Later On

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Archive for February 13th, 2017

A White House where no one is in charge

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Michael Gerson writes in the Washington Post:

In early January, House Speaker Paul Ryan met on the issue of tax reform with a delegation from the president-elect. Attending were future chief strategist and senior counselor Stephen K. Bannon, future chief of staff Reince Priebus, future senior adviser Jared Kushner, future counselor Kellyanne Conway and future senior policy adviser Stephen Miller. As the meeting began, Ryan pointedly asked, “Who’s in charge?”


It is still the right question. Former officials with deep knowledge of the presidency describe Donald Trump’s White House staff as top-heavy, with five or six power centers and little vertical structure. “The desire to be a big shot is overrunning any sense of team,” says one experienced Republican. “This will cause terrible dysfunction, distraction, disloyalty and leaks.”

Trump has run a family business but never a large organization. Nor has he seen such an organization as an employee. “Trump,” says another former official, “is ill-suited to appreciate the importance of a coherent chain of command and decision-making process. On the contrary, his instincts run instead toward multiple mini power centers, which rewards competing aggressively for Trump’s favor.”

This seems to be the dynamic unfolding on the weekend political talk shows. These have traditionally been venues for an administration to communicate with media and political elites (whose religion dedicates Sunday morning to the gods of policy, scandal and pith). But Trump surrogates are clearly appealing to a different audience: an audience of one, who may well tweet them a nice pat on the back. The goal — as Miller demonstrated over the weekend — is not to persuade or even explain. It is to confidently repeat Trump’s most absurd or unsubstantiated claims from the previous week. This time it was electorally decisive voter fraud in New Hampshire (for which there is no evidence). Next weekend it could be the harm done by vaccination, or the possible murder of Antonin Scalia (both of whichTrump has raised in the past). It is the main function of Trump surrogates to restate Trump’s “alternative facts” in a steady voice.

It is hard for me (and everyone else outside the White House) to know exactly what is going on in the West Wing. Leaks may provide a distorted picture. But, in this case, there have been an awful lot of them, clearly from the highest levels. And they uniformly reveal a management structure and culture in which the highest goal is not to display competence or to display creativity but to display loyalty, defined as sucking up. The philosophy of competing power centers has, indeed, produced terrible dysfunction, distraction, disloyalty and leaks. Trump’s failed and frightening executive order on immigration is exhibit A. But now the National Security Council seems to be in a full-scale crisis of purpose, thoroughly demoralized and trying to discern American policy from presidential tweets. With the real NSC badly weakened by the travails of the national security adviser, it seems that Bannon is developing a shadow NSC to serve his well-developed nationalist agenda.

The president may thrive in chaos, but the presidency does not. A president needs . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 February 2017 at 9:23 pm

With billions at stake, a federal judge just nullified the GOP’s most cynical attack on Obamacare

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Michael Hiltzik writes in the LA Times:

Moda Health, a small Oregon health insurer, just won a $214-million judgment against the federal government. Normally that wouldn’t be worth reporting, except that in awarding Moda the money, the federal judge in the case dismantled the most cynical attack on the Affordable Care Act that congressional Republicans had devised.

The issue was the Affordable Care Act’s risk corridor program, which was devised to shelter insurers from unexpected losses in covering Affordable Care Act customers from 2014 through 2016. To encourage insurers to enter an entirely novel market, the program aimed to balance risks by taking funds from insurers that turned out to be unexpectedly profitable and use the money to cushion others’ losses. The model was provisionally written into Medicare’s prescription drug program, Part D, which went into effect in 2006 and worked well to attract insurers.

Initially, economists expected the Affordable Care Act version to be in the black overall — the Congressional Budget Office forecast that the government would collect $16 billion from successful insurers and pay out only $8 billion to struggling companies over the program’s three years. But if it turned out that there wasn’t enough, the Department of Health and Human Services was authorized to pay out funds from general government revenues.

Although Medicare Part D had been a Republican program, this time around the GOP railed against the same risk corridor arrangement as a “bailout” of insurers. They inserted a provision in a 2014 spending bill forbidding Health and Human Services from using any money other than what came from profitable insurers. As it happened, the program ran deeply in the red. The accumulated losses for 2014 and 2015 alone are up to $8.3 billion; some estimates place the total owed over the three years at nearly $15 billion.

Because it’s hamstrung to pay the full claims, Health and Human Services has paid out only 12.6% of all claims for 2014, and nothing so far for 2015 or 2016. Moda’s lawsuit claimed that it’s due $214 million. It argued that the government essentially promised that the money would be paid, and that promise can’t be nullified just because Congress decided to tamper with where the money came from.

Judge Thomas C. Wheeler of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims agreed with Moda on every point. “There is no genuine dispute that the Government is liable to Moda,” he ruled in a decision issued Thursday. “The Government made a promise in the risk corridor program that it has yet to fulfill.” He directed the government “to fulfill that promise. After all, to say to [Moda], ‘The joke is on you. You shouldn’t have trusted us,’ is hardly worthy of our great Government.”

Wheeler also told the government where to find the money: in its Judgment Fund, which pays plaintiffs who win claims against the government in his court.

A ruling like Wheeler’s was long expected by many legal experts. As Nicholas Bagley of the University of Michigan observed following the ruling: “It was only a matter of time before a court entered a money judgment against the United States.” Two other lawsuits are pending in the Court of Federal Claims. One brought initially by two Oregon health insurance co-ops has been certified as a class action. Another, brought by the Illinois insurer Land of Lincoln, was dismissed in November, but is already under appeal.

That said, even if the insurers eventually get paid, the GOP attack on the risk corridor program, and by extension on the Affordable Care Act in general, did a lot of damage. In a survey for the New England Journal of Medicine in November, Bagley wrote that the GOP measure “hit particularly hard” at new co-op health plans, which were thinly capitalized but supported by Affordable Care Act loans. Deprived of full risk-corridor payments, “by the end of summer 2016, just seven of 23 co-ops were still in business. As the co-ops collapsed, almost a million people were forced to look elsewhere for coverage.” That contributed to “a sharp reduction in competition on the [Obamacare] exchanges.”

That underscores the cynicism of the Republican attack. GOP politicians such as House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) talk continually about a lack of competition on the Affordable Care Act exchanges as though that’s a structural flaw in Obamacare. They don’t admit that much of that lack of competition is their own handiwork.

One remarkable feature of this attack is that, even though it helped destroy some low-income insurers and harmed their customers, Republicans in Congress jostled with each other to take credit for it.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R- Fla.) made his championing of the provision a linchpin of his presidential campaign, claiming that . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

13 February 2017 at 9:15 pm

The Kremlin Is Starting to Worry About Trump

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Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes report in Foreign Policy:

In 2016, a senior Russian official explained to a group of visiting foreigners why the government had decided not to celebrate the upcoming 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. Yes, it was a turning point in Russian history, he argued, and, yes, President Vladimir Putin sees today’s Russia as a successor to both the tsars and the Bolsheviks. But celebrating a revolution would send the wrong message to society. The Kremlin today is staunchly opposed to “regime change,” the visitors were told, and thus skittish about eulogizing 1917. It plans to use the centenary, instead, to draw attention to the catastrophic consequences of resorting to revolution to solve social and political problems.

The last thing the Russian government expected was that 2017 would bring it face to face not with a revolution of the past but with a revolution of the present — the radical regime change taking place in the United States as a result of the electoral victory of Donald Trump. It is Trump’s electoral revolution that has captured the imagination, and fanned the fears, of Russian elites today.

The search for a key to Trump’s mind-boggling and miscellaneous gusher of policy directives has tended to focus on his disturbingly erratic, vindictive, simplistic, narcissistic, insecure, and occasionally delusional personality, due exception being made for those conspiracy theorists who treat him as a kind of Manchurian candidate or sock puppet of the Kremlin. What most observers have been late to recognize is the extent to which, behind his mask as a showman, Trump views himself as a revolutionary insurgent with a mission to dismantle America’s “old regime.”

Trump’s tactics certainly belong to the classic revolutionary playbook. His shock-and-awe style of executive action is designed to rattle Congress, catch his opponents unprepared, and incite his base to wage war on the establishment. The extreme polarization he deliberately foments allows him to fend off an opportunistic alliance of the Republican elite with the Democratic Party in defense of the constitutional system, ensuring that protests will be largely impotent. In the words of White House strategist-in-chief Stephen Bannon, Trump is positioning himself as the global leader of an anti-global movement that is anti-elite, anti-establishment, anti-liberal, and nationalistic. “What we are witnessing now,” Bannon told the Washington Post, “is the birth of a new political order, and the more frantic a handful of media elites become, the more powerful that new political order becomes itself.”

