The Spiritual Benefits of Protest

These are extraordinary times, and I am planning to put my privilege on the line over the next four years. If it comes to pass that my opposition to the Trump administration’s policies makes me sufficiently partisan that I can’t be seen as a fair broker in the future, that will surely be the least of my problems. I’m not anti-market, or anti-Republican, but I am against policies that simply serve to exacerbate income inequality on some vague, unproven theory that the ultra-wealthy, who have lower marginal utility for each extra dollar, will somehow get that money into the hands of the middle class. Supply-side economics doesn’t work; the Laffer curve doesn’t suggest that cutting taxes will always increase revenue (depends where on the curve you are); and there is no evidence that private charity will step in to boost food security, health care, and education the way that government programs do. I don’t think now is the time to normalize, or be polite, or fear that taking a stand will somehow hurt me in the future. Democrats are the only ones who worry about that kind of thing anyway.

Today was a difficult day for me as for so many others, but I went with my wife and younger son to a demonstration in our town. I’m somewhat skeptical of demonstrations, particularly those in the Bay Area. I don’t think that anyone will take notice of this particular demonstration and change a single policy, and this is surely not what I meant about putting my privilege on the line. That will come later; most people here agree with me.

Continue reading “The Spiritual Benefits of Protest”

Where is Dr. Strangelove when you need him?

Trump leaves the agency responsible for the safety of the US nuclear weapons stockpile leaderless.

From Gizmodo:

According to an official within the Department of Energy, the Trump transition team has declined to ask the head of the National Nuclear Security Administration and his deputy to temporarily stay in their roles after Trump takes office on January 20th.

The NNSA is the $12 billion-a-year agency that “maintains and enhances the safety, security, and effectiveness of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile.” [….]

Trump’s team hasn’t asked Under Secretary for Nuclear Security Frank Klotz and his deputy, Madelyn Creedon — both Obama appointees—to stay in their posts, even if it means no one is in charge of maintaining the country’s nuclear weapons. According to our Energy Department source, Trump’s team has yet to nominate anyone to succeed them. Since both positions require Senate confirmation, it could be months before their chairs are filled.
Still, while [the] career civil servants will continue on with their current directives, they’re effectively barred from embarking on anything new. That’s because the legislation authorizing the NNSA specifically prohibits non-NNSA officials from managing NNSA employees — agency staffers are only allowed to take orders from Klotz and Creedon or their (nonexistent) replacements.
According to our source, both officials “have expressed [to the Trump team] that they would likely be willing to stay to facilitate a smooth transition, if asked,” as is the tradition for key officials, and have received no response.

Klotz is not some DLC intellectual, he’s a career Air Force nuclear weapons officer. Creedon is a long-serving civilian nuclear security analyst. An NNSA official has unattributably denied the two political appointees have been “fired”, but effectively confirmed that they have not been asked to stay on.

Trump has also fired the head of the Washington National Guard - appointed by Bush in 2008 - from the moment of his inauguration:

Maj. Gen. Errol R. Schwartz will be removed from his post at 12:01 p.m. on Inauguration Day, just after Trump is sworn in but before the Inaugural parade begins.

This is beginning to look horribly like the beginnings of the oprichnina.

Murphy’s Year

The British ambassador to the EU resigns in disgust, and Trump goes off the rails too.

The British ambassador (Permanent Representative) to the EU institutions in Brussels, Sir Ivan Rogers, resigned on the first working day of 2017.

Splashily. He sent a memo to all his large staff, knowing and presumably intending that it should be leaked. It’s quite a document.

It takes a great deal to push a senior British civil servant to quit like this and slam the door on his way out. Regardless of the merits of Brexit, negotiating it is a terrific high-profile professional challenge: a dream job – if the brief makes any sense. It does not. Oh, his No. 2, Shan Morgan, left in November for the top civil service job in the devolved Welsh government.

Some bullet points.

We do not yet know what the government will set as negotiating objectives for the UK’s relationship with the EU after exit.”

