Wednesday, May 10, 2023

BTRTN: The New Silent Majority Enables the New Abnormal

It’s enough to be worried sick about the catastrophic consequences of climate change. But in this very unsettling 2023, there are daily signals of new and different threats to society as we know it. We appear to be every bit as cavalier about these new threats as we have been about global warming. With a government in permanent gridlock, what are we, the people, doing about it?

There have been many points in history when thoughtful people must have felt the world was spinning out of control, hurtling toward Armageddon. In the Fourteenth Century, the bubonic plague killed one-third of the human beings in Europe – some 25 million souls, roughly 40% of the population. William Butler Yeats spoke of a “widening gyre” in the mid-19th century, and the 20th Century witnessed two world wars, the Great Depression, the Holocaust, and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

As we enjoy our leisure time in contemporary America, with food in the fridge, nice cars in the garage, and a world of entertainment in our pockets, it’s hard to argue that our moment even begins to compare with the horrors facing prior generations.  

But of late I find myself in conversations with thoughtful people who are deeply unsettled about the trajectory of our society.

Feeling queasy about the prospects of humankind? You’re not cray-cray.

Signs of apocalypse are all around us… if we only choose to look.  

Today people get gunned down for turning into the wrong driveway or ringing the wrong doorbell.  There have been 202 mass shootings in the United States thus far in the 127 days of 2023. That’s more than one mass shooting every single day. We have more guns – some 350 million – than people.

And yet because of radically polarized politics, there is no meaningful change to our gun laws, no matter how many six-year old children are slaughtered while attending kindergarten.  Our laws would give you the impression that we, as a society, care more about an individual’s right to tote an AR-15 than a child’s right to be safe and feel safe at school.  

The combination of access to deadly weapons and unhinged anger is lethal. But who is to blame? We have spawned an entertainment culture that glamorizes gun violence and a “news” culture that pours gasoline on beliefs of victimization and hate. Psychologists speak of a societal PTSD… we, as a nation, have had our outrage against assault rifles in elementary schools pistol-whipped into passivity that accepts daily mass murders as simply the new abnormal.

A radically polarized society with hyper-angry militarized fringes that has more guns than people is a recipe for carnage. That we accept daily mass murders is a sign of the apocalypse.  

But here’s the really crazy thing.  The majority of Americans do want new, tighter gun laws. But that majority has been ineffectual in making its representatives act. The will of the majority is being ignored, and it appears powerless against the inertia and gridlock of our own government. That majority is, for all practical purposes, a silent majority.

Our financial markets are sailing directly toward a massive iceberg.

Right-wing posers pretending to be politicians in Washington may be able to prevent our government from raising the debt ceiling. No one seems to have a very clear picture of what exactly such a failure to pay our debts would entail, but speculation includes a deep global recession, halving the value of the DJIA overnight, and sending the world’s markets careening into uncertainty. In the past, cooler heads prevailed, and the posturing and brinksmanship of an impending debt ceiling vote would dissipate in compromise rather than trigger economic catastrophe.

But this time, it is different. Rogue players like Matt Gaetz and Lauren Boebart are emboldened by castrating Kevin McCarthy, and they seem to see no personal downside in the ruin a debt failure would cause.  Indeed, their calculus is probably that ordinary American citizens would blame Biden, the man on the bridge when the boat smashed into the iceberg.

Three gigantic banks have failed in two months, apparently due to the incompetence of bank management and the failure of regulators we pay to do the oversight they are paid to do.

It’s all part of the new abnormal.

So we now know that our economy can be held hostage by right-wing fanatics with a very questionable grip on reality, and that the people who supposedly have a grip on reality don’t. That is a sure sign of the apocalypse. 

The majority of Americans do not want a pointless, needless economic catastrophe. They want their government to raise the debt ceiling. Yet we cannot be the least bit certain that our government will be able to steer clear of this iceberg.

And the majority sits patiently and hopes for the best, in silence.

The odds are extremely high that a former President of the United States will soon stand accused of a cluster-f of felonies, ranging from interference in our free and fair elections to stealing top secret documents, to leading a coup to overthrow the government of the United States of America. The only President to have been impeached twice, and one of a small group who failed to win a second term, he nonetheless is the overwhelming favorite to be nominated by his party for the third consecutive time.

