A Really Big Pile Indeed

The (Roughly) Daily blog has a visual guide to wealth in America (thanks, Ted). The text, which takes a while to find, includes a few key facts:

We rarely see wealth inequality represented to scale. This is part of the reason Americans consistently under-estimate the relative wealth of the super rich.

Jeff (Bezos) is so wealthy, that it is quite literally unimaginable.

You can use your scroll bar to see why you can’t imagine it. But don’t stop until you get to the wealth of the 400 richest Americans, a sum that’s super-unimaginable.

Remember during the presidential campaign when Senators Warren and Sanders called for a wealth tax and at least one billionaire wept bitter tears?

warrenmugbillionairetears_111419warrencampaign (2)

It looks like they’re still selling the mugs, although, given current circumstances, nobody knows when they’ll be delivered.

Note: I can’t vouch for the visual guide’s accuracy, but according to other sources, Bezos’s pile is around 1,500,000 times more — that’s 1.5 million times more — than the median net worth of a U.S. household, and 12,600,000 times more than the median for households under 35. That’s a really big pile.

Current Events

Retired Gen. Wesley Clark contrasts the killings of Saudi Arabia’s Osama bin Laden and Iran’s Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani:

[Unlike bin Laden] Soleimani was no stateless outlaw. He was a decorated public figure in a nation of more than 80 million people. He was the most renowned of the Iranian generals, hugely popular within Iran — and in Iraq, where supporters of an Iranian-backed militia stormed the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad early this week. If the killing of Soleimani was a response to that attack, it was clearly disproportionate…

… nothing in the 40 years of American struggle with Iran has indicated that it will back down from a military challenge. When [the president] stepped away from the Iran nuclear agreement in 2018 and opted instead to crush Iran with economic sanctions …, the administration should have anticipated a long, difficult struggle….

The conflict enters a new phase now: Reciprocal, escalating military actions are a good bet…

Campaigning in Iowa, Sen. Elizabeth Warren was asked if she would have ordered the attack on Soleimani:

No… Much of this started back when [the president] decided to pull out of the Iranian nuclear deal. Even though the Iranians had been certified as adhering to the terms of the deal. Even though our allies all stayed in the deal and wanted us to stay in the deal. [The president] off on his own, started escalating, escalating, escalating, until now, he has taken us to the edge of war. It is dangerous for the United States and it is dangerous for the world.

Asked about the administration’s claim there was an imminent threat, Warren said “the administration has no credibility in truth telling, either at home or around the world”.

As we wait for Iranian retaliation, Republican politicians and their propaganda machine are offering vague and inconsistent justifications for the president’s decision. Anyone who expresses doubts about the attack is already being accused of “siding with terrorists” or “not supporting the troops”. One crank with a Fox News program says we need to honor our “obligations” to “this leader” who is doing so much for us.

Shortly after it happened, Rukmini Callimachi, a correspondent for The New York Times, reported on the genesis of the attack:

I’ve had a chance to check in with sources, including two US officials who had intelligence briefings after the strike on Suleimani…. According to them, the evidence suggesting there was to be an imminent attack on American targets is “razor thin”.

In fact the evidence … came as three discrete facts: (a) A pattern of travel showing Suleimani was in Syria, Lebanon & Iraq to meet with Shia proxies. (As one source said, that’s just “business as usual” for Suleimani).

More intriguing was (b) information indicating Suleimani sought the Supreme Leader’s approval for an operation. He was told to come to Tehran for consultation and further guidance, suggesting the operation was a big deal – but again this could be anything.

And finally, c) Iran’s increasingly bellicose position towards American interests in Iraq, including the attack that killed a U.S. contractor and the recent protest outside the American embassy.

But, as one source put it, (a) + (b) + (c) is hardly evidence of an imminent attack on American interests that could kill hundreds, as the White House has since claimed. The official describes the reading of the intelligence as an illogical leap.

One official described the planning for the strike as chaotic…. Killing Suleimani was the “far out option”….

Since the strike, Iran has convened its national security chiefs. Chatter intercepted by American intelligence indicates they’re considering a range of options. Cyber-attacks, attacks on oil facilities and American personnel and diplomatic outposts have all been cited so far. But among the “menu options” … were: (1) kidnapping and execution of American citizens. (This might explain why the State Department has ordered the evacuation of all US citizens in Iraq, not just government and embassy employees).

Another is attacks on American diplomatic and military outposts not just in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria, but as far afield as UAE and Bahrain. The official I spoke to was particularly concerned for American troops stationed in Iraq, some of whom are co-located with Shia militias.

