Monday, December 18, 2017

Profit and Loss

The next new posts will appear on January 8.

“What shall it profit a man,” Jesus asked, “if he gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his own soul?” The current Republican Party seems to not understand that question.

- David Brooks, "The GOP is Rotting" 12-7-2017

This week's featured post is "Should We Care What Happens to the GOP's Soul?"

Through no doing of my own, it turns out that the next two Mondays are Christmas and New Years. I've interpreted that as a sign from the Calendar Gods that I should take a two-week break (something I haven't done in years). I reserve the right, though, to put out a special edition if something happens that I can't stop myself from commenting on.

This week everybody was talking about Roy Moore's defeat

When Trump appointed Jeff Sessions attorney general, I don't think anybody at the RNC was worried about hanging on to his Alabama Senate seat, and I doubt anybody at the DNC imagined waging anything more than a nuisance campaign. And yet, here we are: Doug Jones is going to be the next senator from Alabama, the first Democrat since Richard Shelby won in 1992 and then switched parties.

Pundits and operatives of all persuasions are trying to discern the lessons of the Jones/Moore race. To a certain extent that's foolish, because so much of this race isn't repeatable. I mean, wasn't Jones clever to run against a molester of 14-year-olds who is nostalgic about slavery? Democrats should try that nationwide!

Still, there is at least one thing worth noting: Always field a candidate, because you never know what might happen. Sessions ran unopposed in 2014. (A write-in candidate spent $4500 and got less than 3% of the vote.) If no Democrat had gotten onto the ballot this time, Moore would have won no matter what voters found out about him.

A second lesson is just an extension of the first: Run hard, even if victory seems unlikely. That big turnout in the black community didn't just happen. A combination of star power (Cory Booker, NBA great Charles Barkley, and a robocall from President Obama) and hard work by many, many volunteers made the difference.

One mistake I'm seeing in the Democratic discussion is the tendency to interpret Jones' victory in light of the interminable Bernie/Hillary debate. It shows the importance of turning out the Democratic base, say Bernie folks, while Hillaryites note the importance of fielding a moderate candidate who didn't rile up Republican partisanship.

In my mind, there is still a debate to be had about the 2018 campaign, but it's not primarily a progressive/pragmatic debate. It's a national/local debate. Should Democrats nationalize the 2018 campaign around progressive proposals like single-payer healthcare and a $15 minimum wage? Or should each candidate target his own state and district with a message that's in the local mainstream?

In a special election, going local is the obvious choice, which is what Jones did. (I know some progressives believe their message would sell in a red state like Alabama, but I'm still waiting to see an example.) But whether 2018 should be a bunch of local elections or a national one like 1994's Contract With America is still debatable.

This, however, is just foolish: Because Jones hasn't endorsed single-payer healthcare or a $15 minimum wage or free college, he's "a terrible candidate".

Come election day, Alabamians will have the sacred honor of participating in the democratic process by voting for either a child rapist or a weak-kneed white blob in a suit to go work on Capitol Hill for some unknown corporate donor. Personally, I can’t say that I will be taking part.

Thank God 671K Alabama voters didn't agree.

Every election asks voters a question. It may not be the question you wanted to be asked, but it's the only question you're going to get in that cycle. Answer it.

Naturally, Jones' victory has produced conspiracy theories about out-of-state ringers being bused in. (It was the same story last year in New Hampshire, where both Clinton and Maggie Hassan won narrow victories.) John Rogers, co-creator of the thieves-working-for-the-greater-good TV show Leverage, addressed the theory, because "very few things piss me off like sloppy heist plotting".

He points out all the logistics that would be required to engineer a 20,000-vote upset, when no one could be sure a week ahead of time that the election would even be that close. Somebody, he observes, would have to recruit tens of thousands of ringers, rent hundreds of buses (with drivers) to transport them, provide them with registered identities to claim and ID to verify those identities (all of which the conspiracy had in reserve just in case the GOP nominated somebody beatable like Moore), and then drive them to polling places in a state with a hostile Secretary of State -- all with nobody noticing.

Nobody leaks. Nobody tells a friend. Not a single slip-up. That is some fucking OPSEC.
Similar points were made in response to the 2016 New Hampshire conspiracy theory:
“Who drove the buses?” asked William Galvin, the Massachusetts secretary of state, who does not believe the voter fraud theories. “Who owns the buses? Where did the buses leave from? Who paid to rent the buses? You give us some specifics and we’ll investigate it.”

That rational critique didn't dissuade anybody from trotting the theory out again in Alabama, and I'm sure it will keep resurfacing every time a Democrat wins a close election.

BTW: The theory specifically says that black people were bused in to cast illegal votes; that explains the unusually high black turnout. Apparently it doesn't make sense to Republicans that blacks might vote in large numbers against a candidate who expresses nostalgia for the days of slavery.

and tax reform

Thursday, it briefly looked like the package might be in trouble. But Friday, both Marco Rubio and Bob Corker announced they would vote for it, so it looks likely to pass this week. Corker's support is particularly dismaying. He didn't vote for the tax reform package the first time around in the Senate because (by every serious analysis) it would increase the national debt by more than $1 trillion dollars. Nothing has changed to fix that, but Corker appears to have decided that it just doesn't matter; his lifetime as a deficit hawk was a lie.

Of course, it is only a matter of time before Republicans declare the debt to be an existential crisis again, and demand cuts in safety-net programs to deal with it. Paul Ryan is already talking about it.

Assuming this tax bill passes, I hope Democrats treat it the way Republicans have treated ObamaCare: It has to be repealed, no matter how long it takes.

The combination of tax reform and Doug Jones gives 2018 a particularly clear storyline. Republicans are unlikely to pass any other major legislation, so they will go into the midterm elections exactly one achievement: a tax bill that borrows a bunch of money to benefit the rich.

Remember how this was supposed to simplify taxes to the point where you could just send the IRS a postcard rather than fill out a complicated return? Well, never mind. That didn't happen.

One loophole inserted at the last minute will apparently save a lot of money for Trump, Jared Kushner, and a number of Republican senators.

and attacks on the Mueller investigation

It continues to be an open question whether Trump will allow himself to be investigated, and whether congressional Republicans will back him if he decides to place himself above the law.

California Congresswoman Jackie Speier told local PBS station KQED:

I believe the President wants all of this shut down. The rumor on the Hill when I left yesterday was that the president was going to make a significant speech at the end of next week. And on Dec. 22, when we are out of D.C., he was going to fire Robert Mueller.

White House lawyer Ty Cobb denied the rumor (though I've often suspected that Trump doesn't tell everything). It's hard to tell if this is a somebody-slipped-me-inside-information rumor, or a that's-what-I'd-do-if-I-were-wannabee-tyrant rumor.

In recent weeks, right-wing media has ramped up a campaign to undermine public trust in the Mueller investigation, pointing to anti-Trump private opinions of some investigators as evidence of professional bias. Republicans in Congress have fanned these flames, most notably in their questioning of Assistant Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, the person who actually could fire Mueller, but sees no cause to. Ben Wittes at the Lawfare Blog comments:

Most importantly, there is no serious suggestion that any step taken by Mueller’s shop is unjustified. The Mueller investigation will ultimately be measured by its work product, not by the text messages or campaign contributions of its staffers from before the investigation even existed.

The professionalism of the Mueller probe is a stark contrast with the House investigation of Hillary Clinton, which leaked like a sieve, often inducing news organizations to publish damaging stories about Clinton that had to be walked back once more complete information became available. Going back a bit further, the Starr investigation of President Bill Clinton was transparently partisan, writing up its findings in the most salacious way possible, and delaying its exoneration of Clinton's Whitewater dealings until after a midterm election.

Trump himself has been running down the FBI, the Justice Department, and virtually the entire federal law enforcement system. His claims put him at odds with his own appointees, including FBI Director Christopher Wray and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

A bunch of the Republican criticisms of the FBI go back to the Clinton email investigation. It's part of their dogma that Hillary did something horribly wrong, so the fact that the FBI didn't find it brings the whole organization into suspicion, rather than causing Republicans to doubt their conspiracy theory.

Anybody who kept a close eye on the publicly available information could have predicted that Clinton wouldn't be charged with anything, as I did in June, 2016.

Saturday, Trump lawyers charged that Mueller had illegally gotten thousands of the emails of the Trump transition team. The claim looks baseless. In particular, the point of raising the charge publicly seems to be to get political mileage out of a claim that won't fly in court. The WaPo quotes a GWU law professor:

if Trump’s team had a valid legal claim, there is a standard avenue to pursue — they would file a sealed motion to the judge supervising the grand jury and ask the judge to rule the emails were improperly seized and provide a remedy, like requiring Mueller’s team to return the emails or excluding their use in the investigation. “You go to the judge and complain,” he said. “You don’t issue a press release or go to Congress. It appears from the outside that this is part of a pattern of trying to undermine Mueller’s investigation.”

All along during the Russia investigation, the most compelling reason to think Trump and his people did something wrong has been their own behavior. They have consistently lied about their contacts with Russians, and now, as Mueller's investigation begins to close in on them, they try to destroy public trust in it.

and net neutrality

The FCC made it official: Net neutrality is dead. Fred Benenson paints a clear picture of what that will mean by 2020:

Negotiating internet access will feel a lot like negotiating your television cable or cellphone bill. You’ll be forced to untangle various packages relating to different sites and services you might use, pay for ISP-branded content you probably don’t care about, and get that sinking feeling at the beginning of every month that, one way or another, you’re overpaying.

Instead of simply worrying about how much internet you use or how fast you need it to be, you’re going to have to worry about what kind of internet you use. Premium sites like Netflix and YouTube will likely cost more, you’ll be nickel-and-dimed for the use of free apps like iMessage and FaceTime, and unfettered access to the full internet will be more expensive.

Start-ups, facing even higher barriers of entry, will be forced to spend money partnering with telecom companies. Fewer of them will survive. And the start-ups that do survive will spend an unnecessarily high amount of their income paying to survive. This is great news for established companies like Facebook and Google that will always be able to afford internet tolls. They will cement their already dominant position against newer but better sites and services.

and you also might be interested in ...

The Washington Post tells a very disturbing story of Trump's refusal to listen to the intelligence services' evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 election, or the possibility that future elections will be undermined.

The result is without obvious parallel in U.S. history, a situation in which the personal insecurities of the president — and his refusal to accept what even many in his administration regard as objective reality — have impaired the government’s response to a national security threat. The repercussions radiate across the government.

It sounds like parody, but it isn't: The Trump administration is telling the CDC what words to avoid in its budget requests: vulnerable, entitlement, diversity, transgender, fetus, evidence-based and science-based.

Whatever conservatives fantasize that liberals are doing, it seems, they will do in reality when they get power. This, for example, really is an example of political correctness trumping freedom of speech and thought.

An important article by Amy Sullivan in the NYT about "Fox Evangelicals" -- people for whom "Evangelical" is a tribal identity rather than a theology.

She quotes a study by Lifeway Research, comparing the number of people who call themselves Evangelicals to the number who hold four theological beliefs commonly thought to define Evangelicalism: the authority of the Bible, importance of evangelism, Jesus' death as payment for sin, and Jesus as the only path to salvation. Only about half of self-identified Evangelicals strongly agreed with all four.

One significant difference between Fox and Biblical Evangelicalism is the attitude toward fear. Fox Evangelicals are driven by fear of outsiders, and see a corresponding need for weapons. The Bible, by contrast, calls for welcoming the stranger and says to "Be not afraid."

That disconnect underscores the challenge many pastors face in trying to shepherd congregants who are increasingly alienated from traditional Gospel teachings. “A pastor has about 30 to 40 minutes each week to teach about Scripture,” said Jonathan Martin, an Oklahoma pastor and popular evangelical writer. “They’ve been exposed to Fox News potentially three to four hours a day.”

Martin points to a key difference between second-generation leaders like Franklin Graham and Jerry Fallwell Jr. and their famous fathers.

There was a lot I didn’t agree with him on, but I’m confident that it was important to [Jerry Falwell] Senior that he grounded his beliefs in Scripture. Now the Bible’s increasingly irrelevant. It’s just "us versus them."

My comment: To the extent that Evangelicalism has become an identity masquerading as a religion, it will dovetail with fascism, which is an identity masquerading as an ideology. In both cases, beliefs are merely instrumental; the important thing is that my people stay on top.

I passed through Richmond this week, and saw the Confederate statues on Monument Avenue. When you see them close up, the argument that this is about "history" is hard to swallow. They're there to celebrate the defenders of slavery. I mean, where's the General Grant statue? He reclaimed Richmond for the United States. Isn't that history?

and let's close with something almost familiar

Stephen Colbert inserts himself into Silence of the Lambs.

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