Twist and Shout

17 11 2019

Future Generations            Most every day, walking my dogs in my Saint Paul neighborhood, I gather useful gifts.  Some would call it picking up trash, but for me it is collecting totally clean, discarded plastic bags.  These, of course, are useful for cleaning up after my pups. But why are they blowing in the wind in the first place?

The Minnesota cities of Minneapolis and Duluth know, and they have been trying, against tough headwinds, to do something about it. It takes creativity to enact common-sense measures to reduce waste and pollution, since Minnesota, falling in line with some 12 other states, passed a bill forbidding cities from banning plastic bags from stores. So, the cities are trying instead to institute fees that customers would have to pay for a single-use plastic bag at stores. Never mind they are talking about a negligible fee – a nickel, which might not be enough to discourage lazy shoppers. And never mind that the fee might not apply to paper bags. Nonetheless, expect Republican legislators to try everything at their disposal to prevent cities from acting in the common good. If you read that link, including the Pat Garofalo quote, you will see that’s already in the cards.

These fees to encourage constructive behavior can be poorly understood. Just the other day, a relative of mine was ranting on Facebook about her state’s plan to impose a fee on plastic bags. She said her taxes were already high enough that she should not have to pay this additional tax, or fee. But that is just the point. The way you avoid paying that fee is to bring your own reusable bag (I have a large collection, thanks) so the store does not have to charge you a fee and distribute so many bags. In my area, I’d probably have to buy my own doggie clean-up bags, but that is a problem I’d happily accept. It would make plastic waste polluting the environment a bit less of a problem.

Politicians who oppose such measures are just “dancing with them who brung ‘em.” Whenever fees or bans come into discussion, industry associations deploy their lobbying armies to get their political agents, er, uh, legislators, in line with the program. The program, of course, is no interference with sales and profits, and no regulation.  In Minnesota’s case, it’s the Minnesota Grocers Association, but the plastics industry has vocally opposed bans and fees all over the country.  In their narrow view, you see, such bans are bad for business. Pollution?  Who cares!

Plastic bags are only part of the global plastic pollution crisis, of course. Have a look at what happens when all this plastic waste flows all the way downstream, as so much of it does. We need to attack this problem in a variety of ways, with eliminating single-use store bags a partial solution.  If I called the shots on this, I would institute a national fee of 25 cents per bag, never mind that paltry nickel. And the fee would apply to both answers to that usual question, “Paper or plastic?” And what is the US federal government doing to help in the Trump era? Going backwards, naturally. Just look at one example from the early days of their anti-science, anti-facts reign.

Allowing industries to pursue pollution practices, free from common-sense regulation that could nudge consumers toward wiser choices is one illustration of an environmental concept known as “externality.” Externalities exist when a product’s price does not reflect external costs to the common good.  That is, the producer makes its profit, while society pays for the direct and indirect damage that product causes.

Here is another example. Neonicotinoid pesticides are still in wide use in the US, despite research showing they are a major factor in the decline of bee populations.  (Here are two ways bees are harmed – difficulty resisting pests and reduced navigation and foraging capability.) Now, it turns out they may also be harming the health of some large mammals – wild deer. The chemicals are so pervasive that deer seem to be accumulating the chemicals from their food – with negative health consequences. And what is the federal government doing here? Acknowledging the risk – for a change – but proposing, through the Environmental Protection Agency, a “safer” alternative that may not live up to that billing. So why aren’t neonicotinoids widely banned? Ask Bayer-Monsanto. Do you think they might be harming other large mammals, namely, little old us?  Don’t count on Trump’s EPA to look into that.

The granddaddy of externalities, of course, is human-caused climate change. Every week, media are full of stories of climate change impacts around the world.  Here are just a few current examples – catastrophic wildfires around Sydney, Australia that threaten hundreds of thousands of homes, as well as wildlife; historic floods in Venice, caused by rising seas; rapid permafrost melting in Siberia – destroying homes and livelihoods, and releasing long-frozen deposits of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

So, what are these countries and others doing to help fight the crisis?  It’s a mixed bag.  In Australia, these fires come as a finishing touch on yet another chronic drought. If you read the link, you will know that more serious water saving regulation is in the offing. Hard to fight fires without water. As for the big picture in Australia, you will see at the Climate Tracker site that Australia’s climate change efforts (sadly, like most of the world) are judged as “insufficient,” and contributing to a world that warms in the long run by more than three degrees Celsius. Not at all encouraging.  But also, not nearly as destructive as the “filthy five” (my term), whose efforts are judged “critically insufficient,” and leading to a world that warms by more than four degrees Celsius. That dubious group includes these offenders – Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Ukraine and surprise, surprise, the United States. And if you consider the climate change devastation already playing out when we have warmed the planet by just 1.1 degree Celsius, it’s painful to imagine what will happen at four degrees and climbing. Ignoring this crisis has become criminal.

Here’s the “mixed bag” part. The Netherlands just announced a sharp cut in speed limits to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Now there is a sensible idea that, though controversial, can yield some results.  It would have smooth sailing here in my country. Not. Italy, home to flooded Venice, is now mandating climate change education in schools. Education on the crisis here in the United States?  Not so much. Though I am proud to say I will be leading two discussions this week as a volunteer instructor, it’s more common to see our pandering president grandstanding about studying the Bible in public schools. “Bible literacy.” Hmm. I wonder what my favorite Founder, Benjamin Franklin, would say about that. As for the big picture of science literacy, our world-wrecking current administration continues to reduce support for, and to suppress knowledge of, crucial science. If you follow that link, you will see that a new, bipartisan bill in the House seeks to renew protection for scientific research and data at the federal level. We all know the slow death that well-meaning effort will suffer in Mitch McConnell’s Senate.

I called climate change the granddaddy of externalities for a good reason. So many of our individual and collective activities – power generation and use, transportation, heating and cooling, food production, generate greenhouse gases that are warming Earth. That warming is a by-product of the way we live. Coal, oil and gas developers and producers don’t pay anything like the true costs resulting from the use of their products. Thanks to government subsidies, nor do we, as individual users.  But collectively, whoa, do we pay. We need radical changes in energy, agriculture, transportation and lifestyle in the industrialized world if we are to have any hope of slowing and reversing the crisis. And that challenge gets steeper by the year. A carbon fee and dividend system, as long advocated by James Hansen among others, would be a good start.

Speaking of good starts, I must explain the title of this week’s post.  Our United States system of government has, plain and simple, been hijacked by powerful private interests.  It is twisted in the direction of powerful corporations and billionaires who have rigged the system to protect their profits and avoid paying taxes. If we have any hope to change all that, we need to change the players.

Shouting is one thing.  This blog is my version of shouting. It has kept me from being arrested or worse for grabbing people on street corners by the lapels and shouting, “Why are you not paying attention?!”

Acting is better than shouting. 2020 looms as a crucial turning point. Re-electing McConnell, the crafty architect of modern corporatist America, and his most useful stooge, Donald J. Trump, will spell disaster for any hope of progress on climate and other planet-endangering pollution for at least 4-6 more years. Maybe ever.

If there ever was a time to “throw the bums out,” this is it. I have previously linked to the campaign of McConnell’s credible opponent, Amy McGrath. Here is an even easier way to contribute to sending him back to Kentucky for good.  I just made another contribution – took seconds.

As for the braying, bullying, bullshitting, witness-tampering bum, it is imperative to deny Trump another term of self-dealing and wanton destruction of everything related to the general good. Though I support the most progressive of Democrats running – Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders – I intend to vote Blue, no matter who. And I will work to get out that vote.  I know many of my progressive friends turn their noses up at the more centrist candidates, but I say this:

If your house is on fire, it’s pointless to stand watching and arguing about how to put the fire out. If we save the house, we can argue later about how to repair and rebuild.

It’s long past time to un-twist our system.  Shouting is great, but acting is better.

