The Freak Show

November 2016 should be a “no-way-the-Republicans-can-lose” Presidential election.  The country is in a sour mood and senses, rightly, that things have gone awry.  Our President is snubbed at airports all over the world (and it’s cold comfort that the “snubbers” are people “on the wrong side of history”), our best friends the Brits take offense at being lectured and threatened if they don’t vote “the right way” on the EU, true U.S. employment is still millions of jobs below pre-2008 levels, and many of the new jobs pay less than the jobs previously lost.  From ISIS to insurance premiums, Americans feel threatened, anxious and unhappy. That is tailor-made for the opposition party to capture the Presidency.   But it’s highly likely that the next President will be a Democrat, and more specifically, an ethically-challenged, been-on-the-national-scene-too-long, finger-to-the-wind, Nixonian-persona Democrat.  The Republicans really have no one to blame but themselves.  How has this happened?

 

Any Republican with a pulse and an IQ above 85 understands that the GOP must frame this election around just two issues:  jobs and national security.  The Democrats are vulnerable (and should be mortally wounded) on both issues.  To paraphrase Ronald Reagan’s 1980 rhetorical checklist:  “Are you better off now than you were four years ago? Is it easier for you to go and buy things in the stores than it was four years ago? Is there more or less unemployment in the country than there was four years ago? Is America as respected throughout the world as it was? Do you feel that our security is as safe, that we’re as strong as we were four years ago?”  Here we are, nine presidential election cycles later, and the Gipper’s questions should be the Republicans’ talking points.  But they (or at least the ones energized enough to vote in GOP primaries) apparently have all been bonked on the head and suffer from collective amnesia.

 

Jobs

Even now, after almost five years of anemic “recovery,” our true employment rate (not the phony, manipulated unemployment rate) is probably about 73 percent, versus around 75 percent in pre-Great Recession 2007.  Put it another way, we are at least 2 or 3 million jobs lighter than we should be, given the increase in the size of the work force during that time. And the jobs mix is tilted towards lower-paying, less-secure positions.  No matter how much they may try to blame others, neither the Obama Administration, nor its surrogates, nor MSNBC can put much lipstick on this pig.  But other than vague promises, the GOP debates and talking points have touched on jobs only tangentially, having opted instead for an anti-immigration, anti-trade free-for-all and a discussion of small hands and transgender bathroom predators.

 

A strong jobs economy affects almost every aspect of national life:  it means more taxes paid to help decrease the deficit and the appalling national debt; it helps pay for the “entitlements” that many Americans now regard as their birthright; it finances a strong military so that we are more credible overseas, and most important, it contributes to a sense of well-being among American families.  By contrast, our on-again, off-again 7-year “recovery” is angst-inducing.

 

National Security

It is a commonplace that these are troubled times in the world.  However arguable the merits of the Obama/Kerry initiatives in Iran and Cuba, it is beyond dispute that our relationships with traditional allies are frayed.  When Joe Biden discusses the Administration’s “overwhelming frustration” with Israel (read: Prime Minister Netanyahu), and claims that Israeli settlements and land seizures are “moving Israel in the wrong direction,” when the Saudi king greets two-bit Gulf rulers but not the U.S. President at the airport, and when we tell Canada that its natural resources are too dirty to move through the U.S., things aren’t going well.  And when China builds airbases on hitherto-barren reefs, and Russia is unmoved by sanctions over its invasion of Ukraine, and sending its pilots to do barrel rolls around U.S. military planes (not to mention being rightly perceived as having displaced the U.S. as the influential player in Syria), Americans are uneasy.  Further, our halting, incremental response to ISIS, which the President unfortunately once called a Jayvee team (a quote he tried to walk back), does not jibe with Americans’ view of what the United States should be able to accomplish.  Our unease is truly justified – the overseas situation is baaaad.  But what has been the GOP response?  Suggestions of carpet-bombing ISIS (Cruz’s non-starter when ISIS is billeted with local populations) and admiration for Putin (Trump’s “he’s just a strong leader” approach) are worse than boneheaded.  The official Ted Cruz response to terror seems to be to forbid all immigration by  “Syrian Muslims” – without any explanation for how one can tell the Syrian Christians from Syrian Muslims.   And the official Donald Trump response to terror is – gee, who can tell?

 

So what ARE they talking about?

As it turns out, the two GOP frontrunners’ main contribution to the national security debate seems to be anti-immigrant talk.  The Republicans’ descent from former California Governor Pete Wilson (who first made this a GOP issue and just emerged from the dustbin of history to endorse Cruz) through strident drumbeaters such as former Rep. Tom Tancredo and current Rep. Steve King to the current Republican contestants virtually guarantees that the Hispanic vote will tilt heavily Democratic.  The odds are overwhelming that in November the Republican nominee will be someone who has so alienated Hispanics that the Democrats will get at least 65 percent of their vote, which could alone be decisive in states such as Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Nevada and Virginia.  That’s a huge chunk of electoral votes (68), and the Republicans lost all of those states but Arizona (11 votes) the last time around.   And, in the meantime, Ted Cruz is railing against letting any Muslim immigrants into this country, because the FBI cannot vet them all. Logically, that means banning all immigration.  After all, Ted, how can you tell if they are Muslims?  What if they claim to be Christians—but they’re lying?

 

What about domestic initiatives?  Apparently the Republicans have also forgotten that at least half of the electorate is female and that a large majority has had enough of the anti-abortion activists.  Maybe these women don’t like abortion, and cannot imagine ever being in the position of wanting, let alone undergoing an abortion, but they don’t particularly think that legislators should be that involved in ruling their bodies.  How is it that the Republicans believe in laissez-faire capitalism (including letting unwanted babies receive little or no social services once they are born) but simultaneously resist letting women choose on this most intimate of decisions?  Does anyone doubt that this position alone dooms Donald Trump and probably Ted Cruz as well in the general election?

 

What else are the Republicans talking about?  Mythical assaults in public restrooms!  Is there some reliable statistic showing that transgendered people (news flash:  they are people) are more likely to assault young girls than oversexed heterosexual frat boys—or that they are more dangerous to young boys than high school gym coaches (and future Congressmen)?  And, just when we thought the debate had already descended below the lowest bar anyone could imagine, out comes Trump citing as gospel a National Enquirer story linking Rafael Cruz to Lee Harvey Oswald.

 

It’s a freak show.  Cruz or Trump, Trump or Cruz…they’re gonna lose, and based on their issue-free, bottom-dwelling campaigns, they deserve to lose.

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The Best and the Brightest?

I digress from political and economic issues to one that may seem more parochial, but speaks volumes about the absurd extent to which college administrators at elite schools refuse to accept that students can — and should — grow during their college years and at least begin to find their own way.  One wonders whether students in China, Russia or India are patronized and demeaned to this extent … and what it bodes for our future.

A brief history:  Approximately 10 years ago, the previous Princeton administration under President Shirley Tilghman embarked on a plan to balkanize the already-intimate University community (there are just about 5,300 undergraduates) into residential colleges.  The University spent tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, of dollars creating these residential colleges in order to combat purported student isolation and improve the Princeton experience.   Although the University asserts that these residential colleges “are the center of residential life and offer an array of academic and social programs that enhance the undergraduate experience,” apparently utopia has not yet been achieved.  The recent Princeton Alumni Weekly reported on the findings of a blue-ribbon task force appointed to improve on the existing model.  The 25-page Report of the Task Force on the Residential College Model  (with elegant prose, numerous bullet points, and three appendices) represents Princeton’s backhanded admission that things haven’t changed much and that there is still much work to do. (You can find it online at http://www.princeton.edu/strategicplan/files/Task-Force-Report-on-the-Residential-College-Model.pdf.  I recommend a cup of really strong coffee first.)  To quote from the report:  “The Task Force on the Residential College Model embraced the University’s commitment to provide its students with a vibrant residential experience that advances learning, enables interaction and meaningful engagement, and supports both personal growth and community development. The task force further intends its recommendations to realize a vision in which the residential colleges truly feel like home to our students. They should provide a place where they feel welcome and accepted, and where they come together to learn from their diverse experiences, perspectives, and backgrounds, and challenge and inspire one another.”

Yes, that’s a direct quote. And it’s sad.  Princeton has accepted students whom it rightly believes are brilliant, inquisitive, intellectually curious, and open to diverse and interesting experiences, but has also concluded that they lack the capacity to create or obtain those experiences without additional University intervention.  The message of the task force is that 500-person residential colleges are still too large for students to feel at home, the students are just not up to the task of meeting and making friends, and that the University must arrange, manage, and even order appropriate student interaction. 

