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Only the Very Best People, Trump Style

President Donald Trump frequently vowed during his improbably successful campaign that he would hire only the very best people, rather than the “political hacks” that he accused the past several administrations of picking, but so far it’s a promise he’s had much trouble keeping. On Wednesday alone there were four more problematic front page stories about Trump’s old and recent hires.
The most prominent story featured Admiral Ronny Jackson, Trump’s pick to replace his previous pick to head the vast and troubled Veterans Affairs Administration. Jackson has been the non-controversial White House physician since President George W. Bush’s administration, and won Trump’s admiration with a suspiciously effusive report about the current president’s health, which anew seems to have added an inch to Trump’s height and taken off a few pounds of his weight, but critics in both parties immediately argued that’s hardly a qualification to run a complex and long screwed-up bureaucracy with 370,000 employees spread out over all 50 states.
That was before more than 20 active and retired military personnel started telling Congress that Jackson’s management style in his much, much smaller office is abusive and demoralizing, that he tends to get inebriated at inopportune times, and hands out sleeping pills and wake-up potions so freely that he’s known around the White House as “The Candy Man.” After that Trump told the press he’d told Jackson that he’d fully understand why Jackson might decide to withdraw his nomination rather than face such scurrilous accusations and “be abused by a bunch of politicians who aren’t thinking nicely about our country,” and after the press seized on that Trump insisted he was sticking his by man. After that Jackson told the inquisitive press corps he would answer all the allegations at the confirmation hearings, but the latest report from The Washington Post has him telling his friends that he might withdraw from the nomination before those postponed hearings get underway.
If he’s not at all the mean and drunk Dr. Feelgood that more than 20 current and retired military personnel describe, we’d advise the telegenic Jackson to forthrightly answer their allegations at the confirmation hearings, and then admit that there’s bound to be somebody in a nation of more than 330 million people who’s better suited to cleaning up the Augean stables sort of mess that has been piling up at the VA over the past several administrations.
Just below that headline is the ongoing tale of Trump’s longtime personal lawyer and “fixer” Michael Cohen, and after the Jackson story inevitably fades into the distance that will regain prominence. Cohen has publicly admitted that one of the “fixes” he did for Trump was making a $130,000 payment to a pornographic video performer called Stormy Daniels to stop talking about a sexual encounter she claims she had with Trump not long after his third wife gave birth to his fifth child, and it looks as if he made a similar arrangement with a Playboy centerfold model through Trump’s friends at The National Enquirer, which has recently settled it’s own case. Because that all happened while Trump was running for president and involved some suspicious bank transfers he recently had his office and home and hotel room raided by agents from the Justice Department’s southern New York district, which was the big story a while back. The latest update is that Cohen intends to invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination in the ensuing investigation.
Cohen has every right to do so, and Trump and his apologists will argue he has good reason given the vast Deep State conspiracy out to get him, but back when the Federal Bureau of Investigation was investigating Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s e-mail practices during the campaign they had a different view of the long forgotten Clinton campaign’s information technology guys who pled the Fifth. Even erstwhile “chief strategist” for the Trump campaign and administration Steve “tweeted” Trump’s past statements about how only mobsters take the Fifth, and there’s no shortage of audiotape of Trump’s talk radio defenders saying the same thing. Invoking Fifth Amendment rights seems a sound legal move for Cohen, which we’ll ascribe to the presumably more capable lawyers he’s hired, but it doesn’t do much to help with Trump’s political problems.
Cohen was also involved with Trump’s efforts to build one of his branded Trump Towers in the Russian capital of Moscow, negotiations for which were ongoing during a campaign when Trump was promising the American electorate he had no deals in Russia, and was on board during all sorts of suspicious meetings between the Trump campaign and various Russians, so of course all the information seized from his office and home and hotel room are bound to be of interest to the special counsel investigation into that even more problematic “Russia thing.”
Meanwhile, although it’s less titillating, Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency director Scott Pruitt is headed to Congressional hearings amid criticism from both parties. The left hates Pruitt for reigning in the agency’s zealous overregulation, but although even such old-fashioned Republicans as ourselves appreciate there’s a bipartisan concern about the way Pruitt lives high on the taxpayer dollar with first class tickets and traffic-stopping motorcades and $43,000 soundproof booths straight out of “Get Smart,” and a sweetheart apartment deal he got from some lobbyists. Stalwart Republican and fellow Oklahoman Sen. James Inhofe said he has been pleased by Pruitt “rolling back regulations and restoring EPA to its proper size and scope, but these latest reports are new to me. While I have no reason to believe them, they are concerning and I think we should hear directly from Administrator Pruitt about them.”
Deeper in the news, interim head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Mick Mulvaney boastfully told a meeting of bank executives that as a South Carolina congressman he had a strict policy of never meeting with an out-of-state lobbyist until a significant campaign contribution had been paid. The CFPB was created during President Barack Obama’s administration by Democratic Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and bunch of other far-left types to protect consumers from predatory banks, and there are sound Republican reasons for reducing its size and scope, but a guy who openly brags to bankers about he’s open for business probably isn’t the best choice for the job.
And that’s just Wednesday’s headlines. Already long forgotten are the reality star who ran the communications department, the guy who didn’t get to replace her because of a profanity-laden rant to a New Yorker writer, the national security advisor who’s since pleaded guilty to perjury charges, the former campaign chairman under indictment for a whole lot of “Russia thing” stuff, the recently little-seen son-in-law in charge of everything from the opioid crisis to Middle East peace and reinventing government, and so many others that Rachel Maddow giggles uncontrollably whenever the list of small type departures fills the screen on her MSNBC show. Not to mention all the past employees of the New Jersey General and Trump Airlines and Trump Casinos and Trump University and numerous other failed Trump enterprises who didn’t prove the very best people.
Which is not to say that Crooked Hillary would have done any better at draining the swamp, which Trump and all of his apologists will surely note, but still.

— Bud Norman

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Trump and Elephants and Elephant Jokes

After the past two years or so of close observation we can usually predict President Donald Trump’s “tweets,” but over the weekend he surprised us by “tweeting” some misgivings about allowing trophies from elephant hunts into the United States.
The practice was forbidden by one of President Barack Obama’s gazillion or so regulations, and that’s usually reason enough to expect Trump would insist otherwise. Elephants are also one of those politically correct bleeding-heart liberal causes, which is ironic given America’s political symbology, so Trump would typically be even more opposed to the idea. Trump’s two elder sons are fond of posting pictures of themselves with the kills from their frequent big game hunts in Africa on the internet, too, so it’s triply surprising that Trump would deny them a tusk or two to show off to their friends.
Trump’s “tweets” aren’t in any way definitive, and he might yet go along with his own administration’s proposal to end the prohibition, but even Trump’s harshest media critics admit he seems to have a soft spot in his oft-questioned heart for elephants. Back during the campaign his sons were widely criticized by the politically correct bleeding heart types for all those pictures of the big game animals they’d killed — we recall chuckling at Triumph the Insult Comic Dog’s defense that they were actually aiming at the natives — and Trump surprised us by failing to come to their defense. The politically correct and bleeding-heart liberal diva Cher was a particularly outspoken critic on “twitter,” and a particularly inviting target for Trump’s “twitter” counter-punching, but Trump responded with “Old story, one of which I publicly disapproved. My sons love hunting, I don’t.”
At this point we don’t what to make of it. There’s a persuasive conservative argument to be made that managed big game hunting offers the natives with economic incentives to perpetuate the species, but even Trump seems sympathetic to the politically correct and bleeding heart argument against shooting elephants. We have no fondness for Trump or his two elder sons, and we’ve been railing against politically correct bleeding-heart liberalism and Obama’s over-regulating tendencies for a lot longer than any of them have, so for now our favorite characters in this tale are the elephants.
No elephant has ever done us any harm, and they’ve provided us many jokes. Every time we’d see one of the younger Trumps posing over a dead elephant we’d recall Groucho Marx as Captain Spaulding bragging that on his African safari he’d shot an elephant in his pajamas, “and how he got in my pajamas I’ll never know.” There was that great Jimmy Durante moment when he was being followed by an elephant and told a questioning passerby, “What elephant?,” and after looking over his shoulder said, “Oh, that elephant.” There are countless others, but our favorite elephant joke is about why the elephant drinks, and the punchline is “to forget.”
On a memorable visit to the Sedgwick County Zoo we once saw a zookeeper running a couple of the elephants through their daily calisthenics, which is really something to see, and they seem such magnificent examples of God’s creation that we can’t imagine any reason some rich kid would want to travel all the way to Africa to kill one. There are some stupid rules about selling pianos with ivory keys cut from the tusks of elephants that were killed a long time ago, and we wouldn’t mind seeing that deregulated, and a there are lot of those politically correct bleeding-heart regulations about animals that we’d also happily undo, but we won’t mind a bit if those rich kids who go all the way to Africa to kill an elephant don’t get to bring a trophy home.
If that puts us in the uncomfortable position of being on the side of both Trump and those politically correct bleeding-heart liberals, then so be it.

— Bud Norman

About That Ballyhooed Speech

President Donald Trump’s much-ballyhooed address to a joint session of Congress wasn’t awful, at least by his usual standards. There was none of the “that I can tell you” and “believe me” and “OK?” or other tics that usually pepper his speeches, the characteristic boastful hyperbole was toned down a more typical political level, his sentences were parseable and occasionally almost oratorical, and he didn’t give the late night comics anything obvious to ridicule.
That was sufficient that even the media Trump has identified as enemies of the American people were offering begrudging praise, and although his most ardent supporters might have found it a bit boring and been disappointed that there it offered nothing to chant they probably liked it as well. Still, by the standard of what was needed it wasn’t a very good speech. Once people start to recover from the shock of a presidential-sounding Trump, pretty much everyone will find something in it to grouse about.
Trump shrewdly disarmed his most hysterical critics by opening with a condemnatory few words about a recent shooting in Olathe, Kansas, of two immigrants from India by a man who shouted “Get out of my country” as he opened fire, as well a recent uptick in anti-semitic incidents and other crimes apparently motivated by racial or ethnic animus, but it won’t stop complaints that his previous nativist rhetoric has contributed to the problems. His critics will also note that later spoke at greater length about the crimes committed by immigrants, and had a couple of widows on hand to illustrate the point, and emphasized how big the problem was by creating a new agency in the government to deal with its victims. Although we were advocating stricter enforcement of immigration laws way back when Trump was calling Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney “cruel” for his relatively modest proposals, we’re also leery of new agencies and can’t help wondering why the country can’t better serve victims of crime no matter who perpetrated it.
Trump also made clear he was steadfast against all crime no matter who perpetrates it, and he wasn’t quite so extravagant about overstating the extent of it as he has been in the recent past, but he didn’t offer any specific solutions, He spoke of supporting “the men and women of law enforcement,” which we take to mean to that his Justice Department won’t be harassing local police departments into retreat from their more aggressive tactics, as the administration President Barack Obama did, which almost certainly has to do with that undeniable if overstated recent uptick in crime driven largely a few cities where the Obama administration was particularly tough on the cops and crimes rates have indeed been soaring, but we would have liked to have seen that argument more fully developed.

