Monday, September 2, 2019

Better or Worse

At its best, the practice of politics is about taking steps that support people in daily life -- or tearing down obstacles that get in their way. Much of the confusion and complication of ideological battles might be washed away if we held our focus on the lives that will be made better, or worse, by political decisions, rather than on the theoretical elegance of the policies or the character of the politicians themselves.

- Pete Buttigieg, Shortest Way Home

There is no featured post this week. But I'm trying out a new format for an extra-long weekly summary: a topic list at the top.

1. Cruelty, short-sightedness, and corruption. One week's worth of administration activity.

2. Hurricane Dorian. Category 5 storms don't seem all that rare any more.

3. More shootings. The wait-three-weeks strategy for avoiding action on gun control won't work unless we can go three weeks without a shooting.

4. Brexit. Boris Johnson is setting the UK up for a no-deal Brexit, and Parliament will have a hard time stopping him.

5. James Comey. The FBI inspector general's report is too boring to read, so anybody can say whatever they want about it.

6. A court ruling. An appeals court ruling on legislative prayer is yet another example of the fundamental flaw of originalism.

7. Other short notes. Hong Kong, trade war, Mayor Pete's book. Democratic debate on the 12th.

8. A heart-warming closing. A dolphin asks a diver for help.

This week everybody was talking about cruelty, short-sightedness, and corruption

Some weeks, it seems like the Trump administration is trying to do as much damage as possible in its remaining two years. Here are some examples from just this week:

  • The EPA wants to allow more methane leaks at wells and pipelines. Methane is such a potent greenhouse gas that if too much leaks into the atmosphere during the production and transportation processes, natural gas can be worse for the climate than coal. The EPA's move to roll back anti-methane-leak regulations undermines the strategy of using natural gas as a better-but-not-perfect bridge fuel while we develop more climate-friendly sources. That's why even industry giants like Shell, Exxon, and BP support the Obama regulations the EPA wants to abandon.
  • Alaska's Tongass National Forest may soon be open for logging. It's one of the last wild places on Earth, and about 40% of the West Coast's wild salmon spawns there.
  • Sick immigrants are being sent home to die. Every year, about 1000 immigrants facing deportation orders ask to stay in the US because they're receiving medical care that isn't available in their home countries. Many of them are children and many of the conditions are life-threatening. The Trump administration is canceling this "deferred action" program and has sent letters giving sick people 33 days to leave the country.
  • Not all children of Americans serving overseas will be citizens. Usually, when American parents have a child while they're out of the country, that child is automatically a US citizen. The law makes an exception for Americans who had lived in the US less than five years before they left the country, but there's always been an exception to the exception: If the reason you left the US was for the military or other government service, your kid is a citizen. But that exception-to-the-exception is being rolled back. "Who possibly thought this was a good idea?" asks an immigration lawyer.
  • Attorney General Barr is kicking back to the President. Barr has booked the Trump International Hotel in D.C. for a 200-person holiday party that he will pay for personally, at a cost upwards of $30K. (Barr's Justice Department is also defending Trump against lawsuits claiming that foreign spending at the hotel is an unconstitutional emolument.) Kickbacks are a classic form of corruption: The political boss doles out jobs and contracts from the public treasury, and the people who get them give a chunk of the money back to the Boss. This is Tammany Hall stuff.
  • Trump is steering the next G7 to his struggling resort. Another classic form of corruption is for a public official to steer public contracts towards his allies in the business community. When the Boss owns the business himself, it eliminates the middleman. The US is scheduled to host the 2020 G7 meeting, and holding it at the Trump Doral Resort has many advantages -- for Trump. It will draw a lot of foreign money (i.e. unconstitutional emoluments) to his property, give it lots of free publicity, and increase its prestige. Whatever advantages it has for the US or the G7 are much less clear.
  • Building the wall is more important than obeying the law. Reportedly, Trump has told his underlings to get his border wall built before the 2020 elections, and ignore laws that protect the environment and defend private property. He says he will pardon them. The White House did not deny that he said this, but claimed that he was joking.

Stay tuned. I'm sure there will be new outrages next week.

and a hurricane

As usual, I'm not going to try to compete with CNN and the Weather Channel on hurricane coverage. Dorian hit the Bahamas as a category-5 storm last night. The current prediction has it heading up Florida's Atlantic coast towards Georgia and the Carolinas. Where or whether it will make landfall in the US is still uncertain.

This is the fourth consecutive year with a category-5 Atlantic hurricane.

Former Canadian Prime Minister Kim Campbell aroused a furor with a since-deleted tweet rooting for Dorian to hit Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach. (Dorian has turned north since then.) I generally disapprove of wishing harm on people, but I see her point here: Trump is so self-centered that nothing less than a personal loss will make him take climate change seriously.

and more shootings

Studies have shown that the public clamor to do something about gun violence tends to die down about three weeks after some horrific shooting. So that's been the gun lobby's strategy: stall for three weeks until public attention moves on.

But now we're running into the limits of that strategy: It only works if the country can go longer than three weeks between shootings. Saturday's mass shooting in Texas (on the highway connecting Midland and Odessa) came four weeks after the August 3 mass shooting in El Paso and August 4 mass shooting in Dayton. Those two were about a week after the Gilroy Garlic Festival shooting.

The Texas shooting knocked Friday night's high-school shooting in Alabama out of the news. At least six teens were shot at a football game, but nobody died.

Will something happen this time? Governor Gregg Abbott says "I'm tired of the dying of the people of the state of Texas. The status quo is unacceptable." But does that mean he'll actually do anything? (Texas actually loosened its gun laws, effective yesterday.) Promising action that never arrives -- as Trump did after Dayton/El Paso -- has become part of the delay-three-weeks playbook.

Congress returns from recess next week. Two very reasonable background-check bills have passed the House already, but Mitch McConnell has blocked any vote on them. There has been talk about a red-flag law or the renewal of the assault weapon ban that lapsed during the Bush administration. But will anything happen?

A California workplace has an expert come in to instruct the staff on what to do if there's an active shooter. The expert is Kayley, a girl who has had to learn all this in school.

and the countdown to a no-deal Brexit

One extreme (but very unlikely) solution to the Brexit problem is the Celtic Union shown on the map: England could go its own way while Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and Cornwall stay in the EU.

An only slightly less radical path is the one Prime Minister Boris Johnson (a.k.a. the Trump of England) is maneuvering towards: The UK busts out of the EU on October 31 with no deal.

The sticking point in getting a deal with the EU is what to do with Northern Ireland: The whole point of Brexit (at least in the minds of its major supporters) is to have hard borders, so that the UK can reclaim control over the people and products that come into the country from  other EU nations. But the soft border between Ireland and Northern Ireland is at the center of the Good Friday Accords that ended the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

The EU has taken a hard line against a hard Irish border, because it feels an obligation to represent the interests of the country that is staying in the union: Ireland.

Johnson and his fellow Brexiteers have a very nuanced counter-offer: Fuck the Irish.

OK, that's an exaggeration. Johnson is currently saying the exact opposite  -- that there won't immediately be new border checks in Northern Ireland. But he won't say what there will be, and ultimately there's no way to achieve his Brexit goals without a border that checks passports and collects tariffs. So the real message is more like: "Trust us. We wouldn't fuck the Irish, would we?" Like the American Trump, though, Johnson is not particularly trustworthy.

The previous Tory government of Theresa May spent three years trying to deny the intractability of this problem. So May finally recognized her predicament and got out the only way she could: by resigning. Her successor has a different way out: Don't let Parliament get in the way, so that a no-deal Brexit can just happen on October 31 whether Parliament likes it or not. The Economist describes the situation like this:

This week opposition parties agreed that, when the Commons returned on September 3rd, they would try to hijack its agenda to pass a law calling for another extension of the Brexit deadline. But a day later Mr Johnson trumped them by announcing a long suspension of Parliament, from September 11th to October 14th, when a Queen’s Speech will start a new session. ... At almost five weeks, it will be Parliament’s longest suspension before a Queen’s Speech since 1945.

