Must Fat Cats Rule?

20 10 2019

Student Debt            Sometimes they call me “Angry Old Grouch, “Mr. Creepy,” or even every name in or out of the book (when they think I’m out of earshot, that is.) In my current role as a substitute teacher in Twin Cities public schools, this happens infrequently, but often enough. Too often, actually. It is when I am teaching one of my favorite grades, five through 10. These kids are old enough to be aware of what is going on in the world, but also, sadly, old enough to be defiant, and/or completely distracted by technology – mainly cell phones and iPads.

Here is the scenario. I am filling in for a specialist teacher – science, math, social studies – any subject, really.  The students cast their youthful eyes upon an ancient substitute teacher. What a great opportunity to cut up, mess with each other, watch videos, you name it – they think. Anything but work and learn.  Based on the way my brain is wired, and on the hard-earned work ethic forged in my NYC-Catholic school youth, wasting time is close to the ultimate offense in these experienced eyes.

Starting with a bit of comedy and/or music, I generally get the group settled and focused enough to launch the lesson for the day. But every so often, nothing works. The chatter grows to a din, the horseplay escalates, and more students, individually or in groups, glue themselves to screens. After I have exhausted all my friendly, gentle, cajoling strategies, only one remains. That is, with or without adult support from the school administration, I must give them my brief but heated warning lecture.  It consists of something like this:

  • The college and work world they are preparing for is much more challenging than the one I entered when I graduated high school in 1974.
  • Every day, every hour they blow off, is opportunity lost.
  • They will be competing against many students who make wiser choices – that is, capitalizing on every chance to learn and prepare.
  • Wasting time may seem like fun now, but they will regret it someday.

What makes me do this?  I care about their future, yes. But every day more news arrives of how their hilly road to success grows even steeper. By design. Yes, those fat cats.

For students who hope to go right to work rather than invest in higher education, there is bad news. It is no secret that those low-skill manufacturing jobs, the kind where you do not need college, and can learn what you need on the job, have grown increasingly scarce. And that sort of employment in modern manufacturing enterprises more frequently requires some sort of technical training.

And college? It is dramatically more expensive today, and that goes for public as well as private learning institutions. Sure, everything is more expensive than it was in 1974. But college education really is a special case. Just look at this chart (scroll down) showing how college costs from 1980 to 2014 grew at more than twice the rate of the overall Consumer Price Index. That’s no secret, of course. But many have wondered – how can this have happened? I have long ascribed the disparity to two factors – declining public support (i.e. tax dollars) for public colleges and universities, and soaring salaries for top college administrators and certain sports coaches. In short, the same sort of “push all the benefits to those at the top” approach that permeates virtually the entire American economy.

Another factor is in play here – one that I had not thought of.  In this five-minute video segment from CBS This Morning, you will see how some public colleges have adopted a “market” strategy in order to attract students of a certain type.  High potential? High achieving? High diversity? Sorry, none of those. We’re talking high-income, friends.  I bet you saw that coming.  These colleges and universities have been turning their campuses into country club-like, insular cities for well-heeled students, both domestic and foreign.  Of course, that drives costs up for everyone – shutting out many and forcing so many others to take on crippling student loans.

And what of those student loans? Well-meaning programs have passed Congress in recent years – programs designed to ease student loan burdens. But those have been mishandled – no doubt deliberately – by the current kleptocratic administration. With such an uncaring, mean-spirited approach to programs that are supposed to benefit public servants, you have to wonder – is Education Secretary Betsy DeVos going to skim off enough millions from the unspent allocations in order to buy yet another luxury yacht?

I don’t like to trade in conspiracy theories, but do you think those in charge right now, those honest, generous-spirited officials that populate the squeaky-clean Trump administration, might actually like this situation?  That is, that it gets harder, year by year, for the average Joe and Jane to get a college education, while the children of privilege, regardless of merit, have their way made ever easier?

Over the long haul, poorly informed, poorly educated voters are more easily swayed by a lying demagogue like Trump.  So, making it harder for all but the wealthiest to get an education without drowning in debt is a long-term investment in future political support for right-wing corporatist politicians.  Those politicians will win over low-information voters with positions on hot-button issues like abortion, law and order, immigration, etc., when what they really hope to achieve is the chance to do ever more favors for their true base – the uber-wealthy. If you have the stomach, read this opinion piece, penned the morning after America sent a horribly unqualified, mind-numbingly ignorant blowhard to the White House. Jason Brennan, writing in Foreign Policy magazine, makes the case that Trump’s triumph is the logical end to a depressing trend – greater numbers of poorly informed voters.  He does not feel that education levels are a major factor here.  I think otherwise.

American society’s tilt toward the rich is not limited to education, of course. The Trump/McConnell/Ryan tax “reform” of 2017 was a huge gift to the rich and was in no way backed by any sort of economic theory.  Recently, those of us with a dark sense of humor laughed when Trump bragged about how the public, “enriched” by these so-called reforms, would jump-start the shaky economy with spending, thus saving Trump’s bacon burger.  Want to know how much the average person benefitted? Estimates vary, but this article from earlier this year pegs the benefit at about $233 per year for each worker. That comes out to just over $4 per week. Whoopee. And measuring the effect of that heist strictly by how much the average person’s taxes were cut is shortsighted at best.  We will all pay, dearly, in the long run, for what that tax giveaway to the rich and to large corporations did to the federal deficit. Oh hell, what’s a trillion bucks among friends, eh?

And then there’s housing. In many cities, it’s potentially cheaper to own a house than to rent. Potentially because in order to purchase, you need a down payment.  With the average young person emerging from college owing, on average, slightly more than $30,000, how easy do you think graduates who lack wealthy parents will find it to save up for a down payment?  Using my home region of Minneapolis-Saint Paul as an example, the average house at $295,000 will require a down payment of $59,000. Good luck with that.

Whole cities are being repurposed to cater to the uber-wealthy. Kevin Baker chronicled this trend in New York, my city of origin, in 2018. And it’s easier than ever for the super-rich to pay little or no taxes.  I’m not too happy these days when I buy from Amazon, knowing something about Jeff Bezos’s success in tax avoidance.  And once Trump’s deep, dark secret tax returns are finally public – before or after his ouster – we will probably see that his tax avoidance strategies are an achievement maybe even greater than faking bone spurs.

