Goethe’s Oak

I’m running a day late this week, mostly due to hangover, but I’ve got an excuse. This was a three day weekend in Mexico, commemorating the birthday of what wasn’t their first president, or even their first republican president, but what was, because of a messy political century from 1820 to 1920 or so, their first real republican, democratic president, and the first indigenous president elected anywhere in Latin America.

Viva Juarez.


Another EO

We only got one real new executive order last week. The new travel ban was actually written two weeks ago, and since it was stopped by a federal court as soon as it was supposed to go into effect, until the next wrinkle on that shakes out, the one worth paying attention to is EO 13781, the “Comprehensive Plan for Reorganizing the Executive Branch.”

The EO, on its face, appears to be pretty tame, and definitely to appeal to the folks who got POTUS elected. It directs the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, who puts together the budget for the executive branch, to:

…submit to the President a proposed plan to reorganize the executive branch in order to improve the efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability of agencies. The proposed plan shall include, as appropriate, recommendations to eliminate unnecessary agencies, components of agencies, and agency programs, and to merge functions. The proposed plan shall include recommendations for any legislation or administrative measures necessary to achieve the proposed reorganization.

 

Or it would appear tame under any other administration. Right now, as Trump has been facing resistance from career bureaucrats within the government, it looks like carte blanche to slash-and-burn any agency under the President’s direct control. While the whole document’s ominous, one section in particular is especially troubling:

In developing the proposed plan described in subsection (c) of this section, the Director shall consider, in addition to any other relevant factors:

whether some or all of the functions of an agency, a component, or a program are appropriate for the Federal Government or would be better left to State or local governments or to the private sector through free enterprise.

That is, the EO directs the current head of OMB, whose tenure in Congress was built around opposing the Affordable Care Act and pushing the government into shutdowns and whose most visible act so far in his new office has been to champion cuts to food and heat for poor children and poor seniors, to look into privatizing pieces of the federal government.

Maybe that will come to nothing, although Trump’s disastrous first budget proposal says otherwise. But it’s worthwhile to note that the reason Russia turned into the kleptocratic oligarchy it is now after the fall of the Soviet Union was a massive sell-off of state assets set up and managed by the same neoliberal folks who are now slavering at the prospect of doing the same to the US government.

Your first thought might be: why would anybody want to do that? And that thought might reinforce another, which is: that couldn’t happen here.

There are two sets of folks in the privatization camp. There are the true believers, the acolytes of the Chicago School of Economics and followers of Milton Friedman, who legitimately believe that somehow running government programs for profit will make them more efficient. This one bullet point would balloon to 10,000 words if I went into it, and maybe it rates an episode all its own, but privatization pretty much hasn’t worked out. It didn’t work out in Chile, when Milton Friedman teamed up with a dictator to try it out.

It didn’t work out for any of the services Maggie Thatcher privatized (and UK rail continues as the worst in all of Europe), it didn’t work out with US telecom infrastructure (how are your cable bills and service), it didn’t work out with Russia, and it won’t work out for us.

The second group of people in favor of privatization are the folks like Betsy Devos. They’re the billionaire “public school reform” people who have never stepped inside of one, the plutocrat arms manufacturers who are “tough on terror” so that they can sell the grunts getting killed overpriced gear, they’re, very literally, all of the guys that Trump’s using to fill the executive branch.

If anybody’s going to buy the right to take over a government service, it’s because they’re going to be able to extract profit from it, and Metafilter user saulgoodman has a pretty good explanation of why that’s bad news:

We need to start hammering home the point that even in mainstream economic theory, a perfectly efficient system doesn’t have room or need for profit. Profit is what you get by shortchanging or not maintaining assets properly or not passing along material savings to consumers. Creating profit necessarily requires squeezing out more money than should be left over once all costs and externalities are properly accounted for. Anytime you privatize any sector to allow for profit in the mix, you make the sector less efficient in that sense.

There’s a sort of brand loyalty at work that makes some think any public service will necessarily be less efficient than a private one performing the same function because its leaders aren’t motivated to be fiscally responsible, but in a certain sense, profit seeking isn’t fiscally responsible from a public interest point of view in the first place. The profit motive can easily corrupt the core mission of an organization. I mean, look what market forces have done to retail stores: more and more, companies don’t have any particular focus other than making money by any means, so you end up with weird mission creep/corruption stuff in the private sector all the time, like MTV morphing from an outlet dedicated to broadcasting and promoting music videos to being about lifestyle and reality TV and dabbling in just about every kind of commercial enterprise.

That is that, for all the philosophy and Ayn Rand worship and op-eds that rabid free-marketeers put out, the people winning are the people who end up owning. You and I, the end users of government services, not so much. BitterOldPunk at Metafilter’s got another neat little story to cap this off:

I recently had an illuminating experience.

In the process of opening a small cafe, I had to get all my licenses and tax forms and inspections squared away. Most of this involved dealing with the city, state, and county governments. Alabama is hardly renowned for efficient government, but for the most part the process was straightforward, the people helpful, and the costs modest.

But I made a mistake. Restaurants in Alabama require a local license from the county health department and a state license from the Department of Agriculrure and Industry. I mailed the form to the state office, but I failed to enclose the check for the $50 license fee. A few days later, I got a call at work from that office. A nice young woman named Latasha said they’d received my application, but no check. Could I get that out to them this week? No problem, I apologized for my error, and asked what I needed to do to make sure the check got paired up with the application. Another form? A cover letter explaining the error? Resubmit the whole application? Latasha laughed and said, “Just put ‘Attention: Latasha’ on the envelope, I’ll take care of it.” So I did. And she did. It was No Big Deal. Problem solved promptly and efficiently.

Meanwhile, I had a question about a charge I received from my health insurer. I’ve made eight phone calls, written two emails, gotten six different answers, and been hung up on twice.

Tell me again how BIG GOVERNMENT is the problem, GOP. I fucking dare you.

Keep an eye on this one, folks.


War, Soon to Be Incorporated

Trump and co are ramping up, and I mean really ramping up, military spending in this new budget. A little less visibly, they’ve also been moving US troops into Syria and warmongering with everyone they can think of, from Iran to North Korea. There are a few interesting and upsetting implications here, and that’s going to get its own post later in the week.


Closing Down on Independence Park

I haven’t talked about the federal hiring freeze yet, but now’s the time. The first is that even to the fiscal-responsibility-minded, this shouldn’t make any sense. Imagine that federal offices are, as in GOP stereotypes, filled with lazy, too-well-pensioned, impossible-to-fire, and above all ethnic, no-good bureaucrats. If the only way you can get them out is through retirement, then the only way you can improve those offices is through infusing new, young, competent blood.

I came out of Georgetown and then out of the Peace Corps with a lot of very excited, very intelligent young kids who were desperate to serve their country. Champing at the bit, drooling at the prospect of getting to put their talents towards the work of the US government. And who now cannot.

The only possible result of a policy like the hiring freeze is not to improve but to literally destroy the federal government. And we’re starting to see that now, just a couple months out, in the Parks Service. In Philadelphia, at Independence National Historical Park, the cuts that these supposedly Constitution and Founding Father loving guys have made and are planning on have already resulted in the closing of:

Seven attractions, including Declaration House, where Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence; exhibits at the site of Ben Franklin’s home and print shop; and the home of Tadeusz Kosciuszko, the Polish military leader who served as a brigadier general in the Revolutionary War.

Yeah, that one.

A history professor I had in college used to open up his lectures with anecdotes or pieces of art that illustrated the period we’d be going over. To open this particular lecture, about the inter-war period in Europe, he read us some Goethe, the ‘German Shakespeare’ that the National Socialist Party had claimed, a century after his death, as the ur-poet of the German Volk. Goethe used to sit under a particular oak tree in a beech forest near Weimar while he wrote. In 1937, long before Wannsee or the Final Solution or any firm indication of Nazi intent beyond bare racism, the government of the Third Reich clearcut that beech forest to make way for Buchenwald.

Sometimes symbolism is more than symbolism. Sometimes cutting down your literal tree of state is the first rumbling of something greater.


Climate Change and Cowards

Trump’s budget is making cuts to climate change. Anywhere any agency studied it, from NASA to the Department of Energy, his new budget takes care of that. Likewise, several agencies have quietly changed mission statements to remove mentions, literally, of science. The EPA, under Scott Pruitt, regardless of cuts to its budget, is set to implode by design.

Which makes it all the more surprising that 17 Republican Congresspeople “signed a resolution on Wednesday [the 15th] to seek ‘economically viable’ ways to stave off global warming.” These folks hail from places like Manhattan and Miami, where rising sea levels are already starting to flood streets. And they have some interesting words. Take Congressman Curbelo of Florida:

“This issue was regrettably politicized some 20 or so years ago, and we are in the process of taking some of the politics out, reducing the noise, and focusing on the challenge and on the potential solutions,” Curbelo said in a call with journalists on Tuesday.

