How Bush’s ‘New World Order’ Became Trump’s ‘No World Order’


(Photo: UNHCR Photo Unit / Flickr

George H.W. Bush made a bold pronouncement on September 11, 1990.

Even though Iraq had recently invaded Kuwait and the collapse of the Soviet Union was still more than a year away, Bush proclaimed the imminent dawn of a “new world order” that would be “freer from the threat of terror, stronger in the pursuit of justice, and more secure in the quest for peace.”

Despite the lofty sentiments, Bush’s “new world order” has dead-ended in the “no world order” of 2017.

What went wrong? For starters, it’s worth looking back at the term’s origins.

In early September 1990, the United States was pulling together a coalition of the willing, with the tacit approval of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, to repel Iraqi forces from Kuwait.

Confident that he could face down Saddam Hussein, Bush anticipated not only military victory but a different kind of international community. To describe it, Bush borrowed the “new world order” concept from Gorbachev, who two years earlier had used it to support a stronger role for the United Nations and a reduced role for violence in the international arena.

Yet Bush was less interested in the United Nations and more focused on insisting that “there is no substitute for American leadership.”

Indeed, Bush devoted nearly half his 1990 speech to strengthening U.S. power by setting “America’s economic house in order” — cutting taxes, debt, energy dependency and even (prudently) Pentagon spending. In this way, Bush aimed to provide a stronger underpinning for American leadership in the emerging post-Cold War era.

Bush may have talked of “a world where the rule of law supplants the rule of the jungle,” but the thrust of U.S. policy in the wake of Bush’s speech suggested a different world order altogether.

Bush’s decision to go to war against Iraq in early 1991 demonstrated the cold geopolitical calculations behind the “new world order.” The administration, despite considerable congressional and popular opposition, decided to pursue the military option against Saddam rather than wait to see if diplomacy or economic sanctions would achieve the same result.

America’s overwhelming use of force turned the first Gulf War into a “turkey shoot” that killed more than 20,000 Iraqi soldiers and 3,000 civilians. Rather than herald a new order for the Middle East, the war aggravated the existing Arab/Israeli, Saudi/Iranian, Shia/Sunni, and nationalist/Islamist divides.

Bush’s new world order turned out to be the Cold War warmed over. Instead of just containing the Soviet Union, the United States shouldered the burdens of the sole superpower — responsible for countering threats to peace everywhere, primarily by military means.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991, Washington set about consolidating its unipolar status. The cooperative vision of Gorbachev and (to a lesser extent) Bush Sr. hardened into a post-Cold War U.S. triumphalism that would eventually expand NATO to the borders of Russia.

The prospect of a stronger United Nations became instead the a la carte multilateralism of the Bill Clinton years, when the U.S. acted with others only on a selective basis — and on Washington’s terms. U.S. meddling in the Middle East, particularly the U.S. support for (and military presence in) Saudi Arabia, helped grow radical Sunni groups like al-Qaeda, which would later attack the “new world order” on the anniversary of Bush’s speech in 2001.

A bipartisan fear of global anarchy pushed a succession of U.S. leaders to attempt to maintain American dominance. While that might have been possible for a brief moment in the early 1990s, it was inherently unsustainable. The failed efforts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and elsewhere testify to the impossibility of imposing a new world order by force.

Donald Trump, despite his calls as presidential candidate to focus on rebuilding the U.S. economy, is just the latest adherent to the U.S. unipolarism that the “new world order” ultimately fostered. He sends more troops to Afghanistan, threatens North Korea with “fire and fury,” and continues the worldwide war without end against terrorism.

The United States could have helped build a truly cooperative world order in 1990. Because it didn’t, the world now faces the twin challenges to the international rule of law: the Islamic State and Donald Trump. The anarchy that many feared is now just around the corner.


It’s Not Too Late to Reverse the Road to Zero Wealth for Households of Color

What would U.S. society be like if a majority of families had no wealth – no savings, no home equity, no investments of any kind?

That is exactly where the country is headed if we continue on our current path toward economic dystopia for black and Latino families.

While we celebrate a modest reduction in poverty rates and an encouraging uptick in median income, as disclosed in this week’s Census report, the stagnation and decline of wealth remains a troubling indicator.

Between 1983 and 2013, median black household wealth decreased by 75%  to $ 1,700 and Latino household wealth fell 50% to $ 2,000. At the same time, median white household wealth rose 14% to $ 116,800.

If this trend continues, an African American born in 2013 will see her household wealth hit zero by the time she turns 40. Her Latino peers will suffer the same fate 20 years later.

This is happening as households of color make up a growing share of the population and are projected to reach majority status by 2043. If the accelerating racial wealth divide isn’t halted, a majority of U.S. households will no longer have enough wealth to stake a claim in the middle class. The consequences for the economy and society as a whole will be devastating as racial and political polarization deepens and intensifies.

A combination of bold societal and policy changes is the only way out of this crisis.

We have a choice to make. Do we want to become a country like Brazil where staggering wealth inequality is the norm? Or do we want to be more like Canada, where there is far less inequality and greater opportunities for all?

