Stormy Monday, 4/14/14

StormyMondayYou’re no doubt delighted that your hardworking Congressional representatives have begun their desperately needed two-week break to recharge their batteries, get a little spring sun on their overwhelmingly white and male faces, and mull over “new” legislative ideas that haven’t a prayer of becoming law (which of course is, mostly, a good thing). On the brighter side, Virginia Democrat Jim Moran’s notion of adding a new housing stipend to Congressional remuneration appears to be a non-starter, so at least they’ll be lollygagging at their existing undeserved rate of pay.

Meanwhile, 2.4 million unemployed Americans will spend the same two weeks tearing their hair out over unpaid bills, wondering how they’re going to feed their kids, and continuing not to matter worth a damn to Republicans.

John Boehner kicked off his spring break today with a surprise visit to Afghanistan, accompanied by seven senior House Republicans. He’s expected to hug anyone in uniform he sees, lurch aimlessly around the streets of Kabul in search of happy hour, and top off the junket with a tear-stained tribute to whatever the hell it is American troops are supposed to be accomplishing there.

Following the Bureau of Land Management’s weekend return of 400 confiscated head of cattle back to deadbeat Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, the ludicrous confrontation between the government and Bundy’s creepy nitwit militia buddies appears to be over, at least until the BLM attempts to pursue other remedies against the scofflaw and the nitwits get all riled up again. Stay tuned.

Today and tomorrow in New York, China and the United States will hold talks on dealing with North Korea, followed by a third session in Washington on Thursday. While I have no expertise in international relations, it seems to me the two nations could do worse than shipping 400 head of cattle Kim Jong-un’s way for starters. It might at least buy a little time. Continue reading Stormy Monday, 4/14/14

Russia's Cold War Makes Crimea a Hot Spot

DDVladimir Putin is an authentic throwback. No country, not China or North Korea—or the US—has made the bold move he accomplished in under a month. As the head of state of Russia’s government, he ordered and executed the grab of another state’s sovereignty by passive force of arms, using a series of sham excuses and a phony plebiscite to install Russian hegemony over a territory that a week ago belonged to Ukraine.

That basket of facts alone is worthy of sharper focus and penetrating discussions, but US politicians, Russian specialists, and media keep talking around it. The story wanders away to ask what Putin will do next. (Will he invade Ukraine—ignoring that he already has!) Those who see news as prophecy ask how will Europe and the US respond—all without any real sense of the gravity of what Putin has already done. His announcement that Crimea is now under Russian political and military control, and his signing an agreement to annex a territory that a week ago had only local officials without sovereign power to enter into an agreement to turn its territory and governance over to another country, is monumental.

Except Native Americans, no nation has achieved a land grab from another country without a protracted armed struggle in more than a century.

Even five years ago, when Russia recognized the independence of the small territory of South Ossetia from Georgia, it did not annex it.

What makes Putin’s announcement so precedent-setting is that it began without threats or troops, as part of the debate about Ukraine’s internal affairs, in the name of a Ukrainian president who was deposed by the shadow of his own fears. Ukraine’s former president, Viktor Yanukovych, had been under siege from Ukraine’s population, who wanted a closer alignment with the West, especially in trade, finance and travel.

Instead, Yanukovych turned toward Russia. Especially after Putin offered him a $15 billion loan agreement, to finance his government and his wildly out-of-line corruption. Citizens took to the streets. Unprepared, inept, Yanukovych caved and left the country voluntarily, landing in Russia where he held press conference near Ukraine’s border, asserting he still held the presidency and his overthrow was illegal. He held his press conference on February 28th, promising to fight for Ukraine.

In the meantime, Ukrainians were busy touring his off-the-books house and private zoo. He hasn’t been heard from again. He played no role in the present Russian action, except to provide a reason for Russia to ignore the interim government and claim it threatened Crimea and was anti-Russian, putting Crimean citizens of Russian heritage at risk.

Yanukovych’s ouster, however, saved Russia $15 billion and gained them Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula—in less than three weeks. (Of course, he loses his house.)

