The 44th G7 Summit, held in Charlevoix, Quebec, Canada this past weekend, was, by most accounts, an unmitigated disaster, and one person was at the center of the unrest. I think you know who I’m talking about. That Angela Merkel. Can’t go anywhere without causing a ruckus.
But seriously, if the title didn’t already give it away, it was Donald Trump. With the signing of a communiqué by the leaders representing the G7 member countries—one committed to investing in growth “that works for everyone,” preparing for the jobs of the future, advancing gender equality and women’s empowerment, building a more peaceful and secure world, and working together on climate change, oceans, and clean energy—it appeared there was at least nominal progress and that Trump and the United States were willing to engage in good faith with the rest of the signatories.
Shortly after leaving a summit early to which he had already arrived late, however, Trump (or a surrogate tweeting on his behalf) backtracked on his accession to the communiqué, and in response to the host country’s prime minister Justin Trudeau’s speech addressing Trump directly on the subject of tariffs and indicating Canada would be retaliating so as not to be “pushed around,” he called Trudeau “dishonest and weak,” casting doubt on the productiveness of the whole shebang.
It was perhaps a fitting end to a summit in which Trump suggested Russia be reinstated as part of a Group of 8—you know, despite its evident interference in American politics and that whole annexation of Crimea thing—characterized the U.S. once more as being taken advantage of economically, and refused to attend portions of the program devoted to climate change.
In fact, Trump’s belligerent positions were enough that French Foreign Minister Bruno Le Maire went as far as to refer to the proceedings as the “G6+1 Summit,” underscoring the United States’ isolation from the other countries represented, and a photo of Ms. Merkel staring down at a seated Pres. Trump went viral as an all-too-perfect summation of how the affair went down. Trump, arms folded, looks like the petulant child to the rest of the adults in the room. Japanese PM Shinzō Abe is also featured prominently, with his arms likewise folded and standing, though with an expression that seems to indicate disapproval or utter boredom. Or maybe he was just wondering when the food was going to arrive. If you ask me, the only good type of meeting is one that involves food.
But I digress. In all, the sense many got of the G7 Summit, especially in the wake of Donald Trump’s 180 as he took off for Singapore in preparation of a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, was one of disarray, and the war of words between Justin Trudeau and Trump further clouded the future of NAFTA negotiations, already decidedly murky amid the latter’s rhetoric on trade deficits between the parties involved and his insistence on a border wall fully furnished by Mexico. If anything, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the UK seem that much more committed to cooperating in spite of America’s actions and without its help than with it. Ahem, let it not be said that Trump isn’t a uniter.
What is so remarkable about how the events of this past weekend unfolded—and when I say “remarkable,” I mean like a horror film which you can’t help but watch despite your urge to look or even run away—is the type of discord Trump and his tantrums encouraged. The other members of the G7 are our presumed allies. In theory, we should be working together on matters that affect the whole, such as climate change, combatting extremism/terrorism, jobs, trade, and women’s rights.
Instead, Trump is content to downplay the effects of climate change and prop up the scandalous Scott Pruitt, play to the racists and xenophobes among his base, tout job numbers that are largely beyond his control, invite trade wars, and deny his own scandals involving sexual encounters or harassment of women. If there’s something to be said positively about his withdrawing from the communiqué, it’s that it’s probably more honest regarding his true feelings on the topics within. Simply put, Trump doesn’t play well with others.
The other element that is remarkable and, at this point, not entirely surprising, is how Trump administration officials have characterized Justin Trudeau in the wake of Trudeau’s decision to levy tariffs back on the United States. Larry Kudlow, director of the U.S. National Economic Council, characterized Trudeau’s comments as a “betrayal” and expressed the belief that the Canadian prime minister “stabbed us in the back.” Peter Navarro, the White House director of trade policy, echoed this sentiment of back-stabbing and suggested there’s a “special place in Hell” for Trudeau.
Again, Trudeau and Canada are our presumptive allies. These kinds of words are usually reserved for staunch enemies like Osama bin Laden and ISIS/ISIL, not our neighbors to the north, and were made on top of Trump’s recent historical gaffe uttered in a May phone call with Trudeau, in which Trump invoked Canada’s burning down the White House during the War of 1812. Which is great, except for the fact it was Britain who set fire to the White House, not Canada. For all Trump knows, it could’ve been Frederick Douglass who started that famed fire. A great student of history, our president is not.
Numerous critics of Trump’s antics at the G7 Summit and his subsequent comments calling out Trudeau have suggested that this public show of defiance was intended as a show of strength designed to make the president look tough before his historic meeting with Kim Jong-un. As these same critics would aver, however, insulting the leader of a G7 ally for following through with retaliatory tariffs the country announced it would effect even before the summit began achieves the opposite. It makes Trump look petty, and it makes the United States of America look unreliable.
Already, Trump has pulled us out of the Paris climate agreement—which is voluntary and non-binding anyway—and the Iran nuclear agreement, so why would Kim Jong-un or anyone else have reason to believe that Trump’s motives are pure and that the U.S. honors its promises? Unless Trump thinks he can outfox the North Korean leader as a self-professed master negotiator—and let’s be honest—do you really trust him in that capacity either? It’s been over a year in Pres. Trump’s tenure thus far, and I’ve yet to see this great deal-making ability in action—I don’t know about you.
At this writing, American audiences are still having their first reactions to news of the signing of an agreement between the United States and North Korea following their leaders’ summit in Singapore. Based on the available text of the agreement, it outlines commitments to establishing new relations between the two nations, building a “lasting and stable peace regime” on the Korean peninsula, working toward denuclearization of the peninsula, and repatriation of POW/MIA remains. One hopes or even prays for the best.
If we’re being cynical—perhaps real—about the situation, though, we have to wonder what the intentions are behind the parties involved and how liable they are to keep their word. In North Korea, there is no news about the summit or any subsequent accords. As with the 2018 Winter Olympics, there is a blackout on imagery from the Trump-Kim meeting.
For Donald Trump and the U.S., meanwhile, the Devil is in the details regarding this agreement, and there are very few specifics about how denuclearization will be approached and how North Korea will be held accountable. At a press conference following the summit, Trump stated his confidence that Kim and North Korea will abide by the agreement’s terms based on a personal favorable assessment of the North Korean leader. But North Korea has reneged on provisions of previous agreements, and there is still much room for concern over its human rights record and its overall treatment of its citizens.
Plus, knowing Trump’s self-interest, he’s probably welcoming a thawing of relations between the two nations as a conduit to building properties under the Trump name in North Korea. For the concessions made to North Korea in that the United States vows to end its “war games”—its military exercises in conjunction with South Korea—little is known about what assurances we’ve gotten back in return. There’s every possibility that the lion’s share of the benefits would be ones that only those individuals bearing our leader’s last name would be able to enjoy. Ah, but no—it’s all about peace on Earth and goodwill to humankind. Right, right—my mistake.
Some critics, undoubtedly skeptics in their own right, have wondered aloud why Donald Trump would wish to try to negotiate with a dictator like Kim Jong-un and thereby give him legitimacy. There are two rebuttals to this line of thinking. The first and more obvious one is that dictators are, like, Trump’s favorite kind of person, and, as we fear, what the man aims to become.
For example, we’ve long been aware of Trump’s admiration for/refusal to criticize Vladimir Putin. Trump has also invited Rodrigo Duterte, a fellow misogynist and strongman whose war on drugs in the Philippines has claimed thousands of lives, to the White House. He’s given “high marks” to and praised Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s despotic president notorious for cracking down on journalists like a true authoritarian. Xi Jinping of China. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt. If there’s a head of state making an enemy of a free press and readily engaging in human rights abuses, you can be sure Trump is a fan. Of Kim, Trump reportedly called him “honorable,” smart, and someone who “loves his people.” Oh, potentially over 100,000 North Koreans are in prisons over political matters because he loves them so much? I thought if you loved someone or something, you should set them free? No?
Perhaps less obvious but no less germane to this discussion is the idea that America hasn’t really been shy in its embrace of other dictators and human rights abusers over time. Just reviewing more recent history, Barack Obama, for one, paid homage to the Saudis after the passage of then-king Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al Saud, noted autocrat and alleged murderer and torturer. Back in 2009, Hillary Clinton remarked that she considered Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, a dictatorial leader deposed amid the tumult of the so-called Arab Spring in 2011, and his wife, “friends.” So long as there is a means to benefit materially from our relationships with undemocratic heads of state, U.S. leaders are liable to pursue those connections, and while it can’t be assumed necessarily that Trump is playing nice to potentially enrich himself down the road, it sure shouldn’t be ruled out just the same.
Whatever the play is in North Korea, that Trump would appear so chummy with Kim and feud with Justin Trudeau is astonishing, even noting Trump’s desire to look like a tough maverick. I mean, who picks a fight with Canada? If this were hockey, one might be able to understand, but Trump’s finger-pointing is better suited to a South Park plot line than actual diplomatic strategy. To put it another way, when even members of the GOP are admonishing Trump for lashing out at Trudeau, you know it’s got to be a bad decision. No wonder Robert De Niro felt compelled to apologize to the Canadian PM on Americans’ behalf.
The general mood worldwide is one of cautious hope for something good to come out of the historic summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un, perhaps notably from China, Japan, and, of course, South Korea, lands with a vested interest in denuclearization of and peace on the Korean peninsula, if for no other reason than geographic proximity. It’s the kind of optimism you would want to see in this context. Not merely to be a wet blanket, however, but there’s a still long way to go and much work to do. After all, Trump is not a man known for his patience or for his spirit of collegiality, and it’s much too early to consider North Korea an ally given its track record. Then again, with allies like Trump, who needs enemies?
To view this post as it appears on Citizen Truth, click here. Citizen Truth is an independent and alternative media organization dedicated to finding the truth, ending the left-right paradigm, and widening the scope of viewpoints represented in media and our daily conversations. For more on CT, please visit citizentruth.org.
Without having seen one of his YouTube videos or hearing him speak, I have to rely on second-hand accounts about intellectual and psychologist Jordan Peterson and his ideologies. From what I have read and witnessed about him, Peterson is a charismatic orator, a gifted debater, and intellectually brilliant. He’s also apparently arrogant, confrontational, and dismissive of opinions that are not his own. To even acknowledge his burgeoning popularity is to give credence to his platform and potentially invite a backlash from his adoring followers (though, given my limited readership, this probably all but negates the risk).
So, what is the appeal of writing a blog entry about Jordan Peterson, other than that I needed someone or something about which to write and I didn’t feel like writing about the Trump administration for the umpteenth time?
I suppose my interest was piqued in Peterson only in the last few weeks or so when I began to encounter an onslaught of negative press about the man, his latest book, 12 Rules for Life, and his musings about “enforced monogamy,” the latter of which supposedly is a not a dystopian, government-controlled “insistence” on the virtues of monogamy, but rather a socially and culturally promoted set of ideals which likewise supposedly is reflected in anthropological, biological, and psychological research and theory.
“Enforced monogamy” also informs Peterson’s belief as to a solution to the likes of the attack allegedly perpetrated by Alek Minassian in Toronto last month, evidently a participant in so-called “incel” culture comprised of “involuntary celibate” men who show resentment toward a society that denies them the ability to have sex, actively or otherwise. As Peterson sees it, enforced monogamy is the cure for that anger, and specifically in Minassian’s case, he was angry at God. This despite any stated political or religious affiliations as indicated by authorities at the place and time of the incident. But, hey—maybe this is just another indication of Peterson’s brilliance that he was able to divine this information!
Some of you may read these musings of Jordan Peterson’s on monogamy and the Toronto van attack and think, “Well, this guy is full of shit—I’ve heard all that I need to hear.” Such is well within your right to believe. You may commence with skimming this article and head toward the conclusion. Still, for those of you like me who choose to dig deeper, beyond the headlines that may exist if only to bait you into clicking and to engender outrage (or are just plain masochistic), it’s worth it to study Peterson’s worldview with the help of those who have reviewed his public statements at length or those who know him personally.
One such reviewer is known by the nom de tweet Natalie Wynn, a transgender ex-academic with a background in philosophy who comments on the cultural and philosophical issues of the day from her YouTube channel ContraPoints. In her latest video, Wynn, while jokingly alluding to Peterson’s past invocations of hierarchies in lobsters in talking about human societal order and putting Peterson’s face on a dummy’s body and soaking with it in a bathtub—this is part of her offbeat charm—acknowledges that after listening to his podcasts, reading his books, and watching his videos on YouTube, she gets why people like him.
For Natalie, Peterson has real talent as a public speaker and life coach, with his major distinguishing quality being that Peterson infuses traditional self-help verbiage with biblical insights, Jungian psychoanalysis, philosophy, and psychology. In this respect, nothing that he presents is really new—especially if you’re familiar with the trappings of AA, Ms. Wynn quips—but as far as she is concerned, from a self-improvement standpoint, more power to the Canadian psychology professor.
The issue with Peterson’s life coaching, however, as Wynn views it, is that it is a “Trojan horse for a reactionary political agenda,” one that opposes progressive politics as something “totalitarian and evil.” Peterson refers to progressive politics by the term postmodern neo-Marxism, and Wynn, using her educational background, painstakingly dissects this use of the terminology. Going through a cursory-yet-lengthy history of modernism, she eventually gets to a point that Marxism is a fundamentally modernist worldview that theorizes the human condition in economic terms, while postmodernism is a kind of skepticism that denies humans’ capacity for knowing universal truths about the world around them.
Accordingly, these concepts would seem to be at odds, and Peterson’s use of the term would only seem to enhance the confusion. As Natalie Wynn outlines, Jordan Peterson’s animus is levied upon a rather nebulous group that includes administrators at colleges and universities, civil rights activists, corporate human resources departments, feminists, liberal politicians, Marxists, postmodernists, and so-called “social justice warriors (SJWs).” It’s a problematically loose association of leftists which ignores the tensions that tend to exist between so many of the subgroups under this umbrella and on which Peterson tries to pin the downfall of Western civilization amid his fearmongering.
Likewise problematic is Peterson’s concept of “the West.” As Wynn breaks it down, Peterson’s “West” is emblematic of concepts like capitalism, individualism, and “Judeo-Christian values,” while “postmodern neo-Marxism” is aligned with anti-Western sentiment, collectivism, relativism, and totalitarianism. Marxism and postmodernism, as Wynn elucidates, are Western philosophies, so this immediately calls Peterson’s framework into question, as does his insistence on SJW ideology as a non-Western function.
Moreover, Wynn argues, if Peterson were really concerned about celebrating individuality, he would be more open to, for instance, the use of gender-neutral pronouns to suit the needs of individual students (Peterson made headlines when he vowed he would refuse to comply with any provincial laws on the use of “alternative” pronouns). In addition, if he were more insistent on preserving “the West” as a geographical and philosophical construct, he would, you know, rail against Buddhism, or own that the Marquis de Sade, for one, was into some stuff that doesn’t really fit with “Judeo-Christian values,” and he was from the West. By these standards, Peterson’s categories seem woefully arbitrary and haphazard.
Thus, despite her mild admiration for Peterson’s attention to the tendency of some people on the left to shout down even slightly different opinions, as well as an appreciation for the need to provide folks with a positive, proactive ideology rather than a liberal focus on everything one shouldn’t be doing and a preoccupation with how society oppresses people without a path to corrective action, Natalie Wynn sees a real danger in Jordan Peterson’s anti-leftist rhetoric.
She’s not alone, either. Bernard Schiff, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Toronto and someone who knows Peterson well as one of his historically staunchest defenders against other faculty at the university, recently penned a special opinion piece for the Toronto Star regarding his change of heart, so to speak, on Peterson and his methods. In Schiff’s opening to his expansive essay, he sets the tone for the piece by explaining what he admires about his colleague, and why he has more recently pivoted on someone he has considered a friend:
I thought long and hard before writing about Jordan, and I do not do this lightly. He has one of the most agile and creative minds I’ve ever known. He is a powerful orator. He is smart, passionate, engaging and compelling and can be thoughtful and kind.
I was once his strongest supporter.
That all changed with his rise to celebrity. I am alarmed by his now-questionable relationship to truth, intellectual integrity and common decency, which I had not seen before. His output is voluminous and filled with oversimplifications which obscure or misrepresent complex matters in the service of a message which is difficult to pin down. He can be very persuasive, and toys with facts and with people’s emotions. I believe he is a man with a mission. It is less clear what that mission is.
So, why did Schiff have to defend Peterson as a fellow professor among the faculty at the University of Toronto? Shocker!—though his celebrity may be bringing out the very worst in him, Peterson was always kind of a son of a bitch. Schiff concedes that Peterson possessed a rather immaculate record prior to his arrival at the University of Toronto, and despite misgivings from others about his “eccentricity,” he advocated for Peterson because he thought he could bring a fresh energy and new ideas to the department.
As it turned out, though, according to Schiff, Peterson wasn’t just a little “eccentric.” He sparred with the university’s research ethics committee, suggesting they lacked the authority and expertise to weigh in on his work (despite, you know, it being their government-mandated job to serve this function). He also, alongside numerous enthusiastic reviews from people who had taken his courses and a rapt audience of those who attended, repeatedly acknowledged the dangers of presenting conjecture as fact, and promptly went ahead and did it anyway in his lectures.
For Schiff, this was fine, albeit vaguely concerning; no one was getting hurt, and Peterson’s sermons were largely confined to the classroom. The turn came, however, when Peterson not only misrepresented the relationship between biology and gender in his opposition to Bill C-16, the aforementioned gender-neutral pronoun policy, but misrepresented his own risk at not supporting the law:
Jordan’s first high-profile public battle, and for many people their introduction to the man, followed his declaration that he would not comply with Bill C-16, an amendment to the Canadian Human Rights Act extending its protections to include gender identity and expression. He would refuse to refer to students using gender neutral pronouns. He then upped the stakes by claiming that, for this transgression, he could be sent to jail.
I have a trans daughter, but that was hardly an issue compared to what I felt was a betrayal of my trust and confidence in him. It was an abuse of the trust that comes with his professorial position, which I had fought for, to have misrepresented gender science by dismissing the evidence that the relationship of gender to biology is not absolute and to have made the claim that he could be jailed when, at worst, he could be fined.
In his defence, Jordan told me if he refused to pay the fine he could go to jail. That is not the same as being jailed for what you say, but it did ennoble him as a would-be martyr in the defence of free speech. He was a true free speech “warrior” who was willing to sacrifice and run roughshod over his students to make a point. He could have spared his students and chosen to sidestep the issue and refer to them by their names. And if this was truly a matter of free speech he could have challenged the Human Rights Act, off-campus and much earlier, by openly using language offensive to any of the already-protected groups on that list.
Perhaps this was not just about free speech.
Subsequent actions by Peterson to oppose legislative attempts by the province of Ontario to defend additional trans rights grew all the more worrisome. Peterson railed against the proposed Bill 28 under the premise that it “subjugates the natural family to the transgender agenda.” First of all, and apropos of nothing, the man missed an obvious opportunity to coin a portmanteau in transgenda. Secondly, what the heck is the “transgender agenda,” anyway? And how does it relate to a bill that sought to change the language about families away from “fathers and mothers” to “parents”? Bernard Schiff, for one, is confused, and I find myself similarly perplexed. You might, too.
This sense of wonderment quickly gives way to genuine fear, meanwhile, when considering Jordan Peterson’s conflation of Marxism, the left, and murderous regimes like those of Joseph Stalin that pervert their professed ideology to serve the purposes of the individual at the helm. Here is where Bernard Schiff’s concerns begin to echo those of Natalie Wynn’s. Wynn explicitly states her belief that Peterson is not a fascist. Whether or not Schiff believes Peterson has fascist tendencies is less clear, though he does make allusions to other people’s characterizations of Peterson and fascists in general, so that might tell you all you need to know. Regardless of exact labels, Schiff sees parallels between Peterson’s anti-Marxist, pro-status-quo language and Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist, anti-immigrant fervor. Obviously, this is not a flattering association.
Ultimately, Schiff puts forth that while he may be overstating the potential threat posed by his colleague, to remain silent presents its own risk—one he is not willing to take. Schiff, in suggesting that Peterson does not play by some of his own 12 rules—notably the ones involving assuming the other party knows something you don’t, pursuing what is important and not just what is expedient, telling the truth, and using precise language—expresses regret. Part of that regret lies in his inability to see Peterson’s rise as a self-styled cultural “warrior” coming despite the apparent warning signs. The other half of his regret, if you will, is his role in bringing Peterson to the University of Toronto in the first place. As Schiff plainly writes, “I have been asked by some if I regret my role in bringing Jordan to the University of Toronto. I did not for many years, but I do now.”
Part of what makes Jordan Peterson so frustrating to talk about is his seemingly intentional inscrutability, a quality his devotees laud as a virtue in that the “liberal media” can’t neatly fit him into a box. Indeed, Bernard Schiff goes to great lengths trying to plot out Peterson’s inconsistences. He defiantly asserts his own right to free speech, but then actively tries to steer students away from professors whom he associates with “postmodern neo-Marxism.” He claims to be a champion of scientific research and inquiry but rejects attempts by university administration to scrutinize his methods and cherry-picks data to prove his point. He, like so many conservatives, decries those on the left he sees as willing victims, but plays the martyr when challenged all the same. He’s calm and collected one moment, and angrily confrontational and defensive in the face of criticism the next. It’s a pretty maddening study in contracts.
Equally frustrating is trying to engage Peterson in a conversation on his terms. Natalie Wynn provides examples of Peterson’s rhetorical style, which essentially puts earnest interviewers like Cathy Newman of Channel 4 News in a no-win situation. As Wynn frames it, Peterson verbalizes something generally accepted to be true, while at the same time implying something more controversial and possibly unrelated. For instance, he’ll say that “there are biological differences between men and women,” but in the context of the underrepresentation of women in government. Your apparent choice is either to fall into the trap of arguing against the factual information Peterson presents, or to try infer a meaning by which he can argue that you’re misrepresenting his point of view. Whatever that may be.
Wynn highlights how Peterson used this kind of argument with respect to his famous/infamous “lobster” comment, when he led with a discussion of the notion that human social hierarchies are a construct created by Western patriarchy, and followed that with a note about how lobsters exist in hierarchies and how this structure has existed before Western patriarchy. The problem with this line of discourse, instructs Wynn, is that no one is arguing hierarchies are a product of “Western patriarchy,” and that lobster hierarchies are a non sequitur to the discussion of human social hierarchies. That is, no one is trying to start a lobster revolution. Peterson’s argument, as intellectual as it sounds, is gobbledygook, more or less.
Another oft-cited moment in the Newman-Peterson interview was when Newman asked Peterson why his right to freedom of speech should trump a trans person’s right not to be offended, and Peterson countered by asserting that “in order to be able to think, you have to risk being offensive,” and answering her question with another question: “You’re certainly willing to risk offending me in the pursuit of truth. Why should you have the right to do that?” Peterson’s extended response left Newman all but speechless, to which he interjected, “Ha! Gotcha!” Newman, flabbergasted, conceded defeat on this point. This moment is Exhibit A in Peterson’s supporters’ evidence that their icon “won” the interview over Ms. Newman, or “destroyed” her, or “obliterated” her, or did something else to nullify her very existence. Because there has to be a winner or loser in these types of discussions. Right.
Looking back at Peterson’s statements, it’s easier to find the flaws in his reasoning. To equate his personal offense at being challenged to a trans individual’s right to self-identification is a false comparison. This is to say that Peterson’s taking umbrage to a reporter’s queries results in nothing more than his personal irritation, while attacks on personhood for the trans community, a minority group, can lead to continued abuse and physical assaults. It’s not the same thing, something Cathy Newman might’ve been able to express given the time to parse out Peterson’s logic. You or I might’ve found ourselves similarly flummoxed in the same situation against such a skilled orator.
On top of this, Cathy Newman’s reward for attempting to take Jordan Peterson to task for expressed viewpoints and for inadvertently helping to elevate his stature? Numerous vicious personal threats. Peterson did intercede amid the harassment to ask his followers to back off, but his is the kind of sermonizing about the need to defend “Western” culture with obvious appeal to straight white Christian males that lends itself to preemptive strikes against members of the LGBTQ community, people of color, women, and everyone in between. When cultural debates are characterized in the context of a “war,” those who take up the fight with earnest believe all is fair, but this is not automatically the case.
Natalie Wynn ends her segment by abnegating personal responsibility in the debate about Jordan Peterson’s merits, professing she only likes to make YouTube videos for their production value. Bernard Schiff ruefully acknowledges his personal failure in identifying Peterson’s dangerous patterns of behavior and likens his (Peterson’s) desire to preach from the pulpit to the designs of late evangelist Billy Graham. Perhaps there is no single conclusion to be reached about Peterson that would prove satisfactory.
A common thread between the analyses of Wynn and Schiff, though—and one to which I might subscribe in my own thinking—is the idea that maybe those outside his vanguard need to take his meteoric rise more seriously. The “experts” who downplayed the threats of a “Brexit” or a Donald Trump presidency were summarily proven wrong. The hubbub about Jordan Peterson could be much ado about nothing. As with Schiff’s decision not to stay mum, however, do you believe it’s worth the risk of ignoring him?
To view this post as it appears on Citizen Truth, click here. Citizen Truth is an independent and alternative media organization dedicated to finding the truth, ending the left-right paradigm, and widening the scope of viewpoints represented in media and our daily conversations. For more on CT, please visit citizentruth.org.
Ready for a deep dive into economic trends and theory facing the American manufacturing sector? I get it—the topic may not be an altogether sexy one—but the implications that accompany these trends are important ones, so bear with me for a bit.
Gwynn Guilford, reporting for Quartz, recently penned an excellent analysis of the United States’ effective stagnation when it comes to growth in the manufacturing sector, an eventuality that even trained data-driven economists have misinterpreted by viewing manufacturing more holistically. She begins her piece by talking about Donald Trump decrying globalization as a job killer on the campaign trail, and this being dismissed by economists and other data-driven analysts as rhetoric in favor of automation as the dominant explanation for job loss in the States.
As Guilford tells it, though, Trump was closer to the truth than a lot of experts might otherwise have entertained—though for reasons he likely can’t iterate, so let’s not give the Devil too much of his due.
First, a matter of context. According to Guilford, who cites data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, manufacturing employment has declined by more than 25% since 2000, to the tune of some 20 million jobs. At the same time, however, the manufacturing sector’s output has continued to increase despite the job loss, roughly in line with growth in the U.S.’s gross domestic product (GDP). The easy explanation for this is that advances in management, skill, and—you guessed it—technology have made manufacturing processes more efficient, yielding superior output and production when adjusting for inflation.
True as these justifications for industrial improvement may be, though, there is still the matter of the paradox created with respect to rising output and concomitant declining employment in the manufacturing sector. Here’s where the economic theory comes into play. Susan Houseman, economist and specialist in matters of globalization, in conjunction with Federal Reserve economists, looked at detailed statistics regarding calculations of manufacturing output.
As Guilford explains, integral to understanding what Houseman and her colleagues saw is how economists assess year-to-year measurements. Not only do they look at the raw numbers of finished products made from one period to the next minus the costs of production (a principle known as “value added”), but they adjust for changes in price and product quality. The problem with measuring things in this way, meanwhile, is that adjustments based on assumptions of value can be misinterpreted as or otherwise confounded with sales data, making it seem as if the country is selling more goods than it actually is.
As Houseman et al. contend, this is precisely what’s happening with the consensus analysis of the U.S. manufacturing sector, and one relatively small subsector is skewing the observed data: computers. The evidence of this is alarming when controlling for the computing industry in plotting private industry and manufacturing growth over time. Between 1947 and 1977, graphs of statistics recorded by the Bureau of Economic Analysis show growth of manufacturing and private industry largely in step, on a steady incline. From 1977 on, however, taking computers out of the manufacturing equation creates a stark downward departure for the Manufacturing, Less Computers line. As Guilford puts a cap on this, “By 2016, real manufacturing output, sans computers, was lower than it was in 2007.”
In other words, the health of the American manufacturing sector looks to be dangerously overstated, and while automation did, of course, occur here, Guilford points to evidence that globalization and trade may have done more damage than previously considered. In this regard, China, a frequent target of Donald Trump’s as he stumped for votes, indeed plays a central role.
China’s emergence as a major exporter of goods is estimated by one group of economists as costing America over 2 million jobs from 1999 to 2011, helped by competitive advantages in the form of artificially devalued currency and cheaper labor, and exacerbated by the strengthening of the U.S. dollar, which reduced the demand for American exports. But American leadership is not without its culpability herein. As economists Justin Pierce and Peter Schott argue, China’s joining of the World Trade Organization as a member in 2001 negated the ability of the U.S. to retaliate against Chinese currency manipulation and other protectionist policies, a situation Bill Clinton, among others, encouraged as President of these United States.
Thus, if anyone or anything should get a wag of the finger, according to Gwynn Guilford, it’s “two decades of ill-founded policymaking,” the kind that “put diplomacy before industrial development at home, offering the massive American consumer market as a carrot to encourage other countries to open up their economies to multinational investment.” In doing so, we as a nation dismissed the threat of foreign competition and accepted (and continue to accept) the popular narrative that automation was and is the major driver of job extinction.
What’s particularly problematic about this mindset is that it obscures the importance of manufacturing to the U.S. economy and as a provider of skills to American workers. With production facilities closing their doors, there’s less incentive to do the kind of research and development that leads to better, more competitive products. As you might expect, too, the brunt of the costs of manufacturing’s decline outside of the computing subsector have been borne by the middle class, while the lion’s share of the benefits of globalization have been reaped by the so-called urban professional elite and multinational corporations.
In turn, politically and socially speaking, the country has become increasingly unequal and more polarized. All of these elements suddenly seem tailor-made for Trump and his faux populism to swoop in and capture an upset victory like he did in the 2016 election. The man struck a nerve in the heart of blue-collar America. Predictably and unfortunately, though, he hasn’t done much to boost U.S. manufacturing, instead focusing on tariffs and pushing the nation to the brink of a trade war with any number of entrants willing to fight back, and ignoring the currency manipulation angle that validates, in part, his anti-China tirades. Not that this exculpates the Democrats, either, whom Guilford characterizes as possessing “no vision for how to reverse the industrial backslide.”
All of this paints a fairly grim picture of the outlook for the manufacturing sector moving forward, as it does for the country’s susceptibility to divisive rhetoric and strongmen like Trump. To quote Guilford in closing:
US leaders’ longstanding misunderstanding of the manufacturing industry led to the biggest presidential election upset in American history. But they still don’t seem to grasp what’s been lost, or why. It’s easy to dismiss the disappearance of factory jobs as a past misstep—with a “we’re not getting those jobs back” and a sigh. Then again, you can’t know that for sure if you never try.
It’s one thing for political leaders, often derided as out of touch with John and Jane Q. Public, to misunderstand the issues about which they profess to know—assuming they ever understood in the first place. When economic analysts are falling prey to the same faulty reasoning, however, it doesn’t instill a great deal of confidence in those of us less well-versed in such matters. The most inspiring sentiment here is Guilford’s seeming doubt about whether or not the jobs we take for granted are really lost for good, that we don’t know for sure one way or another. Then again, we have to try first, and based on the current state of affairs, that’s no guarantee.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, meanwhile, speaking in dissent, was unequivocal in her negative assessment of the ruling, calling it “egregiously wrong,” and offering these additional sentiments on the matter:
The court today holds enforceable these arm-twisted, take-it-or-leave-it contracts—including the provisions requiring employees to litigate wages and hours claims only one-by-one. Federal labor law does not countenance such isolation of employees.
As the “Notorious RBG” finds, these agreements are evocative of the so-called “yellow dog” contracts used by employers until being outlawed in 1932 that barred workers from forming or participating in unions as a condition of employment. Now more than 85 years removed from a legislative remedy to such lopsided bargains, to know that we are potentially moving backward on the subject of workers’ rights is frightening.
Ginsburg isn’t the only one painting this decision in such ominously historical terms either. While the Court didn’t specifically address discrimination in the workplace with this ruling, civil rights advocates have expressed their fear it will set a precedent that will allow employers to skirt their responsibility with respect to claims of discrimination and harassment in the workplace. Add to this fears that a conservative majority ruling in Janus v. AFSCME could strip unions of their ability to collect “fair share” fees from non-members who nonetheless benefit from union representation, and there is any number of reasons for concern for the fate of American unions and the imbalance of political power fueled and perpetuated by moneyed interests.
As with intervening to attempt to save manufacturing jobs, the impetus should be on lawmakers and the country’s leadership to steer the nation in the right direction on upholding workers’ rights, a point Ruth Bader Ginsburg emphasized in her dissent. At least as long as Republicans control both Congress and the White House, however, any pushback on efforts to undermine organized labor appears unlikely, especially while establishment Democrats fail to rise more strongly to its defense until it’s time to campaign—and even then there are failings, as the story of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 electoral loss demonstrates. A year-and-a-half after the fact, one is left to wonder what lessons, to be exact, the Dems have learned from their defeats of previous years.
