Category Archives: Public Policy and Governance

Arabian Knights?

It’s obvious that President Trump never met a rich autocrat he didn’t like.

We’ve seen him kiss up to Putin, find common ground–and hair– with “Little Rocket Man.” And his first trip abroad as President was to Saudi Arabia.

Trump’s cozy relationship with the Saudis is finally getting some attention, in the wake of the presumed murder of a Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, who had been critical of the regime. And the relationship was, indeed, quite cozy. It appears that Trump hasn’t just owed the various bailouts of his bad business bets to Russian oligarchs–the Saudis have been equally helpful.

As Talking Points Memo has reported,

He’s booked hotel rooms and meeting spaces to them, sold an entire floor in one of his buildings to them and, in desperate moments in his career, gotten a billionaire from the country to buy his yacht and New York’s Plaza Hotel overlooking Central Park.

President Donald Trump’s ties to Saudi Arabia run long and deep, and he’s often boasted about his business ties with the kingdom.

“I love the Saudis,” Trump said when announcing his presidential run at Trump Tower in 2015. “Many are in this building.”

According to former federal ethics chief Walter Shaub, the Saudis have continued funneling money to Trump during his Presidency. Shaub is currently advising a watchdog group that is suing Trump for violating the Emoluments Clause by continuing to profit from foreign government ties to his business.

For a man who is so critical of Muslims, Trump sure is willing to make concessions when money is involved.

Trump has said that he doesn’t want to do anything that might scuttle a pending huge arms sale to the Saudis. (America–that “Shining City on a Hill”–seems perfectly okay with arming the worst people on the globe…).

In all fairness, Trump isn’t the only President who has befriended this deeply troubling Mideast power, mostly for their oil. But in his case, it’s clearly personal.

In 1991, as Trump was teetering on personal bankruptcy and scrambling to raise cash, he sold his 282-foot Trump yacht “Princess” to Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin-Talal for $20 million, a third less than what he reportedly paid for it.

Four years later, the prince came to his rescue again, joining other investors in a $325 million deal for Trump’s money-losing Plaza Hotel.

In 2001, Trump sold the entire 45th floor of the Trump World Tower across from the United Nations in New York for $12 million, the biggest purchase in that building to that point, according to the brokerage site Streeteasy. The buyer: The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Shortly after he announced his run for president, Trump began laying the groundwork for possible new business in the kingdom. He registered eight companies with names tied to the country, such as “THC Jeddah Hotel Advisor LLC” and “DT Jeddah Technical Services,” according to a 2016 financial disclosure report to the federal government. Jeddah is a major city in the country.

The relationship didn’t cool when Trump became President. Far from it.

A public relations firm working for the kingdom spent nearly $270,000 on lodging and catering at his Washington hotel near the Oval Office through March of last year, according to filings to the Justice Department. A spokesman for the firm told The Wall Street Journal that the Trump hotel payments came as part of a Saudi-backed lobbying campaign against a bill that allowed Americans to sue foreign governments for responsibility in the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

The Saudi government has been a valued customer at the Trump International Hotel in New York, where a visit in March by a group accompanying Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman boosted room rentals at the hotel by 13 percent for the first three months of the year, after two years of decline.

There’s much more, but I was particularly intrigued by this report from Dispatches from the Culture Wars.

Back in 2016, Jamal Khashoggi, who by all indications was murdered by Trump and Kushner’s buddy Mohammad bin Salman at the Saudi embassy in Turkey, was banned from writing for any newspaper in Saudi Arabia because he wrote something critical of Donald Trump. Until then, he had a weekly column in a Saudi paper.

Birds of a feather….

 

About That “City On A Hill”

Back when Republicans were (mostly) sane–when they cared about good government at least as much as raw power, I worked in the Indianapolis mayoral administration of Bill Hudnut. Bill had his faults, as we all do, but he passionately loved the city and tried to do what was best for all of its inhabitants.

He was also a former Presbyterian minister who often compared America–and to a lesser extent Indianapolis– to “The Shining City on the Hill.” We were to be a beacon, an ideal to which others aspired.

In the absence of a real newspaper, I can’t offer an educated evaluation of today’s Indianapolis, but no one in their right mind thinks today’s United States is a beacon to be emulated. It isn’t simply our massive and embarrassing policy failures (think health care, the environment, criminal justice, race relations, women’s rights and economic justice, for starters…)

It’s the corruption.

As the New York Times has recently–amply, overwhelmingly– documented, our President is a crook. Not that most of us are surprised, given the indictments of his associates, the scandals of his cabinet , and his whole sordid history.

Paul Krugman has responded analytically to the evidence:  

The blockbuster New York Times report on the Trump family’s history of fraud is really about two distinct although linked kinds of fraudulence.

On one side, the family engaged in tax fraud on a huge scale, using a variety of money-laundering techniques to avoid paying what it owed. On the other, the story Donald Trump tells about his life — his depiction of himself as a self-made businessman who made billions starting from humble roots — has always been a lie: Not only did he inherit his wealth, receiving the equivalent of more than $400 million from his father, but Fred Trump bailed his son out after deals went bad.

So, Krugman says, voters who bought Trump’s highly inaccurate version of Donald Trump bought snake-oil. But the bigger, and much more damaging fraud is the story we tell ourselves about America the Meritocracy.

The tale of the Trump money is part of a bigger story. Even among those unhappy at the extent to which we live in an era of soaring inequality and growing concentration of wealth at the top, there has been a tendency to believe that great wealth is, more often than not, earned more or less honestly. It’s only now that the amounts of sheer corruption and lawbreaking that underlie our march toward oligarchy have started to come into focus.

Until recently, my guess is that most economists, even tax experts, would have agreed that tax avoidance by corporations and the wealthy — which is legal — was a big issue, but tax evasion— hiding money from the tax man — was a lesser one. It was obvious that some rich people were exploiting legal if morally dubious loopholes in the tax code, but the prevailing view was that simply defrauding the tax authorities and hence the public wasn’t that widespread in advanced countries.

But this view always rested on shaky foundations. After all, tax evasion, almost by definition, doesn’t show up in official statistics, and the super-wealthy aren’t in the habit of mouthing off about what great tax cheats they are. To get a real picture of how much fraud is going on, you either have to do what The Times did — exhaustively investigate the finances of a particular family — or rely on lucky breaks that reveal what was previously hidden.

We’ve had some of those “lucky breaks,” as Krugman points out. Thanks to the Panama Papers and other leaks, we now know that outright tax evasion by the very wealthy is pervasive. Researchers estimate that the rich pay on average 25 percent less than they owe–enough to pay for the entire food stamp program. And of course, that tax evasion serves to entrench privilege and allows it to be passed on to the heirs of that privilege.

Just like Trump’s daddy did.

Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress have been “systematically defunding the Internal Revenue Service, crippling its ability to investigate tax fraud. We don’t just have government by tax cheats; we have government of tax cheats, for tax cheats.”

It’s not just that the president of the United States is, as veteran tax reporter David Cay Johnston put it, a “financial vampire,” cheating taxpayers the way he has cheated just about everyone else who deals with him.

Beyond that, our trend toward oligarchy — rule by the few — is also looking more and more like kakistocracy — rule by the worst, or at least the most unscrupulous. The corruption isn’t subtle; on the contrary, it’s cruder than almost anyone imagined. It also runs deep, and it has infected our politics, quite literally up to its highest levels.

So much for “the Shining City on the Hill.” America is more like an inner-city neighborhood where kids look up to the rich drug dealer.

The Love Of Money

The Guardian recently had an article with the headline “How the Koch Brothers Built the Most Powerful Right-Wing Group You’ve Never Heard Of.”

Actually, most regular readers of this blog–at least those who comment–have heard of Americans for Prosperity, and understand what it is intended to do. But with midterms rapidly approaching, it may be useful to revisit what we know about the organization.

The article began by recapping Scott Walker’s attacks on Wisconsin’s public-sector unions.

At first blush this might seem like a years-old local issue in a US state that rarely lights up the international headlines. Yet events in Wisconsin are crucial to understanding how a little-known, billionaire-funded organization, called Americans for Prosperity (AFP), has tilted American politics to the right. It is intertwined with, and rivals in size, the Republican party itself.

Where did Walker’s ultra-conservative labor agenda come from? As a candidate, Walker barely mentioned collective bargaining or union busting. And we know this plan did not come from voters. Before the legislation popped up on the agenda, Wisconsinites generally supported collective bargaining. Nationally, only about 40% of American adults favor curbs to public sector bargaining rights, and in Wisconsin, this minority level of support was about the same.

The article in the Guardian was the product of a group of Columbia and Harvard-based researchers who spent five years investigating precisely how the Koch brothers have used Americans for Prosperity to influence US politics, and especially how they have managed to destroy unions. (The Koch’s desire to make lasting changes to the American political system requires permanently weakening organizations supportive of liberal candidates and causes – especially the labor movement.)

That war on unions, waged by politicians like Walker who are beholden to the brothers, has largely succeeded.

Since the passage of the anti-union bill, public union membership rates in Wisconsin have plummeted by more than half, falling from around 50% in 2011 to around 19% by 2017. With fewer members and revenue, the political clout of the labor unions has fallen sharply. Campaign contributions by teachers’ unions to state and local races have fallen by nearly 70%.

In presidential elections, Democrats lose around three percentage points after the passage of anti-union legislation, and turnout dips by around two points. So while there are many factors that might explain Donald Trump’s surprise win in Wisconsin in 2016 by a mere 23,000 votes, a weaker labor movement less able to turn out Democratic voters might have been one important contributor to Trump’s victory.

As the article points out, wealthy people have always thrown their weight around to influence elections and policy. What is new, and painfully effective (especially at the state level) is the rise of organized big donor collectives through which hundreds of billionaires and millionaires invest in organization-building intended to change the electoral landscape.

Organized political mega-donors can get much more leverage through persistent organizations than from scattered, one-time contributions to particular politicians.

The Kochs are fantastically wealthy and their generous funding of Americans for Prosperity has allowed them to influence policy in ways that have increased that wealth. It has been a very good investment for them.

The article is lengthy, but well worth reading in its entirety. I do think the following paragraphs sum up the threat Americans for Prosperity poses to working-class Americans and to democracy itself:

The Koch brothers have created a vehicle that is perfectly positioned to reshape American politics. AFP focuses on both elections and policy battles at all levels of government, from city councils to Congress and the White House. Although its activities are mostly centrally directed from its headquarters in Virginia, AFP has active local, state and regional offices that reflect the federated nature of US politics. And even though grassroots participants do not have much say in the direction of the group, AFP has nearly 3 million citizen activists signed up to mobilize for candidates and policy causes. Activists participate in rallies or protests and contact elected officials at the direction of more than 500 paid staffers nationwide.

Taken together, AFP’s grassroots volunteers and staffing rival those of the Republican party itself. However, AFP is not a free-standing political party – but instead is an extra-party organization that parallels and leverages Republican candidates and office-holders. By providing resources to support GOP candidates and officials, and exerting leverage on them once elected, AFP has been able to pull the Republican party to the far right on economic, tax and regulatory issues.

The Koch network has retarded the implementation of the Affordable Care Act–especially the expansion of Medicaid in states like Missouri and Tennessee. It has succeeded in rolling back state efforts to address climate change in Kansas and West Virginia, and of course, it has succeeded in passing state and federal tax cuts that have primarily benefitted wealthy individuals and companies.

The love of money evidently leaves no room for consideration of the public good.

People Will Die..

How many ways can this administration kill people?

Scientists tell us that changes to environmental protection laws will lead to at least 80,000 additional deaths each decade.

The announcement that acceptance of refugees fleeing war and persecution will be capped at 30,000 per year–the lowest number ever–has been condemned by Amnesty International, The International Rescue Committee and Human Rights First.  What those organizations labeled a “shameful abdication of our humanity” will result in untold numbers of deaths.

The GOP’s solicitude for the “rights” of the NRA continues to facilitate more than thirty thousand gun deaths each year.

Those are all fairly high-profile issues, and at least they’ve generated public debate.

Unfortunately, there has been much less publicity about the government’s ongoing refusal to impose rational regulations on Big Pharma. (Here in Indianapolis, our pathetic excuse for a newspaper simply ignored a recent demonstration protesting Eli Lilly’s pricing of insulin– instead, it ran a front-page “warm and fuzzy” article about the company’s new migraine drug). That failure, too, continues to kill.

If you wonder why single-payer healthcare has become such an overriding political issue, the case of insulin pricing may provide a clue.

Diabetes is one of the most common diseases in the U.S. Its incidence continues to climb, and huge numbers of diabetics are insulin-dependent.

According to information provided by an organization called “Insulin4All”

  • the price of insulin has increased 1123% since 1996. This isn’t because of new discoveries–prices have increased on medications that have been around for decades.
  • More than 7 million Americans are insulin dependent. More than 25% of those Americans  have had to ration their insulin due to cost.
  • Over 6,000 GoFundMe pages are asking for money to purchase insulin. (Shane Patrick Boyle, an artist who had moved to Arizona to take care of his mother and was in between health insurance plans, died from diabetic ketoacidosis. He was $50 short in his Go Fund Me for insulin.)
  • Some people are paying $1400 a month for their insulin.

The Insulin4All organization is asking two things. First, it wants pharmaceutical companies to disclose their manufacturing costs and profits, along with their marketing expenditures. Second–and incredibly important for all health care, not just diabetes treatment–they want the government to allow Medicare and Medicaid to negotiate drug prices, like other countries’ governments do.

In all fairness, this isn’t the first administration and congress to place the bottom line of drug manufacturers above the needs of sick people needing medicines. It has to stop.

Big Pharma will claim that R & D costs a lot of money, and that those costs justify high prices for their products. It is absolutely true that research and development is costly–but it is also true that a significant percentage of those costs are covered by taxpayers who also deserve a return on their investment.

Since the election, the federal government has cut back on support for basic research (an enormously self-defeating, “penny-wise, pound foolish” policy). Data from the National Science Foundation shows that, since those cutbacks, federal agencies provided “only” 44% of the $86 billion spent on basic research. Before that, however, the federal share of all research routinely topped 70%, and it was 61% as recently as 2004.

In addition, foundations, state and local governments, voluntary health associations and professional societies support drug research and development.

No one is suggesting that Big Pharma forgo a reasonable profit. What is reasonable, however, cannot be determined without increased transparency about actual costs, and the share of those costs coming out of the taxpayers’ pockets.

People who need insulin are dying because they cannot afford it. A lot of people.

Maybe the drug companies could run fewer television ads prompting people to ask their doctors for Purple Pills and the like, and use those savings to bring down the cost of lifesaving medications.

And maybe an administration and a Congress less beholden to corporate interests and big money would consider policies less likely to kill people.

What Now?

I cannot recall a time when so many Americans were this angry. Of course, I wasn’t around for the civil war, (although sometimes I feel that old.)

We have certainly been deeply at odds before. Mostly, our conflicts have centered on clashing worldviews: wars, religious conflicts, extensions of civil rights, reproductive liberty, dissent and patriotism.  But right now, the fury being expressed by so many ordinary citizens seems different in kind.

It feels very personal.

Americans still have different perspectives on the issues, of course–in spades. U.S. citizens are not just polarized; they occupy different, inconsistent realities. But I think there is another element to the anger I see, an element the Kavanaugh hearings have amplified.

Reasonable Americans (by which I mean everyone who is to the left of Ann Coulter and Tucker Carlson) feel robbed.

There was the 2016 election, of course, in which the presidential choice of the majority was ignored, courtesy of an Electoral College that has outlived whatever utility it may once  have had.

There is the growing realization by urban dwellers that their votes–thanks to that same Electoral College– count for less than the votes of the far less diverse inhabitants of rural America.

And that’s when those urban folks get to cast their votes. Anger about increasingly blatant vote suppression tactics has been growing, too, especially among minority constituencies that have been robbed of their ability to redress their grievances via the ballot box.

Perhaps no robbery has rankled as much as the theft of a Supreme Court seat that–in accordance with American history and constitutional norms– should have gone to Merrick Garland.  The in-your-face behavior of Mitch McConnell poured salt on that wound. McConnell and the GOP made no effort to cloak their power play in even the thinnest of patriotic excuses; they didn’t bother to pretend that they were acting on some bizarre view of the national interest. Instead, they gloated publicly about their ability to abuse their power, and they were forthright about one reason for their unprecedented behavior: hatred of America’s first black President.

Women, of course, are routinely robbed of equality, respect and status in multiple environments, especially but not exclusively the workplace. Various religions counsel our submission, longstanding networks of “good old boys” dismiss and block our concerns and ambitions, the “powers that be” discount and trivialize our reports of victimization.

Moreover, to an extent only now becoming clear, we are viewed by far too many men as prey–objects to be harassed or assaulted with impunity.

Those on the right are no less angry–they actually may be more enraged–but the reasons are very different. These are primarily White Christians (disproportionately but not exclusively male) who have a well-founded fear that they soon will be robbed of their cultural dominance and privilege. They are reacting with fury to culture change and the increasing claims to a place at the civic table by LGBTQ, black and brown people, and women. Robert Jones has documented their resentment and rage in his recent book, The End of White Christian America.

The Kavanaugh hearings poured gasoline on all of those fires.

It was all there: the “old boys” once again dismissing the experience of a credible and accomplished woman, while simply ignoring the thousands of women who called and wrote and confronted them. The petulant,  entitled (and embarrassing) behavior of a privileged white guy outraged by the very idea that he might be called to account. The incivility shown to Democratic committee members by Kavanaugh, Senator Grassley and committee Republicans.

The hearing reopened the wound over Merrick Garland (not least because of the striking contrast in the two men’s judicial demeanor), and it reminded Democrats that–thanks to gerrymandering and the Electoral College– Republicans control  Congress and the White House despite the fact that a significant majority of the citizens who cast ballots voted Democratic.

Pent-up fury over all of this– plus the daily outrages of the Trump Administration– is likely to erupt in ways we’ve not previously seen.

I don’t know what comes next, but I’m pretty sure it’s going to be very ugly.