Limits to Wealth

I get it that in America, there are gonna be people who are richer and people who are not so rich. And the rich are gonna own more shoes, and they’re gonna own more cars, and they may even own more houses. But they shouldn’t own more of our democracy.

Elizabeth Warren

This week’s featured post is “Looking for President GoodClimate“.

This week everybody was talking about political chaos in the UK

(I was going to say “anarchy in the UK”, but I was afraid you had to be my age to recognize the Sex Pistols reference.)

The signature virtue of a parliamentary system is supposed to be that the government’s top executive, the prime minister, by definition has a majority in parliament. That avoids the kind of gridlock or constitutional crises that America’s presidential system is prone to.

Boris Johnson, however, has lost most of the votes in parliament since he became prime minister, including a big one on a bill that orders him to ask the EU for an extension of the October 31 Brexit deadline if a deal with the EU hasn’t been reached by October 19. That bill has been approved by the Queen and is an official law now.

21 members of Johnson’s Conservative Party voted against him on the bill, whose main purpose is to avoid the no-deal Brexit that Johnson seemed to be maneuvering toward. Johnson ejected them from the Party, so he now doesn’t have a ruling majority. Ordinarily, that would result in a vote of no-confidence and a new prime minister or maybe even a new election, but for a variety of reasons Johnson’s opponents don’t want either of those right now. So he’s sailing along without a majority behind him.

It doesn’t actually matter at the moment, because Parliament is now suspended until October 14, a controversial move Johnson made to try to limit Parliament’s ability to tie his hands.

The Washington Post outlines Johnson’s four options:

  • Negotiate a deal with the EU. This seems unlikely, since talks have more-or-less broken down. The biggest hang-up is the Irish border, as I discussed last week. Johnson met with his Irish counterpart, Leo Varadkar, but “Varadkar said at a Monday morning news conference that Johnson had yet to give him any solid proposals.” There’s a reason for that: The kind of Brexit Johnson wants is incompatible with the Good Friday Accords that ended the civil war in Northern Ireland.
  • Do what Parliament asked him to do: request another delay. This would be humiliating, and Johnson has said he would “never” do it. But, like Trump, Johnson says a lot of things, and they don’t all mean what they appear to mean.
  • Resign. His replacement would probably delay Brexit, but Johnson could then run against that move and maybe win.
  • Go to jail. Sure, Parliament passed a law, but how serious is that anyway? Johnson could not ask Brussels for an extension, be cited for contempt of Parliament, and go to jail. But October 31 would arrive and a no-deal Brexit would go through.

One lesson here echoes the US’s recent troubles: Democracy depends on traditions and norms as much as constitutional provisions, because there are always anti-democratic options that aren’t taken because you just don’t do that. The system keeps going because everyone wants the system to keep going. If a country loses that, things fall apart.

and the CNN climate townhalls

Wednesday, CNN devoted seven hours of its schedule to asking ten Democratic candidates questions about climate change. I discuss my reaction in the featured post.

and another week’s worth of malfeasance

Previous administrations have all danced this dance with the media:

  1. The president says something false or ridiculous. (They all do, sooner or later. Human beings are like that.)
  2. The media points out the mistake.
  3. Either the president or his spokespeople acknowledge the mistake.
  4. The media moves on.

Again and again, President Trump has refused to dance: He is congenitally incapable of admitting a mistake, or of tolerating one of his people admitting he made a mistake. Instead, he repeats the false claim, has subordinates lie to support the false claim, and gets mad that the media refuses to move on.

After he loudly warned of the dangers of a caravan of migrants in 2018, administration officials cited a terrorism arrest statistic that was proven false. When Trump said he had ready a middle-class tax cut plan before the midterm elections, though nothing had been discussed, officials scrambled to craft a plan. When Trump fumed that the size of his inaugural crowd was reported to be smaller than his predecessor’s, White House press secretary Sean Spicer was forced to defend the false claim. And even when Trump mistakenly tweeted the nonsensical word “covfefe” late one night, the president, instead of owning up to a typo or errant message, later sent Spicer to declare, “I think the president and a small group of people know exactly what he meant.”

It got comical this week, as Trump refused to admit that his warning of Alabama being threatened by Hurricane Dorian was, at best, based on outdated information. In order to prove his point, he showed the press a NOAA map that he had crudely altered with a Sharpie, an action that is actually illegal.

As predictable and true-to-type as this series of events was, I find it disturbing. Fortunately, Hurricane Dorian was a problem that the lower-level processes of government were able to handle, so the comedy going on in the White House did little real harm. But what if Trump ever faces a Cuban-Missile-Crisis-level challenge? Will the president and his staff focus on the reality of the situation? Or will they spend all their time arguing that whatever the president did leading up to this situation wasn’t a mistake, even if it was?

This week we got two more examples of an ongoing scandal: the way that Trump uses the power of the presidency to enrich himself. The self-dealing started with his 2016 campaign, which had its offices in Trump Tower and paid rent accordingly. (This is still going on. If you’ve ever contributed to Trump’s campaign, a chunk of your money wound up in his pocket.)

After he became the nominee and then president, Republican Party events shifted to Trump properties, so that he could profit from them too. (If you’ve donated to a Republican congressional candidate, possibly some of that money has also wound up in Trump’s pocket.) The Trump International Hotel in D.C. has become the place for favor-seekers — both foreign and domestic — to hang out.

Last week we found out that Attorney General Barr is spending $30K of his own money to host a holiday party at the Trump International, essentially kicking back a sizeable chunk of his salary to his boss.

That all may be unsavory, but at least it’s private money. However, it is becoming more and more common for taxpayer money to also flow to Trump. Whenever he plays golf at Mar-a-Lago or Bedminster, for example, his entourage has to get rooms at his resort, and his security detail needs to rent golf carts to follow him around. When he meets foreign leaders at Mar-a-Lago, or if he succeeds in hosting the 2020 G7 at his Doral resort, public money flows to him.

One new instance of taxpayer money going to Trump was Vice President Pence’s stay at the Trump International Golf Links and Hotel in Doonbeg, Ireland. He was in Ireland as part of an official visit, but his meetings with Irish officials were in Dublin, 181 miles away on the other side of the Emerald Isle.

Trump has suggested before that Cabinet officials and advisers stay at his properties while they are traveling. He himself has spent 289 days of his presidency at a Trump property, according to a CNN tally.

Trump himself stayed there on a previous visit, at a $3.6 million cost to the taxpayers.

One excuse frequently given is that Trump’s properties are more convenient for a security entourage, but Secret Service veterans say no.

A second incident that raises suspicion of corruption is Politico’s report that military flights have been refueling at the obscure Prestwick Airport in Scotland — the one closest to Trump’s Turnberry resort. Politico identified one occasion where a C-17 taking supplies from the US to Kuwait refueled at Prestwick and its crew stayed overnight at Turnberry. It seems likely this has happened many times, because the military ran up an $11 million fuel bill at Prestwick.

Typically, such flights refuel at US military bases. (There was one nearby in England.) Fuel is cheaper there, and housing is already paid for. But the president makes no money out of that arrangement.

The House Oversight Committee is investigating these stop-overs, and the Pentagon seems to be stonewalling.

“The Defense Department has not produced a single document in this investigation,” said a senior Democratic aide on the oversight panel. “The committee will be forced to consider alternative steps if the Pentagon does not begin complying voluntarily in the coming days.”

Here’s how far the Trump administration is willing to go to make climate change worse, and how the traditional independence of the Justice Department has been compromised. In the Barr DoJ, advancing the president’s political agenda is a higher priority than enforcing the law, as established by this: The four auto companies who agreed with California’s fuel-economy standards (51 mpg by 2026) rather than Trump’s lower ones (37 mpg) are now under antitrust investigation.

The NYT calls this “a cruel parody of antitrust enforcement“, and says:

The investigation is particularly striking because the department has shown little interest in preventing corporations from engaging in actual anticompetitive behavior. This summer, for example, the department blessed T-Mobile’s acquisition of Sprint, a deal likely to harm mobile phone consumers and workers, and to impede innovation.

If the Justice Department wants to get serious about antitrust enforcement, there are plenty of places to get started. This investigation is an embarrassment.

and you also might be interested in …

The next Democratic debates are Thursday. The requirements were set higher this time, so only ten candidates qualified and they’ll all appear on the same stage. They’re the five I would have chosen myself: Biden, Warren, and Sanders, obviously. Harris and Buttigieg being the most likely to break into that top tier. Then Beto, Klobuchar, Booker, and Castro, all of whom bring resume and substance you’d expect of a major candidate. Of the outsider upstarts, only the most interesting, Andrew Yang. Marianne Williamson and Tom Steyer didn’t qualify.

All the white guys running to the right missed the cut: Hickenlooper, Bennet, Bullock, Ryan, Moulton, and Delaney won’t be there. Also missing this time around will be Gabbard, Gillibrand, De Blasio, and Inslee.

Hickenlooper, Moulton, Gillibrand, and Inslee have dropped out. The other non-qualifiers should give that some serious thought.

Talks with the Taliban have broken down, just as talks with the North Koreans have broken down, and talks with China won’t resume until next month. It remains to be seen whether the Trump administration can complete a deal.

The Afghan government, which so far has been excluded from the talks, was pleased.

Wednesday we got the full list of Pentagon projects that won’t happen because Trump took the money to build the southern border wall.

The Defense Department intends to ask for new money to refund these projects in next year’s budget, but Democrats are reluctant to appropriate money twice.

Recall how we got here: Congress refused to fund the border wall in last year’s budget, even after Trump shut down the government for 35 days. Instead, he declared a state of emergency — despite the fact that the only emergency on the border is the one he made — and used emergency powers to move money around. Congress voted to revoke the state of emergency, but Trump vetoed that resolution and there weren’t enough votes to override his veto.

Mitch McConnell, whose state is losing a new school for Fort Campbell, blamed Democrats.

We would not be in this situation if Democrats were serious about protecting our homeland and worked with us to provide the funding needed to secure our borders during our appropriations process

One fact is being left out the public discussion: Money for the wall was negotiable, if Trump had been willing to give the Democrats something they wanted, say, a resolution of the DACA situation. (The deal Trump offered didn’t resolve DACA, but included just a temporary reprieve from deportation.) But Trump didn’t want a negotiated settlement; he wanted a victory.

Here’s the Biden electability argument in a nutshell: A poll by the Marquette University Law School has Biden beating Trump in Wisconsin by 9 points. Sanders beats Trump by only four points. Harris and Warren are tied with Trump.

The clearest path to beating Trump in 2020 is for Democrats to flip back Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Wisconsin is widely seen as the most difficult to win back, so the election could hinge on it.

and let’s close with some misunderstandings

A misheard song lyric is known as a mondegreen, a word which itself comes from a misheard lyric. Here’s a collection of mondegreens.

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  • Lou Doench  On September 10, 2019 at 7:30 am

    Brexit is currently exhibit A in my case against too much direct democracy. Citizen Referendums are one of the tools that demagogues can use to break those norms that keep governments running.

    • Anonymous  On September 11, 2019 at 8:40 pm

      The Brexit referendum wasn’t put forth by a demagogue. It’s problem lies in a different area.

      The choices were 1) stay in the European Union – everyone knows what that is – that’s the current situation, or 2) leave the European Union – with no parameters about what that would look like. The people voting to leave weren’t all voting for the same thing,

      One of the big issues now is what to do about the Irish border, but in the run up to the vote, nobody talked about that problem. If there had been any parameters around what Brexit would actually look like it never would have passed. There isn’t a majority in favor of any particular plan. There wasn’t then, and there still isn’t.

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