Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Motivated reasoning

It turns out our spooks (the so-called "intelligence community") aren't so sure after all that the story which many of us passed on last year about Russia offering bounties for kills of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan was really true.

So says Charlie Savage, a reliable security issues reporter on the forever wars: 

... the administration stopped short of inflicting sanctions on any Russian officials over the suspected bounties, making clear that the available evidence about what happened — primarily what Afghan detainees told interrogators — continues to fall short of definitively proving the C.I.A.’s assessment that Russia likely paid money to reward attacks.

The intelligence community, a senior administration official told reporters, “assesses with low to moderate confidence that Russian intelligence officers sought to encourage Taliban attacks against U.S. and coalition personnel in Afghanistan in 2019, and perhaps earlier, including through financial incentives and compensation.”

Naturally Joe Biden, many Democrats, and partisans like me were easily convinced by the idea. Trump had some kind of suck-up relationship with Putin. He had never been known to show any care for anyone's well-being but his own. Plus, for those of us who'd made an effort to understand the Afghanistan morass, it didn't seem far-fetched to wonder whether Russia might simply be replicating a tactic our own CIA had used while egging on jihadist fighters against Russian occupation in the 1980s.

It was all too neat and too convincing. 

Jeff Schogol who reports for military readers explains:

As the Democratic presidential candidate, Biden repeatedly hammered Trump for not taking action about the intelligence on the bounties, accusing Trump of failing in his responsibilities as commander in chief.

... But defense officials consistently told lawmakers and others that the Russian bounty reports could not be corroborated. In December, Marine Gen. Kenneth McKenzie Jr. head of U.S. Central Command, said in an interview that intelligence officials had been unable to prove the information about the alleged bounties.

“I relentlessly query my intelligence people on this,” McKenzie told Katie Bo Williams, who was a Defense One reporter at the time. “We just don’t see it — but it’s not because we’re not looking at it. We’re looking at it very hard.”

Now it appears the Biden administration doesn’t see it either.

I'm not happy to have joined the bandwagon on this one -- or any one. 

Monday, April 19, 2021

Nice find on the Great Highway

End violence against Asians. Click to enlarge.

The empty Great Highway was lovely on a spring Sunday afternoon, a great venue for an imaginative political statement. The sand-strewn stretch of road has been closed to cars since the pandemic locked us in -- and recreational users want to keep it that way. 

Sunset district neighbors are not so thrilled about that idea. They get all the cars that used to buzz by next to Ocean Beach over on their streets. 

But perhaps traffic calming measures can encourage most drivers to take other routes. Hayes Valley is still adjusting after almost two decades from replacing a freeway stub with the much more human-friendly Octavia Boulevard. 

Change is hard, but reducing cars is worth some habit adjustments.

Update: about corporate capital's turn to supporting democracy

Amy Walter, the esteemed political analyst at the Cook Political Report, has taken a whack at explaining the corporate response to finding that Democrats win elections in the areas where big firms make their money while Republicans hang on to power by winning thinly populated, economically marginal expanses of land.

Walter outlines the increasingly gaping divides:

The Democratic Party is now anchored in the nation's booming, but highly unequal, metro areas, while the GOP relies on aging and economically stagnant manufacturing-reliant rural and exurban communities," Brookings Institute analysts Mark Munro and Jacob Whiton wrote in September of 2019. "The concentration of more than 70% of the nation's professional and digital services economy in the territory of one party would seem to register an almost unsustainable degree of polarization."

Just 12 years ago, according to this excellent analysis by the Wall Street Journal's Dante Chinni and Aaron Zitner, Democratic-held and Republican-held CDs produced about an equal percentage of the country's GDP. By 2019, however, Democratic-held districts produced about two-thirds of the nation's economic output. How did this happen? For the last decade, Democrats have been steadily losing ground in small-town and rural America while also making inroads into fast-growing and formerly GOP-held metro areas in and around places like Phoenix, Dallas, Houston, and of course, Atlanta.

So, today, we have corporations like Coca-Cola and Delta Airlines in Georgia at least making feints at supporting measures -- including especially LGBTQ+ and voting rights for all -- that Democratic populations care about. Their management (and work force) adopt city values; the corporations find profit in following.