Russian policymakers, obsessed as they are with the fear of “color revolutions,” may understand better than Americans and Europeans the radical nature of the political change that has descended on Washington. Indeed, when it comes to the ongoing Trump revolution, Russian policymakers are in much the same position as the German General Staff one century ago. In 1917, the German government concluded that the best hope for a German victory in World War I was for a revolution to erupt in Russia. It thus allowed some of the leaders of the Bolshevik party, Lenin among them, to pass through Germany and make their way back to Russia. The hope was that a revolution in Russia would pull the country out of the war — and the plan worked. But by the beginning of 1918, the German government started to fear that the virus of revolution that it had surreptitiously help spread to Russia might circle back calamitously to Germany itself.

Our conversations with Russian policymakers and experts indicate they are starting to have similar fears and doubts today.

There is no way of knowing if Russian interference contributed decisively to Trump’s upset victory. But it’s fair to say that the Kremlin viewed the outcome as a divine gift. Since at least 2011-2012, when Russia witnessed widespread popular protests, and particularly after the Ukrainian Maidan uprising — events that elicited heartfelt praise and encouragement from then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — Russia’s leadership had been convinced that her election would spell disaster for Russia and that it might even lead to war. So Russians did what they could to prevent Clinton from getting into the White House. But while they welcomed her defeat, they were wholly unprepared for the ensuing regime change in Washington.

Now that Trump is in power, political elites in Moscow have stopped cheering. They recognize that Russia’s position has become abruptly and agonizingly complex.

It’s true that Trump’s accession opens up the possibility of “normalizing” Russia’s relations with the West, beginning with a reduction or even elimination of sanctions. It also validates many of Russia’s ideological criticisms of the liberal order and may perhaps foreshadow policy reversals that Moscow has long hoped for: from Washington’s disengagement from the Ukraine crisis to its dissolution of the Cold War Western alliance. Russians also celebrate Trump’s unfiltered stream-of-consciousness diatribes as signaling a welcome end to America’s hypocrisy and condescension.

But Trump’s revolution is also ushering in a period of turmoil and uncertainty, including the likelihood of self-defeating trade wars. Still traumatized by the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Russia’s present leadership has no appetite for global instability.

With Trump in the White House, moreover, Putin has lost his monopoly over geopolitical unpredictability. The Kremlin’s ability to shock the world by taking the initiative and trashing ordinary international rules and customs has allowed Russia to play an oversized international role and to punch above its weight. Putin now has to share the capacity to keep the world off balance with a new American president vastly more powerful than himself. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 February 2017 at 9:11 pm

The tentacles close in: Smartphone edition

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Kaveh Waddell reports in the Atlantic:

Everything started to go wrong just after 5 a.m., when Sidd Bikkannavar scanned his passport, placed his hand on a fingerprint reader, and watched as the automated customs kiosk spat out a receipt with a black X drawn across it.It was January 31. Bikkannavar had just arrived at Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport after a nine-hour flight from Santiago, Chile, where he’d competed in a two-week race from the southern tip of the country to its capital in a solar-powered car. In a few hours, he would board a connecting flight back home to California, where he’s worked at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena for over a decade. Bikkannavar, a 35-year-old engineer who was bornin Pasadena, designs technology for space telescopes like the enormous James Webb telescope that’s set to be launched into orbit in 2018.

But before boarding his next plane, Bikkannavar would have to clear customs and immigration. Usually, it’s a breeze: He’s a part of the Customs and Border Protection Global Entry program, whose members are waved through the line after just scanning their passport and fingerprints. But the receipt with the X meant things wouldn’t go so smoothly this time.

He presented it to an agent and was promptly led to a holding room. The customs checkpoint had only been open for business for 10 or 20 minutes, so the room was mostly empty. But several occupied cots were arranged in the room, suggesting that some people had spent the night. A table was arranged with peanut butter biscuits, crackers, and instant noodle cups.

After about 40 minutes, Bikkannavar was called up. He was led to a small door labeled “Interview Room,” and seated across from a border agent, who said he needed to search Bikkannavar’s things.

Bikkannavar asked why he was singled out for questioning, but the agent wouldn’t tell him. There can’t have been any suspicion about his identity, Bikkannavar thought: Not only was he a member of Global Entry—a program that requires applicants to submit to an extensive background check and fingerprinting—but his work at NASA requires him to be vetted regularly by the federal government. He was, he thought, a particularly known entity.“I’m always super cooperative about this stuff. This isn’t a story about me being super offended and being inconvenienced,” Bikkannavar told me. “I get it. I was with them up to this point.”

But the agent never touched Bikkannavar’s bag—instead, he asked for his smartphone. Bikkannavar handed it over, assuming the agent might just want to inspect it to make sure it wasn’t something more dangerous in disguise. The agent turned it over in his hand and asked for the passcode.

Bikkannavar was taken aback. The phone was Jet Propulsion Lab property, he explained, pointing out the barcode stuck to the back. It was his duty to protect its sensitive contents, and he couldn’t give out the passcode.

The border agent wouldn’t relent. He needed to access the device, he said, and had the authority to do so. He’d handed Bikkannavar a document titled “Inspection of Electronic Devices” when they first sat down, and Bikkannavar gave it a quick scan. The document claimed that CBP had the right to search “all persons, baggage, and merchandise arriving in, or departing from, the United States.” On the backside, in fine print at the bottom, there was a section with the heading, “Consequences of Failure to Provide Information.” The section said that giving up the information is “mandatory” and not cooperating could lead to the “detention and/or seizure” of the electronic device in question.

Bikkannavar didn’t feel like he had a choice. “I’d read the headlines of people being stranded in airports and having problems entering the country, so I was still in the mode of being as cooperative and polite and courteous as possible,” he said to me. Just a few days prior, President Donald Trump had signed an executive order that excluded nationals of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S. Bikkannavar, a U.S. citizen, would not have been affected by the new policy, which has since been temporarily put on pause by a federal court—but turmoil and confusion at the border had led to many people being improperly detained.

>What’s more, he said, he wasn’t sure of his legal rights in that moment. In the CBP interview room, did he still have the Fourth Amendment rights that he’d have if he were stopped by police on the street?

That’s a question I addressed in a story last week. Although the Fourth Amendment protects people from unreasonable search and seizure in the U.S., border agents have a very wide latitude to conduct searches—and often do so in situations that wouldn’t meet the standards of reasonable suspicion required elsewhere in the country. A new proposal from Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly would codify invasive digital searches into policy: He recently told a panel of U.S. representatives that he’s considering a rule that would allow agents to turn away visitors if they didn’t submit their browsing history and device or account passwords. It’s not clear whether the proposal would apply to U.S. citizens as well.

Bikkannavar gave up the phone’s passcode to the agent, who immediately wrote it down on a notepad. He was led back to the waiting room, where he sat for another 30 minutes.

The agent eventually emerged with Bikkannavar’s phone and handed it back to him. CBP had run “algorithms” on the device, the agent said, to search for threats. It came up clean, so Bikkannavar was free to go. His flight to Los Angeles was boarding, so he ducked out of the office without asking the agent what had been done to the phone in detail. But given the circumstances, and the document he’d been given, Bikkannavar felt it safe to assume that CBP had copied the contents of his work phone.

As soon as he touched down at LAX, Bikkannavar headed into work. “The second that phone was out of my sight and they had the PIN—right away, I knew I’m reporting the hell out of this,” he said. “This is a huge, huge violation of my work policy. This is a matter of great concern.” Bikkannavar declined to share details about what sort of information was on the phone. But since it was connected to both personal and sensitive work accounts, losing control of the device was no small matter. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 February 2017 at 8:18 pm

While Trump scandals mount, Chaffetz decides to investigate… a cartoon character

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Just read Dana Milbank’s column in the Washington Post.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 February 2017 at 8:01 pm

This 392-Year-Old Bonsai Tree Survived the Hiroshima Atomic Blast & Still Flourishes Today: The Power of Resilience

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Dan Colman explains in Open Culture.

A closer look at the tree:

Written by LeisureGuy

13 February 2017 at 6:26 pm

Posted in Art, Daily life, Video

“Drawing the Line”: Defining the exact overlap of Art and Games

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A while back, I blogged an interesting paper by The Son. I stumbled across it again today, so I thought I’d post a reminder and a link for those who’ve not yet read it.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 February 2017 at 6:10 pm

Posted in Art, Games

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