We Have to Believe

I want to be very clear about one thing: Americans remain our partners, friends, and allies. This is not about the American people. We have to believe that at some point their common sense will prevail. But we see no sign of that in this action today by the U.S. administration.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau

This week’s featured post is “What is impeachment for?

This week brought back everything that last week seemed to stop

A week ago, the North Korea summit was off and the trade war was “on hold”. Now they’re both back.

The summit is scheduled for a week from tomorrow in Singapore. Until Trump and Kim actually appear, though, who can say whether it will really happen? Originally, Trump implied that the meeting would signal North Korea’s complete denuclearization, for which he should win a Nobel Peace Prize. Now it’s just supposed to “start a process“.

Back in March, Trump announced tariffs on imported steel and aluminum. Then he appeared to back down, temporarily exempting Canada, Mexico, and the European Union. The time limit on that exemption ran out Thursday without Trump getting the concessions he wanted, so the tariffs are back on.

The affected countries are retaliating. Canada seems particularly offended by the pretext for the tariffs: Trump is exercising powers the president has under a national security provision. Essentially he is saying that Canada can’t be trusted to continue selling us metals we need for our defense industries.

Tariffs on Chinese goods were announced Tuesday, to take effect “shortly after” the complete list of goods affected is released on June 15. China also plans to retaliate.

For a guy whose book is called The Art of the Deal, Trump’s negotiating style seems particularly artless: He makes threats and demands concessions. If other countries don’t yield to his demands, he seems to have no Plan B.

and everyone was talking about jobs

The economy added 223K jobs in May. That number was fairly typical of job growth over the last five years, but the accumulation of good job creation over a long period has pushed the unemployment rate down to 3.8%, a number not seen since the end of the Clinton administration, and only briefly then.

and new claims of presidential power

A letter that Trump’s lawyers wrote to Bob Mueller in January got leaked this week. The point of the letter is to argue against Mueller’s need to interview Trump, and along the way it makes an amazing claim: Obstruction of justice laws simply don’t apply to the president, because since he is the highest law-enforcement official “that would amount to obstructing himself”. The President has complete authority to terminate investigations as he sees fit, and to pardon anybody he wants for any reason. The letter recognizes no exception for a president with corrupt intent.

Matt Yglesias draws an obvious conclusion:

Consider that if the memo is correct, there would be nothing wrong with Trump setting up a booth somewhere in Washington, DC, where wealthy individuals could hand checks to him, and in exchange, he would make whatever federal legal trouble they are in go away. You could call it “The Trump Hotel” and maybe bundle a room to stay in along with the legal impunity.

Trump (and his lawyer Rudy Guiliani) is also claiming that he could pardon himself. Strange that Nixon never thought of that.

and Roseanne

Roseanne Barr managed to get her hit sitcom revival Roseanne cancelled by ABC by tweeting a racist insult at former Obama advisor Valerie Jarrett.

Barr’s defenders are using one of the standard conservative tactics: stripping away the context of the insult, making a simplistic comparison to things liberals have said, and then claiming a double standard. (How is claiming Jarrett is the child of apes different from, say, Bill Mahr suggesting Donald Trump was fathered by an orangutan?) As always, they are the victims.

Let me go back to the analysis I wrote in 2015: “Slurs, Who Can Say Them, When, and Why“. (This isn’t the Sift’s most-viewed post because it never had a viral moment, but it is the most consistently popular. After three years, it still reliably gets a few hundred hits every week.) Then I was talking about words like nigger and honky, but the same ideas apply to images and metaphors, like comparing people to apes.

If you just look them up in a dictionary you might think they are equivalent: honky is a racial slur directed at whites, nigger at blacks. What’s the difference?


Nigger has centuries of usage behind it, and the connotation of that usage is that blacks are a subhuman race. Nigger evokes a detailed stereotype — lazy, stupid, violent, lustful, dangerous — while honky just says you’re a white guy I don’t like. For centuries, niggers weren’t really people. There’s no equivalent word for whites, because whites have always been seen as people.

Whenever you use a word or an image or a metaphor, you’re not just applying a dictionary meaning. You’re invoking the whole history of the usage. For centuries, whites have compared blacks to apes — sometimes literally claiming they are not a fully human species — in order to portray them as a race of unintelligent subhumans. Barr’s tweet evokes this history.

There is no comparable usage-history dehumanizing Trump’s ancestors (Germans) by comparing them to orangutans, and Maher was not plugging into anything of that sort. Instead, he’s applying a more general and much less toxic physical-resemblance-to-animals usage-history, such as when Mitch McConnell is compared to a turtle.

Given the history of black dehumanization, comparing blacks to animals is always tricky, but it can be done. For example, this cartoon of Obama dressed as a Russian bear does not strike me as racist, because bears are not typical dehumanizing symbols. But this photo-shopped image of Barack and Michelle as apes clearly is.

Trump couldn’t leave this controversy alone, but he also couldn’t condemn Barr’s racism, since she and her racism are typical of an important segment of his base. So he portrayed himself and his daughter as the real victims.

About the Samantha Bee/Ivanka Trump thing: A key point in my “Slurs” analysis is that slurs-that-can-be-turned-around-on-the-slurrer are a completely different category than slurs-that-only-go-one-way.

The various disadvantaged communities are all debating whether or not it’s ever OK to use the slurs themselves. Some argue that when black rappers use nigger, they jam the stereotype rather than perpetuate it. Some women believe that saying bitch is liberating, because it shows the word doesn’t scare them. Others disagree, believing that any use of a slur promotes its stereotypes.

I think this: Those issues are for those communities to figure out. In the unlikely event that they ask my advice, I might give it. But until then, my opinion as a white guy doesn’t and shouldn’t matter.

Samanthan Bee calling Ivanka Trump a “feckless cunt” falls into this same category. Overwhelmingly, women who have commented on Bee’s use of cunt have condemned it, which is their right. But men like me and Donald Trump should stay out of that discussion. The propriety of a woman saying cunt is not for us to decide.

but now we have a clearer notion of what Hurricane Maria did to Puerto Rico

According to a study in the current New England Journal of Medicine, Hurricane Maria resulted in about 4600 “excess deaths” in Puerto Rico between landfall (September 20) and December 31. That number includes not just people killed immediately in the storm, but also deaths due to “delays or interruptions in health care” caused by the storm and its subsequent island-wide power failure. It’s also a statistical estimate, not a list of specific deaths. The official death toll is 64, a number which has been criticized by many sources.

Puerto Rican writer and podcast-host Julio Ricardo Varela wasn’t surprised.

We knew. … When funeral directors started telling people that they were burying way more bodies than usual, or when our family members told us about their neighbors dying in still-darkened rooms, or being buried outside their homes, we knew that the official death toll was much higher than the 64 people the government had eventually admitted to. When we heard the stories of people having no refrigeration for their insulin, that dialysis machines weren’t operational or that hospitals were still in the dark but had people on life support, we knew that it wasn’t some small counting error.

This estimate of Maria’s death toll on Puerto Rico is higher than the reported death tolls of 9/11 (2996) and Hurricane Katrina (1833), but it’s not clear to me this is an apples-to-apples comparison. Both of those numbers also might rise in an excess-deaths analysis.

But that’s quibbling: Thousands of American citizens died, many of them because of a slow and inadequate response. Aid was stuck at the port in San Juan, a Navy hospital ship was substantially underused, and about a third of the island’s residents still had no electric power four months after the storm.

And yet, this has not become a scandal or prompted a national soul-searching like Katrina and 9/11 did. There is no blue-ribbon panel preparing a what-went-wrong report. Heads have not rolled in the agencies that bungled the response.

Is there any doubt why this is? Puerto Ricans are Spanish-speaking brown people, not “real Americans” like the Texans affected by Hurricane Harvey and Floridians hit by Hurricane Irma.

There’s a lot of blame to spread around here, from Puerto Rico’s pre-hurricane infrastructure to the local Puerto Rican officials to the federal government. But a big piece of it has to come back to Trump’s inability to admit failure or fix mistakes. At a time when the full scope of the problem was starting to become clear, Trump could only congratulate himself on the low reported death numbers. When criticism began, he was the victim, not the lazy Puerto Ricans who “want everything done for them”.

The Mayor of San Juan, who was very complimentary only a few days ago, has now been told by the Democrats that you must be nasty to Trump. Such poor leadership ability by the Mayor of San Juan, and others in Puerto Rico, who are not able to get their workers to help. They want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort. 10,000 Federal workers now on Island doing a fantastic job.

During the Obama administration, conservatives proclaimed a series of events to be “Obama’s Katrina“. Well, Trump has presided over a natural-disaster screw-up that is arguably worse than Katrina, and no one seems to care.

and you also might be interested in …

A very good Washington Post article about sexual abuse in evangelical churches centers on Rachael Denhollander, who was abused as a child in her church and then became one of the young gymnasts assaulted by Larry Nassar.

Today, Denhollander can see how her church, which has since shut down, failed to protect her. But as a child, all she knew from her parents was that her abuse had made their church mad and that she wasn’t able to play with some of her friends. She blamed herself — and resolved that, if anyone else ever abused her, she wouldn’t mention it.

And so when Larry Nassar used his prestige as a doctor for the USA Gymnastics program to sexually assault Denhollander, she held to her vow. She wouldn’t put her family through something like that again. Her church had made it clear: No one believes victims.

The Catholic Church’s sexual-abuse problems have gotten a lot of attention, but similar forces are at work in evangelical churches:

When congregants believe that their church is the greatest good, they lack the framework to accept that something as awful as sexual abuse could occur within its walls; it is, in the words of Diane Langberg, a psychologist with 35 years of experience working with clergy members and trauma survivors, a “disruption.” In moments of crisis, Christians are forced to reconcile a cognitive dissonance: How can the church — often called “the hope of the world” in evangelical circles — also be an incubator for such evil?

Some good news on prospects for the climate: NetPower is building a small (50 MW) plant in Texas to prove that its revolutionary technology works. The plant will run on natural gas, but emit no air pollution and no waste heat. Carbon capture isn’t an expensive separate unit bolted onto the end of the process; it’s a normal part of the combustion cycle. The plant has achieved first fire, and should be generating power later this year.

Vox’ environmental writer David Roberts is impressed.

So: more efficient power, with zero air pollution, virtually no water consumption, and pipeline-ready carbon dioxide capture built in … for cheaper than today’s best fossil fuel power plants. Quite a bold promise.

It works in an unusual way, which Roberts explains in more detail (and links to even more technical explanations): Natural gas is burned with pure oxygen, and the turbine is driven by supercritical carbon dioxide rather than steam. There’s a pipe and the end of the cycle producing excess CO2, which can be sold or sequestered.

Theoretically, the process also would work with coal.

Roberts points out that “Combustion is only one part of the damage done by fossil fuels.”

But it’s best not to be shortsighted here. Even under the most optimistic scenarios, there are going to be hundreds of fossil fuel power plants built across the world in coming years. This is especially true of natural gas plants, which play an important role in “firming” the fluctuations in variable renewable energy (and could potentially be run in the future on renewable biogas).

If we could start right now making all those new coal and natural gas plants air-pollution-free, it would be a public health win of historic proportions, to say nothing of the regulatory and civic battles that could be avoided.

And capturing all that carbon rather than throwing it into the atmosphere might be enough to give the fight against climate change some much-needed breathing room.

While we’re talking about fossil fuels … a longtime Republican talking point has been that the government shouldn’t be picking winners and losers, so it shouldn’t subsidize renewable fuels over fossil fuels. I have argued against this (because it makes sense for the government to use taxes and subsidies to balance hidden fossil-fuel costs that the market externalizes, like the cost of cleaning up after hurricanes), but at least it’s a coherent point of view.

But Friday Bloomberg broke the story that Trump is planning to pick winners and losers … and the winners are coal and nuclear.

The Trump administration has been preparing to invoke emergency powers granted under Cold War-era legislation to order regional grid operators to buy electricity from ailing coal and nuclear power plants.

Think about that: Trump insists on wrecking the environment by burning coal, even if the market is against it.

If he genuinely believed the free-market principles he has been promoting for his entire career, Paul Ryan would be moving to stop this. But I’m not holding my breath.

Every congressional district is different. Here’s how a Democrat tries to appeal to farmers as he runs against Iowa Republican Steve King, one of the most unabashed racists in Congress.

Elsewhere, the Southern Poverty Law Center says that eight explicitly white-supremacist and/or anti-Semitic candidates are running for office this year, including one (Arthur Jones) who has already gotten the Republican nomination for Congress in Illinois. (He’s running in a Democratic district that mainstream Republicans didn’t contest. The state GOP has denounced him.) MSNBC’s Morgan Radford (who is part black and part Jewish) went to Illinois to interview Jones and to California to interview Senate candidate Patrick Little, who is running against Diane Feinstein on the slogan “End Jewish Supremacy“. (His primary is tomorrow.)

Illinois voted to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, which was approved by Congress in 1972. The deadline for ratification passed 36 years ago, but there’s some dispute about whether that matters. If it doesn’t, the ERA only needs to be ratified by one more state.

Congress and the Trump administration have been undoing the restrictions on financial companies that were put in place after the collapse of 2008. After the collapse, all the major banks were relying on federal dollars to stay solvent, so the government had enormous leverage, if it chose to use it. There were three basic theories of what to do:

  • The technocratic approach (favored by establishment Democrats and embodied in Dodd-Frank), in which the structure of the banking system remained fundamentally the same, but regulators got better information and more power to stop banks from doing foolish things.
  • The progressive approach, in which too-big-to-fail banks would get broken up into pieces too small to sink the system, and FDIC-insured banking would once again be walled off from riskier investment banking with a 21st-century Glass-Steagall Act.
  • The Republican approach, which would get federal institutions (like Fannie Mae) out of the mortgage business, and instill discipline in the market by making future bank bailouts almost impossible.

Now we’re seeing the weakness of the technocratic approach: The public doesn’t really understand the technical rules Dodd-Frank established, so undoing them doesn’t set off alarm bells with the electorate.

Trump campaigned on some progressive banking proposals like Glass-Steagall, but once in office he has given the big banks whatever they want.

He has, instead, simply appointed industry insider figures to all the key positions and has them steadily working to twist every dial available in a more industry-friendly direction.

And the nature of bank regulation is that even when it’s done really, really poorly, the odds are overwhelming that on any given day, nothing bad is going to happen. As long as the economy is growing and asset prices are generally rising, a poorly supervised banking sector is just as good as a well-supervised one.

But when the music stops, and it always does, a poorly supervised banking sector can turn into a huge disaster. It’s only a question of when.

Everybody knows that old people are conservative, but now there’s a new explanation why: Poor people tend to be liberal, and they die before they get old.

mortality among the poor increases during middle age — which is when citizens generally get more involved in politics. The premature disappearance of the poor, then, occurs precisely at the moment when they would be expected to reach their “participatory peak” in society. But they don’t live long enough to achieve that milestone.

and let’s close with something

A town in Norway celebrates summer solstice each year by making a huge bonfire. The one it built last year holds the record for being the tallest bonfire ever.

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  • cgordon  On June 4, 2018 at 11:02 am

    Trump’s book should have been titled “The Art of the Bluster”

  • weeklysift  On June 4, 2018 at 11:03 am

    As I was writing this, the Supreme Court ruled for the baker who refuses to make wedding cakes for same-sex weddings. I haven’t had time to review the decision, and I’ll have more to say about it next week.

  • Shannon McMaster  On June 4, 2018 at 12:19 pm

    Is there a link for the “poor people tend to be liberal, and they die before they get old” item?

  • reverendsax  On June 4, 2018 at 8:10 pm

    Nothin here about Semantha Bee. Just as well, cause everyone who has commented on it ignored the fact that her show is called “FULL FRONTAL,” which sorta explains what you might expect there.

  • Larry Benjamin  On June 5, 2018 at 9:08 am

    Regarding the ERA, since they voted to ratify it, four states have rescinded, but it’s not clear whether that counts, as the Constitution is silent on whether states can withdraw their approval for an amendment once granted. Regarding the time limit, that’s not a problem because the 27th Amendment was first submitted to the states for ratification in 1789, but was not finally ratified until 1992, 202 years later.


  • Guest  On June 5, 2018 at 12:08 pm

    Thanks for another engaging entry, Doug. I especially liked the “three basic theories” break down, and it just might generalize to more than just banking. Republicans want things to get worse, Democrats want to make sure things don’t get much better, while Progressives want to directly address the problem and move us forward. I think that about sums it up!

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