Tuesday, November 29, 2016

2016, Not A Good Year

“It could have been worse” is not the best way of looking at things. It is a coping mechanism to soften trauma, a way to process something bad by comparing it to something cataclysmic. Welcome to my 2016:

Pumpkin was bitten by another animal, the bite got infected and she almost bled to death before I could get her to the veterinary emergency room. She then spent 3 weeks recuperating with a plastic cone around her neck and more than a dozen stitches in her leg. It could have been worse, she could have died.

Ghost was in two fights, neither of which were serious, but resulted in my deciding he would no longer be allowed outside. He started overgrooming because he is unhappy, but I am not okay letting him back outside because he could be injured or killed. It could have been worse, he could have contracted rabies and have to be put down.

After going above and beyond my job responsibilities for more than three years for a boss I truly believed in, I was passed over for multiple promotions and transferred to another part of our office where the work is not nearly as interesting or important. It could have been worse, you still have a job.

I seriously injured my knee and could not exercise for almost two months. Even now, I am limited to 20-30 minutes on an exercise bike. Meanwhile, I have gained 10 pounds and get more depressed the longer my rehabilitation takes. It could have been worse, you could have blown out your knee ligaments and required surgery and a year’s worth of rehab.

My mother was diagnosed with cancer. It could have been worse, they caught it before it became terminal.

My sister criticized me for not spending enough time with my mom when she was in the hospital even though I came down on weekends  but live 3 hours away, have a full-time job, and no one here to help me take care of my home or cats. It could have been worse, you could have sunk to your sister’s level and reminded her you have lived in New Jersey for 13 years and she has never visited you.

Some highlights from dates I went on in 2016: (1) the woman who shared (in graphic detail) the particulars of her first anal orgasm (10 minutes after we met); (2) the woman who said, with a straight face, that Hillary’s use of a private email server should land her in Guantanamo (you know, where we hold the terrorists); (3) the woman whose dating profile said she was single with no kids and turned out to be married with two kids; and (4) the woman who showed up to Starbucks wearing a “cat ears” headband. It could have been worse, you could have married one of them.

I am now 46 years old, have not been in a serious relationship in more than three years, have no children, no family near me, and few close friends. And oh yeah, Donald Fucking Trump is going to be our President on January 20, 2017. Not a good year.


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Monday, November 28, 2016

TV Review - Men of a Certain Age

During a recent Internet/cable TV outage, I binge watched Men of a Certain Age, because, after all, I *am* a man of a certain age and I figured the story of three middle aged guys addressing the challenges of getting old would be appealing. The show, which ran for two seasons and a total of 22 episodes on TNT, was created by Ray Romano, who also stars as Joe Tranelli, a soon-to-be divorced party store owner with two kids and a gambling problem. His besties are Owen Thoreau, Jr. (Andre Braugher) a married father of three who has toiled as a salesman at his father’s car dealership his entire adult life and Terry Elliott (Scott Bakula) an aging Lothario who had a whiff of minor fame as an actor many years ago but nowadays rattles about with an air of Zen while gliding through life on temp jobs and casual relationships. 

After I finished the series, I was initially surprised to learn it has been honored with a Peabody Award after its first season, but then I realized that the people who give out awards like that are middle-aged guys who probably have a lot of unresolved daddy issues that they think can be resolved by bonding with your son over golf (as Romano does), sleeping with younger, hot women (which Bakula does), or working at a job you hate because you are taking care of your family (as Braugher does). 

Which is much of what happens in the show’s two seasons. Past the obvious tropes about getting older - reading glasses, peeing in the middle of the night, the colonoscopy you get at 50, the show is primarily concerned with opportunities lost, paths not taken, and regret. There is a Peter Pan quality to the whole thing, not just Bakula’s “professionally charming” character whose life as a confirmed bachelor is filled with a steady stream of beautiful sex partners, but all the characters’ desire to shrug aside the lives they have created. Romano’s character dreams of a second chance at playing golf professionally while Braugher has toiled at his father’s car dealership after failing in business in his 20s. 

The show is at its strongest when it avoids the easy cliché of little blue pills or old guys not understanding technology and instead mines the uncertainty of middle age. Braugher picks a fight at a bar with a younger, bigger man who sits in a chair being saved for Bakula, explaining to his friends afterwards that he was tired of taking shit and decided that was where he would make his stand. And that resonates. Much of adulthood is taking shit - from your boss, from your family, and the assorted randos we all have to deal with, the guy who changes your oil but tries to upsell you into replacing the air filter, the customer service reps who never have an honest answer, and that asshole who just cut in front of you in traffic. Fuck that guy, right?  

Similarly, when Men stops the revolving door that is Terry’s bedroom and has him experience loss - real loss - because he has played his cards wrong with (age appropriate but still hot!) Erin, it finds great humanity in a man approaching his sixth decade with the obvious fear of growing old alone. Terry shows up at Erin’s door unannounced after she has dumped him and returned to an ex-boyfriend and he looks at her wistfully and says “I don’t know if I’m supposed to wait for you or get over you.” It is a raw human moment experienced by a man unaccustomed to feeling such a thing and shows one of the sore spots of aging - vulnerability - in a way that does not feel cheap or manufactured. Few reach their fiftieth year without having loved and lost, but the sting is that much more painful when you feel time slipping away and the chances for long-term happiness dwindle. 

Men also makes an unabashed case for the importance of male friendship and expressing your feelings. The bull sessions the three have at their favorite diner or on nature hikes are the glue that holds the show together. Putting these basic aspects of human connection front and center among a gender reared to show little emotion and certainly not to express insecurity, anxiety, or fear is really important, but there is a fine line between male bonding and immaturity that the show sometimes finds difficult to straddle. 

