Skip to content

The Libertarian Presidency

Libertarian Trump

For a lot of people–especially the young–voting Libertarian has become the hip alternative to the two mainstream parties. Saying you’re Libertarian often seems to convey a condescending sense of being more “evolved”. But I wonder how many self-described Libertarians really know what they are endorsing. There is actually surprisingly little difference between the agenda of Donald Trump’s Republican Party and the Libertarian Party platform. If one were to draw a Venn diagram, the overlap would be somewhere around 70 or 80 percent.

In fact, there has been a kind of stealth coup by which the party of Eisenhower has become the party of Ayn Rand, whose veneration of the sanctity of private wealth and  hatred of government regulation of any kind is now the guiding philosophy of the GOP.

Much of that takeover has been thanks to the ceaseless and semi-clandestine activism of billionaire donors like the Koch brothers, who for four decades have been constructing the financial, organizational, and intellectual structure which now dominates the Republican party. (Charles Koch was the Libertarian Party candidate for vice-president in 1980.) These are the people who financed and largely created the Tea Party movement, which enabled the rise of GOP senators like Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Rand Paul and governors like Scott Walker, Sam Brownback, Rick Scott, and (before he became vice-president) Mike Pence. Their influence so dominates the party that relative moderates like John Kasich and Jeb Bush are now marginal figures, and John Boehner quit as Speaker of the House in frustration. Mitch McConnell, who lacks any actual convictions, has adapted well, however.

To see just how congruent today’s GOP is with Libertarian principles, take a look at the 2016 Libertarian Party platform. It is divided into three broad areas: “personal liberty”, “economic liberty”, and “securing liberty”, but clearly the greatest of these is economic liberty.

Let’s start with issues where there is disagreement, which are mostly in the “personal liberty” category.

–Abortion. The platform states that “people can hold good-faith views on all sides, we believe that government should be kept out of the matter, leaving the question to each person for their conscientious consideration.” Can’t get much more pro-choice than that.
–Gay rights. “Government does not have the authority to define, license or restrict personal relationships. Consenting adults should be free to choose their own sexual practices and personal relationships.” Again, pretty unambiguously pro-LGBT. Except for that little escape clause… (see below).
–Drug laws. Libertarians oppose “victimless” crimes, “such as the use of drugs for medicinal or recreational purposes.” Jeff Sessions wouldn’t like that, and besides those drug arrests make a great voter suppression tool.
–Death penalty. Libertarians oppose it. Most Republicans, especially in the South, think it’s great.

These are the “shiny objects” that attract younger, educated voters to the Libertarian label. Indeed, Donald Trump seemed to hold similar views on most of these issues before he ran for president.

Another area of dissonance involves trade and immigration. The Libertarian platform states: “Economic freedom demands the unrestricted movement of human as well as financial capital across national borders.” In other words, no border walls. Wall Street Republicans should like this, however.

There is also a hint of disagreement about defense spending. The Libertarians “support the maintenance of a sufficient military to defend the United States against aggression.” This is a much more limited role than the US military now has and implies a correspondingly limited budget. Republicans usually can’t wait to give the Pentagon a blank check.

Okay, so much for the differences. When we look at the core of the platform, “economic freedom”, their programs are in almost perfect harmony:

This section of the Libertarian platform begins with a unequivocal endorsement of pure laissez-faire capitalism straight out of Ayn Rand: “The only proper role of government in the economic realm is to protect property rights, adjudicate disputes, and provide a legal framework in which voluntary trade is protected. All efforts by government to redistribute wealth, or to control or manage trade, are improper in a free society.”

In other words, if the top 10 percent of the population own more than three-fourths of the entire wealth in the US (which they do), that’s just fine because that’s the way the markets work. No difference from the Republicans there.

Libertarians would begin by eliminating the income tax. “We call for the repeal of the income tax, the abolishment of the Internal Revenue Service and all federal programs and services not required under the U.S. Constitution.” Even Paul Ryan wouldn’t dare go this far…yet. But this is clearly the direction in which Republicans aspire to go, as articulated by Grover Norquist’s declaration: “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” The Libertarian platform is silent about where revenues to run whatever remained of the federal government would come from.

