Weird Times

Our climate has been in a rough temperature equilibrium for about 10,000 years, while we developed agriculture and advanced civilization and Netflix. Now our climate is about to rocket out of that equilibrium, in what is, geologically speaking, the blink of an eye. We’re not sure exactly what’s going to happen, but we have a decent idea, and we know it’s going to be weird.

– David Roberts “Climate change did not ’cause’ Harvey, but it’s a huge part of the story

This week’s featured posts are “Houston, New Orleans, and the Long Descent” and “Trump has no agenda“.

This week everybody was still talking about Harvey

By now, we’ve all seen the pictures of the flooding, and heard about the explosions at the chemical plant. The long-term environmental impact is still unknown.

It’s interesting to consider how differently liberals and conservatives might be watching the response to Harvey. Conservatives can focus on the ordinary people who are using their boats to rescue their neighbors, Dunkirk style. “That’s what we need more of,” they think, “good-hearted individuals volunteering to be heroes without a lot of bureaucracy getting in the way.”

Liberals, meanwhile, focus the larger picture: Will individual volunteers find everybody that needs rescuing? Once you rescue somebody with your boat, where do you take them? Will they have a place to sleep? Will somebody feed them? If they’re injured, will somebody treat them? try to reunite them with whoever might be looking for them? Once in a while all those pieces may fall together without any government organization, but most of the time not.

VoxDavid Roberts makes a good point about whether climate changed “caused” Harvey: It’s a malformed question. Climate change is a background condition that affects literally everything, but it doesn’t replace more immediate causes.

He makes a good analogy: What if gravity suddenly got 1% stronger? More people would be injured in falls, but it would be silly to blame any particular injury on “gravity change”. Each fall would still have some more immediate cause like a patch of ice or a dizzy spell.

With more heat energy in the system, everything’s going to get crazier — more heat waves, more giant rainstorms, more droughts, more floods. That means climate change is part of every story now. The climate we live in shapes agriculture, it shapes cities and economies and trade, it shapes culture and learning, it shapes human conflict. It is a background condition of all these stories, and its changes are reflected in them.

So we’ve got to get past this “did climate change cause it?” argument. A story like Harvey is primarily a set of local narratives, about the lives immediately affected. But it is also part of a larger narrative, one developing over decades and centuries, with potentially existential stakes. We’ve got to find a way to weave those narratives together while respecting and doing justice to both. [my emphasis]

A broader question to ponder: Sometimes we do this kind of narrative-blending well and sometimes we don’t. It goes without saying, for example, that individual war stories always take place in a broader context. So there’s no need to rehash the Cold War and the Domino Theory every time Grandpa tells his I-stepped-on-a-mine-but-it-was-a-dud story from Vietnam.

Racism and sexism, on the other hand, are like climate change: They’re background conditions for literally everything that happens in America. At the same time, though, they’re seldom the reason something happens. How do we talk about that?

Paul Krugman’s “Why Can’t We Get Cities Right?” is a rare both-sides-do-it column that I agree with. He argues that Houston’s vulnerability to Harvey shows the downside of the unregulated development allowed in red-state cities, while the ridiculous cost of housing in San Francisco shows what goes wrong in blue-state cities.

Why can’t we get urban policy right? It’s not hard to see what we should be doing. We should have regulation that prevents clear hazards, like exploding chemical plants in the middle of residential neighborhoods, preserves a fair amount of open land, but allows housing construction.

In particular, we should encourage construction that takes advantage of the most effective mass transit technology yet devised: the elevator.

and North Korea

Talking tough to Kim Jong Un doesn’t seem to be working. Yesterday, North Korea tested what it says was an H-bomb, and the seismic data seems to back up that claim. Tuesday, it flew a missile over Japan.

and the Russia investigation

Three major recent developments: First, while he was running for president, Trump signed a letter of intent to build Trump Tower Moscow, and his people contacted Putin’s people to try to get the Russian government behind the idea. As far as I know, there is nothing illegal in any of that. But it does show that Trump’s blanket denials of having any business relationship with Russia were false.

In July 2016, Trump denied business connections with Russia and said on Twitter: “for the record, I have ZERO investments in Russia.” He told a news conference the next day: “I have nothing to do with Russia.”

It might also give a financial motive for the Putin-friendly things he said during the campaign.

Second, we learned about the existence of a letter Trump wrote to James Comey but never sent, in which he fired Comey and explained why. The NYT broke the story, and claims the Mueller investigation has a copy of the letter, but no Times reporter has seen it. The article does not quote the letter directly, but only recounts the assessments of people who have read it. The letter is said to be a “screed” that “offered an unvarnished view of Mr. Trump’s thinking in the days before the president fired the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey.” White House Counsel Don McGahn talked him out of sending it.

If the letter says that Comey was fired because he wouldn’t shut down the Russia investigation, then it’s evidence of obstruction of justice — but we don’t really know that. What it clearly does prove is that the story Trump’s people (including VP Pence) told the public about Comey’s firing was false.

Third, Mueller is now working with the New York state attorney general on a money-laundering investigation of Paul Manafort. By bringing in the state, Mueller nullifies Trump’s pardon power, which only extends to federal crimes.

It’s often hard to know what to make of the news we hear about Russia and Trump. To the credit of the Mueller investigation, very little of the evidence it has gathered has leaked. (This is a welcome change from the constant leaks about the Clinton email investigation, many of which turned out to be misleading.) So the information available to the public doesn’t prove anything either way.

What I keep coming back to, though, is that whenever Trump and his associates have had to deal with some issue related to Russia, they have lied. They don’t act like people with nothing to hide.

Friday we saw another one of those North-Korea-like moments in the White House.

So, remember that one time when President Donald Trump held a Cabinet meeting and everyone at the table outdid themselves when it came to heaping praise on POTUS? Well, we got a similar situation today during a signing ceremony in the Oval Office in which Trump had a bunch of religious leaders surround him and profusely thank the president for his response to Hurricane Harvey.

With the president proclaiming that this coming Sunday will be a day of prayer for Harvey victims, he began going around the room and calling on different faith leaders to give remarks. And, wouldn’t you know, they all tripped over each other to express their gratitude for all the president had done so far.

The link includes a video, which is stomach-turning. I can’t think of any previous president, of either party, who would have allowed this kind of public fawning, much less encouraged it.

and DACA

Tomorrow, Trump is expected to announce what he will do with Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which allows immigrants who came to America outside the legal immigration system, but as children, to remain in the country and work legally. These “Dreamers” (named after the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act that would have given them legal status, had Congress passed it) are the undocumented immigrants who raise the most public sympathy, because they did nothing wrong and have no other home they can return to. The U.S. has invested in their education, and it makes little sense to deport them just as they’re starting to become productive.

Politico reports that Trump plans to end DACA with a six-month delay, which would give Congress time to change the law to protect some or all of the 800,000 Dreamers, if it wants to.

This is not entirely crazy, because DACA was always a kluge of executive orders that President Obama built to cover Congressional inaction. The right solution is for Congress to pass some version of the DREAM Act, or maybe even some larger immigration reform (like the Senate passed in 2013). This was one of many situations where Obama saved Republicans from themselves: They could simultaneously denounce Obama’s “tyrannical” circumvention of the law while avoiding responsibility for the injustice the law mandates.

However, the Republican base regards the DREAM Act is a form of “amnesty”, which they are rabidly against. In this environment, it’s hard to imagine the House passing anything. And if they don’t, in six months ICE will start deporting college students who speak perfect English, but possibly no other language. I doubt Paul Ryan wants to see a steady stream of such stories as his people campaign for re-election next year.

and you also might be interested in …

Republicans only believe in local control until the workers win somewhere. Latest example: St. Louis, which raised its minimum wage three months ago, only to see the state force a wage rollback.

University of Washington Professor Kate Starbird has been studying the ways conspiracy theories flow through social media.

The information networks we’ve built are almost perfectly designed to exploit psychological vulnerabilities to rumor.

“Your brain tells you ‘Hey, I got this from three different sources,’ ” she says. “But you don’t realize it all traces back to the same place, and might have even reached you via bots posing as real people. If we think of this as a virus, I wouldn’t know how to vaccinate for it.”

Starbird says she’s concluded, provocatively, that we may be headed toward “the menace of unreality — which is that nobody believes anything anymore.” Alex Jones, she says, is “a kind of prophet. There really is an information war for your mind. And we’re losing it.”

It looks like this administration has no interest in changing the $20 bill to replace the guy who opened up the lower South for slavery (Andrew Jackson) with a woman who helped people escape slavery (Harriet Tubman). Seeing a black face on their money, I think, would hit Trump’s base on a visceral level: “We’re losing our country!”

Politico sums up the Democrats 2020 dilemma: “Familiar 70-somethings vs neophyte no-names“. Sanders, Biden, Warren, or somebody most of America has never heard of?

A bizarre thing I’m seeing on my Facebook feed: People who hated Hillary Clinton in 2016 are afraid that the dark cabal in control of the Democratic Party will nominate her again in 2020. These are the same people who have believed the worst stories about her all along. To them, she’s like some horror-movie villain that they fear can never die.

Business Insider does a takedown of Palmer Report, which produces a lot of thinly-sourced stories that appeal to liberals. Palmer’s stuff appears on my social media feeds fairly regularly, and I don’t give it much credence. If a claim looks interesting, I will make a mental note to check whether a reliable source is reporting anything similar.

Charles Blow connects some dots I hope aren’t really connected: Many of Trump’s divisive actions can be explained by the theory that he wants an armed insurrection when the Russia investigation finally forces him out of office.

A. Q. Smith writes in Current AffairsIt’s Basically Just Immoral to be Rich“. What’s interesting in the article is that it’s not a screed against capitalism or a plea for the government to redistribute wealth.

You can hold my position and simultaneously believe that CEOs should get paid however much a company decides to pay them, and that taxes are a tyrannical form of legalized theft. What I am arguing about is not the question of how much people should be given, but the morality of their retaining it after it is given to them.

There’s a third distinction I wish the article had made: Spending is different from either receiving or retaining. When you make money, you play the economic game as you find it. Retaining money may just mean letting a bank record a large number next to your name. (Smith’s point is that in retaining, you have the ability to feed the poor and pay for life-saving medical care, but choose not to.) But spending money is when you allocate the labor of others; if you spend on ridiculous luxuries for yourself, you’re bending the economy towards producing those things rather than either producing necessities for the many or investing in future production.

Since reading Smith’s article, I have not given away all my possessions and entered a life of voluntary poverty, so clearly I don’t find the argument totally convincing. But it is a question that I think should be raised more often, and that everybody who can afford more than basic necessities should have to think about.

I was initially attracted to ESPN the Magazine‘s interview with Aaron Rodgers (the consensus choice as the top NFL quarterback, for those of you who don’t follow football) because of his comments on the Colin Kaepernick situation. But it’s a fascinating conversation about family issues, race, being famous, religion, and the meaning of life, closing with: “I’ve been to the bottom and been to the top, and peace will come from somewhere else.”

A white Congregational minister in Charleston says white and black American Christianity are based on two different narratives about Ameria:

The white narrative said this: We’ve made it to the promised land. Life is good here. It’s the city on a hill. What a blessing. And the black narrative said this: We’ve been brought here in chains. It’s the new Egypt. What a curse. We’ve got to get the hell out of here. And therein lies a founding contradiction in American Christianity. One version celebrated and reinforced the status quo and another version sought liberation from it.

Ancestry isn’t destiny, though.

Of course, we don’t all fit neatly into one of two categories. Yours truly can often be found at vigils in the street or wearing a Black Lives Matter T-shirt. But I had to lose my white religion to get there. I had to give up a narrative that supported the suffering of the status quo for one that dreamed of the liberation of all people from social and political oppression.

… For too long white Christianity has been part of the problem. Its narrative of a promised land has never rung true with those who were left out of the promise. If those of us who are white gave up that old story or walked away from it, we could begin to tell a larger truth. And we could find something more deeply American in the black church’s struggle for freedom, dignity, and equality.

But I think he’s missing a third narrative, the angry one of downwardly mobile white Christianity: America was the promised land of our grandparents, but we have been cast out.

and let’s close with some music

Alf Clauson just lost his job doing the musical score for The Simpsons. In honor of his career, The Washington Post picked out his 12 most memorable songs. Because it’s Labor Day, I’ll highlight Lisa’s union song. (I suspect copyright issues won’t let YouTube post the video, so they fill in with generic Simpsons stills.)

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  • fmanin  On September 4, 2017 at 2:17 pm

    The Krugman column activates a pet peeve of mine by referring to Houston development as “unregulated”. Houston is missing a lot of regulations most US cities have, but it has most of the ones that encourage sprawl: onerous parking requirements, minimum lot sizes (though these were recently relaxed, at least in some areas), setbacks, you name it. On top of that, Houston uses public money to enforce private deed restrictions. This makes building, say, small apartment buildings just as hard as in other places. Truly unregulated development would look more like Hong Kong.

  • Moz in Oz  On September 4, 2017 at 6:41 pm

    “I have not given away all my possessions and entered a life of voluntary poverty, so clearly I don’t find the argument totally convincing.”

    Christ advocated the same thing and that didn’t persuade you either. While it’s possible that one more argument in favour would convince you, that would be the surprising outcome.

    I’m trying not to call you out on this, but it really struck me reading your comment that for a Christian preacher not to make the connection was surprising, even shocking. You’re not Joel Osteen, after all (“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”).

  • Abby  On September 4, 2017 at 10:27 pm

    “Republicans only believe in local control until the workers win somewhere.” Or the LGBT community wins somewhere. This is what the infamous “Bathroom Bills” of 2016 and later were all about. Cities and towns enacted laws to protect trans people and other LGBT folks, so their state legislatures came up with Bathroom Bills that overrode and nullified the local efforts.

  • Sebastian  On September 5, 2017 at 11:57 am

    Matt Wuerker’s cartoon is indeed an instance of liberal tunnel-vision. Houston is a predominantly left-wing town that voted for Hillary, not a hotbed of redneck boobs. Far from delivering a comeuppance to Bible-bashing white supremacists, Hurricane Harvey disproportionately hit minorities. Sorry, the cartoon is way off base.

    • weeklysift  On September 7, 2017 at 6:14 am

      I was aware of this criticism before I reposted the cartoon, but didn’t see much merit in it. I still don’t. The kinds of anti-government conservatives pictured exist in large numbers in Texas. I don’t see an implication that all Texans are that way, or that the pictured conservative represents the typical Harvey victim.

  • Guest  On September 6, 2017 at 11:03 am

    With the timing of the Politico article, I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry, Doug. It’s coming on the heels of the Harvard-Harris poll which showed (again) that Sanders is, by a country mile, the most popular political leader (and the one with the highest net favorability among minorities fwiw). How is having the most popular politician on your side a dilemma? The answer, as we saw in 2016, is only if the party is dead set against him, ethics and strategy be damned. That’s the dilemma we seem posed to repeat in 2020 if the Politico article’s framing is anything of a bellwether.

    We can throw this poll in the barrel with all the others like it, but how many more do we need to convince the centrist democrats sitting on the fence in their own party? It’s almost like global warming and climate change. How many scientists do we need to convince republicans that this is the real deal?

    Given this dilemma, I’m not sure those fears on your Facebook feed are entirely unfounded. The DNC has shown no signs of meaningful self-reflection or change after what was an unfair and unethical primary and a disastrous general. No, Clinton is not putting on hockey masks and murdering the Seth Richs of the world every full moon, but she ain’t innocent little red riding hood either. Clinton & the DNC (call it a cabal or not, a rose by any other name…) worked to elevate Trump early in the primaries, bent or broke DNC rules to their favor and against Sanders’, and was just hubristic and detached enough from the general public to lose the White House, Supreme Court, and Congress to the least qualified major candidate on the books. You can literally gift wrap the DNC the most popular politician, and all they’d see is a dilemma wrapped in an enigma. Considering the 2016 outcome and what’s at stake in 2020, that’s villainous enough.

    • weeklysift  On September 6, 2017 at 9:02 pm

      If Bernie really is the most popular politician in the country in 2020, then he will win the primaries and get nominated. If more people had voted for him than for Clinton in 2016, he’d have been nominated then. But they didn’t.

      • Guest  On September 7, 2017 at 12:13 pm

        “If Bernie really is the most popular politician in the country in 2020, then he will win the primaries and get nominated.”

        From your lips to god’s ears, Doug, although 2016 is something of a counter-example. It underlined (on both sides I suppose) a nuance at work between being the most popular candidate in the country vs. winning the party nomination. In Bernie’s case, he consistently polled better in head-to-head match-ups nationally, but this was bravely ignored by the DNC and other more conservative leaning Dems. I’m curious, what have you seen from that crowd since that makes you think they’d warmly embrace the most popular politician if that person is indeed still Bernie by 2020?

        Again maybe you’ve seen a change, but my fear is that a powerful DNC will ram through “their pick” (once again, charter, ethics, and national strategy be damned), unable to see or care that their pick not only does not ignite the left side of the tent, but turns off independent voters. It was simply John Kerry’s *turn* it was Hillary’s *turn*. Obama is the exception that proves the rule. With once-in-a-generation rhetorical skills and a campaign that won multiple advertising awards, he was able to convince a lot of credulous independents and folks on the left (myself included) that he *wasn’t* like the usual DNC picks, that he was more “Sanders” than “Clinton” if you’ll excuse the anachronism. I don’t think we can bank on that sort of trick working again.

      • weeklysift  On September 7, 2017 at 4:34 pm

        The thing you ignore is that Hillary was actually popular among Democrats. That’s why she got more votes than Bernie.

        No one “rammed through” her nomination. If you look at the RCP polling average throughout the primary process, Bernie never caught Hillary. He came close in mid-April, but then fell back.

        The thing Bernie still needs to prove is that he can turn “favorability” into victories. That means getting people to vote for him in far larger numbers than they did last time.

      • Guest  On September 8, 2017 at 2:39 pm

        I don’t ignore that Hillary is popular among actual Democratic primary voters, and have never suggested she got less votes than Bernie, in fact that’s precisely part of my concern. It’s why I asked you about the DNC leadership and the conservative end of the Democratic tent. The two have been enough to form a winning coalition at the primary level for decades now. But that’s at the primary level. The result at the national level has been devastating loses at all three branches of government and a general drift rightward on policies most important to established corporate power. The many democrats (yourself included it seems?) confusing democratic primary popularity for national popularity is then a central problem if you’re interested in wresting control from the Rs or working toward a government that is more people-serving than corporate-serving.

        I’m fine with toning down the illicit “ramming through” language, it was a little much. Please take it as a metaphor or stand-in for the DNC/Clinton camp activities that went against official impartial DNC charter mandates, and were designed to heavily favor Clinton and disadvantage Sanders. These include but are not limited to front loading Southern conservative primaries, limiting debates and scheduling them for the least amount of viewership, coordinating attacks on Sanders and favorable coverage for Clinton both directly and with complicit mainstream media, and laundering money raised for down-ticket candidates to Clinton’s campaign instead, etc. Ramming is too harsh…maybe rigging is softer? It’s not guaranteeing an win, that would be stealing, but they’re simply meant to bestow considerable advantage in an unfair, unethical, but ultimately legal way.

        Call them what we will, I see no reason to expect such activities to ease up or discontinue in 2020. If you’re happy with the status quo, this is encouraging. For those of us who want progress, the situation again recalls MLK’s warning that the greatest stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the KKK crowd but the white moderate.

      • weeklysift  On September 8, 2017 at 6:13 pm

        I am still waiting for the left to prove its appeal in down ballot elections. Maybe 2018 is the year; we’ll see. If what progressives believe about their appeal is true, then I’d expect to see some come-from-nowhere upset in 2018, in a race a moderate Democrat could never have won. (Something like Scott Brown winning Ted Kennedy’s old senate seat, but with the parties reversed.) If that happens, then the party leadership will come around easily. But until it does, I can’t blame them for being skeptical.

  • mobile  On September 10, 2017 at 6:12 pm

    Thanks for finally talking about >Weird Times | The Weekly Sift <Liked it!

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