Monday, November 19, 2018

Lies and Traps

The adage that there are two sides to a story makes sense when those who represent each side accept the factuality of the world and interpret the same set of facts. Putin's strategy of implausible deniability exploited this convention while destroying its basis. He positioned himself as a side of the story while mocking factuality. "I am lying to you openly and we both know it" is not a side of the story. It is a trap.

- Timothy Snyder, The Road to Unfreedom

This week's featured post, "The Big Picture: from Russia to Ukraine to Brexit to Trump", looks at Timothy Snyder's The Road to Unfreedom.

His analysis of the Putin/Trump style of propaganda has me rethinking how I cover Trump, so this week's summary is an experiment: Putin and Trump say outrageous things in order to become the story themselves, shifting the focus away from the issues on the ground. Just this week, for example, Trump has blathered a lot of nonsense about the California wildfires. It would be easy to get focused on Trump's nonsense, and lose sight of the fact that homes are burning, people are dying, and millions of Californians are dealing with a serious air-quality problem.

On the other hand, we shouldn't all just ignore that our President is disinforming the public, which includes a segment that is inclined to believe him. So here's what I'm trying this week: I will try to stay focused on the underlying issues. At places where Trump made headlines with a crap statement, I'll mention that this happened, characterize it with a single adjective (like "Trump said something stupid about this"), and provide a link in case you feel that you must know what it was.

We can't lose sight of the fact that Trump says ignorant and offensive things on an almost daily basis. But that's not really news any more.

This week everybody was talking about undecided races

Almost all of them came to a conclusion this week (other than the run-off in the Mississippi Senate race, which will happen next Tuesday).

  • Republicans took both the governorship and the Senate seat in Florida.
  • Stacey Abrams admitted that Brian Kemp will be Georgia's next governor. But after a long series of voter-suppression abuses by Kemp in his role as Secretary of State, Abrams refused to concede: "Let’s be clear, this is not a speech of concession. Because concession means to acknowledge an action is right, true or proper. As a woman of conscience and faith I cannot concede that. But my assessment is the law currently allows no further viable remedy."
  • Democrat Kyrsten Sinema won the Arizona Senate race.

A number of close House races weren't decided until this week, and three are still out. The most interesting was in Maine-2, where the state's ranked-choice-voting system made a difference:

In this election, the initial round had GOP incumbent Bruce Poliquin winning 46.1 percent and [Democrat Jared] Golden receiving 45.9 percent. Third party candidates garnered 8 percent. After re-allocating these third party votes, the final result was 50.53 percent to 49.47 percent in favor of Golden.

The Republican loser is going to court, claiming that ranked-choice-voting is unconstitutional. But I don't think he has any kind of a case. Here's the sum total of what the Constitution says about House elections:

The House of Representatives shall be composed of Members chosen every second Year by the People of the several States, and the Electors in each State shall have the Qualifications requisite for Electors of the most numerous Branch of the State Legislature.

I don't know how you read a ban on ranked-choice voting into that.

Think how much grief would be avoided if every state had RCV: If you want to vote Green or Libertarian or write in Bozo the Clown, fine. As long as you also express a preference between the Republican and Democratic candidates, you've got that base covered.

So here's where we stand at the moment: Republicans control the Senate 52-47, with the Mississippi run-off pending. Democrats control the House 233-199 with three seats still undecided. The new Congress will be seated on January 3.

The current House popular vote count has the Democrats ahead by 7.7%, or more than 8.5 million votes. (Nate Silver expects it to get into 8-9% range when the final votes are tallied.) The Republican wave of 2010 had a margin of 6.8% or just under 6 million votes. The Republicans' smaller 2010 victory gave them a larger 242-192 majority, because the system is rigged in their favor.

Don't say it can't happen: A Democratic challenger for a seat in the Kentucky legislature appears to have won by 1 vote.

and Nancy Pelosi

20 House Democrats have told the Washington Post that they won't vote for Nancy Pelosi as Speaker. If they all follow through, that would keep Pelosi from having the 218 votes necessary to win. Most of the 20 are from purple districts where Pelosi had been demonized as a far-left liberal, but some are also progressives who think Pelosi is too close to big donors and too willing to compromise with the business interests Republicans represent. But if she isn't re-elected, it's hard to guess what happens next: Other candidates may be able to block Pelosi, but who has enough support to win?

I'm for Pelosi. She is a brilliant behind-the-scenes tactician. When she was Speaker before, she skillfully steered Obama's agenda through the House, including a bunch of progressive measures that then died in the Senate, like a cap-and-trade bill to fight climate change and a public option for ObamaCare. She was key in the legislative maneuver that finally passed ObamaCare (after Scott Brown's upset win for Ted Kennedy's Senate seat ruined the original plan). Arguably, Democrats lost the House in 2010 because she had convinced members from conservative districts to risk too much.

While leading the minority these last few years, she has repeatedly run rings around Paul Ryan. By holding her caucus together against bills like ObamaCare repeal, the Trump tax cut, and the early versions of budget bills, she made it necessary for Ryan to hold his caucus together, something he was often unable to do.

It would be very strange for a party to get back into power and then reject its leader. Typically, a party leader is in trouble when his or her party loses seats. Tennis great Martina Navratalova (whose Twitter feed is highly political) summed up what I suspect a lot of women are thinking:

It is amazing,really. loses in the Senate and keeps his leadership role and makes the biggest democratic gain in the House since Watergate and they want her to quit. Go figure. A man loses and keeps his place, a woman wins and gets booted?!?

The point here isn't that anti-Pelosi Democrats are against women having power. The dynamic is more complicated than that. Many Democrats are concerned about the baggage that comes from Pelosi being a decades-long target of Republican demonization -- demonization that sticks to a woman more easily than a man. (We saw this with Hillary Clinton in 2016. Bill could abuse women and continue to be a charming scamp, but Hillary was tarred by her defense of Bill.) Others want someone who would cast a better public image, in an era when our subconscious image of a "leader" is still inescapably male. Alexandra Petri satirizes:

That’s not a woman thing, though. It’s just a her thing. I would have that issue with anyone who had her baggage, that same difficult-to-pin-down sense that something about her was fundamentally tainted. ...

What I want is not impossible! I want someone who is not tainted by polarizing choices in the past, but who also has experience, who is knowledgeable but doesn’t sound like she is lecturing, someone vibrant but not green, someone dignified but not dowdy, passionate but not a yeller, precise but not mechanical, someone lacking in off-putting ambition but capable of asking for what she wants, not accompanied but not alone, in a day but not in a month or a year, when the moon is neither waxing nor waning, carrying a sieve full of water and a hen’s tooth. Easy!

That’s why I’m so worried about our current slate of choices. A woman, sure, but — Kamala Harris? Elizabeth Warren? Kirsten Gillibrand? There are specific problems with each of them, entirely personal to each of them, all insurmountable. We need someone fresh. Someone without baggage. Joe Biden, maybe. But female! If you see.

I can’t wait to vote for a woman in 2020. A nameless, shapeless, faceless woman I know nothing about who will surely be perfect.

If Pelosi isn't progressive enough for you, who is the progressive candidate that the caucus can unite behind, and how does that Speaker not lose all the suburban Republican seats that Democrats just flipped? If she's too far left for you, who is the more moderate candidate, and how does that candidate inspire young people to vote? How does this leadership struggle resolve without sparking a round of those Democrats-are-in-chaos stories that the media is always eager to write? Is that how we want the new Congress to introduce itself to the American people?

I think Nancy Pelosi represents an ideologically diverse party as well as anybody else can. And she also is good at her job. She should keep it.

In October, I was at a fund-raiser for Rep. Bill Foster of Illinois, who currently is one of the 20 planning not to vote for Pelosi. Foster made what I think is an excellent procedural suggestion: discharge petitions should be anonymous.

OK, that's some inside baseball that needs an explanation. One of the maddening things about the House is that the Speaker can keep a bill from coming to a vote, even if a majority of the membership supports it. One example of this was the bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform that the Senate passed in 2013. It never got a vote in the House, despite the widespread belief that it would pass if it did. If the DREAM Act could have come to the floor any time in the last several years, it would have passed. But Republican speakers have repeatedly blocked it.

The way get around the speaker's roadblock is a discharge petition: If a majority of the House signs a petition asking for a bill to come up for a vote, it does. But this almost never happens. The reason is that signing a discharge petition against a speaker of your own party is considered treason, and members who do this will be severely punished by losing their committee assignments, losing support from their party's national campaign committee, and so on.

