Monday, February 29, 2016

Decisive Races

We were trying to do some modeling on which states Trump is strong and weak in -- there's now enough polling across different states to do that -- and the best correlate we could find for Trump's support is Google searches for the N-word.

-- Nate Silver, 538 podcast, 2-25-2016

This week's featured post is "Trump is an opportunistic infection". If you happen to be near Billerica, Massachusetts this Sunday morning at 11, I'll be at First Parish Church updating one of my best social-justice sermons, "Who Owns the World?"

This week everybody was talking about the primary/caucus results

The week saw two wipe-outs: Trump dominated in the Nevada caucuses, getting 46% of the vote and destroying the idea that his support had a ceiling well below that. And Clinton had an even more impressive victory in South Carolina, defeating Bernie Sanders nearly 3-to-1, 74%-26%.

Tomorrow is the first multi-primary day. Both parties have contests in Arkansas, Georgia, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, and Virginia, while Alabama has only a Republican primary.

Republicans. Until Tuesday, the conventional wisdom among Republicans was that the other candidates were vying to get into a one-on-one runoff with Trump, where the non-Trump candidate would surely win. And so here in New Hampshire, I saw countless anti-Rubio and anti-Cruz ads -- and even anti-Christie and anti-Kasich ones -- but virtually no attack ads against Donald Trump. Trump himself advertised very little, but held big rallies and did his usual impressive job of drawing free media attention. The others tore each other apart and Trump won.

Since Tuesday, Rubio in particular has been going after Trump, sometimes with some very personal ridicule, but Trump looks set to sweep the Super Tuesday states tomorrow anyway, with the possible exception of Cruz' home state of Texas.

If that holds, I have a hard time seeing how Trump loses the nomination. Not just because his position is so commanding, but because I don't know what scenario I'm counting on if I bet against him. Is Rubio suddenly going to become the dynamic candidate of Republican establishment fantasies, rather than the lightweight he otherwise seems to be? And as I explain in this week's featured post, the best arguments against Trump are off-limits to Republicans.

Democrats. After Sanders' big victory in New Hampshire, pundits talked about Clinton's minority "firewall": Hispanics in Nevada and blacks in South Carolina. Sanders supporters countered that while their candidate may have been slow to catch on among non-white Democrats, now that he was seen as a viable threat to Clinton the polls would change.

Nevada was inconclusive for that thesis: The caucus entrance polls said Sanders won the Hispanic vote, but by a margin well within the margin of error. Nonetheless, Nevada's black vote came in overwhelmingly for Clinton and put her over the top.

But in South Carolina the firewall held, by a margin even larger than the Clinton people expected. Blacks increased their share of the primary electorate from 55% in 2008 to 61% in 2016, and Clinton got even more of their support than Barack Obama did: 84% rather than 78%. It's official: Bernie Sanders has a black problem. You can argue that the problem arises through no fault of his own -- he has a good civil rights record and hasn't been race-baiting -- but it's there.

People ask me why this is, to which my first answer is: "I'm a white guy, what do I know?" If pressed, my second answer is that the slow, stuttering, back-and-forth progress of racial justice in America makes Bernie's promise of "political revolution" sound like pie-in-the-sky to many blacks, while Clinton's message (that progress is hard, and that we have to be as focused on defending what Obama has accomplished as we are on going further) seems more realistic. But if that doesn't sound right to you, I'll retreat to my first answer.

As for what to expect tomorrow, Nate Silver's primary-prediction model gives Clinton a better-than-98% chance of winning Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. The model gives her an 88% chance in Massachusetts and 75% in Oklahoma. It predicts a Sanders victory only in his home state of Vermont (99%).

Obviously, if that happens Clinton will have a huge lead in delegates come Wednesday morning. Does that mean the race will be over for all practical purposes? Not necessarily.

An interesting tool for analyzing the race is Nate's list of state-by-state benchmarks. The methodology here is interesting: He's projecting who would win each state by how much if the race were a 50-50 tie nationally. Nate's list shows that tomorrow's primary states are ones you would mostly expect to be good for Clinton, though she seems to be polling above his benchmarks. A better run of states for Sanders happens after March 15.

Nonetheless, another 538 analyst, Harry Enten, sees South Carolina as a major setback for Sanders: Until then, he had been gaining on the benchmark totals he needed to pull even, but in South Carolina he lost by nearly 50% rather than the 20% loss the benchmark predicted.

Tomorrow night, the state I'm going to be watching is Virginia, which should be a swing state in the fall. Nate's benchmark is for Clinton to win by 9%. If the margin is less than that, Bernie might still make a comeback.

BTW, I'll repeat a point I first mentioned a few months ago: The way you beat a bully is by making people laugh at him, and the Democrats have a great comedian in Senator Al Franken. Wouldn't he be the perfect VP candidate if the Republicans nominate Trump?

and the Supreme Court

In something of a shocker, news leaked out of the White House the Republican Governor Brian Sandoval of Nevada was being vetted for the Supreme Court. Sandoval favors business over labor, but also seems pro-environment and is said to have "moderate" views on abortion, whatever that means. In short, he's exactly the kind of compromise you might expect Republicans to leap on, if they were at all inclined to do that kind of thing.

Apparently they aren't. Floating Sandoval's name didn't move the needle at all, and the governor removed himself from consideration a few days later.

If Obama's plan was to appoint Sandoval, Democrats might want to take their chances on winning the next election instead. But if he was just trying to show America how unreasonable the Republican position is, he succeeded.

while some discussed the undisguised racism among Trump supporters

Just before the South Carolina primary, a pro-confederate-flag protest turned into a spontaneous Trump rally. A reporter for the Young Turks interviewed participants, who warned of "ethnic cleansing" against whites and expected Trump to do something about it.

In Iowa, fans at a white high school began chanting "Trump! Trump! Trump!" after losing a basketball game to a team with more non-white players. It's hard to say exactly what they meant by it, but apparently his name either invokes white pride or is supposed to intimidate non-whites.

The important question is whether these examples are just random anomalies, or if they point to some larger phenomenon. Tuesday, when Chris Hayes interviewed Trump supporters at the Nevada caucuses, he found a bunch of nice people, some of whom had decided that Trump's more outrageous statements were just showmanship and not to be taken seriously. (However, my personal experience indicates that a lot of racists are nice people when they talk to a pleasant white man like Chris.)

One way to research this question is through polls. For example, Public Policy Polling found that 38% of Trump supporters in South Carolina wish the South had won the Civil War, and various other polls have turned up additional disturbing results. But again, these results may be anecdotal, or may be blaming Trump for bad attitudes that could be found among many candidates' supporters.

Nate Silver's 538 web site specializes in poll-watching. A regular feature of the staff's weekly podcasts is to review news stories about polls and ask whether they represent a good or bad use of the underlying data. Thursday's podcast was headlined "Racism among Trump's supporters", and the overall conclusion is that yes, there is something in this data. Nate Silver said:

I resisted for a long time the notion, because again it is kind of a default for people on the Left, that "Oh, this is all about race." But, like, I have almost come full circle the other direction, to where I think the media is not talking about this enough. And I think the centrist Joe-Scarborough pundits who are like "Oh, Trump will really shake things up" [have] to acknowledge the fact that some of this support is a result -- maybe not a majority, I think probably just a plurality -- but some of the support is a result of ... of some of the worst impulses that Americans can have. And to indulge that, I think, is something people should be thinking about more carefully.

while I was struck by

a poll from AP-GfK, based on interviews between February 11 and 15. Most of the poll consists of typical questions: whether the country is on the right or wrong track, how well President Obama is doing his job, how important various issues are, and so on.

But things get interesting on page 21, when they ask:

Would you favor or oppose replacing the current private health insurance system in the United States with a single government-run and taxpayer-funded plan like Medicare for all Americans that would cover medical, dental, vision, and long-term care services?

A plurality favors the program, 39%-33%, which sounds good for ambitious liberals. But then they start filling in details, and approval drops.

What I think we're seeing here is the low-engagement voter problem that I discussed a few weeks ago in "Say -- you want a revolution?" Large numbers of voters have not thought through the issues well enough to have a coherent position. So if you ask them the wrong question and take their answer too seriously, you can easily get misled.

Republicans run into this problem when they ask people about government spending. Polls show that by a wide margin people believe the government spends too much. But when you get specific about what to cut, you find that the public also supports just about everything the government spends money on. What do they want less of? Bridges to nowhere, welfare for able-bodied adults who refuse to work, foreign aid to countries that hate us, and subsidized art projects that offend them -- all of which adds up to way less than 1% of the budget. The other 99-point-something percent they're fine with.

That's why Republicans have learned not to specify their cuts, but to run on across-the-board reductions that make somebody else pick the victims. As Ben Carson put it: "Now anybody who tells me there's not 3 to 4 percent fat in virtually everything that we do is fibbing to themselves." Does that mean he wants to cut your Mom's Social Security or your uncle's veteran benefits by 3-4%? No, of course not! How can you think such a thing?

The contradiction that gets Democrats in trouble is that people love progress, but they hate change. Maybe there's a great plan to improve public schools -- and God knows that schools in general need improvement -- but if your kid likes his teacher and has some friends in his class, you're going to look at that plan skeptically. And I know that American health care is way too expensive and doesn't cover everybody, but personally I understand how my insurance plan works and I like my doctor, so do I really want to shake things up?

Tell people that you're going to improve things, and they'll love it. Tell them that their own lives are going to have to change in incompletely specified ways that are probably going to be more positive than negative, and they'll doubt you.

That's how the insurance companies beat HillaryCare in 1993. That's why ObamaCare's worst press was about people whose insurance plans got cancelled. Almost invariably, the people in those stories eventually got a better deal, but that didn't matter. They were forced to change, and change is scary.

In 2017, Medicare-for-All will have exactly the same problem. Will masses of people take to the streets to demand Congress pass it? Will filibustering senators fear the wrath of the American people in the 2018 elections? I'm skeptical.

I also think it's interesting to speculate on what the same question might mean to different respondents. For example, on page 14  of the AP-GfK poll you find: "Which party do you trust to do a better job of handling the U.S. image abroad?" The numbers are close: 27% trust the Democrats more; 26% the Republicans, which is not a statistically significant difference.

But I suspect those two groups of people aren't really answering the same question at all. If you're a Democrat, probably the "image abroad" you worry about is that we're crazy assholes: We start wars for little-to-no reason; we torture people; we want veto power over other countries' revolutions; we think the rules that apply to every other nation in the world shouldn't apply to us. So you want Democrats in office to make us behave like good citizens of the world.

But if you're Republican, probably the image you worry about is that we're pushovers; you want Republicans in office to convince foreigners not to mess with us. If we have to drop bombs and waterboard people to get that point across, so be it.

and you might also be interested in

Andrew Hacker in the NYT magazine imagines teaching statistics for understanding the real world.

and let's close with something creative

Trump in Westeros.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Carrying a Presidency to Term

Apparently, the GOP thinks that Black Presidents only get 3/5ths a term.

-- a friend of Ken Wissonker

This week's featured posts are "Replacing Scalia (or not)" and "The Apple/FBI question is harder than it looks".

This week everybody was talking about how to replace Justice Scalia

I look (skeptically) at the arguments for delaying until after the election in "Replacing Scalia (or not)". One argument I left out of that post: the idea that the voters should decide more directly, by making the nomination an issue in the presidential election.

That's a bad idea for a bunch of reasons, but the biggest is that if the Founders had wanted the voters to elect Supreme Court justices, they would have written the Constitution that way. In fact, the Founders wanted to insulate the Court from politics as much as was practical in a government of the people. That was the reason for lifetime appointments, as Hamilton explained in Federalist #78.

Matt Yglesias outlines four approaches Obama could take in choosing a nominee, from "olive branch" to "declaration of war".

Last week I talked about my personal reaction to Scalia's death, and in particular wrestling with my feeling of joy in the removal of a powerful enemy.

It turns out I wasn't the only person thinking about that issue. I'm on a Facebook group with a bunch of Unitarian Universalist bloggers (i.e., religious liberals), many of whom are ministers or ministers-in-training. Several of them wrote about their conflicted feelings concerning Scalia's death.

At Head Above Holy Water, divinity student Michael Brown separated Justice Scalia, who was his legal and political enemy, from Anton Scalia the person, who (like everybody) was a flawed human being but nonetheless deserved compassion. Brown thinks about his internship as a hospital chaplain, when he was called to comfort dying people and their families, regardless of any differences of opinion or lifestyle.

Being awake and alive and sincere means recognizing complexity and honoring it.  Spiritual healing is rooted in recognizing the differences between one's feelings and the universal need for harmony between living beings.  The boy I was who was scared, and scarred, by the bigotry Justice Scalia carried into the books of law has grown into a man who understands the beauty of contradictions.

May Justice Scalia, and Scalia the person, find peace.

Taking a conflicting view, Rev. Scott Wells pondered how to discuss Scalia's death in front of his congregation, and particularly in front of those who had been wounded by Scalia's judgments, or would have been wounded if those judgments had prevailed. (Wells himself is a married gay man, and reflects that due to the Windsor decision that Scalia opposed "my family is safer." Getting theologically technical, Wells comes out of the Restorationist tradition of Universalism, where I'm more of an ultra-Universalist, like Hosea Ballou.) Wells sees eulogizing a powerful man in a way that ignores the damage he did as a triumph of "niceness over goodness".

