Monday, March 20, 2017

Trump at the Two Month Mark: "The S***show Won't Be Playing Out for the Full Four Years."

My thanks to my friend Ray Abruzzi for the tweet that gave me today's subtitle. It came in a post that linked to one of the many, many, many news stories filed today after FBI Director James Comey confirmed that the FBI was investigating the Trump campaign's collusion with Russian hackers during the 2016 U.S. Presidential campaign.

I'm not sure how that revelation can lead to anything other than a special prosecutor, though I have to admit that I have thus far underestimated the Republican Party's determination to pretend that they can't see the parts of this scandal that played out in plain sight during the 2016 election.

We seem to be plunging quickly into prime Watergate territory despite the best efforts of the US Congress to avoid the inevitable. How it all ends is anybody's guess. About the only thing that has surprised me thus far is the sheer ineptitude of the Trump gang. Although I expected the malevolence and untruthfulness of the Trump Administration, the incompetence has fallen below even my low expectations.

Here's my best guess about what may really will matter as we head down this path:

1. Trump's popularity continues to fall. His approval rating is down to 39% in the Gallup poll and 42.6% in the compendium of polls. Beyond being unprecedented territory for a newly elected president, some historic lows are not too far from here. This matters because the Congressional GOP will eventually have to decide if their agenda faces a larger threat from internal divisiveness -- which will certainly increase if they impeach Trump -- or from voter fury in the 2018 election. Most Republican voters still back Trump, but that number is falling, too.

Thus far the Republicans in Congress are focused on unity, but that could change quickly as 2018 looms or if GOP agenda items like the repeal of the ACA falter because of the distractions or because of Trump himself. Mike Pence will sign their bills just as happily, if not more happily,. It sounds as if an increasing number of GOP Congressmen are starting to admit off the record that this would be fine with them.

1A. Whatever shreds of credibility Trump used to have seem to be fading away. The true diehards who never raise their heads from the Breitbart/Fox/InfoWars/Limbaugh fever pits may not see it, but the rest of America does. This will be very important in media coverage of this scandal as we progress.

2. New revelations: There's nothing like new news to keep a scandal growing. It seems that new information comes forth nearly every day. As reporters keep digging, they keep turning up evidence that increasingly tie Trump's campaign staff to Russian hackers. This continuing drip, drip, drip of information is what forced the House Intelligence Committee to hold today's hearing. The drip, drip, drip seems likely to continue and to continue to force action.

And at some point the FBI will release the results of their investigation.

3. Concrete evidence that directly ties Trump to the actions of his staff: At this point it seems clear that Trump's campaign staff colluded with Russian hackers, though many of the details are still a bit muddled and hidden. Trump seems unlikely to have issued written orders to collude with the Russians, so it will likely take either testimony or a recorded conversation to provide the smoking gun. Trump's fear of concrete evidence coming out is likely behind is bizarre charges that Obama and/or British Intelligence tapped his wires during the campaign. That accusation feels like the sort of weirdly specific charge issued by a paranoid and guilty mind.

4. Will somebody cut a deal? There's a lot of money changing hands right now to try to secure loyalty. Among the former Trump campaign staffers who haven't been able to get a security clearance for a White House gig it's hard to find one who isn't on a foreign payroll right now. But the FBI is pretty good at finding a wedge. Taking the fall and a long prison term sounds romantic in gangster fiction, but it plays out a lot differently when crony crooks face the option of hard time. Heck, given the rate at which Russian diplomats linked to this scandal seem to be dying premature deaths, the witness protection program may soon start to look pretty good.

So, what next?

Beats me. This is an unstable situation that continues to escalate. But the FBI moves at its own pace, so how quickly it comes to a true head is really hard to predict. Maybe they keep grinding out progress and get to the top eventually. Or maybe the FBI is only able to pin this on a fall guy like Roger Stone, and things ramp down eventually.

The betting odds that Trump gets impeached and removed from keep dropping -- now down to 10/11 at Ladbroke's. The odds seem likely to drop again after today's hearing.

That's worth repeating for emphasis. Two months into his first term a President whose party also controls Congress is now more than a 50-50 bet to be impeached and removed from office in his first term.

There's lots else that we could talk about: the lying, the more lying, the lying about the lies, the abandonment of his promises to working-class Americans about the sort of health-care reform he'd support, the myriad foreign policy blunders. But as I look around at the big picture today, it seems to me that the most astonishing thing is that the legal mechanisms for removing him from office are already in motion, despite the best attempts of the party that controls the White House and the Congress to stop them.

