Monday, November 12, 2018

Battles in Progress

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

- Carol Anderson, Emory University

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

This week everybody was talking about the midterm results

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

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

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

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

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

and the subversion of democracy

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

and the Justice Department

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

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

NYT conservative columnist Bret Stephens comments:

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

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

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

A number of questions immediately arise:

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

and the latest attack on the free press

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

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

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

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

and mass shootings

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

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

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

The laws:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

and you also might be interested in ...

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

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


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


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


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

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

The Guardian reports on Sunday's march:

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

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

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

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

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

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

and let's close with a post-election meditation

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

Monday, November 5, 2018

Where the Party Ends

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

- "Your Racist Friend" by They Might Be Giants

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

This week everybody was talking about tomorrow's elections

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

and birthright citizenship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and Brazil

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

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

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

and you also might be interested in ...

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


Iran sanctions are back.


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

and let's close with something unusual

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

Monday, October 29, 2018

Souls in Darkness

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

- Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

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

This week everybody was talking about right-wing political violence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

and caravans

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

but remember to vote

President Obama has no patience for your excuses.

and you also might be interested in ...

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

Monday, October 22, 2018

The Real Voter Fraud

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

- Jay Bookman, "The True Voting Fraud"

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

This week everybody was talking about Jamal Khashoggi's murder

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

and voter suppression

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

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

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

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


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

The Guardian goes deeper:

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

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

Greg Palast elaborates:

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

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


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

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

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

and Elizabeth Warren

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

but this strikes me as important

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and you also might be interested in ...

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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


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

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

This one was pretty good too:


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

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

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

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

and let's close with something old made new

James Corden helps Alanis Morissette update "Ironic".

Monday, October 15, 2018

Pace and Scale

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

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

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

This week everybody was talking about the weather

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

Federal help seems slow to arrive.

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

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

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

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

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

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

and a missing journalist

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

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

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

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

and the midterm elections

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

but the ongoing sabotage of ObamaCare deserves your attention

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and so does the return of Iran sanctions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and you also might be interested in ...

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


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

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


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


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

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N34hehRgw9g&t=9s


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But of course, that's not what happened.

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

and let's close with something out of this world

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

Monday, October 8, 2018

Actual Happenings

The truth is it's women -- women are the victims in this situation. It doesn't mean you've got to be feeling sorry for women, but women are the victims and that's what we're trying to fix. But Trump has managed to turn that, and he's turned it with everybody. He goes: "The real victims in this story is not the kids in the cages, it's you. It's you who -- they're coming to take your place. The real victim isn't the refugee from Syria, it's you, who's going to get blown up by a terrorist bomb." ... People felt, because of Trump, like they were losing their country. They felt like America was losing. And feeling is oftentimes more powerful than what is actually happening.

- Trevor Noah

This week's featured post is "Are Men Victims Now?"

This week everybody was talking about Brett Kavanaugh

After much Sturm und Drang, Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court Saturday by a 50-48 Senate vote. All Republicans voted Yes except Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and all Democrats voted No except Joe Manchin of West Virginia. (The votes don't add up to 100 because Murkowski made a deal with Montana Senator Steve Daines. Daines, a Yes vote, wanted to go to his daughter's wedding, so Murkowski, a No vote, agreed to cover for him by voting Present. In other words, they preserved the two-vote margin that would have existed if Daines had stayed in Washington. I don't hold the Present vote against Murkowski; it was a collegial thing to do.)

Most of the people I know are struggling to accept this. Some are angry, some are depressed, and a lot of us bounce through a range of emotions.

Now that the Senate has made such a travesty of its responsibility to seek the truth, the onus passes to us. The reason they're not supposed to do stuff like this is that the voters will vote them out. Well, that's what we need to do now. There's an election in four weeks, and we all need to do whatever we can to sway it. Vote, of course, but also (to the extent that you're able) volunteer, give money, convince your friends to vote, and do whatever else you can think of.

If Republicans can do this and not pay a price in elections, then they really have won.


A issue I've been talking about on this blog since I retrospectively declared it a major theme of 2013 is minority rule. Democrats have won the popular vote in 6 of the last 7 presidential elections, and yet Republicans have appointed 5 of the 9 Supreme Court justices. The GOP Senate "majority" that approved Kavanaugh represents fewer citizens that the Democratic "minority". Gerrymandering in the House means that Democrats probably will have to win at least 7% more votes than Republicans if they want to take control.

Looking ahead, the Supreme Court will hear a number of cases that bear on the GOP's ability to maintain its minority rule: gerrymandering cases, techniques to suppress voting blocs likely to support Democrats, and so on. You have to wonder how many of those decisions will be 5-4 to maintain Republican power at the expense of democracy.

Paul Waldman writes in The Washington Post:

When he ran for president, Donald Trump told his voters that they were the victims of a rigged system. Nurture your rage, he urged them, and strike a blow against that system by voting for me. In truth, he was the product of the rigged system, not its enemy.


The Senate hearing last week with Kavanaugh and his main accuser, Dr. Catherine Blasey Ford, was set up to offer a he-said/she-said choice, but it didn't seem that 50/50 to me. Dr. Blasey Ford was forthright and honest about the limitations of her memory, while Judge Kavanaugh was evasive and refused to admit the most trivially embarrassing things, even if he had to insult our intelligence to deny them. (We all know what the "Beach Week Ralph Club" was: a list of boys who drank until they threw up during Beach Week. What's the point of claiming otherwise?) A good analysis of his testimony is in the Current Affairs article "How We Know Kavanaugh is Lying".

The most likely scenario, in my view, is that Kavanaugh did drink to excess in high school, and that he did attack Blasey Ford. But he doesn't remember it because (1) he was drunk, (2) it was a long time ago, and (3) the attack was too brief and unsuccessful to be memorable from his point of view.


That hearing also provided a clear lesson in male privilege, especially with regard to the expression of anger. If Blasey Ford had seethed and exploded like Kavanaugh did, or if Diane Feinstein had blown her top like Lindsey Graham, both would have been written off as hysterical women, and the substance of what they had said would have been ignored.


Several observers, including retired Justice John Paul Stevens (damn, I hope I have that many of my marbles at age 98), thought that Kavanaugh expressed too much partisan bias in his testimony to be an effective judge. Stevens implied that Kavanaugh's publicly displayed political bias ought to lead him to recuse himself from so many cases that he would only "do a part-time job" on the Supreme Court.

I suspect he won't recuse himself, and will vote in the way his bias points. To me, Kavanaugh is more of a political operative than a judge. When the Court hears politically sensitive cases about, say, gerrymandering or voting rights or the Trump investigation, I expect Kavanaugh's rulings to maximize Republican power. He will examine the facts and the law only to the extent necessary to reach his desired outcome. (Feel free to quote this back to me and gloat if I'm wrong.)


Republicans consistently argued for an innocent-until-proven-guilty standard, which I think is ridiculous. James Fallows critiques this better than I could:

Proof beyond reasonable doubt is the right standard for depriving someone of liberty. Bill Cosby’s jury was satisfied on those grounds, and O.J. Simpson’s was not. But that has never been the standard for choosing a university president, or a CEO, or a four-star general, or a future marriage partner, or a Nobel prize winner, or a lifetime federal judge. With all their differences, the standard for these decisions is supposed to be: is this the best person for the role?

When you understand that, the only conceivable excuse for voting Yes on Kavanaugh is if you believe whole-heartedly that Dr. Blasey Ford is lying (along with the other women who have accused Kavanaugh), and that any Trump-appointed judge would face similar false charges (although Neil Gorsuch did not). Otherwise, Republicans ought to be able to find some other conservative judge untainted by serious, plausible charges.


I thought this Bruce MacKinnon cartoon was raw but devastating:


I don't see the political logic for Susan Collins' Yes vote. And I'm not just thinking about the $3 million and counting that has been raised for whoever challenges her in 2020.

If current projections hold, the Democrats will take the House in November. So when the new Congress starts in January, Democrats will have the ability to conduct investigations. At that point, a real Kavanaugh investigation will take place. Quite likely it won't produce enough evidence to remove a sitting justice. (Two-thirds of the Senate would have to agree. My guess is a real investigation will find numerous false statements to Congress, but Republicans will see them lacking sufficient significance to count as perjury. Sexual assault charges will become more credible, but not rise to the beyond-reasonable-doubt standard Republicans will insist on.)

But it will be clear that senators who voted for Kavanaugh weren't interested in finding the truth. That information will be available for some devastating attack ads against Collins. She'll also have to take responsibility for whatever decisions Kavanaugh makes in the next two years, and I strongly suspect there will be some that expose her reading of his record and character ("Despite the turbulent, bitter fight surrounding his nomination, my fervent hope is that Brett Kavanaugh will work to lessen the divisions in the Supreme Court so that we have far fewer 5-4 decisions and so that public confidence in our Judiciary and our highest court is restored.") as the wishful thinking it is.

Collins' speech announcing her decision was full of misrepresentations of the case against Kavanaugh, like this:

There are some who argue that given the current Special Counsel investigation, President Trump should not even be allowed to nominate a justice. That argument ignores our recent history. President Clinton, in 1993, nominated Justice Ginsburg after the Whitewater investigation was already underway. And she was confirmed 96-3. The next year, just three months after Independent Counsel Robert Fiske was named to lead the Whitewater investigation, President Clinton nominated Justice Breyer. He was confirmed 87-9.

Clinton was suspected of participating in a shady real-estate deal. Trump is suspected of gaining the presidency by conspiring with an enemy power. The similarity escapes me. If the worst suspicions about Trump are true, then Russia has reshaped our Supreme Court.

Maine voter and NYT contributor Jennifer Finney Boylan judges Collins in the light of the long tradition of maverick senators from Maine, from Margaret Chase Smith to Angus King. In contrast, Boylan finds Collins to be

the kind of centrist who wants to please everyone. For Ms. Collins, it’s often meant voting with the most right-wing members of her party, even while attempting to occupy some imaginary moral high ground. ... In [voting to confirm Kavanaugh], she has proved herself, in the end, to stand for nothing.


I also don't see the logic for Joe Manchin, but maybe he'll prove me wrong. I think red-state Democratic senators were in a no-win situation: A No vote energizes their opposition, while a Yes vote demoralizes their supporters. So Heitkamp and McCaskill (no) and Manchin (yes) probably all suffer.


Trump tweet Friday morning:

The very rude elevator screamers are paid professionals only looking to make Senators look bad. Don’t fall for it! Also, look at all of the professionally made identical signs. Paid for by Soros and others. These are not signs made in the basement from love!

The Washington Post fact-checkers gave this three Pinocchios. Trump and Chuck Grassley have decided to push an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory that has worked for right-wing dictators like Putin in Russia and Orban in Hungary.


Some of the responses to the Senate hearing were hilarious. The Pulp Fiction mash-up stood out. (If you're at work, keep the volume low.)

So did Matt Damon's SNL parody of Kavanaugh.

And Tom Toles added this cartoon

and where Trump's money comes from

The New York Times published an enormous article detailing how Donald Trump got rich: Not by being the brilliant businessman he claims to be, but by inheriting his father's empire while using illegal methods to dodge taxes.

If Congress were doing its job under the Constitution, this would be investigated. But Congress isn't doing its job, and it won't as long as Republicans remain in control. That's why it's so important for Democrats to win at least the House.

and a small sign that black lives actually might matter

The shooting of Laquan McDonald (which was captured on video) has resulted in a murder conviction for an on-duty Chicago cop. A white cop is going to prison for shooting a black teen-ager. In Chicago. This is huge. I know, it required overwhelming evidence and was only a second-degree murder conviction, but change has to start somewhere. Here's the NYT's description of the shooting:

After a truck driver reported that evening that someone was breaking into vehicles in a parking lot, police officers followed Laquan, who was carrying a three-inch pocketknife and refused to stop when they told him to. The pursuit — with Laquan walking down the street and officers on foot and in squad cars behind him — ended when Officer Van Dyke arrived in a car, stepped out and shot him repeatedly, even after his body was crumpled on the street.

The jury included only one black, but the 11 others also didn't buy the usual police argument that the officer was just doing his job and feared for his life.

“It seemed kind of like he was finally giving the play after they had been rehearsing with him for weeks,” said one juror, a white woman, who noticed Officer Van Dyke “staring at us, trying to win our sympathy” when he testified. ... “Police officers aren’t going to be as confident moving forward with taking their case to a jury, getting that heightened credibility just by being a police officer,” said Alan Tuerkheimer, a Chicago-based jury consultant. “That’s not a given anymore.”

Sadly, though, police are still more intent on defending their own than in winning back the public's trust by getting bad cops off the street:

“This sham trial and shameful verdict is a message to every law enforcement officer in America that it’s not the perpetrator in front of you that you need to worry about, it’s the political operatives stabbing you in the back,” Chris Southwood, a state leader of the Illinois Fraternal Order of Police, said.

The case has already had political consequences. After the video was released,

The police superintendent was fired, the local prosecutor lost her re-election bid, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced shortly before the trial began that he would not seek re-election next year.

but I'm thinking about cyber attacks

The paragraphs in Bob Woodard's Fear that I found most alarming got practically no coverage.

[Tom Bossert, Trump's advisor for homeland security] knew the United States was already in a constant state of low-intensity cyber war with advanced foreign adversaries such as China, Russia, North Korea and Iran. These countries had the ability to shut down the power grid in United States cities, for example, and the only deterrent was to make clear that a massive cyber attack would not just be met with cyber-for-cyber symmetry.

The full force of the U.S. military, including nuclear weapons [my emphasis], would have to be a central part of the deterrent. Bossert liked to say, and he said it regularly, that the use of any element of national power would be justified. The United States had too much to lose in a high-consequence cyber attack. Bossert had repeated it so often that the president seemed to understand, but the import of this -- nuclear weapons as a cyber deterrent -- had not quite become part of the public debate.

No shit it hadn't, and still hasn't. The next time you read about some cyber vulnerability (and I'm about to tell you about one) you need to think about it as a place where a spark could set off nuclear war.

If we have a weakness that would require nuclear war as a response, you'd think we'd rapidly be trying to cover it, and that nuclear-war-type money -- hundreds of billions, in other words -- would be available. But no. The FY 2019 budget calls for $15 billion in cyber security, mostly focused on securing the federal government's own systems. But power grids, the communication infrastructure, pipelines, and much of the financial system all lie in the private sector. Corporations definitely have their own reasons to want to stop hackers, but I don't believe their motivation rises to avoiding-nuclear-war levels.

[Full disclosure: My wife, though mostly retired, still works in the computer-security industry. I doubt we would profit significantly from a big increase in cyber-security spending.]


China appears to have pulled off an amazing hack: The Chinese military built a microchip that surreptitiously got inserted onto motherboards built in Chinese factories for Supermicro, an American corporation whose

motherboards can be found in made-to-order server setups at banks, hedge funds, cloud computing providers, and web-hosting services, among other places. Supermicro has assembly facilities in California, the Netherlands, and Taiwan, but its motherboards—its core product—are nearly all manufactured by contractors in China.

... With more than 900 customers in 100 countries by 2015, Supermicro offered inroads to a bountiful collection of sensitive targets. “Think of Supermicro as the Microsoft of the hardware world,” says a former U.S. intelligence official who’s studied Supermicro and its business model. “Attacking Supermicro motherboards is like attacking Windows. It’s like attacking the whole world.”

... Since the implants were small, the amount of code they contained was small as well. But they were capable of doing two very important things: telling the device to communicate with one of several anonymous computers elsewhere on the internet that were loaded with more complex code; and preparing the device’s operating system to accept this new code.

About 30 companies appear to have been affected. Amazon and Apple are reported to have found the hack on their own. A certain amount of luck was involved.

and you also might be interested in ...

The video of Trump climbing the stairs into Air Force One with paper stuck to his shoe is funny, but it points to a serious problem: Trump has surrounded himself with people who are afraid to tell him when he looks ridiculous. What else might they be willing to let him do, rather than burst his I-never-make-mistakes bubble?


In the wake of the revised NAFTA deal, now called USMCA, an NYT article by Neil Irwin claims to have found a strategy in the administration's trade policies, which at times have looked almost random.

Now that the administration has shown it can get to yes with [Canada, Mexico, and South Korea], similarly patterned agreements with Europe and Japan are expected to come next. After revised deals with those allies are in place, the administration will most likely seek a concerted effort among them to isolate China and compel major changes to Chinese business and trade practices.

... A crucial question is whether the administration’s strategy of pummeling allies with attacks, threats and tariffs can yield not just revised trade agreements, but also the trust needed to undertake a concerted campaign against China.

A contrasting view comes from Robert Kagan in The Washington Post, who says we are "sleepwalking into war" with China. The problem is that Trump thinks only in terms of money, and doesn't understand that "Trade, finance, diplomacy and military power are all aspects of comprehensive national power."

Historically, however, economics and trade have always been an adjunct to geopolitics. Trade wars and economic competition were often precursors to real wars — Germany and Britain before World War I, for example, or the mercantilist competition among England, Spain and France in the 17th and 18th centuries.

... It’s not clear Trump administration officials quite see that their tough trade policies could lead down a path toward conflict. They are treating the trade dispute as a matter of punishing China for unfair trade practices and correcting imbalances. ... It would be one thing if Trump’s trade policy were part of an overall geopolitical strategy to deal with a rising China, but it isn’t.

... In our current inward-looking myopia, we think about jobs and votes. The Chinese, as always, think about power. In case you didn’t recognize it, this is what sleepwalking into war looks like.

and let's close with something symbolic

An 8-year-old girl found a pre-Viking sword in a lake in Sweden. If you have a good mythological imagination, you might muse on the timing. As patriarchy reasserts itself in North America ...