Monday, March 12, 2018

We Are All Nixonians Now

It's like Nixon going to China, but if Nixon were a moron.

- Jeffrey Lewis "Nixon Goes to McDonaldland"
Foreign Policy 3-9-2018

There is no featured post this week. Just covering what happened in the last seven days was already overwhelming enough, without trying to go deeply into any particular story.

For those who don't get the reference in the title: Nixon is supposed to have justified his economic policy by saying: "We are all Keynesians now." The phrase was actually written earlier by Milton Friedman, who appears to have been making a tongue-in-cheek reference to a turn-of-the-century British politician who said, "We are all socialists now."

This week everybody was talking about Trump meeting Kim Jong Un

By now we should be getting used to this pattern: Trump makes some bold statement that his staff knows nothing about until they hear it, and then there's a long back-and-forth about what it means, or if it means anything. Just in the last few months, this pattern has played out with varying results on immigration, on guns, and on tariffs. During the campaign, he did the same thing with universal health care. ("The government's going to pay for it," he said. That turned out to mean nothing.)

This week it happened on North Korea. Thursday, South Korean national security adviser Chung Eui-yong came to the White House to talk to lower-level officials and didn't expect to see Trump until Friday, when he would deliver the message that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un wanted a face-to-face meeting. But Trump had Chung shown in to the Oval Office, and cut him off before he was done making his pitch, saying "Tell them I'll do it." Chung then met the press on the White House driveway and announced

I told President Trump that, in our meeting, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said he is committed to denuclearization. Kim pledged that North Korea will refrain from any further nuclear or missile tests. He understands that the routine joint military exercises between the Republic of Korea and the United States must continue. And he expressed his eagerness to meet President Trump as soon as possible. President Trump appreciated the briefing and said he would meet Kim Jong-un by May to achieve permanent denuclearization. [my emphasis]

Just that morning, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had been pessimistic about North Korean talks:

I don’t know yet, until we are able to meet ourselves face to face with representatives of North Korea, whether the conditions are right to even begin thinking about negotiations.

So just a few hours later, the whole foreign policy establishment -- both outside and inside the administration -- was trying to figure out what Trump had agreed to. It's not clear Trump himself knows.

“The thing that’s striking here is that there is no letter from Kim. This was an oral message conveyed by North Koreans to the South Koreans," said Eric Edelman, who served as undersecretary of defense for policy in the George W. Bush administration.

“What they actually said, what they heard him say, and then what they transmitted to Trump could be two or three different things, and it’s not like we haven’t had that in the past,” Edelman added. “There can be elements of wishful thinking here and so I think people really need to be approaching this with a great deal of caution.”

Friday, official sources gave a range of interpretations. In the afternoon, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders made the meeting sound much more iffy:

The president will not have the meeting without seeing concrete steps and concrete actions take place by North Korea.

If that's the case, then nothing has changed: Obama also demanded concrete actions, and he didn't get them, so there were no talks. If North Korea actually takes concrete action, or the U.S. stops demanding it as a precondition, then that would actually be news. Trump himself was all over the place at a rally in Pennsylvania Saturday night.

Who knows what's going to happen? It could happen, it doesn't happen. I may leave fast, or we may sit down and make the greatest deal for the world and for all of these countries, including, frankly, North Korea, and that's what I hope happens.

My interpretation is that the recent series of North Korean missile tests is now complete: They've tested (and demonstrated to the world) all the new developments that seem likely to work any time soon. So there was going to be a pause anyway, while the R&D comes up with new things to test. If that's true, North Korea has nothing lose by announcing a suspension of tests and pretending it's a concession.

I'm skeptical that a Trump/Kim meeting would accomplish anything, but I'm also not reflexively against it.

A point of view President Obama ran into whenever his administration negotiated with Iran was that you can't negotiate with evil regimes. Back in 2014, I responded to this by quoting an exchange from Game of Thrones:

NED STARK: Make peace with the Lannisters, you say? With the people who tried to murder my boy?
PETYR BAELISH: We only make peace with our enemies, my lord. That’s why it’s called “making peace”.

Littlefinger was a slimeball, but in this instance his principle applies: If there's some agreement to be made that will lower the threat of nuclear war in the Far East, the Trump administration should definitely work on it, and shouldn't demand that North Korea become Denmark first.

Another objection you often hear is that a meeting with a U.S. president in itself is something of value that we should hold back until we get something of value in return. (That seems to be what Sanders was saying. The Jeffrey Lewis article I quoted at the top agrees: "THE MEETING IS THE CONCESSION.")

I suppose if other countries are willing to play that game, we'd be stupid not to. (If a president can get something just for showing up, there's no sense in refusing those concessions.) But in general I don't like the idea, because it styles the American president as Emperor of the World -- other world leaders are really his subordinates, and should feel honored by his presence. I don't think that's a promising approach to negotiations.

So why am I skeptical? As we saw with the Obama administration and Iran, a de-nuclearization agreement is complicated. We need some way to verify that they've really disarmed. If we agree to end our economic sanctions in return, they'll need some reason to believe that we won't reimpose them as soon as they've gutted their nuclear program. They'll also need some reason to believe that we won't attack them as soon as their mutual-destruction threat is gone. Maybe the only way to establish trust is for an agreement to be divided into phases: We do this, they do that, and then later we both take the next steps. How do you arrange the phases so that each step is more-or-less equal, so that neither side is motivated to get to Step 3 and then bail?

In short, a real agreement with North Korea would have to be full of technical details. What kind of inspections need to be made? Do we do them ourselves, or does somebody else (like the UN) do them? Where is the line between acceptable civilian use of nuclear power or rockets, and unacceptable military use? What protocols are needed to assure the Koreans that our inspectors aren't spying on a lot of other things while they're there? And so on.

Now ask yourself: Is Donald Trump going to negotiate all that a few months from now? (I suspect he wouldn't have the patience to hear a briefing about what all those issues are, much less understand them as well as a negotiator needs to.) Is there any agreement he and Kim could make that couldn't be undone later in the details? (Example: Kim agrees to give up nuclear weapons in general, but his technical people insist on loopholes in the verification protocols.) That's why negotiations happen the way they do: Lower-level people work out technical details, and when they think they've got something, they call in the big bosses to finalize the agreement.

I don't believe Trump understands any of that. What he knows how to do is put on a show. That's why the meeting he agreed to, if it happens at all, will just be a big show.

and tariffs

This week I'm wondering what Trump's announcement about North Korea really means. Last week I was wondering the same thing about his announcement of tariffs, which equally shocked the people who thought they were working on this issue for him. (Chief economic adviser Gary Cohn resigned as a result.)

Thursday the steel and aluminum tariffs were officially announced in separate proclamations whose wording is almost identical. They claim that steel and aluminum imports are a national security issue, which I haven't heard from anybody else. Apparently the point of this finding is to match the wording of Trade Expansion Act of 1962, which

authorizes the President to adjust the imports of an article and its derivatives that are being imported into the United States in such quantities or under such circumstances as to threaten to impair the national security.

Starting March 23, steel imports face an increased tariff of 25%, and aluminum imports 10%. Imports from Canada and Mexico are exempted. If some steel consumer in the United States complains that an equivalent product isn't produced in the U.S., an exemption can be granted for that product.

Trump's usual rhetoric on trade is that specific other countries (especially China) are cheating in some way, and so tariffs might be necessary to even the playing field. But by targeting everybody but Canada and Mexico (and implying that he wants some concessions out of them too as part of a NAFTA renegotiation), he seems to be saying that the U.S. steel and aluminum industries aren't competitive with anybody, so they need broad-based protection. (China supplies only 2% of our steel, due to a targeted tariff imposed by the Obama administration.)