Why is this happening? It is now proven fact that one of the largest self-described “news organizations” in the country has routinely spread false misinformation and disinformation about the legitimacy of the 2020 election to pump up its ratings. Fox viewers have never been told that Donald Trump’s claims that the election was rigged or stolen were lies. So they do not view him as they should: a loser who is destined to lose again. If they perceived that correctly, they would probably not renominate him.

So for all of its lying, Fox News did nothing to undo the results of the 2020 election, and may have ensured that the Republican Party would not move on from its losing candidate. Nice work, Fox.

But for the rest of us: the realization that a man who tried to overthrow the United States government will very likely be nominated yet again is a sure sign of the apocalypse. That a supposed “news network” that spouts more lies than Pravda can continue unabated, unpunished, and unrepentant is a sure sign of the apocalypse.

And yet we, the people, can do nothing to mitigate the societal carnage caused by professional liars on mass media. It is all part of the new abnormal. 

Computer scientists who have worked in A.I. for years are now screaming from the rafters that this technology is on track to out-think human beings in a matter of years, not decades. So far, all we have heard is that this might result in fewer lawyers (which some think might not be a bad thing), and that movie scripts will be soon be written by bots who are trained to make other bots laugh uproariously. 

What we have not been hearing enough of is this: soon, a hostile nation or rogue malevolent actor will be able to equip a warehouse of servers with A.I. software that is “smarter than humans,” and will set those A.I. computers on the task of hacking into every major bank, energy provider, and communications company in the world.  Man vs. machine, and the machine is smarter, more powerful, and never gets tired. Who wins?

But it is not simply the specter of A.I. falling into the hands of malevolent actors that has the computer scientists spooked. The real problem is the potential that some form of A.I. itself becomes the controlling agent. Geoffrey Hinton, the computer scientist who is considered the “godfather of A.I.,” addressed the issue at MIT’s EmTech Conference. “These things will have learned from us, by reading all the novels that ever were and everything Machiavelli ever wrote, how to manipulate people. Even if they can’t directly pull levers, they can certainly get us to pull levers.”

Spend ten minutes on Google and find out just how many computer scientists – in addition to Hinton -- believe that A.I. has the potential to end civilization. Spend another hour googling and find out many are not sure what can be done about it.  It is extremely unnerving to read Hinton’s own uncertainty. “I wish I had a nice simple solution I could push, but I don’t. I’m not sure there is a solution.”

The sudden dawning of recognition that computers are actually on a fast trajectory toward overwhelming human intelligence – and the fact that this is not an urgent priority of our government -- is a sure sign of the apocalypse.

Who is thinking about this? Why does every company in the world have a Chief Technology Officer, but the United States of America does not have a cabinet level official focused wholly on the ever-accelerating impact of technology on every facet of our lives? What are we doing to make sure that the 'HAL 9000 from "2001: A Space Odyssey" does not become the new – and permanent -- abnormal?

We, as a society, are accepting the new abnormal wherever we turn:

There is no indication that civilization learned enough from one global pandemic to protect itself from the next one.

The previous administration ripped children from their parents at our southern border. Now, with the good guys in charge, our country still has no sane plan for dealing with immigrants.

86% of young Americans want to become a “social influencer.” Huh? What happened to doctor? Lawyer? Engineer?

Private wealth has never been more concentrated in the hands of fewer, more selfish, greedier, and more soulless people. The collective wealth of the richest 735 people in the United States is greater than the 150,000,000 least wealthy. 

A woman’s decision to terminate a pregnancy is considered murder by pretty much the same people who think that the ubiquity of guns has nothing to do with our obscene per-capita homicide rate.

Our supposedly august Supreme Court, it turns out, is just a bunch of slimy politicians with a hidden agenda and a hand in the till.

A shockingly immature 21-year-old lost, lonely, online loser has access to our most sensitive military secrets and can distribute them across the internet without being detected.

We are providing enough military assistance to Ukraine to keep fighting a war but not enough assistance to win it.  An increasingly desperate Russia is now routinely raising the specter of using nuclear weapons, making the Ukraine war the most serious risk of nuclear Armageddon since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.  For fifty years, we have relied on the notion that mutual assured destruction ensures that sane actors will not initiate nuclear war. What happens when Vladimir Putin can no longer be considered sane? 

It is all part of the new abnormal.

