Monday, December 18, 2017

Profit and Loss

The next new posts will appear on January 8.

“What shall it profit a man,” Jesus asked, “if he gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his own soul?” The current Republican Party seems to not understand that question.

- David Brooks, "The GOP is Rotting" 12-7-2017

This week's featured post is "Should We Care What Happens to the GOP's Soul?"

Through no doing of my own, it turns out that the next two Mondays are Christmas and New Years. I've interpreted that as a sign from the Calendar Gods that I should take a two-week break (something I haven't done in years). I reserve the right, though, to put out a special edition if something happens that I can't stop myself from commenting on.

This week everybody was talking about Roy Moore's defeat

When Trump appointed Jeff Sessions attorney general, I don't think anybody at the RNC was worried about hanging on to his Alabama Senate seat, and I doubt anybody at the DNC imagined waging anything more than a nuisance campaign. And yet, here we are: Doug Jones is going to be the next senator from Alabama, the first Democrat since Richard Shelby won in 1992 and then switched parties.

Pundits and operatives of all persuasions are trying to discern the lessons of the Jones/Moore race. To a certain extent that's foolish, because so much of this race isn't repeatable. I mean, wasn't Jones clever to run against a molester of 14-year-olds who is nostalgic about slavery? Democrats should try that nationwide!

Still, there is at least one thing worth noting: Always field a candidate, because you never know what might happen. Sessions ran unopposed in 2014. (A write-in candidate spent $4500 and got less than 3% of the vote.) If no Democrat had gotten onto the ballot this time, Moore would have won no matter what voters found out about him.

A second lesson is just an extension of the first: Run hard, even if victory seems unlikely. That big turnout in the black community didn't just happen. A combination of star power (Cory Booker, NBA great Charles Barkley, and a robocall from President Obama) and hard work by many, many volunteers made the difference.

One mistake I'm seeing in the Democratic discussion is the tendency to interpret Jones' victory in light of the interminable Bernie/Hillary debate. It shows the importance of turning out the Democratic base, say Bernie folks, while Hillaryites note the importance of fielding a moderate candidate who didn't rile up Republican partisanship.

In my mind, there is still a debate to be had about the 2018 campaign, but it's not primarily a progressive/pragmatic debate. It's a national/local debate. Should Democrats nationalize the 2018 campaign around progressive proposals like single-payer healthcare and a $15 minimum wage? Or should each candidate target his own state and district with a message that's in the local mainstream?

In a special election, going local is the obvious choice, which is what Jones did. (I know some progressives believe their message would sell in a red state like Alabama, but I'm still waiting to see an example.) But whether 2018 should be a bunch of local elections or a national one like 1994's Contract With America is still debatable.

This, however, is just foolish: Because Jones hasn't endorsed single-payer healthcare or a $15 minimum wage or free college, he's "a terrible candidate".

Come election day, Alabamians will have the sacred honor of participating in the democratic process by voting for either a child rapist or a weak-kneed white blob in a suit to go work on Capitol Hill for some unknown corporate donor. Personally, I can’t say that I will be taking part.

Thank God 671K Alabama voters didn't agree.

Every election asks voters a question. It may not be the question you wanted to be asked, but it's the only question you're going to get in that cycle. Answer it.

Naturally, Jones' victory has produced conspiracy theories about out-of-state ringers being bused in. (It was the same story last year in New Hampshire, where both Clinton and Maggie Hassan won narrow victories.) John Rogers, co-creator of the thieves-working-for-the-greater-good TV show Leverage, addressed the theory, because "very few things piss me off like sloppy heist plotting".

He points out all the logistics that would be required to engineer a 20,000-vote upset, when no one could be sure a week ahead of time that the election would even be that close. Somebody, he observes, would have to recruit tens of thousands of ringers, rent hundreds of buses (with drivers) to transport them, provide them with registered identities to claim and ID to verify those identities (all of which the conspiracy had in reserve just in case the GOP nominated somebody beatable like Moore), and then drive them to polling places in a state with a hostile Secretary of State -- all with nobody noticing.

Nobody leaks. Nobody tells a friend. Not a single slip-up. That is some fucking OPSEC.
Similar points were made in response to the 2016 New Hampshire conspiracy theory:
“Who drove the buses?” asked William Galvin, the Massachusetts secretary of state, who does not believe the voter fraud theories. “Who owns the buses? Where did the buses leave from? Who paid to rent the buses? You give us some specifics and we’ll investigate it.”

That rational critique didn't dissuade anybody from trotting the theory out again in Alabama, and I'm sure it will keep resurfacing every time a Democrat wins a close election.

BTW: The theory specifically says that black people were bused in to cast illegal votes; that explains the unusually high black turnout. Apparently it doesn't make sense to Republicans that blacks might vote in large numbers against a candidate who expresses nostalgia for the days of slavery.

and tax reform

Thursday, it briefly looked like the package might be in trouble. But Friday, both Marco Rubio and Bob Corker announced they would vote for it, so it looks likely to pass this week. Corker's support is particularly dismaying. He didn't vote for the tax reform package the first time around in the Senate because (by every serious analysis) it would increase the national debt by more than $1 trillion dollars. Nothing has changed to fix that, but Corker appears to have decided that it just doesn't matter; his lifetime as a deficit hawk was a lie.

Of course, it is only a matter of time before Republicans declare the debt to be an existential crisis again, and demand cuts in safety-net programs to deal with it. Paul Ryan is already talking about it.

Assuming this tax bill passes, I hope Democrats treat it the way Republicans have treated ObamaCare: It has to be repealed, no matter how long it takes.

The combination of tax reform and Doug Jones gives 2018 a particularly clear storyline. Republicans are unlikely to pass any other major legislation, so they will go into the midterm elections exactly one achievement: a tax bill that borrows a bunch of money to benefit the rich.

Remember how this was supposed to simplify taxes to the point where you could just send the IRS a postcard rather than fill out a complicated return? Well, never mind. That didn't happen.

One loophole inserted at the last minute will apparently save a lot of money for Trump, Jared Kushner, and a number of Republican senators.

and attacks on the Mueller investigation

It continues to be an open question whether Trump will allow himself to be investigated, and whether congressional Republicans will back him if he decides to place himself above the law.

California Congresswoman Jackie Speier told local PBS station KQED:

I believe the President wants all of this shut down. The rumor on the Hill when I left yesterday was that the president was going to make a significant speech at the end of next week. And on Dec. 22, when we are out of D.C., he was going to fire Robert Mueller.

White House lawyer Ty Cobb denied the rumor (though I've often suspected that Trump doesn't tell everything). It's hard to tell if this is a somebody-slipped-me-inside-information rumor, or a that's-what-I'd-do-if-I-were-wannabee-tyrant rumor.

In recent weeks, right-wing media has ramped up a campaign to undermine public trust in the Mueller investigation, pointing to anti-Trump private opinions of some investigators as evidence of professional bias. Republicans in Congress have fanned these flames, most notably in their questioning of Assistant Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, the person who actually could fire Mueller, but sees no cause to. Ben Wittes at the Lawfare Blog comments:

Most importantly, there is no serious suggestion that any step taken by Mueller’s shop is unjustified. The Mueller investigation will ultimately be measured by its work product, not by the text messages or campaign contributions of its staffers from before the investigation even existed.

The professionalism of the Mueller probe is a stark contrast with the House investigation of Hillary Clinton, which leaked like a sieve, often inducing news organizations to publish damaging stories about Clinton that had to be walked back once more complete information became available. Going back a bit further, the Starr investigation of President Bill Clinton was transparently partisan, writing up its findings in the most salacious way possible, and delaying its exoneration of Clinton's Whitewater dealings until after a midterm election.

Trump himself has been running down the FBI, the Justice Department, and virtually the entire federal law enforcement system. His claims put him at odds with his own appointees, including FBI Director Christopher Wray and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

A bunch of the Republican criticisms of the FBI go back to the Clinton email investigation. It's part of their dogma that Hillary did something horribly wrong, so the fact that the FBI didn't find it brings the whole organization into suspicion, rather than causing Republicans to doubt their conspiracy theory.

Anybody who kept a close eye on the publicly available information could have predicted that Clinton wouldn't be charged with anything, as I did in June, 2016.

Saturday, Trump lawyers charged that Mueller had illegally gotten thousands of the emails of the Trump transition team. The claim looks baseless. In particular, the point of raising the charge publicly seems to be to get political mileage out of a claim that won't fly in court. The WaPo quotes a GWU law professor:

if Trump’s team had a valid legal claim, there is a standard avenue to pursue — they would file a sealed motion to the judge supervising the grand jury and ask the judge to rule the emails were improperly seized and provide a remedy, like requiring Mueller’s team to return the emails or excluding their use in the investigation. “You go to the judge and complain,” he said. “You don’t issue a press release or go to Congress. It appears from the outside that this is part of a pattern of trying to undermine Mueller’s investigation.”

All along during the Russia investigation, the most compelling reason to think Trump and his people did something wrong has been their own behavior. They have consistently lied about their contacts with Russians, and now, as Mueller's investigation begins to close in on them, they try to destroy public trust in it.

and net neutrality

The FCC made it official: Net neutrality is dead. Fred Benenson paints a clear picture of what that will mean by 2020:

Negotiating internet access will feel a lot like negotiating your television cable or cellphone bill. You’ll be forced to untangle various packages relating to different sites and services you might use, pay for ISP-branded content you probably don’t care about, and get that sinking feeling at the beginning of every month that, one way or another, you’re overpaying.

Instead of simply worrying about how much internet you use or how fast you need it to be, you’re going to have to worry about what kind of internet you use. Premium sites like Netflix and YouTube will likely cost more, you’ll be nickel-and-dimed for the use of free apps like iMessage and FaceTime, and unfettered access to the full internet will be more expensive.

Start-ups, facing even higher barriers of entry, will be forced to spend money partnering with telecom companies. Fewer of them will survive. And the start-ups that do survive will spend an unnecessarily high amount of their income paying to survive. This is great news for established companies like Facebook and Google that will always be able to afford internet tolls. They will cement their already dominant position against newer but better sites and services.

and you also might be interested in ...

The Washington Post tells a very disturbing story of Trump's refusal to listen to the intelligence services' evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 election, or the possibility that future elections will be undermined.

The result is without obvious parallel in U.S. history, a situation in which the personal insecurities of the president — and his refusal to accept what even many in his administration regard as objective reality — have impaired the government’s response to a national security threat. The repercussions radiate across the government.

It sounds like parody, but it isn't: The Trump administration is telling the CDC what words to avoid in its budget requests: vulnerable, entitlement, diversity, transgender, fetus, evidence-based and science-based.

Whatever conservatives fantasize that liberals are doing, it seems, they will do in reality when they get power. This, for example, really is an example of political correctness trumping freedom of speech and thought.

An important article by Amy Sullivan in the NYT about "Fox Evangelicals" -- people for whom "Evangelical" is a tribal identity rather than a theology.

She quotes a study by Lifeway Research, comparing the number of people who call themselves Evangelicals to the number who hold four theological beliefs commonly thought to define Evangelicalism: the authority of the Bible, importance of evangelism, Jesus' death as payment for sin, and Jesus as the only path to salvation. Only about half of self-identified Evangelicals strongly agreed with all four.

One significant difference between Fox and Biblical Evangelicalism is the attitude toward fear. Fox Evangelicals are driven by fear of outsiders, and see a corresponding need for weapons. The Bible, by contrast, calls for welcoming the stranger and says to "Be not afraid."

That disconnect underscores the challenge many pastors face in trying to shepherd congregants who are increasingly alienated from traditional Gospel teachings. “A pastor has about 30 to 40 minutes each week to teach about Scripture,” said Jonathan Martin, an Oklahoma pastor and popular evangelical writer. “They’ve been exposed to Fox News potentially three to four hours a day.”

Martin points to a key difference between second-generation leaders like Franklin Graham and Jerry Fallwell Jr. and their famous fathers.

There was a lot I didn’t agree with him on, but I’m confident that it was important to [Jerry Falwell] Senior that he grounded his beliefs in Scripture. Now the Bible’s increasingly irrelevant. It’s just "us versus them."

My comment: To the extent that Evangelicalism has become an identity masquerading as a religion, it will dovetail with fascism, which is an identity masquerading as an ideology. In both cases, beliefs are merely instrumental; the important thing is that my people stay on top.

I passed through Richmond this week, and saw the Confederate statues on Monument Avenue. When you see them close up, the argument that this is about "history" is hard to swallow. They're there to celebrate the defenders of slavery. I mean, where's the General Grant statue? He reclaimed Richmond for the United States. Isn't that history?

and let's close with something almost familiar

Stephen Colbert inserts himself into Silence of the Lambs.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Sad Faces

As young girls, we feel like maybe now is a good time to just throw something out there. See if it sticks. A PSA to all grown men on the face of the Earth: We do not want to have sex with you. ... If you remember where you were on 9/11, you’re too old for us. Did just thinking about that make you feel old? That’s because you’re old. You’re all a thousand to us. Your faces make us sad.

- Jessica M. Goldstein "Hi, It's Us, All the 14-year-old Girls in America"
[Goldstein isn't actually 14, but I suspect she channels 14-year-olds pretty well]

There is no featured post this week.

If you've ever wondered what I talk about at churches, here's a video of a talk I gave on "Foundational Faith and Visionary Faith" at First Parish in Bedford, MA in November. If you want to skip the hymns and other churchy stuff, start around the 16 minute mark for the readings, and then go to 25:55 for the sermon. (A week before, I did roughly the same talk at the Unitarian Church of Quincy, IL. They posted the text.)

This week everybody was talking about men resigning from Congress

Democrats Al Franken and John Conyers resigned from Congress after accusations of sexual misconduct. Republican Trent Franks resigned for a somewhat stranger reason, which I'll discuss below. Donald Trump remains in office in spite of evidence far more compelling than anything we've seen against Franken. Blake Farenthold stays in Congress pending an investigation of why taxpayers spent $84K to settle a sexual harassment claim against him, and Roy Moore seems likely to win a seat in the Senate tomorrow, even though evidence is piling up against his denials of sexual misconduct.

Franks' (not Franken's) case appears to be The Handmaid's Tale playing out in real life. Franks and his wife have failed to conceive, and so (according to AP), Franks offered a female staffer $5 million to be a surrogate mother. That seems a bit excessive, because Surrogacy America says:

Typically a surrogate mother’s fee will range from $35,000 to $40,000 plus expenses, depending on experience.

Why the difference? Politico suggests an answer:

The sources said Franks approached two female staffers about acting as a potential surrogate for him and his wife, who has struggled with fertility issues for years. But the aides were concerned that Franks was asking to have sexual relations with them. It was not clear to the women whether he was asking about impregnating the women through sexual intercourse or in vitro fertilization. Franks opposes abortion rights as well as procedures that discard embryos.

Allow me to read between the lines: The typical in vitro process involves fertilizing multiple ova in a laboratory, letting the embryos develop a little, and then discarding all but the most viable ones. BioEdge reports:

It appears that of every 100 eggs fertilised in an IVF laboratory, only 5 will become live births. In other words, 95% of all IVF embryos are discarded, perish in the Petri dish or die in the womb.

That 95% slaughter of what the pro-life movement calls "unborn babies" must be a horror to someone like Franks, who founded the Arizona Family Research Institute. Hence the temptation to go the way of Abraham and Jacob, who fathered children on female servants.

Dahlia Lithwick writes a thoughtful essay on an issue I'm still struggling with: We're at a moment in public discourse where no standards of purity will protect liberals from charges of hypocrisy, because conservatives make those charges in bad faith to create false equivalence.

For example, now that Franken and Conyers have resigned, will Republicans acknowledge that Democrats are serious about this issue, and decide that they need to get serious too to protect their public image? Will they start demanding explanations from Moore and Trump, or taking action against them?

Don't be silly. Of course not. New examples of liberal "hypocrisy" will be found, and will become new subjects for the whataboutism that derails any criticism of conservatives' vanishing moral standards.

Who knows why the GOP has lost its last ethical moorings? But this is a perfectly transactional moment in governance, and what we get in exchange for being good and moral right now is nothing. I’m not saying we should hit pause on #MeToo, or direct any less fury at sexual predators in their every manifestation. But we should understand that while we know that our good faith and reasonableness are virtues, we currently live in a world where it’s also a handicap.

In an ideal Senate, Al Franken would probably have to leave. But sacrificing Franken won't give us an ideal Senate, especially once Republicans seat Roy Moore -- as they undoubtedly will, despite occasional rumblings to the contrary.

Michigan's Republican Governor Rick Snyder has delayed the election to replace Conyers until August, which effectively keeps a Democratic district unrepresented for nearly a year. What if, in the meantime, some anti-woman measure passes the House by one vote?

What if that's not the end of the story? What if dozens of Congressmen are accused in the next few months, with the precedent that Democrats resign immediately and Republicans hang on as long as they can (except for truly bizarre cases like Franks)? What then happens in Congress? It's hard to find the right balance between idealism and pragmatism.

Moore's sexual issues are only one of many reasons why he shouldn't be allowed anywhere near the Senate. In September, the LA Times reported on a Moore rally:

In response to a question from one of the only African Americans in the audience — who asked when Moore thought America was last “great” -- Moore acknowledged the nation’s history of racial divisions, but said: “I think it was great at the time when families were united — even though we had slavery — they cared for one another…. Our families were strong, our country had a direction.”

It's hard to express just how horrible this is. Some of those "strong families" of the slavery era consisted of women and the children they conceived after being raped by their masters. Other families were broken up when its members were sold to new masters hundreds of miles apart.

BuzzFeed's Grace Wyler, covering Trump's pro-Moore rally just outside Alabama:"This sort of sums up the general feeling on sexual harassment allegations at the Pensacola Bay Center tonight."

In case you can't make it out, the red t-shirts have a picture of Trump on the back. The front is a parody of the Nike Michael Jordan logo, with the silhouette of Trump reaching for a pussy cat and the Nike "Just do it" slogan replaced by "Just grab it".

and the wedding cake case

I've already explained why the Masterpiece Cakeshop case is an easy call under the law: The same-sex couple should win and the baker should lose, because the baker refused to consider making them the exact same cake he would make for an opposite-sex couple. That makes it a pure discrimination case; all the free-speech and free-exercise-of-religion arguments are irrelevant. This is how all the lower courts have ruled.

But that simple clarity doesn't mean that the Supreme Court will see it that way, because the Hobby Lobby case was also an easy call under the law: The owners had a legal responsibility to offer health insurance, and what the employees chose to do with their insurance was none of the owners' business. So the owners' religious beliefs about birth control were irrelevant.

Hobby Lobby's owners won anyway. The problem is that the Court's conservative bloc is not controlled by the law. Contrary to the Constitution, it sees no problem in granting special rights to people who hold popular Christian beliefs. That's what Hobby Lobby was really about, and what this case is about too.

If the baker's religious convictions caused him to refuse service to blacks or Jews, we wouldn't be having this conversation -- not because nobody's religion would go that way, but because those views would be unpopular, even among most Christians. If he were a religious pacifist whose convictions required him to refuse service to members of the military, we wouldn't be having this conversation. Similarly, if Hobby Lobby had been a Hindu business trying to stop its employees from eating meat rather than using birth control, that case would have come out differently.

But the Supreme Court may choose to treat religious bias against gays as if it were a completely different animal from religious bias against blacks, just as it regards abortion and birth control as fundamentally more serious moral issues than pacifism or vegetarianism. That's because the conservative justices believe that Catholics and popular types of conservative Protestants should have special rights; the law should give their issues a level of respect that the issues of Quakers or Hindus (or religious white supremacists) don't deserve.

Like so many other controversial cases, this one is likely to come down to Justice Kennedy's opinion. As long-time readers know, I don't have a lot of respect for Kennedy as a judge. Even though he has often decided cases the way I want, he writes mushy opinions that (while they may be full of quotable rhetoric) consistently fail to define clear principles that lower courts can apply to new cases. (Justice Roberts sometimes does the same thing, as in his Voting Rights decision a few years ago. But I suspect him of conscious obfuscation rather than mushy thinking.)

That's what I expect here, with the majority opinion being written by Kennedy if the gay couple wins or by Roberts or Alito if the baker wins. (Gorsuch and Thomas will file principled but off-the-wall opinions in the baker's favor. Ginsburg will analyze the case clearly and correctly.) Whatever the decision, it will not illuminate the intersection of anti-discrimination laws, religious freedom, and freedom of speech. This murky outcome will inspire more people to file lawsuits, and, finding no clear guidance in Masterpiece Cakeshop, lower-court judges will decide those future cases in divergent ways. So the underlying issues will keep coming back to the Supreme Court for resolution.

In my view, it's inaccurate to attribute the baker's refusal to his "Christian beliefs".

Traditional forms of bigotry and the practices that maintain them are often attributed to a traditional religion, even if they are purely cultural practices tangential to the religion. One example is the practice of "honor killings", in which families kill daughters who "dishonor" the family by having sexual relations with men the families won't accept as husbands. These killings are often attributed to Islam, both by Muslims who kill their daughters and by outsiders who cite this practice as evidence of Islam's moral backwardness.

In fact, honor killings are not mandated by Islam, and they happen predominantly in regions of the world where such killings were part of the culture before Islam. So the cause-and-effect works backwards from the way most people think: It's not that families kill their daughters because of Islam; rather, Muslims who believe in honor killings for cultural reasons interpret Islam in a way that justifies them.

Something similar is happening with Christianity and same-sex marriage. There are a small number of Bible verses that can be interpreted to condemn same-sex marriage. But no one who sat down to read the Bible with an open mind would come to the conclusion that this is the defining moral crisis of our era, or that homosexuality even compares as a moral issue with poverty or violence. (The same could be said about abortion, which existed in Biblical times, but barely seemed worth mentioning.)

In America today, prejudice against gays and lesbians is primarily cultural, not religious. Anti-gay Christians look to the Bible to justify their bigotry, but that's not where they learned it.

and Jerusalem

I thought I was going to have to write my own article (it was going to be part of the Misunderstandings series) about why Trump's decision to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is such a big deal. It has been easy to find articles about all the outrage the decision is provoking, but hard to find a start-from-scratch explanation of why anyone considers it outrageous. Pro-Palestinian talking heads on TV have exacerbated the problem: For the most part they have jumped straight into venting their outrage, and have skipped the educational prologue that most Americans need. So I could easily picture a low-information voter (and maybe even a not-so-low-information voter) asking: "Don't we usually put our embassy in the city that the host nation tells us is their capital?"

Saturday, the New York Times did the article I had been looking for: "The Jerusalem Issue, Explained". The explanation has two main pieces, one having to do with Jerusalem itself, and the other with the United States' complicated and conflicted role regarding the whole Palestine/Israel issue. As for Jerusalem:

The city’s status has been disputed, at least officially, since the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Before that, the United Nations had designated Jerusalem as a special international zone. During the war, Israel seized the city’s western half. It seized the eastern half during the next Arab-Israeli war, in 1967.

In most two-state-solution models, West Jerusalem winds up being the capital of Israel and East Jerusalem the capital of Palestine. But prior to any peace agreement, most countries -- including our NATO allies -- regard the status of the entire city as an unsettled issue. (A satirical article makes this point by claiming that the Palestinian Authority is about to recognize Texas as part of Mexico and will move its Mexican consulate to Houston. President Abbas expresses his hope that this decision "will help ease the tension between the two countries over security and immigration.") Meanwhile, Israel regards Jerusalem as its historic capital since days of King David, and refuses to give up a single block of it.

What makes such a move particularly controversial for the United States is that we have two very different roles in the conflict: We're Israel's closest ally, and we're also the global superpower who is trying to broker peace in the region. Previous administrations have tried to juggle those two contradictory roles, but increasingly it looks like Trump has decided to stop juggling: We are Israel's ally and not a broker of peace. That means that no one is a broker of peace.

U.S. credibility with the Arab and Muslim worlds is also undermined by the fact that Trump has assigned the Israel/Palestine issue to Jared Kushner, who is both a diplomatic novice and an American Jew whose family foundation (at a time when he was a director) has financially supported the Israeli settlement movement. Trump's Special Representative for International Negotiations, Jason Greenblatt, is also Jewish. So Palestinians might see little difference between negotiating with Americans and negotiating with Israelis.

The pro-Israel slant of the Trump administration and both parties in Congress makes it easy to go into an Elders-of-Zion rant about the disproportionate influence of Jews, but the American politics of the issue is way more complicated than that. Evangelical Christians (who are strongly anti-Muslim and see Israel as a factor in many end-times prophecies) are probably the larger pro-Israel influence. And perversely, the alt-Right -- which is also highly anti-Semitic -- sometimes figures in this alliance as well, seeing Israel as the kind of ethno-state they would like to establish for white Christians here, as well as a convenient destination for the Jews they would like to expel.

Trump's announcement comes only days after leaks about a meeting last month between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a Trump ally who seems to be consolidating power in Saudi Arabia. Reportedly, Prince Salman made what Abbas considered an odious peace proposal:

The Palestinians would get a state of their own but only noncontiguous parts of the West Bank and only limited sovereignty over their own territory. The vast majority of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which most of the world considers illegal, would remain. The Palestinians would not be given East Jerusalem as their capital and there would be no right of return for Palestinian refugees and their descendants.

Both the U.S. and Saudi Arabia deny officially that any such plan is in the works. But it remains to be seen whether Palestinians will be offered anything they could regard as justice, or whether the U.S. and Saudi Arabia will join Israel in insisting that they recognize the reality that they are powerless and have to accept whatever Israel is willing to offer them.

You might wonder why Salman would do this. The explanation (again, not confirmed by the Saudis) is that the Palestinians have become expendable. Saudi Arabia is more concerned with possibility of a Muslim civil war between the Sunnis (led by Saudi Arabia) and the Shia (led by Iran). Abandoning the Palestinians might be a small price to pay if it leads to U.S. and Israeli cooperation in that larger struggle.

The embassy is not moving immediately. According to CNN: "It will take years for the US to build the new embassy."

This is yet another example of Trump following Putin's lead. Russia recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital in April. But if the Sunni/Shia conflict does move to the center stage, it might recreate a Cold War situation, with Russia backing Iran.

and tax reform

It should be obvious that writing a tax reform bill isn't like writing a freshman term paper: You can't make a bunch of edits just before it's due and expect things to go well. The Senate, though, didn't see it that way, and so they made a tiny $289 billion mistake in the way they brought the corporate alternate minimum tax (AMT) back into the bill at the last minute. The move was supposed to raise $40 billion; it actually raises $329 billion. Oops.

The conference committee between the House and Senate (which starts meeting Saturday) will fix that, of course. But there is one consequence: If something goes wrong in the Senate, and it can't pass the bill that comes out of the conference committee, one alternative would have been for the House to pass the Senate bill as written. (Democrats did something similar to pass ObamaCare after they lost their 60-vote majority in the Senate.) Now that can't happen, because the Senate bill is so screwed up.

There are a number of other issues for the committee to work out, and things could still go wrong (or right, depending on your point of view). One thing that seems clear: Paul Ryan and House Republicans in general feel no commitment to the deal Susan Collins made with Mitch McConnell to stabilize the health insurance markets. When she gets stiffed, will she still support the bill?

House Republicans from high-state-tax states like California and New York may yet revolt against eliminating the deduction for state and local taxes. It's going to be hard for them to run on a "tax-cut" bill that actually raises taxes on many of their constituents. And everything that gets taken out of the bill requires something else to be added in, so that the deficit totals work out. Every add-on creates a new issue for somebody.

and natural disasters

Not a movie special effect: I-405 in Los Angeles. I've been to the Getty Center, so I may have driven this road.

The number of deaths in Puerto Rico that have been attributed to Hurricane Maria and its aftermath is 62. But somehow, the number of excess deaths since Maria hit -- deaths beyond what totals from recent years would tell you to expect -- is 1052. I have to believe that if something similar were happening to white people on the mainland, it would get a lot more attention and action.

but here's something more people should pay attention to

Congress responded to the financial crisis of 2007-2008 by passing Dodd-Frank. One of the things that law did was establish within the Treasury Department the Financial Stability Oversight Council, which is supposed to keep an eye on excessive risks to the U.S. financial system -- things like the explosive growth of derivative investments that turned a slump in the U.S. real-estate market into a global catastrophe. (As the Wikipedia article on the 2007-2008 crisis points out, complex financial instruments "enabled a theoretically infinite amount to be wagered on the finite value of housing loans outstanding". As a result, when people began to default on their mortgages, the losses at the big financial institutions far exceeded the total value of the defaulted loans.)

Working for the FSOC is the Office of Financial Research, which collects and analyzes data from the banks and other big financial players, looking for early warning signs of a flaw in the system that could lead to a crash. Washington Monthly called it "the most important agency you've never heard of" and explained its creation like this:

The idea for the OFR took root in early 2009 during the fallout from the financial crisis. Regulators struggled to make decisions during the height of the meltdown in part because they lacked real-time information about which banks were connected through financial relationships, and how. The crisis also exposed how little federal regulators knew about the world of “shadow banking,” such as the vast market for credit default swaps, collateralized debt obligations, and other complex securities that played a role in the meltdown. Regulators had no idea how much money was at risk in these activities, let alone who was involved or what the results would be if there were massive defaults.

OFR employs a little more than 200 people and has a budget around $100 million, so each year it costs about 30 cents for each American. So if OFR saved us from a financial crisis once every thousand years or so, it would be well worth the cost. But in fact, you don't even pay your 30 cents, because OFR is funded by fees on banks.

The downside is that banks hate paying fees and hate having the government looking over their shoulders. And their point-of-view is the one that matters, so naturally the Trump administration is proposing big cuts at OFR. Matt Yglesias points out that this is part of a pattern:

Trump's pick to run regulatory policy at the Fed wants to let banks take on more risky debt. He's tapped a bank executive responsible for all kinds of shady foreclosure practices to run the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

From a short-term point of view, you can almost always make or save money by taking on more risk: Drop the insurance you carry on your health or house or car, and you'll have more change in your pocket, at least for a little while. Put all your savings in the stock market rather than holding any government-insured investments like bank CDs, and most years you'll do well. Better yet, borrow back all the equity in your house and put that money into the market too. Most years you'll make money.

Most years. If you'd done that in 2008, though, it wouldn't have worked out so well. Ygelsias explains the analogy to the larger economy.

The nature of a banking crisis is you probably won't have one in any given year, regardless of how shoddy your regulatory framework is. As long as asset prices are trending upward, it just doesn't matter. In fact, as long as asset prices are trending upward, a poorly regulated banking sector will be more profitable than a well-regulated one.

It's all good. Unless things blow up. But if your bad policymaking takes us from a one-in-500 chance of a blow-up in any given year to a one-in-20 chance, you're still in a world where things will probably be fine across even an entire eight-year span in office. Probably.

That's been Trump's way of doing business his whole life: Take big risks, and hope that somebody else is holding the bag when it all goes bust.

and you also might be interested in ...

Following the electorate's 62%-38% endorsement of same-sex marriage in a non-binding referendum in November, Australia's Parliament made it official on Thursday:

The new law expands on earlier legislation that provided equality to same-sex couples in areas like government benefits, employment and taxes, and it changes the definition of marriage from “the union of a man and a woman” to “the union of two people.” It automatically recognizes same-sex marriages from other countries.

Police getting away with murder is not just a black issue any more. After a police officer was acquitted of second-degree murder and reckless manslaughter in Mesa, Arizona on Thursday, the judge released the officer's body-cam video. It's horrific, so I'll link to it rather than embed it. A white man, Daniel Shaver, is clearly scared witless and doing his best to obey the shouted commands of the officer as he lies on the floor of the hall outside his motel room. But he fails and the officer kills him.

It gets worse when you know the backstory. Shaver was a traveling pest control worker who was drinking in his room with two people he had met in the elevator. They asked him about a pellet gun he had. While showing it to them, he pointed it out the window; somebody in the motel's hot tub noticed and called the police. Shaver was drunk, but not at all belligerent, when six police officers showed up. The police were in complete control of the situation right up to the moment one of them killed him.

Pointing the pellet gun out the window was dumb, but everything else Shaver did is easy to empathize with. He's away from home and bored, so he gets drunk in his room. He's confused when the police show up, but he tries his best to comply with their commands. He has no weapons other than the pellet gun, which is still in the room when he's on the floor in the hall. He winds up dead.

The officer made the usual claim: He was afraid that Shaver was going for a gun. (The more likely explanation is that Shaver's shorts were starting to fall down as he obeyed the command to crawl towards the officer, so he reached back to tug on the waistband.) Various experts testified that the officer was acting in accordance with his training, and maybe he was. And I don't know what instructions the judge gave the jurors, so it's hard to say what I would have done in their shoes. (It's a lot to ask of jurors that they reverse the result of a bad system. I'm reminded of the mock trial in Salem, where you get to vote on whether to indict a woman for witchcraft. If you put yourself in the mindset of the times, if you respect the opinions of the established church's witchcraft experts, and respect the law as the judge explains it to you, there's really no honest way to let her go.)

But if this really is what we train police officers to do, something is very, very wrong. And if you imagine that this is somebody else's problem, that it can't possibly touch you, you need to think again.

NBA star Steph Curry is serious about supporting the NFL players anthem protests, and about supporting veterans. There's no contradiction there.

From the beginning, it was obvious that the Ireland/Northern Ireland border was going to be a problem when Brexit got implemented. Northern Ireland as a whole voted against Brexit, and wants to keep its easy-going border with Ireland. PM May thought she had a deal to do that, but an anti-Irish-unification party is part of her coalition, and wouldn't support it.

Remember a year ago, when President-elect Trump negotiated something that was supposed to save all those manufacturing jobs in Indiana? Trump and the TV cameras are elsewhere now, and things aren't going so well.

Trump caused a lot of speculation when he ended his statement on Jerusalem Wednesday by slurring several words. To me and a bunch of other people, it looked and sounded like a denture starting to slip, which the White House denied. But a brain specialist has a different opinion:

In turning my attention to the president, I see worrisome symptoms that fall into three main categories: problems with language and executive function; problems with social cognition and behavior; and problems with memory, attention, and concentration. None of these are symptoms of being a bad or mean person. Nor do they require spelunking into the depths of his psyche to understand. Instead, they raise concern for a neurocognitive disease process in the same sense that wheezing raises the alarm for asthma.

Trump's Pensacola rally Friday included a bunch of bold, blatant lies. Not spin, not stuff that you can justify if you parse every word just so. Lies about simple, checkable things. For example: "Black homeownership just hit the highest level it has ever been in the history of our country." Nope. It was 42% in the third quarter, down from 42.7% in the first quarter, and well below the peak of 49.7% in 2004.

Also: "Factories are pouring back into our country." Not at all. AP says:

Spending on the construction of factories has dropped 14 percent over the past 12 months. There has been a steady decline in spending on factory construction since the middle of 2015

Trump claimed wages are going up "for the first time in 20 years".

The latest jobs report shows average hourly earnings up 2.5 percent over the past 12 months, roughly the same pace of growth as the year before, when Barack Obama was president. Wages were rising faster in December 2016, up by 2.9 percent.

and let's close with something

It's been a long week. We could all stand to watch some birds dancing.

Monday, December 4, 2017


What it all boils down to is that racism – white racial grievance, immigration restriction, generalized bashing of basically any political or cultural assertion by African-Americans – is the only consistent and persistent line connecting the campaign to the presidency. This is not quite the same as saying that that’s the only real bottom line for his supporters – though there’s a lot of truth to that. But for Trump, that’s clearly the only thing that isn’t opportunistic and situational. Those all fall away. The only thing that doesn’t is the ethno-nationalism and racism. It’s the real him.

- Josh Marshall

This week's featured post is "The Brazen Cynicism of the Tax-Reform Vote".

This week everybody was talking about tax reform

That's the subject of the featured post.

and Michael Flynn

Last week we knew that Flynn's lawyers had stopped cooperating with the President's lawyers, so many speculated that Flynn was about to make a deal with Robert Mueller's investigation. This week it happened: Flynn pleaded guilty to one count of lying to the FBI, and is cooperating with Mueller. This isn't a trivial crime, in that it could lead to as much as five years in jail. But it's also far less than Mueller could have gone for, and Flynn's son has not been charged with anything.

It is easy to start speculating about what Flynn might know and be willing to share. The particular crime in his guilty plea seems chosen to reveal as little as possible. Trump supporters have jumped on this to imply Mueller has nothing, but those familiar with how plea deals work are pointing in another direction. Vox asked 9 legal experts for their reactions, and got stuff like this:

The fact that Flynn was charged with, and is pleading guilty to, such a minor crime suggests a bombshell of a deal with prosecutors. Flynn was facing serious criminal liability for a variety of alleged missteps, including his failure to register as an agent of a foreign power. If this is the entirety of the plea deal, the best explanation for why Mueller would agree to it is that Flynn has something very valuable to offer in exchange: damaging testimony on someone else.

In general, prosecutors use small fish to catch big fish. Flynn was Trump's National Security Adviser, so there aren't a lot of bigger fish Mueller could be using him against.

That could explain why Trump has been so wiggy lately, even by his own standards.

He’s denying the Access Hollywood tape is real. He’s back to saying Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States. Then publicly he retweeted those anti-Muslim hate group videos from the UK. Yesterday we heard he’s telling advisors a government shutdown would be good for him. He’s gotten more aggressive attacking other politicians accused of sexual misconduct while more aggressively backing Roy Moore, notwithstanding the copious list of accusations against him. All of it together amounts to acting out.

In a tweet Saturday, he stated that he knew Flynn had lied to the FBI before he fired him.

Legal experts said this could be used as evidence that the president was trying to obstruct justice when he allegedly asked James Comey to take it easy on Flynn and then, when he didn’t, fired him as FBI director.

The ongoing mystery of Flynn's lies to the FBI is how he could be that stupid. As a former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Flynn had to know that conversations with the Russian ambassador were monitored, and that he would be caught in his lie if anybody bothered to check. So why do it?

Josh Marshall, who is working from publicly available information and knows nothing more than the rest of us do, has put some thought into this and has as good a working theory as I've seen. The short version is that Flynn wanted to get a new Russia policy installed before revelations of Russia's campaign meddling made that impossible. So it was important to be doing groundwork during the transition period, when he had no authority to do it, and to hide that groundwork as long as possible from both the still-in-power Obama administration and the people within the intelligence services who would fight against the new policy. The new Russia relationship

had to become a fait accompli before the full story emerged. Indeed, if the Trump Team could get in place before most of the information was revealed it might never become known at all since they would take over the key agencies doing the investigating.

ABC initially reported that Flynn reached out to the Russians on Trump's behalf before the election, but has withdrawn the report and suspended the reporter.

still more sexual harassment reports

It's hard to keep up: Garrison Keillor, Matt Lauer, Russell Simmons and two new members of Congress: Blake Farenthold, and Ruben Kihuen.

These last few weeks, I've been struggling with how to express my own complicity in the culture's objectification of women without presenting myself as either better or worse than I've actually been.

In "7 Reasons So Many Guys Don't Understand Sexual Consent" David Wong does a great job writing the kind of article I haven't been able to produce. In particular, he captures the shame so many of us felt about failing to achieve the truly fucked-up vision of manliness we were taught to admire: the James Bond kind of man, who can force himself on women and make them like it.

I never, in any of my public school years, had a lesson saying you needed to wait for verbal consent before touching a woman. I saw the quarterback of the football team slap girls on the butt, I saw guys reach around and grab girls' boobs as a prank, I saw mistletoe hung over doorways and was told if you and a girl stood under it, she had to kiss you. One time when we were playing volleyball at the beach, Dr. Dre ran up and unhooked a girl's bikini top.

Again, I never did any of those things. Not because I thought they were wrong, but because I was too nervous.

And I fucking hated myself for it.

Have I mentioned that yet? How much shame I felt at the time for not being a "real man"?

By my 20s, I think I had developed a reasonably healthy respect for women as human beings, but in high school and earlier I remember "pranks" and "jokes" (like the ones Wong mentions) as fairly common. There was a "game" going on between the two sexes: Boys were supposed to try to get away with stuff and girls were supposed to try to stop them. Our collective mythology said it was all in good fun, even if a few spoilsports didn't get it.

At the time, I think we'd have laughed at anyone who suggested that we were training to be rapists (which I don't recall that anyone did suggest). But in retrospect, of course we were.

[R]idding guys of toxic attitudes toward women is a monumental task. I've spent two solid decades trying to deprogram myself, to get on board with something that, in retrospect, should be patently obvious to any decent person. Changing actions is the easy part; changing urges takes years and years. It's the difference between going on a diet and training your body to not get hungry at all.

In the meantime, to act like it's crazy that a particular guy doesn't see the clear line between consent and assault is misguided. The culture has intentionally blurred those lines and trained that man to feel shame for erring on either side.

meanwhile, Roy Moore is probably going to the Senate

The RCP polling average was in Doug Jones' favor for about ten days, but Moore caught up on November 27 and appears to be surging ahead. This is not because there has been any good news for Moore. Alabamans have just gotten used to the idea that they're going to elect a child molester, because he's the Christian candidate.

It also looks like the Senate will let him take his seat. Sunday, Mitch McConnell said "We’re going to let the people of Alabama decide, a week from Tuesday, who they want to send to the Senate."

Last Monday, The Washington Post revealed an attempted sting by Project Veritas, the James O'Keefe group responsible for a number of deceptively edited videos to smear liberal groups, including ACORN (his original, successful operation, which forced the organization to close, even if O'Keefe himself did end up paying a $100K settlement).

In a series of interviews over two weeks, the woman shared a dramatic story about an alleged sexual relationship with Moore in 1992 that led to an abortion when she was 15.

But rather than jumping on the chance to besmirch Moore, the Post became increasingly suspicious of the woman's story, and eventually tracked her back to Project Veritas.

We can only guess what would have happened if the Post had been less careful and the sting had worked, but I assume it would have been used to undermine the credibility not just of the Post, but of all of Moore's accusers.

Here's Jay Rosen's account of O'Keefe sending a fake student to tape his classes and meet with him afterward in 2011. The New Yorker covered O'Keefe's failed attempt to sting George Soros last year.

and you also might be interested in ...

While commenting on the strange announcement of Kellyanne Conway as the White House's point person on opioids, The Atlantic summarizes the opioid effort as a whole:

The Trump administration has no opioid policy, beyond just continuing to arrest people who violate the (lax) existing drug laws. Throughout, Trump has treated the opioid tragedy as a messaging challenge, not a real-world disaster that calls for a real-world response: pretend to care while doing nothing, because the administration lacks the competence and capacity to do something. The idea that it would seek to appoint as head of the Office of National Drug Control the single member of the House of Representatives who did most to worsen the opioid crisis had a beautiful fitness to it.

So maybe after all Kellyanne Conway would be the right person for the “opioid czar” job. Trump’s concern for opioids is a cruelly deceptive fiction. And who propagates cruelly deceptive fictions more persistently and brazenly than Conway?

BTW, that "single member of the House of Representatives who did the most to worsen the opioid crisis" is Tom Marino. After 60 Minutes exposed his function as a tool of Big Pharma, he withdrew from consideration as drug czar.  He continues to represent Pennsylvania's 10th district.

Filmmaker Sierra Pettengil:

I was struck by the way the word "history" was blankly lobbed as a defense of the [Confederate] monuments. Take Trump’s reaction, for one: "They’re trying to take away our history." My instinct was, "Okay, then: Let’s look at the history."

In particular, her short film Graven Image looks at the Stone Mountain monument in Georgia, where a gigantic carving of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Stonewall Jackson is known as "the South's Mount Rushmore". The film recalls Stone Mountain as the site of the KKK's rebirth in 1915, and chronicles how progress on the monument paralleled Georgia's resistance to civil rights.

In my film, a voiceover from a 1972 Stone Mountain promotional film says, "Remember how it used to be? It’s still that way for you to enjoy at Stone Mountain Park." I want this film to make us remember how it actually used to be.

and let's close with something magical

"The magician is the most honest of professionals," said Karl Germain. "He promises to deceive you, and then he does." Here, a guy I've known since he was a baby (and his partner in crime, who I didn't meet until last spring) fulfills that promise. And in the finest magical tradition, they do it with mirrors.