On health care: “We favor a free-market health care system. We recognize the freedom of individuals to determine the level of health insurance they want (if any), the level of health care they want, the care providers they want, the medicines and treatments they will use and all other aspects of their medical care, including end-of-life decisions.” This would mean eliminating Obamacare and Medicaid and privatizing Medicare–all of which are Republican goals.

On retirement and Social Security“Retirement planning is the responsibility of the individual, not the government. Libertarians would phase out the current government-sponsored Social Security system and transition to a private voluntary system. The proper and most effective source of help for the poor is the voluntary efforts of private groups and individuals.” Again, exactly the goal of the Republican party. If the poor need help, it should come from private charity, not government programs.

On the environment: “Competitive free markets and property rights stimulate the technological innovations and behavioral changes required to protect our environment and ecosystems. Private landowners and conservation groups have a vested interest in maintaining natural resources…Protecting the environment requires a clear definition and enforcement of individual rights and responsibilities regarding resources like land, water, air, and wildlife. Where damages can be proven and quantified in a court of law, restitution to the injured parties must be required.” This is essentially the rationale for dismantling the EPA and rescinding regulations designed to protect the environment and public health. It is also contrary to historical experience, and acknowledges no such thing as a public good such as clean air or water.

On energy policy“Government should not be subsidizing any particular form of energy. We oppose all government control of energy pricing, allocation, and production.” In other words, there should be no government investment in alternative forms of renewable energy such as solar, wind, tidal, etc. No recognition whatever of the impact of fossil fuel on climate change.

On education: “Education is best provided by the free market, achieving greater quality, accountability and efficiency with more diversity of choice. Recognizing that the education of children is a parental responsibility, we would restore authority to parents to determine the education of their children, without interference from government. Parents should have control of and responsibility for all funds expended for their children’s education.” This is in a nutshell a manifesto against public education at the primary, secondary, and university level. Betsy DeVos couldn’t have said it better.

On banking: “We favor free-market banking, with unrestricted competition among banks and depository institutions of all types.” So no Dodd-Frank, no consumer protection regulations, maybe no FDIC? Wall Street’s wet dream!

On employment and wages: “Employment and compensation agreements between private employers and employees are outside the scope of government, and these contracts should not be encumbered by government-mandated benefits or social engineering.” That means no minimum wage or requirements regarding working conditions or non-discrimination. The platform also restricts government involvement in labor disputes and is essentially anti-union. Again, pretty much the Republican platform as well.

But wait, there’s more!

On gun control“We oppose all laws at any level of government restricting, registering, or monitoring the ownership, manufacture, or transfer of firearms or ammunition.”  No control of firearms whatever! That actually goes beyond the NRA’s position.

And then there’s this: “For voluntary dealings among private entities, parties should be free to choose with whom they trade and set whatever trade terms are mutually agreeable.”   That sounds a lot like the old “we reserve the right to refuse service to anyone”, and everyone knows exactly what that meant in real terms. It would also cover religious-based refusals to serve LGBT customers. Mike Pence would be just fine with this.

The Libertarian platform has little more than platitudes to say on foreign relations, but it is essentially isolationist, stating: “The United States should both avoid entangling alliances and abandon its attempts to act as policeman for the world. We oppose any form of compulsory national service.” 

This certainly is in line with Trump’s reckless attacks on allied leaders and the doubts he has sown regarding US commitment to the system of alliances we have constructed since World War II. And Trump would certainly endorse the part about avoiding the draft.

Taken as a whole, the Libertarian platform might seem at once idealistic and historically uninformed–a sophomoric manifesto cobbled together by privileged naifs untouched by how the world really works. But there is nothing naive about the way Trump and the Republican donor class are turning its elements into a rationale for policies enabling corruption and inequality on a scale we have not seen in more than a century.

 

 

 

 

 

American Horror Story: 3 Scenarios for 2018

Trumpshining

As this horrible year drags itself to a close, there’s reason to think that 2018 could be even worse. Here are three all-too-plausible scenarios for how the 2018 season of Trump’s reality show might go. Of course, these could never really happen, right?