I would caution people to not forgive Scalia because it’s the nice thing to do, or expected of them. He did not repent of his action, nor seek your forgiveness. Quite the opposite. It is the way of the powerful to expect rules to apply to you and not to them. Do not comply. You are not the unreconciled party. And now that he’s gone, Scalia will have to manage with God’s docket; you do not have to plead to him, or for him.

"It is the way of the powerful to expect rules to apply to you and not to them." That quote might show up at top of a weekly summary sometime.

But whether we mourn Scalia or not, we should still be fair to him. One quote I've seen bouncing around the internet -- it was quoted in a comment on last week's summary, and many other places -- comes from his dissent in Edwards v. Aguillard, a 1987 case about teaching creationism in Louisiana schools. The quote starts "The body of scientific evidence supporting creation science is as strong as that supporting evolution. In fact, it may be stronger" and goes on from there.

Fortunately, another commenter (sglover) realized that the quote is out of context. At that point in his dissent, Scalia is not stating his own opinions, he is summarizing the case made by witnesses whose credentials "may have been regarded as quite impressive by members of the Louisiana Legislature". His larger point is that the Court's majority was too quick to assume that the legislature passed the law pro-creationism law purely out of religious motives.

I still think he's wrong, but his argument is much more subtle than the quote makes it appear.

and the primary/caucus results

Democrats. Clinton got a much-needed 53%-47% win in the Nevada caucuses. This narrow win in a small state only nets her four more delegates than Sanders, but a win of any sort should stop the steady drip-drip-drip of what's-wrong-with-the-Clinton-campaign stories, at least until the Democrats vote in South Carolina this Saturday.

Diving a little deeper into the Nevada results yields some mixed messages. Nevada was supposed to test whether Bernie Sanders could break through with Hispanics, and he did: According to NBC's entrance polls, 19% of the caucus-goers identified as Hispanic/Latino, and Sanders won that segment 53%-45%. Clinton's margin came from African-Americans, who cast 13% of the votes, but went for Clinton 76%-22%. South Carolina, where blacks are a majority among Democrats, will test whether Sanders can change that result. If he can't, his candidacy is doomed; it's hard to see how white liberals, or even white-plus-Hispanic liberals, can carry Bernie by themselves.

A more subtle problem for Sanders was pointed out Saturday by Rachel Maddow, and then fleshed out on MaddowBlog by Steve Benen: When you ask Sanders' supporters how he will get elected in the fall and how he will get Congress to pass his programs after he takes office, they talk about a "political revolution". In other words, Sanders will energize previously apathetic or discouraged voters, creating a tidal wave of support from people whose opinions had not affected American politics until his campaign gave them a voice. (I critiqued that vision two weeks ago.)

But that's hard to square with the fact that compared to the last contested Democratic campaign in 2008, turnout is down. Nevada continued that trend from Iowa and New Hampshire. To the extent that new voters are showing up, they are indeed voting for Sanders. And the 2008 Obama campaign did draw a lot of new voters to the polls, so comparisons to any year but 2008 are not bad. But so far the revolution does not appear to be happening.

Ever since I posted "Smearing Bernie: a preview" last month, I've been waiting for conservatives to start taking Sanders seriously as a possible Democratic nominee, and experimenting to see which attacks get traction.

A few themes are emerging. This video funded by two billionaires focuses on Sanders' hurting small business and promising to raise taxes. An article by CNS (formerly Christian News Service) connects Sanders to Castro. Another theme that I've seen in several places is that Bernie is "a loser"; he was barely able to support himself until he started getting elected to public office. Attention is also being drawn to his personal history, particularly that he wasn't married to his son's mother. None of these attacks has gotten national play so far, so I don't know what conclusions the attackers are coming to.

Republicans. Trump (33%) won a clear victory in South Carolina, while Rubio (22.5%) edged out Cruz (22.3%) for second. In spite of pulling out all the stops, including bringing in his brother, Jeb Bush (7.8%) was a distant fourth, narrowly beating John Kasich (7.6%) who barely campaigned in the state, and Ben Carson (7.2%).

As a result, Bush dropped out, ending the most expensive failure in American political history. Money, it turns out, can bring your message to the voters. But if you don't have a message, you can't buy one.

Ever since Bush began to fade, pundits have been predicting that the Republican electorate will eventually settle on Rubio. And Rubio's second-place finish in South Carolina is a nice bounce-back from his disastrous New Hampshire results, giving yet another lift to the Rubio-wave-is-starting meme. But he still hasn't won anywhere yet, and no one has identified where he's going to start winning.

Cruz is still competitive -- he even took the lead in one recent national poll -- but he has to shake his head when he looks at these results: White evangelicals are supposed to be Cruz' base; nobody has pandered to as many way-out-there preachers as Cruz has, and his father is one. Those voters turned out in large numbers: 67% of the Republican primary voters identified as evangelical or born-again white Christians. But Trump won that segment. The Trump/Rubio/Cruz breakdown was 34%/21%/26%.

It's yet another example of how the Trump phenomenon is defying all conventional wisdom. Cruz has got to be wondering how he could possibly lose Southern evangelicals to a three-times-married New Yorker who can't even name a particular Bible verse.

Digby reflects on why none of that -- not even the Donald attacking W for 9-11 or picking a fight with the Pope -- turns off his supporters.

As I’ve been writing for quite a while, the Trump phenomenon has exposed something completely unexpected about the Republican coalition, even to people who have spent years observing it. It comes more and more into focus every day: It turns out that a good many members in in good standing of the conservative movement don’t care at all about  conservative ideology and never have.

Small government, low taxes, family values, military toughness -- a few people believed in all that literally, but for much of the conservative base those have always been symbols of something else.

The chattering classes like to say “the GOP base is frustrated because conservative leaders let them down so they are turning to Trump as a protest.” This misses the point. They did let them down but not because they didn’t fulfill the evangelical/small government/strong military agenda. They let them down because they didn’t fulfill the dogwhistle agenda, which was always about white ressentiment and authoritarian dominance. Trump is the first person to come along and explicitly say what they really want and promise to give it to them.

and Apple

Apple is challenging a court order requiring it to help the FBI crack the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino terrorists. That issue gets complicated in a hurry, so I've moved it to its own article.

and you might also be interested in

As the price of oil continues to fall and stay down, the long-term stability of oil-dependent countries like Russia and Saudi Arabia is being called into question. Both regimes look a little like crime syndicates, in which the leader commands the loyalty of his captains only to the extent that he can keep the money flowing. How much can the pool of money shrink without threatening that model?

In Atlantic, Sarah Chayes and Alex de Waal write "Preparing for the Collapse of the Saudi Kingdom". The Economist looks at "If Russia Breaks Up". Behind the firewall in Foreign Affairs, Alex Motyl speculates "Lights Out for the Putin Regime", a scenario that David Marples disputes.

