Yosemite 2018

As readers of this blog know, Nancy and I travel to Yosemite National Park every winter.  We began this in 2000 when we stumbled on what was called then “Chef’s Holidays” but is now called Taste of Yosemite.

It’s a magical time as we avoid the gridlock that happens most of the year but it’s also terrific for Nancy who attends several cooking demonstrations (and Tom who gets to eat the recipes she brings home).

We also enjoy hiking the valley floor and taking pictures of what we see.  But several of the last few years we’ve been concerned over the effect of climate change and this year was no exception.

I recognize that many of you who read this blog live in areas that would love warmer temperatures in the winter but that misses the point.  Yosemite thrives on a weather pattern that is not affected by human interference.  This year we heard the sound of chainsaws and learned that hundreds (perhaps thousands) of trees were cut down as a result of drought and infestation of bark beetles.

Climate change harms all of us, but not right away and not all at once.  We who love Yosemite and other national parks fear that the things that make these places magical are in danger.  In addition to drought and beetle infestation, Yosemite has also endured fires that scar it for decades.

We pray that 2019 is more like 2017.

The Trump Chronicles, Volume 94: President Trump, We’re Not Fooled Why You Want To End the Mueller Investigation

I’ve spoken about this before but President Trump’s attempts to derail the Mueller investigation reminds me of President Nixon’s attempt to derail the Watergate investigation.

In 1972 President Nixon was running for re-election, and in the early hours of June 17, five men were arrested for breaking into the Democratic National Headquarters. Nobody believes President Nixon knew about the burglary in advance but within a few days he huddled with his chief of staff Bob Haldeman to plan to bribe these defendants to plead guilty and not implicate anyone else.

It didn’t work and in May of 1973 Archibald Cox was appointed special prosecutor. While President Nixon publicly supported Mr. Cox, he privately seethed as he believed Mr. Cox “had it out for him.” On October 23, 1973 President Nixon had enough had Mr. Cox fired. It’s generally assumed that this drove the final nail in the coffin of President Nixon’s Presidency and he resigned on August 7, 1974.

None of this would have happened had it not been found out that the Oval Office was equipped with a secret taping system; we all learned this on July 13, 1973 when Alexander Butterfield told us. President Nixon then attempted to prevent anyone from hearing these tapes. He claimed Executive Privilege.

But here’s the thing: President Nixon didn’t attempt to block release of the tapes out of respect for his office. He tried to block their release because he knew his own words would point to his guilt.

President Trump, I believe we’re revisiting history. Your claim of conflicts of interest with the Mueller investigation has nothing to do with conflict of interest. Instead it has everything to do with your fear that there is something here that will end your presidency. I believe that you told Russia that if they would disrupt the 2016 election and make you President you would end sanctions over their invasion of Ukraine.

President Nixon didn’t resign because he admitted his guilt. He resigned because he recognized that he would be impeached and removed from office. You can save all of us a great deal of time by resigning now and saving all of us the trouble.

Seriously, call me.

The Trump Chronicles, Volume 93: One Year Out

Dear President Trump:

A year ago today you took the oath of office as our 45th President. On that day I kept track of certain benchmarks and promised I would compare them against where they were on January 20, 2018.

To give credit its due, the economy continues to do well:

  • The Dow Jones increased substantially from 19,732.40 to 26,071.72. The NASDAQ rose from 5540.08 to 7336.38 while the S&P went from 2663.69 to 2810.30.
  • The unemployment rate decreased from 4.7% to 4.1% and most people think we are essentially at full employment. The labor force (the number of people working) increased from 123,570,000 to 125,990,000.

And while I do give you credit, I do want to say that if you insist on claiming credit for success, you will also be held responsible for a downturn. The current bull market began in March of 2009 (the third month of the Obama administration).

For reasons I don’t fully understand, the national debt (the amount of money our nation owes) has remained around the same at $20 trillion. The federal deficit (the difference between what we collect and what we spend) rose from $590 billion to $666 billion. This will likely increase as your tax bill will bring in less money and no serious economist believes your promise that it will pay for itself.

You promised to repeal the Affordable Care Act and despite your best efforts you failed at this. Nevertheless, you were able to increase the number of uninsured Americans from 11% to 11.7%. Since your tax bill eliminated the individual mandate we can expect this number to go up.

And finally, the number that surprises me the most is your approval rating. Last year 38% of Americans had a positive view of you, and it dropped only to 37%. Frankly I expected to to be lower and I give you props for that.

Those are the benchmarks I noted a year ago. As I had no way of looking into the future I couldn’t have known which stories would frame your first year in office. Let me run down a few:

  • You can’t seem to keep your employees. You can see the article here, but here is a partial list of people who were once employed by you are no longer are (I’ve made this list alphabetical): Steve Bannon, James Comey, Mike Dubke, Michael Flynn, Sebastian Gorky, Tom Price, Reince Priebus, Sean Spicer, Anthony Scaramucci, and Sally Yates. Some quit, some were fired, but all left before they intended
  • Other than the tax plan, you’ve implemented virtually none of what you promised. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy about this, but you made vast promises both on the campaign trail and in the White House. You promised to repeal the Affordable Care Act, build a wall on the Mexican border (and have Mexico pay for it), and end (or keep) DACA.
  • Most of us fear the fact that you have the ability to launch nuclear weapons. Your famous thin skin and overreactions to perceived slights didn’t matter much when you were a private citizen but they matter now. Your position on the world stage put you in contention with North Korean dictator Kim Jung Un who is developing the ability to launch his own nuclear weapons. Your boast about having a bigger button (that I wrote about here) tells us that you and Kim are little boys with loaded guns.

Finally, as I write this the U.S. Government has run out of money. Your party controls both houses of the Legislative Branch, the Executive Branch, and (one can argue) the Judicial Branch. And yet you are not able to sign a bill to keep our government working. Government employees who are not designated “essential” can’t work and those who are essential are working without pay.

Mr. President, count on another post on January 20, 2019.

The Trump Chronicles, Volume 92: Make America North Korea

From the beginning of his campaign to today, President Trump has promised to “Make America Great Again.” More than anything else this brand launched him into the White House.

But those of us who disagree with him argue that his programs won’t make America great. We believe that “Make America Great Again” hearkens back to the 1950s where America was great for only a fraction of America. It wasn’t great for people of color because much our nation legislated segregation that made the phrase all men are created equal illegal. And while we’re on the subject of “all men,” discrimination against women was seen as a way of protecting them.

Clearly President Trump yearns for a time when white men held all the power and everyone else was supposed to be OK with that.

And even if you don’t buy this, I maintain that the President’s programs will make America weaker. His success will make America weaker, not greater. His desire to make himself great will propel the rest of us to weakness.

Let me make a few points:

  • I think we can all agree that trade is good. The progression from the Dark Ages to the Middle Ages to the Renaissance happened only because our ancestors figured out how to make more goods and more roads. One person grows more wheat than he needs and trades his surplus with someone who weaves more cloth than he needs. Both families prosper.

    And since Marco Polo (1254-1324) we’ve known about the Silk Road, a path that opened the road between Europe and Asia. It gave us gunpowder and pasta. By any measure trade is good and protectionism (blocking trade) is bad. We need only to look at the Smoot Hawley Act of 1930. At the beginning of the Great Depression this act increased tariffs (and decreased trade) and made the Great Depression much worse.

    Our President has denounced trade proposals for the Trans Pacific Partnership and NAFTA. He believes we will do best by producing, purchasing, and consuming only those goods and services that originated here. This is nothing but good news for China as they are happy to replace us as the nation everyone wants to trade with.

    Meanwhile, North Korea builds its identity on the belief that they can take care of themselves and don’t need outsiders to provide their needs.

  • President Trump is famously sensitive to criticism. Earlier this month Michael Wolff wrote Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House that claimed President Trump has lost control of his staff and his administration has devolved into chaos. In response President Trump has advocated for tightening libel laws, allowing hin to prosecute those who report what he doesn’t like.
    Meanwhile, North Korea famously does not allow dissent from the “party line.”
  • These examples may not seem like much, but President Trump clearly sees dissent as treason (ie, anyone who disagrees with me isn’t a true American) and gives no credit to honest disagreement. He makes promises that nobody believes he can keep (e.g. here).

We live in a complex society and we disagree about who we need to serve. We are a Nation of Immigrants and at the same time we want to make sure we all have what we need.

We’re heading in a bad direction.

The Trump Chronicles Volume 91: Abraham Lincoln Is Weeping

Talk to a Republican and within a few minutes he or she will eagerly tell you that Abraham Lincoln was a Republican.

Entire libraries have been written about President Lincoln and many of us have read Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. It’s an excellent book and I recommend it, but if you want to fully understand President Lincoln’s views on slavery I suggest The Fiery Trial by Eric Foner. This book traces Lincoln’s views on slavery. At first he was ambivalent but eventually he recognized that slavery is wrong because while free people can prosper from intelligence and hard work, slaves could not. No matter how hard they worked and no matter what they invented they (and their descendants) would always be slaves.

His view of people of color was more complicated. He didn’t envision the possibility of a fully integrated society (and there is evidence that he supported freed slaves returning to Africa) but he felt that everyone who lived in the United States could point to the Declaration of Independence‘s promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We all have access to that.

He was our 16th President. What do you think he would say about his fellow Republican Donald Trump our 45th President? I think he would weep.

President Lincoln spoke about “the better angels of our nature” and “with malice toward none, with charity for all.”

On the other hand we have President Trump. On Thursday he was meeting in the White House with a bipartisan group of lawmakers and they were discussing immigration reform. Specifically they were talking about people who come here fleeing some sort of catastrophe (e.g. the 2010 Haitian earthquake). Learning that most of these people came from Africa, Haiti, and El Salvador he asked why we were accepting so many people from shithole countries.

Oh yes, there’s this: President Trump is now denying he ever used that language.

The Trump Chronicles, Volume 90: Here’s Why We’re Concerned

Dear President Trump:

It’s been a busy few days, and I have to tell you that I’m writing out of concern for you. Ever since you came onto the national scene we’re recognized that you have a thin skin and often overreact to perceived slights. Just so you know, a google search of “trump’s response to slights” lands 138,000 hits, but let me give you an example of my point from PBS.

I understand that you’re not the first President with quirks, but last week your judgement took a troubling turn. The publication of the book Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House by Michael Wolff does not speak well of your Presidency and it frankly documents what many of us have thought all along. The book portrays you as a child in constant need of approval, prone to tantrums, and unwilling to pay attention to anything inconvenient, or frankly, complex.

The book claims that many of the people who work shoulder to shoulder with you fear your temperament makes you unfit for office. At a time when our nation, and our world, face grave problems from North Korea to climate change, you appear obsessed with making sure nobody touches your toothbrush lest you be poisoned.

Some have even spoken about the 25th Amendment to the Constitution. It was passed in 1967, three years after the assignation of President Kennedy. Article 4 of that amendment gives the Vice President and the Cabinet (through majority vote) the power to remove the President and install the Vice President. From my reading it appears this was intended for a limited time and that the President would later be able to resume office but it’s not clear.

Mr. President, I doubt this will happen. You hand picked both the Vice President and the Cabinet and it’s hard to imagine a scenario where they would take this vote; you need not worry about this happening. But your reaction to Fire and Fury has shown us there may be something to this. Several news outlets reported that members of Congress met with Yale Psychiatrist Dr. Bandy Lee to seek her expertise on your mental state and she felt there is reason for concern.

Earlier in the week you (once again) needlessly provoked North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. I spoke in an earlier post about how the the two of you are behaving like little boys with loaded guns and how previous Presidents have recognized that when dealing with North Korea somebody has to be the adult in the room. Kim Jong Un proclaimed last week that he has a nuclear button on this desk at all times.

No one is claiming we should cower from such a statement but there’s also no point in needlessly provoking him and ratcheting up the rhetoric. All you needed to do was ignore this, but instead you felt the need to respond by telling him and the rest of the world that your button is bigger. Aside from the clear phallic reference it does nothing to make the world safer. As commander in chief you have the authority to launch nuclear weapons and we all wish you had more respect for that power.

I’m just saying that we’d like you to act with more prudence.