Here’s a news flash – young adults who are continuously massaged and managed so that they never experience occasional uncertainty, confusion, discomfort and even isolation between the age of 18 and 22 are not getting value for their education, let alone preparation for “the real world.”  But the University appears dead set on making sure that is the new social order.

May I suggest a cheaper, promising alternative to the next expensive initiative?.  Hire a motivational speaker with comedic chops to deliver during the first week of school a message to all incoming students (Jimmy Fallon or Seth Myers might do it gratis, as this gig will supply material for multiple monologues, or perhaps Princeton has at least one or two charismatic faculty who are already on salary):  “Hey, newbies!  We let you into this beautiful, idyllic place because you are brilliant, inquisitive, intellectually curious, have a lot to offer to others, and are open to learning from them, too!  So go out and do it.  Don’t just learn in classes.  Walk around the campus with your head up, and (gulp) make eye contact! Make new friends!  Sit down with new people in the dining hall and ask questions! Invite people to your room for late-night arguments!”

If 21st century Ivy Leaguers with 2300+ SAT scores can’t do this on their own, then should anyone do it for them?

“Thank you, frackers!”

2015 has been a pretty bleak year for the country.  Labor force participation remains at a stubborn four-decade low and even The New York Times admits that we are 2.8 million jobs behind pre-recession levels of employment; the economy is so “fragile” that even a ¼-point Fed rate increase is treated like a live hand grenade.  ACA enrollment has yet to meet any predictions, despite multiple extensions and two gifts from the Supreme Court. The Iran deal was so laughably one-sided that the Administration made sure that Democrats would not even have to vote on it.  And now, with terrorists spraying bullets and bombs in California and France, we have only a climate change photo-op to oppose it.

But  there is one immense Christmas present under the White House tree and on the doorstep of every American household.  The fracking revolution wrought by the U.S. oil industry (without any help from the Administration) has resulted in every American family having at least $1,000 in extra spending money.  It’s better to be lucky than good; President Obama has dodged one bullet and he has the Saudis and the U.S. oil industry to thank.  That technology leap developed by the “oil barons” spurred an increase in domestic production that the Administration retarded wherever possible (by stonewalling and stalling drilling permits on federal lands, where production has not increased).  It caused the Saudis to open the spigots to protect their turf.  So, instead of $90 a barrel, we’re at $40 a barrel.  By a very conservative estimate, every family has approximately $1,000 in extra spending money — due explicitly to the decline in gasoline prices.

Here’s the math.  American households average well over 20,000 miles driven each year.  Let’s take the low figure.  Household vehicles (allegedly) average 20 miles per gallon.  No one who actually drives a car really believes that the current U.S. household vehicle gas mileage average is this high, but let’s take it on faith.  Those figures work out to every household buying at least 1,000 gallons of gas per year.  Gas is a dollar cheaper than a year ago, and that will continue.  As early as January 2015, GasBuddy.com senior analyst Patrick DeHaan predicted that plummeting prices would save U.S. motorists about $97 billion overall this year, or about $750 per household.  But that number was based on gas prices averaging $2.64 per gallon, when oil was about $53 per barrel. The real number for 2015 is roughly 60 cents less, barely above $2.00 a gallon … i.e. 25% lower.  So households have at least $1,000 extra in aftertax money, to save or spend as they wish.  That is what has helped average Americans and their pocketbooks.

Once the Saudis moved to open the taps in response to the U.S. fracking revolution, the price dropped.  And dropped.  And dropped again.  So the much-maligned Saudis have also screwed the Russians, the Iranians, and the Venezuelans, all of whose malignant regimes depend on petrodollars for their schemes.  You think Putin and the Iranians have had us over a barrel this year?  Well, they have, but think how assertive they would have been were it not for the villainous U.S. oil industry.  Forty-dollar oil is crushing the bad guys.   Think how bad things could have been if Putin’s, Khamenei’s, and Maduro’s coffers were being topped off by selling $90 oil instead.

So, thank you, ExxonMobil.  Thank you, frackers.*  Thank you, King Salman.

 

*In particular, Texas and North Dakota.  Neither of those states voted for Obama in 2008 or 2012, and the President surely doesn’t spend much time worrying about whether their economies are now in freefall.  But he (and we) should at least acknowledge the gift they have bestowed upon the country.

