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.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Trump's brush with reality

So: TrumpCare v. 1, aka the grandly named "American Health Care Act", has been pulled from consideration, with no immediate plan to bring it back. The legislation couldn't attract enough votes from House Republicans no matter how its language was modified. (Even if it had passed the House, it faced a tough time in the Senate.)

Who can sum up this moment? Maybe this fellow, from back in February:

President Donald Trump on Monday [27 February 2017] claimed that “nobody knew that health care could be so complicated” ...
Mm, yes, "nobody knew" — except for those pesky members of Congress who fought tooth and nail in 2009 over what became known as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, aka "Obamacare". (Mr. Obama and his administration knew how complicated the subject was, too.)

Speaking of fighting, how's our Dear Leader doing after this first legislative fight of his administration?

Mr. Trump expressed weariness with the effort, though its failure took a fraction of the time that Democrats devoted to enacting the Affordable Care Act in 2009 and 2010. “It’s enough already,” the president said.
Tired already, Don? But you're "the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency”! Your "strength and physical stamina are extraordinary”! How can you have had enough already?

Your base is waiting for you to revamp the tax code and build that wall, among other things, Donnie. Better start popping some vitamins.

I suspect you're going to proclaim that "nobody knew" those things were so complicated, too, before those legislative fights are over. (And again, you'll be wrong. Oh well.)

The reality is that governance is hard work and details matter. (As most of us would say: "Duh!")

Reality sucks, doesn't it, Donnie?

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Coping with the Trump threat

In an earlier post I wondered how serious a threat Dear Leader's hostility to dissent and contempt for social and political norms posed to the country.

Now the question is: if he's as big a threat as I (we) fear, what the hell do we do?

As I mentioned in that earlier post, it's possible the fate of the nation will rest in the individual consciences of the thousands of rank-and-file employees of the executive branch, including many peace officers. Will they resist illegal orders? Will they decide their duty to their country outweighs their duty to their current boss?

I don't know. And I'm not sure it's such a hot idea to leave our fate in so few hands anyway.

If the nation's future hangs by the fragile thread of the consciences of rank-and-file agents, lawyers, clerks, etc., in various federal bureaus and agencies, the nation's fabric will have been irretrievably compromised by Dear Leader and his cronies.

At that point, the citizenry as a whole will have to reassert the primacy of custom, comity and, above all, the rule of law in our national governance.

We will have to rediscover our values and our honor.

That will be a challenge none of us has ever faced. Meeting it may take drastic measures, the likes of which have never been needed in this country.

To be clear, I'm not talking about armed revolt. That's the kind of response Dear Leader is prepared for; he will rally the law enforcement machinery around him because law enforcement doesn't like armed insurrection no matter how bad the political situation is. (Knowing Dear Leader, he will try to rope in the armed services to help out, too.)

No, 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.

I have a tiny, ineradicable sliver of hope that Dear Leader and Steve Bannon and DL's other hangers-on aren't the junta suggested by their behavior to date. Why do I have hope? Because our nation has never elected a tin-pot dictator before. However, "We haven't screwed up so far!" is a poor reason for optimism. So start wrapping your mind around the possible need to do the hitherto unthinkable.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The real "Next Generation"

I finally saw Star Trek Beyond the other day. This isn't a review, though.

At the end of Beyond, Zachary Quinto's Spock finds an image of the original, or "prime", Trek crew among Spock Prime's belongings. What the moviemakers intended the moment to mean is unclear. For Quinto's Spock it could be a bit of inspiration, knowing he and his shipmates could have a long, eventful life together. It could also be simply another way of tugging at the audience's heartstrings, reminding us of the crew (characters and actors) who started it all.

For me, the moment brought to mind, unbidden, maybe the most poignant scene in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Relics". Scotty has been chatting with Picard amid a re-creation of the bridge of the original Enterprise. Abruptly Scotty realizes he's trying to return to a past he can never recapture. "I don't belong on your ship. I belong on this one."

That's how I felt when I saw that image of Nimoy, Shatner, et al., in Quinto's hands. As much as I've enjoyed some of this new crew's adventures, they're not my crew. I belong on Kirk-Prime's Enterprise, not this shiny new one.

Monday, March 6, 2017

The best advice for coping with Trump

The advice comes from David Letterman:
... Trump’s the president and he can lie about anything from the time he wakes up to what he has for lunch and he’s still the president. I don’t get that. I’m tired of people being bewildered about everything he says: “I can't believe he said that.” We gotta stop that and instead figure out ways to protect ourselves from him. We know he’s crazy. We gotta take care of ourselves here now.
Letterman's right: we have to take care of ourselves and protect ourselves from him.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Please stop saying "Orientals"

I'm trying to be nicer about correcting people here.

In that spirit, let me say that I'm going to give Rep. Mike Bost (R-IL) the benefit of the doubt, and assume he simply didn't know better when he used the term "Orientals".

So Rep. Bost, for future reference: please stop saying "Orientals". Or "Oriental", for that matter.

If you're curious why, consult Wikipedia.

I hope you'll take this request in the mild spirit in which it's intended.

However, if you think you're being browbeaten, I hope you'll stop and consider a different perspective.

You may not think it's a big deal, that those of us who object are too sensitive. But you're not the one who has to cope with all the baggage that that term carries. And is it that big a deal for you to honor what is, after all, not that onerous a request?

Some might be inclined to belittle this request as mere political correctness run amok. To them I would reply that "political correctness" is a term seemingly used only by those uninterested in the principle at its heart: civility — common courtesy.

Finally, Rep. Bost, I'm sympathetic to your point that being yelled at in a town hall, without being able to engage in a real discussion with your constituents, is a waste of your time. I hope, though, that you recognize that some of those constituents really do have concerns about Congress' priorities. Give those concerns due consideration.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

How serious is the Trump threat?

I remember the furor over Dick Cheney's secretive machinations during Duhbya's presidency. The VP was the consummate power behind the throne, a man almost ludicrously easy to caricature as a venomous spider whose web enmeshed his nominal boss. I also remember Karl Rove casting a similarly malevolent shadow over the country: his contempt for mere facts bespoke a fearsome confidence in his ability to fool (or whip up) enough of the people, enough of the time. In my darkest moments, I was convinced either Cheney or Rove was ready to throw over the Constitution in favor of retaining power for himself (via the easily manipulated Duhbya).

I think no more fondly of either man today. However, I must admit that as clear and present dangers, they came nowhere near the obscenely public heights our new Dear Leader has scaled in just his first two weeks.

Consider the firing of acting Attorney General Sally Yates. She issued a statement expressing her serious doubts as to the lawfulness of Dear Leader's executive order banning the citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the U.S., an order she (rightly) interpreted as the closest Dear Leader could get to the outright "Muslim ban" he promised during the campaign. (The closest for now, anyway).

Dear Leader claims his staff ran the idea past other DOJ lawyers and got an "okay", but as Yates pointed out, Dear Leader didn't let those lawyers consider the context surrounding the order, including Donnie's own statements during the campaign.

If you or I expressed doubts about the order's legality, Dear Leader could brush off our objections. I, for one, am not a lawyer, and even if you are, you're not paid to advise him.

The Attorney General, on the other hand, is the person that the entire country pays to have an opinion on such a weighty matter. A President doesn't have to agree with his AG, but if he gives a shit about maintaining a lawful regime — if he gives a shit about even looking like he's maintaining a lawful regime — he can't brush the AG off.

Yet that's what Dear Leader did. His argument? Essentially, "It's my way or the highway — oh, and you're a partisan hack who wants to keep the country defenseless".

"No president should put up with insubordination." That's the argument Sean Spicer and Dear Leader's other surrogates have been making since DL took power. At first blush, that's a reasonable position. But is it insubordination for a member of the executive branch to say, "Whoa, these marching orders are hopelessly ill-defined and possibly illegal; please, let's talk about them", as Yates did? Or is that the oft-maligned bureaucracy actually justifying its existence by trying to prevent the president from making an ass of himself — or worse, committing impeachable offenses?

Even Dear Leader has to admit that the order was so ill-conceived and so badly drawn up that its enactment fomented chaos nationwide. (One plausible argument making the rounds is that the chaos was intentional.) Yates' objections were well-founded and her statements were intended to prevent the DOJ from being put in an intolerable bind. Thus the insubordination argument doesn't hold water: she wasn't bucking Dear Leader to spite him, she was fulfilling her Constitutional responsibility to uphold the law. Yet Dear Leader casually dismissed her as a rebellious troublemaker, and shortly afterward just as casually dismissed her from her job.

So let there be no doubt: Donnie doesn't brook dissent in the ranks. Nobody in his administration is going to be curbing his impulses. Only Congress and the courts can keep him from doing what he wants.

Or can they?

Congress is basically irrelevant to this discussion. Unless it votes to defund Dear Leader's priorities, a highly unlikely occurrence absent every Republican member suffering major head trauma, our legislature is not going to stand in Dear Leader's way. Some of these people, remember, have firsthand experience going up against Dear Leader politically — and losing.

The courts, on the other hand, are less vulnerable to naked political considerations, and constitutionally speaking they have the final say as to whether Dear Leader's orders and measures are lawful. Indeed, the Supreme Court's authority to declare something lawful (or not) is the final word in our system.

Except ... the courts have no actual means of enforcement. (Nor does Congress, for that matter.) To enforce the law, we have law enforcement, and at the federal level, who controls law enforcement? The executive branch — that is, Dear Leader. Really, the federal courts rely on presidential administrations to be voluntarily law-abiding, and to date, most have been. The most glaring exception was Richard Nixon's administration, and it scared the whole country for a time. In the end, only Nixon's old-school respect for the norms of political office (i.e., "if Congress impeaches you, you're cooked") defused what otherwise came perilously close to being a Constitutional crisis.

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?

And if he held himself and his administration above and beyond the law, who would rein him in?

Would we have to hope that his illegal orders were defied by the personnel tasked with carrying them out?

Would the rule of law depend on the individual consciences of thousands of executive-branch employees, including peace officers at a myriad of agencies?

One current hypothesis making the rounds is that Dear Leader, aided and abetted by his personal Rasputin, Steve Bannon, is undertaking a slow-motion, low-profile coup. If true, it reminds me — and forgive me for going to this place so early in Donnie's term — of Hitler's maneuvering to seize total power in 1932-33. He gained the Chancellorship within the letter of contemporary German law, but immediately thereafter, he used his power to make drastic changes in that law to ensure his own position would be strengthened beyond challenge.

Is that Donnie and Steve's game plan?

How dark are the shadows that Dear Leader and his cronies are casting?

How serious is the threat Trump poses to our way of life?

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Listen to Killer Mike

Seriously, listen to the man. What I've been trying to say in way too many words, Killer Mike put succinctly:
“No matter who won, the day after tomorrow, this is our motherfucking country,” he continued. “Who gives a fuck who is president? And what we will build or keep this republic going on is truth, honesty, integrity, love and democracy.”
He also advised white liberals, who perhaps more than anyone are responsible for the disaffection that fueled Donnie's electoral win,
“Go outside of your white liberal, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant circle,” he said. “Go find other people and become a part of movements that you don’t lead. Go become a part of movements in which you have to learn from the people who have endured this ― since Reagan, since Nixon ― and you will start to see what they have had to do to thrive and survive. And you guys will learn and you guys will devise strategies together.”
Words of wisdom.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Not excusing Trump talk

By "not excusing Trump talk" I don't mean we mustn't excuse the casual hatred and bigotry that drips so easily from him. That's a given.

No, I'm responding to John McWhorter's opinion piece in the New York Times' Sunday Review.

McWhorter argues that there's a distinction between "talking" and "speaking". While other politicians speak, that is, they use formal language, Trump only knows how to talk — to put his thoughts into the more casual language we all use in ordinary conversation. It was only a matter of time before we increasingly informal Americans elected somebody who, like Trump, doesn't speak, but only talks. (George W. Bush similarly was a talker by nature rather than a speaker, but McWhorter notes that "Mr. Bush, however, always gave the impression of at least trying to 'speak' rather than 'talk'".)

The distinction between speaking and talking is all well and good. However, McWhorter continues:

... President Trump’s speaking style is throwing off the news media. All understand that his speech is structurally ungraceful. It may be harder to grasp that Mr. Trump, as someone just talking rather than artfully communicating ideas, has no sense of the tacit understanding that a politician’s utterances are more signals than statements, vehicles meant to convey larger messages.
This is not quite true. Politicians' utterances can and often do contain "dog whistle" subtexts that their fans are trained to hear, or at least assume they hear. However, we also hold politicians accountable for the very specific things they say, on the assumption that they wouldn't be saying it if they didn't mean it. This is considered by some to be nit-picking, but we do nit-pick, especially when it's somebody we don't like.

However, McWhorter really goes off the rails when he writes:

... the reporter and the pundit assume that Mr. Trump is “speaking” rather than talking. “What did Trump mean by that?” they say, scratching their heads. A Trump aide retorts, “The tweet speaks for itself.” That sounds trivial or deflective, until we understand that it makes perfect sense for someone who is just talking.
As a description of what's happening, this is true: most of us are puzzled not just by Trump's original tweets, but also by his staff's retorts that those tweets speak for themselves. Perhaps, too, it does make "perfect sense for someone who is just talking". But McWhorter is totally missing the point.

To explain that Trump is talking rather than speaking doesn't change the fact that we need to know what the hell he's saying.

It's one thing for me to talk casually among my friends. We share a lot of experiences and past conversations, and if they need me to explain myself they can just ask. Moreover, for the most part, if they don't understand me, it doesn't matter all that much. Nothing I do is going to loom all that large in their lives — or if it might, they'll pin me down until they understand exactly what I mean.

A public official isn't a close friend to most of the people to whom he or she will speak. A public official, speaking in his or her official capacity, has to be understood. That's part of the job.

I don't give a shit that Trump is more comfortable talking rather than speaking. If he's going to say something as President, it's his fucking responsibility to be clear. It's part of his fucking job.

McWhorter concludes:

Linguistically, I listen to the man who is now president as if he were roughly 12 years old. That way, he is always perfectly understandable.
That's a nice dismissal of the new president. It's a sentiment I understand. But it also lets him off the hook. He wanted the job and I'm damned well going to hold his feet to the fire. If he can't be bothered to speak rather than talk, let his feet scorch.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Be resolute

One of the smarter pundits around, Josh Marshall, put into words a sentiment that has been percolating, wordlessly, in my head for a month or two: "The Case for Not Being Crybabies".

Donnie is President. A majority of us didn't want that to happen, and we're frankly aghast at the appalling reality of it. But it's more than past time to get over it — not in sad resignation, but in calm determination to contain the damage.

Marshall's piece addresses his fellow journalists, who, as I've complained before, have done an embarrassingly bad job of handling Donnie by letting him handle them. He bluntly reminds them:

We know Trump's MO. He will bully people until they're cowed and humiliated and obedient. He'll threaten to kick the reporters out of the White House and then either cut a 'deal' or make some big to-do about 'allowing' the reporters to stay. These are all threats and mind games meant not so much to cow the press as make them think Trump is continually taking things away from them and that they need to make him stop.
But all the brouhaha about "access" profoundly misses what journalism is all about and what journalists are supposed to be doing.
That access isn't necessary to do their jobs. And bargaining over baubles of access which are of little consequence is not compatible with doing their job. Access can provide insight and understanding. But it's almost never where the good stuff comes from. Journalists unearth factual information and report it. If Trump wants to turn America into strong man state, journalists should cover that story rather than begging Trump not to be who he is.
Marshall speaks for me when he writes:
I've been surprised at the extent to which right-thinking people are all but threatening themselves with what Trump might do to, collapsing into their own sense of powerlessness.
For the press, the remedy is simple:
Trump wants to bully the press and profit off the presidency. He's told us this clearly in his own words. We need to accept the reality of both. The press should cover him on that basis, as a coward and a crook. The big corporate media organizations may not be able to use those words, I understand, but they should employ that prism. ... Trump is a punk and a bully. People who don't surrender up their dignity to him unhinge him.
That's smart advice not just for journalists, but the rest of us.

Don't surrender your dignity. Don't let Donnie goad you into forgetting who you are.

Keep your eye on what matters: "Ignore everything Donnie says. Pay attention solely to his deeds." And don't let him distract you. As I wrote more recently, "Work toward a better future in spite of him".

Most of all, be resolute. We are going to have a rough time of things on the political front for a long time. We already have a hostile administration and Congress; we are going to have a hostile Supreme Court majority as soon as Donnie and the Senate act. A lot of bad governmental actions and inaction are coming down the pike. We can (and should) decry these things and work to change them, but we have to keep our spirits and our strength up to do so. We know how to live with integrity and honor and decency. Don't let Donnie and the troubles these times will bring change our hearts. We are better than him and the worst impulses of his followers.

So are a lot of his followers, too: don't forget that. They are our neighbors. To change the country, we have to reach out to them. We must see their humanity, and help them to see ours. Then we have to learn how to talk to each other again. That is the great challenge of our time. We're never going to have functional electoral politics until we find common ground on which to call ourselves "Americans".

Be resolute in the face of trouble. We're going to get through this.