I expected a Trump presidency to be historically bad, but I didn't expect things to go downhill so quickly. Honest to Pete, we're just two months removed from the Inauguration and we're already hip deep in FBI and Congressional investigations.

As I quoted in my subtitle, this disaster can't possibly last four years. It just can't.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Health Care: how did we get here? Where are we going?

If you're wondering who socialized medicine in the United States, it wasn't Barack Obama. It was Ronald Reagan.

In 1986 Reagan signed the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act, which prohibited hospitals from refusing to admit or dumping uninsured patients who arrived in emergency rooms.

This was a good, humane idea. Some hospitals were literally putting people with heart attacks and stab wounds out by the curb to die.

But it also created a spiral in which an increasing number of the uninsured showed up at emergency rooms for treatment either for minor issues that weren't really emergencies, or for major emergencies that would have been much less costly to treat had they been treated earlier.

Literally leaving people to die at the curb is unpleasant, but it is a good deal cheaper than actually treating them.  And aside from the extra costs of emergency room services, the amounts charged to uninsured patients for treatments is often much larger than the amount charged to insured patients for the exact same treatment. This is because insured patients are covered by contracts with prices negotiated by their insurers. Not surprisingly, bill collections against these uninsured folks for these inflated debts generally resulted in poverty, bankruptcies, and very little actual money collected -- per the well established economic dictum, "You can't squeeze blood from a stone."

It's also worth noting here that "poor" in the health insurance debate doesn't necessarily mean "destitute, homeless, on welfare, etc." Most of the poor in this context were the working poor: people working full- or near-full-time jobs that didn't provide affordable health insurance. The truly destitute often were at least partially covered by Medicaid. The working poor were often left out in the cold.

Still, somebody had to pay the bills. One of the reasons the cost of insurance for the insured rose much faster than inflation was because our health care system had to absorb these additional overhead costs.

There were many other contributors to the rapid rise in health insurance costs before the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was adopted in 2010: increasing use of technology, pharmaceutical costs, malpractice lawsuit costs (themselves made worse by the spiraling cost of health care itself), forcing the sick out of the insured pool due to preexisting conditions, etc. But the basic math of covering the poorest people in America in the most expensive way possible is immutable. Eventually, more people become uninsured and the people with insurance have to pay more to cover their costs.

Ultimately, you face three options:

1) Remove emergency-room care. Leave the working poor, the elderly and the truly destitute to die in the streets.

2) Cover those people with some sort of jury-rigged private market and government healthcare approach that balances things like requirements that individuals carry health insurance, financial support for policies that cover the poor, and requirements that insurance companies accept all comers.

3) Expand government insurance like Medicaid and Medicare to cover all of the uninsured. Or perhaps even expand it further to become basic insurance for all Americans.

Ronald Reagan and the US Congress rejected option #1 in 1986 for good reasons. If I need to explain them to you, you probably need to take a deep look inside your dark soul.

It's worth noting that Republicans do have a lot of good reasons to seek a better health care system. Spiraling health care costs are a genuine drag on businesses because of our employer-based insurance system. Those uncontrolled costs also contribute greatly to increased government costs. A better health care system that delivered better (or at least similar) results for less money would be of great benefit to a party that is in favor of business owners and reduced government spending.

Option #2 emerged as the conservative Republican alternative for the emerging health care crisis because #3 -- directly expanding the government safety net -- was at complete odds with a conservative political philosophy. So, creating an alternative based on the private market was kicked around for years.

Then, much to everybody's surprise, Mitt Romney managed to implement exactly that in Massachusetts in 2006 while he was governor. And it sorta worked. It at least made a bad situation better.

After Obama was elected in 2008 he decided to take that Republican approach and expand it to the federal level. This worked in one way, the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) was passed in 2010 and it has succeeded in greatly expanding coverage and slowing the rate of growth of health-care costs. It didn't do these things as completely or quickly as something like a full expansion of Medicaid and Medicare would have. It was also less completely disruptive to the existing health-care model, and that had genuine benefit for a country still suffering from the Great Recession.

There was, however, an unexpected side-effect. The Republican Party's leadership decided that they would benefit from outright opposition to Obama on all things. The debate over the ACA became the prime battlefield for that proposition. To Obama's credit he managed to secure enough Democratic support for a proposal that originally came from Republicans to overcome the unified opposition of the GOP. The Republicans, however, were right that their opposition would energize their base. That led to their Tea-Party fueled victories in the 2010 elections and the subsequent gerrymanders that established political dominance for them in state legislatures and the US House ever since.

