Wish I’d Written This

A post from a friend, John Watters:

Imagine this scenario:

Hillary Clinton is president. It’s learned that she has deep ties to Putin and the Russian spy agency. She puts unqualified billionaires in cabinet posts. She pursues public policies that benefit her and her billionaire friends. She puts her daughter Chelsea in a position of influence in the West Wing, gives her her own office and allows her to use that position to forward her own business interests. And Chelsea’s husband is her chief advisor. The private business trips taken by Chelsea and her husband are paid for by the taxpayers.

She refuses to release any tax returns, she blocks access to the visitor logs in the White House and Bill refuses to live in the White House so our tax dollars are spent keeping him safe in Chappaqua. Hillary spends almost every weekend lounging in her own, privately-held resort. Her private resort gets reimbursed for any and all “official” government functions (including security) because she chooses to conduct all her “business” and personal functions there. She and her family live in three White Houses at the same time.

In an interview, she names the wrong country she bombed while bragging about the chocolate cake she was eating while she ordered said bombing. I could go on and on. The point is that the outrage, the outcries, the screaming by Republicans would be heard around the world and impeachment proceedings would already be underway.

By the way, this is not about political party affiliation. Let’s face it, if Hillary – or any woman or minority candidate – had five children from three partners s/he would never have survived the primary.

And I [MM] would add: this is not just about party affiliation, which it certainly is. This description is the embodiment of white male privilege.

Getting rid of the “Johnson Amendment”

So what does Donald Trump mean when he says he wants to “get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment”?

Trump always talks about “churches,” but the proviso, inserted in the tax code in 1954, forbids all tax exempt non-profits (organized under Internal Revenue Code section 501(c)3, and therefore referred to generically as 501(c)3 organizations) from contributing to political campaigns.

If the law were changed to exempt churches only, the courts would have to decide whether than created an unconstitutional “establishment of religion,” but it doesn’t require a law degree to see that allowing tax-exempt churches to attack tax-exempt Planned Parenthood by running campaigns against politicians who take positions favorable to reproductive rights, but forbidding Planned Parenthood from defending itself, would be grossly unfair.

Moreover, churches – unlike most other non-profits – aren’t required to disclose their donors. So allowing them to serve as campaign vehicles would not only convert them into tax-deductible super-PACs, it would allow unlimited amounts of hidden money to come into politics. (Citizens United and its progeny have already severely weakened disclosure rules.) Disclosure has been, until now, regarded as an invaluable protection against corruption. If Trump gets his way, any individual, privately-held corporation, partnership, or LLC could purchase influence with unlimited, undisclosed, tax-deductible campaign contributions simply by laundering them through a church, or even a fake “church” organized solely as a pass-through for bribes. (Again, for religious-freedom reasons, the IRS is very wary of deciding that a group calling itself a church isn’t really a church: the New Testament rule “wherever two or three are gathered” about covers it.)

But wait! It gets worse. If churches can gather money without disclosing their donors – and obviously that degree of privacy protection is required for the free exercise of religion – and spend that money to run political campaigns, then the market is open for foreign as well as domestic corruption. The Russian, Chinese, Saudi, and Iranian governments would all, predictably, either find congregations already recognized by the IRS to use as front groups or incorporate new ones. Of course a group organized as a mosque might not be able to wield much influence without stirring up opposition, but nothing bars the Saudis or the Iranians from paying some stooges to set up a fake Baptist church. Nor is an outfit organized as a church for IRS purposes have the word “church” (synagogue, mosque, temple, whatever) in its name; many people would spot “Society of Friends” as meaning Quakers, but you and I could start a group tomorrow called “Truth Tellers,” incorporate it as a church, and then run political ads with the trailer “This message brought to you by the Truth Tellers.”

So, like most of Trump’s ideas, this one reduces mostly to corruption and the sacrifice of American sovereignty to foreign – especially Russian – influence. And of course that won’t keep the tame preachers of the Christian Right from backing him all the way.



