In case one requires a lesson about the long arm of Chinese influence in the United States, one need look no further than the recent fracas surrounding Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey’s pro-Hong Kong protests tweet.
The backlash in China to Morey’s errant post was sizable and swift. Live games and other upcoming promotional events were cancelled. Multiple Chinese sponsors announced their decision to cut business ties with the Rockets organization or the NBA outright and Chinese state television vowed to no longer air Rockets preseason games. In addition, Houston potentially faces $25 million in sponsorship boycotts and the league could see a hit to player contract monies owing to the newfound hostility.
Oof. Talk about the power of social media.
The magnitude of the Chinese reaction to criticism from one basketball executive is somewhat surprising in it of itself. All that for one tweet, which yielded an apology from Morey? What is more startling, if not unsettling, though, is how little support the Rockets GM has seemed to get in the United States.
Tilman Fertitta, billionaire owner of the Houston Rockets, for one, public distanced Morey’s comments from the team’s position, stating explicitly that the club is not a “political organization.” Joe Tsai, owner of the Brooklyn Nets and billionaire businessman in his own right, also condemned Morey’s support for the Hong Kong protests, characterizing the situation as a “third-rail issue” not to be touched and voicing his displeasure with the “separatist movement” of which these protests evidently are a part. Even the league itself has offered contradictory sentiments of support and regret, on one hand defending Morey’s right to self-expression but in the same breath deeply apologizing to China and its NBA fans in Chinese.
Morey’s and the NBA’s cautionary tale, so to speak, is not the only one lately to garner media attention. When Chung Ng Wai, a pro Hearthstone player who goes by “Blitzchung,” made a show of support for the Hong Kong protests during a Grandmasters tournament, he was removed from the competition, had his prize money forfeited, and was banned from tournament play by Blizzard, the game’s maker, for a year. Blizzard has since reduced the length of the ban and reinstated his winnings, but not before a public outcry earned the company strong criticism and spawned talk of boycotts and protests.
Apple and Google sparked outrage as well when they removed apps used by protesters or that were otherwise evocative of the protests/were vaguely supportive. Apple indicated it acted because the app in question allegedly was being used to target law enforcement officials and Hong Kong residents, a charge disputed by protest supporters. Google claims it removed The Revolution of Our Times for capitalizing on a sensitive event such as conflict.
Sound business practice or kowtowing to a censorious Chinese communist regime widely regarded as a human rights abuser in the name of money? Who’s pulling the strings? These are the kinds of questions major corporations like Apple, Blizzard, Google, and the NBA face in the wake of decisions that appear to favor the latter condition. It doesn’t help their cases that their various responses were made so quickly, and for Blizzard, arguably so disproportionately, at least initially. If what some believe is true, it’s not a question of whether these companies will jump, but how high.
This is part of the problem with China, a country that is a major player on the world stage and is seemingly unhappy with the amount of control it has in global affairs, including what people say about it and how. As Bill Bishop, author of the newsletter Sinocism, writes in an entry about the Morey-NBA flap with China entitled “The NBA’s poisoned China chalice,” Beijing doesn’t just want to be part of the conversation—it wants to lead the discourse. Bishop writes:
The broader context for this crisis is that the [Chinese Communist Party] has long pushed to increase its “international discourse power 国际话语权“, and as with many things its efforts have intensified under Xi. The idea is that China’s share of international voice is not commensurate with its growing economic, military and cultural power and that the Party should have much more control over the global discussion of all things Chinese, in any language, anywhere.
The Party is taking at least a two-track approach to rectifying this problem. On the one hand it is launching, buying, co-opting and coercing overseas media outlets. On the other it uses the power of the Chinese market to co-opt and coerce global businesses, their executives and other elite voices.
From the looks of it, these obeisant acts on the part of aforementioned American multinationals fit the second category. Never mind trying to influence politicians or meddle with elections. This takes a direct route to the heart of U.S. business, and including executives like Adam Silver and Tim Cook, nonetheless impacts influential figures who may yet have a voice in the domestic political discussion. Paired with a multi-million-dollar media campaign designed to shape public opinion and policy in the United States, China is anything but a passive player in the global politics of power.
Such is why, for the spotlight that has been shone on Russian interference in our elections and hacking of campaign infrastructures, the shadow China casts on American commerce (not to mention the amount of our debt it holds and potential attempts to steal intellectual property and other secrets) seemingly hasn’t had its due consideration. If China’s flexing to minimize criticism of its handling of the Hong Kong protests is any indication, the United States and other relevant world powers are highly susceptible to Beijing’s reactionary demands, right down to their more socially-conscious participants. As citizens and conscientious consumers, the scope of Chinese authority should concern us.
For those who have been sounding the alarm about China for years, that it might be something like Beijing’s knee-jerk retaliation against the NBA and the Houston Rockets organization or Blizzard’s Hearthstone debacle to affect the public consciousness is striking, although one supposes it may as well be one of these circumstances. In either of these instances, the shift in attention from the masses simply may have finally intersected with an area of importance to them, a milieu they conceivably enjoyed irrespective of their political leanings. Certainly, the duration and visibility of the Hong Kong protests helps in this regard.
Regardless of why there is such a strong focus all of a sudden on corporate management of the China-Hong Kong relationship, the realization across industries that politics does, in fact, play a role and compels executive leadership to take a meaningful stand is a critical one. Before, NBA figures such as Gregg Popovich, LeBron James, and Steve Kerr known for being outspoken on political and social issues in the United States might have gotten a pass for equivocating on the subject of China. Now, they’re getting their due criticism, or in the case of LeBron, having their jersey burned in a protest within the Hong Kong protests. To say the paradigm has changed would seem to be an understatement.
CNBC contributor Jake Novak, for one, marvels at how the NBA’s China fiasco has struck a nerve when years of reporting and pundits’ observations about how China hasn’t lived up to its promises to be a model state haven’t hit their mark, calling the ensuing fallout “just the wake-up call the world needed.”
As Novak explains, despite increasing economic engagement with the West, China, in numerous ways, has become or has tried to become more repressive and secretive. With Google’s help, no less, it worked on a government-censored search engine under the code name “Dragonfly” that only this past summer was terminated. It holds millions of people, many of them members of ethnic minority groups, in “counter-extremism centers” or “re-education camps,” and otherwise tramples on human rights, brutally punishing dissent. Militarily, China has built its forces to antagonistic levels, making bold shows of force repeatedly in the South China Sea before its neighbors. In addition, China’s lack of transparency concerning its international lending practices obscures the true level of debt (and therefore, risk) the global economy faces. This is the business partner countless American multinationals have chosen, a partner that fancies itself a victim in countless scenarios despite a pattern of aggression.
Of course, America is no saint when it comes to observation of human rights and respecting the autonomy of foreign lands, a notion much more glaring under would-be dictator Donald Trump. Attempted moral equivalencies by Kerr et al. aside, China’s quest to insinuate itself across state lines and continental divides is a problem not just for the U.S., but the world. Furthermore, it’s one that corporate America can be instrumental in addressing.
So, getting to the central question: how do we solve a problem like China? As James Palmer, senior editor at Foreign Policy, quoted in Bishop’s post instructs, part of the solution lies in boycotts, public shaming, and protests against company leadership that does business with China’s repressive regime under Xi Jinping. Also, Congress will likely have to intercede, calling on executives to testify about the deals they’ve made and threatening contracts and tax breaks for failure to comply with existing laws or for otherwise unsatisfactory answers.
Such is the good news: that we can take concrete steps to hold China and its enablers accountable for their misdeeds. The bad news? We’re, ahem, relying on consumer political participation and the efficacy of Congress, neither of which is a guarantee. As Novak suggests, the NBA is unlikely to be crippled by boycotts any more than the NFL was by fans upset over Colin Kaepernick. Bishop, in response to Palmer’s sentiments, is “not optimistic” on either front. Amid an emphasis on social responsibility—feigned or not—by chief executives and tough talk from politicians, the talk of the Chinese market’s money would appear to carry further.
In terms of solving our China “problem,” then, we may ultimately be more successful catching a cloud and pinning it down, or holding a moonbeam in our hand.
WARNING: For those with delicate political and economic sensibilities, this piece will make repeated references to a particular term. A dirty word in certain circles, to be sure. In fact, some may be unable to speak it lest they devolve into paroxysms of uncontrollable shouting and frothing at the mouth. He doesn’t mean what I think he means, you shudder. Oh, but I do, intrepid reader. You guessed it: that word. The “S word.”
Socialism. (Boo! Hiss!)
As we approach Election Day 2020, attacks from the right have been trying to frame any and all serious Democratic contenders as “socialists,” railing against the purported evils of suggested policy shifts such as Medicare for All, free tuition at public colleges and universities, the Green New Deal, and other tenets of a progressive or liberal agenda. Under this haphazard framework, legitimate elements resembling facets of socialist societies can and do get conflated with all sorts of things right-leaning individuals don’t like.
Political correctness? Socialism. The LGBTQ “agenda?” Socialism. Migrants crossing our southern border? Socialism. Democrats “coming for your guns?” Socialism. Electric cars? Socialism. Liberal indoctrination of our youth? Socialism. The sissification of manly men? You better believe your patootie it’s socialism!
