Trump’s First 100 Days

Of course the main news event of the moment is that Saturday April 29 marks Donald Trump’s first hundred days as President, which is remarkable first because we’re all still alive.

But as historians know, the reason we use “the 100 days” as a benchmark is that during the first one hundred days of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first term as president, he addressed the 1933 bank crisis by establishing the first federal deposit insurance system, started the Tennessee Valley Authority and created an emergency relief system for the poor during the Depression (which eventually led to the Social Security Administration). Since then American media have used FDR’s example, where the start of his administration set the stage for modern government, to compare to every other president’s opening days, especially when a president like Trump comes in promising to shake things up.

As it turns out, Trump has stated (on Twitter, naturally) that the 100-day benchmark is a “ridiculous standard.” I would say that Trump has a point there, but it turns out this is yet another case where he directly contradicted something he said as part of his campaign statements.  In any case, he did indeed promise much. And while he has until either the end of his term or the end of his impeachment trial to make his final mark, the general consensus is that not only has he not accomplished much compared to other presidents at this point, he certainly has not accomplished much compared to his own boastful agenda leading up to inauguration.

As they did during the 2016 campaign, Democrats perhaps overstate the case for how uniquely awful Trump is compared to the rest of the Republican Party. Any other Republican would have presented a tax reform that favored rich individuals and corporations over the middle class and working poor. Any other Republican would have nominated a technically qualified but politically conservative judge like Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, and the Democrats would have still acted like it was the end of the world.

(The fact is, even pragmatic conservatives have to skew to the extreme to get the kind of Justice they want. After all, everybody expected John Roberts to be a hardcore conservative, and he ended up saving Obamacare. Twice. )

But it was Trump who demanded an immediate plan for a border wall that nobody else wanted and nobody else wanted to pay for. Including Congress.  It was Trump who proactively decided to threaten North Korea with a carrier group that apparently wasn’t even near Korea.  And while all the Republicans in Congress yelled about doing “repeal and replace” on Obamacare, Trump attached himself to an immediate repeal effort before a replacement was finalized (or apparently even conceived) resulting in conflict within the Republican party over whether the new health plan should remove Obamacare restrictions (and thus cost more money) or be that much more restrictive and save money (and thus defeat the purpose of covering the previously uninsured). That in turn led to Trump setting up a threat to vote for a repeal or face reprisal in the midterms. The fact that Republicans were willing to let the bill die rather than vote for it indicates they were more afraid of reprisal from voters if they HAD approved it. Which ultimately demonstrated, on an issue of vital importance to both Trump and his party, that his power to negotiate a deal is practically nil.

This basically is of a piece with the mindset of a flim-flam man who promises the moon and doesn’t even have moon rocks. The real reason Trump is found wanting in the first hundred days is because his ambitions are far in excess of his capacity to achieve them, which has to do with the mindset he brings to the situation. As the milestone date came near, Trump did a much-quoted interview with Reuters and said  “This is more work than in my previous life. I thought it would be easier.”

Now, nobody actually knows what it’s like to be President until they assume the office. But some presidents, like Reagan and George W. Bush, were former governors. Some, like Obama and LBJ, were former senators. So they had some idea of how this “government” thing works. But Trump not only didn’t have that experience, he didn’t seem to think it was necessary. It probably explains why he has such a rapport with his support base. “Hey, I have a bunch of belligerent opinions and I don’t know what I’m talking about either! This Trump guy, that’s ME!!!”

So again, there is one real and substantial achievement of the first hundred days, and that was Trump’s nomination of Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, though as any liberal will tell you, that’s only because the Republican Senate left the seat open for him. And other than that nomination, it’s unclear whether Republicans regret their allegiance. As it stands, the best things about the start of the Trump Administration are entirely negative:

He hasn’t deprived the previously uninsurable of health coverage. Yet.

He hasn’t been able to fully deprive the rights of legal immigrants. Yet.

And he hasn’t started World War III because the dictator of North Korea hit his hands.


Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Cared?

It is often said that war is how Americans learn geography. But Syria has been a hot spot for several years now and most Americans don’t seem to know why. So in fairly brief terms:

Syria is an Arab country run by Bashar al-Assad, son and successor to the dictator Hafez al-Assad, who took over in 1970 as head of a Baath Party that was a contemporary of Saddam Hussein’s government in Iraq. The elder Assad died in 2000. The country is technically a secular state, partly because Syria is majority Sunni Islam, and the Assad family belong to the Alawite sect which is a minority even within the Shia minority. As a result most Syrian Alawites are firmly behind the government because they know they would face reprisals if Bashar al-Assad lost power. This alignment has also led to the patronage of Shiite Iran and Iran’s ally Russia. However after the “Arab Spring” calls for democracy in the Middle East increased, and when Assad brutally suppressed such protests in Syria, it sparked armed opposition by 2011, escalating into the Syrian Civil War. The resistance started out as relatively liberal. However, in the last few years, evidence has surfaced that Assad has not only de-emphasized operations against fundamentalist groups like Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), he has allowed fighters from al-Qaeda in Iraq to flee to his country during the parallel conflict in Iraq, and actually ceded territory to ISIS in order to build them up as a domestic threat, while he- and his Russian patrons- focused on attacking the Free Syrian Army and local Kurdish groups who are at least partly supported by the United States.  The basic premise of Assad’s campaign to stay in power is to eliminate all alternatives to his rule except ISIS, so as to say, “you HAVE to keep this corrupt, one-party regime in control, or else you’ll be figuratively and literally raped by fundamentalist religious fanatics.”

In other words, the same sales pitch as the Democratic Party. Except Assad has done a lot more to destroy opposition than the Democratic National Committee did to destroy Bernie Sanders.

There is of course another wannabe strongman who got aid from Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Trump Administration has come under increasing scrutiny- even from some Republicans- over what seemed to be suspicious contacts between Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and people who were either connected to the Russian government or directly working for it.  By April 3, the House Intelligence Committee Chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes (R.-California) was himself under suspicion for seeming to run interference on his committee’s own investigation. Then the next day, April 4, the Syrian town of Khan Shaykun, occupied by a fundamentalist militia, suffered a chemical attack with sarin gas, which depending on who you ask was either a Syrian airstrike or the accidental result of a Syrian conventional bombing that struck the militia’s chemical weapons stockpile. The result in any case killed at least 74 and injured hundreds more. This incidentally was not the first time the Syrian government had been credibly accused of gassing its own citizens.  But the Trump Administration reacted harshly.  Secretary of State Rex Tillerson referred to a previous agreement Syria had made to disable chemical weapons stockpiles under Russian supervision, and accurately concluded, “either Russia has been complicit or Russia has been simply incompetent.” And even though on April 8, Tillerson said that “there is no change to our military posture” on April 7, Donald Trump ordered an airstrike of 59 cruise missiles on a Syrian airbase that was (allegedly) the base used for the Khan Shaykun bombing.

It came out, after the airstrike, that Trump’s decision was (allegedly) tipped by the influence of his daughter Ivanka. This was according to Ivanka’s brother Eric, who admitted in an interview that Donald Trump was very much against President Obama taking action in Syria two years ago.  Not to mention, up til April, Mr. Trump had expressed a pretty consistent record of defending Vladimir Putin and his authoritarian tendencies. For instance in a February interview with Bill O’Reilly on Fox News,  when O’Reilly said Putin was a killer, Trump said, “We’ve got a lot of killers. What do you think — our country’s so innocent?” Basically the Noam Chomsky for Dummies approach to history. But suddenly Trump is on TV talking about how “beautiful babies” were killed as though it were suddenly news to him that Putin does bad things and Assad is in his pocket.

If Trump really is that gullible, it only confirms my impression that Donald Trump is what the average Donald Trump voter would be if he had money.

