Soothsayer Day

 

“A Republic, if you can keep it.”
— Benjamin Franklin, in reply to a question about what sort of government the delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention had settled on.

February 2 is the day some people, primarily in North America, attempt to divine the next six weeks of weather by observing groundhogs who briefly exit from winter hibernation in their burrows. If it’s a sunny day, the groundhog will see his or her shadow and, counter intuitively, those watching the animal will pronounce six more weeks of wintry weather. On a cloudy day, with no shadows in sight, the prediction is for an early start of spring weather. People in some parts of Europe have a similar tradition involving different animals, such as badgers in Germany and hedgehogs in Britain.


Emerged from hibernation in February, groundhog takes leaves to line the burrow nest or toilet chamber DSCN0900
Emerging briefly from hibernation in February 2014, a groundhog takes leaves to line its burrow nest or toilet chamber. Photo by Ladycamera.

This is all silliness, of course, with no proof of accuracy, but it is mostly harmless except for possibly obnoxious intrusions on the lives of peace loving groundhogs. In ancient Rome, prognostication using animals took a more deadly turn. All sorts of animals – chickens, sheep, and goats among them – were confined until the day they were sacrificed for the purpose of having a kind of priest called a haruspex examine the dead animal’s entrails for signs of the future. This was deadly serious business, not only for the sacrificial animals, but for the generals and politicians who often did not make a move unless the signs from the entrails were auspicious.

There is no record proving the consistent accuracy of haruspicy (divination by the inspection of entrails), just as there is no record for the accuracy of groundhogs at predicting the weather based on the presence or absence of cloud cover on a particular day. Nonetheless, people have been wasting their time and efforts on these methods of divination for millennia. The ancient method, haruspicy, was a nasty business all around, while Groundhog Day observations cause little harm and are of no consequence.


The Danish National Symphony Orchestra performs a suite of themes from Ennio Morricone’s music for the 1968 Sergio Leone film Once Upon a Time in the West. Tuva Semmingsen performs the vocals that were sung by Edda Dell’Orso on the original soundtrack recording.

 

What about reading the signs of the times, such as looking at newspapers to follow developments in the republic called the United States of America? What about a Senate majority of Republicans who vote to exclude witnesses in the impeachment trial of a corrupt president? What about a Republican state legislator in Montana who maintains that the Constitution of the United States sanctions the shooting and imprisonment of Socialists, merely for being Socialists? What about the chortling lunatics cheering on Orange Julius as he threatens and demeans his opponents at his demented pep rallies? And what about those same cheering, jeering lunatics threatening violence if their Chosen One is removed from office either by impeachment or by the results of an election?

Those signs and others are easy enough to read for anyone paying attention to developments in order to honor the obligations of an informed citizen. There are those citizens, however, who are too lazy to pay attention. Very well; they should continue in their laziness and stay home on Election Day in nine months, rather than show up and vote for the incumbent president simply because the wolf is not yet at their door. And then there are those voters, more culpable in the decay of the republic than anyone else, who are interested only in the health of their financial portfolio, and who are deaf and blind to the cries and despair of anyone shut out of the bounty and suffering under the oppression of the oligarchy. The signs now point toward a Tyranny by Corporate Oligarchy, and if citizens continue to choose it by doing nothing, then after Election Day in November there will be no going back and we will have gotten the government we deserve.


— Vita


For those who can’t get enough of the sound of the loss of the republic, here it is on the theremin. Katica Illényi performs with the Győr Philharmonic Orchestra in Budapest, Hungary.

 

Like Talking to a Brick Wall

 


The First Continental Congress of the American Colonies sent a petition to King George III on October 25, 1774, requesting he redress their grievances against the British Parliament related to the Coercive Acts passed in response to the Boston Tea Party of December 16, 1773. The king ignored the petition, and consequently the colonists’ march toward revolution picked up momentum over the next year, resulting in the beginning of hostilities in the spring of 1775. Petitions were the primary recourse of the American Colonists in dealing with their British rulers across the Atlantic Ocean since they had no official representation in Parliament, hence the slogan “No taxation without representation.”

The nation’s founders regarded the right to petition the government as so essential to a free society that they included it in the First Amendment, adopted in 1791. They made the right explicit despite the reality that citizens of the United States, unlike colonists under the British Empire, had official representation in the government. James Madison, who was largely responsible for drafting the Bill of Rights, understood that while the people had representation in government, their representatives may not be responsive to the wishes of all the people, and that therefore the people required another, independent outlet “for a redress of grievances.”



