Is The Ship Of State Sinking?

It looks like some of the rats are beginning to bail out. The Republican political and business establishment was fine with Donald Trump saying anything he wanted about Muslims, hispanics, immigrants, blacks, Democrats, fellow Republicans, judges. They said nothing when he cozied up to tyrants.

They made a deal with the devil because they thought he’d get them less regulation on their polluting businesses, lower taxes for corporations and the rich, big government contracts for infrastructure and defense, an end to onerous steps to combat climate change. He was going to let the old, good time, laissez faire capitalism roll.

But he’s proven himself incapable of making even a model railroad run on time, let alone the government of the United States. He over-promised and delivered nothing on healthcare reform and may fail to enact anything on their wish list, particularly if he goes out of his way to divide and alienate his own party.

Meanwhile, he deals recklessly with foreign adversaries, deliberately polarizes the country, empowers the farthest out, anti-American fringe, and looks increasingly dirty as regards his relations with Russia and his business dealings. And all this has won him an approval rating of 34 percent, and heading further south.

Now, more and more Republican officeholders and corporate chieftains have quit simply holding their noses and are putting distance between themselves and the Divider-in-Chief. Each time one speaks out, the president and head of their party lashes out and threatens to back a primary opponent or to use governmental power to screw their companies.

But even in the face of these Brown Shirt tactics, senators have shown more loyalty to each other and their institution than to him, a virulent bacillus infecting the body politic. And CEOs fear the wrath of their customers more than an unpopular, ineffectual pol.

Even the Murdocks — pioneers of divisive, right wing 24-hour media falsehood that panders to the prejudices of angry, old white men — have decided Neo-Nazis, white supremacists and the alt-right are too much for the FOX-right to stomach. So, Rupert has reportedly told his Frankenstein’s monster to fire Steve Bannon, cut the crap, and get busy passing the pro-business and billionaire-friendly reforms he promised.

Murdock pere may be freaked out that his puppet has forgotten the populist nonsense he spouts is just fake news designed to distract the attention of the unwashed from policies quietly enacted to enrich the one percent. The sap is apparently taking his own con seriously.

Meanwhile, Murdock fils, the heir apparent who has been instrumental in sending the elderly, sexual harassers in the Fox stable — Ailes and O’Reilly — to the glue factory, also appears to have had enough of Trump. So, James Murdock has denounced the president’s embrace of fascists, racists and anti-semites and contributed one million dollars to the anti-defamation league.

That’s nice, but it’s no different than the wicked sinner who spends six days every week on pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth, then throws ten bucks in the plate on Sunday to get right with the Lord. Too little, too late.

Trump’s enablers thought they were making a shrewd deal in backing him, gaining the whole world and losing no sleep. Instead, they are in bed with a rabid dog and find themselves crawling with a lot more than mere fleas. Oh, and losing their souls, if any, into the bargain. Like everyone else who has ever dealt with Trump, they have wound up on the losing end. Unfortunately, they’ve taken the rest of the country down the chute to the nether regions with them.

Malign Neglect #2

The news media has a weakness for low hanging fruit — the showy story, the obvious story, the lurid story. So, Donald Trump’s personal barbarities get maximum coverage, the soap opera, inner workings of his White House somewhat less, the dysfunction of Congress less, the Supreme Court very little (unless it curtails somebody’s rights), and the quotidian operation of vast executive departments is ignored for years at a time.

Yet, if Trump and his minions are actually going to make America great, or grim, it will occur at places like HHS,HUD, Interior, Treasury, Education or DOE. What’s DOE, again? Oh yeah, the Department of Energy. But does anything happening in such a place matter to me or you? Who cares?

Well, thanks to Michael Lewis, our explainer in chief (“Liar’s Poker,” “Moneyball,” “The Big Short,” “The Undoing Project”, “The Blind Side,” “Flash Boys”), we now know that to a scary degree what the Trumpites are up to at DOE matters a lot. I encourage you to seek out his expose of the perilous course they are trying to chart at DOE, “The Fifth Risk,” in the September “Vanity Fair.”