With the US – and much of the world following – favoring powerful global corporations and the wealthy ever more, and convincing enough voters that all this is somehow good for everybody, I feel it my responsibility to help my students be “high-information citizens.” Some days, that is easy, some days not so much. I will continue to do my part as opportunity and necessity allow. Even when I hear myself referred to as an old #$$%#%#!

Occasionally, I get to talk to students about what really matters, even more than the specifics of their economic future. Actually, it is an issue that stands to have a profound effect on their economic future. That is, the climate crisis. In fact, I am taking a day off from paid work in November to do just that with several middle-school classes, on a volunteer basis. It is part of a global event organized by a non-profit that I represent – the Climate Reality Project. As usual, my talk will be science-based, and lack political advocacy. But I will close as usual with their duty as citizens and voters. That is, find out the truth about the climate and other important issues. That is, the truth. Not “alternative facts.” And vote for politicians who base their policy ideas on the truth.

I may not have a “large brain,” no one has ever called me a “stable genius,” and my wisdom is not so great and sometimes overmatched. Despite all that, I am aware enough to know that every complex problem does not have a simplistic solution. But I do know this:

The problem of wealth and opportunity disparity, falling heavily on our young people, is mighty complex. Refusing to vote for manipulative, grandstanding, self-serving liars with their vacuously simplistic “solutions” would be a good start on the road to real answers.

For both the young and old among us.

 

Michael Murphy
St. Paul MN





Context-Free

13 10 2019

JC            This past Thursday, I managed to score a “double play” of sorts. Thanks to my career employer – Metro Transit – I was able to spend 90 minutes with my “peeps” in downtown Minneapolis, just outside Target Center, and then speed home on light rail to watch a hefty share of Trump’s marathon hate sermon. Target Center was the site of Trump’s latest bray-fest, er, uh, (never-ending) campaign rally. His faithful followers packed the arena. But outside, well, to paraphrase a Jim Morrison/Doors song, “They got the dunce but, we got the numbers!”

Of course, the length of Trump’s cathartic, self-therapeutic rant (at 105 minutes, he would have made Fidel Castro envious, or at least proud) deserves some of the credit for my double play. He would go on bullying, bragging and braying for a very long time after I returned home.

Mixed in with all the attacks on his favorite targets – Ilhan Omar, Joe and Hunter Biden, Somali refugees, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, House Democrats, and on and on – and plumbing new depths of public profanity even for this unhinged, short-fingered vulgarian (Biden was a successful vice president only because he knew how to kiss Obama’s ass – Trump really said that!), he managed to say something that made sense. Sort of.

In his first public speech since facing the specter of impeachment, Trump defended himself against critics from both parties who are aghast at his announced pullback of American forces from northeast Syria. Those forces have been shielding Syrian Kurds – US allies in fighting ISIS – from a long-threatened attack by Turkey (another US ally and a NATO member). That attack, of course, commenced just hours after Trump’s surprise announcement. Here is a short video clip showing how he responded to the withering criticism. Though I wish I could understand those protesters who managed to crash the party, it’s the “time to bring them home” quote I wish to highlight. Really, who can argue with that?  For a change, Trump seems to be actually making sense, right? Just listen to the applause he pulled in with that one.

Sorry, this is just more of the same. Several years back, in the run-up to Trump’s unlikely capture of the White House despite losing the popular vote, I characterized him as the loudmouth at the end of the bar with a simplistic solution to every complex problem. He still prevails at that figurative bar, but that bar is the White House, where he gets to Twitter out his attacks and boneheaded “solutions,” yell them over roaring jets and whirring helicopters, or act them out in front of thousands of rapt, red-hatted cult members. Those simplistic solutions still make no sense.

Trump went way beyond justifying his clearing the way for the new Turkish offensive with his “time to bring them home” applause line.  He proceeded to pronounce the entire range of US activity in the Middle East, over decades and even the better part of a century, as misguided. See here in the complete transcript. Skip the extended laundry list of broadsides and “comic skits,” and go right to 1:42, where he says, “The single greatest mistake our country made in its history was going into the quicksand of the Middle East. We spent $8 trillion and lost thousands of lives.” True enough. So that loudmouth bar genius’s solution? Pull out a small US force that was preventing a bloodbath visited by one US ally on another. Simplistic “solution” meets complex problem. Welcome to the Trump “presidency.”

Too many of us Americans have a tragically short memory. And this applies not just to Trump’s flock of believers.

First, we have betrayed the Kurds before. They fought alongside US forces in the first Gulf War, when in 1991, President George H.W. Bush attacked Saddam Hussein – who had previously been an American ally when he was fighting his own war against Iran. When, after pushing Iraqi forces out of Kuwait, the US failed to follow through – right or wrong – and remove Saddam Hussein, the Kurds paid dearly for their disloyalty to the brutal dictator. And it turns out that pulling the rug out from under the Kurds has become something of an American tradition.

Second, the Kurds have been instrumental in fighting alongside US forces against ISIS.  But how and when did ISIS arise? Thank President George W. Bush,  the flight-suited former draft dodger who proudly declared “Mission accomplished” after he had supposedly finished the job Dad had started, removing the evil dictator and neutralizing a Mideast country that he and his vice president, Dick Cheney, had falsely accused of threatening the world with “weapons of mass destruction.”  Uh, not so fast, George. Our ISIS friends rose from the chaos and ashes of the devastated Iraq.

Third, several administrations – most notably but not exclusively the current wrecking crew – have tried to build public animosity toward Iran.  And the mass media have been happy to oblige. To be sure, Iran is ruled by a repugnant regime that oppresses its people and engages in international mischief.  But why are they there? Taking the longest view, we see that the current Iranian regime is the logical consequence of – surprise, surprise – foreign intervention by that purported champion of democracy, the good old US of A. Way back in 1953, the superpower of the future – America – took the reins of international mischief from the superpower of the past – Britain – and overthrew the duly elected prime minister of Iran, Mohammed Mossadegh. Mossadegh’s sin? Demanding control of Iran’s vast oil reserves. We empowered a US-friendly leader, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. The Shah’s claim to US fame?  Allowing US-based oil companies to continue their business. Seemed like a good idea at the time. And that time lasted until 1978.  The rest is, well, not-so-distant history. Anyone seeking to write an expert playbook on creating an enemy out of what should be a naturally friendly nation need look no farther than American history with Iran.

So, how is Trump’s simplistic solution, the applause line “Bring them home,” looking now? About as sage as the wisdom emitted by that braggadocious barroom blowhard.

George W. Bush’s Secretary of State, Colin Powell – a wise man among a wrongheaded regime in my opinion – famously warned his president before Bush’s ill-conceived and ultimately disastrous destruction of Saddam Hussein that “If you break it, you own it.” Bush’s ideological blindness – and Cheney’s maneuverings – nevertheless drove him on to “glory.” And here we are.  ISIS will live to fight again, possibly carrying out acts of terror far from the Middle East. Considering Trump’s openly hostile relations with US intelligence authorities, just how safe do you think our country will be for the remainder of his term?  Or for his – may the lard save us – his second term?

The Middle East is broken, and has been for a long time, with the United States deserving a large share of the “credit.” Like it or not, we do, in some very real ways, “own” it.  And deciding suddenly that we will leave, even “gradually,” as our big-brained, stable genius announced, is to abdicate responsibility for the consequences of our long-term manipulations.

But wait – we aren’t really “leaving” at all.  In a classic case of tone-deaf timing, the United States has just announced it is sending more troops to arguably the most brutal regime of all in the region. That’s right, Saudi Arabia, our dog in that never-ending fight with big, bad Iran, is about to receive more help.

There’s “Bring them home” for you. In the battle of the oil giants, we have chosen our gladiator. For now.

So, there we have it. Trump’s promise to “bring them home” is not just mind-bogglingly uninformed and context-free. It is also immediately negated by hypocritical escalation of forces elsewhere in the same part of the world – the oil-rich part. Coming from a profoundly and proudly ignorant pretender to the US presidency, this is anything but shocking. What is continually shocking is the way his masses – of the sort that were hooting, hollering and waving their red hats at his every attack, brag, pander and maudlin “empathy tale” just the other day in Minneapolis – continue to chug his vitriolic Kool-Aid.  Maybe this Kurd affair will have an effect where so many other blunders, betrayals and scandals have not, but that remains to be seen. As the Donald loves to say (cue the roaring jet engines please), “We’ll have to wait and see what happens.”

I have long resisted writing about the Middle East, and with good reason. It is just so complex, with so many threads, current and historical, that it defies thorough understanding.  And that’s precisely why I chose to write about it this time. Though I can’t guarantee the pinpoint accuracy of my observations in this post, I have provided ample links so you, dear reader, can assess for yourself. The other reason I chose to tread unfamiliar territory this week is this – seeing the genuinely ignorant Trump earn undeserved support, even from his similarly uninformed base just grates on me. Kind of like the notion of this historically unqualified, destructive fraud occupying the White House in the first place.

Complex problems demand complex solutions. We have long been entangled in the Middle East for one big reason – their oil. One would think that, with the fracking revolution vastly reducing US dependence on foreign oil, (yes, I know, fracking has a very dark side as well), the Middle East would become less important.  Sorry, no. There is another issue – the one that is the root of so many societal, even global problems – including the most consequential of all, environmental destruction, especially climate change. That is, corporate control of US policy  – in this case, the biggest of all, Big Oil.

I am not naive enough to think the departure of Donald Trump will solve the problems of the Middle East. Far from it. But his removal, by impeachment, resignation or a landslide election in 2020, will be a giant step in the right direction. A step back from the precipice.

It’s a safe bet that whoever we elect will work hard to at least stop making the Middle East problems worse.  And if we elect a progressive who appoints wise people in foreign policy, as well as environmental protection and energy, we could accelerate our already in-progress move away from dependence on fossil fuels.

It’s all connected. The missing factor right now is context. Let’s change that.

 

Michael Murphy
St. Paul MN





Of Tyrants, Purges and Coups

6 10 2019

Trump and Congress            A tyrant need not be a czar, a monarch or an emperor-for-life.

Some purges do not involve forcibly removing dissenting public servants.

Not every coup requires tanks rolling into the capital city.

Merriam-Webster defines “tyrant” as “an absolute ruler unrestrained by law or constitution.” Trump’s aberrant behavior threatens to make that description of his “governing” style a better fit than his nearly knee-length neckties.  Trump is not just “joking” when he muses aloud about seeking to be “president for life.” If not for the Constitution, he could make that an actual reality-show reality. Hell, he is making progress on that goal.

Though Trump’s behavior has long resembled an unrestrained autocrat, the recent Ukraine controversy has brought out his tyrannical nature ever more. Just look at what he has said about the whistleblower – the CIA official who relayed reports from several senior Trump administration officials, that Trump repeatedly badgered the new Ukrainian president in July to dig up dirt on former VP Joe Biden and his son. Here is a direct quote from Trump: “This country has to find out who that person was, because that person is a spy, in my opinion.” Note his use of “this country,” when he really means Trump himself.  He has also sought to “meet with” the official (probably not for a Big Mac and milkshake) and hinted that capital punishment would be his fitting reward. That’s something, you see, that would have happened “back when we were smarter about these things,” according to Trump. Based on their own experience with whistleblowers, former intelligence officials fear for the personal safety of the current CIA source. I can’t imagine why. And remember – these officials worked under less tyrannical presidents.

The Ukrainian scandal, and the impeachment investigation that has risen from it, have aroused Trump’s ire more than even the Mueller probe.  During part of his shameful, coercive call to Ukrainian President Volodimir Zelensky, one of his most un-presidential, unprofessional acts was to trash the former US ambassador to that country, Marie Yovanovitch.  He called her “bad news,” and told Zelensky that Yovanovitch would “go through some things.” This highly respected career diplomat’s mortal sin? A higher loyalty to the Constitution than to the wannabe dictator now occupying the White House. Remember that dictionary definition of “tyrant?” Is punishing skilled, competent public servants for political disloyalty “unrestrained” enough for you?

