Mueller Report.

OK, this is a first-twitch response.  Probably have to eat it–and my hat–soon.

So far, and we’ll have to wait a while to b sure, Robert Mueller has not objected to Attorney General William Barr’s summary of his findings. The BBC’s Anthony Zurcher opines that the one sentence quote from the Mueller report on “conspiracy” is as close as lawyer-speak allows to a complete exoneration. Without an underlying crime, it is difficult to distinguish between simply defending oneself against a loose-cannon investigator and obstruction of justice.

Mueller reports that the Russians tried to “collude,” but the Trump campaign wouldn’t cooperate. This was clear a year ago in the testimony of Papodopoulos.  Also, there’s plenty of evidence that the Russkies tried to help Trump. Just no evidence that a) the Trump campaign cooperated or–so far as I know–b) it made any difference. Jane Mayer will disagree with that latter remark.

I think that we’re still waiting on a Department of Justice Inspector-General’s report on how the Trump investigation began. The same IG evaluated the work of James Comey on the HRC investigation, and then evaluated the behavior of Peter Strozk. So, we’ll know more then.

Bear in mind that the Russians could have identified Christopher Steele as an American government agent during 2015-2016.  At the behest of the Department of Justice, Steele took a pass at Oleg Deripaska.  Deripaska probably grassed to Putin.  I don’t recall seeing Steele’s expenses for things like massive payments to Russians in exchange for state secrets.  (I’m assuming that revealing state secrets when Vladimir Putin tends to kill–in gruesome fashion–anyone who  leaks information required monetary compensation.  But what do I know?  Perhaps there are many Russian government officials so deeply concerned that Donald Trump might become president that they were willing to get Putinium added to their tea.  Or perhaps Steele got his “dossier” under the Old Pals Act.)  Failing those alternative possibilities, anything Steele got from the Russians after that may have been a Russkie plant intended to mess with the 2016 election. Mueller did not investigate that possibility. I wish he had.

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Curmudgeon Me 2.

Nancy Pelosi rules out impeachment as “not worth the trouble” unless Robert Mueller’s investigation found evidence of actual high crimes and misdemeanors.[1]  Mueller has not yet filed his report or possible final indictments.  He might report evidence of impeachable offensives by President Donald Trump, although Department of Justice opinion seems to hold that a sitting president cannot be indicted.  Attorney General William Barr might release the report or a summary of it, or he might not.  Not releasing it would make me suspect that Mueller reported impeachable offenses and Barr sought to cover for him.

On the other hand, Attorney General Barr is a long-time mainstream Republican, as are most of the Republican Senators.  What would damage the long-term interests of the Republican Party more, impeaching Trump and replacing him with Mike Pence or covering-up impeachable offenses and then having them revealed as soon as a Democrat becomes Attorney General?

What Speaker Pelosi may have been doing is trying to warn fellow Democrats that she doubts that Mueller will report either “collusion” between the Trump campaign and the Russkies or “obstruction of justice.”[2]  What Mueller has achieved so far has been to get the National Security Agency to tell him who were the Russian hackers, then to indict them; to convict George Papadopoulos for lying to FBI agents about his contacts with Russians; to convict Paul Manafort for financial crimes committed before he became Trump’s campaign manager and for tampering with witnesses to avoid subsequent prosecution; to indict Rick Gates, Manafort’s assistant in the financial crimes, and Roger Stone, and Michael Cohen; and to get Michael Flynn to co-operate.  So, it looks like we are waiting on what has been learned from Flynn and anything that Cohen said in secret that he did not say in public testimony.  I don’t know what that will be.

 

Brenton Tarrant, the accused New Zealand gun-man, was a fat boy child of divorced parents who lived with his father, didn’t like school, and acted out in non-violent ways.[3]  Apparently, he was bullied in school.  Also, “he was a heavy-metal fan.”[4]  In short, pretty run of the mill kind of victim-kid in any high school.  They rarely turn into mass murderers.  If they did, most of us would already be dead.  Then, he changed.  After escaping high-school, he remade himself physically.  He lost a lot of weight through changes in diet and exercise, and became a personal trainer at a local gym.  Again, nothing extraordinary here.  Men’s Health is full of stories of similar constructive transformations.[5]  No one recalls him as violent or white nationalist.  Then he went off to travel the world.  Yet again, nothing extraordinary.  British and European youth hostels are full of young Australians and New Zealanders come from the far side of the world.  Same is probably true of Asia.

