Friday, November 10, 2017

Where harassment is concerned, take nothing for granted

The New York Times finally ran the piece I'd been expecting somebody to run: "Men at Work Wonder if They Overstepped with Women, Too".

If there's one thing any man who claims to be aware of the possibility of sexual harassment in the workplace should know, it's that even the wokest man needs to do a gut check periodically.

We all fall into behavioral ruts and stop paying attention to how we're acting when we're comfortable. That's not a bad thing: to be on eggshells all the time would drive us insane. But it's precisely when we're comfortable, when we think all's right in our little corner of the world, that we can fail to see that something's wrong.

We don't see it because we're comfortable and we assume all's well. And that's the problem.

After quoting a number of men who wonder if they are behaving appropriately, or might have behaved badly in the past without knowing it, the piece pivots to men who aren't worried. One company founder queried his female employees:

“I came into the office and said, ‘Hey, guys, I’ve got a question for you: This sexual harassment stuff, all these things, do you guys ever worry it’s going to happen here?’” Mr. Lencioni, 52, recalled. “And they were like: ‘No, because we know you. We know who you are.’”
Maybe the women in that office were being perfectly truthful. However, if men should have learned anything from the recent spate of harassment stories coming to light, it's that the harassed party often doesn't feel that he or she can afford to speak up: the power dynamics of the work environment make them fear for their jobs and even livelihoods. The higher up the man who's asking is, the more likely people will think they need to tell him what he wants to hear.
Other men said they had not talked about workplace harassment with anyone because they already knew what they needed to know. “This is a liberal town,” said Philip Rontell, a real estate agent in Walnut Creek, Calif., who added that he supported the #MeToo campaign. “We all already know this stuff.”
No offense to Mr. Rontell but that is possibly the dumbest attitude one can have. If as a man you think you already know everything you need to know about harassment, you are part of the problem.

The number of reports of harassment by high-profile men in different vocations is only the tip of the iceberg: I'm certain of that. That kind of behavior afflicts high-status men because to an extent every man has enhanced status in this culture. You may think you are despised by the world but if you are male, a woman in the same circumstances has it worse than you do.

Even if you are a paragon of equal-mindedness and proper behavior, you need to be on guard because male privilege is baked into this society's morés.

Businesses need to have systems that allow employees to report harassment, and those systems need to respond promptly and equitably. Yes, it's a giant headache for managment and it's open to abuse — but can you honestly say that not taking proactive steps to discourage harassment is a reasonable response to what we've been seeing these past few months? Indeed, if you consider the Catholic Church's horrific sexual-abuse outrage (made infinitely worse by the Church's attempt to hide it), we've known about institutionally-facilitated abuses for decades.

As a man you don't have to walk on eggshells all the time but you — we — can't afford to be complacent, either. We have a giant blind spot that our culture permits us to ignore too often. That has to end — and the first step, as always, is to admit we have a problem.

Monday, November 6, 2017

The child-man shames us all

Children should be seen and not heard. That was a behavioral edict from my childhood that I, like every child, resented. It was a counterproductive rule, too, as it tended to squelch kids who were wise enough to see that the emperor had no clothes but who were raised to respect their parents.

Still, I wish we could apply that dictate to the child-man in the White House.

I'm not sure which is worse, his instinctive bullying of those he can bully with impunity or his colossal, unfailingly astonishing ignorance. At the moment, I give the edge to the latter following a report in the Japan Times headlined, "Trump said 'samurai' Japan should have shot down overflying North Korean missiles".

U.S. President Donald Trump has said Japan should have shot down the North Korean missiles that flew over the country before landing in the Pacific Ocean earlier this year, diplomatic sources have said, despite the difficulties and potential ramifications of doing so.

...

The U.S. president said he could not understand why a country of samurai warriors did not shoot down the missiles, the sources said.

It's understandable that defense technology wasn't something he followed in his private life as a licenser of his own name and professional foulmouthed braggart, but once he became president defense technology became part of his job. Nobody expects him to repair the systems if they break down but he goddamned well should have checked what those systems could do before shooting off his mouth about them. (News flash for DJT: it ain't easy to shoot down ballistic missiles. Ask anybody who worked on Reagan's "Star Wars" program in the '80s.)

Nor can any of us, as private citizens, be expected to know other cultures intimately, though I think it would serve us well if we did. Again, though, a president has a responsibility to learn enough about them that he doesn't insult them or make asinine assumptions about them. Trump sounds like he thinks Japan is still stuck in its feudal era hundreds of years ago. I wager his idea of Japanese culture comes from Hollywood's warmed-over efforts to depict historical Japan. How else could he have missed Japan's decades-long efforts to renounce (or more accurately, to ignore) the fanatical militarism, not to mention racism, that led it to commit atrocities before and during World War II? How else could he have missed the U.S.'s historic efforts to get that war's aggressors to stand down and embrace pacifism not merely as an ideal but as a core element of their modern national characters?

No country is summed up by its leader: she or he represents only some of that nation's multiple facets. In the case of the U.S., I regret to say that Trump is sadly representative of some of our most woefully ignorant and belligerent citizens.

However, on behalf of the majority of voters who did not choose him in the last election, I offer an apology for our impossibly ignorant, boorish, and reckless chief executive. He is a sadly exemplary distillation of much that is awful in the U.S.-American character: arrogance, boastfulness, hostility to rational thought, xenophobia. His ignorance will result in more ethnic and cultural slurs being uttered before his time on our national and international stage is up.

But I call on you, our fellow humans who live in other nations, to remember that however badly he may slander you, we are subject to his rule.

You might wish we would rise up and overthrow him. Some of us might even wish that, too. That, though, would be a betrayal of our principles of self-rule. In fact, that would be a final act of submission to Trump, who embodies the dead-end principle of strongman rule. We can't let him undo our national character, which was forged in opposition to monomaniacal self-interest and arbitrary rule.

The price of holding fast to our principles of self-rule, however, is endless embarrassment about the child-man who cannot comprehend the job he isn't doing.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Trump and condolences

Trump said something insensitive to the widow of a soldier recently killed in Niger. She also said Trump struggled to remember her husband's name. And Trump has been in a name-calling spat with a Congressional Democrat, Frederica S. Wilson, over not just his initial remarks to the widow but also his subsequent efforts to deny that he said what he said. Even White House chief of staff John Kelly has gotten into the fray, backing his boss and belittling Wilson.

This is a big deal to the family, of course, and I can't blame them (including the soldier's mother, who has also weighed in) for being upset.

However, why the hell are the rest of us following this story?

Trump didn't commit gross malfeasance here. He was simply Trump, a man who doesn't feel empathy — who, by the evidence of a lifetime's worth of stories, doesn't even comprehend it on an intellectual level. And be honest: most of us are not good at consoling even those we know well, and the most skilled and empathetic can drop the ball now and then.

So at a human level, however much you may hate Trump, cut him some slack about the call. You might have stuck your foot in your mouth, too, if you were simultaneously contending with the other demands of the presidency.

His subsequent denial and fight-picking with Wilson are a different matter, of course: he was a whiny idiot for getting into it with her, and Kelly lost a lot of his own patina by joining his boss in the pile-on. Whether you think Wilson behaved appropriately by calling Trump out in the first place, Trump and Kelly have made things worse for the White House.

But again, this is business as usual for Trump the troglodyte. It's a classic distraction from his other woes, a distraction that takes advantage of the halo the country has built up around the military since Reagan's days. Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders even had the gall to say to a reporter, "If you want to go after General Kelly that's up to you but I think that if you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general, I think that's something highly inappropriate".

It's important to know that the White House press secretary has the same contempt for the First Amendment and the role of the press in our republic that her boss does. Nevertheless, again, this is something we already knew: any Trump loyalist is going to parrot his undemocratic sentiments and probably shares his authoritarian instincts at some level.

So, whether or not you believe Rachel Maddow's hypothesis (which some might call a conspiracy theory) that Trump picked this fight to distract from diplomatic missteps in Chad and adjoining West African nations, the fact is that the Trump administration's inflaming of the controversy surrounding this condolence call is a deliberate distraction from bigger issues.

Stop rewarding the media for keeping this story alive.

And media, stop falling for the oldest trick in Trump's playbook. Get your heads out of your asses. Tell us what he doesn't want us to know — what we need to know.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Enough is never enough

I heard a Congressional representative — a Democrat, of course — say "enough is enough", referring to the slaughter in Las Vegas.

Fifty-nine dead and some five hundred injured as of this moment. The worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history. Well, that's what most are saying. I think the Newtown (Sandy Hook) massacre was the worst. More have died in Vegas but the Newtown victims were children.

At any rate: dozens dead, hundreds injured. But is enough, enough?

Well ...

No. It should be but ... no, it isn't. It won't be.

To my mild surprise it was Bill O'Reilly who put his finger on the problem, though it's not so much a problem for him as the whole point. He wrote:

This is the price of freedom. Violent nuts are allowed to roam free until they do damage, no matter how threatening they are.
That precisely sums up the effect of the laissez-faire attitude toward gun ownership espoused by the most zealous gun-rights advocates, including but not limited to the National Rifle Association and its supporters. They will never come right out and say that mass murder is "the price of freedom" (specifically, the freedom to own guns), but it's the logical conclusion of their unrelenting drive to make even the merest discussion of gun control politically impossible.

(Why did BillO blow the secret? Because he has adopted the NRA's fatalistic stance that gun control is futile: "[H]aving covered scores of gun-related crimes over the years, I can tell you that government restrictions will not stop psychopaths from harming people." What he does not say is that those psychopaths would have to work a hell of a lot harder to harm the same number of people if they didn't have access to firearms that can be modified to shoot a lot of bullets in a very short time.)

But back to the salient point: this nation will never say "enough is enough" as long as enough gun owners and gun rights advocates hold fast to the principle that mass killings are an acceptable price for unfettered access to guns.

Gun rights advocates demand that every possible contributing factor to mass shootings be investigated and addressed by legislation — except for gun ownership itself. Gun ownership is not only axiomatically sacrosanct (i.e., you can't ask why gun ownership is an untouchable right), but isn't the root cause of the shootings, gun-rights advocates claim.

That position is no longer credible.

Whenever a mass shooting occurs, the NRA and its allies unfailingly denounce criminals and/or the mentally ill and/or unjust local laws that prevented "good guys" from carrying weapons that could have redressed the balance with the shooter.

Let's see how feasible addressing each of these (putative) alternative factors is.

  • Criminals should not have guns, we're told by the NRA. Well of course not. The trouble is that many of the mass shooters of the 21st century weren't criminals until they committed their mass shooting. The Las Vegas shooter, Stephen Paddock, for instance, had no criminal history.
  • Mental illness of a sufficient degree should disqualify one from possessing a firearm. However, we are nowhere near understanding the mind well enough to make such judgments infallibly. If you argue that the answer to mass shootings is a test that can tell whether a person will ever commit mass murder with a gun, you aren't being serious. You're trying to postpone the discussion indefinitely.
  • Now, about those good guys with guns whom some claim are the solution to mass shootings: how exactly would these good guys, with their presumably street-legal weapons, have stopped Paddock? He was around a thousand feet from his victims, thirty-two stories above them. He had the element of surprise and his victims (and would-be counteraggressors in the crowd) had no shelter. To analyze the situation well enough to figure out the shooter's location would require a person with rare presence of mind and coolness under fire.

    Yet assume that in a crowd as large as the one in Las Vegas, a few such people would have been present. They would have to have brought their weapons with them, the concert's organizers would have to have assented and it would have to be publicly known that audience members could be carrying.

    • Would you feel comfortable attending an event where an unknown number of your fellow eventgoers were armed?
    • What if they were drinking or imbibing other controlled substances? Could the organizers require total sobriety as a condition of carrying within paid areas?
    • Would you be comfortable assuming, as you would have to, that all those armed attendees were genuine good guys, rather than bad guys taking advantage of the permission to carry?
    • If shooting broke out, could law enforcement figure out who were the good guys and who the bad guys?
    (There's also the question of how common weapons that can shoot accurately over 1000 feet are among the civilian population. I have no idea.)
Talking about criminals, the mentally ill and "good guys with guns" is all smoke and mirrors. It's an attempt to distract us from the reality that while we all agree that the wrong people shouldn't have guns, we cannot discern with certitude who the wrong people are. Absent mind-reading, which would (or at least should) raise privacy objections that make gun-ownership arguments look trivial, we will not be able to keep guns out of the wrong hands — as long as the nation's default position is that gun ownership is a right that outweighs virtually all others.

If we want to address the plague of mass shootings, we have got to stop treating gun control as taboo. Greater restrictions on firearms and ammunition are presently our only practical options.

Until gun-rights advocates acknowledge that reality, enough will never be enough.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Manage your outrage

I'm not the best person to be recommending restraint vis-a-vis Dear Leader. Even calling him "Dear Leader" displays my disdain and thorough dislike of the current president, yet I can't stop myself.

Yet.

For as Robert Wright reminds all of us in his piece "Mindful resistance" is the key to defeating Trump", indulging our outrage at Dea— er, him, just plays into his strategy of fomenting hyperpolarization to bind his followers ever more closely to him.

Instead, we have to stop playing his game. We have to stop reinforcing the narrative that "they" are out to get "us" — that non-Trump supporters have nothing but contempt not just for Trump, but also for his supporters. To this end, Wright suggests cultivating "mindfulness", which is not hair-trigger reactiveness but a centered, objective and sensibly distanced perspective when Trump tries to push our buttons.

Mindfulness is connected rather closely to meditation and that might make it a non-starter for you, as it does for me. However, you can figure out a path that works for you as long as you dedicate yourself to the goal: stop reacting viscerally to Trump.

What does that goal entail? What must you do or not do as part of getting to that goal?

  • Don't type until you've had a chance to think (and to cool off).
  • Stay focused on the issue, whatever issue it is, not what Trump says about it. If there's a reasoned argument to be made against Trump's point, make that argument, and leave it at that. Don't make ad hominem attacks on Trump as part of your argument.
  • Don't make ad hominem attacks on Trump, period. It makes you feel good but does nothing to lower the temperature of our political debate.
  • Don't dump on Trump's followers. You may think you're pissed at them, and you might have good reason to be pissed at some of them, but whatever happens to Trump, we all have to share this country after he's gone, however that happens. After he's gone Trump's followers will still be our neighbors, our coworkers, our friends, our family members. We won't be close to all of them, of course, but we'll know enough of them to make painting all of them as an undifferentiated group a hazardous exercise unless you're willing to write off people you want in your life.

    Not convinced? Then consider this: cutting Trump supporters out of your life — or from the other side, cutting Trump opponents out of your life — gives Trump way more influence over your life than he deserves. Even if you think Trump's doing a great job, you shouldn't let him cut you off from people who were part of your life before he came on the political scene. You shouldn't let any public figure do that.

Now, I certainly haven't followed Wright's advice in my blog posts here: only seven of my 54 posts since the election didn't have to do with Trump or didn't mention him. However, I used to post much more frequently. I've been tempted many times to comment on something he said or did. However, I've said more than once that not only should journalists stop paying so much attention to his statements, but so should the rest of us. I've fallen off the wagon a lot since Trump's election, but, however fitfully, I was trying to follow Wright's admonitions even before I read his piece.

I'm trying to be more mindful. Are you?

Saturday, September 30, 2017

The heartless Trump

The mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, frustrated by the federal government's inarguably ineffective recovery efforts to date, hurled a damning accusation: "We are dying and you are killing us with the inefficiency". She didn't name names (that I can see), but it's clear that acting Homeland Security secretary Elaine Duke was one target. Duke claimed that the recovery effort from Hurricane Maria was, in many respects, "a good news story", and she has been taking figurative rotten tomatoes for that spectacularly wrong statement ever since.

Yet an attack on a Cabinet secretary is almost always an attack on the current president, too, and if there's one thing we can count on, it's that the unbelievably thin-skinned Dear Leader is always up for an unnecessary fight. In tweets (of course), he suggested the mayor was a Democratic tool, was showing "poor leadership ability", and that the people of Puerto Rico "are not able to get their workers to help" and "want everything to be done for them".

Oh, fuck off, you sorry, short-fingered son of a bitch.

You have no fucking idea what it's like to recover from a disaster.

You have no fucking idea what it's like to be hungry and thirsty and without a place to sleep.

You have no fucking idea what condition Puerto Rico's in or you wouldn't have fucking dared to shoot your tiny fingers off on Twitter.

You are a pampered, privileged, useless fucking waste of space.

The one thing the U.S. President is supposed to be able to do is to see to the needs of victims of disaster. It doesn't require extensive knowledge (thank God, since you have none about anything). It requires only the common decency to be able to put yourself in the victims' shoes, to imagine what it would be like not to be able to secure the most basic of human needs. Then, as President, you just have to make sure the first responders and support staff who do have specialized and extensive knowledge of how to help people can get in and do their job.

The federal government has people who can do the job. A lot of the supplies have reached Puerto Rico.

What the effort lacks is anybody with the authority or will to make shit happen.

Isn't "making shit happen" supposed to be a lifelong businessman's specialty?

What the fuck are you, our vaunted businessman president, doing? You're sure as shit not making anything happen in Puerto Rico. Only in your delusional dreams is aid reaching the people who need it.

But then, why should that surprise me? Puerto Ricans don't look like you and they don't have any money, so of course their fate doesn't matter to you. The fate of ordinary Texans and Floridians didn't, either, but you know a lot of wealthy folks in those states who are important to your political survival. It was nice to hear all those English-speaking Southerners saying nice things about the administration's relief efforts, and the visuals of them on cable news was not just a political boost but an ego boost as well, so, um, yeah, that all worked out. But it was really the rich donors who were on your mind. Puerto Rico's lack of such donors means the island — very much a part of the country you allegedly lead — just doesn't engage your interest.

Doesn't engage your interest, that is, unless somebody dares to tell you in the most public way that you're not doing your job. That gets your attention.

If you were an adult, you'd be more concerned about how well (or badly) the effort was going than what people were saying about you. But you never grew up. You're still four years old, only capable of understanding the world as it relates to you.

This failure to grow up left you emotionally deficient. You have a hole where your heart should be.

And that deficiency has had and will continue to have tragic consequences for the rest of us.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

All I need to know about Trump's tax overhaul

Dear Leader had this to say about his tax overhaul proposal:
“Tax reform will protect low-income and middle-income households, not the wealthy and well-connected,” Mr. Trump said, framing a proposal that would affect hundreds of millions of Americans in terms of his own self-interest. “I’m doing the right thing, and it’s not good for me, believe me.”
You've heard of gamblers' tells? "Believe me" is Dear Leader's. When he says that, he's lying.

So his proposal will be good for him if it's enacted. Color me shocked.

Even so, his profiteering — like his corruption, his contempt for law and justice, and instinct for authoritarianism — must be resisted.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Trump doesn't understand patriotism

Dear Leader's attitude toward athletes who kneel or otherwise don't acknowledge the national anthem is of a piece with his shallow understanding of, well, everything.

Al Franken memorably described the difference between how some conservatives understand love of country versus how many liberals do:

We love America just as much as they do. But in a different way. You see, they love America like a 4-year-old loves his mommy. Liberals love America like grown-ups. To a 4-year-old, everything Mommy does is wonderful and anyone who criticizes Mommy is bad. Grown-up love means actually understanding what you love, taking the good with the bad and helping your loved one grow. Love takes attention and work and is the best thing in the world. That’s why we liberals want America to do the right thing. We know America is the hope of the world, and we love it and want it to do well.
Here's how the New York Times described Dear Leader's attempt at nuance:
Mr. Trump told reporters that his comments had “nothing to do with race or anything else — this has to do with respect for our country and respect for our flag.”
Of course he thinks his statements are only about "respect for our flag": he cannot comprehend a complex love of country that includes criticism of that country's shortcomings. Moreover, he rejects the idea that race relations today are, at best, fraught.

The idea that Dear Leader's simplemindedness qualifies him to lecture anyone on patriotism is at best asinine. In fact, it's offensive.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Graham-Cassidy ain't dead yet

John McCain came out against Lindsey Graham's and Bill Cassidy's ACA repeal bill. He's the third Republican senator to announce his opposition, meaning that Republicans don't have the fifty votes they need to pass the bill before a 30 September deadline imposes a 60-vote requirement. Cue the jubilation among the Affordable Care Act's supporters, right?

I wouldn't be so sure.

Mitch McConnell announced that a floor vote would take place next Wednesday, the 27th. Granting that five days isn't much time, it's still enough time for McConnell to find an inducement for McCain if the majority leader wants McCain's vote badly enough. It's also enough time for McConnell and others to work on Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins, whose opposition to the bill isn't quite as firm as Democrats'.

Bottom line: we've been here before. The Republican zeal to kill the ACA is bottomless. There are also external pressures on the party to follow through on what it has made one of its defining goals for the last eight years.

This zombie keeps coming back, and it won't stop until Republicans stop thinking of repeal as one of their party's core principles.

To speed the party along, I'd like to remind both Republican voters and Republican politicians that you should always be guided by what's best for the country. You have been unable to convince yourselves, much less the rest of us, that your proposals to kill the ACA would be a net boon for the country. You Republican politicians sound like utterly amoral party hacks: "If we do nothing [to repeal the ACA], I think it has a tremendous impact on the 2018 elections. And whether or not Republicans still maintain control and we have the gavel." Jesus H. Christ, you want to repeal because it's good for your election prospects, repeal's effects on actual people be damned?

You politicians have lost all perspective. You hold to your principles because a generation of far-right voters have lost their perspective: they deem keeping promises more important than getting anything done. They (and you) have forgotten that not everyone else agrees with them and that sometimes you have to compromise; indeed, they've turned "compromise" into an expletive, an accusation to be shot like a bullet at anyone who dares to seek common ground.

If Democrats finally came to terms with some of Reagan's policies, Republicans can come to terms with some of Obama's. You guys have got to give up on trying to erase the first black president from history. Get over your visceral distaste for him and figure out what else you can do that doesn't alienate over half the country, for crying out loud.

Until that happens, the rest of us will have to keep our axes sharp and shotguns loaded because that damned zombie will keep coming back.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Huckabee, the Trump apologist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Trump, Pelosi and Schumer

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

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

I'm not holding my breath.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Glad to meet you, Louise Linton

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

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

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

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

...

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Don't hide the Confederate statues

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

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

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

Not if that's the end of the story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Is inciting violence an impeachable offense?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 14, 2017

Think about where we are

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

"I mean, Nazis! Right?"

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

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

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

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

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

Really?

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

Thursday, August 3, 2017

This is a no-brainer

Use open-source software for voting machines.

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

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

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

Friday, July 28, 2017

The mind stuck in "now"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 6, 2017

When the boss is a public servant

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

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

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

But honestly ... tweet-sized memos?

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

Yeah, Donnie, your job requires studying.

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

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

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

Friday, June 30, 2017

It's the costs, stupid

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

...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of course not!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Cutting to the chase

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

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

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

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

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

Of course not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Companies and the public interest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 9, 2017

Public service is not about personal loyalty

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

Donald Trump values loyalty to himself above all else.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trump has got to go.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Lies, damned lies, and Scott Pruitt

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

...

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

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

Sunday, June 4, 2017

The Democratic Party's problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Deciding who is human

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

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

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Stop reacting, start acting

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Trump and the Paris climate accord

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The "deep state", or the real state?

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

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

Are the leaks part of a giant conspiracy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They are not conspirators.

They are patriots.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

The question the Gianforte incident asks us

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Mueller is a distraction

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

David Frum, though, sees more clearly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps most damningly:

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

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

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

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.