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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}


An Open Letter Of Thanks To Trump Voters From The Billionaires

Dear Joe,

Sorry, if your name isn’t actually Joe, Joe. But that’s what we call anyone who isn’t in the top 1 percent. “Joe the Plumber” liked it so much that he still lets us call him that, even though his first name is Samuel. “Samuel the Plumber” sounds like a character from kids’ book about a precocious yet handy mouse. Joe got that. He’s a good Joe and so are you, Joe.

Anyway, we just wanted to say a quick thanks for voting for Donald Trump without paying nearly any attention to what his actual policies would be. It’s the least we can do, given that you’ve already done so much for us.

Whether we enjoy restoring natural coal-flavoring to river water or seeing the cabinet stocked with our fellow billionaires and buddies from Goldman Sachs, it’s the little things — like being allowed to destroy the climate so we can be a tiny bit richer — that we appreciate so very much.

We get it, Trump voters. It’s not easy to be a minority, as our housekeepers might insist if we let them learn English. But you approximately 70,000 voters in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan deserve a big thanks and a tiny tax break that will ultimately make sure you never get to retire.

Well played, as our caddies say, each and every hole.

Now we have to make a confession, even though confession is a tool we generally use to keep the powerless indebted to us: We didn’t think you’d actually do it.

We knew the problem with Romney was that he was too poor, too nice to Mexicans and actually paid some taxes? Mitt got crap for his binders full of women, so we never imagined that the solution was nominate a beauty pageant owner known for “wandering” in on Miss Teen USA contestants while they were changing.

As our new Secretary of Energy Rick Perry would say, “Oops.”

We spent decades and hundreds of millions of dollars spreading the idea that rich people are geniuses who if left unmolested would make you a working-class millionaire or at least protect you from the government, which only cares about helping “them.” But we thought we needed a smiling Reagan or a cuddle-bug Rubio who didn’t inherit his life or brag about grabbing women in their baby spot to pull it off.

You may know that Trump never quite fit in with us billionaires. He always stood out like a sore thumb, which is the name of the toner he uses to get that unusual skin color. But we didn’t think that his penchant for stiffing contractors and workers, and trading in a wife each decade, as if there were some sort of lease, would make him more relatable to you.

We honestly thought that Trump’s dependence on government bailouts, and his refusal to pay taxes or veterans’ charities, would end up costing us the House. Little did we know that if we put a rich guy at a board-room-table TV set, and let him fire Flavor Flav, he would look like a genius, at least compared to Mike Pence.

Now look what we have: a delicious tax break for us, dressed up as a health care reform plan. We billionaires in the richest/best 400 families get a $7 million a year tax break. You? You get a chance to pay more for worse health insurance!

We admire your willingness to sacrifice so that our service animals never have to worry about flying anything but private.

Trump and the GOP figured out that the reason you hate the individual mandate is that the tax penalty goes to the government and too few people pay it. So very soon 30 million Americans will be able to pay a mandate penalty directly to the insurance companies (which will make us richer, too).

And that’s not all!

AARP estimates that a 64-year-old who makes $15,000 a year could see an $8,400 hike in premiums, before you add in copays. That and a chance to deport immigrants who want to pay taxes, and ban Muslims who want to flee ISIS,  is what your generation gets for backing Trump by a nine percent margin!

Your generosity toward us, the billionaires who need it least, will not be forgotten. In fact, we’re going to put a fair share of this tax break and the other tax breaks Trump is planning for us right back into the system. We’re going to invest in elections in all 50 states until we’ve made it so hard to vote that only seniors — the good kind with IDs — who have all day to wait in line (and people with limo drivers to hold their place) can do it.

Then as we’re gutting Medicaid and later Medicare, we’re going to show our appreciation by not laying a finger on Social Security, until Trump’s second term or late in his first — depending how this Russia stuff pans out.

You believed in Trump, despite his willingness to lie about his crowd size, his anatomy, and anything else that could possibly be considered phallic. So now we know that anything is possible.

You thought Mexico was going to pay for the wall? Uh, no.

You thought Trump would punish China? Instead he’s opening the door for it to dominate the Western hemisphere.

You thought he cared about you? Well, he could! Just pay Mar-A-Lago’s $200,000 annual membership fee.

So thanks again, Joe. If there’s ever anything we billionaires can do for you, please don’t hesitate to let Donald Trump know about it. Surely, he’ll get to it after he releases his tax returns and finishes suing the women who accused him of sexual assault.


The Real Billionaires

IMAGE: President Donald Trump (L) watches as Vice President Mike Pence (R) swears in Steve Mnuchin as Treasury Secretary in the Oval Office, February 13, 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas


GOP Plans To Destroy Our Safety Net Will Also Kill Democracy

Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.

Newt Gingrich openly bragged recently at the Heritage Foundation that the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress were going to “break out of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt model.”  That “model,” of course, created what we today refer to as “the middle class.”

Ever since the election of Ronald Reagan, Republicans have been working overtime to kneecap institutions that support the American middle class. And, as any working-class family can tell you, the GOP has had some substantial successes, particularly in shifting both income and political power away from voters and towards billionaires and transnational corporations.

In July of last year, discussing SCOTUS’s 5/4 conservative vote on Citizens United, President Jimmy Carter told me: “It violates the essence of what made America a great country in its political system.  Now it’s just an oligarchy with unlimited political bribery…”  He added: “[W]e’ve just seen a complete subversion of our political system as a payoff to major contributors…”

As Princeton researchers Gilens and Page demonstrated in an exhaustive analysis of the difference between what most Americans want their politicians to do legislatively, versus what American politicians actually do, it’s pretty clear that President Carter was right.

They found that while the legislative priorities of the top 10% of Americans are consistently made into law, things the bottom 90% want are ignored.  In other words, today in America, democracy only “works” for the top 10% of Americans.

For thousands of years, economists and economic observers from Aristotle to Adam Smith to Thomas Picketty have told us that a “middle class” is not a normal by-product of raw, unregulated capitalism – what right-wing ideologues call “the free market.”

Instead, unregulated markets – particularly markets not regulated by significant taxation on predatory incomes – invariably lead to the opposite of a healthy middle class: they produce extremes of inequality, which are as dangerous to democracy as cancer is to a living being.

With so-called “unregulated free markets,” the rich become super-rich, while grinding poverty spreads among working people like a heroin epidemic.  This further polarizes the nation, both economically and politically, which, perversely, further cements the power of the oligarchs.

While there’s a clear moral dimension to this – pointed out by Adam Smith in his classic Theory of Moral Sentiments – there’s also a vital political dimension.

Smith noted, in 1759, that, “All constitutions of government are valued only in proportion as they tend to promote the happiness of those who live under them. This is their sole use and end.”

Jefferson was acutely aware of this: the Declaration of Independence was the first founding document of any nation in the history of the world that explicitly declared “happiness” as a “right” that should be protected and promoted by government.

That was not at all, however, a consideration for the architects of supply-side Reaganomics, although they appropriated JFK’s “rising tide lifts all boats” metaphor to sell their hustle to (boatless) working people.

Far more troubling (and well-known to both Smith and virtually all of our nation’s Founders), however, was Aristotle’s observation that when a nation pursues economic/political activities that destroy its middle class, it will inevitably devolve either into mob rule or oligarchy.  As he noted in The Politics:

“Now in all states there are three elements: one class is very rich, another very poor, and a third in a mean. … But a [government] ought to be composed, as far as possible, of equals and similars; and these are generally the middle classes. …

“Thus it is manifest that the best political community is formed by citizens of the middle class, and that those states are likely to be well-administered in which the middle class is large, and stronger if possible than both the other classes, or at any rate than either singly; for the addition of the middle class turns the scale, and prevents either of the extremes from being dominant.”

This is how America was for the Boomer generation: a 30 year old in the 1970s had a 90 percent chance of having or attaining a higher standard of living than his or her parents.  But, since the 1980s introduction of Reaganomics, there’s been more than a 70 percent drop in “social mobility” – the ability to move from one economic station of life into a better one.

So, if our democratic republic is to return to democracy and what’s left of our middle class is to survive (or even grow), how do we do that?

History shows that the two primary regulators within a capitalist system that provide for the emergence of a middle class are progressive taxation and a healthy social safety net.

As Jefferson noted in a 1785 letter to Madison, “Another means of silently lessening the inequality of property is to exempt all from taxation below a certain point, and to tax the higher portions of property in geometrical progression as they rise.”

