Category Archives: Politics

Immigration and terror

On Halloween, an Uzbek man, in the US legally, rented a truck, and drove it onto a popular New York City bike path, killing 8 people, at least 6 of them tourists. The killer, one Sayfullo Saipov, claimed allegiance to ISIS in a note left behind in the truck. Saipov was shot by an alert New York police officer, and is currently under arrest. New Yorkers, meanwhile, headed off to their Halloween parties, which is precisely what they should have done. Terrorists want to terrorize; the best response is to not allow yourself to be terrified.

President Trump, with that delicacy of expression and sensitivity to nuance that seem never to desert him, used several Twitter posts in an effort to console the nation. His complete failure to do anything of the kind is as predictable as it was dispiriting. Of course, we know this; we know he can’t help but be divisive, that even something as basic as compassion is not in his wheelhouse. Prompted, apparently, by what the dolts on Fox and Friends were saying about the event, the President decided that blame for the attack should be laid at the feet of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

The terrorist came into our country through what is called the “Diversity Visa Lottery Program,” a Chuck Schumer beauty. I want merit based. We are fighting hard for Merit Based immigration, no more Democrat Lottery Systems. We must get MUCH tougher (and smarter).

Of course, it’s deeply wrong for anyone to politicize tragedy. Sorry, no, I got the rules wrong; what’s wrong is for liberal Democrats to politicize gun violence. It’s perfectly okay for a Republican to politicize a terrorist attack.  At least, that’s the official position of the executive branch of the United States, as articulated by Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

It goes without saying that Trump’s tweets were factually wrong: Chuck Schumer, in fact, is on record as opposing the Diversity Visa Lottery Program. I would suggest that both this President and Senator Schumer are wrong regarding the policy in question.

It’s important that we remember this: Trump is not only an odious and repugnant human being. He is that, but that’s tangential to the real danger he represents. He’s also wrong about policy. It’s uncanny; on every issue, he takes the wrong side. He supports proposals that would make everything worse, not better. He says he wants an infrastructure bill. Great, we have major infrastructure needs. But his public/private approach is a proven failure. He thinks the opiod epidemic is a major public health problem. Indeed it is. He resists, however, doing anything that might actually help. And so on.

It’s difficult, of course, to tell where Trump stands on any issue at all. Either he knows absolutely nothing about policy, and isn’t aware how contradictory his public positions actually are, or he’s a showman and con man who doesn’t care about policy at all, so long as someone, somewhere, cheers.  Still, whatever he might have said about health care policy, he did, in fact support the various ghastly attempts by Republicans to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. And so on.

And so, yes, he’s wrong about immigration. Of course, that’s the mistaken policy with which he began his run for the Presidency; he spoke then and remains now unconscionably racist. And the biggest applause line in his stump speech–such as it was, it was actually more like a stump stream-of-consciousness–was his cretinous call for a Really Big Wall. Which Mexico would pay for.

The Diversity Visa Lottery Program, then, is not, in my opinion, a particularly good program. It’s far too restrictive.

Here’s how it works. Millions of people would like to come to the United States. Most lack the specific skills Trump’s ‘merit-based’ program requires. Most also lack relatives who are already citizens. Most come from places where they can’t plausibly request political asylum. But they can apply for a diversity lottery visa. It’s a weighted lottery, which last year offered green cards to 50,000 immigrants, out of 9 million applicants. Once selected, prospective immigrants are carefully screened. And then they receive the documentation they need, to live her, work here, and within five years or so, apply for citizenship here.

I said it was a weighted lottery. That’s because you can’t even enter the lottery if you come from a country that has sent more than 50,000 people to the US over the last five years. So your chances are largely based on where you’re from. Uzbekistan and Nigeria had disproportionately large numbers of lottery winners last year.

Sayfullo Saipov won the lottery. He also became a terrorist. Ergo, the Diversity Visa Lottery program promotes terrorism. Post hoc propter hoc. Blarg.

No. The United States of America is, at bottom, a nation made up of people from different places who unite together behind common ideals. Immigration is a social, moral and economic good. Immigrants start businesses. Immigrants raise families. Immigrants obey the law, with a few exceptions, of course. And, specifically, Muslim immigrants, immigrants from Muslim countries, reject terrorism, and are a massively useful resource in combating it. None of those statements are even remotely controversial among experts who study immigration. Those are simply the facts regarding immigration.

So, yes, the Diversity Visa Lottery program is flawed, but not because its vetting requirements are insufficiently rigorous. It’s flawed because it does not accept enough people. The ratio shouldn’t be 50,000 accepted out of 9 million. It should be closer to 1 million to 9 million. Yes, a million people, in addition to the refugees we should also be welcoming. And yes, some of those people will do bad things. A few might even become terrorists. It doesn’t matter. We will never win the ‘war on terror’ until we stop massively overreacting to terrorist acts. Catch the bad guys, and get on with our lives. Disproportionately many of those doing the arresting will themselves be recent immigrants, or their kids.

Of course, Mr. Trump is uninterested in making sense on this issue. He’s all id, all seething resentment and vile prejudice and pompous and ill-informed nativism. in fact; I’ll go further. I don’t think he gets it. He doesn’t understand, appreciate, or sympathize with what it means to be an American. He doesn’t grok it; he’s more foreign, in many ways, than some non-English speaking guy straight off the boat. I suspect that the Emma Lazarus poem on the Statue of Liberty is an incomprehensible jumble of words to him. Diversity–what America is basically about— is a mystery to him.

Sadly, he can’t even pronounce it:

Jeff Flake’s speech

Senator Jeff Flake, R-Arizona gave a speech yesterday at the US Senate. It was a terrific speech. Here’s how he started:

I rise today with no small measure of regret. Regret because of the state of our disunion, regret because of the disrepair and destructiveness of our politics. Regret because of the indecency of our discourse. Regret because of the coarseness of our leadership. Regret for the compromise of our moral authority, and by our, I mean all of our complicity in this alarming and dangerous state of affairs. It is time for our complicity and our accommodation of the unacceptable to end.

Well, who could argue with that? He comes across as a decent man, a man of conscience, a conservative in the best sense of the word. I’ve seen interviews with him, and I’ve read his book, cheekily titled Conscience of a Conservative. The title he may have stolen from Barry Goldwater, but those ideas are now mainstream conservatism. It’s the disgust with the Presidency of Donald Trump that’s, sadly, kind of unique. But back to his speech:

Reckless, outrageous, and undignified behavior has become excused and countenanced as telling it like it is when it is actually just reckless, outrageous, and undignified. And when such behavior emanates from the top of our government, it is something else. It is dangerous to a democracy.

Preach it brother! Amen! Absolutely! And when I say ‘brother,’ I mean that in a religious sense; Flake’s LDS. And his speech isn’t just an attack on Trump. It’s also a call to action:

When the next generation asks us, why didn’t you do something? Why didn’t you speak up? What are we going to say? Mr. President, I rise today to say, enough. We must dedicate ourselves to making sure that the anomalous never becomes the normal.

Great. That’s fine. We don’t want the anomalous to become the normal. Couldn’t agree more. I just want to know this:

Why haven’t you done anything?

And why are you leaving?

Here’s an example. Betsy DeVos was confirmed at Secretary of Education back in February. It was perfectly obvious from her confirmation hearing that she was spectacularly unqualified for the job. She was the wife of a major Republican donor, who has spent her time trying to privatize the American education system. She demonstrated repeatedly that she knew absolutely nothing about the most pressing education issues of the day. And she was confirmed 51-50, with the tie-breaking vote cast by Vice-President Pence.

And Jeff Flake voted for her. He voted ‘yes’. He made normal, in other words, Trump’s sensationally anomalous choice for his cabinet.

Okay, that’s unfair. Flake is a big school-choice guy, a charter school guy. Maybe he agreed with her on education issues, and was willing to overlook her, ahem, idiosyncracies. And that vote was a long time ago. So what about yesterday? The Senate voted on a measure that would have made it harder for ripped-off citizens to sue the banks or credit card companies that cheated them. The one recourse people have under such circumstances is to sue, either individually or through a class-action suit. Credit card companies want people to use binding arbitration instead, because they usually win those. The Senate was voting on the measure. So, easy vote: Wall Street vs. consumers. And two Republicans voted against the banks, joining all 48 Democrats. Jeff Flake was not one of them. Trump wanted it, and Flake voted with Trump. Again, Mike Pence broke the tie. 51-50.

So, again, the anomalous becomes the normal. And Jeff Flake’s anti-Trump rhetoric starts to look pretty empty, pretty self-serving.

And, all right, let’s suppose Flake really would now like to oppose Trump on principle, that he wants to join the fight against normalizing anomalies. Then why not stay in the Senate? Because Jeff Flake’s big speech was essentially a farewell address. He’s quitting. He’s leaving the Senate.

I get that Trump hates him, and that Steve Bannon is willing to spend ten million dollars of Robert Mercer’s money to defeat him. Flake’s main concern seems to be all that support flowing to his primary challenger. He, understandably, does not want to humiliated by a primary defeat.

But it’s not like his opponent is some juggernaut. She’s Dr. Kelli Ward, an ER doc from Lake Havasu City. She’s probably a very good doctor. And she may not be quite as nuts as she sometimes appears. She appeared on Alex Jones’ show, where she suggested that John McCain may be trying to kill her. Kind of; Jones said it, she just didn’t contradict him. She hosted a town hall meeting about chemtrails. Though she hasn’t said where she stands on the chemtrail issue, she clearly took that particular conspiracy theory seriously enough to hold a town hall on it. So, no, it’s not entirely fair to call her Chemtrail Kelli. But she also sees political advantage to cozying up to conspiracy theorists.

What does she stand for? I went on her website, and guess what: if Trump’s for it, so is she. Border wall, tax cuts for rich guys, no gun control at all, for anything.

Remember, Steve Bannon is an insurrectionist. He’s pro-chaos. He wants desperately unqualified people in the cabinet and Congress; he’s trying to rush us towards something akin to the Second Coming. He likes creative destruction. That’s why he supported (and we may be stuck with), Roy Moore for the US Senate. Moore’s crazy. Bannon likes crazy.

More to the point, Flake isn’t crazy. At least, he’s not-crazy enough to understand what a disaster Donald Trump’s Presidency has become. He is, at least, competent, and a decent guy. He’s massively conservative, and if I could vote in Arizona, I’d vote for his likely opponent,  Kyrsten Sinema. She’s a liberal Democrat. Who he would probably beat.

What bothers me most, though, is him not even trying. What troubles me is the suggestion that active opposition from someone as extreme and bizarre as Steve Bannon might scare Flake off. Or that he doesn’t seem to think he can beat a Trumpite like Kelli Ward.

Flake’s speech seems to suggest that an actual conservative (whatever that is), can’t support Donald Trump in good conscience, and that the Republican party needs to disassociate themselves from Trumpian policies and politics. Great. Good start. But he’s not going to do anything about it. And that, frankly, strikes me not as conscience, but as cowardice.

A rare outbreak of bi-partisanship

Congressional Republicans found themselves in a bind. For years, they stood in steadfast resistance to the Affordable Care Act, colloquially known as Obamacare. The House, under Republican control, voted repeatedly to repeal it. Granted, the Senate, under Democratic leadership, never brought any such measure to a (failing) vote, and if they had, through some miracle, passed it, Obama would have vetoed, but still, the Republicans had run for election on repealing Obamacare. Fulminated against it, lied about it, misrepresented it, put all their eggs in that one basket. Never let it be said that they didn’t try! Over and over again, they wasted everyone’s time with this silly symbolic exercise. It never meant a thing. It was just this silly pointless thing they did, like me putting ‘diet and exercise’ on my New Year’s Resolutions. Or a dog chasing a car.

Then suddenly, one day, a health scare, and the doctor was telling me, in all seriousness, dude, diet and exercise; you have to lose a lot of weight fast or you could die. One election, and the state of our nation shifted from ‘peaceful transfer of power after a democratic election’ to ‘on-going national crisis.’ And the Republicans found themselves controlling the House, AND Senate, AND White House, and also, pretty much, the judicial branch as well. The dog caught the car, and suddenly wondered what he was going to do with it. And it turned out, the Republican party was much better at ‘repeal,’ than ‘replace.’

For years, we’d been told of these wonderful conservative, market-oriented alternatives to Obamacare. It turned out, they didn’t exist. Various approaches to repealing and replacing were floated, and just as quickly, shot out of the sky. Republicans, turns out, are great at winning elections. They’re incapable of governing. In fact, most conservatives don’t actually want the government in charge of health care. It’s a commodity; if you can’t afford it, you don’t get it. Various attempts were offered, bills created, and, darn the CBO, vetted. Every one of them would have substantially reduced the numbers of citizens with good health care. Citizens without health insurance get sick or get in accidents at about the same rate as everyone else; without insurance, people can die. And voting margins on these bills were sufficiently narrow that all kinds of legislative hocus-pocus was brought to bear. Bills were rushed through, jammed through, forced down people’s throats. In short, lots of really sucky bills scorched their way through Congress, right up to the point where Congresspeople voted on them. Thousands of people began cramming their way into Congressional constituent meetings, exercising their First Amendment rights to be vocal, contentious and angry. Obamacare is still the law of the land.

President Trump, it turned out, was terrible at working with Congress to get this stuff passed. This is hardly surprising, since Trump is awful at all the other aspects of his job as well, but in this case, his ineptitude combined with Congressional fecklessness to produce no bill, no answers, numerous lies and a thoroughly honked-off populace. So Trump decided to do see what some executive orders might accomplish. Since Obamacare couldn’t be repealed and replaced via legislation, as the Framers intended, Trump cut insurance subsidies, and destabilized insurance markets. He wants Obamacare dead. Or something. It’s hard to tell; he’s given speech after speech that makes it sound like he favors a single-payer system. Or block grants to states. Or witchcraft and wizardry. Or something.

Meanwhile, something weird was happening in the offices and conference rooms of the Senate. Patty Murray, D-Washington, and Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, chair and ranking Dem on the Health Committee, were holding hearings, and meeting, and discussing, and trying to figure out a way to fix the real-life actual-factual problems Obamacare did in fact have. And they came up with a bill. Bi-partisan. A compromise. A little bit from the left and a little bit from the right. And it’s not a great bill, but it’s likely to be effective. Turns out, overcoming the partisan divide wasn’t completely impossible. Obamacare can be saved. Regular order works.

It was shocking. And nobody seems to know what to do about it. Trump was startled enough that he initially even seemed to suggest he’d support it. He immediately muddied the waters by saying nine other contradictory things about it, but who knows, he likes signing things. The House didn’t seem to know what to do about it. A few people reflexively made some noises about how this wasn’t ‘repeal and replace.’ It was a fix. The spectacle of two elected officials actually doing their jobs and serving their constituents has taken everyone by surprise. Even the national media didn’t know how to handle it; it was a below-the-fold-page-seven story in the national news.

Meanwhile, Alexander and Murray say they’re lining up co-sponsors, and hope for a Senate vote soon. Like, you know, real Senators. And Nancy Pelosi says she’d love to bring her House caucus aboard. It might, you know, actually pass. I wouldn’t bet my Mom’s pension on it, but stranger things have happened. Wouldn’t that be a hoot?

 

“Guys.”

I’ve been reading Katy Tur’s new book, Unbelievable, about her time as an NBC correspondent covering the Trump campaign. Tur’s a tough-minded and tenacious reporter, and her book is riveting. She’s also, incidentally, an attractive woman. And she has one chapter about the incredibly inappropriate sexual things men have said to her under the most ludicrous circumstances. Including the time when Candidate Trump, the guy who wanted to be President, who she happened to be covering, came up to her, apropos nothing, and kissed her.  When she describes these incidents, she dismisses them with a single, contemptuous word: “guys.” Just “guys.”

I hate that. I know what she means, and she’s right, and I’m glad she put it in her book, but I also hate it, what it says about men. Speaking as a dude, a fella, a ‘guy’, I don’t know what’s wrong with these people. Katy Tur had the most important political story of my lifetime, and she reported it with intelligence, nuance, integrity and unrelenting courage. Why can’t that be enough? Why can’t that be all?

When I heard about the current Harvey Weinstein news story, about the sordid and disgusting sexual history of the legendary Hollywood producer, my first thought was, sad to say, “so?” I mean, isn’t that the oldest of American pickup lines: “I’m making a movie, and there may be a part in it for you?” Film producer is also a sleaze? Also, NBA player is tall.

I taught theatre at the university level for twenty years. I’ve also directed maybe 50 plays, in college settings and professionally. I’ve also pulled down a few checks as a script consultant. That puts me in the very very furthest, Pluto-adjacent, outer edges of show-biz, I suppose. And the school I taught at was a religious school, and we always had to warn about students about, you know, professional realities. Some directors/producers/casting directors are honorable and competent and professional. Many are not. Watch out. Be careful. Carry pepper spray. All that.

But, you know, even as an outsider, it’s not hard to see how the sexual objectification of women is built into the very fabric of Hollywood. It’s not just who might proposition you in exchange for an audition. How many movies have roles for the male lead, and the female love interest? How often is the actor in his 50’s or 60’s, and the actress in her mid-20’s? How many movies or TV shows include gratuitous, not just nude scenes, but underwear scenes, bikini scenes, naked-from-behind scenes? How often are women depicted either as objects for male sexual interest, or as loyal and supportive and dull?

Everything about Hollywood seems sexually charged. Isn’t ‘glamour’ synonymous with ‘alluring?’

I thought of Dory Previn, the first wife of legendary Hollywood composer Andre Previn. You probably don’t know her work, but she was a terrific singer/songwriter, a cutey-pie voice singing lyrics of unmatched savagery, and a ferocious critic of Hollywood morés, such as they were. Here’s a lyric from her song Hooray for Hollywood.

They lead you like an animal to slaughter; you’re inspected, you’re rated, you’re stamped, standard or prime. They hang you on a meathook when you age, but female meat does not improve with time. They cut you up, and take the part that’s tender, and when they’re through, all that’s left of you is tough, tough, tough. The flesh is willing, but the spirit’s growing weaker. Enough, enough, enough, enough, enough.

Then straight to the chorus: “Who do you have to f*** to get into the movies? Who do you have to lay to make your way? Hooray for Hollywood!” (Dory Previn was outraged when her husband had an affair with an actress, Mia Farrow, 17 years his junior. When she objected, he had her committed to a mental institution, where she was subjected to electro-shock therapy).

Here’s what’s really horrible: Harvey Weinstein was one of the good guys, if by ‘good guy’ you mean talented, with an eye for a good script. How many genuinely great movies did he produce? Pulp Fiction, Ciderhouse Rules, Jane Eyre, The Englishman Who Fell Down a Hill but Came Down a Mountain, Emma, The English Patient, Shakespeare in Love, Mansfield Park, Chocolat, Gangs of New York, maybe 50 others, first for Miramax, then for his own company. Everyone knew he was a sexual predator. Everyone protected him, I think, in part, because he made great movies. Disgusting human being. Gifted artist. Like Roman Polanski. Woody Allen. Mel Gibson. Cosby. Michael Bay, Oliver Stone, Lars von Trier. How many people in Hollywood does that describe? I’ve seen lots of films by all those guys, and enjoyed them. I also voted for Bill Clinton, twice. Am I complicit? Am I responsible?

Here’s what else I know, though. Whenever an actress auditions for a movie, TV series, or play, she accurately perceives herself as a professional, as a hard-working, talented, skilled artist, looking for an opportunity to show what she’s capable of. That’s how she sees herself, because that’s who she is. She is fully aware that there are dozens, or hundreds of other women auditioning, all of them capable and talented. She also knows that getting cast is a long shot, and that sheer dumb luck will play into it. She wants to read well. She wants to act well. What I absolutely guarantee is this: she isn’t thinking “wow, this is my chance to have sex with a disgusting overweight unattractive man 40 years older than I am! Lucky me!” She did not show up to that audition to be sexually harassed. She was not signalling a desire to be sexually assaulted. She does not want to see the film’s producer naked. She’s applying for a job, seeking a professional opportunity. And deserves to be treated as such.

I’ve auditioned hundreds of actors, and cast many shows. What am I looking for? The “right” actor for the role. What does that mean? Can’t tell you. It’s a matter of feel, a question of instinct and experience. When will I know any particular actor is “right?” You just sort of do.

But yes, of course, to a limited extent, appearance enters into it. If I’m casting Romeo and Juliet, I need young actors in those two roles. And Juliet should be, well, pretty. Her physical appearance is one factor I need to take into consideration. But what you have to think (what you inevitably do think) is this: ‘is she pretty enough to be plausible in the role?’ What you can’t ever think (and I can truly say, I never have thought, not once, not ever), is this: ‘gosh, she’s cute; I wonder if she’d like to date me?’ I mean, why would you even think that? You have X amount of time to get the show up, and Y amount of things that have to be done and rehearsed and polished first. And Y>X, always, forever. And you’re going to waste your time making a fool out of yourself, and btw, an enemy of someone you still have to work with? While also wasting everyone’s time? How dumb can you be?

One thing would help: too high a percentage of producers and directors and writers are male. Hiring more women isn’t tokenism. It’s called ‘increasing the talent pool.’ When the Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson, they didn’t sign ‘a black guy.’ They signed ‘a superstar.’ More female writers and directors will result, ipso facto, in more great movies. Which, frankly, I want to see.

So many women I know, so many former students, so many colleagues, so many talented artists I have worked with in the past have come forward lately, post-Weinstein, and said, quietly, honestly, eloquently, “Me too.” It breaks my heart. It disgusts me as well. The Harvey Weinsteins of the world disgrace my entire gender, and my entire life-long profession. Yes, as a matter of fact, directors and producers are in a position of power. But you’re also doing something important and valuable and beautiful. You’re creating works of art, collectively, everyone working together. Why would someone want to profane that, turn it ludicrous and disgusting, for no reason? Katy Tur knows. “Guys.”

To all of you, let me say this. I am so sorry. I am horrified, I am appalled, I am sickened. Thank you for coming forward. Thank you for telling the truth. Sunshine is the best disinfectant, so let’s start disinfected, root these attitudes and approaches out and destroy that entire power-mad mindset. Because this is about the abuse of power. And it’s repugnant.

Politicizing tragedy

Sunday night, a sixty-four year old accountant named Stephen Paddock smashed two windows in his luxury suite at the Mandalay Bay hotel, and, using automatic weapons, opened fire on a crowd enjoying a country music festival. So far, 59 people are dead, and over 500 injured. It’s not being called a terrorist attack, presumably because it doesn’t seem to have had an ideological motive. In fact, no one knows precisely why Paddock committed such a horrific act. What police are discovering is that this guy owned a great many weapons, large quantities of ammunition, and a sizeable amount of explosives. And it appears, at present, that all those weapons were acquired legally.

As usual, political leaders gave voice to their feelings of shock and horror, sending the usual ‘thoughts and prayers,’ and expressing gratitude for the heroic efforts of first responders. Also, as usual, conservative lawmakers urged liberals not to politicize this event. It’s unseemly, they suggested, to exploit the suffering of victims and their families to push for changes in gun laws. This tactic–and it is a tactic–seems to have worked. It’s okay to politicize tragedy to oppose gun control, unseemly to politicize it to support gun control. And the status quo remains unchanged.

We know how this will play itself out. There will be a renewed push for gun control legislation, which will go nowhere, and accomplish nothing. A few weeks will pass, and passions will subside. Nothing will be done. The NRA will see an increase in membership, and gun manufacturers will experience a bump in sales. And the Onion will run the same story they always run during these tragedies. The headline: ‘No way to prevent this.’ says only nation where this regularly happens.’  Also this: “Americans hope this will be last mass shooting before they stop on their own for no reason.”

The power of the gun lobby is truly formidable, and a reluctance to exploit human suffering is normal enough. Still, it is absolutely essential that these tragedies be politicized. In the last twenty-four hours I’ve seen interview after interview with law enforcement officials addressing the issue of hotel security. How was this guy able to bring seventeen high powered guns into his hotel room? Why don’t hotels check your luggage? What can be done to prevent this in the future? It’s quite absurd; the push now seems to be to make the task of checking into a hotel as unpleasant and fraught as the task of boarding an airplane. And yet, of course, people want to discuss how this kind of tragedy can be prevented in the future. Why is it okay to use this event to push for an increase in hotel security, but not to disarm Americans? If we’re trying to prevent future acts of gun violence, why is one possible solution okay, but the more effective and obvious one not okay?

But there’s another factor. There’s a reason why this is such a contentious issue. Pro-Gun guys tend to feel more passionate about this issue than gun control advocates do. I wish that weren’t the case, but it is. People who love their guns, absolutely love their guns. The rest of us tend not to care that much, until events like this most recent one prove us right.

When I was thirteen, I went to my first Boy Scout camp. I loved it. There were so many possible activities I could involve myself with! I was there to earn merit badges, to be sure, but also there to learn the skills that would result in merit badges. I was immediately drawn to watersports, and earned merit badges in canoeing, rowing, swimming, lifesaving.

The camp had a rifle range, and shooting was a popular activity. The instructor was an older man who clearly loved his job; he was a good teacher, and his rifle range was a safe space. It was a ‘well-regulated militia.’ I tried it; everyone tried it. I wasn’t very good at it, and didn’t pursue the shooting merit badge (I don’t remember what it was called). Instead, I gravitated over to archery. It was a lot cheaper, and I didn’t have a lot of money, plus, I don’t know, I just liked it more.

But some guys, man, they absolutely lived at that rifle range. It was the only thing they wanted to do.

Have you ever talked to a pro-gun person? Some of these guys, this is, like, the most important thing in their lives. And they’re convinced that owning a gun makes them safer, that the best response to bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. All that stuff. Plus, of course, they insist that the Second Amendment gives them an absolute right to own any and all firearms they want.

Me, I’m indifferent to guns. Their existence means as much to me as it did back in Scout camp. Ban them all, and it would zero impact on my life, aside from making it a little safer. I just don’t think about them all that often. And I think I’m like most Americans in this regard. I’m aware that some people like to shoot recreationally, and that seems harmless enough, and that other people like to go hunting–which I have never done, and can’t imagine ever wanting to do–and that’s fine. It would be the height of hypocrisy for me to raise moral objections to hunting, enjoying a good burger, as I do. I’ve shot a .22 rifle a few times, enjoyed it well enough. I’m not congenitally against guns. I just think we could save a lot of lives if fewer guns were in circulation. In fact, that’s obviously true–most other countries on earth have much stricter gun laws, and way fewer gun casualties.

So I don’t think about guns much. I don’t obsess over them. But come on; there are 88 guns per every 100 Americans, and that’s ridiculous. Every year, there are 33,000 deaths due to guns, more or less, and that’s way too many. As for the Second Amendment, the most preposterous Supreme Court decision of my lifetime, District of Columbia v. Heller, finally, for the first time, made the ridiculous assertion that the Second Amendment, rather than be about militias, gave ordinary citizens the right to privately own firearms. As silly as Heller is, though, it never says that guns can’t be regulated.

Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose: For example, concealed weapons prohibitions have been upheld under the Amendment or state analogues. The Court’s opinion should not be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms. Miller’s holding that the sorts of weapons protected are those “in common use at the time” finds support in the historical tradition of prohibiting the carrying of dangerous and unusual weapons.

So, yeah, Congress can absolutely pass national gun control legislation without doing violence to the Constitution. But Congress won’t do it. Too many congressmen get way too much money from the NRA. And the people who oppose gun control care way more about it than those of us who just want to bring some logic and factual accuracy to the discussion. Generally, most Americans support sensible gun control legislation. But we’re not all that passionate about it, unless we’ve lost someone to gun violence.

So, yeah, let’s be honest. We need to politicize gun violence. We need to raise the issue now. We need to push for legislative relief, and do it now. Because, let’s get real. 59 dead at a country music festival is just ridiculous. And 33,000 deaths annually is 32,900 too many. A lot of good people, enjoying music in a public space, were murdered on Sunday.

And, really, isn’t it true that any Congressman beholden to NRA campaign contributions is, to some degree, complicit? You want to feel better about yourself? Do your job.

 

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.

 

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.

 

 

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.

 

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.