2017 Has to Be Better, Right? Reflections on the Dumpster Fire That Was 2016

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Go f**k yourself, 2016. (Image Credit: HBO)

When someone blows up a physical embodiment of the year “2016” and encourages people to tell that year to go f**k itself, you know it’s been an abnormally bad one. John Oliver took the opportunity to give 2016 this proper send-off (a report on this event was equally properly filed under the category “F**K 2016” by Aimée Lutkin and Jezebel), and that HBO agreed to afford Oliver the chance to explode something of that magnitude likewise speaks to the horror that was this past 366 days. That’s right—in case you had forgotten, 2016 was a leap year, so all-too-appropriately, we were given one extra day to protract the misery. The Julian and Gregorian calendars can eat a collective dick on that front.

I only started this blog in the middle of June of this year, so I missed the chance to comment on some things that happened earlier in 2016. With over 50 posts under my belt on United States of Joe, however, there’s still enough topics to revisit to make reflecting on the year that was worthwhile. Well, at least as far as I’m concerned. And since, despite my overall belief in fair and democratic principles, this blog is not a democracy but a Joe-ocracy, that’s the agenda for this session. You’re welcome. So, kick back. Get plenty of champagne ready—noting how awful the past year has been, it may take quite a bit of alcohol to get into the spirit. And get ready to count down to 2017. It’s time to give our own send-off to 2016, middle fingers in the air and all.

REFLECTIONS ON THE DUMPSTER FIRE THAT WAS 2016

Poké-mania runs wild (as written about in “Stop Harshing My Poké-Mellow”)

Well, before we take the plunge into the abjectly negative, let’s go back to the app-based sensation that was Pokémon Go. Since its initial breakthrough success which had critics saying the smartphone game had ushered in a new era of augmented reality and had fundamentally changed the way we look at mobile gaming, downloads and use of the title have understandably cooled. In light of the downward trend, members of the media are now looking at Pokémon Go altogether as a disappointment, especially in light of some updates which failed to impress. You need to walk 3 KM just for one stinking Charmander candy? I’m never going to get that Charizard! NEVER, I SAY!

Now that I’m done being dramatic, not only do I find these charges against the game and its maker Niantic overblown (although, seriously, those Buddy System ratios are pretty shitty), but expectations, buttressed by the app’s initial success, were probably always too high. Though Niantic did its part to make the game palatable to people of all ages and ability levels by making gameplay largely based around throwing Poké Balls and by simplifying battles, the players who are most likely to find the experience rewarding are fans of the original game, who are used to grinding for experience, completing the game as completely as possible, and overall, staying in it for the long haul. It’s not Angry Birds. It’s not Candy Crush Saga. It’s not Fruit freaking Ninja. You have to walk and work for your rewards. You know, when you can’t pay money for some of them. Either way, you still have to walk!

Bernie, you had a hell of a run (as written about in “If You ‘Felt the Bern,’ Then Hold Hillary’s Feet to the Fire”

When Bernie Sanders suspended his campaign in July and formally endorsed Hillary Clinton, it admittedly felt like a punch to the gut. For all the mental preparation made, when the moment actually arrived, it still hurt. What made Sanders’ decision and the associated feelings yet worse, though, was the reception his standing behind Clinton received and the accusations that got hurled around in the wake of the announcement. Con-man. Sell-out. Traitor. Looking at Bernie’s endorsement in a purely ideological vacuum, it is easy to assess this move as a betrayal of his principles and what he stands for. In this instance, however, context is everything, and with Donald Trump having sewn up the Republican Party nomination, Sanders saw greater merit in trying to unite Democrats and other prospective voters in an effort to defeat Trump. Ultimately, the orange one shocked the world and scored an electoral victory, but Bernie Sanders did his best to avoid this eventuality. That not enough Americans either came out to vote or otherwise didn’t buy what Hillary was selling is largely on her, not Bernie.

Of course, in the immediate aftermath of the suspension of Bernie Sanders’ campaign, the remaining candidates looked to capitalize. Even with the bulk of Sanders supporters presumed to be going over to Hillary Clinton’s camp, Donald Trump himself made an instantaneous pitch to those “feeling the Bern,” trying to tap into their fervent and justifiable anger at the political establishment. Third-party candidates like Gary Johnson and Jill Stein, too, though, made a play for these suddenly available votes, rationalizing that there was no better time than now than to tell the two major parties to shove it. In endorsing Clinton, Bernie repeatedly tried to communicate the danger and inadequacies of Trump as a presidential candidate first and foremost, even though he may have largely been preaching to the choir, as younger voters by and large detested “the Donald.” He also, meanwhile, cautioned against a “protest vote” for someone like Johnson, Stein, or even Harambe (and yes, he would’ve loved to follow this election), realizing, as did all these newfound suitors for Bernie backers’ affections, that the votes of his faithful could swing the election by helping to decide key swing states. To reiterate, it didn’t work all that well, but the effort on Sanders’ part was there.

Ultimately, as Bernie Sanders himself will insist, his run for President, while important, was always more concerned with starting a revolution and getting more Americans, especially younger voters and working-class individuals, involved with the political process, even at the local level. Whether the energy behind his campaign and the urge for progressive grass-roots activism is sustainable in the United States is yet to be seen, but either way, there is yet room for optimism that people will want to keep active and informed as a means of exerting greater control over their own destiny. Thus, you may call Bernie any name you want, but I choose to label him an inspiration, and I feel history will bear out this sentiment as well.

Shit, it’s either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, isn’t it? (as written about in “Do We Deserve Better Than Clinton and Trump? Maybe, Maybe Not”)

As we Bernie Sanders supporters worked our way through the Five Stages of Grief and Loss, eventually, we had to come to accept that either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump was going to be our next President. In fact, even the non-Berners were forced to do the same, in all likelihood ensuring many who were on the fence—that is, on whether or not they would vote at all—would choose the latter option and just stay home. In my piece referenced in the title of this section, I mused about the notion that maybe we, as a collective electorate, did not deserve better than these choices that a significant portion of said electorate neither trusted nor cared for much. Ever since 2000, when Ralph Nader was accused of costing Al Gore the election (even though Gore lost that shit on his own, with an admitted probable helping from electoral shenanigans down in Florida), Americans have been highly critical of parties like the Green Party and the Libertarian Party, with the usual refrain being some combination of “they could play spoiler to a legitimate candidate” or “you’re throwing away your vote” if you opt for one of them.

However, to invoke the words of Mr. Nader himself, not only is this attitude politically bigoted, as it negates the will of the individual to make an informed choice in accordance with his or her conscience, but it nullifies our bargaining power with the two major parties. After all, if we blindly vote either Democratic or Republican, beyond losing the election, what motivation does either party have to institute reform that better reflects the needs and wants of the voting public? Especially for members of the working class, both Democrats and Republicans have seemed to take them for granted, which at least partially explains why the Dems lost this election and why Trump and Sanders achieved the levels of popularity they did this election cycle.

In the end, though, despite the increased visibility of Gary Johnson and Jill Stein in the lead-up to the election, most Americans who voted (and there was a good portion of the country who could’ve voted which didn’t) cast their ballots for either Hillary or Donald. As historically unfavorable as these two candidates were, and for all their flaws—Trump as an idiot and professional con-man stoking the flames of fear and hatred, Clinton as an out-of-touch elitist with a penchant for pandering and expensive Giorgio Armani jackets—better than nine-tenths of voters decided they had to pick one of the two, if for no other reason than to block the other candidate they liked even less. Which is pretty shitty, if you ask me. Personally, even with the knowledge that she wouldn’t win, I voted for Jill Stein, as I felt neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton had earned my vote. That relative few other Americans opted out of the two-party paradigm, however, signals to me that we, as a nation, are not ready to demand political change as strongly as we should. It’s either red and blue in these United States, and if you don’t like either color, the present message, unfortunately, is to get the f**k out.

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Oh, Bernie—you may not have been a perfect candidate, but you were damn sure better than who we ended up with. (Photo Credit: Jim Young/Reuters)

Holy f**k, Trump actually won (as written about in “American Horror Story: Presidential Election Edition”)

Holy f**k, indeed. In retrospect, I’m not sure why the pollsters were so surprised that Donald Trump scored the “upset” victory, or why we were so easily convinced that Hillary Clinton was such a strong favorite to win the presidency, when their models were consistently wrong or failed to predict the magnitudes of certain results throughout the primary season. At any rate, as must be reiterated for anyone who sees Trump’s win as a mandate, the man who considers himself a master of “The Art of the Deal” won the presidency on the strength of electoral votes, not because he had a resounding victory in the popular vote (in fact, he lost by more than 2 million votes, and it apparently tears him up inside)—and certainly not because he ran a stellar campaign.

So, how did Trump win? Looking at the exit poll data, certain trends do tend to stick out. Regionally, Donald Trump fared much better in the Midwest and the South, and of course, he carried key swing states, notably those in the Rust Belt (e.g. Ohio, Wisconsin). In terms of demographic data, Trump had an easy advantage among male voters and voters 45 and above, not to mention he held an appeal among less educated individuals and the wealthiest earners (a seeming paradox, though as evidenced by how they spend their money, rich people aren’t necessarily all that smart—look at Trump himself!), as well as evangelicals and married people, but perhaps most notable of all, whites voted at almost a 60% clip for Donald Trump, while close to three of four non-whites went for Hillary Clinton. CNN commentator Van Jones referred to this aspect of the results as a “white-lash”, as in “white backlash” after eight years of a black president the Republicans have characterized as a cause of America’s problems and someone with a secret Muslim agenda, and it’s hard to argue otherwise, really. When the former head of the Ku Klux Klan is cheering you on and citing you as an inspiration, you know white supremacist beliefs, racism and xenophobia helped you to victory.