 

 

What’s new with Iran? Uhhhh, nothing. Well, nothing good.

In the wake of the purported opening of a new era in relations with Iran, the American people should not forget these hostages of a terrorist regime:

  • Jason Rezaian, Washington Post journalist, recently “convicted”;
  • Amir Hekmati, former U.S. Marine,
  • Saeed Abedini, pastor and
  • Robert Levinson, former FBI agent.

And, if the reports are true, within the last week or so,

  • Siamak Namazi, a dual U.S.-Iranian citizen, who was snatched up while visiting relatives in Tehran for the apparent crime of … what?

Since the President is otherwise occupied, will someone find out if Josh Earnest has anything to say about this?

When Does It Stop Being Bush’s Fault?

The unemployment rate is drifting lower and is cited by many as a sign that the economy is improving and will soon be robust.  But that figure is a non sequitur at best, and a lie at worst.  The current unemployment rate of 5.1% is hardly comparable to similar rates of 10 or 20 years ago because millions of people have stopped looking for work and are thus not counted as unemployed.  The figure we ought to be looking at – and alarmed by —  is actual labor force employment as a percentage of the working age (15-to-64-year-old) cadre.  This group is composed of working-age people who normally would not have retired.  (Of course, there are some people outside that group who are working, but for this analysis, the ratios discussed below should be comparable.)

It’s very hard to get perfect numbers for apples-to-apples comparisons, but after about two hours of reviewing eye-glazing charts from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the U.S. Census, and using comparable statistics for December 2000 and March 2015, this is what we derived:

In late 2000, the 15-to-64 U.S. population was 180,201,025.  The total number of employed persons was 133,465,403.  That is a 74.1% ratio.  By March 2015, over six years into the current Administration, and trillions of dollars of stimulus and deficits later, the 15-to-64 population was 204,026,415 and the number of employed persons was 139,843,024.  The latter ratio is 68.5%.  That is a decline of 5.6% applied to a working-age population of just over 204 million.  If the same ratio of employment to working-age population existed in 2015 as at the end of the Clinton Administration, approximately 151,200,000 people would be working   In other words, over 11 million fewer people are working in this country than one would expect if the current employment figures paralleled the last days of the Clinton Administration.

This is an “epic fail.” It is also the most signal, disheartening domestic tragedy of the last 6 years.  Ultimately, the strength of our society is based upon tens of millions of Americans working, making decent wages, supporting themselves and their families, and paying taxes to support both domestic and military needs, including help for those who cannot help themselves.  Do we want to pay for the Affordable Care Act?  We need more jobs and more wage-earning taxpayers.  Do we want a strong military?  Ditto.  How about air traffic controllers?  Ditto.  National parks? Ditto.  And do we really want to do something about inequality, instead of just talking about it?  Once again, ditto.

Today’s employment figures are pathetic compared to historical percentages, despite the increasing participation of women in the work force, and despite the fact that many of those women are working because men in households are not earning enough to support their families.  The takeaway is that we have far fewer taxpayers (i.e. people pulling the wagon) and far more people needing/receiving benefits (i.e. sitting in the wagon) than we should.  And with a larger percentage of over-65 citizens in an aging population, we desperately need the 15-to-64 age-group working percentage to return to historical levels, so we have more workers paying taxes and supporting governmental functions.  Since we are looking at the 15-64 cadre, the retirement of baby boomers is simply not an excuse, or even a fig leaf, for this disheartening statistic.

The figures are stark and cannot be brushed aside.  Panglossing the truth by citing the improving “unemployment rate” is ignorance or knavery.  The unemployment rate is deceptively better because millions of people have stopped looking for work.  The President and the apologists inside and outside the Administration won’t grapple with this, at least not publicly.  Paul Krugman continually decries “austerity,” as if adding half a trillion dollars in deficit spending every year since the “stimulus package” is some kind of savage yanking away of the national punchbowl. Does any rational, knowledgeable American think the economy hasn’t taken off because we haven’t gone far enough down the Krugman highway?

Incentives to work — and fewer incentives not to work — are all that’s left to us.  Incentives to create businesses and offer jobs and fewer disincentives to investment are what we need. Only then will we climb out of this ditch that we have dug for our proverbial ox—and our society.