Monday, January 28, 2019

Crisis and Spectacle

Rather than governing, the leader produces crisis and spectacle.

- Timothy Snyder The Road to Unfreedom

This week's featured posts are "The End of the Shutdown" and "Extortion Tactics Have No Place in American Democracy".

This week everybody was talking about the end of the shutdown

The featured posts look at the shutdown from two perspectives: One is news-oriented; it summarizes the events and looks ahead to the possibilities. The other takes a more long-term view: If extortionist tactics are considered legitimate, eventually democracy will unravel. Someday a leader will point to the chaos of a shut-down government and blame not the other party, but democracy itself. He'll offer to make it all go away, and people will listen.

It's minor in the long run, but Nancy Pelosi won her staredown with Trump regarding the State of the Union. I like the way Amanda Marcotte summed it up:

Typical. A woman offers a soft no. The man pretends not to understand her and presses his case. And she is forced to resort to a forceful no.

and Roger Stone's indictment

The indictment itself is here, and a good summary of what it means is at Lawfare. The essence of the 7-count indictment doesn't concern what Stone did, but how he lied about what he did, both to Congress and to investigators. Also, he tried to influence other witnesses, including telling one to "do a Frank Pentangeli". (Pentangeli is a character in The Godfather II who claims not to remember anything when it comes time to testify before Congress.)

Trump defenders are once again claiming that an indictment for anything other than conspiracy with the Russians shows that Mueller doesn't have evidence of conspiracy with the Russians. But that doesn't follow logically, and they still have no answer to the question: Why did so many of Trump's people feel that they had to lie about their Russian contacts, even in situations where lying was illegal?

but I'm fascinated to see what's making it into the public discussion

Maybe I'll write about this more next week. (There was already so much to cover this week.) But I'm being amazed at the ideas that are being talked about lately.

Last Monday, the head of the flight attendants union called for a general strike to end the government shutdown. The general strike -- when workers of all kinds stop working, rather than just workers at a particular place or in a particular industry -- is a tactic seldom mentioned these days. But it makes a certain amount of sense as a response to a government shutdown. That speech (as best I can tell) didn't make the NYT or the WaPo, but Atlantic mentioned it. Teen Vogue gave its readers a primer on the whole idea of a general strike.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has brought a lot of attention to the idea of a much higher top income-tax bracket. She's been talking about 70% on incomes over $10 million. The idea makes sense and is popular. It's so hard to argue against that Republicans like Scott Walker have had to misrepresent her plan.

And this week, Elizabeth Warren came out with an "ultra-millionaire" tax that is on wealth rather than income. Net worth higher than $50 million would be taxed at 2%, and over a billion at 3%.

Not so long ago, all these ideas would have been dismissed and ignored by the mainstream media.

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The US and the Taliban have announced agreement on a framework for peace in Afghanistan. The pieces are that the Taliban will not allow its territory to be used as a staging ground for terrorists, the US will withdraw its troops, and the Taliban will begin negotiating directly with the Afghan government amid a general ceasefire.

A framework is a long way from actual peace, as we have seen with North Korea. But this is hopeful.

Slate's Mark Joseph Stern foresees a consequence of Brett Kavanaugh replacing Anthony Kennedy on the Supreme Court (and indirectly of Neil Gorsuch taking the seat that should have gone to Merrick Garland): Concealed carry of firearms may soon be legal everywhere.

The immediate case before the Court simply asks that the right to a handgun in the home be extended to a right to transport a firearm between homes. But a national right to concealed carry or even open carry may be the ultimate result. Once you have a constitutional right to possess a gun outside of your home, it's hard to come up with any obvious boundary.

Russell Baker died at the age of 93. People under, say, 40 may not remember him (except possibly as a host of Masterpiece Theatre), but he was a long-time New York Times columnist who won two Pulitzers, one for his columns and one for the story of his Depression-era childhood, Growing Up.

I haven't read Growing Up since shortly after it came out in 1983, but I imagine it would hold up well. In the introduction Baker explains why he wrote it: His mother had just died, and as she faded to the point where she couldn't converse any more, he thought about all the questions he would still like to ask. Then he thought about his own children, and how they probably wouldn't be curious about his life until it was too late to ask him about it. He wrote Growing Up in anticipation of their future curiosity. The book is full of memorable characters, including Uncle Harold, whose engaging stories of family history were often interrupted by his wife yelling from another room: "Harold, quit telling those lies!"

Various fixes to Theresa May's Brexit plan are going to be voted on in Parliament tomorrow. It's still very unclear what will happen.

and let's close with something unusual

We all know that fish form schools, but who teaches them? Manatees.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Proper Outlets

The fight over whether Trump should be removed from office is already raging, and distorting everything it touches. Activists are radicalizing in opposition to a president they regard as dangerous. Within the government, unelected bureaucrats who believe the president is acting unlawfully are disregarding his orders, or working to subvert his agenda. By denying the debate its proper outlet, Congress has succeeded only in intensifying its pressures.

- Yoni Appelbaum "Impeach Donald Trump" The Atlantic, March , 2019

This week's featured post is "The Scoop That Wasn't".

This week everybody was talking about impeachment

For about 24 hours, it looked like we were headed there sooner rather than later. BuzzFeed apparently had a scoop that showed Trump to be guilty of the same sort of crime that brought down Nixon. Then the Special Counsel's Office released a cryptic statement casting doubt on that article. The featured post examines where that leaves us.

Meanwhile, Rudy Giuliani moved the goal posts again:

I never said there was no collusion between the campaign, or between people in the campaign. I have no idea. I said "the President of the United States". There is not a single bit of evidence the president of the United States committed the only crime you can commit here, conspired with the Russians to hack the DNC.

So the denial is down to this: The President himself wasn't personally involved in hacking the DNC. They used to claim that the whole Mueller investigation was a witch hunt. Now they're just denying that Trump was responsible for one particular act of witchcraft.

and Brexit

The March 29 deadline for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union keeps getting closer, but Parliament is no closer to approving a plan for what happens then. If March 29 arrives without any action from Parliament, the UK faces what is called a "hard Brexit": The European Union views it as a foreign country with hardly any special privileges. For example, thousands of flights between British and European airports might have to be cancelled. UK citizens could only come into the EU if they had at least six months left on their passports.

Prime Minister May's plan for Brexit got crushed in Parliament, 432-202, with opposition both from pro-EU MPs and from those who don't think her planned break with the EU is sharp enough. She's expected to present her Plan B today, but moves in either direction may lose as many votes as they gain.

The EU's highest court has ruled that the UK can unilaterally cancel Brexit and stay in the EU on the same terms as before. But it's not clear that plan could pass Parliament either.

Lesson for the future: Never hold a referendum where the choices are (1) something as specific as staying in the EU under the current agreement, and (2) a vague "do something else". A more rational process would have been to authorize the PM to negotiate a leave-the-EU agreement, without making any commitment to go through with that plan until it went up for a referendum against staying in the EU under the current agreement. Two choices, equally specific.

and the shutdown

Four weeks into the shutdown, Trump made his first offer to Democrats. (Up until then, he'd issued nothing but demands.) The offer isn't much: In exchange for $5.7 billion for his Wall,

  • participants in the DACA and Temporary Protected Status programs get three more years of protection from deportation. These deportations are already on hold until court cases play out, so it's not clear how much of an improvement three years is over whatever will happen anyway.
  • an additional $800 million would go to humanitarian services at the border.
  • Trump would allow Central American minors to apply for asylum without leaving their home countries, at the cost of making them easier to deport if they come here.

These are all examples of Trump partially undoing damage he has caused since taking office. Trump is the one who announced the end of DACA and removed hundreds of thousands of refugees from TPS. His family-separation and zero-tolerance policies created the humanitarian crisis on the border. And Central American minors only lost the ability to apply for asylum from home when Trump cancelled an Obama program.

So basically, he's just offering to sell back a bunch of hostages he has taken, with the option to take them again if he gets re-elected. A real concession would be something that moved the ball from where it was when he took office, like offering DACA recipients some kind of permanent legal status. (I am undecided about whether such a concession would be enough to make a deal. But at least it would be a concession.)

Meanwhile, Democrats are making their own offer: more money to do border security right, rather than build a giant monument to xenophobia and racism. The next open-the-government bill in the House will include more money for ports-of-entry (where illegal drugs really come in), and to hire more immigration judges (to drive the case backlog down). Offering asylum to those in danger in their home countries, after all, is a treaty commitment backed by our own laws (laws which the President is sworn to faithfully uphold). If the length of the processing backlog is creating problems, let's address that directly.

The basic problem is that Trump is living in his own reality. He thinks keeping the government closed gives him leverage, and that he should be able to extort some real price to open it again. Democrats, meanwhile, see Trump's poll numbers falling and don't understand why they should pay to make that stop.