That leaves two weeks for Parliament to do something to avert a no-deal Brexit. But that's the rub: It would have to do something: revoke the UK's request to leave the EU, form a new government ... . And that's been the problem from the beginning: Brexit has always been just a vague idea; as soon as you zero in on an actual scenario, support goes away.

David Allen Green writes in the WaPo:

What will linger either way is the deep sense of wrongness, of the government attempting to unfairly (if not unlawfully) game the constitution so as to prevent legitimate checks and balances. This will not end well, whatever happens.

Basically, Johnson's maneuver takes a we-made-a-mistake situation and turns it into a somebody-screwed-us situation.

What's so bad about no deal? The UK is an island nation, so naturally a lot of necessities are imported. Roughly half of the UK's foreign trade is with the EU. No one is proposing to cut off that trade, but suddenly it will have to find new legal channels. Businesses in the EU will still want to export to the UK (and vice versa), but they won't know how to do it while new standards and practices are worked out. Ports and crossings that were designed for an open border will suddenly have to start checking passports and collecting tariffs, which will lead to considerable delays.

Likely problems were listed in a government document that leaked a few weeks ago.

In addition to the immediate chaos, a number of political consequences are likely within the UK: Scotland decided against independence in 2014, but Scots also voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU. So the independence issue will rise again, particularly if a chaotic no-deal Brexit happens without Scottish MPs having a chance to vote against it.

And then there's Northern Ireland, where the Troubles are already starting to rumble again.

and James Comey

The FBI Inspector General released its report on James Comey's handling of the memos documenting his interactions with President Trump. I'll warn you: This is a mind-numbingly boring document. And that's unfortunate, because it means that most people will rely on someone else to read it for them. That, in turn, means that most people will only hear the spin allowed into their usual news bubbles.

(Something similar happened with regard to the State Department inspector general's report about Hillary Clinton's emails, as I reported at the time.)

Let me summarize the general shape of story here, which I think everyone agrees on: While he was FBI director, Comey wrote memos after meetings with President Trump. At the time, he had classification authority over those memos, all but two of which he decided were entirely unclassified. The ones that he judged to include classified information, he handled correctly.

Just before Comey was to testify before Congress (i.e., after he was fired), a group at the FBI reviewed the then-unclassified memos and decided that six words of one and a paragraph of another should be classified at the lowest level, Confidential. The newly classified parts were moments when President Trump had been talking about foreign countries and leaders, and the FBI group reasoned that revealing those statements might cause embarrassment to the US, because some of the countries or leaders might feel slighted. [My opinion: This is a judgment call people might legitimately disagree on, and in any case, it isn't a big deal.]

After leaving the FBI, Comey kept the memos he believed to be unclassified. He gave one to a friend in order to get its contents leaked to the media. (The newly classified parts weren't leaked, but the friend saw the six classified words: names of countries.) He also gave his lawyers copies of the memos he retained, so they also saw the newly classified information. In any case, none of the classified information got out.

We found no evidence that Comey or his attorneys released any of the classified information contained in any of the Memos to members of the media.

Comey treated the retained memos as personal property rather than as government property that should be returned to the FBI. The IG finds fault with him for this, because Comey wrote the memos while he was FBI Director, and they concerned conversations he wouldn't have had if he weren't FBI Director.

That's the whole story told in the report.

So what should we make of this? I suspect the IG is technically correct about the ownership of the memos. But let's consider just how minor a technicality this is: Suppose Comey had returned the memos when he left the FBI (as the IG said he should), and then (as a private citizen) had gone to his computer and written down his memories of his conversations with Trump as best he could remember them at that time, leaving out any statements that might be classified. That document would be his personal property -- similar to the my-days-in-the-White-House memoirs that get published all the time. Even if it contained all the unclassified information that was in the FBI memos, showing it to his lawyers or leaking it to the media would be unobjectionable.

Anyway, this is the situation that Rep. Peter King (R-NY) described on Fox News (in a clip Trump retweeted) as:

One of the most disgraceful examples of an abuse of power by a government official…when you read this report…this is a systematic effort to go after Candidate Trump, President Elect-Trump, and President could virtually call this an attempted coup.

He can say stuff like this in complete confidence that the people listening to him won't read the report, which says nothing of the kind. Meanwhile, Josh Marshall makes the opposite case: Comey was a whistleblower, not a leaker:

Comey was not simply within his rights but had an affirmative obligation to bring this information to light. Critically, he had no reason to believe that the others in the existing chain of command weren’t compromised by Trump’s corruption and efforts to end the investigation. Indeed, what we have subsequently learned gives every reason to believe they were compromised. The only reason this isn’t obvious is that we’ve had Trump’s denials, lying and gaslighting in our collective heads for the last two plus years.

Full disclosure: There's a "Comey is my homey" t-shirt, which I suppose I could wear without too much exaggeration. We were at the University of Chicago at the same time: I finished my Ph.D. in math in 1984, and he got his law degree in 1985. I don't remember running into him.

but I paid attention to a court ruling

A federal appeals court overturned a lower court ruling and OK'd the practice of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, which bars non-theists from acting as "guest chaplains" and leading the opening prayer.

Granted, this is not the most important thing that happened these last two weeks. Atheism, humanism, and the various forms of religion-without-God will carry on in Pennsylvania, and it's not even that big a blow to the separation of church and state (though it doesn't help). But I bring it up as an additional example of something I discussed in my recent Second Amendment article: how the world can change out from under a practice or text, so that it is honestly not clear how best to carry forward some legal tradition.

The strongest argument for why opening prayers are not themselves banned by the First Amendment (as a government "establishment of religion") goes back to the First Congress. The appeals court majority opinion (written by Judge Thomas Ambro) says:

Twice the Supreme Court has drawn on early congressional practice to uphold legislative prayer. It emphasized that Congress approved the draft of the First Amendment in the same week it established paid congressional chaplains to provide opening prayers.

However, the First Congress did not write down and vote on a policy that applied to all times and places. So it's left to us to interpret the arguments they were having and extrapolate from them. One thing they didn't do was insist that the opening prayer satisfy some particular orthodoxy. Ambro summarizes:

[O]ne might wonder whether a religious minister can accommodate the spiritual needs of a “secular agnostic” member of the Pennsylvania House. Or, for that matter, can a Catholic priest in the U.S. Senate accommodate the spiritual needs of Chuck Schumer, or a Jewish rabbi those of Mitt Romney? These questions are as old as the Republic, but they have been settled since the Founding. In the Continental Congress, John Jay and John Rutledge opposed legislative prayer on the theory that the delegates were “so divided in religious sentiments” that they “could not join in the same act of worship.” The two future Chief Justices could not see what an Episcopalian minister could possibly offer a Presbyterian or Congregationalist lawmaker. Their view lost out, however, when Samuel Adams countered that “he was no bigot” and would gladly “hear a prayer from a gentleman of piety and virtue,” no matter his denomination.

So we are left with the question of how far such ecumenism should stretch. In the First Congress, a Christian minister of any denomination could count as "a gentleman of piety and virtue", and that was as far as the principle needed to go. (Congress wouldn't have its first Jewish members until 1845, and I'm not sure when a woman first offered the opening prayer.) But how far should this traditional acceptance of pluralism stretch today, when religious diversity is so much greater?

Judge Ambro extends acceptance to all theists -- and to Buddhists, for reasons that don't entirely make sense -- but no further.

Legislative prayer has historically served many purposes, both secular and religious. Because only theistic prayer can achieve them all, the historical tradition supports the House’s choice to restrict prayer to theistic invocations.