1. “Not With a Bang, but With a Whimper.”  In this scenario, the desultory investigations by the Senate and House intelligence committees are sabotaged and wound down by the Republican majority in charge of them. The committees don’t issue subpoenas to the key witnesses or suspects, who therefore are not compelled to deliver documentary evidence, and they are either interviewed in closed session (so the American public never hears what they have to say) or not placed under oath for open sessions (so that witnesses don’t have to fear prosecution for perjury.) The committees issue reports saying that the evidence is inconclusive.

The administration fires FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe for having a wife who was a Democrat who once ran for office in Virginia. Trump and his allies keep up a steady drumbeat of attacks on the credibility of  FBI professionals on the laughable premise that the agency is a hotbed of crypto-Democrat activists, leading to a spike in early retirements or resignations among senior and mid-level department heads and agents, who are replaced with people more in tune with the administration. The remaining FBI leadership is increasingly cowed by the threat of further firings and puts pressure on the Special Counsel to wrap things up.

Meanwhile, the Mueller investigation has soldiered on despite a crescendo of attacks on its credibility and impartiality from both the White House and congressional Republicans as well as from supportive media like Fox News and the Wall Street Journal. Under pressure to justify itself, the Special Counsel leaks a draft report that shows strong evidence of coordination between Russia and senior officials of the Trump campaign up to and including Mike Pence and members of the Trump family as well as previously undisclosed financial ties between Trump himself and Russian oligarchs closely linked to Putin. Congressional Democrats present a bill of impeachment in the House. Congressional Republicans ignore the leaked findings and blast the Special Counsel for bias. Paul Ryan never brings the bill of impeachment to a vote. Mueller resigns in disgust under a hail of propaganda attacks financed by Americans for Prosperity and other dark money groups, and the investigation is closed. Trump claims he has been vindicated.

2. “Helter Skelter.”  As the New Year begins, polls continue to show that a majority of Americans continue to believe that there was collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow. The press picks up indications that Mueller’s investigation is delving deeper into financial dealings by the Trump and Kushner organizations. The Washington Post publishes a story that Mueller is preparing an indictment of Jared Kushner.

The White House panics and decides a diversion is needed. Trump summons the Republican congressional leadership and demands that it create a Special Counsel to investigate Hillary Clinton for Uranium One and anything else it can find. Alarmed about prospects for a Democratic sweep in the 2018 midterm elections, Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan agree. Eager to get back in Trump’s favor, Jeff Sessions appoints a Special Counsel. Trey Gowdy jumps into the fray, convening another probe using his position as Chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and modeling the proceedings on the Benghazi hearings.

Democrats erupt in outrage, pointing out that this has been exhaustively investigated already and debunked, but they are powerless to prevent the appointment. Fox News, Breitbart, and the entire alt-right agitprop machine turns up the volume. Dark money TV ads start proliferating especially in smaller, conservative media markets. Mainstream news shows on NBC, CBS, and ABC give even-handed coverage to the controversy, creating an impression among the public that there may be substance to the allegations. Meanwhile, Republicans incessantly bombard the Mueller investigation with accusations of bias.

By the spring, polls show the American public is evenly divided on the Hillary Clinton investigation and that support for Mueller has slipped below 50 percent. Trump’s approval ratings stop falling and start to climb. He decides the time has come to fire Mueller.

3. “Doctor Strangelove“. The Mueller investigation develops conclusive evidence of collusion with Russia by senior members of the Trump campaign as well as use of Russian-supplied voter data analysis and opposition research by the Republican Party in down-ballot races. Indictments are prepared for Jared Kushner and Donald Trump Jr., and the New York Times reports that Mueller is considering charging Mike Pence with lying to the FBI. The Washington Post reports that sales of Trump properties have been used to launder money from Russian oligarchs.

Trump decides to fire Mueller and orders Rob Rosenstein to shut down the investigation. Rosenstein refuses, and is himself fired. A replay of Nixon’s “Saturday Night Massacre” ensues, but eventually someone in the Justice Department agrees to do the deed.

The country explodes in outrage. Massive demonstrations appear in Washington, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and other major cities. The Congress is convulsed with Democrats demanding impeachment and Republicans defending Trump. Trump’s approval ratings slide into the 20 percent range.

