The 2016 Election Endgame: Decisive or Dangerous?

The next president of the United States? Hillary Clinton is poised, adept, and on the verge of winning.
The next president of the United States? Hillary Clinton is on the verge of winning.

SOMERSET, KY — There aren’t too many redder places in this reddest of red southern states than Pulaski County. Mitt Romney beat President Obama in 2012 with 80 percent of the vote in this south central Kentucky county, and a nearly 16,000-vote margin — 20,714 to 4,976. Still, on my afternoon runs through the pleasant leafy neighborhoods of Somerset, the county seat, I haven’t seen one yard sign for Donald Trump. It’s as though in depriving Trump of public support people here are also displaying their private anguish.

Loathing Hillary Clinton is one thing. Trump’s desire to blow up American democracy is something else entirely. With their children dispatched to good public schools, and their late model vehicles parked in the tidy yards of right-sized homes, there is absolutely no sentiment expressed here that Somerset’s residents are prepared to scrap it all and start over.

It doesn’t look now as though they are going to have to. Clinton has a comfortable lead in most public polls by performing well during three presidential debates, and essentially saying little else over the last three weeks. That’s cleared the way for Trump to bluff and bully and shriek his way down a steep decline in support. Last night, signaling that’s he’s prepared to resume a career in reality television, Trump declared his resistance to accepting the results of the election. He is resolved to keep the country waiting for the next big provocation, the very same tactic that provided the $US billions in free media attention that made his improbable run to the Republican nomination possible.

There isn’t anything in the lives of any of us to compare to this ugly and unnerving election.

Hillary Clinton is reviled by critics on all sides for character traits, that if they were true, would have prevented her from accomplishing all that she has in her life. Few candidates for president have been as thoughtful, meticulous, intelligent, experienced and well prepared as she is.

The worst offenses her critics offer are:

1. The craven assessment that she is responsible for the death of a diplomat and several more Americans in an attack on US government facilities in Libya. She wasn’t. Republicans mounted a sham Congressional investigation anyway to elevate the attack into a political issue to harm Clinton this year. It’s important to note that Republicans had never before cared to lay the blame for any of the previous lethal terrorist attacks on US installations that occurred under Republican presidents.

2. The use of a private server that Clinton established to send and receive email while she was Secretary of State. The implication is she played fast and loose with state secrets, a charge that is not true.

3. Her decision to keep her family together after Bill Clinton’s sex romp with Monica Lewinsky in the late 1990s; assertions that she enabled Bill to build her own political prominence; and she was too tough in attacking the credibility of other women Bill may or may not have bedded.

Fortunately for the U.S. Hillary Clinton is durable, measured, and a grownup. She’s been pushed by Bernie Sanders to embrace progressive ideas she hadn’t grasped earlier — like free college tuition and stronger measures to cool the warming planet. She’s shown herself to be graceful and persistent under pressure. And she’s been tactically smart.

Knowing of Trump’s childish capacity to mindlessly strike back when criticized she baited a trap in the first debate on September 26. Hillary unearthed the cruel criticisms that Trump unleashed at a Miss Universe winner in the 1990s after she’d gained weight. Trump swallowed the chum whole, spent the pre-dawn hours afterwards tweeting more offensive comments, and kept up the assault for much of the following week. Continue reading “The 2016 Election Endgame: Decisive or Dangerous?”

Robben Island’s Long Shadow of Justice

Message that greets visitors to Robben Island. Photo/Keith Schneider
Message that greets visitors to Robben Island. Photo/Keith Schneider

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — Barack Obama, America’s first black president, twice crossed the cold and deep 9-mile channel that lies between this magnificent coastal city and Robben Island, where South Africa imprisoned its first black president, Nelson Mandela.

The last time Obama stood in the stone cell blocks and peered out of the barred windows was in June 2013, during a presidential visit to South Africa. Before that, in his first visit in 2006, Obama was a first-term United States senator.

History sits heavy on this rocky, wind-tortured island of scrub and penguin nesting grounds, as it does in all of South Africa. Along with Mandela, South Africa’s current president, Jacob Zuma, also was imprisoned here for crimes meant to foster a national movement to end white control over the black majority. Robben Island, shadowed by the immensity of Table Mountain and within easy reach of Africa’s wealthiest and most cosmopolitan city, may be the oddest presidential training ground in human history.

South Africa, though, is like that. The glory of the natural landscape is like a blindingly beautiful drape hiding the ragged, fractured geography of South Africa’s culture and economy. Having thrown off the racist white government in 1994, and elected Mandela and other capable black leaders to positions of authority, South Africa seemed to surge forward. Schools, housing, transportation, access to medical care, and incomes improved.

That momentum slowed earlier this decade and lately may have been jarred into reverse. Scandals and corruption accusations surround Zuma and his government, which has been weakened by cabinet shake-ups. A constitutional crisis is unfolding prompted by the president’s use of public funds to enhance his private estate. The rand, now worth barely 6 U.S. cents, has slid to its lowest value ever. Unemployment has soared to more than 35 percent. Economic growth may slip into negative numbers this year. A deep two-year drought could lead to the biggest crop failure in South Africa’s history, leading to a 25 percent increase in the price of food, and perhaps food shortages. Crime is ferocious everywhere. Continue reading “Robben Island’s Long Shadow of Justice”

Drought Influenced Syrian Civil War; So What?, Says U.S. Congress

A June 2013 flood in Uttarakhand, India killed an estimated 30,000 people and battered the state's hydropower sector. Photo/Keith Schneider
A June 2013 flood in Uttarakhand, India killed an estimated 30,000 people and battered the state’s hydropower sector. Photo/Keith Schneider

A paper earlier this year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States added fresh, peer-reviewed details about how a malicious four-year (2007 to 2010) drought in Syria played a role in touching off a calamitous civil war in 2011. The long rein of water scarcity ruined the farm economy, and drove over 1 million farmers and their families into unstable resource-scarce cities inspired by the Arab Spring to rebel against authoritarian rule.

The paper, like others before it, identifies climate change as the primary cause for the deepest and most economically disastrous drought in Syria’s history. The paper makes a powerful case for explaining that at least a portion of the anguish and fury of the civil war, the bedlam of obfuscation and bloody torment that has spread from Syria to Iraq to Beirut to Paris, is due to the Earth’s response to mankind’s ecological abuse.

This singular thought, that climate change can stir dangerous human conflict, is gaining salience across much of the world. One of its lone holdouts is the U.S. Congress, which apparently abhors science and prefers existing in an illusory landscape riven by the fury of its own ideology. More on that later.

We’ve Seen It Up Close
Those of us who’ve witnessed first hand the power of the Earth now to disrupt previously stable hydrological cycles, and cause global havoc, bear no such doubts.

California now reckons with a four-year drought that is putting grave pressure on groundwater supplies, and that several climatologists theorize is a facet of an enduring cycle of water scarcity unfolding in the American West.

California's four-year drought, the worst ever recorded, is disrupting life and the economy in America's largest state. Photo/Keith Schneider
California’s four-year drought, the worst ever recorded, is disrupting life and the economy in America’s largest state. Photo/Keith Schneider

Last year I reported on a vicious Himalayan flood that killed as many as 30,000 people and wrecked the hydropower dams of Uttarakhand, India. The cloudburst that dumped a foot of rain on high Himalayan shoulders, and caused the banks of a big alpine lake to rupture, was later deemed by scientists to be one of the year’s significant examples of the hazards of climate change. The economic and technical consequences of the Uttarakhand flood also caved in India’s hydropower construction sector, and damaged the country’s ability to diversify its electrical generating industry with carbon-free energy sources. Continue reading “Drought Influenced Syrian Civil War; So What?, Says U.S. Congress”

In Heart of Rand Paul Territory, Public Investment For Public Purposes

Bowling Green, Kentucky applied taxpayer funds to redevelop its downtown despite objections from its most famous resident -- Senator Rand Paul.
Bowling Green, Kentucky applied taxpayer funds to redevelop its downtown despite objections from its most famous resident — Senator Rand Paul.

BOWLING GREEN, KY. – When Gary Ransdell, the president of Western Kentucky University, invites alumni to view this city’s redeveloping downtown from his hilltop campus, the response is almost always exclamations of surprise.

Just below domed Cherry Hall, one of the 108-year-old university’s grandest buildings, are nearly 200,000 square feet of new student housing, built at a cost of $24 million. There’s also a 30,000 square foot, $10 million alumni center, and a 72,500 square-foot $14.5 million Hyatt Place hotel due to open in 2015.

Next door to the Hyatt site is a $28 million mixed use development that is under construction and will house 240 more students on one side of College Street, and a separate building on the other for small businesses, restaurants, and a rooftop pool.

There’s also four new fraternity houses built at a cost of $3 million, and a 450-space parking deck flanked by 30,000 square feet of retail businesses and restaurants that are expected to open next year.

Mr. Ransdell described the projects closest to the 108-year-old university as the latest additions to the $262 million in downtown construction since 2008 that is rehabilitating Bowling Green’s central business district. All of the new structures replace deteriorated homes and ragged retail businesses that for decades formed a barrier between the university and city center.

Bowling Green's new SKyPac theater is a new downtown institution.
Bowling Green’s new SKyPac theater is a new downtown institution.

“There’s been a shift in student density at the north end of our campus. With each new project that density increases,” said Mr. Ransdell, Western Kentucky’s president since 1997. “We’re all a bunch of bulldogs in this community. We haven’t seen a deal that we didn’t like. We want to close them all.”

Judging from the scope and progress made over the last six years, it clearly appears that deal making has evolved into a choice skill in this city of 61,000 residents, Kentucky’s third largest. Arguably the most important was the pact that the city and Warren County reached with the state to establish a 383-acre, 52-block, special development and tax district in 2007.

The district pays local governments 80 percent of the increases in payroll, property, sales and other tax revenue generated by new development within the district boundaries. Revenue is devoted to retiring construction bonds, building infrastructure, and assisting developers, including the university.

In August, while on assignment for The New York Times, I reported on Bowling Green’s successful downtown development project, which was made possible its allegiance to the time-honored American principle of devoting public funds for public purposes. It’s that principle of economic development which is under attack from the Tea Party and its adherents in municipal, state, and the federal government. One of the leaders of that anti-tax, anti-spend sentiment is Rand Paul, the Republican junior senator from Kentucky, who has lived in Bowling Green since 1993, where he opened a medical practice in opthamology.

I asked Doug Gorman, a downtown business owner and chairman of the Warren County Downtown Economic Development Authority, what Senator Paul thought about Bowling Green’s progress and how it was achieved. Mr. Gorman told me he was a close friend of the Senator and one evening, at a party the two attended, Mr. Paul pulled him aside to voice his objections to how taxpayer funds were applied to downtown development. “He wasn’t happy about it,” said Mr. Gorman. “I asked him whether he had a better way to do what we were doing? Because this is the best way we know.”

And for good reason. As I reported in The New York Times in August, this year the city’s development district, formally called the WKU Gateway to Downtown Bowling Green, will return to the city and county over $2 million in revenue. Over its 30-year life, ending in 2037, the tax district will deliver $200 million to the two governments, said Doug Gorman, a downtown business owner and chairman of the Warren County Downtown Economic Development Authority, which oversees the gateway project. “The whole point of what we’re trying to do is to get more people to enjoy our downtown, to live here and work here,” said Mr. Gorman. “If you look around now, it’s pretty clear that people get the point.”

Until the Gateway project began to unfold, Bowling Green was largely known for its university, the third largest in Kentucky, and for the General Motors assembly plant not far away, where Corvettes have been built since 1981. Earlier this year a sinkhole opened in a wing of the privately-managed National Corvette Museum near the plant, swallowing eight sports cars that were on display, and prompting significant increases in attendance.
Continue reading “In Heart of Rand Paul Territory, Public Investment For Public Purposes”

In Detroit, Scales of Finance and Fairness Have Tipped Over

Shuttered homes, empty lots, and acres of open space are common features of Detroit's geography. Since 1954, when the city's population peaked at nearly 2 million, Detroit has lost an average of 20,000 people annually. Less than 700,000 people currently call Detroit home. Photo/Keith Schneider
Shuttered homes, empty lots, and acres of open space are common features of Detroit’s geography. Since 1954, when the city’s population peaked at nearly 2 million, Detroit has lost an average of 20,000 people annually. Less than 700,000 people currently call Detroit home. Photo/Keith Schneider

On July 18, 2013 Kevyn Orr, Detroit’s emergency manager, acted on the remarkably broad authorities afforded him by an eight-month-old state law and filed a petition to launch the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. Orr’s intent, he said, was to reduce the beleaguered city’s operating costs, reduce the cost of servicing the city’s debt, and set Detroit on a fresh course to redevelopment and prosperity.

During a news conference that evening, Detroit’s elected one-term Mayor Dave Bing stood meekly by Orr’s side and offered his reluctant support: “This is very difficult for all of us,” Bing said. “But if it’s going to make services better off, then this is a new start for us.”

In the more than 13 months since the bankruptcy petition was filed it’s become steadily clearer who’s better off in Detroit and who is not. The owners of small and medium-sized businesses that have invoices still to be paid by Detroit are not. They could receive 30 cents on the dollar or less on the outstanding balances.

The city’s 22,500 retired employees are not. They will experience pension cuts. About half the city’s general employees agreed to cut their pensions almost 5 percent, slash their health benefits 90 percent, and receive no cost of living adjustments. The other half – retired police and firefighters – will receive full pensions, but accepted a 55 percent reduction in cost of living adjustments and will receive only a small cash stipend to offset the cost of their new private health insurance plans.

Thousands of residents, many of them jobless and impoverished, also are not better off. They face losing their water again as a 37-day moratorium is lifted today and Detroit’s water department resumes cutting off water to property owners who are either $150 in arrears or 60 days late in paying their utility bills. Some 83,000 residences and businesses are said by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to owe $90 million to the utility.

“There’s lots of reasons why people have fallen behind,” said Baxter Jones, a city resident. “Some of my friends have had their water turned off. Some people that I know that have had to take their kids different places to wash up. It’s very, very sad when you think about it because there’s so many different reasons why you need water.”

But there’s another group, largely composed of professionals from outside Detroit and outside Michigan, who’ve benefitted enormously from the Detroit bankruptcy, pocketing tens of millions in city payments  from the circumstances that led to the pension reductions and water shutoffs.

A Shrinking City Under Emergency Rule
Detroit’s bankruptcy trial is scheduled to start Tuesday, September 2, in U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes’ courtroom at the U.S. District Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. Over the next eight weeks or so, the trial proceedings are expected to reveal just how much “better off” the big banks financing the city’s new debt and financial obligations — as well the lawyers, bankers, accountants, and consultants involved in the deal-making — will be from rearranging Detroit’s fiscal operations.

Alice Jennings led a team of eight civil rights and human rights attorneys in filing a class action lawsuit in U.S. Bankruptcy Court to halt the water shutoffs. A hearing on the case is scheduled for September 2, the same day that the Detroit bankruptcy trial starts. Photo/Keith Schneider
Alice Jennings led a team of eight civil rights and human rights attorneys in filing a class action lawsuit in U.S. Bankruptcy Court to halt the water shutoffs. A hearing on the case is scheduled for September 2, the same day that the Detroit bankruptcy trial starts. Photo/Keith Schneider

An examination by Circle of Blue of the reports, exhibits, studies, and court orders filed with the federal bankruptcy court yields a disturbing and unassailable conclusion:  While unionized employees lost jobs and substantial portions of their pensions and benefits, and thousands of Detroit’s poorest residents are severed from water supplies and sewer services the nation’s biggest banks are making $6 billion to $7 billion in new bonds available to refinance city debts, a move that should reduce interest payments.

Meanwhile, tens of millions of dollars in transaction fees will be collected by bank officers. Traders selling the bonds could collect hundreds of millions of dollars more. And the regiment of lawyers and accountants handling the deals and managing the bankruptcy, at fees that range from $500 to $1,000 an hour, are collecting over $8 million a month for their services and expenses. Continue reading “In Detroit, Scales of Finance and Fairness Have Tipped Over”