The British government still does not know what it is trying to achieve in the Brexit negotiations, though it has weirdly self-imposed a March deadline for triggering exit under Article 50.

Serious multilateral negotiating experience is in short supply in Whitehall, and that is not the case in the Commission or in the Council. The government will only achieve the best for the country if it harnesses the best experience we have – a large proportion of which is concentrated in UKRep – and negotiates resolutely. Senior ministers, who will decide on our positions, issue by issue, also need from you detailed, unvarnished – even where this is uncomfortable – and nuanced understanding of the views, interests and incentives of the other 27.

London is in the grip of wishful thinking; pro-Leave ministers are refusing to face facts, and blaming the messenger.

Contrary to the beliefs of some, free trade does not just happen when it is not thwarted by authorities: increasing market access to other markets and consumer choice in our own, depends on the deals, multilateral, plurilateral and bilateral that we strike, and the terms that we agree.

A hard Brexit (without replacement market access deals in place) would be a shambles. My gloss: The fallback “WTO rules only” may be tolerable for manufacturing, but not for the financial services on which London relies.

I shall advise my successor to continue to make these points.

God help him. He has been quickly named: Sir Tim Barrow, an FO mandarin and recent ambassador to Russia, so presumably tough as well as as slick as a penguin. But these problems can’t be fixed by tradecraft. Theresa May is heading for a trainwreck.

I fear this is the sort of year we are in for. At least in the USA, the incompetence of the Trump administration will offer partial protection from its malevolence. Just two examples picked from the turgid flow of events last week.

Trump went out of his way to insult Chuck Schumer, repeatedly calling him a “clown” on Twitter. Progressive Democrats have been very nervous about Schumer as a successor to the steely Harry Reid: centrist, wheeler-dealer, friend of Wall Street and AIPAC, elected when the job was expected to be shepherding President Clinton’s agenda through Congress rather than fighting President Trump’s. Seduction into lesser-evil compromise might have worked. But Trump has left Schumer no choice but to fight, and he is shaping up. This jibe at McConnell is even better.

The other incident was Trump’s after-midnight tweetstorm immediately after Meryl Streep attacked him in her acceptance speech at the Golden Globes. It was a reprise on a smaller scale of his small-hours response to Alicia Machado.

The man is ridiculously easy to provoke, and the Democrats have a huge bench of uppity women celebrities who can be wheeled out to do just that at regular intervals. Does he win by distracting us all from his appalling agenda? With his base, perhaps. The Beltway chattering classes will be less impressed, and he loses any pretence at gravitas - it’s very dangerous to a politician to become a figure of fun. Still less those he needs to work with directly to get anything done. The Presidency will be a very taxing job, and you can only stay on top of it by shutting out distractions, and getting a full night’s sleep.

Trump’s mental competence

I dunno, but there are grounds for worry.

Commenter randomchick made an interesting point over at Kevin Drum’s on Trump’s impromptu press conference with Don King - some footage here.

What I found odd about this insane Q and A session wasn’t the lying… that’s to be expected and thank Jeebus reported. It wasn’t even the incoherent rambling. It was that he didn’t know anyone’s name or title. He referred to Johns Hopkins and the Cleveland and Mayo clinics’ representatives as “the three top people” and whoever he talked to at Sprint as “the top person”. How the hell does he not even know these people’s names or titles? Dude’s short term memory is non-existent. In addition to tax return disclosure, California, please add MRI test results to your eligibility requirements. I have a feeling Trump’s would look like a moth eaten Afghan.

I throw this into the ring for more expert comments. What I’ve been told is that short-term memory declines normally with age (where did I leave the TV remote?) and this is not a sign of the disease of dementia. On the other hand, politicians are normally very good at remembering names and enough other details to give the appearance of personal interest (“Give my regards to Laura”). Trump is not a professional politician, but you would think the same should hold for real estate developers, reliant on their network of business and political contacts. There’s a large and structured trove of data in the open about Trump’s behaviour in the form of his long-running TV shows. Has he recently shown signs of forgetting the names of contestants?

