Greedy and Mean-Spirited


Initial reactions to the Senate version of Trumpcare have been overwhelmingly negative. The proposal, drafted behind closed doors, has been described accurately as a giant transfer of money from the poor to the rich.  Another assessment viewed it as a fundamental attack on Medicaid, a health safety net for one out of every five Americans.

While the specifics of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s bill may not have been totally predictable, the mean-spirited approach certainly was. Everything the Republican majority has attempted for a long time has demonstrated a callous indifference, even hostility, to the poor and disadvantaged in this country and a fawning obsession with shifting still more resources to those few who already have way more than they need.

Why do the most wealthy citizens of the United States need another tax break?  As countless studies have shown,  the last two decades have yielded a growing concentration of wealth in this country.  We are increasingly defined by inequality, two nations not one.  The so-called Republican healthcare bill would accelerate and exacerbate those patterns.

Is there any justification for another transfer of wealth to the wealthy?  Republicans continue to trot out the claim that the wealthy are job creators, that “supply side” economics–the theory that money will trickle down to the less fortunate–will create dynamic economic growth.  This ignores the fact that past efforts have all failed.  The massive tax cuts under Ronald Reagan and later George W. Bush led to enormous budget deficits, not to an economic stimulus.

The real explanation is that too many wealthy people are greedy for more and more and Republican lawmakers, who count on a steady flow of campaign contributions, are more than eager to accommodate them. It’s a perverse system that is steadily eroding the foundations of representative democracy.

The other half of the equation, robbing the poor to give to the rich, is equally confounding.  Notwithstanding the populist appeal of Donald Trump, Republicans basically don’t like poor people.  Wrapping themselves in what they, in an incredible display of arrogance, view as the moral high ground of ending “dependence on government support”, much of the GOP holds anyone who isn’t rich totally responsible for their own problems.  If only they had been smart enough to inherit millions of dollars, they could join the club.

Republican mean-spiritedness is not focussed solely on the poor in their newest version of income redistribution masquerading as a healthcare bill.  Hostility to any measure that benefits the health of women is a well-established Republican tenet.  The Party leaders may bemoan the epidemic of opioid addiction, but this newest proposal will provide less treatment rather than more.  That 23 million people will end up without health insurance if their mean-spirited bill is enacted into law really is, similarly, of no concern. Continue reading “Greedy and Mean-Spirited”

Beyond “Hillbilly Elegy”

“Hillbilly Elegy”, JD Vance’s memoir of a dysfunctional Appalachian family, on the New York Times Best Seller list for 44 weeks and counting, offered a trendy explanation for Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 Presidential election. If only Democrats had paid more attention to white working class voters devastated by economic change, the outcome might have been different.

Vance is a gifted writer with a great personal story who introduces us to some fascinating characters in his book.  He is certainly correct that Hillary Clinton’s campaign largely ignored the voters who Vance described, but he fails to offer a thoughtful discussion of what it would have taken to persuade his hillbillies to resist the siren song of Trump.

To be sure, Vance is not the first person to explore the reasons for why working class voters have been abandoning the Democratic Party.  Thomas Frank, in 2004, posited in “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” that residents of the state, rather than voting their economic self-interest, were being distracted by Republicans appealing to them on social issues like abortion and opposition to gay rights.  The tanking of the Kansas economy under ultra-conservative Governor Sam Brownback may have finally showed those voters the error of their ways, but that’s not a sure thing yet.

Hillary Clinton, as you may remember, offered a different explanation, that many of Trump’s backers were “deplorables”, motivated by racism, anti-immigrant hostility as well as opposition to a progressive social agenda.  Her turn of phrase did not play well politically and blocked, at least at the moment, any serious assessment of voter motivations.

This is a debate that’s likely to continue until at least 2020.  The ability and willingness of Democrats to seek out and build a coalition that includes at least some people not living in bubbles or on the two coasts may be the key to whether they can prevail over Donald Trump (or Mike Pence?) in the next Presidential election.

