Return on Investment

The latest polls I could find on the tax bill the Republicans rammed through the Senate in the dead of night are running about 32 percent in favor, 46 percent against.

The analysis released by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office found that the bill will add $1.4 trillion to our deficit.

History informs us that in every tax cut over the past 50 years has resulted in the richest of the rich getting ever richer and the wages of pretty much everyone reading this remaining stagnant.

Like-minded friends are wondering, `Why are they screwing us again? How do they think they can get away with it?’

The answer folks is as obvious as the nose on Cyrano de Bergerac’s face.

They’re doing it because they were ordered to do it. They were directed to do it by the richest of the rich of our society, the Charles and David Kochs, the Sheldon Adelsons, the Bob and Rebekah Mercers.

They were required to do it by the fattest of the fat cats demanding a return on their investment.

When congressman Chris Collins called them donors, it’s pretty obvious who he meant.

“My donors are basically saying, `Get it done or don’t ever call me again,’ ’’ Collins said in the most impressive lapse of honesty I’ve ever known to come out of Washington.

There have to be Republicans who know there will be a political price for passing the bill – especially in the manner in which they did, cobbling together cutouts and loopholes and exceptions hastily scrawled in the margins of the text. And they have to know how hypocritical they look railing against deficits whenever a Democrat is living in the White House, and then reaching ever deeper into the pockets of our children and grandchildren as soon as a Republican is elected president.

But their calculation is that as bad as they get hurt by voters, they still need the money from the richest of the rich to get re-elected. That’s just the way the game is played today in America’s Age of Plutocracy.

Every independent look at the bill has deemed it another redistribution of wealth from the middle-class (again, you and me) to the richest of the rich among us.

In this case, however, the Republicans who voted for the bill had no choice.

They did only what they were ordered to do.

They’re doing it not for you and me or for the good of the country.

They’re doing it for one reason and one reason only.

They’re doing it for political survival.

The shame of doing it will not be easily erased. It’s up to you and me to make sure it’s not forgotten.

My Frenemy Gary

Two of my favorite authors, Ken Kesey and Larry McMurtry, met at a grad-school seminar at Stanford back in the daze of the early 60s and, for all their differences, remained life-long friends.

They remained such fast friends, for all their differences, that about 10 years after Kesey passed in 2001, McMurtry married his widow Faye.

Both are literary giants. Kesey’s best-known work is “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,’’ but as monumental as the novel remains, I always thought “Sometimes a Great Notion’’ was fuller, and, if possible, deeper. McMurty scored big-time with “Terms of Endearment’’ but the book of his I keep going back to at least every five years or so is “Lonesome Dove.’’

If there’s a more charismatic hero in American fiction than Augustus McCrae – played so superbly by the incomparable Robert Duvall in the late 80s mini-series – then please somebody point me in the right direction.

But in recounting the friendship between these two gents of letters, have I mentioned their differences?

Kesey, born and raised in Oregon but schooled in the drug-crazed California of the early 60s, was a counter-culture icon. McMurtry, a proud product of red-dirt Archer City, Texas was about as counter-counter-culture as an American can be.

The two argued (debated is probably more to the point) constantly, with Kesey staking out the left side of the issue and McMurtry the right.

Kesey described the dynamic in his essay “The Day After Superman Died’’ which was included in the compilation “Demon Box’’ published in 1986.

They had met at a graduate writing seminar at Stanford and had immediately disagreed about the most important issues of the day – beatniks, politics, ethics, and, especially, psychedelics – in fact about everything except for their mutual fondness for writing and each other. It was a friendship that flourished during many midnight debates over bourbon and booklore, with neither the right nor the left side of the issues ever gaining much ground.’’

Though Kesey admits he did lose a point or two on the scoreboard when McMurtry played the Charles Manson card in the late 60s. So it was the recent news of Manson’s death that reminded me of Kesey and McMurtry and set me to thinking about a similar relationship I have with Gary Strickland.

Gary and I disagree about all things political. Anyone who knows me knows which side of the debates I take.

Gary is a proud-Republican-right-wing graduate of Wake Forest and I would be a card-carrying left-wing hippie holdover from 1970s Chapel Hill if anyone were to ever come up with such a card.

Facebook friends know I’m liable, at any time, to start railing about the dangerous and inexorable slide into plutocracy that our president and his enablers are taking us. And they also know that on pretty much every thread I begin, there’s Gary Strickland picking every point and mounting a spirited – though obviously misguided – defense of our country’s rightward lurch.

Gary, by nature, is a contrarian who communicates best through confrontation. The first year I knew him I thought him to be the biggest pain in the posterior I had ever met. And nothing he has done or said since has changed my mind.

But then came the day I realized that as good as he was at dishing it out, he could also take it. He invited it. He loves the back-and-forth, the diving under somebody’s skin, the scrum. And he’s really, really bad about making those with whom he disagrees prove their point.

And, in a weak moment, I might even admit that so am I.

But, see, I also got to know and enjoy the company of Gary’s father, Hugh, mother, Tup, and his three sons David, Michael and Scott, all great American success stories in their own way. I saw the boys grow, just as Gary always kept tabs on our son Nate and daughter Rebecca. One season Gary actually coached Nate in baseball, and I his assistant.

Hugh Strickland attended 339 straight basketball games – and we’re talking about both home and away – that Wake Forest played from early in the 1980s until his eyesight failed him in 1991. One coach, Carl Tacy, thought enough of Hugh to make room for him on the Deacons’ bench at far-away holiday tournaments. Another, Dave Odom, promised Hugh that anytime he wanted to take a trip then the team bus would pull into his driveway and pick him up.

So nobody I know knows Wake Forest basketball better than Gary Strickland, who was attending ACC Tournaments back when they were played in N.C. State’s Reynolds Coliseum and who has been the official scorekeeper for home Wake games for decades.

All of which makes him an invaluable resource for a writer with a passion for ACC basketball history. He also happens to be stickler for grammar, and, true to his nature, is lightning fast to inform one of any mistakes they might make.

(To which my reply is always the same. I tell him `thanks.’)

During my two spectacularly unsuccessful forays into the publishing industry, Tales From the Wake Forest Demon Deacons Locker Room, and The ACC Basketball Book of Fame, I never wrote a word on Wake Forest basketball that Gary didn’t read behind me before publication. He has saved me from embarrassment more times than my public school education would allow me to count.

Occasionally, these days, I’ll run into a like-minded acquaintance who knows of my frequent Facebook rants. It’s so funny to see them scrunch up their face and ask `Who is this Gary Strickland dude who’s always stirring it up on your threads?’

My answer is finely honed.

“Well, consider me for a moment to be Ken Kesey. Then Gary is my Larry McMurtry, with whom I disagree about all things political but admire and respect as a friend.’’

How dull life would be if everybody agreed on everything. And how much lesser my life would be if I had never met Gary Strickland.

Plutocracy on the March

Plutocracy – Government by and for the wealthy.

Chris Collins is my new favorite politician.

Not that I would ever vote for him, despite his last name, and not that I ever could. He is a representative from New York and we live in North Carolina.

But Collins gets major kudos for being the most honest plutocrat to come forward and champion the tax cut bill the Republicans are trying to ram down the throats of the American people.

When explaining his ardor for the bill, Collins was candid as candid can be.

“My donors are basically saying, `Get it done or don’t ever call me again.’ ‘’

Notice Collins’ expressed concern is not for the good of the American people, those he was elected to represent.

And notice he’s not talking about the middle class, the purported target of the proposed cuts.

No Collins is talking political survival. The donors, the big money responsible for putting him in office and keeping him there, must be served.

All this at a time of record inequality in our country, a time when the gap between the richest of the rich and everyone else gets wider with every passing year. All this at a time that middle class wages have stagnated over the last 50 years, ever since Republicans began to convince the American people that if they can take care of those most capable of taking care of themselves, then along the way some of the crumbs are bound to fall off the table for the rest of us.

