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Three Books on the 2020 Presidential Election and their relevance to the Black Live Matter Protests

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Written by Nick Licata – 07/03/2020


Each discusses strategies on how the election could address minority and racial injustices that have long been ignored.

The recent killings of unarmed Black citizens by police or white vigilantes have initiated the largest national outpouring of angry protests since Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968. With less than five months until the 2020 presidential election, three books help contextualize the election. To varying degrees, each discusses strategies on how the election could address minority and racial injustices that have long been ignored.

Ezra Klein’s “Why We’re Polarized” may be the most relevant book in understanding how our nation’s politics have emphasized divisions, not unity, among citizens. Klein astutely sees that culture shapes political strategies. He recognizes that since the civil rights era, the Democratic Party has embraced racial equality while “the Republican Party has provided a home for white backlash.”

Using scientific studies, he concludes that we are no longer a nation of citizens who hold overlapping loyalties. The intolerance of another political party leaves little room for cooperation. As a result, the political middle has shrunk, with independents more partisan than ever before. These are nonpartisans who probably sympathized with protesting as a democratic exercise. Now they may be split between tolerating protester violence as a justified reaction to racist police actions, or perhaps they condemn it as an immoral act of destructive chaos.

Klein’s analysis would have candidates this November work to remove the injustices that have grabbed our country’s attention by emphasizing our shared values, and not by labeling opponents as enemies.

David Plouffe, President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign manager, has written “A Citizen’s Guide to Beating Donald Trump,” in which he eschews insider party politics for the need for a candidate’s volunteers to pursue pragmatic actions that can influence key voters. Although he managed the campaign to elect America’s first Black president, he arguably fails to recognize the importance of Black voters. He mentions the NAACP only once and admits that Hillary Clinton could have increased contact with African American voters, but limits that attention to focus on the upper Midwest.

Black voters did not turn out for Hillary Clinton as they did for Obama, and yet 96% of them voted for her. That means many Black voters could help Joe Biden—or Donald Trump. Plouffe provides solid advice on how to mobilize supporters to get the vote out, but his book is weak in providing motivation for Black citizens to come out and vote for a Democrat. To reach out to Black voters, campaigns should consider Plouffe’s “Citizen’s Guide” while also addressing what the protests have been demanding: respect for Black and minority citizens by our local and federal governments.

Richard L. Hasen says in “Election Meltdown: Tricks, Distrust, and the Threat to American Democracy” that voter suppression is one of the major dirty tricks that both Democrat and Republican parties use to influence voters. But Hasen demonstrates that the Republican Party and President Donald Trump have supported tactics that make it specifically more difficult for African Americans to vote, blunting efforts to be represented by those challenging the racial inequalities in our laws.

Hasen illustrates how that occurs in large Democratic-leaning cities with sizable Black and other minority populations. The Republican-dominated state legislatures often do not provide those cities adequate election resources. The result is Black voters waiting in long lines in those cities to vote, and a delay in the final vote count. That delay has been characterized by Trump and Republicans as evidence of “rigging” the election against Republicans.

Hasen also cites an Oxford University report revealing that Russia’s Internet Research Agency has used social media to encourage Blacks to boycott electoral politics by preying on anger with racist and economic inequalities. Those seeking to deflate the Black vote this November may again use bogus organizations to post inflammatory statements to encourage protesters to boycott voting in the “irrelevant” presidential elections, in the hope of securing a Trump victory.

The Supreme Court DACA Decision—It was about politics—of providing a “reasonable” executive order

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Urban Politics – USA  6/25/20
Written by Nick Licata


 

authority of law

Photo by Rachel Cooper, “The “Authority of Law” marble statue by sculptor James Earle Fraser on the steps of the Supreme Court Building.

On June 17, 2020, the Supreme Court ruled that the 700,000 immigrants, who were minors when they were brought into the US without immigration papers, would continue to be protected from being deported. The media largely focused on the humane impact the decision would have on the many lives whose future depended on it. 

But the decision seemed to rely more on a nuanced legal interpretation of the Trump Administration’s failure to follow the proper procedures to invalidate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program (DACA). A reading of the decision reflects both were considered. And, as President Trump tweeted that it was about politics – it did come into play.
 
Since President Obama established DACA in 2012 by Executive Order, these immigrants have had a temporary legal status if they graduated from high school or were honorably discharged from the military, and if they passed a background check. Thereby they have been allowed to work and attend school legally in the U.S. 

One government study found that more than 90 percent of DACA recipients are employed and 45 percent were in school. Meanwhile many have started families, having 200,000 children of their own who are U.S. citizens, and they collectively pay $60 billion in taxes each year. 
 
Donald Trump campaigned for president on eliminating the DACA program. After he was elected, Trump issued his own Executive Order doing so. While the court’s decision maintains DACA, the ruling by the majority of five justices, which consisted of the four liberals and the conservative Chief Justice John Roberts, made it very clear that this was not an endorsement of DACA. 

Their majority ruling states: “We do not decide whether DACA or its rescission are sound policies. “The wisdom” of those decisions “is none of our concern.” We address only whether the agency complied with the procedural requirement that it provide a reasoned explanation for its action.” 
 
The ruling found that the Trump administration violated the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) in rescinding DACA by failing to meet its arbitrary-and-capricious standard requiring that agency action be reasonable and be reasonably explained. Importantly this approach did address a humane element, when Roberts wrote that the Trump administration failed to show what, if anything, would be done to address the hardship to the DACA recipients if the program were eliminated. 

From a more strictly procedural approach, he cites that a memo from Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen justifying the recension of DACA, which was released nine months after the decision to rescind DACA was made, consisted “primarily of impermissible “post hoc rationalization.” 

Justice Brett Kavanaugh, in his concurring minority judgment, expects that the Court’s decision will allow the Homeland Security Department to remand to relabel and reiterate the same substance that was presented in Nielsen’s memo. However, that memo failed to address Robert’s concern about providing a reasoned plan “to address the hardship to the DACA recipients” when that program is eliminated. Kavanaugh does not address that need in his opinion. 

It would seem that another attempt to rescind DACA would have to provide a reasonable one. Otherwise, that necessary condition would not have been met, despite as Kavanaugh bluntly stated that “all nine Members of the Court accept, as do the DACA plaintiffs themselves, that the Executive Branch possesses the legal authority to rescind DACA and to resume pre-DACA enforcement of the immigration laws enacted by Congress.”

Trump said that the Supreme Court’s decision was about politics. Perhaps in a way it was, just as his executive orders are about politics, as all past president’s executive orders have been. Trump appears to be the more engaged in politics than previous presidents, given that he has been the most prolific in issuing executive orders. He has averaged more of them, on a per-year basis, than Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barak Obama, whom he has surpassed by over 30 percent. 

In the instance of the DACA decision, it may come down to the politics of not reasonably taking care for the welfare of people living in the U.S. who are contributing through work, community activities and paying taxes, but who lacked the proper paperwork when they were brought into the country as children. A Pew Research Center survey conducted June 4-10, 2020 found that “about three-quarters of U.S. adults say they favor granting permanent legal status to immigrants who came illegally to the United States when they were children”

It might not be the wisest political strategy for Trump to continue pushing to rescind DACA so near the November elections. For one thing, the past lower court decisions have gone against Trump’s efforts to dissolve DACA, which could easily push court appeals into the midst of the final month of the presidential campaign.  This strategy would hinder Trump winning the following critical states that have considerable electoral college votes and a high percentage of eligible Latino voters: Texas 30%, Arizona 24%, and Florida 20%.

Justice Clarence Thomas begins the lead minority opinion saying that “Between 2001 and 2011, Congress considered over two dozen bills that would have granted lawful status to millions of aliens who were illegally brought to this country as children. Each of those legislative efforts failed.” 

The politics of his decision can be seen in how he lays out his arguments. He references “millions of aliens” being included under DACA. The largest number estimated has come from the Migration Policy Institute, and that was 1.3 million. However, those actually included in DACA topped out at just under 800,000 and has leveled off to around 700,000, which is the amount that Chief Justice John Roberts used in his majority opinion. 

Thomas also bases his argument on a 2017 opinion written by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who concluded that DACA was illegal and be rescinded. It is interesting to note that as a Senator, Sessions strongly opposed Democratic efforts to establish a path to citizenship for any applicant who was in the United States illegally. Roberts found that the application of Sessions’s decision to eliminate DACA fell apart because of faulty logic. Thomas does not substantially respond to Roberts’ critique.

Thomas was right in pointing out that Congress has to provide a workable immigration plan. As Congress is currently configured, it is unlikely to reach one with Republicans in charge of the Senate opposing legislation allowing for a path forward for DACA recipients to become citizens.