The proclamations invite U.S. allies to

discuss with the United States alternative ways to address the threatened impairment of the national security caused by imports from that country. Should the United States and any such country arrive at a satisfactory alternative means to address the threat to the national security such that I determine that imports from that country no longer threaten to impair the national security, I may remove or modify the restriction on steel [or aluminum] articles imports from that country and, if necessary, make any corresponding adjustments to the tariff as it applies to other countries as our national security interests require.

No one seems to know what that means. Politico reports:

The result is that even some of the U.S.’s closest trading partners are bewildered about where the announcement leaves them. After a meeting with [U.S. Trade Representative Robert] Lighthizer over the weekend Cecilia Malmström, the European Union’s top trade official, said there was still “no immediate clarity on the exact U.S. procedure for exemption,” so the discussions will continue this week.

Any U.S. industry that exports may soon face retaliation. That includes agriculture, which is particularly vulnerable, given that "the world is awash in grain", according to one Illinois farmer.

Three out of every five rows of soybeans planted in the United States find their way out of the country; half of those, valued at $14 billion in 2016, go to China alone. Mr. Gould estimates that 90 percent of his soybeans are exported, and 70 percent of his corn.

Farmers get hit on both sides: They also buy expensive equipment made of steel, and will probably have to pay more for it because of the tariffs.

It's easy to play games with numbers on this issue and hard to know who to trust. ABC News quotes a study by a pro-trade group, the Trade Partnership:

The tariffs would increase U.S. iron and steel employment and non-ferrous metals (primarily aluminum) employment by 33,464 jobs, but cost 179,334 jobs throughout the rest of the economy, for a net loss of nearly 146,000 jobs.

Who knows how accurate this is, but I suspect the overall point is right: More jobs will be lost than gained. What makes the political calculation tricky, though, is that the jobs gained should be easier to identify than the jobs lost. If you're a laid-off steel worker who gets his job back, you'll be sure Trump's tariffs worked for you. But if the good job you would have gotten in an exporting industry never gets created, you'll never know.

Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress seem upset, since free trade has been a pillar of Republican orthodoxy for decades. Fareed Zakaria writes:

It is the Republican Party’s last stand against a total takeover by President Trump. Having ceded ground to Trump on personal character, immigration, entitlement reform and more, Republican leaders have chosen to draw the line at free trade. If they get rolled on this, Trump will have completed the transformation of the party.

I think the takeover is complete already; a few congresspeople will squawk about tariffs, but nothing will happen. In a tweetstorm yesterday, David Roberts laid it out: Despite the intellectual voices you will see touted as conservative in the mainstream media, the conservative movement today is not at all about principles or ideas.

It's just a tangle of resentments & bigotries, driven by the erosion of white privilege. ... Trump has swerved this way and that on immigration, taxes, healthcare, guns ... and the base doesn't care. They follow him this way, they follow him that way. It is the resentment, the aggrieved sense of persecution, that they respond to. That's what US conservatism IS now.

and (still) guns

In Florida, the Parkland teens didn't get what they asked for (an assault weapon ban), but they did something that seemed impossible a few weeks ago: Florida tightened some of its famously lax gun laws: The new law raised the age for buying firearms from 18 to 21 (it was already 21 for handguns), put a three-day waiting period on gun purchases, banned bump stocks (used in the Las Vegas massacre), established a process for courts to order the confiscation of guns from people who have threatened violence against others, and did a few other things.

On the more-guns side, it established a program for arming school employees, though not full-time teachers. The program requires the cooperation of local school boards, which could decide not to implement it.

The NRA is suing over the age restriction. It's not clear to me that they have a case.

The big thing here, I believe, isn't in the specifics of the law, it's that it symbolizes a reduced status for the NRA. If the NRA can't inflict revenge on the politicians who voted for something it opposed, the momentum on gun laws might be changing.

In The Atlantic, Garrett Epps gives an interpretation of the Second Amendment not far from what I stated last week.

Anyone who claims that the text of the amendment is “plain” has a heavy burden to carry. The burden is even heavier if an advocate argues that the Second Amendment was understood to upend laws against concealed carry or dangerous weapons—both of which were in force in many parts of the country long after it was adopted.

So it may be that the amendment’s text supports something like where we are now: Dick Heller, a law-abiding citizen, can own a handgun in his home for self-protection. The text and context, however, don’t point us to an unlimited individual right to bear any kind and number of weapons by anyone, whether a minor or a felon or domestic abuser.

In "More guns do not stop more crimes, evidence shows" Scientific American looked at public-health studies on the results of having a gun in your house: It's a health hazard. A gun in the home makes you more likely to be killed in an argument with a family member or close acquaintance, more likely to commit suicide, more likely to be shot by accident, and so on. The event people think about when they buy a gun -- protection against a home invasion -- is much rarer, so even if that works out, the risks don't balance. (I talked about the NRA's immature attitude toward risk in 2015 in "Guns are security blankets, not insurance policies".)

The belief that more guns lead to fewer crimes is founded on the idea that guns are dangerous when bad guys have them, so we should get more guns into the hands of good guys. Yet Cook, the Duke economist, says this good guy/bad guy dichotomy is a false and dangerous one. Even upstanding American citizens are only human—they can “lose their temper, or exercise poor judgment, or misinterpret a situation, or have a few drinks,” he explains, and if they're carrying guns when they do, bad things can ensue. In 2013 in Ionia, Mich., a road rage incident led two drivers—both concealed carry permit holders—to get out of their cars, take out their guns and kill each other.

As I drove from Scottsboro to Atlanta to catch my flight home, I kept turning over what I had seen and learned. Although we do not yet know exactly how guns affect us, the notion that more guns lead to less crime is almost certainly incorrect. The research on guns is not uniform, and we could certainly use more of it. But when all but a few studies point in the same direction, we can feel confident that the arrow is aiming at the truth—which is, in this case, that guns do not inhibit crime and violence but instead make it worse.

Deep down, the NRA knows this. That's why it got Congress to ban CDC and NIH from studying the public health effect of guns. You don't shut down research unless you know the truth is against you.

and sanctuary cities

The Justice Department is suing the State of California over its non-cooperation with the federal government's efforts to deport undocumented immigrants. Resistance to ICE deportations reached a new level two weeks ago, when Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf issued a public warning that deportation raids were coming. ICE claims that hundreds of deportable immigrants "with criminal records" may have escaped because of the mayor's heads-up.

That sounds bad until you start hearing stories about the "criminals" ICE targets. As I mentioned a few weeks ago: Dr. Lukasz Niec, a 43-year-old Michigan physician with a green card, was picked up by ICE because of two offenses he committed as a teen-ager, one of which had been expunged from his record, but still counted against him.

Trump's rhetoric is all about protecting the public from "bad hombres". But ICE isn't picking out people because they're dangerous, it's looking for excuses to deport as many people as it can.

and the Stormy Daniels scandal is not going away

A good summary of where we are is Michelle Goldberg's column in Friday's NYT. Unbelievable as it sounds, Trump having an affair with a porn star while his wife was home with a new baby ISN'T what makes this story a big deal. (Imagine reading that line about Obama while he was in office. But it's true: We all already know that Trump is the kind of slimeball who would do something like that.) It's the $130,000 pay-off, the unlikely story his lawyer tells about it, and that it supports the most controversial part of the Steele dossier: Trump can be blackmailed by people who know about his sexual exploits.

When I wrote "Trump's Evangelical toadies are destroying the Christian brand" back in January, mega-church pastor Robert Jeffress hadn't yet weighed in on Trump's Stormy extra-marital affair, or the legally suspicious payoff to keep her quiet before the election. (Maybe he was still tired from his defense of Trump's "shithole countries" comment.) But Thursday, he appeared on Fox News to spend down more of Christianity's capital shoring up the defenses of his morally bankrupt president.