Thus was the frame of the debate for the last six years or seven years set, with Democrats uncomfortably but unanimously supporting what most of them thought was a flawed half-measure and Republicans unanimously blasting the ACA's very existence and claiming they could do better without ever producing a genuine proposal. To compound the problem, many Republican controlled states refused to implement the expanded Medicaid coverage, leaving many Americans needlessly uncovered. In the meantime, some genuine improvements to the ACA that could have been made were ground to dust beneath the tracks of the Washington, DC, gridlock of 2011-2016.

So, why did the GOP never produce a genuine health-care proposal of their own in all that time?

Most likely because the Democrats had already passed their proposal. Obamacare was never anything more than federalized Romneycare. If you thought Mitt Romney looked uncomfortable in 2012 trying to explain how he completely opposed a health care structure that he fathered, that's why.

Which brings us to 2017 with the GOP finally in charge of Congress and the White House. What has Paul Ryan and the GOP produced? A bill that makes the situation that existed in 2009 worse, and that now has the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) analysis to prove it. In exchange for throwing tens of millions of people off health care and greatly increasing insurance costs for most other Americans, it offers up massive tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires. As just one note among many items in the report, the CBO does find $3 billion potential deficit reduction for Social Security costs because they estimate that between 17,000 and 29,000 Americans will die needless premature deaths because they will not have access to health care.

I would say this means the GOP's long con on health care policy is finally exposed and this bill is dead, but with Ryan, McConnell, and Trump all on board I wouldn't be in the least surprised if they still try to ram some form of it through. More likely, though, it sputters out somewhere between the House and the Senate, after which the Republican Party continues to loudly blame Democrats for all things related to health care.

We shall see. Darned if I can accurately predict anything politically these days.

What might I like to see for health care in the US? Well, it seems to me that the most useful approach would probably be incremental: maybe an expansion of Medicaid as a bottom-level medical benefit for everybody, dropping the Medicare eligibility age to 60 or 55 to bring healthier folks into that pool, while also providing a higher-level of health care coverage for those who can afford supplemental insurance. It probably doesn't move all the way to a true single-payer system as is seen in other industrialized nations. But somewhere in there might be a recipe for building on what we already have -- keeping some genuine market mechanisms for improving efficiency and quality while not kicking tens of millions of Americans to the side to be bankrupted before dying in the streets.

Of course, that sort of thing would take some level of genuine fact-based policy work and bipartisan cooperation to implement. Those are qualities sadly lacking in Washington, DC, at the moment.

But even that may change one day. And the problem will still be with us for a long time to come.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Yes, Global Warming Is Real and Man-Made: and the Earth doesn't care if you believe that

So, I posted this status update on my Facebook page Wednesday:

It's mid-February in Michigan and I drove to work with my sunroof open. We're expecting a high of 67 degrees. Global warming is the greatest man-made ecological disaster in history, but some of the individual days are quite pleasant if you live in the North but aren't a fan of winter.

Tom Schoenberg, another FB friend of mine expressed the same notion more elegantly, "The weather is absolutely delightful, assuming you don't think about it."

I wasn't really trolling for global-warming deniers on purpose, though it ended up that way. Mostly I was just trying to express the notion that although I've been enjoying the warm weather we've had in Michigan -- which is usually a hopeless, frozen, iceball of grey death this time of year -- my enjoyment is muted a bit by the knowledge that it comes as part of a weather pattern exacerbated by global warming, and that the same weather pattern that brought me a pleasant drive to work has also resulted in a lot of hardships elsewhere.

In retrospect, it shouldn't have been a surprise to me that some of my conservative amigos chose this post to dispute the notion that global warming is real, that it is man-made, and that it might just be related to unprecedented record high temperatures across the US.

But here's the thing. The reality of man-made global warming is not a "belief." It is a fact. And the Earth doesn't care if you believe that or not.

