Sunday, December 31, 2017

Goodbye 2017; goodbye Fred Downing

From Fred Downing, I learned that nothing can be cooked properly if it doesn't begin with onions and peppers. I learned that bad puns charmed some people, even if not me. I learned to set up a rudimentary shelter in the rain, dig latrines, chop wood, light fires, hike up mountains --- and, most of all, to organize others to perform these anachronistic skills efficiently enough so they enjoyed the experience. Whatever success I've had as a political and community organizer began with those lessons.

All that was a very long time ago, five decades in fact. Fred died this year at age 100.

He was a New Englander, at various times an executive of the Maine State Employees Association and director of the Vermont Civil Service. He served in the Navy during World War II, emerging a Lieutenant Commander. He was a guidance counselor in several Maine high schools and taught generations of young women at summer camps to live in the outdoors. For several memorable years in the late '60s, he dragged groups of us along on his quest to hike to all the 4000 foot high summits in New Hampshire; some of those were undistinguished little peaks, but I don't remember resenting his obsession. New things to see!

After retirement, Fred needed an outlet, so for seven years he created a program in computer literacy for inmates of the Kennebec County Jail. He took us to visit one time; this was truly Maine, the only jail I've ever seen with no visible black inmates.

After the death of his wife Judy Downing, Fred lived on for 12 years near his daughter in Pittsburgh, PA. He was an enthusiastic tour guide of his adopted home town. In the photo, that's Fred at age 97 pointing out the sights from the city's Mount Washington overlook.

On a visit some years back, I pointed out to him that I was approaching retirement age myself. He was almost indignant: "So what do you want to do with the rest of your life?" The end of particular jobs had never slowed him and he saw no reason it should slow me. Why I might have 30 or so more good years ...

As often before, he'd jarred my thinking. I blurted what came immediately to the top of my mind, "Go outside."

I've done a few other things and intend to do more, but ever since I've made sure to "go outside," whether running ultra-marathon distances, hiking in bucket list places, or walking the pilgrimage, the Camino de Santiago.

Thanks Fred, for all I learned from you. Through whatever pain came, you demonstrated how to live well.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Saturday scenes and scenery: around San Francisco 2017

We have a new skyline. The Salesforce dick towers over all. Read all about it.

The northern approach still runs across one of the world's most beautiful bridges. The Bay Bridge is grand, but this remains the "signature bridge".

I probably shouldn't post this since I treasure its solitary beauty, but barely south of our border, San Bruno Mountain sits alone.

Meanwhile the human environment persists in its quirks. I don't know what this is either. Maybe some kind of demented household god? There it was, perched on a city trash can.

We give ourselves advice, more and less sage, more and less welcome. (This hortatory billboard is no more, to be replaced with yet another glass and steel edifice.)

San Francisco -- still weird and a little wacky, despite our booming role as the tech capital on the Pacific Rim.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Back to watching football

After a season of not watching brilliant athletes risk their brains for my entertainment, the bowl season has drawn me in again. At the college level, these young men are so graceful, so smart in their particular accomplishments ... most of them will never get anything out of football but injuries and proud memories, but I relate to their passion for their peculiar game.

Meanwhile, the current generation of professional black athletes are carrying on proud traditions of standing up for themselves. This video history is well worth a quarter of an hour of your time.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

The elephant in our midst

I guess I am one of those despised cosmopolitans that our rightwing nuts aim to purge from our U.S. collective life. It took a graph drawn by a former World Bank economist and explained by a British journalist to ground my understanding of what so many of my fellow citizens are so mad about that they've stuck us with a dangerous, ignorant egomaniac as president. This is what globalization means in our national life, stupid! (Phrasing stolen from James Carville.)

Explaining the impact of globalization on the societies which gave the planet the Industrial Revolution and mature capitalism is the mission of the first third of British journalist Edward Luce's The Retreat of Western Liberalism. The Washington correspondent of the Financial Times, Luce believes the election of Donald Trump in the U.S., and passage of Brexit in his country, demonstrate that Western democracy may have played out its string. Here's the chart that purports to show why:

The global median – the emerging middle classes of China, Vietnam, India and so on – enjoyed income growth of more than 80 per cent in those years. Even the bottom deciles, in Africa and South Asia, saw growth of up to 50 percent.

The key part of the elephant for the Western middle classes is where its trunk slopes downwards – between the seventy-fifth and ninetieth percentiles of the world’s population. These account for the majority of the West’s people. At their mid-point, incomes grew by a grand total of 1 per cent over the last three decades.

...The last part of the elephant is the tip of its trunk, which shoots straight upwards in a suitably celebratory posture. That is the global top 1 per cent. Their incomes have jumped by more than two-thirds over the same period.

For most of the planet's people, life has been getting better for a couple of decades. We should be happy about that; a world where a few enjoy outrageous wealth while masses starve is repugnant. And most people in the U.S. do live unimaginably more comfortably than our grandparents. But our prospects are no longer on an upward trajectory. The losers from globalization are the people who have been the foundation of liberal democracies in the U.S. and Western Europe.

Donald Trump, and his counterparts in Europe, did not cause the crisis of democratic liberalism. They are a symptom. ...The backlash of the West’s middle classes, who are the biggest losers in a global economy that has been rapidly converging, but still has decades to go, has been brewing since the early 1990s. In Britain we call them the ‘left-behinds’. In France, they are the ‘couches moyennes’. In America, they are the ‘squeezed middle’. A better term is the ‘precariat’ – those whose lives are dominated by economic insecurity. Their weight of numbers is growing. So, too, is their impatience. Barrington Moore, the American sociologist, famously said, ‘No bourgeoisie, no democracy.’ In the coming years we will find out if he was right.