To their credit, Congressional Democrats, now backed by a few lonely voices from the Republican side, have recognized Trump’s actions as unethical and probably both unconstitutional and illegal. That puts them on yet another “witch hunt,” in the tyrant’s eyes.  And the witch hunt leaders must be punished for their disloyalty. He wants Congressman Adam Schiff, leader of the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation, tried for treason. His crime? Briefly parodying Trump’s outrageous behavior. Trump is also now ripping into his few Republican critics for their disloyalty to the tyrant. He says that Romney is a “pompous ass who deserves to be impeached.” Substitute any of the following for “pompous” – bullying, bullshitting, ignorant, criminal, destructive, delusional, self-promoting – and that attack could serve as the rarest of things: an accurate self-description by the tyrant himself.

Of course, the unrestrained nature of Trump’s behavior is not limited to his violation of constitutional norms and presidential standards. Far from it. He now plans to have Homeland Security and the FBI collect DNA samples from all immigrants who are booked into federal immigration subsidy.  That’s right, including even the youngest minors will be in this database.  The tyrant’s cruelty knows no bounds.  Too bad we weren’t “smarter back then,” when Trump’s grandfather immigrated here.  Would have saved us a lot of trouble and ugliness two generations later.

And then there is Trump’s approach to the parade of subpoenas sent to his official courtesy of the Democratic House investigations. He is telling almost everyone to simply defy them.  The rare exception appears and refuses to answer questions.  Last time I heard, this country had three equal branches of government.  But maybe that was a while back. Pre-tyrant.

Think of the great purges of modern times.  Sometimes they include genocide. Consider Pol Pot’s decimation of Cambodia from 1975 to 1979 – called the Killing Fields. The most talented and skilled independent thinkers were targeted and executed, to the tune of up to three million people. That is 25 percent of the population. Then there is Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. That was a ten-year campaign by Mao, starting in 1966 and continuing until his death, aimed at reasserting his ideological control of China. Anyone deemed disloyal, especially seen as following “the capitalist road,” could be targeted for loss of livelihood, re-education and even death. Estimates vary of the cost in human lives, with anywhere from 500,000 to two million dying in this chaotic purge that plunged China into virtual civil war. And further back, of course, purges were legendary in Stalin’s Soviet Union – particularly the Great Purge of 1936-1938.  The purges for disloyalty were not limited to leadership, but pervaded Russian society, with some estimates of total mortality as high as 20 million.

True to the tyrant’s playbook, Trump values loyalty above all else. His administration has not resorted to extreme violence to enforce ideological purity. No need.  “Gentler” means suffice. Trump’s undermining of the US diplomatic corps – once the strongest in the world – certainly did not begin with the Ukraine affair.  Appointment of unqualified ambassadors, a foreign policy in disarray, and a pervasive scent of corruption have sent many career diplomats running to the exit doors.  And morale is on the decline for those who have survived so far.

Environmental scientists’ work has been under attack since the first days of the Trump administration, with suppression and misrepresentation of scientific fact. You have to wonder how long self-respecting scientists can stay in the employ of a body – namely the US government – that orders its experts to lie to protect the pathological lying tyrant who rules the whole enterprise. The truth matters less and less in so many areas these sad and appalling days, but maybe nowhere worse than in this arena.  The goal, of course, is to gut environmental protections in order to boost short-term profits – no matter how destructive the consequences of those profits.

And then there is the controversy around Trump’s thwarted attempt to turn the 2020 federal census into a political weapon.  Called on their lying and misrepresentation of fact, Trump and his loyal agent, Wilbur Ross, have had to delete a question about citizenship from the census.  I cannot find any evidence of a purge of experts at Census, but it’s another example of a Trump vassal disregarding expert knowledge in favor of ideological enforcement and political gain.

In general, the disarray at the top – with Trump appointing (often in “acting” capacity) and firing senior officials according to his whim and his current assessment of their loyalty, must create an environment of uncertainty and a culture of fear in the ranks. Just look at this roll call of the unprecedented shuffle at the top, documented by the New York Times.

In the political and governmental realm, coup is short for coup d’état, which Merriam-Webster defines as “a sudden decisive exercise of force in politics; especially the violent overthrow or alteration of an existing government by a small group.”

I have called the current state of government a coup, though some may take issue with this. See what you think in this piece I wrote about a year ago.

The point man then was Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and he remains that today.  If anything, his role is more critical now. From his hijacking the Supreme Court through unconstitutional obstruction to enabling 1Trump to stack that highest court with conservative judges to his stocking federal courts at all levels with Trump nominees (often Federalist Society darlings) after stonewalling Obama nominees, McConnell has arguably done more (along with historic Republican gerrymandering, not entirely McConnell’s doing) to create our current situation of corporatist minority ruling the majority than any other politician. He towers over Trump in any measure of intelligence (though certainly not in criminality), political savvy and overall effectiveness.

I believe our democracy hangs in the balance, based on McConnell’s past, current and future choices. Too dramatic?  I think not.

My prediction is this: The Democrats, following investigations of Trump’s misuse of his office for personal gain, will indeed approve at least one article of impeachment. They probably have the votes right now. It’s then over to the Senate for trial, where ol’ Mitch holds the cards.

McConnell says he “has no choice” but to hold that impeachment trial.  Translation – he thinks he gains this way. Are we really supposed to believe the line about “no choice” from the guy who concocted a “Biden Rule” that supposedly dictated blocking for nearly a year President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to replace the dead Scalia? No, the skilled and calculating McConnell sees a winning option here.  As long as Republican Senators refuse to break ranks – as of today, Senators Romney, Collins and Sasse are the only ones who have openly criticized Trump on Ukraine and now China – then Trump will be acquitted in the Senate. And here is an ominous though not unexpected new development. McConnell says impeachment of Trump will never succeed as long as he leads the Senate.

So, another prediction.  In order to remove a president from office, a simple majority does not suffice.  Two-thirds of the Senate, which now has a slight Republican majority, must vote to impeach and remove.  Highly unlikely, though not impossible.  My prediction – a majority of the Senate, somewhere between 50 and 60 senators, will vote against Trump.  Thus, he remains, and lives to bray and brag about his “victory,” in much the same manner as he has continued to brag about winning a decisive Electoral College victory in 2016.

And here is another prediction.  If things go as I have suggested, and Trump manages to squeeze out another Electoral College victory, then what is left of our democracy (thanks, Mitch!) is in serious trouble. Because it means anything goes. It means a president can use the office for personal gain, manipulating relations with other countries for his own benefit through bullying, false promises, extortion and general corruption.  (“Nice country you have there. It would be a shame if something bad happened to it.”)

Then, we wait for the next tyrannical president to game the system with false promises. Picture a president with Trump’s instinct for lying, deception, attacking and bullying but with McConnell’s finely tuned political sense and skill. In other words, someone just as evil and cruel as Trump, but as competent as McConnell.  That anti-democratic monster waits in the wings, I assure you.

So, what we need is enough Republican senators to place country over loyalty to Trump. (Former Senator Jeff Flake claims that, in a secret ballot, a critical mass of Republicans would indeed vote to convict Trump.) They need to place their oath to protect the Constitution over protecting their own political future.  They need to place democracy over tyranny.

Tall order, I know. But what other hope do we have?

Stay tuned, friends. The bumpiest of rides is about to get a lot rougher.

 

Michael Murphy
St. Paul MN





Beyond Distractions

29 09 2019

Clueless           First off, let’s get this week’s Trumpian sideshow out of the way. If you have not read the crucial documents that finally pushed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to launch an impeachment investigation into Trump, here is your chance to do your homework.  Courtesy of our friends at the Guardian, here is the text of the whistleblower’s complaint against Trump. The other necessary assignment is to read the “summary” of Trump’s conversation with Ukraine’s new president. Note that, appalling and damning though it is, this is only a portion of that entire conversation. In turn, that conversation is only one of many conversations between Trump and leaders of other countries – including Russia and Saudi Arabia – that Trump’s enablers have been hiding from scrutiny by burying them in top-secret files not ordinarily used for such a purpose.

My fervent hope is that all those conversations, in complete form, along with Trump’s tax returns, finally see the light of day.  Pipe dream?  Maybe. Last hope for anything like democracy surviving in this country?  I think so.

That digression from my main topic – the festering and worsening climate crisis – is brought to you by Trump’s aberrant, self-serving, distracting behavior. Yes, I know, impeachable offenses – which those conversations and associated actions almost certainly amount to – are more than a “distraction.” Trump’s entire, sorry excuse for a presidency has really been one endless, chronically erupting distraction. While we are all arguing about what he said or didn’t say, and whether it was illegal or merely wrongheaded, boorish or clueless, the climate clock is ticking.  And of course, the problem does not merely languish under Trump’s neglectful “leadership.” His appointees – particularly Andrew Wheeler at the Environmental Protection Agency and David Bernhardt – are the most prominent members of a wrecking crew that is making the problem worse rather than working to solve it.  And that is no surprise – both are former lobbyists for fossil fuels, one for coal and the other for oil and gas. How are they worsening problems?  Hard to count all the ways, but I listed a few “highlights” in last week’s post.

So while Trump’s freak reality show is demanding our attention, his henchmen are clearing the way for more environmental destruction and endless fossil-fuel industry profits.  All the while, the environmental crisis of our lifetime is deepening.

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its latest report on already-observed climate disruption, and science-based projections for the future. This Washington Post story summarizes the report. Note that the IPCC, though much maligned as alarmist by right-wing, “free-market,” anti-science deniers and liars, is a fundamentally conservative organization – it relies on a consensus-based assessment of the science by leaders of most of the world’s nations.  So, its projections are, if anything, on the mild side. Here are a few of those observations and “mild” predictions:

With all the already observed effects of human-caused climate disruption – stronger and slower-moving hurricanes, persistent droughts and more frequent, deadly heat waves – a reasonable person might expect a consensus to solve the problem would have developed by now.  Alas, no. The United States, with its powerful, government-buying corporate interests and proudly science-defying president, is leading in the wrong direction. As the self-appointed protector of corporations from “job-killing regulation,” Trump has appointed the aforementioned former fossil-fuel lobbyists, industry agents hostile to the mission of the agencies they are supposed to be leading.  Trump himself has proudly led our national government onto a new path of ignorance, by moving to pull the United States out of the 2015 Paris Climate Accord. And he will continue doing damage if he survives his current battles – certainly not out of the question – and manages to win another undeserved turn at the helm in 2020.

If you think the forces of science denial and lying on behalf of continued fossil-fuel profits know no shame, think again.  In a well-publicized gesture, 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg took a zero-carbon sailboat journey across the Atlantic to address the United Nations last week. (The image of her glaring at the ignorant destroyer Trump as he arrived to briefly photo-bomb the proceedings made the trip worthwhile by itself.)

Now think about that.  Had she flown across, these haters would have vilified her for hypocrisy, since international jet travel contributes mightily to greenhouse gas emissions. So what was their disgusting line of attack against this earnest, committed young lady? See for yourself. Note especially the chart showing the unholy alliance of reprehensible liars and their propaganda organizations that form the shameful forces attacking Thunberg and, by association, all youth in the growing movement to save the future.  A few of these individual disinformation dispensers and their liars’ league include Joe Bastardi, Marc Morano, Bjorn Lomborg, the Heartland Institute, the Daily Caller and Breitbart.  In short, the usual criminals, er, uh, suspects. Every one of these bastards, along with their lie-and-attack falsehood factories, should be banished to a Pacific island that is steadily being swallowed by the rising ocean. Hell, award them a doomed part of Miami. But wherever, let them have Donald Trump as their exiled president. For life.

But I digress.

We need hope in these times. Whatever the outcome of the just-begun impeachment proceedings, Donald Trump must go. For the good of the United States and the planet. 2020 the latest. Far, far away.  Also, and maybe even more important, Mitch McConnell. The hypocritical, hyper-partisan Senate majority leader has already made a much more lasting imprint on our nation’s future than Trump (so far anyway) with his cynical, obstructionist blocking of a large majority of judge appointments during President Obama’s term, and his fast-tracking of Trump judges. It’s not merely his well-publicized hijacking of the Supreme Court, you see. This of course is critical, since the battle to preserve reasonable environmental protections under Trump and successors will be fought in those same courts. Want to help keep the whole nation from being sold out to corporate interests? Donate to his 2020 opponent’s campaign. I have.

To close, here are two readings with just a bit of hope.

First, one of the best pieces from a recent issue of Time magazine completely devoted to the climate crisis.  Longtime conservationist Jane Goodall is the only writer in the volume to finger unfettered population growth (9.7 billion of us by 2050 compared to 7.7 billion today) as a major issue, and a cause of despair among many at the prospect of solving the climate crisis. She succinctly laid out the challenge.

