Sunday, April 29, 2018

Beware of Smiling Dictators

It's on. The Kim Jong-un Redemption Tour is officially under way and like any other one-party, all-powerful, illberal, murderous dictator, he is smiling all the way.

Hello. I had my uncle shot. (Smile)

Hello. I had my half-brother killed in one of the most unique, sinister plots I could think of. (Smile)

Hello. I'm going to make nice-nice with our brothers and sisters in South Korea and meet with President Trump, who thinks I'm going to give up all of my nuclear weapons in return for some food and maybe some cultural artifacts. (Smile)

I'll believe it when I see it.

And here's the funny thing: Kim has a far more experienced foreign policy team than the United States does at present. The president, I fear, knows very little other than what's in his gut, which at any given moment has come from McDonald's. The new Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, has been on the job for a little over two days and is more infamous for his dislike of Muslims than what he knows about global politics.

OK, you're right. Not funny at all.

Plus, I'm a bit unsure as to what "denuclearization" means. Are both Koreas supposed to give up their nuclear arsenals? Are the Chinese and the Russians supposed to give up anything? After all, North and South can't sign a peace agreement to end the war without the US and other countries that were involved in the fighting. And what about the Japanese? Will we be asked to stop supporting Japan with our nuclear weapons?

Or is this like my kitchen? I won't bomb my neighbor, but please don't ask me to give up my microwave.

So many questions.

And then there's that smiling Comrade Kim, knowing that he can go on killing, starving, harassing, jailing, intimidating, propagandizing, bankrupting and misleading his people because he probably watches FOX News and understands that the Trump Administration will not only turn a blind eye to human rights abuses, they'll go all Oedipus on us and take a stick to their remaining oculars.

That's the real payoff and Kim knows it. He will not be held to account for the truly terrible things he's done to his people and he'll extract something of value for his regime. The South might get a peace treaty, repatriation for citizens who were kidnapped by the North, reunification meetings for families, and a promise from Kim not to invade, which will help the government of President Moon Jae-in maintain its economy and security. The North will get pretty much everything else, including some food aid, which is great, but it certainly won't be enough to turn around an economy that's hovering about three inches above dirt level.

As for the United States? Kim will want something in return for his denuclearization, such as a promise that the US won't invade, but it also might involve us weakening our alliance with Japan and South Korea. And I'm sure that Chinese President Xi will be involved as well. Many of the news reports talk about how China has been sidelined or marginalized as Kim goes directly to the South and then will meet with President Trump. I don't buy a word of it. President Xi, unlike the other bombasts who've taken to the world stage in the past two years, knows the value of silence. And loyalty. Kim is not acting alone.

When all is said and done, though, the smiling dictator will go back to his country and dictate. Everything. Nothing of any value will change.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest

Sunday, April 22, 2018

The Bullet Stops Here

I believe we have a winner.

The award for the most misguided person in the United States has to go to Micheal D. Cohen, Donald Trump's attorney and scheissmeister, who is quoted as saying that he would take a bullet for the president.

Now don't get me wrong. I would certainly take a bullet for anyone in my immediate family or a close friend, but I most certainly would not take anything for a person, much less a president, who denigrates, insults and forsakes me as a human being. Misplaced loyalty is a failure of character. Cleaning up other people's infidelities, financial irregularities and lapses of judgement that a child could explain as wrong is no way to make a living. It's no wonder that the president and those who know him are more worried about what the FBI will find out by sifting through Cohen's records than they are about Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian meddling in the election. What Trump has done domestically is far more noxious and damaging to his presidency.

But just when this story should be blooming in springtime glory, the Democrats stepped into some scheiss of their own by filing a lawsuit alleging criminal activity against it by the Russians, the Trump campaign and Wikileaks. Further, the DNC filed the suit without letting important people like Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi know they were doing this. Honestly, it makes the party look like a bunch of crybabies. Let Mueller do his job, keep the pressure on Cohen and focus on the ill effects of the president's policies on the economy, the environment, families, and the safety of their children.

Is that too difficult to ask? Or do the Democrats simply need to create fissures and schisms to feel alive?

The Republicans are already running the fall campaign by warning their donors and voters that if the Democrats win either or both legislative houses in November, then they will open impeachment proceedings as soon as their members are sworn in. Why give this issue back to the GOP? It's not like they have a stellar record to run on. The tax cuts are exciting noone except the companies that are using their windfall to buy up stock, and the rise in gas prices will soon negate most of the money that the middle and working classes are finding in their checks. Health care also seems to be a real worry to many middle class families because premiums and drug prices are rising at the same time that coverage and deductibles are making it difficult to get adequate care.

With all of the other distractions in Washington, running a campaign on middle class concerns would be a fun idea, yes? Perhaps the DNC could be persuaded to fund such a campaign for the fall instead of playing the president's game and making everything a matter of resentment and blame.

Instead of taking a bullet, why don't we bite the bullet and do what's right for the American people who deserve better than what they're presently getting from their representatives. I'd sacrifice a lot for that.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest

Sunday, April 15, 2018

The Second Time As Farce

Can someone please tell me what's the plan for this country? Yes, I understand that giving it over to corporate interests by cutting taxes, repealing legislation that keeps the air and water clean, and allowing certain industries to both police and investigate themselves, is just what Republicans do when they gain power, but where are we going? Is this it?

These thoughts came to me after last week's big-time fail by Republicans when they tried to muster a two-thirds majority for a balanced budget amendment. Not that this would have gone anywhere because there aren't 67 votes in the Senate to send such an amendment to the states, but it seems as though the GOP has given up on getting anything useful done.

And now that Paul Ryan has decided not to run for reelection, the truth about Republican governance has been exposed for the lie that it's always been. I'm tired of hearing that politicians want to spend more time with his family. The time to do that is when children are young and impressionable, not when they're older and don't want to listen anyway. I'm not just pointing this out because Ryan's a Republican. Anybody who says they want to spend more time with their family after being away from them for ten years is simply ignorant of the effect their behavior has had on the children. You can never get that time back.

Politically, though, this is significant. It's quite clear that the GOP sees the writing on the wall and it's in bright Day-Glo colors: You are going to lose many seats, and perhaps even your majority, so if you want to live under Democratic rule, then run again. Otherwise, move on. It also shows that many Republicans believe that the president is doing severe damage to the party and that the investigations into his and is associates' behavior will uncover real crimes with real potential punishments.

We've been here before in previous administrations. Sex scandals. Investigations. Ethically questionable behavior. An executive seething with resentment and frustration over the press and day-to-day workings of the government. Money. Everywhere there is money. Follow the money. And Mission Accomplished? Really?

Bombing Syria will change the news for a day or so, but eventually we'll go back to the domestic issues, and that's where we need some forward looking and thinking leadership. We need a plan, not just empty slogans. We need a direction.

I'm just a bit skeptical about where that's all going to come from.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest

Sunday, April 8, 2018

The Fierce Resistance: Public Workers Have Had Enough

I'm sure you remember this old saw: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. I'm sure that there are some reaction deniers out there, but for the most part this is settled science. And that's exactly why those who see the end of public unions, or indeed unions in general, in their rear view mirrors had better watch the road in front of them.

For the uninitiated, or for those unlucky enough to be represented by a labor union, the conversation wherein truth speaks to power will get very loud, most likely during the final week in June when the Supreme Court will render its decision in the Janus case, which centers on fees that are charged to people who don't join the union, but get the benefit of having it represent them during collective bargaining. For example, if you are a teacher in a public school in New Jersey and you don't want to join NJEA, you will still pay anywhere up to 85% of the association dues because the local NJEA affiliate will bargain on your behalf and, well, that costs money.

The Janus case, which is being pushed by right wing groups, is challenging those agency fees as unconstitutional because they say that workers are being forced to support speech they don't like, what with most associations being fairly liberal and contributing to Democratic candidates. The odds-makers are betting that the present Supreme Court will throw out 40 years of settled law and rule that unions cannot force anyone to contribute for their bargaining. The thinking among those right wing groups is that the public unions will then fall apart, go bankrupt, lead to the demise of public...everything and put the Democratic Party at a dangerous disadvantage because it would be robbed of union support.

A decision against agency fees would be terrible for working people, but let's go back to the equal and, more important, opposite reaction that's likely to take place.

If the right thinks that this will be the end of public unions, then they haven't been paying attention to West Virginia, Oklahoma and Kentucky, where teachers in these decidedly union-bashing states are walking out over pay, benefits and the lack of respect they're getting from know-nothings who think that just about anybody can be a public school teacher or worker. Years of Republican rule have sacrificed budgets on the altar of tax cuts and anti-government free-market gobbledygook about school choice and the money it robs from public education. Teachers have always noticed the effects and now parents are too. The results are not encouraging.

And if the GOP doesn't watch out, this movement will spread to other states that, until now, have been all quiet on the union front. In fact, a look at that list will illustrate just how much the GOP has to lose in a labor war, since the states with the least effective unions traditionally vote Republican. You can only push people so far, and the truth is that many teachers in these states need to also get second jobs in order to pay the bills. That's not an effective social contract.

But it doesn't end with teachers. Public workers throughout the country are being stigmatized because budget cuts have rendered local and state governments less effective and less able to respond to the needs of their citizens. This has been a major aim of the Republicans going back to Reagan, that is, to cut government spending so that people would attack its credibility, and the process has been disgracefully effective. State and federal workers have been furloughed and caught in battles between legislators resulting in government shutdowns to the point that many good people have left the field.

This cannot continue, and the reaction has already begun. Public unions will not go away. They will adapt and continue because they represent worker who do vital jobs. And all of the talk about how the president is on the side of workers has been exposed for the empty nonsense it's always been.

As a public school teacher in New Jersey, and an association president, I am represented by, and represent, an organization that has my interests at heart. But I was thinking the other day about how far I would go if those rights and benefits were in danger.

Would I walk out? Yes I would.
Would I strike, which is illegal for teachers in New Jersey? Yes I would.
Would I go to jail? Yes I would.

And I work in a state where public worker salaries and benefits are comparatively high.

Anger and frustration have a funny way of altering people's behaviors. We are seeing the beginning of that.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest

Sunday, April 1, 2018

The Strangers In Your Midst and the Fools Who Fear Them

An interesting year, no? The calendar has created a confluence of Passover, Easter and April Fool's Day, which pretty much covers everyone who lives...everywhere. Which is humbling because this weekend should remind us that we are only as big and smart and compassionate and humane as the weakest among us. The ones with the smallest voices, the vulnerable, the unloved. And that's why the words of the Seder concerning the stranger are incredibly prescient.

In short, they say, "You shall not oppress a stranger since you yourselves know the feeling of the stranger, for you were also strangers in the land of Egypt."

Pretty straightforward, I think. Treat all the people living in your land with respect, acceptance and love. The liturgy is full of these sentiments. And then some. But of course, we live in a land that has developed complicated feelings about the strangers who live here. We fear them and blame them for ills that are not supported by objective data. And then there's the president, who seems contradict himself over who should be able to stay in this country, and who gets himself in hot water over his language.

The real problem, though, is that people who call themselves religious, and a great number of those who don't, not only support the restrictionist policies of the president, they do so in direct violation of the religious values they so proudly promote. This creates a climate of fear that is dividing the country and is leading the government to sue states and cities that say they will harbor immigrants, both documented and undocumented, rather than submit to policies that break up families and sow fears in largely immigrant communities.

And adding a question about citizenship to the 2020 census will only make things worse. If the purpose of the census is to get an accurate count of who's in this country, then why ask a question that will lead to a dramatic undercount of the population? After all, it's crystal clear that the reason behind the question is not benign. What the president ultimately wants is to prove his contention that he lost the popular vote count in 2016 because illegal immigrants rushed to the polls and voted against him. Secondarily, he wants to know who's a citizen so his administration can harass, deport and threaten both immigrants and the states in which they reside, most of which voted against him.

Talk about oppression. And fear.

We do need sensible immigration reform, but that does not include a wall or mass deportations or disruptions in the lives of people who have lived here productively. It does include compassion and respect, which seem to be in short supply in Washington.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest