Monday, September 11, 2017

Facing the Storm

Every life has to end one way or another

- Senator John McCain discussing his brain cancer yesterday on CNN's State of the Union

There's no featured post this week. The week's news was dominated by hurricane-watching, which is the kind of current event a one-person blog isn't equipped to cover well.

This week everybody was talking about Irma

All week the story was Irma: her strength, her path of destruction across the Caribbean, and where current projections said she would hit the United States.

Personally, I spent a lot of the week listening to hurricane coverage and wondering why Irma had seized so much more of my attention than Harvey had two weeks before. Both were huge and deadly. Both hit the United States and did (and in Irma's case is still doing) major damage. Yet for some reason Harvey coverage seemed like all the other storm coverage I've watched over the years -- Andrew, Katrina, Wilma, Sandy -- while I got caught up in the drama of Irma: Would it hit Florida's east or west coasts? What would happen to the Keys? Would it make landfall at Naples, Fort Myers, Tampa?

Part of the reason was undoubtedly personal: I know Florida much better than I know Texas. I have close friends outside of Sarasota. I used to visit my snowbirding parents each year in Fort Lauderdale. My wife and I honeymooned in Key West. I've walked the riverwalk in Tampa (where Anderson Cooper had stationed himself Sunday). Texas' gulf coast, on the other hand, is just a place on a map to me. Whether Harvey made landfall at Corpus Christi or Rockport or further up the line at Galveston ... no doubt it mattered tremendously to the people who live there, but I don't have any personal reason to care about one of those towns more than the others.

I wonder also if the media coverage was different: Irma seemed to blot out the country's usual politics in a way that Harvey didn't. (That's one reason why it seemed pointless to write a featured post this week.) I don't have any objective measurement of that, and I'd be interested to hear in the comments whether it seemed that way to you.

As for why the networks might have covered Irma differently (if it indeed they did), I think my reaction might be more widespread than I initially suspected: Most of the country has some reason to feel a personal connection to Florida. It is the most visited state in the union. Nearly half the non-Floridians in the U.S. report having gone to Florida for either work or pleasure. It's also the country's top retirement destination, which means that almost everybody cares about somebody in Florida: parent, grandparent, mentor, or friend. Lots and lots of Americans have wondered if they might move there themselves someday.

After tracking Irma's path for a while, Jose diverged to the north, missing islands Irma had already devastated. It now looks likely to stall over the Atlantic.

Irma's winds hitting 185 sparked discussion about whether the Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale needs a Category 6. After all, Category 4 starts at 130 mph winds and Category 5 at 157. Surely by 185 you need a new category.

Popular Mechanics explains why not: The scale was created not as an abstract measure, but to help communities calibrate their preparations.

Category 5 is widespread, catastrophic damage. There's not really anything worse than that.

In other words, if Cat 5 already means "Run for your lives!" there's no need for any higher category.

First responders who breathed in the fumes from the post-Harvey chemical-plant explosion in Crosby, Texas are suing the company. They claim the owner minimized the dangers and failed to give them adequate warnings of what to expect after the explosion.

The last time a hurricane season pointed so clearly to global warming was 2005, when Katrina and Wilma hit, and the Atlantic storm list ran out of letters in the alphabet. Until this year, though, no subsequent Category 3 or higher hurricanes had made landfall in the United States. (Sandy had declined to Category 2 by the time it ravaged the Northeast in 2012.) So there had been talk of a "hurricane drought".

Chris Mooney discusses what happened. First, there was simple luck. The Atlantic continued producing an above-average number of hurricanes, but their paths stayed out to sea. There does appear to be some decades-long cycle in hurricane activity, but it's more like bull-and-bear cycles in the stock market than anything you'd want to count on: The oscillations are of no standard length, and since we don't understand the mechanism, we don't really know that the apparent pattern is more than a statistical anomaly.

Mooney's article re-emphasizes a point I've made before about climate change: Weather is such a noisy system that it's not really the place to start when you look for evidence (or try to convince someone else). As an analogy, think about the annual winter-to-summer warming: If all you had to go on was your own thermometer, you might suffer through a Memorial Day cold snap, look back to that one freakishly warm day in early April, and convince yourself that "spring warming" is a myth.

The other end of the phenomenon is easier to understand and see evidence of: The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is rising. It goes up every year. The rise is caused by burning fossil fuels. CO2 is a greenhouse gas that causes the planet to reflect less of the Sun's energy back into space.

Given all that, you'd expect the planetwide increase in retained energy to show up in all sorts of ways: heat waves, hurricanes, rising oceans, shrinking glaciers, and so on. And in the long term it does, just as summer always eventually arrives. But all of those effects arise in complex systems with many inputs other than how much solar energy the planet is retaining. CO2 has its foot on the accelerator, but sometimes the car is going uphill, and the increase won't show up until it starts downhill again.

While we're on climate change, have you ever wondered about that 3% of climate-science papers that don't support the consensus theory? Researchers looked at them, and found nothing they could replicate.

Is there anything more annoying than people who see natural disasters as evidence of God's fury and are sure they know why God is angry? It's one thing to use God-language metaphorically to personalize actual cause-and-effect, like saying God is sending hurricanes in response to the thoughtless way we're pumping CO2 into the atmosphere. But attributing Harvey and Irma to abortion or same-sex marriage is treating God like a puppet: He says whatever you want Him to say.

Texas' recovery from Harvey is producing a church-and-state issue: Should churches get FEMA help to rebuild? Previously, churches weren't eligible for disaster-relief funds, but that was before the Supreme Court's recent Trinity Lutheran decision, which extended a state program subsidizing playground resurfacing to cover a school operated by a church. Chief Justice Roberts wrote:

But the exclusion of Trinity Lutheran from a public benefit for which it is otherwise qualified, solely because it is a church, is odious to our Constitution all the same, and cannot stand.

A new lawsuit by Houston churches wants to extend that decision to disaster relief for houses of worship themselves. I haven't read the Trinity Lutheran decision yet, so I'm not ready to weigh in. But whatever the outcome, I want it to apply equally to all religions. Would Texas Christians be willing to see their tax dollars rebuilding mosques and synagogues?

and Trump's deal with the Democrats

In spite of the hurricanes, the week's most unexpected event came Wednesday when Trump sided with the Democrats on a deal to keep the government running until December 8. The bill (signed Friday) appropriated $15.3 billion for hurricane relief, continued government spending at current levels elsewhere, and raised the debt ceiling. It did all that without any of the usual hostage-taking: no spending cuts to balance the hurricane relief, no attacks on ObamaCare or Medicaid, not even money for Trump's border wall. There was also none of the brinksmanship we've gotten used to: The House and Senate didn't play chicken with each other, and the vote wasn't delayed until minutes before the government would have to shut down.

Republicans felt undercut and several were "seething" (according to The L.A. Times). All 90 of the House votes against the bill came from Republicans. Treasury Secretary Mnuchin and Budget Director Mulvaney reportedly were "met with groans, boos and hisses" Friday morning when they tried to get Republican congresspeople to support the deal.

That agreement was part of a larger Trump charm offensive towards Democrats. When Trump went to North Dakota Wednesday to promote his (so far vacuous, as I explained last week) tax reform proposal, he took Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp with him on Air Force One, and appeared with her on stage.

For a Democrat fighting to keep her seat next year in a state Trump won by 36 points, the senator's day could not have gone much better. Trump's tax push has yet to be written as legislation, and a vote still remains a hypothetical. Heitkamp's appearance with the president, then, cost her little in exchange for what amounted to an endorsement of her willingness to work across the aisle.

Since so far Trump's tax reform "proposal" is only a vague list of principles, Heitkamp could easily support it in theory and still vote against the bill that ultimately comes to the floor.

He also took Nancy Pelosi's suggestion to reassure DACA immigrants that they won't be deported in the next six months. He agreed with Chuck Schumer on the goal of repealing the debt ceiling permanently.

(BTW: That's a good idea. The debt limit has essentially become a self-destruct button that Congress must periodically decide whether to push. A debt ceiling made sense before 1974, when Congress considered each tax and appropriation separately and members could duck responsibility for the deficits those bills added up to. But now the irresponsibility runs in the other direction: A member can vote for a budget that includes a deficit, and then preen for his constituents by voting against allowing the government to borrow the money.)

The punditry has a number of theories about why Trump is doing this. If you're in a generous mood, you might imagine that he's doing it for the good of the country. After all, we avoid a government shutdown or a debt crisis for another three months, and hurricane victims start getting help, all without creating another artificial crisis.

You might also imagine that he's decided to begin taking seriously the populism he campaigned on. Up until now, Trump's executive orders have nodded in the direction of campaign promises about immigration and trade, but he has let Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell control his legislative agenda. So ObamaCare repeal-and-replace would have done its greatest damage in precisely the poor rural communities where Trump is so popular, and tax reform looked likely to become yet another giveaway to the super-rich, with working-class Americans offered little more than a mess of pottage in exchange for Social Security and Medicare birthrights that would inevitably be cut once budget deficits balloon.

So charming Democrats could, in theory, be the overture of an authentically populist tax reform, one that eliminates the loopholes where the rich hide their income and uses the money to either cut middle-class taxes or lower the deficit.

Another theory is that Trump didn't like hearing that Congress would be too busy in September to accomplish much on tax reform or infrastructure, so he made a quick deal that would "clear the decks". The Hill reports:

Lawmakers had expected to fight over fiscal issues right up until the end of September, but now the schedule for the month is surprisingly clear.

Finally, there's Josh Marshall's theory, which I have to say sounds the most plausible to me:

Trump needs to dominate people. Clearly Trump felt that McConnell and Ryan are not serving him well enough or loyally enough or both. So he lashed out or tried to damage them. Schumer and Pelosi were simply the most convenient cudgels available. ... It’s been clear for weeks that [Trump] feels routinely betrayed by these two men. They don’t produce for him. They embarrass. They fail to defend him. The need to dominate runs deeper than any policy agenda or ideological ambition.

I interpret the recent overtures with a high-school-dance metaphor: Trump's date hasn't been giving him enough adulation, so he's punishing her by flirting with her rival. Pelosi and Schumer should enjoy the dance, but not get fooled into thinking that some great romance is starting. Trump will be back with Ryan and McConnell as soon as he thinks they've learned their lesson.

and DACA

It's still not clear what's going to happen to the Dreamers. Their protection against deportation will start phasing out in six months, and Congress might or might not find a way to help them. (That's a test of Congress' functionality: Almost nobody really wants to deport them, but dysfunctional systems often do things that nobody wants.) And Trump is now leaning both ways: He says he will "revisit" his DACA decision in six months if Congress doesn't do anything.

The stereotypic Dreamer is a teen-ager or 20-something brought to this country from Mexico around age 5. Like a lot of stereotypes, there is some statistical truth in it, but a lot of Dreamers don't fit.

The NYT does the demographics. About 3/4ths of the Dreamers are from Mexico, and other Latino countries provide most of the rest. But not all: 7250 are from South Korea, 4655 from the Philippines, 3435 from Jamaica, and 3182 from India.

Part of what you see there is that not all undocumented immigrants get into the country by sneaking across a border. A large number of them (even ones from Mexico) come here legally as tourists and then stay after their visas expire. The Great Wall of Mexico won't do anything to stop them.

15 state attorney generals are suing to block Trump from ending DACA. It's a difficult argument, and I find it hard to believe they'll succeed. In some sense their case is modeled on the one against Trump's so-called Muslim ban, in which he blocked visitors from six Muslim-majority countries. There, the argument wasn't that Trump lacked the power to issue that order, but that it was unconstitutional for him to issue it capriciously, as a way of discriminating against Muslims.

Ditto here: Obama started DACA via executive order, so Trump certainly has the power to un-order it. To win the case, then, the AGs would have to convince a federal court that Trump's order could only be motivated by anti-Latino animus. It seems like a tough case to make.

but USA Today's investigation of corruption deserves more attention

Wednesday, USA Today published "Trump gets millions from golf members. CEOs and lobbyists get access to president". Abstractly, we all knew the problem Trump's private clubs create:

for the first time in U.S. history, wealthy people with interests before the government have a chance for close and confidential access to the president as a result of payments that enrich him personally.

The initiation fee is $200K at Mar-a-Lago and $300K at Bedminster, with thousands more expected in membership fees each year. A lobbyist or CEO seeking government favors knows that he might meet the President in either place, and the President will know that he has received a large payment -- not a campaign contribution, but a payment that benefits him personally.

[This is an important point: If you believe a politician's policies are good for the country, civic virtue might motivate you to contribute to his or her re-election. But giving a government official money to spend on himself is always improper.]

Even if that's theoretically possible, does it actually happen? It's been hard to prove. The membership rolls at Trump's clubs are secret, so you can't check them for suspicious names. You also can't check whether Trump suddenly started making more money off his clubs after he became president, because his tax returns are secret. The Obama administration would at least tell you who the President was playing golf with, but the Trump administration won't even do that.

So journalists had to get creative.

USA TODAY set out to identify as many members of Trump’s private clubs as possible. We found more than 4,500 names by scouring social media posts, news stories and a public website golfers use to track their handicaps.

Our reporters then reviewed many hundreds of members’ names and used information available online and public documents such as lobbying registrations, corporate records, property deeds and medical licenses to determine the members' jobs and if they make their living trying to influence the federal government or win contracts with it.

And they found some.

Members of the clubs Trump has visited most often as president — in Florida, New Jersey and Virginia — include at least 50 executives whose companies hold federal contracts and 21 lobbyists and trade group officials. Two-thirds played on one of the 58 days the president was there, according to scores they posted online.

As the article notes, there is nothing illegal about this, as long as the executives and lobbyists pay the same fees other people do, and no government favor is an identifiable quid pro quo. But it's unsavory at a level that has not been seen in American politics for the last century or so.

Trump isn't draining the swamp, he's flooding it.

Speaking of corruption, we're still not in a league with Brazil. This is how you know that you've got a problem:

and you also might be interested in ...

About that "American carnage" we supposedly need an anti-immigrant, law-and-order president to protect us from: no sign of it in the numbers.

Tom Heberlein is an American living in Sweden who likes Swedish taxes. Sure they're higher than American taxes, but you also get more: healthcare, public transportation, and college, just to name a few benefits. Interestingly, Heberlein turns the conservative "free to choose" argument upside-down:

No matter how rich Bill Gates is, he cannot buy a hiking trail system in Seattle like those we take for granted in Stockholm. I get to use it for free and have more choices for hiking than I can ever enjoy in Wisconsin.

... Betty and I used to live the village of Lodi, about 25 miles from Madison. This being America, I was free to travel to Madison however and whenever I wanted, as long as it was by private automobile. There was (and is) no bus service to Madison. Even though railroad tracks run right through the village, there is no commuter rail service either.

If this were a suburb of Stockholm or any other European city of 250,000, there would be train service and bus service several times an hour. These are the choices Europeans have that we don't, because they devote more of their income to collective goods.

Ta-Nehisi Coates proclaims Trump "America's first white president", meaning (I think) that he's the first president whose appeal is based on white identity politics.

Explanations of Trump's victory that rely on economic resentment rather than racial resentment just don't cut it.

Trump’s white support was not determined by income. According to Edison Research, Trump won whites making less than $50,000 by 20 points, whites making $50,000 to $99,999 by 28 points, and whites making $100,000 or more by 14 points. This shows that Trump assembled a broad white coalition that ran the gamut from Joe the Dishwasher to Joe the Plumber to Joe the Banker. So when white pundits cast the elevation of Trump as the handiwork of an inscrutable white working class, they are being too modest, declining to claim credit for their own economic class. Trump’s dominance among whites across class lines is of a piece with his larger dominance across nearly every white demographic. Trump won white women (+9) and white men (+31). He won white people with college degrees (+3) and white people without them (+37). He won whites ages 18–29 (+4), 30–44 (+17), 45–64 (+28), and 65 and older (+19). Trump won whites in midwestern Illinois (+11), whites in mid-Atlantic New Jersey (+12), and whites in the Sun Belt’s New Mexico (+5). In no state that Edison polled did Trump’s white support dip below 40 percent.

... Sixty-one percent of whites in this “working class” supported Trump. Only 24 percent of Hispanics and 11 percent of blacks did. Indeed, the plurality of all voters making less than $100,000 and the majority making less than $50,000 voted for the Democratic candidate. So when Packer laments the fact that “Democrats can no longer really claim to be the party of working people—not white ones, anyway,” he commits a kind of category error. The real problem is that Democrats aren’t the party of white people—working or otherwise. White workers are not divided by the fact of labor from other white demographics; they are divided from all other laborers by the fact of their whiteness.

As interesting and consequential as the Russian hack of Democrats' email systems is the Russian social-media bot network. It's still working to influence American political opinion. Most recently, it's been pushing a pro-alt-Right anti-Antifa angle.

A follow-up to the article I mentioned last week about the morality of being rich: Rachel Sherman wrote in the NYT about her interviews with some wealthy people in New York: They do feel conflicted about their wealth, and many of them try not to appear to be as rich as they are.

Yet we believe that wealthy people seek visibility because those we see are, by definition, visible. In contrast, the people I spoke with expressed a deep ambivalence about identifying as affluent.
One of the interviewees takes the price tags off of everything, because she is embarrassed to have the housekeeper know she spends $6 for a loaf of bread.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos wants to expand publicly funded charter schools nationwide. She was responsible for the law that expanded them in Michigan, which isn't working out so well.

Michigan’s K-12 system is among the weakest in the country and getting worse. In little more than a decade, Michigan has gone from being a fairly average state in elementary reading and math achievement to the bottom 10 states. It’s a devastating fall. Indeed, new national assessment data suggest Michigan is witnessing systemic decline across the K-12 spectrum. White, black, brown, higher-income, low-income — it doesn’t matter who they are or where they live.

and let's close with something out of the ordinary

Looking ahead to Irma hitting Florida, NPR did an article on disaster planning at zoos. It's usually not possible to load a bunch of exotic animals into a truck and head up the turnpike to safety, so zoos have to get creative about sheltering in place. In this photo, a flock of flamingos (even the females) wait out 1998's Hurricane Georges in a men's bathroom.

A related concern is Gatorland in Orlando, where 2,000 alligators (and a few pythons and other dangerous reptiles) live. The theme park assured the public that none of its creatures will escape; a five-person crew stays on duty through a storm. Now there's an idea for your horror-movie script: You were supposed to be on your way back to college by now, but instead you're in the crew weathering a disaster at an alligator park. "Don't worry!" the boss says as he catches the last jeep out.

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