“We must solve four seemingly unsolvable problems. We must eliminate poverty. We must change the unsustainable lifestyles of so many of us. We must abolish corruption. And we must think about our growing human population.”

Second, my local Star Tribune ran an opinion piece by MinnPost reporter Ron Way. His piece is titled “Gloomy Forecast,” and, as you might expect, he runs through a sobering survey of the grave effects and implications of our ongoing climate crisis. But he also includes a call to action:

“If you think . . . that the world can fast-track actions to mitigate climate change, then pay heed to Greta (Thunberg), stop grumbling, get off your couch, and expend all the vigor you have to push real solutions.

You could fly less, drive much less, and forgo red meat (more important than you’d think).

This climate change thing is mega-serious, folks. It won’t solve itself.”

That would be up to us. All of us. Young and old.

 

Michael Murphy
Saint Paul MN





All in the Timing

22 09 2019

Idiots           Rarely if ever in my climate-disruption memory have the forces of destruction and preservation been so prominently opposed in the media at the same time.  And note – I have been following this issue closely for over 30 years.

In the run-up to the United Nations Climate Summit, which starts Monday 9/23 in New York, those of us who are paying attention have seen the following media stories.

“Notably, what you will not find in this issue are climate-change skeptics. Core to our mission is bringing together diverse perspectives. Experts can and should debate the best route to mitigating the effects of climate change, but there is no serious doubt that those effects are real. We are witnessing them right in front of us. The science on global warming is settled. There isn’t another side, and there isn’t another moment.” Amen, say I.

At the very same moment of global realization of the gravity of the climate crisis and the urgent need to act, what is America’s national government doing?  Running in the opposite direction in order to inflict maximum possible environmental damage, naturally.  And what’s worse, doing its damnedest to slam the door on future preservation. Let’s look at just a few examples of this wrongheaded wrecking.

  • Trump has bragged about pulling the United States out of the 2015 Paris Climate Accord. Fortunately for us and the world, this is one change he could not pull off with a twitch of his Twitter fingers. Just the same, that middle finger to the world will be delayed, but only until the day after the 2020 presidential election, if we are collectively boneheaded enough to give this proudly ignorant monster another term.
  • Despite scandal-driven leadership changes, Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency and Interior Department continue to trash environmental protections at breakneck speed. A few examples include recent steps to allow continued methane leakage from the oil and gas industry, opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to fossil-fuel drilling, and rolling back very reasonable pending extension of Clean Water Act regulation to bodies of water that connected to protected (so far, anyway) navigable waters.
  • In a battle royal, the Trump administration has moved (with support of faux-federalist, Republican toadies) to strip California and other supportive states of the right to set stricter pollution standards. This step is so extreme that it attacks not just those states, but a group of automakers who found the stricter standards reasonable, achievable, and market-savvy.  In a cynical display of power, the same administration plans to use an anti-trust strategy to destroy that cooperative effort.
  • But for cynicism at its vilest, it would be hard to beat this one. Trump has threatened to use “his” EPA, that branch of the federal government that the wannabe tinpot despot has done his damnedest to de-fang, and repurpose as a puppet of corporate extractive interests, to do away with what he considers to be waste more dangerous than deadly chemicals. He hopes to use the Environmental Protection Agency as a tool for “washing away” homelessness. That’s right, Trump could find a way to exploit an agency designed to protect the public from poisoning as a tool to further his base agenda of racial and class hatred. Just when you think he could not stoop any lower, well, look out below.

I find it hard to imagine a starker juxtaposition of timing and cross purposes than what we are witnessing on climate disruption right now.  To be fair, all is not lost. State and local governments across the US, in some cases in tandem with responsible corporate players, are doing their best to switch energy production to sustainable sources, mitigate the effects of climate change (which, remember, the perversely science-denying Trump calls a hoax) and enact other protections for their citizens, may the current gang of feds be damned. But with federal courts at all levels stocked with corporate-friendly judges installed under the hypocritical, hyper-partisan leadership of Constitution-defying Mitch McConnell, it is reasonable to wonder how much of that effort can survive. Especially if McConnell holds onto power and Trump wins another minority/majority, Electoral College-only, undemocratic term in a year.

That prospect makes me wonder if my training and education experience and teaching license could possibly be welcome in Canada.

But we need hope in these conflicted times. I will leave you with three examples.

First, former Vice President Al Gore, longtime climate activist and founder of the Climate Reality Project (for which this blogger is a trained presenter and mentor) wrote an opinion piece the other day in the New York Times. He presented a view familiar to many of us who have followed his writings and comments over the years.  That is, that we have developed the tools – namely vastly less expensive sources of clean energy – to solve the climate crisis if we could just summon and institutionalize the political will to make the sweeping changes needed. He provides plenty of numbers to support his argument, and rightly fingers the subsidies to fossil fuels that are holding back further needed progress.  He also says, point-blank, that the biggest problem is that the wrong guys are in charge. (And have been, for the most part, since that outrageous Supreme Court heist in December 2000.)

Second, the author of the cover story in that dedicated Time issue is none other than Bill McKibben, climate activist and founder of 350.org. His essay is a clear-eyed look back from a theoretical future – 2050. Of course, the year itself is not theoretical.  I will likely not be around to see it, for better or worse, though the middle and high school students I discuss climate disruption with most certainly will. The condition of the earth in 2050 is speculative of course, and McKibben takes a view that is both optimistic – though as far away from Pollyanna territory as you can imagine – and sobering.  McKibben’s take is sanguine in that he predicts that civilization will survive – barely – and sobering in that we will somehow turn a catastrophe into something that is merely awful. I encourage you to read his entire thought experiment in Time, but here is the two-paragraph quote I found most insightful and enlightening. Remember, this is looking back from 2050.

“There were, in fact, two possible ways forward. The most obvious path was a constant competition between nations and individuals to see who could thrive in this new climate regime, with luckier places turning themselves into fortresses above the flood. Indeed, some people in some places tried to cling to old notions: plug in some solar panels and they could somehow return to a more naïve world, where economic expansion was still the goal of every government.

