Sunday, July 31, 2016

The Voice of America

UPDATE: On November 8th 2016 Donald J. Trump won the presidential election and will be the 45th president of the U.S. Contrary to all predictions, pundits, and even his own expectations he became the president elect that evening. There are multiple reasons for such outcome and the election campaign and results will be fodder for writers for years to come. Points for further analysis include:
  • Overreliance on negative campaigning by Secretary Clinton: she tried to convince people not to vote for Trump, instead of to vote for her.
  • Low turnout in swing states. In some cases potentially by voter suppression, notably North Carolina, in others on account of the “Comey Letter,” the FBI Director’s untimely letter to Congress suggesting additional (and eventually unsubstantiated) wrongdoing charges against Secretary Clinton.
  • Third Party votes.
  • Influence of polling and the narrative of an inevitable “Clinton Coronation” on supporters who did not think their vote was needed for her to win.
A combination of these factors resulted in an election in which all expectations were trumped.


Donald Trump is not going to be the 45th president of the United States. That is what most polls and forecasters predict. Electoral Vote, FiveThirtyEight, RealClear Politics and many others would make us believe that is the case. Hillary Clinton only needs 270 electoral votes and the ElectoralMap does not look good for Republicans no matter who the candidates are. So Democrats, progressives, moderates, many Republicans and rational people of all stripes and colors can breathe easy: Trump will be defeated by the Blue Wall. Right?

Clinton: 347 / Trump: 191
Yet, disregarding the fact that complacency seeds defeat, while Trumpism may not elect Donald Trump its legacy may survive him.  Just as the Tea Party before it, Trumpism is a movement rooted in a mish mash of social grievances addressed by populist politicians. Its leading figure, Donald Trump, has galvanized a sector of society that is willing to give him wide latitude with the facts as long as he embodies the frustration they feel. And that wide latitude makes for a big bandwagon in which frustration mixes with dark emotions.

Trumpism is beholden to Trump, a figure that voices a grievance and vows he alone has the truth, the solution and the will to carry it out. His solution is to take: take back from usurpers; take away from enemies; take down those who would question him. Trumpism seeks to ensure that the strong will prevail and the weak annihilated. Trumpism seeks to lead the country to a future new paradise where life will be so much better, just like it was in the old paradise. The tenets of Trumpism are the same ones of totalitarian rule, which thrives on the anxious frustrated seeking someone who will protect them from usurpers, enemies and questioners—and lead them to a promised land.

Donald Trump urges his followers to:
With these tools and techniques he presents himself as the spokesman of truths up until now purposely hid by politicians and “the mass media.” He paints a picture to his audience of an America and the world centered on visions of fear and violence. An America where the only valid optimism is to believe and trust in him as a strong leader that will do an undetailed “whatever it takes” to fight against those dark forces he presents in hyperbolic rhetoric and lead the country back to a paradise lost.

That is the essence of Trumpism, a distortion of what America is. That is not America. America is the Promised Land, the land of opportunity. A place where the daughter of a teenage housemaid or the biracial son of a single mother can become president of the United States. A place where new industries are born, a place where new ideas are bred and tested, a place that prides itself in having the pursuit of happiness as an inalienable right for its people, thus believing that the best is yet to come.

Nonetheless, when Trump loses he will have left the legacy of Trumpism with all its tenets as described: a moral black hole. That is why Americans need to stand up for what our country is about and demonstrate to the world that such legacy is repudiated. In this election it is not only votes that count, it is the voice that must be heard. Trump must not only lose. His ideas on how to change America from a bright land of opportunity for all to a dark divisive territory of suspicion of each other must be rejected soundly.

In this election Red and Blue states don’t matter. Even if electoral college votes of any state remain in their historical trend, people in “red states” have to vote against Trumpism, as many as can do. People in “blue states” have to vote against Trumpism, as many as can do. New York and California must not only be in the blue electoral column, they must overwhelmingly reject Trumpism. Mississippi and Georgia can be in the red electoral column, but by the smallest margins ever. 

The voters of America, the popular vote has to say it loudly: Trumpism does not represent America.  Every vote counts as a voice against Trumpism. We owe it to the world to contain Trump and his ideas within a wall of their own.

 Wall Object created by LA street artist Plastic Jesus (AFP Photo/Mark Ralston)
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Monday, July 11, 2016

Tear Down That Wall.

