Monday, June 26, 2017

Favored Few

There are two ways of viewing the Government's duty in matters affecting economic and social life. The first sees to it that a favored few are helped and hopes that some of their prosperity will leak through, sift through, to labor, to the farmer, to the small business man. That theory belongs to the party of Toryism, and I had hoped that most of the Tories left this country in 1776.

- Franklin Roosevelt, "Address Accepting the Presidential Nomination" (1932)

This week's featured post is "Turn the Page". It's my suggestion for Democratic messaging in 2018.

This week everybody was talking about the unveiling of McConnell's secret ObamaCare repeal bill

There are several good summaries of what's in the bill, but the two main facts you need to know are:

As the husband of a cancer survivor, I worry about pre-existing conditions. Atlantic's summary:

Simply put, the Senate bill will open the door to states forcing people with pre-existing conditions into segregated markets that will lead them to pay far, far higher costs than everyone else.

The bill doesn't allow insurers to discriminate against people with pre-existing conditions directly, a point you'll hear a lot from its defenders. However, an insurance company can structure its offerings to herd healthy people into bare-bones plans that cost little, but don't cover the kinds of things people with pre-existing conditions are likely to need, like prescription drugs. (To keep her cancer from coming back, my wife takes a drug that costs thousands per month. So far insurance has covered almost all of that.) Plans that offer more complete coverage will then appeal mainly to the very sick, and their premiums will sky-rocket accordingly.

This is the flip side of a Republican claim that sounds sensible on the surface: Rather than mandate the same coverage for everybody, their bill lets people choose the coverage that makes sense for them. As a result, though, healthy people leave the insurance pool that pays for more extensive coverage, leaving only sick people.

On the question of whether it has the votes to pass, no one is even asking the 48 Democratic senators to vote for it; Democrats were completely shut out of the drafting process and the bill is going straight to the floor with no committee hearings. So far five Republicans have said they'll vote against it "in its current form", which could mean their votes are available if they can get a concession or two to assuage their angry voters. Several others have expressed concerns which James Fallows interprets with some cynicism:

So far in 2017, “concerns” from GOP Sens has always meant, "I’ll make sure the bill/nominee winds up with 50 votes.” Any diff this time?

Norm Ornstein believes that McConnell designed the bill with intentional problems that various recalcitrant senators can take credit for fixing, thus justifying their "reluctant" vote.

FWIW, the betting markets are split on the repeal of various ObamaCare provisions.

I have thought all along that smart Republicans wouldn't want the bill to pass, because then they'll own the ensuing disaster. You can keep voters from knowing what's in a bill before you vote on it, but once it becomes law they're going to find out. As Ross Douthat put it:

The Obamacare replacement that the House sent to the Senate might as well have had a note scrawled across its pages: Save us from ourselves.

But neither would any individual politician want to be seen as the reason the GOP's highest-profile promise gets broken. So the smart move is to make someone else the fall guy for killing ObamaCare repeal.

First the House Freedom Caucus was on the hook. Then they renegotiated the bill in a way that passed the buck to House Republican moderates, who caved, passing the buck to the Senate. Now Senate conservatives and moderates are maneuvering against each other. If neither blocks the bill, then the onus will fall on the House again to accept the Senate's changes. This game of chicken will be lost either by some handful of Republican congresspeople, or by millions of Americans who won't be able to afford the insurance they need.

Probably the best outcome for Republicans politically is for the House and Senate each to pass a bill, and then blame each other for why no bill makes it through both houses. Then their candidates can tell the voters: "I voted to keep my promise, but those jokers in the other house screwed us up."

Medicaid: Democrats need to remember that the very poor have been successfully demonized as lazy bums looking for handouts, but the working poor -- the couples struggling to raise kids on some combination of just-above-minimum-wage jobs -- still have a lot of public sympathy. Those are the people Medicaid expansion has helped, and they're the ones the Republican bill will hurt.

I don't know if he thought it up himself, but I just saw somebody comment on Facebook: "Hail Mary, full of grace, please leave Medicaid in place."

Meanwhile, ObamaCare itself is more popular than it has been since 2010.


and the Georgia special election

Democrat Jon Ossoff lost 52%-48%. You can make the same excuse Democrats have made in the other special election: It's a Republican district; Tom Price won it in 2016 by over 20 points. Still, Ossoff had gotten 49% in the jungle primary, and netting that extra 1% didn't seem like it should have been that big a lift. But it was. (BTW, his 48% Tuesday doesn't necessarily mean that he lost support; turnout was higher. Ossoff got 124K votes Tuesday, versus 92K in the primary.)

Georgia-6 is a well-educated suburban district where Trump won by only 1%. So the Ossoff-wins theory was based on two ideas: (1) Republicans who voted for Trump reluctantly are ready to turn against him. (2) Voters who have turned against Trump are willing to take it out on the whole GOP (or possibly they're just too dispirited to show up to vote). But that didn't happen, at least not in sufficient numbers.

Nate Silver's crew "plays the Democratic blame game".

natesilver: For me, there are basically three prototypes of campaigns that Democrats will need to run in 2018: (i) anti-Trump; (ii) anti-Republican; (iii) anti-incumbent.

I think Georgia 6 ought to have been an anti-Trump campaign, given that Trump is a much bigger liability in Georgia 6 than the GOP overall is and that people are doing pretty well there economically.

For me, there’s lots of room for populist progressives to do well as anti-Republican and anti-incumbent messengers. I actually don’t think they’re ideal as anti-Trump messengers, however, which is what you needed in this district.

The New Yorker's John Cassidy more-or-less agrees:

In a district as red as Georgia’s Sixth, the disheartening truth is that Ossoff probably wouldn’t have done better had he run to the left. While many Republicans have some misgivings about Trump, they have even more serious misgivings about voting for a Democrat. According to that same opinion poll in the Journal-Constitution, just one in three Republican voters said that they were supporting Handel to express support for Trump. What motivated them, they said, were traditional Republican issues: taxes, government spending, and illegal immigration.

but I've also been thinking about the role of religion in politics

In Friday's NYT, Daniel Williams published an op-ed that drew a lot of comment, "The Democrats' Religion Problem", which concludes:

Only through a willingness to ground their policy proposals in the religious values of prospective voters will they be able to convince people of faith that they are not a threat to their values but are instead an ally in a common cause.

I'm debating whether to write a more complete discussion of this next week, but I think this article drew attention because it simultaneously points to an important issue and gets it wrong.

The bigger problem, which hits Republicans in exactly the same way when they talk about science, is establishing authenticity. Voters want to know that what you're saying is not just a talking point that you could reverse tomorrow, but is rooted in values that come from a part of your identity that has some staying power. (Fleshing out the science analogy: When I hear a politician dissemble on global warming, it makes me wonder what evidence he wouldn't be able to rationalize his way around. Does truth actually mean anything to him?)

The point shouldn't be that all politicians need to learn how to talk about God, even if they don't really believe. It's that if you can't use the language of the old-time religion, which is the traditional way to express deep-rooted values, how are you going to communicate that depth?

In other religion-and-politics news, the Southern Baptists condemned white supremacy.

and you might also be interested to know ...

The Washington Post had a big Trump-and-Russia story Friday, outlining what the Obama administration knew about Russian interference in the election and when it knew it. The general theme is that Obama could and should have done more in response, but was worried what else Putin might have up his sleeve and believed that Clinton would win anyway.

The most interesting new fact:

The intelligence captured Putin’s specific instructions on the operation’s audacious objectives — defeat or at least damage the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, and help elect her opponent, Donald Trump.

So the plan came all the way from the top, and had Putin's personal attention. And somehow our side knew that.

California failed to move forward on a statewide single-payer healthcare plan. Nevada's governor vetoed a buy-into-Medicaid plan that basically would have given everyone in the state a public healthcare option. Vermont made an earlier unsuccessful attempt at single-payer.

In an economy so dominated by interstate or international corporations, I have a lot of doubt about whether single-payer can be made to work at the state level. I'm rooting for somebody to prove me wrong.

Another place where I hope to be proved wrong: I'm generally skeptical of technological solutions to environmental problems -- clean coal, geo-engineering, and so forth. But a carbon-capture plant just opened in Switzerland.

That Carrier plant in Indianapolis that Trump "saved" just before he took office? They'll be laying off 338 workers in July, and another 290 just before Christmas. And the $16 million Carrier pledged to invest in the plant? That's paying for job-killing automation, not for new production that creates new jobs.

Important story in yesterday's NYT about the collapse of retail in rural areas. My hometown (Quincy, Illinois) is exactly the kind of place the article is talking about: Once a manufacturing town, it remade itself as a regional center. Its new economy is largely based on the regional hospital, the area's biggest community college, and a cluster of big chain stores that draw customers from a 30-40 mile radius. (Many of the even smaller towns within that radius have seen their retail completely dry up. It's hard even to keep a local convenience store going.) That base then supports other commerce (like restaurants and small boutiques) that maybe you wouldn't drive 40 miles for, but you will visit because you're in town anyway.

That new economy isn't collapsing yet, but you can see the strain as people get more and more stuff from Amazon and other online retailers that have no local presence. Home Depot and Old Navy may not hire as many people or pay them as well as the old factories did, but working there beats being unemployed.

Chris Mooney writes in the WaPo about the effects of climate change on the coral reefs of the Florida Keys.

Ecologists describe the 360-mile-long Florida Reef Tract as a global treasure. It is the world’s third-largest barrier reef, although much less famous than Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

But less than 10 percent of the reef system is now covered with living coral. Scientists anticipate that as early as 2020, it could be in line for almost yearly bleaching events, in which heat stresses upend the metabolism of corals, in some cases killing them. The reefs experienced back-to-back major bleaching events in 2014 and 2015.

... “When I was a child in the ’60s, the water was so clear I used to think of it as being Coke bottle blue,” said Stafford, citing the colored glass some Coke bottlers used. “And the reef was so healthy, all the coral was very alive. I don’t recall even thinking about bleaching or coral death or coral diseases back then.”

Killing the reef habitat is not just a moral catastrophe, it's an economic problem for an economy based on tourism. Fighting global warming might cost jobs in West Virginia, but not fighting it costs jobs in Florida.

Jared is back from the Middle East and it turns out that Israeli/Palestinian peace is actually a hard problem. Who knew?

Murray Energy founder Bob Murray wasn't going to be the focus of John Oliver's piece on coal mining, but then his lawyers sent a cease-and-desist letter to try to intimidate Oliver. This was the result. (The Murray segment starts around 12:45. Be sure you don't miss the closing.) And yes, Murray is suing.

After the Knicks drafted Frank Ntilinkina Thursday, Nate Silver fantasized about them re-acquiring Thanasis Antetokounmpo. Then they could

play a lineup of Ntilinkina, Antetokounmpo, Kuzminskas, Porzingis, and Hernangomez and lead the league in Scrabble points for the foreseeable future.

and let's close with a lesson in bad writing

The humor site McSweeney's gives step-by-step instructions for getting from a simple, active sentence like "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog." to the more obscure "Speed was involved in a jumping-related incident while a fox was brown."

In a similar way, the article points out at the end, "A police officer shot a black person." can turn into "The St. Louis County Police Department was involved in an officer-involved shooting after officers came under heavy gunfire."

Monday, June 19, 2017

From Words to Bullets

Every thought burns into substance
Every dream turns into something on a t-shirt
Every glance becomes a romance
(One little word and you can't keep it in your pants)
They float above us like a cloud
And no one knows where the rain will end up falling
Every force evolves a form
Every urge leads to something you can sit on
Every force evolves a form
Every impulse ends up as something you can hang your hat on

- Shriekback, "Every Force Evolves a Form" (1992)

This week's featured posts are "Political Violence is Our Issue Too" and "Why I'm Still Skeptical about the Progressive Revolution".

This week everybody was talking about the Scalise shooting

House Majority Whip Steve Scalise has never been my favorite congressman, for what I still think are good reasons. But I wish him a full recovery. If democracy is about anything, it's about resolving our differences without shooting at each other.

The larger issues that come out of this shooting -- how fake news and wild rhetoric contributes to violence -- are covered in a featured post.

and obstruction of justice

Wednesday The Washington Post reported that the special counsel is investigating Trump for obstruction of justice. Trump took it well, going on a Twitter tirade against his own assistant attorney general: "I am being investigated for firing the FBI Director by the man who told me to fire the FBI Director! Witch Hunt"

Humorist Andy Borowitz nailed Jeff Sessions' testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee: "Man Ravaged by Amnesia Somehow Able to Hold Down Demanding Legal Job". Sessions' testimony boiled down to three assertions: (1) He didn't do anything wrong. (2) If he did do something wrong, he has no memory of it. (3) He's not going to answer any questions about conversations he had with Trump, but he refuses to state any legal grounds for not answering.

Mike Huckabee proved a couple years ago that he must have flunked high school civics. More evidence this week is his defense of Sessions' non-answers:

Dems act like they never heard of atty/client privilege; AG is top atty in Exec branch; serves and not stooge of Congress.

The attorney general is not the president's lawyer. He is managed by the president, but he works for the United States. What worries me most about Trump is his third-world-dictator tendency to personalize authority that is supposed to be institutional. As president, Trump leads the executive branch, but he doesn't own it. Commentators like Huckabee do a disservice to the country when they encourage that delusion.

More legal misinformation came from Newt Gingrich, who seems to have forgotten that he supported an obstruction of justice charge against President Clinton.

Technically, the president of the United States cannot obstruct justice. If he wants to fire the FBI director, all he has to do is fire him.

That's nonsense, and the correct principle is not hard to understand: Even when an official is exercising legal powers, motives matter. Legally, the highway cop who pulls you over for speeding has the discretion either to ticket you or to let you go. But the why matters: If he lets you go because you gave him $100, that's illegal.

Same thing here. Trump has the legal power to fire the FBI director. He doesn't need a good reason; if he's just grumpy that day and wants to take it out on somebody, that's enough. But if he has a bad reason, it might be illegal. In particular, if he did it to shut down an investigation into possible crimes committed by himself, his friends, or his administration, he has obstructed justice.

and Philando Castile

Last July, Castile was driving with his girl friend in a suburb of St. Paul when a policeman in Minnesota stopped them, believing they "just look like people that were involved in a robbery." (Castile had been stopped at least 46 times in the previous 14 years.) Castile had a license to carry a gun, and had a gun with him. According to the girl friend, the policeman asked for Castile's driver's license, Castile told him there was a gun in the car, and when he reached for his wallet to get his license the policeman started shooting. Friday, a jury found the officer not guilty of manslaughter.

Vox has a good summary of the case and the larger issues it raises. It includes this graphic:

I hate to second-guess juries, since I didn't hear all the evidence and they did. But Castile really seems to illustrate the problem of police and black people, especially young black men. Castile, in fact, wasn't the burglar they were looking for. Nobody can pinpoint exactly what he did wrong, but now he's dead. This kind of thing happens a lot. If you're parenting a young black man, what can you tell him that will keep him safe?

I was surprised to discover that David French of the conservative National Review also has problems with the verdict. (His colleague Robert Verbruggen doesn't. Castile's death is "a tragedy", but what can you do?)

I understand the inherent danger of police work. I also understand the legal responsibilities of men and women who volunteer to put on that uniform, and the legal rights of the citizens they’ve sworn to protect and serve. I’m aware of no evidence that Yanez panicked because Castile was black. But whether he panicked because of race, simply because of the gun, or because of both, he still panicked, and he should have been held accountable. The jury’s verdict was a miscarriage of justice.

The Castile case also illustrates what I've called "the asterisk in the Bill of Rights": Constitutional rights don't apply to blacks in the same ways as they do to whites.


The NRA, for example, seems reluctant to comment on this apparent disregard for Castile's 2nd Amendment rights. Slate's Leon Neyfahk puts it bluntly:

On its face, the Castile case would seem to have all the trappings of a cause célèbre for the NRA. The group’s most fiercely held belief is supposed to be that law-abiding citizens shouldn’t be burdened—let alone killed in cold blood—by repressive agents of the government just because they want to protect themselves and exercise their Second Amendment rights. ... If Castile had been white instead of black, the NRA would have been rallying behind him and his family since the moment of his death, and fundraising off his memory for the rest of time.

The Castille verdict contrasts with a guilty verdict in what seems to me to be a much more nebulous case: Michelle Carter and Conrad Roy were two depressed teens who only met a handful of times, but texted back and forth constantly over a two-year period. Roy repeatedly talked about killing himself, and while Carter initially encouraged him to seek treatment, eventually she accepted his claim that what he really wanted was to be dead. They discussed suicide techniques together, and when Roy texted that he was backing out of his planned attempt (he got out of a truck filling with carbon monoxide), Carter called and urged him to go through with it, which he did. Friday, a Massachusetts judge found her guilty of involuntary manslaughter. This seems weird to me in lots and lots of ways.

and the Virginia primary

The Democratic side of the primary was supposed to be the story: It was billed as a "battle for the soul of the party" between the establishment-supported Ralph Northam and the Sanders-and-Warren upstart candidate Tom Perriello. (More about that in the other featured post.) But that turned out to be a surprisingly easy Northam victory.

The real story turned out to be on the Republican side.

What shocked observers instead was the Republican primary, where Corey Stewart — a Confederate sympathizer and onetime campaign official for Donald Trump — came within just 1.2 points of beating former Republican National Committee Chair Ed Gillespie.

Vox interviewed political scientist Quentin Kidd:

A lot of us, in our analyses, made a fundamental mistake. We assumed that because Trump’s approval ratings were so low in the state, there was no way someone like Stewart could have a chance at winning the primary. But what happened tonight is that the 37 percent of Virginia voters who said Trump is doing a good job came out and voted for Cory Stewart in a Republican primary. They’re still a potent force.

The other conservatives — the Republicans who don’t think Trump is doing such a good job — they didn’t come out as much and vote for Ed Gillespie. In the end, it’s partly an enthusiasm thing. There’s far more enthusiasm on the “populist,” “rebellious” side of the party right now then there is among the middle of the party.

And that suggests that congressional Republicans might be in trouble in their primaries if they break with Trump. The Republicans disillusioned with Trump might be too depressed to vote.

and you might also be interested in ...

A few Senate Republicans are grousing about the secret process Mitch McConnell is using to push ObamaCare repeal forward, but they're going along with it anyway. Here's how McConnell plans to get the proposal passed.

People looking for a precedent for this no-hearings no-debate approach to a major bill have reached back to a Wilson-administration tariff bill. That's how unusual this is.

Oh, that stuff during the campaign about Trump doing some hard negotiating with the drug industry and getting prices down? Never mind.

He's rolling back some of Obama's opening to Cuba, and he's doing it in a way that hurts his business competitors. Coincidence?

Stuff at Whole Foods is already priced high enough; imagine offering 27% above market price for the whole company. That's what Amazon did Friday, making a $13.7 billion offer.

Paul La Monica at CNN Money thinks it's a brilliant move.

The key to this deal is that it shows the genius of [Amazon founder] Jeff Bezos. Of course, it's too soon to say whether buying Whole Foods for this amount of money will be a success, but keep in mind: No one was even speculating that this deal was going to happen. ... This just goes to show that Bezos is thinking about things that no one else on the planet is even considering.

Maybe there is some amazing plan here -- the NYT speculates about what it might be -- but it's also possible that Bezos has too much money to play with and too much time to think about bizarre things to do with it. (You know who else does things that no one else on the planet even considers? Darwin Award winners.)

One problem springs to mind immediately: Amazon is all about undercutting on price, while Whole Foods is about charging top dollar for something presumed to be better. I'm not sure how that mixes.

In some sense, though, even Amazon's $42-per-share offer represents a mark-down: Whole Foods stock peaked around $65 in 2013. The high-end grocery market has gotten much more crowded and competitive  since then. (Wegmans, Sprouts, Trader Joe's, and other similar chains have all expanded, plus farmer's markets and other boutique food sources.) And publicity like this John Oliver segment in 2015 didn't help.

but we should be paying more attention to Trump's appointments

The people he has nominated to the National Labor Relations Board might make nearly impossible to unionize.

and let's close with something prescient

That cabinet meeting where all the secretaries took turns praising Trump reminded me of something out of the Third World. And it underlined just how well Trevor Noah had Trump pegged in 2015.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Getting Away

When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.

- Harry Frankfurt "On Bullshit" (1986)

This week's featured post is "Social Capital and Inequality", where I review Ryan Avents new book The Wealth of Humans.

This week everybody was talking about James Comey

Like many Americans without a 9-to-5 job (and maybe a few at work), I was glued to the TV Thursday morning during Comey's testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee. (Full transcript here.)

I don't pretend to be unbiased, but I thought Comey was a compelling witness. He answered a lot of questions with a direct yes, no, or I don't know. He didn't seem to be trying to build his legend. ("I don't want to make it sound like I'm Captain Courageous," he said in response to Senator Rubio's questions about why he didn't confront Trump more directly.) While refusing to reveal the content of the FBI's investigation or any classified information, he never sounded like a bureaucrat finagling a way around some legitimate question. When asked something difficult, he often started with "That's a good question" before proceeding to give a thoughtful response.

In addition to legal implications of his testimony, I thought Comey very clearly established that the Trump's relationship with him was not normal. In a few short months, he had more one-on-one conversations with Trump than he had with the president during the entire Bush and Obama administrations. And from the first meeting, he felt a need to document what was said because "I was honestly concerned he might lie about the nature of our meeting." (He'd had no similar worry about Bush or Obama.)

Republican senators were left to make what seems to me to be a very bad case: Sleazy as it was, Trump's attempt to influence Comey doesn't rise to the level of obstruction of justice, and he was doing it to protect a friend (Mike Flynn) rather than to cover his own wrong-doing. Matt Yglesias reacts:

Congress is supposed to oversee the executive branch and police not only legal misconduct but political misconduct, like perverting the legal process to benefit his friends and allies.

Instead, congressional Republicans have chosen to stand on the ground that it’s okay to order an investigation quashed as long as you do it with a wink-wink and a nudge-nudge — even if you follow up by firing the guy you winked at. And they’re standing on the ground that it’s okay to quash an investigation as long as the investigation you quashed targeted a friend and close political associate, rather than the president himself.

That’s a standard of conduct that sets the United States up for massive and catastrophic erosion of the rule of law, not only, or even especially, because the president is behaving corruptly, but because Republican Party members of Congress have chosen to allow it.

I occasionally flashed back to the meeting Bill Clinton had with Attorney General Loretta Lynch during the investigation of Hillary's email server. Both Clinton and Lynch came out saying that they didn't discuss the investigation, but what if Lynch had reported that Clinton said the same things Comey reported Trump saying: asking if Lynch wanted to keep her job in the next administration, and saying he "hoped" she could let Hillary off? Would Republicans put a benign interpretation on those words then?

And then there's what's been called the "toddler defense". Here's how Paul Ryan puts it:

He’s new to government. And so he probably wasn’t steeped in the long-running protocols that establish the relationships between DOJ, FBI, and White Houses. He’s just new to this.

He's also not "steeped in the protocols" about profiteering and other forms of corruption, or how to deal with allies. I guess it's totally unreasonable of us to expect the President of the United States to understand his job, or to seek advice about the things he doesn't know. (If only the Democrats had offered us a real alternative, like maybe a candidate who had been training for this job her whole life.)

Also, as a response to Comey the toddler defense is bogus on its face: The reason Trump insisted on all the witnesses leaving the room before pressuring Comey was that he knew he was doing something wrong.

Congressional Republicans are also letting Trump get away with a non-responsive nothing-to-see-here approach towards the whole Russia affair. A lot of the most suspicious elements of this scandal have been left completely unexplained: Why did the White House wait 18 days to fire Michael Flynn, after they'd been warned he might be compromised by the Russians? Why was Jared Kushner meeting with somebody from a Putin-connected Russian bank? Why did so many of Trump's people either lie about their meetings with Russians or neglect to mention them when asked? And then finally, why was Comey fired? There was an unbelievable explanation right away, but Trump contradicted it later, and now the question has been left hanging.

Many people talk about the story as if it were he-said/she-said. But it isn't even that, because Trump hasn't offered any explanation at all.

Ezra Klein finds a method in the madness of Trump tweets: Trump's primary mode of argument isn't lying, it's bullshitting. (Believe it or not, that's a technical term, defined in the seminal essay "On Bullshit".)

Lies are an effort to win an argument. Bullshitting is an effort to dominate coverage of an argument, to crowd out the truth, to distract the media with topics you prefer. Trump is very good at bullshitting. And since he doesn’t have a good counterargument to offer against Comey, he’s falling back on what he knows.

A number of people have noticed how many themes from sexual harassment cases appear: The boss maneuvered a 1-on-1 meeting and made inappropriate suggestions. Later, Comey asked his immediate supervisor not to leave him alone with the boss, but the supervisor just shrugged. When he tried to ignore the unwelcome advances and just do his job, he got fired. And now that he's complaining, the people who hear his complaint  interpret his "confusion over how to respond to a shocking request ... as a signal that nothing happened".

Robin Abcarian wrote in the LA Times:

Is there a working woman alive who cannot identify with poor James Comey right now? The former FBI director’s boss tried to seduce him. When the seduction failed, his boss fired him. And then called him “crazy, a real nut job.” ... Trump thought he had some kind of bromance going with Comey. He wined him. He dined him. And because he is transactional to his core, he expected a little somethin’ somethin’ in return.

and Nicole Serratore in the NYT:

Mr. Comey, you are not alone. How many of us have played over and over in our minds an encounter that suddenly took a creepy, coercive turn? What did I say? Were my signals clear? Did I do something ambiguous? Did I say something compromising?

Cait Bladt invents a scene from the closed hearing that followed Comey's public testimony.

SENATOR BLUNT: Mr. Comey it is a straightforward question — you wore that suit knowing it would appeal to men like Mr. Trump and then when it did and he hugged you, you acted like it was shocking and appalling, correct?

Former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara tells a similar story of being creeped out by Trump's overtures, backing away from him, and then being fired.

A former FBI agent now a dean at Yale Law School focused on a different aspect of Comey's testimony:

In the nine times Trump met with or called Comey, it was always to discuss how the investigation into Russia’s election interference was affecting him personally, rather than the security of the country. He apparently cared little about understanding either the magnitude of the Russian intelligence threat, or how the FBI might be able to prevent another attack in future elections.

Right-wing media covered a very different hearing from the one I saw.

Trump said Friday that "100%" he'd be willing to testify under oath. But Trump says a lot of things, and I seriously doubt he will ever do this voluntarily. US News' Robert Schlesinger:

it wasn't so very long ago that Trump was issuing seemingly iron-clad guarantees that he would release his tax returns

John McCain's incoherent questioning was the sad sidebar of the Comey hearing. Twitter exploded with speculation that McCain is suffering from dementia.

I've had an irrational affection for McCain ever since he ran against Bush in the 2000 New Hampshire primary. McCain in 2000 had incredible mental stamina. Some days he held four or five two-hour townhall meetings; one day I was at the fourth one, and he fielded everything thrown at him, always trying to answer the question asked rather than seguing into canned talking points.

The senator I saw on TV Thursday was not the same man. And that's unfortunate, because McCain has seemed like the most likely Republican senator to start the process of backing away from Trump,

and the British election

Prime Minister Theresa May called for a new election with the idea that the timing was favorable and she'd expand her majority, strengthening her bargaining position going into the Brexit negotiations with the European Union. It didn't work out that way: Her Conservative Party (the Tories) started with 331 of the 650 seats in the House of Commons, and wound up with 318 instead.

That's less than a majority, but it appears that she'll stay in office after working out a deal with the Unionist Party, which has 10 seats and represents what used to be the Protestant faction in Northern Ireland's civil war.

The party is likely to have a lengthy wish list of demands in return for its support for a Conservative government, including the outright rejection of any “special status” for Northern Ireland in the EU after Brexit.

In other words, the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland will be a hard border, not the soft border that currently exists because both sides are in the EU. How Catholics will take that remains to be seen, but The Independent is worried about maintaining the Northern Ireland peace agreement.

It's intriguing to try to map British trends onto the United States, especially given that last summer's Brexit vote can be read as a harbinger of Trump's victory. If you make that translation, the Labour Party's Jeremy Corbin almost pulled off what Bernie Sanders hoped to do: by turning Labour away from its Tony Blair (i.e. Clintonist) past and swinging further to the left, he drew major support from younger voters, got people to the polls who don't usually vote, and even got a slice of UKIP (i.e. Trump) voters.

But he still didn't win. This is where mapping UK elections onto the US gets tricky: Because the UK doesn't have a two-party system, you don't need anything like a majority of the votes. (Brexit, with its binary choice between Remain and Leave, was a better approximation of a US election.) The vote totals of both the Tories (42%) and Labour (40%) would have been enough for a landslide in some previous elections. In Tony Blair's last election in 2005, for example, his Labour Party got 35% of the vote and won 355 seats. But a Sanders-like candidate who got 40% of the U.S. vote would suffer a catastrophic defeat. So the parallels have limited value.

and Wonder Woman

I haven't seen the Wonder Woman movie yet -- given the past DC movies I expected it to be terrible; apparently it isn't -- but the discussions surrounding it are fascinating.

First, there are the howls of reverse sexism directed at theaters that have scheduled a few women-only showings of the film. (Whatever other issues might arise, it was a good business decision. The screenings sold out quickly.)

As regular readers probably know, I'm skeptical about the whole concept of reverse discrimination (i.e., discrimination against some dominant group). Too often, what feels like reverse persecution is just the strange feeling of being treated like everyone else, a phenomenon I first discussed in 2012's "The Distress of the Privileged".

The main thing that's problematic about all-male or all-white clubs or schools is that they can become tools for a dominant group to maintain its dominance. (If business deals are made over golf, excluding women from a golfing club excludes them from those deals.) So I guess I'd be suspicious of women-only events in those rare settings already dominated by women -- say, at a convention for nurses or elementary-ed teachers -- where men might already feel like outsiders. But I'm not seeing how a women-only Wonder Woman screening helps women consolidate some unfair advantage.

Back in 2014, Sian Ferguson of Everyday Feminism explained the purpose of safe spaces. The slam on safe spaces is that they are echo chambers for people who want to avoid ever hearing critical ideas. But when your group has an actual oppression problem, you can never go very long without facing criticism. The point of a safe space isn't to avoid criticism forever, it's to get away from it for a few hours.

As a rape victim, I am constantly exposed to the notion that I deserve to be blamed for my trauma. ... The assumption my safe space makes – that I should not be blamed for my rape – is already challenged constantly by most of society.

I doubt that women who attend superhero movies are unexposed to male points of view on superheroes, including Wonder Woman.

Stephen Miller gives an account of sneaking into a women-only screening and nobody caring. He liked the movie. Ben Pobjie is joking (I think) when he warns that "male corpses will litter the streets". And I'm pretty sure that "Confirmed: 31 Women Contract Lesbianism after Female-Only Viewing of Wonder Woman 3D" is satire.

Second, the question of whether movies are changing: Can a woman director make a summer blockbuster about a female character? I liked Michelle Wolf's comment on The Daily Show.

You know when it will feel like women are equal at the box office? When we get to make a bad superhero movie and then immediately make another bad one. Men get chance after chance to make superhero movies. No one left crappy Batman vs. Superman saying: "Well, I guess we're done making man movies."

And finally, a controversy I never would have anticipated: Gal Gadot (pronounced Guh-DOTT), who plays Wonder Woman, is a Jewish Israeli. Should she count as white? This turned out to be a major topic of discussion in some Jewish circles. Dani Ishai Behan argued that the historic oppression of Jews and the continued existence of antisemitism makes Jews people of color; subsuming them into "white" erases them. Noah Berlatsky doesn't dispute the present reality of antisemitism, the history of oppression, or the significance of Jewish identity, but countered that in the context (of people of color complaining about the few roles available to them and the few positive characters they resemble) the point is disingenuous.

Gadot is, after all, playing a white character; she was clearly cast because people see her as white. The argument that she was a person of color was transparently made in bad faith; it was meant to distract from actual POC folks asking for better representation.

and you might also be interested in ...

For years, Kansas has been the proving ground for conservative economics: Tax cuts will create jobs, lower rates will increase revenue rather than diminish it, and so on. The results have been bad. Since Governor Brownback's tax cuts in 2012, growth has been sluggish, and the end result has been not just intractable deficits, but also pressure to make up the difference by spending less on education and highways -- a trade-off voters would never have approved if it had been submitted to them all at once. ("How about this? You give up good roads and schools, and the state's credit rating goes down, but the rich get to pay less tax.")

Well, that nightmare might be ending. After several attempts, the Republican-led legislature finally succeeded in overriding a Brownback veto to reverse much of his signature tax cut. This is a hopeful sign for the two-party system in America: Republican does not necessarily mean crazy; if something clearly doesn't work, eventually voters see it and politicians respond.

The open question is how far this goes. Kansas will elect a new governor in 2018; moderate and conservative candidates are already angling for the Republican nomination. And if moderate Republicanism makes a comeback in Kansas, could the same thing happen nationally?

For whatever it's worth, given that he might say the opposite tomorrow, Trump finally endorsed NATO's Article 5, the one that pledges all NATO countries to defend each other. But Trump is still pushing the bogus idea that NATO countries spending less than 2% of their GDP on defense "owe" something to somebody.

Betsy DeVos is just as bad as Democrats feared. She wants public-funded private schools whose backers will be able to make unlimited amounts of money off the taxpayers, while not protecting LGBTQ students from bullying or harassment. Collins and Murkowski voted against DeVos' confirmation as education secretary, but all the other Republican senators have to answer for this.

Good Atlantic article about Trump's policy-free administration.

The secret of the Trump infrastructure plan is: There is no infrastructure plan. Just like there is no White House tax plan. Just like there was no White House health care plan. The simplest summary of White House economic policy to date is four words long: There is no policy.

TrumpCare was written by Congress; Trump and his HHS secretary played virtually no role. The "Trump tax cut" is vacuous; Congress will have to fill in all the details. And last week was supposed to be "Infrastructure Week", when the administration rolled out its plan to create jobs by rebuilding the country's worn-out public infrastructure. But the plan is mostly just a wish that other people -- states, cities, profit-making corporations -- will do good things. The administration has no specific projects in mind and offers little-to-no money to pay for anything.

The NYT verified something I had surmised a few weeks ago: Trump still hasn't replaced any of the U.S. attorneys he fired.

The Bill Cosby trial is happening.

but we need to keep paying attention to health care

In America as we used to know it, if you didn't hear any news about a major piece of legislation, that meant it had stalled. We're used to the idea that legislation goes through hearings, committee votes, and a series of public proposals that eventually converge on a bill, which then gets debated over several days or weeks before being voted on. Each of those events is supposed to generate headlines, so if you don't see headlines, nothing much is happening.

Well, that's another way that Trump's America is different from the one we've been living in all our lives: The AHCA (a.k.a. TrumpCare) went through the House almost in secret. Versions were worked out in closed sessions within the Republican caucus, the hearing process did not consider any amendments, and the vote happened too fast for the Congressional Budget Office to analyze the final proposal. It wasn't going to happen and then suddenly it was done.

Oh, but the Senate would be different, everyone said. Well, not so much.

[Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell is speeding toward a vote, with the goal of passing a healthcare bill the last week of June, before the Fourth of July recess.

Republicans have said there will be no committee hearings or markups for the bill, a major departure from the standard Senate process. Instead, the bill will go straight to the floor for a vote.

Democrats fear the legislation will be kept secret until just a couple of days before the vote, to minimize time for opposition to build.

If things were working in the usual American way, all the attention Trump and James Comey are getting would keep TrumpCare from raising the energy it needs to pass. But McConnell has come up with a different method: He's using Trump the way a pickpocket uses a distracting partner: Trump grabs your attention like an obnoxious drunk in a bar, and McConnell quietly sneaks up behind you and steals your health insurance.

But what about the Republican moderates who were supposed to save the country from the worst excesses of the House bill? They've gone silent. As Josh Marshall generalizes: "The GOP moderates always cave."

So especially if you live in a state with a Republican senator, you can't wait for the newspapers to tell you when it's time to take action. Whatever you can do to keep Republicans from taking health insurance away from tens of millions of Americans, you need to do it now.

and let's close with something incredibly efficient

Do you have 20 minutes to review the history of the entire world?

Monday, June 5, 2017

Cue the Laughter

We don’t want other leaders and other countries laughing at us anymore.

- Donald Trump, statement withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord

This week's featured post is "The Paris Agreement is like my church's pledge drive."

This week everybody was talking about the U.S. withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement

The featured post includes my explanation of why withdrawing from Paris makes no sense. In a nutshell: If Trump thinks Obama promised to cut emissions further than he should have, he could just unilaterally lower our commitment to a level he thinks is fair. But that would mean taking a serious look at the topic and proposing a policy, which Trump seems incapable of doing.

Instead he's spreading disinformation and sowing confusion by demanding to "renegotiate" without giving anybody a clue what he wants -- most likely because he doesn't have a clue what he wants. The Paris Agreement isn't unfair to the U.S. for any particular reason; it's just that all international agreements are unfair to the U.S. by definition.

When world leaders make moves that further no policy goals, they invite explanations that are either psychological or political. Krugman attributes Trump's decision to "spite", and Josh Marshall blames "rage and fear", while Slate's Katy Waldman says:

The word for what we saw in the Rose Garden is projection. Trump feels like a tremendous man who is also, somehow, nursing an eternal wound. His country, therefore, is a tremendous nation that is hampered and thwarted by cheaters at every turn.

The political explanation is similar: Trump got elected by appealing to his base voters' sense of grievance. He's applying that model to the Paris Agreement not because it fits, but because it will appeal to the low-information part of his base.

Meanwhile a giant ice sheet is about to break off of Antarctica.

On May 26, Michigan Congressman Tim Walberg answered a constituent's question about climate change [go to about the 47 minute mark in this video]:

I believe there's climate change. I believe there's been climate change since the beginning of time. I think there are cycles. Do I think that man has some impact? Yeah, of course. Can man change the entire universe? No. Why do I believe that? Well, as a Christian I believe there is a creator, a God, who is much greater than us. And I'm confident that if there's a real problem, He'll take care of it.

In a Washington Post column, historian Lisa Vox elaborated:

only 28 percent of evangelicals believe human activity is causing climate change. Confidence that God will intervene to prevent people from destroying the world is one of the strongest barriers to gaining conservative evangelical support for environmental pacts like the Paris agreement.

Oh, holy crap. I wonder how many these only-God-can-change-the-climate folks understand that man has already changed the atmosphere. Since the Industrial Revolution, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased by over 40%, from 280 parts per million to 400. (It had been relatively stable for thousands of years before that. In the distant past it has been higher or lower, but has never increased with this speed.) Unlike global average temperature estimates, atmospheric CO2 numbers don't come out of some complicated computer model with a lot of debatable assumptions; it's a simple measurement. It also doesn't bounce around like temperature; there's an annual cycle (because northern forests and grasslands soak up CO2 as they grow; the Southern hemisphere has less land and less foliage), but it goes up every year.

Global warming is a complex effect of that simple cause: Greenhouse gases like CO2 block heat from escaping into space; more CO2, more heat. Predicting exactly how fast global temperatures will rise in the future may be difficult and contentious (though not as contentious as some would have you believe). But that they will go up and why is pretty simple science.

I took a look at the Issues page on Walberg's web site. This seems to be the only issue where he invokes God's umbrella of protection. He doesn't consider arguments like "It doesn't matter if we raise taxes on the rich, because God will just make them richer" or "We don't need to pay so much attention to terrorism, because God will protect us" or "We don't have to worry about running up big deficits, because God will keep our economy from collapsing."

In short, God is a rhetorical device that Walberg deploys selectively, when he wants to believe something unreasonable or convince other people to believe it.

While I'm talking about the misuse of religion in politics: Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin wants to tackle Louisville's violence problem with "prayer patrols". Seriously. He wants churches to send groups of 3-10 people to wander around Louisville's bad neighborhoods and not offer any material help to anybody beyond praying for them. Because that's the difference between the safe parts of Kentucky and the dangerous parts: not money or race or education, but closeness to God.

and you might also be interested in

Remember "Drain the swamp!"? One of the things Trump brags about to supporters is his new rules to limit lobbyists joining his administration or members of his administration lobbying after they leave office. This week we found out that he's actually not enforcing those rules.

The Trump administration initially balked when the Office of Government Ethics demanded the White House hand over the waivers it had granted. But after a standoff the administration relented late Wednesday and released about 14 waivers covering White House staffers. They make clear that Trump's ethics rules are remarkably flexible and that his top staffers don't need to worry too much about staying on the right side of them. On paper, Trump's rules are similar to those imposed by President Barack Obama, but it appears that Trump is far more willing to hand out exemptions. At this point in the Obama administration, just three White House staffers had been granted ethics waivers. So far, Trump has granted 14, including several that apply to multiple people.

Steve Bannon got a "retroactive waiver", a concept that doesn't even make sense.

“There is no such thing as a retroactive waiver,” [Office of Government Ethics Director Walter] Shaub said in an interview. “If you need a retroactive waiver, you have violated a rule.”

Nate Silver's reading of polling in the UK is that almost anything could happen. The election is Thursday.

As has happened in the other two special elections to replace congressmen Trump appointed to his administration, support is shifting away from the Democratic challenger as election day approaches. John Ossoff's lead is down to 49.1%-47.6%, well within the margin of error. The election is two weeks from tomorrow.

The outlines of Trump's promised infrastructure plan are coming into view, and it sounds very underwhelming.

The federal government would make only a fractional down payment on rebuilding the nation’s aging infrastructure. Mr. Trump would rely on a combination of private industry, state and city tax money, and borrowed cash to finance the rest. It would be a stark departure from ambitious infrastructure programs of the past, in which the government played a major role and devoted substantial resources to paying the cost of large-scale projects.

A key part of the plan is privatizing essential services, like the air traffic control system. Privatization always promises big gains and small costs, but it rarely delivers.

The brownshirts are coming.

Is it really true that female movie characters get fewer lines? Yes.

but the Kathy Griffin incident means the opposite of what people are saying

Kathy Griffin is a mid-level, mostly apolitical comic that I usually enjoy. However, she stepped way over the line this week by posting an image (which I'm not linking to) of herself holding the bloody severed head of Donald Trump. It was clearly meant to be funny -- it wasn't -- rather than a suggestion that somebody should kill the president. (I interpreted the joke as how absurd Kathy Griffin would be in the role of tyrant-slayer.) However, you don't know how everybody will read an image, so there are some places you just shouldn't go.

On the Right, this incident is being used as evidence that the Left is unhinged, that it's the violent hateful side of the political spectrum, and so on. However, if you look at the bigger picture, it proves exactly the opposite: Griffin's image was immediately rejected by just about everybody on the Left. She apologized, she got fired from her annual role as a New Years' Eve host on CNN anyway, lost a few other gigs, and I'm not aware of anybody trying to make a martyr out of her. She made a bad choice; it's going to cost her. Life works that way.

But it doesn't always work that way on the Right. Take a comparable example, like Ted Nugent saying in 2007 that Obama should "suck on my machine gun" and Hillary Clinton should "ride one of these into the sunset, you worthless bitch". As far as I can tell, he paid no price for this. He never apologized or lost support. At the time, Sean Hannity defended him. More recently, Trump has let him visit the Oval Office.

The typical right-wing response to suggestions of violence (or even actual violence) from their own side is to circle the wagons around the offender. Like what Wisconsin Rep. Glenn Grothman did the previous week when Montana congressional candidate Greg Gianforte assaulted a reporter: "If you're for draining the swamp, you're on our team."

When an incident like this happens among liberals, we reject it, precisely because we are not the violent hateful side of the spectrum. But when has some right-wing expression of hate been too over-the-top to be defended?

While we're talking about comedians going over the line, I guess I have to comment on Bill Maher saying "nigger" on his HBO show Friday during his interview of Senator Ben Sasse. Slate describes it like this:

The controversy arose during Maher’s weekly Real Time show, where Sasse was a guest to discuss his new book, The Vanishing American Adult. At one point of the conversation, Maher pointed out how adults are putting a lot of effort into dressing up for Halloween these days and asked the senator whether that was a phenomenon in Nebraska as well. “It’s frowned up,” Sasse said. “We don’t do that quite as much.” Maher seemed encouraged by the answer and said that he should “get to Nebraska more.” Sasse then replied that the comedian was welcome to go: “We’d love to have you work in the fields with us.” Maher seemed surprised by Sasse’s invitation and then jokingly replied, “Work in the fields? Senator, I’m a house nigger.” Sasse grinned and chuckled.

One of this blog's most popular posts is "Slurs: Who can Say Them, When, and Why". So how does that analysis apply to Maher's usage?

On the plus side, he was not using the word in its worst possible sense, as an insult directed at a particular black person, or even as a "joking" insult to a black person or blacks in general. Nor was he invoking an anti-black stereotype in order to win an argument. Directing the slur at himself in a self-deprecating joke -- one where he's not black-facing or otherwise making fun of blacks -- is a usage I had not anticipated. (In the same way that Griffin's joke was more about herself than about Trump, Maher's was not really about blacks; what's supposed to be humorous is picturing the scrawny Maher as a field hand.)

Still, this isn't a private yuk-yuk among sophisticated friends. Maher knew he was on national TV, and would be seen by countless people of all races. So his remark shows either a lack of understanding of or a disrespect for the enormous freight that nigger and the stereotype it invokes still carry. Either way, it's not OK.

One of the primary symptoms of privilege is that you think it's up to you to judge whether the people you offend have a right to feel offended. But I think the slurs that have built up baggage for various oppressed communities now belong to them. So it's up to blacks to decide what the appropriate use of nigger will be going forward. The rest of us should stay away from it, even if we think we're using it in a non-racist way.

and let's close with the best news of the week

Animaniacs is coming back. Maybe soon there will be more modern translations of Shakespeare.