Oh, yes. Global warming. Estimates range from dark to downright dire, but the earliest prediction I have encountered for when global warming will destroy civilization as we know it is 2050. Given the laundry list of imminent catastrophes noted above, I am beginning to worry less about Global Warming. We’ll be lucky if we live long enough to experience it.

And now, the bad news.

I do believe that Joe Biden and his team want to do the right thing.

But Biden’s intelligent half of our government is forced to try to address these huge, terrifying issues while the stupid half of government is consumed with what bathroom a trans person should use, on how to systematically attack “woke” behavior, and a feverish, all-consuming lust to know what is really on Hunter Biden’s laptop.  There is actually a bill before the North Carolina legislature to ban the awarding of “participation trophies.”

You are not imagining it… there is a whole lot of crazy going on in our country and in our world today. We are living in the new abnormal.

But here is the craziest part of all: the majority of Americans are letting it happen. The majority of Americans are going along with the madness. We are not screaming with outrage at the AR-15s, the right-wing bomb-throwers, the rigged-election liars, and the global warming deniers.

The majority of Americans are enabling the new abnormal by not fighting it.

Last century, when we faced all those terrifying threats to humanity, we came together as the world’s leading nation. We were led by serious people – Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy --  and we responded to their urgent calls for action. Both parties saw the dangers, and no one pretended the threats were not real.

In the past fifty years, we the people have allowed racism to flourish, guns to proliferate, greed to prevail, ignorance to metastasize, lying to become accepted, and – above all – abdication and sloth to replace involvement and belief.

Fifty years ago, the term “silent majority” was coined by one of Richard Nixon’s speechwriters to glorify a voting segment of lemmings who believed whatever the government told them about Vietnam.

Today, our “majority” once again disagrees with our government on guns and abortion, and no one wants a needless economic catastrophe. But we are allowing the government to fail us.

We have become the new silent majority.

Because we are accepting the new abnormal.

The answer is difficult, but it is not to be found in Geoffrey Hinton’s befuddled surrender.

There is an answer in a democracy, and – maddeningly – it is always the same.   

The answer is for all of us to get involved.

Pick your battle.

Find the sign of the apocalypse that most terrifies you, and start doing something about it.

Find an organization. Volunteer. Donate. Get Democrats elected wherever you can. Do something.

Because right now, the new silent majority is enabling the new abnormal.  


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Tuesday, May 2, 2023

BTRTN: The GOP Shows Their (Losing) Hand

Tom with the BTRTN April 2023 Month in Review.

April 2023

A month ago, in our March month in review, we noted that Donald Trump, with his indictment and subsequent surge in both fundraising and polling, had returned to center stage.  The spotlight itself was not necessarily kind – trained on a grim-faced and silent Trump in a decidedly non-glitzy setting, a dingy old Manhattan criminal court house.  But the effect on his short-term political fortunes was electric, with millions of dollars pouring in and his lead over challenger Ron DeSantis for the GOP 2024 nomination ballooning to an almost comical 30 points.

This month, it was the Republican Party’s turn to seize the spotlight and show America their hand.  It wasn’t pretty.  Time and again, Republican leaders -- from Kevin McCarthy in the Capitol in Washington, DC on down to Main Street legislators operating in smaller heartland chambers -- made clear the GOP vision, policies and tactics on which they will all run in 2024.  The GOP pols expelled, silenced, banned, cut back, shot up and shut down with gleeful adandon, apparently missing the fact that the arch-right orgy came off as a horror show to the viewing voters who decide elections.  That is, swing state suburban voters, the persuadable kind, the kind that elected John Fetterman and Ralph Warnock in elections the GOP could have won.  The month was littered with such events, much like a parking lot at a football game after the tailgating is over, the trash harshly illuminating GOP positions and priorities on guns, abortion, trans rights, free speech and, in McCarthy’s coup de grace, the House’s debt ceiling bill.

·        Tennessee.  Fresh off yet another mass killing featuring a semi-automatic rifle, the GOP-dominated local state legislature expelled two members, both young Black men, for protesting gun violence on the floor of the chamber, while another legislator, a white woman, avoided expulsion for the same “offense.”  Thus the GOP managed to end up, in one fell swoop, on the wrong side on gun violence, free speech and racism.  The GOP looked bad enough on the substance, but the optics were even worse.  And all for naught, given that within days the disenfranchised districts voted to replace the evicted legislators with....the evicted legislators.