On a somewhat related note, the thematic reasons why Trump voters chose the way did are also significant. Speaking of racism and xenophobia, supporters of Donald Trump rated immigration trends and terrorism the most important issues facing the United States. Screw the economy and foreign relations—let’s worry some more about brown people. As for the quality that best drew voters to Trump, it wasn’t whether the candidate cares about them, exhibits good judgment, or has the right experience—those voters tended to go for Clinton—but whether he or she could bring about “change.” Whatever the heck that means.

In a nutshell, that’s why Donald Trump is set to be our next President. As for who we can blame for this, besides the obvious in Trump himself and his supporters, there are three core enablers for the man’s political success. Certainly, the Republican Party let him waltz right in and secure the nomination after a barrage of similarly weak candidates failed to stand in his way, and after the GOP at large sowed the seeds of fear and hate he exploited. The media, too, acted irresponsibly and selfishly, chasing ratings while failing to challenge Trump on his lack of defined policy, his factual inaccuracies, his reckless language, or even his refusal to publish his tax returns. In addition, the Democratic Party, in its own right bears some responsibility. Among its most damning sins are its failure to stand up for the working class, its inability to protect jobs and wages, its support for disastrous trade deals like NAFTA and TPP, its complicity with corporations and wealthy donors, and its allowing antitrust laws to lapse or otherwise become weaker, thereby consolidating power into fewer and fewer hands. The failure to stop Donald Trump is a collective one, and though it probably won’t happen, these enablers should do some serious soul-searching for fear of endangering their long-term prospects.

Trump sucks, but his VP ain’t so hot either (as written about in “Mike Pence None the Richer”)

Should anything happen to Donald Trump, whether in terms of his health (not that I’m wishing for the man to pull a William Henry Harrison or anything) or impeachment, the next man in line may not be all that much of an improvement. Mike Pence, who has been governing the proud state of Indiana, has arguably made a number of shitty choices during his tenure. He vetoed a refund of a tax overcharge on the basis it would have cost too much to administer. Before he got too much (warranted) negative feedback, he proposed JustIN, a state-run news service some likened to Pravda in the Soviet era. He rejected Medicaid expansion in his state under the Affordable Care Act on principle, to the detriment of his constituents. He insisted on a ban against a needle exchange program that was effective in limiting the spread of HIV related to a particular drug injection, and later reversed his position, but refused to use state funding to provide for such exchanges. Perhaps most notably, he signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act into law, which allowed for discrimination against the LGBT community and cost Indiana some $60 million in revenue before its reversal. An opponent of gay marriage and women controlling their own reproductive rights, Mike Pence is one of a seemingly increasingly long line of conservative Republican leaders who puts evangelical beliefs ahead of his state’s and the nation’s best interests. He’s not Trump, but he’s no rose either.

Alt-right…more like alt-wrong (as written about in “The Alt-Right Isn’t Alright”)

In terms of what damage he may do in terms of signing legislation into law and what damage he likely already is doing in his appointees for key positions (Rick Perry for Secretary of Energy—are you f**king serious?), that Donald Trump has been thrust into a position of immense power is bad enough, but his association with the far-right and his inspiration to the likes of David Duke makes for some shitty ripple effects just the same, let me tell you. I said earlier that Trump’s electoral victory should not be seen as a mandate given how he lost the popular vote and in light of how divided we are as a nation. And yet, the Breitbart crowd and members of the so-called “alt-right” have taken it as such, viewing themselves as fighters in a culture war they are winning, standing against political correctness and other liberal “absurdities.” They also apparently like boycotting companies who don’t stand for their white supremacist agenda. You know, even though they probably don’t use their products anyway. But boycott it is! TRUMP TRUMP TRUMP TRUMP!

When Hillary Clinton formally acknowledged the alt-right in a speech during the campaign, though I feel it needed to be said, it further legitimized this loosely-constructed movement that coincides with the likes of Gamergate’s sexist perpetuators. That Stephen Bannon has been given a prominent advisory role in Trump’s administration, though, should concern us more conscientious Americans. Donald Trump is not normal, and those who sanction his misdeeds and try to normalize his objectionable behavior are standing in the way of progress. Furthermore, the gang mentality with which many of them operate, encouraging online attacks on and/or death threats against individuals whose values clash with theirs, is troubling, as is the unwillingness of social media services to more aggressively pursue those accounts which violate their terms of service for fear of losing traffic. In short, the alt-right has arrived, as much as many of us might not like to dignify them with a response, and it is incumbent upon those of us who have respect for others—not just respect for white males who refuse to admit to their privilege—to speak out against their behavior and words as dangerous and wrong.

Brexit: the awful Trump presidency appetizer (as written about in “Brexit: Britain’s Wall at the Mexican Border”)

Before Donald Trump swooped in to save the day and stop the threat of taco trucks on every corner in the United States, the United Kingdom gave us a teaser trailer for the U.S. presidential election with a referendum vote on whether or not to remain in the European Union. As with the election in the States, the experts predicted voters would do the sensible thing; if this were an analogy in the vein of the old SATs: UNITED STATES: ELECT HILLARY CLINTON :: UNITED KINGDOM: VOTE REMAIN. And, as with the election in the States, voters did the exact opposite.

The parallels are uncanny. The decision to leave the EU was, as it was in the United States, mediated by a greater incidence of older voters opting to do the wrong thing. Like with Trump’s anti-immigrant appeals and vague notions of “making America great again,” Leave voters were swayed by visions of “securing the nation’s borders” and “taking back control” of the country’s economy, not to mention equally empty promises of the UK Independence Party. Additionally, voters seemed to be making choices that were a direct rejection of existing politics. Barack Obama, David Cameron—either way you slice it, the public clamored for change, no matter who would bring it or what it would entail. The fallout from both votes is still being assessed, but the discontentment of the working-class voter and upward trends in outspokenness among white nationalists worldwide suggest the U.S. and UK votes are not isolated incidents, and in turn, that the risk of other Brexit-like events occurring in the future in other countries is all-too-real. The winds of change are blowing, and one can only hope our houses don’t get knocked over when the gusts have subsided.

“Blue lives matter,” or, “Let’s find a way to blame black people for getting shot by the police and negate their ability to peaceably assemble” (as written about in “How Not to React to Stories about Police Shootings, from One White Person to Another”

Contrary to the apparent beliefs of some, black people don’t enjoy getting mowed down by police at routine traffic stops. While police shootings may not have been any more numerous in 2016 than in years past, through the advent of cellphones and other camera-based technologies, violence involving police certainly has become more visible. Whatever the precise rates of deaths related to encounters between civilians and police, it would seem as though we have a lot of progress to make regarding recognition of the disparity of treatment people of color receive at the hands of police and that which is received by whites, regardless of whether the person accosted by one or more officers has a gun or not.

A perfect illustration of the failure of much of white America to confront its privilege in this regard comes in arguments about the very name and nature of black activism in the United States which exists in large part due to documented police brutality. In response to hearing the moniker Black Lives Matter, or merely even the phrase “black lives matter,” some people are too quick to “correct” the original speaker with the phrase “all lives matter,” or counter with their own version (i.e. “blue lives matter”) that serves to negate the critical recognition of blackness inherent in the initial figure of speech. To me, however, this falls prey to a fairly obvious logical trap: if all lives matter, then black lives, as a subset of all lives, should matter too, and there should be no problem accepting that terminology. “Black lives matter” does not mean black lives should matter more than other lives, but simply that they should matter as much as white lives, blue lives, or any other color lives of which one can think. Clearly, though, they don’t, or else there wouldn’t be a need for organizations such as Black Lives Matter.

The need to scrutinize adherence by individual officers to specified protocol when engaging possible suspects, as well as the systems which serve to shield “rogue” cops from criticism and/or prosecution, is undermined by two key strategies of those who react to protests with knee-jerk defenses of our uniformed police. The first is to question the integrity of the victim—yes, victim—who, because he or she is labeled a “thug” or has a history with the law, evidently deserves to be effectively lynched by the police who intercede him or her. The second is to de-legitimize efforts of black activists wholesale, conflating them unfairly with those who loot and otherwise take advantage of violence and associated protests for their own gain, likening them to terrorists, or wrongly insisting they are advocating for the slaughter of police. In both cases, this is counterproductive, regressive thinking.

As some have argued, those cops who are too nervous not to shoot someone at a routine encounter shouldn’t be placed in such a highly leveraged situation, and either way, good police—which comprise the majority of forces around the nation, let’s be clear—should be appreciative of efforts to root out bad actors from their ranks. As for the protests against police brutality, this doesn’t equate to disrespect for the police, nor does kneeling during the playing of the National Anthem constitute an affront to our military, as Colin Kaepernick’s example reminds us. Black Lives Matter et al. don’t want to see law and order dissolved. They just want to see police officers and officials who wear the badge held accountable when they do wrong, and at a very basic level, not to be utterly afraid they might die when getting pulled over by a squad car. It’s 2016. We need to do better as a country in addressing racial inequality, especially within the purview of criminal justice.

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Oh, no! Black people are expressing themselves! Let’s get angry about it and throw a temper tantrum! (Photo Credit: Michael Zagaris/Getty Images)

ISIS, America, and how hate begets hate (as written about in “ISIS, America, and Hate: Two Sides of the Same Coin”)

There have been too many mass shootings in the United States of late, but the Orlando nightclub shooting, in particular, was particularly devastating for many of us. Not only was it a tremendous loss of life, but that the LGBT community was apparently the specific target of the violence made this brutality that much worse for a population that regularly faces hatred and persecution. Speaking for myself, it is difficult to comprehend how someone could harbor such hate for themselves and others that they would wish to walk into a building and start firing indiscriminately. Perhaps this idea gets the tiniest bit easier to understand when we understand this hate works both ways. As jihadists would seek to inspire terror in the West through bombings and mass shootings, white nationalism encountered in Austria, France, Holland, the United Kingdom and the United States, among other nations, has created an environment that has often proved hostile to Muslims, and has made the prospect of accepting more refugees from war-torn countries like Syria decidedly poor. I mean, Donald Trump ran on a platform of which one of the key tenets was a temporary ban on travel to the U.S. for all Muslims. It’s incredible, and incredibly shameful, at that.

Never mind the idea that all this bluster about “bombing the shit out of ISIS” may actually be good for the Islamic State’s ability to recruit and strengthening its resolve. The jingoists among us would have everyone believe that Islam is fundamentally incompatible with the laws of the United States, that it is a “cancer” to be snuffed out, and that American Muslims who don’t do enough to help discover would-be terrorists in their midst (which, evidently, is quite easy) are guilty in their own right, and regardless, likely merit surveillance of their homes/places of worship and tests administered to gauge their love for and commitment to the U-S-of-A. This conflation of Islam, a religion which preaches peace at its core, and the bastardized religion ISIS and other jihadists/”radical Islamists” practice, is a patently false equivalency.

For the sake of an analogy—one for which I can’t take credit, let me stress—ISIS is to everyday Muslims what the Ku Klux Klan is to white people who aren’t unabashed racists. In both cases, the majority disavows the hate and violence these groups perpetuate. This is by no means saying we shouldn’t be vigilant against individuals who would wish to do us harm. As bad as the Orlando massacre was, though, and as unforgivable as the actions of an organization like ISIS/ISIL have proven, our responses and the negative feelings that accompany some of these reactions reveal an ugly side to our patriotism as well. In the demonization and the pursuit of “the other,” we run the clear risk of losing ourselves.

Miscellaneous events

  • I didn’t originally write about it, but the Chicago Cubs actually won the World Series. To wit, I have neither observed nor heard any stories about swarms of locusts descending on fields or rivers of blood forming, but I’m not ruling them out just yet. The apocalypse takes time to develop, you know?
  • Wells Fargo was forced to fire thousands of mid-level managers for directing employees to create fake accounts and sign up customers for services without their knowledge, essentially making them scapegoats for the company’s aggressive sales model. The company eventually apologized—sort of—and John Stumpf was eventually removed from the role of CEO, but the big bank largely closed the book on this sordid chapter of its history without really admitting wrongdoing, and Stumpf had a nice golden parachute on which to drift to security. Meanwhile, Wells Fargo has apparently learned absolutely nothing from this fiasco, as new CEO Tim Sloan has expressed the belief that the company and the banking industry as a whole could actually do with less regulation. Evidently, it’s all fun and games when you get to play with other people’s money.
  • FBI director James Comey, despite finding that Hillary Clinton and her aides were extremely careless in their handling of E-mail while Clinton was Secretary of State, that Clinton should’ve known certain E-mails were classified and didn’t belong on an unsecured server in the first place, that the State Department was generally lacking in security protocol for classified E-mails, and that Hillary used multiple unsecured devices in locations where American adversaries could have exploited this vulnerability, held a press conference to announce he was not recommending charges be filed against the Democratic Party nominee. Then, a week before the general election, he announced that the Bureau was looking anew into Clinton’s E-mails, which she and her campaign cite as a factor in why she lost. So, nice going, Director Comey! You’ve undermined confidence in the Federal Bureau of Investigation and perhaps swayed the election! Don’t pat yourself on the back too hard!
  • Chris Christie not only failed to capture the Republican Party nomination, but he was overlooked by Donald Trump for vice president despite being, more or less, his manservant. Oh, and Bill Baroni, deputy executive director of the Port Authority, and Bridget Kelly, Christie’s deputy chief of staff, two key figures in “Bridge-gate,” were found guilty on all counts in a trial related to the George Washington Bridge lane closure scandal, and a separate criminal trial is set to take place for Christie himself. Congratulations, Chris. You played yourself.
  • Puerto Rico defaulted on its debt, a result fueled by a combination of fiscal and economic factors, including the repeal of tax breaks for businesses, the creation and sale of triple tax-exempt municipal bonds, the inability of the commonwealth to declare for bankruptcy, exempting wealthy investors and businesses from paying capital gains taxes, “vulture” hedge funds buying up bonds and demanding a full payday, and institutions like UBS selling risky bonds they themselves underwrote to unsuspecting customers. Today, Puerto Rico’s financial future is yet in peril with individuals who are alleged to have helped the island along the path to crisis serving on its appointed oversight board, and with Donald Trump being a crazy mofo. Also, the U.S. Virgin Islands may be on the way to its own debt crisis. Um, huzzah?
  • In some good news, the Trans-Pacific Partnership seems to be all but dead, being disliked on both sides of the political aisle. Also, the Dakota Access Pipeline is on indefinite hold, as the Army Corps of Engineers found more research needed to be done regarding the environmental effects of its intended route through the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. Of course, supporters of these canceled or postponed initiatives may yet redouble their efforts, so we concerned progressives can’t really relax. At least we can enjoy a short breather before the ball drops, eh?

In the title of this piece (remember back that far?), I reference the notion that 2017 has to be better than 2016. I’m not sure it amounts to much, though, beyond wishful thinking. If the best qualification for improvement which comes to mind is that we won’t be electing Donald Trump, it’s cold comfort in light of the fact he’ll already be President. Going back to his appointees, if they are any evidence, the country is set upon a bumpy path for the next four years, or until the man gets impeached—whichever comes first. His Defense and National Security Cabinet leaders view Islam as a threat to America. His Education Secretary is an opponent of public schools, despite never having attended one. His Energy Secretary infamously once forgot the name of the department he has been tapped to helm. His Health and Human Services director wants to privatize everything and largely gut social programs like Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security. His HUD Secretary knows nothing about housing administration.

Wait, I’m not done yet! His head of the Justice Department failed to be confirmed as a federal judge once upon a time because he was an out-and-out racist. His Labor Secretary opposes raising the minimum wage. His Secretary of State has likely financial ties to Vladimir Putin. His Transportation Secretary is married to Mitch McConnell—and that’s evidence enough of poor judgment. His Treasury Secretary oversaw 50,000 or so foreclosures from his position within OneWest Bank, an entity which was accused of unethical practices and discrimination against minorities. His EPA head is a climate change denier. His Small Business Administration director is former CEO of a fake wrestling empire. And his United Nations representative has no foreign policy experience. Irresponsible does not begin to describe these selections, and fingers are crossed that one or more of them fail to get confirmed by the Senate.

So, yeah, I’m not incredibly optimistic about the United States’ prospects right now. The silver lining, as I see it, is that more and more Americans are waking up to the realization that our system is broken and that it doesn’t work for everyone, and with luck, that number will grow as the sheen wears off the shiny promises Trump has made and can’t hope to keep. I wouldn’t have wished for a Donald Trump presidency in a thousand years, but if this hastens the movement of the nation in a more progressive direction, so be it. For those of us who refuse to accept Trump and the America he has envisioned as normal, and who insist that we’ve come too far as a country to simply put the train in reverse, the resistance starts now. 2017, we look to you in strengthening our resolve. And 2016, once more, you can go f**k yourself.

Puerto Rico: It’s Not (Just) a Game

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You call it PROMESA, they call it a decision made by colonial overlords that will further rob Puerto Rico of its democratic rights. Not exactly, po-TAY-to, po-TAH-to, is it? (Photo Credit: Zuma Press)

Some years ago, one of my friends, a mix of Cuban and Puerto Rican heritage, received the funniest birthday gift from some of my other non-Puerto Rican friends: Puerto Rico, the board game. Any inherent latent racism not withstanding, it turns out Puerto Rico is actually a pretty well-regarded strategic game. Created by two-time Spiel des Jahres winner Andreas Seyfarth, the 2002 German-style board game boasts a complexity the likes of which casual board game fans who find that the bubble-popping pleasures of Trouble puts them at their limit will immediately find themselves out of their element. There are five different types of Goods, which can either be sold to a Trader for Doubloons or shipped home with a Captain for Victory Points. Trader and Captain, meanwhile, are just two of several roles which Rotate among the players involved and afford the holding player one or more Actions associated with that role. But waitthere’s more! There are also cards/game pieces for Buildings, Cargo Ships, Colonists, and Island Tiles. Had enough fun yet?

What’s my point, beyond the apparent fact you need sufficient patience and time to play Puerto Rico? The merits of its design aside, it’s a game of which the premise is built on the practice of colonialism. You know, because what else could make a laborious strategic enterprise even more enjoyable but a little colonialism thrown into the mix? Puerto Rico, like any number of modern island nations and territories, was, centuries ago, populated by native peoplesin this case, the Taínowho were minding their own business until white people showed up and ruined the party. Good old Christopher Columbus, the patron saint of European colonization and wayward navigation, stumbled upon the land during his travels, and after reporting his findings back to the Spanish crown, returned in 1493 with orders to help expand Spain’s empireby any means necessary. In the coming decades, the island which came to be known as “Puerto Rico” saw a full-scale colonization effort on the part of Spain, and a massive dying-out of much of the indigenous population. It helps when you force individuals into working in encomiendas, ignore the Laws of Burgos which expressly forbade the mistreatment of indigenous peoples on the islands of Hispaniola, Jamaica and Puerto Rico, and have any number of infectious diseases at your disposal. Nothing like biological warfare to help subjugate people with darker skin than you.

Is your white guilt kicking in yet? No? Don’t worryI’m not even close to being finished. Flash forward to today, and Puerto Rico is no longer a Spanish colony, but rather a commonwealth of the United States of America (thanks, Spanish-American War!). If you think this has spared Puerto Rico from exploitation, however, you’d be very wrong. Puerto Rico just defaulted on some $2 million of debt owed, necessitating the intervention of Congress with the passage of the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act, or PROMESA (promesa is Spanish for “promise), which, among other things, outlines the creation of an Oversight Board to aid in managing the island’s handling of its obligations going forward and restructuring its debt. So, how did it get this bad for the place known primarily to mainland Americans as a source of delicious rums and talented baseball players? A few months ago, John Oliver chimed in on the Puerto Rican debt crisis with an extended segment on the current problems facing the commonwealth and the origins of its distress. Regarding what has contributed to the mess Puerto Rico is in, a number of individual decisions by the American and Puerto Rican governments are highlighted in greasing the wheels to economic/financial/fiscal ruin, including:

  • Sec. 936 tax breaks: To encourage companies to flock to Puerto Rico, the island and its prospective business suitors were afforded tax breaks under Section 936 of the U.S. Tax Code, effected in 1976. Generous tax breaks, at that, and loopholes by which the “foreign” subsidiaries corporations could avoid paying income tax if they distributed monies to the parent in the form of dividends. You can read more about the specifics from the Tax Foundation here, but suffice it to say, from a tax collection perspective, this was a disaster. Economically, however, for Puerto Rico, this was a valuable source of revenue, such that when the tax breaks began to be phased out twenty years after that with Sec. 936’s repeal, this set the stage for collapse when, predictably, those businesses which first came in waves left the same way. And so did a significant part of Puerto Rico’s economy.
  • Triple tax-exempt municipal bonds: Also not particularly helpful in the debt reduction vs. debt creation situation has been the sale of Puerto Rican bonds that were tax-exempt at the federal, state and local levels. As the same Tax Foundation piece explains, this was all well and good when Puerto Rico’s finances weren’t in complete shambles, but now that they are, this creates a situation whereby a shit-ton of debt is owed without the ability to pay it.
  • Rewriting the language of laws to pay certain creditors first: OK, so Puerto Rico incurred its fair share of debt, but it was still hopeful of paying it off, so it agreed to new language in its Constitution to satisfy bondholders first before other creditors and lenders. Fine, but when a commonwealth such as Puerto Rico owes all sorts of parties, including those that provide essential services such as access to hospitals and schools, this presents a major problem for the people who have to live there.
  • No Chapter 9 bankruptcy as a non-state/Bankruptcy Amendments and Federal Judgeship Act of 1984: One of the most galling aspects of Puerto Rico’s depression, as John Oliver illuminates, is that, unlike American municipalities such as Detroit, Puerto Rico can’t claim relief under Chapter 9 bankruptcy. What’s particularly frustrating about this inability of Puerto Rico’s is that its genesis is essentially steeped in mystery. The provision stripping Puerto Rico of the right to file for bankruptcy included as a change to the Bankruptcy Amendments and Federal Judgeship Act of 1984nobody is quite sure how it got there. Oliver puts the onus on Strom Thurmond, who did, in fact, technically propose the amendment, but Politifact puts this in context, noting that this change was a holdover from an earlier piece of legislation, was bundled with a number of other modifications, and was, perhaps not all that well understood by Thurmond. Still, that this provision ever existedas Sen. Clay Davis would put it, is “some shameful shit.”
  • Exempting wealthy investors/businesses from capital gains taxes: To paraphrase John Oliver, this incentive made for pretty good white people bait. Despite any inherent unfairness to the existing residents of the island, the adoption of Act 22 in 2012 made most forms of investment income tax-free. In theory, this was supposed to encourage companies and investors to create jobs and otherwise contribute to the Puerto Rican economy. As Oliver and Reuters correspondent Edward Krudy have spelled out, however, the results haven’t been all that encouraging. As many have reasoned, Puerto Rico has become one big tax haven with little personal benefit to show for it.
  • “Vulture” funds: Perhaps the most sinister of creditors looking for their Puerto Rican payday are hedge fund managers, who own significant amounts of the commonwealth’s tax-exempt bonds after buying them on the cheap, and seek a full return even in the face of government cuts to pensions and social services, not to mention widespread poverty on the island. This is why these hedge funds are so aptly referred to as “vulture funds.” Like vultures, the managers of these funds circle the financial skies, waiting for weak debtors like Puerto Rico to give up the ghost, or in this case, default on their obligations. As many would see it, this is greed at its finest (read: worst).
  • UBS sells risky bonds to itself since Investment Company Act of 1940 doesn’t apply: Think it might be a conflict of interest for an investment bank like UBS to sell bond funds containing bonds the bank itself underwrote? Yes, and illegal too, in the United States under the Investment Company Act of 1940, but not in the anything-goes investment climate of Puerto Rico. Scores of unsuspecting investors neither understanding the depth of Puerto Rico’s woes nor the idea that the investment vehicles they purchased were based on assets doomed to fail have been forced to sell back their investments for much less than they thought they would initially net, or to go to arbitration. David Evans of Bloomberg wrote a piece about UBS’s shady financial “services” practices surrounding Puerto Rican debit in September of last year, which explains this in greater detail just in case you’re not sufficiently pissed off already.

Thus, PROMESA, which provides temporary relief to Puerto Rico, a land of 3.5 million American million citizens, is a good thing, right? Depends on who you ask. In the immediate sense, this so-called “rescue” of an insolvent Puerto Rico may have been necessary as a means of preventing the sharks, vultures or any other metaphorical predatory animals from circling, but speaking once more in imagery, if PROMESA is a life preserver, the depth of the island’s troubles means it’s not out of the water yet. Far from it, in fact. The provisions of PROMESA don’t require a “bailout” in terms of taxpayer funding, but long-term, there are serious questions about what management and restructuring of Puerto Rico’s debt will entail. Almost certainly, new austerity measures will take effect, and the poorest and least financially capable residents of Puerto Rico will likely bear the brunt of any cuts. Moreover, the Oversight Board appointed by the Act will be comprised of people who were not chosen by Puerto Ricans and have no ties to Puerto Rico, and therefore will possess no substantial incentive to develop a truly fair debt management plan for its people.

PROMESA passed the Senate 68 to 30 on June 29 before being signed into law by President Obama, but not without vocal dissent from those who opposed the legislation in its final form. Sen. Bob Menéndez (D-NJ) was among its more fervent critics, citing numerous reasons as to why PROMESA is a flawed bit of policy:

It is a vote to authorize an unelected, unchecked and all-powerful control board to determine Puerto Rico’s destiny for a generation or more. It is a vote to authorize an unelected and all-powerful control board that could close schools, shutter hospitals, and cut senior citizens’ pensions to the bone. It is a vote to force Puerto Rico, without their say, to go $370 million further in debt to pay for this omnipotent control board which they don’t even want. It is a vote to cut the minimum wage down to $4.25 per hour for younger workers in Puerto Rico. It is a vote to make Puerto Ricans work long overtime hours without fair compensation or protection. It is a vote to jeopardize collective bargaining agreements. It is a vote to cut worker benefits and privatize inherent government functions. It is a vote to place well-heeled hedge funds and creditors ahead of the people. It is a vote to give the board the power to sell off and commercialize natural  treasures that belong to the people of Puerto Rico. And at its worst, it is a vote to authorize an unelected, unchecked and all-powerful  control board that determines Puerto Rico’s destiny for a generation or more.

Bernie Sanders was also highly critical of the Act. Echoing Sen. Menéndez’s sentiments, Sanders derided PROMESA as something which makes the United States its “colonial master,” depicting it as a drain on Puerto Rico’s rights and a punishment for its people. You can watch the video and read the full transcript here on Salon. Oh, and don’t forget to #FeelTheBern while you do.

Puerto Rico may be a board game, but the real-life Puerto Rico is not a game, especially for the three-and-a-half million men, women and children who live there. Even so, American hedge fund managers and lawmakers apparently want to play fast and loose with its finances like they were selling cash crops for Doubloons. In reality, Puerto Rico itself is being bought and sold by people who likely won’t be the ones most adversely affected by the actions of those pulling the strings economically and politically. As a commonwealth and not a full state, as well as an island unto itself, Puerto Rico may seem remote to many Americans, who may have their own problems, to be sure. Still, as Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator and soon-to-be former star of the musical Hamilton, reasons at the end of John Oliver’s segment on Puerto Rico, the commonwealth of the United States is only 100 miles away from the mainland. Besides, as stressed earlier, they are American citizens. They may not be able to vote directly for president, but they did participate in the presidential primaries. I mean, they overwhelmingly chose someone who supports PROMESA, what Juan González of the New York Daily News referred to in a recent column piece as a “poison pill,” but hey, that’s their choice to make!

So, yes, let’s treat Puerto Rico as a commonwealth and not a colony. They’re in enough trouble as it isand no, I’m not talking about the board game Trouble, OK?