Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Make America Great Again

You can tell he's stupid because his lips are moving
This is, as you surely are aware, Donald Trump's campaign slogan. It always strikes me in a number of ways as being kind of tone deaf and off-putting. First of all, why aren't all the other Republican 'American Exceptionalism' candidates shrieking that America is the greatest country in the universe, and Donald is saying we're NOT great? I suspect because even they don't want to claim an America lead by that noted Marxist/Kenyan/Nazi Barack Hussein Obama could possibly be great, even if it America, which is always great. Or something.

But what is that Trump is saying? What would make America great again? Why, it's about growth, and business, and trade, and making good deals, and creating jobs, and building infrastructure - Walls, lots and lots of WALLS - and deportations, and military power, and threatening adversaries, and threatening allies, and all the other things you'd expect when you combine entitlement, bluster and ignorance.

Now, ask yourself: What do all these things have in common? Money. They all cost money. Trump is essentially talking about undertaking a series of large-scale investments, to the tune of several trillion dollars over two terms. Plus, he's now proposing very large deficit financed tax cuts. Of course, he just waves that off - he's too SMART to have investments cost money - but we know that's just because he's a.) too lazy to actually do any research and b.) dishonest enough to be willing to promise everyone a free pony.  This at the same time he's claiming to be a great businessman, and he can't even speak to the value of good investments because of the Republican government spending obsession.

But there's the key trade-off in modern American politics. What will government do, and what will legislators fund? We're making a series of desperately poor decisions now, around how to fund the Highways and choosing NOT to fund infrastructure and R&D/Big Science projects. The refusal of the institutional Republican party to allocate any resources while everything just gets older and we fall farther behind is the most frustrating thing to watch I can imagine.

So here comes The Donald, saying no, no, we CAN do all these things, we just don't need to actually PAY for them. Donald Trump will not be the President of the United States, but people would do well to think about what he's saying - not the self-aggrandizing nonsense, but the part about how we need to invest in our own future, and we need to start NOW.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Today in Pointless Destabilization

Let's start with this - nuclear weapons policy is desperately important. We're fooling around on the edge of extinction, and we need to be very certain we understand what we're doing and how it's being interpreted around the world. And the current bloodthirsty arrogance of the American and Russian leadership - coupled with the beligerent assertiveness of the increasingly capable Chinese military is frightening in this context.

During the cold war, the US and Russia, along with minor contributions from Europe and China, learned to use their nuclear arsenals to prevent nuclear war. It was a thing nobody wanted - if you can't win, what's the point in even playing? So elaborate signaling and systems grew up, even as systems evolved to the incredibly dangerous "Launch on Warning" standard we still carry today. But even so, when something went pear-shaped - and it did fairly often - they were able to avoid the most obvious, and horrific, outcome.

 The problem is, as technology advanced, the window for decision making got shorter, and we're now faced with a condition where it would be very easy for the situation to outpace our ability to manage it. And yet, the cold-war logic holds even today, if we operate within its constraints. Here's what you can't do - you can't build a system that takes you out of the 'MAD' - Mutually Assured Destruction - construct. As long as we sink or swim together, we can work together to prevent the use of strategic nuclear weapons. The situation is destabilized, however, when one side or the other has a qualitative advantage that would permit it to launch an effective preemptive strike that effectively 'wins' a nuclear exchange by preventing substantial retaliatory strikes by the targeted country.

There are exactly two ways you can do this - using anti-missile technology to render your nation invulnerable to ICBMs or to develop a weapon/delivery platform combination that would allow you to eliminate your opponents strategic capacity without warning. This combination of stealth, accuracy and weapon effectiveness is much more likely to find itself in play than some kind of imaginary missile defense system.

Which brings us to the US Nuclear Weapons Policy. The Obama administration has affirmed that they will not develop 'new' weapons, but just where the line between updates and modifications to existing designs and entirely new weapons is can be difficult to agree on. A nuclear weapon is comprised of the nuclear explosive element itself, called the 'physics package', the mechanisms that render it safe until they actually detonate it, and the 'packaging', the functional bomb or missile itself. If you retain the same physics package, but you add modern digital control circuitry and an advanced guidance and delivery package, is that a new weapon, or just an upgrade to an existing weapon?