·        Montana.  The Montana state legislature liked this general idea so much that they too got into the “silencing” act, albeit with a different method.  Rather than expulsion, they literally banned a transgender member from speaking on the floor after she said proponents of an anti-gender-affirming-care bill would have “blood on their hands” if they passed the legislation. Unlike in Tennessee, when at least the protesters clearly violated legislature protocols with their protests (but were more deserving of a slap on the wrists than an expulsion), all the offending legislator did was speak eloquently, but at that moment, the crazies were not into defending her right of free speech.  The Montana Governor later signed the bill.

·        Bud Light.  Bud Light had the vision (or at least the guts) to run a commercial that featured a transgender social influencer, which sent the crazies into a frenzy.  They were led by the hard right rock singer Kid Rock, who decided that shooting up – with a fully automatic rifle, no less -- cases of Bud Light was a responsible way to vent his anger.  Others followed, naturally.

·        Texas.  A Trump-appointed federal judge in Texas had the chutzpah to overturn the 23-year old FDA approval of mifepristone, a safe and proven medication abortion drug, apparently on the basis of his confidence in his own (layman’s) medical acumen.  This was a bridge too far for even the U.S. Supreme Court (which is saying something), who ordered the hold lifted and the drug to remain in use while the case makes its way through the courts.  But their verdict was not before the Texas judge utterly inflamed a whole swath of reproductive health care supporters including, of course, many swing state suburban voters.

·        Florida.  Ron DeSantis is on some kind of rampage, beginning the month by signing a bill that bans abortions after a mere six weeks, and ending it in court on the receiving end of a lawsuit filed by Disney that charged the governor with a “targeted campaign of government retaliation.” This was after DeSantis went to war with Disney over the company’s public opposition to Florida’s notorious “Don’t Say Gay” law by attempting to install a new board of governors to control the Florida operations of the entertainment giant.  DeSantis quickly found that it is easier to wrestle alligators in the Everglades than corporate lawyers unleashed against him, who first stripped the new board of its powers and then slapped the lawsuit on DeSantis.  DeSantis seems to be arguing that the government has the right to punish those who critique it, which is a hallmark of totalitarianism, and the opposite of democracy.

·        Washington, DC.  All of that was a prelude to the McCarthy bill, which, while not a full Budget, nevertheless is a clear blueprint of the GOP vision.  The guts of the bill are huge budget cuts targeting many, many popular and effective programs, fully $3.6 trillion of cuts in "discretionary programs" over a 10-year period.  The bill does not specify where the cuts will come from -- a Budget would do that, but the GOP does not have the guts to lay out its plans.  But "discretionary spending," according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, includes “defense, veterans’ health care, child care and preschool, medical research and public health, food and drug safety inspectors, Pell Grants and college work-study, K-12 education, environmental protection, housing, and some transportation programs, among many others.”  The Democrats will have a field day creating ads demonstrating the impact of draconian cuts in these areas to everyday Americans.

Cutting popular programs and clumsily airing grievances against abortion, LGBTQ rights and gun control measures are not the ticket to electoral success in America today.  It is widely known that Democratic positions on each are more popular nationwide than those of the Republicans, and that is precisely because the persuadable middle hangs with the Democrats on them.  This barrage of unpopular policies wrapped up in nearly unwatchable packaging is tantamount to political suicide on the national level.

So why is this happening?  The motivations of the various GOP politicians are largely (though not entirely) explainable.  The local GOP legislators are much like GOP representatives in deep red districts.  It is virtually impossible for them to commit an act that their constituents would deem “too extreme” on the conservative spectrum.  Their only threat is to be primaried from someone who is even further to the right than they are. 

As for McCarthy, he, of course, promised such deep spending cuts as one of the central prices he paid the GOP House crazies for his speakership.  He may have won kudos by pulling off passage of the debt ceiling bill with the votes of a just-unified-enough GOP.  But the stakes will get much tougher now when he fights the battle to either enact some material portion of his legislation (impossible, given the Democratic-controlled Senate) or follow through on the threat to not raise the debt ceiling if he fails (unthinkable, given the impact on the global economy).  Scylla and Charybdis look like a lamb and a hot tub compared to what McCarthy now faces.

The harder motivation to figure is DeSantis, the presumptive presidential candidate and designated savior of the party from the clutches of Trump.  DeSantis is apparently trying to take his Florida act national, proving that a starkly conservative agenda can indeed win on a national level.  The ABC’s for him mean banning abortions, books and corporate tax breaks.  His theory is that he can be Trump without the baggage.  But what he is learning on a highly visible stage is that he is really Trump without the charisma -- he has the personality of a maggot and cannot comfortably manage any aspect of retail politics -- and, more importantly, that he oddly seems to lack Trump's political acumen on this issues.  Trump is pummeling DeSantis on the governor’s backing of cuts in Social Security and Medicare, and on the Disney fiasco, and Trump also knows better than to make abortion, of all things, a centerpiece of his campaign.  DeSantis seems to be tone deaf to the impact his campaign will have on those he will need most in November, 2024 (in the unlikley event he gets that far).

There is one group that has been very quiet – GOP Senators.  They know that, with these antics, the party is on the verge of throwing away a terrific Senate electoral map for the GOP in 2024, which offers a real chance of taking back the Senate.  But they appear even more helpless to stop them than they proved to be in stopping Trump.

As for Biden, he is so pleased with the spate of GOP self-immolating viral moments that he briefly considered pushing off his own re-election announcement to the fall, so as not to interrupt the seemingly endless supply of ad fodder with his own bit of news.  Finally, he snuck in his announcement – last Tuesday – and then, on cue, promptly handed the news cycle back to the GOP crazies, in this case, the Montana Madness (and then the Disney lawsuit).

Biden knows that while the GOP keeps turning over terrible cards for all to see, he has some aces up his sleeve.  Certainly abortion and the Big Lie threat to democracy are two of his biggest weapons, and he can rely on Democrats to come out in droves to fight for reproductive health rights and keep Trump at bay.   The majority of the country is with him on gun violence and climate change.  And he appears to be on track to the “soft landing” for the economy that the Fed has been targeting since it began its raising-interest-rates battle against inflation.  He needs this economic story to turn out well, leading to reasonably robust growth in 2024 at ever–reducing levels of inflation.  If he can achieve that, and maintain his current level of health and vigor, he will win in 2024. 

But first he has to navigate the debt ceiling stand-off.  He holds the high ground but now has to determine whether McCarthy's bill has given the Speaker just enough leverage to try to work out some kind of deal.  Biden is a dealmaker at heart, and he certainly has experience with this topic (debt ceiling standoffs were de rigueur in the Obama years).  He may find some way to get something done that does not appear to be directly related to the debt ceiling.  Since Janet Yellin has just announced that the U.S. could run out of cash by June 1, presumably we'll find out this month.

Stay tuned.


Biden’s approval rating in April remained at 43%.  His issue management ratings also remained nearly identical to the prior month as well.  The “Bidenometer,” our BTRTN aggregate measure of economic performance, dropped to +30, a drop of 10 points driven by new GDP numbers that show a slowing economy, as business investment slowed in response to the Fed’s aggressive interest rate increases.  Consumer spending remained strong.  The Bidenometer score of 30 means that the economy on average is 30% stronger than it was when Trump left office (see below for a fuller explanation).


The Bidenometer is a BTRTN proprietary economic measure that was designed to provide an objective answer to the legendary economically-driven question at the heart of the 1980 Reagan campaign:  “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”  We reset the Bidenometer at this Inaugural to zero, so that we better demonstrate whether the economy performs better (a positive number) or worse (a negative number) under Biden than what he inherited from the Trump Administration.

The Bidenometer measure is comprised of five indicative data points:  the unemployment rate, Consumer Confidence, the price of gasoline, the Dow-Jones Industrial Average and the U.S. GDP.  The measure is calculated by averaging the percentage change in each measure from the inaugural to the present time.

The +30 for April, 2023 means that, on average, the five measures are 30% higher than they were when Biden was inaugurated (see the chart below).  With a Bidenometer of +30, the economy is performing markedly better under Biden compared to its condition when Trump left office.  Unemployment is much lower, consumer confidence is higher, the Dow is higher and the GDP is stronger.  On the flip side, gas prices are higher, as is overall inflation, of which gas prices are a primary component.

Using January 20, 2021 as a baseline measure of zero, under Clinton the measure ended at +55.  It declined from +55 to +8 under Bush, who presided over the Great Recession at the end of his term, then rose from +8 to +33 under Obama’s recovery.  Under Trump, it fell again, from +33 to 0, driven by the shock of COVID-19 and Trump’s mismanagement of it.  Now we have seen it move upward from 0 to +30 under Biden.

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