Monday, March 27, 2017

New Dynamics

Whites standing up in support of a policy changes the dynamics of the conversation.

- sociologist Judy Lubin, explaining ObamaCare's rising popularity

I hadn't planned to do a featured post, but once the rhythm of a poem gets into my head, the only way to get it out is to write it down. So Saturday morning I posted a special edition: "Donnie in the Room". It's a poetic retelling of the TrumpCare debacle modeled on "Casey at the Bat".

This week everybody was talking about the failure of TrumpCare

After scheduling a vote Thursday (to coincide with the seventh anniversary of Congress passing ObamaCare), Speaker Ryan delayed until Friday, and then cancelled it altogether, recognizing that he didn't have the votes. TrumpCare is dead. ObamaCare will continue -- at least until HHS Secretary Price can strangle it with administrative changes. ObamaCare is not in fact "crashing" or "a disaster" as Trump keeps claiming, but it is vulnerable to sabotage from the top.

Still, the demise of TrumpCare is good news, especially if you're on Medicaid or get a subsidy to buy insurance on an ObamaCare exchange. Your risk of dying in the next few years just went down. (It's still too soon to draw that conclusion directly from ObamaCare data, but the RomneyCare prototype has been around longer, and is saving lives.)

There are any number of articles out there about the finger-pointing within the GOP. Trump, of course, never accepts blame for anything, which is one of his major failings as a leader (not to mention as a human being). Sometimes a leader has to volunteer for blame, even if s/he doesn't entirely deserve it, just to end the recriminations and get everybody moving towards the next goal. Great sports coaches do this all the time, but Trump is incapable of it.

If Republicans are looking for something to blame, though, I would suggest an attitude rather than a person. For years, they've been pushing the idea that compromise is just weakness and corruption, and their voters have picked it up. By now, it should be no surprise that they're not only unable to compromise with Democrats, but with each other.

What's striking in the larger context is how quickly Trump is disproving all the arguments his supporters made in the fall.

Almost everybody recognized back then that he wasn't a detail guy and couldn't measure up to Hillary on a wonk scale. But that wasn't supposed to matter, because he'd run the government like a business. (You don't expect the president of GM to design cars, or the chairman of Exxon-Mobil to be much use on a drilling rig.) Trump didn't have to know anything in particular, because he'd surround himself with the "best people", people who had mastered all the stuff he couldn't be bothered with.

That fell apart as soon as he started naming his cabinet and other top advisors. The headline there is foreign agent Mike Flynn as national security advisor, but up and down the ladder (with only an occasional exception) Trump's people are unqualified, inexperienced, and often quite ignorant of the segment of the government they're supposed to be running. (Fox News seriously made the case that Betsy DeVos' ignorance is a virtue. Apparently, you can reform a system better if you have no idea how it works.)

The other thing Trump supposedly had going was that he was the great deal-maker. He came from outside the usual partisan battle lines, so he could break through the gridlock and get things done. But now, in his first test, he embraced a bunch of stale Republican ideology, made no attempt whatsoever to get Democrats on board, and then couldn't even hold the Republicans together. It was a great example of The Art of No Deal.

His supporters also liked the idea that he "tells it like it is". Well, his reaction to his defeat on healthcare was to lie: "I never said repeal it and replace it within 64 days. I have a long time." Actually, what he said over and over was that he'd repeal and replace immediately. No one listening to his campaign speeches could have imagined that he intended to take "a long time".

Here's what we all should have learned from Trump's business career: He sells people a bill of goods, doesn't deliver, and then claims he never promised what he promised. (Ask someone from Trump U or from Atlantic City.) That pattern is holding true.

I can't claim I predicted this exact outcome, but I will take credit for being consistently skeptical of the Republican caucus' ability to find unity. Back on January 9 I wrote:

the replacement plan doesn’t even exist yet, and it’s not at all clear that Republicans can agree on one, even among themselves. They’ve had seven years to concoct a plan; it’s a mystery why the 8th or 9th year would be the charm.

One last-ditch concession to conservatives was to eliminate the "essential services" requirement that ObamaCare imposed on health insurance policies, many of which specifically affect women. Matt Yglesias annotates a photo originally tweeted by Vice President Pence: "The group proposing to cut breast cancer screening, maternity care, and contraceptive coverage."

Slate's Jordan Weissmann explains how that change would give insurance companies a work-around so that they could avoid covering people with pre-existing conditions, or anybody likely to get sick:

Without any minimum benefit requirements to get in the way, carriers will be free to offer bare-bones plans that don't cover the needs of your typical 50 or 64-year-old. Carriers wouldn't reject anybody outright—they would just make sure not to sell health plans that might accidentally appeal to an unprofitable customer. I'd expect to see carriers start offering a whole lot of "insurance" that covers one night in the hospital and some antibiotics with maybe a gym discount thrown in to lure Millennials.

Those are extremely perverse incentives that would warp the insurance market in some very ugly ways. Not only would sick people not be able to find the health plan they need, but relatively healthy and well-off customers looking for more comprehensive care like you'd typically get from an employer might have nothing to choose from but junk coverage designed to scare off the ill, or very expensive plans designed to compensate for the cost of caring for them. If you're a successful self-employed contractor with a nice roofing business, neither of those options probably sounds too appealing.

The idea that you can lower premiums by eliminating men's pregnancy coverage or women's prostate cancer coverage shows an appalling ignorance of how insurance works. Premiums have to be high enough to cover the risks of the entire pool, so if you haven't changed the number of pregnancies or prostate cancers the insurance company has to cover, you haven't changed the amount of money it needs to collect.

So now the administration moves on to tax reform, which it imagines will be simpler. I like this suggestion for the Democratic slogan: "No tax return, no tax reform." We should at least know how much Trump personally profits from his tax plan before Congress votes on it.

and the ever-growing Trump-Russia scandal

A week seems like a very long time in the Trump administration. Just last Monday, James Comey from the FBI and Mike Rogers from the NSA testified to the House Intelligence Committee. We learned that the FBI had been investigating illegal Russian interference in the 2016 election and the possible collusion of the Trump campaign since July. Also, neither agency had any evidence that could support Trump's claim that Obama had wiretapped him. The top Democrat on the committee, Adam Schiff, summarized the circumstantial evidence that leads him to conclude that a broad investigation is necessary. The next day, Schiff claimed that there was "more than circumstantial evidence", but said he could not spell it out in public.

We then saw that committee, which is usually a model of bipartisan cooperation, dissolve into partisan rancor. Wednesday, Republican Chairman Devin Nunes went to the White House to brief Trump about information that he has not shared with his committee, and seemed to give cover to Trump's surveillance claims (though actually, his information doesn't validate Trump).

Many Democrats, plus Republicans like John McCain, said that Nunes' actions cast doubt on the impartiality of the committee's investigation, and called for a special committee or independent commission to investigate the Trump/Russia issue.

Another development: It has been known for a long time that former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort lobbied for the pro-Putin former government of Ukraine. This week we found out that Manafort had a $10 million contract with a Russian billionaire closely tied to Putin, and had offered a plan to "greatly benefit the Putin Government".

Press Secretary Sean Spicer has been trying to distance Trump from Manafort, claiming that the man who was campaign chair for several months leading up to the Republican Convention "played a very limited role for a very limited amount of time". He has also described Trump's disgraced National Security Advisor Mike Flynn as a "volunteer" on the campaign. I'm not sure who this is supposed to fool.

and the Gorsuch hearings

In a normal administration, the pending Supreme Court nomination would be dominating national politics, but I found it hard to watch much of the Senate Judicial Committee's questioning of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch. It seems beside the main point, which ought to be: Why are we having this discussion at all? We're having it because Senate Republicans stole this seat from President Obama and delivered it to President I-lost-the-popular-vote.

The conversation I want to hear is how we're going to repair the damage this whole process has done to our democratic norms and to the credibility of our judiciary. Skipping that conversation to discuss Gorsuch's judicial philosophy or character or previous decisions just doesn't interest me.

I assume that Gorsuch (or someone indistinguishable from him) will eventually be approved somehow, either because Democrats allow it or because Republicans change the rules to break a filibuster. And at that point, whatever his personal virtues and vices might be, his presence will taint the Supreme Court and its decisions for decades.

but I don't know how serious a development the protests in Russia are

From the BBC:

Thousands of people joined rallies nationwide, calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev over corruption allegations.

At least 500 other protesters were detained in the capital and across the country.

Most of the marches were organised without official permission.

TV pictures showed demonstrators chanting "Down with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin!", "Russia without Putin!" and "Putin is a thief!".

Does it go somewhere from here, or get suppressed?

and you might also be interested in

Thursday, the GSA's Kevin Terry ruled in favor of his boss: The Trump Organization is not in violation of its lease of the Old Post Office in Washington, D.C., which it has turned into the Trump International Hotel. The lease says:

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

The LA Times reports:

According to the GSA, the Trump organization wrote an amendment saying that all revenues from the hotel will stay with the hotel — and not flow to the president’s trust company.

The watchdog group Democracy 21 comments:

Trump still remains the owner of the hotel. The hotel profits will accrue to Trump’s benefit as the owner of the hotel and thus “benefits” will accrue to Trump in violation of the provisions of the lease.

The GSA ruling is nonsense.

It's like claiming that Microsoft didn't benefit Bill Gates until it started paying dividends to stockholders in 2003. He benefited because the corporation he owned became more valuable, even if it wasn't paying out profits to him yet.

I tried to give the GSA the benefit of the doubt by reading its 8-page ruling, but all it does is flesh out the details of Democracy 21's description, listing the names of the various Trump-family trusts that own the hotel and giving the history of the back-and-forth between the Trump Organization and the GSA.

It also makes the case that the lease as a whole is working out well for the government, turning a wasting asset into a rent-producing property. Even if that is true, it's not relevant to the issue at hand. Even if it was a good idea for the government to let a private developer do something with the Old Post Office, that doesn't excuse violating the conditions on the lease, or explain why it's a good idea for the President's net worth to be tied to a government contract he himself ultimately oversees.

In short, this looks like corruption to me. It is disturbing to see the GSA get enmeshed in the Trump family's self-dealing.

The Toronto school system and Girl Guides of Canada have both started avoiding trips to the United States. Because of Trump's proposed travel ban and various other problems Canadians with the "wrong" racial or religious profile have experienced at the border, the Guides say "While the United States is a frequent destination for Guiding trips, the ability of all our members to equally enter this country is currently uncertain." And Toronto's Board of Education echoes: "We strongly believe that our students should not be placed into these situations of potentially being turned away at the border."

Last week I talked about the too-much-news phenomenon that causes all of us to miss stuff. One thing I missed last week was the Confederate flag protest outside the NCAA basketball tournament in Greenville, South Carolina: People who take pride in that symbol of racism and slavery flew the stars-and-bars from a parking garage that was visible to everyone who entered the arena.

I wrote about the flag in detail in 2015 after the Charleston church shooting drew attention to violent white supremacists who see the Confederate flag as their symbol. But I'll restate that article's thesis briefly: Sometimes symbols develop an objective meaning, independent of your desire to express something else with them.

Theoretically, a German-American like me might fly a swastika to express pride in German culture. You know: Goethe and Kant, or the scientific tradition of Leibniz and Heisenberg, or maybe the millions of brave German soldiers who weren't Nazis, but fought heroically under that flag to defend their homes and families. (I've never checked, but I'm sure there must have been Muders among them.) But whatever I might intend my swastika to mean, everyone who saw it would read it differently, as expressing pride in anti-Semitism and genocide. And because I'm rightfully ashamed of that part of my German heritage, I don't even consider flying a swastika.

So if you're a Southerner who is justifiably proud of the South's outstanding literary tradition, or the role Southerners played in founding the American republic, or country music, or cornbread and molasses, or the beauty of the Southern countryside -- that's wonderful; I would never want to take that away from you. But the Confederate flag says racism and slavery, and your wish that it say something else is futile. Whatever you intend when you display it, what it represents is shameful.

On the other hand, if you do take pride in the South's tradition of racism and slavery, carry on. You have freedom of speech, so why not say something despicable?

The White House denies reports that Trump gave Chancellor Angela Merkel a bill for the $374 billion he claims Germany "owes" for not meeting NATO guidelines on defense spending. The Times of London had attributed the story to anonymous sources in the German government.

