Monday, April 30, 2018

Transforming Common Sense

The same analysts who invariably describe waves of unarmed revolt as spontaneous and uncontrolled spend endless hours speculating on which candidates might enter into elections that are still years away. They closely track developments in Congress, in the courts, and in the White House. They carefully study the arts of electioneering, lobbying, and legislative deal making -- processes that dominate public understanding of US politics and that are shaped by elite values and practices. In doing so, they appeal to realism. This is how the system works, they tell us. This is how the sausage gets made. But is this really how change happens?

- Mark and Paul Engler, This is an Uprising (2016)

One of the chief aims of revolutionary activity is to transform political common sense.

-- David Graeber (2014)

This week's featured post is "Change Can Happen Faster Than You Think." It reviews what I think is a very important book: This is an Uprising by Mark and Paul Engler, which walks you through half a century or more of the theory and practice of nonviolent organizing.

This week everybody was talking about Korea

The leaders of North and South Korea met at the border Friday and signed a joint declaration agreeing to a number of laudable goals, like negotiating a peace treaty to finally put an official end to the Korean War (since 1953 there has been an armistice, but the countries are still officially at war), denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, and reunification of families divided between the two nations. The details are to be worked out later.

But the details are the hard part, which is why it's too soon to get really excited about this agreement. It's a little like when an estranged married couple meets for lunch and decides they want to get back together. That's hopeful, but they're still going to have to resolve the issues -- kids, careers, money, blame and forgiveness for past events -- that split them up to begin with.

Anna Fifield writes in The Washington Post:

We were here in 1992, when North Korea signed a denuclearization agreement with South Korea. Again in 1994, when North Korea signed a denuclearization agreement with the United States. And in 2005, when North Korea signed a denuclearization agreement with its four neighbors and the United States. And then there was 2012, when North Korea signed another agreement with the United States.

But she also is mildly hopeful: The way North Korean media covered the meeting between North Korean President Kim and South Korean President Moon "sends a powerful message to the people of North Korea: This is a process Kim is personally invested in."

Realizing the promise of this agreement will involve some concessions from the United States, like ending economic sanctions against North Korea and pulling our troops out of South Korea. We're unlikely to make those concessions unless we're confident we can verify that North Korea has gotten rid of its nukes (and maybe its ballistic missiles as well). Whether North Korea will submit to the kind of intrusive inspections we will want is probably going to be the sticking point. And what if they demand that we abandon our nuclear weapons as well?

Here's what's particularly ironic: In terms of inspections, about the best we can hope for is to duplicate the Iran denuclearization agreement that Trump is on the verge of scuttling.

As for why the Korea negotiations are happening now, James Fallows recommends this analysis by Patrick Chovanec. The Guardian suggests another reason for Kim's willingness to halt nuclear tests: His testing site may be out of commission anyway.

and Trump administration scandals

Michael Cohen pleaded the Fifth Amendment in the civil case that Stormy Daniels has brought against him and President Trump. The judge granted Cohen's motion to delay the trial for 90 days to see if Cohen is indicted. Presumably, his legal liability (and hence the scope of his Fifth Amendment claims) will be easier to assess then.

To no one's surprise, the House Intelligence Committee's Republican majority released a report that found no evidence of collusion between the Russian government and the Trump campaign. It's easy to not find evidence when you don't really look.

Adam Schiff, the ranking Democratic committee member, summarized many of the committee's interviews.

My colleagues had a habit of asking three questions: Did you conspire, did you collude, did you coordinate with Russians? And if the answer was "no," they were pretty much done.

Schiff's assessment is backed up by the report itself.

Finding #25: When asked directly, none of the interviewed witnesses provided evidence of collusion, coordination, or conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.

So: We asked them and they said they didn't do it. What more could the American people expect from us?

Some key witnesses, like Paul Manafort, were never questioned at all. Donald Trump Jr. was allowed not to answer questions (about his father's role in crafting the false statement responding to the initial report of Junior's Trump Tower meeting with Russians) by claiming a plainly bogus "attorney-client privilege". (Neither of the Trumps are lawyers, but there was a lawyer in the room somewhere. When mob bosses try this trick, courts don't let them get away with it.) Several Trump-administration witnesses refused to answer questions, and the committee did not press them.

The report's clever phrasing papers over these huge gaps.

We reviewed every piece of relevant evidence provided to us and interviewed every witness we assessed would substantively contribute to the agreed-upon bipartisan scope of the investigation.

If evidence wasn't provided or witnesses refused to tell them anything, the committee simply accepted that limitation and moved on. The "agreed-upon bipartisan scope of the investigation" apparently did not include actually figuring out what happened.

Scott Pruitt testified before Congress about his conflicts of interest and his misspending EPA funds on first-class travel, round-the-clock personal security, and remodeling his office. He acknowledged nothing, blamed his staff, and attributed criticism to those who disagree with his policies. (If you think that the Environmental Protection Agency should protect the environment, there's a lot to disagree with.)

I finally got around to reading the NYT article from last week about Pruitt's pre-EPA career in Oklahoma. Pruitt virtually defines "the swamp" that Trump keeps saying he wants to drain. No smoking gun stands out above the general run, but the article is one long story of friends helping friends, business deals that always come out well for Pruitt, and a pro-business politician doing things that save businesses huge amounts of money. Corners are cut along the way, but it's all much more gentlemanly than simple bribery. And of course, Pruitt spends large amounts of taxpayer money on himself, just as he has been doing at EPA.

In the same way that Scott Pruitt sees his job at the EPA as protecting businesses from environmental regulation, Mike Mulvaney at the Consumer Financial Protection Board works to protect banks and payday lenders from consumer-protection laws. Addressing his primary constituents at an American Bankers Association conference on Tuesday, Mulvaney told the ABA that "what you do here [i.e., give money to legislators who support bank-friendly laws] matters." He explained why by pointing to his own practices when he was in Congress.

We had a hierarchy in my office in Congress. If you were a lobbyist who never gave us money, I didn't talk to you. If you were a lobbyist who gave us money, I might talk to you.

I can't claim I'm shocked to hear that some politicians' attention is for sale. But it is stunning to find one so jaded that he doesn't even see the point of pretending otherwise. For Mulvaney corruption is not an evil to be deplored or rooted out; it's just life.

I'm not sure whether this counts as scandalous or just unhinged, but Trump called in to Fox & Friends Thursday morning and spoke almost nonstop for half an hour. The hosts frequently looked uncomfortable and frozen, tried (and often failed) to interrupt him, and finally pushed to end the conversation before Trump did himself any more damage. This was yet another scene no one could have imagined in any previous administration: TV news personalities trying to get the President of the United States to shut up.

As a result, we all got to see for ourselves the conversational style that James Comey described in his book: "The barrage of words was almost designed to prevent a genuine two-way dialogue from ever happening."

You can watch the whole interview, read WaPo's annotated transcript, or save time and watch Trevor Noah's summarySeth Meyers' summary is also entertaining.

Trump's ramble did huge damage to his position in the Stormy Daniels case. Trump and Michael Cohen have contended that Daniels' non-disclosure agreement is with Cohen, who paid the $130K hush money himself without Trump's knowledge. But Trump admitted that Cohen "represents me like with this crazy Stormy Daniels deal, he represented me."

Trump and Cohen also want to keep both Robert Mueller and the US attorney for the Southern District of New York from examining the material the FBI took when it raided Cohen's office, claiming that it is protected by attorney-client privilege. SDNY prosecutors, on the other hand, have argued in court that Cohen actually did very little legal work for Trump or anyone else. Trump backed up the SDNY claim:

Michael is a businessman. He's got a business. He also practices law. I would say probably the big thing is his business ... I have many attorneys ... He has a percentage of my overall legal work — a tiny, tiny little fraction.

Within hours, SDNY had amended its court filing to include quotes from Trump's interview.

Finally, two tidbits underline how bizarre the whole thing was: Trump started by saying it was Melania's birthday. Then he admitted that he hadn't gotten her anything yet beyond a card and flowers, because "you know, I'm very busy". Then he rambled until the hosts cut him off, as very busy men often do on their wives' birthdays.

And this exchange about CNN is either priceless or symptomatic:

KILMEADE: I'm not your doctor, Mr. President, but I would — I would recommend you watch less of them.

TRUMP: I don’t watch them at all. I watched last night.

White House doctor Ronny Jackson dropped out of consideration to lead the Veterans Administration Thursday morning.

Trump is claiming that Jackson has been wronged by his critics, but he's also apparently not getting his old job back as White House physician.

By now we know that Trump does not care about the qualifications of the people he appoints, and frequently picks people just because he likes them or they look the part. (HUD ought to be led by a black, so why not Ben Carson? He knows nothing about public housing or urban planning, but so what?) Well, he likes Jackson, who looks impressive and is both a doctor and a rear admiral in the Navy. So what if he had never managed a large organization, and the VA has almost 400k employees and an annual budget just under $200 billion?

That by itself should have been enough to make the Senate think twice about confirming this nomination, but it soon became clear that Trump's people had not done the most basic kind of vetting. Senators found many accusations against Jackson, which The Washington Post breaks into three categories:

  • Being sloppy about giving out and accounting for prescription drugs, including prescribing to himself.
  • Turning the White House Medical Office into a terrible place to work.
  • Being drunk on duty.

As WaPo emphasizes, these are merely accusations at this stage rather than proven facts. (However, the accusers are not random partisans coming out of the woodwork. Most are career Navy.) But a competent White House would at least have known that such issues would arise, and would have been prepared to address them. The Trump White House wasn't.

Also worth noting: During the campaign, fixing the VA was a central part of Trump's message. (In a speech to the VFW, he pledged to "take care of our veterans like they've never been taken care of before.") If he cared about any cabinet position, he should have cared about this one.

and Macron's visit

French President Emmanuel Macron visited the White House early in the week and gave a well-reviewed speech to Congress. But he failed to convince Trump to change his positions on Iran or the Paris Climate agreement.

New and better trade deals were a key promise of Trump's 2016 campaign. But the deadline for imposing his tariffs on steel and aluminum is approaching, and other countries are not caving in to his demands.

and the new memorial to victims of lynching

From the moment that terrorists killed nearly 3,000 people on 9-11, it was obvious that there would someday be a memorial to them. And there is -- how could there not be?

Now think about the more than 4,000 African-Americans who were lynched. They didn't die all at once or all in one place, but they also were victims of terrorism. As Brent Staples puts it:

The carnivals of death where African-American men, women and children were hanged, burned and dismembered as cheering crowds of whites looked on were the cornerstone of white supremacist rule in the Jim Crow-era South. These bloody spectacles terrified black communities into submission and showed whites that there would be no price to pay for murdering black people who asserted the right to vote, competed with whites in business — or so much as brushed against a white person on the sidewalk.

Now, finally, they also get their memorial: The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. It opened Thursday.

The memorial houses 800 steel blocks, each 6 feet tall, suspended from above, and arranged in a square surrounding a grassy courtyard. There's a monument for each county where racial killings occurred, including one from Carroll County, Miss., "where nearly two dozen people were lynched," [Bryan] Stevenson [of the organization that created the memorial] says. They resemble elongated gravestones, etched with the names of victims.

Thinking of them as gravestones must be particularly eerie, since the visitor sees them from below.

The "lynching memorial", as it is being called, is particularly timely given the controversies over the thousands of Confederate monuments scattered throughout the country, and especially the South. "Preserving history" is the excuse frequently given for forcing majority-black cities to give places of honor to men who fought to keep their citizens' ancestors enslaved, or for punishing cities that remove such monuments. But until recently, what has been preserved is a very distorted view of history.

This was not an accident, but rather was an organized campaign by Southern state and local governments to whitewash the history of slavery and the Civil War. Virginia textbooks commissioned during the 1950s and still in use into the 1970s, taught school children lessons like:

Enslaved people were happy to be in Virginia and were better off than they would have been in Africa. Abolitionists lied about slavery in the South. ... After the Civil War, carpetbaggers and scalawags came down to Virginia to oppress white Virginians. However, some 'broad-minded' Northerners came to understand and appreciate true Virginia and came to agree that Negroes were not ready to govern themselves.

Several Southern states celebrate an official Confederate Memorial Day: Today in Mississippi, last Monday in Alabama and Georgia. As far as I know, no state specifically honors the Southerners who have the best claim to Civil War heroism: slaves who escaped, joined the Union Army, and returned to liberate their people. They are the real heroes; Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson aren't in the same league.

and you also might be interested in ...

James Fallows thinks that on a local level, America is revitalizing itself.

The Senate confirmed Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State. Individually, the Tillerson-to-Pompeo  switch probably doesn't mean much. But with Bolton replacing McMaster as National Security Adviser, it's ominous. I worry that at some key moment, no one in the room will regard war with Iran as a bad thing.

As if there weren't enough crazies to worry about already, the man who used his van to kill 10 people in Toronto last Monday drew attention to yet another toxic worldview: Incels.

Incel, a contraction of "involuntarily celebate", is a specific type of misogyny: Heterosexual guys who can't find willing sexual partners blame women in general. They also aren't wild about the guys who do manage to find partners.

Incels are a small spin-off group from the "pick-up artist" community, which [journalist David] Futrelle defines as men "obsessed with mastering what they see as the ultimate set of techniques and attitudes — known as 'Game' — that will enable them to quickly seduce almost any woman they want."

Incels are men who researched pick-up artistry and found that the techniques did not work as advertised. So they have become embittered and have organized a deeply misogynistic and strange online community who believe, as Futrelle explains, "that women who turn down incel men for dates or sex are somehow oppressing them."

Incels differentiate themselves from "Chads and Stacys," their contemptuous term for men and women who have heterosexual sex on a regular basis.

Shortly before his attack, the Toronto guy characterized himself on Facebook as a "recruit" in "the Incel Rebellion" and hailed Incel hero Elliot Rodger, who killed six people in 2014 in an attack that centered on a sorority house, and then committed suicide. Rodger's 137-page manifesto (which I'm intentionally not linking to) is supposedly a primary text in the Incel movement.

I wrote about Rodger at the time, not realizing he would symbolize a movement. I think that post holds up well. (It leans on Arthur Chu's "Your Princess is in Another Castle", which rambles, but also holds up well.) As long as men think of women's bodies as prizes -- and feel cheated if we don't get the rewards we think we've earned -- rape and other forms of misogynistic violence are never going to go away.

A Palestinian father living in Gaza explains why he risks his life to participate in the Great Return March, a protest on Gaza's border with Israel.

Bill Cosby was found guilty of three counts of aggravated indecent assault, after nearly half a century of accusations. The New York Times Editorial Board draws what I think is the right conclusion: Convicting a rich and famous man of sexual assaults that happen behind closed doors is possible now, but it's still really, really hard.

[S]ince it happened only after scores of women suffered in silence for decades, and only in the midst of a global reckoning with sexual violence, even a “victory” like this verdict suggests that the abused still face a desperately uphill battle.

Paul Ryan's firing of the House chaplain (apparently for a prayer encouraging Congress to seek "benefits balanced and shared by all Americans" just before the vote on the tax bill), looks like another place where his political philosophy is incompatible with his Catholicism. That was a theme I explored years before he became Speaker in "Jesus Shrugged: Why Christianity and Ayn Rand Don't Mix".

This event is particularly strange given all the complaints from the religious right that liberals are trying to "silence" them.

Lots of people have noticed Trump's silence about the Waffle House shooting and wondered: Would he have had more to say if all the races were reversed? What if a black guy (or a Muslim or Hispanic immigrant) had walked into a restaurant, killed four white people, and then gotten stopped and chased away by an unarmed white hero? You think that might have drawn Trump's attention?

My own guess is that Trump just couldn't see the Waffle House story. Heroes and victims are white Christians; villains are some other kind of people. Nothing else registers.

In WestWorld, when the robots are confronted with something that ought to make them question their programmed worldview, they just can't process it. "It doesn't look like anything to me," they say. That's how I imagine Trump responding to the Waffle House story.

HUD Secretary Ben Carson wants to raise the rent on poor families in government-assisted housing, especially the poorest ones.

Under current law, most tenants who get federal housing assistance pay 30 percent of their adjusted income toward rent, and the government kicks in the rest up to a certain amount. According to the HUD plan unveiled Wednesday, the amount many renters would pay jumps to 35 percent of gross income. In some cases, rental payments for some of the neediest families would triple, rising from a minimum of $50 per month to a minimum of $150, according to HUD officials. Some 712,000 households would see their rents jump to $150 per month under the proposal, the officials said.

This is why taxpayers shouldn't concern themselves about Carson spending $31K on a dining-room set for his office, or the conflicts of interest involving his son's business. He's more than making it up by grinding money out of poor people.

Carson also proposes to allow states more options to impose work requirements on people who otherwise qualify for subsidized housing. This might sound sensible if you have a certain view of poor people: that they would rather sponge off the government than work. (I have no numbers on this; I suspect it's true for some, but probably a lot fewer than Carson thinks.) From my point of view, the big thing HUD needs to be careful about is setting up a poverty trap: If you get thrown out of your apartment because you're not working, how are you ever going to fix that? Once you're homeless, it gets a lot harder to find a job.

The next time you pass homeless people on the street, try to picture them walking into a McDonalds and applying for a job. What manager would hire them? How much prep would be necessary to become presentable in a business context? Where would a homeless person do that prep?

Telling the poor to "shape up or else" is an appealing fantasy for some people. The problem is with the "or else", because often it's a state from which there is no recovering.

and let's close with another road trip

So where can you get the best cup of coffee in every state? Food & Wine magazine has got it covered.

Monday, April 23, 2018

A Year Over the Limit

Go home, 2018. You're drunk.

-- Jake Tapper, responding to the revelation
that Michael Cohen's mysterious third client is Sean Hannity

This week's featured posts are "Comey's Book" (For a guy who has spent most of his life chasing criminals, James Comey is an excellent writer.) and "Flipping the Script on Fossil Fuels". (As sustainable-energy technologies improve, it's now the fossil-fuel defenders who stand against economic progress.)

This week everybody was talking about North Korea

In anticipation of the Trump/Kim summit that is supposed to happen sometime in May or June, the North Korean government made some encouraging announcements:

These included a declaration that North Korea was satisfied with its existing nuclear warhead designs, and that it had discontinued all nuclear and intercontinental-range ballistic missile (ICBM) tests and closed its nuclear test site at Punggye Ri. Kim also announced that North Korea would suspend nuclear testing, and reiterated his commitment not to use nuclear weapons “unless there is [a] nuclear threat,” and to stop the proliferation of nuclear technology.

However, there's a little less here than meets the eye, as The Atlantic's Adam Mount and Ankit Panda go on to explain. Trump seems to think that "they have agreed to denuclearization", which they haven't.

While Kim did say that Pyongyang supported the vision of “global disarmament,” this is a common trope in North Korean propaganda and suggests that North Korea will soon call for tit-for-tat arms control with the United States.

In other words, if Trump asks Kim to give up all his nuclear weapons, the answer may be: "I will if you will." From North Korea's point of view, the point of this summit meeting is to showcase Kim and Trump as equals. Kim isn't going to submit to an unequal deal.

There are a number of ways around the pledges Kim just made, some of which North Korea has used to dodge past agreements. So while the recent announcements should be seen as a good sign, they shouldn't be read as more than that.

the United States cannot accept these measures as a victory—they’re a starting point for forging a verifiable cap on Pyongyang’s arsenal. A hard cap can keep America and its allies safer while Trump negotiates a more comprehensive agreement—something that can only happen if the president does not give in to overconfidence and optimism.

and kids protesting against guns

One of the hardest tasks in political organizing is to turn a protest into a protest movement. Something happens and people want to express themselves, so a bunch of them show up for a demonstration. But what happens then? How does that momentary outrage turn into the kind of persistent force that politicians have to recognize and respond to? (More on that next week.)

That's the challenge faced by the students who became gun-control activists after the Parkland school shooting on Valentine's Day. They promoted a national school walkout to mark the one-month anniversary on March 14, and then held the massive March for Our Lives rally in Washington, DC (with mirror rallies around the country) on March 24.

Friday was another school walkout, this time to mark the anniversary of the Columbine shooting. I haven't found any estimate of how the number of students participating compared to the March 14 walkout, but the amount of media attention definitely seemed down. This summer, I think, will be key. Will they keep their momentum, or will this all be a memory by the time schools starts again in the fall?

I remembered Jake Tapper's "Go home, 2018. You're drunk." when I saw the headline "Naked Gunman Kills 4 in Waffle House Shooting". But it wasn't a joke.

A man wearing only a green jacket shot three people dead at a Waffle House. One person later died at a hospital where two others are being treated for injuries. Police say the suspect fled on foot, and is still on the loose.

The reason more people aren't dead is that an unarmed bystander -- a good guy without a gun -- took action.

When the shooting momentarily stopped, a Waffle House customer took advantage of the moment. James Shaw Jr. told reporters, "At that time I made up my mind ... that he was going to have to work to kill me. When the gun jammed or whatever happened, I hit him with the swivel door." Shaw then wrestled the gun away, and threw it behind the counter — prompting the gunman to leave.

There's a perverse effect through which every mass-shooting story causes more people to say, "I need a gun to protect myself." It's hard to figure out how to counter that, because (even though violent crime of all sorts has been falling for decades), you never read a story saying "Everybody in Our Town was Safe Today".

Except this one: The 75th precinct in East New York "regularly logged more than 100 murders a year" during the 1990s. Last year there were 11, and none so far in 2018.

Sometimes such turnarounds happen because the underlying population changes. The neighborhood suddenly becomes fashionable and a bunch of rich people move in, pushing the previous residents out. But that doesn't seem to be the case here.

those kinds of changes have been slow to reach more distant places like East New York, a predominantly black and Latino neighborhood that still struggles with severe poverty and leads the city in robberies this year.

and Barbara Bush

Barbara Bush died Tuesday at the age of 92. She was the matriarch of the Bush clan, wife of the first President Bush and mother of the second. She was First Lady from 1989 to 1993.

Most of the respect and attention her life received this week was due to its own merits. The Wife-and-Mother-of-Presidents Club, after all, includes only Barbara Bush and Abigail Adams. (If you happen across a little girl named, say, Cynthia Collins, you might want to keep an eye on her.) But I think it also reflects nostalgia for an era not so long ago, when public life had a dignity it now conspicuously lacks, and when we expected our leaders to exemplify values we aspire to.

Barbara and George were married for 73 years, and have now been parted in the way their vows anticipated, by death. To a large extent, it's impossible to see inside other people's marriages, even those of your close friends. Marriages of public figures may be very different than they appear from the outside. But everything we do know about the Bushes points to a relationship of deep mutual respect.

The Bush marriage was a traditional one. Barbara left Smith College when she became a wife, and never developed a resume of her own, or sought a career outside the home as George rose through a series of ever-more-impressive jobs. Not everyone wants such a life today, and one huge virtue of our era is that women who don't want to walk that path are not forced onto it. (My own marriage of 34 years is quite different, and I would not trade it.) But nonetheless I find it inspiring to see that the path can be walked. Every successfully concluded life should give us hope.

and James Comey

His book A Higher Loyalty appeared in bookstores Tuesday. One featured post is my response after reading it.

and Michael Cohen

I hesitate to say much about Cohen, because most of the talk about him this week was speculation about whether he'll be indicted and whether he'll cut a deal to testify against Trump. Those are both tantalizing questions, but the fact-to-guess ratio has been pretty low.

The really striking thing in all this speculating, though, is the number of Trump supporters who seem genuinely worried that Cohen will flip on Trump. The Atlantic's David Graham draws the obvious conclusion: Even Trump's friends believe he's guilty of something.

these people are at least aspirationally standing up for Trump, and yet their comments have a clear subtext of guilt. They all start with the premise that Trump has something to hide. You can’t flip on someone unless you’ve got something to offer prosecutors. Usually, the defenders of suspects in prosecutors’ cross-hairs loudly proclaim their innocence, and insist that the investigation will ultimately vindicate them. But Trump’s chorus is singing from a different hymnal.

Attorney-client privilege is one issue that might keep federal investigators from examining some of the stuff seized in the raid on Michael Cohen's offices. But whether that applies at all depends in part on how much law Cohen actually practices. (The privilege only applies to conversations that are genuinely about legal work that the attorney is doing for the client. The mere fact that somebody is a lawyer doesn't mean that whatever you say to him or her is privileged.) The government has claimed Cohen doesn't really practice much law, and so the judge wanted to know who Cohen's clients are. There was Trump, and another rich Republican who tried to cover up an affair with a Playboy playmate, and somebody Cohen didn't want to name.

Last Monday, the unnamed client was revealed: Fox News host Sean Hannity, who had been constantly denouncing the raid on Cohen's office without revealing to his audience that he might have a personal interest in the story.

On a legitimate news network, Hannity would have been in big trouble, and probably would have been fired. (Journalists aren't supposed to report on stories they are involved in. At a bare minimum, Hannity should have disclosed his relationship to Cohen and let his viewers judge for themselves whether to trust his objectivity.) On Fox, not so much. The network announced he has its "full support".

Quartz chided journalists who claimed to be "stunned" by Fox' lack of ethical discipline.

Really? Stunned? Let’s be clear: Fox News is not, and never has been, a news organization. And while Hannity is an influential person on television—and one many listen to—he is not a journalist. That some media observers saw Fox’s non-response to the Hannity debacle as anything other than a sad inevitability shows that we still have a ways to go to normalize those two facts.

By far the best response to the Hannity revelation came from CNN's Jake Tapper: "Go home, 2018. You're drunk."

and whether Trump will fire either Mueller or Rosenstein

Rumors continue to swirl that Trump is about to fire either Special Counsel Robert Mueller or Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller and oversees his investigation. At the same time, it doesn't actually happen, so I wonder if we're getting de-sensitized to Trump's threats. (For comparison: I almost forgot that today is supposed to be the Rapture. People keep predicting it and it keeps not happening, so it's hard to raise any excitement about it. Even the embarrassment of people who take such prophecies seriously has become old news.)

Democrats in Congress have been worrying about this all along, and several have promoted legislation that would give Mueller some protection against arbitrary firing. But only a handful of Republicans have been willing to go along, until recently. This week the Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to vote on a bipartisan proposal put together by Republican Thom Tillis and Democrat Chris Coons. It might well pass, and then things get interesting.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been adamant that he will not bring the bill to the floor of the Senate. Like Paul Ryan in the House, McConnell claims legislation isn't necessary, because Trump isn't going to fire Mueller anyway. (But that could also be an argument for passing the bill: It puts no real restriction on Trump, because he wasn't going to fire Mueller anyway.) But I'm not sure how anyone can read tweets like this one from Friday and have that kind of confidence.

Sometimes McConnell points out that the effort is doomed anyway, because Trump will veto the bill even if Congress passes it. That's probably true, but Congress' position would be on the record: Don't fire Mueller. Let the investigation take its course. The same logic explains why the Senate should pass it even if the House won't: at least the Senate's position will be on the record, and Trump will have been warned.

But even ignoring his bogus arguments, I think I understand McConnell's thinking: This is a no-win vote for Republicans facing re-election. If they vote against it, they're spineless partisan hacks bowing down to Trump. If they vote for it, they tick off base voters that they'll need in November. Much better to just say it isn't going to happen.

Unless it happens, of course. That would be a true disaster for Republicans facing the voters, and the no-win decision would come back to them in spades: Trump has put himself above the law. Are you going to do something about it or not?

Other people might respond also: The Washingon Post claims that Attorney General Sessions has told White House Counsel Don McGahn that he might resign if Rosenstein gets fired.

That threat lends some credence to a claim James Comey made in an interview with Rachel Maddow Tuesday: The only way Trump could shut down the Russia investigation is to fire the whole Justice Department and the whole FBI.

And that brings up an important question: What are you going to do if Trump fires Mueller or Rosenstein? Nobody Is Above the Law rallies are planned all over the country, to be triggered either by a firing or by Trump pardoning key people who could be witnesses against him. If the triggering event happens before 2 p.m. the rallies start at 5 p.m. local time. If after 2 p.m., the rallies start at noon the next day.

Check for a rally in your area here. I'm planning to go to Veteran's Park in Manchester. I'll be the guy in the blue hat that says "Are We Great Again Yet?"

and corruption

There's an everyday aspect to Trump's corruption of the presidency that it's easy to lose sight of. Here and here, for example, he turns the visit of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe into glittering advertisements for his Mar-a-Lago club, which you can join if you're willing to hand him $200,000. (Chris Hayes has dubbed Mar-a-Lago "the de facto bribery palace". For just a few hundred thousand "you can personally lobby the president on whatever you want".)

The videos end with the symbol of the White House, so I assume they were made with public funds. Each has had more than a million views. I have to wonder what advertisements of similar reach would have cost Trump, if they didn't come as a perk of his job.

Gail Collins quotes Trump speaking to the press with Abe, and then asks:

People, which part of this makes you most unnerved? The fact that the president doesn’t make any sense when he talks or the fact that he devoted a large part of a press conference with the head of one of our most important allies to promoting his resort?

Neither the press-conference testimonial nor the promotional videos Trump made on the White House's dime tells us how much Prime Minister Abe's visit cost the two governments, or how much of that money wound up in Trump's pocket. This was Abe's second visit to Mar-a-Lago. (The picture above is from the first.) By contrast, President Obama last met Abe in a pair of joint appearances: at Hiroshima and Pearl Harbor. He did not personally profit from either one.

and you also might be interested in ...

The Senate is considering a number of Trump nominees. Mike Pompeo is expected to lose a committee vote today, but be approved by the Senate anyway. Gina Haspel as head of the CIA and Ronny Jackson as VA chief will come up in early May.

Long article in Politico about Trump's relationship with Christian TV networks., which is even more incestuous than his relationship with Fox News. TBN and CBN don't even have to pretend to be objective.

Kansans talk about their state's tax-cuts-will-spark-growth experiment, and what it might mean for the country.

Jeff Sessions's attempt to keep federal funds away from so-called "sanctuary cities" is not legal. Three judges appointed by Republicans unanimously ruled against the Trump policy on Thursday.

"The Attorney General in this case used the sword of federal funding to conscript state and local authorities to aid in federal civil immigration enforcement. But the power of the purse rests with Congress, which authorized the federal funds at issue and did not impose any immigration enforcement conditions on the receipt of such funds," [Judge Ilana] Rovner wrote, in an opinion joined by Judge William Bauer. "It falls to us, the judiciary, as the remaining branch of the government, to act as a check on such usurpation of power."

The rule of law is tricky that way. If you want other people to obey the law, you have to obey it yourself.

While we're on that topic, Trump's tweets hit a new low on Wednesday:

There is a Revolution going on in California. Soooo many Sanctuary areas want OUT of this ridiculous, crime infested & breeding concept.

This kind of talk never ends well.

The idea that undocumented immigrants "infest" California and "breed" there is the kind of dehumanizing rhetoric that often precedes and justifies mass persecutions. Every genocide in modern times has begun with rhetoric that equated human beings with vermin. Hutu propaganda leading up to the Rwandan genocide referred to the Tutsis as "cockroaches". Nazis portrayed Jews as "parasites, leeches, devils, rats, bacilli, locusts, vermin, spiders, blood-suckers, lice, and poisonous worms".

In church yesterday, I found myself sitting one seat away from the woman my congregation is currently sheltering against deportation. I have not interacted with her much myself, but by all accounts she's a lovely woman who is the mother of American citizens. (One of the kids is old enough to look after the others while Mom is away, but it's far from an ideal situation.) She's been living in a small apartment in our church for four months now, as the appeal of her deportation order churns through the system. (That's the point of the sanctuary movement: to keep ICE from spiriting people away before their cases are heard. DACA recipient Juan Manuel Montes, for example, "had left his wallet in a friend's car, so he couldn't produce his ID or proof of his DACA status and was told by agents he couldn't retrieve them. Within three hours, he was back in Mexico, becoming the first undocumented immigrant with active DACA status deported by the Trump administration's stepped-up deportation policy.")

The whole point of Trump's rhetoric is that people like Maria or Juan aren't really human -- they infest America and breed -- so the rest of us shouldn't care what the government does to them any more than we care about termites.

One widely shared Barbara Bush quote said that she couldn't understand how women could vote for Trump. She was talking about the way he had insulted Megyn Kelly, but this week we saw a more policy-driven reason for skepticism. Under Trump, the US delegation to the UN Commission on the Status of Women has been turned over to the most zealous culture warriors ever. Official US positions, BuzzFeed reports, are more conservative than even Russia or the Arab countries.

“They were against the whole concept of sexuality education,” the UN official said, adding that the US also opposed the phrase “harm reduction,” which in the context of CSW means “accepting the fact that young people have sex and trying to teach them how to do it safely rather than just abstinence only,” the official explained. The US wanted “no mention of sexuality at all,” the official said.

US representative Valerie Huber would allow no mention of contraception, abortion, or sex education in the consensus statement. She pushed for abstinence education and teaching women "refusal skills".

“She spoke of ‘trying to get women to make better choices in the future,’ which is that terrifying and outmoded idea that women make bad sexual choices and that what happens to them is their fault,” one of the delegates who attended the meeting told BuzzFeed News.

Ever notice how conservatives talk about "law and order" while liberals talk about "justice"? That's because laws protect the established order, which is often unjust.

Avoiding Brexit is still a long shot, but it's possible.

and let's close with something amazing

A fluid mechanics course at Lamar University came up with a fun way to demonstrate the properties of non-Newtonian fluids. It's a simple formula -- two parts corn starch to one part water, with some food coloring mixed for the sake of appearance -- but it behaves in a weird way. It resists sudden motions, behaving like a solid when you jump on it or beat it. But it's a liquid, so if you stay still you will sink into it.

Monday, April 16, 2018

To Investigate or Not?

At a certain point you’re either for an independent and impartial investigation, or you’re not.

- Ambassador Nikki Haley (4-10-2018)
She was talking about Russia's approach to Syria's chemical weapons.
What did you think she was talking about?

This week I have a lot of featured posts that are shorter than usual: "'Make a Deal': My Contribution to the Trump/Mueller Musical", "Can I Stop Writing About Paul Ryan Now?", and "My taxes are half what I'd pay if I just made wages".

This week everybody was talking about Syria

A little over a week ago, the rebel-held Syrian town of Douma was hit with a chemical-weapons attack. Suspicion immediately fell on the Assad government, which has done stuff like this before. Assad's ally Russia vetoed a US resolution in the UN Security Council that would establish a commission to investigate and assess responsibility for the attack.

Early Saturday morning (local time), the US, UK, and France launched missile strikes against what they described as chemical-weapons facilities in Syria. The point, apparently, was not to move the balance-of-power in Syria's civil war, which Assad (with help from Russia and Iran) is winning. The point was to punish Assad for breaking the international convention against chemical weapons. The attacks were over in a few hours, but the coalition is ready to strike again if Assad uses chemical weapons again. At the moment, Russia appears unlikely to counter-attack.

There are a bunch of issues to unravel here, and I don't have all the answers.

  • Did Assad use chemical weapons? Russia says no, but their credibility with me is not very high right now. In the US a number of voices -- mainly on the right but also a few on the left -- are skeptical. But none of the alternative stories -- fraud, false flag operation -- make a lot of sense. I think the Trump administration wishes the whole Middle East would go away, so I don't see a motive to fake an attack.
  • Will missile strikes deter future chemical weapons use, or is there some better way? I totally agree with the idea that chemical weapon attacks shouldn't be tolerated. But is this really the most effective response? Obama threatened an attack, and then tried to negotiate Assad's weapons away (with Russia as guarantor). That didn't work. Trump punished Assad with a missile strike last year, and that didn't work. Why do we think incrementally more punishment is going to work now? Both presidents -- Fareed Zakaria points out how similar they are on this issue -- tried to calibrate their responses perfectly, so that Assad is deterred, but we don't wind up more deeply involved in Syria. Is that even possible? I don't have a better idea, but I have to wonder if we're working within the wrong frame. Or maybe this attack is more for our own satisfaction -- we did something! -- than to accomplish a real purpose.
  • Is Trump wagging the dog? As a steadfast Trump critic, I don't think so. Or if that is what he intended -- to divert attention from the Mueller investigation and other scandals -- it's not working. In the absence of further strikes, headlines are already shifting back to Comey's book and what the feds got by raiding Michael Cohen. (Trump didn't even manage to distract himself for long.) And if this turns into a longer bombing campaign, Trump's base will hate it as much or more than I do. They like chest-thumping, but not endless wars with no obvious goal.
  • Do we have some strategy in Syria, or are we just reacting to events as they happen? Compare to Russia: If Russians ask why their government is involved in Syria, they can get some simple answers: to secure an air and naval base in the Mediterranean; to support an allied government that's fighting Islamic terrorism; to prevent the United States imposing its will on the region; to show the world that Russia is a player again on the international stage. As an American, I can't think of any similar answers for our involvement. We're usually just told that worse things would happen if we disengaged.
  • Are attacks like this even legal? The Constitution assigns the war-making power to Congress, which hasn't passed any substantive authorization since right after 9-11 and just before the Iraq invasion. It's hard to claim that either of those applies here, since Saddam is long dead and Assad had no connection to 9-11. So Congress is AWOL. It could write a new authorization for intervention in places like Syria, or it could object to presidential overreach. But it's doing neither. It should at least debate a resolution. Constitutional checks and balances only work when the branches of government compete for influence. When one branch decides it just doesn't want to be blamed for whatever happens next, the whole system falls apart.

Trump's announcement of the attack on Syria was the first time I can recall him calling out Russia specifically. Not sure what it means: The WaPo also reports today on how angry Trump was when he realized he was expelling more Russian diplomats than our European allies were.

Thomas Friedman worries about a different aspect of the chaos in Syria: Iran and Israel are starting to shoot at each other. Prior to the US/French/British missile raid, this week the Israelis hit an Iranian base in Syria. They claim it was because an Iranian drone flew from that base in February with the intention of attacking Israel. The claim is hard to evaluate, because the drone was shot down before it could do any damage.

Israel and Iran are now a hair-trigger away from going to the next level — and if that happens, the U.S. and Russia may find it difficult to stay out.

and Paul Ryan

I never get used to the way big stories collide during the Trump Era. It's like a play whose actors keep stepping on each other's lines. Wednesday, the Speaker of the House announced his retirement, and it was a one-day wonder.

That's because Thursday evening the first excerpts of James Comey's new book appeared, and rumors came out of the White House that Trump was about to fire Rod Rosenstein to rein in the Mueller investigation. Friday we found out that the raid on Michael Cohen's office may have netted tapes of his conversations with Trump, and then in the evening Trump went on TV to announce an attack on Syria. Oh, and he pardoned the guy who obstructed justice and lied to investigators to protect Dick Cheney during the Valerie Plame scandal, apparently just to remind everybody that obstruction of justice and lying to federal investigators are pardonable offenses. (Wink, wink.)

But let's go back to Wednesday: The Speaker of the House is retiring in January. He's the second Speaker to walk away from the job in the last three years. That didn't used to happen. Sam Rayburn lasted for 17 years, and Tip O'Neil for nearly a decade. O'Neil was 74 when he retired and Rayburn died in office at 79. Ryan is 48 and Boehner was 65 when he retired.

Lots of people have a theory about why. I've paid a lot of attention to Ryan over the last six or seven years, so I offer my take in one of the featured posts.

and Michael Cohen

The New Yorker's Adam Davidson thinks the raid on Michael Cohen's office marks "the end stages of the Trump Presidency".

This doesn’t feel like a prophecy; it feels like a simple statement of the apparent truth. I know dozens of reporters and other investigators who have studied Donald Trump and his business and political ties. Some have been skeptical of the idea that President Trump himself knowingly colluded with Russian officials. It seems not at all Trumpian to participate in a complex plan with a long-term, uncertain payoff. Collusion is an imprecise word, but it does seem close to certain that his son Donald, Jr., and several people who worked for him colluded with people close to the Kremlin; it is up to prosecutors and then the courts to figure out if this was illegal or merely deceitful. We may have a hard time finding out what President Trump himself knew and approved.

However, I am unaware of anybody who has taken a serious look at Trump’s business who doesn’t believe that there is a high likelihood of rampant criminality.

Michael Cohen is right in the middle of all that, and has been for decades. Another New Yorker article sums up:

Cohen was directly involved in the Trump Organization’s pursuit of international deals in the years leading up to Trump’s Presidential campaign. During this period, the Trump Organization did business with corrupt politicians, sanctions violators, and money launderers. A key question, which carries significant legal ramifications, is how much the company knew about these partners’ records and reputations. Michael Cohen can answer this question.

He apparently taped phone calls, possibly with Trump or his children. He could be facing jail for his role in the Stormy Daniels pay-off, and possibly other similar incidents. If so, he might have reason to testify against Trump about anything else he knows -- testimony that would be admissible if his advice had been used to plan a crime.

Trump and Cohen are claiming that the information seized by the US attorney for the Southern District of New York (not Robert Mueller; this is the job that Chuck Rhodes has on the TV show Billions) is protected by attorney-client privilege and so is inadmissible in court. Right now, the judge does not seem to be buying that claim, but it's interesting to consider what happens if evidence of criminality is ruled inadmissible, but somehow gets out anyway: Will we tolerate having a criminal president if the evidence proving his criminality can't be used in court? Would an impeachment hearing in Congress be bound by those rules?

but I took a closer look at my taxes

After I got done with my taxes (within a few days of the deadline, as usual), I refigured what they'd be if I had the same income, but got it all in the form of wages rather than as more investment income than wages. The answer: "My taxes are half what they'd be if I just made wages". If you're expecting me to defend the tax system that gives me that kind of advantage, don't.

BTW, Elizabeth Warren has a bill that would have the IRS send you a tax return, which you could either accept or answer by filing your own. Other countries do this already.

and you also might be interested in ...

James Comey's book appears in stores tomorrow.

The graph below is a little hard to parse, but it captures some really interesting and important information. The full explanation is at Vox.

The authors (Max Roser and Stefan Thewissen) are trying to capture the notion of "inclusive growth". In other words, an economy that grows without increasing inequality. What they're plotting is the inflation-adjusted income that puts you at the 90th percentile versus the inflation-adjusted income that puts you in the 10th percentile. Countries higher up the scale have less equality. If your economy grows equally for everybody, your path should be diagonal. More upward slopes indicate increasing inequality, while more horizontal slopes indicate decreasing inequality. The paths start with the data from 1979.

Two things are striking: Early in the Thatcher years, the UK's path goes straight up, as virtually all the growth goes to the wealthy. And the US's path is unlike all the other countries': We're zig-zagging upwards as our inequality increases over the long term.

The point to learn from the US path is that our inequality problem is unique. You can't blame it on some global cause like technology or globalization. We've been doing something different in this country since roughly the time of Ronald Reagan, and it's not good.

There's one thing I'd like to add to their study: As has been pointed out numerous times, things only get more out of hand in the US if you look at the 99th percentile or the 99.9th percentile. I'm curious how the graphs would change if those percentiles were looked at rather than the 90th.

Just another day under the most openly corrupt administration of my lifetime:

An Austin lawyer who dropped the state of Texas’ investigation of Trump University in 2010 may get a lifetime post as a federal judge.

Trump made the payoff nomination Tuesday. It's up to the Senate now.

"Drain the swamp," he says.

and let's close with something fascinating

Bats actually don't fly like birds. They're doing something different with their wings.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Scoping the Issues

Assault weapons and large-capacity magazines are not within the scope of the personal right to "bear arms" under the Second Amendment.

- Judge William G. Young, U.S. District of Massachusetts

This week's featured post is "Trump's long-term effect on American democracy: How worried should we be?"

This week everybody was talking about trade

The stock market has been see-sawing several hundred points a day, as investors try to figure out where Trump's trade dispute with China will go. Are both sides exchanging bluff and bluster in preparation for negotiating some agreement? Or is the recent back-and-forth of tariff announcements exactly what it appears to be?

The really worrisome thought is that the ignorant things Trump (and his Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and trade advisor Peter Navarro) says represent the true depth of the administration's policy. Matt Yglesias spells out what Ross and Navarro seems to believe: that the equation

GDP = Government spending + Consumer spending + Business investment - Trade Deficit

is more than just an accounting definition. He and Trump seem to believe that if you cut the trade deficit, GDP will automatically rise.

Here’s a quick way to tell that something has gone wrong with the Ross-Navarro argument. Last year, the United States imported $180 billion worth of petroleum products — oil and such.

According to Ross and Navarro, if the United States made it illegal to import oil, thus wiping $180 billion off the trade deficit, our GDP would rise by $180 billion. With labor constituting 44 percent of GDP, that would mean about $80 billion worth of higher wages for American workers. So why doesn’t Congress take this simple, easy step to boost growth and create jobs?

Well, because it’s ridiculous.

What would actually happen is that gasoline would become much more expensive, consumers would need to cut back spending on non-gasoline items, businesses would face a higher cost structure, and the overall economy would slow down with inflation-adjusted incomes falling. Modeling the precise impact of a total shutdown of oil imports is hard (hence the computer models). But we know from experience that the directional impact of sharp disruptions in the supply of imported oil, and it’s not at all what Ross and Navarro say it would be.

Trump seems to believe something similar about trade with China: that getting rid of that $500 billion trade deficit would automatically increase GDP. That's why he tweets "When you’re already $500 Billion DOWN, you can’t lose!"

and chemical weapons

There's been another major chemical weapons attack in Syria, and once again the Assad regime looks like the attacker.

When this happened under President Obama, he negotiated Assad giving up his chemical weapons stockpile in a deal guaranteed by Assad's ally Russia. When it happened again in the early days of the Trump administration, Trump ordered a missile strike against a Syrian airbase.

This time, Trump has tweeted:

President Putin, Russia and Iran are responsible for backing Animal Assad. Big price to pay.

Whatever that means.

and Scott Pruitt

Since taking over the EPA, Scott Pruitt has had the mission of reversing his agency's mission: It's now supposed to protect polluters from regulations rather than use regulations to protect the environment from polluters.

He's been good at that job. He's reversed Obama's Clean Power Plan for lowering carbon emissions from power plants, and is in the process of undoing the higher CAFE standards for cars' gas mileage. He's doing his best to muzzle EPA's scientists.

That industry-pleasing performance is why he's managed (so far) to weather revelations of corruption that would have sunk any cabinet secretary in any previous administration. Pundits continue to predict that his days are numbered, and even a few Republican senators are saying he has to go. But only one opinion matters, and Trump thinks he is doing a great job.

but here's somebody you should meet

Trump's attempt to ban transgender soldiers may seem abstract, unless you know one. Here's one.

and you also might be interested in ...

The indications of a 2018 blue wave are holding. Wisconsin elected a liberal supreme court judge by a wide margin.

Andrew McCabe's wife says all the stuff she couldn't say when her husband worked at the FBI.

I have spent countless hours trying to understand how the president and so many others can share such destructive lies about me. Ultimately I believe it somehow never occurred to them that I could be a serious, independent-minded physician who wanted to run for office for legitimate reasons. They rapidly jumped to the conclusion that I must be corrupt, as part of what I believe to be an effort to vilify us to suit their needs.

A federal judge in Massachusetts has rejected a claim that Massachusett's assault-weapons ban infringes Second Amendment rights. The Massachusetts law more-or-less duplicates the federal assault-weapons ban that was in place from 1994-2004. The opinion, which quotes Justice Scalia's Heller opinion at length, argues that the AR-15 is fundamentally a military weapon, and that there is no constitutional right for civilians to own military weapons.

This ruling mirrors an appeals court ruling on a similar Maryland law, which the Supreme Court refused to review.

HuffPost has a good article on the roots of the teacher revolts in Oklahoma and Kentucky. Meanwhile, Kansas approved a big increase in education spending, in response to its Supreme Court ruling that the previous budget did not meet the state's obligations under the Kansas constitution.

Health insurance in Iowa has just gotten more precarious. The state has undercut the ObamaCare market by approving new plans that it says aren't really insurance, and so don't have to meet the standards in the ACA. In other words, it's back to the junk insurance the ACA got rid of. The policies are intended for basically healthy people, and will work for them only as long as they stay basically healthy.

The inevitable result will be a lot of healthy people leaving the ObamaCare system for the cheaper, junkier plans. So insurers will have to raise rates, which will cause more people to leave, and so on.

The Trump administration's zeal to deport anyone they can now extends to at least one honorably discharged veteran:

Xilong Zhu, 27, who came from China in 2009 to attend college in the United States, enlisted in the Army and was caught in an immigration dragnet involving a fake university set up by the Department of Homeland Security to catch brokers of fraudulent student visas.

Zhu paid tuition to the University of Northern New Jersey, created by DHS to appear as a real school, long enough to ship to basic training using the legal status gained from a student visa issued to attend that school.

Then ICE found him and asked the Army to release him for alleged visa fraud. He left Fort Benning, Ga., on Nov. 16, 2016, in handcuffs as an honorably discharged veteran.

Zhu is a native speaker of Mandarin, a skill the Army values. He had enlisted "through a program designed to trade fast-tracked citizenship for medical and language skills".

I was going to link to this article last week, but it somehow got lost in the shuffle. The Atlantic raises the question: "Is It Time for the Jews to Leave Europe?" One side effect of the increased Muslim presence in European countries is that many of these immigrants are strongly anti-Semitic. At the same time, the generation of Europeans that felt responsible for the Holocaust is dying off.

There's a weird counter-productivity going on: The Muslims largely act out against their local Jews because they hate Israel. But if the European Jews leave, many will probably go to Israel, making Israel stronger.

More than half a year after Hurricane Maria, some Puerto Ricans still don't have power. The image shows how slowly the grid was coming back in the first two weeks. It's still not all the way back, and the next hurricane season starts June 1.

The Dutch news-comedy show Zondag net Lubach (Sunday with Lubach) tells its viewers about the "devastating humanitarian crisis" afflicting the United States: Nonsensical Rifle Addiction.

and let's close with something classically funny

I could use a laugh about now, so here are a few Buster Keaton clips.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Playing Beanbag

Sure, politics ain’t bean-bag. ‘Tis a man’s game, an’ women, childer, cripples an’ prohybitionists ‘d do well to keep out iv it.

- Mr. Dooley, an Irish-American character created by writer Finley Peter Dunne (1895)

This week's featured post is "Why does the Right hate victims?"

This week everybody was talking (once again) about chaos and scandal in the White House

Like several other Trump officials, Scott Pruitt has already been under fire for overspending on travel and office remodeling. But this week something more serious came out: For his first six months in the Trump administration, Pruitt lived in a condo owned by a lobbyist, and paid a sweetheart rate. One of the lobbyist's clients was Cheniere Energy, which according to Time, "is best known for its role in the growing U.S. liquefied natural gas industry."

Worse, there appears to be a quid that pairs with this quo. One of the trips Pruitt overspent on was to Morocco, where

Pruitt met with top foreign affairs and energy officials ... The EPA cited outlining the “potential benefit of liquified natural gas (LNG) imports on Morocco’s economy” as a reason for the trip even though promoting U.S. energy is not technically part of Pruitt’s job description.

That's kind of an understatement. An EPA Director who actually cared about the environment would be encouraging other countries to reduce fossil fuel consumption, rather than encouraging them to buy more fossil fuels from American companies.

So who exactly was Pruitt working for on this trip?

The EPA was also in the news for distributing to its employees "a list of eight things they are allowed to publicly say about climate change." None of the entries on the list is "Whatever the science shows is true." Here's some of what can be said.

Human activity impacts our changing climate in some manner. The ability to measure with precision the degree and extent of that impact, and what to do about it, are subject to continuing debate and dialogue.

While there has been extensive research and a host of published reports on climate change, clear gaps remain including our understanding of the role of human activity and what we can do about it.

Ad on Craigslist for Washington, DC: "SEEKING LEAD ATTORNEY FOR DIFFICULT CLIENT (1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW)".

One of the weirder stories this week was Trump nominating White House physician Ronny Jackson to be head of the Veterans Administration.

A biography released by the White House shows Jackson is credentialed and experienced in medicine but has no background in management.

If you're not a veteran, you probably only think about the VA when there's a headline-grabbing scandal. But it's huge. It "employs 360,000 people and has a $186 billion annual budget".

You don't have to think Jackson is a bad guy to believe that he's way under-qualified. (The departing VA chief, David Shulkin, had been president and CEO of the Beth Israel Medical Center in New York.) Imagine what such a promotion would be like for you, or for someone in your field. My degree is in mathematics, and when I was actively employed in the field (I have a lot of rust on me now) I was reasonably good at it. But even at my best, what would I have known about managing some big organization that employs a lot of mathematicians, like say the university system in a state like California or New York? Not much.

How did he get the job?

White House physician Ronny Jackson's performance during an extended grilling over President Donald Trump's health and cognitive fitness played a part in his nomination for secretary of Veterans Affairs, a White House official told CNN Wednesday.

Jackson was almost a cheerleader for Trump's health, praising his "great genes" and claiming that he might "live to be 200" if he'd eat a healthier diet. He also signed off on a report listing Trump at 6'3" and 239 pounds -- numbers that sound unlikely to "girthers".

Of course, if you start asking questions about Jackson's ability to manage the VA, you're implying that government requires some kind of relevant knowledge or skill. And that idea is anathema in the Trump administration, where Rick Perry is Energy Secretary, Betsy DeVos is Education Secretary, Ben Carson runs HUD, and Donald Trump is President.

Shulkin, meanwhile, claims that his firing is really about his opposition to privatizing the VA.

Crazy story about Shulkin's firing, which is best learned from Chris Hayes' interview of Shulkin. (Watch Chris' face. Normally he's a subdued interviewer, but this time he can't suppress expressions of bewilderment. Compared to his usual demeanor, it's like watching a Looney Tunes character do wild takes. )

On the morning he was fired, Shulkin had a phone conversation with Trump, who gave no indication Shulkin's job was on the line. Later that day, he gets a call from John Kelly moments before Trump announces via Twitter that Shulkin is fired.

The most plausible speculation I've heard is that after the bad press that came from firing Rex Tillerson over Twitter, Kelly insisted Trump do the job himself and arranged the call with Shulkin. Once the call started, though, Trump chickened out and had Kelly do the dirty work later. This, of course, is yet another example of Trump not really being the decisive businessman he played on TV.

Trump, perhaps afraid of unpleasant confrontations, lacks the courage to drop the hatchet himself, preferring to make staffing changes through tweets, leaving officials to learn of their fates from others.

and the Stephon Clark shooting

Clark was shot March 18 in his grandmother's back yard. Police claimed to mistake the cellphone he was carrying for a gun.

There's a lot to be suspicious about here. For one thing, police muted their body cameras a few minutes after the shooting, which invites speculation that they wanted to get their story straight. An autopsy shows that most of Clark's wounds are in the back.

Sacramento has seen several nights of protests this week.

Meanwhile, there's a bizarre case in Houston, which was caught on video by bystanders. Danny Ray Thomas was walking down the street in broad daylight with his pants around his ankles. When police showed up, he kept waddling towards them in spite of their commands to stop, so they killed him.

and the census

The Atlantic:

On Monday evening, the Commerce Department announced that it would make a controversial change to the next Census that the Trump administration has signaled for months: the addition of a question asking participants about their citizenship status.

The significance of that requires a little explanation: The census is mandated in the Constitution (Article 1, Section 2). It's always been a count of residents, not citizens. And that count of residents determines how many representatives each state gets in Congress. The 14th Amendment says:

Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State

The problem with the citizenship question is that it might intimidate households that include undocumented immigrants, so that they don't respond to the census at all. The Census Bureau says that it won't turn people over to ICE, but the Trump administration says a lot of things that later turn out not to be true. (It's not a purely paranoid thought: During World War II, census information was used in the infamous Japanese interment.) Given the potential consequences, I can understand respondents being careful.

The result would likely be a significant undercount in states with a lot of undocumented residents, or a lot of citizens and legal residents who live with undocumented relatives. These tend to be Democratic states like California and New York, so the likely result would be to shift Congress more towards Republicans. And because the census also determines how federal money gets distributed among the states, the change would shift federal spending to be even more in favor of red states than it is now.

Digby makes a good parallel:

Imagine the tantrums and rent garments on the right if instead of asking about citizenship status, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross inserted a question on the 2020 census that asked how many guns people keep in their homes.

A plot, I tell you! Why, it will lead to tyranny! It will keep white males from answering, resulting in an undercount and their underrepresentation in Congress.

But adding a question that might result in browner-skinned neighbors not responding? No problem.

I can imagine an argument that representation should be based on citizens alone, rather than on non-citizen residents and even ones who are here without permission. But the proper way to make that argument is to amend the Constitution. Until then, we should do what the Constitution says.

The citizenship question doesn't just represent bad policy, it's also bad process. There's a procedure for introducing new questions into the census. Experiments are done to determine how valuable the data will be, and what the new question will do to the response rate. The citizenship question hasn't been through that process. The Commerce Secretary just ordered it added with no study.

The Census Scientific Advisory Committee issued a statement:

There is a hierarchy of needs for the decennial census, with an accurate count of foremost importance, so any proposed changes should be evaluated in consideration of the potential impact on completeness and accuracy. ... Fundamentally, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. In other words, just because there is not clear evidence that adding the question would harm the census accuracy, this is not evidence that it will not.

Secretary Ross claims the new data will help the Justice Department enforce the Voting Rights Act. But as best anybody can tell, this is the first indication that the Justice Department has any interest in enforcing the Voting Rights Act. It looks like a pretext.

but yesterday was Easter

It was also April Fool's Day, a convergence that I'm sure inspired a lot of irreverent jokes. I'm going to leave that alone.

Believe or not, I led an Easter service in 2013. Funny story there: I signed up for that date because I had it open on my schedule, and only later realized I had volunteered for Easter. Anyway, I ended up talking about what Easter could mean to people with a secular worldview. I'm still pleased with how it came out.

But as long as it was also April Fool's Day, there's this: "Welsh Dragon Successfully Hatched at Bangor University". It's about as believable an article as could have been attached to that headline.

The Dragon was born at 00:01hrs this morning, 1st April, as far as we can tell, he appears to be a healthy Welsh Dragon and we‘ve called him Dewi, he is likely to develop his full red colouring on maturity, in about 250 years.

The puff of steam in the photo is a nice touch.

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Tuesday, former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens wrote an NYT op-ed calling for repeal of the Second Amendment.  This is not a completely new position for Stevens. In his 2014 book Six Amendments, he proposed inserting five words into the Amendment:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms when serving in the Militia shall not be infringed.

That's not a repeal, but it would take the Second Amendment out of the current gun-control debate.

Since a repeal is not going to happen, Stevens' op-ed was interesting mainly for the responses it provoked. Lawrence Tribe in The Washington Post expressed a fairly widespread liberal view:

For years, [the NRA's] most effective way to shoot down proposed firearms regulations has been to insist, falsely, that any new prohibition would lead to the eventual ban of all firearms. It is easy for those who revile our lax gun laws to lose sight of how many Americans cherish the right of law-abiding citizens to keep guns at home for self-defense or hunting.

The NRA’s strongest rallying cry has been: “They’re coming for our beloved Second Amendment.” Enter Stevens, stage left, boldly calling for the amendment’s demise, thereby giving aid and comfort to the gun lobby’s favorite argument.

You know what we sound like when we talk that way? Family members of a violent lunatic. "Just don't set him off," we tell each other.

Personally, I don't see a need to lobby for a repeal, because I don't believe that the Second Amendment blocks any particular thing I want to do. I don't believe, for example, that the Second Amendment protects a personal right to own an AR-15. (Maryland passed an assault-weapons ban covering the AR-15 in 2013. In February, 2017, the federal 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the law constitutional, and the Supreme Court refused to review that ruling last November.)

But I also don't see why a repeal should be off the table. In a larger sense, I don't see why we should tip-toe around on any issue, for fear of setting off conservatives. Is there any issue where they give us similar consideration? Quite the opposite: Setting off liberals is often a goal of conservative proposals. On social media, right-wing trolls rejoice in producing "liberal tears".

Take abortion, for example. Sometimes conservatives whittle away at abortion rights, with waiting periods and time limits and onerous standards for clinics. But that doesn't stop other conservatives (or even the same conservatives) from proposing to ban abortion outright. They don't worry at all that their radical proposals will rile up people against their more reasonable-sounding proposals. In fact, it's the very existence of the radical proposals that makes the other proposals sound reasonable. (This phenomenon is called the Overton Window.)

Or gay rights. Some conservatives are subtly anti-gay, while others openly call for killing gays. I don't see conservatives trying to police themselves on any issue at all. Why should liberals police ourselves on gun control? If you want to repeal the Second Amendment, you should feel free to say so. It's a legitimate proposal.

Feeling stymied by the recent spending bill, Trump has floated the idea that the Pentagon should build his wall -- it's national defense, don't you know?

Because of the $700 & $716 Billion Dollars gotten to rebuild our Military, many jobs are created and our Military is again rich. Building a great Border Wall, with drugs (poison) and enemy combatants pouring into our Country, is all about National Defense. Build WALL through M!

Think about that: "Our military is again rich." In other words, his increased defense budget was not based on any military necessity, so Trump now sees the Defense Department as a big slush fund he can tap for pet projects.

So anyway, that's the solution to a mystery I noticed last week: In Trump's bill-signing ceremony, he claimed that a border wall would put us "in a position, militarily, that is very advantageous". A military advantage over Mexico? I wondered. Is he anticipating a war there? Nope. He's just anticipating doing a snow job on the generals.

Personally, I'm still waiting for Mexico to volunteer to pay for the wall. Anybody who claims Trump is keeping his campaign promises needs to explain what happened to that one.

Brian Klaas:

The White House intern photo is like a Where’s Waldo for a non-white person —in a country that is about 40% non-white.

Interesting developments happening out there: Michigan Republican Congressman Mike Bishop has changed the issues page of his web site:

[The page] no longer mentions guns or the Second Amendment. Also scrubbed from the page are descriptions of Bishop as a supporter of right to work laws, his opposition to abortion and to amnesty for undocumented immigrants.

The campaign site now features largely bipartisan issues, including the opioid epidemic, college affordability, Great Lakes conservation and protecting children from predators.

The previous version described him as "a life-long conservative leader with the record to prove it" and called attention to his A/A+ rating from the NRA.

Teachers are getting fed up in more and more states. This week: Oklahoma and Kentucky.

and let's close with something delicious

I'm a sucker for Top Ten countdowns and Best Something in Every Something articles. (I once lost an hour watching NFL Network count down the top ten left-handed quarterbacks in football history. Would #1 be Steve Young or Ken Stabler?) Well, Food Network has made its official pronouncement of the best dip in every state and where to find its quintessential manifestation.

OK, it doesn't take a genius to tell you to look for guacamole in California (though I couldn't have pinpointed La Puerta in San Diego), or green chile salsa in New Mexico (Frontier's in Albuquerque). But who knew that Vermont (The Skinny Pancake in Burlington) is the place for cheddar spinach artichoke dip? Road trip!