Monday, January 14, 2019

With Whom the Buck Stops

The buck stops here.

-- sign on President Truman's desk

The buck stops with everybody.

Donald J. Trump

This week's featured post is "My Wife's Expensive Cancer Drug". Because in America, medical stories are never just about medicine. They're also about money.

This week everybody was talking about the same stuff as last week

Namely: the partial government shutdown and the Wall that is the central bone of contention.

It's important not to lose the context of this battle:

  • In February, Trump's original budget asked for "$1.6 billion to support the construction of 65 miles of new border wall system."
  • On December 19, the Senate passed a continuing resolution with $1.6 billion for border security, but stipulated that it not be used to build walls in places that did not already have them. This was a bipartisan compromise that went through by voice vote, and Senate Republicans believed Trump would sign it.
  • Trump then demanded an additional $5.6 billion for the Wall, offered Democrats essentially nothing in exchange, and the government shut down on December 22.

The situation hasn't really changed in the 3+ weeks since. Trump's "negotiating" has amounted to repeating the same demands and lying to the public about the consequences of having or not having a southern border wall. (Not only are the problems Trump points to vastly overblown, but a wall would do very little to solve them.) Meanwhile, he torpedoes any effort by Republicans in Congress to come up with an offer the Democrats might consider.

The Democrats' position hasn't changed either: Most of the departments that have been shut down have nothing to do with border security or the Wall, so why not just re-open them? (If you're a soybean farmer in North Dakota waiting for a subsidy check to make up for the Chinese exports you lost in Trump's trade war, the Wall has nothing to do with you. So what sense does it make to leave the Department of Agriculture closed?) On the substance of the issue, Democrats believe the Wall is a sillywaste of money, not to mention being an environmental disaster and a symbolic declaration that brown people aren't welcome here.

The latest way Trump is upping the tension is by threatening to declare a national emergency and repurpose funds that Congress has already approved for dealing with real emergencies, like hurricane recovery in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico. Friday, he backed off a little, saying he wouldn't do that "so fast". To which MSNBC's Ari Melber tweeted:

If you can delay it, schedule it, or decide later whether or not it exists ... it’s probably not an emergency.

I said last weekthat I thought using an emergency declaration to circumvent Congress' constitutional powers would be an impeachable offense. Frank Bowman discusses that possibility on Slate. It's complicated.

Usually, the emergency declaration is presented as a way that Trump can allow the government to re-open without seeming to have "lost". (The conflict would then move to the courts, where Trump would probably lose.) But Friday White House officials were floating the idea that Trump might declare an emergency to build the wall and then keep the government closed.

Trump’s allies say the president is reluctant to hand Democrats a “win” by reopening the government after he’s invoked emergency powers. They claim that in such a scenario, Trump’s political opponents would avoid making a single concession and potentially score a major victory if the administration were to lose in federal courts as many legal experts predict.

“He could say, ‘Look, I’m going to get what I want and then I’m still going to screw you,’” a former White House official told POLITICO. “It’s making Democrats feel pain instead of declaring a national emergency, opening the government up, and making it so they don’t have to give anything,” the former official added.

Because it's never about what's best for the country. It's about winning and making your enemies feel pain.


Everybody's wondering how this ends, and the only possibility I can see is that Trump's support in the Senate crumbles. I can't guess how long it will take for that to happen.


An important side issue is why and how the major networks covered Trump's Oval Office speech on Wednesday. Nothing in Trump's speech constituted news, and much of it was false. So why did it deserve live coverage? Before the speech, James Fallows laid out the case against. Afterwards he tweeted: "The networks’ decision to air this presentation looks worse after-the-event than it did before."

There is precedent for networks refusing a president's request for airtime: They rejected Obama's request to speak to the nation about immigration in 2014. I find it worthwhile, if a bit depressing, to compare Trump's speech to Obama's. Not so long ago, we had a president we could respect, who talked to us as if he and we were all adults.


Trump claimed Thursday that he had never said Mexico would literally pay for the Wall. "Obviously I never said this and I never meant they're going to write out a check." But in fact he did. CNN has the documentation from his campaign web site. And in an April 2016 interview with Sean Hannity, Hannity challenged whether the Mexico-will-pay claim was literal. “They’re not going write us a check…” Hannity challenged. And Trump replied: “They’ll pay. They’ll pay, in one form or another. They may even write us a check by the time they see what happens. They may.”


The steel-slat design for the Wall is maybe a little less impenetrable than Trump lets on. This hole was made with an industrial saw.


furloughed worker at the National Gallery describes his first week of idleness.

and Trump's collusion with Russia

Friday, the New York Times broke this story:

In the days after President Trump fired James B. Comey as F.B.I. director, law enforcement officials became so concerned by the president’s behavior that they began investigating whether he had been working on behalf of Russia against American interests

Apparently, Robert Mueller inherited that counter-intelligence investigation when he got appointed special counsel.

Yesterday, The Washington Post added this detail:

President Trump has gone to extraordinary lengths to conceal details of his conversations with Russian President Vladi­mir Putin, including on at least one occasion taking possession of the notes of his own interpreter and instructing the linguist not to discuss what had transpired with other administration officials, current and former U.S. officials said.

... As a result, U.S. officials said there is no detailed record, even in classified files, of Trump’s face-to-face interactions with the Russian leader at five locations over the past two years. Such a gap would be unusual in any presidency, let alone one that Russia sought to install through what U.S. intelligence agencies have described as an unprecedented campaign of election interference.

... Senior Democratic lawmakers describe the cloak of secrecy surrounding Trump’s meetings with Putin as unprecedented and disturbing.

I can't think of any innocent explanation for this. Saturday, Fox News' Jeanine Pirro asked Trump whether he is or ever has been working for Russia, he replied "I think it’s the most insulting thing I’ve ever been asked." That, you may note, is not a denial.

Max Boot lists 18 reasons to think that Trump might be a Russian asset.

These revelations follow what we learned Tuesday: That when he was running Trump's campaign, Paul Manafort was sharing the campaign's polling data with Konstantin V. Kilimnik, who is widely believed to be a Russian intelligence agent.


Thursday, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin gave a classified briefing to Congress about his department's decision to relax sanctions against companies owned by Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California called the presentation “one of the worst classified briefings we’ve received from the Trump administration” and accused Mr. Mnuchin of “wasting the time” of Congress. She said Mr. Mnuchin was unresponsive to important questions.

... Representative Brad Sherman, another California Democrat, said he opposed easing the sanctions because it would only increase the wealth of Mr. Deripaska. He said Mr. Mnuchin had no response to that argument except that lawmakers should trust the administration.

and 2020

Julián Castro is running. Tulsi Gabbard is running. Kamala Harris is saying "I might", which sounds a lot like "I will" at this stage.


The media continues to cover Trump's insults as if they were news. Just today, the Washington Post made a headline of Trump's "trash heap" comment on Joe Biden, and of his "Wounded Knee" reference in a tweet about Elizabeth Warren. I can't find any other coverage of Biden or Warren in the WaPo today. Apparently, journalists learned nothing from 2016.

but there are some articles I'm trying to ignore

Here's one typical of the type, from Politico: "Exasperated Democrats try to rein in Ocasio-Cortez". Guess what? Not all Democrats are as liberal with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and the ones who don't agree with her wish she'd get less attention. She got her seat by beating an incumbent Democrat in a primary, and she thinks other progressives should try to do the same thing, particular if (like her) they come from a district that is more liberal than the Democrat representing it. Democrats who aren't as liberal as their districts hope she doesn't support their challengers.

None of that should be surprising, and it's hard for me to see why it's newsworthy. But I think we're going to see a lot of articles like that, for a simple reason: Conflict is easier to cover than governing. Reporters at places like Politico would rather write Democrats-are-fighting-each-other stories than Democrats-are-working-on-legislation stories.

Politico reporters and their ilk are like the village gossip, who gets attention by asking "Did you hear what so-and-so said about you? What do you think about that?" and then taking your response back to so-and-so and doing the same thing. That kind of reporting doesn't require the reporter to learn anything about climate change or immigration or any other substantive issue. The resulting article doesn't have to make government or the legislative process interesting to its readers.

Instead, political reporters get to write about conflict and manipulate their readers' outrage. If you don't like AOC, you read the Politico article and think "Who does she think she is?" If you do, it's "Why can't jealous Democrats do their own jobs and get off her back?" Meanwhile, you've learned nothing about the country's problems or how Democrats in Congress are trying to address them. Later, reporters will talk to the same citizens they have failed to inform, and write about how people don't think Democrats are doing anything.

I think we should ignore them.

and you also might be interested in ...

Christians never stop trying to use tax money to promote their religion. In Florida and North Dakota, the legislature is considering bills to force school districts to offer courses on the Bible. In Kentucky, such a bill has already passed, but the curriculum hasn't been implemented yet.

This is yet another example of the hypocrisy in the conservative value of "local control". Why can't communities decide for themselves whether or not to offer such courses?

Constitutionally, the line is pretty clear for people who want to understand it: It's legal to teach about religionin public schools, but illegal to teach religion. The difference is simple. If the teacher says, "Most Christians believe that Jesus rose from the dead", that's OK. If the teacher says "Jesus rose from the dead", that's not OK.

and let's close with something prescient

Life imitates art:

“Trackdown” aired on CBS between 1957 and 1959 and took place in Texas following the Civil War. The series followed Texas Ranger Hoby Gilman, played by Robert Culp, on his adventures protecting the people of the Lone Star State. The 30th episode of the show, titled “The End of The World,” premiered on May 9, 1958, and saw a con man named Walter Trump, played by Lawrence Dobkin, attempt to scam the entire town.

The fictional Trump warned the Texans that apocalyptic meteors would strike the town at midnight, but he could protect everyone. ... His solution was to build a wall made of magical metal that would repel the meteors and keep everyone safe.

The full episode is on YouTube.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Against the Wall

He's changed his demand from time to time and he's changed the amount of money he's asking for dramatically from 2 billion to 5 billion to 11 billion to 25 billion even to 70 billion dollars. And when we asked for specifics, how are you going to spend this money? What are you going to do with it? He basically says we'll shut down the government till you agree on it.

- Senator Dick Durbin

This week's featured post is "Are powerful women likable?"

This week everybody was talking about the new Congress

The Congress that we elected in November took office on Thursday. This Congress isn't just philosophically different from the previous one, it's visually different. Here, the gavel passes from a blue suit to a red dress.

And Mike Pence swears in new Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema.

At her request, she is being sworn on a law book that contains the Constitution, rather than on a religious text. (President John Quincy Adams did the same thing in 1825.) She's the first openly bisexual member of the Senate, and she's exercising her right to bare arms. Meanwhile, Rashida Tlaib, who (along with Ilhan Omar) is the first Muslim women to enter Congress, was sworn in on Thomas Jefferson's Quran, provoking sputtering rage from Christian bigots.

Who can forget this photo of the Republican interns of the last Congress.

There is a woman of color back there somewhere, but finding her is a where's-Waldo exercise. Meanwhile, here's just a part of the class photo for the House's entering freshman members this year. Not interns, members.

The new Congress makes the country's political situation clear at a glance: There is one party that wants to preserve the white Christian patriarchy, and another party for everybody else. The Everybody Else Party just came to power in the House.


In addition to voting to reopen the government, House Democrats introduced HR 1, an anti-corruption bill. Its three planks address campaign finance (including a 6-to-1 government matching for small donations to candidates who agree not to take large donations and a requirement that SuperPACS disclose their donors), government ethics (including requiring presidential candidates to disclose their last ten years of tax returns), and voting rights (opt-out voter registration, election day becomes a holiday, plus anti-gerrymandering, and anti-voter suppression measures).

For contrast, think about just how badly Trump has done with his promise to "drain the swamp": The Secretary of Defense is from Boeing. The Treasury Secretary is from Goldman Sachs. The Attorney General ran a dark-money operation. The Interior Secretary is an oil lobbyist. The Commerce Secretary "could rank among the biggest grifters in American history". The Labor Secretary arranged a sweetheart plea deal to keep a rich child predator out of jail. The HHS Secretary is from Eli Lilly. The HUD Secretary spent lavishly on his office furniture and hasn't done much else. The Education Secretary is a champion of for-profit colleges and has invested in student-debt collection companies. The EPA Director is a coal lobbyist.


BTW, Rashida Tlaib also made headlines by telling a group of Move On supporters that "Bullies don't win" because "we're going to impeach the motherfucker."

Conservatives were apoplectic about this violation of political decorum, to which I reply, "Oh, now you have standards."

But my my policy on this blog is that until Robert Mueller provides clear evidence that Trump had carnal relations with his mother, calling him a motherfucker is premature. I will restrain myself.

and the shutdown and the Wall

On its first day, the House passed bills to fund the government through the end of the fiscal year, except for the Department of Homeland Security, which got a continuing resolution through Feb. 8, with no funding for Trump's Wall. The funding is on the same terms that the Senate passed by acclamation before Christmas, but now Mitch McConnell is refusing to bring it up for a vote.

What this makes clear is that, under McConnell and Trump, the Senate is no longer an independent institution. The Republican majority is under Trump's thumb, so as long as he's not happy, the Senate won't pass anything. McConnell isn't even involved in trying to negotiate a solution.

For his part, Trump continues to lie about the Wall and why Democrats might oppose it. No, it's not because we want open borders and it's not because we want to deny him a "win". It's because the Wall is a stupid idea, as congressmen who have represented border areas know. Democrat Beto O'Rourke tweeted this video. Republican Rep. Will Hurd said, "Building a 30 foot high concrete structure from sea to shining sea is the most expensive and least effective way to do border security." He also described the $5 billion Trump wants for the Wall as "a random number".

A 2000-mile border wall didn't arise in border-security circles, it was just a line that made Trump's crowds cheer. It's still not much more than that, which is why Trump can change the height or material from one tweet to the next. Nobody would ever appropriate billions for "a dam" or "a highway" without any more detail than that, but taxpayers are supposed to pony up $5.6 billion as a downpayment on "a wall" whose future costs are unknowable.

In late December, Chief of Staff John Kelly said:

The president still says ‘wall’ — oftentimes, frankly, he’ll say ‘barrier’ or ‘fencing.’ Now he’s tended toward steel slats. But we left a solid concrete wall early on in the administration when we asked people what they needed and where they needed it.

In other words, they discovered that real border-security people had no use for the make-crowds-cheer idea. Lindsey Graham has described the Wall as "a metaphor for border security". Does that sound like a plan to you? Would you vote to spend billions on a bridge, knowing that it might just be "a metaphor for crossing water"?


BTW, with so few details about how the wall money would be spent, what assurance do we have that a chunk of it won't wind up in Trump's pocket?


Many pundits are predicting that a Wall-for-DACA deal is what will end the shutdown. But Trump turned such a deal last year and isn't offering it now.

Trump doesn't appear to be offering Democrats much of anything, preferring to pile on threats. (Mainly, he's offering to mitigate some of the suffering he has caused at the border, as if partially undoing a negative were a positive.) Recently he's been claiming he can declare a national emergency and build the wall without congressional appropriations. If he tries, that actually would be a national emergency: a tyrannical abuse of power.

Last June, I wrote down my thinking about impeachment, precisely to avoid the temptation to reshape my interpretation of "impeachable offense" to match whatever Trump did or Mueller found. My fourth justification for impeachment was "Congress has no other way to protect itself or the judiciary from presidential encroachment." That would be the case here: If Trump tries to build his wall without Congress, in my mind that would be an impeachable offense.

I still don't see how this shutdown ends, unless Republicans in the Senate start defecting. That could take months, during which people will get evicted from government-subsidized housing, unpaid TSA employees will stop showing up to work, and the IRS will stop issuing tax refunds.

and Mitt Romney

The commentariat got very excited by Mitt Romney's op-ed in Wednesday's Washington Post. Just before entering the Senate, Mitt actually criticized President Trump. He followed up with an interview with CNN's Jake Tapper.

To a great degree, a presidency shapes the public character of the nation. A president should unite us and inspire us to follow “our better angels.” A president should demonstrate the essential qualities of honesty and integrity, and elevate the national discourse with comity and mutual respect. As a nation, we have been blessed with presidents who have called on the greatness of the American spirit. With the nation so divided, resentful and angry, presidential leadership in qualities of character is indispensable. And it is in this province where the incumbent’s shortfall has been most glaring.

Well, good for him, but I'm not too excited yet. It's good to know that all Republican criticism of Trump in the Senate didn't end when Bob Corker and Jeff Flake left. But while they might occasionally speak out, Corker and Flake seldom did much to get in Trump's way. Will Romney? It's not clear.

If the Mueller Report ends up containing as much evidence of impeachable offenses as I suspect it will, most likely Trump will act out somehow and we'll find ourselves in a constitutional crisis. The question then will be whether Republicans in Congress stand up the way that Barry Goldwater stood up to President Nixon in 1974. Does Romney have that in him? History will want to know.

but you should pay attention to ...

In The Atlantic, Elizabeth Goitein examines the various emergency powers Congress has granted the President over the years, and how a president with authoritarian tendencies might take advantage of them. It's a scary list of stuff, and the article ends with a fantasy of how Trump could use emergency powers to hang on to the presidency. Ultimately, the only defense against this kind of action is if key actors up and down the line refuse to cooperate.

and you also might be interested in ...

Climate change can be mapped in a variety of ways. The tropical zone is advancing 30 miles a decade. The boundary between the humid Eastern U.S. and the dry Western U.S. has shifted 140 miles to the east since 1980. Plant hardiness zones in the U.S. are moving north at more than a mile a year.


The Guardian has a worthwhile article on exercise. The basic problem is that humans evolved to have active lives, but in modern society most of us have inactive lives. Sit-all-day-and-then-go-to-the-gym is better than just sitting all day, but it's not a perfect fix either.

In my conversation with [longevity researcher Gianni] Pes, he repeatedly stressed that while diet and environment are important components of longevity, being sedentary is the enemy, and sustained, low-level activity is the key that research by him and others has uncovered: not the intense kinds of activity we tend to associate with exercise, but energy expended throughout the day. The supercentenarians [110-year-olds] he has worked with all walked several miles each day throughout their working lives. They never spent much time, if any, seated at desks.

And it's not just the sitting:

He discovered one group of women who had spent their working lives seated, but nonetheless reached a great age. They had been working treadles (pedal-powered sewing machines), which meant they had regularly burned sufficient calories to derive the longevity benefits of remaining active.

What we really need is to make our daily lives active.

What is needed are the kinds of strategies that would make exercise unnecessary. Urban planning that better addresses the outdoor experience and encourages movement would be a key part of this change. But on an individual level, we can think about returning a little of the friction that technology has so subtly smoothed out for us, and make it easy to get things done. Exercise becomes physical activity when it is part of your daily life.

and let's close with something incongruous

Sadly, video of Claire Foy's performance of "Rapper's Delight" on Jimmy Fallon's show is no longer available. But Sandra Bullock's version from 2013 is still up.

Monday, December 31, 2018

The Yearly Sift 2018

You can't serve both Trump and America

- Eliot Cohen

The tradition on this blog (lapsed last year when both Christmas and New Years were Mondays and I decided not to post) is to do an annual lookback near New Years. The Yearly Sift picks out themes that have played out through the year, collects links to some noteworthy posts, and looks at the blog's popularity and readership.

And I also do an abbreviated weekly summary, because the news never stops.

The story that dwarfed all others this year

For the last two years we've had a president who fundamentally does not believe in democracy, and who has no loyalty to either the Constitution or the traditions of American governance that have built up around it. That hasn't happened in a long, long time, or maybe ever. (You can argue about Nixon or maybe Jackson, but no one else comes close.)

So this has been a time of unique danger to the American Republic. And although we've been taking some damage, we've also been hanging on.

In my view, the main thing that has restrained Trump so far has been his need to maintain Republican support in Congress. And the main thing that has restrained Republicans in Congress has been fear of what might happen in the midterm elections. If, after everything we've seen these last two years, 2018 had gone in their favor, I think Trump would be off to the races. Mueller would be fired, laws on the books would be more openly violated, and courts that tried to get in the way could be defied.

We dodged that bullet. Democracy is far from out of the woods -- it won't be until Trump is safely out of office, and maybe not even then -- but we're still on a path that has a hope of emerging from the woods. I make that case in more detail in the featured post "The Story that Really Mattered This Year".

Additional comments on 2018

Little by little, the media has been figuring out how to deal with Trump's lying, which is a different thing entirely than the spinning of previous administrations of either party. Greg Sargent explains:

The key point here is that Trump is not engaged in conventional lying. He’s engaged in spreading disinformation.

Previous administrations would emphasize favorable facts and cast them in the best possible light, even if less favorable facts were more relevant and a less rosy frame made more sense. Trump, on the other hand, repeats blatantly false statements, in hopes of wearing down the fact-checkers. Eventually you get tired of debunking what he says about voter fraud or immigrant crime or the Wall, and he keeps saying it.

At the beginning of the Trump administration, the media arguably helped his disinformation campaigns. Trump would make an outrageous claim, and the headlines would repeat it: "Trump claims X" or "Trump accuses X of Y" or something similar. Even if the text of the article explained that the charge was baseless, the damage was done; it would stick in people's minds that X had something to do with Y.

It's interesting now, though, to google "Trump" and the phrase "without evidence". Just recently you'd have gotten President Trump Claims Without Evidence That Most Federal Employees Impacted by Shutdown Are Democrats, Trump claims without evidence that new migrant caravan is forming, and Trump, without evidence, blasts social media companies over his followers. Similar phrases will get you similar results: Trump rages at Twitter with baseless claim that it is tampering with his followers because of political bias. More and more, news outlets are leading with the fact that Trump is just making stuff up.


We saw how last year's tax cut played out. At the time, the Republican argument was that it would stimulate growth across the economy, create good-paying jobs, and eventually pay for itself. The Democratic argument (and mine) was that it would raise the deficit, the increase in growth would simply be the ordinary pop that comes with a big deficit, and most of the money would go to stockholders with very little for workers.

The data is not totally clear yet, but the Democratic predictions are looking much stronger.

The State of the Sift

I think about the influence of the Sift in two ways: Its breadth is the number of people who read a Sift post sometime during the year, whether the name of "The Weekly Sift" sticks in their heads or not. Its depth is the number of regular readers, especially the ones who read it faithfully every week.

Neither number is something I can directly measure, but some of the things I can measure provide some indications. For the last several years, those arrows have pointed in opposite directions: Measures of breadth are down and measures of depth are up.

Breadth measures include the number of hits the most popular posts get, and the total number of hits at weeklysift.com. Those measures peaked in 2014-2015. The two most popular Sift posts (together amounting to just under 1 million of the 2.5 million hits the blog has gotten since I moved it to weeklysift.com in 2011) are 2014's "Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party" (545K) and 2012's "The Distress of the Privileged" (432K). By contrast, the most popular new posts in 2018 were "Speaking in Code: Two phrases that no longer mean what they used to" and "The Media isn't 'Polarized', it has a Right-Wing Cancer", both of which got a little over 2.8K hits. In fact, "Not a Tea Party" continued to leave all new posts in the dust, getting 17.6K hits in 2018.

Total hits at weeklysift.com peaked at 782K in 2015 and have been down every year since: 352K in 2016, 248K in 2017, and 198K with a day to go in 2018. (If I have a good day, it could get over 200K.)

Those numbers make it look like the blog is in a death spiral, but the depth numbers point in the other direction. The number of people following the Sift through WordPress (most of whom read posts via email and don't show up in the weeklysift.com figures) is up from 3820 at the end of 2015 to 5304 now. I assume there are other people who read the blog regularly via internet subscription services I don't track. The Sift's Facebook page has 978 followers.

The weekly summaries, I think, are read mainly by my regular readers, and their hit totals have been relatively stable, somewhere in the 300-400 range every week. Hits on the home page are a mixed measure of breadth and depth: They peaked at 100K in 2015 and 101K in 2016, then fell to 82K in 2017 and 71K in 2018. (All of those numbers are much higher than the 44K of 2014.)

From what I've read about other web sites (including nationally known ones like TPM), I've come to believe that this is a general phenomenon that doesn't have much to do with me personally: The age of the non-commercial small blog that launches viral posts is over, killed off by algorithmic changes at the big social media platforms like Facebook. It is much harder for a post to go viral than it was in 2015. Facebook et al don't want to popularize your blog for free; they want you to buy advertising. (I haven't done that. Buying advertising would inevitably lead to selling advertising, and I don't want to go there.)

In some ways, all of these numbers are ephemeral. When someone clicks on a viral post, there's no way to know whether they actually read it. Similarly, I'm sure that some number of the people who "follow" the Sift are watching posts pile up in their Inbox and wishing they had the time to read them. The one measure whose meaning is clear is the number of comments, which is down, but not nearly as much as the hit numbers: They peaked at 1792 in 2016 and are down to 987 in 2018. (That stands to reason; fewer readers mean fewer comments, but regular readers are more likely to comment.)

As I've said in previous years, I'm not inclined to chase popularity by writing clickbait. Instead, my goal every week is to serve my regular readers by screening out the large quantity of meaningless hype in the news, and using the time gained by that to go a little deeper into the underlying themes and patterns. If they share my posts and their friends like them and so on, that's great. But riling people up in ways that would produce a lot of clicks and comments runs exactly opposite to the mission of the blog. It was exciting to have posts that reached hundreds of thousands, but that's not why I keep doing this.

The Sifted Books of 2018

This year I wrote about of Cory Doctorow's Walkaway, Jim Comey's A Higher Loyalty, Joan Williams' White Working Class, Timothy Snyder's The Road to Unfreedom, Ganesh Sitaraman's The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution, How Democracies Die by Stephen Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, This is an Uprising by Mark and Paul Engler, and Network Propaganda by Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, and Hal Roberts.

Other people's year-end reviews

CBS does a pretty thorough month-by-month account of the top stories. The Atlantic's Adam Harris sees 2018 as "The Year the Gun Conversation Changed", mainly because the articulate professional-class students from Parkland refused to shuffle off the stage.

The year in pictures: CNN, Washington Post, New York Times , and a five-minute video summary from Vox

https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=3&v=4tJJnC26_uw

But this week everybody was talking about ...

The government has been shut down for more than a week, with no end in sight. (Rep. Louie Gohmert thinks it should stay shut down until either Congress funds a wall or "Hell freezes over".) Trump continues to paint himself into a corner about the Wall, which Democrats don't want to give him.

Mike Mulvaney has implied Trump will take less than the $5 billion that he demanded after the Senate had reached a bipartisan compromise (that Pence had told them Trump would sign). Republicans are selling this as a compromise, but it's not. Suppose I walk up to you and say, "Give me $100" and you say no. If I respond with, "OK, give me $50", that's not a compromise. An actual compromise proposal would include Trump offering Democrats something they want in exchange for funding his Wall. (Opening the government is also not a concession; Trump would just be undoing damage he caused.) So far, Trump has offered nothing in exchange for what he wants.

Meanwhile, the Coast Guard will stop paying people as of today. What could go wrong?

My sense is that Trump or Senate Republicans won't budge until their base starts seeing that government does important things other than fight wars. Until then, the Gohmerts sound really strong talking about Hell freezing over.


