Author Archives: weeklysift

Doug Muder is a former mathematician who now writes about politics and religion. He is a frequent contributor to UU World.

Self-awareness

Jeb Bush ran for president on the theory that tax cuts would generate 4 percent economic growth. Marco Rubio argued that Barack Obama was deliberately trying to damage the United States. Ed Gillespie claims that sanctuary cities that don’t even exist are responsible for the rise of a violent international criminal organization. The same congressional Republicans who swore for years that growing debt was the biggest threat to the country are lining up behind a budget that will authorize more than $1 trillion in new borrowing to finance tax cuts for the rich. The difference between these guys and the new crop of kooks — between a respected colleague like Bob Corker and a feared soon-to-be-colleague like Marsha Blackburn — as I understand it, is that the establishment politicians are aware that they are lying.

 – Matt Yglesias “Establishment Republicans mystified by their base should look at Ed Gillespie’s campaign

This week’s featured post is “Taking Hostages“.

This week everybody was talking about Trump’s moves to wreck things

I cover his threats to DACA, the Iran deal, and ObamaCare in the featured post. Increasingly, Trump is realizing that even having Republican majorities in Congress doesn’t allow him to run over Democrats. So now he’s trying to get their cooperation by taking hostages.

and we also paid attention to that other abuser of women, Harvey Weinstein

Before this week, I’m pretty sure I could have sat next to Harvey Weinstein on an airplane without recognizing him. I remember seeing the Weinstein Company logo in film credits, but I couldn’t tell you which movies they were. So I’ve been amazed at how much coverage his sexual abuse scandal is getting. To me, Bill Cosby, Bill O’Reilly, Donald Trump, and Roger Ailes were public figures, but Weinstein is just another rich dude.

Actually, Ailes is probably comparable: a guy who’s powerful within his industry, but most people wouldn’t recognize on the street. (I just happen follow political journalism much more closely than I follow movies, so Fox News seems like a bigger deal to me than the Weinstein Company.) Like Roger Ailes’ story, Weinstein’s is driven largely by the star-power of his accusers: Gywneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie for Weinstein, Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson for Ailes.

It appears Weinstein has been doing this for a long time, but once accusations reached a critical mass, the response was swift. His company has fired him, the Motion Picture Academy expelled him, and I hope no one takes seriously the idea that some sort of therapy will qualify him for a comeback. (Personally, I don’t believe predatory behavior is treatable. Predators have more motivation to pretend to reform than to actually reform.) If there’s enough evidence for a criminal conviction, I hope prosecutors go for it.

What makes Weinstein’s story different from Trump, O’Reilly, and Ailes is that his political connections are liberal rather than conservative. Conservative media has tried to make a hypocrisy story out of that: See, liberals abuse women too.

I will note the major difference: It has been the liberal media (the NYT and The New Yorker) that has been leading the charge to break this story. And (unlike Ailes) Weinstein isn’t being defended (except by Woody Allen; they should start a club). Kellyanne Conway has tried to make a thing out of the fact that five whole days passed before Hillary Clinton spoke out against Weinstein. But Trump actively defended both Ailes and O’Reilly, and to my knowledge still hasn’t condemned them. And Conway herself defended Trump after more than a dozen women accused him of sexual assault, and he confessed on tape.


The one upside of this story is the attention it has drawn to situations that are not rape in the clearest sense — not a guy forcing sex on a woman who is unmistakably refusing — but where differences in status and power make refusal problematic, situations where ambiguous behavior will be interpreted in the man’s favor, up until the point where it will be assumed by many that the woman consented by not objecting. Even if no physical force is involved, the man has to know that the woman is giving in rather than participating.

Kate Manne’s article at Huffington Post, for example, rambles but also covers a lot of ground — through novels, TV shows, journal articles, and her own memories of an abusive piano teacher during a time when she dreamed of a professional career. The experience “tainted playing the piano for me”. Likewise, some of the Weinstein accusations come from women who gave up their dream of being actresses. Who can guess how many women have abandoned ambitions as a vague not-quite-intended response to harassment that they didn’t feel in a position to report at the time?

and Puerto Rico

Tuesday, AP reported that 10 people have been diagnosed with leptospirosis, a disease you get by drinking water contaminated by animal urine. Four deaths have been attributed to this disease, which is both preventable and treatable.

When he was in Puerto Rico, Trump bragged about the low death totals, then only 16. The official count is now higher, and is probably still too low.

At Vox, we decided to compare what the government has been saying with other reports of deaths from the ground. We searched Google News for reports of deaths in English and Spanish media from Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria. We found reports of a total of 81 deaths linked directly or indirectly to the hurricane. Of those, 45 were the deaths certified by the government. The remaining 36 deaths were confirmed by local public officials or funeral directors, according to the reports. We also found another 450 reported deaths, most of causes still unknown, and reports of at least 69 people still missing.

The estimates of how many people are without power change daily, but have been running in the 70-90% range.


I’ve been saying since before the Inauguration that Trump (like the alt-Right in general) distinguishes between Americans and real Americans. Real Americans (also sometimes referred to as “the American People”; I talked here about what it means to be “a people”) are English-speaking white Christians.

If you’re really adamant about two out of three, that might be enough for you to count as “real”, but just being white or Christian or speaking English as your first language isn’t. (For the Dreamers, even two out of three isn’t enough.) So Puerto Ricans, who (though often Catholic) are mostly brown-skinned Spanish-speakers, don’t qualify as real Americans, no matter what their passports say. That’s why the America-First President can tweet so blithely about abandoning them in their hour of need. The thought of how much money the U.S. is spending to help them, which never came up in presidential rhetoric after the Texas and Florida hurricanes, is never far from his mind. He also worries about whether they are doing enough to help themselves, another idea that didn’t come up in Harvey or Irma relief. It is as if he considers Puerto Rico disaster relief to be foreign aid.


Rachel Maddow has been making the Navy hospital ship Comfort a symbol of the relief effort’s mismanagement. It’s in Puerto Rico, but as of Thursday, only 8 of its 1000 beds were occupied.

and the California fires

As of Friday, the Tubbs fire in the Santa Rosa area had destroyed more than 5,000 buildings, most of them homes. And that’s just one of the still-raging fires.

As with the hurricanes, climate change is sitting in the background of this story. The usual caveats apply: There’s always been a wildfire season in California, so you can’t look at any particular fire and say that climate change caused it. But …

As the climate changes, extremes in seasonal conditions are exacerbated, [University of California Professor LeRoy] Westerling says. Climate change affects wildfires from two directions at different times of the year: Winters become wetter and shorter, while summers become hotter and last longer.

“Climate change is kind of turning up the dial on everything,” Westerling said. “Dry periods become more extreme. Wet periods become more extreme.”

One thing I didn’t understand before: Both sides of that process promote wildfires. The wet winters cause more vegetation to grow, which dries out in the summer and becomes fuel for the fires.


If you missed it the first time around, now is a good time to watch this episode of Years of Living Dangerously. It tells two stories about deforestation: Harrison Ford is in Indonesia, and Arnold Schwarzenegger talks to the people who fight wildfires in the American West.


From a friend whose home in Santa Rosa is within blocks of the total-loss zone:

Ronald Reagan famously said: “The most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help you’.”

Ronald Reagan was a fucking moron.

Rugged individualism just doesn’t cut it when you’re in the path of a hurricane or a major fire.

but we need to watch the Russia/Trump/social media story

Most of the talk about the Trump/Russia investigation centers on the hacks of Democratic emails and the process by which they got leaked to the press. But ultimately Russia’s social media strategy may turn out to be more important.

The Internet Research Agency employ hundreds of so-called “trolls” who post pro-Kremlin content, much of it fake or discredited, under the guise of phony social media accounts that posed as American or European residents, according to lawmakers and researchers.

Facebook announced last month it had unearthed $100,000 in spending by the Internet Research Agency and, under pressure from lawmakers, has pledged to be more transparent about how its ads are purchased and targeted.

Google has found tens of thousands spent by a different Russian group on its ads, and Microsoft is still looking into the issue. There have also been reports of Russian Twitter-bots who manipulated which stories were “trending”. A number of those Facebook ads targeted Wisconsin and Michigan.

Some of the Russian ads appeared highly sophisticated in their targeting of key demographic groups in areas of the states that turned out to be pivotal, two of the sources said. The ads employed a series of divisive messages aimed at breaking through the clutter of campaign ads online, including promoting anti-Muslim messages, sources said.

This is far from conclusive evidence of collusion with the Trump campaign, but it does suggest some American involvement: Somebody working with the Russians had a very deep, granular understanding of the American electorate.


Larry Kim reports on how easy it is to set yourself up as a fake-news mogul. He created a web site, spent $50 on Facebook ads, and reached 4,645 conservative-leaning people in Pennsylvania, generating 44 likes and 27 shares. Imagine what could be done with an army of trolls and hundreds of thousands to spend. If you build a bunch of sites all referencing each other’s fake-news stories, you could create your own bubble.

and you also might be interested in …

The NYT covers research into why wolves are different from dogs. The theory: wolf puppies learn the difference between “us” and “them” very early, before their eyes and ears are working yet, entirely by scent. Dog puppies stay open to socialization longer, and learn to recognize familiar humans by sight and sound. The reporter is only partly convinced, but really enjoys the chance to play with wolf puppies.


The WaPo predicts that someday 2017 will be seen as “the beginning of the end of the internal combustion engine“. The big reasons: China, Tesla, and GM.


Minister Carl Gregg discusses the question of how to deal with honest people who live in a world of alternative facts. Based a book called The Cynic and the Fool by Tad DeLay, he recommends starting with “motivational interviewing” rather than direct contradiction. “Why do you believe that?” rather than “That’s not true!”


Last week, Senator Corker described the White House as “an adult daycare center”. This week, Politico and The Washington Post explained how the daycare workers do their jobs. Mainly, when the Toddler-in-Chief is about to do something bad or dangerous, they distract him until his attention wanders somewhere else. (I picture them jingling a set of car keys.) And when he’s behaving, they tell him again and again what a good boy he is.


The nominee to head the Council on Environmental Quality doesn’t think carbon dioxide should count as a pollutant.


Since the election, I’ve been thinking that liberals need to explain things we used to take for granted, and explicitly argue against ideas that used to be off the table. (I’ve done that with articles against white pride and nationalism.) Economics blogger Noah Smith apparently feels the same way: He explained in September why an American white ethnostate would be a bad idea, not just for the non-whites who would be either driven out or subordinated, but for the whites themselves.

Two main arguments: An all-white USA would have a crappy economy, not just because talented non-whites wouldn’t want to come (or stay) here, but because a lot of talented whites would leave (in the same way that many non-Jewish scientists left Hitler’s Germany). And the harsh policies necessary to get rid of American non-whites would leave us with corrupt and tyrannical institutions, staffed by people who were willing to do nasty things. In spite of our ethnic homogeneity, we’d have a low level of public trust for generations.

