Thursday, December 14, 2017

The New American Plutocracy

“Let them Eat Cake,” Part II
The adjacent picture seems to reflect those unwealthy American voters who support the rather dramatic hand-over of true power – focused on the wallet – from most of us to very, very few of us. While the UK’s prestigious The Economist now labels the United States as a “flawed democracy,” where voters are hardly accorded equal votes, I think it’s time for us to drop that “democracy” word altogether. There is a different word for what we have become.

Plutocracy (Greekπλοῦτοςploutos, 'wealth' + κράτοςkratos, 'rule') or plutarchy, is a form of oligarchy and defines a society ruled or controlled by the small minority of the wealthiest citizens. The first known use of the term was in 1631. Unlike systems such as democracycapitalismsocialism or anarchism, plutocracy is not rooted in an established political philosophy. The concept of plutocracy may be advocated by the wealthy classes of a society in an indirect or surreptitious fashion, though the term itself is almost always used in a pejorative sense.” Wikipedia.

According to Inequality.org, “Income disparities have become so pronounced that America’s top 10 percent now average more than nine times as much income as the bottom 90 percent. Americans in the top 1 percent tower stunningly higher. They average over 40 times more income than the bottom 90 percent. But that gap pales in comparison to the divide between the nation’s top 0.1 percent and everyone else. Americans at this lofty level are taking in over 198 times the income of the bottom 90 percent.

“The top 1 percent of America’s income earners have more than doubled their share of the nation’s income since the middle of the 20th century. American top 1 percent incomes peaked in the late 1920s, right before the onset of the Great Depression.

“Inequality in America is growing, even at the top. The nation’s highest 0.1 percent of income-earners have, over recent decades, seen their incomes rise much faster than the rest of the top 1 percent. Incomes in this top 0.1 percent increased 7.5 times between 1973 and 2007, from 0.8 percent to an all-time high of 6 percent. The Great Recession in 2008 did dampen this top 0.1 percent share, but only momentarily. The upward surge of the top 0.1 percent has resumed.”

That lovely pending federal “tax reform” package and the associated cuts or promised cuts to programs like Medicare, Social Security and healthcare that are “needed” to pay for the tax cuts – 100% sponsored by Republicans and 0% supported by elected Democrats – overwhelmingly benefit the richest members of our nation, that cherished layer at the top of our economic ladder that owns or receives most of our assets and income … at the expense of everybody else. As they implement automation driven by artificial intelligence, they will further succeed to the income that used to be earned by the workers they displace. These is no “rising tide to raise all boats” in any of these proposals… if you believe neutral economists and even the non-partisan Congressional agencies charged with economic review. A big deficit, yes… one we will all pay for.

Republicans have tilted the playing field monumentally towards that richest corporate segment, giving them a greater voice in influencing elections (bolstered by the Supreme Court’s taking spending caps out of political contributions in the 2010 Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission ruling), giving them (their companies) a special tax rate not enjoyed by the rest of us, removing regulations that protect consumers, worker safety and the air they breathe and the water they drink to save corporate costs… and then arguing that a ”free market” should determine our nation’s direction. What “free market”?

Nothing brings this home like the machinations of Ajit Pai, Trump-appointed Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), who has presented a 210 page report in favor of eliminating the net neutrality mandates of the prior administration. Net neutrality effectively prohibits Internet service providers (ISPs) from favoring one content provider over another (usually because they pay more or are part of the same corporate conglomerate as the ISP), or allowing these ISPs from slowing down consumers’ download/upload speeds (absent higher fees), often based on the content providers they choose, for the same reasons. The FCC is now GOP-majority-controlled.

Mr. Pai, apparently unwilling to acknowledge that many of these ISPs are so huge, often dominating an entire marketplace, that consumers truly have no real choice in their markets. He thinks that these ISPs need an incentive to innovate in a world where they already trip all over themselves to innovate. And then there is that exceptionally flawed “free market” argument.

The December 6th FastCompany.com explains: “Beyond reams of esoteric legalese in the 210-page proposal by chairman Ajit Pai are its free-market economic arguments. Chief among them is that competition obviates the need for regulation. If one ISP messes with your free access to the net, you can just go to another. Competition for customers will keep ISPs on good behavior. But that depends on competition actually existing, on one ISP not becoming way more powerful than others.