A belief that global warming is not real or caused by human activity has become a bedrock conservative belief, enshrined with "cut taxes" and "cut government." While I think we'd all agree that reduced taxes and smaller government are core beliefs of conservatism, I'd certainly argue that opposition to man-made global warming is no more intrinsic to conservative political philosophy than opposition to gravity, chemical combustion, or the "theory" that the Earth is round and orbits the Sun.**

As the oft-ballyhooed statistic goes, the fact of man-made global warming is supported by 97% of climatologists and nearly 100% of climatologists not funded by the fossil-fuel industry. However, since the fossil-fuel industry also provides a ton of funding for Republican politicians and media, an entire political party has now bought in to the cottage industry of pseudo-science devoted to disputing the reality of man-made global warming. This is part and parcel of the same industry-funded lobbying pattern that has disputed other proven facts to try to avoid or ease anti-pollution regulation: "Nobody knows whether smoking is bad for you." ... "There's no connection between lead in gasoline and lead blood levels in children" ... etc.

There's another factor at work, too. If you conclude that global warming is real and man-made, then lots of individual decisions that you make on a daily basis -- everything from choosing a car to turning on a light bulb -- are complicit in making the Earth a worse place for future generations. That sort of knowledge is really a drag. It's a lot easier on the conscience to just ignore it if you can find a good rationalization for doing so.

The opposition to the reality of man-made global-warming has transcended tactical lobbying. It has become a tribal marker for Republicans. If you say that global warming is real and man-made you are immediately marginalized with the RINO (Republican in name only) tag. Ask Jon Huntsman. The only parallel I can think of is evolution, the mention of which immediately conjures similar debates, though that controversy has its roots in religious beliefs, not a profit motive.

And herein lies the problem with almost everything in our political culture these days: selective bias abetted by paid shills with a profit motive. People choose to believe things based on their allegiance to one side or another in our partisan world, then cherry pick the pile of crapola that Information Age has become for support. Beliefs based on tribal loyalty override beliefs based on a preponderance of the evidence.

And in the middle of it all, truth and facts die.

I don't know how to fix that. I wish I did.

Making reliable information available to people is the very heart of what I do professionally.

For what it's worth, my own certain knowledge that global warming is true and man-made has roots that go much further back than the partisan wars or even my decision to eventually align with the Democratic Party. For me it's probably worked in the opposite direction: repeated denial of global warming by the Republicans is one of the factors that pushed me to become a Democratic voter, then an active Democrat.

I took an Earth science class back in 1987 at Cornell that included a substantial unit on the science of global warming, which was at the time a much less well proven theory. Aside from going through a lot of the basic science of how it works -- looking at absorption spectra, testing results in small-scale samples -- it also served as a good marker for me in terms of the forecasts that existed at the time.

There are lots of complications in climatology: feedback loops, complex air and ocean currents, natural variation, natural trends, the difference between climate and weather. There's lots of room for debate among the details. But as far as man-made global warming goes, from my perspective we've been running a big, giant experiment for the last 30 years. As far as I'm concerned, the results are in.

Theory (1987): Greenhouse gases warm the earth. If you add more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, the Earth will warm further.

Experiment: Add "x" amount of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, a few others) for 30 years. Measure temperature before and after.

Prediction: Earth warms.

Results (2017): "x" amount of greenhouse gases have been added to the atmosphere. Earth has warmed.

Conclusion #1: Adding greenhouse gases to the Earth's atmosphere warms the Earth.
Conclusion #2: We have no idea what happened. It's inexplicable!

You literally would have to live that experiment then choose Conclusion #2 to believe that global warming is not man-made and caused by increases in greenhouse gases. That is not a rational choice.

But it is tribal. And very human.

**True story: about six months ago I was unable to convince one particular conservative Republican that the Earth is round and orbits the Sun. I don't suffer the delusion that this particular essay will change anybody's mind about global warming, either.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Trump at the Four-Week Mark: It's Getting Worse

As a lot of folks have said around the ol' Interwebs lately, it's even crazier and less competent than I expected, even given that I expected it to be completely crazy and incompetent. I'll list a few items from this week below, then talk a bit about where I think this is going.

Monday night National Security Adviser Michael Flynn resigned after it became public knowledge that he had been recorded in conversations with the Russian ambassador about easing sanctions imposed that day by President Obama for Russian hacking. During yesterday's press conference Trump said that Flynn had been right to do that. Just as a reminder, yes, is illegal for private citizens to conduct foreign policy discussions on behalf of the United States.

In response the Republicans in Congress mostly announced their intentions not to investigate anything in regard to Russian influence, penetration, or control of the Trump administration, except maybe to see if they can uncover where the leaks confirming that Flynn violated the law came from.

The Watergate-era phrase "What did the President know, and when did he know it," has become very popular this week.