The nation that currently most resembles a white ethnic Trumpistan, in Smith’s opinion, is Ukraine: nearly all-white, dominated by agriculture and heavy industry — and with a GDP per capita about 1/6th of the U.S.


This week’s most head-scratching story is that the Department of the Interior flies a special flag to mark when Secretary Zinke is in the building. Buckingham Palace has long flown a flag to mark when the monarch is in residence. In the U.S. the tradition goes back to the Navy in 1866; the ship carrying the fleet commander would fly a special flag. In the early 20th century, cabinet-level flags became a fad of sorts, but went out of style because they were considered “pretentious”.

Chris Lu, deputy Labor secretary under Obama, said: “If we had a secretarial flag at the Obama Labor Department, we never bothered to locate it or use it.”

There’s a theme building in a variety of Trump administration scandals and controversies: High government office is about self-glorification, not public service.

and let’s close with something humbling

This one chart shows all the known cognitive biases. Human minds, it turns out, are kind of kludgy.

Taking Hostages

In one setting after another — DACA, Iran, ObamaCare — Trump has set a clock ticking towards disaster in hopes of getting concessions from Congress.


During the Obama years, I frequently found it necessary to explain the difference between negotiating and hostage-taking. If we’re negotiating, I push for what I want, you push for what you want, and we hope to meet somewhere in the middle. But if I demand that you give me what I want, under the threat that otherwise I’ll send us into a scenario that NO ONE wants, that’s hostage-taking. The defining mark of a hostage-taker is that the demand for cooperation unaccompanied by any positive offer: My proposed “compromise” isn’t that you’ll get some of what you want, but that I’ll remove a threat of my own making. “Do what I say and nobody gets hurt.”

The clearest examples of hostage-taking in recent American politics have been the debt-ceiling confrontations of 2011 and 2013, as well as the occasional posturing over the debt ceiling we still see from time to time. If Congress ever actually does refuse to raise the ceiling on the national debt, the country will be thrown into both a constitutional and an economic crisis that will benefit no one (possibly not even our enemies, who might get caught in the global economic downturn likely to follow the market’s loss of faith in U.S. bonds). In 2011 and 2013, Republicans wanted President Obama to agree to deep spending cuts and the end of ObamaCare. What they offered in exchange was nothing, beyond dropping their threat to set off a global crisis.

Recently, the Trump administration has brought us something I don’t think the U.S. has ever seen before: presidential hostage taking. American presidents usually assume that they’ll be blamed for whatever goes wrong, so they have nothing to gain from taking hostages; any catastrophe that spins out of the confrontation will ultimately be charged against them. But Trump has an unfortunate combination of character flaws that we’ve never seen in a president before:

  • He seems not to feel empathy for the people his policies might hurt.
  • He is convinced that no bad outcome can ever be his fault. If he sets up a confrontation that results in disaster, that just demonstrates that his enemies should have given in to him.

The failure of brute force. In the first half-year or so of his administration, Trump believed he didn’t need Democratic cooperation. With Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, he thought he could ignore Democratic resistance and win by brute force. In his first confrontation, that strategy worked: Nominating Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court gave Trump’s base what it wanted without offering Democrats any hint of compromise. A Democratic filibuster was defeated not by convincing any Democrats to support Gorsuch, but by eliminating the filibuster on Supreme Court nominations. Take that, Democrats!

But from spring into summer, right up to the September 30 reconciliation deadline, repeated attempts to win a brute-force victory on healthcare failed. Offered nothing, Democrats stayed united. But Republicans didn’t, so the small Republican majorities in both houses weren’t enough to push a bill through.

Trump’s current policy push, a tax-reform package centered on a major cut in corporate taxes, seems headed for a similar outcome. A proposal that reduces government revenue mainly by cutting taxes on corporations and the rich contains no provisions that a Democrat can take to his or her voters and say, “We got what we could out of the deal.” So Democrats will stay united. Republicans — each of whom represents a somewhat different configuration of interests — probably won’t.

Each of those efforts assumed the once-a-year reconciliation process that circumvents the filibuster in the Senate. Trump has urged the Senate to do away with the filibuster altogether, but there are enough traditionalists in the Republican Senate caucus to defeat that effort. For every other piece of legislation, Trump needs 60 votes in the Senate and only has 52 Republicans.

In short, Trump has already reached the limits of brute force in Congress. This is unlikely to change as the 2018 elections get closer, and if Republican majorities shrink (as seems likely, at least in the House), brute force is even less like to succeed in 2019 and beyond. So if Trump wants to get anything through Congress, he needs at least a small amount of Democratic cooperation. How to get it?

Start the time-bombs ticking. In the last couple of months we’ve seen a new tactic from Trump: Rather than propose even a framework of a policy and seek congressional approval, Trump unilaterally sets a clock ticking towards some outcome that hardly anybody wants. Congress is expected to do something to avert the looming disaster, though precisely what Trump wants it to do is usually unclear. This sets up the following possibilities.

  • If Congress does something popular, Trump can claim credit.
  • If Congress does something unpopular, Trump can save the country from it with a veto and/or a clock reset.
  • If Congress does nothing, he can denounce Congress for obstructing the “agenda” that he never actually proposed.

We’ve seen this set-up three times already in a fairly short time-period: DACA, ObamaCare, and Iran.

DACA. It’s not true that no one wants to deport the so-called Dreamers (the name derives from the DREAM Act — Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors, which Congress never passed; that’s what motivated Obama’s DACA — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — executive order), but they are the most popular of America’s undocumented immigrants. A poll in September found that 58% of Americans want Dreamers to have a path to citizenship. Another 18% would let them be permanent residents without citizenship. Only 15% want them deported.

In the face of that public opinion, even Republicans say nice things about the Dreamers. Orrin Hatch, for example:

I’ve long advocated for tougher enforcement of our existing immigration laws. But we also need a workable, permanent solution for individuals who entered our country unlawfully as children through no fault of their own and who have built their lives here.

But on September 5, Trump started a clock running.

Under the plan, announced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the Trump administration will stop considering new applications for legal status dated after Tuesday, but will allow any DACA recipients with a permit set to expire before March 5, 2018, the opportunity to apply for a two-year renewal if they apply by October 5.

So after March 5, Dreamers will start becoming subject to deportation. And they’ll be easy to find, because the DACA program required them to register with the government.

At first, Trump himself seemed to share the public’s sympathy for the Dreamers, tweeting “Does anybody really want to throw out good, educated and accomplished young people who have jobs, some serving in the military?” His problem seemed to be mainly that DACA was established by executive order rather than by an act of Congress. Democrats briefly thought they had reached a deal with him to fix that. Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer released a joint statement after a meeting with Trump:

We agreed to enshrine the protections of DACA into law quickly, and to work out a package of border security, excluding the wall, that’s acceptable to both sides.

At the time, Trump seemed to endorse the Democrats’ version:

“DACA now, and the wall very soon,” Trump told reporters on the south lawn of the White House in mid-September. “But the wall will happen.”

But this week he disavowed any such deal, and issued his ransom note of 70 demands. Not only did it include funding for his border wall, but it also had one giant poison pill: It criminalizes millions of immigrants who (under current law) have only committed the civil infraction of overstaying their visas.

Of the 11 million unauthorized aliens in the country, about two million are DREAMers [1] and 4.5 million are visa overstays who entered the country legally but whose visas expired (the rest entered the country without proper papers). Currently, these latter folks are guilty of a civil infraction akin to an unpaid parking ticket. They can be deported for it but can’t be thrown in jail.

Many of them are eligible for a visa renewal or for refugee status, but haven’t been able to navigate our byzantine process. [2]

But Trump’s proposals (according to the Cato Institute)

would create a new misdemeanor offense for overstaying a visa. Immigration fraud is already a crime. This would criminalize the technical violation, regardless of the reason.

If, for example, your application gets lost in the mail, or vanishes into some bureaucrat’s files, you become a criminal. But there’s more:

It would also create new criminal penalties for filing “baseless” asylum applications and increase penalties for those who recross the border after a deportation.

So if you are in danger in your home country, be sure you thoroughly document your situation and bring the paperwork with you when you run for your life. Otherwise you may go to jail in the U.S. for filing a baseless asylum application.

In short, Trump’s price for giving the Dreamers legal status (he still hasn’t said what kind) isn’t just to build a wall, but to criminalize at least twice as many people as he legalizes. “Does anybody really want to throw out good, educated and accomplished young people who have jobs, some serving in the military?” he asks. But he’ll start doing it on March 5 unless his demands are met.

ObamaCare. The Constitution says that a primary duty of the President is to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed”. It doesn’t say “unless they were passed under your predecessor and you don’t like them”. But that’s the spin Trump has been putting on the Affordable Care Act since he took office.

The initial sabotage was low-level and seemed like the grousing of teen-agers who complain about going to school as they go to school. For example, HHS took some of the money appropriated to publicize the program and used it to create videos that criticized ObamaCare instead. Somewhat more seriously, the Trump administration has also made it harder to sign up by cutting the open enrollment period.

But this week he made two direct attempts at sabotage: He ordered HHS to expand the role of interstate association healthcare plans, which provides a way to siphon off healthier, younger people into cheaper plans, leaving older, sicker people behind in a more expensive risk pool that is in greater danger of collapsing. And he announced that he will cut off the cost-sharing-reduction payments that help people just above the poverty line cover their deductibles and make co-payments.

It’s important to realize that this is not the main ObamaCare subsidy, the one that helps people pay their premiums. (If people get the impression that all ObamaCare subsidies have been eliminated, that will sabotage sign-ups beyond what the actual situation implies.) Eliminating it will actually not help anybody.

If the payments are stopped, insurers would still be required to give low-income consumers plans with small deductibles and co-payments. But insurers would no longer be able to get financial help for the costs they are bearing.

Some insurance companies would likely decide that it was no longer worth selling health plans on the marketplaces. Others might conclude that they have to raise premiums across-the-board to cover the additional losses.

Insurance regulators predict that premiums nationwide will go up an average of 12% to 15% because of Trump’s decision. But the increase in some areas could be much larger.

Many of the people hurt worst will be Trump voters.

An estimated 4 million people were benefiting from the cost-sharing payments in the 30 states Trump carried, according to an analysis of 2017 enrollment data from the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Of the 10 states with the highest percentage of consumers benefiting from cost-sharing, all but one — Massachusetts — went for Trump.

It won’t even save the government money. Increasing premiums increases the primary ObamaCare subsidies, which will cost the government money.The point of all this, then, isn’t to improve anything for anybody. (It’s worth pointing out that Trump still hasn’t put forward any healthcare plan at all. The Republican plans Congress has rejected were all constructed in Congress. So far, there is no reason to believe that Trump has any ideas for improving healthcare.) It’s to fulfill his promise to “let ObamaCare implode” so that Democrats will have to give in to a repeal-and-replace plan that throws millions of people out of the health-insurance system.

In other words: Agree to hurt a bunch of people, or I’ll hurt even more people.

Iran. The people in the Trump administration who are supposed to understand such things tell us that Iran is fulfilling the terms of the 2015 deal that keeps them from pursuing nuclear weapons. But Friday, Trump “decertified” the agreement.

When you first hear that, it sounds like the deal is kaput. But actually decertification just starts another clock running. Presidential certification actually isn’t part of the international agreement, it’s just part of an American law, the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act.

The immediate consequence of this is not that sanctions snap back into effect. Rather, it’s that the issue gets kicked back to Congress — giving them a 60-day window to reimpose Iran sanctions suspended by the deal using a special, extremely fast process.

The sanctions are part of the agreement, so if they go back into effect, we are in violation, even though Iran is not. So Congress has a special opportunity (again avoiding the Senate filibuster) to kill the deal.

Trump’s stated reasons for decertifying are that Iran continues to do bad things the deal doesn’t cover, like aiding Hezbollah and propping up the Assad regime in Syria. (Russia is also propping up the Assad regime, but Trump can’t criticize Russia.) Also, they are developing ballistic missiles (which the deal doesn’t cover). So they are violating “the spirit” of the agreement.

Trump wants Congress to do something (it’s not clear exactly what) that will re-open negotiations on the deal, not just with Iran, but with the United Kingdom, Russia, France, China, and Germany, who are also part of the agreement.  None of the other countries have expressed an interest in renegotiating, or in reimposing the sanctions that pushed Iran to make concessions. But

in the event we are not able to reach a solution working with Congress and our allies, then the agreement will be terminated. It is under continuous review, and our participation can be cancelled by me, as President, at any time.

Several administration officials say we want to remain in the deal. Just blowing it up sets Iran back on the path to nuclear weapons and the United States on the path to war. No one benefits. But Trump says he’ll blow it up if his demands aren’t met.

So far, no one is giving in. There’s no indication that Democrats will pay ransom for DACA or ObamaCare, or that Iran and the other signers of the Iran nuclear deal will pay ransom to preserve the agreement. Like any terrorist, Trump will have to shoot some hostages before his enemies start taking his threats seriously. What remains to be seen is what Trump supporters, both in Congress and in the general public, will do once they understand that the hostages include people they care about.


[1] You’ll see a fairly wide range of estimates of the number of Dreamers, with this one on the high end. The number of people who have registered for DACA is usually estimated between 700K and 800K. I’m assuming that two million represents a guess at the number of undocumented immigrants who qualify in the vaguest sense: They came to this country as children and so could apply for DACA. An undocumented family might have any number of reasons not to call attention to itself by registering its DACA-eligible child.

[2] The goal of the sanctuary movement in liberal American churches isn’t to shelter forever people who can’t legally stay in this country, but to prevent the government from deporting people who would be eligible to stay if some neutral court could examine their cases. Such people are given temporary sanctuary so that the bureaucratic process has time to work.

The Monday Morning Teaser

This week … oh, let’s see … Trump decertified the Iran nuclear deal and made his most significant attempt yet to sabotage ObamaCare. Most of Puerto Rico is still without power and Americans — never forget that Puerto Ricans are Americans — are starting to die from diseases related to drinking bad water. But Trump is getting impatient with this whole process of rescuing brown Spanish-speaking people (who aren’t even grateful to him when help eventually arrives), so he warned that federal rescuers “can’t stay forever”.

That’s this week’s news about one American. I’m sure I’ll find some space to talk about the other 300 million or so of us.

Oh yeah, there was another guy: Harvey Weinstein. He got more attention this week than all the Californians whose homes burned combined. (Did I mention that Californians are watching their homes burn? Must have slipped my mind.)

Fortunately, there was also some less horrifying stuff to pay attention to: research into the difference between wolf puppies and dog puppies, a prediction that 2017 is “the beginning of the end of the internal combustion engine”, and an demonstration of how easy it is to start a fake news site.

Anyway, here’s my plan: I’ll pull together stuff about DACA, Iran, and ObamaCare in a post called “Hostage Taking”. In each of those cases, Trump has started a clock ticking towards disaster and laid out a set of demands to stop it. That should be out by 10 EDT. Everything else is in the weekly summary, which should appear by noon.

Bipartisan Concerns

He concerns me. He would have to concern anyone who cares about our nation. … Look, except for a few people, the vast majority of our caucus understands what we’re dealing with here.

Senator Bob Corker (R-TN), discussing President Trump yesterday

This week’s featured post is “Misunderstood Things: 10-9-2017“, where I discuss gun deaths and tax simplification.

This week everybody was talking about guns

The more we find out about Stephen Paddock, the more he looks like a white guy with a lot of guns. No one has uncovered a political or religious agenda behind the Las Vegas massacre. He just wanted to kill a lot of people and had the means to do it.


In The Atlantic, David Frum lays out “The Rules of the Gun Debate“. He’s pointing to the formulaic nature of the debate, in which anything likely to change either the frequency of mass killings or the number of gun deaths each year is eliminated before the discussion starts. Fundamentally, he says, the United States has too many guns that move around too freely.

a society is in a much better position to stop shooting deaths when it can tightly regulate the buying and carrying of weapons long before they are ever used to murder anybody. In all but a half dozen American states, it would be perfectly legal for people like the Charlie Hebdo killers to walk to the very front door of their targets with their rifles slung over their shoulders, lawful responsible gun owners to the very second before they opened fire on massed innocents.

… in an America where guns were viewed as they are in Australia or Canada, the project of moving two dozen of them into a hotel suite would likely be detected somewhere along the way. The person moving those guns would find himself in trouble—not for murder—but for some petty gun infraction. His weapons might be confiscated, or he himself sent to prison for some months. His plan would be interrupted very likely without anyone ever imagining what had been contemplated. Mass shootings so seldom happen in other countries not because they have developed carefully crafted policies against shootings, but because they have instituted broad policies to restrict guns.

He also points to a cultural change we need to prevent the much-more-frequent suicides, accidents, and fatal escalations of ordinary disputes:

Gun safety begins, then, not with technical fixes, but with spreading the truthful information: people who bring guns into their homes are endangering themselves and their loved ones.

I’m wondering if we need some anti-gun commercials similar to the ones that have been made to de-glamorize smoking. Nothing about statistics or laws, just a guy proudly showing his friends his vast gun collection, but rather than impressing them, he has creeped them out.


The gun control debate seems muted this time, with advocates having a hopeless tone in their voices. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard someone say, “If Sandy Hook didn’t change anything …”

Still, things that can’t go on forever don’t. The potential destructiveness of individuals keeps going up, and with it the size of mass killings. It stunned the nation in 1966 when a sniper killed 14 strangers in Texas. This time 58 died and more than 500 were injured. If nothing changes, someday it will be 100 dead, then a thousand. Is there really no point at which something changes?


Las Vegas isn’t the biggest mass killing in U.S. history, but you probably didn’t hear about the others in school, because the victims were black or Native American and the killers were white.

and Iran

The Washington Post reported Thursday that Trump is planning to decertify the deal the Obama administration negotiated to halt Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Iran appears to be fulfilling its obligations under the agreement, but Trump is expected to say in a speech Thursday that the agreement is “not in the national interest”. Congress would then have 60 days to reimpose the sanctions the agreement relaxed, which would probably scuttle the whole thing, ticking off a bunch of our allies. Iran would then be free to construct a nuclear weapon as fast as it could.

Try as I might, I can’t see an achievable goal here. The reason the Obama sanctions were so crippling for Iran was that all the major players backed them. (The agreement in question isn’t just between us and the Iranians. The UK, France, China, Russia, and Germany are also involved, and none of them are expressing regrets.) If we unilaterally screw up the agreement and go back to sanctions, we’re unlikely to get a similar level of cooperation. So with less pressure on the Iranians this time, why will they give us more concessions?

I suppose Trump might be imagining that the Iranians will capitulate in the face of his resolve and negotiating skills, but seriously, where is the evidence for that view? And why would they offer any new concessions, when they know Trump reneges on deals and could just come back for more concessions later? (As I pointed out when the deal was first announced, there’s a Munich analogy to be made here, but we’re in the Germany role.)

Or maybe he thinks the Iranian public will rise up and overthrow their government if we put enough pressure on their economy, but I don’t think that’s how it works. People tend to rally around their government when foreign powers try to dominate it. Hardliners will argue that they tried to settle peaceably with the Americans, but Trump has no interest in anything but Iran’s surrender. Iranian democracy activists will look like traitorous American agents.

Neither of those upbeat possibilities is anywhere near as likely as this one: Iran will go full speed towards a nuclear weapon and dare us to either accept it or start a war. (Remember: Iran is three times the size of Iraq.)


Another example of Trump’s if-you-demand-it-they-will-fold approach is the renegotiation of NAFTA, which doesn’t appear to be going very well. So far the Trump administration’s demands are short on specifics, and it’s not clear he has the backing in Congress to approve whatever changes he might get.

As the son of an Illinois farmer (now deceased), I keep wondering when heartland farmers will notice how consistently Trump is selling them out on trade. Mexico may run a trade surplus with us in general, but it imports a lot of corn and soybeans. The Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement that Trump pulled out of had debatable effects in general, but it would have been great for farm exports.


Speaking of reneging on deals and making big demands, Trump has released his conditions for giving legal status to the Dreamers currently protected by the Obama DACA program that Trump is ending. It includes stuff that the outline-of-a-deal he agreed to with Democratic leaders explicitly ruled out, like building his wall. As president, he continues to deal with everybody the way he dealt with subcontractors in his real estate business or students at Trump U: No deal is ever complete; there’s always another opportunity to cheat people.

and Trump’s visit to Puerto Rico

Univision radio host Jay Fonseca and Puerto Rican lawyer Leo Aldridge had this reaction:

We were waiting for a Marshall Plan, something announcing the rebuilding of Puerto Rico. What we got was more congratulations for his own administration. Instead of showing compassion for the most vulnerable, he went to visit the richest areas of the island.

They warn that many Puerto Ricans are leaving the island for the mainland — which they can do freely, since they’re U.S. citizens. This could change the politics of the states they move to, since they can vote as soon as they establish residency, just like any other Americans who move to a new state.

The NYT suggests Florida could see a shift: Puerto Ricans were already passing Cubans as the largest Hispanic ethnic group in the state, and the current crisis might bring 100,000 more. Like Latinos in general, Puerto Ricans in the 50 states haven’t been voting in their full numbers. But Trump’s disrespect might motivate them.


BTW: Does anyone doubt that Puerto Rico would have been a state long ago if its people were white and spoke English as their first language?


Plenty of people noted how weird and self-centered Trump was in Puerto Rico. But by now, that’s not really news. Maybe instead we should be reminding ourselves how our leaders used to act, so that Trump doesn’t become a new model for our lowered expectations. (If you want a list of all the ways Trump has changed presidential behavior for the worse, the NYT has one.)

For example, this was candidate Obama visiting the town where I grew up during the 2008 Mississippi River floods. It’s hard to imagine Trump, either before or after the election, just pitching in and talking to other volunteers about the disaster, rather than about himself, his popularity, or how great he is.

The point, of course, isn’t that Obama’s sandbags made some huge difference. (Who knows how many he actually filled before the cameras were turned off and he went to his next campaign event?) The point is that American leaders should model good citizenship, and demonstrate that no one is too important to pitch in.

Similarly, after the softball-practice shooting that wounded Congressman Steve Scalise, Vice President Pence donated blood. Who knows where Pence’s pint actually went? But whether his blood type matched any of the victims or not, he responded to a tragedy by modeling public-spirited behavior.

and his other feuds

During the Obama administration, there was a certain amount of comparatively dignified back-and-forth between the President and Republican leaders like John Boehner. You expect that kind of thing in any democracy, as the leaders of different parties disagree with each other and jockey for public support.

What’s different this time is the vitriol between Trump and his own party, and sometimes his own people. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is currently in the doghouse for calling Trump “a moron” in front of witnesses in July, maybe with an extra expletive attached. Tillerson pointedly refused to deny making the comment, and there was considerable discussion this week of how long Tillerson and Trump will be able to stand working together.

(My own opinion is that Tillerson’s security clearance should be revoked, which would make it impossible for him to continue as Secretary of State. If he blurts out that Trump is a moron, how can we trust him not to reveal other sensitive information?)


And then there was this weekend’s exchange between Trump and Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, which resulted Saturday in Corker referring to the White House as an “adult daycare center” and charging that Trump’s tweets indicated that “Someone obviously missed their shift this morning.”

This isn’t like Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity railing against Obama. They had no responsibilities, but were just trying to appeal to an audience of partisans who hated Obama from the moment they saw him. Quite the opposite, these are officials publicly allied with Trump, who have tried to work with him and can’t.

BTW, if Tillerson has to be replaced, the nominee will have to be cleared by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by Corker.

James Fallows has advice for Corker:

He could urge his colleagues toward the next step through their stages-of-tragedy relationship with Trump. Stage one was carping and dismissal during the first half of 2016, when he was an entertaining long-shot . Stage two was Vichy-regime acquiescence to him during the campaign. Stage three was “support” early this year, toward the goal of the Gorsuch confirmation and the hope of a tax-cut bill. Now we see the inklings of stage four, with the dawning awareness of what Corker spelled out: that they have empowered something genuinely dangerous. It’s time for Corker to act on that knowledge, and his colleagues too.


Trump sent Mike Pence to Indianapolis to keep his NFL feud bubbling. Pence made a big show of leaving the Colts/49ers game when some players kneeled for the national anthem.

The whole idea that kneeling “disrespects our soldiers, our Flag, or our National Anthem” (as Pence tweeted) is absurd. I can’t think of any other situation where kneeling is a form of disrespect: Are Catholics disrespecting the altars in their churches? Are guys who kneel to propose disrespecting their girlfriends?

No, the protest isn’t about respect for the flag, it’s about racism. That’s why it upsets people.

Remember: there was no reason for the president to get involved in this controversy to begin with, and he only drew more attention to it. Trump came into the controversy to once again reassure racists that he’s on their side. Apparently he thinks that position is working for him, so he wants to keep the feud going.

and church and state

The administration loosened the guidelines for when businesses can refuse to offer their female employees contraception coverage on religious grounds. Also this week, Attorney General Sessions issued a memo changing government policy on “religious liberty”, which in many cases will trump anti-discrimination laws.

This all fits in with my prior conviction: None of it is about actual religious liberty. It’s about special rights for certain popular varieties of Christianity. You can see that in the immediate focus on contraception, which started out as a Catholic issue and was picked up by some Protestants. Why is this — and sexuality in general — the government’s central “religious liberty” focus, rather than situations where government policy impacts vegetarians or pacifists or environmentalists? Those can be religious positions too, but who in the administration cares about them?

I felt the same way about the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision.

Given that this principle will produce complete anarchy if generally applied, it won’t be generally applied. Contrary to Alito’s assertion, judges will have to decide whether the chains of moral logic people assert are reasonable or not. … In practice, a belief will seem reasonable if a judge agrees with it. That’s what happened in this case: Five male Catholic judges ruled that Catholic moral principles trump women’s rights. Three Jews and a female Catholic disagreed.

and you also might be interested in …

Jacob Levy calls for reconstructing American libertarianism as if black liberty mattered.

Not to put too fine a point on it, those who proclaim their commitment to freedom have all too often assessed threats to freedom as if those facing  African-Americans don’t count — as if black liberty does not matter.

And so, America is the freest nation on Earth — if you ignore the mass incarceration of black men, or the large number of them who get killed by police.

Think about the different ways that market liberals and libertarians talk about “welfare” from how they talk about other kinds of government redistribution. There’s no talk of the culture of dependence among farmers, although they receive far more government aid per capita than do the urban poor. Libertarians absolutely and clearly oppose corporate welfare, but they don’t do so in the paternalistic language that corporate welfare recipients are morally hurt by being on the dole. The white welfare state of the 1930s-60s that channeled government support for, e.g., housing, urban development, and higher education through segregated institutions has a way of disappearing from the historical memory; the degrees earned and homes bought get remembered as hard work contributing to the American dream. But too many libertarians and their market-oriented allies among postwar conservatives treated the more racially inclusive welfare state of the 1960s and 70s as different in kind. … [O]nce the imagined typical welfare recipient was a black mother, welfare became a matter not just of economic or constitutional concern but of moral panic about parasites, fraud, and the long-term collapse of self-reliance.

… And the conviction that freedom of speech is mostly threatened by “political correctness” in American life, that saying racist things is a brave stand against censorship, that calling what someone else says “racist” is pretty much like censoring them—these are important facts about American political discourse today.


I love this comic strip at Splinter News. A guy in the present is anti-Black-Lives-Matter, but claims he’s not a racist, and that he would totally have supported Martin Luther King in the 1950s. A fairy gives him his back-to-the-future wish, where an anti-MLK guy repeats the same arguments he’d been making against BLM. Convinced, he now is against MLK too, but believes he’d totally be an abolitionist if he were back in the 1800s. Here’s one panel:


Congressman Tim Murphy (R-PA) got caught in a major episode of hypocrisy this week. Tuesday, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette released text messages in which Murphy’s mistress took him to task for his public anti-abortion stance, when he had suggested she get an abortion during a pregnancy scare. Wednesday, he announced he would not be running for re-election in 2018. Thursday, he resigned from Congress.

If you’re pro-choice, you probably read this with a sense of vindication: Not even anti-abortion congressmen really believe the rhetoric they spout. But I wonder if voters on the other side interpret the story differently: The fact that even a pro-life congressman would want to kill his unborn child just shows the importance of making abortion illegal; personal conviction is not enough to keep us on the straight and narrow when temptation pressures us to sin. A parallel might be the alcoholic who favors prohibition: “I want a law getting rid of alcohol, because if the stuff is available, I know I’ll drink it.”


For a year or so I’ve been telling people to read Misbehaving, Richard Thaler’s entertaining biography of himself and his field (behavioral economics). Well, he just won the Nobel Prize.


The administration is continuing to sabotage ObamaCare.

and let’s close by getting medieval

Maybe you already know how to walk like an Egyptian without falling down like a domino, but can you walk like it’s 999?

 

Misunderstood Things: 10-9-2017

This week: gun deaths and tax simplification.


I. Gun deaths.

What’s misunderstood about them: Victims of mass shootings are not the typical gun deaths.

What more people should know: If you’re quoting gun-death totals, you’re mostly talking about suicides, domestic violence, turf battles between gangs, and arguments that spin out of control — not Las Vegas type massacres.

*

The United States has more guns (1.12 guns per resident, nearly twice as many as the next highest countries — which are Serbia and Yemen, not nations we usually compare ourselves to) and more gun deaths (averaging 33,367 per year from 1999-2015) than any other country in the world. We also have more spectacular mass shootings (like the recent Las Vegas massacre) than any other country.

Mass shootings make headlines and start us wondering why our country is this way. They also make us afraid in ways that other gun deaths don’t. I know I have been in crowds that gathered in urban areas near tall buildings, like the country music festival in Las Vegas. What if someone had started shooting from above? What could I have done?

But as so often happens, the spectacular event that focuses our fears is very far from the typical event captured by our statistics. The majority of gun deaths, for example, are actually suicides (21,175  in 2013). Gun homicides average a little over 12,000 per year.

Of the homicides, a large number are domestic violence or some other family dispute. (That’s why detectives on TV always check the spouse’s alibi first.) Some escalate from arguments between acquaintances, some are gang-related, and others are incidental to armed robbery or some other crime.

Mass-shooting victims are simultaneously a horrifyingly large number of people and a comparatively small percentage of fatal shootings. The Washington Post went back half a century and used a tighter-than-usual definition to collect mass shootings since: They counted “four or more people were killed by a lone shooter (or two shooters in three cases)” and not “gang killings, shootings that began as other crimes such as robberies, and killings that involved only the shooter’s family.” That gave them 131 events and 948 deaths since the University of Texas sniper in 1966.

Using a looser definition (four-or-more injured or killed, including the types of shootings the WaPo filtered out) The New York Times reported 585 people killed in 521 incidents in about a year and a third — still less than 1.5% of the gun deaths during that period.

So: 58 people killed in an hour or so by a single shooter in Las Vegas, and 33,000 gun deaths year after year. They’re both evidence that the United States has a sick relationship with guns, but they’re very different facts that point to very different problems. Short of drastically lowering the number of guns, solutions to one of those problems isn’t likely to do much about the other.


II. Tax simplification

What’s misunderstood about it: What makes figuring your income tax so complicated.

What more people should know: Reducing the number of tax brackets doesn’t simplify the process in the slightest. Whether the IRS defines one bracket or a hundred, filling out your 1040 will require the same amount of time and effort.

*

No one knows exactly how much time taxpayers spend on IRS forms, but estimates run into the billions of hours each year. In addition, we spend billions of dollars paying professionals to compute our taxes for us. So it’s not surprising that every tax reform is sold to the voters as a simplification, sometimes promising that you’ll be able to send the IRS just a postcard rather than a heavy envelope full of filled-out forms.

Invariably, someone claims that taxes would be simpler if they were flatter, i.e., if there weren’t different tax brackets taxed at different rates. While the current Trump administration proposal doesn’t go all the way to a flat tax (one bracket), it does reduce the number of brackets from seven to three. But if you’re hoping that change will make April 15 less stressful, you’re out of luck.

The easiest way to see the problem is to get out last year’s 1040 (or a blank 1040 form) and ask yourself: Where did the number of brackets make any difference? Well, not on the first page, which is all about your sources of income, not how it’s taxed. In fact, the form is all about income until you eventually arrive at Line 43: Taxable income.

Right under that is Line 44: Tax. What magic happened between 43 and 44? If you’re like most people, you took the number on Line 43 and used it to look up how much tax you owe on the Tax Tables in the Instructions. That’s the only place where the number of brackets mattered. Changing the number of brackets, or even the rates that each bracket pays, changes the numbers in the Tax Tables. That’s it.

Taxes are complicated for two reasons, neither of which has anything to do with whether the tax rates are flat or progressive (i.e., applying higher tax rates as you make more and more money).

  • Different kinds of income are taxed differently, so you have to separately keep track of wages, dividends (qualified and unqualified), capital gains (long-term and short), interest (taxable and non-taxable), and do different things with each of them. One of the trickier parts of my tax return isn’t sent to the IRS at all; it’s the Qualified Dividends and Capital Gains Worksheet.*
  • The government chooses to subsidize certain pro-social activities (buying a house, giving to charity, saving for retirement, etc.) through the tax code (as deductions), rather than by direct subsidies. This method favors rich people, who — since they’re paying a higher rate — get more money back from their deduction than you do. Every deduction you claim has its own form, where you establish that you really did the thing that you’re claiming a deduction for.

So eliminating deductions and taxing all forms of income the same way (not all levels of income at the same rate) really would cut the amount of time you spend filling out your taxes (even if it’s just the time spent understanding what tax-exempt interest is and realizing you didn’t receive any). The Trump proposal claims to be eliminating deductions, but hasn’t specified any yet, so we don’t know yet if it will be simpler in any material way.

Flattening the tax rates doesn’t simplify anything; it just redistributes the tax burden away from the rich and onto the middle class. (That’s the point of it, but they can’t exactly say so in public.)

So why don’t tax-reform proposals focus on these actual time-savers? That’s easy: (1) eliminating deductions doesn’t sound as good because it’s taking something away from you, and (2) rich people want to continue paying lower rates on their non-wage income.

You know what would make things much, much simpler for the vast majority of taxpayers? An awful lot of the 1040 and its lettered schedules are devoted to telling the IRS things it already knows: Your employer has already reported your wages, your bank has reported the interest your savings earned, and so on. You waste a lot of time copying numbers off of W-2 and 1099 forms that the IRS already has.

The IRS could send you a form with all that information already included, and with the tax you owe already figured (assuming the standard deduction). If you think they got something wrong, you have other income to report (like your poker winnings — very important if you don’t want to end up like Al Capone, who was convicted of having a lifestyle his reported income couldn’t support), or you want to itemize your deductions, you could file just that part of a tax return. Otherwise, you send or cash a check and you’re done.

Other countries do this, and it really is simpler. The reason we don’t is that (in spite of their rhetoric) conservatives don’t want your taxes to be simple. They want to keep the public in a perpetual state of agitation against the IRS, which they can turn into support for “simplifications” like a flat tax that favors the rich.


* That worksheet is what makes me skeptical of those file-on-a-postcard proposals. (I examined Ted Cruz’ postcard back in 2015, in a note about the Republican debate. It wasn’t actually simpler.) We could all file on postcards now, if the details were pushed off to worksheets that we don’t send in to the IRS, but have to be able to produce if we’re audited. But the calculations would be the same.

The Monday Morning Teaser

This week I attended the wedding of my college roommate’s son, and frequently shook my head in amazement that my memories of him go back further than his memories of himself. It was a reminder that most Americans are getting on with their lives, independent of the circus — or maybe adult day-care center — that our government has become.

As always these days, there is more to write about than I (or you) have time to cover. The featured post is another installment in my Misunderstandings series. This time I’ll discuss popular misunderstandings of gun-death statistics and tax simplification. That post should appear by 9 EDT.

The weekly summary will talk about guns, undoing the Iran nuclear deal (and Trump’s dysfunctional negotiating style in general), Trump’s visit to Puerto Rico (which has me reminiscing about how U.S. presidents used to act), new rules giving special rights to Christians, recent Trump/Russia developments, and a few other things, before closing with a video that challenges us to walk like Charlemagne. That should appear 11ish.

The Right Way to Protest

It’s wrong to do it in the streets.
It’s wrong to do it in the tweets.
You cannot do it on the field.
You cannot do it if you’ve kneeled.
And don’t do it if you’re rich
You ungrateful son of a bitch.
Because there’s one thing that’s a fact:
You cannot protest, if you’re black.

– Trevor Noah (9-25-2017)

This week’s featured post is about the latest tax-reform proposal: “Just What We Needed: More Inequality, Bigger Deficits“.

This morning everybody is talking about the Las Vegas shooting

As I’ve often said, a one-person weekly blog is poorly equipped to handle breaking news. CNN is reporting at least 50 killed and 400 injured. Apparently, Sunday evening a gunman on the 32nd floor of a nearby hotel fired automatic weapons fired down on an outdoor county music concert. So far I have heard very little about the shooter or what his motives might be.

General advice: Avoid jumping to conclusions. Early reports are often wrong and have to be corrected later.

through the week everyone has been talking about Puerto Rico

It’s a disturbing testimony on news-in-the-age-of-Trump that it’s much easier to find articles about the war of words between Trump and San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz than about the current state of things in Puerto Rico.

Hurricane Maria was a category-4 storm when it hit Puerto Rico on September 20. The energy grid, which had already been damaged by the previous Hurricane Irma, went completely offline and is still not functioning on most of the island. Aid made it to the port of San Juan fairly quickly, but got bogged down there. Just over a week after landfall, CNN reported:

At least 10,000 containers of supplies — including food, water and medicine — were sitting Thursday at the San Juan port, said Jose Ayala, the Crowley shipping company’s vice president in Puerto Rico. Part of the reason for the distribution backlog is that only 20% of truck drivers have reported back to work since Hurricane Maria swept through, according to a representative for Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rosselló. On top of that, a diesel fuel shortage and a tangle of blocked roads mean the distribution of supplies is extremely challenging. Even contacting drivers is a problem because cell towers are still down.

In many parts of the island, food and water are running out faster than aid is arriving. Many Puerto Ricans who rely on prescription medication are having a hard time getting it. Hospitals and nursing homes are mostly relying on local generators, which they don’t always have fuel for.

Many have contrasted the federal response to this predicted disaster on a U.S. territory, the home of 3.4 million American citizens, with how the U.S. handled the unexpected earthquake in Haiti in 2010. The Washington Post:

Within two days [of the earthquake], the Pentagon had 8,000 American troops en route. Within two weeks, 33 U.S. military ships and 22,000 troops had arrived. More than 300 military helicopters buzzed overhead, delivering millions of pounds of food and water.

… By contrast, eight days after Hurricane Maria ripped across neighboring Puerto Rico, just 4,400 service members were participating in federal operations to assist the devastated island, an Army general told reporters Thursday. In addition, about 1,000 Coast Guard members were aiding the efforts. About 40 U.S. military helicopters were helping to deliver food and water to the 3.4 million residents of the U.S. territory, along with 10 Coast Guard helicopters.


As always, Trump’s main concern seems to be taking credit for success and dodging blame for failure. Friday, acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke pushed the administration line:

I know it is really a good news story in terms of our ability to reach people and the limited number of deaths that have taken place in such a devastating hurricane.

That set off Mayor Cruz:

Well maybe from where she’s standing it’s a good news story. When you’re drinking from a creek, it’s not a good news story. When you don’t have food for a baby, it’s not a good news story. When you have to pull people down from buildings — I’m sorry, that really upsets me and frustrates me.

And then Trump got involved. Not in solving the problems, of course, but by tweeting that Mayor Cruz had been “told by Democrats to be nasty to Trump”. She and other Puerto Ricans “want everything to be done for them”.

Any compassionate human being — even one who honestly felt blamed for things that weren’t his fault — would cut some slack for a local leader in the middle of a humanitarian disaster. Not Trump. He also went after reporters on the ground, who showed the world what Puerto Ricans are going through.

Fake News CNN and NBC are going out of their way to disparage our great First Responders as a way to ‘get Trump’.

VoxMatt Yglesias sees the problem as lack of planning and an unwillingness to admit mistakes.

A president who was focused on his job could have asked in advance what the plan was for a hurricane strike on Puerto Rico. He would have discovered that since Puerto Rico is part of the United States, FEMA is the default lead agency but it’s the US military that has the ships and helicopters that would be needed to get supplies into the interior of a wrecked island. And he could have worked something out. Instead, he didn’t get worked up about Puerto Rico until more than a week after the storm hit when he saw the mayor of San Juan lambasting him on television. He lashed out with his usual playbook — one that will only make things worse.

… Trump doesn’t know much about governing. But he is very good at channeling every discussion into the same handful of culture war tropes. Shifting the discussion in this direction rather than adopting a tone of humility will, of course, only make substantive recovery more difficult by polarizing the topic in Congress and among the public.

Josh Marshall frames the tweets against San Juan’s mayor and Trump’s statements attacking NFL players as two examples of “The Primary Text of Trumpism“.

Every conflict quickly boils down [to] honorable and white soldiers, police and first responders versus non-white ingrates, complainers and protestors. In fact, the very actions of the latter group dishonors and assaults the sacrifices and purity of the first. …

The core and essence of Trumpism is a racist morality play. It plays out again and again, just with a different troupe of actors in each town.

and Tom Price

The travel-expense scandal that had enveloped the HHS Secretary last week only got worse this week, until he resigned Friday. (In his five months in office, the taxpayers spent more than $1 million on private and military aircraft for Price’s trips.) Trump clearly hopes this issue is behind him now, but Price seems to be only the most extreme example of this administration’s tendency to waste public money pampering top officials. The Atlantic summarizes:

[EPA Director Scott] Pruitt spent more than $800,000 for an around-the-clock security detail in his first three months in office alone, nearly double the cost for his predecessor. This week, The Washington Post revealed that the EPA is spending $25,000 to construct a soundproof privacy booth for Pruitt, who has faced a slew of leaks as he battles unhappy employees at the agency. He has also accrued thousands of dollars in costs for private and military jet flights, including travel between Washington and his home state of Oklahoma.

Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke is another frequent private flyer, including chartering a plane from an oil-and-gas company for a flight from Las Vegas to his home state of Montana for $12,000 this summer. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is under investigation for a flight in a government plane that included viewing the solar eclipse from Fort Knox, Kentucky. That flight became public when his wife, Louise Linton, posted an Instagram photo of herself alighting from the plane, and then sniped at a commenter. She later apologized. Mnuchin also requested the use of a government plane for his honeymoon, though Treasury later decided against it.

And where did all these people get the idea that spending public money on yourself is OK? From the top. Trump not only spends vastly more on himself and his family than previous presidents, a chunk of that money goes straight into his own pocket. Not only do his private clubs in Florida and New Jersey gain valuable publicity and prestige from presidential visits nearly every weekend (sometimes with foreign leaders in tow), but his government entourage and security team has to follow him, with the taxpayer picking up the tab.

Always costly in manpower and equipment, the president’s jaunts to Mar-a-Lago are estimated to cost at least $3 million each, based on a General Accountability Office estimate for similar travel by former President Obama. The Secret Service has spent some $60,000 on golf cart rentals alone this year to protect Trump at both Mar-a-Lago and Bedminster.

The Washington Post reports that

The Trump [International] Hotel [in Washington] is the most blatant example of how Trump is selling the presidency. No ordinary luxury hotel in a city that boasts more than a few, the Trump Hotel is where foreign dignitaries, lobbyists, White House staff, Cabinet officials, Trump confidants, Republican fundraisers, elected officials, religious leaders and assorted sycophants gather — to see and be seen, to rub elbows with the powerful, to possibly catch a glimpse of the president himself, and, most crucially, to patronize the hotel owned by the most powerful person in the world.

And one of the biggest beneficiaries of the Trump tax plan looks to be Trump himself.

and the Republican tax plan

See the featured post: “Just What We Needed: More Inequality, Bigger Deficits“.

and Roy Moore

who beat incumbent Senator Luther Strange in Alabama’s Republican primary runoff 55%-45%. Establishment Republicans around the country are freaking out, and Steve Bannon is considering which sitting Republican senators he wants to launch primary challenges against.

However, it’s not clear how national the Moore/Strange race really was. Local/personal issues came into play as well.

  • Strange had been appointed to the seat by now-disgraced ex-Governor Robert Bentley after Jeff Sessions became attorney general just a few months ago, so he’s not comparable to a senator who has been elected before and served out one or more full terms.
  • Some shady circumstances surrounded Strange’s appointment. At the time Strange was Alabama’s attorney general, and was widely believed to have been investigating Bentley for the scandal that eventually caused him to resign. Appointing Strange put Bentley in line to appoint a new AG, so the whole thing just smelled like a corrupt manipulation. An ethical AG would have turned the appointment down.
  • Strange is a former lobbyist, a fact Moore used to great effect in their debate.

In short, Strange was tailor-made to be caricatured as one of the dreaded Swamp Creatures of Washington. A primary race against the other GOP senators said to be on Bannon’s list (Dean Heller, Jeff Flake, Roger Wicker) might be different.


Religious-right Republicans are often described as “theocrats” who want to put the Bible above the Constitution. Roy Moore really is that way. It’s not hyperbole.


An early poll makes the general-election race look surprisingly competitive, given that we’re talking about Alabama: Moore leads Democrat Doug Jones 51%-44%. However, we’ve been here before. Self-respecting Republicans like to toy with the idea that they won’t vote for the thoroughly objectionable candidate their party has nominated, but in the end they almost all do.

The special election to serve out the remainder of the Senate term Jeff Sessions was elected to in 2014 will be held December 12.


The standard narrative of the Republican insurgent, which Bannon is now packaging for his own purposes, is that grassroots conservatives are always being betrayed: They elect people to do what they want — repeal ObamaCare, ban abortion, balance the budget (while cutting taxes), deport all the undocumented immigrants, make our military so strong that other nations stop challenging us, etc. —  but then Washington corrupts them and those things don’t get done.

But Josh Marshall coined the term nonsense debt to describe another narrative for the same set of facts: Any politician who wins by promoting nonsensical views and raising impossible expectations is going to suffer under an unfulfillable obligation after taking office.

He came back to that theme after Moore’s victory, arguing that “the base” vs. “the establishment” is a meaningless distinction. The GOP is in

an infinite loop of inflammatory and engaging promises, claims and demands which are mostly entirely unrealizable, creating a permanent cycle of establishmentism and grassroots’ betrayal which continues spinning forward even as the players in each category change.

and the NFL

For much of the country and almost all of his base, Trump has succeeded in hijacking the NFL-protest story. It’s not about police misconduct or Black Lives Matter any more; it’s about the flag and the anthem. The next time someone whitesplains what the players are doing and why, tell them that we don’t have to speculate, because the original protesters have explained their motives very well.

More excellent commentary on the protest comes from Nick Wright of the FS1 sports-news show First Things First. He points out that making the protests about the anthem is like claiming that people who march in the streets are protesting against traffic. And he offers this thought experiment to test whether you’re really against the method of protest, or really just against the issue: What if players were kneeling to protest how poorly the U.S. has been treating its veterans? Would you be equally repelled by that? Or is the real problem that they’re protesting racism?

Finally, the Seuss-like poem at the top is the conclusion of an excellent Daily Show segment where Trevor Noah addresses the question: When is the right time for black people to protest?

and you also might be interested in …

There’s an interesting debate going on about what white supremacist should mean: Do we reserve the term for people like Richard Spencer, who explicitly yearn for the U.S. to become a white ethnostate? Or does it extend to Jeff Sessions and Donald Trump, whose vision of America is clearly one where whites continue to dominate, even if they don’t say so in so many words.

Trevor Noah was getting at this distinction with regard to the usage of racism. He contrasted Trump’s claim that some of the whites chanting Nazi slogans in Charlottesville were “very fine people” with calling black football players who take a knee “sons of bitches”.

I don’t know if Trump is racist, but I do know he definitely prefers white people to black people. I can say that with confidence.


When Trump imposed a travel ban on six Muslim-majority countries, one of the reasons we were told protesters were over-reacting was that it was temporary: just 90 days. Well, now it’s permanent. He also cut in half the number of refugees the U.S. can accept. The Supreme Court is set to reconsider the ban as soon as both sides rewrite their briefs in response to the changes.


Mexico is reaching the outer reaches of government privatization: Private security guards are replacing the police, but only for those who can afford it. The NYT paints a scary picture.


Two independence referenda: The Kurdish provinces of Iraq voted 93% for independence. The Catalonians also voted for independence from Spain. Both national governments oppose the independence movements, so it’s not clear where things go from here. Of the two, Kurdish independence is more complex, because neighboring Turkey and Iran also have large Kurdish minorities.

and let’s close with something awe-inspiring

National Geographic‘s photography competitions are always amazing. Here’s a set of 51 photos, including this vision of solitary contemplation over Morraine Lake in Canada’s Banff National Park. (All Canadian national parks currently offer free admission, in celebration of Canada’s 150th birthday.)

Just What We Needed: More Inequality, Bigger Deficits

Trump’s tax plan is designed to help the little people.

Congress still needs to fill in key details, but the general direction of the Republican tax-reform plan is so clear that no conceivable details can change it.


For decades now, Republicans have been dancing a two-step on taxes and spending:

  1. Cut taxes a little bit for most people and hugely for the very rich, promising that economic growth will make up the lost revenue.
  2. When the lost revenue stays lost, claim that the resulting deficits are an existential threat to the Republic, necessitating previously unthinkable spending cuts.

The result of the two-step is a set of policies that could never pass as a unit. Kansas, for example, would never have voted to cut schools and highways to make rich people richer, but that’s how Sam Brownback’s fiscal revolution worked out. When George W. Bush’s tax cuts turned Clinton’s record surpluses into record deficits, his proposed solution was not to admit the mistake and restore the Clinton rates, or even to say that we couldn’t afford the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan any more, but to propose “entitlement reform” — privatizing Social Security and reorganizing Medicare and Medicaid as defined-benefit programs.

Now, as Republicans try to shake off their ObamaCare-repeal failure and move on, the music is starting again. “A-one, a-two, cut rich people’s taxes …”

Trump promised it wouldn’t be that way this time. All his tax-reform rhetoric has been about jobs and middle-class families, and he often says or implies that people like him will have to sacrifice. Wednesday in Indianapolis, he said:

Our framework includes our explicit commitment that tax reform will protect low-income and middle-income households, not the wealthy and well-connected. They can call me all they want. It’s not going to help. I’m doing the right thing, and it’s not good for me. Believe me. [1]

A few weeks ago, when he began the tax-reform push by speaking at the Loran Cook Company in Springfield Missouri, he said:

Tax reform must dramatically simplify the tax code, eliminate special interest loopholes — and I’m speaking against myself when I do this, I have to tell you. And I might be speaking against Mr. Cook, and we’re both okay with it, is that right? It’s crazy. We’re speaking — maybe we shouldn’t be doing this, you know? (Laughter.) But we’re doing the right thing. (Applause.) True.

Not true, as it turns out. There are still a lot of details missing — so far all we have is a nine-page “framework” document (with not that many words on each page), not a bill that could be analyzed precisely or voted into law — but everything that has been nailed down points in the direction of big cuts for Trump himself and people like him. It’s hard to imagine any set of details that could reverse that course.

Here are some things already specified:

  • The corporate tax rate drops from 35% to 20%, and corporations get to write off their capital investments faster. That’s a big win for the people who own corporations.
  • “The committees also may consider methods to reduce the double taxation of corporate earnings.” In other words: either another write-off for corporations or a big tax cut for people whose income is mostly corporate dividends.
  • Multi-national corporations would no longer be taxed on overseas profits, and profits currently held overseas to escape U.S. taxes could be repatriated at a low rate.
  • The seven current individual tax brackets, running from 10% to 39.6%, become three brackets: 12%, 25%, and 35%. The bottom rate goes up and the top rate comes down.
  • The alternate minimum tax (which applies mainly to the wealthy, and is the main tax Trump himself paid in the one year we know anything about) and the estate tax (which no estate smaller than $5.5 million currently pays) go away.
  • Income from businesses organized as something other than corporations — sole proprietorships, partnerships, and S-corporations (collectively known as “pass-through entities”) — is currently taxed at the individual rates, which could be as high as 39.6%. That gets cut to 25%. Given the way Trump’s hotels are structured or could be structured, this also would be a big win for him. (You could imagine rich people dodging the 35% tax rate by re-organizing their finances so that all their income comes via pass-through entities, but the framework promises Congress will write rules to prevent that from happening. It doesn’t provide any notion of how such rules might work.)

Specifics are supposed to be filled in by “the tax-writing committees” of the House and Senate “through a transparent and inclusive committee process” that is supposed to produce a complete bill sometime in November. They are the Krampuses assigned to deliver all the lumps of coal now that Santa (the nine-page framework) has distributed the sugar plums. The tax-writing committees are supposed to find and eliminate enough special-interest deductions to keep the revenue loss manageable and make the final product “at least as progressive as the existing tax code” so that it “does not shift the tax burden from high-income to lower- and middle-income taxpayers.” They will do that in the face of what promises to be the most expensive lobbying effort ever by special interests intent on keeping their loopholes. Because that’s what tax-writing committees have historically been so good at: imposing pain on special interests whose lobbyists have vast sums of money to throw around. [2]

That’s the general drift of the framework: If you’re rich, your benefits have been spelled out. Benefits to the rest of us are promised in some feel-good rhetoric, but it’s hard to imagine exactly what they’ll be. After all, somebody has to pay taxes, don’t they?

Analysis. The pattern we saw during ObamaCare repeal was that Republicans in Congress wrote the bills without Democratic input and kept their details secret for as long as possible. When the details appeared, they fulfilled none of the feel-good rhetoric Trump and others had been dishing out to the public: All that stuff about more people getting better coverage with lower premiums was ancient history by the time the actual bills were available for inspection, as was the promise that people with preexisting conditions would still be protected.

In particular, the number-crunchers at the Congressional Budget Office were kept in the dark as long as possible. Graham-Cassidy was voted on without CBO analysis, and the bill the House passed was only analyzed later. When analysis did come out in time, and documented just how far the proposal in question was from the promises it was supposed to fulfill, McConnell and Ryan pushed to vote before the public had a chance to process the implications.

So far, tax reform is on that track. The lack of detail in the framework prevents any definitive analysis. We don’t, for example, know exactly when the 12%, 25%, and 35% rates apply. You could imagine a bill where the 25% rate doesn’t kick in until your income reaches $1 million, so middle-class people would all pay 12%. Or it could start applying at $10, and everybody would pay 25% or more on virtually all their income beyond the standard deduction. Those are the kinds of “details” we’re still missing.

The Tax Policy Center tried to analyze anyway, making reasonable assumptions about how the details will shake out. (Neither of the possibilities I described in the previous paragraph is at all reasonable.) When the 9-page document didn’t specify something, they consulted statements by Trump officials, or documents like Paul Ryan’s “A Better Way“. Given that kind of speculation, the numbers they came up with shouldn’t be taken as gospel, but TPC’s analysis does throw the burden of proof back on Trump and the Republicans: Don’t just dismiss it, tell me where it’s wrong. [3]

TPC’s analysis says that taxpayers in the top 1% would see their after-tax incomes rise by 8.4%, and the top .1% by 10.2%, while the benefit to other taxpayers would be on the order of 1%. [4] Some upper-middle-class/lower-upper-class taxpayers would actually pay more tax, and (due to inflation) the number of people facing a tax increase would rise each year, until by 2027, it wouldn’t just be a few exceptional cases: The 80-95% income percentiles would see a net tax increase as a group.

Deficits. During the Obama administration, Republicans and their allies in the right-wing media often claimed that our rapidly-increasing national debt would bring on some economic catastrophe in the near-to-medium future. That fear is all gone now. It’s as if Democrats had announced in 2009 that under Obama we could go back to burning all the fossil fuels we want.

They haven’t changed their tune because the debt problem has cleared up. For a while it looked like it might. The annual deficit did hit alarming levels in FY 2009 (the year of the budget Obama inherited from Bush), and then headed down for several years afterward.

In raw numbers, the deficit bottomed out in FY 2015 at $483 billion, nearly a trillion less than 2009’s $1.413 trillion. But then it started rising again, hitting $585 billion in FY 2016, and an estimated $693 billion in FY 2017, which ended Saturday. The current CBO projections, with no tax cuts, say that the annual deficit will pass $1 trillion again in FY 2022, and keep rising thereafter.

So if you think the deficit is a real problem — not everybody does — you ought to be seriously worried.

But Trump and the congressional Republicans aren’t worried, at least not now that the red ink is gushing from their own budgets. So why not cut taxes?

The original story was that the tax cut would be deficit-neutral, i.e., whatever revenue it lost by cutting rates, it would regain by eliminating loopholes. But deficit-neutral tax cuts are no fun; to really get the party started you need cuts that nobody pays for.

So Senate Republicans are now preparing a budget resolution (the first step in a reconciliation process that would allow the final bill to pass the Senate with 50 votes), that allows a $1.5 trillion loss of revenue over ten years. And that’s just the current state of the bidding. Why not make it higher? Why not fill the budget with accounting gimmicks that allow the real cuts to be even bigger? (TPC estimates the lost revenue at $2.4 trillion in the first decade, $3.2 trillion in the second. Again: Republicans shouldn’t just scoff, they should explain why TPC is wrong.)

The same budget proposal gets the timing wrong on the two-step: It proposes a $450 billion cut to Medicare now. Silly, Medicare cuts are supposed to wait until after the tax cuts are in place and growth falls short of your projections.

Can they pass it? ObamaCare repeal is a cautionary tale of how Republican legislative efforts can fail, despite their apparent control of both houses of Congress and the presidency. In the Senate, reconciliation is a narrow path that eliminates many of the features conservatives want, and Republicans can only afford two dissenters (unless they manage to attract some Democrats). In the House, the Freedom Caucus has the power to hold a bill hostage until it is loaded up with provisions guaranteed to alienate moderates. (They’ve already started maneuvering.)

On the policy side, the similarities should be ominous to anybody who wants this to pass: The rhetoric selling the idea of the program has been populist, but the actual bill will be elitist: The rich will profit, the middle class will get a pittance (probably only temporarily), and the deficit will skyrocket. That will set up new “emergency” proposals to slash benefits the middle class would never have agreed to sacrifice to the rich, if the tax cuts hadn’t created an artificial budget “emergency”.

Eventually, the details will have to come out, and there will be well-founded analyses that Republicans can’t just brush off. When that happens, the public will turn against the bill, as it turned against the various forms of ObamaCare repeal. Red-state Democrats who have seemed open to tax reform (Heitkamp, Donnelly) will have plenty of cover when they stand against the final bill: They supported the middle-class tax cut Trump talked about in the beginning, not the upper-class giveaway it turned into.

Then Republicans in Congress will face a familiar question: Are they willing to vote against their constituents in order to follow their ideology, keep a promise to their donors, please Trump, and avoid going into the 2018 election cycle with zero accomplishments? For most of them, the answer will be Yes. But maybe three senators will balk.


[1] I’m not the only person to notice that Trump has what poker players call a tell: When he says “Believe me”, he’s lying.

[2] You could tell I was being sarcastic, right?

[3] Trump is also making assumptions and claiming specific outcomes for specific people. Wednesday he named a working couple in the audience and said they would save $1,000 next year under his plan. At this point, his opinion is just as speculative as TPC’s.

[4] Of course, that’s 1% of a much smaller number. If your income of $50 thousand goes up by 1%, that’s $500. If your income of $50 million goes up by 10.2%, that’s $5.1 million.

The Monday Morning Teaser

Once again, it’s tempting to summarize the week by listing all the offensive, outrageous, and false things Donald Trump said in the last seven days. The recitation would easily fill an average-sized Sift, especially if I took the time to explain why the statements are offensive, outrageous, and false. If I did it right, it would probably be cathartic for me, and maybe even for readers also.

But it’s also a trap. The world has real problems that only appear to center on Trump and his administration. Puerto Ricans are without power, and many are short of food, water, and medicine; Trump’s tweet implying that they’re also lazy is the least of their problems. Blacks in America face police racism that sometimes threatens their lives; Trump’s insults against black athletes protesting this reality are not the heart of the issue. Congress keeps threatening to leave tens of millions of Americans without health insurance; that’s far more important than Tom Price wasting HHS money on private jets. And so on.

So I try to strike a balance: We should never let go of the idea that government should be helping us solve problems, so Trump does need to be called to account for his shortcomings. But we should never get so distracted by Trump that we stop trying to understand and address problems ourselves.

With that in mind, the featured post this week is about the tax-reform proposal Congress is working on: “Just What We Needed: More Inequality, Bigger Deficits”. Trump figures in it, of course. He’s the top salesman for the proposal, so it’s important to recognize the lies he tells about it, and to see why he himself will be one of the bill’s biggest beneficiaries. But it’s the proposal itself that could affect our lives, not what Trump says about it. That post should be out by 9 EDT.

That leaves the summary with a lot to cover: Puerto Rico, Price, what Roy Moore’s win means for the direction of the Republican Party, NFL protests, and a number of other things, leading up to a closing I’m still working on. Look for that about 11.

False Choices

Flexibility with reduced funding is a false choice. I will not pit seniors, children, families, the mentally ill, the critically ill, hospitals, care providers, or any other Nevadan against each other because of cuts to Nevada’s health-care delivery system proposed by the Graham-Cassidy amendment.

Governor Brian Sandoval (R-Nevada)

This week’s featured post is “Nationalism Reconsidered” and “Why Republicans Can’t Stop Trying to Repeal ObamaCare“.

This week everybody was talking about yet another last-ditch attempt to repeal ObamaCare

which appears to be failing, just like the others did. Sadly, even this is probably not the end, as I explain in the second featured post.

Like previous attempts, the Graham-Cassidy bill contains nothing to attract Democrats and so can afford to lose only three Republican senators. Rand Paul declared against it first, because it retained too much of the spending in ObamaCare, even if it did redirect it through the states. John McCain declared against it Friday, saying that he couldn’t vote for it without more information, like a complete CBO analysis, which would not be available in time for the vote. Susan Collins seems to be waiting for what little analysis the CBO will provide, but finds it “very difficult for me to envision a scenario where I would end up voting for this bill.” Lisa Murkowski hasn’t committed herself, but she’d have a hard time squaring a yes vote with the principles she has laid out. Even Ted Cruz and Mike Lee are said to be against the bill “in its current form”, which probably means their votes are available for the right concessions, with the risk that those concessions might alienate some other senators.

So it’s not completely dead yet, but Graham-Cassidy has to roll a long series of sevens to pass.

Midnight Saturday is the deadline for passage, which sounds like a bad-movie plot device rather than a real rule, but that actually seems to be how things shake out. [Skip this if you’re already bored: In a nutshell, the reason has to do with an arcane process for avoiding filibusters, known as reconciliation. To be eligible for reconciliation, which allows a bill to pass the Senate with a simple majority (50 senators plus the vice president) rather than the 60 votes necessary to break a filibuster, a bill has to meet a long list of conditions, one of which is that it has to match up with reconciliation instructions in the current fiscal year’s budget resolution. Fiscal 2017 ends on September 30, so the budget resolution’s reconciliation instructions expire then.]

[Keep skipping: So why not roll the reconciliation instructions from FY2017’s budget resolution over into FY2018’s? That runs into another rule that also sounds like a plot device: There are limits on how many reconciliation instructions a budget resolution can contain, and FY2018’s are already reserved for tax reform. (Or at least that’s how it looks at the moment; Orrin Hatch is looking for a way to do both.) So at midnight on Saturday, the ObamaCare-repeal coach becomes a pumpkin, the horses turn back into mice, but for some reason the slipper is still glass — stop asking so many questions.]


You expect Democrats in Congress and former Obama administration officials (including Obama himself) to make the case against this bill. But the strongest opposition voice has turned out to be someone you wouldn’t usually expect: late-night host Jimmy Kimmel.

Kimmel first spoke out about healthcare when in May when he told the story of his newborn son’s heart problem, repeatedly choking up as he did so.

A week later Kimmel came back to the topic, and had an on-air conversation with Senator Cassidy, who had just started talking about “the Jimmy Kimmel test”, which he summarized like this: “Would a child born with a congenital heart disease be able to get everything she or he would need in that first year of life?”

Cassidy sounded great in that interview. But if he thought Kimmel wasn’t going to check whether he followed up on those good words, he found out differently Tuesday:

I know you guys are going to find this hard to believe, but a few months ago after my son had open-heart surgery (which was something I spoke about on the air) a politician, a senator named Bill Cassidy from Louisiana, was on my show, and he wasn’t very honest. … This guy, Bill Cassidy, just lied right to my face.

Cassidy responded by lamenting that Kimmel “does not understand” his bill. Kimmel played that clip the next night, characterizing it as playing “the all-comedians-are-dummies card”. He then asked Cassidy which part of the bill he doesn’t understand, and listed all the objectionable things the bill does. And the back-and-forth continued Thursday as well.

The wonderful thing about this whole series is the way Kimmel has flipped conservatives’ favorite script. They love to portray liberals as out-of-touch Washington insiders dishonestly condescending to concerned American parents. Now that’s what Senator Cassidy and Senator Graham doing.

and the NFL

No, not the games, the players’ response to Trump. Everything in the world is about Trump now.

It started Friday in Alabama at a rally for GOP Senator Luther Strange (who seems to be losing a primary battle with the truly strange Roy Moore), where we found out what Donald Trump thinks about free expression:

Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, say: “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out. He’s fired. He’s fired.”?

This, of course, is an insult directed at former Super Bowl quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who last season began protesting against police brutality and racial inequality by quietly and respectfully kneeling during the national anthem. Many players (Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, for example) had expressed respect for the protest, but only a few (Michael Bennett of the Seattle Seahawks comes to mind) had participated themselves.

Until yesterday. Seeing the President of the United States call their colleagues a “sons of bitches” (for doing something that hurts no one, and that offended people can just look away from) made players take a stand … or a knee. Not all players and not all teams responded the same way, but in every game in the country (and one in London), players did something, often with the support of the team’s owners. Some players joined the kneeling protest, while others simply protested Trump’s attempt to turn players against each other by locking arms. Some teams resisted being divided by staying in the locker room until the anthem was over. The WaPo’s Jerry Brewer summed up:

The prevailing statement was rather simple, at least for people who have the decency to resist acting like Trump and labeling an athlete protesting police brutality and [in]equality a “son of a bitch.” It was about having concern for the person next to you and showing that unity doesn’t require shaming others to think the way you do.

A few of my reactions:

  • It’s disturbing the way that Trump has stepped out of the usual bounds of politics and taken over the entire national conversation. Back in 2011, Hank Williams Jr. got fired by Monday Night Football for ranting about President Obama, but that was all him; Obama never engaged with the controversy. For eight years, you could escape Obama by watching football. But today, where can you put your attention and be confident of escaping Trump?
  • This event is a lesson in what usually happens when a president talks tough: His fans cheer, but whatever problem they think he’s solving just gets worse. (Far from being intimidated, more players are kneeling.) The people who cheer Trump’s North Korea rhetoric should think about this.
  • If only Trump got this outraged by people waving swastikas. Maybe if black athletes would start doing that, he’d finally denounce it with some real feeling.
  • Here’s the saddest thing about this story: The issues that motivated Kaepernick to begin with are playing out in St. Louis right now, but the country isn’t paying attention.

Lest basketball players feel left out, Trump insulted them too. Traditionally, championship teams visit the White House, and everybody has a feel-good photo op. But Trump’s appeals to racism have made that ceremony problematic for black athletes like Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors. It’s a real dilemma: politicize a tradition that used to be purely ceremonial, or normalize a president who is squishy on the KKK?

Athletes have turned down the White House before, for a variety of reasons, and presidents have never made a big deal about it. But Trump did, tweeting that he was “disinviting” Curry. Like Kaepernick, Curry enjoyed a wave of social-media support from his fellow players, including LeBron James, who tweeted at Trump: “Going to the White House was a great honor until you showed up.” All-star guard Chris Paul added something about the NFL controversy: “I doubt he’s man enough to call any of those players a son of a bitch to their face.”


Sports TV anchors — at least black ones — haven’t escaped either. After ESPN’s Jamele Hill called Trump a “white supremacist” on her personal Twitter account, the White House called for her to be fired. ESPN basically told her not to do it again.

An aside: Hill’s show, SportsCenter’s flagship 6 o’clock slot, is an interesting cultural phenomenon. For years, a typical sports-TV segment featured white guys talking about black guys. SC6’s two black hosts, Hill and Michael Smith, break that mold. And Hill isn’t just eye candy, or a Mom moderating between outspoken men; she’s a sharp sports fan with a mind of her own. (Hill and Smith banter and bicker like a married couple that feels secure about the strength of their relationship.) Smith describes the criticism the show sometimes gets for being too black, and too full of young urban cultural references that older whites may not understand:

This election was about taking the country back from people like us, right? And now, it’s like, “Dammit, I got to come home and watch these two?!” That may not be what you want on SportsCenter. OK. That’s fair. Watch Fox.

and Trump’s UN Speech

My threshold of embarrassment for my country has gone up considerably since Inauguration Day, but Trump’s speech to the UN General Assembly Tuesday did the trick. Apparently it did for White House chief of staff John Kelly too. (Based on this picture, I’m guessing Melania cleans Kelly’s clock at White House poker games.)

In many ways it was the kind of speech a heavy-handed liberal script writer (Aaron Sorkin, maybe) would put in Trump’s mouth, full of unintentional ironies. For example, he denounced “rogue regimes” that “threaten other nations”. And a bit later he was threatening to unleash “the most destructive weapons known to humanity” against another nation:

The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.

but meanwhile, back at the swamp …

Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price wants to cut government spending on your healthcare, but not on himself. In particular, he prefers to travel by private plane rather than take commercial flights, even though they are vastly more expensive.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price has taken at least 24 flights on private charter planes at taxpayers’ expense since early May, according to people with knowledge of his travel plans and a review of HHS documents.

The frequency of the trips underscores how private travel has become the norm — rather than the exception — for the Georgia Republican during his tenure atop the federal health agency, which began in February. The cost of the trips identified by POLITICO exceeds $300,000, according to a review of federal contracts and similar trip itineraries.

Price’s excuses for the extravagance don’t hold water. The article says that Obama’s HHS secretaries, Sylvia Mathews Burwell and Kathleen Sebelius, took commercial flights. Price claims he uses privates jets “only when commercial travel is not feasible”, but Politico found that many of the flights are between large cities with frequent, low-cost airline traffic”. (D.C. to Philadelphia was one of them.) An HHS spokesperson said Price took private jets because commercial flights are “unreliable” and once caused him to miss important an meeting.

But the flight in question — to a two-day industry conference at a Ritz-Carlton hotel in Southern California — didn’t get off the ground on a day when storms virtually shut down air traffic in the Washington region, preventing even private jets from getting out.

None of this should be surprising, because we’ve known all along that Price has low ethical standards. The Senate knew when it confirmed him that when he was in Congress, Price bought stock in pharmaceutical companies while sponsoring legislation that would benefit those companies.

Saturday, Price announced that he would stop taking tax-payer funded private jets until a review is completed.


Price’s excesses shouldn’t be confused with those of fellow cabinet member Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin (net worth: half a billion), who requested a military plane to take him and his wife on their European honeymoon, and took an expensive government-funded private flight to visit Fort Knox, for reasons no one has been able to explain, at precisely the time of the eclipse.

Nor with those of EPA Director Scott Pruitt, whose “business” trips keep taking him home to Oklahoma, where he is rumored to be planning to run for governor. Pruitt is also diverting resources from environmental protection to his own security.

Scott Pruitt’s round-the-clock personal security detail, which demands triple the manpower of his predecessors at the Environmental Protection Agency, has prompted officials to rotate in special agents from around the country who otherwise would be investigating environmental crimes. … Pruitt’s protective detail is the rare area of the EPA that is growing even as the Trump administration seeks a 31 percent cut to the agency’s budget.

Here’s a security idea: Maybe Pruitt would face fewer threats if he actually started trying to protect the environment.


Associated Press has been unsuccessfully investigating what happened to the whopping $107 million Trump raised for his inaugural celebration. Obama’s inauguration was bigger in almost every sense, but cost only $50 million, a sum many at the time already considered outrageous. Trump had pledged that any left-over money would go to charity … but we’ve heard that before.

During the campaign, the WaPo’s David Fahrenthold investigated Trump’s (lack of) donations to charity:

[Trump] spent years constructing an image as a philanthropist by appearing at charity events and by making very public — even nationally televised — promises to give his own money away. It was, in large part, a facade. …

Instead, throughout his life in the spotlight, whether as a businessman, television star or presidential candidate, The Post found that Trump had sought credit for charity he had not given — or had claimed other people’s giving as his own. …

Trump promised to give away the proceeds of Trump University. He promised to donate the salary he earned from “The Apprentice.” He promised to give personal donations to the charities chosen by contestants on “Celebrity Apprentice.” He promised to donate $250,000 to a charity helping Israeli soldiers and veterans.

Together, those pledges would have increased Trump’s lifetime giving by millions of dollars. But The Post has been unable to verify that he followed through on any of them. Instead, The Post found that his personal giving has almost disappeared entirely in recent years.

Rachel Maddow has also been looking into the inaugural-money story and getting no-commented. On Thursday, she interviewed Craig Holman of Public Citizen, who told her:

The source of funds has to be disclosed after the inauguration, but how that money gets spent is anyone’s guess — no rules, no regulations. Quite frankly, it could even go into the pocket of Donald Trump.

Holman also addressed the fact that the Russia-related legal expenses of both Trump and Donald Trump Jr. are being paid by either the RNC or Trump’s re-election fund. Paying for the president seemed legal to him, but Trump Jr. (who had no official role in the campaign) raised issues.

Maddow has been wondering about the mounting legal expenses for administration figures who aren’t rich, like Mike Pence and Sean Spicer. The RNC and the re-election fund aren’t paying for them.

and you also might be interested in …

One of the under-appreciated aspects of the Russia/Trump story is how Russian operatives used social media to spread fake news against Clinton and to boost Trump. The Daily Beast describes one Russian-sponsored Facebook page that actively organized face-to-face pro-Trump rallies in Florida.

Facebook agreed to turn over to Congress thousands of pro-Trump and anti-Hillary ads that alleged Russian agents spent $100K distributing. NBC reports:

A Facebook employee said Wednesday that there were unspecified connections between the divisive ads and a well-known Russian “troll factory” in St. Petersburg that publishes comments on social media.


Black Lives Matter protesters went to a pro-Trump rally and were actually given a chance to speak. It went well. Seriously.


Paul Manafort was offering private briefings to a Russian oligarch while he was Trump campaign chairman.

and let’s close with something natural

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