But one thing the airstrikes did do was shift the focus. During MSNBC live coverage of the airstrikes, Brian Williams actually invoked Leonard Cohen in quoting “I am guided by the beauty of our weapons.”  Even Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D.-New York) said “Making sure Assad knows that when he commits such despicable atrocities he will pay a price is the right thing to do.” And polls showed that about 50 to 60 percent of the American public supported the strike, although there was still opposition to further involvement in Syria.

What is actually surprising is that much of the opposition to and suspicion of the attack came from Republican politicians, citing the Administration’s action as being taken without notice to Congress.  Not that it will ultimately amount to anything, because the defining characteristic of the modern Republican is not a defense of capitalism or traditional values, but the willingness to do any degraded and retarded thing that Donald Trump demands that you do. But it truly is remarkable that the Party of Trump is willing to raise as much objection as they have, especially given that it would seem to align them with the traditionally anti-war Left. Indeed, they’re not only displaying more regard for Congress’ warmaking power than the Democrats are now, they’re showing more skepticism than they did under Obama.

It could be that suspicion was sparked by details of the strike after the fact. Two days after the US strike, Syria launched air attacks from the same airbase, using conventional weapons against the same town of Khan Shaykun.  Satellite images reported from various sources indicated that the runways were not damaged. See, in order to minimize casualties – and thus the chance that military action would lead to an escalation with Russia – gave Russia advance notice of the strike to give them- and thus the Syrians- time to evacuate personnel and possibly stockpiles.  Now, the Syrian air force strikes that have occurred since did not use chemical weapons, and the conventional wisdom is that Syria and its patron were sent a message. But if the Russians and Syrians were capable of coordinating with America’s military strike well enough to minimize harm to both humans and the target, then it wasn’t the Russians or Syrians that needed to be sent a message, because clearly the government can communicate well with them. The message was for the various suckers in America, like Brian Williams and the Democratic leadership, who take this kayfabe seriously.

According to MarketWatch, each of the 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles cost about a million dollars each and since Trump owns stock in the manufacturer,  that helped his portfolio, which is of course the main thing that matters to him. Again, according to Eric Trump, “if there was anything Syria did, it was to validate the fact that there is no Russia tie.” But the lack of follow-through on the diplomatic front combined with the lack of further (publicized) military action in Syria means that the initial “shock and awe” of the airstrike gives everyone time to analyze how much or how little it accomplished, and in turn to question exactly how and why things went down the way they did. Not to mention why the Administration took a completely opposite policy from the one that they had held just a few days before in response to a Syrian regime whose use of chemical weapons was well-established. As with almost everything else, the more Trump tries to throw people off the Russia connection, the more obvious it becomes.

Which may be why there’s another war in the making even before whether we know that the first one is going to happen.

North Korea has been a dangerous state in Asia for some time, especially as it has developed nuclear weapons capability. As yet it does not have reliable missiles to strike the United States, though it has threatened to do so for years. There is also a tradition that on the anniversary of the first dictator’s birth, April 15, military parades, displays and tests are held to show the communist regime’s power. It was assumed by many foreign analysts that this year North Korea would engage in another nuclear test simultaneous with the test of an intercontinental missile. (As it turned out, yesterday’s missile test failed seconds after launch.)  But up to that point, the Trump Administration was ratcheting up tensions by sending a carrier force to the Korean Peninsula, with Trump saying “if China is not going to solve North Korea, we will.

In defense of the current Administration, though, the Clinton Administration tried to negotiate with North Korea to stop it from getting nuclear weapons- and ended up giving it the civilian nuclear tech they needed to develop nuclear weapons.  Then both Bush and Obama, to varying degrees, kept the situation on the back burner just hoping it wouldn’t get any worse. But now it has, because this is what happens when you negotiate with a government willing to control its own people through starvation. You can’t negotiate with Kim Jong-un because he’s insane and unreasonable. What we need is a leader who is also insane and unreasonable.

No really. Up til now, no one has had the perspective to understand Kim. We need a negotiator who is also a pudgy, spoiled princeling to approach him on the same level. Donald Trump could bridge that gap. He’d be like Dennis Rodman, only with less natural coloration.

