What a year it’s been. President Donald Trump will give his first State of the Union address on Tuesday, and despite the highly divided nature of our country at the moment perhaps one point of unity is that we can all agree that this has been a truly extraordinary in American politics.
By most policy metrics, President Trump’s first year in office has been an enormous success. The economy is roaring forward on all engines, with a booming stock market, two-decade low unemployment, and high consumer optimism.
On the military front, ISIS has been essentially completely wiped out in Iraq and Syria after years of their contagion seemingly difficult to stop.
In terms of other policies, America has seen the appointment of a slew of constitutionalist judges, the passage of a pro-growth tax reform package, regulatory reduction and streamlining, enforcement of our trade laws, and the re-assertion of a strong American foreign policy in the world.
Yet despite the tangible achievements in terms of governance, it seems that our discourse has become as corrupted and polarized as it has ever been. The hyper-partisan bickering that characterized the 2016 campaign and the immediate few months afterwards seems to be continuing just as fiercely.
We will be reminded of that again at Trump’s State of the Union - just as over 70 Democratic members of Congress boycotted Trump’s Inauguration last year, now many are also boycotting his State of the Union.
The Democratic response is expected to be given by Representative Maxine Waters (D-CA), one of Trump’s fiercest critics and who has repeatedly called for his impeachment over the past year. It is unlikely the remarks will bring our country together in any way.
It is worth remembering that this is not how our politics usually are. Normally in the immediate aftermath of a Presidential election the public interest fades to a large degree and the new set of policymakers in D.C. can get down to the law’s toilsome sausage-making process.
However this year it seems citizens are as engaged as ever, with Trump having become a ubiquitous node around which much of our culture itself is centered around. Nearly everything nowadays is seen as having some connection to Trump, leading to even the most devout or opposed to begin to feel a sense of fatigue.
Even if our public discourse seems as shattered as ever, it should be comforting at least that on the material fronts our country is at a time of extraordinary prosperity and strength.
Furthermore, it is clear that many of the fears that Trump’s fiercest opponents derided him for during the 2016 election have not come to pass. Trump has not taken authoritarian power, has not shattered our economy, has not caved in to Russia, and has not brought us into a devastating war.
On the contrary, the Trump Administration has done, by any objective measure, incredible good for our prosperity and security. The fact that the Dow is soaring past 26,000 and unemployment at a mere 4.1% say enough on their own.
It is unlikely Trump’s State of the Union on Tuesday will be able to appease his most ruthless opponents who have realized it is either good politics or good business to remain staunchly opposed to him.
Nonetheless, perhaps for some out there it will be a chance to listen to our President and to reflect on the real progress that has been made this past year for Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs.
The Office of the President deserves respect, whether it is Trump, Obama, Bush, Clinton, or otherwise. On Tuesday millions of Americans will be listening to our elected leader talk about the path our country has walked this past year and his vision going forward. No matter what, it is at least worth a listen.
Last Friday at midnight, the bank ran dry for the United States government.
It was not because of economic trends or foreign manipulation, but because of the current dysfunction characterizing Washington D.C.
By any objective analysis of the facts, it is clear that Congressional Democrats are the cause of the mess this time around. Congressional Democrats have been demanding a full DACA bill immediately despite the program still lasting until March and giving them extensive time to negotiate and reach a deal with Republicans.
Yet Congressional Democrats rejected Congressional Republicans’ multiple attempts at a deal, including a 30-day temporary stop-gap measure that would have also provided funding for state child insurance programs, also known as “CHIP,” for an additional six years. The CHIP program expires in just weeks and could leave over 1.7 million children without healthcare.
Despite the stop-gap bill passing the House, it requires 60 votes in the Senate due to Senate rules. With Republicans only having a 51-seat majority in the Senate, Senate Democrats blocked the stop-gap measure that resulted in the shutdown we saw Friday.
This is the second time this decade that our government has shutdown. Last time, in October 2013, was when Congressional Republicans attempted to force a defunding of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
The 2013 standoff eventually ended in defeat for Republicans, with a funding being passed after two weeks that gave Republicans very little if anything at all.
During that shutdown House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi decried the GOP as “legislative arsonists” for shutting down the government over seeking a policy objective passed.
Senator Chuck Schumer, now Senate Minority Leader and the one who essentially led this year’s shutdown, said in 2013 “The basic line is: No matter how strongly one feels about an issue, you shouldn’t hold millions of people hostage. That’s what the other side is doing. That’s wrong and we can’t give in to that.”
It is ironic that now Congressional Democrats are doing exactly what they viciously criticized the GOP for doing in 2013, namely forcing a government shutdown for a policy priority they want passed outside of regular legislative proceedings.
The actual economic and social effects of a government shutdown are complex. For most Americans, they see little beyond the closure of some facilities and being unable to reach certain government services.
The core of the federal government, termed “essential,” remains open, including, unlike last time, national parks.
One of the most iconic images of the 2013 government shutdown was when a group of veterans who had traveled from across the nation to D.C. were refused entrance to the World War II memorial due to the shutdown. In contrast, during this saga Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke was found to be giving tours of the memorial himself to tourists on the morning after the shutdown.
Nonetheless, many federal workers will be without work or pay for as long as the shutdown lasts. Many federal employees are left to mill about D.C., unable to take substantive vacations because they will be called back the next day when the shutdown ends.
Thankfully, D.C. has many “government shutdown” happy hour specials that keep business booming and the city lively during this time.
On a more serious note, even though Congress has always passed a bill afterwards authorizing back pay for federal employees that have been furloughed, nonetheless for those who live paycheck-to-paycheck the shutdown may cause significant cash flow problems and financial stress.
Furthermore, the back pay is in fact a cost passed onto the American taxpayer as they will be paying employees for essentially not having done work during that time. In 2013 this tab came to about $2 billion for the over 850,000 workers furloughed.
Of special disgrace as well is that our military will not be receiving any pay either.
During the 2013 shutdown Congress passed a special bill right before the shutdown that provided the military with pay during the shutdown. However this year no such bill has been passed.
Government shutdowns are a recent incarnation in our hyperpolarized time. They did not happen during the 2000’s, happened during a particularly concentrated time in the 1990’s, and in the 1980’s only lasted for days if not just hours rather than now in weeks.
This time around it is clearly Congressional Democrats who have forced this shutdown despite there still being months to negotiate DACA, a temporary funding bill on the table that supports children’s health, and the deep cost to our military due to the not being paid.
It remains worth seeing whether the American people will take note of the price they are paying and the damage that those who promote a shutdown are causing.
This past week has seen South Korea and North Korea engage in friendly overtures not seen in recent history, amid discussions over North Korea’s possible participation in the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea.
While that may seem a small or routine issue, it is nonetheless the first official dialogue the two countries have engaged in for over two years and comes amid what has been an extremely tense past few months with North Korea’s ballistic missile testing.
It even raises for a brief moment the long-pondered yet seemingly impossible prospect of a new status quo on the Korean peninsula, which has seen little movement or progress of any meaningful sort since the close of the Korean War’s open hostilities in 1953.
If history is any guide, it is unlikely anything will change. Every so often over the decades North Korea will engage in dialogue with South Korea or even America, but it is almost always with a material motive fundamentally in mind. These objectives range from gaining legitimacy internationally, seeking a reduction of sanctions, or food aid for its people as during the 1990’s horrific famine that came about as a result of state mismanagement.
The situation on the Korean peninsula has floated in and out of the news cycle these past few months amid the ballistic tests but also Tweets and “rocket man” UN speeches. Nonetheless, it remains a serious dilemma because there are no easy solutions or even meaningfully divergent options.
It’s almost like our Cold War with the Soviet Union, albeit of course on a much smaller scale. With the Soviet Union there was little we could do directly against them, as the principle of mutually assured destruction prevented overt action. Instead, proxy conflicts were waged in third party nations across the world.
Of course North Korea doesn’t have remotely the international tentacles or might the Soviet Union did, but nonetheless it is similar in that there is little direct action that can be done on the peninsula and which is why the situation has remained deadlocked for almost 70 years.
North Korea remains a highly militarized society with its artillery batteries all aimed at Seoul. Military analysts say that has been their biggest deterrent, as the civilian casualties from such an attack would be quick and horrifying.
Now that North Korea has increasingly developed its nuclear capabilities the worry is even greater, especially as their missiles slowly extend in range to even begin to touch the United States.
As President Trump has said, America can “totally destroy” North Korea, Of course, that is without question. North Korea remains an impoverished and small state where all activity is directed to supporting its overly large military. Nonetheless given their focus on military deterrence, the costs could be heavy, either for South Korea, Japan, or even America.
The only hoped-for solutions might be similar to how many other totalitarian regimes in the past half-century have fallen, which is through internal regime change. The nations of the Eastern bloc seemed like impenetrable Orwellian fortresses for decades until they seemingly collapsed from the wind overnight.
North Korea is however different than Warsaw Pact Communist states or the Soviet Union, as it has taken its totalitarian control to even greater extremes that prevent even the slightest air of dissent from gaining a critical mass to threaten to the regime.
Even those in the regime’s power structure are constantly kept on watch, recycled, or terminated by a tyranny that has seemingly stamped out every ounce of humanity in the name of keeping control.
President Trump has indicated he is continuing to try to seek solutions for the situation on the Korean peninsula and the South Korea-North Korea talks continue for the moment.
As always we can hope that some progress may be made in freeing the North Korean people. The past has shown that will be a tough task indeed, yet it is worth praying that the tide of history towards human freedom can even find cracks in the iron shell of North Korea.
On a nearly daily basis we hear about the newest Bitcoin millionaire or how another company has forgone a traditional debt or equity offering to instead raise money through an “ICO,” or initial coin offering.
As the retail public begins to become aware of the previously esoteric cryptocurrency market, I can’t help but think of how this compares to past asset rushes in American history as well as what it reflects on us at the moment.
The cryptocurrrency market is now in the hundreds of billions of dollars, with new coins being created on a near monthly basis. Almost each of these currencies is facing volatility that is simply unheard of for almost any asset.
Furthermore, with each increasingly harsh press release and statement warning about cryptocurrencies, it looks like soon enough the Securities and Exchange Commission itself may be finally edging close to reigning in the market, though to what degree remains unknown.
Cryptocurrency is the ultimate sleek asset for our modern technology boom. It is almost perfectly designed for our times – it combines some of the most modern developments in Internet services, software, and data science. It undoubtedly will have some potential use in the future, even if not the “currency ending” millennialism talk some of its evangelists tout.
However the way the public has begun pouring into it almost seems like a modern version of the gold rushes to the American West in the 1800’s. During that time, hundreds of thousands of Americans packed up their belongings and left their homes in search of fabled riches in the mines and rivers of California and other territories.
Many rushed in with little understanding of how to find gold, how much there might be, and the dangers involved in the blasting and mines. Many ended up with little to show for their efforts, while it was in fact those merchants who set up shop for services, housing, and supplies for the miners who in fact extracted the greatest profits.
The cryptocurrency craze today is indeed our modern gold rush. Too many are now rushing into cryptocurrencies without the slightest idea of the actual mechanics of the system.
We even hear stories of people mortgaging their houses to buy cryptocurrency, essentially risking everything in search of easy riches just like those who followed the gold rush to the frontier back centuries ago.
Just like with the gold rush of the 1800’s, some of those who are in fact profiting the most from the cryptocurrency are the middlemen. Those who are issuing the ICOs are raising untold sums of money with little liability. Cryptocurrency exchanges carve out extensive fees that make broker transaction costs for securities look nominal. Many evangelists tread the edge of legality, with some even outright engaging in pumping and dumping, taking advantage of this wild west environment.
Like with the gold rush, eventually this craze will end. Cryptocurrency won’t “run out” per say, as one aspect of cryptocurrency is that there are essentially an infinite number of potential cryptocurrencies. However undoubtedly regulators will someday soon tighten the market, dramatically crunch the volatility, and dissipate much of the investment demand currently fueling the price swings and consequent market interest in a vicious cycle.
How soon cryptocurrency becomes “boring” is uncertain. In the meantime, by looking at this current show in this online casino we learn a lot about the strange ways history repeats itself and about how human nature’s desire for easy riches and quick profits remains despite the past’s endless warnings.
Cryptocurrency is exciting. It’s flashy. It excites us with dreams of easy wealth, just like the thrill when we buy a Mega Millions or Powerball ticket. However at least the profits from the lottery system go to a beneficial cause, such as education.
Cryptocurrency has had and will continue to have its winners, but in many cases the real flow of money is going to those making a business off of the craze and hype. Caution, as always, is a prudent quality.
Re-prints of some of my columns. NOTE: I ran a national weekly column from 2017 to 2018 printed/distributed by newspapers in dozens of states across the country. The 2017-2018 blogs in this section are re-prints of the national column.