Judge Felipe Restrepo, on the other hand, is horrified that his colleague has just ruled on what prayer is and what purposes it serves, "which, in my view, are precisely the type of questions that the Establishment Clause forbids the government—including courts—from answering". His dissenting opinion interprets the opening-prayer tradition differently:

Purposeful exclusion of adherents of certain religions or persons who hold certain religious beliefs has never been countenanced in the history of legislative prayer in the United States, and, therefore, viewed in the proper context, the Pennsylvania House’s guest-chaplain policy does not fit “within the tradition long followed in Congress and the state legislatures” because it purposefully excludes persons from serving as guest chaplains solely on the basis of their religions and religious beliefs.

I'm not attempting to resolve the judges' disagreement -- a job for the Supreme Court -- but only to call attention to a more general point, which is the fundamental flaw at the heart of originalism: We can hope to understand what previous generations thought about their world. But when the world changes, we can't hold a séance and ask how they want us to respond to our world.

and you also might be interested in ...

Chinese police are getting increasingly violent against the Hong Kong protests. But the large-scale demonstrations have been going on for 12 weeks and show no signs of stopping. Vox has a good what-is-this-about article.

The NYT's Roger Cohen seems to be making a pro-Trump point in "Trump Has China Policy About Right", but he's actually saying the same thing I've been saying: China is our main global competitor, it has been playing by it's own rules, and it's high time we confronted them about that. But at the same time, Trump is doing this in a very stupid way: chaotically and without allies.

Cohen's assessment of "about right" involves grossly lowering his standards, as so many pundits do when they assess Trump. Trump "flails" and is "erratic". His attempt to order American businesses out of China is "a trademark Trump grotesquerie". Somehow that adds up to "about right".

The next Democratic presidential debates are set for September 12, and stricter requirements have brought the roster down to 10 candidates, who will all be on stage at the same time: Biden, Booker, Buttigieg, Castro, Harris, Klobuchar, O'Rourke, Sanders, Warren, and Yang.

As you might guess from the quote at the top, I read Pete Buttigieg's autobiography Shortest Way Home this week. If you enjoy listening to Mayor Pete talk (I do), you'll enjoy his book. It's engaging, thoughtful, and at times funny.

One funny moment is when he's filling out paperwork for the Navy Reserve. Buttigieg asks an officer for advice on the question "Are you considered a key employee in your civilian workplace?" The officer explains that it's for first-responders and the like. Pete still doesn't know how to answer. "Who do you work for?" the officer asks. Pete says he works for the city. "Can anyone else do your job?" Not exactly, Pete answers. "So what are you, the mayor or something?"

It turns out that no, from the Navy's point of view the mayor is not a "key employee".

Later, a different officer asks Pete how his employer is handling his deployment, and Pete says they've been wonderful about it. The officer says there's an award he can put them in for. When he finds out Pete works for local government, the officer says that's perfect, because politicians love getting awards like that.

I also enjoyed watching him mix together his various worlds of experience: bringing his management consultant background into city government, observing like a mayor the Kabul government's successes and failures in providing local services under difficult conditions, and so on. (One unstated theme of the book is that for a young guy, he's done a lot of different things.)

One amusing example is when he brings the military concept of "training age" into dating. If you've just start to learn about something, your "training age" is young, even if your physical age is much older. Well, Pete took a long time admitting he was gay, and then even longer before he came out publicly. So when he starts to date (after 30), he admits that with respect to dating, his training age is "practically zero".

and let's close with something heart-warming

It's always chancy to imagine what another species is thinking, but in this video it sure looks like a dolphin comes to a diver for help, patiently and trustfully endures having a hook removed from its flesh and fishing line untangled from its flipper, and then swims off.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Trajectory and Splatter

We will never correctly anticipate what flavor of shit will hit the fan,
but we can calculate the trajectory and attempt to avoid the splatter.

- James Alan Gardner, All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault

This week's featured post is "Follow-up to 'How Should We Rewrite the Second Amendment?'" Last week's post somehow went viral in the pro-gun world, earning me a stream of negative comments. Those comments are a window into the minds of people I don't usually hear from.

One type of comment I forgot to cover in that piece. A number of commenters couldn't imagine that I really was what I claimed to be: a person of generally liberal views who nonetheless was trying to figure out what the right policy might be. Clearly I was a confiscate-them-all anti-gun radical who was just trying suck people in by pretending to rationally evaluate a variety of views.

I don't know if there's any worthwhile response to that level of cynicism and closed-mindedness. I suspect there's some projection going on. People who often argue in bad faith easily imagine that other people are doing the same thing.

This week everybody was talking about the Trump Show

He outdid himself this week, unleashing a variety and extremity of presidential craziness that used to exist only in satire. Republican strategist Rick Wilson described the President's week like this:

A combination of waking hallucinations, verbal tics, lies surpassing even his usual fabulist standard, aphasias and lunatic blurtings

James Fallows said what we've all been thinking:

If Donald Trump were in virtually any other position of responsibility, action would already be under way to remove him from that role.

I could easily spend all my time this week talking about how nutty this stuff is, but I think that's what he wants: that we should talk about him and his antics rather than the signs of a slowing economy, the badly misconceived trade war with China, his continuing vassalhood to Vladimir Putin, the ongoing climate disaster, the unlikelihood of getting any Republican cooperation toward limiting gun violence, and so on.

So I'm going to assume you've heard about the individual trolling incidents already, not mention what he said, and skip straight to the debunking:

If you've been away from the news all week, looked at that list, and said "What?" you've understood how the rest of us have felt this week. It was seven days of "What?"

and the possibility that Trump's trade war will start a recession

Bill Clinton famously felt your pain. Trump defender Lindsey Graham wants you to accept the pain this administration's trade war is giving you.

The slowing economy and Trump's tariffs' role in slowing it was probably the main thing the Trump Show was supposed to distract us from. Experts are divided on whether a recession will hit before the election, but I think this is a technical debate that is going to go right over the heads of the electorate: Growth is slowing down, and is likely to keep slowing down. Whether it's at .1% or -.1% on election day may matter to economists, but voters probably won't be able to tell the difference.

Typically, recessions are not uniform across the country. Large chunks of rural America (the people Trump promised to help) are probably already in recession, while some hot spots may miss a recession entirely.

Wapo columnist Catherine Rampell notes one economic hazard we've never experienced before: Trump never admits his mistakes, so if his policies cause a recession, he'll insist on doubling down on them.

The possibility of a synchronized global downturn would require some sort of coordinated global policy response, just as it did a decade ago during the Great Recession. But rather than evaluating how we got to the present situation, or how to make amends with the allies we might need to help get us out of it, we already know what Trump’s objective will be: proving his very wrong ideas were very right all along.

All the airtime went to Trump's "joke" about being "the chosen one" to stand up to China, but the real problem with his Chinese trade war is not getting the attention it deserves. Yes, there are long-standing disputes about the trade deficit (which Trump misunderstands) and more importantly about protecting US intellectual property. You can make a good case that the US needed to pressure China to play by the established rules of international trade.

The point that often gets lost is that Trump has implemented this pressure in a very stupid way: with unilateral tariffs rather than acting in cooperation with the EU, Japan, and our other allies. (That was the direction President Obama was headed with the Transpacific Partnership that Trump pulled the US out of.) Not only does unilateral action have a smaller effect on China than pressure from all sides, but it's also less effective psychologically and politically. The way Trump has set this up, he's asking China to yield to the United States. For China, that's a more humiliating option than changing its behavior in order to join the world community.

Xi can stand up to Trump and spin that to his own people as defending China's honor against American aggression. That spin would be much less convincing if he were thumbing his nose at the whole world.

One of the week's more insane tweets deserves a little attention:

Our great American companies are hereby ordered to immediately start looking for an alternative to China, including bringing your companies HOME and making your products in the USA.

Just about everybody who read that balked at the word ordered. Ordered? Since when does the president give orders to American businesses? I can barely imagine the wave of conservative outrage if President Obama had tried to order private corporations around.

Well, Trump insists he has that power.

