Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The long road to President Pence, and the long road after

MSNBC has been agog over the steady flood of revelations, day by day, about Donald Trump, about his behavior, his possible obstruction of justice, the possibility that he is enriching himself by his policies in office, the possibility that he or his staff colluded or conferred with Russia in the subversion of an American election, and all the rest.  Lawrence O’Donnell told those currently employed by the White House that it was time for them to “lawyer up”, in the (probably justified) belief that many of them will be caught in the legal shredder as the Trump presidency disintegrates.

 Yes.  Maybe.  Probably, in fact, at this point.  But I want to caution against excessive giddiness among progressives about ending the Trump presidency, either by impeachment, which seems more than warranted, or by simply declaring him mentally incapable of doing the job, which seems to be clearly true: neither path is easy, and the result wouldn’t be the great relief it sounds like it should be. 

Yes, we are now in the grips of a child president, utterly selfish, arrogant, dumb, bullying, blind to ethics, numbly ignorant of history, and of civics, and of the details of any issue whatever.  He is both a delusional fanatic and completely out of his depth.  But removal by impeachment requires a majority of the House to impeach, and two thirds of the Senate to convict.  Removal by declaration of unfitness to serve is easier in the very short run: the Vice President and a majority of the “principal officers of the executive departments” can write to the Speaker of the House and the President Pro Tempore of the Senate declaring the President to be “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office”, and it’s (very temporarily) done.  But what are the odds that we can get 8 Cabinet Secretaries to sign such a document?  And that’s not the hardest part: once it’s signed and delivered, the President can simply write to these same two people, the Speaker of the House and the President Pro Tem of the Senate, and declare that he is able to discharge his duties, and he is back in power as President again.   After that Congress is required to determine the issue.  Finding the President to be unable to discharge his duties after all of that   requires a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress, and both houses are still in the grip of Trump’s party.  So: removal by impeachment requires two-thirds of the Senate, and removal by declaration of unfitness requires, if the President contests it, two thirds of both the Senate and the House.

What this means is that the outcome of any effort to remove him is uncertain, and will in any case take time, possibly a lot of time.  If he doesn’t resign, if he’s determined to stay as President, then we’re stuck with Trump for the near future.  I wish that were not true, but it is.

But even if Trump is eventually removed---what is the result?  Mike Pence as President?  At least Pence is sane, I guess, but it’s not exactly every liberal’s dream situation, is it?  Ah, but what if the “Russia thing with Trump” (Trump’s phrase) snags Pence as well, so both are gone at once?  To which I have to ask, as a first reply, how far into fantasyland are we willing to go?  How likely is it that both the President and the Vice President will be impeached?  And then, as a second reply, I have to say that even if such a miraculous thing did happen, we’re not much better off. 

Here’s the line of succession after the President:

Vice President:  Mike Pence.
Speaker of the House: Paul Ryan.
President Pro Tempore of the Senate: Orrin Hatch.
Secretary of State: Rex Tillerson.
Secretary of the Treasury: Steve Mnuchin.
Secretary of Defense: James “Mad Dog” Mattis.
Attorney General: Jeff Sessions.

We can keep going, but it doesn’t get any better lower on the list.  Ben Carson is on the list (13th in line); Betsy DeVos is on the list (15th).   The Republicans control all of the government at the federal level, and at the state level too in most states.

So we get back to the issue I’ve been raising, clumsily, with friends for a very long time:  the Democratic party needs to look for the radical solution, in the actual meaning of that word.  It needs to return to its roots.  It used to be the party of working people---all working people.  In Minnesota the official name of the party is the Democratic Farmer Labor party, and that used to be an apt description of the party nationally as well.  Farmers no longer believe that to be true---and labor has been increasingly skeptical as time passed, and, in my opinion, for good reasons.  A large fraction of the Democratic party, for a time at least, succumbed to neoliberal third-way politics that accepted the rational-expectations, free-market economics of free-trade, small government, tax cuts and deregulation.  The economy grew, slowly, but wages didn’t; businesses grew,  sometimes quickly, but middle class jobs vanished.  And much of the country has just given up on Democrats caring about their neighborhoods, their towns, their industries, or about them.  And the result is the county-level election maps that look almost uniformly red across most of the country.  Democrats will respond that Hillary got more votes than Trump did, and Democrats get more votes much of the time for Congressional seats as well (when the whole of the country’s votes are added together).  But the problem can be seen in this 3D map of election results.  The Democratic votes are very localized, mostly to big cities.

The Democrats, IMHO, forgot, for a time, the base that brought them to the dance.  All of those people who don't fall into the special categories the modern Democrats care about have to look somewhere else for a champion.  They look to Republicans because they're the only other game in town.  It's a mirage: the Republicans won't be their champions either.  Can't be, if they want to stay free-market Republicans.  And if the Democrats won't, and the Republicans can't, those people are just out of luck.

Trump’s presidency, I think, presents all of America with a hair-on-fire emergency that will be difficult to fix.  Fixing it, removing him from office, may take years.  It might take until the 2020 election.  But even after it’s fixed, progressives might still have lost, and might still be lost, if we don’t fix ourselves as well, if we don’t reconnect with a significant number of the people who no longer believe we even want to represent them.  We have a lot of fence mending to do.  We’d better get to it.

Or, alternatively, we can just get used to the idea of President Pence and a permanently Republican House.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Trump has lost.

I'm not sure anyone at the White House recognizes that at this point, after firing three separate prosecutors or investigators, after all the smokescreens and diversions, after the bouts of loony tweets, it's no longer possible for this to have a good outcome for Donald Trump.

He should have the right to the presumption of innocence---sorry, fellow progressives, but he should, as an American and even just as a human being---but he has shredded that presumption by his rage and panic toward anyone who gets close to the investigation of Russian interference in the U.S. election. And now, no matter how an investigation comes out, he will lose.  Because if there is no investigation, if he manages to suppress it, then half the country or more will believe that he is hiding something terrible.  And if an investigation is pursued and finds his campaign innocent of all wrong, many people, maybe even a majority, will be cynical about that, and will presume that he simply managed to manipulate the outcome. Even if some associates in his campaign are found guilty of being complicit with Russia in this, many people, maybe even a majority, will believe that Trump knew about it at the time, and that he sacrificed his campaign staff to hide his own guilt.

The last possibility, of course, is that a strong independent investigation finds "problematic" (Sally Yate's word) behavior from Mr. Trump himself. What the response to that might be would be interesting, but it certainly could (hypothetically) include impeachment, or even some pretty nasty prosecutions---colluding with a hostile foreign power to subvert an American election is treason.

Which of those outcomes is good for Trump?  If he has a long term goal here, a plan that turns all of this to his advantage, I have to admit I can’t see it.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

One more comment on Fearless Girl and Charging Bull

My brother-in-law Craig posted a link on Facebook to this piece about the Fearless Girl.  Since I haven’t posted here for very long time I thought I’d post my response to it.  I’ve been following the “Fearless Girl” discussion in WaPo and elsewhere, thinking it’s all a bit off topic…I like both statues, and I think their current positions make a clear statement that’s relevant right now, but it’s not any of the statements that other people seem to see.

The Charging Bull artist does have a point that the Fearless Girl changes the meaning of his sculpture---but he misses the point too, possibly because he's so captured by the meaning he originally intended.

The Bull had already changed its meaning, though, long ago.  When he sculpted the bull I think Mr. Di Modica saw Wall Street as a meaningful symbol of the economy in general: a prosperous Wall Street was an indication of a healthy economy. That was not true even then for much of the country, but I think it was what he meant, and the bull was intended to restore all of our spirits after the financial catastrophe in 1987. But since then we’ve had decades in which Wall Street prospered and much of the rest of the country stagnated. The financial sector simply sucked up all economic growth. In 1950 the financial sector was 2.8% of GDP; by 2006 it was 8.3%. In 1980 the average employee in the financial sector earned about the same as employees in any other industry; by 2006 they earned about 70% more than average. (from “The Growth of Finance”, Robin Greenwood and David Scharfstein, Journal of Economic Perspectives, Spring 2013). And the industry, with its high salaries, took the best minds from the best universities and sat them down to pore over spreadsheets. All of this might have been worth the cost if the industry had become more efficient: instead, productivity in the financial sector was at best stagnant.

And then in 2007-2008 the banks and investment houses collapsed, and Wall Street collapsed with them, and the lot of them dragged the world down in the undertow. Wall Street began to be seen as providing the country with little value and enormous risk---not for them, but for us. When the economy was good we got nothing and they got everything. But when the economy failed they still got everything: they got bailed out, and we had to bail them, and the managers who were the builders of the great collapse got single year bonuses the size of our lifetime incomes. The banks played us for suckers in many ways: as Bernie Sanders once said, Wall Street is a place where fraud is their business model.

As labor productivity rose inexorably from year to year and wages stalled, or even went backward, as hedge fund managers and bankers and the financial industry in general sucked in all the growth in the economy and left crumbs in their wake for the rest of the country, we who live in the economy began to see the Bull as representing that culture of fraud and greed. That tarnished the Charging Bull and changed its meaning long before the Fearless Girl came along.

So the Fearless Girl was a response, not to Mr. Di Modica’s original image of hope for recovery, but to the message of blind greed that Wall Street has projected for a very long time. In this case, art is not the unchanging statement intended at its first creation: the older art’s meaning evolves and new art replies. It is a conversation, and one that I think we desperately need to have.

But the Fearless Girl also has a very different meaning than its sponsors intended. Women everywhere have been uplifted by her, to them she is a statement about the need for women to be admitted to the highest levels of management in the financial world. I’m glad for the uplift, and agree with the egalitarian principle, but I’m not sure I see the value for the rest of us out here in the non-finance world if the men at the hedge fund conference tables whose hearts have been grievously damaged by greed are supplemented with a group of women whose hearts have also been damaged by greed (or why would they even want to be part of the industry as it stands?) It’s not really uplifting for women to reach the heights of an industry whose business model is fraud, and whose driving motivation is a covetous lust for personal wealth.

State Street, who commissioned the Fearless Girl, says her importance is not just her gender but also her age: she is a young girl, they say, and so she represents hope again for a better future. I see their point. But to me the most important thing about her is not that she is a girl, or that she is a young girl: the important thing is that she is an ordinary young girl. Look at her: nothing about her says “rich” or “hedge fund” or “executive”. She is a girl we’ve all seen, in city and country, all over the world. Is she stubborn and defiant? Lord, yes, but as a parent who raised a daughter I can tell you that is not an attitude unique to the Fearless Girl sculpture. Girls everywhere are capable of stubborn defiance, even in places where defiance is dangerous, and particularly dangerous for girls.

So I see her---because I like to see her---as representing not only the defiant demand of women for equality of opportunity, or the defiant demand of the young for a future they can look to with hope, but also of representing all of us who are ordinary, who want, defiantly, to say, not to the Wall Street that Mr. Di Modica saw in 1987 but to the Wall Street we see now, to stop all the blind charging, and to come down and live with the rest of us. It will be hard, I know. You’re addicted to your greed, and addiction is hard to kick. But the human world is out here. We work all our lives to create value, and the statistics on productivity say that we create more and more value every year. It’s time for all of us, women certainly but men as well, to share some of the rewards.

I understand Mr. Di Modica's resentment, and I do think he has a point.  But I think Fearless Girl needs to be where she is for the moment.

Eventually, if we can re-attach wages and productivity in the economy, I'd like to see her standing next to the bull, both facing the same direction, and both moving defiantly into a common future.