“Deep in the document, on page 71, are figures on how much choice Americans currently have for different levels of landline broadband service (based on data the FCC last collected from ISPs in December 2016). The figures are oracle-like, though; the answer changes depending on who is reading the tea leaves and what qualifies as sufficient broadband. How many Americans have two or more choices of broadband providers? It could be 79.7%, or it could be 51.1%. How many live under a one-provider monopoly, or have no broadband access at all? It could be 20.2%, or 48.9%.

“These discrepancies depend on each interpreter’s interpretation of ‘broadband.’ The optimistic views say that broadband could be as slow as 3 megabits per second downstream and a curiously precise 0.768 Mbps upstream—just enough to stream a video at DVD quality, according to Netflix.

“The pessimistic assessments assume that ‘broadband’ has to achieve at least 25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up to qualify as real broadband access—enough for streaming five HD videos or at least one Ultra HD/4K video… It seems hard to imagine that a sub-par experience with Netflix, which  accounts for over a third of all landline internet traffic in North America, (according to Sandvine) counts as real “broadband.” And Cisco reckons that video in general, beyond only Netflix, made up 73% of consumer internet traffic in 2016 and will reach 82% by 2021. However, not many people are currently streaming video in 4K, so the 25Mbps threshold for broadband may be a bit high.

“Splitting the difference, at 10 Mbps down and 1 Mbps up, the FCC reckons that still 26.3% of Americans have only one landline provider, and 5.9% have none… That’s only for landline internet access, though.

“Wireless internet covers most of the country, the FCC’s new order notes. In fact, 99% of Americans have access to at least two 4G/LTE providers, and 88.6% have four or more options, based on an FCC report from September. Average 4G download speeds in the U.S. are 22.69 Mbps, according to data collected by Ookla Speedtest. 5G service, which is expected to begin rolling out to the U.S. in 2018, aims to start out around 1,000 Mbps. 5G is also expected to be used for “fixed wireless”–beaming broadband directly to homes and maybe obviating the need for landlines…

“But does fast wireless make up for lousy landlines today? The FCC said no in its 2016 Broadband Progress Report, published a year before Donald Trump took office… In its new proposal to scrap net neutrality regulations, the FCC touts the rise of ‘unlimited’ wireless data plans from all the big carriers (an argument also made by ISPs). But they are not really unlimited, typically throttling bandwidth after people use around 20-30 GB per month. Landline broadband caps, when they exist, are often around a terabyte–up to 50 times greater.” We can expect net neutrality to die in the next few days as the issue goes to a vote before the entire FCC.

Here’s the bottom line: this country is being run by the elite rich, not by the majority of voters. Through the miracle of mendacious slogans, trading off of right wing white evangelical social values with no hard dollar costs attached, and promises that can never be kept, that elite – the powerful donors and lobbyists behind these consistent Republican efforts to favor the richest in the land (benefits that clearly attach to the Trump corporate empire) – has enlisted Trump’s base to effect its economic coup d’état.  They have pretty much taken over control of the federal government and most of its institutions… at the expense of everybody else. America is the biggest loser.

I’m Peter Dekom, and it is unfortunate that these members of the elite have chosen not to read their history books, which would let them know that such efforts inevitably destroy the nations that tried to sustain this level of inequality.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The Biggest Political Question on Earth



For most of my life – from the televised McCarthy era communist witch hunts that cut into my morning cartoons when I was a little boy to the Reagan era “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” speech preceding the downfall of the greatest Communist nation in the world (Soviet Russia) – the two most unpatriotic words an American could utter with respect were “socialism” and “communism.” We fought the Vietnam War in large part to prevent the “domino theory”: the notion that any communist foothold in Southeast Asia would trigger regional falling dominos of communist governments. We overthrew governments with leftist leanings.
The Depression era New Deal programs were always treated with disdain by our most virulent anti-socialists, but by the time WWII ended, promoting socialism and communism in the United States were enough to get to get you fired, blacklisted, arrested or even executed. The ancient politicians that populate Washington today were raised with those admonitions and realities. Godless communism became the enemy of fundamentalist Christians, and socialism was simply opening the door to let communism take over. The clear enemy of communism was capitalism, so embracing capitalism generated not only political passions but deeply religious mandates in support.
To bolster that perception, the American capitalist machine manufactured arms and munitions that tilted WWII entirely in favor of the allies. Most don’t even realize that the socialist New Deal infrastructure efforts to drag us out of the depression actually created the over-capacity of electrical power (think of all the dams built that way) without which that massive wartime manufacturing effort would have been impossible. And post-WWII showed the unprecedented economic power of the American capitalist machine, evidence that our form of capitalist-free market-democracy was the right path. We even derided the efforts towards greater social safety nets, particularly the ideal of universal healthcare, that were become the norm in the rest of the developed world.
But that was before China, isolated, starving and poor, launched its post-1981 (Deng-era) “centralized governmental planning and direction” (called “communism with Chinese characteristics”) that spurred a bizarre mix of government and private enterprise which defines modern China. The developing world soon found a new model for economic success.
China was not a democracy, although in theory the Politburo was charged with acting on behalf of the people. Yet in the shortest time in history, this bizarre form of “communism” moved almost billion people from poverty into the middle class. It was a form of “managed capitalism” that simply scoffed at the notion of Adam Smith’s free market “invisible hand” (posited in the late 18th century) could work in a modern era. A political system that questioned the free market, that manipulated that market mercilessly, became wildly successful as a result. China is projected to pass the United States in sheer economic power by the middle of this century.
The worship of capitalism here in the United States was also born before the ascension of the “gig” economy or the rise of artificially-intelligent machines that rendered or threatened to render most blue collar jobs obsolete and even posed threats to some of the most sophisticated white collar professions as well, from accounting and investment advisors to lawyers and even surgeons. The writing was on the wall: those who owned and controlled the machines would use that power to displace workers and take over their earning capacity. The massive shift of income – distorting wealth in the United States to the breaking point – was the clearest evidence of that reality.
But diehard Christian fundamentalists, who have long embraced raw capitalism and free markets as if they were Biblical mandates, and many older politicians who were raised during the anti-socialist/communist era, believed that the path to America’s greatness, the counter to the rise of China’s godless “communist” model, was a return to those values. Changing with the realities of technology was not the correct approach, they posited. Fueling traditional capitalism, including a self-destructive tax reform act to encourage and empower the already-bloated wealthiest in the land, was the only answer. Bad news, guys. Simply put, “you’re wrong,” and many of you are unemployed or under-employed as a result… and will remain so unless you accept change.
Funny that the voice of the new socialist movement, Bernie Sanders, is 76-years-old. When I heard his use of that “socialist” word during the 2016 campaign, my head spun around. For most of America, that word still resonates with negativity, even though the march of artificial intelligence to replace a whole lot of jobs would inevitably lead us to a model that was deeply socialist… assuming the United States is even able to hold together as a single nation. The old folks, for whom “socialism” is the equivalent of the anti-Christ, are dying off. Those who will remain jobless under the sure-to-fail GOP-populist movement are going to be faced with some tough questions.
So the big question is how younger Americans (Z and Millennials), raised in an era of China’s success and long past the socialist/communist purges, feel about capitalism itself. They were, after all, the staunchest Bernie Sander’s supporters. The results have to send shivers of fear down the back of currently joyful MAGA conservatives.
“Last summer, two authors [Jason Hickel and Martin Kirk] asked Fast Company readers a simple question: ‘Are you ready to consider that capitalism is the real problem?’… For millennials, the answer seems to be increasingly yes. ‘A lot of young people don’t believe in it anymore,’ Ana Garcia, a college junior, told the Wall Street Journal in a recent article on the topic. ‘We don’t trust capitalism because we don’t see ourselves getting ahead.’
“A 2016 poll by the Harvard Institute of Politics found that just 19% of Americans aged 18 to 29 identified themselves as capitalists; only 42% claimed they supported the economic system. Another Harvard poll, released on December 5, found that two-thirds of that same age group is fearful for the future of the country. Just 14% think we’re headed in the right direction…
“It’s also, according to the World Economic Forum, the first generation in modern memory to be on track to be worse off than their parents. The median earnings of millennials in 2013 were 43% lower than someone who was their age and working in 1995. Even though average wages have inched slowly upward in recent years after a long period of stagnation, they’re still 8% lower than they were before the 2008 recession. And average student debt, has, since 2008, climbed from around $24,000 to over $37,000…
“According to a 2016 Gallup poll, the popularity of capitalism and socialism is neck-and-neck among younger Americans, while older generations are still distrusting of socialism. Younger people are also the ones driving the surge of the Democratic Socialists of America, which endorsed 15 winning candidates in the November election. And Americans aged 18 to 29, according to a recent WSJ poll, are more likely than any other age bracket to say that they believe the government should be doing more, not less, to help people in need.
“If anything, the Trump administration is only serving to galvanize millennials’ beliefs. The president himself is perhaps one of the most extreme products of capitalism, and his success signifies what many feel to be the irrationality of the system. And as the Republican Party inches closer to passing the tax bill that will increase inequality and strip students of their already-limited financial resources, while leaving even less to help people at the lower end of the economic spectrum, the call for a system that prioritizes humanity and equity over inflating the profits of a tiny fraction of the already well-off will only continue to grow.” FastCompany.com, December 8th.
Solid evidence of this mega-trend is reflected in a ruby red state, Alabama, which had not elected a Democrat to the Senate for a quarter of a century.  In the December 12th Senate special election to replace former Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions (who left to become Trump’s Attorney General), according to exit poll analysis reported in the December 13th Washington Post, over 60% of voters under age 44 supported a long-shot liberal Democrat, Doug Jones, against white supremacist/homophobe and accused sexual predator, Trump-supported GOP-candidate Roy Moore, who dominated the overall white vote (68%, with that 18-44 vote coming out of the remainder).
Is it mere coincidence that the above 60% number roughly mirrors the percentage of Millennials (59%) with at least some college education? Further, as that segment of the population most likely to be active evangelicals (older Americans) slowly die off, we are witnessing a slow contraction (according to a May 12, 2015 Pew survey, down about 3.4% from 2007 to 2014) of adherents to that politically fundamentalist view of Christianity.  Simply put, younger voters, even in the most conservative states, are not embracing the politics of their parents and grandparents.
Millennials and Z-generation are used to change; they feed on it. Trump populists hate change, and they believe powerfully that they can reverse it. Guess who’s being realistic! And trust me, this is a question being asked everywhere. Donald Trump has made the American capitalist-democracy model quite unattractive to most of the rest of the world.
I’m Peter Dekom, and if the United States manages somehow to hold together through this polarizing turmoil, the one true thing is that “future America” will look nothing like what Trump populists think.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