For all of the Fake News Reporters that don’t have a clue as to what the law is relative to Presidential powers, China, etc., try looking at the Emergency Economic Powers Act of 1977. Case closed!

Vox' Anya van Wagendonk disputes that.

The president is not correct in this assertion. The Economic Powers Act allows the president of the United States to regulate commerce during a national emergency. It does not allow a president to order companies to close their factories in foreign countries, however. And as there has not yet been a national emergency declared with respect to Chinese trade, Trump’s present abilities to govern economic interactions with China are limited to measures like tariffs.

Whatever the EEPA allows, using it would have to follow the same pattern as Trump's money-grab to build the wall:

  1. Declare a specious national emergency.
  2. Veto Congress' attempt to cancel the emergency.
  3. Keep the support of at least 1/3 of one house of Congress, so that the veto can't be overriden.

That's not exactly a recipe for one-man rule, but it's close: rule by one man supported by 34 senators.

One problem we'll face if a recession does start is that there's not much to fight it with. Typically, governments shorten and mitigate the effects of a recession in two ways: fiscal and monetary. In other words, the government stimulate public-sector demand by running a deficit, and the central bank stimulates private-sector demand by cutting interest rates

Well, the fiscal stimulus got used up in tax cuts to big corporations and rich people like Trump himself. We're already going to run a $1 trillion deficit next year without any special recession-fighting programs. How much higher do we really want that to go?

And by historical standards, interest rates are quite low already. Trump is complaining that it's not fair that Germany gets to pay negative interest rates while his government pays positive rates. To me, that's like complaining that your friend with a broken leg gets opiates while you don't. We don't want our economy to be in the situation Germany's is.

and the Amazon region is on fire

The thousands of fires burning in the Amazon rain forest are calamitous for two reasons: First because they release lots of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and second because the forest may not grow back.

Scientists fear parts of the Amazon could pass a critical threshold and transform from a lush rainforest into a dry, woody grassland. And that could bring catastrophic consequences not only for people in South America, but also for everyone around the world.

Some of the fires are accidental, but a large number are intentional.

Instead of axes and machetes, people now use bulldozers and giant tractors with chains to pull down the Amazon’s towering trees. A few months later, they torch the trunks. It’s the only realistic way to remove such huge amounts of biomass, Morton said. “It’s slash and burn, 21st century.”

Thousands of acres at a time are being cleared for large-scale agriculture, he added. The land is primarily used as pasture for cattle — one of Brazil’s major exports — or for crops such as soybeans.

Some of the larger fires may be intentional deforestation fires that got out of control.

This is at least partly the consequence of Brazil's electing Jair Bolsonaro as president.

Bolsonaro has railed against protections for indigenous land and promised to boost the country’s economy. He has also weakened the government’s capacity for oversight and indicated he would not go after farmers, loggers and miners who seize and clear forest.

Bolsonaro is sometimes referred to as "the Trump of Brazil", and there are a number of similarities. For starters, his first response to reports of Amazon fires was to blame his enemies: environmentalists are setting the fires to make him look bad. Like Trump, he made the claim without citing any evidence.

More than a soccer field’s worth of Amazon forest is falling every minute, according to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, known as INPE. Preliminary estimates from satellite data revealed that deforestation in June rose almost 90% compared with the same month last year, and by 280% in July.

Bolsonaro called this report "a lie" and has fired INPE's director.

and (coincidentally) David Koch

I think it's unseemly to gloat over someone's death. But I'm also not willing to pretend that none of David Koch's evil deeds matter now, as if he were just an opponent in a game that his death brings to an end.

The New Republic interviewed Christopher Leonard, author of Kochland: The Secret History of Koch Industries and Corporate Power in America.

Koch Industries—that is, David and Charles Koch and their political network—has played an almost unparalleled role in helping to cast doubt on the basic science behind climate change; create doubt in the public mind that climate change is real; and particularly, most importantly, to cast doubt on the idea that government regulation can or should do anything to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

As early as 1991, Republican President G. H. W. Bush was ready to start taking action on climate change. And as late as 2007, candidate John McCain was saying in his stump speech that the problem was real and demanded action. But the Kochs pretty well squelched the Republican willingness to face reality, and instead made rejection of climate science a litmus test on the right.

So this world we're living in -- with its wildfires in the Amazon, more powerful hurricanes, shrinking polar icecaps, and so on -- is to a certain extent the creation of the Kochs. And that story doesn't end with David's death. In the coming decades, millions of climate refugees will be looking for homes, probably causing wars and revolutions as destination countries try either to accommodate them or keep them out. That's part of his legacy too.

OK, I can't help myself; I'm going to repeat somebody else's snarky remark. Here's Matt Binder on The Majority Report podcast:

Per his request, David Koch will be cremated along with the rest of planet Earth.

and the G7

Trump is once again proposing to let his patron, Vladimir Putin, back into the G7. This is a dumb idea for two major reasons:

  • Russia should never have gotten into the G7 in the first place, because G7 is a club of democratic nations with large economies. Russia does not qualify on either count. The point of including Russia in the 1990s was to encourage it to develop democratic institutions. That did not work.
  • Russia was ejected from the (then) G8 in 2014 to condemn its conquest of Crimea. It still holds Crimea, and is continuing to fight an aggressive proxy war against Ukraine. Since 2014, Russia has been promoting right-wing nationalist movements across the West, including aiding Trump in the US and Brexit in the UK.

European Council President Donald Tusk rejected re-admitting Russia, and proposed instead that Ukraine be invited as a guest.

The US hosts the next G7. Trump is talking about holding it at his own golf resort in Miami. He's president, so why shouldn't he make some money off of government events? Maybe our next president will own an aerospace company and award himself all the Air Force contracts.

and you also might be interested in ...

Naturally, all Trump's cultists had to tell us what a brilliant idea buying Greenland is. The WaPo's Marc Thiessen wrote a column about it. (He focused on the strategic reasons for wanting Greenland, and completely ignored the Danish prime minister's point: that we don't buy and sell people any more.) And NRCC started fund-raising with a t-shirt showing Greenland as part of the US.

Puerto Rico is in the path of another hurricane.

The higher hurdles to get into the September debate is driving some Democratic candidates out of the race: Seth Moulton joins Jay Inslee and John Hickenlooper on the sidelines.

Michael Bennet, who likely won't be in the debate but so far seems to be staying in the race, slammed the DNC process for "stifling debate" and "rewarding celebrity". I can't raise much sympathy for him. In two debates and months of campaigning, he has done little to distinguish himself. What exactly does he bring to the discussion that no other candidate does? The "celebrity" candidates -- I assume he means Michelle Williamson and Andrew Yang -- may not have much in the way of presidential qualifications, but they each raise issues that other candidates don't.

In my reading of the polls, only five candidates have proved that they have a real following: Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, and Pete Buttigieg. So far, Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, Julián Castro, Beto O'Rourke, and Yang (but not Williamson) have also qualified for the third debate, with Tom Steyer, Tulsi Gabbard, and Kirsten Gillibrand still in the running.

Notice anything strange about this lecture series?

and let's close with something too big to worry about us

NASA's photo of the day is of the Angel Nebula.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Call or Fold

The American people are ill-served when our leaders put forward unfounded allegations of voter fraud. To put it in terms that a former casino operator should understand: There comes a time when you need to lay your cards on the table or fold.

- FEC Chair Ellen Weintraub

This week's featured post is "How Should We Rewrite the Second Amendment?"

This week everybody was talking about a change in immigration policy

If the courts don't block the proposed change in immigration rules, people who come here with nothing -- as a lot of the ancestors of current Americans did -- will have trouble getting in, trouble staying, and trouble becoming citizens.

Monday, acting US Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Ken Cuccinelli announced the change:

Our rule generally prevents aliens, who are likely to become a public charge, from coming to the United States or remaining here and getting a green card. ... Under the rule, a public charge is now defined as an individual who receives one or more designated public benefits for more than 12 months in the aggregate within any 36-month period. ... Once this rule is implemented and effective on October 15th, USCIS Career Immigration Services Officers — what we call ISOs — will generally consider an alien’s current and past receipt of the designated public benefits while in the United States as a negative factor when examining applications.

CNN gives some context:

Under current regulations put in place in 1996, the term "public charge" is defined as someone who is "primarily dependent" on government assistance, meaning it supplies more than half their income. But it only counted cash benefits, such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or Supplemental Security Income from Social Security. ...

[Advocates for immigrants] said [the new rule] would penalize even hard-working immigrants who only need a small bit of temporary assistance from the government.

The Washington Post elaborates:

[The new criteria] will skew the process in favor of the highly skilled, high-income immigrants President Trump covets. Since its first days, the Trump administration has been seeking ways to weed out immigrants the president sees as undesirable, including those who might draw on taxpayer-funded benefits.

Wealth, education, age and English-language skills will take on greater importance in the process of obtaining a green card, which is the main hurdle in the path to full U.S. citizenship.

WaPo's Eugene Robinson creates a hypothetical example:

Say you’re an immigrant from Mexico who came here legally to join family members who are already permanent residents or citizens. Say you’re working a full-time minimum-wage job, plus odd jobs nights and weekends. You are a productive member of society. You are paying payroll taxes, sales taxes, vehicle registration fees and other government levies. Still, as hard as you work, you can’t make ends meet.

You may be legally entitled to health care through Medicaid. You may be entitled to food assistance through the SNAP program, formerly known as food stamps. You may be entitled to housing assistance. But according to the new Trump administration rule — set to take effect in two months — if you use any of these programs, you might forfeit the opportunity to ever obtain a green card making you a permanent resident. That means you also forfeit the chance of ever becoming a citizen.

And Max Boot makes it personal:

I am certain that my family — my grandmother, mother and myself — had a credit score of zero when we arrived in 1976. There were no credit cards in the Soviet Union, and we didn’t have any money. We survived initially on handouts from the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), whose help to more recent arrivals triggered the ire of the alleged Pittsburgh synagogue gunman. Luckily, my mother already spoke English, so she soon found a job. But my grandmother spoke only Russian and she was already retired. She got by with help from my family and her Supplemental Security Income and Medicare benefits. My family is far from rich, but we have been productive and repaid in taxes many times over the benefits my grandmother received — just as we repaid the aid from HIAS.

But if Trump had been in office then, I wonder whether my grandmother would have been barred entry or deported back to the U.S.S.R., where she had no one to take care of her? For that matter, I wonder whether any of us would have been allowed to come here given our unconscionable lack of a credit rating?

Here's a factor anyone should be able to appreciate: In this era of super-bugs, when antibiotics are starting to lose their effectiveness, we shouldn't be making people afraid to see a doctor. The most likely place for a really nasty plague to get started is among a group of people who either can't afford healthcare or avoid it for some other reason. So discouraging people from signing up for Medicaid is a bad idea for all of us.

During an interview Tuesday morning with NPR's Rachel Martin, Cuccinelli rewrote the inscription on the Statue of Liberty.

MARTIN: Would you also agree that Emma Lazarus' words etched on the Statue of Liberty - give me your tired, your poor - are also part of the American ethos?

CUCCINELLI: They certainly are - give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge. That plaque was put on the Statue of Liberty at almost the same time as the first public charge law was passed - very interesting timing.

Clarifying Tuesday evening to CNN's Erin Burnett, Cuccinelli said that Lazarus' poem had European immigrants in mind.

Of course that poem was referring back to people coming from Europe where they had class-based societies, where people were considered wretched if they weren't in the right class, and it was written one year after the first federal public charge rule was written.

At best, he was denying that the poem's "give me ... your poor" refers to people who lack money, rather than just those who weren't born into the aristocracy. At worst, he was dog-whistling to white supremacists. (Among white supremacists who are trying to sound respectable, "European" has become a less obviously racist way of saying "white".)

Trevor Noah has figured out the true target of Trump's hard line on immigration: He wants to deport Melania.

and two members of Congress who won't be going to Israel

Vice summarizes:

  • First, [Rep. Rashida] Tlaib and her colleague in the House, Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar were scheduled to visit Israel. They’re both supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which promotes boycotting Israel in protest of its human rights abuses against Palestinians.
  • But after some prodding from President Donald Trump, Israel barred the lawmakers from entering the country on Thursday. “It would show great weakness if Israel allowed Rep. Omar and Rep.Tlaib to visit,” the president tweeted.
  • The move sparked widespread outrage. Even the American Israel Public Affairs Committee was upset with the decision.
  • Friday morning, Israel said it would allow Tlaib to enter the country for a humanitarian visit so long as she didn’t promote protests during the trip. “This could be my last opportunity to see her,” Tlaib wrote of her grandmother in a letter. “I will respect any restrictions and will not promote boycotts against Israel during my visit.”

But after thinking about it, Tlaib changed her mind:

When I won, it gave the Palestinian people hope that someone will finally speak the truth about the inhumane conditions. I can't allow the State of Israel to take away that light by humiliating me & use my love for my sity to bow down to their oppressive & racist policies.

So then the deal was off and she isn't going.

Always classy, Trump closed with this gratuitous insult:

The only real winner here is Tlaib’s grandmother. She doesn’t have to see her now!

He probably thought he had gotten the last word, but he didn't reckon with Tlaib's grandmother:

Ninety-year-old Muftia Tlaib, sitting in her garden in the village of Beit Ur Al-Fauqa, was not impressed. “Trump tells me I should be happy Rashida is not coming,” she said. “May God ruin him.”

The issue here is a bit bigger than Tlaib, her grandmother, Trump, and Netanyahu. Thomas Friedman comments:

Trump — with the knowing help of Israel’s current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu — is doing something no American president and Israeli prime minister have done before: They’re making support for Israel a wedge issue in American politics.

Few things are more dangerous to Israel’s long-term interests than its becoming a partisan matter in America, which is Israel’s vital political, military and economic backer in the world.

and the inverted yield curve

In general, the longer you want to borrow someone's money, the higher the interest rate they will charge you. This seems as if it ought to be a natural law. After all, the two main common-sense justifications for charging interest are

  • the borrower gets to consume now while the lender delays his or her consumption,
  • and the lender is taking the risk that the borrower may not repay, or that by the time repayment happens, the currency the loan is measured in might have lost value.

Both of those considerations get weightier with time: The longer I have to delay my consumption the more I want to get paid for it, and the more time that passes before repayment, the more things can happen to interfere with it.

If you have one particular borrower -- the US government, say -- who owes money on a bunch of different time scales, you can plot out a "yield curve": the interest rate on bonds that come due in 1 year, in 2 years, 10 years, 30 years, and so on. Given the discussion above, you'd expect the yield curve to slope upwards: longer maturities correspond to higher interest rates. And most of the time that's true.

Wednesday, though, the interest rate on the 10-year US bond fell below the 2-year rate for the first time since 2007. That created an "inverted yield curve", i.e., one that slopes downward, not upward.

For investors, an inverted yield curve is like birds migrating in the wrong direction or the jungle going silent at a time when it usually chatters: It's a sign that something is seriously wrong. (You might take a clue from the "since 2007" above. The economy got pretty ugly in 2008.) So the inversion touched off a fast 800-point loss in the Dow Jones average.

The panic is partly superstitious and partly legitimate. (Superstition matters in the stock market because traders are always trying to guess what other traders might do. So while of course I'm not superstitious myself, those other traders ...) Here's the legitimate part: Think about why some investor might be willing to accept a lower interest rate on a 10-year loan than a 2-year loan. And the answer is: He's worried that when the 2-year loan comes due, interest rates might be lower than they are now.