Under Obama, the Department of Energy was run by Ernest Moniz, a widely admired Stanford PH.D theoretical physicist. Under Trump it has been entrusted to Aggie cheerleader Rick Perry who once wanted to eliminate it, but couldn’t remember its name.

The animosity of the right wing to the Department of Energy comes from the fossil fuel industry which sees it as an enemy of oil and promoter of the climate change heresy they reject as fake news. So naturally, Texan Perry had to be opposed to DOE.

Tellingly, the first person from the Trump camp to visit the department was a Koch Industries lackey, and the first steps taken were to try to identify employees who believed in climate change, so they could be fired. Since then, Obama appointees and career administrators have been replaced or now report to libertarian anti-government zealots and Eric Trump’s brother-in-law. Many of the scientific brain power may abandon ship.

This bias against DOE is founded on a huge misapprehension that a brief study of the agency would dispel. In fact, if facts still matter, DOE is the descendant of the AEC — the Atomic Energy Commission that was created to have dominion over the nuclear arms infrastructure of the country after World War II.

About half of the department’s $30 billion annual budget goes to maintain our nuclear arsenal and to guard against nuclear threats. Another quarter of the budget goes, as Lewis says, to “clean up all the unholy world-historic mess left behind by the manufacture of nuclear weapons.” Only the final quarter goes to programs concerned with our “access to, and use of, energy.”

But even that quarter isn’t hostile to fossil fuels, as those who profit from them claim. Much of what the DOE does is research or the funding of research by outside parties. It does the sort of long term, big science R&D that companies operating under the tyranny of the quarterly report don’t undertake because it may take many years to payoff, if it pays off at all.

So, DOE did some of the original research that led to the fracking revolution that has helped make us energy independent, and incidentally enriched DOE foes like the Koch brothers. DOE research on battery technology made Tesla cars possible and has helped bring the price of solar power down from 27 cents per kilowatt hour to seven cents.

DOE scientists also contrived the protocols behind the much maligned Iran deal that assures the Ayatollahs can’t build a nuclear bomb or import one without being detected. In the last eight years, DOE has tracked and seized enough weapons-grade uranium and plutonium to have allowed rogue nations or terrorists to build 160 nuclear weapons.

The department also pays world-class scientists to worry about loose nukes and how to clean up waste with a radioactive half-life of billions of years. At the now shuttered and toxic Hanford plutonium plant, they are working to prevent buried waste from seeping into and poisoning the Columbia River.

DOE also concerns itself with threats to the antiquated, vulnerable electrical grid. A successful attack could turn out the lights for much of the country for months. In 2016, DOE “counted half a million cyber-intrusions into various parts of the electrical grid.” It also seeks to protect against instances like an attack on million dollar transformers by a sniper that put a substation out of commission. And DOE teams appear at large events like the Super Bowl, and probably Trump’s inaugural, with devices capable of detecting a dirty bomb before it can be detonated and poison a city.

In short, Lewis demonstrates that this little known department of government protects our health and welfare, maintains our arsenal, fights terrorism, and funds innovative research to ensure a continuing supply of the affordable energy that powers our lives. And he warns that the evil clowns of Trumpland are intent on tearing down this vital resource that it took their betters decades to build.

For example, ARPA-E, DOE’s visionary research arm is widely regarded as its crown jewel. It has won praise from capitalist icons included Bill Gates, a former CEO of Wal-Mart and the founder of Fedex. But Trump’s proposed budget would eliminate it entirely. It would also zero out the loan program that has funded research that has discovered ways to increase energy production and make solar power cheaper. The Trump Luddites would fire 6,000 scientists and support personnel, eliminate all climate change research, and cut in half the funds used to protect the power grid from attack.

This isn’t politics as usual. This is cultural vandalism. It is a know-nothing attack on the science that has been behind our country’s rise and prosperity from Ben Franklin to the present. It opposes the force that has fueled our success from the steamboat to the railroad to the electric light to the internal combustion entire to computer science and the human genome project.

Why do they want to destroy DOE? Because understanding the vital role it plays would require a little study? Or because slashing government spending so taxes on Republican donors can be cut is the Republican Party’s be-all and end-all? Because libertarian ideologues believe all government is bad, evidence to the contrary be damned? Or because Trump thinks Obama liked DOE, so he is compelled to hate it and all its works?

Whatever their motive, they might consider the old adage — act in haste, repent at leisure. But in this case, the stakes of hasty action allow no room for error. They are nuclear terror undetected, a power grid blackout, an aquifer poisoned by plutonium, lost opportunities, a competitive disadvantage, national decline, darkness rather than light.

Malign Neglect #1

Much of the obsessive attention directed at the Trump administration centers on Trump, not on administration. But more important than what he’s tweeting may be what he is neglecting to do from incompetence, cluelessness, apathy, laziness or sheer bloody-minded contempt for democratic government.

Two recent publications draw attention to this nine-tenths of the Trump iceberg that is out of sight. Today, I want to draw your attention to a study that was forwarded me to Doug Marsh of Denver. It can be found at gabriel-zucman.eu under the heading: “Distributional National Accounts.”

If that sounds a bit dense, it is. In fact, it’s a 51-page scholarly paper by economics professors Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman. But do not despair, you can get the alarming gist from the abstract at the beginning and the conclusions and mind-blowing charts and graphs at the end.

Piketty, of course, is the author of the surprise bestseller of 2013 “Capital in the 21st Century.” Despite the title, it was actually a study of the forces creating a growing concentration of wealth at the top, the societal risks it poses and the possible remedies. Thanks to the light it directed at economic inequality, the subject became a campaign issue in 2016. Bernie Sanders made it a centerpiece of his insurgent run, and Donald Trump’s working class voters are its victims.

Since solutions tend to involve government policies to ameliorate inequality, including progressive taxation and redistributive entitlements, Republicans were quick to criticize Piketty as one of those European socialists and to fault his data and his solutions as they applied to the United States.

This paper, which studies wealth distribution in the United States between 1946 and 2014, answers those critics. In doing so, the authors count all income comprehensively, not just wages and benefits, but unearned income like capital gains as well as government transfers.

The data shows in stark detail how lopsided the wealth distribution is in this country and how it has become more so over the time period studied. So, as of 2014, the bottom 50% of adults over twenty earned 12.5% of all income, the bottom 20% (46 million people) subsisted on a scant 1.7%, an average of $5,400 a year. Even the top 90% (200 million adults) only accounted for 53% of all income, which left 47% of all income to the top 10%. The top one percent (2.3 million people) earned 20% of all income, more than the bottom 50%.

This profile of a plutocratic few and a struggling many is troubling enough, but the authors show that the plight of the bottom 90%, who average $36,000 a year or less, would be far worse if it weren’t for government programs including Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the earned income tax credit, food stamps and many more that address the needs of the poor, the working class, the shrinking middle class, the ill, disabled and elderly.

Yet those are just the programs that the anti-government Paul Ryan right targets for elimination. And Trump, who ran as the white knight of the left-behind classes, seems ready to go along with this destructive plan.

The paper also divides the period studied into two 34-year blocks — 1946-1980 and 1981-2014. Doing so demonstrates dramatically what went wrong during this period. In the post-World War II years, programs comprising the social safety net were enacted or extended and lessened inequality, but in the years beginning with the so-called Reagan Revolution, which set out to dismantle those safeguards, inequality has exploded.

Unfortunately, few of the 200 million adults who are victims of this process will ever read this paper or understand the role that government actions and inactions have had in changing their material circumstances, first for the better and then for the worse.

Next time, a must-read from Michael Lewis on a government department that quietly protects all of our lives, and how the Trump administration is fecklessly on track to destroy it, and possbly many of our lives along wth it. The motto for the Trump regime might as well be: “As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport.” Except these wanton boys aren’t gods, but human, all too human clay.