 

Michael Murphy
Saint Paul MN





Backstage at Coup Central

10 11 2019

Backstage           With the ongoing impeachment investigation demanding so much attention, the true architect of lasting change in the United States must be counting his blessings. To get an idea of what I mean, consider this celebration held a few days ago by Republicans. The reason for all the whooping and back-slapping?  Stuffing federal courts, top to bottom, with extremely conservative judges. Trump, in his usual bragging mode, talks of his administration finishing “first” in making the courts more conservative.  And if you followed that link, you saw the cover picture – mock-formal, serious-faced, closed-eyed Trump shaking hands with the strategic builder of the conservative, corporate-friendly tide sweeping over the federal court system – Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

You see, long after Trump fades away, via impeachment or election loss, the effects of McConnell’s long game will go on warping the remains of America’s democracy. McConnell has had a plan for decades. He plays mean, dirty, and for keeps.  He is the epitome of hypocrisy and will continue twisting America into a permanent oligarchy after he is (most likely) re-elected in 2020. Want a laugh? Check this recent quote from the man who stole a Supreme Court seat and has been the face of Republican obstructionism – since Democrats re-took the House in 2018 – when it comes to stalling legislation that could benefit the common good.

I find myself marveling – note, that is very different from admiring – at McConnell’s success. (I used that ‘marvel’ word in 2001 when those Saudi Arabian terrorists hijacked those planes and killed so many.) The current Republican crowing fest is remarkable. McConnell has long been very happy to fly under the radar as he turns the courts hard right. But if you read that New York Times piece, you know that McConnell plans to use court stacking as a major campaign sales pitch.  But even that, in typical McConnell style, will be underhanded at best.  The “selling point” to the base will be those judges’ stances on hot-button issues like abortion, (Christian) religious freedom, gun control. You know, those meal-ticket issues that Republicans have been cashing in on since the 1970s. Do you think for a moment that they will sell the nominees’ stances on the most important issues?  That is, making the federal government ever more the servant of global corporations, gutting programs that benefit the little guy, skewing the tax structure to favor the super-rich?

Some have characterized McConnell as one of Trump’s staunchest loyalists – in that crowd with sycophants and attack dogs like Lindsey Graham, Devin Nunes, Stephen Miller, Jim Jordan, etc.  That could not be farther from the truth. Mitch knows a useful stooge when he sees one.  Trump is his tool number one. Think of Trump’s most prominent “successes” in the judicial realm – filling the stolen (Scalia) Supreme Court seat with Neil Gorsuch, and then filling Kennedy’s seat with Brett Kavanaugh, despite multiple charges of sexual misconduct against the latter nominee. Trump, who knows less than nothing about anything that matters, simply plucked those names from a from Federalist Society list, on behalf of McConnell.  Trump does only what he thinks will benefit his own political and financial fortunes. No more, no less. Judicial nominees like those two, and the many others he and his handler McConnell have forced onto lower and appeals courts, have sold well to Trump’s “base.” And McConnell is betting that will happen in 2020, regardless of Trump’s own fortunes.

If you are new to this IBI Watch blog, you may wonder at this point why I’m calling what is happening a “coup.” This sellout of the American people has been progressing (regressing) since at least the 1980s.  From the elimination of the Fairness Doctrine to Supreme-Court-decided presidential elections to gerrymandered congressional districts to manipulations of the courts by consummate gamesmen, the rule of the majority by a corporatist cabal that cynically snares the support of a deluded, misinformed minority, America has become less and less democratic (lower-case ‘d’) over recent decades. This is almost an entirely Republican long-term project, though Democrats are complicit in not doing nearly enough to stand for their true base and turn the tide.  Too many Democrats have been co-opted by corporate money like their Republican counterparts.  Want to read more on my “coup” argument? See here and here.