The studies I’m reading say that’s exactly what the bill being advanced through Congress today will do. It’s just more of the same old same old trickle-down economics, once described so poignantly by the first President Bush as voodoo economics (of course that was before he realized he had to toe the line to get elected.)

What’s interesting is that so many of the powers that be aren’t even trying to hide it.

Did you hear what Gary Cohn, a former executive officer of Goldman Sachs who is now the president’s leading economic adviser, had to say about the cuts?

“The most excited group out there are the big CEOs, about our tax plan.’’

Or how about the words of wisdom from Steven Law, the head of the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC affiliated with Mitch McConnell.

“(Donors) would be mortified if we didn’t live up to what we’ve committed to on tax reform.’’

Heaven forbid we mortify the big money.

If Congress was truly concerned about the middle class, there are many ways it could help. There’s the Child Tax Credit, for example, and there’s the Earned Income Tax Credit, cuts that go directly to the middle class instead of being filtered through the richest of the rich.

I’d be all for those kinds of tax cuts because I’m convinced they would actually stimulate the economy. Give our family more money and we’ll spend it at the grocery store, the car lot, the neighborhood restaurant. And those places, in turn, would have more money to expand and hire more people I know.

But give it to the wealthiest of the wealthy a tax cut and odds are it will end up like so much of their other money, to be used to boost the salaries of the CEOs or get stashed away from the IRS in an off-shore account.

So before you support the current efforts to cut taxes, ask yourself two questions.

Do you really think those pushing for the cuts are looking after your interests, or are they just serving those responsible for putting them in office and keeping them there?

And how do you feel about living in a plutocracy?

Double Standard at Highest Level

Sounds like Senator Al Franken was stupid and wrong in what he did to news anchor Leeann Tweeden 10 years ago, and sounds like knows it. Of course, it’s hard to image how he could have denied it, given those rather incriminating photos.

There is probably no good way to come clean over such behavior, but the course Franken has taken thus far seems the best available. He admitted his wrongdoing, apologized and claims to be four-square in favor of an investigation into his actions.

Here’s where I confess. I agree with most of Al Franken’s political positions and I hope that whatever investigation that comes out of this doesn’t reveal the kind of transgressions that gets him kicked out of the Senate.

But if there turns out to be enough in his past to warrant his expulsion, then I’d just say his karma caught up with him. And in my mind, at least, that would be that.

He would get what he deserves.

There’s a game men and women have been playing since long before any of us were born, and now the rules of that game have changed. And it’s about time.

The light is today shining into corners that have been dark and dirty far too long. Women are finding they don’t have to put up with the kind of assault on their humanity that their mothers, grandmothers and great grandmothers felt compelled to accept as simply life in a male-dominated society.

Our consciousness needed raising, and if nothing else, the examples we’re seeing these days in the cases of Harvey Weinstein and Roger Ailes and Anthony Weiner and Bill O’Reilly and Louis C.K. and Roy Moore are opening the crack inch by inch and allowing more and more light to shine through.

Most Democrats, I’m happy to see, realize Franken screwed up, and needs to be held accountable. Good for them.

And of course the Republicans, led by Mitch McConnell, are all about making sure Franken faces the music – as they should be.

But I can’t help think the uproar from certain circles rings a little hollow, given that the President of the United States has been widely and repeatedly accused of behavior far worse than anything Franken is said to have done.

When Trump is heard on tape saying that he’s able to grab women where no woman should be grabbed – and can get away with it because he’s a famous celebrity – his supporters believe him when he claims he’s only engaging in “locker room talk.’’

When more than 15 woman stand up to say that Trump groped them, or kissed them without their consent (sounds like Franken here) or, in certain cases, actually sexually assaulted them, his supporters are more than willing to believe it’s all just fake news, accounts made up to take a presidential candidate down.

So let’s all remember together that, in addition to denying all the charges against him, Trump vowed to sue every one of his accusers. Trump also promised to sue the New York Times for publishing the allegations.

And, to date, none of those suits have been filed.

Instead he slams Franken (referring to him as Frankenstein) in a tweet, while remaining silent on the accusations against Moore, and you know who else.

So over the next few days, every time you see Mitch McConnell or any other politician who continues to stand behind Trump demand that Al Franken be held accountable for his actions, ask yourself the two following questions.

How can Donald Trump get away with what others cannot?

And how nice it would be if the President of the United States were the example, and not the exception?

The Big Bad NRA

Nobody in their right mind is advocating the prohibition and confiscation of guns in American.

There are, studies show, more than 300 million guns privately owned in our country. Think about it. Nobody could get rid of that many guns even if they tried.

Nor should they.

In addition to those who are willing to fight to the death to own firearms, I’d hazard to guess that there are millions of Americans who feel about the say way I do. Guns are deeply embedded in our culture and besides, if someone wants to keep one in their home for protection, or likes to hunt, or maybe just enjoys collecting firearms for a hobby, more power to them.

I repeat. Nobody in their right mind is advocating the prohibition and confiscation of guns in America.

But next time you catch a guns’ rights advocate make their case, check how quickly they raise the specter of prohibition and confiscation Watch how they go from reasonable and sensible gun control to the abolition of guns in America faster than a Lamborghini can accelerate from 0-to-60 miles an hour.

Because without that tired, overused canard, they have nothing to defend their extreme position, a position that there’s really nothing legislatively our elected officials should – or even could — do about guns to stem the epidemic of mass shootings raging in our land.

Twenty five good folks were gunned down this week while at worship in a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. A month ago 58 were slaughtered and 546 wounded at a country music show in Las Vegas.

It’s hard these days to turn on the television without being bombarded by more breaking news of another mass shooting in America.

Let’s concede every sane and responsible citizen has a right to own a gun in America. For that, I have no problem. But don’t I have a right to attend church or go listen to some good music without being gunned down by some crazy with a weapon of war in his or her hands?

We elect our politicians to solve these kinds of problems. Our president certainly didn’t waste any time advocating the policy solution of tighter immigration when a deranged soul originally from Uzbekistan plowed over bikers and crashed into a school bus in New York City.

But the next time there’s a mass shooting – and I’m conditioned to expect that it won’t be long – check out the reaction from the politicians currently in power.

First they’ll maintain that it’s “too early’’ to comment, and by doing so would only “politicize” the tragedy.

Then, of course, they’ll offer their “thoughts and prayers’’ to the victims and their loved ones.

Not to say there’s anything whatsoever wrong than extending thoughts and prayers – as far as that goes.

The problem is, then they do absolutely nothing

If they were to follow up by advancing reasonable and sensible solutions to the problem – and here we’re talking about expanding background checks, closing the loopholes that allow the bad guys to get guns, keeping weapons of war such as high-powered, rapid-action assault rifles out of the hands of the general public – then all that would be well and good.

Instead, the powers that be just keep on keeping on accepting and cashing their checks from the NRA and other extreme guns’ rights organization and doing nothing to stem the epidemic.

But I have to think that at some point, either here or in the hereafter, they’re going to have to answer for their deafening silence.

And good luck with that.

Two Questions

Two heart-felt questions to anyone who supports our president:

The day after a white man from Las Vegas kills 59 and wounds 546 with guns, our president says it’s “too soon” to talk about policy solutions.

The day after a brown man originally from Uzbekistan plows a truck over a crowd in NYC, killing eight and wounding 11, our president is all over Twitter and the news railing for one policy change after another. And that’s when he’s not blaming the political opposition for a program that was passed 27 years ago by a bipartisan vote of Congress and signed into law by a Republican president.

Question No. 1: Can you not see who this man is and what he’s doing to our country?

Question No. 1: And if you can, does it even matter?

Question No. 2: Does it not even matter if you do?

Closed Minds, Closed Societies

Good friends of mine – and if you’re reading this, you know who you are – are convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that Donald Trump’s presidency is and always will be illegitimate.

Personally I don’t know that to be true. But what I do know, and what I’ve repeated time and again over the years, is that the next best thing to winning is to lose with a good excuse.

Good friends of mine – and if you’re reading this, you too know who you are – are convinced beyond a shadow of the doubt that President Trump is a victim of a concentrated and baseless smear campaign by those who just can’t take the fact that he won the election fairly and squarely.

To that, I do find it delicious that so many of the same Republicans who have railed against victimhood for all these many years are so quick to describe the standard bearer of their party as a victim. But as for their deeper point, I’m willing to wait to see where the investigations into collusion and the role of the Russian meddling in our nation’s elections lead before drawing any firm and fast conclusions.

I have my suspicions, but to date, that’s all they are.

For I have, truth be told, been fooled before.

Case in point, there’s Frank Zappa. When I first saw a photograph of Zappa and listened to his music with Mothers of Invention, it became so obvious to everyone that here was a drug-crazed hippie. Well he may have been a hippie, depending, of course, on your definition, but he certainly wasn’t drug-crazed.

Quite the opposite, according to those who actually knew Zappa. Rock N’ Roll folklore has it that Zappa fired the legendary Lowell George of Little Feat fame because of the drug references in the song Willin’, an account that keyboardist Bill Payne of Little Feat found entirely credible.

Zappa, as it turns out, was a sharp guy, sharp enough to come up with a quote I stumbled across while ruminating about the topic of the day.

“A mind is like a parachute,’’ Zappa pontificated. “It doesn’t work if it’s not open.’’

And therein lies one of the pressing problems I see as we, as a nation, hurtle ever deeper into the dark recesses of history’s dustbin. There are too many among us whose minds are locked shut, never to again tolerate the light of day. The true believers can be found on both sides of the political debate, but it’s my take that the heaviest concentration is among those who are willing to forgive and defend President Trump at every turn, no matter how egregious, puerile and, ultimately destructive to the body politic his words and actions might be.

When we read quotes describing Trump as reckless, outrageous and undignified, and how he has undermined our democratic norms and ideas, how he has turned the office of the presidency into an adult day-care center, how he has debased the office and divided the country for political gain, it’s important to remember those charges are being leveled not only by the Hillary Clinton campaign or Democratic operatives, but from lifelong, card-carrying members of Trump’s own party.

A couple of bombshells landed in Washington today. Paul Manafort, hired by Trump to run his presidential campaign, was indicted along with an associate on 12 counts that included money laundering, lying to federal investigators and conspiracy against the United States.

I’d have to ask by brother Joe or nephew Ward, the lawyers in the family, what the legal ramifications might be for conspiracy against the United States. But it sure as hell sounds bad.

But what may prove to ultimately be more damaging was the news that George Papadopoulis, a foreign-policy adviser to the Trump campaign, has already pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about the nature of conversations he had with Russian operatives who purported to have “dirt’’ on Hillary Clinton.

The most foreboding revelation to the White House might be that Papadopoulis’ plea agreement required he cooperate with government investigators. As I mentioned earlier, I’m willing for all the investigations to run their course before I come to any hard and fast conclusions, other than this was not a good day for Donald Trump, the White House or, for that matter, the nation as a whole.

Trump, true to his nature, continues to call the whole investigation a hoax, a witch hunt and there is probably around 35 percent of the electorate who have already demonstrated they are willing to believe anything and everything the man says. So they’ll believe this is all fake news, made up to make their man look bad.

And even if Trump did wrong, whatever Hillary Clinton did or was purported to have done was worse.

There are many reasons I love history, but the first and foremost may be how it provides context to all that’s happening today. We’ve seen before what can happen to a society, nation or civilization ruled by the closed mind. We saw it in France in the 1780s, in Russia in 1917, in Germany in the 1930s and in China a decade later. Any nation that marches in lock-step is headed right over the nearest cliff.

It takes hard work to remain up on all the issues of the day, the kind of due diligence and thoughtful consideration that some are simply unwilling to put in. Too many folks among us – again from all political persuasions – want to arrive at a conclusion and be done with it. They want their minds to be made.

But a made mind is a closed mind, and a closed mind is an existential threat to who we are and have always been.

So keep an open mind. The future of our democracy depends on it.