All posts by Hal Gershowitz and Stephen Porter

The Kushner Imbroglio: Searching for a There There.

Of Thee I Sing Heading AuthorsIt seems this week’s Resistance agenda has been to publically skewer Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor, Jared Kushner, for seeking a back channel with the Russians during the presidential transition.  This morning there were reports attributed to no one in particular that suggested that Kushner was being asked to step aside.  Who knows, maybe he was asked by President Trump, or, more likely, he hasn’t been asked to resign by anyone other than the concocter of today’s unattributed and, so far, unsubstantiated scheduled rumor. The “Kushner affair” is being presented, in well-orchestrated fashion, as though it were the greatest scandal since turncoat Benedict Arnold made his stealth dash down the Hudson River to the HMS Vulture nearly 240 years ago.

Presidential transition team back channels to the Russians, or for that matter to the Iranians or, actually anyone, are neither new nor illegal, so the so-called Resistance and the journalists who carry their water, have kept up an endless drumbeat of If’s—“if Kushner said this or offered that. The last we heard government intelligence sources were still opining that Kushner was neither the focus nor the target of any investigation…not yet anyway.

So far, the only real news seems to be that someone within the intelligence community has passed along to the press information that our snoops know Kushner sought the establishment of a back channel with the Russians in order to discuss who knows what. We’re sure it delights the never-under-any-circumstances-anti-Trumpsters that their government is listening and telling. Sad, there are so few civil libertarians among them, or that they don’t care because, after all, this is about Trump, or that those who do care have been so effectively silenced.

Perhaps Kushner wanted to offer the Kremlin our nuclear codes, but we rather doubt it. Perhaps, more plausibly, he wanted to explore chances for a significant improvement in relations sort of like Robert Kennedy, JFK’s brother and closest advisor, did when he secretly met with a known Russian agent in December 1960 just prior to his brother’s inauguration. Interestingly, Robert Kennedy who was also the senior-most member of President-elect Kennedy’s transition team, met with the Red agent at the Russian’s request.

Then of course we learned from Robert Sick who helped handle the Iranian hostage crisis during the Carter Administration that William J. Casey, a key Reagan confidant and future CIA Director, was meeting with representatives of Iran months before the 1980 election to discuss timing the hostage release after Reagan was elected and sworn it.

Then there was the leaked memo Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Kobryin wrote in 1969 to his bosses in the Kremlin in which he explained that Henry Kissinger confided to him that the Nixon administration wanted to conduct a “most confidential exchange of views” because President Nixon said (we love this part) “the Soviet side … knows how to maintain confidentiality; but in our State Department, unfortunately, there are leaks of information to the press.”

Much is being made, according to the leaks,  that Kushner suggested that the back-channel discussions take place through the use of Russian secure communications. Why would that surprise anyone, given how pathetically porous our own governmental and private communications have become?  Nothing other than, presumably, pillow talk seems out of listening range these days, and who can be sure of that?

We don’t know what conversations may have transpired between Jared Kushner and the Russians.  We’ll be surprised to learn that those conversations involved any skullduggery, but we don’t know.  What we do know is that our intelligence community has turned it’s snooping apparatus on American politicians and American political candidates, and, perhaps, for good reason…and perhaps not.

Julian Sanchez of the libertarian CATO Institute summed it up well. “Progressives who’ve recently learned to stop worrying and love the surveillance state should think hard about the precedent such leaks set — and the implicit message they send to political actors — even if any particular instance can be justified as serving the public interest. The leaks may not be, as conservative media would have it, the only real scandal, but nobody should be too enthusiastic about the prospect of living in a country where officials who antagonize spy agencies find their telephone conversations quoted in news headlines.”

We do know as a certainty that our intelligence apparatus is maliciously and illegally leaking to the press, apparently, with complete abandon, for no other conceivable reason other than to bring down certain public figures—especially if they are part of the Trump Administration. There may be reason to bring them down, but this is not the way to do it, and when all is said and done, the pervasive bugging and leaking may be the biggest scandal of all.

Maybe our snoops are bugging and leaking because they believe the Trump Administration is riddled with crooks and spies. And maybe the snoops are in high dudgeon simply because they can’t stand Donald Trump.

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Trump Abroad: So Far So Good.

Of Thee I Sing Heading AuthorsWhile we do not know how President Trump’s first soiree out of the country will ultimately be judged, (he still has important stops to make in the Vatican, Brussels and Italy) so far so good. Trump’s trip is going well because Trump is assiduously avoiding being Trump. His public comments have been devoid of Trumpian bombast, hyperbole or off-the-cuff, spontaneous miscues.

His speech to many leaders of Islamic countries and kingdoms in Riyadh was direct, relevant, presidential and focused on things that had to be said, and should have been said years ago. Finally, an American President discussed Islamic terrorism with leaders of Islamic-majority countries, and the sky didn’t fall, and the earth didn’t spin off its axis.

Of course, President Trump came with $110 billion worth of goodies that will goose both the Saudi economy (which badly needs goosing) as well as our own economy as the Saudi’s contract with American defense companies for tens of billions of dollars in military equipment.  Given that the US-Iran nuclear deal provided a largess for Iran to purchase weapons and fund terrorism on the Arabian Peninsula and elsewhere, the investment in Saudi defense capability seems acceptable.

There was more going on in Riyadh then met the untrained eye. Think of it.  In barely two days, President Trump, in a summit trifecta, met separately with the Saudi King, leaders of the Gulf States and with an impressive cross-section of the heads-of-state of the Sunni Arab world.  We would not be surprised to see more public thawing of relations between the Gulf states and Israel as a result of this trip. Who knows, perhaps the ancient Arab adage that the enemy of my enemy is my friend will actually prove to be true. Even Trump’s flight from Riyadh to Tel Aviv was somewhat historic merely because it was a very rare direct flight.