When you were elected you were clearly the only person who didn’t know the Presidency was a tough job, calling for a high level of maturity and self awareness. And to be honest there are days when I can’t tell if you’re unwilling or unable to grow up. Had you ignored Kim Jong Un and Michael Wolff you could have spent last week planning out your agenda for 2018 instead of yet another round of needless bickering.

I hope it’s not too late.

The Trump Chronicles, Volume 89: Here’s Why We Should All Support PBS and NPR

For over 20 years I’ve supported National Public Radio because I’ve found their news coverage superior to anything else. In the last few years I’ve subscribed to several podcasts connected to NPR and they tell me the best way to support these podcasts lies in support of my local NPR station (KPBS). Starting last year I sent in my donation to KPBS and have included a letter to the program director Tom Karlo.

I’m writing this in the hopes that more of us support NPR. Here is this year’s letter to Tom:

Dear Tom:

Last January we sent in our annual contribution to support KPBS.

In that letter I spoke about how freedom of the press found itself under unprecedented fire from the White House and those foolish enough to believe the President’s lies. A year later I still have the same concerns and, frankly, find PBS and NPR my best weapon to fight back and protect our First Amendment rights.

When I tell people I support public radio some will dismiss it as having a liberal bias. I used to ignore it, but I no longer do. I tell them this: PBS and NPR provides smart, in-depth, reasoned news that does not tell us how to think, but instead enlightens us to the issues. Time again I come away with an understanding of all sides of a controversial issue and I can form my opinion after considering all sides. I explain that PBS and NPR are not balanced because that creates a false equivalency. “Today’s topic is the connection between the MMR vaccine and autism. On one side we have a renowned pediatrician and on the other side we have the mother of a child with autism. You decide.”

And finally I tell them that if this level of reporting leans left, I’m OK with that. I’m willing to be thoughtful enough to care about our environment, our neighbors, and our grandchildren.

In addition to listening to KPBS I also listen to several NPR podcasts and I want you to know which ones I support:

Up First
NPR Politics
Planet Money
Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me
Fresh Air

Please give my best wishes to your staff and know how much all of you mean to me.

I hope you’ll support your local NPR station.

The Trump Chronicles, Volume 88, the Money Chronicles, Volume 17: To Those Who Have Much, More Will Be Given

From his earliest days on the campaign trail President Trump has promised tax reform. As with many Republicans he bought into the fiction of supply side economics, previously known as trickle down economics. This theory claims that if we cut taxes more people will have more money. They will spend that money and create more wealth that will more than make up for the loss in tax revenue. Many of us argue that this is popular not because it’s true but because makes us feel good, much like the Atkins Diet. It doesn’t help people lose weight in the long run but it’s popular because it tells overweight people that they can eat bacon and cheese omelettes and still lose weight.

Last week the President signed into law a tax reform bill that he claims will be good for America, particularly the middle class. Additionally he claims it will hurt him. Of course since we don’t have access to his tax returns we can’t say, but he has often bragged about his wealth and since this bill will lower the highest tax bracket from 39.6% to 37%. And while 2.6% may not sound like much, if you claim taxable income of $100 million (not unheard of among the wealthiest), that 2.6% pencils out to $260,000, or a little over a quarter of a million dollars. That may not be much for Mr. Trump, but it is for the rest of us.

Many of us looked at this tax bill with hope as Republicans have often claimed that they are the party of fiscal responsibility, as opposed to Democrats who they characterize as the party of “tax and spend.” They claim the Democrats want all our money only to figure out how to spend it on frivolous programs that cause more harm.

We counted on Republicans like Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Jeff Flake of Arizona who promised not to vote for a tax package that would increase the federal deficit. By the way, I wrote an earlier article on the difference between the federal deficit and debt.

So how do they get around this? They lie. They claim the tax cuts will pay for themselves but that depends on unsustainable economic growth. You can read an this article but basically Presidents have little control over economic growth. Anything less than hopelessly optimistic economic growth will balloon both the deficit and the debt.

Don’t care about this? Fine. But if you have children, grandchildren, nephew, nieces, or young people you care about you need to explain to them how they will have to repay the debt you saddled them with. It’s a little like using cash advances to pay for frivolous purchases with the knowledge that if you do it for long enough you won’t have to clean up your own mess.

To quote our President, let’s see what happens.

The Justice Chronicles, Volume 30: No Roy Moore, Character Does Count

On November 9th the Washington Post broke a story about Roy Moore who is running for Senate in Alabama. They reported that in 1979, when he was the District Attorney for Etowah County, he was well known for his attraction to teenage girls. As I write this 9 women have accused him, one of whom was 14 at the time.

Mr. Moore continues to deny any of these allegations and is giving thought to suing them.

At first several members of the Republican Party called for him to drop out of the race and even President Trump said he should drop out of the charges are true. But that has changed. President Trump now endorses him because he doesn’t want the Senate to gain another Democratic seat.

But here’s the thing: character matters. We shouldn’t respect anyone who can vote for somebody who promises to vote their way while, at the same time, has shown he is not safe around our children. Moore claims to be pro life but sees no problem being a man in his 30s who sexually assaults a 14 year old girl. Decades later he sees no problem in accusing her of lying.

We all falter sometimes in what we do and we are all works in progress. But I find no excuse in someone not recognizing this and trying to do better. He told one of his accusers that there was no point in telling anyone because “nobody will believe you”. Sure enough when she came forward, he denied her claims.

The good people of Alabama will choose their senator next month and I pray they care about Moore’s character. Running against him is Doug Jones who is a Democrat. I pray that enough Republicans look at their daughters and recognize that Roy Moore does not represent their values.

The Money Chronicles, Volume 16, The Trump Chronicles, Volume 87: National Debt vs. Budget Deficit

It strikes me that we’ve been hearing a great deal about President Trump’s promise to cut taxes.  It’s not a new promise, nearly every politician claims this.  I have to confess some amusement that these promises also claim to improve the economy.  In my last post I spoke about the false promise to close loopholes.

Here I want to talk about the difference between the national debt and the budget deficit. Alas, most of the time these two things are talked about as if they were the same thing. They’re not.

By way of explanation let me start with debt and deficit in our own households. Many of us owe money to someone. If you’re making payments on your home, or car, or credit cards, you have debt. You’ve convinced someone to lend you money to pay for something you can’t pay cash for. Your lender (likely a bank) trusts you to pay both the money and interest over time, and if you can’t they can take whatever they financed. Or, if you borrow money on a credit card and can’t pay that back, they can report you to a credit bureau and make it harder to borrow money in the future. The government borrows a lot of money. As I write this the government debt is $20,453,245,142,792.62. If you’re keeping track it’s over $20 trillion.

In other words, our government owes $20 trillion dollars. Fortunately 68% is owned by Americans. Every time you give one of your grandchildren a savings bond you own part of the national debt. You lend the government money and the government pays you back with interest after a fixed time.

That’s the good news. The bad news? While we own 68% of our debt, the rest (32%) is owned by other nations. As I write this, China and Hong Kong own 6.9%. That may not sound like much but 6.9% of $20 trillion dollars translates to $141,127,391,485, or a shade over $141 billion (I hope I have the math right). If they want, they can demand immediate payment and cause a great deal of panic in our markets.

But that’s not what concerns me the most. I’m more concerned over the need to continue to borrow money. Every year the our government spends more money than it collects, we need to borrow money to close the deficit. If we translate this into our household budgets, it’s like going to your bank and telling them that you need a loan because last month you spent beyond your means. Not only that, but you expect to come back next month, and the month after that, and…well you get the point. At some point your bank (or for that matter, your loan shark) will simply refuse to lend you more money, believing eventually you’ll just give up and stop trying to repay your debt. But if you’re the United States you can continue to print savings bonds without limit. Unless something happens to change this trend there will be a limit: there will be a point where people (and nations) will begin to distrust our ability to pay back the loans and will stop lending money.

It doesn’t have to be like this. Many of us have seen our government run budget deficits for so long that it seems like a given. But it’s not. You can read the numbers here but the last few years of the presidency of President Bill Clinton we actually ran a surplus and had the opportunity to pay down the debt.

As I write this President Trump and Congress are rolling out a tax plan that will cut taxes (and revenue) but will likely dramatically increase the deficit and debt.

Since we are currently led by a President who promises America First it’s odd that his tax policy will make us increasingly debtors of other nations.