Thursday, June 22, 2017

Obama's Statement on the Senate Health Care Act

Obama's statement on the GOP Health bill released by the Senate today, which he posted on Facebook, is worth reading:
Our politics are divided. They have been for a long time. And while I know that division makes it difficult to listen to Americans with whom we disagree, that’s what we need to do today.  . . .  
[W]e fought for (the ACA) because we knew it would save lives, prevent financial misery, and ultimately set this country we love on a better, healthier course. . . .  
Thousands upon thousands of Americans, including Republicans, threw themselves into that collective effort, not for political reasons, but for intensely personal ones – a sick child, a parent lost to cancer, the memory of medical bills that threatened to derail their dreams. . . . 
For the first time, more than ninety percent of Americans know the security of health insurance. Health care costs, while still rising, have been rising at the slowest pace in fifty years. Women can’t be charged more for their insurance, young adults can stay on their parents’ plan until they turn 26, contraceptive care and preventive care are now free. Paying more, or being denied insurance altogether due to a preexisting condition – we made that a thing of the past.

. . . .  So I still hope that there are enough Republicans in Congress who remember that public service is not about sport or notching a political win, that there’s a reason we all chose to serve in the first place, and that hopefully, it’s to make people’s lives better, not worse.

But right now, after eight years, the legislation rushed through the House and the Senate without public hearings or debate would do the opposite. It would raise costs, reduce coverage, roll back protections, and ruin Medicaid as we know it. That’s not my opinion, but rather the conclusion of all objective analyses, from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, which found that 23 million Americans would lose insurance, to America’s doctors, nurses, and hospitals on the front lines of our health care system.
The Senate bill, unveiled today, is not a health care bill. It’s a massive transfer of wealth from middle-class and poor families to the richest people in America. . . . Discrimination based on pre-existing conditions could become the norm again. Millions of families will lose coverage entirely.

Simply put, if there’s a chance you might get sick, get old, or start a family – this bill will do you harm. . . .  
I hope our Senators ask themselves – what will happen to the Americans grappling with opioid addiction who suddenly lose their coverage? What will happen to pregnant mothers, children with disabilities, poor adults and seniors who need long-term care once they can no longer count on Medicaid? What will happen if you have a medical emergency when insurance companies are once again allowed to exclude the benefits you need, send you unlimited bills, or set unaffordable deductibles? What impossible choices will working parents be forced to make if their child’s cancer treatment costs them more than their life savings? 
To put the American people through that pain – while giving billionaires and corporations a massive tax cut in return – that’s tough to fathom. But it’s what’s at stake right now. So it remains my fervent hope that we step back and try to deliver on what the American people need.
Elections have consequences, and Republicans campaigned on wrecking Obamacare, and reducing the federal governments role in healthcare. Ominously, the Senate bill would effect long term cuts in Medicaid.  Medicaid provides health care for the nation's neediest.

The chart of who benefits from Medicaid prepared by the New York Times today, is also worth contemplating.

This is the population that will be harmed the most by the proposed cuts to Medicare. We don't have universal health care in this country. The ideology that says we should reduce the health care we provide to poor children, children with disabilities, poor adults, and nursing home residents is an ideology of cruelty. It's shameful.


And here is Ezra Klein at Vox about the core part of the bill:
[W]hat this bill does, [i]n fact, it does it over and over again; policy after policy in the bill is built to achieve the same goal: making poor people pay more for less health insurance. . . 
Reading the bill, I keep thinking about what Sen. Mitch McConnell said about the Affordable Care Act in January:
----MCCONNELL: "Well, what you need to understand is that there are 25 million Americans who aren’t covered now. If the idea behind Obamacare was to get everyone covered, that’s one of the many failures. In addition to premiums going up, copayments going up, deductibles going up. And many Americans who actually did get insurance when they did not have it before have really bad insurance that they have to pay for, and the deductibles are so high that it’s really not worth much to them. So it is chaotic. The status quo is simply unacceptable."
McConnell was right in every criticism he made of the ACA. Then he turned around and wrote a bill that made every single problem he identified worse. 
The bill he has written leads to more people who aren’t covered. The premiums, deductibles, and copays people actually pay for their care will skyrocket. More people will end up in bad insurance that has deductibles so high that it’s really not worth much to them. In a particularly Orwellian flourish, the name of this bill dedicated to diminishing the quality of the insurance coverage Americans can afford is “The Better Care Act.”
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Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Partisanship Model of Representation is not Democracy

Sen. Maj. Leader, Mitch McConnell/The Hill
A small committee of Republicans in the Senate has been crafting health care legislation in secret,  behind closed doors.  Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell hopes to achieve a one vote partisan majority for the GOP American Health Care Act, possibly with the help of the Vice President, by the end of this month.  McConnell appears to believe that his chances of passing such contentious legislation is enhanced if there is no adequate opportunity for review by the press, members of his own caucus, Democrats, or the public. He may be correct insofar as this prevents normal political pressures from building up.  There is talk that tax reform will be tackled the same way. "The White House plans to privately negotiate a massive overhaul of the tax system with Republican leaders in Congress," the New York Times reports today, "possibly giving rank-and-file members little if any say over the finished product." 

This crafting of legislation behind closed doors, effective though it may be, is dangerous for our democracy. The idea that Senators would approve bills crafted in secret, without adequate public hearings, and without either the public or their elected representatives having an opportunity to absorb, understand, and evaluate proposed legislation should set off alarm bells. It runs counter to any plausible notion of representative government. 

Styles of representation differ among members of Congress, says Eric Petersen in a report by the Congressional Research Service (Roles and Duties of a Member of Congress, 2010). Some members see themselves as responding to instructions from their constituents back home (a "delegate" model of representation). Others prefer to act on their own initiative and exercise their own judgment (a "trustee" model of representation). But both the delegate model of representation and the trustee model of representation requires members of Congress to act in the best interest of their constituents, and this requires that major pieces of legislation be open, transparent, and understood by the elected representatives and/or the public before a vote takes place. 

In order for a senator to follow the instructions of constituents back home (the delegate model), a major piece of legislation like the American Health Care Act must be presented, reported on by the press, scored by the Congressional Budget Office, discussed, and sufficiently absorbed by constituents so Senators and members of the House can get a sense of what the "instructions" of their constituents might be. In order for any member of Congress to act on his or her own initiative and exercise his or her own judgment (the trustee model), an important piece of legislation like the American Health Care Act, or the tax reform bill to come, must be presented, discussed and sufficiently absorbed in order for each member of Congress to be able to exercise his or her own judgment. 

The American Health Care Act bill passed by the House last month is politically unpopular. This bill proposes to substantially dismantle Obamacare's modest improvements to our dysfunctional health care system: the House bill provides a large tax cut (nearly $600 billion over ten years), and a substantial reduction in health insurance premium subsidies for those unable to afford health insurance. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that 24 million Americans would lose health insurance as a result of the House bill.

As a result, McConnell has sought to duck the political heat that would come from further exposing the GOP ideas to daylight. The GOP leadership in the Senate has opted to craft their version of the health care bill in secret. Mitch McConnell has convened thirteen senators behind closed doors, and he hopes to force a vote and pass a bill with 50 GOP Senators plus the Vice President, essentially without debate.  

"There will be plenty of opportunity to read and amend the bill," McConnell promises. Apparently a "discussion draft" will be made available this Thursday. It remains to be seen what "discussion draft" means, and how much opportunity for study and amendment of the actual bill will be afforded. 

The thirteen senators that make up McConnell's health care cabal are all Republicans, all white, all male, and mostly from red states. Here's the list: 
  • Mitch McConnell (Majority leader, Kentucky) 
  • John Cornyn (Majority whip, Texas) 
  • Ted Cruz (Texas)
  • John Thune (GOP Senate conference chair, South Dakota)
  • John Barasso (GOP policy committee chair, Wyoming)
  • Orin Hatch (Utah)
  • Mike Lee (Utah)
  • Lamar Alexander (Senate health committee chair, Tennessee)
  • Michael Enzi (Budget committee chair, Wyoming)
  • Tom Cotton (Arkansas)
  • Cory Gardener (Colorado)
  • Rob Portman (Ohio)
  • Patrick Toomey (Pennsylvania)
These white men represent 20 percent of states and 24 percent of the population of the country. It's hard to square this with a delegate model of representation. And since there is no word yet on when the actual bill will be released, and McConnell has vowed to bring it up for a vote next week, it's impossible to square this process with a trustee model of representation. 

So we ask: what is the duty of the 87 Senators who have been shut out of this process, who don't know what's in the bill, whose first glimpse will be a "discussion draft" to be released on Thursday?  Do they have a duty to study and to understand this bill before they vote for it? To get feedback from their constituents before they vote for it? And how much time does this take for a complicated piece of legislation? 

When Senators enter Congress they take an oath of office: they swear to uphold the constitution of the United States and to faithfully discharge their duties of office. What are those duties of office? Do they include taking responsibility for individual votes? Do our elected representatives have a duty to make best efforts to act as our delegates and/or our trustees? Would our representatives be discharging their duties of office if they absented themselves from Congress while their colleagues study and debate a measure, flying in at the last moment to cast a vote for something they do not understand and have paid no attention to? Perhaps they might do so on a purely partisan basis?

A partisanship model of representation, however, suggests that the duty of a Congress person is to vote the party line, irrespective of the merit or wisdom of legislation. The merit or wisdom of legislation has nothing to do with it. There is no duty to act as our delegate and/or our trustee; our elected representative's duty is simply to vote the party line, holding their nose if need be. That and to show us around when we visit Washington DC, and to raise money to get re-elected. The partisanship model denies that there is a duty to make efforts to sense our "instructions" as constituents on a major piece of legislation; all that matters is to vote the party line. It matters not that 70 percent of constituents are opposed to a piece of legislation like the GOP American Health Care Act. All that matters is that our representative vote the party line. 

But this partisanship model of representation is a disaster. The moment we are prepared to let our representatives outsource policy on a major piece of legislation to 13 white males from 10 states, representing 24 percent of the population, and blindly follow whatever is put before them without understanding or discussion, then we have truly severed any tie between us and our representatives: it's no longer the delegated will of the people on this piece of legislation that matters, it's no longer the independent initiative and judgment of our representative (exercised in our best interest) that matters; it's the will of these 13 white men from 10 states acting behind closed doors that matters. 

Whatever we call that, it is not democracy. . . 

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Monday, June 12, 2017

Wonder Woman

Ayalet Gadot as Wonder Woman
In the 1998 American film The Truman Show, Truman Burbank unwittingly lives 30 years in a made for television ecosphere, an artificial bubble of small town America. Truman is the star of a reality TV show; the joke's on him.

The drama of the film plays out as the wheels slowly come off this charade. The producer (Ed Harris) pleads with Truman (Jim Carrey) to stay. But finally, Truman manages to break out of this created world, and to escape the grasp of his creator.

In the 1997 film Contact, Dr. Ellie Arroway (Jodi Foster) temporarily travels through wormholes  to the Vega star system, 25 light years removed. She lands on a beach, where she touches the membrane of an ecosphere bubble created just for her.  A man, or some type of digital projection--or is it an angel figure--walks towards her.  It turns out to be her father. And the beach is a Florida beach from her childhood. What is reality here, and what is the bubble.  Are we living in Bubble earth?

Like Truman's world, Ellie Arroway visits a slice of made up heaven.

1997 was also the year Men in Black was released, starring Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith as G-men whose mission, like that of the Amazons in Wonder Woman, is to seek out and protect mankind from giant cockroaches and other unsavory alien characters disguised as humans. The film has a great opening credits scene, starring dragonflies, alien-like creatures buzzing in their own ecosphere: a dangerous corner of the universe along a busy freeway.  "God damned bugs," observe the G-men as the dragon fly goes splat on the window.

Wonder Woman (released June 2, 2017), the Steven Mnuchin (Trump's treasury secretary) produced film, starring Israel Defense Forces hottie Ayalet Gadot, and directed by Patti Jenkins, also hails from an ecosphere--this time unequivocally an ecosphere of the gods.  It's a paradise of  blue-green ocean, white sand beaches, digitally added cliffs and waterfalls, and a medieval setting.  [Filmed on the Amalfie coast in Italy] We meet young (~7 y.o.?) Diana, an Amazon princess, a demigod off-spring of Zeus and the Amazon queen Hyppolita, or perhaps sculpted from clay and made beautiful flesh, like Adam.

Just off-shore, the island is hidden from view by a permanent fog, and there is a membrane, like the the one that limits Truman Burbank's world, like the invisible membrane that contains Ellie Arroway's Floridian beach in Contact. You poke it, and it gives: like a clear balloon, like a jellyfish that doesn't sting, like a giant latex tent.

Inside this isolated ecosphere, young Diana lustily watches the Amazons in martial training. This war business looks like spring training.

Toronto Blue-Jays fan at Spring-Training
Unlike our nuclear ICBM force, which has suffered from a lack of adrenalin focused attention in the absence of an active military threat, these Amazons are in top form despite millennia of peace.

Unlike the Amazons from Greek mythology, whose main concern in life was war, who were aggressive manslayers, who loathed all men according to Aeschylus, the Amazons of Wonder Woman are guardians of peace. For thousands of years they have trained on their Island to stand up to Ares, the God of war, in order to protect mankind from his ravages.  Hyppolyta, the offspring of Zeus in this movie, even if the off-spring of Ares in the Greek versions of the legend, has a vague notion that Ares will be kept at a distance if only she keeps her daughter away from the martial arts. It's the talisman fantasy of Ora (the mother) in David Grossman's novel To the End of the Land.  In this case, Hyppolyta's sister Antiope, the most skilled of the Amazon warriors, knows better. Antiope secretly starts training young Diana, developing her godly powers.

They've been asleep at the switch, of course, these immortal Amazons; "immortal," it seems, except as needed for dramatic effect of the movie. They've been happily living in their fantasy Spring Training bubble while Ares has run amok in Asia, Alexander the Great conquered, the Roman Empire rose and fell, the Arabs conquered North Africa, the crusaders sacked Constantinople and Jerusalem, the Mongolians swept across the Asian plains into Europe, and Europeans decimated the Americas.

These Amazons have evidently lacked a decent intelligence service. They've lost track of what Ares has been up to in the world. So it's not until a handsome "above average" spy, Steve Trevor (played by Nick Price), crash lands in Diana's lap in this martial paradise, with nasty Germans in hot pursuit, that the Amazons get a whiff of what Ares has been up to while they've frolicked in their bubble.

Steve Trevor has a soft landing. There's nothing quite like a bonding battle with nasty Germans to get the romantic juices flowing.

Diana and Steve leave this Paradise to set off on a heroic journey to end World War One, in November 1918. And (surprise, surprise) they manage to end the war, with a bit of fun along the way. Too bad Diana's understanding of Ares was all washed up. It would have been nice to avoid World War Two, the Holocaust, and all that business.

Ayalet Gadot is very pleasant to look at. She creates plausible chemistry with Nick Price.  She looks very cool in her Annie Hall outfit, and is pleasingly sexy in her Wonder Woman garb. Visualizing and grabbing bullets is pretty cool, if not novel. To my eyes, Gadot's IDF creds notwithstanding, this Wonder Woman is less convincing in her martial role than Hillary Swank in Million Dollar Baby. Apparently Gadot gained 17 pounds of muscle in training for her role, she still looks rather thin when holding up a shield running into a hail of bullets.