… Let me just say the obvious: No one’s trying to downplay Suleimani’s crimes. The question is why now? His whereabouts have been known before. His resume of killing-by-proxy is not a secret. Hard to decouple his killing from the impeachment saga.

It sure is.

The Times published an article partly based on Callimachi’s reporting:

When [the president] chose the option of killing General Suleimani, top military officials, flabbergasted, were immediately alarmed about the prospect of Iranian retaliatory strikes on American troops in the region.

Why anyone with working neurons would present an option to the Toddler that they considered too extreme, assuming he wouldn’t choose it, is a terrific question.

A great way to understand the president’s “thinking” in this instance is to review his Twitter account. From Nancy LeTourneau of The Washington Monthly:

One of the themes that has emerged in [this era of politics] is that “there is a tweet for everything.” It refers to the fact that whenever the president says or does something, there is a tweet from his past demonstrating his hypocrisy. For example, even as the current occupant of the Oval Office has spent twice as much time on a golf course as Obama, [he] regularly complained that his predecessor played too much golf, tweeting about it 27 times from 2011 to 2016.

There is no great mystery about why there is a tweet for everything. Anyone as sociopathic as [him] engages in projection when attacking their opponents. That is because they are incapable of empathy or being able to see another person’s point of view. Absent any other point of reference, they simply project their own reactions onto others. [He] is obviously obsessed with playing golf, so regardless of the facts, he projected that obsession onto Obama.

The assassination of Qassem Soleimani and escalating tensions between the U.S. and Iran led to another moment of “there is a tweet for everything” on Thursday night.

Before the Electoral College screwed us, he repeatedly claimed Obama would start a war in the Middle East in order to insure his re-election:

“@BarackObama will attack Iran in the not too distant future because it will help him win the election,” [he] tweeted on Nov. 14, 2011.

Days later, he said, “Our president will start a war with Iran because he has absolutely no ability to negotiate. He’s weak and he’s ineffective. So the only way he figures that he’s going to get reelected – and as sure as you’re sitting there – is to start a war with Iran,” according to a video posted this week by a Washington Post video editor.

“In order to get elected, @BarackObama will start a war with Iran,” he followed up on Nov. 29, 2011.

Nearly a year later, on Oct. 22, 2012, [he]repeated the same claim, writing, “Don’t let Obama play the Iran card in order to start a war in order to get elected – be careful Republicans!”

In October 2012, [he] also suggested that Obama would “launch a strike in Libya or Iran” because his “poll numbers are in tailspin.”

The president’s poll numbers haven’t gone down (they’ve been consistently negative since 2017), but he is facing re-election and, as the Times correspondent said, there is the impeachment saga. The evidence for his impeachment and removal from office continues to grow. Newly-released emails from the Office of Management and Budget to the Pentagon confirm that the president personally delayed military aid to Ukraine. A judge is allowing one of the president’s shady Ukrainian pals to give the contents of his cellphone to House Democrats. Last week, one of the president’s aides was ordered to obey a House subpoena. And there is a report from a small investigative news site that those mysterious Deutsche Bank loans were underwritten by VTB Bank. VTB is owned by the Russian government (if true, that would certainly explain a lot!).

It should also be noted that Secretary of State Pompeo and Vice President Pence have been pressuring their boss to assassinate Soleiman. Why? Because they think it might lead to something truly wonderful: the end of the world.

Again, from Nancy LeTourneau of The Washington Monthly:

[In July, Pompeo gave a speech] to a group known as Christians United for Israel (CUFI) that was the brainchild of [Texas televangelist] John Hagee… Vice President Mike Pence addressed the same group in 2017.

One of the things Hagee is known for is the elaborate charts he has created to predict the rapture and events leading up to the end times….

What we are witnessing is a secretary of state who is conducting U.S. foreign policy in alignment with Christian Zionism, with the support of the vice president. While neoconservatives like John Bolton have their own twisted logic for wanting regime change in Iran, it is the belief that events in the Middle East align with Biblical prophecy about the end times that motivates Christian Zionists like Pompeo, Pence, and Hagee.

…. Rising tensions in the Middle East are a feature, not a bug, for these folks. That’s because all of this was prophesied thousands of years ago as a prelude to the rapture. In other words, they welcome the escalation.

Enough said.

The Passing Parade

The year is almost over and so is the decade that’s strangely ending with a “19” instead of a nice, round “20”. There is lots of news and commentary out there. An extremely truncated summary:

It didn’t make a splash, because this is 2019, not 1971, but The Washington Post reported:

A confidential trove of government documents obtained by The Washington Post reveals that senior U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable…

“We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn’t know what we were doing,” Douglas Lute, a three-star Army general who served as the White House’s Afghan war czar during the Bush and Obama administrations, told government interviewers in 2015. He added: “What are we trying to do here? We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking … Who will say this was in vain?”

The Afghanistan Papers won’t get as much publicity as the Pentagon Papers. They should have called them the “Afghan Papers”, more concise language now being the custom.

The Post also explained the history of the “It was Ukraine, not Russia” myth that has taken up permanent residence in what’s left of the Toddler’s brain and is so popular among right-wing politicians and propagandists everywhere. In a few words, the Russian government created the myth in order to cast blame on somebody else:

The president’s intense resistance to the assessment of U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia systematically interfered in the 2016 campaign — and the blame he cast instead on a rival country — led many of his advisers to think that Putin himself helped spur the idea of Ukraine’s culpability, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity [of course]. . .One former senior White House official said [the president] even stated so explicitly at one point, saying he knew Ukraine was the real culprit because “Putin told me.”

The Popular Information political newsletter summarized new analysis of the president’s high crimes and misdemeanors:

An extraordinary analysis by top legal experts, published by Just Security, clearly explains how the impeachment inquiry [implied] that [the pres] committed at least three (and probably more) federal crimes. All of these crimes involved him abusing his presidential powers, making them particularly relevant to impeachment….

  • Federal campaign finance law
  • Bribery
  • Honest services fraud

[This last one] occurs “when a public official breaches his duty to act in the best interests of his constituents by performing an official act in exchange for personal gain”, such as “withholding funding that had been allocated by Congress —  money intended to advance U.S. national security by helping Ukraine combat Russian aggression — to advance his personal political interests”.

Cool.

By the way, Congressional Democrats and Rep. Justin Amash (an independent who was kicked out of the Republican Party when he exercised his conscience) finally got around to impeaching the monster. Paul Krugman reacted:

What we saw Wednesday was a parade of sycophants comparing their leader to Jesus Christ while spouting discredited conspiracy theories straight from the Kremlin. And as they were doing so, the object of their adoration was giving an endless, rambling, third-world-dictator-style speech, full of lies, that veered between grandiosity and self-pity…

Republicans, in other words, are beyond redemption; they’ve become just another authoritarian party devoted to the leader principle. And like similar parties in other countries, the G.O.P. is trying to rig future elections through gerrymandering and voter suppression, creating a permanent lock on power

But if Trump’s supporters look just like their counterparts in failed democracies abroad, his opponents don’t.

One of the depressing aspects of the rise of authoritarian parties like Hungary’s Fidesz and Poland’s Law and Justice has been the fecklessness of their opposition — disunited, disorganized, unable to make an effective challenge even to unpopular autocrats as they consolidated their power.

Trumpism, however, faced determined, united, effective opposition from the beginning, which has been reflected both in mass marches and in Democratic electoral victories. In 2017 there were only 15 Democratic governors, compared with 35 Republicans; today the score is 24 to 26. And last year, of course, Democrats won a landslide victory in House elections, which is what made the impeachment hearing and vote possible.

Many of the new Democratic members of Congress are in Republican-leaning districts, and some observers expected a significant number to defect on Wednesday. Instead, the party held together almost completely. True, so did its opponents; but while Republicans sounded, well, deranged in their defense of Trump, Democrats came across as sober and serious, determined to do their constitutional duty even if it involved political risks.

Now, none of this necessarily means that democracy will survive….

What we learned Wednesday, however, was that those who define America by its ideals, not the dominance of a particular ethnic group, won’t give up easily. The bad news is that our bad people are as bad as everyone else’s. The good news is that our good people seem unusually determined to do the right thing.

Finally, speaking of good people, the widely-read evangelical magazine Christianity Today called for the Toddler’s removal from office. The editorial got so much attention, their website crashed:

His Twitter feed alone—with its habitual string of mischaracterizations, lies, and slanders—is a near perfect example of a human being who is morally lost and confused…. .Whether [he] should be removed from office by the Senate or by popular vote next election — that is a matter of prudential judgment. That he should be removed, we believe, is not a matter of partisan loyalties but loyalty to the Creator of the Ten Commandments….

To the many evangelicals who continue to support [him] in spite of his blackened moral record, we might say this: Remember who you are and whom you serve. Consider how your justification of [the president] influences your witness to your Lord and Savior. Consider what an unbelieving world will say if you continue to brush off [his] immoral words and behavior in the cause of political expediency. If we don’t reverse course now, will anyone take anything we say about justice and righteousness with any seriousness for decades to come?

You have to wonder how many of the president’s supporters understand that, if the Senate did its duty in the new year, our convicted president would be replaced by super-Christian Mike Pence, not the dreaded mainline Protestant who failed to carry Wisconsin.

In conclusion, it seems to me that we face two major issues:  climate change and bringing majority rule to America.

Majority rule would mean dealing with the courts, the Electoral College, a skewed Senate, gerrymandering, election security, campaign finance reform and voter suppression. It’s quite an agenda. But, as Senator Warren [subject of the latest Rolling Stone interview] keeps saying, we need big, structural change in our political system if we’re going to make progress on issues like climate change, inequality and much more.

Oh, and you might check out “The Historical Case for Abolishing Billionaires” in The Guardian. It begins by quoting another well-known proponent of regulated capitalism, Adam Smith.

A High Crime or Misdemeanor If Ever There Was One

Federal law says that a public official (such as the President) who, directly or indirectly, corruptly demands, seeks, receives, accepts, or agrees to receive or accept anything of value (such as the announcement of a criminal investigation into a prospective political opponent) in return for being influenced in the performance of any official act (such as inviting a foreign leader to the White House or delivering military aid to that foreign leader’s country) is guilty of bribery.

The Constitution says the President, Vice President and all civil officers of the United States shall be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors.

Our president directly, indirectly and secretly demanded something of value to his political campaign in return for performing official actions. That’s one solid reason he should be impeached and removed from office.

It makes no difference that the foreign criminal investigation was never announced and never took place. It makes no difference that the military aid was ultimately delivered (after the president’s corruption was revealed). The president made it clear to his subordinates and his lawyer that he wanted to bribe the president of Ukraine. Attempted bribery, even if discovered in time to be interfered with, counts as bribery.

There are other reasons he should be removed from office, including the fact that a grand jury would have indicted him for obstruction of justice if the Department of Justice had chosen to prosecute, and the fact that he is knowingly receiving “emoluments” (i.e. cash) from foreign governments while in office, something the Constitution forbids. But bribery is the offense the Democrats are investigating and publicizing at the moment.

Representative Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, summarized today’s testimony by Ambassador Gordon Sondland in thirteen minutes. It’s worth watching.

Random Roundup, or We Did Pretty Well for 230 Years

Reader alert:

You can read what I’ve written below or look at Will Bunch’s column “America’s Democracy Doomsday Clock Just Hit 11:58” at Philly.com instead. I read his column after I was almost done writing this post. To borrow a phrase from a President who doesn’t seem so bad these days: “I could refer to Bunch’s column only after you read what I wrote – I could do that – but it would be wrong”.

Or you could read both, since they don’t overlap completely!

So to begin:

The U.S. Senate, which some observers used to seriously call the “World’s Greatest Deliberative Body”, is desperately trying to find 50 Republican votes to pass something, anything, to use as a vehicle to repeal and/or replace the Affordable Care Act. If that happens this week, members of the Senate and House will then get together and discuss how best to cut taxes for the wealthy and health insurance for the non-wealthy. If they can agree on something, both houses of Congress will vote again. You can see the latest developments at The Washington Post and ThinkProgress (the latter is a “latest news first” page).

For a summary of the current healthcare “state of play”, see Paul Waldman’s excellent column: “Trump and Republicans Treat Their Voters Like Morons”. The main point he makes: 

In other words, their current position is, “We know how catastrophic this bill would be. But we got here by lying to these knuckle-dragging mouth-breathers for years, and if we don’t follow through, they’ll punish us”.

… There’s one other path open to them, which is to pass “skinny repeal” [which would only repeal a few parts of the ACA], then go to a conference committee with the House, in which an entirely new bill would be written incorporating the other things Republicans want to do. That bill could then be presented to both houses as a last chance to repeal the hated Obamacare, in the hopes that members would vote for it despite its inevitable unpopularity and cataclysmic consequences for Americans’ health care.

If and when that happens, Republicans will make that same calculation again: This thing is terrible and most everyone hates it, but we have to pass something because we fooled our base into thinking this would all be simple and we could give them everything they want. Or as Trump said during the campaign, “You’re going to have such great healthcare at a tiny fraction of the cost, and it is going to be so easy.”

That was just one of the many lies they were told, and they ate it up. 

I believe their attempt to repeal/replace the ACA is doomed, but I’m not a member of Congress. By the way, we are still being encouraged to contact Republican legislators on this issue. That’s because most members of the House and Senate are toddlers with extremely short attention spans. They need constant reinforcement in order to behave properly.

On Monday, DT (if only his middle name had been “Dennis” or “Darren”) tried to turn the Boy Scout Jamboree into a Hitler, excuse me, Drumpf Youth rally. New York Magazine has the story, including their “14 most inappropriate moments”. Digby comments:

It makes me feel like crying. The celebration of rank stupidity, the crude brutality, the incessant bragging, the whining and the lying in front of a bunch of cheering and jeering boy scouts is almost physically painful to watch. 

That’s being imprinted on this next generation as leadership. 

Meanwhile, DT is trying to get the Attorney General, old-style racist Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III (aka “the nation’s top law enforcement officer”) to resign because Sessions hasn’t lied and obstructed justice enough on DT’s behalf. In itself, that wouldn’t be a bad thing. Back to Paul Waldman for a summary of the AG’s first six months in office:

Jeff Sessions is a uniquely odious figure, perhaps the most malevolent force within the Trump administration. His most visible actions as head of the Justice Department have included shutting down oversight of local police departments accused of misconduct; renewing an ’80s-style “war on drugs”; advocating for asset forfeiture programs that literally steal money and property from people who are not even accused of a crime, let alone convicted; promoting mandatory minimum sentencing that members of both parties have come to see as cruel, unjust, and counterproductive; and rolling back civil rights protections for transgender children. While some Trump appointees have been most notable for their incompetence, if he gets his way Sessions will have a profoundly malignant impact on the nation.

DT wants Sessions to fire the Special Counsel who’s investigating DT’s criminal activities. Ideally, if Sessions were to go (hooray!), Congress would keep the Special Counsel’s investigation on track, which would be easy for them to do. But again, I’m not a member of Congress. (Don’t worry: To quote a true American hero, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman: “I will not accept if nominated and will not serve if elected”. And he really could have been president if he’d wanted the job.)

Finally, the author of The Washington Post‘s “Right Turn” blog (“Jennifer Rubin’s take from a conservative perspective”) has a good suggestion:

A large segment of Republican voters should try turning off Fox News and allowing reality to permeate the shell they’ve constructed to keep out ideas that interfere with their prejudices and abject ignorance. Unfair? Take a look at the latest poll to suggest that Trump voters like their cult hero feel compelled to label inconvenient facts “fake news.” Morning Consult reports: “A plurality of Republicans say President Donald Trump received more of the popular vote in 2016 than his Democratic rival, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton….

The report continues: “Allan Lichtman, a professor of history at American University, said … Tuesday that Trump has “perfected the technique of the Big Lie” — which, as he wrote in an op-ed last fall, is to “repeat a lie loudly, over and over until people come to believe it. These results show that again that like ‘Birtherism,’ which launched Trump’s political career, the Big Lie continues to work, at least among those who want to believe it’.”

If these voters do not know or cannot accept something as simple as vote totals, do we really expect they will be amenable to reason on immigration (sorry, but illegal immigrants aren’t causing a crime wave), global warning (sorry, it’s not a hoax) or uncontroverted evidence of Russian meddling in the election? I’m sure all this makes the Trump staff and surrogates laugh uproariously as they admire their handiwork in bamboozling the angry mob. But they and the network of right-wing enablers have done real damage to our society and politics, making differences impossible to bridge and reasoned debate nearly impossible….

Democracy presupposes a minimally informed, responsible adult electorate. Right now it is clear the GOP is dominated by fact-deniers and willfully ignorant folk…

But here’s the thing: The rest of the country should empathize with their economic plight and sense of alienation, but that does not mean we should coddle them in their ignorance nor defer to judgments based on fabrication. They feel “disrespected” when fellow Americans point to reality? Trumpkins think elites are condescending when they call them “low information” voters? (It should be non-information voters.) Sorry, economic hardship does not bestow moral authority to lie, invent facts, smear opponents, blame foreigners or support lawlessness. And for elected Republicans to defer to the ignorant, beguiled voters is an abdication of their role and oaths.

However many years it’s been, 230 or 240 or some other number depending on how you count, we had a pretty good run. (Oh, sure, it can all turn around if people get out and vote, but, oh brother, this is bad.)

Update:

Brian Beutler predicts that Senate Republican will simply vote to remove the “individual mandate” portion of the Affordable Care Act, the rule that says people must buy health insurance or pay a penalty, and that the House will accept that change without further negotiation. Doing this would throw the health insurance market into chaos. Millions of relatively young or healthy Americans would decide not to pay for insurance until they needed it. As a result, millions of relatively old or sick Americans wouldn’t be able to afford coverage because of rising premiums.