... the decision by many companies to take a stand on key social issues is something that is driven more by employee input than anything else. 
A 2016 survey taken of major corporations by the Public Affairs Council found that a majority (60 percent) “experienced rising stakeholder pressure to get engaged in social issues such as discrimination, sustainability, human rights and education." Leading the push for engagement within these companies: senior management and employees. According to the survey, 78 percent of the companies said senior management were the most influential in deciding whether to get involved on a social issue, followed by employees at 70 percent. 
About half (51 percent) said the customers drove their decisions and nearly one-third (36 percent) said that shareholders played a role. Corporations, it seems, are indeed people.
In other words, even big companies who have a very politically diverse customer base (Republicans and Democrats watch baseball, fly on airplanes etc.), also have an employee base that's primarily centered in blue metros. And that employee base expects its employer to live up to these blue metro values.

At present, many corporations even seem willing not to throw a hissy fit about Joe Biden's slightly higher corporate tax proposals in order to keep internal peace. This development isn't everything, but it isn't nothing and needs to be pushed as far as possible.

• • •

Judd Legum chases down all the ins and outs of who is throwing around money in politics at Popular Information, an invaluable journalistic resource.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Updates: refugees and security panics

So President Biden has quickly listened to the howls of his constituents and turned around since last Friday, promising to increase the cap on refugee admissions. That little democratic pressure exercise went well; let's keep the pressure on to assist refugees and add pressure for humane solutions to what will be an ever-swelling migration crisis.

Meanwhile, perhaps we need to create another immigration allotment for persons -- outside the refugee and asylum categories -- who should be entitled to relatively easy entry to the U.S.: people who can no longer live in their own societies and countries because of U.S. military adventures.

Cycling rally in Kabul, Afghanistan, 2018, Wikipedia
Michael Walzer  offers a suggestion prompted by our impending departure from Afghanistan:

When we leave, we must bring with us to the U.S. all the men and women, and their families, who are vulnerable to persecution, imprisonment, or death because of our invasion—directly, because they collaborated with us, but also indirectly, because they agitated for democracy, organized unions, or established schools for girls under our cover. It doesn’t matter whether or not we intended to provide this cover, though I think many Americans who went to Afghanistan wanted to do exactly that. This is an absolute moral obligation.
Probably a large number of the men and women at risk will want to stay where they are and continue their political struggle; we should make sure they have the resources we can provide. But any people who want to leave, whatever their numbers, should be taken along with our troops and diplomats. We should be preparing to welcome them when they arrive and help them settle in the U.S.

• • •

In the early days of the post 9/11 panic, federal spooks and law enforcement, having been caught with their pants down by the jihadi attacks on New York and the Pentagon, ran wild and dangerous. In addition to instituting security theater at airports, they went on an entrapment binge, rounding up barely assimilated, often half-witted, young immigrant Muslims in what they called terror plots. The feds got credit for protecting us; the pathetic terrorists went to jail for long terms.

It's time to re-examine that binge. Rozina Ali offers a piercing, sympathetic account of the characters and imaginary terror "plots" that came out of that time.

... sweeping legislation and policy changes cleared the way for the authorities to surveil whole communities, monitoring even those who had no connection to terrorism. Prosecutors were now able to build cases from invasive intelligence-gathering tactics that would have been restricted earlier. The U.S. attorney general allowed law enforcement to deploy informants from the earliest stages of a terrorism investigation, contravening the established practice of waiting until there was reasonable indication of criminal activity; the Justice Department further relaxed restrictions in later years, permitting such use of informants even when assessing a potential case. In trials, the government presented evidence gathered by paid civilian informants who latched onto low-income, vulnerable and mentally challenged individuals, urged them toward a plot and, in several cases, even offered money and supplies to carry out bombings. 
... Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the government has imprisoned some 800 people on charges related to international terrorism, according to the Intercept database. But these numbers obscure a complicated reality. Many of these people were not found to have committed any acts of violence. Still, the government managed to achieve a high rate of conviction. Those accused of terrorism often pleaded guilty, usually because they were offered leniency in exchange for information, or because they knew they would almost certainly receive a longer sentence if they went to trial and were convicted. ...
Very much worth reading the whole story ...

In California, one federal judge has already tossed the case against Hamid Hayat of Lodi, a particularly egregious example of law enforcement inventing a threat that wasn't there. 

But hundreds of people remain locked up in federal prisons for thinly sourced accusations. Okay -- we were scared stupid for a season. But can we take a deep breath and look at freeing these people?

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Give me your tired, your poor ...

Yesterday I had to remind myself of a useful bit of wisdom I ran across in a tweet from author Stephen King: "whenever you feel distressed, remember that Donald Trump is not President." (My recollection of his words; King may have written something much more cogent.)

