No Sift next week. The next new posts will appear February 24.

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

– Abraham Lincoln
2nd Inaugural Address (3-4-1865)

As everybody knows, my family, our great country, and your President, have been put through a terrible ordeal by some very dishonest and corrupt people. They have done everything possible to destroy us, and by so doing, very badly hurt our nation. They know what they are doing is wrong, but they put themselves far ahead of our great country.

– Donald Trump
at the National Prayer Breakfast (2-6-2020)

This week’s featured post is “Let’s Talk Each Other Down“. Think of it as a counterweight to all the depressing or panic-worthy stuff in this summary.

This week everybody was talking about Iowa and New Hampshire

OK, Iowa was a mess. But there’s a reliable paper trail, so there’s good reason to believe the result. Tomorrow is the New Hampshire primary, which I am amazed to discover I have not covered at all. I have not been to a single candidate event this year, despite living just over the border in Massachusetts.

To a large extent that’s because the main thing that matters to me is electing Not Trump. I have likes and opinions, but I’m all-in for whoever gets the nomination. Anyway, here’s one comment about each major contender:

  • Biden’s fourth-place finish in Iowa was a huge disappointment, and he doesn’t look to be running well in NH either. He’s counting on his black support to get him back in the race in South Carolina. I’ll bet Kamala Harris is kicking herself for getting out, because there is no obvious inheritor of Biden’s black support if he fails.
  • Bloomberg is running such an unorthodox campaign that it’s hard to know whether his strategy is working or not. But he gets Trump’s goat better than any other candidate, and that has to count for something.
  • Buttigieg was the biggest beneficiary of Iowa. Sanders won the popular vote, but Buttigieg was the big surprise and wound up with the most delegates. His NH polls shot up afterwards, largely, I think, because his Iowa performance gave people who already like him a reason to take his candidacy seriously. (Likeability is one of those nebulous concepts that is easy to abuse and hides a bunch of prejudices. But for what it’s worth, Pete is the candidate I feel the most affection for. That doesn’t necessarily mean I plan to vote for him, though.) It’s hard to tell whether this week’s debate blunted his momentum or not.
  • Klobuchar is the tortoise in this race. She also got on the map in Iowa, and is probably the second choice of a lot of Biden’s white supporters. She’s polling near zero in South Carolina, though, so she needs to do well in New Hampshire to stay in the race.
  • Sanders got more first-round votes than any other candidate in Iowa, but his case for beating Trump didn’t do so well. The theory of how Sanders wins in November is that (even though he may lose some voters in the center) he raises turnout by inspiring a lot of new voters to come to the polls. But turnout in Iowa was not much different from 2016, and much lower than 2008, when Obama really did inspire people. He needs a win in NH, but he also needs to win the right way, with a big turnout.
  • Warren is the president I would appoint, if the Universe would grant me that power. She’s got to be disappointed in her distant third-place finish in Iowa, and recent polls have her running third in NH as well. She was briefly the front-runner last fall, but it’s hard to see where her break-out state is.

Josh Marshall makes a prediction of how Trump will smear Bernie, should he become the front-runner. He also pre-debunks the smear.

and the final impeachment trial result

The biggest surprise of the Senate vote was that Trump’s acquittal wasn’t a party-line vote, and that the lone defector was a Republican, not a Democrat. After lots of speculation that Joe Manchin or some other red-state Democrat would find a way to excuse Trump, the Democrats held firm, and Mitt Romney found his conscience.

I’ve been a bit appalled at how uncharitable many of my social media friends have been, trying to see Romney’s choice as some kind of 2024 calculation. That seems really unlikely to me. Mitt is smart enough to realize that no matter how badly Trump blows up, nobody is going to get the 2024 Republican nomination by being anti-Trump. Assuming Trump even bothers to observe the term-limit rule — I mean, the Constitution is just a piece of paper — the next Republican nominee is either a Trump successor (Pence? Ivanka? Don Jr.?) or somebody who has stayed conveniently off the national stage (like Paul Ryan or a governor).

I think Mitt is at a point in his career where he sees History staring him in the face, and doesn’t want to be remembered as Trump’s accomplice. I’m amazed that more late-in-their-careers Republicans haven’t looked at things that way. Lamar Alexander, for example, has just guaranteed that none of the things he’s proud of will be remembered. The headline of his obituary will be that he shut down the witnesses to Trump’s crimes.

Mitt’s vote has provided contrast for the cowardice of the other Republican senators. We can hope other Republicans will be emboldened to take a stand as well.

and reprisals against those involved in Trump’s impeachment

The Washington Post put President Clinton’s and President Trump’s post-acquittal speeches side-by-side. They could not be more different. Clinton was short, contrite, and tried to put conflict behind him. (“I believe any person who asks for forgiveness has to be prepared to give it.”)

Trump, by contrast, was long-winded and dishonest, and took no responsibility for the acts that started this whole national trauma.

Trump repeatedly called Democrats involved in the impeachment “evil,” “corrupt” and “vicious and mean.” He railed against the Russian investigation, former FBI director James B. Comey, and special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, adding, “It was all bullshit.”

He seemed poised for revenge, and soon began to take it. Donald Jr. made the threat explicit:

Allow me a moment to thank—and this may be a bit of a surprise—Adam Schiff. Were it not for his crack investigation skills, @realDonaldTrump might have had a tougher time unearthing who all needed to be fired. Thanks, Adam!

After the show trial, the purge. Ambassador Gordon Sondland lost his job, as did Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman at the National Security Council. Somewhat stranger, Vindman’s brother Yevgeny was also fired from his job as an NSC lawyer. But that also fits the Stalinist pattern: Once you’ve been judged to be an Enemy of the People, your relatives are also suspect. That’s probably why Mitt Romney’s niece, RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel, has been so quick to declare her fealty to the regime.

Joshua Geltzer and Ryan Goodman comment on the Just Security blog:

Some have suggested that the outcry sparked by Friday’s reprisals was overblown. After all, any president is, on some level, entitled to surround himself at the White House and be represented overseas by those he trusts. But the question raised by Friday’s purge is: trusts to do what? And that’s where these actions raise serious concerns for American democracy: because Trump increasingly wants an executive branch that’ll serve not the United States of America but Donald J. Trump personally.

Trump was punishing key witnesses for doing precisely what the United States Congress swore them in to do: explain what they’d seen and heard.

… [E]xploitation of America’s diplomatic, military, and law enforcement mechanisms was the very usurpation of power that got Trump impeached in the first place. At the heart of the Ukraine extortion scheme was Trump and his personal lawyer’s appropriation of those mechanisms for political benefit and to the detriment of the country’s national security interests. Having survived impeachment, Trump now seeks to accelerate the redirection of America’s instruments of power into his own instruments of power.

Trump is not the only Republican engaged in post-impeachment reprisals. During the trial, Senator Rand Paul on numerous occasions named someone he claimed was the whistleblower whose complaint started the Ukraine investigation.

Friday, Tom Mueller (author of the book Crisis of Conscience about the history of whistleblowing) wrote a complaint to the Senate Select Committee on Ethics, explaining how Senator Paul’s behavior violated the law.

Senator Paul’s actions constituted a retaliatory outing of a government witness—which is criminal conduct. Federal criminal law prohibits the obstruction of justice, and provides that “[w]hoever knowingly, with the intent to retaliate, takes any action harmful to any person, including interference with the lawful employment or livelihood of any person, for providing to a law enforcement officer any truthful information relating to the commission or possible commission of any Federal offense, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 10 years, or both.”

Paul’s outing of the whistleblower occurred not just on the floor of the Senate (where it might be constitutionally protected) but also outside the Senate and on Twitter.

If Senator Paul goes unpunished, this will be the kind of weakening of the law typical of the descent towards fascism. In the late stages of fascism, criticism of the Leader is punished by the State directly. But in earlier stages, critics simply lose the protection of the laws and can be attacked by followers of the Leader without consequence. When the Brownshirts come to beat them up, the police watch and do nothing.

Speaking of brownshirts: Immediately after Romney’s guilty vote, CPAC chair Matt Schlapp disinvited him from the flagship conservative convention. Yesterday, Schlapp said “I would actually be afraid for his physical safety” if he showed up.

and the State of the Union

The State of the Union address was Tuesday. Trump stayed on script, but the script was full of lies and exaggerations.

At the end of the State of the Union address, Nancy Pelosi very decisively ripped up Trump’s speech. For some reason, this display of disrespect resounded across right-wing media, as if this were most uncivil thing to happen in months. I agree with Trae Crowder, a.k.a. the Liberal Redneck:

The level of disrespect she showed by, like, ripping up the president’s speech at the State of the Union like that — it’s nowhere near disrespectful enough. … This is the most disrespectful motherfucker on Planet Earth.

Medals of Freedom are essentially lifetime achievement awards that presidents give to people who make Americans proud. Usually that means other Americans, but sometimes a medal goes to a foreigner (Nelson Mandela, Stephen Hawking) who just makes us proud to be human.

