Party before country

There are still people who think a Republican Congress will impeach Trump if he goes too far off the rails. Given how Republican office holders have dealt with Trump to date, this seems like wishful thinking at best, dangerous delusion at worst. In light of this latest WaPo article, I’m moving in the direction of delusion.

A bipartisan group of Congressional leaders were presented with evidence that Russia was involved not just with disrupting our election, but with attempting to throw the election to Trump. Mitch McConnell, Senate majority leader, refused to do anything, and without bipartisan agreement, the Obama administration wouldn’t make the information public out of fear of being accused of using the information for partisan purposes. In other words, McConnell had no problem with blocking the informant for partisan purposes. He’d rather see a Russian puppet elected president than risk his majority.

Still feel good about a Republican Congress restraining Trump? Who’s going to restrain them?

War on Taxes

America has been fighting a war on taxes for thirty years, and this is one war we’ve won, though that hasn’t stopped us from fighting or believing that we are over-taxed. Trump, in one of his many lies, claimed that American corporations were taxed more heavily than in any other country. Even if corporations actually paid their taxes, it wouldn’t be true, but as this Bloomberg article explains, many of our corporations park a lot of money offshore. Then they take advantage of a loophole to get paid for doing so.

Trump is likely to propose a repatriation tax holiday to allow companies to bring that money back into the US, on the theory that they will invest it in jobs. Not likely. This has been tried before, under George W. Bush. The money brought back goes into rewarding shareholders and executives through stock buybacks and bonuses, not into hiring. Apple, the biggest user of this mechanism, is not going to start manufacturing iPhones in America because of a tax holiday. They’re not going to hire a bunch of people. They can do that already; they can borrow money at low interest rates and deduct the interest to reduce the little tax they do pay if they needed to hire more people.

They will take the tax holiday, push up their stock price by buying back stock, and go right back to stashing the cash overseas, waiting for the next tax holiday.

Links of the day

I’m mulling over some thoughts about the press, fake news, Silicon Valley, and values, but they’re still cooking. In the meantime, here are some interesting things I’ve found.

The Bloomberg Jealousy List for 2016 is out, stories so good they wish they’d done them. The green background is awful, but the stories are good. One of my favorites from the list is this WSJ article about the Theranos whistleblower, who just happens to be the grandson of George Schultz.

This FiveThirtyEight article about the Waffle House Index is really about supply chains, one of those wonky infrastructure things nobody thinks about until they fail. Modern supply chains are long and complex, and if we’re going to take simplistic approaches to trade, for example, we ought to learn more about them.

Crony capitalism. Good thing so much effort was spent investigating the Clinton Foundation.

Nope, not gonna pretend Trump’s win isn’t about race.

This WaPo article about the right wing crazies who believed Clinton was running a child trafficking ring out of a DC pizza place is just nuts.

Whither the Church?

In the wake of an election in which a majority of white Christians voted for a candidate who ran an explicitly racist, misogynistic, xenophobic campaign, what is the role of the church? What is the responsibility of a Christian in a Trump presidency?

My Episcopal diocese has addressed an open letter to Trump, urging him to denounce acts of violence and hate. There’s nothing I disagree with in the letter, but it’s pretty weak tea. Our bishop posted this on his blog after the election, reminding us that we are not enemies but friends. Again, it’s not that there’s anything to disagree with, but I feel like there’s something essential missing.

Where is the call to consider our actions and choices, things done and left undone? How can there be reconciliation if we simply ignore what happened, or pretend that a normal campaign happened? What is our responsibility? What are the moral consequences of our vote?

Some may argue that a vote for Clinton was an immoral vote because of her support for reproductive rights. I agree that a choice about reproductive rights is a moral one; I just disagree that supporting a woman’s agency and autonomy over medical choices is immoral. Because I think that it is a moral choice to support a woman in that choice, I accept other consequences of that decision. I support sex education that enables women to make informed decisions. I support birth control access so that women will find themselves with an unwanted pregnancy less often. I support aid for families and children and support for quality child care, so that terminating a pregnancy doesn’t become an economic choice. I accept that supporting reproductive rights entails responsibility for more than just support for a decision made at one point in time.

I believe a vote for Trump at the very least is a tacit acceptance of racism and bigotry. This was no dog-whistle campaign; Trump began by calling Mexicans rapists, questioned the integrity of a judge of Mexican descent, spoke disparagingly and disrespectfully of women, and consistently scapegoating the vulnerable, going so far as to mock a disabled reporter. None of this was hidden or exaggerated by the media; we all saw Trump do these things. A majority of white Christians voted for him anyway.

In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King calls out the white church, writing

I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

I feel like I’m watching a church that prefers the absence of tension to the presence of justice, that’s happy to send letters and urge action outside its walls, but unwilling to risk the self-examination necessary for real change, and the upheaval that causes. It is a risk. It is raw and it is painful and nobody ever wants to do it. I just don’t see what reconciliation means without it, and I’m having a hard time sitting in church right now because it feels like nobody sees that.

 

National Museum of African American History and Culture 

On my last day in DC, I decided to try to see the NMAAHC. As part of the Smithsonian, entrance is free, but entry is via timed tickets because of the popularity of the museum. Advance timed entry tickets are all gone through March 2017, but if you walk up, there may be some same day tickets available. Luckily, I had no trouble getting in.

I didn’t have time to see everything at the museum, so I decided to focus on the three floors of history and skip the culture floors on this trip. Even so, I couldn’t really take in all the history, both because of time and because of the volume of information. The history exhibits are designed in a way I like, where you are taken along a path that tells a story, with artifacts, text, and multimedia support to inform you along the way. I think I could go along that path 4-5 times and still be digging in at new depths.

The artifacts that moved me the most were from the wreck of a Spanish ship that had carried Africans to be sold as slaves. On display were some big pieces of iron, shaped vaguely like railroad ties. These were ballast; human beings were lighter than other types of cargo, and so iron ballast was needed to balance the weight of the ship. Humans reduced to a logistical problem.

The most compelling, disturbing, and emotional multimedia exhibit included an interview with Emmitt Till’s mother discussing seeing her son’s body. He had been badly beaten, and his face was grotesquely damaged. She chose to have an open casket funeral, so everyone would see what she had seen, and see the atrocities committed on her son. There was no picture of the body, but hearing her describe the injuries was stomach-turning. Emmitt Till was 14 years old when he was murdered because he had spoken to a 21 year old white woman while visiting Mississippi. 

The majority of my fellow visitors to the museum were African American. I hope more whites visit the museum as well, to gain a better understanding of how deeply race is embedded in our system. We are not a post-racial society, we are not a color blind society, and never will be as long as we refuse to face how big an impact slavery has had on every aspect of our country. The effects continue to reverberate, because so many choices in our constitution were compromises about slavery. We can’t “get past race” by ignoring our history.

SCOTUS

Thanks to the ACLU (please donate!), I attended an argument at the US Supreme Court today. The case was Moore v. Texas, a death penalty case. The Texas Tribune has a good summary of the case here.

Court begins at 10, but we had to be there between 9 and 9:30. There’s a line out front of people hoping to get a seat, but since we had reserved seating, we bypassed that line. We entered to the left of the big steps, and went through the first level of security. Then we were directed to another guard, who showed us to lockers where we could store our belongings. The only things you can take into the court are a pad of paper and a writing instrument. After we put our stuff in a locker, we were sent to the Marshall, who checked off our name, put us through another security check, and directed us to the nice young women who were seating people. We had to wait there until there were enough people to fill a row, and then we were all led into the courtroom to be seated. 

The courtroom is appropriately awesome. Probably 50 feet high, with 8 columns on each side and 4 in front and back, marvelous friezes carved above the columns and rosettes in the ceiling, quiet was required at all times in the room. If the sound got about the barest whisper, a frowning man with a buzz cut, and earpiece, and a wrist mic asked us all to keep our voices down, please. Members of the bar sit in seats behind the attorneys arguing the case, the press sits on the left, and guests of the justices sit on the right. There were a number of attorneys being admitted to the bar today, so that section was fairly full.

At 9:45, the attorneys arguing the case came in, and around this time, aides were bringing in papers and drinks for the justices and arranging things to their liking. (Justice Breyer drinks tea.) At 10, we all rise, the justices come in, and we’re off.

Today, Justice Ginsburg first read an unanimous opinion from the court in Bravo-Fernandez. RBG looked really frail to my eyes, and her voice was hoarse. Her jabot was quite sparkly, though. After Ginsburg read the opinion, the attorneys being admitted to the SCOTUS bar were presented and sworn in, then it was time for argument.

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the court…

The issue in Moore v. Texas concerns the criteria used by Texas to determine whether someone is too intellectually disabled to be executed. In Atkins v. Virginia, the court had determined that intellectually disabled people could not be executed, and in Hall v. Florida, the court had ruled that the determination of intellectually disability should be informed by medical standards. Texas, instead, uses a standard from Briseno, which claims that medical standards are too subjective, and seems to allow for a standard based on what Texas citizens would judge to be intellectually disabled.

Sloan, the attorney for Moore, was making the case that Texas didn’t use clinical standards to determine intellectually disability, instead relying on a framework that depended on stereotype and vagueness and in fact, was counter to clinical standards. A defendant could be determined by experts to be intellectually disabled and still not meet the standards in Texas. Keller, the Solicitor General of Texas, argued that Texas did use a system consistent with the SC opinions because the court had given the states leeway in how to apply the opinion and because Texas used a three prong test as laid out by the court. In effect, he was arguing that we do use modern clinical standards, and even if we don’t, it doesn’t matter.

The challenge in this case, as highlighted by Justice Breyer, is that it involves a defendant of mild intellectual disability. It’s a borderline case; how do we set the border? Justice Sotomayor asked Keller if Texas had found any mildly disabled defendant unworthy of being executed, and Keller didn’t really have an answer for her. 

Justice Alito was pretty hostile to Sloan, CJ Roberts didn’t say much but seems unlikely to be friendly, and Justice Thomas, of course, didn’t say a word. He spent a lot of time leaned back in his chair (the justices have chairs that rock back), looking up at the ceiling, or talking to an aide about something. Justices Kennedy, Breyer, Ginsberg, Kagan, and Sotomayor all seemed friendlier to Sloan than to Keller, for what that’s worth, so it seems possible at least that Moore’s death penalty will be overturned and Texas’ criteria will be forced to modernize some. Had the election turned out differently, the end of the death penalty might be in sight, but I don’t think Kennedy can be pushed that far now. 

On a gossipy note, I saw Nina Totenberg in the courtroom, and Eliot Spitzer was there for some reason. I had lunch afterwards with an ACLU attorney, and got to meet the retiring legal director of the ACLU, Steve Shapiro, before he caught the train to NY. This was his last time at the court as the legal director; his last day is Friday. He’s done a lot of great work for the ACLU, and I’ll miss him on the end of term conference calls the ACLU does wrapping up the SC cases.

Listening to Trump

We know Trump lies constantly, about anything and everything.  Too much of the media still hasn’t come to terms with this, and doesn’t know what to do in a world where both-siderism presents an active harm to the country.

But at the same time, we obviously can’t ignore what Trump says. The first rule of surviving autocracy is believing what the autocrat says. How do you believe someone who lies all the time?

I once worked on a project where I was the engineering team and the customer support staff. There was no one else. What I learned was to listen to my customers but ignore what they said. Customers would come to me with solutions to their problems; I had to figure out what their problems were, so that I could solve their problems in the best context of the entire system. The same can be applied to Trump.

Obviously, there weren’t millions of illegal votes cast for Clinton, as Trump claimed. Who knows whether Trump himself believes that or not. Millions of his supporters, getting their news from Infowars and Breitbart amplified by Facebook, will believe it, though. Too much of the mainstream media is still reluctant to call obvious untruths lies. Trump might even say tomorrow that he never said it. That doesn’t mean we can ignore it, not with people like Steve Bannon, Jeff Sessions, and Kris Kobach surrounding Trump.

The Republican Party has been systematically working to limit access to voting. The conservative members of the Supreme Court did serious damage to the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County. If Jeff Sessions is confirmed as Attorney General, he will be in charge of making decisions about what the Justice Department does (or does not do) in support of voting rights. Kris Kobach has been aggressive in the fight to limit voting access. Steve Bannon is a white nationalist. These are the people who will take advantage of what Trump says to drive their agenda. I don’t believe that Trump is playing some deep game here; I think he says whatever makes him feel the biggest and the best in the moment. But the people around him do know how to use him to drive an agenda.