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Trump v. Kim

The theory of nuclear deterrence is predicated on the idea that, ultimately, nations would act rationally. When I think of the Cuban Missile Crisis, it’s alarming how unnecessarily bellicose both Kennedy and Khrushchev initially acted. Kennedy wanted to prove that he could be as tough and as resolutely anti-Commie as any Republican. Khrushchev hadn’t been in power for long, and needed to mollify more hawkish members of the Politburo. Throughout the crisis, Kennedy got terrible advice from at least some of his generals. But ultimately, both Kennedy and Khrushchev backed down, found a face-saving compromise both sides could live with. Unleashing the horror of thermonuclear holocaust isn’t necessarily unthinkable. People in power do seem capable of thinking about it. General Maxwell Taylor, President Kennedy’s most important military advisor, clearly was willing to at least entertain the thought of it. But finally, in the end, nuclear war was avoided. Ultimately, both the Americans and the Soviets thought better of it. Everyone took a deep breath, reconsidered previously held positions, calmed down. A nuclear exchange was, finally, averted.

And thus it has always been. Diplomacy has, in the final analysis, triumphed over bellicosity. When I look at the world today, I shudder to realize which countries have nuclear capacities. Pakistan is far too unsteady and unstable to really be a nuclear power. It nonetheless is one. So is India. And India and Pakistan loathe each other, with deeply rooted religious animosities unworthy of two great world religions. Still, both countries have nukes, and that’s a scary thought. But when it comes to their nuclear arsenals, both countries have, miraculously, remained rational, reasonable, peaceable. Israel has nuclear weapons, understandable given its many enemies. But, at least so far, without untoward incident. The nuclear arsenal of the former Soviet Union remains poorly maintained and guarded, and at least some weapons exist in exceedingly unstable regions. But everyone does seem to recognize how high the stakes are. The Obama administration negotiated a treaty with Iran, which is holding up exceptionally well, at least so far. Iran’s governance is hardly any kind of ideal, with dual military presences and modes of governance. But even Iran, so far, is behaving reasonably.

And then there’s Kim Jong Un. Who may or may not have a nuclear capability, and who definitely has developed an ICBM. And he’s being opposed by Donald Trump. And while James Matis and Rex Tillerson have responded to North Korean threats with diplomatic language, offering to negotiate a way out of the current dispute, Donald Trump seems intent on acting like a spoiled, angry, frightened child. And we’re in major threat escalation mode. Now, Kim is threatening Guam. Poor Guam. And the Donald is promising ‘fire and fury.’

Here’s what would ordinarily happen. The President of the United States would consult with a number of experts on North Korea. He’d probably start with the assistant secretary for Asian and Pacific Affairs from the State Department, plus the assistant secretary for Asian and Pacific security from Defense. Those two officials would have access to the expertise of a number of career diplomats with more specific knowledge of Kim and North Korea. The President would also talk with the US ambassador to South Korea. There would be meetings between State and Defense and intelligence agencies. A coherent, rational, consistent policy would emerge. Diplomatic overtures would begin, certainly involving China, Japan and South Korea. And everyone would commit to both the process and the policy. And six months from now, we’d all be wondering whatever happened to Kim Jong Un. Weren’t we scared of him for awhile there?

That can’t happen with Trump; none of it can. For one thing, none of those positions are filled. There isn’t an ambassador to South Korea–Trump hasn’t named one. State is badly understaffed. So is Defense. And the President of the United States is trying to govern via Twitter, as informed by Fox and friends, advised by ideological extremists (Steve Bannon), and desperately unqualified family members (Jared Kushner.) We have no coherent policy. We have no process by which one might be arrived at.

Nuclear deterrence requires nations to act rationally. Which means, at present, we have to hope that Kim Jong Un fills that role, Donald Trump having abdicated it.

Now, to be fair, Trump is getting some good advice from some qualified people. Jim Mattis, John Kelly and H. R. McMaster are, at least, sensible people. They’re career military men, and they know full well that even a conventional attack on North Korea would be a sickening, disastrous nightmare. We’d probably win such a war. So what? It would result in a humanitarian crisis the likes of which the world has never seen. That choice has to be off the table. The nuclear option has to be off the table and buried fifty feet down in the backyard.

But it may not be. Our current President has not demonstrated a capacity for mature self-reflection, careful strategic planning, or rationality. We have to hope Kim can be the sensible adult in the room. Or, just maybe, Xi Jingping. Otherwise, this whole situation is scary, and getting scarier. Maybe, just maybe, Rex Tillerson and Xi are on the phone right now. Let’s desperately hope so.

 

War for the Planet of the Apes: Movie Review

War for the Planet of the Apes is, among other things, about an authoritarian American leader who is bound and determined to build a wall between him and his perceived enemies, and also wants the Apes to pay for it. It’s also about Native American genocide, and the persecution of Christianity by ancient Rome, and other incidents of needless brutality perpetrated by the strong over the weak. It’s about a tragic class of cultures. It’s about leadership and suffering. It’s just an extraordinary movie.

This is the third movie, and I think probably the last movie, in the Planet of the Apes reboot that began with Rise of the Planet of the Apes in 2011, and continued with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes in 2014. All three movies have starred the remarkable Andy Serkis as Caesar, a preternaturally intelligent Ape, and a born leader. In the world of these films, a search for a cure for Alzheimers resulted in two unintended consequences. First, Apes, given a drug as part of the research, grew vastly more intelligent. Second, the drug created a pandemic that wiped out most of humanity. The Apes escaped to the forests; mankind retreated to various military compounds. An Ape vs. Human war ensued, driven in part by human paranoia and xenophobia, but also in part by a terribly mistreated Ape, Koba, who sought revenge against his human tormentors.

As this film begins, Koba is dead, killed by Caesar in the previous film. But a well-armed, well led army has begun a war of extermination against the Apes. Caesar continuous insists that he has no interest in killing humans. He realizes that humans and Apes probably can’t co-exist peacefully, but sends the message; leave him the forest, and leave him alone, and he won’t attack humans. That’s not good enough for The Colonel (Woody Harrelson). He intends to wipe Apes off the planet. In one attack, he kills Caesar’s wife and oldest son. Caesar sends the rest of his people away, and heads out, looking for The Colonel, with a small group of close followers. He thinks that killing the Colonel might be enough to get humans to leave him alone. That’s his object.

Caesar is a born leader, tactically advanced and with a sophisticated sense of what humans want and how to defeat them. But he’s stuck on horseback, without more advanced transportation or communication technology. Apes can use human weapons, but have limited ammo. Much of this movie is about Caesar’s journey to find The Colonel, and the discoveries he makes along the way. One discovery involves men who have either been murdered or buried alive. They seem to suffer from a disease that robs of the power of speech. Caesar also meets a young girl, Nova (Amiah Miller), similarly afflicted. She can’t talk, but she is an intelligent young woman, capable of sign-language communication (which is also the main way the Apes communicate), and courageous and loyal. Caesar takes her with him, lacking any better idea what to do with her, and she proves a valuable ally.

The initial plan was for Caesar to go questing after the Colonel, while the rest of his people sought refuge in a desert south of their woods stronghold. But the Colonel’s technological advantages have defeated Caesar’s plan, and Caesar’s people have been captured and taken to a fort The Colonel is building by an old army supply depot. The fort needs a wall. The Apes are set to the task of building it. And Caesar is captured as well, though his Nova and his two ape comrades are free.

Not all Apes, however, are on Caesar’s side. The army has coopted quisling apes, which they call ‘donkeys,’ And, like black overseers during slavery, the ‘donkeys’ prove more vicious and brutal than their human bosses. They also have devised a unique punishment for recalcitrant apes (and for Caesar, eventually). They crucify them.

It turns out that the Colonel has essentially seceded from white society, because of this odd muteness disease. It’s a mutation from the initial Alzheimer’s disease that proved so devastating for humans, and so beneficial to Apes. The Colonel quite ruthlessly executes anyone with the disease. Another army, from ‘up north,’ is on its way to bring him to justice. The wall is protection against another human army. Meanwhile, Caesar only wants to rescue his people. The last thing in the world he wants to is for Ape society to get caught in a crossfire. He just wants them to be free. And, like Moses, he’s willing to bring them to a Promised land he himself will be unable to enter.

Harrelson is wonderfully psychopathic as The Colonel. Serkis, is, of course, utterly brilliant as Caesar. CGI acting is simply acting; his performance is simply that of a superb actor at the top of his craft. The CGI just builds off the performance.

The whole film is rich and powerful. So many historical resonances; so much to take in. I was deeply moved by the entire film, as I was with the previous films. It’s a wonderful movie. It got a little lost in the shuffle of summer movies, but it’s certainly as moving as any. See it on the big screen, if you can, and bask.

Donald Trump: Editor-in-chief

Two oddly similar political news stories came out today, though both got kind of buried in the wake of the astonishing firing of White House Communications Director Anthony “The Mooch” Scaramucci. In fact, in a strange kind of way, all three stories are connected. I mean, all politicians try to control their own political narratives. That’s why administrations have a ‘communications director.’ But Trump emerges as, perhaps, a bit more hands-on than most.

Okay, so here’s the first story. Remember a few days ago, when the big story involved a meeting between Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort, and an amazing assortment of Russian spies, money launderers, attorneys and hangers-on. The deal was that they would provide dirt on Hillary Clinton, in exchange for, well, who knows? Anyway, Donald Jr. sort belatedly remembered that meeting, which took place in June of 2016, when his Dad was still running. And his initial account of that meeting was misleadingly vague.

Well, it turns out that his Dad wrote it. That is, Donald Trump wrote, or rather, dictated, the first account given by Donald Jr. about his June meeting with Russians. Here’s what the President came up with:

It was a short introductory meeting. I asked Jared and Paul to stop by. We primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children that was active and popular with American families years ago and was since ended by the Russian government, but it was not a campaign issue at that time and there was no follow up.

“I was asked to attend the meeting by an acquaintance, but was not told the name of the person I would be meeting with beforehand.

It’s not that this description of the meeting is a lie. It certainly is misleading. What it leaves out is the fact that it was set up with the promise that Trump Jr. would get dirt on Hillary Clinton, and that the person setting it up claimed it would be “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” Also, that the meeting was attended by Rinat Akhmetshin, a lobbyist who has been linked to Russian money-laundering, and by Ike Kaveladze, a former Russian intelligence operator, who is generally believed to still be conducting espionage on behalf of Putin’s government. Also, if Trump knew nothing about this meeting, as he claims, why was he dictating his son’s response to it?

Also, and this is a key question for me, how stupid is this? Did the President genuinely believe that this brief, uninformative statement would end all media coverage of the meeting? Did he really think that Washington Post reporters would stop digging? According to the Post story, various Trump advisors urged Donald Jr. to be much more transparent. Get accurate information out there, quickly. Wouldn’t that have been a better course of action? And can anyone imagine Donald Trump following that counsel?