A recently published book by Amy Goldstein, a reporter for the Washington Post, digs much more deeply than Vance did into the challenges faced by an American working class that is seeing its jobs disappear.  In “Janesville”, she examines the impact on Paul Ryan’s hometown in Wisconsin of the closing of a GM plant in 2008.

Many of the people described by Vance are their own worst enemies, frequently making decisions that lead to turmoil in their lives.  By contrast, Goldstein examines, in a series of case studies, people who seem to do everything right but still never recover their lost economic status.

Some go back to the local community college to retrain for a new career.  Others commute to GM plants in other states, seeing their families only on weekends, in the hope that the Janesville plant will reopen or that a new job with comparable wages will come along.  Some families work multiple jobs, including teenage kids, to try to cobble together enough income to approach their GM-era quality of life.

The results were decidedly mixed.  Job retraining programs, Goldstein discovered, had no significant impact on finding new, decent-paying employment.  Janesville competed for new manufacturing plants without success.  And, as the community struggled with the new economic reality, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was slashing government budgets and attacking the State’s public unions.

Meanwhile, Janesville’s Member of Congress, Paul Ryan, was veering to the right, proposing budgets that would have an even more devastating impact on any kind of government safety net or support for the economically displaced.  Walker and Ryan kept getting reelected although they did not win the support of the majority of Janesville voters.

Goldstein’s book offers a much more complex and nuanced view of America’s working class and the troubles they are facing. She notes that Janesville is increasingly becoming two communities, one of people succeeding in the new economy and another of those being left behind.  Moreover, the first group is showing very little sympathy for the second.

For several years, people laid-off from the GM facility engaged in wishful thinking about when it would be reopened.  That sounds an awful lot like those who believe Trump’s promise to bring back coal jobs.  The impulse to hope that yesterday can be restored is a powerful one.

Another reality suggested by her study is that a shrinking economic pie does not bring out the best in people.  Janesville in the past prided itself on its strong sense of community and its generosity to those in need.  Besides having less wealth to share, it became apparent that there was a tendency to blame those in economic need for their own problems.

Curiously, even among those who had benefitted from government programs such as aid to attend community college, there was a discernible anti-government attitude.  After years of hearing a drumbeat of attacks–starting from Ronald Reagan–many in this country are reflexively inclined to believe that “government is the problem.”

Crafting an agenda that responds to the plight of America’s working class–without resorting to false promises–is a daunting challenge.  Vance is correct that listening is an important first step, but it’s not enough.  Honestly facing the fact that most of manufacturing jobs of the past aren’t coming back is probably essential, but it’s likely to be a hard sell for potential voters.

“Janesville” underscores the truth that there isn’t a single, bumper-sticker answer.  Trump’s failure to produce coal or manufacturing jobs–much like Brownback’s destruction of the economy of Kansas–may eventually sink in with wishful thinkers.  But creating viable alternatives will be a hard slow process.

Ultimately, however, the Democratic Party has to present an economic message that focuses on where and what the jobs of the future will be, on the role of government in providing a safety net and on the reality that funneling even more of the nation’s resources to the wealthiest Americans will not “trickle down” to anyone else.  And then Democrats have to find a candidate who can effectively deliver that message.

Brian Frosh, Larry Hogan and Donald Trump

Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh joined the Attorney General of Washington D.C. on Monday in a suit challenging whether Donald Trump is violating the “emoluments” clause of the U.S. Constitution.

The central issue is whether Trump’s failure to divest from his many financial holdings, allowing him to profit from spending by foreign governments intended to influence his decisions, puts him at legal and constitutional jeopardy. While the obvious focus is on his hotel just down the street from the White House where many foreign officials have stayed, the suit has the potential to raise a wide array of issues, including whether the President can be forced to release his tax returns.

Whether a court will actually take the case is an open question.  The emoluments clause has never been tested before.  On the other hand, we’ve never had a president like Donald Trump before, someone with an incredible tangle of financial interests who refuses to publicly disclose his holdings.

While some might argue that the emoluments clause is out of date or that the authors of the Constitution weren’t really serious about its inclusion, a more compelling position is that insuring that a president’s decisions are not “bought” by a foreign power is as relevant in 2017 as it was in 1787.  Trump’s failure to either divest or disclose has created a constitutional quagmire that is entirely of his own making.

Frosh’s joining in this lawsuit is possible only because of a law passed by the Maryland General Assembly this year.  Prior to adoption of that statute, the Attorney General had to receive permission from the Governor for most legal actions.

Larry Hogan’s reluctance to allow suits or even to comment on  policies of the Trump Administration that adversely impact Maryland persuaded the State Legislature that the change was needed.  The other essential ingredient that facilitated the new law was the trust and confidence that legislative leaders have in Frosh, a former member of both the House and the Senate.

Frosh has never hesitated to take on tough questions.  Among other issues, he has been a leading advocate for environmental protection, a sponsor of Maryland’s landmark gun control law and strong supporter of marriage equality and immigration rights.  That Hogan is on the other side of every one of those issues helps explain the General Assembly’s  willingness to expand Frosh’s authority.

You won’t be able to find references in any of Hogan’s remarks to the word “emoluments.”  Unless the subject comes up while he is playing golf with Trump, Hogan will be able to dance around the subject.  Don’t expect a press release or an answer to a reporter’s question.

That approach won’t work, however, on other Trump policies impacting Maryland.  At this point, the President’s proposed budget includes no funds for the preservation of the Chesapeake Bay.  Frosh is already talking to a number of other state Attorneys General about filing suit if the Administration follows through on its stated intention to gut environmental protections.

Hogan’s unwillingness to offer an opinion on the attack on the Bay leaves you wondering whether his brand of conservative Republicanism has any room for actual conserving.  The Governor is obviously very uncomfortable criticizing the President, but his apparent abandonment of the State’s most critical natural resource is sure to be an issue in next year’s election.

Similarly, Hogan’s preference for tip-toeing around the Republican revisions to the Affordable Care Act doesn’t seem politically sustainable.  Health care is a significant part of the State’s economy just as it is nationally.

Moreover the evidence is clear that a bill anything like the one that passed the House of Representatives, and which Trump applauded with an unseemly White House celebration, would do great harm to the citizens of Maryland.  Much like Congressional Republicans, Hogan so far has placed loyalty to his political party higher than  concern for the health of the residents of Maryland.

As we approach the 2018 election, we’ll find out whether the political calculation that Larry Hogan made was smart or self-defeating.  He is trying to walk the tightrope between not alienating Trump supporters in Maryland, who constitute a measurable part of his electoral base, and not alienating those Marylanders–sometimes the same people–who will be harmed by Trump’s policies.  He may have figured out the political sweet spot or, like Britain’s Theresa May, his actions may bring about his own political demise.

Meanwhile, until there is a Democratic nominee to oppose Hogan in next year’s gubernatorial election, Frosh certainly seems like the voice and face of the State Party.  That’s not to diminish the role of the Congressional delegation, but their focus has necessarily been on what’s happening in Washington.

Frosh’s willingness to speak out, to take action, to articulate a set of values that distinguishes him from both Hogan and Trump, provides an example of courageous leadership that is all too rare these days.  Now we need Republicans with the backbone to stand up to Trump’s assault on our democratic system and join Democrats like Frosh who are taking a stand.



The Carelessness of Donald Trump

Donald Trump’s decision to pull the United States from the Paris climate change agreement demonstrates a president in continuous campaign mode.  His approach is characterized by politics over policy, reckless disregard for facts and science, and a dangerous carelessness about the impact of his choices.

Despite having been elected chief executive of the government of the United States, Trump shows little interest in governing, a stunning lack of understanding of the constitutional system, and no core beliefs to guide his actions.  The only constants in his world are his overinflated view of his own abilities and a hypersensitivity  about how others see him.