Also on the Russian front this week Russia launched a cruise missile, had fighter planes buzz a US warship, and positioned a spy ship off our Naval shipyard in Connecticut -- all with no response from the Trump administration.

Reports also surfaced Wednesday that the intelligence community is now withholding information from Trump and his administration in the belief that Trump and/or several members of his administration are compromised, and that sensitive information released to the President of the United States and his top staff will leak to the Russian government.

Yesterday Trump offered the now-open job of National Security Adviser to Rear Admiral Robert Harward. He declined the job, apparently unwilling to take it if he could not install his own team and have control over national security policy. Normally that's the definition of the job of the National Security Advisor. It seems that national security really is being controlled by Trump political adviser Steve Bannon, instead.

As far as I know, nobody has ever turned down the offer to be National Security Adviser, which has until now been considered one of the most important roles in our nation.

Also yesterday, Trump held a truly loopy press conference. I could type all day about it, but let's just pick a few items:

Trump again lied about the size of his electoral victory, calling it "the Biggest Electoral College win since Reagan." (His 304 electoral votes were more than George W. Bush, but less than George H.W. Bush in 1988 or the totals amassed by Democrats Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.) When pressed by a reporter about the lie he replied, "Well, I don't know, I was given that information. I was given -- I actually, I've seen that information around."

He chastised a Jewish reporter for asking what his administration intended to do about a series of bomb threats against Jewish community centers and growing anti-Semitism, calling the question "not a fair question" and "very insulting." In asking the question the reporter very clearly stated that he was not accusing the President or his staff of anti-Semitism, he simply wanted to know what the Trump administration planned to do about the growing number of anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S.

During his opening remarks he said this about protesters opposing the repeal of Obamacare, "they fill up our alleys with people that you wonder how they get there, but they are not the Republican people that our representatives are representing." Yes, the President of the United States stated that Republican Congressional Representatives are in Congress to only represent Republicans.

In fairness to Trump, Congressional Republicans behave as if they only represent pro-Republican donors and lobbyists, so perhaps we'll just classify this statement under Freudian slip.

During the press conference Trump also made several odd statements about nuclear weapons and warfare during replies about Russian influence in his administration that made me truly rue the fact that he's the man with his finger on the nuclear trigger. I'll take solace, however, in this bit, "We're a very powerful nuclear country and so are they. I have been briefed. And I can tell you one thing about a briefing that we're allowed to say because anybody that ever read the most basic book can say it, nuclear holocaust would be like no other."

At least somebody explained to him that a nuclear war would be a bad idea. I am glad he has that bit straight. I like to hope most of us will survive the next three years and eleven months.

Also this week, a Republican Congressman introduced a bill in the House to simply abolish the Environmental Protection Agency. That sounds crazy, but today the GOP Senate confirmed as the new EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, a man whose mission is to gut the EPA on behalf of the fossil fuels industry.

The Trump administration also continues to push for extreme actions against immigrants, both legal and illegal. They intend to issue a new version of their Muslim-based ban on entering the country in hopes that it will pass muster with the courts this time. This morning the Associated Press broke a story on an internal White House draft memo regarding plans to use up to 100,000 members of the National Guard to round up illegal immigrants for deportation. This would be a shocking advance towards imposing a police state in America. Although the White House refused comment despite repeated requests for comment before the story broke, White House Spokesman Sean Spicer immediately denied that it was true.

Since Sean Spicer has already established that he will lie about anything it's anybody's guess how close the memo is to becoming policy.

A PPP poll released last Friday indicated that Americans were split 46% to 46% on whether Trump should be impeached, an increase of 6% over the results in the Gallup poll released the previous week. Trump's approval rating continues to decline since his inauguration, now hovering at or slightly below 40% in most polls, though the Rasmussen poll of voters, which often leans Republican, still has him above 50%.

Perhaps most importantly, all of the polls show a huge partisan divide. Nearly all Democrats disapprove of Trump's performance. An overwhelming majority of Republicans approve. This split matters because the vast majority of Republicans Congressmen live in safe districts drawn by Republicans or represent red- or red-leaning states in the Senate. They will continue to hold themselves accountable only to Republican voters and not to the majority of Americans as long as Trump's approval ratings continue to remain strong among Republicans. Whether that continues the case probably relies on his ability to keep Fox News and the rest of the right-wing mediasphere on board. So far, they're all on board the Trump train.