Romano makes a male friend, his new bookie “Manfro,” and their drunken shamble of an evening early in the show’s first season when Joe learns his ex-wife is dating another man, is a real highlight. But Romano’s Joe keeps the other man at an arm’s length through most of the series run. When Manfro gets colon cancer, Joe helps out but also skims clients on the side, which results in the bookie attacking Joe at his store and knocking out one of his teeth. You suspect the bookie was less offended at the chiseling than the violation of their friendship. 

And therein lies the problem I found in watching Men. While the challenges resonated and felt real, the characters’ failures were rarely tied to real world consequences. Romano’s gambling problem costs him his marriage, but the biggest bet he places wins him the money he needs to move out of his long-term hotel room rental and into a well-appointed house just blocks from his children. Manfro’s assault lands Joe in a dentist’s chair where he reconnects with a hygienist he had fallen for but chased away when she learned of his gambling problem. Even his ex-wife is down for some one-off sex when he consoles her after she breaks up with her boyfriend.

When we meet Braugher’s character Owen, he is unfocused and indifferent to his job, worn down by years under his father’s thumb. But when the reins are handed to a slick, younger man and Owen Jr. quits  and accepts a job with a competitor, the old man changes his mind and hands the dealership over to his son. But Owen Sr. continues to backseat drive the decisions even as he tells his son about hundreds of thousands of dollars in undisclosed debt that knee caps the younger man’s attempts to rejuvenate the business. The father-son dynamic has a rented mule quality to it, with Braugher’s mien growing more dour the more responsibility piles on his shoulders and the more his father second guesses his decision making. 

Bakula is a commitment-phobe whose immediate response to good things in his life is either to nuke them or run away from them but when he falls for Erin, a woman with whom he had shot a TV commercial many years ago, her patience borders on the saintly. She stays with him even when he is humiliated publicly by a former (and much younger) paramour he walked out on, and is fine with his desire to chase a new career in TV directing even though he has no experience, quits a job he is (finally) good at (selling cars at Braugher’s dealership) and they had just moved in together. 


Oddly, none of the women, regardless of age, experience any of this existential angst. Whether they are in their 20s, 30s, or 40s, the women of Men are toned, gorgeous and always up for a roll in the hay but without all the pesky navel gazing and rumination on how things could have turned out differently. Erin quit acting many years before when she was told be a casting agent she was too old but loves her teaching job and Owen’s wife does go back to work yet continues to shoulder all of the child rearing as he tries to keep the car dealership afloat. Joe’s ex-wife is essentially an after thought except to experience a comeuppance when the guy she left her marriage for ends up cheating on her with a younger woman. The rest of the parade are one-dimensional sex objects, from the recurring character “Fantasy Woman” (a large breasted brunette who is seen almost exclusively in spandex but never given a name) to the succession of younger women, older waitresses, and other assorted sexual conquests Terry notches because of his charm and then shoulder shrugs at when he inevitably bails. 

Perhaps it is simply a matter of being spoiled by more serious dramas on pay cable that left me a bit cold at the Hollywood ending Men gave us. Joe qualifies for the Senior PGA tour, Owen’s father finally cuts the apron strings and lets his son run the dealership, and Terry and Erin move in together. It is an appealing fantasy of waving a magic wand over your life at fifty and wiping the slate clean, but bears little resemblance to reality. And maybe that is what the show is arguing for - that if it is true that as you get older you either become far more risk averse or far more risk tolerant, the show encourages the latter, not the former. That is fine so far as it goes, but it was a bit too pat for me. 


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Sunday, November 27, 2016

Book Review - The Lion in the Living Room

As a proud cat dad to two strays who have executed a bloodless coup and take over of my home, I eagerly started Abigail Tucker’s The Lion in the Living Room looking forward to a greater understanding and affection for these fuzzy little four-legged creatures. Surprisingly, and to my great disappointment, what I got instead was what mostly read like an anti-cat screed made all the more curious considering Tucker is herself a cat owner. I must admit, she sure has a funny way of showing her affection.

Most of The Lion reads as a polemic against cats generally and cat ownership specifically. We are given chapters that focus on a cat-specific parasite that has been tied to schizophrenia in humans, researchers who deem cats an invasive species responsible for wiping out prey within an ecosystem, and a description of cats as indifferent loners who essentially train humans (who they could take or leave) with behavioral modifications that suit their needs when we lock cats away in our homes, denying them their rightful place as predators in the outside world. Tucker is even dubious of the cats' long-held reputation for rodent eradication. She posits that in many cities, cats and mice have come to a détente because there are more than enough scraps and garbage for all to consume, while in and around the house, pesticides and exterminators have done the job we once relied on our four-legged friends to do.

It is all very dispiriting, from stories of the kill shelters that pile cat carcasses up to the skepticism of “trap, neuter, release” as an effective means of controlling the feline population. For someone who professes so much love for cats, Tucker finds little redeeming about them to write about. Her interviewees muse on how cat anxiety can be lowered by separating cats from humans and that cat owners are actually less likely to survive a year after a heart attack than dog owners (or members of the general public). 

So much of the book reads like the equivalent of attending a wedding of two people you know are ill-suited for one another yet go through with the marriage anyway. Unlike dogs, that have adapted and evolved into companions for humans, Tucker indicates that cats have not gone through a similar metamorphosis and retain key characteristics that have resulted in a deserved reputation for aloofness.  

