Sunday, September 17, 2017

Huckabee, the Trump apologist

In an interview in The Atlantic, Mike Huckabee talks about both religious faith and Donald Trump in ways that highlight his enormous blind spots.

About Dear Leader's relationship to Christianity Huckabee has this to say:

Nobody pretends that he would be an ideal Sunday-school teacher, to be fair. I don’t think he is a person who is deeply acquainted with the Bible and he’s not known to set attendance records at church. But he’s very respectful of people of faith. And that’s really all people in the Christian community want. They don’t care whether or not the guy believes as they do. They just want someone who will respect their beliefs, and not denigrate them, and not try to use the power of government to silence them. And he’s been very adamant and clear that he believes in religious liberty, believes that people’s beliefs should be protected.
So for Huckabee the question is a leader's "respect" for "people of faith". That sounds nice and nondenominational, properly acknowledging the First Amendment's requirement that government neither promote nor suppress any faith. Yet in insisting that "people's beliefs should be protected", he ignores the possibility that the demands of different faiths might conflict with one another. How are such conflicts to be resolved without infringing on what one sect or another regards as its sacred rights?

Being concerned solely with "religious liberty", Huckabee also ignores the rights of those who claim adherence to no religious faith. What rights do the non-religious have in Huckabee's world? I strongly doubt he has ever thought seriously about that, or is in any way worried about it.

Now, about that pesky business of Trump's, um, let's call them moral transgressions — his misogyny and objectification of women, his decided difficulty rejecting white supremacist and neo-Nazi support, his easy embrace of violence in his rhetoric (and his absurd denials that his words amount to incitement), his flagrant profiteering in office (which is winding its way through the courts in little-watched lawsuits), etc. — well, Huckabee is prepared to wave them all off:

To me, character is if you’re the same in public as you are in private, and I think that in many ways, that’s what’s appealing about him. ... But some of the more harsh things that have been attributed to him were things that were said many years ago, and there’s been no indication that during his campaign and during his presidency has he said things that would cause people to just be aghast at what he had said. We’ve had presidents that have done things while they were in the Oval Office that frankly were very destructive and embarrassing. And I don’t think anybody has made those allegations about this president.
Wow. Talk about alternative facts.

Yes, many of the things that outraged people about Trump during the campaign were old statements dug up from years before. You know something? Time did not stale their outrageousness. More to the point, he kept saying outrageous and offensive things during the campaign! He kicked off his campaign by equating Mexicans to rapists, for pity's sake! He repeatedly denigrated the entire religion of Islam! He mocked John McCain for being a prisoner of war! (That would have been offensive even if he had served in the military, but he didn't.)

And nobody has alleged Dear Leader has done "destructive and embarrassing" things while in office? Now we've gone from Denial-ville into Liar-land. Dear Leader shared highly classified intelligence with the diplomatic representatives of a hostile nation, for crying out loud! He fired the head of the FBI for refusing to kill an investigation into allegations of foreign interference with the election! He has admitted doing these things, and they're just the tip of the iceberg!

Mikey, Mikey, Mikey, how stupid do you think we are? Or perhaps the question ought to be, how compromised are your own ethics, since you seem quite comfortable lying on Dear Leader's behalf?

Finally, let's unpack that business of "character". A moderately smart seven-year-old could find the flaw in Huckabee's characterization of "character" as "you’re the same in public as you are in private". I mean, Stalin by all accounts was as cold-blooded and indifferent to the well-being of others in private as he was in public. There is no evidence "Pharma Bro" Martin Shkreli is any more (or less) of a self-aggrandizing, self-justifying putz in private than in public.

Maybe Huckabee's focused on hypocrisy because it is one of the few vices Dear Leader arguably doesn't evince. Of course, the reason DL doesn't evince it is that hypocrisy requires that you honor a principle publicly but not privately, and DL doesn't honor principle at all: he is purely transactional in his beliefs (in fact, it's hard to say he has any).

Or maybe Huckabee's focused on hypocrisy because organized religion is rife with hypocritical leaders, so the foible is always on his mind. Your mileage may vary.

In any case, pretending that character can be reduced to not being a hypocrite is beyond laughable. That pretense delegitimizes Huckabee as a pundit. He's nothing more than a shill for Dear Leader.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Trump, Pelosi and Schumer

The headline says it all: "Pelosi and Schumer Say They Have Deal With Trump to Replace DACA".

For some reason this story has gotten a lot of attention. People seem to be treating it as a Big Deal (no apologies for the pun).

I'm not holding my breath.

Dear Leader doesn't honor anything he has said if doing so would hurt him. He doesn't even honor the contracts he signs.

Pelosi and Schumer, whatever their failings, aren't stupid enough to take Dear Leader's words at face value. Nor are they stupid enough to try passing off a bare-faced lie themselves: they, unlike Dear Leader, could never get away with it.

So they must have struck a deal they're confident he won't renege on, which means they must have given him something he wants. But what?

All I can imagine is that they promised Democratic support for administration priorities down the line. Tax reform is the most obvious possibility if only because it will be the subject of the last Congressional push of the year, but what could Pelosi and Schumer have promised that would both satisfy Dear Leader and not spark all-out rebellion among progressive members of the party?

Infrastructure spending offers much more room for common ground, but it's hard to see how a Republican-dominated Congress can be forced to tackle this before the midterms next year.

Moreover, any Democratic-supported proposals, whatever the issue, must attract enough support from moderate Republicans, that most endangered species, to overcome the intractable resistance of hardline right-wingers. Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell also have to be brought on board and it's hard to see how that will happen if they see themselves being rolled not just by the minority Democrats, but by Dear Leader as well. (Will Dear Leader switch party affiliations while in office? I'm long past thinking anything is beyond him.)

Finally, grass-roots Democrats are a looming threat. They — we — hated W. Our feelings toward Dear Leader, though, are an order of magnitude more hostile. He has been so much more antagonistic to minorities of all stripes, so much more ardent an authoritarian, so much more contemptuous of the rule of law, and so much cozier with bigots and anti-intellectual frauds than W, that he has accomplished the impossible by making 43 look good by comparison. Cutting deals with this most loathed of presidents carries the risk that progressives will mutiny.

Dear Leader is so unprincipled and feckless that it's impossible to imagine any lasting deal with him. He and the Democratic leadership were allies of convenience in the fight to raise the debt ceiling, but that alliance is not a basis for a lasting relationship. If Nancy and Chuck think otherwise, count on Donnie to disappoint them.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Glad to meet you, Louise Linton

Louise Linton, wife of Treasury Secretary and wealthy person Steven Mnuchin, mocked a critic of one of her Instagram postings.

She had gushed — there's no other word for it — about her trip to Kentucky with her husband and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell. The post prompted Jenni Miller of Portland, Oregon to post the response, "Glad we could pay for your little getaway. #deplorable."

As it happens, "the Mnuchins reimbursed the government for the trip", according to the Treasury Department. I wouldn't have blamed Linton for acidly pointing that out to Miller. However, Linton went farther:

Do you think the US govt paid for our honeymoon or personal travel?! Lololol. Have you given more to the economy than me and my husband? Either as an individual earner in taxes OR in self sacrifice to your country?


I’m pretty sure we paid more taxes toward our day "trip" than you did. Pretty sure the amount we sacrifice per year is a lot more than you’d be willing to sacrifice if the choice was yours.

Congratulations, Louise. Those lessons at the Kanye West School of Entitled Deportment really paid off. It's a good thing Donald Trump explained the "sacrifices" the moneyed class makes, or we might have misunderstood you.

Miller's criticism was kind of rude. But Linton ... well, I'm just glad to know her true colors.

Linton has done us all a favor, by reminding us that a little revolution now and then is a good thing — if it rids us of people like her.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Don't hide the Confederate statues

In the rush to disavow the lingering ugliness represented by heroic statues of prominent Confederate figures, we risk hiding our history.

No question, glorifying Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and other military and civilian leaders of the Confederacy can only be defended if you believe in their gospel of white supremacy. They attempted to secede from the United States in order to preserve slavery, period, full stop. The idea that they were political philosophers selflessly committed to "states' rights" is utter nonsense. They and their allies wanted to preserve the privileged position of large slaveholders. Following the Civil War, Southern whites who still believed in the innate superiority of whites over blacks devoted themselves to ensuring that blacks could not participate fully and equally in civic life, giving rise to Jim Crow. It was the children and grandchildren of the Confederacy who exalted the losing side's military and civilian leadership, spinning for themselves and their descendants the comforting myths that the Civil War was about states' rights, an overbearing federal government, conspiracy by northern states to undermine the economies of southern states — that the war was about anything other than slavery and the postwar desire for white dominance and black subjugation, in practice if not in law. If not for this whitewashing (ahem) of history, the Confederacy would be seen for what it was: a rebellion by slaveholders to protect their economic and cultural interests.

Now, it's crucial that we stop thinking of the Confederacy as anything but what it was. To that end, we have to do something about all those monuments that uncritically exalt the Confederacy. But is simply tearing down the statues the right step?

Not if that's the end of the story.

Tearing the statues down and throwing them away would be almost as irresponsible as erecting them in the first place. It would be following a grotesque distortion of history with a denial of history. The history in question isn't so much the Civil War as the more than century-old effort to exalt white supremacy and to deny the reality of slavery's hold on the United States.

As bad as it has been to misrepresent the legacy of the Confederacy in the way the contested statues have done, it would be nearly as bad to deny that this misrepresentation ever took place.

One reason the Confederacy lingers as a romantic Lost Cause is that the U.S. has never confronted the meaning of the Civil War. The U.S. has never undertaken the kind of soul-searching that Germany did after World War II. (Granted, that soul-searching was mandated by the conquering powers.) Tellingly, Japan faces much the same challenge vis-à-vis World War II as the U.S. does with respect to the Civil War. That's why every so often U.S. leaders have to do an awkward dance regarding which Japanese war memorials they can visit: some of those memorials exalt the kind of culture of Japanese supremacy that prevailed before the war, a toxic culture Japan has not disavowed in the complete way Germany has disavowed Nazi ideology.

So the U.S. must grapple with the Civil War and what it meant in a real, painful way. But the U.S. must also grapple with what it has meant not to have come to terms with that war and its causes.

It has meant that those who fought to perpetuate slavery and to tear asunder the United States have not been portrayed as actually doing these things.

It has meant that millions of their descendants have embraced a toxic ideology that tells them they are superior to blacks and other non-whites.

It has meant that these same descendants have told themselves comforting myths that deny that this ideology motivated, and was at the heart of, the Confederacy's very existence.

To pretend that the Civil War's unconfronted and toxic legacy in the South (and elsewhere) never happened would compound the terrible error we've made by not confronting that legacy in the first place.

By all means, take the damned statues down (and while we're at it, rename all those schools named after the same Confederate leaders). But don't just send those statues to the nearest landfill. Send them to a museum where they can be contextualized properly — where we and our descendants can finally learn the truth about the Civil War and the toxic aftermath that resulted from not acknowledging that truth for so long.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Is inciting violence an impeachable offense?

So, Dear Leader, in the space of a day, has gone back to scolding the rest of us for ignoring violence allegedly perpetrated in Charlottesville by the so-called "alt-left". He insisted that many among those participating in the protest were quietly and peacefully protesting the removal of Robert E. Lee's statue, and then chidingly wondered where the statue-removing would end — would George Washington and Thomas Jefferson be next?

All this is catnip to the alt-right, of course, because it attempts to distract all of us from the primary issue: those protesting in support of Robert E. Lee were, whether they knew it or not, supporting white supremacy.

Lee was a white supremacist. You might not like that, but it's the truth. He defended slavery as an improvement over the living conditions of blacks in Africa. He participated in an insurrection against the federal government to defend the peculiar institution, and he never fully reconciled himself to losing the war. He treated his own slaves harshly before and during the war, and soft-pedaled brutality against blacks committed by students while he was president of a college after the war.

But what does all this have to do with Dear Leader?

I very much doubt Trump knows diddly about Robert E. Lee's true feelings toward blacks, or about the real origin of the Civil War being the South's insistence on keeping and expanding slavery. He therefore is like a lot of other people in this country who find the argument that Lee and other Confederates were romantic, doomed figures representing an honorable sort of heritage for today's (white) Southerners plausible.

But you know something? It's his fucking job to know the truth about Lee and the Confederacy. It's his fucking job to understand how corrosive white supremacy is to this country. It's HIS FUCKING JOB to know that people shouting the horrendously ugly things the protesters shouted must be reviled.

To unite the country, as Dear Leader frequently claims is his aim, you have to know what is beyond the pale. Here's a free clue, Donnie: white supremacy and neo-Nazism and anti-Semitism are BEYOND THE FUCKING PALE.

So fucking what if there were a handful of hopelessly naive "good" people in that protest? They were not the majority of protesters! The majority of the protesters were full-on, enthusiastic bigots who would love nothing better than to take away the civil rights of non-whites and anyone else they perceive to be threatening them.

Dear Leader's appalling press conference today at Trump Tower was, as somebody (maybe a lot of somebodys) said, a moral failure. To attempt to excuse white supremacists is the mark of someone with abso-fucking-lutely no sense of right and wrong. Actually he wasn't excusing white supremacists: he was and is encouraging them.

Not too long ago Dear Leader also encouraged police to treat suspects roughly after they've been arrested. In short, Dear Leader has a history of encouraging violence.

Does fomenting violence constitute a high crime and misdemeanor for which a president might be impeached?

Ultimately this is a political decision that must be made by members of Congress — particularly Republican members of Congress, given their majority in both legislative houses.

So, ladies and gentlemen of Congress, how do you feel about the President of the United States excusing white supremacists who committed homicidal violence?

Ball's in your court, Congress. The non-white supremacists and non-neo-Nazis among us are waiting to see where you stand.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Think about where we are

I had mentally tuned out Charlottesville and the attendant furor over Dear Leader's flaccid initial response. Then a CNN panelist this morning said something that gave me pause.

"I mean, Nazis! Right?"

She was expressing her incredulity that Dear Leader had been incapable (up to that time) of condemning the white supremacist-originated violence that led to the death of one woman and injuries to a score of others. And really, she brought me back to reality.

I've gotten so accustomed to writing off Donnie as a cancerous abcess on the body politic that I needed to be reminded of how aberrant he and his followers really are.

Do we really have a U.S. president who requires two days of nonstop condemnation on all sides before he'll appear before the camera to deliver a cautious, minimalist condemnation without any real conviction? (We know what Donnie looks and sounds like when his blood is up, as when he's pissed at so-called "fake news", and his address to the nation this morning sounded anything but convincing. He sounded like a schoolboy delivering an oral report that bores him.)

To express the panelist's thought a little more fully:

Do we really have a president whose first, instinctive response ISN'T to condemn neo-Nazis and racists?


[UPDATE: Not three days of condemnation, but two days.]

Thursday, August 3, 2017

This is a no-brainer

Use open-source software for voting machines.

Open-source software can be inspected by anyone. Increasing the number of eyes looking at source code increases the likelihood that subtle bugs will be unearthed. No company can bring as many eyes to bear as the Web can, so open-source software tends to be more robust and secure than closed-source software.

It's bad enough that vulnerabilities in consumer-grade software cost consumers and businesses millions, perhaps billions of dollars every year. The consequences of vulnerabilities in the software that controls our voting machines, or that counts the votes, could be the integrity of our elections.

For once, let's not wait for a disaster to occur. This is not a hard problem. Let's address it.

Friday, July 28, 2017

The mind stuck in "now"

Reince Priebus is out as White House chief of staff. He's the latest Administration appointee to be canned because he couldn't (or wouldn't) make Dear Leader happy.

Dear Leader seems to be operating under the theory that you try out horses until you find one that can make it through the steeplechase; the ones who can't, you shoot. He will continue to look for horses who can clear the fences. They will continue to fail because he (1) ties their legs together, (2) feeds them moldy hay and (3) (metaphorically) weighs a couple of tons, most of it ego. (Can you imagine a less bearable jockey?) He therefore will continue to shoot horses until we kick him off the track, which I fervently hope will happen no later than January 2021.

He will try out his second horse in the chief of staff position: his current Homeland Security Secretary, John Kelly.

Trump supporters are apparently happy because they never liked Priebus (I get that) and because military leaders are perceived to be better at everything than wusses who never served in the military. Maybe Kelly will magically bring order to the seething entropic whirlpool that is Dear Leader's West Wing. I'm not betting on it, but anything's possible.

Still, was Kelly really such a good pick? Not because he's not a capable guy: nobody has said that. (Oh wait, actually Roger Stone did say that, though Stone was referring solely to Kelly's lack of political experience.)

No, the problem with Kelly is that he occupied a Senate-confirmed position. Dear Leader hasn't exactly done a bang-up job of finding, much less nominating, people that the Senate will confirm. The chief of staff position, however, doesn't require Senate confirmation: Dear Leader could have picked anybody to fill the job. It seems to me that by taking a Senate-confirmed appointee and putting him into a position that doesn't require Senate confimation, Dear Leader squandered an increasingly scarce resource.

So who will Dear Leader's new Homeland Security secretary be?

Newsweek says it will be Kelly's deputy, Elaine Duke, at least on an interim basis. She was confirmed to her current position by an 85-14 Senate vote.

Duke could probably be confirmed relatively easily as DHS secretary, but that would just push back Dear Leader's problem to finding and confirming her deputy.

Any way you look at this, Dear Leader has made more work for himself. Did this occur to him?

I don't think so. I don't think Dear Leader thinks about consequences. If he has an itch, he scratches it. If he sees an immediate advantage he takes it, regardless of the long-term fallout. He lives in a perpetual "now".

That may be fine for a private citizen but it's catastrophic in somebody who's supposed to be leading the country. You don't do stuff as President just because it feels good right now. Part of your job is to look ahead.

But just try telling that to Mr. Short-Attention-Span Theater.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

When the boss is a public servant

Every president has a learning curve. Trump's is steeper than any president's has been in my lifetime, partly because he has never served in public office and partly because he's less able to absorb information than anyone I've ever seen who aspired to public office (or was a CEO). He claims he's smart, which, like nearly everything he says, has to be taken with a huge grain of salt. If that's true, though, then he has to be the laziest guy to gain office in my lifetime, because he has shown no sign that he is getting better at the job. If Donald Trump, final authority on The Apprentice, were judging Donald Trump, president, on his job performance so far, Trump the judge would fire Trump the president.

So it was with mixed emotions that I read that Trump is being briefed in tweet-sized nuggets for his meeting with Vladimir Putin.

On the plus side, at least he's being briefed, and his advisors have gone to great lengths (by limiting themselves to the briefest of lengths) to overcome what at this point we have to consider Trump's learning disability. I give his staff due credit for creativity and dedication (probably born of desperation, but whatever).

But honestly ... tweet-sized memos?

140 characters doesn't deliver a lot of information. If you're going to talk to another nation's leader, even a friendly nation's, you need to know enough about the subjects that are likely to come up to know whether the other leader is feeding you bullshit. That's going to take way more than 140 characters, or even 1,400.

Yeah, Donnie, your job requires studying.

My impression is that Trump, the CEO, didn't tolerate slackers. Well, as president, he's a public servant, making me one of his bosses. I'm here to tell him to do his job. He literally campaigned for it, after all.

I don't want to hear excuses, I don't want to hear how others are to blame. Sit down, shut up, and learn what you're supposed to know. (A lot of it you would already know if you were as smart as you claim you are.)

I don't give a shit if it's hard for you. It's your job. Fucking do it.

Friday, June 30, 2017

It's the costs, stupid

In my last entry I wrote:
Now, are health-care costs spiraling out of control? That's the impression I have. So I'm more than sympathetic to the urge to do something to get those costs under control.


If the movers of this misbegotten legislation (from both houses) genuinely want to keep ordinary people from feeling pain, they will have to do real work to understand why costs are spiraling out of control, and take on those root causes.

I'm pleased (and sorry) to say my impression is correct: just read Sarah Kliff's piece in Vox, "The Senate bill does nothing to fix America's biggest health care problem". That problem is, of course, cost.
The biggest problem facing American health care is our prices.

In the United States, we pay outlandishly high prices for our trips to the doctor, hospital visits, and prescription drugs. In the United States, an MRI costs, on average, $1,119. In Australia the scan costs $215, and in Switzerland $503. It is the exact. Same. Scan.

She goes on to list a sorry number of instances where costs in the U.S. are outlandishly out of line with the rest of the developed world.

Incidentally, as Kliff noted at the very start of her piece, Obama's Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act didn't address the insane costs of medical care, either. That's a major reason people have legitimate grievances against it.

However, before you sharpen your pitchforks and ready your torches, don't demonize the medical community. The situation in the U.S. is a byproduct of the majority's conviction that the free market should not be curtailed unless it's absolutely necessary. Other nations have decided that only the entire nation's population can negotiate fair prices for medical care. Those nations thus have sharply reduced the room health care providers have to jack their fees.

If you're a free-market supporter you may recoil from this heavyhanded approach. You may think that people should take greater responsibility for their own health care; that they should wield their small leverage as individual consumers to reward the providers and private insurers that best balance service and cost.

The thing is, we used to have much greater market freedoms — until the expense and frustration drove a critical mass of voters and legislators to create the PPACA. As a free-market enthusiast you may hate the PPACA, but you must acknowledge that the status quo ante was dismal.

The lesson I take away from the history of how we got to where we are, politically speaking, is that people are not able to optimize for their health care. This doesn't mean people are stupid or lazy. Rather, it means health care is a hard subject for people to reason about because it's fraught with uncertainty.

You know you're not going to live forever, but do you know how sick you're going to get? Do you know when or if major illness will strike you or your family?

Of course not!

That uncertainty makes the kind of rational economic planning that the free market requires all but impossible for individual consumers.

Furthermore, the health care available to us isn't a function of how sick we're likely to get, but rather how much money we make and whether we're fortunate enough to work for an employer large enough to negotiate favorable rates with insurers. (Or, of course, we could be lucky enough to be independently wealthy, making health care accessible no matter how sick we become.)

Finally, when we do need medical care, we're frequently not in a position to bargain for it. If you're bleeding because of a car crash, you need surgery and you need it now. Will your insurance cover it? Ultimately that's a function of

  • what insurance plans were available,
  • how much you could pay, and
  • how carefully you read the fine print
when you signed up.

The first two factors were mostly or entirely out of your hands. The third, as a rule, overwhelmed you because you're not a lawyer, nor could you afford to hire a lawyer to read through it for you. Insurers, meanwhile, employ squads of lawyers to ensure they pay out only what they absolutely must in claims.

And what happens when, as almost certainly will happen, you and your employer part company? If you're lucky, you'll go to work for another employer large enough to have negotiated good insurance. If not, you're on your own. Do you know more freelancers than you did a decade or two ago? So do I. Draw your own conclusion about whether the segment of the working-age population that is covered by large-employer health insurance is growing or shrinking.

The idea that a fully free market will result in the most efficient, lowest-cost health care on average is no longer credible. I think the experience of the U.S. is proof enough that individual consumers have no chance in the free market when it comes to health care. The deck is stacked against all but the wealthiest of us.

So when free-marketers like Rand Paul and his quasi-libertarian compatriots in the Republican Party demand that health care be liberated from government interference, I can only conclude they're blinded by their unthinking faith in the principles of the free market. They haven't thought through what our experience as a nation has been, nor have they themselves had to make the hard choices the rest of us have, constrained by market forces we can't tame.

Health care is simply too expensive in the United States, and it's not because of the PPACA's taxes. It's because as a nation, we have not chosen to understand the unique characteristics of health care that make it impossible for individual consumers to tame the market.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Cutting to the chase

D.C. Republicans are pushing back on the idea that the Senate's now-delayed bill to reform health care — the so-called "Better Care Reconciliation Act" — is imposing "cuts" on Medicaid.
The White House says that Republicans are being victimized by a broken budgeting system that unfairly casts their fiscal restraint as callous cutting.

“Generally speaking, we spend more every single year on Medicaid,” Mick Mulvaney, the White House budget director, said in an interview this month. “We are not gutting or filleting or kicking people off those programs. We are trying to slow the rate of growth of government.”

Give Republicans the benefit of the doubt for a moment. Accept that Mulvaney and Congressional Republicans aren't the devils in suits that they're caricatured as in left-of-center discussions. Look at it from the standpoint of genuine concern about the growth of government spending, particularly over what seems to be the explosive growth of federal health-care spending.

Okay. Now take a fresh look at the Congressional Budget Office's conclusion that the Senate's bill would force 22 million people to relinquish their health insurance by 2026.

Does the nobility of Republicans' cost-cutting motives change the CBO's findings?

Of course not.

Mulvaney and Congressional Republicans can claim they're not kicking people off vital federal programs, but if they fail to fund the programs to the extent necessary, kicking people off vital federal programs is precisely what Mulvaney and company will have done.

Now, are health-care costs spiraling out of control? That's the impression I have. So I'm more than sympathetic to the urge to do something to get those costs under control.

But Congressional Republicans and the administration seem to be trying to take the easy way out by simply saying, "No more than X dollars will be spent — how X is divided is up to somebody else".

That's not good enough. If the movers of this misbegotten legislation (from both houses) genuinely want to keep ordinary people from feeling pain, they will have to do real work to understand why costs are spiraling out of control, and take on those root causes.

Anything short of that major effort will put the lie to the claim that those elected officials aren't "gutting or fllleting or kicking people off those programs".

Republicans, the ball's in your court. Tackle the hard problems underlying our health-care cost crisis. Show the rest of us you're not silent-movie villains foreclosing on widows and orphans — because that's the image you're cultivating with your slapdash legislative efforts so far.

Companies and the public interest

Rebecca J. Rosen has a piece in The Atlantic positing the question, "Is the problem with tech companies that they're companies?"

Rosen's thesis is that some well-known companies' professed ethos, whether it be Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's desire to foster community or Google's much-lampooned "don't be evil" (which may or may not be its actual company slogan any more, if it ever was), runs head-first into the modern consensus of a for-profit public corporation's purpose, which is to maximize profit for its shareholders.

Rosen's proposed solution to this conundrum, though, isn't much of a solution.

While she approvingly cites Stanford professor Rob Reich's comments about creating ethics committees to guide corporate boards of directors, the description of that work is that it would "[take] into account various values they prize". Meanwhile, she says elsewhere that "Reich believes that some sort of oversight is necessary to ensure that big tech companies make decisions that are in the public’s interest".

It's difficult enough to know who the amorphous "they" are whose values are to be taken into account. In Facebook's case, is it Mark Zuckerberg, his collective workforce, Facebook's shareholders, or some combination thereof? Rosen's (perhaps suitable) vagueness on this point, though, is merely a speed bump of a concern compared to the brick-wall obstacle of whether "their" values, whoever "they" are, really represent "the public's interest".

I'm not sure I trust Facebook any more than I trust Hobby Lobby to understand "the public's interest". Even with the best and least controversial of intentions — who can argue with "don't be evil"? — when it comes to turning intentions into actions, everyone prioritizes different values. Everyone claims to be opposed to discrimination, for instance, but what happens when one's sincere religious belief that same-sex marriage is immoral (and thus harmful to the public good) comes up against a same-sex couple desiring your company's services for its nuptials? Somebody is going to feel discriminated against, no matter what happens. How do you define "the public's interest" in this case?

You can't. Not yet, anyway. And this is just the most extreme example of "the public's interest" being a very, very difficult concept to pin down.

Ethics committees probably couldn't hurt as companies who are, wittingly or not, disrupting long-held habits and social constructs, struggle to define their paths forward while portraying themselves as good corporate citizens (and perhaps believing that, too). But none of us should be under the illusion that even the most painstaking ethics committee will be able to guide a corporation in "the public's interest" — because if this era has a defining conundrum, it is that even the public cannot agree on what "the public's interest" is.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Public service is not about personal loyalty

After James Comey's testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee, I think all of us, Trump supporters and Trump critics, can agree on one thing.

Donald Trump values loyalty to himself above all else.

This isn't news, of course, but it's good to get confirmation from someone who dealt with him face-to-face (to Comey's outspoken regret).

For a guy who runs his own privately-held business, it might — might — be okay to demand unequivocal loyalty. Even so, the Godfather jokes write themselves.

But the President doesn't run his own privately-held business.

Before the President-elect and his appointees can assume their offices, they take an oath to defend the Constitution.

It is, of course, highly improper for the President to demand personal loyalty as Trump routinely does. That demand puts an intolerable strain on an honest subordinate:

  • If he sincerely pledges loyalty to Trump, he violates his oath of office.
  • If he refuses to pledge loyalty to Trump, Trump will find a reason to fire him. James Comey is Exhibit #1 on that score.
  • If he only pretends to pledge loyalty to Trump, he looks like he violated his oath of office and Trump can later use his supposed pledge against him. (Trump himself does not show loyalty to subordinates who incur his wrath or get in his way.)
Now that Trump's Mafia-like insistence on personal loyalty is public knowledge, honest men and women will shun serving in his administration. The public will assume Trump executive-branch nominees are his lackeys first, and public servants second (if at all). We will assume that Trump and his administration are corrupt because they do not hold themselves accountable to anything but Trump's whims and Trump's self-interest.

I'm not so lost in cynicism that I assume all presidential administrations are mere tools to make the President and his cronies wealthy and powerful. That's only the story of Trump's administration. It's disgusting. And it's a disaster for the rest of us, who will be left to clean up the mess.

The stench coming from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is the reason we can't afford Mob-like "Dons" as President.

Trump has got to go.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Lies, damned lies, and Scott Pruitt

Via the Atlantic, an unusually clear instance of Trump administration bullshit.
On Sunday’s “Meet the Press,” Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, claimed that the U.S. has created 50,000 jobs in the coal sector since the fourth quarter of 2016....


Quite simply, the coal sector has added about 1,000 jobs since October 2016—not 50,000. Coal could not have added 50,000 jobs in the last eight months, since that is essentially the size of the entire coal industry, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics....

Pruitt wasn't spinning a half-empty glass as half-full. Pruitt was lying on an unusually large scale.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

The Democratic Party's problem

The Democratic Party has a well-deserved reputation for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Perhaps its greatest failure in the recent past was in the 2016 presidential election, which provides a textbook example of its core problem.

The party stands for nothing. Nothing memorable and stirring, anyway.

Think of the 2016 Democratic Party presidential primary. Only four candidates tried to run, and three of them were dyed-in-the-wool technocrats. The battle boiled down to the technocrat with the highest name recognition, Hillary Clinton, and the upstart populist Bernie Sanders. The party chose the technocrat to go up against the buzzsaw who redefined electoral politics in 2016. In spite of Trump's innumerable (and seemingly fatal) flaws, she lost. She has a lot of excuses but refuses to accept that (1) the race should never have been as close as it was, and (2) the reason it was so close was less Trump's appeal than her own failure to enthuse a lot of people.

Consider the Democratic Party's highest-profile leaders in Congress, Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi. They are defined by nothing except adherence to stale party stances. And they're the ones who, in turn, define the party for everyone else.

The party is run by technocrats who are skilled at the infighting game in Congress. That's okay for governing, but it's hopeless for campaigning.

Now, I'm not dumping on technocrats. I have a technocratic mindset myself. But technocrats are lousy at politics, because politics is as much about emotion as wisdom. You can't run a democracy without emotional appeals because a democracy of any size is full of people who don't know and don't care about any but a tiny handful of the myriad of issues that that democracy faces. You can't reach these people with dry, rational arguments. You also can't reach them with measured hectoring, which is Pelosi's and Schumer's specialty. You have to rouse them with appeals to basic emotions.

Hate, anger and fear are basic emotions, and they seem to work really well with modern Republican voters. However, at least in modern times, the Democratic Party has a poor track record of harnessing these emotions on behalf of its candidates. Lots of people have speculated on the reasons for this dichotomy between the parties; I shall not. I will assert, though, that people are more motivated to vote for a candidate with an inspiring message than for the candidate perceived to be the lesser of two evils. Given the Dems' obvious inability to marshal the more negative emotions anywhere near as effectively as Republicans, Democrats must find a message people can rally around, a message more inspirational than "We're not as bad!"

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Deciding who is human

Missouri state representative Rick Brattin doesn't think homosexuals are human.
"When you look at the tenets of religion, of the Bible, of the Quran, of other religions, there is a distinction between homosexuality and just being a human being," Brattin told the House floor.
Brattin also advocates teaching creationism and has advocated for the idea of "legitimate rape". To say he's hopelessly in the thrall of the most fundamentalist strain of Christianity is to say the sky is blue.

Rick, there's a distinction between being a self-righteous, small-minded, judgmental cretin and just being a human being, too. I think there are verses in your Holy Bible that talk about that. Maybe you should read them and think about who you are.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Stop reacting, start acting

Dear Leader pulled the U.S. out of the 2015 Paris climate accord. Color me shocked.

I've spent the afternoon and evening being outraged. Now that I've gotten past my visceral reaction, I'm turning my back on him.

He's a narcissistic infant. We know it. Now, will we waste our time repeating the obvious, or cope with it?

We must exercise our power as consumers, voters and citizens. We must keep tabs on which companies and elected officials take advantage of Dear Leader's free pass to fuck our future. We must name them, shame them and do our very best to make them pay for screwing over everybody in search of next quarter's profits and the next election.

I'm sure there's more we can do. Let's find everything we can.

We have to stop screaming about how far Dear Leader and his enablers have their heads up their asses. We have to be guided by a positive vision to make the world better in spite of them.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Trump and the Paris climate accord

Nobody but Dear Leader knows what he will announce Thursday concerning the U.S.'s participation in the 2015 Paris climate accord. But let's be clear about a couple of things.

If you reject the reality of climate change, your grandchildren (and maybe even your children) will not think kindly of you.

If you think pulling out of the accord and following policies to promote coal, oil and other fossil fuels will strengthen the country, you are wrong. Fossil fuels are finite: they will run out. Anybody who hopes to return to the days when gasoline was cheap and coal was king is trying to take the country down a dead-end path. Again, your grandchildren (and, again, maybe even your children) will not think kindly of you.

Either we approach our problems clear-eyed about the limitations the world places on us, or we deny our descendants their future. It's as simple and as stark as that.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The "deep state", or the real state?

Some of Dear Leader's advisers, including Steve Bannon, are starting to buy into the idea that "the deep state" is trying to bring down the Trump administration.
The number of leaks coming from inside the government, sources say, have advisers concerned that someone is out to get them.

Commentators on Fox News, Mr Trump’s channel of choice, have helped push the idea that these leaks come from an American “deep state” – a body within the government working to bring down those in power.

Are the leaks part of a giant conspiracy?

Not the kind of conspiracy in a spy novel, no. The leakers haven't pledged themselves to Goldfinger, or to Barack Obama, for that matter.

Rather, the leakers have pledged themselves to the Constitution, and to the country.

What they've heard the President say and watched him do are simply not conscionable.

They have heard and seen him reveal classified information to the representatives of a hostile foreign power, harming not just us but an allied nation.

They have heard and seen him upend his own agenda after watching Fox News, forcing his staff to cobble together pitiably inadequate policy papers under impossible deadlines.

They have heard and seen him consider unthinkable ideas, like withdrawing from NATO and treating nuclear weapons like conventional weapons. (This piece explains why the latter is so appalling.)

They have heard and seen him ignoring their attempts to brief him on complex policy issues because he can't or won't concentrate — unless, that is, his name is frequently mentioned.

They have heard and seen him rage at them for the flood of negative press his actions and words have engendered.

They have been moved to publicize those things so that we, the people, know what kind of man occupies the Oval Office.

He refuses to see the chaos he foments here and abroad, and is not forced to reckon with the consequences of his actions. The only way he can be curbed is to bring public pressure to bear, both on him and Congress, because they both hate low ratings.

The leakers are not acting out of partisanship: they're acting out of deep concern for the well-being of the country. They're trying to alert the nation to the danger of a President who does not understand his job and, even more disastrously, does not care about the responsibility that goes along with the power he wields.

They are not conspirators.

They are patriots.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

The question the Gianforte incident asks us

When Greg Gianforte assaulted a reporter asking him a question (and there's no "allegedly" about it: Gianforte has admitted he "made a mistake"), it forced the rest of us to ask ourselves a question:

If violence is acceptable in politics, where isn't it acceptable?

Politics is how we settle our differences so we don't have to resort to violence. If we've given up on the very premise of our democracy, well, let's stop wasting our time and just stock up on weapons.

I'm not too concerned that Gianforte got elected given that two-thirds of the ballots were cast before the assault happened. What I want to know is, how many of those who voted for him early would change their vote now that they know about his violent attack? Knowing that will tell us something about the health of our democracy.

Given that Dear Leader in the Oval Office, I suspect the patient is very sick.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Mueller is a distraction

The conventional wisdom is that the appointment of Robert Mueller III as special counsel to investigate the Trump campaign's connection to Russia is a good thing. It puts the investigation into the hands of a widely respected former FBI director who is seen as being above partisanship. Plus, a lot of us are just exhausted from the avalanche of disturbing news out of this administration.

David Frum, though, sees more clearly.

In his 14 May 2017 Atlantic piece he argued that "Of all the types of independent investigation that have been suggested, a special prosecutor is the most likely to disappear down rabbit holes—the least likely [to] answer the questions that needed to be answered." Why? Because a special prosecutor is charged to investigate only criminal conduct. Anything that isn't a crime isn't of interest, or at least cannot be reported to the public. The flip side is that criminal action must consume all the special prosecutor's attention, "no matter how secondary or tertiary the crime might seem in the larger scheme of things", to quote Frum again. In short, a special prosecutor wears a set of glasses conferring a particular myopia. What we need, however, is context — the big picture — not a narrow dive down one avenue of potential trouble (i.e., criminal misconduct).

Frum argued for an investigative strategy that allows us to answer a simple question:

While it remains uncertain whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia, it’s a fact accepted by everyone except Trump himself that Russia did intervene on his behalf. Why?

This is an intelligence question with policy implications, not a prosecutorial question with legal implications.

Though simple, the question could require a wide-ranging investigation to elicit a comprehensive answer, and Frum contends that only a less narrowly-tailored investigative body can do the job:
A select committee of Congress or an independent commission of nonpartisan experts established by Congress can ask the broad question: What happened? A select committee or an independent commission can organize its inquiry according to priority, leaving the secondary and tertiary issues to the historians. A select committee or an independent commission is not barred from looking at events in earlier years statutes of limitations. A select committee or an independent commission seeks truth.
And truth is what we need above all: we're choking on the administration's lies and obfuscations.

So how did Frum react to Mueller's appointment? Read his 18 May 2017 piece.

Republicans in Congress have gained a new excuse to revert to their prior enabling of Trump’s misconduct: A special counsel has been appointed!

Instead of defiantly lying, the White House staff can now refuse to answer questions outright: A special counsel has been appointed!

Fundamental questions of national security and public integrity will go unexplored as the special counsel focuses on narrow legal matters. The public debate will be starved of new information as the special counsel proceeds in legally required secrecy.

What we don't know — what we entrust Mueller to find out for us — will take on primary importance for many, while "what happened in plain sight" will "dwindle into secondary importance". Trump's firing of James Comey, his "cheering rather than condemning a Russian attack on American democracy" — these will now be shrugged off by those who wish to shrug them off, with the excuse that they were "not criminal, merely anti-democratic and disloyal".

Perhaps most damningly:

People in Trump’s orbit now face legal fees and legal jeopardy. For a long time however, the president himself will enjoy the shield of Robert Mueller’s professional discretion.

Like me, Frum isn't hung up on the highly legalistic question of "did Trump or his people commit crimes?" Rather, Frum boils down his concern to a single, burning question:

“Is the president a risk to national security?”
Here's what we need, then:
The most urgent task ahead is a broader counter-espionage inquiry conducted not to mete out punishments, but to discover and publicize the truth, however disturbing.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Be clear on the threat to the country

A lot of people are talking past each other about Donald Trump and the problems the country is facing. Look at this sampling of reader opinion in USA Today. Among the denunciations of the Republican Party for not turning on Trump are dissenting remarks like this:
How did the news media know about details of Trump’s conversation? Trump can legally discuss classified information with a foreign dignitary. Whoever leaked the details of the talk to the press should be charged or at the very least fired. The information, and by extension the conversation, was not for public eyes.
This kind of highly legalistic reading of the incident entirely misses the big picture.

Trump's threat to the nation arises not from violating the law (that we know of, anyway), but from his gross misuse of the power he has.

Consider: you have the legal right to spend your money on booze instead of food. That doesn't make it a good idea. And if your legal activities have bad consequences for others, you are responsible for those bad consequences. If your kids go hungry because you spend all your money on booze, you have misused your legal right.

Trump didn't break the letter of the law by disclosing classified information: he has that legal right. However, the far more important question is, Was disclosing the information a good idea?

The answer, according to everyone but Trump, is a resounding NO!

The disclosure

  • violated an intelligence-sharing agreement with a friendly nation
  • potentially compromised an intelligence asset or assets of that friendly nation — and "compromised" in the best case means somebody has to haul ass out of his or her undercover role and get to safety; in the worst case, that person is tortured and/or killed
  • royally pissed off that otherwise friendly nation
  • almost certainly makes other otherwise friendly nations reluctant to share intelligence because they can't trust the big mouth in the White House. That, in turn, screws us.
Those consequences of Trump's exercise of his legal authority seem more than bad enough to me.

Those of you hung up on the legality of his disclosure need to understand that the rest of us are worried as hell by his, and his staff's, terrible judgment.

Though he has no idea how the legislative process works (honestly, somebody should make him watch Schoolhouse Rock), he has been eager to dive in head-first to prove he can get stuff done — and he has the metaphorical fractured skull that mutely testifies he can't get stuff done.

  • Congress was caught off guard by Trump's insistence that a health care bill be passed with lightning speed. The result: an embarrassing failure in round 1, and a skin-of-the-teeth passage in the House after furious whip-work by the Republican leadership. Almost no one thinks TrumpCare 2.0 will pass the Senate in its current form, yet Trump celebrated in the Rose Garden as if he had signed the House bill into law. It makes the rest of us wonder: does he think he did? That's how low our opinion of his judgment (and grasp of reality) is.
  • Trump's staff, including the Treasury Secretary, was caught off guard by Trump's public pronouncement that his administration would have a tax plan ready within days. The response was a one-pager that serves more as a set of talking points than anything else; it certainly doesn't come within smelling distance of anything resembling a bill. Nobody thinks Steve Mnuchin or the Treasury Department fell down on the job: everyone knows this one-pager is what passes for a plan in Trump's mind. I'm sure he's still puzzled why the rest of us aren't praising him to the skies for it. Again, this bespeaks terrible judgment (and an inability to understand how others think) on Trump's part.

    Major legislation takes time to craft properly, but try telling that to him.

  • His first botched effort to enact a version of his promised "Muslim ban" was flatly shut down by the courts. Multiple judges acting independently of one another looked at the language of the executive order and decided that it almost certainly did not pass Constitutional muster, especially when they took candidate Trump's intemperate public remarks into account. Creating the order was his right as President — but he did it badly because he didn't have the good judgment to get competent and thorough legal help.
These incidents — and of course there are dozens more, not all of them relating to legislation or executive action — fit a pattern of ludicrous simplemindedness and indifference to detail. He thinks he can tell people, "Get this done!" and magically, it will get done. If it doesn't, he blames them, never taking any of the responsibility himself.

Of conscientiousness and good judgment, I see no sign.

What I do see is a man who would rather be a dictator than President. He lusts for power but loathes responsibility and is shameless about ducking it. If he were cunning about more than his self-interest, he would be Machiavellian and we'd be facing different problems. However, he's an abject simpleton when it comes to everything except his self-interest.

A couple of days ago I praised a recent column by David Brooks, the thesis of which is, Donald Trump "is an infantalist [sic]" (as far as I can tell, the spelling should be "infantilist"). This falls into a category of speculation that some pundits have been engaging in for the last year, that Trump might be mentally deficient in a clinically diagnosable sense.

Whether Trump can be clinically diagnosed as mentally diminished, I don't know, though I doubt it. He doesn't have to be clinically handicapped to be dangerous, though. We all know somebody who is physically an adult and is able to live an adult life, but who shows such poor judgment that you would not trust this person with any serious responsibility. That sounds like Trump to me.

We just found out that the administration knew Michael Flynn was under federal investigation when he was merely the nominee for national security advisor. In spite of that knowledge, the nomination went forward and he actually was made the national security advisor. That indifference to a major warning sign bespeaks terrible judgment on Trump's part.

So, again: to argue that Trump has acted within the letter of the law grievously misses the point. He has showed terrible judgment just since he took office. That is why I'm concerned. That, not the (so far) illusory spectre of illegal acts, is why we all should be concerned.

The President wields vast powers. We need the President to be a person who makes good decisions, whose judgment is sound.

In that light, consider the leaks from this administration. The leaks are profoundly distressing to the administration and its supporters, of course. I understand and (distantly) sympathize: I'd feel the same way if I supported this administration.

But put yourself in the position of a mid-level staffer in the White House. Suppose you're an aide to national security advisor H.R. McMaster. You're in the room when Trump brags to the Russian ambassador about how great the U.S.'s intelligence on ISIS is, and proves his point by mentioning a detail that even you, who have clearance to see a lot of secret information, didn't know. After the meeting, you make cautious inquiries; your boss can't come right out and confirm the detail's accuracy but the look in his eyes is all you need to know.

You're horrified. The President just shared highly classified information with representatives of one of the least friendly nations on the planet!

You've seen this before. You've seen him make horrible, horrible blunders that endanger the nation and its allies. You've always stayed silent because you respect the Presidency. You know the blunders you've seen, if made public, would cripple his reputation.

But now you realize that the biggest threat to the country is the President. Now you realize that the only thing that can stop the President is public opinion.

So you reach out to a reporter you trust — because you know this is the most patriotic thing you can do. You know that the country needs to know the danger it faces.

I don't expect everyone to buy into this entirely speculative scenario. But if you don't, consider that the White House itself almost certainly no longer includes any political appointees held over from the Obama administration. The political appointees in the White House are supportive of the current President. So why would these loyal appointees sabotage the President they support? Why would they leak information when it obviously hurts the administration?

The only way leaks make sense is if these staffers feel they have a responsibility that supersedes their duty to support the President. And they do. They are public servants. They work for the President, but their final loyalty must be to the American public.

So don't get caught up in the lesser (still important, but lesser) questions of whether what he did was illegal or whether leaks should be taken more seriously. His actions do not need to have been illegal to be damaging to the country. Leaks are bad, but it would be infinitely worse if we didn't know about his appalling blunders.

The biggest threat to the country isn't from leaks or illegal actions that may or may not have happened. The biggest threat to the country is the vast power of the Presidency being in the hands of an erratic and infantile man.

The biggest threat to the country is Donald Trump and his manifest unfitness to hold office.

Monday, May 15, 2017

"When the World is Led by a Child", David Brooks

I don't often agree with the New York Times' David Brooks, but his 15 May 2017 column hits the nail on the head.

He diagnoses Donald Trump as having failed to grow into adulthood.

At base, Trump is an infantalist. There are three tasks that most mature adults have sort of figured out by the time they hit 25. Trump has mastered none of them. Immaturity is becoming the dominant note of his presidency, lack of self-control his leitmotif.
Trump's profound immaturity underlies and adequately explains all of Trump's otherwise baffling behavior. It baffles us because we're accustomed to a grown man acting like a grown man. We especially don't expect our President to be so stunningly retarded in his intellectual and emotional development. (George W. Bush, for whom I had little respect, was merely ignorant: he wasn't volatile, nor did he have such profound disrespect for the office.)

Brooks' analysis also explains Trump's otherwise unfathomable sharing of classified information with Russian governmental officials:

From all we know so far, Trump didn’t do it because he is a Russian agent, or for any malevolent intent. He did it because he is sloppy, because he lacks all impulse control, and above all because he is a 7-year-old boy desperate for the approval of those he admires.
After the classified-information release story broke, reporters apparently "overheard yelling" in the White House tonight among Trump, Sean Spicer, Steve Bannon and White House Communications Director Michael Dubke. I have no doubt Trump was doing most of the yelling; he has a habit of blaming everyone but himself when things go wrong. Rather like a 7-year-old.

We are at the mercy of a spoiled little boy in the body of a 70-year-old man.

Are you scared? I sure as hell am.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Perspectives on Trump and Comey

I've got a few tabs open in my browser relating to the firing of James Comey and I might as well list them and let you read (or not), since I clearly am not going to be able to discuss each of them.

Oh, and an older item that isn't about Comey: a piece from Vann R. Newkirk II entitled, "The American Health Care Act's Prosperity Gospel". It's the best explanation I've found for the fervent support in some quarters for the House's American Health Care Act. For some folks, bad health is a punishment for bad living, while "Health is wealth".

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Party unity is harming the republic


That blinkered hack Mitch McConnell is refusing even to consider appointing a special prosecutor to carry out an impartial investigation into the Trump campaign's potential ties to Russian state action.

McConnell's intransigence, and the refusal of even ordinarily sensible Republicans like Susan Collins to buck him and Trump on this, is not mere partisanship. Their inaction is way, way beyond partisan. It is destructive to the honesty and integrity of government. It is destructive to the health of the nation.

This fish stinks from the head but Republicans for the most part are arguing that there's nothing wrong. Comey was the target of bipartisan criticism, goes the refrain, so ditching him should be celebrated by everyone. Left unanswered is the matter of timing: why was he fired now?

We all know the answer.

The reason given by the White House for Comey's firing — that he fouled up when investigating Hillary Clinton — is the rankest bullshit. Comey was fired shortly after asking for more resources to further the FBI's inquiry. He was fired because he was pursuing the investigation too zealously for Trump's taste.

Firing Comey was about as nakedly self-preservationist an action as we've seen since Nixon. As Timothy O'Brien at Bloomberg wrote:

What drives Trump today, and what has always driven him, are twin forces: self-aggrandizement and self-preservation. Most of his public actions can be understood as a reflection of one or both of those needs.

And Donald Trump firing James Comey was all about self-preservation.

Any politician's refusal to accept this simple truth makes him or her complicit in Trump's corruption.

In February I pondered how far Trump might indulge his authoritarian, anti-democratic instincts. I argued that Congress, with Republicans in charge, wasn't going to do anything to curb him. So far, all but a handful of Republicans are proving me right. Party before country, as despicable an attitude as can be found in politics.

So far the courts have served to check Trump's most outrageous abuses, but as I wrote:

It's crystal clear Donnie lacks even a hint of the sense of civic responsibility and respect for the nation's institutions that kept Nixon from holding onto power. Dear Leader is corrupt and doesn't care if we suspect (hey, how about those tax returns, Donnie?). He and his cronies have only contempt for the so-called establishment (that contempt is practically their brand). What if that includes the courts? Is it so hard to imagine Donnie ignoring court decisions, even Supreme Court decisions, he doesn't like?
We haven't yet arrived at that pass, but Bloomberg's O'Brien noted that Dear Leader openly mused about breaking up the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the circuit most likely to oppose his actions. If there is a way to neuter the courts' ability to check this administration, Dear Leader will find it.

That being the case, in March I pondered what recourse would be left for ordinary people like you and me if Dear Leader succeeded, with Republican legislators' cover, in establishing a truly authoritarian state.

... if Dear Leader presents the existential threat to our republic that I'm beginning to think he does, I'm talking about bringing the civic machinery of the country to a grinding halt. I'm talking about withholding federal taxes and refusing to cooperate with federal authorities. I'm talking about dropping tools and paralyzing the business of the nation.

I'm talking about a general strike and civil disobedience directed against the federal government, until such time as Dear Leader and his junta are removed from power.

We're not there yet, but we are slipping closer to the edge — because Republicans are putting party over country.

Something has been fueling the FBI investigation. Every belated admission of wrongdoing, every grudging recusal (after enormous public pressure), demonstrates that Dear Leader and his closest associates are hiding dirty dealings. Firing Comey was as public a sign as possible that Dear Leader is deeply worried, worried enough to pull a dictator's stunt — yet confident enough that he'll have political cover. So far, he's right on the latter score.

Trump is dirty, but we don't know how dirty. Every day that we continue not knowing what that dirt is, is a slap in the face of the public and an erosion of the promise of the Constitution. He and his authoritarian disregard for everyone but himself are the gravest threat our country has faced in over four decades.

How long are we going to let Republicans in Congress cover for him?

How long are we going to let them hold their damned party unity more sacred than their oath of office:

I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion, and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.
Your oath is to the Constitution, ladies and gentlemen, not to your party or the President.

Think about that oath, and whether you're truly keeping faith with it.

Think about which you love more: your party, or your country.

We're all waiting. And we will remember what you decide.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Scott Baio doesn't get the outrage

Scott Baio has gotten fiercely criticized for remarks he made about Erin Moran shortly after her death. Here's what he said in a Monday morning interview, before the coroner had determined a cause of death:
“I’m OK, a little shocked but not completely shocked that this happened,” he said on the show. “My thing is, I feel bad because her whole life, she was troubled, could never find what made her happy and content. For me, you do drugs or drink, you’re gonna die. I’m sorry if that’s cold, but God gave you a brain, gave you the will to live and thrive and you gotta take care of yourself.”
Later, after the coroner asserted that Moran had cancer and that likely caused her death, Baio said he hadn't known about her cancer. He thought the furor over his comments was rooted in his somehow having blamed her death on drugs or alcohol.
Now it seems every news outlet & tabloid wants to paint a different picture of me and of what really happened. They’re stating that I’m saying drugs caused her to die after it was reported stage 4 cancer. This is so wrong! Now I truly understand the meaning of ‘Fake News’. This is crazy.”
I don't know what "every news outlet & tabloid" is saying, but I know what I felt when I saw his original remarks. I felt like he was a judgmental cretin.

It was moralistic and judgmental for Baio to use her death as an excuse to sermonize about drugs and alcohol. Even if she had died from abusing a controlled substance, it would have been morally wrong to make hay for his pet cause over her not-yet-cold body. That's why he got heat, not because he guessed wrong.

I'm trying hard not to conflate Baio's enthusiasm for Trump with his discourtesy in this incident, but it's hard not to think that a certain contempt for those less fortunate than him underlies both.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Stop with the 11 September references, Donnie

Donald Trump boasted of getting better TV ratings than the attacks on the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001.

I didn't believe it until I found the original piece. He touted the ratings for his appearances on the Sunday talk shows.

He highlighted Chris Wallace's Fox News show. "It had 9.2 million people. It's the highest they've ever had. On any, on air, John Dickerson had 5.2 million people," he said.

"It's the highest for 'Face the Nation' or as I call it, 'Deface the Nation'. It's the highest for 'Deface the Nation' since the World Trade Center. Since the World Trade Center came down. It's a tremendous advantage."

Here's another set of numbers for you, Donnie: 2,996. That's how many people died in the World Trade Center attacks. Over 6,000 others were injured.

And to you this all boils down to fucking TV ratings?

I know you have scant respect for anyone else (literally — not a single other person in creation matters to you), but ... wow. Just ... wow.

Jesus H. Christ, Donnie, do you have no fucking sense of decency?

Are you such a pustule that you see that tragedy as a fucking entertainment spectacle?

Don't bother straining your tiny, tiny brain to answer.

Just shut the fuck up, you fucking abcess.

Just SHUT ... THE ... FUCK ... UP.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Doubt, not science, is under assault

I was going to join the local March for Science today, but found myself battling a spring cold. Perhaps it's just as well, because the March for Science is kind of ludicrous if you stop to think about it.

Yes, a number of politicians, mostly but not exclusively Republicans, proudly sneer at scientific expertise and wear their contempt for science as a badge of honor. But a march is supposed to show people how much popular support a cause has, and I regret to say that my feeling is that science as a profession doesn't have a lot of support today.

Why not?

I think science and scientists have run afoul of a broader trend: the impatience and intolerance a lot of people have for doubt, or uncertainty.

We don't know where human society is heading. Wars are breeding refugees whose care is straining the ability of neighboring regions to absorb them. Global capitalism has displaced jobs for millions, rendering them near-refugees in their own countries, while governments seem to have reached the limits of the support they can provide. Cultural norms are being threatened as hitherto-marginalized minorities are demanding equitable treatment under the law. Influential pundits are portraying terrorism and loss of status as existential threats to their audiences. Other pundits, perhaps with greater reason but no less emotion, tell their audiences that climate change, resource scarcity and unmitigated pollution threaten our lives.

People simply feel overwhelmed by the uncertainty they face in their everyday lives. For many, the stress is intolerable. With their backs seemingly against the wall, they clamor for answers. They are ready to embrace anyone who says he or she has answers and the will to do what is necessary. They look to the certainties of the past for salvation. And they either don't have the ability or the patience to tolerate doubt: doubt, after all, either conveys uncertainty (the enemy of decisive action) or the possibility of error (the enemy of received wisdom, one of the crucial pillars for troubled people in turbulent times).

Genuine scientific inquiry, of course, always includes doubt. Measurements always come with margins of error. Theories are always subject to modification or replacement as new information comes to light or as better interpretations are found. Worst of all, it's rare that a single study or finding results in The Answer: just look at the whipsawing back and forth over the last few decades on what constitutes a healthy diet.

If politicians can make hay by ignoring and denigrating science (and they can, spectacularly), it's because millions can't abide its caution and care. Scientists aren't wrong by conducting their work with the caution they do. They are, however, thoroughly mistaken if they assume that merely saying "You should believe us!" in a march or on TV shows will address the forces operating against their profession. What scientists need to do is to make the public more comfortable with, and accepting of, doubt — if that's possible.

Otherwise they might just have to adopt the same resignation their doubters have, and buckle down for a turbulent ride.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Do you guys actually talk to each other?

Last week, we heard the U.S. was sending the U.S.S. Carl Vinson and its escorts to the Sea of Japan. Everybody assumed this was both a response to North Korea's aggressive rhetoric concerning its nuclear weapons program, and in anticipation of what was suspected would be an underground nuclear test, a show of strength to the world commemorating Kim il-Sung's birthday.

Turns out most of us were wrong on multiple counts. North Korea in fact tried to conduct a missile test (the missile blew up almost immediately after launch), and hasn't conducted another nuclear detonation (so far). What was really surprising, though, was that the Carl Vinson strike force wasn't racing for the Sea of Japan; in fact, it was heading for long-scheduled "joint exercises with the Australian Navy in the Indian Ocean, 3,500 miles southwest of the Korean Peninsula".

How did we — and by "we", I mean the whole world outside of the Carl Vinson strike force — get the idea that the carrier group was off to waters near North Korea?

It might have been due to the statements from Sean Spicer, the White House spokesperson; James Mattis, the Secretary of Defense; and H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser. Oh, and something Dear Leader Donnie himself said: "We're sending an armada".

Administration statements that turn out to be at odds with reality are nothing new. Nevertheless, every time one is issued, the question must be asked, "Did they lie, or are they clueless?"

The Times piece suggests that the Defense Department screwed up.

White House officials said Tuesday that they had been relying on guidance from the Defense Department. Officials there described a glitch-ridden sequence of events, from an ill-timed announcement of the deployment by the military’s Pacific Command to a partially erroneous explanation by the defense secretary, Jim Mattis — all of which perpetuated the false narrative that a flotilla was racing toward the waters off North Korea.
In spite of the smoke coming from numerous suspected misdeeds by this Administration, I'm prepared to believe that the Administration didn't intend to mislead or lie to us. Yet that doesn't comfort me.

Even if you like this President's oft-asserted intention not to telegraph his moves, you want the head fakes to be intentional, not accidental twitches. The Commander-in-Chief has a responsibility not to blunder the nation into conflict. And any way you cut it, this was a blunder of rather scary proportions, even if conflict didn't materialize as a result (or hasn't materialized, yet).

Suppose the Administration decided a deterrent action was needed. Presumably one or more of the national security adviser, the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs gave the President the available options. He chose to send the Carl Vinson and its strike group. The President, the national security adviser, the Secretary of Defense and the White House spokesperson all assumed the strike group was on its way pursuant to the President's decision. That, however, wasn't the case. Why didn't the Navy get the message? Wasn't the Commander-in-Chief's order relayed?

Consider a different scenario. Again, the Administration decided deterrent action was needed, but in the consideration of options, someone — the Secretary of Defense and/or the Joint Chiefs are the obvious candidates — mentioned that the Carl Vinson strike group would be available. Whoever brought this up either forgot to mention the exercises with the Australians, or assumed the President and his advisers knew that the strike group wouldn't be available until after those exercises. Who failed to ensure the Administration understood what would happen, and when it would happen?

A third possibility is, the Administration wanted to take action but hadn't had a chance to consider the options. Somebody (and in this scenario I have no idea who) heard the Carl Vinson strike group was steaming in the Pacific, perhaps even that it was headed toward North Korea or the Sea of Japan. (I haven't followed the Carl Vinson's movements so I have no idea where it was when it started for the joint exercises. Was it headed west from Hawaii or south from Japan, for instance? I wish I knew.) The Administration assumed the carrier's movement was in response to somebody's order — either the President's, or, in the case of the President himself, the Secretary of Defense's or the chairman of the Joint Chiefs' or perhaps just a suitably aggressive strike force commander's. (I don't pretend to know what might be going through our Dear Leader's head, but by now I'm ready to let my imagination run wild.) In this case, each man who isn't President probably sighed and assumed he'd been left out of some decision loop (again) involving, well, not him. The President — well, maybe he assumed Jared anticipated his needs.

(A fourth option is that the Administration hadn't thought about taking deterrent action, but once somebody found out the Carl Vinson was steaming, the Oval Office thought it was a great idea to tell the world the carrier was sending a message to North Korea. This scenario is so shambolic and inept, I'd prefer not to consider it.)

Any way you cut it, what we have here is a failure to communicate. And it's not funny. It's scary. How much confidence can we have that when we really need it, the U.S. military will be fully under the control of this Administration? I was worried Dear Leader would aggressively lead us into armed conflict, but now I'm worried he will be completely useless in a crisis that actually requires military action. It doesn't have to be a war, either. If the Navy needs to provide humanitarian aid (and under Dear Leader I assume it'll be someplace along the U.S. coastline, not elsewhere in the world), will this Administration have its lines of communication sufficiently unscrambled to get the deed done?

It's not just lines of communication with (or within) the military, either. Duhbya was rightly criticized for botching the response to Hurricane Katrina, due in part to having the hapless neophyte Michael D. Brown in charge of FEMA. Does Dear Leader know how to get FEMA moving if need be? Does he even know what FEMA is and what it does?

Duhbya's screwup (again, rightly) was seen as proof that if you have contempt for government, you cannot govern competently. Dear Leader has at least as much contempt for the functions and agencies of government as Duhbya did, and Dear Leader clearly has failed to get even the military to march in step with him. Is it his fault? The military's? The DoD's? I don't know, and neither do you. Worse, I suspect Donald Trump doesn't know, either.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Giving tradition a bad name

Garrett Epps in The Atlantic bids "Good Riddance to the Filibuster", referring to the Republican majority's decision to abolish the 60-vote minimum needed to end debate ("invoke cloture") on a Supreme Court nominee, and to proceed to a full vote of the Senate. Epps argues that the filibuster has perpetuated bad conditions like separate-but-equal by allowing a determined minority of Senators to obstruct justice for minorities who aren't Senators.
I remember as if it were yesterday those spring months when 18 old white racists in white suits stood in the doorway through which the South, white and black, needed to pass to attain full membership in the American family. Over and over they proclaimed, in the immortal words of George Wallace, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”
You can certainly envision nobler uses for the filibuster, but ultimately it's a tool of obstruction rather than construction. In our current political environment, where statesmen are not to be found, it's a tool that casts aspersions on those who employ it.

In much more local news, a school board needs to decide whether Napa High School should change its mascot, the "Indians". In its report on the controversy, KTVU included remarks from those who want to preserve the mascot. The argument they make is that the mascot has been around for over a century and it would somehow harm, or perhaps disrespect, alumni of the school to make the change. Meanwhile, Native Americans argue that the mascot dehumanizes them by reducing them to a caricature.

The ditch-the-mascot movement, I understand. The stick-with-it side? Not so much.

"If you take away the mascot, you might as well take away the name 'Napa High'," implored one parent.
What does that even mean? I truly do not understand the sentiment here.

In both the filibuster and mascot cases, change has been resisted because of "tradition", the idea that because things have been a certain way for a long time, somehow that hallows those things.

I respect the conservative impulse. We shouldn't follow all the wild impulses that occur to us: there's wisdom in not throwing over everything that has been for shiny newness.

However, I very much doubt that George Wallace or his Senatorial sympathizers made a cogent argument for preserving segregation that didn't come down to, "Those nigras don't belong anywhere near us!"

Those protesting the mascot change didn't use such language. However, they were short on rational reasons to keep the current mascot. They resorted pretty much exclusively to nostalgia, to an appeal to preserve tradition. And really, what other argument could they muster? Even if they believed it was acceptable to treat Native Americans with less regard than, say, African Americans, they wouldn't say so with a TV camera present.

(One "Indians" supporter argued that the harm to Native Americans had been done and nothing we could do today would change that. He is grossly mistaken that the harm is "done": the offensiveness of being reduced to a literal caricature is ongoing.)

But in both cases, citing "tradition" as the reason to resist change just gives tradition a bad name.

Traditions bind us; they give life meaning. But you sometimes have to take a step back and ask, is what you're preserving of such worth that it justifies exploiting or degrading others?

The change to the filibuster is contentious and we likely won't arrive at a consensus in my lifetime. The mascot is a different matter.

Changing the Napa High mascot will not change the school's athletic records. It will not change or diminish individual students' achievements. It will not alter or eliminate people's memories of their time as students. The pride students and alumni take in the school is rooted in their accomplishments, not the mascot.

So, anti-change Napa High alums, I ask you: what harm is it going to do to you if the school changes its mascot?

Can you not, for just a moment, put yourself in the shoes of Native Americans, and understand, however imperfectly, how it feels to be associated with a grotesquely reductionist caricature that crowds out the reality of who you are?

Can you not get beyond your desire to keep things as they are, and recognize that changing the mascot will be a small but positive step toward reducing ignorance of, and prejudice toward, Native Americans?

Isn't that worth overturning tradition?

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Silencing the arts

Eve L. Ewing penned an op-ed piece in the New York Times that convincingly laid out the real danger behind defunding the National Endowment for the Arts, which Dear Leader has proposed doing in his budget:
Much like the disappearance of data from government websites and the exclusion of critical reporters from White House briefings, this move signals something broader and more threatening than the inability of one group of people to do their work. It’s about control. It’s about creating a society where propaganda reigns and dissent is silenced.
Dear Leader and his advisors don't like critical voices. Dear Leader wants to drown them out, as he repeatedly showed during his campaign. He has a thin skin and absolutely no respect for those who disagree with him. But it's our government, not his.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Mitch, you're going to hell

That would be Senate Majority Leader, world-class hypocrite and first-class asshole, Mitch McConnell, who said:
“How that happens really depends on our Democratic friends, how many of them are willing to oppose cloture on a partisan basis to kill a Supreme Court nominee — never happened before in history, the whole history of the country.”
"That" would be a vote on whether to end debate over the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. By longstanding Senate rules, 60 votes are needed to end debate. Republicans can only provide 52 of those votes.

I'm not wild about Judge Gorsuch's philosophy and attitude toward many issues, but I have no objection to him as a nominee. He's not insane, which at this point is refreshing for someone nominated by Trump.

The problem surrounding Gorsuch's nomination has nothing to do with him. Rather, it has everything to do with the unethical and outright despicable stonewalling by Senate Republicans in 2016. After Antonin Scalia's death in February 2016, Senate Republicans, led by McConnell, flatly refused even to give President Obama's nominee, Merrick Garland, a hearing. They had the gall to claim that eleven months was "too near" to the end of Obama's term for him to be able to appoint another Justice.

Bullshit, ladies and gentlemen. Bullshit. That's what you tried to make us swallow. And you didn't care that we knew it was bullshit, because you also knew that in the end, the country — the people who rely on you to do your fucking jobs, whether or not we voted for you — had no legal recourse.

World's greatest deliberative body, my ass!

Every single Republican Senator who didn't spit in Mitch McConnell's eye and call him out as the despicable opportunist he is, deserves the same opprobrium he does.

McConnell himself deserves debilitating, humiliating, long-term and terminal sickness for sacrificing the people's business on the altar of his political gamesmanship. He saw his duty, and denied it, and had the gall to protest that that wasn't what he was doing. Not only is he nakedly and witlessly partisan, he's a liar and coward, to boot.

Now he has the gall to chide Democrats for considering action that has never before been taken? After he presided over the first flat refusal of the Senate to do its goddamned duty of advising and consenting to the President's nominees?

At one time, country came before party. Not any more. And we can thank Mitch McConnell for that debasement.

Fuck you, Mitch. You are a despicable, small-souled man and have disgraced the legislative body you lead.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Reality leaves Trump unfazed

In the last post I characterized the failure of TrumpCare v. 1 as "Trump's brush with reality".

Evidently reality has made no impression on our Dear Leader.

After the bill was pulled from the House floor, Donnie tweeted reassurance to his followers:

“ObamaCare will explode and we will all get together and piece together a great healthcare plan for THE PEOPLE. Do not worry!”
Well all right, then. Let the celebrating begin!

Of course, if you stop to think for a moment, you might wonder: if it's possible "to piece together" such a plan, why the hell do we have to wait for the Affordable Care Act to fail? Why wasn't TrumpCare v. 1 the "great healthcare plan for THE PEOPLE" that Dear Leader assures his followers is coming?

Look, Republicans had the best opportunity they've ever had to destroy the Affordable Care Act. By 2014, House Republicans had voted 54 times "to undo, update [or] to change it". Didn't any of those Republicans think about what they'd do if the stars aligned and they actually got the chance?

If they did, they didn't share their thoughts with one another. What we saw in the House was an absolute absence of a shared vision for health care. What we saw was Paul Ryan and Dear Leader being sandbagged by their fellow Republicans' fractious views of how Americans should pay for health care, and what kind of care (if any) should be required (or forbidden).

Those fractious views, it should be noted, mirror the fractious views of those Republican representatives' constituents, who want world-class care, but think world-class care is just too damned expensive. Up goes the cry: square that circle, Congresscritters!

With that backdrop, what makes Donnie so optimistic that a kick-ass health care plan is just around the corner, once the ACA goes belly-up?

Well, like I said: evidently, reality has made no impression on him.