Friday, March 24, 2017

Republican plan is Robin Hood in reverse

The GOP wants to take money from Medicare’s trust fund and give it to the rich

By Max Ehrenfreund March 23 at 9:55 AM, WashPost

The Republican plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, would draw on Medicare's financially distressed trust fund to put money back in the pockets of some of the country's richest people.

Republicans would repeal the Medicare tax, a 0.9 percent surcharge on annual salaries of at least $200,000 for individual taxpayers or $250,000 for married couples. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects that over a decade, repealing the tax would forego $117 billion that those wealthy households are currently expected to pay into the trust fund, which is used to cover the costs of health care for elderly Americans.

Repealing the tax would put the fund into “crisis mode,” said Andrew Slavitt, a former acting administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services under President Barack Obama. Slavitt said the fund could be exhausted as soon as 2024 because of the changes, when President Trump might still be in office.

Other Democratic experts joined in the criticism of the Republican plan.

“How could you possibly look out at America and decide that the problem is that rich people don’t have enough money and the Medicare trust fund is too flush?” asked Jared Bernstein, who was chief economist to Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.

(More here.)

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Gunman in Ukraine kills Putin foe in attack denounced as ‘state terrorism’

Forensic experts and police officers examine the scene following the killing of former Russian lawmaker Denis Voronenkov in Kiev, Ukraine, on March 23, 2017. (Sergei Chuzavkov/AP)
By Andrew Roth and Natalie Gryvnak March 23 at 11:22 AM, WashPost

KIEV — A former Russian member of parliament who defected to Ukraine and began sharply criticizing Russian President Vladimir Putin was gunned down Thursday in downtown Kiev in an apparent contract killing.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called the murder of Denis Voronenkov, a former member of Russia’s Communist Party who fled to Kiev in October 2016, an “act of state terrorism by Russia.”

A suspected assailant was arrested after Voronenkov was shot twice in the head, dying on the spot. The suspect’s identity or other details were not immediately made public. In Moscow, a Kremlin spokesman denied Russian involvement in the killing.

But Russia’s critics were likely to draw parallels between the slaying and the deaths of other Putin foes. It also will probably raise further alarm in Washington, where Russia has come under scrutiny for allegedly trying to influence the presidential election to aid Donald Trump.

In an interview with The Washington Post on Tuesday evening — less than 72 hours before his death — Voronenkov complained about anonymous threats against him and his wife, Maria Maksakova, a former member of the United Russia party founded by Putin, with whom he fled to Kiev last year.

(More here.)

An election by the Kremlin, for the Kremlin and of the Kremlin

The winner of the House Intelligence Committee hearing on Russia? Vladimir Putin

By Michael McFaul March 23 at 12:31 PM, WashPost

After the vote results came in last November, many Russians close to the Kremlin celebrated. “Our Trump” — or #TrumpNash, as they tweeted — had been elected president of the United States. Few in Moscow expected Donald Trump to win, but many Russians wanted him to win, including Vladimir Putin. The Russian president so passionately supported the Republican candidate and despised Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton that he brazenly tried to influence our presidential election. As FBI Director James B. Comey described on Monday, the Russians “were unusually loud in their intervention,” violating our sovereignty by meddling in one of our most sacred acts as a democracy and not seeming to care if they were exposed. The Russian theft and then publication of private data from the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta produced a significant impact on our electoral process. The DNC chair was forced to resign and Democratic supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) became more enraged at Clinton, causing many of them to stay home on Election Day. Clinton’s image was damaged continuously by daily media coverage of these stolen emails. Of course, many factors combined to produce Trump’s victory, but Putin’s intervention most certainly played a contributing role.

(More here.)

Saturday, March 18, 2017

The Greedy Old Plutocrats — G.O.P. — are still working their Long Con

Trump strategy dismantles protections, favors the wealthy

by Tom Maertens

Tom Maertens served as National Security Council director for nonproliferation and homeland defense under presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and as deputy coordinator for counter-terrorism in the State Department during and after 9/11.

The Greedy Old Plutocrats — G.O.P. — are still working their Long Con.

Their long-standing program is to reward the wealthy who supply their campaign funds, using the debunked “trickle down” claim that cutting taxes for rich people produces an economic miracle, a free lunch.

They object to Obamacare principally because it is largely paid for with taxes on the wealthy, and in fact, Paul Ryan’s replacement plan would cut taxes for the wealthy by hundreds of billions of dollars. The top .01 percent already have as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent.

It is no surprise that Trump would embrace an economic swindle. Typically, he has promised “massive” tax relief for the middle class when the real beneficiaries of his plan are the fatcats; the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center estimates that Trump’s tax plan would save the top 1 percent $214,690 each, or 13.5 percent of after-tax income, while middle-income households would get an average tax cut of 1.8 percent or $1,010 each.

But Trump is a gifted huckster with a proven ability to dupe the ignorancia; his political career after all is built on a five-year lie about Obama’s birthplace.

The Tax Policy Center also found that Trump’s tax plan would reduce federal tax revenue by at least $6.1 trillion: half of that money would go directly to the richest 1 percent; combined with more defense spending, it would explode government debt.

Republi-Cons claim that Reagan’s tax cuts prove that trickle down works, but they fail to mention his eleven subsequent tax increases, and more important, his Pentagon buildup — a form of military Keynesianism that tripled the national debt; Reagan’s economy was built on both tax cuts and deficit spending. It produced fewer jobs than the economy did under Bill Clinton, who raised taxes and produced a surplus.

