Monday, July 24, 2017

Nobody Begs for Dirty Water

I think it's important to note that the Congress has cut the [Environmental Protection] Agency quite a bit before you got there. Quite a bit recently, in relative terms. And so, speaking only for myself, I would expect to take those cuts into account and echo my colleague's sentiments about you may be the first person to get more than you asked for. Because, quite frankly, as many people have made the point, nobody is standing on the rooftops begging for dirty water, dirty air, dirty soil, and those sorts of things.

- Rep. Mark Amodei (R-Nevada) to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt
hearing of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies
7-15-2017, (at about the 1:42 mark)

This week's featured post is Kipling's "If" adapted for the Trump family: "Fatherly Advice to Eric and Don Jr.". This week's three misunderstandings: the census, the economic impact of environmental regulations, and who killed the coal-mining jobs.

This week everybody was talking about the apparent failure of TrumpCare

The Senate's TrumpCare bill changed several times this week, and all the versions failed to get 50 of the 52 Republican senators to approve moving forward. This issue is never over, because Republicans agree that they have to do something, but they can't agree on what.

I could almost feel sorry for them if they hadn't done this to themselves. They ran on some unspecified "replacement" for ObamaCare that Trump promised would cover everybody better and cheaper. It's now clear that no such plan ever existed, and that Trump has never had two consecutive coherent thoughts about healthcare. So either Republicans do nothing and look ineffective, or they do something that falls way short of the expectations they built up.

Their position was designed for undermining President Clinton, who would bail them out with a veto the same way Obama always did. Trump wasn't supposed to win.


But beyond this particular no-win moment, Republican free-market rhetoric is unsuited to healthcare in a more basic way. Markets don't see people, they see money. So if you can't afford to pay for what you want, your desires are invisible. (The corresponding economic concept is effective demand; wanting something you can't afford isn't effective in a market economy.)

That's why the market will never provide affordable effective healthcare for the poor and lower working class. At best, they'll be left facing the kinds of trade-offs no one should have to make: Do you send the kids to school with clothes they've outgrown over the summer, or do you pay the health insurance premium? A lot of people facing such a dilemma will "choose" to take a chance on staying healthy. If they lose that gamble, the market would let them die.

But that's not the kind of society most Americans want to live in. On most issues, we're willing to let the market allocate goods and services. I'm willing to accept, for example, that my desire for seafront property is ineffective. Richer people can have the ocean views and private jets and varieties of wine that I will never taste. I'm fine with that. But when we're talking about who lives and who dies, money shouldn't be the deciding factor.

The only way to change that situation is to put in government money. Republicans are still struggling with that basic fact, which is why they can't come up with any reasonable plan.


The Senate parliamentarian just made ObamaCare repeal that much harder: Several provisions of the current bill, including the anti-abortion ones, don't fit under the reconciliation rules that avoid filibuster. So they need 60 votes rather than 50, which they're not going to get.

and whether Trump will accept being investigated

Almost every day last week, something new came out that increased the odds of the Constitutional-crisis nightmare scenario: Trump scuttles the Mueller investigation, pardons anybody in his administration who might have done something wrong (including himself), and leaves Congress to either accept this fait accompli or impeach him. I still don't think this is the most probable scenario (though Josh Marshall does), but it's way more likely than I'm comfortable with.

Wednesday, Trump was interviewed in the Oval Office by three New York Times reporters, revealing that he thought it would be a "red line" if Special Counsel Robert Mueller investigated his finances (which Bloomberg was simultaneously revealing that Mueller is doing), and lambasting Attorney General Sessions for doing the ethical thing by recusing himself from an investigation where he might become a target. Thursday, the NYT revealed that Trump's defense team is investigating Mueller and his people for conflicts of interest they can use to discredit the investigation or maybe justify shutting it down, and WaPo reported that Trump was looking into pardons, even possibly pardoning himself. (Experts disagree: Would that be unconstitutional, or did the framers just regard it as unthinkable?) Friday it came out that Jeff Sessions might still not have come clean about his meetings with the Russian ambassador.

Will Sessions hang on as attorney general? If he goes, will Trump replace him with someone he can count on to fire Mueller? Will the Senate go for that? Will they OK Trump's FBI pick? What will Jared Kushner reveal in his testimony today? What about Don Jr. and Paul Manafort?

Why does this all feel like we're building up to a season-ending cliffhanger?


Dahlia Lithwick is Slate's top law writer, but she writes an illuminating piece about the limits of law to control people like Trump.

The rule of law is precisely as robust as our willingness to fight for it. And to fight for it is not quite the same thing as to ask, “Isn’t there a law?” While a nation founded on laws and not men is a noble aspiration, I am not certain that what the Framers anticipated was a constitutional regime predicated on the Harry Potter hope that all the lawyers would fix all the stuff while everyone else crossed their fingers and prayed. ... What is increasingly clear is that Trump’s lawlessness isn’t a problem to be solved by other people’s attorneys. Like it or not, we are all public interest lawyers now.


Friday Sean Spicer resigned and hedge-fund manager Anthony Scaramucci became communicators director, because apparently if you can make money, you can do anything. (I know it's an ethnic stereotype, but Scaramucci really does look like a Sopranos character. Maybe Spicer isn't the wartime consigliere Trump believes he needs.) Sarah Huckabee Sanders moves up to press secretary, a job she was occasionally filling anyway.

Hedge fund manager, VP at Goldman Sachs, degree from Harvard Law -- Scaramucci is the perfect manifestation of populist anger, don't you think?


Senate Intelligence Chair Richard Burr seems unimpressed by one of the fake controversies Trump defenders have spun out of the Russia inquiry: that Obama's National Security Adviser Susan Rice improperly "unmasked" the names of people whose conversations were captured by the NSA.  Blaming his House counterpart, Burr told CNN: "The unmasking thing was all created by Devin Nunes."


Journalism Professor Jay Rosen takes a deeper look at Trump's NYT interview. All the assumptions of the political interview, he tweets, are out the window with Trump:

One premise of interviewing a public official is that the official is more "in the know" than the journalist. Everything the Times reporters asked about health care shredded that premise. He knows far less than the people seeking answers from him!

When a subject says something confusing or wrong, you usually hope that the interviewer asks a follow-up question. But Trump's speaking style (in which he rarely produces a complete, coherent idea, and is more likely to interrupt his own train of thought than to elaborate) makes that tactic useless.

the most likely outcome of seeking clarification by way of a follow-up is that he will introduce some new and further confusion.

But Rosen also points to a more fundamental confusion: Trump's entire sense of self depends on being seen by others. So in an interview he isn't presenting himself so much as making himself.

You don't get a sense that he's explaining what existed prior to its being asked about in the interview— or that it will persist after.

and John McCain

This week we found out that Senator McCain has an aggressive form of brain cancer. News reports don't usually speculate about whether somebody is going to die soon, but that seemed like the read-between-the-lines message.

One of the benefits of living in New Hampshire is that you get to see presidential candidates close up. Of all the candidates I've seen since I started going to these campaign events in 2000, the one who connected with a room the best is John McCain. He's personable, loves to answer questions, and has an impressive range of knowledge. Even as a liberal, I would always come away trying to rationalize voting for him. (In the 2000 primary, I crossed over and voted for him against Bush. Given how the Bush administration turned out, I'm not sorry.) I saw him several times in both the 2000 and 2008 cycles, and the quality of his performance never wavered.

At a 2008 rally in Minnesota, he did the last magnanimous thing I can remember a Republican presidential candidate doing: When an elderly woman started talking about not trusting Obama because he's "an Arab" and (by implication) a Muslim terrorist sympathizer, McCain interrupted and corrected her before she could spread any more falsehoods about his opponent: "No, ma'am. He's a decent family man [and] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues and that's what this campaign's all about."

but you should pay more attention to Iran

In 2015, the Obama administration worked out a deal with Iran: We and our allies would relax our economic sanctions and let Iran access its money that we had frozen in our banking system, and in exchange Iran would stop its nuclear-weapons program, shut down a bunch of centrifuges, turn over its stash of weapon-ready radioactive material, and permit inspections to give us confidence that they weren't restarting it all. Every 90 days the President is supposed to report to Congress on whether Iran is upholding its end of the deal.

During the campaign Trump regularly attacked this deal, though there was no indication that he understood it any better than he understood any of the other stuff he talked about. (Where is that marvelous healthcare plan he promised?) Speaking to a pro-Israel group, he said, "My number-one priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran."

To keep that promise, all Trump has to do is report to Congress that Iran isn't complying, and ask them to reinstate sanctions. But Iran is upholding the deal. Rex Tillerson's State Department says so, and the other defense-and-foreign-policy adults in the administration -- Defense Secretary James Mattis, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Joseph Dunford -- agree. Facing that united front, Trump felt like he had no choice this week; he verified Iran's compliance.

But Trump hates having his actions dictated by experts and their "facts". So Foreign Policy reports that he has instructed White House staffers to work around Tillerson.

Withholding certification “wasn’t a real option available to me,” Trump reportedly told the staffers. “Make sure that’s not the case 90 days from now.”

Here's the problem with that course: The original sanctions worked because Secretary of State Clinton convinced a significant international coalition (including Russia, China, and the EU) to cooperate. That coalition isn't likely to reinstate sanctions just because Trump says so. So after he blows up this deal, Trump will be in a weaker negotiating position than Obama was.

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Was it the massive street demonstrations? Pressure from the rest of the EU? A rift in the ruling party? Whatever the cause, I'll take it: Polish President Andrzej Duda vetoed two bills that would have given the authoritarian ruling party nearly complete control of the judiciary.

If you're saying "What authoritarian ruling party?", take a few minutes to read David Frum's "How to Build an Autocracy" from March. Right-wing parties in Poland and Hungary are following the Putin model of how to corrupt a democracy. For more something more specific to Poland, look at The Washington Post's "In Poland, a window on what happens when populists come to power" from December.


Thursday, it was hard to avoid coverage of O. J. Simpson, who got paroled from the armed robbery charge that has kept him in prison the last nine years. I have nothing against O.J. personally, but I don't want to hear about him any more. If he has a quiet, happy old age that never again makes headlines, that would be fine with me.


538's Perry Bacon has an educational piece about stories with unnamed sources: As a journalistic insider, when does he take such stories seriously and when not.


Putin's decision to back Trump continues to pay dividends. Wednesday we found out that the U.S. will no longer arm rebels against Syrian President Assad, a Putin ally.

“This is a momentous decision,” said a current official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a covert program. “Putin won in Syria.”

In general, Syria is a mess and intelligent people can disagree about what we should be doing there. I just wish I could be confident that our new policy is based on someone's vision of American interests, rather than paying off whatever debt Trump owes Putin.


Trump is nominating a climate-denier with no scientific background to be the top scientist at the Department of Agriculture. This isn't just a bad idea, it violates a 2008 law:

The Under Secretary shall be appointed by the President, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, from among distinguished scientists with specialized training or significant experience in agricultural research, education, and economics.

We'll see if the Senate allows this. Sam Clovis has a bachelor's degree in political science and a doctorate in public administration. He was the Iowa campaign chair for another know-nothing Trump appointee: Energy Secretary (and custodian of the nuclear arsenal) Rick Perry.


Another nominee: Andrew Wheeler to be the second-in-command at EPA. Wheeler is a coal-industry lobbyist and a former aide to Senator Inhofe, who famously disproved global warming by bringing a snowball to the floor of the Senate.


Joel Clement is a government scientist who is blowing the whistle on the administration's attempt to get its scientists to leave.

and let's close with something unusual

Stephen Colbert visits the home of Mikhail Prokhorov in hopes of learning how to be a Russian oligarch.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Wanting to Work

It wasn’t just Trump Junior. Campaign manager Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner knew, too. They were forwarded the emails. They knew exactly what this meeting was. And they were there. They wanted the documents. They wanted to work with the Russians.

- Ezra Klein, "The Trump administration isn't a farce. It's a tragedy." (7-11-2017)

This week's featured post is "Getting Through This", in which I describe how the mindset I developed when my wife was fighting cancer is helping me survive the Trump Era. The three misunderstandings concern healthcare costs, the Biblical view of abortion, and sanctuary cities.

This week everybody was talking about Trump's collusion with Russia

Trump Jr., at least. Here are this week's new revelations, summed up by Nicholas Kristof:

Donald J. Trump Jr. received an email in June 2016, eight days after his father clinched the Republican nomination for president, that said the Kremlin had “offered to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary. … This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”

... Trump Jr. didn’t call the F.B.I.; instead, he responded, “I love it.” He apparently arranged a phone call to discuss the material (we don’t know that the call happened or, if it did, its content), and then set up a meeting for him, Kushner and campaign chairman Paul Manafort to meet with a person described in the emails as a “Russian government attorney.” [more than that, in fact]

In other words, informed of a secret Kremlin effort to use highly sensitive information about a former secretary of state (presumably obtained by espionage, for how else?) to manipulate an American election, Trump Jr. signaled, “We’re in!”

Two big consequences:

  • This news conclusively demonstrates that many, many denials by Trump and his people were lies. They knew that campaign officials had at least tried to collude with the Russian government against Clinton, even as they were deriding the whole story as fake news or a hoax. The administration's relentless dishonesty has gotten to be too much even for some Fox News hosts.
  • It broke the nothing-happened version of events. Something happened. The investigation still needs to pin down exactly what it was and how far it went. Trump defenders have now retreated to a but-nothing-came-of-it line. We'll see how defensible that is as the investigation unfolds. Josh Barro is skeptical: "But the people telling us that nothing came of the meeting are people who were in the meeting and would have reason to want us to believe that nothing came of the meeting. And they're also lying liars who have been lying about all sorts of stuff, including, for months, whether there were contacts between the Trump campaign and agents of the Russian government."

Vox summarizes what we currently know. Ezra Klein underlines what this week's revelations mean:

Donald Trump Jr. knew exactly what he was being offered. The email he got was crystal clear. His source is referred to as a “Russian government attorney.” The invitation for the meeting explains that she will “provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information.” The intermediary assures Trump Jr. that “this is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”

His reply, it cannot be said often enough, was “if it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer” — and late in the summer is exactly when the hacked Democratic emails actually began to be released.

It wasn’t just Trump Jr. Campaign manager Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner knew, too. They were forwarded the emails. They knew exactly what this meeting was. And they were there. They wanted the documents. They wanted to work with the Russians.


The best previous evidence of Trump-campaign collusion with Russia came from a series of scoops in late June by Wall Street Journal reporter Shane Harris: Peter Smith, a wealthy Republican with a long history of funding opposition research against Democrats, organized an effort to contact Russian hackers and funnel whatever dirt they had on Clinton to the Trump campaign via Michael Flynn. A major source for the story was Smith himself, who Harris had interviewed.

Harris knew when he published the story that Smith, 81, had died a little over a week later. But this week something else came out: Smith committed suicide. He left a note blaming ill health. Naturally, there are conspiracy theories floating around, but it's a measure of the left/right difference that those theories aren't getting nearly the play on the Left that comparable stories (Seth Rich, for example, or Vince Foster) get on the Right.


BTW, Trump is still calling the Russia story a hoax.


To his credit, the conservative Weekly Standard's Jonathan Last proposes Republicans take "the Earth 2 test": What if Hillary had won and was doing the exact same stuff Trump is getting away with now?

If Clinton were president and you saw an email from the campaign where Chelsea had been informed that the Russian government had damaging information about Trump and she jumped at the chance to get it and said she’d really love to use it later in the summer and rushed to have a meeting with the Russians — would you think it was all just an overblown media story that didn’t matter?

Of course not.

Earth 2, he says, tests for tribalism -- the belief that it's OK if my side does it, but not if the other side does.

Everyone believes “their team” is better than “the other guys.” That’s why they’re on the team to begin with. But the problem with that view is that there’s no limiting principle to it. Once you subscribe to “us good/them bad,” then you can rationalize anything.

The Earth-2 test applies to liberals too, of course. I recommend everybody take it from time to time.

and the ObamaCare Repeal

At the moment, McConnell still doesn't have the votes. He has no Democrats, and all the Republicans he can afford to lose -- Rand Paul and Susan Collins -- have announced opposition. He needs everybody else to vote yes, which is why John McCain's unexpected surgery has delayed the vote. Collins has estimated that 8 to 10 senators are still undecided.

but we should pay more attention to the NASA budget cuts

In stories about Trump's proposed budget for fiscal 2018 (which starts in October), NASA budget cuts usually rate only a tiny mention. (It didn't make The Washington Post's six worst cuts list, for example.) In particular, the budget for space missions gets cut only about 1% ($53 million out of $5.7 billion). Compared to a proposed 31% cut at EPA or 11% at NSF, that doesn't seem like much.

Hidden in that near-level funding, though, was a major cut in NASA's earth-science missions -- the ones that gather data on climate change. Scientific American describes four scrapped missions, including a truly astounding cut involving the DSCOVR satellite, which is already in orbit. DSCOVR has one set of instruments pointed at the Sun, and another at the Earth. The data is already flowing, but if this budget passes we'll simply start ignoring data from the Earth-viewing instruments; there's no money allocated to collect or process it. It's the scientific equivalent of putting your fingers in your ears and singing "la-la-la" really loud.

NASA's agency-wide budget cut is also too small to get headlines: $19.1 billion next year compared to $19.6 billion in the current year. But that involves a total zeroing-out of NASA education office. (All it gets is the $37 million necessary to shut down.) So whatever NASA does discover about climate change will remain in the ivory towers of science, where it won't threaten the profits of fossil fuel companies.


While it's still there, you should check out NASA's climate web site. The evidence page features a clearer image of this graph of the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere:

I've long believed that atmospheric CO2 is the right place to begin if you're trying to convince an intelligent person that climate change is real. Unlike global average temperature, it's a direct measurement that is not as noisy as temperature: CO2 has an annual cycle, but goes up every year. Also, the CO2 graph directly addresses the religious protest that only God can change the climate: Man has already changed the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels. Once you understand that the atmosphere has changed, it's not a big leap to imagine the climate changing. Then you're ready to hear about how greenhouses gases trap infrared radiation, and then when you see graphs of global average temperature, the warming trend is just what you'd expect.


Like most agencies in the Trump Era, NASA has somebody running a rogue Twitter account. This one is Sarcastic Rover, which claims to be the voice of the AI that drives the autonomous Mars Rover. This morning it commented on Sarah Silverman's tweet suggesting NASA scientists strike over climate change:

No more new planets until you learn to take care of the one you’ve got!

Some of the tweets express a definite AI point of view, like its take on Donald Trump Jr.'s self-destructive release of the emails leading up to his meeting with Russians.

Pretty sure Don Jr. just broke the third law of robotics.

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A big new iceberg: Something the size of Delaware just broke off of Antarctica. This particular chunk of ice was already part of an ice shelf, so it was mostly floating anyway. That means its breaking-off won't directly raise ocean levels. But if the break-up of Antarctic ice shelves leads to land-borne ice sliding into the ocean, that will raise ocean levels.

and let's close with something out of this world

While I've got you thinking about NASA, take a look at their humorous Exoplanet Travel Bureau, where you can find travel posters for the planets NASA has been discovering in distant star systems. HD 40307g, for example, is classified as a "super Earth" (bigger than Earth, smaller than Neptune). It has an atmosphere and higher gravity, so sky-driving there would probably be very exciting.

Kepler 186f might have surface water and is a good candidate to support life. But if it does, its red sun could change the color spectrum of photosynthesis. So its poster advertises a planet "where the grass is always redder". PSO J318.5-22 is a rogue planet that doesn't orbit any star at all, so that's "where the nightlife never ends".

The images are free for download, and various online vendors will print them beautifully for you for not a lot of money.

My inside source at NASA assures me that this is all after-hours fun, and no taxpayer dollars are actually spent on designing exoplanet travel posters. Yet.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Accumulated Issues

Conservatives often take a narrow view of the value of health insurance: they focus on catastrophic events such as emergencies and sudden, high-cost illnesses. But the path of life isn’t one of steady health punctuated by brief crises. Most of us accumulate costly, often chronic health issues as we age. These issues can often be delayed, managed, and controlled if we have good health care — and can’t be if we don’t.

- Atul Gawande, "How the Senate's Healthcare Bill Threatens the Nation's Health"
The New Yorker (6-26-2017)

This week's featured post is "Yes, TrumpCare Will Kill People". And I'm trying out a new format with "Three Misunderstood Things". This week's three things are the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, Mitch McConnell's agenda, and the impact of minimum-wage increases on employment.

This week everybody was talking about the Senate's failure to pass TrumpCare


Mitch McConnell's announced plan had been to pass the bill Thursday, but instead the Senate adjourned for the 4th of July holiday without voting. Why? Widespread uneasiness about the bill got suddenly worse on Monday when the CBO analysis came out: TrumpCare would result in 15 million more people without health insurance 2018, and 22 million more by the end of 2026. (28 million uninsured under current law; 49 million under TrumpCare. The extra million is due to round-off error.) A subsequent CBO report on Thursday analyzed Medicaid spending after 2026: Under the Senate bill, Medicaid spending would be 26% less (than current-law projections) in 2026, and would continue losing ground afterward, to be 35% less by 2036. The CBO didn't estimate what this would do to the number of people Medicaid covers.

In short, the CBO verified critics' description of the bill's effects: Over the next decade, it takes more than a trillion dollars out of the healthcare system (Medicaid and ObamaCare insurance subsidies) and uses about half that money to cut taxes (that mainly affect the rich). In other words, it's a net redistribution of wealth from poorer, sicker people to richer, healthier people.

This reverse-Robin-Hood framing of the bill has been hard for Republicans to counter, because they haven't identified any other purpose bill serves. Pro-TrumpCare arguments within the Republican caucus seem to revolve around the idea that they have to repeal ObamaCare because they said they would and big donors will be angry if they don't.

No wonder voters aren't responding well: A Quinnipiac poll finds that 6% of Americans approve of the Republican bill strongly; 9% approve somewhat; 10% disapprove somewhat; and 48% disapprove strongly. An NPR/PBS/Marist poll got a similar result: 17% approve of the Senate bill while 55% disapprove.

Could it still pass? Sure. The House version looked dead in March before passing in May. Something similar could happen in the Senate. 538 and TPM go through Republican holdouts one-by-one and discuss which ones are most likely to come around eventually. It takes three Republican senators to kill the bill; the three most likely to do it are Dean Heller, Susan Collins, and Rand Paul.

What makes McConnell's job difficult is that any conservative concessions big enough to win over Paul are likely to lose moderates like Lisa Murkowski and Shelley Moore Capito, while moderating concessions to Heller and Collins are likely to lose Mike Lee and Ted Cruz. But McConnell is good at this kind of thing, and it's not impossible. If you're actively resisting this bill in some way, don't let up.

Why McConnell can't just skip ahead to his next agenda items (the FY2018 budget and tax reform) and come back to TrumpCare later is discussed in this week's "Three Misunderstood Things".


Senator Sasse has suggested (and Trump has endorsed) an idea that Republicans abandoned some while ago: Just go ahead and repeal ObamaCare, promising to replace it with something before the repeal takes effect in a year. But Republicans have had seven years to come up with their ObamaCare alternative. If they haven't agreed on one yet, why would anybody bet the farm on them coming up with one in a year?

Department of Shamelessness. Senators may not know how to defend TrumpCare, but the White House does: with total BS. Sean Spicer tweeted this graphic from Trump's Department of Health and Human Services:

All I can figure is that Spicer thinks those 28.2 million people's main problem is loneliness: That's why his boss's bill would send 22 million more Americans to keep them company.


David Frum represents the Eisenhower-Ford type of conservative who used to be in the Republican mainstream, but now has no political home: He wants to pursue the public good through conservative methods, and is not opposed to government on principle, but is skeptical of ambitious programs and wants to make sure that every taxpayer penny is well spent. His article on reforming ObamaCare is part of the intelligent debate that America is probably having in some alternate universe.

The other side of that intelligent debate would be this fix-ObamaCare program from the Center for American Progress.


Public health policy actually matters: American women die during childbirth at about three times the rate of women in many other countries -- except in California.

and the first public evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian hackers

The Wall Street Journal published two scoops by Shane Harris, which are behind the WSJ paywall (I'm not a subscriber), but have been discussed in detail many other places, like Washington Monthly and Vox.

The central figure in the report is Peter Smith, described by Washington Monthly as "a recently deceased long-time adversary of the Clintons who helped finance the Arkansas Project back in the 1990s". Smith believed that Hillary Clinton's deleted emails (the ones Trump "joked" about asking the Russians to hack and release) would contain damaging information, and that Russian hackers might have them. So he tried to make contact with Russian hackers so that he could obtain and release those emails. Smith represented himself as being in contact with several major Trump campaign people, including Michael Flynn, Steve Bannon, and Kellyanne Conway.

The most extensive available-for-free account is a 33-minute discussion between Harris and Benjamin Wittes on the Lawfare podcast.

Also on Lawfare is a corroborating account from computer-security CEO Matt Tait, "The Time I Got Recruited to Collude With the Russians". Tait was known to be investigating the Russian hack into the DNC when Smith tried to recruit him.

Over the course of our conversations, one thing struck me as particularly disturbing. Smith and I talked several times about the DNC hack, and I expressed my view that the hack had likely been orchestrated by Russia and that the Kremlin was using the stolen documents as part of an influence campaign against the United States. I explained that if someone had contacted him via the “Dark Web” with Clinton’s personal emails, he should take very seriously the possibility that this may have been part of a wider Russian campaign against the United States. And I said he need not take my word for it, pointing to a number of occasions where US officials had made it clear that this was the view of the U.S. intelligence community as well.

Smith, however, didn’t seem to care. From his perspective it didn’t matter who had taken the emails, or their motives for doing so. He never expressed to me any discomfort with the possibility that the emails he was seeking were potentially from a Russian front, a likelihood he was happy to acknowledge. If they were genuine, they would hurt Clinton’s chances, and therefore help Trump.

... Smith and his associates’ knowledge of the inner workings of the campaign were insightful beyond what could be obtained by merely attending Republican events or watching large amounts of news coverage. But one thing I could not place, at least initially, was whether Smith was working on behalf of the campaign, or whether he was acting independently to help the campaign in his personal capacity.

Tait still has no direct proof, but eventually became convinced that Smith's group "was formed with the blessing of the Trump campaign." Documents he saw mentioned the same people Harris identified -- Flynn, Bannon, Conway -- plus some other lesser-known Trump-campaign people.

it’s certainly possible that he was a big name-dropper and never really represented anyone other than himself. If that’s the case, Smith talked a very good game.

None of this is Trump holding a smoking gun. But it does demonstrate why the investigation needs to continue.


One reason to believe this story is that the case put forward by Trump's defenders has changed in recent weeks: They used to claim that talk of collusion was just fantasy, and that the whole investigation is a "witch hunt". (Why congressional committees chaired by Republicans would participate in such a witch hunt has never been explained.) But lately they've added another line of defense: So what if Trump did collude? If that message change is being coordinated by the White House, it could indicate that they expect other shoes to drop.

and Trump's Muslim ban

Just before going on summer break, the Supreme Court narrowed the injunction against the Trump executive order "which bars the issuance of visas from six majority-Muslim countries for 90 days and halts refugee resettlement for 120 days". They won't decide whether it's constitutional until the fall, when the whole question might be moot, but in the meantime the injunction only applies to "anyone with a 'bona fide relationship' to an American or an American organization." In other words, if you have a job offer from an American company or have been accepted to a U.S. university, or if you're visiting a very close American relative, you can still come, but otherwise not.

The implementation of this order began Thursday, and it's already kind of a mess. The administration decided to define "close family" so narrowly that grandparents didn't count, and to deny that fiance is a bona fide relationship. So it's all going back to court anyway.

To me, it looks like the Court has done something crafty: I always thought the order was a trial balloon. Trump doesn't really care all that much about those specific countries for that length of time, but if that order is constitutionally OK, then we'll see much more draconian orders later. The goal is to fulfill Trump's campaign pledge of a Muslim immigration ban. If that's the case, then the issue won't be moot by the fall, but the administration will have to have shown more of its hand.

but we need to watch the Election Integrity Commission

Since November, Trump has been very sensitive about the fact that 2.8 million more voters chose Hillary Clinton than him, which is why he has pushed the fantasy that 3-5 million votes were illegal. Or, as Politifact pointed out:

Trump has made repeated claims about massive voter fraud and election rigging, which we’ve debunked again and again and again and again and again and again and again (and we debunked a claim by his spokesman Sean Spicer).

As long as this is just Trump and his fans choosing to believe whatever makes them happy, you just have to shrug. Why should this issue be different from all the others? But unfortunately, this particular bit of ego-defense ties in with a long-term Republican effort to push marginal voters away from the polls by requiring IDs not everyone has, purging voter-registration rolls, and trying to intimidate voters who don't understand their rights.

Leaders in that effort are now on the Election Integrity Commission, which is technically headed by Vice President Pence, but is managed day-to-day by vice-chair Kris Kobach. Wednesday, Kobach sent a letter to the secretaries of state in all 50 states, asking for a huge amount of voter information, most of which is not available to the public. The goal is probably to do a national version of something Kobach has already been doing on a state-by-state level.

From his perch in Kansas, Kobach presides over the Interstate Crosscheck System, a fatally—and some would say, deliberately—flawed data-sharing system notable for its ability to knock eligible voters off the rolls without their knowledge.

Another problem is that a federal aggregation of such information would be "a gold mine for hackers".

Technical experts say the voter data that the commission wants to assemble would quickly become a single treasure trove for cyber criminals and foreign intelligence services. Identity thieves could use information such as addresses, birth dates and the last four digits of Social Security numbers for digital impersonations, and foreign spies could use it to fill out dossiers on Americans they hope to blackmail.

Fortunately, a large number of states are refusing to respond. Oddly, one of the secretaries of state who is dragging his feet is the one from Kansas -- Kobach himself.

and you also might be interested in ...

Pew Research Center regularly polls opinions about America in other countries. Here's the recent trend.

The results broken down by country are also interesting. Asked about "confidence in the U.S. president to do the right thing regarding world affairs", European confidence crashed when Trump replaced Obama. In Germany, for example, 86% had confidence in Obama, but only 11% have confidence in Trump. Canada (83%/22%) and Australia (84%/29%) showed smaller, but still quite large, losses of confidence. Jordanians (14%/9%) don't put much stock in either of them, but slightly prefer Obama. In all, 35 of the 37 countries surveyed have less confidence in Trump than they had in Obama.

But then there's an obvious question: Which two trust Trump more? By a small margin, Israel (56% Trump, 49% Obama). But the sole country where confidence in the U.S. president has skyrocketed is -- wait for it -- Russia (53% Trump, 11% Obama). Mordor was not surveyed.


The science division of the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy is now empty. The last of the Obama administration's nine staffers are now gone and have not been replaced.


Am I crazy, or is Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse positioning himself for a primary challenge against Trump?


My favorite line in the Hamilton soundtrack is when Hamilton and Lafayette meet again at Yorktown and simultaneously say, "Immigrants -- we get the job done." That turned into a whole song on the Hamilton Mix Tape, and now there's a video.


I'm trying not to pay too much attention to Trump's gratuitously offensive antics, because, well, we've known for a long time that our president is a bullying sexist asshole. (I use asshole in the technical sense defined by philosopher Aaron James.) But if somehow you haven't already heard about this week's acting out, you probably should.

First there were his tweets about MSNBC morning host Mika Brzezinski -- CNN wanted to talk about virtually nothing else Thursday evening. Various people, including Republicans in Congress, criticized him for it, and Mika and cohost-and-husband-to-be Joe Scarborough wrote a response in The Washington Post, for all the good that does. I'm reminded of a quote frequently attributed to George Bernard Shaw, but apparently said by Cyrus Ching: "Never wrestle with a pig. You both get dirty, and the pig likes it."

Then he retweeted a video some supporter had edited (from a wrestling broadcast before he was president) of Trump tackling a guy outside a wrestling ring and punching him. The guy's head has been replaced with a CNN logo. CNN referred to it as "juvenile", and the White House denied that the President was encouraging violence against reporters, using the typical bully's excuse that he was being "funny".

I'm kind of in the same place as Seth Meyers.

[embed]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7kWL8rgxqV8[/embed]

Rachel Maddow's POV also has merit: Why let Trump distract us from his bad news, like all the stuff listed above?

and let's close with something peaceful

If you're feeling stressed, spend some time contemplating these images of cats resting on Buddha statues. (Don't miss the tiger.)

Monday, June 26, 2017

Favored Few

There are two ways of viewing the Government's duty in matters affecting economic and social life. The first sees to it that a favored few are helped and hopes that some of their prosperity will leak through, sift through, to labor, to the farmer, to the small business man. That theory belongs to the party of Toryism, and I had hoped that most of the Tories left this country in 1776.

- Franklin Roosevelt, "Address Accepting the Presidential Nomination" (1932)

This week's featured post is "Turn the Page". It's my suggestion for Democratic messaging in 2018.

This week everybody was talking about the unveiling of McConnell's secret ObamaCare repeal bill

There are several good summaries of what's in the bill, but the two main facts you need to know are:

As the husband of a cancer survivor, I worry about pre-existing conditions. Atlantic's summary:

Simply put, the Senate bill will open the door to states forcing people with pre-existing conditions into segregated markets that will lead them to pay far, far higher costs than everyone else.

The bill doesn't allow insurers to discriminate against people with pre-existing conditions directly, a point you'll hear a lot from its defenders. However, an insurance company can structure its offerings to herd healthy people into bare-bones plans that cost little, but don't cover the kinds of things people with pre-existing conditions are likely to need, like prescription drugs. (To keep her cancer from coming back, my wife takes a drug that costs thousands per month. So far insurance has covered almost all of that.) Plans that offer more complete coverage will then appeal mainly to the very sick, and their premiums will sky-rocket accordingly.

This is the flip side of a Republican claim that sounds sensible on the surface: Rather than mandate the same coverage for everybody, their bill lets people choose the coverage that makes sense for them. As a result, though, healthy people leave the insurance pool that pays for more extensive coverage, leaving only sick people.


On the question of whether it has the votes to pass, no one is even asking the 48 Democratic senators to vote for it; Democrats were completely shut out of the drafting process and the bill is going straight to the floor with no committee hearings. So far five Republicans have said they'll vote against it "in its current form", which could mean their votes are available if they can get a concession or two to assuage their angry voters. Several others have expressed concerns which James Fallows interprets with some cynicism:

So far in 2017, “concerns” from GOP Sens has always meant, "I’ll make sure the bill/nominee winds up with 50 votes.” Any diff this time?

Norm Ornstein believes that McConnell designed the bill with intentional problems that various recalcitrant senators can take credit for fixing, thus justifying their "reluctant" vote.

FWIW, the betting markets are split on the repeal of various ObamaCare provisions.


I have thought all along that smart Republicans wouldn't want the bill to pass, because then they'll own the ensuing disaster. You can keep voters from knowing what's in a bill before you vote on it, but once it becomes law they're going to find out. As Ross Douthat put it:

The Obamacare replacement that the House sent to the Senate might as well have had a note scrawled across its pages: Save us from ourselves.

But neither would any individual politician want to be seen as the reason the GOP's highest-profile promise gets broken. So the smart move is to make someone else the fall guy for killing ObamaCare repeal.

First the House Freedom Caucus was on the hook. Then they renegotiated the bill in a way that passed the buck to House Republican moderates, who caved, passing the buck to the Senate. Now Senate conservatives and moderates are maneuvering against each other. If neither blocks the bill, then the onus will fall on the House again to accept the Senate's changes. This game of chicken will be lost either by some handful of Republican congresspeople, or by millions of Americans who won't be able to afford the insurance they need.

Probably the best outcome for Republicans politically is for the House and Senate each to pass a bill, and then blame each other for why no bill makes it through both houses. Then their candidates can tell the voters: "I voted to keep my promise, but those jokers in the other house screwed us up."


Medicaid: Democrats need to remember that the very poor have been successfully demonized as lazy bums looking for handouts, but the working poor -- the couples struggling to raise kids on some combination of just-above-minimum-wage jobs -- still have a lot of public sympathy. Those are the people Medicaid expansion has helped, and they're the ones the Republican bill will hurt.


I don't know if he thought it up himself, but I just saw somebody comment on Facebook: "Hail Mary, full of grace, please leave Medicaid in place."


Meanwhile, ObamaCare itself is more popular than it has been since 2010.

 

and the Georgia special election

Democrat Jon Ossoff lost 52%-48%. You can make the same excuse Democrats have made in the other special election: It's a Republican district; Tom Price won it in 2016 by over 20 points. Still, Ossoff had gotten 49% in the jungle primary, and netting that extra 1% didn't seem like it should have been that big a lift. But it was. (BTW, his 48% Tuesday doesn't necessarily mean that he lost support; turnout was higher. Ossoff got 124K votes Tuesday, versus 92K in the primary.)

Georgia-6 is a well-educated suburban district where Trump won by only 1%. So the Ossoff-wins theory was based on two ideas: (1) Republicans who voted for Trump reluctantly are ready to turn against him. (2) Voters who have turned against Trump are willing to take it out on the whole GOP (or possibly they're just too dispirited to show up to vote). But that didn't happen, at least not in sufficient numbers.

Nate Silver's crew "plays the Democratic blame game".

natesilver: For me, there are basically three prototypes of campaigns that Democrats will need to run in 2018: (i) anti-Trump; (ii) anti-Republican; (iii) anti-incumbent.

I think Georgia 6 ought to have been an anti-Trump campaign, given that Trump is a much bigger liability in Georgia 6 than the GOP overall is and that people are doing pretty well there economically.

For me, there’s lots of room for populist progressives to do well as anti-Republican and anti-incumbent messengers. I actually don’t think they’re ideal as anti-Trump messengers, however, which is what you needed in this district.

The New Yorker's John Cassidy more-or-less agrees:

In a district as red as Georgia’s Sixth, the disheartening truth is that Ossoff probably wouldn’t have done better had he run to the left. While many Republicans have some misgivings about Trump, they have even more serious misgivings about voting for a Democrat. According to that same opinion poll in the Journal-Constitution, just one in three Republican voters said that they were supporting Handel to express support for Trump. What motivated them, they said, were traditional Republican issues: taxes, government spending, and illegal immigration.

but I've also been thinking about the role of religion in politics

In Friday's NYT, Daniel Williams published an op-ed that drew a lot of comment, "The Democrats' Religion Problem", which concludes:

Only through a willingness to ground their policy proposals in the religious values of prospective voters will they be able to convince people of faith that they are not a threat to their values but are instead an ally in a common cause.

I'm debating whether to write a more complete discussion of this next week, but I think this article drew attention because it simultaneously points to an important issue and gets it wrong.

The bigger problem, which hits Republicans in exactly the same way when they talk about science, is establishing authenticity. Voters want to know that what you're saying is not just a talking point that you could reverse tomorrow, but is rooted in values that come from a part of your identity that has some staying power. (Fleshing out the science analogy: When I hear a politician dissemble on global warming, it makes me wonder what evidence he wouldn't be able to rationalize his way around. Does truth actually mean anything to him?)

The point shouldn't be that all politicians need to learn how to talk about God, even if they don't really believe. It's that if you can't use the language of the old-time religion, which is the traditional way to express deep-rooted values, how are you going to communicate that depth?


In other religion-and-politics news, the Southern Baptists condemned white supremacy.

and you might also be interested to know ...

The Washington Post had a big Trump-and-Russia story Friday, outlining what the Obama administration knew about Russian interference in the election and when it knew it. The general theme is that Obama could and should have done more in response, but was worried what else Putin might have up his sleeve and believed that Clinton would win anyway.

The most interesting new fact:

The intelligence captured Putin’s specific instructions on the operation’s audacious objectives — defeat or at least damage the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, and help elect her opponent, Donald Trump.

So the plan came all the way from the top, and had Putin's personal attention. And somehow our side knew that.


California failed to move forward on a statewide single-payer healthcare plan. Nevada's governor vetoed a buy-into-Medicaid plan that basically would have given everyone in the state a public healthcare option. Vermont made an earlier unsuccessful attempt at single-payer.

In an economy so dominated by interstate or international corporations, I have a lot of doubt about whether single-payer can be made to work at the state level. I'm rooting for somebody to prove me wrong.


Another place where I hope to be proved wrong: I'm generally skeptical of technological solutions to environmental problems -- clean coal, geo-engineering, and so forth. But a carbon-capture plant just opened in Switzerland.


That Carrier plant in Indianapolis that Trump "saved" just before he took office? They'll be laying off 338 workers in July, and another 290 just before Christmas. And the $16 million Carrier pledged to invest in the plant? That's paying for job-killing automation, not for new production that creates new jobs.


Important story in yesterday's NYT about the collapse of retail in rural areas. My hometown (Quincy, Illinois) is exactly the kind of place the article is talking about: Once a manufacturing town, it remade itself as a regional center. Its new economy is largely based on the regional hospital, the area's biggest community college, and a cluster of big chain stores that draw customers from a 30-40 mile radius. (Many of the even smaller towns within that radius have seen their retail completely dry up. It's hard even to keep a local convenience store going.) That base then supports other commerce (like restaurants and small boutiques) that maybe you wouldn't drive 40 miles for, but you will visit because you're in town anyway.

That new economy isn't collapsing yet, but you can see the strain as people get more and more stuff from Amazon and other online retailers that have no local presence. Home Depot and Old Navy may not hire as many people or pay them as well as the old factories did, but working there beats being unemployed.


Chris Mooney writes in the WaPo about the effects of climate change on the coral reefs of the Florida Keys.

Ecologists describe the 360-mile-long Florida Reef Tract as a global treasure. It is the world’s third-largest barrier reef, although much less famous than Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

But less than 10 percent of the reef system is now covered with living coral. Scientists anticipate that as early as 2020, it could be in line for almost yearly bleaching events, in which heat stresses upend the metabolism of corals, in some cases killing them. The reefs experienced back-to-back major bleaching events in 2014 and 2015.

... “When I was a child in the ’60s, the water was so clear I used to think of it as being Coke bottle blue,” said Stafford, citing the colored glass some Coke bottlers used. “And the reef was so healthy, all the coral was very alive. I don’t recall even thinking about bleaching or coral death or coral diseases back then.”

Killing the reef habitat is not just a moral catastrophe, it's an economic problem for an economy based on tourism. Fighting global warming might cost jobs in West Virginia, but not fighting it costs jobs in Florida.


Jared is back from the Middle East and it turns out that Israeli/Palestinian peace is actually a hard problem. Who knew?


Murray Energy founder Bob Murray wasn't going to be the focus of John Oliver's piece on coal mining, but then his lawyers sent a cease-and-desist letter to try to intimidate Oliver. This was the result. (The Murray segment starts around 12:45. Be sure you don't miss the closing.) And yes, Murray is suing.


After the Knicks drafted Frank Ntilinkina Thursday, Nate Silver fantasized about them re-acquiring Thanasis Antetokounmpo. Then they could

play a lineup of Ntilinkina, Antetokounmpo, Kuzminskas, Porzingis, and Hernangomez and lead the league in Scrabble points for the foreseeable future.

and let's close with a lesson in bad writing

The humor site McSweeney's gives step-by-step instructions for getting from a simple, active sentence like "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog." to the more obscure "Speed was involved in a jumping-related incident while a fox was brown."

In a similar way, the article points out at the end, "A police officer shot a black person." can turn into "The St. Louis County Police Department was involved in an officer-involved shooting after officers came under heavy gunfire."

Monday, June 19, 2017

From Words to Bullets

Every thought burns into substance
Every dream turns into something on a t-shirt
Every glance becomes a romance
(One little word and you can't keep it in your pants)
They float above us like a cloud
And no one knows where the rain will end up falling
Every force evolves a form
Every urge leads to something you can sit on
Every force evolves a form
Every impulse ends up as something you can hang your hat on

- Shriekback, "Every Force Evolves a Form" (1992)

This week's featured posts are "Political Violence is Our Issue Too" and "Why I'm Still Skeptical about the Progressive Revolution".

This week everybody was talking about the Scalise shooting

House Majority Whip Steve Scalise has never been my favorite congressman, for what I still think are good reasons. But I wish him a full recovery. If democracy is about anything, it's about resolving our differences without shooting at each other.

The larger issues that come out of this shooting -- how fake news and wild rhetoric contributes to violence -- are covered in a featured post.

and obstruction of justice

Wednesday The Washington Post reported that the special counsel is investigating Trump for obstruction of justice. Trump took it well, going on a Twitter tirade against his own assistant attorney general: "I am being investigated for firing the FBI Director by the man who told me to fire the FBI Director! Witch Hunt"


Humorist Andy Borowitz nailed Jeff Sessions' testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee: "Man Ravaged by Amnesia Somehow Able to Hold Down Demanding Legal Job". Sessions' testimony boiled down to three assertions: (1) He didn't do anything wrong. (2) If he did do something wrong, he has no memory of it. (3) He's not going to answer any questions about conversations he had with Trump, but he refuses to state any legal grounds for not answering.


Mike Huckabee proved a couple years ago that he must have flunked high school civics. More evidence this week is his defense of Sessions' non-answers:

Dems act like they never heard of atty/client privilege; AG is top atty in Exec branch; serves and not stooge of Congress.

The attorney general is not the president's lawyer. He is managed by the president, but he works for the United States. What worries me most about Trump is his third-world-dictator tendency to personalize authority that is supposed to be institutional. As president, Trump leads the executive branch, but he doesn't own it. Commentators like Huckabee do a disservice to the country when they encourage that delusion.


More legal misinformation came from Newt Gingrich, who seems to have forgotten that he supported an obstruction of justice charge against President Clinton.

Technically, the president of the United States cannot obstruct justice. If he wants to fire the FBI director, all he has to do is fire him.

That's nonsense, and the correct principle is not hard to understand: Even when an official is exercising legal powers, motives matter. Legally, the highway cop who pulls you over for speeding has the discretion either to ticket you or to let you go. But the why matters: If he lets you go because you gave him $100, that's illegal.

Same thing here. Trump has the legal power to fire the FBI director. He doesn't need a good reason; if he's just grumpy that day and wants to take it out on somebody, that's enough. But if he has a bad reason, it might be illegal. In particular, if he did it to shut down an investigation into possible crimes committed by himself, his friends, or his administration, he has obstructed justice.

and Philando Castile

Last July, Castile was driving with his girl friend in a suburb of St. Paul when a policeman in Minnesota stopped them, believing they "just look like people that were involved in a robbery." (Castile had been stopped at least 46 times in the previous 14 years.) Castile had a license to carry a gun, and had a gun with him. According to the girl friend, the policeman asked for Castile's driver's license, Castile told him there was a gun in the car, and when he reached for his wallet to get his license the policeman started shooting. Friday, a jury found the officer not guilty of manslaughter.

Vox has a good summary of the case and the larger issues it raises. It includes this graphic:

I hate to second-guess juries, since I didn't hear all the evidence and they did. But Castile really seems to illustrate the problem of police and black people, especially young black men. Castile, in fact, wasn't the burglar they were looking for. Nobody can pinpoint exactly what he did wrong, but now he's dead. This kind of thing happens a lot. If you're parenting a young black man, what can you tell him that will keep him safe?

I was surprised to discover that David French of the conservative National Review also has problems with the verdict. (His colleague Robert Verbruggen doesn't. Castile's death is "a tragedy", but what can you do?)

I understand the inherent danger of police work. I also understand the legal responsibilities of men and women who volunteer to put on that uniform, and the legal rights of the citizens they’ve sworn to protect and serve. I’m aware of no evidence that Yanez panicked because Castile was black. But whether he panicked because of race, simply because of the gun, or because of both, he still panicked, and he should have been held accountable. The jury’s verdict was a miscarriage of justice.

The Castile case also illustrates what I've called "the asterisk in the Bill of Rights": Constitutional rights don't apply to blacks in the same ways as they do to whites.

[embed]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=daVhasi95c4[/embed]

The NRA, for example, seems reluctant to comment on this apparent disregard for Castile's 2nd Amendment rights. Slate's Leon Neyfahk puts it bluntly:

On its face, the Castile case would seem to have all the trappings of a cause célèbre for the NRA. The group’s most fiercely held belief is supposed to be that law-abiding citizens shouldn’t be burdened—let alone killed in cold blood—by repressive agents of the government just because they want to protect themselves and exercise their Second Amendment rights. ... If Castile had been white instead of black, the NRA would have been rallying behind him and his family since the moment of his death, and fundraising off his memory for the rest of time.


The Castille verdict contrasts with a guilty verdict in what seems to me to be a much more nebulous case: Michelle Carter and Conrad Roy were two depressed teens who only met a handful of times, but texted back and forth constantly over a two-year period. Roy repeatedly talked about killing himself, and while Carter initially encouraged him to seek treatment, eventually she accepted his claim that what he really wanted was to be dead. They discussed suicide techniques together, and when Roy texted that he was backing out of his planned attempt (he got out of a truck filling with carbon monoxide), Carter called and urged him to go through with it, which he did. Friday, a Massachusetts judge found her guilty of involuntary manslaughter. This seems weird to me in lots and lots of ways.

and the Virginia primary

The Democratic side of the primary was supposed to be the story: It was billed as a "battle for the soul of the party" between the establishment-supported Ralph Northam and the Sanders-and-Warren upstart candidate Tom Perriello. (More about that in the other featured post.) But that turned out to be a surprisingly easy Northam victory.

The real story turned out to be on the Republican side.

What shocked observers instead was the Republican primary, where Corey Stewart — a Confederate sympathizer and onetime campaign official for Donald Trump — came within just 1.2 points of beating former Republican National Committee Chair Ed Gillespie.

Vox interviewed political scientist Quentin Kidd:

A lot of us, in our analyses, made a fundamental mistake. We assumed that because Trump’s approval ratings were so low in the state, there was no way someone like Stewart could have a chance at winning the primary. But what happened tonight is that the 37 percent of Virginia voters who said Trump is doing a good job came out and voted for Cory Stewart in a Republican primary. They’re still a potent force.

The other conservatives — the Republicans who don’t think Trump is doing such a good job — they didn’t come out as much and vote for Ed Gillespie. In the end, it’s partly an enthusiasm thing. There’s far more enthusiasm on the “populist,” “rebellious” side of the party right now then there is among the middle of the party.

And that suggests that congressional Republicans might be in trouble in their primaries if they break with Trump. The Republicans disillusioned with Trump might be too depressed to vote.

and you might also be interested in ...

A few Senate Republicans are grousing about the secret process Mitch McConnell is using to push ObamaCare repeal forward, but they're going along with it anyway. Here's how McConnell plans to get the proposal passed.

People looking for a precedent for this no-hearings no-debate approach to a major bill have reached back to a Wilson-administration tariff bill. That's how unusual this is.


Oh, that stuff during the campaign about Trump doing some hard negotiating with the drug industry and getting prices down? Never mind.


He's rolling back some of Obama's opening to Cuba, and he's doing it in a way that hurts his business competitors. Coincidence?


Stuff at Whole Foods is already priced high enough; imagine offering 27% above market price for the whole company. That's what Amazon did Friday, making a $13.7 billion offer.

Paul La Monica at CNN Money thinks it's a brilliant move.

The key to this deal is that it shows the genius of [Amazon founder] Jeff Bezos. Of course, it's too soon to say whether buying Whole Foods for this amount of money will be a success, but keep in mind: No one was even speculating that this deal was going to happen. ... This just goes to show that Bezos is thinking about things that no one else on the planet is even considering.

Maybe there is some amazing plan here -- the NYT speculates about what it might be -- but it's also possible that Bezos has too much money to play with and too much time to think about bizarre things to do with it. (You know who else does things that no one else on the planet even considers? Darwin Award winners.)

One problem springs to mind immediately: Amazon is all about undercutting on price, while Whole Foods is about charging top dollar for something presumed to be better. I'm not sure how that mixes.

In some sense, though, even Amazon's $42-per-share offer represents a mark-down: Whole Foods stock peaked around $65 in 2013. The high-end grocery market has gotten much more crowded and competitive  since then. (Wegmans, Sprouts, Trader Joe's, and other similar chains have all expanded, plus farmer's markets and other boutique food sources.) And publicity like this John Oliver segment in 2015 didn't help.

but we should be paying more attention to Trump's appointments

The people he has nominated to the National Labor Relations Board might make nearly impossible to unionize.

and let's close with something prescient

That cabinet meeting where all the secretaries took turns praising Trump reminded me of something out of the Third World. And it underlined just how well Trevor Noah had Trump pegged in 2015.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Getting Away

When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.

- Harry Frankfurt "On Bullshit" (1986)

This week's featured post is "Social Capital and Inequality", where I review Ryan Avents new book The Wealth of Humans.

This week everybody was talking about James Comey

Like many Americans without a 9-to-5 job (and maybe a few at work), I was glued to the TV Thursday morning during Comey's testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee. (Full transcript here.)

I don't pretend to be unbiased, but I thought Comey was a compelling witness. He answered a lot of questions with a direct yes, no, or I don't know. He didn't seem to be trying to build his legend. ("I don't want to make it sound like I'm Captain Courageous," he said in response to Senator Rubio's questions about why he didn't confront Trump more directly.) While refusing to reveal the content of the FBI's investigation or any classified information, he never sounded like a bureaucrat finagling a way around some legitimate question. When asked something difficult, he often started with "That's a good question" before proceeding to give a thoughtful response.

In addition to legal implications of his testimony, I thought Comey very clearly established that the Trump's relationship with him was not normal. In a few short months, he had more one-on-one conversations with Trump than he had with the president during the entire Bush and Obama administrations. And from the first meeting, he felt a need to document what was said because "I was honestly concerned he might lie about the nature of our meeting." (He'd had no similar worry about Bush or Obama.)

Republican senators were left to make what seems to me to be a very bad case: Sleazy as it was, Trump's attempt to influence Comey doesn't rise to the level of obstruction of justice, and he was doing it to protect a friend (Mike Flynn) rather than to cover his own wrong-doing. Matt Yglesias reacts:

Congress is supposed to oversee the executive branch and police not only legal misconduct but political misconduct, like perverting the legal process to benefit his friends and allies.

Instead, congressional Republicans have chosen to stand on the ground that it’s okay to order an investigation quashed as long as you do it with a wink-wink and a nudge-nudge — even if you follow up by firing the guy you winked at. And they’re standing on the ground that it’s okay to quash an investigation as long as the investigation you quashed targeted a friend and close political associate, rather than the president himself.

That’s a standard of conduct that sets the United States up for massive and catastrophic erosion of the rule of law, not only, or even especially, because the president is behaving corruptly, but because Republican Party members of Congress have chosen to allow it.

I occasionally flashed back to the meeting Bill Clinton had with Attorney General Loretta Lynch during the investigation of Hillary's email server. Both Clinton and Lynch came out saying that they didn't discuss the investigation, but what if Lynch had reported that Clinton said the same things Comey reported Trump saying: asking if Lynch wanted to keep her job in the next administration, and saying he "hoped" she could let Hillary off? Would Republicans put a benign interpretation on those words then?

And then there's what's been called the "toddler defense". Here's how Paul Ryan puts it:

He’s new to government. And so he probably wasn’t steeped in the long-running protocols that establish the relationships between DOJ, FBI, and White Houses. He’s just new to this.

He's also not "steeped in the protocols" about profiteering and other forms of corruption, or how to deal with allies. I guess it's totally unreasonable of us to expect the President of the United States to understand his job, or to seek advice about the things he doesn't know. (If only the Democrats had offered us a real alternative, like maybe a candidate who had been training for this job her whole life.)

Also, as a response to Comey the toddler defense is bogus on its face: The reason Trump insisted on all the witnesses leaving the room before pressuring Comey was that he knew he was doing something wrong.


Congressional Republicans are also letting Trump get away with a non-responsive nothing-to-see-here approach towards the whole Russia affair. A lot of the most suspicious elements of this scandal have been left completely unexplained: Why did the White House wait 18 days to fire Michael Flynn, after they'd been warned he might be compromised by the Russians? Why was Jared Kushner meeting with somebody from a Putin-connected Russian bank? Why did so many of Trump's people either lie about their meetings with Russians or neglect to mention them when asked? And then finally, why was Comey fired? There was an unbelievable explanation right away, but Trump contradicted it later, and now the question has been left hanging.

Many people talk about the story as if it were he-said/she-said. But it isn't even that, because Trump hasn't offered any explanation at all.


Ezra Klein finds a method in the madness of Trump tweets: Trump's primary mode of argument isn't lying, it's bullshitting. (Believe it or not, that's a technical term, defined in the seminal essay "On Bullshit".)

Lies are an effort to win an argument. Bullshitting is an effort to dominate coverage of an argument, to crowd out the truth, to distract the media with topics you prefer. Trump is very good at bullshitting. And since he doesn’t have a good counterargument to offer against Comey, he’s falling back on what he knows.


A number of people have noticed how many themes from sexual harassment cases appear: The boss maneuvered a 1-on-1 meeting and made inappropriate suggestions. Later, Comey asked his immediate supervisor not to leave him alone with the boss, but the supervisor just shrugged. When he tried to ignore the unwelcome advances and just do his job, he got fired. And now that he's complaining, the people who hear his complaint  interpret his "confusion over how to respond to a shocking request ... as a signal that nothing happened".

Robin Abcarian wrote in the LA Times:

Is there a working woman alive who cannot identify with poor James Comey right now? The former FBI director’s boss tried to seduce him. When the seduction failed, his boss fired him. And then called him “crazy, a real nut job.” ... Trump thought he had some kind of bromance going with Comey. He wined him. He dined him. And because he is transactional to his core, he expected a little somethin’ somethin’ in return.

and Nicole Serratore in the NYT:

Mr. Comey, you are not alone. How many of us have played over and over in our minds an encounter that suddenly took a creepy, coercive turn? What did I say? Were my signals clear? Did I do something ambiguous? Did I say something compromising?

Cait Bladt invents a scene from the closed hearing that followed Comey's public testimony.

SENATOR BLUNT: Mr. Comey it is a straightforward question — you wore that suit knowing it would appeal to men like Mr. Trump and then when it did and he hugged you, you acted like it was shocking and appalling, correct?


Former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara tells a similar story of being creeped out by Trump's overtures, backing away from him, and then being fired.


A former FBI agent now a dean at Yale Law School focused on a different aspect of Comey's testimony:

In the nine times Trump met with or called Comey, it was always to discuss how the investigation into Russia’s election interference was affecting him personally, rather than the security of the country. He apparently cared little about understanding either the magnitude of the Russian intelligence threat, or how the FBI might be able to prevent another attack in future elections.


Right-wing media covered a very different hearing from the one I saw.


Trump said Friday that "100%" he'd be willing to testify under oath. But Trump says a lot of things, and I seriously doubt he will ever do this voluntarily. US News' Robert Schlesinger:

it wasn't so very long ago that Trump was issuing seemingly iron-clad guarantees that he would release his tax returns


John McCain's incoherent questioning was the sad sidebar of the Comey hearing. Twitter exploded with speculation that McCain is suffering from dementia.

I've had an irrational affection for McCain ever since he ran against Bush in the 2000 New Hampshire primary. McCain in 2000 had incredible mental stamina. Some days he held four or five two-hour townhall meetings; one day I was at the fourth one, and he fielded everything thrown at him, always trying to answer the question asked rather than seguing into canned talking points.

The senator I saw on TV Thursday was not the same man. And that's unfortunate, because McCain has seemed like the most likely Republican senator to start the process of backing away from Trump,

and the British election

Prime Minister Theresa May called for a new election with the idea that the timing was favorable and she'd expand her majority, strengthening her bargaining position going into the Brexit negotiations with the European Union. It didn't work out that way: Her Conservative Party (the Tories) started with 331 of the 650 seats in the House of Commons, and wound up with 318 instead.

That's less than a majority, but it appears that she'll stay in office after working out a deal with the Unionist Party, which has 10 seats and represents what used to be the Protestant faction in Northern Ireland's civil war.

The party is likely to have a lengthy wish list of demands in return for its support for a Conservative government, including the outright rejection of any “special status” for Northern Ireland in the EU after Brexit.

In other words, the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland will be a hard border, not the soft border that currently exists because both sides are in the EU. How Catholics will take that remains to be seen, but The Independent is worried about maintaining the Northern Ireland peace agreement.


It's intriguing to try to map British trends onto the United States, especially given that last summer's Brexit vote can be read as a harbinger of Trump's victory. If you make that translation, the Labour Party's Jeremy Corbin almost pulled off what Bernie Sanders hoped to do: by turning Labour away from its Tony Blair (i.e. Clintonist) past and swinging further to the left, he drew major support from younger voters, got people to the polls who don't usually vote, and even got a slice of UKIP (i.e. Trump) voters.

But he still didn't win. This is where mapping UK elections onto the US gets tricky: Because the UK doesn't have a two-party system, you don't need anything like a majority of the votes. (Brexit, with its binary choice between Remain and Leave, was a better approximation of a US election.) The vote totals of both the Tories (42%) and Labour (40%) would have been enough for a landslide in some previous elections. In Tony Blair's last election in 2005, for example, his Labour Party got 35% of the vote and won 355 seats. But a Sanders-like candidate who got 40% of the U.S. vote would suffer a catastrophic defeat. So the parallels have limited value.

and Wonder Woman

I haven't seen the Wonder Woman movie yet -- given the past DC movies I expected it to be terrible; apparently it isn't -- but the discussions surrounding it are fascinating.

First, there are the howls of reverse sexism directed at theaters that have scheduled a few women-only showings of the film. (Whatever other issues might arise, it was a good business decision. The screenings sold out quickly.)

As regular readers probably know, I'm skeptical about the whole concept of reverse discrimination (i.e., discrimination against some dominant group). Too often, what feels like reverse persecution is just the strange feeling of being treated like everyone else, a phenomenon I first discussed in 2012's "The Distress of the Privileged".

The main thing that's problematic about all-male or all-white clubs or schools is that they can become tools for a dominant group to maintain its dominance. (If business deals are made over golf, excluding women from a golfing club excludes them from those deals.) So I guess I'd be suspicious of women-only events in those rare settings already dominated by women -- say, at a convention for nurses or elementary-ed teachers -- where men might already feel like outsiders. But I'm not seeing how a women-only Wonder Woman screening helps women consolidate some unfair advantage.

Back in 2014, Sian Ferguson of Everyday Feminism explained the purpose of safe spaces. The slam on safe spaces is that they are echo chambers for people who want to avoid ever hearing critical ideas. But when your group has an actual oppression problem, you can never go very long without facing criticism. The point of a safe space isn't to avoid criticism forever, it's to get away from it for a few hours.

As a rape victim, I am constantly exposed to the notion that I deserve to be blamed for my trauma. ... The assumption my safe space makes – that I should not be blamed for my rape – is already challenged constantly by most of society.

I doubt that women who attend superhero movies are unexposed to male points of view on superheroes, including Wonder Woman.

Stephen Miller gives an account of sneaking into a women-only screening and nobody caring. He liked the movie. Ben Pobjie is joking (I think) when he warns that "male corpses will litter the streets". And I'm pretty sure that "Confirmed: 31 Women Contract Lesbianism after Female-Only Viewing of Wonder Woman 3D" is satire.


Second, the question of whether movies are changing: Can a woman director make a summer blockbuster about a female character? I liked Michelle Wolf's comment on The Daily Show.

You know when it will feel like women are equal at the box office? When we get to make a bad superhero movie and then immediately make another bad one. Men get chance after chance to make superhero movies. No one left crappy Batman vs. Superman saying: "Well, I guess we're done making man movies."


And finally, a controversy I never would have anticipated: Gal Gadot (pronounced Guh-DOTT), who plays Wonder Woman, is a Jewish Israeli. Should she count as white? This turned out to be a major topic of discussion in some Jewish circles. Dani Ishai Behan argued that the historic oppression of Jews and the continued existence of antisemitism makes Jews people of color; subsuming them into "white" erases them. Noah Berlatsky doesn't dispute the present reality of antisemitism, the history of oppression, or the significance of Jewish identity, but countered that in the context (of people of color complaining about the few roles available to them and the few positive characters they resemble) the point is disingenuous.

Gadot is, after all, playing a white character; she was clearly cast because people see her as white. The argument that she was a person of color was transparently made in bad faith; it was meant to distract from actual POC folks asking for better representation.

and you might also be interested in ...

For years, Kansas has been the proving ground for conservative economics: Tax cuts will create jobs, lower rates will increase revenue rather than diminish it, and so on. The results have been bad. Since Governor Brownback's tax cuts in 2012, growth has been sluggish, and the end result has been not just intractable deficits, but also pressure to make up the difference by spending less on education and highways -- a trade-off voters would never have approved if it had been submitted to them all at once. ("How about this? You give up good roads and schools, and the state's credit rating goes down, but the rich get to pay less tax.")

Well, that nightmare might be ending. After several attempts, the Republican-led legislature finally succeeded in overriding a Brownback veto to reverse much of his signature tax cut. This is a hopeful sign for the two-party system in America: Republican does not necessarily mean crazy; if something clearly doesn't work, eventually voters see it and politicians respond.

The open question is how far this goes. Kansas will elect a new governor in 2018; moderate and conservative candidates are already angling for the Republican nomination. And if moderate Republicanism makes a comeback in Kansas, could the same thing happen nationally?


For whatever it's worth, given that he might say the opposite tomorrow, Trump finally endorsed NATO's Article 5, the one that pledges all NATO countries to defend each other. But Trump is still pushing the bogus idea that NATO countries spending less than 2% of their GDP on defense "owe" something to somebody.


Betsy DeVos is just as bad as Democrats feared. She wants public-funded private schools whose backers will be able to make unlimited amounts of money off the taxpayers, while not protecting LGBTQ students from bullying or harassment. Collins and Murkowski voted against DeVos' confirmation as education secretary, but all the other Republican senators have to answer for this.


Good Atlantic article about Trump's policy-free administration.

The secret of the Trump infrastructure plan is: There is no infrastructure plan. Just like there is no White House tax plan. Just like there was no White House health care plan. The simplest summary of White House economic policy to date is four words long: There is no policy.

TrumpCare was written by Congress; Trump and his HHS secretary played virtually no role. The "Trump tax cut" is vacuous; Congress will have to fill in all the details. And last week was supposed to be "Infrastructure Week", when the administration rolled out its plan to create jobs by rebuilding the country's worn-out public infrastructure. But the plan is mostly just a wish that other people -- states, cities, profit-making corporations -- will do good things. The administration has no specific projects in mind and offers little-to-no money to pay for anything.


The NYT verified something I had surmised a few weeks ago: Trump still hasn't replaced any of the U.S. attorneys he fired.


The Bill Cosby trial is happening.

but we need to keep paying attention to health care

In America as we used to know it, if you didn't hear any news about a major piece of legislation, that meant it had stalled. We're used to the idea that legislation goes through hearings, committee votes, and a series of public proposals that eventually converge on a bill, which then gets debated over several days or weeks before being voted on. Each of those events is supposed to generate headlines, so if you don't see headlines, nothing much is happening.

Well, that's another way that Trump's America is different from the one we've been living in all our lives: The AHCA (a.k.a. TrumpCare) went through the House almost in secret. Versions were worked out in closed sessions within the Republican caucus, the hearing process did not consider any amendments, and the vote happened too fast for the Congressional Budget Office to analyze the final proposal. It wasn't going to happen and then suddenly it was done.

Oh, but the Senate would be different, everyone said. Well, not so much.

[Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell is speeding toward a vote, with the goal of passing a healthcare bill the last week of June, before the Fourth of July recess.

Republicans have said there will be no committee hearings or markups for the bill, a major departure from the standard Senate process. Instead, the bill will go straight to the floor for a vote.

Democrats fear the legislation will be kept secret until just a couple of days before the vote, to minimize time for opposition to build.

If things were working in the usual American way, all the attention Trump and James Comey are getting would keep TrumpCare from raising the energy it needs to pass. But McConnell has come up with a different method: He's using Trump the way a pickpocket uses a distracting partner: Trump grabs your attention like an obnoxious drunk in a bar, and McConnell quietly sneaks up behind you and steals your health insurance.

But what about the Republican moderates who were supposed to save the country from the worst excesses of the House bill? They've gone silent. As Josh Marshall generalizes: "The GOP moderates always cave."

So especially if you live in a state with a Republican senator, you can't wait for the newspapers to tell you when it's time to take action. Whatever you can do to keep Republicans from taking health insurance away from tens of millions of Americans, you need to do it now.

and let's close with something incredibly efficient

Do you have 20 minutes to review the history of the entire world?