Similarly, Thomas Paine, proposing in Agrarian Justice (1797) what we today call Social Security, said that a democracy can only survive when its people “[S]ee before them the certainty of escaping the miseries that under other governments accompany old age…” Such a strong social safety net, Paine argued, “will have an advocate and an ally in the heart of all nations.”

Tragically, Republicans are today planning to destroy both our nation’s progressive taxation system and our social safety net, in obsequious service to their billionaire paymasters.

Flipping Jefferson and FDR on their heads, Republicans are proposing multi-million-dollar tax breaks for the rich, with a few-hundred-dollars bone tossed in for working people.

Meanwhile, Republicans are already hard at work.

As Ian Milhiser notes, “Republicans in the House hope to cut Social Security benefits by 20–50 percent. Speaker Paul Ryan’s plan to voucherize Medicare would drive up out-of-pocket costs for seniors by about 40 percent. Then he’d cut Medicaid by between a third and a half.”

If Newt, Ryan, et al succeed in destroying FDR’s legacy programs, not only will the bottom 90 percent of Americans suffer, but what little democracy we have left in this republic will evaporate, and history suggests it will probably be replaced by a violent, kleptocratic oligarchy.

Hang on tight; the ride could get rough…

Thom Hartmann is an author and nationally syndicated daily talk show host. His newest book is “The Crash of 2016: The Plot to Destroy America — and What We Can Do to Stop It.

IMAGE: Donald Trump meets with Speaker of the House Paul Ryan on Capitol Hill. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Congressional Budget Office: Economy Grows, But So Does Deficit, Thanks To Tax Breaks

By Lisa Mascaro, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — The U.S. economy is on track to expand “solidly” this year, but the federal deficit is creeping up again, thanks in large part to a package of tax breaks enacted by Congress last year, officials said Tuesday.

Rising consumer demand is expected to boost the economy this year and next, potentially encouraging growth in both wages and employment, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said. The unemployment rate is expected to dip to 4.5 percent by year’s end.

“CBO anticipates that the economy will expand solidly this year and next,” according to the report. “Increases in demand for goods and services are expected to reduce the quantity of underused labor and capital, or ‘slack,’ in the economy — thereby encouraging greater participation in the labor force by reducing the unemployment rate and pushing up compensation.”

The official budget scorekeeper released the annual budget and economic summary one week ahead of schedule to give lawmakers a head start in drafting federal budgets. A full report is due next week.

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) wants to launch the budget process early this year. As the architect of the GOP’s previous austerity plans, Ryan says he wants to give voters a clear alternative to Democrats heading into the 2016 election.

While the economic outlook is gradually improving, deficits — which had been declining since the Great Recession — will rise again in 2016 to $544 billion, CBO said.

That’s a $105 billion increase over last year, and $130 billion higher than what had been forecast in August.

“Much of that amount stems from the extension of tax provisions,” the report said.

Overall, revenues are expected to rise by 4 percent, but spending is increasing by 6 percent in 2016, leading to the imbalance.

The rising deficit, to 2.9 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product, is the first jump in years and comes after deficits had been falling under President Barack Obama from a peak of 9.8 percent in 2009, the report said.

Increasing deficits will pile on to the nation’s already sizable $18 trillion debt load, leading to higher interest costs in the years to come. CBO said interest payments will double over the decade.

Congress and the White House are about to launch the annual budget process, producing blueprints that often serve more as inspirational documents outlining party priorities than actual fiscal plans.

Already, spending levels for this fiscal year and next are set under a budget accord reached between Congress and the administration last year.

As part of last year’s budget deal, Congress also extended or made permanent dozens of tax breaks for individuals and corporations — including those for business expenses and the working poor, as well as others for specialty industries like racetracks. It was a rare bipartisan compromise.

Congress has until Sept. 30 to approve legislation to fund the government at the already-approved spending levels or risk a shutdown.

©2016 Tribune Co. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) holds a weekly news conference at the U.S. Capitol in Washington January 7, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Frac Sand Industry Feels The Effects Of Low Oil Prices, Less Drilling

By David Shaffer, Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (TNS)

MINNEAPOLIS — Low oil prices and reduced drilling in shale regions like North Dakota are hurting the once fast-growing frac sand industry, slashing demand and forcing price cuts that have led some players to reduce jobs.