This might be possible because according to another much-quoted news story, Trump was willing to admit that the situation might not be cut and dried after getting a ten-minute “history” lesson from Chinese president Xi Jinping.  Who would have thought that resolving the Korea problem could be so complicated? But then, who thought that healthcare could be so complicated? For that matter, who would have thought that an Easter Egg Roll could be so complicated?

I’m beginning to sense a pattern here.

Some of the more paranoid (and perceptive) leftists have been warning for quite some time that at some point in the near future, especially as Trump’s continuing controversies become more of a liability for him and the Party of Trump, he will engineer some emergency to wrap himself in the flag and seize special powers, similar to what Hitler did after the Reichstag Fire. Now in the last few weeks, the schemes of Trump and the Legion of Doom that he calls a Cabinet have been partially blunted by the checks and balances of our republican democracy, and partly by their sheer incompetence. But if Trump is too incoherent and short-attention-span to be a true fascist, by the same token his willingness to switch tack on the shortest notice means there is no guarantee he won’t start a war with Russia over Syria or with China over Korea, just… because.

The danger is not that Trump will take over by means of a Reichstag Fire ploy. The danger is that he’s going to get us into a war because he doesn’t know what he’s doing.

And on that note…



Don’t Tell Me Paying Taxes Is Patriotic

“It’s NOT stealing! It’s just… using something without paying for it-  in what twisted universe is that ‘stealing’?”

-Willow Rosenberg, Buffy the Vampire Slayer

This week on Facebook I’d posted an article from MSNBC about an asshole Congressman (guess which party) who had to deal with angry peasants taxpayers at a town hall, and objecting to the idea that they, the people, pay his salary, on the grounds that he pays his own salary through his taxes, presumably including the taxes he paid over a lifetime before becoming a federal employee who gets his income through taxes. The first comment on the post was a conservative friend who said (quoting indirectly) “Sounds like something I’d hear a Democrat say- followed by questioning patriotism for not wanting to pay taxes”. Which in itself is just knee-jerk conservative deflection. But the next response was a liberal friend who actually bought into the premise. Again, quoting without attribution to protect the guilty, that friend said “for information’s sake, not paying your taxes IS unpatriotic. By definition. Taxes are the price we pay for a working civilization. (Note that since the GOP decided to cut taxes on the mega-rich and corporations, society isn’t functioning very smoothly. Kind of like cutting off the oxygen supply to the brain). Paying your taxes is a part of your civic duty. So, how is refusing to pay your taxes NOT unpatriotic?”

I was mulling over exactly why that attitude rubs me the wrong way. And then it hit me to ask whether this person, or anyone else with that sentiment, is deliberately NOT taking the basic deductions and exemptions that they are eligible for. After all, if willingness to pay taxes is a measure of virtue, not taking those deductions is proof of patriotism. The fact that the dodges are largely built into the system is obvious proof that most people think they need their own money more than the government does, even if it goes to good purpose. And after this election, even liberals may be willing to admit that not all of what we give government money for goes to good purpose.

Given that what used to be “conservatism” now oscillates between being outright evil or merely reactionary, it might seem that my bleeding-heart libertarianism leans too much to the Left. But arguments like “paying taxes is patriotic” remind me why I can’t be in that camp.

Most people don’t consider this stuff, because they usually don’t pay taxes directly, and their income is at such a level that they may get a refund after April 15. That’s because most people have taxes taken straight out of their paycheck. That isn’t always the case, though. For instance, for a brief period of about six weeks, I worked with Uber. As you may know, Uber has a very creative sense of business accounting, such that employees are not employees, they’re “contractors.” But in practical terms, what this meant is that I had no withholding on that income. In the short term, that meant I made considerably more per hour than I did at my full-time job (and also considerably more than I did as an actual cab driver, but then the amount of gross taken by cab companies from the ‘book’ makes the average pimp look generous). In the long term that meant I ended up having to pay almost 280 dollars on a little under $1900 gross, whereas if my job with the W-2 was my only source of income for the year, I probably would have gotten a small refund. In itself, it’s not worth crying about: 300 over 1900 is slightly less than 15 percent, which is about what the withholding is on my standard paycheck. But it’s occurred to me, and a few of the people I’ve been talking with (not all of whom are right-wingers) that if you were going to pay X amount one way or another, you might as well keep your gross (minus FICA taxes and company deductions) and put the difference in the bank so that since you will be paying that money, you’ll be paying it after it’s earned interest. Otherwise, refund on withholding just means you gave government an interest-free loan and they’re paying the principal back. Some of it.

The Wikipedia entry on the subject quotes a Department of Treasury page (allegedly, since the archived source is no longer on the US Treasury site, with reading as ‘File Not Found’):

“Another important feature of the income tax that changed (with America’s entry into World War II) was the return to income tax withholding as had been done during the Civil War. This greatly eased the collection of the tax for both the taxpayer and the Bureau of Internal Revenue. However, it also greatly reduced the taxpayer’s awareness of the amount of tax being collected, i.e. it reduced the transparency of the tax, which made it easier to raise taxes in the future.”

I’m sure that’s just a coincidence.

The pro-government/pro-tax apologia is countered by a meme much more common in social media, especially among libertarians: “Taxation is Theft.” Why, though? The answer is presumed to be obvious. But because society has not evolved to a point of pure voluntarism, some government is necessary, meaning that law enforcement is necessary to some extent, meaning that that includes the collection of revenue for government to run in the first place. So strictly speaking, I can’t agree that “taxation is theft.” I DO think that the assertion “taxation is theft” is closer to accuracy than the assertion “paying taxes is patriotic.” Because taxation is mandatory and patriotism is not. You can be a citizen and not be patriotic, but if you live in this country, you still have to pay taxes. If you are an American citizen and do NOT live in this country, you still have to pay US income tax (which is why a lot of expatriates would rather give up US citizenship than be ‘patriotic’.)  You can even be a resident alien, but if you live here, or you’re a foreign business with American holdings, you still pay American taxes. Love of America has nothing to do with it. That is a subjective internal judgment. Whereas if taxes are ultimately involuntary, the only thing that makes taxation NOT theft is that it’s the government forcing you.

And on that subject, PLEASE let us dispense with the legal fiction that paying taxes is voluntary. Reporting income is voluntary. Paying taxes on reported income is mandatory, and enforcing payment is one of the priorities that the US government actually takes seriously. As it should, frankly, or else it could not fulfill its functions, even the ones that most people like. So why bullshit us by telling us that there is, or even ought to be, a choice?

What’s irritating about that is that since your employer has to report payroll to the IRS for its own tax purposes, they already KNOW what your gross income ought to be for purposes of calculating percentage owed. Much of the complication of the tax code is precisely the fact that it is voluntary in the sense that tax liability is self-assessed, which creates gamesmanship – and a very big industry – out of tax preparation as people of various income levels try to justify various schemes to not pay government, even if it means paying hundreds of dollars to tax preparers.

Does that sound like a culture where the citizenry esteems paying taxes as a patriotic duty? More to the point, does it seem like government policy is encouraging or discouraging that sense of duty?

I do think there are several voluntary actions, which are not legal obligations, that are nevertheless non-negotiable in terms of being a good citizen. These include: voting, respecting the national anthem (whether kneeling or standing) and not endorsing a white supremacist movement that already rebelled against the country.  Stuff that would be easy for most people. But paying taxes is not a patriotic act. It is a responsibility, and liberals can make correct arguments for why it is a necessary responsibility, in principle. It’s when we have to determine how much is charged and for what purpose that we get into issues.

I agree that taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society. I just think we should get a money-back guarantee.

If liberals and other apologists for government were not so disingenuous about what paying taxes means for the average person, maybe the average person would be less inclined to resent that responsibility.