That's why Foster thinks discharge petitions should be anonymous: Some neutral official could verify the petition and report the number of signatures without revealing who they are. It would make the House a little less dysfunctional.

and fires

Record-setting wildfires continue to burn in California. The death toll is up to about 80, but with more than a thousand people missing, that number is bound to go up. In San Francisco, masks and filters are necessary if you want to breathe normally.

Grist outlines the conditions that led to the fire that destroyed the town of Paradise:

According to local meteorologist Rob Elvington, the Camp Fire began under atmospheric conditions with “no analog/comparison” in history for the date. Northern California’s vegetation dryness was off the charts — exceeding the 99th percentile for any single day as far back as local records go. “Worse than no rain is negative rain,” wrote Elvington. The air was so dry, it was sucking water out of the land.

The problem is how global climate change is affecting the local climate: Summers are hotter and the winter rains come later.

Fire disasters on a scale recently considered inconceivable now appear to be the inevitable. Six of the 10 most destructive wildfires in California history have ignited in the past three years. In little more than a year, two other California towns (Redding and Santa Rosa) have been similarly devastated by fires. As long as we continue on a business-as-usual path, it’s a matter of where, not when, another California town will be erased from the map.

So Trump went out to view the damage and said something stupid, in case you haven't had your daily dose of outrage yet.

But I think a better use of your time would be to watch this episode of Showtime's "Years of Living Dangerously" from 2014.

It follows two story lines, one of which is Arnold Schwarzenegger interviewing people who fight brush fires and reflecting on how climate change has (in a very short period of time) turned California's wildfire season into a nearly year-round event. (The other story line, Harrison Ford looking into deforestation in Indonesia, is pretty interesting too.)

and you also might be interested in ...

The Brexit deadline hits in March, and it's still not clear how it's all going to resolve. Prime Minister May's proposal has already led to resignations from her cabinet and might bring down her government. My opinion: The problem is that the British public was bamboozled by the Leave campaign. Now that it's time to produce the unicorns and rainbows Brexit was supposed to bring, no one can find them.

As someone (I can't remember who) observed, the structure of the Leave/Remain vote was screwed up. Leave was a "do something else" option rather than a plan. Any actual plan will result in a majority saying, "That's not what I voted for."

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor on Brett Kavanaugh joining the Court: "The nine of us are now a family." I am reminded of a line from Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash: "It was like being in a family. A really scary, twisted, abusive family."

Nothing is what it used to be, not even the kilogram.

A Pacific Standard reporter goes home to Michigan and reports on the effects of gerrymandering.

Trump responded to criticism from retired Admiral Bill McRaven by saying something childish. Here are details, if you need them.

The CIA has concluded that the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi was ordered by the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. But Trump has a history of believing what he wants to believe rather than what the experts conclude. Just as he believes Putin's denials of interfering in the 2016 election, and he believes MBS.

Jim Acosta has his White House pass back, following a court order. The judge didn't rule on Acosta and CNN's First Amendment claims, but found against the Trump administration on 5th Amendment grounds of no due process. So the White House is drafting a process for expelling reporters who ask hard questions and won't take lies for answers.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders responded:

Today, [LIE] the court made it clear that there is no absolute First Amendment right to access the White House [/LIE]. In response to the Court, we will temporarily reinstate the reporter’s hard pass. We will also further develop rules and processes to ensure fair and orderly press conferences in the future. There must be decorum at the White House.

I will repeat something I've written many times: When Trump defines some standard of decorum that he is willing to live by, then he'll be in a position to ask other people to uphold that standard. But if his rules say that other people have to behave while he can keep on doing anything he wants, the rest of us should just laugh at him.

For example, Sunday (in the middle of a tweet demonstrating that his complete ignorance of the legal issue he was discussing), Trump called incoming House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff by a derogatory name he probably hasn't heard since junior high. That's White House decorum, and there's nothing Jim Acosta could do to lower it.

Meanwhile, Trump's people are moving the goalposts on the First Amendment. Wayne Slater tweets:

Cory Lewandowski on : "There is no freedom of speech to ask any question you want or to ask it in a derogatory manner." Actually, that's what free speech is.

Remember the middle-class tax cut that Trump pulled out of nowhere just before the midterm elections? Surprise! It's not happening. Chief Economic Adviser Larry Kudlow told Politico:

We’ve been noodling more on this middle-class tax cut, how to structure it, and even pay for it. I don’t think the chances of that are very high, because the Democrats are going to go after the corporate tax and all that stuff.

Kudlow is also skeptical of any infrastructure deal.

Anybody that thinks, you know, like this trillion-dollar [infrastructure spending] number, which is over 10 years — we don’t have that

The top Republican in the new Congress was blunter:

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Wednesday flatly rejected the idea of doing a big infrastructure deal with Democrats. “Republicans are not interested in a $900 billion stimulus,” he told reporters.

As I suggested last week, Democrats in the House should pass an infrastructure bill. The American people should know that Democrats want to rebuild the country, but Republicans don't.

Another story that has all but vanished (now that it can't be used to bring Trump voters to the polls) is the migrant caravan. Migrants who hitchhiked rides rather than walking all the way have started to arrive in Tijuana, where they are waiting for caravan leaders. The bulk of the caravan is still hundreds of miles away.

A Methodist minister from San Antonio is traveling with the caravan and sharing his experiences on Facebook.

Refugees sharing their stories with the pastor tell of having their children kidnapped and other relatives killed in Central America. Their journey, Rogers says, is “not about a better life in American terms, it’s just about living.” Their goals, he adds, are to seek an education for their children and “be free from violence and rape and murder.” Rogers admits that claim may sound “extreme,” but says he has firsthand knowledge, obtained by being “willing to talk and learn,” that it’s “exactly what is going on here.”

Teen Vogue (whose articles often are deeper and more serious than its name would lead you to expect) also has a correspondent in the caravan.

Drain the swamp:

The Trump administration’s top environmental official for the Southeast was arrested Thursday on criminal ethics charges in Alabama reported to be related to a scheme to help a coal company avoid paying for a costly toxic waste cleanup.

It's not hard to see why our national political discussions are so bizarre when you consider the history that many of our students have been taught:

Texas' Board of Education voted Friday to change the way its students learn about the Civil War. Beginning in the 2019-2020 school year, students will be taught that slavery played a "central role" in the war.

The state's previous social studies standards listed three causes for the Civil War: sectionalism, states' rights and slavery, in that order. In September, the board's Democrats proposed listing slavery as the only cause. ... In the end, the Republican-led board landed on a compromise: Students will be taught about "the central role of the expansion of slavery in causing sectionalism, disagreements over states' rights and the Civil War."

But no doubt some Texas history teachers are reading this line and rolling their eyes about "political correctness".

Stan Lee -- the man who really told Peter Parker that "with great power comes great responsibility" -- has died at age 95. Stan and artist Jack Kirby created the core of the Marvel Universe in the early 1960s. Unlike the previous generation of comic creators, Stan made heroes (Spider-Man, Hulk, Daredevil) with insecurities, self-doubts, and moral quandaries. His teams (Fantastic Four, Avengers, X-Men) had internal divisions. His villains (Dr. Doom, Magneto) had backstories that explained their choice of the dark side.

Another seminal figure in popular culture also died this week: writer William Goldman, who was responsible for The Princess Bride and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

and let's close with something unexpected

Finally, Roy Clark died this week at 85. People my age (and younger folks who watch re-runs on obscure cable stations) may remember him from the country comedy show "Hee-Haw". Or maybe his hit "Yesterday, When I Was Young" rings a bell. But amidst the jokes and popular country songs, people sometimes overlooked that he could flat-out play the guitar. In a guest appearance on the sitcom "The Odd Couple", he went outside his usual genre to show another side of his talent.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Battles in Progress

If the Georgia race had taken place in another country—say, the Republic of Georgia—U.S. media and the U.S. State Department would not have hesitated to question its legitimacy ... Kemp’s asterisk win suggests that the battle for voting rights, which many imagined was over and done with in the last century, is still very much in progress.

- Carol Anderson, Emory University

This week's featured post is "A Legislative Agenda for House Democrats".

This week everybody was talking about the midterm results

Early Tuesday evening, I was having 2016 flashbacks: The optimistic polls in Florida appeared to be wrong, and the first House toss-up race (Virginia-5) went to the Republican. The earliest returns came from Indiana, where Joe Donnelly was losing, dooming the admittedly unlikely Democrats-take-the-Senate scenario from the outset. The Blue Wave just wasn't happening.

