Malacandra.me

Bipartisan Concerns

He concerns me. He would have to concern anyone who cares about our nation. ... Look, except for a few people, the vast majority of our caucus understands what we’re dealing with here.

- Senator Bob Corker (R-TN), discussing President Trump yesterday

This week's featured post is "Misunderstood Things: 10-9-2017", where I discuss gun deaths and tax simplification.

This week everybody was talking about guns

The more we find out about Stephen Paddock, the more he looks like a white guy with a lot of guns. No one has uncovered a political or religious agenda behind the Las Vegas massacre. He just wanted to kill a lot of people and had the means to do it.


In The Atlantic, David Frum lays out "The Rules of the Gun Debate". He's pointing to the formulaic nature of the debate, in which anything likely to change either the frequency of mass killings or the number of gun deaths each year is eliminated before the discussion starts. Fundamentally, he says, the United States has too many guns that move around too freely.

a society is in a much better position to stop shooting deaths when it can tightly regulate the buying and carrying of weapons long before they are ever used to murder anybody. In all but a half dozen American states, it would be perfectly legal for people like the Charlie Hebdo killers to walk to the very front door of their targets with their rifles slung over their shoulders, lawful responsible gun owners to the very second before they opened fire on massed innocents.

... in an America where guns were viewed as they are in Australia or Canada, the project of moving two dozen of them into a hotel suite would likely be detected somewhere along the way. The person moving those guns would find himself in trouble—not for murder—but for some petty gun infraction. His weapons might be confiscated, or he himself sent to prison for some months. His plan would be interrupted very likely without anyone ever imagining what had been contemplated. Mass shootings so seldom happen in other countries not because they have developed carefully crafted policies against shootings, but because they have instituted broad policies to restrict guns.

He also points to a cultural change we need to prevent the much-more-frequent suicides, accidents, and fatal escalations of ordinary disputes:

Gun safety begins, then, not with technical fixes, but with spreading the truthful information: people who bring guns into their homes are endangering themselves and their loved ones.

I'm wondering if we need some anti-gun commercials similar to the ones that have been made to de-glamorize smoking. Nothing about statistics or laws, just a guy proudly showing his friends his vast gun collection, but rather than impressing them, he has creeped them out.


The gun control debate seems muted this time, with advocates having a hopeless tone in their voices. I don't know how many times I've heard someone say, "If Sandy Hook didn't change anything ..."

Still, things that can't go on forever don't. The potential destructiveness of individuals keeps going up, and with it the size of mass killings. It stunned the nation in 1966 when a sniper killed 14 strangers in Texas. This time 58 died and more than 500 were injured. If nothing changes, someday it will be 100 dead, then a thousand. Is there really no point at which something changes?


Las Vegas isn't the biggest mass killing in U.S. history, but you probably didn't hear about the others in school, because the victims were black or Native American and the killers were white.

and Iran

The Washington Post reported Thursday that Trump is planning to decertify the deal the Obama administration negotiated to halt Iran's nuclear weapons program. Iran appears to be fulfilling its obligations under the agreement, but Trump is expected to say in a speech Thursday that the agreement is "not in the national interest". Congress would then have 60 days to reimpose the sanctions the agreement relaxed, which would probably scuttle the whole thing, ticking off a bunch of our allies. Iran would then be free to construct a nuclear weapon as fast as it could.

Try as I might, I can't see an achievable goal here. The reason the Obama sanctions were so crippling for Iran was that all the major players backed them. (The agreement in question isn't just between us and the Iranians. The UK, France, China, Russia, and Germany are also involved, and none of them are expressing regrets.) If we unilaterally screw up the agreement and go back to sanctions, we're unlikely to get a similar level of cooperation. So with less pressure on the Iranians this time, why will they give us more concessions?

I suppose Trump might be imagining that the Iranians will capitulate in the face of his resolve and negotiating skills, but seriously, where is the evidence for that view? And why would they offer any new concessions, when they know Trump reneges on deals and could just come back for more concessions later? (As I pointed out when the deal was first announced, there's a Munich analogy to be made here, but we're in the Germany role.)

Or maybe he thinks the Iranian public will rise up and overthrow their government if we put enough pressure on their economy, but I don't think that's how it works. People tend to rally around their government when foreign powers try to dominate it. Hardliners will argue that they tried to settle peaceably with the Americans, but Trump has no interest in anything but Iran's surrender. Iranian democracy activists will look like traitorous American agents.

Neither of those upbeat possibilities is anywhere near as likely as this one: Iran will go full speed towards a nuclear weapon and dare us to either accept it or start a war. (Remember: Iran is three times the size of Iraq.)


Another example of Trump's if-you-demand-it-they-will-fold approach is the renegotiation of NAFTA, which doesn't appear to be going very well. So far the Trump administration's demands are short on specifics, and it's not clear he has the backing in Congress to approve whatever changes he might get.

As the son of an Illinois farmer (now deceased), I keep wondering when heartland farmers will notice how consistently Trump is selling them out on trade. Mexico may run a trade surplus with us in general, but it imports a lot of corn and soybeans. The Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement that Trump pulled out of had debatable effects in general, but it would have been great for farm exports.


Speaking of reneging on deals and making big demands, Trump has released his conditions for giving legal status to the Dreamers currently protected by the Obama DACA program that Trump is ending. It includes stuff that the outline-of-a-deal he agreed to with Democratic leaders explicitly ruled out, like building his wall. As president, he continues to deal with everybody the way he dealt with subcontractors in his real estate business or students at Trump U: No deal is ever complete; there's always another opportunity to cheat people.

and Trump's visit to Puerto Rico

Univision radio host Jay Fonseca and Puerto Rican lawyer Leo Aldridge had this reaction:

We were waiting for a Marshall Plan, something announcing the rebuilding of Puerto Rico. What we got was more congratulations for his own administration. Instead of showing compassion for the most vulnerable, he went to visit the richest areas of the island.

They warn that many Puerto Ricans are leaving the island for the mainland -- which they can do freely, since they're U.S. citizens. This could change the politics of the states they move to, since they can vote as soon as they establish residency, just like any other Americans who move to a new state.

The NYT suggests Florida could see a shift: Puerto Ricans were already passing Cubans as the largest Hispanic ethnic group in the state, and the current crisis might bring 100,000 more. Like Latinos in general, Puerto Ricans in the 50 states haven't been voting in their full numbers. But Trump's disrespect might motivate them.


BTW: Does anyone doubt that Puerto Rico would have been a state long ago if its people were white and spoke English as their first language?


Plenty of people noted how weird and self-centered Trump was in Puerto Rico. But by now, that's not really news. Maybe instead we should be reminding ourselves how our leaders used to act, so that Trump doesn't become a new model for our lowered expectations. (If you want a list of all the ways Trump has changed presidential behavior for the worse, the NYT has one.)

For example, this was candidate Obama visiting the town where I grew up during the 2008 Mississippi River floods. It's hard to imagine Trump, either before or after the election, just pitching in and talking to other volunteers about the disaster, rather than about himself, his popularity, or how great he is.

The point, of course, isn't that Obama's sandbags made some huge difference. (Who knows how many he actually filled before the cameras were turned off and he went to his next campaign event?) The point is that American leaders should model good citizenship, and demonstrate that no one is too important to pitch in.

Similarly, after the softball-practice shooting that wounded Congressman Steve Scalise, Vice President Pence donated blood. Who knows where Pence's pint actually went? But whether his blood type matched any of the victims or not, he responded to a tragedy by modeling public-spirited behavior.

and his other feuds

During the Obama administration, there was a certain amount of comparatively dignified back-and-forth between the President and Republican leaders like John Boehner. You expect that kind of thing in any democracy, as the leaders of different parties disagree with each other and jockey for public support.

What's different this time is the vitriol between Trump and his own party, and sometimes his own people. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is currently in the doghouse for calling Trump "a moron" in front of witnesses in July, maybe with an extra expletive attached. Tillerson pointedly refused to deny making the comment, and there was considerable discussion this week of how long Tillerson and Trump will be able to stand working together.

(My own opinion is that Tillerson's security clearance should be revoked, which would make it impossible for him to continue as Secretary of State. If he blurts out that Trump is a moron, how can we trust him not to reveal other sensitive information?)


And then there was this weekend's exchange between Trump and Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, which resulted Saturday in Corker referring to the White House as an "adult daycare center" and charging that Trump's tweets indicated that "Someone obviously missed their shift this morning."

This isn't like Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity railing against Obama. They had no responsibilities, but were just trying to appeal to an audience of partisans who hated Obama from the moment they saw him. Quite the opposite, these are officials publicly allied with Trump, who have tried to work with him and can't.

BTW, if Tillerson has to be replaced, the nominee will have to be cleared by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by Corker.

James Fallows has advice for Corker:

He could urge his colleagues toward the next step through their stages-of-tragedy relationship with Trump. Stage one was carping and dismissal during the first half of 2016, when he was an entertaining long-shot . Stage two was Vichy-regime acquiescence to him during the campaign. Stage three was “support” early this year, toward the goal of the Gorsuch confirmation and the hope of a tax-cut bill. Now we see the inklings of stage four, with the dawning awareness of what Corker spelled out: that they have empowered something genuinely dangerous. It’s time for Corker to act on that knowledge, and his colleagues too.


Trump sent Mike Pence to Indianapolis to keep his NFL feud bubbling. Pence made a big show of leaving the Colts/49ers game when some players kneeled for the national anthem.

The whole idea that kneeling "disrespects our soldiers, our Flag, or our National Anthem" (as Pence tweeted) is absurd. I can't think of any other situation where kneeling is a form of disrespect: Are Catholics disrespecting the altars in their churches? Are guys who kneel to propose disrespecting their girlfriends?

No, the protest isn't about respect for the flag, it's about racism. That's why it upsets people.

Remember: there was no reason for the president to get involved in this controversy to begin with, and he only drew more attention to it. Trump came into the controversy to once again reassure racists that he's on their side. Apparently he thinks that position is working for him, so he wants to keep the feud going.

and church and state

The administration loosened the guidelines for when businesses can refuse to offer their female employees contraception coverage on religious grounds. Also this week, Attorney General Sessions issued a memo changing government policy on "religious liberty", which in many cases will trump anti-discrimination laws.

This all fits in with my prior conviction: None of it is about actual religious liberty. It's about special rights for certain popular varieties of Christianity. You can see that in the immediate focus on contraception, which started out as a Catholic issue and was picked up by some Protestants. Why is this -- and sexuality in general -- the government's central "religious liberty" focus, rather than situations where government policy impacts vegetarians or pacifists or environmentalists? Those can be religious positions too, but who in the administration cares about them?

I felt the same way about the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby decision.

Given that this principle will produce complete anarchy if generally applied, it won’t be generally applied. Contrary to Alito’s assertion, judges will have to decide whether the chains of moral logic people assert are reasonable or not. ... In practice, a belief will seem reasonable if a judge agrees with it. That’s what happened in this case: Five male Catholic judges ruled that Catholic moral principles trump women’s rights. Three Jews and a female Catholic disagreed.

and you also might be interested in ...

Jacob Levy calls for reconstructing American libertarianism as if black liberty mattered.

Not to put too fine a point on it, those who proclaim their commitment to freedom have all too often assessed threats to freedom as if those facing  African-Americans don’t count — as if black liberty does not matter.

And so, America is the freest nation on Earth -- if you ignore the mass incarceration of black men, or the large number of them who get killed by police.

Think about the different ways that market liberals and libertarians talk about “welfare” from how they talk about other kinds of government redistribution. There’s no talk of the culture of dependence among farmers, although they receive far more government aid per capita than do the urban poor. Libertarians absolutely and clearly oppose corporate welfare, but they don’t do so in the paternalistic language that corporate welfare recipients are morally hurt by being on the dole. The white welfare state of the 1930s-60s that channeled government support for, e.g., housing, urban development, and higher education through segregated institutions has a way of disappearing from the historical memory; the degrees earned and homes bought get remembered as hard work contributing to the American dream. But too many libertarians and their market-oriented allies among postwar conservatives treated the more racially inclusive welfare state of the 1960s and 70s as different in kind. ... [O]nce the imagined typical welfare recipient was a black mother, welfare became a matter not just of economic or constitutional concern but of moral panic about parasites, fraud, and the long-term collapse of self-reliance.

... And the conviction that freedom of speech is mostly threatened by “political correctness” in American life, that saying racist things is a brave stand against censorship, that calling what someone else says “racist” is pretty much like censoring them—these are important facts about American political discourse today.


I love this comic strip at Splinter News. A guy in the present is anti-Black-Lives-Matter, but claims he's not a racist, and that he would totally have supported Martin Luther King in the 1950s. A fairy gives him his back-to-the-future wish, where an anti-MLK guy repeats the same arguments he'd been making against BLM. Convinced, he now is against MLK too, but believes he'd totally be an abolitionist if he were back in the 1800s. Here's one panel:


Congressman Tim Murphy (R-PA) got caught in a major episode of hypocrisy this week. Tuesday, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette released text messages in which Murphy's mistress took him to task for his public anti-abortion stance, when he had suggested she get an abortion during a pregnancy scare. Wednesday, he announced he would not be running for re-election in 2018. Thursday, he resigned from Congress.

If you're pro-choice, you probably read this with a sense of vindication: Not even anti-abortion congressmen really believe the rhetoric they spout. But I wonder if voters on the other side interpret the story differently: The fact that even a pro-life congressman would want to kill his unborn child just shows the importance of making abortion illegal; personal conviction is not enough to keep us on the straight and narrow when temptation pressures us to sin. A parallel might be the alcoholic who favors prohibition: "I want a law getting rid of alcohol, because if the stuff is available, I know I'll drink it."


For a year or so I've been telling people to read Misbehaving, Richard Thaler's entertaining biography of himself and his field (behavioral economics). Well, he just won the Nobel Prize.


The administration is continuing to sabotage ObamaCare.

and let's close by getting medieval

Maybe you already know how to walk like an Egyptian without falling down like a domino, but can you walk like it's 999?