Trump’s rejection of the Paris agreement vividly demonstrates all these factors.  The event itself seemed more like a campaign rally than a serious policy prouncement.  In full display for all the world to see were his virulent nationalism, demagogic rejection of the overwhelming scientific consensus about the threats posed by climate change and pandering to a political base desparate for reassurance that their lost world could be restored. Without any supporting evidence, Trump manufactured a smorgasbord of benefits that would accrue to American workers from abandoning the Paris agreement and brushed aside any alledged risks as illusory.

Why did he make such a disastrous decision?  For one, Trump had promised during his campaign to walk away from the climate agreement.  Toting up “promises kept” is an essential piece of his ongoing campaign for reelection in 2020.  Climate change denial has become a central plank of Republican orthodoxy and Trump, hardly a mainstream member of the Party, has been eager to find areas of common ground.  A third factor is the opportunity to dismantle another piece of Barack Obama’s legacy, which is  clearly important for Trump’s fragile ego.

Much was made in the days leading up to the announcement of a supposed battle between competing White House factions to persuade Trump which way to decide.  Those reports were most likely a combination of internal spin and external wishful thinking.  It’s hard to believe the outcome was ever in doubt, especially when you consider the language and tone of his remarks described by one commentator as “belligerent.”

Climate change poses serious risks to the planet.  Deferring action is not an option.  If there were an environmental disaster clock similar to the one assessing the risks from nuclear weapons, Trump just moved it closer to midnight.

Yet, Trump seems oblivious or indifferent to those risks.  For him, the decision was a political choice somehow detached from any real world consequence.  It’s easier to belittle scientific evidence than to work to protect the environment.  For Al Gore, climate change is an “inconvenient truth”; for Trump, it’s a matter to be ignored.  Perhaps he will think differently if sea water covers the golf course at Mar-a-Lago

It is in that respect that I use the word “careless” to describe Trump’s approach to governing and decision-making.  He understands and cares only about his own interests.  He is amazingly uninformed and uninterested in anyone else.  As a result, his decision process does not take into account how others will be impacted by his actions.

That myopia is not limited to decisions about the environment.  Think about the travesty of the health care bill that he has been promoting.  During the campaign, Trump bought into the Republican talking point about “repealing and replacing” the Affordable Care Act.  He is still committed to that goal even though he has shown no understanding of what is in the bill passed by House Republicans.

Even as the Congressional Budget Office determines that 23 million Americans will lose their health insurance and many others will pay much more for coverage, Trump blathers about having the best healthcare system in the world, claims he is adding money for health care – despite his proposed budget slashing funding – and continues to assert that everyone will be better off under Trumpcare.  It’s only words to him.  Enacting a bill–any bill–for which he can claim victory is all he cares about.

Trump’s late-in-his-political career conversion  to “pro life” is another illustration of his carelessness.  His switch was merely a political expedient.  To keep his base happy, he has appointed a justice to the Supreme Coury who might vote to overturn Roe v. Wade.  His selections as Secretary of Health and Human Services and Attorney General are both working to make access to abortion and contraception more difficult.

Is Trump acting on one of his core beliefs or is he going along with his political crowd with no regard for the consequences for a woman’s ability to control her body and her health?  That’s an easy question to answer since Trump has no core beliefs.

As many have noted, Trump is fundamentally a transactional figure.  He cares about making the deal, not about what impact it will have on others, not even on his core supporters.  His need to tally up symbolic victories is leaving in its wake a trail of enormous damage to the United States and to all but its wealthiest citizens, but Trump doesn’t either notice or care.

Donald Trump has no feelings or empathy for others, is extremely egocentric, has no close personal relationships, seems to lack a moral base and does not learn from his experiences.  Medical professionals are understandably reluctant to offer a diagnosis based solely on his public behavior, but the rest of know that when it quacks likes a duck, it probably is a duck.