Monday, October 30, 2017

Looking Behind the Tree

Don't tax you. Don't tax me. Tax that fellow behind the tree.

- Senator Russell Long (1918-2003)

This week's featured post is "The Real Reason Republicans Can't Pass Major Legislation".

This morning, we found out it's Manafort

Friday night, several news organizations started reporting that the Mueller grand jury had sealed one or more indictments. The weekend was full of speculation, but the investigation's security held, and nobody knew who the targets were.

This morning we found out: Former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort and his business partner Rick Gates. That just happened, so I don't know anything yet that isn't in the Washington Post article. I didn't remember Gates, but he was also part of the Trump campaign and stayed on after Manafort left. Since the election, Gates worked on fund-raising for Trump's inauguration, and other Trump-related fund-raising.

But before that, everybody was talking about opioids

Unlike voter fraud, kneeling football players, the Clinton uranium deal, and most of the other things Trump speaks out about, the opioid-addiction epidemic is a real problem that deserves a president's attention.

Nothing much has changed since I wrote about it in April, when Trump appointed the commission whose report is due Wednesday. Drug overdoses kill more people than car accidents. The annual total of American drug-overdose deaths is over 50K -- roughly the same as the death total for the entire Vietnam War. (Since April, the 2016 totals have come out: 64K overdose deaths.) About a third of those deaths are from legal prescription drugs, and many of the people who die from illegal-drug overdoses first got addicted to legal drugs.

More than two months ago, Trump seemed to be declaring opioids a national emergency, which would unlock large quantities of federal money to spend on the problem.

The opioid crisis is an emergency, and I’m saying officially, right now, it is an emergency. It’s a national emergency.

That would have been an unorthodox move -- a typical national emergency is sudden disaster like a hurricane or a flood, not a problem that has been building for decades, and FEMA is an odd agency to task with confronting drugs -- but it would definitely have shaken things up.

But it was a false alarm. Trump seems not to have understood that the phrase national emergency has a specific meaning under the law, and is more than just another way of saying crisis or really bad problem. (This is like the difference between "making a federal case" out of something and actually filing charges in federal court.) So in spite of what he said, no national-emergency proclamation was ever signed. No FEMA. No new federal money.

Thursday, he announced something that sounds similar, but is actually very different: He proclaimed a "public health emergency". That's not nothing, but it doesn't unlock any new funding. It allows some rules to be waived and some already-appropriated money to be moved around.

Most of the "actions" he mentioned in his speech were not new. For example,

We are requiring that a specific opioid, which is truly evil, be taken off the market immediately.

The opioid is Opana, and the FDA removed it from the market in June. It's not clear whether the new administration had anything to do with that, or if it was just the career FDA people doing what they do. He also mentioned several ongoing efforts as if they were new initiatives: looking for non-addictive painkillers, asking the Chinese to crack down on fentanyl production, and so on.

It's possible that something significant will be announced after the report comes out Wednesday, but Trump's speech was a lot more flash than substance. USA Today quotes Baltimore health commissioner Leana Wen:

The public health emergency raises awareness, which is important, but we had hoped for a national state-of-emergency declaration, because that would carry with it a commitment for funding. We don’t need more rhetoric. We need resources.

Any major government effort against drugs will have to be leaderless for the near future: Tom Marino's nomination as drug czar had to be withdrawn after he became the primary villain of this 60 Minutes segment. He was the point man for the drug industry's successful effort to stop the DEA from prosecuting distributors who knowingly fill suspicious orders for large quantities of prescription drugs. (Marino shows up in the second half of the video. He is the lead sponsor of a bill written by the industry to handcuff the DEA, and then he starts an investigation that sidelines an aggressive DEA investigator until he quits.) The entire thing is a great lesson on how big business influences government at all levels, to the detriment of the American people. (The Marino bill's second sponsor, Rep. Marsha Blackburn, is currently running to replace Bob Corker in the Senate.)

In the absence of a drug czar, leadership might come from the department level. But HHS Secretary Tom Price had to resign after it came out that he wasted as much as a million dollars of the taxpayers' money on his personal travel. His replacement has still not been nominated, but the rumored front-runner is a drug-company executive.

Trump's speech used the opioid problem to score political points on other issues. For example:

An astonishing 90 percent of the heroin in America comes from south of the border, where we will be building a wall which will greatly help in this problem. (Applause.) It will have a great impact.

No, actually it won't. Sanjay Gupta has been reporting on this for CNN. The synthetic opioid causing the most deaths, fentanyl, comes in through legal entry points or through the U.S. mail. It isn't usually smuggled across the open border.

For bulkier drugs that come across the border somewhere other than the ports of entry, there are other post-wall smuggling options: Dig tunnels under it or fly over it with drones. A wall is a fixed obstacle that takes years to build. Smugglers will adapt to it much faster than Homeland Security can alter it.

Here in America, we are once again enforcing the law; breaking up gangs and distribution networks; and arresting criminals who peddle dangerous drugs to our youth.

Obama wasn't enforcing drug laws? Wasn't breaking up gangs? Oh wait, I get it: You're talking about deporting Mexicans (which Obama was also doing), because our drug problem is all their fault. It's the immigrant-crime-wave lie from Trump's convention speech.

This was an idea that I had, where if we can teach young people not to take drugs -- just not to take them. ... The fact is, if we can teach young people -- and people, generally -- not to start, it's really, really easy not to take them. And I think that's going to end up being our most important thing. Really tough, really big, really great advertising, so we get to people before they start, so they don't have to go through the problems of what people are going through.

Tell young people not to start using drugs? That's genius, Mr. President! Genius! When you say it so clearly, I have to wonder why no one ever thought of that before. I understand now why you so often need to remind us that you're "a very intelligent person".

Trump claims to know the importance of teaching the young to just say no, because his alcoholic brother Fred warned him never to drink or smoke or do drugs, so he never did. But Ana Marie Cox (self-describing as "a recovering addict and alcoholic") notes the ineffectiveness of campaigns against "pleasurable but illicit behavior" in general and drugs in particular:

The federal government spent $10 million a year on DARE until 2002, when a surgeon general’s report stated that “numerous well-designed evaluations and meta-analyses that consistently show little or no deterrent effects on substance use.”

She also wonders whether "someone, somewhere once warned Donald Trump not to cheat on his wife."

Here's another thing that has started to annoy me: In talking about how bad the opioid problem is in West Virginia, he called it "a truly great state, great people". He says stuff like that a lot, and it means something very specific: They voted for me. I haven't done a comprehensive search, but I can't recall Trump (as president) ever mentioning the "great people" of California or Illinois or Massachusetts.

Since Trump voters are overwhelmingly white, there's also a racial subtext: The addicts of rural West Virginia aren't like those low-life addicts in the black ghettos of Chicago or Baltimore. The West Virginia addicts are good Christian white people who deserve the compassion of other good Christian white people.

It's important to keep in mind that this is not normal American political rhetoric. Previous presidents of both parties have understood that, once elected, they had become president of all the people, and not just of the people who voted for them. Trump doesn't get this.

and tax reform

More about this in the featured post. The House passed the Senate's budget resolution, so they're set up to pass a tax reform bill that adds $1.5 trillion to the national debt without any Democratic votes. The basic problem: All but $1.5 trillion of the tax cuts Republicans want need to be cancelled out by eliminating "loopholes". Unfortunately, everybody thinks loopholes are the deductions other people take advantage of, not the deductions they claim themselves. Hence the Long quote at the top.

and Jeff Flake

The speech he gave Tuesday on the Senate floor is worth reading.

There are times when we must risk our careers in favor of our principles.

It's hard for someone as liberal as I am to know what to do with Flake and the handful of other Republicans like him, because the principles he wants to risk his career for are not my principles. To me, the moment for a principled exit came and went a long time ago. But Trump only falls if Republicans turn against him, so we need to make space for them to turn against him.

It's complicated. So I'm thinking about this, and should have more to say in a week or two.

and the Russia investigation

In addition to the just-announced indictments, we learned a little more about the meeting in Trump Tower between a Russian lawyer and top Trump campaign people (Paul Manafort, Donald Jr., and Jared Kushner). Some of the information they were offered had previously been given to a Republican Congressman by a high Russian government official. This undermines the lawyer's claim to be independent of Putin.

We also learned about the funding of the Steele dossier. It had been known since shortly after the dossier first became public that it had started as Republican-funded opposition research, but was dropped when Trump's nomination became inevitable, and then was picked up by Democrats. Now we know more specifics: The first funder was the conservative web site Washington Free Beacon, and it was later picked up by the Clinton campaign. All of the research was conducted by the same firm: Fusion GPS.

On the right, the involvement of the Clinton campaign is being treated as some kind of scandal, one that discredits the dossier itself and perhaps even the whole Russia investigation. But I'm not seeing it. Opposition research is a normal part of American politics. (Much of what Bill Clinton got investigated for began as opposition research paid for by conservative billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife. I don't recall Republicans having any problem with that.) Nothing in the Russia investigation is based on the authority of the dossier. We know that the FBI has been checking the claims in the dossier, but nothing is being accepted as true just because the dossier says so.

Let's simplify things: Suppose opposition research had uncovered evidence that Trump robbed a bank, and a Justice Department investigation independently proved that conclusion. Would the big story be the opposition research, or the fact that Trump robbed a bank?

The main questions in the investigation are:

  • What did the Russian government do to try to influence our election?
  • Did anyone inside the Trump campaign know they were getting help from Russia, and did anyone actively cooperate?
  • Has the Russian government gotten anything from the Trump administration in exchange for its help?
  • Since the investigation started, has Trump or anybody else committed perjury or tried to obstruct justice?

Anything else is secondary. For example, I don't particularly care about the sexual allegations in the dossier. I only care if Russian intelligence has something to hold over Trump's head and has used it to influence him.

An old Republican conspiracy theory -- that when she was Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton OK'd a Russian company's deal to buy a North American uranium company in exchange for a big contributions to the Clinton Foundation -- has surfaced again, and will be investigated by three different committees in the House. If Hillary didn't exist, I think Republicans would need to invent her. Even after she eventually dies, I suspect Republicans will continue investigate her whenever they need to divert their base voters' attention from their own scandals.

The WaPo's fact-checker, Glenn Kessler, covers all the important points. The gist is that while the one-line description sounds scandalous, no details have ever emerged to back up any part of it. Treasury was the lead department on the approval, and "there is no evidence Clinton even was informed about this deal." How the Russians are supposed to have bribed the other eight agencies involved the process is also unexplained.

and draining the swamp

Some recent stories demonstrate that the swamp has only gotten swampier since Trump took over.

  • A tool of the big drug companies got nominated to be drug czar. (Discussed above.) If not for 60 Minutes and The Washington Post, he'd probably have been confirmed. After the Tool (Rep. Tom Marino of Pennsylvania) withdrew his nomination, President Trump tweeted that he is "a fine man and a great congressman".
  • A tiny Montana company from the same town as Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke got a $300 million contract to rebuild Puerto Rico's power grid. The local power company says FEMA approved the deal; FEMA denies it. A number of the details of the contract sound suspicious. The contract was canceled Sunday.
  • If you have a dispute with your bank, quite likely you can't take it to court and can't join other individuals in a class-action lawsuit, because the fine print of your contract says you have to submit to binding arbitration as an individual. (You could switch to another bank, but its fine print would say the same thing.) The Consumer Financial Protection Board nixed that process in June with a new regulation that allowed class-action lawsuits against banks in more circumstances. The House immediately voted to repeal that regulation, and the Senate followed suit Tuesday, passing what critics call the Wells Fargo Immunity Act. It was a 51-50 vote along party lines, with only two Republican defections. VP Pence broke the tie.

and anniversaries

Depending on how you count, the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution was either October 25 (the date on Julian calendar in use in Russia at the time) or will be November 7 (the date on the Gregorian calendar that most to the rest of the world was using and Russia adopted in 1918). The 500th anniversary of the Reformation is tomorrow. (That's also by the Julian calendar; nobody seems to worry much about the 10 days that were added when the Gregorian calendar was adopted in 1582.)

but check out this article on the future of electricity

The old fantasy was to be off the grid. The new fantasy is to be on a grid designed for sustainability.

and you also might be interested in ...

Most of Puerto Rico is still without electrical power. The governor tweeted this photo of surgery being performed using a phone as a flashlight. Nurses returning to the mainland from emergency work in Puerto Rico have been very critical of what's going on there.

The nurses described doctors performing surgery in hospitals with light from their cellphones, children screaming from hunger, elderly residents suffering from severe dehydration, and black mold spreading throughout entire communities.

"We cannot be silent while millions of people continue to endure these conditions," said Bonnie Castillo, associate executive director of National Nurses United.

Normally, the Virginia governor's race doesn't have much predictive value nationally. Democrat Terry McAuliffe won in 2013, for example, and Democrats went on to get pounded in the 2014 mid-terms.

This year's race might be different, though, because Republican Ed Gillespie is running in a very Trumpian style: His campaign has a not-very-veiled racial focus, with red-meat ads about rampaging Hispanic gangs and defending Confederate monuments. Polls show that this tactic has energized non-college white voters to support him. The question is whether it is turning off the educated white suburbanites a Republican also needs if he's going to win in Virginia. A recent poll says that it is, and that Northam is winning. We'll see if that prediction is verified on November 6.

If it isn't, if Gillespie pulls out a last-minute win due to a heavy white turnout, then I think his campaign becomes the model for an ugly 2014: Republicans will try to make the election a racial referendum.

Like Trump, Gillespie treats the national media as enemies. Here, Washington Post reporter Marc Fisher posts a sad but also amusing video of his attempts to find and speak to Gillespie.


Ezra Klein on the implications of the Mark Halperin and Leon Wieseltier sexual harassment scandals:

We routinely underestimate what it means that our political system has been constructed and interpreted by men, that our expectations for politicians have been set by generations of male politicians and shaped by generations of male pundits.  ... The most influential institutions in America have long had serial sexual abusers and deep misogynists at their apex. Those abusers didn’t just shape their workplaces or their industries; they shaped our politics, our culture, and our country.

During the campaign, for example, Halperin described women's accusations against Trump as "nothing even kind of, like, beyond boorish or politically incorrect".

One reason why this kind of thing has remained acceptable for so long is that so many of the people shaping public opinion were doing it themselves.

If the Harvey Weinstein case started you wondering about Trump again, let Sarah Huckabee Sanders set you straight: All of the 17 women who accused him of sexual harassment or assault were lying.

Vox' Anna North and Ezra Klein note the similarities between Weinstein and Trump, and then draw this conclusion:

This is, perhaps, the depressing lesson of the Weinstein and Trump stories. The allegations are similar. The evidence is similar. But power still protects, and while Weinstein had lost enough power to imperil his protection, Trump has only amassed more.

Innuendo Studios has a series of videos about the tactics of the alt-Right. Here's one related to the Trump groping issue:

Our new ambassador to Canada claims to believe "both sides of the science" about climate change, as if climate change were some sort of quantum wave/particle duality. The best response comes from the NASA-based Twitter account that claims to be the AI running the Mars rover.

On the one side you have evidence and data and research, and on the other side you have… oil money. Both equal.

and let's close with some bad suggestions

Haven't decided on your Halloween costume yet? Don't do any of these.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Military Swagger

We don’t look down upon those of you who haven’t served.

- White House Chief of Staff John Kelly

This week's featured posts are "The Billie Jean Republicans" -- picture a GOP senator backed by a chorus of corporate donors, denying their responsibility for Trump -- and something a little more serious: "Niger, the Condolence Controversy, and Why the Founders Feared a Professional Military".

In case "Billie Jean" has you trying to remember the Sift's previous poetic posts, they're: "Donnie in the Room" (based on "Casey at the Bat") and "Fatherly Advice to Eric and Don Jr." (based on "If").

This week everybody was talking about the Niger operation, and the distracting controversy it launched

Mostly this is covered in one of the featured posts. But John Kelly has turned into his own issue. Vox' Dara Lind compares his attitude to Jack Nicholson's character in A Few Good Men.

But it’s not just that Kelly doesn’t respect the way that politics works within Washington — the time it takes to make a congressional deal, the way that embarrassing statements can get leaked to eager reporters. He actively thinks that they have America wrong, and that they will never understand it in the way those who serve it will.

Charles Pierce sees Kelly's lying defense of Trump as

a terribly sad moment. Everything and everybody this president* touches goes bad from the inside out.

Matt Yglesias had another depressing thought.

Kelly’s performance today should be a wakeup call to anyone who still thinks there are “adults in the room” who’ll save us.

Occasionally the media speculates that Kelly will get tired of his thankless job and quit. I predict a different scenario: At some point Trump will have wrung all the credibility out of Kelly, and then he'll toss the general away.

There's one more part of Kelly's remarks I can't let go by:

You know, when I was a kid growing up, a lot of things were sacred in our country. Women were sacred, looked upon with great honor.

Kelly and I grew up in the same era. (He's six years older.) So I can testify that he is totally full of crap on this. Women of our mothers' generation were shown superficial respect -- holding doors for them, etc. -- as long as they lived narrowly scripted lives of service to men. But a woman was not honored if she spoke out in public, or entered the workplace, or sought an advanced degree, or decided not to get married, or did anything else outside the script. Quite the opposite.

and rebukes to Trump without naming him

George W. Bush spoke Thursday in New York. He addressed threats to democracy and said that "when we lose sight of our ideals, it is not democracy that has failed. It is the failure of those charged with preserving and protecting democracy." (In case you don't recognize it, that's a reference to the presidential oath to "preserve, protect, and defend" the Constitution.)

We’ve seen nationalism distorted into nativism – forgotten the dynamism that immigration has always brought to America. We see a fading confidence in the value of free markets and international trade – forgetting that conflict, instability, and poverty follow in the wake of protectionism.

We have seen the return of isolationist sentiments – forgetting that American security is directly threatened by the chaos and despair of distant places, where threats such as terrorism, infectious disease, criminal gangs and drug trafficking tend to emerge.

He also contradicted Trump's claim that the Russia story is "fake news".

America is experiencing the sustained attempt by a hostile power to feed and exploit our country’s divisions. According to our intelligence services, the Russian government has made a project of turning Americans against each other. This effort is broad, systematic and stealthy, it’s conducted across a range of social media platforms.

He also said "white supremacy in any form is blasphemy against the American creed."

In a speech accepting the Liberty Medal from the National Constitution Center last Monday, John McCain said:

To fear the world we have organized and led for three-quarters of a century, to abandon the ideals we have advanced around the globe, to refuse the obligations of international leadership and our duty to remain 'the last best hope of earth' for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems is as unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history.

We live in a land made of ideals, not blood and soil. We are the custodians of those ideals at home, and their champion abroad.

As much as I approve of Republicans giving other Republicans permission to criticize Trump, though, the country needs a lot more from Republican leaders. How do they propose to limit the damage being done by this unfit president, or to remove him?

and healthcare

It looks like the Murray-Alexander bill on healthcare -- the bipartisan one that tries to fix some of the damage Trump has been doing to the health insurance markets -- will get a vote in the Senate. It still seems unlikely to get a vote in the House, and no one -- including Mitch McConnell -- knows what Trump would be willing to sign.

More proof that Trump has no ideas for improving American healthcare: In an appearance with the Greek prime minister Tuesday, Trump took questions. He was asked "What is your healthcare plan, sir?"

He responded with a long ramble justifying what he had just done (cancel CSR payments that reimburse insurance companies for losses on cheap policies to the working poor), criticized insurance companies, pronounced ObamaCare dead, said something about block grants to the states, predicted that he would have the votes to repeal ObamaCare after Congress got done with tax reform, called Democrats "obstructionists" who "have no good policies", bragged about how many judges he has appointed (while criticizing Democrats for slowing down Senate approval of nominees), and denounced insurance-premium increases under ObamaCare.

The reporter followed up: "So is Graham-Cassidy still the plan, sir?" And Trump said: "Yeah, essentially that would be the plan. Yes, block grants."

He has a two-word-answer grasp of the subject, which he hides under mountains of meaningless self-serving verbiage. How should Americans who aren't rich get the care they need and pay for it? He has no idea.

but I eventually got around to looking at the Values Voters Summit

It was last week's news, but I fall behind sometimes.

Trump: "As long as we have pride in our country, confidence in our future, and faith in our God, then America will prevail." The phrase "our God" bothers me. That didn't just pop out of his mouth. This was a scripted teleprompter speech, so the words were chosen. He could have said "faith in God", which would already be controversial in a few ways. But instead he said "faith in our God".

Does America have a national god who is different from the gods of other countries or of the Universe? What about citizens of the United States who don't don't worship the American God? Do they count as "us", as Americans? Is Trump their president too?

I haven't been the only one writing song lyrics. Roy Moore's speech included new lyrics that almost fit the tune of "America the Beautiful", outlining all the ways that today's America seems ugly and evil to him, and calling down God's judgment on us.

Moore and his audience are white instead of black, and the sins he charges against America (abortion, drug abuse, abandoning the death penalty) are different than the ones Rev. Jeremiah Wright focused on (slavery, herding Native Americans onto reservations, putting Japanese Americans into detention camps during World War II, funneling black youth into low-paying jobs or prison rather than educating them). But otherwise, how is this different from the "God damn America" sermon Wright got pilloried for?

and you also might be interested in ...

The Senate moved Congress one step closer to tax reform. It passed a budget resolution that would make a Republican tax-cut bill eligible for reconciliation, letting it pass the Senate with 50 votes plus Vice President Pence. Now they just need to figure out what goes into that bill.

The Trump/Russia legal-fee issue just got weirder. For months, the RNC and the Trump campaign have been paying the legal bills of the President and of Donald Trump Jr., but no one else. Now, Trump says he will use up to $430,000 of his own money to pay legal bills for White House staff and campaign aides. So they'd better say what they're told to say, right?

Fort Worth Weekly uses two local Christian seminaries to illustrate the diversity of American Christianity. If "Christian" means just one thing to you, you might find this enlightening.

After five years at the American Chemical Council, Nancy Beck became a primary EPA decision-maker on toxic chemicals. What could go wrong?

and let's close with something terrestrial

No, it isn't a starship, it's a manta ray. The shot is from the Nature Conservancy's 2017 photo contest. It's not even the winner.

Monday, October 16, 2017


Jeb Bush ran for president on the theory that tax cuts would generate 4 percent economic growth. Marco Rubio argued that Barack Obama was deliberately trying to damage the United States. Ed Gillespie claims that sanctuary cities that don’t even exist are responsible for the rise of a violent international criminal organization. The same congressional Republicans who swore for years that growing debt was the biggest threat to the country are lining up behind a budget that will authorize more than $1 trillion in new borrowing to finance tax cuts for the rich. The difference between these guys and the new crop of kooks — between a respected colleague like Bob Corker and a feared soon-to-be-colleague like Marsha Blackburn — as I understand it, is that the establishment politicians are aware that they are lying.

 - Matt Yglesias "Establishment Republicans mystified by their base should look at Ed Gillespie’s campaign"

This week's featured post is "Taking Hostages".

This week everybody was talking about Trump's moves to wreck things

I cover his threats to DACA, the Iran deal, and ObamaCare in the featured post. Increasingly, Trump is realizing that even having Republican majorities in Congress doesn't allow him to run over Democrats. So now he's trying to get their cooperation by taking hostages.

and we also paid attention to that other abuser of women, Harvey Weinstein

Before this week, I'm pretty sure I could have sat next to Harvey Weinstein on an airplane without recognizing him. I remember seeing the Weinstein Company logo in film credits, but I couldn't tell you which movies they were. So I've been amazed at how much coverage his sexual abuse scandal is getting. To me, Bill Cosby, Bill O'Reilly, Donald Trump, and Roger Ailes were public figures, but Weinstein is just another rich dude.

Actually, Ailes is probably comparable: a guy who's powerful within his industry, but most people wouldn't recognize on the street. (I just happen follow political journalism much more closely than I follow movies, so Fox News seems like a bigger deal to me than the Weinstein Company.) Like Roger Ailes' story, Weinstein's is driven largely by the star-power of his accusers: Gywneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie for Weinstein, Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson for Ailes.

It appears Weinstein has been doing this for a long time, but once accusations reached a critical mass, the response was swift. His company has fired him, the Motion Picture Academy expelled him, and I hope no one takes seriously the idea that some sort of therapy will qualify him for a comeback. (Personally, I don't believe predatory behavior is treatable. Predators have more motivation to pretend to reform than to actually reform.) If there's enough evidence for a criminal conviction, I hope prosecutors go for it.

What makes Weinstein's story different from Trump, O'Reilly, and Ailes is that his political connections are liberal rather than conservative. Conservative media has tried to make a hypocrisy story out of that: See, liberals abuse women too.

I will note the major difference: It has been the liberal media (the NYT and The New Yorker) that has been leading the charge to break this story. And (unlike Ailes) Weinstein isn't being defended (except by Woody Allen; they should start a club). Kellyanne Conway has tried to make a thing out of the fact that five whole days passed before Hillary Clinton spoke out against Weinstein. But Trump actively defended both Ailes and O'Reilly, and to my knowledge still hasn't condemned them. And Conway herself defended Trump after more than a dozen women accused him of sexual assault, and he confessed on tape.

The one upside of this story is the attention it has drawn to situations that are not rape in the clearest sense -- not a guy forcing sex on a woman who is unmistakably refusing -- but where differences in status and power make refusal problematic, situations where ambiguous behavior will be interpreted in the man's favor, up until the point where it will be assumed by many that the woman consented by not objecting. Even if no physical force is involved, the man has to know that the woman is giving in rather than participating.

Kate Manne's article at Huffington Post, for example, rambles but also covers a lot of ground -- through novels, TV shows, journal articles, and her own memories of an abusive piano teacher during a time when she dreamed of a professional career. The experience "tainted playing the piano for me". Likewise, some of the Weinstein accusations come from women who gave up their dream of being actresses. Who can guess how many women have abandoned ambitions as a vague not-quite-intended response to harassment that they didn't feel in a position to report at the time?

and Puerto Rico

Tuesday, AP reported that 10 people have been diagnosed with leptospirosis, a disease you get by drinking water contaminated by animal urine. Four deaths have been attributed to this disease, which is both preventable and treatable.

When he was in Puerto Rico, Trump bragged about the low death totals, then only 16. The official count is now higher, and is probably still too low.

At Vox, we decided to compare what the government has been saying with other reports of deaths from the ground. We searched Google News for reports of deaths in English and Spanish media from Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria. We found reports of a total of 81 deaths linked directly or indirectly to the hurricane. Of those, 45 were the deaths certified by the government. The remaining 36 deaths were confirmed by local public officials or funeral directors, according to the reports. We also found another 450 reported deaths, most of causes still unknown, and reports of at least 69 people still missing.

The estimates of how many people are without power change daily, but have been running in the 70-90% range.

I've been saying since before the Inauguration that Trump (like the alt-Right in general) distinguishes between Americans and real Americans. Real Americans (also sometimes referred to as "the American People"; I talked here about what it means to be "a people") are English-speaking white Christians.

If you're really adamant about two out of three, that might be enough for you to count as "real", but just being white or Christian or speaking English as your first language isn't. (For the Dreamers, even two out of three isn't enough.) So Puerto Ricans, who (though often Catholic) are mostly brown-skinned Spanish-speakers, don't qualify as real Americans, no matter what their passports say. That's why the America-First President can tweet so blithely about abandoning them in their hour of need. The thought of how much money the U.S. is spending to help them, which never came up in presidential rhetoric after the Texas and Florida hurricanes, is never far from his mind. He also worries about whether they are doing enough to help themselves, another idea that didn't come up in Harvey or Irma relief. It is as if he considers Puerto Rico disaster relief to be foreign aid.

Rachel Maddow has been making the Navy hospital ship Comfort a symbol of the relief effort's mismanagement. It's in Puerto Rico, but as of Thursday, only 8 of its 1000 beds were occupied.

and the California fires

As of Friday, the Tubbs fire in the Santa Rosa area had destroyed more than 5,000 buildings, most of them homes. And that's just one of the still-raging fires.

As with the hurricanes, climate change is sitting in the background of this story. The usual caveats apply: There's always been a wildfire season in California, so you can't look at any particular fire and say that climate change caused it. But ...

As the climate changes, extremes in seasonal conditions are exacerbated, [University of California Professor LeRoy] Westerling says. Climate change affects wildfires from two directions at different times of the year: Winters become wetter and shorter, while summers become hotter and last longer.

"Climate change is kind of turning up the dial on everything," Westerling said. "Dry periods become more extreme. Wet periods become more extreme."

One thing I didn't understand before: Both sides of that process promote wildfires. The wet winters cause more vegetation to grow, which dries out in the summer and becomes fuel for the fires.

If you missed it the first time around, now is a good time to watch this episode of Years of Living Dangerously. It tells two stories about deforestation: Harrison Ford is in Indonesia, and Arnold Schwarzenegger talks to the people who fight wildfires in the American West.

From a friend whose home in Santa Rosa is within blocks of the total-loss zone:

Ronald Reagan famously said: "The most terrifying words in the English language are: 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help you'."

Ronald Reagan was a fucking moron.

Rugged individualism just doesn't cut it when you're in the path of a hurricane or a major fire.

but we need to watch the Russia/Trump/social media story

Most of the talk about the Trump/Russia investigation centers on the hacks of Democratic emails and the process by which they got leaked to the press. But ultimately Russia's social media strategy may turn out to be more important.

The Internet Research Agency employ hundreds of so-called “trolls” who post pro-Kremlin content, much of it fake or discredited, under the guise of phony social media accounts that posed as American or European residents, according to lawmakers and researchers.

Facebook announced last month it had unearthed $100,000 in spending by the Internet Research Agency and, under pressure from lawmakers, has pledged to be more transparent about how its ads are purchased and targeted.

Google has found tens of thousands spent by a different Russian group on its ads, and Microsoft is still looking into the issue. There have also been reports of Russian Twitter-bots who manipulated which stories were "trending". A number of those Facebook ads targeted Wisconsin and Michigan.

Some of the Russian ads appeared highly sophisticated in their targeting of key demographic groups in areas of the states that turned out to be pivotal, two of the sources said. The ads employed a series of divisive messages aimed at breaking through the clutter of campaign ads online, including promoting anti-Muslim messages, sources said.

This is far from conclusive evidence of collusion with the Trump campaign, but it does suggest some American involvement: Somebody working with the Russians had a very deep, granular understanding of the American electorate.

Larry Kim reports on how easy it is to set yourself up as a fake-news mogul. He created a web site, spent $50 on Facebook ads, and reached 4,645 conservative-leaning people in Pennsylvania, generating 44 likes and 27 shares. Imagine what could be done with an army of trolls and hundreds of thousands to spend. If you build a bunch of sites all referencing each other's fake-news stories, you could create your own bubble.

and you also might be interested in ...

The NYT covers research into why wolves are different from dogs. The theory: wolf puppies learn the difference between "us" and "them" very early, before their eyes and ears are working yet, entirely by scent. Dog puppies stay open to socialization longer, and learn to recognize familiar humans by sight and sound. The reporter is only partly convinced, but really enjoys the chance to play with wolf puppies.

The WaPo predicts that someday 2017 will be seen as "the beginning of the end of the internal combustion engine". The big reasons: China, Tesla, and GM.

Minister Carl Gregg discusses the question of how to deal with honest people who live in a world of alternative facts. Based a book called The Cynic and the Fool by Tad DeLay, he recommends starting with "motivational interviewing" rather than direct contradiction. "Why do you believe that?" rather than "That's not true!"

Last week, Senator Corker described the White House as "an adult daycare center". This week, Politico and The Washington Post explained how the daycare workers do their jobs. Mainly, when the Toddler-in-Chief is about to do something bad or dangerous, they distract him until his attention wanders somewhere else. (I picture them jingling a set of car keys.) And when he's behaving, they tell him again and again what a good boy he is.

The nominee to head the Council on Environmental Quality doesn't think carbon dioxide should count as a pollutant.

Since the election, I've been thinking that liberals need to explain things we used to take for granted, and explicitly argue against ideas that used to be off the table. (I've done that with articles against white pride and nationalism.) Economics blogger Noah Smith apparently feels the same way: He explained in September why an American white ethnostate would be a bad idea, not just for the non-whites who would be either driven out or subordinated, but for the whites themselves.

Two main arguments: An all-white USA would have a crappy economy, not just because talented non-whites wouldn't want to come (or stay) here, but because a lot of talented whites would leave (in the same way that many non-Jewish scientists left Hitler's Germany). And the harsh policies necessary to get rid of American non-whites would leave us with corrupt and tyrannical institutions, staffed by people who were willing to do nasty things. In spite of our ethnic homogeneity, we'd have a low level of public trust for generations.

The nation that currently most resembles a white ethnic Trumpistan, in Smith's opinion, is Ukraine: nearly all-white, dominated by agriculture and heavy industry -- and with a GDP per capita about 1/6th of the U.S.

This week's most head-scratching story is that the Department of the Interior flies a special flag to mark when Secretary Zinke is in the building. Buckingham Palace has long flown a flag to mark when the monarch is in residence. In the U.S. the tradition goes back to the Navy in 1866; the ship carrying the fleet commander would fly a special flag. In the early 20th century, cabinet-level flags became a fad of sorts, but went out of style because they were considered "pretentious".

Chris Lu, deputy Labor secretary under Obama, said: "If we had a secretarial flag at the Obama Labor Department, we never bothered to locate it or use it."

There's a theme building in a variety of Trump administration scandals and controversies: High government office is about self-glorification, not public service.

and let's close with something humbling

This one chart shows all the known cognitive biases. Human minds, it turns out, are kind of kludgy.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Bipartisan Concerns

He concerns me. He would have to concern anyone who cares about our nation. ... Look, except for a few people, the vast majority of our caucus understands what we’re dealing with here.

- Senator Bob Corker (R-TN), discussing President Trump yesterday

This week's featured post is "Misunderstood Things: 10-9-2017", where I discuss gun deaths and tax simplification.

This week everybody was talking about guns

The more we find out about Stephen Paddock, the more he looks like a white guy with a lot of guns. No one has uncovered a political or religious agenda behind the Las Vegas massacre. He just wanted to kill a lot of people and had the means to do it.

In The Atlantic, David Frum lays out "The Rules of the Gun Debate". He's pointing to the formulaic nature of the debate, in which anything likely to change either the frequency of mass killings or the number of gun deaths each year is eliminated before the discussion starts. Fundamentally, he says, the United States has too many guns that move around too freely.

a society is in a much better position to stop shooting deaths when it can tightly regulate the buying and carrying of weapons long before they are ever used to murder anybody. In all but a half dozen American states, it would be perfectly legal for people like the Charlie Hebdo killers to walk to the very front door of their targets with their rifles slung over their shoulders, lawful responsible gun owners to the very second before they opened fire on massed innocents.

... in an America where guns were viewed as they are in Australia or Canada, the project of moving two dozen of them into a hotel suite would likely be detected somewhere along the way. The person moving those guns would find himself in trouble—not for murder—but for some petty gun infraction. His weapons might be confiscated, or he himself sent to prison for some months. His plan would be interrupted very likely without anyone ever imagining what had been contemplated. Mass shootings so seldom happen in other countries not because they have developed carefully crafted policies against shootings, but because they have instituted broad policies to restrict guns.

He also points to a cultural change we need to prevent the much-more-frequent suicides, accidents, and fatal escalations of ordinary disputes:

Gun safety begins, then, not with technical fixes, but with spreading the truthful information: people who bring guns into their homes are endangering themselves and their loved ones.

I'm wondering if we need some anti-gun commercials similar to the ones that have been made to de-glamorize smoking. Nothing about statistics or laws, just a guy proudly showing his friends his vast gun collection, but rather than impressing them, he has creeped them out.

The gun control debate seems muted this time, with advocates having a hopeless tone in their voices. I don't know how many times I've heard someone say, "If Sandy Hook didn't change anything ..."

Still, things that can't go on forever don't. The potential destructiveness of individuals keeps going up, and with it the size of mass killings. It stunned the nation in 1966 when a sniper killed 14 strangers in Texas. This time 58 died and more than 500 were injured. If nothing changes, someday it will be 100 dead, then a thousand. Is there really no point at which something changes?

Las Vegas isn't the biggest mass killing in U.S. history, but you probably didn't hear about the others in school, because the victims were black or Native American and the killers were white.

and Iran

The Washington Post reported Thursday that Trump is planning to decertify the deal the Obama administration negotiated to halt Iran's nuclear weapons program. Iran appears to be fulfilling its obligations under the agreement, but Trump is expected to say in a speech Thursday that the agreement is "not in the national interest". Congress would then have 60 days to reimpose the sanctions the agreement relaxed, which would probably scuttle the whole thing, ticking off a bunch of our allies. Iran would then be free to construct a nuclear weapon as fast as it could.

Try as I might, I can't see an achievable goal here. The reason the Obama sanctions were so crippling for Iran was that all the major players backed them. (The agreement in question isn't just between us and the Iranians. The UK, France, China, Russia, and Germany are also involved, and none of them are expressing regrets.) If we unilaterally screw up the agreement and go back to sanctions, we're unlikely to get a similar level of cooperation. So with less pressure on the Iranians this time, why will they give us more concessions?

I suppose Trump might be imagining that the Iranians will capitulate in the face of his resolve and negotiating skills, but seriously, where is the evidence for that view? And why would they offer any new concessions, when they know Trump reneges on deals and could just come back for more concessions later? (As I pointed out when the deal was first announced, there's a Munich analogy to be made here, but we're in the Germany role.)

Or maybe he thinks the Iranian public will rise up and overthrow their government if we put enough pressure on their economy, but I don't think that's how it works. People tend to rally around their government when foreign powers try to dominate it. Hardliners will argue that they tried to settle peaceably with the Americans, but Trump has no interest in anything but Iran's surrender. Iranian democracy activists will look like traitorous American agents.

Neither of those upbeat possibilities is anywhere near as likely as this one: Iran will go full speed towards a nuclear weapon and dare us to either accept it or start a war. (Remember: Iran is three times the size of Iraq.)

Another example of Trump's if-you-demand-it-they-will-fold approach is the renegotiation of NAFTA, which doesn't appear to be going very well. So far the Trump administration's demands are short on specifics, and it's not clear he has the backing in Congress to approve whatever changes he might get.

As the son of an Illinois farmer (now deceased), I keep wondering when heartland farmers will notice how consistently Trump is selling them out on trade. Mexico may run a trade surplus with us in general, but it imports a lot of corn and soybeans. The Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement that Trump pulled out of had debatable effects in general, but it would have been great for farm exports.

Speaking of reneging on deals and making big demands, Trump has released his conditions for giving legal status to the Dreamers currently protected by the Obama DACA program that Trump is ending. It includes stuff that the outline-of-a-deal he agreed to with Democratic leaders explicitly ruled out, like building his wall. As president, he continues to deal with everybody the way he dealt with subcontractors in his real estate business or students at Trump U: No deal is ever complete; there's always another opportunity to cheat people.

and Trump's visit to Puerto Rico

Univision radio host Jay Fonseca and Puerto Rican lawyer Leo Aldridge had this reaction:

We were waiting for a Marshall Plan, something announcing the rebuilding of Puerto Rico. What we got was more congratulations for his own administration. Instead of showing compassion for the most vulnerable, he went to visit the richest areas of the island.

They warn that many Puerto Ricans are leaving the island for the mainland -- which they can do freely, since they're U.S. citizens. This could change the politics of the states they move to, since they can vote as soon as they establish residency, just like any other Americans who move to a new state.

The NYT suggests Florida could see a shift: Puerto Ricans were already passing Cubans as the largest Hispanic ethnic group in the state, and the current crisis might bring 100,000 more. Like Latinos in general, Puerto Ricans in the 50 states haven't been voting in their full numbers. But Trump's disrespect might motivate them.

BTW: Does anyone doubt that Puerto Rico would have been a state long ago if its people were white and spoke English as their first language?

Plenty of people noted how weird and self-centered Trump was in Puerto Rico. But by now, that's not really news. Maybe instead we should be reminding ourselves how our leaders used to act, so that Trump doesn't become a new model for our lowered expectations. (If you want a list of all the ways Trump has changed presidential behavior for the worse, the NYT has one.)

For example, this was candidate Obama visiting the town where I grew up during the 2008 Mississippi River floods. It's hard to imagine Trump, either before or after the election, just pitching in and talking to other volunteers about the disaster, rather than about himself, his popularity, or how great he is.

The point, of course, isn't that Obama's sandbags made some huge difference. (Who knows how many he actually filled before the cameras were turned off and he went to his next campaign event?) The point is that American leaders should model good citizenship, and demonstrate that no one is too important to pitch in.

Similarly, after the softball-practice shooting that wounded Congressman Steve Scalise, Vice President Pence donated blood. Who knows where Pence's pint actually went? But whether his blood type matched any of the victims or not, he responded to a tragedy by modeling public-spirited behavior.

and his other feuds

During the Obama administration, there was a certain amount of comparatively dignified back-and-forth between the President and Republican leaders like John Boehner. You expect that kind of thing in any democracy, as the leaders of different parties disagree with each other and jockey for public support.

What's different this time is the vitriol between Trump and his own party, and sometimes his own people. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is currently in the doghouse for calling Trump "a moron" in front of witnesses in July, maybe with an extra expletive attached. Tillerson pointedly refused to deny making the comment, and there was considerable discussion this week of how long Tillerson and Trump will be able to stand working together.

(My own opinion is that Tillerson's security clearance should be revoked, which would make it impossible for him to continue as Secretary of State. If he blurts out that Trump is a moron, how can we trust him not to reveal other sensitive information?)

And then there was this weekend's exchange between Trump and Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, which resulted Saturday in Corker referring to the White House as an "adult daycare center" and charging that Trump's tweets indicated that "Someone obviously missed their shift this morning."

This isn't like Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity railing against Obama. They had no responsibilities, but were just trying to appeal to an audience of partisans who hated Obama from the moment they saw him. Quite the opposite, these are officials publicly allied with Trump, who have tried to work with him and can't.

BTW, if Tillerson has to be replaced, the nominee will have to be cleared by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by Corker.

James Fallows has advice for Corker:

He could urge his colleagues toward the next step through their stages-of-tragedy relationship with Trump. Stage one was carping and dismissal during the first half of 2016, when he was an entertaining long-shot . Stage two was Vichy-regime acquiescence to him during the campaign. Stage three was “support” early this year, toward the goal of the Gorsuch confirmation and the hope of a tax-cut bill. Now we see the inklings of stage four, with the dawning awareness of what Corker spelled out: that they have empowered something genuinely dangerous. It’s time for Corker to act on that knowledge, and his colleagues too.

Trump sent Mike Pence to Indianapolis to keep his NFL feud bubbling. Pence made a big show of leaving the Colts/49ers game when some players kneeled for the national anthem.

The whole idea that kneeling "disrespects our soldiers, our Flag, or our National Anthem" (as Pence tweeted) is absurd. I can't think of any other situation where kneeling is a form of disrespect: Are Catholics disrespecting the altars in their churches? Are guys who kneel to propose disrespecting their girlfriends?

No, the protest isn't about respect for the flag, it's about racism. That's why it upsets people.

Remember: there was no reason for the president to get involved in this controversy to begin with, and he only drew more attention to it. Trump came into the controversy to once again reassure racists that he's on their side. Apparently he thinks that position is working for him, so he wants to keep the feud going.

and church and state

The administration loosened the guidelines for when businesses can refuse to offer their female employees contraception coverage on religious grounds. Also this week, Attorney General Sessions issued a memo changing government policy on "religious liberty", which in many cases will trump anti-discrimination laws.

This all fits in with my prior conviction: None of it is about actual religious liberty. It's about special rights for certain popular varieties of Christianity. You can see that in the immediate focus on contraception, which started out as a Catholic issue and was picked up by some Protestants. Why is this -- and sexuality in general -- the government's central "religious liberty" focus, rather than situations where government policy impacts vegetarians or pacifists or environmentalists? Those can be religious positions too, but who in the administration cares about them?

I felt the same way about the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby decision.

Given that this principle will produce complete anarchy if generally applied, it won’t be generally applied. Contrary to Alito’s assertion, judges will have to decide whether the chains of moral logic people assert are reasonable or not. ... In practice, a belief will seem reasonable if a judge agrees with it. That’s what happened in this case: Five male Catholic judges ruled that Catholic moral principles trump women’s rights. Three Jews and a female Catholic disagreed.

and you also might be interested in ...

Jacob Levy calls for reconstructing American libertarianism as if black liberty mattered.

Not to put too fine a point on it, those who proclaim their commitment to freedom have all too often assessed threats to freedom as if those facing  African-Americans don’t count — as if black liberty does not matter.

And so, America is the freest nation on Earth -- if you ignore the mass incarceration of black men, or the large number of them who get killed by police.

Think about the different ways that market liberals and libertarians talk about “welfare” from how they talk about other kinds of government redistribution. There’s no talk of the culture of dependence among farmers, although they receive far more government aid per capita than do the urban poor. Libertarians absolutely and clearly oppose corporate welfare, but they don’t do so in the paternalistic language that corporate welfare recipients are morally hurt by being on the dole. The white welfare state of the 1930s-60s that channeled government support for, e.g., housing, urban development, and higher education through segregated institutions has a way of disappearing from the historical memory; the degrees earned and homes bought get remembered as hard work contributing to the American dream. But too many libertarians and their market-oriented allies among postwar conservatives treated the more racially inclusive welfare state of the 1960s and 70s as different in kind. ... [O]nce the imagined typical welfare recipient was a black mother, welfare became a matter not just of economic or constitutional concern but of moral panic about parasites, fraud, and the long-term collapse of self-reliance.

... And the conviction that freedom of speech is mostly threatened by “political correctness” in American life, that saying racist things is a brave stand against censorship, that calling what someone else says “racist” is pretty much like censoring them—these are important facts about American political discourse today.

I love this comic strip at Splinter News. A guy in the present is anti-Black-Lives-Matter, but claims he's not a racist, and that he would totally have supported Martin Luther King in the 1950s. A fairy gives him his back-to-the-future wish, where an anti-MLK guy repeats the same arguments he'd been making against BLM. Convinced, he now is against MLK too, but believes he'd totally be an abolitionist if he were back in the 1800s. Here's one panel:

Congressman Tim Murphy (R-PA) got caught in a major episode of hypocrisy this week. Tuesday, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette released text messages in which Murphy's mistress took him to task for his public anti-abortion stance, when he had suggested she get an abortion during a pregnancy scare. Wednesday, he announced he would not be running for re-election in 2018. Thursday, he resigned from Congress.

If you're pro-choice, you probably read this with a sense of vindication: Not even anti-abortion congressmen really believe the rhetoric they spout. But I wonder if voters on the other side interpret the story differently: The fact that even a pro-life congressman would want to kill his unborn child just shows the importance of making abortion illegal; personal conviction is not enough to keep us on the straight and narrow when temptation pressures us to sin. A parallel might be the alcoholic who favors prohibition: "I want a law getting rid of alcohol, because if the stuff is available, I know I'll drink it."

For a year or so I've been telling people to read Misbehaving, Richard Thaler's entertaining biography of himself and his field (behavioral economics). Well, he just won the Nobel Prize.

The administration is continuing to sabotage ObamaCare.

and let's close by getting medieval

Maybe you already know how to walk like an Egyptian without falling down like a domino, but can you walk like it's 999?

Monday, October 2, 2017

The Right Way to Protest

It's wrong to do it in the streets.
It's wrong to do it in the tweets.
You cannot do it on the field.
You cannot do it if you've kneeled.
And don't do it if you're rich
You ungrateful son of a bitch.
Because there's one thing that's a fact:
You cannot protest, if you're black.

- Trevor Noah (9-25-2017)

This week's featured post is about the latest tax-reform proposal: "Just What We Needed: More Inequality, Bigger Deficits".

This morning everybody is talking about the Las Vegas shooting

As I've often said, a one-person weekly blog is poorly equipped to handle breaking news. CNN is reporting at least 50 killed and 400 injured. Apparently, Sunday evening a gunman on the 32nd floor of a nearby hotel fired automatic weapons fired down on an outdoor county music concert. So far I have heard very little about the shooter or what his motives might be.

General advice: Avoid jumping to conclusions. Early reports are often wrong and have to be corrected later.

through the week everyone has been talking about Puerto Rico

It's a disturbing testimony on news-in-the-age-of-Trump that it's much easier to find articles about the war of words between Trump and San Juan Mayor Yulin Cruz than about the current state of things in Puerto Rico.

Hurricane Maria was a category-4 storm when it hit Puerto Rico on September 20. The energy grid, which had already been damaged by the previous Hurricane Irma, went completely offline and is still not functioning on most of the island. Aid made it to the port of San Juan fairly quickly, but got bogged down there. Just over a week after landfall, CNN reported:

At least 10,000 containers of supplies -- including food, water and medicine -- were sitting Thursday at the San Juan port, said Jose Ayala, the Crowley shipping company's vice president in Puerto Rico. Part of the reason for the distribution backlog is that only 20% of truck drivers have reported back to work since Hurricane Maria swept through, according to a representative for Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rosselló. On top of that, a diesel fuel shortage and a tangle of blocked roads mean the distribution of supplies is extremely challenging. Even contacting drivers is a problem because cell towers are still down.

In many parts of the island, food and water are running out faster than aid is arriving. Many Puerto Ricans who rely on prescription medication are having a hard time getting it. Hospitals and nursing homes are mostly relying on local generators, which they don't always have fuel for.

Many have contrasted the federal response to this predicted disaster on a U.S. territory, the home of 3.4 million American citizens, with how the U.S. handled the unexpected earthquake in Haiti in 2010. The Washington Post:

Within two days [of the earthquake], the Pentagon had 8,000 American troops en route. Within two weeks, 33 U.S. military ships and 22,000 troops had arrived. More than 300 military helicopters buzzed overhead, delivering millions of pounds of food and water.

... By contrast, eight days after Hurricane Maria ripped across neighboring Puerto Rico, just 4,400 service members were participating in federal operations to assist the devastated island, an Army general told reporters Thursday. In addition, about 1,000 Coast Guard members were aiding the efforts. About 40 U.S. military helicopters were helping to deliver food and water to the 3.4 million residents of the U.S. territory, along with 10 Coast Guard helicopters.

As always, Trump's main concern seems to be taking credit for success and dodging blame for failure. Friday, acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke pushed the administration line:

I know it is really a good news story in terms of our ability to reach people and the limited number of deaths that have taken place in such a devastating hurricane.

That set off Mayor Cruz:

Well maybe from where she's standing it's a good news story. When you're drinking from a creek, it's not a good news story. When you don't have food for a baby, it's not a good news story. When you have to pull people down from buildings -- I'm sorry, that really upsets me and frustrates me.

And then Trump got involved. Not in solving the problems, of course, but by tweeting that Mayor Cruz had been "told by Democrats to be nasty to Trump". She and other Puerto Ricans "want everything to be done for them".

Any compassionate human being -- even one who honestly felt blamed for things that weren't his fault -- would cut some slack for a local leader in the middle of a humanitarian disaster. Not Trump. He also went after reporters on the ground, who showed the world what Puerto Ricans are going through.

Fake News CNN and NBC are going out of their way to disparage our great First Responders as a way to 'get Trump'.

Vox' Matt Yglesias sees the problem as lack of planning and an unwillingness to admit mistakes.

A president who was focused on his job could have asked in advance what the plan was for a hurricane strike on Puerto Rico. He would have discovered that since Puerto Rico is part of the United States, FEMA is the default lead agency but it’s the US military that has the ships and helicopters that would be needed to get supplies into the interior of a wrecked island. And he could have worked something out. Instead, he didn’t get worked up about Puerto Rico until more than a week after the storm hit when he saw the mayor of San Juan lambasting him on television. He lashed out with his usual playbook — one that will only make things worse.

... Trump doesn’t know much about governing. But he is very good at channeling every discussion into the same handful of culture war tropes. Shifting the discussion in this direction rather than adopting a tone of humility will, of course, only make substantive recovery more difficult by polarizing the topic in Congress and among the public.

Josh Marshall frames the tweets against San Juan's mayor and Trump's statements attacking NFL players as two examples of "The Primary Text of Trumpism".

Every conflict quickly boils down [to] honorable and white soldiers, police and first responders versus non-white ingrates, complainers and protestors. In fact, the very actions of the latter group dishonors and assaults the sacrifices and purity of the first. ...

The core and essence of Trumpism is a racist morality play. It plays out again and again, just with a different troupe of actors in each town.

and Tom Price

The travel-expense scandal that had enveloped the HHS Secretary last week only got worse this week, until he resigned Friday. (In his five months in office, the taxpayers spent more than $1 million on private and military aircraft for Price's trips.) Trump clearly hopes this issue is behind him now, but Price seems to be only the most extreme example of this administration's tendency to waste public money pampering top officials. The Atlantic summarizes:

[EPA Director Scott] Pruitt spent more than $800,000 for an around-the-clock security detail in his first three months in office alone, nearly double the cost for his predecessor. This week, The Washington Post revealed that the EPA is spending $25,000 to construct a soundproof privacy booth for Pruitt, who has faced a slew of leaks as he battles unhappy employees at the agency. He has also accrued thousands of dollars in costs for private and military jet flights, including travel between Washington and his home state of Oklahoma.

Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke is another frequent private flyer, including chartering a plane from an oil-and-gas company for a flight from Las Vegas to his home state of Montana for $12,000 this summer. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is under investigation for a flight in a government plane that included viewing the solar eclipse from Fort Knox, Kentucky. That flight became public when his wife, Louise Linton, posted an Instagram photo of herself alighting from the plane, and then sniped at a commenter. She later apologized. Mnuchin also requested the use of a government plane for his honeymoon, though Treasury later decided against it.

And where did all these people get the idea that spending public money on yourself is OK? From the top. Trump not only spends vastly more on himself and his family than previous presidents, a chunk of that money goes straight into his own pocket. Not only do his private clubs in Florida and New Jersey gain valuable publicity and prestige from presidential visits nearly every weekend (sometimes with foreign leaders in tow), but his government entourage and security team has to follow him, with the taxpayer picking up the tab.

Always costly in manpower and equipment, the president's jaunts to Mar-a-Lago are estimated to cost at least $3 million each, based on a General Accountability Office estimate for similar travel by former President Obama. The Secret Service has spent some $60,000 on golf cart rentals alone this year to protect Trump at both Mar-a-Lago and Bedminster.

The Washington Post reports that

The Trump [International] Hotel [in Washington] is the most blatant example of how Trump is selling the presidency. No ordinary luxury hotel in a city that boasts more than a few, the Trump Hotel is where foreign dignitaries, lobbyists, White House staff, Cabinet officials, Trump confidants, Republican fundraisers, elected officials, religious leaders and assorted sycophants gather — to see and be seen, to rub elbows with the powerful, to possibly catch a glimpse of the president himself, and, most crucially, to patronize the hotel owned by the most powerful person in the world.

And one of the biggest beneficiaries of the Trump tax plan looks to be Trump himself.

and the Republican tax plan

See the featured post: "Just What We Needed: More Inequality, Bigger Deficits".

and Roy Moore

who beat incumbent Senator Luther Strange in Alabama's Republican primary runoff 55%-45%. Establishment Republicans around the country are freaking out, and Steve Bannon is considering which sitting Republican senators he wants to launch primary challenges against.

However, it's not clear how national the Moore/Strange race really was. Local/personal issues came into play as well.

  • Strange had been appointed to the seat by now-disgraced ex-Governor Robert Bentley after Jeff Sessions became attorney general just a few months ago, so he's not comparable to a senator who has been elected before and served out one or more full terms.
  • Some shady circumstances surrounded Strange's appointment. At the time Strange was Alabama's attorney general, and was widely believed to have been investigating Bentley for the scandal that eventually caused him to resign. Appointing Strange put Bentley in line to appoint a new AG, so the whole thing just smelled like a corrupt manipulation. An ethical AG would have turned the appointment down.
  • Strange is a former lobbyist, a fact Moore used to great effect in their debate.

In short, Strange was tailor-made to be caricatured as one of the dreaded Swamp Creatures of Washington. A primary race against the other GOP senators said to be on Bannon's list (Dean Heller, Jeff Flake, Roger Wicker) might be different.

Religious-right Republicans are often described as "theocrats" who want to put the Bible above the Constitution. Roy Moore really is that way. It's not hyperbole.

An early poll makes the general-election race look surprisingly competitive, given that we're talking about Alabama: Moore leads Democrat Doug Jones 51%-44%. However, we've been here before. Self-respecting Republicans like to toy with the idea that they won't vote for the thoroughly objectionable candidate their party has nominated, but in the end they almost all do.

The special election to serve out the remainder of the Senate term Jeff Sessions was elected to in 2014 will be held December 12.

The standard narrative of the Republican insurgent, which Bannon is now packaging for his own purposes, is that grassroots conservatives are always being betrayed: They elect people to do what they want -- repeal ObamaCare, ban abortion, balance the budget (while cutting taxes), deport all the undocumented immigrants, make our military so strong that other nations stop challenging us, etc. --  but then Washington corrupts them and those things don't get done.

But Josh Marshall coined the term nonsense debt to describe another narrative for the same set of facts: Any politician who wins by promoting nonsensical views and raising impossible expectations is going to suffer under an unfulfillable obligation after taking office.

He came back to that theme after Moore's victory, arguing that "the base" vs. "the establishment" is a meaningless distinction. The GOP is in

an infinite loop of inflammatory and engaging promises, claims and demands which are mostly entirely unrealizable, creating a permanent cycle of establishmentism and grassroots’ betrayal which continues spinning forward even as the players in each category change.

and the NFL

For much of the country and almost all of his base, Trump has succeeded in hijacking the NFL-protest story. It's not about police misconduct or Black Lives Matter any more; it's about the flag and the anthem. The next time someone whitesplains what the players are doing and why, tell them that we don't have to speculate, because the original protesters have explained their motives very well.

More excellent commentary on the protest comes from Nick Wright of the FS1 sports-news show First Things First. He points out that making the protests about the anthem is like claiming that people who march in the streets are protesting against traffic. And he offers this thought experiment to test whether you're really against the method of protest, or really just against the issue: What if players were kneeling to protest how poorly the U.S. has been treating its veterans? Would you be equally repelled by that? Or is the real problem that they're protesting racism?

Finally, the Seuss-like poem at the top is the conclusion of an excellent Daily Show segment where Trevor Noah addresses the question: When is the right time for black people to protest?

and you also might be interested in ...

There's an interesting debate going on about what white supremacist should mean: Do we reserve the term for people like Richard Spencer, who explicitly yearn for the U.S. to become a white ethnostate? Or does it extend to Jeff Sessions and Donald Trump, whose vision of America is clearly one where whites continue to dominate, even if they don't say so in so many words.

Trevor Noah was getting at this distinction with regard to the usage of racism. He contrasted Trump's claim that some of the whites chanting Nazi slogans in Charlottesville were "very fine people" with calling black football players who take a knee "sons of bitches".

I don't know if Trump is racist, but I do know he definitely prefers white people to black people. I can say that with confidence.

When Trump imposed a travel ban on six Muslim-majority countries, one of the reasons we were told protesters were over-reacting was that it was temporary: just 90 days. Well, now it's permanent. He also cut in half the number of refugees the U.S. can accept. The Supreme Court is set to reconsider the ban as soon as both sides rewrite their briefs in response to the changes.

Mexico is reaching the outer reaches of government privatization: Private security guards are replacing the police, but only for those who can afford it. The NYT paints a scary picture.

Two independence referenda: The Kurdish provinces of Iraq voted 93% for independence. The Catalonians also voted for independence from Spain. Both national governments oppose the independence movements, so it's not clear where things go from here. Of the two, Kurdish independence is more complex, because neighboring Turkey and Iran also have large Kurdish minorities.

and let's close with something awe-inspiring

National Geographic's photography competitions are always amazing. Here's a set of 51 photos, including this vision of solitary contemplation over Morraine Lake in Canada's Banff National Park. (All Canadian national parks currently offer free admission, in celebration of Canada's 150th birthday.)