Tuesday, October 15, 2019

John Bolton: A Portrait of GOP Foolishness About Trump

Parallels between German conservatives in the early 1930's who thought they could control Hitler and today's Republicans who viewed Trump as a manageable route to furthering their agenda continue to compound.  Like their German counterparts, Republicans are discovering that their hopes of controlling Trump were mere delusions. Like Hitler, Trump is mentally unstable and views himself as accountable to no one.   In both instances, conservative idiocy has brought severe damage to their respective countries and their institutions.  Former National Security Adviser - of whom I am no fan - is an example of GOP foolishness and the reality that Trump is a dangerous loose canon focused only on himself and his narcissistic delusions of grandeur.  A column in the Washington Post looks at Bolton's belated realization of his own folly.  Here are excerpts:
Donald Trump’s explicitly declared position in the scandal consuming his presidency is that pressuring a foreign power to “investigate” a leading domestic political opponent absolutely falls within his rightfully exercised authority. Trump has said this, and so has his White House counsel, making this the White House’s official political, substantive and legal position.
But this defense is cracking up. That’s because we’re now learning, one after another, that all of the people around him knew that it was grievously wrong — that is, all except for those who were carrying out Trump’s corrupt scheme.
As this becomes more public, Trump’s position will grow increasingly unsustainable — not just as a rhetorical matter but also in terms of whether he’ll be able to keep the support of Senate Republicans, his final line of defense.
The latest domino to fall is John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser. The New York Times reports that in July, Bolton grew so alarmed by efforts to pressure Ukraine to launch “investigations” into Joe Biden and his son that he instructed an aide to alert White House lawyers.
That aide is Fiona Hill, a former senior White House adviser on Russia and Europe. Hill testified about this exchange with Bolton to House investigators as part of their impeachment inquiry. Hill told them that Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, Trump lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani and acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney had run what The Post calls a “shadow” campaign to pressure Ukraine to do Trump’s political bidding.
“I am not part of whatever drug deal Sondland and Mulvaney are cooking up,” Bolton reportedly told Hill to tell White House lawyers.
Crucially, this eruption came after a meeting in early July at which Sondland made it clear that the goal of this shadow campaign was to get Ukraine to revive investigations into Burisma, the company on whose board Biden’s son Hunter sat. This confirmed for Bolton that the goal was to leverage Ukraine into acting as Trump’s weapon against Biden — that is, by manufacturing smears designed to debilitate him in the 2020 election.
That made Bolton go “ballistic.” And on another occasion, Bolton described Giuliani, one of the scheme’s ringleaders, as “a hand grenade who’s going to blow everybody up.”
This long-running plot, of course, culminated in Trump’s July 25 call in which he pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to undertake investigations that would undercut the idea that Russia interfered on Trump’s behalf in 2016, and again help him rig the election in 2020.
Trump’s stance continues to be that this pressure was entirely within his legitimate authority. The White House counsel’s letter, which we now know was largely dictated by Trump, declares that there was “nothing wrong” with the July 25 call . . . .

Ultimately, Hitler ignored his advisers thinking he knew better than everyone else.  Things ultimately ended badly for not only Hitler but also his sycophants and millions of Germans.  Republicans truly need a lesson in history.

Tuesday Morning Male Beauty

Monday, October 14, 2019

We Need a New Version of Capitalism

Republicans - especially Donald Trump - are eager to depict whoever the Democrat presidential nominee turns out to be as a socialist and a threat to capitalism and somehow an enemy of average Americans even though the Democrat agenda is to improve the lot of a majority of Americans, not just the wealthy and big corporations as the GOP made clear was its goal in the form of the Trump/GOP tax cuts and the Trump/Pence regime efforts to roll back safety regulations and clean air and clean water regulations while destroying labor unions.  The irony is that many in Trump's base long for the 1950's when life was better for many because of labor unions that upheld wages and the far higher taxes paid by the wealthy funded infrastructure projects such as the Interstate highway system. In short, today's version of capitalism has turned toxic for the majority - much as was the case in the Gild Age, a time the GOP seeks to seemingly restore.  Not all of the wealthy are content to see income disparities continue to rise as the wallow in greed.  David Walentas, a visionary New York real estate developer definitely not cut from the same cloth as Trump, just made a $100 million gift to the University of Virginia to benefit students from families where no one has ever attended college.  Then there is Marc Benioff who argues that a new capitalism is needed in a column in the New York Times.  Here are column highlights:
Capitalism, I acknowledge, has been good to me.  Over the past 20 years, the company that I co-founded, Salesforce, has generated billions in profits and made me a very wealthy person. I have been fortunate to live a life beyond the wildest imaginations of my great-grandfather, who immigrated to San Francisco from Kiev in the late 1800s.
Yet, as a capitalist, I believe it’s time to say out loud what we all know to be true: Capitalism, as we know it, is dead.
Yes, free markets — and societies that cherish scientific research and innovation — have pioneered new industries, discovered cures that have saved millions from disease and unleashed prosperity that has lifted billions of people out of poverty.
But capitalism as it has been practiced in recent decades — with its obsession on maximizing profits for shareholders — has also led to horrifying inequality. Globally, the 26 richest people in the world now have as much wealth as the poorest 3.8 billion people, and the relentless spewing of carbon emissions is pushing the planet toward catastrophic climate change. In the United States, income inequality has reached its highest level in at least 50 years, with the top 0.1 percent — people like me — owning roughly 20 percent of the wealth while many Americans cannot afford to pay for a $400 emergency. It’s no wonder that support for capitalism has dropped, especially among young people. To my fellow business leaders and billionaires, I say that we can no longer wash our hands of our responsibility or what people do with our products. Yes, profits are important, but so is society. And if our quest for greater profits leaves our world worse off than before, all we will have taught our children is the power of greed.
It’s time for a new capitalism — a more fair, equal and sustainable capitalism that actually works for everyone and where businesses, including tech companies, don’t just take from society but truly give back and have a positive impact.
What might a new capitalism look like?
First, business leaders need to embrace a broader vision of their responsibilities by looking beyond shareholder return and also measuring their stakeholder return. This requires that they focus not only on their shareholders, but also on all of their stakeholders — their employees, customers, communities and the planet. Fortunately, nearly 200 executives with the Business Roundtable recently committed their companies, including Salesforce, to this approach, saying that the “purpose of a corporation” includes “a fundamental commitment to all of our stakeholders.” Unfortunately, not everyone agrees. . . . . When asked whether companies should serve all stakeholders and whether capitalism should be updated, Vice President Mike Pence warned against “leftist policies.”
But suggesting that companies must choose between doing well and doing good is a false choice. Successful businesses can and must do both. In fact, with political dysfunction in Washington, D.C., Americans overwhelmingly say C.E.O.s should take the lead on economic and social challenges, and employees, investors and customers increasingly seek out companies that share their values.
Legislation to close loopholes in the Equal Pay Act have stalled in Congress for years, and today women still only make about 80 cents, on average, for every dollar earned by men. But congressional inaction does not absolve companies from their responsibility. Since learning that we were paying women less than men for equal work at Salesforce, we have spent $10.3 million to ensure equal pay; today we conduct annual audits to ensure that pay remains equal. Just about every company, I suspect, has a pay gap — and every company can close it now.
For many businesses, giving back to their communities is an afterthought — something they only do after they’ve turned a profit. But by integrating philanthropy into our company culture from the beginning — giving 1 percent of our equity, time and technology — Salesforce has donated nearly $300 million to worthy causes, including local public schools and addressing homelessness.
Globally, few nations are meeting their targets to fight climate change, the current United States presidential administration remains determined to withdraw from the Paris Agreement and global emissions continue to rise. As governments fiddle, there are steps that business can take now, while there’s still time . . . .
Skeptical business leaders who say that having a purpose beyond profit hurts the bottom line should look at the facts. Research shows that companies that embrace a broader mission — and, importantly, integrate that purpose into their corporate culture — outperform their peers, grow faster, and deliver higher profits.
Of course, C.E.O. activism and corporate philanthropy alone will never be enough to meet the immense scale of today’s challenges. It could take $23 billion a year to address racial inequalities in our public schools. College graduates are drowning in $1.6 trillion of student debt. It will cost billions to retrain American workers for the digital jobs of the future. Trillions of dollars of investments will be needed to avert the worst effects of climate change. All this, when our budget deficit has already surpassed $1 trillion.
That is why a new capitalism must also include a tax system that generates the resources we need and includes higher taxes on the wealthiest among us. . . . . Nationally, increasing taxes on high-income individuals like myself would help generate the trillions of dollars that we desperately need to improve education and health care and fight climate change.
The culture of corporate America needs to change, and it shouldn’t take an act of Congress to do it. Every C.E.O. and every company must recognize that their responsibilities do not stop at the edge of the corporate campus. When we finally start focusing on stakeholder value as well as shareholder value, our companies will be more successful, our communities will be more equal, our societies will be more just and our planet will be healthier.
Trump and his vulture capitalist cronies embody the direct opposite of this responsible proposal.

Monday Morning Male Beauty

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Religion: The Elephant in the Room Behind Anti-Gay Discrimination’

The Founding Fathers had a very limited concept of freedom of religion.  It meant (i) being able to worship in the religion or denomination of one's choice, and (ii) not being forced to financially support an established church - - e.g., in colonial Virginia, all citizens paid taxes to support the Church of England churches whether they were members or not.  Religious belief did not exempt one from compliance with the the civil laws applicable to all citizens nor did it entitle religious institution to tax-exempt status.  

Beto O'Rourke is being pummeled for stating that  anti-gay churches should lose their tax exempt status, yet their tax -exempt status comes not from their religious nature but instead from the generally false assumption that they engage in charitable work and, because this status as a charity, deserve indirect public support via an exemption from paying taxes. If one looks at where the money of many religious institutions - churches in particular - often little or nothing goes to charitable works. Instead, moneys go to support facilities that are akin to a private club (often euphemistically called "fellowship halls") and activities that are in no wise involved in actual worship).  To the extent many of these churches engage in "education" it is actually indoctrination aimed at engendering hatred toward those who are not members of their "club" and/or who do not subscribe to their ignorance based beliefs.   

Turning back to the cases now before the U.S. Supreme Court that will decide whether or not the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the real issue - despite the supposed focus on the wording of that statute - ultimately comes down to evangelical Christians wanting to be above the law and entitled to use their real or feigned religious belief as a weapon against those they hate.  A piece in Religion Dispatches looks at this elephant in the room that opponents to LGBT rights are trying to make invisible.  Here are article highlights (note the disingenuous question by Chief Justice Roberts which ignores the reality that having gay or transgender employees in no way impinges on one's right to worship in the church or temple of their choice): 
“I think this whole category is the elephant in the room.”
That’s what Justice Stephen Breyer said, referring to religion and religious exemptions from laws that ban discrimination against LGBTQ people, during arguments Tuesday at the Supreme Court.
Breyer’s exchange with Solicitor General Noel Francisco came as battle between religious exemptions and LGBT rights returned to the Court in the form of three cases involving employees fired for being gay or transgender.
These disputes, . . . . turn on the interpretation of a provision of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The law provides that employers may not discriminate “because of” an employee’s or prospective employee’s “race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” The fired employees are arguing that courts should interpret the word “sex” to include sexual orientation and gender identity, . . .
Both sides marshalled their favorite methods of statutory interpretation, disagreeing sharply on how courts might determine whether an employer had discriminated within the meaning of Title VII.
There’s much to say about these arguments, including the question of whether the employers were saying, in effect, that it is acceptable to discriminate against LGBTQ people so long as they discriminate against all LGBTQ people. But for those interested in the intersection of law and religion, one of the most curious features of Tuesday’s arguments was the way in which religion was rarely mentioned, yet somehow never quite out of the picture.
Chief Justice John Roberts raised the question of religious liberty in the first set of arguments the Court heard, concerning the gay employees who were fired on account of their sexual orientation. . . . How can the Court protect religious liberty in a nuanced way if its only choice is whether or not to read Title VII to encompass discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation?
Justice Breyer introduced hypotheticals about religion into both sets of arguments. Suppose that an employer objects neither to Catholics nor to Jews per se, he imagined, but is deeply opposed to interreligious marriage. If that employer fires a Catholic employee for marrying a Jew, how is that not discrimination on the basis of religion if the employer would not have fired the employee for marrying a Catholic? The same logic, Breyer suggested, applies here.
As Justice Breyer rightly observed, religion was lurking just under the surface of Tuesday’s arguments. Many disputes in recent years have involved claims that employers who hold certain religious beliefs deserve exemptions from generally applicable laws, including nondiscrimination laws designed to protect LGBTQ people.
But despite purporting not to be about religion, Tuesday’s cases attracted input from religious groups across the ideological spectrum. National evangelical associations and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops filed amicus briefs on behalf of the employers, while progressive Muslim groups, Jewish groups, and liberal Protestant churches did so for the employees. As they did in Cakeshop and cases like it, the former trotted out visions of the coercion that they believe religious entities would be subject to if the Court were to read sexual orientation and gender identity into Title VII. The latter affirmed that their faith mandates that they recognize the inherent dignity of all people and seek to prohibit discrimination in a pluralistic public square.
Sometime in the first half of 2020, amidst a campaign that has already featured the country’s first out candidate for the presidency, the Court will hand down rulings that may well decline to expand LGBTQ rights in the context of private-sector employment.
It’s likely that the opinions will have little to say about religion, and Tuesday’s arguments only gingerly touched on a topic that evokes passion and pain on all sides. But whichever way the Court rules, it will not resolve the deep conflicts between conservative religious activism and LGBTQ rights that have divided the nation.

What we are seeing is an effort to far expand the freedom of religion envisioned by the Founders and turn it into a special right for certain religious groups that puts them above the law.  Sadly, it is more of the same horrible legacy that religion has visited on mankind through the centuries be it religious wars in the ancient world, the Spanish (and later American) massacres of Native Americans who were labeled "heathens", the Catholic massacres of Protestants in France during the 1600's, the 30's Years War in Europe, massacres between Hindus and Muslims, the religious wars in England and more recently in Northern Ireland, or the Buddhist massacres of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar (formerly Burma)
.  Religion is too often a divider and a justification for visiting horrors on those of a different faith or no faith.

More Sunday Male Beauty

Trump v. Jesus: Christians Can’t Follow Both

As regular readers know, I have a problem with many Christians.  First there are the toxic white evangelicals who have embraced Donald Trump and his racist, divisive policies, including policies that harm the poor, the sick, the elderly and advance religious based bigotry.  Then there are the "good Christians" who try to follow the New Testament teachings of Christ - as opposed to the Old Testament so loved by white evangelicals who cherry pick brief passages as a means to condemn others - and do not seek to harm others.  My complaint with these Christians?  Their silence and failure to loudly and openly condemn (i) Trump and the GOP policies that are the antithesis to the Gospel message, and (ii) the white evangelicals who are killing the Christian brand and fueling the flight of the younger generations from religion entirely.  One exception to this damning silence Rev. Jim Wallis and 90 other religious leaders who have joined in a statement in support of the House of Representatives impeachment inquiry.   The point these religious leaders make is simple: support of Trump and following the Gospel message are mutually exclusive.  Read the statement here. Here are highlights from a piece that looks at this position. 
Many Christians pluck a line from the Bible and pretend it is the entirety of Scripture, using the command as a club against anyone who makes them uncomfortable. Their religion is a green light from God Almighty to harass gays, plague women, and of course support Donald Trump, the living embodiment of their faith.
“I love him so much I can hardly explain it,” said right-wing pastor and Trump adviser James Robison.   Many echo Robison; 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump.
But there are also Christians like Rev. Jim Wallis.  “There is a conflict between the politics of Jesus and the politics of Trump,” said Wallis. “Racial bigotry is a deal breaker for the Gospel. White nationalism, which Donald Trump embraces and champions, isn’t just racist — it’s anti-Christ. Dehumanizing immigrants isn’t just racist — it’s anti-Christ. Demeaning women isn’t just sexist — it’s anti-Christ. At some point, Christians have to ask themselves: Are the teachings of Christ going to be followed or not?”
Nor is Wallis alone: 90 Christian leaders joined him signing a call for this Sunday, Oct. 13, to be a National Day of Prayer “for the truth to be revealed through the impeachment inquiry.”
“For the sake of our nation’s integrity and the most vulnerable in our society, we call on fellow Christians to support the current impeachment inquiry,” read the statement. “Now is the time to shine the light of truth.”
“Trump appeals to our worst demons,” he said. “There really is a worst of America, and he is a marketer for it. He’s deliberately dividing our country.”
Wallis believes much of the powerful evangelical movement isn’t based on religion, but on politics. “In 1980 there was a political effort by Republican operatives, who approached Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and said, ‘Give us a list of your followers and we’ll create a new right wing movement and make you household names.’ It’s a political mobilization. Not theological. Not religious.”
But the faith that can be corrupted to serve Trump can also, Wallis believes, light the path away from him.
“There’s is a religious right that wraps political ideology around faith to polarize the country and, I think, silence and sabotage Jesus,” said Wallis. “He’s been hijacked. I want to try to reclaim Jesus and what He said. Those who turn to the politics of Jesus will defect from the politics of Trump,”
Any indication that those who have sold their souls to Trump are now willing to renege on the deal?
“A lot of white evangelicals are breaking from their parents over climate change, over LGBTQ issues,” Wallis said. “There are a growing number of white evangelical suburban Republican women who are shifting, [saying] ‘We care about life in the womb, but we also care about life on the southern border, about kids being ripped away from their parents.’”
“Jesus says, ‘I was a stranger. How you treat the stranger is how you treat me. How you treat the sick is how you treat me. How you treat the poor is how you treat me,’” Wallis said. “These are the most important people to Jesus and the least important to this administration.
“If you are followers of Jesus, you can’t ignore what Jesus said,” said Wallis. “So much of what Donald Trump says and does and makes policy is literally antithetical to the teachings of Jesus. No one can deny that. So how can you support him when he is contrary to everything Jesus said and did?”

Sunday Morning Male Beauty

America's Beacon Has Gone Out

Despite the many ugly aspects of its history - the genocide of Native Americans and slavery and then Jim Crow being some of the ugliest - America has for generations held up in theory democracy and the rule of law and, if you will, the American dream where anyone had a chance to make a success of their lives.  Now, in less than three years, the Trump/Pence regime has extinguished that beacon of promise and, instead replaced it with authoritarianism, a betrayal of long time allies, pandering to outright racists who want to disenfranchise anyone they deem "other" - which likely includes gays - and rule by a malignant narcissist who has loyal to no one and who embodies what every decent parent - Christian or not - should never want the child to be.  No one should be surprised by the damage Trump and his simpering sycophant Mike Pence have wrought.  Trump long ran his real estate empire like a crime boss - a reason New Yorkers despise him so much - and now that cancer has spread to both America's domestic and foreign policy.  An op-ed in the New York Times looks at what has happened in Ukraine which is a microcosm of what is being wrought large by this toxic and dangerous regime.  Here are highlights:
In 2014, Ukraine’s wildly corrupt president, Viktor Yanukovych, fled to Russia after mass protests on the Maidan, Kiev’s central square. During what Ukrainians call the Revolution of Dignity, police snipers killed dozens of demonstrators. In the revolution’s aftermath, a number of young idealists decided to plunge into politics, hoping to reform their troubled country from the inside. One of them was Serhiy Leshchenko, at the time perhaps the country’s most famous investigative journalist.
The American political scientist Francis Fukuyama had encouraged Leshchenko and some of his friends to run for Parliament. He’d met Leshchenko in 2013, when the journalist took part in a three-week summer course run by Fukuyama at Stanford that aims to teach activists from around the world about building democratic institutions. “After the Maidan revolution, I thought that it was particularly important that all these people in civil society actually go into the government,” Fukuyama said.
Many of them did. That October, Leshchenko, a lanky, bearded hipster with a passion for rave culture, became part of a cadre of Western-oriented newcomers elected to Parliament, even as he continued to work as a journalist exposing corruption. This year, after Volodymyr Zelensky won the presidential election, Leshchenko advised him during the transition.
Then Rudy Giuliani began attacking Leshchenko as a conspirator against America.
In 2016, Leshchenko had helped expose the “black ledger,” an accounting book of hundreds of pages found in Yanukovych’s former party headquarters. Among its many entries, it showed $12.7 million in secret payments to Paul Manafort. At the time, Manafort was running Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, but before that, he was one of Yanukovych’s most important advisers.
One of the reasons Manafort is in federal prison is that he failed to disclose or pay taxes on millions of dollars from Ukraine. But if you believe Giuliani, the black ledger was part of a plot to damage Trump.
Last month, in an epic, ranting interview on CNN, he accused Ukraine’s leading anti-corruption organization, the Anti-Corruption Action Center, or AntAC, of developing “all of the dirty information that ended up being a false document that was created in order to incriminate Manafort.”
In Giuliani’s fevered alternative reality, Ukraine’s most stalwart foes of corruption are actually corruption’s embodiment. Deeply compromised figures with vendettas against the activists — particularly the ex-prosecutors Viktor Shokin and Yuriy Lutsenko — are transformed into heroes.
This addled, through-the-looking glass fantasy came to drive American foreign policy in Ukraine. Trump withdrew the American ambassador to the country, Marie Yovanovitch, whom reformers saw as their champion. He withheld military aid that Ukraine desperately needed, while asking Zelensky to do him a “favor” and investigate deranged fictions about Ukrainian interference in American elections, as well as Joe Biden and his son, Hunter.
Given how much Ukraine depends on American support, Giuliani’s smears made it politically impossible for Leshchenko, who left Parliament in August, to continue advising Zelensky. Now, with Ukraine at the center of a world-historical international scandal, he is stupefied to find himself defamed by powerful forces in the United States, once the world’s strongest backer of those fighting for democracy in his country.
If America can be said to have a foreign policy at this debased stage of the Trump administration, it mostly consists of sucking up to strongmen while betraying everyone who ever believed in America’s putative ideals. Trump has given Turkey his blessing to assault the Syrian Kurds, America’s crucial allies against ISIS. In June, he reportedly promised China that he wouldn’t speak out in favor of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, some of whom have been carrying American flags, as long as trade talks progressed.
Here in Ukraine, a country locked in a proxy war with Russia, coping with a deluge of disinformation and propaganda and struggling to transcend a history of corruption, reformers are trying to figure out what it means when the American president sides against them.
[Pro-Western reformers] had seen the United States as a “a perfect democracy functioning very well,” with an admirable system of checks and balances. “And now this image is crumbling and that’s very dangerous.”
[T]here was a time when America at least viewed the projection of democratic values as being in its self-interest. That gave liberals in countries like Ukraine leverage against recalcitrant officials.
“The majority of the reforms, especially on anti-corruption, were passed because there was a very strong demand from civil society, and there was the I.M.F. and the U.S. Embassy pushing it hard,” said Oleksandra Ustinova, a former board member of AntAC who was elected to Parliament this year.
Now that’s all changed. As The New York Times reported, after Trump recalled the U.S. ambassador, Lutsenko gloated to the head of AntAC that he had “eliminated your roof,” using Russian mafia slang for guardian.
“We’ve been exporting our corruption to them, rather than trying to export good governance,” said Fukuyama.
[T]wo Ukrainian-born clients of Giuliani, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, had been arrested on charges of campaign finance crimes as they were preparing to leave the United States with one-way tickets.
According to an indictment, the two “sought to advance their personal financial interests and the political interests of at least one Ukrainian government official with whom they were working.” . . . . Sure enough, on Saturday NBC News reported that Lutsenko was the official in the indictment. Yovanovitch might have been referring to Lutsenko when she said, in her Friday congressional testimony, that “individuals who have been named in the press as contacts of Mr. Giuliani may well have believed that their personal financial ambitions were stymied by our anti-corruption policy in Ukraine.”
Federal prosecutors are now investigating whether Giuliani himself broke the law.
Throughout our history, America has committed many sins against democracy around the world, but we used to be on the right side in Ukraine. Not anymore. As one former U.S. diplomat said to me recently, “The beacon has gone out.” We’re with the oligarchs now.
Witnessing what is happening makes one long even for the bad old days of George W. Bush.  Despite his many sins, Bush was not tantamount to a Mafia don running the nation and its foreign policy solely for his own personal financial and political gain.   And yes, I still want to know what Turkish President Erdogan offered Trump in exchange for betraying the Kurds.