Drip, drip. Drip, drip. Eroding the stones. Drip, drip. Altering the mind. Little by little.
We keep getting signals, messages, dog-whistles from mainstream and fringestream media, from right wing echo chambers, from leftie universes, from Washington’s bubble… all speaking to, no, stoking the Aggrieved Mind. And then we wonder (not really) why Dallas happens, why Orlando happens, why Tucson happens, why Colorado Springs happens, even why San Bernardino happens. All them shooters with a grievance in search of a ready-made cause, a social excuse for their mayhem. Drip, drip, talking heads drip poison into the foundation, stain, ultimately rip the fabric of our nation, our world, separating the parts and building walls between all.
Build that wall is the rally cry. Unfriend, delete, ban, keep us all separate and (un)equal. A tribal and ghettoized state of mind that makes sure no common ground is allowed, because it compromises the purity of ideals, be they an interpretation of the constitution or of class or social or political identity. Purity is what matters. It is always the other one at fault, rarely a glance inwards allowing a broader view based on a crazy notion that everyone is created equal and endowed by their creator with unalienable rights.
I write these lines of apparent despair and hopelessness after a week of tragedies and head spinning events. Independence Day weekend was eventful in its own right. While the world was reeling from mass murders of Westerners in Dhaka, Shia in Baghdad and a (probable) response to that last one by multiple bombings in Sunni Saudi Arabia we all were tense, thinking of the unthinkable during America’s party.
Amidst the tension, Secretary Clinton was interviewed by the FBI on Saturday 7/2 to culminate their probe into those (damned) emails. On Tuesday 7/5, FBI Director James Comey said the FBI had not found sufficient evidence to prove a crime had been committed. He characterized Clinton’s actions as “extremely careless” but not “gross misconduct” which could have been indictable. To be so, her (110 out of nearly 40,000) emails would have to have been shared with people who had no security clearance, and she would have had to willfully and knowingly lie and obstruct the investigation (like, for instance, Gen. Petreus did). Unfortunately we have no true judicial comparables because the server maintained by the RNC in the White House --and from which twenty two million emails by Karl Rove, Scooter Libby and others were deleted when the inquiries into CIA agent Valerie Plame’s outing were being carried out -- was never subject to a public scrutiny such as the one on Clinton’s server.
Director Comey also mentioned that there was a possibility that the server installed by a former President in his fortified house and guarded by the Secret Service theoretically could have been hacked, but there was no indication or proof regarding such hacking (as there was for the White House, the State Department the FBI and the DoD – even the NSA). She also used her blackberry in foreign countries and that can be dangerous to National Security.
Director Comey got promptly hauled in by Republicans to testify before the House Oversight Committee of Congress, where this man, a career prosecutor involved in investigating Whitewater under Kenneth Starr, who as Acting Attorney General stood up to President Bush’s acolytes against illegal wiretapping under the Patriot Act (and had to eventually leave the Bush government because of it), and a well-known Republican, had his ethics, methods, thoroughness and motives questioned.
The same day as Director Comey read his statement asserting there was no criminal case to be made against Secretary Clinton was the last day in the life of Alton Sterling. This was a brutal killing of a black man while being held to the ground by two police officers and shot four or five times point blank. No congressional action, investigation or statement on this one.
The next day, Wednesday, the day Comey testified before congress and the Attorney General decided to follow his recommendation, another gruesome video was posted on social media: a young black man, Philando Castile, bleeds to death next to his fiancée, with his four year old step daughter-to-be strapped in the back seat, as a police officer points a gun at him. Again to Congress this life, and so, so many others not caught on tape, does not seem to matter.
With Clinton Derangement Syndrome (and here) fully in bloom both within the Republican right and the Democratic left, and with Trumpism firing up passions from all sides of the spectrum and everyone ignoring large portions of alienated America, the aggrieved mind finds itself ready to hit the destroy button. This time it was in Dallas.
“This is not just a black issue. This is not just a Hispanic issue. This is an American issue,” said President Obama referring to the factual gross disparities in incidents involving African-Americans and police stops with unpredictable consequences under the same circumstances as white people. “Would this have happened if those passengers would have been white? I don’t think it would have.” That was Governor Mark Dayton from Minnesota. “I’m going to be talking to white people. I think we’re the ones who have to start listening to the legitimate cries that are coming from our African-American fellow citizens.” That was Secretary Clinton (full speech), maybe referring to Congress? They have hearings all the time, but do not listen.
“Our nation has become too divided. Too many Americans feel like they’ve lost hope. Crime is harming too many citizens. Racial tensions have gotten worse, not better. This isn’t the American Dream we all want for our children.” That was Donald Trump, reaching out to our better instincts for a change, but not calling for any other action except “We must restore law and order. We must restore the confidence of our people to be safe and secure in their homes and on the street.” Another wall; this time, a Blue Wall.
We are in a ghettoized nation with factions demanding bigger walls to contain themselves in and keep the Others out, lashing out to those on the other side. The poison drip coming from all sides needs to stop; a stop to the endless water torture affecting minds, even artificially intelligent ones. Partisan politics does not seem to get it -- not even to hold a (probably pointless) hearing.
America’s original sin of slavery still has not been washed away. We are not living in a post racial America, despite unquestionable strides by African-Americans and other minorities in our society. There are still remnants, throwbacks, back steps in the process of building a nation for all its citizens. Our country and the world needs leadership with a vision that recognizes the tribal instincts, that recognizes the disruption of a world filled with Others and recognizes the need to reach out to that Aggrieved Mind behind the wall, beyond the bubble, in the other universe. A vision to lead towards building a future, not looking backwards. Not stoking petty divisiveness, not inciting hateful acrimony, not building bigger walls. Are we not better than that?

