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A Legislative Agenda for House Democrats

Come January, Democrats will control the House of Representatives. Now what?

The obvious answer, of course, is investigate. There is no lack of stuff that needs looking into, beginning with the ways that Trump and his family have used his presidency to make money and continuing through a variety of abuses in the cabinet. Congressional hearings on climate change or on the bungled federal response to Hurricane Maria could bring important facts to the public’s attention. And I think it would be great if the public became aware of all the places American troops are stationed and the low-level conflicts they’re involved in. (When four soldiers died in Niger last year, we shouldn’t have all been scratching our heads about what they’d been doing there.) Unlike the Republican Congress under Obama, Democrats won’t need to manufacture conspiracy theories in order to keep their investigators and subcommittees busy.

But what about legislation? Obviously, the new Democratic House can’t make new laws on its own, but that shouldn’t stop it from passing bills that put an agenda in front of the public. The Republican House did this during the Obama years: It couldn’t repeal ObamaCare by itself, but it passed a series of ObamaCare-repeal bills to put itself on record, and to get repealing ObamaCare into the public debate.

The question is: What kind of agenda? One school of thought says to go big: Medicare for all, $15 minimum wage, and maybe a basic income guarantee. But I wouldn’t start there, for two reasons. First, Republicans would easily unite against those proposals, and enough red-state Democrats might blanch that they wouldn’t pass. I want to hear news reports about Democrats trying to do something in the public interest and Republicans blocking them, not about Democrats arguing with each other over how radical to be. And second, the public still needs to be convinced on those programs. (I know, there are polls saying people like Medicare for All at the slogan level. But an actual bill would have to raise the money to pay for it, and I’m not convinced its popularity would hold once it was coupled with tax increases.)

Instead of trying to sell the public on a progressive agenda, I would suggest gaining the public’s trust by passing bills the public already supports, ones Speaker Ryan and the Republican committee chairs have been blocking. Let’s not start by trying to convince the public to get on our side; let’s start by showing the public we’re on their side. If we do that — particularly if we propose things Trump or congressional Republicans have already paid lip service to — Republican senators will constantly be forced to explain why they aren’t getting on board.

So far that may sound too timid. But it actually leaves room for a fairly broad agenda.

A voting rights bill. As I’ll describe more fully in the next post, the Georgia governor’s election was a sad commentary on the state of American democracy. If Stacey Abrams does indeed lose, as seems likely at this point, there is a very good case that the governorship was stolen by Secretary of State Kemp, who had oversight over his own election and used it to his advantage.

Living in a mostly white, largely professional-class suburb of Boston, I was able to vote in ten minutes. My door-to-door time, including driving to and from the polling place, was about half an hour. But if you are poor or live in a neighborhood that is mostly non-white — especially if you find yourself in a state governed by Republicans — you probably had a very different experience.

Even Americans with partisan leanings usually retain a sense of fair play. (Republican officials like Brian Kemp don’t, but that’s a different issue.) It would be hard to explain opposition to a bill that put limits on voter purges, enforced standards about the number and distribution of polling places, and penalized states where people had to wait hours to vote. The Supreme Court threw out the part of the Voting Rights Act that forced historically racist states to pre-clear election-law changes with the Justice Department. But Chief Justice Roberts’ objections don’t apply if that penalty arises from current rather than historical behavior.

A campaign finance bill. Given how unlikely it is that the Senate would pass anything that limited the political power of the rich, you can argue that it’s silly to worry too much about how the Supreme Court would react to a campaign finance bill. Even so, the bill would have more credibility with the public if it took recent Court decisions into account. If it were obviously doomed in the courts, Mitch McConnell could label the whole effort “political theater” and feel justified in ignoring it.

Two provisions stand out as feasible: first, the DISCLOSE Act, a sunshine bill that would force PACs to reveal the source of their funds and corporations to disclose their political spending, ending the whole “dark money” phenomenon. The Supreme Court already anticipated this in the Citizens United decision. Justice Kennedy wrote:

With the advent of the Internet, prompt disclosure of expenditures can provide shareholders and citizens with the information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable for their positions and supporters. Shareholders can determine whether their corporation’s political speech advances the corporation’s interest in making profits, and citizens can see whether elected officials are “in the pocket” of so-called moneyed interests. The First Amendment protects political speech; and disclosure permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in a proper way. This transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.

Republicans in Congress, though, have blocked such bills in the past.

Second, a tax break to encourage small donations and discourage candidates from accepting big ones. Larry Lessig has proposed

a voucher system, where taxpayers would get a $50 tax refund and use it to donate to congressional candidates who agreed to opt in to the program: If they accepted the vouchers, the only other funds they could take would be individual contributions of $100 or less.

Because Lessig’s plan doesn’t stop rich individuals from donating, it should pass muster even among the money-is-speech justices. Maryland Rep. John Sarbanes has proposed the Government By the People Act to implement a small-donor matching system.

The DREAM Act. A broad majority of the public sympathizes with undocumented immigrants who were brought to the US as children, grew up here, and know no other country. President Obama exempted them from deportation and allowed them work permits in his Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) executive order, but Trump reversed that order in September, 2017. Courts have temporarily prevented the administration from ending DACA, but its ultimate fate depends on Congress.

The possible deportation of the DREAMers has been a political football ever since. Trump has essentially been holding them hostage, offering them legal status (usually without a path to citizenship) in exchange for Democrats giving in on the rest of his immigration agenda. Because Democrats have refused to pay this ransom, Trump blames them for whatever happens, as extortionists typically do. (“Nice family you got there. It’d be a shame if anything happened to it.”)

Passing a version of the DREAM Act (which has been kicking around since 2001 and was passed by the House in 2010) would lay things out clearly: Democrats want to do right by the Dreamers and Republicans don’t.

A government ethics bill. The most popular promise Trump has reneged on is to “drain the Swamp”. Quite the opposite, the Trump administration is the most overtly corrupt since … well, maybe the Grant administration. (Though President Grant himself seems to have been relatively honest and died almost penniless. He wrote his memoirs while dying of cancer in hopes of leaving his family enough to live on.)

Back in September, House Democratic #2 Steny Hoyer suggested what might be in such a bill:

To better police the ethics of elected officials, Hoyer said, Congress should require the president and vice president to make public their most five recent tax returns, ban House members from serving on corporate boards and require House members to link to their personal financial disclosure statements on their House websites. Hoyer also called for giving subpoena power to the Office of Government Ethics, which polices executive branch personnel.

I think it’s also important to slow down the “revolving door” between government and regulated industries. Formulating exact rules here is tricky, because people who leave either Congress or some executive-branch office need to be able to continue their careers somehow. But it’s unseemly for an individual to have power over an industry and then take a high-paying job inside it. (Both sides do this. When Eric Holder stopped being Obama’s attorney general, he went back to his previous law firm, which represents “many of the large banks Holder declined to prosecute for their alleged role in the financial crisis”.) Even when everyone involved has good intentions, the appearance of corruption undermines public confidence in government.

The Chris Collins case shows how low the bar currently is. Rep. Collins, a New York Republican who was re-elected Tuesday while under indictment, became the largest investor in Innate Immunotherapies, a company whose activities fell within the scope of a committee he served on, the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health. While continuing to serve on that subcommittee, he joined the company’s board of directors, and encouraged members of his family and other congressmen to buy its stock. All that was legal. He didn’t get into trouble until he used the inside information he got as a board member to warn his relatives to sell before certain bad news became public.

A health care bill. Health care was the main issue Democrats ran on. To a large extent, they pledged just to prevent bad things from happening: They’d block Republicans from cutting Medicare and Medicaid, and from further sabotaging ObamaCare.

But if that’s all they do, the public will have a right to feel disappointed. They should also do at least two positive things: pass a bill that would allow Medicare and Medicaid to negotiate drug prices with pharmaceutical companies, and lower health insurance premiums for millions of Americans by shoring up ObamaCare.

Trump campaigned on the drug-price-negotiation issue, and before taking office he accused pharmaceutical companies of “getting away with murder“. But while it would be false to say he had done nothing on this issue, his limited steps in this direction (which haven’t taken effect yet) mainly just mean that the companies will get away with fewer murders.

That’s not entirely his fault. When the Bush administration added prescription drug coverage to Medicare, the bill included a provision preventing the government from negotiating drug prices. Everything the current administration has done has to fit within that law. But Trump never pushed the Republican Congress to change that law, and it hasn’t.

If Democrats did repeal that provision, it would put both Trump and many Senate Republicans on the spot: You said you were for this, and here it is. Will you support it?

There’s also broad public agreement that ObamaCare subsidies aren’t big enough and taper off too quickly. For people just above the income cut-off for subsidies, the policies are still pretty expensive. Trump’s solution to this problem has been to re-introduce junk insurance: short-term policies aimed at healthy people. In the long run, these plans create more problems than they solve: If people on temporary insurance do turn up expensive long-term health problems, they’ll quickly find themselves in trouble. And draining healthy people out of the ObamaCare system raises premiums for those who have to stay.

But rejecting Trump’s solution doesn’t mean that Democrats should ignore the problem that makes many lower-middle-class people like the junk-insurance option. A Democratic health care bill should expand the ObamaCare subsidies to put the “affordable” back in the Affordable Care Act.

Where should the money come from? How about helping Trump implement another one of the campaign promises he seems to have forgotten: cutting tax loopholes that only the very rich can take advantage of. The poster child of plutocratic tax breaks is the carried interest loophole, which allows hedge fund managers to treat ordinary income like capital gains. Trump campaigned against it, but his big tax bill did nothing to change it.

That’s a pattern. The tax code is more riddled than ever with breaks for the very wealthy. Democrats should target a bunch of them and say: “This is how we can afford to lower health insurance premiums.”

A gun control bill. A fairly short and simple bill could collect proposals that are already popular with the public and have been implemented already in some states: universal background checks, an assault weapon ban, and a ban on high-capacity magazines.

LGBTQ rights. Nancy Pelosi has already promised a high priority to the Equality Act, which would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of protected characteristics in existing federal civil rights legislation. The Religious Right is already huffing and puffing about this, but I don’t think they represent a majority of the public.

An infrastructure bill. Another unfulfilled Trump campaign promise was a trillion-dollar plan to create jobs by rebuilding the nation’s public infrastructure, which everyone agrees could use the upgrade. After considerable delay, what he finally proposed was largely smoke and mirrors: a “framework” whose details were never filled in. He crowed that it would lead to $1.5 trillion in infrastructure spending, but it contained only $200 billion in federal money, spread over ten years; the rest was supposed to come from state/local governments and the private sector.

There were two immediate problems:

Democrats were skeptical of what the public/private partnerships might give away: Do we really want our public infrastructure winding up in the hands of private corporations? (Picture the interstate highway system working like cable TV.) The framework’s proposal to “streamline” and “shorten” the permitting process by removing “regulatory barriers” might simply be a way to gut federal environmental protections.

In short, the idea that there’s a deal to be made here seems naive. Yes, Trump and the Democrats both want new infrastructure, but as soon as you add any details at all, there’s not much overlap in their visions.

So House Democrats should act as if Trump’s framework never existed, and should propose a plan of direct federal spending on infrastructure. Where should the money come from? If the Senate has already shelved the ObamaCare plan mentioned above, Democrats could re-use the plutocratic tax breaks I talked about then.

But there is a bolder plan that also makes sense (even if it does violate some of the principles I discussed at the top): tie infrastructure spending to a carbon tax.

 

In short, while bolder initiatives are always possible, there is low-hanging fruit that can be picked first. The stump speeches of conservative politicians like Sarah Palin often invoke the phrase “common sense solutions”. Passing the proposals I’ve listed, I think, would do a lot to take that phrase back.

An hour-by-hour guide to Election Night 2018

[A general overview of the elections is in the previous post.]

Because states close their polls at different times and count the votes at different rates, Election Night always produces the illusion of a horse race. You could just go to bed early tomorrow night and find out Wednesday what happened. The information that trickles out minute-by-minute is not actually useful to you.

But lots of us love a good horse race, and many of the rest of us won’t be able to sleep well until we know how the important races come out. So I’m going to a returns-watching party, and I suspect many of you will be glued to your TV sets as well. Here’s what to look for hour by hour.

Before 7 p.m.

[All times are Eastern Standard. You can do the math to adjust for where you live.]

No polls close before 6, and no entire state closes its polls before 7. So by common agreement, none of the networks will report their exit polls or project any races before 7. The only point in turning on your TV before 6 is if you’re just too anxious to do anything else.

If you do tune in, though, you can sometimes glean a little information indirectly. The commentators have been getting exit poll results all day, and while they can’t tell you what those results say, they aren’t obligated to say anything that will make them look stupid when the results start coming out. So if they’re having a what-if conversation, like “What if young voters do (or don’t) turn out in record numbers?” chances are that will turn out to mean something. Commentators will be trying to lay down some themes that they expect the election results to fill out.

You will also hear some “party officials are worrying about X” comments. (One of the first signs things were going badly for Democrats in 2016 was when I heard a Democrats-are-worried-about-black-turnout-in-Cleveland conversation.) Officials are worried because they’ve seen something to worry about.

At 6 EST, the first results will come in from the eastern-time-zone parts of Kentucky and Indiana. Maybe you’ll find out something about the Indiana Senate race, which supposedly is leaning towards Democrat Joe Donnelly. But unless you know a lot about Indiana, those early returns won’t tell you too much, because exit polls can’t be released until the central-time-zone parts of those states close their polls at 7.

7 p.m.

Polls close in Indiana, Kentucky, Georgia, South Carolina, Vermont, and Virginia.

There’s no chance that control of Congress will be decided before California closes its polls at 11, and if there are a lot of close races it may take much longer. So in general, what you’re looking for in the early results is the unexpected: A close race that wasn’t supposed to be close, or an surprisingly easy win somewhere. Early elections are linked in some probabilistic way to later elections, so a surprise that favors one party or the other is a sign that surprises might keep favoring that party for the rest of the evening.

You’re also looking for trends in the state exit polls that might turn out to be national trends: Did young people vote? Are Hispanics turning out? Are women outvoting men?

The only really close Senate race in this bunch is in Indiana. Probably it won’t be clear for hours who won, but if it is, the winning party is off to a good start.

Virginia has two toss-up House races: Brat vs. Spanberger in VA-7 and Riggleman vs. Cockburn in VA-5. Those could be bellwethers for the country. In VA-10, Democrat Jennifer Wexton is expected to knock off incumbent Republican Barabara Comstock. That might be the first good news of the evening.

Kentucky-6, Andy Barr against Amy McGrath, is also rated a toss-up. As I explained in the previous post, Democrats can take the House (barely) without winning any toss-ups. But this would be a nice one to get. Georgia-6, where Republican Karen Handel won a close special election last year, is also a toss-up.

One of the most interesting governor races in the country is Abrams vs. Kemp in Georgia. That race has been all about race, so the election hinges on who actually votes. Big turnout, especially big turnout among blacks, favors Abrams.

7:30 p.m.

Polls close in North Carolina, Ohio, and West Virginia.

It’s interesting that a swing state like Ohio has no toss-up House races, a sign that districts are drawn badly. West Virginia’s three districts are all predicted to go for Republicans. North Carolina-9, Harris vs. McCready, is a toss-up.

In the West Virginia, Joe Manchin is expected to hang on to one of the Democrats’ most improbable Senate seats. If he doesn’t, the slim hopes of Democrats winning a Senate majority are pretty much finished.

Ohio has a competitive governor’s race, with just the slightest of edges to Democrat Richard Cordray.

8 p.m.

This is when things get serious. Polls close in Alabama, Connecticut, Delaware, D.C., Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Tennessee.

Claire McCaskill’s Senate seat in Missouri is one the Democrats need if they’re going to have any chance of a Senate majority. Democratic wins in the Mississippi or Tennessee Senate races would be upsets, but Democrats need an upset somewhere. New Jersey is a solidly blue state this year, but Senator Bob Menendez has had a long series of near-misses with corruption scandals. He’s expected to win, but the race will be much closer than it should be.

Several interesting House races are in this batch. Maine-2 has been an expensive battle that seems to be leaning to Democrat Jared Golden. A court-ordered redistricting has partially ungerrymandered Pennsylvania, giving Democrats several chances to pick up Republican seats. The toss-up is PA-1, with polls giving a slight advantage to the Republican. In PA-17, Conor Lamb, who won a special election last year, is up against another incumbent, Keith Rothfus. Lamb is expected to win.

IL-6, MI-7 are toss-ups.

8:30 p.m.

Arkansas closes its polls. The four House seats and the governorship are all expected to go to Republicans. No Senate race.

9 p.m.

Polls close in Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Mexico, South Dakota, Texas, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

By now the shape of the evening should be coming into focus. Either there’s a Democratic rout going on in the House and the Senate is a nail-biter for Republicans, or it’s pretty clear Republicans will hang onto the Senate and the House is going to go down to the wire.

The close Senate races are in Arizona and Texas. Beto upsetting Ted Cruz is considered unlikely, but if it happens it’s the story of the night. Kansas and Wisconsin have close governors’ races.

MN-1, NEB-2, NM-2, and TX-7 are toss-up House races.

10 p.m.

Iowa, Montana, Nevada, Utah.

Montana’s and Nevada’s Senate races are ones the Democrats need to have. In Iowa-4, Congress’ closest thing to an open white nationalist, Steve King, is expected to be re-elected. But he’s gotten bad publicity late, so you never know.

11 p.m.

North Dakota, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Oregon, Washington.

If it’s a good night for Democrats and the Senate is still in play, it probably comes down to Heidi Heitkamp’s seat in North Dakota.

If Republicans are doing better than expected, control of the House will probably hinge on CA-39 and CA-48. California has a lot of mail-in ballots that only need to be postmarked by Election Day, so these races could be in doubt into next week.

1 a.m.

Alaska.

If Don Young’s seat in Alaska is in doubt, odds are the Democrats have already nailed down the House.

Past 1 a.m.

At this point all the votes have been cast and all the exit polls published. We just have to wait for the counting. Probably either the House or the Senate (but probably not both) will be in doubt well into the wee hours.

How the Midterm Elections Look With One Day to Go

The most important figure in tomorrow’s election is actually not on the ballot. No matter what happens, Wednesday morning Trump will still be president. This election isn’t about getting rid of Trump, it’s about controlling him. If Democrats get the majority in  one or both houses of Congress, the country will finally get some of the checks-and-balances that the Founders thought they had written into our Constitution.

Getting rid of Trump will still depend either on the 2020 elections, or on turning up evidence of impeachable offenses so compelling that more than a dozen Republican senators will be convinced.

The Senate

Republicans currently have a 51-49 majority. Tomorrow 35 seats are up for election, so on the surface you’d think it wouldn’t be that hard for Democrats to flip two seats and take control. (They need two, because Vice President Pence casts the deciding vote in a 50-50 Senate.)

However, 26 of the contested seats already belong to Democrats, so even if they hold all those, they have to flip 2 of the 9 Republican seats. It’s a tall order. (“Why did things shake out that way?” you might wonder. That’s because 2006 — when the public finally turned against the Iraq War — was a huge Democratic year, when Democrats like Claire McCaskill in Missouri and Jon Tester in Montana won seats in very red states. 2012 was Obama’s re-election year, so they managed to hold onto those seats. 2010 and 2014, by contrast, were strong years for Republicans.)

538 gives Democrats only a 1 in 6 chance of pulling this off. Here’s how it rates the individual races:

  • 18 are solid for Democrats, meaning the Democrat has at least a 95% chance to win.
  • 4 (Smith in Minnesota, Tester in Montana, Menendez in New Jersey, Manchin in West Virginia) are likely Democratic wins, with a win likelihood over 75%.
  • 3 (Nelson in Florida, Donnelly in Indiana, McCaskill in Missouri) lean Democratic, with a 60% or better win probability.
  • 2 (Sinema in Arizona, Rosen in Nevada) are toss-ups, though in each case the Democrat has a slight edge.

Already, winning all of those at the same time seems unlikely. If each race were independent of the others, for example, winning all four of the “likely” seats would only be about a 2 out of 3 bet. All three leaning seats together would be less than 1 in 3, and the two toss-ups together would be 1 in 4. (Actual combined probabilities are quite a bit higher than that, because the races are not independent rolls of the dice. As we saw with Trump’s victory in 2016, the party that wins close races in one state is more likely to win close races in another.)

Worse, all those seats together add up to just 27. In order to take control of the Senate, Democrats would need an upset in the only lean-Republican seat: North Dakota, where incumbent Democrat Heidi Heitkamp has only a 25% chance of hanging on. If she can’t pull that off, Democrats need one of the likely-Republican seats:

  • Beto O’Rourke in Texas (23%)
  • Phil Bredesen in Tennessee (20%)
  • Mike Espy in Mississippi (12%)

Unless at least one of those longshots comes in, Republicans hold control of the Senate. (Again, the races aren’t independent, which is how the odds for a Democratic majority can be as high as 1 in 6.)

The House

Democrats gaining control of the House is a much more doable job. All 435 seats in the House of Representatives are in play. Republicans currently have a 235-193 majority, with 7 seats vacant. Of the vacancies, two were formerly Democratic and five Republican. So you will sometimes hear that in order to gain a majority Democrats need to pick up 23 seats (if you count two of the vacancies as Democratic seats) or 25 seats (if you don’t).

In order to get a majority (218 out of 435), Democrats need only win the seats 538 rates as leaning their way:

  • 193 solid Democratic
  • 17 likely
  • 10 leaning

That adds up to 220. In addition, there are 18 toss-ups and 13 lean-Republican seats within range. Overall, that gives Democrats a 7 in 8 chance of winning the House. If everything breaks in their favor, they could have as large a majority as the Republicans have now.

House races, though, are unlikely to all go according to script. First, there are just so many of them that some longshot candidate is going to win somewhere. And second, House races aren’t polled as aggressively as Senate races, so some last-minute local factors could be overlooked. Somewhere, a district the media stopped paying attention to months ago is going to produce an upset.

As I’ll discuss in the hour-by-hour guide (the next post), you want to watch for toss-up or leaning seats in states where the polls close early. That will give the first indication of whether this is going to be a nail-biter or an easy Democratic win.

Governorships and state legislatures

If Democrats gain some governorships and control of some state legislatures, they’ll have a chance to undo the extreme gerrymandering that allows Republicans to maintain minority rule. (Last year, Democrats outpolled Republicans by 9% in the elections for the Virginia House of Delegates. But Republicans kept control.)

State government becomes more important as the federal government stops protecting civil rights and the environment. And if the now-more-conservative-than-ever Supreme Court overturns Roe v Wade, whether a woman can get an abortion may be up to the states.

Governors are being elected in 36 states, and at least some legislators are being elected in every state. 538 expects Republicans to win slightly more states (winding up with 26 governorships), but Democrats to wind up governing a larger percentage of the population (62%).

The closest races are in Iowa, Nevada, Ohio, Georgia, and Kansas. The two most interesting races, to me anyway, are Georgia and Florida, where Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum have a chance to be their states’ first black governors. (Abrams would be the first black woman governor in any state.) Abrams’ race is leaning towards her opponent, while 538 gives Gillum a 76% chance to win. Personally, I will find it very satisfying if Wisconsin finally boots out Koch puppet Scott Walker, which is the way the race is leaning.

As for state legislatures, I don’t know what to tell you, since there are very few published polls.

Ballot propositions

538 has a good rundown of the most important ones.

In general, ballot propositions cause more problems than they solve. There’s a reason we elect representatives who can focus on the issues full-time, rather settle everything by direct democracy. But in states that are heavily gerrymandered, or where running for office requires the kind of money you can only get from special interests, a ballot proposition might be the only way for the majority to make its will felt.

Michigan is one of those heavily-gerrymandered states.

Last year, Michigan Democrats won more overall votes for state House than Republicans. It was by a whisper, about half of one percentage point. But Democrats got walloped in the race that counts, as the GOP swept 63 of 110 seats.

Proposition 2 would create a non-partisan commission to draw districts for both the legislature and Michigan’s congressional districts. The commission would be given strict criteria to meet. Other anti-gerrymandering proposals are on the ballot in Colorado, Utah, and Missouri.

Given the racial biases in our justice system and the correspondingly high incarceration rate for non-whites, one way to make sure whites hold onto political power as long as possible is to keep felons from voting, even after they have served their sentences. Florida is one of the worst states for this form of voter suppression, with 10% of the voting-age population disenfranchised. Amendment 4 would give felons back their voting rights after their sentences end, except for murderers and sex offenders. (Yes, that is the proposition John Oliver was telling you about.)

Nevada, Maryland, and Michigan have propositions that would make it easier to register to vote, while Arkansas and North Carolina would make it harder to vote by requiring a photo ID.

A California proposition would repeal a number of gas taxes. A Washington proposition would create a carbon tax. Arizona’s Prop 127 would force utilities to get half their power from renewable energy by 2030.

Idaho, Nebraska, and Utah all have propositions to expand Medicaid.

Here in Massachusetts, the proposition I care most about is #3, which would protect transgender rights. I’m for it.

Why I’m Voting Straight Democratic

I’m definitely voting. But if you’re willing to run under the banner of today’s Republican Party, I can’t vote for you.


I didn’t used to be like this.

Only a few years ago, I was a meticulous voter. I’d examine each race and think hard about the individual candidates, looking for the best combination of personal character and positions on the important issues. There was a time when if I didn’t know anything about the candidates for some down-ballot office, I might leave that line blank, figuring that better-informed people should make the choice.

I don’t do that any more. Tomorrow I’m going to vote a straight Democratic ticket, including voting for and against candidates I’ve never heard of. If not for the ballot questions — I’m still meticulous about them — I’d be in and out of the voting booth in seconds.

It’s not that I think the Democratic Party is perfect. I expect that most of the Democrats I vote for will be good public servants, and will mostly promote policies I agree with. But some of the rest, I’m sure, will simply be the lesser evil. I’ve made my peace with that. I just know that they are the best hope to defeat Republicans, and Republicans need to be defeated. I can’t vote for Republicans any more.

That wasn’t always true. In my first presidential election, 1976, voting for Jerry Ford over Jimmy Carter was a real option, because I expected the country to be in decent hands no matter who won. (I dithered between the two before eventually picking a third party candidate.) Decades ago, when I was living in Massachusetts the first time, I voted for Bill Weld to be governor. He seemed like a straightforward, honest, intelligent guy. Eventually I even developed the rule-of-thumb that I would default to the Republican if I didn’t know who to vote for, figuring that only a really good Republican could win in my liberal district. When I moved to more conservative New Hampshire, I flipped that reasoning and defaulted to Democrats.

But now that I’m back in liberal Massachusetts, I’m not voting Republican for any office, no matter how trivial. In any state in the Union, I would do the same.

Have I changed? Not nearly so much as the Republican Party has. Today’s Republicans are not like the Republicans of the past, even the recent past. Today, the GOP is the party of climate change denial, discrimination against gays, gerrymandering, and baseless conspiracy theories. It’s the party that opposes the minimum wage, the party that cuts rich people’s taxes and then goes after middle-class Medicare when their tax cut creates an artificial budget crisis. (The middle-class tax cut Trump promised last week is vaporware: There is no such proposal, and once the election is over you will never hear about it again, except possibly as a cover story for another handout to the rich.)

