A few thoughts for Thursday

I would be remiss if I did not express my sympathies to the victims of the terrorist bombing at the conclusion of Ariana Grande’s concert. Targeting civilians is bad enough, but targeting young adults and kids is vulgar in its cowardice and an insult to any deity the perpetrators say they worship.

As a needed antithesis, I applaud the many angels who helped the hurt, lost and confused after the attack. They revealed the best of humanity as a direct contrast to the worst shown by the terrorist. Peace be with those angels, survivors and the families of the victims and injured.

In other news of the week, I do want to give credit to the President for his visit to the Middle East to further relationships. And, he has been surprisingly well behaved, which is traceable to him sticking to script and not tweeting his thoughts. Yet, we do need to peel a few layers back and understand that he spoke to a group of autocratic Sunni leaders in Saudi Arabia about dealing with terrorism. It was an important step away from his negative Islamic rhetoric, but terrorists exist because of the corruption of autocratic leaders who cause disenfranchisement.

The other concern is to paint Shia led Iran as THE bad guy, when they just had an election while he was there and elected the moderate Incumbent Rouhani to continue as President. Iran has a median age of 35, so by trading with Iran and treading carefully, we can help break down barriers for the future.

Finally, just yesterday, a Republican candidate for Congress in Montana named Greg Gianforte apparently does not like tough questions. He has been arrested for assaulting Ben Jacobs, a reporter from The Guardian when Jacobs asked him about the CBO scoring of the repeal and replace AHCA bill that would knock 23 million people off insurance. In front of other reporters, Gianforte choked, shoved to the ground and began punching Jacobs.

Let me state the obvious. A leader does not beat up someone for asking questions you don’t like. I am positive entertainers like Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh will drum up their fans saying it is OK to beat up a liberal reporter. No, it is not. And, if a wannabe leader has to resort to force, it means you are worse than a name caller and certainly no leader irrespective of the outcome of the election.

Good news for NC voters

Amid the pervasive news out of Washington, the US Supreme Court refused to hear an appellate case that ruled the North Carolina Voter ID unconstitutional. This is excellent news for all voters, but in particular African-American, older and college student voters.

Within the law were highly discriminatory provisions designed with “surgical precision” per the US Court of Appeals in the 4th District to infringe upon African-Americans. It was designed to “kick Democrats butts,” so said a Buncombe County GOP leader on The Daily Show, a tape of which was shown during the court case. It should be noted the leader resigned the next day.

When I made reference to this law as “unconstitutional and Jim Crow-like,” to members of the NC General Assembly before it was passed, one of its authors strongly disagreed. My response was simple, “as a 56 year-old white man and former Republican, we both know what this law is about.”

It also attempted to solve a problem that is not significant. Voting fraud is not pervasive as some would let you believe. Numerous studies do not support the claim of more than very small numbers of voting problems. It should be noted that the attempt to discredit our Presidential election through claims of voter fraud was a key part of Russian meddling in October to create doubt.

And, a final key comment is important. The problem we face in our country is not enough people voting. To be such a significant democracy, we don’t have enough citizens participating in the process. We should be doing everything in our power to encourage not discourage voting. And, if voter fraud is such a concern, why did the NC General Assembly not include absentee voting in the law, where there is more fraud (still not a lot) than at the polling sites? The answer is who tends to vote in larger numbers as absentees.

Right now, my strong advice to the NC General Assembly is to not do what they are thinking about, trying to rework the law. The General Assembly has now had four laws passed in the last few years ruled unconstitutional. The solution is stop passing laws that are unconstitutional, not trying to see what you can sneak through.

Just a man with words

My favorite editorial offering each week is when conservative columnist David Brooks joins with liberal columnist Mark Shields on PBS Newsour. Each Friday, they say grace over the news events of the week.

Usually facilitated by Judy Woodruff, these two pundits offer context and civil discourse. It is obvious each has profound respect for the other, as even when they disagree, the rationale is supported by good observations.

It should not be a surprise that both are somewhat alarmed and bemused by our President. In fact, Brooks (along with fellow conservatives Michael Gerson, George Will and Charles Krauthammer) has been a recurring critic of the man who became our President.

Earlier in the year, Brooks described the White House under our new President as “equal parts incompetence and chaos.” This was just following the horribly crafted, vetted, communicated and executed travel ban that caused so much negative reaction.

Recently, after yet another week of bizarre statement and actions that the President’s people had to scurry to defend, he made another insulting reference to the President as being “just a man with words.” Taken in the context of the piece, the President is not a man of conviction and will say just about anything, often not with a lot of thought.

And, that is a sad state of affairs. George Will spoke of the unforced errors when the President just says or tweets things. Will said he has made the world more dangerous and hopes that when the 3 am calm comes with a real problem, they just let the President sleep and wake up Genetal Mattis.

Just a man with words. Unfortunately, many of them are not truthful or well thought out.

 

A quick tally

While I am all for giving our new President a chance, early indications are not very promising. Hopefully, he will learn from these lessons. If not, we will see more of his advisors apologizing for their boss, explaining he did not mean that or just offering their different opinion.

A quick tally will reveal the following record:

– He rolled out a travel ban without vetting it with Congress or leaders of departments who would oversee it. Not only was it ruled unconstitutional, it revealed chaos and incompetence, neither good traits.
– He has picked fights with Mexico, Iran, Australia, Germany, China, Sweden, France and the EU. Many of these are unforced errors.
– He has foolishly picked fights with the media and his intelligence departments.
– He has decided to invent problems with his tweets and lost precious time with his staff chasing their own tail. These are almost entirely unforced errors.
– He had to fire (or accept the resignation of) a key advisor in Michael Flynn and watch one of his cabinet nominees remove himself from consideration due to a few problematic actions that should have been discovered beforehand.

I do like a few of the cabinet members (McMaster, Mattis and Kelly, Tillerson), while a couple are poor choices (Sessions, Pruitt, DeVos, Perry)  and Bannon is just a god-awful pick in my opinion. It should be noted that Pence, Mattis, Tillerson, and Kelly each have tried to assuage world leaders that their boss really did not mean what he said and have actually openly disagreed with his pre- and post-election rhetoric.

He has been busy with executive orders that don’t do a whole lot, other than let him beat on his chest. I don’t mind reviewing regulations, which we should do routinely, but arbitrary guidelines are more symbolic. And, I like that he has met with business leaders about jobs, but his good actions are being dwarfed by these other things, not to mention his Russia problem, which may be his Waterloo.

So, my quick tally of what has transpired gives me pause. I feel in five short weeks, the world is a less safe place because of this President. And, that is not a comfortable feeling, I am hopeful the saner heads will prevail on his decision-making and tempernent.

Just a thought

Where do you get your information? I ask this because our President seems to get his information from less than reliable sources and then criticizes more legitimate sources for disagreeing with him.

Here are a few questions to ask of your sources:

– if a source of information screams at his audience while his head is turning a very scary shade of red, he might not be a good source of information.
– if a source of information has such a raspy voice from shouting at the wind and name calls everyone who he deems appropriate, then he might not be a good source of information.
– if you get your information from Facebook or Twitter, you need to look carefully at sources cited and use the Twitter feed for headlines only to cause you to dig further on more legitimate sources.
– if you are getting your information from a source that must advertise they are fair and balanced to make up for their bias and inconsistent veracity, then you might want to consider another source for validation.
– if you are getting your information from the current President, stop because he is an unreliable source and has been most of his life.

I encourage you to check multiple sources. I am often asked where I get my information. Several places – PBS Newshour, BBC World News America, NPR, Reuters, and The Guardian. I read articles from my browser feed which come from The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New York Times, Newsweek, Time, etc. And, my local paper, The Charlotte Observee is a good source for local and state news.

A good sign a news source is reputable is they print errata or correct portions of stories that prove to be inaccurate. Admitting mistakes is a sign of intelligence.

I would also ask people who say inane things about their sources. Our President cites a couple of sources that are known for making things up or creating conspiracies. He even put one on the White House. And, he has actually appeared on one where the host is on record that the Sandy Hook massacre was staged, as an example of his lack of veracity.

Before someone claims fake news, he needs to make sure the things he is saying are legitimate whether it is about his electoral college landslide, voter fraud or unemployment or crime rates.

Homeland Security approaches John Oliver’s Wall Cost Estimate

In previous posts, I have commented on the news analysis used in John Oliver’s comedy show called “Last Week Tonight.” Amid the comedy, there are detailed news stories about pay-day lending, supplemental drugs, court system abuse of low-income offenders, voting fraud, etc. During interviews, he has been recognized by at least two legitimate news sources, CBS News and PBS Newshour, for his team’s veracity.

Last year, well before the election, Oliver had a news/ comedy piece on our then campaigner, Donald Trump, about Trump’s estimates of his escalating price tag on his infamous wall. In various clips, Trump said $2 Billion, then he would increase it to $4 Billion then to $7 or $8 Billion, etc. I think Trump topped out around $12 Billion.

Oliver asked a construction engineer to come up with an estimate. Based on broad assumptions (height, materials, etc.), the engineer estimated $25 to $30 Billion. The engineer also added you have to factor in the cost of ongoing maintenance, which is not inconsequential.

Yesterday, Reuters published a story where Homeland Security estimates the cost of the wall. Here are the two lead paragraphs from Reuters:

“President Donald Trump’s ‘wall’ along the U.S.-Mexico border would be a series of fences and walls that would cost as much as $21.6 billion, and take more than three years to construct, based on a U.S. Department of Homeland Security internal report seen by Reuters on Thursday.

The report’s estimated price-tag is much higher than a $12-billion figure cited by Trump in his campaign and estimates as high as $15 billion from Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.”

There are two key takeaways here. Our now President likes to toss figures and data around like they are candy and offers them up without back-up. He just presumes people will take him at his word. In this case, a man who is a real-estate developer significantly underestimated the cost of building something.

The other takeaway is Oliver’s team should be commended for the underlying journalism in his comedy show. I have written before his team has far more credibility than some actual news sources who do not want to take the time to get it right or are so biased they take a politician at his word. So, the next time our President makes fun of Oliver, my suggestion would be to look more closely at Oliver’s position as he likely did more homework.

 

A big culprit in the housing crisis is punished

After living through the housing crisis and reading and watching news, books and movies, I read with interest that one of the biggest culprits has been punished – the rating agency Moody’s. In my view and the view of others, Moody’s failed in its job to forewarn investors of the true risks of packaged together mortgage loans. They fell into a “pay to play” modus operandi.

What is pay to play? Per an article in Reuters, “Moody’s ratings were ‘directly influenced by the demands of the powerful investment banking clients who issued the securities and paid Moody’s to rate them,’ Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen said in a statement on Friday.” This would be akin to you paying off the inspector of the house you just built and want to sell. The buyer would not know the inspector was gaming the system against him or her.

So, individual investors, pension funds, 401(k) funds, states, and countries all fell prey to this pay to play ratings approach. Iceland had to declare bankruptcy, e.g. As a result of their actions, Moody’s was fined $864 million which will be distributed to twenty-one states and the federal government, who were part of the lawsuit.

We should not lose sight of an industry who became enamored with riskier investments and did not ask enough questions. Executives did not fully understand the risk they were taking on and it brought them down, along with the housing market, stock market and economy. An excellent movie to watch is called “The Big Short,” based on Michael Lewis’ book, which takes a complex topic and explains it with the dialogue, but also with clever sidebars which use laymen’s terms to define what things mean.

In essence, mortgage loans were given out to anyone who could fog a mirror, then these lesser risks were packaged together to spread risk and sold to investors. The problem is packaging bad risks does not make the risk less, it makes it concentrated bad risk. The law of large numbers to mitigate risk is only effective if good risks are mixed with some bad risks. Moody’s stamped these packaged loan investments with much higher ratings than they deserved. And, investors who trusted Moody’s and the seller bought them in good faith.

We rely on Moody’s and other rating agencies to take their job with seriousness of purpose and ethics. If they cannot shoot straight with us, they will let us down. And, that is precisely what they did. In my view, that fine may not be enough for the damage they helped perpetuate.