The film makes evident efforts to dig below the surface of its DC Comic book surface. As A.O. Scott puts it, Wonder Woman tries to be a real movie. I think it succeeds enough to make it a worthwhile summer diversion. The movie is fun. And, as a bonus, there are all the cultural sideshows: the boycott of the film by Lebanon and Tunisia (so far)--because of Gadot; the "mean against men" all women's screenings being conducted around the country; and the angst of sexual fetishization.

For discussion on Wonder Woman's origins see Alex Abad-Santos at Vox.  For a discussion about the age old fantasy of hot lady warriors, see Christian Georges-Schwentzel at Alternet.

For a good time, go see Wonder Woman. 

Follow me on Twitter @Roland Nikles

Friday, June 9, 2017

From Each According to His Ability, to Each According to his Need: as true today as in 1875

Government raises tax money to pay for essential goods and services. How should it get the money?

Disparities in intellect, physical abilities, education, opportunities, motivations, power and luck result in vast inequalities of income and wealth.  Should we collect more taxes from those who have less (because there are more of them), or should we collect more taxes from those who have more (collecting more from the fewer who are able to bear the burden)?

We have a social consensus that taxes should be efficient, universal, progressive, and fair. But "fair" is an elusive and unstable concept, and it's especially wobbly in the hands of people like Governor Sam Brownback of Kansas, or the GOP majority in Congress today.

In ancient Egypt, tax collectors were known as scribes and they collected taxes on such things as cooking oil. Scribes audited the use of cooking oil by households and required the use of certain cooking oils. In classical Greece the Athenians attempted to foist their tax burden on foreigners through a poll tax on non-Athenians, called a metoikion. They imposed a universal tax on all Athenians, called an eisphora, only in times of war. The Romans levied customs duties on imports and exports, a portoria.  Ceasar Augustus delegated the burden of tax collection to cities and provincial governors, making many of them rich. He also imposed an inheritance tax to pay for the retirement of soldiers. The tax was five percent of all inheritances, except gifts to children and spouses.  Julius Ceaser imposed a one percent sales tax.

In England, the King's Writ (a letter dated June 20, 1215 from King John to the Sheriff of Gloucester, announcing the signing of the Magna Carta) stated that individuals should be taxed according to their status and means--embodying an early expression of the principle of progressive taxation.

During the English Civil War, Parliament imposed excise taxes on grains, meats, and vegetables in order to pay for Oliver Cromwell's army.  These taxes were very regressive and fell mostly on the poor, leading to riots in 1647.  An early income tax was introduced by Britain in 1800 to pay for the Napoleonic wars.

In the United States, Congress imposed its first income tax in 1861 to fund the Northern Armies in the Civil War (3% of all income over $800.00). This tax was rescinded in 1872. A new income tax was introduced in 1894, but the following year, in Pollock v. Farmers Loan & Trust Co., the Supreme Court struck down all unapportioned direct taxes (according to political representation in Congress) on income, bonds, and dividends as unconstitutional.  The decision was overturned by the adoption of the 16th Amendment to the Constitution in 1913, and the Federal government has relied heavily on income taxation to fund its operations ever since.

States, by contrast, even though they have had the power to directly tax citizens from the start, have relied more on property taxes and sales taxes. 

One of the advantages of sales taxes and property taxes over income taxes is they are a more stable sources of revenue.  At the regional (state level) economic performance and individual income can fluctuate significantly, and this poses budgeting difficulties for states.  On the other hand, a heavy reliance on property and sales taxes is regressive--the burden falls more on the poor. 

In Kansas, the less money you earn, the more you pay to the state in taxes as a percentage of your income. The bottom 20% of earners pay approximately 11.8 percent of their income to the state in taxes; the richest 20% of earners pay approximately 4.8 percent of their income to the state in taxes.

Take a look at this chart in today's Washington Post.

A large factor in this, of course, is that a lot of state tax revenues (and in Kansas more so than in other states) is based on sales taxes on essential goods and services.  Poor people and rich people pay a similar amount to purchase food, but this represents a much bigger portion of income for someone with $20,000 of income than for someone with $400,000 of income.

Under governor Brownback, in 2012 Kansas enacted large cuts in the income tax, and it eliminated state income taxes for business profits realized as non-wage income, both reducing state revenues and making Kansas taxation more regressive.  These income tax cuts resulted in substantial budget deficits, affecting core government service, particularly in education. Those who were able did not pay, and the needs of many went unmet.

The rationale offered for these tax cuts was a fiction: that they would serve as an elixir for the Kansas economy. But that elixir had no buzz. From the end of 2012 to early 2016, the Kansas GSP grew at half the national rate, K-12 schools were forced to close early due to lack of funds, and universities suffered under funding cuts. In order to balance the budget, the state was forced to divert hundreds of millions of dollars from state highway funds. Pot holes went unfilled. The state's credit rating was  downgraded twice. And after all that, as of March 2017, Kansas was staring down a $1.1 billion budget hole. That is a deep hole in light of expected tax revenues for fiscal year 2017 of just $5.6 billion.

Sam Brownback is no Pol Pot, but he is bad news for Kansas.

Kansas is not getting economic growth from its regressive taxation scheme. Mostly what it gets is greater income inequality, and poor levels of care for the bottom half of society.  Brownback didn't help matters when, for ideological reasons, he turned down the federal expansion of Medicare, leaving 10 percent of the Kansas population without health insurance, four percent higher (126,000 in total pop. of 2.9 mill.) than if Kansas had accepted the Medicare expansion under Obamacare.

The Kansas experiment in regressive taxation didn't work out so well.

At the national level, reports the Congressional Budget Office, "federal taxes are progressive, meaning that average tax rates generally rise as income increases."  Households in the lowest income quintile paid about 3 percent of their income in taxes, the middle quintile paid about 13 percent, and households in the highest quintile paid about 26 percent.

These rates are not so high for what we get. We have the ability. 

We may live in a post-communist world, but "(to collect) from each according to his ability, (and to provide) to each according to his need" is and will always be a primary function of government. It's as true today as it was in 1875 when Karl Marx coined the phrase.

It's a concept that Kansas seems to have lost track of.  

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Thursday, June 8, 2017

Trading the mythology of Judaism for a Muscular, Racist, Secure Nation State: Good Deal or Bad?

A view from Mt. Nebo/Wikicommons
That is essentially the question Yehuda Kurtzer asks himself in a very interesting essay, Unsettled, published in Tablet Magazine to commemorate the June 1967 Six Day War. Kurtzer seems to come down on the side of "worth it!" but with reservations. "For the Jewish people," he says, "(if) the Six-Day War entailed a trade of mythology for security—well, that is a choice most Jews who live in and care about the State of Israel would happily make over and over again."

What is this trade-off?  The canonical stories of Judaism, says Kurtzer, are stories of wandering and dislocation, praying for a return to Jerusalem but never actually expecting to concretize those prayers. He recently observed this Jewish story reflected back at him in a Palestinian novel,  Salt Houses, by Hala Alyan. Alyan's story describes the Palestinian people as on a journey to become A People, forming a collective consciousness, and pining for a return to the land inspite of political circumstances. The land has taken on symbolic power for these people too; these people also have anxiety about assimilation and a sense of incompleteness in diaspora.

The success of Zionism has cost Jews this central mythology. "We gave it as a pyrrhic concessionary gift to the Palestinians," says Kurtzer.

The Jews traded their 2000 year old mythology for security. [How much security, of course, is uncertain] The muscular Zionism that established the Jewish state, suggests Kurtzer, asks of Jews that the Judaism of wandering that is such a central part of their tradition and history come to an end. Now that the stories of wandering and dislocation, of praying for a return to Jerusalem but never actually expecting to concretize those prayers are at an end, now what?

Kurtzer says he would not trade the Zionism that comes with winning wars for the nostalgia of the older, better Jewish story, but he worries that something has been lost. There is something deeply lacking in the new story of a muscular, racist, and secure nation state. The Temple Mount is "[i]n our hands! The end of our brokenness, the end of our history is in our hands!" says Kurtzer.  "And now, once in our hands, how sometimes very small it actually seems."

Kurtzer is being poetic, but what does this smallness actually mean? Kurtzer suggests Jews are left with two competing visions of Zionism: (1) a religious Zionism that wants to bridge the traditional, lived Judaism to the modern political Zionism by "correcting" Judaism; and (2) a second-chance Zionism that holds out the possibility of the fulfillment of a story that the Jewish people never got right the first time around.

Kurtzer does not explain here what this second-chance Zionism might mean for the state of Israel, much less Judaism.  I infer he is thinking of the Jewish state as a kinder gentler Jewish ethnocracy--one with liberal democratic values, due process of law, and a sense of equal rights for all its citizens; a state that does not occupy another people.

Kurtzer does not admit that a muscular, secure, Jewish nation state must of necessity (by definition) be racist. Not even after 50 years of occupation over another people without granting them political or legal rights. There was a "Shitshow" that  immediately followed the first Jewish state--after the Davidic kings--is as much as he allows. But his implication is clear: what has followed the Six Day War is its own Shitshow. The "correction" of Judaism that religious Zionism offers is to accept the concretization of prayers answered; to correct Judaism by accommodating it to this permanent occupation of another People.  Kurtzer would prefer to see a correction of Zionism that mitigates the Shitshow, but that keeps the canonical stories of Judaism intact.

But Zionism seems incompatible with keeping the stories of rabbinic Judaism intact. Kurtzer admits as much when he says "I wouldn’t trade the Zionism that comes with winning the war for the nostalgia of the older and better Jewish story." These old stories of Judaism are "nostalgia" today only because they have been obliterated by Zionism. They were not "nostalgia" in 1900.

Kurtzer worries that "this new story that has replaced the old mythology of journey is deeply lacking." He is admitting that Judaism cannot have its Zionist cake and eat it too. . . .

There is a choice to be made between a Zionism that swallows Judaism (and its stories of wandering and dislocation and praying for a return to Jerusalem) whole by embracing the Shitshow, or a Judaism that preserves the older, better stories by rejecting Zionism.  Both of these choices represents an upheaval of Judaism that Jews have only begun to grapple with.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Are we at Full Employment

The official unemployment rate is very low. It has fallen from a high of 10 percent in 2009 to approximately 4.4 percent.

But above is the graph of adults of working age in the work force, i.e. adults employed, from 1990 to 2017.  This represents a population of approximately 120 million people. So a fluctuation from a high of nearly 82 percent to a low of 75 percent  represents a swing of 8.4 million workers.

In other words there were 8.4 million fewer working in 2009-11 than a decade before in 2000.

There remain 3 million fewer adults unemployed than we should expect compared to adult employment rate in 2000.

So we should be very skeptical of anyone who claims our economy is at full employment, says Brad DeLong. And we should not be surprised that inflation continues to fall below the Feds 2 percent target rate. Read more HERE.

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Monday, May 29, 2017

Memorial Day 2017: Do War Dead Validate the Actions of Presidents?

David Granlund/2010
Today The New York Times has published a meditation by U.S. veterans of the wars in Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. They are reading from two war plays by Sophocles.  It's about the psychic pain suffered by survivors of war. It's not about heroism. I like this tribute. It puts the emphasis in the right place, the soldiers. Soldiers being introspective sets a good example for the rest of us.

Mostly, of course, Memorial Day is not about introspection. We celebrate our war dead as if there were something inherently virtuous about being dead, and that there is something inherently virtuous about any war in which we ask our young men to die. We give their families a gold star. "To every Gold Star family, God is with you," said Trump at Arlington cemetery today.  He delivered the line with slimey disingenuousness as only he can do. "Your loved ones are with Him," he intones. "They died in war so that we can live in peace..., free from fear and this horrible oppression," says Trump. What fear and what oppression he does not say. "Let us pledge to tell the stories of Robert, Chris, Andrew, and all of America's fallen warriors, today, and for the next one thousand years," he concludes, invoking the Holy Roman Empire and Hitler's fantasy of a millennia of thuggish, Aryan, will-to-power-hegemony. And of course he is not telling the stories of Robert, Chris, and Andrew at all. No not at all.

"Their duty was to serve; our duty is to remember," said Mike Pence. But to remember what?

We like to remember our war dead as abstract paragons of virtue: heroic, selfless, and good. And because all our fallen soldiers were heroic, selfless, and good, it follows that all our causes must have been heroic, selfless, and good. We will remember them thus "for a thousand years."

For Gold Star families to be pandered to by Trump in such shallow terms does not honor the fallen or their families. To indulge in a fantasy that all our fallen soldiers were heroic, selfless and good, fighting only just causes, honors neither Gold Star families, nor the country.

Here is the Army's explanation of the term "Gold Star family."  It's about notifying immediate community--it's not about political pandering for war or about the thousand-year nonsense of politicians who study Hitler speeches.
       "The term Gold Star family is a modern reference that comes from the Service Flag. These flags/banners were first flown by families during World War I. The flag included a blue star for every immediate family member serving in the armed forces of the United States, during any period of war or hostilities in which the armed forces of the United States were engaged. If that loved one died, the blue star was replaced by a gold star. This allowed members of the community to know the price that the family had paid in the cause of freedom."
The sacrifices these families make are real. The pain is real. The carnage is real. The scars are real.
  • 25,000        Revolutionary War 
  • 20,000        War of 1812-15
  • 13,000        Mexican American War (1846-48) 
  • 625,000      American Civil War 
  • 117,000      World War I (1917-18) 
  • 405,000      World War II (1941-45) 
  • 37,000        Korean War (1950-53)  
  • 58,000        Vietnam War (1955-75)  
  • 2,400          Afghanistan (2001-14)  
  • 4,500          Iraq (2003-15)
Those are the war dead from our deadliest conflicts. But these number don't begin to tell the story of the traumatized, the wounded, the shattered, the families affected.

Do we celebrate these fallen boys (mostly boys) because they were heroic, selfless, and good, and because they always fought for truth, justice, and freedom? Or do we remember them in order to reflect on the  deadly march of history and time? To reflect on the tragedy and price exacted by the hubris of politicians.

When we think of the roughly 7,000 young men and women who have given their life serving in our armed forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the 10's of thousands of lives negatively affected by these two wars, do we think of these soldiers as heroes laying the foundation of a thousand year realm, as Trump suggests, or do we stop and think twice: was the price worth it? Was the cause just? Was it necessary? Were our leaders wise? What harm have we inflicted on others?

Do we trust Donald Trump's wisdom when he launches missile strikes "over the most beautiful chocolate cake that you've ever seen." Do war dead validate the actions of presidents?

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles


Sunday, May 21, 2017

On God

Renes Descartes/ Frans Hals portrait
John Searle in an introduction to one of his philosophy of mind courses describes what he considers to be the number one problem in our era: How do we get an account of ourselves as conscious, mindful, free, rational beings, that we can make consistent with our conception of the rest of the universe as consisting entirely of mindless, meaningless, physical, particles, and fields of force? How do we reconcile what we think we know about ourselves (as conscious, thinking minds) with what we know, or think we know, about the rest of the universe?

Searle spends a lot of his time thinking about consciousness: is it different from the physical? What is it? And whatever it is, is it free? We’re not sure—it’s the problem of our time because maybe in this century we will figure out what consciousness is. How does consciousness arise from purely physical and non-mental matter? And how does this process allow for free will—or does it?

Descartes (1596-1650) thought he had the answer. “Cogito ergo sum,” he said. The world is divided into the physical (i.e. bodies) and the mental (or minds). The physical world is wholly determined by the laws of nature—or the laws of classical and quantum physics [See, e.g. Feinman]; by contrast, minds are free. Descartes’ formulation of this mind-body split started with the ancient Greeks, but it is Descartes’ formulation of these ideas that has been our dominant model for three hundred and fifty years.

Descartes accepted the Aristotelian view that the universe is made up of substances that have properties. In the Cartesian vocabulary that we have all internalized, there are two types of substances in the universe: mental substances and physical substances. And each of these substances have an essential trait. Physical substances have extension (they are extended in space); mental substances are characterized by thinking, or consciousness.

What is man? Man’s essence under this Cartesian view is that we are thinking, conscious beings. We also have bodies, but our bodies are independent of mind. Minds are free (we have free will), but bodies are determined (governed by the laws of science), said Descartes. In addition, he thought, minds are indivisible—they cannot be separated into constituent parts—while bodies can be infinitely subdivided. Bodies can be destroyed; minds, by contrast, are indestructible. Our mental essence, our soul, thought Descartes, is immortal.

Descartes’ idea of a body substance and a mind substance fit like a hand in the glove of Christian metaphysics.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.” Gospel of John 1:1-4.
Descartes’s mind-body split was well suited to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost as three aspects of one godly substance/entity. Just like we are mind (conscious, thinking beings with an immortal soul) but have physical bodies, God is a transcendent substance with the manifestations of the Trinity. When we die, our souls join (reunite?) in unknown manner with the transcendent God substance of Logos, Father, and Son.

Four hundred years before Descartes, the Jewish philosopher Maimonides (1135-1204) had a similar view. As described by Joseph Soloveitchik (1903-1993), the prominent rabbi, teacher, and leader of modern orthodoxy in Judaism, Maimonedes posited that man’s soul is a kind of divine overflow. If we properly tend to this surfeit overflow (that is our soul) by diligently observing God’s law, then our souls will be preserved and rejoin the divine essence after death; if we don’t lead a good life by observing God’s law, then our soul will perish, and we’ll disappear without a trace, like the other (mere mortal) animals. See Soloveitchik's Halakhic Man (1944).

In the traditions of both Judaism and Christianity, therefore, God is a transcendent substance. It's an idea passed down to us from Aristotle, Maimonides, Descartes and Christianity.

When we successfully solve the mystery of consciousness, the Cartesian duality of substance will lose its grip on us. Once science can provide a definitive account of ourselves as conscious, mindful, free, rational beings, even though our brains consist entirely of mindless, meaningless, physical, particles, and fields of force, our duality of substance will be gone. We will stop thinking of mental substances as existing independent of body.

Once Descartes loses his grip on us, the idea of a transcendent God, a divine essence separate from nature, will be hard to sustain in popular culture.


By long force of habit, even scientists who are not in the grip of our Cartesian duality sometimes adopt God language. Stephen Hawking, in his A Brief History of Time said that once scientists succeed in finding a unified theory of everything, surely they will be looking into the mind of God. Einstein, said “I believe in Spinoza's God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fates and actions of human beings.”

But quantum physicists, when they speak on television, have a problem. Their language is mathematics that very few people understand. So they have a problem of translation: how to express their mathematical truths in English. But when they resort to English, it can seem like they are making it up on the fly. When scientists speak of rivers of space-time, curved space, the relativity of time, and split atoms in a box at opposite ends of the earth causally affecting each other, or cats being alive and dead at the same time . . .well, it seems they are attempting to translate mathematical models that only very, very few people understand. And that math does not translate into English in a meaningful way, not even for the scientists who understand the math. The math is real, the linguistic metaphors may not be.

When we listen to the metaphors scientists trot out for us when they are speaking in metaphorical tongues, we fantasize that we have a clue, but I suspect we don’t. Yet I have faith that the math is real; that the math exists. That it makes the world go round.

When rabbis and priests speak to us of religion there is a similar phenomenon going on: they speak in metaphorical tongues about "transcendence,"  except when it comes to transcendence, I’m not sure the math is real.

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Thursday, May 18, 2017

The U.S. and Israel: "An Integrated Political System"

Since the end of the Cold War, more than 25 years ago, the United States has undermined the prospects for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians argues Rashid Khalidi in his book Brokers of Deceit: How the U.S. has Undermined Peace in the Middle East (2013). Dahlia Scheindlin interviewed him in New York this week for the Tel Aviv Review. Successive American administrations, says Khalidi, have been unable and unwilling to force Israel to make the concessions necessary to implement the peace proposal on the table: a two state solution.

Menachem Begin laid down the template for Israeli resistance during the Camp David negotiations with Egypt, says Khalidi.  He figured out that the formula for not being forced to make concessions is to defer action forever. The '79 peace treaty with Egypt permitted Israel to continue settlement in the West Bank and Gaza. Israeli Sovereignty over the West Bank was not touched.

How much does the Israel lobby, both Jewish and fundamentalist Christian, explain why negotiations have failed to bear fruit for the past 25 years, asked Scheindlin. "It's beyond the Lobby," said Khalidi. Israeli and American politicians get funding from the same people. Important industries, like high tech and defense, are integrated in the U.S. and in Israel at the highest levels. As a result the U.S. and Israeli political systems are on the same page, to the point that it is more accurate to think of them as one integrated political system than in terms of allies, says Kahlidi.

And when he says the U.S. and Israel should be thought of as an integrated political system, he means  Zionist Israel. Zionist Israel is the idea of Israel as the state of the Jews for the Jews of the world. It is the idea that the state belongs to a Jew born in Argentina, or Bolivia, or the United States who has never set foot in Israel; and it belongs to this Jew who has never set foot in Israel somehow more than it does to an Arab Palestinian who was born in Jerusalem but forced out by war in 1948 or 1967; that, in a fundamental way, it belongs to this Argentinian, Bolivian, or U.S. Jew more than it does to a Palestinian citizen of Israel.

Zionism grew organically out of Western culture, says Khalidi. He points to the affinity of Zionists with the West. Zionism was a movement born in Basel and at the Biltmore Hotel. These people were at home in the West. Chaim Waizmann and David Ben-Gurion, were Europeans. Ben-Gurion lived in the United States for two years, organizing. He spoke English fluently and naturally. Golda Meir grew up in the United States, as did Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu, Michael Oren (ambassador to U.S. 2009-13), and Ron Dermer (the current ambassador) all had American citizenship.

Since 1967, the American Jewish community (~7 million strong) has embraced Zionist Israel. And this community  has been established for five generations in the U.S. It is hugely influential in politics, law, business, and entertainment. There is a deep affinity between Zionism and the United States through its frontier culture, the idea of exceptionalism, and through the bible, says Khalidi. This affinity, and the Holocaust, have enabled the establishment of a pro-Zionist narrative that has whitewashed what is fundamentally a colonialist enterprise of dispossession. And it has enabled this narrative to be portrayed in an entirely positive context.

In this contest of ideas, suggests Khalidi, Palestinians have been hopelessly outmatched. They are monoglot. They speak Arabic. They have no connections to the West. They are not at home with English or French. There is no affinity between Palestinians and the West. The Arab community in the United States (~1.7 million) is much smaller and consists of more recent arrivals.  They are discriminated against in the U.S. today. Meanwhile, their potential patrons, the leaders of the Arab Gulf States, are autocratic powers of reaction. They are repressive, they are exporters of extreme forms of Islam. They have no natural affinity with Western values.

Today, the white nationalist political narratives in the West are aligned with the Zionist idea. Fighting white nationalism in the West, and fighting Jewish nationalism (as opposed to Israeli nationalism), are related. To the extent that Khalidi is right and the U.S. and the Israeli polity are an integrated political system, fighting White nationalism and fighting Zionism are part of the same fight.

Listen to the program HERE.

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Trump and the Role of the Press: Two Stories

President Trump and FBI Director James Comey/Getty
"No drama Obama," they called him. Well, Trump is making up for our blessed period of tranquility in the White House with a vengeance. Nearly every day there is more drama. Here are two stories with diametrically opposed implications. . . . 

The First Story: Bad Leaking and a Failure of the Press

Yesterday there were leaks to the Washington Post suggesting that Trump disclosed (and compromised) highly classified information to the Russian foreign minister and the Russian ambassador during a meeting at the White House last Wednesday. Notably the meeting was attended by a Russian photographer, but the American press was kept out. The Washington Post highlighted the story with great fanfare.

The leakers indicated that the president disclosed confidential intelligence sources relating to computer bombs being developed by ISIS in order to attack commercial airplanes. The administration learned about this from Israeli intelligence in March, thanks to an Israeli spy embedded with ISIS.  This led to the much discussed laptop ban on flights from certain Middle Eastern countries. See this Jake Tapper report on CNN. "Don't disclose the name of the city" where the intelligence came from, CNN was instructed. It also appears that the information was shared by the Israelis on the condition that the information be kept confidential. Disclosing this information will "get people killed," the administration informed CNN in March. Yesterday, Trump didn't keep the information confidential; he disclosed the city where the information came from to the Russians. 

But this laptop story is all about the press, and harmful administration leaks, not about Trump. What is the real security concern here?  Even if the name of the city where this Israeli spy is (or was) embedded with ISIS was disclosed to the Russians, it seems a stretch that this would naturally lead to the Russians disclosing this information to ISIS. The Russians may not be our friends, but they have no interest in compromising an Israeli spy embedded with ISIS. So what's the real concern, beyond having to alert the Israelis, and apologize with egg on face. 

The real concern here is that some undisclosed persons in the White House leaked the story to the Washington Post, and the Post saw fit to publish the information. To the extent that Trump's disclosure presents a danger to the Israeli spy, it's not because of what Trump said to the Russians; the danger comes from the fact that the press has obsessed over this for 24 plus hours to the point that every last ISIS mercenary knows the story. So we have to ask ourselves, did the leakers in the White House help or hurt the cause of maintaining this information confidential? Did the press help or hurt the interest of maintaining this information confidential? Did the leakers or the press do any favors to this embedded spy? Did the leaks or the press reports serve the public interest?  I don't think so. 

Some have gushed on Twitter: "great reporting is driving the agenda". But is this story great reporting? Or is it self-serving fomenting, doing what the press does best, appealing to our base emotions to drive clicks? The leakers' motives in this story was not to protect the Israeli spy, or to appease the Israeli intelligence community--so they will continue to cooperate--the motive was to embarrass Trump. Not a laudable goal in and of itself.

You can see why the White House, no matter who the occupant is, dislikes leakers and distrusts the press. Shit happens, and Trump is pretty hard to control. But both the Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, and the Security Advisor, H.R. McMaster, felt that the conversation with the Russians about aviation security was appropriate. We have no real reason to doubt it. To the extent that Trump overstepped by sharing confidential information received from the Israelis, the way to handle this is apparent: inform the relevant agencies, inform the Israelis, and apologize. No big deal.  All the harm in the ISIS spy story was caused by the leakers and the press. 

The Second Story: Great Reporting and a Big Deal

Today. . . more drama.  This afternoon there was a New York times story based on a leaked Comey memo. In the memo, Comey documents an Oval Office private conversation with the president where Trump asked Comey to shut down the ongoing investigation into Michael Flynn's Russia ties. "I hope you can let this go," said the president.  

Michael Flynn, Trump's campaign aide and national security advisor after the inauguration, had been  asked to resign for having lied to the Vice President about his contacts with the Russian ambassador, Sergei Kislyak. 

The day after Flynn's resignation, suggests the Comey memo, Trump asked Comey to shut down the FBI's investigation into Flynn's contacts with the Russian.  Comey did not, and now the president has fired Comey.  

Now that's a big deal. It smells like obstruction of justice. It's great reporting, and it's pursuing leaks that are in the public interest.  This leak is in the public interest because it goes to the heart of an obstruction of justice that we might never find out about without the leak. It's like Watergate . . . we don't want our presidents to break into the offices of political opponents, we don't want them to obstruct justice by shutting down an ongoing FBI investigation; we want them to be accountable to us. Without leakers and a diligent and dogged press, our public officials would be a lot less accountable.  

As these two stories illustrate, it's a complicated business, this leaking of government information and press reporting. . . . 

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles

Friday, May 12, 2017

Can Trump and Livni Create an Opening for Israeli/Palestinian Peace?

Israel will not end its occupation of the West Bank without outside help, said Noam Sheizaf in Oakland recently. Since the Jewish public has the assets, the army, and sovereignty over the West Bank, the key for ending the occupation lies in the Jewish public's hands, he said. And the Jewish public has not been particularly interested in making a change.  For 11 of the past 21 years Netanyahu has skillfully navigated to maintain the status quo. It seems unlikely that the status quo will change until Netanyahu is gone.

Is Trump maneuvering to create a political opening for Tzipi Livni, the head of Hatnua, and might this create an opportunity for movement on the Palestinian/Israel negotiations?

Yossi Vertner has an intriguing article in Haaretz this morning. He reports that New York billionaire (a Trump kind of guy!) and head of the World Jewish Council, Ronald Lauder, "briefed Mahmoud Abbas before the Palestinian leader's successful meeting with the President." According to a senior Israeli official, Abbas succeeded “With a charm offensive (that) persuaded Trump that (the Palestinians are) interested in peace and are willing to pay the price for it, and that the main burden must fall on Israel.” And in the meantime, Tzipi Livni has the ear of Jason Greenblatt--Trump's envoy for the peace negotiations.  "Several times during my conversation with Greenblatt" said the senior Israeli official to Vertner, "he said ‘Livni says,’ ‘Tzipi believes,’ ‘in Tzipi’s opinion.’ It’s like she’s become a quasi-mentor. It appears he appreciates her a lot and is very attentive to her views.” At the end of March, before the AIPAC conference, Greenblatt tweeted that he was hosting Tzipi Livni for Shabat dinner.

          "An Israeli official said Livni was not only briefing Greenblatt about her long talks with the Palestinians, but also refuting Netanyahu’s argument about being unable to reach an agreement because of his government’s makeup. Livni told Greenblatt that the prime minister was assured of the opposition’s votes in the Knesset. As she recently said, if Netanyahu says he can’t, it should be clear to everyone that he won’t. 
          "I called Washington to ask Livni if this was so. She didn’t want to expand on what seemed like the beginning of a wonderful friendship with Greenblatt. She stressed that her meetings with him, including one this week, aren't held underground but with the Israeli Embassy’s knowledge. 
          “We have a huge opportunity,” she said. “The president is talking about his determination to close a deal; that is, to end the conflict. We have a president who thinks big and addresses the hard core. He’s not beating around the bush. I certainly think something dramatic could happen.”
Does Livni smell an opportunity? Does she see political daylight? Could she force a non-confidence vote against the Netanahu coalition and go to the voters as the person able to make a deal with Trump and peace with the Palestinians?

Vertner seems intrigued:
          "Livni isn't some delusional peacenik. Her feet are planted firmly on the ground. She’s a sober realist, familiar with the facts and with the players. I told her I didn’t remember such a burst of optimism from her since the culmination of her talks with the Palestinians in 2013-14 as Netanyahu’s envoy. Come to think of it, she didn’t sound like this even then. 
          “It’s true,” she said. “This time it looks different. The Palestinians’ demands have been reduced. They’re ready to make concessions. President Trump can now succeed with them as well as with the Israelis.”
 Whether this turns out to be more pie in the sky may depend on Trump and Livni. There is reason not to hold one's breath, but if Trump is willing to empower Livni, this might turn out to be a more promising avenue for progress than the one pursued by John Kerry during his frustrating year of banging his head against a wall with Netanyahu and his coalition. Livni would have to sell the Jewish Israeli public that this is the right moment to compromise--a tall order.

President Trump will deliver a speech at Masada, of all places, on May 22, 2017.  Stay tuned . . . .

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

There is Reason to Fire Comey--But that's Not why He was Fired: Trump is Lying (again) and it Matters

So Trump has fired James Comey, the FBI Director who has been heading up the investigation into whether members of the Trump campaign collaborated with Russian attempts to sabotage Hillary Clinton's campaign.

And Trump is lying again, says David Leonhart. He makes a compelling case.

In his letter firing Comey, [available at NYT] Trump disingenuously claims he was acting on the recommendations of the Attorney General and a memorandum from the Deputy Attorney General.   "I have accepted their recommendation," said Trump. But that's clearly not the sequence: the Attorney General's letter and the memo are dated today, May 9, 2017, not enough time for the President to digest the letter, the memo, and make a decision. What's more, the deputy AG who wrote the memo has been on the job for just two weeks. This is not someone whose word you would follow without serious reflection.

Indeed, as Bill Kristol wrote on Twitter: “[T]here was no real recommendation from DOJ. Trump wanted to do it, and they created a paper trail.” In fact, White House sources admitted right after the firing that Trump himself initiated the firing. "The White House charged Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, with coming up with a reason to fire Comey, as The Times and others have reported," says Leonhardt.

As recently as last Tuesday, Trump criticized Comey for having given Clinton "a free pass" and he dismissed the Russian connections investigation as "phony." In other words, Trump has never been concerned about the missteps outlined by the letter and memo; what he's concerned about is the Russia investigation and the fact that Comey is willing to assert strong independence in following through with this investigation.

As Kristol Tweeted, “One can  be at once a critic of Comey and alarmed by what Trump has done and how he has done it.” That seems surely correct.

James Dean, the White House counsel fired by Nixon in the "Saturday Night Massacre" during Watergate, seemed too sanguine tonight when he suggested to Judy Woodruff on the News Hour that Comey had made enough missteps, most recently during his testimony to Congress last Wednesday, that he felt Comey's time might be up. Yes, Comey has made missteps that justify him being fired. . . but those missteps are not why he was fired.

Comey made missteps last July, when he imprudently editorialized about Clinton's email server after deciding charges were not warranted. He made a more serious misstep when he made a public announcement about "reopening" the investigation into Clinton's email server shortly before the election--a misstep which may or may not have tipped the election. The final misstep came during Comey's testimony to Congress last Wednesday.  He was testifying about Clinton emails discovered on the computer of Anthony Weiner, the husband of Clinton aide Huma Abedin.  Comey testified he felt compelled to reopen the investigation--and to make a public pronouncement about it--in part, because Abedin had forwarded hundreds of thousands of emails, many of which were classified to Weiner. In fact, the FBI had no evidence that these emails were "forwarded" by Abedin. Apparently they ended up on Weiner's computer when Abedin backed up her Blackberry, and the transfer was inadvertent.

All of these missteps seem sufficient ground to dismiss the FBI Director. And those are the reasons the White House has cynically used to justify the firing. It gives a cover story to the firing. But, as Leonhardt says: they lie. That's not why Comey was fired at all.

And the lie matters.

Comey is being fired because Trump wants a loyalist to head the FBI while it is investigating the Trump campaign. A few hours after the firing, White House spokespersons were out arguing on Fox News that the Russia Investigation should now be dropped.

Firing the FBI director because the President wants a loyalist to oversee an investigation into the possible collusion between the President's campaign and Russian operatives is a big deal.

It will be interesting, and important, who gets nominated to replace Comey. Congress must insist that it be someone of great stature, and with a strong commitment to independence: someone just like Comey--but hopefully with better political sense and judgment.

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles

Sunday, May 7, 2017

The AHCA as a Betrayal of our Hopes and Aspirations for the Republic

Trump and GOP Leaders after passage of AHCA
Evan Vucci/AP
Sandy Levinson, professor of law at the University of Texas, is a powerful critic of our constitutional disorder. In a blogpost at Balkanization, he laments the manner in which Paul Ryan and the GOP Congress rammed through a bill to undo the Affordable Care Act last week. It's a symptom of our constitutional disorder he suggests.

Our constitutional disorder is built on a gerrymandered, polarized, and unrepresentative House of Representatives, and a Senate where 103 million people living in four states (CA, TX, NY, FL) are represented by 8 senators, while 101 million people living in 35 smaller states are represented by 70 senators. It is a system where our president was elected by a minority of voters, and where that minority holds all the levers of power. And our disorder is presided over by politicians whose loyalty runs to party, not to country; by politicians who don't know how to think about the good of the country.

It was not so at our founding. The 13 original states were unequal in size and population, but the three regions (Atlantic, mid-Atlantic, and South) were relatively equal in political representation, and the discrepancy of voters between the largest state, Virginia, and the smallest, Rhode Island, was not nearly so pronounced. These days, the population ratio between CA and Wyoming--with two senators each--is 66:1; the population ratio between Virginia and Rhode Island in 1790 was just 10:1.

In addition to having more equal representation among the states in Congress at our founding, we had leaders who took process more seriously than what we witnessed last week, says Levinson. We had leaders who took their role seriously, who took arguments seriously, and who took the deliberative process seriously. Levinson points to the Supreme Court's holding in McCulloch v. Maryland, upholding the right of Congress to charter the First Bank of the United States. What justified the decision in part, and what may have tipped the scale for Chief Justice Marshall, suggests Levinson, was that Congress and the President took their deliberation seriously. They fought hard, but they gave a full airing to the issues.

We fancy ourselves a Republic. "Whatever a 'republican form of government' might be said to mean," says Levinson, "it is hard to escape the view that the seriousness of the debate and the conscientiousness displayed by our first President in attempting to understand the deep issues of constitutionality [of charting the First Bank of the U.S] as well as public policy instantiated it."

Process matters, says Levinson. Good will matters. Some knowledge about the details of what you're voting on . . . or, absent that, some trusted intermediaries who have knowledge, matters.  Being able and willing to defend your position with integrity and basic honesty matters.  

Whatever anyone can say about the merits of the "American Health Care Act" rammed through the House this week, the process was deeply cynical. It completely discounted the role of argument--no hearings were held on the bill, it was rammed through before the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office could "score" it--there was no conscientiousness on display, no desire to meaningfully understand the deep and complicated issues of public policy involved in reordering one-sixth of our economy, and no commitment to basic honesty.

The raw exercise of power exhibited by Paul Ryan, Kevin McCarthy, and their GOP colleagues--to very uncertain ends--has betrayed our hopes and aspirations for the Republic.

Here is Levinson.
     "Although Hanna Volokh, among others, has suggested that legislators must in effect be responsible for actually reading and understanding the laws they vote for, in the modern world that would be a de facto impossible burden. Yet we would like to think that at least a critical mass of legislators are in fact well informed, and, just as importantly, are trustworthy in describing with some degree of accuracy what is in a bill and answering with relative honesty the questions of potential adversaries of the legislation. Similarly, the “authority” of presidents and Supreme Court justices is presumably based on something more than the sheer fact that they inhabit their particular offices. . . . 
     "With the bill just rammed through the House of Representative by Paul Ryan and his minions. . . There were no hearings whatsoever on the bill. There was no willingness to wait a week for the Congressional Budget Office to “score” the bill and provide presumptively accurate predictions about the actual number of people who would lose their insurance coverage, and so on. It is literally incredible to believe that more than a very few members of the Republican majority who voted for the bill could pass an exam on its major features. There were simply no truly trustworthy “briefers” who could possibly have devoted sufficient time to understanding all of the complexities involved in upending what is roughly one-sixth of the US economy—i.e., the medical services industry—not to mention the actual human lives who depend on that industry for their succor. . . . . 
     "So there is a genuine “legitimacy” crisis at the national level of government. We have as President a raving narcissist . . . (whose) election was the result of an indefensible electoral college system. . . . Partisan gerrymandering, though not the only explanation of the virulent polarization of that institution, is surely part of it. The so-called “Freedom Caucus” is the creation of Republican zealots who want to make sure that the November elections are irrelevant. And Paul Ryan has indicated that he has no interest whatsoever in the actual process of legislation. Getting the support of the Freedom Caucus (plus the repeated willingness of vaunted Republican “moderates” to cave and support their “party leaders”) plus supplying gigantic tax cuts for the 1% were the only thing that mattered to this devotee of Ayn Rand. . . . 
     "As always, the key question facing us is “what is to be done” as we realize, more and more, that our political system is a clear and present danger to us all. . . . . We are simply lightyears from the political system that was, more or less accurately, described by John Marshall in McCulloch. Madison, Hamilton, Jefferson, and Washington were indeed giants who took their role as leaders of the fragile new nation with the utmost seriousness, even if one pays full attention to their more human-all-too-human aspects set out in Michael Klarman’s magnificent study. . . .
Legislators need to ask themselves, what are they about?  We voters must demand answers, and pay attention.  Together we can and must do better.

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

How Does one get from "Trump Voters Registered a Protest against the Hegemony of Liberal Values" to "Liberal Values are the Problem?"

David A. French/from his National Review bio
He looks likable enough! 
David French, a senior writer for National Review, uses liberal criticism of Bret Stephens to illustrate an argument--and he paints with a broad brush indeed. America has a problem, says French: the problem is not Donald Trump and his Fox addled supporters, the problem is smug liberalism.

Yeah, let's try to illustrate that with smug conservatism.

"Liberal dogma is fast becoming a secular religion," says French. It's a curious criticism coming from a man of religion. What, pray tell? It's O.K. for you to be religious but not us liberals?

French, it seems, means to generally impugn everything liberals stand for: equal rights, rule of law, due process, separation of church and state, a tolerant and kind stance towards sexual identity issues, tolerance and caring towards refugees and immigrants, racial equality, universal education, free speech, a minimum wage, progressive taxation, equality between the sexes, equal representation in Congress, public support for the arts, universal health care (not just access to healthcare if you can afford it), security in retirement, and caring about the environment ("Liberal Values"). It's hard to tell what he means exactly. He does not offer up his definition of Liberal Values. But if French wants to carve out some of these Liberal Values from his criticism, I have a comments section and he can clarify. Specifically, though, he means to impugn Samantha Bee and climate change.

French does not practice what he says we should aspire to.

America has a "smug liberal problem," he says.  He means the late night satire shows (Samantha Bee's Full Frontal, Stephen Colbert's Late Show, or John Oliver's Last Week Tonight) and the liberals who watch these shows.  They (these liberals embracing Liberal Values) are shallow because they only have a "quick Wikipedia- and Google-search level of factual understanding," charges French.

His headline is a perversion of the recent Ross Douthat column in the NYT, Clinton's Samantha Bee Problem. Douthat made the interesting, and I think valid, point that late night satire shows reflect the ascendancy of big city culture and that the Trump phenomenon can be viewed, in part, as a reaction by his supporters to what they perceive as the stifling hegemony of big city Liberal Values: from sexual equality, to racial equality, to support for science. "Outside the liberal tent," says Douthat, "the feeling of being suffocated by the left’s cultural dominance is turning voting Republican into an act of cultural rebellion."

But there is a gulf of difference between Douthat's headline of "Clinton's Samantha Bee problem" and David French's argument that "America has a Samantha Bee problem."  David French has taken Douthat's electoral politics analysis and turned it into "Liberals are the problem."

French points to liberal criticism (all liberal criticism) of Bret Stephens as a paragon of the "smug liberal problem." "So shallow," as Trump would put it. But French might think about leading more by example. He does not. As is often the case, to find the sinner, look to the one who complains about sin the loudest.

French launches his broadside at the shallowness of the "smug liberal problem" he sees embodied in the criticism of Bret Stephens, while demonstrating no more than a "shallow and quick Google-search level of understanding" of the criticism liberals make of Bret Stephens. If French has a deeper understanding, he avoids going there.

What characterizes Bret Stephens, recently hired to write Op-Ed pieces for the New York Times, is "an irritable callowness that easily flares into prejudice" laments liberal Philip Weiss who has been following Stephens's Mid-East writings carefully.  Weiss cites chapter and verse to make his case.

What characterizes Bret Stephens is that he is "utterly disingenuous," and that he "uses incorrect facts and terrible arguments" in the service of not doing anything about climate change, says liberal Dave Roberts, who writes about energy and climate change at Vox. Roberts cites chapter and verse to make his case.  He makes arguments.  You wouldn't know it from reading David French.

French has a valid point: you can't gain adherents by mocking them. Fair enough.  And, yes, Samantha Bee and Stephen Colbert, and John Oliver are smug.  So is Paul Ryan.  Paul Ryan's smugness annoys me. The antidote, I find, is to focus on the substance. That's, mostly, what the satirists on late night television are doing.

French can't take it. He doesn't want to deal with the substance, and, as Hasan Minhaj quipped about Donald Trump: he can't take a joke. So he resorts to:

  • "The only people who can't recognize our nation has a smug liberal problem are smug liberals;"
  • "Jake Tapper 'called out' Bee and other late night 'propagandists;'" (Watch, I wouldn't put it that way)
  • "It’s like sitting through an especially ignorant and heavy-handed Ivy League lecture, complete with the sycophantic crowd lapping up every word."
  • French repeats a not funny and somewhat shocking tweet of OMFG from George Takei that Bee re-tweeted (b/c all these shows are just like that all the time); and 
  • "smug liberals were in full melt-down mode over Bret Stephens." 
All the while French is demonstrating smug contempt for liberals while failing to engage substantively in a fair and honest manner with the arguments.  

French accuses David Roberts, who wrote a serious and lengthy piece at Vox as "bizarrely" and "inadvertently" admitting that science isn't, by definition, 100% certain.  But there is nothing "bizarre" or "inadvertent" about this: read Roberts. Disagree if you will, but engage. 

"Liberal dogma" (read liberal drivel) "conspicuously omits any requirement that one love his enemies," French continues.  "Post-Christian countries eschew Christian values, including the very values that can and should prevent even the most ardent activists from becoming arrogant . . . and intolerant."  Does that sound arrogant and intolerant? To my ears it does. 

"The unbelievers deserve their pain," French concludes.  With Christians like that, who needs to worry about post-Christian countries? 

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