Monday, May 7, 2018

Not All Appearances Are Deceiving

No Sift the next two weeks. New articles will appear May 28.
The bottom line — which will remain true no matter how much the Kochs spend trying to convince you otherwise — is that what looks like a big giveaway to wealthy investors is, in fact, a big giveaway to wealthy investors.
- Paul Krugman "Apple and the Fruits of Tax Cuts" (5-3-2018)
This week's featured post is "Speaking in Code: two phrases that no longer mean what they used to".

This week everybody was talking about lies

From the beginning I have resisted paying too much attention to the Stormy Daniels story -- or publishing pictures of her in low-cut tops -- because to the extent that it's about sex I just don't care. People who cared about Bill Clinton's affairs should have to explain why they don't care about Trump's. But I don't care about either one.

Increasingly, though, the Stormy story has come to exemplify other disturbing features of Trump and his administration: financial corner-cutting, and an approach towards lying that doesn't even seek deceive so much as destroy the idea of a knowable truth.

This week, Rudy Giulani began giving interviews in his role as Trump's new lawyer. He soon offered a new story of Trump's role in the $130K hush money Daniels was given by Michael Cohen, and then a new story after that, only to have Trump say that Giuliani didn't have his facts straight. By Sunday's interview with ABC's George Stephanopoulos, Giuliani was treating the simplest questions as deep philosophical mysteries. When did Trump know about the payment? Apparently the question is unfathomable.
It could have been recently, it could have been awhile back. Those are the facts that we’re still working on and that, you know, may be in a little bit of dispute. This is more rumor than anything else.
Remember: Giuliani is not a reporter dealing with a hostile source; he's a lawyer representing a client.
In general, it's getting harder and harder to get a straight story from anybody in the administration about much of anything. Vox compiled a timeline of the different things we've been told about the Daniels payoff: It didn't happen (January 12); Cohen paid it using his own money (February 13); Trump knew nothing about it (April 5); Cohen was representing Trump when he made the payment (April 26); Trump repaid Cohen (May 2). Since then we've heard that Trump repaid Cohen, but by paying a $35K monthly retainer without knowing what it was for. Or maybe he did know.
The latest version suggests that Cohen might have been running a deniable slush fund for the Trump campaign.

What never seems to happen, though, is that a person with knowledge walks us through the story from beginning to end, and takes responsibility for that story hanging together for the long haul.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders defended previously telling the press corps that Trump didn't know about the payment by saying "We’re giving you the best information that we’re going to have. Obviously the press team’s not going to be as read-in, maybe, as some other elements, at a given moment, on a variety of topics. But we relay the best and most accurate information that we have." Translation: Trump lied to her too.

My growing impression is that in TrumpWorld the concepts of truth and lie are meaningless. We are all told whatever will best placate us at the moment, by people who may not know any more than we do. If at some future moment we become agitated again, we'll be told something else.


Parkland survivor Cameron Kasky compared what Trump told the NRA Friday to what he told the Parkland families soon after the shooting.
If he's in front of families, he might say something in support of common sense gun reform. But then when he's at the NRA, he'll say something to get a big cheer.
Vox' Dara Lind recalls numerous moments when the press reported that Trump was considering some action -- changing his legal team, firing Rex Tillerson, firing H. R. McMaster -- Trump vociferously denounced the report as fake news, and then shortly thereafter he did the thing he had denied considering.
With their actions, Trump and his White House have forfeited the right to have any influence on which stories about the president should or should not be believed. If they have no scruples about when and about what to lie, the only responsible alternative is to assume, always, that their statements have no relationship whatsoever to the truth.

Then we get to the strange story of Trump's former doctor, Harold Bornstein, the one who signed a letter claiming that "If elected, Mr Trump, I can state unequivocally, will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency."

He now tells us that Trump dictated that letter himself, and that Bornstein just signed it.

