Monday, June 25, 2018

Naming the Crisis

The important thing to understand is that the atrocities our nation is now committing at the border don’t represent an overreaction or poorly implemented response to some actual problem that needs solving. There is no immigration crisis; there is no crisis of immigrant crime. No, the real crisis is an upsurge in hatred — unreasoning hatred that bears no relationship to anything the victims have done.

- Paul Krugman "Return of the Blood Libel" (6-21-2018)

This week's featured posts are "Family Separations: Should we be horrified, relieved, or just confused?" and "You can't compromise with bullshit".

This week everybody was still talking about immigration

At times it was hard to remember that anything else was going on. On the other hand, when your country starts talking about opening concentration camps, maybe that deserves some public attention. Jesse Hawken pointed out how the national conversation has evolved since the 2016 campaign:

2016: "Come on, you're talking like Trump's going to put people in concentration camps"

2018: "First of all, I think it's offensive that you refer to them as 'concentration camps'"

Anyway, the "Family Separations" post deals directly with the immigration issue, and "You can't compromise with bullshit" was largely inspired by it.

and two cracks in the Republican wall

All along, the question facing anti-Trump Republicans has been: "Yes, but are you going to do anything?" So far, their responses have mostly been disappointing: A few congressional Republicans will tut-tut a little, and then back Trump when their votes are needed, including backing him in his effort to discredit the Mueller investigation. During the election, conservative columnists groused about their situation, but most ultimately called for an anti-Hillary vote, even if they couldn't bring themselves to endorse Trump.

But this week, two well-known anti-Trump Republicans, George Will and Steve Schmidt, both renounced their party and called for voters to elect Democrats this fall.

In an article titled "Vote against the GOP this November", veteran Washington Post columnist George Will castigated the Republican majorities in Congress for failing to put any checks on President Trump.

The congressional Republican caucuses must be substantially reduced. So substantially that their remnants, reduced to minorities, will be stripped of the Constitution’s Article I powers that they have been too invertebrate to use against the current wielder of Article II powers.

In particular, he denounced Paul Ryan, who has "traded his political soul for ... a tax cut. ... Ryan and many other Republicans have become the president’s poodles."

Schmidt, manager of John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign, withdrew "my membership in the Republican Party. It is fully the party of Trump."  In a lengthy tweet-storm, he called for Democratic majorities in Congress.

Our country is in trouble. Our politics are badly broken. The first step to a season of renewal in our land is the absolute and utter repudiation of Trump and his vile enablers in the 2018 election by electing Democratic majorities. I do not say this as an advocate of a progressive agenda. I say it as someone who retains belief in DEMOCRACY and decency.

The current scandal of separating refugee families seems to be the straw that broke the camel's back.

[President Reagan] would be ashamed of McConnell and Ryan and all the rest while this corrupt government establishes internment camps for babies. Every one of these complicit leaders will carry this shame through history. ... Today the GOP has become a danger to our democracy and values. This Independent voter will be aligned with the only party left in America that stands for what is right and decent and remains fidelitous to our Republic, objective truth, the rule of law and our Allies. That party is the Democratic Party.

I doubt that either man has a large following in today's Republican Party. Their statements are important, though, as cover for long-time Republican voters who see no place for themselves in the corrupt and heartless Party of Trump, but still aren't comfortable voting for Democrats. They need to understand that they will never get back the Republican Party they have loved unless Trump and his "poodles" lose.

I've seen a few reactions like "It took you long enough" or blaming Schmidt for putting us on this road by elevating Sarah Palin, and so on. None of that is false, but this isn't the way to greet defectors. The more defectors, the better. Pressure should be on the most anti-Trump Republican who hasn't called for a Democratic victory yet, not on the one who just did.

The leaders of Republican Majority for Choice also announced that they were leaving the party. This is a little less shocking, because it is so overdue. Susan Bevan and Susan Cullman seem to be the last people to realize that the GOP has no place for pro-choice activists.

but I got something wrong last week

Last week I falsely attributed a white supremacist quote by Richard Spencer to White House Advisor Stephen Miller. It was an honest, sloppy mistake: The Vanity Fair article I linked to was about Miller, but it quoted Spencer, attributing the quote to "he". I was reading too quickly and thought "he" referred to Miller, which it obviously didn't on closer examination. (No fault to VF.) Thanks to commenter Mark Flaherty for catching the misattribution. I removed the quote as soon as I realized my error.

and you also might be interested in ...

Turkey, our NATO ally, took another step towards authoritarianism. President Erdogan won Sunday's election, in spite of some polls that indicated he might be in trouble. So far, I'm not seeing accusations of fraud.

As I've been predicting, Republicans are responding to the budget deficit their tax cut created by calling for cuts in Medicare. They want you to pay more for medical care when you get old, so that rich people and multinational corporations and Donald Trump can pay lower taxes. It's a more-or-less direct transfer of wealth from you to them.

Josh Marshall's critique of Trump's negotiating style is worth a read. Basically, he is building on a point made several other places, including the NYT and the Calculated Risk economics blog: You have to negotiate differently when you're going to face the same players in future deals. In one-time deals, like on a used-car lot, you can get an advantage through bluffing, lying, and threats (like the threat to walk away). But situations where you are bound to the other party in some way (union/management, or any firm with its major clients and suppliers) call for a whole different toolkit, because you're not just trying to grind the other party into the dust, you need to build trust, and work towards mutually beneficial agreements that continue into the future.

If you’re going to be dealing with the same players again and again, using threats or bad faith to make a one-sided deal really isn’t necessarily in your longterm interest. Because you’re going to have to deal with that cheated player again.

When we deal with allies like Canada or Germany, or even with rivals like China or Russia, the point isn't to make a one-time "great deal" and walk away with the profit. Because unless we conquer the world, we'll have to keep going back to these same players and making new deals.

The Washington Post's editorial board points out something else about Trump's international trade negotiations: You can't fight a trade war against the whole world at the same time.

The U.S. position regarding China would be stronger if Beijing faced a united front that also included Europe, Japan, Mexico and Canada. As it is, Mr. Trump is threatening them with large tariffs as well, driving them to explore closer relations with Beijing.

and let's close with something spiritual

I think I've linked to this meditation video before, but repetition is part of any good spiritual practice. This seems like a particularly good week for this practice.

Monday, June 18, 2018


The best distillation of the Trump Doctrine I heard, though, came from a senior White House official with direct access to the president and his thinking.  ... “The Trump Doctrine is ‘We’re America, Bitch.’ That’s the Trump Doctrine.”

-- Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic

"Fuck you, bitch, make me a sandwich" is the unofficial motto that rides sidecar to "Make America Great Again."

- Amanda Marcotte, Troll Nation

This week's featured posts are "The corporate tax cut will never trickle down." and "Is Trumpism a new religion?"

This week everybody was talking about separating immigrant families

Any discussion of this issue has to fight through the Trump administration's disinformation campaign, which simultaneously brags about what it's doing, denies that it's doing it, justifies it by quoting the Bible, and blames Democrats for it.

Vox and The New York Times do a good job summarizing what's going on.

Between October 1, 2017 and May 31, 2018, at least 2,700 children have been split from their parents. 1,995 of them were separated over the last six weeks of that window — April 18 to May 31 — indicating that at present, an average of 45 children are being taken from their parents each day.

The facts are just complex enough to allow Trump's fans to fool themselves about the level of villainy being perpetrated.

  • When people are caught crossing the border without authorization, they have the right to claim that they are seeking asylum to avoid persecution in their home country. If they do, they can't just be sent back without a hearing.
  • The courts that hear these cases are overwhelmed, so it takes months for an asylum case to be heard.
  • If border-crossers are not charged with a crime, they are held in immigration detention, where families are kept together. If they are charged with a crime, parents go to jail and the government takes custody of their children.
  • Court rulings limit how long people can be detained without a hearing, so many asylum-seekers have been released until their hearings, sometimes with an ankle bracelet. Not all show up for their hearings, and become undocumented immigrants.
  • Previous administrations did not charge asylum-seekers with a crime (unless some other crime was involved, like smuggling). They also typically held families (even those not claiming asylum) in immigration detention rather than send parents to jail, precisely to avoid the situation we're seeing now.
  • The Trump administration has instituted a policy of pursuing criminal charges against anyone who crosses the border without going through an official entry point. The crime (improper entry) is a misdemeanor with a maximum jail time of six months for a first offense. NYT: "Unlike Mr. Obama’s administration, Mr. Trump’s is treating all people who have crossed the border without authorization as subject to criminal prosecution, even if they tell the officer apprehending them that they are seeking asylum based on fear of returning to their home country, and whether or not they have their children in tow."
  • The government already had responsibility for children who show up at the border unaccompanied. (A wave of such children created an issue during the Obama administration.) The new children are entering a system already over-burdened. The Washington Post reports: "As of Thursday, 11,432 migrant children are in the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services, up from 9,000 at the beginning of May."

Numerous reports are coming out about the facilities where the children are being held. It's pretty horrifying, but I can't blame HHS too much for that: If somebody dropped a couple thousand extra children on me, I'd have trouble arranging for their care too. The blame should rest higher up the chain.

Like many Trump administration policies -- particularly those involving presidential advisor Stephen Miller, who has no qualifications for government office beyond his white supremacist views ("America was, until this past generation, a white country, designed for ourselves and our posterity. It is our creation, it is our inheritance, and it belongs to us.") and would not have been hired by any previous administration -- the family separation policy was poorly planned. There appears to be no system for reuniting the families, either in this country (after asylum is granted) or in their country of origin (after deportation). In many cases, the parent is deported while the child remains in government custody.

Trump has said pretty clearly what the breaking-up-families policy is about: It's hostage-taking. He claims to hate the policy. But Democrats hate it more, because they have more empathy. So they should give in to his demands. It's basically the same argument he's made about DACA: He doesn't want to deport the Dreamers, but he will if Democrats won't pay his price.

You have to wonder how far he can push this kind of thuggery before even his supporters recognize what he's doing. Suppose he starts taking immigrants out and having them shot until he gets his wall. It won't be his fault, it will be the Democrats' fault, because they won't give him what he wants.

and about North Korea

Here's how the Trump/Kim summit shakes out: Kim agreed to somewhat less than North Korea has agreed to in past documents. In exchange he got a huge propaganda victory: His flag was displayed as an equal of the American flag, and the President of the United States stood next to him and flattered him. Kim also got the very real concession of Trump canceling our military exercises with the South Koreans.

Imagine being a dissatisfied North Korean and hearing Trump say this:

His country does love him. His people, you see the fervor. They have a great fervor. ... I think that he really wants to do a great job for North Korea. ... And, he wants to do the right thing.

And human rights? It's all relative.

“He’s a tough guy, it’s a tough country,” he told Fox News host Bret Baier Wednesday. Trump went on to praise Kim for taking over the country at such a young age calling him a “very smart guy” and a “great negotiator.” “I think we understand each other,” Trump added.

When Baier pressed Trump, protesting that Kim has done many “bad things,” the President was unmoved. “So have a lot of other people,” he said, before moving on to praise himself for his performance at the United States-North Korea summit this week.

In fact, Trump envies Kim:

He speaks and his people sit up at attention. I want my people to do the same.

In this hyper-partisan era, I find it useful to run a what-if-the-parties-were-reversed thought experiment: What if the exact same things were happening, but all the Republicans were Democrats and vice versa? Sometimes the experiment makes no sense, because you can't really imagine the opposite party playing its role: I can't picture President Hillary Clinton defending the Charlottesville Nazis, for example.

But the North Korea negotiation is a good place to run that experiment: What if President Hillary Clinton met Kim Jong Un without preconditions, signed a vacuous joint statement, flattered him effusively, gave a concession by cancelling military exercises with South Korea, and then came home claiming "There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea."?

I think I'd be saying about what I'm saying now: Talking is better than not talking, so I'd give Clinton credit for that. But I'd be skeptical that anything real had been accomplished, and disturbed that the President of the United States had given Kim the propaganda victory of appearing together as a equal and being praised. The one-sided concession would bother me, and the no-longer-a-threat claim would seem unfounded. I think I'd be more inclined to imagine that something was going on behind the scenes, because I would trust Clinton's intelligence and experience more than I trust Trump. But I'd still find the whole event worrisome and disturbing.

For Democrats in Congress, I think the difference would be between speaking up and keeping silent. But those who commented would say something close to what they're saying now.

Republican statements, however, would bear no resemblance to what they're saying now. They'd be talking about treason.

and voter suppression

I only skimmed the Supreme Court decision on Ohio's method for purging its voter-registration rolls. But that was enough to convince me that I would have a hard time figuring out which side of the 5-4 decision was legally right. States are allowed to purge their voter rolls under the National Voter Registration Act, but the NVRA also restricts how they can do it.

Here's what Ohio did: If someone didn't vote for two years, the state sent them a mailing to find out if they'd moved. If the pre-addressed postage-paid response card didn't come back, and if the person didn't vote for another four years, they'd be removed from the rolls.

The NVRA says voters can't be removed from the rolls just for failing to vote. Writing for the conservative majority, Justice Alito says the non-voting together with the card is a sufficient justification. Writing for the four liberal justices, Justice Breyer says it isn't.

In general, I trust Breyer more than Alito. (Alito's Hobby Lobby decision was horrible and seemed disingenuous at every turn.) And I know what I wish the law said. But without a lot more study, I can't tell you how this should have come out.

Given that the Court has decided, I hope Ohio fixes this by referendum. Undoubtedly, lots of names are on the voter-registration rolls that shouldn't be, but every study shows that this leads to very few illegal votes. (I'm planning to move this summer; I'll bet my names stays on the rolls for years. But that doesn't mean I plan to come back here and vote.) On the other hand, voter-registration purges invariably result in thousands of legal voters being turned away.

Even if the process Ohio used does satisfy the NVRA, it makes a lot less sense now than it did when the NVRA was passed. All of us get far more junk mail than legitimate mail, and we invariably throw out some mail we ought to open. It's predictable that lots of legitimate voters won't return the card.

and the Trump Foundation

It's weird that the Clinton Foundation got so much critical attention during the campaign, when the Trump Foundation was clearly the sleazier enterprise.

Thursday, the New York Attorney General's office filed a lawsuit against the Trump family and the Trump Foundation (which is incorporated in New York). According to the NYT, the suit "seeks to dissolve the foundation and bar President Trump and three of his children from serving on nonprofit organizations", or at least "nonprofits based in New York or that operate in New York for one year, which would have the effect of barring them from a wide range of groups based in other states."

The lawsuit claims that the Foundation has no employees and its board has not met since 1999. (New York state law requires at least annual meetings.) President Trump alone decides all grants and signs all checks. The Foundation's accounts are managed by the same office that oversees all the other Trump Organization entities.

The sole criteria that the accounting staff used to determine whether to issue a check from the Foundation, rather than another entity in the Trump Organization or Mr. Trump personally, was the tax-exempt status of the intended recipient; no one made any inquiry into the purpose of the payment.

On several occasions listed in the lawsuit, the Foundation made payments that were clearly Trump's personal responsibility. For example, in 2007 when his Mar-a-Lago club had a legal dispute with the Town of Palm Beach about the height and location of its flagpoles, the negotiated settlement included Trump contributing $100,000 to the Fisher House Foundation, a charity that benefits veterans. But Trump did not make this payment; the Foundation did. The lawsuit includes a photocopy of Trump's handwritten note to the accounting staff: "DJT Foundation $100,000 to Fisher House (settlement of flag issue in Palm Beach)". Trump reimbursed the Foundation in 2017, after he knew the issue was under investigation.

A longer-term and more complex abuse happened during the presidential campaign. Trump boycotted an Iowa debate (because Megyn Kelly would be a moderator) and held a parallel event to raise money for veterans' charities. The money raised was channeled through the Trump Foundation, but the Trump campaign was in charge from beginning to end: It "planned, organized, financed, and directed" the event; the campaign slogan "Make America Great Again" was displayed on the podium; the charities receiving the money were chosen by the campaign and were often located in states that had upcoming primaries; much of the money raised was distributed during campaign events (with Trump presenting a giant check).

Mr. Trump's wrongful use of the Foundation to benefit his Campaign was willful and knowing. Mr. Trump was aware of the prohibition on political activities and the requirement of restrictions on related-party transactions. Among other things, he repeatedly signed, under penalties of perjury, IRS Forms 990 in which he attested that the Foundation did not engage in transactions with interested parties, and that the Foundation did not carry out political activity. Mr. Trump also signed, again under penalty of perjury, the Foundation's Certificate of Incorporation, in which he certified that the Foundation would not use its assets for the benefit of its directors or officers, and that it would not intervene in "any political campaign on behalf of any candidate."

The New York attorney general's office has made referrals to the IRS and the Federal Election Commission, which could take further action. Another NYT article quoted Jenny Johnson Ware, a criminal tax attorney in Chicago: “People have gone to prison for stuff like this, and if I were representing someone with facts like this, assuming the facts described in this petition are true, I would be very worried about an indictment."

and the inspector general's report on the FBI

I didn't even skim the Justice Department's 500-page report on the FBI's Clinton email investigation. Here are Vox' four takeaways:

  • The investigative decisions in the Clinton email case seemed to be made on the merits.

  • Some FBI officials expressed anti-Trump opinions in private messages.

  • The IG wonders whether Strzok may have pursued the Trump-Russia probe more vigorously than new Clinton emails found on Anthony Weiner’s laptop due to political bias. (But in the end that worked to Trump's advantage. Since the Weiner emails were all duplicates, the sooner the public knew that the better for Clinton.)

  • The IG sharply criticizes Comey for deviating from policy and procedure in his statements about the Clinton case.

The idea that this report somehow de-legitimizes the Mueller investigation seems to be more Trumpian bullshit.

and you also might be interested in ...

The $81 billion merger between ATT and Time Warner was completed shortly after a federal court rejected the Justice Department's attempt to block it on Tuesday.

As best I can tell, this is one of those bad-guys-against-worse-guys stories, so it's hard to know how to feel about it. In general, I dislike media mergers, because the media is concentrated enough already. But the Justice Department's effort to block the merger appears to be Trump's attempt to punish CNN, which is part of Time Warner. (The government was fine with Sinclair Broadcasting buying Tribune Media -- requiring only that Sinclair not wind up owning two TV stations in the same city -- because Sinclair slants even more towards Trump than Fox News does.)

So if the Justice Department had been trying to block the merger as part of some larger effort to step up antitrust enforcement, I'd be with them. But the message seems to be "You can get bigger, but only if we like your news coverage." That strikes me as seriously dangerous to American democracy, so I'm glad they didn't get away with it.

Some very bogus arguments have been made claiming that the Mueller investigation is unconstitutional. Here, they're taken apart by George Conway -- Kellyanne's husband.

and let's close with something funny

It's been a while since I've linked to Bad Lip Reading. Here's their NBA clip.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Dividends on Putin's Investment

For anyone who asks why Putin helped Trump get elected, take a look at this G-7 Summit.

-- Ben Rhodes

This week's featured posts are "Who won the Masterpiece Cakeshop case?" and "Thoughts on Depression Sparked by Anthony Bourdain's Suicide". This morning, bad news broke on a voting rights case. I'll have to cover that next week.

This week everybody was talking about summit meetings

For the G-7 meeting in Quebec, Trump arrived late and left early, skipping sessions on trivialities like climate change. After leaving, he tweeted a denunciation of the host, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and instructed the remaining US representatives not to sign the meeting-concluding joint communique that he had previously agreed to. (That is so Trump: For all his apparent bluster, he can't handle face-to-face confrontation. He'll leave and then tweet something nasty from the road.)

Trump described the US as "the piggy bank that everybody's robbing", and threatened to cut off trade with the other G-7 countries entirely:

It’s going to stop. Or we’ll stop trading with them. And that’s a very profitable answer, if we have to do it.

There is so much wrong with this. First, remember who we're talking about here. These are our most trusted allies: Canada, Britain, Germany, France, Italy and Japan. If we want to solve any of our real trade problems (like getting China to respect our intellectual property), we'll need them on our side.

And second, Trump continues to display a child's understanding of international trade: If the US has a trade deficit with a country, he imagines that cutting off trade with them results in a "profit", as if everything stays the same except that we now have back all the money we would have spent in the other country.

As economists will happily explain to you, this is pre-Adam-Smith economics, a long-debunked theory known as mercantilism. A more likely outcome than "profit" is that the world economy (and ours) simply shrink. Matt Ygelsias explains, using the example of oil:

According to [the theory espoused by Trump's economic advisors], 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.

Third, Trump has no power to cut off trade with other countries, and Congress isn't going to give it to him. Foreign leaders know that he's just blustering. To re-purpose a John Kelly insult: Empty barrels make the most noise.

John McCain tried to mitigate the damage:

To our allies: bipartisan majorities of Americans remain pro-free trade, pro-globalization & supportive of alliances based on 70 years of shared values. Americans stand with you, even if our president doesn’t.

And Paul Krugman said what we're all thinking:

He didn’t put America first; Russia first would be a better description. And he didn’t demand drastic policy changes from our allies; he demanded that they stop doing bad things they aren’t doing. This wasn’t a tough stance on behalf of American interests, it was a declaration of ignorance and policy insanity.

... Was there any strategy behind Trump’s behavior? Well, it was pretty much exactly what he would have done if he really is Putin’s puppet: yelling at friendly nations about sins they aren’t committing won’t bring back American jobs, but it’s exactly what someone who does want to break up the Western alliance would like to see.

BTW: Trump's proposal to let Putin back into the G-7 isn't just servile, it makes no sense (as Krugman points out): The G-7 is an economic forum of democratic countries. Russia is an autocracy and its economy is tiny; it never belonged in this group. If the G-7 wants to expand, Brazil and India are much better candidates. And if nobody cares about democracy any more, China should be there.

In a different column, Krugman points out something important: The more Trump insults other democratic countries and acts like he has the whip hand over them, the less those countries' leaders can offer him.

Real countries have real politics; they have pride; and their electorates really, really don’t like Trump. This means that even if their leaders might want to make concessions, their voters probably won’t allow it.

You can see this most clearly in Mexico: Trump is poison in Mexico. Any leader who refused to stand up to him would be committing political suicide.

Trump's tough talk, then, is purely for the consumption of his base. If he were really trying to negotiate something that would help American workers, he'd "speak softly and carry a big stick" when he dealt with other democratic leaders.

Trump is also spreading joy and happiness in Germany, where his new ambassador has said that he wants to "empower other conservatives throughout Europe". Diplomats typically do not visibly interfere in the politics of their host countries. The ambassador doubled down in the face of criticism: "I stand by my comments that we are experiencing an awakening from the silent majority - those who reject the elites & their bubble. Led by Trump." In Germany, the "elites" include Angela Merkel and her government.

Trump is on to Singapore, where he is scheduled to meet with North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un tomorrow morning.

and immigrant children

Since May 7, the Trump administration has been routinely separating children from their parents when they arrive at our southern border. Vox has a good article describing what's new about this and what isn't. The big thing that's new is that we're not even trying to claim that we're doing this for the children's own good. The policy is purely punitive; it's meant to discourage people from coming to America without a visa.

It's worth pointing out that people who come here seeking asylum are not breaking the law if they present themselves at an official border crossing. Trump has characterized our asylum laws, which require some kind of due process for asylum seekers, as a "loophole".

To me, it's the government that seems to be taking advantage of loopholes.

and about cake

I cover the legal side of the Supreme Court's Masterpiece Cakeshop decision in a featured post.

I wanted that article to have a tone that is opinionated, but not abrasive. But here I want to get more argumentative: I think the media as a whole, and liberals in particular, have been way too soft on special-rights-seeking people who claim to be motivated by Christianity. We've been way too willing to grant their claims that their actions have something to do with Jesus, and are motivated by sincere religious faith rather than simple bigotry.

I want to assert a few things:

  • Wedding cakes do not have, and have never had, religious significance in the Christian tradition. For the wedding at Cana, Jesus did not turn water into cake. Or into flowers or photographs or catering. It is ridiculous to treat cakes for same-sex wedding receptions as if they were communion wafers for a Satanic black mass. (Gorsuch really does invoke a comparison to "sacramental bread".)
  • From the beginning of the Republic, civil marriage has been a separate institution from religious marriage. If your Christian religion says that people the state regards as married are not married in the eyes of God, you have the freedom to believe and proclaim that view. But you don't get to decide whether or not they're married in the eyes of the state, because that has nothing to do with Christianity or any other religion. And if a couple wants to hold a party to celebrate becoming married in the eyes of the state, that also has nothing to do with Christianity or any other religion.
  • In the Bible, marriage is not "between one man and one woman". Often it's between one man and several women. Example: Jacob and Leah and Rachel and their two handmaidens. If you don't support that kind of marriage today, then you don't believe in "Biblical" marriage. You also don't believe that an unchanging institution of marriage was established by God once and forever. (Justice Kennedy quotes the baker: "God’s intention for marriage from the beginning of history is that it is and should be the union of one man and one woman." The baker should tell that to whoever wrote Genesis.)
  • Most of the self-described Christians who refuse to serve same-sex couples are not acting out of sincere religious conviction; they're acting out of spite. Their side lost the same-sex marriage debate, they're pissed about it, and they want to take it out on somebody. There is nothing Christ-like about this set of motives. The New Testament does not record any examples of Jesus being a sore loser.

and healthcare

If you're an insurance company that doesn't want to cover people with pre-existing conditions, the Trump administration has your back.

Led by Texas, twenty Republican-dominated states are participating in a lawsuit asserting that the individual mandate portion of the Affordable Care Act (i.e., ObamaCare) will become unconstitutional in 2019, when the tax penalty that enforces it goes away. (That was part of last year's big tax cut bill.) That may sound harmless -- who cares if the courts eliminate something that was unpopular to begin with and isn't going to be enforced any more anyway? -- but there's a kicker: The suit claims that the whole ACA is inseparable from the individual mandate, so it all has to be struck down, including the popular parts like the guarantee of insurance to people with pre-existing conditions.

In other words: If you're a cancer survivor (like my wife), or have something else in your medical history that makes you a bad risk, you may not be able to get health insurance at all, and if you do it will be exorbitantly expensive.

This suit has been considered a long shot, but its shot got a little less long Thursday when the Justice Department announced that it won't defend the case in court. (Typically, the Justice Department defends the constitutionality of laws when they are challenged. But on rare occasions, an administration decides that a law is indefensible. That's what's happening here and what happened when the Obama Justice Department refused to defend the Defense of Marriage Act.) Democratic-controlled states like California are expected to step into the breech and lead the defense.

The brief filed by the Justice Department doesn't agree with Texas that the whole ACA is unconstitutional, but it does agree that two other parts of the ACA are inseparable from the individual mandate and so have to be struck down: guaranteed issue (insurance companies that offer coverage in an area have to offer it to everybody) and community rating (which says that all individuals of the same age in the same community have to be offered the same rate). Those are exactly the parts that protect people with pre-existing conditions.

It's worth pointing out the reason we're in this situation: Back in 2012, the Supreme Court decided 5-4 that Congress did not have the power under the Commerce Clause of the Constitution to require individuals to buy health insurance. This would have sunk the ACA then and there, but Justice Roberts reinterpreted the individual mandate as a tax. That allowed him to flip and vote for the constitutionality of the ACA, which survived 5-4.

But here's the interesting part: The idea that an individual mandate exceeded the range of the Commerce Clause was invented from whole cloth to create a pretext for striking down the ACA. Until it became part of the ACA, the mandate -- which was originally the brainchild of the conservative Heritage Foundation in the 1990s -- had never been considered constitutionally questionable.

So one conservative long-shot legal argument leads to another, and the upshot is that millions of Americans may lose their health insurance.

and leaks

The LA Times reports:

The former security director for the Senate Intelligence Committee was arrested Thursday on charges of lying to federal investigators probing a leak of information involving a former campaign aide to President Trump.

In the course of the investigation, the government seized several years worth of emails belonging to the staffer's girlfriend, who is a New York Times reporter. The case is making journalists nervous about how far the government is now willing to go to track down leaks.

and the NFL

Last Monday, the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles were disinvited from the White House visit scheduled for the next day, because not enough of them were going to show up to suit Trump. Instead he held a patriotic rally that seems to have been attended mainly by White House staffers and interns. During the ceremony, Trump appeared not to know the words to "God Bless America".

Trump has decided that portraying black football players as unpatriotic is a winning issue for him, so he's going to keep doing it. This has got to be a disappointment to the NFL owners, who changed their policy specifically to try to mollify the President. Under the new rules, players can stay in the locker room during the national anthem if they want, but if they come onto the field they have to stand at attention. Kneeling -- no matter how silently and respectfully it is done -- will result in a fine for the team, which may decide to pass that fine on to the player.

But Trump is not having that. "No escaping to locker rooms" he tweeted. Previously he had said:

You have to stand proudly for the national anthem. Or you shouldn’t be playing, you shouldn’t be there. Maybe you shouldn’t be in the country.

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Anybody who decided that it didn't matter whether Trump or Clinton won the presidency should take a look at the EPA. The headlines are all about Scott Pruitt's flagrant corruption, but the real damage is deeper. Thursday, the NYT described a change in how the EPA will evaluate possibly toxic or carcinogenic chemicals:

the E.P.A. has in most cases decided to exclude from its calculations any potential exposure caused by the substances’ presence in the air, the ground or water, according to more than 1,500 pages of documents released last week by the agency.

Instead, the agency will focus on possible harm caused by direct contact with a chemical in the workplace or elsewhere. The approach means that the improper disposal of chemicals — leading to the contamination of drinking water, for instance — will often not be a factor in deciding whether to restrict or ban them.

The big winner here is the chemical industry. The big losers are anybody who breathes air or drinks water and was hoping not to get cancer.

Here's an unforgettable exchange from Wednesday's Anderson Cooper 360:

Former Fox News military analyst Lt. Colonel Ralph Peters (retired): As a former military officer of the United States, I took an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. And I saw, in my view, Fox -- particularly their prime time hosts -- attacking our constitutional order, the rule of law, the Justice Department, the FBI, Robert Mueller, and (oh, by the way) the intelligence agencies. And they're doing it for ratings and profit, and they're doing it knowingly -- in my view, doing a grave, grave disservice to our country.

Anderson Cooper: Do you think, some of the hosts in prime time, do they believe the stuff they're saying about the Deep State, what they're saying about the Department of Justice, about the FBI?

Lt. Colonel Peters: I suspect Sean Hannity really believes it. The others are smarter. They know what they're doing.

When somebody from the White House says some awful thing, it's hard to know whether to take the bait. If we ignore it, we normalize it. ("Oh yeah, public officials say shit like that. It's no big deal.") If we pay attention, we've let ourselves be distracted from the ongoing destruction of the environment, the decay of the rule of law, the plight of the Puerto Ricans, the alienation of America's allies, the mistreatment of families who come here looking for asylum under our laws, the opening of a misguided trade war, and lots of other more immediately consequential stuff.

But OK, Rudy Giuliani, I'm taking the bait this time.

In Israel, Giuliani went on to criticize Daniels’ credibility and allegation she had an affair with Trump because she is a porn star. “Look at his three wives. Beautiful women. Classy women. Women of great substance. Stormy Daniels?” Giuliani said while shaking his head. “I’m sorry I don’t respect a porn star the way I respect a career woman or a woman of substance or a woman who has great respect for herself as a woman and as a person and isn’t going to sell her body for sexual exploitation.” ...

On Thursday, Giuliani was asked to explain his comments. “So the point I made about her industry is, it's an industry in which you sell looks at your body for money. That's demeaning to women, the way I was brought up and the way I always believed the feminist movement has,” Giuliani said.

During the campaign, I objected to Trump critics trying to make an issue of Melania's nude photos, because they're irrelevant to how America is governed and "because I believe all of us have the right to display or not display our bodies as we see fit". But if the president's lawyer is going to claim there's some difference-of-kind between Melania and Stormy Daniels because Daniels sells looks at her body for money, I have to call him on it. (And point out that Trump himself has appeared in three porn films, though he was clothed at the time.)

And as for who is credible, based on their previous actions, let me point out a few things Stormy Daniels hasn't done:

  1. created a fake university that defrauded its students;
  2. molested more than a dozen women;
  3. laundered money for Russian oligarchs;
  4. lied to the American people several times each day.

So if it comes down Trump's word against a porn star's, I'll believe the porn star.

and let's close with something fun

"Happy as a dog in a ball crawl" needs to become a standard English phrase.

Monday, June 4, 2018

We Have to Believe

I want to be very clear about one thing: Americans remain our partners, friends, and allies. This is not about the American people. We have to believe that at some point their common sense will prevail. But we see no sign of that in this action today by the U.S. administration.

- Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau

This week's featured post is "What is impeachment for?"

This week brought back everything that last week seemed to stop

A week ago, the North Korea summit was off and the trade war was "on hold". Now they're both back.

The summit is scheduled for a week from tomorrow in Singapore. Until Trump and Kim actually appear, though, who can say whether it will really happen? Originally, Trump implied that the meeting would signal North Korea's complete denuclearization, for which he should win a Nobel Peace Prize. Now it's just supposed to "start a process".

Back in March, Trump announced tariffs on imported steel and aluminum. Then he appeared to back down, temporarily exempting Canada, Mexico, and the European Union. The time limit on that exemption ran out Thursday without Trump getting the concessions he wanted, so the tariffs are back on.

The affected countries are retaliating. Canada seems particularly offended by the pretext for the tariffs: Trump is exercising powers the president has under a national security provision. Essentially he is saying that Canada can't be trusted to continue selling us metals we need for our defense industries.

Tariffs on Chinese goods were announced Tuesday, to take effect "shortly after" the complete list of goods affected is released on June 15. China also plans to retaliate.

For a guy whose book is called The Art of the Deal, Trump's negotiating style seems particularly artless: He makes threats and demands concessions. If other countries don't yield to his demands, he seems to have no Plan B.

and everyone was talking about jobs

The economy added 223K jobs in May. That number was fairly typical of job growth over the last five years, but the accumulation of good job creation over a long period has pushed the unemployment rate down to 3.8%, a number not seen since the end of the Clinton administration, and only briefly then.

and new claims of presidential power

A letter that Trump's lawyers wrote to Bob Mueller in January got leaked this week. The point of the letter is to argue against Mueller's need to interview Trump, and along the way it makes an amazing claim: Obstruction of justice laws simply don't apply to the president, because since he is the highest law-enforcement official "that would amount to obstructing himself". The President has complete authority to terminate investigations as he sees fit, and to pardon anybody he wants for any reason. The letter recognizes no exception for a president with corrupt intent.

Matt Yglesias draws an obvious conclusion:

Consider that if the memo is correct, there would be nothing wrong with Trump setting up a booth somewhere in Washington, DC, where wealthy individuals could hand checks to him, and in exchange, he would make whatever federal legal trouble they are in go away. You could call it “The Trump Hotel” and maybe bundle a room to stay in along with the legal impunity.

Trump (and his lawyer Rudy Guiliani) is also claiming that he could pardon himself. Strange that Nixon never thought of that.

and Roseanne

Roseanne Barr managed to get her hit sitcom revival Roseanne cancelled by ABC by tweeting a racist insult at former Obama advisor Valerie Jarrett.

Barr's defenders are using one of the standard conservative tactics: stripping away the context of the insult, making a simplistic comparison to things liberals have said, and then claiming a double standard. (How is claiming Jarrett is the child of apes different from, say, Bill Mahr suggesting Donald Trump was fathered by an orangutan?) As always, they are the victims.

Let me go back to the analysis I wrote in 2015: "Slurs, Who Can Say Them, When, and Why". (This isn't the Sift's most-viewed post because it never had a viral moment, but it is the most consistently popular. After three years, it still reliably gets a few hundred hits every week.) Then I was talking about words like nigger and honky, but the same ideas apply to images and metaphors, like comparing people to apes.

If you just look them up in a dictionary you might think they are equivalent: honky is a racial slur directed at whites, nigger at blacks. What’s the difference?


Nigger has centuries of usage behind it, and the connotation of that usage is that blacks are a subhuman race. Nigger evokes a detailed stereotype — lazy, stupid, violent, lustful, dangerous — while honky just says you’re a white guy I don’t like. For centuries, niggers weren’t really people. There’s no equivalent word for whites, because whites have always been seen as people.

Whenever you use a word or an image or a metaphor, you're not just applying a dictionary meaning. You're invoking the whole history of the usage. For centuries, whites have compared blacks to apes -- sometimes literally claiming they are not a fully human species -- in order to portray them as a race of unintelligent subhumans. Barr's tweet evokes this history.

There is no comparable usage-history dehumanizing Trump's ancestors (Germans) by comparing them to orangutans, and Maher was not plugging into anything of that sort. Instead, he's applying a more general and much less toxic physical-resemblance-to-animals usage-history, such as when Mitch McConnell is compared to a turtle.

Given the history of black dehumanization, comparing blacks to animals is always tricky, but it can be done. For example, this cartoon of Obama dressed as a Russian bear does not strike me as racist, because bears are not typical dehumanizing symbols. But this photo-shopped image of Barack and Michelle as apes clearly is.

Trump couldn't leave this controversy alone, but he also couldn't condemn Barr's racism, since she and her racism are typical of an important segment of his base. So he portrayed himself and his daughter as the real victims.

About the Samantha Bee/Ivanka Trump thing: A key point in my "Slurs" analysis is that slurs-that-can-be-turned-around-on-the-slurrer are a completely different category than slurs-that-only-go-one-way.

The various disadvantaged communities are all debating whether or not it’s ever OK to use the slurs themselves. Some argue that when black rappers use nigger, they jam the stereotype rather than perpetuate it. Some women believe that saying bitch is liberating, because it shows the word doesn’t scare them. Others disagree, believing that any use of a slur promotes its stereotypes.

I think this: Those issues are for those communities to figure out. In the unlikely event that they ask my advice, I might give it. But until then, my opinion as a white guy doesn’t and shouldn’t matter.

Samanthan Bee calling Ivanka Trump a "feckless cunt" falls into this same category. Overwhelmingly, women who have commented on Bee's use of cunt have condemned it, which is their right. But men like me and Donald Trump should stay out of that discussion. The propriety of a woman saying cunt is not for us to decide.

but now we have a clearer notion of what Hurricane Maria did to Puerto Rico

According to a study in the current New England Journal of Medicine, Hurricane Maria resulted in about 4600 "excess deaths" in Puerto Rico between landfall (September 20) and December 31. That number includes not just people killed immediately in the storm, but also deaths due to "delays or interruptions in health care" caused by the storm and its subsequent island-wide power failure. It's also a statistical estimate, not a list of specific deaths. The official death toll is 64, a number which has been criticized by many sources.

Puerto Rican writer and podcast-host Julio Ricardo Varela wasn't surprised.

We knew. ... When funeral directors started telling people that they were burying way more bodies than usual, or when our family members told us about their neighbors dying in still-darkened rooms, or being buried outside their homes, we knew that the official death toll was much higher than the 64 people the government had eventually admitted to. When we heard the stories of people having no refrigeration for their insulin, that dialysis machines weren’t operational or that hospitals were still in the dark but had people on life support, we knew that it wasn't some small counting error.

This estimate of Maria's death toll on Puerto Rico is higher than the reported death tolls of 9/11 (2996) and Hurricane Katrina (1833), but it's not clear to me this is an apples-to-apples comparison. Both of those numbers also might rise in an excess-deaths analysis.

But that's quibbling: Thousands of American citizens died, many of them because of a slow and inadequate response. Aid was stuck at the port in San Juan, a Navy hospital ship was substantially underused, and about a third of the island's residents still had no electric power four months after the storm.

And yet, this has not become a scandal or prompted a national soul-searching like Katrina and 9/11 did. There is no blue-ribbon panel preparing a what-went-wrong report. Heads have not rolled in the agencies that bungled the response.

Is there any doubt why this is? Puerto Ricans are Spanish-speaking brown people, not "real Americans" like the Texans affected by Hurricane Harvey and Floridians hit by Hurricane Irma.

There's a lot of blame to spread around here, from Puerto Rico's pre-hurricane infrastructure to the local Puerto Rican officials to the federal government. But a big piece of it has to come back to Trump's inability to admit failure or fix mistakes. At a time when the full scope of the problem was starting to become clear, Trump could only congratulate himself on the low reported death numbers. When criticism began, he was the victim, not the lazy Puerto Ricans who "want everything done for them".

The Mayor of San Juan, who was very complimentary only a few days ago, has now been told by the Democrats that you must be nasty to Trump. Such poor leadership ability by the Mayor of San Juan, and others in Puerto Rico, who are not able to get their workers to help. They want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort. 10,000 Federal workers now on Island doing a fantastic job.

During the Obama administration, conservatives proclaimed a series of events to be "Obama's Katrina". Well, Trump has presided over a natural-disaster screw-up that is arguably worse than Katrina, and no one seems to care.

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A very good Washington Post article about sexual abuse in evangelical churches centers on Rachael Denhollander, who was abused as a child in her church and then became one of the young gymnasts assaulted by Larry Nassar.

Today, Denhollander can see how her church, which has since shut down, failed to protect her. But as a child, all she knew from her parents was that her abuse had made their church mad and that she wasn’t able to play with some of her friends. She blamed herself — and resolved that, if anyone else ever abused her, she wouldn’t mention it.

And so when Larry Nassar used his prestige as a doctor for the USA Gymnastics program to sexually assault Denhollander, she held to her vow. She wouldn’t put her family through something like that again. Her church had made it clear: No one believes victims.

The Catholic Church's sexual-abuse problems have gotten a lot of attention, but similar forces are at work in evangelical churches:

When congregants believe that their church is the greatest good, they lack the framework to accept that something as awful as sexual abuse could occur within its walls; it is, in the words of Diane Langberg, a psychologist with 35 years of experience working with clergy members and trauma survivors, a “disruption.” In moments of crisis, Christians are forced to reconcile a cognitive dissonance: How can the church — often called “the hope of the world” in evangelical circles — also be an incubator for such evil?

Some good news on prospects for the climate: NetPower is building a small (50 MW) plant in Texas to prove that its revolutionary technology works. The plant will run on natural gas, but emit no air pollution and no waste heat. Carbon capture isn't an expensive separate unit bolted onto the end of the process; it's a normal part of the combustion cycle. The plant has achieved first fire, and should be generating power later this year.

Vox' environmental writer David Roberts is impressed.

So: more efficient power, with zero air pollution, virtually no water consumption, and pipeline-ready carbon dioxide capture built in ... for cheaper than today's best fossil fuel power plants. Quite a bold promise.

It works in an unusual way, which Roberts explains in more detail (and links to even more technical explanations): Natural gas is burned with pure oxygen, and the turbine is driven by supercritical carbon dioxide rather than steam. There's a pipe and the end of the cycle producing excess CO2, which can be sold or sequestered.

Theoretically, the process also would work with coal.

Roberts points out that "Combustion is only one part of the damage done by fossil fuels."

But it's best not to be shortsighted here. Even under the most optimistic scenarios, there are going to be hundreds of fossil fuel power plants built across the world in coming years. This is especially true of natural gas plants, which play an important role in "firming" the fluctuations in variable renewable energy (and could potentially be run in the future on renewable biogas).

If we could start right now making all those new coal and natural gas plants air-pollution-free, it would be a public health win of historic proportions, to say nothing of the regulatory and civic battles that could be avoided.

And capturing all that carbon rather than throwing it into the atmosphere might be enough to give the fight against climate change some much-needed breathing room.

While we're talking about fossil fuels ... a longtime Republican talking point has been that the government shouldn't be picking winners and losers, so it shouldn't subsidize renewable fuels over fossil fuels. I have argued against this (because it makes sense for the government to use taxes and subsidies to balance hidden fossil-fuel costs that the market externalizes, like the cost of cleaning up after hurricanes), but at least it's a coherent point of view.

But Friday Bloomberg broke the story that Trump is planning to pick winners and losers ... and the winners are coal and nuclear.

The Trump administration has been preparing to invoke emergency powers granted under Cold War-era legislation to order regional grid operators to buy electricity from ailing coal and nuclear power plants.

Think about that: Trump insists on wrecking the environment by burning coal, even if the market is against it.

If he genuinely believed the free-market principles he has been promoting for his entire career, Paul Ryan would be moving to stop this. But I'm not holding my breath.

Every congressional district is different. Here's how a Democrat tries to appeal to farmers as he runs against Iowa Republican Steve King, one of the most unabashed racists in Congress.

Elsewhere, the Southern Poverty Law Center says that eight explicitly white-supremacist and/or anti-Semitic candidates are running for office this year, including one (Arthur Jones) who has already gotten the Republican nomination for Congress in Illinois. (He's running in a Democratic district that mainstream Republicans didn't contest. The state GOP has denounced him.) MSNBC's Morgan Radford (who is part black and part Jewish) went to Illinois to interview Jones and to California to interview Senate candidate Patrick Little, who is running against Diane Feinstein on the slogan "End Jewish Supremacy". (His primary is tomorrow.)

Illinois voted to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, which was approved by Congress in 1972. The deadline for ratification passed 36 years ago, but there's some dispute about whether that matters. If it doesn't, the ERA only needs to be ratified by one more state.

Congress and the Trump administration have been undoing the restrictions on financial companies that were put in place after the collapse of 2008. After the collapse, all the major banks were relying on federal dollars to stay solvent, so the government had enormous leverage, if it chose to use it. There were three basic theories of what to do:

  • The technocratic approach (favored by establishment Democrats and embodied in Dodd-Frank), in which the structure of the banking system remained fundamentally the same, but regulators got better information and more power to stop banks from doing foolish things.
  • The progressive approach, in which too-big-to-fail banks would get broken up into pieces too small to sink the system, and FDIC-insured banking would once again be walled off from riskier investment banking with a 21st-century Glass-Steagall Act.
  • The Republican approach, which would get federal institutions (like Fannie Mae) out of the mortgage business, and instill discipline in the market by making future bank bailouts almost impossible.

Now we're seeing the weakness of the technocratic approach: The public doesn't really understand the technical rules Dodd-Frank established, so undoing them doesn't set off alarm bells with the electorate.

Trump campaigned on some progressive banking proposals like Glass-Steagall, but once in office he has given the big banks whatever they want.

He has, instead, simply appointed industry insider figures to all the key positions and has them steadily working to twist every dial available in a more industry-friendly direction.

And the nature of bank regulation is that even when it’s done really, really poorly, the odds are overwhelming that on any given day, nothing bad is going to happen. As long as the economy is growing and asset prices are generally rising, a poorly supervised banking sector is just as good as a well-supervised one.

But when the music stops, and it always does, a poorly supervised banking sector can turn into a huge disaster. It’s only a question of when.

Everybody knows that old people are conservative, but now there's a new explanation why: Poor people tend to be liberal, and they die before they get old.

mortality among the poor increases during middle age — which is when citizens generally get more involved in politics. The premature disappearance of the poor, then, occurs precisely at the moment when they would be expected to reach their “participatory peak” in society. But they don’t live long enough to achieve that milestone.

and let's close with something

A town in Norway celebrates summer solstice each year by making a huge bonfire. The one it built last year holds the record for being the tallest bonfire ever.