Meanwhile, Kim Jong-un seizes this opportunity to fire ballistic missiles over Japan into the Pacific and claims he will explode a missile-carried small nuclear device in the air to demonstrate that North Korea has the capability to deliver nuclear weapons. In response, Trump orders the Navy to deploy carriers close to the Korean coast in the Sea of Japan and the Yellow Sea and to fly aircraft sorties just outside of North Korean airspace. He fires off a series of provocative tweets calling Kim “fake atomic man” and threatening to annihilate North Korea. A US fighter plane is shot down. Trump demands a resolution from Congress authorizing “all necessary measures to counter North Korean aggression.” The vote is 97-3 in the Senate, with Bernie Sanders., Corey Booker and Elizabeth Warren the only votes against.

The Mueller investigation instantly disappears from the news. Trump’s approval rating soars to 65 percent. Trump’s nominees for US attorneys throughout the country are confirmed with little opposition, assuring a compliant judiciary for another generation. The Kochtopus orchestrates a massive campaign accusing Democrats of weakness on national security. Trump embarks on series of enormous rallies.

Fade to Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin. Smiling.

 

 

 

 

 

 

John McCain’s Ultimate Vanity Production

McCain Ovation

He could have just stayed in Arizona. He didn’t have to vote at all, if he doesn’t like the Republican so-called health care bill, which he says he wouldn’t vote for in its current form (whatever that is). If McCain had just stayed in bed, McConnell’s atrocity would have been dead.

But no, John McCain had to rise heroically from his bed of pain, because–you know–he’s a media-certified hero, and that’s what heros do. And sure enough, he got what he wanted–a standing ovation when he walked into the Senate chamber. Because, you know, that’s what heros deserve. It’s that red carpet moment.

So McCain did what he always does, which is to pretend to be a principled, straight-talking “maverick”. I’m calling bullshit.

McCain can talk the talk. He decried the grotesque parliamentary maneuvers employed by McConnell to keep TrumpDon’tCare alive, but again today McCain enabled them just by showing up. He laments that the Senate doesn’t do business as it used to do, but he always goes along with the Republican leadership’s scorched-earth tactics. He complains that the Republican bill is being voted on just because it’s “better than nothing.” But I’m betting that he will vote for it in the end, if for no other reason because it could kill the program named after Obama–the man who defeated him.

So, just like Marco Rubio, he harrumphs about his “reservations” in order to get credit for his self-proclaimed “independence.” But reservations only count in restaurants. In the end, McCain (like Rubio) is no maverick, but just another one of the neutered herd.

Sad.

 

Mitch McConnell: A Man Without Conviction

mcconnell molerat

Mole Rat (left) and Mitch McConnell (right)

What does it say about a man if the crowning achievement of his career is to destroy health care of millions of his countrymen by means of legislation he is crafting in secret. But that’s Mitch McConnell for you–the Mole Rat of the Senate. He labors ceaselessly in the dark, requires little oxygen, and seems to feel neither pain nor shame.

McConnell’s story is one of pursuit of power for its own sake–devoid of any guiding principles save staying in office and rising to the top of a party that rewards such behavior. His legacy is almost exclusively a negative one–destroying what others have built and fighting for corruption in government. He is the perfect man for this era in American politics that is ruled by dark money and corporate and private greed.

More than any other Republican, McConnell devised and led the war of massive and implacable resistance against Barack Obama and is now the most ruthless agent of destruction of Obama’s achievements. Trump may represent the naked id of the Republican party, but McConnell is its cunning and devious ego–and far more effective.

Oddly, however, McConnell has largely evaded the sort of personal loathing by Democrats and other progressives directed at the likes of Ted Cruz, and Donald Trump himself. The press continues to treat him as one of the “adults” in the Senate and even as a relative moderate. Objectively, it’s hard to see why. Perhaps it’s because–unlike Cruz and the Teabaggers–he really isn’t particularly ideological. Or perhaps it’s because he has a thin veneer of patrician Southern gentility–even when telling Elizabeth Warren to shut up and know her place. Or maybe it’s just his nonthreatening physical appearance which resembles an unbaked mass of bread dough that has started to deflate.

McConnell famously told a reporter for the National Journal in October 2010, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” But according to biographer Alec MacGillis, he had outlined the strategy he was to pursue (with considerable success) soon after Obama’s first inauguration. Bob Bennett (an old school Republican who was primaryed by the insurgent Tea Party in 2010) tells it this way:

Mitch said, “We have a new president with an approval rating in the seventy percent area [Obama’s actual popularity at the beginning of his first term]. We do not take him on frontally. We find issues where we can win, and we begin to take him down, one issue at a time. We create an inventory of losses, so it’s Obama lost on this, Obama lost on that. And we wait for the time where the image has been damaged to the point where we can take him on.”

And indeed, the Republicans led by McConnell were able to stymie almost every Obama legislative initiative after the Tea Party wave of 2010. McConnell even killed a bipartisan effort on criminal justice reform and another on immigration reform. The apotheosis of his campaign of Massive Resistance–until now–was his shameless refusal to even hold hearings for Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court, Merritt Garland. That move by an “establishment” figure like McConnell truly signaled that the Republicans had become Bolsheviks and cared nothing for rules, procedural niceties, and customary practices that might impede their agenda. They had the power and would use it.

The one great thing that remained to be smashed was Obamacare. And that is where we are now.

One wonders what really makes Mitch tick. In his own political memoir (“The Long Game”), McConnell says this: “…personal ambition usually has a lot more to do with it than most of us are willing to admit. That was certainly true for me, and I never saw the point in pretending otherwise.” The memoir is mostly silent about ideas or principles or issues. So maybe that’s just it.

There are two recurring themes in McConnell’s story. One is his willing, even eager, embrace of money in politics. The other is his passive willingness to be remolded and repackaged by hired professional political operatives.

On money, McConnell is one of the few politicians who actually seems to like fund raising. Since his early political career, he has actively opposed spending limits on contributions. In his memoir he says, “I never would have been able to win my [first Senate race in 1984] if there had been a limit on the amount of money I could raise and spend.”

As an excellent article in the New York Review of Books by Robert G Kaiser points out, McConnell’s name is not associated with any significant piece of legislation except–and in a completely negative way–the McCain-Feingold bill of 2002 which banned the use of “soft money” from political campaigns. McConnell fiercely opposed the bill and, after it passed, even filed suit in federal court to prevent its implementation. McConnell v. Federal Election Commission reached the Supreme Court, which upheld McCain-Feingold. Of course, now in the era of Citizens United that effort at limiting the influence of money in politics seems merely quaint.

In his last senate race in 2014, McConnell topped the list of contributions received by members of either house of Congress from registered lobbyists. In the 2014 election, McConnell raised (and spent) over $30 million, against about $18 million by his Democratic opponent, according to the organization Open Secrets, which tracks such things.  The biggest single industry contributions to his campaign came from securities and investment firms (led by Blackstone Group and Goldman Sachs. They were also number 1 and 2 in individual firm contributions, followed by Humana Inc (the health insurance company), NorPAC (a pro-Israel PAC), and JP Morgan Chase.

In December 2013, the FEC threatened to audit McConnell’s re-election campaign over excessive contributions from individuals and political action committees. In December 2014, McConnell attempted to to attach a policy rider to the omnibus appropriations bill that would have effectively ended limits imposed on coordinated spending by federal candidates and political party committees. (The effort was reportedly beaten back by Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer.) In 2014, the non-partisan Committee for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) named McConnell as one of the most corrupt members of congress (for the fourth time!).

Regarding the second theme, McConnell’s willingness to be guided by professional political operatives, this is something that goes back to his earliest days in politics. In 1977 McConnell raised an unprecedented amount of money to run for county judge (equivalent to county executive) of Jefferson County, which includes Louisville. The money attracted the attention of Robert Goodman (a commercial maker) and Tully Plesser (a pollster and strategist). Decades later, they recalled that he wasn’t really an interesting person, but he was malleable and willing to do whatever they said in order to win. He refined his message to appeal to various constituencies (and then promptly abandoned some of his promises once in office), but perhaps more importantly launched a content-free but effectively negative TV ad featuring a farmer raking horseshit which he compared to statements by McConnell’s opponent. Thus began the winning theme.

When McConnell ran for senator in 1984, he hired Roger Ailes, the future guru of Fox News, who concocted an ingenious but essentially false attack ad against his opponent. It was credited with enabling McConnell to squeak into office in a year in which Reagan won by a landslide.  The alliance with Ailes remained solid throughout McConnell’s later career. For McConnell, the moral of the story is that winning is all that counts–the politics of politics.

So it’s not that hard to see where McConnell’s current tactics on the Republicans’ mysterious health care bill come from. Trump gets all the attention, while McConnell can work his dark arts in relative obscurity. The Garland affair proved that he can upend the norms of senate procedures with utter impunity. Trump supporters couldn’t give a shit, and his Republican senate colleagues have surrendered all semblance of independent thought. When it comes down to it, they’ll vote the party line. So what that millions of people could lose their health insurance and countless others–especially the sick and the elderly–would be paying far more for theirs, while the wealthy get a big tax cut. The consequences don’t matter as long as the dough-faced nerd can show everyone that he’s the man.

I’m a man without conviction
I’m a man who doesn’t know
How to sell a contradiction?
You come and go, you come and go.

             “Karma Chameleon”–Culture Club

 

 

 

 

The End of Net Neutrality?

Agit Pai

FCC Chairman Agit Pai with his fetish cup

Perhaps, like me, you thought that the term “net neutrality” sounded vaguely like a good thing, but didn’t really understand what it means or what’s at stake when we don’t have it. Now that I have done a bit of research, I can say with considerable certainty that net neutrality is indeed a very good thing and something that should not be destroyed in this administration’s orgy of ripping up everything accomplished during the Obama years.

This is can get quite complicated, but reduced to its essence, net neutrality means that Internet service providers (ISPs) must treat all content equally and not favor one content provider over another. The rules put in place in 2015 prohibited ISPs from creating “fast lanes” for certain companies (presumably those who paid ISPs to obtain that status), while relegating everyone else to the “slow lanes”. The end of net neutrality potentially could also allow ISPs to discriminate according to content.

If you want a fuller and highly entertaining explanation of what this is all about, you could not do better than to watch this video where HBO’s John Oliver lays it all out.

This has become an urgent issue because the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted on May 18 to rescind the Obama-era regulation and is now accepting comments on whether to implement that decision. The 2015 decision was reached after Internet activists fought an major battle against lobbying by the handful of ISP companies that control internet access for the vast majority of Americans. Since the election, the power balance has been reversed, and now the FCC under chairman Agit Pai is eager to give the big ISPs what they want.

The FCC normally has 5 commissioners, but two of those posts are currently vacant. The Democrats now have one member, versus two for the Republicans. Chairman Agit Pai was nominated by Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell, which would pretty much tell you where he is coming from even if you didn’t know that he was previously a corporate lawyer for Verizon.

Pai (who is actually kind of hot in a slightly geeky, aging-frat-bro sort of way) is an enthusiastic deregulator and uses his considerable charm to make misleading and disingenuous arguments for his positions. His major pitch is that whenever something is regulated, there is less of that something available, and that the “burdensome” net neutrality rules mean that the poor ISPs will be unable to make investments necessary to keep up with growing demand. Obviously, the first premise is false; take electricity, for example, which is among the most heavily regulated industries and for which there is no shortage of investment or supply. Nor is there any real evidence to support the second part of the argument.

The principal counterargument is that the new FCC ruling would mean that the big ISPs could engage in all manner of what John Oliver calls “internet fuckery” and demand payment for favorable treatment. Pai insists that this is purely hypothetical and would never, ever happen, but in fact there have been instances of exactly this sort of thing before the 2015 ruling. According to Ars Technica, “the FCC also received a pro-net neutrality comment from the Internet Association, a trade group whose members include Amazon, Dropbox, eBay, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Netflix, PayPal, Reddit, Spotify, Twitter, and about 30 other Web companies.”

But here’s where what’s happening really gets down in the weeds. The proposed change involves a reclassification of ISPs from Title 2 of the FCC legislation to Title 1. Under Title 2, ISPs are treated as “common carriers” which are closely regulated. Giving them a different classification would make them far less regulatable. And it allows those opposed to net neutrality to dismiss the whole controversy as just a simple little reclassification thing, so you kids just run along and play.

This is happening in the wake of the Republican-controlled congress voting–on straight party line vote–to kill Obama-era regulations on Internet privacy, which would have prohibited Internet providers, such as Comcast and AT&T, from storing and selling customers’ browsing histories without their express consent. The Washington Post recently explained how the congressional Republicans accomplished this under the radar, using the furor over health care legislation as cover. So now, folks, your browsing history is a commodity like everything else, proving once again that there is literally nothing that the Republicans won’t do for their corporate overlords.

The comment period on the net neutrality decision remains open for three months. The FCC has made it as burdensome as possible to actually register a comment, but happily John Oliver’s folks have established a domain name and site (gofccyourself.com) that will take you directly there. Just click here and then on “Express”, and let them know what you think.

 

 

Sucking Up to Despots, Alienating Friends

Nato leaders

WTF?:  European leaders listening to Trump’s Speech at NATO summit.

Conservative commentator Joe Scarborough called the speech “a love note for Vladimir Putin.” Indeed, if Putin had wanted to sow doubt and distrust among our European allies, he probably couldn’t have done better if he had written Trump’s NATO summit speech himself.

Trump used his first speech to leaders of our NATO allies to berate them for not spending enough for defense, but conspicuously failed to state that the US would consider an attack on any NATO member an attack on all–the central pillar of the alliance.

Trump’s silence on the latter point–Article 5 of the NATO treaty–has been a source of anxiety among European members (particularly Eastern European countries that were once Soviet satellites or republics of the Soviet Union). During last year’s election campaign, Trump repeatedly called NATO “obsolete” and implied that US commitment to defend NATO members would be conditional on how much members contributed to the cost of defense. Trump’s continuing speak-no-evil policy on Putin and Russia has also contributed to their worries in the wake of Moscow’s support of pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. The revelations in the on-going RussiaGate investigations in the US aren’t helping assuage their concerns either.

At the speech, the Europeans stood stony-faced as Trump declared that  “23 of the 28 member nations are still not paying what they should be paying and what they are supposed to be paying,” and that they owe “massive amounts” from past years. The Washington Post noted that “Trump was left largely on his own after the speech as leaders mingled and laughed with each other, leaving the U.S. president to stand silently on a stage ahead of a group photo.”

The atmosphere was decidedly chillier than the enthusiastic reception he had enjoyed in despotic Saudi Arabia, where members of the Trump entourage like Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross marveled at the lack of protesters. [Hint: Protesters in Saudi Arabia are severely punished, like by being beheaded.] In Riyadh, Trump called on his hosts and other Muslim countries to “drive out the terrorists and extremists” (a speech that Newt Gingrich hilariously called “a titanic shift in U.S. foreign policy”), apparently oblivious of the fact that Saudi government promotion of Wahhabism has provided the theological and financial underpinning for Sunni extremism throughout the world and that Saudis have been the most numerous perpetrators of large scale terrorist attacks–like 9/11.

In Israel, his hosts were again determinedly welcoming and suppressed their reactions to gaffes like Trump’s puerile and semi-literate note left at Israel’s Holocaust Memorial. At the Vatican, the meeting with the Pope appears to have been a lot more awkward. A viral photo shows Trump grinning next to Melania and Ivanka, got up like the bride and bridesmaid at a satanic wedding, while the Pope looks like “how did I get roped into this?” Sometimes photos speak volumes.

trumps with pope

But back to NATO. As usual, Trump’s accusations about European freeloading aren’t quite factual. The New York Times pointed out that there is no obligation for NATO members to spend two percent of their GDP on defense. That was established as a guideline in 2014 with a goal of reaching it by 2024, but that’s all it is. No NATO members actually owe anything. NATO has a common budget to cover military and civilian operations, and members are assessed according to a formula based on GDP. No members are in arrears on such contributions.

The enormous size of the US defense budget is an outlier compared to all other countries in the world. (The US spends more on defense that the next seven largest militaries combined.) Most of US military spending since 2001 has gone for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which the US entered into on its own, not as part of NATO. While it could be argued that NATO countries have benefited from unilateral US military operations, it’s worth bearing in mind that many European countries opposed the Iraq war. And the UK, Germany, and other NATO countries have sent troops to Afghanistan.

It’s not as if NATO countries spending more on defense would mean the US would spend less. Indeed, Trump’s budget proposal would mean a 10 percent increase in US defense spending because…well, we don’t actually know why. Given that US defense spending is already an order of magnitude more than any other country’s, it seems mainly to be a macho thing. There is a strong argument to be made that rather than the Europeans are spending too little on defense, the US is spending too much–particularly since the proposed increase would mean drastic spending cuts on non-military programs.

The point here is that Trump’s remarks were clearly intended (and understood) as gratuitous affronts to our country’s most valuable allies and delivered in the crudest and most public way possible.

Putin’s grand strategy has long been to create discord between and within Europe and the US. leading eventually to the dissolution of NATO and the EU and paralyzing political conflict in the US. He appears to be succeeding beyond his wildest dreams, with Donald Trump as his useful fool.

A Voice Crying Out in the Post-Ethics Wilderness

Let us now praise Walter M. Shaub, Jr.

In case that name doesn’t ring a bell, he is the head of the Office of Government Ethics, and the man trying to hold back the flood of corruption unleashed by the Trump kleptocracy.

Shaub is now involved in a battle with the White House after he requested release of the names of all former lobbyists who have been given waivers to work in the White House or federal agencies by the Trump administration–a request which the White House has demanded that he withdraw while challenging his authority to ask for the information.

The New York Times reports that dozens of former lobbyists and industry lawyers are now “working in the Trump administration, which has hired them at a much higher rate than the previous  administration.” Such lobbyists and lawyers are prohibited from working on matters involving former clients for two years, and lobbyists can’t work on the regulatory issues that they had previously lobbied on. The reasons should be obvious.

However, the administration can issue waivers. According to the NYT story, the Obama administration automatically made all waivers public and included detailed explanations for each waiver. In contrast, the Trump Administration has kept them secret, hence the request for information made by Shaub on behalf of the OGE.

The aggressive refusal of the Trump administration to comply has shocked those familiar with past practices and has raised new concerns about what they are trying to conceal. By law, the OGE has clear authority to make such a “data request” to federal agencies (though there is some debate whether the White House itself is considered a “federal agency”). In any case, Shaub clearly isn’t backing down and shot off a blistering 10-page response to the White House’s rebuff of the original request.

Now Democrats in congress are protesting the secret waivers and threatening to issue their own demands for information if the White House continues to stonewall. As usual, congressional Republicans are attacking Shaub and his agency for doing their job.

Back in November, soon after the election, Shaub sent out a series of tongue-in-cheek tweets which congratulated Trump for his decision to divest himself of his assets and cited laws, regulations, and established custom for doing so.  Of course, Trump did no such thing. And after Trump’s laughable announcement that he was turning over management of his assets to this sons while retaining full ownership, and the inclusion of Ivanka and her husband in the White House staff while they retained de facto control of their enterprises, Shaub rebuked them for their pitifully inadequate steps to avoid conflicts of interests.  This in turn, aroused Republican attack dogs in congress, like Jason Chaffetz, to attack the ethics watchdog.

The Trump famiglia‘s shameless exploitation of the White House for personal enrichment is bad enough to warrant outrage and investigation. But potentially far worse would be the wholesale turnover of federal government agencies to the agents of the corporations, industries, and interests they are supposed to regulate on behalf of the American people as a whole.

Some of this is happening in plain sight with the appointment of people like Scott Pruitt, Betsy DeVos, Rex Tillerson, Wilbur Ross, etc. to cabinet level positions. But those, at least, require senate confirmation and public scrutiny.  Secretly embedding scores of corporate and industry agents in key positions in federal agencies is another matter entirely and should be strongly denounced and resisted.

We seem to be well on our way to government by the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower warned against. It may be a losing battle, but be glad for true patriots in the professional federal bureaucracy like Walter Shaub who are trying to keep some hope alive for government by the people rather than corporations. His fight should concern us all.