Hope Springs on Wall Street, if Not South Seneca

This will be only a brief missive, as we’re writing it at the Lost Sock Laundromat on unfashionable South Seneca Street, and only have the time it takes to do one load o dirty clothes. It’s not much to look at, but the laundry comes out clean and dry and they generously offer free wi-fi. Our washer and dryer were knocked out some months ago by a sewer backup, and on Monday we found that our internet provider was overwhelmed by the traffic and the telephone message was saying “We are having hard problems,” so here we are in the wee hours of the morning.
We’re doing our civic minded best to stay at home, but we still need groceries and clean clothes, and figure that we’re not risking our health or anyone else’s any more than necessary writing in a mostly abandoned south side laundromat. There was one seedy-looking fellow who turned out to be quite friendly from a social distance, but he’s gone and it’s just me and the tattooed guy who works here, who was kind enough to turn on the wi-fi.
We had planned to write about Monday’s big rally on the stock markets, apparently fueled by expectations that the worst of the pandemic will be over sooner rather than later and things will get back to normal. The Washington Post’s headline was “Wall Street stages explosive rally, powering Dow 1,600 points as investors seize on morsels of good news.” We sure hope the optimism is justified, but have noticed that these recent rallies have been followed by sharp downturns, and worry that it might be what Alan Greenspan once called “irrational exuberance.”
The rate of the increase in infections has apparently slowed, but they’re still increasing, and the death toll is still expected to be high. We’re also seeing a cloud in every silver living about the economic, and can’t help but notice that the extraordinary number o people working home and watching Netflix and porn has overpowered a major American corporation, to the extent they explaining to frustrated customers that “We’re having hard problems.”
At the least the Lost Sock Laundromat here on South Seneca is still on the job.

— Bud Norman</p

A Dreary Monday Followed By Yet Another Super Tuesday

Pretty much everyone we encountered on Monday asked how we’re doing, as the friendly folks here in Wichita tend to do, and we were able to cheekily answer that we’re faring better than the stock markets. Most of the people we met got the dark humor in our reply, as they’d heard the news that Monday was an historically bad day on Wall Street.
All three of the major American exchanges suffered at least a 7 percent drop, which comes after a few weeks of alarming declines, and all the smart money on the rest of the world’s markets seems similarly panicked, with no apparent good news on the horizon to turn things around in the near future. The main reason for the dive is the steadily spreading coronavirus pandemic, which has thus far killed only a tiny fraction of the world’s population but already cancelled big events and shut down schools and disrupted global supply chains and currently has most of Italy in quarantine. The markets are also worried that oil prices are plummeting on falling demand and a dispute between Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries Russia and Saudi Arabia, which can’t agree on an ideal price to fix.
Neither of these developments can be credibly blamed on President Donald Trump, but so far the smart money isn’t betting that he has any solutions. Trump has thus far argued the coronavirus threat is overblown, based on his hunches and natural ability to grasp the science of epidemiology because he had a “super-genius” uncle who taught physics at the Massachussets Institute of Technology, but by Monday he was proposing a slew of government programs and “stimulus” measures redolent of President Barack Obama to prop up the economy just in case. The Federal Reserve Board is on the brink of offering zero interest loans and already printing more money to make up for the trillion dollars of deficit spending by the government, the bond markets are offering pretty much zero return on long or short-term yields, Trump is “tweeting” demands they go even further, and we can well understand why the smart money isn’t reassured.
The worries about the plummeting oil markets are harder to understand. We’re old enough to remember when the OPEC cartel’s price-gouging was the global economy’s biggest worry, and won’t mind a bit if the local gasoline prices fall below $2 a gallon as expected, but it does seem to be a troubling sign for the rest of the global economy. Trump will surely be conflicted about it, as he’s good friends with both the Russian and Saudi dictators and would love to take credit for cheap gasoline, but nothing he might say or do about it is likely to stabilize any of the markets.
Today is another big Tuesday in the Democratic presidential primary races, and the smart money is betting that former Obama-era Vice President Joe Biden will knock self-described socialist and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders out of the race, but that won’t help much. The stock markets had a rare good day when Biden took the lead over Sanders after last week’s “Super Tuesday,” but no one’s betting that Biden has all the answers.
It’s all quite desultory, but for now we can tell anyone who asks that we have no symptoms of the coronavirus and are feeling somewhat healthier than the stock markets. Here’s hoping that all of our dear readers are faring at least as well, and that we all make it through.

— Bud Norman

These Scary Times

Having survived the swine flu and the bird flu and AIDS and SARs and the Ebola virus and all the other pandemics that were supposed to wipe out humankind, we’ve been feeling pretty cocky about our chances of surviving this newfangled coronavirus. After what happened on Wall Street on Monday, however, we’re at less a wee bit nervous.
News that the coronavirus has spread from China to South Korea, Iran and Italy renewed concerns that it will further disrupt the international trade system and the many gazillions of money that it generates, which has already seen much global several business with the gargantuan Chinese economy brought to a screeching halt. The Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped a jaw-dropping 1031 points, which is a jaw-dropping 3.6 percent, and the Standard & Poor and NASDAQ suffered even worse percentage losses, and for now all the smart money seems scared.
Aside from the already horrific death toll and severe economic consequences from the coronavirus, there are also political implications. President Donald Trump can’t plausibly be blamed for the coronavirus and the resulting stock markets, but he always implausibly claimed full credit for all the impressive stock market gains during his administration and has thus tied his political fortunes to the latest indexes. Decisive presidential leadership is called for, but at this point there’s not much Trump or any possible president might do.
The White House has requested congress to pass a $1.8 billion emergency spending bill to bring the total of spending on the coronavirus to $2.5 billion, which is a good idea that will probably win bipartisan approval, but by Washington standards that’s a relatively puny amount of money to throw at a problem of this size. There are many very smart people in America’s scientific community, but for now the smart money is betting that they won’t have this problem solved by election day, which seems a smart bet to us.
Trump is also calling on the Federal Reserve and the rest of the world’s central banks to reassure the world markets with a fresh infusion of that sweet opium of newly-printed cash, but at this point there’s not much more they can do. Several of the world’s biggest economies are offering below zero interest rates, which is every bit as stupid as it sounds, and despite what Trump has called the best American economy ever the Federal Reserve has been setting interest rates historically close to zero and the budget deficit is over a trillion dollars. A debt-ridden America and the rest of the debt-ridden world are ill-prepared to deal with one of those occasional Black Swan events, as the smarty-pants economists call it.
Which is not to say that any of those damned Democrats running for the presidency have any solutions. Self-described socialist and current Democratic front-runner Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders will have a a harder time paying for his all his trillions of dollars of spending on all of America’s problems if there’s an economic downturn. The relatively sane and centrist Democratic candidates also don’t have any answers, and we frankly admit that neither nor do we few remaining NeverTrump Republicans,
Pretty much everyone anti-Trump will get their digs in, though. Trump has taken his usual position against foreigners entering the country, but some very quarantined cases of the virus have come in, and Trump’s skepticism about fancy pants scientists seems to have decimated the government agencies charged with dealing with pandemics. Trump has questioned the scientific community’s assessments of global climate change and the quality of America’s air and water and the cancerous effects of wind turbines, and he’ll probably soon ask you to believe that he knows more about the coronavirus than anyone.
Even so, we expect to eventually die from something other than the coronavirus, and to survive whatever political and economic upheavals it might bring. Which is not to say it will be a happy ending for anybody.

— Bud Norman

On the Lull Before Christmas

According to longstanding American political tradition the final days of a lame duck Congress and the last few days before Christmas are supposed to be a slow news cycle, but in the age of President Donald Trump’s newfangled conservatism such longstanding American traditions have been jettisoned. Thursday brought news that Trump’s defense secretary has resigned in apparent protest of Trump’s derided-by-almost-everyone decision to withdraw a small but effective force from Syria and Afghanistan, Trump and his remaining allies in the temporary Republican House majority are threatening to force government shutdown over Trump’s derided-by-almost-everyone insistence on a big beautiful wall along the Mexican border, and largely as a result the stock markets had yet another dreadful day instead of the traditional “Santa Claus rally.”
The resignation of Defense Secretary and former four-star Marine general James Mattis struck us as the most worrisome development of the day. Despite the “Mad Dog” nickname that Trump seemed to love, Mattis was well regarded by both the center-left and center-right consensus that had successfully guided through the Cold War and has done about as well as can reasonably be expected with the resulting and relatively low-level wars against Islamist terrorism, and his departure leaves him pretty much without any of those wise old hands.
Flynn resigned from his post in record-setting time after being charged with felony perjury charges and making admission to administration that he’d lied about his contacts with Russian officials, and he’s currently awaiting sentencing from a judge who has openly wondered in court why he’s not being charged with treason given all the credible accusations of undisclosed shady dealings with the Turkish and Russian governments, despite the special counsel investigation into the whole “Russia thing” pleading he should get no jail time because of his cooperation, which also doesn’t look good for Trump. He was replaced by McMaster, who didn’t last much longer, reportedly because Trump was annoyed three-star general’s know-it-all attitude during the daily briefings. The post is now held by John Bolton, a President George W. Bush holdover from the late and lamented Republican establishment who’s a bit more aggressive about American internationalism that even our Reagan-esque tastes would prefer, but he’s also advised against Trump’s Syrian withdrawal and might be on the way out.
The four-star chief of staff Kelly has also been pushed aside, reportedly in part because he didn’t get along with Trump’s favorite daughter and son-in-law, and he will temporarily be replaced on a moonlighting basis by acting Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney,  who will also be charged with deciding which agencies should be shut down in case of a partial government shutdown. Whatever advice Trump might be getting from the son-in-law in charge of everything from Middle East peace and the opioid crisis and re-inventing the federal government, and whatever  remains of the rest of his staff about domestic policy, the unpopular president has apparently committed to an unpopular partial government shutdown over Christmas to get a few billion in funding for his unpopular idea of a big beautiful wall along the entire Mexican border, and we don’t see that turning out well. In a few weeks the House of Representatives will install a significant Democratic majority with no political or ideological reason to fund Trump’s big beautiful border wall, much of the slight Republican majority in the Senate is already in revolt over Trump’s withdrawal from Syria and other foreign policy matters, political realities almost always prevail, and without any generals or wise old hands backing him up he seems in a weakened position.
The stock markets seem to agree, given their recent dour mood, and although Trump can plausibly partially blame that on the damned Federal Reserve Board chairman he did appoint the guy, and after what looks to be losing year on the exchanges, which can also be plausibly blamed on the yet-unwon trade wars Trump had declared on our erstwhile allies, but for now Trump  can no longer brag about delivering the best economy ever. No one’s currently predicting a recession, and we’re certainly hoping for one, but the best that all establishment forecasters are predicting is the same sort of slow but steady economic growth that has been the bipartisan norm over the decades. Perhaps Trump will eventually prove smarter than all those multi-starred  generals and economists and the newly-elected Democrats in the House of Representatives and all of us old-fashioned Republicans, as well as  the Syrian and Russian and Iranian dictators, but for now only the true believers who still shot up at the ongoing rallies  in those “Make America Great Again” ball caps seem to be betting on it.

— Bud Norman

The Avoidable and Inevitable Stock Market Swoon

Monday was another down day on Wall Street, and so far as we can tell there are several reasons for the recent stock market swoons. Part of it just the usual economics, but so far as we can tell the worst of it is some unusually stupid politics.
The seemingly biggest reason is that the Chinese have predictably imposed steep tariffs on many American products in retaliation for President Donald Trump’s unilaterally imposed tariffs on many Chinese products, and it seems a trade war has begun. At the same time, though, Trump is also waging war on some major American businesses, another heavy hitter has come under congressional scrutiny, and the usual economic disruptions are at play.
Trump has “tweeted” that “trade wars are good and easily won,” but the smart money on Wall Street and most sane observers elsewhere strenuously disagree. Trump has also retreated from some of his “tweeted” threats, which has always prompted stock markets rallies, but then he “tweets” another threat, such global economic powers as the European and Union and our neighbors to the north and sound issue retaliatory threats and the stock markets once again swoon. If the cycle continues until the rest of the world meekly accedes to Trump’s demand for American dominance of the global marketplace, we expect it will take a while.
In the meantime, one of the most dynamic sectors of the American economy is facing political problems, which are the worst kind of problems these days. Some of the biggest players in the high-tech industry that keeps coming up with all sorts of world-changing gizmos and gadgets and thingamajigs are now being “tweeted” about and summoned to congressional committees, which is not good for business, and the tech-heavy NASDAQ stock exchange has taken the worst hit lately in the recent downturn.
The on-line retailer Amazon.com has recently surpassed Wal-Mart as the world’s biggest store, and Trump has recently been “tweeting” that it’s a tax cheat which drives Main Street stores out of business and is bankrupting the United States Postal System. Much of that is entirely untrue and the rest quite debatable, but it’s been an undeniable drag on the drag on the company’s stock price, and given its enormous size there’s a big drag on the overall averages. For now there’s not much Trump can do about Amazon or its owner’s other notable property, The Washington Post, other “tweet” about it, what with those pesky constitutional prohibitions against bills of attainder and infringements of freedom of the press, but at least Trump is inflicting quantifiable financial pain on his even-richer nemesis.
The on-line social media giant Facebook has its own similar political problems, but for very different reasons. A web site that became extraordinarily profitable and powerful by allowing people to share videos of their cats and cell phone pictures of the taco they were about to eat and whatever else they had on their minds also wound up disseminating political propaganda from Russian-based “troll farms” through a firm tied to the Trump campaign during the last presidential election, and the resulting headlines have not been good for the company’s once red-hot stock price. All the propaganda was apparently pro-Trump, so Trump hasn’t “tweeted” anything about it, but the Democrats on those pesky congressional investigative committees have at least managed to inflict some quantifiable financial pain of their own. Facebook ended Monday down 16 percent from its recent high, and given its outsized influence that also accounted for much of that broader decline.
The computer chip-making giant Intel also took a huge on news that Apple Computers, another outsized company tech-sector and one of Intel’s biggest customers, is considering making its own computer chips. That’s the sort of business page news you’d expect on any day in the fast-moving and nerve-wrackingly dynamic high tech sector, though, and we’re the sort of red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalists and old-fashioned Republicans who are content to let the marketplace sort that out. As much as we love that old corner store that Mom and Pop once built out of brick and mortar, we equally hate bills of attainder and infringements on a free press, and we’ll let Amazon do whatever the state legislatures and the marketplace allows it do, and we’ll stay on Facebook just to keep apprised about which of our friends have recently divorced, so as to avoid any awkward comments.
Although we’re rapidly growing too old for such economic disruptions, we’ve long since learned to accept them as part of the ebb and flow toward something like progress. As rock-ribbed Republicans and red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalists we’ve long believed that all those sorry-assed consumers at the pay line could choose more wisely than the politicians, and we still resent those darned Democrats for presuming to make better picks of the winners and losers.
Nowadays, though, that seems to make us “Republicans in Name Only” or “cuckservatives” or “globalists,” as both parties have chosen their winners and losers. Steel and aluminum companies seem a good stock bet at the moment, but car makers and beer brewers and any other industries that use steel or aluminum look risky. If you have a stake in any of the several industries China is now slapping tariffs on, you might want to talk to your financial advisor about that. The Democrats can try to deprive all the social media-addled youth of Facebook, but we’d advise them that most of the political content from our friends is annoyingly liberal.
Oddly enough, yet another reason for the current nervousness on Wall Street is that the unemployment rate is currently low by historical standards and the overall economy seems to be doing well, so there’s the ever-present danger that the Federal Reserve Board will raise interest on loans past the virtually free-money rates that have sustained the whole enterprise since that last big crash. Such adjustments are another one of those disquieting disruptions we’ve learned to accept, but otherwise we’d prefer politics just stay out of it.

— Bud Norman

Trump’s Tough Stretch of News

Although he got in another lucrative weekend of golfing and socializing at his warm and sunny Mar-a-Lago resort, the last few days have not been kind to President Donald Trump. The team owned by his best friend in the National Football League was upset in the Super Bowl, the release of a much ballyhooed congressional memo did not completely vindicate him in the “Russia thing,” and suddenly the stock markets are in a swoon.
Trump will probably get over the Super Bowl soon enough, and maybe even score some political points against the winning players who have already announced they’ll skip a White House visit, but the ongoing “Russia thing” and the recent woes on Wall Street are more troublesome.
The president had hoped that a four page memo penned by the staff of die-hard Trump apologist and California Rep. Devin Nunes would persuade the American people to to demand an end to all the ongoing investigations into the “Russia thing,” and he got his wish with a certain portion of the public. All the right wing talk radio talkers and the rest of the die-hard Trump apologists relished the unsurprising revelation that the Federal Bureau of Investigation had used the “salacious and unverified” dossier of evidence compiled by a foreigner with money from the Democratic National Committee and the campaign of its presidential nominee Hillary Clinton to obtain an early warrant in the investigation from a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court. Sean Hannity even found that sufficient reason to demand that special counsel Robert Mueller’s snooping around cease and the indictments he’s already obtained again Trump’s campaign manager another high-ranking campaign official be dropped and the guilty pleas he’s already forced from Trump’s former national security adviser and a campaign foreign policy advisor be rescinded.
Alas, the rest of the public was more skeptical and Hannity’s demands are unlikely to be met. The more Trump-skeptical media noted the memo acknowledged that the Federal Bureau of Investigation started snooping around when an Australian official tipped them off that a drunken Trump campaign foreign policy advisor had been boasting in a London Pub about all the dirt his candidate was getting from the Russians, that still-classified material other than the information compiled by a respected former British intelligence agent was also submitted to the court, and that in any case the warrants were reauthorized by other FISA courts based on the finding they were yielding important evidence. The notion of a “deep state” conspiracy against Trump to stage a “coup” with “fake news” was always a hard sell, given that it involves Republican-appointed FBI agents seeking warrants from the Republican-appointed judges on FISA courts that the Republicans established and just last week voted to renew, and the four pages that Nunes’ staffers penned didn’t make the case.
Nunes also admits that neither he nor his staffers actually read the classified case that the FBI made for its FISA warrants, and everyone who has is saying that the memo is misleading. That includes the FBI chief that Trump appointed, and the impeccably Republican South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy, who was a right wing talk radio hero just a couple of years ago for his dogged investigation of Clinton’s embarrassing role in the deadly Benghazi debacle. Gowdy was the only House Republican who got too look at the classified warrant application because Nunes had been forced to more or less recluse himself from the whole “Russia thing” after some embarrassing antics, and he told the media that “There is a Russia investigation without a dossier.” Listing off a number of reasons to snoop into the “Russia thing,” he accurately noted “To the extent the memo deals with the dossier and the FISA process, the dossier has nothing to do with the meeting at Trump Tower. The dossier has nothing to with an email sent by Cambridge Analytica. The dossier really has nothing to do with George Papadopoulos’ meeting in Great Britain. It also doesn’t have anything to do with obstruction of justice.”
Gowdy is one of several Republicans who aren’t seeking reelection, so be’s free to be so frank, but even some of his partisan colleagues who are hoping for another term are also distancing themselves from the Nunes memo. Several Republicans have signaled the support of a rebuttal memo penned by California Rep. Adam Schiff, who has seen the classified warrant application and seems a far smarter fellow than Nunes, and the “Russia thing” will surely linger.
Meanwhile the stock market has been plummeting, and for now that’s an even bigger problem for Trump.
By the sometimes perverse logic of the stock markets, the bad news is being driven by good news and might turn out in the long run to be good news. After an historically long run to record levels the markets are apparently worried the currently low unemployment rates and slight upticks in economy activity and long-forestalled wage increases will cause the Federal Reserve Board to slightly raise the rates on the historically inexpensively obtained money that has been fueling it, lest inflation rear its ugly head, and there’s a strong case to be made that a long-forestalled and much-needed market corrections is needed to forestall the inevitable next crash until after you’re dead. Trump will be hard-pressed, though, to make such a complicated argument.
Trump will quite plausibly claim that the recent stock market downturn is not his fault, but his critics will provably point out that he was always willing to take credit for the recent record highs. He “tweeted” about it 56 times, boasted about it in public pronouncements far more often, including that long-forgotten State of the Union speech he gave just a week or so ago, and for now he’s deprived of a favorite bragging point. He could turn on a dime and make the populist claim that he’ll gladly trade a workingman’s pay hike for some fat-cat investor’s coupon-clipping, and brag about how he prescient he was back in the campaign when he claimed the record stock market highs of President Barack Obama’s administration were just a great big bubble about to burst, but after all the boasts about those Wall Street records and given Trump’s limited vocabulary it’s a very complicated argument to make.
The sorts of people who do grasp such complicated economic arguments immediately recognize the Fed’s complicated role in all of this, and are probably aware that Trump has recently appointed its new chairman. The previous chairman was chairwoman Janet Yellen, who was generally well regarded by by all the smart people with the smart money for her open spigot policies in the early stages of recovery from the 2008 recession and gradual reductions during the slower-than-usual but longer-than-ever recovery that lasted through Trump’s first year.
It’s a longstanding presidential tradition to appoint a generally well-regarded Fed chairman to a second term regardless of the party that had made the first appointment, but Trump isn’t much for longstanding presidential traditions and to replace Yellen with his own guy. Of course Trump chose a guy, Jerome Powell, but he’s a former under secretary for domestic finance at the Treasury Department and is widely expected to be the same sort of apolitical number-crunching policy wonk as Yellen, and along with all the stock holders we’ll be eager to see how he responds. Trump is probably wondering, too, as it will be hard to blame Yellen for a downturn that began shortly after she was replaced by Trump.
Our hope is that the stock markets and the broader economy both continue to fitfully prosper, and our expectation is that if it does Trump will take credit for it, and that if it doesn’t he’ll accept no blame. We wish Trump well with that whole “Russia thing,” too, but we hope that truth will prevail and expect that the special counsel will find plenty of it.

— Bud Norman

Those Post-Labor Day Blues

One of the quadrennial cliches of presidential election years is that the American public doesn’t start paying attention to any of that political stuff until after Labor Day. We’ve always wondered if that were really so, given the usual ubiquity of politics, and in this crazy election year we can’t believe that anybody has been able to avert his gaze from the spectacle. If you are so lucky as to be just now tuning in the presidential race, though, suffice to say that it’s been dreadful.
Believe it or not, the two major party nominees are Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton and Republican Donald J. Trump, the worst choices that America’s longstanding and once-venerable two-party system has ever puked up. We are slightly heartened that enough of the public has been paying attention that a vast majority regards both as dishonest and corrupt and utterly unfit for the office, but it looks as if one or the other will wind up president nonetheless. As we enter the supposedly crucial post-Labor Day stretch of the race Clinton is still clinging to a slight lead in the average of polls, but the unprecedented unpopularity of both candidates makes it daunting for even the most daring pundits to offer a prediction.
Those civic-minded sorts who take a post-Labor Day interest in the issues needn’t both boning up on the candidates’ stands, as they tend to shift from day to day. The Democrat can be counted on to take the typical Democratic positions, but not to an extent that would upset her Wall Street backers, which is why she had such trouble beating a full-blown nutcase and self-described socialist as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders during the primaries. The Republican takes all sorts of un-Republican stands on issues ranging from free trade to the Iraq War to socialized medicine, which partially explains how his pluralities more easily defeated a large field of far more qualified challengers, and he’ll routinely switch sides and insist that he’d been on the same side all along.
Neither candidate seems at all concerned about the nation’s unaffordable debt, much less expressed a willingness to address the entitlement programs that is driving it, and both seem to have the disastrous belief they can expand the economy enough to solve that problem their own brilliant micro-management. The Democrat has a long foreign record in public that includes four years as Secretary of State, which were disastrous in countless ways, the Republican has no public service record at all but routinely lies about his past pronouncements and spouts all sorts of crazy conspiracy theories and has openly mused about not fulfilling America’s treaty obligations. Both are protectionist, although the Democrat was sort of forced into that by her full-blown nutcase of a self-describes socialist challenger and probably won’t go so far with it as to upset her Wall Street backers, while the Republican seems to have arrived at this very un-Republican position on his own and has consistently stuck with his belief that any trade deal in the history of the country he didn’t negotiate is a loser. The Democrat is more friendly to illegal immigration than the Republican, but by the time she gets done “triangulating” and he gets done “softening” that might prove a wash, and in any case it doesn’t seem the all-important issue it was back during the Republican primaries.
Our guess is that it comes down to which nominee the public finds more personally loathsome, and we can’t blame any pundit who declines to guess how that comes out. Which is basically where we find our country on this day after Labor Day, when the public supposedly starts paying serious attention to the such matters. There are also the Libertarian Gary Johnson and The Green Party’s Jill Stein in the mix, and although neither of them will be the next president they do make the race even tighter, and somehow even weirder, which is saying something, but that just makes a pundit’s job all the harder.
We’ll probably wind up writing in some pointless protest vote, and leaving it to the rest of you to decide which candidate is more loathsome, but at least you’re caught up to this point, more or less.

— Bud Norman

The Sanders Series Comes to an End

The strange saga of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ quixotic presidential campaign came to its inevitable inglorious end on Tuesday, and we have to admit that we’re sorry to see the series finale of such a compelling reality show. Sanders is a self-described socialist and an absolute kook whose policies would surely be the Venezuelan-style ruination of America, and it’s slightly discomfiting to our red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalist souls that his campaign went so far into the July of an election year even in the Democratic Party, but there was a certain endearing quality to his kookiness and it was always great fun to see him bedevil that awful woman who had been picked by the party bosses before the battle even began.
All kids dug the balding and white-haired 70-something throwback to an Old Left that they didn’t even know had been supplanted by a New Left, even the gray-haired New Left throwbacks we know from the local arts and hipster scenes were “Feeling the Bern,” and our atypically homosexual and Democratic neighborhood here in an otherwise reliably Republican city in a reliably Republican state has long been sprouting “Bernie 2016” yard signs like dandelions, and even we found something endearing even if discomfiting about him. The best explanation in every case is that Sanders is indeed “authentic,” something that both parties and much of the rest of the country seems quite enamored of after so many years of politicians reading from poll-tested and focus-grouped texts, and neither we nor any of our more liberal friends ever once doubted that he quite sincerely believed all that nonsense he was shouting. He’d long been poor and never been conspicuously rich, despite a long career in politics he was so cleanly outside the party system he wasn’t even a Democrat until he sought the party’s nomination, and despite all the wacky anecdotes about his dirt-floor days and a family history that used to be considered scandalous and of course those ruinous policies no one has come up with anything on him that smacks of hypocrisy.
Which we’d like to think is the main reason he so long bedeviled that awful woman whose victory was already determined when Sanders started tilting at those Democratic windmills. Presumptive Democratic nominee and former First Lady and Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is the epitome of a politician reading from a poll-tested and focus-grouped text, and she’s never been as poor as she likes to brag about and she’s become very rich from her long tenure in the political process, and at this point even most Democrats will admit she might or might not believe any of that slightly-more-mainstream kookiness she’s spouting. It endears us to our Democratic friends that they still take such character issues in account, even as if discomfits us that they prefer a self-described socialist.
We can well imagine our Democratic friends’ pain as they watched their anti-establishment hero formally endorse the nomination of the establishment’s pre-ordained candidate on Tuesday, siding with a woman he had rightly denounced as aligned with the nefarious Wall Street sorts at the uppermost tier of every Democrats’ demonology, and accurately pointed out had voted for the Iraq War that the arch-demon George W. Bush had lied us into, and so far they seem rather sore about it. The “comments” section on our former employer The Kansas City Star’s story features people so miffed about it they’re vowing to vote for presumptive Republican nominee Donald J. Trump, and other media have logged similar threats by the rank and file, and for the now the storyline even in the most Democratic outlets is that there’s party disunity afoot. Trump is already talking and “tweeting” about the undeniably rigged process that handed Clinton the nomination, even if she did win a majority of the primary and caucus votes, and making explicit appeals to the disgruntled supporters of a self-described socialist. He can legitimately make the case that he’s on board with that storyline about Bush lied and people died and sticks to his illegitimate claim that he knew better, but the self-described billionaire will be harder pressed to make an economic case to a bunch of kids who liked all the free stuff that Sanders was offering to be paid for by awful billionaires without exacerbating the disunity in his own formerly conservative party.
Our best guess is that some of those Sanders supporters will wind up voting for the Green Party’s admittedly authentic and scandal-free-except-for-being-a-kook Jill Stein, some will wind up voting for Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson, whose economic platform is the antithesis of the self-described socialist’s but is for legalized marijuana, which is likely to come in handy during the coming years no matter how this all turns out, few will vote for Trump and most will wind up glumly voting for Clinton. Sanders has volunteered his efforts to Clinton’s campaign, and if his fans aren’t so loyal that they’d vote for him even if he shot someone on Fifth Avenue they’ll probably follow him to the polls to vote against Trump. The possibility of a Trump presidency strikes the same terror in the soul of a Democrat that the possibility of a Clinton presidency does in a Republican soul, and that’s how the race is shaping up despite Sanders’ best efforts.
Even in the abject defeat of that awkward appearance with Clinton Tuesday, Sanders’ quixotic campaign has slewed a couple of windmills along the way. He’s dragged Clinton and the rest of the party to the left on such kooky ideas as free college education, the by now bi-partiasan consensus for protectionist trade policies, ever more profligate deficit spending, and henceforth being a self-described socialist and admitted agnostic won’t be immediately disqualifying traits in at least one of the country’s two major parties. It’s not much of a legacy, but it was interesting to watch.

— Bud Norman

Hillary and the Dog That Didn’t Bark

Former First Lady and Senator and Secretary of State and presumptive First Woman President Hillary Clinton was barking like a dog on the campaign trail the other day, and lest you think that’s some sexist slur please understand that she was quite literally barking like a dog. The bit got a good laugh from her fans, who are so humorless they’ve kept a straight face through all her explanations about her e-mails and Benghazi and the numerous other Clinton family scandals, and it was approvingly noted by the liberal press, which is eager to show her lighter side, while the more conservative media made sport of it. Donald J. Trump, the foul-mouthed real-estate-and-gambling-and-professional-wrestling-and-reality-show carnival barker who is currently leading the Republican field, seemed to find it undignified.
We found the impression a failed but harmless attempt at humor, and hardly worth mentioning, but we wish more attention was paid to what she was barking about.
After recalling an ad that once ran on rural Arkansas radio featuring a dog that would bark whenever a candidate said something untrue, sounding very folksy as she related the story, Clinton said “I want to figure out how we can do that with Republicans. We need to get that dog to follow them around and every time they say things like ‘Oh, the great recession was caused by too much regulation, then ‘bark, bark, bark.'” The crowd roared its approval, of course, but they failed to realize the joke is on them.
Any competent lie-detecting dog would not be only barking furiously at the implied argument that the great recession was caused by too little regulation, it would be straining at its leash and salivating for blood, and Clinton surely knows this better than most. The last round of significant financial de-regulation was signed into law during the administration of her hound dog husband, former President Bill Clinton, and the subsequent Republican administration added the countless regulations of Sarbanes-Oxley and countless regulators to enforce them, and the banks didn’t make hundreds of billions of dollars of loans to people with little chance of paying them off because the Republicans had deviously repealed some rule against it but rather because Clinton’s husband’s administration coerced and cajoled and incentivized them to do so in the name of fairness. At first the policy fed a housing bubble that seemed to make the entire country richer, and those suckers with the subprime mortgages were able to stay afloat on the rising real estate tide, and Clinton successfully ran for the Senate bragging about it, but eventually it all came crashing down into a very well regulated pile.
The notion that greedy Wall Street bankers eager to get rich by making hundreds of billions of dollars of loans that were unlikely to ever be paid back were to blame, and that even more government coercion and cajoling and incentivizing were therefore required, quickly became the widely accepted story. Even Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain went along with it, and the dissenting voices with their facts and arguments and lack of any recognizable villains other than well-intentioned government servants were quickly drowned out in the boos. Now it’s just one of those things that every knows even though it’s not at all true, much like that “Bush lied, people died” theory of the Iraq War that even the current front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination is peddling, and at this point Clinton’s barking dog shtick will be very difficult to refute.
Still, we’d like to see someone in the Republican field make a stab at it, and not just by mocking the barking dog impersonation. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is still defending the free market system, and he does some pretty convincing impersonations of characters from “The Princess Bride” and “The Simpsons,” so perhaps he’s up to the task. The boastful billionaire front-runner is more inclined to criticize Wall Street’s greed than the regulators’ good intentions, the rest of the field seems reluctant to champion that good old red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalism that doesn’t make bad loans even for fairness’ sake, and we certainly can’t expect the unfashionable truth from the self-described socialist who is currently the front-runner in the Democratic race.
All in all, it’s enough to make us barking mad.

— Bud Norman

What Seven Years of Hope and Change Have Wrought

After seven years and a month or so of Hope and Change the country is in such a foul mood that it’s threatening to elect either a bumbling socialist revolutionary or a bullying crony-capitalist reality TV star, but President Barack Obama is still keeping his chin up. Returning Wednesday to the city where he launched his first presidential campaign, back in those halcyon days when a hopeful nation first cast its eyes on his heroically-upturned chin and all the young hipsters were chanting his name, Obama spoke with his usual telepromptered eloquence about the current state of politics as if he were once again levitating above that messy fray.
Although he claimed with a straight face that “I still believe in a politics of hope,” Obama nonetheless rued the nastiness of the contests between his would-be successors. With a bipartisan ambiguity, and no names mentioned, he intoned that “We’ve got to build a better politics. One that’s less of a spectacle and more of a business.” Then he launched into some talk about campaign financing and voting restrictions and gerrymandering, meaning that he wants government-regulated speech and rampant voter fraud and differently gerrymandered districts, and of course some laments about petty bickering. He added that “In America, politicians should not pick their voters, voters should pick their politicians,” which might have been an allusion to those fishy Iowa Democratic caucus results and all those “super delegates” that have padded Hillary Clinton’s advantage despite her lack of popularity so far with Democratic voters, but probably not. His talk of “spectacle” might have been an oblique reference to Donald J. Trump, the aforementioned bullying crony-capitalist reality TV star and current Republican-frontrunner, and probably was.
Still, Obama was ambiguous enough to levitate above that messy fray, and the fawning account of the speech in Time Magazine was happy to sustain the illusion. The reporters wrote of the fresh-faced young candidate of that long-ago campaign and contrasted it with his “graying hair and a face wrinkled by the stress of the job,” as if they can be sure it isn’t a result of too many after-dark parties and sun-drenched golf rounds, and how he is “again hoping to rally Americans around in believing that the country’s politics can must be better.” The New York Times’ putative token conservative columnist had already beaten them to that telegraphed punch with a fawning love song about Obama’s scandal-free dignity, and we expect to hear a lot more of that from all sorts of media and historians and documentarians over the coming months and years, but of course it’s all bosh.
All that talk of Hope-and-Change was always interspersed with talk of if-they-bring-a-knife-we-bring-a-gun and get-in-their-faces and punish-your-enemies and and speaks rudely of corporate jet-flying billions and typical white people their gun-and-Bible-clinging ways and everything else in Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals” playbook, not to mention passing the likes of Obamacare without a single Republican vote, and all that punishment the Internal Revenue Service inflicted on the president’s enemies, and the subsidies lavished on his campaign bundlers’ phony-baloney and soon-to-be-bankrupt “green energy” scams, and all those executive actions he took to get around the Congress that the voters voted for, so the inevitable results are the garish spectacles now on display in both parties.
We can well understand why the president might resent hearing all the hipsters chant the name of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a bumbling old socialist who’s somehow so hip and up to date he doesn’t feel the need to pretend he’s not a socialist, as the suddenly stodgy and wrinkled Obama still does, especially when it’s a cranky old geezer with no hip-hop cred who freely admits the economy that Obama brags about is actually awful, but we wonder what he might have expected. His own election was celebrated by the doomed Newsweek with a headline bragging “We’re all socialists now,” his best explanation for why he wasn’t a socialist was that even such a right-wing conservative as that all-purpose scapegoat President George W. Bush had brought about that Medicare prescription drug plan and all sorts of other socialistic sorts of things, no one in his party can any longer explain the difference between a Democrat and a socialist, he’s a proud product of an academic establishment that’s been carefully laying the ground work for a socialist revolution the past 50 years or so, and the economy is indeed lousy enough for a more frank socialist to call it the long-awaited Crisis of Capitalism.
The only candidate that’s proudly promising another four years of Obama is his former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is also a former First Lady and Senator and a longtime fixture of the Democratic party’s lucrative crony capitalist yet vaguely socialistic establishment, and the fact that she’s been bloodied by a bumbling and even older old socialist such as Sanders doesn’t say much for him. There’s that ongoing scrutiny by the Federal Bureau of Investigation over a unsecured e-mail system that he sent correspondence through, all the Wall Street money that both of them took, and the Dodd-Frank regulations that enriched their contributors even as they’re both trying to claim it as a great victory for the anti-Wall Street crowd, and the lies they both told about the deadly attacks on an American consulate in Libya, which Democrats don’t care much about but still feed into a general cynicism about the establishment, so another four years of Obama is now a hard sell even to Democrats. Obama could still let that FBI investigation run its rightful course and then install some candidate more to his liking with the help of all those “super-delegates” that are currently padding Clinton’s numbers, but he’s now assured he thinks the voters should choose their politicians.
There’s plenty of “spectacle” on the Republican side, too, and we also blame Obama for that. After seven years and a month or so of Hope of Change and a socialism that dare not speak its name, an effective plurality of Republican voters have settled on a bullying crony-capitalist reality TV star who always brings a gun to a knife fight, gets in people’s faces, punishes his enemies, tells his vanquished opponents to sit in the back, is a billionaire with the biggest corporate jet this side of Air Force One with his name emblazoned in capital letters, and is a gambling mogul and proud adulterer who boasts of the politicians he’s bought off and claims to speak for typical gun-and-Bible-clinging white folk. He’s switched parties more often than he’s traded in his wives, and would apparently prefer something more socialistic than the Obamacare law that was passed without any Republican votes, but by gum, at least he fights, and after seven years of Hope and Change that’s good enough for a plurality of Republican voters. Trump is a reality TV star, too, and after seven years of Hope and Change and presidential appearances on the late night comedy shows there’s something comfortingly familiar about that.
Still, Obama and his scribes at Time and The New York Times and all those historians and documentarians will probably be able to cast a flattering light on his wizened visage and fondly recall all the telepromptered eloquence about bipartisan compromise and political civility and moderation, and with any luck the next big terrorist attack and the inevitable economic catastrophe won’t happen until the bumbling old socialist or her corrupt and incompetent rival or that bullying crony-capitalist reality TV star or some more right-wing cowboy are installed in office. From this point on, he levitates above the messy fray he’s created.

— Bud Norman