Monday, November 27, 2017

Otherwise Admired

I’ve been saying all along, for the past few years, as I talk about sexual harassment, that when it comes down to it and when all the facts are brought out and into play, that we are going to have make some very tough decisions about people who we otherwise admire. And I think this is really something that we haven’t come to terms with.

- Anita Hill, Meet the Press, yesterday

This week's featured post is "The Looming End of Net Neutrality (and why you should care)".

This week everybody was talking about sexual abuse

I have long admired Al Franken. Giant of the Senate is a fabulous book. I was rooting for Hillary to pick him as VP, and was looking forward to seeing him in 2020 presidential debates.

Shit, Al.

A bunch of the debate these last two weeks has been about the accusations against Franken, which he has at least partially confessed to or admitted the possibility of. And the question has been: Should he resign? Since then, stuff has come out about Rep. John Conyers, who so far is keeping his House seat, but stepping down from an important committee assignment.

I still haven't figured out what I think about all this. On one side, it would be simple and idealistic for the Democratic Party to pitch itself as the party with zero tolerance for any behavior that disrespects women. On the other, I don't think it is going to be that simple, no matter what Franken and Conyers do. If them resigning meant that the Democratic role in the scandal would be over, and we could move forward as the Party of Righteousness, it would probably be worth it. But I don't think that's the choice.

I suspect we're a lot closer to the beginning of this scandal than the end. If everything were known about everybody, we might not just be talking about Franken and Conyers and Roy Moore and Donald Trump, we might be talking about hundreds of men with various degrees of political power, from Congress to the administration to state governments. If the Democrats all resign and the Republicans don't, the short-term balance of power could shift in an anti-woman direction.

I expect those charges to appear in all degrees of seriousness and credibility. In general, I imagine three levels of seriousness:

  • negligible
  • forgivable, requiring an apology and the acceptance of some kind of public penalty or humiliation,
  • unforgivable, requiring resignation.

and three levels of credibility

  • unlikely claims
  • credible claims
  • claims so well supported that a denial is not credible.

Wherever you think the boundaries between those levels should go, there's going to be some case that challenges it. We need to think this through both well and fast, a combination that very seldom happens.

Roy Moore is pretty close to denial-is-not-credible territory. Slate's William Saletan does the details, but the gist is that on one issue after another, Moore's accusers have provided supporting evidence or testimony, while Moore hasn't (or has put forward objections that turn out to be false, such as claiming the restaurant where he was supposed to have met one of the accusers didn't exist at the time). Moore's denials are often not quite denials, and he hasn't been willing to submit to follow-up questions from anyone this side of Sean Hannity.

The idea that all these girls, their mothers, their sisters, and their friends began coordinating a massive lie decades ago—and somehow conspired to keep it quiet through Moore’s many previous political campaigns, saving it for a special Senate election in 2017—is completely preposterous.

I could imagine the truth being shifted somewhat from accusers' version: maybe he was marginally more deferential and less grabby than they remember him, for example. But the overall picture of a creepy 30-something guy trying to get it on with girls half his age -- that's looking pretty solid.


and tax reform

The House has passed its version and the Senate is still working on its own. As with ObamaCare, it will take three Republican defections to kill a bill. This time, it looks like Lisa Murkowski won't be one of them. But there might be a defection from deficit hawks like Jeff Flake or Bob Corker. (The CBO expects the package to add $1.4 trillion to the national debt over 10 years, even after taking growth effects into account.)

The claims that the tax cuts will unleash massive economic growth are not catching on outside partisan Republican circles. A University of Chicago survey of 42 top economists found only 1 who believed that GDP would be substantially higher a decade after passing the tax cut than it would have been under the status quo.

One bit of sleight-of-hand in the Senate bill: They get around the limits on how much revenue the plan can lose by time-limiting the tax breaks on individuals, while writing the business benefits as permanent. The argument is that future Congresses won't really let those time limits expire, so they both count and don't count, depending on the scenario. Paul Krugman refers to this as "Schroedinger’s Tax Hike". The graph takes the Republican bill as written, without assuming that a future Congress will amend it.

and Trump/Russia

Mike Flynn's lawyers are no longer cooperating with Trump's lawyers. This could signal that Flynn is negotiating his own deal with Robert Mueller.

Remember the sanctions-against-Russia bill that Congress passed and Trump signed in August? Trump didn't like it, but there was no point in vetoing it because it passed by such huge margins. So instead the administration has been slow-rolling it. There was an October 1 deadline for releasing guidance on how it would implement the sanctions. That was ignored, and guidance finally came out 26 days later. Now new deadlines are looming, and Congress is wondering whether they'll be met or not, and what they can do about it if Trump just decides to ignore the law he signed.

Another Russia-related news story is that we finally have details about that May 10 meeting Trump had with the Russian ambassador in the Oval Office, the one where he gave away sensitive intelligence we had gotten from the Israelis. But it wasn't like nobody could have seen this coming:

It was against this reassuring backdrop of recent successes and shared history, an Israeli source told Vanity Fair, that a small group of Mossad officers and other Israeli intelligence officials took their seats in a Langley conference room on a January morning just weeks before the inauguration of Donald Trump. The meeting proceeded uneventfully; updates on a variety of ongoing classified operations were dutifully shared. It was only as the meeting was about to break up that an American spymaster solemnly announced there was one more thing: American intelligence agencies had come to believe that Russian president Vladimir Putin had “leverages of pressure” over Trump, he declared without offering further specifics, according to a report in the Israeli press. Israel, the American officials continued, should “be careful” after January 20—the date of Trump’s inauguration. It was possible that sensitive information shared with the White House and the National Security Council could be leaked to the Russians.

It's almost like Trump doesn't know where his real loyalties lie.

This is how 2016 election coverage looked from the Russian side:

During the 2016 election, the directions from the Kremlin were less subtle than usual. “Me and my colleagues, we were given a clear instruction: to show Donald Trump in a positive way, and his opponent, Hillary Clinton, in a negative way,” he said in his speech. In a later interview, he explained to me how the instructions were relayed. “Sometimes it was a phone call. Sometimes it was a conversation,” he told me. “If Donald Trump has a successful press conference, we broadcast it for sure. And if something goes wrong with Clinton, we underline it.”

But the Russian opposition finds the Trump/Russia story very annoying.

“The Kremlin is of course very proud of this whole Russian interference story. It shows they are not just a group of old K.G.B. guys with no understanding of digital but an almighty force from a James Bond saga,” Mr. Volkov said in a telephone interview. “This image is very bad for us. Putin is not a master geopolitical genius.”

but other ominous things are happening with less fanfare

The FCC is proposing to abandon net neutrality. I cover this in the featured post.

The Trump administration is blocking one corporate consolidation: the AT&T/Time Warner merger. This is very out of character, and "a major shift in antitrust policy from previous administrations", so you have to wonder if getting back at CNN (a Time Warner property) figures in this somewhere. If so, that would have very ominous implications for media freedom to criticize the administration.

Those estimates of how fast sea level will rise are based on a model of how the big glaciers will melt. But what if their internal dynamics causes pieces to break off and melt much faster?

After the 2010 census, Republicans advanced the art of gerrymandering to new levels, creating a situation where Democrats have to win by 7-8% nationally in order to have a chance to have a House majority. In some state legislatures, the Republican advantage is even larger.

But this time, Trump seems to be planning to build an unfair advantage into the census itself. It's hard to know what else to make of his pick for the #2 spot at the Census Bureau, who is both unqualified and has said ominous things. He is one of the few people who will publicly defend gerrymandering, and has written a book subtitled "Why Competitive Elections are Bad for America."

The appointment is even trickier than it looks: There is no head of the Census Bureau, so the new guy would be running things. And he'd be running things without having gone through Senate confirmation, as a new director would have to do.

As for the kinds of tricks that might be in store:

For instance, there are concerns that Trump may issue an executive order requiring the 2020 Census to include a question about citizenship, which could result in fewer responses from minority and immigration populations, ultimately leading to their underrepresentation in the Census.

and you also might be interested in ...

The Supreme Court will hear arguments on the Masterpiece Cakeshop case (in which a baker refused to sell a same-sex couple a wedding cake) on December 5. I've previously given my opinion on this case: I think the baker should lose, because it's a discrimination case, not a free-speech case. The baker didn't object to some symbol or message the couple wanted him to put on the cake, he objected to selling any wedding cake to a same-sex couple, even one indistinguishable from a cake he would sell to an opposite-sex couple.

If the Court would decide in the baker's favor (as no lower court has), the majority opinion would have to argue that anti-gay discrimination is fundamentally different from, say, anti-black or anti-Jewish discrimination, which some religion might also mandate. Otherwise it would insert a religious loophole into all anti-discrimination laws. An ACLU attorney points out:

There’s nothing in the theories that are being presented by the bakery in this case, or other parties in other cases, that would limit these arguments to LGBT couples in this very context.

Two presidential Thanksgiving messages make "a painful contrast", says Matt Yglesias. Obama tweets a charming picture of his family, and wishes you a day "full of joy and gratitude". Trump brags about his dubious accomplishments, because that's what he does on any occasion.

One of the silliest things to grab headlines this week was Trump's tweet-war with Lavar Ball, father of one of the UCLA basketball players recently arrested for shoplifting in China (and then released). Greg Sargent nailed it:

Trump's rage-tweets about LaVar Ball are part of a pattern. Trump regularly attacks high-profile African Americans to feed his supporters' belief that the system is rigged for minorities.

Trump has often gone after black athletes: Colin Kaepernick, Steph Curry, Marshawn Lynch, and others. It isn't just that they said bad things about him first. San Antonio Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich has said worse things about Trump without inciting him, and he's done it more than once. So has Golden State Warriors Coach Steve Kerr. But they're white guys; going to war with them wouldn't rile up Trump's base.

And it's not just sports. Trump didn't just go after a gold-star family and a war widow, he went after a Muslim gold-star family and a black war widow. It may seem like all the usual norms of presidential behavior are out the window, but not if you're a white guy. For the most part, white guys still get the respect all citizens deserve.

While we're on this subject, the stereotype of the ungrateful Negro (which Trump has invoked both against Ball and against the black football players protesting during the national anthem) has a long history. In the Slavery Era, blacks were supposed to be grateful that whites had civilized them and brought them to Christianity. And then whites died to free blacks from the slavery that whites had condemned them to. Post-slavery, whites provided low-paying, dangerous jobs for blacks, and generously treated some of them like human beings (as long as they behaved themselves). Since the Great Society, white taxes have paid the lion's share of various forms of government assistance that help blacks survive in an economic system rigged against them. So why aren't they grateful?

On Thanksgiving, Trump lamented on Twitter that in the NFL "The Commissioner has lost control of the hemorrhaging league. Players are the boss!" And Marc Faletti summed up how I feel about that: "If the league were ever actually owned by the people who give their bodies and brains to the sport, that would be maybe the first true justice in American sports history." When the major sports leagues were starting out, owners were actual entrepreneurs and promoters. Today, however, they are just parasites. The players are the sport.

and let's close with something peaceful

Spend some time watching this guy balance rocks in a stream.

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