Ultimately, Tucker’s conclusion is that notwithstanding all of these contra-indicators, cats and humans have gone through with this arrangement anyway, even though the relationship does not appear to benefit either party. I have to say my experience has been precisely the opposite of much of what Tucker writes about and observes. Not only do my two little ones show great affection, I do not particularly care if they modulate their meows to get some food or may have an ulterior motive tied to the crazy-eights they do around my legs. I love my cats whether or not their purrs are a life hack they know will get them a crunchy treat or they have subtly trained me to bring home overpriced toys. 

Tucker would have us believe we are aiding in our cats’ unhappiness because we are denying them their genetic coding as apex predators. Maybe so, but when my sweet Pumpkin almost died earlier this year because of a bite wound that got infected, I was not worried about whether or not she would recover and be able to hunt down neighborhood birds, I spent thousands of dollars in medical bills because I love her and had she died, I would have been devastated. If Pumpkin’s now entirely-indoor lifestyle expands her life expectancy at the price of her not being able to fulfill her mission as a killer of squirrels and mice, I am more than okay with that. 


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Tuesday, November 22, 2016

TV Review - The Good Place

There are few questions in life bigger than what happens when we die. Does heaven exist? Worse, does hell? And if so, where will our actions on earth leave us when we pass away. Not exactly what you would expect the plot of a television sitcom to grapple with, but comes now The Good Place, NBC’s winning new Thursday night comedy. In this rendering of the afterlife, judgment is unremitting and scientific - your earthly deeds tallied based on the amount of positivity or negativity they put into the world. [1] You truly need to be exceptional to gain admittance into the “good place,” which explains why every President but Lincoln, along with Picasso, Mozart, Elvis Presley, and Florence Nightingale are in the “bad place” while ordinary people like ethics professors, marriage counselors, Buddhist monks and a thirty-three year-old telemarketer from Arizona named Eleanor Shellstrop [2] are among the 322 souls who avoided that awful fate and landed in one of the good place’s perfect neighborhoods.

Overseeing the neighborhood is its architect, Michael, an otherworldly being manifested in the body of Ted Danson and Janet, his sidekick cum information repository for every bit of knowledge in the universe. Michael revels in the minutiae of the human condition. He is obsessed with the TV show Friends, finds amusement in the banality of karaoke and other pop culture ephemera like wax lips and Minions stuffed animals. [3] But Michael has little time to admire his handiwork. Shortly after Eleanor’s arrival, things start going horribly wrong, with everything from trash falling from the heavens to flying prawns being eaten by giant frogs and an enormous sink hole threatening to undo his meticulously planned community. We think it is Eleanor’s presence - unwarranted because of her rap sheet of social crimes (lying about whose name was pulled from a hat to determine who would be designated driver at a girl’s night out) and misdemeanors (leaving a dog sitting gig a day early to see Rihanna, which results in the dog overeating and becoming obese) that is to blame, but there is more to this mystery than meets the eye.

Show creator Michael Schur has indicated his writing was influenced by the groundbreaking ABC drama LOST and hints of that show can be seen in The Good Place. Flashbacks are used as a device to fill in the characters’ backstories but also to provide nuance and subtlety. Eleanor’s reluctant partner in crime is Chidi, the “real” Eleanor’s eternal soul mate [4] who, conveniently, was also a professor of ethics and is in a keen position to help “fake” Eleanor become a better person. But Chidi had his own earthly dilemmas. His 3,600 page treatise on ethics went unread [5] and the guilt of telling a minor lie to a co-worker about a pair of red leather boots so tortured Chidi he finally confessed the lie after the co-worker emerged unscathed from surgery for an aneurysm. [6] While Chidi is unquestionably virtuous and hates lying, was it worth the pain he caused his friend for what was essentially a fib in the service of the social contract?  

We also meet Tahani, a slightly pretentious philanthropist, It Girl, and one-time Baz Luhrmann muse [7] and her soulmate Jianyu, a Buddhist monk who has taken a vow of silence. Tahani may seem perfect, but her backstory includes lingering in the shadow of her more talented sibling, never receiving her parents’ approval and then suffering the ultimate humiliation when they die by being left out of their will because they spelled her name wrong. And finally, Jianyu is actually a small-time DJ and drug dealer from Jacksonville, Florida named Jason Mendoza who loves jalapeño poppers and EDM, but can also illustrate the philosophical tenet of utilitarianism by describing an incident when he framed a friend’s girlfriend for the theft of some boogie boards to keep his break dancing crew together. [8]

At its most general level, the show is invested in considering a simple question: should a “bad” person be given a second chance? Eleanor has inadvertently landed in the good place because of a mishap that occurred when she and a woman with the exact same name died at the exact some moment. The “other” Eleanor was an attorney who helped children in Ukraine and got innocent people off death row while our Eleanor sold fake vitamins to elderly people and generally acted in a selfish way towards everyone in her life. 

At first, the answer seems relatively straight forward. The havoc Eleanor wreaks ebbs when she corrects her behavior, but as the show pivoted toward the back half of its 13-episode run, we learn that the other Eleanor, the “real” Eleanor, is toiling away in the bad place, being tortured on a daily basis by being made to plan a baby shower for a woman she does not know and eating food that tastes like spider webs. [9] The dilemma brings two aspects of the show into sharper relief - the “fake” Eleanor is taking the place of someone who is not only deserving, but being forced to suffer the punishments “fake” Eleanor should be enduring and Chidi is being blocked from eternal bliss with his soul mate. Like LOST, which was overt in its homage to various philosophical tenets, The Good Place ruminates on these bigger questions but in a much more light hearted way.

The casting throughout is spot on. In the title role, Kristin Bell could have played Eleanor as a one note “hot mess,” after all, she dies in a grocery story parking lot after purchasing “Lonely Girl Margarita Mix For One” [10] but Bell’s portrayal is deeper than that. While she may default to chicanery and the easy way out, there is a budding sense of decency beneath the sass and potty mouth. She is capable of feeling guilt and is honest enough to note that being around “good” people makes her uncomfortable because of her own shortcomings. 

Danson is her equal and then some. His Michael is droll, whimsical, and endlessly fascinated by popular culture. Michael basks in the absurdity of life but is also its most pointed observer. The good place is littered with frozen yogurt shops, so when Eleanor asks Michael if he has heard of ice cream, he says he has, but likes frozen yogurt because it shows how humans will take something great and ruin it just a little so they have have more of it. [11] What a perfect description of mankind. Later, when Michael thinks he is to blame for the neighborhood woes and decides to retire, he laments the simple joys he will never experience - like pulling a hamstring or ending a quick conversation by telling someone to “take it sleazy.” [12] 

A late arrival to the show is Michael’s opposite number from the “bad place,” Trevor (a letter perfect Adam Scott in all his unctuous glory) whose jerky behavior includes telling women to “smile” and serving Manhattan clam chowder at room temperature on the train to the bad place. His posse are vain and narcissistic, constantly snapping selfies, mocking their good place opposites and literally snorting time. [13]

The big question, not unlike discovering the inside of the “hatch” on LOST, is, what now? Having pulled off the big reveal that Eleanor is an imposter within the show’s first half-season, where will the show take us? We know there is at least one other neighborhood fraud (Jianyu, who is outed by Tahani after she followed a trail of snack food crumbs and a surreptitious observation of Jianyu tapping a keg for the “bad place” posse to discover his “bud hole,” which is most definitely not a meditation retreat) and a higher being named Sean (a more perfectly anodyne name for a supreme being I do not know) will adjudicate the question of what to do with Real & Fake Eleanor. Might there be other glitches in the system or is this even “the good place” at all, a la the LOST island as a purgatory for those on the way to the great beyond. I can’t wait to find out.

The Good Place returns to NBC on January 5, 2017. 

END NOTES

1. Negative impacts include, among other things, being the commissioner of an american football league (-824.55), using the term “bro-code” (-8.20), using “Facebook” as a verb (-5.55) and oh yeah, committing genocide (-435,288.74). On the other hand, positive impacts include remaining loyal to the Cleveland Browns (+53.83), the 94 times you gracefully ended a conversation about the weather (cumulative total +79.80), not discussing your veganism unprompted (+9857.02) and yes, ending slavery (+814, 748.95). Everything Is Fine, Season 1, Episode 1. 
2. Eleanor’s birthdate is October 14, 1982 (although while alive she lied and said it was 1986) and since the show started before her 34th birthday in 2016, her age at death was 33. Most Improved Player, Season 1, Episode 8. 
3. What We Owe To Each Other, Season 1, Episode 6. 
4. In the good place, you are reunited with your actual soul mate. Everything Is Fine, supra.
5. Tahani Al-Jamil, Season 1, Episode 3. 
6. What We Owe To Each Other, supra.
7. Tahani Al-Jamil, supra.
8. Category 55 Emergency Doomsday Crisis, Season 1, Episode 5. See also, Jason Mendoza, Season 1, Episode 3. 
9. Someone Like Me As A Member, Season 1, Episode 9. 
10. Everything Is Fine, supra.
11. What We Owe To Each Other, supra.
12. Here, Michael’s suffering is two-fold. His disappointment at eating his first Saltine (too dry, too salty) is made worse when Tahani tells him to “take it sleazy” to which he moans, YOU got to say it? His retirement is not to some heavenly Palm Beach, but rather, having his essence scooped out of his earthly body and eternal beatings with a sharp object. The Eternal Shriek, Season 1, Episode 7. 

13. Someone Like Me As A Member, supra.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Perils of a Trump Presidency (Part III)

Having looked at some of the higher level threats posed by our incoming President, let us pause to realize far more danger lurks in the little nooks and crannies of the federal government where true mischief can be made with very little detection unless or until a massive screw up occurs.

Consider some of the power wielded by the Bureau of Land Management within Department of Interior. More than 247 million acres of federal land come under BLM’s purview, but you rarely hear much about this governmental backwater unless it is rocked by a major scandal, as it was during George W. Bush’s administration when oil and gas industry lobbyists plied DOI employees with drugs, engaged in sexual relationships with BLM employees and showered them with other goodies like tickets to concerts, football games, and baseball games, along with paintball outings and golf trips. BLM collects $10 billion a year in oil and gas royalties from the regulated industry, so it is not hard to see why employees there might have their hands out, but who is going to watch the henhouse in a Trump Administration when the fox is in the White House? 

Sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll not your speed? Google “Monica Goodling” to see what happens at the Department of Justice when inexperienced and ideological attorneys are given massive power over hiring high-level attorneys to enforce our nation’s laws. This does not even take into account the ability of offices like the Voting Rights Section to engage in partisan investigations of the mythical New Black Panthers or more realistically, the Black Lives Matter movement. And the largely defanged Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms had a brief rejuvenation by getting a full-time Director a few years ago, but expect the NRA to tell their President (those millions in ads supporting Trump were not done out of the goodness of their heart) to stuff ATF back in the box so people remain largely ignorant of the causes of gun violence in our country. 

Other agencies like the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Health and Human Services oversee billions of dollars that flow through grant administration and are ripe targets for graft, double dealing, kickbacks, and other sweetheart deals that people Trump associated with in the business world could easily bring into the federal government. 

Still not worried? What about science, medical research, and technology. Small agencies like NOAA are critical to our understanding of climate change, the formation and path of hurricanes and tornadoes, and much more but is an Administration skeptical that climate change is even manmade going to maintain funding levels necessary to continue this critical work? How about the National Cancer Institute? Vice President Biden was put in charge of a cancer “moon shot” but will there be much interest in this work, even though the Vice President’s report asked for a mere $1 billion to advance a number of initiatives geared towards finding cures for various forms of cancer. 

Of course, this does not even scratch the surface of what may happen due to lax regulation or oversight of Wall Street, rubber stamping large scale corporate mergers, or changing the government’s position on Internet neutrality. When the reins of government stretch so widely, deeply, and broadly, there is literally no end to the type of malfeasance that could occur if the wrong combination of people are put in positions to take advantage of their power. 

Unfortunately, because Trump is so radioactive and has so little connection to the Republican establishment, you might just see some random former Apprentice contestant running, I don’t know, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. And because smaller agencies and programs are not widely covered by the media, little will be known until, as we saw with Hurricane Katrina, what happens when unqualified people are put in charge of government agencies who have real responsibility for the health, safety, and welfare of our fellow Americans. 


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Friday, November 18, 2016

The Perils of a Trump Presidency (Part II)

Sure, Trump could stock the Supreme Court with radical jurists who will hold a majority for the next 15-20 years and Congress could swiftly undo the social safety net that lifted millions of elderly people out of poverty and ensures good medical treatment for senior citizens, but really, could it get worse? Yes it can and it probably will. 

While there may be some faint glimmer of hope that Congress, staring into the abyss of privatizing Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid (not to mention repealing Obamacare) may step back and rethink things, but in the realm of foreign policy, they will have little say or control over what an inexperienced, but arrogant and narcissistic President might do.

The world is a complicated place and foreign policy is not the same as negotiating with regulators in Atlantic City over your casinos. Kim Jong Un might randomly detonate a nuclear bomb or fire off a missile just to get everyone’s attention, an entire democratic movement might sweep the Middle East, or as we have seen, Vladimir Putin might straight up invade other countries or have his allies shoot down commercial airliners. This of course does not take into account your run of the mill concerns, OPEC cutting production to goose oil prices, terrorists plotting attacks on the U.S. or our allies, the festering wound that is the Israel/Palestine conflict, or the drug trade that funnels heroin, cocaine and marijuana from South and Central America into the arms, mouths, and noses of American consumers.

Into this thicket walks a man with little understanding of these issues. Worse, he is surrounding himself with trigger-happy Islamophobes whose world view is blinkered and not shy about using the world’s largest, most sophisticated, and deadly military – commonly thought of as something to be used judiciously and more as a deterrent –  may be the option of first resort to someone who has never served but has a fragile ego and is easily goaded into fights.

A shooting war is certainly a possibility, but there are other concerns too. The unspoken bargain we have held with much of the free world for decades has been a trade off between our military might and their willingness to indulge our oversized influence in the world. But we do not know who Trump will appoint as his ambassadors, or into high level positions at the State and Defense Departments. Under George W. Bush, relations with many of our oldest and closest allies were harmed because of his chesty approach to American dominance, one can only imagine the attitude of a guy who makes W look like a shrinking violet. A thumb on the scale for the Israelis might trigger an intifadah in the West Bank. Threats of tariffs might throttle imports from China. Squeezing NATO members for more defense spending may erode cooperation on tracking terrorism suspects. To borrow an Orwellian phrase from Donald Rumsfeld, it is the unknown unknowns that we should fear.

On the ABC drama Designated Survivor the HUD Secretary is elevated to the Presidency when the entire Cabinet is wiped out in a terrorist attack during the President’s State of the Union address. Shortly after, the new President is hood winked by the Russians into a prisoner swap so we can recover an American track and field coach they detained. As it turns out, the American is a double agent, but the President does not figure it out until it is too late. Such a scenario is easy to envision with Trump who, unlike the fictitious President Tom Kirkman, is not a cerebral, decent guy, but an arrogant jerk who, instead of calling the Russian Ambassador to the Oval Office for a lecture after being duped, might just send a few missiles skyward to express his displeasure. What could possibly go wrong?


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Thursday, November 17, 2016

The Perils of a Trump Presidency (Part I)

Trump’s election on its own is bad enough, but through a few quirks, narrow down ballot victories and dumb luck timing, the stars are aligned for a major shift in our country that you would think occurred because of massive Republican landslide victories instead of a popular vote defeat at the Presidential level.

Consider the Supreme Court. Senate Republicans took the unprecedented step of blocking President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland and will now rubber stamp a Trump appointment, all but ensuring a return to the 5-4 conservative majority that had existed before Justice Scalia’s death. But it potentially goes much further than that. Justice Ginsberg is 83, Justice Kennedy is 80 and Justice Breyer is 78. All that is stopping Trump and Republicans from securing a 7-2 (!) conservative majority is good health and the collective hope that these three justices care more about the country than handing Trump the power to appoint their replacements. If any one of these three dies or retires in the next four years, the court will lean further right and if all three are replaced, a conservative majority could stretch well into the 2030s, a run of dominance that goes back to the 1980s and would represent one of the longest uninterrupted eras in the Court’s history.

Had Democrats won two more Senate races, they could have at least tempered Trump’s options, but with a Republican majority and the temptation to elevate a 40- or early 50-something conservative justice to the bench, do not be surprised if the filibuster rule is eliminated so such an appointment can take place. Moreover, the 2018 Senate map is very favorable for Republicans, with Democrats defending seats in states like Montana, West Virginia, Indiana, and Missouri. Senate Republicans may seat 58 or 59 senators come January 2019.