Thrown around recklessly in this manner, socialism also gets confused with other economic and political systems people either don’t grasp or haven’t bothered to try to understand. In the minds of some, socialism, a theory of organization which favors social ownership of the means of production and of working to satisfy human needs, is synonymous with communism, which can be seen as the next step after socialism in a post-capitalist society, and which advocates for doing away with notions of class, money, occupational specificity, and private ownership.
As a Bernie Sanders supporter, I’ve heard the question numerous times, “Isn’t he a c-c-communist?” As if the person asking were a character out of Scooby Doo or something, staring down a ghost. No, he’s not. As other democratic socialists believe, he feels both the U.S. economy and society should be run democratically to meet the greatest public need and not just for the benefit of a privileged few. Especially when understood next to communism, some might even believe his proposed reforms don’t go far enough.
Let’s not get bogged down in discussion of specific political candidates, though. The larger point is that talk of socialism, in the hands of bad-faith actors and critics, becomes a weapon used to discredit anyone and anything resembling a leftist or espousing leftist ideologies. In this sense, socialism is understood as both logically and morally inferior to capitalism. Ah, yes, capitalism. The free market. A model of economic efficiency free from the tyranny of government control. A bastion of Western rectitude and a symbol of the industry of a proud country like the U.S. of A. Surely, the right’s embrace of unfettered capitalism puts it on the right side of history. After all, you don’t want America becoming Venezuela, do you?
Put aside any notions of Venezuela possessing unique features which have led to its economic disarray (e.g. an overreliance on oil as a source of revenue) as well as doubts about whether socialism as it is designed has actually been employed there by the likes of Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro (it hasn’t), though. If we are to invoke capitalism as a defense of why socialist functions can’t or shouldn’t exist in America, shouldn’t we be able to explain with a straight face why it is fundamentally better? To this effect, shouldn’t we all be able to speak to the wonders capitalism has done for all of our lives?
In a two-part video essay titled “What’s Wrong with Capitalism” for her channel ContraPoints, Natalie Wynn, ex-philosopher and YouTuber with a mind for social justice (and a great follow on YouTube and Twitter, by the by), addresses some of the potential shortcomings of a capitalist society like ours.
Beginning with a bit of context about acute feelings that something is wrong with our world as expressed by middle-class white males facing a changing population at home, an expanding global marketplace/exchange of ideas, and a commensurate loss of privilege, Wynn avers that while this sense of “getting screwed” is accurate, others are getting screwed worse. In this regard, and with respect to vague attempts to scapegoat other disenfranchised groups, the problem is not “the Jews,” nor is it feminism, the ghost of Karl Marx, people of color, trans people, vegans, or anyone else who might be labeled a “cuck,” a “snowflake,” etc. The problem is capitalism.
So, what’s wrong with capitalism? Wynn makes these salient points in service of her arguments:
Alienated labor: Or as Wynn simplifies it, “shitty jobs.” Because many workers have no stake in the profitability of the company they serve and are merely working to make money, ensure a path to other benefits, and/or not get passed over for a promotion or fired, there’s no sense of intrinsic reward from their efforts or a sense of camaraderie because they are being pitted against one another.
Depending on the situation, they might also be forced to engage in company retreats and other “team building” exercises or they might not even be identified as employees at all (i.e. independent contractors, who are liable for much of their own expenses and not privy to the same benefits). The pretense makes it that much worse.
Advertising: As Wynn defines it, the purpose of advertising is “to manufacture desires, which brands across the world spend nearly five hundred billion dollars a year doing.” In theory, if we are rational beings capable of making rational decisions in our best interest, as is an assumption of capitalism, we shouldn’t require such illogical pairings of, say, attractive women and luxury vehicles, or celebrities and expensive watches. That’s because the point of advertising in a capitalist system is not to satisfy existing needs, but to endlessly create new “needs,” leaving those original very real needs dangerously unfulfilled.
Inequality: Referencing BuzzFeed’s web series Worth It, in which Steven Lim and Andrew Ilnyckyj try more reasonably priced items against a vastly pricier counterpart to assess whether the high-end option is, as the name indicates, “worth it,” and putting a spotlight on Season 2, Episode 5, in which Steven and Andrew compare a $2.75 slice of pizza to a $2,000 24K-gold-covered pizza from Industry Kitchen comprised of various expensive items, Wynn highlights how by simply consuming the decadent choice, because they judge it to be inferior, this suddenly begins to weigh on their conscience. They feel, on some level, guilty for having been a part of consuming something of which the cost arguably could’ve been better used elsewhere.
As Wynn explains, morality has little to no bearing on this situation. Ilnyckyj and Lim are not bad people for eating a high-falutin’ pizza, nor are the makers of the pizza wrong for creating such a pricy entrée. It is, instead, the fault of capitalism that it fuels and makes so evident the divides in income and wealth inequality which promote feelings of guilt when the alternatives are juxtaposed together. Or, to phrase this in a concise philosophical argument:
Capitalism as we know it is a defective economic system, because, although it’s good at creating large amounts of wealth in an incredibly efficient way, it distributes that wealth in an incredibly inefficient way, where efficiency is understood not as the capacity to maximize total wealth but as the capacity to maximize human happiness.
This failure is therefore not necessarily a function of some dysfunction or inability on the part of those most disenfranchised by capitalism’s elaboration, but rather a systemic flaw.
Money buys happiness…but only to an extent
Within the American economic system, more income yields more happiness, presumably because individuals/their families have enough money to meet their basic needs and can live more comfortably. At somewhere between $65,000 to $95,000 a year, however, the reported happiness benefit plateaus.
According to this interpretation of socioeconomic data, then, the stark difference between the mean income (about $72,000, within the plateau zone) and the national median ($59,000, below the plateau zone) is vaguely startling, at least as far as the goal of maximizing happiness through the economy goes. Moreover, the top 1% of American earners make more than $389,000, well beyond the upper limits of the plateau zone. What good does that serve them or us?
To Wynn, what’s particularly galling for lower-income families is not just that they have trouble making ends meet or have to worry about money/what to sacrifice, it’s that they have to do so knowing full well there are other Americans who are obscenely rich. Their eventual anger, which she likens to the kind felt at the peak of the French Revolution, would therefore be justifiable.
This analysis comes from one person, who while being humorously self-deprecating about her acumen, is yet an ex-academic who describes herself as a “dumb-dumb” who “likes shiny things.” This is to say that while she did her research and presented her viewpoints in a very entertaining way, she is not an expert in this subject matter. Yet armed with a group of economists who specialize in researching and addressing widening equality, who knows what else we could throw alongside Wynn’s content. 40 minutes? Maybe 400 minutes is more appropriate given the potential complexity of this topic.
Capitalism, you’re getting off easy here.
For those of us sold on the perils of capitalism either as a result of Natalie Wynn et al.‘s discourse on the subject or based on our own feelings of dissatisfaction and alienation within a capitalist society, it is clear what the problems are, but not necessarily how we move past them. As Wynn indicates, the conditions for socialism to take root in the United States would require a failure of the current system. At the very least, that will take time.
In the interim, Wynn largely demurs on the actions she prescribes for her viewers to take to comic effect, suggesting among other things that we eat more vegetables, try not to be manipulated into waging war against other downtrodden people, tweet radically, vote Labour, and not cede more power to “the absolute worst dingbats our society has to offer.” Ultimately, she yields to the call to arms of Tabby, a cat-woman radical and one of her videos’ list of personas (fur-sonas?), who seeks to smash her way to revolution. Catgirls of the world unite! The idea has appeal, if for no other reason than the patent absurdity of it all.
I would submit that amid taking actions to benefit the planet and the world’s huddled masses yearning to breathe free, we should also keep conservations going about the long-term viability of our society as is and how well each of us are doing (or aren’t) within the confines of a capitalist framework. In my relatively short life span, I have witnessed a global financial crisis and the ensuing recession. Despite our apparent current economic fortune, there’s reason to fear we could be headed there again. An ongoing trade war with China. Widespread accusations of currency manipulation of allies and rivals alike. A slowdown in world trade across continents. And we still haven’t felt the full force of the GOP tax cuts or realized their implications. In other words, there are plenty of reasons to fear another recession, and Donald Trump’s White House is a key player in all of this.
Relatedly, and with a nod to Trump loyalists who have stuck by him amid the disarray, I urge his supporters and others sympathetic to his cause to think about, beyond his positions on immigration and other social issues, just how much they’re getting as a function of his presidency. You may have faith in him despite misgivings about his bully mentality, his fascist leanings, his misogyny, racism, transphobia, and xenophobia. Hell, you may actually like these things about him, and if you made it this far, thanks for reading. I’m not sure why you did, but thanks.
When it comes down to it, however, if you and your bottom line are what primarily concern you, keep thinking about what President Trump and the GOP are or aren’t doing for you. You probably are already watching the markets. But keep the tax cuts in mind and how you have benefited, if at all. Or how trade wars, which Trump boldly proclaimed are easy to win, may actually be hurting you when you’re picking up the tab. Or why, despite all the promises you’d be “winning,” things feel pretty much the same as before, if not worse. Barack Obama’s shift in the Oval Office is over, and when Republicans start coming for your social safety net to try to make up for their shitty policy goals, you won’t be able to blame him for it. Not terribly sincerely, in any event.
And by all means, amidst the doom and gloom depicted by conservatives and centrists alike about socialism, consider whether it is vitally important that we live in a world of unfettered capitalism. An end to capitalism wouldn’t mean an end to your ability to enjoy stuff as you might in our present materialistic society. It would, meanwhile, signify a shift away from a system that prizes profit over people and seeks to make money rather than satisfying human needs and happiness. Whether by regulating capitalism more heavily or by transitioning away from it, that seems like an end result worth striving for.
President Donald Trump finally got to deliver his State of the Union address with the recent partial government shutdown in the rear-view mirror (although we could totally have another one in the near future if we don’t figure out how to decouple the subject of a border wall from funding federal agencies, so yay?). The good news is the president stopped short of calling for a state of emergency to advance construction of a border wall. The bad news is Trump had a national platform by which to spew his rhetoric at the American people.
Before we get to the veracity of what Trump said or lack thereof, let’s first address what the man spoke about. Trump’s agenda, at least in principle, was devoted to the areas where members of both parties can find consensus. These major topics included promoting fair trade and other policies which help American jobs/workers, rebuilding our infrastructure, reducing the price of health care (including prescription drugs), creating a more modern and secure immigration system, and advancing foreign policy goals that align with American interests.
On the economy, it was jobs, jobs, jobs! Wages are rising! Unemployment is declining! Regulations are going away! Companies are coming back! And it’s all because of me! So let’s stop all these needless investigations into my affairs. You don’t want THE AMERICAN PEOPLE to suffer on account of me, do you? Trump also addressed tariffs and the USMCA, but rather than calling out countries like China for abuse of workers’ rights or currency manipulation or anything like that, he expressed respect for Xi Jinping and instead laid blame at the feet of past leaders and lawmakers. As always, thanks, Obama.
On immigration, well, you probably know the story by now. Immigrants enrich our society in many ways—except when they don’t, taking away jobs, lowering wages, bringing drugs and violent crime, encouraging the trafficking of human beings, and taxing our public services. ICE is a bunch of heroes, gosh darn it! And we need that wall!
On infrastructure, Trump indicated we need both parties to work together and that he is “eager” to work with Congress on new, cutting-edge investments that the country requires to keep pace in a rapidly developing world. That’s it. Not a lot of what these infrastructural improvements would look like or how we’d go about funding them. But, huzzah, infrastructure!
On lowering drug prices/health care, Congress, wouldja put something together already? Sheesh? Also, HIV and AIDS—why are they still a thing? Let’s cut that out. Cancer? You’re next. Really, we need to recognize that all life is precious. Looking at you, Democrats, and your whole insistence on women’s right to choose. #NotMyAbortions
Lastly, on foreign policy, Trump extolled the virtues of our Armed Forces and thus explained why we need to shower them with money on an annual basis. Also, NATO was being very mean to us but now its members are going to spend more on defense. Also also, Russia is being a doo-doo head and that’s why we pulled out of the INF Treaty. Also also also, Kim Jong-un and I are BFFs and we’re going to bring peace to the Korean Peninsula. Also also also also, Guaidó > Maduro and socialism never works. Also 5x, Israel is super cool, the Holocaust was bad, ISIS is defeated, and did I mention we love our troops?
In conclusion, America is awesome and greatness awaits us. So ladies and gents, let’s not screw the pooch on this one and work together. Because if we fail, it will because you all couldn’t figure out how to rise above our differences. #NotMyFault
Our economy isn’t growing twice as fast today as when Trump took office, and in fact, American economic growth in 2018 fell short of that of even Greece. Greece!
Trump claimed his administration has cut more regulations than any other administration in U.S. history, but according to experts, these rollbacks aren’t at the level of the Carter and Reagan administrations.
Job creation during Trump’s tenure isn’t some miraculous, near-impossible feat. It’s roughly on par with the state of affairs during the Obama administration and down from job creation in the 1990s. Also, more people are working in the United States than ever before because more people live here. Unless he wants to take credit for helping populate America too.
On immigration, phew, where do we start? El Paso was never one of America’s most dangerous cities. San Diego’s border fencing “did not have a discernible impact” on lower border apprehension rates, according to the Congressional Research Service. In addition, the idea that “large, organized caravans” of migrants are on their way to the U.S. is exaggerated.
Not only has the USMCA not been approved by Congress yet, but it might not bring as many manufacturing jobs back to America—or for that matter, the North American continent—as anticipated.
On Nicolás Maduro and Venezuela, it’s not so much that Maduro is a socialist as much as he’s a dictator whose rule has been marked by corruption, deficiency in the rule of law, and the circumvention of democracy. But keep parroting conservative talking points.
Trump claimed we’d be at war with North Korea if he hadn’t been elected. Bullshit. Especially in the incipient stages of his presidency, Trump notably egged on Kim Jong-un, referring to him as “Little Rocket Man.” Back the trolley up there, Mr. President.
On abortion, more misleading remarks. Trump suggested New York’s Reproductive Health Act allows abortions until shortly before birth, but rather, the law permits abortions after 24 weeks in cases where the fetus is not viable or the mother’s health would be imperiled.
Trump also invoked Virginia governor Ralph Northam’s comments about discussing abortion with physicians up until birth and end-of-life care in instances where a child wouldn’t live, though Trump treated them as tantamount to advocating for babies’ execution after birth. Sadly, Northam’s ongoing controversy involving whether or not he appeared dressed in blackface or a Ku Klux Klan costume in a college yearbook photo was not part of Trump’s deceptive commentary. That’s on you, Ralph, and I wish you would resign already.
The State of the Union address, especially under Pres. Donald Trump, is a bizarre bit of theater. Here is a function outlined in the Constitution and adapted by means of tradition that makes for much pomp and circumstance amid the formal procedures and recognitions which occur within, presided over by a president who consistently flouts convention and other semblances of decorum. The Trump presidency has been one marked by chaos and one which encourages division within the electorate. The very date of the address was postponed by a shutdown characterized by partisan gridlock—which went curiously unmentioned during Trump’s speech—and was a bone of contention between the president and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. To have members of Congress from both parties smiling and clapping for him seems rather jarring.
It’s particularly jarring to witness this spectacle and the parade of “Lenny Skutniks” that presidents trot out in the name of bolstering their credibility (Trump called upon World War II veterans, a minister who had her non-violent drug offense commuted by Trump, another former inmate who sold drugs and has since reformed, the family of victims of a undocumented immigrant’s violence, an immigrant-turned-ICE special agent, a cancer survivor, the father of someone lost in the attack on the USS Cole, a SWAT officer on the scene at last year’s synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, and a Holocaust survivor) when the Democrats offered an official rebuttal, as is custom.
Stacey Abrams, who came within two percentage points of winning the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial election and might’ve won if not for then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp’s shenanigans, delivered the Dems’ response. She assailed the Republican Party for crafting an immigration plan that tears families apart and puts children in cages, for working to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, for failing to take action on climate change, for rigging elections and judiciaries, and for repeatedly attacking the rights of women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community, among other things. Abrams closed her speech with these thoughts:
Even as I am very disappointed by the president’s approach to our problems—I still don’t want him to fail. But we need him to tell the truth, and to respect his duties and the extraordinary diversity that defines America.
Our progress has always found refuge in the basic instinct of the American experiment—to do right by our people. And with a renewed commitment to social and economic justice, we will create a stronger America, together. Because America wins by fighting for our shared values against all enemies: foreign and domestic. That is who we are—and when we do so, never wavering—the state of our union will always be strong.
Abrams’s sentiments may seem a bit schmaltzy at points, but alongside Trump’s rhetoric since he began his presidential campaign, she is much better equipped to talk about the state of the union and bipartisan solutions than our Commander-in-Chief. And while this message serves an obvious partisan purpose, criticism of Trump’s divisiveness is deserved, notably in light of his numerous falsehoods and distortions.
That’s what makes this all so disorienting. Donald Trump speaks to solving problems which may or may not exist, leaving existing problems unaddressed and creating phantoms where bogeymen are needed. As senator Richard Blumenthal wrote on Twitter, Trump’s State of the Union speech was a “tale of two countries.”
To entertain the absurdities of his presidency with any degree of normalcy, applauding him and dignifying his comments with formality and a primetime audience, is therefore to acknowledge two different speeches: the one that the president gave and the one that Americans actually deserved. It creates a sort of cognitive dissonance that requires some degree of mental gymnastics to try to sort out. Is Trump the uniter and Democrats the dividers? Was it all a farce, his plea for unity and his presidential tone an exercise in cynicism? Or was it just an unofficial rally for his base and potential voters heading into 2020? Does anything he say truly matter? Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? The questions abound, as do the anxiety, probable headaches, and possible additional Queen references.
I’m not sure what the answer is here, if there is only one. I chose not to watch the live broadcast and to read a transcript, view photos, and watch video clips after the fact. I would’ve liked to see more lawmakers do the same, though I suppose Nancy Pelosi did get in some epic eye-rolls. Maybe we should do away with the whole spectacle altogether.
At least as far as Trump is concerned, he’s already made his true feelings known via social media countless times over. Why bother with the charade when we can just read a written report or his tweets instead? If nothing else, it would save time.
Rejoice! If you’re reading this, it means we haven’t yet managed to get ourselves embroiled in a nuclear war and that the future of our civilization as a going concern—despite our best efforts—is still a possibility!
Whatever your outlook on the days, weeks, and years to come, it’s worth looking back on the moments of the past 12 months and revisiting the themes they evoked.
Without further ado, it’s time for…
2018 IN REVIEW: HEY, WE’RE STILL HERE!
Mueller…always a good call.
When the year started, what did you figure the odds were that Robert Mueller’s investigation would still be going? 50% Less than that? At this writing—with Donald Trump and this administration, you never know what might happen and who might suddenly quit or get fired—the Mueller probe into Trump’s presidential campaign and possible collusion with Russia continues largely unimpeded.
This is not to say that its continued operation and final delivery are guaranteed. Jeff Sessions’s watch as Attorney General has ended, and his dismissal created the objectively strange sensation of a furor over his removal by the left despite his support of the Trump administration’s destructive agenda. His replacement, Matthew Whitaker, a Trump loyalist, inspires little faith there will be any obfuscation of the investigation, especially since he has rejected the advice of an ethics official from the Office of the Deputy Attorney General to recuse himself from the investigation.
With Mitch McConnell the obstructionist refusing to allow a vote on a bill that would safeguard the investigation, there’s little hope Congress will act to intervene should Trump move to fire Mueller. Which, as he has reminded us umpteen times, he can do because he’s the president. Whatever Mueller’s fate, the results of his team’s findings are yet impressive and suggest the probe should be permitted to run its course. Over 30 people and three Russian companies have been charged in the special counsel’s investigation, producing more than 100 criminal charges, and more yet might be on the way.
Despite Trump’s hollow concerns about the cost—Mueller’s probe is a “waste of money” and yet we should fund a wall that a lot of people don’t want—Robert Mueller and Co. have been remarkably effective and efficient. Trump shouldn’t mess with this investigation if for no other reason than not to risk a major public outcry against him.
“Guns don’t kill people,” but more people killed people with guns
The February 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida in which 17 students were killed and another 17 injured was perhaps the most notable for the activism it helped inspire, but there were other newsworthy shootings around the country. Yountville, California at a veterans home. Nashville, Tennessee at a Waffle House. Santa Fe, Texas at the high school. Scottsdale, Arizona in a series of shootings. Trenton, New Jersey at the Art All Night Festival. Annapolis, Maryland at the Capital Gazette building. Jacksonville, Florida at a Madden NFL 19 tournament. Aberdeen, Maryland at a Rite Aid. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania at the Tree of Life synagogue. Tallahassee, Florida at a yoga studio. Thousands Oaks, California at a bar. Robbins, Illinois at a bar. Chicago, Illinois at Mercy Hospital and Medical Center.
Gun rights advocates may point to the varying locales of these shootings and suggest that no matter where you go and how restrictive the gun laws, people can still acquire firearms by illicit means and can do harm. In any number of cases, however, shooters haven’t needed to subvert legal channels. Either way, this shouldn’t deter lawmakers from passing more restrictive gun laws. It should be difficult for individuals to acquire guns. There are too many guns. More guns means a higher likelihood that people will get shot. This is not complicated.
If you want to talk about mental health aside from the gun issue, I’m with you. If you want to insist that we just need more good people with guns, I’m not with you, but I still think we should talk about it. In the case of Jemel Roberson in the Robbins, Illinois shooting, he was the good guy with a gun, and got shot because he was black. We haven’t come close to solving the gun violence problem in America, and as long as groups like the National Rifle Association will continue to lobby against gun control and resist statistical research into fatalities related to gun violence, we won’t make progress on this issue. Here’s hoping the NRA continues to suffer a decline in funding.
Stormy Daniels alleges Donald Trump had an extramarital affair with her back in 2006. Trump, who denies everything, denies this happened. Meanwhile, someone paid her $130,000 in advance of the election. Who do you believe? Also, and perhaps more to the point, do you care?
I have no reason to doubt the veracity of Daniels’s account. For some people, though, the mere notion she gets and has gotten money to have sex on camera puts her word in doubt. She’s an opportunistic liar looking to cash in on her 15 minutes of fame. Ditto for her lawyer Michael Avenatti, who naturally has political aspirations.
Even for those who might believe her or who would like nothing more than to nail Trump on some dimension, the nature of her profession is such that they might be loath to discuss the matter of Trump’s infidelity and hush money payments. Talking about sex and adult entertainers is, well, icky for some.
In this respect, our willingness or unwillingness to confront this chapter of Daniels’s and Trump’s lives is a reflection of our own set of values and morals. It’s especially telling, moreover, that so many white evangelicals are willing to forgive Pres. Trump his trespasses. For a group that has, until Trump’s rise, been the most insistent on a person’s character to eschew such concerns demonstrates their willingness to compromise their standards in support of a man who upholds “religious liberty” and who exemplifies the prosperity gospel.
Thus, while some of us may not care about Stormy Daniels personally or may not find campaign finance law riveting, there’s still larger conversations about sex and money in politics worth having. Despite what nonsense Rudy Giuliani might spout.
FOX News continued its worsening trend of defending Trump and white supremacy
Oh, FOX News. Where do we begin? If we’re talking about everyone’s favorite source for unbiased reporting (sarcasm intended), a good place to start is probably their prime-time personalities who masquerade as legitimate journalists.
Sean Hannity, now firmly entrenched as FOX News’s night-time slot elder statesman with Bill O’Reilly gone, was revealed as a client of Michael Cohen’s (yes, that Michael Cohen) and an owner of various shell companies formed to buy property in low-income areas financed by HUD loans. Surprise! That surprise extended to Hannity’s employer, to whom he did not see fit to disclose a potential conflict of interest when propping up the likes of Cohen and Ben Carson, or his adoring viewers. Not that they care, in all likelihood. Hannity tells it not like it is, but how they want to hear.
As for more recent more additions to the prime-time schedule, Laura Ingraham, when not mocking Parkland, FL survivor David Hogg for not getting into colleges (he since has been accepted to Harvard) or telling LeBron James to “shut up and dribble,” denounced the “massive demographic changes” that have been “foisted on the American people.” She says she wasn’t being racist. She is full of shit.
Tucker Carlson, meanwhile, remained the go-to guy for white supremacist viewpoints, questioning the value of all forms of immigration and more recently deriding immigrants as poor and dirty. He has lost more than a dozen advertisers since those latest comments. Good. The only criticism is that it took them this long to dissociate themselves from Carlson’s program.
FOX News has seemingly abandoned any pretense of separation from the Trump administration in terms of trying to influence the president’s views or tapping into his racist, xenophobic agenda. It hasn’t hurt them any in the ratings—yet. As those “demographic changes” continue, as television viewership is challenged by new media, and as President Trump remains unpopular among Americans as a whole, however, there is no guarantee the network will remain at the top. Enjoy it while you can, Laura, Sean, and Tucker.
Turns out big companies don’t always do the right thing
Facebook, Papa John’s, and Wells Fargo would like you to know they are very truly sorry for anything they may or may have not done. Kind of.
In Facebook’s case, it’s selling the information of millions of users to Cambridge Analytica, a consulting firm which did work for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and was founded by Steve Bannon (yes, that Steve Bannon). It also did a piss-poor job of weeding out fake news and hate speech and has since taken to relying on a questionable consortium of fact-checkers, most suspect among them The Weekly Standard.
Papa John’s had to reckon with the idea John Schnatter, the company’s namesake, is, well, kind of a racist dick. They’ve been battling over his ouster and his stake in the company ever since. As for Wells Fargo, it’s still dealing with the bad PR from its massive account fraud scandal created as a function of a toxic sales-oriented corporate culture, as well as the need to propose a reform plan to the Federal Reserve to address its ongoing shady practices (its proposals heretofore have yet to be approved).
In all three cases, these companies have sought to paper over their misdeeds with advertising campaigns that highlight their legacy of service to their customers or the people within their organization who are not bigoted assholes. With Facebook and Wells Fargo in particular, that they continue to abuse the public’s trust conveys the sense they aren’t truly repentant for what they’ve done and haven’t learned anything from the scandals they’ve created.
Unfortunately, cash is king, and until they lose a significant share of the market (or the government refuses to bail them out), they will be unlikely to change in a meaningful positive way. The best we can do as consumers is pressure our elected representatives to act on behalf of their constituents—and consider taking our business elsewhere if these organizations don’t get their shit together.
Poor Sarah Sanders. It seems she can’t attend the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner or go out for a meal with her family without being harangued.
While I don’t necessarily think people like Sanders, Kirstjen Nielsen, and Stephen Miller should be denied the ability to eat (although it’s pretty f**ked up that Miller and Nielsen would go to a Mexican restaurant amid an immigration crisis), calls for “civility” are only as good as the people making such calls and the possibility of substantive action in key policy areas.
People were upset with Michelle Wolf, for instance, for telling the truth about Sanders’s propensity for not telling the truth by making allusions to her as Aunt Lydia from The Handmaid’s Tale and by referencing her smoky eye makeup as the ash from burned facts. Members of the press tripped over themselves to comfort Sanders and to disavow Wolf’s performance. But Wolf was doing her job, and told truth to power. It’s Michelle Wolf who deserves the apology, not habitual liar and Trump enabler Sarah Sanders.
