A moment of sympathy for Republicans.  Trump won’t protect them from the agony of an immigration debate or lead them through it in any useful way, and now they are being tasked by the zero-tolerance fiasco to show (or at least emulate) courage and decency they long ago threw on the political bonfire.  Today, he even denied them the tough, never-settle leader today’s GOP wants to cower behind, left them thousands of kids in secret prisons, and the larger issue remains.

It is an exquisitely difficult issue, especially for the rich and xenophobic. To enact any kind of immigration reform requires keeping the following balls in the air:

(1) Agriculture, hospitality, domestic service, home construction and repair, restaurants, and gardening are all important to rich people, whether as proprietors or consumers. All depend on a docile, cheap work force, often a seasonal one.  Americans will not tolerate lettuce prices high enough to support ag wages that get Americans to work in the fields, or hotel rates ditto.  Fear of ICE is almost indispensable in insuring docility.

(2) The hi-tech industry also depends on a work force that Americans will not pay to educate, especially in red states, so we also need an ample supply of H-1b immigrants who don’t need salaries that will amortize crippling student loan debts; they aren’t as cheap as farm workers, but their docility needs even more reinforcement, and not being able to quit their jobs helps with this.

(3) The Republican game plan, since the party’s consignment of its brain and conscience to Trump, demands that the image of immigrants as murderous brown gangsters, planning their assault on your job and your family in Spanish, be vividly front and center. It also requires a population on which the old, and many young, white  Trump-base frightened haters can look down.

(4) Trump himself requires regular opportunity to hurt the weak, unfortunate, sick, helpless, and poor, and to be seen doing so. Immigrants, especially refugees, are not indispensable for this–plain Americans with pre-existing medical conditions or dependent on Social Security, in any color, qualify–but are still very useful.

(5) Somehow the whole project has to enrich Trump personally, his circle of grifters, and the top 1% who gave him to us, or why bother? It’s really not clear how any particular immigration scheme can be monetized this way, though (1) and (2) are relevant.

[correction 21/VI/18: (5) above is not quite true; there is real money to be made from immigrant

abuse. ]

These criteria comprise pretty fundamental contradictions, and the discovery this week that there really are limits to the official cruelty Americans will tolerate makes everything so much harder. No wonder Republicans scatter like cockroaches at the approach of a reporter these days.



Gillibrand bets on Tobin

Gillibrand stakes out a brave and wonkish position.

A progressive group of Democrats, “We the People”, have just held an early beauty contest of five presidential hopefuls and possibles: Senators Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Kamala Harris of California, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

In this report, I only saw one interesting position.

Gillibrand … in response to a question … said she supports a tax on financial transactions.

Presidential hopeful at work

A Tobin tax!  It’s a wonk’s dream, tailor-made to appeal to the all-important RBC reader demographic: something like 0.003% of the US electorate, concentrated in a handful of blue states where Ricky the Spider-raccoon on the Democratic ticket would be a shoo-in.

It has three other characteristics.
1. It’s a genuine policy proposal. Other countries have tried it (Sweden for equities and bonds). It’s tricky, but there’s a big literature. It isn’t handwaving like Sanders’ “break up the banks.”
2. Though the tax really does stick it to Wall Street, it won’t be easy to explain this to the Rustbelt voters. How many know there is a highly organised worldwide foreign exchange market, let alone that it turns over $5 trillion a day?
3. The tax is anathema to Wall Street, a huge lobby in Washington and in Gillibrand’s home state, and a major source of political donations. Maybe their counterattack will help with problem 2.

Any Democratic nominee in 2020, whether it’s one of this five or Ricky the Raccoon, will run on the same basic platform: joined-up honest government, expanded health care, fighting climate change, reversing tax cuts for the rich, rebuilding alliances, letting the Dreamers stay. But to get the nomination, the winner will have to mark out something distinctive, in character and policy. Was Gillibrand improvising or flying a kite? She does not strike me as an impulsive politician. Walking back the proposal would damage her chances as a “flip-flop”. It looks to me like a calculated risk, and a pretty brave one. Have any of the other contenders staked out comparable positions on anything difficult?

Note on the FX market. The $5trn a day is from here. The real total is higher, as not all trades are cleared through the New York clearing-house. Physical global trade is about $16 trn a year, or $44 bn a day.  Add services and long-term investment flows, and you might double that. What economic purpose is served by inflating this 50 times, with banks and dealers taking a cut – a small one, but a cut – on each artificial transaction?

Update one day later

The comments thread below confirms my point about the RBC readership. The Tobin tax is public policy catnip to you. Good, but nobody has picked up on the electoral politics. Gillibrand has moved the financial transactions tax from a nice academic speculation to live policymaking. She may well not become President, and may not prioritize the proposal if she does. On the other hand, a successful rival may take it on board – like Edwards’ health plan in 2008 that eventually became ACA. Folks, there is now a decent chance the Tobin tax will happen. Reporters should take an interest. Just who has Gillibrand been getting advice from? I’m sure Shiller, Krugman, Stiglitz, Arrow or deLong would take her calls.

Joy Ann Reid and the tyranny of technical expertise


Oh, well. As Churchill didn’t quite say, “An occasional meal of one’s own words is part of a healthy, balanced diet.”

Continue reading “Joy Ann Reid and the tyranny of technical expertise”

Deflection, Part III

Earlier, I commented on the NRA’s first non-response to Sen. Ron Wyden’s inquiry about possible Russian financial contributions.

Sen. Wyden persevered and followed up with another request.  The NRA was somewhat more forthcoming in its second response, but was still somewhat evasive.

I have, as a single file, posted Sen. Wyden’s second request, the NRA’s response thereto, and, finally, Sen. Wyden’s most recent follow-up, here.

The Tokugawa gun control plan

A cheap buyout of gunmakers as a gun control strategy.

Japanese musketeers, 16th century

Early firearms were heavily used in Japan in the civil wars of the 16th century, including by the Tokugawa faction that came out on top in 1600 and established the shogunate that lasted until the Meiji restoration of 1868. The Tokugawa ideal was a rigidly stratified and static traditional society, isolated from the outside world. Guns were among the disruptive European innovations that threatened this model, and had to be tamed as part of the overall strategy. The Tokugawa plan for gun control was one of slow strangulation. Gunmakers had to move to the capital Edo and work for the court. Demand was thus steadily shifted to luxury weapons, produced in smaller numbers. Guns did not disappear, but they were successfully marginalised in a now peaceful and regimented society.

American gun control advocates have focused entirely on demand, to little effect. It’s time to take a look at supply. A comprehensive policy would have to cover manufacture, distribution and imports. Let’s start with manufacture. Continue reading “The Tokugawa gun control plan”


One of my pet peeves is that newspapers will publish stories about some court opinion or other public document, but not provide any link to the documents themselves.  As a consequence, readers will walk away with only the reporter’s view of why the document was of significance, which view is likely further circumscribed by an editor who is hard put to limit the amount of information in the story due to space considerations.

Sen. Ron Wyden sent a letter to the NRA.  His letter was prompted by his interest in determining “the possibility that Russian-backed shell companies or intermediaries may have circumvented laws designed to prohibit foreign meddling in our elections by abusing the rules governing 501(c)(4) tax exempt organizations.”  Sen. Wyden asked for material relating to four specific areas of inquiry.  He received from the NRA only  a partial response to the four specific requests.  I have posted, as a single file, Sen. Wyden’s letter and the NRA’s response with my markups.

The response is, at best, an attempt to deflect the inquiry.   For instance, the NRA was asked:

  • To “identify any remuneration, transaction, or contribution that involved any of the 501(c)(4) entities associated with your organization and any entity or individual associated with any Russian official, Russian national, or Russian business interest.”  The NRA simply ignored that request; and
  • To provide “all documents related to any remuneration, transaction, or contribution” and to identify all such documents that “have already been turned over to United States authorities.”  Both requests were ignored.

Without being specific, the NRA assured Wyden that it always complied with federal election laws. Ultimately, it offered this: “As a longstanding policy to comply with federal election law, the NRA and its related entities do not accept funds from foreign persons or entities in connection with United States elections.” (Emphasis supplied.)

In other words, the NRA did not deny that it was, in terms of its lobbying and “educational” efforts, a mouthpiece of the Russians, but merely that Russian cash had not found its way into any direct political contribution fund.

Nothing to see here.

Donald and “The Snake”

Oscar Brown, Jr. is a jazz legend; Sin and Soul will live forever (I’m humming “Signifyin’ Monkey”, from an anonymous African fabulist, as I write).  Not just an influential musician but a social critic and engaged citizen; Nat Hentoff described him as “authentically hip”.

His song, “The Snake” covers an Aesop legend, the farmer who takes a near-frozen snake indoors and is rewarded by being bitten; reproached, the viper says “you knew I was a snake before you took me in”.  The only possible interpretion of this allegory today is that Donald Trump revealed his true nature in the campaign and before, and yet we “took him in”. But he read the words aloud today himself, smirking as usual, at a rally! It’s not only despicable that Trump would dare to besmirch Brown’s memory by associating himself with it, but completely mystifying that he would present himself as that snake so transparently  at a large public event.

Maybe this is for the best: Brown’s reputation will survive, along with his music, and now we have a new, perfectly tailored moniker for the Donald provided by Donald Jeenius Trump, the only man alive stupid enough to walk into such a trap.

“Snake Trump”:  I like it!

[update 23/II: A colleague let me know that Ezra Klein was on this months ago]

The feds get Shortey

If you’ll get over chortling about the fact that the Oklahoma state senator who just pleaded guilty to child sex trafficking was Donald Trump’s Oklahoma campaign chair last year, the case raises some serious questions about federal law and sentencing.