The highlight of the President’s first day in Israel was his visit to the Western Wall, the last remaining vestige of the Second Temple, which was destroyed by Rome during the conquest of Jewish Jerusalem in 70 AD. Many consider the Western Wall to be the most sacred site in Judaism. It is the retaining wall on top of which rests the Temple Mount, believed to be where the ancient biblical tabernacle and its inner sanctuary once stood, which religious Jews believe housed the holy of holies, where God actually dwelt. By all accounts it was a moving experience for both the President and his Jewish daughter, Ivanka who remarked, “It was deeply meaningful to visit the holiest site of my faith and to leave a note of prayer.”

That President Trump and his daughter visited the Western Wall is no small matter.  No other American President has ever done that. That’s because, according to international  law codified without respect to history, the Western Wall is not considered to be a part of Israel, but rather part of the disputed West Bank.

Israel liberated the Western Wall when it liberated Jerusalem and the old walled city including its former Jewish quarter during the six-day war fifty years ago. The old Jewish quarter, which was called the Jewish quarter because, well, it was where Jews lived, and had lived for time in memorial. The Jews were forced out during the 1948 Israeli War of Independence and the ancient Jewish quarter wound up in Jordanian hands.

Interestingly, no one in the international community protested “the occupation” of the Jewish quarter by Jordan, or, for that matter, Jordan’s entire occupation of the disputed West Bank. Contrary to the armistice terms following the fighting in1948, Jews were given no access to the old Jewish quarter nor to any of the synagogues or other Jewish landmarks. In fact, the Jordanians systematically destroyed or otherwise desecrated most of the Jewish holy sites, to which no one except Jews objected.

The Jordanians were quite proud of their obliteration of Jewish life in the old Jewish quarter. Jordanian Colonel Abddullah el Tell, who commanded local units of the Jordanian Arab Legion proudly described the destruction of the Jewish quarter in his memoirs.  Let us quote:  “… The operations of calculated destruction were set in motion…. I knew that the Jewish Quarter was densely populated with Jews…. I embarked, therefore, on the shelling of the Quarter with mortars, creating harassment and destruction…. Only four days after our entry into Jerusalem the Jewish Quarter had become their graveyard. Death and destruction reigned over it…. As the dawn of Friday, May 28, 1948, was about to break, the Jewish Quarter emerged convulsed in a black cloud – a cloud of death and agony.”  

And so, following the Six-Day War, the old Jewish Quarter, or what was left of it, was back in Jewish hands. That’s how it became “occupied territory,” according to the sages who divine international law.

And that is where President Trump and his son-in-law and daughter respectfully, rightfully and resolutely approached the ancient remnant of the second temple known as the Western Wall, and either symbolically or earnestly communed with a painful past and, presumably, prayed for a better future.

So far, so good, Mr. President.

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The Trump Administration: A Sole Proprietorship

Of Thee I Sing Heading AuthorsContrary to popular belief, the Trump Administration is not being run like a big business. This Administration is being run like a small business—sort of like a sole proprietorship.  That is not to say that President Trump hasn’t employed some excellent people. He has. But like many sole proprietorships he seems to be the ever-present decision maker, commenter, defender, and offender and the nation’s first oval office tweeter of tweets.

Many sole proprietorships reflect the quirks, habits, strengths and weaknesses of “the guy or gal” who comes in and opens the shop each morning. In many respects these are the people who make America tick. They are the proverbial backbone of the nation. But the guy or gal who does a fine job of running Ajax TV Service, might not be so good at running NBC, or for that matter the Trump Taj Mahal, The Trump Plaza Hotel, Trump Hotels and Casinos Resorts or the Trump Entertainment Resorts all of which, except for NBC, have filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Now, as Tevia the fiddler might say, “bankruptcy is no sin, but it’s no great honor either.” Donald Trump the candidate bragged that “Hundreds and hundreds of deals, and four times I’ve taken advantage of the (bankruptcy) laws. And, frankly, so has everybody else in my position.”  Well, not so — only everyone else in his position whose enterprises ran out of money with which to meet their financial obligations. Now, we are in no way being critical of those who have availed themselves of the nation’s bankruptcy laws, especially under Chapter 11 which governs restructuring as compared to liquidation. But bankruptcy is far, far, more common, in relative terms, among sole proprietorships and other small businesses as compared to big businesses.

For example, about 20% of small businesses will fail in their first year in business and about 80% will have failed by the end of ten years. Conversely, only 5% of the 500 largest companies have declared bankruptcy over the past twenty years. So candidate Trump’s proud (everybody in my position does it) pronouncement, while not true, is far more accurate about sole proprietorships as compared to big businesses.

We do not make this point to criticize the President’s business acumen. We think he’s pretty astute, even cunning, and he’s certainly been quite successful.  We also think he has some very impressive presidential accomplishments to his credit. Where he can operate as the firmly and legally established chief executive of the United States, which he can do where executive decisions are final, he has done some impressive things…and some not so impressive.  He has certainly gotten China’s attention, and, we suspect, Chairman Kim Jong-un’s as well. That’s something a succession of prior Presidents had failed to do. They were played by Kim Jong-un as well as his father. We supported his decision to send cruise missiles into Syria and to drop the MOAB onto a terrorist tunnel system in Afghanistan. On the other hand, his thrusts with respect to immigration have been hasty and clumsy—perhaps, a bit of showboating and grandstanding.

President Trump seems to view the legislative and judicial branches of our government as anything but co-equal, but he is not the first President to have a contemptuous relationship with the two other branches of government. He is incredibly Nixonian in that regard, and his firing of FBI Director James Comey suggests that he never heard of (or read about) Archibald Cox and the historically clumsy, Nixon-instigated Saturday-night massacre. Anyone who believed President Trump fired Jim Comey because of the recommendation he received from the Justice Department’s Deputy Secretary Rosenstein, well, we have some lovely beachfront property to sell them at the water’s edge on the Sea of Tranquility.

We know of few chief executives of major businesses who rely on themselves to communicate with, or respond to, everyone who is critical of their decisions or performance. First, they have more important things to do, and furthermore, they have knowledgeable professionals who can respond more factually and articulately to the issues of the moment. President Trump has made his communications staff largely irrelevant, because he has conditioned the press and the public to await his tweets or comments on whatever the controversy of the moment is.

President Trump has so compromised his communications staff that he is now hinting at ceasing daily press briefings—not because they can’t keep up with his pace of work, but because they can’t keep up with his erratic and often self-contradicting tweets and quotes.  While the President’s base delights in his tweets, the greater public, and certainly the press and those serious thinkers and historians who will eventually chronicle these days (or years) will observe the confusion, the walk-backs, the ire and record a very unpleasant time in our history. That President Trump doesn’t see what all his contretemps are inflicting on his Presidency is an American tragedy in the making.

As of now, we rather suspect that when the investigations into Russian election interference are concluded there will be little there there. We can’t get our heads around the notion that former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn was a serious potential candidate to be blackmailed. As Professor Alan Dershowitz has opined, all the State Department had to do is tell him he had been taped by our snoops, and poof, he is no longer a potential blackmail target.

President Trump should stop whining and tweeting. His chronically petulant behavior is unbusinesslike, and he is giving sole proprietorship a bad name.

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AHCA: A Poor Bill To Replace A Worse Law

AHCA is nothing of which to be proud.

Of Thee I Sing Heading AuthorsMake no mistake about it. Its primary purpose is to establish a lower baseline budget now by doing away with Obamacare taxes on the wealthy. This would allow a tax reduction bill to be drafted later this year that would be revenue neutral over a ten-year period. In other words, the net decrease in tax revenue wouldn’t be as great as it would be if the Obama surtax on the wealthy were still in place.  That’s a requirement tax reduction legislation later this year would have to meet to be enacted through the arcane reconciliation process requiring only a majority vote. That’s the truth of it.

BUT the ACA (Affordable Care Act) is a train wreck in desperate need of repair, replace or repeal and, at the end of the day, (we hate that expression) all three verbs are interchangeable. Obama’s Affordable Care Act is affordable for some, especially when healthcare premiums are subsidized by others, and outrageously unaffordable for others who have seen their healthcare premiums and /or deductibles go through the roof. The ACA was sold to the American public with a presidential look-em-in the-eye blatant lie— “if you like your doctor you can keep him or her” – “If you like your healthcare plan you can keep it” and just to make sure everyone understood they could count on those promises, President Obama punctuated each promise with “Period!” President Obama even assured the nation that premiums would go down by $2400 during his first term in office. None of these promises were true, nor did anyone in the White House believe they were true. Worse, the ACA obliterated any actuarial basis for pricing healthcare, thereby assuring that a preponderance of older, high-cost applicants would show up, and younger, low-cost applicants would go fishing or take their kids to Disneyland instead of buying health insurance.

AHCA leaves much too much to others (the States) to implement which isn’t bad in and of itself. Handing waivers off to the States, however, creates too much uncertainty for a populace that is already being whipsawed by rate and deductible increases as well a substantial retreat of health insurance companies exiting the ACA (Obamacare) marketplace.

As might be expected, the Democrats and some Republicans are calling the AHCA a disaster equaled only by the three Woe Judgments depicted in the Book of Revelations. Like many criticisms leveled at anything Trump, the criticisms leveled at the ACHC are a bit over the top. The biggest criticism, of course, is that it will throw people with pre-existing conditions under the bus –either leaving them with no insurance or much more expensive insurance. That’s really not true.

House Speaker Paul Ryan was, essentially, correct when he said, “no matter what, you cannot be denied coverage if you have a pre-existing condition.”  The charge that people with pre-existing conditions will either be denied coverage or priced out of coverage–also, not true.

What is true is that individuals with pre-existing conditions who wait until they need care to buy insurance (even though they have known they would eventually need care) would be charged more than those who make the decision to purchase insurance when available under the AHCA at rates commensurate with what the general public is charged. In other words, Speaker Ryan used a reasonable analogy when he compared people with pre-existing conditions who wait to buy insurance until they need care to someone who waits until their house is on fire to then buy homeowner’s insurance.

No one with pre-existing conditions would really get thrown off their health care because of the provision that grants waivers to States. You do not have to take our word for it. According to the Washington Post fact checker, the AHCA allows states to seek a waiver so that a person who lives in one of those states who “has a lapse in health coverage for longer than 63 days; has a pre-existing condition; and purchases insurance on the individual or small-group market” can “face insurance rates that could be based on their individual condition, for one year.” After that year, rates would once again be based on a community assessment, and states that avail themselves of the waiver must also offer a high-risk insurance pool to alleviate the financial burden. True, such high-risk pools may be underfunded, but under funding is also a major problem with Obamacare. That is exactly why rates are going through the ceiling in so many States. Obamacare is underfunded because the penalties charged to those who do not buy insurance is woefully inadequate, and that is why insurance rates and deductibles have skyrocketed.

The biggest problem with AHCA is that it may bear little resemblance to whatever bill the Senate finally enacts and sends back to the House. In other words, no one really knows at this point what the nation’s healthcare program will finally be. It’s the uncertainty. That’s the dilemma and not that the House has created sausage on which people are choking.

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The First 100-Days Farce: Much Ado About Nothing

Of Thee I Sing Heading AuthorsWell, maybe something, but not much.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt made much of his first 100 days in office, and the press and subsequent presidents have been fixated on that initial period as though it were more significant than the second or third 100 days, or the fourteen 100-day cycles that would, ultimately, comprise a president’s first term.

It all started with FDR.  The country was in desperate straits and FDR knew that a barrage of federal initiatives would give hope to a desperate nation. And it did.  We won’t try to analyze all that FDR pushed through during those first 100 days.  Suffice to say, FDR’s legislative agenda produced a mixed bag of results, which, all things considered, served to instill faith in federal action by a nation that had lost faith.

Congress, during FDR’s first 100 days sent to his desk legislation that created the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Federal Emergency Relief Act, the National Industrial Recovery Act, the Emergency Railroad Transportation Act, the Agricultural Adjustment Act, the Emergency Farm Mortgage Act, Tennessee Valley Authority Act, the Farm Credit Act, the Emergency Banking Act, the Government Economy Act, the Abandonment of the Gold Standard, The Securities Act, the Abrogation of Gold Payment Act, the Home Owners Loan Act and, of course, the Glass Steagall Banking Act.

Nearly everyone, today, assumes FDR’s first 100 days were a smashing success.  Few things done in such haste, however, are smashing successes. FDR succeeded in stabilizing the nation’s plunging confidence, instituted reforms that were necessary, and demonstrated that government could play a constructive role in improving, over time, the services available to the people. Think Tennessee Valley Authority, the Securities Act and other initiatives. Other legislation probably did more harm than good. For example, the heart of the New Deal was the National Industrial Recovery Act, which restricted output and stabilized (fixed) prices for virtually every business. It imposed medieval guild-type restrictions on prices and output. Under the NIRA it was a crime to increase production or reduce prices.

According to James Powell’s “FDR’s Folly: How Roosevelt and His New Deal Prolonged the Great Depression,” a forty-nine-year-old immigrant dry cleaner was jailed for charging 35 cents instead of 40 cents to press a pair of pants. While the NIRA was struck down by the Supreme Court in May 1935, many excessive New Deal restrictions on business are still with us today.  When all was said and done, FDR’s record-breaking first 100 days clearly did not shorten, let alone end, the Great Depression. America’s ramp up to the Second World War did far more to jolt the country out of the 1930’s economic doldrums than anything from FDR’s first 100 days.

Nonetheless, the press has remained fixated on President Trump’s proverbial first 100 days. Of course, Candidate Trump’s excessive bragging about all that he would accomplish during his first 100 days as President created, among many in the press,  anticipation of a schadenfreude happening of tsunamic proportions.

So were Trump’s first one hundred days the failure virtually all of cable news (except Fox) and most talking heads and editorial writers have declared them to be?  No, they really were not. Nor were they the greatest first 100 days in the history of American presidencies that President Trump has declared them to be. Trump signed 29 new laws compared to Obama’s 14, Bush’s seven or Clinton’s 22. The new laws he signed were second in length to those Obama signed, but longer than either those signed by Presidents Bush or Clinton. All of which is rather irrelevant. Generally, most legislation signed during the first 100 days of a new President’s administration had been drafted before the new President was even inaugurated. A President doesn’t get to sign a law until Congress passes it.

While we can argue, and will, the propriety of many executive orders that presidents sign, Trump during his first 100 days issued thirty executive orders compared to Obama’s 19, Bush’s 11 and Clinton’s 13.  It is true, however, that most of Trump’s executive orders simply reversed Obama’s executive orders.  That doesn’t make them any less important (depending on one’s political point of view). Obama certainly issued executive orders late in his presidency knowing full well they would be reversed if a member of the opposition party were to be elected.

Our view is that presidential executive orders are an indication of how muscular presidents have been in exercising their executive powers. As President Obama threatened (and delivered) when he couldn’t get the Republican-controlled congress to send him the legislation he wanted, “I have a pen.” George Washington, still our favorite president, issued only eight executive orders during his entire two-term presidency, while FDR signed close to 3,800  during his time in the White House, including Executive Order 9066 that authorized the incarceration of nearly 120,000 innocent Americans of Japanese ancestry.

While Trump has had rough sledding with his cabinet nominations, largely the result of Schumer slow-walking the nominations whenever he could, Trump succeeded in pushing through 21 of 22 cabinet nominees during his first 100 days compared to Obama’s 20, Bush’s 17 and Clinton’s 18.

Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch was confirmed along party lines after Senate Majority Leader McConnell invoked the so-called nuclear option allowing a simple majority to confirm the nominee. Senator Schumer’s protestations were both ludicrous and laughable given his own record of opining that President Bush shouldn’t nominate a supreme court justice at the end of his last term in office.  (Former Vice President Biden had also opined that it would be wrong for President Bush to nominate a justice to the Supreme Court in the event a vacancy occurred during his last year in office).

Finally, we note that Trump has stayed in the United States working during his first 100 days in office, albeit not all of them in Washington, while President Obama made his famous world tour sojourning to nine foreign countries during his first 100 days.

All in all, Trump’s first 100 days have not been “historic” as he has described them, nor have they been “an incredible journey” for the nation.  But he has certainly had a credible first 100 days—especially given the abject hostility of the opposition and most of the press to his presidency.

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US, Britain, and now France: The Established Order Kaput!

Of Thee I Sing Heading AuthorsIf we might borrow from Thomas Paine: These are, indeed, times that try men’s souls.

A disquiet, a sort of mass angst, seems to have settled over much of Europe just as in the United States. Three of the four great democracies have chosen to roll the dice rather than depend on tried and true establishment politicians and policies. Polls in the fourth great democracy, Germany, have gyrated back and forth, although Chancellor Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union has been gaining strength in recent polls.

Refugee and Immigration issues have weighed heavily throughout the European Union and voter preferences are hyper sensitive to terrorist attacks and to the type of outrages that occurred in Cologne and other German cities a year ago when women were attacked by gangs of Arabic-speaking refugees. The sane world is holding its breath, hoping the final May 7th election in France won’t be whip-sawed by a mad-man shouting Allahu Akbar.

Also, roiling voters, especially in the United States and Great Britain has been the ever-increasing centralization of power. Tens of millions of American have become fed-up with Washington, just as millions of Brits have had it with the constant flow of dictates from Brussels.

Right now, all eyes are on France. Nearly half of French voters cast their votes this week for candidates whose main appeal is that they’re ardently anti-establishment. Emmanuel Macron’s claim to fame is, essentially, that he’s never been elected to anything. He even had to create his own political party in order to run.

And Marine Le Pen, well, she’s a piece of work who has waited, perhaps impatiently, for just such a national angst to make a serious dash for the presidency. Le Pen, and her bizarre father, Jean-Marie Le Pen have been odd fixtures in French politics for a long time.  Marine broke with her father who founded the anti-immigrant National Front forty-five years ago. While she has tried to distance herself from papa’s fame as a holocaust denier, France’s Muslims and Jews will unite behind Macron, just to keep a Le Pen from stepping foot in the Élysée Palace. We suppose that’s a good thing.

Over half of French voters cast their ballots for neither Macron nor Le Pen so there is apt to be widespread discontent no matter who wins the May 7th tally.  Already, there have been violent protests at, of course, the Place de la Bastille by demonstrators who do not like the idea of either Macron nor Le Pen becoming their next president. Other protests erupted after the election at the Place de la Republicque as well.

We expect that Emmanuel Macron will become the next President of France, if for no other reason,   than because every other political party will campaign for him rather than see Marine Le Pen ascend to the presidency.

While all of the current attention is focused on the second-round elections to be held on May 7th, the real fly in the ointment may prove to be the legislative elections that follow a month later. A French President without most the parliament behind him or her is in a decidedly weak position. Such an outcome is not only feasible, but it seems to us probable.  Neither Le Pen nor Macron have much of party machine behind them, so the June legislative election looms very large. Without a majority of legislators in his or her corner, the new president could be a very crippled chief executive at the Élysée Palace, and that could utterly paralyze the French system of government.  Sound familiar?

Le Pen’s party, the National Front, has never done well winning elections at the legislative, or local,  level. While Le Pen has developed a following of sorts, the National Front has elected only two deputies in the 577 member National Assembly. This could make governing extremely difficult should Le Pen ascend to the presidency.

Macron doesn’t seem to be in much better shape. He split from the Socialist party to run for president and created his own party, En Marche or “the movement.” En Marche, has never run a single candidate in any election before, either national or local.

Arguably, the fact that the legislative elections take place well after the presidential election might give whoever is elected president time to rally support for local candidates who support their candidacy, but that looks, to us, unlikely. Local politics in France are, well, very local, and neither Le Pen nor Macron have a well-disciplined party apparatus working for them at the local level. If neither Le Pen nor Macron can rally support for local candidates who support them in the few weeks following the May 7th presidential election, the President of France could be what the revered Polish hero Field Marshal Jozef Pilsudsky once called the Polish Presidency a hundred years ago— “a bird in a gilded cage.”

Regardless of the outcome of the May 7th election we expect rough sailing in France for the foreseeable future.  Stability on the continent may prove elusive for years to come, and that’s not good for anyone.

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Trump Recalibrating

Of Thee I Sing Heading AuthorsIt has been a rather remarkable week. We suspect there’s a lot of head scratching going on in Moscow, Damascus, Tehran, Beijing and Pyongyang, not to mention Washington, DC.

Donald Trump who many saw (and see) as a pretender; a pro-Russian Manchurian Candidate (think Vanity Fair, Huffington Post, New York Times) or a sort of Bill McKay (played by Robert Redford) in the 1988 film The Candidate who, upon getting elected to the US Senate famously asks, “What do we do now?” Some delighted in portraying Trump as a puppet on the end of strings being pulled by Steve Bannon (think Slate, Politico, NY Daily News, SNL, Daily KOS).

Not anymore.

Last week, and 59 tomahawk cruise missiles later, President Donald Trump delivered on an unkept promise former president Barack Obama made to Bashir al Assad of Syria five years earlier when al Assad gassed his own people—lesson: don’t cross a red-line America draws in the sand.

And this week America, with a nod from President Trump, destroyed a network of tunnels in Afghanistan inhabited by scores of ISIS killers by dropping a massive non-nuclear, air-igniting bomb on the terrorists’ sub-terranian hideaway. At last count nearly 100 ISIS fighters, including four commanders, were killed by the blast — and the bad guys now know that tunnels no longer provide sanctuary.

The fact that President Trump seems to have recalibrated from political circus barker to Commander-in-Chief of the world’s most powerful fighting force has not been lost on friends or foes alike. China abstained  rather than veto a UN resolution condemning Syria, and then actually sent a message to Pyongyang by blocking a shipment of coal headed to China from North Korea. Kim Jong-Un also seemed to get the message that this was a different America, as Trump sent the navy steaming toward the Korean Peninsula and warned China that if it didn’t rein in their man-child-dictator then we would.  Kim Jong-Un then suddenly and uncharacteristically called off a threatened nuclear weapon test, and instead fired off a missile that exploded upon launch.

Trump’s actions also earned praise from our allies most of whom have been scratching their collective heads ever since Donald Trump became the West’s senior partner.

A spokesperson for the U.K. said their “government fully supports the U.S. action, which we believe was an appropriate response to the barbaric chemical weapons attack launched by the Syrian regime and is intended to deter further attacks.” Additionally, UK Defense Secretary Michael Fallon said the airstrikes were “wholly appropriate” and that Prime Minister Theresa May had been “informed throughout” the U.S. military response.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull expressed his country’s support for the U.S. retaliation in Syria. Turnbull described the airstrikes as “a calibrated, proportionate and targeted response” and said Australia will remain “fully committed as a coalition partner to our ongoing military operations in Iraq and Syria.”

