Category Archives: Life

This, That and the Other Thing

There are few places as forlorn as a resort town on a chilly, cloudy, damp, out of season weekday afternoon. Thus, Virginia Beach, Virginia, last week:

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But let’s move on.

Paul Waldman writes about “The GOP’s Baffling Decision to Raise Taxes on Millions of Americans” at The Week.

If there’s one thing we thought we could count on in this crazy world, it’s that Republicans will never, ever, ever support a tax increase. It wasn’t always this way — Ronald Reagan, who to hear some people tell it practically walked the Earth without sin, actually raised taxes multiple times — but today there may be no more foundational belief to the GOP than the principle that taxes must come down, everywhere and always.

Nevertheless, “the GOP is right now rallying around a bill that will raise taxes on tens of millions of Americans.” It certainly is strange. One part of the explanation, however, is that Republicans aren’t very good at this governing thing. Another part is that they’re so eager to cut taxes for rich people and corporations, they’re willing to antagonize millions of voters and lie about what they’re doing.

As a partial antidote to the above, consider reading all about “The Relentless Honesty of Ludwig Wittgenstein”. Ian Ground presents an excellent overview of Wittgenstein’s philosophy, both early and late, at The Times Literary Supplement.

Even When You Want To Back Away From It

I’ve been working on a post that explains why I want to back away from our political crisis, but it’s been slow going. Meanwhile, an exchange that appeared on Brian Wilson’s community forum might be of interest.

First, some background. Brian Wilson (my favorite musician, who is best known as the creative force behind the Beach Boys) has a website that includes a forum mainly intended for fans to discuss his music and other aspects of his career. Occasionally, however, other topics come up.

A few days ago, a person who apparently lives in Germany and goes by the name “Cantina Margarita” (a reference to the song “Heroes and Villains”) announced that he or she was leaving the board after 10 years of participation:

I’d like to thank you all for some 10 years of being allowed to be a part of this community. Now it’s time to say goodbye because I feel I can’t continue having musical discussions on a US music forum, suspecting all the time to be talking to Donald Trump voters.

I can’t go on discussing music and concerts, trying to ignore the subject. It’s a very ugly and dangerous fly [???], and I’m used to expressing my opinion quite frankly. I can’t do this here without spoiling BW’s board, and this is not something I want this forum to suffer….

Keep having a nice time here, I just don’t feel like being in any longer.

My account is just being cancelled.

Maybe, only maybe, I’ll return after the next POTUS election, under a new nick. American politics is just too important to the rest of the world to ignore it.

[wave]

As you’d expect, there were a variety of responses to this post. Some people thought it was an overreaction. Why stop communicating with Americans in general just because millions of us voted a certain way? For example:

I am puzzled by this too.  I don’t like the way your election went, so I cannot talk to an entire country’s people?

I’m trying to look for an interpretation of this that does not seem like holding your breath until your face turns blue, or ‘cutting off your ear to spite your face’, etc., but I am failing.

Since Cantina Margarita was no longer available, well, it was a dirty job, but somebody had to…

How about this interpretation:

It matters to the whole world when America chooses a new president. Yet millions of Americans chose a person who is manifestly unfit for the job and whose presence in the White House constitutes a clear and present danger. I am so damned angry and worried about this that it’s hard to keep quiet about it, especially when I communicate with Americans. And since Americans who post here are probably among those responsible for putting this person in office, I’d rather not interact with them. Sadly, since I don’t know how people here voted (or if they chose not to vote, even in such an important election), I’m going to leave this board rather than have pleasant discussions with these people about Brian Wilson, given how I feel about the decision they made. Maybe I’ll be back when your country comes to its senses and it’s reasonable to assume that the person I’m communicating with didn’t make such a horrible decision, putting themselves and others around the world at serious risk.

I know this may sound extreme, but this person being the American president is far more extreme. None of us should accept this situation and go about our business in the usual way.

By the way, a powerful member of the president’s party expressed deep concerns about the president this week:

Senator Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, charged in an interview on Sunday that President Trump was treating his office like “a reality show,” with reckless threats toward other countries that could set the nation “on the path to World War III.”

In an extraordinary rebuke of a president of his own party, Mr. Corker said he was alarmed about a president who acts “like he’s doing ‘The Apprentice’ [a TV show] or something.”

“He concerns me,” Mr. Corker added. “He would have to concern anyone who cares about our nation.”

… All but inviting his colleagues to join him in speaking out about the president, Mr. Corker said his concerns about Mr. Trump were shared by nearly every Senate Republican.

“Look, except for a few people, the vast majority of our caucus understands what we’re dealing with here,” he said, adding that “of course they understand the volatility that we’re dealing with and the tremendous amount of work that it takes by people around him to keep him in the middle of the road.”

