Malacandra.me

Emergency Measures

No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law.

- US Constitution, Article I, Section 9

QUESTION: So you don't need congressional approval to build the wall?

TRUMP: No, we can use -- absolutely. We can call a national emergency because of the security of our country, absolutely. No, we can do it. I haven't done it. I may do it. I may do it, but we could call a national emergency and build it very quickly.

- press conference January 4

This week's featured posts are "Another Week in the Post-Truth Administration" and "Ralph Northam and the Limits of Forgiveness".

This week everybody was talking about the budget negotiations

But nobody was saying anything terribly insightful about them. The government is funded through February 15, so the conference committee has until then to make a deal. Maybe they'll succeed and maybe they won't. But whatever deal does or doesn't happen, it won't be negotiated in public. The way these things usually go is that there appears to be no deal until suddenly there is one. Speculation is always titillating, but we're in a phase where we just have to wait and see.

and the weather

How cold was it? In Chicago, transit crews were setting the train tracks on fire to keep them from freezing over.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0HHqZMHRJQ8

Of course, people who don't understand the science raised the usual question: How can there be global warming if it's so cold out?

The answer (from Science Alert) is that there's been a weird airflow pattern, not that the planet as a whole is actually colder than usual. The North Pole was having a heat wave, relatively speaking, after sending much of its cold air south. (It's like when you stand in front of an open refrigerator door. You're not eliminating warmth, you're just reshuffling it.)

A condensed version of Science Alert's explanation: Melting ice in the Arctic is causing it to reflect less sunlight and absorb more heat. This lowers the temperature differential between the Pole and lower latitudes. Ordinarily, the polar vortex is a high-altitude "river of wind" that is more-or-less circular around the Pole. But the lower temperature differential slows that river down and makes its course more erratic. So occasionally it dips south, carrying polar cold into lower latitudes.

So yes, strange as it sounds, this week's record cold across the northern and eastern US was in fact evidence of global warming. (This kind of weather will probably happen more often as climate change continues.) And even as the weather was far colder than usual where I live, it was still warmer than usual when you look at the whole Earth.

and Governor Northam

One of this week's featured posts compares Northam to past Democratic figures like Robert Byrd and George Wallace, both of whom were allowed a measure of redemption.

But a second issue concerns double standards for Democrats and Republicans. Florida Secretary of State Michael Ertel had to resign last week because of blackface photos: He wore blackface to make fun of victims of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. That case didn't arouse my sympathy. So am I applying different standards to Republicans?

The answer is: Yes I am, and I don't apologize for it.

Here's why: Questions of racism get raised by standard Republican positions on issues that come up every day. When you denounce "amnesty" for the undocumented, are you concerned about the rule of law, or are you really thinking that there are already too many brown people in the US? (I mean, why can't we have more immigration from Norway?) Is it an unfortunate coincidence that your anti-voter-fraud measures suppress the black and Hispanic vote, or is that the point? Are you really supporting your local police, or do you just not care when officers kill young black men? Do you think the government spends too much, or just that it spends too much on people who don't look like you?

When a politician's positions on current issues already raise questions about racism, then evidence of racism in his or her past ought to have increased significance.

and national emergencies

The concept of a national emergency is simple: Congress moves more slowly than the Executive Branch. Recognizing that, Congress pre-authorizes the President to take timely actions in situations that are moving too fast for a congressional response.

A national emergency formalizes what President Lincoln did at the beginning of the Civil War: take immediate necessary actions and ask Congress for its approval some other time. (From Lincoln's message to a special session of Congress assembled on July 4, 1861: "It was with the deepest regret that the Executive found the duty of employing the war power in defense of the Government forced upon him. He could but perform this duty or surrender the existence of the Government.")

I haven't read the national emergency laws, so I can't say for sure what they do or don't allow. But I do know this: What Trump is proposing (to declare a national emergency so that he can build his Wall without the approval of Congress) invalidates the whole justification of national emergencies.

The situation at the border is largely unchanged since Trump took office, except for humanitarian problems he has caused himself by mistreating refugees. (He could solve those problems without declaring an emergency, just by reversing his own policies.) Events are not moving too fast for Congress to react. In fact, Congress has acted; it just hasn't done what Trump wanted.

To declare an emergency under these circumstances would be an authoritarian act, an abuse of power that could well be impeachable. The President would not be getting out in front of Congress, he would be circumventing Congress.

He would also be defying the will of the American people. Trump is a minority president, elected with 46% of the vote, nearly 3 million fewer votes than his main opponent. He has remained unpopular throughout his administration; his approval rating has never hit 50%. More recently, Democrats won a majority in the House of Representatives with 53% of the vote. It is Pelosi, not Trump, who has a popular mandate.

and Venezuela

I confess to not paying a lot of attention to South America over the years, so I've been looking for background articles that can help me make sense of the current crisis. The BBC has a fairly good one, which I'll summarize:

Venezuela has a lot of oil, and the potential to be a fairly prosperous country. But in the 1990s it had massive inequality. It sounds like the usual Latin American thing, but moreso: A few families controlled everything and a lot of people were desperate. The new oil wealth just made that worse.

Democracy and inequality on this scale can only coexist for so long, and so Hugo Chávez got elected president as a socialist in 1999. A lot of his reforms were poorly thought out and backfired on the general economy. (The BBC article mentions his price controls, which pushed a lot of the controlled items onto the black market.) But he also spent oil money on programs that improved health care, literacy, and quality of life among the poor. He remained popular for most of his era in power -- he died as president in 2013 -- but at the same time had very powerful enemies among the upper classes. He consolidated power and became a virtual dictator.

Things started to get really bad late in his administration, when the global price of oil collapsed. The oil revenues had put a blanket over a lot of unsustainable policies, which started to unravel. By now, the country is a mess. About 3 million of the country's 32 million people have left. US intelligence services estimate that another 2 million refugees will leave soon.

Chávez was succeeded by the current president, Nicolás Maduro, who has not managed to turn things around. He was re-elected last May to a 6-year term that started a few weeks ago. His re-election, though, was rigged, so the opposition says the presidency is vacant now. The Venezuelan Constitution says that when the presidency is vacant, it falls to the head of the Assembly, who is Juan Guaidó. Guaidó has declared himself acting president, which Maduro disputes.

The United States, the EU, and most of Latin America recognizes Guaidó as president. Maduro has the support of Russia, China, and a few other countries. So far the Venezuelan military is sticking with Maduro.

The immediate problem is that legitimacy has broken down. Nobody has a clear claim to be in charge. The Maduro government is clearly not good for the country, but would a Guaidó government be better? A Venezuelan might wish for things to go back to normal, but when was that exactly? In Latin America, "normal" is often a desperate condition for the lower classes.

That's why the suggestion that American troops might get involved is so worrisome. It's not that the Maduro government deserves to survive, but that we could easily wind up fighting to help plutocrats keep the common people down. In Tuesday's Senate Intelligence Committee hearings, Senator Marco Rubio listed the misdeeds of the Venezuelan government and raised the question:

Is it not in the national interest of the United States of America that the Maduro regime fall?

Senator Angus King of Maine responded with caution:

[Senator Rubio] listed refugee flows, human rights abuses, and corruption. There are lots of countries in the world that meet that description, and our right or responsibility to generate regime change in a situation like that, I think, is a slippery slope. I have some real caution about what our vital interests are, and whether it's our right or responsibility to take action to try to change the government of another sovereign country. That same description would have led us into a much more active involvement in Syria, for example, five or six years ago.


An additional problem from the US perspective is that Venezuela has taken on symbolic meaning for American conservatives: It's a cautionary tale illustrating why you should never elect socialists. Whenever an American progressive proposes Medicare for All, a conservative will start talking about Venezuela, as if no other country in the world had universal health care, and as if American progressives look to Venezuela as a model rather than Denmark or Sweden or Canada, which were the top three countries in US News' 2018 best-quality-of-life ratings.

Venezuela's symbolic significance makes it harder to see what is actually happening there.

but maybe we shouldn't have been talking about Howard Schultz

OK, he's rich and he wants to be president. But so far, as best I can tell, he doesn't have a base or a signature issue or a poll showing that any measurable number of people would vote for him. So I can't figure out why his potential candidacy is worth all this attention. Why is he getting so much free media?

The Schultz media rollout has been eye-popping, with the billionaire sitting down for interviews with not only 60 Minutes, but CBS This Morning, CNBC, Goop, the New York Times, ABC's The View, MSNBC's Morning Joe, and NPR's Morning Edition.

and you also might be interested in ...

Cory Booker has joined the 2020 race.


Last Monday, a Trump tweet endorsed the "Biblical Literacy" legislation that has been proposed in a number of states, including Missouri, North Dakota, Virginia, and West Virginia. Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas already have such laws. The point is to require public schools to offer elective courses that teach about the Bible.

Americans United for the Separation of Church and State comments on its blog:

To be clear, the classes are not per se unconstitutional. But Bible classes must be taught in accordance with constitutional requirements set out by courts. These courses must be taught in a nondevotional manner with no attempt made to indoctrinate students as to either the truth or falsity of biblical accounts. The courses should not be taught from the perspective that the Bible is a literal historical record, and such courses must expose students to critical perspectives on the Bible and a diversity of scholarly interpretations.

In other words, you can teach that the Gospel of John says Jesus rose from the dead. But you can't teach "Jesus rose from the dead" as a historical fact, citing John as your authority. The same thing applies to any other religion. Students should learn what Muslims believe about the origin of the Quran: The Archangel Gabriel recited it to Muhammad. But that's different from teaching them that this recitation actually happened.

Similarly, there's nothing wrong with a high school class reading the Book of Job or the Song of Solomon and discussing them the same way they would discuss The Odyssey or any other ancient text. (Though probably most high schools would consider Song of Solomon too racy.)

It's not that hard a distinction to understand, if you want to understand it. Unfortunately, a lot of Christian fundamentalists would rather not understand it or observe it.

Texas passed one of these bills in 2009, and the resulting classes offered in many districts have been very problematic. Six years ago, Mark Chancey, a religious studies professor at Southern Methodist University, surveyed courses in 60 districts around the state. Only 11 districts, Chancey found, were “especially successful in displaying academic rigor and a constitutionally sound” approach. The other 49, he found, “were a mixed bag, some were terrible.” Chancey singled out 21 districts as offering “especially egregious" instruction. According to Chancey’s research, public school students in these courses were taught that “the Bible is written under God's direction and inspiration,” Christians will at some point be “raptured,” and that the Founding Fathers formed our country on the principles of the Holy Bible. (Kentucky passed one of these laws as well and has had similar problems.)

In fact, a properly taught Biblical Literacy course would probably horrify the very people who are pushing to create such courses, because it would teach students that over the centuries the Bible has been read and interpreted many different ways. Whatever your pastor told you is not the only way to think about it.

What Project Blitz and other backers of Biblical Literacy courses want instead is to have the government endorse their particular theology, and to force non-believers to pay taxes that promote fundamentalist Christian views. That has been illegal at least since my friend Ellery Schempp (he's still alive and belongs to my church) won his Supreme Court case in 1963.


The first priority of House Democrats, H.R. 1, is a bill to curb corruption and make it easier to vote. Among other things, it would make Election Day a national holiday, so that workers would have an easier time making it to the polls. It would also expand early voting, require the president and vice president to publish the last 10 years of their tax returns, force SuperPACs to reveal where their money comes from, make government contractors report their political contributions, provide federal matching funds to encourage small donations to political campaigns, make voter registration an opt-out system rather than an opt-in system, reduce gerrymandering, and do many other things to make elections a truer gauge of the will of the People.

Mitch McConnell, of course, is against it and will not bring it to the floor of the Senate after it passes the House. The bill, he says, is a "power grab". And he's right, it is. It is an attempt to grab power for the American people. McConnell's GOP, which represents a minority of the American people but a majority of the super-rich, would have some of its power taken away. GQ's Luke Darby has it right:

What McConnell calls a "power grab" is common practice in most functioning democracies. But building and maintaining a functioning democracy has never been his priority.

Meanwhile, Texas is steaming ahead on suppressing the votes of non-whites.


Trevor Noah: The black community has been saying for years that the police have too much power to wreck people's lives, and Trump has paid no attention. But now the President is outraged when that power is used against his henchmen, as when Roger Stone was hauled to jail in a predawn raid on his home.

These guys are genuinely shocked when the police use the same force on them that they've been using on so many other people in the country, unchecked.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0fzWsroZPik


I put off writing this article for so long that now David Brin has written it. Adam Smith and F. A. Hayek don't have anything to do with present-day conservatism. The current free-market-worship really has no philosophy behind it. It's pure superstition.


Gizmodo's Kashmir Hill is cutting the big internet companies out of her life and chronicling what changes. This week it's Google, and it affects a lot more things than you'd think.


Texas Secretary of State David Whitley has been circulating "a list of 95,000 registered voters who were matched with people flagged by the Texas Department of Public Safety as being noncitizens ... 58,000 of whom have voted in TX elections". The Atlantic explains why you shouldn't take this claim seriously, even if Trump does.

Several years ago I looked at a similar claim about dead people voting in South Carolina. The state attorney general was claiming that his computer search showed that 900 dead people had voted. His claim fit the right-wing narrative, so he made the talk-radio circuit and got interviewed on Fox News.

As soon as the election boards started investigating his list, though, the whole thing unraveled. It turned out there were a bunch of legitimate ways a name might end up on that list, from mistaken identity to clerical error to having a heart attack two seconds after you dropped your absentee ballot into the mailbox. Eventually the state police got pulled into the investigation, and when they were done the number of unexplained cases was down to three, with no clear evidence of election fraud even for those three.

Something similar will happen here.


Here's a dam good metaphor.


Last Monday, Sarah Sanders held the first White House briefing in more than a month, and CNN decided not to cover it live. MSNBC stopped routinely airing live White House briefings in November. Both networks send reporters and camera, but then let their editors decide what was newsworthy.

This is part of the media's evolving strategy for dealing with a White House whose communications include more disinformation than information. Finally, news networks are realizing that they are not obligated to give the White House a open channel to lie to the American people. That doesn't serve the country and doesn't serve their viewers.

That gradual evolution started early on, when a lot of news hosts stopped inviting Kellyanne Conway for interviews, since it is virtually impossible to get any useful information out of her. A few weeks ago, CNN's Chris Cuomo had Conway on, and Don Lemon shook his head sadly as he and Cuomo had their nightly handoff conversation. I agreed with Lemon: The Cuomo/Conway fencing match was entertaining for people who are into that kind of thing, but no one learned anything from it.

The people who parrot Trump's fake-news denunciations of CNN saw hypocrisy here: CNN criticized the White House for not have briefings, and then didn't cover the one they had. But I don't buy it. What journalists are asking for is the kind of news briefings they got during every other administration of the television era: A chance to ask the press secretary questions and get answers that may be slanted, but were mostly reliable. Previous press secretaries often didn't know answers to questions, but made a good-faith effort to get them. Sanders offers fake briefings that are full of outright lies, and if she doesn't know the answer to a question, that's the end of it; she's not going to put any effort into finding out.


Meanwhile, I'm trying not to get too excited about Sarah Sanders saying that God wanted Trump to be president. Her interview with CBN is one of those shiny objects that is supposed to distract us from Trump's disastrous shutdown and the increasing likelihood that he's a Russian asset. But I do have to point out that God denied Sanders' claim on Facebook.

What? You don't think that's the real God? Maybe not, but I think whoever owns that Facebook page has as much right to speak for God as Sarah Sanders does.

and let's close with something for the birds

About 10,000 people in a mountainous part of Turkey speak "bird language", a whistle-based system of communication.