Then things got better. Votes are still being counted (especially mail-in votes in California), so no one has a precise estimate of the national popular vote in the House races yet. But Wikipedia's running total currently has the Democratic margin at 6.5%. In 2010, an election everyone calls a Republican wave, the GOP won the House national popular vote by 6.8%. The Republican wave looked bigger, because it picked up 63 House seats that year compared to the Democrats' 34-44 seats this year. (538 is estimating a final total gain of 38 seats.) In 2010, the GOP wound up with 242 seats. Democrats will probably wind up somewhere in the low 230s. The difference? Gerrymandering. Republican control on the state level has allowed them to construct a large number of secure districts.

As it stands now, Republicans have 51 Senate seats and Democrats 46, with three (Florida, Arizona, and Mississippi) still to be decided. Arizona will likely go Democratic and Mississippi Republican (after a run-off). So the final Senate composition will likely be either 53-47 or 52-48. (It was 52-48 before Doug Jones won the Alabama special election last year.)

In the House, Democrats have 225 seats (already more than the 218 needed for a majority) and Republicans 200, with 10 still undecided.

As we wait to see if Bill Nelson and Andrew Gillum can prevail in the Florida recount, let's take a few moments to bid a very joyous good-bye to Kris Kobach, Scott Walker, Dana Rohrabacher, Dave Bratt, Peter Roskam, and Pete Sessions. Too bad Steve King couldn't join you.

and the subversion of democracy

This year, Georgia went all-out to keep non-whites from voting, with the result that Secretary of State Brian Kemp looks likely to move up to the governorship. Emory University Professor Carol Anderson writes in The Atlantic:

In the end, it looks like Kemp won. It’s impossible to know if his attempts to restrict the franchise are what pushed him over the line. But if the Georgia race had taken place in another country—say, the Republic of Georgia—U.S. media and the U.S. State Department would not have hesitated to question its legitimacy ... Kemp’s asterisk win suggests that the battle for voting rights, which many imagined was over and done with in the last century, is still very much in progress.

In September, "Cost of Voting in the American States" in Election Law Journal tried to quantify how difficult it was to vote in the various states in 2016. This graph summarizes the results:

The pattern is pretty clear: If you find it hard to vote, most likely your state -- Mississippi, Virginia, Tennessee, Indiana, Texas -- is governed by Republicans. (Virginia has since elected a Democratic governor, but he doesn't have a majority in the legislature. North Carolina might rank higher if the Supreme Court hadn't invalidated its voter-suppression law. It has since made another try.) The easiest states are more mixed, with red North Dakota and Iowa getting into the top five with blue Oregon and California and purple Colorado. (I think Fair Play is still a Midwestern value, though the South has lost it.)

This graphic captures just how gerrymandered Wisconsin's state legislature is:

In short, the people of Wisconsin have lost all control of their legislature. Republicans will hold power because that's just how it is. What the voters want doesn't matter any more.

Wisconsin's Republican state legislators are currently discussing whether to use their ill-gotten power to clip the wings of the voters' newly elected Democratic governor. Following the model of North Carolina after Democrat Roy Cooper won the governorship in 2016, a special lame-duck session of the Wisconsin legislature could pass laws limiting the governor's power, which current Republican Governor Scott Walker could sign before he leaves office.

Following that 2016 coup, the Electoral Integrity Project (which normally pays attention to third-world countries) stopped rating North Carolina as a democracy. Soon, Wisconsin may not count as a democracy either.

and the Justice Department

The morning after the election, Trump accepted Jeff Sessions' resignation as Attorney General and replaced him not with either of the two Senate-confirmed subordinates (Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein or Solicitor General Noel Francisco), but with Sessions' chief of staff Matthew Whitaker, who had previously been described as the White House's "eyes and ears" in the Justice Department.

The big thing this does is put a Trump loyalist in the role of overseeing the Mueller investigation. Trump has repeatedly whined that Sessions should have "protected" him, rather than following Justice Department regulations and recusing himself from an investigation into activities he had been involved with. Now Trump has an AG who will put him first and the law second.

NYT conservative columnist Bret Stephens comments:

Of all the ways in which Donald Trump’s presidency has made America worse, nothing epitomizes it quite so fully as the elevation of Matthew Whitaker as acting attorney general of the United States. Intellectually honest conservatives — the six or seven who remain, at any rate — need to say this, loudly. His appointment represents an unprecedented assault on the integrity and reputation of the Justice Department, the advice and consent function of the Senate, and the rule of law in the United States.

He lists the ways: Whitaker is "unqualified", "shady", "a hack", "a crackpot", "barely legal", and "dangerous".

It says something about how atrocious this appointment is that even Trump is now distancing himself from Whitaker, falsely claiming not to know him despite the latter’s repeated Oval Office visits. It’s the Michael Cohen treatment. When a rat smells a rat, it’s a rat.

A number of questions immediately arise:

  • Is this legal? (Former Solicitor General Neal Katyal and George Conway say no: The appointment of an acting AG who has not been confirmed by the Senate "defies one of the explicit checks and balances set out in the Constitution, a provision designed to protect us all against the centralization of government power." Stephens says he's "not fully convinced" by this argument, which is why he called Whitaker "barely legal".
  • Should Whitaker also be recused from overseeing the Mueller investigation, as Sessions was? Whitaker has a long history of public statements prejudging the Mueller investigation, and has connections to a major witness, Sam Clovis. Whether that legally adds up to recusal under Justice Department guidelines hasn't been determined yet, though seven major Democrats in Congress have asked the DOJ's ethics office to review the situation. It seems unlikely that Whitaker will recuse himself, whatever the rules say. Neal Katyal (who helped write the regulations defining a special counsel) also has an opinion on this: "But no one — and I mean no one — ever thought the regulations we wrote would permit the president to install some staff member of his choice from the Justice Department to serve as acting attorney general and thereby oversee the special counsel. Such a proposal would have been laughed off Capitol Hill within a nanosecond as fundamentally at odds with the most cardinal principle that no one is above the law."
  • Assuming that the point of promoting Whitaker was to screw up the Mueller investigation, what can he do? Benjamin Wittes argues that he can't do much. We'll soon see whether he's right.

and the latest attack on the free press

CNN's Jim Acosta lost his White House press pass because he asked a question Trump didn't like. (He challenged Trump's false characterization of the migrant caravan as "an invasion".) When Trump said "OK, that's enough", a female intern tried to take the microphone away from Acosta, who held up an arm to fend her off (while saying "Pardon me, ma'am.").

Sarah Sanders later falsely accused Acosta of "laying hands on" the intern, and backed up her claim with a video that was later shown to have been doctored. (The speeded-up version makes Acosta's arm move look like a blow.) Trump has explicitly threatened to expel other reporters as well.

This is really fascist stuff here, and I don't think the White House press corps is reacting with the seriousness the incident deserves. Other reporters are certainly condemning the White House move, but they continue going in for briefings.

What the Acosta incident points out is that White House briefings have become Potemkin democracy. The administration spokespeople routinely lie, and if a reporter protests against being lied to, he or she will be ejected. By showing up, reporters become props in a propaganda exercise that falsely projects the appearance of a democratic government facing a free press.

and mass shootings

Less than two weeks after the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, we had the Thousand Oaks country-music-bar shooting. I heard someone comment: "We should just leave the flags at half mast all the time."

Scientific American pushes back against the notion that nothing can be done.

The right gun laws do prevent shootings, research strongly indicates. And these laws do not mean confiscating everybody’s guns. ... Here are [four] life-saving laws and the data that supports them.

The laws:

  • Require people to apply, in-person, at local law enforcement agencies for gun purchase permits.
  • Ban individuals convicted of any violent crime from gun purchase.
  • Make all serious domestic violence offenders surrender firearms.
  • Temporarily ban gun possession among individuals who have had, in the past five years, two or more convictions for DUI or another crime that indicates alcohol abuse.

None of that would prevent law-abiding people from defending their homes or teaching their children to hunt or doing any other benign gun-related activity.

but I'm trying to figure out the lesson of the mid-term elections

Going into the midterms, there were two theories of how Democrats should try to win:

  • Move to the center to appeal to moderate voters turned off by Trump.
  • Move to the left to inspire non-voters to turn out.

The 2018 election results didn't settle that argument. In Texas, Beto O'Rourke ran a progressive campaign, got a huge voter turnout, and came closer to beating Ted Cruz than anyone would have thought possible a year ago. In Arizona, Kyrsten Sinema ran a centrist race (pledging to be "an independent voice" who would work across party lines) and appears to have won.

Five incumbent Democratic senators in red states -- Claire McCaskill, Heidi Heitkamp, Joe Donnelly, Joe Manchin, and Jon Tester -- ran as moderates: three lost and two won. (Manchin probably feels good about his vote for Brett Kavanaugh, but Tester is probably also happy with his vote against.)

In governors' races, Andrew Gillum and Stacey Abrams tested the expand-the-progressive-electorate theory and got very close, though it still appears that they came up short. But in Kansas,

A Democrat, Laura Kelly, reached out to Kansas’ sizable contingent of moderate Republicans and touted the endorsement of two former Republican governors and two former Republican senators.

She won. So progressives and centrists alike can point to successes for their side and failures for the other.

Looking ahead, I believe the best Democratic presidential strategy is to somehow go both ways. (That's my interpretation of Obama's 2008 win.) We need a candidate who excites progressives without scaring moderates.

Lawrence Lessig claims the midterms teach a third lesson: Focus on good-government reforms. He attributes Beto's attraction not to his progressive proposals, but to his commitment to refuse PAC money and rely on small donors. There's nothing left, right, or centrist about wanting to represent the voters rather than the big donors.

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Sunday was the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. World leaders gathered in France to mark the occasion, but Trump blew off a ceremony honoring American war dead because it was raining. Chief of Staff John Kelly managed to get there by car.

The incident points out a longer-term issue that belies Trump's claim to respect our military: He still hasn't visited troops in a combat zone, claiming he has been "very busy" (though not too busy to play golf most weekends). President Obama had only been in office three months when he visited troops in Iraq, and George W. Bush went to Baghram Air Force Base in Afghanistan on several occasions.

Many observers (most amusingly John Oliver) have pointed out the injustices involved in the cash bail system. This is why California will eliminate cash bail next October. But Michelle Alexander (author of the central book on mass incarceration of black people, The New Jim Crow) points out that some of the obvious ways to replace the bail system have unintended consequences and open up new possibilities for abuse.

Firoozeh Dumas is coming home from Munich and dreads bringing her daughter back to an American public school. It turns out that when a rich country values education more than low taxes, as Germany does, its schools can do amazing things -- without bake sales or students going door-to-door selling wrapping paper.

An update on European fascism: Warsaw has an annual fascist march. This year, Poland's president and prime minister were in it.

In February 2018, National Radical Camp, one of the groups involved in organising tomorrow’s march protested in front of Warsaw’s Presidential Palace demanding the President sign the so-called Holocaust Law — a controversial bill which outlaws blaming Poland or Polish citizens for crimes committed during the Holocaust. They shouted slogans such as “Stop Jewish occupation of Poland” and “Go back to Israel”.

The Guardian reports on Sunday's march:

Lining up in parallel columns, Polish soldiers stood side-by-side with members of the National-Radical Camp (ONR), the successor to a pre-war Polish fascist movement, and representatives of Forza Nuova, an Italian neo-fascist movement, as they were addressed by [President Andrzej] Duda at the march’s inauguration.

Poland is also considering a ban on "homosexual propaganda" similar to the one Russia imposed in 2013.

Better news: Poland's ruling Law and Justice Party lost big in local elections in major cities.

The results show that Law and Justice can count on only roughly a third of the vote in Poland. If next year’s parliamentary election were held today, the party would be pushed out of power.

In Hungary, though, the Orban government just gets more entrenched. Virtually all the major news outlets have passed into the hands of government allies.

[J]ournalists I met in Budapest were struck by how quickly the press had changed, and that all it took to break this pillar of democracy was a combination of money and fear. “It’s not Russia,” Csaba Lukacs told me. “No one thinks that someone will be shot. Everyone thinks that he will lose his job. It’s enough.”

and let's close with a post-election meditation

I've used this closing before, but I think it's timely this week. If you got too wrapped up in the election and need to pull back, try this guided meditation.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Where the Party Ends

This is where the party ends.
I can't stand here listening to you
and your racist friend.

- "Your Racist Friend" by They Might Be Giants

This week's featured posts are "Why I'm Voting Straight Democratic", "How the Midterm Elections Look with One Day to Go", and "An hour-by-hour Guide to Election Night 2018".

This week everybody was talking about tomorrow's elections

The featured posts probably already go on at too much length, so I'll not add to them here.

and birthright citizenship

One way Trump interrupts a news cycle that is going badly for him -- like his rhetoric inspiring assassination attempts and an anti-Semitic massacre -- is to make an outrageous proposal. This time the proposal was to undo an important part of the 14th Amendment by executive order. The 14th Amendment says:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.

The legal reasoning to circumvent this clear statement is pretty much of a sham. Garrett Epps explains:

The citizenship-denial lobby has focused on the words subject to the jurisdiction. Its members argue that citizens of foreign countries, even if they live in the U.S., are not subject to U.S. jurisdiction, and thus their children are not covered by the clause. To test this idea, ask yourself: If a foreign citizen rear-ends your car on your drive home today, will you, or the police, allow him to drive away on the grounds that a foreign citizen cannot be arrested, ticketed, or sued?
For those scoring at home, the answer is no.
Foreign citizens are “subject to the jurisdiction” of our police and courts when they are in the U.S., whether as tourists, legal residents, or undocumented immigrants. Only one group is not “subject to the jurisdiction”—accredited foreign diplomats and their families, who can be expelled by the federal government but not arrested or tried.That’s who the framers of the clause were discussing in Section 1—along with one other group. In 1866, when the amendment was framed, Indians living under tribal rule were not U.S. citizens.

The idea that the authors of the 14th Amendment meant to exclude children of "illegal immigrants" from citizenship is anachronistic, because the term made no sense in 1866. The federal government wouldn't have any immigration rules to speak of until the Page Act of 1875, which kept Chinese women out of the US.

Coverage of Trump's claim fell into the "both sides" trap.

By reporting that an outlandish legal argument is, in fact, one on which “reasonable minds disagree,” journalists do not simply mislead their readers. They literally can change the outcome of a case raising that outlandish legal argument. They create space for judges who are sympathetic to Trump to reach the decision Trump wants. And they create an aura of legitimacy over such a decision even if it has no basis in law.

and Brazil

The global swing towards fascism continues. A combination of recession, corruption, and high crime led Brazilian voters to elect Jair Bolsonaro to be their president, starting January 1.

The opposition to Bolsonaro has been driven by his numerous discriminatory comments on race, gender and sexual orientation, as well as remarks in favour of torture and Brazil's former military dictatorship, in power from 1964 to 1985, which have angered and alarmed millions of Brazilians.

Bolsonaro has described having a daughter as a "weakness", told a congresswoman she was "too ugly" to be raped, claimed some black people were not "even good for procreation", and said he would rather one of his four sons "die in an accident" than be gay.

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Chris Hayes' Why Is This Happening? podcast has the kind of depth that his weekend show used to. (Since moving to weeknights, he's had to be more headline-oriented.) The Oct. 30 edition is an interview with Michael Tesler, co-author of Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America.

Iran sanctions are back.

The emoluments lawsuit reaches the discovery phase. This is important, because it means that the plaintiffs will get to look behind the curtain into some of the Trump Organization's books. Judge's decision.

and let's close with something unusual

At the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, break dancers perform in medieval armor. I don't know what it means, but it looks cool.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Souls in Darkness

If the soul is left in darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but he who causes the darkness.

- Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

This week's featured post is "12 Things to Remember Before You Vote". That's extra-long, so I'll try to keep this shorter than usual.

This week everybody was talking about right-wing political violence

[caption]The window stickers on the mail-bomb suspect's van window.[/caption]

It's hard to know which nightmare to discuss first: the unsuccessful attempt to assassinate 11 Democratic or liberal leaders, including two former presidents, with mail bombs, or the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh that really did kill 11 people. One, if it had succeeded, would have been the worst single wave of political violence in America since the KKK attacks during Reconstruction. The other raises the specter of the world's most persistent and virulent strain of hatred: anti-Semitism.

Focusing on either one ignores a crime that should ring similar alarm bells: A white man killed two black shoppers at a suburban Louisville grocery store, only minutes after trying to enter a black church and finding it locked. "Just to think that an hour and a half earlier we had 70 people in the church," church administrator Billy Williams said.

In each case, you can look for causes in the psychology of the individuals involved, and undoubtedly you will find something. Individuals are responsible for their own actions. But at the same time, you have to ask "Why now?" In just about all times and places, I suspect, there have been angry misfits who fantasized about acts of violence against whichever people or groups they blamed for their misfortunes. But now, for some reason, the ineffable membrane between violent thought and violent action seems thinner than at any time since the riots and assassinations of 1968. Why?

To me, the answer seems obvious: The President of the United States devotes a great deal of his time and effort to spreading fear-raising conspiracy theories and labeling his critics as enemies of the nation. It's not a coincidence that the mail-bombing suspect had turned the van he lived in into a Trump shrine. Or that the synagogue shooter saw the immigrants in the caravan crossing Mexico as "invaders", and blamed Jews like George Soros for funding it. (The suspect in the synagogue shooting, to be fair, was not a Trump supporter. He believed many conspiracy theories Trump and the right-wing media helped spread, but blamed Trump for letting his daughter convert to Judaism and marry a Jew. “Trump is a globalist, not a nationalist. There is no #MAGA as long as there is a kike infestation.” Trump, in other words, is not MAGA enough for him.)

Trump's defenders (like Hugh Hewitt) want to do a both-sides argument, lumping together right-wing murder and assassination attempts with liberals who refuse to serve Trump officials, or assail them verbally when they appear in public, like when Sarah Sanders was asked to leave the Red Hen Restaurant in Virginia.

"These things are not the same", Jennifer Rubin points out.

Violence is sending bombs to President Trump’s political targets. Violence is body-slamming a reporter who dares to ask a question. Violence is driving a car into a crowd, killing a young woman. Violence is killing unarmed African American youths. Violence is wife beating, sexual assault and child molestation (not demanding that accused wife beaters and sexual predators be held accountable and at the very least disqualified from high office.) Violence is forcibly separating young children from their parents (not calling out such treatment as inhumane).

Violence is not refusing to serve a White House press secretary dinner at a farm-to-table restaurant. It is not yelling at people in restaurants. It is not making mean jokes at a charity event. It is not peacefully occupying a government building to protest.

Hewitt is basically calling for a Henry II standard, which would have held the King blameless for asking "Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?" shortly before someone killed Thomas Beckett.

But we don't have a both-sides problem. We have an outbreak of right-wing violence that the president encourages.

Brian Klaas sums it up in a tweet-storm that starts like this:

There have always been violent extremists. But when attacks happened under Reagan or Clinton or Bush or Obama, you couldn’t point to insane anti-Semitic conspiracy theories they had recently spread. They didn’t praise neo-Nazis. They didn’t call reporters “enemy of the people”

I wish I had something insightful to say about the rising anti-Semitism, but I don't get it. Most popular American bigotries make sense to me at some level: I can imagine the frame-of-mind of the people who hold those hatreds, point to personal experiences that I could have interpreted to fit those biases, and so on.

But the idea that the random Jews you can find by wandering into a synagogue are somehow to blame for America's problems or my own ... I just don't get it. I don't even know how to argue against it, because a mind that holds that thought seems foreign to me.

It doesn't help that I have a tangential connection: The brother of one of the victims goes to my Unitarian church.

and caravans

When other networks were covering the bombs mailed to Democratic leaders, Fox and the rest of the conservative media was trying to flog the immigrant caravan story. The best discussion of this issue I found was from Beau of the Fifth Column.

but remember to vote

President Obama has no patience for your excuses.

and you also might be interested in ...

The Washington Post published a gripping first-person account of an asylum-seeking woman who was separated from her 15-year-old daughter for nearly five months. The needless cruelty here is very striking.

Another WaPo article by former DHS adviser Scott Shuchart describes what was happening inside DHS when the family-separation policy was being implemented: He describes extreme levels of internal dysfunction and dishonesty, but mostly malfeasance by the political appointees, who were often warned ahead of time (by the career civil servants) of the problems they were about to cause.

But most culpable were the high-level appointees, unwilling to take ownership of what they’d decided to do; lying to their staffs in the expectation that nobody really cared what happened to poor Central American kids; cynical about the notion that most of us who swear an oath to uphold the Constitution actually mean it. I cast about for more to do, but within a month of that June meeting, I realized there was no way to keep my oath and my job.

A new study shows that a minimum-wage worker would need 2.5 jobs to afford a one-bedroom apartment.

Megyn Kelly is done at NBC's Today show, after defending white people wearing blackface on Halloween.

I can't say I have a lot of sympathy for either Kelly or NBC in this spat. NBC knew what it was getting with Kelly: someone who may not be aggressively racist, but has been consistently racially insensitive. In 2013, for example, Kelly jumped into a discussion about black Santa Clauses and said:

For all you kids watching at home, Santa just is white. ... Just because it makes you feel uncomfortable doesn’t mean it has to change. You know, I mean, Jesus was a white man too. … He was a historical figure. That was a verifiable fact.

As I explained at the time, this was not just insensitive, it was ignorant. (Most likely, neither Saint Nicholas nor Jesus was white enough to get service at a Jim Crow lunch counter.) Kelly has a sharp mind, but she also has an oblivious white-people-are-the-center-of-the-universe worldview that she has never bothered to educate herself out of. When NBC hired her, that was already a verifiable fact.

You probably already understand why blackface is inappropriate Halloween makeup for whites, but I feel obligated to spell it out: It's more the history of the thing than the thing itself. By wearing blackface, whites place themselves in the tradition of the minstrel show. You may think you're honoring Martin Luther King or Barack Obama or whoever you're supposed to be, but your intention is not the controlling factor. (Wearing an Obama mask, by contrast, does not evoke minstrelsy, and can be OK if done with respect.)

As I've tried to explain on several occasions, some words and symbols have such a strong historical resonance that your innocent intention can't salvage them. You may believe a swastika just looks cool, and weren't thinking about Nazism at all when you got that tattoo. It doesn't matter; the symbol has a meaning independent of your intention.

In the Washington Post on Tuesday, Monica Hesse summed up what I'm now thinking about transgender policy and a lot of other sex-and-gender-related issues: Why exactly do we need to know what genitalia other people have, or what exactly they do with their biological equipment when they're with consenting adults?

Hesse was responding to a leaked HHS proposal to define transgenderism out of existence:

The department argued in its memo that key government agencies needed to adopt an explicit and uniform definition of gender as determined “on a biological basis that is clear, grounded in science, objective and administrable.” The agency’s proposed definition would define sex as either male or female, unchangeable, and determined by the genitals that a person is born with, according to a draft reviewed by The Times. Any dispute about one’s sex would have to be clarified using genetic testing.

Other than the fact that it wouldn't work because life is not that simple, there's the question of what the policy is trying to accomplish. Hesse writes:

The most charitable interpretation for the government’s proposal is that we humans, as a species, have a need to organize things, and put them in categories. That we are uncomfortable with the unknown, and uncomfortable with being uncomfortable. That our aversion to this is so strong that we would rather ask unspeakably rude questions to strangers — So, are you a boy or a girl? So, who’s the wife in your same-sex relationship? — than accept that there are things we don’t need or deserve to know.

What if we allowed ourselves to remain uncomfortable? What if, instead of looking at other humans as something to be categorized, we saw in them a chance to appreciate the vastness of humanity?

As I've mentioned before, I experienced my own need to categorize when I watched the TV series "Billions". The character Taylor does not claim to be either male or female. Part of me just couldn't let that go: "What is s/he really?" It took some time for me to ask the next obvious question: "Why do I need to know?" But once I had asked that question, it started coming to mind in a lot of other situations.

Any closing I can think of seems inappropriate this week. I'll try to do better next week.

Monday, October 22, 2018

The Real Voter Fraud

Given that extensive and well-documented history, it’s ridiculous to keep claiming that voter fraud occurs on a scale large enough to tilt elections, yet is somehow undetectable by law enforcement. But people keep claiming it and believing it because by doing so, they can keep trying to justify efforts to put more and more hurdles in the way of potential voters and by doing so alter the outcome of elections. That is the true voter fraud.

- Jay Bookman, "The True Voting Fraud"

This week's featured post is "This is why the Founders banned Emoluments".

This week everybody was talking about Jamal Khashoggi's murder

I focused on the Trump-administration-corruption angle in the featured post. But corruption is contagious. Trump allies in Congress and the media have been reacting as if Khashoggi were a young black man shot by police: They're spreading negative rumors about him.