The same lack of specificity permeated the rest of the speech. Trump swore his fidelity to “free trade,” but he sounded so perfunctory about it and so impassioned when he went on at much greater length about “fair trade” we would have appreciated a clearer description of what he wants the international commerce to look like. There is still an influential number of Republicans who still hew to the party’s erstwhile free market principles in Congress, and all the Democrats there who still aren’t so far left as self-described socialist and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders were all for the Trans-Pacific Partnership and other trade deals that Obama negotiated, and we expect they’re also wanting some further clarity about the matter. Anyone employed by or invested in one of America’s many export-dependent industries, such as the agricultural and aviation sectors that make up the biggest chunk of the economy around here, are also bound to be anxious for further details. He spoke of how America’s iconic Harley-Davidson motorcycles have a 100 percent tariff slapped on them by some unnamed countries, which so far as we tell are India and the Maldives, which is indeed unfortunate for any aspiring Indian and Maldivian biker gangs, but we like to hear more about a trade war might affect the wheat and airplane markets. He’s for getting rid of Obamacare’s individual mandate that requires people without health insurance to pay for the privilege, which is fine by us and a great relief after his campaign statements to the contrary, and he’s for interstate insurance markets, as is every sentient being on the planet, but he’s for that preexisting conditions part of Obamacare and was conspicuously vague about how he’s going to make all that work.

Speaking of the Republican party’s erstwhile free market principles, Trump also took some largely unearned credit for strong-arming and bribing some recognizable brand names into keeping some of their American workers on the job, and he promised more of the same. There were no flow charts or graphs to exactly how Trump intends to personally manage a $17.4 billion economy with all of these great deals, and we couldn’t help recalling how he’d run his casinos and airline and real estate university and various other namesake ventures, but we were reassured that at least he didn’t say “believe me, OK?” He promised to do a lot of de-regulating, which warmed our principled free market Republican hearts, and even announced a policy of only allowing one new regulation for every two repealed, which struck us as rather arbitrary but nonetheless reasonable, but all that talk about intervening in every corporate re-location suggests that the one new regulation will be more far-reaching that those few forgettable lines from section two A part IV of the This Thing or the Other Thing Act of 1936 and that bit about proper wattage of lighting in federal buildings from the Affordable This or That Act of the dying days of the Obama Administration that are tossed out.
Trump read the usual Republican boilerplate about the national debt, and rightly noted how it had nearly doubled during the Obama administration, but he also proposed enough infrastructure spending to re-build the entire country, and suggested we could do it maybe twice or even three times if we don’t get it just right, and surely we’re not the only ones left hoping for a more explicit explanation of how he plans to pull that off without the debt. He’s talking big tax cuts and promising that along with all de-regulating they’ll speed up the sluggish pace of economic growth, which we our free market sensibilities regard as good bet, but we’re not such risk-takers that we wager it will be enough to rebuild an entire country of this size a couple of times over. Trump said we’d already spent that much in fighting the war against terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan, which is only true if you very much want to believe Trump because that he can tell you, OK?, and he seemed to promise there’d no more such foolish spendthriftiness for at least the next four years, but he also promised to eradicate the Islamic State terror gang and radical Islamic extremism in general, so we’re still unclear how those numbers will work out.
The only other mention of foreign policy was some talk about new alliances with old enemies, which Trump likened to our post-World War II arrangements with Germany and Japan, which we took to mean that he’s going full steam ahead on selling both of them and number of other countries out to the Russian dictator that he has frequently praises. It got short mention in the speech and the immediate stories about it, but given all the allegations of Russian meddling in the election and the recent leaks about the Trump campaign’s contacts and the past officials with undeniable ties to the Russkies who have been kicked off team Trump and whatever might or might not be in those still-undisclosed tax returns, as well as all that gushing praise Trump keeps heaping on Putin, the story is likely to linger.
All those Democrats who laughed at Romney’s Cold War-era foreign policy are suddenly sounding like John Birchers, and there is still a significant number of Republicans left who hold to the party’s erstwhile stern position about the Russkies, and we expect they’re eagerly awaiting more details about the matter. The same coalition is likely to take a look at the fine print in all that infrastructure spending, too, as every last pre-Trump Republican stood firm-fast against such spendthrifty tomfoolery back when Obama was proposing it, and all those Democrats who used to think it was a great idea will hate it because it’s now Trump’s idea, and we have to admit that they’ll have an argument that the private investment part of the spending is an invitation to outright corruption, and even the Sanders wing of the Democratic party will probably oppose Trump-branded protectionism. The Democrats were mostly well-behaved during the address, but they couldn’t suppress a laugh when President Trump repeated candidate Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp” of corruption, and given that Trump retains full ownership of business interests that don’t necessarily align with the national interest we expect the late night comics will provide plenty more laughs about it in the coming months and years.
For now, though, Trump will probably enjoy a few days of relatively good press. That shtick of reading parseable sentences without provoking any “Twitter” feuds worked well enough for Trump that even the enemies of the American people are glumly admitting a certain presidential tone, and it will be interesting to see if he sticks with it.