Trump has complained that he'll "look foolish" if he ends the shutdown without getting anything for it. But he WAS foolish. He can't expect Democrats to cover that up for him.

The humanitarian crisis at the border didn't just happen, it was planned. NBC News reports:

Trump administration officials weighed speeding up the deportation of migrant children by denying them their legal right to asylum hearings after separating them from their parents, according to comments on a late 2017 draft of what became the administration's family separation policy obtained by NBC News.

The draft also shows officials wanted to specifically target parents in migrant families for increased prosecutions, contradicting the administration's previous statements. In June, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said the administration did "not have a policy of separating families at the border" but was simply enforcing existing law.

Senator Jeff Merkley wants to investigate Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen for lying to Congress when she declared "we've never had a policy for family separation".

I think Nancy Pelosi's suggestion that Trump delay the State of the Union (which is traditionally delivered in the House chamber) was brilliant. Trump is unmoved by the strains on the country that his shutdown is producing, but if he has to forgo his biggest TV extravaganza of the year, that hits him where he lives.

and more people running for president

Kamala Harrisand Kirsten Gillibrand are in. Along with Tulsi Gabbard and Elizabeth Warren, that makes more women candidates than any party has ever fielded. It will be interesting to see what difference that makes in the process.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton and Carly Fiorina were each "the woman" in their party's race. In some symbolic sense, they were women entering a men's club, so how the men would treat them was up in the air. When Trump made sexist comments about Fiorina's looks, for example, no other women were in a position to call him on it. But when the numbers are more equal, men may not get away with the same behavior.

It will also be harder to use sexist stereotypes while implying that they refer to something specific about a particular candidate. If there's just one woman in a race, maybe she really does dress funny or have a screechy voice or disappoint in some other way that coincidentally matches a stereotype. But if all the women are counted out for reasons like that, it'll be pretty clear what's going on.

but we should be talking about Martin Luther King this weekend

MLK Day should be more than an excuse for a three-day weekend. We should do our best each year to remember King as he was, resisting the temptation to whitewash his message into some vague "color blindness", and refusing to let his name be co-opted by people working against the principles he championed.

and the incident on the Capitol Mall

First there was a viral video showing MAGA-hatted teen punks harassing a Native American elder on the Capitol Mall. They apparently came from Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky, and had come to the Mall for a pro-life rally. Here's one observer's account:

The group outnumbered us and enclosed our small group, chanting ‘build the wall’ and other trumpisms. The group was clearly looking for ANY opportunity to get violent and they consistently infringed upon our space, inching closer and closer, bumping into us and daring us to get physical. They surrounded us, screaming, cajoling, and mocking the elder singer with intentionally disrespectful dancing and attempting to chant/sing louder than him.

Then a much longer video became available, and conservative media started claiming it vindicated the Covington kids. It's an easy claim to make, because who's going to watch two hours of video to check you?

I haven't. But here's the impression I'm getting from people who have. A handful of Black Hebrew Israelites, the kind of street preachers who like to bait passers-by into debates, started baiting the Covington Catholic kids "using aggressive, provocative and sometimes offensive language to engage, as they usually do."

The kids could have walked away, which is what most people do when street preachers try to engage them. But instead they responded with their own hostility. This is where the Native American elder, Nathan Phillips, entered the scene. He was on the Capitol Mall for an indigenous people's rally, and thought the Covington kids were about to get violent against he Black Hebrew Israelites, who they greatly outnumbered. So he walked into the space between the two groups, trying to drum and sing them apart.

Phillips then tried to get to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, so he could do his song from the top, but the kids blocked his way. That's where the viral video starts.

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Of all the ways that Trump has profited off his presidency, the most obviously illegal has been the Trump International Hotel in Washington DC. The hotel is housed in the Old Post Office, which is owned by the federal government and managed by the General Services Administration. The Trump Organization's lease with the government says

No member or delegate to Congress, or elected official of the Government of the United States or the Government of the District of Columbia, shall be admitted to any share or part of this Lease, or to any benefit that may arise therefrom

Also, the Hotel does business with foreign governments (even moreso now that dealing with the Hotel is a way of bribing the President), which raises the issue of the Constitution's emoluments clause.

No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.

Those both seem pretty clear, but in March, 2017 the GSA ruled that its new boss could continue to benefit from the lease, without regard to the emoluments issue. This is literally the definition of self-dealing: As head of the government, Trump was overseeing the lease that he was holding as a private businessman.

