Here’s how the Trump administration has been handing over government to businesses

The first six months of the Trump administration have seen a decrease in the effectiveness of regulations

Here's how the Trump administration has been handing over government to businesses
(Credit: AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File)

President Donald Trump’s assault on regulations designed to keep Wall Street in check is going quite well, as a check on the first quarter of his presidency has found that fines levied by government regulators has decreased substantially.

The U.S. has cut the amount of fines against institutions issued by two-thirds, compared to last year. As the Wall Street Journal reported Monday, that would put it on track for a low not seen in seven years:

Penalties levied against firms and individuals by the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority in the first half of 2017 were down nearly two-thirds compared with the first half of 2016—putting regulators on track for the lowest annual level of fines since at least 2010, the Journal found. Fines of $489 million in the first half of 2017 compared with $1.4 billion in the 2016 period.

The SEC levied some $318 million in penalties during the first half of 2017, a search of federal court documents and all publicly available records on the agency’s website and data provided by Andrew N. Vollmer, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law, showed. Last year, agency actions yielded $750 million in penalties during the same period, an agency spokesman said. The SEC declined to disclose its own tally of 2017 penalties; the agency didn’t dispute that the total value of penalties fell in the first half of 2017 compared with the same term in 2016.

Agency officials were quick to point out that a six-month sample shouldn’t be considered indicative of the government’s regulatory mechanisms — the WSJ pointed to large payouts in two major cases that accounted for a large portion of the $1.4 billion mark in 2016.

Wall Street lobbyists have also been pushing the administration to “lower the size of financial penalties,” the Journal said. And as regulators expect Trump to continue with a “business-friendly” approach, increased oversight doesn’t look likely in the future.

If being lax about enforcing the laws isn’t enough, the administration has been pushing for businesses to be writing them, too. According to McClatchy, business executives have been working in secret “advisory groups” that haven’t been disclosing what they’ve been working on.

Can’t enforce the laws if there are no laws to enforce.

Will the Trump team disasters finally put an end to the businessman myth?

Greed is not good:

The idea that businessmen are better equipped to run the country is why our nation is poised for catastrophe

 

If you were wondering exactly how Anthony “The Mooch” Scaramucci was able to weasel his way into the White House, you have to recall that he wasn’t only a Donald Trump sycophant; he was also touted as a businessman who could “fix” problems career politicians couldn’t. This is the guy who asked Barack Obama what he planned to do about the way that Wall Streeters were being treated like piñatas during a town hall in 2010. And it is the same guy who dropped $100,000 to appear in the sequel to Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street,” the film that brought us Gordon Gekko and his famous line, “Greed is good.”

Forget that Gekko ultimately lands in jail or that the sequel is also designed to make us aware of the unethical behavior of Wall Street types, the Mooch wanted in on “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” so badly he was willing to pay a yuuge sum of money for a chance to appear in two brief cameos that amounted to around 15 seconds of screen time. The Mooch wasn’t the only businessman that wanted in on the film. Trump was also set to appear in it, but his scene was eventually cut.

The story of The Mooch and “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” is an apt tale to help illustrate how weirdly confused our nation has become over the myth of the businessman. Even though both of Stone’s films focus on how the folks working in Wall Street are crooked, dodgy and dangerous, they each managed to build an aura around the cult of the businessman. Gekko is a criminal, but everyone loves his “greed is good” swagger.

For some bizarre reason the public is aware that businessmen, whether they work on Wall Street or are New York real estate moguls, are often shady, greedy and selfish, but they still believe somehow that they possess critical and valuable skills that could transfer to running government. There is the public sense that businessmen are effective leaders despite overwhelming evidence that businessmen can and have been vile, corrupt and incompetent.

Generalizations are always a fraught enterprise: clearly not all businessmen are terrible people, but that isn’t the point. The point is that the mistaken idea that businessmen are better equipped to run the country is exactly why our nation is poised for catastrophe. And that’s not an exaggeration. We literally have a government being run by a kakistocracy that has no idea whatsoever what they are doing.

I’m not trying to put politicians on a pedestal here either. But there is a basic difference between people trained to accumulate profit and people trained to foster public support.

Our nation has long held the notion that businessmen are more skilled and trustworthy than politicians. Public trust in government is at a historic low of 20 percent. Even more shocking, a 2015 Gallup poll showed that the public trusted stockbrokers more than senators.

We can track the legend of the businessman back to the Gilded Age or to Ayn Rand or to Ross Perot, but regardless of its historic origin, the key question is whether the complete and utter disaster that is the Donald Trump administration will finally put an end to the delusion that a business background naturally prepares one to hold public office.

Days before the inauguration, Trump stated, “I could actually run my business and run government at the same time.” On the campaign trail we heard repeatedly that he had skills and training that would help him do a better job as president than our nation had ever seen before. In fact his entire campaign was centered on the idea that his business background would not only be adequate, but would actually be better suited to a successful presidency than political experience.

Within months of taking on his new job, Trump later remarked, “This is more work than in my previous life. I thought it would be easier.” It was a clear sign that he didn’t have the slightest clue what the job of president actually entails.

There has been much reflection on how a bigoted blowhard managed to win the election, but there has not been enough attention to the fact that the bigoted blowhard had absolutely no training for the job. Trump is the first person ever elected to the office of president in our nation that has not either served in the military or held public office.

It’s hard to know where to start when describing the stunning failures surrounding the Donald Trump presidency. From hiring competent staff, to identifying the components of the nuclear triad, to hosting heads of state, to launching a legislative agenda, Trump has been a disaster on all fronts.

Put simply, there is not one facet of the job of president that Trump seems to have gotten even remotely right. Only a few months into the job it was stunningly clear that Trump wasn’t just addicted to attention and overwhelmed by poor impulse control, but that he really didn’t understand the job he had been elected to do. In a piece for U.S. News and World Report, Robert Schlesinger marveled at “the litany of things that were apparently astonishing to the new president which would come as a surprise to no one who has paid more than a passing amount of attention to national and international affairs.”

Here’s the thing. Politicians make campaign promises all the time that they know full well they will have a hard time delivering. But Trump literally thought he could do things like terminate NAFTA, pull out of NATO and force China to control North Korea. And then there’s the jaw dropping moment when Trump blathered, “Nobody knew health care could be so complicated.”

The list is literally endless at this point. But part of the reason why it is so long is because Trump had no idea how the shared governance of a democracy functions or what it means to work with allies because in his businessman model he really can make absolute decisions without building consensus or making compromises. He has zero appreciation for the notion of the public good, of the value in supporting allies and of the need to respect the opinions of other leaders.

Much has been made about his authoritarian impulses and his dictatorial qualities. But face it; he would be a lousy dictator, too. Even despots know that they have to build alliances and garner popular support. Less than 200 days into his presidency, Trump is at a new all-time low in support with only about one-third of voters approving of him. Most dictators would be worried at those numbers, but Trump blusters on.

Meanwhile his constant threats to fire anyone he disagrees with have created a White House staff with more turnover than we have ever seen. Acting Attorney General Sally Yates, National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, FBI Director James Comey, Press Secretary Sean Spicer, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Communications Director Mike Dubke, Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci are only at the top of the list of those who have been fired or have resigned.

During the Obama era, Larry Sabato pointed out in Politico that between 1946 and 2014 there were only about 35 significant involuntary departures of top White House officials. Sure, presidents see considerable turnover when their administrations come under crisis, but the level of turnover in Trump’s team is directly tied to his “you’re fired” mentality. It’s also directly linked to his businessman swagger. And it’s a clear sign that he doesn’t have the leadership skills of a trained politician.

And that brings me back to The Mooch, yet another sign of a businessman who has no business in government. Back when he asked his question of Obama in 2010, Jon Stewart decided to do a bit on him for “The Daily Show.” Stewart quickly pointed out that the Mooch’s question about being a piñata was bizarre.

How could he characterize Wall Streeters as victims?  Hadn’t they been bailed out by the government? And hadn’t they actually done some pretty vile things to attract public outcry? As Stewart addressed the Mooch on camera he admonished him for characterizing himself as a piñata that had been whacked unfairly. “Until your papier-mâché bellies are no longer stuffed with government money, walk it off.”

The crazy part of that story, in keeping with the story of The Mooch paying to be in the sequel to “Wall Street,” is that seven years later this is the kind of guy who gets hired in the White House. The Mooch might be gone, but like the whack-a-mole that is the Trump team, you can be sure there is another one just like him waiting to pop up.

None of this mess gets better until this nation takes responsibility for its unfounded adoration of businessmen. The notion that a businessman is better at politics than a politician isn’t just wrong; it’s led to the Trump administration. And if that doesn’t kill the myth, I don’t know what can.

 

Sophia A. McClennen is Professor of International Affairs and Comparative Literature at the Pennsylvania State University. She writes on the intersections between culture, politics, and society. Her latest book, co-authored with Remy M. Maisel, is, Is Satire Saving Our Nation? Mockery and American Politics.

Silicon Valley’s advertisements aren’t just selling products — they’re selling an ideology

The utopian futures we see in tech ads have a trickle-down effect on how we perceive the role of tech in our lives

Silicon Valley’s advertisements aren’t just selling products — they’re selling an ideology
(Credit: Getty/NelleG)

A man and woman are awakened by the cooing alarm emanating from a massive wall-mounted touchscreen. A wall of floor-to-ceiling photochromic windows gradually brightens to reveal the morning sun kissing a lush estate garden. The scene shifts to the woman brushing her teeth while checking work email from a bathroom mirror screen. Moments later, two girls in school uniforms stand in a gleaming white kitchen; one of them is playing with a touchscreen-covered refrigerator door while the father makes an omelet on a sleek high-tech induction stovetop interacting with yet another touchscreen embedded in the countertop.

Amid the tinkling of an electric keyboard, this five-minute promotional video from Gorilla Glass manufacturer Corning walks us through the day of this fictional wealthy family in an idealized version of a Manhattan-like “smart” city impossibly devoid of traffic. Corning isn’t just selling its durable glass, but its vision of future society.

In Corningland, everyone is happy, wealthy and living out fruitful, productive lives, surrounded by products of benevolent technological disruption. This world has no unhappy Uber drivers, Airbnb-fueled gentrification doesn’t exist and iPads in the classrooms actually help to educate children. When tech marketing underscores social or global problems, it’s used only as a setup to underscore how technology can solve them.

“It’s like you have one class [in tech-focused promotional material] and the class that you have is upper middle,” Chris Birks, associate professor of digital media at Benedictine University, told Salon. “You see a utopian vision, not one necessarily of everyone being super rich, but doing better than they were because of the new technology we have, which is not the case.”

As 18th-century English writer Samuel Johnson famously said: “Promise, large promise, is the soul of an advertisement.” It’s natural for product promotions to either depict the world in utopian terms or to engage in what’s known as “constructive discontent,” in which a problem is highlighted in order to show that a product or service is its solution.

But unlike, say, environmentally unfriendly laundry detergent or sugary carbonated beverages, the underlying assumptions proposed by ads for Google Glass, Amazon Prime, Microsoft Cloud and other innovative products often  go unquestioned.

“Technology advertising is especially interesting because what it’s doing is saying all technological advances are good and all technology is beneficial to the people who will be lucky enough to adopt it,” John Carroll, assistant professor of Mass Communications as Boston University, who specializes in advertising and media criticism, told Salon. “There’s nothing that says an advertisement needs to point out the downside of a product, but one of the issues here is that the counterbalancing argument that not all innovation is beneficial doesn’t get the kind of exposure that might be helpful to the public.”

Indeed, visit any technology-focused media outlet, or the tech sections of many news organizations, and you’ll see that “gadget porn” videos, hagiographic profiles of startup founders or the regurgitation of lofty growth expectations from Wall Street analysts vastly outnumber critical analyses of technological disruption. The criticisms that do exist tend to focus on ancillary issues, such as Silicon Valley’s dismal lack of workplace diversity, or how innovation is upsetting norms in the labor market, or the class-based digital divide; all are no doubt important topics, but they’re ones that don’t question the overall assumptions that innovation and disruption are at worst harmless if not benevolent.

Carroll says that it’s up to the media, schools and even religious institutions to counterbalance the presumptions made in advertising, whose goal, he points out, is often to portray happiness “through acquisition as opposed to achievement.”

This idea of selling innovation as a pathway to universal prosperity isn’t new. In the 1980s, South Korean technology companies LG and Samsung were churning out idealistic portrayals of technology’s role in creating what Su-Ji Lee, a faculty member at Seoul National University who studies design and culture, described in a paper published in November as “technological utopianism.” The idea that technology will save us all emerged in South Korea during the country’s rapid economic development following decades of poverty.

In these ads, Samsung and LG portrayed consumers as happy or bewildered children, innocent and helpless, as technology lorded benevolently over the innocent and helpless, bringing to them (and to Korea itself) a new era of post-war prosperity.

In these advertisements, Lee writes, “the corporations . . . [play] the leading role of progress towards the future and enlightenment of people.” In these advertising campaigns, she continued, “the hero is the corporation rather than the human.”

Birks, who has studied utopian depictions in web advertising, says that while innovation can be off-putting and certainly not always benevolent, it’s always been the case that innovators views themselves as disruptors.

“For better or worse, they are changing the world,” he said.

Like any sector, the tech industry isn’t going to underscore the negative implications of its innovations in its own promotional materials. Helped by more objective and less fawning tech coverage, people can decide how much technology they want in their lives. Perhaps it would help them if they realized that many of the tech industry’s most celebrated heroes, including the late Steve Jobs, are so wary of emerging technologies that they keep their own children away from their own gadgets..

 

http://www.salon.com/2017/06/24/silicon-valleys-advertisements-arent-just-selling-products-they-are-selling-an-ideology/?source=newsletter

Why are there so many billionaires leading money-losing companies?

Uber lost $708 million in 6 months, but its CEO/founder is worth billions. Is Silicon Valley a pyramid scheme?

Why are there so many billionaires leading money-losing companies?
(Credit: Getty/Ronstik)

In a financial report released last week, ride-hailing app company Uber reported a staggering $708 million loss for the first three months of the year. Since the company was founded eight years ago, it’s burned through almost half of the $15 billion in private venture capital that it has raised.

But despite the mounting losses, the departure of more than a dozen company executives over the past year and a string of controversies that would send the typical company plunging into an irreversible death spiral, Uber CEO and co-founder Travis Kalanick’s net worth is immense.

According to Forbes, Kalanick is worth $6.3 billion, making him the world’s 226th wealthiest billionaire and the 35th richest magnate of the global tech industry. That makes him richer than Wal-Mart heiress Christy Walton and Liu Qiandong, founder and head of Chinese e-commerce and retail giant JD.com, which recently reported $11 billion in quarterly sales and its first profit as a publicly traded company.

Kalanick’s bounty seems largely immune (so far) to Uber’s string of mishaps, including allegations of about its workplace being hostile to women, a bitter legal fight with Google over allegedly stolen self-driving car technology, scrutiny over the company’s attempt to deceive government officials, and other controversies concerning its treatment of drivers.

So how does a 40-year-old computer programmer heading a beleaguered and unprofitable company have a net worth greater than the gross domestic product of Barbados?

The short answer is: hopes, dreams and aspirations. Specifically, those of the Uber’s financial backers, who believe in the gospel that Uber is on its way to killing the global taxi industry.

Under normal startup circumstances, a business faces intense pressure to attain profitability within a short period of time. According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, 1 in 5 new businesses goes under in the first year while nearly half fail within the fifth year. According to a 2015 study from Babson and Baruch Colleges, the typical entrepreneur provides nearly 60 percent of the funding needed for his or her business.

But in the world of Silicon Valley, profitability takes a back seat as deep-pocketed investors throw money at long-term aspirations. For years private investors have assigned sky-high valuations to tech industry startups in a bid to find the next Amazon or Google nestled in some Northern California office building or garage. Billionaire investors, private equity firms and sovereign wealth fund managers are willing to take considerable risks that mushroom the wealth of founders and CEOs to astronomical levels.

Kalanick is a billionaire because private investors have assigned a value to Uber based on its future potential; that’s where the hopey-dreamy stuff comes in. The company is currently valued at a sky-high $68 billion according to CBInsights, more than half the value of global aerospace behemoth Boeing. Because Kalanick is a primary shareholder of Uber, his net worth is boosted by this potentially irrational valuation, making him a “paper” billionaire.

Though what he does with his equity is not publicly known, Kalanick can potentially leverage this net worth to grow his personal fortune by using his stake in Uber to engage in other business endeavors, like buying real estate or investing in securities, all based on what private investors think his startup is worth.

In the typical scenario, an executive at private equity firm considering an investment in a private startup might compare the numbers offered in a business plan with those of a comparable publicly traded company and examine operating costs, profit margins and overall capital structure. If the startup has a prospectus with targets that seem viable compared with those of an existing competitor, investors will have some degree of confidence that they’ll wind up with a windfall of profit once the company is acquired or it files an initial public offering.

But because of the strange nature of the tech industry, there often isn’t a comparable company upon which investors can base their assessments. When Amazon was raising money in the early 1990s, there was no existing competitor with a similar business model, so early investors had to make estimates and assumptions to base their hopes on. It is interesting that very few individuals invested in Amazon prior to its initial public offering.

In retrospect, offering seed money to Amazon was a no brainer. Internet commerce was growing by a staggering 2,300 percent a year in 1994, and Jeff Bezos saw that light early and famously drew up a business plan during a road trip to Seattle. Venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers was one of a few private investors that gave Bezos money early on, and it reaped a fortune after Amazon filed its initial public offering in 1997 just as the dot-com bubble peaked.

But the success of tech companies like Amazon.com and Google are few and far between. Often the decision by private investors whether to invest in a technology startup is based on assumptions, best estimates and industrywide averages of publicly traded companies in the same sector.

While private equity firms have special access to review a startup’s books, CEO- founders have much more latitude in selling their plans and manipulating their numbers than the heads of established publicly traded companies, who face more regulatory scrutiny.

Once startups make their way to the public markets through initial public offerings, founder-CEOs can continue to reap billions from their company’s valuations without the companies making a dime in profit. Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who’s worth an estimated $16 billion, the head of Snap, Evan Spiegel ($4.7 billion) and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey ($1.8 billion) are notable examples of rich CEOs who head unprofitable companies.

These founder-CEOs can spend good portions of their lives as billionaire heads of money-losing companies as long as investors keep believing that these companies may someday strike it rich. But there’s always a make-or-break point, and paper billionaire are always at risk of sinking their fortunes with investors losing their shirts. One thing is almost certain: Even if Uber crashes and burns, Kalanick would likely walk away from the wreckage a very wealthy computer programmer.

 

How Trump and Obama are Exactly Alike

Not until faithfulness turns to betrayal
And betrayal into trust
Can any human being become part of the truth.

— Rumi

Trump won the 2016 nomination and election largely because he was able to pose as a populist and anti-interventionist “America Firster”.

Similarly, Obama won the 2008 election in good part because he promised “hope and change” and because he had given a speech years earlier against the then-impending invasion of Iraq.

Short of disclosure of diaries or other documents from these politicians, we can’t know for certain if they planned on reversing much of what they promised or if the political establishment compelled them to change, but they both eventually perpetrated a massive fraud.

What is perhaps most striking is actually how quickly each of them backtracked on their alleged purpose. Particular since they were both proclaimed as representing “movements”.

Even before he took office, Obama stacked his administration with pro-war people: He incredibly kept Bush’s head of the Pentagon, Robert Gates; nominated Hillary Clinton for Secretary of State, who he beat largely because she voted for giving Bush authorization to invade Iraq. Other prominent Iraq War backers atop the administration included VP Joe Biden, Susan Rice and Richard Holbrooke. Before he was sworn in, Obama backed the 2008 Israeli slaughter of Palestinians in Gaza. See from 2008: “Anti-War Candidate, Pro-War Cabinet?

Predictably, the Obama years saw a dramatic escalation of the U.S. global assassination program using drones. Obama intentionally bombed more countries than any other president since World War II: Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan. Obama talked about a nuclear weapons free world, but geared up to spent $1 trillion in upgrading the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal. At the end of his administration, attempts at the UN to work toward banning nuclear weapons were sabotaged, efforts that the Trump administration continues. At his first news conference as president, Helen Thomas asked Obama if he know of any country in the Mideast that had nuclear weapons. Obama passed on the opportunity to start unraveling the mountain of deceits that constitutes U.S. foreign policy by simply saying “Israel” and instead said that he didn’t want to “speculate” about the matter.

As many have noted recently, Trump seemingly reversed himself on Syria and launched a barrage of cruise missiles targeting the Assad regime. It’s part of a whole host of what’s called “flip-flops” — Ex-Im Bank, NATO, China, Russia, Federal Reserve — but which are in fact the unraveling of campaign deceits.

Fundamentally, Obama and Trump ran against the establishment and then helped rebrand it — further entrenching it.

And of course it’s not just foreign policy. Obama brought in pro-Wall Street apparatchiks Tim Geithner and others around Robert Rubin, like Larry Summers. Some were connected to Goldman Sachs, including Rahm Emanuel, Gary Gensler and Elena Kagan and Obama would back the Wall Street bailout. Trump campaigned as a populist and brought in a litany of Goldman Sachs tools, most prominently Steven Mnuchin at Treasury Secretary and Gary Cohn as chief economic advisor.

The nature of their deception is different. Obama is lawyerly and, like jello, hard to pin to the wall. Many of his broken promises are actually violations of the spirit of what he said, not the letter. He can promise to withdraw “all combat troops” from Iraq — but doesn’t inform voters that “combat troops” in his parlance is not the same as “troops”. And most certainly many of his backers were utterly infatuated with him and seemed incapable of parsing out his deceitful misimpressions. Obama did however outright violate some promises, most obviously to close the the gulag at Guantanamo Bay in his first 100 days.

Trump triangulates by being an electron. He can say X and not-X in the span of a minute. Like an electron, he can be in two places at the same time. Trump is just an extreme example of what should be evident: It’s largely meaningless if a politician declares a position, especially during a campaign. The question is: What have they done? How have they demonstrated their commitment to, say, ending perpetual wars or taking on Wall Street?

These people are largely salesmen.

Nor are these patterns totally new. George W. Bush campaigned against “nation building” (sic: nation destroying); Bill Clinton campaigned as the “man from Hope” for the little guy; George H. W. Bush claimed he was a compassionate conservative. All backed corporate power and finance. All waged aggressive war.

In both the cases of Obama and Trump, the “opposition” party put forward a ridiculous critique that pushed them to be more militaristic. Obama as a “secret Muslim” — which gave him more licence to bomb more Muslim countries while still having a ridiculous image of being some sort of pacifist. Much of the “liberal” and “progressive” critique of Trump has been focusing on Russia, in effect pushing Trump to be more militaristic against the other major nuclear state on the planet.

One thing that’s needed is citizens aided by media that adroitly and accessibly pierce through the substantial deceptions in real time.

Another thing that’s needed is that people from what we call the “left” and “right” need to join together and pursue polices that undermine the grip of Wall Street and the war makers. They should not be draw into loving or hating personalities or take satisfaction from principleless partisan barbs.

Only when there’s adherence to real values and when solidarity is acted upon will the cycles of betrayal be broken.

Sam Husseini is founder of the website VotePact.org

COUNTERPUNCH

The Deep State and the Dark Arts

There’s a superb scene in the movie Syriana where CIA bureaucrats distance themselves from one of their agents, Bob, played by George Clooney, who has become a troublesome asset for the agency. Terry, the pack leader, begins to extemporize a narrative to his subordinates. With cool detachment, he tells them: “Put some space between us and Bob. Bob has a long history of entrepreneurial operations. We haven’t really had a handle on Bob for years. After 9/11, some people got a lot of leeway, let their emotions get the best of them. These are complex times. There’s already an active investigation into Bob’s activities in…help me out here.”

At this point, the group flesh out the details of how they’re going to burn the agency’s connection to Bob, painting him as an agent gone rogue, slipping the net of agency supervision, defying protocol, and ultimately selling himself to unsavory elements that want a U.S. asset killed. In this way, the leviathan spits out a loyal servant, rendering him obsolete with a fable and a slander, sanctified by the imprimatur of the officialdom.

We should note the importance of the media in all this storyline, albeit fictional. The dark arts of propaganda aren’t overtly mentioned, but they are the pivotal tools that will animate the destruction of Bob’s career. All sound strangely familiar? It should. It’s pretty much the script the intelligence community uses as its modus operandi when it needs to deal with an inconvenient public servant.

Theater of the Absurd

With rumors of detente crackling through the ether, the imperialist machinery of anti-Russian foreign policy has cranked into high gear, leveraging leaks and the press to mute Trump’s overtures of peace. Leaks to the The Washington Post were leveraged in last month’s excommunication of National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. Flynn was rather easily vanquished by a leak from within the American intelligence community outing him as a confabulator and, in pundit spin, a man vulnerable to blackmail by the Kremlin.

After Flynn’s unceremonious ouster, Attorney General Jeff Sessions was the next target, pilloried by Democrats for his contacts with the Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, something he declined to mention in his confirmation hearings. A third interaction has now been surmised, with tantalizing rumors Sessions was in the same room as Kislyak during a cocktail party. Did they conspire over canapes? Smuggle thumb drives wrapped in prosciutto? Exchange piquillo peppers stuffed with nuclear codes? The possibilities blossom like a mushroom cloud. Can you feel the frisson of treason?

Of course, the FBI has been investigating more mundane contacts between the Trump team and Moscow, a project that will either result in Trump’s impeachment for some manner of treason or his complete and utter subjection to the foreign policy whims of the foreign policy establishment. A Times article reported that the Obama administration furiously laid the foundation for this investigation by disseminating innuendo that Trump was under Russian influence during the peace laureate’s last days in office. Typically, the unofficial commentariat in the comments thread praised Obama’s patriotism, as though this wanton Wall Street servant was doing anything other than performing last-minute janitorial services for his venal party.

A few weeks ago, a Congressman (Rep. Darrell Issa) obscurely called for the appointment of a special prosecutor. But now Lindsey Graham has embraced the call, suggesting one be named if contact between Trump aides and Moscow were found, regardless of the content of that contact. It reminds one of the proverb that Caesar’s wife must be above even unfounded suspicion, let alone actual wrongdoing. In any event, Graham and his monomaniacal bedmate, John McCain, continue their lurid press junket, now looking to subpoena intelligence agencies for wiretaps of Trump phone calls, though former Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper refuted the wiretap rumor, as did FBI Director James Comey, albeit by the oblique means of asking the Justice Department to do so. In any event, the banishment of Flynn, the tarring of Sessions, and the net of suspicion cast over the Trump administration are fierce warnings from a rattled foreign policy community, a modern equivalent of the severed heads of Roman soldiers set on pikes as a message from Visigoth hordes.

The enveloping of the president in a cacophony of innuendo is likely a collaborative effort between the Justice Department, the National Intelligence Agency, the CIA, and crucially, the mainstream press. Beyond the corridors of the Capitol Hill, civil-society organizations like the George Soros-funded MoveOn.org and Barack Obama’s robust Organizing for Action (OFA) are turning up the heat on the streets, creating the visible signs of unrest, sometimes violent, that have capsized governments from Venezuela to Ukraine at the behest of Western oligarchs.

In recent weeks, President Donald Trump’s appointment of delusional hawk H.R. McMaster as National Security Advisor, a call for an unnecessary $54 billion dollar expansion of the military budget, his sudden demand for the return of Crimea to Ukraine, his fulminant echoes of Bush administration hysteria over Iran, among other hawkish developments, can be read as an unsettled president’s efforts to appease a foreign policy establishment that is ruthlessly using the media to undermine, and reign in, a wayward steward of empire.

Full-Spectrum Dominance vs. Clear-Headed Detente 

But why is Russia such a perennial target of Washington’s? Why are peaceful overtures toward Moscow so scorned? As the Trump administration found out, de-escalation is a no-no in Washington. Russia, along with China, are the leading targets of American long-term foreign policy. They represent the only two nations that might seriously rival the U.S. in Eurasia, which is considered the fulcrum of the 21st century global economy. Preventing the rise of new rivals is long-standing U.S. policy, most explicitly articulated by Paul Wolfowitz on behalf of the Clinton administration in early 1990s.

None of this should come as a surprise. Consider what was at stake. At the macro level, the entire program for global hegemony is under threat. Outlined over decades by foreign policy luminaries such as George Kennan, Allen Dulles, Wolfowitz, and Zbigniew Brzezinksi, the general plan is for full-spectrum dominance, meaning control of land, sea, air, and space, on a planetary basis, with a special emphasis on “Eurasian landmass,” as the ghoulish McMaster called it in a recent anti-Russian speech.

If history is any guide, it is unacceptable for a U.S. president to thaw relations with Russia unless that thaw consists of Russia capitulating to American demands. Mikhail Gorbachev’s trusting dismantling of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact led to a decade of Western looting of Gorbachev’s country. Vladimir Putin has since restored a measure of Russia’s economic and military strength. Where Gorbachev was exploited, Putin is proving resistant to such entreaties, except on the economic front, where he appears to have bought into some of Western neoliberal policy.

Instead, Putin is posing a threat to the forward progress of Washington’s neoconservative foreign policy. He has actively promoted a variety of pipeline projects that would speed Russian oil and gas to Western Europe, undercutting profits of Western multinationals and addicting NATO nations to the energy teat of the Russian Federation. And he has conducted a few military maneuvers that have enraged the Washington elite, which are used to being conciliated by effete comprador elite in developing nations. This is different. A nuclear nation that can’t be overrun or bombed into submission. And it shows.

After successfully dismembering Yugoslavia, Congo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, the West-led spread of chaos across the Middle East stalled in Syria. After happily expanding NATO throughout Eastern Europe with little opposition, expansion hit a wall in Ukraine. In both instances, it is Moscow behind the holding action preventing the American project of global dominion from advancing. That’s why Putin has replaced Hugo Chavez as the West’s most demonized public figure.

Worryingly for covetous D.C. schemers, there’s a lot of new economic activity afoot in Eurasia, little of it involving the U.S. This activity includes plans for a Eurasian Union headed by Russia, a metastasizing Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and the rapidly advancing One Belt, One Road vision of the Chinese. The latter would effectively be a New Silk Road stretching from Vladivostok to Lisbon, animating Chinese and Russian economic influence across the Asian and European continents, and lifting countries like Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. This is Washington’s nightmare scenario, since no serious geo-strategist believes global hegemony is feasible short of dominion in Central Asia. This understanding fuels the underlying animus toward Moscow and Beijing. It has nothing to do with ceaseless repeated lies about Russian aggression in Eastern Europe and Chinese aggression in the South China Sea. And it has nothing to do with lies about Moscow rigging the election for Donald Trump or Michael Flynn lifting sanctions in a nefarious quid pro quo.

The Deep State vs. the Nation State

Long-time Congressional staffer Mike Lofgren refers to the murky agencies at work to ensure this planetary plan stays on track as the “deep state,” in his book of the same name. He writes that it includes key elements of the national security state, which ensure continuity of policy despite the superficial about-faces from one administration to the next. The deep state is effectively a warlike oligarchy, hell-bent on full spectrum dominance, driven by a lust for wealth and power, and anxious to inscribe its name in history. Specifically, Lofgren says, the deep state includes the Department of Defense, the State Department, the National Intelligence Agencies, Wall Street, the defense industry, and the energy consortium, among other major private players. They share common agendas, operate a revolving door of employees, and have a collective distaste for democracy, transparency, and regulation. The deep state is the link between military interventions and trans-pacific trade deals, between sanctions and IMF loans. All of these tools, be they arms or loans or legal structures, serve a single purpose: the overarching control of world resources by a global community of corporate elites. One can also see how these three instruments of policy and power all do tremendous damage to a particular entity, the nation-state. It is the nation-state that is considered by elites to be the sole remaining barricade between populations in nominal democracies and their unfettered exploitation by multinationals, although one might reasonably argue that the state more often abets exploitation rather than deters it.

The Dystopia to Come

So where is this all headed? Aside from the theatrics of the Trump presidency and its sequestration or removal. What would full-spectrum dominance look like? Probably something like a one-world market, populated by enfeebled states, ruled by a worldwide raft of interlocking investor rights agreements that allowed private capital to plunder natural resources free of state restraints, such as labor safeguards, environmental protections, reasonable tax regimes, capital controls or border tariffs. Faceless multinationals would pillage the planet, their anonymous appointees manning the joysticks of power behind the reflective glass of their cloud-draped spindles, unreachable and unelected by the armies of the destitute that prowled the wastelands below. The amalgamated forces of corporate elitism would coolly play labor arbitrage across continents, threaten and destroy defiant economies through currency flight and commodity manipulation, and continue to consume an outsized percentage of the world’s resources. This would fulfill the hegemonic dreams of former State Department Director of Policy Planning Kennan, who once argued that we must dispense with humanitarian concerns and “deal in straight power concepts,” the better to control and consume an outsized portion of the world’s resources, presumably a privilege reserved for elite whites, and a selection of mandarins from other ethnicities with special clearances.

A criminal corporate commonwealth, supported by a fiat dollar as global reserve currency enforced by threat of war and economic collapse, will be deaf to protest from below, its weaponized satellites aimed at populations like sunlit magnifiers at a column of ants. Currency itself would be wholly digitized. This move would be sold as a positive advance as it would provide better tax accountability and therefore fund future programs of social uplift. Rather it will be employed as a means of totalitarian financial control over populations. Their wealth will be institutionalized. The concept of withdrawal will fade along with the fiction of ownership.

Terrorism will become the chosen tool of this elite power (insofar as it isn’t already). Surgical strikes, be they military, economic, or news-driven, will “keep the rabble in line” as all societies become subservient to the portents of war, the fear of inaccessible funds, and the black smears of an amoral media. The ‘deep state’ will become an obsolete term, as the nation-state will recede in memory as a relic of a strife-ridden dark age.

After all, the laissez faire cult of the beltway actually believes the planet would prosper sans nation-states. As another scene from Syriana reminds us, elite capital has a very different worldview from the majority of labor, who continue to believe the state has a role to play defending their interests. At one point in the film, Texas oil man Danny Dalton lectures lawyer Bennett Holiday on the true definition of corruption, “Corruption!? Corruption is government interference in market efficiencies in the form of government regulation. That’s Milton Friedman! He got a goddamn Nobel Prize!” The U.S. already practices free-market militarism, refusing to recognize borders, legal constraints, or geostrategic jurisdiction. Why not free-market finance and trade?

The good news is that, if you can clamber into the top one percent of the U.S. population, for instance, serving as a parasite on the grizzled hide of the corporate beast, you might yet partake of unimaginable luxuries, high in the clouds, sipping Mimosas as you transit between the ring-fenced metropoles of the world, where stateless elites intermingle.

Jason Hirthler is a veteran of the communications industry and author of The Sins of Empire: Unmasking American Imperialism. He lives in New York City and can be reached at jasonhirthler@gmail.com.

http://www.counterpunch.org/2017/03/10/the-deep-state-and-the-dark-arts/

America Is in Warp-Speed Decline—It’s Way Bigger Than Trump

As conditions in the U.S. deteriorate, the world will continue to suffer the consequences of U.S. military force—but without the mitigating influences of U.S. foreign aid and diplomacy.

Photo Credit: Getmilitaryphotos / Shutterstock

The first signs of decline are physical. Citizens don’t grow as tall. They don’t live as long. They start killing each other in large numbers.

Sounds like the post-mortem for a society that disappeared long ago, a conclusion that archaeologists deliver after sifting through bone fragments and pottery shards. Why, the puzzled scholars ask, did such a vibrant society, which produced beautiful art and remarkable scientific advances, fall apart so rapidly and leave so little behind in the unforgiving rainforest?

This time, however, the diagnosis is being provided in real time. And the society in decline is the most powerful country in the world.

According to the most recent global health surveys, the United States is witnessing a decline in life expectancy for the first time in nearly a quarter century. America is also the first high-income country to see its adults, on average, no longer growing taller. Writes Lenny Bernstein in The Washington Post:

The reasons for the United States’ lag are well known. It has the highest infant and maternal mortality rates of any of the countries in the study, and the highest obesity rate. It is the only one without universal health insurance coverage and has the “largest share of unmet health-care needs due to financial costs,” the researchers wrote.

I’d like to pin this one on Donald Trump. But U.S. decline has been ongoing for some time.

For instance, the United States ranked 16th in the 2014 Social Progress Index developed by Michael Porter at the Harvard Business School. Two years later, the United States slipped to 19th place, with particularly mediocre scores in environmental quality (#36), nutrition and basic medical care (#37), and access to basic knowledge (#40).

Let’s compare that to Canada, which sat near the top of the rankings at number two in the SPI. Canada was a little better on environmental quality (#32), quite a bit better on basic medical care (#26), and a whole lot better on access to basic knowledge (#2).

Even though Trump can’t be blamed for these mediocre social indicators, his party’s steadfast opposition to spending on social welfare and the environment certainly contributed to the problem. And Trump’s promise to “replace” Obamacare, cut social spending even further, and roll back regulatory oversight — all while boosting the Pentagon budget by an extraordinary 10 percent — will send the United States into free fall. The violent crime rate, which dropped nearly in half over the last 20 years despite what Trump claims, may well start to edge up as our pro-gun president makes firearms even more widely available and the economy takes a turn for the worse.

After what Donald Trump does to the United States, Americans won’t be able to stand tall and proud. That’s because we’ll either be short, sick, or dead.

What Goes Up…

Predictions of the eclipse of American power have been around since Donald Trump was a 30-something playboy.

It’s not just the overall health of the population and the toxicity of the environment. The United States has been hobbled by an enormous federal debt, an overextended global military presence, our failing infrastructure, and a paralyzed political system. It’s no wonder that so many Americans were sufficiently fed up in November to vote for anyone who promised to shake up the status quo.

Many Trump supporters are already having second thoughts after witnessing their leader’s first weeks in office. The new administration has given every indication that it’s exchanging the status quo for something incomparably worse.

Much of the problem lies with Trump himself. He has been erratic, often incoherent, and so disconnected from reality that he might be the first president to tweet himself out of office (if the investigation into his campaign’s connections to Moscow doesn’t get him first).

Say what you will about the early Roman emperors, they at least knew something about governance. Then, in the 1st century AD, the imperial stock started to run thin and the empire ran into serious trouble under the deranged progeny of Augustus. Donald Trump is the Caligula of our times: lascivious, incurious, and power-drunk. At what point will our American Caligula, running out of willing and even marginally suitable candidates, try to appoint a horse to his cabinet?

It’s bad enough from a domestic standpoint to have a laughing-stock for a president. The international implications are even worse. As Patrick Cockburn writes in The Independent, “It will be difficult for the U.S. to remain a super-power under a leader who is an international figure of fun and is often visibly detached from reality. His battle cry of ‘Fake News’ simply means an inability to cope with criticism or accept facts or views that contradict his own. World leaders who have met him say they are astonished by his ignorance of events at home and abroad.”

It’s no surprise that other countries are rushing to take advantage of the Trump administration’s early missteps. “It’s not just that Trump seems to have abandoned the larger geopolitical playing field to America’s principal rivals,” writes analyst Michael Klare. “He appears to be doing everything in his power to facilitate their advance at the expense of the United States. In just the first few weeks of his presidency, he has already taken numerous steps that have put the wind in both China’s and Russia’s sails, while leaving the U.S. adrift.”

China sees an enormous opportunity to cast itself as the responsible global leader on trade and climate change. Russia is angling for more influence in its near abroad, the eastern parts of Europe, and the Middle East. Germany and the European Union more generally have sought to replace the United States as a moral leader on diplomacy, human rights, and intercultural engagement.

It’s as if the empire has already fallen apart and the rivals are carving up the corpse. Except that it’s not territory that they’re grabbing, but chunks of America’s political and economic capital.

Those who believe that the United States has had only a malign influence on the world will cheer this downgrade in status. But so far only America’s soft power has taken a hit. The Pentagon remains on the ascendant. The world will continue to suffer the consequences of U.S. military force but without the mitigating influences of U.S. foreign aid and diplomacy.

What about the Stock Market?

So, if everything is doom and gloom, why is the stock market so bullish right now?

The S & P 500 rose to record highs this week. So did the Dow Jones industrial average, establishing the longest stretch of gains in 30 years. Naturally, Trump has claimed credit for all this even as he has complained of inheriting “a mess” from Barack Obama. Kellyanne Conway rushed to judgment as well, attributing the market expansion to “the Trump effect.”

The stock market responds to short-term trends and signals, and it’s focused largely on the health of the business sector. Trump has promised tax cuts, a helping hand to military contractors and energy companies, and a big infrastructure development plan. What’s not to like if you’re a CEO or a large corporation?

But beware irrational exuberance. Much of what Trump is doing is setting up Wall Street for a very unpleasant fall. The administration’s trade policies, particularly with Mexico, will hit producers hard. The infrastructure bill may not come until 2018. The impact of simultaneously adding $54 billion to the Pentagon budget and cutting taxes will throw the economy seriously out of whack.

Ultimately, however, the health of Wall Street is not the issue — it’s the health of Main Street that matters most. When the Obama dividend runs out and economic indicators start to turn south, when the coal mines and steel plants fail to magically return to their glory days of the 1950s, when farmers and blue-collar workers see how much their livelihoods depend on good relations with the world beyond U.S. borders, Trump will have a full-blown revolt on his hands. Then we’ll finally understand the real reason for the boost in Pentagon spending.

Martial law, anyone?

 

John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. His dystopian novel, Splinterlands, a Dispatch Books original (with Haymarket Books), will be published on December 6th. He is a TomDispatch regular.

http://www.alternet.org/world/making-america-mediocre-warpspeed-decline?akid=15264.265072.cKh0Uq&rd=1&src=newsletter1073286&t=6