Even worse, today’s Republican Party is a comfortable home for white supremacist fellow travelers like Rep. Steve King of Iowa. Open racists like David Duke or Richard Spencer endorse Republicans. White supremacist groups campaign for Republicans. If you want to spread anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, you go to the networks and web sites that Republicans frequent. If you’re an abuser of women, Democrats will probably throw you out, but Republicans will circle the wagons around you. If you favor something as offensive to human compassion as the death penalty for gays, Republicans will embrace you.

If you are happy carrying that party’s banner, I can’t vote for you.

And then there’s Trump. (I covered in detail what I think of Trump last week.) Back in 1990, They Might Be Giants recorded a song that starts like this:

This is where the party ends.
I can’t stand here listening to you
And your racist friend.

To me, racist is a stand-in for all sorts of bigoted positions: anti-immigrant, anti-Hispanic, sexist, homophobic, anti-Muslim, and just generally anti-everybody-who’s-not-a-white-straight-Evangelical-Christian. For every Republican candidate in the country, Trump is the bigoted friend that they can tolerate, but I can’t. For me, that’s where the party ends.

Your local Republican candidate might sound fairly reasonable from time to time. Lots of Republicans do: Paul Ryan occasionally tut-tuts when Trump says something particularly ridiculous or odious. Jeff Flake and Bob Corker have spoken up now and then. (And both retired from the Senate when they realized that even their minimal criticisms had excommunicated them from the Trump personality cult the GOP has turned into. As Flake put it: “There may not be a place for a Republican like me in the current Republican climate or the current Republican Party.”)

But in practical terms, what has any Republican official done to stand in Trump’s way? 538 models how often you’d expect a senator to vote with Trump, given Trump’s electoral margin in his or her state. Flake was actually considerably more likely to vote with Trump than the model predicted, and Susan Collins even moreso. What have any of them done to fight back, and reclaim their party for reasonable conservatism?

When push comes to shove, elected Republicans have all gotten in line behind Trump. Sometimes they’ve made a big public show of how hard the decision was (like Susan Collins supporting Trump’s tax cut, or Collins and Flake voting to elevate Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court), but they’ve gotten in line. They’ve blocked congressional investigations of collusion with Russia or any other administration wrongdoing, and they’ve harassed any Justice Department investigations that Trump found inconvenient. Cabinet-level malefactors like Ryan Zinke rest easy knowing that Republicans in both houses of Congress have their back.

Rather than stand up for the principles they used to claim, Republicans who ought to know better have drunk the Kool-Aid. Ted Cruz is now embracing the man who insulted his wife and accused his father of conspiring to assassinate JFK. Lindsey Graham once understood that Trump is a “race-baiting xenophobic religious bigot”. Now he’s the most rabid of Trumpists, frothing at the mouth to defend Brett Kavanaugh and offering unconstitutional legislation to back Trump’s plan to end birthright citizenship.

I’ll just sit here wondering how you
can stand by your racist friend.

The only conservatives who have consistently held their ground against Trump are writers rather than politicians: Michael Gerson, George Will, Max Boot. All of them have urged their readers to vote for Democrats this time around. Boot writes:

Some Republicans in suburban districts may claim they aren’t for Trump. Don’t believe them. Whatever their private qualms, no Republicans have consistently held Trump to account. They are too scared that doing so will hurt their chances of reelection.

Friday, Jennifer Rubin wrote:

The midterm elections have therefore become all about Trump, about whether he’s “winning” or “paying a price” for his descent into rancor, racism and misogyny. Suddenly the real “values voters” are those who care deeply about values such as kindness, democracy, rationality and respect. If they show up and vote their values, Republicans are in big trouble.

Finally, you can see the difference between the parties in the closing arguments they are making as the election approaches: Democrats are talking about making your health insurance more secure, particularly if you’re on Medicare or have a pre-existing condition. They’re talking about student debt, climate change, voting rights, and protecting the civil rights of those whose rights are actually in question: women, racial minorities, and the LGBTQ community.

Republicans, by contrast, are closing with an issue that is almost entirely imaginary: the “threat” posed by several thousand migrants fleeing the violence of Honduras. Many of the caravaners are women and children, and the Pentagon believes most of them will never get here. Far from an “invasion”, the expressed intention of the much-hyped caravan is to surrender to US officials and ask for the asylum hearings that both international and American law promise them. (Instead, Trump is offering them a glittering symbol of the new MAGA Republic: “Barbed wire used properly,” he assures his cultists, “can be a beautiful sight.”)

There is no military issue whatsoever, so Trump’s dispatch of 5,000 (or is it 15,000?) troops to the border is pure theater — theater that will waste soldiers’ time and could cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. The conspiracy theories that Trump is using to justify this stunt have already inspired domestic terrorists like the MAGA mail bomber and the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter.

If that’s what you like — imaginary crises, conspiracy theories, money flowing from the middle class to the rich, race-baiting, voter suppression, abuse of women, and an ever more vigorous and violent white-supremacist movement — then vote Republican. You’re sure to get more of it.

But if that’s not what you want out of government, then the Republican Party as it stands today must fall. Voters need to reject it root and branch.

12 Things to Remember Before You Vote

Since Inauguration Day, we’ve been dealing with a faster news cycle than we’ve seen before. Again and again, we see some news story and think: “This changes everything. I’ll never forget about this.” But in a few days there’s something else, the media focus shifts, and last week’s incredible story seems like ancient history. “Are you still going on about that?”

It’s worth remembering how strange this is, and what a shift it marks since the Obama administration. While Fox News and its ilk never lacked for some story they could manufacture outrage over — Obama put his feet on a White House desk, he saluted while holding a latte, Michele wore a sleeveless dress — really outrageous things were rare.

And so they were remembered. President Obama’s claim “If you like your health insurance you can keep it” stuck in everyone’s mind, because he so seldom cut corners on the truth. (For what it’s worth: I liked my health insurance and I kept it.) Benghazi conspiracy theories hung on forever, because so little else happened that Obama-haters could base a good conspiracy theory on. (A few months ago, I saw a guy wearing a “Benghazi: We will never forget” t-shirt. I had to wonder whether the things he will never forget about Benghazi actually happened.)

But as one Trump scandal after another vanishes down the memory hole, it takes some effort to remember things that at the time seemed unforgettable. (As I compiled this list, I kept having an “Oh yeah, that happened” response.) It’s even harder to sort out the really important things from the overhyped distractions: NFL players kneeling, Stormy Daniels, the immigrant caravan, and so on.

But when it comes time to play our role as voters, we need to remember, and we need to make sure that other people remember.

So here’s my list of the most outrageous, most objectionable things that have happened since Republicans took control of the White House and both houses of Congress. In compiling it, I have tried to avoid listing actions (like pulling out of the Paris Agreement or cutting rich people’s taxes) that I simply disagreed with because I am more liberal that President Trump. I’ve also left out times where he did something he had promised to do in the campaign, even if I consider it reprehensible.

Instead, I’m looking for violations of what previous administrations (of both parties) would have regarded as universal American values. They happen fairly regularly, but each seems to push the previous ones out of our memories.

1. Kids in Cages.

From some time in April until late June, the administration carried out a “zero tolerance” policy at the border with Mexico. According to Wikipedia:

The policy involved prosecuting all adults who were detained at the U.S.–Mexico border, sending the parents to federal jails, and placing children and infants under the supervision of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. According to government officials, the policy led to the separation of almost 3,000 children from their parents.

Many of these families had done nothing wrong: Seeking asylum is legally protected under both international law and US law. (Trump refers to these laws as “loopholes”.) Many who came to legal entry points trying to turn themselves in and claim asylum were turned away, forcing them to turn themselves in to border agents after crossing illegally. Texas Monthly discussed the problem with Anne Chandler of the Children’s Border Project:

TM: So if you cross any other way besides the bridge, we’re prosecuting you. But . . . you can’t cross the bridge.

AC: That’s right. I’ve talked to tons of people. There are organizations like Al Otro Lado that document border turn-backs. And there’s an effort to accompany asylum seekers so that Customs and Border Patrol can’t say, “We’re closed.” Everybody we’ve talked to who’s been prosecuted or separated has crossed the river without a visa.

By June, public outrage had forced the administration to stop routinely separating families. But HHS and the Justice Department never acknowledged that they had done anything wrong or had created a problem they needed to fix. Whatever corrective action HHS has taken has always been carried out under court order and with a lot of foot-dragging.

On July 26, responding to an ACLU class action lawsuit, a federal judge ordered all separated children, except where not appropriate, be reunited with their parent within 30 days.[19][20] On July 26, the Trump administration said that 1,442 children had been reunited with their parents while 711 remained in government shelters. Officials said they will work with the court to return the remaining children, including 431 parents of those children who have already been deported without their children.[21] As of August 20, 528 of the children — about a fifth — have still not been reunited with their parents.

A number of the children the government regards as “discharged” have been released to a sponsor in the US, rather than reunited with the families they were stolen from.

As Adam Serwer observed in The Atlantic, the cruelty of this policy is the point. Jeff Sessions may call it “deterrence” that will prevent other people from trying to come here, but that’s just a fancy language for describing cruelty: Don’t come here, because if you do we’ll take your children away.

Recently, Trump has discussed implementing a new family-separation policy:

One option weighed by the administration, as reported by the Post: Migrant families seeking asylum can be detained for up to 20 days, at which point they must decide whether to stay together in detention waiting for their cases to proceed or choose separation. This would involve children being transferred to a government shelter so other family members could claim custody.

Federal officials believe this can be done legally.

The ACLU disagrees:

“The government need not, and legally may not, indiscriminately detain families who present no flight risk or danger,” ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt said in an email to the Post. “It is deeply troubling that this Administration continues to look for ways to cause harm to small children.”

2. Putting Russia first in Helsinki.

In July, the Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki was a huge propaganda triumph for the Russian president. Trump appeared to balance the unanimous conclusion of the US intelligence agencies (that Russia interfered in the 2016 elections to help Trump) against Putin’s word, and came down in favor of Putin.

My people came to me, Dan Coats came to me and some others, they said they think it’s Russia. I have President Putin; he just said it’s not Russia. I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be. … I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.

It wasn’t just that Trump has a blind spot about his own election. In what CNN’s John King called “the surrender summit“, Trump also failed to confront Putin about his interference in European elections (including Brexit) or with any of Russia’s other bad behavior: the annexation of Crimea, fomenting a proxy war in eastern Ukraine, assassinating critics in the UK, or propping up the brutal Assad regime in Syria, just to name a few.

Instead of calling out Putin for his violations of international laws and standards, Trump said US/Russia relations are in a bad place because “we’ve all been foolish”. Trump described a Putin proposal that would have let Russian intelligence interrogate US officials (like former ambassador Mike McFaul) as “an incredible offer”. (The Senate rejected it 98-0.) In an interview with Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, Trump worried about the “aggressive people” of tiny Montenegro, a NATO ally, provoking Russia into war.

Writing in The Washington Post, Julia Ioffe put her finger on the root problem: Trump has let Putin shape his picture of reality.

It’s possible to argue about why the American president has become a mouthpiece for Russian propaganda: Does Putin have kompromat on him? Is it because his real estate empire depends on Russian money? Is he still angling to build Trump Tower Moscow?

But the reason barely matters compared to the result: When the President of the United States speaks about issues Russia cares about, more often than not what comes out of his mouth is Russian propaganda. “America First” has turned into “Russia First”.

3. The Very Fine Nazis in Charlottesville.

Trump has told reporters he is “the least racist person you have ever interviewed“. But his denials have never convinced one very important group of people: white supremacists, who are quite sure that the president is on their side. That’s why he was endorsed by former KKK grand wizard David Duke, and why Richard Spencer led a Nazi-saluting crowd in a chant of “Hail Trump! Hail victory!” after the 2016 election. It’s wrong to claim that all Trump supporters are white racists, but just about all white racists are Trump supporters.

Emboldened by Trump’s 2016 victory, a coalition of Nazis, white supremacists, Neo-Confederates, and other alt-right groups formerly considered to be on the fringes of conservative politics decided to make a big public splash in Charlottesville, Virginia in August, 2017.

In classic storm-trooper style, they held a torchlight parade Friday evening, where they chanted slogans like “Jews will not replace us“, “blood and soil“, and “Hail Trump!“. Men with AR-15s ominously hung around outside a synagogue.

The violence of Friday night culminated Saturday afternoon, when a rally participant rammed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing Heather Heyer (the only fatality of the weekend) and injuring 19 others.

Trump responded to this spectacle by pushing the organizers’ cover story: that the rally was really about a Robert E. Lee statue that Charlottesville wants to move to a less prominent spot. (The parallel with #2, where he uncritically repeated Putin’s propaganda, is worth noting.) After looking at the pre-rally posters and the line-up of speakers, Robert Tracinski at The Federalist begs to differ:

this was a Nazi march from the beginning, planned by Nazis, for Nazis. As to whether any hapless moderates strolled in there thinking this was just about the statue—well, I live in this area and used to be active in the local Tea Party group. I know people who are not white nationalists who oppose the removal of the statues based on high-minded ideas about preserving history. None of them were there, and if they had been, they would have bolted the moment they saw a bunch of guys with torches chanting “Blood and soil.”

“Very fine people”, Trump assured the country, were on “both sides”. And “both sides” were responsible for the violence, even though only one side had somebody wind up dead.

4. Alternative facts.

The Trump administration started with a bang. In his first meeting with the White House press corps, Press Secretary Sean Spicer berated reporters for stating correctly what anyone with eyes could see: Trump’s inauguration didn’t draw nearly as many people as Obama’s. But Spicer angrily insisted: “This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period.”

The next Sunday, NBC’s Chuck Todd asked Kellyanne Conway about this incident, which at the time seemed bizarre, though we’ve since gotten used to such performances.

“You’re saying it’s a falsehood. And they’re giving — Sean Spicer, our press secretary — gave alternative facts,” she said. Todd responded: “Alternative facts aren’t facts, they are falsehoods.”

At the time we didn’t know that Conway’s “alternative facts” was the opening salvo in an all-out assault on truth that has become increasingly shameless with time.

“All presidents lie,” Trump apologists say, and point to Obama’s “If you like your health plan you can keep it”, Clinton’s “I did not have sex with that woman” or Bush the First’s “Read my lips: no new taxes.” What makes those statements stand out years later, though, is how rare such lies have been for previous presidents of either party.

All presidents have presented facts selectively, emphasizing the ones that fit their narrative while skipping over the ones that didn’t. All presidents have shaded the truth and obfuscated inconvenient facts, particularly when they have been directly accused of something. But we have never seen anything like the thousands of lies Trump has let fly on every conceivable subject.

Just this week, for example, he made up riots in California that never happened, talked about a tax cut that hasn’t even been proposed in Congress, and made a baseless claim about “unknown Middle Easterners” in the current migrant caravan. Even while admitting he had no evidence of the Middle Easterners (who he presumably meant to imply were terrorists), he repeated that “they very well could be” in the caravan — as if he were justified in claiming anything not already proven false.

When things he says are proven to be false, he keeps saying them. This also is completely new in American politics. Previous presidents could be shamed into changing their misleading rhetoric. (Clinton, for example, stopped saying that he never had sex with that woman.) But Trump is shamelessly dishonest.

Some observers tend to write this off as a quirk, like your crazy uncle who tells tall tales about the good old days. But constant lying has a corrosive effect on democracy. It’s impossible to have any kind of reasonable discussion of the issues that face our country when the President can claim anything or deny anything, and (as long as Congress is OK with it) no one can hold him accountable.

5. Puerto Rico.

The Bush administration’s botched response to Hurricane Katrina was such a turning point that conservative media spent the entirety of  Obama’s two terms looking for “Obama’s Katrina”. At least two dozen unfortunate events got labeled that way, though none of the labels stuck. In the end, Obama’s Katrina was the GOP’s white whale; they chased it for eight years, but it got away.

In just its eighth month, though, the Trump administration had an honest-to-God direct Katrina parallel: Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017. In just about every way, the Trump administration and the Republican Congress sent the message that — while Puerto Ricans may technically be American citizens under the law — they don’t really count.

Stories of the botched response are mostly anecdotal, because the administration is sticking to its line that it did “a fantastic job”, and Congress has never investigated.

In the year since Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico, killing nearly 70 percent more people than Katrina, the GOP-led House has yet to create a select committee to oversee the Trump administration’s recovery efforts. The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which oversees FEMA, has held just two hearings related to the storm. Neither the House nor the Senate have issued any major reports, and none appear to be in the works.

Here are some of the things we do know: Rather than the two weeks required to restore electric power after Hurricane Irma (which blew through Florida only two weeks later), restoring power to Puerto Rico took eight months. Granted, the shakiness of Puerto Rico’s power grid before the hurricane made the job harder, but ordinarily in America a harder problem inspires a greater effort. Not so this time.

Much of the aid that did make it to the island got stuck in the port of San Juan. 20,000 pallets of bottled water got left on an airport runway, where they were discovered nearly a year later. While Puerto Ricans were dying in hospitals without electric power, or from the inability to get their prescriptions filled, a Navy hospital ship was treating only six patients a day.

Ten months after the storm, the official death toll stood at 64, a number everyone knew was absurd. (Only a month after landfall, CNN had talked to about half of the island’s funeral homes and found 499 storm-related deaths.) The current estimate is just below 3,000 deaths, with some estimates as high as 4,600.

The scene that sums up the Trump administration’s go-through-the-motions response was the President’s own visit to the island, where he casually flipped rolls of paper towels into a crowd the way interns throw compressed t-shirts into the stands at minor-league baseball games.

The challenge posed by Puerto Rico combined Trump’s character flaws and unfitness for office into a perfect storm of dysfunction.

  • He has below-normal levels of compassion in any case. This has been obvious in other disasters as well. Last month, during a photo op where he was handing out food to victims of Hurricane Florence in North Carolina, he told a box-lunch recipient to “have a good time“, a line he had also used at an emergency shelter in Houston after Hurricane Harvey.
  • He particularly doesn’t care about brown people who speak Spanish. “America First” has always meant “White English-speaking Americans First”. Puerto Ricans are not “Real Americans” to Trump or to Trumpists, so the fact that they were suffering — and many of them were dying — rang no alarm bells.
  • He neither understands nor takes responsibility for how government works. Part of the challenge of Hurricane Maria was the dysfunctionality of the island government. (Similar problems arose after Katrina because of inefficiencies at the Louisiana and New Orleans levels.) But a president who understood government — picture, just for the sake of argument, President Hillary Clinton — would have grasped this from the outset and planned around it. Likewise, the bureaucratic gaps between FEMA, the Pentagon, and other relevant agencies should have been taken into account, but weren’t.
  • He can’t correct his mistakes because he can’t admit them. When it became clear that the death toll was much higher than the early estimates, and that his administration hadn’t been doing “a fantastic job” at all, Trump treated that objective information as a partisan attack against himself. Rather than try to fix anything, he lashed out at the Mayor of San Juan, at Democrats, at the media, and at the Puerto Ricans themselves, who “want everything done for them“.

6. Don’t believe women.

The Kavanaugh controversy is recent enough to still be on the public radar, but it’s far from the only time when the administration has shrugged off the testimony of multiple women. Remember creepy Roy Moore? I’ll let Wikipedia sum up:

In November 2017, nine women accused Roy Moore — a United States Senate candidate and a former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Alabama — of sexual misconduct. Three of the women alleged that he had sexually assaulted them, two during their adolescence (one who was 16 at the time of the alleged incident, when Moore was 31, and one who was 14 at the time of the alleged incident, when Moore was 32).[1] Six other women recalled Moore pursuing romantic relationships, or engaging in inappropriate or unwanted behavior with them, while they were between the ages of 16 and 22.

Trump was unfazed in his endorsement of Moore. “He totally denies it,” the President said. And that, apparently, was all it took to convince him. After all, the accusers were just women.

Two White House staffers, Rob Porter and David Sorensen resigned after allegations of physical violence against their wives. Rob Porter was accused by both of his ex-wives, including one who offered a black-eye photo as evidence. Even though he was aware of what the FBI had found during its background investigation, Chief of Staff John Kelly praised and defended Porter:

Rob Porter is a man of true integrity and honor, and I can’t say enough good things about him. He is a friend, a confidante and a trusted professional. I am proud to serve alongside him.

White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders called Porter “someone of the highest integrity and exemplary character”. The White House learned of the accusations in November, 2017, but did nothing about them until they became public in February, 2018.

After Porter’s resignation, Trump’s sympathy was entirely with him rather than his victims: “We certainly wish him well. It’s obviously a very tough time for him. He did a very good job while he was in the White House.”

And of course I have to mention what happened before the election: After a video of Trump bragging about his sexual assaults became public, he claimed it was merely “locker room talk” between guys, and not anything he had actually done. Subsequently, more than a dozen women came forward to say that he had sexually assaulted them, while several others alleged lesser forms of misconduct.

Trump responded to more than one of the accusations by claiming that the women were not attractive enough to assault. He said that they were all lying and promised to sue them after the election, which he never did.

7. Repeal, but don’t replace.

As a candidate, Trump railed against ObamaCare almost as much as against immigration. He wasn’t just going to get rid of the Affordable Care Act, he was going to replace it with something much, much better.

Donald Trump: I am going to take care of everybody. I don’t care if it costs me votes or not. Everybody’s going to be taken care of much better than they’re taken care of now.

Scott Pelley: The uninsured person is going to be taken care of how?

Donald Trump: They’re going to be taken care of. I would make a deal with existing hospitals to take care of people. And, you know what, if this is probably–

Scott Pelley: Make a deal? Who pays for it?

Donald Trump: –the government’s gonna pay for it.

But by the time John McCain cast his famous thumbs-down vote against it, the Republican “repeal and replace” slogan had turned into just “repeal”. Every repeal-ObamaCare plan the CBO analyzed (some plans Republicans pushed to a vote before the CBO could analyze them) would have resulted in the number of uninsured Americans going up by 10-20 million.

In the tax bill, they managed to repeal the insurance mandate; we’ll see if that change starts a death spiral (more and more heathier-than-average people opting out of the system as premiums increase) when it takes effect next year. Meanwhile, the Justice Department has filed a brief supporting a lawsuit that would declare unconstitutional ObamaCare’s protections for people with pre-existing conditions.

And there is still no TrumpCare plan, not even on paper. “Everybody’s going to be taken care of” was just a lot of blather.

8. Insulting a military widow (and lying about her congresswoman).

Already during the campaign, we saw that Trump has only conditional respect for gold-star families. If they play their assigned roles in his personal narrative, he loves them. But if they criticize him — particularly if they are not white or not Christian — he’ll come at them with both barrels.

On October 4, 2017, four American soldiers died in Niger, a land-locked Africa country that I (like most Americans, I suspect) didn’t know we had troops in, and probably couldn’t have found on a map. The White House staff drafted a public statement about the incident, but (for some unknown reason), it was never released. For weeks, Trump said nothing to the American public about these soldiers or their mission.

Eventually, a reporter shouted a question to Trump, who responded by telling a very odd lie: He made condolence calls to the families of soldiers who died in the line of duty, he claimed, but Obama and some other previous presidents hadn’t. The ensuing controversy got reporters asking questions about presidential condolence calls, and somebody eventually talked to Rep. Fredica Wilson of Florida, who is a friend of the family of one of the four dead soldiers, Sgt. LaDavid Johnson. Wilson said she had been in a car with the widow, Myeshia Johnson, and overheard Trump’s call when Myeshia put it on speakerphone.

Trump, Wilson claimed, told the widow that her husband “knew what he signed up for”, a statement she and the family found insensitive. Trump labeled this account a “total lie“, and stuck by that claim even after Wilson’s story was supported by Sgt. Johnson’s mother. When the widow gave her own interview, saying that Trump’s call “made me cry cause I was very angry at the tone of his voice and how he said he couldn’t remember my husband’s name”, Trump couldn’t let that stand either, insisting that he “spoke his name from beginning, without hesitation!”

Take that, you military widow! How dare you remember something the Commander in Chief doesn’t want remembered.

Not to be outdone, Chief of Staff John Kelly also had to get into the fiasco: He slammed Rep. Wilson by telling a false story about her. Kelly said that he had heard Wilson speak at the dedication of a new FBI field office in Miami. He described her ignoring the two dead agents the building was dedicated to and instead focusing entirely on her own role in getting funding for the building. He claimed he had been “stunned” by this, and summarized her character with “Empty barrels make the most noise.”

Unfortunately for him, the Sun Sentinel had a video of the event, which bore no resemblance to Kelly’s story. He had lied. He has never acknowledged the lie or apologized for it.

9. The swampiest administration ever.

Other than The Wall That Mexico Will Pay For and locking up Hillary Clinton, the campaign promise Trump repeated most often was that he would “Drain the swamp.”

It’s a good thing to promise, because there really is a Swamp, and it really does need to be drained: Members of Congress (from both parties) rely on contributions from special interests to fund their campaigns, and the people who work in the government’s administrative agencies (in both Republican and Democratic administrations) know that they can have lucrative second careers working for the interests they’re supposed to be regulating — but only if they play ball with the special interests rather than enforce regulations that are supposed to protect the public.

The result is a government that only works for the American people part-time. The rest of the time it works for big corporations, rich individuals, and whatever single-issue groups can afford to hire good lobbyists. (If you want a more detailed discussion of the problem, read Republic, Lost by Lawrence Lessig.)

But just as the Wall is not getting built, Mexico will never pay for it, and Hillary Clinton is still free, the Swamp is not being drained. Quite the opposite, in fact: This is the swampiest administration in my lifetime, and maybe ever.

It starts at the top: A big part of draining the swamp is enforcing transparency about the money special interests spend to gain influence and where it goes. But Trump has never liked transparency, at least not when it applies to himself.

Since Nixon, all presidents and nearly all presidential candidates have revealed their tax returns, usually going back many years. (Whenever someone on social media raises the question of how the Clintons have made so much money over the years, I point out that we know exactly how, because we have all their tax returns since Bill first ran for president in 1992.) After repeatedly promising that he would release his returns at some point in the future, Trump has settled on the position that his election win (with 46% of the vote) showed that the American people don’t care about his taxes.

As a result, we can’t say for sure whether the tax plan that he signed in December was primarily for the country’s benefit, or for his own. (We can make some guesses though: The plan looks designed specifically to cut the taxes of people like him. How big a tax cut you’ll get largely depends on how much you resemble Donald Trump.)

He also broke a longstanding tradition of American presidents insulating themselves against financial conflicts of interest by either putting their assets into a blind trust or moving all their investments to Treasury bonds. Trump turned management of The Trump Organization over to his sons, though of course he knows what they’re doing and where his investment interests lie.

He also has directly profited from his presidency. His election led to Mar-a-Lago doubling its membership fee to $200,000. Since Trump spends so much of his time there, it is a unique opportunity to pay money directly into the President’s pocket in exchange for access, leading Chris Hayes to dub Mar-a-Lago “the de facto bribery palace“. Three Mar-a-Lago members have been named ambassadors, while three others are “the shadow rulers of the Veterans Administration“. They got influence in the US government by paying Trump money. Every golfing trip also generates money for the President, as the entire presidential entourage has to be accommodated at the taxpayers’ expense.

Foreign governments pay Trump money as well. The Industrial & Commercial Bank of China pays him $2 million a year to rent the 20th floor of Trump Tower. Qatar bought a $6.5 million apartment at Trump World Tower. Saudi Arabia paid Trump’s D.C. hotel $270,000 to house veterans groups who lobbied for a Saudi interest. It would be trivial for a foreign government to pour huge amounts of money into Trump’s pocket: Just set up shell corporations to buy Trump Organization condos at inflated prices. Is that happening? How would we know?

With that example, it’s little wonder that so many cabinet heads misused public funds. Disgraced EPA head Scott Pruitt is the most famous offender (and Trump accepted his misbehavior until the publicity got to be too much; without a free press, Pruitt would still be in office). But he’s far from the only one: Wilbur Ross, Ryan Zinke, Steve Mnuchin, and Ben Carson all have scandals that would have gotten them ejected from the Obama administration. But Trump’s standards are lower.

10. Politicizing justice.

The campaign chant of “Lock her up!” (which Trump has continued to encourage in his rallies as president) was unique in American political history. I know of no previous example where an American presidential candidate threatened to put his opponent in jail, though this often happens in third-world dictatorships.

Since taking office, he has frequently put forward the idea that the Justice Department should protect him and his allies from investigations while harassing his opponents. Just last month he tweeted:

Two long running, Obama era, investigations of two very popular Republican Congressmen were brought to a well publicized charge, just ahead of the Mid-Terms, by the Jeff Sessions Justice Department. Two easy wins now in doubt because there is not enough time. Good job Jeff

I assume he’s talking about Duncan Hunter and Chris Collins, who appear to have broken some serious laws. Hunter used campaign money to upgrade his lifestyle, and filed false reports with the FEC to cover his tracks. Collins used his insider knowledge to tip off his family members to sell stock in a drug company before its bad test results became public. Pretty swampy behavior in each case. But apparently Trump believes Attorney General Sessions should have suppressed those investigations, at least until after the fall elections.

Together with allies in Congress (like Devin Nunes), Trump has run a disinformation campaign against the FBI in an attempt to discredit the Mueller investigation into his campaign’s collusion with Russia. Just about everyone involved in starting that investigation has been drummed out of the FBI, all without any evidence that the investigation is tainted. The Economist observes:

Mr Trump’s attacks on the [Department of Justice] do not help. He seems to think of the agency as part of his operation, as though he has been elected chief executive of America and the DoJ is the company’s legal department. It follows that, in failing to protect him from Mr Mueller, the department is not doing its job. He has never forgiven Mr Sessions for recusing himself from Mr Mueller’s investigation, and believes he has “the absolute right to do what I want to do with the Justice Department”.

This contravenes long-standing norms, under which a president appoints an attorney-general and other top officials, then sets general policy direction, but otherwise respects the department’s independence—and certainly does not intervene in investigations. Susan Hennessey, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and former lawyer for the National Security Agency, believes the president “has no reference to the DoJ as an institution that has to be defended—it’s entirely personal for him”. The DoJ’s independence, and the rule of law that independence protects, are not features of the American system to Mr Trump; they are pesky inconveniences.

11. Shithole countries.

During a closed-door discussion of immigration last January, Trump revolted at the idea of taking more people from countries like Haiti and various African nations: “Why do we want all these people from shithole countries coming here?” he asked, and wondered why we couldn’t get more immigrants from Norway.

Just about all American families (other than native Americans) originate from places that (at the time) could have been described in similar terms, and probably were: Ireland during the famine, for example, or the Jewish Pale in Russia during the pogroms. In general, people who are doing well stay where they are. (We don’t get more Norwegians now because — largely thanks to socialismNorway is nice place to live, in many ways nicer than the US.)

But Trump’s outlandish statement is all of a piece with the worldview that makes him so popular with the white supremacists we talked about in #3: America is for white Christian people. At every possible turn, he has tried to keep other kinds of people from coming here, and to throw out those who were already here, even if they came legally.

That simple rule of thumb explains a wide variety of Trump administration policies and rhetoric: the Muslim ban, the Wall, the mythical immigrant crime wave, and a host of others. White Christian people are good, and we want them. Any other kind of people are bad, and we want them gone.

12. Enemies of the American people.

Every administration feuds with the press, and none gets the coverage it thinks it deserves. (Nixon VP Spiro Agnew famously called the press “nattering nabobs of negativism“.) Hindsight resolves most of these disputes in the press’ favor. For example, both Presidents Johnson and Bush II criticized the media for not telling the public the “good news” about the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, respectively. But in fact those wars just weren’t going well, as the media accurately reported.

But no previous president has ratcheted up his anti-media rhetoric to Trump’s level of vitriol, not just against specific stories or reporters, but against the very idea of a free press itself. Just this morning, only days after a Trump supporter mailed a bomb to CNN, he denounced “The Fake News Media, the true Enemy of the People“. In his rallies, he points to the area reserved for reporters and says things like “these people back there, these horrible, horrendous people“. Independent observers are worried about what this abuse portends for American democracy.

“His attacks are strategic, designed to undermine confidence in reporting and raise doubts about verifiable facts,” said David Kaye and Edison Lanza, the Special Rapporteurs on freedom of expression for the United Nations and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, respectively.

The President has labelled the media as being the “enemy of the American people” “very dishonest” or “fake news,” and accused the press of “distorting democracy” or spreading “conspiracy theories and blind hatred”.

“These attacks run counter to the country’s obligations to respect press freedom and international human rights law,” the experts said. “We are especially concerned that these attacks increase the risk of journalists being targeted with violence.” …

“Each time the President calls the media ‘the enemy of the people’ or fails to allow questions from reporters from disfavored outlets,” the experts added, “he suggests nefarious motivations or animus. But he has failed to show even once that specific reporting has been driven by any untoward motivations.

Before the election, the term fake news actually meant something important: It referred to entirely made-up stories packaged to look like news reports and distributed over social media, like “FBI Agent Suspected in Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead in Apparent Murder-Suicide” which got noticed by more than half a million Facebook users a few days before the election.

We know this is fake because The Denver Guardian, which supposedly published it, does not exist. Fake news like this was rampant before the election. Most of it favored Trump, and some of it came from Russia.

Since the election, Trump has perverted fake news to mean any report he doesn’t like, particularly those where White House staffers leak something anonymously. Quite often, an article he labels “fake news” turns out to be true.

His statements after the capture of the MAGA bomber have ominous historical echoes: He blames the press for raising public anger against itself, and takes no responsibility for his own rhetoric.

There is great anger in our Country caused in part by inaccurate, and even fraudulent, reporting of the news. The Fake News Media, the true Enemy of the People, must stop the open & obvious hostility & report the news accurately & fairly. That will do much to put out the flame of Anger and Outrage and we will then be able to bring all sides together in Peace and Harmony. Fake News Must End!

In other words: Unless the press stops criticizing him and pointing out his lies, he will continue to unleash his brownshirts on them. Only when no one criticizes the Great Leader will he be able to “bring all sides together in Peace and Harmony”.

This is why the Founders banned emoluments

If Congress were doing its job, we wouldn’t have to wonder who the President is working for.


Remember Helsinki?

It was just three months ago, in July. The President of the United States stood on a stage with Vladimir Putin and was abjectly subservient to him. On the subject of Russian interference in the 2016 election, he weighed the unanimous opinion of US intelligence agencies against Putin’s denial and sided with the foreign autocrat. Putin’s other bad behavior — the ongoing proxy war against Ukraine, poisoning of critics in the UK, human-rights abuses at home — led to nary a whisper of criticism from the supposed Leader of the Free World. Trump blamed “both sides” for the poor state of US/Russian relations, and in a subsequent interview, he questioned whether the US would really go to war to defend a NATO ally like Montegnegro from Russian aggression.

If there had been any doubt that Trump was in Putin’s pocket, Helsinki ended it.

This week we saw something similar happen with Saudi Arabia.

The shifting Saudi explanations. In the weeks since the expatriate Saudi journalist (and Virginia resident and Washington Post contributor) Jamal Khashoggi disappeared into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, the Saudi Arabian government has put out a series of narratives, each as preposterous as the last.

  • First they claimed Khashoggi left the consulate alive (and yet somehow evaded the Turkish cameras that saw him enter). Saudi officials even expressed concern about his well-being and said they were trying to find him.
  • When the Turkish government published the names and images of the Saudi agents who came to Istanbul to kill Khashoggi, the Saudis denounced “baseless allegations”. They threatened to respond to any international action against them “with a bigger one“.
  • Then they allowed that Khashoggi might be dead, but if so, it was the work of “rogue killers” who somehow murdered him inside the consulate and disposed of his body without any legitimate Saudi officials noticing.
  • The latest story is that the killing was essentially an accident: The Saudis just wanted to “return” Khashoggi to the Kingdom, i.e. kidnap him. But he struggled, one of the kidnappers got him in a chokehold, and he died. The body was then disposed of by a “local collaborator”, so the Saudis don’t know what happened to it.

Above all, the narratives insist that whatever was done to Khashoggi had nothing to do with Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS), who Khashoggi had been especially critical of, and whose known associates seem to be the murderers.

The Trump echo chamber. Through this all, Trump has been giving his best Helsinki performance, repeating Saudi talking points as if he were working for them and not for us. King Salman’s denial of involvement, he said, was “very, very strong“. (In Helsinki, “President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial.”) “Maybe these could have been rogue killers. Who knows?” (“Who knows?” is also a standard element when Trump wants to defend someone. He projects a reality where it’s impossible to know anything and all scenarios are equally likely. The hacker who hit the DNC computers “could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds, OK?“) He compared MBS to Brett Kavanaugh, who (in Trump’s mind) was also wrongly accused.

In an interview with The Washington Post Saturday, Trump backed off only a little, acknowledging that the Saudi government’s stories “are all over the place”, but standing by MBS and continuing to repeat the latest Saudi talking points, without worrying about the now-abandoned talking points he repeated only a few days ago.

There is a possibility [MBS] found out about it afterward. It could be something in the building went badly awry. It could be that’s when he found about it. He could have known they were bringing him back to Saudi Arabia.

and insisting that there’s no way to really know.

Nobody has told me he’s responsible. Nobody has told me he’s not responsible. We haven’t reached that point. I haven’t heard either way.

Why? After Helsinki, Americans were left to wonder what exactly had turned Trump into such a puppet. Does Putin have kompromat to hold over his head? Is Trump paying his debt from 2016? Or does the debt go back further, to the Russian money that had come to Trump’s rescue when no one else would fund him? The explanations were suggestive, but still speculative.

This time, though, we don’t have to speculate, because Trump has told us himself:

“Saudi Arabia, I get along with all of them. They buy apartments from me. They spend $40 million, $50 million,” Trump told a crowd at an Alabama campaign rally in 2015. “Am I supposed to dislike them? I like them very much.”

Trump has downplayed his conflict of interest, tweeting: “I have no financial interests in Saudi Arabia.” But Noah Bookbinder of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington points out how misleading that denial is: Saudi money still makes its way into his pocket, whether his interests are “in” Saudi Arabia or not.

In 2017, Saudi lobbyists spent $270,000 to reserve rooms at Trump’s hotel in Washington. The kingdom itself paid $4.5 million in 2001 to purchase a floor of Trump World Tower and continues to pay tens of thousands in annual common charges to Trump businesses for that property (the total of which could be up to $5.7 million since 2001, according to one estimate). In the past year, as bookings fell overall, Trump’s hotels in New York and Chicago reported a significant uptick in bookings from Saudi Arabia. And a major factor in a recent increase in revenue for the Trump International Hotel and Tower in Manhattan was that Saudis accompanying the crown prince during a recent visit stayed there, as The Washington Post has reported.

Jared Kushner, Trump’s point man for the Middle East and someone MBS has described as “in my pocket“, has also often sought Saudi funding for his real estate ventures.

Trump has tried to paint his own mercenary interests as the nation’s mercenary interests, weaving together a fanciful story of a $110 billion arms order that will create American jobs. But the money Trump has received (and continues to receive) is real.

He has also tried to paint the Saudis as allies that we must stand by (as a counterweight to Iran). But Trump freely criticizes more important allies, like Canada and the other NATO countries. And Senator Lindsey Graham, who is also an Iran hawk, isn’t protecting MBS. The Saudis, he says, “need us more than we need them”.

This is the most in-your-face move by a Mideast ally outside — maybe ever. To kill a man in a consulate in a foreign country, extrajudicial killing, shows contempt for the relationship. I would like to punish those involved. The Global Magnitsky Act would put punishment, sanctions on the individuals that had a hand in this.

And I find it impossible to believe that the crown prince wasn’t involved. So, go after him and his inner circle. Save the alliance. I don’t mind military sales, but I cannot do business with the current leadership. MBS, he’s done to me.

Emoluments and Congress. Even if you find the support-our-arms-customer or support-our-ally-against-Iran motives credible, you will never be sure that Trump’s real motive isn’t to keep raking in Saudi cash. Trump himself may not know for sure which motive is most compelling.

That’s why the Founders put this clause into the Constitution:

No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.

This is not an innocent-until-proven-guilty thing: No one needs to prove that an officer of the United States government has engaged in quid-pro-quo bribery with a foreign power. It’s not necessary to identify precisely what the officer did for the foreign power, that the action wouldn’t have been done anyway, or that the gift or payment he or she received wasn’t totally innocent. What matters is only that the emolument was paid.

The point is clear: The loyalty of officers of the US government needs to be beyond question.

As the clause says, the only thing that makes an emolument legal is “the Consent of Congress”. (In a famous motivating case, Congress allowed Benjamin Franklin to keep a jewel-encrusted snuff box he was given by the King of France.) Congress is supposed to police this concern. But the current Republican majority simply does not want to know whether Trump is doing anything wrong. It has not passed any resolution consenting to the money Trump’s businesses receive from the Saudis or any other foreign government. Neither has it condemned these emoluments, or even held hearings on them. It just doesn’t want to know.

Stymied from taking any direct action, Democrats in Congress have signed on to a lawsuit attempting to enforce the Emoluments Clause through the federal courts. That case is moving forward, and a judge recently agreed that they have standing to sue. But this lengthy legal process is a far cry from the checks and balances the Founders imagined.

Remember in November. There are many different reasons to want a change of leadership in Congress. (I’ll outline a number of them next week.) But for the long-term health of the Republic, the biggest is that Congress has a constitutional role to play, and it is failing in that role. Blatantly unconstitutional things are happening in the Trump administration, while Congress averts its eyes.

It should be a bipartisan desire that the President work for the American people, and not for foreign princes or presidents. The fact that even this most basic issue has become partisan is a measure of just how far the Republican Party has fallen.

The Media is Failing Us on Climate Change

What you’ve heard about the new IPCC report is highly misleading.


A week ago, when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report “Global Warming of 1.5o C” came out, we got more than a lesson on climate change. We also got a lesson in what’s wrong with mainstream media coverage of climate change.

CNN’s headline was typical: “Planet has only until 2030 to stem catastrophic climate change, experts warn“. The corresponding article had all the standard elements of climate-change coverage: a collection of threats (hotter heat waves, more extreme rainfall, more intense droughts, coral reefs dying off), a date when they’ll come due (2030), and a list of things the experts want done to avoid them (move away from fossil fuels to renewable energy, and develop technology to remove CO2 from the atmosphere).

The problem with that article isn’t that it misstated any facts. But framing the situation in that way makes scientists sound like comic-book terrorists: “Do what we want by our deadline or the Earth is finished.”

The usual coverage invites the usual responses from those committed to denial, like this one from National Review:

Those working to raise awareness about climate change have a problem. While most Americans believe global warming is occurring and think human activities are causing it, fewer than half think it will pose a serious threat to the planet in their lifetimes.

So what do those seeking drastic change do? They publish predictions of imminent catastrophe based on computer models, threatening doom and gloom unless dramatic measures are taken immediately. When that fails, they change the deadline and try again. … Now the IPCC tells us we have until 2030, but the longer period to take action is accompanied by heightened predictions of calamities.

How the report comes to be. When you tell the story of the report from the beginning, though, it actually isn’t anything like that.

The story starts in Paris in December, 2015, when 195 nations made commitments to take action against climate change. (The US was one of the 195, but President Trump renounced the agreement in June, 2017.) The Paris Agreement recognized that global warming of 2o C above pre-industrial levels would have unacceptable consequences, and instead set a goal of trying to keep the increase down to 1.5o C. The report’s FAQ says:

With the adoption of the Paris Agreement, the [United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change] invited the IPCC to provide a Special Report in 2018 on ‘the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emissions pathways’. The request was that the report, known as SR1.5, should not only assess what a 1.5°C warmer world would look like but also the different pathways by which global temperature rise could be limited to 1.5°C.

This report addresses that goal from two sides: What would the world have to do to meet the goal? And how much damage will the climate and the biosphere suffer even if we do?

Global warming is not a bomb. The biggest problem with the usual climate-change media coverage is that our standard metaphor for a future crisis — a ticking bomb — is completely wrong. Climate change is not something that will happen all at once at some point in the future; its negative effects won’t “go off” when some timer ticks down to zero. Instead, climate change is a process we are already in the middle of; negative effects — like this week’s devastation of the Florida panhandle — are already happening.

A better analogy might be smoking. Imagine you’re a heavy-smoking 25-year-old. You’re probably already seeing some effects: You get winded more easily, climbing stairs is harder, and so on. But you can live with that. Then your doctor tells you that if you keep smoking, your odds of dying before you’re 60 go up by X per cent. It might be a heart attack or lung cancer or something else, but your odds of dying go up.

Notice what he didn’t say: He didn’t say that you have until you’re 60 to change your ways. Age 60 is a somewhat arbitrary reference point that makes the situation quantifiable. The direst consequences of your smoking may hit when you’re 60, or sometime before or after that. In the meantime, the lesser effects you’ve already been seeing will get worse. And there’s a time lag: The cigarette you smoke tomorrow might (or might not) be the one that gives you cancer when you’re 57. Quitting before the cancer hits doesn’t mean it won’t hit.

On the other hand, if you quit now and exercise to get your wind back, your heart will likely regain its strength and your lungs might clear themselves out before anything happens that is significantly worse than the effects you can already see.

Climate change is like that; there are time lags all over the place. Every time a new investment is made in fossil fuel infrastructure — a new coal mine, a new oil well, a new pipeline — that’s an economic commitment to keep burning fossil fuels far into the future. And once a molecule of CO2 (or some other greenhouse gas) gets into the atmosphere, it’s likely to stay there for a long time. Yale Climate Connections reports on what would happen to the CO2 in the atmosphere if we went cold turkey on fossil fuels.

Using a combination of various methods, researchers have estimated that about 50 percent of the net anthropogenic pulse would be absorbed in the first 50 years, and about 70 percent in the first 100 years. Absorption by sinks slows dramatically after that, with an additional 10 percent or so being removed after 300 years and the remaining 20 percent lasting tens if not hundreds of thousands of years before being removed.

Putting that another way, emissions from the Model T’s of the 1920s are still affecting the climate today. About half of the CO2 I produced while driving to the grocery yesterday will still be warming the planet in 2068.

Some effects have longer time lags than others. If we manage to stabilize the climate at some level, for example, the heat waves and droughts might stabilize as well, and the world could adjust to a new normal in that regard. But if that stabilizing point is too high, the melting of the world’s ice might continue for some while and sea levels would keep rising.

So we don’t have until 2030 to change our ways. The whole notion that we have until the Year Y to take action completely misses the point.

Where we are in the process. The first thing the IPCC had to do was define its reference points. Like: What does “pre-industrial levels” mean? It settled on 1850-1900, which may seem a little late, given how much coal-burning industry already existed in 1850. The FAQ explains that the reference point had to be an era with temperature measurements from all over the world. (Picking an earlier period, like the 1750s, would mean using mainly European data. The results might get biased by purely local effects.) The FAQ picks up the story there:

In the decade 2006–2015, warming reached 0.87°C (±0.12°C) relative to 1850–1900, predominantly due to human activity increasing the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Given that global temperature is currently rising by 0.2°C (±0.1°C) per decade, human-induced warming reached 1°C above pre-industrial levels around 2017 and, if this pace of warming continues, would reach 1.5°C around 2040.

But don’t forget Paris. Every major nation in the world (but the US) has made a commitment to emit less carbon than it otherwise would have. Those commitments were voluntary, based more on what the local politics could sustain rather than what the problem required. (Apparently, US politics can’t sustain any action at all, so Trump pulled out of the agreement rather than revise our commitments under it.)

Different groups of researchers around the world have analysed the combined effect of adding up all the NDCs [nationally defined contributions under the Paris Agreement]. Such analyses show that current pledges are not on track to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. If current pledges for 2030 are achieved but no more, researchers find very few (if any) ways to reduce emissions after 2030 sufficiently quickly to limit warming to 1.5°C. This, in turn, suggests that with the national pledges as they stand, warming would exceed 1.5°C, at least for a period of time, and practices and technologies that remove CO2 from the atmosphere at a global scale would be required to return warming to 1.5°C at a later date.

Plans to remove CO2 from the atmosphere, the report notes, have not scaled up well so far. (It’s easier to plant a tree than to regrow a forest.) So relying on them is speculative; maybe something practical will develop and maybe it won’t.

One example of a [carbon dioxide removal] method in the demonstration phase is a process known as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), in which atmospheric CO2 is absorbed by plants and trees as they grow, and then the plant material (biomass) is burned to produce bioenergy. The CO2 released in the production of bioenergy is captured before it reaches the atmosphere and stored in geological formations deep underground on very long timescales. Since the plants absorb CO2 as they grow and the process does not emit CO2, the overall effect can be to reduce atmospheric CO2.

Given the time lags involved in reducing CO2 through natural means, though, if we blow through the 1.5°C mark the only practical way to get back to it in any reasonable length of time involves some kind of CO2 removal process, or “negative emissions”, as they put it. That speculative technology, then, is what we’ll have to count on if nations don’t make more aggressive commitments than the ones in the Paris Agreement.

How bad is 1.5°C? Much of the report compares 1.5°C warming to 2°C, and unsurprisingly finds that 1.5°C is better. But, to return to the smoking analogy, it’s like comparing quitting smoking at 45 with quitting at 60. The statistics of the risk change, but the kinds of things at risk mostly don’t. Sea levels will rise, but not as far. Weather will get more violent, but not as much. Species will go extinct, but not as many.

Much of what is at risk depends on processes we don’t fully understand. So, for example, higher global temperatures will change weather patterns. But nobody can pinpoint a temperature at which, say, Kansas becomes a desert. National Post reports on the “climate apocalypse” talk:

A lot of the press coverage on the new report has liberally employed terms like “nightmare,” “apocalypse,” or “a world on fire.” The IPCC report contains plenty of dire scenarios of a 2 degree world: Death of the world’s coral reefs, an extra 300 million exposed to crop failures, deadly heat waves becoming an annual occurrence in South Asia. Climate change could undo decades of progress on improving human welfare, but it’s not an existential threat to the species. Even unchecked climate change is not on the scale of a nuclear holocaust; its costs are more akin to a couple world wars and global pandemics. The most dire images come from a section where report authors imagine a world in which humanity has made almost no attempt to curb emissions. By the year 2100 the world “is no longer recognizable, with decreasing life expectancy, reduced outdoor labour productivity, and lower quality of life in many regions because of too frequent heatwaves and other climate extremes.”

Where does 2030 come from? We’re on pace to breech 1.5°C in 2040, so why is everybody talking about 2030? Time lags.

If current pledges for 2030 are achieved but no more, researchers find very few (if any) ways to reduce emissions after 2030 sufficiently quickly to limit warming to 1.5°C. …

A world that is consistent with holding warming to 1.5°C would see greenhouse gas emissions rapidly decline in the coming decade, with strong international cooperation and a scaling up of countries’ combined ambition beyond current NDCs. In contrast, delayed action, limited international cooperation, and weak or fragmented policies that lead to stagnating or increasing greenhouse gas emissions would put the possibility of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels out of reach.

Should we believe the IPCC? In a word: Yes. They’re not infallible prophets, but they do represent the consensus of the world scientific community.

Climate-change skeptics try to paint the argument as he-said/she-said, with vested interests lining up on both sides. But in fact, the overwhelming vested interest is on the climate-change-denial side: Fossil fuels in the ground represent literally trillions of dollars on the books of fossil-fuel corporations. If that coal and oil and natural gas can’t be burned, some of the world’s largest corporations — not to mention governments like Saudi Arabia or Russia — are insolvent.

Within the scientific community, motives are split. Some scientists have staked their reputations on climate change, but no one really wants to believe their grandchildren face some hellish future. A climate scientist who could make a genuinely persuasive case in the other direction would be celebrated. Fossil fuel companies would create institutes from thin air, if necessary, to fund his or her research.

That’s why, when you push hard on the question of climate-change-believing vested interests, denialists eventually resort to some version of the Global Socialist Conspiracy.

Global warming is not about science, but about politics — that is, about expanding the power of elites using the coercive instruments of government to control the lives of people everywhere. Just as the governing class embraces ineffective Keynesian stimulus spending to justify expansion of government, they now extol [anthropogenic global warming] as the basis for increasing their power to rule over the rest of us.

Why scientists around the world are more committed to expanding the coercive power of elites than to finding scientific truth is never fully explained. What’s more, promoters of this theory deny the obvious: If you have a genuine scientific case that global warming isn’t happening (or is going to level off on its own, without any changes in public policy), trillions of dollars in otherwise stranded assets are waiting to support you.

Techniques of denial. If you’re a fossil-fuel company and you want to keep selling your product, you don’t have to convince people that climate change isn’t happening, you just have to spread doubt and rely on the human tendency to resist change.

And here’s where our smoking metaphor does double duty: The techniques for spreading doubt about science go back to the tobacco companies, who wanted to create just enough doubt about the cigarette/cancer link that people who wanted to keep smoking could talk themselves out of quitting. (A lot of those doubtful people, I will point out, died. But they bought a lot of cigarettes before they did.) You can see echoes in that National Review quote above.

For example, back in the 60s and 70s, tobacco-company-funded groups like the Tobacco Institute would say that the cigarette/cancer link was just “statistical”, implying that statistics was some kind of voodoo science not worth your notice. National Review is repeating a similar fossil-fuel industry talking point when it refers contemptuously to “computer models”.

Like statistics, computer modeling is something the average person doesn’t understand, and so it is a good target for unscrupulous people who want to sow doubt. But computer modeling is how we predict almost anything complicated these days. Predictions of hurricane tracks, for example, are based on computer models.

And yes, a dishonest programmer can make a computer spit out anything he or she wants. But that’s why the scientific community has processes for assessing claims. Something like the IPCC report doesn’t come from just one guy with an iMac. Each claim has been examined by dozens, sometimes hundreds or thousands, of scientists who are trained to look for mistakes or fraud in this particular area. They come from countless institutions in 195 countries. No vested interest ties them all together. The vested interest, recall, lies with the trillions of dollars at risk for the fossil-fuel industry.

What’s the overall message of the report? The commitments nations made in the Paris Agreement are steps in the right direction, but they aren’t adequate. If that’s all the world does, 1.5°C will be locked in by 2030, even if it won’t show up until 2040 or so. To avoid 1.5°C, we have to phase out fossil fuels far more quickly.

What you won’t find in the report is a safe zone, a line in the sand that tells us how far we can go. Where we are now isn’t “safe”, it’s just less risky than where we’re headed.

Are Men Victims Now?

In an increasingly unequal society, it’s very soothing for the winners to hear that they’re the “real” victims.


In the film “How to Murder Your Wife“, Jack Lemmon’s character is innocent — in reality his wife isn’t dead at all — but as his trial progresses the evidence against him becomes so convincing that he decides to try a risky strategy: Confess, and make a closing argument that appeals to the self-interest of his all-male jury. Think how great it would be if women knew we could kill them!

If one man – just one man – can stick his wife in the goop from the gloppitta-gloppitta machine, and get away with it! Whoa-ho-ho, boy, we’ve got it made. We have got it made. All of us.

The men vote to acquit. (Then Lemmon’s wife turns up and there is a happy ending.)

In 1965, that was comedy: Men feel henpecked, so the fantasy of regaining respect by making women fear for their lives has enough appeal to be worth joking about.

Forty-three years later, the closing argument in the Brett Kavanaugh nomination was a strangely inverted version of Lemmon’s: If just one woman can stop a man from going to the Supreme Court by accusing him of sexual assault, then we’re finished. All of us.

President Trump made the argument like this:

I say that it’s a very scary time for young men in America when you can be guilty of something that you may not be guilty of. This is a very difficult time. What’s happening here has much more to do than even the appointment of a Supreme Court Justice.

Asked what his message for young women was, Trump said “Women are doing great.”

He was echoing something his son, Don Jr., had said in an interview with Britain’s Daily Mail TV: He’s more afraid for his sons than his daughters:

I’ve got boys, and I’ve got girls. And when I see what’s going on right now, it’s scary.

Glenn Beck warned:

If the Democrats cram this down, I believe Americans will rise up at the polls, as we don’t want this to happen to our sons, brothers, husbands fathers.

“This”, apparently, is to pay some tangible price because a woman makes a false accusation against you. Many people making this argument don’t even claim that Christine Blasey Ford is lying about Kavanaugh. Even if she’s telling the truth, they say, she has little in the way of supporting evidence. And if just one woman can make a man pay a price purely on the strength of her testimony … then we’re finished, all of us.

The reverse-handmaid dystopia. Something strange is going on here, and it speaks to the roots of the conservative mindset: There is a fantasy dystopia that they can imagine we might be moving towards, and the fear of that dystopia outweighs reams and reams of actual injustice in the here and now.

In the dystopia, the reverse-Handmaid’s-Tale world, any woman can inflict dire consequences on any man just by making up an accusation against him. She will be believed and he won’t, so he’ll be “guilty until proven innocent“, as Mitch McConnell puts it. Every man will be forced to live in fear that a false accusation will suddenly “ruin his life“.

There are a number of weird things about this thought process:

  • Women live in fear now. Not fear of some imagined future damage to their reputations or career prospects, but of actual physical attacks that are happening every day.
  • False accusations already can be made against anyone for almost anything; sexual assault is not special in that way. So Hillary Clinton supposedly murdered Vince Foster and was also involved in a child sex ring hidden under a pizza restaurant. Barrack Obama, according to then-citizen Donald Trump, was a Kenyan Muslim who ascended to the presidency by fraud. Somehow, these well known recent examples of false accusations don’t cause us all to live in terror.
  • Black men actually lived in such a dystopia for centuries: If a white woman accused him of sexual impropriety (which could be little more than a lecherous glance), just about any black man could be lynched.

But the weirdest thing is the idea that society will suddenly flip from one extreme to the other, without ever occupying the reasonable ground in between. Right now, a woman’s report of sexual assault is often disbelieved, and is rarely seen as sufficient reason to impose any consequences at all on the reported attacker. It’s not just that you can go to the Supreme Court if one (or three) women accuse you, you can be elected president if more than a dozen women accuse you. If your rapist is viewed as a promising young white man from a good family, even a conviction might only result in a light sentence.

Perversely, the fact that women’s accounts of sexual assault so rarely lead to any serious consequences (except negative ones for the woman) is precisely the reason to believe them: Christine Blasey Ford went into the Kavanaugh hearings expecting to achieve nothing and knowing that her own life would be disrupted. That’s the typical situation these days. By far, the most likely explanation of why she would put herself through this ordeal is that Kavanaugh actually assaulted her.

False accusations are not impossible, but they are not common. False-accusation worriers still bring up the Duke lacrosse team case. But that was a dozen years ago. That’s still the standard example because false accusations that lead to punishments are so rare.

What’s the reasonable middle? If we ever got to a point where men could be jailed just on one woman’s say-so, the situation I just described wouldn’t hold any more: Women would have motive to make stories up, just as Mike Flynn’s son was motivated to promote false stories about PizzaGate, or Donald Trump Jr. to make false claims about Anderson Cooper.

Ideally, we could get to a point where sexual-assault accusations could be treated like other accusations: Absurd ones could be discounted, but plausible ones would be investigated, with the investigation becoming more serious as lighter investigations failed to disprove them. Different levels of plausibility would lead to different consequences: Proof beyond reasonable doubt would continue to be the standard for taking away someone’s liberty, but lesser standards would hold for lesser consequences.

That’s how things are now for non-sexual charges. Suppose your colleagues at work believe you’ve been stealing money out of their desks. If they have proof beyond reasonable doubt, you might go to jail. If they don’t, but a preponderance of evidence points to your guilt, your boss might agree with them and fire you. If your guilt or innocence is hard to determine, you might keep your job, but when a better job opens up that requires more trust, you might miss out.

As long as Donald Trump is president and Brett Kavanaugh has a lifetime appointment to our highest court, we’re not in that reasonable middle. We’re clearly not treating sexual assault charges like other charges.

Other conservative fantasies that overpower actual events. The male-threatening dystopia follows a common pattern on the right: a particularly worrisome fantasy or unique example often outweighs far more common real events.

So the fantasy that men will hang around in women’s bathrooms falsely claiming to be transsexual, and then assault women there — has that ever actually happened? But on the right, that imagined horror outweighs the actual problems of transsexuals, like the middle school student in Stafford County, Virginia who was left on the bleachers during an active-shooter drill and eventually told to sit in the hall between the boys’ and girls’ locker rooms, because school officials couldn’t decide which one she should shelter in. (In essence, the school practiced letting the shooter kill her.) That happened last week, not a dozen years ago.

If you want to discuss limits on the size of gun magazines (which would save actual lives, because mass shooters are most commonly stopped when they have to reload), you’ll be met with fantasies of home invasions in which ten bullets (or any finite number) just aren’t enough. Even the most reasonable and toothless gun control proposal will invoke fantasies of a tyrannical government herding its disarmed populace into concentration camps. (Strangely, this doesn’t happen in Japan, or in any other democratic country with very few civilian guns.)

The reversal of victimhood. The person who best expressed what this is all about this week was Trevor Noah of The Daily Show.

“Trump’s most powerful tool,” Noah says, is that he knows how to wield victimhood. He knows how to offer victimhood to people who have the least claim to it.”

If you belong to a privileged group, quite possibly at some level you feel guilty about that. Or maybe you just feel vulnerable to the charge that you don’t deserve what you have, or that other people who deserve more actually have less. Although you try not to think about it, you may vaguely wonder if somewhere innocent people are being mistreated in your name.

So it’s very powerful when a demagogue like Trump can tell you that you are “the real victim”. He allows you to project your guilty feelings onto someone else, and instead to claim the moral righteousness of victimhood. Noah explains:

It’s not that we have to be feeling sorry for women, but women are the victims and that’s what we’re trying to fix. But Trump has managed to turn that, and he’s turned it with everybody. He goes: “The real victims in this story is not the kids in the cages, it’s you. It’s you who … they’re coming to take your place. The real victim isn’t the refugee from Syria, it’s you, who’s going to get blown up by a terrorist bomb.”

… People felt, because of Trump, like they were losing their country. They felt like America was losing. And feeling is oftentimes more powerful than what is actually happening.

So we wind up in the situation I described years ago in “The Distress of the Privileged“: Whites think they are the real victims of racism. Christians think their religious freedom is under attack, and needs the government’s defense. Anglos are being victimized by Hispanic immigrants who do our dirty work for almost no money. Rich people are being “punished” by taxes — even taxes far lower than rich people used to pay.

And men can still, with a great deal of impunity, harass women. It’s embarrassing when they start to complain about it, but that embarrassment doesn’t make us the victims. Dr. Blasey Ford has her memories, both of being attacked decades ago, and of being vilified in front of a cheering crowd by the President of the United States. Meanwhile, Justice Kavanaugh has the job he has wanted all his life. He is not the victim.

We live a nation that is becoming increasingly unequal, that is ever-more-harshly divided between winners and losers. If you are a winner with any semblance of a conscience, you probably are uneasy about that, whether you think about it consciously or not. It’s very soothing to be told that the situation is exactly the reverse of how it appears, that you, the winner, are the “real” victim.

It’s soothing, but it’s false. And the more we indulge in this kind of thinking, the more unjust our society will be.

Two Ways Brett Kavanaugh Could Be a Hero

What might Brett Kavanaugh do
if he really were the man his supporters claim he is?


[The bulk of this article was written before a second accuser came forward. At this moment, it’s still not clear how her account will affect the process.]

The most insightful piece on the Kavanaugh nomination I have seen so far was written by Benjamin Wittes and appeared at The Atlantic. Wittes claims to know something about Kavanaugh.

I have known Brett Kavanaugh for a long time—in many different contexts. I am fond of him personally. I think the world of him intellectually. I don’t believe he lied in his Senate testimony. I don’t believe he’s itching to get on the Supreme Court to protect Donald Trump from Robert Mueller. I’m much less afraid of conservative judges than are many of my liberal friends. As recently as a few days ago, I was cheerfully vouching for Kavanaugh’s character.

But then Christine Blasey Ford accused Kavanaugh of attempting to rape her when she was 15 and he was 17. That allegation, Wittes says, is “credible” and “deserves to be taken seriously”. Kavanaugh’s supporters claim that there’s no good way to respond to an accusation like this and complain that the unanswerability of the charge makes it unfair. But Wittes takes that claim and goes somewhere else with it:

The circumstances in which he should fight this out are, in my view, extremely limited. I would advise him against letting Senate Republicans ram his nomination through in a fashion that will forever attach an asterisk to his service on the Supreme Court. Assuming she is not impugning him maliciously, Kavanaugh’s accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, deserves better than that. The Court deserves better than that. And Kavanaugh himself, if he is telling the truth about his conduct in high school, deserves better than to be confirmed under circumstances which tens of millions of people will regard, with good reason, as tainted.

The real burden of proof. Given how long ago the attempted rape is supposed to have happened and the haziness of the details, it shouldn’t be hard for Kavanaugh and his defenders to create reasonable doubt. But that’s not enough in this situation: It’s Kavanaugh who should bear the burden of proof.

The question before us, after all, is not whether to punish Kavanaugh or whether to assign liability to him. It’s whether to bestow on him an immense honor that comes with great power. Kavanaugh is applying for a much-coveted job. And the burden of convincing in such situations always lies with the applicant. The standard for elevation to the nation’s highest court is not that the nominee established a “reasonable doubt” that the serious allegations against him were true.

In other words: It makes sense to let ten guilty people go free rather than send one innocent person to prison. But if we’re talking about positions of high power, I would rather turn down ten innocent people than elevate one guilty one.

Of course, there’s a very real possibility that Kavanaugh might prevail simply because the Republicans have the political power to confirm him. That would get him onto the Court, but would be

a disaster for anyone who believes in apolitical courts. And it is not what Kavanaugh should want. Clearing one’s name sufficiently to convince only senators who are already ideologically aligned is not, in fact, clearing one’s name. It’s winning. And while winning may be the highest value for Trump, it isn’t actually the highest value—particularly for a justice.

A scorched-earth campaign to impugn Blasey Ford’s credibility would leave a similar taint on the Court and on Kavanaugh’s reputation.

I would never say that no attack on Ford’s credibility could be appropriate; if Kavanaugh can produce some hypothetical emails in which she hatched the plot to bring him down, he certainly gets to use those. But an attack on Ford’s credibility that is not devastating and complete will only worsen Kavanaugh’s problem—and such an attack should worsen it.

Who pays the price? And so Wittes reaches the same point many of Kavanaugh’s defenders do: There’s no good way for him to respond to the accusation against him. But rather than rage at the injustice of that and focus their ire on Blasey Ford or Diane Feinstein or Democrats in general, Wittes calls on Kavanaugh to do what’s best for the country: withdraw.

Getting out does not mean admitting that Ford’s account of his behavior is accurate, something Kavanaugh should certainly not do if her account is not accurate. It means only acknowledging that there is no way to defend against it in a fashion that is both persuasive and honorable in the context of seeking elevation to a job that requires a certain moral viability. It means acknowledging that whatever the truth may be, Kavanaugh cannot carry his burden of proof given the constraints upon him.

It means accepting that it is better to continue serving as a D.C. Circuit judge than to play the sort of undignified games that Republicans are playing on his behalf.

There would be heroism in that path. I am reminded of the ending of Lev Grossman’s The Magician King, when Quentin gets banished from the magical kingdom he has just saved. “I am the hero,” he protests, “and the hero gets the reward.”

But Ember, the god who is banishing him, disagrees: “No, Quentin. The hero pays the price.”

If his Republican support in the Senate holds firm, Kavanaugh can get the reward of a seat on the Supreme Court. But there is a price to be paid in this situation, and if Kavanaugh doesn’t pay it the nation does, in the form of a diminished Supreme Court whose moral authority will always be questionable when it rules on issues of women’s and victims’ rights. There’s nothing heroic about that.

The second heroic path. Wittes argues that Kavanaugh should withdraw even if he is innocent. But there is a second heroic path available if he is guilty, or if he honestly doesn’t remember Blasey Ford or anything about the night in question: Tell the truth.

Many of Kavanaugh’s supporters have been skipping past his denials and arguing for forgiveness: He’s not the same man today that he was at 17. What he did then shouldn’t disqualify him.

That, I think, is a discussion the nation needs to have: What is forgivable? How long should a youthful mistake hang over someone who has lived an admirable life since? How admirable does that life need to be? Does some other kind of restitution need to be made?

But if we were to have that discussion, it shouldn’t just apply to Kavanaugh, or to people on one side or the other of the partisan divide. It should apply, for example, to immigrants who are deportable for something they did decades ago, but have done good work, lived good lives, and been a credit to their communities in the years since. It should apply to people serving long prison sentences for non-violent drug crimes, some of which were committed when they were not much older than Kavanaugh was. You can’t expect forgiveness for the people on your side while you apply eye-for-eye justice to those you disagree with or disapprove of.

Even if we want to have that discussion, though, we can’t as long as Kavanaugh insists on his complete innocence. It’s unreasonable to expect to reap the benefits of forgiveness while simultaneously painting your accusers as liars. (That principle would also apply to President Trump.)

Imagine if Kavanaugh went before the Senate Judiciary Committee and told the nation, “Here’s how I remember that night.” What if he told his story without lawyerly caveats, but just as a human being trying to get a difficult memory off his chest? Or maybe he could say, “I don’t remember the event Dr. Blasey Ford describes. But I went to a hard-drinking school, and things may have happened that I don’t remember. I feel terrible that she has had to carry such a memory all these years, and I am ashamed to think that I could have been the cause of it.”

After all the Bill Cosbys and Harvey Weinsteins we have seen, what a breath of fresh air that would be.

Who shoulders the risk? If Kavanaugh did throw himself on the nation’s mercy, what would happen then? I don’t think anyone knows. And that’s what makes the path heroic: Heroes take risks; they don’t push risks off on others. Blasey Ford took a risk by coming forward, and she has been paying for that decision. Kavanaugh could take much of that burden off of her. It wouldn’t make sense to threaten or abuse her any more, if Kavanaugh himself were taking her account seriously.

Instead, he would shoulder the risk of public judgment. Blasey Ford, the Senate, and the country as a whole would have to face squarely the issues of forgiveness and the passage of time, rather than consider them only as a Plan B for those who doubt Kavanaugh’s denials. That honest public debate would be a step in the direction of healing the wounds that the #MeToo movement has revealed. However it came out — whether Kavanaugh ascended to the Supreme Court, remained where he is, or left public life entirely — it would be a service to the nation.

We keep hearing from Republicans, Evangelicals, and Kavanaugh’s other defenders what a fine man he is. He has a chance to prove them right. But you don’t get to be a hero just by claiming the reward. You have to pay the price.

10 Years After: The Post-Recovery Economy

The recovery from the Great Recession didn’t bring back some previous state of prosperity and resume growth from there. It created a new economy that, in some ways, may never again be what it was.


In addition to 9-11, which was a Tuesday this year, this week included one other important anniversary: Saturday marked ten years since the collapse of the Lehman Brothers investment bank, the spark that ignited the financial crisis that started the Great Recession.

Like most major world events, the Great Recession didn’t begin in an instant and didn’t have a single cause. Just as Europe had started sliding towards World War I long before Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination, the world financial system had been showing signs of strain long before Lehman declared bankruptcy. But Lehman had been one of the biggest players in the international financial markets, so its insolvency was a huge shock: If their debts weren’t good, whose were? Who knew what other financial institutions were insolvent, now that Lehman wouldn’t be repaying its loans? Suddenly, banks were afraid to loan money even to other banks, and the dominoes began to fall.

The worst financial panics are marked by cascading waves of bankruptcies. Alice can’t pay Bob, and Bob had been counting on Alice’s money to pay Charlie and Darlene, who now won’t be able to meet their payrolls. Charlie and Darlene’s employees, in turn, won’t be able to pay their rent, and so their landlords won’t be able to make their mortgage payments to the bank, which may also become insolvent. Where does it stop?

Wikipedia sums up the effects:

While the recession technically lasted from December 2007-June 2009 (the nominal GDP trough), many important economic variables did not regain pre-recession (November or Q4 2007) levels until 2011-2016. For example, real GDP fell $650 billion (4.3%) and did not recover its $15 trillion pre-recession level until Q3 2011. Household net worth, which reflects the value of both stock markets and housing prices, fell $11.5 trillion (17.3%) and did not regain its pre-recession level of $66.4 trillion until Q3 2012. The number of persons with jobs (total non-farm payrolls) fell 8.6 million (6.2%) and did not regain the pre-recession level of 138.3 million until May 2014. The unemployment rate peaked at 10.0% in October 2009 and did not return to its pre-recession level of 4.7% until May 2016.

This week, the New York Times ran a series of articles pointing out all the ways in which the economy has still not recovered. Or, putting it another way, how the economy has changed. We haven’t simply returned to some previous state of prosperity and continued growing from there. We have entered a new economy, parts of which may never return to previous levels of prosperity.

The most significant change is an increase in inequality. The lower your pre-Lehman income and net worth, the longer it has taken the recovery to reach you. People at the top of the economy are far better off than they have ever been. But people at the bottom are still waiting to get back to where they were, and some never will. In fact, if you take the top 10% of earners out of your statistics, the 90% who are left are only just now getting back to their 2006 incomes, and that’s only because of tax cuts and government programs like unemployment insurance, Food Stamps, and ObamaCare. If you just look at pre-tax income, it’s still underwater.

Wikipedia noted that household net worth was back to its pre-Lehman levels by 2012. But that number has been pulled up by the huge gains of the richest households. Median household net worth, the net worth of the households in the middle of the economy, has still not recovered. In fact, it is still below its level at the beginning of the previous recession, the one that started when the dot-com bubble burst in 2000 and 2001.

GDP recovered by 2011, but Wednesday the Census Bureau announced that median household income had only just recovered by 2017.

[T]he details of the report raised questions about whether middle-class households — which have experienced an economic “lost decade” — are now likely to see actual income gains or if they will simply tread water. One reason for concern is that income growth slowed in 2017, to 1.8 percent. Median income had grown more rapidly in previous years, by 5.2 percent in 2015 and 3.2 percent in 2016.

Another NYT article (by Nelson Schwartz) digs a little deeper:

Data from the Federal Reserve show that over the last decade and a half, the proportion of family income from wages has dropped from nearly 70 percent to just under 61 percent. It’s an extraordinary shift, driven largely by the investment profits of the very wealthy. In short, the people who possess tradable assets, especially stocks, have enjoyed a recovery that Americans dependent on savings or income from their weekly paycheck have yet to see. Ten years after the financial crisis, getting ahead by going to work every day seems quaint, akin to using the phone book to find a number or renting a video at Blockbuster.

Basically, there are two dividing lines: About a fifth the households in America either own nothing to speak of, or have debts that are greater than their assets. They live paycheck-to-paycheck, and miss out entirely on that 39% of national household income that now comes from something other than wages.

A large chunk of households in the middle of the economy have a positive net worth, but that wealth is almost entirely in the form of home equity. (Their IRAs or 401(k)s may own a few shares of stock, but those shares are not a significant percentage of their assets.) After paying the mortgage, they also live paycheck-to-paycheck. In most of the country, house prices collapsed in the Great Recession, and (except in a few hot markets) they haven’t grown much (if at all) in the last ten years, so these families’ net worth has remained relatively stagnant.

But at the top of the economy, people own stocks. They get dividends and capital gains that are taxed at a lower rate. And the government’s economic-recovery policies worked much better for them than for homeowners.

Like the bankers, shareholders and investors were also bailed out. By cutting interest rates to near zero and pumping trillions — yes, you read that right — into the economy, the Federal Reserve essentially put a trampoline under the stock market. The subsequent bounce produced a windfall, but only for a limited group of beneficiaries. Only about half of American households have any exposure to the stock market, including 401(k)’s and retirement plans, and ownership of the shares of individual companies is clustered among upper-income families.

For homeowners, there wasn’t much of a rescue package from Washington, and eight million succumbed to foreclosure. Sometimes, eviction came in the form of marshals with court orders; in other cases, families quietly handed over the keys to the bank and just walked away. Although home prices in hot markets have fully recovered, many homeowners are still underwater in the worst-hit states like Florida, Arizona and Nevada. Meanwhile, more Americans are renting and have little prospect of ever owning a home.

The housing crash hit middle-class black and Hispanic families harder than middle-class white families, worsening the racial wealth gap.

[F]amilies in the latter two groups were more dependent on housing as their principal form of investment. Not only were both minority groups harder hit by foreclosures, but Hispanics were also twice as likely as other Americans to be living in Sun Belt states where the housing crash was most severe.

In 2016, net worth among white middle-income families was 19 percent below 2007 levels, adjusted for inflation. But among blacks, it was down 40 percent, and Hispanics saw a drop of 46 percent.

Young people have also been set back. With their parents’ home equity all but gone, they face a choice between entering the economy without marketable skills and borrowing heavily to go to college or get other training. Student debt, says the NYT, “is now the second-largest category of consumer debt outstanding, after mortgages.”

A personal view comes from NYT editor M. H. Miller, who tells of his parents attending his 2009 graduation while facing foreclosure. At an age when previous generations of Americans were taking on mortgages and building for the future, Miller still owes $100K of student debt. “The financial crisis remains the defining trauma of my generation,” he says.

Finally, we come to what has happened at the bottom levels of the job market, covered by Matthew Desmond. He follows Vanessa Solivan, a home health aide raising three children in Trenton, New Jersey.

In May, Vanessa finally secured a spot in public housing. But for almost three years, she had belonged to the “working homeless,” a now-necessary phrase in today’s low-wage/high-rent society. … After juggling the kids and managing her diabetes, Vanessa is able to work 20 to 30 hours a week, which earns her around $1,200 a month. And that’s when things go well.

These days, we’re told that the American economy is strong. Unemployment is down, the Dow Jones industrial average is north of 25,000 and millions of jobs are going unfilled. But for people like Vanessa, the question is not, Can I land a job? (The answer is almost certainly, Yes, you can.) Instead the question is, What kinds of jobs are available to people without much education? By and large, the answer is: jobs that do not pay enough to live on.

It’s not that safety-net programs don’t help; on the contrary, they lift millions of families above the poverty line each year. But one of the most effective antipoverty solutions is a decent-paying job, and those have become scarce for people like Vanessa. Today, 41.7 million laborers — nearly a third of the American work force — earn less than $12 an hour, and almost none of their employers offer health insurance.

Desmond did well to focus on Vanessa. I suspect that the majority of NYT readers (whom I picture as better off than most Americans) have little contact with low-wage workers. Janitors, dishwashers, and busboys are almost invisible. Farm workers are out there in the country somewhere doing God-knows-what. You can imagine that waitresses make a lot in tips, and a few of them actually do. When your personal experiences don’t connect you to people, it’s easy to accept stereotyped accounts of their lives and problems: It’s their own fault. They just need to work harder and stay off drugs. If they learned to practice middle-class virtues, they’d be middle class themselves soon enough.

But lots and lots of professional-class folks have had needed home health aides at one time or another, either while recovering from something themselves or when they were trying to keep aging parents out of a nursing home. I dealt with several in my parents’ final years, and I know the agency didn’t charge us enough to pay them very well. The aides are not nurses, but they do hard, necessary work. The ones I met did it cheerfully, without complaining. None of the negative stereotypes of low-wage workers — that they’re lazy, stupid, resentful, unreliable, irresponsible, and have to be watched every minute — applied to the aides who took care of Mom and Dad.

In short, when I picture a home health aide, I picture someone who deserves to have a decent life. (Whether anyone deserves not to have a decent life is another question. But surely home health aides shouldn’t fall into that abyss.) The thought of Vanessa doing all the work she can get and still living in her car — that’s jarring to me in a way that stories of other low-wage workers might not be. I can’t easily make up some excuse to explain it, or make it seem just. I suspect that a lot of NYT readers had a similar reaction.

Similarly, many professional-class people recall the low-paying jobs they held as teen-agers, or during the summers of their college years, and may regard the experience as a harmless hazing that welcomes young people into the workforce. But Vanessa is 33, and is not on the road to some future prosperity. This is her life, and it’s the life of a lot of adult Americans.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics defines a “working poor” person as someone below the poverty line who spent at least half the year either working or looking for employment. In 2016, there were roughly 7.6 million Americans who fell into this category. Most working poor people are over 35, while fewer than five in 100 are between the ages of 16 and 19. In other words, the working poor are not primarily teenagers bagging groceries or scooping ice cream in paper hats. They are adults — and often parents — wiping down hotel showers and toilets, taking food orders and bussing tables, eviscerating chickens at meat-processing plants, minding children at 24-hour day care centers, picking berries, emptying trash cans, stacking grocery shelves at midnight, driving taxis and Ubers, answering customer-service hotlines, smoothing hot asphalt on freeways, teaching community-college students as adjunct professors and, yes, bagging groceries and scooping ice cream in paper hats.

There was never a golden age when the American Dream (whatever it may have been in that era) was available to all on equal terms. Inequality has always been with us, and has been increasing since the late 1970s. It is not some new development of the last ten years, but class lines have increasingly hardened since the Great Recession.

If you are a child of wealth, your path to success is comparatively smooth: As a child, you will get whatever help you need to maximize your talents and your attractiveness to elite colleges. With appropriate effort on your part, you will graduate not just with a punched ticket to the professional class, but without debt. If at some point your further development requires either more training or the capital to start a business, that won’t be a problem. Quite likely, you will reach 40 in good shape, ready to give your own children similar advantages, but with no awareness of ever having taken a “handout”. You got the grades, you did the work, you started the business — by what right can these socialists tax “your” money away and spend it on the people who lost the games you won?

But if your parents are not rich, you face difficult hurdles and choices. Depending on where you live, public schools may or may not give you the grounding you need to move on and get an advanced education. If that path is available to you, will it be worth all the money you will have to borrow? Or should you take your chances in the unskilled workforce, knowing that jobs and wages can evaporate in an instant, and that the best you can hope for is to scrape by from one week to the next?

That is our “recovered” economy. It’s “booming”, we are told. And for many people, it is. But not for everybody.