Category Archives: Articles

Confronting Season-Change Denial

How can we be sure those predictions of 90-degree August days aren’t just alarmism?


For months now, scientists have been predicting a warming trend in the northern hemisphere. The exact reasons are a little technical — something to do with the tilt of the Earth’s axis as it makes its annual trip around the Sun — but the overwhelming majority of scientific experts have formed a consensus around a theory called “season change”. Supposedly, we were in “winter” back in January and February, but some time in the last couple weeks we passed into “spring”, which the theory says will lead into “summer”, a bizarre time when the snow will vanish completely, trees will sprout green leaves so dense that they will form shade-casting canopies over some small-town streets, and ultimately temperatures will be hot enough to fry eggs on the sidewalk (a practice that is not recommended).

I grant you that this all sounds a bit unlikely in light of our recent weather experiences here in New England, and the idea that we have crossed into a new “season” of growth and going outside without coats sounds a little New-Agey, a bit too similar to the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. After all, we supposedly crossed into spring on Thursday, but I didn’t feel any change, and when I got up Saturday morning (in Bedford, Massachusetts) there was new snow on the ground.

All the same, though, I’m told that the science here is pretty solid. And if the eggheads’ predictions are true, then there’s no time to waste. We are already experiencing the early effects of season change, and if we’re going to be ready for the greater changes to come, we need to start taking action now: planting gardens, checking air conditioners, finding our baseball equipment, getting the lawn mower out of storage, reserving that cottage in Maine, and stocking up on the shorts, sandals, and sunblock that we will all need if we are going to survive the coming hot times.

If you start making these preparations, though, you’re bound to trolled by an annoying chorus of science-rejecting nay-sayers: season-change deniers. “All this talk of ‘spring’ and ‘summer’ is so much ivory-tower mumbo-jumbo,” says my friend Jim, who sells snow-blowers. “It’s a hoax perpetrated by the apparel companies to make you box up perfectly good wool sweaters and down jackets, so that they can sell you flip-flops and T-shirts. And don’t get me started on the seed companies.”

Season-change deniers have their own web sites and Facebook groups, where they share counter-arguments to anything you might throw at them in your attempts to prove that the seasons are changing. “It was 64 degrees in Boston on March 15,” I tell him. “That never happened in February. That must prove something.”

But, of course, pointing to a warm day just allows him to point to a cold day, like the snow I already mentioned on Friday night. One day’s weather, I’m forced to admit, does not make a season. And while I can find graphs of January through March that show a clear temperature uptrend, he can respond with his own graphs, like this one from timeanddate.com, that starts on that warm March 15.

“As you can clearly see,” his email tells me, “the temperature trends have been down for the last ten days. So even if there once was some kind of ‘seasonal warming’ going on, it ended in mid-March.”

I suppose I could reject his graph by throwing back at him his previous claim that data like this ultimately comes from weather services, which he doesn’t believe because they are all staffed by season-change believers. (That’s true, it turns out. If you call any weather service in the country, the person you talk to will endorse season-change theory without even mentioning arguments against it.) But conversations like that have not gone well in the past. They tend to spiral off into claims and counter-claims that make me lose track of how we got onto this subject.

Pointing to buds on trees only leads him to claim that he saw similar buds during that warm spell in January. I don’t remember them, but he does, so that discussion also goes nowhere.

There’s one argument, though, that Jim has never really had a good answer for: the days are getting longer and the nights shorter. The warmth of the sun is something we can all feel, so it seems intuitively clear that all the extra sunlight is eventually going to lead to warmer weather — and perhaps, by July and August, to oppressively hot weather, hard as that is to imagine. And unlike temperature, the length of the days doesn’t fluctuate: Every one is a little bit longer than the one before, and will be until the summer solstice in June.

In the past he has dodged and distracted when I bring up the lengths of days, so maybe if I compile a list of sunrise and sunset times going back to the winter solstice and projected ahead to the summer solstice, that will finally get through to him. I should probably try that. But I’m not sure I’m going to have time today; I need to go out and buy a pair of shorts.



Afterward. Obviously, I’m making an analogy to climate change, and the kinds of arguments you will hear from people who deny the science around that. The explanation of why climate change is happening is a little more complicated than the explanation of season change — the position of the Earth’s axis relative to its orbit around the Sun produces longer days in the northern hemisphere, and all that extra solar energy eventually warms the atmosphere — but not that much more complicated: Burning fossil fuels produces carbon dioxide, which collects in the atmosphere and acts as a greenhouse gas, preventing some of the Earth’s heat from escaping into space; the more carbon dioxide, the less escaping heat, and hence a warmer planet.

The analogy to the days getting longer is the rising concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. (Temperature will, of course, fluctuate during the year according to time and place, and even year-to-year statistical measures like the average global temperature don’t increase in lockstep, with each year warmer than the last. That’s why you will see those claims that global warming ended in 1998 or 2005 or some other hot year. My season-denialist’s claim that seasonal warming peaked on March 15 is an exact analogy to that argument.) But other than an annual cycle caused by northern-hemisphere forests binding CO2 into their leaves, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere does indeed go up every year. Even if this year turns out to be cooler than last year, atmospheric CO2 is still increasing.

Living in New England, I experience a number of chilly March and April days when I think, “Is spring really going to happen this year?” But I look at the sunrises and sunsets, and that fear goes away.

Similarly, but with the dread pointed in the other direction, I also sometimes look at temperature graphs and wonder if maybe global warming has leveled off without us having to make any sacrifices. But then I look at the CO2 graphs and know that these hopes are just wishful thinking. As long as atmospheric CO2 keeps rising — and it has shown no signs of stopping for a long, long time — hotter years are coming just as surely as August will be warmer than March.

A Very Early Response to the Mueller Report

Yesterday afternoon, Attorney General William Barr delivered to congressional leaders his summary of the conclusions of the Mueller report, which he received Friday. You might as well read it yourself, because it’s only four pages long. Key quotes:

The report does not recommend any further indictments, nor did the Special Counsel obtain any sealed indictments that have yet to be made public.

The report outlines the Russian effort to influence the election and documents crimes committed by persons associated with the Russian government in connection with those efforts. … The Special Counsel’s investigation did not find that the Trump campaign or anyone associated with it conspired or coordinated with Russia in its efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election … despite multiple offers from Russian-affiliated individuals to assist the Trump campaign.

The Special Counsel did not draw a conclusion — one way or the other — as to whether the examined conduct [of the President] constituted obstruction. … The Special Counsel states that “while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.” … Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and I have concluded that the evidence developed during the Special Counsel’s investigation is not sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense.

[M]y goal and intent is to release as much of the Special Counsel’s report as I can consistent with applicable law, regulations, and Departmental policies.

A few things worth noting.

1. Once Mueller found that Trump was not involved in the original crime, obstruction became harder to establish. Barr reviews the three factors needed to prove obstruction:

  • “obstructive conduct”, i.e., doing something that impedes the investigation
  • “nexus to a pending or contemplated proceeding” i.e., not just making investigators’ lives difficult in some generic way, but disrupting an effort aimed at charging some particular crime
  • “corrupt intent”

All three have to be present in the same action. So while it’s undeniable that Trump has been undermining the investigation in all sorts of ways, proving in court that a particular action was done knowingly to prevent investigators from reaching a particular outcome might be difficult. If Trump had been involved in the Russian conspiracy, then the corrupt intent that he not be caught would be obvious.

Mueller apparently thought that judgment was beyond his pay grade, so he gathered the evidence and kicked the decision upstairs, where Barr and Rosenstein decided there wasn’t enough to prosecute. The issue of whether a sitting President can be indicted didn’t come up, because the process didn’t get that far.

2. The “applicable law, regulations, and Department policies” that could prevent parts of the report from becoming public have to do with the rules that prevent abuse of the grand jury process. This is not a phony issue, because theoretically a prosecutor could use a grand jury to dig up all sorts of non-criminal dirt about somebody — including speculative testimony that isn’t corroborated by any other evidence — and then publish it.

That said, the regulations themselves could be used to cover up stuff that the public ought to know. We’ll have to see how this plays out.

3. So far, the process seems to be working, despite fears on both sides. On the one hand, Mueller was allowed to finish his work and write a report, which (so far, at least) the Attorney General seems to be handling in a responsible way. On the other, there’s no sign of the “witch hunt” by “angry Democrats” that Trump has been ranting about.

4. If it’s really true that Trump didn’t conspire with the Russians to get elected, that has to count as good news.

5. One reason the Trump-conspired-with-Russia theory has been so persuasive was that it explained a number of things that otherwise seem mysterious: Why did so many of Trump’s people have contacts with Russians during the campaign? Why did they lie about those contacts later? And why has Trump been so subservient to Vladimir Putin since taking office?