Here are five reasons to focus not only on the next moves for all sides, but where the state of affairs is now: Continue reading Russia’s Cold War Makes Crimea a Hot Spot

Stormy Monday, 3/17/14

StormyMondayEven before yesterday’s secession “referendum” in Crimea, Washington and the European Union had declared that the process didn’t pass the smell test. Sure as dammit, there was an off-putting spoor to exit polls suggesting 93% support for breaking away from Ukraine and joining Russia. European foreign ministers gather today in Brussels to discuss freezing Russian assets, with a Thursday conclave of EU leaders also scheduled.

Stateside, John Kerry has been spending a lot of time on the phone with Russian foreign minister Lavrov, much as Secretary Kerry’s boss has been chatting a lot with Lavrov’s. In Congress, bipartisan pressure continues to build for sanctions against Russia; the Senate Foreign Relations Committee cleared a sanctions bill last week that also guarantees $1 billion in loans to Ukraine. Just back from a meaningless but self-aggrandizing Ukraine junket, and ever the bilge – er, bridge over troubled water, John McCain yesterday unhelpfully described Russia as “a gas station masquerading as a country.” Hmm. What with “that one” in the White House for a second term, poor Senator McCain is running out of wars. Shill, baby, shill.

Fred Phelps, former capo of the Westboro Baptist church, reportedly begins the week “close to death.” Which would be a shame, except that he’s Fred Phelps.

Cyberspace could be in for a rude shock this week if Republicans make good on their excited bleating about deploying some spanking new “.gop” websites. Wow! Talk about seismic shifts: same stale, dim, destructive ideas, totally new domain!

The search continues for Malaysia Airlines’ Flight 370, amid new suspicions that the plane’s disappearance was linked to a 9/11-style plot to attack India. Michael McCaul, chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, and Peter King, one of his fellow Republican doofuses thereon, continue to insist that a terrorism connection is unlikely, which leads me to suspect that it’s very likely. Continue reading Stormy Monday, 3/17/14

Stormy Monday, 12/2/13

StormyMondayAccompanied by his son Hunter and granddaughter Finnegan, Vice President Biden begins a week-long Asian junket on Monday with a stop in Tokyo. His itinerary includes meetings with Japanese, Chinese and South Korean leaders, and the mooted Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and regional security concerns are expected to top the agenda. The Veep’s trip comes at a time when China and Japan are engaging in a Falklands-style dispute over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.

David Cameron is also in China this week, desperate to kiss some State Council butt after his meeting with the Dalai Lama in May of last year got them all riled up. For good measure, the British PM brought along scores of business people, all eager to be the first and biggest (and perhaps only) recipients of what Cameron recently termed “real rewards for our peoples.”

Elsewhere in the Far East, the tense situation in Thailand shows no signs of easing. Suthep Thaugsuban, leader of the anti-government faction, claims he told Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in a secret meeting on Sunday that she and her government have two days to step down and turn control of the county “over to the people.” Violent, sometimes deadly protests continue, but it’s unclear what will happen should Yingluck fail to heed the dissidents’ ultimatum.

Although acknowledging that more remediation is needed, the White House claimed Sunday that HealthCare.gov is now largely fixed and capable of handling 50,000 visitors at a time, meeting the President’s self-imposed repair timeline. Watch for renewed efforts this week to undermine or sabotage the site, if enough Republican hackers can figure out how to turn on their computers. And if that effort fails, they’ll always have Benghazi.

The House will be back in session this week, with a light schedule befitting its inability to actually get anything accomplished. The Senate is out until next week, though efforts continue behind the scenes to prepare new sanctions in case current State Department and international efforts at rapprochement with Iran falter. Both chambers are “working” against a December 13 deadline to agree on a budget deal, and short of that will have to come up with another continuing resolution in January to keep the government open past the 15th. Continue reading Stormy Monday, 12/2/13

Stormy Monday, 9/30/13

StormyMondayWith immigration reform, gun control, jobs, the economy and a host of other priorities ignored, mishandled or otherwise botched by the worst Congress of the modern era (and maybe ever), it’s time for Congressional Republicans to make an utter mess of government itself. This week the fools on the Hill try to beat the clock on a continuing resolution on spending, and may God help the United States of America.

Will the government still be fully operational at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday? Not if House Republicans and their fellow travelers in the Senate get their way. With the House GOP determined to make a continuing resolution contingent on the demise or delay of Obamacare, and the Senate’s Democratic majority determined to resist the effort, the eleventh-hour negotiations look suspiciously similar to the negotiations gone before, which you might remember have led precisely nowhere.

Even if, by some unanticipated miracle, a continuing resolution amenable to both chambers can be cobbled together, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew reckons that the nation will bash its head on the debt ceiling no later than October 17, another unnecessary fiscal crisis tailor-made for Republican foot-stomping intransigence and pre-adolescent brinkmanship. The President summed all this up the other day, neatly:

“No Congress before this one has ever, ever, in history been irresponsible enough to threaten default, to threaten an economic shutdown, to suggest America not pay its bills, just to try to blackmail a president into giving them some concessions on issues that have nothing to do with a budget.”

Also on Tuesday, the health insurance exchanges, a central component of Obamacare, are scheduled to open, and according to remarks by the President last Friday, they will: “Those marketplaces will be open for business on Tuesday, no matter what, even if there’s a government shutdown. That’s a done deal.” Continue reading Stormy Monday, 9/30/13

Take Five (Jerks in Progress edition)

Take-FiveONE: Death Becomes Them

Via The Hill, I recently discovered political scientist Eric Ostermeier’s fascinating curio cabinet of a blog, Smart Politics, published by the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Among other topics, Dr. Ostermeier has recently scrutinized websites for House campaigns (nine incumbent House members did not have an active campaign website as of August 18), traced the historical arc of African-Americans elected to Congress (25 states have yet to elect their first black Representative, and nearly half of the African-Americans ever elected to the House were from a mere five states), tallied living former Senators (167, a whopping eight of them from Minnesota), and surveyed Spanish language content on official House websites (the sites of 36 Congressfolks, 31 of them Democrats, feature some).

Dr. Ostermeier is now three installments into a series focusing on “unusual deaths that have befallen members of Congress.” Given current Congressional approval ratings, it wouldn’t be surprising to learn that “Unusual Exits” is among the year’s most popular political writing; if it isn’t, it should be. The newest installment looks at drowning, which has claimed 13 members of the Senate and House since 1808, although only two were in office at the time of their deaths. This follows on part 1, which looked at Congressional deaths “on or by railroads” (death toll 23), and part 2, which examined deaths by “accidental gunshots” (body count 6).

It’s lucky for House Republicans that blatant, bare-assed hypocrisy isn’t fatal. Take Colorado’s Mike Coffman, Cory Gardner, Doug Lamborn and Scott Tipton, who were quick to add their signatures to an emergency funding request by their state delegation following Colorado’s calamitous flooding. Back in July, the quartet endorsed a similar petition for a federal major disaster declaration after a rash of wildfires. What’s wrong with that? Nothing at all, except that the same four Representatives voted against disaster relief money for areas affected by Hurricane Sandy. For added context, ThinkProgress helpfully notes that they’re all climate change denialists.

TWO: Squeaker of the House

John Boehner, crime boss of these and other Republicans in the People’s House, just vomited up some hypocrisy of his own with a web commercial that asks the musical question: “Why is the Obama Administration willing to negotiate with Putin on Syria… but not with Congress to address Washington’s spending problem?”

Since you asked, Mr. Speaker, I have a few guesses. Maybe it’s because the civil war in Syria has ominous regional implications, and the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime violates an accord ratified by 189 nations, and soon by Syria. Or it could be because Congressional Republicans haven’t negotiated anything in good faith with the Executive Branch since Barack Obama’s first inauguration. Or perhaps it’s because the only spending problem in Washington (other than the perpetually ludicrous defense budget) is your party’s refusal to strengthen the recovery with further stimulus, adequate SNAP and unemployment benefits, and a federal minimum wage at least tenuously connected to reality. You know what? Let’s make it all of the above.

