wages. Economic depressions and the desperation of working people created fertile soil for racist demagoguery.

Many Americans of varied political stripes saw the Chinese as an unassimilable race. There was a popular belief the Chinese were dirty and carried germs and disease. The Chinese were victims of a national phobia, the Yellow Peril. Sadly, there were few public voices who spoke out against the virulent anti-Chinese racism.

The Chinese Exclusion Act remained in effect for 61 years until President Franklin Roosevelt led the effort to repeal it. Chinese-Americans had their own Jim Crow-like experience where they were subject to discriminatory laws and practices. That harm is rarely acknowledged.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the Japanese experience as well. From the start, the immigration of Japanese also met with a negative response. Nativists feared Japanese immigration. Like the Chinese, Japanese people were segregated and denied employment, except for menial jobs. Most western states passed legislation forbidding intermarriage between Asiatics and Caucasians.

While the history deserves far deeper treatment, I did not want to ignore the Japanese-American internment. This is one of the most spectacular examples of xenophobia in American history. Under an Executive Order issued on February 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt ordered the forced relocation and incarceration of Japanese-Americans into camps. 62% of the internees were American citizens. Nearly 130,000 Japanese-Americans were incarcerated. This action came in the aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

It is now widely recognized that the Japanese-American internment was a product of racism and not justified by any military necessity.

The Chinese and the Japanese were certainly not the only victims of xenophobia. In the early 20th century, xenophobia reemerged prominently in regard to other regions. A series of three laws highlight the trend. In 1917 Congress passed an Immigration Act which imposed a literacy test on immigrants. The law barred not only those unable to read, it also excluded “feeble-minded persons”, “idiots”, “epileptics”, “anarchists”, and all immigrants from Asia.

Shortly after in 1921 and 1924 Congress passed an Emergency Quota Act and the Johnson-Reed Act to limit the flow of immigrants into the country. The Johnson-Reed Act limited the quota to 2% of the total immigrants from a given country living in the United States in 1890.

The law aimed at greatly reducing immigration of Southern Europeans and Eastern Europeans, especially Italians and Eastern European Jews. From the late 19th century to 1920, there had been a huge increase in Jewish immigration from Russia and Eastern Europe, in part, to escape pogroms.

The explicit purpose of the Johnson-Reed Act was “to preserve the ideal of American homogeneity”. Immigration restrictionists sought to maintain the racial preponderance of native-born Americans. Also, in the aftermath of the Russian revolution in 1917, the Red Scare of 1919 raised fears about foreign radicals importing revolution.

As was true with racism against Chinese and Japanese immigrants, anti-semitism relied on contradictory stereotypes about Jews. Stereotypes ran the gamut. Jews were both money-grubbing capitalists and Bolshevik revolutionaries. In the period before World War II, anti-semitism in America was far more accepted than it is now.

The Johnson-Reed Act ultimately succeeded in tremendously reducing Southern European and Eastern European immigration, especially that of Jewish people. But now we can see the cost and the tragedy. The law acted to prevent millions of refugees from escaping the Holocaust. People could not get out of Europe when they needed to. The United States was not alone among countries in closing the gates. Many millions needlessly perished in the Nazi death camps and gas chambers. The Johnson-Reed Act proved catastrophic.

Though it is not widely known, Anne Frank was denied immigration to the United States twice. Her father, Otto Frank, appealed to the Roosevelt Administration. FDR refused. Anne Frank died in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

It is hard to ignore the historical parallels with our current period. Refugees seeking to escape the war in Syria and undocumented immigrants from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras are in a similar desperate situation to people who wanted out of Europe in the 1930’s and early 1940’s. They are running for their lives.

In his view of the world, President Trump has dehumanized and criminalized the category of refugee. He sees refugees as potential terrorists – not as people trying to escape desperate situations. In his stereotyping, he is Xenophobe-in-Chief. What he is doing with Syrian refugees is no different than what earlier racists did against the Chinese, Japanese, and the Jews.

Just for the record, I would note that far more could be said about our xenophobic history, particularly actions against Latinos. It would be wrong not to mention the Mexican Repatriation.

James Baldwin once wrote:

“American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.”