The unresponsiveness of government representatives to the people has rarely appeared as evident as it does now, when it seems representatives are responsive mostly to the wishes of corporate contributors to their election campaigns. Polls do not necessarily give lawmakers an accurate idea of how some of their constituents are feeling about issues because responding to pollsters is a passive response to a pollster’s sometimes tailored questions. Poll sample sizes are also often ludicrously small on account of the expense and difficulty of polling. Pollsters claim they conduct their surveys based on well-researched principles in order to achieve accurate representation from small sample sizes, but there are plenty of examples to cite in demonstrating that taking polls is as much art as it is science, and not at all infallible. For one example, look at how inaccurate the polling was in several key Rust Belt states in the weeks before the November 2016 presidential election.


Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst, Leader of the Women's Suffragette movement, is arrested outside Buckingham Palace while trying to present a petition to King George V in May 1914. Q81486
Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the Woman’s Suffragette movement in England, arrested outside Buckingham Palace in London while trying to present a petition to King George V in May 1914. Photo from the British Imperial War Museum.


Signing a petition is an active measure taken by citizens numbering in the thousands or millions, as opposed to a select few hundreds or thousands responding passively to a pollster. Citizens mostly seek out petitions on their own initiative, or are made aware of them by friends or family, or by reading the news. The relative ease of signing a petition online, compared to signing one circulated door to door, does not discount that people are participating in the political process instead of waiting for someone to ask their opinion. The distinction is not a small one. Yes, physical participation in a protest weighs far more than signing an online petition in getting the attention of government leaders and the society at large, but an online petition nonetheless demonstrates that the people signing it are paying attention. Numbers have always given weight to petitions, and in the internet age it is possible for millions of people to make their wishes known to their representatives within days of a petition’s first appearance.

The petitions currently circulating urging United States House of Representatives legislators to impeach the occupant of the Oval Office are an excellent demonstration of the need of the people for an outlet to make their wishes known to their government. To anyone paying attention honestly to developments originating from the White House since January 2017, it has long been obvious that impeachment and conviction of the current president would be necessary sooner or later to uphold the rule of law. The nation’s legislators, however, always conscious of political calculations and of the interests of their big money donors, have been dragging their feet to avoid having to put themselves on the line in upholding the oath they took to preserve and defend the Constitution.

Captain Queeg, the character played by Humphrey Bogart in the 1954 film The Caine Mutiny, was obviously unstable, but nonetheless discharging him from his command was quite difficult because the captain of a vessel at sea is by necessity an autocrat whose authority is fully backed by a nation’s institutions. For all that, Captain Queeg was not a corrupt grifter with contempt for democratic institutions and a sneering disregard for the norms of civil discourse, and in comparison to the offenses of the current president, Queeg’s official transgressions were minor.

In other words, members of Congress have a constitutional duty to impeach this president for high crimes and misdemeanors he has engaged in too obviously for them to ignore any longer. Whether he will be convicted in the Republican-controlled Senate is anyone’s guess at this point. It probably depends on whether political calculations indicate to at least a few key Republican senators that the time has come at last to throw the president over the side, at which point many of the rest will scramble to get on board.

If millions of American people had waited politely for a pollster to ask them if impeachment was necessary, instead of taking matters into their own hands and petitioning their representatives, Congress might still be dithering, possibly all the way up to Election Day 2020. The current president may not get convicted in the Senate and removed from office before then, but it’s important that public hearings in Congress shine a light long enough and brightly enough on the corrupt and unethical practices of his administration that even the most disengaged voters will have to listen. A brick wall, no matter who constructed it, can keep people from hearing their government at work as well as keep government leaders from hearing the people, but now that representatives have finally listened to people engaged enough to petition them, it’s important that the rest of the populace listen honestly to the arguments for impeachment, and honest engagement requires more than checking an often lopsided Facebook news feed, a far sloppier way of exercising one’s civic duty than signing an online petition.
— Vita

 

None So Blind

 

“Hear now this, O foolish people, and without understanding; which have eyes, and see not; which have ears, and hear not:”
Jeremiah 5:21, from the King James Version of the Bible.

With the release of the redacted Mueller Report last week by the presidential administration’s stooge at the Department of Justice, Attorney General William Barr, Democrats should finally let go of one of the beliefs they have clung to since Hillary Clinton’s defeat in 2016, namely that the other campaign colluded with the Russians in meddling with the election. Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his team found it was not through lack of trying on the part of Republican campaign officials that collusion did not occur, but due to their bumbling incompetence.


Ms. Clinton is apparently still in denial about her loss in 2016. As we move further away from 2016 and closer to 2020, she becomes increasingly irrelevant unless – please no! – she throws her hat in the ring again. Mainstream Democrats have to get over the loss by first admitting one undeniable fact: The Republican candidate didn’t win the election as much as Ms. Clinton lost it, largely due to the arrogance and hubris that infected her campaign. The Russians didn’t help him win; she lost. The Democratic National Committee didn’t obstruct her progress; far from it, since the Committee colluded with her to obstruct the progress of her rival in the primaries, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Sexism undoubtedly worked against Ms. Clinton, though possibly only among those who weren’t going to vote for her anyway for other reasons.

Tissot The Pharisee and the publican Brooklyn
The Pharisee and the Publican, a painting from between 1886 and 1894 by James Tissot (1836-1902), based on a parable in the Gospel of Luke.

There are many things that would improve elections in this country, among them reforming the system of primaries and abolishing the Electoral College. Those two major improvements are unlikely to happen before 2020. What can and should happen this year and going into 2020 are impeachment proceedings against the president in the House of Representatives. There is enough even in the redacted version of the Mueller Report, as well as in other ongoing investigations, to start impeachment proceedings against this president. While impeachment is an indictment only, and not the entire procedure to eject a president from office, the public proceedings can lay before the public all the president’s misdeeds. If impeachment succeeds, will he be convicted at trial in the Republican controlled Senate? No.

It is important to proceed with impeachment of the president because it is the right thing to do, because the evidence against him mounts every day and the House is therefore obligated by law to proceed, and because no matter what Old Guard Democrats like California Representative Nancy Pelosi and New York Senator Chuck Schumer advise about waiting the president out until November 2020, they are wrong since they underestimate the value of the impeachment proceedings aside from the futility of achieving conviction. The Oval Office Blowhard wants to always make everything about him? Very well, let him have it, with day after day airing of dirty laundry.

One third of the American people are never going to be dissuaded from following this president no matter what comes out in an impeachment. Those people are lost to reason, as the president acknowledged in his notoriously accurate assessment of them when as a candidate he boasted he could shoot somebody in broad daylight and they would let him get away with it. The people who need to have the case against the president laid before them in a way they can’t ignore are the third of the people between the hard core MAGA brigade and the other third of the population, mainstream Democrats.

“Israelites”, a 1968 song by Desmond Dekker & The Aces.

Then see clearly enough to put before the voters a Democratic candidate who generates more widespread enthusiasm than a neoliberal hack such as Hillary Clinton. Give them someone who genuinely speaks for all of them, not just Wall Street while hypocritically mouthing old platitudes about helping the middle and working classes. People don’t want to be sold down the river again, as they were in the Bankers’ Bailouts of 2008 and 2009, and the only ones who could blame them are mainstream, corporatist Democrats who haven’t learned a thing from that time or from the Debacle of 2016.
— Ed.

 

The Old Guard Problem

 

“And can you, can you imagine fifty people a day, I said fifty people a day walking in singin’ a bar of Alice’s Restaurant and walking out. And friends they may think it’s a movement.” — Arlo Guthrie, from his song “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree”.

Progressive Democrats like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, newly elected Representative from New York’s 14th Congressional District, have their work cut out for them even before they take their seats in January as they battle the Old Guard within their own party. The Old Guard of the Democratic Party, led by Nancy Pelosi in the House and Chuck Schumer in the Senate, are working to co-opt, minimize, and undermine the incoming progressives so that business as usual shall continue after January. The Old Guard appears to have little interest in understanding that business as usual by corporate Democrats such as themselves is what brought this country to the precipice of authoritarian rule by the current president and his accomplices in Congress and the judiciary over the past two years.


First Capitol telephone operator still on job. Washington, D.C., July 30. When Miss Harriot Daley was appointed telephone operator at the United States Capitol in 1898 there were only 51 LCCN2016872097
Harriot Daley, standing, was appointed telephone operator at the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C., in 1898 when there were only 51 stations on the switchboard. On July 30, 1937, when this photo was taken, Miss Daley was Chief Operator and supervised a staff of 37 operators as they answered calls from 1200 extensions. Library of Congress photo by Harris & Ewing.

Corporate Democrats are a better option for leading this country than fascist Republicans in the same way that a kick in the behind is marginally better than a kick in the groin, but that’s hardly a hearty endorsement of their policies and practices. That is not a positive view of the future for young people starting out and raising children of their own into the world. There has to be a better option still, one that is outside the stale choice between the lesser of two evils, both of them more interested in serving corporate interests than those of the people at large. The Old Guard of the Democratic Party will continue trying to scare progressives into backing down from real change by claiming they are splintering the Party and allowing the minority party, the Republicans, to win votes in the House of Representatives and pass their agenda.

There’s truth in their argument, too, particularly since Republicans historically are more likely than Democrats to maintain lock step with their colleagues in the face of opposition and subsume their differences, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that progressives should move to the center and join ranks with the corporate Democrats instead of the other way around. What’s needed to convince corporate Democrats to drop Old Guard methods and beliefs, besides not re-electing them time after time, is pressure from ordinary citizens that builds to a point overpowering their allegiance to corporate money.

Phone calls. E-mails. Snail mails. Attendance and vocal presence at town halls. Boycotts of corporations making large political donations. Taking to the streets. Voting in local elections for school board and county supervisor and city council seats. Knocking on doors to get out the vote and helping people register to vote. Speaking up when someone among your friends, family, or neighbors expresses hateful ideas counter to our democratic principles. Refusal to participate in the national security state by calling for the repeal of the PATRIOT Act and the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and condemning the persecution of whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, and John Kiriakou.

The presentation in Frank Capra’s 1939 movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington probably strikes most people today as corny, but that should not overshadow the principles of good government and citizen participation it espouses and their relevancy today.

Starting and supporting statewide initiatives such as California’s Proposition 11 in 2008 which took legislative district reapportionment away from partisan politicians and gave that power to the people. There are many more ways to convince business as usual Democrats in Congress and across the nation that the future for them and us lies in their scooting over to the left, in the direction this country came from before it swung too far right in the last generation, rather than stubbornly obstructing progressives in order to better serve their corporate masters. Getting up off the couch and making phone calls and doing the other things is the only way to make it happen.
— Ed.

 

Talking Heroes

 

Arizona Republican Senator John McCain died on August 25 after a long battle with brain cancer, and since then there has been much discussion nationwide of his role as an American hero both for his service in Vietnam and as a political figure afterward. Less noticed was the 63 month jail sentence imposed on former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Reality Winner on August 23 at a federal court in Georgia for supposedly violating the Espionage Act of 1917. Ms. Winner had in early 2017 turned over to online investigative news outlet The Intercept classified documents relating how the Russians had meddled in the 2016 presidential election. For many people and for Ms. Winner herself, what she did was more whistleblowing about malfeasance in the United States government than espionage on behalf of a foreign power because the NSA obviously knew of the meddling but for reasons it won’t specify sat on that information.

 

We Support Whistleblowers Free Bradley Manning (Chelsea Manning) Twin Cities Pride Parade (9181428436)
2013 Twin Cities Pride Parade in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in support of whistleblower Bradley (later Chelsea) Manning. Photo by Tony Webster.

Reality Winner is the latest in a recent series of whistleblower defendants to be charged by the government under the Espionage Act, starting in the Barack Obama administration. The most notable whistleblowers charged have been Army Private First Class Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning in 2010, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officer John Kiriakou in 2012, and NSA contractor Edward Snowden in 2013. Ms. Manning and Mr. Kiriakou have served time in prison, and Mr. Snowden lives as an asylum seeker in Russia. The Espionage Act was always a draconian piece of legislation open to abuse by authoritarians in power, but it is only in the past ten years that those authoritarians have enlisted it to hammer down on whistleblowers to intimidate others into silence.

Calling whistleblowers national heroes in no way takes anything away from Senator McCain. Rather, it broadens the concept of heroes to include those whose patriotism included the courage to speak out against abuses of patriotism and authority by those in power. Sitting quietly by while a foreign power meddles in American elections is not patriotism, and neither is putting a lid on military abuses in Iraq or condoning torture by CIA agents or spying on American citizens at home. Whistleblowing on those abusers and their actions is true patriotism, while using the heavy hand of the Espionage Act to prosecute the whistleblowers is another abuse of government authority.
— Vita

To those principled individuals bothered by abuse of authority and ethical dysfunction within any system the two options available are fighting or selling out, as illustrated in this scene near the end of the Mike Nichols film Catch-22, with Alan Arkin as Yossarian, Martin Balsam as Colonel Cathcart, and Buck Henry as Colonel Korn.

 

Slowed to a Trickle

 

There’s a story of how in eastern Siberia in past centuries, where the people often partook of the fly agaric mushroom, Amanita muscaria, for its mind and mood altering properties, the rich often hoarded the supply and the poor had to do without until the rich threw a party such as a wedding, at which event they could be counted on to ingest some mushrooms and, when they ventured out to urinate, the poor would somehow capture the rich people’s urine, which was still loaded with the psychoactive ingredient, and the poor would drink it for their own trippy experience. The difference between that old story and modern trickle down economics is that in the story, if true at least to some extent, the peasants actually did reap some kind of reward finally. No such evidence exists for the modern economic theory.

Gary Cohn at Regional Media Day (cropped)
Gary “Hands Up” Cohn, Director of the National Economic Council.

 

It’s a good line to trot out as cover for tax cuts for the rich, apparently, and that’s why to sell the latest tax cut package it’s been used again by current presidential administration flacks like Gary Cohn, Director of the National Economic Council and former Goldman Sachs executive. The package passed the U.S. Senate on December 2, and now it awaits reconciliation with a similar package already passed by the House of Representatives. Republican leaders in Congress hope to have the bill ready for the president to sign by Christmas. Happy Holidays! Or Merry Christmas, if you prefer that with your egg nog.

Besides selling the bald-faced lie that the tax package is somehow supposed to benefit any other economic group but the wealthy, through the voodoo of trickling down, Republicans are cramming in several other things before they tie up the package with a nice bow. One is the repeal of the individual mandate from the Affordable Care Act, which will leave 13 million people uninsured. Another is the authorization of oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. And a third is the destruction of the Johnson Amendment, which will be like a Citizens United watershed moment for right wing churches, allowing them to flood political campaigns with money from their congregations without endangering their tax exempt status. Of course, other churches, left wing or neutral, will be able to do the same, but it is the religious right that has long scorned the Johnson Amendment as an impediment to its agenda. Indeed, all three of these additions to the tax package will scratch itches conservatives have been worrying over for years or decades.

 

There are other items added to the basic tax package that will satisfy many conservatives, though surprisingly not all, and not because the tax cuts don’t go far enough, but because they go too far or are misplaced. At a presentation before an auditorium full of CEOs in November, Gary Cohn stressed that the corporate tax cuts in the new package should spur investment, and to prove his point he asked for a show of hands from those present who would increase their company’s investments. A few raised their hands, but not the majority, and certainly not as many as Mr. Cohn apparently expected, because he asked “Why aren’t the other hands up?” before quickly moving on to other business. CEOs elsewhere have also questioned the necessity of the corporate tax cuts, which is to their credit considering how greedily corporate America generally behaves.

Steven Mnuchin official portrait (cropped)
Steven “Mr. Cruella De Vil” Mnuchin, Secretary of the Treasury.

No, the corporate tax cuts in the latest bill are intended to benefit the financial sector, Wall Street. That’s why people like Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Gary Cohn, creatures of Wall Street, like the bill and defend it. They understand it. It means more money for themselves and their colleagues. They talk about how it will help producers of things produce more and better things, and how it will improve life for the lower orders. They believe none of that, nor do they understand it. They never produced anything. They have no interest in producing anything. They can barely conceal their contempt for people who produce things, and particularly the ones who get their hands dirty doing it.

From the 1940 Disney film Fantasia, the Chinese dancers of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker ballet envisioned as mushrooms very much like the fly agaric kind.

People like Mnuchin and Cohn and the Supreme Leader who appointed them understand only money, meaning the more of it for themselves the better, especially if it means less for everyone else. To move economic metaphors from the latrine to the marina, from trickle down to a rising tide lifts all boats, the Wall Street Greed Heads could follow a better model than trickle down by investing in the bottom, the rising tide. They don’t understand that, however, nor can they spare what little empathy they have for it, and that leaves 99 percent of the country coping with the trickled down policies the Greed Heads do understand, which is all for the few, the one percent.
― Ed.

 

The Art of the Steal

 

The Republicans have passed their tax bill in the House of Representatives, and next week it goes to the Senate for a vote. This week the Senate Finance Committee held hearings on the tax bill, and Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-UT) became so upset with Sherrod Brown’s (D-OH) criticism of the bill and of Republicans’ motives in trying to pass it, that he exclaimed “Bullcrap!” in response. “Bullcrap” seems to be a favored light curse among Republicans in public life. The last time the term made headlines was when a self-absorbed Republican representative from Oklahoma used it earlier this year to rebuke some critical constituents.

 

Senator Brown’s criticism of the bill was entirely accurate and to the point, which of course was why Senator Hatch called it “bullcrap”. No need to respond with strong language like “bullcrap” if Senator Brown’s remarks weren’t close enough to the mark that they might alert the slumbering masses they were about to be screwed so that a handful of wealthy people and corporations could stuff even more money in their pockets at the expense of everyone else. Like any old master at shilling for wealthy patrons, Senator Hatch understands that the game is pretty obvious to anyone who is halfway paying attention, even mainstream journalists, but it lacks decorum to point it out to the rubes, who must always be led to believe there is something in it for them.

If-us-land-mass-were-distributed-like-us-wealth
An illustration of income inequality. Map by Stephen Ewen.

The tax bill plainly enough steals from the poor and gives to the rich. The question remains whether the Republicans will get away with it, not only by passing it in the Senate, thereby making it the law of the land once the Capitalist-in-Chief signs it, as he certainly will, but in the 2018 congressional elections. Americans have notoriously short memories, at least for the dry details of economics.

Orson Welles as the plutocrat Charles Foster Kane in his 1941 film Citizen Kane campaigns for governor of New York with the usual palaver about the “working man.”

The conventional wisdom says people vote their pocketbooks, but that has been disproved over and over again in recent elections. The wealthy vote their pocketbooks, but since there are relatively few of them and therefore their actual votes don’t amount to much, they open their pocketbooks to their favored candidates, who then convince the rubes to get fired up about social issues like gay marriage, and never mind that in the long run they are voting against their economic self-interest. Getting screwed by the very people who profess to be your friends has been a time honored strategy that works, just ask the Native Americans not long after the first Thanksgiving with the Pilgrim settlers, and again and again to their misfortune through the years after that.
― Ed.

 

Neither Here nor There

 

The crudity and vindictiveness of Supreme Leader’s response to criticisms of his lackadaisical leadership in disaster recovery efforts for Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria has been startling even for him, a crude and vindictive man. Certainly racism and sexism play a part, as they do in much of his behavior, but in this case there is the disquieting sense there is something more at work, and as is often the case, it helps to follow the money.

 

Pg 196 - The Buccaneer was a Picturesque Fellow (tone)
The Buccaneer Was a Picturesque Fellow, a 1905 painting by Howard Pyle (1853-1911) used as an illustration in Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates: Fiction, Fact & Fancy Concerning the Buccaneers & Marooners of the Spanish Main.

Supreme Leader dropped the clue himself when he referred to Puerto Rico’s high debt load, adding that the Puerto Ricans must nonetheless continue to repay their debts despite their currently dire situation. What an odd thing to mention in discussion of relief efforts for a population struggling for survival! Did he mean those words to be taken to heart by the Puerto Ricans, who now have more pressing worries? No, not as much as he meant his words to reassure the holders of Puerto Rico’s over 70 billion dollars’ worth of promissory notes on Wall Street.

Trump playing golf
At the 18th hole of the AT&T National Pro-Am Tournament in 2006, Supreme Leader (not his title then) leans on his golf club. The pirates have exchanged their muskets for golf clubs. Photo by Steve Jurvetson.

Puerto Rico has no representatives in Congress and no votes in the Electoral College. It is a territory, and while its people are citizens of the United States, they have no say in federal matters relating to their island. On June 11, 2017, Puerto Ricans voted overwhelmingly in favor of statehood, but the decision to make Puerto Rico a state still resides with Congress. Most Puerto Ricans identify as Democrats, and since both house of Congress currently are controlled by Republicans, it is unlikely Puerto Rico will see a change in its political status anytime soon. The island’s people are effectively second-class citizens; to become first-class citizens, they must either make their island one of the United States, or entirely independent.

Mainland political interests are against Puerto Rico statehood, and there are also economic interests against it, such as large corporations and Wall Street banks that seek to continue plundering the island, an activity made easier by Puerto Rico existing politically between the devil and the deep blue sea. Who cares if the Puerto Ricans are suffering in the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, which have piled on to an economic recession which started for them over ten years ago and has continued to worsen? Certainly not sociopaths like Supreme Leader and his economic advisors Gary Cohn and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, both formerly of Wall Street.

The damage caused by Supreme Leader, Steven Mnuchin, Gary Cohn, and other members of our ruling class is far more deplorable than what Monty Python depicted in this TV sketch, but still it helps to ridicule them.

It’s not as if Puerto Rico has 38 electoral votes like Texas, where Hurricane Harvey landed, or 29 like Florida, where Hurricane Irma continued its devastation after leaving the Caribbean islands, or even 3 votes like the District of Columbia, with its population otherwise shut out of federal representation but for those 3 measly electoral college votes. Puerto Ricans have zero votes. Not one vote in the electoral college, in the House of Representatives, or in the Senate. No one speaks for them. Thanks to its colonial relationship to the United States, however, there is money to be pillaged from its poor and working class people, and what’s left of its dwindling middle class. That’s why Supreme Leader acted the way he did, and tweeted what he tweeted, because he was looking out for himself and his cronies, and that’s his real constituency. Why would he care one way or the other about the Puerto Ricans?
― Ed.

 

Not Everyone Likes Pai

 

Ajit Pai, Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), requires confirmation by the Senate as a board member before the end of the year to continue with the agency. If he is not confirmed for another four year term and is removed from office, the current president will most likely replace him with another Republican and advance the nomination of that person or another of the board’s two Republican members to the chairmanship. In the end, getting rid of Chairman Pai may not alter the current course of the FCC toward revoking Net Neutrality rules and allowing the merger of the Sinclair Broadcast Group with Tribune Media, but his removal does offer the opportunity to change course, however slim that may be.

Since his advancement to the chairmanship at the beginning of the year, Mr. Pai has worked to dismantle Net Neutrality under the Orwellian rubric “Restoring Internet Freedom”. The public comment period on the proposed rule change closed at the end of August, and now everyone awaits the decision of the five member board, three Republicans and two Democrats. It’s difficult to say what may be taking so long, considering that Mr. Pai has the votes, and by his actions earlier in the summer it appeared the fix was in anyway. Perhaps he’s having a hard time drafting the new regulations and lowering the bar enough to reflect proper deference to the major players like Comcast.

In the 1972 film Cabaret, Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey sing “Money, Money”.

The other major issue on Chairman Pai’s agenda is the merger of Sinclair with Tribune Media, which he favors. To advance his position for taking away regulations that treat Internet Service Providers as common carriers and therefore subjects them to rules of Net Neutrality, Mr. Pai uses language about protecting the consumer and getting the government out of the way of innovation, yet when it comes to allowing one enormous broadcast company, Sinclair, to become even larger and therefore monopolize some smaller media markets around the country, he suddenly and conveniently forgets his previous arguments. Monopolies have historically neither looked out for consumers in any way other than to take their money, nor have they had any incentive to innovate in any way other than how to take even more money.


The comments from the public in favor of keeping Net Neutrality regulations in place have outstripped the comments against, and to the limited extent the public has been paying attention to the Sinclair/Tribune merger, most are against it. Will the FCC, and in particular Chairman Pai, listen to the public or to corporate interests? It’s not hard to imagine the answer to that question if you subscribe to the wisdom of the comedian Lily Tomlin, who said “No matter how cynical I get, I can’t keep up.” Be that as it may, the public retains the option through Congress to say to Mr. Pai “You’re fired!”
― Techly

Dick York Bewitched 1968
“My, What Big Ears You Have”, a 1967 episode of the sitcom Bewitched, with Dick York as the beleaguered Darrin Stephens, whose mother-in-law has cast a spell on him that causes his ears to grow every time he lies.

Not a Piece of Cake

 

“All politics is local.” ― An old saying, most famously uttered by former Speaker of the House, Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill

This fall the Supreme Court will hear the case of Gill v. Whitford, a partisan gerrymandering case from Wisconsin, where redistricting lines drawn up by Republicans in the state legislature in 2011 after the 2010 census resulted in grossly unbalanced election results, such as in the 2012 election when, despite a majority of the votes statewide going to Democrats, Republicans nonetheless won sixty of the ninety-nine State Assembly seats. While the case is specifically about the redistricting lines drawn for state elections, there are implications for national elections because state legislatures also draw the lines for federal congressional districts. National election results have similarly tilted toward Republicans winning more seats in the House of Representatives than simple vote tallies warrant, and Democrats typically gain fewer seats than vote totals should grant them.


The Gerry-Mander Edit
“The Gerry-Mander”, a political cartoon by Elkanah Tisdale (1771-1835), published in the Boston Centinel in 1812. The district depicted in the cartoon was created by the Massachusetts legislature to favor the incumbent Democratic-Republican party candidates sponsored by Governor Elbridge Gerry over the Federalists.

Gerrymandering has been around since the founding of the Republic, ever since Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution specified that the states had the power to apportion congressional districts based on census results every ten years. There’s nothing in there about how the states should draw the lines, though the 14th Amendment, adopted 149 years ago on July 9, 1868, set guidelines for citizenship and equal protection under the laws for all citizens, and that has been invoked by the Supreme Court to overrule racially motivated gerrymandering. State legislatures have nevertheless taken the broad leeway left in Article 1, Section 2, and run with it, with both parties divvying up the cake as they liked if they had enough votes from their own members to push new district lines onto the books. Once one party or the other established districts in their favor, subsequent elections had the effect of consolidating their power.

There have been partisan gerrymandering cases brought before the Supreme Court in the past, but the Court has always been reluctant to step into what it has deemed politics as usual, and their rulings have always been narrow enough to have little effect on the practice of partisan gerrymandering. The Court has been more willing to rule broadly against racial gerrymandering by applying the equal protection principles of the 14th Amendment. It’s hard to see the ultimate ruling in Gill v. Whitford deviating from past rulings unless one or more of the conservative justices rule against the State of Wisconsin, and by extension the Republican party. The Court is currently split 5-4 along party lines, with Republicans in the majority.

A scene from the 1974 film The Godfather: Part II, in which the gangsters Hyman Roth, played by Lee Strasburg, and Michael Corleone, played by Al Pacino, discuss divvying up business in Cuba before the revolution.

 

This gerrymandering case is a reminder of how failure to pay attention to state and local politics can result in a minority party exercising disproportional power. There are more important elections than the presidential one every four years. The party that turns people out for local school board elections, for city council elections, and for state legislature elections every year, year after year, is the party that ultimately takes power in the national elections. Those seemingly insignificant elections lay the groundwork and set the rules for what follows on a grander scale.

Motivated people turn out for elections, and Republicans have done a much better job over the past thirty or more years of motivating their people than Democrats have done with their people. They have done so with with some dubious tactics, it’s true, mainly motivating people through fear and loathing of The Other, whoever or whatever that might prove effective at the moment. That was easily seen in the 2016 election.

On a national scale, where state boundaries do not change, the Electoral College has worked to gerrymander the presidential election result on behalf of the Republican candidate as Democrats lose strength in the small towns and countryside of the middle of the country. For instance California, the most populous state in the nation, and one with a strong Democratic party majority, has 55 electoral votes (53 congressional districts plus 2 Senate seats) to offer the Democratic presidential candidate whether that candidate wins the state with a simple majority of one vote or an overwhelming majority of three million votes.

This is from a network television appearance by George Carlin in the early 1990s. No foul language warning necessary.

 

In the language of gerrymandering, Democrats are effectively “packed” into California and other highly urban states, mostly on either coast. Getting rid of the Electoral College and deciding the presidential election with a simple nationwide majority vote would eliminate this gerrymandering effect, but with Republicans controlling the Presidency, the Senate, the House of Representatives, the Supreme Court, 33 out of 50 governors’ offices, 31 out of 50 state houses, and 37 out of 50 state senates, that won’t be easy.

Magpie eating cake-rubens peale
Magpie Eating Cake, an 1865 painting by Rubens Peale (1784-1865).

It would take working from the grass roots on up instead of snoozing until 2020 and dreaming the current Republican president will be impeached along the way. It would also mean holding the Democratic party establishment to account for selling out the middle and working classes while they chased after financial and professional elites. Since the Democratic party establishment has shown no inclination to change in response to the 2016 election debacle, however, it appears the best course in the years ahead will be to discard the Democratic party apparatus altogether and form an entirely new major party. It’s not like that has never been done before.
― Ed.