Read the full article on USA Today.


America is Ready for Universal Health Coverage


Flickr / Molly Adams

The United States today is the only industrialized nation that doesn’t guarantee health care as a basic right to all its citizens. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., introduced legislation this week to change that.

The bill, titled “The Medicare for All Act,” would gradually expand Medicare coverage to all Americans by reducing the program’s eligibility age incrementally over four years. In essence, the health insurance currently provided to seniors over 65 would be accessible to everyone.

More concretely, it would replace private health insurance corporations, and the immense profits, power and administrative bloat that goes along with them.

As Congress remains stymied in partisan gridlock and the president teeters between scandal and incoherence, now is precisely the time to put forward a bold vision for a more civilized, caring country.

Sanders campaigned around the country during the 2016 Democratic primary to massive, adoring crowds sharing his ideas for universal health care. While he gained widespread support from coast to coast, and especially in the Midwest, his colleagues in the Senate kept a measured distance. That’s changed.

Sixteen of Sanders’ Democratic colleagues have come out to co-sponsor the legislation, including rumored presidential hopefuls Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Kamala Harris, D-Calif. The list of supporters includes moderates in swing states like Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., as well as the expected progressive champions like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.

To show just how far the idea has come in such a short amount of time, consider former Senator Max Baucus, D-Mont., an outspoken critic of single payer who was active in blocking consideration of the idea during debate over the Affordable Care Act in 2009. Sanders was quoted at the time claiming Baucus wouldn’t support single payer in “a million years.”

Yet the week before Sanders introduced his latest bill, Baucus himself told a crowd in Montana: “My personal view is we’ve got to start looking at single-payer … It’s going to happen.”

Life comes at you fast.

If Medicare for all can no longer be cast aside as a fringe idea in Washington, it’s gone downright mainstream in the rest of the country. An April 2017 poll from The Economist and YouGov found that 60 percent of the country supports “expanding Medicare to provide health insurance to every American.”

The reasoning behind this support isn’t complicated. Anyone who’s had to deal with the complexity of buying insurance and comparing co-pays, deductibles, and premiums knows the system is in rough shape despite progress made by the Affordable Care Act. And that’s aside from all the headaches and heartaches that go along with actually trying to use your insurance, only to be told the care you need isn’t covered.

No other civilized country has a system like this. It’s time for the United States to join the civilized world.

The U.S. spends nearly twice as much per capita as any other nation on health care and has the highest prescription drug prices in the world. That means that any talk about serious change to the system is going to be expensive — and measured in trillions, with a T.

Rather than directly including the pay-for in the legislation, Sanders’ team put out a six-page memo outlining various viable revenue raising proposals, ranging from modest changes to the federal income tax to bold proposals for a wealth tax on the top 0.1 percent.

As the memo lays out, the 20 wealthiest Americans now own more wealth than the bottom half of the country combined. (That stat comes from a 2015 report I co-authored.) Increasing taxes on the wealthy is a logical way both to fund expansions in health care coverage and to reduce the growing concentration of wealth and its deleterious effects on society.

A coalition of grassroots support has rallied behind the bill, buoyed by National Nurses United and a wide range of doctors and other health care providers and patient advocacy groups. The path to passing the bill will be long, likely measured in years. Sanders’ legislation, and the widespread support from inside and outside the formal halls of power, is a big step forward.


Racial Inequality Is Hollowing Out America’s Middle Class

Kenneth Worles Jr. / Institute for Policy Studies

America’s middle class is under assault.

Since 1983, national median wealth has declined by 20 percent, falling from $ 73,000 to $ 64,000 in 2013. And U.S. homeownership has been in a steady decline since 2005.

While we often hear about the struggles of the white working class, a driving force behind this trend is an accelerating decline in black and Latino household wealth.

Over those three decades, the wealth of median black and Latino households decreased by 75 percent and 50 percent, respectively, while median white household wealth actually rose a little. As of 2013, median whites had $ 116,800 in wealth — compared to just $ 2,000 for Latinos and $ 1,700 for blacks.

This wealth decline is a threat to the viability of the American middle class and the nation’s overall economic health. Families with more wealth can cover emergencies without going into debt and take advantage of economic opportunity, such as buying a home, saving for college, or starting a business.

We looked at the growing racial wealth gap in a new report for the Institute for Policy Studies and Prosperity Now.

We found that if these appalling trends continue, median black household wealth will hit zero by 2053, even while median white wealth continues to climb. Latino net worth will hit zero two decades later, according to our projections.

It’s in everyone’s interest to reverse these trends. Growing racial wealth inequality is bringing down median American middle class wealth, and with it shrinking the middle class — especially as Americans of color make up an increasing share of the U.S. population.

The causes of this racial wealth divide have little to do with individual behavior. Instead, they’re the result of a range of systemic factors and policies.

These include past discriminatory housing policies that continue to fuel an enormous racial divide in homeownership rates, as well as an “upside down” tax system that helps the wealthiest households get wealthier while providing the lowest income families with almost nothing.

The American middle class was created by government policy, investment, and the hard work of its citizenry. Today Americans are working as hard as ever, but government policy is failing to invest in a sustainable and growing middle class.

To do better, Congress must redirect subsidies to the already wealthy and invest in opportunities for poorer families to save and build wealth.

For example, people can currently write off part of their mortgage interest payments on their taxes. But this only benefits you if you already own a home — an opportunity long denied to millions of black and Latino families — and benefits you even more if you own an expensive home. It helps the already rich, at the expense of the poor.

Congress should reform that deduction and other tax expenditures to focus on those excluded from opportunity, not the already have-a-lots.

Other actions include protecting families from the wealth stripping practices common in many low-income communities, like “contract for deed” scams that can leave renters homeless even after they’ve fronted money for expensive repairs to their homes. That means strengthening institutions like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

The nation has experienced 30 years of middle class decline. If we don’t want this to be a permanent trend, then government must respond with the boldness and ingenuity that expanded the middle class after World War Two — but this time with a racially inclusive frame to reflect our 21st century population.


Hurricane Donald Hits the Republican Party


Apic World /

The storm inside the Republican Party has reached Category Four.

At the end of August, as Hurricane Harvey tore through Texas and Hurricane Irma was poised to devastate Florida, the hard right was experiencing its own high winds and pelting rain. On the TV show Fox and Friends, conservative commentator Laura Ingraham took aim at the Trump administration for being ill prepared to handle the incoming storms:

We can all look at these horrific pictures, and we can conclude that a federal government does need staff. We see it acutely in need of staff in a situation like this. This isn’t the only crisis we’re facing. This is massive, humanitarian. We’re also facing a huge crisis with North Korea. We’re facing a crisis of confidence across the country where people wonder even with President Trump in, he said he was going to drain the swamp, can we have a government that works for the people and not just have a people enslaved to the government.

The president, a big fan of Fox and Friends, immediately responded in his inimitable style through his medium of choice, Twitter: “We are not looking to fill all of those positions. Don’t need many of them — reduce size of government.”

Ingraham, not usually an advocate of the sensible, was pointing out an inescapable fact of modern politics. If you want to change the direction of a country, you have to have people to do it. She called Trump’s sentiment “laudable,” but wanted to know “why our USTR” — the U.S. Trade Representative, that is — “doesn’t have a single Deputy in place during NAFTA talks.”

Good question, Laura! But it’s a little late in the game to realize that, with football season already underway, the Trump team showed up on the field with little more than an erratic quarterback, several tough-looking linebackers, and a couple of utility players trying to fake it at unfamiliar positions. There’s a vocal cheerleading squad on the sidelines and a small claque of fervent fans, but nothing can substitute for a roster of players who actually know how to run plays. It’s no surprise that the Trump team is facing a shutout at the end of the first quarter.

Of course it’s not just Trump. Ingraham should also direct her attention to all the “small government” conservatives who are busy in Congress — and have been for years — subjecting the institutions they serve to a death by a thousand cuts.

For instance, in the budget bill that the Republican-controlled Congress proposed before Hurricane Harvey hit, the agency tasked with dealing with emergencies like the twin hurricanes faced nearly a $ 1 billion in cuts, with the funds to be reallocated to building Trump’s promised wall with Mexico. Although FEMA is likely to see at least some of that money restored, other agencies won’t be so lucky. Trump wanted to cut the Environmental Protection Agency budget by $ 2.6 billion, while Congress is proposing somewhat less aggressive surgery. In all, Trump wanted to cut $ 54 billion from domestic programs, a shock-and-awe opening bid that makes the congressional counter-offer of $ 5 billion in cuts more politically feasible.

Meanwhile, presented with a golden opportunity to legislate a massive change in policy, the Republicans in Congress fumbled: no new health care bill, no new tax reform, no new infrastructure legislation. Given this poor record, President Trump had to turn to the Democratic Party to raise the debt limit temporarily and push through funding for hurricane relief. This is no dawn of a new age of bipartisanship. Trump wanted to send a message to the Republicans that they can’t take him for granted. He’s also is setting up Republican legislators he didn’t like in the first place to take the fall for everything that has gone wrong in the first year of his term.

Steve Bannon, now restored to his perch at Breitbart, has articulated this strategy in starker terms. Trump’s former senior advisor is working with mega-donor Robert Mercer to develop a slate of Trump-style challengers to unseat Republican incumbents in the 2018 primaries. That includes Senators Jeff Flake of Arizona and Dean Heller of Nevada, both of whom had the temerity to challenge the more hare-brained of Trump’s policies.

The superstorm that Trump and Bannon are about to unleash on the Republican Party — on the heels of the electoral hurricane that brought them both to Washington in 2016 — has the potential to permanently remake American politics.

In 1917, Russia experienced two revolutions. The first one, in February, was more or less democratic. The second one came eight months later and installed the Bolsheviks. Bannon thinks of himself as a Leninist dedicated to destroying the establishment. Now he’s preparing for this second revolution.

Other countries are taking note.

Smaller Government, Smaller Empire?

In his incisive new book, In the Shadows of the American Century, historian Alfred McCoy assesses the rise and decline of the U.S. empire. In an especially provocative part of the book, he investigates the methods by which the Obama administration attempted to check China’s influence and how the Trump administration has unraveled that particular project.

While Beijing was maneuvering to transform parts of Africa, Asia, and Europe into a unified “world island” with China at its economic epicenter, Obama countered with a bold geopolitical vision meant to trisect that vast landmass by redirecting its trade toward the United States.

Obama translated that vision into the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), a free agreement for most of Asia minus China, and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) designed to further strengthen the U.S. trade alliance with Europe. Added to that was Obama’s effort to gradually reorient the Pentagon’s hitherto obsessive focus on the Middle East and Afghanistan over to the Pacific Rim.

These best laid plans went awry during the extreme political weather events of 2016. Donald Trump cancelled the TPP in his first week in office and froze negotiations for the TTIP. He has also called into question the free-trade agreement with South Korea.

Needless to say, China is thrilled at this opportunity to cement its economic position in Asia. Since China is Mexico’s third largest trade partner (though at a rather low 1.4 percent) and Canada’s second largest trade partner (at a more substantial 4.1 percent), Beijing is no doubt eyeing Trump’s short-handed effort to renegotiate NAFTA as a potential chance to get more of an economic foothold in North America as well.

On military issues, it’s more of a mixed bag. Bannon wanted Trump to focus more on China — and forget about North Korea. He’s gone, and the “globalists” who remain, like chief economic advisor Gary Cohn, are not keen on antagonizing Beijing. Still, the “generals” want to preserve at least part of the Pacific Pivot, if only to demonstrate resolve in the face of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

China watches all this with trepidation and amusement. It can’t quite believe the auto-destruction of the U.S. state. To put it mildly, China isn’t interested in small government. Beijing believes in the power of markets and capitalism, but it also places a lot of credence in state-led economic development. Moreover, it takes climate change seriously and has invested a huge amount of capital into sustainable energy and infrastructure.

To return to the football metaphor, the Trump team is now realizing that it has to play away games against teams from other countries. It will soon discover that the Chinese have mastered the tactics of geopolitical football. Beijing fields a full squad of competent, if not exactly flashy, players, and boasts a strong bench as well.

“Small government” might have a certain appeal in certain quarters of the United States. But slashing the State Department budget and failing to replace personnel that have left puts the United States at a tremendous disadvantage geopolitically. China, in other words, is ready to pounce on all the errors made by the Trump team because of its failures to prepare for the game.

For all those who exult at the prospect of an imminent collapse of the American imperium, however, it’s premature to pop the champagne.

Military First Foreign Policy

When Donald Trump tweeted that the United States would respond to North Korea’s missile launches with “fire and fury,” he sounded as if he’d hired Pyongyang rhetoricians to staff his Twitter feed. But the resemblance between Trump policy and North Korea doesn’t end there.

Like North Korea, the United States is willing to prioritize military spending even as natural disasters eat away at the edges of domestic infrastructure. In fact, the Trump administration has embraced something very similar to North Korea’s “military first” policy. Pyongyang’s implementation of this songun ideology in the 1990s not only directed more state resources to the military but also accorded more power to the generals to determine state policy.

In his own version of songun, Trump has brought the generals into high-ranking positions in the administration — John Kelly as chief of staff, Jim Mattis as head of the Pentagon, H.R. McMaster as national security advisor.

And the president has offered a major budget increase for the Pentagon that, including a significant war budget (known as the overseas contingency operations account) totals about $ 640 billion. Throw in the other items in the budget that are actually defense-related, such as nuclear weapons, homeland security, military aid, and intelligence, and the overall national security budget nears $ 1 trillion. Well, let’s just make it a cool trillion by throwing in the (as-yet-determined) cost of that wall with Mexico.

But the real bankrupting of the state will come with Trump’s tax reform, which will add $ 3-7 trillion to the national debt over the next decade.

That’s the likely end game for the Trump team: to destroy politics as we know it, to destroy democracy as we know it, to bankrupt the state as we know it, but to hold on to a massive military and a large nuclear arsenal.

When Hurricane Donald gets through with the United States, we’ll be left with a Dear Leader, a bunch of nukes, and a garrison state, with no one but China to keep us afloat. Welcome to Pyongyang on the Potomac.


The War on Terror Has Targeted Muslims Almost Exclusively


Photo: Fibonacci Blue / Flickr

Every year on September 11, the United States mourns the innocent lives that were lost in the terrorist attacks of 2001.

Each year I remember these victims, too. But I also mourn the often forgotten victims of the never-ending wars and draconian counter-terrorism policies of the post 9-11 world: the Muslim community.

In a speech to Congress shortly after the attacks, then-President Bush addressed a portion to Muslims. “The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends; it is not our many Arab friends,” he said. “Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists, and every government that supports them.” Yet despite Bush’s attempt to distinguish between the “good” and “bad” Muslims, the war on terror has targeted the Muslim community at large almost exclusively.

Abroad, several Muslim nations have been devastated by U.S. invasions and military operations. As of 2015, Physicians for Social Responsibility estimated that 1.3 million Iraqis, Afghans, and Pakistanis had died in the course of the war on terror — a figure the group called “conservative,” noting that it doesn’t include figures from other war zones like Yemen and Somalia. Civilian casualties run high in all of these places, and alleged combatants have died by the hundreds in U.S. military custody.

Domestically, law enforcement has systematically singled out Muslims for special abuse.

Muslim congregations and student groups have suffered intrusive surveillance. And federal agencies have systematically entrapped alleged Muslim “terrorists,” with one 2014 Human Rights Watch report finding that informants had played an active role in hatching at least 30 percent of the plots they prosecuted suspects for.

Meanwhile, so-called communication management units — where federal prison inmates are barred from virtually all contact with the outside world and other inmates — were built and used to warehouse Muslim prisoners. At one point, over 60 percent of inmates housed in them were Muslim, despite Muslims making up just 6 percent of the prison system.

In the even more extreme Guantanamo Bay prison, that number rises to 100 percent.

But it doesn’t end there, because the laws and policies of the war on terror have created a culture of fear — one that teaches American society to fear Muslims, and one that teaches Muslims to fear the U.S. government. While it’s gotten worse under Trump, it’s not something that started under him. The Bush administration built the violent infrastructure of the war on terror, Obama expanded it, and Trump is simply building on it still.

Earlier this year, President Trump signed two executive orders, commonly referred to as the Muslim Ban and Muslim Ban 2.0, which halted the issuing of visas to people from seven (and later six) majority-Muslim countries.

While many were surprised by this overt act of racism and xenophobia, the war on terror has taught Muslims like me that this is nothing new. The orders came amid a surge of hate crimes against Muslims, which recently reached their highest levels since 9/11 itself. Furthermore, the number of hate crimes this year has far surpassed that of 2016 — by 91 percent, according to the Council on American Islamic Relations.

“While the bias that motivates a hate crime may be unusual in its ferocity,” a Human Rights Watch report explained way back in 2002, “it is rooted in a wider public climate of discrimination, fear, and intolerance against targeted communities, which may also be echoed in or enhanced by public policy.”

As a Muslim American who has lived in the United States for most of my life, September 11 taught me a few things. It taught me that collective responsibility is at the heart of the laws and policies that have unfolded in the war on terror — that we’ll be targets till we prove we’re “good” Muslims who are uncritical of foreign policy and who believe in the American dream.

It taught me that religious freedom is a value that the United States cherishes, until of course Muslims try to claim it. Then it becomes a security concern.

It taught me that this is actually what many groups have experienced in our country. Different groups are targeted at different times under different umbrellas for our “national security,” which is nothing more than legitimized and institutionalized racism and xenophobia.

This year will mark 16 years of the war on terror — 16 years of military and militaristic means to allegedly abate the terrorist threat, but which have in fact terrorized my own community.

This year, as part of the DC Justice for Muslims Coalition, I’m leading a campaign called #MySept11MuslimStory to provide a space for Muslims to share their stories on the consequences they’ve experienced post-9/11 — not just from the U.S. government, but from society at large. This is my way of empowering the Muslim community to resist the oppression we’ve experienced on the basis of collective responsibility.

The war on terror was supposed to be about making our country safer. But as a Muslim American, I don’t feel any safer. Instead, I suspect those feelings of safety were never meant to be extended to me, or my community. As we prepare for what’s ahead, empowering ourselves couldn’t be more important.


The President Is a Ponzi Scheme


(Image: Public Citizen / Twitter)

In 1993, I arrived one fall evening in the Romanian city of Cluj. The railway station was mysteriously full of people, and the city outside was crowded and frenetic. I was mystified. Why did this rather obscure Transylvanian outpost suddenly seem like New York City?

My contacts in Cluj eventually provided me with an explanation. Romanians were flocking to a “bank” based in Cluj called Caritas that was giving out eight to one on the investment. News that the payouts had turned several people into millionaires was attracting hordes of people eager to take advantage of this unprecedented opportunity. The upscale stores in town had difficulty keeping their luxury goods in stock for consumers flush from their payouts.

It didn’t last long. Caritas was a pyramid scam. The first investors received the promised return, but they were paid out of the receipts of the next round of investors. Ultimately, one in five households in Romania were invested in the scam. But like all pyramid scams — also known as Ponzi schemes — Caritas eventually collapsed, with nearly half a billion dollars in debt. This economic catastrophe fell hardest on the people with the least amount of money and the most desperate hopes of advancement.

The other insidious part of the story is that quite a few people invested in Caritas knowing that it was a fraud. But they calculated that they could get in and out before the pyramid disintegrated.

It is often said that Donald Trump is a confidence artist, a snake-oil salesman, a fraudster. The truth is much more disturbing. The U.S. president is a Ponzi scheme unto himself. He has gotten many hardworking people to invest their hopes and dreams in him.

But he has also attracted the support of the more calculating kind, those who smell an easy profit. These Trump supporters know that he is a scam (and will admit so at unguarded moments). But that hasn’t stopped them from getting in on the action, as quickly as possible, before the Trumpian pyramid begins to crumble.

Trump’s Economic Promises

At the end of August, Trump gave a speech in Missouri outlining his economic plan, which boils down to cutting taxes. He pledged to reduce the corporate tax to 15 percent (from the current 35 percent) and cut taxes by a certain amount for everyone else. He has also promised to eliminate the estate tax.

The trick of the president’s Ponzi scheme is to provide enormous payouts to the wealthy under the auspices of a presumably populist plan to benefit everyone. According to the Tax Policy Center, Trump’s proposed cuts would deliver a tax cut of $ 214,000 to the top 1 percent and a mere $ 1,000 to middle-income families. Repealing the estate tax, meanwhile, would only benefit heirs who inherit lump sums of more than $ 5.49 million.

The proposed cut in the corporate rate, Trump declares, would inject more capital into the American economy. That’s unlikely, as The New York Times points out, since corporations are enjoying record profits and currently hold nearly $ 2 trillion in cash. Also, as my colleague Sarah Anderson discusses in a new report, corporate tax cuts create fat compensation packages for CEOs, not jobs. The tax break would serve chiefly as a way to empty federal coffers into the pockets of the already wealthy.

You get the idea. Instead of helping out all the struggling Rust Belters who voted for him, Trump is dishing up hot, steaming piles of cash for people just like himself.

And Carl Icahn. After suggesting and then vetting a number of key administration officials, the wealthy financier then signed on as an advisor to the Trump administration. His chief aim, it appears, was to lobby for a change in the rules governing the use of ethanol and other biofuels in petroleum products. He had skin in the game — a controlling interest in a refiner that hadn’t invested in the technology necessary to do the blending required by law. Simply put, Icahn wanted to make the credits that he had to buy — which cost his company $ 200 million in 2016 — a lot cheaper.

After December 22, when Icahn assumed the role of informal advisor, stock in his refiner spiked, producing a profit (on paper) of more than half a billion in just one day. Talk about a dishonest dollar for a dishonest day’s work.

From a recent New Yorker profile of Icahn, from which I have drawn this story, you get the distinct sense that the financier doesn’t hold Trump in very high professional regard. But that hasn’t prevented him from trying to make a short-term killing while Trump is still king of the mountain. Icahn left his position shortly before the New Yorker article broke, but presumably he’s still lobbying for his preferred regulatory change.

As was the case for Cluj and Caritas in 1993, people are flocking to Washington, DC to invest in Trump’s Ponzi scheme. Consider what the Trump family has already made at its Trump International Hotel in Washington, DC. In the first four months of 2017, it raked in a profit of nearly $ 2 million. Perhaps that doesn’t sound like a huge amount, but the Trumps actually expected to lose over $ 2 million in the hotel’s first four months. Not surprisingly, with Trump as president, those who want access are willing to pay top dollar (and the hotel is DC’s most expensive). The president has monetized his presidency even before he has left office.

Then there are the lobbyists who are setting up shop in DC to skim some cream off the top. Forget all that nonsense about “draining the swamp.” Like most false populists, Trump wants to kill of all the swamplife he doesn’t like and replace it with the swamplife he does. “The smart money in Washington — K Street and K Street’s clients, the big corporations and trade associations — didn’t quite know what to expect,” writes Nicholas Confessore in the latest New York Times Magazine. “But mostly, they didn’t know whom to call.”

Enter a new class of Trump whisperers who’d been close associates or even distant hangers-on of the new president, people like former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. They were early investors in the Trump scheme, and now they want to be rewarded for their bet on the long shot — at least until they get subpoenaed and the Justice Department begins to pull the bricks from Trump’s pyramid.

Foreign Investors

Unlike domestic opportunists, foreign governments have to deal with the United States regardless of who happens to be in the White House. But some countries are clearly hoping to get whatever they can from Trump’s Ponzi scheme before it crumples.

The usual suspects in this regard are the governments in the Middle East that expect to translate the Trump administration’s pro-Israel stance, anti-Iran positions, and indifference to human rights into short-term gain. Saudi Arabia has already pushed hard to expand its influence at the expense of Iran (and Qatar). Israel is pushing ahead with settlements to reduce Palestinian influence to an absolute minimum. And Turkey is angling for as much influence in post-Islamic State Syria as possible.

Outside of the Middle East, human rights abusers like Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, those with autocratic tendencies like Viktor Orban in Hungary, and sectarian strategists like Narendra Modi in India are all hoping to turn their good personal relationship with Trump into a geopolitical asset.

But even some unlikely suspects are hoping to make gains with Trump. New Zealand, to which so many disappointed Clinton voters fantasized about relocating, made an all-out effort to influence the incoming administration, even to the point of holding a must-attend inaugural ball with celebrity guest Jon Voigt. Of course, New Zealand is now ruled by a center-right party, but still, Kiwis, have you no shame? Even Emmanuel Macron, who had some choice things to say about Trump, invited him to spend Bastille Day in Paris. Quelle horreur!

These countries are holding their noses and engaging. But given how Trump handles free-trade agreements, perhaps they should reconsider their positions. Trump holds no foreign relationship sacred. He’ll play hardball with America’s closest allies, even our North American neighbors. According to Trump, foreigners can’t by definition help make America great because they’re always in it for themselves.

Consider the growing crisis with Korea: that is, South Korea. Trump has chosen precisely this moment, when North Korea is testing missiles and nuclear devices right and left, to call into question the most important economic agreement with South Korea. The latter, to put it mildly, is freaking out.

Whatever you might think about free-trade agreements, Trump is not going after them for principled reasons. He doesn’t care about labor provisions or environmental considerations. Nor, ultimately, does he care about trade imbalances, which he doesn’t quite understand, or creating jobs. What Trump seems to want is to put into place agreements that benefit himself and his friends, regardless of the consequences.

After all, that’s what a Ponzi scheme is all about. It has nothing to do with economics, even though its creators often employ the jargon of the profession. It is designed to take the money out of your pocket and put it into the pockets of others. Only when people lose confidence in the scheme — either the ones who truly believe in it or the ones who don’t but figure they can score a quick buck — does it collapse.

Most Ponzi schemes run through the available pool of capital relatively quickly, and then the organizers try to abscond with the loot and leave the debt behind. Unfortunately, Trump has at his disposal a huge amount of capital, and he can cause enormous damage as he implements his scheme. The question is not if but when, and whether the president attempts to pardon himself just before he steps out the back with his Capitol gains.


It’s Lonely Being a Person of Color in the Sustainable Energy Sector


(Photo: Shutterstock)

Back in November, I started my job at a small progressive advocacy group in Maryland. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I had a lot in common with the other new hire, who started on the same day. Not the least of which was that we were the only people of color in the office, effectively increasing the office population of folks like us from 0 to, well, 2.

My job is to coordinate a campaign for an affordable, socially just and environmentally responsible transition to clean energy in Maryland. So I meet frequently with the leaders of groups that work on climate action, clean energy, public health, green jobs and social justice. I admit that I’m still learning the ropes, but it surprises me — and increasingly worries me — that the majority of the leaders I meet are white.

I’ve been comforted to find that I’m not the only one who noticed. A group called Green2.0 first called attention to this phenomenon in 2013 with the release of their seminal survey-based report, “The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations.” The results revealed an overwhelmingly white “Green Insiders’ Club,” where racial diversity among staff hadn’t broken 16 percent — the so-called “green ceiling.”

Results were no better at the leadership level. Green 2.0’s April 2017 diversity scorecard likewise showed that, among the top 40 environmental NGOs, people of color represented only 14 percent of senior staff. Despite their socially progressive reputations, these groups clearly need to do a better job of putting their money where their mouth is when it comes to diversity.

A similar phenomenon is happening on the industry side. To my knowledge, there hasn’t been a directly comparable investigation into diversity in the clean energy industry, but several industry leaders have highlighted the reality.

Read the full article in the Baltimore Sun.


Report: The Road to Zero Wealth

In this report, we look at the racial wealth divide at the median over the next four and eight years, as well as to 2043, when the country’s population is predicted to become majority non-white. We also look to wealth rather than income to reconsider what it means to be middle class. In finding an ever-accelerating gap, we consider what it means for the American middle class and we explore what policy interventions could reverse the trends we see today. We find that without a serious change in course, the country is heading towards a racial and economic apartheid state.

Key Findings:

  • While households of color are projected to reach majority status by 2043, if the racial wealth divide is left unaddressed, median Black household wealth is on a path to hit zero by 2053 and median Latino household wealth is projected to hit zero twenty years later. In sharp contrast, median White household wealth would climb to $ 137,000 by 2053.
  • If current trends continue, by 2020 median Black and Latino households stand to lose nearly 18% and 12% of the wealth they held in 2013, respectively, while median White household wealth increases 3%. At that point–just three years from now–White households are projected to own 85 times more wealth than Black households and 68 times more wealth than Latino households.
  • The declining wealth of households of color is already taking a significant toll on the broader economy. The nation’s overall median wealth decreased nearly 20% from 1983 to 2013 ($ 78,000 to $ 64,000—a period when Black and Latino median wealth went down and White wealth slowly went up.
  • Even earning a middle-class income does not guarantee a family middle-class economic security, according to the report. White households in the middle income quintile—those earning $ 37,201-61,328 annually—own nearly eight times as much wealth ($ 86,100) as Black middle-income earners ($ 11,000) and ten times that of their Latino counterparts ($ 8,600).
  • This disconnect in income and wealth is visible across every socioeconomic level. The report found that on average, only Black and Latino households with an advanced degree have middle-class wealth or higher, while White households, on average, need only a high school diploma to attain that same level of wealth.

The report calls on the Trump administration and Congress to consider a range of policy options to help close the racial wealth divide. They include:

  • Changing our tax code to stop subsidizing those who are already wealthy and start investing in opportunities for low-wealth families to build wealth. Specifically, the report recommends reforming the mortgage interest deduction and other tax expenditures, bolstering and expanding the federal estate tax, and creating a net-worth tax on multi-million-dollar fortunes.
  • Protecting low-wealth families from wealth-stripping practices by strengthening the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and closing the offshore tax shelters currently enabling the ultra-wealthy to hide their assets.
  • Investing in bold new programs like Children’s Savings Accounts, automatic-enrollment retirement accounts, federal jobs guarantees, and a racial wealth divide audit of government policies.

Read the full report here [PDF].
Find sharable graphics here.


How Energy Department Whistleblowers Outsmarted the Trump Administration

rick perry

Energy Secretary Rick Perry (Photo: Gage Skidmore / Flickr)

The Department of Energy just issued a new study on alleged threats to the reliability of the electric grid. Maybe that sounds boring and arcane to you, but the backstory is actually quite gripping.

It’s a tale of high-level government corruption, an Inquisition-like atmosphere for career government scientists, and a sinister agenda that appears to be going off the rails, thanks partly to brave whistleblowers. In short, it has all the ingredients of what in normal times would’ve been a classic Washington scandal.

A bit of background: In April, Energy Secretary Rick Perry ordered his staff to perform a study on how “continued regulatory burdens, as well as mandates and tax and subsidy policies, are responsible for forcing the premature retirement of baseload power plants.”

The term “baseload” refers to fossil fuel and nuclear power plants that can generate power continuously, unlike intermittent renewable sources that generate power only when the sun shines or the wind blows.

Cutting through the jargon, Perry ordered the study with a clear outcome in mind: to suggest that regulations on coal and government supports for clean energy were somehow destabilizing the U.S. power grid.

Evidently Perry doesn’t know much about advances in energy.

Technological change and market forces are making clean energy competitive with dirty fossil and nuclear energy, helped along by small tax credits (which are nonetheless dwarfed by much larger fossil fuel and nuclear subsidies).

Coal-fired power generation capacity has decreased, nuclear capacity has stagnated, and even natural gas capacity has barely ticked upward — while solar and wind capacity have grown by double digits. Plus, according to Perry’s own department, wind and solar now employ hundreds of thousands more Americans than older industries like coal.

Together with impressive advances in energy storage and smart grid technology, those trends are reducing the need for a large baseload capacity by making it possible to store renewable energy and distribute it wherever it’s needed.

Thankfully, career experts at the Energy Department don’t share Perry’s ignorance or bias. To prove it, they leaked a draft of their completed study before political appointees could alter or bury the results.

Unsurprisingly, they concluded that Perry’s starting premise was faulty — even as coal and nuclear plants are retired and the share of renewables in the grid grows, the grid has become more reliable. A number of independent experts share this conclusion.

Thanks to these brave whistleblowers, it’s easy to spot the subsequent meddling by political hacks.

And meddle they did. However, the degree of tampering was less than what it could have been had the earlier draft not been released. The overarching conclusion that the reliability of the grid has not been compromised — and in fact the grid has become more reliable — has not been altered.

But new policy recommendations have been added that betray an obvious political footprint. For instance, the revised version actually calls for easing pollution control requirements for coal-fired power plants — a backwards and potentially illegal move.

Another troubling recommendation calls for a mechanism to “compensate grid participants for services that are necessary to support reliable grid operations.” One such mechanism would be to add a premium to the price of coal power to pay for its supposed reliability — a ratepayer subsidy, in short, for struggling coal-fired power plants.

Still, it could’ve been much worse. The administration could’ve used the report to argue for eliminating “Renewable Portfolio Standards” (RPS) that mandate grid space for non-polluting energy.

RPS policies have been instrumental in driving the rapid growth of solar and wind energy in the U.S. in recent years — in fact, 29 states and D.C. have them. So it’s no surprise Perry’s fossil fuel allies are taking aim at them.

Months ago, when asked about whether he’d use the findings to block state RPS policies, Perry stooped to the lowest trick of contemporary American demagogues — invoking “national security.” That framing led some to worry that Perry was plotting an unprecedented federal intervention in state energy policy.

But thanks to career public servants who reported the facts and made it far more difficult for Perry’s cronies to manipulate or hide them, these destructive ideas didn’t make it into the report. That was no small risk in an administration that’s censored climate science on government websites and undermined the independent scientific boards that advise the EPA. (Not to mention that President Trump, EPA head Scott Pruitt, and Rick Perry himself all publicly deny much of the climate science — even though, in Perry’s case, his home state of Texas is presently underwater from Tropical Storm Harvey.)

The anonymous Energy Department whistleblowers are unsung heroes of our time, helping to derail part of the administration’s destructive agenda on energy and the environment.