Fellow NATO member Turkey also backed the US action in Syria. A spokesman for President Tayyip Erdogan said the airstrikes were “an important step to ensure that chemical and conventional attacks against the civilian population do not go unpunished.” Turkey is also calling for Assad to be immediately removed from power in Syria.

And while Trump was busy collecting rare, but well-deserved accolades from our allies, he took time out to deal with the west-wing provocateur, Steve Bannon.

President Trump yanked senior strategist, Steve Bannon, from his role as a principal member of the National Security Council. Describing Bannon with a classic Trump put-down as “a guy who works for me,” he was clearly telling his top disrupter-in-chief, who once described himself as a Leninist, to shape up or get out.

We see Bannon’s apparent fall from grace as more significant than merely an intramural dust up with a White House advisor. The worst kept secret in Washington has been Bannon’s ongoing face-off with Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and most trusted adviser. Kushner and his wife (and the President’s daughter and uber-trusted advisor), Ivanka, and economic adviser Gary Cohn along with deputy national security adviser Dina Powell, are known to be coaxing Trump toward the center, where American policy has traditionally resided and where it is most apt to succeed.  Bannon, of course, is first and foremost a populist and nationalist rabble rouser. While he might be beloved by the so-called alt-right (whatever that is), he is (and belongs) incredibly out of place at the center of American government.

The reader should not misinterpret our nod to President Trump this week. We continue to lament that our President is unread, intemperate, imprecise, inarticulate, and rather shockingly unqualified compared to nearly all leaders of liberal democracies (as distinguished from liberal parties) which are, by definition, open societies, characterized by the equal protection of human rights, civil rights, civil liberties and political freedoms for everyone.

Nonetheless, we found the almost uniform criticism of President Trump’s actions this week in much of the liberal press to be remarkably partisan and unsparingly critical. That there is a sizable swath of the American body politic that is committed to criticizing anything Trump does, lest someone see something positive in a Trump decision, is unfortunate and, ironically, it risks engendering a huge backlash among uncommitted voters.

A generation ago, a similar “anti Nixon” movement energized what Nixon called the Great Silent Majority—voters who were uncommitted, fair minded and offended by attacks on the president that they saw as rabid and irrationally antagonistic. They delivered the biggest landslide in American history to a president who presided over violent protests throughout the country during the infamous summer of rage, the use of lethal force against protesting students at Kent State University, and the cover up of one of America’s greatest political scandals (Watergate), and a president who served as Commander-in-Chief during the extremely unpopular Vietnam War, in which more than 21,000 young Americans died in combat during his first term in office.

So Never Trumpsters beware.  On balance, the last two weeks have been good for the Trump Presidency.  That’s reality—not a bitter pill.

Enjoy any or all of Hal’s books at Amazon, Kindle, Apple I-books, Nook,  Barnes and Noble, Audible and other fine book stores.

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Trump’s Very Presidential Week

Of Thee I Sing Heading AuthorsDonald Trump may not have been our choice for President (then again, neither was Hillary) and we have not been sparing in our criticism of him, but this was a good week for Trump, the Presidency and, we believe, the country.  For the Never Trumpsters who may be reading this, feel free to skip and, perhaps, tune in instead to the Baylor-Ole Miss basketball game this afternoon, or tune into MSNBC and contemplate why the Syrian nerve-gas attack against their own civilians was really President Trump’s fault.

Syria:

We believe the military strike ordered by President Trump against Syria’s Shayrat air base was entirely justified, brilliantly planned and executed, and consistent with the latitude he has to strike under the War Powers Act. There are hundreds of American troops in Syria and thousands in the general region. A beleaguered dictator like Bashir Al Assad using outlawed and very deadly nerve gas anywhere in the area is sufficient justification for the President, as Command-in-chief, to take immediate action. Assad has five more airbases, and, depending on what he does next, we hope the President doesn’t hesitate to destroy Assad’s remaining air power infrastructure.

Few knowledgeable people today doubt that President Trump did what former President Obama should have done four years ago. President Obama’s failed bluff drastically changed the course of the civil war and the balance of power, as Russia swiftly took advantage of America’s timidity and moved into Syria and, effectively, took over the war against the Syrian people. Approximately four hundred thousand Syrian civilians have, subsequently, died and another million have fled into Europe. America’s fecklessness during Assad’s war against his people will, eventually, become the focus of historians. They will not be writing volumes about which Americans are apt to be proud.

One of the worst kept secrets of the Syrian civil war is that there have been dozens of  gas attacks since Syria officially agreed to give up its weapons stockpile following a 2013 sarin gas attack against a Damascus suburb. Gas attacks are known to have taken place in Idlib and Saraqeb where doctors said they had treated more than two dozen patients following a suspected chlorine gas attack.

A global chemical weapons watchdog, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, said it was confident that chlorine gas had repeatedly been used as a weapon.

Since President, Barack Obama stepped back from enforcing his “red line” on the use of gas, continued Syrian attacks have drawn nothing more than public condemnation from western leaders.

Assad seems to have assumed that as long as his gas  attacks were kept relatively small he could get away with using chlorine and sarin. But many in the west knew the toll of dead and maimed civilians was mounting, and many have become concerned that the use of chemical weapons was no longer as shocking as it was a few years ago.

“There is certainly a huge risk of normalizing the use of chemical weapons,” said Richard Guthrie, a British chemical weapons expert who has raised concerns about the wider impacts of Syria’s continued use of toxins as weapons. President Trump’s decision to strike lets the world know that the United States has no intention of letting these weapons become “normalized.”

So we think President Trump acted wisely and decisively. He also sent a well-honed message to both China and their ward, the North Korean man-child dictator Kim Jong Un.

President Trump’s military strike will also not be lost on Vadimir Putin when he meets with US Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson in their first face-to-face encounter next week. Putin now knows that whatever assumptions he has made about Donald Trump must now be recalibrated.  We suspect the Ayatollah is doing some recalibrating in Tehran as well.

Gorsuch nomination:

 We were also pleased that Neil Gorsuch was confirmed for the Supreme Court by the US Senate, even if only along party lines. We do not know what positions the new Associate Justice will take regarding issues the court will be addressing. We have our concerns. But the spectacle of the Schumer-promoted filibuster of the nomination of an eminently qualified conservative justice was ridiculous and, we believe, most of the country saw it as ridiculous. We believe Senate-majority-leader McConnell’s decision not to take up Justice Garland’s nomination was rather bone-headed, but not without justification—justification provided in the past by none other than, you guessed it, Senators Chuck Schumer and Joe Biden.  In a speech urging President Bush (43) not to nominate anyone should a vacancy occur, Biden took to the Senate floor, and said the nomination process should be put off until after the election, which was on Nov. 3, 1992. Schumer was even more explicit in opposing a nomination in a president’s last term arguing, “if any new Supreme Court vacancies opened up, Democrats should not allow Bush the chance to fill it.” We think all of this is a sad commentary, but in partisan Washington DC we suppose what’s always been good for the goose has always been good for the gander.

Bannon:

Finally, it seems, that President Trump has, perhaps, grown a bit wary of his senior strategist Steve Bannon. We’ll have to see. We never believed Bannon should have been appointed a principle member of the National Security Agency, and for reasons not fully understood at this time, President Trump has yanked him from that position.

All in all, a good week for President Trump.

Available at Amazon, Kindle, Audible and Banes and Noble

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Rescinding Internet Privacy Rules: Not as Bad as Advertised, But Bad Enough.

Of Thee I Sing Heading AuthorsFact: There will be no greater sharing of your internet browsing and purchasing history if President Trump signs the legislation that has now passed both houses of Congress and is awaiting his signature than there is right now. That’s because the FCC rule prohibiting Internet Service Providers (ISP’s) from selling or sharing your browsing and purchasing proclivities have not gone into effect and won’t go into effect until next December. They are free to market your internet history right now.

Eager to avoid controversy, the nation’s largest ISP’s—Comcast, AT&T and Verizon all rushed to state that they do not, and will not, sell personal web browsing histories without the customer’s permission even if the President signs the new law—which raises an interesting question.  Why rescind the regulation that prohibits the ISP’s from doing what they have just pledged not to do anyway?  What’s the hurry?  Why not wait until one of the companies breaks its pledge not to sell personal browsing history?  Silly question.  If selling your personal browsing history is a bad idea, or an infringement of internet user privacy, then the customer’s approval should be required before an ISP begins hawking the sale of his or her internet visits. Promises are easily broken. Laws and regulations are not so easily broken without risk.

Lawyers for the ISP’s argue, somewhat disingenuously we believe, that rescinding an ISP’s right to market your personal internet history is a violation of YOUR first amendment right of free speech. They argue that you can’t exercise your right to speak (for instance to buy or rent a movie on the internet) if the purveyor of that movie isn’t free to communicate to you that it is available. Yeah, we think that’s a bit far-fetched too.

We think the eleventh-hour, Obama-era FCC rule that prohibits ISP’s from selling your personal information unless you specifically opt-in and give your permission to have your history marketed is, on balance, a worthwhile protection of an individual’s right to privacy. FBI Director Comey’s warning that “there is no such thing as absolute privacy in America” may be true, but we doubt that many Americans would simply shrug their shoulders if they knew their ISP was free to sell to the nation’s purveyors of goods and services, without their permission, whatever visits they made on the internet.

Here’s the real rub as we see it. Our individual buying or browsing decisions, when aggregated with those of millions of other internet users gives ISP’s the wherewithal to move aggressively and powerfully into the marketing and advertising business without paying for the biggest asset they have – our individual, but now aggregated, internet history. In fact, the ISP customer pays the ISP to provide him or her with internet service. Perhaps the ISP should provide substantially discounted internet service to its customers in return for the Big Data muscle the customers are, collectively, providing the ISP. Now that would be something worth considering.

As might be expected, every Republican senator voted to kill the FCC privacy rules and every Democratic senator voted to preserve them. The opposition never misses an opportunity to politicize an issue if it makes them seem more virtuous than those who are in power. Of course, the reverse is true as well. Those in power will try to marginalize the opposition by politicizing issues that serve their interests.

To be clear, ISPs can only “see” a domain name such as www.halgershowitz.com (my personal web address or URL), but the ISP can’t “see” which of my books or other links you may have accessed once you arrived at my (or any) URL. Nonetheless, being able to profile nearly every consumer by his or her web preferences is an incredible marketing tool, and ISP’s garner that information as a side benefit of providing internet service to their customers. That they can “follow” every customer to whom they provide service and report the “comings and goings” of their customers to whoever is willing to pay for that information is no small matter. No one would tolerate a gumshoe following them around and reporting where they go and what they buy, and, we would bet, few people want their internet comings and goings reported to the highest bidder either.

To be sure, ISP’s have always had the ability to do that and, to date, there is little evidence that they have abused that capability. Internet retailers such as Amazon can, of course, track with specificity what you buy once you enter their domain, but the consumer understands that when he or she clicks into Amazon to shop.  Social media users also volunteer considerable profile information when they subscribe, and just about everyone understands that social media activity is the antithesis of privacy.

ISPs such as AT&T, Comcast and Verizon are different and they are on the cusp of becoming advertising behemoths because of their access to the personal shopping and browsing preferences of their customers. That is exactly why they have lobbied so hard against these rules. They have the potential of mirroring the Googles and Facebooks of the world by providing advertisers with incredibly valuable data about their customers’ internet preferences.

People subscribe to ISP’s to gain access to the internet, and ISP’s are well paid to provide that service. Where people shop or browse once they have secured internet service is really no one’s business other than the user and whomever he or she is communicating with. An individual’s browsing and shopping history should not be for sale without the individual’s permission.

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Trump Walks: He Finally Did the Right Thing.

Of Thee I Sing Heading AuthorsAs readers of these essays know by now, we’ve not showered President Trump with accolades since he’s been in office. Quite the opposite.

But this time we think he did the right thing.  He walked away from his dysfunctional Republican-majority Congress, and their Democratic never-Trump erstwhile allies. The American Health Care Act (ACHA), the Republican first-phase legislative attempt to begin the process of repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was, to be sure, never going to be an easy sell, nor was it even close to being the final legislative fix to the ACA (better known as ObamaCare). It was, however, a beginning step in the right direction. Forget the well calculated avalanche of criticism and vituperation that Democrat talking heads and their strange, ultra-conservative, Republican bed fellows have leveled at Speaker Ryan and the AHCA. The AHCA addressed very legitimate issues, and the attempt to shift some of the responsibility for subsidizing healthcare costs (premium subsidies) to the states, was not unreasonable, nor was the attempt to create a more competitive health insurance marketplace.  We’ve expressed our doubts in these essays (last week) whether the AHCA would produce the premium cost reductions President Trump promised, but the AHCA was a step in the right direction, even though many more course corrections were certain to be necessary.

The so-called Freedom Caucus, a rag-tag, rabble-rousing, far-right group of Republicans confronted Speaker Ryan and President Trump with a list of demands intended to make sure the baby got thrown out with the bath water.  President Trump tried to meet some of their demands, but, to our surprise and satisfaction, he walked rather than allow this group to make a further mockery of what he and Ryan were trying to accomplish. Every successful negotiator knows that the strongest arrow in a negotiator’s quiver is the willingness to walk away from any negotiation that has gone sour. Trump walked and he was right to do so.

So just what were President Trump and Speaker Ryan trying to accomplish?  Perhaps they were trying to turn a sow’s ear into a purse.  If not silk at least a fabric that would serve a useful purpose.

Look, the Affordable Care Act is in very serious trouble.  The promises that were made to sell the ACA to the American public were not made in good faith. There was never any truth to the assertion that: (1) premium costs would come down (they have consistently gone up as have deductibles), (2) everyone could keep their doctor “period!” (emphasis added by President Obama), (3) everyone could keep their healthcare plan if they liked it. All totally disingenuous rhetoric.

The case for the ACA was a sham and a deliberate one at that. Remember what Jonathan Gruber, the MIT economist and key architect of the so-called Affordable Care Act stated quite publicly, “the stupidity of the American voter” made it important for him and Democrats to hide Obamacare’s true costs from the public. That was really, really critical for the thing to pass,” said Gruber. He admitted that the sales pitch was one big cover-up operation: “Lack of transparency is a huge advantage. And basically, you know, call it the stupidity of the American voter or whatever. But basically, that was really, really critical to getting the thing to pass.” That may have been candid, but it was also vile. And former Speaker Nancy Pelosi had the temerity to refer to the AHCA as “a cruel bill.”

 The so-called Freedom Caucus bragged that it had the votes to kill Ryan’s health care bill, and they thought they had enough clout with the White House to force Trump to negotiate even after Ryan indicated no more changes would likely be made. Trump did the right thing once it was clear the recalcitrant Republicans were out to scuttle any real meaningful deal.  He walked.

Thus far in the Trump presidency we have had little positive to say about how this Administration has comported itself. In this instance, however, we think the President did exactly the right thing.  The Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare) needs an overhaul.  First, it is not affordable. Aside from steady premium increases each year with an average whopping 25% bubble of an increase last year, increasing deductibles made a sham of coverage for many families.  In some cases, families could keep their premiums from increasing if they opted for a higher deductible. Talk about a cruel hoax. The higher deductible may have kept their premium from increasing, but it certainly didn’t keep their costs from increasing.

We have real concerns about whether a more competitive marketplace for health insurance can produce the kind of cost savings the Trump Administration envisions.  Healthcare involves very high fixed costs which are relatively unaffected by reducing the demand for healthcare services.

To further exasperate matters, the average annual growth rate of healthcare spending will, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, exceed five percent over the next five years. That’s because new medical treatments and drugs—especially for life-threatening conditions like cancer—are very expensive. The resulting increased demand for more expensive procedures drive up premiums for the entire pool of insured Americans, and when younger, healthier individuals and families forego coverage as many do, the remaining pool of insureds is hit particularly hard. This has been especially true under the so-called Affordable Care Act. Consequently, millions of Americans, especially the younger, healthier ones, have opted to forgo coverage—despite the tax penalty associated with opting out of coverage. Preliminary data shows that roughly 5.6 million people paid a penalty instead of buying health insurance in 2015. A typical family, for example, could pay a mandatory penalty of almost $1,000 because they found it preferable to the $400 or $500 monthly cost of an ACA health plan.

State budgets are also taking a hit because of the ACA’s hidden costs. For example, one of the major components of the ACA is Medicaid expansion, whereby states can choose to accept federal dollars to expand the government insurance program. According to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office 13 million additional people will be enrolled in Medicaid this year because of the ACA. But there is never a free ride. The Foundation for Government Accountability (FGA) determined that adult Medicaid enrollment in 24 of the 29 states that accepted Medicaid expansion exceeded CBO projections by an average of 110 percent. That means the states’ share of Medicaid expansion costs will rise from five percent to 10 percent by 2020, leaving taxpayers in those states on the hook for vastly increased state budgets.

So, most of the hysterical criticism of the Ryan-Trump effort to repeal and replace the ACA (ObamaCare) is carefully calibrated political rhetoric.  The effort to move the AHCA (Ryan-Trump bill) forward has failed because the far-right fringe of the Republican Party thought they could gut the effort with the demands they made of Trump.  He was right to walk.

The Schumer-Pelosi wing of the US Congress are enjoying the moment. It remains to be seen, however, how long the laughter lasts.

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