Archive for January, 2018

Trump’s wall of caca, and DACA

January 30, 2018

First he lied that Mexico would pay for it. Now he wants $25 billion from U.S. taxpayers as a down-payment on his border wall.

The other night on TV I saw a row of different prototype wall segments. Here’s my sequence of thoughts:

While some Mexicans may try it unaided, illicit border crossing is not generally a DIY project. Most utilize “coyotes” who guide them, charging thousands of dollars. Making it a serious business. If you were in that business, how would you overcome a wall?

Forget tunneling — too big a project. But how about a cherrypicker — like power companies use to hoist up workers for tree-trimming? Could easily be modified to also lower migrants down on the other side. Of course this would be done under cover of darkness. How hard would it be? (A high-tech wall might have sensors to detect such activity; but birds would probably screw them up.)

Or how about a mini-helicopter — or simple small airplane? Flights would take only minutes; landing in the desert, and taking off again, would be a snap.

Or how about this cheap low-tech solution: a ladder. Lightweight, foldable, re-usable. How hard would that be?

That was about twelve seconds of thought. Is Trump capable of twelve consecutive seconds of thought? Will we spend $25 billion for something that can be foiled by a ladder? Or is this all just a cynical pander to his racist supporters for whom a wall is a powerful symbol — but who haven’t the brains to think of a ladder? (Itself a powerful symbol.)

DACA is the program allowing people brought here as children, unlawfully — the “dreamers” — to stay. Most are students or employed, contributing members of society. Polls show overwhelming majorities (even among Trump voters) think it would be cruel and dumb to end DACA.

In September, when Trump cancelled DACA and said he hoped Congress would restore it, I called that a lie* — the 1,578th of the 2,140 in his first presidential year (literally, according to a Washington Post compilation). Trump and the Grand Old White Folks Party are holding the dreamers as hostages. Democrats should not have played their game by linking DACA to the government shutdown. In the end they were forced to vote to end the shutdown merely in exchange for a worthless promise of DACA action, on which Trump predictably reneged. Now he offers DACA only for a further price: $25 billion for his wall, and a huge change in immigration policy, limiting family reunification only to spouses and underage children, which would ultimately cut legal immigration almost in half. This is the aim of racist Republican immigrant-haters.

These are terrible ideas; our economy actually needs more immigrants. These Trump immigration proposals should not, and never could, pass on their own. Democrats should refuse bundling them with DACA, and answer: if you’re sincere about DACA, then let’s vote on a DACA bill alone, which would pass; otherwise, DACA’s demise will be your criminal responsibility.

I believe in legislative compromise, and Heaven knows we suffer from a dearth of it. But Trump’s proposal isn’t honorable compromise, it’s extortion and blackmail. The ransom demanded for release of the dreamer hostages is way too high.

* Trump hates DACA for two reasons. First, it was Obama’s doing, and spite against Obama is a chief animus of his presidency. Second, most beneficiaries are (like Obama) brown-skinned.

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Conservatism and Elephants

January 28, 2018

(This appeared as a commentary in the January 24 Albany Times-Union)

I used to call myself a conservative. The left/right divide originated in the French Revolution’s parliament — aristocrats sat on the right, revolutionaries on the left. The right sought to “conserve” the status quo, a political orientation valuing tradition and skeptical toward change.

Goldwater

Modern American conservatism began as a reaction to the change represented by FDR’s New Deal. It revved up during the 1960s Goldwater era (when I came aboard), emphasizing opposition to big intrusive government. The philosophy was best articulated by 19th century British thinker John Stuart Mill (Europeans call it classical liberalism).* It says society fares best when individuals are left free to follow their own paths. Adam Smith showed how a free market economy’s “invisible hand” makes individual self-seeking serve the greater good.

But most citizens are not political philosophers. As Jonathan Haidt explained in his book, The Righteous Mind, political orientation is shaped more by personality type and psychology — nature and nurture. American conservatism is thus less philosophical than social and cultural.

Republican politicians long pandered to that, exploiting issues like gays, abortion, and race, to advance their larger political ends. They were riding a tiger — which finally ate them. Today, there’s little left of philosophical conservatism but stripped bones and tiger droppings.

Goldwater, in his eighties, supported gays in the military, before it was accepted policy. That was conservatism honoring every individual’s right to live their own way. But today’s “conservative” opposition to gay marriage, or transgender rights, isn’t philosophical. It’s social/cultural prejudice. They’re all for individual freedom except when they’re not.

Haidt invoked another animal riding metaphor. Our conscious rational minds are like a rider on an elephant, which represents our unconscious. We imagine the rider is in charge. But actually the elephant decides the direction, with our conscious minds along for the ride. And much of our thinking is rationalizing, to ourselves, that path. Even religious rationalization. People pick and choose from the Bible what fits with their gut feelings. Conservatives’ anti-gay stance comes less from the Bible than from their elephants.

Many of us thought racism was disappearing. I myself had long denied that it deeply infects America. But maybe that was over-optimistic. Survey analysis reveals that the one factor most strongly correlated with Trump support is racial/ethnic antagonism. People may think they’re not racists — but their elephants may be. (Not only in America. Brexit was primarily a vote against immigration.)

The elephant is very tribal, which increasingly characterizes our politics. And while race, religion, social class, etc., are traditional tribal dividing lines, political identity itself has now become the salient tribalism, trumping all else.

This helps explain how Republicans and “conservatism” so thoroughly embraced Trump. Once his support in the GOP reached a critical mass, its tribal identity transmogrified, into the Trump tribe. His comprehensive unfitness (obvious long before the book Fire and Fury) didn’t seem to matter. Nor policies rubbishing traditional conservatism. Forget free trade, fiscal responsibility, equal opportunity, American global leadership. Swallow all the lies. And hello, racism. You go with your tribe, regardless.

Of course this was an elephant stampede — revealing that for most Republicans, intellectualizations dressing up their political proclivities are just a veneer hiding, even from themselves, the base instincts really behind them.

So principled conservatism is dead. Unprincipled “conservatives” rule for now — thanks only to gerrymandering and the Electoral College — but they’re doomed. More folks already vote Democrat. The rat’s nest of attitudinal pathologies calling itself “conservative” today is concentrated in a diminishing demographic of older voters. And the presidential horror show should thoroughly toxify the brand.

* David Brooks recently had a nice column about Mill.

China’s culture of corruption

January 25, 2018

We keep hearing how corrupt the U.S. political system is; this fueled the Sanders and Trump revolts. And the problem is real. It’s mainly that political campaigns are costly, and to get the money politicians sell themselves to special interests. (Yet it’s not true that money buys elections. Many well-funded candidates lose.)

China’s system is corrupt on a much deeper level. I say this not to dismiss our problem, nor out of anti-Chinese prejudice. But China looms increasingly large on the world stage – so we’d better understand it.

The Economist recently had an incisive review of Minxin Pei’s book, China’s Crony Capitalism: The Dynamics of Regime Decay. China’s government still owns around half the economy. And while government and party officials generally cannot actually steal these assets, they exploit control over them to enrich themselves. This is exacerbated by decentralization, giving local powers wide-ranging authority.

Government in America at all levels, while not owning assets, nevertheless does impact private financial interests – hence the “pay to play” culture mentioned earlier. But not only does China’s government ownership of commercial assets offer greater scope for chicanery by officials, it’s compounded by China’s very different culture.

Corruption, deceit, and bribery are endemic in every sphere of Chinese life. Getting anywhere is based not on what you know, but who you know – and who you pay off. Combining that culture with a decentralized system wherein officials control commercial assets is a toxic recipe for misfeasance on a grand scale. And worse yet, such exercise of power is not subject to liberal democracy’s checks and balances.

Thus, for example, public contracts in China don’t tend to get awarded without kickbacks. America awards lots of public contracts, but normally through transparent bidding, so Chinese-style bribery seems quite the rarity here. That reflects the profound differences in culture and checks-and-balances. We’ve recently seen just this kind of contracting scandal in New York State. What surprised me was that the culprits imagined they could get away with it. They were nailed by a federal prosecutor (Preet Bharara) who could not be bought off or politically manipulated. Nothing like that exists in China to deter similar misfeasance. And so, as Pei’s book documents, it flourishes there on a monumental scale.

It’s true that President Xi Jinping has mounted an anti-corruption drive, and some big fish have been caught, along with vast schools of smaller fry. Xi seems to realize that public resentment at the depth of corruption threatens regime and party survival. Yet his effort has actually targeted only a small proportion of officials, and its true thrust seems to be more a purge of ones not under his thumb, thus aggrandizing his personal power.*

Xi Jinping

The Economist says Xi’s crusade cannot reach the problem’s roots, which lie in the system itself. China needs democratic checks and balances, such as an independent judiciary, a free press, and political competition. (One should add rule of law.) Xi is going in the opposite direction.

Author Pei is pessimistic. Even a revolutionary overthrow of the regime won’t likely usher a dawn of liberal democracy, he says. Those who acquired inordinate power and illicit wealth will find ways to continue that. Russia and Ukraine are case studies.

America’s better system and culture should not be taken for granted. It’s worrying that ever fewer Americans understand it.

* In China’s system, the leader is supposed to have two five-year terms, then go. It now appears that Xi will ignore that limitation.

Why we need a free press

January 23, 2018

My local paper, the Times-Union, has a terrific columnist, Chris Churchill. Recently he wrote about the Edson Thevenin case.

Thevenin was driving drunk and recklessly in nearby Troy, winding up killed by eight police bullets through his windshield. A quick police investigation exonerated the shooter. Before that was even done, the local DA, Joel Abelove, also engineered grand jury non-indictment. Abelove’s actions resulted in his own indictment for official misconduct and perjury. All this was the subject of an investigation and report by the State Attorney General.

All duly reported in the news. But while news reports must relate facts dispassionately — and that’s certainly vital — a columnist can put facts in perspective. This Churchill did — devastatingly. It’s not just that the officers on the scene did bad, and lied. The whole department covered itself with shame. (Churchill’s column focuses only on the police. Maybe he’ll do Abelove later. Meantime, after I drafted this post, the paper also published a scathing editorial about the case.)

But my point is not about the Thevenin case per se. It’s how important it is to have the press, and guys like Chris Churchill, doing what they do. Local government tried to whitewash this case and cover up misconduct. The Times-Union and Churchill make sure the public understands. This is essential for government being accountable to the citizens it’s supposed to serve.

Hobbes

That is the nub of our social contract. As Thomas Hobbes elucidated, we establish government in order to make a good society. But that requires government having a lot of power, and it’s a constant struggle to keep that power from being abused, contrary to the reason we have government in the first place.

That’s not hypothetical. Indeed, throughout history and throughout the world, governments being so constrained are not the rule but the exception. The prime instance is America, but even here, it’s still a constant struggle — as epitomized by the police shooting problem. We give policemen guns to protect us, but too often people are shot who shouldn’t be. And, as the Thevenin case illustrates, a free press is critical for exposing, and thereby controlling, the problem.

Chris Churchill’s columns would, in many places — Russia, China, Venezuela, Turkey, and too many others — get him jailed (and likely tortured), if not killed. Though in such countries they wouldn’t be published at all. Those regimes don’t want to be accountable in the way that guys like Churchill make governments accountable. And America’s current president doesn’t want it either.

The press is not “the enemy of the people.” It’s the enemy of power abuse. The enemy of lies.

 

Albany Women’s March against Trump

January 21, 2018

I went to the local women’s march, at the state capitol. Didn’t relish standing in the cold for two hours during speeches (note to self: next time, double socks). But some things one must do. Of course, I’m not actually a woman; it was an expression of solidarity. There were many other males. I was stunned by the hugeness of the crowd (way bigger than the April March for Science). The speeches were actually pretty rousing; and while there was much to be angry about, a positive spirit prevailed. Everyone felt good being there. How much good it will do is something else. Hopefully, it will carry over to where it really counts, in this democracy: voting.

I noted that behind the speakers stood a statue of our first president, George Washington. What a wise and noble man, who did so much to truly make America great. The contrast against the current president was striking; a tangible symbol of how far the institution has fallen.

I got out the “Trump Disgraces America” sign I’d made for last January’s airport protest. There were many hundreds of home-made signs, many very clever, fun to see. The words “shit hole” duly appeared. And the prize goes to . . . a cartoon of Trump and “Does this ass make my country look small?”

Another normal day in the United States of Trump

January 20, 2018

A “government shutdown” is when the government can’t pay employees for working, so instead pays them for not working.

That’s the reality. Workers are sent home because there’s no Congressional authorization to pay their salaries. But because nobody wants to screw them out of much-needed income, once the “shutdown” ends they get their missing pay anyway. Paying for work not done costs taxpayers billions; the loss to the economy is billions more.

The shutdown is happening because Trump is holding DACA “dreamers” hostage to funding his wall (the one he promised Mexico would pay for). DACA concerns people brought to America as children, outside the legal immigration system, who have made their lives here. A strong majority of Americans wants them allowed to stay. The criminal cruelty of revoking their permission to stay is obvious (and it would damage our economy too). When in September Trump cancelled DACA he shed crocodile tears for these “dreamers” and said he wanted Congress to fix it. He was lying — as I said at the time.

The shutdown is happening because this celebrated author of The Art of the Deal* actually stinks at deal-making. Because his position changes by the minute, he doesn’t negotiate in good faith, doesn’t fulfill commitments, and nobody can trust anything he says. It’s his disordered mind. He was offered deals that would solve the DACA issue and avoid a shutdown. He refused.

Of course he blames Democrats — even though Republicans control all branches of the government. It’s just his normal modus operandi of lying, scapegoating, and name-calling. He plays the military card — as in “weak on borders, weak on crime, weak on the military” — nonsense he spews at any political opponent, knowing he can say absolutely anything and his supporters lap it up.

In other words, we’re having just another normal day in the United States of Trump.

* Ghost-written, actually, of course. When will he publish the sequel, The Art of the Lie?

A nation of losers

January 18, 2018

America has long been embroiled in cultural and ideological wars, which if anything are intensifying. So — who’s winning? Nobody, if you listen to either side.

The left’s social justice warriors see the system as rigged by retrograde forces and for the rich against the rest; controlled by corporations and fatcats whose money buys politicians and power. They see an incorrigibly racist and homophobic nation too.

The right inhabits a mirror-image country: seen as coddling ethnic minorities, foreigners, and sexual deviants, controlled by a corrupt establishment selling out the nation’s interests and traditional values.

In other words, both sides see themselves as losing. Victimhood becomes an increasingly popular mindset. Columnist David Brooks notes a poll showing 64% of Americans see their group as losing most of the time. He calls it a “siege mentality” — which can actually feel kind of good. Like you’re a noble warrior making a stand against evil. Us against the world!

This actually explains a lot, especially about the right, which might otherwise seem puzzling. How could fundamentalist Christians countenance Trump’s lies, grotesqueries, and even “grab them by the pussy?” Or Roy Moore’s pedophilia? Brooks’s take: “When our very existence is on the line, we can’t be worrying about things like humility, sexual morality, honesty and basic decency. In times of war, all is permissible. Even molesting teenagers . . . .”

It helps if you can close your eyes to reality, telling yourself Trump doesn’t lie, it’s the news media (part of the establishment conspiracy) trying to do him down. And that even Roy Moore was a good, godly man, victimized by fake news.

Brooks laments that such attitudes only serve to marginalize their holders even more; so they don’t merely imagine themselves as losing, they really are losers. He adds that contempt for such people (“basket of deplorables”) also feels good — “But contempt only breeds contempt.” We should instead give each other the benefit of the doubt, he concludes.

I admit to the kind of contempt Brooks describes. Indeed, schadenfreude about Moore, pumping my fist when learning of another accuser, and of course when he lost. Yet I am deeply saddened and disturbed that so many of my fellow citizens’ heads are so far up their rears. Brooks calls for meeting them “with confident pluralism.” And after all, I did write a book touting “rational optimism.” But it’s hard to see how America rises out of this swamp. A nation full of people seeing themselves as losing is a nation of losers.

Of babies and bathwater

January 15, 2018

Libertarians tend to be skeptical toward government because it too often uses sledgehammers to kill ants, throws babies out with bathwater, and punishes the many for the sins of a few. (Like TSA, incapable of smart targeting, punishes all air travelers; confiscating, because of some past liquid bomb plot, the coffee bottle my wife forgot was in her bag.)

Advocates of free market economics do not actually call for “unfettered” capitalism. Just like we’re all subject to laws against jaywalking and murder, etc., the same principle applies to businesses, to protect us from harm. But there can be too much of a good thing.

India is a clear lesson, having suffered, since independence, from its founders’ infatuation with the idea of socialism, producing an excess of government and regulation. It’s been called the “Licence Raj.” Whatever notional harm this thicket of rules supposedly protected the public against, that was far outweighed by suffocating the economy and thereby keeping Indians a lot poorer than they need have been. (Another sardonic Indian expression for this was “the Hindu rate of growth.”) Thankfully, India started undoing all this after a 1991 financial crisis, and Narendra Modi’s government, elected in 2014, promised to do more to let business do business.

But two recent episodes show that India hasn’t unlearned its bad habits.

Government’s main economic role should not be constraining businesses, but facilitating them, by creating the conditions for commerce to thrive. For example, a sound judicial system wherein legal disputes can be fairly and efficiently resolved. Another critical role is providing a money supply, the lubricant of commerce.

Modi’s government thought it had a problem with tax-evading business people hiding cash. Maybe it did. Its answer was an attempt to catch them out by invalidating, on short notice, the highest value banknotes — 86% of the money in circulation! Economic chaos ensued with citizens queuing for hours outside banks trying to exchange their old notes — with strict limits — for new ones that were in short supply — prompting a mad scramble to find other ways to buy, sell, and get paid. While many poor people lost savings.

Punishing the many for the sins of a few; a sledgehammer to kill an ant; a baby thrown out with bathwater. (Meantime, it doesn’t even seem that black marketeers were inconvenienced much. Unsurprisingly, they found ways around the restrictions.)

Now a second Indian tale. Another problem is rampant car crashes, often caused by drunk driving. India’s latest brilliant answer: a Supreme Court ruling barring alcohol sales within 500 meters (about 1500 feet) of a state or national highway. Location near a highway used to be advantageous for such businesses. No longer. Indeed, the ruling could potentially close 100,000 bars, costing a million jobs.

Punishing drunk driving makes sense. Punishing an entire legitimate industry– indeed, the entire country — does not. More sledgehammers and ants; babies and bathwater. The victims of this insanity also include state and local governments, which stand to lose billions in alcohol taxes. But many are taking evasive action, by hastily reclassifying state highways into district or municipal roads. Some wags say the true reading of the new rule is “No road shall be classified as a highway within 500 meters of a bar.”

Maybe India will next literally require throwing out babies with bathwater. As a population control measure, of course.

Shit-hole countries

January 13, 2018
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

BREAKING NEWS: Trump Shoots Woman on 5th Ave

January 13, 2018

(Associated Press) — President Donald Trump shot a woman on New York’s Fifth Avenue last night. The woman, whose name has not been released, was shot in the foot and is reportedly in stable condition in a nearby hospital.

The incident, captured on video, occurred shortly after 8 PM, as the President was being escorted by his Secret Service detail from Trump Tower to a waiting car. The woman, who was walking her dog nearby, screamed at the President, impugning his physical appearance, truthfulness, and mental condition. Mr. Trump looked in her direction and shouted back, “Lunatic!” whereupon the woman rejoined, “You’re the lunatic!”

The President then voiced an expletive and turned to Secret Service Agent Matthew Carnevale saying, “Give me your [expletive deleted] gun.” Agent Carnevale initially demurred, but when Mr. Trump said it was a direct order, Carnevale complied. The President then fired once at the dog walker, now standing about ten feet away, striking her foot. It is not clear where the President was aiming.

Secret Service Director Joseph Clancy stated that Agent Carnevale has been suspended, pending an administrative review of the incident.

President Trump tweeted shortly afterwards, “Lying bitch insulted your President to-nite! Lock her up! Will be SUEING [sic] HER!! But there was no shootting [sic], none whatsoever, believe me. FAKE NEWS!!”

Early this morning, after it was reported that overnight polls showed no measurable drop in his favorability ratings, Mr. Trump tweeted, “Remember I said could shoot somebody on 5th Ave & lose no votes? Look at polls! I am a GENIUS!!”