If Trump didn’t conspire with Russia to get elected, those mysteries don’t go away, and they require some alternative explanation. The first could possibly be pinned entirely on Russia: Putin’s people tried really hard to infiltrate the Trump campaign, so they approached anybody they could. But the second still seems mysterious to me. Why, in particular, did Michael Flynn need to lie to the FBI about conversations during the transition concerning sanctions against Russia? Why did Jared Kushner leave his conversations with Russians off his security clearance form?

And then there’s the mystery of Helsinki. What makes it impossible for Trump to disagree with Putin in public, even when all his intelligence services tell him something different than Putin is saying? Does it have something to do with Russian money that has gone into Trump’s real estate projects in the past? Is it related to prospects for future Trump Organization profits? Congress needs to pursue this.

Fear of White Genocide: the underground stream feeding right-wing causes

The Christchurch shooter’s manifesto is a Rosetta Stone for multiple strains of crazy.


I don’t usually recommend that you read something I totally disagree with, but this week I’ll make an exception: If you have the time, look at the the 73-page manifesto posted by Brenton Tarrant, who apparently killed 50 worshipers Friday at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. If you don’t have quite that much time, just look at the Introduction on pages 3 and 4.

Manifestos of terrorist murderers are usually described in the press as the incoherent ramblings of diseased minds. And perhaps sometimes they are; I haven’t read that many of them. But reading this one struck me the opposite way: The ideas fit together, and once you accept a fairly small number of baseless notions and false facts, everything else spins out logically. What’s more: this ideology links a large number of right-wing notions that we on the left usually imagine as separate pathologies, and either ignore as absurd or argue against in a whack-a-mole fashion.

So I think it’s worth trying to understand.

The assumption in the background. One idea seems so obvious to Tarrant, and presumably to his target readers, that it goes without mentioning until fairly deep in the text: Races are real things. So there is a White race, and its members are united by something far greater than a tendency to sunburn. Whites are a “people” who have a culture. [1] Whiteness is an identity, an Us that exists in an eternal evolutionary war with all the Thems out there.

To Tarrant, there is some essential nature to all the races and peoples.

Racial differences exist between peoples and they have a great impact on the way we shape our societies. … A Moroccan may never be an Estonian much the same as an Estonian may never be a Moroccan. There are cultural, ethnic, and RACIAL differences that makes interchanging one ethnic group with another an impossibility. Europe is only Europe because if its combined genetic, cultural, and linguistic heritage. When non-Europeans are considered Europe, then there is no Europe at all. [2]

Birthrates. There’s a worldwide phenomenon that is fairly well understood: When a society becomes wealthy, educates its women, and gives them opportunities in addition to motherhood, birth rates go down. A woman who has a shot at being a CEO or a cancer researcher may or may not decide to have children, but she almost certainly won’t have 7 or 8 of them. That’s why educating women is seen as a possible long-term solution to the population explosion.

There’s nothing about this phenomenon that is specifically white — it applies equally well to Japan, for example, and countries in Africa have seen the same effect among their educated classes — but European countries (and countries like the US and Australia that were largely settled by European colonists) do tend to be wealthy and relatively feminist. So birthrates are down across Europe. And in the US, recent immigrants of non-European ancestry have higher birthrates than whites.

So largely as a result of their own economic success, majority-white countries tend to have birthrates below replacement level. As economic growth continues, opportunities open up for immigrants, who retain their higher birthrates for a generation or two after they arrive. All over the world, then, majority-white countries are becoming less and less white, with the possibility that whites themselves might eventually become a minority.

One recent estimate has the United States becoming a minority-white country by 2045. As I pointed out in August, we’re-losing-our-country is an old story in the US: Once the US was majority-English, until German immigrants (and Africans brought here by force) made the English a minority. For a while longer, it was majority-Anglo-Saxon, until a wave of Irish, Italian, and Eastern European immigrants put an end to that. Each time, alarmists claimed that the nation was losing its soul — Ben Franklin worried about the arrival of the Pennsylvania Dutch — but somehow America continued to be America.

But now combine the diminishing white population with the conviction that race really means something. Sure, 21st-century Americans can laugh at Franklin’s fear of people who put hex signs on their barns and make all those buttery pies. But now we’re talking about a whole different race. This was a white country, and now it’s being taken over by other races! Other peoples are taking what’s ours, but they’re doing it through demographics rather than warfare.

We are experiencing an invasion on a level never seen before in history. [3] Millions of people pouring across our borders, legally, invited by the state and corporate entities to replace the White people who have failed to reproduce, failed to create the cheap labor, new consumers, and tax base that the corporations and states need to thrive. … Mass immigration will disenfranchise us, subvert our nations, destroy our communities, destroy our ethnic bonds, destroy our cultures, destroy our peoples — long before low fertility rates ever could. Thus, before we deal with the fertility rates, we must deal with both the invaders within our lands and the invaders that seek to enter our lands. We must crush immigration and deport those invaders already living on our soil. It is not just a matter of our prosperity, but the very survival of our people.

Tarrant presents demographic estimates of what will happen:

In 2100, despite the ongoing effect of sub-replacement fertility, the population figures show that the population does not decrease in line with these sub-replacement fertility levels, but actually maintains, and, even in many White nations, rapidly increases. All through immigration. This is ethnic replacement. This is cultural replacement.

THIS IS WHITE GENOCIDE.

If you believe in this demographic invasion that is taking your people’s lands, then it follows logically that there are no non-combatants. People are stealing your country simply by being here.

There are no innocents in an invasion. All people who colonize other peoples’ lands share their guilt. [4]

In particular, children are not innocent. They will grow up and vote and reproduce (probably in large numbers, because “fertility rates are part of those racial differences”). So Tarrant was not worried that he might kill children. The point here is not to kill all the immigrants, but to kill enough to drive the rest out and deter future immigrants from coming.

Few parents, regardless of circumstance, will willingly risk the lives of their children, no matter the economic incentives. Therefore, once we show them the risk of bringing their offspring to our soil, they will avoid our lands. [5]

Why don’t I fear losing my country? As I said, Tarrant’s demographics aren’t wrong, at least in the US. (White nationalists in European countries tend to overestimate how many non-whites surround them. France, for example, is still about 85% white. The prospect of whites becoming a minority there is still quite distant.) So why don’t I, as a white American, feel as alarmed as he does?

And the answer is that I don’t see any reason why non-whites can’t be real Americans. Back in the 90s, my wife and I went to China to support our friends as they adopted a baby girl. That girl is now in her mid-20s, and I have watched her grow up, including seeing her on every Christmas morning of her life. To the best of my ability to judge such things, she is as American as I am. I do not worry in the least that some essential non-American nature is encoded in her genetic makeup, or that her presence is turning America into China. [6]

In my view, America (or Western culture, for that matter) isn’t something that arises from the essential nature of the White race. America is something we do, not something we are. It is an idea that can be shared by anyone who is inspired to share it.

So when I picture that white-minority America of 2045 (which I have a decent chance of living to see), I don’t see it as a country that “my people” have lost. That’s because I already see the idea of America and Western culture being shared by lots of other folks that Tarrant would see as invaders, like, say, Fareed Zakaria, Ta-Nahisi Coates, or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. I have faith in the continuing strength of the American idea, which I believe will continue to inspire a majority of Americans well beyond 2045. California, where whites are already less than half population, still feels like America to me.

Assimilation. Tarrant lacks faith in assimilation, because he sees race as having a direct effect on culture. This is a common belief among white nationalists, and many whites who resonate with white-nationalist concerns, even if they don’t identify with the movement.

A frequent complaint on the American right, which you will hear often on Fox News, is that recent immigrants are not assimilating the way previous waves of immigrants did. The data does not bear this out, but it is believed because white-nationalist ideology makes it seem necessary: Hispanics and other non-white immigrants can’t assimilate the way Italians and Poles did, because they aren’t white.

In memory, we tend to forget how long it took waves of European immigrants to assimilate. Whites who can remember their grandparents speaking Hungarian at home are somehow appalled that Hispanic immigrants don’t instantly learn English, or that they form ethnic enclaves (like, say, Little Italy in New York). American Catholics may feel that immigrant Muslims are changing the essential Christian nature of their country, but they forget that America once saw itself as a Protestant nation, and many felt threatened by immigrant Catholics in precisely the same way. (Catholicism was viewed as a fundamentally authoritarian religion that could never adapt to republican America.)

In fact, Catholics from Ireland, Italy, Poland, and other European countries did change America. But America also changed Catholicism. The same thing is happening with Islam.

Anti-democracy. If shared genes are what makes us a people, if immigrants by definition can’t join us, and if my people are in danger of losing their land due to a demographic invasion, then democracy as it is currently practiced — where immigrants gain citizenship and become voters — is just part of the national suicide process. An invasion isn’t something that can be voted on, especially if the invaders are allowed to vote.

Worse, even before the invaders become the majority, democracy has been corrupted by those who hope to gain from the invasion and the “cheap labor, new consumers, and tax base” that it brings. So Tarrant has no love of democracy.

Democracy is mob rule, and the mob itself is ruled by our own enemies.

Until now, I’ve relegated comparisons to American politics to the footnotes. But this is where it needs to come into the foreground. Because several important Trumpian concepts have moved onto the stage:

  • the notion of a unified corporate/government “elite” whose interests are at odds with the American people
  • a fundamental disrespect for democracy
  • the righteousness of violent action if and when the wrong side wins elections.

Trump and his allies have not come out and said openly that democracy is bad, but the notion that gerrymandering, the Electoral College, purging legal voters from voter lists, and various forms of voter suppression are undemocratic carries very little weight with them. The myth that undocumented immigrants vote in large numbers, which circulates despite an almost total lack of evidence, persists as a stand-in for an unspoken underlying concern: that immigrants become citizens and vote legally.

Trump fairly regularly either encourages violence among his supporters or hints that violent action might follow his impeachment or defeat.

All of this makes sense if you believe that democracy is only legitimate as a way for a People to govern itself, and becomes illegitimate when a system designed for a People becomes corrupted by the votes of invaders.

Sex and gender. Tarrant’s manifesto is addressed almost entirely to White men, whom he urges to defend their homelands.

Weak men have created this situation and strong men are needed to fix it.

He has little to say about women, but the implications of his beliefs should be obvious: If the underlying problem is a low birthrate among whites, the ultimate fault lies with white women. Women who let their professional or creative ambitions distract them from motherhood, who practice birth control, abortion, or lesbianism — their failings aren’t just matters of personal morality any more, they’re threats to the survival of the race.

The closest Tarrant comes to addressing this is:

Likely a new society will need to be created with a much greater focus on family values, gender and social norms, and the value and importance of nature, culture, and race.

But it doesn’t take much imagination to picture this new society: It will have fewer opportunities for women, and less acceptance of women in roles other than motherhood. It will also discourage men from abandoning their procreative roles through homosexuality, and will in general support the “traditional value” of separate and unchanging gender roles.

It is easy to see the attraction of this ideology to a variety of crazies, including incels, who have themselves at times become violent terrorists. The same opportunities that have diverted women from motherhood have likewise made them more picky about the men they choose to procreate with, with the result that some men find themselves unable to have the active sex lives they feel they deserve. Incels are already overwhelmingly white, so the attraction of a white-nationalist ideology that would restrict women’s choices should be obvious.

Power and purpose. All of these positions enhance the power of groups that are already privileged: whites, the native-born, Christians, and men. They could be attractive to those groups on that cynical ground alone. But cynicism alone seldom succeeds for long, because the pure quest for power and advantage only inspires sociopaths. The rest may pursue that quest, but never without misgivings.

The charm of an ideology, though, is that it can give power-seeking a higher purpose: I seek these advantages not just for myself, but to save my people from annihilation!

The underground stream. Few American politicians openly embrace white nationalism as a label, even if their views align with it. Even Steve King disclaims the term, and Republicans who share many of his white-nationalist views have felt obligated to distance themselves from him.

At the same time, though, something is motivating them. It is hard to listen to Trump’s litany of falsehoods about the border without wondering what the real justification for his Wall is. Obviously it’s something he doesn’t think he can get away with saying in so many words.

Similarly, it’s hard to see what other ideology unifies the full right-wing agenda: anti-illegal-immigration, anti-legal-immigration, anti-democracy, anti-abortion, anti-birth-control, anti-women’s-rights, anti-LGBTQ, anti-Muslim, anti-black, and so on.

When asked about white nationalist terrorism after the Christchurch shooting, President Trump waved off the problem, saying: “It’s a small group of people.”

Perhaps. Or perhaps it is the ideology that dares not announce itself: Its followers just “know” the truth of it, but can’t say so because of “political correctness”. More and more, white nationalism — and the demographic fear at its root — looks like the underground stream that feeds all the various insanities of the Right.


[1] I discussed and rejected this notion a couple years ago in a piece called “Should I Have White Pride?” The artificiality of “white culture” becomes obvious to me when I start trying to imagine a White Culture Festival: What food would we serve? What traditional costumes would we wear? It makes sense to hold a German Festival or a Greek Festival, but a White Festival, not so much.

[2] The evidence for this impossibility is of the we-can’t-imagine-that variety. If you picture a Moroccan and an Estonian next to each other, they just seem different, at least to Tarrant and his target audience.

But of course, the same is true for any lands that are far apart, even within Europe. Italians seem different from Swedes, when you picture them, but somehow they are all white Europeans. To see if the concepts of whiteness and European-ness have any real substance, you’d want to check what happens at the boundaries. So better questions would be: Could a Greek become a Turk, or vice versa? Could a Moroccan became a Spaniard? Those transformations don’t seem nearly so difficult, and in fact are easier for me to imagine than a Spaniard becoming an Estonian.

But in fact, such transformations happen all the time, particularly here in the United States, where we have a long history of light-skinned blacks passing as white, to the point that after a few generations the shift may be forgotten. If you have a Greek-American immigrant living on one side of you and a Turkish-American immigrant on the other, you might have a hard time telling the difference, either racially or culturally. Both would likely have dark hair and make baklava and strong coffee. Both sets of children will likely be as American as yours.

[3] President Trump agrees with Tarrant about this. On the same day as the 50 murders — and, in fact, during a public appearance that began with his statement of support for New Zealand in dealing with these attacks — Trump announced his veto of the bipartisan Congressional resolution to terminate the national emergency that he intends to use to commandeer money to build his wall. Within a few paragraphs, he went from denouncing the “monstrous terror attacks” in New Zealand to echoing the attacker’s rhetoric.

People hate the word “invasion,” but that’s what it is. It’s an invasion of drugs and criminals and people.

[4] Several people have cited this and many other of Tarrant’s statements as examples of projection. Who, after all, has done more colonizing of “other peoples’ lands” than Europeans? Isn’t that how the US, New Zealand, and a bunch of other places became “White nations” to begin with?

Though accurate, I doubt this observation would unsettle Tarrant. “Guilt” here is a relative concept, and is not related to a universal morality. Of course peoples contest with each other for possession of lands in the evolutionary Us-against-Them struggle for survival and dominance. Of course native peoples should have regarded colonizing whites as invaders and tried to repel them.

[5] There’s a strong resonance here with the Trump administration’s family separation policy. Like Tarrant’s attacks, it is an intentional cruelty whose purpose is to deter future immigrants by threatening their children.

[6] Iowa Congressman Steve King disagrees. He tweeted:

[Dutch nationalist leader Geert] Wilders understands that culture and demographics are our destiny. We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.

The Balloon Pops on Trump’s Economic Promises

The data that came in this week wasn’t terrible, but it was far from Trump’s campaign rhetoric.


It’s hard to know how to respond when Trump sets up a stupid benchmark and then fails to meet it. On the one hand, the failure points out that his policies haven’t done what he expected them to do, because the world doesn’t work the way he thinks it does. But on the other hand, I don’t want to validate the benchmark, because then I’ll start feeling obligated to judge future presidents by it.

Case in point: the mercantile trade deficit, which set an $891 billion record in 2018, despite Trump’s promise to shrink it.

Trump takes a pre-Adam-Smith mercantilist view of trade; if a country sells us more stuff than we sell to them, then they’re “beating” us and we need to do something to stop “losing” to them. The economic reality is a lot more complicated. (The libertarian Cato Institute explained this back in 1998, when a trade deficit of $250 billion seemed scandalous.) True, they might be selling us more because they make better products more efficiently. But it also might be because the strength of the dollar makes our exports look artificially expensive. And the dollar might be strong because people around the world want dollars; they view it as a more secure store of value than their home currency; or they want to invest their savings in the US because the American system has more respect for the rule of law; or for some other reason. Maybe what we’re trading for those refrigerators and TVs is paper, like shares in start-up corporations that pop up in the US because our economy does a better job nurturing such things. And so on.

Also, focusing on the deficit in goods ignores services. So if some country makes our bicycles while we handle their banking and insurance, the mercantile trade deficit may say that we’re “losing”, when in reality we might be trading bad jobs for good jobs.

So anyway, Trump has identified the mercantile trade deficit as a major problem, which it isn’t. When he was campaigning in 2016, he said:

Today, our manufacturing trade deficit with the world is nearly $800 billion. And going up, going up fast. Unless I become president. You will see a drop like you’ve never seen before.

In July, Trump falsely told a crowd:

Thanks to our powerful trade policies, the trade deficit is falling and falling and falling.

The point of all his tariffs and trade wars has been to bring the mercantile trade deficit down, so that we stop “losing” to other countries. But it’s not working, as any economist could have told him ahead of time. In 2018, we also ran a somewhat smaller surplus in services, so the overall trade deficit was $621 billion, the highest since 2008.

That graph should tell you something about our mercantile trade deficit: It went way down in 2009. (It also wasn’t “going up fast” in 2016. That was a lie.) What was happening in 2009? A lot of stuff we wouldn’t want to repeat, like massive unemployment that caused people to stop buying stuff. Also, the price of oil crashed in the Great Recession, so that our energy imports cost less. A lower mercantile trade deficit is not always a good thing.

GDP presents another how-to-cover-this quandary: What should I say when the administration makes ridiculously optimistic predictions, and then the results that come in are just OK?

So, after some delay due to the government shutdown, the 2018 GDP stats are in: The economy grew 2.9%. That’s not bad, and even kind of good when looked at realistically. It’s at the upper range of recent annual growth results. GDP grew 2.9% in 2015, but that was the top mark for the Obama administration. 2016 came in at 1.6%. Under Trump GDP has grown 2.2% and 2.9%.

That would be great if 2.2% and 2.9% were the beginning of an up-trend, but it doesn’t look that way. The CBO predicts 2.7% and 1.9% for the next two years. That’s not what Trump promised.

Throughout the 2016 campaign and since, the president and his party have vowed to kick-start tepid Obama-era economic growth. Specifically, they insisted tax cuts and deregulation would return growth to its post-World War II average of 3 percent — a level, candidate Trump said derisively, that President Barack Obama became “the first president in modern history” never to reach in a single year.

So the Trump numbers are not at all terrible; in fact, they’re about what you’d expect from another two years of Obama, particularly if Congress would have let Obama run the kind of deficits Trump is running.

Jobs. The reason growth projections for the next two years are not as high is that the tax cut isn’t having the kind of structural effect on the economy that its backers claimed. Instead, it has stimulated the economy the same way any deficit-increasing measure does.

February job numbers were outright lousy, but it’s a mistake to make too much of that yet. The economy added 20,000 jobs in February, which is pretty sickly: It has been averaging 100K-300K new jobs per month since the end of the recession.

So if 20,000 is where job-creation is going to be now, or worse, if it’s the start of a down-trend, then that would be worrisome. But as you can see in the graph, the monthly data is noisy. Random fluctuation is more likely than the beginning of a new trend.

But take a closer look at that graph without paying attention to the years on the lower axis: Can you tell where the Obama economy ends and the Trump economy starts? I can’t.

That’s how just about all the economic graphs look. After all the sturm-und-drang we’ve had about tax cuts and tariffs and trade deals, and all the hype about how great the Trump economy has been, the Trump economy mostly looks like two more years of the Obama economy.

Where is Congress’ Center on Climate Change?

A bipartisan duo of centrist senators combine to promote a vague and inadequate agenda. But at least it’s something.


The Green New Deal proposal that AOC and Ed Markey put forward last month almost certainly won’t become law anytime soon. But presumably it also had a second purpose: to move the national debate off the nothing-can-be-done pessimism of the last two years and push other people to offer plans of their own. That effort is already seeing some success. For example, here’s economist Noah Smith’s GND, which largely overlaps with the progressive Democrats’ GND, but shaves off a few of its more controversial economic features — like a federally guaranteed job — and puts more emphasis on research and trade policy, plus a carbon tax.

Fertilizing the collective imagination and keeping pressure on fossil-fuel lackeys to explain why they’re blocking legitimate efforts to preserve a livable planet for future generations — those are two worthy accomplishments. But at some point actual legislation needs to pass, which (at least for the next two years, and probably well beyond) will require just about all Democratic votes plus a few Republicans. What kind of proposal could achieve that anytime soon?

We got an indication this week in the bipartisan op-ed on climate change that Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) published in the Washington Post. Murkowski and Manchin are both considered centrists in their respective parties, so if there is going to be bipartisan cooperation, this is where you would expect it to start.

Whether you find this piece encouraging or discouraging depends on where you expected the Senate’s center to be. On the optimistic side, the two senators accept the basic science of the problem.

There is no question that climate change is real or that human activities are driving much of it.

They point out that the effects of climate change not just looming in some distant computer-modeled future, but are already affecting their states: floods in West Virginia and shifting fisheries in Alaska.

This is a huge improvement on science-deniers like Senator James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) or President Trump, who have described climate change as a hoax, or those like Marco Rubio who employ the “I’m not a scientist, but” dodge, or like Joni Ernst who dodge with “our climate always changes”. At least Murkowski and Manchin start by recognizing reality.

From there, though, things get iffy. They position themselves in the center by framing the climate debate as a clash between two equally wrong extremes.

those who support drastic, unattainable measures to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, and those who want to do nothing.

Three things are wrong with this framing:

  • It fails to point out that more vigorous measures to reduce emissions are “unattainable” largely because people like Murkowski and Manchin won’t get behind them.
  • It ignores the likelihood that “attainable” measures won’t be enough to avoid a climate catastrophe. (If they think attainable measures will suffice, they should state that position openly and defend it.) Think about Winston Churchill in the 1930s foreseeing Great Britain’s coming clash with Nazi Germany: What if he had limited himself to calling for preparations that were “attainable” under the Chamberlain government?
  • The Trump administration isn’t trying to “do nothing”. If only it were. Instead, it’s actively rolling back what the Obama administration accomplished, trying to cut funding for renewable energy, filling the government with fossil-fuel industry activists, and in general doing everything it can to make the problem worse. Doing nothing would be a considerable improvement.

But OK then, what are Murkowski and Manchin proposing? They are the chair and ranking Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, where

we are working together to find pragmatic policies that can draw strong and enduring support.

So they support measures that can draw support, whatever those might be. From there, you have to read between the lines to see what they might mean.

The United States leads the world in research and development. Our national labs and universities are working toward the next scientific breakthrough, and private investors are pursuing the next game-changing technology. The United States is at the forefront of clean-energy efforts, including energy storage, advanced nuclear energy, and carbon capture, utilization and sequestration. We are committed to adopting reasonable policies that maintain that edge, build on and accelerate current efforts, and ensure a robust innovation ecosystem.

The impact of developing these new technologies will be felt by Americans from all walks of life, including residents of rural communities and other areas served by older technologies. Transitioning these communities to more efficient forms of energy will provide them with cleaner energy that is also more stable and has lower costs, which will bring about additional benefits.

I read it like this: They’ll appropriate more money for research, in hope of finding win/win solutions that lower carbon emissions without asking for any sacrifice from either industry or consumers. So: no green taxes, no mandates that might force higher efficiency standards, no forced retirement of coal-fired power plants, no firm commitment to a national carbon-emission goal.

Undoubtedly there are at least a few such win/win solutions to be found, and if so, we should definitely try to find them. But I suspect they won’t move us far enough fast enough to avoid the kinds of disasters that will create new deserts, raise oceans, and send tens or hundreds of millions of people looking for new homes. If you have been alarmed by the flood of refugees from Syria or Sudan or Guatemala, wait for Bangladesh.

If you think in terms of what the crisis requires, this isn’t even half a loaf; it’s more like part of a slice. If there is a slice to be gotten, though, we should be sure to get it. Funding new research, after all, is better than stifling research. The trick will be to get the slice without letting the public lose sight of what is really needed.

Before We Even Think about Candidates for 2020

We already know how Trump is planning to beat us. Let’s go into that battle with open eyes.


President 46%. In 2016, Donald Trump was elected president with 46% of the vote, beating a Democrat who got 48%. As he was being inaugurated, he briefly benefited from the wave of hope and goodwill that greets all presidents, and for about two weeks his approval/disproval rating was positive.

He quickly dissipated all that goodwill: He gave his scary “American carnage” inaugural address. We saw the flock of shady billionaires, fossil-fuel industry puppets, and alt-right provocateurs he had appointed to high office. Sean Spicer angrily told us that we didn’t really see all that empty space on the National Mall during Trump’s inauguration, and Kellyanne Conway coined the phrase “alternative facts“. Then Mike Flynn resigned under a cloud that had something to do with lies about Russia, the Trump family kept openly profiting from his presidency, and by April his approval was below 40%. It has fluctuated in a 37%-43% range ever since.

Whatever he says or does, or how well or badly things are going, that’s how much support he has. The unemployment rate hits record lows and the stock market record highs, but he can’t get over 43%. He all but kneels to Vladimir Putin, refers to Nazis as “very fine people”, puts kids in cages, and is identified in as a conspirator in a crime Michael Cohen has already been sentenced to prison for, but he doesn’t go under 37%.

There’s a good reason for that narrow range: Unlike all previous presidents (at least since World War II; I’m kind of hazy on the presidents before FDR), Trump continues to serve up the rhetoric his base wants to hear, and doesn’t even try to speak to the nation as a whole. Most of the things he says are easily recognized as false or nonsensical as soon as you leave the Fox News bubble. (The Washington Post fact-checker estimates that during 2018 Trump averaged 15 false or misleading statements per day.) But inside that bubble, he is a prophet; he says the (untrue) things that no other president has ever had the courage to say. Every bad claim people amke about him originates from a conspiracy between the Deep State and the Fake News Media, who are “enemies of the American people“.

Unlike, say, Bill Clinton reforming welfare, George W. Bush working with Ted Kennedy on education policy, or Barack Obama offering a “grand bargain” on the federal deficit to John Boehner, Trump has never given Democratic leaders the slightest reason to hope that they might achieve their goals by working with him. Every gesture towards compromise — like the DACA-for-Wall deal Trump said he wanted or the job-creating infrastructure bill he promised — turns out to be a mirage that evaporates in the light of day. Fundamentally, Trump doesn’t accept the premise of a win/win outcome; in order for him to believe he has won, his opponents have to lose.

Even worse, he seems to take joy in trolling groups that oppose him. He never misses an opportunity to smear Latino immigrants. He makes up derogatory nicknames (like “Pocahontas” or “Cryin’ Chuck”) for U.S. senators. Whenever he needs to rile up the racists in his base, he picks a fight with some black celebrity like LeBron James or Spike Lee. (Try to remember any previous president of either party trading insults with a celebrity outside of politics, no matter what opinions they expressed.) He refers to black-majority nations as “shithole countries“, and contrasts them with countries he’d like more immigrants from, like Norway. He encourages police to be more violent with suspects.

So how does Trump plan to win? That kind of behavior raises an obvious question: How does Trump think he’s going to get re-elected? Something like a third of the country may worship him. (Literally. It’s not uncommon to run across people saying that Trump was chosen by God to be president.) They may indeed be so devoted that they don’t care if he stands “in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoots someone”, much less if he violates campaign finance laws or commits bank fraud or is a ventriloquist’s dummy for Putin.

But how do you win an election if you don’t do anything to grow a base that’s barely more than a third of the country?

Answer — the same way he did in 2016. Eezy-peezy: Rile up your third of the country so that they’re sure to vote (and depress the rest of it so that they’re not), making them maybe 40% of the electorate. Get another 6% to hold their nose and vote for you because they’re scared of your opponent. Encourage (maybe with some social-media help from Russia) 5% or so to vote for third-party candidates who have no chance to take any of your states. (Howard Schultz has already volunteered for that role.) Then count on the Electoral College to install you in office even though your opponent has more votes.

That would sound like one of the Brain’s plans to take over the world, if we hadn’t just seen it work.

Let’s not get fooled again. If you know the trap your enemy is setting, the obvious counter-strategy is to refuse to walk into it. Since the trap is two-pronged (motivate his voters, depress and split ours) we should look for two things in a potential Democratic challenger:

  • Someone who raises progressive enthusiasm, so that marginal Democratic voters (especially non-whites and young people) are drawn to the polls.
  • Someone who doesn’t scare Republican voters outside Trump’s base (especially educated suburbanites and moderates) into supporting him.

The problem: While those two are not directly contradictory, they do generally point in opposite directions. A candidate with sweeping progressive proposals (like Bernie Sanders) tends to scare the Right, while a “safer” candidate (like Joe Biden) may leave low-motivation voters wondering why they should bother.

Moving either way increases the third-party threat. In 2016, Jill Stein got votes from people who would have voted Democratic if Bernie had been the nominee. But Schultz has openly said that his motivation to run as a “centrist” arises from fear of Democrats nominating a progressive like Sanders or Elizabeth Warren.

Trumpists are preparing for either possibility. You can bet that any moderate candidate will face the same kinds of attacks “Crooked Hillary” did: He or she is a tool of the powerful special interests that are threatened by Trump’s attack on the Deep State. But CPAC (over the weekend) was a testing ground for attacks on progressives: They want to turn the US into Venezuela and even take away your hamburgers. The Green New Deal, Trump summed up, means “No planes. No energy. When the wind stops blowing, that’s the end of your electric.”

Any Trump challenger will face personal attacks that make him or her seem uniquely horrible. (“I mean, I don’t like him either, but couldn’t the Democrats have picked somebody else?”) It doesn’t really matter that the charges be true, only that they take time to refute. We’ve already seen this with Warren and the Native American issue. (Lots of people are convinced she made up her native ancestor in order to take advantage of affirmative action. There is zero evidence for this, but the issue never goes away.)

I think progressives underestimate the effectiveness of this kind of stuff, largely because Bernie never had to face it in 2016. (Republicans were counting on him to wound Hillary, so they mostly laid off of him, portraying him as a good guy with some wacky notions. Trump would occasionally cry some crocodile tears about the raw deal Bernie was getting.) It’s a mistake to draw the conclusion that Bernie was shielded by his fine moral character. Anyone can be lied about, and it’s usually not that hard to find some factual foundation to build a lie on. In a sufficiently large cloud of lies, the many absurd charges (think Pizzagate) can seem to support each other. (“I don’t know. It just seems like there’s something wrong there.”)

Don’t help him. The most important thing Democrats can do is to avoid slandering their front-runners. We need to make sure that candidates have answers for any serious questions that are bound to come up eventually, but attacks on a candidate’s fundamental honesty and decency shouldn’t be tossed around lightly.

So it’s fine to ask why Amy Klobuchar doesn’t support Medicare-for-All, but not to jump to the conclusion that she’s a tool of the insurance companies (unless you really know something). It’s fine to wonder how Bernie will pay for his proposals, but not to accuse him of trying to turn the US into Cuba.

And I don’t want to hear about how Kamala Harris isn’t black enough, or that Kirsten Gillibrand doesn’t know how to eat chicken. We’ll get enough of that kind of BS in the general-election campaign. We don’t need to start it now.

Can anybody thread the needle? The most successful Democratic campaigns of the Trump era have somehow managed to split the difference. Doug Jones won an unlikely senate seat in Alabama by avoiding progressive positions like Medicare-for-All, but the very thought of a Democrat beating Roy Moore inspired high turnout in Alabama’s black neighborhoods. Beto O’Rourke ran a surprisingly close race in Texas by creating an exciting progressive image without taking many progressive stands on the issues. That is also the path Obama took in his 2008 landslide. Obama himself was the excitement, not a revolutionary platform.

Texas and Alabama are both in the South, where a Democratic presidential nominee will only win as part of a national landslide. So I don’t think those races should define the limits of acceptable positions. But I think each issue needs to be weighed on the inspiration/fright scale. Reparations for slavery, for example, is a trap issue for Democrats. No one really believes the next president can get a reparations bill passed — and I don’t even know of a plausible reparations proposal — so I doubt the issue will inspire new support. But it will scare a lot of white people and lend itself to exaggerated charges.

At the moment, things look relatively good. The latest poll has Trump trailing a generic Democrat by 48%-41%. But of course, many polls showed even larger leads for Clinton at some point or another. That 7-point lead comes before the actual nominee either raises enthusiasm or gets torn down. It also comes before the Mueller report appears, and before investigations in the House nail down charges that Trump supporters have been able to wave away so far. There’s a strong chance of a recession beginning before the election, and who can guess what foreign crises will erupt between then and now?

The idea that 41% of the public might be able to look at the last two years and say, “I want more of that” is both scary and mind-boggling. But that’s the world we live in. Trump has about that much support and always has. He’s going to try to win again without building that base, and we know exactly how he’s going to try to do it. No matter what happens in the internal dynamics of our own process, we can’t ever lose sight of that.

I See Color

Five reasons whites shouldn’t colorblind themselves.


Tuesday night, CNN (for reasons I still don’t understand) decided to devote an hour of evening air time to billionaire Howard Schultz (a.k.a. Daddy Starbucks) answering questions in a town hall format. While answering a question about a racial incident at a Starbucks in Philadelphia, Schultz said this:

As somebody who grew up in a very diverse background as a young boy in the projects, I didn’t see color as a young boy and I honestly don’t see color now.

It’s hard to know exactly what to make of a statement like that, or how to respond to it. It’s far from the first time I’ve heard another white person (it’s always a white person) say that he or she “doesn’t see color”. Typically, people who make this statement think they’re saying something virtuous — that they’re not prejudiced against non-whites, that they try to see each person as an individual rather than through the lens of a racial stereotype, or that they treat people of all races the same. If you question them, you’re likely to hear the famous Martin Luther King quote:

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

By “not seeing color”, then, a white person is trying to live Dr. King’s dream: I’m not judging your children by the color of their skin; in fact, I’m not even noticing it.

So what’s wrong with that? Many of the people who say they don’t see color really do mean well — though some don’t; we’ll get to that — so I think they deserve a clear and honest answer.

1. It’s probably not literally true. I’ve occasionally been surprised to find out that someone I’ve known for a while has Jewish ancestry, or was born in another country and speaks English as a second language, or was brought up in a family very much richer or poorer than mine. Apparently, I really don’t “see” those things, at least not all the time. But I’ve never, ever been surprised to discover that somebody is black. I’ve never, ever had anyone say to me, “Did you realize Marcus is black? I never noticed before.”

I know that mixed-race people are sometimes hard to classify. So “Do you think of yourself as black?” can be a meaningful question. But even then I have usually spotted the uncertainty. Because I see color. I believe just about everybody does.

So “I don’t see color” has an element of willfulness to it. At best, it’s not about perception, it’s about habits of thought. Probably the more literal statement would be, “I don’t think about race.” Or maybe: “I try not to think about race.”

But even when we try not to take race into account, we often do. I try not to be prejudiced or to act in any way that promotes bigotry. But I also score badly on the implicit racism test. Like most people, I see color even when I think I don’t.

2. That’s not how dreams work. But what about the dream of a colorblind society? I mean, the one where people might notice each other’s skin color in the literal sense I just talked about, but it just doesn’t matter, because all people are judged “by the content of their character”. Race might still be part of your heritage, but in the here and now, it would only matter to the extent you want it to.

A lot of white identities are like that now. I come from German stock, while somebody else might have Polish ancestors. Germans and Poles have been at each other’s throats for centuries, but in America today none of that matters any more. Maybe we’ll trade mock-hostile barbs when Germany plays Poland in the World Cup. Maybe your grandmother taught you how to prepare kielbasa while mine taught me schnitzel. (Actually she didn’t, unfortunately.) But in all the ways that count, the ones that might re-ignite the conflicts of our ancestors, neither of us cares.

We can imagine a society where race is like that. “Your people came over from Africa? That’s interesting. Have you traced what part?” But when employers are deciding whether to hire you, police are deciding whether to arrest you (or just shoot you), or Starbucks managers are deciding whether to call 911, your race wouldn’t play any role. The percentage of the population that is in poverty or in prison or in management or prematurely in the grave wouldn’t depend on race in anything but a round-off-error sort of way.

Is that a worthy dream? I believe it is.

But I’m not trying to pretend it’s true now, because dreams don’t work that way.

If you dream about being a billionaire like Howard Schultz, the way to get there isn’t to start living like a billionaire in all the ways you can. Quite the opposite: Every time you go to the kind of restaurant a billionaire might frequent — or as close to one as your credit cards will allow — you get a little farther away from actual wealth.

I dream of a society where all people have access to health care, but I don’t bring that day closer by pretending that they already do. I dream of a world where refugees aren’t desperate to get into the United States, because their home countries are doing fine and they have lots of other good places to live. But having that dream doesn’t make me any less callous when I ignore those refugees.

I dream of a world where everyone is honest, and I can leave my laptop sitting unattended on my table at Starbucks when I go off to the bathroom. But I never do that, because dreams don’t work that way.

A colorblind teacher in a white neighborhood school would see the new black kid being picked on and think, “I wonder what that’s about.” A colorblind warden would be oblivious to the racially segregated gangs in his prison.

In American society today, race matters. You can’t deal with that reality unless you see it.

3. Having a choice about whether or not you’ll notice race today is an element of white privilege. As I write this sentence, I’m sitting in the breakfast area of a La Quinta somewhere in Maryland. A couple of hotel employees are responsible for keeping the coffee urns full and the steam tables stocked with scrambled eggs and sausages. None of them are in my line of sight right now, and I realize I don’t know what race they are. To that extent, at least, I’ve been colorblind this morning.

I can do that, because whether they’re white or black or something else, they’re here to serve me.

Similarly, when Howard Schultz sits down with a stack of resumes, thinking about who Starbucks’ next CFO should be, he can decide to ignore race if he wants to. (But given that Philadelphia incident and the bad publicity that came with it, he probably shouldn’t. Some highly visible black face would do Starbucks some good right now.)

But think about what happened to John Crawford III. He was shopping in a Wal-Mart near Dayton, Ohio, when he picked a pellet gun off a shelf and began carrying it with him while he shopped (and talked on the phone). A white customer saw him and called 911, telling police that a black man was waving a gun around at Wal-Mart. (He wasn’t.) A few minutes later, a white policeman barked orders at a very confused Crawford, and then shot him dead when he didn’t respond fast enough, because the cop believed Crawford “was about to” raise the gun. (The officer wasn’t charged with any crime, kept his job, and went back to full field duty after the investigation was complete.)

Now imagine that you’re a black parent trying to raise a son. What will you tell him that Crawford did wrong there? What do you want your boy to do differently if he’s in a similar situation? I think you warn him that Crawford didn’t see color that day. He didn’t think: “There are white people in this store who expect black men to be dangerous.” He didn’t notice when white police walked into the store, and immediately assume they might be looking for him.

The white people in the Wal-Mart could choose to be colorblind if they wanted (though the guy who called 911 clearly wasn’t). John Crawford III couldn’t get away with making that choice.

Of course, you also tell your black son about Martin’s Dream. But you’re very careful to teach him not to lose sight of the difference between the Dream and the Reality. Confusing the two could get him killed.

4. Colorblind whites make bad allies. Think about the teacher and the warden I mentioned above. Racism is real in America, and you’re not going to be much use in mitigating it if you refuse to see it.

Most racism in America today tries not to draw attention to itself. It often pretends to be something else, and has a semi-plausible explanation of its actions. If you’re not paying close attention, you might not see through that explanation.

For example, during the Obama administration, the First Family was often faulted for doing things that white First Families had done without drawing criticism. Barack was photographed putting his feet up on a historic desk. Family vacations cost the taxpayers a lot of money because of the entourage that had to come along. The White House Christmas card didn’t display any religious themes. The White House is equipped and staffed to provide a posh lifestyle, as it has for decades.

Lots of people objected to this stuff without consciously thinking about race. It wasn’t that the Obamas were black, it’s that they were living wastefully or disrespecting some important American value. But somehow that disrespect didn’t register in the same way when the president was white.

In order to notice that kind of thing and address it appropriately, you need to see color. You need to be sensitive to the idea that racism constantly lurks in the background of American society, even when the foreground looks fine.

A lot of today’s racism is baked into the system, and doesn’t depend on any individual’s prejudice. The pipeline that sends black children to mostly segregated schools, funds those schools inadequately, criminalizes discipline, and channels students in the direction of prison — it operates with or without the racism of any particular teacher or principal or policeman or judge. If they all suddenly became colorblind, the system would continue to function.

5. Idealizing colorblindness gives cover to people who invoke it in bad faith. Trump has often claimed to be “the least racist person” — the least racist person you’ve met, ever interviewed, and so on. He has made that claim while trying to ban Muslims from entering the country, building a wall to keep out Hispanics, saying that neo-Nazis are “very fine people”, and pushing the baseless theory that the first black president wasn’t really an American.

He gets away with that, at least among certain segments of the electorate, because he doesn’t explicitly invoke color. This is a constant theme in conservative circles: If I don’t explicitly mention color, I’m not racist. On paper, the law has explicitly been colorblind since the 1960s. So racism effectively ended then — except for the affirmative action programs that disadvantage whites. Non-whites are still much poorer than whites, and are under-represented in elite schools, corporate boardrooms, and high-paying professions, while over-represented in prisons and poverty programs. But any attempt to remedy those problems can’t be colorblind, so they get tarred as “reverse racism”.

 

I’ll give the last word to Khalil Gibran Muhammad author of The Condemnation of Blackness,

If we’re going to do something differently in the 21st century than what was done in the 20th century, it’s going to take a whole lot more white people in everyday experiences to be anti-racist and to stand up for racial justice.

Not non-racist, anti-racist. And you can’t fight what you can’t see.

A Fishy Emergency Threatens the Republic

Friday morning, Trump declared a national emergency that he said would allow him to start building his wall by redirecting funds Congress has appropriated for other purposes. The speculation-to-action ratio has been particularly high since then, with political and legal experts giving conflicting views of what will happen next. Let me see if I can boil it down without adding to the confusion.

1. The declaration was made in bad faith. There is no national emergency on the southern border. Trump admitted as much: “I could do the wall over a longer period of time. I didn’t need to do this.”

As I explained two weeks ago (under the sub-head “and national emergencies”), the point of the national emergency process is to allow the President to respond to events that unfold too fast for Congress to take action. Whatever you think about the issues of immigration and smuggling on the Mexican border, they have been playing out over decades, and are less serious now than they have been at other times.

Congress has had plenty of time to consider appropriating money to build a wall, and has decided not to do it.

With no honest case to be made for either a national emergency or for circumventing Congress to build a wall, Trump once again gave a speech full of lies.

2. This is unlike any previous emergency declaration. As Trump rightly pointed out, presidents have declared national emergencies before (59 times since the National Emergencies Act was passed in 1976, according to Fox News’ Chris Wallace). But a national emergency declaration has never been used as a partisan weapon before. Wallace challenged Trump advisor Stephen Miller to “point to a single instance when the president asked Congress for money, Congress refused to give him that money and the president then invoked national emergency powers to get the money”. Miller could not answer.

A national emergency declaration has never been challenged in Congress or the courts before, but that’s because previous presidents have used them in uncontroversial ways, not because Trump is being specially persecuted by his opponents.

3. The money will be taken from more worthy projects. USA Today lists the sources.

$3.6 billion will come from a military construction fund, and White House officials admitted that “they did not yet know which military constructions might be cancelled or delayed by the move.” Military Times lists some possibilities:

a new vehicle maintenance shop at Camp Arifjan in Kuwait, drydock repairs at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii, F-35 hangar improvements at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, ongoing hospital construction at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, and new family housing builds in South Korea, Italy and Wisconsin.

Also: a middle school on an Army base in Kentucky. Lindsey Graham explained that “It’s better for the middle school kids in Kentucky to have a secure border.”

Another $2.5 billion will come from a Defense Department drug-interdiction program. So presumably it will be easier now to get drugs into the country by boat or plane. Trump’s bogus wall, which will do little to affect drug traffic, will squeeze out programs that actually catch drug smugglers.

4. Congress still has a chance to weigh in, but there’s a catch. As originally passed in 1976, the National Emergencies Act allowed what is known as a legislative veto: Congress could override the President’s declaration if both houses agreed to do so. This is, in fact, likely to happen. The Democratic House will pass a resolution against the emergency fairly easily, and the Republican Senate will probably follow suit. (In order to do so, all 47 Democrats and 4 Republicans will have to agree. Mitch McConnell can’t prevent the resolution from coming to the floor, and it can’t be filibustered.)

However, in 1983 the Supreme Court (in regard to a different law entirely) found legislative vetoes to be unconstitutional. As laid out in the Constitution, Congress passes laws and the President has an option to veto them. Congress can delegate its power to the President (as it did in the National Emergencies Act), but it can’t switch places with the President and give itself veto power over his decisions.

As a result, Congress can still undo the President’s declaration, but it requires a joint resolution, which is then subject to a presidential veto. A two-thirds majority of each house would then be necessary to override the President’s veto. This is currently considered unlikely, because not enough Republicans are willing to go against Trump.

So the most likely scenario goes like this: Congress passes a joint resolution against the emergency, the President vetoes it, and Congress fails to override the veto.

5. Then it’s up to the courts. Congress will sue on the grounds that its power of the purse has been usurped. States along the border will sue. Property owners whose land will be seized will sue. Some of those suits have already been filed. (Congress’ suit will probably wait until after its attempt to override the emergency declaration fails.) Then the courts will have to decide whether Trump’s emergency is legitimate.

Whatever conclusion you want to hear, I can point you to an expert who predicts it. Vox assembled 11 experts, and their responses amounted to: Judges shouldn’t OK this, but there’s just enough justification that they can if they want to.

The point of view most generous to Trump is that Congress screwed up when it passed the National Emergencies Act, so its power-of-the-purse is delegated, even if it shouldn’t be. The law doesn’t define “emergency”, but trusts the president not to abuse his power to declare one. Who knew we’d eventually have an untrustworthy president?

Some judges will feel that it’s not their job to second-guess Trump on this. That’s more-or-less how the Muslim Ban case came out. After the administration revised its first two obviously-unconstitutional Muslim bans, the third one passed muster — not because the 5-4 Supreme Court majority agreed with the bigoted pile of bullshit Trump used to justify it, but because five justices deferred to the president’s judgment and declined to examine the details.

As with the Muslim ban, this case hangs on the question of bad faith: How transparently faithless does the President have to be before a judge is obligated to notice?

The problem I have with the Congress-screwed-up view is that the original version of the law didn’t delegate this much power, because Congress retained the ability to override illegitimate emergencies. Now the President only needs one-third of one house to support him. So the Supreme Court changed something significant in the law when it rejected legislative vetoes.

So I would be tempted to make the same kind of argument that conservatives have made against the Affordable Care Act: The National Emergencies Act is a coherent whole, and you can’t invalidate the legislative veto while leaving the delegation-of-power intact. I haven’t heard anyone make that argument, so there must be some reason not to (aside from the fact that all of the currently active national emergencies become invalid, which might not be a bad thing).

6. And the people. This is something worth getting into the streets about. MoveOn has protests planned today, and no doubt there will be others soon.

If you live in a state or district represented by a Republican, you need to challenge your representative to defend the Republic. The expectation that Congress can’t override a veto is based on the idea that most Republicans will stand by Trump’s seizure of power. But if they hear from enough voters, they won’t.

7. Once again, conservatives in Congress and in the courts  will face a challenge: Will they support Trump, even at the expense of what was once considered a core conservative principle? Over the last several decades, much hot air has been blown about defending “the Constitution” and “the vision of the Founding Fathers”. It goes virtually without saying that neither the Constitution nor the Founders ever envisioned or endorsed a process like this: Congress refuses to fund a presidential project, the president seizes the money, both houses vote to condemn that seizure, but it goes through anyway.

Any congressional Republican who refuses to override Trump’s emergency declaration or his subsequent veto can never again claim to be a defender of the Constitution, and should never again be allowed to invoke the Founding Fathers without hearing about this betrayal of their vision. Any judge who allows this travesty to play out can likewise never in good conscience claim to be an “originalist” or “strict constructionist” rather than a partisan judicial activist.

8. There are hardly any core conservative principles left. Republican respect for the Constitution has been suspect at least since Mitch McConnell ignored President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland. The GOP’s claim on the Constitution further eroded when the Party decided to ignore the Emoluments Clause and let Trump profit from what are essentially bribes by foreign governments and the governments of the states. But it’s also worth considering the other conservative principles that have already fallen since Trump became the Republican Party’s nominee.

Republicans once claimed to care about the federal deficit, but they have allowed Trump to blow up the federal balance sheet in a completely unprecedented fashion. The record Bush/Obama deficit of FY2009 was a response to an economic catastrophe, but Trump’s deficits are approaching those levels in the late stages of an economic expansion, when the federal budget should be in its best shape. (President Clinton had a surplus during a comparable period.) The next recession, which is due to hit soon, will send deficits into territory never before seen.

Republicans once championed a global system of free trade, but now they stand for tariffs, presidential bullying of American corporations, and one-on-one negotiations with each country.

Republicans once were the advocates for rural America, but now Republican trade policies hit farmers harder than anyone.

Republicans claim their opposition to undocumented immigration stems from a belief in the rule of law, but they support Trump in violating our laws by refusing to let refugees turn themselves in at the border and ask for asylum.

Republicans once claimed to be the party of patriotism and freedom, and promoted Ronald Reagan’s vision of America as a “shining city on a hill”. Now they stand behind a president who is totally subservient to a Russian dictator, who shows no respect to the world’s other democracies, and instead expresses admiration and envy for brutal autocrats like China’s Xi, North Korea’s Kim, and the Philippines’ Duterte.

Republicans once styled themselves as the party of traditional family values, and (particularly during the Clinton administration) talked endlessly about the importance of a president’s character. Now they make excuses for Trump’s infidelity, corruption, sexual assaults, and shameless lying.

What ground is left for Republicans to stand on, other than bigotry against Hispanics, making the rich richer, and a naked desire to wield power?

Ralph Northam and the Limits of Forgiveness

Friday, a 35-year-old yearbook photo of Virginia’s Governor Ralph Northam exploded across the internet. The picture shows two men, one in blackface and the other wearing a KKK hood, on Northam’s page in the 1984 yearbook of the Eastern Virginia Medical School, where he was a student. Northam apologized for the photo, without saying which of the figures was him. Later, he said neither was, but that he had worn blackface to imitate Michael Jackson in a dance contest around the same time.

Immediately, there were calls for him to resign the governorship he won in 2017. By the weekend, they were coming from all the major Virginia Democrats, including Senators Kaine and Warner. So far, Northam has refused to resign, but he still may.

I admit to being torn about this. My initial reaction wasn’t that this was a resign-immediately offense. But being so out of step with most other Democrats makes me acutely aware of the limitations of my point of view. This is a moment where I am very conscious of being white. The photo wasn’t intended to offend me, so it’s easy for me to say, “It was a long time ago. Let’s accept his apology and move on.”

I’m also conscious of being old. I remember Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, who served in the Senate from 1959 until his death in 2010. Byrd was a member of the Democratic leadership in the Senate: majority leader from 1987-1989, and President pro Tempore of the Senate (next in line for the presidency after the Speaker of the House) from 2003-2007. In short, he was not some shameful figure the Democratic Party hid in the attic.

Byrd hadn’t just taken a photo dressed up as KKK (or next to somebody dressed up as KKK). In his youth, he actually was KKK.

In the early 1940s, Byrd recruited 150 of his friends and associates to create a new chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in Sophia, West Virginia.

How was that possible? Well, he changed.

In his last autobiography, Byrd explained that he was a KKK member because he “was sorely afflicted with tunnel vision—a jejune and immature outlook—seeing only what I wanted to see because I thought the Klan could provide an outlet for my talents and ambitions.” Byrd also said in 2005, “I know now I was wrong. Intolerance had no place in America. I apologized a thousand times … and I don’t mind apologizing over and over again. I can’t erase what happened.”

When he died, civil-rights hero Congressman John Lewis wrote a tribute calling Byrd “a true statesman“.

Not so long ago, change of that magnitude could be accepted. Late in his career, even famous segregationist George Wallace changed.

In the late 1970s, Wallace announced that he was a born-again Christian and apologized to black civil rights leaders for his past actions as a segregationist. He said that while he had once sought power and glory, he realized he needed to seek love and forgiveness. In 1979, Wallace said of his stand in the schoolhouse door: “I was wrong. Those days are over, and they ought to be over.” He publicly asked for forgiveness from blacks.

Now, it’s entirely possible that Wallace hadn’t changed at all: Maybe he had been an opportunist as a segregationist, and he was still an opportunist when he asked for forgiveness. The difference may not have been anything that happened in Wallace’s conscience, but the fact that by the late 1970s blacks were voting in large numbers. I don’t think we’ll ever really know.

And perhaps the people who accepted these sorts of conversions were also simply being pragmatic: In the Alabama and West Virginia of the late 20th century, just about every white person had some kind of racist past. A party that was too pure to reclaim them would give up any possibility of being a majority.

Maybe we’re past all that now. Maybe we can throw out all the whites who have any racism in their past, and still hope for a majority. Maybe we can also throw out all the men who have ever done anything sexist, and all the straights who have a history of homophobia. Maybe America has changed so much that a party of people who don’t need any forgiveness can be a majority now.

But I have to confess, I have my doubts about that.

I worry that we’re playing into Trump’s hands when we drum Ralph Northam out of the Democratic Party. As I interpret it, Trump’s message to wavering whites and men and straights goes something like this:

You’re never going to be pure enough to satisfy the liberals. So you might as well wear your MAGA hat and fly your Confederate flag, because no matter what you do, there’s never going to be a place for you on the other side.

I’m open to the idea that Ralph Northam can’t be governor any more. Virginians seem to be saying that, and ultimately it’s their decision. I also like the idea that there’s a clear difference between the parties: Democrats would never let a man become president who brags about his sexual assaults while claiming that his accusers are too unattractive to be worth assaulting.

But as we watch Northam leave the public stage, as I suspect he will, I hope that doesn’t end the discussion. We need to think hard about where the limits of forgiveness are and how one seeks it.

Because I don’t think we’re ever going to find enough pure people to form a majority.

Another Week in the Post-Truth Administration

Trump was angry that his intelligence chiefs had contradicted him on TV, until he convinced himself that it just hadn’t happened.


This week a bizarre drama played out. On Tuesday, the chiefs of the major intelligence agencies (CIA, FBI, NSA, DIA, and NGA, along with their overseer, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats) appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee in an open hearing that was televised live and accompanied by a 42-page report. The chiefs were all careful not to draw this conclusion in so many words, but the inescapable message of their testimony was that the world they see bears little resemblance to the one President Trump tweets about.

In the world where the intelligence chiefs live, the major threats the US faces come from Russia and China, who “are more aligned than at any point since the mid-1950s”. The security of our elections is a major vulnerability, and other hostile countries are learning from Russia’s interference in 2016. North Korea is not denuclearizing and isn’t likely to. ISIS hasn’t been eliminated. Iran hasn’t violated the nuclear agreement President Obama negotiated. And (as the NYT noted) the threat Trump shut down the government to oppose barely registers.

Notably missing in the written review was evidence that would support building a wall on the southwestern border; the first mention of Mexico and drug cartels was published nearly halfway through the report — following a range of more pressing threats.

The senators on the committee — including Chairman Richard Burr and other well-known Republicans like Marco Rubio — likewise seemed uninterested the so-called “national emergency” on our southern border. Each member of the committee had five minutes for questions. None asked the intelligence chiefs to comment on the need for a border wall.

Trump reacted with anger and belittlement on Wednesday, tweeting that the intelligence chiefs were “extremely passive and naive” and “wrong”; he  suggested that they “should go back to school“. His reaction raised a question that I don’t think has ever been answered: If Trump’s superior knowledge isn’t coming from the intelligence services, where does it come from? Does he just know, like an oracle, or does he have access to some more reliable source, like maybe Fox & Friends.

But by Thursday, it was all good again: Trump was now comfortable in the knowledge that the testimony we all saw didn’t really happen.

Just concluded a great meeting with my Intel team in the Oval Office who told me that what they said on Tuesday at the Senate Hearing was mischaracterized by the media – and we are very much in agreement on Iran, ISIS, North Korea, etc. Their testimony was distorted [by the] press. I would suggest you read the COMPLETE testimony from Tuesday. A false narrative is so bad for our Country. I value our intelligence community. Happily, we had a very good meeting, and we are all on the same page!

Think about how backwards this all is. If any of the intelligence chiefs actually had been misquoted or taken out of context by the media, you might expect the complaint to come from them, or perhaps from their agency’s spokesperson. Such a statement might point to a quote in the media, and then give a more accurate or more complete quote from the hearing’s transcript. Or if the quote had been accurate and the chief had simply misspoken, the agency could make a clearer statement of its actual assessment.

None of that happened. Instead, Trump simply announced that there had been no contradiction, blamed the media, and claimed without evidence that “the COMPLETE testimony” backed him up. He knows, of course, that no one in his base (and few people in general) will watch two-and-a-half hours of video to check up on him. To the MAGA-hatters, the incident is just another Trump-said/media-said conflict. The ultimate truth about it is unknowable, so they will take Trump at his word.

But if you do want to take Trump’s advice and watch the whole testimony, you can do it here or here. I have, and so has Vox’ Alex Ward, who characterized Trump’s tweet as a lie and summarized the major places where Tuesday’s testimony contradicted him. Even more damaging that the verbal testimony is the accompanying report, prepared under DNI Coats’ byline. You might imagine that even the director of an intelligence agency might mess up an answer to an unanticipated question. But written reports are drawn up carefully, weighing each word and phrase. Here are a few quotes (with the original emphasis):

On North Korea:

Pyongyang has not conducted any nuclear-capable missile or nuclear tests in more than a year, has declared its support for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and has reversibly dismantled portions of its WMD infrastructure. However, we continue to assess that North Korea is unlikely to give up all of its nuclear weapons and production capabilities, even as it seeks to negotiate partial denuclearization steps to obtain key US and international concessions. North Korean leaders view nuclear arms as critical to regime survival, according to official statements and regime-controlled media.

In his oral testimony, Director General Robert Ashley of the DIA said: “The capabilities and threats that existed a year ago are still there.” This directly contradicted Trump’s tweet that “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.”

Iran:

We continue to assess that Iran is not currently undertaking the key nuclear weapons-development activities we judge necessary to produce a nuclear device.

ISIS:

ISIS still commands thousands of fighters in Iraq and Syria, and it maintains eight branches, more than a dozen networks, and thousands of dispersed supporters around the world, despite significant leadership and territorial losses. The group will exploit any reduction in [counter-terrorism] pressure to strengthen its clandestine presence and accelerate rebuilding key capabilities,such as media production and external operations. ISIS very likely will continue to pursue external attacks from Iraq and Syria against regional and Western adversaries, including the United States. … ISIS remains a terrorist and insurgent threat and will seek to exploit Sunni grievances with Baghdad and societal instability to eventually regain Iraqi territory against Iraqi security forces that are stretched thin.

Climate change:

Global environmental and ecological degradation, as well as climate change, are likely to fuel competition for resources, economic distress, and social discontent through 2019 and beyond. Climate hazards such as extreme weather, higher temperatures, droughts, floods, wildfires, storms, sea level rise, soil degradation, and acidifying oceans are intensifying, threatening infrastructure, health, and water and food security. Irreversible damage to ecosystems and habitats will undermine the economic benefits they provide, worsened by air, soil, water, and marine pollution

Iraq:

Iraq is facing an increasingly disenchanted public. The underlying political and economic factors that facilitated the rise of ISIS persist, and Iraqi Shia militias’ attempts to further entrench their role in the state increase the threat to US personnel.

I’ll give the last word to Alex Ward:

As president, Trump has every right to make foreign policy decisions as he sees fit, and he’s not required to listen to what the US intelligence community tells him. Intelligence is meant to help him and his advisers make the smartest, best-informed decisions possible based on the facts. If Trump chooses to completely disregard those facts and make foreign policy decisions based solely on his gut instincts, that’s his prerogative.

But that doesn’t support his claim that the media willfully mischaracterized what his top spies said. What the intelligence community effectively showed, knowingly or not, is that Trump’s foreign policy isn’t based in reality. Trump’s scapegoating the media, in this case, won’t change that.