I believe we shouldn’t go around punching Nazis—as satisfying as that might be. That said, we shouldn’t allow people to dispense hate simply to appease “both sides,” and we should be vocal about advocating for the rights of immigrants and other vulnerable populations when people like Miller and Nielsen and Sanders do everything in their power to pivot away from the Trump administration’s destructive actions. After all, it’s hard to be civil when children are being taken from their mothers and people are being tear-gassed or dying in DHS custody.
There’s something about Alexandria
Love her or hate her, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has arrived on the national stage following her upset of incumbent Joe Crowley in the Democratic Party primary for New York’s 14th congressional district.
If you’re a devotee of FOX News, it’s probably the latter. The incoming first-year representative has joined Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Nancy Pelosi in the vaunted space of people to be booed and hissed at for pretty much everything she does. She took a break before the start of her first term? How dare she! She refused to debate Ben Shapiro? What is she afraid of? As a young Latina socialist, she ticks off all the boxes their audience possesses on their Fear and Hate Index. All without spending an official day on the job.
Like any inexperienced politician, AOC has had her wobbles, chief among them when she flubbed a question on Israel and Palestine. Nevertheless, she has handled the numerous attacks on her on Twitter and elsewhere with remarkable deftness and grace. More importantly, she appears ready to lead her party on key issues, as evidenced by her outspokenness on the concept of a Green New Deal.
Party leaders may downplay the significance of her upset primary win, but Ocasio-Cortez’s emergence, to many, heralds a progressive shift for Democrats, one in which its younger members and women are not just participants, but at the forefront. At a time when establishment Dems only seem more and more unwilling to change, there is yet reason for genuine excitement in the Democratic Party.
John McCain died. Cue the whitewashing.
I don’t wish death on anyone, but John McCain died at the right time. That time would be the era of President Donald Trump, and by contrast, McCain looks like a saint.
McCain is best remembered for his service to the United States and for helping to kill the Republicans’ intended replacement for the Affordable Care Act. But we shouldn’t brush aside the less-savory elements of his track record. As a Trump critic, he still voted in line with the president’s agenda most of the time. He was a prototypical war hawk, advocating for intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as a proponent of armed conflict with Iran—even after all he saw and endured in Vietnam.
Meanwhile, as a presidential candidate, though he is celebrated for defending Barack Obama at a town hall as a good Christian man (though he didn’t specify that he’d be worth defending if he were actually a Muslim), he was an unrepentant user of a racial slur directed at Asians and he signed off on the unqualified Sarah Palin as his running mate. A lot of the fondness he receives now from journalists likely stems from the access McCain gave reporters while on the campaign trail. Even his vote not to quash the ACA was done with a flair for the dramatic that belied the seriousness of its implications.
John McCain wasn’t the worst person to inhabit the U.S. Senate. But simply being more civil than Donald Trump is a low bar to clear. Regardless, he should be remembered in a more nuanced way in the name of accurate historical representation.
There were a lot of shameful occurrences in American politics in 2018. I already alluded to the Trump administration’s catastrophic mishandling of the immigration situation and of ripping apart families. The White House also seems intent on hastening environmental destruction, doing nothing to protect vulnerable subdivisions of the electorate, and pulling out of Syria as an apparent gift to Assad and Vladimir Putin.
And yet, the nomination and eventual confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court somehow became the most galling example of D.C. partisanship witnessed in sometime. Of course, any discussion of Kavanaugh would be incomplete without the mention of Merrick Garland. On the heels of Republicans’ refusal to hear him as a nominee following the death of Antonin Scalia and after Neil Gorsuch was sworn in, things were already primed for tension between the two major parties.
When reports of multiple alleged instances of sexual misconduct dating back to Kavanaugh’s high school and college days surfaced, though, the GOP’s stubborn refusal to budge and choose a new candidate was downright appalling. Kavanaugh didn’t do himself any favors with his testimony on the subject of these accusations, lashing out at the people who questioned him, insisting this investigation was a partisan witch hunt, and assuming the role of the aggrieved party like the spoiled frat boy we imagine he was and perhaps still is.
Kavanaugh’s defenders would be wont to point out that the rest of us are just salty that “they” won and “we” lost. Bullshit. Though we may have disagreed with Gorsuch’s nomination and conservatism prior to his being confirmed, he didn’t allegedly sexually assault or harass anybody. Brett Kavanaugh, in light of everything we now know about him, was a terrible choice for the Supreme Court. Senate Republicans should be ashamed of this chapter in American history, and this might be a good segue into talking about term limits for Supreme Court justices. Just saying.
Death by plastic
In case you were keeping score at home, there’s still an ass-ton of plastic in the world’s oceans. According to experts on the matter, the global economy is losing tens of billions of dollars each year because of plastic waste and we’re on a pace to have more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050. Doesn’t sound appetizing, does it?
By all means, we should keep recycling and finding ways to avoid using plastic on an individual basis. Every bit helps. At the same time, we’re not going to make the progress we need until the primary drivers of plastic waste are held accountable for their actions. Coca-Cola, Nestlé, Starbucks, Unilever—looking at you.
In terms of world governments, China is the worst offender hands down, and numerous Asian countries line the top 10 (Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Malaysia), but we’re not exactly above reproach. In fact, with Trump at the helm, we’ve been active in helping water down UN resolutions designed to eliminate plastic pollution.
Plastic pollution is not an isolated problem, and it’s not going away either. Literally. That stuff lasts a long time. We need to stop plastic production at the source, and push back against companies like Nestlé who exploit downtrodden communities with lax water safeguarding laws. This isn’t a game.
The Dems flipped the House, Brian Kemp stole an election, and other observations about the midterms
It’s true. Though Republicans widened their majority in the Senate, Democrats flipped the House, presumably paving the way for Nancy Pelosi to return to the role of House Majority Leader. Groan at this point if you’d like.
With the Dems running the show in the House, there’s likely to be all sorts of investigations into Donald Trump and his affairs. I mean, more political and financial, not the other kind, but you never know with that guy. That should encourage party supporters despite some tough losses. Beto O’Rourke fell short in his bid to unseat Ted Cruz from Senate, despite being way sexier and cooler. Andrew Gillum likewise had a “close but no cigar” moment in the Florida gubernatorial race. Evidently, voters preferred Ron DeSantis, his shameless alignment with Trump, and his thinly-veiled racism. Congratulations, Florida! You never fail to disappoint in close elections!
Perhaps the worst of these close losses was Stacey Abrams, edged out by Brian Kemp in the Georgia gubernatorial race. If you ask Kemp, he won fair and square. If you ask anyone else with a modicum of discretion, he won because, as Georgia’s Secretary of State, he closed polling stations, purged voters from the rolls, failed to process voter applications, and kept voting machines locked up. Kemp’s antics and the shenanigans in North Carolina’s Ninth Congressional District give democracy a bad name, and beckon real voting reform championed by grassroots activists. After all, if Florida can restore voting rights to felons—Florida!—the lot of us can do better.
George H.W. Bush also picked a good time to die
Like John McCain, I didn’t wish for “Bush Sr.” to die. Also like John McCain, people on both sides of the aisle extolled his virtues at the expense of a more complete (and accurate) telling of his personal history.
Bush, on one hand, was a beloved patriarch, served his country, and had more class than Donald Trump (again, low bar to clear). He also was fairly adept at throwing out first pitches at baseball games, I guess. On the other hand, he campaigned for president on dog-whistle politics (see also “Willie Horton”), pushed for involvement in the first Gulf War by relying on fabricated intelligence, escalated the war on drugs for political gain, turned a deaf ear to people suffering from AIDS, and was accused by multiple women of trying to cop a feel. So much for being miles apart from Trump.
Was George H.W. Bush a good man? I didn’t know the man, so I can’t say for sure. But he was no saint. Nor was his son or Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton or Barack Obama or any other president. He led the country. Let’s not erase his flaws in the name of “togetherness.”
I chose to review these topics because I covered them at length on my blog. This obviously doesn’t cover the sum total of the events that transpired in 2018. Let’s see.
Congress reauthorized Section 702 of FISA and rolled back Dodd-Frank, extending our use of warrantless surveillance and making it more liable we will slide back into a recession. That sucked. Devin Nunes released a memo that was reckless, misleading, dishonest, and not quite the bombshell it was made out to be. That sucked as well. Our national debt went way up and continues to rise. American workers are making more money because they are working more, not because wages have risen.
What else? Trump got the idea for a self-congratulatory military parade—and then cancelled it because people thought it was a waste of time, effort, and money. DACA is still in limbo. U.S. manufacturing, outside of computers, continues its downward slide. Sacha Baron Cohen had a new show that was hit-or-miss. Oh, and we’re still involved in Yemen, helping a Saudi regime that killed journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
So, yeah, in all, not a whole lot to get excited about in 2018 on the national news front. Moreover, that there seems to be mutual distrust between liberals and conservatives dampens enthusiasm for 2019 a bit. And let’s not even get started on 2020. If you think I’m raring to go for a Biden-Trump match-up (based on current polling), you’d be sorely mistaken.