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Trump's Trade Deals

We have seen a glimpse. Trump, the business man benefiting from Trump the politician. He relished in the thought of more vacationers in Turnberry, Scotland staying in the magnificent lighthouse suites of his Golf Resort, taking advantage of a devalued British Pound. But, if you look closely, other political issues that he so heartily embraces are very good for his pocket. His relentless attack on the Trans Pacific Partnership is not only a populist stance, it is good for the business of his branded products. 

China is the big loser if TPP goes through, as the rest of Asia would be aligned with the US in a commercial alliance, and Trump has repeatedly said in the past that he has made great deals and lots of money with China. Perhaps that is why polls in China are more favorable for Trump that in any other country. But even if he moves from China to licensing his brand to manufacturers in other countries such as Bangladesh, Malaysia, Chile or Peru, his vested business interest is for the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement to unravel. A frequent point Trump does not make or conveniently does not mention is that there is no special trade deal with China to “rip up” unless the US withdraws from GATT altogether.
If any portion of Trump’s income comes from Trump branded products he would be affected adversely when TPP countries manufacturing such products are forced to ensure and enforce the following (as Thomas Friedman has pointed out):

  • Freedom for workers to form independent trade unions, elect their own labor leaders, collectively bargain and eliminate all child and forced labor practices.
  • Adopt laws on minimum wages, hours of work and occupational safety and health.
  • Halt human trafficking from countries such as Thailand, Myanmar and Bangladesh and require each signatory to improve access for human rights groups to assist victims of trafficking.
Those are real provisions included in the TPP that would impact Trump branded products by raising their manufacturing cost. Provisions with teeth, because if signatories fail to meet them, they would be slapped with tariffs.

Other TPP provisions include, lowering or eliminating 18,000 tariffs and restrictions placed on products manufactured in the US, such as cars, machinery and digital products, to improve US’ access to a billion person market; establish criminal penalties for stealing industrial secrets; recognizing and balancing unfair competition from state-owned and subsidized enterprises; and combat endangered animal part trafficking and penalize overfishing.

There are, however, provisions anathema to some legitimate critics. Pharmaceutical patent protections have been denounced by Sen. Bernie Sanders, for example, as too generous. These provisions restrict the production of unlicensed generics, potentially raising the cost of medicines to the region’s poor. But time limits originally sought by Big Pharma were substantially reduced and quality control increased by discouraging unlicensed and knock-off products.

Opponents also argue that multinational companies can sue governments in venues of their choosing to maximize legal advantages, and cite for example the case of Philip Morris vs Australia using ISDS (Investor-State Dispute Settlement) provisions. Philip Morris incorporated operations in Hong Kong to use tribunal arbiters from that country (China) and sue Australia for damaging the brand when it passed a law forcing plain warning packaging for cigarettes; the suit was eventually tossed out. TransCanada, the corporation behind the Keystone XL pipeline, has threatened to sue the US government, using ISDS provisions in NAFTA, for blocking its project on account of environmental concerns.

Clarification of ISDS rules is important but is not a deal breaker for TPP. Licensing, patents and intellectual property issues have been addressed and Big Pharma did not get all it wanted, just as generic manufacturers did not either. These are true concerns that a global economy needs to deal with. Ignoring the reality of global commerce is not going to diminish its transformational impact on labor markets all around the world. This reality is ignored by any country at its own peril. It is in establishing common rules and practices that global commerce can benefit a maximum of countries while regulating the negative externalities created by transactions carried out under different conditions and resources for each country involved. I addressed this issue before in my book Campaign Journal 2008. The term “Free Trade Deals” in itself is somewhat misleading, as these treaties in fact regulate the unfettered commerce practices creating those negative externalities as opposed to making such commerce more “Free.”