But there was a second response that carried the day in most countries, as growing numbers of people came to understand that the ground beneath our feet had truly shifted. If the economy was the lens through which we’d viewed the world for a century, now survival was the only sensible basis on which to make decisions. Those decisions targeted not just carbon dioxide; those societies went after the wild inequality that also marked the age. The Green New Deal turned out to be everything the Koch brothers had most feared when it was introduced: a tool to make America a fairer, healthier, better-educated place. It was emulated around the world, just as America’s Clean Air Act had long served as a template for laws across the globe. Slowly both the Keeling Curve, measuring carbon in the atmosphere, and the Gini coefficient, measuring the distribution of wealth, began to flatten.”  If only, say I.

Third, I give the last words in this post to that brave young lady from Sweden. Here is a short CNN video on Greta Thunberg.  You will see that she has the courage to laugh at her petty attackers and not let them deter her from her quest to “get adults to give a damn about the future.”

Three cheers for the young activist and the youth movement that may well prove to be the solution to a colossal problem of our own making.

Timing is everything, and maybe this is their time. And ours.





Escape to Where?

15 09 2019

Great Escape           For the better part of five decades now, a small club of wealthy special interests has deliberately stirred enough public confusion on the issue of human-caused climate disruption to hold back necessary change. Yes, we have had well-intentioned international agreements to limit greenhouse gas emissions, most notably the 2016 Paris Climate Accord. But the nations of the world most responsible for the problem struggle to meet their commitments.  And the United States, the second-largest greenhouse gas emitter overall, is in the Trump-led process of abandoning its commitments altogether.

It’s easy to see the United States leading the way in the wrong direction on the crisis.  Almost daily, you can read about new cuts in environmental protections.  A few recent examples include these:

  • Reductions in projected fuel efficiency improvements for passenger vehicles sold in the United States – improvements that the auto industry had been already primed to achieve – are being rolled back. This one leads to a Supreme Court showdown, since California and a consortium of automakers are poised to fight for the stricter standards.
  • Trump’s polluter-friendly Interior Department is in the latter stages of opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling for oil. That was an area set aside during the Carter Administration for protection, in exchange for allowing exploration and drilling outside its boundaries. No more, if Trump gets his way.
  • The Obama-era expansion of water protection under the Clean Water Act is in danger. That well-meaning change restricted pollution of waters that connect with and flow into “navigable” waters – which were the bodies covered by the Clean Water Act in the first place.
  • Trump is in the process of rolling back recent protections against emissions of raw methane from oil extraction, production and transport. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, and much more dangerous when vented in its original form than when burned. Those new protections had support from portions of the oil and gas industry, and promised significant greenhouse gas emissions cuts as well as cost savings. But those benefits matter little to the trash-and-burn Trump administration, hell-bent on removing all protections, everywhere.
  • Lest you think the damage wrought by Trump and his pollution-enabling band is limited to our homeland, look at the latest from Brazil. It has been hard to avoid recent news of the destructive fires in the Brazilian Amazon.  Those fires are lit with impunity, by and large, by farmers and developers, and they endanger a vast region that supports a huge diversity of wildlife, plus communities of indigenous people. Oh and, the planet depends on that rainforest for a portion of its oxygen. It’s not as much as an oft-quoted statistic, but still significant. But don’t worry.  The Trump administration is on the case, agreeing to help Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro (“Trump of the Tropics”) expand development of the Amazon rainforest. The explanation?  In short, developing large portions of the rainforest will help save the remainder. Uh huh.  Remember that old explanation from the Vietnam war? Reading that brought me back to an explanation from the Vietnam War.  Maybe you remember it.  “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.”

How is the planet responding to all this acceleration of pollution?  Too many ways to count or list, but here are a few.

With all the mounting evidence of climate disruption resulting from our greenhouse gas emissions, it is easy at the superficial level to explain away policies like Trump’s.  “They’re only in it for the money.”  That of course is true.

I believe that the proudly ignorant, greed-oozing, corruption-enabling Trump is a destructive demon in his own right.  But the key to all his damage is that he repeatedly appoints cabinet officials hostile to the protections their departments are charged with. Just look at Interior, led by David Bernhardt, former oil and gas lobbyist and attorney.  Look at EPA, headed by Andrew Wheeler, career coal lobbyist. Both Bernhardt and Wheeler’s predecessors resigned in disgrace, under the weight of multiple investigations.  Likewise, both are pursuing – more successfully for now – the enviro-destructive policies of their predecessors.

You must wonder – what future do these agents of devastation see for themselves, and more important, their grandchildren?  We have all heard them joke about how any problems that occur will be long after their watch.  Heck, I have heard ordinary people in my Boomer generation say things along the lines of, “What do I care?  I’ll be long gone when it all happens.”

So yes, greed blinds. Inertia prevails. And on we go.

But it is deeper than that. These powerful people somehow see themselves as immune from the worst effects of our dismantling the natural systems that humans, like it or not, depend on for our existence. They can build walls as protection from those who will suffer the consequences – climate refugees. It is already happening, as this concise article from New Internationalist points out. The author, Tom Whyman, runs down the ways the super-rich expect to ride out the storm of our own making. He even visits the most ludicrous examples – how the likes of Elon Musk plan to colonize Mars.  Right.

All this fantastical, escapist nonsense instead of the wisest course of all – reining in our appetites and getting to work cleaning up our planetary mess and preserving the future.

We all have stories from our early schooling that stay with us.  With my dystopian nature, I count Orwell’s 1984 as the most memorable novel from my schooldays.  But recently, I dipped back into a short story that has similarly haunted me. I was pleased to see that my long memory is accurate.  In the story, a rich and powerful leader gathers a group of his friends to celebrate during the time of a great plague. They wall themselves off from those less fortunate – those who are exposed to the plague. They have a grand old time until their rude awakening. Awakening is the wrong word for the climax of this brilliant story that runs all of seven pages.  Whether you remember it or not, I encourage you to read Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death right here.  It’s a fitting allegory for our climate-denying times.

The nations of the global north, be they nations like Germany, Denmark, even China, that are doing their best to mitigate and even reverse climate disruption, or rogue nations like the United States, who seem to think it’s a lark to elect a mindless, regressive wrecking-team captain like Trump, may indeed avoid the nastiest effects. But only for a time.

Mother Nature bats last. And she gives not a damn who is pitching the final innings.

Let’s change the game. Either we send Trump packing, or we face the consequences. No escape.





Elections and Consequences

8 09 2019

McCon Enviro            We have been told that “Elections have consequences.” Forgive me for starting with that quote from the powerful Kentucky politician who is – at long last – receiving well-deserved credit for the immense and lasting damage he has been doing to American democracy in his six terms in the US Senate. Long lionized in some circles as the keeper of Senate rules, Mitch McConnell has revealed his true colors as a cynical, hypocritical hyper-partisan manipulator over the past few years in ever-expanding ways.  Though his successful blocking of President Obama’s moderate Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, was far from his first cynical maneuver, it was one that got much attention.  This grew when he recently joked about filling a vacancy on the Court, should one occur in the waning months of Trump’s current term.  And now McConnell is doing everything possible to block efforts to shield the US election system from foreign hacking.

So, what of those electoral consequences?

Earlier this year, Australia held national elections that were heralded as a possible climate game changer. Australia has already suffered serious, well-publicized damage from climate disruption in recent years.  Think of the steady destruction of the Great Barrier Reef from warming ocean waters, plus repeated off-the-charts summer heat waves and persistent droughts.  So what did voters do? For the most part, they were swayed by that tired old argument about it being too costly to stop climate disruption. The forces of denial, though strongest in the United States, have a foothold elsewhere as well. Sadly.

And then there is Brazil. Elected last October, President Jair Bolsonaro has been busy showing the world how much he deserves his nickname as “the Trump of the Tropics.” Promising development, he has been looking the other way as the Amazon – the planet’s lungs – burns away in fires set by farmers and developers. And as concern has grown, he has shifted gears, maybe – saying he would stem the destruction. Bolsonaro has been holding meaningful protection efforts hostage to a personal feud with French President Macron. And he promises to make any international efforts subordinate to his staunch defense of Brazilian sovereignty. (I wonder if he holds perpetual campaign rallies featuring “Make Brazil Great Again” hats and chants of “Brazil first!”)

Now, to be fair, one reason why the Amazon has become so crucial to the planet’s health is that so much forest land throughout the rest of the planet has already been burned, bulldozed or built up.  So nations in the wealthy, developed world should be doing a lot more to support Brazil in maintaining its share of the Amazon rainforest. Good luck with that.  The paltry 40 million dollars promised by G7 countries is merely a down payment.  The rest is coming. Later. Much later.

And what of the actual Trump, from the great north of America?  Listing all the consequences of Trump’s election would take days. Long, painful days. But here are just a few of recent prominence. Trump has been pretending to care about the impact of Hurricane Dorian on the southern US, igniting yet another falsehood freak fest with his Sharpie-altered map of the storm’s path. I don’t know how many false statements this fiasco added to his Marley’s-ghost-length lie chain, but the Washington Post puts the total at over 12,000. Here are a few recent highlights from Politico.

Trump’s biggest “success,” his tax “reform,” was ballyhooed by the Donald himself and his allies, then House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader McConnell as a boon to the US economy.  This “achievement” has turned out to be just what critics predicted. That is, a massive, unnecessary gift to big corporations and the uber-rich. And, oh yes, it adds up to 2 trillion dollars to the already colossal national debt. (Remember when Republicans railed against deficit spending?  That will return, but only when a Democrat is in the Oval Office. Count on it.)

The nation’s shakier financial stance comes into play here in hurricane season for two reasons.  The first was on display when Dorian seemed to threaten Puerto Rico. That US territory has not yet fully recovered from the ravages of Hurricane Maria.  Trump was heard publicly griping about the US having to pony up more recovery spending for that ungrateful island – which is, we remember because Trump told us – completely surrounded by water. What, are we short on paper towels now?

Of course, Puerto Rico was fortunately spared Dorian’s fury. Not so the Bahamas.  The island nation is in dire need of assistance, which, under normal circumstances, i.e., under an administration not consumed by greed and corruption, the US could supply in a big way. Considering the Trump-reduced financial footing of our nation right now, a very costly recovery program for the Bahamas would be a hard sell. However, another great power, seeking influence on this side of the world, is ready to step in to help.  China’s largesse won’t sit well with the other adversary in the current escalating trade war, namely Trump’s America.  This puts the US in a quandary – challenged to rescue at the needed level, but looking askance at and even opposing the chief rescuer.  How will this play out? As Trump likes to say, “We’ll just have to wait and see what happens.” But one thing is clear – this is a consequence of an election that granted great power to a totally undeserving, proudly ignorant, endlessly self-serving demagogue.

And here is one more consequence of the election of Trump. A battle looms over auto fuel economy and pollution control standards. California has long led the way, with Congress’s permission, toward a future of cleaner passenger vehicles.  They even have agreed with a consortium of major carmakers to adhere to stricter standards passed in the latter days of the Obama administration.  But Trump’s environmental wrecking team has launched a battle to end that deal.  This will undoubtedly end up in the Supreme Court – which is already unfairly, even unconstitutionally, tilted to right-wing, corporate interests. That’s another consequence of elections, fair and just. Or not.

In case you haven’t heard, a national election with potentially serious consequences is already in its early stages here in our nation.  I know who I am supporting, but I will save that for another time.  But a recent piece on Alternet caught my eye.  It tells of an election now fading into the past, but one that put us on our current path.  Why?  Because it defied the public will, by means of lies, dirty tricks, a phony grass-roots (“Astroturf”) uprising, a ridiculously confusing Florida – naturally – election system, and a disastrous Supreme Court decision that the deciding justice later admitted was a mistake. Yes, I am talking about the extremely consequential 2000 presidential election. This Alternet piece – “America owes Al Gore an apology” – tells this sad tale well.  Whoever “rslack” is, write on, brother or sister!

So you see, Senator McConnell, elections do have consequences. As long as those who win the public trust go on to respect the system, fulfill their oaths of office and protect it all from undue influence foreign and domestic. A shaky proposition at best, but what else to we have to go on?

My fading hope is that we choose wisely in November 2020, and the result, this time, truly reflects the public will.

Blogger’s note – I still lack Internet service at my new location. Installation at long last will come on Tuesday 9/10.  Thanks to Groundswell Coffee Shop for a very reliable WiFi!

Michael Murphy
St. Paul MN