The Shelter of America

It’s fitting that we gather here each year to celebrate St. Patrick and his legacy. He, too, was an immigrant. And even though he is, of course, the patron saint of Ireland, for many people around the globe, he is also the symbol of — indeed, the patron of — immigrants.

Here in America, in your great country, 35 million people claim Irish heritage, and the Irish have contributed to the economic, social, political, and cultural life of this great country over the last 200 years. Ireland came to America because, deprived of liberty, deprived of opportunity, of safety, of even food itself, the Irish believed.

And four decades before Lady Liberty lifted her lamp, we were the wretched refuse on the teeming shore. We believed in the shelter of America, in the compassion of America, in the opportunity of America. We came and we became Americans. We lived the words of John F. Kennedy long before he uttered them: We asked not what America can do for us, but what we could do for America. And we still do.

Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny
Friday, at the White House, standing next to Donald Trump

This week’s featured post is “Still a Muslim Ban, Still Blocked“. Next Sunday at 11 a.m. I’ll be speaking at First Parish in Billerica on the topic “The Born-Again Unitarian Universalist”. But I’m not canceling next week’s Sift. I plan to put out a weekly summary without a featured post.

This week had too much news

You kind of expect a flurry of news when a new administration takes office, but we’re two months in, and it’s not dying down. This week and next both include way too much for the average American to keep track of:

Got all that? I probably left something important out. (Oh, there are a bunch of stories about how Trump is enriching himself through the presidency and special interests are doing business with him to curry favor, if you care about things like that.)

I’m reminded of the late 80s when the Soviet Union was falling apart. One afternoon I heard a radio announcer say, without the slightest touch of irony, “In other news, today the Parliament of the Ukraine declared its complete independence.”

Friday, Rachel Maddow had another way of bringing this point home: She covered a juicy Navy bribery scandal that includes “prostitutes, $2,000 bottles of wine, fancy cigars, and lavish meals”, but can’t break through to the front pages because there’s too much else going on.

Everybody was talking about the Trump budget

Politics is all fun and games until you have to start writing down numbers and adding them up. Until then, you can fantasize about “massive” tax cuts, eliminating the national debt, big job-creating infrastructure projects, better and cheaper healthcare for everybody, taking better care of our veterans, an impervious border wall, more coal-mining jobs, and all the rest. I mean, why not? Nobody’s paying for anything yet, and each promise exists in its own universe, independent of all the others.

It’s like when college students pile into a car and head to their favorite restaurant. During the drive, they can picture the piles of great food they’re going to order. Only after the waitress distributes menus do they have to ask each other: “Does anybody have any money?”

As I said above, Trump’s budget does nothing about the deficit. During the campaign, he considered our $20 trillion national debt to be threat to national survival, but now not so much.

The overall shape of the deficit looks like this: Obama inherited a large deficit from Bush, increased it to deal with the Great Recession, and then shrank it until 2015, when it started to grow again. You may or may not consider the debt to be a serious problem. (I think it’s a symptom of problems rather than a problem in itself.) But you can’t seriously claim it’s an existential crisis that magically goes away as soon as a Republican takes office.

So far, the increased defense spending doesn’t come with any new strategy, and nobody’s too sure exactly what the money will be spent on. It’s as if dollars could go out and defend the country without manifesting as equipment or soldiers.

Meanwhile, it’s worth remembering just how much the U.S. already spends on its military. This chart comes from 2015.

Of those seven countries, four are our allies: Saudi Arabia, United Kingdom, France, and Japan. India is more-or-less neutral towards us, and only China and Russia are rivals or potential enemies.

As for the cuts, it’s going to take a while to work out exactly who will be hurt by them. At this stage, we’re mostly seeing totals that will go to various departments and program offices, and can’t be sure exactly how those cuts will be distributed. But what the administration is admitting to is outrageous enough. Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said:

Regarding the question as to climate change, I think the President was fairly straightforward. We’re not spending money on that anymore. We consider that to be a waste of your money to go out and do that.

On after-school food aid to poor children:

About after-school programs generally: They’re supposed to be educational programs, right? That’s what they’re supposed to do; they’re supposed to help kids who don’t get fed at home get fed so they do better in school. Guess what? There’s no demonstrable evidence they’re actually doing that. No demonstrable evidence they’re actually helping results, they’re helping kids do better in school.

On the one hand, there’s just the hypocrisy angle here: When did the Trump administration become evidence-based? What evidence is there that increased defense spending will make us safer, or that charter schools improve education, or that anything else they want to spend money on works?

But then there’s just the disconnect from any sense of morality. What are we doing here? Feeding poor kids stuff that is reasonably nutritious and not very expensive. What’s the downside of that? At worst, maybe we’re also feeding some not-as-poor kids whose parents could afford to feed them without our help. Does that seriously bother anybody? As Mother Jones points out, there’s plenty of general research connecting nutrition to performance. If we don’t have specific proof that this particular program is boosting grades — and I’m just taking Mulvaney’s word here — how big a problem is that? If at-risk kids are getting fed, isn’t that result enough?


In general, the Trump budget points out something I’ve been harping on for years: Conservatives portray the federal government as this sinkhole that your money flows into without doing anyone any good. But when they start trying to cut the budget — and we’re not even talking about the kinds of cuts that would be needed to balance the budget or start paying down the debt — they can’t do it without taking away people’s food and healthcare.


The budget continues the pattern of the ObamaCare replacement bill: Trump screwing the people who elected him. I wonder how the voters of Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin feel about the 97% cut in the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, or what West Virginians think about eliminating the Appalachian Regional Commission. If you’re old and trying to stay in your home, you may suffer from elimination of the Community Block Grant program, which (among other things) helps fund Meals on Wheels.

Transportation to rural areas is going to be hit: The budget cuts the Essential Air Service program that keeps rural airports open. My hometown of Quincy, Illinois (which voted 3-to-1 for Trump) sits at the very end of a twice-a-day Amtrak route to Chicago; I’ve got to wonder if that will survive.

I’ve also got to wonder how the rural areas that Trump called “forgotten” are going to attract new employers if they become more isolated. Imagine being a small-town mayor making a pitch to a major corporation. How do you spin losing your airport and rail connection?

The New Republic thinks Trump voters won’t care about his betrayal of their interests. We’ll see.


It’s not just climate change: The government is cutting back on scientific research across the board.


“Who’s going to pay for the Wall?” Trump used to ask his crowds, who would yell back “Mexico!” The whole time he was probably thinking: “You are, suckers.

and blocking the Muslim ban again

I covered this in the featured post.

and the CBO’s devastating report on TrumpCare

Ezra Klein discusses not just what the CBO said, but what Paul Ryan then replied. His own summary: “The more help you need, the less help you get.”

and the President’s unhinged ranting

I’ve been trying to ignore Trump’s claim that Obama had wiretapped him. It’s not that I’m unwilling to believe anything bad about Obama, but I need some bit of evidence first, and Trump’s tweets are not evidence. I think the mainstream media is way too easily distracted by Trump’s ridiculous tweets.

But he is the president, and he stuck with his accusation, so Congress felt obligated to check it out. Wednesday, Devan Nunes, the Republican Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee stated his conclusion:

Are you going to take the tweets literally? And if you are, then clearly the president was wrong.

The next day, the Republican and Democratic leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee issued a joint statement:

Based on the information available to us, we see no indications that Trump Tower was the subject of surveillance by any element of the United States government either before or after Election Day 2016.

This is noteworthy, because it’s the first indication that some Republicans in Congress hold their duty to the country higher than their loyalty to the President. May this hopeful sign blossom and bear fruit.

Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer compounded the problem by expanding the accusation to include GCHQ, the United Kingdom’s equivalent of the NSA. This, he said, quoting Fox News’ Andrew Napolitano, is why there might be “no American fingerprints” on the taps. GCHQ rejected this as “utterly ridiculous”. Rick Ledgett, second in command at the NSA called it “arrant nonsense” and told the BBC: “Of course they wouldn’t do it. It would be epically stupid.” Not even Fox News would stand by the claim. Fox anchor Shepard Smith reported:

Fox News cannot confirm Judge Napolitano’s commentary. Fox News knows of no evidence of any kind that the now-president of the United States was surveilled at any time, in any way. Full stop.

A British newspaper, The Telegraph, reported:

Intelligence sources had earlier told The Telegraph that both Mr Spicer and General McMaster, the US National Security Adviser, have apologised over the claims. “The apology came direct from them,” a source said.

And New York Daily News added:

James Slack, [Prime Minister Theresa] May’s spokesman, said Friday that the White House has promised not to repeat the line. He added that the British government told the U.S. the claim was “ridiculous” and should be ignored.

But Spicer subsequently denied there had been any apology, saying “I don’t think we regret anything.” Trump himself denied any responsibility for the claim:

We said nothing. All we did was quote a certain very talented legal mind who was the one responsible for saying that on television. You shouldn’t be talking to me, you should be talking to Fox.

Think about what this means: Trump is denying that either he or his spokespeople have any responsibility to know what they’re talking about, or to verify that what they claim is true.

For me, then, this story has turned a corner. It is no longer about anything Obama did or did not do. It’s about our President’s mental condition, and whether anything he says can be relied on. I agree with Josh Marshall:

If someone says aliens landed in their backyard and has a similar lack of any evidence whatsoever, we call that person a liar or a crazy person. We say it’s not true. Full stop.

I find myself thinking about the Cuban Missile Crisis. President Kennedy spoke to the American people, to our allies, and to the rest of the world, telling them that because of intelligence sources not publicly available, he had come to certain conclusions and was taking action that could lead to nuclear war. Many Americans were frightened by that speech, but I imagine few thought, “He’s making all that up.”

If Trump were to make a similar speech today, about, say, North Korea, how could we not wonder if he was making it all up? How could our allies not wonder? That inherent lack of credibility in the White House makes us all less safe.

but the best news of the week came from Europe

In the Netherlands, many thought Geert Wilders would continue the nationalist/xenophobic winning streak of Brexit/Trump. But it didn’t work out that way. Current Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s party won 33 seats in the Dutch Parliament, with Wilders’ party second with only 20 seats.

Wilders’ positions are actually quite a bit more extreme than Trump’s were here. He wants to ban the Quran, close mosques, and completely stop immigration from Muslim countries.

Iowa’s white supremacist Congressman Steve King is a fan. He tweeted:

Wilders understands that culture and demographics are our destiny. We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.

This is nothing new for King, who keeps a Confederate flag on his desk and has made other outrageous racial comments in the past. Not so long ago, such statements would have made him a pariah, but not in today’s Republican Party.


Angela Merkel was in town this week for an awkward meeting with Trump. Afterwards he tweeted:

Despite what you have heard from the FAKE NEWS, I had a GREAT meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Nevertheless, Germany owes vast sums of money to NATO & the United States must be paid more for the powerful, and very expensive, defense it provides to Germany!

As The Washington Post points out, this is nonsense. There is no proposal for Germany or any other country to pay protection money to the United States, and Germany has never agreed to such a thing.

and you might also be interested in

The quote at the top comes from this video of Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny at the White House. How is it that the leader of Ireland understands American values so much better than the leader of America?


Vox tells you way more about CAFE standards (Corporate Average Fuel Economy, the rules that make gas mileage on new cars keep going up) than you probably wanted to know. Very short version: Obama set high fuel-economy standards and Trump wants to lower them, but Obama’s standards are pretty well locked in until 2022. The 2022-2025 standards would be easier to lower, but even that gets really complicated because there are three entities involved: the EPA, the Department of Transportation, and the State of California, which has a waiver that allows it to create its own standards (which other states could adopt) if the federal ones seem too lax. Trump could try to cancel California’s waiver, but that is an arcane process of its own.

and let’s close with something meta

The Venn diagram of Venn diagrams.

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Comments

  • Roger Owen Green  On March 20, 2017 at 12:06 pm

    In answer to: “What’s the downside of that? At worst, maybe we’re also feeding some not-as-poor kids whose parents could afford to feed them without our help. Does that seriously bother anybody?”, the answer is yes. I was following some FB exchange about how this guy KNEW that family X wasn’t as bad off, they had cable TV and some electronic device. It’s the welfare mom driving the Cadillac thing.

    • weeklysift  On March 20, 2017 at 1:10 pm

      I can’t wrap my mind around objecting to feeding something healthy and inexpensive to kids. If I knew I was paying for Bill Gates’ kid to eat green beans, I might chuckle at the ridiculousness of it, but I can’t say it would bother me.

      • MAHA  On March 20, 2017 at 9:07 pm

        It would bother me more if the lunch program was sorting the kids into visible groups, where the poor kids could be identified by the free lunch the well-off kids weren’t getting. You know, kids can be cruel once they are old enough to pick up on the societal judgment that the poor are “inferior”.

  • Andrea Miller  On March 20, 2017 at 12:17 pm

    The list of government help grows. I live in low income senior housing (55+). Because I am still working, all of my income is considered for rent. I pay the highest rent because of it. There are millionaires living in the building. But their income is not work income and that is looked at differently. They pay the least. They are the welfare queens.

  • Nancy  On March 20, 2017 at 12:30 pm

    One of the most disheartening lessons of life is that some people never learn that fair does not equal getting their way. It’s acceptable in a 5yr old, but once people get out in the world they really should know better.

  • Anonymous  On March 22, 2017 at 9:26 pm

    ” I probably left something important out. ”

    Like a plan to send 1,000 to 2,500 US soldiers to Kuwait. Ostensibly they are supposed to respond to emergent crises in Iraq or Syria, but some people are concerned that the real purpose is Iran.

    • weeklysift  On March 23, 2017 at 8:53 am

      Missed that. But I have to say: Iran is a country of 77 million. I don’t think 2500 soldiers pose that big of a threat.

      • Anonymous  On March 24, 2017 at 10:03 pm

        ??

        If they actually do anything inside Iran, they will be more than enough to start another war…

  • Susanne Harrison  On April 24, 2017 at 10:41 am

    Hi Doug,

    I have subscribed to the Weekly Sift for several years but have not received a post since March 20, 2017. I thought you were on vacation for a week or so, but this seems too long. I miss your posts and your sage insights. There is too much for me to digest alone!

    Susanne Harrison

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