Steel Mfg. Processes as a Percentage of Total Produced
The economics of global trade are relentless, disruptive and heartless. But not more so than those of technological innovation. Old technology jobs give way to new ones and blame can be easily transferred by populists onto other factors, such as “free trade.” At least trade can be regulated, markets opened and facilitated. Technology not so much: as much or more steel is being produced and exported in the US now as ten years ago, but with technologies that need much less labor. More energy needs are being met by cleaner fuels and methods, not by coal. Food is being produced at astronomical rates with many less farmers. These are not jobs that are coming back from China, Mexico or any other place. Secretary Clinton, in an often misquoted statement, addressed the need to recognize this impact of technological disruption on the labor force in a Town Hall in West Virginia: 
“I'm the only candidate which has a policy about how to bring economic opportunity using clean renewable energy as the key into coal country. Because we're going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business, right, Tim? And we're going to make it clear that we don't want to forget those people. Those people labored in those mines for generations, losing their health, often losing their lives to turn on our lights and power our factories. Now we've got to move away from coal and all the other fossil fuels, but I don't want to move away from the people who did the best they could to produce the energy that we relied on.”

It is emblematic of populist cluelessness (or cynicism) that Donald Trump gave his anti-trade tirade in a scrap aluminum plant—a recycling plant. Recycling metal was one of the original disruptors, diminishing the need for mining and processing raw ore. It “killed” jobs, and as those workers that took over the jobs of other workers from a technological past cheered Trump on, you can be sure they have enjoyed the estimated thousands of dollars a year saved by each US consumer as a benefit of lowered trade barriers. The US International Trade Commission 2016 report on the Economic Impact of Trade estimates that U.S. consumers have saved as much as $13.4 billion in 2014 from tariff reductions associated with trade agreements. Furthermore it states that U.S. consumers who are either middle income (income between $40,000 and $69,000) or lower income (income less than $40,000) benefit disproportionately from the savings associated with the tariff reductions. Yes, they get cheaper TVs and toasters.
The benefits of trade are diluted and invisible, while job losses created by globalization and technological disruption are as visible as a shuttered factory down the street. Early in the Obama administration a lesson was learned. The president in 2009, and at the urging of workers’ unions imposed a tariff beginning at 35% and expiring after three years on tires from China. In his State of the Union Address of 2012 he said “over one thousand Americans are working today because we stopped a surge of Chinese tires.” However Americans, according to analysts from the Peterson Institute of Economics, paid $1.1 Billion more in tires over that period than otherwise would have been the case (about $800,000 per job “saved”), moneys that could have been used in other sectors of the economy producing jobs. China in turn, slapped retaliatory tariffs on US chicken parts, which cost American poultry exporters an estimated $1B in lost sales. Overall that line in the State of the Union address cost the US economy more than $2B. But a closed tire factory is visible and its unemployed workers are real. And they are voters. And they have unions. 
Global commerce will force changes and all stakeholders and grievances need to be recognized and addressed. Ignoring the problem and putting up a tariff wall will not solve the problem nor rescue lost labor. The best way to manage these relentless forces of change is by recognizing them and planning for them, just like you do for hurricanes. Social nets need to be secured, transitional paths designed and equal opportunity ensured to foster innovation and entrepreneurship in the new business environment. As Neil Irwin in the NYT pointed out recently, in Pittsburgh (home to the Pittsburgh Steelers) 5,100 steel mill jobs have been lost since 1990 but 66,000 new jobs in health care have come to the area. Yet, Irwin does not say... those iron workers, were they left twisting in the wind? Many if not most of them are unlikely to have transitioned to the health care sector. Until a satisfactory answer is given to those displaced workers, populist speech such as that of Trump will be music to their ears. To Trump’s own personal economic advantage.

Perhaps David Brooks is right when he says that the political issues of the day can be pictured as having shifted from arguments about size of government to arguments about size of walls. Walls for commerce and walls for immigration. The economic and identity anxieties of a globalized economy are being tapped into both by sincere and by cynical populist politicians appealing to the gut and the heart rather than the mind. Appeals that may be so misleading as to make a small but sufficient percentage of ill-informed voters vote for the word “Leave” in the belief that it means foreigners and other undesirables will be forced to leave and go back to where they came from, not that “Leave” will structurally change their own nation’s geopolitical standing. The term "swing voter" has decidedly now been irrevocably stained. As a wise man once said, you only have to fool some of the people all of the time in order to maintain political life and viability.


We celebrated in a recent event held to commemorate the 75 th anniversary of the adoption by the United Nations of the Universal Declaratio...