The results of what I call a coup are playing out in predictable fashion. Wealth and income inequality have steadily worsened over recent years. Tax cuts favoring the very top of the wealth tower, plus global corporations, have become the rule, even when no rational economic theory supports them. Needed improvements in infrastructure are delayed or abandoned, with a resulting negative effect on the entire economy, population and the common good. And the end result – so far – has been that so many people are so disaffected and angry that they were willing in 2016 (thanks to the archaic and anti-democratic Electoral College anyway) to tip the balance in favor of a proudly ignorant yet boundlessly boastful, bullying, punishing, planet-endangering demagogue.  Welcome to Trumpistan. May this coldhearted, shortsighted version of America be short-lived.

We have allowed big money to steadily acquire more power over the last four decades, to the point where our federal government seems to be dedicated more than anything to clearing the way for global corporations to make their own rules.  Two movies from recent times – one from this year – depict what has become the plight ordinary citizens in America and elsewhere.

“The Big Short” cannot help but make you angry.  It tells the story of how dangerous speculation – enabled by the bipartisan deregulation of banking and insurance – tanked the global economy in 2008. You may remember that those big banks were bailed out by our tax dollars, and virtually no one was held accountable. And if you think that big-picture loss – the squandering of tax dollars to rescue greedy billionaires – was your only cost, think again.  If you owned real estate at that time, it is quite possible you still have not recovered lost value. If you have not seen this incredibly informative and even entertaining movie, you really should. Here is the trailer.

“The Laundromat” updates us on how greed has evolved.  It documents – again, in informative and entertaining fashion – how the super-wealthy shelter their gains both honest and ill-gotten via a totally legal network of shell organizations.  Can you guess who is screwed in multifarious ways? You will want to see it (It’s newly available on Netflix!) after you see this trailer. I have seen it twice and may watch again. It’s that good. You see, making your blood boil can be a good thing.

It did not and does not have to be this way.

Thirty years ago this weekend, seismic change played out in Europe.  The Berlin Wall, that harsh symbol of Cold War division, came down at the hands of the German people. Within two years, the Soviet Union dissolved. The opportunity that represented globally was squandered, with Francis Fukuyama and others heralding the so-called “end of history” (translation – pre-eminent global capitalism). How has that worked out, eh?

The German government has made a good-faith effort to make one country out of the two that existed from the end of World War II until reunification in 1990. Scott Simon’s insightful audio essay recalls just what reunification meant. Today’s results are uneven, with parts of the former German Democratic Republic (the East Bloc sure had a way with ironic names, eh?) still languishing after decades of neglect. The whole enterprise has cost reunited Germany an estimated $2 trillion, and is, of course, still a work in progress. And the influx of refugees from the global South has stimulated a revival of right-wing nationalism in Germany and elsewhere in Europe.

Simon’s essay also provides a deft transition into how I will end this post.  He talks about how “We hear calls from some Americans to build a wall here.”

Trump’s promise to “build a wall here” is virtually an advertisement for his xenophobic, simplistic solution to a complex set of problems – and his clarion call for re-election.  And construction is underway, sort of.  It has provided fodder for lots of debate and commentary, serious and less so.  Here is an example of less serious, no, hilarious commentary from the Daily Show’s Trevor Noah. Trump’s best actual quote here?  Explaining how to repair his wall after immigrant smugglers cut into it, he’s ready as usual with the blowhard’s simplistic solution: “Just put the chunk back.” Uh huh.

More concerning than Trump’s on-again, off-again barrier building at the southern border are the metaphorical walls he is building.  The obvious one is the wall between those who continue to support him, some of whom think he was “sent by God,” and those who see right through the barrage of bluster and bullshit, through to the self-dealing, tough-acting, weak-minded charlatan below. But his corporatist policies – tax cuts for the rich, elimination of all manner of regulation that was designed to promote the common good – continues the massive “wall” project already well under way in today’s America. That is, the barrier between the wealthy and everyone else. Economist Diane Swonk, interviewed on NPR’s Marketplace, speculated on what an investment in America, analogous to Germany’s reunification, would mean.  Here is her best quote:

“The tax cuts we’ve seen over the past 40 years have come out of public education. And that is part of the reason tuition costs have gone up, that is part of the reason kids are only going to school four days a week, that is part of the reason why teachers are going on strike in a time of the best economy we’ve had in, how many years?”

Such an investment would cost an estimated $10 trillion over ten years.  A pittance, really, considering the size of our economy and the enormous long-term payback from such an approach.  But, considering our politics of greed and self-interest, I am not holding my breath.

To build anything like focus on the general good (not to mention protecting the planet!) rather than paving the way for the wealthy to get wealthier and powerful global corporations to get mightier still, our whole system needs transformation.  That is, those who benefit from business as usual need to change business as usual. A steep climb, to be sure.

I’d start with two things.

Un-elect conniving, manipulative, powerful Mitch McConnell. You can help, as I have. Donate to Amy McGrath, who is running a credible campaign to unseat the Kentucky stalwart.

Don’t just replace Trump. Replace him with a progressive president.  Though I fear her whole campaign could be scuttled by the controversy over Medicare for All, Elizabeth Warren is tough enough and experienced enough to take on the heavy hitters on Wall Street. That’s where the real action is, and where the corporatist opposition, overt and covert, to her candidacy has a home. Yes, Warren has been lampooned for having a “plan for everything.”  But think of what a refreshing change that would be from our current dear leader, whose planning extends, maybe, to his next tweetstorm.

The plan we all need is one to stop the coup. Both the obvious actions and what is going on backstage

Before the curtains fall on what remains of our democracy.

 

Michael Murphy
Saint Paul MN





Complexity: Favorite Tool of Fools

3 11 2019

Climate Change Deniers            Quiz time.  Only three of the following four statements are true.

  1. Cold Arctic air is responsible, in part, for the growing intensity of California’s wildfires.
  2. Far from warming, some ocean regions in the northern hemisphere have cooled significantly in recent years.
  3. Human-caused global warming has been determined as a cause of an increase in intense precipitation events, including blizzards.
  4. On average, global temperatures have warmed 2 degrees Celsius since the beginning of the industrial era.

Can’t wait for quiz answers?  Scroll to the end of this post.

Still with me? Think about this. It is hard to believe that a post like this one is still necessary. But it is. Sigh.

Wildfires in California are by no means a new phenomenon. But they have become an annual plague. It is fortunate that the current fire season is not as destructive as last year’s record setter, when 8,527 wildfires killed more than 100 people and destroyed nearly 23,000 buildings.  But it is early in the season, and fire-building conditions show no sign of letting up.

Construction in and near wildfire-prone areas is a main cause of the increasing frequency and severity. And anyone following the story knows the saga of utility lines sparking blazes, and residents now enduring preventive blackouts. Climate change has also been fingered – Temperatures in the California mountains have risen about two degrees Fahrenheit, and severe drought alternating with a wet season last year (which promoted rapid growth of vegetation to serve as kindling) has created ideal fire-building conditions.  But cold weather as a cause? Believe it.

The warming and drying is the obvious climate change connection. But the record high Diablo (San Francisco area) and Santa Ana (Los Angeles) winds gain speed because of cold air from the Arctic.  And that is possible because of documented changes in the jet stream, promoting southward plunges of Arctic air and stalled weather patterns.  It’s a special instance of this phenomenon, researched and explained by Jennifer Francis of Rutgers University. Note: though the linked story covers the recent Hurricane Dorian, it’s the same wavy, “stagnant” jet stream pattern that is messing with California.

So, choice A is true.

Look at any map showing ocean temperatures in recent years, and a repeated pattern emerges.  The overwhelming share of the world’s ocean space – almost the entire global ocean in fact – shows slight to extreme warming. Here is a link to a collection of charts that show only a single ocean region defying that pattern.  For the clearest example, look at the chart on the upper left. The chart, posted by the United States’ Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), shows the ocean southeast of Greenland to be the only sea area on earth showing cooler than normal temperatures.  The reason for that?  Greenland’s accelerating ice melt. And how fast is that happening?  Only about six times faster than in the 1980s, that’s all. All that cold water must go somewhere, at least at first.

Choice B is also true.

One of the complexities of human-caused climate change is this: many areas with wet climates are getting wetter, while many areas prone to drought are seeing drying. Here are some examples. National Geographic reports a study linking both droughts and intense precipitation events to climate change, going back to 1900. And scientists have linked several recent catastrophic rainfall events to the climate crisis, most notably Hurricanes Harvey and Florence. You may remember that Harvey dropped over 40 inches of rain on parts of Texas, and Florence flooded parts of North Carolina with more than 30 inches.

But choice C specifically mentioned blizzards.  How can that be?  When that same wavy, plunging, stuck jet stream pattern sets up in winter, it gets that blame not only for outbreaks of Arctic air over North America and northern Eurasia (the infamous “polar vortex”). With the presence of enough warm moist air, the stage is set for record-setting snowfall, even blizzards.  Though this may seem counterintuitive (more on that in just a bit), the science strongly suggests this is so. Whether fact-denying “leaders” want to admit it or not.

So, if A, B and C are true, what about D? False, on a technicality. Global temperatures have not risen the listed two degrees Celsius. Yet. The rise so far is about one degree Celsius, though we have more heat loaded into the atmospheric system already, even if we stopped burning fossil fuels today, and even if all countries followed through on their greenhouse gas emission cut commitments from the now-shaky Paris Climate Accord.  (Remember, the Trump-misled US has committed to abandoning that agreement and the American cut commitments.) In addition, the warming has not been uniform.  For instance, temps in parts of the Arctic have already risen some four degrees Celsius.  Here is more on projected Arctic warming.

Even if you don’t read all the content at this NASA link, watch the embedded animation to see global warming patterns since 1880.  It all looks quite normal until about 1975.  That’s when the blue (i.e., below average temps) begins to fade, and then fade some more. Until we get to today, where about the only blue is the aforementioned sea off Greenland. All of this makes a “hopeful” story I heard on public radio yesterday, about “climate refugia,” bordering on the delusional.

Is all this complex?  Yes, and that is a large part of the challenge to those of us who wish to spark committed action to solve the climate crisis. It is still customary in the US to hear denialists trot out some of these old saws:

  • “Yes, the climate is changing. As it always has.”
  • “Hurricanes? Sure, we have always had them.”
  • “Yeah, it’s warming. But anytime now, cooling will begin.”
  • “Global warming? It was ungodly cold last week.  Or, we just had two feet of snow, for cripes sake.”

This is, sadly, only a partial list.

I have come to see that refusing to accept the established science around human-caused climate change resembles a reverse religion. Once you have decided to refuse to believe scientific fact, then all information that contradicts your dogmatic view means nothing.  It’s not unlike certain religions – including the one I was raised in – that require true adherents to believe in certain miracles that defy the laws of physics and biology.

Is everyone who doubts or denies the reality of the climate crisis that kind of “reverse-religion,” magical-thinking fanatic, impervious to scientific fact?  I choose to think not. But it doesn’t help when we have someone at the very top of our country’s power structure who strive to craft policy based on discredited conspiracy theories, and who makes, on average, 14 false statements in public every day. It also does not help that one of our two major political parties has virtually enshrined climate change denial in its charter.

The complexity of human-caused climate change is the fossil fools’ favorite tool in exactly this way. It’s old “strawman” strategy of public discourse. The strawman in this case is a false representation of climate science.  That is, pundits such as, for example, Marc Morano, Christopher Monckton, Rush Limbaugh, etc., get their followers to believe that climate scientists say that human-caused warming is a linear, steady process of change. Then, the task is easy.  Cherry-pick climate data, or cite a weather report that contradicts that false picture, and you’ve got the rubes in your corner for the long haul.  And of course this approach provides great opportunity for “humor” from the likes of pathetically failed wannabe comedians like Donald Trump. Heh, heh.

We must believe that, in the long run, the truth can set us free. We can un-elect the money-grubbing, lying, bullshitting agents of archaic fossil fuels. I’d start with Mitch McConnell, but there are so many who have to go.

We all must do our part.  I am proud to say that I will be taking a day off from substitute teaching in a few weeks, to coincide with a worldwide event organized by a non-profit that I represent – the Climate Reality Project. Their “24 Hours of Reality” effort seeks to conduct a minimum of 1000 presentations around the world during November 20-21. I expect to do at least four of those 1000 myself, as I visit several middle-school classrooms as a volunteer guest presenter.

You don’t have to be a formal presenter to make a difference.  Next time you hear any of the above canards about the nonexistence, or insignificance, of human-made climate change, visit this web site so you can prepare for the next conversation. Better still, visit the site right now so you can carry your debunking ideas with you.

With the US currently misled by a fact-denying, proudly ignorant wrecker, and American climate policy going full-speed in reverse, it is easy to despair for progress.

Let’s not let that happen.

 

Michael Murphy
Saint Paul MN





What Matters Most

27 10 2019

Money and Climate            This week’s news that ExxonMobil is being sued doesn’t seem like news at all. After all, the oil giant has been the target of a slew of suits in recent years for the damage its products have caused the global environment, and for the way it has funded efforts to deceive the public about that damage.  But this new lawsuit may gain traction where so many others have run out of gas.  I will have more to say shortly on just why that is so.

But first – some brief history.  There was a time not so long ago when ExxonMobil actually took the oil industry lead in doing the right thing. Sort of. Beginning in the late 1970s, ExxonMobil funded some of the best scientific research up to that time on the effects of burning fossil fuels. Internal documents show that the research led to conclusions and forecasts that have proven to be all too accurate over the past 40 years. The research was rigorous, and led to the 1982 publication – at first, for internal review only – of a corporate primer on the subject. While the primer acknowledged the uncertainty of the model-based predictions that it cited, it pulled no punches. The primer, widely circulated among Exxon Mobil management, stated that heading off global warming “would require major reductions in fossil fuel combustion.” The primer went on: Unless that happened, “there are some potentially catastrophic events that must be considered. Once the effects are measurable, they might not be reversible.”

It’s no secret that ExxonMobil has led a decades-long campaign to sow doubt about climate science, and that campaign, despite some fact-based corporate communication to the contrary, continues to this day. But that shameful obfuscation, disinformation and outright lying did not begin in the early 80s, immediately following that groundbreaking research. Rather, ExxonMobil allowed the research results to be published in several peer-reviewed scientific journals.

So, what happened to sway ExxonMobil from the path of doing the right thing by the earth and humanity? Financial panic, that’s what.  And, ironically, it was the good-faith effort of NASA scientist James Hansen to spread the word about the brewing climate crisis that spurred them into action. When, during that very hot American summer of 1988, Hansen spoke to Congress about the dangers of global warming, it set off alarm bells in halls of ExxonMobil. A rapid shift away from fossil fuels – which Hansen and other scientists declared was necessary to head off long-term disaster – would cause a dramatic drop in revenue for the oil giants. Maybe even more important, it would destroy the value on their books of fossil-fuel resources they owned that were yet to be exploited.

You can point to 1988 as the time ExxonMobil abandoned its efforts to be part of the solution to the building crisis, and began doing its own lying, and funding a vast propaganda machine of pundits and “think tanks” to save its corporate bacon. Here we are today, with atmospheric carbon dioxide now at 409 parts per million and rising (compared to about 350 ppm in 1988) and the long-predicted effects of sea rise, heat waves, wildfires and intense storms multiplying. In no small part due to ExxonMobil’s decision to abandon responsible efforts and seize the profits without regard to consequences of which it was well aware. Note – ExxonMobil is not the only villain in this story. Other oil giants are guilty in their own way, and the American political system’s penchant for letting global corporations rule the roost is actually the root problem here.  And the root of so many other problems, but that is another story for another time.

So, what makes the new suit against ExxonMobil different, and what just might offer a chance for success? Money, naturally. The oil giant is being sued not for damage to the planet, its wildlife and its future. Not for intentionally deceiving the public. Not for leading Congress around by an oily nose ring so that the House and Senate would repeatedly authorize subsidies for fossil fuel extraction and fail to enact constructive policies, such as a price on carbon.

