Monday, April 24, 2017

Meanwhile on Planet A

There is no Planet B.

- popular sign at Saturday's science marches

This week's featured post is "What's Our Story?", wondering how we can raise energy to defend Western values when we no longer believe the story the West has been telling about itself.

This week everybody was talking about Trump's first 100 days

which end next Saturday. I was tempted to write my own summary, but there are too many already. The Atlantic's is pretty good. (At this point, Paul Ryan will be happy if we can get through the 100th day without a government shutdown. The biggest sticking point is funding for the Wall, which -- surprise! -- Mexico isn't paying for.) What I will do is quickly review what I said I would watch for out of the Trump administration: One more thing I should say is that my worst fears haven't manifested, and it may be too late for their most likely scenario. Last November, my biggest fear was that Trump's first few actions would be popular. He'd be victimizing out-groups like Muslims, immigrants, and blacks, and the English-speaking white majority would love it. That popularity would set a snowball rolling that first Republicans, and then Democrats, and then the courts would be afraid to stand in front of. Before you know it, we'd have the kind of fascist populism I described in "How Populism Goes Bad". That didn't happen. Trump is incredibly unpopular for a president at the 100-day mark. His approval rating is around 40%, and has never been higher than 45%. Before him, Bill Clinton was the least popular modern president at 100 days, with a 55% approval rating. Democrats are united, the courts are ruling against him, and even congressional Republicans may be starting to stand up to him.

and the Georgia congressional election

When Trump appointed congressional Republicans to his cabinet, he created a series of special elections to replace them. All the districts are in deep-red areas, so he didn't think he was in danger of losing any of them. Well, Trump's general unpopularity and the corresponding mobilization of Democrats has so far made those elections surprisingly competitive. Two weeks ago in Kansas, the Republican held on to a seat that Mike Pompeo had won in 2016 by 30 points, but only by 7 this time. This week in Georgia, Democrat Jon Ossoff got 48% of the vote in a district where Republican Tom Price got 62% just a few months ago. If Ossoff had gotten 50%, he'd have won the seat. As it stands, he faces a June runoff against Karen Handel, who finished second with 20% in a divided Republican field. 538's Harry Enten thinks the runoff looks like a coin flip. You'd think a few of the Republicans who voted for non-Handel candidates would move to Ossoff, but Republicans have a way of uniting against Democrats when the chips are down.

and the March for Science

Saturday there were marches all over the country (and even all over the world) to protest three main things Wherever you were, there was a march nearby. I was in Santa Fe, where I marched from the downtown plaza to the state capitol with "a few thousand" other people. (I took the picture to the right while Senator Udall was speaking. The crowd behind me was at least as big.) Marches in the bigger cities were even larger. I've seen estimates of 40,000 in Chicago, 50,000 in St. Paul, and so on. In D.C., the "early" crowd was estimated at 15,000, and I haven't heard how big it eventually got. I'm not sure where this woman was:

and Bill O'Reilly

Apparently, if you harass enough women in the workplace over a long enough period of time, and if some of them are brave and determined enough to inspire the others to come forward, and if boycotters make advertisers notice, and if The New York Times does a story about it, and if there's a corporate parent that just doesn't want the grief, then you might lose your job. Clearly, we've come a long way. Of course, you also might become president. There are still a few bugs in the system.

but the French election might turn out to be even more important

I wish I understood France well enough to tell you about it in detail. The headline is that someone from outside the traditional national-party structure, Emmanuel Macron, was the leading candidate in France's presidential election, getting 24% of the vote. That will put him into a runoff in two weeks with the second-place finisher, Marine Le Pen, who got 22%. Le Pen, who leads the party that her father founded, is not quite the anti-semitic fascist that he was, but represents France's radical right. She is the Trump-Putin candidate: anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-EU, anti-NATO. Polls say that supporters of the other candidates will unite around Macron in the runoff, so the disaster of a Le Pen presidency might be avoided.

and you might also be interested in

Paul Krugman has a good analogy for understanding the Republicans' inability to come up with an ObamaCare replacement plan: trying to stuff a big balloon into a small box.
Republicans have ... successfully convinced many voters that they could preserve the good stuff [of ObamaCare] — the dramatic expansion of coverage that has brought the percentage of Americans without health insurance to a record low — while reducing premiums, shrinking deductibles and, of course, doing away with the taxes on high incomes that pay for the program.
But healthcare costs money, and people who are poor or sick don't have enough to pay for it. The government -- or somebody -- has to make up the difference. The repeated attempts at a Republican plan are all ways to try to hide the gap: You can't pull out the government money -- which is the main GOP goal -- and keep the same level of coverage. So every time a plan gets well enough defined for the CBO to rate it, it turns out that millions of people will lose their health insurance.
The important thing to remember is that these problems don’t keep popping up because the people devising the plans are careless, and keep forgetting crucial issues. They’re popping up because the G.O.P. is trying to stuff a big balloon into a small box, and every time you squeeze it somewhere it inflates someplace else.

Matt Yglesias: If you tell working-class voters in dying communities that the mill or the mine is going to reopen and give them back their old jobs, you're not respecting them, you're pandering to them.
Shaun King makes a point relevant to my post last week on cold racism: There's a simple reason that conservatives were upset by Obama's golfing vacations, but are far less upset by Trump's far more frequent golfing vacations: Obama's golfing marked him as an "uppity Negro".
Ordinarily, you don't see a lot of stores closing unless the economy is in recession. But they are now. Possible reasons: Internet shopping has gotten big enough to hurt store traffic. Developers overbuilt malls, expecting growth that never happened. Consumers are spending less on stuff and more on experiences like vacations or meals.
Attorney General Sessions:
I really am amazed that a judge sitting on an island in the Pacific can issue an order that stops the President of the United States from what appears to be clearly his statutory and Constitutional power.
Someone needs to explain to the AG (1) how the federal court system works, and (2) that Hawaii is a state equal to any other state. This is yet another dog whistle to racists whose idea of "real America" doesn't extend out to Hawaii. Personally, I'm amazed that someone from Alabama has the stones to denigrate Hawaii.
When Republicans take over state government, one of the first things they do is make it harder to vote. My state of New Hampshire elected a Republican governor in November, and already had Republican control of both houses of the legislature. And so now comes an unusually insidious form of voter suppression:
According to the bill, wrongful voting/voter fraud is now considered to occur simply when a person “registers to vote on election day using an affidavit to satisfy proof of being qualified ... and fails to provide a copy of the document by mail or present the document in person to the town or city clerk by the deadline.” This legitimate voter who doesn’t have documentation can now be subject to a fine of up to $5,000. He will also be removed from the voter rolls.
So if you take advantage of New Hampshire's same-day registration, you now have to produce paperwork showing that you're a permanent resident within 10 days, and if you don't, you'll be fined. So a legitimate New Hampshire resident who votes, but doesn't get around to producing the required documentation within ten days is a criminal. The bill has already passed the Senate on a party-line vote, with Republicans voting to criminalize legitimate voters.
The IRS is going to start using private collection agencies to get people to pay overdue taxes. What could possibly go wrong? I already get spam phone calls from boiler-room operations claiming to represent the IRS.
As you listen to your Bose headphones, they're also listening to you. Well, not exactly, but almost. According to a new lawsuit, if you use the associated Bose app, it will tell Bose what you listen to, and Bose sells that information. Apparently, someone who knows what songs, podcasts, audiobooks, etc. you listen to can make a lot of good guesses about the rest of your life.

and let's close with some advertising that shouldn't work

This image off their Facebook page may look like it can't possibly come from a real business, but while crossing Missouri on I-44 I saw a billboard with the same slogan.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Treacherous Division

Maintaining the division between the Colony and the Nation is treacherous precisely because of the constant threat that the tools honed in the Colony will be wielded in the Nation; that tyranny and violence tolerated at the periphery will ultimately infiltrate the core.

- Chris Hayes, A Colony in a Nation

This week's featured post is a suggestion for framing discussions about the more subtle forms of racism: "Racism, Hot and Cold". And it's an appropriate time to look back at my attempt in 2013 to promote a secular Easter mythology in "Wrestling with Easter".

This week everybody was talking about rumors of war

The Syria attack got Trump such good press that many were skeptical Thursday when we dropped the Massive Ordinance Air Blast (MOAB, a.k.a. Mother of All Bombs) in Afghanistan. But Vox thinks it was legit.

“It’s a weapon that has a narrow target set,” an Air Force official told me. “It’s primarily intended for soft to medium surface targets — targets like a cave and canyon environment.”

The area hit in Afghanistan appears to be one of the few targets that fit this profile.

All the same, it was weird to watch the chest-thumping on the Right over a big-but-mostly-meaningless explosion. Our national pride used to be based on stuff like inventing the light bulb or landing on the Moon. Now it comes from dropping really big bombs.
The more worrisome situation is North Korea, which has been ramping up both its nuclear tests and its missile tests. The Guardian reports:
There has been little doubt in recent years that the end-point of the North Korean programme is an arsenal of working ICBMs and nuclear warheads small enough to put on top of them. The dilemma of how to stop it reaching that goal is the hardest problem facing any US administration, a point that Barack Obama repeatedly made to Trump during the presidential transition. ... Trump seems to be hoping that by introducing some unpredictability into this static scenario, he can frighten the Chinese government into putting real pressure on Pyongyang. There are some signs that might be working, with hints in China’s semi-official media that Beijing could tighten oil deliveries, North Korea’s lifeline.

Trump's reliance on China may explain why he's reversed himself on his currency manipulation charge. Branding China a "currency manipulator" -- something he was going to do "on Day 1" of his administration -- would have begun a formal process that would likely have led to tariffs and a trade war. Now he's changed his mind.
Like Syria, North Korea is a situation where no one has any really good ideas. North Korea probably already has the ability to destroy Seoul, a South Korean mega-city of about 25 million. So a preemptive war could have an enormous cost. But waiting for the North Korean regime to gain the power to similarly threaten Tokyo or Los Angeles is not a great prospect either. Some Trump fans thought the MOAB blast was a warning to North Korea, but actually it wouldn't be much of a threat there. Vox again:
“If you think about what a target profile might look like in either Iran or North Korea — both of those countries have air defense systems,” [University of Kentucky Professor Rob] Farley says. “This is a weapon dropped from a C-130, which is not a stealthy aircraft and not really a combat aircraft at all. This is not a weapon you can drop on someone who has an active defense of the target — fighters or any kind of surface-to-air missile.”

Fortunately, yesterday's North Korean missile test seems to have failed.
In any international conflict, we hear the argument that "You can't talk to [insert name of foreign leader], he's crazy." On occasion it might be true, but it really can't be true every single time. Maybe it's true about Kim Jong-Un; a lot of people certainly think so. But this article in Newsweek from last year claims not.

and the United Air Lines fiasco

By now you've undoubtedly heard the story and probably even seen the videos: Dr. David Dao, who was already seated, refused United's compensation offer for leaving the plane and was dragged off my force.

Criticizing United for this incident is shooting fish in a barrel; everybody has done it already. Twitter has a #NewUnitedAirlinesMotto hashtag, with gems like: "If we can't beat our competitors, we'll beat our customers" and "United: Putting the hospital in hospitality". Jimmy Kimmel created a new United commercial.

But United's situation is even worse than it initially appeared: Early coverage assumed that the fine print of its ticket agreement gave United the legal right to do what it did, even if it obviously shouldn't have. But now it looks like United is wrong even legally. Apparently, the contract allows United to "refuse boarding" to a passenger for just about any reason, including that they have some other use for the seat. But nothing gave them the right to remove Dao after they had boarded him, unless he was being disruptive -- and he didn't become a problem passenger until after they started trying to remove him.

Beyond that, the interesting articles are about the larger meaning of this event. Is the problem these particular United employees? United itself? Airlines in general? Capitalism? I think the quote at the top of this page, which comes from Chris Hayes' A Colony in a Nation (discussed last week) nails it.

Maintaining the division between the Colony and the Nation is treacherous precisely because of the constant threat that the tools honed in the Colony will be wielded in the Nation; that tyranny and violence tolerated at the periphery will ultimately infiltrate the core.

In other words: We tolerate that in poor, black neighborhoods, people who don't do what some authority tells them are beaten and/or dragged away by police, even if the authority is overstepping. Whenever someone gets killed in such a circumstance, you will inevitably hear the argument: "Why didn't he just do what the officer told him?"

Once that idea gets out there -- that (even if you're in the right) you do what you're told or face violence -- it's not going to stay in its box. Socially, an airliner may seem far, far away from Ferguson or Baltimore. But when you're sitting in your middle seat, you're powerless too. So you'd better do what you're told or face violence.

Once we accept this kind of violence, there's no way to define a boundary that will keep it away from you. The only solution is to resolve that people will not be treated that way. All people, everywhere.

and the continuing retreat of liberal democracy

Turkish voters passed a referendum taking power away from its parliament and centering it in the executive. The Erdogan government has been getting increasingly autocratic for some time, and this is a big step further down that road. (The idea that a narrow majority can authorize this kind of sweeping change is scary in itself, and typical of the rise of dictators.)

A coup against Erdogan failed last year, and he has used that opportunity to rule in an "emergency" mode. International observers judged that a valid referendum could not take place under these circumstances.

For a long time, Turkey seemed headed towards membership in the European Union, which would have exacerbated Brexit-like pressures on countries that didn't want a large influx of poor Turks looking for jobs, but also was liberalizing Turkey internally. Now that process seems to be over.

Now all eyes turn to France, where the first round of a presidential election will be held on Sunday. It's uncertain which two of the current 11 candidates will be in the run-off on May 7, but one of them is likely to be Marine Le Pen, leader of the extreme-right National Front.

but this article is also worth your time

Rick Perlstein has been writing books about the history of the American Right for many years, beginning in 2001 with Before the Storm about the Goldwater movement, and continuing with Nixonland and the most recent in the series The Invisible Bridge, which takes the story up to Ronald Reagan's nearly successful challenge to President Ford's renomination in 1976.

Now he recognizes that the story he and other historians of the Right have been telling doesn't lead to Trump, and that has him re-evaluating his whole approach.

If Donald Trump is the latest chapter of conservatism’s story, might historians have been telling that story wrong?

His article "I Thought I Understood the American Right. Trump Proved Me Wrong." is a fascinating history of historians trying to make sense out of events whose consequences are still playing out. When the main thing they knew about Goldwater was his landslide loss to LBJ in 1964, he looked like an aberrant throwback, which is how Richard Hofstadter portrayed him in "The Paranoid Style in American Politics."

Then his campaign became the forerunner of Ronald Reagan's victory in 1980, and historians began telling a different story of conservatism's march to respectability. Now the story of "modern conservatism" begins in 1955, with William F. Buckley's National Review rejecting the conspiracy theories of the John Birch Society, the nativism and racism of the KKK, and the anti-modernism of the Scopes Monkey Trial.

But Trump, Perlstein now recognizes, has a lot more to do with the old, crazy conservatism than with Buckley-style respectable conservatism. That means that the march to respectability was always partly an illusion, the old conservatism must always have been there under the surface, and the roots of Trump go back further than Perlstein had thought.

and you might also be interested in

Apparently the attempt to raise an uproar about Susan Rice was just another Trump attempt to distract from his own Russia scandal.
After a review of the same intelligence reports brought to light by House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes, both Republican and Democratic lawmakers and aides have so far found no evidence that Obama administration officials did anything unusual or illegal, multiple sources in both parties tell CNN.

Josh Marshall reflects that few presidents arrive in office really prepared for the job, and each of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama had to learn a lot in their early days. But Trump is unique in that he truly seems not to have previously understood that knowledge was possible. When he discovers something that literally everyone who pays attention to the news already knew (like that health care is complicated, or that China and Korea have a long and difficult history), he presents it as if we should all be as surprised as he is.
Having failed to repeal ObamaCare, Trump is threatening to break it. If he thinks this threat is going to get Democrats to go along with his repeal plan, he's going to have to think again.
Thursday Trump signed a bill that allows states to deny federal grants to Planned Parenthood.
Now that the rule has been repealed, states can effectively block Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers from funds associated with the Title X Family Planning program, which was established in 1970 to subsidize organizations that offer services related to contraception, pregnancy care, fertility and cancer screenings primarily for low-income people.
This is widely misunderstood as "defunding Planned Parenthood", as if there were a "subsidize Planned Parenthood" line somewhere in the federal budget. What the federal government in fact subsidizes are services, which people can get by going to the service-provider of their choice.

So basically, what Trump and Republicans at the state level are doing here is anti-freedom. They're saying that you can't get your federally subsidized cancer screening or contraception where you want to get it. You have to get it from some provider conservatives approve of.

Free college was one of Bernie Sanders' most popular proposals. New York state is now moving in that direction. The SUNY and CUNY systems will be tuition-free to in-state students whose families make less than $100,000, if they fulfill academic requirements and stay in the state after graduation.
Jay Rosen is promoting the expansion of the Dutch news organization De Correspondent to the American market. He says De Correspondent looks as if it were built around the question: "What if news organizations optimized every part of the operation for trust?"
Conservative media outlets loved to run stories about how the Obamas were "living large" at the public expense, as if life in the White House had been spartan until 2009. But Trump's expenses are blowing away Obama's numbers. Vanity Fair reports:
In all eight years of President Barack Obama’s presidency, his travel, both personal and professional, amounted to a total of $97 million, according to Judicial Watch. That puts Trump on track to surpass Obama’s travel spending over the course of two terms in about one year.
Judicial Watch, it's worth pointing out, is a conservative group that was outraged at that $97 million figure.
The sheriff's department in Lake County, Florida made a video to try to scare drug dealers. It ought to scare pretty much everybody. I think I might rather run into drug dealers than these masked vigilantes.
Democratic strategist Jess McIntosh discovers that her Dad gets his news from alt-right web sites, and he isn't completely sure that she doesn't eat babies.

and let's close with an amusing way to waste time

Fifty pictures that sum up each of the fifty states. Like North Carolina:

Monday, April 10, 2017

Where It Ends

You know where a war begins, but you never know where it ends.
- Otto von Bismarck
This week's featured posts are "Where Did That Come From?" (about the Syria attack) and "Justice and the Police" (connecting the latest from Trump's Justice Department to the analysis in Chris Hayes' A Colony in a Nation).

This week everybody was talking about the Syria

I covered this at length in one of the featured posts.
One further thought: During the Obama years, Republicans often ridiculed his teleprompter, as if the President himself were simply a mouthpiece for words written by someone else. To me, that criticism always misfired, because Obama in fact had a deep understanding of the issues and thought quite well on his feet.
But watching Trump's announcement of the cruise missile attack, I couldn't help thinking that I was hearing a teleprompter speak and not a president. Trump read his statement slowly, always looking to the screen on one side or the other, and never forward into the camera.

and the byzantine rivalries inside the White House

Steve Bannon's star seems to be in decline. He was removed from the National Security Council, a role a political operative should never have had to begin with. Some attribute his removal to National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster, while others credit/blame Jared Kushner.
Breitbart, the alt-right pseudo-news site Bannon ran before becoming Trump's chief strategist, continues to be Bannon's propaganda outlet. Of late, it has taken a strong anti-Kushner tack. After the NSC announcement, it gave major space to an interview with Ned Ryun of American Majority (an organization devoted to training new conservative leaders). He described Bannon's demotion as part of a power struggle between
national populists, really led by Bannon, versus, quite frankly – there’s no other way to describe them – the liberal New York City set that have come in.
i.e., Kushner and his wife Ivanka Trump.
God bless them, they’re part of the Trump family, but let’s not kid ourselves: they are part of the Manhattan liberal set. ... I think we should start asking questions – who are they really? What has been their experience? What is their worldview? Because I’m starting to suspect their worldview does not line up with the campaign promises that Trump was making. ... I’ve got to tell you, my hope is that Trump will say, "I know what got me in. I know what brought me to the White House. Steve Bannon is really the lead cheerleader on that front. Keep Steve close. Listen to Steve."
I find it fascinating that Bannonists are calling themselves "national populists" and focusing on appealing to the white working-class voters in the Trump base. If they're ever looking for a Tea-Party-like name, how about National Populist American Workers' Party? That has a ring to it, don't you think?

One Kushner ally the National Populists (Nappies?) particularly hate is Gary Cohn, the former Goldman Sachs COO who is head of the National Economic Council and has been rumored as a replacement for Reince Preibus as chief of staff.
Beneath all the Breitbart codewords -- liberal, New York, globalist -- is a meaning you have to go to the more extreme sources to translate: Jew. Kushner was born Jewish and Ivanka converted, but Cohn is the alt-Right's worst nightmare: an honest-to-HaShem Jewish banker.

and the Senate approving Gorsuch

Senate Republicans had to change Senate rules on the fly to do it, eliminating the filibuster on Supreme Court nominations.
There are those who mourn this move, or who wish Democrats had saved their filibuster for some future nomination, but I don't see it. What is to be mourned here are the traditions of fair play and mutual respect that for centuries allowed the Senate to use the filibuster responsibly.
Until the last two decades, the filibuster was an extreme tactic, reserved for situations in which the minority wanted to serve notice that it was aggrieved in more than just an ordinary way. Filibustering was outside the range of ordinary negotiating tactics, similar to when a spouse threatens to leave.
A number of major bills, ones that opponents must have thought were important, were not filibustered: the Social Security amendments that created Medicare and Medicaid in 1965, for example. Entire years might go by without a filibuster.
As the graph shows, use of the filibuster started to ramp up around 1970, gradually increased in the next few decades, and then spiked after Republicans became the minority in 2007. Mitch McConnell's years as minority leader saw unprecedented obstruction; it became a commonplace that "it takes 60 votes to do anything in the Senate".
Among McConnell's new tactics was the blockade of an office, without regard to the qualifications of the individual nominated to fill it. He attempted to keep the Consumer Financial Protection Board from operating, and very nearly brought the National Labor Relations Board to a halt by refusing to let any nominee come to a vote. That's what led Democrats to eliminate the filibuster on all nominations but the Supreme Court in 2013.
McConnell was majority leader by 2016, when he blockaded the Supreme Court seat that opened when Justice Scalia died. If there had been something objectionable about Merrick Garland -- a generally moderate judge of sterling record -- Republicans might have rejected Garland for cause and let President Obama nominate someone else, as the Founders intended. But the point of this maneuver was to prevent the seat from being filled, in hopes a Republican president might someday fill it. This was entirely unprecedented in American history.
Democrats couldn't simply go back to the status quo after that. Returning to the marriage analogy, it would be like one spouse accepting that the other had won an argument by violence, and pretending that everything could go back to normal afterward. The courtly traditions of the Senate are gone now; pretending they can be restored without any acknowledgment of the gravity of the Garland nomination would be pointless.
It would have been similarly pointless to save the filibuster for the next nomination. If the Republican majority is determined to have its way, regardless of previous Senate traditions, then it will. A tool that exists only as long as you never use it is worthless.
While Senate traditions of collegiality are something to mourn for, the filibuster itself is not. Without the traditional restraints on its use, it becomes an instrument of minority obstruction, and enables the kind of gridlock we saw in the last six years of the Obama administration. Right now, liberals may wish they could stop more things from happening, but ultimately minority obstruction undermines the efficacy of democracy. If the people vote for something, they should get it. If they don't like it, they should vote for something else.

but don't forget about the Russia investigation

This week's development was that House Intelligence Chair Devan Nunes recused himself from the investigation. He'll continue as committee chair, but Rep. Mike Conaway of Texas will fill his role on the Russia probe.
Trump and his people have tried to make a distracting pseudo-scandal out of Susan Rice having names of Trump's people "unmasked" from intelligence reports. So far, though, nothing we've learned seems all that suspicious to people who understand the process. For people who don't, here's a primer.

and you might also be interested in

As I explained last week, the effort to revive ObamaCare repeal is going nowhere. Congress is taking its April recess with no further action, in spite of Trump's statement on March 28 that such a deal would be "easy" and happen "quickly".
Matt Yglesias points to another area where Trump's rhetoric outstrips anything actually in the works: infrastructure. He continues to talk about the $1 trillion infrastructure idea he floated during the campaign, but there is no actual plan Congress could vote on, and no one appears to be making one. Yglesias refers to an infrastructure plan as "vaporware", a software industry term for promised features that aren't actually being programmed.

I can't vouch for the underlying data, but this map of each state's largest employer is interesting: It's usually either Walmart, a university, or a healthcare provider. Boeing in Washington and Intel in Oregon are the only manufacturers.

and let's close with some dancing

I really should save this for the week when Bannon gets fired, but it's never a bad time to watch a parrot rock out.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Lessons Learned

[Jared] Kushner will [apply] the lessons he learned from being born rich and marrying the right person.

- Simon Maloy

This week's experiment in multiple shorter posts: "The Future Goes to Jared" points to Jared Kushner as a paradigm for success in the Second Gilded Age, "Freedom (Comcast's) vs. Rights (Yours)" elaborates a freedom vs. rights theme I raised in 2015, and "Can We Get Real About Opioids?".

This week everybody was talking about Mike Flynn

Trump's former national security adviser shopped for an immunity deal and apparently hasn't gotten one. The Wall Street Journal article that broke this story is behind their paywall, but some independent confirmation is at NBC.

Two possibilities: The first is that Flynn's testimony could illuminate the entire network of Trump/Russia connections and bring down Trump himself. That notion was clearly in Josh Marshall's mind:

You only get immunity if you deliver someone else higher up the ladder. And there's only one person higher up the ladder.

The other is that Flynn is maneuvering. He faces a long list of legal problems, so maybe he wants to wriggle out without giving much in return. Alex Whiting at Just Security analyzes:

If he had something good, Flynn and his lawyer would approach the prosecutors quietly, go through the proffer process in confidence, and reach a deal. Why? Because prosecutors have an interest in keeping their investigation secret, and Flynn’s lawyer knows that. The last thing Flynn’s lawyer would do if he thought he had the goods would be to go public, because that would potentially compromise the criminal inquiry and would certainly irritate the prosecutors, the very people Flynn’s lawyer would be trying to win over.

I suspect that Flynn’s lawyer is really targeting Congress. He is hoping that one of the Congressional committees will take the bait and grant him immunity in exchange for his testimony.

Either way, two conclusions seem obvious: Flynn believes that by the time this is all over, somebody will want to prosecute him for something, and he's not trusting Trump to pardon him. (That's  probably a good idea given the way Sean Spicer has been pretending Flynn was never a major player.)

This flashes me back to something Senate Watergate Committee Chair Sam Ervin wrote:

As we contemplate the motives that inspired [the] misdeeds [of Nixon's lieutenants], we acquire a new awareness of the significance of Cardinal Wolsey's poignant lament: "Had I but serv'd my God with half the zeal I serv'd my King, he would not in mine age have left me naked to mine enemies."

(The content of the Wolsey quote is historical, but the phrasing comes from Shakespeare's Henry VIII.)

and Devin Nunes

The information that Devin Nunes brought to the White House on March 22 -- that the Trump transition team had been inadvertently caught up in surveillance targeted at others, so Trump's Obama-wiretapped-me tweet might have had some tangential basis -- appears to have come from the White House to begin with. The New York Times identifies Nunes' sources as Ezra Cohen-Watnick from the National Security Council and Michael Ellis from the White House Counsel's office. The Washington Post adds a third source, NSC lawyer John Eisenberg.

None of them are the "whistleblowers" Nunes has been claiming, unless, as Josh Marshall adds, "we now consider people disseminating information from the White House on the President's behalf 'whistleblowers'."

The obvious question: Why do White House staffers need to sneak information to the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, so that he can brief the President about it and talk about it (obliquely) to the press? Adam Schiff, the committee's leading Democrat, asks:

This looks nothing like a whistleblower case. And again, I think the White House needs to answer: Is this instead a case where they wished to effectively launder information through our committee to avoid the true source of the information?

Vox summarizes:

Put more bluntly: Members of the Trump White House selectively leaked classified intelligence that doesn’t actually support their boss’s claim to a credulous congressman who uncritically parroted the information in a press conference just hours later.

Nunes kinda-sorta denied this, calling the reports "mostly wrong" and filled with "innuendo".

Currently, the House investigation is completely shut down, without even behind-closed-doors committee meetings. By participating in what appears to be a White House info-laundering maneuver, Nunes has lost credibility as a leader of the investigation.

Pulitzer-winning journalist Bart Gellman explains a little about how secret surveillance reports work, and then raises this question:

If events took place as just described, then what exactly were Trump’s appointees doing? I am not talking only about the political chore of ginning up (ostensible) support for the president’s baseless claims about illegal surveillance by President Obama. I mean this: why would a White House lawyer and the top White House intelligence adviser be requesting copies of these surveillance reports in the first place? Why would they go on to ask that the names be unmasked? There is no chance that the FBI would brief them about the substance or progress of its investigation into the Trump campaign’s connections to the Russian government. Were the president’s men using the surveillance assets of the U.S. government to track the FBI investigation from the outside?

Meanwhile, compared to its House equivalent, the Senate Intelligence Committee looks like a happy family. Republican Chair Richard Burr of North Carolina and ranking Democrat Mark Warner of Virginia have been presenting a united front and pledging to "get to the bottom of this".

For weeks, Josh Marshall has been talking about the "gravity" of the Trump/Russia scandal -- not in the sense of it being gravely serious (which it also is), but in the sense that people who get close to it keep getting pulled in. Why is Nunes sacrificing his reputation like this? Why did Jeff Sessions feel the need to lie to the Senate about his contacts with the Russians?

Astronomers can't see black holes directly. They map them by their event horizon and their effect on nearby stars and stellar matter. We can't see yet what's at the center of the Trump/Russia black hole. But we can tell a lot about its magnitude by the scope of the event horizon and the degree of its gravitational pull, which is immense.

and the Gorsuch nomination

DecisionDeskHQ counts 41 Democrats against. That puts the ball in McConnell's court: accept defeat or eliminate the filibuster?

and disarray in Congress

Republicans are continuing to promise that they'll come up with an ObamaCare replacement plan they can pass through Congress. Trump described this goal as "an easy one" that is going to happen "quickly". He also attacked the House Freedom Caucus for opposing the AHCA, and Paul Ryan warned them that if they couldn't come together Trump might cut a deal with Democrats instead.

I'm discounting all of that. Two things sunk the AHCA: Republicans have no consensus view of the government's proper role in healthcare, and the ideas that appeal to near-majority chunks of their caucus are deeply unpopular with the country. Neither can be fixed by reworking the details of a bill.

An analogy: When I'm good and truly stuck as a writer, invariably the problem turns out to be that my focus is too narrow to see the whole problem. I'm trying to find just the right word when the paragraph doesn't make sense, or I'm trying to clarify the presentation of an argument that -- if it were perfectly clear -- would have an obvious hole in it. When I'm stuck like that, my worst enemy is the thought that I'm almost there. I get unstuck by admitting that I'm nowhere near where I want to be, which allows me to back up and look at what's wrong with the bigger picture.

Republicans are still telling themselves that they're almost there on healthcare. As long as they keep doing that, they'll stay stuck. And the working-with-Democrats idea never includes any suggestions about what Democrats might want. That marks it as a fantasy.

They might run into the same problem on tax reform. The Koch brothers are advertising against Trump's border-adjustment tax. In the same way that the Republican position on healthcare has been defined by opposition to ObamaCare rather than any positive vision, their position on taxes has always been "less". They have no consensus on what should be taxed and how much.

They may not even prevent a government shutdown. Currently, the government is funded through April 28, and the clock is already ticking on the next basket of money. The WaPo identifies funding the Great Wall of Mexico as a possible issue, and New York points to defunding Planned Parenthood and/or ObamaCare.

and rolling back regulations that fight climate change

Tuesday, Trump issued a "Presidential Executive Order on Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth", which rolls back Obama's anti-climate-change executive orders. (Civics lesson: This is why you want to pass laws rather than just issue executive orders. Undoing a law is much harder.)

There have been two reactions to this:

  • Doom. Obama's orders were already half-measures, and now we're not even doing that much.
  • Shrug. Coal is dead for reasons that Trump can't change, and the renewable energy boom will continue.

The most sophisticated reaction I've seen is Brad Plumer's at Vox:

the first step in thinking about the road ahead for climate policy under Trump is understanding why federal action was so significant — and then figuring out what’s still possible if Trump rolls it back.

So Trump hasn't stopped progress against climate change cold, but it's still a real blow.

How can we know whether God exists? I take a hint from The New Yorker's David Owens:

Somewhat tantalizingly, it wouldn’t take much of a sea-level rise or storm surge to inundate the entire place, since [Mar-a-Lago's] sweeping lawns, like most of the rest of southern Florida, lie just a few feet above high tide.

but deep beneath the headlines, the tectonic plates of culture keep shifting

In 2015, I coined a maxim that I should repeat more often: Everything you thought was a category is actually a continuum.

The FX series Billions now has a gender-non-binary character. “Hello sir, my name is Taylor. My pronouns are they, theirs, and them.” Taylor isn't a boy pretending to be a girl, or a girl who wants to be a boy, or someone who feels out of place in their body. Taylor's social persona is not gender-specific. Within the universe of the show, the question "Is Taylor male or female?" has no answer.

After a few episodes, I'm surprised how easy it is to let that question go. The trip from bewilderment to "Why did I think that was a big deal?" is surprising short.

BBC's "The Social" has an enlightening video on non-binary identity. Here's another interesting testimony.

and you might also be interested in

One of the weirder projects out there: FOIA the Dead. When an obituary appears in the NYT, FOIA the Dead sends an automated Freedom of Information Act request to the FBI for whatever files it has on that person, then posts what it gets, if anything. Privacy rules prevent the FBI from releasing the files of living people without some good reason, but looser rules apply to the dead. So, for example, we can now know what the FBI had (not much) on journalist Morley Safer or Kennedy-assassination conspiracy-theorist Mark Lane.

White Democrats and white Republicans disagree more than ever on the sources of racial inequality.

Trump is now more unpopular than Obama ever was. The head-shaking thing is that his problems are entirely self-inflicted. The economy is fine. No new wars, major terrorist attacks, or natural disasters. We haven't even begun to speculate about whether something might be "Trump's Katrina".

If not for Russia and the Trump family's profiteering on the presidency, HHS Secretary Tom Price would be a front-page scandal. ProPublica reports:

On the same day the stockbroker for then-Georgia Congressman Tom Price bought him up to $90,000 of stock in six pharmaceutical companies last year, Price arranged to call a top U.S. health official, seeking to scuttle a controversial rule that could have hurt the firms’ profits and driven down their share prices, records obtained by ProPublica show.

The Kansas experiment in conservative economics continues to produce negative results: According to figures from the Fed, Kansas now has the worst economic growth in the nation. Meanwhile, the Republican legislature finally voted to expand Medicaid, and Governor Brownback vetoed it.

Thursday, UN Ambassador Nikki Haley announced a shift in U.S. policy towards Syria: We're no longer going to "focus on getting Assad out". In other words: We move closer to Russia's position and away from our NATO allies.

North Carolina is repealing and replacing its controversial bathroom bill. But the replacement retains a lot of bad stuff. Like the original, it makes a mockery of conservative rhetoric about local control by banning any city from protecting LGBT rights.

A similar mockery: Iowa just nullified any local attempt to raise the minimum wage. Five Iowa counties had voted to establish a wage higher than the federal minimum of $7.25, and in one it had already taken effect.

and let's close with another adaptation of a classic

Last week I posted "Donnie in the Room", my retelling of the TrumpCare saga in the style of "Casey at the Bat". This week, Sandi and Richard Riccardi do "The Boy from Mar-a-Lago".

Monday, March 27, 2017

New Dynamics

Whites standing up in support of a policy changes the dynamics of the conversation.

- sociologist Judy Lubin, explaining ObamaCare's rising popularity

I hadn't planned to do a featured post, but once the rhythm of a poem gets into my head, the only way to get it out is to write it down. So Saturday morning I posted a special edition: "Donnie in the Room". It's a poetic retelling of the TrumpCare debacle modeled on "Casey at the Bat".

This week everybody was talking about the failure of TrumpCare

After scheduling a vote Thursday (to coincide with the seventh anniversary of Congress passing ObamaCare), Speaker Ryan delayed until Friday, and then cancelled it altogether, recognizing that he didn't have the votes. TrumpCare is dead. ObamaCare will continue -- at least until HHS Secretary Price can strangle it with administrative changes. ObamaCare is not in fact "crashing" or "a disaster" as Trump keeps claiming, but it is vulnerable to sabotage from the top.

Still, the demise of TrumpCare is good news, especially if you're on Medicaid or get a subsidy to buy insurance on an ObamaCare exchange. Your risk of dying in the next few years just went down. (It's still too soon to draw that conclusion directly from ObamaCare data, but the RomneyCare prototype has been around longer, and is saving lives.)

There are any number of articles out there about the finger-pointing within the GOP. Trump, of course, never accepts blame for anything, which is one of his major failings as a leader (not to mention as a human being). Sometimes a leader has to volunteer for blame, even if s/he doesn't entirely deserve it, just to end the recriminations and get everybody moving towards the next goal. Great sports coaches do this all the time, but Trump is incapable of it.

If Republicans are looking for something to blame, though, I would suggest an attitude rather than a person. For years, they've been pushing the idea that compromise is just weakness and corruption, and their voters have picked it up. By now, it should be no surprise that they're not only unable to compromise with Democrats, but with each other.

What's striking in the larger context is how quickly Trump is disproving all the arguments his supporters made in the fall.

Almost everybody recognized back then that he wasn't a detail guy and couldn't measure up to Hillary on a wonk scale. But that wasn't supposed to matter, because he'd run the government like a business. (You don't expect the president of GM to design cars, or the chairman of Exxon-Mobil to be much use on a drilling rig.) Trump didn't have to know anything in particular, because he'd surround himself with the "best people", people who had mastered all the stuff he couldn't be bothered with.

That fell apart as soon as he started naming his cabinet and other top advisors. The headline there is foreign agent Mike Flynn as national security advisor, but up and down the ladder (with only an occasional exception) Trump's people are unqualified, inexperienced, and often quite ignorant of the segment of the government they're supposed to be running. (Fox News seriously made the case that Betsy DeVos' ignorance is a virtue. Apparently, you can reform a system better if you have no idea how it works.)

The other thing Trump supposedly had going was that he was the great deal-maker. He came from outside the usual partisan battle lines, so he could break through the gridlock and get things done. But now, in his first test, he embraced a bunch of stale Republican ideology, made no attempt whatsoever to get Democrats on board, and then couldn't even hold the Republicans together. It was a great example of The Art of No Deal.

His supporters also liked the idea that he "tells it like it is". Well, his reaction to his defeat on healthcare was to lie: "I never said repeal it and replace it within 64 days. I have a long time." Actually, what he said over and over was that he'd repeal and replace immediately. No one listening to his campaign speeches could have imagined that he intended to take "a long time".

Here's what we all should have learned from Trump's business career: He sells people a bill of goods, doesn't deliver, and then claims he never promised what he promised. (Ask someone from Trump U or from Atlantic City.) That pattern is holding true.

I can't claim I predicted this exact outcome, but I will take credit for being consistently skeptical of the Republican caucus' ability to find unity. Back on January 9 I wrote:

the replacement plan doesn’t even exist yet, and it’s not at all clear that Republicans can agree on one, even among themselves. They’ve had seven years to concoct a plan; it’s a mystery why the 8th or 9th year would be the charm.

One last-ditch concession to conservatives was to eliminate the "essential services" requirement that ObamaCare imposed on health insurance policies, many of which specifically affect women. Matt Yglesias annotates a photo originally tweeted by Vice President Pence: "The group proposing to cut breast cancer screening, maternity care, and contraceptive coverage."

Slate's Jordan Weissmann explains how that change would give insurance companies a work-around so that they could avoid covering people with pre-existing conditions, or anybody likely to get sick:

Without any minimum benefit requirements to get in the way, carriers will be free to offer bare-bones plans that don't cover the needs of your typical 50 or 64-year-old. Carriers wouldn't reject anybody outright—they would just make sure not to sell health plans that might accidentally appeal to an unprofitable customer. I'd expect to see carriers start offering a whole lot of "insurance" that covers one night in the hospital and some antibiotics with maybe a gym discount thrown in to lure Millennials.

Those are extremely perverse incentives that would warp the insurance market in some very ugly ways. Not only would sick people not be able to find the health plan they need, but relatively healthy and well-off customers looking for more comprehensive care like you'd typically get from an employer might have nothing to choose from but junk coverage designed to scare off the ill, or very expensive plans designed to compensate for the cost of caring for them. If you're a successful self-employed contractor with a nice roofing business, neither of those options probably sounds too appealing.

The idea that you can lower premiums by eliminating men's pregnancy coverage or women's prostate cancer coverage shows an appalling ignorance of how insurance works. Premiums have to be high enough to cover the risks of the entire pool, so if you haven't changed the number of pregnancies or prostate cancers the insurance company has to cover, you haven't changed the amount of money it needs to collect.

So now the administration moves on to tax reform, which it imagines will be simpler. I like this suggestion for the Democratic slogan: "No tax return, no tax reform." We should at least know how much Trump personally profits from his tax plan before Congress votes on it.

and the ever-growing Trump-Russia scandal

A week seems like a very long time in the Trump administration. Just last Monday, James Comey from the FBI and Mike Rogers from the NSA testified to the House Intelligence Committee. We learned that the FBI had been investigating illegal Russian interference in the 2016 election and the possible collusion of the Trump campaign since July. Also, neither agency had any evidence that could support Trump's claim that Obama had wiretapped him. The top Democrat on the committee, Adam Schiff, summarized the circumstantial evidence that leads him to conclude that a broad investigation is necessary. The next day, Schiff claimed that there was "more than circumstantial evidence", but said he could not spell it out in public.

We then saw that committee, which is usually a model of bipartisan cooperation, dissolve into partisan rancor. Wednesday, Republican Chairman Devin Nunes went to the White House to brief Trump about information that he has not shared with his committee, and seemed to give cover to Trump's surveillance claims (though actually, his information doesn't validate Trump).

Many Democrats, plus Republicans like John McCain, said that Nunes' actions cast doubt on the impartiality of the committee's investigation, and called for a special committee or independent commission to investigate the Trump/Russia issue.

Another development: It has been known for a long time that former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort lobbied for the pro-Putin former government of Ukraine. This week we found out that Manafort had a $10 million contract with a Russian billionaire closely tied to Putin, and had offered a plan to "greatly benefit the Putin Government".

Press Secretary Sean Spicer has been trying to distance Trump from Manafort, claiming that the man who was campaign chair for several months leading up to the Republican Convention "played a very limited role for a very limited amount of time". He has also described Trump's disgraced National Security Advisor Mike Flynn as a "volunteer" on the campaign. I'm not sure who this is supposed to fool.

and the Gorsuch hearings

In a normal administration, the pending Supreme Court nomination would be dominating national politics, but I found it hard to watch much of the Senate Judicial Committee's questioning of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch. It seems beside the main point, which ought to be: Why are we having this discussion at all? We're having it because Senate Republicans stole this seat from President Obama and delivered it to President I-lost-the-popular-vote.

The conversation I want to hear is how we're going to repair the damage this whole process has done to our democratic norms and to the credibility of our judiciary. Skipping that conversation to discuss Gorsuch's judicial philosophy or character or previous decisions just doesn't interest me.

I assume that Gorsuch (or someone indistinguishable from him) will eventually be approved somehow, either because Democrats allow it or because Republicans change the rules to break a filibuster. And at that point, whatever his personal virtues and vices might be, his presence will taint the Supreme Court and its decisions for decades.

but I don't know how serious a development the protests in Russia are

From the BBC:

Thousands of people joined rallies nationwide, calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev over corruption allegations.

At least 500 other protesters were detained in the capital and across the country.

Most of the marches were organised without official permission.

TV pictures showed demonstrators chanting "Down with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin!", "Russia without Putin!" and "Putin is a thief!".

Does it go somewhere from here, or get suppressed?

and you might also be interested in

Thursday, the GSA's Kevin Terry ruled in favor of his boss: The Trump Organization is not in violation of its lease of the Old Post Office in Washington, D.C., which it has turned into the Trump International Hotel. The lease says:

No member or delegate to Congress, or elected official of the Government of the United States or the Government of the District of Columbia, shall be admitted to any share or part of this Lease, or to any benefit that may arise therefrom

The LA Times reports:

According to the GSA, the Trump organization wrote an amendment saying that all revenues from the hotel will stay with the hotel — and not flow to the president’s trust company.

The watchdog group Democracy 21 comments:

Trump still remains the owner of the hotel. The hotel profits will accrue to Trump’s benefit as the owner of the hotel and thus “benefits” will accrue to Trump in violation of the provisions of the lease.

The GSA ruling is nonsense.

It's like claiming that Microsoft didn't benefit Bill Gates until it started paying dividends to stockholders in 2003. He benefited because the corporation he owned became more valuable, even if it wasn't paying out profits to him yet.

I tried to give the GSA the benefit of the doubt by reading its 8-page ruling, but all it does is flesh out the details of Democracy 21's description, listing the names of the various Trump-family trusts that own the hotel and giving the history of the back-and-forth between the Trump Organization and the GSA.

It also makes the case that the lease as a whole is working out well for the government, turning a wasting asset into a rent-producing property. Even if that is true, it's not relevant to the issue at hand. Even if it was a good idea for the government to let a private developer do something with the Old Post Office, that doesn't excuse violating the conditions on the lease, or explain why it's a good idea for the President's net worth to be tied to a government contract he himself ultimately oversees.

In short, this looks like corruption to me. It is disturbing to see the GSA get enmeshed in the Trump family's self-dealing.

The Toronto school system and Girl Guides of Canada have both started avoiding trips to the United States. Because of Trump's proposed travel ban and various other problems Canadians with the "wrong" racial or religious profile have experienced at the border, the Guides say "While the United States is a frequent destination for Guiding trips, the ability of all our members to equally enter this country is currently uncertain." And Toronto's Board of Education echoes: "We strongly believe that our students should not be placed into these situations of potentially being turned away at the border."

Last week I talked about the too-much-news phenomenon that causes all of us to miss stuff. One thing I missed last week was the Confederate flag protest outside the NCAA basketball tournament in Greenville, South Carolina: People who take pride in that symbol of racism and slavery flew the stars-and-bars from a parking garage that was visible to everyone who entered the arena.

I wrote about the flag in detail in 2015 after the Charleston church shooting drew attention to violent white supremacists who see the Confederate flag as their symbol. But I'll restate that article's thesis briefly: Sometimes symbols develop an objective meaning, independent of your desire to express something else with them.

Theoretically, a German-American like me might fly a swastika to express pride in German culture. You know: Goethe and Kant, or the scientific tradition of Leibniz and Heisenberg, or maybe the millions of brave German soldiers who weren't Nazis, but fought heroically under that flag to defend their homes and families. (I've never checked, but I'm sure there must have been Muders among them.) But whatever I might intend my swastika to mean, everyone who saw it would read it differently, as expressing pride in anti-Semitism and genocide. And because I'm rightfully ashamed of that part of my German heritage, I don't even consider flying a swastika.

So if you're a Southerner who is justifiably proud of the South's outstanding literary tradition, or the role Southerners played in founding the American republic, or country music, or cornbread and molasses, or the beauty of the Southern countryside -- that's wonderful; I would never want to take that away from you. But the Confederate flag says racism and slavery, and your wish that it say something else is futile. Whatever you intend when you display it, what it represents is shameful.

On the other hand, if you do take pride in the South's tradition of racism and slavery, carry on. You have freedom of speech, so why not say something despicable?

The White House denies reports that Trump gave Chancellor Angela Merkel a bill for the $374 billion he claims Germany "owes" for not meeting NATO guidelines on defense spending. The Times of London had attributed the story to anonymous sources in the German government.

But this is where the administration pays a price for its constant lying about not just serious matters, but trivialities like the inauguration crowd: Do the White House denials carry any weight? When even The Wall Street Journal is so fed up with Trump's lack of "respect for the truth" that it compares him to a drunk clinging to an empty gin bottle, and warns he might become "a fake president", couldn't anybody claim anything about the Trump administration now?

Countries all over Europe are producing humorous messages to Trump like this one from the Netherlands:

In fact, the whole world is joining in, and their videos are collected on one web site.

and let's close with something completely different

"Twenty Toes", a combination of juggling, contortionism, and simple graceful movement.