Our Own Golden Circus

There’s the matter of privilege. The Gilded Age was elegant, if you had big money. The privileged few did. Those were the days before personal income taxes of any kind. The privileged few kept all their money, and, except for the curiously parsimonious Rockefellers, spent what they could, foolishly, and they still couldn’t figure out how to spend even a fraction of it. The media of the time, almost entirely newspapers, covered all the extravagant balls and dinners and massive parties, because the public couldn’t get enough of the amazing extravagance. Those were the days before professional sports, so that was the wild competition that fascinated the common man. The rich amused America. No one seemed to resent them, or envy them. Everyone just watched, to see who would do what next, and talked about these people endlessly. It was the only entertainment widely available. Movies would come much later.

Walter Lord covered this in his book The Good Years – in a chapter he titled The Golden Circus – all about the social season of 1905 in Manhattan, which was all about James Hazen Hyde, the pleasant but aimless young man whose father had founded the Equitable Life Assurance Society in 1859 and made a fortune, starting with nothing but a box of cigars. He had groomed his son to take over, but the son was into all things elegant and French, and fond of throwing amazing parties. He drew a salary of a hundred thousand dollars a year from Equitable, a massive amount of money at the time, and even if he couldn’t possibly find a way to spend it all each year, or even a fraction of it – but he did the best he could. He was the talk of the town, until his father suddenly died and the giant insurance firm realized the son was all fluff and nonsense. In spite of the younger Hyde’s many absurdly rich and quite powerful friends they finally eased him out, which signaled a massive shift in how business was conducted in America. Equitable was reorganized into a rational profit-generating arrangement of discrete departments and divisions, not a gentlemen’s club for the right sort of people. The Gilded Age was ending.

The Gilded Age is long gone now but the income inequality of 1905 is back again, where the very few have most of the money and everyone else just gets by, because wages went flat more than a decade ago, for those who still have a job. Many don’t even get by, but maybe they’re supposed to be content to watch the current golden circus and be entertained, not resentful. That seems to be the general idea. Donald Trump is counting on it. Things are as they are. Some people are rich. So what? That’s the way things are. Watch the circus.

From 1984 to 1995 it was Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous – Champagne Wishes and Caviar Dreams – and now CNBC has its wildly popular series Secret Lives of the Super Rich – the same sort of thing. The public still can’t get enough of the amazing extravagance – and maybe that’s why Donald Trump is president. He’s vulgar. He’s crass. He’s mean-spirited, insulting every minority in sight and finding excuses for those who march with the neo-Nazis and white supremacists. He’s all snarls and insults without thinking about the consequences of those snarls and insults. He’s proud of those snarls and insults, and he has the attention span of a gnat, and he doesn’t seem to care about anyone but himself – but damn, he’s rich. He’s endlessly fascinating.

Paul Krugman counters that argument:

According to a new Quinnipiac poll, a majority of Americans believe that Donald Trump is unfit to be president. That’s pretty remarkable. But you have to wonder how much higher the number would be if people really knew what’s going on.

For the trouble with Trump isn’t just what he’s doing, but what he isn’t. In his mind, it’s all about him – and while he’s stroking his fragile ego, basic functions of government are being neglected or worse.

Let’s talk about two stories that might seem separate: the deadly neglect of Puerto Rico, and the ongoing sabotage of American health care. What these stories have in common is that millions of Americans are going to suffer, and hundreds if not thousands die, because Trump and his officials are too self-centered to do their jobs.

First the hurricane:

When Hurricane Maria struck, more than a week ago, it knocked out power to the whole of Puerto Rico, and it will be months before the electricity comes back. Lack of power can be deadly in itself, but what’s even worse is that, thanks largely to the blackout, much of the population still lacks access to drinkable water. How many will die because hospitals can’t function, or because of diseases spread by unsafe water? Nobody knows.

But the situation is terrible, and time is not on Puerto Rico’s side: The longer this goes on, the worse the humanitarian crisis will get. Surely, then, you’d expect bringing in and distributing aid to be the U.S. government’s top priority. After all, we’re talking about the lives of three and a half million of our fellow citizens – more than the population of Iowa or metro San Diego.

Everyone knows the rest. Inaction looks like genocide – but Trump keeps saying that he’s proud that everyone is telling him that he’s doing a wonderful job with this. In fact, everyone is telling him that he’s wonderful. Why won’t the press report that?

The press won’t report that because no one is saying that, and Krugman notes this:

Although it’s more than a week since Maria made landfall, the Trump administration has yet to submit a request for aid to Congress.

