Bizarre Talk

If we’re worried about the longer-term implications of current policies, the buildup of greenhouse gases is a much bigger deal than the accumulation of low-interest debt. It’s bizarre to talk about the latter but not the former.

– Paul Krugman “What About the Planet?” (10-7-2016)

This week’s featured post is “Best Responses to the Trump Video“.

This week everybody was talking about leaks

In addition to Trump’s sexual-assault-confessing video, which I cover in the featured post, WikiLeaks released thousands of emails hacked from the account of Clinton campaign chair John Podesta. Included in the haul are internal Clinton campaign discussions about what they would have to defend if the text of her Goldman Sachs speeches came out.

I haven’t examined the Podesta emails myself. Matt Yglesias concludes: “The lesson of Hillary’s secret speeches is she’s exactly who we already knew she was“. In other words, she is someone who works inside the system and negotiates with the powers that already exist rather than sweeping in from the outside. Yglesias is not alarmed by this, for reasons he explains. I’ll try to formulate my own opinion in future weeks.


Andy Borowitz:

In what passes for morality in the Republican Party, leaders are calling for the presidential candidate who hates women to be replaced by the vp candidate who hates gays.

and the weather

Hurricane Matthew swept up the Florida coast and made it all the way to North Carolina before turning out to sea. It’s been downgraded to a post-tropical cyclone.


Three theories on why hundreds dead in Haiti isn’t news:

  • Haitians aren’t Americans, so who cares? (This echoes my comments last week about Gary Johnson and the decline of foreign coverage.)
  • Most Haitians are black, and (no matter what white people might tell each other) black lives still don’t really matter.
  • It’s Haiti. Something bad is always happening in Haiti.

In the conspiracy-theory world many right-wingers inhabit, Matthew’s path and intensity is no mystery: the government created it.

Hurricane truthers believe the government’s goal is to create unrest and distract the masses from election fraud [in Florida] — namely, the left’s attempt to rig the election for Hillary Clinton.

“Given the unparalleled significance of the 2016 election cycle, the politicos at the federal level would love to sow seeds of chaos any way they can in order to create cover for an election theft,” WorldTruth.tv wrote.

Since climate change is a myth in this alternate universe, there must be some other reason why more powerful storms are making it further north on a regular basis. The old reliable explanation is that liberals have offended the Lord with our gay-rights agenda and overall lack of piety. But if that doesn’t convince you — how’s the reconstruction going, Tony Perkins? — a nefarious human plot backed by sci-fi technology works too.

and more debates

The VPs debated Tuesday and Clinton/Trump had their second debate last night.

By far the strangest moment in the debate was when Trump told Clinton:

If I win, I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation, because there has never been so many lies, so much deception. There has never been anything like it, and we’re going to have a special prosecutor.

And then followed up a bit later in this exchange:

CLINTON: It’s just awfully good that someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law in our country.

TRUMP: Because you’d be in jail.

If you’re not familiar with how our justice system works, you might not realize why so many people were frightened by this. Ezra Klein, for example:

Tonight was a scary moment in American politics. In fact, it’s probably the scariest I can remember.

In our system, the Justice Department is supposed to be insulated from politics. Nothing in the Constitution says this, but it’s a principle deep in the mores of our system. The president is supposed to make policy and appoint people to carry out that policy, but is not supposed to have any direct influence on specific cases. That’s the principle Republicans were invoking when they objected to President Obama endorsing Secretary Clinton while the FBI was still investigating her. They were afraid that even the hint of the president’s opinion, without any direct orders, would affect the investigation. Democrats invoked that principle during the Bush administration when they objected to the firing of seven states attorneys for what they believed were political reasons.

Well, the President appointing a prosecutor to look at a particular person — especially a political rival, especially one the FBI has already cleared — is completely off the scale. That’s what happens in dictatorships, not in the United States. Trevor Noah was making this point about Trump already a year ago.