Evangelicals still believe in the commandment: Thou shalt not have sex with a porn star. However, whether this president violated that commandment or not is totally irrelevant to our support of him. ... Evangelicals understand the concept of sin and forgiveness. Look, we are all sinners. We all need forgiveness. That forgiveness is available through Christ for anyone who asks. And whether the President needs that forgiveness for this particular allegation, whether he's asked for it, is between him, his family, and his God.

[I have to pass on Steve Benen's comment: "Let's pause to note that anytime a prominent Christian evangelist begins an argument by saying, 'Evangelicals still believe in the commandment: Thou shalt not have sex with a porn star. However...' the sentence probably won't end well."]

Jeffress was basically echoing the anything-goes interpretation of forgiveness that Jerry Falwell Jr. gave in January when the Daniels scandal broke:

Our whole faith is based around the idea that we’re all equally bad, we’re all sinners.

[Benen again: "Many Christian conservatives appear to have discovered the virtues of moral relativism."] I would guess that neither of these preachers has ever offered this vision of forgiveness to their congregations: "Do whatever you want, show no indication of remorse, and none of us will ever condemn your sin, because we will all just assume that you're forgiven and everyone else is just as bad. In fact, we will support you in continuing to hold positions that require high moral character."

This interpretation of Christianity isn't meant for you and me. It's a special gospel for the Powerful, and in particular, for powerful men who are allies of Evangelical leaders. It's a complete reversal of the Bible's prophetic tradition.

In addition to its integrity, support for Trump is costing the Evangelical movement the tangible progress it had made in the last few decades towards racial integration. Evangelical congregations have never been a fully representative sample of American diversity. (No major American denomination is.) But to their credit, many of them had managed to become less racially segregated than liberal churches that have made a bigger deal out of fighting racism.

The NYT describes a "quiet exodus" of blacks from majority-white Evangelical churches since the election. The stories are all different, but there's a clear theme: The black Evangelicals had tried to ignore their church's lack of interest in racial issues ("her fellow congregants did not seem to even know the name Trayvon Martin"), but they were shocked that Trump's open racism wasn't a deal-breaker for their brothers and sisters in Christ. Instead, they were told both from the pulpit and by their fellow parishioners that voting for Trump was the Christian thing to do.

Another NYT article describes another erosion: White Evangelical women are staying in their churches, but starting to have doubts about Trump.

but I'm still thinking about the Democrats' possible strategies

Tomorrow there will be a special election in Pennsylvania's 18th congressional district, which is just south of Pittsburgh, in the corner of the state that makes a right angle with Ohio and West Virginia. It had been represented by Republican Tim Murphy, an anti-abortion Republican who resigned in October after it came out that he (1) had an extra-marital affair, (2) got his mistress pregnant, and (3) urged her to get an abortion.

It's a solidly Republican district. Murphy ran unopposed in 2016, and Trump beat Clinton there by 19%. A poll in January had Republican Rick Saccone ahead of Democrat Conor Lamb by 12%. But the race has tightened. Two polls have been done this month, and each has a different candidate up by 3%.

Lamb is 33 years old, a lawyer, and a former Captain in the Marines. He's not making a big deal out of being a Democrat or opposing Trump. The big print on the home page of his web site says:

That biggest issues facing the 18th Congressional District aren't partisan. Heroin kills both Republicans and Democrats. Health care is too expensive. The roads and bridges we all use are crumbling. But the people we send to Washington aren't solving these problems.

He's not big on gun control, supports Trump's tariffs, and doesn't support either a $15 minimum wage or Nancy Pelosi for Speaker.

Tomorrow, we'll see if that works.

Trump held a rally in the 18th Saturday night. It was supposed to be for Saccone, but like all Trump speeches, it was really about himself, his accomplishments, and his endless struggles against his enemies. One of his claims was that he got 52% of women's vote; actually he got 52% of white women's votes. Apparently, women of color don't count.

In yesterday's NYT, four political science researchers compare two groups of 2012 Obama voters who didn't vote for Clinton in 2016: those who voted for Trump and those who didn't vote. Both groups are sizeable: 6 million Obama/Trump voters and 4.4 million Obama/Nobody voters. Pundits have done a lot of hand-wringing about how to appeal to the O/T voters; that's what all those interview with middle-aged white working-class men are about.

But the researchers see the O/N people, who are younger and nearly evenly split between white and non-white, as a more promising target to win back: The O/T voters don't identify as Democrats and are more conservative than Clinton voters on racial and social issues that the party would have a hard time compromising on.

In stark contrast, Obama-to-nonvoters share the progressive policy priorities of Democrats, and they strongly identify with the Democratic Party.

The O/T voters didn't just turn against Clinton, they didn't support down-ballot Democrats either. But surveys indicate that the O/N people would have supported down-ballot Democrats, if they could have been motivated to vote.

In the journal Democracy, Laura Putnam and Theda Skocpol point to a different group as the energy-center of the resistance to Trump: middle-aged, college-educated suburban women.

For those wondering who is going to rebuild the foundations of U.S. democracy— assuming the national guardrails survive—the answer across much of the U.S. heartland seems clear. The foundation rebuilders in many communities across most states are newly mobilized and interconnected grassroots groups, led for the most part by Middle America’s mothers and grandmothers. They see the work to be done and are well into accomplishing it.

If you do want to reach out to white working-class Trump voters, read "Can the Democratic Party be White Working Class Too?" in The American Prospect. It looks at the success of Democrats like Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana.

Some of the themes here resonate with the ones I outlined a few weeks ago in the context of Alaska, especially "run everywhere", "think locally", and "don't settle for the people who want to run, find the people who ought to run".

Bullock tells young people interested in politics to make a life in something else first. It will make them authentic and connect them with voters, rather than with issues, political insiders, and the process of governing.

I would change your major out of political science or law. Get a practical trade, study science or math. Go out and try to change the world in the private sector. Start a business and lose it. Start a family. … Do not learn how to run this country by working for people who already do.

Montana Democratic Party executive Nancy Keenan says:

A lot of the people who run as Democrats think that if we could just get into the depths and detail of the policy and make people understand it, then we’ll get elected. Oh, hell no! The detail doesn’t matter, people! What’s the first rule of politics? Show up. Everywhere. The second rule is: Show up where they didn’t want or ask you to come. I used to show up at the stock growers’ convention or the Chamber of Commerce conventions, and they’d all ask, "What the hell is she doing here?" And I’d tell everyone how terrific it was to be with them.

The article concludes:

Integrating Montana’s template into Democratic success will entail integrating Montana’s constituents—white, working-class, often rural voters who, despite their cultural differences, face many of the same frustrations with debt, health care, and labor as other working-class people in the Democratic coalition.

And that sounds a lot like Lamb's message.

and you also might be interested in ...

I'm barely touching the week's craziest story, because despite all the noise about it, it seemed to have no serious consequences: Monday, Trump campaign aide Sam Nunberg was on literally ALL the TV news networks, claiming that he was going to defy a subpoena to appear before Robert Mueller's grand jury. He seemed not to believe that Mueller would arrest him if he did that, though the lawyers on the talk shows eventually seemed to get through to him. Friday, he appeared on schedule and testified.

For years, Sam Brownback's Kansas has been the prime example of how tax cuts can drive a state into a fiscal crisis. The NYT's David Leonhardt says:

Now Kansas seems to have a rival for the title of the state that’s caused the most self-inflicted damage through tax cuts: Louisiana. ... Louisiana’s former governor, Bobby Jindal, deserves much of the blame. A Republican wunderkind when elected at age 36 in 2008, he cut income taxes and roughly doubled the size of corporate tax breaks. By the end of his two terms, businesses were able to use those breaks to avoid paying about 80 percent of the taxes they would have owed under the official corporate rate.

At first, Jindal spun a tale about how the tax cuts would lead to an economic boom — but they didn’t, just as they didn’t in Kansas. Instead, Louisiana’s state revenue plunged.

Leonhardt suggests they simply roll back Jindal's corporate tax cuts, but that's not even on the table. Instead, a special session of the legislature debated raising the sales tax, couldn't find the votes to do it, and adjourned, having done nothing to close the looming $994 million shortfall. The regular session can't raise taxes, so they'll be looking for cuts in things like education and health care.

Trump continues to use words that have special meaning in alt-Right circles. Thursday, he paid dubious tribute to his soon-to-exit economic adviser Gary Cohn.

He’s been terrific. He may be a globalist, but I still like him. He is seriously a globalist, there’s no question. But you know what, in his own way he’s a nationalist because he loves our country.

If you don't pay attention to racist groups, you may read through that without seeing anything wrong. But globalist is a common right-wing euphemism for Jew, which Cohn is. A fellow "globalist", Peter Beinart, explains:

The term “globalist” is a bit like the term “thug.” It’s an epithet that is disproportionately directed at a particular minority group. Just as “thug” is often used to invoke the stereotype that African Americans are violent, “globalist” can play on the stereotype that Jews are disloyal. Used that way, it becomes a modern-day vessel for an ancient slur: that Jews—whether loyal to international Judaism or international capitalism or international communism or international Zionism—aren’t loyal to the countries in which they live.

Trump seems to grasp this connotation, so he tempers it by reassuring everyone that Cohn "loves our country" -- implying that most globalists don't. But Trump is not anti-Semitic; some of his best friends are "globalists".

and let's close with something otherworldly

If you think our weather has been strange lately, take a look at the swirling cloud formations on Jupiter.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Tyrant Envy

He's now president for life. President for life. And he's great. I think it's great. Maybe we'll give that a shot someday.

- Donald J. Trump,
responding to Chinese President Xi Jinping's consolidation of power

This week's featured post is "Three Misunderstandings About Guns and the Constitution".

This week everybody was talking about chaos in the White House

It was a bad week for the Kushner household. Jared and possibly Ivanka  lost their interim top-secret clearances. Tuesday the Washington Post reported:

Officials in at least four countries [United Arab Emirates, China, Israel and Mexico] have privately discussed ways they can manipulate Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, by taking advantage of his complex business arrangements, financial difficulties and lack of foreign policy experience, according to current and former U.S. officials familiar with intelligence reports on the matter.

The NYT reported that the Kushner family's cash-strapped real estate company received massive loans after Kushner had meetings to discuss Trump-administration policy with bank executives. Everyone involved denies any wrong-doing, but Kushner (like Trump himself) has done little to insulate himself from conflicts of interest.

Mr. Kushner resigned as chief executive of Kushner Companies when he joined the White House last January, and he sold a small portion of his stake in the company to a trust controlled by his mother.

But he retained the vast majority of his interest in Kushner Companies. His real estate holdings and other investments are worth as much as $761 million, according to government ethics filings. They are likely worth much more, because that estimate has his firm’s debt subtracted from the value of his holdings. The company has done at least $7 billion of deals in the past decade.

Ivanka is also getting attention from the counter-intelligence people at the FBI, though it's not clear why.

Hope Hicks resigned as White House Communications Director Wednesday, just a day after testifying to the House Intelligence Committee. Well, she sort of testified: She refused to answer any questions related to events after Inauguration Day, though she offered no valid grounds for refusing. The Republican-controlled committee has been letting Trump's people get away with this kind of obstruction. Also the previous day, her deputy Josh Raffel resigned.

National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster is also rumored to be on his way out the door.

Trump once again bashed his own attorney general for refusing to use the Justice Department to investigate Trump's political enemies. Jeff Sessions referred the Nunes-memo nonsense about abusing the FISA process to the Justice Department Inspector General's office, which is exactly where such questions belong. Trump objected because "Isn't the I.G. an Obama guy?". He assumes that everyone is as corrupt as he is; again and again he rejects the possibility of non-partisan government service.

and teachers with guns

The post-Parkland conversation about gun control is fading, but not nearly as fast as it usually does after a mass shooting. I'm not optimistic enough to call this a turning point, but I think it is breaking the usual false-equivalence frame for thinking about the two sides. In this case, one side wants to start limiting the availability of weapons designed to kill large numbers of people quickly, and the other side wants your kid's teacher to bring a gun into the classroom.

I think the sheer insanity of the latter proposal is shocking large numbers of voters, even ones who aren't sure exactly what limits they want on guns or how effective they'd be. More and more it becomes clear that this debate is no longer between anti-gun people and pro-gun people, it's between sane people and crazy people.

The problems inherent in having multiple non-police shooters on the scene were demonstrated February 14 (the same day as the Parkland shooting) when Tony Garces disarmed a shooter at his church -- and then was shot by police as he left the church carrying the shooter's gun.

The problems inherent in expecting Ms. Frizzle to play Rambo were demonstrated Wednesday, when Dalton High School in Georgia was evacuated after a social studies teachers barricaded himself in his classroom and fired a gun.

If we arm hundreds of thousands of teachers, eventually one of them will snap and start shooting students. What's the next step then -- arm the students so that they can shoot back? I mean, otherwise they're just sitting ducks. Isn't that exactly the same logic that gets us to armed teachers?

Novelist Nick Harkaway's four-year-old didn't want to go to school for fear of a shooter. Fortunately for Harkaway, he's British, so he could tell his son that things like that just happen in America. He feels sorry for American parents who have to come up with some other answer.

The vast majority of armed teachers will handle their responsibilities as well as can be expected, but they will face the same dilemma that gun-owning parents face in their homes: If you picture the gun being useful against an intruder, then it can't be inside a gun safe, because you'll need to get it out and fire it quickly. But if it's that accessible, how do you keep it away from your children? (That's how toddlers manage to shoot about one American each week.)

Concealed carry -- the gun being on the teacher's person at all times -- is the most likely answer. But given how intimate teaching is, how concealed is that gun going to be? Do you not lean over a kid's desk because he'll see your shoulder holster? (Unconcealed carry is even worse. About a month ago, a third-grader fired a gun that was in the holster of a police officer working at the school. The police department statement said the officer was "unaware of the child touching his gun until the weapon was fired." It turns out that the trigger-guard wasn't designed for such small fingers.)

What's more, as the NRA will tell you, concealed-carry comes with a mindset: You must constantly look out for threats (including threats to take your gun) and be prepared to deal with them, possibly with lethal force. Dan Baum described that awareness several years ago in Harper's, contrasting Condition Yellow (constant low-level threat assessment) with Condition White (obliviousness).

Condition White may make us sheep, but it’s also where art happens. It’s where we daydream, reminisce, and hear music in our heads. Hard-core gun carriers want no part of that, and the zeal for getting everybody to carry a gun may be as much an anti–Condition White movement as anything else—resentment toward the airy-fairy elites who can enjoy the luxury of musing, sipping tea, and nibbling biscuits while the good people of the world have to work for a living and keep their guard up.

Condition White is also where the best teaching happens. You sink into a rapport with your students and let the outside world vanish for a while as you appreciate together the wonder of science or the beauty of the English language. Even if their guns stay holstered and out of sight, forcing our teachers to live constantly in Condition Yellow will have a major effect on the education our children get.

In 1999, Joel Miller explained "Why I Sold My Guns". He trained with a gun, imagining that he could protect his family's jewelry store in case of a burglary. Then a burglary happened, and he saw things more clearly.

If we do indeed arm 20% of our teachers, as Trump has suggested, two consequences are predictable: Teacher suicides will skyrocket, and white teachers will shoot black teens who frighten them, just as cops do.

Picture a teacher at the end of a bad day: tired, alone, feeling like a failure ... and armed. Most suicides are snap decisions, not well-considered plans. (More precisely, suicides happen when a lot of vague I-should-just-kill-myself thoughts that anybody might have culminate in a snap decision.) The availability of a gun facilitates that snap decision, which is why there are over 20,000 gun-suicides in the U.S. each year. Israel lowered the suicide rate among its soldiers by discouraging them from taking their weapons home during leaves.

Elie Mystal lays out the second scenario:

We’ll be telling teachers to shoot armed terrorists breaching the school. What’s really going to happen is an unarmed black truant loitering in a hallway he’s not supposed to be in who gets shot eight times by the jumpy choir director.

and trade

Thursday, Trump announced that he would announce something: Tariffs on imported steel and aluminum are supposed to be announced next week.

Markets reacted around the world (and were still reacting this morning) but who knows whether these tariffs will actually materialize? Trump says a lot of things, like that he'll back gun control measures or support whatever immigration bill Congress passes. Sometimes his statements mean something and sometimes they don't.

It's worth picturing how any previous administration would roll out such a policy: Across the government, implementation memos would be ready to distribute to the people who need to assess and collect the tariffs. Simultaneously, either Treasury or Commerce would publish a white paper explaining the logic of the move, pointing to the legal authority behind it, and predicting what it will accomplish. The entire administration would have a messaging strategy: Economists would have an economic message ready to go, foreign-policy people would have a foreign-policy message, defense people would have a national-security message, and so on. Only then would the President step in front of a microphone and make the announcement.

Instead, we got this:

It was not immediately clear whether the tariffs would be phased out over time and whether Trump would follow the advice of his national security advisers and exempt some countries from the tariffs to avoid harming key steel-producing US allies.

Trump announced the move during a hastily arranged meeting with steel and aluminum executives, even though the policy he announced is not yet ready to be implemented, let alone fully crafted. He acknowledged the policy is "being written now."

So something is going to happen. Maybe. Or maybe next week will come and go, and tariffs will have slipped Trump's mind because he's too busy tweeting about the Black Panther movie. Or maybe Steph Curry or Jamele Hill will tick him off again. Maybe the media will be mean to Nazis or the KKK again, and he'll have to stand up for them.

Assuming that some kind of tariff happens, I don't know what to think, because neither the protectionist nor the free-trade visions really make sense to me. (I believe free trade increases global GDP in general, but I don't believe the rising tide lifts all boats.) Paul Krugman's wonkish column about tariffs mainly convinces me that the subject is complicated. International trade is a multi-player game where each player influences many interlocking variables (like interest rates, currency-exchange rates, and tariffs on unrelated goods). So making a simple change somewhere rarely produces the direct result you might imagine.

but I went to a museum

On my way home from Florida, I stopped in at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

I had heard that it was impossible to get tickets, but in fact that's not true. Timed passes are available for free on the NMAAHC web site every morning, so you just need to be flexible and get online early. (It may be more difficult for a bigger group that needs to plan ahead. In the cafe, I sat next to somebody who complained about how long it had taken her group to schedule a visit.)

The museum is well worth your time. I came in with ambitions of seeing everything, and I failed. (There might theoretically be enough time in a day, but you have to have way more museum stamina than I do. You also have to avoid drifting into reverie or tearing up.) If you have two days, I'd recommend doing the history floors (below ground) on one day and the culture floors (above ground) on another.

I can't imagine what visiting the NMAAHC means for African-Americans. As a white, I was constantly amazed by how often I asked myself, "How did I not know this already? How could I never have heard of this person?" (For example, I had heard the phrase Harlem Renaissance, but I couldn't have told you exactly when it happened or who participated in it.) I often felt uneducated and culturally deprived, feelings that I imagine blacks must experience in museums where everything "historic" or "cultural" is European.

I also often saw in a new light events I had thought I understood. (There would have been a lot more if I hadn't done a Reconstruction reading project a few years ago.) So, for example, I had always thought of breaking the color line in baseball in terms of the opportunities it had opened up for black players. I had never seen it as a tactic for driving the black-owned Negro Leagues out of business. But it was both. Major league owners never negotiated with Negro League owners. No one ever considered letting the strongest Negro League teams, like the Kansas City Monarchs, join the major leagues, the way that the San Antonio Spurs and three other ABA teams were allowed to join the NBA in a 1976 merger without racial implications.

Instead, white teams signed top Negro League stars (like the Monarchs' Jackie Robinson and Satchell Paige, both now in the Hall of Fame) without compensation, and then a few years later the Philadelphia Athletics moved to Kansas City.

and you also might be interested in ...

When historians look back, it's possible that the most noteworthy recent event will be the arctic heat wave at the end of February, when temperatures at the North Pole went above freezing at what ought to be the coldest part of winter. Vice reports:

temperatures at the Cape Morris Jesup weather station—one of the northernmost in the world—remained above freezing for 24 straight hours. Meanwhile, climate change is causing a secret military base in Greenland to melt out of the ice, and scientists have reported open water north of Greenland. This, all in the dead of winter, when the Arctic has constant darkness.

A DACA student has three months more months of medical school. Will she get to finish? Can she apply for jobs?

The recent corporate tax cut was supposed to spur investment, and several companies got some good press by giving workers one-time bonuses. But it looks like the serious money is going to go to stockholders through dividends and stock buybacks.

Russian President Putin announced plans for new "invincible" nuclear weapons that will make U.S. defenses "useless". Our president responded by ... no he didn't respond at all. It's Russia. They own him. They can do whatever they want.

Last Tuesday, NSA Director Michael Rogers told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he had the capability to strike back at Russia for its attack against our election process, but that he has not been directed to do so. "I believe that President Putin has clearly come to the conclusion that there’s little price to pay here … and that therefore I can continue this activity."

Too many pundits talk about "collusion" as if it were some obscure thing for Mueller to dig out of subpoenaed documents or bully out of reluctant witnesses. But it's happening in plain sight and has been all along. Trump expects Russian help in the 2018 midterm elections, so he's leaving our country open to it.

As a devout young Lutheran, I found Billy Graham's televised "crusades" quite moving, before growing away from that point of view in later life. By all means, people who share his religion should honor him and mourn his death in their churches. If presidents and other public officials want to attend his funeral, that's up to them. But I object to giving him public honors, as was done when he became the fourth private citizen to get a memorial service in the Capitol rotunda.

Graham was an adviser and confidant of several presidents, and ministers can sometimes play an important public role that justifies public honor. (For example, Rev. Thomas Starr King, whose statue used to be displayed in the Capitol, was sometimes credited with keeping California in the Union during the Civil War.) But Graham's career was entirely sectarian. If you are not an Evangelical Christian, it's hard to point to anything he ever did for you. If you're gay or lesbian, he did a number of things to harm you, including supporting a North Carolina measure to ban same-sex marriage as recently as 2012.

In short, I see public honors for Graham as yet another claim by the Religious Right that they own the country.

Trump has accomplished at least one thing I thought would never happen: He made me appreciate the Bush administration. Watch Fareed Zakaria's interview with Condoleeza Rice (broadcast yesterday) and see if you wouldn't happily trade our current administration to get the Bushies back.

and let's close with something strange

like a walking octopus.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Secret Agent Man

You can view this post on

Monday, February 12, 2018

Preserve, Protect, and Defend

The bottom line of this is that they protected an abuser. And guess what is a job qualification to work in this White House? To protect someone who talked favorably about sexual assault on the Access Hollywood tapes. That is a job qualification in this White House. There's a pattern of behavior. ... They protect abusers. There's no way of getting around it, and I guess people will say, "Well, it doesn't matter. You can still be a good president. You can still do your job." No. If you are willing to defend someone who hurt somebody in this fashion, you have no boundaries. You have no restraint. You have no respect for the law.

- Amanda Carpenter, former staffer for Jim DeMint and Ted Cruz


This week's featured post is "Does the Exploding Federal Deficit Matter?"

This week everybody was talking about the White House defending spousal abuse

Porter's first wife

CNN summarizes the background:

Rob Porter, a top White House aide with regular access to President Donald Trump abruptly resigned on Wednesday amid abuse allegations from two ex-wives, who each detailed to CNN what they said were years of consistent abuse from Porter, including incidents of physical violence.