It looks like he was “radicalized” during his travels.  This will take more digging than ordinary journalists can do.  Wait a year for the story in the New Yorker.

[1] Peter Baker and Emily Cochrane, “Ruling Out Impeachment May Set Far-Reaching Precedent,” NYT, 13 March 2019.

[2] JMO, but it would be hard to call defending yourself against James Comey “obstruction of justice” if there is no underlying crime.  I’m sure that I’m wrong, but there it is.

[3] Isabella Kwai, “Shock and Disgust in Christchurch Suspect’s Hometown,” NYT, 17 March 2019.

[4] Aha!

[5] Look at the “Belly Off” series for numerous examples.

Rising Tide.

In the 1840s, two republics contended for power in the southwestern quadrant of North America.  In 1846, Mexico and the United States went to war over the issue.  The United States inflicted a catastrophic defeat on Mexico.  As prize of war, the United States got California, Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico.  Plus the Republic of Texas was allowed to join the United States.  In 1853, the United States “purchased” the Gadsden Strip from a chastened Mexico.

Until 1924, the United States pursued a policy of “open borders.”[1]  That meant millions of Southern and Eastern Europeans could migrate to the USA.  Big industrial cities in the East and the Midwest filled up.  It also meant that there were no restriction on cross-border movements in the Southwest.  Many Mexicans migrated northward toward the more dynamic economy of the United States.

Then came the Depression, which decreased wages in both Mexico and the United States.[2]  When the United States entered the Second World War, the American economy began a long boom.  Between 1944 and 1966, 5 million “braceros” (Mexican temporary workers) came to the United States.  Not all of them went back.  By 1969 an estimated 540,000 illegal immigrants were working in the United States.  That number increased markedly in the 1970s and 1980s.  The economy of Mexico slumped far more than did that of the neighboring United States.  By 1986, perhaps 3.2 million illegals were living in the United States.  Mostly they were doing work that ordinary American citizens would not do.  Hard, dirty, and for long hours.

In 1979, the Carter Administration (1977-1981) proposed building a border wall.  In contrast, inn1986, the Reagan Administration supported an Immigration Reform and Control Act that granted amnesty to 2.7 million of the illegals.

Under the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush Administrations, it was back to “get tough.”  From a dozen miles of fence between San Diego and Tijuana, the amount of fence grew to 560 miles after 9/11.  In 2000, 1.6 million illegals were caught at or near the border.  Then the Obama Administration added 137 miles of fence for a total of 697 miles of fence on the 1,954 mile-long Mexican-American border.  Purportedly, improvements in the Mexican economy then reduced the migration of Mexicans.[3]  In 2017, the Border Control arrested only 310,000 illegals.   So, triumph without a—full–wall!

The recent border “crisis” arises from different sources.  Many Central American countries are collapsing under the weight of gang violence and mis-government.  Whole families are migrating and presenting themselves as “refugees” at US points-of-entry.

However, people crossing the Sonoran desert is a peripheral issue in so far as illegal immigration is concerned.  In 2017 alone, 700,000 people obtained US tourist visas and then over-stayed their visas.  They just disappeared into the American hinterland.[4]  That is better than half of all the illegals.

Why should Central Americans get priority while Asians, Africans, and Muslims wait?  “It’s a serious question.”  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vInFuLgwR1U

[1] From 1882, the United States did try to limit immigration by Asians to the Pacific Coast.

[2] “A history of the southern border,” The Week, 8 February 2019, p. 11.

[3] The huge slump in the American economy—the “Great Recession”—may also have had something to do with it.

[4] This was basically the story with the 9/11 hijackers.

Just the Facts, Ma’am 2 11 February 2019.

Second, three tax proposals have been offered to raise more revenue from the rich.[1]  Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has suggested raising the tax on incomes above $10 million from the current 37 percent to 60 or 70 percent.  This would return upper-income tax rates to the level that prevailed during the 1970s.  In the regime of the 1970s, many deductions and exemptions existed which do not exist today.  The effective tax rate on high incomes under the Ocasio-Cortez proposal would be much higher than the one of the 1970s.  However, the top rate in the 1970s applied to the contemporary equivalent of $800,000.

Senator Elizabeth Warren has proposed a “wealth tax,” not merely an income tax.[2]  People with a net worth between $50 million and $1 billion would pay 2 percent per year[3]; people worth more than $1 billion would pay 3 percent per year.[4]  According to the calculations underlying Senator Warren’s proposal, this tax would generate $2.75 trillion over ten years.

The Warren proposal may not be constitutional.  The 16th Amendment to the Constitution created a tax on income, not a tax on all assets.  Apparently, the courts have held that taxes on estates and gifts are excise taxes on the transfer of assets, rather than a tax on the assets themselves.  The tax also might be a logistical nightmare to apply.

Senator Bernie Sanders has proposed revising the estate tax.  Until 2009, the tax applied to estates of more than $3.5 million.  A 2017 tax change raised the threshold for individuals to about $11 million and the threshold for couples to about $22 million, with a standard tax rate of 40 percent.  Senator Sanders would return to the 2009 level of $3.5 million.  In addition, he replaces a single tax rate with multiple rates.  From $3.5 million to $10 million, the rate would be 45 percent; on estates of $1 billion or more, the rate would be 77 percent.

[1] Paul Sullivan, “Taxing the Rich Sounds Easy.  But It’s Not,” NYT, 2 February 2019; Sydney Ember, “Sanders Unveils a Plan To Increase Estate Taxes,” NYT, 1 February 2019.

[2] Senator Bernie Sanders also supports the idea of a wealth tax, if not necessarily Senator Warren’s version of such a tax.

[3] Apparently, there are 39,735 people worth between $50 million and $1 billion in the United States today.

[4] Apparently, there are 680 billionaires in the United States today.

Just the facts, Ma’am 1 11 February 2019.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) reports that spending on people aged 65 and older[1] has increased as a share of federal spending from 35 percent (2005) to 40 percent (2018) and is projected to rise to 50 percent (2029).  The federal budget deficit is projected to exceed $1 trillion a year from 2022 to 2029.  Proposals recently offered by Democrats intending to run for President in 2020 or to shape the party’s policy for that race may have an effect on this situation.  None of the proposals claim to aim at deficit reduction.  Instead, they target reducing income inequality and/or financing expanded programs.

First, it is proposed to reform Social Security.[2]  As originally designed, Social Security enhanced private preparation for retirement by adding the resources from a tax on currently working people to individual savings and/or pensions.  Today, however, there appears to be a savings crisis among working people.

There is also a financing crisis for Social Security.  The actuaries at the Social Security Administration report that outlays (payments) will soon exceed income (withholding tax revenues).  Thereafter the payments will be paid from an accumulated surplus held in the form of U.S. treasury bonds.  When that trust fund is exhausted by 2034, benefits will have to be reduced.  Currently, about 63 million people receive Social Security benefits.  The number is expected to rise to 89 million by 2030.  The total current cost is about $1 trillion.  The maximum amount of income subject to Social Security tax is $132,900; the current withholding tax on payrolls is 12.4 percent.

Democrats propose to increase the minimum benefit to help lower-income people who have saved less than have higher income people; increase benefits by an average of about two percent; raise the annual cost-of-living adjustment to payments to respond to the reality that retirees consume goods and services in a different pattern than do still-working people; cut the tax on benefits for middle-income recipients while increasing them on upper-income recipients; and increase the payroll tax rate from the current to 14.8 percent by 2040, and the payroll tax would be imposed on incomes above $400,000 a year, while incomes between $132,900 a year and $400,000 a year would not be subject to taxation.

This proposal would permanently fix the financing problem.  It would also increase benefits paid out to some Social Security recipients.  An estimated three-quarters of the extra income would go to covering the looming deficit; the rest would go to increased benefits for lower-income recipients.

[1] Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid.

[2] Robert Pear, “Democrats Push First Major Social Security Expansion Since 1972,” NYT, 4 February 2019.

I’m Running for President in 2020–3.

The Global War on Terror is approaching a new stage.  The Islamic State (ISIS) has been driven out of Iraq and almost destroyed in Syria.  Recently, President Trump ordered a sudden withdrawal of American forces from Syria and announced a desire to do the same from Afghanistan.  Much expert and political opposition arise to slow him down.  Some people argued that the Islamic State had not yet been totally defeated or destroyed.  Parallels were drawn to President Obama’s withdrawal of forces from Iraq.  This had been followed by the rise of the Islamic State and its invasion of Iraq.