Now think about the bedrock pillars of the social safety net – Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. A narrow Trump win aided by gerrymandered Congressional districts and that small Senate majority may result in massive changes to these programs. Speaker Ryan’s euphemistic “premium support” plan for Medicare was part of the Romney/Ryan 2012 campaign and would mean offering senior citizens vouchers to pay for private health insurance. If this sounds familiar, Ryan argues against Obamacare, which gives subsidies to people who cannot get health insurance through their employer (or are self-employed) to, yup, you got it, buy health insurance on the private market. 

Putting aside the hypocrisy, tossing seniors to the predations of the health insurance market would be catastrophic for them, but no matter – members of Congress are ensured lifetime health benefits so long as they serve 5 years, so what do they care? Medicaid will most assuredly be “block granted” back to the states which will allow them to trim assistance (just look at the variations in unemployment insurance) and because the media and Republicans have convinced younger people Social Security will not even be around when they retire, a massive boon to Wall Street is in the making in the form of “partial privatization” of Social Security. The pitch will be that younger people should be allowed to invest some of their money themselves, but who but Wall Street brokers can help you navigate the complex financial system?

This does not even speak to what will happen to the Affordable Care Act and the nearly 20 million people who are now covered under it. Whatever “replacement” is offered will surely provide less coverage, bring back tissue thin catastrophic policies that offer little while providing a second boon to health insurers, who got huge boosts under Obamacare with the addition of millions of new customers and will now likely be able to dump the people who need coverage the most, again boosting their corporate bottom lines.

There is also likely to be massive debt spending. I know what you are thinking. Weren’t Republicans screaming about borrowing under Obama and forced “off sets” in government spending if new spending was requested? Yes, but that was different. You see, Obama is a Democrat, Republicans have no qualms about running up the government’s credit card bill when one of their own is in the White House. 

But adding insult to injury will be the inevitable tax cuts that go along with the spending spree. If this movie sounds familiar, we have seen it – twice – and know how it ends. Republicans run up massive debt and deficit and a Democrat comes in and the belt suddenly gets tightened. But unlike the mess Bill Clinton cleaned up or Barack Obama for that matter, our debt is now close to $20 trillion and our annual budget deficit is north of $400 billion. And because our debt continues to accumulate regardless of spending because of the interest we pay on what has already been borrowed, a typical Republican “borrow and spending” spree could actually bankrupt the country this time, but again, Democrats have no power to do anything about it.  


Put it all together, and when Democrats are running for President in 2020 they may be seeking an office neutered of what it once was. Assuming Trump was a one-off and the country comes to its sense, an incoming 46th President may have no Supreme Court nominations to make and a court that is openly hostile to everything from voting rights to abortion, a social safety net that has been rewoven to funnel billions to Wall Street, pharmaceutical companies, and health insurers, and a budget and debt burden that crushes any attempt at investing in our nation’s future or paying for anything other than the bare necessities. Dystopian? Sure, but entirely plausible too.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Hillary Got "Gored"

“The biggest problem she has is that a ton of people in the media have Hillary fatigue. I don’t know if the grass-roots Democrats do; eight years ago they did, which is why they looked to Obama. People had Hillary fatigue — really Clinton fatigue — and were looking for a new direction. Now in the grass roots there’s some Clinton nostalgia, especially as Obama’s presidency looks shaky. But the Hillary fatigue in the press corps is going to be a challenge.” (emphasis mine)

If I told you this was a quote from Meet The Press moderator Chuck Todd, I am sure you would not be surprised. What might surprise you is that Mr. Todd said this in November 2014, months before Hillary Clinton announced her candidacy for President but a clear harbinger of the type of coverage she would receive once she did.

If this all has a vague whiff of deja vu, it is because we saw this movie once before. In 2000, the mainstream media landed on a narrative about Al Gore that went something like this - he was a earth-tone wearing beta male with a penchant for exaggeration and a bit of a know-it-all. Meanwhile, his opponent was an affable cowboy who you could have a beer with and a solid hang. This framing minimized Gore’s long-standing passion for environmental causes, his forward thinking when it came to information technology, and his role in streamlining government services. At the same time, his opponent’s poor business record, thin executive resume (in Texas, the Governor is a largely ceremonial role) and “fuzzy math” when it came to the few policies he actually spoke about were also turned down because with a last name like Bush and some “adult” supervision from people like Condi Rice or Colin Powell, how bad could the guy screw up?

Back then the stakes did not seem particularly high. The country was at peace, the budget was in surplus, unemployment was below 4 percent, the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the Nasdaq were flirting with record highs and all was good in the world. It seemed like the country was on auto pilot, raking in tax revenue hand over fist while employers fought over job applicants. And so, even though Bill Clinton had taken office at a time of skyrocketing deficits he converted to surpluses and an economy that was limping along and now running on all cylinders, through dint of five Supreme Court justices, Clinton’s Vice President was denied the Presidency in favor of the son of the man Clinton had defeated for the job. 

In the after action, the press took little responsibility for their caricature of Gore, instead placing fault on him for his weak campaign, refusal to deploy Clinton to help, and of course, the sighing he did during one of his debates with Governor Bush. The consequences of failing to fully vet Bush would become clear quickly, but even after the horror of 9/11 and invasion of Afghanistan, the press credulously pressed the Bush Administration’s case for war in Iraq, a sin we are still paying for to this day. 

So flash forward from 2000 to 2016. Another Democratic President has successfully pulled the country out of economic dire straits created by his Republican predecessor. His potential successor is a well-known commodity who the media have pilloried and harangued for the better part of three decades. Chuck Todd tipped the media’s hand when he lamented “Hillary fatigue” months before she started her run, but the imbalance of coverage she received was the Gore treatment on steroids. 

As has been chronicled by Harvard University, the coverage Hillary received in 2015 was far more negative than anything experienced by any other candidate, while Donald Trump received largely favorable coverage. Clinton was hounded incessantly over her use of a private email server - a story to be sure that deserved some coverage, but not the wall-to-wall reporting it was given. Indeed, as chronicled by Media Matters, the email story received more news coverage on the main nightly news programs than all policy discussion combined - not Hillary’s policies, all candidates’ policies. In the 9 days between the release of FBI Director James Comey’s two letters in late October and early November, the five major newspapers in America ran no less than 100 stories on something that turned out to be much ado about nothing. 

And although the email story largely died down after Comey’s original exoneration in early July, the narrative had been fixed. “Questions had been raised” and the media turned its attention to the Clinton Foundation, turning an organization that helps millions of poor and needy people, mostly in the third world, obtain needed medicine, education, and other basic services, into some sort of quasi-criminal enterprise and slush fund for Bill and Hillary Clinton’s personal gain, when of course, nothing could have been further from the truth. 

The result of this was a populace that considered Clinton less trustworthy than Donald Trump, a man who, pick your poison, had bankrupted multiple companies, may have evaded federal taxes (we will never know, he never released any of his tax returns), may have groped or assaulted more than ten women, bragged about the fact he could grope women with impunity, and whose few policy ideas were either patently ridiculous (the vaunted border wall) or vague (getting rid of state “lines” around health care as a substitute for the Affordable Care Act) you would have thought his policy shop was run by a high school dropout. But no mind. Although Clinton had been criticized for not holding “press conferences” (CNN literally had a count UP clock to track the time since her last one), Trump snubbed the press for the entire general election - a time, remember, when so much reporting was finally being done on the Trump Foundation, on his tax returns, on his groping of women - and the press did not say a word about it. What few interviews Trump gave were largely within the friendly confines of Fox News and on the off chance he gave someone else the chance to question him, he would end the interview abruptly if he did not like the subject matter. 

For Clinton, it was a no win situation. Her accessibility was used to ask her about her email issue (even though she had answered questions dozens of times) and the Foundation, never mind her robust and specific policy proposals, all of which went largely ignored by her traveling press corps and surely got no coverage on cable news. Ultimately, the press landed on the idea that the election was a “lesser of two evils” choice even though Hillary had spent her entire adult life in public service and with a record that any fair-minded journalist would have to acknowledge was focused on improving the lives of women, children, and families. Was she perfect, of course not, but by minimizing her career and elevating the narrative that she was deceitful and untrustworthy, the press did her and the country an incredible disservice. Everyone understood Trump was a bigot and a misogynist and worse, but if she was equally bad, just for different reasons, than the permission structure to vote for him became much easier to erect. 

Sadly, this is not 2000. While the economy has recovered, we are still running a budget deficit in excess of $400 billion a year, which will likely spike if the tax cuts and military spending Trump has promised come to fruition. We are no longer on a glide path, as we were when Bill Clinton left office, to pay off all of our debt. Instead, our long-term borrowing will soon hit $20 trillion and will rise regardless, but far faster and to a greater amount if Trump’s proposals, which got minimal coverage during the campaign, are enacted. But do not expect the press to own up to its role in any of this. As they did with Gore and the Iraq War, they will largely absolve themselves of responsibility for the coming catastrophe. If you need any further proof, just look who they helped put in the White House a few short days ago.

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy 

Friday, November 4, 2016

2016 Election Predictions

This election has been dispiriting to say the least. The flood of attacks on Hillary Clinton have been as predictable as they have been erroneous, like flashbacks to the 90s when I saw so much of this up close and personal. She has been forced to engage in a shame walk worthy of Cersei Lannister as tens of thousands of emails have either been leaked or disclosed and then cherry picked to make her look as venal and suspicious as possible. Investigators within our nation’s lead law enforcement agency leak information to cause her political pain and Congressional Republicans are circling like vultures already floating impeachment while threatening to deny her the basic privileges of office like Supreme Court appointments. Her other foe is the media, which long ago was bemoaning “Clinton fatigue” and has worked their magic in turning her family’s charitable foundation into something nefarious instead of a leading light in helping the poor and needy.

Taken together, this loose affiliation of foes may end up denying Clinton the White House, which would be disappointing enough, but it would be done in the service of elevating a racist, xenophobic, misogynist who has been accused of sexual predation by no less than a dozen women to the Presidency. The incalculable damage Donald Trump has already done to the body politic and our stature in the world would be magnified one hundred-fold were he the leader of the free world.

With that said, here are some predictions and thoughts on what I think will happen on Tuesday and a few things I am going to watch:

President of the United States: I have Hillary Clinton becoming our 45th President in a 352-186 electoral vote landslide. I got to this total based on the 2012 map but giving Trump Iowa and Hillary North Carolina and Arizona. I think Ohio is the only other possible state that might flip to Trump, though I think Hillary will win narrowly, while it would not surprise me if Clinton eked out a win in Georgia or lost narrowly in Arizona. Taken together, her electoral college range is between 325 and 375. The two states with congressional district apportionment, Nebraska and Maine, may also flip a lone electoral vote to the other side, but I do not think it will matter, regardless.

U.S. Senate: I have Democratic pick-ups in Indiana, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Illinois, and North Carolina and a hold in Nevada. I have Republicans keeping Florida. The “x” factor is Missouri. I would love to see Jason Kander pull out a win against Roy Blunt, a quintessential Republican insider who has done absolutely nothing in the Washington, D.C. other than divorce his first wife to marry a tobacco lobbyist.  Chuck Schumer will be Majority Leader and will, I expect, eliminate the filibuster rule for all judicial appointments as one of his first orders of business. 

House of Representatives: I am not Charlie Cook and I do not have the granular-level knowledge to plausibly predict what will happen other than to say I would expect a Democratic pick-up of between 10 and 15 seats, leaving Republicans with a narrower majority and a clear choice. Do they go full obstructionist, toss Paul Ryan overboard and elevate a more overtly partisan into the role of Speaker? Do “moderate” Republicans cut a deal with Democrats to pick a more centrist Speaker? Or do Republicans do what we expect, which is carp a lot about Ryan but ask him to remain. My guess is that if the Republican majority is really narrow, like 5 seats narrow, Ryan quits Congress to focus on running in 2020 while the inmates run the asylum.

Miscellaneous: A couple of things I will be watching for after votes are tallied and we can dig into the data:

  • Third party results: Neither Gary Johnson nor Jill Stein garnered 1% of the vote in 2012, yet polls consistently showed both well above that number this year. In Johnson’s case, he flirted with high single digits/low double digits for a time and Stein topped out around 5%. I have my doubts that either will even come close to these numbers.
  • Republican cross-overs: There was some sturm und drang a few days ago when a firm commissioned by the College of William and Mary did what was essentially exit polling over the phone of early voters in Florida. Their results indicated that 28% of registered Republicans had crossed over to vote for Hillary, an enormous number. If Hillary were to get even half that amount in Florida and elsewhere, her victory will be far greater than polls predict. 
  • Ticket splitters: Much has been made about the potential for a return to ticket splitting due to Trump’s toxicity in certain parts of states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida. The extent of ticket splitting may end up swaying who controls the Senate not just in those states but in places like Missouri, North Carolina, and Indiana where Trump is polling better. 

The last thing I will be curious to see is what, if any, after action reporting is done on how awful the media coverage writ large has been for the last 18 months. While some quality work has been done by people like David Farenthold, so much of what passed for coverage was solely focused on horse race coverage instead of policy. Layered on top of that has been cable news’s willingness to give Trump unfettered access to their airwaves for what amounted in many cases to hour-long infomercials for his campaign via stump speeches. Their collective decision to run stories on emails stolen by a foreign government to embarrass the Clinton team, not to mention the blind eye they largely turned to an FBI Director inserting himself into the race less than two weeks before election day, has been shameful.

Even more disheartening is the expectation that on the off chance Trump does win, media outlets will disclaim responsibility for his victory even though the media’s failure to fully vet Trump during the primaries while also failing to call out his myriad lies were two reasons he was able to steamroll his opposition. The media also conflated Clinton and Trump’s sins in ways that made them seem equally bad even though doing so was like saying the common cold and stage four cancer are the same because they both make you sick. In the balance, they minimized Hillary’s four decades of public service while elevating Trump’s dodgy business career even though the former was exemplary and the latter was littered with bankruptcies and lawsuits. 

Anyway, if Hillary wins focus will quickly turn to the next chapter in this ongoing battle between her and the press and her and her political opponents, with little pause being taken to consider her singular accomplishment or its importance to our democracy. Like everything Hillary has had to endure since she burst on the national scene, she will shrug and get back to work. 


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Sunday, October 30, 2016

Comey's Folly

When FBI Director James Comey sent a vaguely worded three-paragraph letter to Congress on Friday advising Congressmen and Senators that new information had been discovered in the FBI’s investigation of Secretary Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server, the effect was swift and predictable. Within hours, her rival, Donald Trump, was calling this “worse than Watergate” (it’s not) and investigative reporters were getting leaks from “senior officials” that filled in the blanks of Comey’s ambiguous statement. Some reports indicated none of the email in question were written by or to Secretary Clinton. Others advised the FBI had not even looked at the email or secured a warrant to do so. 

This is precisely why investigators do not comment on ongoing investigations. Putting aside the presumption of innocence we all have, the damage to a person’s reputation that attends having their name connected with the words “criminal investigation” is incredibly damaging. Prosecutors open thousands of cases every year that never lead anywhere and are closed without the public ever knowing the names, much less the subject matter, of those probes. Public officials do not deserve special treatment, they deserve the same treatment as any citizen if they are investigated and cleared or are the subject of an ongoing investigation - silence from prosecutors unless and until charges are filed. 

Reporters attempting to excuse Comey as being in a difficult position - either providing notice and taking his lumps (as he is) or withholding notice and being criticized for it - misses the mark by a mile. Comey is not some naive newcomer to the ways of Washington. He was the U.S. Attorney in one of the highest profile offices in the country, served as the second-in-command at the Department of Justice and cut his teeth investigating, yes, you guessed it, the Clintons, in the 1990s. Having held a press conference in July that was, to paraphrase John Podesta, light on substance and heavy on editorial comment, all of which was then used to attack Secretary Clinton, the idea Comey was in a “tough spot” here is laughable. He knew exactly what the impact of his letter would be and the drafting of it was so amorphous that it tarred Clinton as guilty - of something - without any evidence or ability to defend herself, which is now being used to impact the election.  

This is precisely why Department of Justice policy is clear that commenting on investigations close to elections should be avoided barring extraordinary circumstances. Comey flouted this policy and, if reports are true, the recommendations of senior officials, including the Attorney General, who counseled against him doing it. Comey’s actions should not just matter to partisan Democrats, but all Americans who believe in the rule of law and the democratic (“little d”) process - the voters are vested with the responsibility of selecting our elected officials, not an FBI Director who is worried about his reputation on Capitol Hill. Our system of government gives both prosecutors and politicians ample tools to address criminal activity, what it does not countenance is an unelected government official inserting himself into an election so close to it. 


Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy