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Love is the purpose of life.

In Church yesterday, our former stake President spoke, a stake assignment, and he began by asking this: what is the purpose of life? What one word would we use to describe the purpose of life? And the word he chose was ‘joy.’ Men are that we might have joy, he said. It was a good answer I thought, for a talk in Church. We are, he said, meant to have joy, to experience joy, to fill our lives with joy. And it wasn’t difficult for him to find scriptures and General Authority quotations to support it. But ‘joy’ does seem to me, well, a trifle correlated. Like, it’s the official right answer to that question. I know too many people suffering from, among other ailments, depression. We don’t all get joyful lives. Lives full of worth, and dignity, yes. Not always happy lives.

‘Joy’ was certainly a better answer than ’42,’ that sublime Douglas Adams joke answer in Life, the Universe and Everything. Although I rather like the joke, because of this: Jackie Robinson’s jersey number was 42. From that, I might extrapolate this: the meaning of life is encompassed in the civil rights movement. The meaning of life is to treat all human beings with dignity and respect; the meaning of life is equality. That’s a good answer too. But it’s not quite right either.

Looking at the world, though, looking at Mother Earth and the creatures who inhabit it, a much truer answer comes to mind. The purpose of life is survival. That’s the biological imperative of all life; to carve out some niche, some corner of existence, and survive. My wife suggested another biological imperative; reproduction. But that seems inextricably linked to survival; we reproduce so our species can survive. So species survival becomes as crucial as individual survival; either way, the purpose of Life is to continue living. The purpose of Life, is Life.

But we’ve got that one sussed, we humans. We’re the most successful super-predators on earth. Other species may be stronger, faster, fiercer. Our claws aren’t weapons; our feet aren’t that fleet; our hands are comparatively weak. But we can shape the environment to our needs. That’s extraordinary. We don’t need to cower in trees anymore; we can cut trees down, and use them to build impenetrable fortresses. We have the leisure to contemplate questions like ‘what is the purpose of life,’ because we no longer are in danger. I live in Utah; mountains and deserts. Our biggest predators are probably mountain lions and wolves. Cats and dogs; we’ve domesticated them both to the point of absurdity. Fear of felines? Our cat is curled up on the sofa, sound asleep. That’s where he usually is. There is no sense whatsoever in which he’s a threat to me.

Nor is anything else. Bacteria, yes, and viruses. We cannot be killed by anything large, unless we behave with the most colossal stupidity. We can be killed by the tiniest of creatures. They’re what we fear, sometimes, when we’re feeling poorly. But mostly, we take survival for granted. That drives us in two directions. We can be killed by each other. It’s easy, but unprofitable, to worry needlessly about essentially non-existent threats. We worry ourselves sick about terrorism, a threat so infinitesimal it’s essentially a statistical rounding error. Or, we find ourselves feeling purposeless. What now, we think? Having won the fight for survival, what purpose comes next?

And if we’re Christians, the answer is something impossible, something nonsensical. Love God, and love your neighbor. God, who is invisible, who manifests Himself only indirectly; we’re urged to love Him. Commanded to, in fact. And then the really tough one. We’re to love our neighbors as ourselves. And who do we mean by our neighbors? Everyone.

The purpose of life, is to love. And maybe that leads to joy, or to salvation. But that’s what we’re meant to do, what we’re expected to do. And it’s essentially impossible. The Sermon on the Mount is built on paradoxes, on examples of behavior we could not possibly emulate, being imperfect.

And Jesus had to know that. He was born under hostile occupation. His people were despised and enslaved, and he was the poorest of his people. Nazareth was a tiny, unimportant, a backwater town in a backwater region. Did he know what it felt like to be struck across the face; did the requirement that we turn the other cheek come from personal experience? How do you love the people who have enslaved you? How do you love those who strike you, who compel you to carry their baggage a mile, who call you names and visit violence upon you? How do we love then?

I love my wife. I love my children. I love a few friends. I love other family members. That’s not always easy. And my love is hardly unequivocal. I get offended easily. I get my feelings hurt. But, yes, sometimes, I am able to truly love, I think. I hope. I pray. But a few years ago, someone I thought of as a friend hurt me badly. He damaged me, he lied about me, he tried deliberately to get me fired from a job I loved, and he advanced professionally as a reward. And I am required to forgive this person. I am required to love him. And I can’t do it. I’ve tried. The best I can do is a weak, milquetoast, anodyne expression of grudging charity. If I were driving in my car, and he stepped into the street, I probably wouldn’t run him down. But love him? Love him? It’s beyond me.

And what about people who are genuinely evil, rather than merely weak? As my wife and I discussed this, she asked if she was required to genuinely love Donald Trump? That should be simple enough; he hasn’t actively harmed me or her, and he’s clearly a damaged man. We ought to be able to find some compassion, at least. But I find it impossible to even consider. What about Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao? What about Hitler?

And yet, and yet. This is from George F. Richards, an LDS apostle back in the ’40s. It’s from October Conference, 1946.

I had a remarkable dream. I have seldom mentioned this to other people, but I do not know why I should not. I dreamed that I and a group of my own associates found ourselves in a courtyard where, around the outer edge of it, were German soldiers—and Fuhrer Adolph Hitler was there with his group, and they seemed to be sharpening their swords and cleaning their guns, and making preparations for a slaughter of some kind, or an execution. We knew not what, but, evidently we were the objects. But presently a circle was formed and this Fuhrer and his men were all within the circle, and my group and I were circled on the outside, and he was sitting on the inside of the circle with his back to the outside, and when we walked around and I got directly opposite to him, I stepped inside the circle and walked across to where he was sitting, and spoke to him in a manner something like this:

“I am your brother. You are my brother. In our heavenly home we lived together in love and peace. Why can we not so live here on the earth?” And it seemed to me that I felt in myself, welling up in my soul, a love for that man, and I could feel that he was having the same experience, and presently he arose, and we embraced each other and kissed each other, a kiss of affection.

I think the Lord gave me that dream. Why should I dream of this man, one of the greatest enemies of mankind, and one of the wickedest, but that the Lord should teach me that I must love my enemies, and I must love the wicked as well as the good?

Isn’t that why we’re here? Isn’t that why the gospel exists, to lead us to that point? Isn’t that the purpose of life? To love, to forgive, to embrace, without reservation or complaint, all our brothers and sisters?

We’ve mastered survival. Now we have to do something impossible, extend ourselves unimaginably, genuinely love our brothers and sisters. We start with our children, and we love them, impossible little pills though they sometimes are. And we love our families. That’s practice; that’s the easy part. But eventually, we have to find it in our hearts genuinely to love. Everyone. All of mankind, all living creatures. All. Is it easy? No, it’s impossible. It cannot, cannot be done.

So we have to do it. And that’s God’s work and his Glory. To get us to the point where we rely on His miracle; the miracle of Love, the miracle of at-one-ment. Because He is Love. And His Love is equal, and it’s full, and it’s unrestrained.

The purpose of Life is Love. And it’s impossible. And it’s necessary. The gospel is built on paradox, and that’s okay. Only by doing what can’t be done can we fulfill our purpose. Best if we start now.

Donald Trump and the oath of office

Jane Krakowski was on Colbert’s show last night, and as is obligatory when actresses appear on late night talk shows, Colbert complimented her on her appearance. “Thanks,” she said, and added that she was trying to lose her ‘Trump ten pounds.’ Everyone she knew was in the same fix: weight gain caused by binge eating, caused by Trump-caused anxiety.

This week has been especially bad, and it’s only Tuesday. Last night, the Washington Post dropped this bomb: Trump had provided two high ranking Russian officials with highly classified information, apparently just to brag. “I get great intel,” boasted Trump. “I have people brief me on great intel every day.” And then, to prove his point, he revealed code-word level information. And White House staff, panicked, began calling intelligence agencies to limit the damage.  At the same time, various Trump surrogates denounced the Post story as ‘fake news,’ with carefully parsed statements (Gen. McMaster’s was a gem) in which they take issue with things the Post story did not, in fact, say. Then, this morning, Trump cut them off at the knees, using Twitter to assert that he had the perfect right to share information with Russia. As a friend of mine put it on Facebook:

“[Media reports] Trump does staggeringly stupid thing

[Trump surrogates] he absolutely did not do the stupid thing

[Trump, tweeting the next day] I did the stupid thing

[Surrogates] …and that is why stupid thing is actually brilliant, and

[Trump, tweeting] I did it for the stupidest reason imaginable

[Surrogates] … the thing is now United States policy despite dishonest media reports on its stupidity, and also

(loop to beginning)”

As President of the United States, Donald Trump can declassify information any time he believes it to be in the national interest. He didn’t do anything illegal. I thought the best story on this was this one, on the Lawfare blog. Lawfare points to two crucial issues: first, that it matters why Trump did it: “what Trump thought he was doing might well inflect whether we should see this as an act of carelessness, an act of carelessness bordering on treachery, or an act of judgment (even if misjudgment) of the sort we elect presidents to make.” And second, that an act need not be criminal or illegal to be an impeachable offense:

Violating the oath of office does not require violating a criminal statute. If the President decided to write the nuclear codes on a sticky note on his desk and then took a photo of it and tweeted it, he would not technically have violated any criminal law–just as he hasn’t here. He has the constitutional authority to dictate that the safeguarding of nuclear materials shall be done through sticky notes in plain sight and tweeted, even the authority to declassify the codes outright. Yet, we would all understand this degree of negligence to be a gross violation of his oath of office.

This analogy gets to the heart of my main concern about Trump’s Presidency. I do not believe that Donald Trump takes his oath of office seriously. For the first time in US history, we cannot trust this President to set aside his own emotional predispositions and act in the best interests of the nation.

There have been Presidents in the past that I didn’t think were particularly effective Presidents. This is because I disagreed with them on matters of policy. I thought their political philosophy was likely to prove ineffectual; I thought they were wrong. But I never questioned their patriotism. I never questioned their commitment to the job. I never questioned that serving the nation was their highest and only priority. Of course, people make mistakes, and some policy choices work better than others; of course, we’re all only human. But the men (only men so far, alas) who have served in the White House have always understood that they are doing the most important and difficult job in the world. Early in the first season of The West Wing, John Spencer, playing White House Chief of Staff, talking to his wife, tells her “this is the most important thing I will ever do in my life.” And she responds, understandably hurt, “it’s not more important than your marriage.” “Right now,” says Leo, “it is more important than my marriage.” And he was just Chief of Staff.

The Oath of Office is deceptively simple. “I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” But its implications are profound. If you take that oath, then for the four or eight years you serve, it’s your first and only priority.

And I do not believe that that’s how Donald Trump understands his duties as President. I don’t think he considers that serving the nation and its people to be his first and highest obligation. I think he lets stuff get in his way. I do not believe him to be a serious person, taking a serious job seriously. I don’t know if he’s merely a particularly buffoonish clown, or if he’s actively mentally ill. He’s not . . . right.

That’s why his refusal to divest of his business interests is so disheartening. Every previous President has done this. President Carter sold his peanut farm; George W. Bush sold his baseball team. Trump has business interests all over the world. Are those businesses still important to him? Does he weigh their success as he conducts foreign policy; is profitability a factor in his decision-making? We have never asked that before about any former President. We find ourselves obliged to ask it about this one.

Far more important, though, is the raw emotionality with which Trump seems to make decisions. He gets angry, he gets frustrated, he gets his feelings hurt. So does everyone else. But most of us can set those emotions aside when we need to. Most of us can engage productively with that co-worker we dislike. Most of us can take a deep breath, set aside our resentments and fears and make important decisions.

i think it’s likely that Donald Trump is an immensely damaged human being. Of course, even mental health professionals balk at long range diagnoses. But Trump’s constant, incessant braggadocio has to some from somewhere. It’s not just that he seems to be a near-pathological liar. But have you noticed how his lies are pretty much always self-aggrandizing? He had the biggest crowds at his inauguration; he has the best temperment, he’s a phenomenal negotiator. He’s always the best; the smartest, the most aware. He doesn’t just get two scoops of ice cream, he deserves them. He’s such a good boy.

That has to be hiding some deeply seated inferiority complex, doesn’t it? And he can’t set it aside. And we don’t have time for him to work through it.

He gets the best intel, he tells the Russians. And then has to prove it. (Lavrov and Kislyak had to have been astounded. They didn’t think this would be so easy). By off-the-cuff declassifying highly sensitive intelligence, jeopardizing our relations with an ally, and quite possibly putting intel sources at risk. Let’s not forget this: Trump didn’t reveal classify information, he blurted it. To prove to his Russian comrades friends what good intel he gets. (To prove, yet again, once more, that he really is President, that he really did win). And people could die. Who did he compromise? How much at risk is our source?

It’s visceral, instinctive, our fear of him and of what he might do next. We sense it. This guy hasn’t put the nation first. He probably can’t. No wonder we’re all putting on ‘the Trump ten pounds.’ Every second this man spends in the Oval office is a continuing national emergency. Ending it will require impeachment and removal. Not much else matters politically.

 

Yes, the Comey firing is a big deal

Whenever a big news political event takes place, especially one that focuses on some peculiarly Republican bit of malfeasance, first, liberals react very strongly and publicly. Some conservatives rely on the officially approved spin. But there are always a few conservative intellectuals, affecting the diction, tone, and high Brahmin style of the late William F. Buckley, who carefully explain how unreasoning and hysterical we’re all being. More-in-sorrow-than-anger, you understanding. Publishing this sort of article is, I think the raison d’etre of the National Review. Think of the British conservative historian, Paul Johnson, saying that no Europeans ever understood why poor Nixon was so badly treated: Watergate was no big deal.

It may have seemed strange to see precisely such an article in Vox.com. I know a lot of people consider Vox a liberal site. It really isn’t though. Their motto is ‘explain the news.’ Not comment on it (though they do sometimes offer a point of view), but inform people, let ’em know what the substance of some prominent news story is. They’re surely seen as an anti-Trump site, but it’s because they don’t pull punches; if someone is lying about something, they’ll point it out. I should say that I’m a big fan. But it isn’t at all out of character for Vox to publish a contrarian article saying ‘here’s what everyone is saying. And here’s why they’re wrong.’

And so, a couple of days ago, Vox published an article by Richard A. Epstein, entitled “Attention, liberals: Comey deserved to be fired, and the Constitution is just fine.” It’s a well-reasoned and thoughtful article, though, again, infused with that Buckley/George Will/Paul Johnson tone of injured intellectual superiority. Here it is.

Epstein begins by agreeing that the decision by Trump to fire James Comey was poorly timed, and a political miscalculation. He goes on: “There are of course many reasons why one might oppose Trump’s decision to fire Comey, but none of them remotely deserve the hyperbolic responses that Comey’s termination has elicited. There are two sides to every story, and in this case the other side has, at least for the moment, the better of the argument.”

Epstein argues, first, that Comey should have been fired long before, because of his mishandling of the Clinton email case. He treated her with kid gloves, says Epstein. He didn’t issue subpeonas to any Clinton aides, he allowed Cheryl Mills to represent herself, and he didn’t conduct any of the ambush interviews that are usual in criminal cases. He took it easy on her, kowtowing to his superiors in the Obama White House.

Second, Epstein says, “criticisms of Comey’s conduct in the Clinton investigation had nothing to do with the president’s decision, which was made, we are confidently told (on the basis of no firm evidence), because Comey was hot on the trail of information about possible ties between Trump, his supporters, and the Russians during the campaign.” Trump was, in Epstein’s view, perfectly justified in firing Comey over the mishandled Clinton email case, and there’s no reason to think Comey was fired for any more sinister reasons.

Finally, since Comey could legally be fired at any time by Trump, and given the ample reasons for dismissal detailed in the Rosenstein memo, it “requires contortions to convert an action that has independent justification into one that prompts talk of obstruction of justice and impeachment. In effect, one difficulty with that extravagant assertion is that it makes Comey de facto immovable from office so long as he continues to conduct this investigation.” Oh, and appointing a special prosecutor is also problematic. To whom would he report? Jeff Sessions? When there’s no smoke, there can’t be fire, says Epstein. And there’s no smoke.

Epstein also pushed back against the ‘Trump as incipient despot’ meme.

Nor is there anything to the claim that Trump has acted as a despot. Despots remove people in order to take over all the organs of government themselves. Cassidy seems to think the president has it within his power to appoint a successor to Comey entirely on his own, when the position requires confirmation by the Senate.

Allow me to respond.

First, Epstein seems to think that the case against Hillary Clinton ought to have been far more aggressively prosecuted, treated as the criminal investigation it was. But surely Epstein must acknowledge the political complexities of any case involving a major party Presidential candidate. I’m not saying that running for President is an excuse for all manner of criminal conduct. But at worst, Hillary Clinton was guilty of carelessness, possibly born of arrogance, and possibly reflecting her own discomfort with technology. And she was running for President; very likely to be elected President. (Sigh). Comey said, in a recent interview, that the difficulties of the Clinton case made him nauseous. I can well imagine it. Like it or not, the FBI is, if not a political organization, one that must of necessity sail on troubled political waters. Comey’s first loyalty had to be to the Constitution, of course (and no one has suggested he acted otherwise). But he had to think of protecting the Bureau itself, as an institution. I may disagree with some of the decisions he made. Some of those decisions do seem to have violated basic law enforcement protocols. But I don’t doubt that navigated those waters thoughtfully and carefully. He was in an impossible position.

And, while it’s not fair to call Epstein to account for actions that took place subsequent to the publication of his article, it really is true that the ‘Comey was fired because of his mishandling of the Clinton case’ narrative has been conclusively disproved. He really did fire Comey because, as Epstein puts it, “Comey was hot on the trail of information about possible ties between Trump, his supporters, and the Russians during the campaign.” Trump confirmed it Thursday night, in his interview with Lester Holt, when he didn’t so much admit as brag that he’d fired Comey because of his pursuit of the ‘fake news’ story about Trump campaign Russian collusion. That interview was an amazing piece of candor, not least because it threw so many members of his own communications staff under the bus, people who had been doggedly defending the Clinton email narrative, even when they sounded ridiculous doing so. Holt didn’t even seem to work very hard for it, considering that, in his interview, he got the President of the United States to admit to obstructing justice, an impeachable offense. Smoke enough for you, Mr. Epstein?

Epstein suggests that despots act despotically according to a plan. If Trump’s firing of Comey is in fact an egregious act of tyranny, well, what’s the next step? Replace Comey with Chris Christie? (Or Rudy Giuliani?) What reason do we have to assume the Senate will confirm someone like that?

But Trump isn’t that kind of tyrant. He seems to be more of an instinctual authoritarian, a guy who doesn’t so much act as react. News reports describe Trump as watching cable news incessantly, raging furiously whenever they focused on the ‘fake news’ of Trump’s Russian connections, and ignoring the (to him) much more consequential story of Obama’s bugging of Trump Tower. Never mind that that never happened. Trump seems to have convinced himself that it did happen, just as he convinced himself that his inaugural crowd was the biggest ever, or any of the other ludicrous things he apparently believes.

Trump isn’t the kind of incipient dictator who carefully plans every step of his way to the top. He’s not Frank Underwood (from House of Cards). He gets angry. No, he becomes incensed. And sometimes he’s able to blow off steam on Twitter. But sometimes, his choler leads him to act. And often enough, he gets away with it, frankly because it just never seems to have occurred to anyone to make certain Presidential actions illegal. Every previous President has been constrained by norms, by protocols, by traditions. But Trump isn’t constrained by anything. Except the Constitution. Which also infuriates him.

He fired Comey impulsively, unreasoningly, because he hates the Russia investigation (fake news!), and also, apparently, because Comey wouldn’t pledge loyalty to him, to Trump. And how will he deal with the aftermath? By bluffing, by lying, by counter-attacking. And by relying on the cowardice and hypocrisy and lack of patriotism of the Republican leadership.

So, yes, Mr. Epstein. There’s plenty of smoke. We’re not over-reacting; the ship of state really is on fire. What there isn’t, yet, is a fire department.

Donald Trump talks to The Economist

The Economist is one of the most respected popular journals in the world. It is, as one might expect, particularly informative and interesting on questions of economics. It recently published an interview with President Donald Trump. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and Gary Cohn, chair of the National Economic Council, sat in. As New York Magazine put it, “Donald Trump tries to explain economics to The Economist. Hilarity ensues.”

Because businessmen participate in economic activities, buying and selling, there’s a presumption that they know something about economics. I think it’s safe to say that Donald Trump knows quite a bit about the Manhattan real estate market, and perhaps a bit about marketing and branding. He doesn’t know anything about macroeconomics, despite graduating from the Wharton School of Finance. This is, I think, less surprising than you might suppose. In my experience, a lot of guys who graduate in Finance loathed their required economics classes. Too theoretical, too abstract, and quite often, post-Keynes, counter-intuitive.

Anyway, Trump gets off to a splendid start.

What is Trumponomics and how does it differ from standard Republican economics?
Well it’s an interesting question. I don’t think it’s ever been asked quite that way. But it really has to do with self-respect as a nation. It has to do with trade deals that have to be fair, and somewhat reciprocal, if not fully reciprocal. And I think that’s a word that you’re going to see a lot of, because we need reciprocality in terms of our trade deals. We have nations where… they’ll get as much as 100% of a tax or a tariff for a certain product and for the same product we get nothing, OK? It’s very unfair.

A few points. Reciprocality is not a word. Also, no, the United States has no trade deals in which our goods have a 100% tariff with a 0% tariff for their goods coming to the US. That’s just silly; hyperbolic posturing. Also “National Self Respect” is not an economic principle. Reciprocity is.

And the very interesting thing about that is that, if I said I’m going to put a tax on of 10%, the free-traders, they’ll say “Oh, he’s not a free-trader”, which I am, I’m absolutely a free-trader. I’m for open trade, free trade, but I also want smart trade and fair trade. But they’ll say, “He’s not a free-trader,” at 10%. But if I say we’re putting a reciprocal tax on, it may be 62% or it may be 47%, I mean massive numbers, and nobody can complain about it. It’s really sort of an amazing thing.

Yes, as wholly imaginary scenarios go, it is quite amazing. I love the idea of reciprocal taxes of 62% passing some fantasy muster with free-traders. Trump based his entire campaign on protectionism, on tariffs, on ‘making America great’ by engaging in trade wars with everyone. If he’s a free trader, I’m a sword-swallower.

We have so many bad trade deals. To a point where I’m not sure that we have any good trade deals. I don’t know who the people are that would put us into a NAFTA, which was so one-sided. Both from the Canada standpoint and from the Mexico standpoint. So one-sided. Wilbur [Ross, the secretary of commerce] will tell you that, you know, like, at the court in Canada, we always lose. Well, the judges are three Canadians and two Americans. We always lose. But we’re not going to lose any more. And so it’s very, very unfair.

I think he’s talking about NAFTA Investor/State Arbitrations. And no, Canada doesn’t always win and America doesn’t always lose. That’s nonsense. Sometimes American companies win, sometimes Canadian tariffs win.

Time for an anecdote:

Now at the same time I have a very good relationship with Justin [Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister] and a very good relationship with the president of Mexico. And I was going to terminate NAFTA last week, I was all set, meaning the six-month termination. But the word got out, they called and they said, we would really love to… they called separately but it was an amazing thing. They called separately ten minutes apart. I just put down the phone with the president of Mexico when the prime minister of Canada called. And they both asked almost identical questions. “We would like to know if it would be possible to negotiate as opposed to a termination.” And I said, “Yes, it is. Absolutely.” So, so we did that and we’ll start.

Ah, the big-hearted sentimental lug! What a wunnerful guy. See, the United States is getting royally screwed by NAFTA (we’re not), and he was going to pull us out of NAFTA, but a tearful (implied) appeal by his good pals Justin and that Mexican guy (the President of Mexico is Enrique Nieto) led him to change his mind.

What does this story really say? That Trump is desperate to be liked. That he didn’t act in the national interest (as he conceives it) because two world leaders weepingly (extrapolating) begged him not to. In short, that Trump can be manipulated. He ran, remember, on his skills as a negotiator. We’ve seen no sign of any such skill set. And, you know: good. NAFTA’s a good deal. Hey, Justin and Enrique. Keep it up guys.

The Economist asks him four separate times what a fair NAFTA would look like, and all Trump can do is recite various synonyms for ‘big.’ It would be ‘huge,’ ‘Massive.’ He clearly doesn’t have any idea.

He thinks our trade deficit with Mexico is 70 billion dollars. It’s not. He thinks our trade deficit with Canada is 15 billion. It’s not. Also, who cares? My economist son likes to point out that he, personally, has a trade deficit with his local grocery store. He does in there all the time and buys food. They give him food, he gives them money. Never once has he so much as offered them a single avocado. And yet the Republic prospers.

Later, he invents a narrative in which he denounces Chinese currency manipulation on the campaign trail, and immediately after he wins, China stops doing it. He is right about one thing; China did stop currency manipulation. In 2014.

Now comes my favorite exchange of the entire interview:

Another part of your overall plan, the tax reform plan. Is it OK if that tax plan increases the deficit?
It’s called priming the pump. You know, if you don’t do that, you’re never going to bring your taxes down. Now, if we get the health-care [bill through Congress], this is why, you know a lot of people said, “Why isn’t he going with taxes first, that’s his wheelhouse?” Well, hey look, I convinced many people over the last two weeks, believe me, many Congressmen, to go with it. And they’re great people, but one of the great things about getting health care is that we will be saving, I mean anywhere from $400bn to $900bn.

Mr Mnuchin: Correct.

President Trump: That all goes into tax reduction. Tremendous savings.

But beyond that it’s OK if the tax plan increases the deficit?
It is OK, because it won’t increase it for long. You may have two years where you’ll… you understand the expression “prime the pump”?

Yes.
We have to prime the pump.

It’s very Keynesian.
We’re the highest-taxed nation in the world. Have you heard that expression before, for this particular type of an event?

Priming the pump?
Yeah, have you heard it?

Yes.
Have you heard that expression used before? Because I haven’t heard it. I mean, I just… I came up with it a couple of days ago and I thought it was good. It’s what you have to do.

Everything about this is amazing. First of all, the US is not the highest-taxed nation in the world; we’re just about the lowest-taxed. Second, ‘prime the pump’ is an economic metaphor for a basic Keynesian concept: when unemployment is high, governments borrow money short-term to provide an economic stimulus to increase demand. That metaphor has been around since the early 1930s. The US has very low unemployment right now. A tax cut will have no stimulative value. It won’t ‘prime the pump.’

And Trump did not invent that metaphor. As New York put it:

Telling The Economist you invented the phrase “priming the pump,” to describe a plan that does not prime the pump, is a bit like sitting down with Car and Driver, pointing to the steering wheel on your car and asking if they have ever heard of a little word you just came up with called “hubcap.”

Once again, in full view of the international community, Donald Trump has demonstrated his own unique blend of arrogance and ignorance. He’s the loud-mouth in the bar, sitting on the bar stool next to Bill Belichek’s, haranguing the coach about what the Patriots should do on offense. He should play a guy named Tom Brady.

 

The Comey firing

On June 17, 1972, five men were caught in an attempted robbery of the Democratic National Committee headquarters, a rented room in the Watergate hotel. They had previously broken into the DNC rooms on May 28th, had rifled through some filing cabinets and bugged a couple of phones. Although that operation had gone smoothly, the bugs had begun to malfunction. The second break-in was needed to repair the phones, and also to continue to look for damaging intelligence that could be used against the Democratic presidential campaign. The Watergate burglars had been hired by G. Gordon Liddy, finance counsel for the Nixon campaign, the break-in authorized by CRP (Committee to Re-elect the President) chair, Jeb Magruder, White House counsel, John Dean, and Attorney-General John Mitchell. It’s possible that President Nixon did not know of or approve the initial burglary. But he aggressively participated in the subsequent cover-up.

Once it was learned that President Nixon routinely recorded conversations in the Oval Office, the Watergate investigators tried to subpoena the audio tapes. President Nixon claimed executive privilege; Archibald Cox, who had been appointed Special Prosecutor, kept insisting. On Saturday, October 20, 1973, Nixon ordered Attorney-General Elliott Richardson, to fired Cox. Richardson refused, and resigned in protest. his deputy, William Ruckelshaus was ordered to fired Cox; he also refused and resigned. Finally, Solicitor-General Robert Bork, third in command, was ordered to fire Cox, and after some soul-searching, did. This series of events has come to be known as the Saturday Night Massacre, and is seen as one of the more significant events in the scandal that led to Nixon’s eventual resignation.

What the Watergate burglars were looking for was damaging intelligence, stuff they could use to smear Democrats or foreknowledge of their strategies and tactics the Republicans could counter. They bugged phones, they rifled through files. During the recent election, Russian hackers did much the same thing. They hacked into the files of the DNC, looking for damaging intel. They didn’t actually find a lot, but they did find some snarky emails, in which Clinton campaign staff said nasty things about the Bernie Sanders campaigns, and they found other documents that suggested that the DNC did not treat the two Democratic candidates equally, but favored Hillary. When the hackers released this information on Wiki-leaks, it drove a wedge into the already-shaky relationship between Democratic voters who preferred Clinton and those who preferred Sanders. We do not know, and will never know, how significant a factor any of this was in Donald Trump’s eventual electoral win. We don’t know, in a close race, what effect the Wiki-leaks revelations had on voters’ behavior. What we do know is this; Russians hacked the election, because, for whatever reason, Vladimir Putin preferred Trump over Clinton.

We know, of course, a lot more about Watergate, the historical event, than we do about Russian electoral interference. With Watergate, we know who did what, and when. That’s not true so far with the current scandal. We do not know, for example, the extent to which the Trump campaign was aware of Russia’s electoral preferences, or to what degree, if at all, members of the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians prior to the election. We don’t know if Trump himself is guilty, at all, of anything. I expect that, in time, we’ll know a lot more.

Former acting Attorney-General Sally Yates’ testimony on Monday may have seemed somewhat mundane, and not really all that revelatory.  No ‘smoking gun,’ in other words. But that’s generally not how these things work. I remember Watergate vividly. I was in high school then, and every day after school, was glued to my TV watching the Watergate hearings. I remember listening to the drip drip drip of new information, and trying to put it all together. What Yates did was confirm a lot of facts that had previously been reported. We do know more today than we did last week.

Last week, preceding her testimony, FBI director Comey made a request of President Trump, for more funding to expand the FBI’s investigation into the Russian hacking and possible Trump campaign collusion. Yesterday, President Trump fired Comey. This means that the most significant three people conducting investigations into Trump/Russia when Trump took office 110 days ago were James Comey, Sally Yates, and Preet Bharara, New York US Attorney. Trump has now fired all three of them. Again, we don’t know if Trump or his campaign were guilty of, well, anything. It would, however, be easier to cut him some slack if he didn’t act so darn guilty.

Again, there’s no hard evidence of collusion. But we do know that Sergei Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the US, may also be a Russian spy. (US intelligence agencies, apparently, regard him as one). We know that vast numbers of high ranking Trump officials met with Kislyak and other Russian officials, many times, during the campaign. Michael Flynn, of course, was among them. Trump has repeatedly claimed he didn’t and doesn’t have any business dealings with Russians. We know that’s not true; in a recent story admitted that Russian money funded Trump golf courses, and there are many other Russian/Trump connections discovered by journalists, including, in a stunning story, a major investigation by USA Today.

Of course, Watergate was a major historical event, certainly one of the most consequential in our nation’s history. Right now, the investigation into Trump’s Russian connections is in its infancy. We don’t know, or at least, have not yet proved, collusion.

But if, as seems increasingly likely, Trump or his campaign staff did collude with Russian to influence a Presidential election, that seems to me much much more important than even Watergate. Whatever we may think of Richard Nixon, he didn’t collude with a hostile foreign power. Nixon was certainly devious, thin-skinned, and amoral. But he was no traitor. But that’s what we’re saying Trump committed: high treason. No evidence yet, but he just fired the guy investigating the case. It’s hard to come across as guiltier than that.

The Circle: Movie and Book review

The Circle is a 2013 novel by Dave Eggers. I suppose you could say it’s both dystopian and futuristic; it has a 1984/Brave New World vibe. I found it more or less by accident, and liked it so much I recommended it to my wife and daughter. They both read it, and liked it as much as I did, and so, last Friday, we decided to go together to see the new movie based on it. The movie was quite good too, though we agreed it wasn’t quite as effective as the novel. I should point out that the movie got horrible reviews, with a very low score on Rottentomatoes.com. And also that liking the novel is, apparently, exceptionally uncool. Guilty as charged: I liked both movie and novel a lot, and think the critics that didn’t like either are wrong. I will add that the theater was packed when we saw the movie, and, shamelessly eavesdropping as people left, heard enough to think that pretty much everyone who saw it the same night we did liked it too. Found it as chilling as we did.

I’m going to take it a step further. I think it’s an exceptionally prescient and important novel. I think the questions it raises are important ones, and exactly the sorts of questions we should be asking ourselves right now. So there.

The Circle is a high tech company; that’s its name. It combines the best features of Facebook, Google, Twitter, Paypal, Amazon, and any five other exceptionally big, hi-tech companies. It’s the coolest place to work you could possibly imagine. It offers the best benefits–dorm-like housing, gyms, off-the-charts health care–provides the best after-work social life, and sells the best products. Today, you may have an Amazon account, a Facebook account, a Twitter account; you probably have thirty internet accounts, each with its own password. The Circle gets rid of all that inconvenience; you get everything through The Circle.

Mae Holland is a young woman, bright and ambitious, working in a dead-end temp job. But she has a friend, Annie, who works for The Circle, and who gets her an interview. Which she aces. Next thing you know, she works in Customer Care. Better money than she’s ever made in her life, plus they extend her health benefits to cover her parents. This is huge, as her father suffers from MS. Mae is ecstatic.

Except, it turns out, her social score is kinda low. She goes home weekends, to help her Mom; she’s a no-show at various Circle parties. Her bosses notice, and she’s called on the carpet; kindly, of course, but firmly. After-hours social events are, of course, completely voluntary. But a low social score is, hmm, a matter of concern.

Circle-world is a place where everything is enumerated, evaluated, rated, assessed. Every customer care interaction is scored on follow-up customer surveys, and she’s encouraged to follow up on the follow ups, inquire about low scores.  She’s also given a side responsibility; product surveys, attitude polls. Plus, you know, there are all these parties she has to get to. She acquires a boyfriend, Francis, who, after love-making, wants to know how he did. What’s his score? And who gets real whiny if he doesn’t get a perfect 10. It’s not worth the hassle telling him he’s closer to a 3.

The tone of the novel is matter-of-fact and straightforward. Eggers specializes in scenes that are both comic and kind of horrifying. Mae is our window into this company, and her character serves Eggers well. She loves the place. She’s a compelling character, and we want to shake her; we want to shout ‘run!’ But she doesn’t. Whatever unease she may feel, she works off by kayaking. Or in love-less, frantic, self-destructive sex with Mystery Man, Kalden. We can absolutely see what makes Mae the most all-in Circler of them all. Though we’re worried to death for her.

But there are warnings. Not just Kalden; Annie, her friend, who landed her the gig, is clearly losing it. And Mae’s specifically warned by her ex-boyfriend, Mercer. Mercer’s kind of a doofus; he makes chandeliers from deer antlers, and is pretty much a Luddite. Or at least, an anti-Circle version of one. Mercer is close to and wonderfully kind to Mae’s parents. But Mae wishes he’d just stop pestering.

The Circle has a political agenda, too. The company has three CEOs, one of which, Eamon Bailey, is, of course, like, the perfect boss. Kind, generous, endlessly sympathetic, a plausible surrogate father for all the young Circlers. And Eamon is the main spokesperson for the multiple uses for SeeChange, a small, easily overlooked digital camera with excellent video and audio pickup. Eamon urges followers to put SeeChange cameras everywhere, every public place. SeeChange, he says, will end both government tyranny and terrorism, through complete, radical transparency. He also urges all politicians to go transparent; wear a SeeChange camera 24/7. People behave better, he says, when they know other people are watching. He suggests that transparency is a basic human right. Privacy is Theft becomes one of the company’s slogans. (Sharing is Caring is another). And Mae, to set an example, goes transparent too. Wears a camera everywhere; is on display, on the internet, always. A more-aware ramped-up Truman Show.

Okay, spoiler alerts. All these policies and devices are revealed publicly, in a big  Circle auditorium (which in fact, is not an arena, but a proscenium, the one public space configuration that most emphasizes performer domination and control. Bailey’s radical democracy looks a lot more authoritarian the more we interrogate it). Anyway, Mae introduces a new Circle innovation; using SeeChange to find missing miscreants. It becomes a game; let’s see if we can find this fugitive from justice, everyone! And they do, in less than ten minutes. Then the crowd insists that Mae use that technology to locate Mercer, who has become something of a hermit. (Of course they all know about Mercer; they know everything about her). And all those busy SeeChangers out in the world find where Mercer’s holed up. Panicked, he gets in his truck, tries to escape, run away from all the cameras and drones. And Mae doesn’t call it off. And he runs his truck off a cliff.

To people who essentially live virtually, for whom the internet and it’s many uses and possibilities, I can see how this movie could be seen as a gratuitous attack on the coolest thing on the planet. I think that may explain at least some of the bad reviews. But Eggers is on to something; people do not necessarily act better when they know people are watching, especially when they’re part of a crowd. Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed describes dozens of instances where people’s lives have been ruined by the collective judgment of internet users. And we may not have quite reached the point of The Circle‘s notion of radical transparency, and SeeChange cameras may be a few (very few) years off, but everyone has cameras, and it’s much much more common nowadays for particularly shocking (but context-less) images to go viral. Dr. David Dao was, no doubt, treated shabbily by United Airlines, but United flies millions of passengers around the world without untoward incident. Should the company pay? Undoubtedly. Should it be hounded out of business? Am I an old, clue-less white guy intimidated by technology? Of course I am. How implausible is the fictional Circle? Not remotely. Is Eamon Bailey something of a cartoon villain? Okay, sure. So’s Big Brother.

The movie takes the same essential scenario as the novel, but creates a filmic narrative around it. Mae’s two love interests disappear–there just isn’t time for Francis, who is in any event an essentially comedic character. If the movie had gone for satire instead of cautionary tale, Francis might have worked. As it is, I didn’t miss him–he’s completely absent. Kalden likewise goes away, sort of; in the book, he is eventually revealed to be Ty, the Circle’s Founder and one of its three CEOs. That revelation comes much earlier here, and Mae and Ty don’t have a romantic/sexual relationship. Biggest of all is this change: Mae isn’t a Circle-worshipper in the movie. She actively wants to destroy it. And does, but that’s creepy too; she wins by buying in most completely to Eamon’s doctrine of radical transparency.

The casting is well-nigh perfect, with Emma Watson as Mae, Tom Hanks (who else?) as Eamon, John Boyega as Ty, and Bill Paxton, in his last screen role, quietly superb as Mae’s father. The one misstep, I thought, was Ellar Coltrane as Mercer, who never really found his footing in the role. Best of all, IMO, was Scottish actress Karen Gillan as Mae’s friend, Annie. In the book, Annie ends up in a coma, but it doesn’t really have the resonance of the movie, where we can read Annie’s self-loathing self-destruction in the actress’s face. That’s what movies are great at; faces.

The movie’s good. It’s great to look at, beautifully acted, and tells the story of The Circle with economy and dispatch. I found it almost as chilling as I found the novel. I did find the novel a bit richer, but that’s often the case of novels-turned-movies. Above all, I found myself cherishing privacy more than ever. I’m a fairly social person, I think, and I love social media. Up to a point. Any tool can be abused, including, of course, the most powerful tool of them all. The internet. Can we love it, and also find it terrifying? I rather think we can, and should.

The American Health Care Act

Yesterday, the House of Representatives passed The American Health Care Act, by a margin of four votes. No Democrats voted for it, and not all Republicans, though most GOP members did. Enough, at least. Immediately after its passage, a group of Democratic Congresspeople mocked their Republican colleagues by singing “Na Na Na Na, Na Na Na Na, Hey Hey, Goodbye.” We’ll see.

The AHCA was not scored by the non-partisan CBO, a strange, well nigh unprecedented omission for a bill this consequential. The best estimates of its impact, in the exceedingly unlikely event that it becomes law, would be that up to 20 million Americans would lose their health insurance. The Affordable Care Act, (Obamacare), taxed the wealthiest Americans to pay for an expansion of Medicaid benefits; the AHCA would end those taxes. In short, this is a bill that would, in all likelihood, harm many many poor people, and enrich wealthy people. It’s a bill that will kill people.

The mocking chant from Democrats suggests one likely outcome of the debate over the AHCA and yesterday’s vote; it’s going to be a very difficult achievement to run on. The attack ads basically write themselves. Twenty Republican representatives are from districts where Donald Trump lost to Hillary Clinton. The Daily Kos announced the formation of a website where you can donate money now to whichever Democrat is the nominee in those districts. It’s already the case that many Republican congressmen have been hounded from meet-your-constituents opportunities in their districts. My own treasonous crook estimable Congressman, Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah 3rd) won’t hold town halls anymore, so vitriolic is the response to his appearances. Rachel Maddow managed to fill an entire show with interviews with people who had confronted their Congresspeople. I don’t know when I’ve seen this level of anger with elected officials. People are furious. I sure am. I could barely sleep last night from sheer outrage.

Why did they do it? Why would members of the House of Representatives (who have to face the voters every two years) pass a bill that confirms every cartoonishly evil stereotype people have about Republicans? After the vote, a large contingent gathered at the Rose Garden, to hear President Trump brag about how well he and Paul Ryan had done, and to tell some whoppers about what’s in the bill and what it’s intended to accomplish. Looks like they’re happy with it. Me, I’m trying to figure out the upside. For them. There is no upside for the American people.

I haven’t read the bill. Almost no one has; Speaker Paul Ryan kept its details pretty much secret. Seth Meyers had a lot of fun at Ryan’s expense on his show last night, showing clips from the 2009 debate over the Affordable Care Act, where Ryan condemned Democrats for doing essentially everything he just did times 1000.

So here’s what I don’t get. Why did they do it? This bill is a travesty. It’s horrific public policy. It’s never going to become law; the Senate won’t vote on it. The House bill is only the first step in a long, long process that may or may not result in a law being passed. So at least some of the righteous anger I’m feeling and my progressive friends are feeling is a trifle displaced. Still, a vote was held and votes were taken. And noted. Why did they pass this piece of garbage?

At least some of the answers are clear enough. President Trump really wanted a win. He doesn’t know anything about what it means to be President, and he doesn’t know anything about public policy. But he does know wins and losses. His Rose Garden speech described the AHCA as doing lots of wonderful things it won’t actually do, followed today by this amazing comment:

Of course the Australians have better health care than we do; everyone does. ObamaCare is dead! But our health care will soon be great!

Uh, Mr. President, you do know that the ACA was a step towards an Australian-type single-payer system? Which is what you just praised? And that the AHCA is a massive step away from it? Oh, also, that ObamaCare is not dead? That’s not what the House vote accomplished; not even close. Next step, a Senate bill, followed by a reconciliation conference, followed by two more votes? With every one of those steps fraught with difficulty?

No. He doesn’t know any of that. He doesn’t know anything. I don’t even think that his praise for the AHCA constitutes lying. It’s just another flamboyant display of incompetent ignorance.

Anyway. Trump wanted a win; now he can claim one. He got a nice party, with people saying nice things about him. Ego boost. And he’s a Republican (nominally) and President of the United States (illegitimately), so the House was motivated to give him what he wanted.

Also, I think, House members do feel some obligation to live up to their campaign promises. These guys pretty much all ran on a platform of ‘repeal and reform.’ Their constituents, their base, all hate Obamacare, largely because they’re all racists they disliked the person and policies of the President whose name was attached to it. Republican Congressman have been promising their voters for years that they would get rid of the Affordable Care Act. I suppose I’ll grant them this: they felt, as a matter of personal integrity, they had to actually do it.

To the extent, of course, that the Republican base is elderly, rural, and struggling economically, they’re exactly the people who the AHCA will hurt the most. Their opposition to Obamacare was at least somewhat irrational. They were (polling data concludes) largely ignorant of its provisions. I remember visiting an elderly woman in my ward, and how astonished, and how flummoxed, and eventually how grateful she was when Obamacare paid for the treatments that saved her daughter’s life. That’s one of the great ironies in this whole health care debate. Democrats are fighting for the ACA, which demonstrably improved the lives of Republican voters.

You’re welcome.

I’ll also grant that Obamacare was flawed legislation, that premiums and deductibles were rising, and that there was a lot of anger about those realities, which is a legitimate reason to dislike the bill. Obamacare is not failing, and its problems were fixable, but I do understand that elections have consequences, and that politicians who promise to kill a piece of legislation should probably work to accomplish that if they subsequently win.

It’s also worth pointing out that the ideological underpinnings of the AHCA are conservative, and that conservatives believe that the ACA insufficiently allowed market forces to lower costs. And the AHCA is meant to correct that. They’re wrong, of course. The ACA’s problems were caused by the invisible hand of market forces; the free market is what was driving costs up.  Still, people believe what they will believe; surely conservatism drove at least some in Congress to vote this way.

Still, there’s one very obvious reason for this vote. Republicans voted for this bill because they don’t think they will face electoral consequences for doing so. That mocking chant from the Democratic side of the aisle–“hey hey, goodbye”–must have seemed, to them, toothless. Republicans are good at winning elections. They can pass the most amazing legislation, incredibly displays of utter villainy, and pay no price for it. Their base will always turn out.

This is not because the Republican base is villainous. Republican voters are not stupid, and they’re not wicked. That’s my neighbors you’re talking about; they’re good folks. But simple policies are easier to understand and support than complicated ones. Republicans are awful at governing, because simple ideas don’t make for good legislation. But they’re good at painting their votes as beneficial, and Democratic bills as sinister. Democrats are much better at legislating, better at governing. Seems to me that people who believe in government are more likely to be good at it than people who don’t believe in it. I’m good at being Mormon; I think I’d be bad at being Presbyterian. Winning is the hard part.

Fingers crossed, but this might do it. Taking away people’s health insurance is easy to understand. And, my gosh, the anger. People really are getting woke.  If we progressives play our cards right, we might indeed be able to sing ‘hey hey, goodbye’ to the Republican House majority. But we have a ton of work to do first. Time to get on with it.

Gifted: Movie Review

As we lurch our way into summer movie season, full of preposterous chases and heroes in spandex and wicked awesome ‘splosions, it’s always nice when our local cineplex also features a movie about, you know, human beings. Makes for a refreshing change of pace. That’s Gifted; that’s its role in the cosmos. To remind us that movies can also just be about people.

Not that the people in Gifted are all that ordinary. Mary Adler (McKenna Grace) is, by any measure, an unusual seven-year old; a mathematical genius. She lives with her uncle, Frank (Chris Evans), who repairs boat engines for a living, and who has home-schooled her up til now. As the movie begins, she’s about to start her first day in school, and she doesn’t want anything to do with it. Her best friend, Roberta (Octavia Spencer), who lives next door, doesn’t like the idea either. Frank, on the other hand, thinks she needs a normal-ish childhood. She needs friends her own age; she needs social skills. (She does have a cat, a one-eyed stray she adores). And so, off she goes, into the classroom of a kind, sweet teacher named Bonnie (Jenny Slate). Who she dazzles when she’s able to multiply two three digit numbers in her head.

And Roberta’s fears come to fruition. Bonnie talks to her principal (Elizabeth Marvel), who pulls some strings and gets Mary a full-tuition scholarship to a special academy for gifted children. Which Uncle Frank turns down, a decision the principal finds incomprehensible. (She’s the first of the movie’s awful-female-authority-figure characters). But word of the whole Mary situation somehow manages to reach the ears of Mary’s only other blood relative, her grandmother (Frank’s mom), Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan). Who is a monster. Well-meaning, certainly. But someone who has, uh, plans.

Most of the rest of the movie involves the slow revealing of the backstories of three people; Frank, Evelyn, and Mary’s brilliant mother, Diane, who committed suicide, but not before turning over custody of her daughter to her brother. Diane was a math prodigy, who spent her life working on one of the Millennium Prize math problems. (There are seven such problems, only one of which has, currently, been solved; the premise of the movie is that Diane was working on one of the others). Evelyn thinks that Mary could finish her mother’s work, and wants her to receive the training that might make that possible. Frank, meanwhile, wants Mary to be a kid. And a custody battle ensues.

I liked the movie quite a bit. I thought Chris Evans and Jenny Slate were both marvelous, and Octavia Spencer is always great, though this movie didn’t give her enough to do. And the child actress who played Mary, McKenna Grace (who also plays the President’s daughter on Designated Survivor) was terrific. Adorable, like any little kid, but also plausibly bright. As the plot unfolded, it also kept surprising; my wife’s main reaction was that every time she thought she’d figured it out, it managed to throw in a plausible but unforeseen twist.

I agree. At the plot level, it’s inventive and interesting. At the character/moral level, it’s more predictable. It bothered me, the moral mapping of the movie, which almost Marxist. Academic: bad. Worker class: good. It’s one of those movies that suggests that the lives of egghead intellectuals are somehow less grounded, less in touch, less moral than the lives of good old solid salt-of-the-earth blue collar folks. Frank was once a philosophy professor. Now, he repairs boat motors, and that has made him a more caring, compassionate guy. Roberta is, again, salt-of-the-earth. Not one of those fancy-schmancy intellectuals. We approve of Frank’s budding romance with Bonnie, because, you know, she’s a school teacher. Smart, of course, but not too smart. But Grandma’s a schmuck.

The academics we meet are all creeps. Grandma Evelyn takes Mary to MIT, so her capabilities can be tested by a math professor. The prof is an arrogant jerk, who, giving Mary a problem to solve, throws some mistakes in there on purpose. And Mary catches those mistakes, but doesn’t correct him initially, because she’s a polite, well-raised child who doesn’t show up grown-ups. Prof of course, is nonetheless impressed by Mary’s ability to write formulae on a chalkboard. In a custody trial scene, we meet Mary’s biological father (completely absent her entire life), and his ignorance of and indifference to Diane and whatever became of the child he fathered are revelatory.

And, of course, Evelyn is horrible. Just horrible. She’s clearly the villain of the piece, and her ambitions for her granddaughter are so obviously self-serving, it becomes completely implausible that any judge, anywhere, would grant her custody over any child. (Especially when, it turns out, she tries to murder Mary’s cute one-eyed cat!) Lindsay Duncan is a marvelous actress, and she does her best to give Evelyn some moments of vulnerability, but the writing defeats her. On a movie-evil-woman-character scale, she edges out Cruella DeVille.

The blatant villainy of Evelyn throws the film off a bit, for me. I liked the movie a lot, and loved all the acting performances, and loved the little girl, and liked the story. What I’m going to say next is weird, because stories are stories, and history is just a narrative, but it’s a film I think I would have liked better if it were based on a true story. It was just implausible enough that it could have used that hint of authenticity.

Still, if you just can’t face the thought of yet another superhero movie, and just want a pleasant, feel-good, comedy/drama about a real sweet kid, I’d go see Gifted. There are a lot more reasons to like it than to not like it. Plus Chris Evans is genuinely charismatic. And McKenna Grace is sensational.

 

Doctrines Mormons no longer believe: plural marriage

Of all the doctrines once taught and believed and practiced by the Church, the most famous, the most well-known is surely polygamy. Though it’s been officially disavowed since 1890 (or, at least, since 1904), it’s often the only thing people outside our faith know about us. Certainly, when I served my mission in Norway in the 1970s, Mormon equaled polygamy in most folks minds. They’d hear “Mormon” and either purse their lips in disapproval, or laugh. Big Love ran 5 seasons on HBO, and Sister Wives, a popular reality TV series, has broadcast on TLC since 2010. Of course, the institutional Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints disavows polygamy as practiced by fictionally on HBO, or in the highly mediated ‘reality’ of TLC, but in both shows, its practice is rooted in Mormon tradition, in the revelations of Joseph Smith. It’s not unfair to call their characters ‘Mormons.’

In the history of our Church, plural marriage went through a remarkable evolution. From the beginnings of the Church, polygamy was shrouded in secrecy, privately taught and (perhaps) clandestinely practiced. It then went public, and became the only thing people knew about us. It then went underground for awhile, until reemerging in subterranean enclaves. It was officially espoused, but also also officially condemned, though vestigial doctrinal remnants remain.

Joseph Smith certainly married multiple women (28? 31? 44?), as did others of the Twelve. Although officially denied, furtive polygamy was a shrouded part of Nauvoo culture.  The 1843 revelation on polygamy, canonized as Section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants wasn’t widely disseminated. Plus, there’s good old Emma. Emma Smith, Joseph Smith’s first wife, who, uh, wasn’t a fan. The proximate cause to Joseph Smith’s murder was the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor newspaper, and its one and only issue, which exposed the practice of polygamy.

Secrets get exposed; that’s their main reality. When it became clear that the martyred prophet had received a revelation on polygamy, it wasn’t long before the Church embraced it, fully and publicly. Though, to be sure, Brigham Young made sure he’d put a mountain range between him and the people who were trying to kill him first.

So, 1851-1890. Plural marriage becomes part of Mormon culture, part of Utah life, part of LDS doctrine. I want to reiterate: I’m not an historian. I’m a retired playwright with wifi. Many many people know way more about this than I do. But my Mom’s family came from polygamous stock; I’m proud of my history and heritage. My Mom descended from Stephen Markham and his fourth (I think) wife Mary. He’s my FPA (Famous Pioneer Ancestor). My wife’s family comes from another FPA, Peter Maughan. And we tease each other about it; who would have won a fight between them. In fact, both Markham and Maughan were early Utah settlers; it’s not at all unlikely that they might have known each other.

Larger point, though: plural marriage was officially sanctioned doctrine. There were many many many talks, from the pulpit at General Conference, by men of Apostolic rank or higher, including successive Presidents of the Church and thus prophets, seers, and revelators, who taught that a plurality of wives was central to the Great and Everlasting Covenant, and therefore necessary for exaltation. And that was what was taught, most specifically by Brigham’s successor, John Taylor, in a big, highly disputed revelation in 1886.

There were women, at the time, who supported it. And we have to remember the context; LDS polygamy flourished in the Victorian era. Not a good epoch for women. Kind of a horror show for women and marriage. Income inequality led to massive social dislocation, leading to widespread abject poverty, leading to exceptionally high rates of prostitution, exacerbated by an incredibly hypocritical sexual double standard. Victorian men cheated on their wives with impunity, and mostly without consequence, except for a burgeoning syphilis epidemic. At least LDS men, when they slept around, did so with women to whom they were married. For many, many women, polygamy may have been marginally better than the alternative. Some sister wives really did become close friends. Others regarded their co-wives as succubi. My grandmother once told me of two women she knew, sisters and co-wives, who, when one of them died, it may have been homicide. Frontier women had a workload that was, literally, lethal. At least plural marriage divided that workload up a little. That’s the best case I can make for The Practice.

I’m not going to get into the various court cases regarding polygamy, except to point out that the Church had a strong religious liberty case to make constitutionally. Also, again, there are lots of people who know more about this than I do. The argument against it (us) was, essentially, a legal brief for traditional marriage. Ponder that irony, but also consider this; Wilford Woodruff’s Manifesto, in 1890, doesn’t read as terribly heartfelt. Utah wanted admission as a state, and the Church stood to lose its financial autonomy. We’d lost the legal battle; best to surrender with as good a grace as possible.

Meanwhile, clandestine polygamy continued. Joseph F. Smith’s 1904 Second Manifesto was probably intended to put the matter to rest. Two apostles were excommunicated, and although practitioners weren’t required to give up long-standing marriage arrangements, officially sanctioned polygamy finally did fade away.

Of course, there are still lots of people who still practice polygamy in Utah and surrounding states. Some of them seem more like insane criminals than like decent folks, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t non-crazy, well-meaning, well-intended plural families around. I don’t know them well, but have engaged in dialogue, and let me tell you, they can quote John Taylor’s 1886 polygamy revelation at you until the cows come home.

But I’m not part of that circle. I’m an active, Church-attending, calling-accepting active LDS guy. And I don’t believe in polygamy, wouldn’t practice it if I was asked to, or even commanded to, and recoil from the notion that it might be reinstated.

My good friend and former student, Melissa Leilani Larson, wrote a play a few years ago called Pilot Program. About a contemporary husband and wife, active in the Church, who are asked by Church leaders to add another wife to their marriage. It’s a wonderful play, powerful and moving. And it filled my soul with sheer horror. What a nightmare. Our contemporary understanding of marriage would not, I think, comfortably sustain plurality. We believe in marriage based on two things; romantic love, and absolute equality. Those strike me as incompatible with polygamy. That was not true in the 19th century. It just wasn’t.

Of course, vestiges of polygamous doctrine remain. If a couple are sealed together in the temple, and he dies, she cannot remarry in the covenant. He can. And single women are ‘comforted’ with well-meaning bromides about how they’ll be eventually sealed to a worthy male. Cold comfort indeed.

So, no. I do not believe that polygamy’s coming back, and couldn’t be happier about that. I’m perfectly happy in my own marriage, thank you. What about our history, though? How do I reconcile it?

I don’t know. That’s where I come down: I don’t know. I do know lots of people, men and women, who believe that polygamy was never anything but a mistake. That Joseph Smith was not inspired, and that D&C 132 should be dropped from the canon of scripture. They believe this quietly, for the most part, but I do know people who think that way. It’s an attractive idea, that the single thorniest issue of our past was nothing aberrant.

But I don’t know. I’m troubled by our polygamous past, but also inspired by it, inspired by the real lives of extraordinary women (mostly women), who worked through heart-break and loneliness and despair to make their preposterous marriages work. I’m inspired by what little I know about Mary Curtis Markham, my ancestor. It’s hard to think that her life-long toil was in support of pure error. It’s equally hard to conceive of God requiring something that feels so entirely and comprehensively wrong. Commandment or ghastly mistake; it’s part of our history. And it’s not coming back. Let it go at that.

Oh, joy. A tax cut.

Pretty much every morning, I spend a couple of hours quickly reviewing 10-12 news sources: Vox, Salon, Slate, Politico, The National Review, Mother Jones, a few others. In the age of Trump, most stories, on most sites, are pretty scary. The presence of Donald Trump in the White House constitutes a continuing national emergency; we do all know that, right? But this morning, Vox had the scariest story of them all. I mean, it wasn’t Trump-with-the-nuclear-codes scary. But it was still pretty darn terrifying.

The Donald wants a Big Achievement before his first hundred days are up. And on his wish list: a big tax cut. Here’s the link; here’s the quotation:

On Wednesday, President Trump will unveil a new set of principles for what he calls “massive” tax cuts for businesses and individuals — a plan bigger “than any tax cut ever.” Those massive cuts will come with a massive problem for Trump’s economic team: how to pay for them. The White House doesn’t appear to have settled on a means of making up the trillions of dollars in lost federal revenue that economists predict will accompany Trump-size cuts. But administration officials are signaling they may be leaning away from hard choices to finance the cuts, and toward highly optimistic assumptions about economic growth.

Yikes.

I shouldn’t have to say this, but okay, getting back to basics. If the federal government wants to spend money for something, it has to calculate where that money’s going to come from. Tax cuts equal spending. This proposal means that, in the mind of the President, the highest possible priority for our government is to give a lot of money to really rich people. How much money? Oh, about a gazillion dollars. Okay, how much really? We don’t know yet; no specifics have been announced. In his last public budget proposal, Trump wanted to cut somewhere around five trillion dollars over the next ten years. Give or take half a trillion or so. And, yes, that would be the biggest tax cut in history.

How are we going to pay for it? See, that’s the nice thing about tax cuts. You don’t have to worry about how to pay for them. They pay for themselves! Yay! Tax cuts for businesses and rich folks stimulate the economy into the wildest kind of frenzied growth. We won’t know what to do with all the money. Unicorns will prance into our homes, dispensing diamonds and emeralds. Money will literally grow on trees. We’ll have so much winning, we’ll get tired of it. Hoo-fricking-ray.

“Highly optimistic assumptions about economic growth.” Magic, in other words. Miracles, bestowed on America, because we deserve it.

This is an example of what Paul Krugman calls ‘zombie ideas.’ Terrible ideas that somehow never die. Tax cuts for rich people do sometimes stimulate growth, a little, when the biggest problem in the economy is a lack of investment capital. (As in the Kennedy tax cuts of 1963). That is absolutely not the case today. We have lots of investment capital waiting on the sidelines. What’s hurting our economy is a lack of demand. Ordinary people are hurting for cash, in other words.

Coming out of a demand-side recession, tax cuts have essentially no stimulative effect. They make rich people richer. Those riches do not trickle down. We’ve seen it again and again, most recently with the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003. To be specific, we’re talking about the EGTRRA and the JGTRRA, the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act (2001) and the Job Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act (2003).

They did not pay for themselves. The CBO calculates that those two bills added 1.5 trillion dollars to the national debt, not counting interest. They greatly increased income inequality, which remains one of our most troubling economic indicators. Middle-class and lower-middle-class folks have lost ground over the last fifteen years. That trend accelerated due to EGTRRA and JGTRRA. President Bush, Vice-President Cheney, all made public statements about how great the tax cuts had been, how stimulative, how fair. They’re contradicted by, you know, the facts. All that pesky evidence, found in reports by the CBO, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the Tax Policy Center, and basically every professional economist who has studied the issue.

And now, President Trump wants to do it again, only four times bigger.

Okay, but all right, then, pal. Smarty-pants know-it-all. You say tax cuts don’t do much. Well, then, what about Reagan? Ronald Reagan took office when the economy was really struggling. He shoved a big tax cut through Congress. The 80s economy boomed. So, see? Tax cuts work! Post hoc ergo propter hoc.

Sorry, but no.

Reagan inherited an economy in the doldrums, due to rampant inflation. Remember President Ford, and those goofy Whip Inflation Now buttons we were all supposed to wear? Turns out that wearing buttons with a slogan doesn’t do much to slow inflation. Raising interest rates does. That’s the job of the Federal Reserve, and under Paul Volcker, that’s exactly what the Fed accomplished. Also, in ’82, Reagan, terrified by the budget numbers he was seeing, called for, and got, the biggest tax increase in history (at the time). Then, Volcker having squeezed the inflation out of the economy, cut interest rates, from 20% in ’81, to 9.6% in ’83, leading to an economic boom. And, so, yes, in the mid-80s, the economy grew. Didn’t do much to raise poor people out of poverty, though.

What most people remember is this: the economy stunk under Ford and Carter, and it boomed under Reagan. There’s not much use disputing that narrative. But it’s insane to give all the credit for that to Reagan. It had much more to do with Volcker than Ronnie. Hey, the economy nearly collapsed under Bush, and revived under Obama; Obama would be the first to admit that he didn’t do it all alone. His stimulus did help though; there’s no real disputing that.

Anyway. I think a strong case can be made for the Bush tax cuts being the worst public policy of the last forty years. Most policies have positives and negatives. Bush’s tax cuts accomplished nothing positive at all. Their impact was wholly negative. And now Trump wants to do it again. Only much much bigger.

And Congress is likely to go along with it. They want a win too. This is familiar Republican ground; belief in the efficacy of tax cuts is perhaps the single most foundational dogma in the entire Church of High Conservatism. The world rests on the back of a giant turtle, and this is what that turtle looks like.

A few Tea Party cranks, bless ’em, have expressed ‘concern’ for the impact of these cuts on the debt and deficit. (We’d been making such good progress on the deficit, even with the Great Recession dragging the numbers down!). They might join a unified Democratic Party and keep this from passing. That’s it, though. That’s our only hope. That’s who we’re counting on. The Tea Party.

So what will the negative consequences be, of this massive increase in our debt? If we’re lucky, if everything goes well, we’ll see a decrease in public investment. Infrastructure needs won’t be addressed, at a time when we desperately need repairs and upgrades in roads, bridges, the electrical grid, schools; we have all kinds of needs. Government debt will crowd out private investment. It’s likely to be inflationary.

What we’re absolutely not going to see is economic growth so robust that the tax cuts will pay for themselves. That’s a fantasy. Which is why this is so dangerous. This President loves to indulge in fantasy. Policy: not so much. And that’s a really bad combination.