Sunday, September 17, 2017

Trump, Obnoxiousness, and Principle

At least it pissed off liberals
I want to briefly revisit a comment I made about Donald Trump after his brief, birther-themed 2012 run for President has lapsed:
To many of the Republican base, obnoxiousness is the most important quality in a leader. They equate obnoxiousness with firm and unyielding principle. So I guess is that if you regard obnoxiousness as the prime qualification in a leader, then Trump is perfect. Otherwise, I can't think of a single good thing to say about him.
 Looking back on it, that was a mistake.

Ted Cruz is the sort of candidate you support if you equate principle with obnoxiousness and therefore assume that the more obnoxious the politician, the more principled.  Ted Cruz is not as principled as his admirers believe, but he has genuine principles.  His method is to stake out a maximal position that is not politically feasible in the real world, reject any realistic compromise as selling out, be defeated, and then denounce his colleagues as sellouts for accepting the best that was realistic.  Naturally his colleagues hate him.  Nonetheless, the maximal positions that he takes presumably match his actual beliefs and what he would ideally like to pass.  In other words, Ted Cruz is really obnoxious and has genuine principles.  His supporters make the mistake of equating his obnoxiousness with principle when it is more a cynical ploy to manipulate supporters.

Trump, on the other hand, is a different matter altogether.  He appeals to people who don't care about principle at all.  They just favor obnoxiousness for its own sake.

Has Trump Finally Done the Unforgivable?

Donald Trump famously boasted that he wouldn't lose any votes if he stood out in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shot someone, and it was probably true.  His followers would just conclude that if murder upset the liberals that much, it must be good.  So has Trump finally done the one thing that his followers will never forgive -- made liberals happy?

It's too soon to say.  However, to the extent that anyone is disillusioned by Trump, I can only say this.  Never do business with a crook.  They can't be trusted.

It was never any secret when Trump was running for President that he was a crook.  His habit of stiffing contractors got ample publicity.  He never denied being a crook.  In fact, he made it one of his selling points.  He had more experience in gaming the system than anyone else, he argued, so he would know how to stop other people from gaming it and make it work for the little guy.  And he proudly boasted that after ripping off innocent people, he was now ready to rip off all those people who deserved it, the ones who had been ripping off America all these years.

Really, no one should have fallen for it.  I do not agree with the proposition that you can't cheat an honest man.  Many clever cons are have fooled the most sophisticated targets.  To say that you can't cheat an honest man is simply victim blaming.  It is true, however, that people who know that someone is a con man and trust him to con only other people are setting themselves up to be taken in, and it is really hard to have much sympathy for them.  People who make their living cheating others are most unlikely to have a code of ethics about who they can cheat.  Anyone is fair game.  To support Donald Trump because of his skill as a crook because you trust him to deploy that skill only against people who deserve it is to assume that cheating and deceiving are simply morally neutral skills, rather than clear marks of character.  To assume that Trump, after regularly cheating the innocent in the past, can be trusted to cheat only the guilty in the future is to ignore the most blatant evidence of who he is, evidence that was looking everyone in the face.

In short, never do business with a crook.  They can't be trusted.

And, to any and all Democrats who think they can make a productive relationship with Trump -- this applies to you too.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Gaming Out the Debt Ceiling Deal

So, what am I to make of the debt ceiling deal?

To recap:  Although our formal borrowing authority ran out some time this spring, the Treasury Department was able to extend it with "extraordinary measures" until September 30, but after that we have to raise the debt ceiling or the government will not have enough money to pay its bills.  The Republican Suicide Freedom Caucus in the House refused the raise the debt ceiling without equivalent cuts in spending under Obama, and (give them points for consistency), they are refusing to do so under Trump either.  (Unfunded tax cuts are a different matter).  This means that Republicans will have to rely on Democratic votes to raise the debt ceiling.  Dems were scratching their chins, trying to figure out whether to extort something in return for their support and if so what.  No one had a plan for how to actually do this essential thing, and a crisis seemed imminent.  And did I mention that the budget runs out at the same time and if a new budget was not passed there would be yet another shutdown?

Then Hurricane Harvey hit, Houston was drowning, and holding an artificial debt ceiling crisis when there was a real crisis to deal with seemed petty.  And there appeared to be an obvious answer -- tie the debt ceiling to Hurricane Harvey relief and then everyone would have no choice but to vote for it.*  The House nonetheless passed a hurricane relief bill without the debt ceiling to satisfy the Suicide Freedom Caucus.  The plan was apparently for the Senate to amend the bill by adding a debt ceiling increase and send it back, allowing it to pass.  Basically, this was what everyone except the Suicide Freedom Caucus wanted.

The only real dispute was over how long the extension would be.  The Senate Republican leadership wanted 18 months but was prepared to settle for six.  The Democrats insisted on three months.  Trump ended up agreeing for reasons no one really knows.  The bill passed 316-90 in the House and 80-27 in the Senate in the space of two days.  Clearly everyone was relieved at postponing the crisis, even if they did not agree how long the extension should be.

So, what are the relative merits of a three month, six month, and eighteen month extension?  First of all, as before, just because the deadline formally expires does not mean the government will run out of money right away.  The Treasury can use "extraordinary measures" to delay the crisis.  In fact, the last authorization expired in March, but the Treasury was able to extend it for another six months.  Possibly the Treasury can do it again.  If so, the crisis will not strike until next summer -- after Republican primaries, but before the general election season is seriously underway.  At the same time, I have seen sources (can't find) that believe a lot of the extraordinary measures have been largely tapped out and, combined with the expense of the hurricane, will not be able to fend off the crisis for as long this time, and that it will probably strike in February or March.  That would be either in the thick of primary season or just as it begins to decline.

The three-month debt ceiling delay was accompanied by a three-month "continuing resolution," i.e., an extension of government funding at current levels.  This means that the looming threat of government shutdown really will strike in December, although it can always be postponed by yet another continuing resolution.  That means that the threat of government shutdown and the threat of debt ceiling breach will not happen at the same time, as they did last time, and will not therefore be conflated in the pubic mind.  The inconvenience associated with a shutdown and looming threat associated with a default will be separate issues. That means, on the one hand, having to explain to the public (yet again) why it really is necessary to raise the debt ceiling even though it sounds bad.  It also means three crises in the space of nine months -- first the hurricane(s), then the budget crisis, and then the debt ceiling.  Two of these crises will be completely self-inflicted.  I have to think the public will get tired of it, although in the absence of dramatic footage like flooding, much of the public will probably not notice at all.

I am inclined to think that a six-month extension would be worst from the Republican perspective.  The extension would expire in March.  By then the Treasury presumably would have largely recovered its ability to use extraordinary measures and be able to postpone a breach until next September or even October.  But that would put us exactly where we are now, with both a government shutdown and a debt ceiling breach looming and conflated in the public mind, with the mid-term elections so close at hand that the crisis would have to be an issue.  Possibly the Republicans would benefit from the rally-round-the-chief effect of crises, but I am inclined to think that Republicans would once again transform themselves into a circular firing squad, at considerable cost to themselves.  Republicans were fools to even consider this.

Finally, an eighteen-month extension would postpone the crisis until after midterm elections and give the Treasury plenty of time to recover its extraordinary measures.  The deadline would expire in March, 2019, but might be delayed until that fall.  Once again, government shutdown and debt ceiling would threaten at the same time and be conflated in the public eye.  Happening after the midterms, it is certainly possible that the Democrats might have taken one house or the other of Congress.  Generally speaking, the public has sided with the President over Congress during showdowns of this type.  With Trump -- who knows.  But Democrats had plenty of reason to want to avoid such an outcome.

In terms of politics, I would actually say a three-month extension is a reasonable compromise, not as bad for Republicans as six months or as bad for Democrats as eighteen months.

Will it allow Democrats to extort concessions in exchange for support?  Given the behavior of the Suicide Freedom Caucus, the House will clearly need Democratic votes to raise the debt ceiling.  But before anyone starts proclaiming that Trump has been rolled and that Democrats will be able to pass their whole agenda, keep in mind that their agenda still has to get past a Congress that has a Republican majority in both houses.  There probably are some measures favored by Democrats that have the prospect of enough Republican defectors to pass. And Trump just wants a signing ceremony and is completely indifferent to the substance of what he is signing.  But let's not forget that in order for anything to pass, the leadership has to actually bring it to the floor for a vote.  And that the leadership of both houses is Republican and probably will not be in a hurry to bring up measures that would pass with predominantly Democratic votes and just a few Republican defectors.  And thus far the only thing that has actually passed is a three-month extension of the debt ceiling and government funding.  So let's not break out the champagne just yet.

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*Once upon a time, long, long ago, debt ceiling games went the other way.  Everyone knew it had to be done, so politicians would attach unpopular measures to bills to raise the debt ceiling, knowing that it had to pass.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Thoughts on the Apraio Pardon

Sheriff Joe Arpaio
One reaction to the Joe Arpaio pardon stuck with me and makes me feel compelled to post on the subject.  Among the Twitter accounts I read is John Schindler, retired NSA, and one of the more respectable "citizen journalists" pushing the story of Trump and Russia collision.

His reaction to the Arpaio pardon was dismissive.  Who cares about little things like that, he said, when our President might be a Russian agent.  And he considered anyone who did focus on the Arpaio pardon to be engaged in mere “virtue signaling,” i.e., moral preening and posturing, rather than serious engagement of the issues.  When a Latino (especially from Arizona) tried to explain why Arpaio was really a serious issue, he would simply write it off as more virtue signaling.  Alas, the 140 character limit of Twitter does not allow an adequate response (I don't have a Twitter account for that very reason), so I will write about it at length here.

And here I will say that, no, this is not mere moral preening and posturing, not mere virtue signaling.  This isn’t like some college students fretting about “cultural appropriation” if they eat sushi or do yoga.  It is not like insisting that Jenner must be referred to as “Caitlyn” and “she” and that medical patients be allows to mark themselves as “male” when receiving a Pap smear or “female” when receiving a prostate exam.  It is not like taking down any and all monuments to a person with a less than admirable event in their past, or policing speech for the latest politically incorrect words, much less firing an Asian sports announcer for being named “Robert Lee.” Sheriff Arpaio is deathly serious and proof that real racism and real police brutality remain serious issues to this day.

This article gives a good overview of his career.  It makes the point that before Arpaio (and in most of the US today) the sheriff was not (and is not) all that important a law enforcement official.  The sheriff is not all that important an official.  Maricopa County,where Arpaio was sheriff, is geographically large (as are all US counties west of the 100th meridian) and populous (Phoenix is in Maricopa).  But the sheriff is only in charge of law enforcement outside incorporated cities and in communities too small to afford their own police departments.  Most of the policing in Maricopa County (and in most US counties) is done by city police departments.  The sheriff's main job was to run the county jail.

Arpaio began his career by boasting that he would prove his toughness on crime by making the Maricopa County Jail as brutal and inhumane at the Eighth Amendment would allow.  He housed inmates in tents with temperatures up to 135 degrees in the Arizona summer, next to the dump, the dog pound, and the sewage disposal plant.  He served food only twice a day, no hot meals. He taunted hungry inmates by showing cooking shows and weather channels illustrating the heat.  He had inmates work cleaning public roads in shackles and old-style chain gang uniforms.  Or else he paraded them in pink.

Illustration of county sizes across the US
Keep in mind that county jails are not where convicts go to serve hard time.  They house people who have not yet been convicted and are entitled to a presumption of innocence, or people serving misdemeanor sentences of less than a year.  Felons sentenced to serious time go to state penitentiaries, which must have seemed pleasant by comparison.

And if Arpaio's goal was to be as brutal an inhumane as the Eighth Amendment would allow, he and his men frequently overstepped it as well.  They denied medical care to people with chronic health conditions -- and to pregnant women, with unknown numbers of miscarriages and stillbirths as a result.   They strapped purported trouble makers to a restraining chair -- including a paraplegic man who suffered neck injuries and much of the use of his arms as well, or cutting off ventilation to overheated cells. His jail had forty times as many lawsuits against it as the jails in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston combined.

Arpaio's obsession with illegal immigration was relatively late and initially opportunistic.  He concluded that people who liked brutal treatment of inmates also tended to be up in arms about illegal immigration, so he adopted the issue as his own.  But if he was late and opportunistic in coming to the issue, he made up for lost time.  He harassed Latinos.  He ethnically profiled.  He routinely arrested every Latino at a crime scene on suspicion of being an illegal immigrant. The muscled in on a hostile police chief's territory, wearing full riot gear to raid the city hall and public library and arrest three cleaning women as illegal immigrants.  Mostly Latino communities, even ones consisting almost entirely of citizens going back for generations, endured raids of deputies with helicopters, horses and paddy wagons, demanding proof of citizenship and, when no illegals could be found, issuing tickets for whatever else they could think of.  And in the end he became so obsessed with fighting illegal immigration that he lost interest in fighting crime altogether.  He stopped investigating any crime against illegal immigrants and let other investigations languish.

It should hardly come as a surprise that such a man also abused his office to harass political opponents.  When a local newspaper exposed these abuses, he issued fake grand jury subpoenas demanding all their sources and the e-mail addresses of all their subscribers.  When the editors published the demand, he had them arrested for breaking grand jury secrecy.  (Charges were dropped and the editors sued).  He even staged a fake assassination attempt.  Oh, yes, and his deputies forced a puppy into a burning house during a botched SWAT raid and laughed while it burned alive.*

But the biggest scandal of all is not any of this.  It is what a horrified British commenter on Twitter remarked – but aren’t sheriffs in the US elective?  Then why didn’t the people of Maricopa County vote him out of office?  And the shameful answer – the people of Maricopa County liked what he was doing (except for the puppy, presumably).  Another suggested that if the full scale of what Arpaio was doing had been more widely known, he would never have been a conservative icon.  But the people of Arizona knew perfectly well what he was up to, and they applauded (at least a majority did).  For some time he was the most popular politician in Arizona and considered a run for Governor or Senate.  Only when he began utterly neglecting crime did he lose popularity.  And even then he lost by a less than ten point margin, when margins as lopsided as 72-27% are not unusual in local elections.

It was not any of these things that Trump pardoned.  Arpaio has not been convicted of any of them.  What Arpaio was convicted of and Trump pardoned was criminal contempt of court for disobeying a court order to stop his ethnic profiling.  And I will agree, if our side focuses on this, on Trump not following Department of Justice guidelines or undermining the authority of the courts, we really do give the impression of mere virtue signaling.  And treating this as a mere procedural dispute allows argument on the procedural merits of Trump’s actions, all of which is altogether beside the point.  The real issue, and the one we should be focusing on is all the crimes he was not convicted of, the crimes recited above.  And if this creates a misleading impression that Trump pardoned him for the crimes cited above, so be it.  Let the other side do the explaining for a change.  It is, after all, his other crimes that make Arpaio unworthy of pardon.  Also emphasize the puppy.  Plenty of people who ultimately believe Arpaio’s human victims deserved what they got would be outraged by the torture and killing of an innocent animal.  (Just as I have commented that Trump’s base would forgive him for shooting someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue, but not for strangling kittens).

This is not mere moral posturing or virtue signaling.  This is our second-worst case scenario of what we fear most from Trump.  (The worst, of course, would be nuclear war).

One final comment.  Up till now, I have downplayed Trump and race.  Yes, the issue has been there.  And yes, Trump’s embrace of “birther” conspiracy theories was clearly a play to racial anxiety.  But in the end my complaints about Trump have focused more on his corruption, his incompetence, his utter ignorance of policy, his short attention span, his personal grudges, his impulsiveness, his narcissism, and his utter unfitness to lead in a crisis.  But after Trump showed such reluctance to condemn neo-Nazis and pardoned Joe Arpaio, it is time to stop ignoring the obvious.  Trump is a racist and he is pandering to racism.  And it is not playing at “identity politics” to point out the obvious.
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*See this link for a series of exposes on Arpaio.  I also highly recommend the New Yorker article.  One of the most striking things about it is just how much Arpaio resembles Trump.  Like Trump he is a publicity hound, believing there is no such thing as bad publicity.  He has the same narcissism, the same cruelty, the same intolerance of criticism, the same exaggerated sense of disgust, the same malice tempered by incompetence -- except that incompetence in an overreaching sheriff is deadly.  He even appears to share Trump's germ phobia.  And, of course, he also had his own birther investigation.

Reflections on Hurricane Irma

Oh, God, no, please no!  Not again!  Not so soon!  No, no, no, no, no, no no!!!!!

(Closes eyes, covers ears).

Is it working?

Monday, September 4, 2017

Reflections on DACA

It's amazing.  When Barack Obama first initiated the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the Republican Party had a collective fit.  They were outraged!  It was the worst example of an out of control executive in the history of our country!  Instead of using the executive power to do legitimate things like indefinite detention, warrantless surveillance or torture, Obama was using it refrain from deporting people brought illegally to the US as children!  Never was there such an example of executive usurpation threatening the rule of law or constitutional liberty!  Why, it was worse than Obamacare, even, because at least Obamacare was passed by Congress!

And then, as we know, a funny thing happened with Obamacare repeal.  Faced with the real life prospect of stripping 20 million people of their health insurance, Republicans got cold feet.  They realized that their own constituents would frequently suffer.  And they ended up taking a pass on the legislation.

Well, guess what.  That tape is playing again.  Now that Donald Trump is proposing to reverse DACA, leaving people who applied vulnerable to deportation, suddenly Republicans aren't so enthusiastic after all.  Suddenly ending DACA is cruel and inhumane.  Republican leaders in Congress are starting to talk about passing legislation to make it official.

Words fail me.

Reflections on the Ongoing North Korea Saga

Well, I was hopeful there for a while (in a bad sort of way).  Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un were in an escalating war of words that had a small but real possibility of becoming an actual war between nuclear powers.

Then the neo-Nazis marched in Charlotteville and Trump could not quite bring himself to condemn then and set off a huge uproar.  And then he incited further outrage by pardoning Joe Arpaio.  And then Hurricane Harvey hit Houston and naturally took up all our energy.

All of this was bad, of course, bad in different ways and to varying degrees, but definitely bad.  But still preferable to even a small risk of nuclear war.  While Trump as distracted by Charlotteville, the North Koreans discretely called of their missile test over Guam.  We all breathed a sigh of relief that all sides seemed to be climbing down.  And I had reason to hope that in case of crisis it would not be necessary to handcuff Trump, stuff something in his mouth, and lock him in the closet until it was over.  Distracting him with some bright, shiny object just might be sufficient.

Unfortunately, the North Koreans have failed to cooperate.  They have now launched several test missiles over Japan and apparently successfully tested a hydrogen bomb.  Presumably the deliberately timed their provocations for a time when US attention was distracted by a natural disaster and they could hope our response would be weakest.

So now the escalating war of words is back on.  Buckle up your seatbelts, folks.  This could be one rough ride.