Imagine, for example, that you could earn 2% on a 2-year loan but only 1.5% on a 10-year. (The actual inversion is much smaller than this, but I'm trying to keep the numbers simple.) So you invest $1,000 at 2% and get $20 per year in interest rather than the $15 you'd get on the 10-year loan. But then at the end of two years, you get your $1,000 back, and now an 8-year loan will only get you 1%. Then you'd say, "Damn, I wish I'd taken the 1.5%, because then I'd get $15 a year for the next eight years rather than $10."

So an inverted yield curve reflects the market's expectation that interest rates are likely to go down. Falling interest rates, in turn, mainly happen during recessions. (In December, 2008, short-term interest rates in the US were .25%.) So the inverted yield curve is predicting a recession.

The inverted yield curve is happening at the same time as another anomalous event: European government bonds are paying negative interest rates. Irish Times reports:

[O]ddities now abound. Danish lender Jyske Bank last week issued a 10-year mortgage bond at an interest rate of -0.5 per cent, meaning homeowners are being paid to borrow. Meanwhile, Swiss bank UBS is planning to charge its super-rich clients for holding on to cash.

So a lot of stock traders are just plain spooked, and I can't say I blame them.

Another source of anxiety: Germany may already be in recession. A recession is usually defined as two consecutive quarters of negative growth. Germany has reported one.

But here's an interesting spin on that: Countries where the workforce is shrinking (Germany is one), can simultaneously have a shrinking GDP and rising (or stable) incomes for individuals. Is it really fair to call that a recession? As populations stabilize in more and more countries, perhaps our targets for economic growth need to be adjusted.

That point is particularly significant for the United States. If Trump gets his way and immigration goes way down, but the birth rate stays low, GDP growth targets in the 3-4% range become unreasonable.

and Trump supporters

From the WaPo article "'He gets it.' Evangelicals aren't turned off by Trump's first term":

While they cheer Trump’s many efforts to chip away at LGBT rights, they are much more concerned with protecting their own right to maintain their opposition. They want to be able to teach their values without interference — some churchgoers fretted about school textbooks that refer to transgender identities without condemnation and about gay couples showing up in TV commercials every time they try to watch a show with their children.

This attitude explains a lot: Conservative Christians have pushed their boundaries out so far that it's impossible for other people to live their lives without "interfering" with them. The old adage was: "Your freedom to swing your fist ends at my nose." But Evangelicals don't look at things that way. In order to be "free", they have to control the textbooks the rest of us use and the TV the rest of us watch.

It's a kind of freedom that not everybody can have. Just them.

Another long thoughtful WaPo article about evangelical Trump supporters concluded with this:

Is there a way to reverse hostilities between the two cultures in a way that might provoke a truce? It is hard to see. Is it even possible to return to a style of evangelical politics that favored “family values” candidates and a Billy Graham-like engagement with the world, all with an eye toward revival and persuasion? It is hard to imagine.

Or was a truly evangelical politics — with an eye toward cultural transformation — less effective than the defensive evangelical politics of today, which seems focused on achieving protective accommodations against a broader, more liberal national culture? Was the former always destined to collapse into the latter? And will the evangelical politics of the post-Bush era continue to favor the rise of figures such as Trump, who are willing to dispense with any hint of personal Christian virtue while promising to pause the decline of evangelical fortunes — whatever it takes? And if hostilities can’t be reduced and a detente can’t be reached, are the evangelicals who foretell the apocalypse really wrong?

A number of articles talk about how tired Trump supporters are of being called racists. The Atlantic quotes a 50-year-old woman at a Trump rally in Cincinnati:

"I’m sick to death of it. I have 13 grandchildren—13,” she continued. “Four of them are biracial, black and white; another two of them are black and white; and another two of them are Singapore and white. You think I’m a racist? I go and I give them kids kisses like nobody’s business."

This is a response I've run into fairly often in reading interviews: I can't be racist because I have non-whites in my family (just like Trump can't be anti-Semitic because of Jared and Ivanka). It's an amped-up version of the some-of-my-best-friends-are-Jewish line that people would use when I was young.

I'm not sure why anyone thinks this is a get-out-of-racism-free card. The fact that you can make exceptions for people who are very close to you doesn't mean that you don't have prejudices. The essence of being close to someone is that you see that person as an individual, rather than as an example of a type. Your bigotry against the type may be completely untouched by your love for the individual.

A few facts about Trump's speech to Shell petrochemical workers at a new plastics plant near Pittsburgh on Tuesday:

  • It was an official presidential event, with Trump's expenses paid by taxpayers, even though he gave a campaign speech. He ran down Democrats in general and "Pocahontas" [Elizabeth Warren] and "Sleepy Joe" [Biden] in particular. He told the union workers to vote their leaders out if they didn't support his re-election. That sort of campaigning at taxpayer expense is illegal. “In a free and open democracy, the government doesn’t use taxpayer resources to keep itself in power,” [Jordan] Libowitz [of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington] told Vox. “That’s what authoritarian dictatorships do.”
  • He lied about how well he's doing in the polls, and "joked" about calling off the 2020 elections and going on to serve a 3rd and 4th term.
  • He falsely took credit for the new plastics plant's existence. The commitment to build it was made during the Obama administration.
  • CNN's David Dale listed a number of other false or bizarre claims.
  • Esquire's Jack Holmes claims one of the lies -- that he's responsible for the Veteran's Choice program Obama signed into law in 2014 -- was told for the 80th time.
  • The workers would have lost that week's overtime pay if they hadn't attended, and they were instructed not to protest.

Elaborating a bit on the first point, official events are things like ribbon-cuttings. Past presidents have used them in a general image-building sort of way: They give upbeat remarks about how well the country is doing, lay out their vision for the future, make generically patriotic remarks, and so on. If they stray into campaigning -- asking for support, running down their opponents, etc. -- their campaign or political party is supposed to reimburse the government for the trip's expenses. Trump hasn't done that.

A subsequent Trump rally in Manchester had its own batch of lies, including the claim that he would have won New Hampshire in 2016 if not for voter fraud. This drew a response from Federal Election Commission Chair Ellen Weintraub, who wrote the president a letter.

Trump has made these claims before, and Weintraub has asked him to give his evidence to the FEC so that the alleged fraud can be investigated. But Trump has never responded, and has never provided any evidence in any forum.

The American people are ill-served when our leaders put forward unfounded allegations of voter fraud. To put it in terms that a former casino operator should understand: There comes a time when you need to lay your cards on the table or fold.

but I wrote about guns

The featured post is my attempt to rewrite the Second Amendment, and to explain why we need to rewrite it.

Meanwhile, various Democratic candidates put out their own gun plans: Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, and others. It remains to be seen what (if anything) the Senate will vote on when the congressional recess ends after Labor Day.

and you also might be interested in ...

The New York City medical examiner has officially concluded that Jeffrey Epstein hanged himself. So of course all conspiracy theories immediately dried up (in some alternate universe).

Anyway, however he died, here's hoping a full investigation tells the story of what he did, who helped him do it, and who went along for the ride. Democrats, Republicans -- I don't care.

A prison worker drove a truck into a crowd of Never Again Action protesters outside a private prison where ICE is holding immigrants. The crowd then surrounded the truck until prison guards pepper-sprayed them. The driver wasn't arrested, but did later resign.

According to NOAA, July was the hottest month ever.

Nine of the 10 hottest Julys have occurred since 2005—with the last five years ranking as the five hottest. Last month was also the 43rd consecutive July and 415th consecutive month with above-average global temperatures.

Think about that: It's been 34 years since the Earth has had a cool month.

The United Methodist denomination may split over LGBTQ issues.

Here's how big a propaganda victory Kim Jong Un believes he got from his meetings with Trump: He put their picture on a postage stamp.

I refuse to waste my attention on Trump's fantasy of buying Greenland. I liked Amy Klobuchar's tweet:

The difference between Donald Trump and Greenland? Greenland is not for sale.

Trump has taken a stand as an anti-anti-fascist.

and let's close with something portentious

Brexit is written in the clouds:

I want to point out what this portent signifies: The way for Britain to leave the EU is without Northern Ireland.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Suggested Solutions

The language of infestation inevitably suggests the “solution” of extermination.