Even Obama created more jobs than Reagan. He also inherited a $1.4 trillion dollar annual deficit from George W. Bush’s failed economic policies. Obama eventually cut that by two-thirds, but in the interim, yearly deficits continued to pile up by the trillions, which Republicans blame on Obama instead of on the real causes — Bush’s supply-side scam and unfunded war.

Further evidence of the plutocrats’ real intentions is evidenced by their obsession with eliminating the inheritance tax, which affects a few thousand of the richest people in the country, but which the GOP misrepresents as a “death tax” that applies to all.

A second major goal of the GOP is to weaken or eliminate government regulations, which are an impediment to the plutocrats’ looting and polluting. Trump’s chief advisor, Steve Bannon, has listed “deconstruction of the administrative state” as a goal of the administration.

What will be destroyed under Trump/Bannon will be regulations governing clean air, clean water, fair labor practices, fair housing standards, anti-discrimination measures, financial regulations, and food and drug safety laws.

The Republican Congress is also committed to weakening the Dodd-Frank rules on Wall Street intended to prevent another economic crisis, and to eliminating the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau created to redress abuses/fraud by financial institutions. They want a market without rules.

The greediest plutocrat of all is Trump, who can’t seem to get enough money or enough publicity. Not surprisingly, he appointed a ratpack of other predatory billionaires to his cabinet, such as Steven Mnuchin, whose claim to fame is that his firm foreclosed on 25,000 mortgages during the financial crisis.

The biggest obstacle to Trump’s destructive policies is an independent press which regularly exposes his lies and conflicts of interest.

The Washington Post Fact Checker found that Trump made 194 false or misleading claims in his first 48 days in office. Nobel laureate Paul Krugman has termed Trump “the most dishonest man ever to hold high office in America.”

So it is no surprise that Trump would try to discredit the mainstream press. What is astonishing is that he resorted to “enemy of the people,” a standby of demagogues and dictators, one which Stalin used to justify liquidating his opponents.

Trump has even compared the U.S. intelligence agencies to Nazi Germany and accused Obama of wiretapping him and organizing protests.

There is a likely explanation for Trump’s deranged outbursts: more than 26,000 psychologists, psychiatrists, and other mental health professionals have signed a petition at Psychology Today declaring Trump has serious mental illness (narcissistic megalomania) — with symptoms obvious to everybody.

So we are faced with four years under a half-crazy con artist with the nuclear codes, and a destructive political party controlled by plutocrats.

What could go wrong?

Also published in the Mankato Free Press, March 18, 2017

Monday, March 13, 2017

Waging a war on energy and transportation innovation

Behind the Quiet State-by-State Fight Over Electric Vehicles

By HIROKO TABUCHI, MARCH 11, 2017
New York Times

When Georgia repealed its generous $5,000 tax credit on electric vehicles in July 2015, and instead slapped a $200 registration fee on electric cars, sales quickly tumbled.

In the month before the repeal, nearly 1,300 electric vehicles were sold in the state. By August, those sales had all but evaporated — to just 97 cars.

It was a hint of what would come.

Today, the economic incentives that have helped electric vehicles gain a toehold in America are under attack, state by state. In some states, there is a move to repeal tax credits for battery-powered vehicles or to let them expire. And in at least nine states, including liberal-leaning ones like Illinois and conservative-leaning ones like Indiana, lawmakers have introduced bills that would levy new fees on those who own electric cars.

The state actions could put the business of electric vehicles, already rocky, on even more precarious footing. That is particularly true as gas prices stay low, and as the Trump administration appears set to give the nascent market much less of a hand.

(More here.)

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Are Your Sperm in Trouble?

A sperm under the influence of an endocrine disrupting chemical in sunscreen. Because of chemicals like these, sperm have trouble swimming properly to deliver the goods. Credit Prof. Timo Strünker, Münster, Germany.
Nicholas Kristof, NYT
MARCH 11, 2017

Let’s begin with sex.

As a couple finishes its business, millions of sperm begin theirs: rushing toward an egg to fertilize it. But these days, scientists say, an increasing proportion of sperm — now about 90 percent in a typical young man — are misshapen, sometimes with two heads or two tails.

Even when properly shaped, today’s sperm are often pathetic swimmers, veering like drunks or paddling crazily in circles. Sperm counts also appear to have dropped sharply in the last 75 years, in ways that affect our ability to reproduce.

“There’s been a decrease not only in sperm numbers, but also in their quality and swimming capacity, their ability to deliver the goods,” said Shanna Swan, an epidemiologist at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, who notes that researchers have also linked semen problems to shorter life expectancy.

Perhaps you were expecting another column about political missteps in Washington, and instead you’ve been walloped with talk of bad swimmers. Yet this isn’t just a puzzling curiosity, but is rather an urgent concern that affects reproduction, possibly even our species’ future.

(More here.)

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Gullibility be thy name

Inside the anti-science forces of the internet

Stephanie M. Lee Buzz, Feed News Reporter

In January, Natural News shared a big story on Facebook: A federal scientist had affirmed Donald Trump’s belief that vaccines cause autism.

According to this researcher, the government had supposedly suppressed study data showing that African-American boys had a “340 percent increased risk for autism” after being vaccinated. “Despite being cast to the lunatic fringe by the mainstream media for his remarks,” the article said, the scientist “has confirmed Trump’s suspicions.”

The claim was false — but the story was an enduring hit. Since it was first published in November 2015, the link has popped up in alternative-health and anti-vaccine communities with names like “Vaccination Information Network” and “Healing ADHD & Asperger’s Without Hurting.” It’s been shared by Trump supporters, a fan account for the hacking group Anonymous, the conspiracy theory subreddit, and a former X Factor contestant on Twitter. All told, it’s garnered more than 141,000 likes, shares, and (overwhelmingly positive) comments on Facebook, according to the social media–tracking tool CrowdTangle. Meanwhile, a Time story that poked holes in the claim got 3,300.

(Continued here.)

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

The Elephant in the Room

It’s time we talked openly about Donald Trump’s mental health.

Rosemary K.M. Sword and Philip Zimbardo Ph.D. The Time Cure
Posted Feb 28, 2017, Psychology Today

In late 2015, we authors (Phil and Rose) commenced what would become an on-going conversation about then Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s mental health. We were concerned that, given his “straight forward” or outsider presentation and charisma, he would appeal to people that were unaware of the dangers of his obvious personality type—narcissistic megalomaniac—and the many offensive behaviors that accompany it. These behaviors include but are not limited to: condescension, gross exaggeration (lying), bullying, jealousy, fragile self-esteem, lack of compassion, and viewing the world as Us versus Them. Having observed the school-yard bully tactics Trump employed during a series of public debates as well as his blow-hard presentation during interviews, we felt it important to raise awareness about some of his behaviors. So in January 2016, we published Bullies: An exploration into different types of bullies. Note: Our intention was to use a picture of Donald Trump to make our point but were dissuaded due to the possibility of offending some of our Psychology Today readers who were also his supporters and so opted for a generic-looking meanie as our bully poster boy.

As Trump’s campaign gained momentum and his narcissism exploded, so did our courage. In March 2016 we published The Narcissistic Personality: How to spot a narcissist. In the article we shared clinically documented narcissistic behaviors and hoped it would be easy for readers to see that Trump fit every single example to a "T". And this time we used his photo. Shortly after publication, the editors at Psychology Today promoted our article to an "Essential Topic" which is where you want to be; it means your column is placed in the top four articles for a few days, pretty much assuring you of many more reads than you’d usually get. We were ecstatic! Now, whoever went to Psychologytoday.com would see our article front and center and be more likely to click and read about Trump’s narcissistic behavior! But strangely, within a couple of hours of being Up, it was Downed! The article was taken out of "Essential Topics" and demoted to "The Latest", which is where all published articles live, and die. We were never given an explanation as to why this happened. But we deduced we had stepped on some toes, or some political pressures were being applied, or anticipated, at PT.

(More here.)

Thursday, March 02, 2017

Donald Trump, Master of Low Expectations

Andrew Rosenthal MARCH 1, 2017, NYT

First as a candidate, and now as president, Donald Trump has drawn fire for promising the moon and stars without giving the slightest hint of how he intended to obtain them. In fact, as Tuesday night’s speech to Congress demonstrated so clearly, the president is actually a master of the art of diminished expectations.

On Tuesday night, we are told, he looked sober and presidential, when all he actually did was read a speech from a Teleprompter without veering off into one of his incoherent rants. It’s hard to believe that even the ill-disciplined and narcissistic Trump would have stood in the well of the House of Representatives and tried to lead a chant of “lock her up” or slapped journalists with the “enemy of the people” label that has been a favorite of dictators for more than a century.

Americans are supposed to be delighted, or at least relieved, that Trump began his speech by denouncing anti-Semitic threats and attacks, which have proliferated since he took office. But it took the president long weeks to make that simple statement, and just a few hours before his speech in the Capitol, he was suggesting to a group of state attorneys general that anti-Semitic attacks might actually have been carried out by people who want “to make others look bad” (in other words, his political opponents).

At one point, Republican lawmakers in the chamber leapt to their feet, cheering in sycophantic approval, when Trump announced that he was going to put an end to the “uncontrolled entry” into the United States of people “from places where proper vetting cannot occur.”

(More here.)

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Inequality 101: 10 percent of Americans own over 80 percent of stock

While Trump Touts Stock Market, Many Americans Are Left Out Of The Conversation

March 1, 2017
DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, NPR

President Trump likes to tout the booming stock market as evidence that he is already boosting the economy. He bragged about it in his speech to Congress on Tuesday night, and then got more to the point on Wednesday, when the Dow Jones industrial average closed above 21,000 for the first time.

To Trump, this is validation of the business-friendly policies he has pushed thus far. But there's something jarring about Trump's stock market talk as he promises his commitment to the middle class and laments the poverty level: Those stock market gains will overwhelmingly benefit the richest Americans.

America's massively unequal stock ownership

Ignore for a second that stock index milestones like Dow 21K are inherently rather arbitrary. The broader point is that stock indexes have recovered nicely since the Great Recession — the S&P 500 (a more comprehensive look at the stock market than the Dow) has more than tripled from its trough in 2009.

(Continued here.)

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Exploring the legacy of the New World’s most successful native rebellion

The First American Revolution

By ERIC A. POWELL
Monday, February 13, 2017

An isolated volcanic outcropping, Black Mesa rises high above the floodplain of northern New Mexico’s Rio Grande Valley. The land it’s on belongs to the people of San Ildefonso Pueblo, whose ancestors have farmed near the base of the mesa since at least A.D. 1300. A natural fortress, Black Mesa was the scene of dramatic events in 1694, when Pueblo warriors encamped on its summit withstood a months-long Spanish siege. That conflict was the culmination of what is known today as the Pueblo Revolt, an indigenous uprising that began on August 10, 1680. On that date, Pueblo warriors from 19 separate villages carried out a coordinated attack on Spanish missionaries and colonists across New Mexico. Within a few days, they had driven virtually all Spaniards out of the province. For the next decade, apart from occasional Spanish military expeditions, the Native American peoples of New Mexico enjoyed total independence. “The Revolt period is still so important to Pueblo identity,” says University of Pennsylvania archaeologist Joseph Aguilar, a member of San Ildefonso Pueblo. “In many ways it shaped the world we live in today.”

Historians have relied primarily on Spanish accounts to understand the period, but recently, archaeologists have begun to uncover a richer picture of Pueblo life in the aftermath of what some scholars call the “first American revolution.” Working closely with Pueblo communities to study sites established after the Revolt, archaeologists have found evidence for tremendous change in Pueblo society as well as widespread revival of traditions that had been suppressed by the Spanish. A major focus of this recent research has been on defensive villages built on mesa tops during the 14 years of Pueblo independence. Aguilar is the latest archaeologist to explore one of these sites and is now working at Black Mesa, mapping the Revolt-era settlement there and seeking to understand the role the site played when Spanish forces eventually returned to New Mexico. “We’re finding the Spanish accounts don’t always match up with what we see on the ground,” says Aguilar. “The historical documents are an important resource, but archaeology can help give us the native perspective on what happened.”

(The article is here.)

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Read my lips

Trump Ethics Monitor: Has The President Kept His Promises?

February 17, 20175:00 AM ET
ALINA SELYUKH & LUCIA MAFFEI, Minnesota Public Radio

Although Donald Trump sits in the Oval Office now, he continues to own stakes in hundreds of businesses, both in this country and abroad.

Ethics experts say this vast international web of personal financial ties could influence Trump's thinking on public-policy decisions. Trump has dismissed such concerns; he notes presidents are exempt from the conflict-of-interest rules that apply to Cabinet members and other government employees.

Past presidents have complied voluntarily with the ethics rules.

What Trump and his team have done is commit to certain steps that do touch on some of the ethics and conflicts-of-interest concerns. The Trump Ethics Monitor below focuses on those promises and tracks their status.

(View Trump's conflicts of interest and what he has said and done about them here.)

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Whatever Trump ultimately proposes will be very, very expensive

The Trump White House is already cooking the books

By Catherine Rampell Opinion writer February 20 at 7:55 PM, WashPost

Almost exactly a year ago, I suggested a rule of thumb for evaluating candidates’ economic agendas: The more growth a politician promises, the worse his or her economic plan probably is. Why? Because it suggests they had to make extra-rosy assumptions to get their math to work.

Supercharged growth implies higher tax revenue, as well as lower spending on means-tested programs such as Medicaid and unemployment insurance. As a result, astronomical economic growth is often used to paper over the astronomically large deficits that would result under more realistic assumptions.

As President Trump assembles his fiscal agenda, that rule of thumb is coming in handy once again.

Astonishingly, the White House still hasn’t released details for any of the major economic initiatives Trump promised during the campaign (a “terrific” Obamacare replacement, a top-to-bottom tax overhaul, massive infrastructure investment). But thanks to recent leaks about the administration’s economic book-cooking, we at least know that whatever Trump ultimately proposes will be very, very expensive.

(More here.)

Monday, February 20, 2017

Putin’s Political Meddling Revives Old KGB Tactics

Russia is returning to the playbook of the Cold War in its covert efforts to interfere with elections in the West

By Andrew Weiss, WSJ
Feb. 17, 2017 4:58 p.m. ET

Last month, former CIA Director Michael Hayden said that, during the 2016 election, the Kremlin had pulled off a “covert influence campaign” that “was probably the most successful in recorded history.” It has become accepted wisdom that Russia’s interference in the presidential campaign represents a fundamentally new sort of intrusion into a modern democracy’s inner workings.

But the Kremlin’s efforts—designed to help elect Donald Trump, according to the consensus view of the U.S. intelligence community—aren’t so new. In fact, they are a revival of Soviet covert behavior that dates back to the Cold War.

Recent Russian meddling has indeed involved some innovative techniques, including the release of troves of information collected clandestinely and the penetration of the Democratic National Committee’s email servers. The Kremlin has found a target-rich environment in a Facebook-dominated world where media narratives are easy to manipulate and public trust in traditional media is hitting rock bottom.

As the U.S. director of national intelligence explained in an unclassified report, these operations during the U.S. election “followed a longstanding Russian messaging strategy that blends covert intelligence operations—such as cyber activity—with overt efforts by Russian Government agencies, state-funded media, third-party intermediaries, and paid social media users or ‘trolls.’ ”

(More here.)

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Putin’s throwback propaganda playbook

Behind Russia’s information war

By Yardena Schwartz, Columbia Journalism Review
January 18, 2017

Russian President Vladimir Putin had dreamed of becoming an intelligence agent ever since high school. “What amazed me most was how one man’s effort could achieve what whole armies could not,” the former KGB agent later recalled. “One spy could decide the fate of thousands of people.”

Putin’s prophetic words weren’t uttered during the Cold War, when the US and Soviet Union were waging battles of opinion, using the weapons of propaganda to widen their spheres of influence. Putin’s remarks are from his autobiography, First Person, which was published in 2000. They are perhaps more relevant now than ever, as the world is recognizing–just a tad too late–that Russia is still playing by the rules of the Cold War.

Russia’s campaign to influence the 2016 US presidential election could go down in history as Putin’s masterpiece. Yet it is a mission he accomplished with an elegant simplicity that much of the media coverage has overlooked. This was not a complicated, high-tech, impossible-to-understand orchestration, but a simple plan drawn up by a leader who has masterminded geopolitical misinformation.

Instead of leaflets, TV commercials, and posters, Putin accomplished his feat using much simpler, cheaper, and more effective means: bots that spread misinformation on social media sites including Facebook and Twitter, anonymously-operated third party sites that churn out fake news, and official state-run news networks like RT and Sputnik.

(More here.)

Where the Booze Can Kill, and Putin Is Deemed a ‘Good Czar’

Zoya Mukhamadeyeva, 59, whose son, Renat, was one of at least 76 victims of fatal alcohol poisoning in Irkutsk, Russia, in December. The cause was a tainted low-cost vodka substitute. Credit James Hill for The New York Times
By NEIL MacFARQUHAR
FEB. 18, 2017, NYT

IRKUTSK, Russia — The overworked cleaning woman realized that her grown son was not just sleeping off his habitual hangover in the Siberian city of Irkutsk when she discovered — to her horror — that he had quietly gone blind.

Even as his speech slurred and his condition steadily deteriorated, the man, Renat V. Mukhamadeyev, 31, dissuaded his widowed mother from summoning an ambulance until about midnight. Wheeled into the emergency room at nearby Hospital No. 8 — by then a hellish madhouse of the dead and the dying — he fell into a coma and expired within a day, one of at least 76 victims of a mass alcohol poisoning.

To many outsiders, including President Trump and his inner circle of advisers, Russia is riding high today, strutting about the globe. It wields its clout both openly, by sending its military into Ukraine and Syria, and surreptitiously, warping politics in Europe and America through a sustained campaign of propaganda and cyberwarfare.

Yet, at home, the picture is decidedly bleaker.

Since oil prices plunged in 2014 and the West imposed economic sanctions over Crimea and eastern Ukraine, Russia has been mired in a grinding recession that has lowered living standards throughout the country. For many people, this has meant exhausting savings, cutting back on expensive items like meat and fish, growing their own vegetables and — tragically, in the case of Irkutsk — buying cheap vodka substitutes.

Most of the afflicted in Irkutsk started that Saturday night in December just like Mr. Mukhamadeyev, trotting out to a local kiosk or small corner store to buy “boyaryshnik” — “hawthorn” in Russian, lending the product a false holistic air. The label called it bath oil and warned against drinking the contents, but it was common knowledge that bootleggers produced the rotgut specifically as poor man’s vodka.

(More here.)

Trump, an Outsider Demanding Loyalty, Struggles to Fill Top Posts

By PETER BAKER and JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS, FEB. 18, 2017, NYT

MELBOURNE, Fla. — During President Trump’s transition to power, his team reached out to Elliott Abrams for help building a new administration. Mr. Abrams, a seasoned Republican foreign policy official, sent lists of possible candidates for national security jobs.

One by one, the answer from the Trump team came back no. The reason was consistent: This one had said disparaging things about Mr. Trump during the campaign; that one had signed a letter opposing him. Finally, the White House asked Mr. Abrams himself to meet with the president about becoming deputy secretary of state, only to have the same thing happen — vetoed because of past criticism.

Mr. Abrams’s experience has become a case study in the challenges Mr. Trump still faces in filling top positions a month into his presidency. Mr. Trump remains fixated on the campaign as he applies a loyalty test to some prospective officials. For their part, many Republicans reacted to what happened to Mr. Abrams with dismay, leaving them increasingly leery about joining an administration that cannot get past the past.

As Mr. Trump brings candidates for national security adviser to meet with him in Florida this weekend, he presides over a government where the upper echelons remain sparsely populated. Six of the 15 statutory cabinet secretaries are still awaiting Senate confirmation as Democrats nearly uniformly oppose almost all of the president’s choices. Even some of the cabinet secretaries who are in place may feel they are home alone.

It is not just Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson who has no deputy secretary, much less Trump-appointed under secretaries or assistant secretaries. Neither do the heads of the Treasury Department, the Education Department or any of the other cabinet departments. Only three of 15 nominees have been named for deputy secretary positions. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has a deputy only because he kept the one left over from President Barack Obama’s administration.

(More here.)

Saturday, February 18, 2017

If Russia tried to influence the U.S. election, things aren’t going as planned

By Andrew Roth February 18 at 6:00 AM, WashPost

MOSCOW — A funny thing happened in Russia this past week: President Trump’s face, once ubiquitous on the talk shows and evening news programs that tack closely to the Kremlin’s political agenda, was suddenly absent. Gone.

“Like they flipped a switch,” said Alexey Kovalev, a journalist at the Moscow Times who covers Russian state media.

It’s not hard to guess why. Engulfed in scandal over contacts between senior aides and Russian officials, the Trump administration has sought to put daylight between itself and the Kremlin.

In a single week, Washington has complained that Russia is violating a 1987 nuclear treaty and accused the Kremlin of meddling in various foreign elections. Scandal has forced out a national security adviser sympathetic to Moscow. Trump’s tone has seemed to harden on issues like Russia’s occupation of the Crimean peninsula.

For the Russians, it wasn’t supposed to turn out like this.

(More here.)

Friday, February 17, 2017

Unprecedented: Are systemic tipping points already upon us?

In 2017 already, record rains in California. Record heat in Chicago and Minnesota (with record rain last year). Record ice melt in both the Arctic and Antarctic.

In 2016, record temperatures in India, Kuwait and Alaska. Indeed, 2016 was the warmest year on record for the planet.

Climate change, species extinction, water depletion, food scarcity, an economic system dependent on continued growth and unlimited resources — all coupled with a ballooning human population — have led many scientists to ponder systemic collapse.

Let us be clear here: No matter what effect that humans have on the earth, the planet itself will continue until the sun fizzles out or some other cosmic event brings about its demise. And humans probably will survive in one form or another. But the question is: Will human civilization continue as we know it?

Scientists pretty much agree that human civilization began about 12,000 years ago — a miniscule sliver of time compared to the age of the earth (4.5 million years) and the evolution of the human species (about 200,000 years ago). This flowering of civilization came about after the last ice age in an era of moderate planet temperatures.

Now all of the advantages of this flowering are being challenged. While an ice age appears remote, the opposite is occurring: too much heat. And while there seemed at one time to be unlimited resources — upon which classic economic thinking is based — that, we know, is not true.

In my lifetime alone the world's population has tripled. While that rate will not continue, the human population is projected to grow till at least 2050 and perhaps further.

Some very smart scientists have posited that systemic collapse — barring major changes in human behavior — is inevitable. But let's be clear: If collapse occurs, it won't happen all at once. Indeed, it is happening all around us all the time.

These collapse events are too numerous for me to mention here, but sooner if not later they will build to perhaps what some theorists will deem a planetary system collapse. Whether this so-called catastrophic tipping point becomes a reality or an academic theory will be a matter of definition.

Nevertheless, the consequences of human influence upon the systems that have allowed humans to flourish will come back to challenge humanity's own survival. This brings to mind T. S. Elliot's perhaps prophetic lines:
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The antidote to a dystopic Trumpean dark age is political, not psychological

An Eminent Psychiatrist Demurs on Trump’s Mental State

To the Editor:

The writer, Allen Frances, professor emeritus of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University Medical College, was chairman of the task force that wrote the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV (D.S.M.-IV).

Fevered media speculation about Donald Trump’s psychological motivations and psychiatric diagnosis has recently encouraged mental health professionals to disregard the usual ethical constraints against diagnosing public figures at a distance. They have sponsored several petitions and a Feb. 14 letter to The New York Times suggesting that Mr. Trump is incapable, on psychiatric grounds, of serving as president.

Most amateur diagnosticians have mislabeled President Trump with the diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder. I wrote the criteria that define this disorder, and Mr. Trump doesn’t meet them. He may be a world-class narcissist, but this doesn’t make him mentally ill, because he does not suffer from the distress and impairment required to diagnose mental disorder.

Mr. Trump causes severe distress rather than experiencing it and has been richly rewarded, rather than punished, for his grandiosity, self-absorption and lack of empathy. It is a stigmatizing insult to the mentally ill (who are mostly well behaved and well meaning) to be lumped with Mr. Trump (who is neither).

Bad behavior is rarely a sign of mental illness, and the mentally ill behave badly only rarely. Psychiatric name-calling is a misguided way of countering Mr. Trump’s attack on democracy. He can, and should, be appropriately denounced for his ignorance, incompetence, impulsivity and pursuit of dictatorial powers.

(More here.)

Monday, February 13, 2017

America’s Biggest Creditors Dump Treasuries in Warning to Trump

By Brian Chappatta Bloomberg
February 13, 2017, 5:00 AM CST

In the age of Trump, America’s biggest foreign creditors are suddenly having second thoughts about financing the U.S. government.In Japan, the largest holder of Treasuries, investors culled their stakes in December by the most in almost four years, the Ministry of Finance’s most recent figures show. What’s striking is the selling has persisted at a time when going abroad has rarely been so attractive. And it’s not just the Japanese. Across the world, foreigners are pulling back from U.S. debt like never before.

From Tokyo to Beijing and London, the consensus is clear: few overseas investors want to step into the $13.9 trillion U.S. Treasury market right now. Whether it’s the prospect of bigger deficits and more inflation under President Donald Trump or higher interest rates from the Federal Reserve, the world’s safest debt market seems less of a sure thing -- particularly after the upswing in yields since November. And then there is Trump’s penchant for saber rattling, which has made staying home that much easier.

 “It may be more difficult than usual for Japanese to invest in Treasuries and the dollar this year because of political uncertainty,” said Kenta Inoue, chief strategist for overseas bond investments at Mitsubishi UFJ Morgan Stanley Securities in Tokyo. “Treasury yields may rise rapidly again in the near future, which will continue to discourage them from buying aggressively.”

(More here.)

President Trump Has Done Almost Nothing

Tune out the noise coming from the White House. So far, very little has actually happened.

By Zachary Karabell, Politico.com
February 13, 2017

President Trump Has Done Almost Nothing

Just weeks into Donald Trump’s presidency, you would think that everything had changed. The uproar over the president’s tweets grows louder by the day, as does concern over the erratic, haphazard and aggressive stance of the White House toward critics and those with different policy views. On Sunday, White House aide Stephen Miller bragged, “We have a president who has done more in three weeks than most presidents have done in an entire administration.”

But Miller was dead wrong about this. There is a wide gap, a chasm even, between what the administration has said and what it has done. There have been 45 executive orders or presidential memoranda signed, which may seem like a lot but lags President Barack Obama’s pace. More crucially, with the notable exception of the travel ban, almost none of these orders have mandated much action or clear change of current regulations. So far, Trump has behaved exactly like he has throughout his previous career: He has generated intense attention and sold himself as a man of action while doing little other than promote an image of himself as someone who gets things done.

It is the illusion of a presidency, not the real thing.

(More here.)

This article on millennials came out a year ago — is it even more appropriate today?

We're Millennials — Hear Us Roar

By William Handke and Ross Pomeroy RealClear Politics
January 26, 2016

William Handke is a graduate of Georgetown University and self-employed entrepreneur. Ross Pomeroy is the editor of RealClearScience. They are partners, along with three of their high school friends, in Five Friends Food, which makes Fresh Bar.

Last year, a major upheaval occurred in the United States, and you probably didn’t even notice. The change was silent, yet seismic, and will irrevocably alter the course of our country.

Millennials, Americans born between 1980 and 1997, now comprise the largest portion of the U.S. population — and all of them are now eligible to vote. That’s right: If they so choose, millennials could be the dominant force in American politics. If demographic and political surveys are any indication, this portends massive changes to U.S. governance and culture.

These changes are ones that many millennials, us included, will enthusiastically welcome. As we have previously written, our baby boomer parents and grandparents have monopolized and misused their political power ever since they seized it – committing crimes against their children’s and grandchildren’s generations in myriad ways.

For starters, they have expanded lavish government benefits on themselves while lowering their own taxes, with the inevitable result of piling up future government debt. Furthermore, they have catastrophically mismanaged the economy, relegating millions of citizens to second-class status. And they have ignored the real causes of climate change, the worst effects of which many of them will never see.

(Continued here.)

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Spy Revolt Against Trump Begins

Intelligence Community pushes back against a White House it considers leaky, untruthful and penetrated by the Kremlin

By John R. Schindler • 02/12/17, Observer

In a recent column, I explained how the still-forming Trump administration is already doing serious harm to America’s longstanding global intelligence partnerships. In particular, fears that the White House is too friendly to Moscow are causing close allies to curtail some of their espionage relationships with Washington—a development with grave implications for international security, particularly in the all-important realm of counterterrorism.

Now those concerns are causing problems much closer to home—in fact, inside the Beltway itself. Our Intelligence Community is so worried by the unprecedented problems of the Trump administration—not only do senior officials possess troubling ties to the Kremlin, there are nagging questions about basic competence regarding Team Trump—that it is beginning to withhold intelligence from a White House which our spies do not trust.

That the IC has ample grounds for concern is demonstrated by almost daily revelations of major problems inside the White House, a mere three weeks after the inauguration. The president has repeatedly gone out of his way to antagonize our spies, mocking them and demeaning their work, and Trump’s personal national security guru can’t seem to keep his story straight on vital issues.

That’s Mike Flynn, the retired Army three-star general who now heads the National Security Council. Widely disliked in Washington for his brash personality and preference for conspiracy-theorizing over intelligence facts, Flynn was fired as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency for managerial incompetence and poor judgment—flaws he has brought to the far more powerful and political NSC.

(More here.)

Friday, February 10, 2017

Does Vladimir Putin 'own' Donald Trump?

Trump/Putin connection alarming

by Tom Maertens

Tom Maertens served as National Security Council director for nonproliferation and homeland defense under presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and as deputy coordinator for counter-terrorism in the State Department during and after 9/11. He served both in the USSR before its fall and in Russia afterwards. He is a Vox Verax co-editor.

Does Vladimir Putin “own” Donald Trump?

Michael Hayden, former director of both the NSA and CIA, wrote in the Washington Post that Trump was a “polezny durak,” Russian for “useful fool,” a person naïve/gullible enough to be manipulated for propaganda purposes by the Kremlin without even realizing it.

Michael Morell, former acting head of the CIA, wrote in The New York Times that “In the intelligence business, we would say that Mr. Putin had recruited Mr. Trump as an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation.”

Steve Hall, the former head of CIA’s Russia operations, told NPR that CIA officers were “terrified” Trump would burn their sources inside Russia by revealing their names to Putin. The NYT disclosed that two U.S. intelligence officials, one current and one retired, confirmed that human sources in Russia played a crucial role in proving that Russia intervened in our elections.

Russian sources, including Novaya Gazeta, reported that four Russian intelligence officers associated with the Kremlin’s hacking unit have been arrested and accused of spying for the U.S. Putin had one FSB leader arrested in front of his colleagues during a meeting and physically dragged from the room with a bag over his head, according to USA Today. In addition, an FSB general thought to be involved in passing secret information to former MI-6 spy Christopher Steele, who compiled a damaging dossier on Trump’s alleged ties to Putin, was found dead in his car of a “heart attack.”

Such a spy roundup — if that’s what it was — immediately suggests a mole inside the U.S. government, such as FBI agent Robert Hanssen and CIA officer Aldrich Ames, who between them, exposed dozens of American agents in Russia, most of whom were executed.

According to the Washington Post, U.S. intelligence agencies, including the FBI, all concluded that Russia hacked the DNC’s server, and employed cutouts who provided WikiLeaks with thousands of hacked emails. The goal was to discredit democracy, damage Hillary Clinton and get Trump elected.

Despite Trump’s repeated denials, several private firms, including Microsoft, Crowdstrike, and Threat Connect also concluded that Russia intervened in our elections.

The Russians have a history of cyber hacking, in Georgia, Poland, Germany, NATO, Ukraine, and elsewhere. They virtually closed down Estonia in 2007, apparently over Estonia’s removal of a WWII monument to Soviet forces. Russia also hacked the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon.

The U.S. intelligence community also worries about Trump’s national security advisor, Michael Flynn, who was fired for cause as head of DIA by the Obama administration. Flynn is another useful fool who appears regularly on RT, the Kremlin-controlled propaganda outlet. More notoriously, he attended a dinner where he was seated next to Putin. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Russian spy roundup didn’t occur until after Trump and Flynn began receiving detailed security briefings, which could have revealed clandestine U.S. sources.

According to the WSJ, Flynn made a series of phone calls to the Russian ambassador on the same day the Obama administration announced sanctions against Russia as retaliation for interference in U.S. elections. Typical of the Trump team, they lied about the calls for several days, until it became clear that the government had taps of the phone calls.

Astonishingly, Trump’s top advisor is Steve Bannon who has been quoted as saying that he’s a Leninist who wants to destroy the state … "to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment."

Based on my extended experience in Russian affairs, including four years in Russia, it is virtually certain that the FSB attempted to compromise Trump while he was in Russia, probably using FSB “swallows.”

The only question is how damaging the material is. Paul Wood, reporting for the BBC, said that FSB sources of former British spy Christopher Steele claimed that Trump had been filmed with a group of prostitutes in the presidential suite of Moscow’s Ritz-Carlton hotel.

Trump has denied being blackmailed by Russian intelligence, but what can account for, as Robert Kuttner expressed it, Trump’s weird and opportunistic alliance with Putin bordering on treason, including his rejection of NATO? Trump seems to have made Vladimir Putin his political hero, perhaps because Putin has perfected what John le Carré once called the “classic, timeless, all-Russian, bare-faced whopping lie,” a practice Trump regularly emulates.

How else to explain Trump’s “bromance” with Putin, a thug who is rehabilitating Josef Stalin, except by such speculation. We know enough, however, to be worried about the pathological liar and Kremlin toady in the White House.

(Also published in the Mankato Free Press here.)

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

If you are a president interested in protecting Americans, read this

Consider:

  • 1 in 10.9 billion: Chance of an American being killed by an illegal immigrant
  • 1 in 3.64 billion: Chance of an American being killed by a refugee in a terrorist attack
  • 1 in 3.9 million: Chance of an American being killed by someone on the most common tourist visa

On the other hand:

  • 1 in 2.1 million: Chance of someone in Japan being killed by a gun in 2014 (total deaths = 6)
  • 1 in 944: Chance of someone in the United States being killed by a gun in 2014 (total deaths = 33,599)
(Sources: Christian Science Monitor, Feb. 13, 2017, and commonly accepted population data.)

See also:

Priorities, anyone?

If things are heated in Washington, they're even more so in the Arctic

The Winter of Blazing Discontent Continues in the Arctic

By Brian Kahn, Climate Central
Published: February 6th, 2017

Weird. Strange. Extreme. Unprecedented.

These are some of the words that describe what’s been happening in the Arctic over the past year as surge after surge of warm air have stalled, and at times reversed, sea ice pack growth. And the unfortunate string of superlatives is set to continue this week.

Arctic sea ice is already sitting at a record low for this time of year and a powerful North Atlantic storm is expected to open the flood gates and send more warmth pouring into the region from the lower latitudes. By Thursday, it could reach up to 50°F above normal. In absolute temperature, that’s near the freezing point and could further spur a decline in sea ice.

Scientists have said the past year in the Arctic is “beyond even the extreme” as climate change remakes the region. Sea ice hit a record low maximum last winter (for the second year in a row, no less) and the second-lowest minimum ever recorded last fall. After a fairly rapid refreeze in late September, the region experienced a dramatic shift. Extraordinary warmth has been a recurring theme.

(The article is here.)

Monday, February 06, 2017

Republicans face anger over Obamacare repeal during town halls

By Victoria Colliver, Politico.com

02/04/17 04:38 PM EST, Updated 02/04/17 07:28 PM EST

ROSEVILLE, Calif. — Two Republican lawmakers representing reliably conservative districts on opposite ends of the country on Saturday faced down heated questions from Obamacare supporters who flooded town hall events demanding that Congress not dismantle a health care law that has provided insurance for millions of people.

Fervent backers of the health care law shouted down Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.), blasting his views on the Obamacare repeal and President Donald Trump’s immigration ban. Hundreds of demonstrators showed up — some as early as 6:30 a.m. — to a theater in downtown Roseville, just northeast of Sacramento.

After the meeting ended, McClintock was escorted by police as the crowd outside the theater shouted “Resist!” and "Shame!"

The hostile crowd in Roseville was just the latest sign of trouble for congressional Republicans as they face voters outside of Washington. In Pinellas County, Fla., Gus Bilirakis, who represents a district Trump won, was on the defensive as voters packed a town hall on Obamacare. For more than two hours, Bilirakis listened to stories from his constituents — young, old, black and white — who implored him to not repeal the federal health care law without having a replacement ready.

(More here.)

World Bank: Climate Change Increases Water Risks, Hampers Growth

High and Dry: Climate Change, Water, and the Economy

A new World Bank reports finds that water scarcity, exacerbated by climate change, could hinder economic growth, spur migration, and spark conflict. However, most countries can neutralize the adverse impacts of water scarcity by taking action to allocate and use water resources more efficiently.

Key Findings

  • Water scarcity, exacerbated by climate change, could cost some regions up to 6% of their GDP, spur migration, and spark conflict. 
  • The combined effects of growing populations, rising incomes, and expanding cities will see demand for water rising exponentially, while supply becomes more erratic and uncertain. 
  • Unless action is taken soon, water will become scarce in regions where it is currently abundant — such as Central Africa and East Asia — and scarcity will greatly worsen in regions where water is already in short supply — such as the Middle East and the Sahel in Africa. These regions could see their growth rates decline by as much as 6% of GDP by 2050 due to water-related impacts on agriculture, health, and incomes.
(The full report is here. An accompanying video is here.)

Saturday, February 04, 2017

Read my lips … or not

A picture is worth a thousand words. (Source unknown.)