Peace talks between the Americans and the Taliban have been proceeding and may be approaching a settlement.   With regard to Afghanistan, two lines of criticism or concern arise.  First, a peace deal with the Taliban will be based up on some kind of compromise or power-sharing agreement between the Taliban and their indigenous Afghan opponents.  What assurance can be offered that the Taliban will honor their commitments?  The Taliban came to power in the first place through victory in a civil war.  Are they likely to pursue the same path again.  Second,  the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001 to overthrow the Taliban which had sheltered Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda.  Who is to say that they will not again become patrons of anti-Western jihad?

In both cases, critics of President Trump argue for a continued American role in what Dexter Filkins called “The Forever War.”  While these critics are experts–and I am not–and they make important points, it seems to me that they fail to address a key question.  “How does this thing end?”  We are at war with an idea–Islamic radicalism–and with global social conditions–the failed states and the failed societies in much of the developing world.  It seems likely that the “defeat” of ISIS will soon be followed by a wild fire of Islamic radical rebellions running from Bangladesh through Indonesia to the southern Philippines.   Islamist movements are on their heels in much of Africa, but the conditions that gave rise to them have not been addressed.

I ask my fellow candidates the following questions.  Are we going to keep military forces in every place an Islamist wild fire has broken, been contained, and burned out in case the embers catch light once again?  Are we going to send military forces to every new place an Islamist wild fire breaks out?  Of course, it will be argued that American military technology and special forces are effective force multipliers.  America can “lead from behind” and on the cheap by assembling” coalitions of the willing” to do much of the fighting.

It might be answered that even these forces are not infinite.  America is not on a real war-footing and has not been since 2001.  A small share of Americans bear the cost of battle.  We develop plans for Operations in each Theater of Operations as it arises, but I see no Strategy for winning the global and forever War.

I am running for President in 2020 1.

I believe that life begins at conception.  (If it didn’t, then women wouldn’t want abortions.)  Let me state plainly: I would never have an abortion.  OK, I’m a 64 year-old guy, so that’s an easy position to take.  At the same time, I’m not willing to shove my personal opinion down the throat of a fifteen year-old black girl in West Philadelphia, living with her mom and grand-mom in some tumbledown row house, and attending what the City of Brotherly Love is pleased to call the public “schools.”  Moreover, with Prohibition and the War on Drugs having been such great successes, I don’t see how a War on Abortion is any more likely to succeed.  Unless, you know, heart-break and misery across multiple generations is what you really want to produce.  Then go ahead, knock yourself out.

 

The same goes for a War on Guns.  Yes, there are things we can do.  We could strictly regulate the sale and possession of all firearms through the Defense Department.  This is what our friends in Mexico do.  Virtually no one in Mexico is allowed to own a firearm of any sort.  This step would could reduce our gun-death rates to Mexican levels.  Furthermore, many deaths are linked to the drug trade.  We should forbid the use of or trade in drugs.

OK, sounding like the mayor on “The Simpsons.”  More realistically, we could end the War on Drugs and we could try to revise the National Firearms Owners Protection Act.  The former promotes a “war for the corners.”  It also promotes a macho “step to him” code of behavior that leads to violence not directly related to the drug trade.  The National Firearm Owners Protection Act restricts the ability of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms to closely regulate federally-licensed gun-dealers.  While the vast majority of such dealers are responsible and honest people dealing in a Constitutionally-protected commodity, a tiny minority facilitate straw purchases and suffer “robbery.”  So, let’s knock-off the stuff about the “gun-show loop-hole” and not allowing father-to-son gun transfers without a background check.

 

We should RICO the Catholic Church.  Pennsylvania’s attorney general recently released a report on the sexual abuse of minors by members of the clergy.  Here’s the thing, the AG got the information for the report by gaining access to Church records and then interviewing a lot of parishoners who had been abused.  Well, this scandal has been running for a while now.  Long ago, the Church could have done what the AG later did without breaking a sweat.  If they wanted to know.  Apparently, they didn’t.  Why not?

I suspect that, at some point back in the day there, the American priesthood became a place for gay Irish men to go and hide.  Fine by me.  They were doing God’s work.  If they go sylphing-off to have sex with other gay men, I don’t care.  However, given the anti-gay stance of both the Church and larger society, it exposed them to a terrible vulnerability.  They could be black-mailed by pedophile colleagues.  Pedophiles appear to be a very small segment of any sexual orientation.[1]  But they may have been just as ruthless and predatory toward their fellow-priests as they were toward their child-victims.

So, treat the Church as a criminal conspiracy.

[1] You ever noticed how few girls from Catholic schools have come forward to say “Sr. Mary Elephant copped a feel on my then-almost-non-existent tit”?