Terrorism’s Tools

The hits keep coming.

Pipe bombs mailed, churches and synagogues targeted, young people once again mowed down by armed, unstable individuals…Last Sunday, the New York Times devoted several pages in its Sunday magazine to the phenomenon of homegrown, white rightwing terrorism (and the government’s failure to track it), and Time Magazine headlined a story “Why Terror is Rising in America.”

Both reports emphasize the relatively small number of perpetrators of these horrific assaults. For example, despite the Tree of Life massacre and the spike in anti-Jewish incidents, survey results suggest that anti-Semitism in the U.S. is at an all-time low.

Anti-Semitism has never been eradicated, and probably never could be. It dwells in the crevices and fissures. Largely extinguished in the uppermost reaches of society, it flourishes most among cranks and broken souls on the margins–those for whom the post-industrial world provides few satisfying occupational or real world communal niches. Jew hatred is a minority phenomenon, to be sure. In an age when AR-15s are easy to come by, even the smallest minority is profoundly dangerous.

Anti-Semitic incidents have increased dramatically, up 57 percent in just the last year according to the Anti-Defamation League, and, in fact, hate crimes are up across the board. Statistics show the number of people killed by far-right extremists since Sept. 11 are roughly equal to the number killed in the U.S. by jihadist terrorists–a fact that has received little public attention and gone unremarked upon by F.B.I. Director Christopher Wray in his annual testimony before Congress. Hate crimes against Muslims also rose almost 20 percent in 2016 over 2015.

When the Constitution was being crafted, James Madison and other Founders worried about “the tyranny of the majority.” Madison assumed that minorities–by which he meant people who held dissenting and/or anti-social beliefs–would be unlikely to find each other; they would easily be outnumbered (and silenced) by majorities of citizens who disagreed with them.

Madison couldn’t have envisioned the Internet, where all manner of advocates, kooks and haters can join each other in creating communities of the like-minded, and reinforce each others’ extremist beliefs.

As we’ve seen all too often, these online communities have become gigantic amplifiers, emboldening their participants and strengthening them in their most vile convictions. Just as the Internet turbocharged the jihadi universe and created a global support community for ISIS, it has networked and inspired the far-right.

Another thing Madison could never have predicted, of course, was the election of a President as dangerously anti-democratic, racist and dysfunctional as Donald Trump.

The second development that has lit up this increasingly linked and animated extremist world is the advent of Donald Trump. The statistics demonstrate clearly that the biggest bump in hate crimes in recent history coincides with the period since his presidential campaign began. This is not just a matter of correlation but causation. Trump’s incendiary rhetoric, from his accusation that Mexicans coming to the U.S. were rapists to his claims that the caravan of impoverished Central American migrants coming north included Middle Easterners–aka “terrorists”–has given license to those who peddle hatred to emerge from the shadows. Much as ISIS has done with its far-flung recruits, Trump’s conspiracy theories have weaponized mental disability.

A friend of mine, the chief executive of his firm, recently shared a rule he imposed at meetings: complaints and criticisms would be welcomed, but only when accompanied by proposed solutions.

Complaining about something without proposing a solution is just whining–and whining doesn’t get us anywhere.

This particular complaint is the growth of domestic terrorism. One part of the solution is obvious; we must replace Donald Trump with someone who understands the role and responsibility of the Presidency.

Madison’s question of faction–and the ease with which unstable individuals can now connect–is harder. But as the Times article suggested, a far more robust government response would be a good start.

 

“Trumped Up” Social Welfare Crises

There are two utterly incompatible approaches to the maintenance of social safety nets–and beliefs about the obligation of a society to its most vulnerable members.

On one side are those who recognize the obligation, who see the payment of taxes to support social programs and government services as the “dues” we owe to the “club” we call America. On the other side are those who reject that obligation, who insist that individual citizens (including, presumably, children, the elderly and the disabled) must be personally responsible for their own needs, and to the extent they are unable to do so, that private charity should fill the gap (despite copious evidence that charity is grossly insufficient to the task).

Those in the first category have legitimate differences about how we discharge our obligations to each other, about the efficiency of programs put in place, about the evidence we can reasonably require in order to separate out the truly needy from the merely greedy. But they understand that no society that ignores its neediest citizens can be “great” or even good–let alone stable.

Those in the second category tend to be financially comfortable (or better). Their incentive to ignore reality and the plight of others is rooted in their desire to keep more of what they have and their insistence that they have “earned” their good fortune and other folks could too if they really wanted to.

They are the ones who have controlled Congress. And as Robert Reich has written,

Republicans would love to get rid of Social Security and Medicare. But they can’t, because Social Security and Medicare are among the most popular of all federal programs. Besides, most Americans have been paying into them their whole working lives, and depend on them.

Since any overt attack on these programs would be politically suicidal, the Republicans have decided to do nothing–aggressively– to refrain from the “fixes” and accommodations to economic changes that all such programs require from time to time.

The trustees for Medicare and Social Security – of which I used to be one – say Medicare will run out of money by 2026, three years sooner than last projected, and Social Security will run out in 2034.

But this doesn’t have to be the case.

Here are three easy fixes to Social Security and Medicare that Republicans don’t want you to know about.

First: Raise the cap on income subject to Social Security payroll taxes.

This year, that cap is $128,400, meaning that every dollar earned above $128,400 isn’t subject to Social Security taxes.

As Reich points out,  the CEO of a big company making $15 million dollars a year pays Social Security taxes on just $128,400 of that, while the nurse practitioner taking home  $100,000 pays Social Security taxes on every dollar of his or her income.

Reich’s second “fix” addresses a situation that most of us find outrageous:

To help rein in Medicare costs, allow the government to use its huge bargaining power to negotiate lower drug prices.

Every other country negotiates these prices; that we do not is an unconscionable gift to big Pharma, which already benefits from the immense amounts through which taxpayers subsidize research. (Pharma already spends more on advertising, marketing, and lobbying than it does on research, so protests that lower profit margins would curtail research are disingenuous at best.)

Reich’s third “fix” is the least intuitive–and the most intriguing.

Third: To deal with a basic reason why Social Security and Medicare are running out of money, allow more young immigrants into the U.S.

The basic reason why Social Security and Medicare are running out of money is the American population continues to age and live longer – leaving a relatively smaller working population to pay into Social Security and Medicare.

What to do? Allow in more young immigrants. Immigrants and their children are the fastest growing segment of the working population, already contributing billions in payroll taxes every year. Instead of shutting immigrants out, allowing more immigrants into the country will help secure the future of Social Security and Medicare.

I have previously reported on the multiple benefits conferred by immigration; this is another.

If you belonged to a club in which some members refused to pay the dues that maintained the facility and its amenities, you’d terminate their membership. We can’t terminate the citizenship of people who are unwilling to pay their fair share, but we can save Social Security and Medicare. As Reich says,

Raise the cap, negotiate drug prices, and allow in more immigrants. Do these three things and you won’t have to worry about Social Security and Medicare not being there when you need it.

 

 

 

Limiting Power

Credit where credit is due: not only has the Trump administration rekindled civic engagement (scholars tell us that the number of people on the streets protesting exceeds the number who protested the Vietnam War), but his accidental ascension to the Presidency has highlighted the need to revisit constitutional provisions that no longer serve their intended purposes.

The problem, of course, is that We the People are too divided and too historically and civically illiterate to be trusted with the task of constitutional revision.

When–and if–the time ever comes that we are capable of making careful revisions to our foundational document, there are a number of issues to consider. The most obvious, of course, is the Electoral College, but there are also several aspects of federalism that should be reconsidered in light of contemporary technology and transportation. For example, there is no reason elections should continue to be administered by the states. A national, nonpartisan agency could maintain a national registration database, ensure standardized procedures and hours, and dramatically curtail partisan game-playing of the sort we’ve seen in Georgia and the incompetence Hoosiers experienced in Porter County, Indiana.

There is an even more significant assumption that we  need to re-think.

The American Constitution limits the power of the state. It was written at a time when governments were the entities wielding the most power, and focusing on the state made sense because constraining power was the whole point. The protection of personal autonomy–our individual right to direct our own lives, so long as we don’t harm the person or property of others and so long as we are willing to let others do the same–was the goal, and it required restraints on power.

I thought about that when I read this article from Common Dreams. Today, many governments are less powerful than multi-national corporations.

As corporations in the United States and around the world continue to reap record profits thanks to enormous tax cuts, widespread tax avoidance schemes, and business-friendly trade and investment policies, an analysis by Global Justice Now (GJN) published Wednesday found that the world’s most profitable companies are raking in revenue “far in excess of most governments,” giving them unprecedented power to influence policy in their favor and skirt accountability.

Measured by 2017 revenue, 69 of the top 100 economic entities in the world are corporations, GJN found in its report, which was released as part of an effort to pressure the U.K. government to advance a binding United Nations treaty that would hold transnational corporations to account for human rights violations.

“When it comes to the top 200 entities, the gap between corporations and governments gets even more pronounced: 157 are corporations,” GJN notes. “Walmart, Apple, and Shell all accrued more wealth than even fairly rich countries like Russia, Belgium, Sweden.”

As difficult as it can be to subject governments to the rule of law, constitutions and legal systems do provide mechanisms to hold them accountable.  By contrast, it is incredibly difficult for citizens to hold powerful corporations to account.  Increasingly, as the article notes, trade and investment deals allow corporations to demand that governments do their bidding rather than the other way around.

“From a coal mine in Bangladesh that threatens to destroy one of the world’s largest mangrove ecosystems to hundreds of people at risk of displacement from a mega-sugar plantation in Sri Lanka, corporations and big business are often implicated in human rights abuses across Asia” and the world, Friends of the Earth Asia Pacific noted in a blog post on Wednesday, describing the U.N. treaty as a potential “game-changer.”

“Companies are able to evade responsibility by operating between different national jurisdictions and taking advantage of corruption in local legal systems, not to mention the fact that many corporations are richer and more powerful than the states that seek to regulate them,” Friends of the Earth concluded. “We must right this wrong.”

The question, of course, is how?

It is becoming increasingly clear that massive reforms to global law and governance will be required if human liberty is to survive the changes that increasingly confront us. Given the numbers of people who have an overwhelming fear of change and who respond by embracing tribalism and autocracy, the odds of a successful “reboot” look pretty daunting.

Putting Profits Before People

It is really, really difficult to mount effective opposition to even the stupidest, craziest policies of the Trump Administration, because there are so many of them. From the environment to the social safety net to the rule of law, the attacks just keep coming.

So if you haven’t heard about the variety of ways in which Betsy DeVos is protecting her for-profit pals while screwing over taxpayers, students and public schools, that’s unfortunate but entirely understandable.

Lest Betsy get buried in this administration’s growing mountain of excrement, let me share one  decision that highlights her priorities–priorities that perfectly align with those of her fellow Trumpian plutocrats.

Courtesy of the Brookings Institution, we learn

On a Friday in mid-August, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos quietly announced that she would abolish the Obama administration’s gainful employment (GE) regulation–a safeguard that protected students from for-profit career programs that left graduates with poor job prospects and unmanageable student debt.

Her decision means that hundreds of thousands of our nation’s students–chiefly minority students, single moms, veterans, dislocated workers, and working adults–will now be trapped in low-performing for-profit programs and burdened with unaffordable and often life-limiting debts. Her regulatory rollback marks a betrayal not only of our nation’s most vulnerable students, but an abandonment of traditional conservative principles about institutional accountability for taxpayer dollars.

You have to read this jaw-dropping description of how the Department of Education “oversees” for-profit institutions to see just how far this purportedly “conservative” administration has strayed from what used to be bedrock conservative dogma.

To see just how extreme Secretary DeVos’s departure is from conservative principles, we ask this litmus test question: What would it take for a career education program to lose its eligibility for federal student aid under Secretary DeVos’s plan? The answer: A for-profit institution cannot lose its financial lifeline, no matter how poorly it performs its statutory mission to train students for gainful employment in a recognized occupation. One hundred percent of students can drop out of their career program, or not a single graduate could land a job in their field of training, and still the federal government would be willing to keep the taxpayer money pipeline of federal student loans and Pell Grants flowing unabated to the school. It’s a federal free-money plan—“accountability” stripped of consequences.

When I characterize DeVos’ approach as a departure–a U turn!– from what used to be GOP orthodoxy, I’m not exaggerating. In my wildest imagination, I never thought I would point to Bill Bennett–a blowhard I detested–as an example of “doing it right.” (But then, I wouldn’t have believed that I would look back at George W. Bush with something close to fondness, either…)

Bennett, as most of you probably remember, headed up DOE under Saint Ronald Reagan.

When he realized that numerous for-profit colleges were performing abysmally, he proposed new regulations that forced more than 2,000 postsecondary institutions to immediately face a hearing to determine whether their default rate on federal student loans was over 20%. If it was, their participation in federal student aid programs was limited, suspended, or terminated. Bennett especially blasted shoddy trade school programs, calling their “pattern of abuses” “an outrage.”

Then there was Lamar Alexander, also a Republican. He spearheaded the 1992 amendments to the Higher Education Act (HEA), under which postsecondary institutions lost their eligibility for federal student aid if their student default rates exceeded 25 percent for three consecutive years. By 2000, more than a thousand postsecondary schools lost their eligibility–and more than 80% of them were for-profit.

When a political party reverses its longstanding position on an issue, the obvious question is why.

The first and most important cause of the Republican retreat from accountability is the growing power of the for-profit college lobby. By 2005, the eight largest for-profit college chains had a combined market value of $26 billion. For-profit colleges, which always had aggressive lobbying operations, started donating much more money to congressional representatives and switched more of their giving from Democrats to Republican lawmakers. When the Obama administration released its final GE rule, the for-profit lobby donated twice as much to Republican lawmakers ($1.17 million) as to Democratic lawmakers ($583,000).

You really need to read the entire report. And weep.

When You Hire A Goof-Off

There are lots of metrics for determining whether a worker is performing adequately. HR experts all over the country can share them. If you have ever been responsible for managing personnel (I have–it was the very least favorite part of my job), you know how frustrating it can be when an employee is goofing off, failing to meet timelines or generally just not doing the job.

Voters “hired” Donald Trump to fill the position of Chief Executive. Forget the corruption, the ignorance and the evident mental illness–what would a basic job evaluation by a dispassionate, politically-neutral observer look like? A few “data points” are instructive.

CNBC looked at a very basic element of the job: assembling a team of middle-and-upper managers.

On his 500th day in office, President Donald Trump tweeted a list of accomplishments that he said “many believe” is longer than any other president.

One list that remains longer than most of his recent predecessors is the number of White House positions that remain unfilled.

After more than 16 months in office, the Trump administration has yet to fill hundreds of key jobs that require Senate confirmation. The delays are longer than for any of the last six administrations.

The most worrisome of those empty positions are at the United States State Department. More than 40 top jobs remain vacant, and dozens of ambassadors who’d been appointed by Obama and fired by Trump on Inauguration Day have yet to be replaced. Given the precipitous drop in the regard in which other countries hold the United States, and the international issues we face, it would be helpful to have people working on such matters.

Meanwhile, the departments of Defense, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Energy and Interior,  the Social Security Administration, the U.S. Postal Service and the CIA still have no Inspectors General. Given the almost-daily revelations of  corruption in the Trump Administration, I tend to think this lack of oversight is intentional.

Then there’s this recent report from Raw Story:

An investigation by Politico has found that President Donald Trump’s “executive time” — which is used by the White House as a euphemism for the time he spends watching cable news — absolutely dwarfs the time allotted to doing official work.

Specifically, Politico reports that last Tuesday, “the president was slated for more than nine hours of ‘Executive Time,’ a euphemism for the unstructured time Trump spends tweeting, phoning friends and watching television.” The publication then notes that “official meetings, policy briefings and public appearances — traditionally the daily work of being president — consumed just over three hours of his day.”

Now, this bit of information should probably be considered good news rather than dereliction of duty; God knows how much more harm he’d do if he actually worked at it. That said, it’s one more indication–as if we needed further evidence–that Trump has no  interest in actually governing.

It’s hard to disagree with Michael Cohen, who produces a newsletter called Born in the USA, when he sums up what Trump’s real interests are.

“The thing that Trump seems to enjoy most about being president is going to campaign rallies and looking out into a sea of adoring white faces, who applaud him, laugh at his jokes, and feed his limitless need for validation and approval. So making these people happy is really about making Trump happy.”

Making Trump happy is the last thing I want to do.