As so often happens with this White House, the move arises not because higher-ups found out -- White House Counsel Don McGahn apparently knew already -- but because the story was becoming public. CNN reports:

By early fall, it was widely known among Trump's top aides -- including chief of staff John Kelly -- both that Porter was facing troubles in obtaining the clearance and that his ex-wives claimed he had abused them. No action was taken to remove him from the staff. Instead, Kelly and others oversaw an elevation in Porter's standing. He was one of a handful of aides who helped draft last week's State of the Union address.

Porter was serving in the White House on an interim security clearance. (Until this week, I didn't know such a thing existed. I used to have a job that required a clearance, and you couldn't wander around the building unescorted until your clearance came through. Your boss would have to go outside the security perimeter to visit you in your temporary office. Apparently this White House has a more lax attitude. Jared Kushner also has an interim clearance.) He hadn't gotten a permanent clearance precisely because his ex-wives had told their stories to the FBI, who consequently worried that Porter could be blackmailed by America's enemies.

So far, we don't know exactly what Kelly knew when. (A Congress that was doing its job would ask him.) But he definitely had known for weeks that Porter wasn't getting a clearance, and that the issue involved a court order against him by one of his wives. When the initial reports surfaced in the press Tuesday, Kelly's first reaction Wednesday was to stand by Porter:

Rob Porter is a man of true integrity and honor and I can't say enough good things about him. He is a friend, a confidante and a trusted professional. I am proud to serve alongside him.

Sarah Sanders echoed his sentiment:

I have worked directly with Rob Porter nearly every day for the last year and the person I know is someone of the highest integrity and exemplary character. Those of us who have the privilege of knowing him are better people because of it.

Only later in the day, when pictures like the one above started circulating, did Kelly change his tune -- sort of.

I was shocked by the new allegations released today against Rob Porter. There is no place for domestic violence in our society. I stand by my previous comments of the Rob Porter that I have come to know since becoming Chief of Staff, and believe every individual deserves the right to defend their reputation.

The difference wasn't that Kelly learned new facts, but that the pictures in the press made Porter indefensible.

A second White House staffer resigned Friday after abuse allegations by his ex-wife. Trump played defense Saturday morning:

Peoples lives are being shattered and destroyed by a mere allegation. Some are true and some are false. Some are old and some are new. There is no recovery for someone falsely accused - life and career are gone. Is there no such thing any longer as Due Process?

Porter's second wife took that tweet personally. After all, Trump said "lives", which indicates he's talking about more than one case. In an op-ed in Time, Jennie Willloughby wrote:

The words “mere allegation” and “falsely accused” meant to imply that I am a liar. That Colbie Holderness is a liar. That the work Rob was doing in the White House was of higher value than our mental, emotional or physical wellbeing. That his professional contributions are worth more than the truth. That abuse is something to be questioned and doubted.

The really stunning part of this story is that Porter has been dating White House Communications Director Hope Hicks. Vanity Fair describes Hicks as: "one of the most powerful people in the White House, protected by Trump almost like a member of the Trump family." We're left with two possibilities: (1) Hicks knew that Porter had abused his two wives, and decided to date him anyway. (2) Hicks didn't know, and Kelly was content to let her date Porter without knowing.

You might hope for some tearful apology from Porter, maybe coupled with a statement about how he had found Jesus and turned his life around. But no, he denies everything. So it's a he-said/she-said-and-she-said-and-has-pictures story. The second staffer (David Sorenson) says he was actually the victim of his wife's violence.

As for the rumors that Kelly might be on his way out ... I'll believe that when he's gone.

Kelly has long been able to hide behind his reputation as a Marine general. But it has been obvious for some while that he himself is not "a man of true integrity and honor" either. Back in October, when Trump was feuding with the wife of a soldier killed in action in Niger, Kelly supported Trump's false account of their phone conversation, and then slandered Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, who heard the widow's side of the call. When video proved that Kelly had lied about Wilson, he refused to apologize.

That's the kind of man John Kelly is, and it's totally consistent with what we're seeing now.

and the budget deal

The government was actually shut down for a few hours after midnight on Friday, but hardly anybody noticed. Friday morning Congress passed and Trump signed a deal that did a few things:

  • kept the government funded until March 23
  • agreed on spending levels for the rest of FY 2018, which lasts through September
  • raised the debt ceiling for another year

The agreement blew away spending caps that have been around since the budget sequestration agreement that ended the 2013 debt-ceiling crisis. That deal had linked caps on defense spending with caps on non-defense spending. Republicans have long wanted to do away with the defense cap, which Democrats weren't willing to do with the non-defense cap still in place. So they circumvented both: Each of the next two years, the Defense cap goes up by $160 billion to around $700 billion, and the non-defense cap goes up $128 billion to $591 billion.

Coupled with the recent tax cut, Congress is now looking at a deficit of around $1.2 trillion for FY 2019, not counting the infrastructure proposal Trump is making today. The featured post discusses just how worried we should be about that.

Raising the budget caps, though, doesn't actually appropriate money. That has to happen in a separate bill that has to get worked out by March 23. The appropriation bill, called an "omnibus", has to describe where the money goes in more detail.

Beyond just "making America great again", I haven't seen a detailed analysis of what the Pentagon needs more money for. The non-defense part includes money for disaster relief, community health centers, the opioid problem, and infrastructure.

and the Dreamers

One thing the budget deal didn't include was a resolution to the problem of the Dreamers, who could start being deported next month (though probably not, because of certain court decisions). Certainly there is deportation risk later in the year.

Democrats sent mixed messages. Nancy Pelosi cited the lack of a DACA fix when she voted against the budget deal herself and gave a record-setting 8-hour speech on the floor of the House. But Democratic leadership did not try to hold House Democrats together to vote down the deal, which Democrats could have done if they had stuck together (given that some Republicans were also voting no for other reasons). I'm uncertain whether the caucus would have held together if Pelosi had tried.

In the deal that resolved the last shutdown, Democrats got a commitment from Mitch McConnell to let a DACA bill come to the floor, but the bipartisan group of senators who are supposed to write such a bill haven't been able to agree on a text yet, so McConnell's promise hasn't been tested.

If you think the Dreamers won't get deported even after DACA runs out, you need to understand the kind of things ICE is doing now: About a month ago, Dr. Lukasz Niec, "a physician specializing in internal medicine at Bronson Healthcare Group in Kalamazoo", a legal permanent resident with a green card, and the father of a 12-year-old girl (who is an American citizen), got arrested in his home. The problem: the 43-year-old physician was convicted of two misdemeanors when he was a teen-ager, so he is "subject to removal" back to Poland, where he hasn't lived since he was five years old, when his family escaped the Communist regime then in power.

He spent about three weeks in county jail and went back to work Thursday. His deportation case is still pending while a parole board considers whether to pardon him for his crimes.

So, Dr. Niec is one of the "bad hombres" Trump was talking about.

Another bad hombre is Syed Jamal, who lives in Lawrence, Kansas and teaches chemistry at Park University in Missouri. Jamal came to the U.S. legally in 1987 as a student from Bangladesh. He stayed after his student visa ran out, married, and is raising several children (U.S. citizens) between ages 7 and 14.

Jamal was arrested while walking his children to school, and was whisked away to a jail in El Paso, from which he could have been flown back to Bangladesh at any moment. (Sometimes ICE grabs people off the street and deports them the same day.) A judge has granted him a temporary stay until Thursday, at which point no one knows what will happen.

If the Iraq War taught us anything, it should have taught us that dragging fathers away while their sons watch is a good way to nurture future terrorism.

Roberto Beristain, who lived in the U.S. for 20 years, and owned and operated Eddie's Steak Shed in Granger, Indiana, was deported to Mexico in April. His wife, a citizen, now regrets voting for Trump; she had believed his promise that he was only interested in deporting criminals. They were raising three children together, including one from her previous marriage.

CNN talked to Beristain's attorney, who told this story:

Beristain bounced between detention facilities -- Indiana, Wisconsin, Illinois, Louisiana, New Mexico and Texas -- making it more difficult for his attorneys to file legal motions in one jurisdiction. Then on Wednesday, as his legal team was expecting a ruling, they got the news: ICE had deported him to Juarez in the middle of the night.

From an immigrant shelter in Mexico, Beristain describes how it went down:

"They suddenly told me it was time to go," Roberto Beristain was quoted as saying. "They told me to get my stuff, they put me in the back of a van and sped toward the border. They took me to another facility while in transport to sign paperwork. I asked to speak with my attorney, but was told there wasn't time for that. At around 10 p.m., I was dropped off at the Mexico-US border and walked into Mexico."

and the stock market

The stock market drop of the last couple weeks has been unnerving, but so far the problem seems to be more about the market economy than the real economy. In other words: Investors are worried that stock prices got too high, not that there is something wrong with the economy.

I don't make market predictions, and you shouldn't trust me if I did. But if you are invested in the market, you shouldn't panic, you should just ask yourself why you own what you own. If the reasons you bought a stock are still valid -- you believe in the product, the earnings and dividend numbers look good, and so on -- then stand pat. But if you bought stocks because stocks were going up, well, lately they've been they're going down. I don't know what to tell you.

and (still) the Nunes memo

Last week I dissected the Republican memo that tried (and failed) to de-legitimize the Mueller investigation. This week Trump refused to allow the release of the Democrats' memo critiquing the Republican memo. That's where we are: The administration is openly cherry-picking classified information, releasing stuff that supports Trump and keeping secret anything it can that makes him look bad. National security is a secondary concern; propaganda comes first.

When Trump said he was "looking forward" to talking to Robert Mueller, and would do so under oath, I didn't buy it.

If anybody expects to see Trump under oath without (or even with) an order from the Supreme Court, let me remind you of all the times he has said he would release his tax returns.

This week, we found out that Trump's lawyers are laying the groundwork to resist a Mueller/Trump interview. Ultimately, it will probably come down to whether or not he invokes the Fifth Amendment. Lawyer Seth Abramson explains the legal issues involved.

Vox listed all the stories that slipped under the radar last week while everybody was arguing about the memo: A Labor Department analysis shows that a new rule will result in restaurants stealing billions from their workers, but it isn't releasing that information. The CDC is facing a huge cut to programs that address foreign epidemics; I guess Trump's Wall will stop all those germs from getting here. People in public housing will face higher rents and more red tape. Ben Carson's son is benefiting from his Dad's job as HUD secretary. The payday lending industry is rewarding Trump for favorable treatment by holding a big conference at one of Trump's clubs.

and you also might be interested in ...

Amazing article this week in the NYT Magazine: "What Teens Are Learning From Online Porn". Some Boston teens from a variety of high schools attended a Porn Literacy class; their conversations have a lot to teach adults. Pretty much everybody understands that the plotlines of porn videos are ridiculous. (Delivering pizzas to lonely housewives is not a good strategy for losing your virginity.) But inexperienced teens are taking porn seriously as a lesson in what kinds of things their future partners will expect them to do, and what kinds of things s/he will enjoy. And since adults refuse to recognize that kids are seeing this stuff, the lessons don't get critiqued.

Some people, as they get older, stop caring about other people's approval and just say what's on their minds. Check out this interview with 84-year-old musician Quincy Jones.

Jonathan Rauch and Benjamin Wittes argue that the Republican Party has passed a point of no return:

This, then, is the article we thought we would never write: a frank statement that a certain form of partisanship is now a moral necessity. The Republican Party, as an institution, has become a danger to the rule of law and the integrity of our democracy. The problem is not just Donald Trump; it’s the larger political apparatus that made a conscious decision to enable him. In a two-party system, nonpartisanship works only if both parties are consistent democratic actors. If one of them is not predictably so, the space for nonpartisans evaporates. We’re thus driven to believe that the best hope of defending the country from Trump’s Republican enablers, and of saving the Republican Party from itself, is to do as Toren Beasley did: vote mindlessly and mechanically against Republicans at every opportunity, until the party either rights itself or implodes

Jennifer Rubin, who used to work at The Weekly Standard and was a strong Mitt Romney supporter in 2012, comes pretty close to saying the same thing. She connects defending spouse-abusers in the White House with the abuse of classified documents, the abuse of Senate procedure, and the whole raft of norm-violations that have been going on for a while now. "The core mission of the GOP is now to defend abusers," she writes.

EPA Director Scott Pruitt was interviewed by KSNV in Las Vegas. Here's some of what he said:

We know humans have most flourished during times of what, warming trends. So I think there's assumptions made that because the climate is warming, that that necessarily is a bad thing. Do we really know what the ideal surface temperature should be in the year 2100, in the year 2018? That's fairly arrogant for us to think that we know exactly what it should be in 2100.

The stupidity here is subtle, so it probably gets past people who don't want to think about the climate, or who have vested interests in the fossil-fuel industry.

  • The problem isn't just that we're in a warming trend, it's that the speed of the warming is unprecedented. If global average temperature went up 4 degrees over 10,000 years or 100,000 years, various natural and human systems might adjust smoothly. But the same warming in 100 years is catastrophic.
  • The warming trend isn't just happening to us, we're causing it. So he's got the arrogance exactly backwards: It's arrogant to think that we can cause drastic climate change and not think about the consequences.

Closing the hole in the ozone layer is usually considered one of the victories of environmental regulation. But now there might be a new problem.

John Quiggen argues that Bitcoin disproves the idea that markets are efficient. The objects of previous bubbles -- dot-com stocks, market derivatives -- had plausible (if ultimately false) claims to value.

The contrast with Bitcoin is stark. The Bitcoin bubble rests on no plausible premise.... Hardly anyone now suggests that Bitcoin has value as a currency. Rather, the new claim is that Bitcoin is a “store of value” and that its price reflects its inherent scarcity. ... If Bitcoin is a “store of value,” then asset prices are entirely arbitrary. As the proliferation of cryptocurrencies has shown, nothing is easier than creating a scarce asset.

Here's the kind of clever entrepreneurship our country needs: A Girl Scout sold 300 boxes of cookies in six hours by setting up outside a legal marijuana shop in San Diego.

and let's close with something unexpected

In New Zealand, elderly people (and others who think they might die sooner rather than later) have started forming "coffin clubs". With help from the other members, they build their own coffins and decorate them creatively, preparing for funerals that will be celebrations of their lives rather than somber and depressing affairs. And they publicized the idea with a jazzy music video.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Doing Putin's Job

The latest attacks on the FBI and Department of Justice serve no American interests – no party’s, no president’s, only Putin’s. The American people deserve to know all of the facts surrounding Russia’s ongoing efforts to subvert our democracy, which is why special counsel Mueller’s investigation must proceed unimpeded. Our nation’s elected officials, including the president, must stop looking at this investigation through the warped lens of politics and manufacturing partisan sideshows. If we continue to undermine our own rule of law, we are doing Putin’s job for him.

- Senator John McCain

This week's featured post is "The Nunes Memo: It's ridiculous and it damages the country, but it might work." On my religious blog Free and Responsible Search, I posted the text of the sermon "Owning My Racism", which I preached on Martin Luther King Sunday.

This week everybody was talking about the Nunes memo

The featured post goes into detail about the memo itself. But there are a number of articles about the larger effects, like "Why I Am Leaving the FBI" by counterterrorism expert Josh Campbell. The comments contain a lot of you-should-stand-and-fight messages, but they miss the point: FBI rules prevent agents from speaking out in public. If the problem is in the political arena, Campbell has to leave the FBI to work on it.

Another interesting perspective comes from former Illinois congressman and right-wing talk-radio host Joe Walsh: "Based on my experience working with him, nothing about the way he’s behaving now as chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence — overseeing part of the so-called Russia-Trump investigation — is particularly shocking. The Nunes I knew was a purely partisan animal. ... With Nunes, I found it was all about politics, almost never about policy."

As TPM's Allegra Kirkland points out "the FBI isn't a hotbed of Democratic partisans". It makes sense that, say, career EPA officials would be Democrats, because protecting the environment is much more of Democratic value than a Republican one. But it defies logic that career FBI agents as a group would have a liberal bias, or that the FBI chain-of-command would be dominated by partisan Democrats.

Think about it: If you run into a college student who's majoring in environmental studies and hoping to work at the EPA, she's almost certainly a liberal. But if she's majoring in law enforcement and hoping to work at the FBI, I don't think you can say much about her politics. If anything, she's probably more conservative than most Americans her age.

In the meantime, Putin's investment in Trump continues to pay dividends. In particular, the Trump administration is not going to enforce some of the sanctions overwhelmingly passed by Congress.

Also, the head of a major Russian intelligence service came to the U.S., in spite of sanctions that are supposed to keep him out. Last I heard, no one was taking credit for letting him in.

and the State of the Union

Tuesday seems like a long time ago, but Trump's first State of the Union address was this week. By now we all realize that Teleprompter Trump and Campaign Rally Trump are two very different speakers. This was Teleprompter Trump. The numbers are pretty much all nonsense, like the claim that cutting the corporate tax will "increase average family income by more than $4,000", but at least he didn't call Mexicans rapists or invite the gallery to punch his opponents in the face.

As I predicted before he took office, he's taking credit for a lot of Obama's accomplishments. ("We are now an exporter of energy to the world.") He continued to paint immigrants as criminals, making the MS-13 gang the face of immigration, and a reason to turn away refugee children. He made a lot of probably empty promises about infrastructure and new trade deals. He talked about "clean coal" as if those words actually meant something. I would examine the text more closely, but I've become skeptical of anything Trump says. Let's see what actual proposals get made.

One passage does deserve attention, because it's a very dangerous idea I suspect we'll hear again:

I call on the Congress to empower every Cabinet Secretary with the authority to reward good workers — and to remove Federal employees who undermine the public trust or fail the American people.

That's how the federal government worked in the 19th century, when it was a giant patronage machine similar to some of the big-city political machines. That's why the Civil Service Act got passed in 1883.

I thought Joe Kennedy did a good job with his response to Trump's speech. The Trump administration, he said, is turning America into a zero-sum game, where "in order for one to win, another must lose".

As if the mechanic in Pittsburgh and the teacher in Tulsa and the day care worker in Birmingham are somehow bitter rivals, rather than mutual casualties of a system forcefully rigged for those at the top. As if the parent who lies awake terrified that their transgender son will be beaten and bullied at school is any more or less legitimate than the parent whose heart is shattered by a daughter in the grips of opioid addiction. So here is the answer Democrats offer tonight: we choose both. We fight for both.

That sounds like a theme Democrats can run on. It ties right in to the budget battles, where there's never enough money for what ordinary Americans need, because we've already given it away in tax cuts for the rich.

CBS News shines a light on the administration's all-talk-no-action opioid policy.

The answers, according to the president's speech: tightened immigration laws that will slow drug trafficking and getting "much tougher on drug dealers and pushers if we are going to succeed in stopping this scourge." But the rhetoric omitted any mention of the actual solutions proposed by experts on the front lines of the crisis.

What's left out?

  • Addiction to prescription drugs, which are made right here and trafficked through doctors and drug stores.
  • Funding for treatment programs.

Trump declared opioid addiction a "public health emergency" in October, but that in itself opened up only $57K in federal funding. Since then, he has not proposed any opioid program to Congress.

Another piece of the real state of the union is that we're losing environmental protections.

By coincidence, the day after Trump's speech I was reading David Wong's latest novel What the Hell Did I Just Read?, where I ran into this passage:

Marconi's pipe was leaning against an ancient figurine that looked like some kind of Egyptian god, only it had an enormous, erect penis almost as big as its torso, the figure's left hand wrapped around the shaft. ... "It's the Egyptian god Min, popular in the fourth century B.C., the god of fertility. It is believed that during the coronation of a new Pharaoh, he would be required to masturbate in front of the crowd, to demonstrate that he himself possessed the fertility powers of Min. If you have watched a State of the Union address, you will find that the ritual has not changed much."

The description of Min turns out to be accurate, but Wong writes intentionally absurd novels, so I wouldn't trust the claim about Pharaoh.

but we need to be telling stories about the cruelty of Trump's immigration policies

Max Boot tells about Helen Huynh. She and her husband came here from Vietnam after the war, in which her husband fought on our side. They became citizens and had two daughters, who of course are citizens. She developed leukemia and needed a stem-cell transplant; her sister in Vietnam turned out to be a perfect match. But the sister's visa application to come here for the procedure was rejected three times, and Huynh died a few days before Trump's State of the Union.

Also take a look at the Dreamer Stories web site. The more we can get voters to look at the Dreamers as individuals, the harder it will be to deport them.

and you also might be interested in ...

The Super Bowl: Philadelphia 41, New England 33.

The federal government is expected to borrow nearly $1 trillion this year, a sharp increase over last year. Neither party in Congress seems to be worried about this or have any plan to do anything about it. I've explained in the past why I don't believe the federal debt is a big problem, but it certainly looks like a big problem, so you can be sure that eventually we'll be told that we have to accept major cuts in the social safety net because the country can't afford it. (Reversing the recent trillion-dollar giveaway to corporations and the rich won't come up.)

Judges keep knocking down voter suppression laws. This time it's the disenfranchisement of felons in Florida. Under the current rules, anyone convicted of a felony (and many felonies are not such heinous crimes) has to serve the sentence and probation, wait five years (or seven for some offenses), and then begin an appeal process that ends up in front of "a panel of high-level government officials over which Florida's governor has absolute veto authority." According to Judge Mark Walker: "No standards guide the panel."

In other words, the governor gets to choose which Floridians will be allowed to vote for his re-election. That conflict of interest is not just theoretical. The judge writes:

Plaintiffs identify several instances of former felons who professed political views amenable to the Board’s members who then received voting rights, while those who expressed contrary political views to the Board were denied those same rights. Applicants—as well as their character witnesses—have routinely invoked their conservative beliefs and values to their benefit.

The judge focused on the arbitrariness of the system of restoring voting rights to felons, and allowed the 5-7 year waiting period. He put off ordering a remedy until later this month.

But even without the political bias, such a system is wrong. It's wrong on an individual basis, because after you've served your time, you should be allowed to re-enter society fully. But when you combine felon disenfranchisement with a justice system that is looking for black crime and far more likely to convict black law-breakers than white ones, you wind up with a significant disenfranchisement of the black community. (Walker notes that 1-in-5 of Florida's black adults is disenfranchised.) Similarly, upper-class and middle-class voters accused of a felony are more likely to have good lawyers who can either get them off or plea-bargain to a misdemeanor. So a substantial class bias gets baked into the electorate as well.

Someone might argue that the system is fair, and blacks and poor people just commit more felonies. But I think that the burden of proof in that argument should be borne by the state.

In November, Floridians -- at least the ones still allowed to -- will vote on a ballot initiative to restore felon voting rights.

No human languages or institutions have lasted for 10,000 years, so how do you make a warning symbol for something that will be dangerous that long? (Consider the skull-and-crossbones. You might intend it to say "poison", but some future person might think "pirate treasure".) What kind of warning will get people's attention, but not make them curious? Vox and 99% Invisible explore those questions in this fascinating video.

and let's close with something cute

If you can't wait for the Olympics to start, I offer this video of a girl doing an obstacle course that her Dad built in the back yard.