Presidents have complete discretion to pick whoever they want, and for the most part they’ve done a good job. Over the years MoF awards have gone to authors like John Steinbeck and Harper Lee, artists like Georgia O’Keefe and Andrew Wyeth, musicians like Count Basie and Bob Dylan, and businessmen like Henry Ford II and IBM-founder Tom Watson. Computer-programming pioneer Grace Hopper got one, and so did photographer Ansel Adams. Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel got one for being the conscience of the world.

In baseball’s Hall of Fame not everyone is Babe Ruth, and the same thing happens with Medals of Freedom. They’ve also gone to people who were famous and deserving of respect but not legendary, like actor Tom Hanks, Western-genre author Louis L’Amour, and Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels. It happens. Presidents have their own idiosyncratic tastes. Some awards looked fine at the time, but shameful in retrospect, like President Bush giving one to Bill Cosby in 2002.

Well, Tuesday during the State of the Union address, President Trump awarded one to Rush Limbaugh. Limbaugh has been a purveyor of hate and lies for more than 30 years. Who can forget his branding of Georgetown student Sandra Fluke as a “slut” and a “prostitute” for the unpardonable sin of defending ObamaCare’s contraception mandate?

So, Ms. Fluke and the rest of you feminazis, here’s the deal. If we are going to pay for your contraceptives, and thus pay for you to have sex, we want something for it, and I’ll tell you what it is. We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch.

Feel proud yet? How about when he accused Michael J. Fox of exaggerating the symptoms of his Parkinson’s Disease? Or when he made up a series of “facts” in order to falsely blame measles outbreaks on immigrant children? Or his addiction to prescription drugs, which resulted in a settlement with the State of Florida to get them to drop charges for doctor shopping?

Politifact has looked into 42 of Limbaugh’s controversial statements, and found zero of them to be entirely true. Thirty-five were rated Mostly False, False, or Pants on Fire.

In short, if I were Sidney Poitier or Buzz Aldrin or some other living recipient of the Medal, I’d be looking at that award with considerably less pride than I did a week ago.

Not all of Trump’s awardees have cheapened the Medal. (I thought NBA legends Bob Cousy and Jerry West were worthy choices.) But a number of them look like deliberate attempts to debase the award: ethically challenged Reagan Attorney General Ed Meese; Arthur Laffer, creator of the discredited “Laffer Curve” theory that tax cuts increase revenue; and Miriam Adelson, wife of GOP mega-donor Sheldon Adelson.

This is some of the hidden damage Trump is doing to America. Even if we get rid of him in November, it will take a while to recover the value of things he has desecrated.

and you also might be interested in …

David Fahrenthold has found yet another way that Trump is profiteering off the presidency: He’s making the Secret Service stay at his properties, and then overcharging them.

President Trump’s company charges the Secret Service for the rooms agents use while protecting him at his luxury properties — billing U.S. taxpayers at rates as high as $650 per night, according to federal records and people who have seen receipts. …

“If my father travels, they stay at our properties for free — meaning, like, cost for housekeeping,” Trump’s son Eric said in a Yahoo Finance interview last year.

Are you surprised to learn that’s a lie? However, the really scandalous part of the story is the extent to which Trump has kept the public in the dark about his self-dealing.

The Secret Service is required to tell Congress twice a year about what it spends to protect Trump at his properties. But since 2016, it has only filed two of the required six reports, according to congressional offices. The reasons, according to Secret Service officials: key personnel left and nobody picked up the job. Even in those two reports, the lines for Bedminster and Mar-a-Lago were blank.

As I said above about Rand Paul, this is how fascism starts: Not with new laws, but with refusing to enforce the old laws.

A somewhat technical but worth-reading NYT article about Instex, a device Germany, France, and Britain set up to avoid US sanctions on countries and businesses that trade with Iran. It’s not working, but the lengths the US is going to in order to keep it from working is a lesson in how hard it is to be an independent US ally these days. Either you give up sovereignty and let Trump write your foreign policy, or the full economic fury of the United States will be unleashed on you. Sooner or later, our former allies will realize they need to work with China to balance our power.

China’s National Health Commission announced the 97 people died of coronavirus yesterday, more than any previous daily total. That brought the overall Chinese death toll to 908.

and let’s close with an inside joke

In order to understand this, you need to know the stories of my people.

Let’s Talk Each Other Down

Looking around this week — in the media, among my friends, inside my own head — I observed that a lot of people are freaking out. Because Trump was acquitted, because he has started his revenge tour, because Republicans know he abused his power and don’t care, because the Democrats are doing it all wrong, because a virus is spreading out of control, because the State of the Union was full of lies, because both the National Prayer Breakfast and the Medal of Freedom have been desecrated, because a US senator willfully and illegally endangered the life of a whistleblower, because it’s been 65 degrees in Antarctica, because the Attorney General has given Trump carte blanche to violate campaign laws, because a billion-dollar disinformation project has begun, and because, because, because.

There’s been no lack of stuff to freak out about, if that’s what you feel inclined to do. You’re not wrong. I can’t tell you that all those horrors aren’t happening. But let me try to talk you down in a different way.

In general, people freak out for a very simple reason: They’ve been telling themselves “It’s all going to be OK” when they don’t really know that. When events start to crack that false sense of certainty, one natural reaction is to flip over completely to: “We’re all doomed.”

Allow me to point something out: You don’t really know that either.

So if you come to me hoping I’ll tell you it’s all going to be OK — sorry, I can’t do that. But I can tell you this: Uncertainty is the natural state of human beings. Maybe we’re doomed, but maybe things will be OK — or something in between, more likely. That’s how life is and always has been. It might be true that the arc of the Universe bends towards Justice, but you can never count on that bend being visible in any given lifetime. If you’ve comfortably lived in denial of that reality until this week, I’m sorry you had to find out like this. It’s not really my fault, but never mind: Accept my apology anyway, because probably nobody else will offer one.

You know something that’s even worse? You might be in this state of uncertainty for the rest of your life. Maybe we’re doomed, but maybe we’re not. Nobody really knows. Democracy in America might soon be over, or it might get a reprieve. Truth might finally drown in a sea of disinformation, or maybe it will figure out how to swim in that sea. People are endlessly surprising. Just when you think they’re hopeless, they do something hopeful. And vice versa.

So: Breathe. Breathe again, to make sure that one wasn’t just luck. Keep breathing. You can do this, at least for now.

And try to accept something: You don’t need to know that it’s going to be OK.

You can do something to make things better without being sure it’s going to work. Because … well, what else are you going to do? (I don’t know if you’ve ever tried giving up, but I can tell you a little about that too: It’s no fun either. Sometimes when you get worn down, you might think that waiting helplessly for inevitable destruction would be an nice relief. But trust me. It isn’t.)

Affirmations can be useful in a situation like this, but only if you choose to affirm things that are at least vaguely believable. Try this one: I don’t know that things are going to be OK, but I don’t need to know. I can try to do good things anyway.

Now say it out loud. “I don’t know that things are going to be OK, but I don’t need to know. I can try to do good things anyway.”

Maybe one or two of the things you’ve been trying to do really are doomed, and maybe that’s finally become obvious to you. You can shift your effort to something else. There’s no lack of things to do that still might be useful.

Because you don’t know what’s going to happen. We all like to think that we do, but we don’t.

Now let me tell you something about the particular challenge we’re facing now: Trump. At his core, Trump is a bluffer. He puffs himself up to make people think he’s bigger and richer and stronger than he really is. It’s the only trick he knows, but sometimes it works: He scares people into giving up or going along. (That’s what we just saw happen in the Senate. You don’t really believe that all those Republicans thought keeping him in office was good for the country, do you? Or even good for their party, or for themselves? They got scared, so they went along.)

When something like that works for him, he uses it to puff himself up further and scare more people. That’s what’s been going on this week.

Don’t help him.

Don’t run around scaring other people about how big and powerful he is. When a bluffer gets on a roll, you can never predict how far it will go. But we do know one thing about bluffers: When their empires start to collapse, they collapse quickly, because each failure causes more people to think “I don’t have to be scared of this guy.”

You can never predict exactly when that process is going to start. The balloon always looks biggest just before it pops.

Steve Almond put it like this:

We must organize rather than agonize.

This optimism should not be confused with naiveté. We all know that the Trump regime will do everything in its power to rig the 2020 election. We’ll see more voter suppression, more fearmongering, more Russian trolling.

Nihilism remains the GOP’s ultimate Trump card. They are counting on citizens of good faith to give up, to quit the field, to say “who cares?” So is the party’s most reliable ally, Vladimir Putin. And so are the oligarchs, domestic and foreign, who have converted our planet into a vast and decaying casino.

Don’t let them sucker you.

Be a fanatical optimist. Make a plan. Take action. Listen to your conscience. Vote.

A brighter dawn might await all of us, but we have to work for it.

I’ll quibble with him using the word optimism rather than hope. (I’ve written about that elsewhere.) But the key word there is might. If you’re waiting for a guarantee, for a political almanac that will tell you exactly when the sun will rise and the tide will turn, you’ll keep waiting and you’ll do nothing. Don’t go that way.

Be hopeful. Throw your effort out there and see what happens. Because you never know.

The Monday Morning Teaser

This was a week that seemed to get to a lot of people. It’s Trump’s nature to puff himself up to look as big and scary as possible, and his acquittal by the Senate blew some more air into him. So he’s out there making threats and kicking better men (like Colonel Vindman) to the curb. At the same time, the Democrats had a PR disaster in Iowa, which got a lot of folks thinking “What if we don’t beat this guy?”

The point of Trump puffing himself up is to scare people into giving up or giving in. Like mice, we’ll freeze and make ourselves small and maybe we’ll survive. That strategy is deep down there in our mammal DNA, and at times like this it pops up and almost sounds reasonable. Why we’re in this sorry position now is that dozens of Republican senators froze and made themselves small.

But that strategy is the reason why there’s no Mouse Republic. Democracy is about envisioning what could happen if we all came together, and then all coming together around that vision. It’s a fundamentally courageous way of approaching the world, and it’s precisely what the Trumps and Hitlers and Caligulas have tried to scare us out of all through history. That’s what FDR was on about when he said, “We have nothing to fear but Fear itself.”

We need to come together and get big, not stay separate and get small.

So anyway, I decided that the best thing we could all do for each other today is try to talk ourselves down. That’s the point of the featured post “Let’s Talk Each Other Down”. It should be out shortly.

The weekly summary, though, has to cover all the scary things that make us want to curl into a ball, so it does: the acquittal, the revenge tour, the mess in Iowa, the virus, the State of the Union, and a lot more. Then I close with a reference to my favorite Star Trek episode. That should be out before noon.

Decadent Superfluities

The proper procedure, the gathering of evidence — these things mean nothing, not anymore. Not since Hitler. He cuts through these decadent superfluities and shows us that the conclusion is everything, Gunther. You of all people should understand this. The important thing in concluding a case successfully is actually concluding it.

– SS General Johann Rattenhuber,
as fictionalized in Prussian Blue by Philip Kerr

Will we pursue the search for truth, or will we dodge, weave, and evade?

— Senator Mitch McConnell,
discussing investigations of President Clinton, 2-12-1998

This week’s featured posts are “If Obama …” and “Jared’s Plan for Mideast Peace“.

This week everybody was talking about impeachment

Friday, the Senate voted not to hear any witnesses or subpoena any documents. The vote was 51-49, with Mitt Romney, Susan Collins, and all 47 Democrats voting to hold a real trial. The other 51 Republicans voted to join Trump’s obstruction conspiracy.

it was predictable (I predicted it Tuesday on Facebook) that the number of Republican crossovers would be either two or many. If a third Republican voted to hear witnesses the motion would still have failed, but then all 50 Republicans voting against a real trial would be personally responsible. (“You, Cory Gardner, could have made the difference and let the American people hear what John Bolton had to say, but you joined the cover-up instead.”) If exactly four voted with the Democrats, each of them would be held personally responsible by Trump’s base. Nobody wanted that kind of responsibility, so it had to be two or many.

As it is, the only surprising thing was that the Senate didn’t go straight into an acquittal vote Friday by the dark of night. Instead, Senators will get the opportunity to make speeches explaining their positions before voting to acquit Trump on Wednesday.

I intend the quote at the top of the page as a comment on the Republican approach to this trial: The conclusion was fore-ordained, and nothing mattered other than getting there. Don’t think about the evidence, don’t try to find out what happened, don’t concern yourself with the good of the country — just get to the conclusion, because that’s all that counts. It’s fundamentally a fascist approach to justice, so I think the Nazi comparisons are appropriate.

Mitt Romney’s vote to call witnesses in Trump’s impeachment trial had immediate consequences: It got him explicitly uninvited from CPAC 2020, the flagship convention of what used to be the conservative movement. Not even his niece would defend him. If she did, maybe she’d become an Enemy of the People too.

Romney’s expulsion just underlines something that should be obvious anyway: Today’s “conservative” movement is no longer about conservative principles, or any principles at all. It’s a cult of personality centered on Donald Trump. Romney’s vote didn’t subvert conservatism in any way, but it did inconvenience the Great Orange Führer. So Mitt is excommunicated.

Alan Dershowitz’s opinion that Trump’s misdeeds are not impeachable represents a complete reversal of the opinion he held during the Clinton impeachment. But he explains the difference like this:

[Then] I simply accepted the academic consensus on an issue that was not on the front burner at the time. But because this impeachment directly raises the issue of whether criminal behavior is required, I have gone back and read all the relevant historical material as nonpartisan academics should always do and have now concluded that the framers did intend to limit the criteria for impeachment to criminal type acts akin to treason, bribery, and they certainly did not intend to extend it to vague and open-ended and non-criminal accusations such as abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.

Tuesday, Josh Marshall pulled no punches in his assessment:

To put it baldly, if it’s a topic and area of study you know nothing about and after a few weeks of cramming you decide that basically everyone who’s studied the question is wrong, there’s a very small chance you’ve rapidly come upon a great insight and a very great likelihood you’re an ignorant and self-regarding asshole.

Then, in the Q&A period Wednesday, Dershowitz went completely off the rails:

[I]f a hypothetical president of the United States said to a hypothetical leader of a foreign country, “unless you build a hotel with my name on it, and unless you give me a million dollar kickback, I will withhold the funds.” That’s an easy case. That’s purely corrupt and in the purely private interest.

But a complex middle case is, “I want to be elected. I think I’m a great president. I think I’m the greatest president there ever was. If I’m not elected the national interest will suffer greatly.” That cannot be impeachable.

A lot of people misrepresented this doctrine as saying that the president can do anything to get elected, and it’s OK. Bad as it is, it doesn’t quite go that far. A better explanation is here.

and Jared’s Mideast “Peace” plan

I originally just wanted a quick note about this, but it got out of hand and became its own post.

and the Iowa caucus

It’s tonight, and I have no idea who will win. Bernie Sanders seems to have the late momentum, but the polling is really tight. The RCP polling average has Sanders at 24.2%, Biden 20.2%, Buttigieg 16.4%, Warren 15.6%, and Klobuchar 8.6%.

and Brexit finally happened

It became official in London Friday night at 11, which was midnight in Brussels. The United Kingdom is no longer part of the European Union. There is still a lot to work out: an UK/EU trade agreement, trade arrangements with other countries that are used to dealing with the UK as part of the EU, whether Scotland will seek independence and rejoin the EU, and so forth. But at least the uncertainty is over and the adjustment can begin. I’m reminded of a quote from the South African author Alan Paton:

Sorrow is better than fear. Fear is a journey, a terrible journey, but sorrow is at least an arrival. When the storm threatens, a man is afraid for his house. But when the house is destroyed, there is something to do. About a storm he can do nothing, but he can rebuild a house.

and the Coronavirus is still spreading

The latest numbers say that 361 Chinese have died from the virus. That already makes it deadlier than the 2002 SARS outbreak, which killed 349 people in mainland China. There are more than 17,000 confirmed cases.

Large parts of the Chinese economy have shut down in response to the virus, and it’s anybody’s guess how big a hit the world economy will take. Lots of manufactured goods contain some part that is made in China and nowhere else, so it’s hard to say how far the ripple effects will go. And if your company sells products in China, your financial plan may take a hit.

you also might be interested in …

This week three news stories made Trump’s border wall look a little less “impenetrable” than advertised. Wednesday, a section of it blew down in a windstorm. (We knew that coyotes were helping migrants sneak across the border, but now it looks like the Big Bad Wolf has gotten involved as well.) Thursday, the Washington Post reported that the wall is vulnerable to flash floods, and so it will need flood gates that will have to be left open for months at a time. Also on Thursday, US officials announced the discovery of a tunnel under the border; it’s 70 feet underground and goes for nearly a mile.

Previous articles have noted how easy it is to saw through the wall or climb over it.

I’m not sure how I missed this Vox video “Why Obvious Lies Make Great Propaganda” when it came out in August, 2018. It examines the “Firehose of Falsehoods” propaganda technique, which was pioneered by Putin before it was adopted by Trump.

Unlike most propaganda, the lies in the firehose aren’t intended to be credible. The point is not to convince people that your lies are true, but to demonstrate that reality has no power to control what you say. Ultimately, the goal is to reduce everything to a struggle: There is no True or False, only Our Side vs. Their Side.

A justice of the peace in Waco has been refusing to perform same-sex marriages, despite being the only marriage-performing JP in town. When the state’s Commission on Judicial Conduct gave her an official warning, she sued. She is seeking $100K in damages. The state attorney general is refusing to defend the Commission in court, claiming that this is a “religious liberty” issue.

Once again, “religious liberty” being used as a code-word for Christian special rights. Imagine, for comparison, that a devout Hindu health inspector refused to sign any permits to open restaurants that serve beef. It’s absurd to think the Texas AG would stand up for his non-Christian religious liberty. “Religious liberty” is for conservative Christians, not for anybody else.

My position: I think public officials should either do their jobs, implement reasonable workarounds that are invisible to the public they serve, or find new jobs. No citizen should ever go to a public office, only to be told that they can’t be served because some official’s “religious liberty” allows him or her to discriminate against that citizen.

The Trump administration rolled back Obama’s restriction on the use of land mines because … . I got nothing; it just looks like evil for the sake of evil.

Well, I don’t exactly have nothing, I have an attack of paranoia: What if this is a prelude to mining the southern border? I haven’t heard anybody in the administration threaten to do this, so my fear is based on nothing right now.

In spite of an $28 billion dollar federal bailout, farm bankruptcies were higher in 2019 than in any year since 2011.

Six more countries have been added to Trump’s travel ban, including Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa.

Every week I could do a bunch of Trump-is-stupid stories, but I don’t think they serve much purpose. Occasionally, though, one is actually funny.

So after the Kansas City Chiefs won the Super Bowl last night — in a great game, BTW — Trump tweeted congratulations for how well they “represented the Great State of Kansas”. (The tweet was later removed.) The problem: Kansas City straddles the Kansas/Missouri border, and the Chiefs play on the Missouri side.

Recalling Trump’s hurricane-threatening-Alabama fiasco, somebody on Facebook came up with a Sharpie solution.


and let’s close with something backwards (or not)

Weird Al’s song of palindromes: “Bob“.

Jared’s Plan for Mideast Peace

It’s such a simple idea: If the Palestinians just surrender all their claims and accept whatever Israel is willing to give them, then there will be peace!
Why didn’t somebody think of this sooner?

As soon as the Palestinians realize how easily they can achieve peace — just give up — I’m sure they’ll get on board with the “Vision to Improve the Lives of the Palestinian and Israeli People” the Trump administration unveiled Tuesday. How can they refuse if Jared Kushner keeps sweet-talking them like this?

You have five million Palestinians who are really trapped because of bad leadership. So what we’ve done is we’ve created an opportunity for their leadership to either seize or not. If they screw up this opportunity — which, again, they have a perfect track record of missing opportunities — if they screw this up, I think they will have a very hard time looking the international community in the face, saying they’re victims, saying they have rights.

Such a charmer, that young man. I wonder if he was this endearing when he proposed to Ivanka. (“Say yes. You don’t want this relationship to fail like all your others have.”) Later on in the same interview, we get to this:

The Palestinian leadership has to ask themselves a question: Do they want to have a state? Do they want to have a better life? If they do, we have created a framework for them to have it, and we’re going to treat them in a very respectful manner. If they don’t, then they’re going to screw up another opportunity like they’ve screwed up every other opportunity that they’ve ever had in their existence.

Can’t you just feel the respect? Why wouldn’t you want to make a deal with somebody who sees you as a perennial screw-up?

Of course, Jared’s “state” is a euphemism for something far less than a state. As the map above shows, it is a collection of isolated regions, two of which are connected by a fantasy tunnel. Amir Tibon describes it like this in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz:

The solution that the Trump plan offers to this situation is the creation of a Palestinian “state” that could potentially be established four years from now, in the areas of the West Bank that will not be annexed by Israel. This future state, however, will have none of the actual characteristics of a state. The streets of all of its cities, towns and villages, as well as the roads connecting them, will be under the full control of the military of another state – Israel. It will have no control over its borders, which will also be controlled by Israel.

In addition, this state, despite Trump’s claim that it will have territorial continuity, will in fact be dissected by Israeli settlements that will remain as “enclaves” inside its territory and will be under full Israeli sovereignty. This means that Palestinian citizens of the future “state” could still stand at Israeli checkpoints – not at the border points between their state and Israel, but well inside their own state, between one town and the next. The official reason for these checkpoints could easily be given as the need to protect the Israeli communities located within Palestinian territory.

The chance that any Palestinian leader agrees to accept such a “state” under these conditions is nonexistent. What the Trump plan is offering the Palestinians is basically to take the existing reality – living under Israeli military occupation, with settlements spread in-between their cities, towns and villages – and to enshrine it by labeling it as a state.

The animating philosophy of the proposal is Might makes Right. Israel is stronger, and the Palestinians will never get rid of their Israeli overlords by force. So they should just give up. Forget about the ways they’ve been victimized, stop talking about having rights, and just take whatever the Israelis are willing to offer. Because if they don’t, the next offer will be worse. Israeli news anchor Eylon Levy said as much in the Washington Post:

[The plan] recognizes that any solution has to work with the fact that Israel has basically won, instead of denying it or attempting to reverse it.  … Throughout history, the victors have always dictated the ultimate terms of peace. Is that fair? Maybe. Is it how the world works in reality? Yes. Conflicts don’t end when both sides agree they are tired of fighting; they end when one side, the loser, recognizes it can’t keep up the battle and decides to get what it can before things get worse.

You’d think a culture that makes a shrine out of Masada would understand: At some point you just don’t care that the other side is stronger. You’re not expecting victory any more; you’re just trying to make your enemies respect you.

Coincidentally, Jared’s argument resembles the one Trump used to make to the contractors he shafted: It doesn’t matter who’s right. My lawyers can bankrupt you, so just take whatever I decide to pay you and be happy.

The announcement of the plan made a nice media-distraction event for Trump and for Bibi Netanyahu. Trump, of course, had an impeachment trial going on in the Senate, while Netanyahu is under indictment for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust.

Shortly after the announcement, Netanyahu’s administration said the cabinet would vote Sunday to annex the major Jewish settlements on the West Bank, the ones that just about every country but the US and Israel think violate international law. But that vote didn’t happen, and Kushner is suggesting that it be delayed until after the Israeli elections in March.

Saturday, the Arab League unanimously rejected the plan.

For what it’s worth, I keep repeating the same analysis of the conflict. I see four possible resolutions.

  1. Two states, Israel and a new state where Palestinians have actual territory and self-determination.
  2. One democratic state, in which Palestinians become citizens of Greater Israel, and may eventually become a voting majority.
  3. One Jewish ethno-state, where Palestinians are a subject population, possibly with a puppet-government to save face.
  4. One Jewish ethno-state, from which Palestinians have been ethnically cleansed.

Every year, (1) and (2) seem less and less likely. Getting to either one involves building trust — Northern Ireland could be a model — but both sides seem intent on building distrust instead. Partisans of either side can give you a long list of events proving that the other side can’t be trusted and doesn’t really want peace.

The status quo is basically (3), and Jared’s peace plan seems designed to kill off (1) and lock (3) in place. Even so, though, (3) seems unstable to me. I don’t think the Palestinians will ever accept it, and at some point I think the Israelis will decide that the Palestinians are ungovernable.

That leaves (4), which is what I think will eventually happen. It will be a traumatic thing for the Israeli people to see themselves do, which is why it will take another couple decades for them to work up a sufficient self-justification. But the extreme right wing of Israeli politics is there already, and that seems to me to be the direction everything is drifting.

If Obama …

A series of thought experiments Democrats have been running for the last three years is the “What if Obama did this?” genre. It most recently showed up Wednesday, when House Manager Adam Schiff created a fantasy about Obama’s race against Mitt Romney in 2012. (Romney, of course, is now a senator and was sitting in the room.)

[Schiff] suggested the hypothetical example of Obama telling [the Russian president at the time Dmitry] Medvedev, “I know you don’t want me to send this money to Ukraine cause they’re fighting and killing your people. I want you to do me a favor though,” Schiff said, echoing wording in Trump’s July call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in which he allegedly asked him to investigate the Bidens.

“I want you to do an investigation of Mitt Romney and I want you to announce you found dirt on Mitt Romney,” Schiff continued with his hypothetical. “And if you’re willing to do that quid pro quo, I won’t give Ukraine the money to fight you on the front line. “

Schiff then asked senators if there is any question Obama would have been impeached for that kind of conduct.

“That’s the parallel here,” he said.

At times I wonder about the usefulness of if-Obama thought experiments, because they’re based on the assumption that the same moral rules ought to apply to everyone. In recent years, though, more and more Republicans have adopted a purely tribal point of view which rejects any reciprocity between Our Side and Their Side. Of course it would be wrong if Obama had done the same thing that is right when Trump does it, because by definition Obama is wrong and Trump is right. [1] Republicans seem to be losing the capacity to feel shame about this kind of hypocrisy. [2]

Even recognizing that, though, I can’t resist one more if-Obama thought experiment, because I don’t think Schiff’s fantasy goes quite far enough. Instead of 2012, let’s think about 2016, and suppose that Obama believed — as he undoubtedly did believe — that Trump’s election would be a disaster for the country.

Let’s take one further step and imagine that Obama understood what Vladimir Putin was capable of. Already in July of 2015, Trump is telling Russian agent Maria Butina that he would revoke the sanctions Obama had placed on Russia after its invasion of Crimea. [3] So Putin has good reasons to want Trump elected. But what if Obama goes to Putin and puts in a higher bid for his support?

Maybe he says something like: “During the transition period after the election but before the new president takes office, I’ll be in a position to help you out in Ukraine — at least if the election turns out the way I hope it does. We’ll forget about sanctions, and if you want to take over the rest of Ukraine, that would be OK too; we wouldn’t do anything. Of course, we’d expect something in return. But anyway, I just wanted you to know that you should be rooting for Clinton, the same way I am.”

Obama doesn’t want to be guilty of a criminal conspiracy, so he doesn’t spell out what he wants, other than for Putin to “root”. But let’s say Obama’s personal lawyer — just to make it specific, let’s choose Greg Craig, a Democrat who was indicted in a Mueller-related case, but found not guilty — talks to some of Putin’s people and lets them know that Putin should do for Clinton all the stuff he had been planning to do for Trump. Again, nothing specific — just do it.

So Putin does: His people hack Republican computers and Trump campaign computers, then pick out the most embarrassing stuff and release it (drip, drip, drip) via WikiLeaks. They use their social media resources to push hundreds of anti-Trump fake news stories to exactly the kinds of wavering voters Trump needs. And all that stuff doesn’t happen to Clinton.

When Clinton wins, Obama does exactly what he said he would. He cancels the Russia sanctions, and stands by idly while Putin carves up the rest of Ukraine.

On the one hand, this is all reprehensible: My fantasy of Evil Obama has torpedoed an ally, put the rest of eastern Europe at risk of Russian expansion, and invited foreign interference in a US election. But by the standards put forward by Trump’s current defenders Obama has done nothing wrong.

  • He never specified what Putin should do, so there was no deal. He hinted and Putin understood what he meant, possibly due to more roundabout channels of communication, but that doesn’t matter. As Jim Jordan said about Trump’s Zelensky phonecall: “Tell me where the quid pro quo was.” If it’s not spelled out, it doesn’t count.
  • Laws were broken — anti-hacking laws, campaign finance laws, etc. — but because Putin broke them without Obama’s direct instructions, that’s crime doesn’t count against Obama. There may have been all kinds of collusion between Obama’s people and Putin’s people, but (as the Mueller Report says) “Although the investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts, the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.” If there’s not enough evidence to establish a criminal conspiracy, there’s no problem.
  • Whether or not to defend Ukraine is a policy decision that is within the president’s power. He can’t be officially called to account for exercising his legitimate prerogatives, no matter how destructive to the national interest those decisions turn out to be. “Maladministration,” Alan Dershowitz tells us, “is not a ground for impeachment.”
  • But what about his corrupt intent in making this deal-that-wasn’t-a-deal? His party may have gotten political advantage from it, and national security may have suffered, but that doesn’t make it corrupt because Obama honestly believed Clinton’s election was in the public interest. Serving his party’s partisan interest above the national interest is not an abuse of power, because in the President’s mind, his party’s partisan interest is the national interest. As Dershowitz put it: “If a president does something which he believes will help him get elected in the public interest, that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment.” It would be even less of a problem if he thought somebody else’s election was in the public interest.

So: trading Ukraine to the Russians to get Hillary Clinton into the White House — you may not like it, but it’s just one of those things. “Get over it,” Mick Mulvaney would say.

[1] This shows up most clearly in the Republicans whose beliefs about impeachment have made a 180-reversal since Bill Clinton’s impeachment in 1998 and his trial in 1999. Lindsey Graham is the most obvious example; he proposed a very expansive definition of “high crimes and misdemeanors” for Clinton then but a very restricted one for Trump now. Mitch McConnell looks just as bad. In 1998 he asked the question: “Will we pursue the search for truth, or will we dodge, weave, and evade?” This time around, he’s on the side of dodge, weave, and evade.

Lawyers who testified for the Republicans have also reversed themselves since Clinton. Then, Alan Dershowitz said “you don’t need a technical crime” to impeach Clinton. But as he watched these last two decades from his seat in the Afterlife, James Madison must have changed his mind. Because for Trump “the Framers intended that the criteria be, high crimes and misdemeanors — that is, existing criminal statutes.”

Jonathan Turley likewise didn’t think Republicans needed to prove that Clinton violated any specific law. “While there’s a high bar for what constitutes grounds for impeachment, an offense does not have to be indictable. Serious misconduct or a violation of public trust is enough.” But it’s not enough now that Democrats have impeached a Republican. “This would be the first impeachment in history where there would be considerable debate, and in my view, not compelling evidence, of the commission of a crime.”

Given this context, I’m not surprised that Republican senators don’t worry about the precedent they’re setting for a future Democratic administration. The precedent is that the rules are looser for Republicans than for Democrats. I expect them to uphold that precedent in any future impeachment.

In case you’re wondering, I laid out my criteria for impeachment before I knew what Robert Mueller would report, and long before the Ukraine scandal erupted. The current articles of impeachment fit them perfectly:

(1) Loyalty to self has eclipsed loyalty to the country. … (2) The president’s actions threaten the integrity of the election process. … (3) The president’s actions prevent investigations of (1) or (2).

[2] I wonder how much this tribal perspective is related to the increasing identification between the GOP and evangelical Christianity. Evangelicals see no similarity between their own sins (which God forgives) and other people’s sins (for which they will burn in Hell). So Trump is forgiven and Clinton is not — end of story.

[3] The 2015 video of Trump responding to Butina is worth watching for another reason: It demonstrates how much mental deterioration Trump has suffered in the last five years. In this video, he is asked a question and he answers it. He stays on topic for two whole minutes and speaks coherently the whole time. How long has it been since you’ve seen him do that?

The Monday Morning Teaser

The big news of the week is that the Republicans in the US Senate lived down to my lowest expectations: They resolved Friday that they will not make any independent effort to find out what Trump did. So, they will not hear from John Bolton or any other witnesses. They will not subpoena any documents. They’ll have some speeches this week and then vote Wednesday to acquit Trump of whatever it is somebody says he’s supposed to have done — not that they’ve been paying attention to that. Along they way, Trump’s lawyers made some truly appalling arguments that would do away with Congress’ impeachment power for any practical purposes, and more-or-less do away with checks and balances completely. (Good thing Republicans will forget all this stuff as soon as a Democrat gets elected.)

But the world didn’t stop to watch. The coronavirus kept spreading through China, and the world’s stock markets began thinking about the economic effects of the plague. Jared Kushner’s long-awaited Mideast peace plan came out, and was as one-sided as expected. (Israel gets what it wants, and the Palestinians are just supposed to give up.) Brexit finally happened. A chunk of Trump’s impenetrable wall blew over in a windstorm. Next year’s budget deficit is expected to pass $1 trillion, a mark never before reached in a year without an economic catastrophe.

Oh, by the way, the Iowa caucus is tonight. Nobody has the faintest idea who’s going to win.

So I wrote an extended fantasy about how the ideas expounded by Trump’s defenders would have allowed Obama to rig the 2016 election for Hillary Clinton without doing anything wrong. That should be out shortly. My reaction to Jared’s “vision” for peace just kept getting longer and longer, so I finally had to move it out of the weekly summary into its own article. That should come out by 10:30 EST. The weekly summary will mention all that other stuff, before closing with a Weird Al music video celebrating palindromes. That should be out around noon or so.

What Matters

Right matters. And the truth matters. Otherwise we are lost.

Adam Schiff

This week’s featured post is “Can Bankers Become Allies Against Climate Change?

This week everybody was talking about the impeachment trial in the Senate


Tuesday was taken up with procedural votes that all went along party lines: Republicans rejected motions to call witnesses or subpoena documents prior to hearing the lawyers’ arguments. Another vote will be taken this week, and is expected to also hew close to party lines.

All through the week, Republican senators kept saying that they were hearing nothing new. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand responded:

To my Republican colleagues who’ve complained that there’s no new evidence in this impeachment trial: You voted more than ten times to block relevant witnesses and evidence. Don’t bury your head in the sand and then complain that it’s dark.

The House managers presented the case against Trump Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. Adam Schiff was the lead voice, and he was brilliant. His 2 1/2 hour opening statement Wednesday pulled the various pieces of the argument together in a compelling way. His 48-minute closing statement Friday pre-buted the arguments Trump’s lawyers will make this week.

That no-new-evidence stance got a lot harder to justify yesterday, when leaks about John Bolton’s book appeared in the NYT. I can see why Trump doesn’t want him to testify.

President Trump told his national security adviser in August that he wanted to continue freezing $391 million in security assistance to Ukraine until officials there helped with investigations into Democrats including the Bidens, according to an unpublished manuscript by the former adviser, John R. Bolton.

The president’s statement as described by Mr. Bolton could undercut a key element of his impeachment defense: that the holdup in aid was separate from Mr. Trump’s requests that Ukraine announce investigations into his perceived enemies.

We’ve also seen a cover letter showing that Bolton sent the White House a copy of his manuscript on December 30. So presumably Trump’s lawyers know what’s in it. That raises another question about whether they have intentionally lied during the Senate trial.

Will any of this make any difference to GOP senators? I’m starting to doubt it. More and more it looks like seemingly independent senators like Collins or Murkowski or Romney are still puppets of McConnell, who is a puppet of Trump (who is a puppet of Putin).

To the extent that it makes any sense at all, Trump’s defense is basically the same one a clever mob boss would use: He worked by implication rather than by making explicit deals. Trump’s phone call was “perfect” because he got his point across without telling Zelensky something like: “Here’s the deal: I deliver the aid you need to defend your country from Russia, and you announce that you’re investigating Joe Biden.” Instead, Trump segued from Zelensky’s mention of Javelin missiles to “I need you to do us a favor, though” and then talked about investigations. The quid pro quo was implicit, so it’s OK. (And in case Zelensky was dense, Trump representatives like Gordon Sondland and Kurt Volker and Rudy Giuliani had previously explained the explicit quid pro quo to Zelensky’s people.)

It’s like when the mob boss says, “That’s such a lovely daughter you’ve got. I’m sure you worry a lot about the kinds of things that can happen to girls these days.” and then goes on to say what he wants the father to do for him. Because he never says, “I’m threatening you. Do what I say or your daughter gets hurt.” it’s a perfect conversation. At least in TrumpWorld.

Finally, somebody makes the obvious counter-argument to Trump defenders’ claim that impeachment is disenfranchising the voters who elected Trump. Frank Bruni:

If Republican leaders were really so invested in a government that didn’t diverge from voters’ desires, more of them would be questioning the Electoral College. Because of it, the country has a president, Trump, who received about three million fewer votes than his opponent.

Impeachment-and-removal is a constitutional process for getting rid of a corrupt president. Yes, it partially reverses the 2016 election. (It’s far from a complete reversal, because Mike Pence, not Hillary Clinton, becomes the next president.) And so it partially undoes the votes of the 63 million people who voted for Trump. But the Electoral College, another constitutional process, already completely undid the votes of 66 million Clinton voters. Trump’s people were fine with that disenfranchisement.

The strangest “defense” of Trump came from Lindsey Graham:

All I can tell you is from the president’s point of view, he did nothing wrong in his mind

That’s not a claim of innocence, it’s an insanity plea. I’m not exaggerating. One of the original statements of the insanity defense is known as the M’Naghten Rule:

to establish a defence on the ground of insanity, it must be clearly proved that, at the time of the committing of the act, the party accused was labouring under such a defect of reason, from disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing; or if he did know it, that he did not know he was doing what was wrong.

Isn’t that more or less word-for-word what Graham is claiming?

More support for the insanity defense: Wednesday, Trump tweeted or retweeted 142 times, a new record. Consider what that means: If you were online for 14 hours and tweeted something every six minutes, you’d still only get to 140. I think the guy needs to get a real job.

A Trump tweet from Sunday morning: “Shifty Adam Schiff … has not paid the price, yet, for what he has done to our Country!” A bit of translation is in order: In Trumpspeak, “our Country” means “me”.

So if you’re violent Trumpist like the El Paso shooter, you have your marching orders. The term for this is “stochastic terrorism“.

Last week I pointed out that the White House’s closing arguments had become more and more about intimidation. Thursday, CBS News tweeted:

A @POTUS confidant tells CBS News that GOP senators were warned: “vote against the president & your head will be on a pike.”

But what other argument do they have? It’s not like they can tell senators to do the right thing.

GOP senators are denying that the warning ever took place. I can imagine that the “@POTUS confidant” was speaking figuratively rather than relaying an exact quote.

Are there any bigger snowflakes than Republican senators? They were outraged that Jerry Nadler called their cover-up a cover-up. They were outraged when Adam Schiff referred to the CBS report about the “head on a pike” threat. (But so far they have expressed no outrage about Trump’s implicit threat of violence against Schiff.) It’s all distraction; they’d rather talk about their outrage than about what the president did, or how abjectly they’re bowing down to him.

More new evidence: A short video of a dinner in 2018 where Lev Parnas told Trump that he needed to get rid of Ambassador Yovanovich, and Trump said, “Get rid of her.” The importance of the video isn’t so much that Trump wanted Yovanovich out — presidents can have the ambassadors they want. (This is part of a 90-minute audio.)

The significance is twofold: First, Trump was lying when he said he didn’t know Parnas. This isn’t just a photo op, it’s a dinner conversation with a significant policy discussion. (Parnas’ attorney says he has other recordings of conversations with Trump.) Second, it’s not clear who Trump is telling to get rid of Yovanovich. If it’s Lev Parnas, that’s really weird, because Parnas is just a guy working with Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney.

and the new virus from China

Coronaviruses are common, and normally cause things like colds. But a new strain of coronavirus has appeared in the Chinese city of Wuhan, where it has caused pneumonia symptoms in thousands of people, leading to 80 deaths so far. Comparisons are being made to the SARS virus, which killed nearly 800 people in 2002-2003. Isolated cases of the new virus have been found in other countries, including five so far in the US. All five had traveled here from Wuhan, so thusfar there is no example of somebody catching the virus in the US.

China is taking this very seriously: Wuhan has been quarantined. At last count, the quarantine affected 50 million people, making it the largest quarantine in history.

One of the things I learned reading The Great Influenza (about the 1918-1920 Spanish flu epidemic) was that there is no libertarian answer to plague. Still, public health experts have considerable skepticism about the authoritarian approach China is taking. Somebody has to make public-health decisions and enforce them, but they only work if the public cooperates; that depends on a level of trust between leaders and citizens that is often lacking in authoritarian states.

and Mike Pompeo

Mike Pompeo’s interview with NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly, and her description of its aftermath, speaks volumes about this administration’s attitudes towards the press and the public. The interview is 9 1/2 minutes long, with an extra 1 1/2 minutes of Kelly describing what happened next. [Listen.]

The first topic is Iran. Pompeo repeats a number of common Trump administration lies about what Obama’s Iran nuclear deal did and how well Iran was complying with it. Kelly points out that since Trump pulled out of the deal, there are no longer any constraints on Iran’s nuclear program. She asks how the administration plans to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons. Pompeo stonewalls.

KELLY: My question again: How do you stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon?

POMPEO: We’ll stop them.

KELLY: How? Sanctions?

POMPEO: We’ll stop them. The President made it very clear. The opening sentence in his remarks said that we will never permit Iran to have a nuclear weapon. The coalition that we’ve built out, the economic, military, and diplomatic deterrence that we have put in place will deliver that outcome.

Then Kelly shifts to Ukraine, and in particular to whether Pompeo adequately stood up for Ambassador Yovanovich, who was targeted by Rudy Giuliani’s smear campaign, and then removed suddenly without explanation. Kelly is a tough but fair interviewer here, refusing to let Pompeo mischaracterize her question as based on “unnamed sources”, and referencing precisely the testimony she’s referring to. Pompeo again stonewalls (“I’ve done what’s right for every single person on this team” with no specifics.), and then abruptly cuts off the interview.

Kelly describes to he All Things Considered co-host Ari Shapiro what happened next:

You heard me thank the Secretary. He did not reply. He leaned in, glared at me, and then turned and with his aides left the room. Moments later, the same staffer who had stopped the interview re-appeared, asked me to come with her — just me, no recorder, though she did not say we were off the record, nor would I have agreed. I was taken to the Secretary’s private living room, where he was waiting, and he shouted at me for about the same amount of time as the interview itself had lasted. He was not happy to have been questioned about Ukraine. He asked, “Do you think Americans care about Ukraine?” He used the F-word in that sentence and many others. He asked if I could find Ukraine on a map. I said yes. He called out for his aides to bring him a map of the world with no writing, no countries marked. I pointed to Ukraine. He put the map away. He said, “People will hear about this.” And then he turned and said he had things to do, and I thanked him again for his time and left.

So asking tough questions gets a reporter yelled and cursed at. I assume the beatings won’t start until the second term. (I’m being a little flip there, but not much. How out of character would it be?)

Afterwards, Pompeo claimed:

NPR reporter Mary Louise Kelly lied to me, twice. First, last month, in setting up our interview and, then again yesterday, in agreeing to have our post-interview conversation off the record.

At least one of those claims was a lie. In an email exchange with Pompeo’s press aide Katie Martin, Kelly refused to limit her questions to Iran, as the aide had suggested.

Kelly responded, “I am indeed just back from Tehran and plan to start there. Also Ukraine. And who knows what the news gods will serve up overnight. I never agree to take anything off the table.”

Martin replied, “Totally understand you want to ask other topics but just hoping . . . we can stick to that topic for a healthy portion of the interview .

Pompeo went on to imply, while leaving himself room to deny it later, that Kelly pointed to Bangladesh. In addition to probably being a lie as well, what’s with that test anyway? It’s obviously a planned thing, because how many people keep blank world maps handy? And incidentally, how many countries does he think Trump could find on a blank map?

Former Ukraine Ambassador Bill Taylor (who you may remember from his testimony in the impeachment hearings) answered Pompeo’s “Do you think Americans care about Ukraine?” by explaining why we should.

Russia is fighting a hybrid war against Ukraine, Europe and the United States. This war has many components: armed military aggression, energy supply, cyber attacks, disinformation and election interference. On each of these battlegrounds, Ukraine is the front line.

and you also might be interested in …

Retired basketball star Kobe Bryant, star of five championship-winning teams, died yesterday in a helicopter crash. He was 41.

Trump’s trip to Davos cost over $4 million, plus another couple million for Air Force One.

The number of US service members reporting concussions or traumatic brain injuries from the Iranian missile attack two weeks ago is now up to 34. Immediately after the attack, Trump announced: “no Americans were harmed in last night’s attack by the Iranian regime. We suffered no casualties, all of our soldiers are safe, and only minimal damage was sustained at our military bases.”

As we all know, the Great Leader can never be wrong. So he has stuck by that assessment, dismissing the injuries as “headaches”.

I’ve noted on several occasions that in the last several years American life expectancy has been negatively affected by so-called “deaths of despair“: premature deaths due to suicide, drug overdoses, or the long-term effects of substance abuse.

A new study claims that we can do something to mitigate that problem: raise the minimum wage.

Using data from all 50 American states and the District of Columbia from 1990 to 2015, the authors estimate that a $1 increase in the minimum wage is associated with a 3.5% decline in the suicide rate among adults aged 18 to 64 with a high-school education or less. This may sound small, but the numbers add up. The authors reckon that a $1 increase would have prevented 27,550 suicides in the 25 years covered by the study; a $2 increase would have prevented 57,000.

I have to make the standard correlation-is-not-causality disclaimer. Maybe it’s not the minimum wage per se that produces the effect. It’s possible that the connection is more roundabout. For example, maybe high-minimum-wage states are mostly blue states that have fewer guns. (Guns make suicide attempts much more effective, and so raise the suicide rate.) Or maybe they have better mental health services.

Even if you’re not into basketball, you might find this NYT sports-medicine article interesting. Zion Williamson is 19 years old, stands 6-6, weighs 284 pounds, and is an incredible leaper. When he jumps, he puts more pressure on the floor (and hence on his body, in a Newtonian equal-and-opposite reaction) than any athlete previously tested. In college last year, he once changed directions with so much force that his sneaker exploded.

Two things result from that jumping and cutting ability in a man his size: (1) He was the #1 choice in last spring’s NBA draft, is widely projected to be the next great pro basketball star, and (2) he tore the lateral meniscus in his right knee during the pre-season, so he only played his first NBA game this week.

The article centers on two questions: Is Williamson’s knee just doomed to break down under the unprecedented stress, or can he still have a long career if he strengthens supportive tissues and learns to jump and land with better stress-distributing technique? And more generally, does premature specialization — playing nothing but basketball from an early age, rather than the usual seasonal round of sports — lead to greater injury risk in adulthood?

Hardly anybody noticed when, just before Christmas, ICE changed its standards to allow harsher treatment of detained immigrants. This week, Texas Observer noticed:

ICE broadened the reasons a detainee can be placed in solitary confinement and removed language preventing officers from using “hog-tying, fetal restraints, [and] tight restraints.” The agency also extinguished requirements for new facilities to have outdoor recreation areas and provisions guaranteeing that nonprofit organizations have access to the detention centers. There were also significant revisions to protocols in the case of serious injury, illness, or death, such as allowing guards to notify ICE “as soon as practicable” (as opposed to immediately) that a detainee needs to be transferred to a hospital and removing any mention of how to proceed if a detainee dies during the transfer. …

The new guidelines apply to as many as 140 facilities across the United States, including as many as 18 in Texas. The standards primarily apply to local jails and prisons that have contracted with ICE to rent beds to hold immigrants alongside other inmates. … Under the new weaker standards, chances are that local jails and prisons will have an easier time passing inspections and keeping their lucrative contracts with ICE in place.

But the new standards may just codify bad behavior that ICE was allowing anyway.

Although ICE conducts annual inspections in most detention centers, even those that repeatedly violate the standards are given a pass. Among the most egregious examples is Alabama’s Etowah County Detention Center, deemed one of the worst in the country, where the sheriff personally pocketed $400,000 meant to buy food for detainees while roughly 300 of them were served barely edible food. Despite the fact that the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties called for ICE to stop detaining immigrants at Etowah, a contract remains in place.

This is the end result of the Trump administration’s dehumanizing rhetoric about immigrants. (He seldom mentions immigrants without talking about “invasions“, or about criminal gangs, who are “animals” that “infest” our country.) We tolerate inhumane treatment because we’ve stopped seeing the victims as fully human.

Good article in Grist about plant-based meat. It has a lot of potential, but so far it’s mostly a curiosity. In order to have a serious impact on the climate, production will have to scale up a lot. And the people in the best position to produce on that scale, ironically, are the established meat-processing companies.

Right now, the best results are in replacing burgers or chicken nuggets. Imitating steak is much harder.

and let’s close with something amusing

Some signs at airports tell us more than we want to know.

Can Bankers Become Allies Against Climate Change?

The people who run the global financial system are beginning to recognize that “the stability of the Earth system is a prerequisite for financial and price stability”.

Bankers are easy to demonize. They are generally more interested in money than in people, and when they do show interest in people, it’s usually not the ones who are poorest and most in need of concern. On the contrary, they often align with large corporate interests that squeeze profits out of anyone they can victimize.

In short, if you approach the world from a moral perspective, you will often find bankers on the wrong side of the issues you care about. (At least in their role as bankers. In private life some may, for all I know, vote Green and write checks to the Sierra Club.)

But no matter how often they side with the dark angels, bankers are not themselves demonic. They are not into evil-for-evil’s-sake, and (unlike certain religious sects) they would rather not hasten the apocalypse. They just look at the world through a particular lens, and moral concerns have to bounce off several distant mirrors before hitting that lens.

Stability. One thing bankers do value is stability. Morally, that is sometimes a bad thing; it’s why they can be friendly to tyrants and skeptical of even the most justified revolutions. (In the lead-up to the Civil War, for example, few bankers were abolitionists, even in the North. Slaves represented a huge amount of capital, which collectively collateralized loans of enormous dollar-value. What would happen to the economy if all those people suddenly belonged to themselves, rather than to the owners who had borrowed against their value?) But stability is also a mirror in which they can see the threat of climate change: What could be more unstable than a world going through a climate catastrophe?

This week the Bank of International Settlements (described by the NYT as “an umbrella organization for the world’s central banks”) put out a report: The Green Swan: central banking and financial stability in the age of climate change. A lot of that report is full of banker-speak and is hard for non-bankers to read. But nonetheless I think environmentalists would do well to pay attention, because central banks could become allies in certain fights if environmentalists learn how to talk to them and recruit them. (The same might be said of generals, because the Pentagon also recognizes the dangers of climate change).

Perhaps more importantly, a lot of powerful people who don’t trust environmentalists or care about polar bears do trust bankers and care about the risk of financial collapse. Quoting the BIS (or the subsequent reports I hope to see from the Federal Reserve or the European Central Bank) will carry more weight with such people than quoting Bill McKibben or a report from the Environmental Defense Fund. Learning the language financial people use to express their climate concerns could help mobilize a larger coalition.

Background: black swans. One thing you need to understand about serious central bankers and macro-economists is that the Great Recession shook their confidence. A lot of them look back on the 2007-2008 collapse and think “Who knew that could happen?” Risks that they had been modeling as independent variables turned out to be correlated in ways nobody expected. So when the dominoes started to fall, the chain reaction went much further than anyone would have predicted.

That experience has led to interest in what have become known as “black swan events“. Black swans are an old metaphor for a simple fallacy: If you see a large number of things that look very similar (white swans), you start to assume that something radically different (a black swan) is impossible. But in fact black swans do exist. The term was popularized in financial circles by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who had the good timing to publish The Black Swan: the impact of the highly improbable in 2007.

The simple version of the black swan fallacy is that just because you’ve seen a lot doesn’t mean you’ve seen it all. You may feel confident because your data goes back 50 years, but what if there are catastrophic events that only happen every 100 years or 500 years?

The more complex version of the black swan fallacy is that statistical analysis often assumes that risk variables obey a normal distribution when the distribution actually isn’t known. That mistake can make extreme events seem far more improbable than they actually are. (When you hear statisticians talk about “long tails”, that’s what they mean.) Maybe something you’ve modeled as a once-in-500-years event is actually a once-in-40-years event that is overdue to happen.

Worse, there is a difference between risk and uncertainty. A risk is something that can be known and modeled. (A insurance company is taking a risk when it sells me life insurance, because I might die before I pay enough premiums to make them a profit. But the odds of a man my age dying in some particular future year are well understood.) Uncertainty is something you just don’t know. (Will Trump wind up in a war with Iran? How could you attach a number to that possibility?) Modeling something as a risk when it is actually uncertain can fool you into thinking you understand things much better than you do.

Green swans. One big problem climate-change activists have is that they are predicting things no living person has seen before. So rather than sober risk-managers, they can sound like religious fanatics. After all, somebody is always predicting the end of the world, and yet here we are.

We’ve seen a lot, so we think we’ve seen it all. And we’ve never seen Iowa turn into a desert or Miami get swallowed by the sea. (Until recently, though, we’d never seen Australia on fire either.) A very natural human response to such predictions is to say “That never happens.”

So the first challenge the BIS report has to overcome is its readers’ temptation to write the whole thing off as Chicken Littleism. That’s the point of its key image: the green swan. Green swans, like black swans, are unprecedented and largely unpredictable shocks to the system. But they don’t just surprise us because we’ve mis-estimated their probability; rather, they surprise us because we’ve entered new territory that we don’t really understand.

A green swan … is a new type of systemic risk that involves interacting, nonlinear, fundamentally unpredictable, environmental, social, economic and geopolitical dynamics, which are irreversibly transformed by the growing concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Climate-related risks are not simply black swans, i.e. tail risk events. With the complex chain reactions between degraded ecological conditions and unpredictable social, economic and political responses, with the risk of triggering tipping points, climate change represents a colossal and potentially irreversible risk of staggering complexity.

Two kinds of shocks to the system. Green swan events are of two major types: physical shocks and transition shocks. A physical shock is something that happens in the natural world: fire, drought, flood. Normally such things happen on a local scale that local systems can more-or-less take care of. But climate change could cause much larger physical shocks; for example, if a major ice sheet slid into the ocean all at once, raising sea levels suddenly rather than gradually. Think about this not from a human perspective, but from a central-bank perspective: Port facilities around the world all get wrecked at the same time; all the beachfront property in the world has suddenly dropped in value; banks that hold mortgages on that property are insolvent, as are insurance companies. As in the Great Recession, the financial dominoes start falling; you can’t pay me, so I can’t pay the other guy, and bankruptcies cascade to people and businesses nowhere near the ocean.

A transition shock is the market’s sudden revaluation of some class of assets, maybe because of a new government policy (like a carbon tax) or because some herd instinct causes investors to all change their minds at the same time. Dealing with climate change is going to involve revaluing a lot of assets. The biggest example is the value of fossil fuels still in the ground. Energy companies carry those assets on their books and value them at trillions of dollars. But if the world gets serious about climate change, most of those fuels will never be burned, so they’re not worth much at all. What happens to the world financial system if trillions of dollars of assets are suddenly worthless?

The two kinds of shocks trade off against each other: If we transition to a low-carbon economy quickly, we’ll see fewer physical shocks, but more transition shocks. If we move slowly, there won’t be so many transition shocks, but bigger physical shocks are coming.

The tragedy of the horizon. This is another bit of econo-speak that environmentalists can use. Every economist understands the “tragedy of the commons”, when a shared asset gets ruined because each individual can profit by overusing it.

So like “green swan”, the “tragedy of the horizon” plays off a well-understood concept. This time, the tragedy is that typical financial analysis happens on a timescale that minimizes climate effects. This is a “tragedy” because there’s no villain; financial analysis just isn’t trustworthy over long timescales, so practical people have learned to ignore it. (Example: Estimates of next year’s US federal budget deficit are usually pretty good, but nobody believes the ten-year estimate.)

This is what Mark Carney (2015) referred to as “the tragedy of the horizon”: while the physical impacts of climate change will be felt over a long-term horizon, with massive costs and possible civilisational impacts on future generations, the time horizon in which financial, economic and political players plan and act is much shorter. For instance, the time horizon of rating agencies to assess credit risks, and of central banks to conduct stress tests, is typically around three to five years.

One challenge the BIS report sets for the financial community, but does not solve itself, is how to overcome that tragedy. To appreciate the full scope of climate change, you have to look 50 or 100 years into the future. A climate plan that just tells us how to get by for the next ten years is all but useless. But how can that kind of thinking interact with models of inflation or unemployment or GDP that are pure fantasy at those timescales?

Epistemological breaks. A lot of the subtext of the report is that bankers are going to have to get used to living with uncertainty. Climate change is a large-scale multi-disciplinary problem that doesn’t lend itself to the kind of precise econometric modeling a central banker would like to see. (An unpredictable drought may cause an unpredictable migration of refugees and an unpredictable glut in the labor market of the sanctuary country.)

The term the report uses for this is the “epistemological break”. In other words: the way you’ve been thinking about things just doesn’t work any more. The kind of “knowledge” you’re looking for doesn’t exist.

The report calls for two epistemological breaks: First, to place less importance on predictive analysis based on past data (i.e., next year’s earnings estimates), and instead to stress-test against a variety of forward-looking scenarios (i.e., how would this bank do in case of a sudden jump in the cost of carbon emissions?).

[T]raditional approaches to risk management consisting in extrapolating historical data based on assumptions of normal distributions are largely irrelevant to assess future climate-related risks. Indeed, both physical and transition risks are characterised by deep uncertainty, nonlinearity and fat-tailed distributions. As such, assessing climate-related risks requires an “epistemological break” (Bachelard (1938)) with regard to risk management. In fact, such a break has started to take place in the financial community, with the development of forward-looking, scenario-based risk management methodologies.

And second, to be proactive in pushing both governments and the private sector to implement carbon-limiting policies.

Whereas they cannot and should not replace policymakers, [central bankers] also cannot sit still, since this could place them in the untenable situation of climate rescuer of last resort

Central bankers like to portray themselves as “above politics”, but they certainly express opinions about taxes and deficits; they should do so about climate policy as well. (The report regards some form of carbon tax or carbon pricing as a no-brainer. Governments should do at least that much.)

So what’s a central banker to do? Typical central banking picks up the pieces after disasters happen. That’s what banks and governments did after the Great Recession: bought up troubled assets and created a lot of new money to get economies rolling again.

The report says that won’t work as a green-swan policy, because of the “limited substitutability between natural capital and other forms of capital”. In other words, if the Earth stops producing the stuff humans need to survive, giving people money won’t help. In a limited disaster, money allows the people affected to import resources from elsewhere. But in a global disaster, there is no elsewhere.

Central banks’ main power is in creating money and setting interest rates, but they also regulate the banking system, which in turn influences the companies the banks deal with.

The ways in which accounting norms incorporate (or not) environmental dimensions remains critical: accounting norms reflect broader worldviews of what is valued in a society (Jourdain (2019)), at both the microeconomic and macroeconomic level. From a financial stability perspective, it therefore remains critical to integrate biophysical indicators into existing accounting frameworks to ensure that policymakers and firm managers systematically include them in their risk management practices over different time horizons

The report (in some of its more technical passages, which may have gone over my head) proposes a number of ways central banks might use this power to change the economy as a whole. By defining new measures of sustainability and demanding that client banks report those measures, a central bank can alter the overall financial culture, with the result that “climate-related risks become integrated into financial stability monitoring and prudential supervision”.

[A] systematic integration of climate-related risks by financial institutions could act as a form of shadow pricing on carbon, and therefore help shift financial flows towards green assets. That is, if investors integrate climate-related risks into their risk assessment, then polluting assets will become more costly. This would trigger more investment in green assets, helping propel the transition to a low carbon economy (Pereira da Silva (2019a)) and break the tragedy of the horizon by better integrating long-term risks

Adding up to this:

Faced with these daunting challenges, a key contribution of central banks and supervisors may simply be to adequately frame the debate. In particular, they can play this role by: (i) providing a scientifically uncompromising picture of the risks ahead, assuming a limited substitutability between natural capital and other forms of capital; (ii) calling for bolder actions from public and private sectors aimed at preserving the resilience of Earth’s complex socio-ecological systems; and (iii) contributing, to the extent possible and within the remit of the evolving mandates provided by society, to managing these risks

What’s it mean for us? The direction of the world seldom changes all at once, and different sectors catch on at different rates. As different segments of society change their minds, it’s important to let them do so, and to encourage them. Each will have its own language for talking about its new ideas, and they can’t be expected to learn our language just because we got there first.

During the transition period, people whose worldview comes from that sector will have both the new frame and the old frame in their minds simultaneously, and either can be activated depending on how you approach them. (This is similar to what George Lakoff says about swing voters. It isn’t that they have a well-worked-out in-the-middle worldview; it’s that their minds contain both a liberal frame and a conservative frame. Depending on how they are approached, one frame or the other will be activated.) If you want to get such people on your side, it helps if you learn the language of their new frame and bypass obsolete arguments, rather than sticking with the old terminology and insisting on winning those arguments.

The Monday Morning Teaser

I think you’ll be pleased to learn that this week’s Sift is not entirely about impeachment. I’ll pay attention to the Senate trial, of course, because how can you not? But the featured article is about a much longer-term situation: I’ll explain some of what’s in a fascinating report from the Bank of International Settlements, The Green Swan: Central banking and financial stability in the age of climate change.

OK, maybe that didn’t sound as fascinating to you as it did to me, but give me another sentence or two. The report represents an important shift: the world’s central bankers are starting to get religion about climate change. They could become allies instead of enemies, at least on some issues. The report contains this line, which is (on the one hand) obvious to environmentalists, but (on the other) revolutionary in central-banking circles: “The stability of the Earth system is a prerequisite for financial and price stability.”

I’m running a little late this morning, so that article probably won’t be out until 11 or so EST. The weekly summary has a lot to cover and will run long: the impeachment trial, the drip-drip of new evidence against Trump, the Chinese coronavirus, Mike Pompeo’s outrageous attack on an NPR reporter, the sports-medicine significance of Zion Williamson’s knee, and a number of other things. I’ll predict that to appear around 1.