If Trump is re-elected, then he will certainly appoint a new Supreme Court justice who would be confirmed by a Republican Senate. That newly appointed justice would most likely eliminate the legal requirement that the federal government must come up with a plan to address any hardship resulting from the demise of DACA. 

Their decision was about politics, whether executive orders have to be reasonable or not.

An “Autonomous” Three Block-Long Seattle Street Threatens America – What?

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Written by Nick Licata


 

unnamed (4)

President Donald Trump from his New Jersey private golf club tweeted this past Friday morning June 12, that “The terrorists burn and pillage our cities.” He was referring to demonstrators occupying three blocks along a single street, in Seattle’s most culturally active neighborhood. Trump demanded that the mayor and governor, “Must end this Seattle takeover now!” Or else he would call in the army.

What was he talking about?

This national threat began on Sunday, June 7, when a small section of the Capitol Hill’s business district (known as the Pike-Pine Corridor) saw demonstrations outside one of Seattle’s five precinct stations. Like other demonstrations held around the nation for over a week, people of all ages and races were in the streets supporting Black Lives Matter’s demand to erase racist policing, opening up the move to either defund or reduce police departments’ budgets.

That Sunday the police said on Twitter that some people had thrown projectiles and fireworks at officers, although they did not provide any evidence beyond one what appeared to be a single candle. Accordingly, they responded with pepper spray, blast balls, and tear gas, which the mayor had previously promised to not use for the next 30 days. But protecting themselves from thrown projectiles triggered an exclusion to that prohibition.

Councilmembers who had attended as witnesses told me that there did not appear to be any threat to the police officers’ safety and the police over-reacted to the chants from the crowd, who did not wish to be pushed away from the East Precinct police station.

The only terror activity that occurred was when a civilian driver headed his car into the demonstrators. An unarmed twenty-seven-year-old Black man reached into the open window of the car as it was passing, grabbed the steering wheel, and halted it from hitting people. The driver pulled out a gun, shot and wounded the man as the car came to a stop. The driver then left the car with a gun in hand, walked over to a line of police standing nearby, surrendered himself, and was arrested.

The next day, on Monday, June 8, the police emptied the police station of guns, files, and critical equipment as they prepared to no longer defend the building. They apparently thought it would be destroyed by the demonstrators, who were mostly residents of the East Precinct, some of whom live in multi-million-dollar mansions as well as in low-income social housing projects. The precinct also has the highest concentration of apartments and small independent retail businesses in Seattle. Historically it has been the city’s most liberal council district; and since 2013 has repeatedly elected a Socialist Alternative Party member to the City Council, over the opposition of much better-funded business-community candidates.

By Tuesday, June 9, a loose conglomeration of demonstrators came together to use the former police street barricades to close off Pine street for a length of three blocks. Although Trump tweeted: “These people are not going to occupy a major portion of a great city,” it is not even part of downtown. It is a two-lane road lined with small neighborhood businesses and a park. The area came to be called by the occupants as CHAZ, the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, and they put up a website.

However, the local conservative radio host Jason Rantz, interviewed by Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson on Thursday, June 11, said it was a violent place. And that similar occupations to the one taking place in Seattle could happen in cities across the U.S. if the authorities allow it.

Although Carlson began the interview saying that Rantz was one of the few people he knew who had visited CHAZ, Rantz basically admitted that he had not been inside when he replied to Carlson’s question of what he saw inside CHAZ, he said, “Right now, it’s too violent for us to go in.” He provided no examples of what kind of violence he was referring to.

The next day, Friday, June 12, having been a prior resident for decades in that neighborhood, I went to see what dangers lurked in a community without police patrols.
I casually walked pass by the CHAZ street barrier and the three community sentries, who sat off away behind it, talking to each other. No conversation or ID needed. It was a wide-open passage, where I discovered that CHAZ had become a bit of a tourist destination for curious Seattle residents taking photos of all the posters, graffiti, and the one-block colorful mural painted on Pine Street spelling out BLACK LIVES MATTER.

The businesses on the street were still open as was the park when I visited. There was no sign of smashed windows or burnt buildings. There had been no looting and there was no violence of any sort occurring.

There was a “No Cop Co-Op” covered stand offering free fruit, vegetables, snacks, umbrellas, hand sanitizer, and water set up in the middle of their occupied territory. There was also a covered truck converted into a People’s Community Clinic with its own emergency medical team. There were many memorials to victims of police violence, along with were other little touches of an emerging community; an open-air conversation café with sofas, a small basketball court, an improvised smoking corner, and a private food stall, the Dirty Dog hotdog stand, among other things.

One of the most ambitious undertakings was begun by Marcus Henderson, who helped create the community gardens that occupy part of the adjacent Cal Anderson Park. Henderson is typical of educated citizens who understand that disruptive moments like CHAZ offer a positive opportunity. He had the knowledge for sustainable gardening from obtaining an Energy Resources Engineering degree from Stanford University and a master’s degree in Sustainability in the Urban Environment.

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan visited the gardens and met with Henderson the day after Trump had tweeted “Take back your city NOW. If you don’t do it, I will.” In response, Durkan accused Trump of purposefully distorting the activities in CHAZ to fit his tough law and order mantra.

Trump may have also been watching Fox News, which was engaged in the same practice. Thanks to an article by Seattle Times reporter Jim Brunner, it came to light that Fox ran digitally altered images in coverage of CHAZ. Three separate photos were photo-shopped to create an image of a heavily armed man guarding the entrance to the zone. Another image, with a caption of CRAZY TOWN, blazoned over a portion of it, showed huge flames pouring out of a building with a demonstrator running away. But it was not Seattle, the photo was from a May 30 protest in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Fox and other outlets also jumped on a comment by a Seattle police commander suggesting protesters were extorting payments from businesses within CHAZ. Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best had to refute that statement, saying that it was based on rumor and social media. “We haven’t had any formal reports of this occurring,” she said.

Best also said that she did not want to abandon the precinct station but had to because of pressure. However, she did not say the order came from Mayor Durkan, who did not say she made the decision. I got the impression that internal pressure came from the police union’s members to leave the precinct. This was particularly true when some councilmembers asked that the hard surface street barriers be removed that the police had set up to separate the demonstrators from standing on the street next to their police station.

The police attitude that their station might be torched and that chaos and disorder would follow in the neighborhood by allowing protestors to peacefully demonstrate so close to them was bolstered not only by the unsubstantiated comment from the police commander but also from comments made by a local police officer and the union’s president.

A resident of one of the nearby apartment buildings, whom I know very well, told me of her interactions with a police officer. She was standing in front of her building on Monday, June 8 at noon asking people what was going on. A police officer came by and announced, “We are all pulling out, and you’re all going to be on your own. We are not coming back in and you are not going to get help and bad elements will come in.” Then he added, “And who would want to work in Seattle [as police]?”

On the same day, June 12, that I visited CHAZ, Michael Solan, president of the Seattle Police Officers Guild, told Fox News “This is the closest I’ve ever seen our country, let alone the city here, to becoming a lawless state.” It would lead one to believe that the police union had lost faith in receiving political cover for their use of excessive force if the city council and mayor were to allow protestors so close to their precinct station.

Police officers in Seattle are not allowed to strike, but they may have actually adopted an old fashion factory “walk-out” by letting the police chief know that they could no longer execute their usual police practices if they remained there.

The most recent turn of events came in an interview on Saturday, June 13, when a person who represented the Seattle Black Lives Matter group said that the area popularized by the title CHAZ was not what their group was using to describe the street space that has been controlled by demonstrators since the police left their precinct station.

The Seattle BLM did not know who came up with that name and had not met anyone representing them. That unknown group declared the name CHAZ and then spray painted the CHAZ slogans all around the area. Instead, BLM is calling this zone CHOP — Capitol Hill Organizing Project. They posted a tweet: Black Lives Matter @djbsqrd “WE ARE #CHOP, not #CHAZ stop spilling lies and spreading this narrative of being autonomous.”

The future of this urban resistance project, initiated by the Black Lives Matter movement, still has to be played out. Organizers continue to push for their objectives, which are posted on the CHAZ website. Talks and open-mike discussions occur regularly in large outside public forums on the purpose of this unique effort.

Overall, observers and participants will need to continue thinking about how claiming a portion of public space for an underserved and discriminated community can initiate effective social and political change, and not perpetuate the status quo or ignite a right-wing backlash that pursues further repressive policies.

Hydroxychloroquine Could Help Trump⁠—Politically

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Written by Nick Licata


 

trump thumbs up

This month, President Donald Trump boldly continued to promote the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine as a protection against being infected by COVID-19. In an almost off-handed comment during a briefing, he said he was taking it himself, although the size of the dosage was not mentioned. At the same time, a new study of 96,000 coronavirus patients on six continents taking the drug concluded that they experienced a 34 percent increase in the risk of mortality and a 137 percent increased risk of serious heart arrhythmias. Those findings would seem to answer Trump’s question of “What do you have to lose?” in encouraging people to take the drug.

The media, with CNN often in the lead, has kept hammering away at Trump’s apparent ignorance or hubris or just stubbornness in pushing the consumption of hydroxychloroquine as a possible way of stopping the pandemic. Their primarily liberal audience probably reacts with disgust at having such an irresponsible president leading innocent but desperate and frightened Americans down a path toward a measurable risk of heart problems or death. Liberals likely expect that it could only damage his chances of being reelected.

Not so fast; here’s why hydroxychloroquine is not a risk for Trump. Promoting a potentially harmful drug for treating Covid-19, is not moving the political needle. No number of experts testifying on CNN or MSNBC against the use of this drug will alter the mindset of Republicans as a whole. Surveys show they trust Trump’s handling of the pandemic.

For instance, the number of coronavirus infections has exploded from early March, when Trump disbanded the Directorate for Global Health Security and at the same time declared a national emergency around the coronavirus. The number of confirmed infections soared from twenty-nine on March 4 to over twenty-six thousand on May 4 according to the University of Washington’s IHME. Nevertheless, Republicans have been far less concerned with the coronavirus than Democrats or Independents. According to the NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist Poll taken on March 12–13, 2020, 60% of Republicans did not believe coronavirus was a real threat, while 50% of Independents did. Two months later in late May, 82.2 % of Republicans approved of Trump’s handling of the pandemic while only 12.5 % of Democrats did, according to a poll by FiveThirtyEight.

The pandemic could also hurt the Democrat vote more than the Republican vote in this coming November’s elections. Black and Hispanic populations account for a higher share of confirmed cases and deaths compared to their share of the total population according to a mid-April analysis from the Kaiser Family Foundation. It also found adults with low incomes are more likely to have higher rates of chronic conditions compared to adults with high incomes, which could increase their risk of serious illness if infected with the coronavirus. These populations are the most likely to be harmed by taking hydroxychloroquine because of the greater likelihood of complications coming from their well-documented poor health conditions. They also overwhelmingly vote for Democrats

The percentage of validated 2016 voters in these three groups reported voting as follows: Blacks 91% for Clinton, 6 % for Trump; Hispanics 66 % for Clinton, 28 % for Trump; people making less than $30,000 a year 53 % for Clinton, 41% for Trump. Since they are not part of Trump’s voting base, any complaints about their illnesses or deaths from using hydroxychloroquine will not likely result in the administration quickly responding or even publicly acknowledging it.

Most importantly, Trump’s promoting hydroxychloroquine shows that he can buck

the health experts who he strongly implies are providing foolish overprotective restrictions that are putting people out of work and out of business. He does not point to infection charts and lectures about the dangers of getting back to normal life. Instead, he comes across as just using common sense to promote a tried and true drug to give Americans a chance to get over this pandemic. He says I’m taking it, and I’m doing fine. Try it! His attitude of being bold and going forward has him applauding protestors in Michigan who want their restrictions lifted, by tweeting “Liberate” Michigan.

He understands that culture has far more influence than data in swaying the populace: how people perceive the pandemic determines their behavior more than what they know about it. He frames the pandemic as a cultural war between the elites and the people, not a dry discussion of the facts lead by academics. Remember Trump was a very successful producer of a popular TV reality show. He knows what grabs people’s attention. It is not tables with numbers on it. Thus, he promotes an unproven drug and refuses to wear a face mask. Not wearing one communicates that he is with those who want to move on and not dwell on the minutiae of health statistics.

Those statistics may actually work in his favor. While the death count will soon exceed 100,000 and the infection rate climbs over a million and a half, the flip side of those charts is that 90% of the population feels fine or in the same health condition they had before the pandemic. Less than 5% of the population has been tested with over 80% of those showing not being infected with the virus. And many of those infected may never show any symptoms. As a result, a false sense of security will continue to grow, since few people have relatives or close friends who have a confirmed infection.

Consequently, Trump has downplayed the need for testing because it is time consuming, costly, not reliable and most importantly it might highlight the extent to which the virus has spread. That would encourage the Democrats in office to continue restrictions on social and business interactions to avoid further infections and deaths. That is something Trump will not tolerate because he desperately needs to get the economy moving before November if he is to stand a chance of being reelected.

He must hold onto the democrats in the key swing states who voted for him. Many Democrats, according to a poll by Morning Consult, believe he was responsible for the strong economy before the pandemic hit. In 2019, just 49 percent of Democrats said Trump was responsible for the then-strong economy, but in the latest survey, 70 percent said Trump was responsible. He must not let them slip away as unemployment among them skyrockets.

As a calculating pragmatist, Trump is focused on the calendar. It doesn’t matter what the pandemic does after the election. Above all, people have to get back to work and receiving income before the election. He will either be president, in which case his strategy worked for remaining as president or if he loses, then the pandemic will be someone else’s problem.

The only effective counter to Trump’s narrative is to capture the cultural high ground by emphasizing that America is one community, not separate cultural tribes. That a united community protects everyone and not just the lucky healthy ones. It is also one that recognizes that protective measures must be designed to move toward normalcy in social and business activities, in a cautious and controlled fashion. The data supports such an approach.

Recently two studies released by universities identified an economic benefit of over $5 trillion results from saving lives across the country in an effort to slow the pandemic down, despite the massive hit to our economy through societal distance restrictions. But that rational approach is boring and too abstract for many people. Instead, this nation needs leaders who can stoke the American spirit of cooperation and trust among our citizens. When that spirit is overshadowed by individualism and personal protection, our society and republic splinters into factions and ultimately invites our nation’s collapse.

It’s Time for A Robot Tax

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Written by Nick Licata


It’s simple; the robot that replaces every worker or reduces their pay will be taxed.

robottax

The Robot Maria Fritz Lang’s 1927 Metropolis

Taxing robots sounds unnatural, almost sci-fi like. While I use “robots’ to personalize automation, the reality is that workers, human beings, are being replaced by automation, often in the form of robotic functions in our major industries.

The coronavirus pandemic will push the automation of work into hyperdrive as a huge section of our employment force is laid off. As of May 7, 2020, over 33 million workers have applied for unemployment benefits out of a labor force of 165 million that peaked in February 2020.

The number of unemployed with no benefits will also go higher as federal aid is reduced because many will no longer be eligible. In 2016 there were about 26 million were nonfarm (unincorporated) sole proprietorships, with estimated three-quarters of them with no employees. Many of these people had not been eligible for unemployment insurance. Because of congress’s Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) self-employed workers, including independent contractors, can now collect unemployment benefits.

Those benefits will stop long before the pandemic does if the Republicans control either chamber of Congress in 2021. In the push to restart our economy, Republicans are resisting any continuation of funding for these workers. Companies are also facing more employees, particularly those represented by unions, requesting a safe work environment requiring protective measures like safe distancing. Meatpacking plants are just the most publicized example of this tension. Robots do not need safe distancing, nor do they organize for a safe work environment.

The pandemic’s long term impact will be an additional new incentive to automate work production and services. Business leaders have recognized the displacement of human labor by robotics for some time. Tesla co-founder and SpaceX founder Elon Musk told the World Government Summit in Dubai in 2017, “There will be fewer and fewer jobs that a robot cannot do better (than a human). These are not things that I wish will happen. These are simply things that I think probably will happen.” To mitigate this trend other billionaires are promoting a tax on robots.

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates told online publication Quartz, that if a robot replaces a human worker, there should be a tax on robotics to offset automation’s societal effect. Gates said that replacing human labor with machines can have a positive impact if it frees up people to use their human empathy and understanding to help the many who need help to survive and enjoy life. However, the money to allow them to assist the larger community needs to come “from the profits that are generated by the labor-saving efficiency there; some can come directly in some kind of robot tax.”

Billionaire and owner of the Dallas Mavericks, Mark Cuban, said that robotics and artificial intelligence “is going to cause unemployment and we need to prepare for it.” In response to Gates’ robot tax suggestion, Cuban tweeted “There should be a tax and some should be paid in stock of the company.”

Their concerns are backed up by PricewaterhouseCoopers, one of the world’s Big Four accounting firms, which released a study in 2017 that estimates 38% of US jobs could be lost to automation by the early 2030s. Employees in the industries related to transportation, manufacturing, and retail would be the most likely to lose their jobs to robots. Meanwhile, in response to these concerns, Trump’s Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said “I’m not worried at all,” and added that AI and robotics “aren’t even on their radar screen”.

However, Business Day columnist Kevin Roose, attending the 1919 World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, reported that executives there claimed that if they don’t automate jobs as quickly as possible, their competitors will. A spokesman for Cognizant, a technology services firm, described the conflict that these executives must address. On one hand they “absolutely want to automate as much as they can,” and on the other hand they are “facing a backlash in civic society.”

To address that backlash, businesses argue that “workers whose jobs are eliminated by automation can be “reskilled” to perform other jobs in an organization.” The unfortunate news for those fired is found in a January 2019 report by the World Economic Forum that estimated that only one in four can be profitably reskilled by private-sector programs.

Only a few politicians have shown interest in a robot tax. Former San Francisco Board of Supervisor Jane Kim had created a task force to explore an automation tax because income disparity in her district could be attributable to the use of robots. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio also advocated for a robot tax during and after his presidential run. But such no robot tax has been pushed in Congress.

The huge number of unemployed workers has kicked our economy into the basement. Consumer demand, which accounts for 70% of our economic growth, has steeply declined. The result is a calamitous fall in sales and profits for most businesses, forcing them to lay off employees, which further erodes consumer demand. If total wages remain depressed, last year’s demand will not return for the foreseeable future. This will compel businesses to search for ways to reduce their costs. And, that swings the door wide open to automation, the silent killer of human employment.

Candidate Donald Trump ran on a platform of getting jobs back to those that lost them. Think of the coal industry. There were multiple causes for the decline in jobs in coal production, such as the competition from lower-sulfur Wyoming coal, or the production of cheaper natural gas, or world decline in demand for coal. Trump ignored them and emphasized government regulation while the Democrats focused on automation as the cause.

Trump just talked about getting back jobs, although there are now fewer coal miner jobs than when he got elected. Hillary Clinton’s approach was more honest and more tone-deaf. She bluntly said the nation was going to “put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” Her answer was a $30 billion plan to secure their health care and pension benefits, offer tax credits and job training, and economic development. Long on details, but no punch line: I’ll get the jobs back.

This is why a robot tax carries a better political message. It’s not the usual promise of the government spending more of your money to help the needy. It’s simple; the robot that replaces every worker or reduces their pay will be taxed. Automation does provide benefits: faster service and more production, and lower labor costs. But the savings are not shared with the employees. If automation does not produce additional work opportunities at comparable wages, then the consumer market shrinks, while profits increase. The result is wealth is concentrated among the owners and investors, while those working are cut free to seek lower-paying jobs.

A robot tax stops that trend by shifting a portion of business profits to the workers by funding a viable social net to protect their living standards and provide training for new jobs at equal or better wages. Now is the time for Congress and candidates this November to raise it as a serious attempt to resurrect our economy and save or create jobs for the millions who are unemployed now and perhaps for years to come.

The Next President Must Harness the Virus Debt for Economic Growth

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Historic Levels of Unemployment Claims and Business Shutdowns Have Required the Greatest Surge in Government Debt Since WWII

biden and trump

 

            Because of the Covid-19 pandemic the Federal government, with the support of both parties, has issued close to $3 trillion in government debt to stop the economy from cratering. However, this debt could also create an opportunity to expand our economy. First, let’s review how we got here.

            With stay-in-place laws and mandatory closing of most businesses, unemployment has skyrocketed. Before the pandemic it was at 3.5 percent on December 20, as of April 2020, the Economic Policy Institute has estimated that unemployment rate to be at 18.3 percent. Many economists using April’s Labor Department data predict that the unemployment rate could reach 25 percent this summer if the existing practices remain in force. That level would match the peak of the Great Depression in 1933. However, then it took three years not six months to reach that level.

            The health security measures taken so far by states and the federal government have also dramatically reduced the size of our 2020 GDP. Fitch Ratings predicts it will shrink by around 6 percent from 2019. This would wipe out all the growth that took place in the last two years.  The GDP has increased by 2.3 percent in 2019 and 2.9 percent in 2018.

            With numbers like these, both President Trump and Democrat leaders pushed for federal loans. Trump initially said in February, “I think that we’re doing a great job,” requesting $1.25 billion in new funding to address the coronavirus pandemic. However, the House Democrats passed the CARES Act ( Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (H.R. 748) at a much higher level of funding.

            In the first week of March, Congress with bipartisan support replaced that bill with a Phase 1 funding package totaling $8.3 billion to treat and prevent the widespread transmission and effects of COVID-19. By the end of March, a new Phase 3 added $2 trillion more and was passed by the Senate unanimously and in the House by voice vote, with Trump signing it the next day. Still waiting in the wings is CARES 2, which provides another half-trillion for emergency relief. It is scheduled for a House vote when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi determines that it is safe for the members to return to D.C.

            These loans are pumping up government debt to new levels. Previous government spending increases and tax cuts had already pushed U.S. government ratio of debt to the GDP to nearly 80%, the highest in over 60 years. It was only 35 percent at the end of 2007. Germany’s second-largest bank, Commerzbank, believes that the current coronavirus relief packages will push that figure to 96% by 2022.

            Although the Republicans are reluctant to push for the larger CARES 2 funding package, economists have been predicting that more support for workers and companies harmed by the pandemic will be required. However, with unemployment approaching an all-time high,
tax revenue will decline along with economic activity, pushing the government deficit even further.  Bernd Weidensteiner, one of the German bank’s economists, says that could well happen if Congress passes further aid packages and the economy does not revive quickly; US debt could then exceed the previous high of 106 percent set right after WW II.

The Next Administration Faces Two Options for Addressing Our Current and Growing Government Debt

Next year’s administration, whether under Donald Trump or Joe Biden, will face a huge federal debt due to the Covid-19 pandemic. There are two different approaches to take. On the whole, conservatives support paying off the debt as soon as possible to avoid inflation, while liberals support using debt to expand the nation’s services and economy.

Balance the Budget by Cutting Public Services

            This month the leaders of the conservative Republican Study Committee (RSC) sent a letter to the top four leaders in both chambers saying that there is an “urgent need” to address the “fiscal health of our nation” because of the growing debt created by dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. Their solution is to offset debt payments with spending cuts and to limit the growth of the federal revenue to 60 percent of the GDP.

            Their approach is similar to the conservative movement to pass a Balanced Budget Constitutional Amendment, which would require the federal government’s total revenues to be equal to or greater than total expenses. Inflation would be avoided by cutting or curtailing the growth of social spending, like social security and Medicare entitlement programs. That effort has been around since the 80s.

            President Ronald Reagan pledged in his first term to do “all I can” to get the Republican-dominated Congress to pass a resolution for a constitutional amendment to require balanced federal budgets. But in his two terms, he never proposed a balanced budget to Congress. Instead, he ran budget deficits as a result of providing business tax cuts. In particular, real estate developers benefited, like Donald Trump, who amassed $3.4 billion in debt by 1990, and was personally liable for a quarter of it. Meanwhile, during Trump’s presidency, our nation’s deficit is up nearly 50 percent from Obama’s last term by pushing big military spending increases and additional tax cuts.

            Bush, like Reagan, believed in a balanced budget but continued to run deficits. His cure was to make funding cuts in social spending that impacted Social Security, Medicare, and education. However, Democrat Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama also worked to achieve a balanced budget.

            Clinton vowed to reform welfare but in 1996 when the Republicans gained control of both Congress’s chambers and he faced an election for his second term, he signed off on Republican legislation. It ended six decades of federal guaranteed help to the poorest and turned over the responsibility to the states. In the process, he balanced the budget – by abandoning his initial proposal to increase welfare spending by $10 billion and instead cut it by nearly $55 billion.

            President Obama also pursued a balanced budget when he convened the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles “National Commission on Budget Responsibility and Reform” in 2010. It recommended a complete overhaul of the tax code, with the objective of lowering the debt-to-GDP ratio to 60% by 2023. Among its recommendations was increasing the normal retirement age to 69 by 2075, reducing federal retirement benefits, school loans, and farm subsidies. Congress never adopted it.

            New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, argues that conservatives use budget deficits “as an excuse to cut social programs” — for example, a number of states have made it much harder to collect unemployment benefits when their budgets shrink. State business tax revenue has been drastically reduced by measures to control the Covid-19 pandemic. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates states could suffer a collective shortfall of $500 billion through the fiscal year 2022. Unless they receive national assistance, they will have to eliminate services to both citizens and businesses.

            State assistance has been blocked by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell; he says it would cost too much. He said if states cannot afford to handle the coronavirus pandemic, they should declare bankruptcy. There is a certain irony in that suggestion since McConnell’s Kentucky is one of only four states where local and state debt exceeds 90% of their combined revenue. Despite Trump tweeting, “Why should taxpayers be bailing out poorly run cities and states, in all cases Democrat-run and manage…” three of these four states have fiscally conservative Republican governors.

Focus on Expanding the Economy, not Balancing the Budget

            Although cutting debt to achieve a balanced budget may still be pushed by Trump or Biden, the Covid-19 pandemic has created a new set of conditions.  An increase in federal debt may not be a problem but a means to sustain a growing economy. Krugman recently wrote, “While we will run very big budget deficits over the next couple of years, they will do little if any harm.”

             A report from the Brookings Hutchins Center on Fiscal and Monetary Policy came to the same conclusion. The world market is “awash in savings; people and institutions with savings are particularly eager to invest the money in U.S. Treasury debt right now.” This makes it “easier for the U.S. Treasury to borrow more without being forced to pay much higher interest rates;” And, “with interest rates at historic lows… investment demand is likely to be very low in the face of the uncertain economic outlook associated with the pandemic.”

            An industrialized country can have a ratio of government debt to GDP to be well over 100 percent, and still have a growing economy without excessive inflation. Artie Green of Cognizant Wealth Advisors suggests looking at Japan as a positive case study. It has the highest debt to GDP ratio in the world (currently 273%), its economy has been doing relatively well. Unemployment slid from 5% in 2008 to less than 3% in 2017 and its inflation rate has not topped 3% for the past two decades.

            Four academics from the U.S. and Europe in the field of economics issued a paper on why running a government budget deficit is stabilizing instead of destabilizing, if it is used to invest in full-employment strategies and assisting small businesses. Both the owners and their employees’ benefit. The owners receive financial assistance to keep their businesses alive and their workers employed during emergency conditions, like the pandemic or the last recession

            They point out that in past instances when the debt was expanded, like the Obama bank bailout after the 2008 crash, the Trump tax cuts and Coronavirus financial bailout, money was not used to finance new infrastructure, expanded employment, or improve living standards. Instead, most of it was given to the finance, insurance, and real estate sectors of our economy so that they could remain profitable.

            This approach, highlighted by the balance-the-budget mentality and sustained by the belief that financing investors will create good-paying jobs, has been pursued by both Republican and Democrat administrations. The result is a gradual but measurable shift in wealth from middle class working families to a thin slice of the population whose wealth is measured in billions of dollars.

            A report by Chuck Collins of the Institute for Policy Studies found that since 1980, the taxes paid by billionaires, measured as a percentage of their wealth, dropped 79%. He also found that after the 2008 financial crisis, it took less than 30 months for billionaire wealth to return to its pre-meltdown levels. But as of 2019, the net worth of middle-class families has yet returned to the 2007 level of wealth. “People went into the pandemic with the economic hangover from the Great Recession,” he says.

            In order to have a growing economy, the federal budget will need to lift up employee’s wages. Our economy is consumer-driven and dependent on small businesses for sustaining our workforce. Consumer spending accounts for 70 percent of American economic growth. Over 99 percent of America’s 28.7 million firms are small businesses and they create two-thirds of net new jobs.

The Nation Needs a Plan for Moving Forward 

            The next presidential administration must have a plan for dealing with the Covid-19 induced government debt. The Trump administration’s tax cut and Covid-19 government debt cut services to balance the budget. If Biden is to offer something different, he needs to articulate how our current debt does present a challenge but also an opportunity to sustain and expand our economy.

The closing down of businesses and the restrictions of personal travel have hurt small businesses and their employees. It has also slowed down the spread of the pandemic. But it has come with a huge economic cost, resulting in protestors across the country demonstrating against these protective measures. They have legitimate concerns, but their actions are promoted by interests that want to see government funding flow to those least in need of assistance.

That practice will continue to hinder middle-class incomes from keeping up with increasing living costs. It produces anger, resentment, and a willingness to support whoever is willing to take drastic steps to alter their slide away from a stable income and secure future. In other words, they support candidates, like Donald Trump, who run against the government because it has failed to protect them. Such leadership does not seek solutions but someone to blame: a deep state of elites, dangerous migrants, fake media, and government-funded scientists. It is a pattern we are now seeing in countries with weak democratic institutions, like a free press or an independent judiciary. These countries will either face social unrest or move to cripple those institutions that protect their citizens.

The U.S. does not have to go down that path. The next administration can choose to use our debt to create decent-paying jobs and update our aging physical infrastructures. The public, the voters, need to hear a plan. One that uses the federal budget to provide us both economic growth and a safer, healthier environment. We need a leader that moves beyond blaming others for our problems to one who corrals our debt as a resource, not a burden to fund such a journey. Biden must step up to that challenge if he is to be a viable alternative to Trump.

Trump Disrupts the Distinction Between Personal Loyalty & Constitutional Allegiance

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Written by Nick Licata

Trump has expanded his responsibility for dealing with a pandemic by firing federal government watchdogs.
trump scowl
           Donald Trump was elected president to disrupt our government and society; to drain the swamp.
           The specifics were vague, but the understanding was that someone had to change the “system”. As Trump said at the 2016 Republican nominating convention in Cleveland, “Only I can fix it.” And, he wants explicit loyalty to him from government employees as the means for doing that.
            While the coronavirus pandemic is ravaging our country, President Trump’s attention has shifted from deflecting responsibility for appropriately preparing for it to firing the institutional watchdogs that Congress had created to keep it informed of any department problems that could usurp their authority or endanger the public’s health.
            A bipartisan Congress established a network of independent watchdogs over various federal departments when it enacted the Inspector General Act of 1978. In an era when, despite party affiliations, there was a common recognition that congress needed to curb excessive presidential authority; the House passed it 388 to 6.
            The law clearly states that Inspector Generals were created, “to conduct and supervise audits and investigations” and “to provide a means for keeping … Congress fully and currently informed about problems and deficiencies relating to the administration of such programs and operations and the necessity for and progress of corrective action;”
            Congress in the past, has resisted presidents from interfering in the duties of IGs. President Obama’s administration attempted to do so when it issued a 2015 legal memo allowing departments to withhold some information from them. Senator Chuck Grassley, then Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, amended the existing legislation guarantying the IGs had access to “all records” of the agencies they oversaw. It was then signed into law by President Obama.
            On April 3, 2020, Trump fired Michael Atkinson, the IG for the intelligence community. He handled the whistleblower complaint that eventually led to Trump’s impeachment. Atkinson said the firing was retaliation for doing his job. A bipartisan letter of eight senators led by Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, to President Trump followed the firing in less than a week. It accused him of not providing a sufficient explanation for firing Atkin and for apparently circumventing Congress’s authority by not providing proper 30-day notice.
            Trump did not break new ground here. President Obama in 2009, removed the IG for the Corporation for National and Community Service after that IG investigated an Obama supporter. Obama said he no longer had the “fullest” confidence in the IG. Trump said that he lost his “vital” confidence in his IG. Obama gave Congress a thirty-day notice, as did Trump, but both of them put the IG on administrative leave, effectively removing him from his position before the completion of the statutorily required notice period.
            Congress failed to fix this ability to bypass Congress’s authority back in 2009, by stripping out a key provision in the  House version of the Inspector General Reform Act of 2008.  The final bill became law, but it did not include the House’s “for cause” requirement for removing an IG for 9 specific reasons, such as Neglect of duty; Malfeasance; Knowing violation of a law, rule, or regulation; gross waste of funds; or Abuse of authority.
             So, the wording for firing IGs remained simply that an “Inspector General may be removed from office by the President. The President shall communicate the reasons for any such removal to both Houses of Congress.” As a result, presidents have fired IGs because they just darn wished to. President Reagan in 1981 fired all the watchdogs nominated by his predecessor, President Carter, a Democrat. After a fierce backlash, he reversed some of those dismissals.
            All presidents appoint “loyal” followers to key White House positions so that they can speak and act as freely as possible in pursuing any policy they choose. Such loyalty is to be expected. But Trump differs from former presidents, in that he has expanded his expectation of loyalty to offices that in the past were considered to be more bound to government rules and regulations than personal loyalty to the president.
            Loyalty has come down to executing Trump’s policy or instructions, regardless of what some musty, old rules may say. The assumption that federal employees should be personally loyal to him, puts employees in an awkward position. Do they follow an allegiance to the nation’s constitution and law, or do they maintain the trust of the president by supporting his decisions if they run counter to the law?
            Early in Trump’s first term, former Senator Jeff Sessions found himself in that dilemma. Trump appointed him as Attorney General after Sessions had been the first senator to endorse Mr. Trump’s candidacy. Sessions recused himself from his Department of Justice’s probe into whether Russia had interfered with the 2016 presidential election because a DOJ regulation forbid its officials from investigating campaigns of which they were apart. The session was a Trump campaign surrogate throughout the race and served as chairman of the campaign’s national security advisory board.
            In retaliation, President Trump said he never would have hired Sessions if he knew he was going to recuse himself, despite Trump knowing that if Sessions headed the investigation it would have violated that Department’s rules. Session defended his decision saying that the DOJ “needed to do its work fairly and impartially according to the law and Constitution”. Trump was outraged and removed Sessions; loyalty was more important than the law.
            Trump has fired several professional employees who have served under prior presidents who he considered disloyal for carrying out their legal duties.
            FBI Director James Comey had served in the administrations of President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama and was overseeing the Russia probe. Comey claimed that in a personal meeting with Trump in the Oval Office, he was asked to end the investigation into Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, who was later found guilty and sent to prison. Two months after Sessions’ recusal Comey was fired.
            Ukraine Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch was appointed as an ambassador three times, twice by a Republican President, and once by a Democrat. She was abruptly told to come back to Washington from Ukraine “on the next plane.”
            In D.C. Deputy Secretary of State informed her that the President had lost confidence in her and the Department had been under pressure from the President to remove her, although he told her that she had done nothing wrong. Her office’s anti-corruption efforts raised concerns with Ukrainians who “played by the old, corrupt rules sought to remove me,” Ms. Yovanovitch said. Trump’s attorney, Rudi Giuliani was representing the interests of some of these individuals. She was subsequently dismissed as the Ambassador to Ukraine before her term was over.
            Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a director for European Affairs at the National Security Council, testified before the Trump impeachment inquiry because he had raised concerns that a phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky threatened US national security.
            Afterward, Trump called him “insubordinate,” and said Vindman had reported his “’perfect’ calls incorrectly.” The Army said they would not investigate him for disciplinary action, despite Trump recommending that they do so because Vindman told  “horrible things” to the House investigators. Two days after Trump’s acquittal, Vindman was fired and escorted out of his White House office.
            Most recently Trump has begun focusing on IGs who might balk at carrying his political message on the coronavirus pandemic rather than just reporting factually on it. He attacked Health and Human Services Inspector General Christi Grimm after she released a report describing widespread testing delays and supply issues at the nation’s hospitals. In his tweeter account, Trump dismissed it as “Another Fake Dossier!” He mentioned that she served under the Obama administration, but did not note that she had also previously served under the Bush administration.
            More significantly, Trump removed Glenn Fine as the coronavirus relief watchdog. Fine had just been named by the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency to lead the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee because he was the acting Pentagon IG.
             Since Trump did not have a say in that decision, he could not be assured that Fine would loyally publicize Trump’s role in fighting the pandemic. So, while Congress was out of town, Trump named a new acting official to Fine’s position, who automatically became the new watchdog of the federal government’s efforts to fight the pandemic.
            The president has the right to replace certain government employees, but they have constraints when those positions protect the public’s interests. Trump’s dismissal of ambassadors, justice department and investigation department directors, and IGs has revealed a pattern of firing those who do not follow his policies as opposed to following the law that frames their responsibilities.
            To avoid having these critical positions becoming fixated on being loyal to a particular president’s political agenda rather than having an allegiance to the constitution, Congress needs to pass new legislation. It should reintroduce the 2009 legislation requiring a president to only fire an IG for a specific cause. Also, they must not allow an IG to be suspended or put on administrative leave to circumvent Congress publicly reviewing his reasons for dismissing an IG before that person vacates the position. Unless Congress acts accordingly, government agencies will fall under the sway of a president that cuts off public scrutiny of mismanaged or corrupt agencies.
            Any candidate for president could endorse such legislation and pledge to get it passed during their first year. Nevertheless, regardless of who becomes president in 2021, Congress must recognize that they are the government branch that must check any president, Republican or Democrat, from corralling too much authority that could endanger the public’s safety and liberties.

Authoritarian Leaders Rejected the Danger of a COVID-19 Pandemic Because It Challenged Their Image

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Written by Nick Licata


 

     They responded in two ways, first ignoring it and then blaming others.

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A Brazilian government official (r) posing for a photo next to President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence at Mar-A-Lago who tested positive for the 2019 novel coronavirus.

In the current coronavirus pandemic authoritarian-oriented leaders, whether communist or capitalist, initially portrayed the virus as an insignificant danger. Once they could no longer ignore the mounting number of infections and deaths, they turned to deflect criticism to condemning the behavior of others. Their major concern was not protecting the welfare of their people but protecting their image as a leader whose control was above being challenged by men or nature.

Bad news resulting from natural events, such as the COVID-19 pandemic is particularly troublesome to them. The leaders of the two largest authoritarian nations, Russia’s Putin and China’s Xi, both initially downplayed the coronavirus pandemic and then accused others of their nation’s derelict response. And, the leaders of two of the largest democracies, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and our own President Donald Trump followed the same behavior of first ignoring the coronavirus problem and then blaming others.

On January 20, Chinese President Xi Jinping commented publicly for the first time on the virus and ordered “resolute efforts” to control the outbreak. However, a transcript of China’s most powerful decision-making body, the Politburo Standing Committee, revealed that Xi was already aware of the virus on January 7. Two days later, the Chinese health commission said a 61-year-old man, had died of the virus. Xi did not inform his people about the spreading virus for two weeks while, according to his government, it infected close to 300 people.

Even within China’s tightly controlled mainstream and social media, word of a deathly virus was spreading too fast for the censors to shut down. Once Xi had to admit that there was a such a virus, he began to find someone to blame.

China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, tweeted that “It might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan.” Xi blamed local communist officials in Wuhan for not dealing with the virus after they had pointed to China’s top-heavy central government for not giving them the authority to act. Soon afterward, several top Wuhan and Hubei officials were fired for not acting fast enough to contain the virus.

Russia’s President Putin reacted in a similar fashion of initially downplaying the coronavirus. Through his control of the media, very few coronavirus infections were reported. As late as Sunday, March 22, CNN reported that Russia, with a population of 146 million had fewer confirmed cases than Luxembourg, with a population of less than 1 percent of Russia’s. A few days later he was assuring the public that the coronavirus was “under control”.

It was not until Saturday, March 28, Putin decided to close all of its borders and ordered all citizens to stay home for a week unless they provide essential services. His staff probably had gotten to him that the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 reported to the World Health Organization had more than doubled. Although no health experts have suggested a week’s confinement is anywhere close enough time needed to contain the virus from spreading.

Opposition posted on the internet that there were over 20,000 confirmed cases. Like in China, the government was removing any critical postings on social media. Fortunately for the public, Anastasia Vasilyeva, a doctor and leader of the non-government Alliance of Doctors union, was able to get out her claim that the authorities were using pneumonia and acute respiratory infection as a cause of sickness, not the coronavirus. Technically the authorities were correct because people don’t die from the virus, they die from the conditions that it produces, which is pneumonia and acute respiratory failure.

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro was elected to office just 2 years ago on a very conservative anti-government platform. In the case of the emerging COVID-19 pandemic, he denied its danger. He calls the coronavirus a “little flu” that largely threatens the old and vulnerable. On Sunday, March 22, he told his supporters, “Confront it like a man, not a boy!”

He has found Brazil’s democratic process detrimental to his own political goals. In particular, he ignored his health officials trying to prevent the spread of COVID-19 by publicly gathering small crowds in neighborhoods within Brazil’s capital.

Bolsonaro, on March 25, blasted as criminals the governors and mayors of Brazil’s largest states and cities for imposing lockdowns to slow the coronavirus outbreak. He explained to the media that “What a few mayors and governors are doing is a crime. They’re destroying Brazil.” He is seemed more concerned with meeting his campaign promise to revitalize their economy than protecting the public’s health. His Minister of Health said recently that if the government is unable to curb transmission, the country’s health system would collapse by the end of April.

President Trump is not an authoritarian, although he has admired the power they have within their own country. He had initially denied the coronavirus as dangerous and expected it to be over soon. On February 26th, Trump said  “we’ve done a great job in keeping it down to a minimum. We’ve had tremendous success —”. At that time, he proudly pointed out there were only 15 infections in the US. “As they get better, we take them off the list, so that we’re going to be pretty soon at only five people.” Two weeks later on March 12, we had 1,645 people infected with the virus. The next day Trump blamed Barack Obama for his own administration’s inability to adequately test enough Americans for the coronavirus outbreak, claiming “I don’t take responsibility at all.”

Trump first blamed China for our country’s slow response to the pandemic because he said they withheld information for two months about the coronavirus. However, the time-lapse between the first known death from the virus in China on January 9 and when Trump suspended entry into the United States by any foreign nationals traveling from China on January 30th, was less than a month. Without any evidence, Trump has repeatedly made the two months claim.

When some Democrats were critical of how he was implementing restrictions on travelers from China, he accused them of  “working the Impeachment Hoax. They didn’t have a clue! Now they are fear-mongering.” Trump also singled out Democratic Governors for not appreciating his efforts and told Vice President Mike Pence not to call them, “I say, ‘Mike, don’t call the governor of Washington. You’re wasting your time with him. Don’t call the woman in Michigan.’” Trump was upset that they were critical of him for not using federal authority and resources to provide emergency medical supplies and assistance to their states.

In all of these countries, including ours, the authoritarian-oriented leader has received a lot of support because they are perceived as strong leaders. Also, they either control the media or have ideological media allies that endorse their policies, so that the public gets to hear directly from the leader what he wants them to believe.

But, as COVED-19 spreads, even an authoritarian approach cannot demand an end to a pandemic in two weeks. Once the infections and deaths reach a certain point, they must introduce policies that acknowledge that they are not in total control. If there is any lasting effect from this health crisis, it may be a more knowledgeable electorate in democratic countries appreciating that an effective government is an institution, not a cult of supporters following a strong leader.

Trump’s State of Denial, Not the Deep State, kept us unprepared for the COVID-19 Pandemic

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Written by Nick Licata


 

I lay out how Trump’s consistent denial of the need to listen to government experts exposes his suspicion of a deep state conspiracy against him and has made this country unprepared to handle the coronavirus pandemic.

Trump

Photo by Evan Vucci AP

 

President Donald Trump prides himself on being optimistic no matter how dire the situation. That is not necessarily a bad trait; it helps to get by in hard times. But deniability of past or repeated behavior when it results in harm to yourself or others is not a positive trait. In fact, as president of the USA, it endangers everyone. Trump’s State of Denial has led us to the current horrendous situation of not being as prepared as we could have been for the coronavirus, i.e. COVID-19.

For instance, South Korea announced its first coronavirus case just one day before the USA. Yet in the 7 weeks that followed, South Korea had tested more than 189,000 people, we had tested less than 2,000. We have a population over 6 times larger than them, to match their extent of coverage we would have tested 1.1 million people. As of March 21, less than a quarter-million in the US have been tested according to the John Hopkins School of Medicine The COVID Tracking Project. The Federal Government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as of March 23, had not publicly released the number of people who have been tested as of that date. Although at a press conference on that date a White House staff member estimated that 250,000 had been done.

The following are examples of Trump’s State of Denial and its negative impact on controlling the coronavirus pandemic.
TRUMP: “It’s something that nobody expected”
On Saturday, March 14, President Trump said that the coronavirus caught him and the world off guard. About a week later, on March 21, Trump repeated his denial of having any advance reason to expect a probable massive pandemic; “The magnitude is something that no matter who you were, no matter where you come from, nobody ever thought a thing like this could happen.”

Trump Was Given An Explicit Warning Of A Possible Huge Pandemic
In January 2017, as Trump was coming into office, the New York Times reported, “outgoing Obama administration officials ran an extensive exercise on responding to a pandemic for incoming senior officials of the Trump administration.” Trump has never denied this information being provided to him.
The New York Times also reported that in 2019 the Health and Human Services Department performed startling government simulations to show how underprepared the United States was for such a pandemic. Nothing was done in response. Department Secretary Alex Azar has mentioned these simulations at the White House Press Conferences.
TRUMP: “I don’t know anything about it”
At a March 13, 2020 press conference Trump said, “I just think it’s a nasty question,” when asked why he disbanded the Directorate, known as the “Global Health Security and Biodefense” team on the National Security Council, which was responsible for coordinating federal agencies’ response to a pandemic outbreak. “And when you say ‘me,’ I didn’t do it. … I don’t know anything about it.”

Technically Trump is right, he didn’t disband the nation’s only Health Security Team, John Bolton did.
Trump appointed Bolton to lead the National Security Council in April 2018. A month later, Bolton eliminated the team for pandemic preparedness. It was created in the aftermath of the 2014-15 Ebola outbreak to avoid seeing again a fragmented U.S. response and preparedness strategy and ended up costing U.S. taxpayers $5.4 billion in emergency supplemental funding.

On May 7th, 2018 Luciana Borio, director of medical and biodefense preparedness at the NSC, spoke at a symposium at Emory University “The threat of pandemic flu is the number one health security concern,” she told the audience. “Are we ready to respond? I fear the answer is no.”

Bolton said he intended to streamline the NSC, which it may have done, but at the cost of not having anyone around to coordinate a response to a pandemic so the country would not end up where they are now, repeating our Ebola experience. Bolton’s first step was to eliminate the team’s Director position and then disperse the team staff across other parts of the NSC which focused on other priorities; two of them went to the Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate within NSC.

TRUMP: “I’m a businessperson,” he said in denying the need to fund scientists working on disease control.

During a February 26, 2020 briefing on his coronavirus response, Trump said he cut global health experts from federal staff and tried to slash funding for the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who try to spot and respond to epidemics. “Some of the people we cut, they haven’t been used for many, many years,” Trump said justifying those efforts. “I’m a business person — I don’t like having thousands of people around when you don’t need them,” he said. “When we need them, we can get them back very quickly.”
Shrinking government budget may be good unless it costs the public a trillion dollars later.

Trump’s logic of eliminating a government professional group to fight a pandemic runs counter to organizational consultants who point out that eliminating positions that are highly skilled do not result in cost savings but result in lager long term costs in finding replacements or teach new ones. On Jan 29, 2018, a coalition of global health of 200 organizations and companies sent a letter to U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar asking the administration to not cut funding to programs as essential to health and national security, warning there will be ever more costly outbreaks.

Two years later, on February 25, 2020, Larry Kudlow, director of the National Economic Council, was in the Trump State of Denial, telling CNBC that the government had “contained” the coronavirus and would not seriously harm the economy. “I don’t think it’s going to be an economic tragedy at all.” By March 212020, Kudlow switched to getting the Deep State to start spending more than $2 trillion to save our economy through a stimulus package in the Senate to stop a depression because of the coronavirus pandemic, which had never been “contained.”

TRUMP: He first learned about the coronavirus when he closed the border to China

At the White House, March 21 Press Conference Trump was asked “When did you first learn that this was going to be a problem? (in reference to the spread of the coronavirus). He responded, “When I learned I started doing the closing, so probably around that time. We didn’t know about it until it started coming out publicly, but I wish they could’ve told us earlier about it, because we could’ve come up with a solution. They (referring to the White House Coronavirus Task Force) read about it in the newspapers like everybody else.”
Why wasn’t our State Department functioning to inform Trump?

The reporter who asked that question should have followed up by asking “When did our Ambassador to China, Terry Branstad, inform our State Department about a dangerous virus outbreak in the city of Wuhan?” The first death from an illness caused by a new lethal virus occurred there on January 11, 2020, as reported by Chinese state media The Xinhua news agency.

That information would have obviously been available to our ambassador and our foreign service corps. Did they inform Secretary Mike Pompeo? Or, as former Ambassador to the Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch has accused the Trump administration, had our experienced foreign service personnel been dramatically reduced, because of a fear that there is a Deep State conspiracy to undermine Trump’s authority, that they were not functioning properly?

The next major event occurred on January 23 when Chinese authorities cut off Wuhan, a city of more than 11 million, by canceling planes and trains leaving the city. At this point, at least 17 people had died there. Were Trump and Pompeo still uninformed of this development?

It was not until January 31, that Trump said he became aware of the problem and suspended entry into the United States by any foreign nationals who had traveled to China in the past 14 days. That was one day after the W.H.O. declared a global health emergency, where 213 people had died and nearly 9,800 had been infected worldwide. How could he not have been aware for over two weeks that there was a new lethal virus spreading? Was it because he called this developing virus pandemic a “Chinese” virus that he optimistically believed would not affect America? However, since he had disbanded the group of experts two years prior who were trained to track such a threat, so who was around to warn him?

TRUMP: “It may get a little bigger; it may not get bigger at all,”

On February 26 at a White House Press Conference – Trump said regarding those with the coronavirus, “We have a total of 15, they’re in a process of recovering, with some already having fully recovered.” He was not including those on the cruise ship from Japan.

“We’re going to spend whatever is appropriate.  Hopefully, we’re not going to have to spend so much because we really think we’ve done a great job in keeping it down to a minimum.  We’ve had tremendous success — tremendous success — beyond what people would have thought.”

By denying that the coronavirus could manifest into a potential epidemic in the US, Trump decided, along with Fox News and some Republicans, to blame the Democrats and the media for creating panic.

Trump tweeted on February 26 “Low Ratings Fake News MSDNC (Comcast) & @CNN are doing everything possible to make the “Caronavirus” (his spelling) look as bad as possible, including panicking markets, if possible.” The next day Fox News Commentator Laura Ingraham called Democrats the “pandemic party” and trying to undermine Trump’s administration. That same day another Fox News Commentator Sean Hannity said the Democrats “sadly politicizing and weaponizing an infectious disease as their next effort to bludgeon President Trump.”

Trump continued to politicize the coronavirus at his campaign rally in North Charleston, S.C on February 28, by accusing the Democrats of “politicizing” the coronavirus, saying “This is their new hoax. Democrats will always say horrible things,” Trump said. “Democrats want us to fail so badly.”

On February 29 “It may get a little bigger; it may not get bigger at all,” Trump said in a national TV address at the time.

Trump’s antipathy toward the Deep State has reshaped the Republican Party’s character from being small-government advocates to a grievance coalition highly skeptical of government, borrowing Washington Post reporter Robert Costa’s description. That attitude was reflected by a number of Republicans echoing Trump and making light of a possible coronavirus pandemic. Trump’s leading Congressional defender Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), on March 8, dismissed concerns about the coronavirus pandemic and said on Fox News that “it’s a great time to just go out, go to a local restaurant.”

It wasn’t until March 13 that Trump declared a national emergency, which would have been six weeks since he said he became aware of the coronavirus as a “problem”. The explosion of infections was so great by the time Trump declared a national emergency that the legendary GOP strategist Ed Rollins, who now chairs a pro-Trump super PAC, said, “The right underestimated this and thought the media was beating up on Trump again.”

Bottomline Of This Exercise

Any national leader must accept responsibility for their past actions and their publicized opinions, especially when it impacts the security of our nation’s health. President Trump’s attitude to the approaching pandemic has not been one of optimism but of denying the probability of its existence and of deflecting responsibility for appropriately responding.

The result may be why our nation now has the third-highest number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the world, going from 1,645 people on March 12 to 43,000 as of March 23, a span of 11 days. And, we are still struggling to contain the outbreak and providing medical supplies to our state governments and hospitals as well as supplying the proper safety gear for our health care workers.

Competency is not determined by party affiliation, but by the performance of our nation’s leadership. The Trump Administration has not had a record of competency in fighting the coronavirus.

Does the Scandinavian Model support Bernie’s Socialist Message?

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Written by Nick Licata


 

map

 Credit: WORLD BOOK map

And does it matter if it is not socialist, but would benefit the average American?

Washington Post Columnist Fareed Zakaria in an op-ed accused Bernie Sanders’s repeated exultation of the Northern European countries of Denmark, Sweden and Norway as examples of the kind of economic system he wants to bring to the United States as being an unrealistic fantasy; Sanders either ignores or misunderstands their policies.

When it comes to supporting working people, Zakaria notes that none of these countries has a minimum wage. In addition, they have adopted a “flexicurity” policy that combines flexible labor markets that allow employers to hire and fire workers easily, without excessive regulation or litigation. Although that is balanced with favorable benefits.

Zakaria points out that while Sanders admires these countries’ economic policies, their tax practices do not match his intent that “Billionaires should not exist.” Sweden and Norway both have more billionaires per capita than the United States. Remarkably either they do not have inheritance taxes (Sweden and Norway) or are at 15 percent (Denmark). Meanwhile, the US level is at 40 percent.

Worse yet, Zakaria says that taxes in the Scandinavian countries fall disproportionately on the poor, middle and upper-middle class. For example, Denmark’s highest top income tax rate is 55.9% which is levied on anyone making 1.3 times the average national income, using that same formula in the US anyone making above $65,000 would be taxed at that level. Meanwhile, these states have a national sales tax, referred to as a value-added tax, of 25%, while sales taxes in the US average only 6.5%.

These facts could make for killer TV attack ads by Republicans against Sanders and democratic candidates from conservative areas if the message is to make the US like the Scandinavian countries without mentioning their benefits. John de Graaf, co-author of the best-selling book Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemicsays that while he considers Zakaria’s description fairly accurate in many ways, it is deceptive in others.

For instance, these countries do have billionaires, but they have far lower rates of poverty and almost zero homelessness. They do not have official minimum wages, but the prevailing wages are set by union/government/business agreements, apply to almost all workers and are over $20 an hour, with most workers receiving very generous family, sick and vacation leave.

Even with high taxes, Scandinavians have quite high disposable incomes. Subsidies and “social housing” make housing affordable to all, and medical care is mostly free, although some co-pays and deductions do exist. When looking at workplace comparisons, Flexicurity is a popular system with businesses there, but it is coupled with very generous unemployment compensation, job training, workforce development, which companies pay for.
It is true that their corporate taxes appear lower than in the US but they are much better enforced — fewer loopholes. For example, data from 2010 showed while Sweden had an official corporate tax rate of 25% their companies ended up paying 22%. The US had an official rate of 35%, but an actual rate of 9%. Our approach breeds distrust in the honesty of our tax system.

To measure inequality in a country, a common metric is the GINI coefficient, with a lower score indicating greater equality in wealth among the population. The Scandinavian countries are close to 3.0 while the US is at about 4.5. Surveys comparing our citizens to theirs reveal that they are happier than Americans by a fairly wide margin, and much more secure in their lives.

The takeaway from Zakaria’s and de Graaf’s descriptions of the Scandinavian political-economic model is that calling those countries socialist is a stretch if not outright wrong. The Scandinavians and their leaders don’t consider themselves as living in socialist countries.
Socialism has many different faces depending on the angle of your view. From America, those countries may appear to be socialist. That is understandable given that our dominant political culture, which for well over a hundred years, has seen any government regulation of the marketplace and provision of economic assistance to the populace as socialistic.

Such an expansive definition of socialism renders the term useless as a guide for determining public policy. It leads to sloganeering, both pro and con, on any policy that alters the current economic structure of our nation. Ironically both Trump and Sanders, have pitched their main message as overhauling our economic system. But, in radically different ways. Trump’s message emphasizes that maintaining the racial order that benefits white ethnic groups is necessary for our security. Sanders wants greater economic equality to create better-living conditions for everyone. Trump calls his system capitalistic and Sanders calls his socialistic.

The problem that Sanders and the Democratic Party candidates face, is that the percentage of voters 45 and older is twice the number voting under the age of 29, as was shown in the most recent 2018 congressional elections as reported by the census data. The older set of voters have grown up with a negative image of socialism, and reinforced by past and current authoritarian governments that call themselves socialistic. In reality, China, Venezuela, and Cuba are not socialist, just authoritarian anti-democratic governments that provide some level of benefits to their populace that a free marketplace would not.

Sanders has and will continue to condemn all authoritarian governments, but that does not change people’s perception of socialism overnight. He is being forced to spend time informing the public on the difference between authoritarian versus democratic socialism, without being sucked into distinguishing the more than two dozen different kinds of socialism that, for instance, Wikipedia identifies. However, this educational effort is hindered by the fact that no matter how progressive, there is no economically developed, democratic country that calls itself socialist. Sometimes more progressive countries have Socialist Party governments and sometimes they don’t, but their democracies remain functioning with economics that reflects both capitalistic and socialistic elements, regardless of the change in their political leaders.

Sanders has defined his socialism as democratic socialism and points to the practices in the Scandinavian countries of what he is talking about. However, in many interviews he is more general, defining socialism as a democracy that has achieved economic justice, social justice, environmental justice, and racial justice. That describes an ideal state; one that does not exist now and may never exist. By Sanders saying he is a socialist, he is basically saying that he wishes to work toward those goals, much like what he sees the Scandinavian countries pursuing. But those goals do not inherently result in a socialistic country. They rather reflect the will of the voters within a democracy, not thrown out of balance by the influence of money.

Sanders’ political objectives are really reminiscent of those pursued by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and before him Theodore Roosevelt, particularly when he ran as a populist candidate for President. This is despite Sanders’ admiring and producing a documentary on the socialist and union leader Eugene V. Debs, who garnered 6% of the vote in the 1912 general Presidential election. That was the highest watermark that any socialist presidential candidate has ever received. If Sanders wants to go much beyond that level, he must unite the Democrats as a presidential candidate. To do that he needs to reevaluate how he is crippling his own message by clinging to terminology that older generation voters have identified as poisonous to our freedoms. Instead, Sanders should echo the statement he made in the now-defunct magazine called Vermont Affairs in 1986, “…all socialism is about is democracy.”

Arguing that many Scandinavian public policies promote higher standards of living and happiness, is a strong rational argument. But, don’t sell those countries as socialist, which they are not. Having proportional electoral systems has resulted in all of them having coalition governments from time to time. Often those other parties are Christian parties and on occasion, those coalitions have even attracted the support of right-wing parties.

The bottom line is that Scandinavian countries maintain robust democracies providing services and policies that work to meet the social and economic needs of all of their citizens. That is the lesson that we can take away from their experience. And, it must be the political message of whoever is the Democratic candidate, if the Democrats are to energize people of all ages to vote in a new president who represents those values.