Elizabeth Warren is in the race for 2020. Of all the candidates, she is the one that raises the most hope and fear in me. I think she'd be the best president, because she is the one who best understands what working-class life is really like. But I also worry that we'll spend two years dealing with the Pocahontas smear rather than talking about what's important.


Trump visited troops in Iraq for a few hours the day after Christmas, his first visit to troops stationed in a combat zone.

One complaint that Fox News commentators often make is that in liberal eyes, Trump literally cannot do anything right, so he gets criticized for things that other presidents would be cheered for. (Last week, for example, I criticized Trump for the way he implemented a policy -- disengaging from Syria and Afghanistan -- that I agree with in the abstract. How horribly biased of me.)

The Iraq trip illustrates the reason for that apparent "bias" against Trump: He literally cannot do anything right, even comparatively simple stuff from bringing to our troops abroad the message that people at home appreciate what they're doing to talking to a 7-year-old about Christmas. The Chicago Tribune's Steve Chapman sums up:

Each day is a chance for Trump to expose his incompetence at every element of his job. Each day, he seizes the opportunity.

In Iraq, Trump held what was essentially a partisan political rally, complaining about the Democrats, signing MAGA hats, and lying about how much he had done for the troops. Previous presidents of both parties have avoided this kind of politicking, because (1) the military is supposed to be apolitical, and (2) when the President addresses troops abroad, he is supposed to represent all of the American people, not just the ones who support him.

And to top things off, he tweeted out a photo of himself with Navy Seals, whose identities are supposed to be secret.

As I have explained before, Trump doesn't grasp that President is a role he fills, one that includes responsibilities as well as powers. Instead, he imagines that he is the President, and that all the powers and prerogatives of the role have become his personal powers and prerogatives. Combined with that, he is the Dunning-Kruger Effect personified: He doesn't know or understand much of anything, but thinks he's a "very stable genius". This makes him unique (and uniquely dangerous) among the presidents of my lifetime.


Federal court ruling: It's unconstitutional to hold people for years without a bail hearing, even if they came into the country illegally.


On average, Republican sabotage of ObamaCare has raised premiums $580 per policy per year. The sabotage varies by state, with Massachusetts and New Jersey avoiding it entirely and correspondingly larger premiums falling on Trump-supporting states.


Foreign Policy gives the background of the Trump/Russia connection. After his Atlantic City casinos failed, no banks would lend Trump money, and he was all but finished as a real estate mogul, But then

Trump eventually made a comeback, and according to several sources with knowledge of Trump’s business, foreign money played a large role in reviving his fortunes, in particular investment by wealthy people from Russia and the former Soviet republics. ... By the time he ran for president, Trump had been enmeshed in this mysterious overseas flow of capital—which various investigators believe could have included money launderers from Russia and former Soviet republics who bought up dozens of his condos—for a decade and a half.

and let's close with something humorous

Among the looks back at 2018 was one by Dave Barry.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Baby Driver

When toddlers play, it’s good to have a grownup in the room to supervise. But if a toddler is driving a car, it does no good to have a grownup in the passenger seat. Pretending that it’s somehow okay is the least grownup reaction possible.
This week's featured posts are "Is this any way to run a superpower?" and "Fantasy problems don't have realistic solutions".

This week everybody was talking about pulling US troops out of Syria


One of the featured posts covers the Syria/Afghanistan situation in more detail. Here I want to talk about the American politics of it.

Defense Secretary James Mattis' resignation-in-protest from the Trump cabinet was a nearly unique event in US history. Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper described Secretary Mattis' resignation letter as "compelling both for what it said, and for what it didn't say". Asked by CNN's Don Lemon to elaborate on what wasn't in the letter, Clapper explained:
Typically in a letter like this, there is an expression of what an honor it has been to serve in this administration and under your leadership, or words to that effect. That's typically what you put in a resignation letter. That's what I put in mine when I resigned in the last administration. That wasn't there.
Instead, Mattis' letter begins with:
I have been privileged to serve as our country's 26th Secretary of Defense which has allowed me to serve alongside our men and women of the Department in defense of our citizens and our ideals.
ends with
I very much appreciate this opportunity to serve the nation and our men and women in uniform.
and spares not a single word to praise Trump or his administration.
Trump, of course, had to shoot back.
We are substantially subsidizing the Militaries of many VERY rich countries all over the world, while at the same time these countries take total advantage of the U.S., and our TAXPAYERS, on Trade. General Mattis did not see this as a problem. I DO, and it is being fixed!
So now Trump has booted Mattis sooner than his resignation would have become effective. The new acting SecDef is Patrick Shanahan, who has been Deputy SecDef for over a year. He's a former Boeing executive whose only previous experience was in making and selling weapons, not fighting wars or managing alliances.

This is another area where our expectations of Trump continue to diminish. At first, he was supposed to have a unique ability to get "the best people" to enter government service. Then, we realized that Trump himself was impulsive and ignorant, and a lot of the other people his administration were too, but at least there would be a few "adults in the room" to keep him from doing anything too crazy. Now Mattis and Kelly, the last of the so-called adults, are leaving. But Trump remains in office.

Some are speculating that this will be a turning point in Republican support for Trump. But I've heard that prediction before. The capacity of elected officials like Lindsey Graham or Mitch McConnell to tut-tut about Trump one day and then protect him from any accountability the next seems limitless.

and the government shutdown and the Wall

About a quarter of the federal government shut down at midnight on Saturday morning. I'm guessing this is going to be a very long shutdown, for the following reason: The whole point of a shutdown is to shock the public, because each side is counting on the public to unleash its outrage on the other. As soon as it's clear which way the public is trending, the disfavored side usually surrenders.

By now, though, a shutdown just isn't shocking any more. We've all seen too many of them. So in order to get the same effect, this one is going to have to last long enough to seem unique. I predict it will last at least until Nancy Pelosi becomes Speaker, and maybe well past that.

Let's be clear how we got to a shutdown: Congress had worked out a deal, which the Senate passed by voice vote because Trump had agreed to it.
Vice President Mike Pence told GOP senators earlier this week Trump would sign the Senate’s stopgap with the $1.3 billion for the fencing — that’s why many Republican senators headed home after the chamber finished its pre-holiday business.
Then various voices on Fox News and talk radio got upset, so Trump reneged and demanded funding for the Wall.  So here we are.

Whether you like the idea of a wall or not -- I think it's stupid, as I explain in one of the featured posts -- if Trump was going to insist on funding for the wall, he should have made that part of his negotiations all along. Whatever compromise the two sides eventually agree to could have been worked out with days to spare.

If Trump is going to stand by his demand for funding the Wall, then there's only one way this can resolve: After a deal was struck, he added a new demand. So he's going to have to give up something in exchange. So far, I haven't heard what that might be.

In The Art of the Deal, walking away at the last minute is a tactic for getting concessions. Trump's advice in that book focuses on getting the biggest possible advantage in a single deal, and doesn't have much to say about establishing trusting relationships that can benefit both parties over the long run. He's like the car salesman who "wins" by overcharging you for a lemon that one time, but then you and your friends never deal with him again. He's not at all like the guy who sells you a car every few years and then eventually sells cars to your kids.

That's why Trump has been so bad at negotiating with Congress or with other countries. Those are ongoing relationships, not one-time deals where you walk away laughing as soon as the contracts are signed.

I know it should never be shocking to notice that Trump has lied, but his abuse of Ronald Reagan's memory is particularly striking.
Even President Ronald Reagan tried for 8 years to build a Border Wall, or Fence, and was unable to do so. Others also have tried. We will get it done, one way or the other!
Here's what Reagan actually said:
Rather than talking about putting up a fence, why don’t we work out some recognition of our mutual problems, make it possible for them to come here legally with a work permit. And then while they’re working and earning here, they pay taxes here. And when they want to go back, they can go back.

and John Roberts' rebuff to the administration's asylum policy

When a court first blocked the new policy of insisting that asylum seekers had to apply at a designated border entry point, Trump denounced it as the work of an "Obama judge", as if it were Obama's presidency that should be considered illegitimate.

Now the Supreme Court has backed up that ruling. The 5-4 majority included Chief Justice John Roberts, as well as Ruth Bader Ginsberg voting from her hospital bed.
As the "Obama judge" noted in his ruling, the law could not be more clear.
Congress has clearly commanded in the [Immigration and Naturalization Act] that any alien who arrives in the United States, irrespective of that alien’s status, may apply for asylum – “whether or not at a designated port of arrival.”
So it's the four most conservative judges (including Brett Kavanaugh) who have some explaining to do. Why are they substituting their own political views for the law?

The emoluments lawsuit has hit a snag: The case was set to go into the discovery phase, which would allow Democratic state attorney generals to subpoena records from The Trump Organization. But an appeals court has halted proceedings while it reviews the judge's rulings that allowed the case to proceed. It's not dead, but we'll see.

So far, I have not heard any serious argument that Trump is not violating the Constitution. He obviously is. The issue is more whether the courts have the authority to stop him and who has the legal standing to ask them to.

and you also might be interested in ...

Trump's obstruction of justice continues. CNN reports that Trump has been asking Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker "why more wasn't being done to control prosecutors in New York" who brought charges against Michael Cohen and have implied that Trump also committed crimes.

It's important not to lose sight of how unusual this is. Presidents are not supposed to talk to the attorney general at all about specific cases. The idea that Trump is pressuring Whitaker to intervene in a case where he is directly involved is way off the scale for any post-Watergate administration of either party.

If your Christmas or year-end process involves giving money to charity, Vox has some advice: Your money goes farther in poor countries. Public health programs can save a lot of lives. And nobody understands the needs of poor people in Uganda better than poor people in Uganda, so why not send money directly to them?

Congrats to Harvard for netting Parkland survivor and anti-NRA activist David Hogg for its freshman class. Hogg plans to major in political science.

Trump's shamelessness about being caught in a lie has prompted the Washington Post's fact-checkers to create a new category: the Bottomless Pinocchio, for false claims that keep getting repeated no matter how often they're debunked.
The bar for the Bottomless Pinocchio is high: The claims must have received three or four Pinocchios from The Fact Checker, and they must have been repeated at least 20 times. Twenty is a sufficiently robust number that there can be no question the politician is aware that his or her facts are wrong.
So far 15 Bottomless Pinocchios have been awarded, all to Trump. The man is in a class by himself.

and let's close with some Christmasy things

Science fiction writer John Scalzi managed to score an interview with one seriously hard-working individual: Santa's lawyer. Delivering packages across international borders, entering people's homes in the dead of night, keeping files on who's been naughty or nice, managing a workforce of magical creatures ... there are a ton of legal issues here. Much thought has to go into keeping Santa solvent and free.

And if you're looking for some good Christmas Eve listening, let me recommend something that never turns up on Muzak at the mall: Stan Freberg's "Green Chri$tma$".

Monday, December 17, 2018

Looking Behind the Lies

A lie isn’t always a crime, but it is always an indication that the person telling it has something they want to conceal.
This week's featured post is "Trials of Individual-1: a scorecard".

This week everybody was talking about the President's legal problems

A list of the various investigations and where they stand is in the featured post. Also of note has been the shifting defenses  offered by Trump and his supporters, which in nearly every case evolve according to this general pattern:
  1. Nothing happened.
  2. Whatever happened, Trump didn't know about it.
  3. It wasn't a crime.
  4. He had no way to know it was a crime.
  5. It's not a serious crime.
When one step turns out not to be true, they move on to the next. We've gone through the whole list with the pay-offs to Stormy Daniels and Karen MacDougal to hide from voters the fact that Trump cheated on Melania with them. In particular, Orrin Hatch and Kevin McCarthy have made it to Step 5. (Though Hatch later tried to walk it back, retreating to the position that "I don’t believe the President broke the law.")

Hatch:
I don't think he was involved in crimes, but even then, you know, you can make anything a crime under the current laws if you want to, you can blow it way out of proportion, you can do a lot of things.
McCarthy:
If [Democratic Congressman Adam] Schiff is taking this beyond to go forward and say that there's an impeachable offense because of a campaign finance problem, there's a lot of members in Congress who would have to leave.
We can only wonder what step 6 will be, because there's no reason to think that the current explanations are any more true than the previous ones.

The progression hasn't yet played out all the way with regard to Russian collusion, but think about the steps we have already seen:
  1. "It's all fake news." Trump had "nothing to do with Russia". The campaign didn't talk to Russians and Trump wasn't doing business deals with them.
  2. Trump's people (at least 14 of them, according to the Washington Post) were talking to Russians, but not about influencing the election. And Trump was trying to do a major business deal in Russia, but it didn't happen, it was "very legal & very cool", and "everybody knew about" it (in spite of Trump's public denials in Step 1).
  3. Donald Trump Jr. arranged a meeting with Russians to talk about getting "dirt on Hilary Clinton" as "part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump", and Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner also attended, but nothing came of it. WikiLeaks started releasing hacked DNC emails shortly thereafter, but the Trump campaign knew nothing about that. (Ignore whatever happened between WikiLeaks and Roger Stone.)
Again, there's no reason to believe it stops here, or that it will stop with Step 5. To me it's pretty obvious where this could go: "Sure, he committed treason, but it wasn't TREASON treason."
Trump supporters need to ask themselves if they're willing to stick with him that far down the slippery slope. (For that matter, did you ever imagine you'd be defending what you're defending now?) And if not, at what point short of that are they planning to get off?

and ObamaCare

A judge in Texas ruled the entire Affordable Care Act unconstitutional. This appears to me to be exactly the kind of activist-judge-legislating-from-the-bench that conservatives always accuse liberals of.

It's worthwhile to look back at an 2012 article by Salon's Andrew Koppelman "Origins of a healthcare lie". The lie in this case is that the individual insurance mandate is somehow unconstitutional.
The constitutional limits that the [Affordable Care Act] supposedly disregarded could not have been anticipated because they did not exist while the bill was being written. They were invented only in the fall of 2009, quite late in the legislative process.
For now, the ruling will have no effect as the appeal works its way up the chain of courts. It should make it to the Supreme Court by next year, where it ought to be reversed. As the NYT's Cristian Farias notes "all five justices who, in 2012, already determined that the Affordable Care Act was constitutional will still be there." Please petition the deity of your choice that nothing happens to any of them.

Politically, I think this is a disaster for Republicans, one that they have made for themselves. It means that the 2020 campaign will begin (and possibly end) with millions of people facing either the loss of their health insurance or being shunted off into plans that won't cover what they need. Meanwhile, neither Republicans in Congress nor the administration will have produced a health plan of their own, because "get rid of ObamaCare" is the only idea they've been able to agree on. (A large number of Republicans hold a position they can't say out loud: People should only get the health care they can afford. If you're not rich and you get something that requires an expensive treatment, too bad for you.) Any actual plan will expose the lie in the various contradictory promises Trump has made.

One anchor GOP candidates carried in 2018 was the need to claim that they supported the popular parts of ObamaCare (like coverage of pre-existing conditions) without being able to point to any viable plan that preserved those features of the law. That conservative judge has guaranteed that they'll continue carrying that anchor for a while longer.

but I've been ignoring other countries lately

It's hard for the US news media -- myself included, in this case -- to cover foreign affairs properly, for a number of reasons:
  • The US produces enough news of its own that it doesn't need to import any. This has only gotten worse during the current administration. So a change of government in Brazil or Germany can get lost in a Trump tweet storm.
  • The American audience (and a number of American journalists, and a lot of times, myself) don't have the background to appreciate foreign news events. So it's a little like watching a sport when you don't know the rules or the players. You can try to look them up and explain them on the fly, but it's still hard to appreciate the action while it's happening.
To catch up a little, let's start in the UK. Brexit is scheduled to happen on March 29, but there is still no agreed-on plan for how it happens. Here's the BBC's chart of where things stand:

The problem is that at the time of the referendum Brexit was just a vague idea: Britain leaves the EU. That can mean a lot of different things, and no individual one of those things is popular. So the UK is in the curious situation where all the possible outcomes (PM May's plan to leave the EU in name only, and remain subject to EU customs laws; leave for real and erect a national border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, possibly restarting the Troubles; Parliament deciding to oppose the Brexit referendum and stay in the EU; holding a new referendum on some particular Brexit plan) seem far-fetched.

I can't help noticing the comparison to repealing ObamaCare, and why Republicans were never able to come through on the "replace" part of repeal-and-replace: ObamaCare is a specific program and "repeal" is a vague idea. As soon as Republicans tried to flesh out their specific replacement, it was less popular than ObamaCare.
The Brexit situation is at least producing some good humor, like Andy Serkis portraying some kind of Gollum/Theresa May synthesis.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1NpExkViy6M
Now let's move to the yellow vest protests in France. Basically, it's as if in 2016 the angry Trump and Sanders voters had gotten together and taken to the streets. Or maybe if Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party found a common cause. It's a strange mixture of left-wing and right-wing populism. It's anti-government, but none of the opposition parties have managed to stake a claim on it. Crimethinc comments:
Clearly, neoliberal capitalism offers no solutions to climate change except to place even more pressure on the poor; but when the anger of the poor is translated into reactionary consumer outrage, that opens ominous opportunities for the far right.
The issue that seems to have touched off the recent protests is a green tax, a move "to increase fuel taxes to raise money for eco-friendly projects". The Macron government has since backed off, but the protests -- mostly non-violent, but occasionally violent -- continue.
As in the US, there is a widespread but inchoate feeling that the system is working against ordinary people. It remains to be seen whether someone will manage to turn that view into a program that makes things better, whether some demagogue will ride the yellow vests to power, or whether the energy will dissipate without doing anything to decrease the general dissatisfaction.
In Germany, Angela Merkel won't seek re-election when her term ends in 2021. She has already stepped down as head of her party, the Christian Democrats. Her replacement is Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer.
The party has faced a dilemma, to either keep itself on the course set by Merkel – who was determined to secure the centre ground and has turned the CDU into a champion of gay marriage, a minimum wage and a quota for women in politics - or to take it more to the right in an attempt to win back the voters lost to the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). ... Kramp-Karrenbauer’s victory is a sign that the party wants to continue on the path set for it by Merkel. Nevertheless, Kramp-Karrenbauer has repeatedly said she would forge her own path, and is decidedly more socially conservative than her predecessor.
In Brazil, right-wing populist Jair Bolsonaro will take office on January 1. He plans to pull Brazil out of the UN's Global Compact for Migration, and to develop the Amazon rain forest. In many ways a Brazilian version of Trump, we'll see if he has a similar impact on Brazil's rule of law.
Vox talks to North Korea watcher Van Jackson, who is not impressed with the "progress" Trump thinks he has made toward de-nuclearization. In his view, events are proceeding according to Kim Jong Un's plan, not Trump's.
He’s been pushing for simultaneously growing the economy and becoming a nuclear power. Now that he’s got the nuclear program where it needs to be, he’s decided to more aggressively pursue economic development, because that’s the other part of his strategy.
Pursuing economic development means getting sanctions relief. And how can you possibly get sanctions relief without pursuing a charm offensive?
So where we are today is because Kim reached what he sees as a position of strength.
... The structure of the confrontation has not changed. The nuclear situation has not changed. Sanctions have not changed. And frankly, they’re not likely to.
And finally, Yemen, where a war has combined with an ongoing famine to produce a truly horrifying situation. The UN has warned that 13 million people in Yemen are facing starvation in "the worst famine in the world in 100 years"
The famine is the direct result of the Saudi Arabian-led intervention in Yemen and blockade. Yemen was already the most impoverished nation in the Arabian Peninsula and the Middle East, and Al Hudaydah one of the poorest cities of Yemen, but the war and the naval blockade by the Saudi-led coalition and the United States Navy made the situation much worse. Fishing boats, the main livelihood of Al Hudaydah's residents, were destroyed by Saudi airstrikes, leaving them without any means to provide for their families. As a result, one child dies every ten minutes on average. A UN panel of experts found that Saudi Arabia is purposefully obstructing the delivery of humanitarian aid into Yemen.
The particularly dismal thing about the US role in this tragedy is that so few Americans have any idea where Yemen is or why we're involved in a war there. (Yemen's civil war is a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. We're on the Saudi side.)
The murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi by the Saudi crown prince has at least got people taking another look at our relationship with Saudi Arabia. Thursday, the Senate passed a resolution against US involvement in Yemen.
This joint resolution directs the President to remove U.S. Armed Forces from hostilities in or affecting Yemen within 30 days unless Congress authorizes a later withdrawal date, issues a declaration of war, or specifically authorizes the use of the Armed Forces. Prohibited activites include providing in-flight fueling for non-U.S. aircraft conducting missions as part of the conflict in Yemen.
The resolution is not being debated in the House, though, and Trump could veto it even if it passed the House, so it has no legal effect. It does, however, mark the willingness of at least a few Republican senators to break with Trump on this issue. No doubt it will come up again when Democrats take control of the House in January.

and you also might be interested in ...

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is the latest corrupt official to leave the Trump administration. But in a virtual replay of Scott Pruitt's exit, his replacement will be no improvement in policy terms: Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt is a former oil-industry lobbyist.

I'm trying not to make too much of the showdown in the Oval Office between Trump and Nancy Pelosi. I think Pelosi handled him well, but even so: Personality conflict is what Trump does; if we're talking about whether our leader beat their leader, we're on his turf.
Democrats need to stay focused on the people who gain or lose from what the government does, like the 7-year-old girl who died of dehydration while in the custody of the Border Patrol, or the millions who stand to lose their health insurance if ObamaCare really is ruled unconstitutional. Whether or not Pelosi got in the best line is of little importance by comparison.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez:
Double standards are Paul Ryan being elected at 28 and immediately being given the benefit of his ill-considered policies considered genius; and me winning a primary at 28 to immediately be treated with suspicion & scrutinized, down to my clothing, of being a fraud.
When I was discussing the ways that Hillary Clinton had to overcome sexism in 2016, one of the things I pointed to was the abundance of positive cultural stereotypes that are open to men with some weakness or character flaw: A duplicitous man can be a charming rogue, for example. An angry man can be a Jeremiah. No comparable framing is available to a woman.
In the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, both Kavanaugh and Lindsey Graham expressed anger in ways that would have made Christine Blasey Ford or Diane Feinstein appear to be raving. We're used to seeing men as channels for righteous indignation. Women, not so much.
We're seeing a similar thing here. An inexperienced man can be a whiz kid, a young gun, or a young Turk. None of those frames fits a woman. Some types open to young women are ingenue, mean girl, and damsel in distress -- none of which are all that useful to a woman in a position of power.
It's important to understand this as structural sexism. Even if nobody were consciously trying to mistreat Ocasio-Cortez, the same problem would be present: American men (and a lot of women as well) don't know how to think about or talk about women in certain roles. So even when we think we are open to them playing those roles, our unconscious reactions will betray us if we don't pay attention.

Another much-maligned female politician is Nancy Pelosi. She seems to have nailed down the support she needs to become Speaker when the new Congress takes office on January 3. To get the last few votes, she pledged to step down as Speaker after 2022.

Pro Publica looks at the IRS, whose budget and staff keeps shrinking. Meanwhile, audits are down and uncollected taxes are up, providing a "tax cut for tax cheats".
Tax collection largely depends on the public's voluntary cooperation, which could be endangered if people start to think that everyone else is cheating. That was largely the problem in the Greek economic crisis. It wasn't that the Greek government spent too much money, it was that it couldn't collect the taxes it was owed.

The Republican attempt to undo the 2018 election continues. Michigan has now passed a law that guts a referendum to raise the minimum wage and require paid sick leave. In states where the legislature is heavily gerrymandered, the only way voters can control the state government is through referenda and through state-wide offices like the governorship. But undemocratic Republican legislatures are doing their best to take power away from these voter-controlled institutions.

and let's close with something memorable

In August, 2014, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Britain's entry into World War I, 888,246 red ceramic poppies (one for each of the British and colonial soldiers who died in that war) were arranged to flow out of a window in the Tower of London and fill the moat. The temporary exhibit (now gone) was called “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red”. It's one of the most stunning views of the cost of war I've ever seen.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Political Asymmetry

No Sift next week. The next new articles will appear December 10.

To speak of "polarization" is to assume symmetry. No fact emerges more clearly from our analysis of how four million political stories were linked, tweeted, and shared over a three-year period than that there is no symmetry in the architecture and dynamics of communications within the right-wing media ecosystem and outside of it.

- Benkler, Faris, and Roberts, Network Propaganda

This week's featured post is "The Media isn't 'Polarized'. It has a Right-Wing Cancer." In it, I review the recent book Network Propaganda, which you can read for free online.

If you happen to be near Billerica, Massachusetts on Sunday, you can hear me speak at the Unitarian Universalist Church on "Men and #MeToo".

This week everybody was talking about Trump vs. the law

A federal judge blocked the administration's new asylum rules, which would have automatically denied asylum to anyone who crossed the border somewhere other than a recognized border crossing. In the ruling, he wrote:

Congress has clearly commanded in the [Immigration and Naturalization Act] that any alien who arrives in the United States, irrespective of that alien’s status, may apply for asylum – “whether or not at a designated port of arrival.” Notwithstanding this clear command, the President has issued a proclamation, and the Attorney General and the Department of Homeland Security have promulgated a rule, that allow asylum to be granted only to those who cross at a designated port of entry and deny asylum to those who enter at any other location along the southern border of the United States.

The rule barring asylum for immigrants who enter the country outside a port of entry irreconcilably conflicts with the INA and the expressed intent of Congress. Whatever the scope of the President’s authority, he may not rewrite the immigration laws to impose a condition that Congress has expressly forbidden.

So: There's a law, the judge quotes it, and Trump's policy obviously violates it.

Try to keep that in mind, because from there Trump did everything possible to try to make the controversy into yet another clash of personalities. Without responding to the question of whether he was violating the law, he denounced the "Obama judge" and the Ninth Circuit that he serves in. That prompted Chief Justice John Roberts to issue a statement directly contradicting the President:

We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges. What we have is an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them. ... The independent judiciary is something we should all be thankful for.

Trump argued back, and tweeted, and returned to the subject in a Thanksgiving call to the troops, claiming that "It's a terrible thing when judges take over your protective services, when they tell you how to protect your border." But it is the law that tells the President what to do. The judge is just reading the law.

Trump's trolling has produced a bunch of drama and drawn a lot of media attention. But he still has not addressed the plain fact that his policy violates the law. The key conflict here is not Trump vs. an Obama judge or the Ninth Circuit or John Roberts or any other collection of Deep State enemies. It's Trump vs. the law.


On Slate, Angelo Guisado explains why asylum seekers cross the border illegally:

the U.S. Customs and Border Protection systematically and unlawfully rejects their asylum attempts at official ports of entry.

The unwillingness of the Trump administration to process asylum claims at ports of entry led 450 would-be asylum seekers to camp out on the Mexican side of bridges leading to El Paso. Rather than deal with them according to the law, U.S. custom officials arranged with Mexican officials to have the migrants removed.

The administration says there is a deal with Mexico to keep asylum seekers on the Mexican side of the border until their asylum petition is granted. (Though the incoming Mexican government says there is no deal yet , and incoming House Oversight Committee Chair Elijah Cummings says "that's not the law".) I worry that the next step is to slow down the process even further, in hopes that people will give up.

In a tweet concerning an incident at the border on Sunday, Lindsey Graham tweeted about "the broken laws governing asylum". But it's not that the laws are broken, it's that the administration keeps breaking them.


I know I don't do breaking news well, and things often turn out to be different than they first appear, so I'm not going to say much about the tear gas attack against the would-be border-crossers Sunday. The Guardian has a lot of pictures.


In other legal news concerning Trump, the New York attorney general's suit against the Trump Foundation will go forward. A state judge in New York denied a motion by the Trump family to dismiss the suit, which claims the Foundation "functioned as little more than a checkbook to serve Mr. Trump’s business and political interests." The AG seeks to dissolve the Foundation and claim monetary damages from the Trump family.

One argument Trump's lawyers made for dismissing the suit was of a piece with his continuing attack on our judicial system. Basically, the claim was that Trump can't get a fair hearing in a state like New York, where he is unpopular. This is similar to the claim he made against Judge Curiel in the Trump University case, that Curiel couldn't hear Trump fairly because he was "Mexican". Judges, in Trump's view, are not experts who rule on the law, they are just people expressing their opinions. They rule for or against him because they like or dislike him, and not because of facts and the law.


Earlier this month, another judge put a serious delay on the administration's approval of the Keystone XL oil pipeline into Canada. The judge claims that government agencies "simply discarded" factual findings made under the Obama administration, without providing "reasoned explanations".

“This has been typical of the Trump administration,” said Mark Squillace, an expert on environmental law at the University of Colorado Law School. “They haven’t done a good job dealing with the factual findings of the previous administration. The courts have been clear that you can change your position, even if it’s for a political reason. But you have to show your work, how you got from Point A to Point B.”

and Trump's shrug at MBS murdering a Washington Post contributor

Again, ignore Trump's blather and keep the basic facts in mind: It is increasingly clear that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman ordered the killing of Wsahington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi, which took place October 2 at a Saudi consulate in Istanbul, where Khashoggi had gone to get documentation about his divorce so that he could remarry. (His Turkish fiance was waiting in the car.) Khashoggi was a Saudi journalist who had gotten on the wrong side of the Saudi government and had gone into voluntary exile. After some time in London he had moved to Virginia in June, 2017 and had been living as a legal permanent resident of the United States.

So an American president should have three issues with MBS: killing journalists whose only threat to you is what they might write, killing people who have left your country and are on the soil of our NATO ally, and killing people who live under our protection.

This week the White House put out a statement. It is poorly written, poorly thought out, full of falsehoods, and morally bankrupt. The gist of it is that America's relationship with Saudi Arabia and with MBS as the heir apparent will go forward without a hitch. It makes two arguments:

  • Saudi Arabia is a necessary ally in the regional power struggle with Iran.
  • The Saudis are good customers of the U.S., particularly of the U.S. defense industry.

Apparently, this means they can do whatever they want and we just have to accept it. It's hard to reconcile this passivity with Trump's frequent invocation of how "strong" America has become under his rule. In response, Hawaiian Democrat Rep. Tulsi Gabbard tweeted:

being Saudi Arabia’s bitch is not “America First.”

Trump's defense of MBS is similar to his defense of Vladimir Putin: We live in a nihilistic world where nothing can actually be known, so we might as well believe the people we want to believe. (As they say in Assassin's Creed: "Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.")

King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman vigorously deny any knowledge of the planning or execution of the murder of Mr. Khashoggi. Our intelligence agencies continue to assess all information, but it could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event – maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!

In a subsequent interview Trump hammered harder on this point: US intelligence agencies don't really know anything, their leaders just "have feelings, certain ways". Well, the Saudis have feelings too. (In the same interview, he said "if we went by this standard, we wouldn’t be able to have anybody as an ally". Try to imagine how that statement goes down in Canada or the UK.)

Julian Sanchez parodied the White House statement's style and logic:

Crucifixion is a terrible, terrible thing. Should never happen. And we may never know whether Jesus was guilty of crimes against Rome. Who can say? But thirty pieces IS a lot of silver, and it would be very foolish to turn it down.


Republicans as well as Democrats have spoken out against Trump's position. I would characterize the bipartisan criticism like this: The question isn't whether you believe in "America first", but rather what you think America is, and where you think American strength comes from. If America is defined by blood and soil, and if its strength comes purely from money and arms, then Trump is right. But if you believe that America is primarily about ideals and values, that anyone who shares those ideals and values is our natural ally, and that our greatest strength comes from the power of those ideals and values, then he is surrendering America, not putting it first.

The next question is what Congress can do. Rep. Brad Stevens (D-CA) wants Congress to intervene in a deal to sell nuclear technology to the Saudis, making sure that the nuclear material can't be used for weaponry. If the erratic and unpredictable MBS is going to be king, letting the Saudis go nuclear is not measurably better than letting the Iranians go nuclear.


BTW, you can't overlook Trump's personal financial interest in keeping the Saudis happy. The true operating principle here might be "Trump first!"


Matt Yglesias writes:

Since Trump is very clearly betraying American values, it’s tempting to accept the notion that he is implementing a trade-off that advances American interests. But “don’t murder our people” and “don’t use embassies located in allied countries as killing zones” are not airy values. They are interests too.

and the Mississippi Senate run-off

The run-off between Democrat Mike Espy and Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith is tomorrow. Given that it's Mississippi, you'd think Hyde-Smith would have an easy time of it. But she's doing her best to screw it up. The Senate will be Republican either way: 53-47 if she wins and 52-48 if she loses.

and what we learn from the midterm results

The Democrats' lead in the House national popular vote keeps growing: It's up to 8.1%, or just over 9 million votes. That's bigger than any other recent "wave" election: 2010 (Republicans win by 6.8% or 6 million votes), 2006 (Democrats 8%, 6.5 million), 1994 (Republicans 7.1%, 5 million). But it still can't touch the Mother of All Midterm Waves, the post-Watergate 1974 election, which Democrats won by 16.8%.

If the remaining undecided election (CA-21) goes to the Republican (who is currently slightly ahead), Democrats will have a 234-201 majority.


Here's a way to judge the impact of gerrymandering nationwide: In 2016, Republicans won the House national popular vote, but only by 0.9%. That yielded a larger majority than the Democrats will have: 241-194. So a margin nine times bigger gives Democrats a smaller majority.


Nancy Pelosi seems to be doing what she does best: counting votes until she comes up with a majority.

I think Monica Hesse is onto something:

The Nancyness of Nancy Pelosi is like the Hillaryness of Hillary Clinton: It’s not a definition so much as a collection of amorphous descriptors — cackling, scheming, elitist, ex-wife-like — that nobody can ever quite articulate, other than to say they don’t like it.

With that in mind, I've been watching a different set of impossible standards attach to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as she gets ready to enter Congress. She doesn't have enough money in her bank account, her clothes are too nice, and so on. How long before her Alexandrianity becomes similarly disqualifying? Before long, we'll probably start hearing: "I don't know what it is, I just don't like her. She's got too much baggage."

The phenomenon here is something I would call bank-shot misogyny. Direct misogyny says "I don't like her because she's a woman." Bank-shot misogyny relies on the fact that (due to the structural misogyny in our national conversation) mud tends to slide off men and stick to women. Then it asks, "Can't we find someone with less mud on her?"


A number of articles have reminded us that presidents whose parties lose in midterm elections still often get re-elected: Reagan in 1984, Clinton in 1992, Obama in 2012.

But it's hard to see how those examples will help Trump. In each case, the midterm loss caused the president to change course, to be more cautious, and to work harder to find common ground with the other party. It's hard to picture Trump learning that lesson, because Trump never makes mistakes and all conflicts are somebody else's fault, so there's never anything for him to learn.


Not so long ago, Illinois and Missouri were both swing states, but they have gone in opposite directions: Illinois is now reliably blue, Missouri reliably red. Bill Clinton won Missouri twice, but Hillary lost it in 2016 by 18%. Republican presidential candidates won Illinois six straight times in 1968-1988, but have lost it seven straight times since. Trump lost it by 17%.

Now it looks like several other central states may be separating in a similar fashion. According to Nate Silver, Democratic House candidates won the popular vote in Pennsylvania by 10%, in Wisconsin by 8%, and in Michigan by 7%. Meanwhile, they lost in Ohio by 5.5%.

For decades, Ohio has been the ultimate swing state. (The last time its electoral votes went to the loser was to Nixon in 1960.) But that seems to be changing, so now it's red even in a blue year. Virginia, conversely, has made a quick trip from reliably red (Bush by 8% in 2004) to solidly blue (Democratic House candidates by 10% in 2018). Ditto Colorado (Bush by 8% in 2000, Dem House by 10% in 2018).


A Washington Post article about Wisconsin politics shows a promising national model: Trump outrage motivated people to become active in politics, but once they got there they didn't just try to spread Trump outrage. Instead they branched out into voting rights and progressive local issues.


There's a weird idea going around that House Democrats either won't or shouldn't launch a bunch of Trump investigations "because voters have little tolerance for partisan witch hunts".

I agree that Democrats shouldn't try to drum up scandal out of nothing, as Republicans did during the Obama administration. (Benghazi deserved one investigation, not eight.) But there is plenty of legitimate wrongdoing and bad policy to investigate. There's no need for witch-hunting when there's a crime wave going on.

So Democrats shouldn't chase wild rumors or grill Ivanka about her emails. But somebody needs to ask exactly how we started putting kids in cages at the border, and look into how Trump is profiting from his presidency. The wastes of money by various cabinet officials deserve public scrutiny. Once the Mueller Report comes in, the House should hold hearings to publicize its findings and to debate whether they merit further action. That's not witch hunting, that's Congress doing its job.

In short, Democrats should have high standards for what they investigate. But I think there's plenty of material that meets high standards.

but we should all be watching the Justice Department

Tuesday, the New York Times reported that Trump had told White House Counsel Don McGahn that he wanted to order the Justice Department to prosecute Hillary Clinton and Jim Comey. McGahn reportedly told the president that this would be an abuse of power and could be grounds for impeachment.

Like all stories with anonymous sourcing, you have to maintain some degree of skepticism. I don't believe the Times makes up sources (as Trump often claims), but anonymous leaks usually come from people trying to make themselves look good. McGahn looks good here, so he (or someone loyal to him) is probably the source.

Two things about this story are worrisome: First, it paints a picture of a president with authoritarian impulses, who is only being restrained by underlings who still believe in the rule of law. Second, McGahn has left the White House, and the Justice Department is in the hands of a Trumpist hack, Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker. If Trump pushes on the system again, it might yield to him.

And Whitaker has his own issues. A number of legal cases will force judges to rule soon on whether his appointment was legal. And somebody in Congress needs to ask him about this:

Before becoming Jeff Sessions' chief of staff, acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker received more than $1.2 million in salary from a conservative nonprofit that does not reveal its donors, according to financial disclosure forms.

That would be one of those justified investigations I talked about. No need to nail him to the wall, but get an answer: What was he paid for?

and the climate

A joint report issued by 13 federal agencies directly contradicts the administration's rhetoric on global warming. Current policy is to loosen climate-change-fighting restrictions in order to spur economic growth. But the report emphasizes the cost of climate change: The report predicts

that if significant steps are not taken to rein in global warming, the damage will knock as much as 10 percent off the size of the American economy by century’s end.

... in direct language, the 1,656-page assessment lays out the devastating effects of a changing climate on the economy, health and environment, including record wildfires in California, crop failures in the Midwest and crumbling infrastructure in the South. Going forward, American exports and supply chains could be disrupted, agricultural yields could fall to 1980s levels by midcentury and fire season could spread to the Southeast, the report finds.

Meanwhile, Republican senators are holding the line on current GOP rhetoric: Doing anything about global warming will break the economy, which just sort of ignores the whole report. Doing nothing about global warming is going to break the economy.

And then there's this:The NYT has a good article about the persistence of coal as a fuel for electrical plants, in spite of the environmental costs and economic competition from cleaner fuels.

and you also might be interested in

There are lots of rumors about what Robert Mueller might do next, but we'll all know soon enough.


The stock market has been plunging lately (though it's up so far this morning), but Trump econ advisor Larry Kudlow isn't worried about a recession. Of course, he also wasn't worried about a recession in 2008.


Paul Krugman points to a way forward on health care: Congress may be gridlocked, but a lot can be done in states that Democrats control:

The most dramatic example of how this can be done is New Jersey, where Democrats gained full control at the end of 2017 and promptly created state-level versions of both the mandate and reinsurance [two provisions of the ACA that Republicans have managed to undo at the national level]. The results were impressive: New Jersey’s premiums for 2019 are 9.3 percent lower than for 2018, and are now well below the national average. Undoing Trumpian sabotage seems to have saved the average buyer around $1,500 a year.

Now that Democrats have won control of multiple states, they can and should emulate New Jersey’s example, and move beyond it if they can. Why not, for example, introduce state-level public options — actuarially sound government plans — as alternatives to private insurance?

Insurance works better with a bigger population. So how about it, California?


Are you ready for your annual dose of humility? The NYT's 100 Notable Books list is out. This year I have read exactly two of the novels: The Witch Elm by Tana French and Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik. Of the nonfiction books: zero.


"Money laundering" isn't supposed to be this literal: Dutch police found $400K hidden in a washing machine.


Retired General Stan McCrystal writes about his decision to get rid of his portrait of Robert E. Lee.

We want to be proud of our past, so it’s tempting to look at only the best aspects of it. ... There is, in the end, little point in studying a version of history that contains cartoons and monuments rather than real people with nuanced actions and decisions — people whose complexities can teach us about our own. As we come to learn more about our world and ourselves, it is crucial to reexamine our role models and our enemies. There is tremendous value in wrestling with the errors over which history commonly glosses.


This week included the strange tale of the 26-year-old American, John Chau, who went to the remote North Sentinel Island to attempt to convert the natives to Christianity. The natives killed him, as they have killed or tried to kill any outsiders who come to their island. North Sentinel sits in the Bay of Bengal as part of the Andaman chain, and is technically part of India. The Indian government has put it off limits and the Indian navy patrols to keep outsiders away. Chau had hired a fishing boat to stay offshore, and paddled in on a kayak.

This is one of those stories that people going to project their own values onto. To me it points out the hazards of living in a myth rather than in reality. With no common language and little common experience, Chau would have needed years to communicate even the most basic notions of his religion, and he seems not to have made preparations for that kind of stay. He apparently paid no attention to the possibility that he might bring diseases that could wipe the natives out. I picture him expecting some kind of Pentecost miracle, with himself as St. Peter. That lack of realism got him killed.


The Washington Post reported last Monday that Ivanka Trump (like Hillary Clinton) used a personal email account for public business. This is an apparent violation of the Presidential Records Act, because Ivanka isn't just the president's daughter, she has an official position in the White House. Like Clinton, Ivanka says that she did not understand the rules and had no ill intent. Like Clinton, she addressed the issue by having a lawyer review her records to separate the public emails from the private ones.

The point here shouldn't be to make problems for Ivanka, but to point out how bogus a lot of the Hillary-email hoo-ha was (as I explained at the time). If the Presidential Records Act is anything like the Federal Records Act that Clinton ran afoul of, violations are not a go-to-jail offense.


George Lakoff's advice on how to cover Trump:

Journalists could engage in what I’ve called “truth sandwiches,” which means that you first tell the truth; then you point out what the lie is and how it diverges from the truth. Then you repeat the truth and tell the consequences of the difference between the truth and the lie. If the media did this consistently, it would matter. It would be more difficult for Trump to lie.

Actually, it would still be incredibly easy for Trump to lie -- he's a natural -- but he wouldn't get as much benefit out of it.

and here's something odd

While re-reading the Astro City comic book series this week -- I know, I should be reading all that nonfiction on the NYT's Notable Books list instead --  I ran across the strangely prescient issue #7, published in 2014: Winged Victory, the Astro City universe's most Wonder-Woman-like character, is being framed as a fraud. Her biggest victories, it is claimed, were staged; the women she has been sheltering and teaching to defend themselves are actually being abused all over again; and so on. When WV goes to a microphone to defend herself, she is shouted down by protesters chanting -- wait for it -- "Lock her up!" Trump's crowds didn't start chanting that about Hillary until 2016.

I'm reminded of an episode of Zorro from 1959, where a Spanish captain gives a patriotic speech and comes darn close to JFK's "ask not" quote from 1961.

and let's close with some gross but bizarrely fascinating animal facts

Scientists at Georgia Tech now have an explanation for how wombats manage to poop out cubes. They're the only known animals with stackable cubic poop.

But even wombat poop is not as amazing as whale earwax. Whales don't have fingers they can stick into their ears, so their earwax just accumulates through their lives. (Never thought about that, did you?) And they're huge, so ultimately they wind up with waxy plugs in their ear canals that can be as long as ten inches, plugs that The Atlantic compares to "a cross between a goat’s horn and the world’s nastiest candle".

It turns out that an earwax plug contains a record of the whale's life, if you know how to read it.

As whales go through their annual cycles of summer binge-eating and winter migrations, the wax in their ears changes from light to dark. These changes manifest as alternating bands, which you can see if you slice through the plugs. Much as with tree rings, you can count the bands to estimate a whale’s age. And you can also analyze them to measure the substances that were coursing through the whale’s body when each band was formed. A whale’s earwax, then, is a chronological chemical biography.

Researchers at Baylor University have begun studying whale earwax plugs, which coincidentally had been accumulating in museums for more than a century.

“Museums are notorious for collecting everything, and waiting for the science to catch up,” [biology professor Stephen] Trumble says. “We called Charles Potter at the Smithsonian Institution, and he said, ‘It’s interesting you called because we have pallets and pallets of these ear plugs sitting around, and we’re thinking of throwing them away.’ Instead of being thrown away, those ear plugs are now objects of wonder.”

Makes you curious about what else is occupying space in Smithsonian warehouses, doesn't it?

Trumble and research partner Sascha Usenko measured stress hormones in the plugs, combined findings across numerous whales, and produced "a 146-year chronicle of whale stress", which turns out to have an obvious-in-retrospect correlation with the output of the whaling industry. The exception is a peak during World War II, when whaling was down, but whales were probably being stressed by underwater explosions. Whale stress is back up lately, possibly in response to climate change.