The second story is even more amazing. A lawsuit alleges that Donald Trump and Sean Spicer colluded with Fox News to build a disinformation campaign around the death of a Democratic National Committee staffer. According to this lawsuit, Trump, Spicer, and Fox News host Sean Hannity worked together to make up the Seth Rich story.

We have to be careful with this one. A private investigator, Rod Wheeler, claims that he was hired by a wealthy Trump supporter, Ed Butowsky, to investigate the death of Seth Rich, a young DNC staffer. Rich, in July 2016, died in an apparent robbery-gone-bad. The crime is still being investigated by DC police. Right-wing media outlets, including Hannity and including Fox News, fell in love with this story last fall, alleging that Rich had been the one responsible for the DNC documents exposed on Wikileaks, and that Hillary Clinton had therefore had him murdered. There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that this might be true, and the Fox narrative has been debunked by law enforcement, and by every fact-checking website out there, including Politifact, Snopes, and FactCheck.org.

But Fox News ran with it anyway, basing much of their story on quotations from Wheeler. Wheeler now claims that those quotations were fabricated. He also claims that Butowski, President Trump and Spicer were involved in the writing of the story. Wheeler says he was made the scapegoat when other news sources discredited it, and Fox was forced to back off.

I think this story warrants further investigation. And since it’s currently the subject of a lawsuit, it seems likely that it will receive the additional scrutiny it needs. The fact is, Rod Wheeler was the main source for the Seth Rich story on Fox. I think there’s very good reason to question his credibility, including these new allegations involving Trump and Spicer. The Seth Rich story is the very definition of fake news, and Rod Wheeler was instrumental in its creation. And his lawsuit alleges that he was some kind of innocent victim. Uh, no. He says Fox News misquoted him in creating the story. Maybe he was misquoted. But he’s also responsible. For him to play the victim card is a bit much.

On the other hand, if the President and Spicer were involved in embellishing his, Wheeler’s, account, he would certainly be in a position to know. We have seriously untrustworthy people involved here, from Sean Hannity to Wheeler to Spicer. Sadly, one of the most untrustworthy of them is the President. The Seth Rich fake narrative was unquestionably useful to Trump. Probably, at least some Trump supporters still believe it. Did he help craft it? If so, that’s an explosive allegation.

But why should it be? After all, Trump’s entire narrative is both suspect and self-serving. Trump declares himself to be the best negotiator, the best deal-maker, a self-made man, a billionaire, author of the best-selling business book of all time, uniquely smart and driven and good. And none of that’s remotely true. He’s a fabulist, a weaver of tales. A BS artist, and a con man. A liar and a fraud. The Seth Rich story serves Trump’s purposes. Was he involved in creating it? I don’t know, and that the guy who says he did is not someone with a lot of credibility. But maybe.

At the very least, we can see why Trump is having a hard time hiring a communications director. There were a great many people in the room when Trump re-wrote his son’s account of his Russian meeting. Some of them were advising against him doing that, but he’s Trump and did it anyway. Now it’s backfiring on him, as was inevitable. The sheer hubris and stupidity of both stories witness to their credibility. I wish that wasn’t true of the President. But, sadly, it is.

 

 

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets: Movie Review

Coming into this summer movie season, one of the films I was most excited to see was this one: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Written, produced and directed by Luc Besson. Regular readers of this blog know how much I love me some Luc Besson. There’s no one else like him. He’s known particularly for two kinds of films; really dumb action movies (like Taken), and equally stupid sci-fi (like Lucy). The Fifth Element is his; one of the most over-the-top, insane, incomprehensible, over-designed, thoroughly entertaining sci-fi epics ever made. Valerian promised to match it.

Boy, did it ever. Essentially, the City of a Thousand Planets refers to this massive, planet-sized space station, where representatives from every inhabited world in the galaxy/universe/multiverse gather for purposes both commercial and diplomatic. They call the place Alpha. That’s where the movie is set, on Alpha, combination Mall-of-the-Galaxy, entertainment complex, and UN. It’s an exceptionally cool place to set a film in.  Imagine the bar scene in Star Wars, multiply it by a million, and give the filmmaker state-of-the-art CGI and an endless design budget, and you have the look of this movie. It’s absolutely dazzling. Incredibly silly. It features all these chase scenes where Valerian (Dane DeHaan) zips rapidly through dozens of world venues, and you realize the filmmakers spent immense amounts of time creating fascinating worlds that would get maybe two seconds of screen time; spectacular backgrounds for the actors to basically zip through. It’s just astounding. It even has a scene where Valerian gets stuck with his arm in a different dimension than the rest of him. Don’t you just hate when that happens?

It has to be that visually sumptuous, because the plot doesn’t really hold our interest. The movie starts on sort of a beach planet, where shaved-head gorgeous skinny aliens enjoy the most leisurely of life styles. They have a pet critter, which sort of looks like a cross between an armadillo, a mole and an iguana, which has this neat trick. If you feed it something, a pearl, say, it poops out tons of them, perfect replicas. So the skinny beach bum aliens have all these pearls, each one releasing massive amounts of energy, and when they need more, they get their pet to poop them some.

Then, some kind of war wipes out their planet and their civilization.

Jumping ahead 30 years, and Major Valerian and his sidekick, Sergeant Laureline (Cara DeLevingne), are part of the security forces for Alpha. Oh, and he’s in love with her, and wants her to marry him, an idea with which she is unimpressed. So there’s that romantic intrigue underlying the whole story, infusing their every scene with immense amounts of sexual tension, theoretically. In practice, DeHaan and DeLevingne have as little chemistry as they have charisma, so interpersonally, the Valerian/Laureline pairing’s a bit of a fizzle.

Anyway. Earth, for some reason, provides security for Alpha, and V and L are the main agents of that security, and for some reason, they’ve come across one of those pearl-pooping critters. And Laureline even knows details of how to feed and care for it. (Bathing it in massive amounts of radiation, apparently). And they’re tasked with getting the critter to someone, with some baddies trying to stop them. That’s the plot, I think.  I don’t remember who wants it, or why. Oky, I may have missed some narrative nuances. The movie’s pace is frenetic, and the images are distracting. I’ll admit it, I spent a lot of the movie wondering what the heck was going on. This did not detract from my enjoyment of it. It’s a Luc Besson film. They’re not supposed to make sense.

Anyway. For some reason, Valerian and Laureline keep getting separated. Once, for example, Laureline finds herself working as one of many waiters, providing food for a vicious tyrant lizard creature. The waiters line up, and one at a time they approach this Lord-thing, tray of food on their heads, and he takes a bite, then spits it out, snarling at them. Laureline shows up, wearing, for some reason, a wedding dress and a big hat, and the Lord-creature assumes that he’s to cut off the top of her skull and scoop out her brains, the first food-offering that appeals to him. She resists, fights back, and mayhem results.

Valerian also gets lost, and for some reason, finds himself in the nightclub of Jolly The Pimp (Ethan Hawke), who manages Bubble, the world/galaxy/universe’s greatest stripper. Bubble is played by Rihanna, and she’s a shape shifter, and does this entire pole dance routine as a series of stripper icons (cowgirl, school girl, dominatrix etc). Rihanna is completely brilliant in the role, and although her scenes make no narrative sense at all, she’s the best thing in the picture, for the fifteen minutes or so before (SPOILER ALERT) her character tragically dies.

Eventually, it turns out that the beach bum planet people didn’t all die. Some of them have been hiding on Alpha. And they want their pearl-pooper back, which Valerian initially resists, because, regulations. Which Laureline persuades him to ignore. And so the aliens zip off to settle another beach-y planet they’ve found. And the film’s bad guy, Arun Filitt (Clive Owen), who has been tracking and trying to kill Valerian all the while for some unaccountable reason, is defeated and arrested, a foreordained result, again, completely devoid any dramatic tension at all.  It’s a Luc Besson film, so of course there’s also a big Family Values speech, after which Laureline decides to marry Valerian after all, obviously. I mean, of course she does, though DeLevingne’s acting of her big moment couldn’t have been more perfunctory.

Is the movie any good at all? Of course not. It’s a Luc Besson film; of course it’s idiotic. But it looks great, and, like all the man’s oeuvre, it’s a fun kind of dumb. The two leads are very attractive plus they can’t either of them act at all, but they pull off their stunts well enough, and are surrounded by other actors who can act, and so the movie limps along without much in the way of character development or humanity. It’s such a great looking film, it races along appealingly, and the people I saw it with expressed themselves perfectly satisfied by it.

It’s everything I was hoping for. It’s a Luc Besson sci-fi epic. It’s visually amazing. It won’t bore you. It also has a message. It takes a strong, resolute stance against genocide. And it has a lizard that poops pearls. I’m not sure what more you want from a movie.

Obamacare, Mooch, and other developments

I was asleep. Slumbering peacefully away, between sleep cycles, probably. And I heard a news alert beep on my phone. Rolled over, picked it up. And learned that the most recent Senate attempt to rescind and replace Obamacare had failed.

It was, of course, alwys an idiotic bill. They were calling it ‘skinny repeal’; repeal without ‘replace.’ Basically, it would get rid of the generally unpopular individual mandate part of the ACA, plus get rid of Planned Parenthood. The mandate is unpopular, but also essential; without it, it’s difficult to imagine the ACA surviving. The only way Mitch McConnell could sell this to his caucus was to promise that it would never become law. It would set up a conference with the House, where everything would get fixed. But could this be guaranteed?  At least some Senators suddenly remembered their junior high civics classes, and realized that if they passed this thing, and the House voted for it too, it would, with the President’s signature, become law. Yikes. Paul Ryan was asked for guarantees that that wouldn’t happen; he couldn’t offer any. And so the vote became very dramatic. 52 Republican Senators, 48 Democrats. But with two known Republican defectors, Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine, it was really 50-50, with Mike Pence poised to exercise his one constitutional duty. It looked like it would pass; 51-50.

And then, riding in on his white horse, John McCain entered the chamber, said some things that made Chuck Schumer happy, said some other things that made John Cornyn less happy, shrugged off Pence’s last second lobbying, and voted against the bill. 49-51. It’s dead. Who knows how long it stays dead–Obamacare repeal and replace schemes have resembled political zombies; shambling and stupid, but hard to kill. But at least for now, McCain is our hero.

We have better heroes to thank for this. Murkowski and Collins have stood steadfastly against their party’s leadership for weeks, despite tremendous pressure. Murkowski was even threatened with a loss of federal funding for her state of Alaska. Of course, it was awesome to have McCain, diagnosed with brain cancer, make his dramatic return. But the real heroine of the night, to me, was another cancer patient, Hawaii senator Mazie Hirono. She has stage four kidney cancer, for which she’s undergoing treatment, but still, she flew in to vote on these measures. Having cancer tends to focus the mind, and Hirono decided she was going to do what she could to preserve health insurance for her constituents. It worked. Barely, but still.

It had been a crowded newsday anyway. President Trump’s new communications director, less than a week on the job, gave an unhinged interview with a New Yorker reporter, demanding to know the reporter’s source for a story he’d posted. In that interview, and later, on TV, Anthony Scaramucci came across as, like, the very caricature of a New Yorker tough guy. He has, I’ll admit, a creative way with the King’s English, and although his understanding of the legalities of news leaks is positively Trumpian in its ignorance, he did at least get his boss’s ideas across. He’s going to be an entertaining figure for the few weeks that he’s on the job.

In my opinion, though, yesterday also brought some small, almost overlooked news items that strike me as being of much greater consequence, Signs that, at least on the margins, Republicans are standing up to Trump.

Item: Congress just passed a bill that would have strengthened economic sanctions against Russia. The bill would also restrict the President’s ability to ease previous sanctions. Trump now has ten days to sign or veto. But it passed both the House and Senate with huge, veto-[roof margins. Also, how pro-Russia does Trump want to appear right now? And that’s where this gets interesting. Sanctions against Russia; fine. But if Putin owns Trump, this is exactly the kind of bill he wouldn’t want passed. Trump looks terrible if he vetoes, and Congress, at least for now, has the votes to override any veto anyway. We’ll see.

Item: Trump is clearly not enthralled with his Attorney-General, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, and he’s been pressuring Sessions to resign. Specifically, he hates the fact that Sessions recused himself from dealing with the Russia scandal. Trump seems to regard Sessions recusal as, uh, disloyal. Apparently, Trump thinks the Attorney-General’s job includes shielding him, the President, from scandals. He doesn’t like being investigated, and thinks Sessions should head that off, and also, obviously, go after Hillary Clinton. Just for clarification, the Attorney-General of the United States is the nation’s chief law enforcement officer. He investigates crimes. He doesn’t work for the President, and no part of his job involves preventing the President from being investigated. Just to remind us of, you know, reality-land. Of course, Richard Nixon’s Attorney-General, John Mitchell, actually sat in meetings with Nixon’s campaign committee and helpfully discussed the various felonies they would all be committing. So that happened. But Mitchell went to prison for it, so maybe that’s not an historical example Trump wants to consult.

Item: In any event, Trump is clearly imagining a scenario in which he fires Sessions, get’s a more pliable AG confirmed, then gets the new guy to fire Robert Mueller, the special counsel currently investigating him. And he wants to do it quickly, before Mueller can get his hands on Trump’s tax returns. Except that last night, the Chair of the Senate Judiary Committee, Chuck Grassley, sent out a tweet saying that there was just no way his committee could schedule hearings for a new AG until, at the earliest, January. Just no time for it, doncha know.

Item: best of all, this. Lindsay Graham, (R-South Carolina) and Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) have co-sponsored a bill that would make it impossible for a President to fire a special counsel without judicial review. As I understand it, their bill would require a three-judge panel to review whatever cause a President tried to use to fire a special counsel. Of course, the bill still needs to pass the House and Senate, and then Trump could always veto it. But it also enjoys pretty broad support, at least initially. Wouldn’t that be something?

For political reasons, Republicans are reluctant to challenge this President openly. But more quietly, in the background? They have to know what a train wreck he is. And how damaging to the institutions of American democracy.

 

Also, the Jazz lost their best player

It’s late July. The temperature outside is essentially that of the planet Mercury, and we still have August to get through. There’s not much on TV, and my doctors won’t let me drive, so I can’t even catch a movie matinee. So every night, I watch the news, especially the political news. Dang, that’s depressing, what with the current POTUS being infantile, unhinged, and bad at his job.

Usually, sports provides a respite. It’s nice, sometimes, to care about something silly and inconsequential, to root, to cheer, to give oneself purely to something that’s, yes, impure, commodified and marketed in the crassest possible ways. But which still can give pleasure, the way any extraordinary humans doing difficult things well can give pleasure, can be astounding and breath-taking and amazing. And that’s particularly true of professional team sports. We don’t just enjoy individuals excelling. We get to enjoy the pleasures of teamwork, of remarkable men and women doing something in tandem. We like it when our teams win. We like it almost as much when they almost win, while playing well.

Summer is time for baseball, the sport I’ve loved longest and best. And this summer just stinks. I’m a San Francisco Giants fan, and my team has achieved levels of suckitude I would not have previously believed possible. And our collective life-long enemies, the Los Angeles Dodgers, is the best team in baseball. So no, I’m not taking much comfort in the game of baseball.

But I’m not just a baseball fan, and not just a Giants fan. I’m a Utahn, and a fan of the misnamed but deeply loved team known as the Utah Jazz. And last season, the Jazz were easy to root for. After the glorious Stockton/Malone years, the team had, inevitably faltered. A new coach (Quinn Snyder) and general manager (Steve Lindsay) were hired, both of them outstanding. The Jazz drafted well. They signed good players. They hired good coaches. And they began to form an identity. This Jazz team plays solid team defense. They move the ball on offense, and look for open shots. They became known for player development. A talented young center, Rudy Gobert, began a slow and steady improvement. Other young players took tentative steps forward. They made the playoffs last year, and were clearly a team on the rise. And then, two weeks ago, Gordon Hayward stabbed the Utah Jazz in the back.

Gordon Hayward, you have to understand, essentially defines a Jazz player. Nice kid, a family man, good values. Hard working, team oriented. A good scorer, a good shooter, but also an excellent defensive player. Not a super athlete, but a lean and quick 6′ 8″ small forward/big guard, a fine ball handler, a guy capable of creating his own shot. Our leading scoring player last year, and almost certainly the best player on the team.

It’s very difficult to build a championship team. Professional basketball players want to win championships. They also, for the most part, want to live in certain big cities, with the entertainment options big cities can offer. That’s not always true; some of the best teams are located in San Antonio, Oakland and Oklahoma City. Meanwhile, both New York teams are terrible, and only one of the two LA teams is competitive. But Utah will never be a preferred location for good players. What the Jazz have to sell is player development (the Jazz coaching staff does a great job of helping good players improve), patience and a stable franchise, with an enthusiastic and supportive fan base, good ownership and leadership.

Essentially, the Jazz want to become the San Antonio Spurs. That’s not so bad. The Spurs are wonderfully well coached, and their best players have played together for years. The Jazz could do that.

Except Gordon Hayward decided he didn’t want to wait that long. He was offered a lot of money (less than the Jazz offered, but still well over a hundred million dollars), to go to Boston and try to win a championship with the Celtics. He concluded, probably accurately, that the Celtics were closer to winning a championship than the Jazz were. And so, we lost him. He’s gone. We get nothing in return. We just lost our best player.

It’s depressing, and it makes you wonder if your favorite team will ever be able to compete. At the same time, I think the Jazz may be fine next season. I sort of can’t wait to find out.

What has to happen is for some of the younger Jazz players to take a big leap forward and fill the gap Hayward leaves behind. Rodney Hood, when healthy, has essentially the Hayward skill set. Rookie Donovan Mitchell could be a special players. Alec Burks could finally get healthy and live up to his potential. And Dante Exum has looked great this summer.

We could be better. But we won’t know until this winter. And in the meantime, it’s a hot summer. The Giants are terrible, and the political news couldn’t be more depressing. Soccer anyone?

 

Conservatism and health care

The Senate today held a vote on a procedural measure that would allow for debates and amendments on, well, something. No one is quite sure what measures will be debated and amended, This Vox explainer did a nice job of helping me understand what’s going on. The final vote was 50-50, with Vice-President Mike Pence performing his one constitutional duty by breaking the tie. There was also some high drama, as Senator John McCain, recently diagnosed with brain cancer, nonetheless showed up and voted. He then gave a powerful, stirring speech, in which he launched an all-out attack on the bill he had just voted for. “I will not vote for this bill,” he said in a powerful, if wavering voice. Uh, okay.

I’m hardly the first person to point this out, but Republicans currently control the House, the Senate, the White House, and likely hold a 5-4 advantage on most Supreme Court votes. And after voting to repeal Obamacare a jillion times when Obama was President, they can’t seem to pass a health care bill now. No Democrats will vote for a bill repealing the single most important legislative achievement of the Obama administration, though Democrats do have bills ready for a vote that would fix the problems the ACA undoubtedly has. But those bills will never be allowed on the floor for debate or votes. Republicans have made it clear that they have no interest in bi-partisan cooperation on health care. And they haven’t been able to get much done. Today’s vote in the Senate was procedural. Will it lead to a final bill? Probably not, but you never know. I certainly hope not; every bill out there, including the House bill that passed, the Senate bill that didn’t pass, and the various bills under current consideration, all of them are terrible bills. If the goal is to expand the numbers of Americans with adequate access to affordable health care, these bills all fail. In fact, they fail pretty spectacularly. They reduce the numbers of healthy people buying insurance through the ACA exchanges. They cut Medicaid. They will take health insurance from 20 to 25 to 35 million Americans. Which means, in all likelihood, that people will die.

As a loyal Democrat, it’s tempting to conclude that these bad bills exist because Republicans are bad people. These bills are variously described as ‘mean-spirited,’ ‘cruel,’ vicious’ and ‘lethal.’ The implication is that Republicans are uniquely indifferent to basic human suffering. Republicans want to cut taxes for rich people. (They always want to cut taxes, and rich people pay higher taxes than poor people). And in these debates, they always look terrible, like a party of nasty, uncaring Scrooges, out to hurt, or even kill poor people. Of course, they try to defend their various bills, insisting that CBO scores are wrong, that poor people won’t lose their insurance, that what they’re doing is allowing states more flexibility and providing people with more freedom. It never works. They look terrible in every instance. These are historically unpopular bills.

I don’t think, though, that Republicans are meaner than Democrats. I think that’s a dangerously hubristic way of looking at it. Preening about our moral superiority is a temptation most progressives have given into at least occasionally. But it isn’t true. There are philosophical differences between the parties, and we’re never going to get anything done if we insist that those differences are also moral. I know lots of Republicans. Good folks. They’re just real bad at health care policy.

And the reason isn’t hard-heartedness or indifference to suffering. It’s conservatism. Republicans tend to be conservatives, and a lot of Republicans are deeply committed, ideologically conservative. In fact, I believe that Republicans are far more committed to ideological conservatism than most Democrats are to ideological progressivism, which I don’t think is even a thing. You will often hear Republicans, talking about some policy or another, say things like ‘that policy is incompatible with the basic principles of conservatism.’ I’ve never heard a Democrat say the equivalent. Never once.

If you know enough conservatives, and you listen long enough, you’ll hear them admit to this: they don’t think health care is a right. They think health insurance is a commodity, like any other commodity. If you can afford it, great. If you can’t, well, then live without it. If you get seriously sick, and don’t have insurance, there are any number of charitable organizations that can help out. (And in my experience, Republicans give generously to those charities). When we talk about universal health care, conservatives don’t believe it’s something government can or should provide. Big government, the federal government, is inefficient, corrupt and overly expensive. Putting government in charge of health care is likely to hurt a health care system that generally works pretty well. And Obamacare doesn’t just expand health care, it mandates that private citizens purchase policies (sin number one), and provides federal funding to subsidize such purchases (sin number two).

That’s a hard philosophy to argue for, though. It sounds terrible. It makes it sound like rich people should get better health care than poor people should. It makes it sound, in fact, like the lives of rich folks are more valuable than the lives of poor people. I think the conservative stance on health care is actually a principled one. But it’s based on bad theory, and on bad research.

The fact is that government-provided health care programs–specifically Medicare and Medicaid–are more efficient and effective and cost-effective than the care private insurers provide. Medicare is so efficient, in fact, that doctors don’t much like it. It doesn’t compensate them all that generously.

As to the philosophical point; is health care a right? Do all Americans have a right to affordable, effective health care? Should every American citizen have government provided-or-mandated health insurance? The answer to that question is ‘sure, probably.’ Health care is a right if sufficient numbers of citizens believe it to be a right. Besides, if we have a right to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,’ that would seem to include a right to see a doctor without being bankrupted. The Framers wouldn’t have agreed, of course, because their health care sucked. The idea that going to a doctor was likely to make a sick person better is a reasonably recent one. But yes, health care is a right. How do I know that? Polling data says so. If 60% of Americans think health care is a right, then it’s a right.

Conservatism is on the wrong side of history on this question, which is hardly surprising, because conservatism is generally opposed to change. I mean, the most fundamental difference between liberalism and conservatism would seem to be ‘should things change, or should they not change.’ So, as change happens, conservatives tend, at least initially, to oppose it.

The other hallmark of conservatism is a commitment to free markets, a commitment which, of course, I share. I don’t want the government to regulate the prices of cell phones, or DVRs. I want the market to do that. But providing some commodities and services is generally beyond the capacities of markets. Roads should be built by the government, as should electric grids and sewage systems. And health care fits in that category. Health care is a service that is uniquely unresponsive to market ideology.

That’s why one consistent conservative answer to health care includes the expansion of health savings accounts. They’re not that terrible an idea. They’re also no panacea. You’d be able to put some of your money in a savings account, tax free, which you could then use to defray health care expenses. See, that way you would be incentivized to shop around, to ask several hospitals to quote you their best price for that MRI, for example.

Except very few people are ever going to do that. The relevant economic principle is ‘asymmetry of information.’ Doctors know more about our health than we do. If my doctor says ‘you need an MRI,’ I’m going to get one. Even if I ask for a second opinion, I’m not really reducing the asymmetry of relevant knowledge. i[‘m just seeing a second person who knows more about it than I do. That’s why insurance companies pay a lot of money to medical experts who determine if a proposed course of treatment is likely enough to work for it to be covered. And so does Medicare.

Does this reduce freedom? Yeah, some. We’re put our family’s health in the hands of these people, these doctor folks. It’s frustrating, and yes, we should (and do) inform ourselves, and research, and talk to people, and do whatever we can to take control of our own health. I agree with every effort to inform ourselves. But when the doc says ‘get an MRI,’ I’m getting one.

So what we’re currently seeing is conservatives trying to provide universal health care when they don’t believe in any part of it. Of course they look bad. Of course the results are bad. Barack Obama tried the most conservative, most market-oriented approach to increasing access to health care he could possible manage. The result is the ACA, and it’s not great. And all of its problems, all of them, stem from the fact that it’s a conservative, market-oriented approach to health care. We can and must do better. All Americans have a right to affordable health care. Time for us to do better.

 

Trump fights back

Following the various ins and outs of the multiple scandals and misstatements and gross ineptitudes of the Trump administration is just exhausting. Every day there’s something new; if only a new Trump tweet. The President apparently spends his days watching cable news, and fuming. Every once in awhile, he vents. Most recently, he vented to the New York Times, where, among other absurdities, he claimed “I’ve given the farmers back their farms. I’ve given the builders back their land to build houses and to build other things.” None of which is remotely true, in any sense whatsoever.

Of course, the Russia scandal must seem like Chinese water torture to Trump, who is not known for his patience anyway. Drip, drip, drip; every day, new revelations. Right now the press is primarily focusing on the various, previously undisclosed meetings members of the Trump campaign and administration held with various Russian entities. The national media is good at that kind of story; who met with whom, for how long, when. For the most part, these meetings merely suggest possible collusion, but don’t prove that collusion took place. The meeting between Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner with a raftful of variously skeevy Russian figures comes closest to proving some kind of actual inappropriate or illegal interaction between Trump staff and Russians. Of course, we don’t know what they all talked about. Oh, yeah, adoption. That’s suspicious enough. Did the Trumpskies promise to consider reversing the Magnitsky act in exchange for dirt on Hillary? Hello, collusion.

But the ‘meetings with Russians’ angle, though certainly fascinating, has always seemed to me something of a sideshow. The real action, I think, is likely to be financial. The relevant questions, it seems to me, would include some version of these: how many deals did the Trump organization conclude with Russian oligarchs? How much Russian funding did the Trump organization receive? Did any of these transactions involve money laundering? Were there violations, by the Trump organization, of the Corrupt Foreign Practices Act? And finally this: does Vladimir Putin own Donald Trump?

Those kinds of questions are difficult for the national media, in large measure because very few such transactions are in the public record. To dig into those kinds of details requires someone with subpoena powers, and expertise in forensic accounting. These are the kinds of questions that Robert Mueller’s investigation is supremely well equipped to answer.  Mueller’s staff has precisely that kind of expertise. And Mueller himself has subpoena powers. It’s just impossible for me to imagine Mueller not asking for Trump’s tax returns.

And if he does, all hell could break loose.

Donald Trump is a fighter. Does anyone think he’ll just mildly turn over personal financial records? No. He may claim executive privilege. (A first step, and one he will lose). He could pressure the Justice department to fire Mueller. He could fire Jeff Sessions. He could pardon his family members. And he could pardon himself.

Does he have the authority to pardon himself? No one knows. It’s never been adjudicated. Probably not, but that doesn’t mean he won’t try.

And so, as has been the case since last November, the real question is this: if this President acts so egregiously, so nakedly in his own self-interest, if he behaves so far outside American political norms, what will Congress do? Will the Republican-controlled Congress act? Put another way, can we rely on the patriotism and integrity of Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell and the rest of the Republican caucuses in the House and Senate?

And the answer to that is also pretty clear. No. We can’t. They won’t act. Trump can abuse the pardon power of his office, and they will let him do it. A constitutional crisis only exists if the political will exists to force the issue. I see no sign of either integrity or patriotism among the current Republican leadership. Man, that’s scary.

Wonder Woman: Movie Review

I wouldn’t necessarily say that Wonder Woman is a great superhero movie. I’d say it’s just a really good movie. It’s exciting, and, best of all, it’s morally rigorous. At its heart, it’s a movie about an extraordinarily gifted and powerful young woman who is convinced she knows how to save the world. Her weakness, as a protagonist, is naiveté, innocence, based on a childhood in which she was raised on myth, not history. Ultimately, she has to cope with disillusionment and confusion. She has to make a crucial decision; given humanity’s propensity for war, are we worth saving? I know, that’s a familiar sci-fi trope. But it’s still compelling.

Gal Gadot plays Diana, who is pretty much a goddess, immortal, raised by Amazon warriors. She’s superbly trained in the ways of combat, which is weird, because the Amazons live on a remote island, guarded by mists, where no one ever comes with whom they might fight. They’re anti-war, like most great warriors, but war, for them, is at best a faded cultural memory. Still, they spend their days training. They’re in incredible shape, and they are amazing with bow, arrow, spear and hand-to-hand combat. But why? Who are they preparing to fight?

And then World War I intrudes. Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) comes flying in, his plane shot to pieces, and crash-lands in the Amazon’s lagoon. Diana dives in and saves him. A German flotilla sees him land, charges in after him, and Diana, and her Mom, Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), and her BFF, Antiope (Robin Wright; so good to see Buttercup again!), fight them off. And Antiope dies, but only after executing the most spectacular stunt in action movie history. Movie’s worth seeing just for that one stunt. And also the scene where Diana takes out a German machine gun nest. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Diana (never once, in the entire movie, called Wonder Woman, BTW), decides that Ares, God of War, has to be the instigator of WWI. I mean, a massive war, tens of millions of casualties, fought for the most idiotic reasons; of course, it has to have had malevolent and superhuman origins. The God of War done it. Has to be.

Except he didn’t. Didn’t need to. We see, briefly, Field Marshall Douglas Haig (James Cosmo), head of the British Expeditionary Force, and he expresses typically Haigian indifference to his own soldiers’ high casualty rates. It’s hard to imagine the combination of pig-headedness, callousness and sheer imbecility of the British (and French and German) High Commands, but the completely insane way in which WWI was prosecuted, on all sides, is a matter of historical fact. No wonder Diana is misled, and goes on a search for Ares, who, she’s been told, she can kill with her special sword.

I’m delighted that the movie is set in the First World War, and not the Second. WWII might tend to support the ‘some enemy hath done this’ school of thought about warfare origins. I mean, Hitler, right? But no. No enemy hath done this. We’re perfectly capable of doing it to ourselves.

Finally, of course, Diana meets Ares, played by Professor Lupin, otherwise known as David Thewlis. And he tells her the truth. And initially, she can’t handle it. And finally, she does.

At the time I watched the movie, it didn’t occur to me how cliched that final confrontation between Diana and Ares really was. My son pointed it out to me. Final fight scenes between superheroes (good v evil, of course), are inherently undramatic; guys flinging other guys into buildings, doing massive amounts of property damage, but not actually hurting anyone. When you’re impervious to being damaged by ginormous collisions with big steel-and-concrete structures, then why do you insist on flinging your opponent around the way they all do. What are you accomplishing? It’s boring, honestly; nothing’s at stake. Diana and Ares are having a deep and profound conversation about the nature of evil, and why Men (feminist, right?) fight wars. They didn’t need to bash up buildings to have that convo. Also, spoiler, but the movie suggests that she decides for humankind because she’s learned about love by falling for Steve Trevor. It’d be more interesting if she fell in love with human beings, more broadly understood. For women, and their children, since this is a feminist superhero movie. Not just some dude, making this a romantic melodrama.

So it’s not as feminist as it imagines itself being, and the ending isn’t anything innovative. It’s still a fine film, beautifully conceived and superbly acted. And it stars Gal Gadot, who is a miracle as Diana. The whole cast is terrific, in fact, including Chris Pine, who gives depth and relevance to a pretty thankless pretty boy role.

It’s really good. If it could have been a bit stronger, so what? It’s the best summer action movie so far this year. It’s so good, in fact, that for a second I forgot who the President was. That’s my new benchmark.