What you thought about the VP debate seems to have depended on whether you judged style or substance. Most pundits thought Tim Kaine interrupted Mike Pence too often and looked rude. But Pence chose to defend Donald Trump by simply denying that Trump has said what he said. On substance, that’s a losing position.

That denial is probably a preview of how Republicans will look back on a Trump defeat: what he actually said and stood for will go down the memory hole. Something similar happened on a larger scale after President Bush left office with historically low popularity. There was no discussion about what went wrong or how the party needed to change. Instead, they just stopped talking about Bush for a while, and when they started again they said amazing things, like “We had no domestic attacks under Bush.


Many Republicans have expressed a hope that Pence will wind up running things. But I haven’t forgotten how Gov. Pence dodged and weaved last year in order to defend the supremacy of Christians over gays in Indiana.


They don’t get much publicity, but debates are also starting to happen in pivotal senate races. Here’s video of Hassan/Ayotte in New Hampshire.

and you also might be interested in

Columbia University’s Jay Rosen is one of the sharpest observers of the culture of political journalism. In this post on his blog PressThink, he discusses the underlying frame that most political coverage is based on, and why journalists are having so much trouble dealing with the fact that the Trump candidacy doesn’t fit in that frame.

The two major parties are similar actors with, as Baquet put it, “warring philosophies.” Elections are the big contests that distribute power between them. The day-to-day of politics is a series of minor battles for tactical advantage. The press is part of this picture because it distributes attention, but — in this view of things — it does not participate in politics itself.

But in the real world, the two political parties have gotten increasingly asymmetric and are no longer similar actors at all. Trump has taken this to an extreme, and journalists have not adjusted.

Campaign coverage is a contraption that only works if the candidates behave in certain expected ways. Up to now, they always did. But Trump violates many of these expectations. … Imagine a candidate who wants to increase public confusion about where he stands on things so that voters give up on trying to stay informed and instead vote with raw emotion. Under those conditions, does asking “Where do you stand, sir?” serve the goals of journalism, or does it enlist the interviewer in the candidate’s chaotic plan? … The premise is that a presidential campaign wants to put out a consistent message to avoid confusing people, and to deny journalists a “gotcha” moment. What if that premise is false? The rationale for interviewing the campaign manager, the running mate, or some other surrogate collapses. They say one thing, the candidate says something else and the confusion is not considered a problem. It may even be a plus.


In an some other version of the United States, an election would be a time to have discussions about really important issues. Lester Holt tried to raise one in the first debate: Should the United States have a no-first-use policy on nuclear weapons?

Sadly, neither candidate rose to the challenge: Clinton cautiously avoided saying either yes or no, while Trump boldly and unequivocally said both.

It’s actually a good question. Most Americans probably don’t realize that we don’t already have a no-first-use policy. Originally, there was  a strategic reason for it: We were anticipating World War III in Europe, where the Soviet Union had an advantage in conventional forces. Since the Soviet Union was itself a European power, it could cheaply keep huge armies in a position to strike, while it was much more expensive (not to mention unpopular with the Germans) for us to keep a comparable defensive army stationed in West Germany. So if Soviet tanks started rolling west, we reserved the option of nuking them.

Russia, without its former Warsaw Pact allies and without former Soviet republics like Ukraine, isn’t nearly as formidable as the USSR was. But we still might be stuck for a non-nuclear answer if Putin decided to roll over one or more of the Baltic Republics, which we are committed to defend as members of NATO. Is that why we won’t renounce first use? Or does the Pentagon have some other scenario in mind?


I don’t believe for a minute this will actually pan out on election day, but one recent poll shows Clinton taking the lead in Arizona.


Geez, Bob, you need to stop holding back and say what you really think.

What interests me in this video is how De Niro is doing exactly what Trump does, but doing it better. They’re both 70-something guys who still know how to talk tough, but who (at this point in their lives) would probably be push-overs in any real physical confrontation. Picture the two of them joining 86-year-old Clint Eastwood in a barroom brawl. The result would play better in a slapstick comedy than in an action flick.


And Britain has a favor to ask: Could we elect Trump so that everyone forgets about their boneheaded Brexit vote?


Massachusetts is about to vote on Question 2, which would expand the number of charter schools in the state. The main argument against charters is that they drain money out of the public school system. The long-term fear is that a vicious cycle gets started, where pulling resources out of the system leads to poorer performance, which leads more families to take their kids out of the public schools, which in turn reduces state subsidies to those schools.

Last week, an editorial in The Boston Globe repeated claims made by the Massachusetts Taxpayer Foundation:

Examination of school funding trends in districts affected by charter school enrollments does not suggest that charter schools are over-funded, that students in district schools are suffering a loss of support, or that the per-student funding of districts is trending negatively. Rather, per-student funding has increased quite steadily across the state, and the district-charter balance has been stable.

But former state Education Secretary Paul Reville counters by pointing out that schools have many fixed costs that don’t go away when a student leaves:

Mainstream public schools would argue that the marginal savings associated with losing a student are not nearly as much as the marginal costs associated with losing a student.

But even that misses the point. The most valuable thing charter schools siphon off isn’t public money, it’s easily teachable students. My nightmare is that the kids who can sit still and process information from a teacher standing in front of a blackboard all wind up either in charters or in voucher-funded private schools. Meanwhile, the public schools are left to handle all the special needs kids, all the kids with undiagnosed vision and hearing problems, all the kids who bring their home problems to school and act out, etc. And when it costs more money per student to operate that public school, we’ll be told some nonsense about the efficiency of the private sector.

There’s a parallel to the healthcare system, particularly as it operated before the Affordable Care Act stopped insurance companies from rejecting sick people. Sometimes the way to make money isn’t to offer better service, it’s to make sure you only get the customers who don’t need service.


One bit of tax law that’s unpopular on the right, is the “Johnson amendment” from 1954, saying that churches can’t endorse candidates. The Republican platform calls for repealing it, a promise Donald Trump often makes to evangelical audiences, saying the repeal would “give churches their voice back”. Right-wing web sites call the Johnson amendment a “Christian gag rule“.

If you aren’t familiar with the details, that can sound convincing. I mean, religious convictions often go hand-in-hand with political stances, so why shouldn’t a pastor be able to speak his mind from the pulpit without worrying about his church losing its tax-exempt status? (In fact, many pastors do, and get away with it, because the rule is only enforced in egregious cases. Like when a church “placed full-page advertisements in two newspapers in which it urged Christians not to vote for then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton because of his positions on certain moral issues.”)

But the point of the Johnson Amendment is simple: Contributions to churches are tax-deductible, but contributions to political campaigns or PACs aren’t. So without some kind of restriction on church activity, churches could become money-laundering schemes: You give tax-deductible contributions to a church with the understanding that it will spend that money campaigning for your candidate. I have yet to hear any repeal-the-Johnson-amendment argument that addresses this problem.

but we should be paying more attention to Colombia

Last week I forgave Gary Johnson’s ignorance by citing the general decline in Americans’ awareness of other countries, and blamed a generational shift in news coverage. So let’s talk about what’s going on in Colombia, which produces the bulk of the cocaine Americans abuse.

One thing that makes the whole coca-growing enterprise harder to control is that Colombia has been fighting a civil war for half a century. Picture that: Our Civil War lasted only four years. If it had gone on as long as Colombia’s, we’d have been fighting until just before World War I. The BBC estimates that 260,000 people have been killed, and another six million driven from their homes. The whole country has less than 50 million people.

The government negotiated a peace deal with the guerillas (FARC, which translates to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), which was announced at the end of August and signed with much ceremony on September 26. But in a Brexit-like reversal of government policy, the Colombian voters rejected the deal in a referendum on October 2. The vote was close: 50.2%-49.8%, to the great surprise of pollsters, many of whom had the referendum passing with over 60% of the vote.

FARC has a Marxist orientation, and claims to represent the interests of the rural poor against the landed gentry and the urban elite. The areas it controls are prime coca-growing territory, and it funds itself via the drug trade. (So if you think about it, the U.S. has been bankrolling both sides. Our tax dollars aid the government, while our drug spending keeps the opposition going.)

Vox has a good article summing up the situation, quoting extensively from the BBC about what’s in the peace agreement. The agreement sounds like a model of reasonability: FARC gives its weapons to the UN and becomes a political party guaranteed ten seats in Congress. (I’m not sure how this splits between houses. There are 166 in the lower house and 102 in the upper.). Its fighters apologize to their victims and won’t be prosecuted for the war-related crimes they confess to. (Though “crimes against humanity” don’t get this amnesty.) They get temporary financial aid to re-integrate into society.

Opponents of the agreement think that lets FARC off too easy. (One woman said: “How is it justice if I, who committed no crime, was ‘imprisoned’ in a rebel camp for four months, and these criminals get off without going to jail?” While understandable from a personal point of view, this feeling is why conflicts like this drag on decade after decade: By the time one generation gets “justice” for the wrongs committed against it, a whole new set of wrongs have been committed by both sides.) Some also don’t trust FARC to disarm, while others fear having another left-wing party in Congress.

Ironically, the voters’ rejection didn’t prevent Colombian President Juan Santos from receiving the Nobel Peace Prize Friday. Whether he’ll be able to salvage an actual peace, though, is still uncertain.

and Israel

The Obama administration is objecting to the announcement of a new Israeli settlement in the occupied territories. CNN summarizes.

and let’s close with something adorable

We could teach our children violence, or maybe we could just teach them to dance. The Irish magazine Galway Now posted this viral video.

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Comments

  • Jane Collins Behr  On October 10, 2016 at 1:18 pm

    check “Colombia” v. “Columbia” – not exactly an “Aleppo moment” – but still… 🙂

  • Alex  On October 10, 2016 at 1:30 pm

    I live in Massachusetts and I think I’m going to vote against expanding charter schools. Charter schools can try things that don’t fit typical public school norms, which makes them great for trying things out to see what works and what doesn’t. But charter schools have been around for a long time. It’s time to take what’s been learned with charter schools and fold it back into the public school system.

  • 1mime  On October 10, 2016 at 3:31 pm

    Having been closely involved in public education activism, charter schools followed on the heels of the Voucher movement. It was another run at finding a way to allow one’s taxes to be diverted from public education for a school of one’s choice. Which, on the surface of things, sounds good, right? Here’s the problem: accountability and fairness. The very lack of bureaucratic monitoring that charter proponents criticize public schools for is lacking for charter schools. There are some charter schools that function quite well independently, most do not absent oversight from without. There is a second major problem with charter schools – fairness. Private schools are able to select the students they want, and boot out those who don’t fit in or fail to perform up to the school’s standards. That is as it should be. As of this time, these private schools receive some federal funds for special needs students, but nothing for the other areas of school operation – materials of instruction, facility, staff, management.

    With charter schools, tax dollars are diverted, yet the state taxpayer’s investment in these schools (which may not meet accreditation or maintain accreditation) is not monitored. These programs still enjoy the privilege of selecting and removing students by their own criteria. This is patently unfair if the program is underwritten with taxpayer dollars. Fund your own charter program or don’t open. But if a state allows charters, the very least they should do is basic research on accreditation and monitoring in conformance with public education. They may exceed public school standards, but they should not be allowed to divert tax dollars for what is essentially private education with no oversight.

  • Kay  On October 10, 2016 at 9:39 pm

    After this crazy week, thank you for the video of the dancing child. We all need a moment of joy.

  • zplosivez  On November 21, 2016 at 11:07 am

    Great!!!

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