Archive for April 9th, 2017
Paulina Firozi reports in The Hill:
White House budget chief Mick Mulvaney will this week send a memo to federal agencies instructing them to prepare for future cuts to funding and staff, according to a new report.
The order calls to “improve the efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability of the executive branch by directing the Director of the Office of Management and Budget to propose a plan to reorganize governmental functions and eliminate unnecessary agencies, components of agencies and agency programs.”
The federal agencies will likely plan to lay off staff, eliminate programs and sell real estate, according to the report — some agencies could shutter or consolidate. . .
Paulina Firozi reports in The Hill:
President Trump was spotted playing golf on Sunday for the second day in a row at his West Palm Beach, Fla. golf club, according to reports.
The president also traveled to Trump International Golf Club for a round of golf on Saturday.
The president left for Trump International Golf Club around 9:30 a.m. on Sunday wearing a white polo shirt and red cap, according to White House pool reports. . .
During his campaign he said, “I would not be a president who took vacations. I would not be a president that takes time off.” (Interview with The Hill). Trump also strongly criticized Obama more than once for playing golf while being president. And this is the man leading the United States and who is closely observed by America’s friends and enemies. I wonder what their impression of him is.
I’ve been nattering on about meme evolution, but in The Evolution of Everything, Matt Ridley lays it out in detail, tracing the evolution of memes and other things. Evolution, in a word, is how the universe works. His chapter titles tell the story. Let TEO stand for “The Evolution of”. The chapters in order
TEO the Universe
TEO Culture [i.e., memes—and the rest are specific subcategories – LG]
TEO the Economy
TEO the Mind
TEO the Internet
Epilogue: TEO the Future
The Prologue is well worth reading, and you can use Amazon’s “Look Inside Feature” to read it. Lucretius rightly is recognized as the origin of our thought in modern times, Lucretius having learned from Epicurus.
Stephen Kinzer writes in the Boston Globe:
COVERAGE OF the Syrian war will be remembered as one of the most shameful episodes in the history of the American press. Reporting about carnage in the ancient city of Aleppo is the latest reason why.
For three years, violent militants have run Aleppo. Their rule began with a wave of repression. They posted notices warning residents: “Don’t send your children to school. If you do, we will get the backpack and you will get the coffin.” Then they destroyed factories, hoping that unemployed workers would have no recourse other than to become fighters. They trucked looted machinery to Turkey and sold it.
This month, people in Aleppo have finally seen glimmers of hope. The Syrian army and its allies have been pushing militants out of the city. Last week they reclaimed the main power plant. Regular electricity may soon be restored. The militants’ hold on the city could be ending.
Militants, true to form, are wreaking havoc as they are pushed out of the city by Russian and Syrian Army forces. “Turkish-Saudi backed ‘moderate rebels’ showered the residential neighborhoods of Aleppo with unguided rockets and gas jars,” one Aleppo resident wrote on social media. The Beirut-based analyst Marwa Osma asked, “The Syrian Arab Army, which is led by President Bashar Assad, is the only force on the ground, along with their allies, who are fighting ISIS — so you want to weaken the only system that is fighting ISIS?”
This does not fit with Washington’s narrative. As a result, much of the American press is reporting the opposite of what is actually happening. Many news reports suggest that Aleppo has been a “liberated zone” for three years but is now being pulled back into misery.
Americans are being told that the virtuous course in Syria is to fight the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian partners. We are supposed to hope that a righteous coalition of Americans, Turks, Saudis, Kurds, and the “moderate opposition” will win.
This is convoluted nonsense, but Americans cannot be blamed for believing it. We have almost no real information about the combatants, their goals, or their tactics. Much blame for this lies with our media.
Under intense financial pressure, most American newspapers, magazines, and broadcast networks have drastically reduced their corps of foreign correspondents. Much important news about the world now comes from reporters based in Washington. In that environment, access and credibility depend on acceptance of official paradigms. Reporters who cover Syria check with the Pentagon, the State Department, the White House, and think tank “experts.” After a spin on that soiled carousel, they feel they have covered all sides of the story. This form of stenography produces the pabulum that passes for news about Syria.
Astonishingly brave correspondents in the war zone, including Americans, seek to counteract Washington-based reporting. At great risk to their own safety, these reporters are pushing to find the truth about the Syrian war. Their reporting often illuminates the darkness of groupthink. Yet for many consumers of news, their voices are lost in the cacophony. Reporting from the ground is often overwhelmed by the Washington consensus.
Washington-based reporters tell us that one potent force in Syria, al-Nusra, is made up of “rebels” or “moderates,” not that it is the local al-Qaeda franchise. Saudi Arabia is portrayed as aiding freedom fighters when in fact it is a prime sponsor of ISIS. Turkey has for years been running a “rat line” for foreign fighters wanting to join terror groups in Syria, but because the United States wants to stay on Turkey’s good side, we hear little about it. Nor are we often reminded that although we want to support the secular and battle-hardened Kurds, Turkey wants to kill them. Everything Russia and Iran do in Syria is described as negative and destabilizing, simply because it is they who are doing it — and because that is the official line in Washington.
Inevitably, this kind of disinformation has bled into the American presidential campaign. At the recent debate in Milwaukee, Hillary Clinton claimed that United Nations peace efforts in Syria were based on “an agreement I negotiated in June of 2012 in Geneva.” The precise opposite is true. In 2012 Secretary of State Clinton joined Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Israel in a successful effort to kill Kofi Annan’s UN peace plan because it would have accommodated Iran and kept Assad in power, at least temporarily. No one on the Milwaukee stage knew enough to challenge her. . .
Elizabeth Drew writes in the NY Review of Books:
Donald Trump’s substance-free approach to governing may be comfortable for him but it’s caused his presidency big problems. To take the most prominent example, the health care bill: if Trump had paid attention to the details of legislation he’d have been down on his knees in gratitude toward those who defeated it in the House a couple of weeks ago. Had that bill had any chance of becoming law (which it didn’t, since the Senate wouldn’t have agreed to it), it was likely to spell election disaster for Trump and the Republican Party. The Congressional Budget Office predicted that the last version of the bill it saw—following which the bill was made even more restrictive—would have caused 14 million people on Obamacare to lose their coverage next year and 24 million to do so by 2026. While the wealthiest citizens would have received a large tax break, millions of poor people would lose their Medicaid coverage, and in a last-minute concession to the hard right, Trump also agreed to drop a requirement that insurance companies cover such basic services as emergency care, hospitalization, treatment for drug addiction, pregnancy, prescription drugs, preventive efforts, pediatric care, and others.
But Trump was clearly unaware of and unperturbed by what was in the bill; he wanted to win. He told his aides that he simply wanted to sign a bill, that it would make him look presidential.
Trump’s first great legislative defeat threatens to define his presidency. He came across as blundering and incompetent. He is the first modern president to lose his first major piece of legislation. This came on top of other unfortunate firsts: Trump is the first president whose approval ratings began to go down after he won the election and then after the inauguration, and that have kept doing so since. Recent polls show his approval ratings to be from 35 percent to 42 percent, not enough to form a governing majority.
Trump’s nonchalance about substance threatens trouble for other parts of his agenda. When Trump ran for president he said he could get a health care system that would deliver more services at a lower cost and, wonder to behold, would cover everyone. (If such a formulation were possible Obama would have proposed it.) And though Trump stated during the transition that he was drawing up his own health care measure, that it would be ready at any moment, no such bill ever appeared. Absent his own proposal, Trump was the captive of House Speaker Paul Ryan. And Ryan’s proposed bill showed his disposition as a deeply conservative ideologue, contrary to the idea that he’s a thoughtful politician—not to mention one who cares about inner cities and the poor—myths of Ryan’s own making that had been bought by much of the press until now.
Unconcerned with what the bill said, Trump gave way in particular to the Freedom Caucus, some three dozen highly conservative House Republicans who, like their Tea Party antecedents, were unwilling to compromise on their strong beliefs. (This was the group that brought down Ryan’s predecessor, John Boehner, and it’s not enamored of Ryan.) To members of the Freedom Caucus the fact that there were any remnants of Obamacare in the bill—such as coverage for pre-existing conditions and allowing kids up to age twenty-six to be covered under their parents’ policies—made it unacceptable. But when Trump gave way to the Freedom Caucus, he lost the support of the roughly fifty moderates who remain in the House and tend to represent urban areas and wanted, among other things, Medicaid to remain intact.
Trump apparently didn’t grasp that in political negotiations, unless one is very skilled, the more you give away the more insatiable the forces you give away to become. It’s not like business trading, where both sides have an incentive to reach a deal . . .
Do read the whole thing. Later in the article:
. . . There’s been a great deal of speculation about shifting alliances among Trump’s White House staff—it’s virtually a daily exercise—but in the end Donald Trump defines his administration. Trump has a mediocre staff, whom he doesn’t treat well. They’re hesitant to give him news he won’t like for fear of being screamed at, a frequent event. Experienced potential aides haven’t been keen to work in a Trump White House and though it’s not widely known by the outside world many of those who are there are unhappy. As one close observer put it to me, “They came to work for the president but found themselves working for Donald Trump.” The moody man at the top is strongly affected by what’s in the news. But so far only one significant aide has seen fit to quit, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus’s deputy Katie Walsh; while some reporters described her departure as part of a White House “shakeup,” it’s more likely that Walsh left because she couldn’t stand the unpleasantness of working for Trump. According to reports, with things not going well for him, the atmosphere in Trump’s White House has grown progressively worse. The removal of White House adviser Steve Bannon from the National Security Council is being much examined for its implications, but if Bannon continues to get in Trump’s head it may not mean much at all. . .
Full disclosure: I haven’t seen any episodes of Big Little Lies, even though it is set here in Monterey. Still, I found Francine Prose’s comments in the NY Review of Books fascinating:
On the surface, the popular HBO miniseries Big Little Lies would appear to be nothing but surface: scenic shots of picturesque Monterey, California; multi-million-dollar mansions with panoramic ocean views; stylishly dressed families eating breakfast at kitchen islands the size of many Manhattan kitchens; the melodrama of soap opera ratcheted up by the same narrative hook—a murder has been committed, but a chorus of peripheral characters debate who the killer might have been, and coyly refuse to tell us who was killed—used by several other premium-channel series (The Affair, True Detective) to inspire viewers to keep choosing their shows over the other available Sunday-night distractions.
Watching Big Little Lies at first feels like eating a pint of ice cream in one sitting, alone. It’s highly enjoyable, as long as one doesn’t think too hard or deeply about what the series is telling us. Not only does it address our aspirational real-estate fantasies and notions of sustaining female friendship; it also considers the misguided ways in which we raise (and smother) our children, the more distasteful realities of marriage, the perpetual, damaging, and frequently violent war between men and women, and the ubiquity of bullying—not only among schoolchildren but also among the adults who presumably know better.
Based on the novel by Australian writer Liane Moriarty and adapted by David E. Kelley and Jean-Marc Vallée, Big Little Lies portrays a group of women whose privileged lives are, predictably, neither as easy nor as enviable as they might appear. As Madeline, Reese Witherspoon—projecting herself into the world like something shot from a cannon—faces a host of first-world problems: her tense relationship with her ex-husband and his sexy young yoga-instructor wife; her resentful teenage daughter; her sweet but boring second husband; and the resultant frustrations that she passionately channels into a community-theater production of the musical Avenue Q. Her friend Celeste (Nicole Kidman) has given up a law career to raise twin sons and placate her husband Perry (Alexander Skarsgård), a man whose attractiveness and charm conceals the soul of an abusive, controlling psycho.
In the first episode, Madeline meets a young woman named Jane (Shailene Woodley) who lives in a modest bungalow that—lacking a terrace on which to sip cocktails as the sun sets over the Pacific—is, by local standards, a Dickensian hovel. A single mom, Jane has moved to Monterey to start a new life with her son Ziggy, the product of a brutal date rape. Madeline, who loves causes, takes on Jane as her pet project, especially after Jane runs afoul of the ferocious Renata (Laura Dern). A powerful Silicon Valley CEO, Renata feels despised and persecuted because she is the only one of the women who works full-time, and her free-floating, manic rage soon finds its inappropriate targets in Jane, the vulnerable newcomer, and the unfortunate Ziggy, who is accused of bullying Renata’s daughter.
These charges, and the children’s unwillingness to refute them, make Jane wonder: Is Ziggy a sadist like his father—or a victim like his mother? Tormented by two equally dire possibilities, Jane recalls . . .
The conclusion is particularly striking.
I was living in Iowa when it put in place a process to end gerrymandering, and I felt very pround of my state for doing it—and without a referendum or proposition. Instead, the state legislature did what state legislatures are supposed to do: it enacted a fair law. Tracy Jan of the Boston Globe has a good article from December 2013 that describes how (and why) Iowa did it:
In a locked windowless chamber across the street from the Iowa State House, three bureaucrats sequester themselves for 45 days every decade after census data is released. Their top-secret task: the “redistricting” of the state’s legislative and congressional boundaries.
But here, unlike in most other states, every care is taken to ensure the process is not political.
The mapmakers are not allowed to consider previous election results, voter registration, or even the addresses of incumbent members of Congress. No politician — not the governor, the House speaker, or Senate majority leader — is allowed to weigh in, or get a sneak preview.
Instead of drawing lines that favor a single political party, the Iowa mapmakers abide by nonpartisan metrics that all sides agree are fair — a seemingly revolutionary concept in the high-stakes decennial rite of redistricting.