“Trump wants to take a soft line, so Trump supporters are finding excuses for him to take it,” said William Kristol, a conservative Trump critic. “One of those excuses is attacking the person who was murdered.”

The Khashoggi murder is the latest example of the corruption of Evangelical Christianity. Consider Pat Robertson:

“For those who are screaming blood for the Saudis — look, these people are key allies,” Robertson said. While he called the faith of the Wahabists — the hardline Islamist sect to which the Saudi Royal Family belongs — “obnoxious,” he urged viewers to remember that “we’ve got an arms deal that everybody wanted a piece of…it’ll be a lot of jobs, a lot of money come to our coffers. It’s not something you want to blow up willy-nilly.”

In short: Don't worry about a little murder here and there if you can make some money selling weapons. As the Bible says: "He who lives by the sword is a good customer." (I believe that's in Paul's Epistle to the Ferengi.)

In other Trump administration corruption: The new ambassador to South Africa is a Mar-a-Lago member. That means she wrote Trump a six-figure check to join and has paid fees every year since. She'll be the fourth Mar-a-Lago member to become an ambassador. You gotta pay to play.

Ambassadorships have been sold before: They often go to big campaign contributors. What's new in the Trump Era is that the money goes not to the Party or the Campaign, but straight into the President's pocket.

While he was parroting Saudi rhetoric about Khashoggi, Trump was rallying in Montana with the GOP congressman who assaulted a reporter during his previous campaign. CNN's Chris Cillizza writes:

even as we are dealing with an international incident revolving around the near-certain murder of a journalist by a government that didn't like what he said and wrote about them, the President of the United States is praising a member of Congress who assaulted a journalist for asking him questions.

My take on this is that Trump envies MBS. If he could have a few reporters killed here and there, he believes he'd get much more favorable coverage.

and voter suppression

When your party represents a minority of the people, you need to keep people from voting if you want to hang onto power.

Kansas is deciding whether or not Kris Kobach, who basically has Mr. Voter Suppression as Kansas Secretary of State and as vice-chair of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, should become governor. But that election is already tainted.

Access to the ballot box in November will be more difficult for some people in Dodge City, where Hispanics now make up 60 percent of its population ... [T]he city located 160 miles west of Wichita has only one polling site for its 27,000 residents. Since 2002, the lone site was at the civic center just blocks from the local country club — in the wealthy, white part of town. For this November’s election, local officials have moved it outside the city limits to a facility more than a mile from the nearest bus stop, citing road construction that blocked the previous site. ...

A Democratic Party database compiled from state voter data shows Hispanic turnout during non-presidential elections is just 17 percent compared to 61 percent turnout for white voters in Ford County in 2014. Dodge City’s turnout is below the national turnout rate of 27 percent among Latino eligible voters in 2014, which in itself was a record low that year for the country, according to the Pew Research Center.

The Washington Post sums up the voter-suppression situation in Georgia, but buries some vital information deep in the article: "There is no evidence of wide-scale voter fraud in Georgia or elsewhere in the country."

The Guardian goes deeper:

Under Georgia procedures, registered voters who have not cast ballots for three years are sent a notice asking them to confirm they still live at their address. If they don’t return it, they are marked inactive. If they don’t vote for two more general elections after that, they are removed from the rolls.

Georgia removed more than 534,000 voters that way in 2016 and 2017. Using databases employed by commercial mailing firms, analysts commissioned by [the Palast Investigative Fund] found that 334,134 of those citizens actually still live at the address they registered.

Greg Palast elaborates:

Their registration is cancelled. Not pending, not inactive – cancelled. If they show up to vote on 6 November, they will not be allowed to vote. That’s wrong. We can prove they’re still there. They should be allowed to vote.

A similar program has removed 55K voters from the rolls in the 3rd congressional district of Alabama since February, 2017.

North Dakota has a new law that requires you to present ID when you vote. The ID has to include your street address. But there's a problem:

Many people on Native American reservations don’t have residential addresses; they use P.O. boxes, and that’s not enough at the polls anymore. Native Americans are about 5 percent of North Dakota’s 750,000 residents, and according to the Native American Rights Fund, they’re more than twice as likely as other voters to lack a form of identification acceptable under the new law.

Curiously, there seems to be no law anywhere that disproportionately makes it harder for upper-class white people to vote.

and Elizabeth Warren

I'm struck by how the trajectory of the Pocahontas-slur story is following the Birther myth about Obama. First it was supposed to be a scandal that Obama hadn't released his birth certificate (which presidential candidates almost never have done in the past). Then he did, and it was the wrong kind of certificate, the short form rather than the long form. Then he released the long form, and there were conspiracy theories about how it was a forgery. When those claims didn't take off, the scandal was that he wouldn't release his college transcripts.

Haters gonna hate; no matter what Obama did, the charge that he was hiding something about himself just wouldn't die. When one form of it was debunked, it just shifted into some other form.

Same thing with Warren. The original charge was that her claim of Native American ancestry was an affirmative-action fraud to advance her career. Then the Boston Globe investigated and found that, no, she hadn't gotten any of her law-school professorships by claiming to be a Native American; in fact, the people who hired her didn't know anything about that.

Then the charge morphed into a more general she-lied-about-who-she-is claim, and Trump dared her to take a DNA test. Now she's taken the test, which supports her claim (and Trump now says he never offered to give her favorite charity $1 million if that happened). (BTW: The assertion in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that she has a typical amount of Native American DNA for European-Americans was debunked by the science journalist the article quoted.)

So now she's supposedly misusing DNA tests, because being a Native American depends on tribal membership. I sympathize with the underlying point, when it's being made by actual Native Americans and not opportunistic Republicans (who in other venues are trying to stop Native Americans from voting): You shouldn't get to claim some share of the centuries-long suffering of oppressed peoples just because you had some distant ancestor nobody would ever know about if you didn't tell them. (Suppose, for example, that my DNA test turned up some Jewish ancestry in addition to the Germans I know about. That lab result wouldn't entitle me to a share of the victimhood of the Holocaust.)

But I don't see what that point has to do with Warren, who simply has been telling her family's stories without staking any claims on them. I've been listening to Warren's speeches since she got into politics, and I have never heard her claim victimhood as a descendant of Native Americans, or urge people to vote for her because she's Native American. Her heritage comes up in campaigns because her opponents bring it up.

The other day I challenged somebody on Facebook who claimed Warren benefited from claiming Native American ancestry, and in response  I got a reference to a Boston Herald story from 1996 saying that Harvard (not Warren) answered criticism about its diversity by quoting statistics that counted her as a Native American. That's what the issue has shrunk to.

So the goal posts keep moving, as the Warren-haters stretch to find anything they can use as a reason to hate her.

but this strikes me as important

"Eight Stories of Men's Regrets" in Thursday's New York Times.

A few weeks ago in "Two Ways Brett Kavanaugh Could Be a Hero", I indulged in a fantasy where Kavanaugh confessed and apologized -- or at the very least admitted that he did have a high school drinking problem and may have done things he doesn't remember --  allowing the nation to have an honest discussion about whether he should still be held accountable for what he did when he was 17. We were having that conversation anyway, after all, but his continuing denials made it unserious in some fundamental way.

That honest public debate would be a step in the direction of healing the wounds that the #MeToo movement has revealed. However it came out — whether Kavanaugh ascended to the Supreme Court, remained where he is, or left public life entirely — it would be a service to the nation.

In a sermon "Men and #MeToo" that I gave September 30 at the Unitarian Church of Quincy, Illinois, I hit that point a little harder

Male shame has been the missing piece of the #MeToo phenomenon. When the #MeToo hashtag went viral almost exactly a year ago, what was shocking about it wasn't any particular story of some man harassing or assaulting some woman. It was that almost every woman seemed to have a story to tell. Almost every woman had some direct experience that put her on her guard, that made her feel unsettled or insecure in a way that men have a hard time imagining.

What was eye-opening to men was to look around and realize that the women in their own lives - their friends and wives and mothers and sisters and daughters - had stories to tell. But very few men took the next step, and recognized that this can't just be the work of a few bad men in ski masks. It has to be some large percentage of the male population.

And if President Trump's defenders are right, that his bragging about all the sexual assaults he's committed is just "locker room talk", then millions and millions of men must have been in those locker rooms, talking like that, or approving of such talk, or at the very least letting it go by without comment. Where are the tweets of all those confessions? Where is that sense of shame about that?

What's really needed, I think, to complete the #MeToo movement, is for men to confess and express our shame about what we've done or watched being done or allowed other men to do.

Somebody at The New York Times must have had the same thought.

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Trump is pulling out of a nuclear treaty that Reagan and Gorbachev signed in 1987. He's also threatening to pull out of the Universal Postal Union Treaty, which goes back to the Grant administration. (Seriously. We joined the UPU in 1875.) Vox explains what the UPU does and what Trump has against it.

You have to wonder if we'll have any treaties at all by the time Trump leaves office.

The administration is also working on a sweeping plan to deal with transgender folk: Change the definitions so that they don't exist any more! I want to make some snide suggestions about the groups they'll want to define away next, but my sarcasm is failing me.

Mitch McConnell has finally noticed the rising federal deficit, but ignores what caused it: the massive tax cut for the rich that he passed last year. Here's his comment:

[The deficit is] very disturbing, and it’s driven by the three big entitlement programs that are very popular: Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid. That’s 70 percent of what we spend every year. There’s been a bipartisan reluctance to tackle entitlement changes because of the popularity of those programs. Hopefully at some point here we’ll get serious about this.

This opens an I-told-you-so opportunity too big for me to pass up. From the 10-2-2017 Weekly Sift:

For decades now, Republicans have been dancing a two-step on taxes and spending:

  1. Cut taxes a little bit for most people and hugely for the very rich, promising that economic growth will make up the lost revenue.
  2. When the lost revenue stays lost, claim that the resulting deficits are an existential threat to the Republic, necessitating previously unthinkable spending cuts.

The result of the two-step is a set of policies that could never pass as a unit. ...

The rhetoric selling the idea of the [tax cut] has been populist, but the actual bill will be elitist: The rich will profit, the middle class will get a pittance (probably only temporarily), and the deficit will skyrocket. That will set up new “emergency” proposals to slash benefits the middle class would never have agreed to sacrifice to the rich, if the tax cuts hadn’t created an artificial budget “emergency”.

Not that this prediction required brilliant insight. As Paul Krugman put it Thursday:

Any political analyst who didn’t see this coming should find a different profession. After all, “starve the beast” — cut taxes on the rich, then use the resulting deficits as an excuse to hack away at the safety net — has been G.O.P. strategy for decades.

Krugman goes on to point out something else: Paul Ryan's superPAC is airing ads accusing Democrats of wanting to cut Medicare, as if Republicans were Medicare's protectors. But it gets worse: Dean Heller, Josh Hawley, and Ted Cruz

voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which protects Americans with pre-existing medical conditions, or supported a lawsuit trying to strip that protection out of the act, and are now running on the claim that they want to … protect people with pre-existing conditions.

The point is that we’re now in a political campaign where one side’s claimed position on every major policy issue is the opposite of its true position.

When Trump referred to Stormy Daniels as "Horseface", I thought: "Dude, you're the one who had sex with her."

During Trump's recent 60 Minutes interview, we got a glimpse of this painting, showing Trump hanging out with previous Republican presidents:

In the Age of Photoshop, you knew what had to happen. People just couldn't keep their hands off. Here's my favorite fix: Trump hanging around with other abusers of women (though I wish they hadn't left Lincoln in).

This one was pretty good too:

Russian interference in our political process continues. This week we learned of a new criminal complaint filed against Elena Alekseevna Khusyaynova.

So who is Khusyaynova? According to the government, she has been employed by a constellation of limited-liability companies linked to Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin—whose companies are said to have funded the IRA troll farm—and she has worked for the chief accountant of an overarching Russian influence campaign known as “Project Lakhta” since around April 2014.

And the conspiracy didn't end when Trump was elected. It continues.

In total, the government alleges, Khusyaynova’s reports reveal that the project spent more than $35 million between January 2016 and June 2018, according to the complaint. From January to June 2018 alone, Concord records reveal more than $60,000 in spending on Facebook advertising, $6,000 on Instagram advertising, and $18,000 on “bloggers,” the complaint alleges.

and let's close with something old made new

James Corden helps Alanis Morissette update "Ironic".

Monday, October 15, 2018

Pace and Scale

While the pace of change that would be required to limit warming to 1.5°C can be found in the past, there is no historical precedent for the scale of the necessary transitions, in particular in a socially and economically sustainable way.

-- The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
"Global Warming of 1.5°C"

This week's featured post is "The Media is Failing Us on Climate Change".

This week everybody was talking about the weather

Hurricane Michael hit the Florida panhandle Wednesday as yet another "worst storm in 100 years". These days, several places in the US each year have their worst storms in living memory. Michael was the fourth strongest storm to hit the US. You'd think people would start to notice.

Federal help seems slow to arrive.

Since the storm, there’s been no electricity and no water in Panama City. Emergency disaster relief was yet to be seen in strength as of Saturday morning and residents were growing more frustrated and desperate. Chantelle Goolspy sat in her car making phone calls to get help. Goolspy and many of her neighbors live in a public housing area in downtown Panama City that was badly devastated.

“We’re in need of food, water, anything, we’re not getting any help. The whole street needs help,” Goolspy told the Red Cross. “FEMA referred me to you. That person told me to call 211.”

One reason Michael did as much damage as it did was that it went through "rapid intensification" as it approached land, going from Category 1 to Category 4 (and nearly Category 5) in just 24 hours.

Climate scientists have begun to focus on hurricane rapid intensification as an increasingly prevalent feature in the world we’re entering. Simply put, with warmer seas, storms ought to be able to pull this off more often.

In a recent study in the Journal of Climate, researchers found more rapid intensifications in a simulation of a human-warmed world, and also that this would prove a key pathway toward more intense hurricanes in general.

As usual, it's impossible to blame any particular storm on global warming, just as it's impossible to blame any particular lung cancer on tobacco or any particular home run on steroids. It's a systemic factor that increases risks.

and a missing journalist

Jamal Khashoggi, a dissident Saudi journalist who had been living in Virginia and writing for The Washington Post, disappeared October 2. He was last seen entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. It's widely believed that the Saudis murdered him inside the consulate.

This has become an international incident involving Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United States. At first, President Trump expressed his usual disregard for non-citizen residents of the United States. An incident like this isn't worth interrupting, say, arms sales:

This took place in Turkey and to the best of our knowledge, Khashoggi is not a United States citizen, he’s a permanent resident. We don’t like it, even a little bit. But as to whether or not we should stop $110 billion dollars from being spent in this country, knowing they [Saudi Arabia] have four or five alternatives, two very good alternatives, that would not be acceptable to me.

His further responses have resembled his reactions Russian interference in the 2016 election: He spoke to King Salman, who denied murdering Khashoggi, and Trump seems inclined to take him at his word (as he takes Putin). He repeated the Saudis "rogue killers" theory, which is a little like Trump's fantasy of the 400-pound guy who hacked the DNC.

and the midterm elections

The Georgia governor's election is a coin flip at this point, but Republican candidate Brian Kemp has a special advantage: He's Secretary of State, and his office maintains the voting rolls.

Marsha Appling-Nunez was showing the college students she teaches how to check online if they're registered to vote when she made a troubling discovery. Despite being an active Georgia voter who had cast ballots in recent elections, she was no longer registered.

"I was kind of shocked," said Appling-Nunez, who moved from one Atlanta suburb to another in May and believed she had successfully changed her address on the voter rolls. "I've always voted. I try to not miss any elections, including local ones," Appling-Nunez said.

She tried re-registering, but with about one month left before a November election that will decide a governor's race and some competitive U.S. House races, Appling-Nunez's application is one of over 53,000 sitting on hold with Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp's office. And unlike Appling-Nunez, many people on that list — which is predominantly black, according to an analysis by The Associated Press — may not even know their voter registration has been held up.

The 53K would-be voters are about 70% black. Civil rights groups are suing.

Saturday, Senator David Perdue was campaigning for Kemp at Georgia Tech when a student tried to ask him about suppressing black votes. Perdue took his phone, then returned it and walked away.

The generic-ballot polls are going the way I expected: Republicans got a brief advantage by riling up their base over the Kavanaugh hearings. But that's already fading while the Democratic anger is sustained.

but the ongoing sabotage of ObamaCare deserves your attention

In August, HHS issued a set of regulations to allow short-term health insurance policies that don't meet the ACA minimum standards. The plans are as short as a year, and can be renewed for up to three years. But they have two big loopholes:

  • They don't have to cover all the stuff ACA plans do.
  • If you do get sick, after three years, the insurance company can refuse to renew your policy, leaving you with a pre-existing condition and no insurance until the next ObamaCare open-enrollment date.

The upside of the policies is that they cost less -- because companies don't have to issue them to people with pre-existing conditions.

The essence of the idea here is to rob Peter to pay Paul. Paul, in this case, is a healthy person who

  • makes just slightly too much money to qualify for the subsidies in ObamaCare, or
  • lives in one of the states that still refuses to expand Medicaid and falls into the "Medicaid coverage gap", making him ineligible for either Medicaid or the ACA subsidies.

In either case, the ACA required Paul to spend a serious chunk of his own money on health insurance that he believed (sometimes correctly, sometimes not) he wouldn't need.

One provision of the Trump Tax plan passed last year is that Paul can go uninsured without paying a penalty. But under the new regulations, Paul can buy a short-term plan that covers him against the things he might worry about (like a broken leg), but not pay as much as an ACA plan costs. If he develops MS or some other expensive long-term condition, he'll be in trouble, but he's willing to take that risk, if it means that he'll have thousands of dollars each year to spend on something else.

Peter is everybody else, but especially people with pre-existing conditions. Promoters of the short-term plans say that they just provide consumers with more options: If you want ACA-compliant insurance, you can still buy it. But that's deceptive, because ACA-compliant plans will become more expensive as more and more healthy people leave the risk pool.

HHS projects that 500,000 people will shift from individual market plans to short-term plans in 2019 as a result of the proposed rule. ... And by 2028, they expect the total increase in the short-term insurance population to reach 1.4 million, while the individual insurance market population is expected to decline by 1.3 million over that time. ... HHS acknowledged that the people who are likely to switch to short-term plans will primarily be young and healthy. As a result of the sicker, older risk pool that will remain in the individual market, premiums will rise

The way that ObamaCare can ultimately fail is if it gets into what is called a "death spiral": As premiums rise, more healthy people decide to risk going without ACA-compliant insurance, making the risk pool sicker and forcing premiums to go higher yet.

Ever since ObamaCare passed in 2010, Republicans have been trying to push it into that death spiral. It began with the 5-4 Supreme Court decision (written by Chief Justice Roberts) that let states opt out of Medicaid expansion, creating the Medicaid coverage gap. A series of additional court cases created doubt about the program, discouraging people from signing up. The Koch brothers spent millions of dollars on ads that further discouraged sign-ups. They prevented states from setting up exchanges, forcing that duty onto the federal government. They eliminated provisions like risk corridors that kept premiums down.

Since Trump took office, the sabotage has gotten worse. HHS has refused to spend money to promote ObamaCare by, for example, telling people when the enrollment periods are. Cost-sharing reductions are gone, further increasing premiums. The tax bill eliminated the penalty for going uninsured, motivating the healthiest people to leave the risk pool. And now, healthy people will have even more incentive to leave.

and so does the return of Iran sanctions

Trump announced on May 8 that the US was pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal. The serious effects of that decision will hit on November 4, when economic sanctions resume. NYT editorial board member Carol Giacomo writes a critical analysis: .

The main difference between these sanctions and the ones that pushed Iran to negotiate with the Obama administration is that this time the US is going it alone.

Crucially, Mr. Trump has failed to enlist Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China — the major powers that joined the United States in negotiating the nuclear deal — in his anti-Iran crusade. The Europeans say the deal is in their national security interest; they resent that Mr. Trump has unilaterally upended it.

And now the Europeans are trying to save it by developing a financial mechanism that would skirt American sanctions by enabling their companies to trade oil in local currencies or barter rather than in dollars. The aim is to create an alternative way to move money in and out of Iran when Western banks, handcuffed by Mr. Trump’s sanctions, won’t do it.

All the parties face a moment of truth after Nov. 4, when, Mr. Trump has decreed, any country or company trading with Iran will be barred from doing transactions with American financial institutions.

On one hand, you have to wonder how effective these US-only sanctions will be, and whether the Iranian public will respond by revolting against its current government or rallying around it.

But I worry about this move for reasons that go way beyond Iran.

At its root, banking is about trust. The US dominates the international banking system largely because other countries and their citizens trust the soundness of the dollar and the rule of law that protects their dollar-denominated transactions. But nothing forces other countries into our system, and if we push that advantage too far, they'll eventually create an alternative. In particular, we should be wary of any issue, like this one, that gives Europe and China a common cause against us.

Remember the larger picture: The Chinese economy is still far behind the US economy in a per capita sense, but in sheer size it is rapidly catching up and most likely will pass us in just a few years. In the long run, power follows money. So our long-term challenge is to use our waning power to construct a global system that is capable of constraining China when it eventually becomes the world's most powerful country.

The worst thing that we can do in this situation is to wield our power in an arbitrary and self-centered way, making our former allies yearn for the day when we get pushed off our perch.

and you also might be interested in ...

The US trade deficit with China set a record in September.

CNN's way-too-early poll shows Joe Biden as the front-runner for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. I'm skeptical. Nate Silver, though, seems skeptical of my skepticism:

Hard to take these early polls seriously after they predicted that Hillary Clinton (!) and Donald Trump (!!) would be the party nominees in 2016.

Meanwhile Elizabeth Warren is taking on the "Pocahontas" issue.

Lynzy Lab has the perfect answer to those guys worried about false accusations.

Explanations of how Republican policies benefit the 1% are always more convincing when they come from members of the 1%, like Abigail Disney, Walt's granddaughter. Illustrating the recent tax cut with footage from Scrooge McDuck was maybe just a little bit over the top, but I enjoyed it. Or, you could illustrate it with this graph from the Center for American Progress:

Sears Holding Company, which owns both Sears and K-Mart, is declaring bankruptcy. Once the dominant retailer in the country, Sears has lost $11.7 billion since its last profitable year in 2010. The New York Times has a lengthy obituary.

The NYT expose of how Trump got rich -- by inheritance and evasion of taxes -- raised a question: Some of what the Trump family did was legal and some illegal; which is the most scandalous?

It's personally scandalous to do something illegal, but to the extent that the manipulations the Trumps pulled off are actually legal, or at the very least broadly accepted, that's scandalous in a different way. Matt Taibbi explores that angle:

The parts I found most interesting were less about the rapaciousness of the Trump family per se than the myriad opportunities for gaming the system one presumes is available to everyone of this income level. The ordinary person cannot hire an outside appraiser to tell the IRS what it thinks he or she is worth, but the Trumps could systematically undervalue their properties for tax purposes (and then go back and overvalue them when it served their public relations needs).

The timidity that enforcement officials show toward the very wealthy is also a running theme in the story. When the Trump family claimed a $17.9 million building had fallen to $2.9 million, supposedly losing 83 percent of its value in just 18 days, the IRS auditor who caught it made them push the value back up by just $100,000.

The infamous $3.35 million casino chip scheme — an illegal multi-million-dollar loan under New Jersey law — inspired just a $65,000 fine.

And now the NYT finds that Jared Kushner also paid little-to-no tax over an 8-year period when his net worth was skyrocketing. Here the main avenue was a common (and legal) real-estate scam involving depreciation.

In theory, the depreciation provision is supposed to shield real estate developers from having their investments whittled away by wear and tear on their buildings. In practice, though, the allowance often represents a lucrative giveaway to developers like Mr. Trump and Mr. Kushner. The law assumes that buildings’ values decline every year when, in reality, they often gain value. Its enormous flexibility allows real estate investors to determine their own tax bills.

Ending the shennigans of the very rich was a big chunk of what Trump ran on in 2016. The system was rigged against ordinary people, he claimed, and he was just the guy to fix it.

The Trump tax cuts are fully paid for by: 1. Reducing or eliminating most deductions and loopholes available to the very rich.

He bragged that his business experience made him the perfect person to un-rig the tax system, because "I know the details of taxes better than anybody. Better than the greatest CPA." As late as November of last year, he made this 4-Pinocchio claim at a rally in St. Charles, Missouri:

This is going to cost me a fortune, this thing, believe me. This is not good for me. . . . I think my accountants are going crazy right now.

But of course, that's not what happened.

“The Trump administration was in a position to clean up the tax code and promised to get rid of some of the complexity that certain taxpayers use to their advantage,” said Victor Fleischer, a tax law professor at the University of California, Irvine. “Instead, they doubled down on those provisions, particularly the ones they have familiarity with to benefit themselves.”

and let's close with something out of this world

Here's what a category 4 hurricane looks like from space.