“The head of the EPA’s comments were disconcerting. What he said was akin to saying the earth is flat in 2017,” Curbelo said. “We must insist on evidence-based and science-based policies.”

Where, you might literally be screaming, was this asshole for the last thirty years? You’d like to believe that these are Republicans whose hearts (or brains) grew three sizes today, and who are standing up for principles, like good Americans.

What this actually is is cowardice.

What you have to realize is that Republican Congressmen know exactly as well as you and I do that climate change is real. They, unlike their base, went to good private schools and only pretend to be religious fanatics. Which means that during the Obama Administration, they knew as well as you and I did that the literal fate of the world is in the balance on climate change, but the threat of right-wing media backlash was enough to keep them quiet.

Here’s a cartoon about something that literally happened and about which Curbelo said literally nothing.

The climate change part, not the dodo part.

Well, speaking up now isn’t going to do anything in the face of the Trump Administration. Congratulations, Congressmen. You get to hold onto those seats, as long as they stay dry.


The Budget

I could try to parse all of Trump’s first budget proposal, but here’s a video that’ll do it better:

I’ll also get a bit into this in the other post this week.


Healthcare and CBO Update

Like I said last week, the CBO came out with predictions for Trump/Ryan/Don’tcare that were as bad or worse than even the most pessimistic of us expected:

CBO and JCT estimate that, in 2018, 14 million more people would be uninsured under the legislation than under current law. Most of that increase would stem from repealing the penalties associated with the individual mandate. Some of those people would choose not to have insurance because they chose to be covered by insurance under current law only to avoid paying the penalties, and some people would forgo insurance in response to higher premiums.

That’s 14 million more people uninsured than right now, and the number would kick up into the mid-20-millions by 2020 when the Medicaid expansion runs out.

Of course, the administration’s not sure whether it trusts the CBO:

Sean Spicer, for his part, has been whining since the report came out that the CBO hasn’t properly taken steps two or three of the total plan into account, conveniently ignoring that steps two and three are literally imaginary.

 


The Supreme Court

And Neil Gorsuch’s hearings began this week. You can catch these on C-SPAN. It’s pretty doubtful the Dems will be able to do much or anything to stop Gorsuch’s confirmation, but it seems like if the GOP was willing to hold out for a year on Obama’s appointee, they might as well be made to wait a year for theirs.

Soon, I think next week, I’m going to get into radical solutions to republican problems and what a Mexican dictator has to say about the US.


Wire-Whats?

Even pasty-faced cretin Devin Nunes, Chair of the House Intelligence Committee, and  pretty much #1 Google Result for “refuses to investigate” says that there were no Obama wiretaps on Trump Tower.

James Comey, head of the FBI, went before Congress yesterday to reiterate Nunes’ sentiment on the wiretaps, and, interestingly, to announce that the FBI had been investigating Trump, his campaign, and their connections with Russia since July.

Forget all of that, though. What is Comey’s deal? The FBI doesn’t, does not, full stop, comment on ongoing investigations, but Comey’s practically turned commenting on ongoing investigations into his full-time job. So I guess doing it now is just par for the course for him, but if this has been going on since July, why did he make the Clinton announcement right before the election and then wait on this one until now?

God knows who Trump would replace him with, but it seems like maybe James Comey’s gone one clearly political fuck-up too far to still be head of the US’s most powerful law enforcement agency, right?


Municipal-a-Lago Service Benefit Unit

Last, and probably least, but most heartening, Palm Beach County, home of Mar-a-Lago, is working on a way to charge the President for the millions of dollars his weekly golf-trips are costing the municipal government.

County Commissioner Mary Lou Berger said she, Bradshaw and Assistant County Administrator Todd Bonlarron recently held a conference call with officials from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Secret Service, the Congressional Budget Office and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to make the case for reimbursement.

“I was very firm and to the point that we expected this money to be reimbursed, that it shouldn’t be this difficult for them to figure out,” Bradshaw said in describing the call.

Berger said she was discouraged.

“They were polite, but that’s where they stopped,” Berger said. “I did not get a lot of encouragement.”

Palm Beach County Commissioner Dave Kerner wonders if [Mar-a-Lago, AKA the Winter White House] should have another name: “municipal service benefit unit.”

Kerner’s name is far less catchy than Trump’s, but it could give the county a way to impose a special tax on Trump to reimburse the county for the millions it has shelled out for roadway management and security assistance during the president’s frequent trips here.

The tax would not be a property tax, Kerner said. Instead, it would be a tax pegged to the value of any “special benefit” the county has provided to Mar-a-Lago’s owner — Trump.

 

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