The announcement that the Biden administration would stick with the Trump limit of merely 15,000 admissions of refugees from around the world put them in the same bag with the lately evicted racist bunch. It was infuriating and seemed also simply ignorant. 

Under Obama, the U.S. admitted an average of 70,000 refugees annually, with ups and downs. This isn't a small number, but countries like Canada and Norway admit far more refugees in proportion to their populations. Biden had talked in terms of taking in 60,000, escalating to 125,000 over time.

Trump and Stephen Miller aimed to keep out the Black and Brown, hungry and desperate, out of sheer malice; the Biden administration seemed woefully ignorant of the reality of historic refugee policy. The Pew Center offers a clear summary of how refugee admissions fit in the general immigration picture:

Resettled refugees do not enter their destination country until they have legal permission to do so, because they apply for refugee status while in another country. Refugees are referred by UNHCR and other nongovernmental organizations. The refugee approval process for the U.S. can take several months or years while security checks on prospective refugees are completed. 
Resettled refugees differ from those seeking asylum; asylum seekers are people who migrate and cross a border without first having received legal permission to enter their destination country.

The refugee process has NOTHING to do with the present crush on the southern border of desperate Central Americans seeking asylum from what they hope is a more sympathetic Biden administration. The Biden folks should have anticipated that development, but it has nothing to do with our refugee policy.

Fortunately, the Biden administration quickly got a lot of push back from people who do know what they are talking about:

... “This Biden administration refugee admissions target is unacceptable,” said Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois and the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “Facing the greatest refugee crisis in our time, there is no reason to limit the number to 15,000. Say it ain’t so, President Joe.”

... Maintaining the Trump-era admissions level of 15,000 leaves thousands of refugees stranded in camps in places like Kenya, Tanzania and Jordan. Roughly 33,000 refugees have already been vetted and are prepared to travel to the United States.

“These are two completely distinct pathways and programs,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, the chief executive of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. “America has always been able to walk and chew gum.”

... “President Biden has broken his promise to restore our humanity,” said Representative Pramila Jayapal, Democrat of Washington. “We cannot turn our back on refugees around the world.”

Nazanin Ash, the vice president of policy and advocacy for the International Rescue Committee, said postponing an increase in the cap had real-life consequences.

“This is introducing harmful delays and confusion for refugees who remain in vulnerable situations and want to reunify with their families,” Ms. Ash said.

They sent White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, out to say they'll reconsider in May. 

Pressure for refugee admissions is the sort of issue on which the Biden folks can be very usefully subjected to constituent pressure. Let's do it. Here's a smart menu of action suggestions. Lives depend on us.

Friday, April 16, 2021

Friday cat blogging

With Janeway making writing difficult on my lap, let's go with a few outdoor cats today. 

Not sure this one has a home, but someone cares.
"Don't even think about intruding on my porch!"
Too tired to escape the woman with the camera.

All encountered while Walking San Francisco.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Numerical tidbits

The crowd that attacked the U.S. Capitol on January 6 didn't amount to very many people. 

The Washington Post farmed out video footage to Carnegie Mellon’s Informedia Project and came up with a count of 9,400 on the west side (Capitol steps and inauguration scaffolding) where the main breach occurred. Figuring in estimates of numbers on the other sides of the building, there may have been an additional 10,000 people wandering around (and some getting inside). 

To put this in some context, the crowd amounted to about half the average pre-pandemic game attendance watching a San Francisco Giants game at Oracle Stadium.

If the Justice Department eventually charges some 450 people for various offenses ranging from trespassing, though violence against the cops, to conspiracy to overthrow the election, that number will amount to about 2.3% of the crowd. A lot of insurrectionists are going to walk -- have they learned anything?

• • •

The Treasury Department today stated definitively that Paul Manafort passed 2016 Trump campaign polling data to a Russian intelligence agent. No more hints -- they just out and said it.

The Treasury Department stated it very matter-of-factly in designating Kilimnik, saying only that “during the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign, Kilimnik provided the Russian Intelligence Services with sensitive information on polling and campaign strategy.”

It almost went unnoticed. But now, there’s no real way to deny where this points: Kilimnik giving polling data to Russian intelligence services nearly completes the link that was always missing from the scandal — connecting the Trump campaign to the Russian effort to damage Clinton.

The question remains: how useful is campaign data -- granular breakdowns of voter attitudes and impulses -- in targeting for maximum electoral effect?

