Friday, March 31, 2017

The Premature Death of Pronto: Bike Share Fails in Emerald City

Today is the last day of Seattle's appalling attempt at a bike-sharing program. Dubbed "Pronto," it didn't even survive three years.

Pronto began as a public-private partnership in 2014, but in a little over a year it was declared insolvent. The city was forced to buy it in toto in March of 2016. At the beginning of this year, Mayor Ed Murray said he would kill Pronto. Today is execution day.

The week began with a spate of media coverage of this unseemly embarrassment for a city that fancies itself the capital of Cascadia, the wealthy, urban Eco-sophisticate to its more provincial cousins, Portland and Vancouver, B.C. Both Portland and Vancouver have far larger cycle-share programs in terms of numbers of bikes. To give you an idea the depths of Seattle's failure, Houston is scheduled to expand its cycle-share to 1,000 bikes by the end of the year.

The best synopsis of this Emerald City debacle I read was David Gutman's piece in the Seattle Times:
Bike shares are booming in the United States. In 2010 the nation had only four bike-share systems, which accounted for about 300,000 total rides, according to data from the National Association of City Transportation Officials.
Last year there were 55 bike-share programs and more than 28 million total rides.
Total ridership nationwide has increased nearly 60 percent since Pronto launched in 2014.
But it’s been a different story in Seattle.
Pronto launched in fall 2014 with high hopes, a $2.5 million private sponsorship and $1.75 million in state and federal money. 
But it had to deal with a challenging environment — a hilly, rainy city with a mandatory helmet law and a downtown area clogged with traffic and with few protected bikeways.

Ridership lagged.
Within a year, city officials were pushing to take over the bike-share system, which had been owned by a nonprofit.

Scott Kubly, the city’s transportation director, argued that a city takeover would allow Seattle to build a bigger, broader network that would attract more riders. In January 2016, the city was told that Pronto was insolvent and would shut down if the city didn’t buy it. The city complied in March 2016, buying Pronto for $1.4 million. 
Kubly, in his previous job, had been president of the company that operated Pronto. He later admitted to an ethics violation and agreed to a $10,000 settlement for failing to get an ethics waiver or recuse himself from the city’s launch and purchase of Pronto. 
After the city’s purchase, Pronto never significantly expanded its network. It still had the same number of bikes it did at its launch and had added only four more docking stations. 
Still, as recently as December, the city seemed ready to make significant new investments — by buying a whole new fleet of 1,200 electric bikes and 100 new docking stations — to transform the system. 
In January, Mayor Ed Murray announced that he was changing course. He scrapped Pronto and said the $3 million that had been budgeted to the bike share would be used for pedestrian and bike projects such as improving crosswalks at schools and adding bike lanes.
The brittle, sneering, "hipper-than-thou" weekly, The Stranger, attempted to spin the demise of Pronto as a triumph of pedestrian commuting. But that's just bullshit.

I think 20 years ago it would have been impossible for the city, corruption and all, to have fucked-up a cycle-share program (even if all the bikes were latrine green and plastered with the Alaska Airlines corporate logo). Neighborhoods that surrounded downtown still housed young people of very modest means.

Thinking about this, I went online to see if the local chapter of Critical Mass was still active. Apparently not.

Now the median price of a home in Seattle is over $600,000, and I imagine a home costs much more in one of the neighborhoods, like mine, that is very close to downtown. On the northern perimeter of the downtown retail core Amazon is constructing a corporate Oz. High rises are sprouting like toadstools.

My neighborhood, which for many years was part LBGTQ-Grunge rocker-old-Hippie enclave, part old money surrounding the Olmsted Brothers designed public park, is now the bedroom community for young Amazon digerati.

Leaving my apartment building for work one morning I passed a young man in the latest gear -- nice black running pants, stylish long-sleeve Arcteryx shirt with zippered collar -- coming back from a run. He looked like someone in fashion magazine. He casually greeted a beautiful young blond woman who was just exiting the entrance to the building opposite my own. She was so pretty and tastefully dressed I started thinking of the Kinks song. She said to the young man, "I quit my job yesterday. I'm going to freelance."

Just like that. Like I was in New York City.

But it is not New York. Because if it were we would have a successful bike-share program.

Hippies vs. Punks: The Feelies' In Between (2017)

The month of March I started listening to The Feelies again.

Crazy Rhythms (1980) is a seminal album that we listened to all the time, particularly in the 1980s; it has a sound all its own. It manages to aurally capture dark space, nighttime distance, like no other record I can think of.

The band didn't provide a follow-up until six-years later, and by that time they had a new rhythm section.  (Anton Fier's percussion work is really what makes Crazy Rhythms unique.)

Last week I picked up Ork Records: New York, New York and discovered something I didn't know -- that The Feelies can trace their pedigree all the way back to the original CBGBs scene. So even though their debut album was not released until 1980, they were part of the first wave of Punk.

Simultaneously I saw that The Feelies had just released a new album in February, In Between, and it is surprisingly good. Not Crazy Rhythms good, but topnotch.

It is worth listening to if only as a present tense "mystic chord of memory" connecting us to our cultural Ground Zero, the middle- to late-1970s. We have to go back and figure out exactly what went wrong. Music and cultural was able to reinvent itself out of the detritus of the Hippie collapse.

Inventiveness. We've lost it. Money, all-pervasive digital technology . . . we're suffocating.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Perpetual War Comes Out of the Closet

What's interesting about the otherwise unremarkable "U.S. War Footprint Grows in Middle East, With No Endgame in Sight," by Ben Hubbard and Michael Gordon, is the public acknowledgement by one of the main organs of the prestige press, The New York Times, that current policy of the United States is to fight numerous wars in the Middle East indefinitely.

The story makes the point that the Middle East theater of perpetual war is not a Trump innovation but merely a continuation of an Obama administration policy. The U.S. military is actively participating in the wars in Iraq and Syria, with promises -- some tacit, others explicit -- that once ISIS is defeated troops will stay on in these countries. Trump's departure from Obama is that he appears to have placed the U.S. in a leading, rather than supporting role, in Yemen. The story is good at adding some detail here:
The complexity of these wars and the American role in them is clear in Yemen, where the United States has two distinct roles, both of which have increased under Mr. Trump.
The country, the Arab world’s poorest, has been split in half since militants known as the Houthis allied with parts of the military and seized the capital, pushing the internationally recognized government into exile.
Two years ago, a military coalition led by Saudi Arabia began bombing the rebels, hoping to weaken them militarily and restore the government. They have made little progress, while more than 10,000 people have been killed and large parts of the country are on the verge of famine, according to the United Nations.
Under Mr. Obama, the United States provided military support to the Saudi-led coalition, but halted the sale of precision-guided munitions over concerns that airstrikes by Saudi Arabia and its allies were killing too many civilians.
But since Mr. Trump took office, his administration has advanced some arms deals for coalition countries, while approving the resumption of sales of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia, according to an American official familiar with Yemen policy.
Mr. Trump’s more muscular approach has been hailed by Gulf leaders, who felt betrayed by Mr. Obama’s outreach to Iran and who hope that they now have an ally in the White House to help them push back against their regional foe.
“It understands that it is uniquely positioned to play a unique role in bringing some stability to the region, and I think there is a meeting of the minds between the Saudi leadership and the Trump administration,” said Fahad Nazer, a political consultant to the Saudi Embassy in Washington who said he was speaking on his own behalf.
At the same time, since Mr. Trump’s inauguration, the United States has stepped up its long-running drone campaign against the Yemeni branch of Al Qaeda, believed to be the organization’s most dangerous.
Mr. Trump granted a Pentagon request to declare parts of three provinces in Yemen as an “area of active hostilities,” giving commanders greater flexibility to strike. Later, a Special Operations raid in late January led to the death of many civilians and an American commando.
So far this month, the United States has also launched more than 49 strikes across Yemen, most of them during one five-day period, according to data gathered by the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. That is more strikes than the United States had carried out during any other full year on record.
Some analysts note that this military surge has not brought with it a clear strategy to end Yemen’s war or uproot Al Qaeda.
That's because there isn't one. Sometime in the last 15 years planners realized that state building is no longer feasible, only state destruction. So that is the new normal. A steady state of destruction. Hubbard and Gordon don't include nearby Libya and Somalia in their analysis, but there is every indication that stepped-up U.S. military action with "no endgame in sight" is the case there as well. And then there is the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa.

To go with the souped up Global War on Terror there is simultaneously a New Cold War, definitely with Russia and in the beginning stages with China.

And where is the anti-war movement in the United States? Nowhere.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

How Popular is Alexei Navalny? About as Popular as Jill Stein

The anti-corruption rallies in Russia this past weekend received a spurt of coverage in the Western press. If you read The New York Times you would be forgiven for drawing the conclusion that opposition gadfly Alexei Navalny is leading a mass children's movement which represents a legitimate challenge to Putin's United Russia.

In fact, the latest opinion poll reveals that only 1% would definitely vote for Navalny in a presidential election. This puts Navalny in the same category as the U.S. Green Party's Jill Stein.

The weekend protests weren't an outpouring of support for Navalny; they were a cry of disgust from the working class over conspicuous consumption and income inequality.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Homelessness in the U.S.

I've been keeping my eye on this story, "Adding Homeless Shelters Is a Political Risk, but de Blasio Sees No Alternative." New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is running for reelection on the politically perilous pledge to build 90 new homeless shelters in five years. There are 60,000 people in New York City shelters currently, with countless others living on the street.

New York City is the capital of homelessness, surpassing Los Angeles, and far surpassing my city, Seattle. The big spike in NYC homelessness occurred under Mayor Mike Bloomberg's watch when the city's rental subsidy program collapsed.

Homelessness is at a crisis point in the United States. On any day walking to work along a major east-west arterial I bear witness to the new urban gestalt: a steady state of great affluence and what appears to be full employment spiced with numerous kernels of destitution. The homeless shuffle among the affluent like zombies. The Hoovervilles and hobo villages sprout up everywhere, particularly in the slivers of land along the Interstate.

De Blasio and Seattle's Ed Murray are trying to erect some sort of institutional foundation to shore up the societal collapse brought on by neoliberalism. The homeless in big U.S. cities are refugees akin to those from Africa and Middle East seeking safe harbor in northern Europe; they're economic casualties.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Trump Flirts with Lame Duck but Obamacare Still in Trouble

Trump's failure to even hold a vote Friday on the Republican overhaul of the Affordable Care Act is a colossal defeat for his two-month-old administration. It might not be an overstatement to call him a lame duck with almost his entire term still ahead.

Trump and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said they had the votes, when in reality they had nowhere near enough. Trump got rolled, plain and simple (Maureen Dowd's "Donald, This I Will Tell You" makes this point well). The Freedom Caucus, backed by the Koch's constellation of Birchite pressure groups, demanded "poison pill" rewrites of Trumpcare; and when they got those, they demanded more. Trump was exposed not as a consummate artist of the deal, but as a clown, a buffoon huckster.

The silver lining here is that knives are being sharpened in the West Wing. Bannon and company wanted to hold the vote and then start taking the scalps of those Republicans who strayed off the reservation. Ryan carried the day here with his counsel that the fractured caucus needed cover in order to pass Trump's tax reform plan. So no vote on Trumpcare was held.

All this does is kick the can down the road and place the GOP under even more pressure. Revising the tax code is no easy thing. Failure here will deliver an enormous blow not just to Trump but to the GOP and the political system at large. How can a party control all three branches of government and be paralyzed?

Democrats will try to take credit for their defense of Obamacare, but they had little to do with it. It was the Tea Party, the paranoid, Bircher reboot of the Republican Party made possible by the Affordable Care Act, that saved Obamacare and prevented the gutting of Medicaid. What an irony.

Trump is right about one thing though. Obamacare is still in plenty of trouble, and Trump is at the control switch. As Margot Sanger-Katz outlined on Friday in "Trump’s Choice on Obamacare: Sabotage or Co-opt?":
Mr. Trump will need to decide, quickly, whether his goal is to knock over the still-functioning markets, or help prop them up. [Is that even in question? He has publicly stated his strategy going forward: He is waiting for Obamacare to collapse to get another chance to "make a deal."] If he decides to topple them, next year could be very messy.
Insurers are making their decisions right now about whether to enter the markets for next year and about how much to charge their customers. Signals from the administration in the next few weeks about whether he will help or hurt them will almost certainly guide insurers’ choices.
Fight a court case on subsidies? 
The biggest immediate decision concerns a court dispute between the House and the administration over subsidies to help low-income insurance buyers pay their deductibles and co-payments. The House has argued that the money for those subsidies was not properly authorized. The Obama White House fought the case. It is not clear whether Mr. Trump’s lawyers will do the same. The availability of those subsidies, used by a majority of Obamacare customers, is critical for insurers in the markets.
Without the subsidies, all the insurers will lose some money, and many smaller carriers will face bankruptcy. If Mr. Trump does not fight the court case, the Obamacare markets in most states will unravel quickly, leaving millions without insurance options on his watch. Many of the beneficiaries are Trump voters.
Encourage insurance companies in wobbly markets?
There are smaller decisions ahead, too, about how to administer programs, whether to enforce the law’s individual mandate, and whether to recruit insurers to participate in markets where competition is thin.
So far, Mr. Trump’s secretary for health and human services, Tom Price, has taken every opportunity to gloat about the health law’s setbacks, even as he is administering its programs.
Mr. Price, perhaps more than Mr. Trump, has long been committed to the Affordable Care Act’s demise. But now he will have to manage the law’s many programs. Obama administration officials called insurers, cajoling and reassuring them. If Mr. Trump wants the markets to be vigorous, he could use his self-described deal-making skills to woo insurance companies into the stabilizing markets.
Make the system more conservative? 
If Mr. Trump and Mr. Price can make peace with the health law, there are opportunities to steer it in a more conservative direction. The law gives broad authority to the executive branch to shape health care policy. So far, the health law has been driven by Obama administration priorities, but that could change.
A few early regulatory changes have begun that process. The Trump administration plans to make it harder for people to sign up for plans midyear. It has given insurers more wiggle room to raise their deductibles. It may be able to make alterations that loosen up benefit requirements — though it won’t be able to completely eliminate them, as Republicans sought to do at the last minute in the failed bill.
Offer states maximum flexibility? 
The administration will also have enormous power to allow states to reshape their Medicaid programs — and even their local insurance markets — through waivers to existing law. Seema Verma, the just-confirmed administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, was a consultant who helped states write pathbreaking conservative proposals for their Medicaid programs. She is ideally positioned to approve many more such waivers from Republican-led states, allowing them to impose premiums, cost-sharing and even work requirements for Medicaid beneficiaries. 
A new Obamacare waiver program has just gone into effect: It would allow states to overhaul their entire health insurance markets if they can show that their revised plans would cover as many people. That process could allow Ms. Verma and Mr. Price to approve state plans that hew more closely to the Republican vision for health care.
Change Medicare policy?
New powers granted under the Affordable Care Act allow the Department of Health and Human Services to make major changes to the Medicare program, through demonstration projects meant to lower costs and improve patient care. The Obama administration set a precedent of imposing “mandatory” projects on large portions of the country to test policy ideas. So far, Mr. Price has looked askance at such efforts. But the provision could give him power to reshape what Medicare pays for and how seniors receive their care.
Nicholas Bagley, a law professor at the University of Michigan, has criticized the Obama administration for stretching its legal authority with some of its Obamacare choices. But those choices have created a precedent for the Trump administration to stretch the health law in its own direction. “If you think Congress is done, and you don’t want to provoke a reaction anymore, then you own this,” he said. “You will be judged as an executive on the performance of Obamacare.”
For years, opposing Obamacare has been a rallying cry for Republicans. But if Republicans can’t repeal Obamacare, they could instead co-opt it. There are opportunities for Trumpcare yet.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

America #1

I have to admit I was a little surprised to see a Marvel comic book depicting lesbian sex (see last two scans), and in a title called America. The "America" in question is America Chavez, the queer Latina LGBTQ Young Avenger from another reality, the Utopian Parallel.

I asked Simon at my neighborhood comic shop if he thought, as I do, that the scene of lady bedroom love is "boundary crossing" for a industry powerhouse like Marvel. Simon said yes.

Nietzsche said that the greater a society is the more tolerant it is, and I absolutely agree with that. Pretty much the best -- most culturally dynamic -- thing that late-stage capitalism, a.k.a., neoliberalism, has going for it is its integration of women into ever-increasing authority roles.

Marvel reflects this with a noticeable proliferation of titles devoted to super-heroines: Ms. Marvel, Patsy Walker, A.K.A. Hellcat! (apparently just cancelled), The Unstoppable Wasp, Hawkeye, etc. Sometimes it seems as if Marvel only chooses females for its new heroes.

This is all well and good, a balancing of the accounts as it were. The downside as I see it -- not only in Marvel comic books, but in my own professional life as well -- is that as women occupy more seats at the table, patriarchal norms -- social hierarchy, violence, economic inequality -- are not being destabilized, they're being exacerbated. The implicit promise of both second- and third-wave feminism is that the more women assume power in a society the more enlightened and egalitarian that society will become.

Well, that's not happening. Western civilization, despite significant gains for women and minorities, is just as addicted to warfare and hierarchy as ever, if not more so. Feminists will argue that this can't be laid at their doorstep; that the glass ceiling is ever present, and that the bald white man is still running the show from atop the pyramid. And they're right.

All I'm saying is that women are mirroring the negative aspects of patriarchy as they enjoy their "slice of the pie."

I remember one afternoon I unexpectedly returned home from work. I stood in the hallway by the front door and listened to my wife talking to her girlfriends, fellow med-schoolers. They were shooting the shit, listening to Patti Smith on the stereo, calling each other by their last names. It had all the testosterone and bravado of a men's locker room. When I stepped in to say hello I saw that my wife was wearing my favorite San Francisco 49ers cap. They all seemed shocked to see me.

That was almost 30 years ago. I always considered my generation -- the sons and daughters of second-wave feminists -- the first substantially gender-equal cohort in American history. Now women waving their "lady dick" is a cultural norm. More power to them.

But maybe we should take another look at feminism's tacit assumptions of ontological superiority. We need to ask ourselves if matriarchy is willing to abide by all the hogwash that got chalked up to patriarchy.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Le Pen Campaigns in Moscow and Sounds Very Presidential

To add fresh perspective to how absurd the endless "Trump Colluded with the Russkies!" U.S. deep state hyperventilating is, how about Marine Le Pen traveling to Moscow to shake Putin's hand and talk turkey on global terrorism just four weeks before the first round of France's presidential vote? (Note the ridiculous Daily Beast headline, "Russia’s Putin Picks Le Pen to Rule France.")

Trump needs to find some of Le Pen's cojones.

The statement from Putin and Le Pen can be found on the President of Russia website:

President of Russia Vladimir Putin: Ms Le Pen, this is not your first time in Moscow [!], and I am pleased to welcome you here. I am aware that you came at the invitation of the State Duma – the parliament of the Russian Federation.
We value highly our relations with France and try to maintain good relations with incumbent government and the opposition.
I am, of course, aware of the ongoing election campaign in France. In no case do we want to influence the events as they unfold, but we reserve the right to communicate with all representatives of all political forces in France, just like our partners in Europe and the United States are doing. [Damn straight.]
Of course, it would be very interesting to exchange opinions with you on our bilateral relations and the situation in Europe. I know that you represent a European political force that is growing quickly.
I am very pleased to see you.
Marine Le Pen (retranslated)Thank you, Mr President. As you know, I have long been urging the restoration of cultural, economic and strategic ties between Russia and France, which is especially important now when we face a serious terrorist threat.
The fight against terrorism can only be truly effective if the largest nations stand side by side and join forces. Russia is fighting in Syria. France has contributed by waging Operation Barkhane in Chad and by fighting terrorism in Mali. I believe that our countries are taking a very active part in this struggle, including by providing assistance to the countries that had to fight the rise of terrorism in the past and are still fighting this threat.
Mr President, you know that terrorist blows have been delivered to France. Yesterday terrorists delivered a terrible blow with many casualties. They continue their attacks every day, using new forms of terrorism, including so-called economy-class terrorism, when the blows are delivered by individuals some of whom enter our countries together with migrants to strike at the population on orders from terrorist organisations, such as ISIS. I believe that in this situation we must do everything in our power to create conditions for an effective exchange of intelligence information in order to protect our nations from the threat that has hit France and has recently delivered a blow to our British friends.
I would like to say that I see it as a big problem that Russian MPs cannot meet with their colleagues from the EU countries. I believe that meetings between representatives of our democratic forces can help all of us find an effective solution to the ongoing terrorist crisis, which, apart from the military aspect, has many other components, as I could see during a meeting with President of Chad Idriss Deby.
As we have said at the meeting with the State Duma Speaker, I believe that all countries should also think about human trafficking, that is trade in people for purposes of financing terrorism.
Vladimir Putin: As you know, there have been many terrorist attacks in Russia. France, Belgium, the United States and many other countries have also suffered. Unfortunately, the erosion of traditional values in many Middle Eastern countries has intensified violence and migration flows.
Tragic events are taking place in Syria and in Iraq’s Mosul, where hundreds of thousands of refugees were forced to flee from their homes. I fully agree with you that we can effectively fight terrorism only by pooling our efforts.
Today, so soon after the tragedy in London, a tragic event happened in Chechnya in the North Caucasus, where terrorists attacked a National Guard unit. We all live in difficult conditions. We must open our eyes to this threat and join forces to fight terrorism.
Marine Le Pen (retranslated): Mr President, I would like to begin by saying that in addition to solidarity and joint actions, which we definitely need, such countries as Russia should consider ways to promote the development of African countries, in particular, in Saharan and Sub-Saharan Africa. The African countries that are fighting terrorism say this struggle requires significant financial resources. As a result, they have to reduce spending on healthcare, education and agriculture.
Besides, many young people face the temptation of escaping economic problems by joining armed terrorist groups. In other words, I believe that we need a truly global strategy that will bring together all the countries that want to preserve or restore security around the world.
In my opinion, this strategy should include attention to the economic development of the countries that have become the object of the terrorist threat and have to defend themselves against it.
Vladimir Putin: I fully agree with you. You are quite right. [Absolutely.]

Big Win for Taliban in Helmand: Sangin Falls Despite U.S. Air Power

I worked briefly at a plastics factory with a tough German guy, an alcoholic, a wanderer, who also apparently was a Buddhist. After I left the plastics factory I ran into him at the old downtown library. He asked me if I could help him type up a cover letter (this was in the mid-'90s before the Internet explosion). When we parted he shared with me some Buddhist wisdom, something to the effect that you can only think of one thing at a time.

I always think of this is in relation to how the media works. We basically can only think of one thing at a time, and that one thing for what is approaching now quite a bit of time, is Trump.

(If you dip in today to get your Trump fix be sure to read David Brooks' "The Trump Elite. Like the Old Elite, but Worse!" Brooks is a man on fire lately. He has been unchained from his role as house conservative and he is writing column after incendiary column absolutely burning Trump and the GOP to the ground. Of the Gray Lady's regular columnists, I pretty much only read Brooks now. The others are too tainted by Democratic Party Russophobia.)

Trump dominates the news cycle every cycle. Areas that the prestige press were reluctant to cover prior to Trump, like Yemen and Libya, have almost disappeared entirely; those that received regular attention, like Afghanistan, have receded into the shadows.

A must-read story is yesterday's dispatch from Taimoor Shah and Rod Nordland, "Taliban Take an Afghan District, Sangin, That Many Marines Died to Keep." This is big news, frontpage news, not page 6, where it is located in the national edition.

The Taliban have been fighting constantly for eight years to take Sangin, a critical district in Helmand Province that connects to Kandahar Province. The Taliban bloodied the British Army and Royal Marines, and then when the U.S. Marines were rotated in, they bloodied them. When the Brits and Yanks departed the Afghan casualty figures were so high that government officials did not release them.
The Taliban had long dominated most territory in Sangin except for the district center, which was home to the government and police headquarters as well as the army base. According to Mr. Shakir, the insurgents now hold seven of Helmand Province’s 14 districts; in five of the others, he said, the government holds only the district centers. Only two districts and the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, are completely under government control, he said.
The U.S. is trying to spin this as something other than a retreat, but that's what it is. They couldn't hold the district center even with air power.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Abortion is Legal in Rojava

Tommy O'Riordan / Jacobin 

A decent piece, "Bob Crow in Rojava: Who are the British volunteers fighting with the Kurdish YPG in Rojava?," published by Jacobin at the end of February points out that abortion is legal in Rojava since the revolution. Hopefully this news doesn't find its way to the Pentecostal crackers who constitute a sizable chunk of Trump's domestic base:
Perhaps more importantly, brigade members have established political connections between Kurdish and European activists. On September 7, 2016, they tweeted an image of two armed guerrillas wearing balaclavas and raising their left fists. Beneath them, a scrap of cardboard read: “Ni Saoirse go Saoirse na mBan [there is no freedom without the liberation of women]: repeal the Eighth.”
“The Eighth” refers to the Irish constitution’s eighth amendment, which outlaws abortion in Ireland and restricts access to information about having an abortion in England (similar restrictions also exist in Northern Ireland). The tweet must be put in the context of the international mobilization against Ireland’s anti-abortion laws, culminating in simultaneous demonstrations on September 24 in various European cities.
Karker Bakur explains the story behind the tweet:
Our women comrades in the IFB [International Freedom Battalion] asked us about the women’s movement in our countries, and we said the most heroic thing right now was the women in Ireland buying abortion pills and then turning themselves in. They were really interested in this.

After the Kurds entered the war with the Mount Sinjar Rescue, the YPJ [Women’s Protection Units] spoke to thousands of Yezidi women from ISIS who had been raped as sex slaves or as “wives” awarded to the jihadis from abroad. From that point on it became clear that ISIS’s systematic rapes were partly to leave behind future ISIS recruits, children who would be potential outcasts.
The Rojava women’s movement launched a campaign for European supporters to send abortion pills to help rescued women, and, furthermore, abortion is a completely legal process in Rojava since the revolution. So when our female comrades heard this wasn’t the case in Ireland, they asked how to show support.

Trumpcare Triumphant?

Republican leadership and Trump say that they have the votes to pass the American Health Care Act (AHCA), a.k.a., Trumpcare, the oft-promised repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), a.k.a., Obamacare. The House vote is today. But no one knows for sure if it will pass.

The House Freedom Caucus is driving the vote. Backed by a formidable array of uber-conservative organizations -- Americans for Prosperity, FreedomWorks, Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, Heritage Action for America and the Club for Growth -- the Freedom Caucus rallying cry is one of sadism: "Essential Health Benefits," the part of Obamacare that "requires insurers to cover a base set of benefits, like maternity care, preventive services, wellness checkups and rehabilitative services," currently part of Trumpcare, must be stripped out (see "House Republicans Search for Votes to Repeal Obamacare" by Thomas Kaplan and Robert Pear) in order to lower premiums.

The problem for Trump and Ryan is that the more they move in the direction of the Freedom Caucus the more Trumpcare becomes radioactive for other Republicans. Even without the repeal of the Essential Health Benefits requirement, Trumpcare's chances of passing the Senate are remote.

The House vote is basically a charade that is conjuring up memories of the 2003 Medicare prescription drug benefit vote when clocks froze for hours as Billy Tauzin bribed his way to 216 votes.

I think we are in that territory today. It is accepted that if Trump can't get Trumpcare out of the House, the rest of his legislative agenda, what of it that there is (more tax cuts?), is cooked. That's why I expect that the American Health Care Act, in some monstrous form, will find its way to the Senate.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Even Mainstream Commentators are Complaining about the Skimpiness of the Trump-Russia Story

When a snarky, middle-brow establishmentarian website like FiveThirtyEight categorizes the Trump-Russia story as more smoke than fire, seconding the assessment of former acting CIA chief Mike Morrell, you know there is really no there there.

This from "How Much Of The Trump-Russia Story Is Smoke And How Much Is Fire?," a discussion between FiveThirtyEight writers and editors posted this morning:
clare.malone: Thing on the Russia story is how much it’s been back and forth. Take this story from October — the headline on that said “no clear link.” So what people took away was, “no link!”
micah: Which is a reasonable reading. It’s very confusing. 
clare.malone: And then a couple of months later, we find ourselves here, with a new spin on that story — still no clear link, but as Perry said, people have been acting awfully suspicious.
natesilver: I think that Oct. 31 story from the The New York Times that Clare linked to really does not hold up well in light of their subsequent reporting.
perry: Agree.
micah: And I’d add the confusion of churn. So, weirdly, we didn’t actually learn anything new on Russia on Monday, yet there’s a new spate of stories. So the smoke-to-fire ratio gets bigger.
Nate Silver hedges throughout the conversation. The other participants you get the feeling have some sort of allegiance to the Democratic Party. And that's the "donkey" in the room throughout the chat: No where is the Democratic Party's role in manning the smoke machine mentioned.

Towards the end of the piece there is this:
micah: Last question: This investigation will probably last many months — if not years. How does it affect Trump’s ability to pursue his agenda if it’s sort of a constant low hum in the background?
clare.malone: That depends on America’s continuing reaction to the Trump era. There are a lot of things we don’t know, like how Trumpism will age. Are people, Republican constituents particularly, going to have the same patience or tolerance for this stuff in, say, a year? Maybe. Maybe not.
natesilver: If Democrats ever take over one or both branches of Congress, the investigations could obviously cripple Trump’s agenda.
perry: I think it’s huge. Remember a few weeks ago Trump gave that joint session speech. Van Jones praised him. Then, the Sessions-Russia story eliminated that news cycle.
micah: Hmmm …
perry: That led to Trump making up the wiretapping story.
micah: But, for example, has that affected Neil Gorsuch’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings or the health care bill?
natesilver: You can certainly make an argument that Trump is mishandling health care. 
Nothing about the deep state, about Politico's story of Ukrainians trying to get Hillary elected, about working with Russia in Syria. All very superficial. But interesting that even from a mainstream perspective Democrats are getting tired of the smoke in their eyes.

Enemies of Syria Launch Plan B (or is It Plan C?)

It can't be just a coincidence that the recent Al Qaeda offensive in the suburbs of Damascus is taking place at the same time as Israel has stepped up its air war against Syria.

Every indication is that the Gulf monarchies that prop up the Salafist jihadis waging war on Syria are making a concerted effort, along with their Israeli allies, to change the contours of the conflict and continue to dictate the terms of any future agreement as the siege of Raqqa is to commence in April.

Since the beginning of the year ISIS and Nusra have used suicide bombers to target Shiite pilgrims at shrines outside Damascus.

Anne Barnard reports in "Resurgent Syrian Rebels Surprise Damascus With New Assaults" that
After the government seized the eastern half of Aleppo from rebels last year, it worked hard to create the impression that the war was essentially over. The recent activity, including a series of suicide bombings in Damascus and a rebel attack Thursday on the northern city of Hama, seemed to indicate that the war might be entering a new phase instead.
While the government still seems to be consolidating control over major population centers along Syria’s western spine, it appears at a minimum likely to face a lingering rural insurgency and bombing campaigns in the cities by hard-line jihadist groups.
At the least, the rebel assaults carried a political message: that the insurgents could still disrupt life in the capital and challenge the forces of President Bashar al-Assad at several points around the country, while simultaneously attacking Islamic State fighters.
By mounting a series of simultaneous assaults around the country, the rebels seemed intent on exploiting one of the government forces’ main weaknesses. While they have Russian air support and help on the ground from Iranian-trained militias, they are spread thin after six years of war and the drain of so many men fleeing the country rather than serving in the army.
It was not immediately clear if the rebels could maintain the offensive. Their forces around Damascus have been badly depleted in recent years and their territory rolled back as the government besieged districts and forced their surrender.
And the new assaults raised political concerns, in that they continue the alliance between a spectrum of rebel groups and hard-line Islamists considered terrorists by Russia and the United States.
The rebels are also walking a fine line with Syrian and international public opinion. To build leverage for imminent peace talks, they need to show they can still cause trouble for the government on the ground, undermining its claim that it can control territory and maintain security.
Yet, they stand to pay a huge political price if they ally themselves with groups that have been intensifying Baghdad-style insurgent attacks like the suicide bombing that killed more than 30 people last week in a historic courthouse in Damascus.
Barnard goes on to describe the central coordination at work in the recent offensive:
There were reports late Tuesday of several new insurgent assaults on government territory taking place at once: one in Hama Province and another on the western outskirts of Aleppo. In recent weeks, rebels have also launched attacks in Daraa Province to the south. Until recently, fighters there had lain low at the behest of foreign sponsors including the United States, but it now appears they have either decided to defy their patrons or persuaded them to heat up the front again.
Rebel and jihadi groups were also advancing against the Islamic State in the Qalamoun region, north of Damascus.
The immediate goal appears to be to protect the caliphate, to draw government forces away from the battle to retake Raqqa; to that end, Israel is acting as the jihadis air force.

Baghdad has lived with suicide bombings for more than a decade. I don't think Nusra moving to a conventional terror campaign is going to change anything. What is a game-changer is if Israel substantially expands its Syrian target list. I can't imagine that they would risk directly jousting with Russia. Liberman's threat to destroy Syria's Russian-supplied air defenses seems outlandish. The problem is it can't be completely dismissed.

Any mojo Trump has left is in foreign policy, and it is bleeding out fast. (There was some good news yesterday when it was reported that Rex Tillerson will skip the NATO summit next month.) If W. can have a statue in Albania, why can't Trump have one in Rojava?

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Our Political Predicament in the West in a Nutshell

The New York Times is beginning to train its lens on the French presidential election. There have been back-to-back stories the last two days, both written by the sneering Adam Nossiter, the Gray Lady's Paris correspondent.

Yesterday's "As French Election Nears, Le Pen Targets Voters Her Party Once Repelled" was noteworthy in that it was not a blanket dismissal of Marine Le Pen; it made the point that the National Front has been connecting immigration to the loss of jobs since the party's founding in the early 1970s.

But it is in today's article, "Marine Le Pen Sharpens Attack on Emmanuel Macron in French Debate," that the whole political dysfunction of the Western world was laid bare.

There is support among the masses of the mainstream for a political solution to the many woes of Western Civilization, and it entails a swing to the left -- massive spending on public works and housing and education, a universal basic income. But the politicians, even those who represent hoary mainstream parties like Benoît Hamon, who advocate such policies find themselves at war with the the establishment of their own parties (look at Corbyn in Britain) and dismissed in the global prestige press as fantasists. Instead the people are served up one phony neoliberal after the next -- Obama, Trudeau, Clinton, Macron -- and expected to fall in line.

Given this choice the people are swinging to the right, what is being called anti-immigrant populism.

In Nossiter's story this morning all the focus is on the "knife fight" between Le Pen and Macron, leaving the following meager text for the left-wing candidates, Hamon and Jean-Luc Mélenchon:
Mr. Hamon, the Socialist candidate, has promised a guaranteed “universal income” and has spoken of cutting the already reduced French workweek, but his chances are thought to be lowered by the presence of Mr. Mélenchon, whose positions are largely similar.
Ms. Le Pen, who also faces accusations related to fictional jobs, accused Mr. Mélenchon of being a “Robespierre” when he called on voters to “reward the virtuous and punish those who don’t seem so.”
That's it. At least Fillon got four paragraphs on his legal difficulties.

The people want to go social-democrat left but the failing neoliberal center won't allow it. So we get right-wing populism. That's our predicament in the West in a nutshell,

Monday, March 20, 2017

Tillerson's Threat of a Preemptive Attack on North Korea Completely Hollow

To understand why Tillerson's much-reported statement that the United States is considering the use of preemptive military force against North Korea is nothing more than boilerplate you can read deep-state-denying Max Fisher's "The Risks of Pre-emptive Strikes Against North Korea":
Jeffrey Lewis, a North Korea expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, recalled a 1969 episode in which North Korea shot down a United States Navy plane, killing 31.
The Nixon administration, he said, never retaliated because it could find no options that were “tough enough to punish the North Koreans, but not so tough that the North Koreans will think it’s a general attack,” setting off an all-out war.
That has been the problem ever since, Mr. Lewis said: “News flash, these Venn diagrams do not overlap.”
As North Korea’s nuclear capability has grown, the distance between a single attack and all-out war has shortened. Paradoxically, the heightened fear of escalation also makes it likelier.
“If there were ever a conflict, Pyongyang would have nowhere else to go but up the escalation ladder after artillery except to its nuclear weapons,” Victor Cha, who served as the Asian affairs director on George W. Bush’s National Security Council, wrote in a September column in a South Korean newspaper.
That threat goes both ways, Mr. Cha wrote, because it “compels the United States to pre-emptively attack the nuclear forces at the first sign of conflict.”
A full war, entered deliberately or accidentally, would risk terrible costs.
Gen. Curtis M. Scaparrotti told a congressional committee in 2016, when he was commander of United States forces in South Korea, that war with North Korea “would be more akin to the Korean War and World War II — very complex, probably high casualty.”
Analysts doubt that the United States could reproduce the rapid military victory it achieved against Iraq in 2003. In the event of war, North Korean plans are thought to call for nuclear attacks against major ports and air bases in South Korea and Japan, halting any American invasion before it could fully begin.
In the meantime, nuclear and chemical strikes against major population centers would be intended to shock the world into capitulating. Missile defense would be of limited use against short-range rockets and of no use against North Korea’s hundreds of artillery pieces, many of which target Seoul, the South Korean capital.
Seoul has a population density twice that of New York City. Seoul is home to 10 million people. Even an impetuous blowhard like Trump would think twice before sacrificing 10 million people.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Trump: Champion of the KSA-USA Deep State

Because of the snow storms in the northeast Angel Merkel had to push back her White House visit until today (which was buried in a blizzard of headlines about Trump accusing the Brits of collaborating with the Obama administration to eavesdrop on him). This left an opening for Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to have lunch with Trump on Tuesday. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is calling the meeting “a historic turning point” in relations between the two countries.

This will be news to Trump’s lily-white rural base who don't care much for the Saudis. Recent polling shows that close to a super-majority of Republicans think Saudi Arabia is unfriendly at best. Not even 40% of Democrats feel the same way. Trump scored major points during the election when he demanded that the Clinton Foundation return money donated by repressive Gulf monarchies.

So Trump's canoodling with the golden child of al-Saud is a serious about-face, and I think yet more persuasive evidence that no serious de-centering of the U.S. deep state is in the offing. 

At the core of the U.S. deep state is its intimate yet contradictory relationship to the absolutist Gulf monarchies. The members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) -- Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates and Qatar -- pump a lot of oil and fund most of the Salafist fighters who the United States military is at war with in Eurasia and Africa. GCC member states buy a lot of U.S. arms and are well represented on K Street, not to mention Massachusetts Avenue. Gulf royals are big owners of U.S. corporate wealth; their children attend the finest Ivy League schools. They are more "American" than 99% of America, if being American is defined as owning the country. 

Saudi society is built on bondage, the bondage of foreign workers who are basically chattel to their Saudi sponsors (Medea Benjamin's latest book Kingdom of the Unjust, Behind the US-Saudi Connection is particularly good on the topic). Women are second-class citizens. There is no religious freedom. There are not even movie theaters.

Modern-day Saudi Arabia is synonymous with Saudi Aramco (officially the Saudi Arabian Oil Company, but formerly the California-Arabian Standard Oil Company, and then the Arabian-American Oil Company). From an ontological point of view, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is synonymous with U.S. Big Oil.

For all the talk about Crown Prince Mohammed comparing notes with Trump about starving Yemen, carving up Iraq, attacking Iran, establishing safe zones in Syria, I think the Saudi royal family is concerned more than anything with the IPO for Aramco. The Saudis are expecting a valuation of $2 trillion based on stated reserves of 266 billion barrels, but initial valuations are only one-fifth of that.

A lot is riding on a successful IPO sometime next year, foremost of which is the whole Vision 2030 neoliberal reboot of the Kingdom. For the Aramco valuation to come up closer to the Saudi target the Paris Agreement goal of "keeping global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels" has to be completely repudiated. I doubt that's possible, but Trump is doing his part.

Watch out Iran. Trump is returning the deep state to a much tighter embrace of its Saudi offspring.

Afghanistan: Theater of the Absurd

As Secretary of State from ExxonMobil Rex Tillerson threatens preemptive strikes on North Korea -- the U.S. is already committed to at least half-a-dozen war zones -- let's check in briefly this morning on Afghanistan, the original locus of the war on terror, a theater of the absurd of U.S. perpetual war.

Today there was a cross-border raid on a Pakistani military post in the Khyber tribal area. A faction of the Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility. Two soldiers from Pakistan were killed. The standard assumption is that Afghan intelligence supports the Pakistani Taliban, while Pakistan's powerful ISI literally directs the Afghan Taliban.

What caught my eye this morning was a story yesterday, "Afghan Officials Say at Least 50 Died in Attack on Hospital," by Rod Nordland and Jawad Sukhanyar. The attack last week on a military hospital in Kabul apparently was an inside job:
KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghan officials sharply increased the tally of dead in an attack last week on a military hospital, saying Wednesday that at least 50 people, including patients and staff members, were killed. 
In addition, 24 people have been arrested in connection with the March 8 attack, including Afghan generals, according to Lt. Gen. Helaludin Helal, the country’s deputy minister of defense for strategic and intelligence affairs. The arrests were for a variety of charges including negligence, incompetence and complicity, General Helal said at a contentious news conference.
Afghan military and police brass were slaughtered in their hospital beds by what was first reported as Islamic State attackers, but now has been reassessed as Taliban. There are statements of as many as two-hundred dead.

Nordland and Sukhanyar sum up the dire situation facing Afghanistan:
Afghans were also critical of the country’s chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah, for posing for selfies with soldiers in front of the hospital immediately after the attack.
The furor over the military hospital attack has underscored public disenchantment with the coalition government. It has struggled for more than a year to agree on a defense minister, and is two years overdue on holding national elections for Parliament.
The military situation has steadily worsened in the meantime, with historically high casualties on the government side; more and more districts that are dominated by insurgents; and growing numbers of Afghans who have been displaced by fighting.
The same day of Nordland's and Sukhanyar's dispatch, Mehdi Hasan of The Intercept published "TRUMP HAS CALLED THE AFGHAN WAR A 'MESS.' HIS GENERALS WANT TO ESCALATE IT":
Since 2001, the hawks have cited a dizzying array of measures, from nation-building to counterterrorism to the war on drugs, all of which have resulted in “mission failed” rather than “mission accomplished.”
Supporting a stable, democratic Afghan government? The U.S.-backed president and his “chief executive” are in the midst of a bitter power struggle; the vice president is a vicious warlord; parliamentary elections have been postponed; and corruption runs rampant — Afghanistan ranks 169 out of 176 countries in Transparency International’s latest corruption league table.
Protecting the population? Civilian casualties in Afghanistan in 2016 reached their highest level since the U.N. first began recording them in 2009. Last month, on Trump’s watch, U.S. airstrikes in Helmand province were reported to have caused the deaths of at least 18 civilians, mostly women and children.
Reducing drug trafficking? Afghanistan continues to supply around 90 percent of the world’s illicit opium, with production having risen by an astonishing 43 percent in 2016. Meanwhile, more than a million Afghans are now addicted to drugs.
Defeating the Taliban? The insurgents have been on the offensive over the past year or so and now hold more Afghan territory than in any year since 2001. As Politico reported, “The Afghan government controlled 57 percent of the country’s districts in November, … which is a 6 percent loss since August and a 15 percent drop compared with November 2015.”
Despite all of this Hasan concludes that Trump will likely approve another troop surge:
Yet I suspect the belligerent Trump, who promised to “bomb the shit out of” ISIS and who, since coming to office, has escalated U.S. military action in Yemen and deployed U.S. ground forces to Syria, will find it difficult to resist the siren calls of more troops, more bombs, more war.
Like Obama before him, Trump will escalate in Afghanistan. Like Obama before him, Trump will lose in Afghanistan. And the rest of us, shamefully, will continue to look the other way.
There is also a decent story by Zahra Nader on the hollowness of women's rights in Afghanistan.