I took a survey of the late-night talk show monologues last night, to see if I could get a sense of how this is all playing outside of the immediate news media or my various lefty amigos. I'd say the mood varied from bemused wonderment to appalled concern. It could sour quickly. Or it could hold up. Trump is a never-ending source of fodder for comedy monologue writers.

What next?

My guess is that we'll continue along this chaotic path for a while -- weeks? months? -- muddling along with slowly sinking approval ratings for Trump until we have a genuine crisis, something other than the self-imposed political crises that have enveloped Washington for the last month.

What that crisis will be, I have no idea. Natural disaster? Military conflict? Terrorism attack? Iron-clad evidence of Russian collusion?

Who knows? Your guess is as good as mine.

If the Trump administration handles it well or at least reasonably competently, they will buy themselves a good deal of rope, probably enough to make it to the 2018 midterm elections. If it goes poorly, especially if it seems to have been botched by incompetence -- Bush with Hurricane Katrina, for example -- we may see public opinion shift much more strongly against Trump.

I know my Democratic amigos mostly believe that any crisis will be met with the demonstrated incompetence we've seen to date. But it's also entirely possible that Trump's administration handles a genuine emergency genuinely well, or at least well enough to get some of the news media back on board. These things always have a way of surprising you.

How this all plays out relies a great deal on the GOP Congress. It's already obvious that they don't want to investigate Trump because they're worried about what they will find. They don't want to do anything that will distract from their rush to push through a long list of law and policy changes. If Trump's approval ratings are high enough to carry them through the mid-term elections with continued control of Congress, they'll probably stay hitched to him. If not, they'll jettison him. Pence would be just as willing to sign their bills, but dumping Trump would cause them enormous difficulties with the Republican base. A split in the party is the only thing truly likely to endanger their control of Congress, given their gerrymandered majority and an unfavorable 2018 map for the Democrats in the Senate.

The problem they face is that the longer Trump stays in office the more strongly they will be co-branded with him. If they're forced to try to push him out of office in 2018, he'll probably take them down with him.

My best guess is that we'll have is a race to push as much GOP legislation through Congress as possible. That race will be run against the ticking clock of the 2018 elections and the potential for a complete Trump implosion. From the GOP Congressional perspective their current situation may look like they're trying to push all their hopes and dreams through a corridor that contains two ticking time bombs. We only know how much time remains for one of those bombs. The other could explode tomorrow or not at all.

The 22-1/2 months until the next session of Congress is sworn in is a long time. The Democrats will try to stop the worst of the changes, but they really have very little practical power to stop things right now. And among the changes that are certainly coming we can expect to see changes to voting and election law designed specifically to help Republicans at the polls next November.

Final notion for today: there's a lot of discussion about parallels between the current situation and Watergate, much of it justified. But there are a couple of important differences, too. The Democrats controlled the House of Representatives during Watergate and were willing to investigate to find the truth about what Nixon and his staff had done. The current GOP leadership in Congress seems genuinely afraid to discover what Trump and his staff have done.

More importantly, perhaps, forty-plus years ago we lived in a country that didn't exist in two separate media bubbles. Although there were substantial disagreements on policy solutions and governmental philosophy, there was general agreement on facts and reality. In the year 2017 that is no longer the case. Four weeks into this we're already on the edge of peak Watergate territory. But as a nation we're not there until the Republicans are there, too. That could happen slowly, quickly, or not at all.

Reality has a way of catching up in the long run. But sometimes it's a long, long run.

Strap yourselves in, kids. This is an E-Ticket ride and it's likely to be a long one.

Monday, February 6, 2017

State of Wolverine Lake, 2017

My annual "State of the Village" column came out in our Wolverine Lake winter newsletter in this week's Spinal Column newspaper. 

Here it is for those of you who didn't catch it there:

State of the Village 2017
John Magee, Village President

Welcome to 2017, everybody! Hard though it is to believe, I am now entering my second decade as your Village President. It’s been quite a decade. When I was first elected as Village President we were beset with deep budget problems. A once-healthy fund balance had been nearly exhausted. We were on pace to run out of money altogether in another 18 months.

Turning our finances around despite the continued cuts in state revenue sharing and the real estate collapse didn’t come easily. We made painful staff cuts in the Police Department, the DPW, and our front office. We deferred many needed improvements in our village’s infrastructure. And we asked all of you to pay for your trash pickup because even with those cuts we could no longer cover the cost of trash pickup within the general budget.

I am happy to say that as we enter my 11th budget cycle as your President the village is in its strongest financial shape ever. We have a strong fund balance and an especially strong bond rating for a municipality of our small size. I would like to take a moment to thank our Village Treasurer Mike Kondek, who came on board during those dark times. His vision, guidance, and long-term planning keeps our financial course clear.

We’ve faced many other challenges, successes, and setbacks together over the last ten years. What I’ve found most amazing on that path has been the commitment of all of my fellow residents to make Wolverine Lake the best place it can be. When I first ran for Council my motto was, “This is a great place to live, and I aim to keep it that way.” The only thing I would change ten years later is to say, “This is a great place to live, and we all aim to make it even better.”

What now as we enter 2017? We expect to continue making Wolverine Lake a better place to live.

Congratulations are due to our new Village Administrator Nathan Burd on a very successful first year in office. Nathan has proven himself to be a strong leader and administrator. I want to thank him for choosing to join us.

Our Police Department is working to become one of the first departments in the area to be a fully certified department through the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police. This certification will assure all of us who live here that our department meets the highest professional standards. This certification should also help us to reduce our insurance costs. Our DPW continues to work around the village to improve our streets, pathways, and parks. Our Water Management Board continues to improve its public outreach efforts and to improve our plans for lake maintenance this summer.

There’s much afoot for our parks this year. We expect to build out Amenia Park on the south side of the village this Spring, making it a true neighborhood asset. We are working on a new master plan for Clara Miller Park. As part of that plan we are working with local soccer and baseball organizations to improve our playing fields. We also expect to improve our playground equipment and to make improvements that will make our park more accessible for all of our village’s children. And we continue to look for ways to keep improving our pathway system. Safer pathways for walkers and bikers makes for a safer village.

I’ve used the words “we” and “our” a lot in this message. This is because it is our village and it takes all of us to make it work. If you’ve ever thought about getting involved – whether it’s through serving on a board or a commission or simply volunteering for a park event – this is the time. Please contact the village office to see how you can be a part of it.

And finally, thank you. I want to thank all of you – residents, employees, volunteers, consultants, and everybody who has attended even one Tiki Night celebration or Tuesday in the Park event – who have made serving as your president for the last ten years such a pleasure. Few people are lucky enough to get such an opportunity, and I’ve tried my best for the last ten years to live up to the standard that all of you set.

Thank you for that. 

Friday, February 3, 2017

Trump at the Two-Week Mark

Two weeks into this debacle and I trust that I've heard the last of "give him a chance" from my right-wing amigos and "there's no difference between Trump and Clinton" from the left.

This is bad.

I expected it to be bad, so I'm not surprised that it's bad. But I did think that Trump might go a few weeks or a month or two before he inevitably reverted to form, that form being defined by how he has acted in public and private every damn day for the last forty years. I thought there was some chance that his inner circle would get him to rein himself in for long enough to get his cabinet and some deputy secretaries through the Senate quickly. I thought that he would at least put whatever awful executive orders he intended through some level of inter-agency vetting so that they might at least be enforceable or executable or ... well, purposeful and effective.

I expected lying, but even I didn't expect the lying to accelerate after he took office. They lie about everything. They lie about matters of substance (the Muslim ban, the Navy SEAL raid in Yemen, global warming) and about silly things (the size of the inauguration crowd.)

It's not just the dishonesty and corruption that's breathtaking. It's the incompetence.

They are going to get people killed. That may have already happened in the case of the Yemen raid. The cloud of dishonesty coming off the White House right now is so thick that it's hard to tell. The problem is that it really *is* a dangerous world out there. And right now Donald J. Trump is making it a much, much more dangerous world.

Something truly awful is going to happen before this is over.

I could go on and on about the specifics. But instead I'll point you to these weekly lists of authoritarian changes compiled by Amy Siskind. It's pretty amazing when you see an entire week's lunacy all in one concise place. (Alas for you non-Facebookers, they're on FB.)

Here's the list for Sunday, Jan. 22, through Saturday, Jan. 29: Experts in authoritarianism advise to keep a list of things subtly changing around you, so you’ll remember. Here's week 11

A Gallup poll released yesterday showed that 40% of Americans want Trump impeached. We're entering peak Watergate territory and WE'RE ONLY TWO FREAKING WEEKS INTO THIS!

(Nixon reached 38% favoring impeachment in Novemeber 1973 after the "Saturday Night Massacre" and 44% favoring impeachment in June 1974 after the indictment of several top aides. He ultimately reached 57% favoring impeachment just before he left office on Aug. 8, 1974. Source: Pew Research.)

The same poll that showed support for impeaching Trump already reaching 40% also showed that 95% of Republicans still approve of Trump's performance. We have become a nation divided by two different views of reality:

1) Fox "News" and the right-wing media bubble.
2) Reality.

News organizations that make some objective attempt to report reality -- CNN, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Reuters -- are now being called "the opposition party" by this White House.

Reality has a way of catching up in the end, but usually not until after awful things happen.

At this point I would genuinely welcome President Mike Pence. He'll be more effective at enacting things that I hate, but at least we'll have a mentally competent Commander in Chief.

I never in my life contemplated writing a sentence like "I would genuinely welcome President Mike Pence."

In the middle of the madness I am heartened by the sight of so many Americans showing up and speaking out against this. From the Women's March, the largest protest in American history; to the spontaneous demonstrations against the Muslim ban at airports across the country; to the record-setting number of phone calls and letters to Congress it has been an astonishing sight. A lot of Americans love this country and we're willing to fight to make it a better country.

For all of you who are equally dismayed, take heart. You are not alone.

So what's going to happen?

I genuinely don't know.

My best case scenario is that although the erratic behavior continues, some close call scares the Republicans in Congress straight. Trump is impeached or resigns before something truly awful happens, and Mike Pence goes on to be a loathsome but reasonably normal right-wing President. The result is a lot of damage to things that I care about -- civil rights, the environment, education, workers and retirees -- but no permanent, irreversible harm is done to our democracy or our world.

Yeah, that's my best case scenario.

I don't have any scenarios in which Donald Trump changes his behavior. It was always a fool's mission to think that he could discipline himself for at least a few months. But it's obvious now that he will never change, never improve, never learn.

The scenarios get worse if I think about it too long. Before the last two weeks I didn't think there was a significant chance that Trump would blunder us into a major war if he stayed in office for a full term. I am no longer so optimistic. This is going very, very badly.

What can we all do?

No one of us can do everything that needs doing. But all of us can do at least one thing. Find your thing and do it. Go to a protest. Call a Congressman. Write a letter to the editor. Find a 2018 candidate and hop on board. Pray.

Especially pray. We all need some prayers to get us through this.

What am I doing?

Well, I'm doing what I can and trying to sort out how I can be most effective. Right now I feel as if I range from things that are on-point but extremely ineffective (rage-tweeting about the madness on a daily basis @Patioboater) to something that is extremely effective but pretty much to the side of all this (continuing to lead our village with dull, fact-based, compassionate nonpartisan governance.) I guess that wouldn't be to the side of all of this if I could convince the world to join me on that course. But that ain't happening anytime soon that I can see.

I am grateful to have an opportunity to put my own ideals into practice as a local elected official. Since my ideals pretty much center around dull, fact-based, compassionate governance they don't draw much attention in the Age of Trump. But it makes me feel better to know that I'm doing what I can in a way that does have a genuine positive impact on my neighbors and my community.

And I'm trying to take better care of myself, too. I stretched myself way too thin in 2016 and it finally started to genuinely catch up with my health. As I trundle through middle age I'm coming to appreciate that I can't do any of the things I want to do unless I take care of my health first. I'm working on that.

So, I guess I leave all of you with that notion. Do what you can, but also be sure to take care of yourselves and each other along the way.

This isn't going well, but we will get through this.

Pax and love.

Friday, January 20, 2017

A Few Thoughts on Today's Inauguration

I mourn.

I mourn that what was once unacceptable
Now holds the highest office in our land.

I mourn.

I mourn an American course opposed to
Rational thought
Human kindness

I mourn.

I mourn for elections so broken
That we voted for one thing
And got the opposite.

I mourn.

I mourn for the loss of good things
For new good things that will never be.

I mourn.

I mourn for all the people
Whose lives will be diminished
Or lost
When empty rhetoric
Takes the place of informed policy.

I mourn.

I mourn for air.
I mourn for water.
I mourn for earth.
I mourn for our globe.

I mourn.

I mourn for all of us:
Those who voted for this
Those who voted against this
Those who didn't bother to vote
Those too young to vote.

I mourn.

I mourn, but I will fight.
I will put my shoulder to the wheel.
I will join with my fellow Americans.
I will find my place.
I will find my voice.
I will keep trying to make
My home
My community
My country
A better place for all of us.

But today,

I mourn.