Xenophobia is as American as cherry pie. Trump fits right in. It is late in the game for any pollyanna views of our history.

Who was Frederick Douglass? – posted 2/20/2017 and published in the Concord Monitor on 3/8/2017

February 20, 2017 1 comment

In his comments about Black history month, President Trump raised many eyebrows when he spoke about Frederick Douglass. Trump said:

“Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice.”

It is not clear whether Trump knew that Douglass had died over 120 years ago.

Contrary to President Trump’s statement that Frederick Douglass is being recognized more and more, the truth is that Douglass was far more famous in the 19th century than he is today. He is someone who has faded from historical memory. I would be surprised if many Americans know about Douglass’s contributions to American life.

Because he is arguably one of the greatest Americans ever, more needs to be said about who Douglass was and what he accomplished in his life.

Douglass was born into slavery in Talbot County, Maryland in 1817. His father was a white man but Douglass never learned his identity. His mother worked as a slave on a plantation twelve miles away. As happened to Douglass, the slaveholders forcibly separated children from their mothers at a very young age. Douglass only saw his mother four or five times in his life. In his first autobiography, he wrote:

“She made her journeys to see me in the night, travelling the whole distance on foot, after the performance of her day’s work. She was a field hand, and a whipping is the penalty of not being in the field at sunrise…I do not recollect of ever seeing my mother by the light of day. She was with me in the night. She would lie down with me, and get me to sleep, but long before I waked, she was gone.”

Douglass’s mother died when he was seven years old. He was not allowed to be present during her illness, her death or her burial.

In his writing, Douglass presents a vivid picture of slavery.

“I was seldom whipped by my old master, and suffered little from anything else than hunger and cold. I suffered much from hunger, but much more from cold. In hottest summer and coldest winter, I was kept almost naked – no shoes, no stockings, no jacket, no trousers, nothing on but a coarse tow linen shirt reaching only to my knees. I had no bed. I must have perished with cold, but that, the coldest nights, I used to steal a bag which was used for carrying corn to the mill. I would crawl into this bag, and there sleep on the cold, damp, clay floor, with my head in and my feet out. My feet have been so cracked with the frost, that the pen with which I am writing might be laid in the gashes.”

While still very young, Douglass’s owner moved him to a new master who lived in Baltimore. The new mistress of the household had never had a slave under her control before. She taught Douglass the beginnings of how to read. When her husband found out, he forbade learning. It was unlawful, and considered unsafe, to teach a slave to read.

It was that love of learning which inspired Douglass.

“Whilst I was saddened by the thought of losing the aid of my kind mistress, I was gladdened by the invaluable instruction which, by the merest accident, I had gained from my master. Though conscious of the difficulty of learning without a teacher, I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read.”

Douglass’s greatness was not just that he overcame slavery personally; it was that even after his own misfortune he dedicated himself to the liberation of all oppressed people. His literacy and his developing eloquence were foundational. Douglass became a journalist, an author, and a renowned, powerful orator. He composed the narrative of his life in his autobiographies and he exposed slavery as a nightmarish crime. He often said: “Knowledge is the pathway from slavery to freedom.”

At age 20, after two failed attempts, Douglass escaped to freedom with the help of his future wife, Anna Murray, a free Black woman. Prior to that, Douglass had been turned over to a man named Edward Corey, a professional “Negro-breaker”. Forced to work in the worst weather conditions, whipped regularly, starved almost to death, Douglass reached the breaking point. Physically attacked again by Corey, Douglass fought back and scared the master so much he never flogged Douglass after that.

Douglass escaped slavery by dressing in a sailor’s uniform and by travelling under an assumed identity. He boarded a train in Baltimore, later took a steamboat, and made his way to a safe house in New York City. He later moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts where he went to work as a free man.

Shortly after arriving in New Bedford, Douglass connected with the abolitionist movement. He subscribed to the Liberator, the anti-slavery paper edited by William Lloyd Garrison, and he started attending abolitionist meetings. After he was asked to speak, Douglass quickly overcame his nervousness. His speeches recounting his experiences as a slave electrified audiences. In little time Douglass became a full-time lecturer for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society.

Although many at that time considered it an impossibility, Douglass set out to destroy slavery and free the African American people. Working cooperatively with white abolitionists, he stressed common humanity and an egalitarian outlook. He was an early supporter of women’s rights. Douglass saw himself as building on the revolutionary legacy of the Founding Fathers.

His anti-slavery speeches were dangerous events. As he travelled around the northern states, he was frequently accosted by slavery supporters and on several occasions he narrowly escaped death. At a lecture in Indiana an angry mob chased and beat him. Douglass suffered a broken hand. A local Quaker family rescued him.

Becoming more well known and still fearful of recapture, in 1845 Douglass went to England, Scotland, and Ireland on a lecture tour. He ended up spending two years there, giving many lectures in churches and chapels. He was a huge draw. It was at that point Douglass’s fame exploded. Douglass’s British admirers raised funds to buy his freedom from his American owner.

When Douglass returned to the United States in 1847 he created and published his own abolitionist newspaper, the North Star. In the paper, he argued the case for women’s rights. In 1848, Douglass was the only African American attendee at the Seneca Falls Convention, the first women’s rights convention held in the United States. He spoke in support of a resolution for women’s suffrage.

In 1855, Douglass, along with John Brown, helped to found the Radical Abolition Party. The party platform included: immediate and universal emancipation; full suffrage for all Americans, regardless of sex or race; redistribution of land so that no one would be rich and no one poor; and violent intervention against slavery.

While he could be pragmatic, Douglass remained a radical for the rest of his life. After the start of the Civil War, Douglass campaigned against President Lincoln’s ultra-cautious approach to the slavery question. Before the Emancipation Proclamation, Douglass argued passionately for the freedom of slaves and for the inclusion of Black soldiers in the Union forces.

After the Civil War, Douglass was in the forefront of the fight to allow Black people to vote. He helped passage of the Republican-sponsored 15th Amendment to the Constitution which certified the right of Black men to vote. While he remained a Republican, Douglass worked to shift the Republican Party in a more pro-Black and progressive direction.

Later in his life, with racism resurgent in America, Douglass spoke out against the appalling rise in the number of lynchings of Black men. Douglass railed against the failure of Reconstruction. He had envisioned a vastly more open America that belonged to all and transcended race, religion, gender, class, and national origin divisions.

It is truly ironic that Donald Trump would try and use Frederick Douglass to highlight Black History. No two figures could be more different. Douglass suffered enormously, deeply valued reading and learning and wanted an inclusive, more democratic America. He consistently favored more voting rights, workers’ rights, and immigrants’ rights. Trump grew up in the lap of luxury, is not a reader, and has a vision of exclusion. If Douglass was alive now, I can only imagine what he would say about President Trump.

Why Use of the Slogan “America First” is Tone-Deaf to History – posted 2/13/2017 and published in the Concord Monitor on 2/22/2017

February 13, 2017 Leave a comment

In his inaugural address, President Donald Trump made a big point of describing his foreign policy approach as “America First”.

“We assembled here today are issuing a new decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital, and in every hall of power, from this day forward, a new vision will govern our land, from this day forward, it’s going to be only America first. America first.”

The problem I have with the phrase is that Trump and his supporters are tone-deaf to its history. “America First” was the slogan used by Nazi-friendly Americans in the 1930’s. In the period immediately before World War II, the America First Committee opposed fighting Nazism.

America First has a sordid history. Before Pearl Harbor, the movement resisted America’s entry into World War II. It advocated neutrality toward the Germans, arguing that they were unlikely to invade the United States. Harshly critical of President Franklin Roosevelt, America First was blatantly anti-semitic and promoted appeasing Hitler.

When asked about his use of the phrase by the New York Times’ David Sanger, Trump brushed off any historical parallel. He said,

” To me, America First is a brand-new modern term. I never related it to the past.”

It remains unclear how much Trump knows about the history of the phrase although he told the New York Times he was familiar with it.

The Anti-Defamation League has asked Trump to refrain from using the slogan.

I do believe that if Americans were more aware of the history around America First, they would urge Trump to reject it. Superficially this slogan sounds good but the history is toxic. That is true not just for Jewish Americans but for all Americans who are opposed to fascism, racism and authoritarianism.

America First blamed Jews for conspiring to pressure the government to join World War II against the interests of America. Knowing what we know now about the Holocaust, the actions of America First can be seen as what they were: appalling collaboration with the German fascists.

The history deserves review. Starting in the early 1930’s, media kingpin William Randolph Hearst, the Rupert Murdoch of his day, began using the slogan “America First”. Hearst hated President Roosevelt’s New Deal. Hearst saw the New Deal as “un-American to the core”. He hailed the Nazis as winning great victories for “liberty-loving people” everywhere.

In America, before World War II, there was a surprising amount of support and good will toward the Nazis. In part, that reflected popular acceptance of anti-semitism in American life.

At its peak, the American First Committee had 800,000 members across the country, including a number of very famous people. Future President Gerald Ford, future Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart and industrialist Henry Ford were all part of the America First Committee.

Probably the most famous member was the aviator Charles Lindbergh. He became the committee’s principal spokesman. In 1938, Lindbergh received the Grand Service Cross of the Supreme Order of the German Eagle, Germany’s highest honor, from Herman Goering. The award was given “in the name of the Fuehrer”. The only other American to receive the award was Henry Ford.

The American First Committee was dogged by charges of anti-semitism. Henry Ford and Avery Brundage sat on its executive committee. The auto magnate was a vicious anti-semite. Ford financially supported the publication of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an infamous anti-semitic tract. In the early 1920’s he wrote a four volume set of pamphlets titled The International Jew. Every week for 91 issues he exposed what he saw as some Jewish-inspired evil. He later wrote a regular newspaper column obsessively focused on attacking Jews that was called The International Jew: The World’s Problem. Ford is the only American mentioned, and mentioned positively, in Hitler’s Mein Kampf.

Brundage, former chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee, opposed a boycott of Germany in 1936 because he believed there was a Jewish-Communist conspiracy to keep the United States out of the Berlin Games. When the Games were held, Brundage prevented the only two Jews on the Olympic team from competing in the 400-meter relay. He did not want to offend the Nazis.

While other leaders of America First denied they were anti-semitic, Lindbergh laid his cards on the table. In a speech he gave in Des Moines, Iowa, on September 11, 1941, he warned that Jews were a dangerous enemy. He pointed to Jews’ “large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government”.

Nazi supporters like Lindbergh argued that Jews in the United States spread falsehoods about Germany to push America into a war of revenge from which they would benefit financially.

America First only folded after the attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s engagement against the Axis powers.

If he had an awareness of history, Trump would understand that use of the slogan “America First” is offensive. America First has a history laced with anti-semitism.

For someone who always reminds us what a great mind he has, Trump has not demonstrated an appreciation of history. Many made fun of his lack of awareness that Frederick Douglass is no longer with us but the deeper tragedy is that he is profoundly ignorant of American history. People can argue about it but Frederick Douglass is one of the most outstanding Americans ever. It is beyond sad that we have a president who is clueless about such an important figure in our own history.

I do not see the fact that Trump has a Jewish son-in-law as inoculation against anti-semitism and bigotry. Considering his own racism and his support from white supremacists, Trump’s insensitivity to anti-semitism is not surprising. Still, he should not be using the slogan “America First”. The historical echo is very bad karma.

Trump’s Assault on the Press is Un-American – posted 1/29/2017 and published in the Concord Monitor on 2/3/2017

January 30, 2017 Leave a comment

Covering the presidency of Donald Trump poses unprecedented problems for the press. Never has a candidate for president or an elected president told so many falsehoods. It is impossible to keep up with the volume.

At the same time, Trump has had an almost impervious teflon coat. Lies that would have sunk other candidates do not penetrate the Trump shield. All the falsehoods seem not to register or matter to his supporters. When Trump tells it like it is, the honesty of his assertions gets a pass.

The excuses are impressive. Facts no longer exist. His spokesperson describes his falsehoods as “alternate facts”. Probably the best line I have seen about this is from Salena Zito in the Atlantic: “The press takes him literally but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously but not literally”.

Trump’s own bankruptcy lawyer George Miller made it a practice to have two lawyers in meetings with Trump because he said certain things and then forgot about what he had said previously. Miller called Trump “an expert at interpreting things. Let’s put it that way”.

Trump, himself, flips the script by saying the media are among the most dishonest people on earth. He calls reporters “slime” and “among the worst human beings he has ever met”. He called ABC reporter Tom Llamas “a sleazy guy”. He singled out NBC reporter Katy Tur calling her “a third-rate journalist”. During a press conference last July he told Tur to “be quiet”.

He is a living example of the old saying that the best defense is a good offense.

Trump thinks the role of the press is to acknowledge his awesomeness. As Margaret Atwood has written, strongmen like Trump demand fawning tributes. Trump has been majorly preoccupied with how many times he has been on the cover of Time Magazine.

Whatever Trump says to the contrary, he shows no understanding of the First Amendment. Like other authoritarian leaders, Trump does not appreciate the importance of a strong and independent press as a check on the powerful.

I think Trump’s vilification of the media and reporters is pernicious and over the line. His advisor, Steve Bannon, should not be telling the press to shut up. Nor should Bannon, the former head of Breitbart Media, be calling the media the opposition party. Nothing could be more un-American. Comments like that are a step down a dark road. Now, more than ever, we need investigative journalism.

When they gain power, authoritarians typically repress journalists by threats and harassment. Some authoritarian leaders go the next step and arrange to have journalists murdered. In 2016, around the world, 115 journalists died simply for doing their jobs.

We are living in a bubble if we do not recognize that the profession of journalism has become dangerous. Americans have been insulated because of the strength of our First Amendment.

Promotion of contempt for journalists lays the foundation for acts of violence against them. Calling the press “scum” is dehumanizing. It is analogous to the anti-abortion movement’s treatment of doctors who perform abortions. Dehumanization leads to Dr. Tiller and Dr. Slepian. I do not find it reassuring that Trump himself has said in reference to journalists: “I would never kill them, but I do hate them”.

I would not underestimate the ways Trump and his administration can undermine and repress journalists. Access is life to a journalist. Denying access is a powerful tool and a way to keep reporters obsequious. It is a matter of going along to get along. It can be subtle: the reporter not asking the too critical question to try and stay on the good side.

Trump has blacklisted critical media. He revoked the press credentials of the Washington Post last June. He avoids calling reporters from networks he perceives as too critical like he did with CNN at his last press conference. He can schedule few press conferences, as he has, to try and control questions he gets asked. Tweeting is a way to communicate without having to answer questions.

Trump has talked about changing libel laws so that newspapers could be more easily sued. During the campaign he said newspapers would “have problems” if he gets elected.

As a private citizen, the breath of Trump controversies has been staggering: the sexual assault allegations, the beauty contest scandals, the racial discrimination lawsuit, Trump University, the four bankruptcies, and that is just for starters. USA Today found that over the last three decades , Trump has been involved in 4,095 lawsuits, including 14 media or defamation cases. Of these 14, he was a plaintiff and a defendant 7 times each. It is not surprising he would like a more compliant press.

While I do not think this has worked out for him, Trump cannot tolerate satire like Alec Baldwin on Saturday Night Live. He cannot seem to handle criticism even though he is in a position that guarantees a large measure of it.

A deeper problem we face is the failure of the corporate media to cover the real issues facing the American people – income inequality, poverty, people without health insurance, racism, and climate change. This is a problem far deeper than Trump. The corporate media is now more consolidated with ownership concentrated in the hands of a super-wealthy elite. Nationally the number of newspapers has dwindled. Too often the media serves up a diet of trivia, infotainment and mindless celebrity. The challenges posed by Trump exist within this deeper underlying reality.

As far as Trump goes, we need serious investigation into his debts, his conflicts of interest, his taxes, his ties to Russia, and whether he is violating the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution. Also, the sexual harassment allegations against him should not be swept under the rug. Powerful people should not benefit from a double standard. I find it disappointing that the press is not aggressively enough pursuing stories of such great public interest. A historic problem of the American press has been its conformity.

Americans cherish the First Amendment as maybe our highest value. We have never had a president with less respect for the First Amendment. That alone is scary and sobering.

Trump Appointees: Part 3 – posted 1/16/2017 and published in the Concord Monitor 1/20/2017

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.

Trump’s Picks: Part 2 – posted 1/8/2017 and published in the Concord Monitor on 1/11/2017

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.