A few weeks after the inauguration, Bornstein claims, Trump sent a lawyer and his bodyguard to his office to take Trump's medical records by force, in what he characterized as a "raid" and Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders called "standard operating procedure". The BBC quotes Dr. Arthur Caplan, a professor of bio-ethics at NYU:
In the US, medical records are joint property. They do belong to the patient who can have a copy, but the doctor keeps one too because if an issue comes up about malpractice, they have to have the record. You can't just come in and take away everything.
The big question we're left with is: Do we actually know anything trustworthy about Trump's health? The report from his White House doctor, Ronny Jackson, also included an unprofessional level of flattery. ("He has incredibly good genes. ... If he had a healthier diet over the last 20 years he might live to be 200".) Jackson was then rewarded with a cabinet nomination, though he later had to withdraw.

and impeachment

Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, wrote an op-ed in the NYT Friday urging Democrats not to "take the bait" on impeachment. He points out that impeachment is both a legal and a political process, and requires both a legal and a political justification:
while that political standard cannot be easily or uniformly defined, I think in the present context it means the following: Was the president’s conduct so incompatible with the office he holds that Democratic and Republican members of Congress can make the case to their constituents that they were obligated to remove him? ... This is a very high bar, and it should be.
If I were a Democrat running for Congress, I'd be talking about checks and balances rather than speculating about impeachment. The problem with the Republican Congress is that it doesn't want to know what Trump did or is doing. It tolerates Trump's blatant attempts to influence the Justice Department. It winks and nods at the various ways Trump is making money off the presidency. The House Intelligence Committee's investigation -- now concluded -- was more interested in harassing whistleblowers and intimidating investigators than in finding out whether anyone in the Trump campaign committed treason, or if Putin has some illicit hold on Trump himself.

At the same time, the evidence publicly available at this moment is more smoke than fire. It raises questions but does not by itself constitute proof of high crimes and misdemeanors, the constitutional standard for impeachment. The Mueller investigation may or may not have such evidence; that remains to be seen. But any Democrat who says, "Vote for me and I'll vote to impeach Trump" is going too far.

With regard to Trump, my recommended message would be: "Trump is not trustworthy, so we need a Democratic Congress to keep an eye on him and to make sure he fulfills his constitutional responsibility to faithfully execute the laws. We'll insist that he produce his tax returns, as every other recent president has. We'll investigate whether he's violating the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution. We'll protect the Mueller investigation from improper interference until it can produce a full report."

"Will that lead to impeachment? That will depend on facts we don't know yet. But if you ever want to know the facts, you have to elect a Democratic Congress, because Republicans have proved already that they are more loyal to Trump than they are to America. A Republican Congress will continue to cover for him and make excuses for him, rather than be the kind of watchdog the Founders intended Congress to be."

and the role of parties in primaries

At the end of April, The Intercept published an article about the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the official Democratic group responsible for winning House elections. It is chaired by Minority Leader Steny Hoyer, who ranks just behind Nancy Pelosi among House Democrats.
The article centers on a tape of Hoyer trying to convince a progressive candidate to drop out of the race, clearing the primary for a moderate Democrat that Hoyer believes has a better chance to win the general election.

The article itself has a tone that suggests there is something illegitimate about this kind of pre-primary interference, that the national party ought to stay neutral and let the local voters decide for themselves. Some of the social media discussion this article provoked made that case more explicitly: The national party shouldn't be trying to "rig the primaries" by helping one candidate over another.

The contrary viewpoint was expressed by author Elaine Kamarck in Thursday's NYT. In her view, national parties in America are far less controlling than those in other democratic countries, and are already virtually abdicating their responsibility.
This is not to say that there is no role for primaries. But the pendulum between the party’s leaders choosing its candidates and primary voters choosing them has swung so far in the direction of the voters that even the smallest, most modest efforts to intervene in nomination races are deemed illegitimate.
Personally, I have trouble getting excited about this issue for a simple reason: If Steny Hoyer and a little money can stop you, then you're the revolutionary grass-roots candidate you claim to be. Look at what has happened on the Republican side: Trump-style populists like Roy Moore have repeatedly routed the more mainstream candidates Mitch McConnell tries to pre-select, to the point that it's not clear whether Mitch's endorsement helps more than it hurts.

Speaking of primaries and parties, Republicans are facing some strange dynamics.

Tomorrow is the West Virginia primary, where establishment Republicans are increasingly worried that coal baron Don Blankenship will win the Republican nomination for the Senate.

Blankenship's corner-cutting on safety regulations was the primary cause of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster, which killed 29 people in 2010. Blankenship escaped conviction on the biggest charges against him and spent a mere one year in prison, so he's ready for the Senate.

The Onion has it about right:
I’m Don Blankenship, and I’m proud to say that my vision and leadership created countless new job opportunities in the fields of search and rescue, emergency surgery, funeral services, and many more. From trauma specialists and morticians all the way down to the manufacturers of vigil candles, gravestones, and sympathy cards, I’m committed to putting West Virginians to work. I’ve even created 29 new coal mining jobs. Can Mitch McConnell say the same?
In California, Diane Feinstein may end up running against an explicit anti-Semite.
Aghast at the possibility of being represented by a Senate candidate whose platform calls for “limiting representation of Jews in the government” and making it U.S. policy that the Holocaust “is a Jewish war atrocity propaganda hoax that never happened,” California Republican leaders were quick to denounce Little.
“Mr. Little has never been an active member of our party. I do not know Mr. Little and I am not familiar with his positions,” Matt Fleming, a California Republican Party spokesman, said in a statement. “But in the strongest terms possible, we condemn anti-Semitism and any other form of religious bigotry, just as we do with racism, sexism or anything else that can be construed as a hateful point of view.”
Should they be rigging the primary like that?

but you should read this hard-to-pigeonhole article

"The Spy Who Came Home" in The New Yorker. Patrick Skinner was a CIA operative in Afghanistan and Iraq. Then he came home to be a beat cop in Savannah.
“We write these strategic white papers, saying things like ‘Get the local Sunni population on our side,’ ” Skinner said. “Cool. Got it. But, then, if I say, ‘Get the people who live at Thirty-eighth and Bulloch on our side,’ you realize, man, that’s fucking hard—and it’s just a city block. It sounds so stupid when you apply the rhetoric over here. Who’s the leader of the white community in Live Oak neighborhood? Or the poor community?” Skinner shook his head. “ ‘Leader of the Iraqi community.’ What the fuck does that mean?”
“We have to stop treating people like we’re in Fallujah,” he told me. “It doesn’t work. Just look what happened in Fallujah.”

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The videos coming out of Hawaii are amazing.

The deadline for re-affirming the Iran nuclear deal is Saturday. In the Boston Globe, Harvard Kennedy School professor Matthew Bunn offers suggestions for building new agreements on top of the existing one, but presents this warning about simply walking away from the existing agreement.
if Trump walks out of the deal on May 12, the United States will be isolated. Few others will join the US sanctions, diluting the pressure that could be brought to bear on Iran. And in Iran’s internal debates, the advocates for engagement with the West would be discredited, probably making any new or better deal impossible for years to come. Iran would be freed from the deal’s nuclear limits and could begin building up its capability to produce nuclear bomb material. That could leave Trump with few choices between accepting an Iran on the edge of nuclear weapons or launching yet another war in the Middle East.

The NYT warns that verifying compliance of any North Korean nuclear deal will be even harder than verifying the Iran deal.

The nomination of Gina Haspel to be CIA director will reach the Senate floor soon. The nomination is controversial because of the still-not-fully-explained role she played in torturing detainees and/or covering up that torture. Here's how Trump is framing that:
My highly respected nominee for CIA Director, Gina Haspel, has come under fire because she was too tough on Terrorists. Think of that, in these very dangerous times, we have the most qualified person, a woman, who Democrats want OUT because she is too tough on terror.
Think about that: She's under fire because of suspicion that she broke the law against torture, putting the US in violation of the Convention Against Torture that President Reagan signed and the Senate ratified. But in Trump's book, breaking the law is fine if you break it over the heads of the right people.

The Krugman quote at the top concerns Apple's announcement that it will buy back $100 billion of its own stock. This will benefit Apple's shareholders, but do virtually nothing to create jobs or grow the US economy.

This is turning out to be typical of how corporations are spending the windfall they got from the Trump tax cut. The political hype was that companies with big offshore profits would now bring that money back to the US to build new factories, hire more workers, and pay them higher wages. Several companies made happy headlines by announcing $1000 worker bonuses immediately after the tax bill passed. But such actions represent only a tiny fraction of the corporate tax-cut windfall.

Unemployment went below 4% last month, a number not seen since the end of the Clinton administration. Basically, the unimpressive but steady job growth that started under Obama has continued under Trump. Unemployment peaked at over 10% in October, 2009, and has been headed down since then. Looking at the Fed's graph, it's hard to spot the Obama/Trump changeover.

Iowa just passed a law banning abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be detected. That threshold is usually crossed at around 6 weeks, when many women do not even realize they are pregnant. So for most practical purposes abortion will have been banned in Iowa when the law takes effect on July 1.
Abortion-rights groups will ask courts to block the bill, but that seems to be the point: generating a legal case that will give the Supreme Court an opportunity to reverse Roe v Wade.

Liberals are often urged not to poke the bear with proposals that are unlikely to become law, but will validate conservative fears: sweeping gun bans, for example. For some reason, conservatives don't operate under the same restrictions.

The NYT's conservative columnist Bret Stephens makes the case for the US continuing as the world policeman.
The world learned on Sept. 1, 1939, where the mentality of every-country-for-itself leads. Our willful and politically wounded president is leading us there again. A warning to countries that have relied too long and lazily on the promises of Pax Americana: The policeman has checked out. You’re on your own again.

One standard feature of conservative health-care plans (at least for the conservatives who even bother to have a plan any more) is high-deductible insurance. The idea is that Americans will be less wasteful with their use of the healthcare system if they have what Paul Ryan calls "skin in the game".
High deductibles do decrease Americans' use of healthcare. However, sometimes the result is that people who need care forego it.
Women who had just learned they had breast cancer were more likely to delay getting care if their deductibles were high, the study showed. A review of several years of medical claims exposed a pattern: Women confronting such immediate expenses put off getting diagnostic imaging and biopsies, postponing treatment.
And they delayed beginning chemotherapy by an average of seven months, said Dr. J. Frank Wharam, a Harvard researcher and one of the authors of the study, published earlier this year in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.
The NYT article gives anecdotes of patients facing financial choices, but doesn't say whether the study documented the effect of income. I have to suspect that the delayed or neglected care centered mainly on poorer households.
While high-deductible plans are meant to encourage people to think twice about whether a test or treatment is necessary and if it can be done at a lower price, “it’s also frankly to impede their use of these services,” said Dr. Peter Bach, the director of the Center for Health Policy and Outcomes at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

Shortly after he took office, Trump issued a drain-the-swamp executive order that was supposed to prevent people who leave the administration from going straight into lobbying. ProPublica studied how well that is working. It looks like there are ways around the order, but that it's not totally useless either. Somebody who took Trump at his word will likely be disappointed, but since I thought the executive order was complete BS, I'm surprised in a mildly pleasant way.

Jared Kushner is still fixing errors in his financial disclosure forms.

and let's close with a song parody

No, not one of mine this time. It's "Confounds the Science" to the tune of "Sounds of Silence".

Monday, April 30, 2018

Transforming Common Sense

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

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

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

-- David Graeber (2014)

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

This week everybody was talking about Korea

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

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

Anna Fifield writes in The Washington Post:

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

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

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

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

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

and Trump administration scandals

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And this exchange about CNN is either priceless or symptomatic:

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and Macron's visit

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


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

and the new memorial to victims of lynching

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

and let's close with another road trip

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

Monday, April 23, 2018

A Year Over the Limit

Go home, 2018. You're drunk.

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

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

This week everybody was talking about North Korea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and kids protesting against guns

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

and Barbara Bush

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

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

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

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

and James Comey

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

and Michael Cohen

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

and whether Trump will fire either Mueller or Rosenstein

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

and corruption

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

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

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

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

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

and you also might be interested in ...

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


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


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

https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=955&v=mcLoBdkqxos


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

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

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


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

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

This kind of talk never ends well.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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


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

and let's close with something amazing

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

Monday, April 16, 2018

To Investigate or Not?

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

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

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

This week everybody was talking about Syria

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

and Paul Ryan

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

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

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

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

and Michael Cohen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

but I took a closer look at my taxes

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


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

and you also might be interested in ...

James Comey's book appears in stores tomorrow.


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

"Drain the swamp," he says.

and let's close with something fascinating

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