I'm not sure we ever measure that. Every pollster and campaign consultant is motivated to tout their findings and the tactics they suggest that derive from them as the winning formula. And when an election is decided by a razor thin margin, they might be right and they might be wrong. I'm sure Russian spooks popped some corks!

And when elections are not close (most of them), it doesn't require any private polling data to figure out which voters and which tactics were needed.

But we're sure to go on polling and modeling and trying to find an edge. And sometimes it may help. But I distrust our capacity to identify which times.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Graveyard of empires indeed ...

And so, finally, President Joe says U.S. troops are to leave Afghanistan, our long war that never found an achievable purpose. 

The easy, obvious and probably inevitable legacy of America’s two-decade-long war in Afghanistan is the recognition that there are limits to U.S. military power, especially when it comes to altering the culture and internal politics of other countries.

... On Wednesday, Biden is expected to announce that he will withdraw all American troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11. The decision will also bring to a close U.S. involvement in a conflict that has spanned four presidents.

... the rise of China, the danger posed by the coronavirus pandemic, the threat posed by global warming and the collapse of the Islamic State have all made terrorism seem like less of a pressing threat.  (Washington Post, April 14, 2021)

Biden seems to have held, and still adhere to, what was the closest to a sane view among our imperial leaders after 9/11: focus on giving organized international Islamist terrorism a bloody nose, and then disengage. That would have saved a lot of lives, especially among people in the unfortunate places where George W and Dick the Snarling Veep saw a chance to play faux heroic cowboy.

Of course, it would have been better to catch and offer up the perps of the 9/11 atrocity to international courts. In 2001, the world would have cooperated and cheered. But empires which have not felt their foundations leach away aren't law abiding.

• • •

U.S. foreign policy elites still don't get it.

Just yesterday on Deep State Radio, I heard the often sharp historian of international relations Kori Schake explain that we shouldn't be disturbed that the US spends 12 times as much on the military as any other nation because: 

"in using military force, you never want to cut close to the margin, because you want to win by a lot because that's how you prevent people from challenging you ..."

What shooting war does Schake think the U.S. empire has won in the last seventy-five years?

I wish we didn't have to have this insanity beat out of us -- and so do the peoples of the world. In the end, we get tired of the bleeding.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Late pandemic interlude ...

Our household celebrated vaccination and the coming of spring by visiting the Immersive Van Gogh show yesterday. This expressionist experience is definitely worth sampling if you have a chance. It's continuing in San Francisco through early September in the artfully converted Honda dealership at South Van Ness and Market.

The combination of images, movement, and sound in a cavernous setting is an art medium just coming into its own. I'm sure many efforts in the form will fall short; we saw one such flop at the Guggenheim in Bilbao a couple of years ago. But this successor to the light shows of my youth was very successful.

Some thoughts:

• the creators didn't overdo it. So much pure power is inherent in projecting and morphing powerful images, but this is restrained, elegant.

• They didn't shrink from the dark side of the suffering painter's vision. This is not all light, stars, and sunflowers.

• For all its visual power, the music makes the show. The soundtrack could have been rousing and overpowering; but like the entirety of the exhibit, it was restrained, despite including a dramatic eruption from the French chanteuse Edith Piaf.

Monday, April 12, 2021

Just the difficult truth

This morning, Erudite Partner and I agreed: along with Brenda, we're flightless hope truthers.

Too busy to blog this morning, but most everyone I know would enjoy this:

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Signs of San Francisco schools opening?

Last week a city Department of Public Works employee loaded a mid-size truck with the contents of a small encampment that had developed along the sidewalk adjacent to the Buena Vista-Horace Mann yard. In January, one of our unhoused neighbors died over there. Since then, a couple of quiet guys had accumulated a growing horde of urban stuff. Gone now. No idea what happened to them.

I guess the kids are finally returning to schools, at least some of them. This school has been empty since March 2020.

This appeared along the fence:

Very polite, even a little precious. The school district is not screaming NO CAMPING!!!!

And perhaps more amazingly, the city seems to be offering a set of rules for where tent camping can be practiced legally during the pandemic.

"How to protect yourself when sleeping in public places."
Click to enlarge to read the rest. Now I don't believe that most unhoused people would dare trust that the city would follow its own rules. But it's something of a wonder that such instructions even exist.

By the way, in preparation for this post, I put some energy into figuring out which schools are opening next week. It wasn't simple. The best list I found is here.