This week the GSA inspector general issued a report on this decision. The IG doesn't get into a legal analysis of either issue, but makes it clear that GSA didn't even consider the constitutional issue. (The word "punted" comes up.)

the decision to exclude the emoluments issues from GSA’s consideration of the lease was improper because GSA, like all government agencies, has an obligation to uphold and enforce the Constitution

The report ends by making recommendations about future leases. Apparently the IG expects the current issues to play out in the courts.

A clear example of why the Trump International Hotel shouldn't be owned by the President came up Wednesday. T-Mobile had a big merger deal brewing with Sprint, and it needed approval from the administration. So what did it do? It had its executives repeatedly stay at the Trump International.

These visits highlight a stark reality in Washington, unprecedented in modern American history. Trump the president works at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Trump the businessman owns a hotel at 1100 Pennsylvania.

Countries, interest groups and companies such as T-Mobile — whose future will be shaped by the administration’s choices — are free to stop at both, and to pay the president’s company while also meeting with officials in his government. Such visits raise questions about whether patronizing Trump’s private business is viewed as a way to influence public policy, critics said.

Vicious cycle: climate change plays a key role in a wave of destructive fires in California. Responsibility for the fires sends Pacific Gas & Electric into bankruptcy. In bankruptcy, it can renegotiate the terms of contracts it signed with providers of renewable energy, possibly sending them into bankruptcy, and making climate change worse.

Republicans in Congress have just noticed that Rep. Steve King from Iowa is a racist. I wonder how long it will take them to figure out that Trump shares the same viewsTrevor Noah makes fun of just how apparent King's racism has been for many years.

I can't believe we're all talking about a Gillette ad. This one.

First off, I can't see what there is here for anybody to get upset about. Whoopi Goldberg on The View summed up the message as "Don't be a jerk", which is pretty much the way I saw it.

And second, I'm never going to be a Gillette fan anyway, for reasons I outlined in a 2012 article "What Shaving Taught Me About Capitalism". For generations, Gillette has used its advertising moxie and market power to drive up the cost of shaving. I think if a young man learns how to use either an old-fashioned double-edged safety razor or an even more old-fashioned straight razor, within a week or two he won't be cutting himself any more, and he'll save many thousands of dollars over his lifetime. Or he could skip the whole thing and grow a beard as soon as he could.

So I think it's ridiculous to boycott Gillette over a commercial that tells you not to be a jerk. But I couldn't boycott the company if I wanted to, because I stopped buying their products a long time ago.

and let's close with something

If, like me, you're in the deep freeze this week, look at how much fun winter is in Russia.

Monday, January 14, 2019

With Whom the Buck Stops

The buck stops here.

-- sign on President Truman's desk

The buck stops with everybody.

Donald J. Trump

This week's featured post is "My Wife's Expensive Cancer Drug". Because in America, medical stories are never just about medicine. They're also about money.

This week everybody was talking about the same stuff as last week

Namely: the partial government shutdown and the Wall that is the central bone of contention.

It's important not to lose the context of this battle:

  • In February, Trump's original budget asked for "$1.6 billion to support the construction of 65 miles of new border wall system."
  • On December 19, the Senate passed a continuing resolution with $1.6 billion for border security, but stipulated that it not be used to build walls in places that did not already have them. This was a bipartisan compromise that went through by voice vote, and Senate Republicans believed Trump would sign it.
  • Trump then demanded an additional $5.6 billion for the Wall, offered Democrats essentially nothing in exchange, and the government shut down on December 22.

The situation hasn't really changed in the 3+ weeks since. Trump's "negotiating" has amounted to repeating the same demands and lying to the public about the consequences of having or not having a southern border wall. (Not only are the problems Trump points to vastly overblown, but a wall would do very little to solve them.) Meanwhile, he torpedoes any effort by Republicans in Congress to come up with an offer the Democrats might consider.

The Democrats' position hasn't changed either: Most of the departments that have been shut down have nothing to do with border security or the Wall, so why not just re-open them? (If you're a soybean farmer in North Dakota waiting for a subsidy check to make up for the Chinese exports you lost in Trump's trade war, the Wall has nothing to do with you. So what sense does it make to leave the Department of Agriculture closed?) On the substance of the issue, Democrats believe the Wall is a sillywaste of money, not to mention being an environmental disaster and a symbolic declaration that brown people aren't welcome here.

