Better or Worse

At its best, the practice of politics is about taking steps that support people in daily life — or tearing down obstacles that get in their way. Much of the confusion and complication of ideological battles might be washed away if we held our focus on the lives that will be made better, or worse, by political decisions, rather than on the theoretical elegance of the policies or the character of the politicians themselves.

– Pete Buttigieg, Shortest Way Home

There is no featured post this week. But I’m trying out a new format for an extra-long weekly summary: a topic list at the top.

1. Cruelty, short-sightedness, and corruption. One week’s worth of administration activity.

2. Hurricane Dorian. Category 5 storms don’t seem all that rare any more.

3. More shootings. The wait-three-weeks strategy for avoiding action on gun control won’t work unless we can go three weeks without a shooting.

4. Brexit. Boris Johnson is setting the UK up for a no-deal Brexit, and Parliament will have a hard time stopping him.

5. James Comey. The FBI inspector general’s report is too boring to read, so anybody can say whatever they want about it.

6. A court ruling. An appeals court ruling on legislative prayer is yet another example of the fundamental flaw of originalism.

7. Other short notes. Hong Kong, trade war, Mayor Pete’s book. Democratic debate on the 12th.

8. A heart-warming closing. A dolphin asks a diver for help.

This week everybody was talking about cruelty, short-sightedness, and corruption

Some weeks, it seems like the Trump administration is trying to do as much damage as possible in its remaining two years. Here are some examples from just this week:

  • The EPA wants to allow more methane leaks at wells and pipelines. Methane is such a potent greenhouse gas that if too much leaks into the atmosphere during the production and transportation processes, natural gas can be worse for the climate than coal. The EPA’s move to roll back anti-methane-leak regulations undermines the strategy of using natural gas as a better-but-not-perfect bridge fuel while we develop more climate-friendly sources. That’s why even industry giants like Shell, Exxon, and BP support the Obama regulations the EPA wants to abandon.
  • Alaska’s Tongass National Forest may soon be open for logging. It’s one of the last wild places on Earth, and about 40% of the West Coast’s wild salmon spawns there.
  • Sick immigrants are being sent home to die. Every year, about 1000 immigrants facing deportation orders ask to stay in the US because they’re receiving medical care that isn’t available in their home countries. Many of them are children and many of the conditions are life-threatening. The Trump administration is canceling this “deferred action” program and has sent letters giving sick people 33 days to leave the country.
  • Not all children of Americans serving overseas will be citizens. Usually, when American parents have a child while they’re out of the country, that child is automatically a US citizen. The law makes an exception for Americans who had lived in the US less than five years before they left the country, but there’s always been an exception to the exception: If the reason you left the US was for the military or other government service, your kid is a citizen. But that exception-to-the-exception is being rolled back. “Who possibly thought this was a good idea?” asks an immigration lawyer.
  • Attorney General Barr is kicking back to the President. Barr has booked the Trump International Hotel in D.C. for a 200-person holiday party that he will pay for personally, at a cost upwards of $30K. (Barr’s Justice Department is also defending Trump against lawsuits claiming that foreign spending at the hotel is an unconstitutional emolument.) Kickbacks are a classic form of corruption: The political boss doles out jobs and contracts from the public treasury, and the people who get them give a chunk of the money back to the Boss. This is Tammany Hall stuff.
  • Trump is steering the next G7 to his struggling resort. Another classic form of corruption is for a public official to steer public contracts towards his allies in the business community. When the Boss owns the business himself, it eliminates the middleman. The US is scheduled to host the 2020 G7 meeting, and holding it at the Trump Doral Resort has many advantages — for Trump. It will draw a lot of foreign money (i.e. unconstitutional emoluments) to his property, give it lots of free publicity, and increase its prestige. Whatever advantages it has for the US or the G7 are much less clear.
  • Building the wall is more important than obeying the law. Reportedly, Trump has told his underlings to get his border wall built before the 2020 elections, and ignore laws that protect the environment and defend private property. He says he will pardon them. The White House did not deny that he said this, but claimed that he was joking.

Stay tuned. I’m sure there will be new outrages next week.

and a hurricane

As usual, I’m not going to try to compete with CNN and the Weather Channel on hurricane coverage. Dorian hit the Bahamas as a category-5 storm last night. The current prediction has it heading up Florida’s Atlantic coast towards Georgia and the Carolinas. Where or whether it will make landfall in the US is still uncertain.

This is the fourth consecutive year with a category-5 Atlantic hurricane.

Former Canadian Prime Minister Kim Campbell aroused a furor with a since-deleted tweet rooting for Dorian to hit Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach. (Dorian has turned north since then.) I generally disapprove of wishing harm on people, but I see her point here: Trump is so self-centered that nothing less than a personal loss will make him take climate change seriously.

and more shootings

Studies have shown that the public clamor to do something about gun violence tends to die down about three weeks after some horrific shooting. So that’s been the gun lobby’s strategy: stall for three weeks until public attention moves on.

But now we’re running into the limits of that strategy: It only works if the country can go longer than three weeks between shootings. Saturday’s mass shooting in Texas (on the highway connecting Midland and Odessa) came four weeks after the August 3 mass shooting in El Paso and August 4 mass shooting in Dayton. Those two were about a week after the Gilroy Garlic Festival shooting.

The Texas shooting knocked Friday night’s high-school shooting in Alabama out of the news. At least six teens were shot at a football game, but nobody died.

Will something happen this time? Governor Gregg Abbott says “I’m tired of the dying of the people of the state of Texas. The status quo is unacceptable.” But does that mean he’ll actually do anything? (Texas actually loosened its gun laws, effective yesterday.) Promising action that never arrives — as Trump did after Dayton/El Paso — has become part of the delay-three-weeks playbook.

Congress returns from recess next week. Two very reasonable background-check bills have passed the House already, but Mitch McConnell has blocked any vote on them. There has been talk about a red-flag law or the renewal of the assault weapon ban that lapsed during the Bush administration. But will anything happen?

A California workplace has an expert come in to instruct the staff on what to do if there’s an active shooter. The expert is Kayley, a girl who has had to learn all this in school.

and the countdown to a no-deal Brexit

One extreme (but very unlikely) solution to the Brexit problem is the Celtic Union shown on the map: England could go its own way while Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and Cornwall stay in the EU.

An only slightly less radical path is the one Prime Minister Boris Johnson (a.k.a. the Trump of England) is maneuvering towards: The UK busts out of the EU on October 31 with no deal.

The sticking point in getting a deal with the EU is what to do with Northern Ireland: The whole point of Brexit (at least in the minds of its major supporters) is to have hard borders, so that the UK can reclaim control over the people and products that come into the country from  other EU nations. But the soft border between Ireland and Northern Ireland is at the center of the Good Friday Accords that ended the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

The EU has taken a hard line against a hard Irish border, because it feels an obligation to represent the interests of the country that is staying in the union: Ireland.

Johnson and his fellow Brexiteers have a very nuanced counter-offer: Fuck the Irish.

OK, that’s an exaggeration. Johnson is currently saying the exact opposite  — that there won’t immediately be new border checks in Northern Ireland. But he won’t say what there will be, and ultimately there’s no way to achieve his Brexit goals without a border that checks passports and collects tariffs. So the real message is more like: “Trust us. We wouldn’t fuck the Irish, would we?” Like the American Trump, though, Johnson is not particularly trustworthy.

The previous Tory government of Theresa May spent three years trying to deny the intractability of this problem. So May finally recognized her predicament and got out the only way she could: by resigning. Her successor has a different way out: Don’t let Parliament get in the way, so that a no-deal Brexit can just happen on October 31 whether Parliament likes it or not. The Economist describes the situation like this:

This week opposition parties agreed that, when the Commons returned on September 3rd, they would try to hijack its agenda to pass a law calling for another extension of the Brexit deadline. But a day later Mr Johnson trumped them by announcing a long suspension of Parliament, from September 11th to October 14th, when a Queen’s Speech will start a new session. … At almost five weeks, it will be Parliament’s longest suspension before a Queen’s Speech since 1945.

That leaves two weeks for Parliament to do something to avert a no-deal Brexit. But that’s the rub: It would have to do something: revoke the UK’s request to leave the EU, form a new government … . And that’s been the problem from the beginning: Brexit has always been just a vague idea; as soon as you zero in on an actual scenario, support goes away.

David Allen Green writes in the WaPo:

What will linger either way is the deep sense of wrongness, of the government attempting to unfairly (if not unlawfully) game the constitution so as to prevent legitimate checks and balances. This will not end well, whatever happens.

Basically, Johnson’s maneuver takes a we-made-a-mistake situation and turns it into a somebody-screwed-us situation.

What’s so bad about no deal? The UK is an island nation, so naturally a lot of necessities are imported. Roughly half of the UK’s foreign trade is with the EU. No one is proposing to cut off that trade, but suddenly it will have to find new legal channels. Businesses in the EU will still want to export to the UK (and vice versa), but they won’t know how to do it while new standards and practices are worked out. Ports and crossings that were designed for an open border will suddenly have to start checking passports and collecting tariffs, which will lead to considerable delays.

Likely problems were listed in a government document that leaked a few weeks ago.

In addition to the immediate chaos, a number of political consequences are likely within the UK: Scotland decided against independence in 2014, but Scots also voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU. So the independence issue will rise again, particularly if a chaotic no-deal Brexit happens without Scottish MPs having a chance to vote against it.

And then there’s Northern Ireland, where the Troubles are already starting to rumble again.

and James Comey

The FBI Inspector General released its report on James Comey’s handling of the memos documenting his interactions with President Trump. I’ll warn you: This is a mind-numbingly boring document. And that’s unfortunate, because it means that most people will rely on someone else to read it for them. That, in turn, means that most people will only hear the spin allowed into their usual news bubbles.

(Something similar happened with regard to the State Department inspector general’s report about Hillary Clinton’s emails, as I reported at the time.)

Let me summarize the general shape of story here, which I think everyone agrees on: While he was FBI director, Comey wrote memos after meetings with President Trump. At the time, he had classification authority over those memos, all but two of which he decided were entirely unclassified. The ones that he judged to include classified information, he handled correctly.

Just before Comey was to testify before Congress (i.e., after he was fired), a group at the FBI reviewed the then-unclassified memos and decided that six words of one and a paragraph of another should be classified at the lowest level, Confidential. The newly classified parts were moments when President Trump had been talking about foreign countries and leaders, and the FBI group reasoned that revealing those statements might cause embarrassment to the US, because some of the countries or leaders might feel slighted. [My opinion: This is a judgment call people might legitimately disagree on, and in any case, it isn’t a big deal.]

After leaving the FBI, Comey kept the memos he believed to be unclassified. He gave one to a friend in order to get its contents leaked to the media. (The newly classified parts weren’t leaked, but the friend saw the six classified words: names of countries.) He also gave his lawyers copies of the memos he retained, so they also saw the newly classified information. In any case, none of the classified information got out.

We found no evidence that Comey or his attorneys released any of the classified information contained in any of the Memos to members of the media.

Comey treated the retained memos as personal property rather than as government property that should be returned to the FBI. The IG finds fault with him for this, because Comey wrote the memos while he was FBI Director, and they concerned conversations he wouldn’t have had if he weren’t FBI Director.

That’s the whole story told in the report.

So what should we make of this? I suspect the IG is technically correct about the ownership of the memos. But let’s consider just how minor a technicality this is: Suppose Comey had returned the memos when he left the FBI (as the IG said he should), and then (as a private citizen) had gone to his computer and written down his memories of his conversations with Trump as best he could remember them at that time, leaving out any statements that might be classified. That document would be his personal property — similar to the my-days-in-the-White-House memoirs that get published all the time. Even if it contained all the unclassified information that was in the FBI memos, showing it to his lawyers or leaking it to the media would be unobjectionable.

Anyway, this is the situation that Rep. Peter King (R-NY) described on Fox News (in a clip Trump retweeted) as:

One of the most disgraceful examples of an abuse of power by a government official…when you read this report…this is a systematic effort to go after Candidate Trump, President Elect-Trump, and President Trump….you could virtually call this an attempted coup.

He can say stuff like this in complete confidence that the people listening to him won’t read the report, which says nothing of the kind. Meanwhile, Josh Marshall makes the opposite case: Comey was a whistleblower, not a leaker:

Comey was not simply within his rights but had an affirmative obligation to bring this information to light. Critically, he had no reason to believe that the others in the existing chain of command weren’t compromised by Trump’s corruption and efforts to end the investigation. Indeed, what we have subsequently learned gives every reason to believe they were compromised. The only reason this isn’t obvious is that we’ve had Trump’s denials, lying and gaslighting in our collective heads for the last two plus years.

Full disclosure: There’s a “Comey is my homey” t-shirt, which I suppose I could wear without too much exaggeration. We were at the University of Chicago at the same time: I finished my Ph.D. in math in 1984, and he got his law degree in 1985. I don’t remember running into him.

but I paid attention to a court ruling

A federal appeals court overturned a lower court ruling and OK’d the practice of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, which bars non-theists from acting as “guest chaplains” and leading the opening prayer.

Granted, this is not the most important thing that happened these last two weeks. Atheism, humanism, and the various forms of religion-without-God will carry on in Pennsylvania, and it’s not even that big a blow to the separation of church and state (though it doesn’t help). But I bring it up as an additional example of something I discussed in my recent Second Amendment article: how the world can change out from under a practice or text, so that it is honestly not clear how best to carry forward some legal tradition.

The strongest argument for why opening prayers are not themselves banned by the First Amendment (as a government “establishment of religion”) goes back to the First Congress. The appeals court majority opinion (written by Judge Thomas Ambro) says:

Twice the Supreme Court has drawn on early congressional practice to uphold legislative prayer. It emphasized that Congress approved the draft of the First Amendment in the same week it established paid congressional chaplains to provide opening prayers.

However, the First Congress did not write down and vote on a policy that applied to all times and places. So it’s left to us to interpret the arguments they were having and extrapolate from them. One thing they didn’t do was insist that the opening prayer satisfy some particular orthodoxy. Ambro summarizes:

[O]ne might wonder whether a religious minister can accommodate the spiritual needs of a “secular agnostic” member of the Pennsylvania House. Or, for that matter, can a Catholic priest in the U.S. Senate accommodate the spiritual needs of Chuck Schumer, or a Jewish rabbi those of Mitt Romney? These questions are as old as the Republic, but they have been settled since the Founding. In the Continental Congress, John Jay and John Rutledge opposed legislative prayer on the theory that the delegates were “so divided in religious sentiments” that they “could not join in the same act of worship.” The two future Chief Justices could not see what an Episcopalian minister could possibly offer a Presbyterian or Congregationalist lawmaker. Their view lost out, however, when Samuel Adams countered that “he was no bigot” and would gladly “hear a prayer from a gentleman of piety and virtue,” no matter his denomination.

So we are left with the question of how far such ecumenism should stretch. In the First Congress, a Christian minister of any denomination could count as “a gentleman of piety and virtue”, and that was as far as the principle needed to go. (Congress wouldn’t have its first Jewish members until 1845, and I’m not sure when a woman first offered the opening prayer.) But how far should this traditional acceptance of pluralism stretch today, when religious diversity is so much greater?

Judge Ambro extends acceptance to all theists — and to Buddhists, for reasons that don’t entirely make sense — but no further.

Legislative prayer has historically served many purposes, both secular and religious. Because only theistic prayer can achieve them all, the historical tradition supports the House’s choice to restrict prayer to theistic invocations.

Judge Felipe Restrepo, on the other hand, is horrified that his colleague has just ruled on what prayer is and what purposes it serves, “which, in my view, are precisely the type of questions that the Establishment Clause forbids the government—including courts—from answering”. His dissenting opinion interprets the opening-prayer tradition differently:

Purposeful exclusion of adherents of certain religions or persons who hold certain religious beliefs has never been countenanced in the history of legislative prayer in the United States, and, therefore, viewed in the proper context, the Pennsylvania House’s guest-chaplain policy does not fit “within the tradition long followed in Congress and the state legislatures” because it purposefully excludes persons from serving as guest chaplains solely on the basis of their religions and religious beliefs.

I’m not attempting to resolve the judges’ disagreement — a job for the Supreme Court — but only to call attention to a more general point, which is the fundamental flaw at the heart of originalism: We can hope to understand what previous generations thought about their world. But when the world changes, we can’t hold a séance and ask how they want us to respond to our world.

and you also might be interested in …

Chinese police are getting increasingly violent against the Hong Kong protests. But the large-scale demonstrations have been going on for 12 weeks and show no signs of stopping. Vox has a good what-is-this-about article.

The NYT’s Roger Cohen seems to be making a pro-Trump point in “Trump Has China Policy About Right“, but he’s actually saying the same thing I’ve been saying: China is our main global competitor, it has been playing by it’s own rules, and it’s high time we confronted them about that. But at the same time, Trump is doing this in a very stupid way: chaotically and without allies.

Cohen’s assessment of “about right” involves grossly lowering his standards, as so many pundits do when they assess Trump. Trump “flails” and is “erratic”. His attempt to order American businesses out of China is “a trademark Trump grotesquerie”. Somehow that adds up to “about right”.

The next Democratic presidential debates are set for September 12, and stricter requirements have brought the roster down to 10 candidates, who will all be on stage at the same time: Biden, Booker, Buttigieg, Castro, Harris, Klobuchar, O’Rourke, Sanders, Warren, and Yang.

As you might guess from the quote at the top, I read Pete Buttigieg’s autobiography Shortest Way Home this week. If you enjoy listening to Mayor Pete talk (I do), you’ll enjoy his book. It’s engaging, thoughtful, and at times funny.

One funny moment is when he’s filling out paperwork for the Navy Reserve. Buttigieg asks an officer for advice on the question “Are you considered a key employee in your civilian workplace?” The officer explains that it’s for first-responders and the like. Pete still doesn’t know how to answer. “Who do you work for?” the officer asks. Pete says he works for the city. “Can anyone else do your job?” Not exactly, Pete answers. “So what are you, the mayor or something?”

It turns out that no, from the Navy’s point of view the mayor is not a “key employee”.

Later, a different officer asks Pete how his employer is handling his deployment, and Pete says they’ve been wonderful about it. The officer says there’s an award he can put them in for. When he finds out Pete works for local government, the officer says that’s perfect, because politicians love getting awards like that.

I also enjoyed watching him mix together his various worlds of experience: bringing his management consultant background into city government, observing like a mayor the Kabul government’s successes and failures in providing local services under difficult conditions, and so on. (One unstated theme of the book is that for a young guy, he’s done a lot of different things.)

One amusing example is when he brings the military concept of “training age” into dating. If you’ve just start to learn about something, your “training age” is young, even if your physical age is much older. Well, Pete took a long time admitting he was gay, and then even longer before he came out publicly. So when he starts to date (after 30), he admits that with respect to dating, his training age is “practically zero”.

and let’s close with something heart-warming

It’s always chancy to imagine what another species is thinking, but in this video it sure looks like a dolphin comes to a diver for help, patiently and trustfully endures having a hook removed from its flesh and fishing line untangled from its flipper, and then swims off.

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  • Jacquie Mardell (@jacquiemardell)  On September 3, 2019 at 2:49 pm

    “Ports and crossings that were designed for an open border will suddenly have to start checking passports and collecting tariffs, which will lead to considerable delays.”

    I believe that the UK was never a party to the Schengen agreement, so they have been checking passports at the border this whole time. It isn’t obvious when arriving from the US because we have to present passports anyway, but when you are coming from Europe you go through a passport control line, unlike most other countries in Europe. So that part will not be different. Collecting tariffs will be new. And unwelcome.

  • Michel S.  On September 4, 2019 at 1:27 pm

    “Chinese police are getting increasingly violent against the Hong Kong protests” — got a scare for a second reading this; let’s call them Hong Kong police, just in case it’s misinterpreted for the mainland PRC government sending police reinforcement down from Shenzhen?

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