Archive

May 29th, 2016

What to do for six months?

    When your hearing gets fuzzy so you hear the word "peanuts" as "penis," it's time to stop in at the hearing-aid shop, lest one day you go to the ballgame and get arrested for indecent exposure. A reasonable man will do this. A man who prefers to live by what he imagines is a danger to himself and others. You tell him his pants are on fire and he grabs you, thinking you asked him to dance, and now your pants are on fire, too. This is what we are seeing in America this year, and soon we shall find out if a majority of people prefer to be deaf. The Republican Party constabulary has rushed to embrace Mr. Btfsplk, a man whom they loathed, scorned, and despised a few months ago, and now begins the campaign to make Mrs. Clinton seem so despicable that Mr. Btfsplk will shine a little by comparison.

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Trumpism: Made in Europe

    Here's the irony of Donald Trump's "America First," immigrant-bashing, free-trade-averse, make-us-great-again nationalism: It is a European import.

    The American right has typically been anti-government, reverent of the Constitution, suspicious of political strongmen and resolute in insisting that "American exceptionalism" makes us different from other nations.

    But Trumpism is not an American original. Almost every plank in the candidate's vaguely defined platform is derivative of the European far right. It is gaining ground on the basis of opposition to immigration, fears of terrorism and crime, economic nationalism, and promises of a government wielding a muscular hand against the forces of disorder.

    While one would like to think that the copycat nature of Trump's ideology will, in the coming months, make it increasingly less attractive to American voters, his rise is no less disturbing for being emblematic of what's happening across so many democracies.

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May 28th

Deal aims to forget Greece, not forgive it

    The International Monetary Fund and European finance ministers hailed their new agreement on Greece as a "major breakthrough." In reality, it's the beginning of a permanent fudge designed to make the intractable Greek problem a political non-issue for Greece's EU partners and reduce the financial and reputational risk for the IMF. It's the equivalent of canceling visitation hours for a ward where a patient languishes on life support.

    Since Greece agreed to a $95.8 billion (86 billion euro) European-sponsored bailout last July, the IMF has been screaming about the nation's debt being unsustainable. It has refused to participate in the bailout unless Europe agreed to reduce the debt, creating political problems for European governments that championed the bailout, especially Germany's.

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Trump's Cult Of Lies

    "Those who can make you believe absurdities

    can make you commit atrocities."

    -- Voltaire, 1698-1774

    The first thing to understand is that, before it's a presidential election, it's a TV program. To the suits at CNN, NBC, and Fox News, that means it's about ratings and money. So of course they're going to play it as a cliffhanger.

    Do they ever say "Tune in Saturday to watch the Alabama Crimson Tide humiliate hopelessly overmatched Kent State!"?

    Never.

    So it's going to be with Trump vs. Clinton. Almost regardless of what political scientists and number-crunchers say, the race will be depicted as a nail-biter. The fact that Charles Manson could win Texas' electoral votes with an "R" after his name, while Democrats could take Massachusetts with a Kardashian sister, will prolong the manufactured suspense.

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The red herring in prosecuting officers

    Why are successful prosecutions of police officers so rare? Monday's acquittal of Baltimore police officer Edward M. Nero in connection with the death of Freddie Gray again raises that sobering question - and some of the usual explanations don't apply here.

    While prosecutors have all too often been reluctant to bring cases against those with whom they work, Baltimore City State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby charged the case promptly and aggressively. While jurors have all too often balked at convicting those sworn to protect them, Nero's case was tried before, and decided by, an experienced judge, who, as a federal civil rights prosecutor, had prosecuted police officers for violations of rights.

    Five officers remain to be tried, and there may yet be convictions, but the Nero acquittal reminds us of the limits of criminal prosecutions as vehicles for social change.

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Sore, Happy Feet on the Pacific Crest Trail

    Every spring or summer, in lieu of professional help, I ditch civilization for the therapy of the wilderness. I’ve just been backpacking with my 18-year-old daughter on the Pacific Crest Trail in California, abandoning our material world for an alternative reality in which the aim is to possess as little as possible — because if you have it, you lug it.

    Our lives were downsized to 10 pounds of possessions each, not counting food and water. We carried backpacks, sleeping bags, jackets, hats, a plastic groundsheet, a tarp in case of rain, a water filter and a tiny roll of duct tape for when things break.

    Few problems in life cannot be solved with duct tape.

    OK, I know I’m supposed to use my column to pontificate about Donald Trump and global crises. But as summer beckons, let me commend such wilderness escapes to all of you, with your loved ones, precisely to find a brief refuge from the pressures of the world.

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Republican Party got the voters it deserved

    Bloomberg View columnist Megan McArdle thinks people are exaggerating the Republican Party's responsibility for Donald Trump. Blaming the party, she concludes, "is like blaming the weatherman because it's raining, or an economist for a recession."

    True, most Republican party actors resisted the Trump takeover right up to the point, and in some cases even after, all his nomination opponents dropped out. But the Republican Party nevertheless bears plenty of responsibility for the rise of the reality-show star, and many conservatives have acknowledged shortcomings in the party that Trump exploited. The question is still what exactly paved the way for Trump.

    Republicans had encouraged, or at least tolerated, schoolyard taunts and far-fetched conspiracy talk long before Trump's campaign. He started out in Republican presidential politics by accusing the president of not being a U.S citizen, a slur that had been bandied about by many highly visible Republicans. He has now moved on to recycling conspiracy theories from 20 years ago about Hillary Clinton that were promoted at the time by talk-show hosts and Republican members of Congress.

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Putting Free Speech Out to Pasture

    Hard experience teaches that biotech companies, chemical corporations, and other agribusiness giants have no sense of respect for Mother Nature. Now, Rick Friday has learned they have no sense of humor either.

    Friday, a lifelong Iowa farmer, also happens to be a talented, self-taught cartoonist. For 21 years, he supplemented his cattle-raising income by drawing cartoons each week in an Iowa publication called Farm News.

    Friday really enjoyed this side job — until April 30.

    The day before, the News had published his drawing of two hard-hit farmers chatting by a fence about the low prices they were getting for their products. “I wish there were more profits in farming,” mused one.

    “There is,” exclaimed the other. “In year 2015, the CEOs of Monsanto, Dupont, Pioneer, and John Deere combined made more money than 2,129 Iowa farmers.”

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Our Poverty Myth

    If you’re poor, many Americans think, it’s your own fault. It’s a sign of your own moral failing.

    I don’t personally believe that, but the idea has roots in our culture going back centuries.

    In The Wealth of Nations, the foundational work of modern capitalism, Adam Smith extolled the virtues of working hard and being thrifty with money. That wasn’t just the way to get rich, he reasoned — it was morally righteous.

    Sociologist Max Weber took the idea further in describing what he called the Protestant work ethic.

    To Puritans who believed that one was either predestined for heaven or for hell, Weber wrote, working hard and accumulating wealth was a sign of God’s blessing. Those who got rich, the Puritans thought, must have been chosen by God for heaven; those who were poor were damned.

    Even major American philanthropists have subscribed to this idea.

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Memorial Weekend Ranting

    Summer is upon us, and we are facing important travel decisions. Such as who to blame when we get stuck in interminable airport lines.

    So many options. There’s the government, but how many times can you can complain about Congress in the course of a lifetime? There’s the public — air traffic up 12 percent since 2011. But really, people, don’t blame yourself.

    Let’s pick a rant that’s good for you, good for me, good for the lines in security: Make the airlines stop charging fees for checked baggage.

    Seems simple, doesn’t it? Plus, if you do manage to make it to your flight, these are the same people who will be announcing there’s a $3 fee if you want a snack.

    The largest airlines charge $25 for the first checked bag, thus encouraging people to drag their belongings through the airport, clogging the X-ray lines and slowing the boarding process as everybody fights to cram one last rolling duffel into the overhead compartment.

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