THREE: China Syndrome

You might recall a story from late August about a million cockroaches escaping from a farm in Dafeng, China. As loathsome as roaches are, I can’t begrudge them their instincts here, since they were being bred as an ingredient for traditional medicines. Besides, the escape wasn’t even their idea; the greenhouse where they were housed was compromised by a person or persons unknown, and the roaches did what came naturally, and scattered.

I didn’t really give the item a second thought until I read a National Journal story about a terrifying encounter in the basement of the White House press offices with a roach described by political scientist Martha Joynt Kumar as “the size of a small drone.”

Wait. Could the Dafeng “escape” have been faked? Could the White House incident be a beachhead for some sort of Red Dawn-style insectile assault? Could the press office cockroach have actually been a drone? Well, no, of course not, but the need for vigilance has never been greater. Mere days after the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States approved Shuanghui International’s $4.7 billion purchase of US pork producer Smithfield Foods, Chinese authorities seized roughly 45,000 pounds of fake beef from a factory in Xi-an:

The pork was treated with chemicals, including paraffin wax and industrial salts, to make it look like beef…

The news will come as [of] particular concern to Xi’an’s large Muslim community, who may have been buying some distinctly non-halal beef.

Hedge fund Starboard Value, which owns 5.7 percent of Smithfield, had been working on an alternative buyout offer since early summer, but has abandoned the effort and will back the Chinese deal at a shareholder vote on Tuesday, knocking down one of the last remaining hurdles to completion of the transaction. Nobody brings home the bacon like Shuanghui International, even if they have to disguise it as flank steak. Continue reading Take Five (Jerks in Progress edition)

Stormy Monday, 6/3/13

Tuesday, more IRS crap hits the fan with the release of a watchdog’s report that fingers the agency for, among other things, spending $49 million on employee conferences over the past three years. Some of the expenses have already been described by Acting Commissioner Danny Werfel as “inappropriate” (like $60,000 for two training videos, one of which was a Star Trek parody featuring a large, taxpayer-funded mock-up of the bridge of the Enterprise, and the other showing IRS employees learning how to do the Cupid Shuffle).

House of Representatives Thug-in-Residence Darrell Issa has announced a Thursday hearing on the watchdog report. This will follow two more IRS-related House hearings this week, an Appropriations Committee hearing Monday, at which Werfel will testify, and a Ways and Means Committee hearing on Tuesday, where Teabaggers will complain publicly about how dreadfully unfair it was for the IRS to scrutinize them simply because they loudly hate the government, hate paying taxes, and hate democracy.

After a Wednesday stop in Charlotte on his continuing “Middle-Class Jobs & Opportunity Tour,” the President will attend some California fundraising events for Congressional Democrats before meeting Friday with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping for a brief summit at Sunnylands, the Rancho Mirage home of the late Walter Annenberg. This comes mere days after the State Department called on China to end persecution of Tiananmen Square dissidents and “fully account for those killed, detained or missing,” an exhortation that prompted China’s foreign ministry to accuse the United States of “interfering in China’s internal affairs.”

No information has been released about summit menus, but after a few hours discussing trade, human rights and North Korea, let’s hope the hungry leaders avoid tucking into a ham or other pork product from Smithfield; the company’s food safety record is so dreadful that Smithfield was just bought up by the even more dreadful Chinese conglomerate Shuanghui International. Hold the clenbuterol.

The Supreme Court is expected to rule this week on Fisher v. University of Texas, a decision that could have a significant impact on the future of affirmative action. Elena Kagan has recused herself, increasing the odds that the Supreme Court’s conservative faction will find against the school’s minority admissions policy. Continue reading Stormy Monday, 6/3/13

When A List Of Facts Don't Tell The Truth

With all the crazy things he says, if Mitt Romney were a student on any of America’s college campuses, he would be profiled on a watch list. His radical speech continually advocating the abolition of the federal government while attending classes with classmates with tuition paid for by federal student loans would register as a blind contradiction and personality disconnect (dissociative identity) that could easily cross the line from blame and denigration to violence. Instead, he is running for President of the United States as a candidate for the Republican Party and ducking questions about his claims, saying conversations about inequity should be held in quiet rooms where, promising to “do more” if he could to cut jobs, he rails against 47% of Americans whose incomes are so low they are exempt from income taxes.

He is not alone in the group home; group homes are normally places where people with special challenges are given love and support and encouraged to break through their veils. But Mitt does a Mitty; his advocacy network of irrational politics has the power to make his cruelest fantasies real and impose them on the rest of us, no matter our own dreams. He and his ilk are well funded by operators who see dollars in the vast disability that shadow hims and others: parts narcissism, delusion, paranoid, manic, a bundle of anti-social behaviors including the lack of empathy, guilt, or remorse for pathological lying, a grandeur that writes its own morality and rules of the game.

For instance, Michael Brown, the infamous “Brownie” who let New Orleans turn into Atlantis, publicly chided President Obama for reacting to hurricane Sandy too soon, claiming the President’s actions were “premature.” Brownie is also on record claiming Obama “wanted” the Gulf oil spill so he could suspend offshore drilling. Brown never saw a disaster he couldn’t make worse or find faults and conspiracies in the tragedy. And he once ran the nation’s emergency response.

Or take Romney’s television and radio commercial claiming GM and Chrysler both intend to send American production jobs to China. Both companies have taken the unusual step of calling the “car guy” a liar. A GM spokesperson cited galactic-length differences between the Romney ads and reality. The spokesperson went on: “no amount of campaign politics at its cynical worse will diminish our record of creating jobs.” Chrysler’s CEO, calling the ads, “inaccurate,” pointed out Chrysler has added 2,900 jobs at downtown Detroit’s Jefferson Avenue plant, which builds Jeep Cherokees. Ironically, Romney’s father built Jeeps in China in the 1980s, as CEO of American Motors. Chrysler will build there, too, for China’s market, the world’s largest.

Romney knows a list of facts don’t add up to truth. But America has frequently confused villains and heroes; the bad man is often the good guy. And the good guy often has fatal flaws. Barack Obama has shouldered the abuse and crises and carnage left by the former and potential residents of office, and his flaw seems to be a stoic good cheer for which he is mercilessly heckled. Many (some from both sides!) seem angry that they haven’t been able to seduce the President into a meltdown. Continue reading When A List Of Facts Don’t Tell The Truth

Obama Will Make Bad Better

Barack Obama has a modest economic record and here’s why: Timothy Geithner, Lawrence Summers, and others gave him bad advice; his political people, David Axelrod, Patrick Gaspard, David Plouffe and others, had no feel for the broad suffering of America and lacked technical know-how or institutional experience in managing the world’s largest macro-economy; from Europe to Asia, global headwinds stalled job growth, the Council of Economic Advisors was a revolving door, and Barack’s own mastery and knowledge of economic fundamentals is weak. Twenty-nine million Americans looking for working is the result, a dismal record, especially four years past the Great Crisis.

Legislatively, Republicans blocked the recovery by threatening the integrity of American credit, by turning wrongheaded ideas into talking points, by ignoring truth (government does create jobs!), by passing bill after bill never destined to reach the President’s desk, bills never intended to help American families, never proposing a change in the rules that aided families burdened by mortgages and foreclosures, never stimulating demand—the key to job growth. They offered instead cuts in safety nets.

Yet the index for equity markets doubled from their 2009 bottom and more than ever companies saw record profits by 2012. Capital tells a very different story than jobs. Why the contradiction between record profits and job recovery, between community suffering and corporate swag?

Hidden in plain sight, it’s the part Mitt Romney conveniently leaves out of his message. Again, Mitt switches positions to pretend he is something he is not: he has no “know-how” about creating jobs—none. Mitt is a balance sheet guy. He creates capital—not work. He extracts capital gains—he does not increase paychecks. Wealth is profit; labor is an expense. His goal is to take out cash, not increase what workers take home. His entire corporate life, his constant activity has been extracting wealth, trading capital, increasing its return as capital gains. His ideas have a single source: profit, capital wealth.

And where did that capital wealth come from? He robbed labor. Without conscience, he fired workers, stole their pensions, stripped their benefits, sold their machines overseas to increase his personal wealth. He did not grow production; he extracted its value. He wrecked perfectly solid companies.

Now, with relish, he thinks his success and its carnage of unemployed workers will benefit the nation, the “small businesses” he cites. He never mentions the word “workers”—or their families, hoping we confuse capital wealth with increased demand. If Romney’s view were true, record profits would already be driving hiring. The top ten companies holding cash are behemoths of strength and stability, all in Fortune’s Top 100 US.

Here’s a partial list: Exxon Mobil (energy), $17.8 billion; WellPoint (health insurance); $20.3 billion; Amgen (biotech), $22.5 billion; Pfizer (drugs, equipment), $24.3 billion; Apple, (technology) $27. 6 billion; Oracle (software) 30.7 billion; Google (technology networks), $41.7 billion; Cisco Systems (technology) $48.7 billion; Microsoft (technology) $62 billion.

These are not small businesses. Mitt Romney knows nothing of small businesses, whether tailoring or coffee shops, lawn care or day care, mobile labs or fund raising, bed & breakfasts or convenience stores. He never walked their path. He does not know their craft—or the balance sheets of the Patels, the name identified with the large Indian community who now own 70% of American hotel rooms; they know more than Mitt about creating jobs and wealth. Washington, DC’s immigrant Ethiopian community turned service jobs into a several-block area of restaurants and stores (bounded by U and 9th Streets NW), creating a core of businesses and experiences that supports a network opening new neighborhoods and cities. Koreans and Iraqis have done the same with inner-city groceries.

The list of cash hoarders that Mitt wants to help in the name of workers are not small business—or job creators. He ignores the successful examples and models right under his nose! The culture of the giants he comes from and supports pushes profit and power, demanding concessions, lowered costs, global franchises. The frantic pleas of 29 million Americans are written off as national depreciation, a group that exceeded its usefulness and is somebody else’s problem. The 47 percent. Continue reading Obama Will Make Bad Better

Digging Deeper: Romney on Foreign Policy: All Fault, No Forward

A partisan critique of the President’s foreign policy is not a foreign policy plan. Mitt Romney is conducting his review, and his VFW convention stump speech on foreign policy sounded remarkably similar to his stump speech about America’s standing. All fault, no forward. All will, no way. All blame, no shame. His grand strategy sounds like a call for global domination. We know he doesn’t practice what he preaches! He is the first major party candidate to express his faith in America by moving his money out of the country. The real question is: what does he preach?

What uses of soft power does Romney propose? Where does he stand on the UN call for nations to give 0.07% of GDP to foreign aid? What is his approach to the military and political conflicts that have destabilized and disrupted important African states? Does he see the connections between political stability and gender equality recently outlined in Foreign Policy? What are his views on international agreements on fishing stocks? How will he limit the theft of intellectual property?

Does he see AIDS treatment as an arm of American policy? Will he switch to local purchases of food aid, a model that reduces workers’ risk, stimulates local markets, and broadens the aid’s impact? Will he strengthen ties with Brazil, already a major partner of China? Will he aid in developing Brazil’s enormous oil find or expand its steel industry, redirecting energy and infrastructure trade to a hemispherical partner? Does he support greater access to education and greater economic opportunity for the world’s women?

Could Romney rally the world against Iran as the President has done? Will he continue drone strikes? Does he support rendition?

Romney’s policy seems to be to search for enemies, spend billions more on building outmoded traditional defenses like battleships and carriers, and restore imperialism. For him, global social reform means suppressing the rights of laborers and workers and controlling the results of democratic actions by organizing efforts to undermine self-determination. Continue reading Digging Deeper: Romney on Foreign Policy: All Fault, No Forward