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TODAY'S HEADLINES (click to jump there; use your browser's "Back" button to return here)
      •  Biden Puts Monopolies in His Crosshairs
      •  Texas Is at It Again
      •  Another Potential Infrastructure Wrinkle
      •  The Republican Party Stands for Nothing
      •  Trump Says He Welcomes Deposition
      •  An Artful Solution?
      •  A Momentary Lapse of Reason, Part II

Biden Puts Monopolies in His Crosshairs

Joe Biden isn't even going to pass Go, or collect his $200. Nope, he's just going to cut right to the chase today, and issue an executive order aimed at undercutting monopolies in agriculture, air travel, banking, broadband, and healthcare, among other industries.

Keeping in mind that executive orders cannot establish new laws, and can only instruct federal agencies in how to interpret and enforce existing laws and regulations, these are some of the elements expected to be included in the EO:

  • Encouraging the FCC to re-institute net neutrality.

  • Asking the Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission to update their procedures for examining corporate mergers.

  • Ordering federal agencies to find ways to support local-government-supported broadband.

  • Telling the Department of Transportation to compel airlines to be transparent about added fees.

  • Instructing the Department of Commerce to establish protections for people who try to fix their own cars, computers, iPhones etc., so that they do not automatically lose their warranties.

In some cases, the relevant agency is headed by an independent board of commissioners, and so cannot be given a direct order from the president. This is why, for example, the net neutrality portion is "encouragement" and is not a command.

In 2016, Barack Obama announced a similar EO. However, because he did so near the end of his term, and because he was not as careful about using phrases like "I encourage" and "I propose," the order had little effect, and was brushed aside when Donald Trump took office. It will not be so easy to wait Biden out, given that he'll be in office for at least 3½ more years. This is a clear tip of the cap to the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, though it is not clear if they will be satisfied with more incremental changes like this if the Party and its president are unable to pull off more sweeping changes. (Z)

Texas Is at It Again

The defenders of the Alamo, who held out against all odds, are great heroes in Texas, although even they eventually gave up (mostly because they were dead, but is that really any excuse?). The current Republican members of the Texas legislature, by contrast, are not quitters like Davy Crockett & Co. They were stymied in May, when the Democratic members of the legislature blocked restrictive new voting laws by running out the clock on this year's legislative session. But now, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has ordered a special session, so he and his fellow partisans can give it another go.

There is no bill, as yet, and the Texas Senate and Texas House are kicking around slightly different wish lists, but it looks like these are the things the Republicans are going to aim for:

  • Uniformity: All counties would have to follow the exact same set of procedures, whether they have 4 million people (like Harris County, where Houston is located) or 170 people (like Loving County). The purpose here is to keep large cities (which are blue, even in Texas) from adopting special accommodations meant to allow a larger number of voters to cast their ballots without waiting in line for hours and hours.

  • Ineligible Registrants: It's already a crime to cast a ballot if you are not eligible to do so. Texas Republicans want to also make it a crime to register if you are not eligible to do so. As you might imagine, it is rather easier to misunderstand whether or not you are eligible to register than whether or not you are eligible to vote. The purpose here is to, at very least, delay registrations from migrants and immigrants—who skew Democratic—and ideally to keep them from registering at all.

  • Ending Straight-ticket Voting: This is where the voter can just choose "give me all the Democrats" or "give me all the Republicans" or "give me all the Greens" and be done with their ballot. It used to be that Republicans used this option more than Democrats did, and so Republicans loved it. Now, Democrats use it more, so it had to go. But there is also something more subtle and more insidious at work here. A ballot could have 10, even 20 races on it, down to local school boards and water district commission members. Using straight-ticket voting, the voter can be out of there in 30 seconds. Having to vote for every race separately can take 10 minutes, thus greatly slowing down voting and making the lines much, much longer in urban areas. Rather than wait 10 hours, voters in Houston might give up and go home. If you think this is an unintended side effect, please think again.

  • Less Mail-in Voting: Texas already strictly limits mail-in voting, basically to people over the age of 65, or to those who can prove a disability. The plan is to make it harder by adding a voter ID requirement. A person would have to provide a driver's license, ID card, or the last four digits of their Social Security number. The purpose here is to reduce voting from people who might otherwise qualify to vote absentee, but who cannot provide the necessary information. That is, once again, a demographic that skews Democratic, since poor people/minorities/women are more likely to be ID-less, while recent immigrants are more likely to have no SSN.

  • More Generous Curing Procedures: This may be a bit surprising, but the Texas Republicans also want to make it slightly easier for people to "cure" problematic absentee ballots. Since the legislators are not explaining themselves, and can't be trusted to tell the truth even when they do, we're not sure what is going on here. However, we have two pretty good ideas. The first possibility is that this provides political cover, so Republican politicians and pundits can say, "How does this bill make voting harder if we're doing things like making it easier to cure ballots?" The second is that people who qualify for absentee ballots (mostly older folks) and who clear the voter ID hurdle likely skew Republican. And so, those ballots need to be counted.

  • Less Assistance: For someone to receive assistance with casting their ballot, they would have to prove a physical disability, and the person assisting them would have to swear under penalty of perjury they were doing so without compensation. We do not know if disabled people skew Democratic, but they probably do, since the Democrats are the party that opposes lifetime insurance caps and things like that. We do know that the Texas Democratic Party has had a lot of success with hiring specialists who make contact with disabled voters and help them to vote.

  • No More Vote Harvesting: This would end the practice of sending out party workers to collect absentee ballots. Although absentee voters skew Republican in Texas, Democrats have had more success with ballot harvesting because it works best in densely populated areas, like cities.

  • No Unsolicited Vote-by-Mail Applications: In 2020, a lot of large counties sent an application to every voter who was eligible to vote by mail. Large counties, which tend to have the money for this sort of thing, tend to be blue. So, the practice must end.

  • Fewer Limits on Poll Watchers: "Volunteer" poll watchers would be given great leeway to observe both voters and poll workers, to "make sure" no fraud is taking place. A little voter/poll worker intimidation just might be in the offing, as well.

The most notable omission, as compared to the bill that ran out of time in May, is the limits on Sunday voting. Those limits were so transparently meant to limit "souls to the polls" operations, which tend to be utilized by Black voters, that they were a huge PR problem, and were unlikely to survive a court challenge, even with the Supreme Court as currently constituted.

Sooner or later, the Republicans are going to get a bill passed and signed into law. It is not clear if the Democrats in the legislature have returned to the capital and are participating. Even if they are boycotting, it can't last, as they would have to be willing to live outside of Texas for the next 18 months in order to avoid being arrested by a Texas Ranger and hauled to Austin. Once the GOP gets its way, then we'll see if they can make it work PR-wise, in the name of "election security," and if their new laws can survive the inevitable court challenges. Unless the Democrats in Congress pass something that supersedes the Texas bill then, in contrast to the situation at the Alamo, the odds are in the Texans' favor. (Z)

Another Potential Infrastructure Wrinkle

The longer that the infrastructure situation drags on, the more you get the sense that passing major (or even minor) legislation is really, really hard. It's like herding cats, except way tougher.

The latest problem to arise has to do with...wait for it...funding the bipartisan infrastructure bill. The very best way to fund expensive new initiatives, at least politically, is to come up with sources of money that do not involve levying new taxes. This is why Donald Trump and his fellows in Congress based the 2017 tax cut on insanely optimistic projections of U.S. economic growth. If those projections had come to pass (they didn't), then the tax cut would have been revenue-neutral (or nearly so).

Joe Biden and his fellows (including the members of the Gang of 10, 20, or 21) also tried to be creative in paying for infrastructure (albeit not to the point of delusion, as was the case in 2017). They took note of a longstanding observation that, to limit the levying of new taxes, the IRS could do a better job of enforcing the taxes that are already on the books. Sending more money to that agency would allow it to chase down more tax dodgers, and would produce a return anywhere from $5 to $10 for every $1 invested in increased enforcement.

However, there are many people and many organizations that not only hate new taxes, they also hate the taxes that are already in place. And on Thursday, a gaggle of Republican, anti-tax activists groups—the Committee to Unleash Prosperity (CUP), FreedomWorks, the Conservative Action Project (CAP), and the Leadership Institute—let it be known that they are going to turn the screws on the Republican members of the Senate in order to convince them to oppose the more-money-for-the-IRS plan. It's never easy to stand firm when both CUP and CAP are after you.

As a general rule, when the anti-taxers say "Jump!", Senate Republicans say "How high?", with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) leading the chorus. Further, most Senate Republicans have not yet taken a public position on the bill, and wouldn't even have to flip-flop in order to kowtow to the anti-taxers' demands. So, this sure looks like another nail in the bipartisan bill's coffin. Though one wonders exactly how carefully CUP, CAP and all the others are thinking about what will happen if the bipartisan bill goes down in flames, giving the Democrats political cover to pass a much more assertive reconciliation bill (including, almost without question, a hike in corporate tax rates). (Z)

The Republican Party Stands for Nothing

And by that, we mean that in 2022, "we're the party of doing nothing" is what the GOP plans to run on.

In terms of actual governance, at least at the national level, the current iteration of the Republican Party has many...issues:

  • The ideological gap between the two parties is so wide that there is very little that 60 members of the Senate can agree upon.

  • The ideological spread in the Republican Party, which is home to many extremists, is so wide that even intraparty agreement is difficult. There is a reason that when they had the trifecta from 2017-19, they were unable to pass anything much beyond the tax cut. You could blame that on Democratic filibusters in the Senate, except that the filibuster-less and Republican-controlled House wasn't passing much of anything, either.

  • Republicans absolutely hate the thought of giving any "wins" to Joe Biden (or Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-CA, or Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-NY, etc.).

  • Many of them, taking Ronald Reagan's words (if not his actions) to heart, see government as a "problem," and want it to do as little as possible (besides lavishing money on the military).

And so, beyond culture-wars-type stuff, all the Republicans can really put forward as a platform is "we're the party that will grind the federal government to a halt." This week, a video featuring Rep. Chip Roy (R-TX) speaking to a conservative activist group was made public. And in it, he said, "Honestly, right now, for the next 18 months, our job is to do everything we can to slow all of that [Democratic legislation] down to get to December of 2022." He also referred to the Democrats' proposals as "liberal garbage."

Now, one could argue that Roy is among the more fringy members of his conference. And, if one did argue that, one would be correct. However, Mitch McConnell is not fringy, and he's said precisely the same thing many times, decreeing that "One-hundred percent of our focus is on stopping this new administration." The Minority Leader delivered a speech this week in which he promised that, if Republicans retake the Senate, his job will be "stopping things that fundamentally push the country into a direction that, at least my party, feels is not a good idea for the country." McConnell suggested that he would not stop everything, and that he would support "moderate" legislation, but he somehow did not find time to explain what might qualify. And since everything proposed by Joe Biden—whose picture is in the dictionary next to "moderate"—is immediately derided as Big Brother socialism, to the left of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin, it is hard to conceive of anything "moderate" enough to secure McConnell's approval. Of course, if Biden proposed a big tax cut for rich people, McConnell would be in a terrible bind, not wanting to anger his donors but also not wanting to give Biden a big victory.

This ultimately raises two questions whose answers will prove to be very important in the next 18 months. The first: Will a do-nothing agenda, sprinkled liberally (no pun intended) with gripes about critical race theory and other culture-wars issues, resonate with voters in November of next year? The second: In the interim, how many times can Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) and Joe Manchin (D-WV) sing the praises of bipartisanship before concluding they are barking up the wrong tree? (Z)

Trump Says He Welcomes Deposition

Two days ago, Donald Trump filed a dumb lawsuit against the social media giants, one that has absolutely no hope of succeeding (in no small part because it was filed in the wrong state). Yesterday, he sat for a dumb interview with Bill O'Reilly, which will air on conservative news channel The First, which is even more dinky than OAN or Newsmax. And in that interview, Trump made a dumb promise, declaring that he would be delighted to sit for a deposition in the case. "I look forward to it actually," the former president said. "I love talking about the election fraud."

If any of the lawyers and political advisers who work for Trump sign off on this plan, they should be tossed out of their respective professions. That said, The Donald sometimes does what he wants to do, everyone else's opinion be damned. And if he does somehow submit, he would face the best lawyers money can buy, who would then rake him over the coals. In particular, keeping in mind the reason he was ultimately booted from the various platforms, he would face hours (or days) of questioning about his role in the insurrection.

Trump has promised to sit for depositions before, and then chickened out (e.g., the Mueller investigation). And on top of that, the lawsuit is so weak that it should be kicked before it ever gets to the deposition stage. But if the former president sticks to his guns, the social media companies may try to keep this going just long enough to allow them to depose him (by not asserting the jurisdictional issues). Doing so would humiliate him and (maybe) shut him up, and would serve as a useful warning to any other right-winger who might consider a similar lawsuit. (Z)

An Artful Solution?

This story is of interest for two different reasons. The first is that it might become the next silver bullet that Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, et al., try to fire in Joe Biden's direction. The second is that it illustrates the sort of messy ethical dilemmas that politicians in general, and presidents in particular, get to deal with.

Here is the basic problem: First Son Hunter Biden—who, like many people, desires to make as much money as possible with as little work as possible—has a new gig: He's now an artist. And he will have a show in New York later this year, where his paintings will be priced between $75,000 and $500,000.

Before we continue, let's do a brief exercise. Imagine that, for each of the following six paintings, you have the choice between owning the painting or being given $75,000 in cash, tax-free. In which cases would you choose the painting, and in which cases would you take the cash?

Painting 1 shows two women who
look to be floating horizontally, with long hair decorated with lots of small flowers; painting 2 shows a single white
flower and its leaves, it looks like a pansy or a nasturtium; painting 3 is also a flower, but is a bit more abstract,
it shows the stem, and a splash of red that looks like a rose that has been driven over by a car along with a dozen or
so white splashes with green centers; painting 4 is a collection of two dozen rectangles and squares and trapezoids of
various sizes and colors, most are set at about a 60-degree angle; painting 5 is an abstract melange of paint splashes,
mostly white, black, and periwinkle, with a bit of red; painting 6 has an impressionist appearance, and shows two women
in Victorian clothing and holding umbrellas to protect themselves from the sun; it's somewhat reminiscent of 'A Sunday
Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte' by Georges Surrat.

We will tell you later which paintings you probably should have traded the $75,000 for, and which ones you should not have.

For now, however, let us point out the obvious ways in which Biden's new line of work is problematic. Five or six figures is an extremely large amount of money for a new and un-established artist. At best, it looks like Hunter is trading in on his famous name (again). At worst, whether he intends it or not, he's opening up an avenue by which well-heeled people (or governments) might attempt to buy access to his father. This is especially concerning for a person who has approached this line one or two times before.

And now, the counter-argument. Hunter Biden was not elected to the presidency, his father was. Just because Joe is president does not mean that his entire family has to spend the next 4-8 years as paupers, unable to pursue their chosen vocations and make as much money as they can at it. Plus, art is subjective. Who is to say that Biden is not the next Francis Bacon or Jackson Pollock? Some critics are impressed with his work, and if he does indeed become the next big thing, getting in on it for $75,000 (or even $500,000) is a bargain. Here is a list of the paintings shown above:

  1. Wasserschlangen II, by Gustav Klimt: This was sold at auction in 2013 for $183 million, which is a tad bit more than $75,000.

  2. Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1, by Georgia O'Keeffe: This one sold in 2014 for $44.4 million, which is also more than $75,000, and is the highest price ever paid for a painting by a female artist.

  3. Untitled, by Hunter Biden: We shall soon see what it's worth.

  4. Suprematist Composition, by Kazimir Malevich: This one sold in 2018 for $85.8 million, so you probably should have picked it over the $75,000.

  5. Untitled, by Bongo the chimpanzee: A collector bought this one for $5,000. Not bad for a chimp (and he had no formal training!), but rather less than $75,000.

  6. Untitled, by Adolf Hitler: This last sold, in 2017, for about $10,000. That sum is just one reason you hopefully chose the $75,000 in this case.

In short: Valuing art is a crapshoot, and the notion that it can be done in anything approaching a systematic and objective fashion is basically a fiction created and maintained by art dealers and investors.

In an effort to minimize potential conflicts, the dealer who is handling the Biden exhibition is going to withhold the identity of the buyers and the exact prices paid for each work. Consequently, even if someone tried to drop a couple of million dollars to curry favor with the Biden family, Hunter wouldn't know who they are or how much they paid. And if they were to out themselves, then the sale would be canceled.

Undoubtedly, the right-wing talkers will try to get some mileage out of this, but our guess is that it doesn't gain traction. Burisma and other would-be scandals did not stick to Joe Biden, and "Hunter's selling artworks at an inflated price" is rather less damning than "Hunter directly sold influence to the government of Ukraine." It's also worth noting that even if this is graft, it's peanuts compared to Trump International Hotel Washington, D.C., and other ways in which the Trump family profited off the presidency. (Z)

A Momentary Lapse of Reason, Part II

And away we go. As a reminder, here are the album names that were hidden in our Thursday posting two weeks ago:

We Have a Deal, Part 29: "The Wall," by Pink Floyd.

Supreme Court Justices Are Earning Their Paychecks: "Let It Be," by the Beatles. As we noted earlier this week, we now have clear evidence, courtesy of readers R.R. in Chewelah, WA, and P.B. in Mendon, MA, that "In the Summertime" was both a single and an album by Mungo Jerry. So, we accepted that as a valid answer.

The Day After: "To the 5 Boroughs," by the Beastie Boys. Many folks submitted "The Day After" by Twista, but that album came out in 2005, not 2004.

Another Proposal for Fixing the Filibuster: "Pet Sounds," by the Beach Boys, plus the bonus album "What's Going On," by Marvin Gaye.