The facts appear to be simple: a 17-year-old boy met Sen. Shortey on line and asked him for help in earning money. Shortey offered him money for sex. The boy agreed, and they met in a motel room. The boy’s girlfriend, who had followed him to the motel, called his father, who phoned the police, who came and busted the pair in flagrante.

Shortey was first charged under Oklahoma law with “soliciting prostitution of a minor, prostitution within 1,000 feet of church, and transporting for the purpose of prostitution.” (I’d like a slow, careful explanation of why the crime was aggravated by the fact that there was a church within a 333-yard radius of the motel, but perhaps we can leave that for another time.)

The state charges were dropped after he was indicted federally for sex trafficking of a minor and two counts of child pornography: one for sharing videos for with two individuals and another for soliciting a minor for photos of himself. Shortey has just pleaded guilty to the sex trafficking charge, for which he faces a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in federal prison (which, with good time, means about 8 1/2 years behind bars). The maximum is life.

Note the elision here. The federal law is designed to get people who run commercial juvenile prostitution enterprises, and in particular enterprises involving interstate or international movement of juvenile sex workers, often involving coercion or deception. That’s as horrible a crime as it’s possible to imagine – morally much more culpable than, for example, homicide done in the heat of passion – and fully justifies extremely harsh sentencing. But Sen. Shortey didn’t do any of that. He purchased sex from a 17-year-old, in a state where the age of consent is 16. (Oklahoma law distinguishes commercial from non-commercial sex, so that the boy’s being under 18 made the offense a more serious one.) Shortey didn’t use coercion or trickery, or in any obvious way abuse his public office. Continue reading “The feds get Shortey”

Is Roy Moore guilty beyond reasonable doubt?

Image result for leigh corfman

Leigh Corfman says that she was fourteen years old and waiting with her mother outside a courtroom before a custody hearing when Roy Moore, then thirty-two and an assistant district attorney, offered to stay with Corfman while her mother went into court. Corfman says Moore used that opportunity to get her phone number, and subsequently took her out on several dates. On one of those occasions, he took her to his home, undressed her down to her underwear, undressed himself to the same extent, fondled her through her bra and panties, and attempted to put her hand on his genitals.

If what Corfman says is true, Moore committed a felony under Alabama law (which hasn’t changed in the meantime). Moore says that none of it happened: “I never knew this woman. I never met this woman.”

Moore’s defenders say that he ought to be considered innocent until proven guilty, and that a “mere accusation” (as Donald Trump called it) shouldn’t block Moore’s election to the U.S. Senate. “It’s just he-said, she-said” is the favored phrase. (Moore and his friends also want to ignore the three other juvenile but barely legal girls who say he took them out and kissed them.)

As Mitt Romney among others has pointed out, this is absurdly confused; it’s an attempt to apply courtroom standards outside their proper realm. No one thinks an ordinary political charge needs to be proven beyond reasonable doubt before voters take it into account, and there’s no reason why a charge that happens also to be felony should be any different. (Moore’s attempt, and that of his supporters, to blame the Washington Post for concocting “fake news,” while it might be effective political rhetoric, lost all of its logical force when the Wall Street Journal re-interviewed the Post‘s sources and found that all of them confirmed that the Post had accurately reported their statements.)

Even if this were a criminal trial, Moore might well be convicted. Leigh Corfman’s sworn testimony would be sufficient to establish a prima facie case. It would then be up to the jury to weigh the credibility of the accusation against the credibility of the denial and decide whether they were convinced, beyond reasonable doubt, that the Moore was guilty. Sometimes the jurors decide that they are so convinced, even if it’s simply the bare word of the accuser against the bare word of the complainant: in a mugging, for example, there may be no other witness or physical evidence. If the victim has no apparent motive to lie – while the accused has the strongest of motives, the desire to escape a felony conviction – it may not be unreasonable for a jury to decide that the accusation is convincing enough to convict.

But Moore’s position is actually much worse than that of our hypothetical robbery suspect. Continue reading “Is Roy Moore guilty beyond reasonable doubt?”

On arguing with fools, and Prof. Ann Althouse in particular

There’s an old Yiddish expression that translates roughly:

“Never argue with a fool. People might not be able to tell the difference.”

That’s good advice, and the fact that I ignore it too often is, I confess, an error and a fault.

But there’s also an old English expression of equal authority:

“In for a penny, in for a pound.”

So having foolishly engaged via Twitter with Prof. Ann Althouse of the University of Wisconsin Law School, and having attracted counter-fire not only from the good Professor herself but from her even less adept colleague Prof. Glenn Reynolds of the University of Tennessee Law School, it seems wise, just this once, to respond at some length. Don’t read on unless you have a prurient interest in folly, or in trolling, the bastard child of folly born of its occasional dalliance with intellectual dishonesty.

Continue reading “On arguing with fools, and Prof. Ann Althouse in particular”