And yet—step back from the ledge—there is enough reason to not lose hope. Alongside Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a record number of women won seats in Congress. Ayanna Pressley became the first black women elected to Congress from Massachusetts. Michelle Lujan Grisham became the first Democratic Latina governor. Sharice Davids and Deb Haaland were elected as the first Native American women to Congress. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib were elected as the first Muslim women in Congress. Guam got its first female governor in history in Lou Leon Guerrero. That’s real progress.
Indeed, while Donald Trump as president is intent on standing in the way of progress, and while his continued habitation of the White House is bad on so many fronts, his win has been a wake-up call to ordinary people to get involved in politics, whether by running for office, by canvassing for political candidates and issues, or by making their voices heard by their elected representatives one way or another. Politics can’t be and is no longer just the sphere of rich old white dudes. Despite the efforts of political leaders, lobbyists, and industry leaders with a regressive agenda as well as other obstacles, folks are, as they say, rising up.
There’s a lot of work to do in 2019, the prospect of which is daunting given that many of us are probably already tired from this year and even before that. It’s truly a marathon and not a sprint, and the immediate rewards can feel few and far between. The goal of a more equal and just society, however, is worth the extra effort. Here’s hoping we make more progress in 2019—and yes, that we’re still here to talk about it same time next year.
There’s so many crises around the world, it can be genuinely difficult to know where to start. In many respects, we’re still recovering from a global financial crisis (and may well be on our way to another one). On a related note, the United States economy is saddled by debt. Medical debt. Credit card debt. Student loan debt. Homeowner debt. Debt, debt, debt. And this is all before we get to the national debt. Guns and school shootings. Opioids. Housing crises. Water crises. Humanitarian crises. It’s a wonder more of us don’t spend our lives in a state of constant crisis—not to mention there’s a mental health crisis facing many Americans.
With so much to worry about, there wouldn’t seem to be much room for anything else, and yet, we still haven’t mentioned potentially the biggest crisis of them all: the climate crisis. I’m not even going to get into the debate about whether or not we’re contributing to climate change. If you choose to ignore an overwhelming consensus within the scientific community, that’s your business. You can decry my liberal bias and skip past this piece, no hurt feelings.
If, like myself, you do accept that we’re hastening the warming of the planet and the degradation of habitats across the globe, then there’s an aspect to global pollution that deserves its fair share of attention. I’m talking about the plastic pollution crisis, especially as it pertains to the world’s oceans.
In terms of what we need to do to avert a climate catastrophe—assuming too much damage hasn’t already been done—while not to dismiss recycling and cleaning beaches and rivers and such, it’s clear that these efforts alone will not suffice when addressing this issue. Dame Ellen MacArthur, retired professional yachtswoman and one-time record holder of the fastest solo circumnavigation of the globe, and thus someone very familiar with the seas and their condition, is one of the many voices who recognizes this state of affairs.
In a recent op-ed piece, MacArthur details the gravity of the plastic pollution situation. The reality is indeed grim.
In the few minutes it will take you to read this article, another five truckloads of plastic will have been dumped in the ocean. The consequences of this are far-reaching, and evidence is growing that people around the world are ingesting microplastics through their food and drinking water. We have reached a point where even the air we breathe can contain plastic, and if we fail to act, there could be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050.
“More plastic than fish?” That doesn’t sound particularly appetizing, let alone good for Mother Earth. Nor does ingesting and breathing in plastic sound appealing. However you slice it, the abundance of plastic in our world today is a problem. There are health and fresh water concerns, and not just for fish but other water-dwelling animals and those that prey on contaminated food sources (like us, potentially).
In addition, and if these concerns don’t move you, there’s the matter of the economic waste alongside the physical misuse of resources. As MacArthur explains, citing a report by the World Economic Forum, the global economy loses an estimated $80 billion to $120 billion a year because of plastic waste. That’s a fair bit of cash lost at the expense of plastic pollution.
As MacArthur underscores, we really need to stop plastic at the source. This includes companies changing product design and otherwise producing less plastic. It also involves governments of different scale investing in better plastic collection infrastructure and enacting policies and strategies to specifically curb plastic use. And this is just a start.
What’s paramount at this stage late in the game is, coinciding with the broad scientific consensus on the need to act in response to the global climate crisis, a comprehensive approach to reducing our reliance on plastic. Such a unified front must obviously span nations and fields. MacArthur touts the creation of the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, an agreement that lists governments, industry groups, NGOs, private investors, universities, and other organizations as signatories. The Chilean, French, and UK governments are included in this group. Coca-Cola, Colgate-Palmolive, H&M, Johnson and Johnson, L’Oréal, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Unilever, and Walmart are members, too, as is the World Wildlife Fund.
An accord like this, of course, means nothing without standards. The Global Commitment evidently comes with stipulations attached to participation, with 2025 as a target date for meaningful action on its terms. Adherence to the commitment’s terms will also be regularly reviewed, and as such, continued involvement with the project is conditional. The themes herein are accountability and transparency, qualities not automatically associated with national governments and multinational corporations.
The New Plastics Economy Global Commitment is one that reflects the kind of ambition necessary to adequately confront the plastic pollution issue as a subset of the climate crisis. It’s still in its relative infancy, too, so this public-private agreement has room yet to expand and attract more attention. Whether as a precursor to a larger accord or as a model for legislative efforts, the emphasis regardless is on a large-scale commitment along the lines of the Paris climate agreement. In truth, it makes sense. A majority of the Earth’s surface is covered by water, after all.
As you might imagine, other activists and people outspoken on this issue share Dame Ellen MacArthur’s sense of urgency about acting to ameliorate the ever-growing plastic problem. Annie Leonard, executive director of Greenpeace USA, also penned an op-ed stressing that recycling alone will not fix the issue. As she argues, cleanups, recycling, and bans on items like plastic bags, cups, and straws are great, but real accountability for companies like Coca-Cola, Nestlé, Starbucks, and Unilever is essential because they are big drivers of plastic waste. With drink companies producing over 500 billion single-use plastic bottles a year, and with over 300 million tons of plastic being produced back in 2015 and expected to double by 2025, Leonard points to these leaders of industry as possessing the onus to act. Their scale of production is simply too large for individual campaigns alone to fight.
Emily Atkin, staff writer at The New Republic, meanwhile, looks to primary political players on the world stage to act in the interest of the planet. Part of the solution, she finds, involves saying no to fossil fuels, which comprise and are used in the making of plastics. (And, you know, are kind of a big part of this whole climate crisis.) Otherwise, agreements containing specific, legally-binding targets for pollution are of paramount importance. Atkin cites a UN resolution from late 2017 on eliminating plastic pollution, ones to which countries like China, India, and the U.S. are signatories, but of which they also refused to sign an earlier draft with more teeth to it.
In the case of America with Trump at the helm, it shouldn’t surprise you to know we were active in trying to kill that earlier draft. Sure, China is far and way the biggest producer of plastic waste, and other Asian countries are more prolific than the U.S., so to speak. Regardless, much of the rest of the world looks to America as a leader. Trump’s America is unquestionably failing the international audience on matters of environmental responsibility.
Looking back at the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, it’s worth assessing how exacting its requirements truly are. The language of the Global Commitment makes reference to companies and other signatories “taking action” or “setting ambitious targets.” These are not defined in detail, and in terms of accountability, the agreement only specifies that individual commitments “will be reviewed” and that the proverbial bar will be raised “after consultation with signatories.” What happens if a signatory reneges on its responsibilities? Indeed, it might be excommunicated from this group, but is public shame alone enough to compel it to act more responsibly? Short of economic incentives or legal consequences, it seems doubtful.
It’s tough to know what exactly will constitute a breaking point more than what we’ve already seen. There’s an estimated 80,000 metric tons of plastic (and growing) in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a loose assortment of debris within the North Pacific Gyre believed to be over a million square kilometers in area. The Atlantic has its own garbage patch, and there are others to be found in other gyres around the world.
These patches might be hard to see even with the naked eye, but they’re there. The plastic we throw away doesn’t just disappear. In an increasingly interconnected world, it’s not someone else’s problem either. If you’re OK with microplastics in the water we drink and the food we eat and the very air we breathe, again, chalk this all up to scaremongering and dismiss it, no hard feelings. If that’s not your idea of a fun future, however, there’s way too much plastic in the world’s oceans. It’s time the corporations, governments, and people with the most power to effect change did their fair share to clean up our mess.
The way President Donald Trump operates, it’s not like many of the remarks he made during his recent interview with Lesley Stahl for 60 Minutes were particularly surprising or groundbreaking. Many of his comments were riffs on the same songs he has sung before.
Even if they weren’t very earth-shattering or shocking, meanwhile, Trump’s comments were nonetheless disappointing to hear/read as an American who doesn’t share the same set of values. Stahl’s questions ranged across a fairly wide set of topics, but here are some of Trump’s most noteworthy insights:
Trump “doesn’t know” that humans have a role in climate change.
Pres. Trump seemed to walk back one-time comments he made that climate change is a “hoax.” In the same breath, however, he expressed doubt that it’s manmade, and when Stahl pressed him on the overwhelming evidence that it does exist and that we’re contributing to it, he suggested that this climate change could simply reverse somehow and that the scientists advancing the consensus theory have a “very big political agenda.”
That Trump would feign concern for the effects a shift away from fossil fuels might have on American jobs is commendable, at least by his standards. Trying to effectively deny our hand in climate change as part of a political agenda when the scientific consensus is such a strong one, on the other hand, is exactly the kind of thinking we don’t need at this stage in the game when more urgent action was needed yesterday.
Trump suggested there could be “severe punishment” for Saudi Arabia if found they were behind the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, but didn’t provide specifics.
Trump admitted it was possible the Saudi government was behind the murder of Khashoggi, and indicated the vehement denial on the part of the Saudis. He then hinted that weapons deals could be at stake, but as he did with concerns about climate change, he pivoted to worrying about jobs at companies like Boeing and Lockheed Martin. So, while he acknowledged the possibility of sanctions, Trump doesn’t seem all that committed to endangering business ties with Saudi Arabia because of it. Astonishment of astonishments there.
At this writing, reportedly, the Saudis are preparing to admit Khashoggi died during a botched interrogation. Obviously, the interview was taped prior to these reports. What was worst about this segment, though, was that Trump said the matter was especially troubling because Khashoggi was a journalist, even making an aside about how strange it must be to hear him say that. Yeah, it is, and it comes off as more than a little disingenuous after regularly railing at members of the press and calling them the “enemy of the American people.” Pardon us if we’re not especially enthralled by your promises that you’ll get to the bottom of his disappearance.
Trump claimed that Barack Obama put us on a path to war with North Korea, and qualified his “love” for Kim Jong-un.
Evidently, under President Obama, we were going to war with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, but now—BOOM!—no more war and Kim is talking about nuclearization. You’re welcome, America. Get that Nobel Peace Prize nice and shiny for “the Donald.”
Within Trump’s logic, it’s his trust for Kim that has been such an essential diplomatic asset. This despite the possibility raised by Stahl that North Korea hasn’t gotten rid of any weapons and may actually be building more. Trump, attempting to further distance himself from Obama, intimated there are no plans to ease sanctions, but Stahl persisted on the topic of Trump’s stated “love” for North Korea’s despotic leader. Trump tried to minimize the language he used as a figure of speech, but Stahl belabored North Korea’s horrid human rights record under Kim and his father.
Trump’s admiration for dictators is nothing new, but hearing him downplay talk of gulags and starvation is yet bothersome. More on this to come.
Trump still has no idea how tariffs work, nor does he apparently have high regard for his supposed allies.
President Trump insisted China is close to negotiating on tariffs and other matters of trade. In the meantime, though, President Xi Jinping (another leader with dictatorial aspirations overseeing a country with questionable regard for human rights) and China are content to retaliate with tariffs, and Stahl questioned how long we will be content to try to strong-arm China into negotiation when it’s American consumers who are bearing the brunt of these tariffs. Is the point to use the people of each country as bargaining chips in an escalating trade war?
Trump argued with Stahl for a while about whether or not he called it a trade war, a skirmish, or a battle, but this is semantics (and he totally f**king did call it a trade war, according to Stahl). Alongside likely overstating our trade deficit with China, Trump once more communicated his faulty understanding re tariffs. What’s more, he seemed ambivalent as to the continued integrity of diplomatic relations with Europe as a function of NATO membership, and grew combative with Stahl on the point of levying tariffs on our allies and inviting disunion. As long as Trump and his advisers hold to the narrative that the United States is being taken advantage of by the rest of the world when it comes to defense spending and trade, the average consumer is the one who will be caught in the middle.
Trump believes that Vladimir Putin is “probably” involved in assassinations and poisonings.
But only probably. Continuing the earlier conversation about Pres. Trump and his love of autocrats, the man would not commit to saying that he believed Putin was behind attacks on critics and political opponents, professing that he “relies on” Russia and that it’s their country, so it’s essentially their business. I’d be eager to know what precisely he means when he says he relies on them, and it’s possible his drift is a more innocent one, but when so much seems to hint at Trump being compromised by Russian ties, it’s hard to give him the benefit of the doubt.
This sentiment only grows when considering his hedging on Russian interference in the election and his evasiveness on the Mueller investigation. When prompted by Stahl on meddling in the 2016 presidential election, Trump was quick to rebut by claiming China meddled as well. Even if that were true, however—experts say there is evidence of a pro-Chinese influence campaign at work, but no concrete evidence of Chinese electoral meddling—it’s a deflection. Stahl called him out on this tactic, only to be argued with in the spirit of whataboutism.
Additionally, Trump refused to pledge that he won’t shut down the Mueller investigation. In other words, um, yeah, you should still be worried about Mueller’s fate as special counsel. Particularly if the midterms go poorly for the Republican Party.
That whole family separation thing was all Obama’s fault.
When asked what his biggest regret so far has been, the first thing that jumped to Trump’s mind was not terminating the NAFTA deal sooner. Not the whole taking children away from their parents thing, as Stahl interjected. It’s not exactly mind-bending to witness Trump fail to recognize a policy bent on unmitigated cruelty as his worst mistake, but it still stings like salt in the proverbial wound if you fashion yourself a halfway decent human being.
To make matters worse, Trump defended the policy under the premise that people would illegally enter the United States in droves otherwise. Furthermore, he blamed Barack Obama for enforcing a policy that was on the books. To be fair, Obama’s record on immigration is not unassailable, as his administration was responsible for its share of deportations. But separating families is a new twist on trying to enact “border security,” and it ignores the perils immigrants face upon return to their native land, perils we have helped exacerbate. Try as he might to escape it, Donald Trump and his presidency will be inexorably tied to this heartless policy directive.
The country is divided, but that’s the stupid Democrats’ fault.
According to Trump, the country was very polarized under Obama, but now on the strength of the economy, he can see it coming together. You’re welcome, America. Stahl questioned him on this criticism of Obama and the Democrats’ contributions to political rancor when he and his Republican cronies just won on the Kavanaugh confirmation and he proceeded to immediately lambast the Dems. Trump predictably deflected by saying it’s the Democrats who don’t want the country to heal. They started it! They were so mean to Brett Kavanaugh! What a bunch of stupid babies!
In case you had any doubts, Trump doesn’t give two shits about Christine Blasey Ford.
Continuing with theme of Kavanaugh’s confirmation, Lesley Stahl addressed Trump’s mockery of Dr. Ford’s testimony before Congress, asking why he felt he had to make fun of her. Trump says she was treated with great respect. Stahl was, like, really? Trump was, like, anyway, who cares? We won.
That’s right, ladies and germs—the ends justify the means. It’s all about the W. You heard him.
The White House is definitely not in chaos. Definitelynot.
The on-air portion of the 60 Minutes interview ended with Stahl asking the president about the media reports of a White House in turmoil. Three guesses as to his reply. If you said “fake news,” you’d be correct. (If you didn’t, what’s wrong with you?) Trump also didn’t seem fazed about the high turnover within his administration. Hey, sometimes it just doesn’t work out! Along these lines, Trump wouldn’t commit to James Mattis as Secretary of Defense, nor would he give a ringing endorsement to Jeff “I’m Only a Racist on Days That End in ‘Y'” Sessions. Not that I have any great love for either of those men, but it’s still messed up when a man like Trump expects unflinching loyalty and yet stands by his appointees only when it’s convenient.
Trump also opined on his feelings of distrust of White House officials, consummate with his assessment of Washington, D.C. as a “vicious, vicious place.” Good news, though, fellow Americans: he now feels very comfortable as POTUS. Many of us might be continuously on edge, but he’s right as rain. Well, at least there’s that.
To some, Lesley Stahl’s 60 Minutes interview with Donald Trump was disappointing in that it didn’t break new ground. Sure, it further revealed that he is ignorant of how basic economic and scientific principles work, that he possesses a predilection for strongmen, that he will blame Barack Obama for pretty much anything, that he holds absolutely no regard for survivors of sexual assault, rape, and sexual violence, and that he has the temperament (and possibly the intellect) of a grade-school child. But we already knew all this. As noted earlier, it’s more salt in the wound for members of the so-called Resistance, but short of potentially alienating our allies with his public comments—which is not to be undersold or encouraged, mind you—but comparatively, his words are sticks and stones.
It’s where Trump’s actions and those of his administration have effect that should truly frighten us, meanwhile. As he so often does, Matt Taibbi provides excellent insight into the area of biggest concern: the U.S. economy. Stahl noted in voiceovers during the interview that Trump loves to talk about America’s economic success. After all, it makes him look good. Never mind that he may have a limited role in that success and that he inherited favorable conditions from his predecessor, but he wouldn’t be the first president to take advantage of others’ successes.
Trump was notably silent, conversely, when the Dow recently fell 1,377 points over two days amid a stock market sell-off. As Taibbi writes, this event is but a prelude to a larger economic disaster, and it stands at the confluence of three irreconcilable problems. The first is the Federal Reserve raising interest rates as a means of trying to rein in the excess of large companies taking advantage of quantitative easing and zero-interest-rate policy.
This might not be such a problem except for the second factor: the Trump/GOP tax cuts. As economic experts warned prior to their passage, the cuts were based on overly enthusiastic projections of economic growth. When the inevitable tax shortfall occurred, we would need to start borrowing more, as is already underway. Higher interest rates on increased borrowing means more of an economic burden.
All of this comes to a head when we consider the third problem: tariffs. To try to make up for the issues raised by higher borrowing rates and a revenue shortfall, the government this week debuted new Treasury bills in the hopes of generating immediate cash. The potential conflict arises when considering China is the primary buyer of U.S. T-bills and holds over a trillion dollars in American debt.
The assumption is that Chinese demand for Treasury notes will remain unchanged despite the tariffs. However, as Matt Taibbi and Lesley Stahl and others are right to wonder, what happens if the trade war’s tariffs hurt the Chinese economy to the point that China no longer can or is willing to subsidize our skyrocketing debt? It’s a purely theoretical question at this point, and a rhetorical one at that, but the fallout from the intersection of these trends could be devastating. Taibbi puts a cap on the gravity of the situation thusly:
As we’ve seen in recent decades, even smart people are fully capable of driving the American economy off a cliff. What happens when the dumbest administration in history gets a turn at the wheel? Maybe last week wasn’t the time to start panicking. But that moment can’t be far.
Ominous, but perhaps not hyperbole. Noting what happened last time when the economy nearly collapsed, when the next disaster strikes, it will undoubtedly be we, the other 99%, that pays most dearly. Especially as Mitch McConnell and his Republican partners would have it, now clearly eying cuts to Medicare and Social Security.
President Trump may enjoy schmoozing with Lesley Stahl and giving bad answers his base will eat up now. In the short to long term, though, the terrible choices of his administration and his party could prove costly to the American economy, and by association, the global economy. Though he undoubtedly won’t meet with our same burden, he should at least take more of the blame when it does.
That’s the story we get from our beloved president, Donald J. Trump, at least. As many of us can attest to, though, what he says may not be (or is rarely) the gospel truth.
In an August 13 post in his nascent online newsletter, Popular Information, journalist Jedd Legum discusses how, indeed, GDP growth is strong and unemployment is low. Sounds great, right? While not to discount these trends, the issue is that wages aren’t rising to accompany them. Legum writes:
There is something fundamentally broken about the United States economy and no one is doing anything about it.
Unemployment is low. GDP growth is strong. But official government data released on Friday show that real wages for American workers have gone down over the last year.
Nominal wages, the dollar amount workers see in their paychecks, have slowly crept up, increasing 2.7% between July 2017 and July 2018. But that has not kept up with inflation, which rose 2.9% over the same period.
The economy is growing. Workers, however, are falling further behind.
This sounds awfully doom-and-gloom coming from Legum, but as he indicates, he has the data provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics to back him up. What’s more, he identifies key reasons why workers aren’t reaping the benefits of a robust economy through their take-home pay.
First of all, before we get to why wages are stagnant or declining, there’s the matter of the Trump tax cuts. After the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act was signed into law, the White House promised that “the median U.S. household would get a $4,000 real income raise.” That hasn’t happened, though.
To make matters worse, Trump and his advisers are apparently not interested in revisiting their policies to assess their potential flaws. Instead, Trump has—in characteristic fashion—doubled down on his assertions. He has ignored any evidence to the contrary, boasting that our paychecks are bigger and America is booming like never before. That’s especially not true in the case of our “booming” nation, but why let facts get in the way of a good story?
As Legum is keen to point out, however, trends in wage stagnation relative to inflation are bigger than Donald Trump. (But shh—don’t tell Trump that. In his mind, he is the sun around which we revolve.) Regardless of who is president or which party is in power, wages have been effectively stagnant for decades.
Based on this phenomenon, Legum insists that if people are complaining of an economy “rigged” against them, they are, well, right. Despite America’s status as one of the richest countries in the world and in an era of increasing profits, fewer people are enjoying those additional rewards. Cue the conversation about the 99% versus the 1%.
Accordingly, as Legum asks in his introduction, what gives? The answer is a complicated one, though there are some major culprits in the eyes of economic analysts. The first is employer-based health insurance, of which costs are on the rise. Because of escalating health care expenses, employers are less likely to raise wages. Because they are concerned about coverage and costs, employees are less likely to seek employment elsewhere. Consequently, employers are less inclined to negotiate on wages for fear of a departure. It shouldn’t surprise you to know that lower-wage workers also are disproportionately affected by these rising health care costs.
Speaking of negotiating for higher wages, a decline in union membership mediated by deliberate attempts to undermine organized labor has weakened the bargaining power and wages of union and non-union workers alike. Without significant union membership, there is insufficient reason for non-union employers to raise wages to compete with those of union firms. This is to say that it is not a zero-sum game involving the wages of union and non-union workers.
Compounding the problem of wages in America is that productivity is lagging despite advancements in technology. Legum speaks to the theory that American companies are simply not investing enough for the long term, instead opting to turn revenues into dividends or stock buybacks that inflate stock prices. Meanwhile, as he also indicates, wages have increased more slowly than productivity, so this is “only a piece of the puzzle.”
All of these factors lead up to Legum’s central point. While wage stagnation is obviously complex, there are yet remedies which can be effected. On the health care front, Medicare-for-all and other single-payer models at the state level have been suggested as ways to make employer costs more manageable. For unions, there are possible interventions like majority sign-up or multi-employer bargaining. For productivity’s sake, where private organizations fail, public investments in infrastructure can help pick up the slack.
The problem with these remedies is that they aren’t being implemented, or as Legum puts it, “no one is working to fix the problem.” Re the Trump administration, in many cases, these solutions aren’t just being ignored—they are forsaken for policies that deliberately move us backward.
We all remember the attempts by the president and a Republican-led Congress to kill the Affordable Care Act. They haven’t yet proven wholly successful, though this doesn’t mean the GOP will stop trying. Trump also celebrated the ruling in Janus v. AFSCME, characterized by many as a major blow to public-sector unions. As for infrastructure, Trump promised it would be a priority of his tenure in office. Heretofore, like most of Trump’s promises, it has yet to come to fruition.
In closing, Legum writes, “Politicians of all stripes speak incessantly about the American worker. But until they tackle the wage crisis head-on, it’s hard to take them seriously.” The absence of references to a specific political party here implies that both Republicans and Democrats should be taken to task for their role in subverting the wage growth of the labor force in the United States.
For the GOP, which has long kept the interests of big business close to heart, this is no big surprise. On the other hand, for the Democrats, the putative party of the people, the charge is that they have failed workers by not more vigorously defending organized labor, not to mention too eagerly embracing corporate lobbies/wealthy donors and their influence. This is the sort of inaction from lawmakers that the average voter is arguably justified in raging against. With the criticism from the left, there is an added sense of disappointment that a party which traditionally has embraced working-class Americans appears to have so readily abandoned them.
As Judd Legum underscores, these trends which have contributed to wage stagnation amid a growing economy were in motion before the rise of Donald Trump. His ascendancy is perhaps an all-too-logical consequence of their elaboration. As numerous publications and pundits observed, working-class whites, who came out in force for the business tycoon in 2016, were a key source of his support.
Before the election, the voting bloc of whites without a college degree was reportedly shrinking, and polling data had Hillary Clinton with one foot in the White House. Meanwhile, a group of individuals who disdain professionals because they perceive themselves to be disdained, while holding fast to the aspirational model embodied by Trump, was instrumental in swinging the election to the Republican presidential nominee. If Democratic strategists were convinced they could all but ignore this subset of the electorate (and key segments of the Rust Belt), it turned out they were wrong.
It’s political realities like this which make the recent decision by Tom Perez and the Democratic National Committee to reverse a ban on donations from fossil fuel companies rather alarming. Ostensibly, this was a move made because input from labor suggested a ban on fossil fuel money was an “attack” on workers. In reality, and as the activist community has observed, this 180 is designed to allow fossil fuel executives to keep donating to (and buying influence within) the Democratic Party.
The DNC’s about-face is particularly galling given that the prohibition on fossil fuel contributions—which specifically targeted corporate PAC donations—only came about this past June. Defenders of Perez’s proposal might be wont to point out that the Republican Party accepts substantially higher amounts of cash from the fossil fuel industry than the Dems do. There’s also the aspect that Democrats in contested districts/states feel they need to take a more moderate stance when it comes to energy production.
Still, as Kate Aronoff, contributor to The Intercept, quipped, “There are no jobs on a dead planet.” The DNC’s recommitment to an “all-of-the-above” energy strategy is a regressive turn of events at a time when more urgent action on climate change is needed, and when the Trump administration is doing its part to reverse as many regulations designed to safeguard the environment as possible (see also Scott Pruitt as the original pick for the EP-freaking-A).
Moreover, the rationalization of taking fossil fuel PAC money as a defense of organized labor is an altogether cynical one. Apparently, being a rank-and-file worker/Democratic Party supporter and having enthusiasm for an energy plan based on renewable sources are mutually exclusive. If you care about your job, evidently you give f**k-all about the planet.
To reiterate, the problem of stagnant and declining wages in America is a complex one mediated by a number of factors. At the same time, a little leadership from our elected representatives could go a long way in convincing us we are on the right track in trying to ameliorate the situation. Unfortunately, legislative gridlock and intentional concessions to corporate interests inspire little confidence we’re moving in the right direction on this issue.