That is the effective description of the B61-12. The US has had the B61 thermonuclear gravity bomb in inventory for decades. It's always had a few key features - variable yield technology, and limited accuracy. The B61-11, fielded in 1997, was built in a ground penetrator 'bunker buster' configuration. The B61-12 is the same 'physics package', but packaged in a modern precision-guided gravity bomb and deliverable from stealth aircraft like the B-2 and the F-35. This combination of stealth, precision and low yield make it ideal for decapitation and anti-nuclear first strikes, which makes it inherently destabilizing. When the Russians have to realize that the first they would know about a US first strike would be the destruction of the Kremlin or their missile silos, their finger is going to be that much tighter on their own nuclear trigger.

So we have to ask: Why? Why do US forces see a need to turn a 1970s era gravity bomb into the most destabilizing nuclear weapons system in the world? What problem are they solving with the B61-12? The answer is as obvious as it is frightening. They are working not to preserve a strategic 'balance of terror', but rather their own budgets. They have to walk a fine line, being able to plausibly claim these are mere upgrades of existing weapons, but the only way they can deliver an upgrade is to turn a city-killer into a silo-killer. And make no mistake, the Russians and Chinese are watching very closely.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Slouching Toward Armageddon

End Game for al-Assad - for the rest of them
there will be no end to the killing
The issue is no longer in doubt. Syria is falling. The al-Assad regime no longer has the personnel and military organizations to effectively fight the various forces in action in the North around Aleppo. There are currently ISIS, al Nusra, Kudish forces and the loose aggregation of insurgents often referred to as the 'Free Syrian Army', or simply as 'Syrian Rebels' in combat with each other and the Syrian Armed Forces, but after nearly five years of non-stop warfare, the Syrian loyalist troops are depleted, exhausted and frightened. One of the advantages the Islamist groups have is al-Assad's forces bowel-loosening fear of getting captured by them. The loyalist troops will abandon their positions long before the fight is over, just to make sure they make it back to the next secure town or village before they get overrun.

Bashir al-Assad and the mostly Alawite Ba'ath leadership has had ongoing support from Russia and Iran. The reasons for this support are complex, but the simple explanation is that Russia needs Syria because it provides them with a proxy state in the Middle East and Iran is supporting the government because, as Alawites, they are Shi'ite Muslims, and the opposition is almost entirely Sunni.

So with the government forces on the run, losing territory to ISIS in the East and Syrian Rebel forces and al-Nusra in the West, it is not surprising that both Russia and Iran would step up their support. Russia is particularly concerned about the rebels westward advance. Idlib fell in March, and Jisr al-Shughur in April, and now the rebels are only ten kilometers from the Mediterranean seacoast, and only 20 kilometers from Syria's primary port, Latakia. Even worse for the Russians, their only naval base on the Med is at Tartus, just another 84 kilometers down the coast road. Meanwhile, Iran needs a friendly Syrian government to retain access to Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.

So Russia has undertaken a buildup of their own frontline equipment, including tanks, APCs, attack helicopters and modern multi-role fighter jets. There's even some evidence that they've brought in advanced air defense systems, the significance of which we'll get to in a minute. It seems pretty obvious that this is a precursor to the deployment of Russian combat troops in Syria in support of Bashar al-Assad and his core leadership group. The justification will be they are fighting ISIS and the other Islamist militants - hmm, that sounds awfully familiar - but make no mistake: They are there because the Syrian army no longer has the combat power to hold on to their remaining territory.

So this will bring Russians, Syrians, Kurds, ISIS/Nusra, Hezbollah, Gulf States and American militaries into close proximity in a combat zone. And why do the Russians need anti-air defenses? ISIS doesn't have any air assets, and neither do the Kurds. The only combat air assets in theater will be Syrian, Russian and American/Allied - and occasionally Israeli. The likelihood of a fatal accident or mis-calculation is very high.

When the Syrian revolution started, the world thought it was just another Arab Spring uprising against an authoritarian dictatorship. What we forgot to notice is how strategic Syria was to a large number of powerful external entities. And no matter what happens - if the Ba'ath leadership can hold on to power and some territory or not, if al - Assad clings to power or steps aside, if the Damascus perimeter holds or if the capital city falls  - Syria will remain a war torn failed state for many years to come. The refugees will continue to stream out of the area, the the Iraqi and Syrian borders will be erased and the region will continue its spiral into chaos and desperation. Only now we also have an opportunity for it to explode into a major powers confrontation and an unpredictable and dangerous regional war.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

The Shutdown Express Rolls Into Town Again

Actually, no, we're not sorry at all
Stop me if you've heard this one before. The fiscal year ends in a couple weeks, on September 30th, and we are once again hearing a chorus of voices threatening to refuse to fund the US government if their ideological demands aren't met. As usual these demands are so extreme and so toxic that they can't accomplish them with legislation, so the only path they have is political terrorism. Do the incredibly unpopular things we demand or we'll blow up the entire system. This time it's not the deficit, and it's not Obamacare. Oh no. This time it's orders of magnitude more extreme and stupid than those - this time it's Planned Parenthood.

Planned Parenthood is a very popular reproductive health services delivery program, depended on by well over 100 million Americans every year. Virtually nobody who isn't a privileged white male fascist wants to see Planned Parenthood defunded. But beyond that, it's unclear what they even mean when they say they want to defund Planned Parenthood. They shriek that Planned Parenthood gets HALF A BILLION DOLLARS A YEAR from the government - and that's  sort of true. As a non-profit organization, PP reports its revenue every year, and they did receive over $500 million from federal, state and local governments. But here's the thing. Over $400 million of that, about 80%, was Medicaid reimbursements. In other words, it wasn't the government giving money to Planned Parenthood, it was a government insurance program reimbursing doctors for perfectly legal and important health care work. 71 million Planned Parenthood patients are covered by Medicaid. Are they suggesting they could pass legislation preventing Medicaid from reimbursing doctors if they see patients under the auspices of Planned Parenthood? Even without a Democratic filibuster or a Presidential veto, I just don't see how you could even write, let alone pass, a bill like that.

Now, this time around, the Republican leadership is no longer delusional - they are quite sanguine in their acknowledgment that it is their party and their candidates that will suffer if they shut down the government again. But they are also terrified - they know that if they don't find a way to at least appear to go along with Ted Cruz and his band of thugs, they could lose their positions within the legislature, and they could even lose their seats. The sop they're throwing the tea party loonies is a hopeless and probably unconstitutional bill banning abortions after 20 weeks. But the rabble is up in arms over a very specific entity - Planned Parenthood - and at this point it doesn't look like the leadership can talk them down with another hopeless tilt at the abortion windmill.

At any rate, we'll see how it all plays out over the next eighteen days or so.

Note: But politics watchers, don't despair. The budget will work itself out either at the last minute or after a short, ugly shutdown, probably with another short term continuing resolution. But that doesn't mean the high wire act is over. Oh no. Remember, we hit the debt ceiling back in March, but the usual 'extraordinary measures' employed by the Treasure coupled with $40 billion more in taxes collected than expected has allowed the government to limp along. Nobody can say when they'll need to raise the cap, but most observers are looking at November. So another bloody debt ceiling fight looms around Thanksgiving, so keep your popcorn handy.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Is Abnormal the New Normal?

Allow me to introduce...A box of particularly
dense hammers...
The Federal Reserve Open Market Committee will meet on September 16th. There is an increasing clamor for, and increasing indications of an interest rate hike. Unemployment is down to 5.1%, they say, the economy is growing, and this darn zero percent interest thing is just downright weird. We are looking for a way to get rates 'back to normal'. There are English language words for this position, words that include 'specious' and 'stupid'. Interest rates remain well below even the meager target of 2% and wage growth is flat, indicating additional slack in the labor market. And yet the Fed is itching to raise rates, despite tremendous risk, because they are just plain uncomfortable with the zero rate.

Their lack of 'comfort' with the Zero Lower Bound, and their desire for something arbitrary that they choose to define as normal, is a ridiculous basis to undertake something so fraught with risk and second-order ramifications as an interest rate hike. If the economy is indeed growing, low cost of capital is a good reason for that to be the case, and with below target inflation and minimal wage growth, it's clear that the economy is nowhere near overheating, that unemployment has farther to fall, and that putting on the brakes at this point with the weakness in both Europe and Asia risks giving back all the slowly earned gains of the last two years. All because they're uncomfortable with a number.

Think about that - the people who run American monetary policy, who are supposed to be some of the most accomplished an thoughtful economists in the world, these people are going to do something that is at a minimum controversial, and beyond that is widely recognized to be stupid and destructive. All because they want things to be 'normal' as they've experienced it over their lifetimes.

So many catastrophic decisions in the US have been self-inflicted wounds. Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, the government shutdowns - stupid decisions made for stupid reasons and yet they keep calling them governance. The lesson we've failed to learn is that ideology is not a governing principle, because governing requires negotiation and compromise, and ideology by definition prevents compromise.

Yes. Interest rates are at zero. And they ought to be, as inflation is well below target and wages aren't rising. This is the textbook reason for keeping rates low. And the Fed lunatics don't dispute that - they just want to raise rates because that would make them 'comfortable' that things are moving towards 'normal'. And this is what we've come to call governance in the 21st century.

Is it sad or frightening? It's very hard to believe, but the Federal Reserve - an independent entity not subject to control from the political leadership - is willing to point a gun to the head of the recovery for no quantifiable reason. There's something particularly chilling about the self-inflicted wound, the economic equivalent of cutting or suicide. A clear understanding on an intellectual level that what you're doing is wrong, but an equally clear personal and ultimately meaningless reason for doing it. All the while, secure in the knowledge that it's not the Board of Governors that will suffer for their misguided attempt to find their own economic comfort zone, it is millions of Americans who's jobs and futures are at immediate risk from this selfish and disreputable decision.

It's not too late, but they've made it pretty clear. This is something they're going to do, sooner rather than later, not because the numbers call for it - quite the contrary - but because they WANT to and regardless of the havoc that results, they've made it very clear that at least THEY will feel better for it.

THIS is the state of governance in 2015.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

The Killing Comes Home

Just STOP fucking killing us
Actually, the beast has been at my doorstep before. Just over the bridge, the bastards murdered Oscar Grant on New Years Day 2009. But that was the East Bay - they have real racial problems over there, racist cops, a lot of minorities, a history, you know? This is Silicon Valley - Home of Intel, of San Jose State University, the beating heart of the tech revolution, the font of so much wealth and success. How could the beast come here to feed?

And yet.

And yet, once again, early on Thursday morning, three so-called 'correctional officers' - nothing but thugs and gangsters with a government sanction and a license to kill savagely beat Michael Tyree - a homeless bipolar kid being held on a nothing paraphernalia charge until a bed in a mental health facility opened up - to death. The inmate in the next cell heard the beating, and watched them turn out the light and close the cell door, leaving Michael Tyree to bleed out slowly from his torn and ruptured organs.

The Santa Clara Sheriff's office knows exactly which way the wind is blowing. The three officers were promptly charged with Tyree's "cowardly" murder (Sheriff Smith's words) arrested and held without bail. That's the good news - the free pass that uniformed law enforcement personnel have enjoyed to kill, torture, maim, injure and humiliate the citizens they are responsible for protecting is slowly ending. Accountability, at least in some jurisdictions, is coming.

Of course, there is a true gang mentality within law enforcement organizations, and it's going to take a while for the new realities to sink in, and more will die hard before the murderers, bullies and thugs figure out that they very well might NOT get away with it. Meanwhile they push back, characterizing the disgust people feel when the cops kill the citizens as a 'war on cops'.  It's a well known and oft-used tactic to try to silence the people trying to upset their apple cart, but I don't think it will work this time.

We've had it. 

We've had it right up to here with criminals killing us on one side and cops killing us on the other. We've had it will living in a crossfire, surrounded by the various heavily armed gangs who think they can kill us with impunity. War on cops? Nah. War on COPS KILLING US. And all it takes is doing what we do, prosecuting murderers. As soon as the bullies and thugs in the blue uniforms realize that they are going to be held to the same legal standard as the 'dirtbags' they lord over, they'll have to behave the way they're supposed to, or switch sides.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Democrats: Be Careful What You Wish For

He's for equality. That's great. Is it too much to
ask how he plans on governing?
Hey, I get it. You don't love Hillary Clinton. She's part of the system, she's been a little slippery, the press hates her, and c'mon, where there's smoke there's fire, right? She's friendly with the banks, she's a foreign policy hawk - hell, she voted with the odious GW Bush to invade Iraq in a pointless self-inflicted policy wound. I get your concerns, but you need to think very carefully about where you're going with this.

Bernie Sanders can't get elected. If Hillary is crippled, Bernie still won't get the support of the national party organization. So we either end up with a crippled Hillary Clinton or an unelectable Bernie Sanders as the nominee. How is that good?

The question is simply this: What is the goal? None of these people are people we WANT to be President. 'But mikey', you say, 'you're wrong. I WANT President Sanders.' But you really don't know that. Let me remind you of history - you thought Obama would be the liberal savior - I know, you don't remember it that way now, but I was there. I KNOW what you said. Constitutional Scholar, community organizer, everything he said led you to believe he would do great things to advance the liberal agenda.


But the realities of reality left you unhappy. He stayed in Afghanistan. He couldn't close Guantanamo Bay. He put troops back on the ground in Iraq. He routinely assassinates people with CIA drones without even knowing who they are. He never prosecuted the bankers that blew up the financial system and then took taxpayer money to cover their stupidity and greed (even though the President isn't a prosecutor and can't really do more than define a broad enforcement agenda through his Attorney General).

So I invite you to go to Bernie Sanders' campaign website. Here, let me help you. Now, I invite you to tell me where he stands on a broad measure of foreign, economic and taxation policies. Because he either has no idea or he's not willing to tell us. Either way, bear in mind, you  trusted Barak Obama, are you really prepared to just blindly trust Bernie Sanders? Even now, in an interview with Stephanopoulos on Sunday, he said he'd continue the drone assassination program.

But even worse, if Sanders was to get the nomination, I can already see the campaign advertising screaming 'Socialist'. And this time they wouldn't be pretending - he identifies that way. And if you think Americans are going to elect a self-described Socialist to the White House, you are living in an alternate reality. If Bernie Sanders is the nominee, Scott Walker is your next President of the United States. And you'll cry 'no, it's not my fault, I was just being true to my beliefs', while all the while you KNEW that none of the choices were optimal and you created the conditions where the right wing lunatics were able to take control of all three branches of government.

Fucking congratulations.

This is a game that has to be played for real, and pretending you can get what you want is infantile. The people who reach the pinnacle of American politics are not nice, and they owe a lot of quid to a lot of pro quo. You're not going to get the workers paradise you long for - America is a harsh place, filled with angry, delusional, frightened people who will thwart your desire. All things considered, Obama was pretty good. He made some real progress, and there's more to come. He did what he could with the legislative path closed off to him. Don't forget that the next president may appoint as many as FOUR supreme court justices. You may not love Hillary Clinton, and you may loathe the DNC, but if you read Paul Ryan's budget and listen to Lindsay Graham's pants-wetting rhetoric and Bobby Jindal's idiocy, if you take note of the popularity of the spittle-spewing anger inchoate that is Donald Trump, you might decide that, as a political priority, getting Ms. Clinton elected might just be an undertaking worth considering.

Look. At the end of the day, it's your vote. You can use it tactically, strategically, ideologically or just mindlessly. Nobody can tell you how to use it, and if they try you should kick them in the junk. I'm just here to implore you to think about the secondary and knock-on effects of enough votes in enough places. If you're ok with that, great. Pull that lever. But don't try to pretend you didn't know what outcome you were creating. You can't kill your parents and then ask for mercy because you're an orphan.