And where’s the leadership? There’s a reason we expect visible focus by the president on major national disasters, including a visit to the affected area as soon as possible (Trump doesn’t plan to visit Puerto Rico until next week). It’s not just theater; it’s a signal about urgent priorities to the rest of the government, and to some extent to the nation at large.

But Trump spent days after Maria’s strike tweeting about football players. When he finally got around to saying something about Puerto Rico, it was to blame the territory for its own problems.

The impression one gets is of a massively self-centered individual who can’t bring himself to focus on other people’s needs, even when that’s the core of his job.

And then there’s that other matter:

Obamacare repeal has failed again, for the simple reason that Graham-Cassidy, like all the other GOP proposals, was a piece of mean-spirited junk. But while the Affordable Care Act survives, the Trump administration is openly trying to sabotage the law’s functioning.

This sabotage is taking place on multiple levels. The administration has refused to confirm whether it will pay crucial subsidies to insurers that cover low-income customers. It has refused to clarify whether the requirement that healthy people buy insurance will be enforced. It has canceled or suspended outreach designed to get more people to sign up.

These actions translate directly into much higher premiums: Insurers don’t know if they’ll be compensated for major costs, and they have every reason to expect a smaller, sicker risk pool than before. And it’s too late to reverse the damage: Insurers are finalizing their 2018 rates as you read this.

He really is a massively self-centered individual who can’t bring himself to focus on other people’s needs:

ACA sabotage is best seen not as a strategy, but as a tantrum. We can’t repeal Obamacare? Well, then, we’ll screw it up. It’s not about achieving any clear goal, but about salving the president’s damaged self-esteem.

The man is not endlessly fascinating, and Amanda Holpuch at The Guardian notes this:

Carmen Yulín Cruz, the mayor of San Juan, spoke on Friday afternoon at the Roberto Clemente Coliseum. Like the rest of the US territory, the capital of Puerto Rico was hit hard this month by two hurricanes, Jose and Maria.

The island is now struggling to repair damage, restore basic services and maximize the impact of a federal aid effort which Donald Trump and his administration have trumpeted but which many critics of the president have called slow and politically motivated.

On Friday, Trump continued to insist that Puerto Rican leaders had praised his efforts and said logistical difficulties were slowing the delivery of aid.

“This is an island,” he said, “surrounded by water. Big water, ocean water.”

The mayor had had enough:

We are dying here. And I cannot fathom the thought that the greatest nation in the world cannot figure out the logistics for a small island of 100 miles by 35 miles. So, mayday, we are in trouble.

FEMA asks for documentation, I think we’ve given them enough documentation.

They had the gall this morning – look at this [gestures to two large binders filled with paper] – they had the gall this morning of asking me: ‘What are your priorities, mayor?’

Well, where have you been?

That’s a good question, but she wasn’t finished:

 I have been patient but we have no time for patience any more. So, I am asking the president of the United States to make sure somebody is in charge that is up to the task of saving lives.

They were up the task in Africa when Ebola came over. They were up to the task in Haiti – as they should be. Because when it comes to saving lives we are all part of one community of shared values.

I will do what I never thought I was going to do: I am begging. I am begging anyone that can hear us to save us from dying. If anybody out there is listening to us, we are dying. And you are killing us with the inefficiency and bureaucracy…

So I am done being polite. I am done being politically correct. I am mad as hell because my people’s lives are at stake… So I’m asking members of the press to send a mayday call all over the world. We are dying here… and if we don’t get the food and the water into people’s hands, what we are going to see is something close to a genocide.

So, Mr Trump, I am begging you to take charge and save lives. After all, that is one of the founding principles of the United States of North America. If not, the world will see how we are treated not as second-class citizens but as animals that can be disposed of. Enough is enough.

What is Donald Trump going to do now? He could call Mayor Cruz just one more unhinged hysterical woman who gets everything wrong. Women are like that. Everyone knows this. Think of Hillary Clinton. He could laugh in her face – but that seems unwise. Women still have the right to vote, for now.

There may be other solutions. How do you solve a problem like Maria? We sort of “won” Puerto Rico in the Spanish-American War. We could give it back to Spain – sorry, we were being greedy – no hard feelings – it won’t happen again – it’s all yours now. We bought the Virgin Islands from Denmark in 1917 and we could offer to sell those islands back to them – at an attractive discount. Just make the deal sweet enough. How could they refuse? Would that solve all this stuff? Donald Trump is the master dealmaker – the best there ever was or ever will be. Perhaps someone in the White House is working on this.

That seems unlikely. This is a strange White House in our current Gilded Age. It is its own Golden Circus, as Josh Marshall explains here:

As I tried over the last year or two to understand the world of Trump, one thing I tried hard to get my head around was the stark and often comical pattern of Trump Organization loyalists’ strict public subservience to Trump. They’re not just loyal. Dignity jettisoning protestations and affirmative declarations seem to be part of the deal. What I heard or read again and again is that there’s a pretty clear if perhaps unspoken deal in the Trump universe. If you work for Trump as one of his people – not the thousands who must work for various Trump businesses but the high level, visible retainers – you get to enjoy the lifestyle. But the price is total loyalty, total self-abnegation and whatever loss of dignity is required to serve Trump.

Many people seem to be happy with that bargain.

This is a world of privilege:

Every administration has its share of small-bore scandals, profligate spending, and minor corruption. Obama’s was the exception, among both Democratic and Republican administrations. But we’ve seen enough now I think to recognize a distinct problem in the Trump administration. We now have multiple cabinet secretaries using private chartered jets and military jets in what seems to be an unprecedented way. We also have at least two cabinet secretaries having government-funded security details which seem wildly out of proportion to any real threat. (My strong suspicion is they just don’t want to have to deal with protestors or see them.) In so many words, that deal I mentioned from the Trump Organization – give up your dignity and you get to live the lifestyle seems to have been ported over to the new Trump Organization, what we used to know as the US government.

That makes every day there just one more episode of the Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous:

Perhaps it’s as simple as these folks see President Trump’s fairly spendthrift use of government resources for his own use and that’s just setting the tone for everyone else. But of course, Presidents are different. Good or bad, that didn’t start with Trump. I cringe as much as anyone at seeing the President’s constant government financed trips to Mar-a-Lago and Bedminster. But they are his estates. He likes to go to them. And the President basically can’t not spend a lot of money and bring a lot of people basically anywhere he chooses to go. It’s in the nature of the system we have – the hyper-security, the mobile White House apparatus.

I’m not saying this is okay. But it’s different. When Tom Price takes extremely expensive chartered jets – that only the very rich use for private travel – there’s no government justification. It’s just OPM (other people’s money). Who wouldn’t want to take a private jet if someone else is picking up the tab? Betsy DeVos is apparently traveling on a private jet too. But it’s hers. Why shouldn’t Tom Price get to?

This is the current Golden Circus:

Trump’s election, by bizarre ironies and paradoxes and nonsenses, is an affirmation of early 21st century plutocracy. The big folks get everything: the private jets, the personal retainers and security details, everything nice. That’s part of the Trump package. And it seems to be being taken up as one of the privileges of many or most or all top-level Trump appointees.

Trump’s base should be fine with that. The rich are endlessly fascinating. The privileged are endlessly fascinating. It’s a great show, and it drives the hopelessly stupid liberals crazy. What’s not to like? But then Trump did promise to “drain the swamp” – to stick up for the little guy. Trump wasn’t one of them – there’s no way he ever could be one of them – they didn’t want him to be one of them – but he’d stick up for them.

That had to come to a head, and it finally did:

Tom Price, President Trump’s embattled health and human services secretary, resigned Friday amid sharp criticism of his extensive use of taxpayer-funded charter flights, the White House said.

The announcement came shortly after Trump told reporters he considered Price a “fine man” but that he “didn’t like the optics” and planned to make a decision by the end of the day.

By that point, the president had already received Price’s resignation letter.

The optics were the problem:

Trump’s advisers said the president was particularly discomfited by Price’s behavior because he’d run as a champion for “forgotten” Americans for whom costly charter-plane travel seemed particularly egregious.

“It speaks to people who think Washington is already beyond hope and out of touch,” said Barry Bennett, a campaign adviser last year.

Good luck with that:

The similar accusations swirling around four other Cabinet members – over similarly expensive or unusual travel – have only heightened the cynicism. Details emerged Friday on a trip that Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin took to Europe in July; in between meetings with Danish and British officials, he and his wife went to the Wimbledon tennis match and took a cruise on the Thames. The government paid for their flights and some expenses.

It was time for damage control:

In a sharply worded memo on Friday, White House Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney informed the heads of all executive departments and agencies that they should severely restrict the use of non-commercial travel and will now need advance approval from the White House chief of staff in most instances.

“Every penny we spend comes from the taxpayer,” Mulvaney said. “Accordingly, with few exceptions, the commercial air system used by millions of Americans every day is appropriate, even for very senior officials.”

As in 1905, the Gilded Age was ending, and this guy really was from that era:

The ruckus prompted by the secretary’s travel habits followed complaints earlier this year by Democrats and other critics about his ethics for a separate reason: private investments he made while a House member in health-care companies that could have benefited from bills that he sponsored.

At his confirmation hearing in late January, the Senate Finance Committee’s senior Democrat, Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.), accused the nominee of “a conflict of interest and an abuse of position.” The main focus of such criticism involved Price’s largest stock purchase in 2016 – between $50,000 and $100,000 – in an Australian biomedical firm called Innate Immunotherapeutics.

The investment coincided with final negotiations on the sweeping 21st Century Cures bill, aimed in part at helping to accelerate clinical trials and approval of drugs like Innate’s.

Price acknowledged that the purchase, and several smaller ones he’d made in the company the previous year, occurred without an investment broker. As part of his confirmation, he testified before members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee that he had learned of the company from a House colleague, Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.), an Innate Immunotherapeutics board member. He contended that he received no insider information ahead of time…

Other criticism of Price revolved around his uncommon reliance on campaign contributions from the health-care industry. During his 2016 campaign for a seventh House term, he accepted more than $700,000 from physicians, hospitals, drug companies and health insurers, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

All of this was common knowledge, and as with James Hazen Hyde back in 1905, this guy’s many absurdly rich and quite powerful friends did him no good. He had always been all fluff and nonsense – and a bit of a thief. It was over.

It isn’t over. Anne Gearan points out something else:

There is also the matter of Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt’s $25,000 secure phone booth and the unauthorized use of private email by White House adviser Jared Kushner and others – a development that follows a campaign where Trump lambasted Hillary Clinton for her use of a private email system when serving as secretary of state.

Donald Trump has a problem here:

From the day he was elected, ethics experts have complained that many of Trump’s actions have been at odds with his vow to clean up Washington.

He has famously refused to release his tax returns, something every president has done for decades in the interest of accountability. He did not divest his eponymous business interests and holds official events at Trump-owned and branded properties.

He prefers to spend weekends at private, Trump-owned golf clubs. He traveled to his golf club in New Jersey on Friday.

Transportation, staffing and other costs are paid by the taxpayer, as they were for the far-less-frequent family vacations taken by recent presidents.

His administration has hired lobbyists – the very definition of swampiness – although it also has issued new revolving-door rules. Trump has issued waivers for more than a dozen officials that allow them to continue to interact with former clients, something the Obama administration also did.

And the Trump administration readily risked appearance problems by hiring multimillionaire corporate titans such as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the former ExxonMobil chief executive, and Wall Streeters such as Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and economic adviser Gary Cohn.

This is a Golden Circus that will never end:

Trump’s critics say no one should be surprised that he hasn’t followed through on his campaign promise. They argue that the mere idea of a flamboyantly rich New York real estate mogul as the champion of workaday lunch buckets in Middle America was silly.

“The tone on this stuff gets set at the top,” said Brian Fallon, spokesman for Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and a former Justice Department official in the Obama administration.

“Tom Price’s wasteful jet-setting is not causing Trump embarrassment because it violates any kind of reform mind-set within the Trump administration. No such mind-set exists,” Fallon said. “It is simply because Price got caught and is reminding everyone of how Trump has turned Washington into an even bigger swamp than it was in the first place.”

That might be shown by this:

As Secretary of Homeland Security, Gen. John Kelly spent months touting a hard line on immigration. He argued publicly and privately with Congress that if there were objections to the laws, it was up to legislators to change them – not to blame enforcers on the front lines.

But after a particularly contentious meeting with Democrats on the Hill regarding DACA this past summer, he was informed by Senate leaders that he appeared not to have been “read in” to some conversations going on in the White House, according to three sources with direct knowledge of the matter.

The president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, Kelly learned, had been quietly back-channeling with Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). Kushner, Democratic Hill aides confirmed, had discussed with the two senators a potential deal to protect Dreamers from deportation.

Kelly, according to three sources familiar with the exchange, was livid, not at the content of the discussions – he has said he personally supports DACA – but that they were going on without his knowledge. He called senior White House officials and demanded a meeting with Trump to deliver something of an ultimatum: If Kushner was going to freelance on DHS issues, the president would have to choose between his son-in-law and the four-star general serving in his Cabinet.

Nothing came of this – things were smoothed over – but this is a matter of the privilege of a privileged few:

Kushner has complained to friends and allies about his stunted status in the new regime. He can no longer simply float in and out of the Oval Office, or function in the freewheeling role he has grown used to since the campaign, he has told associates. That marks a change of status for the former real estate scion, who before working as a free-ranging agent for his father-in-law, served as the top dog at his family-owned real estate company in Manhattan.

It’s impossible not to think of James Hazen Hyde back in 1905 – the guy who was paid an enormous salary for no reason other than he was a rich man’s son, the guy who floated in and out of this and that in Manhattan, the center of everything at the time, happy to be the big shot in some undefined way. Everyone talked about him. That was so damned cool.

That circus ended. This one may not. Or it will end in tears. There are people dying.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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