— Bud Norman

Taking In-Coming From the Out-Going

In the long stretch between Election Day and Inauguration Day the Obama years have overlapped with the Trump years, and of course that is not going well. Two such oversized egos as President Barack Obama and president-elect Donald Trump, both with such undersized regard for the longstanding norms of the American republic, were never going to amicably share such a drawn-out moment in our recently rancorous history.
The pair had a somewhat promising photo-opportunity together when they met in the White House just after the election, although most of the shots showed them both looking a clearly stunned and unsettled by the results, and they both described the long conversation as cordial and said all the reassuring things that outgoing and incoming presidents always say. Since then, however, things have predictably deteriorated. Obama gave a widely publicized interview with an old friend in which he speculated that he could have a won a third if only the Constitution had allowed, which is the kind of thing that two-term presidents have traditionally said only in chats with old friends that aren’t so widely publicized, and Trump responded with a petulant “tweet” saying “I SAY NO WAY!,” which is entirely unprecedented in presidential history.
Obama was then at Pearl Harbor for a somber World War II memorial ceremony with the Japanese Prime Minister, where his speech included that “It is here we remember that even when hatred burns the hottest, even when the tug of tribalism is the most primal, we must resist the urge to turn inward; we must we much resist the urge to demonize others,” which can arguably be interpreted as a criticism of the incoming president, which is indeed a departure from tradition for out-going presidents. Trump certainly seemed to take those arguably anodyne phrases personally, as he quickly “tweeted” in response that “Doing my best to disregard the many inflammatory President O statements and roadblocks. Thought it was going to be a smooth transition — NOT!,” which is also well outside the usual norms of presidential rhetoric.
So far both sides are claiming all the re-hiring and re-painting and re-assignments of parking spaces that go with any old presidential transition are nonetheless proceeding smoothly, along with the gold-plating of the toilets and the skimpier uniforms for the household staff and whatever else is required for this particular presidential transition, but the rift has already had consequences more significant than hurt feelings. Obama has unleashed such a last-month torrent of regulations that Trump will be hard-pressed and much-hassled to un-do them all, and Trump is already talking deals with the long line of companies that have threatened to move jobs out of the United States. One can only imagine what sorts of presidential pardons will be issued between now and the still-distant Inauguration Day by the out-going president, and what the president-elect will have to “tweet” about it, but one of the in-coming president’s most trusted advisors is already advising an entirely unprecedented and vastly more pervasive use of the president’s pardon powers. Obama has ordered retaliation for Russia’s internet hackings and other meddling in the election, which the Central Intelligence Agency and other officials confirm, but Trump continues to deny it ever happens and told the press that “I think we should get on with our lives” in any case.
The two are also clashing over the very serious matters of Israel’s security and the rest of that thorny Middle Eastern situation. After nearly eight years of diplomatic and rhetorical slights against Israel, and a long effort to negotiate a very accommodating deal with with the Iranian apocalyptic suicide cult that has vowed to build nuclear missiles to wipe out the Jewish state, Obama has concluded his time in office by allowing the United Nations to pass a resolution condemning the building of housing for Jewish Israelis in some disputed territories. The disputes regarding those territories are complicated, and to be fair Obama has also added $34 billion worth of state-of-the-art American weaponry to Israel’s arsenal during his administration, but there’s a lengthy case to be made that Obama’s legacy is a disgraceful backstabbing of our only modern and democratic and mostly sane friend in one of the world’s worst but most unavoidable neighborhoods.
Trump tried to fit his argument against the move into a “tweet,” and came up with “The United Nations has such great potential but right now it is just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time. So sad!” Although poorly punctuated and otherwise quite unprecedented in the history of presidential rhetoric, we’ll concede it does contain a certain kernel of truth. There is a lengthy case to be against the United Nations in general and its treatment of Israel in particular, and we’ve made it at length here over the years, but when you try to boil it compress it into 140 characters concluding with “So sad!” you wind up calling into question every international agreement that the United States has ever negotiated through the United Nations, which is not something an in-coming president should be doing. The past many millennia of human history show that successful diplomacy requires a certain precision of language, and that punctuation is also important, and the sooner the president-elect realizes this the better.
Neither man has proved himself worthy of the high office they momentarily seem to share, and their clash of oversized egos has been a tawdry spectacle. We’re supposed to take sides, so we’ll stick with the old norms of the American republic.

— Bud Norman

Trump Gets Fed

Way back when politics and economics and all that made some sort of sense, before this crazy election year, much of the media would always devote a great deal of ink and internet pixels to the latest oracular pronouncements of the Federal Reserve Board. These days it takes a lot to knock president-elect Donald Trump off the front pages, but the almighty Fed was still able to elbow its way to a column just above the fold on Wednesday with a mere slight upward tweak in the interest rate, and we expect plenty of further commentary about it as the commentariat figures out the hard-to-figure Trump angle.
The Fed’s quarterly-or-so oracular pronouncements were damned hard enough to decipher even way back when politics and economics and all that made some sort of sense, and even the smart guys on Wall Street always seemed to have a hard time figuring it out, but in the age of Trump it’s exponentially more complicated. All of the inviolable laws of economics will ultimately be enforced, which does not bode well, but all of the inviolable laws of politics have been so brutally violated in this crazy election year that there’s no reliable guide to what comes next. What’s come before has been worrisome enough
For the past eight years or so the Fed has been “quantitative easing” enough money at pretty-much-zero-percent rates into the economy to sustain a a doubling of the national debt and two percent-or-so growth rate in the gross domestic product and a stock market boom that has outrun that pace like a hare past a tortoise. The past eight years or so have also seen the unemployment rate go from a depth-of-recession rate over 10 percent to a relatively robust 4.6 percent, with household wages and a few other economic indices also showing recent improvement, and given the latest enthusiasm of the stock markets the Fed has apparently decided that now is the time to put an ever so slight foot of the economic brake.
History shows that recessions have always come to an end, though, and always with a more robust and v-shaped recovery than the last eight years or so have seen. That 4.6 percent unemployment rate is not bad, but the numbers of the underemployed and those of working age but out of the work are horrible by modern standards. As for the ongoing stock market boom, we place more faith in Aesop’s fable about the tortoise and the hare. That long awaited uptick in household income is welcome, but doesn’t seem to have placated the most recent electorate. For the past eight years or so we’ve groused that President Barack Obama’s penchant for government-run health care and similarly disruptive regulatory schemes have had something to do with this, and enough people in a few key states were just as eager to put the brakes on Obamanomics, and thus Trump won, so at this point it becomes murky.
Since Trump’s victory the stock markets have been exuberant, perhaps irrationally so, as Alan Greenspan might have said, at the prospect of all that quantitatively eased money flowing at pretty much zero interest rates through an already recovering economy suddenly disencumbered of all those Obama-imposed layers of regulations and taxations and rhetorical scoldings, along with all the cheap oil that’s going to come gushing through the Environmental Protection Agency’s weakened barriers. As much as we dispute the Fed’s self-congratulatory reasons for its slight touch on the economic brakes, we’re the self-doubting sorts who can’t really fault their decision as we head with one headlight into the economy’s dark and twisting road. Even before taking office Trump has intervened in the affairs of businesses ranging from aerospace to air conditioning, and is proposing a bigger-than-Obama-sized infrastructure plan to revive an economy that isn’t in recession but isn’t all that great, none of it bodes well for the national debt, and so far Trumponomics looks to be just as disruptive as its predecessor but in all in sorts of unpredictable ways. so perhaps some pat on the brakes is indicated.
Way back when Trump when merely a long shot candidate for the presidency he was “tweeting” his outrage that the Fed was keeping interest rates artificially low for the political benefit of Obama, which we didn’t argue, and so far as we can tell at this moment he hasn’t “tweeted” anything to the contrary since the Fed’s announcement. Perhaps he’s trying to figure out the political and economic implications himself, and finding it damned complicated, and maybe he’s cocky enough to think that he can make his deregulation of this and regulation of that work well enough even with slightly higher than zero percent interest rates, and in such a crazy election year as this he might even be right. This is a complicated matter, though, even for such a savvy businessman as Trump.
Trump has always come out ahead of his creditors, through six bankruptcies and two divorces and untold lawsuits by everyone from stiffed busboys to disgruntled real estate students, but now he’s up against the biggest bank of them all. The Fed is by law entirely independent of any branch of the federal government, and that law is likely to be backed by all the Democrats and a bigly number of Republicans in the legislative branch and a majority of the judicial branch, so we expect that Trump will sooner or later pick a fight with them. In the past the Fed has usually won these these confrontations, most famously when the aforementioned Greenspan agreed to open the monetary spigots in exchange for President Bill Clinton’s more business friendly policies, which wound up winning Clinton reelection in ’96 but couldn’t win his re-relection in ’16, but in this crazy election year everything seems up for negotiation.

— Bud Norman

America, Still in the Top 20 For Freedom

It’s a free country, according to an oft-used expression, but we can’t help noticing that America is not nearly so free as used it be. The good folks at the free-market Cato Institute have corroborated this observation in their latest “Human Freedom Index,” which surveys a wide range of indicators of personal and economic liberty, and finds that America is now only the 20th freest nation in the world.
Although we’re surprised to find America ranking behind such countries as Hong Kong and Chile, the rest of the report seems about right. The authors say America has fallen three spots in the rankings since 2012, and that “the decline reflects a long-term drop in every category of economic freedom and in its rule of law indicators,” then note that “the performance is worrisome and shows that the United States can no longer claim to be the leading bastion of liberty in the world.” We’re pleased to know that it’s as worrisome to them as it is to us, but presently an even greater worry is that so much of the public seems not at all concerned. The Democratic candidates seem more concerned with the problem of “income inequality,” which apparently will require ever more rules and regulations and limits on equality, while The Republican Party seems disinclined to put much of a fight against it, and all those independents who will decide the matter tend to vote for free stuff rather than freedom.
We can’t tell if the Cato Institute is taking into account such petty rules as light bulb bans and no smoking in even the seediest honky-tonks and mandatory seat belt use and limits of the size of soda one can purchase, but there are by now so many of these offenses against personal autonomy that even the communist Chinese rules of Hong Kong can’t keep up. More significant freedoms have also been noticeably diminished. The freedom of the press has declined to a point that reporters are being kept in roped enclosures at public events and their investigative reporting is being treated as a criminal conspiracy by the Department of Music. People are still free to attend church on Sunday, but freedom of religion no longer means that you can no longer act according to the beliefs taught there if a same-sex couple wants you to bake a cake for their wedding. Freedom of speech is still largely free of government regulation, unless you make a YouTube video that is critical of Islam and makes a convenient scapegoat for a failed Libyan policy, but the howling mods of the easily offended are doing a good enough job of constricting public debate. As for economic liberty, just ask any businessperson you know about how many permits and inspections and taxes and employment laws and equal opportunity requirements and reams of forms to be filled out they have to deal with.
Once upon a time in America the people would have been boiling tar and plucking feathers to be at least as free as the people of Hong Kong or Chile, and if you re-read the Declaration of Independence you’ll realize that Americans once went to their muskets over far less, but these days few seem to mind. The average citizen of the 20th freest country is now content with that status, so long as some of the income is redistributed his way and the games are playing on cable and there’s an illusion of broader freedom because everyone’s cussing on the comedy shows and everyone’s got a tattoo and those restrictive old notions of sexual morality are being punished by the state.
The economy and illegal immigration and the continuing difficulties with the more belligerent sorts of Muslims and the rest of the issues dominating the presidential debate are all important, but we’d love to see a candidate for the presidency or any other office make it his foremost issue to return to America to its rightful place as the leading bastion of liberty in the world. Such a project would do wonders for the economy, involve the necessary enforcement of America’s immigration laws, and strengthen America’s commitment to the freedom that those more belligerent sorts of Muslims threaten. We suspect would like it, too, just as Americans used to back when this really was a free country.

— Bud Norman

Sanders’ Candor and its Concerns

That Sen. Bernie Sanders fellow has been has lately been filling big halls with enthusiastic crowds during his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, even though he admits to being a socialist but won’t admit to being a Democrat, and it has a certain worrisome entertainment value for right-wing bastards such as ourselves. There’s some fun in watching former First Lady and Senator and Secretary of State and presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton being challenged with such populist lese majeste, and seeing how very far left she’ll have to veer in order to satisfy her party, but so far the very best part has been hearing him bad-mouth the American economy.
In a speech before more than 3,000 avid supporters in Council Bluffs, in the crucial first-to-vote state of Iowa, where the latest polls have him within striking distance of an unthinkable upset, and which clocked in at a Castro-esque 75 minutes, Sanders admitted that whatever rosy numbers of the Bureau of Labor Statistics might be publishing the actual unemployment rate still exceeds a recessionary 10-and-a-half percent. Right-wing bastards such as ourselves have been repeatedly making the same dire point for some time now, while the more respectable media have been enthusiastically reporting whatever rosy numbers the Bureau of Labor Statistics has been publishing, so there is some satisfaction in hearing the left wing’s latest darling concede the fact while having standing-room-only crowds of left wingers cheer him on. We can’t agree with his proposed solutions of higher taxes on the rich and ever more regulations on the businesses that might actually bring that unhappy unemployment number down and fewer choices of deodorant and sneakers on the store shelves, but we do acknowledge Sanders’ unusual candor, and we hope that it will allow the debate about what to do about this unfortunate situation to proceed in accordance with the facts rather than the latest rosy numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Thus far the the Clinton campaign’s cautious line has been that she’s female, offering the public the historic achievement of following the failed the administration of the African-American president with the failed administration of the first Female American president, and that the Republicans would prevent you from buying contraceptives, or at least balk at subsidizing your contraception with taxpayers’ dollars, and that the world is a much more placid place as a result of her four years as Secretary of State and will be downright idyllic once Iran gets a nuclear bomb or two or three, and that she’ll continue the same Sanders-esque but slightly saner economic policies that have brought us those latest rosy numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The Sanders line seems to be that the past six years of the Obama administration have only brought us an unemployment rate that is actually at a recessionary 10-and-a-half percent unemployment, and that far more of the same is therefore needed. Even the most limpid of the Republican candidates who becomes the party’s nominee will wind up arguing that something entirely different is required, and at least he’ll have a significant portion of the opposition agreeing that there is a problem to be solved.
As much entertainment value as this has, it’s still worrisome. At this point we rate Sanders’ chances of an upset win as about fifty-fifty, and expect that his strong showings in the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primaries will inspire more credible challenges to Clinton’s supposed inevitability, and we’re aware of our many fellow right-wing bastards who hope that it will result in something akin to Nixon’s trouncing of the far-left McGovern way back in ’72, but by now we’re careful what we wish for. Surely few Americans believe those latest rosy numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and that actual number that Sanders candidly admits will undoubtedly be the bigger issue come Election Day, but a lot has changed since ’72 and we are no longer certain that an electoral majority of Americans will disagree that higher taxes and more regulations and fewer choices of deodorants are the correct response to a moribund economy.

— Bud Norman

Badgering in the Badger State

President Barack Obama was warmly welcomed to Wisconsin by Gov. Scott Walker on Thursday, then let loose with another one of his characteristic¬†petty partisan screeds, this one ridiculing his host. The characteristically petty partisan crowd roared its approval, of course, and the characteristically petty partisan press described it as part of a “victory lap” after a week of favorable legislation and Supreme Court rulings, of course, but not a word of it bears more skeptical scrutiny.
Speaking to an adoring throng in LaCrosse, Obama likened the entire Republican to a senile “Uncle Harry” making nonsensical statements at a family Thanksgiving dinner, adding that “You still love him. He’s still a member of your family. Right? But you’ve got to correct him. You don’t want to put him charge of stuff.” He also compared Wisconsin’s government under Walker to that of neighboring and more-Democratic Minnesota, noting that Minnesota had raised taxes on the wealthy, increased the minimum wage, expanded Medicaid, implemented all-day kindergarten, offered subsidies for college, and had a lower unemployment rate and higher median income. With the applause indicating that he had an audience willing to believe that higher taxes and higher labor costs and increased government spending is the obvious explanation for Minnesota’s relatively healthier economy, Obama then boasted of his own successes with this same formula, and contrasted his humane approach with the Republicans’ policy of giving tax breaks to the wealthy and letting everyone else fend for themselves. Such callous economics was the cause of the ’08 financial crisis, Obama told the crowd, anding that “Being an American is not about taking as much as you can from your neighbor before they take as much as they can from you. We are not a bunch of individuals out here on our own. We are a community, we are family. We are in this together.”
One hardly knows where to begin rebutting such hogwash, but it might as well be at the beginning with that crack about the crazy uncle. This comes from the World’s Greatest Orator, who was going to end the era of partisan division and facilitate a serious discussion about the nature’s future. It also comes from the leader of a party that features a crazy and foul-mouthed Uncle Joe and a creepy face-lifted Aunt Nancy and a perverted Cousin Anthony who keeps sending pictures of his underwear-clas private parts over his cell phone and a First Mom who insists that everyone eat their vegetables while she wolfs down what the fancy chefs who’ve been flown have created and a cackling evil stepmother Hillary who seems next in line to lead our very dysfunctional national family, and we can’t share the audience’s satisfaction that everything has worked out so well since they’ve been “put in charge of stuff.”
Walker does a fine enough job defending his controversial policies in an op-ed article at Real Clear Politics, graciously headlined “Welcome to Wisconsin, Mr. President,” noting the significant economic gains that have lately occurred in his state in spite of the sluggish national economy. He didn’t anticipate the part about Minnesota, so for his benefit we’ll add that the high tax rates on job-creators cannot possibly explain the state’s job creations, the minimum wage increase is less than a year old and hasn’t yet pushed up overall wages and has almost certainly eliminated many minimum-wage jobs, the Medicaid expansion wouldn’t have been necessary if the Minnesota economy were as robust as he represents it, and probably was made more necessary by the many Minnesotans who lost the suddenly more-expensive health plans they liked and were promised they could keep but were relegated to Medicaid by Obamacare, there’s no proof that all-day kindergarten does children much good, somebody’s still paying those ever-increasing college costs that always go up further with the subsidies, and a more telling basis for comparison would be the relative improvement of the Wisconsin and Minnesota economies over the past few years.
Nor does the broader American economy seem to justify such arrogance. The labor participation rate is at a low unseen since Jimmy Carter’s presidency, wages remain stagnant, the Gross Domestic Product contracted the first quarter of this year and the most optimistic predictions having it growing at around 2 percent or a fraction over the full year, such meager advances have added more than $8 trillion to the national debt during the Obama presidency, and no one who isn’t within clapping distance of the presidents anticipates that happy days will soon be here again. We’re not heartened by the rest of the president’s great week, either. The Supreme Court ruled that the Obamacare law doesn’t say what it says on the written 2,000-plus, but that instead it means whatever five justice of the Supreme Court would prefer it said, and then on the big same-sex marriage decision it pretty much concluded the same thing about the Constitution, and whatever political benefits might redound to the president neither development is likely to do much good for the rule of law and Constitutional restraints on the federal government. A lot of Republicans and a few cowed Democrats also gave the president “fast track” authority to negotiate a top-secret free-trade deal with numerous Asian nations, and although we’re generally free traders we don’t like the top-secret and remain worried that it will allow him to pull some immigration and environmental shenanigans.
Most annoying, though, were his descriptions of capitalism and socialism. The natural rights of individuals to voluntarily trade and contract with another in a free market, an arrangement that has produced greater wealth and one more to advance civilization than any cockamamie bureaucratic regulatory scheme, is explained in terms of “taking as much as you can from your neighbor before they take as much as they can from you.” Any individual who has become self-sufficient by voluntarily trading and contract with another individual in a free market should be grievously offended by this, and we daresay their neighbors should be as well. But then again, we’re “not a bunch of individuals” in Obama’s America, we are a “family.” Obama is presumably the father, although regrettably not the absent sort of father figure he grew up without, and as that cheering throng of hipsters in LaCrosse would probably tell you, with all their progressive sophistication, father knows best.
On second thought, the very most annoying part of Obama’s speech was that line about how the unregulated avarice of that ruthless capitalist system that leaves everyone to fend for themselves was the cause of the ’08 financial crisis. The lie is so oft-repeated that it goes almost unnoticed and almost entirely unquestioned, but the pesky fact remains that it wasn’t caused by lack of regulations that prevented greedy bankers from making home loans to people who clearly could never repay them, but rather because of presumably well-intentioned government interventions in the free market, which encouraged and cajoled and eventually coerced the bankers to make those loans in the cause of affordable housing and civil rights and fairness and all sorts of focus-group tested themes. Obama surely knows this, as he did pro bono work for some subprime borrowers that forced Citibank to write them mortgage, and was a member of the Congressional Black Caucus was it was screaming racism at the regulatory “watchdogs” who were warning of the coming collapse and successfully resisting George W. Bush’s efforts to stop it, and he surely knows that as a result of his efforts housing became less affordable and black Americans wound up disproportionately poorer, as they remain today, and that in the end it was disastrously unfair to all the more credit-worthy homeowners and their creditors as well as just about everyone else.
Obama’s at least a deft enough orator to leave that part out.. We’re looking forward to Walker’s announcement that he’ll be running for president, and expect much better from him, and although he seems a nice and Wisconsin sort of fellow who won’t resort to petty partisanship and sneering ridicule we hope he will bluntly talk back to such hogwash.

— Bud Norman

Happy Birthday to Us

Our apologies to you faithful few who drop by every day to read our take on the latest news, but Wednesday marked the fifty-fifth anniversary of our birth and we took a day off from the latest headlines to honor the occasion. We have no idea what sort of shenanigans that darned president of ours was up to, or whether the stock market has yet wised up to the present economic calamity, or what those head-chopping barbarians of the new caliphate are lately inflicting on the 21st Century, or whether the hitherto unknown Missouri town of Ferguson still exists in the wake of its race riot, or any of the latest developments in the rest of it, and our conscience is untroubled by our temporary ignorance of these matters.
We had hoped that the achievement of such an advanced age would deliver some all-encompassing and melodious truth that we might eloquently impart to the internet, but no such luck. Instead we slept until a decadent hour of the afternoon, drank the usual two large cups of coffee, and ambled about aimlessly until the early evening while reading the numerous happy birthday wishes that arrived via the miracle of Facebook. After a briskly cold bath we headed out to a favorite tavern for the free beer it generously provides to all the regulars on their birthdays. We won’t mention the name of the establishment because the bartender, an old friend who has been pouring us beer since since the Spot Recreation was still extant, reminded us that the policy of offering free beer was illegal in this state. He’s a good guy but he’s homosexual and staunchly democrat and he meant this to chide us for our law-and-order Repblucan ways, but we noted that we’re the radical anti-government type of Republicans that chafes against all those silly laws and regulations, so we commended the establishment on its scofflaw ways and drank the beer without qualms.

After a delicious drive-thru meal of Mexican food from one of those many fine restaurants that have resulted from the influx of legal and illegal immigrants we dropped by a tavern in the more ¬†nearby Delnao district that was once of the wild west’s more notorious districts. A delightfully bawdy Englishwomwn that drops by from time to time treated to us another free beer in honor of our birthday, and we wound up in a conversation with her and a couple of nice Polish fellows and a very charming Venezuelan fellow, and it was all quite convivial and multi-cultural for a night on West Douglas in the prairie city of Wichita. There might be some all-encompassing and melodious truth about the modern world in that, but at that point we didn’t care any more than we cared about what shenanigans our president was up to. It was a good birthday, and all the good wishes were much appreciated,

— Bud Norman

The Politics Around Here

Kansas holds a primary one week from today, and the state is already awash in politics. Yard signs are proliferating, the mailbox is full of fliers, the pitchmen for identity theft protection agencies and the guy from the Good Feet Store have been chased off the talk radio airwaves by campaign commercials, and some of the races are intriguingly nasty.
All of the action around here is on the Republican side, as usual. The state’s beleaguered Democrats always pick their candidates well in advance of the primary at some committee meeting or another, where a strange cabal of airplane plant union bosses and political science professors and some die-hard lefty activists left over from the good old Prairie Populist days take care not to choose anyone who might have a chance in the long-awaited favorable election cycle. There’s some faint hope of knocking off incumbent Governor Sam Brownback, a budget-cutting anti-abortion stalwart who is hated by the state’s Democrats with a red-hot fervor usually reserved for the likes of Dick Cheney or Sarah Palin, but the supposedly mainstream candidate they’ve come up with is not only a Democrat but also from Lawrence and will have a hell of a time explaining those embarrassing facts to the rest of the thoroughly Republican and decidedly non-college town state. Meanwhile, all the Republican races are being hotly contested between the go-along-to-get-along crowd and the tar-feather-and-pitchforks folks.
Even. Sen Pat Roberts, who has been winning elections in the state since it joined the Union just prior to the Civil War, has lately been forced to resort to some strenuously negative advertising to stave off a primary challenge by Kansas City-area radiologist and political neophyte Dr. Milton Wolf. Wolf’s shoestring campaign got off to a good start with free publicity about his distant family relation to President Barack Obama and scathing commentary on everything Obama has done, and picked up further free steam from media reports that Roberts hasn’t actually lived in the state for years, but was derailed through the summer by news accounts of how the kindly doctor had posted his patients’ x-rays on his Facebook page with darkly humorous commentary. Lately one of those anti-establishment Republican groups have taken to the airwaves with a compelling critique of all the debt and failed grand bargains that Roberts has voted for after so many decades of practical politics, and a prominent national talk radio host has championed Wolf’s cause, but Wolf’s name recognition remains low and he’s yet to make the case for himself. Wolf’s challenge is serious enough that Roberts is unaccustomedly spending campaign money on a primary, and we’re still undecided how we’ll cast our own vote, but our sense is that Roberts will survive and suffer little damage in what should be an easy general election campaign against whoever it is that the Democrats have already offered up as a human sacrifice.
The weakness of Wolf’s campaign should be taken into consideration when reading the inevitable stories about the establishment-versus-insurgents rift within the Republican, but other races indicate where the rift is actually occurring.
Here in the Fourth Congressional, which includes relatively densely-populated Wichita and the rest of relatively sparsely populated south-central Kansas, an incumbent who is still an impeccably insurgent sort even after two terms is being challenged his predecessor from the Bush-era of the Republican establishment. Former Rep. Todd Tiahrt always ran as a rock-ribbed Republican, and voted as one often enough to thrice win re-election, but to distinguish himself against his post-Tea Party opponent and explain his past spending votes he’s made an old-fashioned pitch to bring home the earmarked pork to the district in general and its key aviation industries in particular, with his ads making special mention of an “aviation zone” project that his opponent declined to fund. Rep. Mike Pompeo, the incumbent, has responded with spots arguing that the aviation industry needs to be freed from burdensome regulation rather than subsidized, touting his own proposed legislation to achieve that, and noting he is a successful aviation entrepreneur backed by all the titans of the local industry. Tiahrt still enjoys the loyalty of many of the substantial number of anti-abortion voters in the district, who played a key role in his initial upset victory and were always rewarded with his undying loyalty, but Pompeo’s voting record on abortion issues has not been faulted by any of the anti-abortion scorekeepers, and the Pompeo campaign has also been airing ads with religious right hero and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee extolling the incumbent’s solid family values. We’re solidly for Pompeo, partly because the top-of-his-class West Point grad and high tech business success strikes us as a far more intelligent fellow, but also because we’re more worried about paying off the debt than bringing home the bacon. Despite some recent tightening in the polls we’re still expecting most of the Republican voters in these parts will reach the same conclusion.
There’s no telling what stories the national media will tell about the Fourth District race, but at least they won’t embarrassed by any attention paid to Sedgwick County’s Fourth District Commission race. The battle between incumbent Commissioner Richard Ranzau and longtime state Sen. Carolyn McGinn is our favorite political pastime of the the summer, much as the Wichita Wingnuts’ campaign in the Double-A American Association is our current sports passion, and we like to think that both of these seemingly local concerns potentially portend the future of the United States of America. Any national media in search of a more rock-ribbed Tea Party insurgent anti-establishmentarian will find no one more closely resembling their favorite stereotypes than Ranzau, who has become locally famous by County Commission standards for voting “no” against almost everything. He’ll spend a Sedgwick Countian’s hard-earned tax money on water and roads and locking up the roustabouts and all of the few other things than even a Republican originalist such as Abraham Lincoln would have sanctioned a county commission doing, but when it comes to the rest of the hogwash that the do-gooders and the teachers’ unions cook up he’s been on the losing end of a lot of four-to-one or three-to-two votes. So principled is Ranzau in his stinginess that he has even voted against programs that would be paid for entirely by federal funds, a response to the nation’s $17 trillion dollar debt that the local media, machine Democrats, and even the more of Chamber of Commerce-y sorts of Republicans regard as utter madness. Ranzau could happily dine in the hippest bistros of San Francisco or New York or anywhere else outside Sedgwick County in complete anonymity, although the other customers would probably notice something suspiciously Sedgwick County Republican about his ill-fitting brown jacket, but among the polite opinion in Riverside and downtown and the other semi-fashionable portions of the Fourth District he’s as reviled as a Koch brother.
Running against Ranzaus and his outrages is McGinn, an exemplar of the more respectable sort of Republicanism that has prevailed in Kansas pretty much since the Reconstruction era. She can legitimately claim a fairly conservative voting record on spending in her ads, in which she proudly declares “I demand accountability,” but she also boasts of having the “courage” to vote for “investments” in the future of the county. We’ve covered enough economic-development conferences and hearings and bill-signings to recognize the reference to the same old eco-devo boondoggles that have become such an entrenched part of federal and state and county and local government it takes little courage to vote for them, so we’re inclined to to Ranzau’s and Pompeo’s preference for lower taxes and fewer regulations. McGinn seems a fine woman, conservative enough by the standards that prevailed through most of our lives in the Republican Party, and we don’t worry that Sedgwick County will perish by rule, but we’d like to see Ranzau’s underfunded re-election bid prevail. We enjoy taunting our more polite neighbors about him, much as we enjoy taunting them with our admiration for the Koch brothers, and would like the think the rest of the Republican party is just as serious as he’s been about the government’s proper roles..

— Bud Norman