- Bret Stephens, "Trump's Rhetoric and Conservative Denial" (8-8-2019)

That's the fundamental con at the heart of Donald Trump. He says: "I'm going to hurt these people and I'm going to help you." And he can deliver on the first part, but he's done just about nothing on the second.

- Chris Hayes "Trump Can't Help, So He Hurts" (8-8-2019)

This week's featured post is "Republican Whataboutism Gets More Desperate".

This week everybody was talking about guns

Facing criticism about the harmony between his anti-immigrant rhetoric and the manifestos of white-supremacist mass-murderers (discussed in more detail in the featured post), even President Trump wants to avoid the appearance of blocking action to limit gun violence. So he vaguely says he is for "intelligent" and "meaningful" background checks, and perhaps some measures to keep guns away from the mentally ill (though he relaxed such measures shortly after he took office). But he also tweeted that the NRA's "very strong views" would be "fully represented and respected". He made similar noises after the Parkland shooting and did nothing.

Mitch McConnell refused to interrupt the Senate's recess to act on bills the House already passed, but promised that the Senate will "discuss" guns when it returns in September.

What we can't do is fail to pass something. The urgency of this is not lost on any of us.

But it's not clear what "something" might be, or if he will feel the same urgency after the heat dies down a little, as it presumably will by the time Congress reconvenes.

In general, Republicans want to blame our gun-violence problem on anything but guns: video games, mental illness, the lack of prayer in schools, and so on. But other countries have all that stuff and don't have weekly mass shootings like we do. The difference is that we have lots and lots of guns.

Guess what? Elizabeth Warren has a plan for that. Her goal is to reduce gun deaths by 80%.

Warren is going beyond some of the more commonly discussed ideas, such as stricter background checks or a ban on assault weapons. Her plan calls for creating a federal licensing system, limiting the number of firearms someone could buy, raising the minimum age to 21 for purchasing a gun, holding gun manufacturers liable (and, in some cases, even holding gun industry CEOs personally liable).

She also wants to raise taxes for gun manufacturers (from 10% to 30% on guns and from 11% to 50% on ammunition).

Additionally, Warren's plan calls for $100 million annual investment into gun violence research. She points out that the frequency of automobile deaths in the United States declined with widespread safety measures, such as seat belts and air bags. With the same approach, she says, her goal of an 80% reduction in gun-related deaths could be achieved.

The satirical site McSweeney's: "God Has Heard Your Thoughts and Prayers and He Thinks They Are Fucking Bullshit".

Hi. God here. I am contacting you in response to your prayers regarding the most recent and totally horrific mass shooting in a college/ high school/ elementary school/ bar/ nightclub/ park/ shopping mall/ concert/ movie theater/ parking lot/ church/ mosque/ synagogue. I have listened to your prayers, America, and I have come to the conclusion that they are cowardly, pointless, and shameful. Your prayers are not helping the victims or their families. Helping potential and actual gun violence victims is a bridge you could have crossed a long time ago, and you chose not to. You pray in order not to feel culpable in horrendous acts of violence. You pray in order to feel good. And for this, I say: fuck you.

and ICE raids

Wednesday, ICE raided seven different sites -- mostly poultry processing plants -- in Mississippi, arresting 680 people as undocumented immigrants. Owners and managers of the plants have not been arrested, and Time says "They might never be. They typically aren’t."

The raids coincided with the first day of school

leaving friends, neighbors and, in some instances, strangers to temporarily care for children who did not know whether they would see their parents again, according to CNN affiliate WJTV.

Neither school officials nor local social-service agencies had any advance warning. ThinkProgress:

The morning raids at workplaces created confusion at schools around the state later in the day, as the children of people arrested were reportedly left uncertain where to go and what to do when their parents did not arrive to pick them up at the end of the day.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post fleshed out reports of undocumented immigrants employed by the Trump Organization.

President Trump “doesn’t want undocumented people in the country,” said one worker, Jorge Castro, a 55-year-old immigrant from Ecuador without legal status who left the company in April after nine years. “But at his properties, he still has them.”

Many Trump Organization properties use the same in-house construction company: Mobile Payroll Construction LLC.

In January, Eric Trump ... said the company was instituting E-Verify, a voluntary federal program that allows employers to check the employment eligibility of new hires, “on all of our properties as soon as possible.” And the company began auditing the legal status of its existing employees at its golf courses, firing at least 18.

But nothing changed on the Trump construction crew, according to current and former employees.

A spokeswoman for the Trump Organization said Mobile Payroll Construction is enrolled in E-Verify for any new hires. The company is still not listed in the public E-Verify database, which was last updated July 1.

And the story isn't that tricky immigrants fooled Trump supervisors.

[Edmundo] Morocho said he was one of those laborers. He joined the crew of roughly 15 people in 2000. He said he earned $15 an hour, working Monday through Saturday.

“Nobody had papers,” Morocho said.

In fact, Morocho recalled, [Trump supervisor Frank] Sanzo instructed the crew to buy fake Social Security numbers and green cards in New York so they would have something to put in the Trump Organization files. Morocho said he bought his papers for $50 in 2002.

“Frank said, ‘You can go buy a Social in Queens. They sell them in Queens. Then come back to work. It’s no problem,’ ” Morocho said. “He knew.”

The Post has interviewed 43 undocumented workers who have worked on at least eight Trump properties.

That report (and others like it going back some while) raise an obvious question: Why doesn't ICE ever investigate or raid a Trump property?

Acting Customs and Border Protection commissioner Mark Morgan doesn't want to answer that question, saying only that the public doesn't know what investigations have been done or are ongoing.

Vox called attention to an issue in the background of the immigration debate: At times like this, when the unemployment rate is so low, we don't have enough low-skilled workers.

There were more than 2.1 million open positions for low-skilled workers in March, but only 1.4 million people without college degrees looking for work.

and Trump's visit to two grieving cities

The main thing that came out of Trump's swing through Dayton and El Paso Wednesday was new evidence of what a poor excuse for a human being he is. This isn't a partisan issue. You don't have to be liberal or conservative to know how to act when people are hurting.

I wish I could remember who captioned that Trump photo: "Staff finds missing mental patient."

We have a video of Trump talking to the medical staff inside an El Paso hospital. He says appropriately presidential things for a minute or so -- what a great job they did and how proud the country is of them -- and then he starts lying about how big the crowd was at his El Paso rally in February, and how much smaller Beto's crowd was. 22 people are dead, and his delicate ego won't let him go more than a minute without falsely building himself up and bragging about his popularity.

Trump himself tweeted out a video of his day that was prepared by the White House staff. It splices together scenes of Trump grinning broadly, surrounded by adoring people. (I'm reminded of the parody video The Daily Show did during the 2016 campaign. "Everybody loves me," Black Trump says.) If you watch it, be sure to turn on the audio: The background music would be appropriate for an Avengers movie. It's a video about Trump the Super-Hero, not the victims or the first responders or the strength of the community.

The clincher is the photo Melania tweeted of Trump smiling while she holds a baby whose parents were both killed in the shooting. Thumbs-up for you, little guy. You're an orphan, but you'll always be able to say you met the great Donald Trump.

and Biden's ups and downs

Wednesday, Joe Biden gave a powerful speech [video, text] calling Trump out for his championing of white supremacist themes, and calling on the nation to prove that we are better than Trump thinks we are.

We’re living through a rare moment in this nation’s history where our president isn’t up to the moment, where our president lacks the moral authority to lead, where our president has more in common with George Wallace than he does with George Washington.

And he managed to strike the right balance between the greatness and the tragedy of America: that this nation represents a powerful vision, but has never fully lived up to it. Each generation must try to get closer than the previous one.

The most powerful idea in the history of the world, I think beats in the heart of the people of this country. It beats in all of us. No matter your race, your ethnicity, no matter your gender identity, your sexual orientation, no matter your faith, it beats in the hearts of the rich and poor alike, it unites America whether your ancestors were native to these shores, or they were brought here and forcibly enslaved, or they’re immigrants with generations back, like my family from Ireland or those coming today looking to build a better life for their families.

The American creed that were all created equal was written long ago, but the genius of every generation of Americans has open it wider and wider and wider to include those who have been excluded in a previous generation. That’s why it’s never gathered any dust in our history books. It’s still alive today, more than 200 years after its inception.

This kind of speech was what I had in mind last week when I wrote "Campaigning in a Traumatized Nation". Democratic candidates need to recognize that the reason to vote Trump out isn't just that he has the wrong policies and they have better ones. It goes deeper than that, and Biden talking about "the battle for the soul of this nation" is on the right track.

Unfortunately, Biden broke his momentum with a series of flubs: He said he was VP during the Parkland shooting. Like Trump, he got the name of one of the mass-shooting cities wrong. Trying to say, "Poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as wealthy kids", he said "white" instead of "wealthy". He meant to repeat a line from his speech, "We choose truth over lies", but this time it came out: "We choose truth over facts."

This set him up for Trump (who mangles his words even more often than Biden does) to say that Biden has "lost his fastball".

I don't want to run down Joe Biden. He's the current Democratic front-runner, and I'm prepared to vote for him if he's nominated. None of these misstatements suggest to me that he's senile. It's always been hard for Joe to get the right words out, and (as those of us who are aging understand) misplacing a word here or there is a long way from dementia. (I'm actually more alarmed by the word salads Trump so regularly serves up. Biden usually realizes when something didn't come out right, while Trump seems to believe he's making sense.)

But these sorts of mistakes raise the concern that Biden won't provide the right contrast to Trump. The debates might look like two confused old men, each screwing up in his own way.

I understand many Democrats' anxiety that Warren (who I think is much sharper than Biden) might be too liberal to attract the suburban Republicans who flipped in 2018, (though I also appreciate the counter-argument that a more radical message might raise turnout among younger and more alienated voters). But if you want a centrist, candidates like Amy Klobuchar and Cory Booker are very sharp. Going down the stretch, I would feel more confidence in either of them than in Biden.

and you also might be interested in ...

Jeffrey Epstein apparently committed suicide by hanging himself in prison Saturday. In late July he was found unconscious in his cell with marks on his neck, so you'd think prison officials would have been on the lookout for a suicide attempt. His death raises questions about whether we will ever know the full extent of his trafficking of underage girls, who else might have been involved, or how exactly he wrangled a sweetheart deal with federal prosecutors the last time he was arrested.

As you'd expect, conspiracy theories are rampant: Powerful people (Trump if you're liberal, Bill Clinton if you're conservative) didn't want him telling what he knows about them, and so on. It's natural to wonder, and to insist authorities provide some answers about how this happened. But at the same time we have to admit that (at this point) none of us actually know anything.

Of course, that doesn't stop Trump from retweeting a conspiracy theory.

Chris Hayes makes an important point: When Trump arrests immigrant parents without giving a thought to what will happen to their kids, or deports a diabetic man to die in Iraq, or inflicts some other cruelty on people his base dislikes ... does that actually help any of his supporters? Hayes thinks not.

That's the fundamental con at the heart of Donald Trump. He says: "I'm going to hurt these people and I'm going to help you." And he can deliver on the first part, but he's done just about nothing on the second.

Miners and factory workers benefit hardly at all from the recent growth in the economy, and farmers are suffering from Trump's trade wars, but corporations and the very rich enjoy a big tax cut. Undocumented migrant workers get arrested, but not the owners who hired them. (Trump even commuted the sentence of one major employer-of-the-undocumented who was convicted of money laundering during the Obama years.)

That's the deal: You in Lordstown, you're not going to get to keep your job. But instead, you're going to get real acts of savage cruelty against some struggling families down in Mississippi, while Trump stuffs fatcats full of cash and parties with them in the Hamptons.

And meanwhile, all the structural inequalities in America, the great hollowing out of the industrial core and rural America, and the declining life expectancies for the first time since World War II, the 70,000 people we're losing every year to opioids -- all that will go on. Because Trump and his party and his donors could not possibly care less about all of that. "But look over here at the people I'm hurting, because that's all you're going to get."

Two weeks ago, I suggested "Enough!" as the Democrats' best anti-Trump slogan, and at least one Sift reader ordered some "Enough." bumperstickers from Cafe Press. Looking at it, I think the period works better than the exclamation point I suggested.

This week Time used it to refer to mass shootings.

This also is a very clever anti-Trump sticker.

McSweeney's again: The NYT announces that "In order to keep our editorial page completely balanced, we are hiring more dipshits."

Here at the New York Times, we believe that all sides of the story should be tolerated and explored, from white supremacists being actually kinda cool if you think about it to people who believe that saying college campuses should be less PC is somehow an interesting use of 1,000 words. That’s why we’re expanding our editorial staff to include more dipshits. Because everyone, no matter how intellectually lazy their conservatism, deserves a column in our newspaper.

For the most part, American voters believe in democracy. But more and more, Republican legislatures do not.

And so we have situations like the one in Florida, where in 2018 voters overwhelmingly passed a referendum allowing felons (other than murderers and rapists) to regain their voting rights after they serve their sentences. Prior to that, a felony resulted in permanent disenfranchisement, and more than 10% of the population was disenfranchised. That 10% was disproportionately poor and black.

But now the Republican legislature and narrowly elected Republican governor Ron DeSantis have largely undone that expansion of democracy. The NYT reports:

The law, which took effect July 1, requires people with a felony conviction to pay off all costs, fines, fees and any restitution arising from their conviction before they are eligible to register to vote.

As the lawmakers surely knew when they wrote the law, they would be re-disenfranchising a large number of people who just had their rights restored. Only about one in five Floridians with criminal records have fully paid their financial obligations, according to an estimate by an expert in voting and elections at the University of Florida, who analyzed data from 48 of Florida’s 67 counties.

The 4/5ths who re-lose their rights are, of course, the poorest ones. The effect is similar to a poll tax.

The burden of these fines and fees falls heavier on black voters, who are poorer; more likely to be unemployed; and more likely to be arrested, charged and convicted. Before voters approved Amendment 4, one in five black Floridians of voting age were barred from voting because of a criminal conviction — twice the rate of whites.

... Florida Republicans, like their counterparts in other states and in Washington, D.C., are becoming increasingly comfortable with the perks of minority rule, like the ability to disregard what the majority of voters demand. They appear to know that when you can’t win on your ideas, you win by undermining democracy.

This is not just minority rule, but minority rule tipped towards whites. By passing laws like these, Republicans become the party of white supremacy in a very literal sense.

Here we see the kinds of young people who form "Team Mitch", having their picture taken groping and choking a cardboard cut-out of Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at the annual "Fancy Farm" political picnic in Kentucky. (The original caption: "Break me off a piece of that.") McConnell denies they are campaign staff, but they seem to be volunteers; a different photo with many of the same young men appears on the official Team Mitch Instagram account. In that photo they're holding giant headshots of Brett Kavanaugh, who I imagine was much the same at that age.

Kashmir is a Muslim-majority region that India regards as belonging to it, but Pakistan also claims parts of. It is remote and mountainous, and has mainly symbolic value to the two rival countries.

For decades India has tried to minimize tensions by allowing Kashmir a large amount of autonomy. But the Hindu nationalist government of Narendra Modi has changed that policy, making Kashmir a federal territory more directly under national rule. Kashmiris don't like this change, but it's unclear exactly how they'll resist it.

Salman Rushdie's family is Kashmiri, though he was born in Mumbai. His novel Shalimar the Clown centers on Kashmir, and how external rivalries corrupt an idyllic land.

and let's close with some perfect timing

The Moon decides to take a break by resting in a radio telescope dish.