Trump did not only fail to release his tax records, his published medical ones were a joke. Trump’s personal doctor. He is 70, borderline obese (clinically obese if he’s lying about his weight and height, as seems likely), physically unfit, and can’t stick to the point when he speaks extempore. There are reasons for concern whether he will be physically and mentally capable of serving four years in one of the most demanding jobs in the world.

The USA has detailed rules for dealing with an incompetent President, in Article II.1.6 of the Constitution, Section 4 of the 25th Amendment, and the Presidential Succession Act. A nice clean heart attack, or a paralysing stroke like Wilson’s, are fairly straightforward cases. Progressive Alzheimer’s like Reagan’s is a much harder one. One way or another, there’s a fair chance Pence will be President well before 2020.

“. . . 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.

Civil Disobedience in the Age of Trump

For the first time in my life, I am contemplating going to jail in an act of civil disobedience if President-elect Trump moves against people registered for DACA or carries out some of his other campaign promises. I’m not eager to get locked up, but I’d be at peace with it, too.

I wrote about my thinking today at the Nation.

My greatest fear, when I ponder going to jail, is that my 53-year-old prostate wouldn’t be able to handle the long wait until I am booked. Before Election Day, it seemed a little crazy to imagine that I would ever be behind bars. Now it seems a little crazy that the country would be where we are. Like many others, I am weighing what I am willing and able to do in response.

Henry David Thoreau begins his 1849 essay On the duty of civil disobedience with a timely question: “This American government—what is it but a tradition, though a recent one, endeavoring to transmit itself unimpaired to posterity, but in each instant losing some of its integrity?” American government lost more than some of its integrity on November 8, when Donald Trump was elected to succeed Barack Obama as President of the United States…

[S]erious as they are, Trump’s personal improprieties and financial conflicts are not what lead me to ponder chaining myself to a courthouse door. Like no other president-elect in generations, he bluntly challenges bedrock norms of our pluralist democracy. That’s what Trump’s challenges to President Obama’s birth certificate and college transcripts were really about.

More here.

Donald Trump just appointed an Ambassador to Israel who has called me a murderer. Am I supposed to be OK with that?

The latest line being pushed by Trumpsters, Republicans, and some Very Serious People, including my good friends Gleen Loury and Megan McArdle, is roughly: “You lost. Get over it. Trump will be our President, and we all need him to succeed. Don’t rock the boat by questioning his legitimacy.”

I hear that. A generation of slash-and-burn Republicanism has so weakened all of our key institutions, and the norms of restraint, civility, and reciprocity necessary to make a Madisonian regime operate, that the survival of the Republic is now genuinely in question. There’s a case to be made for pretending that Donald Trump is a normal human being and hoping that he will stop his pathological lying and grow up to be a real, live President. Barack Obama, the victim of Trump’s systematic campaign of libel (enabled by Fox News and many Republican politicians) acted on that idea at yesterday’s press conference.

But I’m not buying.

A seemingly minor appointment illustrates why I’m not buying, and why I will never accept Trump as holding anything but the limited legal powers the Constitution gives the President: no moral authority, no call on our cooperation, no presumption of good will or good faith, no presumption even that he is acting out of loyalty to the national interest.

Two days ago Trump appointed as Ambassador to Israel a man named David Friedman, his personal bankruptcy lawyer (which, as you might imagine, makes him a very important person to a professional bust-out artist such as Trump). Naturally, Friedman is a lunatic extremist when it comes to the Israel/Palestine question, asserting that Israel should deny voting rights and public services to its Arab citizens unless they pass some sort of loyalty test and that it is free to rule the West Bank indefinitely while extending no civic rights to its inhabitants and stealing as much of their land as it pleases for settlements. Indeed, he runs a non-profit designed to support one such venture, grossly illegal not only under international law but actually under Israeli law, as the Israeli courts have repeatedly ruled.

Well, that’s no surprise. It’s not even very important, since the Ambassador doesn’t make policy.

But Friedman’s hatred of Palestinians extends - as is often the case among right-wing Jewish extremists - to hatred of all Jews who aren’t right-wing extremists. As recently as June, Friedman published an essay in which he said that members of J Street - the moderate Zionist group that favors a two-state solution - are “far worse than kapos - Jews who turned in their fellow Jews in the Nazi death camps.”

Kapos were accomplices in mass murder. Some were killed by their fellow prisoners when the camps were liberated. Some of them were tried and executed for war crimes. Even years later, they were at risk of extrajudicial vengeance: undoubtedly illegal, but widely thought to be justified.

Now, as it happens, I’m a member of J Street. So Trump just nominated someone who called me a murderer, and implicitly called for my murder in turn. Of course I don’t expect to actually share the fate of Yitzhak Rabin - murdered by one of the illegal settlers Friedman supports, someone who had listened to the kind of rhetoric Friedman spouts and took it literally - but I resent it all the same, just as I resent Trump’s collusion in making anti-Semitism one again an active factor in American life. Of course liberal Jews are not the only objects of Trumpian hate speech, but equally of course I tend to take hate speech personally when it personally applies to me.

We’ve heard a lot from the right wing about how liberals get the terrorism problem wrong because we fail to understand radical evil. There’s some justice to that claim and I’m working to improve in that regard.  So I’m glad to report having made enough progress that I recognize radical evil when it moves into the White House.






Our electors, ourselves

The revelations in the past few days about Russian interference in the election actually gave me great relief-because, of course, everything that happens is about me! Now those who’ve been rolling their eyes at my paranoid fantasies of Putin-inspired hacking and leaking and disabling the voter protection hotline will have to concede that paranoia is, in this case, completely justified.

More important-and more seriously-the revelations crystallized my view that the outcome of this Presidential election reflects not a simple disagreement about policy but an actual threat to our system of government. And, again, if that sounds alarmist, you haven’t been paying enough attention.

But I know you all have been paying attention; SO! What to do? A group of us who worked together on Hillary’s campaign are contacting every Republican elector in the country, asking all of them to withhold their votes from Donald Trump. We’re calling, we’re emailing, we’re snail-mailing-and we’re doing it all RIGHT NOW, because the Electoral College meets in 5 days, on Monday, December 19, and it’s our last line of defense against having a Russian puppet in the White House.

If you can spare time in the next day or so, I urge you to do the same. You will find a list of GOP electors, with all their e-mail contact information, here. My letter, which you’re welcome to crib if you find it useful, is here. The essential thing is to write now, and to treat these people with whom we disagree so strongly as fellow and sister patriots with whom we hope to ally in defense of the Constitution. What a concept: speaking civilly and rationally to our opponents!

You may well think this is a futile endeavor; but I can only quote Father Daniel Berrigan: “Start with the impossible. Proceed calmly towards the improbable. No worry, there are at least five exits.” And, as he also said, “Faith is rarely where your head is at. Nor is it where your heart is at. Faith is where your ass is at!”

Mine’s in front of my computer.

Trump’s German debt bomb

Merkel has the power to bring down Trump, through the Deutsche Bank loans.

Deutsche Bank is in trouble. WSJ in September, December.

The $14bn fine levied on the bank by the US Justice Department has exposed Deutsche’s thin capital cushion. It is retrenching, and struggling to avoid a bailout. The German government’s formal position is against bailouts. But that’s for show: you always deny these things to the last minute, like devaluations. In reality, it could not afford to let the country’s largest bank (and the 11th in the world) crash. We can safely assume Bundesbank and Finance Ministry officials are riding herd on the bank’s every move and keeping up the pressure.

The bank is also the largest creditor of the Trump Organization, to the tune of $364 million. Which creates a very interesting situation for all parties, in the sense of the Chinese curse. Continue reading “Trump’s German debt bomb”