Biden Nominates McCain for U.N. Post: "Kind of Blue," by Miles Davis. As we have already noted, there are lots of albums called "Blue," including a very famous one by Joni Mitchell, but they weren't released in 1959.

We Have Our First Redistricting Map...and Our First Redistricting Map Squabble: "Rocky Mountain High," by John Denver.

Newsom to Face Recall Election: "Time Takes Time," by Ringo Starr.

And here are some of the other albums that readers found (even if the years didn't match):

  • Blue, by Joni Mitchell (as noted)
  • Green, by REM
  • Red, by Taylor Swift
  • Face to Face, by The Kinks
  • Heart, by Heart
  • Profile, by Duke Pearson
  • Stop Us If You've Heard This One Before, by Barenaked Ladies
  • The Grey Lady, by Sandblasting
  • Red Tape, by Atlanta Rhythm Section
  • The Point, by Nilsson
  • Dust, by Dust
  • Politics, by Sèbastien Tellier
  • State of Affairs, by Kool and the Gang
  • In Full Swing, by Seth MacFarlane
  • Maybe Today, Maybe Tomorrow, by We Are The Ocean
  • Strike While the Iron is Hot, by Born Hammers
  • Colorado, by Neil Young and Crazy Horse
  • The Long Run, by Eagles
  • Hustle, by G. Love
  • The Works, by Queen
  • Cart Before the Horse, by The Hasbros
  • Time Has Come, by Ziggy Marley
  • Lesser of Two Evils, by Dokken
  • Garcia, by Jerry Garcia
  • Us, by Peter Gabriel
  • By The Way, by The Red Hot Chili Peppers

Meanwhile, here are some of the song names that readers found:

  • Really Sayin' Something, by Bananarama
  • Pipeline, by The Ventures
  • Cracked The Code, by Sarah Warne
  • The Weight, by The Band
  • Loser, by Beck
  • Money, by Pink Floyd
  • Hustle, by Pink
  • Pollyanna, by Green Day
  • Maybe Tomorrow, by Stereophonics
  • Frying Pan, by John Prine
  • Maybe Tomorrow, by the Jackson 5

Quite a few folks also correctly noted that nearly any word, or word combination, has been used as a title by some artist. So, the answers we've listed here are songs we regard as being somewhat famous or distinctive.

When it came to scoring, we treated this the way (Z) would treat a quiz in one of his classes. There were 7 questions, so it was "worth" 7 points. Correct albums were worth 1 point, the bonus album was worth 1 point, and valid songs were worth 1/2 point each. So, you didn't have to be perfect to get a perfect score.

And with that said, here are the folks who earned at least 7 points on the "quiz":

  • A.H. in Espoo, Finland
  • A.J.L. in Sterling, MA
  • A.T. in Quincy, IL
  • B.C. in Walpole, ME
  • B.O. in Dublin, Ireland
  • C.L. in Glendale, AZ
  • D.A.T. in Napa, CA
  • D.E. in High Springs, FL
  • E.C-F. in Somerville, MA
  • I.K. in Olympia, WA
  • J.B. in Franklin, TN
  • J.H. in Portland, OR
  • J.M. in Eagle Mills, NY
  • J.M. in New York City, NY
  • J.R. in Philadelphia, PA
  • J.S. in Newark, NJ
  • K.A. in Miami Beach, FL
  • K.C. in El Cajon, CA
  • K.C. in Los Angeles, CA
  • K.H. in Maryville, TN
  • K.L. in Herndon, VA
  • L.J. in Bourbonnais, IL
  • L.S. in Greensboro, NC
  • M.B. in Melrose, MA
  • M.B. in Woodland, CA
  • M.C.A. in San Francisco, CA
  • M.E. in Greenbelt, MD
  • M.J.S in Cheshire, CT
  • M.L. in Encino, CA
  • M.M. in Jamaica Plain, MA
  • M.S. in Knoxville, TN
  • P.B. in Mendon, MA
  • P.C. in Santa Monica, CA
  • P.W. in Edmonds, WA
  • R.R. in Chewelah, WA
  • S.A. in Downey, CA
  • S.C. in Costa Mesa, CA
  • S.H. and E.S.T. in Lake Helen, FL
  • S.M. in Pepperell, MA
  • S.W. in Winter Garden, FL
  • T.J.R. in Metuchen, NJ
  • W.B. in Paris, France
  • W.V. in Maryland Heights, MO

We are glad that so many people enjoyed it, and the next time we do something like this, it will be with a bit more planning in advance, so that there is less chance of "uncertain" answers. (Z & V)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
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