Donald Trump was closer than he probably realized to the truth about China’s role in the United States’ manufacturing woes, and it got him to the White House. Until we as a nation get better at diagnosing this reality and abandoning the “robots took our jobs” narrative, crafting proactive-minded policy to adapt to the challenges of a global market, and ensuring that workers can organize and advocate for better wages and working conditions, we run the risk of similarly unqualified candidates taking advantage of the unrest that is apparent in teachers’ strikes and other walkouts which are happening, have happened, and will continue to happen—not to mention continued efflux of research and development skill, factory closures, and job loss.
On the surface, American manufacturing looks to be growing as it has in past decades. A deeper dive into the numbers, though, tells a more complete story—and one that doesn’t obviously lead to a happy ending. Let’s hope we as a country realize this before it’s too late and we fall too far behind on the world stage.
To view this post as it appears on Citizen Truth, click here. Citizen Truth is an independent and alternative media organization dedicated to finding the truth, ending the left-right paradigm, and widening the scope of viewpoints represented in media and our daily conversations. For more on CT, please visit citizentruth.org.
Wells Fargo not long ago released a commercial titled “Earning Back Your Trust” that starts with a man on horseback riding in slow motion. The voiceover begins, “We know the value of trust. We were built on it.” The narrator then precedes to burnish the company’s credentials by talking about its history of transporting gold from the West, and that it built on the trust it engendered until it, well, lost its way.
Now, however, Wells Fargo is completely re-committed to its customers, and devoted to “fixing what went wrong.” It’s ending product sales goals for branch bankers. It’s holding itself accountable. “It’s a new day for Wells Fargo,” explains the narrator. “But it’s a lot like our first day.” Meanwhile, The Black Keys’ “Howlin’ for You” plays over the slickly-produced minute-long spot.
Ahem, pardon me if I seem unconvinced. Not only is the song choice a curious one—to me, it seems more befitting of a Budweiser commercial with some ruggedly handsome guy chatting up an equally telegenic twenty-something in a bar—but the ad’s tone also seems off. That is, it seems less of contrition, and more of self-congratulation, as if the company’s storied history more than makes up for any momentary ethical lapses.
But, oh, what an ethical lapse it was. Wells Fargo’s promotion of an aggressive sales-oriented culture was highlighted amid a yet-ongoing scandal involving fraudulent sales to unsuspecting customers, one that saw over 5,000 employees fired, the resignation/retirement of CEO John Stumpf, and over $100 million in fines assessed by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and other agencies.
Moreover, if recent events are any indication, the banking giant hasn’t learned its lesson when it comes to responsible selling practices. Reportedly, more than 550,000 Wells Fargo customers are believed to have been pressured into buying car insurance they didn’t need last year, 20,000 of whom are believed by the company to have defaulted on their car loans and had their vehicles repossessed as a function of the additional costs. This latest turn in Wells Fargo’s saga had the company potentially on the hook for an additional $1 billion in fines as of the time of this CNN report by Donna Borak and Danielle Bronner-Wiener. Noting the earlier allusion to the bar scene in reference to the “Earning Back Your Trust” commercial’s soundtrack, should we, um, just this put this on the company’s tab?
Two things are particularly striking about Wells Fargo’s ad. The first is that the company professes to be primarily interested in the consumer’s satisfaction, and seems content to hold itself accountable, but asking consumers to trust it to do so when it has violated this trust on a large scale is absurd. It’s like asking the fox to watch the proverbial henhouse, and it’s all but a slap in the face to those who were done financial harm or otherwise were put at risk by Wells Fargo’s sanctioning of a manipulative, underhanded sales culture. It’s why there is a Federal Reserve cap in place on the bank’s growth. Wells Fargo hasn’t proven it can hold itself accountable yet, so why should we take them at their word now?
The second is what’s not in the ad: anything resembling the phrase “we’re sorry.” By the end of the ad, Wells Fargo is pivoting to the future. It’s a new day. Cue images of a horse-drawn carriage surging ahead. Another slap in the face. We haven’t even begun to have the kind of conversation we should be having about your company’s malfeasance, but you’re ready to move on with bluesy rock anthems and images designed to sell even more of your products? Clearly, you don’t get it, and that comments are disabled for the YouTube version of this spot only further convey your tone-deafness. At the very least, you should want to hear what the average consumer thinks about your brand to know how far you need to go to repair your image. Evidently, you don’t want to know. You just want those earnings to hold.
Facebook, facing its own scandal involving the breach of the public’s privacy and trust, issued its commercial “Here Together.” The idea is the same. Once again, it’s about a minute in length, and is designed to remind you about what you loved about the company in the first place—to make friends, connect, and feel “a little less alone” (and maybe, er, stalk that cutie you met in your section of Expository Writing)—briefly acknowledge problems with clickbait, data misuse, fake news, and spam, swear the people running the company will do better, and pivot to the future. A future in which you presumably will continue to use Facebook, invest in it financially, and casually ignore that you have little to no idea about how it uses or sells your information. Again, no mention of being sorry. This whole breach of faith was just a hiccup, a bump in the road. And once again, comments are disabled. Facebook, you get a Dislike from me.
These responses to public outcries from Wells Fargo and Facebook are examples of the non-apology apology, an exercise in linguistics that offers the appearance of sympathy without any underlying genuine remorse, and perhaps even masking irritation at having to acknowledge the other party’s concerns. Both companies seem to indicate “mistakes were made,” but using the passive voice, so as not to implicate anyone specific. Let’s just leave it at that, shall we? Besides, isn’t the Wells Fargo mobile app great? Aren’t you excited that Facebook is planning to create a dating service? GET EXCITED, PEOPLE!
By this token, there is no real admission of guilt among the higher-ups at these companies. Any sense of regret, therefore, is in relation to getting caught, not with respect to betraying the trust of its users. What’s more, their sense of indignation likely reflects an understanding of their prominence. Wells Fargo is one of those financial institutions that easily falls under the heading “too big to fail.” Facebook is one of the preeminent social media apps/sites on the Internet and mobile devices, surpassed only by Google and YouTube in terms of popularity.
If the people scrutinizing their decision-making are lucky enough to fully comprehend what these businesses do—with Facebook, in particular, observers argued that senators charged with questioning CEO Mark Zuckerberg did not—there’s still the matter of how to truly hold executives accountable for failures within their organizations. John Stumpf, CEO of Wells Fargo when news of the scandal facing his company broke, retired and walked away with $134 million. And that’s without a golden parachute! His payout could’ve been that much higher had he been fired and given a severance package!
What’s upsetting about all of this is that Facebook and Wells Fargo, while particularly large and notable examples of it, are not the only perpetrators of public relations disingenuousness, a condition that transcends the corporate realm. Politicians and other public figures, for instance, are renowned for their proficiency with the non-apology apology. How many times have we heard the phrase “I’m sorry if anyone was offended by my remarks, but…”?
Implicit in this kind of statement is the notion that the problem may be on the part of the intended audience and not the accused offender, i.e. “you’re being too sensitive” or “you’re upset for some other reason.” You’re right, Mr. Senator, sir. Upon further inspection, I’m the asshole. Sorry for insinuating that the onus should be on the person making public comments in the first place and wasting your time.
If not making some half-hearted attempt to express regret for their actions and/or sympathy for victims and their families, public figures can claim to be transparent while throwing out false or otherwise misleading information. David Fleshler, reporter for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, outlined in a recent piece how Broward County Public Schools, the school district under whose purview Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School falls, has repeatedly insisted that Nikolas Cruz, the shooter behind this tragedy, was never involved with what is known as the PROMISE program—but that this information is patently false.
Even if the PROMISE program, designed to keep at-risk youths from traveling along the school-to-prison pipeline, is somewhat of a red herring being pointed to largely by opponents of gun control, that the school district would knowingly obfuscate this element of Cruz’s history sends the wrong message about the administration’s reliability as a source of information for concerned family members and members of the Parkland community.
Other elements of the district’s interactions with the public of late have been similarly disturbing in their lack of transparency. Superintendent Robert Runcie has claimed that all of Cruz’s school records have been passed along to authorities, but a Broward County detective at a school safety meeting contradicted this assertion. The district has also refused to release any documentation related to these records, citing exemptions under Florida state law that do not apply to school boards, and understated how long Nikolas Cruz had been a student at Stoneman Douglas prior to his expulsion.
Runcie has additionally blocked his critics on social media and has dismissed reports that disagreed with internal accounts as “fake news.” These responses to public inquiries smack of a school district administration that is more concerned with its image than of allaying the doubts of interested parties, and even if its aims are more meritorious, its opacity creates its own set of problems.
Certainly, in financial/economic terms and in terms of the geographical spread of their influence, Wells Fargo’s and Facebook’s lack of transparency are more significant than that of Marjory Stoneman Douglas H.S. We’re talking millions of users/customers and potentially billions of dollars. That not withstanding, the handling of relevant information by the powers-that-be governing the latter is significant in its own right, owing to a similar perceived lack of empathy and trustworthiness at a place and time where gun violence cost 17 lives—on which you can’t put a price—and when the push for meaningful change on gun policy is so strong.
To be sure, the situation facing the school district is a difficult one. Robert Runcie and others don’t want the point about the need for gun control to get lost in the demand to know details about Nikolas Cruz’s life. To this end, that Cruz was able to buy a weapon legally is not to be diminished. At the same time, offering conflicting reports to families and the media, and restricting the flow of information altogether, exposes the district to all kinds of speculation about its culpability.
David Fleshler notes how the PROMISE program is “controversial” in that its critics argue that the program is too lenient with students, that the system can be “gamed” so that youths can commit offenses so as long as they don’t violate its principles and can time it to earn a clean slate the following year, and that it creates an unsafe environment for the other students in the classroom. Add to this the idea the school district did a poor job of implementing this program and/or tracking Cruz’s interaction with it (Cruz was referred to the program but never completed it), and the narrative of the shooting being primarily fueled by Runcie and Co.’s incompetence as well as the school’s preoccupation with its image becomes that much more compelling—fairly or unfairly.
Superintendent Runcie’s public comments haven’t done much to assuage these concerns either. In a version of the non-apology apology, when asked about why the school district had to backtrack on the assertion that Cruz was never a part of PROMISE, Runcie appeared to accept responsibility (“I’ll take the blame for that”), only to say that he was “conveying what information [he] had received from staff internally, and that’s where we were at that moment in time.” So, wait, it’s the staff’s fault?
As for why he would release incomplete research into Cruz’s history, Runcie replied that he couldn’t tell the media and the public to “wait ’til June when we get our complete investigation done, because there’s a level of impatience out there.” So, wait, it’s the fault of the media and the public for being impatient? Sorry all those kids inconveniently got shot and made you have to do your job, Mr. Runcie.
At the end of the day, the failure of Broward County Public Schools to respond adequately to requests for more information, and to acknowledge more plainly that it failed Nikolas Cruz and his victims, may be, as it is with Facebook and Wells Fargo, about numbers more than people. The PROMISE program, for its good intentions, can have the effect of discouraging communication between schools, law enforcement, and public health agencies, such that touted statistics on lower incarceration rates belie the real danger communities still face of children like Cruz falling through the cracks, so to speak.
And then, of course, there’s the matter of funding. Supt. Runcie has been very vocal about the lack of funding for his school district, the sixth-largest in the nation, as a subset of Florida’s already-low funding compared to the national average (according to Runcie, the Sunshine State ranks 44th nationally in this regard), and recently, the Broward County school board approved a proposal for a homeowner tax increase designed to generate another $93 million to this cause to be voted on later this year.
As legitimate as these needs may be, though, it’s admittedly a tough sell for voting taxpayers when the district’s administration appears less than forthcoming and there are serious questions about how key programs at its schools are being implemented. Plus, from everything I’ve read, there’s no mention at being “sorry” about all the misdirection—not that you’d expect different at this point.
When it comes down to brass tacks, if you’re dealing with any of the aforementioned parties, you’re submitting to some sort of a trade-off. With Wells Fargo, you’re getting the convenience and relative safety (at least compared to smaller financial institutions) of a big bank. You’re also subjecting yourself to the risk that one of more its employees will try to sell you something you don’t need—perhaps without your knowledge, no less. With Facebook, you’re getting the ability to connect with people, share content, and even market a business. You’re also likely giving the social media platform wide latitude to share your information with third parties and to target you based on your identifying characteristics.
As for Broward County Public Schools, reportedly, some of its high schools rank among the best in the nation, including two in the top 500 (Pompano Beach H.S. and Cypress Bay H.S.) and six in the top 1,000 (such as Stoneman Douglas). Whether they are among the safest, however, is obviously a point of contention, and two parents of students slain in the shooting, Lori Alhadeff and Ryan Petty, are running for school board seats in part because of their dissatisfaction with the school district’s perceived lack of accountability, safety, and transparency.
While certainly, criticism of Supt. Robert Runcie and of the PROMISE program on a national front has been particularly strong from conservative publications, Alhadeff is a registered Democrat, and Petty is a Republican. There is room for concern on both sides of the political aisle, especially for those close to the victims of tragedies like the one in Parkland, Florida. Not that it should be welcomed, but death can affect one’s perspective on matters such as these.
Then again, if we’re viewing things in a simplistic and pragmatic manner, what doesn’t possess some form of trade-off? Besides, even if their public responses are lacking, the reactions of entities like Facebook and Wells Fargo are still better than that of, say, lawmakers who regularly avoid their constituents or otherwise confront them in a less-than-conciliatory manner.
As with the movie Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, these billboards are a reaction to an act of brutality involving a child (in Florida’s case, more than one child) and the subsequent perceived indifference or faulty prioritizing from those figures sworn to protecting and serving the most vulnerable people under their jurisdiction. Even if you don’t agree with Avaaz’s methods, the allusion seems all too appropriate.
In short, yes, lack of accountability and transparency in public companies and governmental organizations is not a novel concept. Following a near-catastrophic financial crisis brought on by reckless behavior by the very people who were supposed to help safeguard against this eventuality, however, and in an era in which Americans, fed up with politics as usual, are rejecting “traditional” norms alongside a president who flouts accountability and transparency as a raison d’être, bad behavior yet matters.
Banks that fund pipelines like the Dakota Access Pipeline at the expense of the environment and Native American land now increasingly run the risk of seeing customers take their money elsewhere. Social media companies that fail to protect their users and their users’ information risk people abandoning their service. Politicians who ignore their constituents invite primary challenges from activism-minded candidates. As prominent as some of these icons of their respective fields are, this is not to say they can’t experience palpable losses.
Mark Harmon’s character Leroy Jethro Gibbs on the show NCIS memorably is quoted as saying, “Never say you’re sorry. It’s a sign of weakness.” Not only does Gibbs break this rule at several points during the series, though, but his numerous failed marriages suggest a pattern of toxic masculinity to which the viewer should not necessarily ascribe. For organizations like Wells Fargo and Facebook, and even down to more regional entities like Broward County Public Schools, the non-apology apology as a means of saving face rings hollow. Do you want to earn back our trust or preach togetherness? Ditch the commercials and interviews, say you’re sorry, and do what you claim you’re going to do. At the end of the day, it’s not a hard concept.
To view this post as it appears on Citizen Truth, click here. Citizen Truth is an independent and alternative media organization dedicated to finding the truth, ending the left-right paradigm, and widening the scope of viewpoints represented in media and our daily conversations. For more on CT, please visit citizentruth.org.
In an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll from January of this year, the U.S. military was the only institution for which a majority of respondents (53%) expressed “a great deal of confidence.” When considering favorability—either with respect to “a great deal” of confidence or “quite a lot” of it—that rate soars to 87%. Compared to the other institutions named in this survey, the military stands head and shoulders above the rest. The next-best choice, in terms of highest confidence, is the FBI, garnering only a 24% mark of great confidence, and in terms of overall favorability, the Supreme Court is the top also-ran at 59%. Also striking about these polling statistics is that approval rating for the U.S. military has increased markedly over the last 40 years, rising some 30% (57% to 87%) in that time, likely in response to the draft being abolished and fewer Americans knowing someone or having a direct connection to someone in the Armed Forces.
Perhaps no institution, then, inspires the same kind of knee-jerk defense as the military. For evidence of this, we need look no further than the seemingly never-ending kerfuffle over the National Anthem protests in the NFL. What began as a statement by Colin Kaepernick and other players as a response to racial injustice in this country, especially as it intersects with the treatment of blacks at the hands of police and the criminal justice system—a protest that was discussed with Nate Boyer, former NFL long snapper and Army Green Beret, as a more respectful alternative than sitting during the Anthem—was quickly co-opted by Donald Trump and other people of a conservative mindset and turned into a commentary on the military and supposed disrespect for men and women in uniform. To borrow from football parlance, Trump and Co. ran an end-around, changing the conversation from a topic they actively try to suppress and dismiss in civil rights and racial equality, to one with which they and the jingoists among us could take and run.
Since last fall, reports have surfaced of President Trump’s desire to hold a military parade in the United States akin to France’s celebratory display for Bastille Day after witnessing it first-hand last summer; in fact, Trump inquired with the Pentagon about the use of armored vehicles for his Inauguration, and expressed desire to see the military on parade during his tenure back in January 2017. Now, apparently, he’s getting his wish. According to multiple new reports this week, the Pentagon has agreed to hold a parade to coincide with this year’s Veterans Day celebrations.
If estimates provided by Office of Management and Budget director and interim Consumer Financial Protection Bureau director Mick Mulvaney are accurate, the cost for this big show could run anywhere from $10 million to $30 million, with the higher price tag attributable to Trump’s vision of tanks being driven down Pennsylvania Avenue. There won’t be tanks, according to a memo from Navy Capt. Hallock Mohler, executive secretary in the office of the Secretary of Defense, to Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but there will be aircraft and period uniforms. In other words, for the big baby in the White House, there’ll be plenty of toys on hand.
As with the Anthem protest to-do, here is a situation that is liable to be divisive depending on your feelings toward the military and the U-S-of-A. I’m sure many will see this planned parade as a wonderful show of admiration for our great nation and for the men and women who serve and have served for its ideals. Don’t get me wrong—I love this country. This is United States of Joe, not, say, Canada of Joe. At the same time, though, I and others of a like mind are left to question whether it’s worth it to hold a military display such as this. Ryan Sit, writing for Newsweek, tells of a recent analysis by the publication that finds, for the same money to be spent on this parade, the nation’s homeless veterans could be fed three meals a day for two weeks. While acknowledging the difficulties in making calculations based on the estimated costs associated with the parade and the transient life that many homeless veterans lead, Sit also reports that even by conservative counts, these figures tell an important story about the priorities of the Trump administration.
But don’t just take my word for it. Let’s look at the numbers, as cited within the Newsweek piece. The most recent statistics of homeless veterans in the U.S. compiled by the Bureau of Housing and Urban Development from the end of 2017 puts the overall tally at just over 40,000, up 1.5% from the previous year. As per the non-profit hunger relief organization Feeding America, as well as information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and other agencies, the average cost of a meal is $2.94 in the United States (as of 2015, the source of the latest-updated data), with the lowest tally identified as $2.04 and the highest $5.61. Using Mick Mulvaney’s $10 million estimate, which is on the low end of the cost spectrum, and the highest cost of a meal, that’s three meals a day for 14.8 days, or two weeks. Keeping with the $10 million amount but using merely the average cost per meal figure, homeless veterans could eat three meals a day for roughly twice as long, 28.3 days.
Though all of Donald Trump’s public statements should be taken with a grain or two or 100 of salt, the President said the parade wouldn’t be held if the cost were “exorbitant.” Meanwhile, the memo sent to the Joint Chiefs of Staff specified that the military showcase to be integrated with the annual Veterans Day parade will emphasize “the price of freedom.” While we’re questioning the ultimate worth of these proceedings, in light of what else the money could be spent on—Lord knows there are any number of things on which it could be spent, but let’s keep the conversation within the purview of those who have served—the very meaning of the phrase “price of freedom” merits scrutiny. If we’re talking purely financial costs, the implication here is that we need a strong military to protect us and our freedoms, so that’s just the cost of being the greatest military force on the planet. Then again, it’s sort of Trump’s thing to run up a bill on someone else’s tab. Just thinking about his umpteen trips to Mar-a-Lago is enough to make my blood boil.
If we’re talking the human price of freedom, however, how many homeless veterans is too many? Is 40,000+ (and rising) an “exorbitant” cost, as if you can put a price on a human life? And this concern about the fate of those who have served the United States only scratches the surface of the true nature of our ongoing armed conflicts and “peacekeeping” missions abroad. How many lives have been lost since we became embroiled in conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, and how many more stand to be lost in pursuit of al-Qaeda, ISIS/ISIL, or in the fight for a free Syria? Speaking of Syria, how many more civilians must be killed as a result of military operations for a larger audience to understand the types of atrocities residents of war-torn lands must face? Or are we supposed to care less because they are Muslims or brown or what-have-you? To borrow from the words of Bob Dylan, the answer is blowin’ in the wind.
What makes the concept of a multi-million-dollar military parade all the more egregious is the notion that most Americans don’t seem to want or need one, especially those connected to the military in some capacity. Back in February, Military Times, a news outlet that reports on the Armed Forces for service-members and their families, launched a poll on its website soliciting users’ thoughts on the question, “Should there be a parade showing troops and military equipment in Washington, D.C.?” Within a day of the poll’s launch, it garnered over 50,000 responses, and an overwhelming majority (89%) answered, “No, it’s a waste of money and troops are too busy.” And this is coming from people who are arguably the best-qualified to comment on these matters.
Assuming you are not someone who falls within Military Times’s key demographic, odds are you agree that the time, money, and effort to be allocated for the purposes of a military showcase could well be used more constructively. Granted, the Department of Defense has not exhibited a penchant in recent times for managing its money very efficiently—and I’m being kind with my diplomatic language here. Still, it’s frustratingly odd that the Pentagon would seemingly acquiesce to the whims of one man, even if he is President of these United States, and carry out a whole military display that costs tens of millions of dollars.
Secretary of Defense James Mattis notably dodged a question in a press briefing last month about why resources should be diverted for this purpose by reiterating the need for Congress to commit to fully funding the military and speaking to Donald Trump’s “fondness for the military.” So Pres. Trump is fond of the military. Children are fond of ice cream, but that doesn’t mean you should allow them to eat it for dinner. In this context, #45 is dining on a sundae full of ice cream, and it costs upward of $10 million for that one sundae. No amount of cherries, sprinkles, and whipped cream can make that palatable for those of us watching at home.
Now that it’s evidently a done deal, what makes this military parade all the more unnerving is the kind of images it invokes. As numerous critics have suggested, military showcases like the one planned for this November are of the sort that you would be more apt to see in China, North Korea, and Russia, nations noted for their authoritarian leadership style. The United States is obviously not at this point yet, and aside from the lack of tanks or ICBMs on hand, a major difference is that the members of the military on hand for America’s celebration, which coincides with the 100-year anniversary of the end of World War I, will feature servicemen and servicewomen who enlisted voluntarily, as opposed to the conscripts in those foreign armies.
That said, this is not the first time Donald Trump has done or said something which would lead one to believe he is a would-be dictator, leading some to make allusions (however overblown) to Adolf Hitler. He’s made the media, an institution which routinely gives him the attention he seeks—and one which is among the worst in terms of inspiring confidence, hearkening back to the aforementioned NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll—an enemy to be threatened and undermined. He and his shameless Republican supporters have attacked the credibility of the country’s intelligence community. Aided and abetted by Mitch McConnell, he’s gotten his pick of the conservative justice Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court to fill the void left by Antonin Scalia. He’s aligned himself with people who are renowned anti-Semites, homophobes, and/or racists, and plays to people’s fears about immigration and terrorism, as well as their dislike of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Heck, he even suggested Xi Jinping’s recent move to end presidential term limits in China is a “great” idea. The parade set to kick off in roughly eight months to appease Trump is just another bullet point on his autocratic checklist.
While we commemorate those who died while serving the United States specifically on Memorial Day, Veterans Day is nonetheless a time when solemn reflection is encouraged. Returning to the concept of the “price of freedom,” that the date of its celebration coincides with the cessation of hostilities in World War I, a conflict which easily saw over 10 million deaths between soldiers and civilians, should only further communicate an understanding of the profound loss attributable to war. For someone like President Trump, however, who has never served and whose remarks about Democrats being “treasonous” in refusing to clap during his State of the Union address prompted Sen. Tammy Duckworth to derisively refer to him as “Cadet Bone Spurs,” one does not get the sense he comprehends that sacrifice or the very meaning of the word. Not when he belittled John McCain’s time as a prisoner of war. Not when he verbally attacked Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the parents of Humayun Khan, a captain in the United States Army killed while serving in Iraq. Not when he reportedly told Myeshia Johnson, widow of Gold Star Army Special Forces Sgt. La David Johnson, that Johnson “knew what he signed up for.” Trump doesn’t understand the depths of these emotions behind these events, because he can’t.
Nor can he grasp the gravity of the homelessness faced by thousands of veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces, not that you or I can likely fully appreciate this either. Regardless, the numbers don’t lie, and anyway you slice them, Trump’s military parade is a colossal waste of money when considering where else the money can be spent.
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Most Americans are making more money than they did 25 or 30 years ago. They are working more hours, too. On the face of things or in a vacuum, these trends might seem like fortuitous circumstances for the workers of the U-S-of-A. When we sift through why these phenomena are occurring, and how they may be related, meanwhile, our glasses may not appear quite as rose-colored regarding the employment picture in this country.
A recent report by Jacob Passy for MarketWatch sheds some light on why higher wages and longer hours might not be all they’re cracked up to be. As Passy explains, citing data from the Economic Policy Institute’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, average annual earnings for people in their “prime working years”—age 25 to 54—have increased by some 30% from 1979 to 2016, even after inflation. The bad news? This is often not mediated by an increase in wages/salary, but because people are working more to meet increased costs of living. To make things worse, and as you might expect, the extent to which people need to work to offset their expenses increases as their earnings level goes down. While all income groups saw an increase in hours worked in 2016 relative to 1979—on average, 7.8%—American workers in the bottom fifth of earners saw an increase of 24.3% over the same span, easily dwarfing the rates of increase for top earners (3.6%) as well as representatives of the middle class (9.4%). This is particularly problematic because there are limits inherent in any employment situation. For starters, there are only so many hours in a day, not to mention so many hours that establishments are liable to be open for business. Couple this with the notion that most workers do not make their schedules—rather, hours tend to be set by supervisors—and that availability of shifts might be further constrained by corporate strategy and concerns about profitability, and you’ve got quite the situation on the hands of American workers.
Not depressing enough yet? Wait—there’s more. As Passy reports, and as EPI researchers also found looking at data from the same span, more men in their prime working years are “disconnected from work.” Translation: they’re unemployed and not looking for work. From 1979 to 2016, the rate of men in their prime disconnected from work rose from 6.3% to 11.9%; women saw a decrease over that span from 29.8% to 24.1%. Once more, the picture is bleaker for certain populations, namely people of color, and specifically, black men. According to the EPI statistics, black males are twice as likely as white and Hispanic men to not be working, and when they are working, they work fewer hours, on average. Imaginably, employment rates are worse for those without a college degree, let alone high school diploma or GED equivalent.
This all comes to a head when talking about financial situations of workers across ethnicities, as Passy goes on to explain. Citing additional research by the Pew Research Center, he writes that, on average, white families possess just over $120,000 more of wealth than families of color. In addition, concerning the disparity in earnings, African-American and Latino households are more likely to be financially “underwater,” and children from poorer households—which does not necessarily mean those from minority populations but frequently does—are found to be less likely to achieve educational milestones that lend themselves to career success and increased wages. Talk about your vicious circles.
Skeptics of this information or others who would dismiss the trends about blacks and Hispanics/Latinos might point to stereotypical notions of them being deficient in moral fiber, lazy, and/or unintelligent. This is, of course, racist and unmitigated bullshit, but it’s an explanation that suffices for many, and even if I were to question it with logic and statistics, they would be loath to believe it, so let’s just leave that line of thinking aside and try not to slam our heads against hard objects out of frustration. On the work side of things, however, that people are working more irrespective of class or ethnicity is more difficult to explain than by simply denigrating minorities or the poor for their perceived lack of effort. Though I’m sure that won’t stop some people from trying. After all, people are working more. They’re being more productive. Gosh darn it, they’re illustrating the American spirit with their can-do attitude. U-S-A! U-S-A!
Maybe. But this also might be a space to consider how this feeds into concerns about the work-life balance in this country relative to other developed nations. Kerry Close, in a 2017 article which appeared in TIME Magazine, explored in a case study of sorts how France differs from the United States on its approach to work schedules and work-life balance. In terms of the raw numbers, yes, Americans do work more than their French counterparts, working an average of 1,790 hours per year to France’s 1,482, as measured by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). American workers are also more productive in terms of raw output and income per capita.
As Close tells, though, this was not always the case, and up until as recently as the 1970s, French workers actually put in more hours than we did. What led to this shift? While it may be no surprise to advocates of organized labor, the efforts of unions and collective-bargaining agreements were essential to this movement. Citing the research of Dartmouth economics professor Bruce Sacerdote, Close explains that in response to rising unemployment in the 70s, French unions advocated a “work sharing” policy that would decrease the number of hours logged by individual workers in favor of more people being afforded the ability to work. These policies, owing to their appeal, helped unions grow stronger and represent more workers, leading to the securing of valuable time off, which persisted even after the employment situation in France improved. As Sacerdote notes, today, France has 25 federally-mandated vacation days, allowing most employees to be off at the same time.
25 days off? That’s preposterous, you may be saying! How do those snail-eating Frenchies get anything done? As with isolated statistics about more hours worked and more money made by American workers having the power to mislead, that the U.S. exhibits a higher raw output and income per capita than France belies the benefits that the latter country experiences by offering more vacation time and other perks. Firstly, concerning those mandated days off, having most employees off concurrently means productivity doesn’t suffer in the same way as it does when people stagger their vacations in the United States, such as with the informal “break” that occurs between Christmas and New Year’s. As for the higher output per capita, again, this is a question of productivity. Giving people a more liberal amount of time away from work and permitting them to fully disconnect from the office—yes, even from work E-mails—tends to make them more productive when they are in the office. Thus, as Close indicates, it is not so much that European culture is by nature inclined to a more relaxed workplace, but that systems like that of France’s evolved out of a response to specific economic circumstances and out of genuine concern for the standard of living of a wide swath of the nation’s workers. In other words, while it’s a good thing that Americans work as hard as they do, in this instance, there certainly would seem to be such a thing as too much of a good thing.
At the heart of this discussion about benefits and stagnant wages is the role that unions play in negotiating for fairer wages, increased benefits, and safer working conditions, among other things. In saying this, I acknowledge public opinion on unions in the United States tends to be mixed; though Gallup polling on approval of labor unions has more recently seen an uptick in favorable responses, not long ago, in the wake of the Great Recession, approval had plummeted to a sub-50% level. Christ, my own father once uttered the phrase, “Unions are what’s ruining this country,” and when he found out Bernie Sanders was a backer of organized labor, he quickly dismissed any idea of supporting him. Just stab me in the heart, why don’t you, Pops?
Perhaps more significant within the same research were divides in responses based on party affiliation, as well as the consensus outlook on the future of unions. On the subject of Democrat-vs.-Republican splits, while favorability of unions has risen even among GOP supporters, Democrats (81%) are about twice as likely as Republicans (42%) to approve of unions, with independents squarely in the middle (61%). Meanwhile, on the subject of union influence and strength, while more respondents expressed the desire to see unions have more influence than they did when Barack Obama was in office, more than 70% of those surveyed expect unions to become weaker or stay the same. This isn’t particularly inspiring noting labor union participation as a subset of all American workers has steadily been on the decline over the past 40 to 50 years, and even less so when you consider the middle class’s share of the nation’s income has been on a similar decline over the same span.
This is before we even get to the case now before the Supreme Court in Janus v. AFSCME, which once against pits unions against the wealthy and conservative leaders of industry, not to mention the Republican heads of state and lawmakers who actively aid and abet the weakening of unions. The case, which specifically involves whether or not public-sector employees should be mandated to pay union fees even if they are not members and how this relates to First Amendment rights, is another iteration in the larger battle over what is termed “fair-share” representation by labor advocates. Opponents of these fees such as Illinois governor Bruce Rauner (Mark Janus, plaintiff in the case, is a resident of Illinois) and other GOP figures who preside over statehouses have been instrumental in advancing “right-to-work” legislation which limits the extent to which unions can collect dues from non-members or compel employees to join unions.
Roberta Lynch, executive director of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 31, and others of a like mind, counter that fair-share fees are warranted because union leaders advocate on behalf of members and non-members alike. The case is expected to be decided along ideological lines, which could prove disastrous for public-sector unions, assuming Neil Gorsuch joins other conservatives in voting to undercut their power. Plus, by invoking the First Amendment, the precedent set by this ruling could pave the way for any number of legal challenges to other dues of a similar nature outside the realm of labor law. Or it could strengthen union resolve and end up blowing up in the faces of the conservative donors backing Janus (yup, where there’s anti-union smoke, there’s likely to be a Koch Brothers fire a-burnin’). Needless to say, the results could be very messy indeed.
Regardless of your opinion on unions, that wages have stayed mostly flat while the cost of living has gone up, and that people are making more money and working more hours, are two trends which aren’t up for debate. That there is a presumably causal relationship between these observed effects makes this all the more, as Jacob Passy puts it, “depressing.” If earnings are being used to offset expenses and people have to work more and more to make ends meet, this limits a family’s ability to save and prepare for the future, let alone spend time together. For all the talk of “making America great again,” the American dream, for many, is seeming like a pipe dream more than ever.
Alongside the immigration issue, the topic of the GOP tax overhaul is likely to be a prevailing theme leading up to the 2018 midterm elections in November. Republican candidates will be looking to tout its successes, and possibly the Trump White House’s political and economic agenda. Democrats will be looking to hammer their Republican counterparts over the idea the tax cut is intended to primarily benefit the wealthiest of the wealthiest Americans, not to mention corporations, which—and this seemingly can’t be stressed enough—are not people. In both cases, talk about our skyrocketing national debt will apparently be sparing as far as the national consciousness is concerned.
Before we get too ahead of ourselves, let’s talk about the more immediate tangible benefits that American families might experience, and in doing so, not be as dismissive as some Democratic leaders might be. Numerous companies have cited the GOP tax cut as the impetus for bonuses allotted for their employees, and one-time giveaways aside, many workers may have noticed appreciable increases in their take-home pay related to the tax law changes. Even when accounting for context, however, the public comments made by key Democrats don’t seem to assuage the contention coming from conservative circles that the Democratic Party is out of touch with the rank-and-file of the country. Nancy Pelosi, in particular, has been assailed for likening the $1,000 bonuses some people have received to “crumbs” relative to the gains wealthy individuals and large businesses will expect to receive as a result of this policy shift. My girl Debbie Wasserman Schultz (sarcasm intended) also caught flak for her comments as the same event that she wasn’t sure $1,000 goes far for almost anyone. Maybe, ahem, not to the likes of the Democratic National Committee, Rep. Wasserman Schultz, but $1,000 isn’t exactly chump change.
So, yeah, the positive aspects of the tax cut are not something to merely brush aside with a wave of the hand. Like crumbs. Or “deplorables,” recalling Hillary Clinton’s epic-fail gaffe. That said, if and how these bonuses apply for the average worker in the short term, and some real global economic concerns over the long term, serve to place the boasts of Donald Trump and Republican Party congressional leadership in a bit of a different light. According to a report by David Goldman and Jeanne Sahadi for CNN and citing a recent survey by Morgan Stanley analysts, only 13% of businesses’ tax cuts will go to bonuses, employee benefits, and pay raises, while 43% of the cuts will go to investors in the form of dividends and stock buybacks, which undoubtedly will involve some executives who are compensated in terms of stock incentives. That’s not nothing, but it’s also not to say that the American worker is a priority in this respect. The CNN report also cites statistics indicating that while companies have announced tax-cut-related bonuses and raises affecting some 3.5 million U.S. workers, that’s less than 3% of the 125.5 million U.S. workers in the employ of a company. Again, not nothing, but it imaginably might seem more like winning the lottery to those who don’t receive such rewards. And God forbid if you are underemployed, unemployed, or “work in the home” and don’t receive a traditional wage.
The obvious rebuttal to this criticism is that the tax cut was just recently put into effect, so it will take time for the economy to grow in proportion to its benefits, and for businesses to hire more and invest within the United States. Based on the way the law was written, however, there are plenty of red flags to be had. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 paves the way for permanent tax cuts for corporations, but on the individual taxation side of things, the modified rates are set to sunset by 2026. This means an extension of the Act’s provisions will need to be ratified by then, and seeing as Congress can’t seem to agree on anything these days except throwing ungodly sums of money at the military, this seems all but certain. In other words, the benefits of the tax cut—if they are to be enjoyed by as many members of the general public as the White House avers they will—are temporary, much like the one-time bonuses that companies are awarding to their employees.
And then there is the matter of our ever-escalating national debt. Annie Lowrey, writing for The Atlantic, probes the intersection of U.S. deficit spending with the GOP tax cut in relation to conservative Republican ideologies. In the onset, Lowrey speaks to the seeming strangeness of Donald Trump to make America’s debt a glaring omission from his State of the Union speech. She writes:
ISIS, tax cuts, public trust. Race, immigration, the Empire State Building. Civil-service reform, North Korea, manufacturing. President Donald Trump’s State of the Union speech addressed a broad sweep of issues. But one central economic topic went notably missing: the country’s growing annual deficits and its increasing burden of debt. The omission was a sign of the remarkable volte-face the Republican Party has taken on the country’s fiscal situation in just a few years. Republicans spent the early years of the recovery obsessed with the national debt, castigating Democrats for their supposed irresponsibility, warning about the dangers of the almighty bond market, and helping to construct complicated mechanisms to slash federal outlays. They are now spending what might very well be the late years of the recovery ignoring it, having passed a tax plan that will add more to the debt than President Obama’s stimulus package did and having forgotten their once-urgent plans to make cuts to Social Security and Medicare.
While this trend may prompt deficit hawks like Rand Paul to sob gently to themselves, Lowrey seeks not to be abjectly critical of Republicans in this regard, but rather to underscore just how much of a 180 this position is from the Tea Party fever which ushered so many Republicans into office and paved the way for a decade of legislative defeats for the Democratic Party. While Trump is not your average Republican and all politicians are liable to break their campaign promises—Trump, despite not being a lifelong politician, is a salesman and pathological liar, so somehow even more liable to do so—even he ran on a campaign of reducing our annual deficits and balancing the budget. If there is criticism to be leveled on Lowrey’s part, it is more so on the side of the Republicans’ past obsession with spending that sent the federal government into shutdown mode at least once and gave GOP members of Congress ample opportunity to rail against the Obama administration’s supposed largesse.
Now with Donald Trump as President and Commander-in-Chief on top of Republican control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate, the shoe is on the other foot, and with the change has come the aforementioned commensurate reversal on the topic of deficit spending. While a minority of American workers are presently receiving one-time gains or improvements to the benefits they receive from their employers, as a result of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, according to figures from the Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation cited by Annie Lowrey in the article, the tax cut would add $1.8 trillion to the national debt over the 2018 to 2027 span. Not million. Not billion. Trillion. While the magnitude of the addition to the debt might be vaguely surprising, though, the mechanism should not. By effecting a tax cut, it’s a direct drain on revenue paid directly to the government. At the same time, meanwhile, Republicans have more recently shied away from the entitlement reform and domestic program cuts that have previously been a rallying cry for the party, and have further turned the dial up on this trend with calls for more military spending. Mentions of deficits and debt during congressional proceedings, too, have largely decreased since peaking in 2011, and the Trump administration, ever the depiction of tumult, is even more loath to broach the subject, and when it does, as Lowrey notes, its officials do so “with little sense of outrage or concern.”
Is this attitudinal change with respect to the national debt indicative of a seemingly inherent hypocrisy in major-party politics—i.e. when we’re in office/the majority, the same rules need not apply—or simply reflective of a sea change regarding how all of us have come to regard deficit spending? To be honest, it’s probably a little from Column A and a little from Column B. As one Obama-era economic adviser quoted in Lowrey’s piece believes, Republicans’ prior importance placed upon the debt was merely a tactic to garner short-term political capital. To boot, retrospective thinking from experts on the trouble the United States might face in relation to its debt suggests worries based on European credit crises like the one notably faced by Greece may have been overstated, not to mention concerns about how deeply the American public is invested in this topic.
On the latter count, and citing a study by the Pew Research Center, Lowrey notes that whereas 72% of respondents named reducing federal deficits a top priority in 2013, today, fewer than half of those surveyed do. That the U.S. economy is performing well overall at the moment is an important factor herein, but also playing a role is growing attention other political and social issues, namely drug addiction/the opioid crisis, the environment, and improving the nation’s infrastructure and transportation. From our perspective, then, it may not be a case so much of not caring about economic issues like the national debt as much having a lot on our plates. Besides a majority of Americans still viewing the economy as a pivotal priority, fears about terrorism and preoccupations of the state of education in the United States weigh heavily on people’s minds.
Again, though, this isn’t solely a knock on Republicans. If Democrats were in power, there is every indication they’d be running up the country’s debt and not expressing outward reservations about doing so. This is not to say that all deficit spending is inherently bad; investments made which can lead to future growth or prevent future calamity come with a cost. That said, as with personal debt—a subject with which a seemingly increasing number of Americans have become familiar—the national debt is a “drag on the economy,” as a representative of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, quoted in Lowrey’s piece, highlights. Meanwhile, even if GOP leaders have temporarily put aside talk of dismantling core components of the U.S. social safety net, this is not to say that these programs do not need improving. With next year’s annual budget deficit set to top $1 trillion and concern for the sustainability of this arrangement seemingly on the decline, if what Annie Lowrey and other observers say is true, things are likely to get worse before they get better on the debt front. Just how bad, and whether or not a bursting of this bubble might produce a credit catastrophe, unfortunately remains to be seen.
Now that the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act has been signed into law and we have ample time to actually stop and think and wax philosophical about it, the Republican Party’s strategy is not altogether unsound from the perspective of manipulating public opinion. By the time the individual provisions of the tax cut are to sunset, we’ll be at least two more presidential election cycles down the road. Thus, the GOP can likely reap the rewards of the short-term political gains they’ve helped foster presently, and by the time Donald Trump is out of office (hopefully long before 2024, but these days, given the political atmosphere, I don’t like to get my hopes up) and Democrats have gained a majority in one or more wings of Congress or control the White House, they can defray any ill will they might have incurred related to the tax cut by pointing to the disastrous economic and social policies of the liberal left. In a 24-hour news cycle where viewers are already primed to quickly forget what just happened, it’s a fair bet that many of us will forget who the architects of this concession to corporate executives and wealthy benefactors even were.
This, to those of us insistent on documenting this chapter in American history, is rather obviously a long con. And I do mean con. In effect, it’s part of an even longer-term confidence trick that conservatives and neo-liberals have been imposing on the American public. Though officially titled the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, the GOP tax cut is dyed-in-the-wool trickle-down economic theory. The primary beneficiaries of its amendments to tax law are corporations and business owners, under the idea that fewer taxes paid means more money to be invested in creating jobs and improving conditions for workers. The reality is that numerous corporations, financial experts and firms making use of the carried interest loophole, and pass-through entities have been taking advantage of favorable aspects of the tax code for years, and that the insistence from critics on the right that regulation and taxation is killing American industry tends to be overstated. There are a number of complex factors that go into why businesses succeed or fail, including changing social norms and advances in computer/automated technology, but consumer demand and discretionary spending are a crucial part of this mix. As for the employment side of the equation specifically, if firms are offering bonuses and other incentives to their workers, it is most likely not a sign of their generosity, but rather a competitive strategic move. In a tight job market, when companies like Walmart are raising wages, it’s an indication they’re doing so because they feel they have to survive.
Moreover, with the lowering of the top individual tax rate and the permanent slashing of the top corporate rate, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, given its signaled priorities, is very clearly class warfare. The GOP tax cut, ostensibly a boon for the middle class, working class, retired Americans, and the poor, is visibly skewed toward the most profitable companies and wealthiest individuals, and with caps on deductions for state and local taxes and property taxes, as well as the elimination of the personal exemption, the emphasis is not only on limiting the ability of the rank-and-file to alleviate their tax burdens, but to punish states like California, Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York—states that all went blue in the 2016 election, it should be noted—that feature higher-than-average tax rates and were more liable to take advantage of superior SALT deduction policies. As alluded to before, too, Republicans’ success in passing tax “reform” legislation greases the wheels of attempts at entitlement “reform.” Which essentially means cuts to programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, because all that lost tax revenue is going to have to be made up somewhere else, and in all probability, it will not be coming from the untold sums stashed by the wealthy in offshore banking accounts and other tax havens.
The national debt is a real concern. However, it’s not a politically sexy topic right now, and with the stock market seeing record highs (when it’s not seeing dips related to fears about rising interest rates), it is seemingly of less interest to many of us as well. As yearly deficits continue to mount, and as questions of sustainability persist, it begs the question: how much longer can we continue to ignore that $20+ trillion elephant in the room?
As I have emphasized on this blog and as numerous other concerned members of the Resistance would offer, when something crazy is going on in national news and politics—which these days unfortunately seems to disproportionately involve President Donald Trump and his embarrassing conduct—it merits watching what is going on when Congress actually gets around to advancing and/or passing legislation through the House and Senate. To be sure, there have been a fair amount of distractions recently that have dominated headlines and have made this task more difficult. Probably the biggest topic on everybody’s minds was the President’s alleged use of the word “shithole” in describing countries like El Salvador, Haiti, and various African countries that are less savory as sources of immigrants than, say, Norway. I say “alleged” because several Republican lawmakers present for the meeting and DHS secretary Kirstjen Nielsen have denied that he used that word. But come on—you know they’re full of shit. Even with a distraction like this, there’s another layer of distraction built in. Yes, Trump used a bad word, but the more important notion is Trump insinuated that it would be better if we accepted people from a country where white people are the majority as opposed to countries where black or brown people are the majority. Never mind that Americans are more likely to immigrate to Norway than the other way around because people who live there enjoy a high standard of living, universal health care, and generally are among the happiest individuals on Earth. The implication was clear to those who understand Trump has basically been a white supremacist’s wet dream since he started running for office.
Otherwise, there were more salacious accounts involving Trump’s personal life, specifically that he was having an affair with then-porn star Stormy Daniels while he was married to Melania back in 2006, and that, so as to not undermine his political chances or damage his brand or what-have-you, his lawyer formed a shell company in 2016 to negotiate the payment of $130,000 so that she would not disclose details about their relationship. Even though Daniels apparently did tell a number of details about it back in 2011 when interviewed by In Touch Weekly magazine—including the revelation that Trump is obsessed with sharks and hates their shark-y guts. Not a particularly damning revelation, mind you, but just entertaining. Why we haven’t heard or likely won’t hear more about it is perhaps puzzling—Chris Cillizza of CNN surmises it is likely because Trump’s camp has denied any connection between Trump and Daniels, people don’t want to be involved with anything even tangentially related to porn (at least where prying eyes might see), that we’ve heard it all about Trump already, or all of the above—but regardless of the profile of this story, it seems like pretty reprehensible behavior on Trump’s part from a moral standpoint, and pretty ethically inexplicable from a legal standpoint if there wasn’t any legitimate reason for Daniels to be getting $130K (and why wasn’t it $150K—that’s a much nicer “round” number than $130K, no?).
On top of this, there was the drama involving the government shutdown, which wasn’t so much of a “distraction” given that there were real consequences for this happening, but the partisan squabbling it encouraged was realistically more theatrical than anything. Democrats expressed their concerns about the level of funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and for the level of protection for “Dreamers” under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Republicans were outright blaming the Democrats for this mess and used military pay as a bargaining chip, alleging that the Dems held these all-important monies for our uniformed men and women hostage. Donald Trump kept insisting that someone needs to pay for a border wall. All the while, fingers were being pointed in every direction—with most Americans pointing back at Congress for not being able to strike a deal or by tying the DACA issue to the budget resolution issue, even if Democratic, Republican, and independent voters alike broadly support an extension of DACA. In short, and after the fact, no one looks good as a result of this, and for all his past criticisms of President Obama in presiding over shutdowns, it looks especially bad for Trump now that he has encountered one in just a year or so since he began his tenure—and with both the House and Senate under GOP control, no less.
All this, and we haven’t even gotten to the #ReleaseTheMemo business that conservatives have had on the tip of their tongue of late! Congressional Republicans have been alluding to a memo in Devin Nunes’ possession that outlines Obama-era abuses of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) by the FBI and Department of Justice, specifically as it regards investigation into Russian influence in the 2016 presidential election. Worse than Watergate, they claim! It is with this final distraction that I’ll bring in a recent piece by Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone for an excellent contextualization—as he is wont to provide—of this particular instance of click-bait news. Taibbi starts by saying what most reasonable observers have put forth: that if the memo is really as jaw-dropping as outspoken Republicans have made it out to be, then by all means, it should be released. At the same time, though, as Taibbi argues, if this material truly exonerates Donald Trump of any wrongdoing re Russia, why hasn’t the man himself released it? After all, Trump, um, is characteristically not afraid to share. From the article:
By all means, if the memo is important (although I doubt it) let’s let the public see it. But followers of this story should also remember that if this or any classified document somehow exculpates Donald Trump on any front, he’s had the power all along to declassify such information. Why Trump hasn’t done so on a number of these occasions has been one of the enduring mysteries of this affair. It’s given pause to even the most hardened Russiagate skeptics.
This includes people like former federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy of the National Review. McCarthy has been highly critical of the Robert Mueller investigation, but has also repeatedly wondered why Trump is not lifting the veil on some of these documents. One of the few figures in the media to explore holes in Russiagate theories propagated by both sides, McCarthy had this to say in August:
“I can’t get past a nagging question: Why must we speculate about whether the Obama administration abusively exploited its foreign-intelligence-collection powers in order to spy on Donald Trump’s political campaign? After all, Trump is president now. If he was victimized, he’s in a position to tell us all about it.”
At the very least, it’s food for thought, and prompts Matt Taibbi to label the #ReleaseTheMemo fervor “curious and disingenuous at best.” (Also not helping this case: that this hashtag has been linked to Russian bots that have helped to get it trending on Twitter.) At the same time, Taibbi indicates that it’s not like individuals on both sides of the political aisle haven’t been working to obscure what the sources of their information on Russia may be. Already, given its history of attention-grabbing details like lurid tales of Russian prostitutes and “golden showers,” and the subsequent backlash it received for having the likes of Buzzfeed break the news unconfirmed, the Steele dossier, for one, has not necessarily been something the mainstream media wants to acknowledge as informative of the investigation into Trump’s affairs. In other words, there’s much confusion and misdirection about what people know and how they know it re Russia, and thus far, it has mostly amounted to nothing more than additional confusion and tedious back-and-forth accusation, as it did with the shutdown.
The main thrust of Taibbi’s article, meanwhile, and getting back to the notion of these events as distraction and theater, is that while all this political brinksmanship was going on, important legislation with serious implications was being passed, aided by Democrats crossing that proverbial aisle. The first, coincidentally, involves FISA. Specifically, the House and Senate passed an extension of Section 702 of the Act, which lets the U.S. government obtain the communications of foreign nationals outside the United States without a warrant. Per the language of the law, intelligence agencies are not permitted to target U.S. citizens or nationals, or to use the power of Section 702 to surveil individuals on American soil. Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and other civil liberties-minded organizations, however, have expressed doubts about how this program may be used and abused. The ACLU, in particular, enumerates these charges concerning the deleterious effects of Sec. 702:
Section 702 allows warrantless surveillance of people inside and outside the U.S.
Despite the fact that the law is not supposed to be used to target Americans, the government has been doing just that for years.
Information collected under Section 702 could be used against you, and you likely wouldn’t know.
Section 702 is used to examine communications flowing in and out of the U.S. in bulk.
Surveillance programs have been abused by the intelligence agencies.
There is little that prevents Section 702 from being used against critics, activists, religious minorities, or communities of color.
The program is not subject to any meaningful judicial oversight.
The government has deliberately chosen to hide the impact of the program from the public.
Section 702 surveillance chills freedom of speech and association.
There are more detailed explanations for each of these items on the ACLU page linked to above, but suffice it to say, there are legitimate concerns about how broadly Section 702 may be used to capture information that is relevant to “foreign intelligence”—a distinction that is subjective and seemingly intentionally vague—how this sensitive information may be stored in databases for undetermined lengths of time, how political or even personal enemies may be targeted by intelligence community members as an abuse of their privilege, how legal procedure may be circumvented in the name of “anti-terrorism” efforts, and how so few data have been made clear to interested parties regarding the surveillance of Americans and the usage of their online communications. Liberal or conservative, it creates trepidation on the part of the average telephone/mobile/Internet user-consumer, and perhaps worst of all, it feeds the narrative of the “deep state” on the right that undermines even the best-intentioned government actions. But, by all means, let’s have more conspiracy theories!
As Matt Taibbi submits, too, it may be patently self-defeating to reauthorize the “virtually limitless surveillance powers of this president” when many suspect him to be aided or compromised by Russia. Which makes it all the more frustrating—at least to me—that Democrats like Nancy Pelosi and Adam Schiff would vote for an extension of Section 702 of FISA when they have publicly expressed their doubts about Trump. Taibbi explains what is likely behind this “yes” vote from key House Dems:
This is a classic example of something that’s been axiomatic in Washington for ages: that both parties tend always to be interested in expanding executive power, no matter who’s in office or what the political situation. In this case, the principle of expanding presidential authority outweighed even concerns of abuses by the likes of Donald Trump.
Or, perhaps to put this another way, yes, let’s give the executive more power so we can exploit it when our party is in the White House. As tends to be the case in the world of politics, moral objections are relative to how many seats you control and whether or not your side is in the Oval Office.
The other piece of legislation which stands to get through the Senate, notably with the help of several Democrats, and which is equally if not more concerning, is the rolling-back of regulations provided for by the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, already criticized for not going far enough to do either of its stated objectives. The list of Democratic co-sponsors to the so-called Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief and Consumer Protection Act, which was released on December 5 of last year, reads like a who’s who of irritatingly moderate Democrats. Michael Bennet. Joe Donnelly. Heidi Heitkamp. Tim Kaine. Angus King, who technically is an independent, but let’s give him, ahem, credit where credit is due. Joe Manchin. Claire McCaskill. Gary Peters. Jon Tester. Mark Warner. These are self-professed Dems from states like Colorado, Montana, Virginia, and West Virginia in which being a centrist on matters of regulation of business appears to be a self-preservation move more than anything. Unless, as Taibbi suggests, they were either tricked or wooed by lobbyists for the banks. Here’s what he had to say on the matter:
In another bizarre episode, at least ten Senate Democrats recently crossed the aisle to support a rollback of key provisions of the Dodd-Frank banking reform bill, the killing of which of course has long been a major policy goal of Trump’s. The Dodd-Frank bill story is particularly disturbing, because it signals a rare potential area of consensus amid the otherwise reassuringly dysfunctional three-headed monster that is the lunatic Trump, establishment Republicans, and Democrats.
The bill has been pitched as aid and regulatory relief to small banks and credit unions. Such groups are the widows and orphans of financial reform: nobody’s ever against helping them, which is why even giveaways to Wall Street behemoths are often dressed up as aid to regional bankers. The Dems who crossed the aisle to support the Dodd-Frank rollback bought into the lobbyist-flogged idea that Too-Big-To-Fail banks have too many punitive regulatory requirements, and moreover that “smaller” companies (i.e. firms with less than $10 billion in assets) should be exempt from the already watered-down Volcker rule, which prevents depository banks from gambling for their own accounts.
One of the main ideas behind the proposed bill, which passed the banking committee 16 to 7, is changing the definition of a “Too Big to Fail” institution from having $50 billion in assets to having $250 billion in assets. This quintupling of the size limit would mean a number of huge companies would now enjoy relaxed capital requirements and other benefits. Only about 10 companies would be left to face the more stringent rules.
Why is this a concern? Only because it would increase the risk of another financial meltdown like we had ten years ago. As Taibbi and others argue, de-concentrating financial power by breaking up the big banks and by forcing them to separate banking and investing (read: sanctioned gambling) activities helps to mitigate this risk. Besides, if you’ll recall, it was taxpayers who bore the brunt of the last recession, but absent more stringent rules to keep Wall Street and the financial industry in check, there’s no guarantee another crisis won’t manifest. And once more, we would be the ones called on to bail out the big companies who played fast and loose with our money—not the other way around.
As Taibbi frames this, this is Congress in a nutshell: they fight publicly over something that’s “irrelevant, inaccurate, or far from a resolution,” only to have a consensus group advance a bill that is highly important/relevant, but “unsexy” and unlikely to garner the same attention, or even the kind of attention it merits. For the liberal progressives among us, this is a decidedly poor modus operandi.
Even as distraction, the three-day “kerfuffle,” as Matt Taibbi called it, over the shutdown was particularly galling to many on the left because the Democrats made a deal without any real assurances from Republicans that voting on a new DREAM Act would be taken up in the near future. Oh, sure, Mitch McConnell swore there would be, but trusting Mitch McConnell is like the fabled frog trusting the scorpion not to sting it as they cross the river—the scorpion will sting because that’s its nature, and McConnell will back out of his promise because he, like our President, is a lying sack of shit. Of course, Chuck Schumer didn’t waste much time backing out of certain terms either—after initially indicating prior to the end of the shutdown that a border wall would be on the table as part of forthcoming negotiations, he apparently pulled a 180 and made it clear the wall was no longer on the table. Psych! Regardless, after Donald Trump and congressional Republicans were done lambasting the Democrats for causing the whole government shutdown, the relatively short duration of the shutdown dovetailed ever nicely into jabs from conservatives that the Dems “caved” on the issues at hand. Name-calling though it might be, it’s hard to disagree with this assessment. The fate of Dreamers and the wall are still sticking points, and once more, the can has merely been kicked down the road noting that this resolution is merely a temporary budget fix.
Not that this necessarily means a huge deal, but if Americans are disappointed and embarrassed by this particular episode in U.S. politics, you can just imagine what the world thinks of us—distractions and all. Zack Beauchamp, writing for Vox, researched this very topic, and was struck by one prevailing theme which emerged from the responses he received from international observers: that there is something profoundly wrong with the American political system. For those looking on in Canada, France, and even the United Kingdom, with whom there yet remains some sympathy for our backward ways, there is cause for both concern and vague deprecation. For less understanding authoritarian regimes and otherwise tightly-run states, there is outright glee that America’s government can descend into chaos so easily, and unfounded as the claims may be, the shutdown makes us look weak, suggesting to some that Western democracy is fundamentally flawed (hello, Chinese propaganda!) or that the shutdown is pure theater to distract from the Democrats’ conspiracy theories about Trump’s ties to Russia (hello, Russian propaganda!). All these reactions without having to mention golden showers, shitholes, or Stormy Daniels. Jeez—has it only been a year so far? It feels more like ten with all the nonsense that’s gone on heretofore.
To reiterate, though, this goes back to the notion of distraction. For all the blaming and finger-pointing that went on this past week, where consensus has been achieved, yet worse consequences stand to be realized. The extension of Section 702 of FISA, as noted, is concerning to liberals and libertarians alike, and the continued collective kowtowing of Congress to “Too Big to Fail” institutions and Wall Street alumni is seeming proof that both parties work first for their benefit, and get to our concerns if and when they have the time and wherewithal. If you think a three-day shutdown is bad, just wait until the next economic nosedive, something that arguably is less a question of if and more a question of when.
2017 looks poised to finish on a high note, at least economically speaking. The stock market in the United States is near a record high, likely buoyed by the GOP’s corporation-friendly tax cut that President Donald Trump signed into law. Reportedly, the holiday season saw an increase of 5% in sales, an increase of 3.7% from the same span in 2016. Winning, winning, winning. Aren’t you tired of winning so much, fellow Americans? Aren’t you glad Pres. Trump is making America great again? Never mind the notion that he may not have as much to do with the economy as he would lead you to believe. Also, maybe we shouldn’t mention that, according to the Centre for Economics and Business Research in London, England, China and India’s economies will surpass that of the U.S.’s by 2030. In other long-term news, meanwhile, productivity growth within America’s economy remains low, income inequality remains startlingly high, the federal debt continues to skyrocket, and the nation is gripped by an opioid dependency epidemic.
So, glass half empty or glass half full? How do you see these United States shaping up over the next few years and into the future? It likely depends on which side of the political or socioeconomic fence you live—and whether or not you stand to personally benefit from the policies the Trump administration and a Republican-led Congress aim to advance. Looking just at the GOP tax cuts, opponents of this policy shift have assailed it as a present for the super-wealthy and industry leaders at the expense of average Americans, and as a greasing of the slippery slope toward the erosion of Social Security, Medicare, and other social safety net programs. In other words, the advantages of this agenda would tend to be appreciated by the few rather than the many, and perhaps it is no wonder Trump’s approval ratings are languishing south of 40%, a historical low at this point in the presidency.
Perhaps it’s instructive to see where we’ve been to help gauge where we may be going in 2018, in 2020, and beyond. Let’s take a look back at some of the topics covered in 2017 on United States of Joe. Warning: we may have a bit more to say regarding our orange leader. If you have any small children in the room, you may want to move them to a safe location—especially if they happen to frequent beauty pageants. I hear El Presidente and his buddies like ’em young, and like to invade dressing rooms of contestants while they’re potentially less-than-fully clothed. Without further ado, let’s do the…
US of J 2017 Review: This Time, It’s Personal—Because Our President Takes Everything Personally
The Biggest Inauguration in U.S. History—Kinda, Sorta
Hey—did you realize Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election? No? Let Trump himself tell you about it! In fact, let him tell you about how he won going away every time something goes wrong or the press challenges him on the quality of his performance as President. You know, even though he didn’t win going away—dude didn’t even win the popular vote. Of course, Trump being the stupid baby that he is, he would challenge the legitimacy of Hillary Clinton’s supremacy in the popular vote, a harbinger of a disturbing trend that continues to play out with the Tweeter-in-Chief. Hillary didn’t win the popular vote—it was massive fraud involving undocumented immigrants that illegitimately got her that small victory. There’s absolutely no credible evidence of this, mind you, and the bullshit voter fraud task force the White House commissioned hasn’t turned up anything either. Trump’s Inauguration crowds were bigger than Barack Obama’s. Don’t believe the visual evidence? That’s OK—Trump, Sean Spicer and Co. were simply offering “alternative facts.” Don’t care for CNN’s brand of reporting? No problem—it’s “fake news.” After all, the media isn’t to be trusted in the first place—it’s the enemy of the people. I’m sure you felt that deep down anyhow, though.
Donald Trump’s assault on the truth and on verifiable fact is unmistakable, and his attacks on the press, including his fetishistic obsession with CNN, are overstated. That said, it’s not as if American news media is blameless in this regard either. Even before Trump was elected President, the mainstream media was an unabashed enabler of his antics. With Buzzfeed’s release of the “Pee-Pee Papers,” a salacious and unauthenticated account of Russian prostitutes performing sex acts at Trump’s behest supposedly based on credible intelligence, and CNN retracting a story on a supposed connection between Anthony Scaramucci, whose tenure as White House Communications Director was remarkably short-lived, and Trump’s Russian ties, Trump suddenly appears more credible. In the push for ratings and clicks in an turbulent era for journalism, the rush of media outlets to meet the demand of consumers for up-to-date information is understandable, but this does not excuse sloppy, irresponsible reporting. For the sake of the institution as a whole, the U.S. news media must balance the need to generate revenue with the importance of upholding standards of journalistic integrity, and must stand together when Trump et al. would seek to undermine one among their ranks—or risk a more precipitous downfall.
Gorsuch: Silver Fox and Supreme Court Justice
One of the big concerns following the death of Antonin Scalia and prompting voters to think hard about voting strategically between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was the idea the next President would get to nominate Scalia’s successor. We would be remiss if we did not mention that Barack Obama, well in advance of his departure from the White House, had already tapped Merrick Garland, a fine candidate to fill Scalia’s void. Mitch McConnell a.k.a. Turtle McTurtleface and the other Republicans in the Senate, meanwhile, would not even entertain Obama’s choice, prompting their constituents to protest outside of their offices and chant “Do your job!” In other words, it was really a dick move on the GOP’s part, and a gamble that the party would win the 2016 presidential election so they could install Antonin Scalia 2.0. Trump’s upset electoral victory thus paved the way for Neil Gorsuch to ascend to the highest court in the United States.
Gorsuch, previously a U.S. Circuit Court Judge with a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, is eminently qualified in his own right. This didn’t seem to be a point of contention between leaders of the two parties. Still, coming off a situation in which a perfectly good candidate in Garland was blocked as a function of mere partisanship, it brought an added measure of scrutiny and tension to confirmation proceedings. The Democrats filibustered to prevent cloture and delay a confirmation vote. The Republicans countered by invoking the so-called “nuclear option,” effectively changing Senate rules whereby they could break the filibuster with a simple majority. By a 54-45 vote, Neil Gorsuch was confirmed as the latest Supreme Court Justice. The whole process ultimately revealed few interesting tidbits about Gorsuch, and more so demonstrated the ugliness of political brinksmanship that has become a hallmark of Congress in this day and age. And we wonder why average Americans are not more politically engaged.
The Trump Administration vs. the World
As a function of “making America great again,” Donald Trump apparently believes strongly in defense spending and letting the world know the United States is #1. After alternatively touting his desire to bring the country along a more isolationist track and vowing to “bomb the shit out of ISIS” on the campaign trail, Trump, well, sort of did both. In terms of shows of force, his administration was responsible for dropping the “mother of all bombs” on Afghanistan, as well as approving the launch of dozens of missiles into Syria, supposedly as retaliation for the Assad regime’s use of toxic gas on its own people. The latter, in particular, got the dander of his white nationalist supporters up, though as far as most kinder, gentler souls are concerned, the disappointment of a bunch of ethnocentric xenophobes is not all that much of a loss. Less talked-about, but perhaps no less significant, were other less successful operations across international lines. First of all, not long after Trump took office, there was a botched raid in Yemen that saw Navy SEAL Ryan Owens killed, and to date, little information has been offered on the attack that led to his death and by all appearances was ill-advised. And there was the massacre at a mosque in Syria outside Aleppo. According to U.S. officials, numerous al-Qaeda operatives were taken out by the strike in the town of Jinah, but activists and others on the ground there tell a different story, one of civilians attending religious services and being fired upon as they tried to flee the place of worship. Reportedly, at least 46 people were killed in the assault on the mosque, and the U.S. military was criticized by humanitarian groups for not doing its due diligence in assessing the target for the possibility of civilian casualties. Oh, well—they were Muslims and not Americans anyway. Whoops!
In terms of isolating itself from the international community, America has done that under Donald Trump—if for other reason than it has done to things to alienate that international community. There was the whole backing of out of the Paris climate accord thing, which is voluntary in the first place and thus mostly serves as a middle finger to those here and abroad who give a hoot about polluting and climate change. Even before apparent attacks on American diplomats there, Trump and his administration have reversed course on Cuba relative to an Obama-era thawing of frigid diplomatic relations, and the benefit of this 180 to either side merits questioning. They’ve taken a tough tone with Iran and accused the country of not meeting its end of the bargain with respect to the nuclear deal much hated by conservative Republicans, in apparent deference to the whims of Saudi Arabia. Trump and North Korean president Kim Jong-un have basically had a year-long war of words through television news media and social media, with the latter referring to the former as a “dotard.” (Essentially, he told our President he’s a senile moron. Thanks, Merriam-Webster!) The White House has resolved to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and to acknowledge the city, contested as to its very boundaries, as the capital of Israel, prompting a United Nations resolution condemning the move. And this is all before we even get to the investigation into Trump, his transition team, his administration, and suspected ties to Russia. In short, if Donald Trump hasn’t pissed you off this year, you’re either one of his core supporters or have just run out of f**ks to give—and I’m not sure which one is worse.
Race to the Exit: The Trump Administration Story
Viewing some of Trump’s picks for Cabinet posts and various positions within the White House at length, it was a wonder for many to see who might be first to go or fail to even get confirmed. At least Andrew Puzder, then-CEO of CKE Restaurants, the parent of Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s, had the decency to withdraw before the confirmation process was over; as potential Secretary of Labor, it was his employ of undocumented immigrants which was his undoing. Not giving less than half a shit about his employees and being opposed to raising the minimum wage? Nah, that was fine. In fact, it made him more than suitable for nomination in the era of Trump. Betsy DeVos, Ben Carson, Linda McMahon, Mick Mulvaney, Steve Mnuchin, Rick Perry, Tom Price, Scott Pruitt, Jeff Sessions—these are the kinds of individuals that Donald Trump, seemingly without irony, tapped for important government posts despite a lack of proficiency in their area of supposed expertise, a stated desire to abolish the very agency they were named to head, or both. Price ultimately resigned when information about his questionable spending of the government’s finances to suit his convenience came to light, and there have been whispers about the job security of Sessions and Rex Tillerson from time to time, but for the most part, the bulk of them still remain. And so much for draining the swamp—between Goldman Sachs and billionaires, this Cabinet is as marshy as they come.
As for other appointees and residual officeholders, there was yet more volatility to be had. Michael Flynn was National Security Adviser for all of about a month before getting canned, and currently, he’s facing repercussions after pleading guilty to lying to federal investigators. Not to be outdone, the aforementioned Anthony Scaramucci lasted a scant ten days before his sacking as White House Communications Director, and in that short time, he divested himself of business ties and ruined his marriage. Welcome to the team, Mooch—and don’t let the door hit you on your way out! His predecessor, Sean “Spicey” Spicer, made it to July before bowing out, but not before some hilarious cameos on Saturday Night Live featuring Melissa McCarthy as Spicer. Steve Bannon, the Skeleton King, made it to August before he was either fired or before he resigned—depending on who you ask. Sebastian Gorka also departed in August, and seeing as he didn’t do much but argue with the press in interviews anyway, I’m relatively sure he isn’t missed. Omarosa Manigault Newman is set to resign in January, and evidently is not afraid to tell all. In sum, people can’t get out of the Trump White House soon enough, and whether some vacancies will go unfilled or simply are taking forever to get filled, the hallmark of this administration is disarray and upheaval. And somehow Kellyanne Conway still has a job. Sorry—that’s the sound of my head hitting the wall. I’ll try to keep it down.
The Democrats Form a Killer Strategy to Win in 2018, 2020, and Be—Oh, Who Are We Kidding?
For a while, it was relatively quiet on the Democratic Party front following the election and even the Inauguration with the Dems licking their wounds. This is not to say, obviously, that nothing was going on behind the scenes. One event which seems fairly minor but reflects deep conflicts within the Democratic ranks was the election of a new Democratic National Committee chair to replace departing interim chair Donna Brazile, herself a replacement for Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Keith Ellison, a Bernie Sanders supporter and popular progressive Democrat, was the front-runner for the position early, but concerns about Ellison’s lack of obeisance to the positions of the DNC’s rich Jewish donors and the establishment wing of the party not wishing to cede too much control to the “Bernie-crats” among them led former Labor Secretary Tom Perez to enter the fray. In the end, the vote was close, but Perez carried the day. That the Obama-Hillary segment of the Democratic Party would expend so much energy on a position that is largely ceremonial and concerned with fundraising is telling, and signals that any progressive reform of the party will be slow in coming—if at all.
If there is any further doubt about this, look at how certain races played out outside of the presidential milieu. Sure, Democrats may point to more recent victories in the gubernatorial elections of New Jersey (Phil Murphy) and Virginia (Ralph Northam), as well as the special election to replace Jeff Sessions in Alabama (Doug Jones), but other losses appear indicative of the Dems’ failure to commit to a comprehensive, 50-state strategy, namely Jon Ossoff in Georgia, James Thompson in Kansas, and Rob Quist in Montana, who lost to Greg Gianforte, even after the latter beat up a reporter. Seriously. Elsewhere, Hillary Clinton, after a moment of repose, released a book in which she accepted full responsibility for losing a election she was largely expected to win. Kidding! She blamed Bernie Sanders, voters for not coming out more strongly for her, James Comey, and even the DNC. That last one seems particularly disingenuous, especially when considering that Donna Brazile herself had a book to release critical of Hillary and one which confirmed what many of us already knew: that Hill-Dawg and the Committee were in cahoots long before the primaries. The Democrats seem content to allow Donald Trump and the machinations of the Republican Party to dig the GOP into an electoral hole. For an electorate increasingly weary of the “We’re Not the Other One” line, though, this does not a strategy make, and without an obvious frontrunner for 2020, the Democratic Party’s presumed advantage could well be overstated. Such that, if Trump actually makes it that far, it’s not inconceivable to think he could be re-elected. Talk about a recurring nightmare.
The White Supremacists, They Come Bearing Tiki Torches
In 2017, I would’ve thought it crazy for a scene to play out like it did in Charlottesville, Virginia this past August. And yet, lo and behold, it did. Some 250 protestors, carrying kerosene-filled torches and rebelling against a perceived erosion of their heritage and history, marched on the University of Virginia campus, shouting epithets, vowing not to be “replaced,” and generally ready to start a ruckus over the planned removal of a statue honoring Confederate general Robert E. Lee. The next day, though, if not as frightening in terms of the imagery, was worse in terms of the outcome. Protestors arrived carrying nationalist banners clubs, guns, and shields. Counter-protestors were also on hand to “greet” the white supremacists, the anti-fascists among them armed as well. It was not long before violence broke out, and by the time the police intervened, there already were injuries to tally. The worst of it all, though, were the fatalities. Heather Heyer, a counter-protestor, was killed as a result of a man deliberately plowing into people, and two state troopers, H. Jay Cullen and Berke M.M. Bates, died in a separate helicopter crash. In terms of senseless violence and loss, the Charlottesville riots seem to epitomize the very concept.
The apparent surge in white nationalist leanings following the election of Donald Trump is disturbing in its own right, but by the same token, so too is it unsettling that people would condone attacks against their ranks so readily. Some people who reject any set of principles that resembles Nazism believe violence to suppress hateful rhetoric is justified. Such is the belief of various antifa groups, and this where the debate of the movement’s merits comes into play. Though anti-fascists like those who don the mark of the Black Bloc don’t actually have much to do with traditional liberalism, their association with the left threatens the credibility of true liberal and progressive groups, and nullifies the bargaining power that these individuals have over the deficient worldviews they oppose. Two wrongs don’t make a right, and violence as a tool to suppress violence does not serve its intended purpose.
Congress vs. Everyday Americans: F**k Your Health Care, and F**k Your Income Inequality
Per President Trump, the Affordable Care Act, also affectionately known as “ObamaCare,” is a total disaster. Republican leaders likewise have been decrying the ACA for some time now, painting it as an unwanted intrusion of the federal government in the health care industry. Never mind that a significant portion of red-state voters depend on the provisions of the Affordable Care Act to be able to pay for medically necessary services, and that a sizable subset of America would actually like to see the nation move to a single-payer/Medicare-for-all model. Trump and a GOP Congress had a lot riding on a repeal of the Affordable Care Act and replacing it, though owing to the notion the devil is in the details, that Republicans tried to rush legislation through the House and the Senate with little idea of what was in it was telling that it probably wasn’t something they would want to share with their constituents. In the end, John McCain’s “no” vote on a “skinny” repeal of ObamaCare turned out to be pivotal in the measure’s failure to pass. Trump would later issue an executive order that would broadly task the government with working on ways to improve competition, prices, and quality of care, though it faced criticisms for how it essentially opened a backdoor for the destabilization of ACA marketplaces by taking younger, healthier consumers of the equation. Yet more significant could be the planned ending of cost-sharing subsidy payments to insurers that would likely mean higher prices for the consumer. Whatever the case, Trump and the GOP haven’t killed the Affordable Care Act, despite their boasts—they’ve only repealed the individual mandate aspect of the law. Of course, this doesn’t mean the Republicans are done coming for affordable health care. Far from it, in all likelihood.
Where Trump et al. found greater success—to our detriment, it should be stressed—is in the passage and signing of their tax reform bill. Once again, the knowledge of its contents prior to voting among lawmakers was questionable, but ultimately, by relatively slim margins in the House and Senate, what many have referred to as the “GOP Tax Scam” cleared Congress. Make no mistake: this is not good news for average Americans. Any benefits to be enjoyed in the short term are outweighed by how the wealthiest among us and corporations will experience that much more of a boon, with long-term consequences to the national debt and minimal rewards to be trickled down to the rank-and-file. In short, it’s class warfare, and potentially a troubling herald of future attempts to screw with Medicare, Social Security, and other entitlement programs—and the worst part is most of us seem to know it. One can only hope that Republicans will face their own consequences in forthcoming elections. It’s not a great consolation, but at this point, it’s the best we’ve got.
Some Protests Get Lost in the Shouting/Tweeting; Others Succeed Beyond Expectations
Even before Colin Kaepernick, there were player protests and refusals to stand at attention for the playing of the National Anthem at professional sporting events. Not long after the start of the NFL season, however, the continued kneeling, sitting, staying in the locker room, or raising of fists raised the ire of one President Donald Trump who, while apparently not busy playing golf or signing disastrous legislation into law, started a fracas about players refusing to stand during the Star-Spangled Banner, suggesting they should be suspended or outright released for their disrespect of the flag and of those who have served and died for our country. Trump also cited the NFL’s declining ratings and ticket sales as a direct impact of the players kneeling. While it’s possible reactions to player protests may be a factor in these downturns, this overlooks other persistent issues facing professional sports in general: declines in traditional television viewership among younger adults, high costs of premium sports channel packages, the prevalence of injuries and concerns about traumatic brain injuries, the steep price tag for attending games in person, and the mediocrity of play of any number of teams. All the while, the original thrust of Kaepernick’s protest—to raise awareness of the unfair treatment of people of color at the hands of police and other institutions—seemed to get lost in the discussion of who was protesting, which teams issued ultimatums about standing and which did not, and why people weren’t watching now. So much for fighting racial injustice. Better luck in 2018, people of color.
In perhaps a surprising turn of events, though, and possibly a watershed moment in the fights for gender equality and for standing up for victims of sexual assault and harassment, movie producer Harvey Weinstein’s exposure as a habitual offender of sexual misconduct, if not outright rape, opened the floodgates for other accusations, admissions, allegations, and denials. Hollywood has apparently borne the brunt of the revelations inspired by the #MeToo movement, with any number of projects shelved or cancelled as a result of men’s misdeeds, but the political realm also has seen its share of high-profile figures caught in the spotlight. Al Franken was forced to resign from his seat in the U.S. Senate after numerous women accused him of impropriety. John Conyers, another congressional Democrat, resigned too in the wake of a veritable mountain of allegations. Roy Moore didn’t abandon his political aspirations even after the likes of Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan suggested he should step aside, but he also didn’t win as a Republican in Alabama. And then there’s maybe the biggest fish of them all: none other than Donald Trump. That Trump hasn’t been brought down by his own accusations—or for any other wrongdoing, for that matter—is somewhat deflating. Then again, maybe it’s only a matter of time. As with members of the GOP losing in 2018 and 2020, once more, we can only hope.
Meryl Streep famously put Donald Trump on blast at the Golden Globes. Predictably, this invited jeers from Trump supporters who felt “limousine liberals” like herself should “stay in their lane.” You may not like that Streep has a platform in this manner, but she still is an American, and that means not only is she entitled to say what she wants given the opportunity, but as she and others might see it, she has a civic duty to speak out when someone who ostensibly represents us, the people, does so in a destructive way. Kudos, Ms. Streep. I look forward to your acceptance speech at the forthcoming Golden Globes. Come on—you know it’s coming.
Bill Maher more or less engaged in a conversation with Sam Harris about how Islam is a deficient religion—though both men notably have their issues with organized religion, so take this for what it’s worth. In a separate chat with Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, when jokingly asked by the senator if he would work in the fields of Nebraska, Maher referred to himself as a “house n****r.” For an educated guy, Maher is kind of a dickish moron.
Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz had a health care debate on CNN. Why? Why not! At any rate, it was better than the Republican Party debates from last primary season.
In perhaps a glaring example of where we are as a nation in 2017, our President revealed he did not know who Frederick Douglass is—though Trump being Trump, tried to play it off like he did. Also, Kellyanne Conway continued to speak words that sounded like actual thoughts, declaring herself a “feminist” who apparently doesn’t know the meaning of the word, and elsewhere suggesting microwaves can be turned into cameras and be used to spy on us. Hmm—it appears my nose is bleeding. Or maybe that’s just my brain liquefying from these comments. Carry on, please.
In international news, Canada moved closer to legalizing marijuana, with a target date of Canada Day, 2018. In the States? Jeff Sessions the Racist Dinosaur and others like him talk about how weed is a drug for “bad people.” So, if you’re keeping score at home: cannabis :: bad; alcohol, tobacco, and firearms—things that are way more deadly than cannabis :: good. Well, at least we’ve got our priorities straight.
A handful of inmates were executed in Alabama, essentially because the state had a bunch of drugs used in lethal injection at its disposal set to expire, so—what the hell!—might as well use them! Pardon me for waxing philosophical as this moment, but the death penalty is state-sponsored murder. It is revenge for the sake of revenge, and way too often (and too late), it has ended the lives of those whose guilt would be proven false with new evidence and advances in forensic science. It should be abolished. Thank you. I’ll get down from my soapbox now.
James Comey was fired from his post as FBI director. This was in no way politically or personally motivated and in no way related to the investigation into Donald Trump, his finances, and any collusion with or other connections to Russia involving him or his surrogates. Right.
