Monday, February 18, 2019

Defending the Constitution

No Sift next week. The next new articles will appear on March 4.
We call upon our Republican colleagues to join us to defend the Constitution.
- Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer
joint statement on President Trump declaring a national emergency

This week's featured posts are "A Fishy Emergency Threatens the Republic" and "I See Color".

This week everybody was talking about the "national emergency"

I covered this in one of the featured posts. I left out a link to the proclamation itself, so here it is.

Before getting around to declaring the emergency, (There is no emergency, so what's the hurry?) Trump talked about trade with China, demonstrating that he has no idea how international trade works.
We have been losing, on average, $375 billion a year with China. A lot of people think it is $506 billion. Some people think it is much more than that.
He doesn't seem to know that this is not a guessing game; his own government actually keeps track of foreign trade. The US trade deficit with China in goods in 2018 was $382 billion. In services, we run a trade surplus with China -- $38.5 billion in 2017 (I haven't found a 2018 figure)  -- so the total trade deficit in 2018 was probably less than $350 billion.

The only person who says $500 billion or more is Trump himself. He has been saying it since 2015 and it has repeatedly been pointed out to him that this is wrong.

The more subtle but more important error in his statement is that we aren't "losing" that $350 billion. We're spending money and getting stuff for it.
“A bilateral balance doesn’t really tell you anything about what the economy is doing,” said Scott Lincicome, an adjunct fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute, “just like my bilateral deficit with my grocery store doesn’t tell you anything about whether I’m in debt.”
Trump continued:
We’re gonna be leveling the playing field. The tariffs are hurting China very badly. They don’t want them and frankly if we can make the deal, it would be my honor to remove them. But otherwise, we are having very many billions of dollars pouring into our Treasury; we have never had that before with China.
He also doesn't understand how tariffs work. China doesn't pay the tariffs; American importers do, and they pass the cost on to their customers. So if you bought anything made in China this year, you paid a tariff. The Chinese paid nothing.

Military Times asked 900 active-duty troops to rate a variety of threats. Each bar in this graph represents the percentage of troops who described the threat as either "significant" or "very significant". Both "immigration" and "Mexico" ranked way down the threat list.


The conservative National Review has taken a very strong stand on the abuse of executive power:
Because executive power is awesome, and intended to be that way, certain abuses of it can be discouraged only by the credible threat that Congress will remove the president from power — or, if discouragement fails, can be remediated only by the president’s actual removal. That is why Madison believed that the inclusion of impeachment in Congress’s arsenal was “indispensible” to preserving the Constitution’s framework of liberty vouchsafed by divided power.
Of course, it took that stand in 2014, when the "executive overreach" in question was Obama's decision to tell 5 million undocumented immigrants that he was not going to get around to deporting them. To it's credit, NR isn't happy about Trump's seizure of power, but I haven't noticed them talking about impeachment.

and anti-Semitism

Ilhan Omar, one of two Muslim women in Congress, got herself in trouble by tweeting six words. Glenn Greenwald had just tweeted:
GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy threatens punishment for @IlhanMN and @RashidaTlaib over their criticisms of Israel. It's stunning how much time US political leaders spend defending a foreign nation even if it means attacking free speech rights of Americans.
Omar responded:
It's all about the Benjamins baby
If you're not tuned in to the history of anti-Semitism, you might not get why this is anti-Semitic. If the issue under discussion were, say, guns or drugs, there would be nothing particularly out-of-bounds about tweeting "It's all about the Benjamins" as a way of saying that McCarthy had been bought by the NRA or Big Pharma. But what makes it different when the subject is Israel is the long history (going back to the Rothschilds and even further) of conspiracy theories about Jewish money controlling events from behind the scenes.

Most recently, the Tree of Life shooting in Pittsburgh was motivated by the belief (widely held on the right-wing fringe) that Jews are plotting to dilute the US's white majority by encouraging caravans of illegal Hispanic immigrants to come up from Central America. George Soros is supposedly financing the caravans. Soros himself was a target of the MAGA Bomber in October, who shared a social-media meme showing Soros at the top of the "Controlled False Opposition".

So it's playing with fire to imply without evidence that Jewish money has bought Kevin McCarthy, because irresponsible accusations like that have resulted in people getting killed, not just in Eastern Europe during the pogroms, but recently here in America. (If terrorists were attacking NRA conventions, I'd be more careful about how I talked about them, too. I wouldn't stop disagreeing with them, but I'd be careful not to seem to endorse the violence.)

Omar apologized. Some Jewish writers, like David Perry, want to accept that apology and move on:
too often, my would-be allies against injustice on the left can easily stumble into anti-Semitic tropes and only sometimes realize quickly enough to reverse course. The most recent example happened on Twitter when Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, whose district in Minneapolis surrounds me as I write in my office, made a flippant tweet about Israeli money buying off Congress. She clearly meant it as a comment on the power of lobbyists, but it inadvertently invoked long-standing tropes of wealthy Jewish cabals exerting influence. The ensuing political firestorm revealed just how hard it is to maintain solidarity in the face of the oppressive forces that want to divide and conquer. The solution is this: Listen. Believe people when they reach out to you in good faith. Ignore bad-faith hypocrites. Apologize if necessary. Then we can move forward together.
But then there are the "bad-faith hypocrites" like Trump, who said Omar should resign. Or Mike Pence and Kevin McCarthy, who want Democrats to take away Ilhan's committee assignments, as Republicans did to Steve King after a lifetime of racist comments.
CNN's Jake Tapper did a great job of demonstrating that hypocrisy.
There is nothing that this White House finds more offensive than a politician feeding into stereotypes about Jews, Jewish money, and controlling politicians, which is what Congresswoman Omar is accused of having done.
But instead of a clip of Omar doing this -- there isn't one, she just tweeted those six words -- what rolled instead was Trump talking to the Republican Jewish Coalition in 2015:
You're not going to support me, even though you know I'm the best thing that could ever happen to Israel. ... You're not going to support me because I don't want your money. ... You want to control your own politicians.
Tapper then apologized for showing the wrong clip, and began a mock struggle with his "rogue" control room. As Tapper kept asking for the Omar tape, what he got instead was
  • A Trump tweet showing Hillary Clinton on a backdrop of money, with "Most Corrupt Candidate Ever!" printed on a large red Star of David.
  • Trump lecturing the press that "very fine people" were "on both sides" of the marches in Charlottesville, where right-wing extremists chanted "Jews will not replace us."
  • A Kevin McCarthy tweet: "We cannot allow Soros, Steyer, and Bloomberg" [three Jewish billionaires] "to BUY this election!"
He could have kept going by showing the 2016 Trump campaign's final ad, which The Guardian characterized like this:
The film features lurid shots of Wall Street and the Federal Reserve interspersed with images of three prominent Jewish people: Janet Yellen, who chairs the Federal Reserve, the progressive financier George Soros and the Goldman Sachs chief executive, Lloyd Blankfein.
“The establishment has trillions of dollars at stake in this election,” Trump is heard saying in the advert. “For those who control the levers of power in Washington and for the global special interests, they partner with these people that don’t have your good in mind.”
Instead, Tapper apologized and went to commercial, saying "We seem to be having some issues here sorting out which anti-Semitic tropes are offensive and which ones are not."

I understand the arguments for and against boycotting Israel (or perhaps just products made in the occupied territories) over the Israeli treatment of Palestinians. For: The situation is frequently compared to apartheid in South Africa, where a boycott played a significant role in putting pressure on the white government. Against: Of all the countries that violate human rights in one way or another, Israel is being picked out because of anti-Semitism.
But I don't understand why one side or the other of that debate should be illegal.

and Amazon

After that long public process about siting a second headquarters, Amazon has now changed its mind about building it in New York. Progressive politicians had begun to challenge the $3 billion in tax incentives that drew Amazon to New York.

There's a broader conversation to be had about corporations playing communities off against each other. I'm sure Amazon will get the deal it's looking for somewhere else. But should it?

Usually this issue comes up in the context of sports, when a city feels like it has to invest hundreds of millions in a sweetheart stadium deal in order to attract or keep a team. This is a situation where some federal rules might benefit everyone: Even the cities that "win" these competitions often wind up as losers.

and you also might be interested in ...

It looks like Bernie is running again.

Let's review: Kamala Harris isn't black enough, Kirsten Gillibrand is so out of touch that she doesn't know how to eat fried chicken, Elizabeth Warren should never have told anybody about her Native American ancestor, and Amy Klobuchar is a bad boss.

Isn't that weird? For every woman who runs for president, there's some story that blocks out consideration of what she wants to do.

I think the video rolling out Mark Kelly's campaign for the Arizona Senate seat that's up in 2020 is one of the best political pieces I've ever seen. Kelly has been a Navy pilot in Desert Storm, an astronaut, and the husband of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who survived being shot in the head by a mass shooter. The video is a fabulous mix of themes: service, heritage, heroism, risk, family. He may be a man running against a woman (Martha McSally, who lost her race to Kyrsten Sinema, but got appointed to fill out John McCain's term), but he's a man who has supported his wife through a difficult recovery. I think that's going to count for something.

To me, the most heart-breaking exchange is when Mark is sitting on a couch with Gabby, who apparently is still challenged to put together long sentences. "Do you remember when you entered Congress for the first time?" "Yes, so exciting." "It was exciting. You know, I thought then that I had the risky job."

Former FBI Director Andy McCabe isn't an unbiased source, but his account of the days after James Comey was fired is worth a look. I'll probably read his book when it comes out in a few weeks.

Cartoonist Jen Sorensen responds to Tom Brokaw's suggestion (since apologized for) that "Hispanics should work harder at assimilation".


Politicians put religion to the strangest uses. Wyoming recently came close to repealing the death penalty. The repeal bill passed the House and was unanimously approved by the appropriate Senate committee, only to lose 12-18 on the floor of the Senate. One senator explained her No vote like this:
Sen. Lynn Hutchings, R-Cheyenne, argued that without the death penalty, Jesus Christ would not have been able to die to absolve the sins of mankind, and therefore capital punishment should be maintained.
“The greatest man who ever lived died via the death penalty for you and me,” she said. “I’m grateful to him for our future hope because of this. Governments were instituted to execute justice. If it wasn’t for Jesus dying via the death penalty, we would all have no hope.”
That's what she learned from the story of Jesus.

What kind of woman has a late-term abortion, which the far right calls a "partial-birth" abortion? This kind.
In December 2014, I had an abortion at 29 weeks, after my first baby was diagnosed with a brain abnormality called lissencephaly. The early diagnosis—lissencephaly is sometimes not diagnosed until after birth—meant her case was severe and her prognosis was grim: We could expect her to live for two to six years while suffering from frequent respiratory infections and intermittently choking on her own saliva. Her cognitive development would be arrested or even reversed by painful seizures. She might have been able to smile socially and/or track motion with her eyes, but maybe not. Eventually, one of the bouts of pneumonia or choking episodes or complications from one of the surgeries needed to sustain basic life functions would have killed her.
The author, Margot Finn, eventually got involved with a support group for women who have gone through late-term abortions. None of them fit the anti-abortion stereotype of an irresponsible woman who just whimsically decided to kill her baby after procrastinating for six months.
I’m not sure I’ll ever understand how incurious some pro-life people seem to be about the reasons people seek abortions. In response to the version of my story I posted recently on Facebook, I’ve had people confidently claim that no one’s talking about people like me, that what I did was between me and my doctor. They say they’re talking about people who “just change their minds” at 24-plus weeks of pregnancy about whether they want the presumably healthy fetus cresting today’s fulcrum of “viability” inside them.
Oh, those people. Has anyone ever met one?

and let's close with some stupidity

Some would-be hi-tech thieves in Silicon Valley stole a shipment of GPS tracking devices. Within hours, police had tracked the devices, some of which were in the thieves' storage locker and the rest in their car. The storage locker also contained other stolen property, as well as some drugs.
And that's not all they did wrong.
Before making off with about $18,000 worth of the devices, the thieves grabbed a beer out of the fridge and cut themselves in the process, leaving fingerprints and blood evidence.
Clearly these guys need to spend time in prison, where they can meet more accomplished thieves and begin to educate themselves in their chosen profession.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Fictions

The lawless state of our southern border is a threat to the safety, security and financial well-being of all Americans.

- Donald Trump, 2019 State of the Union

The politics of eternity requires and produces problems that are insoluble because they are fictional.

- Timothy Snyder, The Road to Unfreedom

Every day he designs a false threat, steps in to the nonexistent battlefield, and declares himself victorious to a group of now emotionally dependent human beings, whose internal story and well-being depends on him winning. That’s the only way their world makes sense anymore, it is the only outcome they can conceive of.

- John Pavlovitz, "The Cult of Trump"

There was no featured post this week.

This week everybody was talking about Virginia

Last week's featured post "Ralph Northam and the Limits of Forgiveness" looks better now than it did at the time. When I wrote

I don’t think we’re ever going to find enough pure people to form a majority.

I didn't know that the entire Democratic leadership of Virginia state government would soon find itself embroiled in scandal and facing calls to resign. (Also some Republicans. And then the virus spread to Mississippi.) Forget about forming a majority. In Virginia, it may not be possible to find enough pure people to staff a government.

My point (that Democrats need to define a forgiveness process for past incidents of racism, sexism, and homophobia) was improved on by Rev. William Barber (famous for leading the Moral Monday protests in North Carolina): Forgiveness has to begin with repentance. Repentance, for Barber, means more than just a verbal apology; it means taking action to restore the balance.

Whether we are talking about Northam or President Trump — Democrats or Republicans — restitution that addresses systemic harm must be the fruit of true repentance.

If Northam, or any politician who has worn blackface, used the n-word or voted for the agenda of white supremacy, wants to repent, the first question they must ask is “How are the people who have been harmed by my actions asking to change the policies and practices of our society?” In political life, this means committing to expand voting rights, stand with immigrant neighbors, and provide health care and living wages for all people. In Virginia, it means stopping the environmental racism of the pipeline and natural gas compressor station Dominion Energy intends to build in Union Hill, a neighborhood founded by emancipated slaves and other free African Americans.

Barber made one important point very clearly: It does no good to force out people who did racist things years ago, if their power will then pass to people who are sponsoring racist policies today.

we cannot allow political enemies of Virginia’s governor to call for his resignation over a photo when they continue themselves to vote for the policies of white supremacy. If anyone wants to call for the governor’s resignation, they should also call for the resignation of anyone who has supported racist voter suppression or policies that have a disparate impact on communities of color.

Barber's article doesn't revisit the 2017 gubernatorial election, but it's worth thinking about. Northam was a candidate with a decades-old racist secret. But the Republican candidate in the race (Ed Gillespie) ran a race-baiting campaign, focused on raising fears about "sanctuary cities" (of which Virginia has none) and defending Confederate monuments (of which it has many).


While we're talking about Confederate monuments, Smithsonian Magazine has an excellent long article "The Costs of the Confederacy".

A century and a half after the Civil War, American taxpayers are still helping to sustain the defeated Rebels’ racist doctrine, the Lost Cause. First advanced in 1866 by a Confederate partisan named Edward Pollard, it maintains that the Confederacy was based on a noble ideal, the Civil War was not about slavery, and slavery was benign.

The authors traveled all over the South, and found lots of tax-supported Lost Cause propaganda.

We went on many tours of the homes of the Confederacy’s staunchest ideologues, and without exception we were told that the owners were good and the slaves were happy.

At the home of Confederate Secretary of State Robert Toombs, a question about his slaves (otherwise barely mentioned) elicited a quote (from a Depression-era oral history of slavery) from a slave about how proud he was to work for "Marse Robert Toombs".

A more revealing, well-documented story is that of Garland H. White, an enslaved man who escaped Toombs’ ownership just before the Civil War and fled to Ontario. After the war erupted he heroically risked his freedom to join the United States Colored Troops. He served as an Army chaplain and traveled to recruit African-American soldiers. We found no mention at the Toombs memorial of White’s experience. In fact, we know of no monument to White in all of Georgia.

And that's a point I wish got more attention: In addition to well-celebrated figures like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, the South had real Civil War heroes like White, people who risked their lives for freedom rather than for slavery. Their monuments are nowhere.

and the possibility of another government shutdown

The deadline is Friday. This weekend the negotiators started sounding pessimistic. But a lot can happen in a week.

and Jeff Bezos vs. the National Enquirer

I'm wondering who at the National Enquirer said: "Let's threaten the richest man in the world. That always works out well."

At the moment, the Bezos/AMI story is great gossip, with nude selfies and claims of extortion and so on. It could turn into much more if some of Bezos' accusations and implications turn out to be true.

Because deep down, we're all still in middle school.

Let's recap: The Enquirer ran a story on January 9 about Bezos' extramarital affair, the day after Bezos and his wife MacKezie announced that they were getting a divorce. I haven't heard whether the prospect of the story played any role in the timing or the fact of the divorce. The Enquirer story included "intimate texts" between Bezos and his mistress.

Bezos decided he wanted to know how the Enquirer got those texts, and what motivated them to go after him to begin with, so he hired investigators. You can hire a lot of investigators if you're worth $100 billion.

In particular, Bezos wanted know if the motive was political. He owns The Washington Post, which makes him an enemy of AMI CEO David Pecker's friend Donald Trump, and of the Saudi government, with whom AMI is seeking a lucrative alliance. The Post has been relentless about exposing Trump's lying and corruption, and it refuses to let the Saudi government get away with murdering one of its journalists, Jamaal Khashoggi.

That implication of a political motive apparently unhinged Pecker. According to Bezos' blog post on the subject, Pecker's people made Bezos "an offer I couldn’t refuse". (This is a Godfather reference.) Bezos should stop investigating and instead release a statement that his people “have no knowledge or basis for suggesting that AMI’s coverage was politically motivated or influenced by political forces.” And in exchange, AMI wouldn't release the texts and photos they had of him, including a naked selfie and revealing photos of his mistress.

Bezos instead decided to make the whole email exchange public and dare AMI to do its worst. (As Bobby Axelrod says on the TV show Billions: "What's the use of having fuck-you money if you never say 'Fuck you.'?") Since going public, Bezos has picked up support from other people who claim to have been threatened by AMI.

And there's another problem:

Federal prosecutors on Friday began looking into the accusation to see if American Media’s alleged conduct might violate the company’s agreement to cooperate with a government investigation of Trump, according to people familiar with the matter. If so, it could expose American Media and Enquirer Publisher David J. Pecker to prosecution for campaign-finance violations related to the McDougal payoff.

So it's Amazon's founder vs. the National Enquirer, with the possibility that the story might spill over and implicate Trump or the Saudi government. Pass the popcorn.

and the State of the Union

Usually, I treat the State of the Union as major news. For presidents of both parties, I've been known to do a featured article attempting to read between the lines. But this is another way in which this administration is different: Trump's speeches are just not that serious, not even the SOTU. (Stacey Abrams' Democratic response is here.) He says things that he thinks will sound good, but there is unlikely to be any follow-through.

Like all Trump speeches, this one was full of lies and misleading statements. It slandered undocumented immigrants, using the same propaganda techniques Hitler pioneered on the Jews. (Specifically: Highlighting crimes by the targeted group as if they were somehow different than other crimes. I'm sure someone could compile an list of crimes by German-Americans -- people like Trump and me -- that is just as horrifying as Trump's litany of crimes by undocumented immigrants.) He segued directly from Iranian threats against Israel to the 11 Jews murdered at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, as if the murderer had been a Muslim motivated by Iranian propaganda rather than a white supremacist who blamed Jews for the migrant caravans that Trump had been rabble-rousing about.

To the extent that the speech laid out an agenda, it's hard to take that agenda seriously. Once again, for example, he called for an infrastructure plan.

I am eager to work with you on legislation to deliver new and important infrastructure investment, including investments in the cutting edge industries of the future.

He said something similar last year ("Tonight, I am calling on the Congress to produce a bill that generates at least $1.5 trillion for the new infrastructure investment we need."), and delivered a poorly-thought-out proposal that his own party shelved.

The next major priority for me, and for all of us, should be to lower the cost of healthcare and prescription drugs -- and to protect patients with pre-existing conditions.

But of course, the main threat to people with pre-existing conditions has been Trump himself, and his eagerness to undo ObamaCare without caring what replaces it.

I am asking the Congress to pass legislation that finally takes on the problem of global freeloading and delivers fairness and price transparency for American patients. We should also require drug companies, insurance companies, and hospitals to disclose real prices to foster competition and bring costs down.

In any previous administration, that would mean that he had a piece of legislation drafted and ready to go. I sincerely doubt that Trump does. He has stated his good intentions, so now it's up to somebody else to craft a plan that manifests them, which he will feel no obligation to support.

I want people to come into our country in the largest numbers ever, but they have to come in legally.

So far, his policy has been the exact opposite: Not only has he demanded substantial reductions in legal immigration, but he has also tried to expel people who came here legally under the Temporary Protected Status program, and has been violating American laws and treaties by refusing to let refugees legally request asylum at the border. So is this new love of legal immigration an about-face, or did he just say something that sounded good in the moment, which we'll never hear about again? I'll bet on the latter.

The one statement in the speech I take seriously is this one:

If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation. It just doesn't work that way!

In other words, if Congress starts getting serious about oversight on this historically corrupt administration, Trump is going to take it personally. Unlike, say, Bill Clinton, who continued to work with Newt Gingrich's House Republicans while they investigated him constantly -- because that was his job -- Trump intends to hold the country hostage. If Congress passes legislation that would benefit America, Trump reserves the right not to sign it out of personal pique.


Democrats immediately called his bluff on that. A variety of House committees are gearing up for investigations of Trump's foreign business activities, possible violations of the Constitution's emolument clause, family separations at the Mexican border, and other issues. But Democrats are planning to proceed methodically.

“We’re going to do our homework first,” said House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), whose panel is scheduled to receive testimony from Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross next month. “What [Republicans] would do is, they would go out and make headlines a week or two before the hearing and then look for some facts to prove the headlines. We’re not doing that.”

The difference, IMO, is that Republicans investigating the Obama administration suspected there was nothing to find, so their biggest bang would be in the insinuations they could make as hearings were looming. But Democrats investigating Trump believe the corruption and illegal activity is really there. The payoff will come when they find it.


That said, I watched a small amount of Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker's six hours of testimony to the House Judiciary Committee, and saw clips of the "highlights" of the rest it. I don't think the hearing reflected well on anybody. Whitaker was needlessly rude and argumentative, and the members of the committee were needlessly aggressive and accusatory.

The main thing was to ask Whitaker a small list of questions and get his answers on the record. So here's the content of the whole six hours: He denies telling Trump or other "senior White House officials" anything he learned about the Mueller investigation. He says he hasn't interfered in Mueller's investigation. He refused to say whether or not he thinks the Mueller investigation is a "witch hunt".

I think it's important that investigating House Democrats project an image of calm determination: They won't be stopped, but they're in this for the good of the nation rather than to get on TV. Trump needs to tell his base a story of Us Against Them, while Democrats need the story to be Truth Will Out. The Whitaker hearing turned into Us Against Them, so in that sense I don't think it was a good start.

and abortion

So Louisiana has passed an anti-abortion law that requires doctors in clinics that provide abortions to get admitting privileges in a local hospital. That may look reasonable at first glance, but I explained why it's not when Alabama had a similar law challenged in 2014.

The history of violence against abortionists in Alabama, and the continuing harassment and intimidation of doctors and their patients, makes it unsafe for an abortion-clinic doctor to live in large parts of Alabama. In the three clinics likely to close, most doctors have their primary practice and residence elsewhere. (One doctor drives to the clinic from another state, using a diverse series of rentals cars rather than his own car, in hopes that he won’t be spotted by potential assassins.) That lack of local presence makes them ineligible for admitting privileges at local hospitals. The clinics could stay open if they could recruit new doctors who live and practice nearby, but that is impossible because they would not be safe.

So in passing this provision, the Alabama legislature was, in essence, conspiring with violent terrorists. Clinics would be shut down by the confluence between the law and predictable outside-the-law violence. That wasn't some unfortunate but unforeseen side effect; that was the point.

Eventually, a Texas version of the law reached the Supreme Court, where it was struck down. (Justice Breyer wrote the 5-4 majority opinion. The provision did not confer "medical benefits sufficient to justify the burdens upon access".) Courts are supposed to respect precedent rather than continuing to re-examine the same arguments, so that should have been the end of such laws.

It wasn't. Louisiana passed its own admitting-privileges law, which is expected to make two of the three abortion clinics in Louisiana close. Anti-abortion activist judges refused to cite the binding precedent and illegitimately pushed the case up the line, figuring that with Kavanaugh replacing Kennedy, maybe the balance of power on the Court had changed. They were right about Kavanaugh, but Chief Justice Roberts cast the deciding vote to block enforcement of the Louisiana law until the Court can rule on its constitutionality.

When Susan Collins blessed Kavanaugh's appointment to the Court, she took at face value his pledge to respect precedents like Roe v Wade. Charles Pierce explains how that is playing out.

[Kavanaugh's] dissent relies on, along other things, the transparently phony notion that Louisiana officials will be judicious in using the law they've already passed. He writes:

...the State's regulation provides that there will be a 45-day regulatory transition period before the new law is applied. The State represents, moreover, that Louisiana "will not move aggressively to enforce the challenged law" during the transition period.

You'd have to be as big a sap as Susan Collins is to believe that one. It's impossible that even Kavanaugh believes it. What the defenders of the right to choose feared—and of which they still remain wary—is that upholding the Louisiana law will send a clear message to state judges that the federal system will not defend its own rulings. Thus would Roe v. Wade essentially die from a thousand cuts.

I'll pull out another piece of Kavanaugh's dissent.

during the 45-day transition period, both the doctors and the relevant hospitals could act expeditiously and in good faith to reach a definitive conclusion about whether those three doctors can obtain admitting privileges.

Kavanaugh trusts the good faith of anti-abortion forces, when bad faith is the whole point of this law. That's what we can expect from Kavanaugh. Maybe he won't seek to reverse Roe immediately, but in every case that comes before him, he will concoct some reason not to enforce it quite yet.

but ultimately, the Green New Deal might turn out to be the most important thing that happened this week

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey released a proposed nonbinding congressional resolution calling for a Green New Deal.

It's hard to know how to think about this. On the one hand, no one expects this plan for a "ten-year national mobilization" to be carried out as written. It may not even be possible, even if the country and its government had the political will to do so. (For example: "to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions through a fair and just transition for all communities and workers" in ten years.)

In addition to the call for massive infrastructure spending to create an environmentally sustainable economy (that anything calling itself a "Green New Deal" would have to have), it also includes (in the words of New York magazine's Eric Levitz) "damn near every item on progressives’ policy wish list": national health care, union rights, racial justice, and so on.

So if your definition of a "serious proposal" includes an expectation that it might become law sometime soon and succeed in achieving its stated goals, this is not a serious proposal. There's no negotiation with Mitch McConnell that starts here and winds up anywhere. (Mitch wouldn't even agree to massive infrastructure spending on roads and bridges when the leader of his own party called for it.) And even if Democrats win all the open Senate seats on 2020, it's still not going to happen, because there's the whole question of possibility.

Maybe that bothers you, or maybe see the Green New Deal serving another purpose. Slate's Mike Pesca is bothered.

Well, call me a tired old watchdog, or fuddy-duddy fact finder—I do not assess policies through the lens of the charismatic and compelling Ocasio-Cortez, who has become the perfect distillation of the Trumpian, big swing, mega-MAGA hashtag, nonconstrained by literalism, post–reality-to-accuracy politics age. I tend to judge ideas by considering the opinions of experts who know more than I do. And when it comes to the Green New Deal, almost none of these people think that the United States can achieve its goal of 100 percent renewable energy by 2030.

... Perhaps I am naïve when it comes to the way the world works, and I should realize that knowingly unrealistic, which is to say dishonest, goals and proposals that will not work are the best ways to steer us to a better future. Instead, I worry that having impossible goals might dissuade the public and discredit those proposing them.

Levitz, though, sees something else, "so long as you take the Green New Deal seriously, but not literally."

AOC’s decision to append a wide variety of progressive goals — each with its own influential constituency — to her climate plan is tactically sound: If the entire Democratic agenda is rebranded as the “Green New Deal,” a future Democratic government will be less likely to ignore the central importance of climate sustainability to all of its other policy goals; which is to say, a future Democratic government will be less likely to de-prioritize preventing ecological catastrophe.

... As a mechanism for raising expectations for what qualifies as a progressive climate policy — and increasing the probability that Congress passes such a policy within the next decade — the Green New Deal is politically realistic. As a blueprint for a climate bill that is both legislatively viable, and commensurate with the scale of the ecological threat humanity faces, it is not.

But neither is anything else. ... There is simply no way to mount a realistic response to climate change without changing political reality. And for now, the Green New Deal is the most realistic plan we’ve got for doing the latter.


Whether you're a fan of AOC or think she gets too much attention already, her lightning-round exploration of government ethics limits is brilliant and deserves wider distribution.

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If you ever doubted that the conservative version of "religious freedom" only applies to Christians, the conservative majority on the Supreme Court just made it clear. Thursday, the Court voted 5-4 (on party lines, a phrase we didn't used to use for Supreme Court votes) to allow Alabama to execute a Muslim prisoner without honoring his request to have an imam present. The prison employs a Christian chaplain.

The chaplain kneels and prays with inmates who seek pastoral care, the officials said. After considering Mr. Ray’s request, prison officials agreed to exclude the chaplain. But they said allowing the imam to be present raised unacceptable safety concerns.

Justice Kagan's dissent summarizes the problem:

Under that policy, a Christian prisoner may have a minister of his own faith accompany him into the execution chamber to say his last rites. But if an inmate practices a different religion—whether Islam,Judaism, or any other—he may not die with a minister of his own faith by his side. That treatment goes against the Establishment Clause’s core principle of denominational neutrality.


While we're talking about religion and the law, the Masterpiece Cakeshop case (where the Supreme Court sided with the baker against the gay couple that wanted a wedding cake) was decided on such narrow grounds that it didn't really settle the underlying issues: How do anti-discrimination laws interface with a business-owner's freedoms of speech and religion? So now new cases are rising through the system.


Two completely different views of what's going on in Venezuela: It's about restoring democracy. It's about preserving white supremacy.


As people start completing their tax returns, many of them are realizing that the Trump Tax Cut didn't do much for them. Some are actually paying more tax, due to changes in deductions. And even people who are paying less tax in total are being surprised that they owe money rather than have a refund coming. That's because withholding guidelines were changed, possibly with the intent to make the tax cut temporarily look bigger than it actually was.


Finland ran an experiment in giving people a guaranteed basic income. The government picked 2,000 unemployed Finns at random and promised them $635 a month for two years, no strings attached. Find a job, don't find a job, you get to keep the money.

How you view the results depends on whether you're a glass-half-full person or not. The GBI turned out to have no effect on whether or not people got jobs. So it didn't turn their lives around, but it also didn't encourage idleness. The recipients became slightly more entrepreneurial, and they reported feeling much less stressed.


OK, I admit that "Trump supporter says something stupid" isn't news any more. I think we see way too much coverage of stuff like that already. But this ...

Candace Owens ... is one of the president’s best-known black supporters. The 29-year-old activist and social media aficionado regularly appears on Fox News imploring black Americans to leave the Democratic Party. ... At a December event in London, Owens said:

"I actually don’t have any problems at all with the word ‘nationalism.' I think that the definition gets poisoned by elitists that actually want globalism. Globalism is what I don’t want, so when you think about whenever we say nationalism, the first thing people think about, at least in America, is Hitler. ... He was a national socialist. But if Hitler just wanted to make Germany great and have things run well, okay, fine. The problem is that he wanted, he had dreams outside of Germany. He wanted to globalize."

So basically, as long as Hitler just wanted to annihilate the Jews in Germany, that was "okay, fine". He didn't get out of line until he started to go after the Jews in Poland and Holland. National death camps good; international death camps bad.

Back in May, Trump tweeted:

Candace Owens of Turning Point USA is having a big impact on politics in our Country. She represents an ever expanding group of very smart “thinkers,” and it is wonderful to watch and hear the dialogue going on...so good for our Country!


And "Trump is a hypocrite" isn't exactly news either, but this story similarly takes things to a new level. The Washington Post describes "a long-running pipeline of illegal workers" between Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey and the village of Santa Teresa de Cajon in Costa Rica.

Over the years, the network from Costa Rica to Bedminster expanded as workers recruited friends and relatives, some flying to the United States on tourist visas and others paying smugglers thousands of dollars to help them cross the U.S.-Mexico border, former employees said. New hires needed little more than a crudely printed phony green card and a fake Social Security number to land a job, they said.

Why did the Trump Organization do this? In a word, money.

There was also seeding, watering, mowing, building the sand traps and driving bulldozers, mini-excavators and loaders — all while they earned about $10 an hour or less, they said. Around that time, a licensed heavy equipment operator in central New Jersey would have received an average of $51 to $55 per hour in wages and benefits, according to union officials at the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 825 in the nearby town of Springfield.


In The Atlantic, Richard Parker explains why Trump's wall will never be built: The people who own that land now have enough clout to protect it from being taken by the federal government.

There will be no “concrete structure from sea to sea,” as the president once pledged. Taking this land would constitute an assault on private property and require a veritable army of lawyers, who, I can assure you, are no match for the state’s powerful border barons.


Elizabeth Warren officially announced her candidacy, during a week when the Native American issue refused to die. I'm sad about that. To me, Warren is the most authentic candidate in the race. She went into politics because she felt that the big banks and corporations were rigging the system against ordinary people, so that the path she had taken from the working class to the professional class was now much, much harder to travel. That's what her career has been about ever since.

I have to agree with Matt Yglesias' take:

Warren would like to have a debate about economic policy with Trump. Trump would like everyone to fall back on racial identity instead. You, as a citizen or a journalist or whatever else you are, are allowed to choose whether or not to take the bait on his provocations.


Amy Klobuchar is in the race. My impression is that Klobuchar is the Democrats' most likeable candidate other than maybe Biden. She's also the candidate I would feel most confident of in a race against Trump. She radiates a Midwestern decency that I think Trump would have a hard time countering.

But I recall another Minnesota candidate, Republican Tim Pawlenty. It's hard to remember now, but at the beginning of the 2012 cycle, a lot of pundits were projecting Pawlenty as the candidate the party would ultimately settle on, because he was the one who would be most acceptable to all the major Republican factions.

The problem with that strategy was that Pawlenty turned out to be nobody's first choice, so he was out of the race before a single vote was cast. That's going to be Klobuchar's challenge: How is she going to become people's first choice, rather than just somebody they like?

If you're mad as hell and you're not going to take it any more, other candidates will express that anger better for you. But if you're tired of being angry all the time and you long for a politics that's more than the Outrage of the Day, you might want to look at Amy. (Or Cory Booker.)

and let's close with something topical

The Dunning-Kruger song from The Incompetence Opera.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Emergency Measures

No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law.

- US Constitution, Article I, Section 9

QUESTION: So you don't need congressional approval to build the wall?

TRUMP: No, we can use -- absolutely. We can call a national emergency because of the security of our country, absolutely. No, we can do it. I haven't done it. I may do it. I may do it, but we could call a national emergency and build it very quickly.

- press conference January 4

This week's featured posts are "Another Week in the Post-Truth Administration" and "Ralph Northam and the Limits of Forgiveness".

This week everybody was talking about the budget negotiations

But nobody was saying anything terribly insightful about them. The government is funded through February 15, so the conference committee has until then to make a deal. Maybe they'll succeed and maybe they won't. But whatever deal does or doesn't happen, it won't be negotiated in public. The way these things usually go is that there appears to be no deal until suddenly there is one. Speculation is always titillating, but we're in a phase where we just have to wait and see.

and the weather

How cold was it? In Chicago, transit crews were setting the train tracks on fire to keep them from freezing over.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0HHqZMHRJQ8

Of course, people who don't understand the science raised the usual question: How can there be global warming if it's so cold out?

The answer (from Science Alert) is that there's been a weird airflow pattern, not that the planet as a whole is actually colder than usual. The North Pole was having a heat wave, relatively speaking, after sending much of its cold air south. (It's like when you stand in front of an open refrigerator door. You're not eliminating warmth, you're just reshuffling it.)

A condensed version of Science Alert's explanation: Melting ice in the Arctic is causing it to reflect less sunlight and absorb more heat. This lowers the temperature differential between the Pole and lower latitudes. Ordinarily, the polar vortex is a high-altitude "river of wind" that is more-or-less circular around the Pole. But the lower temperature differential slows that river down and makes its course more erratic. So occasionally it dips south, carrying polar cold into lower latitudes.

So yes, strange as it sounds, this week's record cold across the northern and eastern US was in fact evidence of global warming. (This kind of weather will probably happen more often as climate change continues.) And even as the weather was far colder than usual where I live, it was still warmer than usual when you look at the whole Earth.

and Governor Northam

One of this week's featured posts compares Northam to past Democratic figures like Robert Byrd and George Wallace, both of whom were allowed a measure of redemption.

But a second issue concerns double standards for Democrats and Republicans. Florida Secretary of State Michael Ertel had to resign last week because of blackface photos: He wore blackface to make fun of victims of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. That case didn't arouse my sympathy. So am I applying different standards to Republicans?

The answer is: Yes I am, and I don't apologize for it.

Here's why: Questions of racism get raised by standard Republican positions on issues that come up every day. When you denounce "amnesty" for the undocumented, are you concerned about the rule of law, or are you really thinking that there are already too many brown people in the US? (I mean, why can't we have more immigration from Norway?) Is it an unfortunate coincidence that your anti-voter-fraud measures suppress the black and Hispanic vote, or is that the point? Are you really supporting your local police, or do you just not care when officers kill young black men? Do you think the government spends too much, or just that it spends too much on people who don't look like you?

When a politician's positions on current issues already raise questions about racism, then evidence of racism in his or her past ought to have increased significance.

and national emergencies

The concept of a national emergency is simple: Congress moves more slowly than the Executive Branch. Recognizing that, Congress pre-authorizes the President to take timely actions in situations that are moving too fast for a congressional response.

A national emergency formalizes what President Lincoln did at the beginning of the Civil War: take immediate necessary actions and ask Congress for its approval some other time. (From Lincoln's message to a special session of Congress assembled on July 4, 1861: "It was with the deepest regret that the Executive found the duty of employing the war power in defense of the Government forced upon him. He could but perform this duty or surrender the existence of the Government.")

I haven't read the national emergency laws, so I can't say for sure what they do or don't allow. But I do know this: What Trump is proposing (to declare a national emergency so that he can build his Wall without the approval of Congress) invalidates the whole justification of national emergencies.

The situation at the border is largely unchanged since Trump took office, except for humanitarian problems he has caused himself by mistreating refugees. (He could solve those problems without declaring an emergency, just by reversing his own policies.) Events are not moving too fast for Congress to react. In fact, Congress has acted; it just hasn't done what Trump wanted.

To declare an emergency under these circumstances would be an authoritarian act, an abuse of power that could well be impeachable. The President would not be getting out in front of Congress, he would be circumventing Congress.

He would also be defying the will of the American people. Trump is a minority president, elected with 46% of the vote, nearly 3 million fewer votes than his main opponent. He has remained unpopular throughout his administration; his approval rating has never hit 50%. More recently, Democrats won a majority in the House of Representatives with 53% of the vote. It is Pelosi, not Trump, who has a popular mandate.

and Venezuela

I confess to not paying a lot of attention to South America over the years, so I've been looking for background articles that can help me make sense of the current crisis. The BBC has a fairly good one, which I'll summarize:

Venezuela has a lot of oil, and the potential to be a fairly prosperous country. But in the 1990s it had massive inequality. It sounds like the usual Latin American thing, but moreso: A few families controlled everything and a lot of people were desperate. The new oil wealth just made that worse.

Democracy and inequality on this scale can only coexist for so long, and so Hugo Chávez got elected president as a socialist in 1999. A lot of his reforms were poorly thought out and backfired on the general economy. (The BBC article mentions his price controls, which pushed a lot of the controlled items onto the black market.) But he also spent oil money on programs that improved health care, literacy, and quality of life among the poor. He remained popular for most of his era in power -- he died as president in 2013 -- but at the same time had very powerful enemies among the upper classes. He consolidated power and became a virtual dictator.

Things started to get really bad late in his administration, when the global price of oil collapsed. The oil revenues had put a blanket over a lot of unsustainable policies, which started to unravel. By now, the country is a mess. About 3 million of the country's 32 million people have left. US intelligence services estimate that another 2 million refugees will leave soon.

Chávez was succeeded by the current president, Nicolás Maduro, who has not managed to turn things around. He was re-elected last May to a 6-year term that started a few weeks ago. His re-election, though, was rigged, so the opposition says the presidency is vacant now. The Venezuelan Constitution says that when the presidency is vacant, it falls to the head of the Assembly, who is Juan Guaidó. Guaidó has declared himself acting president, which Maduro disputes.

The United States, the EU, and most of Latin America recognizes Guaidó as president. Maduro has the support of Russia, China, and a few other countries. So far the Venezuelan military is sticking with Maduro.

The immediate problem is that legitimacy has broken down. Nobody has a clear claim to be in charge. The Maduro government is clearly not good for the country, but would a Guaidó government be better? A Venezuelan might wish for things to go back to normal, but when was that exactly? In Latin America, "normal" is often a desperate condition for the lower classes.

That's why the suggestion that American troops might get involved is so worrisome. It's not that the Maduro government deserves to survive, but that we could easily wind up fighting to help plutocrats keep the common people down. In Tuesday's Senate Intelligence Committee hearings, Senator Marco Rubio listed the misdeeds of the Venezuelan government and raised the question:

Is it not in the national interest of the United States of America that the Maduro regime fall?

Senator Angus King of Maine responded with caution:

[Senator Rubio] listed refugee flows, human rights abuses, and corruption. There are lots of countries in the world that meet that description, and our right or responsibility to generate regime change in a situation like that, I think, is a slippery slope. I have some real caution about what our vital interests are, and whether it's our right or responsibility to take action to try to change the government of another sovereign country. That same description would have led us into a much more active involvement in Syria, for example, five or six years ago.


An additional problem from the US perspective is that Venezuela has taken on symbolic meaning for American conservatives: It's a cautionary tale illustrating why you should never elect socialists. Whenever an American progressive proposes Medicare for All, a conservative will start talking about Venezuela, as if no other country in the world had universal health care, and as if American progressives look to Venezuela as a model rather than Denmark or Sweden or Canada, which were the top three countries in US News' 2018 best-quality-of-life ratings.

Venezuela's symbolic significance makes it harder to see what is actually happening there.

but maybe we shouldn't have been talking about Howard Schultz

OK, he's rich and he wants to be president. But so far, as best I can tell, he doesn't have a base or a signature issue or a poll showing that any measurable number of people would vote for him. So I can't figure out why his potential candidacy is worth all this attention. Why is he getting so much free media?

The Schultz media rollout has been eye-popping, with the billionaire sitting down for interviews with not only 60 Minutes, but CBS This Morning, CNBC, Goop, the New York Times, ABC's The View, MSNBC's Morning Joe, and NPR's Morning Edition.

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Cory Booker has joined the 2020 race.


Last Monday, a Trump tweet endorsed the "Biblical Literacy" legislation that has been proposed in a number of states, including Missouri, North Dakota, Virginia, and West Virginia. Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas already have such laws. The point is to require public schools to offer elective courses that teach about the Bible.

Americans United for the Separation of Church and State comments on its blog:

To be clear, the classes are not per se unconstitutional. But Bible classes must be taught in accordance with constitutional requirements set out by courts. These courses must be taught in a nondevotional manner with no attempt made to indoctrinate students as to either the truth or falsity of biblical accounts. The courses should not be taught from the perspective that the Bible is a literal historical record, and such courses must expose students to critical perspectives on the Bible and a diversity of scholarly interpretations.

In other words, you can teach that the Gospel of John says Jesus rose from the dead. But you can't teach "Jesus rose from the dead" as a historical fact, citing John as your authority. The same thing applies to any other religion. Students should learn what Muslims believe about the origin of the Quran: The Archangel Gabriel recited it to Muhammad. But that's different from teaching them that this recitation actually happened.

Similarly, there's nothing wrong with a high school class reading the Book of Job or the Song of Solomon and discussing them the same way they would discuss The Odyssey or any other ancient text. (Though probably most high schools would consider Song of Solomon too racy.)

It's not that hard a distinction to understand, if you want to understand it. Unfortunately, a lot of Christian fundamentalists would rather not understand it or observe it.

Texas passed one of these bills in 2009, and the resulting classes offered in many districts have been very problematic. Six years ago, Mark Chancey, a religious studies professor at Southern Methodist University, surveyed courses in 60 districts around the state. Only 11 districts, Chancey found, were “especially successful in displaying academic rigor and a constitutionally sound” approach. The other 49, he found, “were a mixed bag, some were terrible.” Chancey singled out 21 districts as offering “especially egregious" instruction. According to Chancey’s research, public school students in these courses were taught that “the Bible is written under God's direction and inspiration,” Christians will at some point be “raptured,” and that the Founding Fathers formed our country on the principles of the Holy Bible. (Kentucky passed one of these laws as well and has had similar problems.)

In fact, a properly taught Biblical Literacy course would probably horrify the very people who are pushing to create such courses, because it would teach students that over the centuries the Bible has been read and interpreted many different ways. Whatever your pastor told you is not the only way to think about it.

What Project Blitz and other backers of Biblical Literacy courses want instead is to have the government endorse their particular theology, and to force non-believers to pay taxes that promote fundamentalist Christian views. That has been illegal at least since my friend Ellery Schempp (he's still alive and belongs to my church) won his Supreme Court case in 1963.


The first priority of House Democrats, H.R. 1, is a bill to curb corruption and make it easier to vote. Among other things, it would make Election Day a national holiday, so that workers would have an easier time making it to the polls. It would also expand early voting, require the president and vice president to publish the last 10 years of their tax returns, force SuperPACs to reveal where their money comes from, make government contractors report their political contributions, provide federal matching funds to encourage small donations to political campaigns, make voter registration an opt-out system rather than an opt-in system, reduce gerrymandering, and do many other things to make elections a truer gauge of the will of the People.

Mitch McConnell, of course, is against it and will not bring it to the floor of the Senate after it passes the House. The bill, he says, is a "power grab". And he's right, it is. It is an attempt to grab power for the American people. McConnell's GOP, which represents a minority of the American people but a majority of the super-rich, would have some of its power taken away. GQ's Luke Darby has it right:

What McConnell calls a "power grab" is common practice in most functioning democracies. But building and maintaining a functioning democracy has never been his priority.

Meanwhile, Texas is steaming ahead on suppressing the votes of non-whites.


Trevor Noah: The black community has been saying for years that the police have too much power to wreck people's lives, and Trump has paid no attention. But now the President is outraged when that power is used against his henchmen, as when Roger Stone was hauled to jail in a predawn raid on his home.

These guys are genuinely shocked when the police use the same force on them that they've been using on so many other people in the country, unchecked.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0fzWsroZPik


I put off writing this article for so long that now David Brin has written it. Adam Smith and F. A. Hayek don't have anything to do with present-day conservatism. The current free-market-worship really has no philosophy behind it. It's pure superstition.


Gizmodo's Kashmir Hill is cutting the big internet companies out of her life and chronicling what changes. This week it's Google, and it affects a lot more things than you'd think.


Texas Secretary of State David Whitley has been circulating "a list of 95,000 registered voters who were matched with people flagged by the Texas Department of Public Safety as being noncitizens ... 58,000 of whom have voted in TX elections". The Atlantic explains why you shouldn't take this claim seriously, even if Trump does.

Several years ago I looked at a similar claim about dead people voting in South Carolina. The state attorney general was claiming that his computer search showed that 900 dead people had voted. His claim fit the right-wing narrative, so he made the talk-radio circuit and got interviewed on Fox News.

As soon as the election boards started investigating his list, though, the whole thing unraveled. It turned out there were a bunch of legitimate ways a name might end up on that list, from mistaken identity to clerical error to having a heart attack two seconds after you dropped your absentee ballot into the mailbox. Eventually the state police got pulled into the investigation, and when they were done the number of unexplained cases was down to three, with no clear evidence of election fraud even for those three.

Something similar will happen here.


Here's a dam good metaphor.


Last Monday, Sarah Sanders held the first White House briefing in more than a month, and CNN decided not to cover it live. MSNBC stopped routinely airing live White House briefings in November. Both networks send reporters and camera, but then let their editors decide what was newsworthy.

This is part of the media's evolving strategy for dealing with a White House whose communications include more disinformation than information. Finally, news networks are realizing that they are not obligated to give the White House a open channel to lie to the American people. That doesn't serve the country and doesn't serve their viewers.

That gradual evolution started early on, when a lot of news hosts stopped inviting Kellyanne Conway for interviews, since it is virtually impossible to get any useful information out of her. A few weeks ago, CNN's Chris Cuomo had Conway on, and Don Lemon shook his head sadly as he and Cuomo had their nightly handoff conversation. I agreed with Lemon: The Cuomo/Conway fencing match was entertaining for people who are into that kind of thing, but no one learned anything from it.

The people who parrot Trump's fake-news denunciations of CNN saw hypocrisy here: CNN criticized the White House for not have briefings, and then didn't cover the one they had. But I don't buy it. What journalists are asking for is the kind of news briefings they got during every other administration of the television era: A chance to ask the press secretary questions and get answers that may be slanted, but were mostly reliable. Previous press secretaries often didn't know answers to questions, but made a good-faith effort to get them. Sanders offers fake briefings that are full of outright lies, and if she doesn't know the answer to a question, that's the end of it; she's not going to put any effort into finding out.


Meanwhile, I'm trying not to get too excited about Sarah Sanders saying that God wanted Trump to be president. Her interview with CBN is one of those shiny objects that is supposed to distract us from Trump's disastrous shutdown and the increasing likelihood that he's a Russian asset. But I do have to point out that God denied Sanders' claim on Facebook.

What? You don't think that's the real God? Maybe not, but I think whoever owns that Facebook page has as much right to speak for God as Sarah Sanders does.

and let's close with something for the birds

About 10,000 people in a mountainous part of Turkey speak "bird language", a whistle-based system of communication.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Crisis and Spectacle

Rather than governing, the leader produces crisis and spectacle.

- Timothy Snyder The Road to Unfreedom

This week's featured posts are "The End of the Shutdown" and "Extortion Tactics Have No Place in American Democracy".

This week everybody was talking about the end of the shutdown

The featured posts look at the shutdown from two perspectives: One is news-oriented; it summarizes the events and looks ahead to the possibilities. The other takes a more long-term view: If extortionist tactics are considered legitimate, eventually democracy will unravel. Someday a leader will point to the chaos of a shut-down government and blame not the other party, but democracy itself. He'll offer to make it all go away, and people will listen.


It's minor in the long run, but Nancy Pelosi won her staredown with Trump regarding the State of the Union. I like the way Amanda Marcotte summed it up:

Typical. A woman offers a soft no. The man pretends not to understand her and presses his case. And she is forced to resort to a forceful no.

and Roger Stone's indictment

The indictment itself is here, and a good summary of what it means is at Lawfare. The essence of the 7-count indictment doesn't concern what Stone did, but how he lied about what he did, both to Congress and to investigators. Also, he tried to influence other witnesses, including telling one to "do a Frank Pentangeli". (Pentangeli is a character in The Godfather II who claims not to remember anything when it comes time to testify before Congress.)

Trump defenders are once again claiming that an indictment for anything other than conspiracy with the Russians shows that Mueller doesn't have evidence of conspiracy with the Russians. But that doesn't follow logically, and they still have no answer to the question: Why did so many of Trump's people feel that they had to lie about their Russian contacts, even in situations where lying was illegal?

but I'm fascinated to see what's making it into the public discussion

Maybe I'll write about this more next week. (There was already so much to cover this week.) But I'm being amazed at the ideas that are being talked about lately.

Last Monday, the head of the flight attendants union called for a general strike to end the government shutdown. The general strike -- when workers of all kinds stop working, rather than just workers at a particular place or in a particular industry -- is a tactic seldom mentioned these days. But it makes a certain amount of sense as a response to a government shutdown. That speech (as best I can tell) didn't make the NYT or the WaPo, but Atlantic mentioned it. Teen Vogue gave its readers a primer on the whole idea of a general strike.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has brought a lot of attention to the idea of a much higher top income-tax bracket. She's been talking about 70% on incomes over $10 million. The idea makes sense and is popular. It's so hard to argue against that Republicans like Scott Walker have had to misrepresent her plan.

And this week, Elizabeth Warren came out with an "ultra-millionaire" tax that is on wealth rather than income. Net worth higher than $50 million would be taxed at 2%, and over a billion at 3%.

Not so long ago, all these ideas would have been dismissed and ignored by the mainstream media.

and you also might be interested in ...

The US and the Taliban have announced agreement on a framework for peace in Afghanistan. The pieces are that the Taliban will not allow its territory to be used as a staging ground for terrorists, the US will withdraw its troops, and the Taliban will begin negotiating directly with the Afghan government amid a general ceasefire.

A framework is a long way from actual peace, as we have seen with North Korea. But this is hopeful.


Slate's Mark Joseph Stern foresees a consequence of Brett Kavanaugh replacing Anthony Kennedy on the Supreme Court (and indirectly of Neil Gorsuch taking the seat that should have gone to Merrick Garland): Concealed carry of firearms may soon be legal everywhere.

The immediate case before the Court simply asks that the right to a handgun in the home be extended to a right to transport a firearm between homes. But a national right to concealed carry or even open carry may be the ultimate result. Once you have a constitutional right to possess a gun outside of your home, it's hard to come up with any obvious boundary.


Russell Baker died at the age of 93. People under, say, 40 may not remember him (except possibly as a host of Masterpiece Theatre), but he was a long-time New York Times columnist who won two Pulitzers, one for his columns and one for the story of his Depression-era childhood, Growing Up.

I haven't read Growing Up since shortly after it came out in 1983, but I imagine it would hold up well. In the introduction Baker explains why he wrote it: His mother had just died, and as she faded to the point where she couldn't converse any more, he thought about all the questions he would still like to ask. Then he thought about his own children, and how they probably wouldn't be curious about his life until it was too late to ask him about it. He wrote Growing Up in anticipation of their future curiosity. The book is full of memorable characters, including Uncle Harold, whose engaging stories of family history were often interrupted by his wife yelling from another room: "Harold, quit telling those lies!"


Various fixes to Theresa May's Brexit plan are going to be voted on in Parliament tomorrow. It's still very unclear what will happen.

and let's close with something unusual

We all know that fish form schools, but who teaches them? Manatees.