But this is where the administration pays a price for its constant lying about not just serious matters, but trivialities like the inauguration crowd: Do the White House denials carry any weight? When even The Wall Street Journal is so fed up with Trump's lack of "respect for the truth" that it compares him to a drunk clinging to an empty gin bottle, and warns he might become "a fake president", couldn't anybody claim anything about the Trump administration now?

Countries all over Europe are producing humorous messages to Trump like this one from the Netherlands:

In fact, the whole world is joining in, and their videos are collected on one web site.

and let's close with something completely different

"Twenty Toes", a combination of juggling, contortionism, and simple graceful movement.

Monday, March 20, 2017

The Shelter of America

It’s fitting that we gather here each year to celebrate St. Patrick and his legacy. He, too, was an immigrant. And even though he is, of course, the patron saint of Ireland, for many people around the globe, he is also the symbol of — indeed, the patron of — immigrants.

Here in America, in your great country, 35 million people claim Irish heritage, and the Irish have contributed to the economic, social, political, and cultural life of this great country over the last 200 years. Ireland came to America because, deprived of liberty, deprived of opportunity, of safety, of even food itself, the Irish believed.

And four decades before Lady Liberty lifted her lamp, we were the wretched refuse on the teeming shore. We believed in the shelter of America, in the compassion of America, in the opportunity of America. We came and we became Americans. We lived the words of John F. Kennedy long before he uttered them: We asked not what America can do for us, but what we could do for America. And we still do.

- Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny
Friday, at the White House, standing next to Donald Trump

This week's featured post is "Still a Muslim Ban, Still Blocked". Next Sunday at 11 a.m. I'll be speaking at First Parish in Billerica on the topic "The Born-Again Unitarian Universalist". But I'm not canceling next week's Sift. I plan to put out a weekly summary without a featured post.

This week had too much news

You kind of expect a flurry of news when a new administration takes office, but we're two months in, and it's not dying down. This week and next both include way too much for the average American to keep track of:

Got all that? I probably left something important out. (Oh, there are a bunch of stories about how Trump is enriching himself through the presidency and special interests are doing business with him to curry favor, if you care about things like that.)

I'm reminded of the late 80s when the Soviet Union was falling apart. One afternoon I heard a radio announcer say, without the slightest touch of irony, "In other news, today the Parliament of the Ukraine declared its complete independence."

Friday, Rachel Maddow had another way of bringing this point home: She covered a juicy Navy bribery scandal that includes "prostitutes, $2,000 bottles of wine, fancy cigars, and lavish meals", but can't break through to the front pages because there's too much else going on.

Everybody was talking about the Trump budget

Politics is all fun and games until you have to start writing down numbers and adding them up. Until then, you can fantasize about "massive" tax cuts, eliminating the national debt, big job-creating infrastructure projects, better and cheaper healthcare for everybody, taking better care of our veterans, an impervious border wall, more coal-mining jobs, and all the rest. I mean, why not? Nobody's paying for anything yet, and each promise exists in its own universe, independent of all the others.

It's like when college students pile into a car and head to their favorite restaurant. During the drive, they can picture the piles of great food they're going to order. Only after the waitress distributes menus do they have to ask each other: "Does anybody have any money?"

As I said above, Trump's budget does nothing about the deficit. During the campaign, he considered our $20 trillion national debt to be threat to national survival, but now not so much.

The overall shape of the deficit looks like this: Obama inherited a large deficit from Bush, increased it to deal with the Great Recession, and then shrank it until 2015, when it started to grow again. You may or may not consider the debt to be a serious problem. (I think it's a symptom of problems rather than a problem in itself.) But you can't seriously claim it's an existential crisis that magically goes away as soon as a Republican takes office.

So far, the increased defense spending doesn't come with any new strategy, and nobody's too sure exactly what the money will be spent on. It's as if dollars could go out and defend the country without manifesting as equipment or soldiers.

Meanwhile, it's worth remembering just how much the U.S. already spends on its military. This chart comes from 2015.

Of those seven countries, four are our allies: Saudi Arabia, United Kingdom, France, and Japan. India is more-or-less neutral towards us, and only China and Russia are rivals or potential enemies.

As for the cuts, it's going to take a while to work out exactly who will be hurt by them. At this stage, we're mostly seeing totals that will go to various departments and program offices, and can't be sure exactly how those cuts will be distributed. But what the administration is admitting to is outrageous enough. Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said:

Regarding the question as to climate change, I think the President was fairly straightforward. We're not spending money on that anymore. We consider that to be a waste of your money to go out and do that.

On after-school food aid to poor children:

About after-school programs generally: They're supposed to be educational programs, right? That's what they're supposed to do; they're supposed to help kids who don't get fed at home get fed so they do better in school. Guess what? There's no demonstrable evidence they're actually doing that. No demonstrable evidence they're actually helping results, they're helping kids do better in school.

On the one hand, there's just the hypocrisy angle here: When did the Trump administration become evidence-based? What evidence is there that increased defense spending will make us safer, or that charter schools improve education, or that anything else they want to spend money on works?

But then there's just the disconnect from any sense of morality. What are we doing here? Feeding poor kids stuff that is reasonably nutritious and not very expensive. What's the downside of that? At worst, maybe we're also feeding some not-as-poor kids whose parents could afford to feed them without our help. Does that seriously bother anybody? As Mother Jones points out, there's plenty of general research connecting nutrition to performance. If we don't have specific proof that this particular program is boosting grades -- and I'm just taking Mulvaney's word here -- how big a problem is that? If at-risk kids are getting fed, isn't that result enough?

In general, the Trump budget points out something I've been harping on for years: Conservatives portray the federal government as this sinkhole that your money flows into without doing anyone any good. But when they start trying to cut the budget -- and we're not even talking about the kinds of cuts that would be needed to balance the budget or start paying down the debt -- they can't do it without taking away people's food and healthcare.

The budget continues the pattern of the ObamaCare replacement bill: Trump screwing the people who elected him. I wonder how the voters of Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin feel about the 97% cut in the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, or what West Virginians think about eliminating the Appalachian Regional Commission. If you're old and trying to stay in your home, you may suffer from elimination of the Community Block Grant program, which (among other things) helps fund Meals on Wheels.

Transportation to rural areas is going to be hit: The budget cuts the Essential Air Service program that keeps rural airports open. My hometown of Quincy, Illinois (which voted 3-to-1 for Trump) sits at the very end of a twice-a-day Amtrak route to Chicago; I've got to wonder if that will survive.

I've also got to wonder how the rural areas that Trump called "forgotten" are going to attract new employers if they become more isolated. Imagine being a small-town mayor making a pitch to a major corporation. How do you spin losing your airport and rail connection?

The New Republic thinks Trump voters won't care about his betrayal of their interests. We'll see.

It's not just climate change: The government is cutting back on scientific research across the board.

"Who's going to pay for the Wall?" Trump used to ask his crowds, who would yell back "Mexico!" The whole time he was probably thinking: "You are, suckers."

and blocking the Muslim ban again

I covered this in the featured post.

and the CBO's devastating report on TrumpCare

Ezra Klein discusses not just what the CBO said, but what Paul Ryan then replied. His own summary: "The more help you need, the less help you get."

and the President's unhinged ranting

I've been trying to ignore Trump's claim that Obama had wiretapped him. It's not that I'm unwilling to believe anything bad about Obama, but I need some bit of evidence first, and Trump's tweets are not evidence. I think the mainstream media is way too easily distracted by Trump's ridiculous tweets.

But he is the president, and he stuck with his accusation, so Congress felt obligated to check it out. Wednesday, Devan Nunes, the Republican Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee stated his conclusion:

Are you going to take the tweets literally? And if you are, then clearly the president was wrong.

The next day, the Republican and Democratic leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee issued a joint statement:

Based on the information available to us, we see no indications that Trump Tower was the subject of surveillance by any element of the United States government either before or after Election Day 2016.

This is noteworthy, because it's the first indication that some Republicans in Congress hold their duty to the country higher than their loyalty to the President. May this hopeful sign blossom and bear fruit.

Trump's press secretary Sean Spicer compounded the problem by expanding the accusation to include GCHQ, the United Kingdom's equivalent of the NSA. This, he said, quoting Fox News' Andrew Napolitano, is why there might be "no American fingerprints" on the taps. GCHQ rejected this as "utterly ridiculous". Rick Ledgett, second in command at the NSA called it "arrant nonsense" and told the BBC: "Of course they wouldn't do it. It would be epically stupid." Not even Fox News would stand by the claim. Fox anchor Shepard Smith reported:

Fox News cannot confirm Judge Napolitano's commentary. Fox News knows of no evidence of any kind that the now-president of the United States was surveilled at any time, in any way. Full stop.

A British newspaper, The Telegraph, reported:

Intelligence sources had earlier told The Telegraph that both Mr Spicer and General McMaster, the US National Security Adviser, have apologised over the claims. "The apology came direct from them," a source said.

And New York Daily News added:

James Slack, [Prime Minister Theresa] May’s spokesman, said Friday that the White House has promised not to repeat the line. He added that the British government told the U.S. the claim was “ridiculous” and should be ignored.

But Spicer subsequently denied there had been any apology, saying "I don't think we regret anything." Trump himself denied any responsibility for the claim:

We said nothing. All we did was quote a certain very talented legal mind who was the one responsible for saying that on television. You shouldn't be talking to me, you should be talking to Fox.

Think about what this means: Trump is denying that either he or his spokespeople have any responsibility to know what they're talking about, or to verify that what they claim is true.

For me, then, this story has turned a corner. It is no longer about anything Obama did or did not do. It's about our President's mental condition, and whether anything he says can be relied on. I agree with Josh Marshall:

If someone says aliens landed in their backyard and has a similar lack of any evidence whatsoever, we call that person a liar or a crazy person. We say it's not true. Full stop.

I find myself thinking about the Cuban Missile Crisis. President Kennedy spoke to the American people, to our allies, and to the rest of the world, telling them that because of intelligence sources not publicly available, he had come to certain conclusions and was taking action that could lead to nuclear war. Many Americans were frightened by that speech, but I imagine few thought, "He's making all that up."

If Trump were to make a similar speech today, about, say, North Korea, how could we not wonder if he was making it all up? How could our allies not wonder? That inherent lack of credibility in the White House makes us all less safe.

but the best news of the week came from Europe

In the Netherlands, many thought Geert Wilders would continue the nationalist/xenophobic winning streak of Brexit/Trump. But it didn't work out that way. Current Prime Minister Mark Rutte's party won 33 seats in the Dutch Parliament, with Wilders' party second with only 20 seats.

Wilders' positions are actually quite a bit more extreme than Trump's were here. He wants to ban the Quran, close mosques, and completely stop immigration from Muslim countries.

Iowa's white supremacist Congressman Steve King is a fan. He tweeted:

Wilders understands that culture and demographics are our destiny. We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.

This is nothing new for King, who keeps a Confederate flag on his desk and has made other outrageous racial comments in the past. Not so long ago, such statements would have made him a pariah, but not in today's Republican Party.

Angela Merkel was in town this week for an awkward meeting with Trump. Afterwards he tweeted:

Despite what you have heard from the FAKE NEWS, I had a GREAT meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Nevertheless, Germany owes vast sums of money to NATO & the United States must be paid more for the powerful, and very expensive, defense it provides to Germany!

As The Washington Post points out, this is nonsense. There is no proposal for Germany or any other country to pay protection money to the United States, and Germany has never agreed to such a thing.

and you might also be interested in

The quote at the top comes from this video of Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny at the White House. How is it that the leader of Ireland understands American values so much better than the leader of America?

Vox tells you way more about CAFE standards (Corporate Average Fuel Economy, the rules that make gas mileage on new cars keep going up) than you probably wanted to know. Very short version: Obama set high fuel-economy standards and Trump wants to lower them, but Obama's standards are pretty well locked in until 2022. The 2022-2025 standards would be easier to lower, but even that gets really complicated because there are three entities involved: the EPA, the Department of Transportation, and the State of California, which has a waiver that allows it to create its own standards (which other states could adopt) if the federal ones seem too lax. Trump could try to cancel California's waiver, but that is an arcane process of its own.

and let's close with something meta

The Venn diagram of Venn diagrams.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Basic Goals

The GOP's real problem, in terms of passing legislation, isn't that the party can't agree on specifics, or that legislators need to bargain their way toward a compromise that gives everyone something they want. It's that they don't agree on, or in some cases even have, basic goals when it comes to health policy.

- Peter Sunderman,

This week's featured post is "Poor People Need BETTER Heath Insurance than the Rest of Us, Not Worse."

This week everybody was talking about TrumpCare

So there finally is a TrumpCare bill. Unfortunately, the promised unicorns and fairy princesses are not in it.

The Congressional Budget Office analysis is supposed to come out today, and it is widely expected to show that many millions of people will lose their coverage. Millions of others who continue to have "health insurance" of some sort will find that it costs them more and doesn't cover as much as an ObamaCare policy did.

I could spend my entire weekly word budget telling you what's wrong with this bill, but other people already have. Not only don't liberals like it, but neither do conservatives, doctors, nurses, hospitals, insurance companies, neutral experts, the AARP, or just about anybody else. If you're rich, your taxes will go down. If you're young, healthy, and middle-class, your net insurance costs (after government subsidies and tax credits) will probably be lower than under ObamaCare. But if you're anybody else, you're going to be worse off.

The people who will be hurt the most are -- wait for it -- the Trump base: rural working-class people nearing retirement. They join the long list of folks who have trusted Trump and gotten screwed: banks and investors who loaned him money, contractors who worked on his projects, Trump U students, and people who lost down-payments on Trump Tower Tampa condos that never got built, just to name the ones I can think of off the top of my head.

It's all summed up in a great graphic from the NYT's Upshot blog. The people who lose the most voted for Trump over Clinton 58%-39%.

It will be interesting to see if these voters face reality and admit what has happened. During the Clinton impeachment, I remember saying that Bill had never lied to me about anything I cared about. (I never cared whether he had sex with "that woman".) I imagine many Trump voters feel the same way about their guy: Sure, he lied about the size of his inaugural crowd, and releasing his tax returns, and maybe some other stuff, but they never cared about any of that.

This, they should care about. But will they?

Ezra Klein does a good job of analyzing how the bill got to be so bad.

The biggest problem this bill has, the more I read it, is that it's not clear why it exists, what it's trying to achieve, what it makes better. In reality, what I think we're seeing here is that Republicans have lost sight of what they were trying to achieve in the first place. They are trying so desperately to come up with something that would allow them to say they've repealed and replaced ObamaCare, that they've let repeal and replace become not just a political slogan, but a goal.

Criticizing ObamaCare has been easy these last eight years, particularly if you make things up (like Death Panels). But forming a consensus view of the government's proper role in healthcare, and figuring out how to translate that vision into a piece of legislation -- that's hard. So for eight years, Republicans have been skipping that part. And now it shows.

"It says our health insurance is being replaced by a series of tweets calling us losers."

So the message going out to congressional Republicans now isn't "This is good, and here's how you explain its goodness to your constituents." It's "This is what we might be able to pass, and if we can't pass something we're all screwed." No one is enthusiastic about this bill (other than the billionaires with their tax cut), but Ryan, Trump, et al are counting on desperation to make even the most recalcitrant Republicans hold their noses and stay in line.

That could work, but here's the most likely failure path: Conservatives in the House force the bill to be even more draconian, so that when it reaches the Senate, Republicans from blue or purple states have enough cover to vote against it. The bill's margin for error is slight: Since it offers no concessions to liberal values, congressional Democrats are likely to remain united against it. So 21 Republican defections in the House or 3 in the Senate are enough to sink it.

I doubt they will, but this would be a good time for Democrats to propose the changes they would like to see in ObamaCare. Such a bill wouldn't pass, of course, but it would put a stake in the ground for 2018.

Here's a thought: The various legitimate problems ObamaCare is having -- like regions where only one or two insurers offer policies, so it's easy for them to raise premiums -- couldn't all that be fixed by sticking a public option back into the program? You could even set it up so that a public option would only be triggered in places with insufficient competition.

and the revised Muslim ban

A week ago, Trump signed an executive order replacing his Muslim ban, which had been blocked by the courts. The Guardian summarizes what is the same and different, and lets you read the 23-page text if you're so inclined.

In general, the revised ban is more orderly than the original, and won't produce the same kind of drama:

  • It stops new visas from being issued to people from six (not seven) Muslim-majority countries, but honors existing visas. So the conflicts happen in distant offices, not in American airports where demonstrators can congregate.
  • Green-card holders are unaffected this time, so people who already have perfectly legal jobs and lives in America will be able to cross the border.
  • Iraq isn't one of the listed countries any more, so victims won't include people who worked with our soldiers there.
  • It takes effect on March 16, rather than immediately when published, so the federal employees who have to enforce it will have time to figure out how it works rather than getting briefed quickly in the middle of the night.

So the rough edges are gone, but the essence is the same: It's still a Muslim ban. And that's going to make for an interesting court case, because it will hang on how willing judges are to examine the intent behind the order. The administration will argue that the order's specific provisions fall within the legal powers of the president, and the ban's opponents will have to argue that its intent and effect is to discriminate based on religion.

Trump campaigned on banning Muslims from entering the country, which would be an unconstitutional establishment of religion. His first order was an poor attempt to disguise the Muslim ban, and the second order smooths out problems in the first. But the original purpose is still there. His supporters can claim that this is just a small subset of Muslim countries, but the intent from the beginning has been to establish a precedent that can be expanded: If a six-country ban is OK, what about nine? Fifteen?

The non-religious justifications for the order have always been paper-thin. But intent is always a difficult thing to establish, and it will take guts for a court to say openly that the President of the United States is bullshitting. A judge would always rather find a procedural flaw, as judges did with the original ban. But Hawaii has set the ball rolling by filing suit. claiming that a Muslim ban is a Muslim ban.

The central issue for the Trump base has always been nostalgia for an America clearly dominated by straight white Christians. That's why they want a wall and that's why they want a Muslim ban. If there were no terrorist threat, they would still want a Muslim ban.

Tweeting in support of the xenophobic, anti-Muslim candidate in the upcoming Dutch elections, Iowa Congressman Steven King wrote:

Wilders understands that culture and demographics are our destiny. We can't restore our civilisation with somebody else's babies.

and the U.S. Attorney firings

Friday, Attorney General Sessions asked for the resignations of all the U.S. attorneys who were held over from the Obama administration, including one that Trump had specifically said could stay on. In some circles this is being covered as if it were scandalous, but at this point it's not quite at that level. U.S. attorneys are political appointees, and usually do get replaced by a new administration. The Clinton administration replaced all 92 at once in 1993, but usually a number of them stick around to handle ongoing cases before they resign. About half of the Obama USAs were already gone, and the Trump administration had seemed content to let them drift out at their own pace. (No one, for example, has yet been nominated for the jobs of any of the 46 just asked to resign.) So the abrupt change of course is a cause for speculation, but is not in itself extraordinary.

and corruption

Trump campaign adviser Roger Stone admitted to being in contact with Guccifer 2.0, which is believed to be responsible for hacking the DNC emails and "is believed by the U.S. intelligence community to be a cover identity for Russian intelligence operatives." Stone described the contact as "innocuous".

The lies continue to unravel. This week, fired National Security Adviser Michael Flynn retroactively filed as a foreign agent, having received more than half a million dollars to represent the government of Turkey while he was advising the Trump campaign. Worse, the transition team that OK'd Flynn's appointment had been told about this possibility both by Flynn's lawyers and by Democratic Congressman Elijah Cummings.

Vice President Pence was the head of the transition team, and yet he told Fox News' Brett Baier Thursday "Hearing that story today was the first I had heard of it." That can't be true, and yet (like Attorney General Sessions' lie to the Senate) he volunteered it without being asked.

Where did that money from Turkey go? Some of it paid a retainer to the retired FBI agent who started one of the Clinton-scandal stories three weeks before the election. Why Turkey would care about torpedoing Hillary Clinton's campaign is still a mystery.

and you might also be interested in

Courts seem increasingly inclined to strike down gerrymandering plans. Friday, federal judges ruled that Texas' map illegally discriminates against Hispanics. This follows a similar ruling in January concerning Wisconsin.

The WaPo published two maps that illustrate one way congressional districts could be simpler and more natural.

The economy continues on its recent path of good-not-spectacuar growth, adding 235K jobs in February. The unemployment rate returned to the 4.7% low it hit in December.

When asked about Candidate Trump's claims that Obama's low unemployment numbers were "phony" and "fiction", Sean Spicer replied:

I talked to the president prior to this, and he said to quote him very clearly. They may have been phony in the past, but it’s very real now.

Both Spicer and the roomful of reporters laughed, because the President tacitly admitting that he has repeatedly lied is so hilarious.

Mike the Mad Biologist commented on the constant lying that so many now just accept as a normal feature of the Trump administration:

What happens in a crisis where people need to trust Il Trumpe? Suppose a nasty strain of influenza were to hit or some other immediate public health crisis were to occur? If he says, you need to do X, will people trust him? While politicians have always stretched the truth, Trump’s lies are constant and ongoing. How could we possibly believe what he is saying?

And SNL made a similar point in its alien-invasion sketch.

I thought I covered this when it happened, but Google says otherwise: In mid-February, the Washington Supreme Court considered the appeal of a self-described Christian florist who was sued for refusing to sell flower arrangements for a same-sex wedding, and ruled 9-0 against the florist. The ruling is a good lesson on where the law currently stands on these so-called "religious freedom" cases, i.e., the ones where someone is claiming religion as a legitimate basis for discrimination.

Cases like these revolve around two claims: (1) The refused service constitutes "speech" of some sort, and so this refusal to speak is protected by the First Amendment. (2) The discrimination is not against gays per se; it's against their action in attempting to get married.

On the first, the Court wrote:

The Supreme Court has protected conduct as speech if two conditions are met: "[(1)] [a]n intent to convey a particularized message was present, and [(2)] in the surrounding circumstances the likelihood was great that the message would be understood by those who viewed it."

So it's not enough that in the florist's own mind her refusal was intended to avoid making a statement she didn't believe. The Court was not convinced that people who saw the floral arrangements would interpret them as the florist's endorsement of same-sex marriage.

On the second, it ruled that "some conduct is so linked to a particular group of people that targeting it can readily be interpreted as an attempt to disfavor that group", and quoted a Supreme Court opinion that "[a] tax on wearing yarmulkes is a tax on Jews".

The latest right-wing conspiracy theory is that leaks, protests, and other opposition to Trump is being organized by an Obama-led "shadow government".

My response to this idea is like the response economist John Maynard Keynes had during the Depression to the notion of an international bankers' conspiracy: "If only there were one."

and let's close with some folk art

Some people stack wood, but others make an art out of it.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Worrying about Progress

If you’re worried that technological progress will lead to mass unemployment — and especially if you think this process is already underway — you should be very interested in what the Federal Reserve does.

Timothy Lee

This week's featured post is "Jobs, Income, and the Future": Technologists worry that robots are going to make most humans unemployable, and economists scoff at that worry. Who's right?

I was in Florida last week, where I spoke to the Unitarian Universalists of Lakewood Ranch. This group is only a year-or-so old, so I raised the question "Why Be a Congregation?"

This week everybody was talking about Russia again

It's hard to restate the situation more succinctly than Paul Begala:

1 Russia hacked Dems
2 Leaks were timed to aid Trump
3 Trump aides had contact w/Russians
4 They lied about contacts

Nope. Nothing here

So far, we have a lot of circumstantial evidence suggesting a quid-pro-quo relationship between the Trump campaign and the Putin government, but nothing that rises to the level of proof. For some reason, though, Trump's people all start obfuscating, misdirecting, and lying whenever the subject comes up, and his allies in Congress really, really don't want to investigate it.

That's the mystery. Disgraced National Security Adviser Michael Flynn had to resign when it came out that he lied about his conversations with the Russian ambassador (and got Vice President Pence to lie for him). And this week we found out that Attorney General Jeff Sessions lied during his confirmation hearings about meeting the Russian ambassador. These are serious matters: Lying to the FBI (Flynn) and to Congress (Sessions) are both crimes. (I'm waiting for Republicans to start chanting "Lock them up!", but so far there are no charges, and Sessions continues to be our top law-enforcement officer.) So why take those risks unless there's something serious worth hiding?

I have to agree with Josh Marshall:

[B]ig, big scandals work like this. People who don't even appear to be that close to the action keep getting pulled under for what seem like needless deceptions. The answer is usually that the stuff at the center of the scandal is so big that it requires concealment, even about things distant from the main action, things that it would seem much better and less damaging simply to admit.

He also makes an interesting point about cover-ups:

We've all heard the old saw: It's never the crime, it's the cover-up. This is almost never true. Covering scandals for any length of time is enough to tell you that. People are generally able to make judgments about how much trouble they're in. We think the 'cover up' is worse than the crime because it's actually very seldom that the full scope of the actual crime is ever known. The cover up works better than you think. The other reason the cover up is a logical response is that it usually works. You only find out about it when it doesn't. So it's a good bet.

Another Trump campaign person changed his story about how the Republican platform plank on Ukraine was softened in Russia's favor. At the time he claimed Trump and then-campaign-manager Paul Manafort weren't involved, but now he says they were.

Marshall makes his best attempt at an "innocent explanation" of what we know about Trump and Russia: Basically, Trump went through a period in the 90s where the only investment capital he could raise came from Russian oligarchs, and given his what's-good-for-Trump-is-good-period narcissism, he came to share an oligarch's worldview: Putin good, sanctions against Russia bad, and so on. Putin recognized the value Trump could have for him, and did his best to put Trump in the White House.

The administration's response to the Sessions revelation, instantly picked up by Fox News and individual Trump fans commenting via social media, was that Democrats have also met with the high Russian officials, as if that were the problem. Chuck Schumer pointed out the lameness of this retort by volunteering to testify under oath about his 2003 encounter with Putin, and daring Trump and his people to do the same about their meetings.

The second response is to throw out a bright shiny object to distract everyone: Trump's so-far baseless claim that President Obama wiretapped him in Trump Tower. Not only has he not explained why we should believe this, he hasn't even said why he believes it.

Notice the response he never gets close to: If there really were no story here, he could score a lot of points with a defiant, bring-it-on attitude towards an investigation.

The Washington Post gets a legal opinion about Sessions' false testimony to Congress:

Under Title 18 of the U.S. Code, Sections 1001 and 1621, perjury before Congress is punishable by up to five years imprisonment. To prove that offense, a prosecutor would have to establish that Sessions’s answer was false, that he knew it was false when made and that the subject matter of the answer was “material” to the congressional inquiry in which he was testifying. Those elements all appear to be present.

From Vox:

and Trump's speech to Congress

It's kind of amazing how low the bar is for this guy. He reads a speech off a teleprompter that doesn't sound totally crazy -- but does misrepresent a number of material facts -- and pundits are thrilled. It's as if I got arrested for indecent exposure, but because I keep my pants zipped in court, the jury decides I must be a changed man.

NPR's reporters do a good job of annotating the text:

President Trump very slowly and emphatically used the term “radical Islamic terrorism” to describe the threat facing the nation. It is a term he used constantly during his presidential campaign. By repeating it Tuesday, he may be rebuking his own national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, who reportedly told his National Security Council staff last week that the term may not help efforts to enlist the support of Muslim allies in the fight against ISIS because ISIS terrorism is actually “un-Islamic.” Former Presidents George W. Bush and Obama shared McMaster’s view.

"Radical Islamic terrorism" plays well among Trump's base, and in this administration domestic politics will always come before national security.

The reason the phrase is bad framing should be obvious if you translate it to Christianity, or some other religion you feel more sympathy for. If you're a Christian, "radical Christianity" sounds like it ought to be a good thing. (For that matter, if you're a humanist, "radical humanism" sounds pretty good.)

ISIS and other jihadist groups argue that they practice the "real" Islam, and that all the more liberal or pro-Western Muslims are compromisers who bend the true word of Allah to the worldly powers. If we call their ideology "radical Islam", we're validating their claim, and helping them recruit young Muslims.

Another important annotation:

although Trump has cited the danger of attacks by people traveling from the countries affected by his travel restrictions, all the lethal attacks by radicalized Muslims in the U.S. since 2001 have been carried out by U.S. citizens or people who were in the country lawfully.

From the speech:

I have ordered the Department of Homeland Security to create an office to serve American Victims.  The office is called VOICE –- Victims Of Immigration Crime Engagement.  We are providing a voice to those who have been ignored by our media, and silenced by special interests.

One of the common techniques of bigotry is to treat misdeeds by the targeted group as somehow special, and so stereotype the group by those behaviors. So, for example, terrorism by Muslims is different than terrorism by Christians, sexual abuse of students by gay teachers is different than abuse by straight teachers, and so on. Here, Trump is continuing to build on the theme of his convention speech last summer, that undocumented immigrants present some special crime threat.

The reality is that any large-enough group of people will include criminals. If we separated out all the Americans named Donald, I'm sure we'd find that some are rapists, some are killers, and some (I assume) are good people. That separation would promote the (probably unfair) impression that people named Donald are somehow unsavory.

This is yet another fascist resonance in the Trump administration. Andrea Pitzer tells Amy Goodman:

Back in Nazi Germany there was ... a Nazi paper called Der Stürmer, and they had a department called "Letter Box," and readers were invited to send in stories of supposed Jewish crimes. And Der Stürmer would publish them, and they would include some pretty horrific graphic illustrations of these crimes, as well. And there was even a sort of a lite version of it, if you will, racism lite, in which the Neues Volk, which was more like a Look or a Life magazine, which normally highlighted beautiful Aryan families and their beautiful homes, would run a feature like "The Criminal Jew," and they would show photos of "Jewish-looking," as they called it, people who represented different kinds of crimes that one ought to watch out for from Jews.

But having said that, I need to balance with this quote from "Godwin's President" by Chris Ladd:

Trump is not Hitler. Hitler was someone else’s sin, someone else’s dragon unleashed. Trump is what Hitler represents, the embodiment of our nightmares, a living vision of a nation at her lowest, darkest, and most suicidally dangerous. Darkness that we once confined in our collective national basement we’ve now loosed on the world.

America's shadow is not necessarily as dark as Depression-era Germany's shadow.

but I decided to think about things other than Trump

The featured post looks at the long-term issue of the future of work and income. Ordinary macroeconomic policy should be enough to maintain more-or-less full employment for now, but eventually we're going to need some kind of basic income program. Making that work will be a social problem, not just an economic problem.

Ross Douthat makes a conservative case for (admittedly limited) reparations to descendants of slaves. He offers this concession as part of a deal to end affirmative action.

Occasionally you'll see lists purporting to be large numbers of scientists who don't believe in climate change. The sheer number of names is supposed to prove that climate change is still a hotly contested scientific issue.

In The Guardian, John Abraham (who actually does research on how to monitor the climate) takes a closer look at one such a list of 300 names. He finds what you always find: The people listed are "scientists" only in the weakest and most general sense. They have degrees or jobs that are somehow related to science or technology, but no particular expertise in climate research.

Within the community of actual climate-science experts, it is a settled fact that the Earth is getting warmer and that burning fossil fuels is an important cause.

Sam Brownback's Kansas tax experiment might be on its last legs. In February, the Republican-controlled legislature voted for a large tax increase, which Brownback vetoed. The House managed a 2/3rds majority to override the veto, but the override fell two votes short in the Senate. So, for now, no tax increase.

However, that veto does not solve the underlying problem: Absent a tax increase, Kansas faces a major budget shortfall. And that situation got worse Thursday when the Kansas Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the current spending plan falls short of the legislature's responsibility under Article 6 of the state constitution to "make suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state."

In the UK, the Churches Conservation Trust owns a lot of abandoned churches, many of them centuries old. Rather than just let them sit there, the CCT has begun promoting "champing" -- camping out in old abandoned churches. They provide beds and electric candles, though their ad says nothing about the possible ghost problem.

I spent my week off in Florida, where I happened to attend a lecture by Bernard Haykel, a professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton. I learned something simple about 9-11, which I was amazed I hadn't heard in the previous 15 years: an answer to the question "Why were so many of the 9-11 hijackers Saudis?"

Haykel's answer: because Bin Laden picked them that way. He did that for two reasons: (1) At the time it was easier for Saudis to get visas than people from other Muslim countries. (2) He wanted to drive a wedge into the U.S./Saudi alliance.

Also while in Florida, I got to see a sandhill-crane chick for the first time. The adult sandhills are absolutely fearless in the face of humans, and see no reason not to claim a new suburban development as their territory. While out for walks near the friends' house where I was staying, I would occasionally turn my head and find myself a few feet from a sandhill giving me an eye-to-eye stare, and showing not the slightest hint of alarm.

But they're a bit more reclusive during hatchling season, so it was only on my last day before heading home that I caught a glimpse of this youngster, a straw-colored fluffball not all that different from chicken hatchlings, albeit with a longer neck.


and you might also be interested in

As governor of Indiana, Mike Pence conducted public business over a private email account, and got hacked. Chris Hayes commented:

This is going to be a very bitter pill for all those voters for whom server management was their top issue.

I could fill the Sift every week with hypocrisy stories like this, where issues that were considered vital to the survival of the Republic before Trump took office now seem not to matter. In a few weeks, Trump will most likely produce a budget that the CBO will analyze as having a big deficit, and we'll see whether Tea Partiers are alarmed by that or not. I predict not. All that 2010 rhetoric about going the way of Greece will be left unplugged.

To me, such examples just underline what does matter, which I spelled out two weeks ago: identity politics. The Trump base voter is nostalgic for an America where white Christians are dominant, where genders and gender roles are clearly defined, and where languages other than English are heard only inside certain big-city ghettos. All other issues are tactical; positions on them can turn on a dime.

For example, this is why terrorism by Muslims is a huge deal, but terrorism by white racists is not. Terrorism is a tactical issue; the core issues are about identity: race, language, religion, and gender roles.

One point of building the Keystone XL Pipeline was that it was going to use American steel. "Going to put a lot of workers, a lot of steelworkers, back to work," Trump said. But that was then, this is now.

One of the more ominous things that happened these last two weeks was when Customs and Border Protection agents boarded a domestic flight from San Francisco to New York and demanded to see everyone's ID. The Atlantic's Garrett Epps can find no legal justification for this, and pledges to refuse to present his documents if he winds up in this situation.

The EPA is undoing Obama's standards for vehicle emissions and gas mileage. Because climate change is a myth, so why do anything to try to mitigate it?

The EU Parliament voted to drop the United States from its visa waiver program. Immediately, this does nothing, because the actual decision would be made by the European Commission. But it is a step in the direction of requiring Americans to get a visa before visiting Europe.

I read this as a shot across the bow: Inside the US, we discuss our immigration and trade policies in a one-sided way, as if we can treat other countries however we want and they'll just accept it. But if we disrespect or disadvantage foreign visitors, immigrants, and products, American visitors, immigrants, and products will be disrespected and disadvantaged in return.

Tuesday, Attorney General Sessions announced a policy change: The Justice Department will no longer be "dictating to local police how to do their jobs, or spending scarce federal resources to sue them in court".

In other words, there will be no future investigations like the ones Obama's DoJ did into Ferguson or Baltimore or Chicago police. So the next time there is a police killing like Michael Brown or Freddie Gray or Laquan McDonald, the fix will be in from the beginning. Local police can run a cover-up instead of an investigation, and not worry about anyone looking over their shoulders.

Conservatives often ask why it's necessary to have a Black Lives Matter movement, or why it's not sufficient to affirm that "all lives matter". It's because to people like Jeff Sessions, the lives of young black men like Brown or Gray or McDonald don't matter. If police want to kill them, it's no big deal.

A local pastor gives his account of taking his 11-year-old daughter to Trump's rally in Melbourne, Florida on February 18. He seems not to have been a Trump supporter, but wanted his daughter to take advantage of the rare opportunity to see the President of the United States in person.

I'm trying to separate how I actually feel about this man and his campaignisms. I know why people voted for him; I know why people voted against his opponent. But, at the end of the day, what I felt from his leadership in this experience was actually horrifying. There was palpable fear in the room. There was thick anger and vengeance. He was counting on it. I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say that it would not have taken very much for him to have called this group of people into some kind of riotous reaction.

Now, not everyone in the room was a part of the angry mob mentality – I looked around the room and saw many people who could quite easily be folks from my neighborhood, folks from my church, folks who were planning to go grab a bite to eat at Cracker Barrel afterwards. Folks who truly wanted to see America "great." The people who support the Republican Party want to see some needed changes in the government – the people that were there for that reason, are by and large good folks. But those are not the people the President was inciting – they are not the people he was leading. He was rallying the angry, vigilant ones.

and let's close with something sadly amusing

Patrick Stewart and Stephen Colbert star in "Waiting for Godot's Obamacare Replacement".