So far, other Senate Republicans have declined Sen. Corker’s implied invitation to share their thoughts. However, a Republican congressman, Mark Meadows, did say “it’s easy to be bold when you’re not coming back”, referring to the fact that Sen. Corker won’t seek re-election in 2018. I suppose that Rep. Meadows does want to be re-elected, so being bold is out of the question.

Now back to backing away from the current crisis.

American Carnage

The carnage in Las Vegas is shocking, but it’s what we should expect when powerful weapons are easy to acquire and we live in a gun-crazy country.

We stand alone in civilian ownership of guns.

guns_per_capita

Compared to other rich countries, we commit more murders with guns (we also commit more suicides with guns — they’re very efficient for that purpose). 

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As any rational person would predict, the more guns in your state, the more gun deaths you’ll have.

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At the same time, it’s off the front pages temporarily, but the carnage continues in Puerto Rico. Our government’s response has been lacking because of who lives there.

This country accepts an incredible amount of gun violence and still has colonies in the Caribbean and Pacific. America is truly exceptional.

If You’re a Russian Twitter Bot, What’s On Your Mind?

In 1972, the German government founded the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF), a foundation and think tank in Washington. It was a gift to the American people in recognition of how the Marshall Plan helped rebuild Germany after World War 2.

The GMF has now created Hamilton 68, a site that allows “tracking Russian influence operations on Twitter”. (The name refers to Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist Papers No. 68, in which he discussed foreign meddling in our elections.) If you visit the new Disinformation Dashboard, you can see what stories and topics Russia is pushing today. From today’s “Top Themes”:

The networks we track are engaged in disinformation. They amplify legitimate reporting when the content suits them, and they promote alternative media outlets that seemingly specialize in the production of disinformation, whether or not the outlets are controlled by the Kremlin. These outlets assemble stories from found objects – bits of information that may have some basis in reality. The final product will leap to conclusions the components of the story do not necessarily support, but which promote a distorted view of events to the Kremlin’s benefit. This past week we have seen Kremlin-oriented Twitter promoting content regarding non-lethal U.S. military assistance to Ukraine. Reality: the U.S. Navy is helping construct a naval operations center at Ochakiv. The promoted stories at Stalker Zone and Strategic Culture turn that into: “The Entire Black Sea Coast of Ukraine Will Become a U.S. Military Base” and “U.S. Military to be Permanently Stationed on [Ukraine] Soil” respectively. Such stories are produced continuously. Their effectiveness is based on cumulative impact.

Side note: A coherent response to events on the weekend in Charlottesville has not yet emerged (as of August 16), though we continue to watch for one.

They’re currently monitoring 600 Twitter users, “properly understood as a network of accounts linked to and participating in Russian influence campaigns”, officially or unofficially, knowingly or unknowingly. These include:

  • Accounts likely controlled by Russian government influence operations.
  • Accounts for “patriotic” pro-Russia users that are loosely connected or unconnected to the Russian government, but which amplify themes promoted by Russian government media.
  • Accounts for users who have been influenced by the first two groups and who are extremely active in amplifying Russian media themes. These users may or may not understand themselves to be part of a pro-Russian social network. 

Today’s top Russian tweet, according to the Disinformation Dashboard, happens to be from the government-run RT network (formerly Russia Today):

Twitter user avatar @RT_com
Petition urges Trump to recognize Antifa as terrorists, reaches 55,000 signatures in 2 days https://t.co/toDhxusjll https://t.co/SV3TfIxVUD
Retweeted 566 times

The top Russia hashtags for the past 48 hours have been “antifa” (anti-fascist), “maga” (Make America Great…), “boston”, “syria”, “isis” and “altleft”. 

By the way, according to something called TwitterAudit.com, roughly 40% of DT’s 36 million followers are automated (i.e. fake).

Shining light on Russia’s propaganda efforts is a good thing, but I’d feel better if the president* and his minions were doing something to protect our upcoming elections. They’re not, because Russia is on their side.

Dashboard

Note: Whoever designed this graphic for GMF showing Putin releasing all those Twitter birds might as well have left the birds blue. Russia isn’t a Communist country anymore. It’s a right-wing kleptocracy, which is why the president* and other right-wing fanatics are so pro-Russia now. Putin leads the kind of government they aspire to.

Yes, It’s Your Doom and Gloom Roundup, But Maybe With Light at the End of the Tunnel

Arthur Schopenhauer, “On the Sufferings of the World” (1836):

In early youth, as we contemplate our coming life, we are like children in a theater before the curtain is raised, sitting there in high spirits and eagerly waiting for the play to begin. It is a blessing that we do not know what is really going to happen. 

You tell ’em, Art.

Craig Unger, “Trump’s Russian Laundromat”, The New Republic:

A review of the public record reveals a clear and disturbing pattern: Trump owes much of his business success, and by extension his presidency, to a flow of highly suspicious money from Russia. Over the past three decades, at least 13 people with known or alleged links to Russian mobsters or oligarchs have owned, lived in, and even run criminal activities out of Trump Tower and other Trump properties. Many used his apartments and casinos to launder untold millions in dirty money…. Others provided Trump with lucrative branding deals that required no investment on his part. Taken together, the flow of money from Russia provided Trump with a crucial infusion of financing that helped rescue his empire from ruin, burnish his image, and launch his career in television and politics….

By 2004, to the outside world, it appeared that Trump was back on top after his failures in Atlantic City. That January, flush with the appearance of success, Trump launched his newly burnished brand into another medium.

[The Apprentice] instantly revived his career. “The Apprentice turned Trump from a blowhard Richie Rich who had just gone through his most difficult decade into an unlikely symbol of straight talk, an evangelist for the American gospel of success, a decider who insisted on standards in a country that had somehow slipped into handing out trophies for just showing up,” … Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher observe in their book Trump Revealed. “Above all, Apprentice sold an image of the host-boss as supremely competent and confident, dispensing his authority and getting immediate results. The analogy to politics was palpable”….

Without the Russian mafia, it is fair to say, Donald Trump would not be president of the United States.

I sometimes wonder how many of the millions of people who watched The Apprentice for years and years voted for this “poor person’s idea of a rich person” and whether DT’s shady business deals will ever catch up with him.

Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, “Trump Jr.’s Russia meeting sure sounds like a Russian intelligence operation”, The Washington Post:

….everything we know about the meeting — from whom it involved to how it was set up to how it unfolded — is in line with what intelligence analysts would expect an overture in a Russian influence operation to look like. It bears all the hallmarks of a professionally planned, carefully orchestrated intelligence soft pitch designed to gauge receptivity, while leaving room for plausible deniability in case the approach is rejected. And the Trump campaign’s willingness to take the meeting — and, more important, its failure to report the episode to U.S. authorities — may have been exactly the green light Russia was looking for to launch a more aggressive phase of intervention in the U.S. election….

Had this Russian overture been rejected or promptly reported by the Trump campaign to U.S. authorities, Russian intelligence would have been forced to recalculate the risk vs. gain of continuing its aggressive operation to influence U.S. domestic politics. Russian meddling might have been compromised in its early stages and stopped in its tracks by U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies before it reached fruition by the late fall.

So the suggestion that this was a nothing meeting without consequence is, in all likelihood, badly mistaken.

Paul Krugman, “Takers and Fakers”, The New York Times

… throughout the whole campaign against Obamacare, Republicans have been lying about their intentions.

Believe it or not, conservatives actually do have a more or less coherent vision of health care. It’s basically pure Ayn Rand: if you’re sick or poor, you’re on your own…. Specifically:

1. Health care, even the most essential care, is a privilege, not a right. If you can’t get insurance because you have a preexisting condition, because your income isn’t high enough, or both, too bad.

2. People who manage to get insurance through government aid, whether Medicaid, subsidies, or regulation and mandates that force healthy people to buy into a common risk pool, are “takers” exploiting the wealth creators, aka the rich.

3. Even for those who have insurance, it covers too much. Deductibles and co-pays should be much higher, to give people “skin in the game”…

4. All of this applies to seniors as well as younger people. Medicare as we know it should be abolished, replaced with a voucher system that can be used to help pay for private policies – and funding will be steadily cut below currently projected levels, pushing people into high-deductible, high-copay private policies.

This is … what conservative health care “experts” say when they aren’t running for public office, or closely connected to anyone who is. I think it’s a terrible doctrine … because buying health care isn’t and can’t be like buying furniture….

But think of how Republicans have actually run against Obamacare. They’ve lambasted the law for not covering everyone, even though their fundamental philosophy is NOT to cover everyone, or accept any responsibility for the uninsured. They’ve denied that their massive cuts to Medicaid are actually cuts, pretending to care about the people they not-so-privately consider moochers. They’ve denounced Obamacare policies for having excessively high deductibles, when higher deductibles are at the core of their ideas about cost control. And they’ve accused Obamacare of raiding Medicare, a program they’ve been trying to kill since 1995.

In other words, their whole political strategy has been based on lies – not shading the truth, not spinning, but pretending to want exactly the opposite of what they actually want.

And this strategy was wildly successful, right up to the moment when Republicans finally got a chance to put their money – or actually your money – where their mouths were. The trouble they’re having therefore has nothing to do with tactics, or for that matter with Trump. It’s what happens when many years of complete fraudulence come up against reality.

As Krugman writes elsewhere:

… everyone, and I mean everyone, who knows something about insurance markets is declaring the same thing: that the [Republican] bill would be a disaster. We’ve got the insurance industry declaring it “simply unworkable”; the American Academy of Actuaries saying effectively the same thing; AARP up in arms; and more [doctors, nurses, state governors, voters]. 

And yet, it still might become law this month. Why?

Jennifer Rubin, “The GOP’s Moral Rot Is the Problem, Not Donald Trump”, The Washington Post:

… for decades now, demonization — of gays, immigrants, Democrats, the media, feminists, etc. — has been the animating spirit behind much of the right. It has distorted its assessment of reality, … elevating Fox News hosts’ blatantly false propaganda as the counterweight to liberal media bias and preventing serious policy debate. For seven years, the party vilified Obamacare without an accurate assessment of its faults and feasible alternative plans. “Obama bad” or “Clinton bad” became the only credo — leaving the party … with “no attachment to any external moral truth or ethical code” — and no coherent policies for governing.

We have always had in our political culture narcissists, ideologues and flimflammers, but it took the 21st-century GOP to put one in the White House….

Out of its collective sense of victimhood came the GOP’s disdain for not just intellectuals but also intellectualism, science, Economics 101, history and constitutional fidelity….the GOP became slaves to its own demons and false narratives. A party that has to deny climate change and insist illegal immigrants are creating a crime wave — because that is what “conservatives” must believe, since liberals do not — is a party that will deny Trump’s complicity in gross misconduct. It’s a party as unfit to govern as Trump is unfit to occupy the White House. It’s not by accident that Trump chose to inhabit the party that has defined itself in opposition to reality and to any “external moral truth or ethical code”. 

Helen Keller, Optimism: An Essay (1903):

The test of all beliefs is their practical effects in life. If it be true that optimism compels the world forward, and pessimism retards it, then it is dangerous to propagate a pessimistic philosophy. One who believes that the pain in the world outweighs the joy, and expresses that unhappy conviction, only adds to the pain. Schopenhauer is an enemy to the race. Even if he earnestly believed that this is the most wretched of possible worlds, he should not promulgate a doctrine which robs men of the incentive to fight with circumstance.

All right, Helen, the good news is that a Republican senator is recovering from surgery and won’t be in Washington this coming week. His vote would be needed to move the Republican bill forward, so the vote has been delayed, giving the opposition more time to terminate this horror show with extreme prejudice.

If You’re Looking for One Factor That Explains the 2016 Election

The Voter Study Group has been studying the same 8,000 American voters since before the 2012 election. It’s “the nation’s largest, longest political focus group”. They released their findings on the 2016 election last month. 

From The Seattle Times:

The story we’ve told ourselves — that working-class whites flocked to [DT] due to job worries or free trade or economic populism — is basically wrong….

They did flock to [him]. But the reason they did so in enough numbers for [him] to win [the Electoral College] wasn’t anxiety about the economy. It was anxiety about Mexicans, Muslims and blacks.

Here’s how [the Study Group] put it in academese: “What stands out most, however, is the attitudes that became more strongly related to the vote in 2016: attitudes about immigration, feelings toward black people, and feelings toward Muslims,” writes George Washington Univ. professor John Sides. He notes that the media focused on less-educated whites, but negative racial attitudes fueled by Trump were a big motivator for college-educated whites, too.

A substantial share of Trump voters “appeared to embrace a conception of American identity predicated on birthplace and especially Christian faith,” Sides found.

This is the drum [Univ. of Washington professor Christopher Parker] has been banging for years. His 2013 book on the Tea Party, Change They Can’t Believe In … used survey data to show it was not a small government movement as advertised. It was more about America being stolen from “real Americans” — a reaction triggered by the election of President Obama.

“I’ve got three words for you: scared white people,” Parker says. “Every period of racial progress in this country is followed by a period of retrenchment. That’s what the 2016 election was about, and it was plain as it was happening.” [Note: Professor Parker was one of the few who predicted DT would win.]

To be clear: Neither Parker, nor the latest research, is saying that Trump voters are all racists. Most voting is simply party-line no matter who is running. What they’re saying is that worries about the economy, free trade and the rest were no more important in 2016 than in previous elections, but [racial and ethnic] resentment spiked.

This chart from the Voter Study Group tells the story:

figure4_sides_e4aabc39aab12644609701bbacdff252