ExxonMobil is being sued for making rich people potentially a lot less rich. It’s a bit more complicated than that, of course, but that is a big part of it.  The suit alleges that ExxonMobil, by playing fast and loose with the scientific truth over these many decades, has led investors – rich people, wannabe rich people and ordinary people invested via pension and mutual funds – to lose shareholder value. That is, the stock price, based to a significant degree on future revenue from extraction and production, may be artificially and deliberately inflated. Since money does not just talk, but scream, howl and – most important of all – persuade in the American system, this suit just might produce some results. If that’s what it takes, I am all in favor.  But if it does succeed where so many previous efforts to hold Big Oil responsible have failed, it is also just one more sad commentary on the power of corporate money in this once-proud democratic republic.

Any accounting based on the true financial numbers, i.e. unpolluted by armies of lobbyists, would have us on a decidedly different path. The costs of climate disruption are mounting, heat wave by heat wave, fire by fire and flood by flood. In the new Scientific American, you will find a short article called “The Price of Warming.” It details how countries rich and poor alike stand to suffer in the climate-disrupted future. But here is the key. The degree of suffering varies wildly.

The National Bureau of Economic Research compared two scenarios. In scenario A, the countries of the world live up to their commitments in the 2015 Paris Climate Accord. Over the entire world, gross domestic product (GDP) declines about one percent by 2100.  The outliers are China, which would maintain approximately status quo, and Russia, whose GDP would increase by about a percent.

Scenario B is “business as usual.” In other words, countries keep to the current course, ignoring their Paris Climate Accord pledges, with the net result being continued and accelerating greenhouse gas emissions. GDP takes a big hit under business as usual, but nowhere worse than – get this – the United States. In the US, and in Russia and India as well, GDP is forecasted to decline by 10 percent per capita. As anyone who follows this matter at all knows, the United States under Trump is in the process of leaving the climate accord. That wrongheaded, irresponsible decision was affirmed this past week by the science-denying, impeachment-threatened president himself.

The Paris Climate Accord is widely judged by experts as inadequate in solving the global climate crisis. Still, it is clearly a step in the right direction. But it works only if all the world’s countries do their part, sticking to their committed greenhouse gas emission cuts.

America’s exit, should it happen, will undoubtedly encourage other countries to head for the door as well. Think of the logic. If the world’s second-largest contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions does not have to act, why should other nations that are far down the list of emitters?

The United States will abandon the climate accord – in the process putting the US on a course of immense self-inflicted financial wounds as well as endangering the habitability of the planet – only under one scenario. That would be the re-election of Donald Trump.  That may seem unlikely to some, but that is forgetting the immense power of the American presidency.

The theatrical announcement today of the assassination of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a US raid is a prime example of how public opinion could be swayed just enough to give us four more destructive, disastrous years of Trump. Trump’s bragging and gloating over how “he” had hunted down and eliminated the terrorist leader, replete with repeated gory details about body parts and how al-Baghdadi had died, “whimpering and crying, like a coward,” may disgust many. But this over-the-top, morbid boasting could sell among Trump’s base and others, showing the ignorant bully in the White House to be a “tough leader” who “protects America.”

What matters most, naturally, is money. Always has, always will. If it takes generally perceived financial self-interest to finally get the US and the world to take meaningful, concerted action to solve the immense climate crisis of our own making, then let it happen, post-haste.  But that will be impossible without steps to weaken the stranglehold of corporate power over our elections and policy.  Getting rid of Trump, either by impeachment or an overwhelming election defeat, won’t by itself make that crucial change happen. But the problems will get dramatically worse, maybe unsolvable, with a second term for the self-dealing, truth-defying, Constitution-trashing, would-be autocrat.

Though this will not endear me with some to the left of me on the political spectrum, I say in a loud voice:

In 2020, vote blue, no matter who. We can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.  The future of democracy in the United States, as well as any chance to reverse the climate crisis, depends on our wise choice.

 

Michael Murphy
St. Paul MN





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