One of my Facebook friends raised the question: Why don't more poor people vote? And of course there are obvious answers about voter suppression, transportation when you don't own a car, and the inflexibility of work hours for minimum-wage jobs. But there's another answer that doesn't get nearly the attention it deserves, and gives me another chance to plug a classic speech by one of my friends, Tom Stites: The media covers political news from a  professional-class point of view, so politics is hard for a poor person to get interested in or see the point of.

Just to give one example: When new unemployment numbers come out, what does the media focus on? How this news affected the stock market, and whether it is good or bad for President Obama's popularity. Rarely does it discuss what this means to you if you're looking for a job or worried about losing the one you have.

If you're poor, the underlying message of just about every news outlet is that the news is not for you. In particular, politics is not for you. It's an overblown wrestling match between competing groups of professionals, none of whom really have your interests in mind.

Tom's solution is the Banyan Project, which I plug every now and then: local news co-ops whose mission is to inform the bottom 50%.

and let's close with a candidate you probably hadn't considered

Our neighbor to the north announces its Canada-cy for President of the United States.

Monday, February 15, 2016


Any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde;
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.

-- John Donne
Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions (1624)

Ding-dong, the witch is dead. -- The Wizard of Oz (1939)

This week's featured post is "Back to Ferguson", which I'll explain below.

In the aftermath of the New Hampshire primary, I'm taking a week off from presidential politics. Next week we'll have the Democratic caucuses in Nevada and the Republican primary in South Carolina to talk about. Both happen Saturday.

This week everybody was talking about Justice Scalia's death

Supreme Court Justice Anton Scalia's final act, as far as I was concerned, was to posthumously remind me that I am not as good a person as I like to think.

Good People, as I picture them, see death as the great leveler, the ultimate reminder of our common humanity. Like John Donne, they believe the bell tolls for them. Every death -- even necessary ones like casualties in a just war or criminals killed in the act of trying to kill somebody else -- is tragic: How sad it is that a situation might make a person's death the lesser evil.

Under no circumstances would news of someone's death cause a Good Person's heart to take an involuntary leap of joy. Or inspire a Good Person to say, "I wonder if Justice Thomas will follow his lead this time too?"

Bad. Bad, bad, bad.

But at least my badness puts me in some good company. As Clarence Darrow wrote, "I have never killed anyone, but I have read some obituary notices with great satisfaction."

Scalia's career. You can read more complete obituaries of Scalia elsewhere. Here's how I remember him: When President Reagan appointed him in 1986, he was alone on the Court's far right wing. Outnumbered, he became famous for his thought-provoking dissenting opinions, which were principled, but based on principles different from the ones that motivated the rest of the Court. Liberals developed a kind of grudging admiration for him; you knew in your heart he had to be wrong, but it was often very hard to explain why. Anticipating his criticisms made us sharper -- like iron sharpens iron, as the Bible says.

But late in his career, as part of a conservative majority, he became the Court's most openly partisan judge. His opinions became elaborate rationalizations of why his side should win, regardless of principle. And so, he had a sweeping view of the Constitution's commerce clause when that was necessary to keep marijuana illegal, but an unprecedently narrow view of the same text when he needed a reason to strike down ObamaCare. He waxed eloquent about legislator's original intent when that was convenient, but violated it outrageously by finding corporate rights in places the authors of the Constitution clearly never intended. He was part of the nakedly political 5-4 majority that made George W. Bush president, a decision so unabashedly partisan that it explicitly warned future Courts not to use it as a precedent. He attended secretive meetings of the Koch Brothers' donor network, as (enabled by Scalia's vote in the 5-4 Citizens United decision) it raised vast sums of money to elect Republicans.

Beyond his unprincipled partisanship, Scalia will be remembered for undermining the traditional decorum of the Court. As he aged, he seemed less and less able to imagine that an intelligent, well-intentioned colleague might disagree with him, and showed less and less restraint in flinging oddly Victorian insults (like "argle-bargle" and "jiggery-pokery") at their arguments.

Replacement? Mitch McConnell wasted no time in warning President Obama not to bother appointing a replacement.

The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice. Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new President.

Elizabeth Warren fired back:

Senator McConnell is right that the American people should have a voice in the selection of the next Supreme Court justice. In fact, they did — when President Obama won the 2012 election by five million votes.

She goes on to remind McConnell of the constitutional duties of the President and the Senate. I think that's the right line here: Let's follow the Constitution, which is pretty clear:

[The President] shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States.

So it's simple: Obama should do his job by appointing someone and the Senate should do its job by voting on that nomination.

As much as the Republicans may hope for a Republican president whose appointments will cement the Court's conservative majority for decades to come, I think that position is suicidal when it comes to holding the Senate. Take the NH seat: Senator Kelly Ayotte has been running not as a down-the-line Republican, but as an exemplar of New Hampshire's traditionally independent common sense. (Along with another endangered Republican incumbent, Mark Kirk of Illinois, she is a founding member of a small group of Republican senators who recognize global warming.) If Mitch McConnell were running here, he would lose. Turning the race into a simple red/blue contest for control of the Senate, and hence the Court, helps Ayotte's challenger, Gov. Maggie Hassan.

It also probably helps the eventual Democratic presidential nominee to have a court appointment riding on the outcome. Control of the Supreme Court -- not just possibly someday, but immediately -- would give either Hillary or Bernie a powerful uniting message after a divisive primary campaign.

Who, then? Various short lists of possible Obama appointees are floating around. At the top of most of them is Sri Srinivasin, who was approved by the Senate unanimously for his current job as a federal appellate judge.

If I were Obama, I would take McConnell's obstruction threat seriously, and appoint whoever I thought would work best in a why-don't-they-do-their-jobs attack ad. I'd be looking for a Mr. Rogers type: Somebody who exudes a sense of basic decency, who wouldn't ring any alarm bells about affirmative action or political correctness.

Recess appointment. Unofficial reports say that Obama will not make a temporary recess appointment, which he could attempt since the Senate is currently not in session. But that path is filled with technicalities and possible disputes. SCOTUS blog summarizes:

The bottom line is that, if President Obama is to successfully name a new Supreme Court Justice, he will have to run the gauntlet of the Republican-controlled Senate, and prevail there.  The only real chance of that: if he picks a nominee so universally admired that it would be too embarrassing for the Senate not to respond.

My suggestion for a recess appointment: Sandra Day O'Connor. She retired to spend more time with her husband, who has since died, and she's still active as a part-time substitute judge at the appellate level. As a replacement for Scalia, she would move the Court somewhat to the left. But it would be hard for Republicans to justify blocking a judge originally appointed by the sainted President Reagan.

Interesting sidebar here: The Court recently issued a stay blocking President Obama's plan to limit the carbon emissions of power plants. That indicated that, when the case reaches them from its current location in an appellate court, the Supremes might be inclines to strike it down, almost certainly by the 5-4 ideological split it then had.

Without Scalia, though, and assuming a decision has to be made before he can be replaced, the Court will reach a 4-4 non-decision, and the lower court ruling will stand. The appellate court seems likely to uphold Obama's action.

and the budget

Another example of the Republicans' refusal to recognize Obama's legitimacy as president is that the House is not planning to hold hearings on his budget proposal.

The Republican chairmen of the Senate and House budget committees said last week they were forgoing the decades-long tradition of hearing testimony from the director of the Office of Management and Budget, claiming they expected Obama's budget to offer little in debt reduction.

and Oregon

The occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge ended Thursday morning after 41 days, when the last four guys surrendered to the FBI. The occupiers got no concessions: The two ranchers whose re-imprisonment sparked the occupation remain in prison. No changes in federal land use policy have been announced. The leaders of the occupation have been arrested and charged.

A bonus was that Cliven Bundy, father of occupation leader Ammon Bundy and the center of a previous armed stand-off in 2014, has also been arrested and charged.

In a 32-page criminal complaint, prosecutors allege Bundy and his co-conspirators led a massive, armed assault against federal officers in April 2014 near the town of Bunkerville, Nev.

According to the U.S. attorney for Nevada, Bundy and his armed supporters on horseback effectively ambushed federal Bureau of Land Management officials as they were trying to round up 400 of Bundy's cows illegally grazing on federal land.

The way the government backed down from that confrontation undoubtedly emboldened the Malheur occupiers. Bundy and his allies considered the 2014 showdown a victory. If the Malheur occupiers had walked away with concessions, that also would have been a victory, and quite likely would have led to an even more aggressive move in the future.

So far, it looks like the government has played this right: No police or government agents were killed. One occupier died in a confrontation that appears to have been largely of his own making. The government wanted a middle path between the 2014 Bundy showdown and Ruby Ridge; it seems to have found one.

Apparently the evangelist Franklin Graham (Billy's son) played a role in the surrender of the final occupiers. I'll be interested to see if he becomes a spokesman for the militiamen.

but more people should be paying attention to Ferguson

That's covered in this week's featured post "Back to Ferguson". The Justice Department says policing in Ferguson has to change to uphold its citizens' constitutional rights. Ferguson replies: We can't afford it. So where does the buck stop?

and Darwin

Friday was Charles Darwin's 207th birthday. That's my annual reminder to review the evolution/creation discussion.

I said most of what I want to say about it three years ago in "Evolution/Creation for Non-Eggheads". One thing to add since then: My friend (and occasional Sift commenter) Abby Hafer has published The Not-So-Intelligent Designer: Why evolution explains the human body and intelligent design does not. Her introduction says:

A few years ago, I realized that the whole intelligent design (ID) controversy is not a scientific issue, but a political one. ... ID is not a theory, it is a political pressure group. ...

Political issues require political arguments, and political arguments are different [from scientific arguments]. Political arguments must be short, easy to understand, memorable, and preferably entertaining.

In my case, I also want them to be true.

One point from the "Non-Eggheads" post I'd like to hit a little harder: If you ever listen to a Creationism/ID talk, you won't actually hear an alternative scientific theory. Instead, such talks invariably focus on criticisms of evolution (most of which were made and answered in the 1800s). Why? Because they have no alternative scientific theory to present.

Let me give an example to flesh that out a little. According to current evolutionary theory, life on Earth has a single family tree. In other words, any two living things have a common ancestor if you go back far enough. A lot of work has gone into figuring out how that tree branches, what is more closely related to what, and when the common ancestors lived. That work is ongoing, and every now and then our picture of the tree shifts a little as new evidence emerges.

It's fine to criticize that single-family-tree idea, but a real Creationist alternative theory would answer this very basic question: How many separate family trees are there, even approximately? And that leads to other questions: Did they all begin at the same time? What markers tell us that two living things are from different trees? Then you get to a bunch of more specific research topics: Do lions and house cats have a common ancestor? Collies and poodles? Polar bears and grizzlies? What about the 400,000 species of beetles biologists have postulated? Did 400,000 separate acts of creation lead to 400,000 family trees of beetles, or do some beetle species share a common ancestor?

That's the kind of stuff a real "creation science" would be researching. You never hear about it, though, because there is no such research and no such theory. Creationist "scientific" organizations spend their money, as Abby says, constructing and popularizing political arguments rather than doing science.

Tax money is still supporting teaching Creationism in Louisiana, and probably other states as well.

and you might also be interested in

When Franklin Graham isn't mediating between the FBI and crazy people, he's touring America to rally religious conservatives to be more politically active.

I don't think we're going to make it another election cycle if we don't get God's voice back in the political arena. ... I feel that we are going to have to meet our political obligations as Christians and make our voice known if America is to be preserved with the type of Christian heritage which has given us the liberties we now enjoy. For unless America turns back to God, repents of its sin, and experiences a spiritual revival, we will fail as a nation.

According to Graham, one "great sin that has been flaunted and celebrated" is same-sex marriage.

Here's what continually amazes me about all the God-will-punish-us-if-we-don't-turn-back prophecies: When was that God-fearing era we need to "turn back" to? When we were committing genocide against the Native Americans and holding millions of Africans in slavery? Or was it later, during the era of Jim Crow and lynchings? Or when we dropped atomic bombs on cities full of Japanese civilians?

I have a hard time picturing -- much less respecting -- a God who would shower us with blessings while we were doing all that stuff, but is going to drop us flat now that we're letting same-sex couples live together in loving relationships.

This week's guns-make-us-safer story: A guy in Texas opened fire on his neighbor's puppy, who was trespassing on his lawn. A friend of the puppy's owner shot back. The dog died. Neither human was wounded, but both are facing felony charges.

Guns don't kill puppies. Crazy Texans with guns kill puppies.

One of David Wong's "5 Ways to Spot a B.S. Political Story" is that it's about "a lawmaker saying something stupid". He points out that there are so many state legislators that on any given day one of them is bound to have said or done something ignorant or offensive. For that reason, I don't call your attention to bad laws just because they get proposed in some legislature; I wait to see if they have any real support.

Well, this one does: Senate Bill 1556 made it out of a committee in the Tennessee Senate on 7-1 party-line vote. (That tells you something about the Tennessee Senate right there; there are barely enough Democrats to get one on every committee.) It allows counselors and therapists to refuse to counsel clients "as to goals, outcomes, or behaviors that conflict with a sincerely held religious belief of the counselor or therapist". The counselor's only obligation is to provide a referral.

According to the Chattanooga Times Free Press, the bill "seeks to protect conservative therapists from 2014 changes in the American Counseling Association's code of ethics", which states:

Counselors refrain from referring prospective and current clients based solely on the counselor’s personally held values, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. Counselors respect the diversity of clients and seek training in areas in which they are at risk of imposing their values onto clients, especially when the counselor’s values are inconsistent with the client’s goals or are discriminatory in nature.

This is yet another example of conservatives abandoning their ideal of "small government" when it proves inconvenient. In short, the counseling profession is not allowed to establish its own code of ethics free from government meddling.

and let's close with something crazy

A huge controversy erupted after Beyonce sang "Formation" at the Super Bowl, while dressed to honor the Black Panthers. But there's a background level of crazy here that I previously had not noticed: More than 800K viewers have seen a video detailing all the Illuminati symbolism in previous Super Bowl halftime shows. I mean, we all knew about Madonna (right?), but who suspected Katy Perry of being "a high-level Illuminati witch"? I'll have to go back and look at her videos again.

Monday, February 8, 2016


While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.

-- Justice John Paul Stevens,
dissenting opinion in Citizens United (2010)

This week's featured post is "Say -- you want a revolution?"

This week I finally decided to vote for Bernie

You've seen me wrestle with this the last two weeks. On most issues, I agree with Bernie more than Hillary. But I also think the difference between the two is tiny compared to the difference between any Democratic candidate and any Republican candidate. (We can, for example, argue about whether Bernie's ideas for breaking up the big banks are better or worse than Clinton's plans to strengthen the Dodd-Frank regulations of Wall Street. But Republican candidates want to repeal Dodd-Frank, and go back to the system we had in 2008.) And I believe Clinton is the stronger general-election candidate for a number of reasons.

But for me the decisive factor comes back to what I wrote when I covered Sanders' announcement statement back in May:

I think it’s way too early to make the unite-behind-a-winner argument. There has to be some point in the electoral process where people express their consciences and vote their ideals. Otherwise, the horse-race mentality becomes self-stoking: People won’t support a candidate they agree with because he can’t win, and he can’t win because the people who agree with him won’t support him.

It's still too early. I want everyone to know that there is substantial support for more radical solutions than we've been offered in past election cycles. I want Clinton to know that if she's the nominee in the fall. I want the media to know that, so they won't take seriously Republican claims that Hillary is some kind of left-wing extremist, or that her positions are as far left as public discussion ever needs to go. I want the next set of Democratic presidential candidates to know that, so liberals will be emboldened to run and moderates will take their left flank into account.

My decision was made easier by Hillary's narrow win in Iowa (which was not decided by coin flips -- how do these things get started?). If she had suffered a surprising loss, especially a large loss, then another large loss in New Hampshire (which the polls are predicting) might send her campaign into a death spiral. I wouldn't want to feel responsible for that.

As for those of you who vote later in the process, I don't think my decision tells you much. I think pragmatism should be an increasingly important factor as the campaign goes on. Which way that pushes you and how that weighs against your idealism is something we all have to decide for ourselves.

but I wasn't the only Democrat talking politics this week

The one thing that makes me nostalgic for the days when Hillary was supposed to coast to the nomination is the level of Democrat-on-Democrat belligerence I'm seeing. Given the people I hang with, I'm seeing it mostly as attacks on Hillary by Bernie supporters, but I'm told it goes both ways.

If I had the power to make a rule for the rest of the Democratic nomination process it would be this: Don't repeat Republican rhetoric.

So Sanders supporters should not be gleefully finishing the character assassination that Richard Mellon Scaife's right-wing Arkansas Project started against the Clintons in the 1990s. If you don't trust Hillary, fine. But recognize that the Hillary-can't-be-trusted meme dates back to a series of crap scandals that fell apart when their details came out, which nonetheless have left a grungy film on her image. (In last week's episode of the TV show Billions, a lawyer explains the ineffectiveness of refuting a false charge after it makes headlines: "If someone says Charlie fucked a goat, even if the goat denies it, he goes to the grave as Charlie the Goat Fucker.") If you refer vaguely to that untrustworthy image, rather than to specific Clinton statements you have specific reasons not to believe, you're making use of Scaife's propaganda.

The emails, BTW, are just the latest crap scandal. Last week I wondered whether similar security violations would show up in the emails of past secretaries of state, if anybody examined them through the same magnifying glass. Apparently, somebody else wondered that too, and it turns out they do.

Similarly, it's fine for Clinton supporters to wish for more details about how Sanders would pay for his programs. But the notion that they can't be paid for buys into the taxes-are-already-as-high-as-they-could-possibly-go message that Republicans have been trying to convince of us for decades.

Likewise, any kind of red-baiting should be off the table: Sanders' policies are what they are and if  you want to criticize them on their merits, fine. But criticizing them because you have managed to attach a socialist or communist label to them ... leave that to the Republicans. And if his defense policies don't seem muscular enough for you, that's a legitimate thing to discuss. But don't imply that Sanders is somehow disloyal or doesn't want to defend America. That's Ted Cruz rhetoric.

I'm similarly disturbed by the Hillary-is-a-warmonger charge that gets thrown around. (That's not Republican rhetoric, but the more it catches on, the harder it's going to be to unite Democrats in the fall.) Admittedly, there is a policy difference between Hillary and Bernie: Hillary is likely to spend more on defense than Bernie, and to use American power more forcefully. And it's worth taking into account that Hillary voted to authorize the Iraq War while Bernie opposed it.

But if you listen to the speech she gave in 2002 during the Senate debate on the authorization resolution, it's not a rah-rah war speech.

This course if fraught with danger. ... If we were to attack Iraq now, alone or with few allies, it would set a precedent that would come back to haunt us. In recent days, Russia has talked of an invasion of Georgia to attack Chechen rebels, India has mentioned the possibility of a preemptive strike on Pakistan, and what if China were to perceive a threat from Taiwan?

So, Mr. President, for all its appeal, a unilateral attack (while it cannot be ruled out) on the present facts is not a good option.

She supports the resolution in order to give President Bush all possible tools to pressure Saddam Hussein into compliance with UN inspections. So her 2002 position reflects the same approach to conflict that as Secretary of State she initiated (and Secretary Kerry completed) with regard to Iran: increasing pressure of all sorts to get the desired outcome without fighting. "I take the President at his word," she says -- that word being that Bush would do everything possible to disarm Saddam without war. That was her mistake.

Also, look at her husband's administration: We didn't fight a major land war during those eight years. (As The Onion put it after Bush replaced Clinton: "Our long national nightmare of peace and prosperity is finally over.") Bombing was part of a ring-of-pressure that ended Serbia's genocide against Bosnia and Kosovo, and forced the fall (and eventual war-crimes trial) of President Milosevic without a U.S. invasion. Actually, Bill Clinton's most suspect military decision was the war he didn't fight: He didn't try to stop the Rwandan genocide.

So is a vote for Clinton a vote for war? I really don't think so.

and New Hampshire is inundated with politicians

The Onion reports: "Plows Working Around Clock To Keep New Hampshire Roads Clear Of Campaign Signs". It's a joke, but that's really what it feels like. I'm ready to unplug my phone.

Blogger Chuck Fager reflects on what the great New Hampshire poet Robert Frost might have said about all this.

Polls are predicting a large Sanders win in New Hampshire. But after that things really get interesting. So far, Sanders hasn't shown much support from non-whites, who aren't much of a factor in either Iowa or New Hampshire. But Hispanics are a large percentage of the Democrats in Nevada (caucus February 20) and blacks are the majority among Democrats in South Carolina (February 27 primary).

Even though those states currently look good for Clinton, it's not unreasonable to expect Sanders to start picking up non-white support. Blacks were slow to warm to Barack Obama's candidacy in 2008, but they did eventually come through for him. Sanders has already been endorsed by a few prominent blacks like Ben Jealous and Cornell West. Bill Clinton's role in creating the mass-incarceration problem might start working against Hillary, even though her current positions on the issue are pretty good.

For what my opinion is worth -- after all, I'm a white guy with a mostly white circle of friends, and so far I've refused to put my black and Hispanic acquaintances on the spot to represent their people -- I suspect that belonging to an discriminated-against minority tends to make a voter cautious. Feeling like you have the freedom to fall in love with an idealistic-but-impractical candidate might be a symptom of privilege, comparable to a college student majoring in art history rather than business or engineering. If that's the case, then Bernie can hope for a snowball effect with non-white voters: The more support he gets, the more viable he looks to people who will only support a viable candidate.

Or maybe the snowball will melt in Nevada and South Carolina, as snowballs tend to do.

As for the Republicans, Trump is expected to win, but beyond that things are unpredictable. As I predicted last week, the media decided that Rubio's third-place finish in Iowa gave him momentum. But he had a truly embarrassing debate Saturday night, suffering mostly at the hands of Chris Christie, who was supposed to be fading. Some polls have John Kasich gaining.

A neurologist takes a whack at explaining why Ted Cruz creeps people out. He has "atypical" facial expressions: "Senator Cruz’s countenance doesn’t shift the way I expect typical faces to move."

That doesn't necessarily mean he's insincere or psychopathic, but if watching him just makes you feel uneasy, that's probably why. Tech-savvy people have joked that Cruz falls into the "uncanny valley" -- that region of animation where human characters are accurate enough to seem like they ought to be human, but instead are just unnerving.

but there are advantages

So many important political people show up in New Hampshire just before the primary that you can have some really interesting encounters. (On election night in 2008, for example, I realized that the guy standing behind me at the bar was Senator Durbin.)

Last weekend, the local get-money-out-of-politics group, NH Rebellion, held a conference in Manchester. Both Hillary and Bernie were there, along with Kasich. (Trump was on the schedule, but I never heard whether he showed up or what he said.)

Somehow, maybe because hardly anybody else who got the email realized what a unique opportunity it was, or were just distracted by all their other opportunities, I wound at a table in a coffee shop with Rep. John Sarbanes, my own congressional representative (Annie Kuster), and half a dozen other people. Sarbanes -- if the name rings a bell, you might be remembering his father the senator -- is the guy in Congress leading the fight for the Government By the People Act, which is a way to do public financing of campaigns without a constitutional amendment and without running afoul of the Supreme Court. (It reflects a lot of the ideas Lawrence Lessig has been pushing.)

I'll be talking about the merits of that proposal in future weeks, but for now I just want you to bookmark John Sarbanes, because he looks a lot like a future presidential candidate. He's handsome, personable, smart, and relates well to small groups. He's also on the right side of a major issue, and got there early.

One of the things Sarbannes described over coffee was how he's been getting more congresspeople to talk about campaign finance reform (which the conventional wisdom has said for years that voters don't care about; it's an inside-baseball topic). He says he tells his colleagues not to talk about campaign finance instead of their usual issues, but to use it to "caffeinate" their usual issues: Instead of saying "we need to do something about climate change", say "we need to do something about climate change and what's stopping us is all the special-interest money lined up on the other side". [The quotes are approximate; I wasn't taking notes.]

and you might also be interested in

A federal grand jury has indicted 16 people in the Malheur Wildlife Refuge occupation. LaVoy Finicum, the only occupier who has died, is being hailed as a martyr by the kind of people who need that to be true. Cartoonist Matt Bohrs points out the difference between Finicum and the various young black men who have been gunned down by the authorities.

and let's close with some north-of-the-border mischief

The Bank of Canada wants local Star Trek fans to stop Spocking their fives.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Eyes and Feet

Keep your eyes on the stars, but remember to keep your feet on the ground.

-- Theodore Roosevelt (1904)

This week's featured post is "Undecided With 8 Days To Go".

This week everybody was talking about the presidential race

The Iowa Caucuses start this evening. Most recent polls show a close race with a small advantage to Clinton. But Iowa has such a weird process that polling often gets it wrong.

On the Republican side, polls show that Cruz peaked about three weeks ago, and that Trump has regained a medium-sized lead, even though his numbers have been falling too for the last week. But since he never developed a ground game, nobody can say how many Trump supporters will get to the caucuses and stay long enough to make their votes count. Cruz is still running second, but fading. Rubio is third and rising, so it's not impossible that he could finish second, or even first if Trump's voters don't show up.

Tomorrow, I expect the media to be saying that Rubio's showing was the most surprising, and that he has momentum going into New Hampshire. But I don't think I'll be buying that interpretation if he doesn't actually win. I think Obama/Clinton in 2008 showed that there is no "momentum". Only votes and delegates are real.

Friday morning I tried to see Donald Trump in Nashua, but it turns out that having a ticket and being 45 minutes early wasn't good enough; I was third in line when they announced that the room had reached its fire-safety capacity. Hundreds of people were still in line behind me, so I'm not sure what the point of having a ticket was.

But most of what I wanted to do was observe the crowd, so I got to do a little of that while standing in line. Everybody I saw was white, which isn't that big a surprise in New Hampshire. Men outnumbered women, maybe three to one. Nobody was wearing or saying anything overtly racist or anti-Muslim. People didn't bring signs and I didn't see any protesters. We didn't chant slogans or get rowdy. For a group of supposedly angry voters, we were all surprisingly docile as we waited in the sort-of-cold until we were told to go home.

The guys in front of me hadn't definitely committed to Trump yet, but they thought Cruz had looked bad in the previous night's debate, the one Trump boycotted. They agreed that Hillary Clinton has "no chance" and speculated about whether she'd be indicted for the email thing. They were sure she deserved to be indicted, but disagreed about whether Obama would allow it.

Speaking of Cruz, I loved Josh Marshall's take on why he looked bad in the debate. (Josh was in Cruz' residential college at Princeton, but in 2013 claimed not to recall him until his wife jogged his memory.)

My general sense is that it wasn't that Cruz got attacked or that the attacks on him did any particular damage. It was that the spotlight was inherently bad for him. ... This whole portion of the debate - which lasted for maybe the first 45 minutes or so - had the feeling of walking into a conversation at a party that's just very awkward and uncomfortable - because it's Ted Cruz holding court and pontificating. And you want to leave. Again, it's not that the attacks were particularly biting or damaging. It's just that you saw Cruz up close. And he's not pleasant to be around.

I also don't think Trump's event competing with the debate did him any good. (I can't imagine it playing well in Iowa when Trump called another rich New York developer up to the stage with his young trophy wife. I suspect Trump's own marriage is not something middle-aged Iowa housewives want to dwell on too long.) So Trump and Cruz both looking bad recently is another reason Rubio could do better than expected.

We now have Trump's plan for replacing ObamaCare: "We'll work something out" with the doctors and hospitals, he says. I don't know why no one had thought of that before.

A questioner told Ted Cruz about his brother-in-law, who didn't have health insurance until ObamaCare, but started seeing a doctor too late and died of cancer. "What are you going to replace [ObamaCare] with?" he asked.

Cruz responded like this:

there are millions who had health insurance, who liked their health insurance and who had it cancelled because of Obamacare ... millions are losing their insurance now and if we allow people to purchase across state lines, it will drive down the cost where they can afford it and get it earlier. [Your brother-in-law] would have gotten [health insurance] earlier if he could have afforded it earlier, but because of government regulations he couldn’t.

It's worth pointing out that the regulation that raises costs the most is the government's perverse insistence that health insurance actually cover you if you get sick. Policies that include ways for the insurance company to weasel out of covering sick people can be amazingly cheap. And if you never get sick, you never know.

and Flint

Exposé news stories have a stereotypical trajectory: There's a problem that officials are sweeping under the rug, but journalists or whistleblowers uncover it. And then things get taken care of. The problem is fixed, victims get the help they need (better late than never), and the irresponsible officials are disgraced. Happy ending.

That doesn't seem to be happening in Flint. The first part -- problem, rug, uncovering -- follows the script. And while Governor Rick Snyder hasn't been forced to resign (yet), some lower-level people have, and I think Snyder's political career is pretty much over. But the problem is a long way from fixed.

Here's the gist: The emergency manager Snyder appointed to run Flint, supplanting the elected government,  decided to change the city's water source. Rather than buy Lake Huron water from Detroit, they'd pump it out of the Flint River. Lots of towns use river water and it's not a big deal, but you need to account for the fact that river water can be more corrosive. If you don't treat the water somehow, it can leach lead out of pipes and slowly poison the people who drink it. (Flint's water mains are iron, but many of the pipes that connect houses to the mains are lead.)

So now Flint is back to using Detroit's water, and the long-term plan to have its own pipeline to Lake Huron is on track for completion in June. But that hasn't solved the problem, because the lead didn't come from the river, it came from the pipes. A lot of faucets in a lot of homes still have elevated lead -- some many times higher than the recommended filters can handle -- and nobody knows how long that will continue.

The sure solution is to find all the lead pipes and replace them, but that could cost hundreds of millions of dollars, which nobody is volunteering to pay. But waiting for the lead levels to come down on their own -- drinking, cooking, and bathing with bottled water in the meantime -- gets old in a hurry.

And then there are the long-term effects of lead exposure on children's brains. Is the state going to take responsibility for that? How?

In the background of this whole story are issues of race and class. Flint is poor and mostly black. Poverty is why the city was in the financial trouble that got an emergency manager appointed in the first place. And whether the suffering of poor blacks registers with state officials the way wealthier white suffering would, well ...

Wednesday, Rachel Maddow devoted her whole show to a townhall meeting in Flint, talking to local residents and various experts on water and plumbing and lead poisoning. That series of videos starts here.

and the arrest of Ammon Bundy

Tuesday night, the authorities finally did something about the militia occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon. The leaders of the occupation were arrested on their way to a community meeting set up by supporters in the nearby town of John Day. Unofficial spokesman Lavoy Finicum was killed.

Supporters have tried to make a martyr out of Finicum and claim that the government intentionally murdered him, but the FBI eventually released aerial video of the confrontation: Finicum's truck stops for several minutes on the highway as police cars flash their lights behind it. Then the truck races forward until it gets to a police roadblock. At that point it tries to drive around the roadblock and gets stuck in the snow. Finicum gets out of the truck with his hands up (his passengers stay inside), but doesn't appear to be surrendering as he sidles further off the road, away from police. When he reaches into his coat he gets shot. Police claim they found a handgun in his coat.

Ammon Bundy and his brother Ryan are among the arrested. They have been charged with a felony that seems designed for this situation (actually it was designed for Confederates seizing federal outposts in the Civil War): conspiracy to impede officers of the United States from discharging their official duties through the use of force, intimidation, or threats.

A handful of holdouts (maybe five) are still occupying the refuge. Like Bundy, they seem to grossly overestimate their negotiating position: They want to leave without charges, or maybe to be guaranteed a pardon. But the FBI is only interested in talking about how they're going to surrender. The authorities seem to be tightening up a little more all the time; they've now cut off internet and cellphone access.

Bundy, meanwhile, has asked the remaining occupiers to go home, possibly because the judge in Portland can't see offering him bail while there's an armed camp he could try to run to.

This fight is ours for now in the courts. Please go home. Being in the system, we are going to take this opportunity to answer the questions on Art. 1, Section 8, Clause 17 of the United States Constitution regarding rights of statehood and the limits on federal property ownership.

Once again, he's picturing himself as a sovereign citizen meeting the government on equal terms. But I predict his trial will concern the crimes the government has charged him with, not the crimes he charges the government with. (Regarding "the limits of federal property ownership", I suspect that the State of Oregon might have standing to pursue this in a different court, but Bundy himself does not, and it certainly isn't relevant here. Even in the appropriate venue, I think Oregon would lose that case.)

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Once again, headlines indicate that something maybe-sorta might come of the Clinton emails. But Dianne Feinstein still doesn't think so.

The latest revelations that Secretary Clinton's emails include classified information lack the same key information as previous reports. First, the 22 emails the State Department has labeled classified are part of seven separate back-and-forth email chains, and none of those emails chains originated with Secretary Clinton.

So: Seven times during her Secretary of State years, somebody sent her an email containing information that wasn't marked classified at the time, but in hindsight should have been.

Reuters claims the info was "foreign government information"

The U.S. government defines this as any information, written or spoken, provided in confidence to U.S. officials by their foreign counterparts.

I wish we had a control on this experiment: If we looked at all the emails of some other State or Defense secretary chosen at random, how many similar examples would we find?

The best thing since President Bush's "Is our children learning?"

This white giraffe ought to be the center of a cult.

and let's close with something timeless

It's amazing how well the climactic speech of Charlie Chaplin's "The Great Dictator" stands up after 75 years.