Archive for January, 2017

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.

Some Thoughts on Fame and the Political Ascendancy of Donald Trump – posted 1/2/2017 and published in the Concord Monitor on 2/12/2017

January 3, 2017 1 comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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