... We are taught to think our democracies are held together by values. Our faith in history fuels that myth. But liberal democracy’s strongest glue is economic growth. When groups fight over the fruits of growth, the rules of the political game are relatively easy to uphold. When those fruits disappear, or are monopolised by a fortunate few, things turn nasty. ...We like to believe that our democracies are sustained by a shared commitment to principle. In some respects that is true. But when growth vanishes, our societies reveal a different face. Without higher growth, the return of racial politics looks set to continue.

... We cannot simultaneously pursue democracy, national determination and economic globalisation.

Given the trajectory of the world we live in, that's a dire conclusion. And, as a good Financial Times correspondent, Luce doesn't even address the possibility that economic growth, that engine of relative social peace and heightened well-being for most humans, may be an existential threat to the sustainability of most contemporary life forms on our fragile planet, causing climate change and ecological collapse.

Luce brings historical imagination to our times and the result is not encouraging.

... the parallels between the world today and the world in 1914 should strike us forcefully. Then, as now, the world’s big economies were deeply intertwined. The decades preceding the First World War marked a peak of globalisation that the world economy only regained in the 1990s. Like today, people believed ever-deepening ties of commerce rendered the idea of war irrational. It was thus unthinkable. People had grown complacent after decades of peace.

... Can the West regain its optimism? If the answer is no – and most of the portents are skewing the wrong way – liberal democracy will follow. If the next few years resemble the last, it is questionable whether Western democracy can take the strain. People have lost faith that their systems can deliver. More and more are looking backwards to a golden age that can never be regained. When a culture stops looking to the future, it loses a vital force.

This lucid little book can be read, and understood, in about three hours. It is bracing -- an ice water bath, if you care about democracy and our troubled world. Yet even this determined "realist" can imagine unexpected sources of hope. Before being employed in Washington, he was for several years a correspondent in India. He is convinced, as everyone more observant than Donald Trump must be, that the center of international gravity -- economic and political power -- is shifting to Asia. And much to his surprise, he sees a "natural experiment" taking place on that continent. From personal observation, he is pretty sure that India, though currently lagging China, points to a more encouraging future vision:

So ingrained is India’s culture of noisy dissent and sheer pluralism that I would rate democracy as now safer in India than in parts of the West.

Perhaps both the English language and democracy have their future in the sub-continent. So much for the raj indeed. History is funny that way.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Common ground in Alabama

Joe Trippi is taking a well deserved star turn, basking in deserved applause for having served as the chief media strategist on Democrat Doug Jones' winning campaign for the Senate in Alabama. If the name is familiar, you've probably been attending to politics for awhile. Trippi's prior claim to fame was using the internet (before the prominence of social media at that) to mobilize and fund Howard Dean's anti-Iraq war insurgent campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004. You better believe, he's back, all over. (See for example here and here.)

It's always hard to know how much sound campaign management contributes to any election. The fraction of any electorate in any race that can be moved either to vote rather than abstain, or to change sides, is almost always minuscule. Campaigns are playing around the margins in any particular race and probably most of them have very little effect except to line the pockets of TV station ad managers and a few consultants. But any campaign operative who comes out of (relative) anonymity to participate in an unexpected win will spin a fascinating story which may even contain lessons for other contests.

Ezra Klein has delivered a heaping serving of Trippi's elixir on his podcast and, somewhat unusually, published an abridged transcript concurrently. This is high quality political junkie candy (even more so on the full podcast) and legitimately thought provoking.

Trippi has a clear story of what happened in Alabama. According to the campaign's polling, once crackpot Judge Roy Moore won the Republican primary, the race was always close.

The day before the Washington Post story came out, we were behind by 1 point, 46 to 45. And the day before the election, we were ahead in our own survey by 2 points. We ended up winning by 1.8. ...We'll never know if we could've won without the allegations. But we had a dead heat before that, and it was all based on their understanding of who Roy Moore was. Alabama knew who he was. And Doug Jones was the guy who took on the Klan, and wanted justice for everybody, and wanted to find common ground. We were in a dead heat in Alabama the day before the Washington Post story. We ended up winning a dead heat in Alabama on election day.

It wasn't only the accusations of about Moore hitting on teenage girls the turned off Alabamans; the Republican was a known bad actor, a racist, a scofflaw who had robbed a Christian charity to enrich himself. The sex charges and Trump's subsequent endorsement may have made the race more tribal and moved it a little toward Moore according to the Jones polling.

In the interview, Trippi keeps repeating the mantra he thinks was Jones' winning message: Jones' promise to try to (re)create "common ground." Other interviewers translate Trippi's postmortem as suggesting Jones spoke for "bipartisanship" or "compromise" but though those words come close in meaning, Trippi always repeats the language "common ground." I am sure the phrase is poll tested and voter approved. Here's how he says it served Jones' campaign, as well as representing Jones' actual position.

I think the big question mark in our heads as we were arguing for common ground was what do rank-and-file Democrats do when they see this? Do we somehow deenergize those people who really are appalled by what's going on with Trump? Again, we're monitoring everything, and what happened was Republican women started to move to us, younger Republicans started to move to us, and the intensity among Democrats didn't diminish; in fact, over time, it kept building and building.

So what I'm saying is in Alabama, we pulled that off. Trump's creating energy among the Democratic base that wants to come out and wants to make the change and wants to do something to fight back against what's happening. At the same time, he's creating enough chaos and divisiveness and hostility that Republicans who would never ordinarily vote for a Democrat say, "Okay, well I've got all the chaos and hostility I can handle right now. I'll vote for somebody who wants to try to find common ground and get things done for me, even if they're a Democrat." And trust me, a lot of people in Alabama had to do that.

Trippi does point out that Jones didn't have to survive a Democratic primary which might have surfaced divisions among Democrats. Not many nominees will be that lucky. However, a message that the people of this country need to remove obstacles (Trump and Republicans) to search for "common ground" might be more popular than some might think.

In talking with Klein (even more in the audio than in the transcript), Trippi focuses on the turn that voters of all races and genders who are under 45 made to the Dems.

It was African Americans, women, and people under 45. And you want to know how breathtaking that move is? Think about this. Barack Obama, nationwide, won under-45s, I think, by 14 points, 15 points. Hillary Clinton won them by 14. In Alabama, Doug Jones won them by 28 points.

This is vital. We are living through a generational transition among the electorate of which Trump and his tame tribe of GOPers nostalgics for white supremacy are on the shrinking side. Their whole politic consists of yelling "STOP!" to a changing country. They are doing their best to get in the way, but they are also losing their majority inexorably. If Dems can offer a plausible future to an emerging generation, Dems win.

I can think of several points that Trippi does not emphasize that certainly were relevant to Jones' victory. Moore ran a lousy, incoherent campaign. Jones had 10 times as much money. Although TV is having measurably less and less influence on elections, it can't have hurt that Jones pretty much had the airwaves to himself. Trippi does credit the TV ads for raising up Jones' biography in the African American community.

Tripp does not explicitly credit the fact that Democratic Party infrastructure barely exists in Alabama with helping Jones -- but Party weakness probably did contribute to his victory. Ossified Party leaders would often prefer to retain their historic control rather than innovating to win. The Jones campaign acquired its own voter data and forged its own relationships with extra-political party leadership in churches and community organizations. It's pretty clear that these sorts of connections, including through the NAACP and other Black groups, were what drove African American turnout. I'm sure it helped that the Jones campaign had either its own money or friendly donors who could throw some cash to these efforts.

The next round in ongoing efforts by Democrats to wrench the country back comes up in a Congressional district in the Pittsburgh suburbs on March 13. It's not promising territory, but neither was Alabama. Stay tuned.

Image via

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Democracy is happening in Liberia

The African nation of Liberia goes to the polls today to elect a new president, a successor to termed out incumbent Ellen Johnson Sirleaf who brought some measure of peace and honesty to a country trashed by civil war. Liberian-American journalist Helene Cooper's Madame President recounts the improbable history of the woman whose departure from office may -- or may not -- mark this conflicted society's improbable peaceful democratic transition of power.

The election process has not been completely smooth. By law, the new president has to win over 50 percent, so an October voting round cut a large field of candidates down to the two with the most votes. (If this seems strange, this is exactly how California's top-two primary and general election system works; we just don't tend to think about it this way.) One of the eliminated candidates claimed there had been fraud, so Liberia's courts postponed the final vote, originally scheduled for November. But today the election is finally on.

The two candidates are George Weah, a former soccer star who lost twice against Sirleaf and Sirleaf's vice-president Joseph Boakai, who she has not endorsed. It's difficult for remote observers to know what a victory by either candidate would mean.

According to Global News Network Liberia, the U.S. State Department is warning our nationals of possible violence. These days it is hard to judge whether the State Department knows anything much about local conditions, what with the mass attrition among experienced foreign service workers under our current regime. They may be just spewing quasi-racist hot air -- or publicizing an accurate concern. Time will tell.

Last spring the Gallup polling company asked Liberians whether their country could achieve a peaceful election. Liberians where absolutely clear about their expectations: 86% were confident the contest would be peaceful.

The drawdown of the U.N. force and the lack of a tradition of peaceful, democratic transition in the country could have explained uncertainty over the country's elections. However, 86% of Liberians said the elections would be peaceful, and 68% said it would be "somewhat" or "very" unlikely that the vote would plunge the country back into violence. Liberians' optimism proved true for the first round of elections, with only isolated incidents of violence reported.

Let's hope Liberians can pull off the peaceful transition they clearly hope for. I'll update this post when the dust settles in the next few days or weeks.

UPDATE December 30: George Weah won 61.5 of the vote, his opponent conceded, and the country seems likely to achieve a peaceful transition of power.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Christ is born

Utah artist Brian Kershisnik painted "Nativity" in 2006 while teaching at Brigham Young University. The work is 8 feet tall and 17 feet wide.

I love his vision of a "river" of accompanying and observing angels, though I might feel more comfortable if they seemed a bit less "white." Kershisnik spoke with Deseret News:

All the angels in the painting are of varied age, gender and appearance. Some are wondering. Some are interested. Some are weeping. Some are upset. Some are there for protection while others are there to witness the event.

“It occurs to me that even though this event is prophesied, even though everything depends on this, that at the moment when it is actually underway that there would be some anxiety about knowing the stature of this being that has just been compressed into this mortal, human infant,” Kershisnik said.

Joseph is not so "white." And he seems overwhelmed -- blown away by the miracle he's somehow a part of. The two women gazing at the baby are the "midwives," a kindly addition to the story.

Kershisnik also writes:

Only the dog can see the glorious river of angels. The mortals depicted, like us, are understandably and rightly distracted with the quotidian tasks at hand.

... Certainly the epic drama of redemption is far from over, but the message to me is this: He came. He came. Thank God, He came.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

And there is still no room at the inn ...

Donald Trump doesn't think much of the United Nations. Like people in so many countries in the world afflicted with terrible governance, citizens of the U.S. need the U.N.'s aspirational human rights framework to ground our efforts to critique and cajole our rulers to uphold a universal vision of a just and peaceful world.

In December, Professor Philip Alston, a feisty Australian human rights lawyer who serves as the current U.N. Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights toured this country in December. He couldn't go everywhere, but concluded his visit with a lot to say. San Francisco was one of his stops. Here are some excerpts describing what he saw:

The United States is one of the world’s richest, most powerful and technologically innovative countries; but neither its wealth nor its power nor its technology is being harnessed to address the situation in which 40 million people continue to live in poverty.

... I witnessed a San Francisco police officer telling a group of homeless people to move on but having no answer when asked where they could move to...

I also saw much that is positive.  I met with State and especially municipal officials who are determined to improve social protection for the poorest 20% of their communities, I saw an energized civil society in many places, I visited a Catholic Church in San Francisco (St Boniface – the Gubbio Project) that opens its pews to the homeless every day between services ...

Successive administrations, including the present one, have determinedly rejected the idea that economic and social rights are full-fledged human rights, despite their clear recognition not only in key treaties that the US has ratified (such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination), and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which the US has long insisted other countries must respect.  But denial does not eliminate responsibility, nor does it negate obligations. 

International human rights law recognizes a right to education, a right to healthcare, a right to social protection for those in need, and a right to an adequate standard of living.  In practice, the United States is alone among developed countries in insisting that while human rights are of fundamental importance, they do not include rights that guard against dying of hunger, dying from a lack of access to affordable healthcare, or growing up in a context of total deprivation. ...

In many cities, homeless persons are effectively criminalized for the situation in which they find themselves.  Sleeping rough, sitting in public places, panhandling, public urination (in cities that provide almost zero public toilets) and myriad other offences have been devised to attack the ‘blight’ of homelessness.  Ever more demanding and intrusive regulations lead to infraction notices, which rapidly turn into misdemeanors, leading to the issuance of warrants, incarceration, the incurring of unpayable fines, and the stigma of a criminal conviction that in turn virtually prevents subsequent employment and access to most housing.  Yet the authorities in cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco often encourage this vicious circle. ...

[On combating poverty using "new information technologies"]
... Much more attention needs to be given to the ways in which new technology impacts the human rights of the poorest Americans. This inquiry is of relevance to a much wider group since experience shows that the poor are often a testing ground for practices and policies that may then be applied to others. These are some relevant concerns.

A coordinated entry system (CES) is, in essence, a system set up to match the homeless population with available homeless services. Such systems are gaining in popularity and their human rights impact has not yet been studied extensively. I spoke to a range of civil society organizations and government officials in Los Angeles and San Francisco about CES.

... A homeless service caseworker or volunteer interviews a homeless individual using a survey called the Vulnerability Index-Service Priority Decision Assistance Tool (VI-SPDAT) ... A first, and major, concern is that the VI-SPDAT survey asks homeless individuals to give up the most intimate details of their lives. Among many other questions, the VI-SPDAT survey requires homeless individuals to answer whether they engage in sex work, whether they have ever stolen medications, how often they have been in touch with the police and whether they have “planned activities each day other than just surviving that bring [them] happiness and fulfillment”. One researcher I met with who has interviewed homeless individuals that took the VI-SPDAT survey explained that many feel they are giving up their human right to privacy in return for their human right to housing.

A civil society organization in San Francisco explained that many homeless individuals feel deeply ambivalent about the millions of dollars that are being spent on new technology to funnel them to housing that does not exist. According to some of my interlocutors, only a minority of those homeless individuals being interviewed actually acquire permanent housing, because of the chronic shortage of affordable housing and Section 8 housing vouchers in California. As one participant in a civil society town hall in San Francisco put it: “Computers and technology cannot solve homelessness”.

You can read the whole report at this link. It's only about five pages and easy to understand. Now if only we could do something about its findings.

On this Christmas eve, blessed be all those who suffer from our indifference and all those who strive to overcome that indifference.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Christmas kitsch

This and that from here and there.

The great American Consumption Holiday is upon us.

Friday, December 22, 2017

For the record: what we know right now about Trump/Russia

Amid the rumors that the Great Cheato is about to try to scuttle the Robert Mueller's investigation into his campaign and transition staffs' extra-legal undertakings, it can't hurt to have a succinct summary of what has already leaked out into public knowledge:

Because Mueller is inexorable, the desperation in Trump world is palpable. We know that senior officials in the Trump campaign wanted to collude with the Russians in order to influence the election. (Donald Trump Jr. has admitted meeting with a Russian lawyer in June 2016 to get damaging information on Hillary Clinton.) We know that Russian intelligence had the means to influence the election, hacked from a variety of sources. We know that Trump officials tried to conceal their contacts with the Russians, while seeking policy changes favorable to Russian interests. We know (on the credible testimony of a former FBI director) that President Trump tried to shut the investigation of these matters down. And it is a good bet that Mueller knows far more about all of this than we do.

The source is of this paragraph is Micheal Gerson of the Washington Post, "a top aide to President George W. Bush as assistant to the president for policy and strategic planning." Not exactly the sort of guy who one might expect to be dishing on a Republican president -- any more than the Republican FBI guy Mueller is such a person.

I'm not one who thinks the Mueller investigation is going to bring Trump down; his acts against the interests and desires of the people of the United States are going to do that, sooner or later. But this is what we know now.

Friday cat blogging

Rousing the humans to open cat food cans is hard work. Morty resumes his beauty sleep, blending in with the bed clothes after he has moved the people out of his way.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

A GOPer misconception

Republicans who expect their new tax bill to be popular may be in for a surprise. Taxpayers won't really know what hit them -- or didn't -- until tax season 2019. Our 2017 taxes will have to be figured out and paid under the old rules. It's only the following year that the changes will kick in. What will we observe then?

Consider this poll question:

"In general, do you think [tax changes have] increased taxes for most Americans, decreased taxes for most Americans or have they kept taxes the same for most Americans?"

The answer:

  • 24 percent of respondents said they INCREASED taxes.
  • 53 percent said they kept taxes the same
  • And 12 percent said taxes were decreased.

Not exactly a ringing endorsement of a tax cut there.

The thing is, those were the answers we gave in February 2010 after then-President Obama insisted in his State of the Union speech that 95 percent of working families had received a tax cut by way of the economic stimulus bill.

And he wasn't lying. According to Politifact:

Under the stimulus bill, single workers got $400, and working couples got $800.

Nonetheless, a very substantial majority believed either their taxes had gone up or nothing had happened. We don't like taxes, we don't like to think about them, we find the process of calculating our tax burden impenetrable (and it is), and for many, taxes always feel as if they are to going up, even when they are not.

The Republican tax bill is massively unpopular now, because the only specific that people have understood about it is that it's benefits go mostly to corporations and people who are already very rich. In particular, even though the President says differently, most of us understand it to will funnel millions to the Trump family.

And meanwhile, 73 percent of us still think we ought to be able to see Trump's tax returns. The Cheato still refuses to release them, so there is no reason to believe his claim that this law he wanted so much isn't a big gift to his own bottom line.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Rally for DREAM Act outside Senator Feinstein's office today

DREAMERS and allies led the mobilization. The senator's local staff say she wants to help, but she is not willing to shut down the government. Yet since Democrats are outnumbered in both House and Senate, drastic action is the only way to pass a remedy for President Trump's decision to kill the temporary legal status created for young undocumented persons who have grown up here.

Every day, people who did nothing wrong are being ripped from the only lives they have known.

GOPer feeding frenzy

When Republicans won the trifecta (House, Senate and White House) in November 2016, I expected that they would enact a standard GOPer program: "cut taxes for the very rich and make the poor and middle classes pay for the giveaway ..." I also opined that "rampant corruption will be the order of the day. The new President is a classic con man ... and so are his cohorts. They will steal all they can while in power."

What I did not entirely expect was that legislative Republicans would so completely model their policy disinterest and self-interested ethical pliancy on the Great Leader down at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

The tax bill Republicans have muscled through Congress is quite simply theft from the people of this country, designed to pay off rich GOP donors and enrich legislators themselves. It's come to that. Elections this fall in New Jersey, Virginia and even Alabama show that majorities are onto the rip off. The pigs may be about to lose their place at the trough so they are seizing their chance.

Take it from better-placed observers than I:

Republicans are behaving as if they see what everyone else sees coming. They’re just hightailing it with the cash instead of trying to avert it.

Brian Beutler, Crooked Media

Tax cuts are the driving force of elite Republican politics. The lack of a bill was demoralizing the donor class, driving down contributions. 2018 looks bad but with literally no major legislative accomplishments to show, maybe it gets even worse. So you need to pass something. Where do you get the votes? Sell them. Every man and woman for himself. Everybody take a few appliances out of the store before we burn it down. That’s the story of this bill. It doesn’t even add up in conservative policy terms. It’s really just a heist. Organized looting.

Joshua Marshall, TPM

Or take it from a Republican who once knew better, but now has gone in on the plunder.
H/t to Matt Yglesias for the Graham tweet.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Let the voters pick the politicians, not the pols pick their voters

Yesterday an organization that calls itself Voters Not Politicians submitted 430,000+ signatures to Michigan's Secretary of State for an initiative to reform the process through which legislative and Congressional boundaries will be drawn after the 2020 Census. They want an Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission of registered Michigan voters to draw districts using guidelines that ensure fairness, instead of just enshrining the power of whatever partisan legislators happen to be in office when the lines are drawn.

Gerrymandering -- jiggering district lines to get a desired result -- used to be a quite primitive process involving a fair amount of guesswork about which neighborhoods could be counted on to vote in what way. Sure, it often worked, but it was crude. Today election software makes it easy to use histories and the demographic characteristics of voters to lump us into groups whose leanings predict which party and even what sort of candidate will win in any set of boundaries. Just about the only way such gerrymandered districts change their partisan leanings is when people move in and out. Most elections just ratify the status quo rather than reflecting voter opinions.

Though Republicans were widely successful in drawing favorable Congressional districts for themselves in 2010 (because they had just won many state legislative contests), some of what they did was extreme enough so it is being challenged in court -- because effectively a well done gerrymander disenfranchises people whose votes can never count for a winning candidate. Federal courts have intervened repeatedly in North Carolina where gerrymandering reduced the effective power of Black voters. The Supreme Court is considering a Wisconsin case in which Republicans had managed to draw lines that yielded them 60 of the 99 seats in the Wisconsin Assembly despite winning only 48.6% of the two-party state-wide vote. The outcome of the case is uncertain; courts don't want to get into the job of examining the fairness of district boundaries because judges fear they'd be inundated with hard cases. And unless they can come up with unusually clear standards, that's almost certainly true.

Michigan voters are proposing to take the line drawing away from the politicians.

As a Californian, I've seen this in action. The Congressional lines drawn here after the 2000 census amounted to another kind of gerrymander: an incumbent protection plan. Sitting Congresspeople and legislators avoided a fight by drawing boundaries that tended to keep them in office, regardless of party. This worked fine for the politicians. In 2004, just three of the 53 districts were won with less than a 60 percent majority. Only one Congressional seat changed party during that decade!

Significant numbers of California voters felt disenfranchised, so we passed Prop. 11 in 2008 followed by Prop. 20 in 2010, giving responsibility for reapportionment to a Citizens Redistricting Commission. The result was a significant shakeup among Congressmembers; some members retired after losing their safe districts while quite a few seats became more competitive. Both political parties hate losing their chance to draw their own seats, but we probably have somewhat more competent and attractive politicians among the new crop. So far, this electoral gimmick seems to work for more representative governance.

California currently elects 39 Democrats and 14 Republicans to Congress -- not an unreasonable split given the partisan lean of state voters. Democrats hope to win even more Congressional races in 2018 since seven districts currently held by Republicans voted for Clinton in 2016. Republicans are targeting at least one highly competitive seat they hope to flip. When districts are reasonably fairly drawn, such changes become possible.

Michigan has 14 Congressmembers, currently divided 9 Republican and 5 Democratic. None of the incumbents had less than a 12 percent margin of victory in 2016 -- that is, none of the seats was competitive between the parties. Yet the state as a whole could hardly be more competitive. Donald Trump won Michigan with 47.50 percent of the vote to Clinton's 47.27. It seems very likely that a non-partisan redistricting commission could provide more fairness to the choices that are offered to Michigan voters. Voters Not Politicians collected their initiative signatures with volunteers hardly any support from established political players! This effort has the feel of a movement.

Monday, December 18, 2017

When war was made illegal

As it happens, I was raised to mock the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 as the ultimate in callow idealism. My mother studied international relations briefly at the Zimmern School in Geneva, Switzerland that year; what she took from the faculty and distinguished lecturers like John Maynard Keynes was that the statesmen from 63 nations who signed the Paris Peace Pact, outlawing war as an instrument of national policy, were either naive or hypocritical. The subsequent Japanese invasion of Manchuria, ascendancy of the Nazis in Germany, Italian conquest of Ethiopia, collapse of the League of Nations, and eventually World War II absolutely confirmed her conclusion. And she was not alone; the Peace Pact dropped out of most historical reckoning.

Oona A. Hathaway and Scott J. Shapiro, a couple of Yale Law School professors, seek to rehabilitate the treaty in The Internationalists: How a Radical Plan to Outlaw War Remade the World. To my surprise, they make a convincing argument that this apparently fruitless project signaled a fundamental shift in the ways nations understood of relating to each, a New World Order within which we still live, however imperiled from multiple directions it may seem.

The Old World Order, the international legal regime these authors attribute to the Dutch defender of early mercantilism Hugo Grotius, relied upon war between states as "a legitimate means of righting wrongs."

Resorting to arms did not signal a failure in the system: It was how the system worked. War was an instrument of justice. Might makes Right.

But it was not just that the Old World Order sanctioned war. It relied on it and rewarded it. All states had the right of conquest: Any state that claimed it had been wronged by another state, and whose demands for reparations were ignored, could retaliate with force and capture territory as compensation. The conquering state thereby became the new sovereign of the captured territory ... Nearly every border in the world today bears witness of some such past battle -- including that of the United States.

That comes off as barbarous, doesn't it? Our recoil is evidence that during the 20th century, most nations actually did come to concur on a New World Order in which war was intrinsically illegitimate, to be avoided if at all possible. This book describes how the authors think we got from a world in which war between states was simply a fact to one in which war and conquest are widely looked at as culpable tears in the global fabric.

They make their argument by highlighting a series of individuals: Grotius who formulated early international law; a corporate lawyer Salmon O. Levinson from Chicago whose movement advocacy helped build the popular demand for a new international order after World War I and the German Carl Schmitt who created a Third Reich intellectual edifice against these peace forces; and Hersch Lauterpacht and Judge Henry Jackson who forged the legal description of an outlawed war used to convict Nazi leaders at Nuremberg. In general, I prefer my history not to consist of a catalogue of the deeds of "great men" but in this instance the authors make legal abstractions approachable through the device.

Above all, Hathaway and Shapiro insist the New World Order heralded by the Paris Peace Pact and made close to universal in the wake of World War II is a reality under which we've now lived for 75 years. Consider:

In the New World Order, aggressive wars are illegal. And because aggressive wars are illegal, states no longer have the right to conquer other states; waging an aggressive war is a grave crime; gunboat diplomacy is no longer legitimate; and economic sanctions are not only legal, but the standard way in which international law is enforced.

Yes, the law is still sometimes violated -- think Russia in Crimea and, without territorial seizure, the U.S. invasion of Iraq. But they argue quite convincingly that the economic sanctions which have become the primary enforcement tools for this order do have coercive force, even if that force is not so dramatic as dropping bombs. Certainly that argument is strong enough to be worth mulling. Isolation from international structures is simply not a feasible national survival strategy in a globalized world, North Korea notwithstanding. I think they might insist the rest of the world has simply not sanctioned the Kims vigorously enough to prove this out.

Economic sanctions seem less likely to deter a true international hegemon, but the rise of China and India suggests that the world is entering a period when there isn't one. Multipolarity ahead perhaps?

These authors demand that we take seriously that the history of how we think about war is a species of material reality.

... ideas matter and people with ideas matter. In that respect, the book is both a history of ideas about war and a history of how ideas emerged, clashed and evolved. It is a story, too, of how ideas became embedded in institutions that restructured human relations, and in the process reshaped the world.

I'm enough of a materialist that I react skeptically. We can't think ourselves to a peaceful world. Yet since reading The Internationalists I've found myself digesting rumors of war in a new frame. Take this, for example, from that old conservative war horse George Will. He's understandably appalled that we have a President who might thoughtlessly launch nuclear war. But catch how he describes, for purposes of denunciation, Donald Trump's thinking:

Trump’s foreign policy thinking (“In the old days, when you won a war, you won a war. You kept the country”; we should “bomb the s--t out of [the Islamic State]”) is short on nuance but of Metternichian subtlety compared with his thoughts on nuclear matters: “I think, for me, nuclear is just the power, the devastation is very important to me.”

... It would be interesting to hear the president distinguish a preventive war against North Korea from a war of aggression. The first two counts in the indictments at the 1946 Nuremberg trials concerned waging “aggressive war.”

In Hathaway and Shapiro's terms, Will is condemning Trump for bringing Old World Order concepts to a New World Order environment. In the former, it was fine, even laudable, to "take the oil." In a survivable world, it is unthinkable. The New World Order is under assault for illiberal authoritarians wherever they rise up, but I find it convincing that it is realism, not folly, to continue to elaborate, defend, and strengthen this emerging framework.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Chanukah: not "Jewish Christmas" but a liberation struggle recollected

Last night we were privileged to join with a group of long time women friends, most of whom are Jews, in the annual ritual of lighting Chanukah candles. The group's practice is for everyone to bring their household menorahs, the nine-branched candelabras used to mark the holiday, sing more or less tunelessly, and eat latkes (potato pancakes). This last has to do with the enduring qualities of cooking oil which figures in the common mythology of the holiday.

But there's another -- a "non-mythologized" -- story of the celebration. Tikkun Magazine offered a synopsis in 2009: after the death of the Greek conqueror Alexander the Great at the end of the 4th century BCE, the Jewish state of Judea in ancient Palestine became a pawn in the wars of Greek, Egyptian and Persian empires. Urban elites accommodated themselves to their various foreign Hellenistic overlords, letting go of their fiercely monotheistic tribal understanding of the one and only God. But country people suffered inordinate taxes for imperial wars and held on to their historic deity. In the name of that God, they rebelled.

... the [Judean] Maccabees and their followers used guerrilla tactics to win the first national liberation struggle in recorded history. In 165 BCE they retook Jerusalem [from their Seluccid imperial overlords], purified and rededicated the Temple (chanukah means dedication) and rekindled the eternal light that was to glow therein. The fighting continued many years more, but eventually the Maccabees and their descendants (called Hashmona’im) set up an independent Jewish state.

Unfortunately, that state degenerated as the Hashmona’im tried to become a nation like all other nations, adopting the same perversions of state power that other nations adopted, and becoming "realistic" and hence spiritually and morally corrupt. ...

Read much more at the link.

Liberation struggles retain a certain force even when immediate exhilaration fades or even is betrayed. We know in our deepest beings that we long for freedom, even if we don't have a very clear picture of what that means. God is in that longing somewhere. Happy Chanukah.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

A peacemaker, R.I.P.

The Rev. Alden Besse, a priest in The Episcopal Church, died last week at the age of 93 on Martha's Vineyard. Most summers for the last 15 years we'd encounter him at the annual Hiroshima Day sunrise vigil at Gay Head.

Bruce Nevin of the Martha's Vineyard Peace Council described this gentle man's faithful witness in an email.

Alden was the inspirational heart of the Martha's Vineyard Peace Council. He was an essential participant in every meeting, and served for many years as its President until he declined re-election. He was at every Peace Council vigil and rally, rain, shine, or snow, at every lecture and presentation that we sponsored, at the Hiroshima Day vigil at 6 on the 6th of August, and in the Peace Council contingent in every Fourth of July parade until the most recent. For many years he organized a Peace Council table at the Tisbury Street Fair.

Before every meeting and sponsored event of the Peace Council, he made phone calls to each of the people on his colorful, decades-accumulated list of names and numbers, legible only by him. Many of you receiving this note will remember those personal reminders from Alden. He was always a stalwart supporter of the Embarking Peacemaker awards given by the Peace Council each year to graduating seniors, and served on the scholarship committee reading and evaluating all the applications and essays.

Besse appeared more frail year after year, but his devotion to working for peace with justice never seemed to diminish.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Good news and bad news amid rumors of war

Let's recognize the good news first: the odd pronouncement on October 13 from President Trump that he was "decertifying" the international "deal" which restricts Iran's production of nuclear material did NOT mean that the U.S. was ceasing to abide by the agreement. Trump's (almost certainly false) determination that Iran was not compliant merely started the clock for Congress to have 60 days to restart economic sanctions. Heard any rumors of such an action two months later? Nope, crickets. The Israeli press is reporting on this, but the U.S. press has barely mentioned that the clock ran out without action. Joshua Keating at Slate predicts we'll probably get another round of Trump blustering against Iran followed by Congressional inaction starting in January, but he concludes

... Trump [is] fulfilling campaign promises, not accomplishing any real-world goal. It’s domestic politics, not foreign policy.

If that is somewhat reassuring -- though insane and dangerous -- the bad news is utterly dire: here's Daniel W. Drezner writing in the Washington Post about how the Trump people are pushing toward preventive war on North Korea:

I have spent the past week talking to people who are closely connected to the East Asia folks within this administration, however, and now I am seriously fazed. The message I heard was clear. Trump officials working on North Korea have developed the odd consensus that Pyongyang will use its nuclear arsenal to attempt a forcible reunification with South Korea. And if that is the goal, then time is running out for military options that would stop that from happening. ... The Trump national security team seems convinced that North Korea cannot be deterred, and war is the inevitable outcome.

What is equally disturbing is the lack of public debate on this question. Say what you will about Operation Iraqi Freedom, but the Bush administration took seven months between talking about it and doing it. In that time, administration officials secured congressional authorization and tried to do the same at the United Nations Security Council. There was also a vigorous public debate on the question. With North Korea right now, there is a lot of chatter but no visible debate. Indeed, if the Trump team is leaning toward a preventive attack, a debate is the last thing officials want, for tactical reasons. It is impossible to have a public debate about a surprise military strike.

... Maybe Trump’s national security team is trying to bluff its way into getting North Korea to back down. But having seen this White House shoot itself in the foot repeatedly, I now worry that Trump, Kelly and McMaster actually think there is a military solution.

Drezner was a supporter of the Iraq war, so it's not difficult to doubt his policy judgment, not to mention his good will toward humankind. But he's got the essence of this right. We are being led toward a catastrophic, unfathomably cruel, and unnecessary war in violation of international law by foolish men. Insofar as this is a democracy, we will own this crime.

Friday cat blogging

If I can't occupy your lap, I'll distract you from the wastebasket.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Heart-lifing signs for a winter day

Seen in the bowels of public transit this morning. The HMO where I am lucky enough to have insurance is doing the right thing for itself and others, again.

And why was this retiree out early on BART? I was on my way to join others at immigration court to support a bail hearing for one of the many snatched up by ICE (Trump's "deportation force"). But so many people turned out, I didn't get in. There was no more room in the court room or waiting room for all the well-wishers. That's what defending as many as possible should look like. A good morning, indeed.

Resistance to the Trump/Republican drive to deport our neighbors is remarkably broad and strong. According to a Public Policy institute of California survey issued today:

An overwhelming majority of Californians (86%) say there should be a way for undocumented immigrants to stay in the United States legally if certain requirements are met -- only 12 percent say they should not be allowed to stay in the US legally. Findings were similar in January (85% should be a way to stay, 13% should not be allowed to stay), and in PPIC surveys since January 2016 more than eight in ten have said there should be a way for undocumented immigrants to stay legally. Strong majorities across parties say un documented immigrants should be allowed to stay, including 93 percent of Democrats and 68 percent of Republicans. Ninety four percent of Latinos agree, as do overwhelming majorities of African Americans (90%), Asian Americans (89%), and whites (81%). At least eight in ten across region al, age, education, and income groups say undocumented immigrants should be allowed to stay in the country legally if certain requirements are met.

An admonishion

Blogging on numerous topics will resume when I've thought some more. Busy today.

Yes, I know I've headlined an mispelling ... goes with the pic.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Jones victory afterthoughts

It's fun when we win, isn't it? Alabama friends are beside themselves with delight.

David Wasserman summed up how it happened succinctly:

No doubt about it: Major, metro Alabama and the Black Belt came through for Jones. Voters in rural white counties didn’t move much towards Jones, but they utterly failed to turn out for Moore.

As someone observed, if a state election gave the same disproportionate weight to rural areas as the Electoral College does in presidential contests, Roy Moore would be a Senator. But, so far, that's not how it works; majorities win.

Perry Bacon made a pertinent observation:

One of the important features of the Jones-Moore campaign is that even though the Democrat was running in a heavily Republican state, he was not forced to take any stands that really differ from Democratic orthodoxy. He made no specific commitments to back any part of Trump’s agenda. He is likely to be the 49th “no” vote on most Trump initiatives.

That's important. Democrats from very conservative states, like West Virginia's Joe Manchin, sometimes awkwardly try to shore up their elect-ability by adopting a few conservative positions. Jones didn't do that in the campaign, actually running as pro-choice, so he's not likely to do it in office either. (Except maybe on guns ...)

After all the discussion about how evangelical voters were sticking with the alleged-pedophile, Bacon also put out this chart (using PRRI data) showing the current national religious breakdown. Self-identified evangelical Christians make a lot of noise (and the label certainly fits most Alabama Republicans.) But the actual picture is more varied and getting more nuanced every year.
We're a much more religiously diverse country than it sometimes seems.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

That's right!

Democrats gearing up for 2018

I'm not going to venture a prediction about the Alabama Senate election today; if Democrat Doug Jones somehow pulls it out, it will be a heck of a statement about the Heart of Dixie state not wanting to be embarrassed in the rest of the country.

But the chart above points to a different and better trend nationwide for November 2018. Democratic House candidates are coming out of the woodwork -- and raising significant money.

I checked in on the nearest contested seat to San Francisco, District 10 in California's Central Valley; at this time Ballotpedia lists eight aspiring Democratic candidates -- and one who has already fallen by the way side. The district voted for Hillary Clinton by a margin of 2.9% in 2016; the incumbent Republican Congressman, Jeff Denham, voted for repeal of Obamacare last spring. Confronted by constituents who pointed out the large number of MediCal (Medicaid) enrollees in the district who would be hurt, he resorted to weaseling, insisting the repeal would be bipartisan. This kind of willful deception will certainly be a feature of the contest next fall.

According to Politico's Target Book, several of the Democratic challengers are well funded, including Josh Harder and TJ Cox. Two of the aspiring Congresspeople are nurses: Dotty Nygard and Sue Zwahlen. The California primary election which will decide which of this crowd gets to run against Denham in November is June 5. Let's hope the losers will put national necessity above personal ambition and throw their weight behind whoever wins. At that point, outsiders can meaningfully throw ourselves into electing the choice of the people in the district.

Dems have lots of reasons to be hopeful as we approach the 2018 vote. Amy Walter of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report sees plenty of signs of a wave election, an outpouring of Democratic support that sweeps up many contested seats.

I am having a nagging sense of deja vu - a feeling like I've been here and heard these same arguments before. Way back in 2006, my boss Charlie Cook was warning that the year was shaping up to be a wave year. I argued that unlike the last wave election of 1994, the party holding the White House was much better prepared. Republicans in 2006 had significant financial advantages. They had structural advantages. And, Democrats couldn’t sneak up on Republicans as Republicans had to Democrats in 1994. Obviously, my theory was wrong and Charlie was right.

... Getting a tax bill across the finish line isn’t going to be enough to change the mood of the country. It is going to take something much more significant to do that. A good economy is helpful to the GOP as it can cut down on some of the headwinds coming at them right now. But, it’s not clear to me that it’s enough to fundamentally alter the way voters see Congress, the GOP and the President.

... Democrats have a narrow path to 24 seats - even with a big wave or tailwind. But, do not ignore what’s right in front of us. A wave is building. If I were a Republican running for Congress, I’d be taking that more seriously than ever.

This is a good outcome we all can help make happen.

Monday, December 11, 2017

GOPers love the "poorly uneducated"

You probably know this, but clear communication counts. The fact checking site Snopes rates this as true.

The 2017 tax reform bill eliminates personal deductions for state and local taxes (primary sources of public school funding), while offering tax breaks for parents who send their children to private schools.

They haven't actually passed this monstrosity yet. If you've got a Republican Senator or Congresscritter or know someone who does, NOW is the time to make a stink.

The headline refers to the President's characterization of his voters after the Nevada primary in 2016.