The latest way Trump is upping the tension is by threatening to declare a national emergency and repurpose funds that Congress has already approved for dealing with real emergencies, like hurricane recovery in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico. Friday, he backed off a little, saying he wouldn't do that "so fast". To which MSNBC's Ari Melber tweeted:

If you can delay it, schedule it, or decide later whether or not it exists ... it’s probably not an emergency.

I said last weekthat I thought using an emergency declaration to circumvent Congress' constitutional powers would be an impeachable offense. Frank Bowman discusses that possibility on Slate. It's complicated.

Usually, the emergency declaration is presented as a way that Trump can allow the government to re-open without seeming to have "lost". (The conflict would then move to the courts, where Trump would probably lose.) But Friday White House officials were floating the idea that Trump might declare an emergency to build the wall and then keep the government closed.

Trump’s allies say the president is reluctant to hand Democrats a “win” by reopening the government after he’s invoked emergency powers. They claim that in such a scenario, Trump’s political opponents would avoid making a single concession and potentially score a major victory if the administration were to lose in federal courts as many legal experts predict.

“He could say, ‘Look, I’m going to get what I want and then I’m still going to screw you,’” a former White House official told POLITICO. “It’s making Democrats feel pain instead of declaring a national emergency, opening the government up, and making it so they don’t have to give anything,” the former official added.

Because it's never about what's best for the country. It's about winning and making your enemies feel pain.

Everybody's wondering how this ends, and the only possibility I can see is that Trump's support in the Senate crumbles. I can't guess how long it will take for that to happen.

An important side issue is why and how the major networks covered Trump's Oval Office speech on Wednesday. Nothing in Trump's speech constituted news, and much of it was false. So why did it deserve live coverage? Before the speech, James Fallows laid out the case against. Afterwards he tweeted: "The networks’ decision to air this presentation looks worse after-the-event than it did before."

There is precedent for networks refusing a president's request for airtime: They rejected Obama's request to speak to the nation about immigration in 2014. I find it worthwhile, if a bit depressing, to compare Trump's speech to Obama's. Not so long ago, we had a president we could respect, who talked to us as if he and we were all adults.

Trump claimed Thursday that he had never said Mexico would literally pay for the Wall. "Obviously I never said this and I never meant they're going to write out a check." But in fact he did. CNN has the documentation from his campaign web site. And in an April 2016 interview with Sean Hannity, Hannity challenged whether the Mexico-will-pay claim was literal. “They’re not going write us a check…” Hannity challenged. And Trump replied: “They’ll pay. They’ll pay, in one form or another. They may even write us a check by the time they see what happens. They may.”

The steel-slat design for the Wall is maybe a little less impenetrable than Trump lets on. This hole was made with an industrial saw.

furloughed worker at the National Gallery describes his first week of idleness.

and Trump's collusion with Russia

Friday, the New York Times broke this story:

In the days after President Trump fired James B. Comey as F.B.I. director, law enforcement officials became so concerned by the president’s behavior that they began investigating whether he had been working on behalf of Russia against American interests

Apparently, Robert Mueller inherited that counter-intelligence investigation when he got appointed special counsel.

Yesterday, The Washington Post added this detail:

President Trump has gone to extraordinary lengths to conceal details of his conversations with Russian President Vladi­mir Putin, including on at least one occasion taking possession of the notes of his own interpreter and instructing the linguist not to discuss what had transpired with other administration officials, current and former U.S. officials said.

... As a result, U.S. officials said there is no detailed record, even in classified files, of Trump’s face-to-face interactions with the Russian leader at five locations over the past two years. Such a gap would be unusual in any presidency, let alone one that Russia sought to install through what U.S. intelligence agencies have described as an unprecedented campaign of election interference.

... Senior Democratic lawmakers describe the cloak of secrecy surrounding Trump’s meetings with Putin as unprecedented and disturbing.

I can't think of any innocent explanation for this. Saturday, Fox News' Jeanine Pirro asked Trump whether he is or ever has been working for Russia, he replied "I think it’s the most insulting thing I’ve ever been asked." That, you may note, is not a denial.

Max Boot lists 18 reasons to think that Trump might be a Russian asset.

These revelations follow what we learned Tuesday: That when he was running Trump's campaign, Paul Manafort was sharing the campaign's polling data with Konstantin V. Kilimnik, who is widely believed to be a Russian intelligence agent.

Thursday, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin gave a classified briefing to Congress about his department's decision to relax sanctions against companies owned by Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California called the presentation “one of the worst classified briefings we’ve received from the Trump administration” and accused Mr. Mnuchin of “wasting the time” of Congress. She said Mr. Mnuchin was unresponsive to important questions.

... Representative Brad Sherman, another California Democrat, said he opposed easing the sanctions because it would only increase the wealth of Mr. Deripaska. He said Mr. Mnuchin had no response to that argument except that lawmakers should trust the administration.

and 2020

Juli├ín Castro is running. Tulsi Gabbard is running. Kamala Harris is saying "I might", which sounds a lot like "I will" at this stage.

The media continues to cover Trump's insults as if they were news. Just today, the Washington Post made a headline of Trump's "trash heap" comment on Joe Biden, and of his "Wounded Knee" reference in a tweet about Elizabeth Warren. I can't find any other coverage of Biden or Warren in the WaPo today. Apparently, journalists learned nothing from 2016.

but there are some articles I'm trying to ignore

Here's one typical of the type, from Politico: "Exasperated Democrats try to rein in Ocasio-Cortez". Guess what? Not all Democrats are as liberal with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and the ones who don't agree with her wish she'd get less attention. She got her seat by beating an incumbent Democrat in a primary, and she thinks other progressives should try to do the same thing, particular if (like her) they come from a district that is more liberal than the Democrat representing it. Democrats who aren't as liberal as their districts hope she doesn't support their challengers.

None of that should be surprising, and it's hard for me to see why it's newsworthy. But I think we're going to see a lot of articles like that, for a simple reason: Conflict is easier to cover than governing. Reporters at places like Politico would rather write Democrats-are-fighting-each-other stories than Democrats-are-working-on-legislation stories.

Politico reporters and their ilk are like the village gossip, who gets attention by asking "Did you hear what so-and-so said about you? What do you think about that?" and then taking your response back to so-and-so and doing the same thing. That kind of reporting doesn't require the reporter to learn anything about climate change or immigration or any other substantive issue. The resulting article doesn't have to make government or the legislative process interesting to its readers.

Instead, political reporters get to write about conflict and manipulate their readers' outrage. If you don't like AOC, you read the Politico article and think "Who does she think she is?" If you do, it's "Why can't jealous Democrats do their own jobs and get off her back?" Meanwhile, you've learned nothing about the country's problems or how Democrats in Congress are trying to address them. Later, reporters will talk to the same citizens they have failed to inform, and write about how people don't think Democrats are doing anything.

I think we should ignore them.

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Christians never stop trying to use tax money to promote their religion. In Florida and North Dakota, the legislature is considering bills to force school districts to offer courses on the Bible. In Kentucky, such a bill has already passed, but the curriculum hasn't been implemented yet.

This is yet another example of the hypocrisy in the conservative value of "local control". Why can't communities decide for themselves whether or not to offer such courses?

Constitutionally, the line is pretty clear for people who want to understand it: It's legal to teach about religionin public schools, but illegal to teach religion. The difference is simple. If the teacher says, "Most Christians believe that Jesus rose from the dead", that's OK. If the teacher says "Jesus rose from the dead", that's not OK.

and let's close with something prescient

Life imitates art:

“Trackdown” aired on CBS between 1957 and 1959 and took place in Texas following the Civil War. The series followed Texas Ranger Hoby Gilman, played by Robert Culp, on his adventures protecting the people of the Lone Star State. The 30th episode of the show, titled “The End of The World,” premiered on May 9, 1958, and saw a con man named Walter Trump, played by Lawrence Dobkin, attempt to scam the entire town.

The fictional Trump warned the Texans that apocalyptic meteors would strike the town at midnight, but he could protect everyone. ... His solution was to build a wall made of magical metal that would repel the meteors and keep everyone safe.

The full episode is on YouTube.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Against the Wall

He's changed his demand from time to time and he's changed the amount of money he's asking for dramatically from 2 billion to 5 billion to 11 billion to 25 billion even to 70 billion dollars. And when we asked for specifics, how are you going to spend this money? What are you going to do with it? He basically says we'll shut down the government till you agree on it.

- Senator Dick Durbin

This week's featured post is "Are powerful women likable?"

This week everybody was talking about the new Congress

The Congress that we elected in November took office on Thursday. This Congress isn't just philosophically different from the previous one, it's visually different. Here, the gavel passes from a blue suit to a red dress.

And Mike Pence swears in new Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema.

At her request, she is being sworn on a law book that contains the Constitution, rather than on a religious text. (President John Quincy Adams did the same thing in 1825.) She's the first openly bisexual member of the Senate, and she's exercising her right to bare arms. Meanwhile, Rashida Tlaib, who (along with Ilhan Omar) is the first Muslim women to enter Congress, was sworn in on Thomas Jefferson's Quran, provoking sputtering rage from Christian bigots.

Who can forget this photo of the Republican interns of the last Congress.

There is a woman of color back there somewhere, but finding her is a where's-Waldo exercise. Meanwhile, here's just a part of the class photo for the House's entering freshman members this year. Not interns, members.

The new Congress makes the country's political situation clear at a glance: There is one party that wants to preserve the white Christian patriarchy, and another party for everybody else. The Everybody Else Party just came to power in the House.

In addition to voting to reopen the government, House Democrats introduced HR 1, an anti-corruption bill. Its three planks address campaign finance (including a 6-to-1 government matching for small donations to candidates who agree not to take large donations and a requirement that SuperPACS disclose their donors), government ethics (including requiring presidential candidates to disclose their last ten years of tax returns), and voting rights (opt-out voter registration, election day becomes a holiday, plus anti-gerrymandering, and anti-voter suppression measures).

For contrast, think about just how badly Trump has done with his promise to "drain the swamp": The Secretary of Defense is from Boeing. The Treasury Secretary is from Goldman Sachs. The Attorney General ran a dark-money operation. The Interior Secretary is an oil lobbyist. The Commerce Secretary "could rank among the biggest grifters in American history". The Labor Secretary arranged a sweetheart plea deal to keep a rich child predator out of jail. The HHS Secretary is from Eli Lilly. The HUD Secretary spent lavishly on his office furniture and hasn't done much else. The Education Secretary is a champion of for-profit colleges and has invested in student-debt collection companies. The EPA Director is a coal lobbyist.

BTW, Rashida Tlaib also made headlines by telling a group of Move On supporters that "Bullies don't win" because "we're going to impeach the motherfucker."

Conservatives were apoplectic about this violation of political decorum, to which I reply, "Oh, now you have standards."

But my my policy on this blog is that until Robert Mueller provides clear evidence that Trump had carnal relations with his mother, calling him a motherfucker is premature. I will restrain myself.

and the shutdown and the Wall

On its first day, the House passed bills to fund the government through the end of the fiscal year, except for the Department of Homeland Security, which got a continuing resolution through Feb. 8, with no funding for Trump's Wall. The funding is on the same terms that the Senate passed by acclamation before Christmas, but now Mitch McConnell is refusing to bring it up for a vote.

What this makes clear is that, under McConnell and Trump, the Senate is no longer an independent institution. The Republican majority is under Trump's thumb, so as long as he's not happy, the Senate won't pass anything. McConnell isn't even involved in trying to negotiate a solution.

For his part, Trump continues to lie about the Wall and why Democrats might oppose it. No, it's not because we want open borders and it's not because we want to deny him a "win". It's because the Wall is a stupid idea, as congressmen who have represented border areas know. Democrat Beto O'Rourke tweeted this video. Republican Rep. Will Hurd said, "Building a 30 foot high concrete structure from sea to shining sea is the most expensive and least effective way to do border security." He also described the $5 billion Trump wants for the Wall as "a random number".

A 2000-mile border wall didn't arise in border-security circles, it was just a line that made Trump's crowds cheer. It's still not much more than that, which is why Trump can change the height or material from one tweet to the next. Nobody would ever appropriate billions for "a dam" or "a highway" without any more detail than that, but taxpayers are supposed to pony up $5.6 billion as a downpayment on "a wall" whose future costs are unknowable.

In late December, Chief of Staff John Kelly said:

The president still says ‘wall’ — oftentimes, frankly, he’ll say ‘barrier’ or ‘fencing.’ Now he’s tended toward steel slats. But we left a solid concrete wall early on in the administration when we asked people what they needed and where they needed it.

In other words, they discovered that real border-security people had no use for the make-crowds-cheer idea. Lindsey Graham has described the Wall as "a metaphor for border security". Does that sound like a plan to you? Would you vote to spend billions on a bridge, knowing that it might just be "a metaphor for crossing water"?

BTW, with so few details about how the wall money would be spent, what assurance do we have that a chunk of it won't wind up in Trump's pocket?

Many pundits are predicting that a Wall-for-DACA deal is what will end the shutdown. But Trump turned such a deal last year and isn't offering it now.

Trump doesn't appear to be offering Democrats much of anything, preferring to pile on threats. (Mainly, he's offering to mitigate some of the suffering he has caused at the border, as if partially undoing a negative were a positive.) Recently he's been claiming he can declare a national emergency and build the wall without congressional appropriations. If he tries, that actually would be a national emergency: a tyrannical abuse of power.

Last June, I wrote down my thinking about impeachment, precisely to avoid the temptation to reshape my interpretation of "impeachable offense" to match whatever Trump did or Mueller found. My fourth justification for impeachment was "Congress has no other way to protect itself or the judiciary from presidential encroachment." That would be the case here: If Trump tries to build his wall without Congress, in my mind that would be an impeachable offense.

I still don't see how this shutdown ends, unless Republicans in the Senate start defecting. That could take months, during which people will get evicted from government-subsidized housing, unpaid TSA employees will stop showing up to work, and the IRS will stop issuing tax refunds.

and Mitt Romney

The commentariat got very excited by Mitt Romney's op-ed in Wednesday's Washington Post. Just before entering the Senate, Mitt actually criticized President Trump. He followed up with an interview with CNN's Jake Tapper.

To a great degree, a presidency shapes the public character of the nation. A president should unite us and inspire us to follow “our better angels.” A president should demonstrate the essential qualities of honesty and integrity, and elevate the national discourse with comity and mutual respect. As a nation, we have been blessed with presidents who have called on the greatness of the American spirit. With the nation so divided, resentful and angry, presidential leadership in qualities of character is indispensable. And it is in this province where the incumbent’s shortfall has been most glaring.

Well, good for him, but I'm not too excited yet. It's good to know that all Republican criticism of Trump in the Senate didn't end when Bob Corker and Jeff Flake left. But while they might occasionally speak out, Corker and Flake seldom did much to get in Trump's way. Will Romney? It's not clear.

If the Mueller Report ends up containing as much evidence of impeachable offenses as I suspect it will, most likely Trump will act out somehow and we'll find ourselves in a constitutional crisis. The question then will be whether Republicans in Congress stand up the way that Barry Goldwater stood up to President Nixon in 1974. Does Romney have that in him? History will want to know.

but you should pay attention to ...

In The Atlantic, Elizabeth Goitein examines the various emergency powers Congress has granted the President over the years, and how a president with authoritarian tendencies might take advantage of them. It's a scary list of stuff, and the article ends with a fantasy of how Trump could use emergency powers to hang on to the presidency. Ultimately, the only defense against this kind of action is if key actors up and down the line refuse to cooperate.

and you also might be interested in ...

Climate change can be mapped in a variety of ways. The tropical zone is advancing 30 miles a decade. The boundary between the humid Eastern U.S. and the dry Western U.S. has shifted 140 miles to the east since 1980. Plant hardiness zones in the U.S. are moving north at more than a mile a year.

The Guardian has a worthwhile article on exercise. The basic problem is that humans evolved to have active lives, but in modern society most of us have inactive lives. Sit-all-day-and-then-go-to-the-gym is better than just sitting all day, but it's not a perfect fix either.

In my conversation with [longevity researcher Gianni] Pes, he repeatedly stressed that while diet and environment are important components of longevity, being sedentary is the enemy, and sustained, low-level activity is the key that research by him and others has uncovered: not the intense kinds of activity we tend to associate with exercise, but energy expended throughout the day. The supercentenarians [110-year-olds] he has worked with all walked several miles each day throughout their working lives. They never spent much time, if any, seated at desks.

And it's not just the sitting:

He discovered one group of women who had spent their working lives seated, but nonetheless reached a great age. They had been working treadles (pedal-powered sewing machines), which meant they had regularly burned sufficient calories to derive the longevity benefits of remaining active.

What we really need is to make our daily lives active.

What is needed are the kinds of strategies that would make exercise unnecessary. Urban planning that better addresses the outdoor experience and encourages movement would be a key part of this change. But on an individual level, we can think about returning a little of the friction that technology has so subtly smoothed out for us, and make it easy to get things done. Exercise becomes physical activity when it is part of your daily life.

and let's close with something incongruous

Sadly, video of Claire Foy's performance of "Rapper's Delight" on Jimmy Fallon's show is no longer available. But Sandra Bullock's version from 2013 is still up.