Monday, July 31, 2017

Nuclear Grade Bonkers

This process is an embarrassment. This is nuclear-grade bonkers, what is happening here tonight. We are about to re-order one-fifth of the American healthcare system. And we are going to have two hours to review a bill which, at first blush, stands essentially as healthcare-system arson.

- Senator Chris Murphy on the floor of the Senate Thursday night

This week's featured post is "How to Fix ObamaCare". The "Misunderstood Things" series is taking a week off.

This week everybody was talking about the craziest week yet of the Trump administration

Every day of American politics since January 20 has had a tinge of insanity or absurdity to it, but this week stood out. You can use the links to get the details, and I'll comment on some of these events below, but try to read the whole list before you delve deeper on any particular thing. I think it's worthwhile to stand back for a moment and take in the full lunatic-asylum landscape:

  • Wednesday morning, Trump tweeted a new policy banning transgender people from the military, which the Pentagon then announced that it would ignore.
  • Thursday, four Republican senators held a press conference. They described Mitch McConnell's latest ObamaCare repeal bill as "half-assed" and "a disaster", but offered to vote for it if Paul Ryan could guarantee them that it would never become law. (Three of them of them did vote for the bill early Friday morning, despite only having the bill's text available for two hours before voting. The fourth -- McCain -- cast the vote that killed it.)
  • Trump spent most of the week denouncing his own attorney general as "VERY weak" and "beleaguered". Trump said he was "very disappointed" in Jeff Sessions, but didn't fire him. Sessions described Trump's comments as "hurtful", but didn't resign.
  • Tuesday, Trump turned a homey presidential tradition -- addressing the Boy Scout Jamboree -- into an ugly political event that inspired comparisons to the Hitler Youth. Thursday, the Chief Scout Executive issued an apology for the President's behavior.
  • Wednesday night, Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker got called by new White House Communications Direction Anthony Scaramucci, who spoke on the record. He described Chief of Staff Reince Preibus as "a fucking paranoid schizophrenic", and claimed to differ from Steve Bannon because "I’m not trying to suck my own cock." Trump backed him up, and by Friday Preibus was gone. For the moment, Bannon continues as Chief Strategist, though his contortionist abilities remain unverified.
  • Friday afternoon, Trump addressed police in Ronkonkoma, New York. He spoke warmly of "thugs" being "thrown" into the back of a paddy wagon "rough", and asked officers "please don’t be too nice" when arresting people. The Suffolk County Police Department responded, "As a department, we do not and will not tolerate roughing up of prisoners."
  • That speech was not the only one in which Trump reprised the false narrative of his speech at last summer's Republican Convention, that the main criminal threat in America comes from Muslim terrorists and Hispanic gangsters. In Youngstown on Wednesday he denounced "predators and criminal aliens who poison our communities with drugs and prey on innocent young people", talked about immigrant gangsters who "slice and dice" their victims, and said "these are the animals that we've been protecting for so long."

And that's just a quick summary.

The big question is why. Why unleash such a big dose of the Crazy now? Why take a turn back towards fear-mongering, rabble-rousing, and not-so-veiled calls for violence? I think it's the Russia investigation. Jared had to testify this week (in closed sessions), and Don Jr. will follow soon. If they continued the patterns of their previous statements, they'll set themselves up for perjury charges. And as Mueller investigates Trump's past ties to Russian money-laundering, Trump alone knows what he might find.

Mueller is slow but dogged. On any given day, it's easy to drive the investigation out of the headlines with some new bit of insanity. But its mills are grinding.

Also, Trump's supporters are starting to crack. He's beginning to hear criticism from Republicans in Congress, and even from his evangelical base.

and TrumpCare's dramatic defeat in the Senate

Buzzfeed's David Mack compared the Senate floor at the moment of McCain's vote to a Renaissance painting.

McCain had puzzled us all earlier in the week. He returned from brain surgery Tuesday to cast the deciding vote that allowed the Senate to proceed to debate the various ObamaCare repeal options, but then gave an idealistic speech calling for a return to regular order and a bipartisan process, rather than the secretive Republicans-only process that his own vote had just allowed to continue. This struck author Mike Lofgren as typical of McCain, and he wrote: "None of us vain creatures can bear scrutiny of the gap between our words and our deeds—but few, I fear, would suffer from that scrutiny more than John McCain."

Whatever he was waiting to hear during that debate, though, he apparently didn't hear it. Or maybe he was just waiting for a more dramatic moment.

The repeated failure of ObamaCare repeal plans make it clear that "replace" was never more than a slogan for Republicans. Their voters liked the idea of some vague "replacement" that would keep all the good things about ObamaCare and do away with all the bad things, but there never was such a plan.

The question now is: Can Congress start doing what it should have been doing since the ACA passed in 2010: look at the results and make adjustments so that ObamaCare works better. I collect some suggestions about that in the featured post.

and the White House reshuffle

Friday, Reince Preibus was literally left at the airport as the Trump motorcade returned to the White House. I was reminded of Jim Comey being told about his firing by someone who saw it on CNN. Classy.

As of today, Preibus is replaced by former Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly. I am pessimistic about his ability to fix the problems in the White House, because they all trace back to Trump himself. For example, Dara Lind points out the underlying reason for the leaking problem: Trump watches TV, but he doesn't read memos. If a staffer wants to get the President to pay attention to an idea, s/he needs to get that idea on TV.

and you also might be interested in ...

Fascinating analysis by black comedian D. L. Hughley of the Trump base and why it doesn't care about the Russia scandal. In their view, he says, "America left them" by electing a black president and approving gay marriage and letting all those Hispanics into the country. Now "America is dead to them." If conspiring with Russia makes it possible for Trump to give them back the America their kind of people used to dominate, then that's fine.

Hughley compares the situation to the Bible story in which King Solomon offers to cut a baby in half to resolve two women's claims to be its mother. (One of them actually had a different baby, who died.) Solomon knows the true mother, because she begs to surrender the child rather than let it be killed. But Trump supporters are like the other woman, who feels so aggrieved that she would let Solomon divide the baby. If her baby is dead, then the other woman's baby might as well die too. They don't care if Trump conspired with an enemy power, because if he kills American democracy, so what? America is already dead to them.

Trump's Youngstown and Ronkonkoma speeches, where he talked at length about the "animals" in the MS-13 gang, were both chilling in similar ways. Vox's Brian Resnick spells it out:

Trump doesn’t clearly differentiate between criminal and peaceful immigrants living in the United States, nor does he care to. But Trump’s language is also dangerous, because it’s blatantly dehumanizing.

When we refer to people as “animals” or anything other than “people” it flips a mental switch in our minds. It allows us to deny empathy to other people, makes us feel numb to their pain, and lets us forgive ourselves from causing them harm.

Vox's Dara Lind described Trump's staff reshuffle as a "dark reboot" that will re-center the administration's message on "making America afraid again". That fear is a justification-in-advance of the cruelty to come -- the cruelty that is already here. When MS-13 is the face of all immigrants, Trump's base can happily watch ICE rip mothers away from their children.

The backstory of Trump's transgender ban is amazing. It starts in the House, in a disagreement between Republicans about whether the new budget should ban insurance programs for the military that might pay for gender-transition surgery. The anti-transgender Republicans were losing and appealed to Trump for help. What they got instead was:

The United States Government will not accept or allow transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military.

The Republican senators who pushed back against this make quite a list, including as Orrin Hatch, John McCain, and Joni Ernst . The prevailing opinion seems to be that if you're willing to be shot at for America, America should let you do it.

And then the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs basically said "never mind":

“I know there are questions about yesterday’s announcement on the transgender policy by the President,” Marine General Joe Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote in an internal memo obtained by Politico. “There will be no modifications to the current policy until the President’s direction has been received by the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary has issued implementation guidance.” In what reads like a rebuke of the policy Trump outlined on Twitter, Dunford added, “In the meantime, we will continue to treat all of our personnel with respect . . . and will all remain focused on accomplishing our assigned missions.”

Some commenters are worried by the prospect of the Pentagon ignoring civilian orders, which would indeed be a worrisome thing. But a tweet is not an order. If it were, then anybody who hacked Trump's Twitter account -- don't tell me that's impossible -- would become commander-in-chief. (To paraphrase the inscription on the hammer of Marvel's Thor: "Whosoever hacks this account, whether he be worthy or not, shall wield the power of Trump.") Also: one of the proper ways to respond to a vague order that comes out of the blue is to ask for more specific instructions. (i.e., "Open fire" ... "On what?") That's what Dunford did.

In the end, though, it looks like this decision is really up to Congress, if it chooses to exercise its authority.

While we're on the subject, my favorite response to the transgender ban came from the female writers for Seth Meyers, who trolled self-proclaimed LGBT ally Ivanka Trump.

and let's close with something amusing

When you're a scientist flying to or from a conference, you often wind up carrying things you have a hard time explaining to TSA, like a 3D-printed model of a mouse penis, enlarged to the size of an 11-foot mouse. Or maybe a Nobel Prize. ("Who gave this to you?" "The King of Sweden.")

Monday, July 24, 2017

Nobody Begs for Dirty Water

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

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

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

This week everybody was talking about the apparent failure of TrumpCare

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and whether Trump will accept being investigated

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and John McCain

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

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

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

but you should pay more attention to Iran

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

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

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

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

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

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

and you also might be interested in ...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and let's close with something unusual

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

Monday, July 17, 2017

Wanting to Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two big consequences:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of course not.

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

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

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

and the ObamaCare Repeal

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

but we should pay more attention to the NASA budget cuts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and you also might be interested in ...

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

and let's close with something out of this world

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 3, 2017

Accumulated Issues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and Trump's Muslim ban

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

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

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

but we need to watch the Election Integrity Commission

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and you also might be interested in ...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

and let's close with something peaceful

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