In Florida, the Grieving Families Act was signed into law, allowing women who have had miscarriages to obtain a “certificate of nonviable birth” for their fetus. So it’s about providing solace to women and their families? No, not really. At heart, it’s an end-around about abortion that seeks to specify when life begins and potentially heralds future attempts to chip away at women’s reproductive rights. Not to mention it connotes the idea that women who lose or terminate their pregnancies should only feel grief, when really, it can be a complex mix of emotions. As long as men are making decisions on the behalf of their female constituents about what they can and can’t do with their bodies, we’ll continue to see policies like this. Keep your eyes peeled.
Dana Loesch released a fiery video about the NRA and how it is “freedom’s last stand.” In other exciting gun news, a guy shot up a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas and killed a bunch of people. Let freedom ring, eh?
White nationalists apparently love Tucker Carlson because he question the merits of all immigration—legal or not. Carlson, like Bill Maher, is kind of a douche.
Venezuela held a sham election “won” by Nicolas Maduro. Maduro identifies with socialism. Socialism, therefore, is bad, and Bernie Sanders is the devil. Are you following this logic? If it makes sense to you, um, you’re probably not the intended audience for this blog, but thanks for reading anyway.
Catalonia had a vote to declare independence from Spain. The Spanish government, well, didn’t like that too much. The result was a violent crackdown against pro-independence protests and a lot of international attention drawn to the situation, and in a recent vote, separatists won a slim majority after Spain ousted the previous Catalan government. Great job, Prime Minister Rajoy! You really screwed the Puigdemont on that one.
Joe Arpaio, a virulent racist and all-around ass-hat who held inmates in substandard conditions and profiled residents suspected of being undocumented immigrants as Maricopa County Sheriff in Arizona, was pardoned by President Trump. In other words, f**k off, Hispanics and Latinos.
Millennials can still be blamed for pretty much anything, depending on who you ask. The extinction of the dinosaurs? Oh, yeah—we did that shit.
Bitcoin continues to see wild swings in its valuation after the spike in the second half of the year which brought it to the national consciousness. Does this mean it’s inherently bad? Not necessarily. As with any emerging technology, there are ups and downs to be had with Bitcoin made more pronounced by its recent prominence. Are you behind the curve now, though, with respect to making big bucks off of a relatively small investment? Most definitely.
By installing Mick Mulvaney as the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, America moved one step closer to eliminating the one agency expressly devoted to protecting consumer interests as regards their finances and investment vehicles. Consumer advocacy—what a joke!
Speaking of one step closer, the powers-that-be edged the Doomsday Clock one tick nearer to midnight. Er, pop the champagne?
In advance of the coming year, as far as politics and current events are concerned, there are all kinds of things that may factor into predictions for 2018. Certainly, though, we would expect certain things to continue as they are. Our beloved President will undoubtedly keep Tweeting acrimonious barbs at anyone who runs afoul of him and making cheap concessions to his supporters, especially from the context of rallies that he shouldn’t be having while not on the campaign trail. A GOP-majority Congress will still try to pass off policy designed to primarily benefit its wealthy corporate and individual donors as a boon for the “American people.” Bitcoin will probably still see extreme volatility as to its price, if the bubble doesn’t burst outright. And don’t even get me started about America’s attention to environmental conservation. When Trump and his Republican cronies are repealing Obama-era protections on keeping mining waste out of clean water, reversing bans on the Keystone XL Pipeline going through Native American reservations, allowing for the use of lead ammunition in national parks, and greenlighting drilling for oil in wildlife refuges, you know we are not close to doing our part to combat deleterious climate change. These actions belie the seriousness of the problem, and stunt the progress which can’t be stopped regarding the transition to renewable energy sources away from fossil fuels. At a time when we need to do all we can to slow or reverse the damage we’ve done to our planet, standing still is going backward.
Sounds bad, huh? While there are yet more reasons to be concerned from an activism/human rights standpoint—the all-too-slow recovery from Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico; the pervasive influence of money in politics and gerrymandering purely for political gain; the plight of immigrants, migrants, and refugees worldwide; and the repeated iterations of the travel ban (read: Muslim ban) jump to mind—there is yet for hope for those on the left, and perhaps even those on the right. You know, even if they don’t know any better. In the political sphere, in particular, the deficient policies advanced by Republicans could end up in an electoral backlash in 2018 and 2020. Granted, this does not mean that Democrats don’t need to be held to higher standards, and as bad as GOP leadership has been, that Bernie Sanders, an aging independent from Vermont, remains a more popular choice than most prominent Dems suggests not is entirely well with the Democratic Party either. Speaking of bad leadership, and depending on the contents of Robert Mueller’s investigation, President Donald Trump might also be in real trouble from an ethical/legal standpoint. While visions of impeachment and President Mike Pence aren’t all that inspiring, at this point, anyone seems better than President Pussy-Grabber. I mean, eventually, all the terrible shit Trump has said and done has to come back to him, right? Right?
In truth, I am not terribly optimistic about 2018. But I’m also not done resisting against those who compromise ethical and moral standards to enrich themselves at the expense of others. By this, I mean the people at the top who are willing to see everyday Americans struggle through hunger, poverty, sickness and even death to further their bottom line. For all the preoccupation about border security, crime, and terrorism for many prospective 2020 voters, the “rigged” system about which Trump offhandedly talks is a yet bigger worry, and the aforementioned climate crisis our Earth faces is potentially worst of all. This all sounds very old-hat and trite, but until we start making real progress on the various forms of inequality which plague our society, these aphorisms must be repeated and stressed. Accordingly, through all the trepidation we might feel, there is too much work to be done not to do it. It’s worth the effort. After all, it’s our very lives and livelihoods we’re fighting for.
Whatever path you choose, best wishes to you and yours for 2018 and beyond, and keep fighting the good fight.
If you’re just hearing about Bitcoin and the term cryptocurrency—congratulations!—you’re behind the curve and have likely long ago missed the chance to make dream profits from a small investment in this force in online currency. Oh, well. Good luck keeping your eye out for that next big opportunity, eh? Just this year, Bitcoin, in particular, has seen its price explode from just under $1,000 at the start of 2017 to current values above $10,000 and even $15,000 today, prompting regrets from any number of amateur investors. Then again, how many of these same rueful sorts would have had the knowledge of the currency markets needed to inspire such an investment, let alone the foresight that such a meteoric rise would or even could transpire? These are the same kind of regrets that those who did not, say, invest in IBM prior to the ascendancy of computer technology may have confronted. Bitcoin’s jump in the markets is just the latest example of an opportunity based on an up-and-coming technology, and perhaps related to the GOP’s passage of the House and Senate versions of a tax reform bill that await reconciliation, those with the means to invest have seen the writing on the wall are wildly enthusiastic about the prospects of the growth of the cryptocurrency market.
I am certainly no expert in matters such as these, so for both our benefits, what is Bitcoin, and what is cryptocurrency? Concerning the former, and according to the FAQ page on the Bitcoin official website:
Bitcoin is a consensus network that enables a new payment system and a completely digital money. It is the first decentralized peer-to-peer payment network that is powered by its users with no central authority or middlemen. From a user perspective, Bitcoin is pretty much like cash for the Internet. Bitcoin can also be seen as the most prominent triple entry bookkeeping system in existence.
For the purposes of this post, we’re going to bypass the whole triple-entry accounting concept and focus on the essence of what Bitcoin is—and for that matter, what it isn’t. Bitcoin is a payment system based on a decentralized network, eschewing a central authority or other means of traditional ownership. It is an online currency, but as a completely digital form of money, it therefore lacks physical substance. You can hand $20 to the cashier when you buy lunch. You can’t do the same with Bitcoin. In terms of how bitcoins are produced and acquired, when not receiving existing them as payment, purchasing them at a Bitcoin exchange, or trading locally for them, bitcoins serve as a reward for bitcoin “mining,” which involves the use of special software to solve complex mathematical problems and therefore accrue value in relation to verifying transactions on the blockchain, Bitcoin’s public ledger of past transactions. There are more mechanics to bitcoin mining which I admittedly don’t understand, but suffice it to say that these computations are meant to be difficult and time-consuming to perform, necessitating an investment of energy and the technical capability (in terms of computing power and electrical demand) to produce the worth the process is designed to create. This means the requisite software and hardware, or the cash for a bitcoin cloud mining contract. If this is intimidating to you, it’s downright terrifying to me, I assure you.
Bitcoin is a form of cryptocurrency. OK, so what’s cryptocurrency? Generally speaking, cryptocurrencies are denoted by their digital or virtual reality and the use of cryptography as a security measure. Think codes and ciphers, and anything that uses encryption to prevent unwanted access. Bitcoin, in light of its surging demand, is the most prominent example, but there are a number of effective competitors within this market. Litecoin, Ethereum, IOTA, and Ripple are among the other larger names in cryptocurrency trading.
With any technological advance, the fear of the unknown is bound to cause some concern. This much is understandable. Because of the unique structure of Bitcoin’s network and other cryptocurrencies, however, there are additional concerns that transcend mere lack of familiarity. As with anything, it bears mentioning with respect to Bitcoin that not all news reports and analyses of this currency are equally valid. By this token, not all worries surrounding cryptocurrencies are of the same merit. With all this in mind, let’s take a look at some of the risks associated with non-traditional digital currencies:
Yeah, this is kind of a big one. Recall our earlier discussion about the rapid rise in the price of Bitcoin relative to the U.S. dollar. As even Bitcoin proponents will acknowledge, the total value of bitcoins in circulation is relatively small compared to what it could be. As such, small events can cause disproportionately large effects in terms of changes in price. If you believe these same proponents, as the currency matures, as acceptance of it grows, and as security measures are improved, the market for Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies should stabilize. In the meantime—gee, wow!—it’s just going to be a wild ride until that point! OK, there is some inherent excitement in not knowing what will ultimately become of Bitcoin and how high it may go up. Touting Bitcoin’s thrill-ride unpredictability as a virtue, however, somewhat belies the trepidation that the average investor might feel, especially if his or her means are of the sort that any substantial losses might lead to severe financial consequences. Owing to the present lack of liquidity for Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, this characteristic is not to be dismissed, especially not in the short term.
Bitcoin has been said to be both anonymous and yet utterly transparent. How can this be so? All Bitcoin transactions are recorded on the blockchain, the aforementioned public record of the available supply of bitcoins. Accordingly, the receipt and sending of bitcoins is designed to leave a trail. How these transactions are denoted, meanwhile, is different from that of other methods of payment. While Bitcoin, for instance, ties transactions to a specific address, that address is not necessarily tied to a real-life identity, prompting some experts to refer to it as “pseudonymous” as opposed to purely anonymous. Even in the digital realm, traces are left for those that know how to find them. The big bugaboo about this relative anonymity is that it can and has been used in the service of illegal acts. Just enter an Internet search for “Silk Road marketplace” and you’ll begin to get a sense of why some observers are so concerned. Then again, cash is truly anonymous, and it is an essential part of our economy. Thus, to point to Bitcoin’s structure as nefarious and to say nothing of this arguable limitation of paper money is misleading. Cryptocurrencies aren’t more anonymous than cash, and furthermore, are designed to prevent financial crimes.
The Bitcoin Bubble
As explained on Bitcoin’s FAQ: “A fast rise in price does not constitute a bubble. An artificial over-valuation that will lead to a sudden downward correction constitutes a bubble.” The prevailing sentiment here seems to be that there are factors which contribute to the creation of a bubble, namely consumer confidence or lack thereof, a difference between price and value not based on the currency’s fundamentals, investor greed, and speculation fueled by press coverage. In other words, these are things that are beyond Bitcoin’s control—whaddya gonna do? Except that there is a lot of concern about the “Bitcoin bubble.” A lot of concern. In fact, a casual news search would almost seem to confirm a consensus as to the idea that Bitcoin is in the midst of a bubble and the “pop” is coming any moment. The ultimate question, in this case, is whether or not the burst of the bubble will mean disaster for the financial markets and the economy as a whole, and some analysts point to the notion that Bitcoin possesses small value and few present links with the rest of the economy. So, should we definitively be terrified of what happens with Bitcoin? Well, no. Should we be wary of what manifests with cryptocurrencies? I submit yes.
The volatility and novelty surrounding cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin are reason enough for some investors and industry experts to approach them cautiously, but the lack of a central authority or governing body for these currencies is likewise worrisome for many. In the wake of the frenzy over online currencies, some countries, especially those like China and North Korea that are predisposed to scrutinizing consumer transactions, have taken steps toward possible restrictions of bitcoin sales. However, not all nations view firmly-controlled currency markets to be as virtuous as do the Chinese and Koreans, and this makes enforcing any rules or laws difficult without any widely-accepted standard. As alluded to earlier, the possibility that bitcoins traded on the Internet might be used in the service of illegal activities weighs on the minds of many observers, as does the concern cryptocurrencies might be used to finance terrorism. Again, it is not as if fiat money such as dollars and euros cannot be employed in the same way, so to isolate Bitcoin and say nothing of traditional methods of payment is a bit disingenuous. This notwithstanding, cryptocurrencies would probably benefit from some degree of oversight. An all-too-common reaction among conservative types to regulation is the sentiment that governments or other standard-makers necessarily stifle economic growth through their interventions, but too little involvement from state agencies, independent regulators, and law enforcement can be a detriment in their own right.
In theory, the use of cryptography in Bitcoin’s workings is designed to make this technology more secure than traditional currencies, but vulnerabilities do exist. Proponents of Bitcoin chalk this up chiefly to user error. In other words, blame the bitcoin player, not the bitcoin game. The recent theft of an estimated $70 million worth of bitcoins from NiceHash, a bitcoin mining operation, however, definitely raises some eyebrows. Ethan Wolff-Mann, writing for Yahoo! Finance, explains that bad digital habits such as passwords that contain personal information or are not changed frequently enough may increase risks of using Bitcoin and other digital currencies, and two-factor authentication (2FA), already adopted only by a minority of average Internet users, may not even be sufficient for safeguarding the contents of one’s electronic wallet. As Wolff-Mann puts this, in short, most people are not ready for Bitcoin. Then again, the same investors who would dabble in cryptocurrencies might not fully comprehend other financial instruments more familiar to veterans of finance. Once more, the individual is advised to be careful when trading in digital currencies, while we all are encouraged to be mindful of the possibility that thefts and bursting bubbles could produce more dramatic ill effects than we might otherwise would believe.
Going back to the notion of whether the feverish demand for Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, and the associated price spikes, constitute a bubble, that there is a desire for digital currencies isn’t subject to debate. Whether or not this yen for Bitcoin et al. is simply a phase, or something that reflects a shift toward non-physical means of creating value, is more questionable. Many people who get paid money to render their opinions regard the Bitcoin craze as little more than a fad, or worse, a parlor trick designed to deceive gullible investors. Still others see the fervor for Bitcoin as indicative of the times in which we live, and another reason to blame—three guesses!—millennials for their buying and investing habits. Supposedly, the rise of bitcoin is indicative of their disinterest and mistrust of traditional financial institutions. Damn young people! Driving up the price of Bitcoin and eating avocados! Beyond the notion this viewpoint seems decidedly hard to prove, it’s a facile argument to make anyway. If Bitcoin is attracting younger investors, that’s the market’s problem, and this logic assumes these dumb yuppies don’t know what to do with their time and money. The customer is always right—except when you can look down upon his or her inferior knowledge or intellect.
Dismissing the enthusiasm and possibilities behind cryptocurrencies appears to be as fruitful as dismissing the viewpoints of younger voters because they did not vote more strategically to back Hillary Clinton. Once more, it is incumbent upon the solicitor to make his or her case for your support. Hillary, as experienced and as preferable to Donald Trump as she was for so many Americans, didn’t do that. Donald Trump, the consummate snake-oil salesman that he is, did. Regarding Bitcoin and its supposed dangers, rather than hoping to shame millennials into better choices or trying to appeal to their sense of risk aversion, perhaps a better tack would be to offer the advice that Bitcoin, like any investment vehicle, comes with certain risks, but if you understand this principle, and especially as an asset to hold for appreciation over the long term, it might be worth the concession, and certainly worth familiarizing oneself with from the standpoint of the financial adviser. Even proponents of Bitcoin would be quick to assert that this currency should not be seen as a means to get rich quick, but rather as a tool to facilitate online transactions and to diversify one’s pool of investments. Besides, and this evidently bears repeating, for all the concerns about security and volatility associated with cryptocurrencies, cash and other more traditional modes of exchange present their own challenges in these respects.
From what I can assess, Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are neither inherently good nor inherently bad. They may be useful for some investors and unwise for others, and a well-apportioned amount of regulatory oversight in how it is used, particularly in transactions across international lines, is of worthy consideration. Amid the ongoing craze, both consumers and analysts alike would do well not to overreact to the changes.