Very Fine Terrorists

In Charlottesville and around the globe, we stand firmly in stating there are not very fine people on both sides of this issue.

Charlottesville, VA Police Chief RaShall Brackney
announcing the arrest of a teen who threatened an “ethnic cleansing”
at Charlottesville High School

This week’s featured posts are “A Very Early Response to the Mueller Report” and “Confronting Season-Change Denial“.

This week everybody was talking about the Mueller Report

It’s done, but you don’t get to read any of it yet, beyond Attorney General Barr’s four-page summary. It’s easy to get caught up in speculation, which I tried to keep to a minimum in the featured post.

and the 2020 Democrats

Remember: At this point four years ago, the Republican front-runners were Jeb Bush and Scott Walker, and people argued over whether dark horses like Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz might overtake them. Trump wouldn’t come down the escalator talking about Mexican rapists until June, and most self-appointed prognosticators weren’t taking his candidacy seriously until he won New Hampshire the next February. (I’ve got nothing to brag about in that regard.) There was even a Ben Carson boom in November, 2015 (a point still 8 months in the future for this cycle) when he briefly passed Trump in the polling averages.

So take all this with a grain of salt, but right now polls say Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders are the front-runners, with Biden maybe a nose ahead. There’s also buzz about Kamala Harris and Beto O’Rourke. Maybe that’s meaningful, but maybe it isn’t. Most of the candidates are people that the public has barely heard of. And even if you do know about Cory Booker or Elizabeth Warren or Amy Klobuchar, you may not have put much serious thought yet into imagining any of them as president.

My personal guess, for what it’s worth, is that both Biden and Sanders are vulnerable. I don’t have any idea who comes out of this scrum, but if you offered me the Field against Biden and Sanders, I’d take the Field.

Biden’s support is largely nostalgia for Obama, and Biden isn’t Obama. That will quickly become clear when his official campaign starts. And Bernie’s popularity has long been exaggerated, first by his underdog status against Clinton, and then by regret after Clinton lost. Campaigning as a co-frontrunner will be a completely different experience for him. That fact is already showing up in his favorable/unfavorable numbers, which are starting to look like any other candidate’s.

One theme I see developing in the early stump speeches is the contrast between values and policies. Elizabeth Warren has been very policy-heavy, with proposals like breaking up the big tech companies and changing the way capitalism works in this country. Bernie Sanders also has a very specific list of policies — Medicare for All and free college being the foremost — and his followers are using them to test whether other candidates are progressive or not. (Since the policies come from Bernie’s list, ultimately he’s going to be the only candidate who qualifies as a progressive.)

But it’s an interesting question how many voters care about such specific proposals, and how many write them off as undeliverable promises. At the other extreme, Beto O’Rourke talks mainly about progressive values — like taking care of sick people and helping young people get the education they need — while dodging questions on specific proposals. Talking about values can be more inspiring than explaining the details of your legislation, but I think voters also need some assurance that the values aren’t empty: Maybe you don’t go deeply into the details, but we need some assurance that you have done your wonkish homework and could get into that if anybody wanted to hear it.

538 pours cold water over those what-voters-want-in-a-candidate surveys.

The reality is that what voters say they value doesn’t appear to match which candidates they support. … Indeed, what voters say they value can change depending on which way the political winds are blowing. To see this, we need only go back to the last presidential primary. In March 2015 — the same point in the 2016 cycle as we are in now for the 2020 cycle — 57 percent of Republican and Republican-leaning voters told the Pew Research Center that it was more important for a candidate to have experience and a proven record than new ideas and a different approach. Only 36 percent preferred a candidate with a fresh approach. But when Pew asked the same question just six months later, the results were reversed: 65 percent of Republicans and Republican leaners preferred new ideas and a different approach, while 29 percent said experience and a proven record were more important.

I have to admit: When first I heard that a 37-year-old gay mayor of a medium-sized city (South Bend, Indiana) wanted to run for president, I decided this news was not worth my further attention.

But maybe it is. There seems to be a minor (so far) Pete Buttigieg boomlet underway. He’s made some well-received appearances on TV, and this interview in Esquire hits all the right notes. Suddenly he’s polling in double digits in Iowa.

By coincidence, I’ve just finished reading Jim and Deb Fallows’ book Our Towns, where they visit a bunch of small and medium-sized American cities that are doing something right. One of their underlying themes is that while national politics is polarized and log-jammed, local politics actually works in a lot of places. They suggest that mayor may be the best job in politics right now, because you have a chance to carry out your vision and do things that produce positive change in your constituents’ lives. So it makes sense that a mayor would project a nice balance of principles and practicality.

One of the impressive things in this clip from The View is how easily and naturally he talks about his Christian religion. Unlike Trump, he clearly knows something about that religion. He lays claim to the Bible’s progressive views on helping the poor, while neither pandering to fellow Christians nor casting non-Christians as the enemy.

and the electoral college

One of Elizabeth Warren’s many policy proposals is to get rid of the Electoral College, as she suggested at her recent CNN townhall meeting in Jackson, Mississippi.

My view is that every vote matters. And the way we can make that happen is that we can have national voting. And that means: Get rid of the Electoral College.

When you consider that two of the last five presidential elections have been won by the popular-vote loser, and that those presidents (George W. Bush in 2000 and Donald Trump in 2016) have been pretty horrible, the Electoral College is hard to defend.

But it’s been interesting to watch Republicans try. The EC gives small states disproportionate weight, which in general shifts power in the direction of rural areas, which tend to be more white and more Republican than the country as a whole. (All of those statements are generalities that have specific exceptions. Texas is a big conservative state, while Vermont is a small liberal state. Rhode Island is a small state whose electorate is overwhelmingly urban.)

Mark Thiessen writes:

The purpose of the electoral college is to protect us from what James Madison called the “tyranny of the majority.” Each state gets to cast electoral votes equal to the combined number of its U.S. representatives (determined by population) and its senators (two regardless of population). The goal was to make sure even the smallest states have a say in electing the president and prevent those with large, big-city populations from dictating to the less populous rural ones.

This is totally fake history. Madison and the Founders did worry about the tyranny of the majority, but their solution was to put limits on what government could do, by precisely enumerating the government’s powers and by adding a Bill of Rights that protects individuals. Also, the largest state at the time was Virginia, which was dominated by its rural plantations rather than its big cities.

The Electoral College was about something else entirely, and doesn’t work anything like the way the Founders envisioned. They intended electors to run on their own reputations as men (yes, men) of wisdom, not on their prior support of specific candidates. The EC would then make a judgment entirely separate from the voters. And since the Founders didn’t believe in political parties, probably the electors wouldn’t be organized enough to give anyone a majority vote (except in cases where the choice was obvious, like George Washington). So in most cycles they’d end up being a nominating body for the House of Representatives, which would make the final choice. In short, the Founder’s fear wasn’t about the tyranny of the majority, it was about the ignorance of the rabble — a point present-day Trumpists should probably stay away from.

So the present effect of the EC has little to do with the Founders’ vision, and has instead evolved into a simple boost for rural white voters, whose votes have more weight than those of urban people of color. Defending that system involves arguing that rural whites deserve a weightier vote. Thiessen does that like this:

Thanks to the electoral college, Democrats have no choice but to try to win at least some of those voters back if they want to win the presidency. But if we got rid of the electoral college, Democrats could write off voters in “fly-over” country and focus on turning out large numbers of their supporters in big cities and populous liberal states such as New York and California. Unburdened by the need to moderate their platform to appeal to centrist voters, they would be free to pursue full socialism without constraint.

In other words, rural white voters deserve a weightier vote because they are more sensible than urban people of color, who might get hoodwinked into electing socialists. That’s what this argument boils down to.

and you also might be interested in …

In the wake of the Christchurch mosque shooting, it took New Zealand less than a week to ban military-style weapons.

“In short, every semi-automatic weapon used in the terrorist attack on Friday will be banned in this country,” said [Prime Minister Jacinda] Ardern.

Wednesday an anonymous post on 4chan (a favorite discussion site for white supremacists) “threatened an ethnic cleansing in the form of a shooting at the poster’s school, telling white students at CHS to stay home”. By Friday, Charlottesville, VA police had arrested a 17-year-old who isn’t a Charlottesville High student. Charlottesville schools had been shut down for two days.

An arrest was also made Friday in response to a threat against nearby Albemarle High School. That threat appeared on Thursday. The two arrested teens don’t seem to have conspired, but whether or not the Albemarle threat was inspired by the Charlottesville threat is still being investigated.

From Associated Press:

The Alabama Senate has approved a bill to abolish judge-signed marriage licenses as some conservative probate judges continue to object to giving marriage licenses to same-sex couples. … A few Alabama probate judges for years have refused to issue marriage licenses to anyone so they do not have to give them to gay couples.

To me, this issue underlines the fact that “conscience” is a special right reserved for Christians. Any government officials who imposed their sincerely held non-Christian beliefs on the public would soon find themselves unemployed.

Picture it: Your county’s chief health inspector believes that his Jain religion forbids his participation in the killing of animals. So he refuses to approve any meat-serving restaurants. How long does he keep his job?

We’re #19! We’re #19!

The new World Happiness Report is out. The happiest country in the world is still Finland, followed by Denmark, Norway, and Iceland. (I detect a correlation between socialism and happiness. MAHA!) The US is 19th, between Belgium and the Czech Republic. According to the FAQ:

The rankings are based on answers to the main life evaluation question asked in the [Gallup World Poll]. This is called the Cantril ladder: it asks respondents to think of a ladder, with the best possible life for them being a 10, and the worst possible life being a 0. They are then asked to rate their own current lives on that 0 to 10 scale.

The report then interprets the extent to which a country’s happiness depends on six factors (which the report calls “sub-bars”): “GDP, life expectancy, generosity, social support, freedom, and corruption”. Some news sources (the Washington Post, for example) erroneously report that the rankings are “based” on these factors, but the FAQ explicitly says that’s not true.

The sub-bars have no impact on the total score reported for each country, but instead are just a way of explaining for each country the implications of the model estimated in Table 2.1. People often ask why some countries rank higher than others – the sub-bars (including the residuals, which show what is not explained) are an attempt to provide an answer to that question.

As I’ve said many times, when you rant at length about whatever dumb or crazy or offensive thing President Class Clown just said, you’re playing his game. So I’ll just briefly note something that got a lot of attention this week: He can’t seem to stop dissing John McCain, whose death prevents him from responding.

People are talking about this as a bad-taste or low-character thing, but it strikes me as a sign of mental instability. I think lots of us occasionally find ourselves arguing  with the dead people who live on in our heads. But when you start defending your side of that argument out loud, in front of living people who don’t hear those voices, it’s a sign you need help.

I’m not just making a cute jibe; I’m serious. Stuff like this is why I think even Republicans should be worried about Trump continuing in office. He’s been lucky so far, in that he hasn’t faced a challenge on the scale of the Cuban Missile Crisis. But if something like that comes up, are you really confident he won’t snap completely?

and let’s close with something illuminating

A fascinating presentation of population data — historical and projected — about the world’s largest cities. from 1950-2035. A similar video goes from 1500 to the present.

Confronting Season-Change Denial

How can we be sure those predictions of 90-degree August days aren’t just alarmism?

For months now, scientists have been predicting a warming trend in the northern hemisphere. The exact reasons are a little technical — something to do with the tilt of the Earth’s axis as it makes its annual trip around the Sun — but the overwhelming majority of scientific experts have formed a consensus around a theory called “season change”. Supposedly, we were in “winter” back in January and February, but some time in the last couple weeks we passed into “spring”, which the theory says will lead into “summer”, a bizarre time when the snow will vanish completely, trees will sprout green leaves so dense that they will form shade-casting canopies over some small-town streets, and ultimately temperatures will be hot enough to fry eggs on the sidewalk (a practice that is not recommended).

I grant you that this all sounds a bit unlikely in light of our recent weather experiences here in New England, and the idea that we have crossed into a new “season” of growth and going outside without coats sounds a little New-Agey, a bit too similar to the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. After all, we supposedly crossed into spring on Thursday, but I didn’t feel any change, and when I got up Saturday morning (in Bedford, Massachusetts) there was new snow on the ground.

All the same, though, I’m told that the science here is pretty solid. And if the eggheads’ predictions are true, then there’s no time to waste. We are already experiencing the early effects of season change, and if we’re going to be ready for the greater changes to come, we need to start taking action now: planting gardens, checking air conditioners, finding our baseball equipment, getting the lawn mower out of storage, reserving that cottage in Maine, and stocking up on the shorts, sandals, and sunblock that we will all need if we are going to survive the coming hot times.

If you start making these preparations, though, you’re bound to trolled by an annoying chorus of science-rejecting nay-sayers: season-change deniers. “All this talk of ‘spring’ and ‘summer’ is so much ivory-tower mumbo-jumbo,” says my friend Jim, who sells snow-blowers. “It’s a hoax perpetrated by the apparel companies to make you box up perfectly good wool sweaters and down jackets, so that they can sell you flip-flops and T-shirts. And don’t get me started on the seed companies.”

Season-change deniers have their own web sites and Facebook groups, where they share counter-arguments to anything you might throw at them in your attempts to prove that the seasons are changing. “It was 64 degrees in Boston on March 15,” I tell him. “That never happened in February. That must prove something.”

But, of course, pointing to a warm day just allows him to point to a cold day, like the snow I already mentioned on Friday night. One day’s weather, I’m forced to admit, does not make a season. And while I can find graphs of January through March that show a clear temperature uptrend, he can respond with his own graphs, like this one from, that starts on that warm March 15.

“As you can clearly see,” his email tells me, “the temperature trends have been down for the last ten days. So even if there once was some kind of ‘seasonal warming’ going on, it ended in mid-March.”

I suppose I could reject his graph by throwing back at him his previous claim that data like this ultimately comes from weather services, which he doesn’t believe because they are all staffed by season-change believers. (That’s true, it turns out. If you call any weather service in the country, the person you talk to will endorse season-change theory without even mentioning arguments against it.) But conversations like that have not gone well in the past. They tend to spiral off into claims and counter-claims that make me lose track of how we got onto this subject.

Pointing to buds on trees only leads him to claim that he saw similar buds during that warm spell in January. I don’t remember them, but he does, so that discussion also goes nowhere.

There’s one argument, though, that Jim has never really had a good answer for: the days are getting longer and the nights shorter. The warmth of the sun is something we can all feel, so it seems intuitively clear that all the extra sunlight is eventually going to lead to warmer weather — and perhaps, by July and August, to oppressively hot weather, hard as that is to imagine. And unlike temperature, the length of the days doesn’t fluctuate: Every one is a little bit longer than the one before, and will be until the summer solstice in June.

In the past he has dodged and distracted when I bring up the lengths of days, so maybe if I compile a list of sunrise and sunset times going back to the winter solstice and projected ahead to the summer solstice, that will finally get through to him. I should probably try that. But I’m not sure I’m going to have time today; I need to go out and buy a pair of shorts.

Afterward. Obviously, I’m making an analogy to climate change, and the kinds of arguments you will hear from people who deny the science around that. The explanation of why climate change is happening is a little more complicated than the explanation of season change — the position of the Earth’s axis relative to its orbit around the Sun produces longer days in the northern hemisphere, and all that extra solar energy eventually warms the atmosphere — but not that much more complicated: Burning fossil fuels produces carbon dioxide, which collects in the atmosphere and acts as a greenhouse gas, preventing some of the Earth’s heat from escaping into space; the more carbon dioxide, the less escaping heat, and hence a warmer planet.

The analogy to the days getting longer is the rising concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. (Temperature will, of course, fluctuate during the year according to time and place, and even year-to-year statistical measures like the average global temperature don’t increase in lockstep, with each year warmer than the last. That’s why you will see those claims that global warming ended in 1998 or 2005 or some other hot year. My season-denialist’s claim that seasonal warming peaked on March 15 is an exact analogy to that argument.) But other than an annual cycle caused by northern-hemisphere forests binding CO2 into their leaves, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere does indeed go up every year. Even if this year turns out to be cooler than last year, atmospheric CO2 is still increasing.

Living in New England, I experience a number of chilly March and April days when I think, “Is spring really going to happen this year?” But I look at the sunrises and sunsets, and that fear goes away.

Similarly, but with the dread pointed in the other direction, I also sometimes look at temperature graphs and wonder if maybe global warming has leveled off without us having to make any sacrifices. But then I look at the CO2 graphs and know that these hopes are just wishful thinking. As long as atmospheric CO2 keeps rising — and it has shown no signs of stopping for a long, long time — hotter years are coming just as surely as August will be warmer than March.

A Very Early Response to the Mueller Report

Yesterday afternoon, Attorney General William Barr delivered to congressional leaders his summary of the conclusions of the Mueller report, which he received Friday. You might as well read it yourself, because it’s only four pages long. Key quotes:

The report does not recommend any further indictments, nor did the Special Counsel obtain any sealed indictments that have yet to be made public.

The report outlines the Russian effort to influence the election and documents crimes committed by persons associated with the Russian government in connection with those efforts. … The Special Counsel’s investigation did not find that the Trump campaign or anyone associated with it conspired or coordinated with Russia in its efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election … despite multiple offers from Russian-affiliated individuals to assist the Trump campaign.

The Special Counsel did not draw a conclusion — one way or the other — as to whether the examined conduct [of the President] constituted obstruction. … The Special Counsel states that “while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.” … Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and I have concluded that the evidence developed during the Special Counsel’s investigation is not sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense.

[M]y goal and intent is to release as much of the Special Counsel’s report as I can consistent with applicable law, regulations, and Departmental policies.

A few things worth noting.

1. Once Mueller found that Trump was not involved in the original crime, obstruction became harder to establish. Barr reviews the three factors needed to prove obstruction:

  • “obstructive conduct”, i.e., doing something that impedes the investigation
  • “nexus to a pending or contemplated proceeding” i.e., not just making investigators’ lives difficult in some generic way, but disrupting an effort aimed at charging some particular crime
  • “corrupt intent”

All three have to be present in the same action. So while it’s undeniable that Trump has been undermining the investigation in all sorts of ways, proving in court that a particular action was done knowingly to prevent investigators from reaching a particular outcome might be difficult. If Trump had been involved in the Russian conspiracy, then the corrupt intent that he not be caught would be obvious.

Mueller apparently thought that judgment was beyond his pay grade, so he gathered the evidence and kicked the decision upstairs, where Barr and Rosenstein decided there wasn’t enough to prosecute. The issue of whether a sitting President can be indicted didn’t come up, because the process didn’t get that far.

2. The “applicable law, regulations, and Department policies” that could prevent parts of the report from becoming public have to do with the rules that prevent abuse of the grand jury process. This is not a phony issue, because theoretically a prosecutor could use a grand jury to dig up all sorts of non-criminal dirt about somebody — including speculative testimony that isn’t corroborated by any other evidence — and then publish it.

That said, the regulations themselves could be used to cover up stuff that the public ought to know. We’ll have to see how this plays out.

3. So far, the process seems to be working, despite fears on both sides. On the one hand, Mueller was allowed to finish his work and write a report, which (so far, at least) the Attorney General seems to be handling in a responsible way. On the other, there’s no sign of the “witch hunt” by “angry Democrats” that Trump has been ranting about.

4. If it’s really true that Trump didn’t conspire with the Russians to get elected, that has to count as good news.

5. One reason the Trump-conspired-with-Russia theory has been so persuasive was that it explained a number of things that otherwise seem mysterious: Why did so many of Trump’s people have contacts with Russians during the campaign? Why did they lie about those contacts later? And why has Trump been so subservient to Vladimir Putin since taking office?

If Trump didn’t conspire with Russia to get elected, those mysteries don’t go away, and they require some alternative explanation. The first could possibly be pinned entirely on Russia: Putin’s people tried really hard to infiltrate the Trump campaign, so they approached anybody they could. But the second still seems mysterious to me. Why, in particular, did Michael Flynn need to lie to the FBI about conversations during the transition concerning sanctions against Russia? Why did Jared Kushner leave his conversations with Russians off his security clearance form?

And then there’s the mystery of Helsinki. What makes it impossible for Trump to disagree with Putin in public, even when all his intelligence services tell him something different than Putin is saying? Does it have something to do with Russian money that has gone into Trump’s real estate projects in the past? Is it related to prospects for future Trump Organization profits? Congress needs to pursue this.

The Monday Morning Teaser

We’re in a particularly strange part of the news cycle: The Mueller Report is finished, but we don’t really know what it says yet. We have a four-page summary by Attorney General Barr, which came out yesterday, but does not completely answer our questions. Barr says he’ll release as much as he can of the rest of the report, after he has combed it to protect the integrity of the grand-jury process. We’ll see if that happens, how long it takes, and whether Barr decides to err on the side of transparency or hide as much as he can get away with.

In the meantime, we have the summary to digest: no further indictments or sealed indictments, a conclusion that Trump was not a conspirator in the Russian effort to make him president, and a decision by Barr that evidence of obstruction of justice (which Mueller collected, but did not make a recommendation about) does not rise to a level that is worth pursuing in an indictment.

I’ll talk about that in one short featured post, which should be out before 9 EDT. The other featured post will be more light-hearted: “Confronting Season-Change Denial”, which makes an analogy between arguments about climate change and the difficulty New Englanders have convincing each other that spring has really come, with summer to follow. That should be out before 11.

The weekly summary will cover developments in the 2020 race, New Zealand’s fast reaction to the mosque shootings, Trump’s strange obsession with John McCain, the World Happiness Report, and a few other things, before concluding with a marvelous graphic presentation of how the world’s largest cities change through time.


We are experiencing an invasion on a level never seen before in history. Millions of people pouring across our borders, legally, invited by the state and corporate entities to replace the White people who have failed to reproduce, failed to create the cheap labor, new consumers, and tax base that the corporations and states need to thrive. … Mass immigration will disenfranchise us, subvert our nations, destroy our communities, destroy our ethnic bonds, destroy our cultures, destroy our peoples — long before low fertility rates ever could. Thus, before we deal with the fertility rates, we must deal with both the invaders within our lands and the invaders that seek to enter our lands. We must crush immigration and deport those invaders already living on our soil. It is not just a matter of our prosperity, but the very survival of our people.

The Manifesto of Brenton Tarrant
explaining why he killed 50 Muslims in Christchurch, New Zealand

Last month, more than 76,000 illegal migrants arrived at our border. We’re on track for a million illegal aliens to rush our borders. People hate the word “invasion,” but that’s what it is. It’s an invasion of drugs and criminals and people.

President Trump,
explaining his decision to veto the bipartisan Congressional resolution
terminating the state of emergency he declared in order to build his wall

This week’s featured post is “Fear of White Genocide: the underground stream feeding right-wing causes“.

This week everybody was talking about white supremacist terrorism

50 people were killed and another 41 injured in shootings at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand on Friday. One man has been charged with murder, and two other suspects have also been arrested.

The suspect, Brenton Tarrant, live-streamed 17 minutes of the massacre on Facebook, and had previously published a manifesto on 8chan. I look at the manifesto in the featured post.

Josh Marshall echoes my feelings about how Trump responded:

He gave a generic condemnation of the massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand and then proceeded to give a meandering speech about foreign “invasion”, i.e., immigrants “rushing our border”, calling them “murderers and killers”. In other words, moments after denouncing the massacre he went on with a lie-laden screed much of which was indistinguishable from the attacker’s manifesto.

and the college admissions scandal

As so often happens when some illegal plot is uncovered, it turns out that the bigger scandal is what people do legally every day.

As it stands now, well-to-do families can game the college admission process in a lot of ways, and there’s no consensus about where to draw the line. Of course parents who can afford it move to the upscale school district that will give their kids the most advantages. From there, families with money can spend it on courses that will pull up SAT scores, producing an additional advantage over students too poor too afford such courses, as well as those too poor even to retake the test. At an elite high school, you can make the varsity team in sports that inner-city public-school kids may never have heard of, like water polo or lacrosse. Ivy League schools have teams in such sports, so you might get recruited as an athlete, increasing your chances further.

Maybe Mom or Dad is a good writer who can coach you on writing a convincing college-application essay, or maybe they’ll get frustrated with you and just write it themselves. They can even hire a consultant to design your whole high school career, so that your resume will look good to Ivy League schools. Activities originally envisioned as opportunities to find yourself — sports, theater, music, student government, community service — instead teach you to manufacture a persona that will be attractive to those who will judge you. Or your wealthy parents can help you fake that career, bribing teachers and coaches to back up your story, or paying proctors to look the other way when a smarter kid takes a test for you.

Those last things are illegal, but you crossed the line into unfair a long time ago. But where, exactly? What’s cheating, and what’s just doing right by your child? How are you going to feel as a parent if you challenge your sons or daughters to make it on their own, and then you see less deserving kids vault over them?

One corrosive idea in the background of all this is that getting onto the right track is more important than learning the virtues that a meritocratic system is supposed to nurture and reward. Getting degrees is more important than developing talents. High test scores matter more than the knowledge the tests are supposed to measure. Education is not a thing of value in itself, it’s a gate to get through any way you can.

and  the first significant Republican rebellion against Trump

The Senate took two moves to oppose Trump this week.

Thursday, 12 Republicans crossed over to vote with the Democrats on the resolution to terminate Trump’s national emergency declaration. The emergency is still in effect though, because Trump vetoed the resolution. There weren’t enough votes in either house to overturn a veto, so now the issue is up to the courts.

This issue gave senators a clear choice between supporting Trump and defending Congress’ constitutional power to control spending. The 41 Republicans who supported Trump should be reminded of this every time they try to pose as defenders of the Constitution. That ship has sailed and they chose not to be on it.

One interesting fact about who sided with Trump against the Constitution: Republicans who are up for re-election in 2020. Among that group, only Susan Collins voted for the resolution. Thom Tillis of North Carolina had a particularly bizarre performance: He had explained in the Washington Post why his principles required him to vote for the resolution, and then he voted against it. I guess we know what his principles are worth now.

Wednesday, the Senate voted 54-46 to end US aid for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. The resolution is virtually identical to one passed by the House in February, so some Yemen resolution should soon be headed to the White House, where Trump is expected to veto it. The Senate had previously passed a Yemen resolution in December, when Republicans still controlled the House; then-Speaker Paul Ryan refused to let the House vote on it.

The resolution invokes the War Powers Act of 1973, which puts a time limit on conflicts not approved by Congress. In the unlikely event that Congress could override Trump’s expected veto, there would undoubtedly be a battle in court over the constitutionality of the WPA, which both Congress and the White House have danced around since 1973. Presidents of both parties have held that the WPA intrudes on the President’s constitutional power as commander-in-chief, while supporters of the WPA have held that it reclaims Congress’ constitutional power to declare war. (Significantly, the WPA itself was passed over President Nixon’s veto.)

The Yemeni War started in 2015, when Houthi rebels deposed President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, who fled to Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have been trying to restore him to power ever since, while the rebels are believed to be armed by Iran (though both the Houthis and Iran deny this). Since the Obama administration, the US has provided logistic and intelligence support for the Saudi forces, but US troops have not been involved in the fighting.

Increasingly, the Yemeni War is seen as a humanitarian disaster. National Interest sums it up:

Four years later, the Saudis have failed to disgorge the Houthis from the capital city or make significant inroads in the country. The deaths from direct violence and the Saudi bombing campaign are inconclusive but are estimated at over 50,000 people. Before the intervention, Yemen was the poorest country in the Middle East and had to import over 90 percent of its food supplies. A Saudi naval blockade along its coasts has led to a man-made famine with up to fourteen million people on the brink of starvation. The lack of nutrition and the destruction of health- and water-related infrastructure due to the bombing has led to the largest outbreak of cholera in modern history, with 10,000 new cases a week. It is the worst humanitarian crisis happening in the world.

Saudi Arabia has become a source of conflict between Trump and Senate Republicans. The Trump administration has identified itself with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), a friend and possible financial patron of Jared Kushner, and Trump himself has accepted MBS’ improbable claim of innocence in the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. In December, the Senate passed a resolution condemning MBS’ role in the murder.

The killing of Khashoggi now appears to be part of a much larger scheme to silence critics of MBS.

and gun control

The Connecticut Supreme Court rejected a lot of the claims that parents of Newtown massacre victims raised against the company that manufactured the weapon, but it left one tantalizing avenue open: wrongful marketing. The claim is that Remington advertised the Bushmaster rifle in a way that encouraged its illegal use.

The case is still far from won, but it does get to go to the discovery phase. That means plaintiffs can look at the Remington emails and internal memos concerning the Bushmaster’s marketing, which might be very embarrassing for the company.

and you also might be interested in …

Beto is in, Sherrod Brown is out. Now we’re mainly waiting on Joe Biden’s decision to complete the field. (I refuse to devote serious attention to this race until we have a complete field.) Beto’s first campaign event was in Keokuk, Iowa, the next town up the river from Quincy, Illinois, where I grew up. So I watched the video wondering, “Why haven’t I ever been to that coffee shop?”

One way to defuse criticism about lack of experience is ignore it and to do your job at a high level. In Congress, that means Investing time in researching the issues, so you can ask questions that are smart and pointed rather than just showy. Here, second-term Rep. Nanette Barragan of California nails Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen about the Trump administration’s illegal policy of turning away migrants seeking asylum.

And here, freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York grills Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross about where the idea of adding a citizenship question to the census actually comes from. (This clip was posted by the conservative Daily Caller, so the title seems critical of AOC. But I’m using it because it includes her full questioning of Ross, rather than just the highlights.)

Peter Beinart notes a dog that hasn’t been barking: Most Democrats running for President did not invoke God in their announcement speeches. This is a change from a few cycles ago, when such speeches routinely ended with “God bless America” or some other religious phrase.

A second interesting point: Not long ago, political rhetoric in both parties had an ecumenical slant, with worship of God portrayed as something that united Americans, even if Americans pictured God in divergent ways. Now, at least on the left, religion is more likely to be mentioned as a source of divisions we need to overcome.

Meanwhile, rhetoric on the right has become increasingly sectarian. Republicans uphold Christianity while denouncing Islam (something George W. Bush pointedly refused to do after 9-11: “The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace.”). On the extreme right, blatant anti-Semitism is common. And while Trump himself on occasion denounces anti-Semitism in general, he has refused to recognize or criticize anti-Semites in his base (like the neo-Nazis who chanted “Jews will not replace us” in Charlottesville), and used anti-Semitic tropes himself in the 2016 presidential campaign.

Remember how Barack Obama hinted that his supporters might riot if he lost? Me neither, because it never happened.

Trump, however, did just that this week:

I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump – I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad.

The New York attorney general’s office isn’t letting go of the Trump Foundation scandal. New York wants Trump to pay $5.6 million “in restitution for spending money from his charitable foundation on business and political purposes”.

and let’s close with something

My favorite performers of anachronistic music do the Pinky and the Brain theme in an early-20th-century nightclub style.

Fear of White Genocide: the underground stream feeding right-wing causes

The Christchurch shooter’s manifesto is a Rosetta Stone for multiple strains of crazy.

I don’t usually recommend that you read something I totally disagree with, but this week I’ll make an exception: If you have the time, look at the the 73-page manifesto posted by Brenton Tarrant, who apparently killed 50 worshipers Friday at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. If you don’t have quite that much time, just look at the Introduction on pages 3 and 4.

Manifestos of terrorist murderers are usually described in the press as the incoherent ramblings of diseased minds. And perhaps sometimes they are; I haven’t read that many of them. But reading this one struck me the opposite way: The ideas fit together, and once you accept a fairly small number of baseless notions and false facts, everything else spins out logically. What’s more: this ideology links a large number of right-wing notions that we on the left usually imagine as separate pathologies, and either ignore as absurd or argue against in a whack-a-mole fashion.

So I think it’s worth trying to understand.

The assumption in the background. One idea seems so obvious to Tarrant, and presumably to his target readers, that it goes without mentioning until fairly deep in the text: Races are real things. So there is a White race, and its members are united by something far greater than a tendency to sunburn. Whites are a “people” who have a culture. [1] Whiteness is an identity, an Us that exists in an eternal evolutionary war with all the Thems out there.

To Tarrant, there is some essential nature to all the races and peoples.

Racial differences exist between peoples and they have a great impact on the way we shape our societies. … A Moroccan may never be an Estonian much the same as an Estonian may never be a Moroccan. There are cultural, ethnic, and RACIAL differences that makes interchanging one ethnic group with another an impossibility. Europe is only Europe because if its combined genetic, cultural, and linguistic heritage. When non-Europeans are considered Europe, then there is no Europe at all. [2]

Birthrates. There’s a worldwide phenomenon that is fairly well understood: When a society becomes wealthy, educates its women, and gives them opportunities in addition to motherhood, birth rates go down. A woman who has a shot at being a CEO or a cancer researcher may or may not decide to have children, but she almost certainly won’t have 7 or 8 of them. That’s why educating women is seen as a possible long-term solution to the population explosion.

There’s nothing about this phenomenon that is specifically white — it applies equally well to Japan, for example, and countries in Africa have seen the same effect among their educated classes — but European countries (and countries like the US and Australia that were largely settled by European colonists) do tend to be wealthy and relatively feminist. So birthrates are down across Europe. And in the US, recent immigrants of non-European ancestry have higher birthrates than whites.

So largely as a result of their own economic success, majority-white countries tend to have birthrates below replacement level. As economic growth continues, opportunities open up for immigrants, who retain their higher birthrates for a generation or two after they arrive. All over the world, then, majority-white countries are becoming less and less white, with the possibility that whites themselves might eventually become a minority.

One recent estimate has the United States becoming a minority-white country by 2045. As I pointed out in August, we’re-losing-our-country is an old story in the US: Once the US was majority-English, until German immigrants (and Africans brought here by force) made the English a minority. For a while longer, it was majority-Anglo-Saxon, until a wave of Irish, Italian, and Eastern European immigrants put an end to that. Each time, alarmists claimed that the nation was losing its soul — Ben Franklin worried about the arrival of the Pennsylvania Dutch — but somehow America continued to be America.

But now combine the diminishing white population with the conviction that race really means something. Sure, 21st-century Americans can laugh at Franklin’s fear of people who put hex signs on their barns and make all those buttery pies. But now we’re talking about a whole different race. This was a white country, and now it’s being taken over by other races! Other peoples are taking what’s ours, but they’re doing it through demographics rather than warfare.

We are experiencing an invasion on a level never seen before in history. [3] Millions of people pouring across our borders, legally, invited by the state and corporate entities to replace the White people who have failed to reproduce, failed to create the cheap labor, new consumers, and tax base that the corporations and states need to thrive. … Mass immigration will disenfranchise us, subvert our nations, destroy our communities, destroy our ethnic bonds, destroy our cultures, destroy our peoples — long before low fertility rates ever could. Thus, before we deal with the fertility rates, we must deal with both the invaders within our lands and the invaders that seek to enter our lands. We must crush immigration and deport those invaders already living on our soil. It is not just a matter of our prosperity, but the very survival of our people.

Tarrant presents demographic estimates of what will happen:

In 2100, despite the ongoing effect of sub-replacement fertility, the population figures show that the population does not decrease in line with these sub-replacement fertility levels, but actually maintains, and, even in many White nations, rapidly increases. All through immigration. This is ethnic replacement. This is cultural replacement.


If you believe in this demographic invasion that is taking your people’s lands, then it follows logically that there are no non-combatants. People are stealing your country simply by being here.

There are no innocents in an invasion. All people who colonize other peoples’ lands share their guilt. [4]

In particular, children are not innocent. They will grow up and vote and reproduce (probably in large numbers, because “fertility rates are part of those racial differences”). So Tarrant was not worried that he might kill children. The point here is not to kill all the immigrants, but to kill enough to drive the rest out and deter future immigrants from coming.

Few parents, regardless of circumstance, will willingly risk the lives of their children, no matter the economic incentives. Therefore, once we show them the risk of bringing their offspring to our soil, they will avoid our lands. [5]

Why don’t I fear losing my country? As I said, Tarrant’s demographics aren’t wrong, at least in the US. (White nationalists in European countries tend to overestimate how many non-whites surround them. France, for example, is still about 85% white. The prospect of whites becoming a minority there is still quite distant.) So why don’t I, as a white American, feel as alarmed as he does?

And the answer is that I don’t see any reason why non-whites can’t be real Americans. Back in the 90s, my wife and I went to China to support our friends as they adopted a baby girl. That girl is now in her mid-20s, and I have watched her grow up, including seeing her on every Christmas morning of her life. To the best of my ability to judge such things, she is as American as I am. I do not worry in the least that some essential non-American nature is encoded in her genetic makeup, or that her presence is turning America into China. [6]

In my view, America (or Western culture, for that matter) isn’t something that arises from the essential nature of the White race. America is something we do, not something we are. It is an idea that can be shared by anyone who is inspired to share it.

So when I picture that white-minority America of 2045 (which I have a decent chance of living to see), I don’t see it as a country that “my people” have lost. That’s because I already see the idea of America and Western culture being shared by lots of other folks that Tarrant would see as invaders, like, say, Fareed Zakaria, Ta-Nahisi Coates, or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. I have faith in the continuing strength of the American idea, which I believe will continue to inspire a majority of Americans well beyond 2045. California, where whites are already less than half population, still feels like America to me.

Assimilation. Tarrant lacks faith in assimilation, because he sees race as having a direct effect on culture. This is a common belief among white nationalists, and many whites who resonate with white-nationalist concerns, even if they don’t identify with the movement.

A frequent complaint on the American right, which you will hear often on Fox News, is that recent immigrants are not assimilating the way previous waves of immigrants did. The data does not bear this out, but it is believed because white-nationalist ideology makes it seem necessary: Hispanics and other non-white immigrants can’t assimilate the way Italians and Poles did, because they aren’t white.

In memory, we tend to forget how long it took waves of European immigrants to assimilate. Whites who can remember their grandparents speaking Hungarian at home are somehow appalled that Hispanic immigrants don’t instantly learn English, or that they form ethnic enclaves (like, say, Little Italy in New York). American Catholics may feel that immigrant Muslims are changing the essential Christian nature of their country, but they forget that America once saw itself as a Protestant nation, and many felt threatened by immigrant Catholics in precisely the same way. (Catholicism was viewed as a fundamentally authoritarian religion that could never adapt to republican America.)

In fact, Catholics from Ireland, Italy, Poland, and other European countries did change America. But America also changed Catholicism. The same thing is happening with Islam.

Anti-democracy. If shared genes are what makes us a people, if immigrants by definition can’t join us, and if my people are in danger of losing their land due to a demographic invasion, then democracy as it is currently practiced — where immigrants gain citizenship and become voters — is just part of the national suicide process. An invasion isn’t something that can be voted on, especially if the invaders are allowed to vote.

Worse, even before the invaders become the majority, democracy has been corrupted by those who hope to gain from the invasion and the “cheap labor, new consumers, and tax base” that it brings. So Tarrant has no love of democracy.

Democracy is mob rule, and the mob itself is ruled by our own enemies.

Until now, I’ve relegated comparisons to American politics to the footnotes. But this is where it needs to come into the foreground. Because several important Trumpian concepts have moved onto the stage:

  • the notion of a unified corporate/government “elite” whose interests are at odds with the American people
  • a fundamental disrespect for democracy
  • the righteousness of violent action if and when the wrong side wins elections.

Trump and his allies have not come out and said openly that democracy is bad, but the notion that gerrymandering, the Electoral College, purging legal voters from voter lists, and various forms of voter suppression are undemocratic carries very little weight with them. The myth that undocumented immigrants vote in large numbers, which circulates despite an almost total lack of evidence, persists as a stand-in for an unspoken underlying concern: that immigrants become citizens and vote legally.

Trump fairly regularly either encourages violence among his supporters or hints that violent action might follow his impeachment or defeat.

All of this makes sense if you believe that democracy is only legitimate as a way for a People to govern itself, and becomes illegitimate when a system designed for a People becomes corrupted by the votes of invaders.

Sex and gender. Tarrant’s manifesto is addressed almost entirely to White men, whom he urges to defend their homelands.

Weak men have created this situation and strong men are needed to fix it.

He has little to say about women, but the implications of his beliefs should be obvious: If the underlying problem is a low birthrate among whites, the ultimate fault lies with white women. Women who let their professional or creative ambitions distract them from motherhood, who practice birth control, abortion, or lesbianism — their failings aren’t just matters of personal morality any more, they’re threats to the survival of the race.

The closest Tarrant comes to addressing this is:

Likely a new society will need to be created with a much greater focus on family values, gender and social norms, and the value and importance of nature, culture, and race.

But it doesn’t take much imagination to picture this new society: It will have fewer opportunities for women, and less acceptance of women in roles other than motherhood. It will also discourage men from abandoning their procreative roles through homosexuality, and will in general support the “traditional value” of separate and unchanging gender roles.

It is easy to see the attraction of this ideology to a variety of crazies, including incels, who have themselves at times become violent terrorists. The same opportunities that have diverted women from motherhood have likewise made them more picky about the men they choose to procreate with, with the result that some men find themselves unable to have the active sex lives they feel they deserve. Incels are already overwhelmingly white, so the attraction of a white-nationalist ideology that would restrict women’s choices should be obvious.

Power and purpose. All of these positions enhance the power of groups that are already privileged: whites, the native-born, Christians, and men. They could be attractive to those groups on that cynical ground alone. But cynicism alone seldom succeeds for long, because the pure quest for power and advantage only inspires sociopaths. The rest may pursue that quest, but never without misgivings.

The charm of an ideology, though, is that it can give power-seeking a higher purpose: I seek these advantages not just for myself, but to save my people from annihilation!

The underground stream. Few American politicians openly embrace white nationalism as a label, even if their views align with it. Even Steve King disclaims the term, and Republicans who share many of his white-nationalist views have felt obligated to distance themselves from him.

At the same time, though, something is motivating them. It is hard to listen to Trump’s litany of falsehoods about the border without wondering what the real justification for his Wall is. Obviously it’s something he doesn’t think he can get away with saying in so many words.

Similarly, it’s hard to see what other ideology unifies the full right-wing agenda: anti-illegal-immigration, anti-legal-immigration, anti-democracy, anti-abortion, anti-birth-control, anti-women’s-rights, anti-LGBTQ, anti-Muslim, anti-black, and so on.

When asked about white nationalist terrorism after the Christchurch shooting, President Trump waved off the problem, saying: “It’s a small group of people.”

Perhaps. Or perhaps it is the ideology that dares not announce itself: Its followers just “know” the truth of it, but can’t say so because of “political correctness”. More and more, white nationalism — and the demographic fear at its root — looks like the underground stream that feeds all the various insanities of the Right.

[1] I discussed and rejected this notion a couple years ago in a piece called “Should I Have White Pride?” The artificiality of “white culture” becomes obvious to me when I start trying to imagine a White Culture Festival: What food would we serve? What traditional costumes would we wear? It makes sense to hold a German Festival or a Greek Festival, but a White Festival, not so much.

[2] The evidence for this impossibility is of the we-can’t-imagine-that variety. If you picture a Moroccan and an Estonian next to each other, they just seem different, at least to Tarrant and his target audience.

But of course, the same is true for any lands that are far apart, even within Europe. Italians seem different from Swedes, when you picture them, but somehow they are all white Europeans. To see if the concepts of whiteness and European-ness have any real substance, you’d want to check what happens at the boundaries. So better questions would be: Could a Greek become a Turk, or vice versa? Could a Moroccan became a Spaniard? Those transformations don’t seem nearly so difficult, and in fact are easier for me to imagine than a Spaniard becoming an Estonian.

But in fact, such transformations happen all the time, particularly here in the United States, where we have a long history of light-skinned blacks passing as white, to the point that after a few generations the shift may be forgotten. If you have a Greek-American immigrant living on one side of you and a Turkish-American immigrant on the other, you might have a hard time telling the difference, either racially or culturally. Both would likely have dark hair and make baklava and strong coffee. Both sets of children will likely be as American as yours.

[3] President Trump agrees with Tarrant about this. On the same day as the 50 murders — and, in fact, during a public appearance that began with his statement of support for New Zealand in dealing with these attacks — Trump announced his veto of the bipartisan Congressional resolution to terminate the national emergency that he intends to use to commandeer money to build his wall. Within a few paragraphs, he went from denouncing the “monstrous terror attacks” in New Zealand to echoing the attacker’s rhetoric.

People hate the word “invasion,” but that’s what it is. It’s an invasion of drugs and criminals and people.

[4] Several people have cited this and many other of Tarrant’s statements as examples of projection. Who, after all, has done more colonizing of “other peoples’ lands” than Europeans? Isn’t that how the US, New Zealand, and a bunch of other places became “White nations” to begin with?

Though accurate, I doubt this observation would unsettle Tarrant. “Guilt” here is a relative concept, and is not related to a universal morality. Of course peoples contest with each other for possession of lands in the evolutionary Us-against-Them struggle for survival and dominance. Of course native peoples should have regarded colonizing whites as invaders and tried to repel them.

[5] There’s a strong resonance here with the Trump administration’s family separation policy. Like Tarrant’s attacks, it is an intentional cruelty whose purpose is to deter future immigrants by threatening their children.

[6] Iowa Congressman Steve King disagrees. He tweeted:

[Dutch nationalist leader Geert] Wilders understands that culture and demographics are our destiny. We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.

The Monday Morning Teaser

When terrorists publish manifestos, I don’t usually read them. They tend to be long, and the people who do read them tell they are rambling and incoherent. But I did read the manifesto of the white nationalist who killed all those Muslims in Christchurch, and I think it’s worth your attention. What struck me is that it actually is coherent: a fairly small number of bad beliefs lead logically to a whole bunch of bad results. What’s more, that ideology links a large number of pathological views that liberals like me often address in whack-a-mole fashion. I think we need to consider white nationalist ideology as an underground stream that unites much of the Trumpist agenda.

With that in mind, in today’s featured post I’ll attempt a deep reading of the Christchurch shooter’s manifesto. There’s still a lot of work to do on that yet, including picking a title, so it may not be out until around 11 EDT. The weekly summary also has a lot to cover — the college admissions scandal, Congress’ rejection of Trump’s emergency, and a few other things — so it may not be out before 1.

With Compassion

You wanted to separate children and families, and you wanted to do it with compassion?

Rep. Nanette Barragán,
questioning Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen

This week’s featured posts are “Where is Congress’ Center on Climate Change?” and “The Balloon Pops on Trump’s Economic Promises“.

This week everybody was talking about investigations

Last week’s Michael Cohen testimony was just the overture. This week House Democrats started the hard work of investigating the many irregularities of the Trump administration. The NYT runs down the various avenues of investigation.

  • Judiciary Committee (chaired by Jerry Nadler): obstruction of justice and abuse of power.
  • Oversight Committee (Elijah Cummings): hush money payments to Stormy Daniels and Karen MacDougal, and Trump’s over-ruling of the ordinary security clearance process to get clearances for Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump.
  • Intelligence Committee (Adam Schiff): Russian interference in US elections, as well as undue influence over Trump wielded by Saudi Arabia or other nations.
  • Ways and Means (Richard Neal): Trump’s tax returns.
  • Foreign Affairs (Eliot Engel) (in concert with Intelligence and Oversight): the meetings Trump had with Vladimir Putin with no other Americans present.

Nadel announced a sweeping document request this week, sending letters out to 81 people or entities. However, this set of requests was not as onerous as it might otherwise sound: The Judiciary Committee has started by requesting documents that have already been turned over either to Mueller’s investigation or someone else.

Republicans, who investigated Benghazi eight times and would probably launch a ninth if Hillary Clinton seemed likely to run again, objected to Democrats’ overreach, obstructionism, and waste of time.

Various pearl-clutching folks worry about a public backlash against investigating Trump, similar to the backlash against the Bill Clinton impeachment. But I think that only happens if the investigations are perceived to be making a big deal about nothing, as Republicans often did when Obama was president. It looks to me like there’s so much Something to investigate that Democrats won’t get around to investigating Nothing for a long, long time.

In addition to the investigations focused on Trump himself and the Trump Organization, there are also hearings about the administration’s policies. Wednesday, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen testified before the House Homeland Security Committee about the general situation on the Mexican border, and in particular about the zero-tolerance policy that has separated immigrant children from their parents. (Full C-SPAN video here.)

Chair Bennie Thompson of Mississippi led off by citing the numerous false statements the president has made to justify his national emergency declaration, and said:

Today, the secretary can choose whether to be complicit in this administration’s misinformation campaign or she can correct the record.

Nielsen tried to do neither; she acknowledged facts (the number of people trying to cross illegally is down substantially since 2000, the great majority of drug smuggling comes through ports of entry rather than across the unwalled parts of the border) without admitting that she was contradicting the President.

Questioned about kids in cages, she got semantic about the definition of a cage. And the kids weren’t kids, they were UACs (unaccompanied minors). I’ll let WBUR’s Steve Almond sum up:

Her performance was among the most chilling spectacles of the Trump era. … What stood out was Nielsen’s robotic manner, her sheer bureaucratic heartlessness. …

Over and over again, legislators asked Nielsen to reckon with the effects of tearing young children away from their parents. Nielsen responded with the kind of bureaucratic doublespeak more commonly associated with fascist regimes — a rhetoric intended to eliminate the moral problem of her own conduct by dehumanizing the children her agency routinely traumatizes.

and Paul Manafort

Trump’s former campaign chairman was sentenced to 47 months in prison, drastically less than the sentencing guidelines (19-24 years, essentially a life sentence for a man about to turn 70) for the crimes he was convicted of. The best response I saw is in a New Yorker cartoon. A couple is in their living room and Trump is on the TV. “On the other hand,” the wife is saying, “four years can seem like a life sentence.”

This sentence results from only one of Manafort’s two trials, the one in Virginia where the judge has consistently seemed sympathetic to him. He still hasn’t been sentenced for his convictions in D.C. The Virginia sentence covers the eight felonies he was convicted of there: five counts of filing false tax returns, two counts of bank fraud (i.e., getting bank loans under false pretenses), and one count of failing to disclose a foreign bank account. According to reports, only one holdout juror prevented his conviction in ten more crimes. The Washington Post described the eight felonies in everyday English:

At a trial last year, Manafort was found guilty of hiding millions he made lobbying on behalf of Ukrainian politicians in overseas bank accounts, then falsifying his finances to get loans when his patrons lost power.

The comparatively light sentence raises three issues:

  • In general, courts treat white-collar criminals with more leniency than street criminals. Manafort is an example of the adage Mario Puzo put into the mouth of Don Corleone in The Godfather: “One lawyer with a briefcase can steal more than a hundred men with guns.” The lawyer will also go to prison for less time. There are a variety of reasons for this: The white-collar criminal has better lawyers, so the government is usually happy just to get a conviction. Also, judges identify more with educated suit-wearing criminals than with lower-class muggers or burglars. Judges find it harsh to put an educated professional in prison, which they see as an appropriate place for low-lifes.
  • The judge at times expressed resentment with what the prosecution was trying to do: convict Manafort of crimes that had nothing to do with Trump or Russia, in order to put pressure on him to talk about Trump and Russia. This is a common enough tactic in organized-crime cases, but Judge T. S. Ellis didn’t like it here. Manafort wasn’t being prosecuted for being close to Trump, but if he hadn’t been at the center of the Trump/Russia scandal, investigators probably wouldn’t have devoted enough resources to his case to prove his crimes, so he probably would have gotten away with all this. You have to wonder how many similar crooks are walking around free. Does that make you feel like Manafort is being treated unfairly, or not?
  • Beyond simple class affinity, Ellis seemed to have a bizarre personal identification with Manafort, crediting testimony that he has been “a good friend” and “a generous person”, and absurdly concluding that Manafort has “lived an otherwise blameless life”. (A person who had lived an otherwise blameless life wouldn’t be awaiting sentence for a different set of felonies in another jurisdiction.) In response, The Atlantic laid out how Manafort’s career has revolved around enabling bad people to do bad things. Even when he wasn’t breaking the law, he was happy to be paid in blood money from the tobacco industry; from Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos; from apartheid-funded Angolan generalissimo Jonas Savimbi; and from Putin’s client in Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych. In short, Manafort is a dyed-in-the-wool villain. Villains may also have friends, and if they sometimes distribute their dubious profits more generously than people whose money comes from honest work, that doesn’t disprove their villainy.

Ellis is a Reagan appointee. It seems sad that we have to mention the political affiliations of judges, but that’s the point our legal system has reached. I don’t know how to explain this sentence without invoking political bias.

This week, Manafort faces another sentencing hearing in the District of Columbia, where he has pleaded guilty to witness tampering and conspiracy against the United States. Judge Amy Berman Jackson (an Obama appointee) has shown him far less sympathy. This is also where his cooperation agreement blew up because he continued lying to prosecutors and may have spied on them for Trump.

Also, Bloomberg reports that New York state is ready to file charges against Manafort if President Trump pardons him for his federal crimes.

At the state level, [New York County District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr.] is preparing an array of criminal charges. While their full extent isn’t clear, they would include evasion of New York taxes and violations of state laws requiring companies to keep accurate books and records, according to one of the people, who asked not to be identified because the investigation is confidential.

While we’re on this topic, I’m seeing all sorts of speculation about when the Mueller report will come out and what it will say. What if it has some smoking-gun evidence against Trump? What if it doesn’t? What if Trump has AG Barr try to suppress it? I just want to remind everybody: Speculation can be fun, but it doesn’t really matter. Mueller will produce something eventually. The House majority will figure out a way to see the significant parts of it. It will say what it says. At that moment, all the TV-hours and column-inches of speculation will instantly become irrelevant.

So if speculation is a fun game you play with your friends, go ahead. But if it’s making you nuts, you can stop. Reality can take care of itself.

A piece that skirts the edge of speculation, but has value anyway, is Quinta Jurecic’s in yesterday’s NYT. The headline “Will There Be Smoking Guns in the Mueller Report” teases speculation, but the value of the article is in organizing our thoughts about what questions still need answers.

and economic reports

I cover them in one of the featured posts.

and you also might be interested in …

Arizona Senator Martha McSally revealed that when she was in the Air Force, she had been raped by a superior officer. McSally retired as a colonel in 2014.

She joins another Republican senator, Joni Ernst, who said in January that she had been raped in college, and that her husband had assaulted her. Their divorce was finalized in January.

I wish I’d gotten to edit the New Yorker’s article about Fox News: It mixes really alarming stuff with the kind of stuff we’ve come to expect.

The most alarming thing is that Fox had the Stormy Daniels story before the election, and decided not to run it because “Rupert wants Donald Trump to win.” It’s also alarming the way that Fox has merged with the administration, so that sometimes it’s hard to tell who’s leading who. Did the Fox & Friends hosts get an idea from Trump, or did Trump get it from them?

Similarly, people go from Fox to the administration and back, with no clear change of loyalties. It’s all one big operation. “It’s the closest we’ve come to having state TV,” says the University of Virginia’s Nicole Hemmer.

Trump has taken over Fox the way he’s taken over the Republican Party: Both used to represent American conservatism, but there’s really no room in either any more for an anti-Trump conservatism. Reagan conservatism — free trade, pro-NATO, pro-immigration, willing to compromise — is pretty much dead.

Speaking of the Fox/Trump pipeline, former Fox executive Bill Shine is out as White House communications director.

The administration is trying to hassle reporters who tell the American people what’s actually going on at the border.

Customs and Border Protection has compiled a list of 59 mostly American reporters, attorneys and activists who are to be stopped for questioning by border agents when crossing the U.S.-Mexican border at San Diego-area checkpoints, and agents have questioned or arrested at least 21 of them, according to documents obtained by NBC station KNSD-TV and interviews with people on the list.

Looks like the Trump/Kim romance has hit a rough patch. North Korea is preparing a new missile launch.

The collapse of a chain of for-profit colleges that leaves 26,000 students in the lurch illustrates the whole problem with for-profit colleges: They have no mission to educate. Rather than a duty to the students, they have a duty to make money for their stockholders.

The easiest way to extract profit from students who dream about having a college degree is to manipulate government programs: Sell the students a fantasy, get them to max out their student loan potential, and give them as inexpensive an education as will keep the scam going. If and when the whole thing goes belly-up, the scammers keep their profits and the kids are still on the hook for loans.

The wrinkle in this particular collapse is that the collapsing entity is technically non-profit: The Dream Center is a spin-off of a Los Angeles megachurch. It acquired the for-profit Education Management Corporation in 2017 in a transaction the Trump administration approved despite the church’s complete lack of experience in higher education. The original press release said:

As part of the acquisition, the Dream Center Foundation will be converting the EDMC schools into not-for-profit institutions with the intent of investing a percentage of revenue into humanitarian and charitable programs supported by the Dream Center Foundation in Los Angeles and throughout the United States.

In other words: profit by another name. The colleges would be cash cows for other Dream Center programs.

Dream Center showed little inclination to curb the tactics that got Education Management in trouble, like misleading students about their employment prospects. The executives it installed cultivated a high-pressure culture in which profit surpassed all other concerns, according to a report filed last year by Thomas J. Perrelli, the court-appointed monitor overseeing the schools’ compliance with their state settlements.

The students are left with nothing. They won’t get the degrees they were working for. Their credits probably won’t be accepted by any accredited institution. And they still owe on their loans for previous semesters, though this semester’s federal loans will be forgiven under a school-closure program.

Obama tried to shut these scams down, but the Trump administration has relaxed the regulations again.

and let’s close with something aetherial

I’ve been hearing for years that Iceland in winter is a great place to see the aurora borealis, but this display of a dragon and a phoenix are a bit much.


The Balloon Pops on Trump’s Economic Promises

The data that came in this week wasn’t terrible, but it was far from Trump’s campaign rhetoric.

It’s hard to know how to respond when Trump sets up a stupid benchmark and then fails to meet it. On the one hand, the failure points out that his policies haven’t done what he expected them to do, because the world doesn’t work the way he thinks it does. But on the other hand, I don’t want to validate the benchmark, because then I’ll start feeling obligated to judge future presidents by it.

Case in point: the mercantile trade deficit, which set an $891 billion record in 2018, despite Trump’s promise to shrink it.

Trump takes a pre-Adam-Smith mercantilist view of trade; if a country sells us more stuff than we sell to them, then they’re “beating” us and we need to do something to stop “losing” to them. The economic reality is a lot more complicated. (The libertarian Cato Institute explained this back in 1998, when a trade deficit of $250 billion seemed scandalous.) True, they might be selling us more because they make better products more efficiently. But it also might be because the strength of the dollar makes our exports look artificially expensive. And the dollar might be strong because people around the world want dollars; they view it as a more secure store of value than their home currency; or they want to invest their savings in the US because the American system has more respect for the rule of law; or for some other reason. Maybe what we’re trading for those refrigerators and TVs is paper, like shares in start-up corporations that pop up in the US because our economy does a better job nurturing such things. And so on.

Also, focusing on the deficit in goods ignores services. So if some country makes our bicycles while we handle their banking and insurance, the mercantile trade deficit may say that we’re “losing”, when in reality we might be trading bad jobs for good jobs.

So anyway, Trump has identified the mercantile trade deficit as a major problem, which it isn’t. When he was campaigning in 2016, he said:

Today, our manufacturing trade deficit with the world is nearly $800 billion. And going up, going up fast. Unless I become president. You will see a drop like you’ve never seen before.

In July, Trump falsely told a crowd:

Thanks to our powerful trade policies, the trade deficit is falling and falling and falling.

The point of all his tariffs and trade wars has been to bring the mercantile trade deficit down, so that we stop “losing” to other countries. But it’s not working, as any economist could have told him ahead of time. In 2018, we also ran a somewhat smaller surplus in services, so the overall trade deficit was $621 billion, the highest since 2008.

That graph should tell you something about our mercantile trade deficit: It went way down in 2009. (It also wasn’t “going up fast” in 2016. That was a lie.) What was happening in 2009? A lot of stuff we wouldn’t want to repeat, like massive unemployment that caused people to stop buying stuff. Also, the price of oil crashed in the Great Recession, so that our energy imports cost less. A lower mercantile trade deficit is not always a good thing.

GDP presents another how-to-cover-this quandary: What should I say when the administration makes ridiculously optimistic predictions, and then the results that come in are just OK?

So, after some delay due to the government shutdown, the 2018 GDP stats are in: The economy grew 2.9%. That’s not bad, and even kind of good when looked at realistically. It’s at the upper range of recent annual growth results. GDP grew 2.9% in 2015, but that was the top mark for the Obama administration. 2016 came in at 1.6%. Under Trump GDP has grown 2.2% and 2.9%.

That would be great if 2.2% and 2.9% were the beginning of an up-trend, but it doesn’t look that way. The CBO predicts 2.7% and 1.9% for the next two years. That’s not what Trump promised.

Throughout the 2016 campaign and since, the president and his party have vowed to kick-start tepid Obama-era economic growth. Specifically, they insisted tax cuts and deregulation would return growth to its post-World War II average of 3 percent — a level, candidate Trump said derisively, that President Barack Obama became “the first president in modern history” never to reach in a single year.

So the Trump numbers are not at all terrible; in fact, they’re about what you’d expect from another two years of Obama, particularly if Congress would have let Obama run the kind of deficits Trump is running.

Jobs. The reason growth projections for the next two years are not as high is that the tax cut isn’t having the kind of structural effect on the economy that its backers claimed. Instead, it has stimulated the economy the same way any deficit-increasing measure does.

February job numbers were outright lousy, but it’s a mistake to make too much of that yet. The economy added 20,000 jobs in February, which is pretty sickly: It has been averaging 100K-300K new jobs per month since the end of the recession.

So if 20,000 is where job-creation is going to be now, or worse, if it’s the start of a down-trend, then that would be worrisome. But as you can see in the graph, the monthly data is noisy. Random fluctuation is more likely than the beginning of a new trend.

But take a closer look at that graph without paying attention to the years on the lower axis: Can you tell where the Obama economy ends and the Trump economy starts? I can’t.

That’s how just about all the economic graphs look. After all the sturm-und-drang we’ve had about tax cuts and tariffs and trade deals, and all the hype about how great the Trump economy has been, the Trump economy mostly looks like two more years of the Obama economy.

Where is Congress’ Center on Climate Change?

A bipartisan duo of centrist senators combine to promote a vague and inadequate agenda. But at least it’s something.

The Green New Deal proposal that AOC and Ed Markey put forward last month almost certainly won’t become law anytime soon. But presumably it also had a second purpose: to move the national debate off the nothing-can-be-done pessimism of the last two years and push other people to offer plans of their own. That effort is already seeing some success. For example, here’s economist Noah Smith’s GND, which largely overlaps with the progressive Democrats’ GND, but shaves off a few of its more controversial economic features — like a federally guaranteed job — and puts more emphasis on research and trade policy, plus a carbon tax.

Fertilizing the collective imagination and keeping pressure on fossil-fuel lackeys to explain why they’re blocking legitimate efforts to preserve a livable planet for future generations — those are two worthy accomplishments. But at some point actual legislation needs to pass, which (at least for the next two years, and probably well beyond) will require just about all Democratic votes plus a few Republicans. What kind of proposal could achieve that anytime soon?

We got an indication this week in the bipartisan op-ed on climate change that Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) published in the Washington Post. Murkowski and Manchin are both considered centrists in their respective parties, so if there is going to be bipartisan cooperation, this is where you would expect it to start.

Whether you find this piece encouraging or discouraging depends on where you expected the Senate’s center to be. On the optimistic side, the two senators accept the basic science of the problem.

There is no question that climate change is real or that human activities are driving much of it.

They point out that the effects of climate change not just looming in some distant computer-modeled future, but are already affecting their states: floods in West Virginia and shifting fisheries in Alaska.

This is a huge improvement on science-deniers like Senator James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) or President Trump, who have described climate change as a hoax, or those like Marco Rubio who employ the “I’m not a scientist, but” dodge, or like Joni Ernst who dodge with “our climate always changes”. At least Murkowski and Manchin start by recognizing reality.

From there, though, things get iffy. They position themselves in the center by framing the climate debate as a clash between two equally wrong extremes.

those who support drastic, unattainable measures to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, and those who want to do nothing.

Three things are wrong with this framing:

  • It fails to point out that more vigorous measures to reduce emissions are “unattainable” largely because people like Murkowski and Manchin won’t get behind them.
  • It ignores the likelihood that “attainable” measures won’t be enough to avoid a climate catastrophe. (If they think attainable measures will suffice, they should state that position openly and defend it.) Think about Winston Churchill in the 1930s foreseeing Great Britain’s coming clash with Nazi Germany: What if he had limited himself to calling for preparations that were “attainable” under the Chamberlain government?
  • The Trump administration isn’t trying to “do nothing”. If only it were. Instead, it’s actively rolling back what the Obama administration accomplished, trying to cut funding for renewable energy, filling the government with fossil-fuel industry activists, and in general doing everything it can to make the problem worse. Doing nothing would be a considerable improvement.

But OK then, what are Murkowski and Manchin proposing? They are the chair and ranking Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, where

we are working together to find pragmatic policies that can draw strong and enduring support.

So they support measures that can draw support, whatever those might be. From there, you have to read between the lines to see what they might mean.

The United States leads the world in research and development. Our national labs and universities are working toward the next scientific breakthrough, and private investors are pursuing the next game-changing technology. The United States is at the forefront of clean-energy efforts, including energy storage, advanced nuclear energy, and carbon capture, utilization and sequestration. We are committed to adopting reasonable policies that maintain that edge, build on and accelerate current efforts, and ensure a robust innovation ecosystem.

The impact of developing these new technologies will be felt by Americans from all walks of life, including residents of rural communities and other areas served by older technologies. Transitioning these communities to more efficient forms of energy will provide them with cleaner energy that is also more stable and has lower costs, which will bring about additional benefits.

I read it like this: They’ll appropriate more money for research, in hope of finding win/win solutions that lower carbon emissions without asking for any sacrifice from either industry or consumers. So: no green taxes, no mandates that might force higher efficiency standards, no forced retirement of coal-fired power plants, no firm commitment to a national carbon-emission goal.

Undoubtedly there are at least a few such win/win solutions to be found, and if so, we should definitely try to find them. But I suspect they won’t move us far enough fast enough to avoid the kinds of disasters that will create new deserts, raise oceans, and send tens or hundreds of millions of people looking for new homes. If you have been alarmed by the flood of refugees from Syria or Sudan or Guatemala, wait for Bangladesh.

If you think in terms of what the crisis requires, this isn’t even half a loaf; it’s more like part of a slice. If there is a slice to be gotten, though, we should be sure to get it. Funding new research, after all, is better than stifling research. The trick will be to get the slice without letting the public lose sight of what is really needed.