Saturday, November 16, 2019

Tying Up Loose Ends: A Last Word on Three Stories

Over the past several weeks, we've covered a wide range of topics, from the situation in Syria and the plight of the Kurds, to the vanishing middle class, and Kentucky's state races. However, we've not quite finished the stories, which were still pretty fluid at the time. Personally, I hate to be left hanging; not knowing what finally happened; the "coda" as it were. I guess that hearkens back to the legendary Paul Harvey and his famous "rest of the story" format (I loved to listen to Harvey back in the day). So, with this edition of A/O, we're going to step back and take a parting look at some of the stories we've recently covered.

Let's start with Kentucky's Governor race. As we left it, it appeared the Attorney General Andy Beshear (D), son of former Kentucky governor Steve Beshear, had narrowly defeated Governor Matt Bevin (R) by just over 5000 votes or a margin of 0.36%. However, Governor Bevin refused to concede, citing possible voting "irregularities".

As a result, Bevin called for a recanvassing. Speaking from personal experience, voting "irregularities" in Kentucky are more common than not, so I can't say I blame him. Nevertheless, if Bevin was expecting to see the gap needed to win close, he was mistaken. None of the areas in question (mainly in the sparsely populated counties of Eastern Kentucky) could account for the 5189 votes he needed to pull out a victory. On Thursday, November 14th, the recanvassing was completed and not much changed. Beshear had won and Matt Bevin was out.

Bevin had counted on President Trump's popularity to help him win. However, what he failed to take into consideration was that Trump had lost much of his popularity among Kentuckians since 2015. Since taking office, Trump's approval rating across Kentucky has declined by almost 25%. Still, he remains popular among large segments of the population, especially in rural Kentucky but not in the heavily populated urban centers like Louisville, Lexington, or even Bowling Green for instance.

Secondly, Bevin had been ranked as the most disliked governor in the U.S. earlier in 2019 (he rose one place, to 49th, in the third quarter). The moral of the story is that if the voters don't like you, attaching yourself to a more popular figure typically won't be enough. Bevin should have focused more his accomplishments such as increasing corporate investments in the state to $9.2 billion dollar; nearly two times the previous record set in 2015 of $5.1 billion, which translates into more jobs and an increase in the tax base. He fully funded the Actuarially Required Contribution (ARC), the first administration to do so for instance.

Instead, his opponent, Andy Beshear, set the tone by making the race about Bevin's "abrasive" personality. Like it or not, politics is a popularity contest. If voters have a favorable opinion of someone, be it their appearance or personality (it's called "relatability"), they'll likely give them their vote. If not, they won't, no matter how positive their record is. Yeah, it's pretty shallow and no way to elect representatives, but that's the way it is. The average voter rarely takes time to research a candidate's position on issues or their political record. I guess that's why those who promise the most seem to the best.

Earlier we took a look at America's vanishing Middle Class. As just about all of know, it keeps getting harder to make ends meet. We seem to increasingly have "more month than money". The gap between the rich and everyone has steadily been increasing for decades. According to an article in the May edition of Forbes, the richest top 10% control 70% of the wealth just in America, an increase 10% over the last ten years. Meanwhile, the top 1% controls over 1/3 of all the wealth. The article went on to say that the bottom 50% saw a net zero gain over the last 30 years.

In another article, this one from the St. Louis Federal Reserve, pointed out that in 1989 the top 10% controlled 42% of the nation's wealth. The middle 50% - 90% had the same--42%---and the poorest segment about 15%. In 2016 that had changed. The top 10% had 50% of the total wealth while the middle 50% - 90% had just 37% and the poorest shrunk to 13%.

America has gone from being a democratic or representative Republic to being a defacto Oligarchy, leaving us (for the time being) the illusion of choice when it comes to elections. America's political system is broken beyond "reform" (whatever that means). We need to end partisan controlled gerrymandering, impose term limits, and end "Citizens United" which gives "person-hood" to corporations while equating free speech with unlimited financial contributions (though it still caps what flesh and blood citizens can give), allow equal access of candidates and parties, as well as citizen referendums.

Here's an interesting aside to consider. As anyone who has run for office knows, it takes a lot of money to get elected. Money, after all, is what you need to buy name recognition and get your message out there. Without it, you might as well not exist. If you want to run for the U.S. Senate, you better have $10 million just to get in the game. Think a U.S. Representative may be a better way to go? Great. Count on coughing up at least $5 million. Hillary Clinton spent $1.4 billion in running for president and still lost.

Statewide elections can be just as expensive. In 2002, Texas millionaire Tony Sanchez ran to become the state's first Hispanic Governor. He spent $65 million dollars to unseat Governor Rick Perry...and lost. In the 2018 Illinois Governor race, Democrat Jay Bob ("J.B.") Pritzker raised $175.1 million dollars to his opponent, Bruce Rauner's $79.7 million.

In Florida's 2018 Governor's race, Republican Rick DeSantis raised just under $59,000,000.00. His opponent in the race, Democrat Andrew Gillum, raised $55,062,506.84. Many political consultants will tell you that unless you can raise at least $20 million dollars, stay away from the top jobs. Even the down ticket offices are going to set you back a pretty penny.

Thanks to Citizens United, corporations now underwrite these campaigns, backing the candidate they believe will best serve their interests...not ours. Once elected, their lobbyists ensure that politicians toe the line by "helping" write legislation, ensuring that certain bills get voted up or down, and funding reelection war chests (aka "Leadership" PACs) not to mention all sorts of indirect bribes. Once a politicians (or even senior staffer) decides to hang it up, they tend to become lobbyists, political consultants, or Wall Street executive, thus perpetuating the cycle. Who do we have to look out after our interest? Absolutely no one, and that's not likely to change any time soon without a fight.

As you may have noticed, we haven't heard anything recently about the Kurds. When I last wrote about them in October, there was a ceasefire in place. The U.S. had withdrawn a small contingent of troops from Northern Syria in order to allow Turkish troops to freely invade the area and push back our allies, the Kurds, from the area. There was a real concern that prisons holding ISIS fighters and guarded by the Kurds, would be left unguarded, thus allowing thousands of dangerous ISIS fighters the opportunity to escape (which indeed happened at two locations). Also, pro-Turkish fighters were able to assassinate a popular Kurdish diplomat and peace advocate, Hevrin Khalaf, along with eight others in a ambush.

Nevertheless, the situation did create a unique opportunity for the U.S. military. With the pullback of the American troops and announcement by President Trump of a pending American withdrawal of troops, the head of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, came out of hiding...albeit briefly. He had been long targeted by U.S. Special Forces who, it would appear, were just waiting for the right opportunity. That opportunity came on the evening of October 27th when members of the super secret Delta Force chased the ISIS leader into a cave outside of Syrian town of Barisha where, using a suicide vest, he blew himself up along with three of his children.

As for the Kurds, U.S. intelligence agencies (principally the CIA's Special Activities Division), confirmed that the Kurdish led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) provided essential intelligence information as to the movement of key ISIS leaders, including that of al-Baghdadi, as well as information regarding his compound and security. The U.S. State Department added that the attack was delayed briefly after President Trump announced the troop pullback ahead of the Turkish invasion of Northern Syria.

Nevertheless, SDF as well as the Iraqi Kurds, continued to provide highly credible intelligence deep from within both ISIS and al-Baghdadi's inner circle, once again proving their importance as valuable American allies in the region. Shortly after al-Baghdadi's death, the second in command and ISIS spokesman, Abdul Hasan al-Muhajir, was killed in an airstrike thanks to information provided by the Kurds.

As a brief aside, it should be noted that Turkey's President Erdogan has repeatedly stated that he considers Kurdish nationalism to be a greater threat to Turkey and the region than that of ISIS and a Islamic Caliphate. We need to bear this in mind given that Turkey, which is 98% Muslim, is a major player in NATO and a key economic trading partner with the European Union.

The Kurds having been living in the same area---northwestern Iran, northern Iraq, northern Syria and southeastern Turkey--- for nearly 5000 years. The majority belong to the Shafi'i sect of Sunni Islam, there are also enclaves of Christians, Shia Islamists, Yazidisms, Zoroastrianists, Alevists and Yarsamists. They have been the victims of countless purges, exiles, and genocide. However, I should point out that part of the land they've long claimed also contains some of the richest oil and gas reserves in the region, so this is much more than about mere "nationalism" or a homeland for a persecuted people.

While Turkey is mostly Muslim, it's also mostly secular with strong connections to the West. An Islamic State could change that. It would certainly destabilize Turkey and even possibly push it toward religious extremism. One could imagine how that would affect its role in NATO or as a reliable trading partner. Meanwhile, the majority of Kurds have been forced to move to safer territory in Northern Iraq as they have time and again over the centuries.

So that, as Paul Harvey so often said, is the rest of the story. As a writer, I felt it was necessary to put a final statement on each of these stories, which had been left open do to the ongoing nature of events at the time. You, the reader, deserve nothing less than the full story.

Kentucky Republican Gov. Matt Bevin concedes to Dem Andy Beshear in reelection bid

America's Humongous Wealth Gap is Widening Further

What Wealth Inequality in America Looks Like: Key Facts and Figures

Kurdish informant provided key intel in operation that killed ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Bagdadi

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