What Makes Trump Jealous



Vladimir Putin cut his teeth as a very successful “black arts” strategist within the former Soviet Union’s KGB, the USSR’s CIA equivalent. To put it mildly, he was a dirty tricks expert who now controls contemporary Russia with the rather extraordinary ability to crush any inquiry or policy challenge, instilling fear in any organization or individual who thinks otherwise. Death, confiscation of assets, prison or confinement to a mental institution are the rich rewards for those who have tried.
Challenge officially-disseminated “fake news” in Russia and prepare for those dire consequences. Officially, Russia never interferes in outside elections – wink, wink, and the Russian people seem to admire his ability to get away with it and wreak havoc in Western elections – and Russian athletes don’t need steroids or other unlawful enhancements to beat their opponents in just about any sport they choose. Putin has a blank check to do and say anything he wants without risk of local challenge. And then there’s our own Putin-wannabee.
Donald Trump emits a constant litany of “fake news” that is treated as gospel by his base, but so far at least, he lacks the power to silence his critics, stop inquiries (official and unofficial) delving into his and his cronies’ possible illegal manipulations and force his policies on to the entire nation without resistance. MSM (mainstream media) constantly debunks the fakeness, excoriates his lackeys who toe his mendacious line… and he does not seem to be able to stop them. He constantly returns to rallies with his base to bolster his massively insecure ego, seemingly drooling with envy at how Putin controls his country. But according to just about every nation poll in recent days, most Americans disapprove of Donald Trump. Russia? Polls? LOL!
Maybe Trump can challenge CNN indirectly, as his federal agencies – led by his appointees – threaten the AT&T-Time Warner merger. He can always label anyone who contradicts his latest tweet (which may itself contradict an earlier tweet) as a liar. His based will always buy it. He can certainly replace those in his inner circle who do not march in lockstep with his inconsistent and often inane policies and statements. Perhaps he even can side-step the roiling accusations of his self-admitted sexual predation as “locker room talk.” But so far, he lacks Putin’s power to kill, arrest, confine or strip wealth from those who criticize him. So far… although his “tax reform” legislation is clearly punitive to high tax blue states that sit atop the list of those who oppose him.
Putin just gets what he wants, far from the prying eyes of a free press. He even has the unambiguous support of the President of the United States, who has openly stated that believes Putin’s denials. The same “I looked into his eyes” affirmation uttered by an equally naïve George W Bush, the last GOP president. Put must love Republican presidents. That all of US intelligence agencies have confirmed Russian interference in the 2016 election does not seem to matter to Mr. Trump. And Putin is equally about badges of honor and Russian superiority.
As images of Putin playing ice hockey, swimming rivers and practicing martial arts permeate the press, clearly supremacy in sports is near and dear to Vladdy’s heart, an expression of power, discipline and excellence that sends a clear message of Russian superiority to the rest of the world. To ensure the litany of victories, Putin has wildly supported his national teams and athletes in global competitions with clear instructions to those who run those programs “to win at all costs.” But those administrators understand their leader’s directive as “do whatever is necessary to bring home the glory to Mother Russia.” And that has resulted in the most obvious program of doping in global competition, one that has led to the complete ban of an official Russian presence at the upcoming Olympic Games. Russian athletes have also been retroactively stripped of medals for violating antidoping rules.
The problem (to Vladdy) with the pattern of pervasive Russian doping is that it is not as susceptible to plausible deniability as is Putin’s policy of political disinformation and destabilization in Western elections. He just doesn’t have the same ability to use “deniable” intermediaries in sports programs where the private sector is just not present. The global community that controls such international sports competition is also simply not inside Russia.
As pointed out in my December 5th, Chastnye Voennie Companiy, blog, Russia has learned how to use private companies and criminal elements, paid under the table or rather directly controlled by Putin cronies, to implement pernicious Russian policies to destabilize their rather obvious enemies, almost always the United States and the West. Putin wants to extend Russia’s once glorious image as the greatest challenge to the West, a powerful force at the top of global power. While he has yet to supplant China ascension, at least the People’s Republic seems to be an ally in countering the obviously dwindling influence of the United States. But Russian cheating in sports reflects Putin’s policy of interference, misinformation and manipulation on the political side of the equation very well.
The December 8th New Times fills in the details: “The details of the sports scandal — deconstructed by Russian whistle-blowers who have provided rare insider insights — offer perhaps the purest case study of Russia’s drive to dominate, its brazen methods and, in part, its motivation to influence the American presidency.
“In a declassified intelligence report released early this year, United States officials said Russia’s attacks on the election had been, for Mr. Putin, partial payback for the doping scandal, which he repeatedly called an American-led effort to defame Russia. Last month, as new medals were stripped from Russian Olympians, Mr. Putin said the disqualifications were the United States’ attempt to undermine his re-election.
“In fact, sports regulators and investigators who conducted the multiple investigations into Russia’s doping are headquartered in Canada, and the Olympic leadership in charge of disqualifying athletes is based in Switzerland. It was the former president of that staunchly neutral country, Samuel Schmid, who conducted the latest investigation for the Olympic committee, resulting in Tuesday’s sanctions [12/5].
“In scrutinizing Russia, sports and antidoping officials have said they acted on objective forensic and scientific evidence of Russia’s fraud: documents, data, lab analyses and glass bottles of urine with telltale signs of tampering. Just as allies of the special counsel Robert Mueller have done this year in the context of the election inquiry, the officials have defended their impartiality and interest in plain facts.
“Three key whistle-blowers helped provide those facts: Grigory Rodchenkov, Russia’s former longtime chief antidoping chemist, as well as Yuliya and Vitaly Stepanov, a former Russian runner and a former employee of the nation’s antidoping agency. All now live in the United States, in undisclosed locations from which they have spoken openly about years of coordinated cheating. The Justice Department, too, has taken interest in their evidence.
“Dr. Rodchenkov, whose personal diaries cataloged each day of cheating in Sochi, came to the United States only after Vitaly Mutko — Russia’s deputy prime minister and former sports minister — asked him to resign in light of growing global suspicions about the extent of the nation’s cheating, which the chemist had helped mastermind.”
That Donald Trump has been supportive of Putin, that his election campaign managers seems to have pledged to “rip up the sanctions” (imposed because of Russia’s invasion of Crimea and deployment of forces inside Ukraine), that Trump’s insiders (including his immediate family) have connections to official Russia that are slowly being unveiled… all suggest that we are being destabilized by a foreign power with the complicity of those at the top of our leadership.
Even as Mr. Trump enlisted powerful business interests – like the Wall Street Journal, which is rewarding Trump for slashing corporate income tax – to support his presidency, the more Trump tries to extinguish official inquiries into his and his administration’s ties to Russia, the more suspicious we need to be. The open wound of Putin’s manipulation of his sport program – where we really get a clear look at how he operates – is a rather clarion call to investigate more.
I’m Peter Dekom, and we have yet to learn how to defend a free state from manipulation through social media, a task made that much more difficult with the obvious complicity of the President of the United States of America.