The Muslim ban fiasco….

The President’s team had months to prepare this signature immigration initiative. And they produced…an amateurish, politically self-immolating effort that humiliated the country, provoked international retaliation, and failed to withstand the obvious federal court challenge on its very first day.

Given the despicable nature of this effort, I’m happy it has become a political fiasco. It also makes me wonder how the Trump administration will execute the basic functions of government. This astonishing failure reflects our new President’s contempt for the basic craft of government.

Getting to the Airport in London and in Other Places

A few years ago, I listened to a speech by the UK Minister for Transport regarding why there was no need for a third runway at London’s Heathrow Airport because a new airport would be built near the Thames Estuary very soon. A retired mandarin sitting next to me whispered that he himself had once been directed to draw up plans for a soon-to-be-built Thames Estuary airport…by PM Harold Wilson.

It does continually amaze visitors that one of the world’s greatest cities ended up with four airports that somehow still do not meet the need, but there is one thing London does as well as any large city: Help people get to and from its main airport. As transport expert Jarrett Walker points out, the Heathrow-related options are hard to beat. You’ve got:

*The lightning fast no stops Heathrow Express train
*Heathrow Connect trains with a few more stops but more affordable
*The Tube (Piccadilly Line) which is even more affordable and stops in many places so that a range of Londoners can board and debark near their homes
*All three of these options connect you directly to the city’s existing transport network of local trains and buses rather than being “bridges to nowhere”.

Walker contrasts the Heathrow situation favorably with systems like Toronto’s fancy airtrain that cost a mint and doesn’t help people from a wide range of geographical locations get to the airport more quickly.

I really loathe the fact that so few US airports (with some wonderful exceptions like Reagan National) have a train or subway go straight to the airport as is the European norm. Indeed, this country seems to have a peverse habit of making trains go near the airport, but not into it. For BWI, you take the train to the middle of nowhere and then a shuttle comes to get you (and maybe you hike a mile and grab a zeppelin after that, I have traumatic memory loss about the particulars due to being on an icy, windblown platform as we waited for the shuttlebus which was late and couldn’t fit everyone when it did arrive).

In the Bay Area we had a proposed tax levy “to extend the train track to San Jose Airport” which I voted against because what this actually meant was that it would stop a few miles away and then people would switch to something else. Stopping the train a few miles from the airport is as useful as having an airplane touch down a few miles from the tarmac. Coming from the south to San Francisco Airport is really annoying, as you usually have to take a Caltrain to Millbrae, get on the BART system and go north past the airport, get off the BART and cross to other side waiting for another BART south on which you backtrack to get to SFO. That creates much hassle and lots of chances to miss flights if any one link in the chain breaks, which understandably reduces the number of people who use it.

Walker is full of good ideas on how cities should design airport transport and his whole post is worth a read.*

*The only thing I either disagreed with or just didn’t follow was Walker’s argument that airport workers should be prioritized when designing transport systems because they make the most trips back and forth. Why should the population of an entire city or state be asked to pay hundreds of millions of dollars for an amenity targeted at a relatively small group of employees rather than one focused mainly on serving the much larger number of taxpayers who will use it to travel to the airport, however infrequently?

House ethics oversight: What just happened?

1. The House Republican conference, in secret, voted overwhelmingly to dismantle ethics oversight so Members could more easily get away with corruption.
2. Bob Goodlatte and his accomplices knew this attempt was shameful; otherwise they wouldn’t have tried to do it with surprise and stealth.
3. The House GOP leadership claimed to be against it but was entirely willing to let it happen until the public outcry got too loud.
4. Trump’s flack endorsed it and even said that the House GOP had a “mandate” to do such things. (Why not? Didn’t Trump promise to “fill the swamp”?)
5. Trump himself didn’t speak out until the public blowback become overwhelming.
6. Even then, Trump didn’t say protecting crooks in the House was a bad idea. He even endorsed the false claim that the existing process was somehow “unfair.” Trump just said that he’d prefer that the House Republicans do other awful things first.
7. Nonetheless, the press is giving Trump credit he hasn’t earned.                    
8. The proposal has been pulled for the moment, but the leadership is still committed to doing something later. Whatever that is won’t be good.                
9. The whole affair illustrates the culture of corruption that will permeate the government for the next four years, unless a wave election ends the Republican House majority in 2018.
10. But it also illustrates that pushback can work. Keep pushing!

“. . . and that’s never easy”

When he was in high school, my brother went away to a weekend-long “Tolerance Camp” sponsored by the National Council of Christians and Jews. (Earlier days, narrower definitions of diversity.) When he returned I asked whether he’d had a good time and he replied, “People were getting new ideas, and that’s never easy.”

There’s been a lot of rumbling about how the 2016 election reflected a failure on the part of elites to understand the atavistic attitudes of a significant portion of the electorate. But we understand perfectly well: people have been getting new ideas—about who gets rewarded for what kind of work, about what color or gender person will be acknowledged as someone who counts, about who’s in charge—and that’s never easy. Trump voters decided they didn’t like the new ideas and said so at the ballot box. But that won’t prevent those ideas from taking hold, unless the central idea of American life—that of popular self-government—is destroyed by the lying fool they chose.

And if it is, it won’t be something elites, or Democrats, or women, or black people, or Jews, or gays, or liberals did or didn’t do. If we really believe in self-government we must hold people accountable for their choices, and the destruction of American values and institutions will be the predictable result of a choice made by people who failed or refused to understand that it’s never easy to get new ideas, but it’s fatal not to.

The knotty problems of the G19

The G20 problems of Merkel and Trump.

One early international junket that President(!) Trump will be expected to attend is the G20 summit in Hamburg on 7-8 July 2017.

Angela Merkel has just published the draft agenda, with a cool knot logo.g20-knot-logo

The image is a reef knot, of multicoloured strands – one rope in the red-yellow-black of Germany, the other in random colours presumably for the rest of the world. The knot symbolizes interdependence. But Berlin is a long way from the sea or the Alps, and nobody told the Chancellery that the reef knot is weak. Pull hard, and it’s quite likely to come undone.

The reef knot logo is a parapraxis, a Fehlleistung (mis-performance), a Freudian slip knot. (What a pity that Ernest Jones James Strachey [update, see comments] translated Freud’s elegant and lucid German coinage into poncey fake Greek bafflegab, and it stuck.) It unintentionally reflects globalisation today only too well, with nationalist rebellions against interdependence all over the place, not just in Britain with Brexit and the USA with Trump. The ties woven since 1945 are slipping dangerously. Continue reading “The knotty problems of the G19”

Trump grifting update

The constant of Trump’s business career has been to stiff investors, lenders, customers, suppliers, taxpayers, and partners at every opportunity: bankruptcies (a fancy name for not paying your debts), the piano seller, Trump U. students…the list is endless. If you invest with Donald, you do it for his profit and not yours.

Now he has embarked on a political career, and the pattern is already repeating itself, in two ways. Voted for him because he would trash climate stabilization? because he would put Hilary in jail? because he would torture terrorism suspects “worse than waterboarding”? In a roomful of New York Times reporters, on the record, we learn “You already voted? OK, you’ll get none of those things, suckers!” And it’s not even Thanksgiving.

One one point of fundamental principle, however, the Donald is firm: the point of his new job is his personal enrichment. He is going to hold on to his businesses, and he is going to use his position to make more money.  Blind trust…what are you, some kind of moron?

The 3 AM phone call goes like this:

Mr. President, I need a large shipload of tanks and artillery to put my uppity neighbor in its place…what’s that? you say the neighbor is a peaceable country where the US has large investments? and you’re worried about the conflict spreading?…Mr. President, the other thing I wanted to talk to you about is the bill in our parliament nationalizing your hotel/casino complex. No, of course we don’t pay compensation when we protect our national interest!  As I told Jared yesterday, I would really hate to have to sign that bill if it passes, and we also have the permanent tax and labor law exemption for the hotel drafted…I know, the royal suite you provide us is nice, but about those armaments…don’t forget the spare parts, and extra ammunition.

Quote of the Day

This is not the republic of my imagination.

–Charles Dickens, letter to William Macready, from Baltimore (1842)

Keeping the public faith

During my misspent youth at the U.S. Department of Justice, there was a fashion for law enforcement “stings.” Someone in the United States Marshals Service came up with the clever idea of (if memory serves) sending letters purporting to come from the New York Giants, offering free tickets to Giants games, to the last known addresses of a bunch of fugitives from justice, and then arresting the suckers when they showed up. Worked like a charm, and everyone (save the fugitives) had a good laugh at their expense.

Then someone else had what seemed at first blush to be a similar idea: Send letters on Immigration and Naturalization Service letterhead, offering a lottery for Green Cards, to people who had overstayed their visas and had deportation orders pending. Again, the idea was to arrest the marks when they came in.

When this clever idea came to the Criminal Division’s Office of Enforcement Operations for approval, the veteran OEO Section Chief, the usually imperturbable Jerry Shur, completely blew his stack. “Absolutely not!” he roared. When a more junior attorney gingerly asked what was so objectionable about the idea, given the general approval of the “Giants tickets” sting, Jerry gave an unforgettable reply. “Because we’re the government of the United States of America, and our word is always good. Period.”

Shur’s point was that no serious damage was done if people learned to distrust a sports franchise offering something for nothing, but that if people learned to distrust official offers from Federal agencies the resulting harm would be irreparable. Once he’d made that case, no one had an answer, and the idea was allowed to die a peaceful death. I filed the Jerry Shur Principle under “Never forget.” It’s come in handy often since.

The latest case to which that principle applies comes with a twist. Recall that during the Iraq War, after the promised “crowds of Iraqis greeting us as liberators” failed to appear, the military had a tremendous problem meeting its recruiting and retention goals. As a result, DoD approved a very generous bonus program, with cash bonuses and student-loan forgiveness running into the tens of thousands of dollars for each recruit. Now it comes out that the California National Guard (under Gov. Schwartzengroper), which was having an especially tough time meeting its quotas, resorted to widespread cheating, offering bonuses that the target recruits weren’t actually entitled to, even under the new and more generous regs.

Years later, an audit by DoD discovered the overpayments. As a result, thousands of Californians who trusted the word of their National Guard recruiters – men and women wearing the uniform of the United States of America – are being dunned for repayment of the money they took in good faith to fight a war no one else wanted to fight.

The Master Sergeant who ran the program (and who might well have lost his job if he’d failed to meet unmeetable quotas) took a hard fall, doing 30 months in prison; three officers got off with probation. As usual, the folks who had the fancy titles and drew the big salaries, including the Guard commander and the Governor, managed to preserve their deniability.

It seems to me that if someone has to take a financial hit for the misconduct of the California National Guard, it ought to be the California National Guard, not the soldiers who were victims of official misconduct. Unless the LA Times story simply gets it wrong, there is no reason to think that the people who received the money were complicit in wrongdoing.

I understand that the officials at DoD, and the Assistant U.S. Attorneys who are pressing the legal claims, are just doing their jobs; it shouldn’t be in the discretion of individual officials to acquiesce what amounts to a theft of taxpayers’ money. And it’s possible that even the Secretary of Defense and the President lack the power to waive these claims.

But President Obama (or President Clinton) can, and should, propose to the Congress a bill for the relief of the victims; in justice, that should include giving back the $22 million that has been repaid so far. We’re the government of the United States of America, and our word is always good. Period.