MOMENT OF CLARITY

Posted in Quick Hits on July 20th, 2017 by Ed

Guys. I'm trying my best to be serious and not take the easy path to making fun of how stupid the person in charge of the country is at the moment. But. You guys. I have to ask a question without sarcasm, without subtext, without winking and nudging. Read this, and then tell me…



…does the President of the United States know what health insurance is? Like. It sounds like he is describing one of two things here: 1) nothing, because this is basically word salad or 2) whole life insurance, which might (for a very young, healthy person) have something extremely low like a $12/year premium. Nothing else in the world of insurance is even in the ballpark of what he's talking about. The trip insurance on Priceline costs more than $12.

If we do as we are encouraged by our upbringing and attempt to treat our elected officials and their ideas respectfully, reading these words leads to the conclusion that the President of the United States does not actually know what health insurance is. That is one of the most depressing thoughts I've had to absorb in a year of seriously depressing thoughts from the world of politics.

GOING BIG

Posted in Rants on July 18th, 2017 by Ed

As their total inability to govern in anything but a cyclone that leaves a trail of destruction in its wake becomes increasingly obvious, the White House and congressional Republicans are engaging in a strategy that can be described as, if nothing else, "bold." They're lying. They've always lied a lot, but they've progressed to lying big, to lying in ways that do not even have a definable reference point in reality.

The sad thing is, were I paid to advise them I would recommend doing exactly that.

The hardcore Trump base has proven beyond any shadow of a doubt that they will accept the things he says as the gospel truth. Hell, they accept staggeringly ludicrous things they find in internet comment sections as the truth so long as it tells them something they're inclined to believe. Liberals and the media, in contrast, point out the lies and let loose with streams of invective. And it must be dawning on Trump that these reactions are not affected by the magnitude of the lie. And if you're going to expose yourself to the risk that lying might cost you something in terms of political capital, you might as well lie big. Real big.

That whole "bring back coal" bullshit isn't working out? Whatever – just say you made up 50,000 coal jobs even though that's more people than the entire coal industry employs. Republicans can't pass a bill to save their souls? Just say it's the Democrats' fault (it doesn't have to make any sense). Caught in a web of lies with unseemly Russian operatives? It was…uh, a Clinton-Obama setup! Health care bill is an embarrassing flop? Hell, just assume your idiot supporters don't know who controls the Senate and blame it on the Democrats.

These aren't the standard political lies that rely on stretching the truth, cherry picking the data, fudging interpretations of events in creative ways, or offering partial truth in place of the whole thing. This is fantasy stuff. This is stuff made up out of thin air. We're accustomed to things like the Bush administration relying on an extremely selective reading of dubious information to justify the Iraq War, or elected officials lying about personal sex scandals as long as they believe they can get away with it. We don't have experience, though, with Russian-style "Make up your own reality" lying, at least not from the White House and not on this scale.

The sad fact, again, is that this makes perfect sense strategically. If your base will believe literally anything as long as you say it, there's really no incentive to hold back.

This new political reality in which there are no consequences for lying as blatantly and boldly as shame will allow is not going to turn out well. Good things will never come of this. The discomforting question, though, is what anyone can do about it at this point. It is already here.

WE ARE NIHILISTS; WE BELIEVE IN NOTHING

Posted in Rants on July 17th, 2017 by Ed

When the latest terrible version of the terrible Republican "alternative" to the ACA finally died its inevitable death Monday evening with the twin GOP defections of Mike Lee and Jerry Moran, it seemed an opportune moment for reflection. The party leaders tried everything to pass this POS bill, with McConnell resorting to, take your pick, either lying to his own caucus and telling them that the Medicaid cuts would not happen, or admitting that the bill contained no "reform" as conservatives understand it. They couldn't pass it despite being in the majority.

That might suggest starting over, perhaps by asking, "Why didn't we have an alternative ready? Why are we voting on some crap thrown together over a weekend?" and building a new bill from the ground up. When Medicare/Medicaid cuts are so substantial that even some pretty hard right Senators balk, you might have a tear-down rather than a simple remodel on your hands.

Instead, within seconds of the Lee/Moran announcement the Freedom Caucus came up with this:

As dumb as Freedom Caucus types tend to be, they can't realize how clearly they are demonstrating the shortcomings of their own ideology here. From the perspective of practical politics, the reason they were able to pass bills to "repeal Obamacare" a million times was that the votes were entirely symbolic. They knew there was exactly zero chance Obama would sign, so it was a consequence-free vote for congressional Republicans. It was, in essence, a stunt. A serious but not-serious bill. It was never going to become law.

By resurrecting that idea now that the GOP has the majority, they're recognizing that the Republican Party is incapable of creating anything. They can repeal, cut, obstruct, filibuster, defund, and grandstand. They can talk, feign moral outrage, dog-whistle, and mud sling. The one thing they cannot do, as we now can all see plainly, is write a bill that makes policy.

It is a mob chanting "no," a cargo cult of nihilists hell-bent on tearing down and destroying, but when they are handed the keys that they ostensibly want, they freeze up like deer in headlights. They dislike everyone and everything, including (or perhaps especially) each other. When forced to come together and agree upon something, even among themselves, they are incapable of doing it.

So they retreat to the comfort of the one and only thing that they know how to do: opposing. Even with all of the institutions of power in their control they can't overcome their own individual and collective obstreperousness. That's the problem when all of your goals are variations on "Destroy this thing I don't like." Focus on that for a handful of decades and one day you'll find that you can't recall what you do like.

LAST CHANCE AT TERRIBLE

Posted in Quick Hits on July 16th, 2017 by Ed

Remember the "Everything is Terrible All the Time" t-shirts? If memory serves, I had 400 printed. There are three remaining, all in Unisex/Men's Small. When those three are gone these shirts are officially No More. If you're a man or woman on the slight side, have at 'em.

BEGIN BY HOARDING SUPPLIES

Posted in Rants on July 16th, 2017 by Ed

Well, the end of the world is upon us. Bill Kristol made a good point.

If there is one thing this President is not, it is complex. He and his motivations are baldy, even embarrassingly, obvious. As even some people in the conservative media are starting to figure out, his entire anti-media, anti-intel barrage since being elected has all been an attempt to ready his base for the information that he and everyone involved with his campaign knows is going to come out. When you know that it is going to be revealed that intelligence professionals have evidence of collusion with Russia on a grand scale, the only play you have is to convince people that everything intelligence professionals say is a lie and oh by the way the media reporting the story is lying too.

This is Chapter 1 of the authoritarian playbook; only I can be trusted. The elites and institutions are scared of me because I am so powerful and honest that they feel threatened, so they will lie to destroy me. Believe nothing and no one except me.

(It's also how cults operate, but that's tangential at the moment. Or is it.)

As Kristol somehow notes astutely, what I have been saying for six months now appears to be true: this is just going to get worse and worse. The dribble of damning information will never stop. Six months is enough to establish a decent understanding of the pattern, and it is (with respect to my old man, a career prosecutor) a very obvious Prosecutor Trick that Trump will never, ever stop falling for. First, present Fact A. Give Trump a week to lie about it in an attempt to explain it away. Reveal Fact B, proving that everything said in response to A was a lie. Give him another week to tie himself to a made-up story. Reveal Fact C. Repeat.

Works every time, at least on people who are wildly overconfident or extremely stupid.

I tend not to believe in large conspiracies – collective action is too difficult to coordinate for most conspiracy theories to be plausible. I don't think, then, that there is one person or a small group of people coordinating the release of this information. But the revelations about Trump's Russian ties do feel eerily regular, like a conveyor belt that neither speeds up nor slows down. Like clockwork, every week brings a new piece of information. Ample time is provided for Trump to throw temper tantrums and make up a bunch of garbage. Then the next one arrives just as the media furor begins to abate.

One thing you will not hear Bill Kristol say, though, is that 2017 is the year we can put to rest any pretensions the GOP had left of having any integrity as a group. It is abundantly clear that they would have strapped Obama into the electric chair on the steps of the Capitol with 1% as much evidence as there now is regarding Trump, yet all we hear are excuses. Ultimately, I still believe that even without principles or integrity, self-preservation is enough to motivate some of these people. Eventually. A House Republican in this era is the perfect example of the person who will do the right thing (and expect to be lauded for it) only after literally every single other option has been exhausted.

SUBMITTING TO PEER PRESSURE

Posted in Quick Hits on July 14th, 2017 by Ed

After holding out for about a decade, I gave up and joined Twitter this week. Here I am on the Twitters. Follow me on the Twitters. Am I doing this right?

Also, the "None of this is OK" t-shirts have shipped, and I have a scattered half dozen still available (men's and women's XXL included). Submit to peer pressure and buy one. Be one of the lucky remaining few.

AGE OF CONSENT

Posted in Rants on July 13th, 2017 by Ed

Although I catch myself in writing, my friends can confirm that in casual conversation I refer to my students as kids. "How was your day?" "Oh, the kids were really dead this morning, there must have been parties last night" or whatever. Technically this is a thing I should not say, because every single student I've ever encountered in my career has been, legally, an adult. Most are 19. The bare minimum for some overachievers is 18. The upperclassmen are like, SUPER adults. They're almost 22.

The reason I and so many other academics I interact with say "kids" is twofold. One is the recognition that even though we teach in universities, we are still teachers; there is a common thread to what I do and what a kindergarten teacher does, as it sometimes becomes all to clear. The other is that a veteran college professor can usually count on two hands the number of students he or she has had who truly carried themselves as adults. It's very easy to lapse into calling them Kids because they are, in all but the legal and physical-medical sense, children.

That is not a way of saying they're Bad. They are often a real joy to deal with. But on the whole they display distinctly kid-like behaviors. They pout. They eye-roll. They throw tantrums when they don't get what they want. They need to be told (begged, cajoled, threatened, etc) a thousand times to do things. They are readily distracted. Their interests tend toward the juvenile.

Again, that's not intended as a string of insults. It's just what they are, with some exceptions. Occasionally I lose time pondering what it says about me, about us, about higher education, and about American students that we call them "kids" when they are properly adults. In the long run it's likely a harmless reaction to forces beyond our control. Society encourages over-parenting and over-protection (Scary threats are everywhere!!) so colleges receive Men and Women who are in many important ways still Boys and Girls. So they mature a little later, socially and personally. No big deal in the grand scheme.

Last year during the Olympics, several famous American athletes embarrassed themselves and the country with drunken loutishness. It was widely noted that the IOC and many apologists for the men, notably Ryan Lochte, concluded that they were just kids having some fun and making some mistakes. Ryan Lochte is 32. This stands in contrast, of course, to black males who are adults – big, terrifying, scary Adults – the minute they graduate from diapers to underwear. The comments about Lochte and other famous "Boys will be boys" white adult men were widely contrasted, for example, with descriptions of 18 year old Michael Brown or 14 year old Tamir Rice. A 14 year old black male must bear the full brunt of the consequences of his actions, while white males of sufficient social class and fame get to play the Boys Will Be Boys card for half of their lives or more.

I bring this up now as I read this comment about Donald Trump Jr., here in WaPo but quoted widely this week:

"The kid is an honest kid," said one friend of Trump Jr. "The White House should’ve never let that story go out on the president’s son"

Donald Trump Jr. is thirty-nine years old. Perhaps the speaker is an older person and to him, everyone under 50 is "kid." But it seems more likely, given his behavior, demeanor, and absolute absence of contact with anything that could be described as Real Life, that people who know him think of him as a kid because he is not an adult in any meaningful way. And because nobody and nothing has ever forced him to accept responsibility for his decisions as an adult might be expected to, here we are talking about the 39 year-old son of a billionaire President of the United States like a teenager who egged the principal's house. Look at his innocent little face; how was he to know?

No one, it goes without saying, will synthesize this view of Donald Jr. as a helpless little puppy-child and his father's decision to give him a great deal of power and authority over a multinational corporation and the affairs of the state. "He's just a kid" and "I'm gonna let him and Jared handle China" blend together seamlessly in a country that's a half step away from just giving up altogether.

ON LEAKS

Posted in Rants on July 11th, 2017 by Ed

Every time Trump says something denigrating the work of the intelligence community, as he did last week when he stated nonsensically that "Nobody knows for sure" if Russians attempted to meddle in the election, every professional who has devoted his or her career to serving the country in that capacity nods and gets ready to turn the thumbscrews one more full revolution. These people are anonymous, and they've spent their entire careers training to be anonymous. But they have more than enough professional skill to dig up an endless array of dirt on someone as loud, attention-hungry, and stupid as Donald Trump has been for thirty-plus years. They have every piece of information they need to reduce him to a smoldering pile of ashes, and they're doling it out piecemeal.

Simply put, an intelligent person would not have spent January shitting all over the people with the greatest potential to destroy him. But Donald Trump is not an intelligent person. He is a blustering idiot, and he thought that if he went hard enough at the CIA and NSA that he could convince the public that everything intel agencies say (especially the things they were about to start saying about him) is false. That gambit failed. And now here we are, after months of pathetic excuses and denials and sophomoric lies, with open admissions of pre-election collusion right before the NY Times, no doubt in possession of intelligence-leaked information, could publish the damning emails itself. And in another week or two, when this revelation has subsided, they will release the next damning evidence.

One of the best strategies in life for self-preservation is to figure out who has the power to destroy you and be really, really certain to stay out of his or her or their way. Yes, Trump and his supporters are correct to note that leaks are the source of most of the revelations about his connections to Russia – the NYT's oblique reference to "three persons familiar with the email" all but screams, "Someone with the ability and desire to dig deep into the Trump landfill sent this to one of our reporters." And the leaking is a direct result of the Boss's total disregard for the law, for democratic norms, and for the people who serve under him. People know that any investigation done within the normal channels will end up being politically quashed. What option does that leave them? Well, they have two. They can sit around and watch this ass clown shit all over everything they care about. Or they can use their vastly superior intelligence (pun intended) to drip-dry him.

As I have been saying since his surprising election, this presidency will end when we reach a breaking point, when the evidence for illegal collusion with Russia is so damning and overwhelming that even congressional Republicans can't ignore it without imperiling their own political careers. This week we are one step closer to that.

INSTITUTIONAL CAPACITY

Posted in Rants on July 9th, 2017 by Ed

The Federal bureaucracy is like the world's most anal-retentive child meticulously building a sand castle for decades. The Trump administration is the asshole who kicks the whole thing down in thirty seconds. Nowhere is that becoming more obvious than in the State Department.

Politico has a piece and Slate has a related podcast on the disintegration of the State Department in less than six months since Trump was inaugurated. Like every aspect of governing under what is essentially a third world style autocrat, every function of the state has been assigned to either a family member or an inner-circle sycophant. Why do we need ambassadors or people who know anything about countries other than the United States? Just send Jared. We can trust Jared. Jared's real smart. Jared will fix it.

This underscores a fundamental reason that Republicans have the upper hand in modern politics. Their only goal is to tear down as much of the structure of government as possible or, perhaps even preferably, turn it into a poorly functioning tool for channeling government contracts to their hangers-on. Democrats, even in the lukewarm Centrist style of Democrats like Hillary Clinton, want The State to do things. Implementing any policy, law, or initiative in which the government has to do something requires the bureaucratic capacity to do it. And in the era of the annual tax cut and the deluded belief that we can budget-cut our way into the black, just maintaining existing capacity is a challenge. Expanding it is out of the question. What is lost during periods of right-wing governance rarely is recovered.

What is happening with the State Department – previously seen, alongside the Pentagon, as one of the few parts of the state Republicans did not actively attempt to set ablaze – is particularly damaging in the long term. For a country that still likes to see itself as the "leader" of the world or at least some portion of it, the machinery of diplomatic interaction would seem to be a prerequisite. The number of career diplomats the State Department has lost and will lose under Trump, combined with a hiring freeze that will create a large cohort gap of talent for the future, virtually guarantees that the ground lost around the world will never be made up. We are looking toward a future in which major world events will take place uninfluenced by the interests and wishes of the United States. When that nightmare for conservatives comes to pass, the blame will of course be ladled on whoever happens to be in the White House at that moment. Historical memory isn't a thing they do, broadly speaking, and no one will recognize the staggering amount of damage done in a short amount of time under Caucasian Mobutu.

NPF: NOT QUITE HISTORY

Posted in No Politics Friday on July 6th, 2017 by Ed

The Telegraph recently ran an update of a story that works its way through the auto journalism community once or twice per year: the "endangered cars of the UK" report. Don't stop reading if you don't care about UK family sedans. There is a larger point here.

Long story short: nationwide auto registration databases are used to track how many of a particular year and model of car are still on the road. And some of the numbers are pretty astonishing. Cars that used to be so common that it seemed like everyone owned one are often down to just a few remaining examples. The once ubiquitous Austin Metro, for example, saw 643,000 built between 1973 and 1981. Today 186 are still on the road – a survival rate of 0.03%.

One culprit, of course, is the legendarily terrible quality of the British Leyland years, which is a story for another time. Many of these cars were not only small, cheap, and spartan, but also put together with extreme indifference or even malice (labor strife led to stories of assembly workers welding glass soda bottles inside doors for shits and giggles). So, many of these cars that ended up at the crusher earned the trip there. At the same time, though, the "classic car" industry proves that people are willing to spend large amounts of money to keep shoddily built crap from the 1970s running. The compact sedans of the "malaise" era simply aren't sexy enough or remembered with enough sentimentality to earn that special treatment, though.

This is a phenomenon I notice a lot in architecture. There is always an outcry to protect "old" buildings (generally anything made before 1970 in the U.S. context). Meanwhile, when the concrete brutalism of the late 1970s and 1980s is slated for the wrecking ball, nobody cares. It isn't old enough to be Historic, new enough to be Modern, or far enough removed from our consciousness to be Nostalgic or Retro. There is a bubble, then between being too new to destroy and not old enough to save. And that's where we lose a lot of history, I suppose. In 30 years collectors will probably pay big bucks for those bland econo-cars now numbering only a few dozen, and architecture fans will be admiring the surviving architecture of the Carter years will be subject to some kind of revival and update.

The cycle moves more quickly with some things – music, for example. Take what is popular today and in five years nobody will have any interest in listening to it. In 20 years it will be Classic and ready to be enjoyed again. Fashion is much the same. You'd instantly recognize a Vintage item from the 50s as valuable while throwing something from the early 00s in the donation bin. If any of us are still alive in 2050, people will be clamoring for those ultra-rare original vintage Jorts or whatever nightmare costuming you thought was a good idea in 2002.

No real resolution here; it's just an interesting pattern I have noticed a lot lately. Things become rare in that interval between being New and being venerable. Why do we value the more distant past so much more than the medium term?