U.S. sand mines, including 63 in Wisconsin and six in Minnesota, are projected to ship significantly less sand to oil drillers in 2015, compared with last year, when companies like Fairmount Santrol, U.S. Silica, and Superior Silica Sands set production records, industry officials say.

“This whole ripple effect has taken hold and it is going to continue,” Richard Shearer, CEO of Superior Silica Sands, a Texas-based company that operates sand mines in Wisconsin, said in an interview with the Star Tribune. “There are peak cycles and trough cycles, and we have hit a trough.”

The nation’s $4.2 billion industrial sand industry is increasingly tethered to the oil and gas sector, which now buys about 72 percent of the output. Sand production more than doubled in five years, and Wisconsin is the leading producer. Minnesota is fourth, behind Illinois and Texas, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Sand is used in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a process that injects sand, water, and chemicals into shale to free oil and gas. As crude oil prices have dropped — by nearly 50 percent since June — drillers have idled rigs, reducing demand for sand and putting pressure on its price, industry officials say.

The number of U.S. rigs drilling for oil and gas fell last week for the 17th straight week to 1,028, which is about half the number operating in November 2011, according to oil field service company Baker Hughes. North Dakota’s rig count slipped to 90 from a high of 203 in June 2012.

To make things worse for the sand industry, many newly drilled wells are not being completed right away. Instead, some drillers have delayed fracking, which can cost more than three million dollars per well, hoping that oil prices recover. North Dakota has 850 uncompleted wells.

Shearer said some experts project that sand shipments could be down 30 percent to 40 percent this year. U.S. Silica Holdings, the nation’s largest frac sand producer whose operations include a mine in Sparta, Wisconsin, recently told Jefferies Equities Research that it expects a 15 percent drop in its sand demand in 2015.

“It is a softer market, and there is pricing pressure,” said Scott Sustacek, CEO of North Mankato-based Jordan Sands, which started operations in December, just as the sand business began to weaken.

Sustacek said the company’s mine, named after the Jordan sandstone formation, is still ramping up production, although prices have dropped “in the 25 percent range” from the peak in 2014.

He said that the company has 25 employees and that it sells much of its sand in Texas, largely because it’s an easier market to reach via Union Pacific, the railroad serving the mine.

Neither the Superior nor the Jordan mines have cut workers, their CEOs said, but others in the industry have reduced payrolls, including 55 layoffs announced last month at a Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, sand trucking firm.

At Fairmount Santrol, which has sand mines in western Wisconsin and in Shakopee, CEO Jenniffer Deckard told analysts in late March that the company idled its Readfield, Wisconsin, facility and that it cut the company’s 1,229-employee workforce by five percent. That’s about 60 jobs, but the Ohio-based company wouldn’t give more details, and it released a statement that left unclear whether layoffs are over.

“Fairmount Santrol is undertaking organizational restructuring intended to better align its cost structure with weakening market conditions,” said spokeswoman Kristin Lewis in an email.

Most sand is sold under long-term contracts. “Some of the contracts come up for renegotiation in May, and that will tell us what’s happening,” said Dave Armstrong, executive director of Industrial Development Authority in Barron County, Wisconsin, the epicenter of Wisconsin’s frac sand business.

Amid the downturn, two trends in the oil industry may benefit the sand business.

Those 850 uncompleted wells in North Dakota, for example, eventually will be completed, many of them later this year. If the price of crude oil stays at the current low level, North Dakota law will trigger a tax break on wells completed after June first. That would make it attractive to complete wells, boosting demand for frac sand.

Oil companies also are starting to pump significantly more frac sand into each well because production data show that it increases the oil output.

“The more the better — there is no doubt about it,” said Ken DeCubellis, CEO of Minnetonka-based Black Ridge Oil & Gas, which invests in North Dakota oil wells that are drilled by other companies.

DeCubellis said he has seen data from side-by-side wells — one drilled a few years ago using conventional amounts of sand and another more recently using at least twice as much sand. The intensively fracked well produced nearly twice as much oil, he said.

“The problem today, they are just not drilling enough wells,” said DeCubellis, whose own company cut its capital expenditures 40 percent this year, compared with 2014. “Over the short term, there is clearly going to be a reduction in the amount of frac sand used. Once the market rebounds and oil prices start to recover, then you are going to start to see that volume increase again.”

Photo: Jeff Wheeler via Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS