Monday, November 13, 2017

Soulless Battle

No Sift next week. The next new articles will appear November 27.

This can't even be described as a battle for the soul of the GOP, but instead a fight over whether the party should have a soul at all.

- Robert Schlesinger, "Roy Moore's Sick Defenders"

This week's featured posts are "What Did Virginia Teach Us?" and "Roy Moore: Are we really having this conversation?"

This week everybody was talking about the Democrats' wins

(Well, except Fox News. Elections? Were there elections Tuesday?) The big race was Ralph Northam beating Ed Gillespie for the governorship in Virginia, which I discuss in one of the featured posts.

But it wasn't just the governor's race: Democrats took the other major statewide offices and gained substantially in the Virginia House of Delegates, making it close enough that control depends on recounts. But it's a measure of the power of gerrymandering that the seats split almost evenly, despite the total Democratic vote crushing the total Republican vote 53%-44%. Anyone who believes in  democracy has to be deeply disturbed that 44% of the vote might be enough for Republicans to maintain control.

And it wasn't just Virginia: Democrat Phil Murphy replaced Chris Christie as governor of New Jersey, beating Christie's lieutenant governor 56%-42%. By a wide margin, Maine voted to expand Medicaid.

and Roy Moore

I talked about this in the other featured post. In particular, adult men pursuing girls in their mid-teens isn't just a quirk of Roy Moore. It's something that happens in an extremely conservative Christian subculture.

One thing I didn't put into that article: I'm not the least bit shocked that there's something icky in Moore's past. When you style yourself as "the Ten Commandments Judge", you're compensating for something. Most Christians don't need to install 5000-pound granite monuments to prove how upright they are.

and Veterans Day

As I watched all the ways veterans were honored this weekend, it reinforced my impression that America has a strangely bifurcated relationship with its military. On the one hand, military service has never been more distant from the lives of most Americans. Soldiers serve and are in danger all over the globe, in places (like Niger) that most of us couldn't find on a map. We fight wars (like Iraq or Afghanistan) without any of the impacts on everyday life that previous generations took for granted: no rationing, no tax increases, no products missing from the shelves. If you didn't follow the news you might not even know it was happening.

Simultaneously, we also mythologize our military and its personnel more than I can ever remember. At sporting events, we have them stand up to be applauded. We stick pro-military slogans to our bumpers. Those who don't stand for the national anthem are condemned not for disrespecting our country, but for disrespecting our veterans. Politicians constantly tell us our soldiers are the best in the world, or the best among us.

And yet again, we only sort of care whether they're treated right. It's a scandal from time to time how badly the VA takes care of their medical needs, but it goes away, and most of us don't bother to find out whether anything was done. When our attention is drawn to veterans issues, we demand the best for them. But we don't follow through. We're embarrassed when we realize that we haven't done well by them, but we don't really care.

and tax reform

The Senate came out with its tax-reform bill, which differs from the House bill in a number of ways, but keeps many of the features that make it a bonanza for rich people: big cuts in corporate taxes, getting rid of the alternative minimum tax, and cutting taxes on income from pass-through business entities (such as most of Donald Trump's investments). (One report says that the rich don't get the biggest cuts in percentage terms, but they're not taking into account where the business tax breaks end up.) Like the House bill, it adds $1.5 trillion to the national debt over ten years. It differs mainly in which deductions it preserves or eliminates, but that's barely worth talking about for one big reason: This still isn't the bill they intend to pass.

The WaPo explains:

Senate Finance Committee aides said they planned to make adjustments to the legislation because it probably does not comply with the rules for a special Senate procedure they hope to use to pass the bill with 50 votes, rather than the 60 votes typically needed to beat a filibuster.

The big problem is that it will continue increasing the deficit after ten years, which reconciliation rules don't allow. This isn't just a frill that can be cut away without affecting the big picture; it comes from the revenue cuts that are what the bill is all about. So fixing it will require a lot more than mere "adjustments".

So this is where we are: The plan is still for the House to pass its bill by Thanksgiving, and for the House and Senate to agree on something they can deliver to Trump's desk by Christmas. But they still haven't told us what that will be, and both the House and the Senate know that the bill they are currently discussing can't be it. In other words, it's all still playing out like I predicted two weeks ago.


Tuesday, on a phone conference with 12 Democratic senators, Trump made this outrageous claim:

My accountant called me and said "you're going to get killed in this bill".

Bloomberg consulted a tax accountant, who said:

Not only is there not much in this bill that would presumably hurt the president, but it kind of seems like it's specifically designed to help him.

Of course, Trump could lay this debate to rest by releasing his tax returns, which (unlike every president since Nixon) he refuses to do. In the one year where we have some Trump tax information (2005), Trump paid $38 million in taxes on $150 million in income, about 25%. But $31 million of that total was due to the alternative minimum tax (AMT), which current proposals eliminate. Without the AMT, he would have paid less than 5%.

but Trump's Russia comments are very disturbing

Saturday, Trump called former leaders of America's intelligence agencies (James Clapper, John Brennan, and James Comey) "political hacks", and insisted that he believes Vladimir Putin's assurances that he didn't meddle in the 2016 U.S. elections. The whole controversy, he claimed, "was set up by Democrats."

Former Bush speechwriter David Frum commented that although we don't yet have proof that Trump conspired with the Russian interference at the time,

What is becoming ever-more undeniable is Trump’s complicity in the attack after the fact—and his willingness to smash the intelligence and counter-intelligence agencies in order to protect Putin, Russia, and evidently himself. ...

A year after the 2016 election, the Trump administration has done nothing to harden U.S. election systems against future interference. It refuses to implement the sanctions voted by Congress to punish Russia for election meddling. The president fired the director of the FBI, confessedly to halt an investigation into Russia’s actions—and his allies in Congress and the media malign the special counsel appointed to continue the investigation.

These are not the actions of an innocent man, however vain, stubborn, or uniformed.

“Beyond a reasonable doubt” is the standard for criminal justice. It’s not the standard for counter-intelligence determinations. The preponderance of the evidence ever-more clearly indicates: In ways we cannot yet fully reckon—but can no longer safely deny—the man in the Oval Office has a guilty connection to the Russian government. That connection would bar him from literally any other job in national security except that of head of the executive branch and commander- in-chief of the armed forces of the United States.

[I added the link and the emphasis.]

John McCain issued a statement:

There's nothing ‘America First’ about taking the word of a KGB colonel over that of the American intelligence community. There's no ‘principled realism’ in cooperating with Russia to prop up the murderous Assad regime, which remains the greatest obstacle to a political solution that would bring an end to the bloodshed in Syria. Vladimir Putin does not have America's interests at heart. To believe otherwise is not only naive but also places our national security at risk.

and you also might be interested in ...

It's not just an American problem: Around 60K white nationalists from all over Europe came to Warsaw for an Independence Day demonstration.

Demonstrators with faces covered chanted “Pure Poland, white Poland!” and “Refugees get out!”. A banner hung over a bridge that read: “Pray for Islamic Holocaust.”


In the Roy Moore post I mentioned Jim Ziegler invoking Joseph and Mary to justify an adult man's pursuit of a teen-age girl. But that wasn't the week's worst piece of theology: Rev. Hans Fiene of River of Life Lutheran Church in Channahon, Illinois (part of the Missouri Synod that I was raised in) takes that prize for this observation about the Sutherland Springs church shooting.

For those with little understanding of and less regard for the Christian faith, there may be no greater image of prayer’s futility than Christians being gunned down mid-supplication. But for those familiar with the Bible’s promises concerning prayer and violence, nothing could be further from the truth. When those saints of First Baptist Church were murdered yesterday, God wasn’t ignoring their prayers. He was answering them.

You see, when Christians ask God to "deliver us from evil" in the Lord's Prayer, they are asking to be delivered from evil not just in the here and now, but eternally.

So when a madman with a rifle sought to persecute the faithful at First Baptist Church on Sunday morning, he failed. Just like those who put Christ to death, and just like those who have brought violence to believers in every generation, this man only succeeded in being the means through which God delivered his children from this evil world into an eternity of righteousness and peace.

So remember that, the next time a minister asks you to join in reciting the Lord's Prayer. Unless you're prepared for gunmen to burst through the doors and mow down your whole family, you might want to opt out.


Fiene's essay is based on the romantic view of persecution that causes so many Christians to imagine they are being persecuted for their religion when they're really not. The Sutherland Springs Baptists suffered exactly the same persecution as Sikhs in Wisconsin, country music fans in Las Vegas, and gay night-clubbers in Orlando: the persecution that we all risk by living in a gun-crazy society.

American Christians, who dominate this country only a little less completely than they used to, indulge in persecution fantasies the way that teen-agers safe in their parents' basements indulge in horror movies. Someone might try to force me to sell a gay couple the same cake I would sell a straight couple! Or to provide health insurance for my employees! It's just exactly like the stoning of Stephen, or facing the lions in Rome.


Oh, crap. We're losing Louis C. K. to the rolling sexual abuse scandal. At least he owned up to the accusations, rather than trying to convince us that his accusers are lying. But we've got to stop tolerating this kind of stuff.

Karen Wehrstein explains why she's still not convinced by the George Takei accusation, and what she would need to hear to become convinced.

and let's close with something that could eat a lot of time

Singing animojis, possibilities are endless, as this version of "Bohemian Rhapsody" shows.

Monday, November 6, 2017

French Revolution Levels

There is this small group of people who are not equally subject to the laws as the rest of us, and that’s on purpose. ... It won’t be lost on wealth managers and those in the offshore industry that we are reaching sort of French Revolution levels of inequality and injustice.

- Brooke Harrington, quoted in "Offshore Trove Exposes Trump-Russia Links and Piggy Banks of the Wealthiest 1%"

This week's featured post is "Rigged?", my reaction to that Donna Brazile book excerpt.

This week everybody was talking about indictments

Eight days ago, all we knew was that somebody was going to be indicted. Last Monday, we found out it was Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, who are accused of a long list of crimes, mostly involving money-laundering and schemes to either avoid taxes or defraud banks. The striking thing about the indictment is that it rests entirely on documents like vendor receipts, tax returns, and records of wire transfers. It will be hard to fight in court because it doesn't depend on witnesses that a jury might be induced to distrust.

Also, some of the contents of the receipts would probably disgust a jury, even if the purchases are quite legal in themselves. For example, Manafort used wire transfers from foreign banks (which he didn't report as income) to pay for more than $800K of purchases at a "men's clothing store in New York" and another $500K at a similar store in Beverly Hills. I can imagine a middle-class juror wondering why anybody needs to dress that well.

A few hours later, Mueller released a sealed plea agreement with a Trump campaign foreign-policy adviser, George Papadopoulos, in which Papadopoulos pleads guilty to lying to the FBI. Papadopoulos was arrested July 27, and may have been working with the Mueller investigation since then. Some speculation has him wearing a wire. In the plea agreement, Papadopoulos admits to trying to arrange meetings between Russian officials and the Trump campaign, so that the campaign could obtain "dirt" on Hillary Clinton.

In other developments, House Democrats released a few of the 3000 targeted social-media ads through which Russian bots and trolls tried to influence the election.

Trump defenders rightfully pointed out that the Manafort/Gates indictment is about their own shenanigans and didn't directly implicate the Trump campaign (though it does say something about Trump's judgment in hiring a crook to run his campaign). So it's worth considering exactly where we are in the investigation.

  • At this point it's pretty clear that the Russians were working to help Trump win. They hacked the Democrats and released damaging emails. They used social media to get around election-law restrictions against foreign campaign ads. They created and promoted fake news stories to help Trump and damage Clinton. No one can say precisely how effective all this was, but given Trump's razor-thin margin, it's not unreasonable to speculate that Putin made the difference in the election.
  • Russia wanted to get involved with the Trump campaign directly, and made at least two overtures promising "dirt" on Clinton. At least some members of the campaign were interested, but we don't know yet whether or to what extent the Trump campaign actively cooperated with the Russian interference or even knew the scope of it.
  • Members of the Trump campaign and administration, including Trump himself, have repeatedly lied about Russia, the Russia investigation, and the campaign's contacts with Russia. (Papadopoulos places Trump and Sessions at a meeting where he talked about his Russian contacts and their desire for a meeting. Both have denied knowing that the campaign had any contact with Russians.) Those lies do not by themselves prove that Trump or his people did anything wrong (other than lie), but it's reasonable to assume that they lied for some reason.

The question in the minds of a lot of people now is: What about Mike Flynn? Flynn is another top Trump advisor who would be easy to indict. Is that indictment coming? Does the fact that it hasn't come indicate that Flynn is working with the investigation? Those questions have got to be keeping a lot of Trump aides awake at night.


The scariest question was raised by Vox's David Roberts: What if Mueller proves Trump is guilty, and nothing happens? What if the Republican base just refuses to believe it, and Republicans in Congress refuse to challenge their base?


If you need a more amusing way to take in this information, let John Oliver tell you. Or, here's a song.

and mass killings

Yesterday, at least 26 people were killed in a mass shooting at a Baptist church in rural Texas. That knocked Tuesday's New York City bikepath killer out of the public mind, and made the Las Vegas shooting, just over a month ago, seem like ancient history.

The apparent killer is white and no one has found a Muslim connection yet, so he is a "loner" whose violent tendencies don't imply anything about our society or its problems. President Trump made sure we all realize that this isn't a gun problem. Quite the opposite:

We have a lot of mental health problems in our country, as do other countries, but this isn't a "guns" situation. I mean we could go into it, but it's a little bit soon to go into it but fortunately, somebody else had a gun that was shooting in the opposite direction, it would have been as bad as it was, it would have been much worse.

Back in those simpler times of the Las Vegas shooting, it was disrespectful to the families of the dead to "politicize" the tragedy by discussing gun control only a day or two afterward. But after the NYC attack, Trump started talking about immigration and "political correctness" within three-and-a-half hours. Within 13 hours, he had blamed the attack on Chuck Schumer and Democrats in general. After 29 hours, he called for the death penalty against the presumed perpetrator. Previously, he had said he would consider sending him to Guantanamo and denounced the U.S. justice system:

We need quick justice and we need strong justice -- much quicker and much stronger than we have right now. Because what we have right now is a joke and it's a laughingstock.

It's kind of amusing, in a macabre way, to look back at the things conservatives wrote after Las Vegas, like this Marc Thiessen column:

Imagine for a moment what would have happened if, in his Monday statement on the Las Vegas shooting, President Donald Trump had praised the police who ran toward the gunfire and saved so many lives, and then said: “And for all those who have been taking a knee to protest the police, shame on you. On Sunday, you slander them, but then on Monday, you need them. The police deserve our respect every day.”

Heads would have exploded — and rightly so. His critics would have pointed out that workers still had not removed all the bodies from the crime scene, and yet he was already injecting politics into this tragedy. The president’s job is to unite the country, they would have said, not divide us.

Of course, Trump did not say anything of the sort.

No, he was just waiting for a better opportunity.


Wednesday, another white guy in Colorado killed three three people at a Wal-Mart for no apparent reason. His apartment contained "a stack of Bibles and virtually no furniture". If they'd been Qurans, it might have been a terrorism story. But Bibles? Never mind.

and the Republican tax proposal

It was supposed to come out Wednesday, but they couldn't get it together in time, so it came out Thursday, sort of. Vox summarizes the provisions, and lists the winners: corporations, the ultra-wealthy, people making high-six-figure incomes, pass-through companies like the Trump Organization, and heirs to large fortunes. (I lack the gumption to read the whole 429-page bill. But have at it, if you've got the cycles to spare.)

But to me the most interesting part of the Vox article is the "Where the Bill Goes from Here" section near the end. In order to qualify for reconciliation in the Senate (i.e., avoiding a Democratic filibuster), the bill can't increase the long-term deficit.

it’s hard to imagine the bill not raising the deficit after 10 years. Some provisions phase out, presumably to lower the long-run deficit effects for scoring purposes, but that’s unlikely to be enough. And so long as the legislation still increases the long-run deficit, it’s a nonstarter in the Senate.

What’s likely, then, is that this is an opening entry designed to pass the House and then be worked over, and shrunk in scale, in the Senate.

In other words, this is the kind of process I predicted: We still haven't seen the real bill, the one they hope becomes law. That will probably come out at the last possible minute, when the CBO can't analyze it in time for the vote, and the public can't mobilize its opposition. As I wrote last week:

The strange process we keep seeing in Congress is an effort to stay inside the [conservative] fantasy bubble until the last possible minute, then to sprint across the open ground between fantasy-world debates and real-world decisions as fast as possible.


The bill also has some other culture-war poison pills that I suspect will have to come out before the Senate can apply reconciliation. For example, it partially repeals the Johnson amendment that prevents churches from endorsing candidates.

There are two versions of Johnson-amendment repeal. One seems fairly narrowly tailored to prevent a church from losing its tax-exempt status because of political statements made from the pulpit, and the other abandons all limits on church-sponsored political activity. This seems like the narrowly-tailored one (see page 427 of the 429-page bill), which is mostly just unnecessary, since ministers ignore the restriction now and the IRS doesn't enforce it.

The broader version of Johnson-amendment repeal would be a disaster, since it would turn every American church into a potential pathway for tax-deductible anonymous contributions to enter a political campaign. Some critics are reporting that's the version in the tax bill, but I don't think it is.

Other culture-war provisions:

  • 529 accounts, tax-favored savings accounts through which families save for their children's education, can begin while the child is in utero. It is the first use of the pro-life-movement term unborn child in the tax code.
  • immigrant parents without citizenship or green cards will lose access to the refundable tax credit for their children, even if those children are citizens. This affects about three million children.

One of the most outrageous tax loopholes -- the "carried interest" break that allows hedge fund managers to report their fees as capital gains, saving one billionaire as much as $100 million a year -- is untouched. #BillionairesFirst

and the Democrats

Donna Brazile's new book is ripping the band-aid off the 2016 Democratic primary wound. I talked about this in the featured post.

and the Civil War

I hesitate to comment on John Kelly's Civil-War opinions, because it looks to me like an intentional political maneuver. Many members of the Trump base, particularly in the South, are attached to a false account of the Civil War. They feel persecuted by anybody who tries to make them face reality, and insulted by experts who make them feel stupid for believing false things. By inducing the same people to attack him in the same way, Kelly gets the base to identify with him, and reassures them that he's on their side.

His treatment of Rep. Frederica Wilson -- lying about her and then refusing to acknowledge the lie or apologize for it, even after he's been caught red-handed -- is similar. The Trump base is full of folks who have insulted black people at one time or another, but they don't want to apologize for it either. In standing by his lie, Kelly is standing up for all of them.

So anyway, Kelly sat for an interview with Fox News' Laura Ingraham on Monday evening, hours after the Mueller investigation unsealed its first indictments against officials of the Trump campaign. Shifting the narrative to the Civil War probably seemed like a good idea, and maybe it even was. It's worth pointing out that Ingraham set up Kelly's comments (beginning at the 18:20 mark) with a misleading premise:

A prominent church in Alexandria, Virginia, where George Washington worshiped -- it's historic, of course, and Robert E. Lee -- they decided to pull the plaques memorializing both George Washington and Robert E. Lee because they want the church to be "inclusive" and be considered more tolerant. What is your reaction to that type of attempt to pull down little markers of history?

During Kelly's answer, she injects: "They'll be pulling down the Washington Monument at some point, or renaming it." And Kelly jokes that it will be renamed after some "cult hero ... Andy Warhol or someone like that".

Actually, the church decided to move the plaques (which currently flank each side of the altar). But, according to the rector,

the plaques will remain in place until a new location for them is identified some time next year. A committee will be formed to deliberate on a new place of “respectful prominence.”

In other words, Washington and Lee are not being denied or hidden by the church, but it wants to be defined by Jesus rather than by Washington and Lee. (I can also imagine fans of Washington not wanting him to see him equated with Lee.) So Ingraham's whole political-correctness-vs.-history angle is bogus.

Anyway, Kelly goes on to lecture about the inappropriateness of applying current standards of right-and-wrong to historical figures (which is valid in the abstract, up to a point), and brings up Columbus (who is maybe not the best example). He goes on to praise Lee as an "honorable man" and to repeat the Lost Cause narrative of the war:

The lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War, and men and women of good faith on both sides made their stand where their consciences had them make their stand.

So let's not bicker about trivia like who enslaved who. Whether your ancestors were slaves, slave-drivers, or liberators of slaves -- let's just agree that they were all good people doing the best they could.

I guess I do have to comment: It's one thing to look back at some relatively peaceful time, when social practices that we abhor today were barely challenged, and fault individuals for not rising above their community and its worldview. It's hard to be significantly better than your era. I can imagine, for example, that a century from now everyone will be vegetarian. But it will wrong, I believe, for those people to dismiss some great person of our era by saying, "he was a barbaric animal-eater".

It's something else entirely, though, to give people a pass for taking a stand against changing abhorrent practices, at a time when those practices were up for decision. In the 1790s, a Southern slave-owner might just have accepted slavery as the way things are, maybe vaguely wishing things could be different in the way that so many of us today wish poverty would go away. But by 1861, when everyone is picking sides in a war whose fundamental issue is slavery, deciding to lead the defenders of slavery is not something you get a pass for. That's not just hindsight. Robert E. Lee's era raised a moral question, and he got it wrong.

I'll give W.E.B. DuBois the last word:

It is the punishment of the South that its Robert Lees and Jefferson Davises will always be tall, handsome and well-born. That their courage will be physical and not moral. That their leadership will be weak compliance with public opinion and never costly and unswerving revolt for justice and right.

but be sure to pay attention to the Paradise Papers

Remember the Panama Papers? Well, there's more: The same group (International Consortium of Investigative Journalists) has released another massive trove of leaked documents it calls the Paradise Papers. The international press hasn't had time to absorb it all yet, but here's the NYT's description:

The core of the leak, totaling more than 13.4 million documents, focuses on the Bermudan law firm Appleby, a 119-year old company that caters to blue chip corporations and very wealthy people. Appleby helps clients reduce their tax burden; obscure their ownership of assets like companies, private aircraft, real estate and yachts; and set up huge offshore trusts that in some cases hold billions of dollars.

The files relate to a number of tax-haven islands (i.e. paradises, hence the name) where assets can change hands without government attention. The sheer number of scandals that will spin out of this is hard to estimate at this point, but here's one:

After becoming commerce secretary, Wilbur L. Ross Jr. retained investments in a shipping firm he once controlled that has significant business ties to a Russian oligarch subject to American sanctions and President Vladimir V. Putin’s son-in-law, according to newly disclosed documents.

The shipper, Navigator Holdings, earns millions of dollars a year transporting gas for one of its top clients, a giant Russian energy company called Sibur, whose owners include the oligarch and Mr. Putin’s family member. ...

In the wake of reports of Russian interference in the United States presidential election, multiple investigations have explored potential business ties between Russia and members of the Trump administration. While several Trump campaign and business associates have come under scrutiny, until now no business connections have been reported between senior administration officials and members of Mr. Putin’s family or inner circle.

and there are elections tomorrow -- don't forget about them

Governorships in Virginia and New Jersey are the headliners, but lots local issues will be on the ballot as well. (Here in Nashua, NH, we're deciding whether to build a performing arts center.)

and you also might be interested in ...

The presidential commission headed by Chris Christie has released its report on the opioid problem. Vox summarizes its recommendations, which have an all-of-the-above flavor: they range from making treatment more accessible to changing doctors' prescribing habits to law enforcement to a media campaign.

It looks like the commission took its job seriously, but it didn't put price tags on its recommendations. It's still unclear whether anyone will put up real money to deal with the problem.


The Pentagon just disappointed anybody who wanted to hear that a quick-and-easy series of air strikes could knock out North Korea's nuclear capability. In response to questions from two Democratic congressmen, Ted Lieu of California and Ruben Gallego of Arizona, Rear Admiral Michael J. Dumont, the vice director of the Pentagon’s Joint Staff, wrote a letter whose full text has not been released. But apparently the congressmen have shared parts of it with The Washington Post.

The only way to locate and secure all of North Korea’s nuclear weapons sites “with complete certainty” is through an invasion of ground forces, and in the event of conflict, Pyongyang could use biological and chemical weapons, the Pentagon told lawmakers in a new, blunt assessment of what war on the Korean Peninsula might look like.

Given Trump's statement last month that "only one thing will work" in dealing with North Korea -- we all assumed he meant force, but who really knows what Trump ever means? -- I have to wonder if the Pentagon is telling him the same thing, and if he's listening.


So what did you do in the civil war that Antifa started Saturday? Nothing? Didn't even notice? Conservative media wouldn't lie to you, would it?

Maybe it would: The Alex Jones Show is telling its listeners that Hitler is still alive -- at age 128.


I'm going to defend a conservative judge: The Senate just confirmed Amy Coney Barrett's nomination to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. She's not someone I want to see on the bench, but some of the attacks on her are unfair. Most are based on a report by Alliance for Justice, which says:

As a judge, Barrett could be expected to put her personal beliefs ahead of the law. She wrote specifically about the duty of judges to put their faith above the law in an article entitled “Catholic Judges in Capital Cases.” Among other things, she strongly criticized Justice William Brennan’s statement about faith, in which he said that he took an oath to uphold the law, and that “there isn’t any obligation of our faith superior” to that oath. In response, Barrett wrote: “We do not defend this position as the proper response for a Catholic judge to take with respect to abortion or the death penalty.”

That sounds terrible, doesn't it? But if you actually read "Catholic Judges in Capital Cases", it's not what you think. She doesn't say that a judge should rule based on her faith, even if the law says something different.

The article is about circumstances where a correct interpretation of the law requires a judge to give an order that a Catholic judge like Barrett might consider immoral: for example, to order the execution of a convicted murderer when church doctrine opposes the death penalty. If a judge applied Brennan's opinion, she'd ignore her faith and order the execution anyway. But Barrett argues that if the conflict between the law and religious doctrine is really irresolvable -- she puts some thought into ways it might be resolved, allowing the judge to sign the order with a clear conscience -- the judge should recuse herself. In other words: Don't put faith over the law, just get out of the conflicted situation.

I imagine that any judge with a moral code occasionally imagines laws he or she wouldn't be willing to enforce. Recusal seems like the honorable choice.

There might have been all kinds of good reasons to oppose Barrett's nomination, but in my mind this wasn't one of them.

and let's close with a guilty pleasure

Papa John's pizza was in the news this week, because Papa himself blamed the chain's falling sales on kneeling football players. The logic goes like this: Papa John's strongly identifies itself with the NFL. (Peyton Manning is its most recognizable endorser.) So the Trump-invoked ambivalent feelings that eaters-of-mass-market-pizza are having about the NFL is causing them to buy less Papa John's.

The Atlantic targets itself more at the haute cuisine crowd, people who would only enter a Papa John's wearing sunglasses and a hat pulled low to hide their faces. But, in the same spirit of inquiry that sometimes motivated the Mythbusters to get drunk for science, the Atlantic staff decided that "investigative journalism" required them to explore the most likely alternate explanation: "that Papa John’s ... is simply not very good." In other words, they had to consume mass quantities of cheese and tomato sauce at the magazine's expense -- purely in the interest of the People's right to know, of course.

Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic’s editor-in-chief, walked by the kitchen as the taste-test was going on. He looked upon his gathered employees, congratulated them on their dogged commitment to truth, gave a rousing speech about pizza and the American idea, told them that Ralph Waldo Emerson would be proud. The editor was offered a piece of pizza; he declined; he was informed that the spinach Alfredo pizza wasn’t actually as gross as it looked; he backed away.

What bad reviews are all about, and why people love to read them, is art of the Victorian insult: launching barbs at inferior beings without compromising your own superior dignity. The Atlantic does pretty well.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Looking Behind the Tree

Don't tax you. Don't tax me. Tax that fellow behind the tree.

- Senator Russell Long (1918-2003)

This week's featured post is "The Real Reason Republicans Can't Pass Major Legislation".

This morning, we found out it's Manafort

Friday night, several news organizations started reporting that the Mueller grand jury had sealed one or more indictments. The weekend was full of speculation, but the investigation's security held, and nobody knew who the targets were.

This morning we found out: Former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort and his business partner Rick Gates. That just happened, so I don't know anything yet that isn't in the Washington Post article. I didn't remember Gates, but he was also part of the Trump campaign and stayed on after Manafort left. Since the election, Gates worked on fund-raising for Trump's inauguration, and other Trump-related fund-raising.

But before that, everybody was talking about opioids

Unlike voter fraud, kneeling football players, the Clinton uranium deal, and most of the other things Trump speaks out about, the opioid-addiction epidemic is a real problem that deserves a president's attention.

Nothing much has changed since I wrote about it in April, when Trump appointed the commission whose report is due Wednesday. Drug overdoses kill more people than car accidents. The annual total of American drug-overdose deaths is over 50K -- roughly the same as the death total for the entire Vietnam War. (Since April, the 2016 totals have come out: 64K overdose deaths.) About a third of those deaths are from legal prescription drugs, and many of the people who die from illegal-drug overdoses first got addicted to legal drugs.

More than two months ago, Trump seemed to be declaring opioids a national emergency, which would unlock large quantities of federal money to spend on the problem.

The opioid crisis is an emergency, and I’m saying officially, right now, it is an emergency. It’s a national emergency.

That would have been an unorthodox move -- a typical national emergency is sudden disaster like a hurricane or a flood, not a problem that has been building for decades, and FEMA is an odd agency to task with confronting drugs -- but it would definitely have shaken things up.

But it was a false alarm. Trump seems not to have understood that the phrase national emergency has a specific meaning under the law, and is more than just another way of saying crisis or really bad problem. (This is like the difference between "making a federal case" out of something and actually filing charges in federal court.) So in spite of what he said, no national-emergency proclamation was ever signed. No FEMA. No new federal money.

Thursday, he announced something that sounds similar, but is actually very different: He proclaimed a "public health emergency". That's not nothing, but it doesn't unlock any new funding. It allows some rules to be waived and some already-appropriated money to be moved around.

Most of the "actions" he mentioned in his speech were not new. For example,

We are requiring that a specific opioid, which is truly evil, be taken off the market immediately.

The opioid is Opana, and the FDA removed it from the market in June. It's not clear whether the new administration had anything to do with that, or if it was just the career FDA people doing what they do. He also mentioned several ongoing efforts as if they were new initiatives: looking for non-addictive painkillers, asking the Chinese to crack down on fentanyl production, and so on.

It's possible that something significant will be announced after the report comes out Wednesday, but Trump's speech was a lot more flash than substance. USA Today quotes Baltimore health commissioner Leana Wen:

The public health emergency raises awareness, which is important, but we had hoped for a national state-of-emergency declaration, because that would carry with it a commitment for funding. We don’t need more rhetoric. We need resources.


Any major government effort against drugs will have to be leaderless for the near future: Tom Marino's nomination as drug czar had to be withdrawn after he became the primary villain of this 60 Minutes segment. He was the point man for the drug industry's successful effort to stop the DEA from prosecuting distributors who knowingly fill suspicious orders for large quantities of prescription drugs. (Marino shows up in the second half of the video. He is the lead sponsor of a bill written by the industry to handcuff the DEA, and then he starts an investigation that sidelines an aggressive DEA investigator until he quits.) The entire thing is a great lesson on how big business influences government at all levels, to the detriment of the American people. (The Marino bill's second sponsor, Rep. Marsha Blackburn, is currently running to replace Bob Corker in the Senate.)

In the absence of a drug czar, leadership might come from the department level. But HHS Secretary Tom Price had to resign after it came out that he wasted as much as a million dollars of the taxpayers' money on his personal travel. His replacement has still not been nominated, but the rumored front-runner is a drug-company executive.


Trump's speech used the opioid problem to score political points on other issues. For example:

An astonishing 90 percent of the heroin in America comes from south of the border, where we will be building a wall which will greatly help in this problem. (Applause.) It will have a great impact.

No, actually it won't. Sanjay Gupta has been reporting on this for CNN. The synthetic opioid causing the most deaths, fentanyl, comes in through legal entry points or through the U.S. mail. It isn't usually smuggled across the open border.

For bulkier drugs that come across the border somewhere other than the ports of entry, there are other post-wall smuggling options: Dig tunnels under it or fly over it with drones. A wall is a fixed obstacle that takes years to build. Smugglers will adapt to it much faster than Homeland Security can alter it.


Here in America, we are once again enforcing the law; breaking up gangs and distribution networks; and arresting criminals who peddle dangerous drugs to our youth.

Obama wasn't enforcing drug laws? Wasn't breaking up gangs? Oh wait, I get it: You're talking about deporting Mexicans (which Obama was also doing), because our drug problem is all their fault. It's the immigrant-crime-wave lie from Trump's convention speech.


This was an idea that I had, where if we can teach young people not to take drugs -- just not to take them. ... The fact is, if we can teach young people -- and people, generally -- not to start, it's really, really easy not to take them. And I think that's going to end up being our most important thing. Really tough, really big, really great advertising, so we get to people before they start, so they don't have to go through the problems of what people are going through.

Tell young people not to start using drugs? That's genius, Mr. President! Genius! When you say it so clearly, I have to wonder why no one ever thought of that before. I understand now why you so often need to remind us that you're "a very intelligent person".

Trump claims to know the importance of teaching the young to just say no, because his alcoholic brother Fred warned him never to drink or smoke or do drugs, so he never did. But Ana Marie Cox (self-describing as "a recovering addict and alcoholic") notes the ineffectiveness of campaigns against "pleasurable but illicit behavior" in general and drugs in particular:

The federal government spent $10 million a year on DARE until 2002, when a surgeon general’s report stated that “numerous well-designed evaluations and meta-analyses that consistently show little or no deterrent effects on substance use.”

She also wonders whether "someone, somewhere once warned Donald Trump not to cheat on his wife."


Here's another thing that has started to annoy me: In talking about how bad the opioid problem is in West Virginia, he called it "a truly great state, great people". He says stuff like that a lot, and it means something very specific: They voted for me. I haven't done a comprehensive search, but I can't recall Trump (as president) ever mentioning the "great people" of California or Illinois or Massachusetts.

Since Trump voters are overwhelmingly white, there's also a racial subtext: The addicts of rural West Virginia aren't like those low-life addicts in the black ghettos of Chicago or Baltimore. The West Virginia addicts are good Christian white people who deserve the compassion of other good Christian white people.

It's important to keep in mind that this is not normal American political rhetoric. Previous presidents of both parties have understood that, once elected, they had become president of all the people, and not just of the people who voted for them. Trump doesn't get this.

and tax reform

More about this in the featured post. The House passed the Senate's budget resolution, so they're set up to pass a tax reform bill that adds $1.5 trillion to the national debt without any Democratic votes. The basic problem: All but $1.5 trillion of the tax cuts Republicans want need to be cancelled out by eliminating "loopholes". Unfortunately, everybody thinks loopholes are the deductions other people take advantage of, not the deductions they claim themselves. Hence the Long quote at the top.

and Jeff Flake

The speech he gave Tuesday on the Senate floor is worth reading.

There are times when we must risk our careers in favor of our principles.

It's hard for someone as liberal as I am to know what to do with Flake and the handful of other Republicans like him, because the principles he wants to risk his career for are not my principles. To me, the moment for a principled exit came and went a long time ago. But Trump only falls if Republicans turn against him, so we need to make space for them to turn against him.

It's complicated. So I'm thinking about this, and should have more to say in a week or two.

and the Russia investigation

In addition to the just-announced indictments, we learned a little more about the meeting in Trump Tower between a Russian lawyer and top Trump campaign people (Paul Manafort, Donald Jr., and Jared Kushner). Some of the information they were offered had previously been given to a Republican Congressman by a high Russian government official. This undermines the lawyer's claim to be independent of Putin.


We also learned about the funding of the Steele dossier. It had been known since shortly after the dossier first became public that it had started as Republican-funded opposition research, but was dropped when Trump's nomination became inevitable, and then was picked up by Democrats. Now we know more specifics: The first funder was the conservative web site Washington Free Beacon, and it was later picked up by the Clinton campaign. All of the research was conducted by the same firm: Fusion GPS.

On the right, the involvement of the Clinton campaign is being treated as some kind of scandal, one that discredits the dossier itself and perhaps even the whole Russia investigation. But I'm not seeing it. Opposition research is a normal part of American politics. (Much of what Bill Clinton got investigated for began as opposition research paid for by conservative billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife. I don't recall Republicans having any problem with that.) Nothing in the Russia investigation is based on the authority of the dossier. We know that the FBI has been checking the claims in the dossier, but nothing is being accepted as true just because the dossier says so.

Let's simplify things: Suppose opposition research had uncovered evidence that Trump robbed a bank, and a Justice Department investigation independently proved that conclusion. Would the big story be the opposition research, or the fact that Trump robbed a bank?

The main questions in the investigation are:

  • What did the Russian government do to try to influence our election?
  • Did anyone inside the Trump campaign know they were getting help from Russia, and did anyone actively cooperate?
  • Has the Russian government gotten anything from the Trump administration in exchange for its help?
  • Since the investigation started, has Trump or anybody else committed perjury or tried to obstruct justice?

Anything else is secondary. For example, I don't particularly care about the sexual allegations in the dossier. I only care if Russian intelligence has something to hold over Trump's head and has used it to influence him.


An old Republican conspiracy theory -- that when she was Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton OK'd a Russian company's deal to buy a North American uranium company in exchange for a big contributions to the Clinton Foundation -- has surfaced again, and will be investigated by three different committees in the House. If Hillary didn't exist, I think Republicans would need to invent her. Even after she eventually dies, I suspect Republicans will continue investigate her whenever they need to divert their base voters' attention from their own scandals.

The WaPo's fact-checker, Glenn Kessler, covers all the important points. The gist is that while the one-line description sounds scandalous, no details have ever emerged to back up any part of it. Treasury was the lead department on the approval, and "there is no evidence Clinton even was informed about this deal." How the Russians are supposed to have bribed the other eight agencies involved the process is also unexplained.

and draining the swamp

Some recent stories demonstrate that the swamp has only gotten swampier since Trump took over.

  • A tool of the big drug companies got nominated to be drug czar. (Discussed above.) If not for 60 Minutes and The Washington Post, he'd probably have been confirmed. After the Tool (Rep. Tom Marino of Pennsylvania) withdrew his nomination, President Trump tweeted that he is "a fine man and a great congressman".
  • A tiny Montana company from the same town as Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke got a $300 million contract to rebuild Puerto Rico's power grid. The local power company says FEMA approved the deal; FEMA denies it. A number of the details of the contract sound suspicious. The contract was canceled Sunday.
  • If you have a dispute with your bank, quite likely you can't take it to court and can't join other individuals in a class-action lawsuit, because the fine print of your contract says you have to submit to binding arbitration as an individual. (You could switch to another bank, but its fine print would say the same thing.) The Consumer Financial Protection Board nixed that process in June with a new regulation that allowed class-action lawsuits against banks in more circumstances. The House immediately voted to repeal that regulation, and the Senate followed suit Tuesday, passing what critics call the Wells Fargo Immunity Act. It was a 51-50 vote along party lines, with only two Republican defections. VP Pence broke the tie.

and anniversaries

Depending on how you count, the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution was either October 25 (the date on Julian calendar in use in Russia at the time) or will be November 7 (the date on the Gregorian calendar that most to the rest of the world was using and Russia adopted in 1918). The 500th anniversary of the Reformation is tomorrow. (That's also by the Julian calendar; nobody seems to worry much about the 10 days that were added when the Gregorian calendar was adopted in 1582.)

but check out this article on the future of electricity

The old fantasy was to be off the grid. The new fantasy is to be on a grid designed for sustainability.

and you also might be interested in ...

Most of Puerto Rico is still without electrical power. The governor tweeted this photo of surgery being performed using a phone as a flashlight. Nurses returning to the mainland from emergency work in Puerto Rico have been very critical of what's going on there.

The nurses described doctors performing surgery in hospitals with light from their cellphones, children screaming from hunger, elderly residents suffering from severe dehydration, and black mold spreading throughout entire communities.

"We cannot be silent while millions of people continue to endure these conditions," said Bonnie Castillo, associate executive director of National Nurses United.


Normally, the Virginia governor's race doesn't have much predictive value nationally. Democrat Terry McAuliffe won in 2013, for example, and Democrats went on to get pounded in the 2014 mid-terms.

This year's race might be different, though, because Republican Ed Gillespie is running in a very Trumpian style: His campaign has a not-very-veiled racial focus, with red-meat ads about rampaging Hispanic gangs and defending Confederate monuments. Polls show that this tactic has energized non-college white voters to support him. The question is whether it is turning off the educated white suburbanites a Republican also needs if he's going to win in Virginia. A recent poll says that it is, and that Northam is winning. We'll see if that prediction is verified on November 6.

If it isn't, if Gillespie pulls out a last-minute win due to a heavy white turnout, then I think his campaign becomes the model for an ugly 2014: Republicans will try to make the election a racial referendum.


Like Trump, Gillespie treats the national media as enemies. Here, Washington Post reporter Marc Fisher posts a sad but also amusing video of his attempts to find and speak to Gillespie.

[embed]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C-jqAA4pOF4[/embed]


Ezra Klein on the implications of the Mark Halperin and Leon Wieseltier sexual harassment scandals:

We routinely underestimate what it means that our political system has been constructed and interpreted by men, that our expectations for politicians have been set by generations of male politicians and shaped by generations of male pundits.  ... The most influential institutions in America have long had serial sexual abusers and deep misogynists at their apex. Those abusers didn’t just shape their workplaces or their industries; they shaped our politics, our culture, and our country.

During the campaign, for example, Halperin described women's accusations against Trump as "nothing even kind of, like, beyond boorish or politically incorrect".

One reason why this kind of thing has remained acceptable for so long is that so many of the people shaping public opinion were doing it themselves.


If the Harvey Weinstein case started you wondering about Trump again, let Sarah Huckabee Sanders set you straight: All of the 17 women who accused him of sexual harassment or assault were lying.

Vox' Anna North and Ezra Klein note the similarities between Weinstein and Trump, and then draw this conclusion:

This is, perhaps, the depressing lesson of the Weinstein and Trump stories. The allegations are similar. The evidence is similar. But power still protects, and while Weinstein had lost enough power to imperil his protection, Trump has only amassed more.


Innuendo Studios has a series of videos about the tactics of the alt-Right. Here's one related to the Trump groping issue:


Our new ambassador to Canada claims to believe "both sides of the science" about climate change, as if climate change were some sort of quantum wave/particle duality. The best response comes from the NASA-based Twitter account that claims to be the AI running the Mars rover.

On the one side you have evidence and data and research, and on the other side you have… oil money. Both equal.

and let's close with some bad suggestions

Haven't decided on your Halloween costume yet? Don't do any of these.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Military Swagger

We don’t look down upon those of you who haven’t served.

- White House Chief of Staff John Kelly

This week's featured posts are "The Billie Jean Republicans" -- picture a GOP senator backed by a chorus of corporate donors, denying their responsibility for Trump -- and something a little more serious: "Niger, the Condolence Controversy, and Why the Founders Feared a Professional Military".

In case "Billie Jean" has you trying to remember the Sift's previous poetic posts, they're: "Donnie in the Room" (based on "Casey at the Bat") and "Fatherly Advice to Eric and Don Jr." (based on "If").

This week everybody was talking about the Niger operation, and the distracting controversy it launched

Mostly this is covered in one of the featured posts. But John Kelly has turned into his own issue. Vox' Dara Lind compares his attitude to Jack Nicholson's character in A Few Good Men.

But it’s not just that Kelly doesn’t respect the way that politics works within Washington — the time it takes to make a congressional deal, the way that embarrassing statements can get leaked to eager reporters. He actively thinks that they have America wrong, and that they will never understand it in the way those who serve it will.

Charles Pierce sees Kelly's lying defense of Trump as

a terribly sad moment. Everything and everybody this president* touches goes bad from the inside out.

Matt Yglesias had another depressing thought.

Kelly’s performance today should be a wakeup call to anyone who still thinks there are “adults in the room” who’ll save us.

Occasionally the media speculates that Kelly will get tired of his thankless job and quit. I predict a different scenario: At some point Trump will have wrung all the credibility out of Kelly, and then he'll toss the general away.


There's one more part of Kelly's remarks I can't let go by:

You know, when I was a kid growing up, a lot of things were sacred in our country. Women were sacred, looked upon with great honor.

Kelly and I grew up in the same era. (He's six years older.) So I can testify that he is totally full of crap on this. Women of our mothers' generation were shown superficial respect -- holding doors for them, etc. -- as long as they lived narrowly scripted lives of service to men. But a woman was not honored if she spoke out in public, or entered the workplace, or sought an advanced degree, or decided not to get married, or did anything else outside the script. Quite the opposite.

and rebukes to Trump without naming him

George W. Bush spoke Thursday in New York. He addressed threats to democracy and said that "when we lose sight of our ideals, it is not democracy that has failed. It is the failure of those charged with preserving and protecting democracy." (In case you don't recognize it, that's a reference to the presidential oath to "preserve, protect, and defend" the Constitution.)

We’ve seen nationalism distorted into nativism – forgotten the dynamism that immigration has always brought to America. We see a fading confidence in the value of free markets and international trade – forgetting that conflict, instability, and poverty follow in the wake of protectionism.

We have seen the return of isolationist sentiments – forgetting that American security is directly threatened by the chaos and despair of distant places, where threats such as terrorism, infectious disease, criminal gangs and drug trafficking tend to emerge.

He also contradicted Trump's claim that the Russia story is "fake news".

America is experiencing the sustained attempt by a hostile power to feed and exploit our country’s divisions. According to our intelligence services, the Russian government has made a project of turning Americans against each other. This effort is broad, systematic and stealthy, it’s conducted across a range of social media platforms.

He also said "white supremacy in any form is blasphemy against the American creed."

In a speech accepting the Liberty Medal from the National Constitution Center last Monday, John McCain said:

To fear the world we have organized and led for three-quarters of a century, to abandon the ideals we have advanced around the globe, to refuse the obligations of international leadership and our duty to remain 'the last best hope of earth' for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems is as unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history.

We live in a land made of ideals, not blood and soil. We are the custodians of those ideals at home, and their champion abroad.

As much as I approve of Republicans giving other Republicans permission to criticize Trump, though, the country needs a lot more from Republican leaders. How do they propose to limit the damage being done by this unfit president, or to remove him?

and healthcare

It looks like the Murray-Alexander bill on healthcare -- the bipartisan one that tries to fix some of the damage Trump has been doing to the health insurance markets -- will get a vote in the Senate. It still seems unlikely to get a vote in the House, and no one -- including Mitch McConnell -- knows what Trump would be willing to sign.


More proof that Trump has no ideas for improving American healthcare: In an appearance with the Greek prime minister Tuesday, Trump took questions. He was asked "What is your healthcare plan, sir?"

He responded with a long ramble justifying what he had just done (cancel CSR payments that reimburse insurance companies for losses on cheap policies to the working poor), criticized insurance companies, pronounced ObamaCare dead, said something about block grants to the states, predicted that he would have the votes to repeal ObamaCare after Congress got done with tax reform, called Democrats "obstructionists" who "have no good policies", bragged about how many judges he has appointed (while criticizing Democrats for slowing down Senate approval of nominees), and denounced insurance-premium increases under ObamaCare.

The reporter followed up: "So is Graham-Cassidy still the plan, sir?" And Trump said: "Yeah, essentially that would be the plan. Yes, block grants."

He has a two-word-answer grasp of the subject, which he hides under mountains of meaningless self-serving verbiage. How should Americans who aren't rich get the care they need and pay for it? He has no idea.

but I eventually got around to looking at the Values Voters Summit

It was last week's news, but I fall behind sometimes.

Trump: "As long as we have pride in our country, confidence in our future, and faith in our God, then America will prevail." The phrase "our God" bothers me. That didn't just pop out of his mouth. This was a scripted teleprompter speech, so the words were chosen. He could have said "faith in God", which would already be controversial in a few ways. But instead he said "faith in our God".

Does America have a national god who is different from the gods of other countries or of the Universe? What about citizens of the United States who don't don't worship the American God? Do they count as "us", as Americans? Is Trump their president too?


I haven't been the only one writing song lyrics. Roy Moore's speech included new lyrics that almost fit the tune of "America the Beautiful", outlining all the ways that today's America seems ugly and evil to him, and calling down God's judgment on us.

Moore and his audience are white instead of black, and the sins he charges against America (abortion, drug abuse, abandoning the death penalty) are different than the ones Rev. Jeremiah Wright focused on (slavery, herding Native Americans onto reservations, putting Japanese Americans into detention camps during World War II, funneling black youth into low-paying jobs or prison rather than educating them). But otherwise, how is this different from the "God damn America" sermon Wright got pilloried for?

and you also might be interested in ...

The Senate moved Congress one step closer to tax reform. It passed a budget resolution that would make a Republican tax-cut bill eligible for reconciliation, letting it pass the Senate with 50 votes plus Vice President Pence. Now they just need to figure out what goes into that bill.


The Trump/Russia legal-fee issue just got weirder. For months, the RNC and the Trump campaign have been paying the legal bills of the President and of Donald Trump Jr., but no one else. Now, Trump says he will use up to $430,000 of his own money to pay legal bills for White House staff and campaign aides. So they'd better say what they're told to say, right?


Fort Worth Weekly uses two local Christian seminaries to illustrate the diversity of American Christianity. If "Christian" means just one thing to you, you might find this enlightening.


After five years at the American Chemical Council, Nancy Beck became a primary EPA decision-maker on toxic chemicals. What could go wrong?

and let's close with something terrestrial

No, it isn't a starship, it's a manta ray. The shot is from the Nature Conservancy's 2017 photo contest. It's not even the winner.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Self-awareness

Jeb Bush ran for president on the theory that tax cuts would generate 4 percent economic growth. Marco Rubio argued that Barack Obama was deliberately trying to damage the United States. Ed Gillespie claims that sanctuary cities that don’t even exist are responsible for the rise of a violent international criminal organization. The same congressional Republicans who swore for years that growing debt was the biggest threat to the country are lining up behind a budget that will authorize more than $1 trillion in new borrowing to finance tax cuts for the rich. The difference between these guys and the new crop of kooks — between a respected colleague like Bob Corker and a feared soon-to-be-colleague like Marsha Blackburn — as I understand it, is that the establishment politicians are aware that they are lying.

 - Matt Yglesias "Establishment Republicans mystified by their base should look at Ed Gillespie’s campaign"

This week's featured post is "Taking Hostages".

This week everybody was talking about Trump's moves to wreck things

I cover his threats to DACA, the Iran deal, and ObamaCare in the featured post. Increasingly, Trump is realizing that even having Republican majorities in Congress doesn't allow him to run over Democrats. So now he's trying to get their cooperation by taking hostages.

and we also paid attention to that other abuser of women, Harvey Weinstein

Before this week, I'm pretty sure I could have sat next to Harvey Weinstein on an airplane without recognizing him. I remember seeing the Weinstein Company logo in film credits, but I couldn't tell you which movies they were. So I've been amazed at how much coverage his sexual abuse scandal is getting. To me, Bill Cosby, Bill O'Reilly, Donald Trump, and Roger Ailes were public figures, but Weinstein is just another rich dude.

Actually, Ailes is probably comparable: a guy who's powerful within his industry, but most people wouldn't recognize on the street. (I just happen follow political journalism much more closely than I follow movies, so Fox News seems like a bigger deal to me than the Weinstein Company.) Like Roger Ailes' story, Weinstein's is driven largely by the star-power of his accusers: Gywneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie for Weinstein, Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson for Ailes.

It appears Weinstein has been doing this for a long time, but once accusations reached a critical mass, the response was swift. His company has fired him, the Motion Picture Academy expelled him, and I hope no one takes seriously the idea that some sort of therapy will qualify him for a comeback. (Personally, I don't believe predatory behavior is treatable. Predators have more motivation to pretend to reform than to actually reform.) If there's enough evidence for a criminal conviction, I hope prosecutors go for it.

What makes Weinstein's story different from Trump, O'Reilly, and Ailes is that his political connections are liberal rather than conservative. Conservative media has tried to make a hypocrisy story out of that: See, liberals abuse women too.

I will note the major difference: It has been the liberal media (the NYT and The New Yorker) that has been leading the charge to break this story. And (unlike Ailes) Weinstein isn't being defended (except by Woody Allen; they should start a club). Kellyanne Conway has tried to make a thing out of the fact that five whole days passed before Hillary Clinton spoke out against Weinstein. But Trump actively defended both Ailes and O'Reilly, and to my knowledge still hasn't condemned them. And Conway herself defended Trump after more than a dozen women accused him of sexual assault, and he confessed on tape.


The one upside of this story is the attention it has drawn to situations that are not rape in the clearest sense -- not a guy forcing sex on a woman who is unmistakably refusing -- but where differences in status and power make refusal problematic, situations where ambiguous behavior will be interpreted in the man's favor, up until the point where it will be assumed by many that the woman consented by not objecting. Even if no physical force is involved, the man has to know that the woman is giving in rather than participating.

Kate Manne's article at Huffington Post, for example, rambles but also covers a lot of ground -- through novels, TV shows, journal articles, and her own memories of an abusive piano teacher during a time when she dreamed of a professional career. The experience "tainted playing the piano for me". Likewise, some of the Weinstein accusations come from women who gave up their dream of being actresses. Who can guess how many women have abandoned ambitions as a vague not-quite-intended response to harassment that they didn't feel in a position to report at the time?

and Puerto Rico

Tuesday, AP reported that 10 people have been diagnosed with leptospirosis, a disease you get by drinking water contaminated by animal urine. Four deaths have been attributed to this disease, which is both preventable and treatable.

When he was in Puerto Rico, Trump bragged about the low death totals, then only 16. The official count is now higher, and is probably still too low.

At Vox, we decided to compare what the government has been saying with other reports of deaths from the ground. We searched Google News for reports of deaths in English and Spanish media from Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria. We found reports of a total of 81 deaths linked directly or indirectly to the hurricane. Of those, 45 were the deaths certified by the government. The remaining 36 deaths were confirmed by local public officials or funeral directors, according to the reports. We also found another 450 reported deaths, most of causes still unknown, and reports of at least 69 people still missing.

The estimates of how many people are without power change daily, but have been running in the 70-90% range.


I've been saying since before the Inauguration that Trump (like the alt-Right in general) distinguishes between Americans and real Americans. Real Americans (also sometimes referred to as "the American People"; I talked here about what it means to be "a people") are English-speaking white Christians.

If you're really adamant about two out of three, that might be enough for you to count as "real", but just being white or Christian or speaking English as your first language isn't. (For the Dreamers, even two out of three isn't enough.) So Puerto Ricans, who (though often Catholic) are mostly brown-skinned Spanish-speakers, don't qualify as real Americans, no matter what their passports say. That's why the America-First President can tweet so blithely about abandoning them in their hour of need. The thought of how much money the U.S. is spending to help them, which never came up in presidential rhetoric after the Texas and Florida hurricanes, is never far from his mind. He also worries about whether they are doing enough to help themselves, another idea that didn't come up in Harvey or Irma relief. It is as if he considers Puerto Rico disaster relief to be foreign aid.


Rachel Maddow has been making the Navy hospital ship Comfort a symbol of the relief effort's mismanagement. It's in Puerto Rico, but as of Thursday, only 8 of its 1000 beds were occupied.

and the California fires

As of Friday, the Tubbs fire in the Santa Rosa area had destroyed more than 5,000 buildings, most of them homes. And that's just one of the still-raging fires.

As with the hurricanes, climate change is sitting in the background of this story. The usual caveats apply: There's always been a wildfire season in California, so you can't look at any particular fire and say that climate change caused it. But ...

As the climate changes, extremes in seasonal conditions are exacerbated, [University of California Professor LeRoy] Westerling says. Climate change affects wildfires from two directions at different times of the year: Winters become wetter and shorter, while summers become hotter and last longer.

"Climate change is kind of turning up the dial on everything," Westerling said. "Dry periods become more extreme. Wet periods become more extreme."

One thing I didn't understand before: Both sides of that process promote wildfires. The wet winters cause more vegetation to grow, which dries out in the summer and becomes fuel for the fires.


If you missed it the first time around, now is a good time to watch this episode of Years of Living Dangerously. It tells two stories about deforestation: Harrison Ford is in Indonesia, and Arnold Schwarzenegger talks to the people who fight wildfires in the American West.


From a friend whose home in Santa Rosa is within blocks of the total-loss zone:

Ronald Reagan famously said: "The most terrifying words in the English language are: 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help you'."

Ronald Reagan was a fucking moron.

Rugged individualism just doesn't cut it when you're in the path of a hurricane or a major fire.

but we need to watch the Russia/Trump/social media story

Most of the talk about the Trump/Russia investigation centers on the hacks of Democratic emails and the process by which they got leaked to the press. But ultimately Russia's social media strategy may turn out to be more important.

The Internet Research Agency employ hundreds of so-called “trolls” who post pro-Kremlin content, much of it fake or discredited, under the guise of phony social media accounts that posed as American or European residents, according to lawmakers and researchers.

Facebook announced last month it had unearthed $100,000 in spending by the Internet Research Agency and, under pressure from lawmakers, has pledged to be more transparent about how its ads are purchased and targeted.

Google has found tens of thousands spent by a different Russian group on its ads, and Microsoft is still looking into the issue. There have also been reports of Russian Twitter-bots who manipulated which stories were "trending". A number of those Facebook ads targeted Wisconsin and Michigan.

Some of the Russian ads appeared highly sophisticated in their targeting of key demographic groups in areas of the states that turned out to be pivotal, two of the sources said. The ads employed a series of divisive messages aimed at breaking through the clutter of campaign ads online, including promoting anti-Muslim messages, sources said.

This is far from conclusive evidence of collusion with the Trump campaign, but it does suggest some American involvement: Somebody working with the Russians had a very deep, granular understanding of the American electorate.


Larry Kim reports on how easy it is to set yourself up as a fake-news mogul. He created a web site, spent $50 on Facebook ads, and reached 4,645 conservative-leaning people in Pennsylvania, generating 44 likes and 27 shares. Imagine what could be done with an army of trolls and hundreds of thousands to spend. If you build a bunch of sites all referencing each other's fake-news stories, you could create your own bubble.

and you also might be interested in ...

The NYT covers research into why wolves are different from dogs. The theory: wolf puppies learn the difference between "us" and "them" very early, before their eyes and ears are working yet, entirely by scent. Dog puppies stay open to socialization longer, and learn to recognize familiar humans by sight and sound. The reporter is only partly convinced, but really enjoys the chance to play with wolf puppies.


The WaPo predicts that someday 2017 will be seen as "the beginning of the end of the internal combustion engine". The big reasons: China, Tesla, and GM.


Minister Carl Gregg discusses the question of how to deal with honest people who live in a world of alternative facts. Based a book called The Cynic and the Fool by Tad DeLay, he recommends starting with "motivational interviewing" rather than direct contradiction. "Why do you believe that?" rather than "That's not true!"


Last week, Senator Corker described the White House as "an adult daycare center". This week, Politico and The Washington Post explained how the daycare workers do their jobs. Mainly, when the Toddler-in-Chief is about to do something bad or dangerous, they distract him until his attention wanders somewhere else. (I picture them jingling a set of car keys.) And when he's behaving, they tell him again and again what a good boy he is.


The nominee to head the Council on Environmental Quality doesn't think carbon dioxide should count as a pollutant.


Since the election, I've been thinking that liberals need to explain things we used to take for granted, and explicitly argue against ideas that used to be off the table. (I've done that with articles against white pride and nationalism.) Economics blogger Noah Smith apparently feels the same way: He explained in September why an American white ethnostate would be a bad idea, not just for the non-whites who would be either driven out or subordinated, but for the whites themselves.

Two main arguments: An all-white USA would have a crappy economy, not just because talented non-whites wouldn't want to come (or stay) here, but because a lot of talented whites would leave (in the same way that many non-Jewish scientists left Hitler's Germany). And the harsh policies necessary to get rid of American non-whites would leave us with corrupt and tyrannical institutions, staffed by people who were willing to do nasty things. In spite of our ethnic homogeneity, we'd have a low level of public trust for generations.

The nation that currently most resembles a white ethnic Trumpistan, in Smith's opinion, is Ukraine: nearly all-white, dominated by agriculture and heavy industry -- and with a GDP per capita about 1/6th of the U.S.


This week's most head-scratching story is that the Department of the Interior flies a special flag to mark when Secretary Zinke is in the building. Buckingham Palace has long flown a flag to mark when the monarch is in residence. In the U.S. the tradition goes back to the Navy in 1866; the ship carrying the fleet commander would fly a special flag. In the early 20th century, cabinet-level flags became a fad of sorts, but went out of style because they were considered "pretentious".

Chris Lu, deputy Labor secretary under Obama, said: "If we had a secretarial flag at the Obama Labor Department, we never bothered to locate it or use it."

There's a theme building in a variety of Trump administration scandals and controversies: High government office is about self-glorification, not public service.

and let's close with something humbling

This one chart shows all the known cognitive biases. Human minds, it turns out, are kind of kludgy.