Monday, September 25, 2017

False Choices

Flexibility with reduced funding is a false choice. I will not pit seniors, children, families, the mentally ill, the critically ill, hospitals, care providers, or any other Nevadan against each other because of cuts to Nevada’s health-care delivery system proposed by the Graham-Cassidy amendment.

- Governor Brian Sandoval (R-Nevada)

This week's featured post is "Nationalism Reconsidered" and "Why Republicans Can't Stop Trying to Repeal ObamaCare".

This week everybody was talking about yet another last-ditch attempt to repeal ObamaCare

which appears to be failing, just like the others did. Sadly, even this is probably not the end, as I explain in the second featured post.

Like previous attempts, the Graham-Cassidy bill contains nothing to attract Democrats and so can afford to lose only three Republican senators. Rand Paul declared against it first, because it retained too much of the spending in ObamaCare, even if it did redirect it through the states. John McCain declared against it Friday, saying that he couldn't vote for it without more information, like a complete CBO analysis, which would not be available in time for the vote. Susan Collins seems to be waiting for what little analysis the CBO will provide, but finds it "very difficult for me to envision a scenario where I would end up voting for this bill." Lisa Murkowski hasn't committed herself, but she'd have a hard time squaring a yes vote with the principles she has laid out. Even Ted Cruz and Mike Lee are said to be against the bill "in its current form", which probably means their votes are available for the right concessions, with the risk that those concessions might alienate some other senators.

So it's not completely dead yet, but Graham-Cassidy has to roll a long series of sevens to pass.

Midnight Saturday is the deadline for passage, which sounds like a bad-movie plot device rather than a real rule, but that actually seems to be how things shake out. [Skip this if you're already bored: In a nutshell, the reason has to do with an arcane process for avoiding filibusters, known as reconciliation. To be eligible for reconciliation, which allows a bill to pass the Senate with a simple majority (50 senators plus the vice president) rather than the 60 votes necessary to break a filibuster, a bill has to meet a long list of conditions, one of which is that it has to match up with reconciliation instructions in the current fiscal year's budget resolution. Fiscal 2017 ends on September 30, so the budget resolution's reconciliation instructions expire then.]

[Keep skipping: So why not roll the reconciliation instructions from FY2017's budget resolution over into FY2018's? That runs into another rule that also sounds like a plot device: There are limits on how many reconciliation instructions a budget resolution can contain, and FY2018's are already reserved for tax reform. (Or at least that's how it looks at the moment; Orrin Hatch is looking for a way to do both.) So at midnight on Saturday, the ObamaCare-repeal coach becomes a pumpkin, the horses turn back into mice, but for some reason the slipper is still glass -- stop asking so many questions.]


You expect Democrats in Congress and former Obama administration officials (including Obama himself) to make the case against this bill. But the strongest opposition voice has turned out to be someone you wouldn't usually expect: late-night host Jimmy Kimmel.

Kimmel first spoke out about healthcare when in May when he told the story of his newborn son's heart problem, repeatedly choking up as he did so.

A week later Kimmel came back to the topic, and had an on-air conversation with Senator Cassidy, who had just started talking about "the Jimmy Kimmel test", which he summarized like this: "Would a child born with a congenital heart disease be able to get everything she or he would need in that first year of life?"

Cassidy sounded great in that interview. But if he thought Kimmel wasn't going to check whether he followed up on those good words, he found out differently Tuesday:

I know you guys are going to find this hard to believe, but a few months ago after my son had open-heart surgery (which was something I spoke about on the air) a politician, a senator named Bill Cassidy from Louisiana, was on my show, and he wasn't very honest. ... This guy, Bill Cassidy, just lied right to my face.

Cassidy responded by lamenting that Kimmel "does not understand" his bill. Kimmel played that clip the next night, characterizing it as playing "the all-comedians-are-dummies card". He then asked Cassidy which part of the bill he doesn't understand, and listed all the objectionable things the bill does. And the back-and-forth continued Thursday as well.

The wonderful thing about this whole series is the way Kimmel has flipped conservatives' favorite script. They love to portray liberals as out-of-touch Washington insiders dishonestly condescending to concerned American parents. Now that's what Senator Cassidy and Senator Graham doing.

and the NFL

No, not the games, the players' response to Trump. Everything in the world is about Trump now.

It started Friday in Alabama at a rally for GOP Senator Luther Strange (who seems to be losing a primary battle with the truly strange Roy Moore), where we found out what Donald Trump thinks about free expression:

Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, say: "Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out. He's fired. He's fired."?

This, of course, is an insult directed at former Super Bowl quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who last season began protesting against police brutality and racial inequality by quietly and respectfully kneeling during the national anthem. Many players (Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, for example) had expressed respect for the protest, but only a few (Michael Bennett of the Seattle Seahawks comes to mind) had participated themselves.

Until yesterday. Seeing the President of the United States call their colleagues a "sons of bitches" (for doing something that hurts no one, and that offended people can just look away from) made players take a stand ... or a knee. Not all players and not all teams responded the same way, but in every game in the country (and one in London), players did something, often with the support of the team's owners. Some players joined the kneeling protest, while others simply protested Trump's attempt to turn players against each other by locking arms. Some teams resisted being divided by staying in the locker room until the anthem was over. The WaPo's Jerry Brewer summed up:

The prevailing statement was rather simple, at least for people who have the decency to resist acting like Trump and labeling an athlete protesting police brutality and [in]equality a “son of a bitch.” It was about having concern for the person next to you and showing that unity doesn’t require shaming others to think the way you do.

A few of my reactions:

  • It's disturbing the way that Trump has stepped out of the usual bounds of politics and taken over the entire national conversation. Back in 2011, Hank Williams Jr. got fired by Monday Night Football for ranting about President Obama, but that was all him; Obama never engaged with the controversy. For eight years, you could escape Obama by watching football. But today, where can you put your attention and be confident of escaping Trump?
  • This event is a lesson in what usually happens when a president talks tough: His fans cheer, but whatever problem they think he's solving just gets worse. (Far from being intimidated, more players are kneeling.) The people who cheer Trump's North Korea rhetoric should think about this.
  • If only Trump got this outraged by people waving swastikas. Maybe if black athletes would start doing that, he'd finally denounce it with some real feeling.
  • Here's the saddest thing about this story: The issues that motivated Kaepernick to begin with are playing out in St. Louis right now, but the country isn't paying attention.

Lest basketball players feel left out, Trump insulted them too. Traditionally, championship teams visit the White House, and everybody has a feel-good photo op. But Trump's appeals to racism have made that ceremony problematic for black athletes like Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors. It's a real dilemma: politicize a tradition that used to be purely ceremonial, or normalize a president who is squishy on the KKK?

Athletes have turned down the White House before, for a variety of reasons, and presidents have never made a big deal about it. But Trump did, tweeting that he was "disinviting" Curry. Like Kaepernick, Curry enjoyed a wave of social-media support from his fellow players, including LeBron James, who tweeted at Trump: "Going to the White House was a great honor until you showed up." All-star guard Chris Paul added something about the NFL controversy: "I doubt he's man enough to call any of those players a son of a bitch to their face."


Sports TV anchors -- at least black ones -- haven't escaped either. After ESPN's Jamele Hill called Trump a "white supremacist" on her personal Twitter account, the White House called for her to be fired. ESPN basically told her not to do it again.

An aside: Hill's show, SportsCenter's flagship 6 o'clock slot, is an interesting cultural phenomenon. For years, a typical sports-TV segment featured white guys talking about black guys. SC6's two black hosts, Hill and Michael Smith, break that mold. And Hill isn't just eye candy, or a Mom moderating between outspoken men; she's a sharp sports fan with a mind of her own. (Hill and Smith banter and bicker like a married couple that feels secure about the strength of their relationship.) Smith describes the criticism the show sometimes gets for being too black, and too full of young urban cultural references that older whites may not understand:

This election was about taking the country back from people like us, right? And now, it’s like, "Dammit, I got to come home and watch these two?!” That may not be what you want on SportsCenter. OK. That’s fair. Watch Fox.

and Trump's UN Speech

My threshold of embarrassment for my country has gone up considerably since Inauguration Day, but Trump's speech to the UN General Assembly Tuesday did the trick. Apparently it did for White House chief of staff John Kelly too. (Based on this picture, I'm guessing Melania cleans Kelly's clock at White House poker games.)

In many ways it was the kind of speech a heavy-handed liberal script writer (Aaron Sorkin, maybe) would put in Trump's mouth, full of unintentional ironies. For example, he denounced "rogue regimes" that "threaten other nations". And a bit later he was threatening to unleash "the most destructive weapons known to humanity" against another nation:

The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.

but meanwhile, back at the swamp ...

Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price wants to cut government spending on your healthcare, but not on himself. In particular, he prefers to travel by private plane rather than take commercial flights, even though they are vastly more expensive.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price has taken at least 24 flights on private charter planes at taxpayers’ expense since early May, according to people with knowledge of his travel plans and a review of HHS documents.

The frequency of the trips underscores how private travel has become the norm — rather than the exception — for the Georgia Republican during his tenure atop the federal health agency, which began in February. The cost of the trips identified by POLITICO exceeds $300,000, according to a review of federal contracts and similar trip itineraries.

Price's excuses for the extravagance don't hold water. The article says that Obama's HHS secretaries, Sylvia Mathews Burwell and Kathleen Sebelius, took commercial flights. Price claims he uses privates jets "only when commercial travel is not feasible", but Politico found that "many of the flights are between large cities with frequent, low-cost airline traffic". (D.C. to Philadelphia was one of them.) An HHS spokesperson said Price took private jets because commercial flights are "unreliable" and once caused him to miss important an meeting.

But the flight in question — to a two-day industry conference at a Ritz-Carlton hotel in Southern California — didn't get off the ground on a day when storms virtually shut down air traffic in the Washington region, preventing even private jets from getting out.

None of this should be surprising, because we've known all along that Price has low ethical standards. The Senate knew when it confirmed him that when he was in Congress, Price bought stock in pharmaceutical companies while sponsoring legislation that would benefit those companies.

Saturday, Price announced that he would stop taking tax-payer funded private jets until a review is completed.


Price's excesses shouldn't be confused with those of fellow cabinet member Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin (net worth: half a billion), who requested a military plane to take him and his wife on their European honeymoon, and took an expensive government-funded private flight to visit Fort Knox, for reasons no one has been able to explain, at precisely the time of the eclipse.

Nor with those of EPA Director Scott Pruitt, whose "business" trips keep taking him home to Oklahoma, where he is rumored to be planning to run for governor. Pruitt is also diverting resources from environmental protection to his own security.

Scott Pruitt’s round-the-clock personal security detail, which demands triple the manpower of his predecessors at the Environmental Protection Agency, has prompted officials to rotate in special agents from around the country who otherwise would be investigating environmental crimes. ... Pruitt’s protective detail is the rare area of the EPA that is growing even as the Trump administration seeks a 31 percent cut to the agency’s budget.

Here's a security idea: Maybe Pruitt would face fewer threats if he actually started trying to protect the environment.


Associated Press has been unsuccessfully investigating what happened to the whopping $107 million Trump raised for his inaugural celebration. Obama's inauguration was bigger in almost every sense, but cost only $50 million, a sum many at the time already considered outrageous. Trump had pledged that any left-over money would go to charity ... but we've heard that before.

During the campaign, the WaPo's David Fahrenthold investigated Trump's (lack of) donations to charity:

[Trump] spent years constructing an image as a philanthropist by appearing at charity events and by making very public — even nationally televised — promises to give his own money away. It was, in large part, a facade. ...

Instead, throughout his life in the spotlight, whether as a businessman, television star or presidential candidate, The Post found that Trump had sought credit for charity he had not given — or had claimed other people’s giving as his own. ...

Trump promised to give away the proceeds of Trump University. He promised to donate the salary he earned from “The Apprentice.” He promised to give personal donations to the charities chosen by contestants on “Celebrity Apprentice.” He promised to donate $250,000 to a charity helping Israeli soldiers and veterans.

Together, those pledges would have increased Trump’s lifetime giving by millions of dollars. But The Post has been unable to verify that he followed through on any of them. Instead, The Post found that his personal giving has almost disappeared entirely in recent years.

Rachel Maddow has also been looking into the inaugural-money story and getting no-commented. On Thursday, she interviewed Craig Holman of Public Citizen, who told her:

The source of funds has to be disclosed after the inauguration, but how that money gets spent is anyone's guess -- no rules, no regulations. Quite frankly, it could even go into the pocket of Donald Trump.

Holman also addressed the fact that the Russia-related legal expenses of both Trump and Donald Trump Jr. are being paid by either the RNC or Trump's re-election fund. Paying for the president seemed legal to him, but Trump Jr. (who had no official role in the campaign) raised issues.

Maddow has been wondering about the mounting legal expenses for administration figures who aren't rich, like Mike Pence and Sean Spicer. The RNC and the re-election fund aren't paying for them.

and you also might be interested in ...

One of the under-appreciated aspects of the Russia/Trump story is how Russian operatives used social media to spread fake news against Clinton and to boost Trump. The Daily Beast describes one Russian-sponsored Facebook page that actively organized face-to-face pro-Trump rallies in Florida.

Facebook agreed to turn over to Congress thousands of pro-Trump and anti-Hillary ads that alleged Russian agents spent $100K distributing. NBC reports:

A Facebook employee said Wednesday that there were unspecified connections between the divisive ads and a well-known Russian "troll factory" in St. Petersburg that publishes comments on social media.


Black Lives Matter protesters went to a pro-Trump rally and were actually given a chance to speak. It went well. Seriously.


Paul Manafort was offering private briefings to a Russian oligarch while he was Trump campaign chairman.

and let's close with something natural

Looking for a prescription that will help you deal with the stress of modern life? Try Nature.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Weirdness

That was some weird shit.

- George W. Bush's reaction to Trump's inaugural address,
as quoted by Hillary Clinton

This week's featured post is "Single Payer Joins the Debate".

This week everybody was talking about North Korea

Last week, a commenter took me to task for ignoring the North Korea situation. And then this week even more stuff happened: Last Monday, the UN Security Council approved new sanctions against North Korea. Friday, North Korea flew another missile over Japan. U.S. rhetoric remained at a high level, with National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster insisting that "There is a military option." And yesterday, UN Ambassador Nicki Haley warned: "If North Korea keeps on with this reckless behavior, if the United States has to defend itself or defend its allies in any way, North Korea will be destroyed."

That all sounds very urgent, but I continue to be unmoved by all the apparent drama. I think all the major players already knows how this comes out: Kim Jong-Un will keep his bombs and missiles, and will be restrained only by mutually assured destruction, as all of our other nuclear-armed enemies and rivals have been. That sounds like a defeat for the U.S., so of course nobody wants to admit it. But try to come up with some other outcome.

  • Kim isn't going to give up his nukes, because without them he could be overthrown by a U.S. invasion, as Saddam Hussein was. He sees this as a survival issue, so nobody -- not China or anybody else -- is going to change his mind.
  • This is a regime that watched half a million (or more) of its citizens die in the famines of 1994-1998, so no economic sanctions the rest of the world could stand to impose are going to make it do something it doesn't want to do. (And Russia is going to undercut those sanctions anyway.)
  • We could undoubtedly take down the Korean regime in a preemptive strike, but not before it leveled Seoul with conventional artillery, or nuked both Seoul and Tokyo. If we start a war that results in tens of millions of our allies' citizens dying, we'll be a pariah nation. No one will ever ally with us again.
  • The only military strike that could avoid that outcome would be an all-out nuclear annihilation that happened too fast for any response. In other words, we'd mass-murder 25 million people, with God knows what environmental consequences for South Korea, Japan, and China. Again, we're a pariah nation and all our leaders are war criminals.

You could imagine some magnificently planned limited strike that took out only (and all of) North Korea's nuclear facilities, or only (and all of) its missiles, leaving Kim with no reprisal options other than raining conventional hell down on Seoul. And you could imagine that he'd decide not to do that, for fear of what our next response would be. But seriously, is anybody going to roll those dice?

So yeah, there's a military option: If Kim starts using his nukes without provocation -- which I don't think he'll do; he's a survivalist, not a madman -- we'll have to overthrow him militarily and accept the consequences. But in any other circumstance, we'll just have to learn to live with another nuclear-armed enemy.

In short, I see all the rhetoric and sanctions and threats as a bunch of sound and fury that signifies nothing. North Korea will eventually have nuclear missiles capable of reaching the U.S., just as Russia and China already do. I'm not happy about that, but jumping around and yelling about it isn't going to make any difference.

and single-payer health care

I covered Senator Sanders' latest Medicare-for-All bill in the featured post.

and the Equifax breach

A company you may have never heard of announced it let hackers steal information about 143 million people.

What makes this loss of personal data different from a lot of the others we've seen is that none of us ever decided to trust Equifax. It's not like we took a job there or shopped with them or typed our information into their web site. Most people probably didn't even know what Equifax was until they heard that it had let their personal information get stolen.

The big three credit-reporting companies (Equifax, Experian, and Transunion) are to personal credit what the big three bond-rating companies (Moody's, Standard & Poor's, and Fitch) are to corporate credit: private companies that have become gatekeepers. You can't live anything like a normal life in America without generating a file in all three.

Adding insult to injury, three high Equifax executives sold shares of company stock before the breach was announced, saving themselves hundreds of thousands in losses. I'm not a lawyer, but that looks kind of suspicious. (If I were them, I'd claim that somebody hacked my brokerage account and made the trades. Who could have suspected that "password" wasn't a good password?)


While reading security wonks, I occasionally run into the Pudd'nhead Wilson Principle:

Put your eggs in the one basket, and -- WATCH THAT BASKET.


The Verge argues:

Thursday’s breach should wake us up to how fundamentally broken this system is, and how urgently we need to replace it. Breaches aren’t simply security failures; they’re the inevitable result of a broken identity system. It’s time to rip it up and start again.


Consumer Reports has a article about how to protect yourself against identity theft by criminals using the stolen data. (Lucky me: I got a free credit-tracking service back when the federal government let criminals steal my information.) Sadly, most of the things you can do are examples of the you-don't-have-to-swim-faster-than-the-shark principle: You don't need to make yourself bulletproof, you just need to present criminals with a stiffer challenge than most other people do.

and Hillary Clinton

She came back in to the public eye this week with a new book and a string of high-profile interviews. And no, she's not running for anything; that part of her life is over.

I haven't read her book yet. I probably should; I read her other books as research when her campaign was starting, and I was surprised to find that I liked her authorial voice. And people I respect (like James Fallows and Rachel Maddow) say it's not like the usual politician's memoir. But I'm not sure I have it in me to relive 2016 yet.

Still, Fallows relates one line that makes me interested: Hillary's account of George W. Bush's response to Trump's inaugural speech: "That was some weird shit." I can imagine that Hillary has heard a lot of similarly interesting comments that have never made it into the public record.


One really tiresome way to rehash the 2016 election is to have this argument: "No, your explanation of Trump's win is wrong; my explanation is the correct one." In an election as close as 2016, all kinds of things were decisive factors; if they'd been different, Clinton would be president.

So yes, Clinton's loss was due to bad strategy, Comey, Russia, misogyny, overconfidence, Jill Stein, fake news, racist backlash against Obama, lack of personal warmth, decades of slanders, false equivalence in the media, and a long list of other things. Nobody who makes any of those arguments is wrong. When a straw breaks the camel's back, every single straw is decisive.

and you also might be interested in ...

Congress has one last chance to repeal ObamaCare before its reconciliation authority ends on September 30.


Tuesday, the Supreme Court "blocked two lower court rulings that invalidated parts of Texas' [legislature and congressional district] maps where lawmakers were found to have discriminated against voters of color." So the racially gerrymandered maps will help Republicans hang onto their House majority in 2018.

The ruling was 5-4, so this decision is a partisan dividend that Republicans get for blocking President Obama from appointing Merrick Garland (or anybody) to the seat now held by Neil Gorsuch. Charles Pierce:

The new Gorsuch majority performed the way that the Gorsuch majority was designed to behave as soon as it was determined by Mitch McConnell that the Garland majority was something up with which he would not put.


Another institution that is behaving as it was designed to behave is Trump's Presidential Commission on Election Integrity: Vice Chairman Kris Kobach is using it as a platform to spread lies about voter fraud. He wrote a column at Breitbart claiming that New Hampshire's 2016 election was contaminated by as many as 5313 fraudulent votes. Since both Hillary Clinton and Maggie Hassan won by less than that, Kobach concludes:

Facts have come to light that indicate that a pivotal, close election was likely changed through voter fraud on November 8, 2016: New Hampshire’s U.S. Senate Seat, and perhaps also New Hampshire’s four Electoral College votes in the presidential election.

What he actually found is that 5313 people took advantage of same-day registration while using an out-of-state ID (like a driver's license), and had not gotten a New Hampshire driver's license or registered a car in the state in the next ten months.

PolitiFact explains why this is not proof of anything. What Kobach seems to have found are out-of-state college students who spend enough time in New Hampshire to vote here legally. Forty years ago, that would have been me: I voted at my college address in Michigan, while keeping my Illinois driver's license. Eventually my parents gave me their old car, but it stayed registered in their names.

Like so many voter-fraud claims, this could be nailed down if anybody decided to invest the effort, but they never do. (One case were investigators took the fraud claims seriously -- and watched them evaporate -- was the basis for my post "The Myth of the Zombie Voter".)  Kobach has a list of names. He knows who these 5313 people are. If they've committed fraud, why not press charges? In fact he will never track them down and never press charges, because the point was to create a headline out of nothing. Being laughed out of court -- as he would be -- doesn't serve his purposes. The only fraud here is Kobach himself.


Supposedly, Trump is negotiating a DACA deal with Pelosi and Schumer. I'll believe it when I see it.


Just what we need: another hurricane. Maria is up to Category 3 and apparently headed for Puerto Rico.


Trump is still trying to make Susan Rice the villain of his version of the Russia story, the one where Obama officials manufactured something out of nothing to start a witch hunt against him. But it's still not working.


The latest in Trump's Herculean attempt to drain flood the swamp: The Office of Government Ethics has approved lobbyists making anonymous donations to legal defense funds for White House staffers. Because of course no lobbyists would be crass enough to wink and nod to White House staff in ways that pierced their anonymity. And staffers wouldn't be grateful or anything, or see the contributions as favors that should be answered with more favors.


I was surprised how even-handed this WaPo article on Antifa was.


Gretchen Kelly explains something she suspects men don't know. (I think she's right.) Namely, just how pervasive various forms of harassment are.

and let's close with something far out

The Cassini spacecraft died a hero's death Friday. Years past the originally scheduled end of its mission to explore Saturn, Cassini used its last bit of fuel to plunge into Saturn's atmosphere, burning itself up to insure that no Earth microbes contaminated Saturn's moons, which (thanks to Cassini's discoveries) we now think might have life.

All kinds of sites posted their favorite Cassini photos; the most complete collection is (of course) NASA's. Here is what Saturn looks like when the Sun is behind it. You can see the translucence of the rings, and even an outermost ring we usually don't notice.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Facing the Storm

Every life has to end one way or another

- Senator John McCain discussing his brain cancer yesterday on CNN's State of the Union

There's no featured post this week. The week's news was dominated by hurricane-watching, which is the kind of current event a one-person blog isn't equipped to cover well.

This week everybody was talking about Irma

All week the story was Irma: her strength, her path of destruction across the Caribbean, and where current projections said she would hit the United States.

Personally, I spent a lot of the week listening to hurricane coverage and wondering why Irma had seized so much more of my attention than Harvey had two weeks before. Both were huge and deadly. Both hit the United States and did (and in Irma's case is still doing) major damage. Yet for some reason Harvey coverage seemed like all the other storm coverage I've watched over the years -- Andrew, Katrina, Wilma, Sandy -- while I got caught up in the drama of Irma: Would it hit Florida's east or west coasts? What would happen to the Keys? Would it make landfall at Naples, Fort Myers, Tampa?

Part of the reason was undoubtedly personal: I know Florida much better than I know Texas. I have close friends outside of Sarasota. I used to visit my snowbirding parents each year in Fort Lauderdale. My wife and I honeymooned in Key West. I've walked the riverwalk in Tampa (where Anderson Cooper had stationed himself Sunday). Texas' gulf coast, on the other hand, is just a place on a map to me. Whether Harvey made landfall at Corpus Christi or Rockport or further up the line at Galveston ... no doubt it mattered tremendously to the people who live there, but I don't have any personal reason to care about one of those towns more than the others.

I wonder also if the media coverage was different: Irma seemed to blot out the country's usual politics in a way that Harvey didn't. (That's one reason why it seemed pointless to write a featured post this week.) I don't have any objective measurement of that, and I'd be interested to hear in the comments whether it seemed that way to you.

As for why the networks might have covered Irma differently (if it indeed they did), I think my reaction might be more widespread than I initially suspected: Most of the country has some reason to feel a personal connection to Florida. It is the most visited state in the union. Nearly half the non-Floridians in the U.S. report having gone to Florida for either work or pleasure. It's also the country's top retirement destination, which means that almost everybody cares about somebody in Florida: parent, grandparent, mentor, or friend. Lots and lots of Americans have wondered if they might move there themselves someday.


After tracking Irma's path for a while, Jose diverged to the north, missing islands Irma had already devastated. It now looks likely to stall over the Atlantic.


Irma's winds hitting 185 sparked discussion about whether the Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale needs a Category 6. After all, Category 4 starts at 130 mph winds and Category 5 at 157. Surely by 185 you need a new category.

Popular Mechanics explains why not: The scale was created not as an abstract measure, but to help communities calibrate their preparations.

Category 5 is widespread, catastrophic damage. There's not really anything worse than that.

In other words, if Cat 5 already means "Run for your lives!" there's no need for any higher category.


First responders who breathed in the fumes from the post-Harvey chemical-plant explosion in Crosby, Texas are suing the company. They claim the owner minimized the dangers and failed to give them adequate warnings of what to expect after the explosion.


The last time a hurricane season pointed so clearly to global warming was 2005, when Katrina and Wilma hit, and the Atlantic storm list ran out of letters in the alphabet. Until this year, though, no subsequent Category 3 or higher hurricanes had made landfall in the United States. (Sandy had declined to Category 2 by the time it ravaged the Northeast in 2012.) So there had been talk of a "hurricane drought".

Chris Mooney discusses what happened. First, there was simple luck. The Atlantic continued producing an above-average number of hurricanes, but their paths stayed out to sea. There does appear to be some decades-long cycle in hurricane activity, but it's more like bull-and-bear cycles in the stock market than anything you'd want to count on: The oscillations are of no standard length, and since we don't understand the mechanism, we don't really know that the apparent pattern is more than a statistical anomaly.

Mooney's article re-emphasizes a point I've made before about climate change: Weather is such a noisy system that it's not really the place to start when you look for evidence (or try to convince someone else). As an analogy, think about the annual winter-to-summer warming: If all you had to go on was your own thermometer, you might suffer through a Memorial Day cold snap, look back to that one freakishly warm day in early April, and convince yourself that "spring warming" is a myth.

The other end of the phenomenon is easier to understand and see evidence of: The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is rising. It goes up every year. The rise is caused by burning fossil fuels. CO2 is a greenhouse gas that causes the planet to reflect less of the Sun's energy back into space.

Given all that, you'd expect the planetwide increase in retained energy to show up in all sorts of ways: heat waves, hurricanes, rising oceans, shrinking glaciers, and so on. And in the long term it does, just as summer always eventually arrives. But all of those effects arise in complex systems with many inputs other than how much solar energy the planet is retaining. CO2 has its foot on the accelerator, but sometimes the car is going uphill, and the increase won't show up until it starts downhill again.


While we're on climate change, have you ever wondered about that 3% of climate-science papers that don't support the consensus theory? Researchers looked at them, and found nothing they could replicate.


Is there anything more annoying than people who see natural disasters as evidence of God's fury and are sure they know why God is angry? It's one thing to use God-language metaphorically to personalize actual cause-and-effect, like saying God is sending hurricanes in response to the thoughtless way we're pumping CO2 into the atmosphere. But attributing Harvey and Irma to abortion or same-sex marriage is treating God like a puppet: He says whatever you want Him to say.


Texas' recovery from Harvey is producing a church-and-state issue: Should churches get FEMA help to rebuild? Previously, churches weren't eligible for disaster-relief funds, but that was before the Supreme Court's recent Trinity Lutheran decision, which extended a state program subsidizing playground resurfacing to cover a school operated by a church. Chief Justice Roberts wrote:

But the exclusion of Trinity Lutheran from a public benefit for which it is otherwise qualified, solely because it is a church, is odious to our Constitution all the same, and cannot stand.

A new lawsuit by Houston churches wants to extend that decision to disaster relief for houses of worship themselves. I haven't read the Trinity Lutheran decision yet, so I'm not ready to weigh in. But whatever the outcome, I want it to apply equally to all religions. Would Texas Christians be willing to see their tax dollars rebuilding mosques and synagogues?

and Trump's deal with the Democrats

In spite of the hurricanes, the week's most unexpected event came Wednesday when Trump sided with the Democrats on a deal to keep the government running until December 8. The bill (signed Friday) appropriated $15.3 billion for hurricane relief, continued government spending at current levels elsewhere, and raised the debt ceiling. It did all that without any of the usual hostage-taking: no spending cuts to balance the hurricane relief, no attacks on ObamaCare or Medicaid, not even money for Trump's border wall. There was also none of the brinksmanship we've gotten used to: The House and Senate didn't play chicken with each other, and the vote wasn't delayed until minutes before the government would have to shut down.

Republicans felt undercut and several were "seething" (according to The L.A. Times). All 90 of the House votes against the bill came from Republicans. Treasury Secretary Mnuchin and Budget Director Mulvaney reportedly were "met with groans, boos and hisses" Friday morning when they tried to get Republican congresspeople to support the deal.

That agreement was part of a larger Trump charm offensive towards Democrats. When Trump went to North Dakota Wednesday to promote his (so far vacuous, as I explained last week) tax reform proposal, he took Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp with him on Air Force One, and appeared with her on stage.

For a Democrat fighting to keep her seat next year in a state Trump won by 36 points, the senator's day could not have gone much better. Trump's tax push has yet to be written as legislation, and a vote still remains a hypothetical. Heitkamp's appearance with the president, then, cost her little in exchange for what amounted to an endorsement of her willingness to work across the aisle.

Since so far Trump's tax reform "proposal" is only a vague list of principles, Heitkamp could easily support it in theory and still vote against the bill that ultimately comes to the floor.

He also took Nancy Pelosi's suggestion to reassure DACA immigrants that they won't be deported in the next six months. He agreed with Chuck Schumer on the goal of repealing the debt ceiling permanently.

(BTW: That's a good idea. The debt limit has essentially become a self-destruct button that Congress must periodically decide whether to push. A debt ceiling made sense before 1974, when Congress considered each tax and appropriation separately and members could duck responsibility for the deficits those bills added up to. But now the irresponsibility runs in the other direction: A member can vote for a budget that includes a deficit, and then preen for his constituents by voting against allowing the government to borrow the money.)

The punditry has a number of theories about why Trump is doing this. If you're in a generous mood, you might imagine that he's doing it for the good of the country. After all, we avoid a government shutdown or a debt crisis for another three months, and hurricane victims start getting help, all without creating another artificial crisis.

You might also imagine that he's decided to begin taking seriously the populism he campaigned on. Up until now, Trump's executive orders have nodded in the direction of campaign promises about immigration and trade, but he has let Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell control his legislative agenda. So ObamaCare repeal-and-replace would have done its greatest damage in precisely the poor rural communities where Trump is so popular, and tax reform looked likely to become yet another giveaway to the super-rich, with working-class Americans offered little more than a mess of pottage in exchange for Social Security and Medicare birthrights that would inevitably be cut once budget deficits balloon.

So charming Democrats could, in theory, be the overture of an authentically populist tax reform, one that eliminates the loopholes where the rich hide their income and uses the money to either cut middle-class taxes or lower the deficit.

Another theory is that Trump didn't like hearing that Congress would be too busy in September to accomplish much on tax reform or infrastructure, so he made a quick deal that would "clear the decks". The Hill reports:

Lawmakers had expected to fight over fiscal issues right up until the end of September, but now the schedule for the month is surprisingly clear.

Finally, there's Josh Marshall's theory, which I have to say sounds the most plausible to me:

Trump needs to dominate people. Clearly Trump felt that McConnell and Ryan are not serving him well enough or loyally enough or both. So he lashed out or tried to damage them. Schumer and Pelosi were simply the most convenient cudgels available. ... It’s been clear for weeks that [Trump] feels routinely betrayed by these two men. They don’t produce for him. They embarrass. They fail to defend him. The need to dominate runs deeper than any policy agenda or ideological ambition.

I interpret the recent overtures with a high-school-dance metaphor: Trump's date hasn't been giving him enough adulation, so he's punishing her by flirting with her rival. Pelosi and Schumer should enjoy the dance, but not get fooled into thinking that some great romance is starting. Trump will be back with Ryan and McConnell as soon as he thinks they've learned their lesson.

and DACA

It's still not clear what's going to happen to the Dreamers. Their protection against deportation will start phasing out in six months, and Congress might or might not find a way to help them. (That's a test of Congress' functionality: Almost nobody really wants to deport them, but dysfunctional systems often do things that nobody wants.) And Trump is now leaning both ways: He says he will "revisit" his DACA decision in six months if Congress doesn't do anything.


The stereotypic Dreamer is a teen-ager or 20-something brought to this country from Mexico around age 5. Like a lot of stereotypes, there is some statistical truth in it, but a lot of Dreamers don't fit.

The NYT does the demographics. About 3/4ths of the Dreamers are from Mexico, and other Latino countries provide most of the rest. But not all: 7250 are from South Korea, 4655 from the Philippines, 3435 from Jamaica, and 3182 from India.

Part of what you see there is that not all undocumented immigrants get into the country by sneaking across a border. A large number of them (even ones from Mexico) come here legally as tourists and then stay after their visas expire. The Great Wall of Mexico won't do anything to stop them.


15 state attorney generals are suing to block Trump from ending DACA. It's a difficult argument, and I find it hard to believe they'll succeed. In some sense their case is modeled on the one against Trump's so-called Muslim ban, in which he blocked visitors from six Muslim-majority countries. There, the argument wasn't that Trump lacked the power to issue that order, but that it was unconstitutional for him to issue it capriciously, as a way of discriminating against Muslims.

Ditto here: Obama started DACA via executive order, so Trump certainly has the power to un-order it. To win the case, then, the AGs would have to convince a federal court that Trump's order could only be motivated by anti-Latino animus. It seems like a tough case to make.

but USA Today's investigation of corruption deserves more attention

Wednesday, USA Today published "Trump gets millions from golf members. CEOs and lobbyists get access to president". Abstractly, we all knew the problem Trump's private clubs create:

for the first time in U.S. history, wealthy people with interests before the government have a chance for close and confidential access to the president as a result of payments that enrich him personally.

The initiation fee is $200K at Mar-a-Lago and $300K at Bedminster, with thousands more expected in membership fees each year. A lobbyist or CEO seeking government favors knows that he might meet the President in either place, and the President will know that he has received a large payment -- not a campaign contribution, but a payment that benefits him personally.

[This is an important point: If you believe a politician's policies are good for the country, civic virtue might motivate you to contribute to his or her re-election. But giving a government official money to spend on himself is always improper.]

Even if that's theoretically possible, does it actually happen? It's been hard to prove. The membership rolls at Trump's clubs are secret, so you can't check them for suspicious names. You also can't check whether Trump suddenly started making more money off his clubs after he became president, because his tax returns are secret. The Obama administration would at least tell you who the President was playing golf with, but the Trump administration won't even do that.

So journalists had to get creative.

USA TODAY set out to identify as many members of Trump’s private clubs as possible. We found more than 4,500 names by scouring social media posts, news stories and a public website golfers use to track their handicaps.

Our reporters then reviewed many hundreds of members’ names and used information available online and public documents such as lobbying registrations, corporate records, property deeds and medical licenses to determine the members' jobs and if they make their living trying to influence the federal government or win contracts with it.

And they found some.

Members of the clubs Trump has visited most often as president — in Florida, New Jersey and Virginia — include at least 50 executives whose companies hold federal contracts and 21 lobbyists and trade group officials. Two-thirds played on one of the 58 days the president was there, according to scores they posted online.

As the article notes, there is nothing illegal about this, as long as the executives and lobbyists pay the same fees other people do, and no government favor is an identifiable quid pro quo. But it's unsavory at a level that has not been seen in American politics for the last century or so.

Trump isn't draining the swamp, he's flooding it.


Speaking of corruption, we're still not in a league with Brazil. This is how you know that you've got a problem:

and you also might be interested in ...

About that "American carnage" we supposedly need an anti-immigrant, law-and-order president to protect us from: no sign of it in the numbers.


Tom Heberlein is an American living in Sweden who likes Swedish taxes. Sure they're higher than American taxes, but you also get more: healthcare, public transportation, and college, just to name a few benefits. Interestingly, Heberlein turns the conservative "free to choose" argument upside-down:

No matter how rich Bill Gates is, he cannot buy a hiking trail system in Seattle like those we take for granted in Stockholm. I get to use it for free and have more choices for hiking than I can ever enjoy in Wisconsin.

... Betty and I used to live the village of Lodi, about 25 miles from Madison. This being America, I was free to travel to Madison however and whenever I wanted, as long as it was by private automobile. There was (and is) no bus service to Madison. Even though railroad tracks run right through the village, there is no commuter rail service either.

If this were a suburb of Stockholm or any other European city of 250,000, there would be train service and bus service several times an hour. These are the choices Europeans have that we don't, because they devote more of their income to collective goods.


Ta-Nehisi Coates proclaims Trump "America's first white president", meaning (I think) that he's the first president whose appeal is based on white identity politics.

Explanations of Trump's victory that rely on economic resentment rather than racial resentment just don't cut it.

Trump’s white support was not determined by income. According to Edison Research, Trump won whites making less than $50,000 by 20 points, whites making $50,000 to $99,999 by 28 points, and whites making $100,000 or more by 14 points. This shows that Trump assembled a broad white coalition that ran the gamut from Joe the Dishwasher to Joe the Plumber to Joe the Banker. So when white pundits cast the elevation of Trump as the handiwork of an inscrutable white working class, they are being too modest, declining to claim credit for their own economic class. Trump’s dominance among whites across class lines is of a piece with his larger dominance across nearly every white demographic. Trump won white women (+9) and white men (+31). He won white people with college degrees (+3) and white people without them (+37). He won whites ages 18–29 (+4), 30–44 (+17), 45–64 (+28), and 65 and older (+19). Trump won whites in midwestern Illinois (+11), whites in mid-Atlantic New Jersey (+12), and whites in the Sun Belt’s New Mexico (+5). In no state that Edison polled did Trump’s white support dip below 40 percent.

... Sixty-one percent of whites in this “working class” supported Trump. Only 24 percent of Hispanics and 11 percent of blacks did. Indeed, the plurality of all voters making less than $100,000 and the majority making less than $50,000 voted for the Democratic candidate. So when Packer laments the fact that “Democrats can no longer really claim to be the party of working people—not white ones, anyway,” he commits a kind of category error. The real problem is that Democrats aren’t the party of white people—working or otherwise. White workers are not divided by the fact of labor from other white demographics; they are divided from all other laborers by the fact of their whiteness.


As interesting and consequential as the Russian hack of Democrats' email systems is the Russian social-media bot network. It's still working to influence American political opinion. Most recently, it's been pushing a pro-alt-Right anti-Antifa angle.


A follow-up to the article I mentioned last week about the morality of being rich: Rachel Sherman wrote in the NYT about her interviews with some wealthy people in New York: They do feel conflicted about their wealth, and many of them try not to appear to be as rich as they are.

Yet we believe that wealthy people seek visibility because those we see are, by definition, visible. In contrast, the people I spoke with expressed a deep ambivalence about identifying as affluent.
One of the interviewees takes the price tags off of everything, because she is embarrassed to have the housekeeper know she spends $6 for a loaf of bread.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos wants to expand publicly funded charter schools nationwide. She was responsible for the law that expanded them in Michigan, which isn't working out so well.

Michigan’s K-12 system is among the weakest in the country and getting worse. In little more than a decade, Michigan has gone from being a fairly average state in elementary reading and math achievement to the bottom 10 states. It’s a devastating fall. Indeed, new national assessment data suggest Michigan is witnessing systemic decline across the K-12 spectrum. White, black, brown, higher-income, low-income — it doesn’t matter who they are or where they live.

and let's close with something out of the ordinary

Looking ahead to Irma hitting Florida, NPR did an article on disaster planning at zoos. It's usually not possible to load a bunch of exotic animals into a truck and head up the turnpike to safety, so zoos have to get creative about sheltering in place. In this photo, a flock of flamingos (even the females) wait out 1998's Hurricane Georges in a men's bathroom.

A related concern is Gatorland in Orlando, where 2,000 alligators (and a few pythons and other dangerous reptiles) live. The theme park assured the public that none of its creatures will escape; a five-person crew stays on duty through a storm. Now there's an idea for your horror-movie script: You were supposed to be on your way back to college by now, but instead you're in the crew weathering a disaster at an alligator park. "Don't worry!" the boss says as he catches the last jeep out.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Weird Times

Our climate has been in a rough temperature equilibrium for about 10,000 years, while we developed agriculture and advanced civilization and Netflix. Now our climate is about to rocket out of that equilibrium, in what is, geologically speaking, the blink of an eye. We’re not sure exactly what’s going to happen, but we have a decent idea, and we know it’s going to be weird.

- David Roberts "Climate change did not 'cause' Harvey, but it's a huge part of the story"

This week's featured posts are "Houston, New Orleans, and the Long Descent" and "Trump has no agenda".

This week everybody was still talking about Harvey

By now, we've all seen the pictures of the flooding, and heard about the explosions at the chemical plant. The long-term environmental impact is still unknown.


It's interesting to consider how differently liberals and conservatives might be watching the response to Harvey. Conservatives can focus on the ordinary people who are using their boats to rescue their neighbors, Dunkirk style. "That's what we need more of," they think, "good-hearted individuals volunteering to be heroes without a lot of bureaucracy getting in the way."

Liberals, meanwhile, focus the larger picture: Will individual volunteers find everybody that needs rescuing? Once you rescue somebody with your boat, where do you take them? Will they have a place to sleep? Will somebody feed them? If they're injured, will somebody treat them? try to reunite them with whoever might be looking for them? Once in a while all those pieces may fall together without any government organization, but most of the time not.


Vox' David Roberts makes a good point about whether climate changed "caused" Harvey: It's a malformed question. Climate change is a background condition that affects literally everything, but it doesn't replace more immediate causes.

He makes a good analogy: What if gravity suddenly got 1% stronger? More people would be injured in falls, but it would be silly to blame any particular injury on "gravity change". Each fall would still have some more immediate cause like a patch of ice or a dizzy spell.

With more heat energy in the system, everything’s going to get crazier — more heat waves, more giant rainstorms, more droughts, more floods. That means climate change is part of every story now. The climate we live in shapes agriculture, it shapes cities and economies and trade, it shapes culture and learning, it shapes human conflict. It is a background condition of all these stories, and its changes are reflected in them.

So we’ve got to get past this “did climate change cause it?” argument. A story like Harvey is primarily a set of local narratives, about the lives immediately affected. But it is also part of a larger narrative, one developing over decades and centuries, with potentially existential stakes. We’ve got to find a way to weave those narratives together while respecting and doing justice to both. [my emphasis]

A broader question to ponder: Sometimes we do this kind of narrative-blending well and sometimes we don't. It goes without saying, for example, that individual war stories always take place in a broader context. So there's no need to rehash the Cold War and the Domino Theory every time Grandpa tells his I-stepped-on-a-mine-but-it-was-a-dud story from Vietnam.

Racism and sexism, on the other hand, are like climate change: They're background conditions for literally everything that happens in America. At the same time, though, they're seldom the reason something happens. How do we talk about that?


Paul Krugman's "Why Can't We Get Cities Right?" is a rare both-sides-do-it column that I agree with. He argues that Houston's vulnerability to Harvey shows the downside of the unregulated development allowed in red-state cities, while the ridiculous cost of housing in San Francisco shows what goes wrong in blue-state cities.

Why can’t we get urban policy right? It’s not hard to see what we should be doing. We should have regulation that prevents clear hazards, like exploding chemical plants in the middle of residential neighborhoods, preserves a fair amount of open land, but allows housing construction.

In particular, we should encourage construction that takes advantage of the most effective mass transit technology yet devised: the elevator.

and North Korea

Talking tough to Kim Jong Un doesn't seem to be working. Yesterday, North Korea tested what it says was an H-bomb, and the seismic data seems to back up that claim. Tuesday, it flew a missile over Japan.

and the Russia investigation

Three major recent developments: First, while he was running for president, Trump signed a letter of intent to build Trump Tower Moscow, and his people contacted Putin's people to try to get the Russian government behind the idea. As far as I know, there is nothing illegal in any of that. But it does show that Trump's blanket denials of having any business relationship with Russia were false.

In July 2016, Trump denied business connections with Russia and said on Twitter: “for the record, I have ZERO investments in Russia.” He told a news conference the next day: “I have nothing to do with Russia.”

It might also give a financial motive for the Putin-friendly things he said during the campaign.

Second, we learned about the existence of a letter Trump wrote to James Comey but never sent, in which he fired Comey and explained why. The NYT broke the story, and claims the Mueller investigation has a copy of the letter, but no Times reporter has seen it. The article does not quote the letter directly, but only recounts the assessments of people who have read it. The letter is said to be a "screed" that "offered an unvarnished view of Mr. Trump’s thinking in the days before the president fired the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey." White House Counsel Don McGahn talked him out of sending it.

If the letter says that Comey was fired because he wouldn't shut down the Russia investigation, then it's evidence of obstruction of justice -- but we don't really know that. What it clearly does prove is that the story Trump's people (including VP Pence) told the public about Comey's firing was false.

Third, Mueller is now working with the New York state attorney general on a money-laundering investigation of Paul Manafort. By bringing in the state, Mueller nullifies Trump's pardon power, which only extends to federal crimes.

It's often hard to know what to make of the news we hear about Russia and Trump. To the credit of the Mueller investigation, very little of the evidence it has gathered has leaked. (This is a welcome change from the constant leaks about the Clinton email investigation, many of which turned out to be misleading.) So the information available to the public doesn't prove anything either way.

What I keep coming back to, though, is that whenever Trump and his associates have had to deal with some issue related to Russia, they have lied. They don't act like people with nothing to hide.


Friday we saw another one of those North-Korea-like moments in the White House.

So, remember that one time when President Donald Trump held a Cabinet meeting and everyone at the table outdid themselves when it came to heaping praise on POTUS? Well, we got a similar situation today during a signing ceremony in the Oval Office in which Trump had a bunch of religious leaders surround him and profusely thank the president for his response to Hurricane Harvey.

With the president proclaiming that this coming Sunday will be a day of prayer for Harvey victims, he began going around the room and calling on different faith leaders to give remarks. And, wouldn’t you know, they all tripped over each other to express their gratitude for all the president had done so far.

The link includes a video, which is stomach-turning. I can't think of any previous president, of either party, who would have allowed this kind of public fawning, much less encouraged it.

and DACA

Tomorrow, Trump is expected to announce what he will do with Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which allows immigrants who came to America outside the legal immigration system, but as children, to remain in the country and work legally. These "Dreamers" (named after the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act that would have given them legal status, had Congress passed it) are the undocumented immigrants who raise the most public sympathy, because they did nothing wrong and have no other home they can return to. The U.S. has invested in their education, and it makes little sense to deport them just as they're starting to become productive.

Politico reports that Trump plans to end DACA with a six-month delay, which would give Congress time to change the law to protect some or all of the 800,000 Dreamers, if it wants to.

This is not entirely crazy, because DACA was always a kluge of executive orders that President Obama built to cover Congressional inaction. The right solution is for Congress to pass some version of the DREAM Act, or maybe even some larger immigration reform (like the Senate passed in 2013). This was one of many situations where Obama saved Republicans from themselves: They could simultaneously denounce Obama's "tyrannical" circumvention of the law while avoiding responsibility for the injustice the law mandates.

However, the Republican base regards the DREAM Act is a form of "amnesty", which they are rabidly against. In this environment, it's hard to imagine the House passing anything. And if they don't, in six months ICE will start deporting college students who speak perfect English, but possibly no other language. I doubt Paul Ryan wants to see a steady stream of such stories as his people campaign for re-election next year.

and you also might be interested in ...

Republicans only believe in local control until the workers win somewhere. Latest example: St. Louis, which raised its minimum wage three months ago, only to see the state force a wage rollback.


University of Washington Professor Kate Starbird has been studying the ways conspiracy theories flow through social media.

The information networks we’ve built are almost perfectly designed to exploit psychological vulnerabilities to rumor.

“Your brain tells you ‘Hey, I got this from three different sources,’ ” she says. “But you don’t realize it all traces back to the same place, and might have even reached you via bots posing as real people. If we think of this as a virus, I wouldn’t know how to vaccinate for it.”

Starbird says she’s concluded, provocatively, that we may be headed toward “the menace of unreality — which is that nobody believes anything anymore.” Alex Jones, she says, is “a kind of prophet. There really is an information war for your mind. And we’re losing it.”


It looks like this administration has no interest in changing the $20 bill to replace the guy who opened up the lower South for slavery (Andrew Jackson) with a woman who helped people escape slavery (Harriet Tubman). Seeing a black face on their money, I think, would hit Trump's base on a visceral level: "We're losing our country!"


Politico sums up the Democrats 2020 dilemma: "Familiar 70-somethings vs neophyte no-names". Sanders, Biden, Warren, or somebody most of America has never heard of?

A bizarre thing I'm seeing on my Facebook feed: People who hated Hillary Clinton in 2016 are afraid that the dark cabal in control of the Democratic Party will nominate her again in 2020. These are the same people who have believed the worst stories about her all along. To them, she's like some horror-movie villain that they fear can never die.


Business Insider does a takedown of Palmer Report, which produces a lot of thinly-sourced stories that appeal to liberals. Palmer's stuff appears on my social media feeds fairly regularly, and I don't give it much credence. If a claim looks interesting, I will make a mental note to check whether a reliable source is reporting anything similar.


Charles Blow connects some dots I hope aren't really connected: Many of Trump's divisive actions can be explained by the theory that he wants an armed insurrection when the Russia investigation finally forces him out of office.


A. Q. Smith writes in Current Affairs "It's Basically Just Immoral to be Rich". What's interesting in the article is that it's not a screed against capitalism or a plea for the government to redistribute wealth.

You can hold my position and simultaneously believe that CEOs should get paid however much a company decides to pay them, and that taxes are a tyrannical form of legalized theft. What I am arguing about is not the question of how much people should be given, but the morality of their retaining it after it is given to them.

There's a third distinction I wish the article had made: Spending is different from either receiving or retaining. When you make money, you play the economic game as you find it. Retaining money may just mean letting a bank record a large number next to your name. (Smith's point is that in retaining, you have the ability to feed the poor and pay for life-saving medical care, but choose not to.) But spending money is when you allocate the labor of others; if you spend on ridiculous luxuries for yourself, you're bending the economy towards producing those things rather than either producing necessities for the many or investing in future production.

Since reading Smith's article, I have not given away all my possessions and entered a life of voluntary poverty, so clearly I don't find the argument totally convincing. But it is a question that I think should be raised more often, and that everybody who can afford more than basic necessities should have to think about.


I was initially attracted to ESPN the Magazine's interview with Aaron Rodgers (the consensus choice as the top NFL quarterback, for those of you who don't follow football) because of his comments on the Colin Kaepernick situation. But it's a fascinating conversation about family issues, race, being famous, religion, and the meaning of life, closing with: "I've been to the bottom and been to the top, and peace will come from somewhere else."


A white Congregational minister in Charleston says white and black American Christianity are based on two different narratives about Ameria:

The white narrative said this: We've made it to the promised land. Life is good here. It's the city on a hill. What a blessing. And the black narrative said this: We've been brought here in chains. It's the new Egypt. What a curse. We've got to get the hell out of here. And therein lies a founding contradiction in American Christianity. One version celebrated and reinforced the status quo and another version sought liberation from it.

Ancestry isn't destiny, though.

Of course, we don't all fit neatly into one of two categories. Yours truly can often be found at vigils in the street or wearing a Black Lives Matter T-shirt. But I had to lose my white religion to get there. I had to give up a narrative that supported the suffering of the status quo for one that dreamed of the liberation of all people from social and political oppression.

... For too long white Christianity has been part of the problem. Its narrative of a promised land has never rung true with those who were left out of the promise. If those of us who are white gave up that old story or walked away from it, we could begin to tell a larger truth. And we could find something more deeply American in the black church's struggle for freedom, dignity, and equality.

But I think he's missing a third narrative, the angry one of downwardly mobile white Christianity: America was the promised land of our grandparents, but we have been cast out.

and let's close with some music

Alf Clauson just lost his job doing the musical score for The Simpsons. In honor of his career, The Washington Post picked out his 12 most memorable songs. Because it's Labor Day, I'll highlight Lisa's union song. (I suspect copyright issues won't let YouTube post the video, so they fill in with generic Simpsons stills.)

[embed]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XAacb31bltI[/embed]

Monday, August 28, 2017

Goals

By pardoning Arpaio, Trump made it clear that institutional racism is not just OK with him. It is a goal.

- the Editorial Board of The Arizona Republic

This week's featured posts are "Fascism as a Unifying Principle" and "The Message in Joe Arpaio's Pardon". I also want to call your attention to a column I wrote for UU World magazine: "Of course I'm racist".

This week everybody was talking about Hurricane Harvey

Usually the big damage in a hurricane comes from the storm surge and the high winds. But in addition to that, Harvey has stalled over the Texas Gulf Coast and is dumping record quantities of rain. By the time it's all over, some areas may get 50 inches. The worst rain I've ever seen personally was 11 inches in one day at Mount Cook Village in New Zealand. The idea of that going on for nearly five days is mind-boggling.

The average annual rainfall here in New Hampshire is 47 inches, a bit higher than the national average of 39, a bit lower than Houston's annual average of 49.77. So picture that: all of your rain for a year falling in a few days.


Texas Tribune is saying "I told you so", because they told us so. Last year, TT and ProPublica wrote about how vulnerable Houston had become to floods caused by sudden, massive rainfall. Two causes: (1) climate change, which allows "100-year storms" to happen every few years, and (2) unregulated development, which lets builders pave over wetlands that absorb rainfall.

That second point is the kind of tragedy-of-the-commons that unregulated market economies are prone to. If you own a chunk of wetland, it's to your economic benefit to build a home or shopping mall or industrial park on it. You hope somebody preserves a wetland somewhere, but why should it be you?


And of course, the Texas congresspeople who voted against recovery aid after Hurricane Sandy hit the Northeast now have to ask for their own disaster relief. I wasn't the one who thought to connect that hypocrisy to this New Yorker cartoon, but it's too good not to copy.

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="500"] Who are you kidding? You're all about small government until you get stuck in a tree.[/caption]


Funny how when natural disasters strike conservative areas, we don't hear preachers proclaiming God's judgment against America. But why couldn't God be angry about something like voter suppression?

and Joe Arpaio's pardon

I covered that in a featured post.

and whether the government will shut down October 1

From Slate:

At his Phoenix rally on Tuesday night, the president promised the crowd that, even “if we have to close down our government, we’re building that wall.”

Two points about the Wall:

  • Trump only got 46% of the vote to Hillary's 48%. So while he is legally president (by grace of the Electoral College), he can't claim a popular mandate for any part of his agenda, including the Wall.
  • Literally no one voted for a wall funded by American taxpayers. Trump promised that Mexico would pay; if that's not happening, the deal is off.

and the transgender ban

When Trump tweeted this a few weeks ago, the Pentagon basically said: Send us some real orders; we don't take instructions over Twitter.

Friday, an official directive came out. It stops new transgender recruits from joining the armed forces, and gives Defense Secretary Mattis discretion about what to do with the current transgender troops. It halts insurance coverage for gender-reassignment surgery.

Two lawsuits to overturn the directive have already been filed.

but we shouldn't move on so quickly from Trump's Afghanistan speech

A featured post talks about the speech's national-unity introduction, but the body of the speech deserves attention too. A few minor points

  • He says that his instinct was to pull out of Afghanistan, but "decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office". To me, that says that he owes President Obama an apology.
  • As usual, he was vague on any details. Ostensibly, this was so that the enemy won't know his plans. But of course, that means the American people don't know them either. All we need to understand, he thinks, is that we're going to "win".
  • Despite the rhetoric, the "new strategy" looks like Obama's old strategy with a slight escalation.

My major point, though, is an objection I've had to the Afghan and Iraq interventions at least since I wrote "Cut and Run" in 2005: When we say (as Trump did) that we have to continue a war because bad things will happen if we pull out, is the point that we can pull out at some future time without those bad things happening? Or is the point that we have to stay forever?

What I want to hear from an American president -- and I would want the same thing from Hillary Clinton, if she'd been elected -- is an explanation of what exactly we are fixing in Afghanistan, so that it will be more stable when we eventually pull out later. I want to hear measurable benchmarks of progress, with regular updates on whether the measurements are matching our predictions.

And if there is no clear answer to those questions, then I want to hear an explanation of why the cost of the war (in both blood and dollars) is worth paying indefinitely.

And if that also has no answer, then I want our troops out now. Yes, bad things will happen, but they're going to happen eventually anyway.


The worst possible reason to continue a war is so that the soldiers we've already lost will not have "died in vain". In economics, that's called the sunk cost fallacy. Those soldiers have already died, and if it was a mistake to send them in the first place, then they have already died in vain. Let's not send more soldiers to die in vain after them.

and you also might be interested in ...

Both the LA Times and the NYT have now published opinion pieces making the point I made last week: It's shameful that Trump's religious advisers stand by him even as his business advisers abandon him for moral reasons. In the NYT, President Jim Winkler of the National Council of Churches (an association of what we used to call "mainline" Christian denominations) calls out Evangelicals:

Our congregations will continue to witness to a God who loves everyone regardless of race or creed. We need our evangelical sisters and brothers to join us.

In the LAT, Randall Balmer notes the history of the Religious Right, which came together not over abortion, but to defend segregation.

The 2016 presidential election, then, allowed the religious right finally to dispense with the fiction that theirs was a movement concerned about family values. Evangelical voting behavior suggests that the religious right was merely reverting to the racism that prompted its entry into the political arena in the late 1970s.


Last week Boston, this week San Francisco and Berkeley: Planned far-right rallies were overwhelmed by counter-protesters. Police were up to the job. San Francisco reported no major incidents. Berkeley had some scuffling and a few arrests, but I haven't seen any reports of major injuries.

Last week I wrote an even-handed article about Antifa. The Berkeley protest looks to me like the kind of situation where they do a lot more harm than good. There's a reason right-wingers schedule these events in communities where they'll face a lot of opposition, rather than in rural Mississippi or some more sympathetic place. They're hoping for incidents that make them look like victims.


The WaPo lays out the details of how the police lost control of events in Charlottesville.


When we think about communities affected by the immigration crackdown, we usually picture someplace near the border. This week, both the WaPo and the NYT looked at the effect on Saratoga Springs, a tourist town in upstate New York.

Far from the "really bad dudes" Trump claims to be targeting, in Saratoga Springs ICE is hauling away people with jobs at the famous Saratoga racetrack or in the downtown restaurants. They're just hard-working folks trying to get along and raise their kids.


After Steve Bannon's ouster, I hoped that Sebastian Gorka and Stephen Miller would soon leave the White House too. Miller is still around, but Gorka either resigned or was fired Friday. BuzzFeed has an account of how Gorka manufactured anti-terrorism credentials for himself. It didn't work in Hungary, but it did in the Trump administration. He doesn't seemed to be an expert in much of anything, other than self-promotion and anti-Muslim bigotry.

Gorka's exit together with Arpaio's pardon made for one of the greatest Friday night news dumps ever. For decades, administrations have put out their worst news on Friday nights, figuring they'll get less attention that way. I guess they figured a Friday night that featured a major natural disaster was just too good to pass up.

and let's close the week the way it started ... with the eclipse

It was already starting when I posted last week's Sift, but hadn't gotten to New Hampshire yet. See how long a week is these days?

Yeah, I know you were out there snapping your own pictures, but I bet you didn't get these: 12 images from the Earth Polychromatic Imagine Camera (EPIC) show the Moon's shadow cross the Earth.

[embed]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pm7tfLvHmXA[/embed]

Sky and Telescope assembled a gallery of photos submitted by its readers. I'm especially fond of "diamond ring" images, which happen just slightly off totality.

And I'm not sure what kind of photographic tricks you need to do to see the Sun's corona like this: