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Congress Is Already Botching the Next Pandemic

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One reason the US is such a mess is that its government is — overall — incompetent. The reasons for the incompetence are various, but in terms of getting crucial things accomplished, the picture is dismal. In New York Eric Levitz points out one example of legislative incompetence:

COVID caught the United States napping through a cacophony of shrieking alarms. When the novel coronavirus reached our shores, the CDC was spending only $500 million a year on programs aimed at tackling emerging diseases. The National Institutes of Health’s total budget for its program on infectious diseases, meanwhile, was roughly $5.5 billion, with only a small fraction of that sum going toward pandemic prevention. Little to nothing was spent on shoring up U.S. hospitals’ surge capacity. By contrast, in late 2019, Congress increased the Pentagon’s budget — which was already larger than the military budgets of China, India, Russia, the U.K., Saudi Arabia, Germany, France, Japan, and Australia combined — by $21 billion.

In other words: The U.S. government treated preparing for a pandemic as a nigh-trivial concern, or a matter roughly 0.01 percent as important as modernizing the nation’s stockpile of nuclear warheads.

Congress had been told plenty of times that this was a poor set of priorities. For decades, public-health experts and advocates had been warning of scenarios quite similar to the COVID-19 crisis. An episode of Vox’s Netflix show Explained from fall 2019 described how a Chinese wet market — where humans and a wide variety of livestock are packed into close proximity — could facilitate the spread of a novel influenza virus from animals to humans, and thus trigger a pandemic. In September 2019, a report commissioned by the World Bank and World Health Organization began, “There is a very real threat of a rapidly moving, highly lethal pandemic of a respiratory pathogen killing 50 to 80 million people.” The first two decades of the 21st century also saw the SARS and MERS outbreaks — two previews of how a deadly new coronavirus could cause a global catastrophe.

Perhaps America could only have learned the hard way. Only after seeing a novel pathogen kill hundreds of thousands of its citizens, shutter its economy, and shred much of its social fabric would Congress finally see that spending a pittance on public health had significant downsides.

This is what I thought a little over a year ago, anyway. Today, such an assessment looks far too optimistic.

As the Delta variant has reminded the complacent, the COVID pandemic is not over. And with upwards of 616,000 Americans lost to the virus, and outbreaks still testing hospital capacity in many regions of the country, Congress is already back to treating pandemic preparedness as a minor concern.

The Senate’s bipartisan infrastructure bill includes no significant investment in public health. Meanwhile, Congressional Democrats are reportedly planning to scale back Joe Biden’s proposed investment in pandemic preparedness by more than 80 percent. Whereas the president called for spending $30 billion on fortifying the nation’s defenses against contagious diseases, Nancy Pelosi & Co. plan to dedicate just $5 billion — of their impending $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill — to such purposes.

This move is understandable, if indefensible. Democrats have a razor-thin majority in the House. And to pass partisan legislation out of the Senate, the party cannot afford a single defection. Moderates in both chambers have a limited tolerance for both deficit spending and taxing the wealthy. It’s not clear that the party has the votes to pass a $3.5 trillion spending bill, let alone one greater than that sum. And yet, the party’s myriad ambitions for public investment cost far more than $3.5 trillion. So something has to go.

Pandemic preparedness is an easy line-item to shrink for the same reason that it was an easy one to underfund pre-COVID: The constituency with the greatest stake in preventing or mitigating the next public health crisis is unidentifiable, let alone, organizable. [The downside of politicians whose primary focus is getting re-elected, not governing. – LG] The 600,000 Americans who died of COVID-19 over the past 17 months did not know in 2019 that they had a potentially life-or-death stake in the size of the CDC’s budget. If Democrats go small on pandemic preparedness, the victims of the next novel virus will not light up Congress’s phone lines. By contrast, if the party scraps its plan to add dental, hearing, and vision benefits to Medicare, the AARP would make its discontent known.

It’s plausible that Democrats could pass a large increase in pandemic funding on a bipartisan basis, as part of an omnibus budget bill. Or at least, Republicans would more plausibly support $25 billion in pandemic preparedness funding than a $25 billion investment in childcare. The $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill is Democrats’ only vehicle for moving partisan priorities. So why spend a full $30 billion of that limited sum on a cause that both parties (at least nominally) support?

This reasoning may be superficially compelling, but it doesn’t withstand scrutiny. If Republican support for funding pandemic preparedness could be relied upon, we would see such funding in the bipartisan infrastructure bill. In any case, Democrats can’t bet the nation’s public health on Mitch McConnell’s good sense. The inadequacies of America’s existing pandemic-fighting capacities are too myriad, and the stakes of increasing those capacities too great, to give the GOP veto power on the issue.

America needs to establish . . .

Continue reading. There’s quite a bit more, including a list of priorities — priorities that Congress will not attend to.

His conclusion points out something that looks an awful lot like stupidity:

In response to a terrorist attack that killed nearly 3,000 Americans, the U.S. spent more than $4 trillion on (largely counterproductive and homicidal) efforts to prevent the occurrence of such tragedies. In response to a virus that’s killed 616,800 Americans and counting, America can surely spend $30 billion. To pare back that sum by 80 percent for the sake of placating the deficit-phobic would be the opposite of fiscal responsibility.

Written by Leisureguy

3 August 2021 at 3:40 pm

Biden dithers and stalls in addressing a news report, leaving thousands in limbo

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Sam Stein, Tina Sfondeles, and Alex Thompson report for Politico:

For weeks, the Biden administration has kept thousands of people in a state of panic by letting a single news report linger without formal denial or confirmation.

The report, published on July 19 by the New York Times, said the administration’s “legal team” had concluded, based on prior legal guidance, that inmates released to home confinement for fear of Covid-19 spread in their prisons will legally have to return when the pandemic state of emergency ends.

The Department of Justice has declined to say whether or not it will uphold or rescind the Trump-era Office of Legal Counsel memo that says those inmates must go back. And the White House has not commented on whether President JOE BIDEN will use his clemency powers to intervene. Instead, it has simply restated the president’s commitment to “reducing incarceration and helping people to re-enter society.”

Absent any action from Biden, criminal justice reform advocates say, that’s an impossible line to swallow.

To understand why, just look at the stats. The Bureau of Prisons Director MICHAEL CARVAJAL testified that 7,000 inmates are in home confinement under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Of those, the Brennan Center estimates that roughly 20 individuals have been returned to prison as result of violations. Twenty.

“We know that these are people who are not a threat to public safety,” said LAUREN-BROOKE EISEN, director of the Brennan Center’s Justice Program. “There is absolutely no public interest being served in having this group of individuals reincarcerated.”

But those are just numbers, devoid of any sense of the human toll that comes if neither the DoJ nor the president take action. A fuller illustration comes from a man named RUFUS ROCHELL.

Rufus’s story is a microcosm of the inequities in the criminal justice system. At the age of 36, he was given a 40-year prison sentence for conspiracy to distribute and possession of crack cocaine. To this day, he claims his innocence and there are compelling reasons to believe him. But he never received clemency, even after one of his best friends in prison — the financier CONRAD BLACK — got a pardon from DONALD TRUMP and subsequently petitioned Trump’s son-in-law JARED KUSHNER to grant one to Rufus.

Instead, what got Rufus out was Covid. He was released in April of 2020 because of fears of rampant spread in his facility. He stopped at a Boston Market for his first post-prison meal — barbeque chicken — and then made his way to his sister’s home in Micanopy, Florida.

Over the past 16 months Rufus has worked with at-risk youth, helped at food drives, volunteered with church groups and spoken before members of Congress, including House Speaker NANCY PELOSI, about the Covid risks in prison facilities. He wears an ankle monitor and can’t venture past the front yard without clearance from his halfway house.

A few weeks back, he got a call from AMY POVAH — a former prisoner-turned-clemency advocate who’s helped with his case — informing him about the Times story.

“I didn’t want it to be a shock to him,” Povah told me.

As she spoke about Rufus and others facing the prospect of reincarceration, Povah was near tears. She thought about what it would mean for her to go back to prison after having served nine years for a trafficking case (her sentence was commuted by President BILL CLINTON).

“I’m not sure I wouldn’t commit suicide,” she said. “It’s just too much to ask of a human being.”

Rufus, by contrast, was almost disturbingly circumspect about it all.

“I’m not upset or nothing,” he told me when we talked. “Because the fact is, I did a good job out here in terms of changing lives. And doing the best I could to change lives. And maybe it is time for me to step back in for a little while to help change lives inside of there.”

Rufus is 69 years old. He has ten months left on his sentence due to time well served. Perversely, the longer Covid lingers, the better off he’ll be: there will be no official end to the pandemic and he will remain out from behind bars.

But of the 7,000 inmates in home confinement, an estimated 2,000 to 4,000 or so have sentences unlikely to end before the pandemic. They’re now waiting for any word from Biden. And even those in the advocacy community who work on these issues — and have pushed for clemency for this community — say they’ve gotten no sense of what the White House is going to do.

“I would love to stay out, I would love to have my freedom,” Rufus told me before we hung up the phone. “But sometimes things are out of your control and what this shows me is that those in authority, if this happens, are not for rehabilitation and second chances and changing individual lives for positive good.”

The White House did not comment for this piece. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

29 July 2021 at 3:33 pm

The infrastructure bill

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Heather Cox Richardson writes:

It appears that it is finally infrastructure week.

Today, negotiators hammered out a deal on a bipartisan bill, which includes $550 billion in new spending. This evening, the Senate voted to move the bill forward by a vote of 67 to 32, with 17 Republicans joining all the Democrats to begin debate on the measure.

The bill is not fully hammered out yet, and the Congressional Budget Office, which examines bills to see how much they will cost, has not yet produced a final number, but it appears that the bill will cost about $1.2 trillion over 8 years. It puts together unspent monies from other programs and from new “user fees” to pay for it, but Republicans demanded that funds to increase funding for the IRS to enable it to crack down on tax cheats, who cost the United States about $1 trillion a year, be stripped from the bill.

The White House said the bill would create about 2 million “good-paying” jobs a year for the next decade. It provides $110 billion for roads and bridges, $39 billion for public transit, $66 billion for passenger rail, $73 billion to upgrade the electrical grid; $7.5 billion for electrical vehicle chargers on highway corridors, $17 billion for rebuilding our ports, $50 billion for addressing climate change and cybersecurity, and $55 billion for clean drinking water.

The bill also calls for $65 billion to expand broadband internet, tying all Americans into the same grid and lowering prices. In the White House statement, Biden explicitly tied the expansion of broadband to the nation’s 1936 expansion of access to electricity through the Rural Electrification Act. Through that act, the government tried to level the playing field between urban Americans who had electricity through private companies and rural Americans who did not because the profit margins weren’t high enough to make it worthwhile for private companies to bring electricity to them.

Electrification not only enabled rural Americans to enjoy the new products created in the early twentieth century, but also created a new industry of consumer products that helped the post–World War II economy boom. Then, as now, federal funding for a vital infrastructure need opened up the door to government oversight and regulation of that utility, a principle that today’s Republicans oppose, especially when it comes to broadband. (It’s an interesting thought, though: could regulation of publicly supported broadband help address the problem of disinformation on social media?)

That is only one of the ways in which this bipartisan bill remains precarious. There are others. It is always possible that the Republicans cannot muster the 10 votes they need to pass the bill, and continuing to tinker with it is simply a way to run out the clock on the congressional session so that the Democrats cannot get the infrastructure deal they want so badly.

From the other direction, progressive Democrats have made it clear they will not accept this bill, which focuses on “hard” infrastructure like roads and bridges, unless it goes along with a larger “soft” infrastructure bill that focuses on human infrastructure. There are not enough Republican votes to pass that second measure over a Senate filibuster, so it will have to pass the Senate through budget reconciliation, which requires only a simple majority. But that means it will need all 50 Democratic votes, and today Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema said she does not support the bill in its current form. She apparently wants adjustments, but what they are and whether progressives will accept them remains unclear.

Still, the idea of this new, sweeping infrastructure package becoming reality is . . .

Continue reading.

For a different take, look at Kevin Drum’s post:

I see that cats and dogs are living together and have produced a bipartisan infrastructure bill. I figure they did this just to annoy me, but I hold no grudges. I just want to know how they’re going to pay for it:

The new agreement also included significant changes to how the infrastructure spending will be paid for, after Republicans resisted supporting a pillar of the original framework: increased revenues from an I.R.S. crackdown on tax cheats, which was to have supplied nearly one-fifth of the funding for the plan.

In place of those lost revenues, negotiators agreed to repurpose more than $250 billion from previous pandemic aid legislation, including $50 billion from expanded unemployment benefits that have been canceled prematurely this summer by two dozen Republican governors, according to a fact sheet reviewed by The New York Times. That is more than double the repurposed money in the original deal.

As I recall, the previous version of this “$1 trillion” bill actually represented $600 billion in new spending. With this new funding in place, it looks like the $1 trillion bill is now a $350 billion bill. In other words, starting with the very first proposal from the Biden administration, the amount of new spending has gone from $2 trillion to $1 trillion to $600 billion to $350 billion. I think. This gets kind of tricky. In any case, it sure seems like Republicans got a helluva good deal here.

And there’s this:

“We still have a long way to go before we get to the finish line, but this was a vitally important first step,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), one of the lawmakers who helped broker the deal, at a press conference after a vote.

That sounds mighty familiar, doesn’t it? For one thing, it turns out there’s still no actual legislative text. I’m sure that’s not a problem, though. Stay tuned. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

29 July 2021 at 3:24 pm

What’s Behind the U.S. War on Science?

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Vincent Ialenti, formerly a MacArthur postdoctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia and now MacArthur Assistant Research Professor in the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University and author of Deep Time Reckoning: How Future Thinking Can Help Earth Now has an interesting article in Sapiens. It begins:

In U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s victory speech last November, he vowed his administration would “marshal the forces of science” to take bold action against climate change and the pandemic. Describing his election as a “great day” for American educators, he drafted a national coronavirus strategy with a clear mandate: “Listen to science.”

Biden, now halfway through his first year as president, has mostly followed through. He appointed a leading geneticist as his top science adviser and elevated his role to the Cabinet rank. He established a new position—deputy director for science and society at the Office of Science and Technology Policy—and filled it with a renowned sociologist. He reengaged the World Health Organization and issued a detailed pandemic plan focused on health equity and higher vaccination rates. He rejoined the Paris Climate Agreement and set an ambitious target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by around 50 percent by 2030.

This all broke with his predecessor. Under former President Donald Trump, more than two-thirds of scientists across 16 federal agencies reported that hiring freezes and departures interfered with their work. Federal funding was cut for expertise on matters ranging from invasive insect risk to the effects of chemicals on pregnant women. The White House attempted to undermine the National Climate Assessment and even sent a “cease and desist” order to a top National Park Service scientist for testifying to Congress about climate change. The Trump administration moved coronavirus data collection away from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and downplayed the seriousness of the pandemic.

Biden has a historic opportunity to reverse Trump’s regressive science policies. Yet to achieve a more fundamental change in how American political culture approaches science, Biden has to go further to confront an unsettling reality: Current suspicions of science did not begin with the election of one man in 2016. They have often been symptomatic of frustrations and critiques that gained relevance decades prior to Trump’s inauguration, leading many critics to write off scientists as just another untrustworthy, out-of-touch group of elites.

In my new book, Deep Time Reckoning, I refer to this as a “deflation of expertise.” To understand its origins, I first had to leave my home country and experience everyday life in a society that approaches scientific and other forms of expertise differently: Finland. Reflecting on these contrasts can reveal some of the societal disillusionments that fueled Trump’s war on science—and help the U.S. move beyond them.

From 2012 to 2014, I lived in Helsinki. I was conducting anthropological fieldwork among experts developing what will likely become the world’s first deep geological repository for high-level nuclear energy waste. I often asked these experts how Finland was able to keep so closely to the disposal schedules it set back in the early 1980s. The United States’ now-defunct nuclear repository project at Yucca Mountain had, in contrast, been stymied by decades of fierce litigation, political stagnation, and scientific uncertainty.

The Finnish experts attributed their project’s comparatively smooth rollout to Finland’s broad public trust in the competence of their domestic engineers, technocrats, and scientists.

Finns from many walks of life told me of their country’s fondness of large, centralized, hierarchical organizations like public transport systems, government ministries, and the welfare state. They pointed me toward polls casting Finland as unique in its high levels of trust in its domestic civil servantspolice officerseducatorsjournalists, and scientists. For sure, I met Finns who did not fit neatly with these generalizations. But on the whole, my findings lined up with the conclusions of Finnish social scientists: Finns generally “count on expertise, technology, and authorities.”

When I returned to home in August 2014, my mild reverse culture shock revealed Finland’s approach to expertise to be a world apart from the United States’.

Without realizing it at first, I found myself continuing my field research—but now it was the U.S. that looked unfamiliar. I asked my compatriots about trust in science while living in Upstate New York, then in Washington D.C., and when visiting my hometown in Central Massachusetts. I encountered a deep suspicion of experts that, in Finland, would have seemed almost paranoid.

American distrust of science is not new. Yet in recent decades, moral and religious critiques of science have fueled the growth of an anti-elite fervor against scientists and other experts, especially among conservatives. Why?

Some Americans I met told me how their trust in high-ranking military leaders had been shaken when the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003 based on false pretenses about weapons of mass destruction. Others told me that their trust in economists had been damaged after the 2007–2008 global financial crisis. Still others expressed that their trust in Silicon Valley had given way to concerns about digital privacy losses, big data cybersecurity hacks, and U.S. National Security Agency surveillance.

After multiple breaches of public trust by powerful state institutions and trained experts, some people felt that suspicion of any kind of person in an elite position seemed reasonable. A trust gap was widening between the general public and elites.

Come the 2016 election, all sorts of claims to expert authority were written off as mere pompous elitism. Right-wing populists clamored loudly against technocrats, globalists, and the deep state. The Trump administration openly questioned established science on topics ranging from climate change to human evolution.

Meanwhile, deluges of online misinformation left millions of Americans—on both the political left and right—siloed in algorithmically generated, increasingly extreme social media echo chambers.

But the reasons behind this intensification of anti-science political fervor, especially among conservatives, the majority of whom are White people, are complex and multifaceted.

I will focus on a few that I see as particularly relevant to the intensification of anti-elitism in the U.S. For one thing, some White Americans have had to reckon with a crumbling American DreamOver the past two decades, working-class White people have seen decreased life expectancies and increased rates of suicide and opioid overdoses. Meanwhile, middle-class White males’ wages have stagnated or, in some cases, declined.

These economic changes, alongside other factors, have led some conservatives to feel that “establishment” institutions—not just in media and government, but also in science and technology—have abandoned them. Some also say they’ve lost faith in the country’s higher education system. According to a 2017 Gallup poll, Republican or Republican-leaning voters tend to be concerned that these institutions are “too liberal/political” and don’t allow students to “think for themselves.” Some critics fear conservative students are marginalized by far-left faculty and administrators, a critique that hasn’t been borne out by the research.

Today only 37 percent of conservative Republicans believe in global warming—down from 49 percent in 2008. Many reject peer-reviewed findings on COVID-19 or view public health guidance as a threat to their sense of self-determination. Only 27 percent of Republicans—compared to 43 percent of respondents who are or lean Democrat—report “a great deal” of confidence in the scientific community as a whole.

Science advocates can find hope in Biden’s political appointments and policy initiatives. However, Biden faces a grander challenge: regaining trust in science among those who have lost faith in expertise itself.

Sociologist Bruno Latour has observed that . . .

Continue reading. There’s more, and it offers insights into the breakdown of the US social compact.

The testimony from the police who stood against the insurrectionists

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Heather Cox Richardson:

This morning, the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol began its hearings with testimony from two Capitol Police officers and two Metropolitan Police officers.

After Representatives Bennie Thompson (D-MS) and Liz Cheney (R-WY) opened the hearing, Sergeant Aquilino Gonell and and Officer Harry Dunn of the Capitol Police, and Officer Michael Fanone and Officer Daniel Hodges of the Metropolitan Police, recounted hand-to-hand combat against rioters who were looking to stop the election of Democrat Joe Biden and kill elected officials whom they thought were standing in the way of Trump’s reelection. They gouged eyes, sprayed chemicals, shouted the n-word, and told the officers they were going to die. They said: “Trump sent us.”

Lawmakers questioning the officers had them walk the members through horrific video footage taken from the officers’ body cameras. The officers said that one of the hardest parts of the insurrection for them was hearing the very people whose lives they had defended deny the horror of that day. They called the rioters terrorists who were engaged in a coup attempt, and called the indifference of lawmakers to those who had protected them “disgraceful.” “I feel like I went to hell and back to protect them and the people in this room,” Fanone said. “But too many are now telling me that hell doesn’t exist, or that hell wasn’t actually that bad.”

The officers indicated they thought that Trump was responsible for the riot. When asked if Trump was correct that it was “a loving crowd,” Gonell responded: “To me, it’s insulting, just demoralizing because of everything that we did to prevent everyone in the Capitol from getting hurt…. And what he was doing, instead of sending the military, instead of sending the support or telling his people, his supporters, to stop this nonsense, he begged them to continue fighting.” The officers asked the committee to make sure it did a thorough investigation. “There was an attack carried out on January 6, and a hit man sent them,” Dunn testified. “I want you to get to the bottom of that.”

The Republicans on the committee, Representatives Adam Kinzinger (IL) and Liz Cheney (WY) pushed back on Republican claims that the committee is partisan.

“Like most Americans, I’m frustrated that six months after a deadly insurrection breached the United States Capitol for several hours on live television, we still don’t know exactly what happened,” Kinzinger said. “Why? Because many in my party have treated this as just another partisan fight. It’s toxic and it’s a disservice to the officers and their families, to the staff and the employees in the Capitol complex, to the American people who deserve the truth, and to those generations before us who went to war to defend self-governance.”

Kinzinger rejected the Republican argument that the committee should investigate the Black Lives Matter protests of summer 2020, saying that he had been concerned about those protests but they were entirely different from the events of January 6: they did not threaten democracy. “There is a difference between breaking the law and rejecting the rule of law,” Kinzinger observed. (Research shows that more than 96% of the BLM protests had no violence or property damage.)

The officers and lawmakers both spoke eloquently of their determination to defend democracy. Sergeant Gonell, a U.S. Army veteran of the Iraq War who emigrated from the Dominican Republic, said: “As an immigrant to the United States, I am especially proud to have defended the U.S. Constitution and our democracy on January 6.” Adam Schiff (D-CA) added: “If we’re no longer committed to a peaceful transfer of power after elections if our side doesn’t win, then God help us. If we deem elections illegitimate merely because they didn’t go our way rather than trying to do better the next time, then God help us.”

Cheney said: “Until January 6th, we were proof positive for the world that a nation conceived in liberty could long endure. But now, January 6th threatens our most sacred legacy. The question for every one of us who serves in Congress, for every elected official across this great nation, indeed, for every American is this: Will we adhere to the rule of law? Will we respect the rulings of our courts? Will we preserve the peaceful transition of power? Or will we be so blinded by partisanship that we throw away the miracle of America? Do we hate our political adversaries more than we love our country and revere our Constitution?”

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) both said they had been too busy to watch the hearing. But the second-ranking Republican in the Senate, John Thune of South Dakota, called the officers heroes and said: “We should listen to what they have to say.”

Republicans are somewhat desperately trying to change the subject in such a way that it will hurt Democrats. Shortly before the hearing started, McCarthy House Republican conference chair Elise Stefanik (R-NY), who was elected to that position after the conference tossed Liz Cheney for her refusal to support Trump after the insurrection; and Jim Banks (R-IN), whom McCarthy tried to put on the committee and who promised to undermine it, held a press conference. They tried to blame House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) for the attack on the Capitol, a right-wing talking point, although she, in fact, has no control over the Capitol Police.

Shortly after the hearing ended, some of the House’s key Trump supporters—Andy Biggs (R-AZ), Matt Gaetz (R-FL), Louie Gohmert (R-TX), Bob Good (R-VA), Paul Gosar (R-AZ), and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA)—tried to hold a press conference in front of the Department of Justice, where they promised to complain about those arrested for their role in the January 6 insurrection, calling them “political prisoners.” The conference fell apart when protesters called Gaetz a pedophile (he is under investigation for sex trafficking a girl), and blew a whistle to drown the Republican lawmakers out.

This story is not going away, not only because the events of January 6 were a deadly attack on our democracy that almost succeeded and we want to know how and why that came to pass, but also because those testifying before the committee are under oath.

Since the 1950s, when Senator Joe McCarthy (R-WI) pioneered constructing a false narrative to attract voters, the Movement Conservative faction of the Republican Party focused not on fact-based arguments but on emotionally powerful fiction. There are no punishments for lying in front of television cameras in America, and from Ronald Reagan’s Welfare Queen to Rush Limbaugh’s “Feminazis” to the Fox News Channel personalities’ warnings about dangerous Democrats to Rudy Giuliani’s “witnesses” to “voter fraud” in the 2020 election, Republicans advanced fictions and howled about the “liberal media” when they were fact-checked. By the time of the impeachment hearings for former president Trump, Republican lawmakers like Jim Jordan (R-OH) didn’t even pretend to care about facts but instead yelled and badgered to get clips that could be arranged into a fictional narrative on right-wing media.

Now, though, the Movement Conservative narrative that  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

28 July 2021 at 9:55 am

How Kevin McCarthy is boosting the integrity of the Jan. 6 investigation

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Greg Sargent and Paul Waldman have a very interesting column in the Washington Post:

We should be thankful that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) just pulled Republicans out of any involvement in the select committee to examine the Jan. 6 insurrection. In so doing, he ensured that the committee’s investigation will both have more integrity and be more likely to undertake a valuable accounting.

Which goes to a larger truth about this moment: Efforts at a real examination of arguably the worst outbreak of political violence in modern times — and efforts to protect our democracy more broadly — will not be bipartisan. These things will be done by Democrats alone.

McCarthy’s handling of the Jan. 6 committee illustrates the point. It comes after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced that she is nixing two of McCarthy’s picks to serve on it: Reps. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) and Jim Jordan (R-Ohio).

McCarthy mustered great outrage about this, railing that it was an “abuse of power” that had cost the committee “all legitimacy and credibility.”

In fact, precisely the opposite is true: By pulling out, McCarthy has boosted the committee’s legitimacy and credibility immeasurably. The less involved McCarthy is with this committee, the more likely it will be to undertake a genuine and comprehensive accounting.

McCarthy’s picks were expressly designed to prevent that accounting. This is not speculation or a mere guess at McCarthy’s motives. It is unavoidably clear from the public statements and conduct of Banks and Jordan themselves.

Banks’s first act on getting named by McCarthy was to release a statement declaring that the committee must investigate the “hundreds of violent political riots” in which “many more innocent Americans and law-enforcement officers were attacked.”

That’s an explicit declaration that the insurrection and President Donald Trump’s incitement of it should not be the focus of the committee and is a less serious matter than those riots.

Similarly, after Jordan was picked, he immediately declared he wants to serve on the committee because “this is impeachment Round 3,” unwittingly revealing — or perhaps unabashedly declaring — that he saw his role as solely a means for working to exonerate Trump.

What’s more, Jordan had already played a prominent role in spreading the very lies about the 2020 election that helped inspire the insurrection the committee will be investigating. Given that the committee is charged with probing the causes of the violence — and that those lies are a major cause — any real accounting must also implicate Republicans such as Jordan.

On top of all this, remember that McCarthy could have exercised even more control over the investigation — yet declined. Back in May, Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), the Homeland Security Committee chair, announced an agreement with the ranking Republican on an evenly divided 10-member bipartisan commission, with both parties having veto power over subpoenas.

Guess who voted against that commission? McCarthy, Banks and Jordan did.

All three also voted to object to President Biden’s electors, a vote that represented the culmination of the lies this committee will investigate as a cause of the violence.

frantic appeal to Trump to call off the rioters; he likely has firsthand experience of Trump’s truly sociopathic and insurrectionist intentions that day.

And Jordan was present in a Dec. 21 White House meeting with Trump and others, at which they discussed how to overturn Biden’s electors on the day of what would become the insurrection. What was said at that meeting will be of great interest to the committee.

“Anyone who is a material witness to the key events leading up to the Jan. 6 insurrection doesn’t really belong on the committee,” Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.), a member of the select committee, told us.

“The investigative inquiry is being shaped right now,” Raskin continued, “but those are likely to be key events in the chronology.”

Here’s the bottom line: By nixing Banks and Jordan, Pelosi actually protected the integrity of the committee’s investigation, from their openly advertised intention to misdirect, disrupt and sabotage it. By appointing publicly committed saboteurs, McCarthy openly advertised the same intention. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

22 July 2021 at 11:42 am

Kevin McCarthy lacks integrity

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Heather Cox Richardson writes:

The story that grabbed headlines today was that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) rejected two of the five people House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) chose to put on the House select committee to investigate the January 6 insurrection. McCarthy immediately withdrew all of the five people he had appointed, accusing the Speaker of partisanship.

But let’s call this like it is. The Republicans killed a bill to create a bipartisan select committee to investigate the insurrection. Then, when Pelosi set up a select committee instead on the exact same terms that Republicans had used to set up one of their many Benghazi committees, McCarthy tried to sabotage the process by naming as three of his five picks men who bought into former president Trump’s Big Lie and challenged the votes on the night of January 6.

One of those men, Jim Jordan (R-OH), is known for disrupting hearings; another, Jim Banks (R-IN), after being selected to sit on the committee, said that Pelosi “created this committee solely to malign conservatives and to justify the Left’s authoritarian agenda.” Banks has repeatedly tried to blame Pelosi for the response of the Capitol Police on January 6, when, in fact, it is overseen by a three-person Capitol Police Board. It is likely that McCarthy chose Jordan precisely to push Pelosi into rejecting him: McCarthy did not make Jordan the ranking member on the committee despite his seniority.

Pelosi refused to accept Jordan and Banks but did accept Troy Nehls (R-TX), who also voted to challenge the results of the 2020 election. Nonetheless, McCarthy made a show of pulling all his appointees from the committee, saying “this panel has lost all legitimacy and credibility and shows the Speaker is more interested in playing politics than seeking the truth.”

But, of course, one of Pelosi’s own picks is Republican Liz Cheney (R-WY), who voted with Trump 92.9% of the time, but who recognizes the insurrection as one of the most dangerous threats to our democracy in our history. She responded today to McCarthy, her party’s leader, supporting Pelosi’s decision and telling reporters that the Speaker had “objected to two members and the rhetoric around this from the minority leader and from those two members has been disgraceful. This must be an investigation that is focused on facts, and the idea that any of this has become politicized is really unworthy of the office that we all hold and unworthy of our republic.”

Cheney said she is “absolutely confident that we will have a nonpartisan investigation.”

On January 13, of course, McCarthy said: “The president bears responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on Congress by mob rioters. He should have immediately denounced the mob when he saw what was unfolding. These facts require immediate action by [Trump] to accept his share of responsibility.” Now, six months later, Republicans have lined up behind the former president and are seeking to sabotage the investigation into the January 6 insurrection, clearly unhappy about what that investigation will reveal.

In the Senate, a vote to advance the $579 billion bipartisan infrastructure bill failed today, but 11 Republicans eager to make the deal work delivered a letter to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) indicating their intention to vote for such a bill once it is hammered out. Schumer has promised to bring the procedural process up again if it has the votes to pass. If Republicans refuse to join the measure, Democrats can simply fold it into the larger bill they’re hoping to pass through reconciliation without the Republican votes necessary to break a filibuster.

McConnell has taken a stand against the Democrats’ infrastructure plans. In a speech on July 6, he focused on the larger package, saying: “The era of bipartisanship on this stuff is over….This is not going to be done on a bipartisan basis. This is going to be a hell of a fight over what this country ought to look like in the future and it’s going to unfold here in the next few weeks. I don’t think we’ve had a bigger difference of opinion between the two parties.” But many Republicans recognize that the infrastructure package is popular, and they would like to have their names on it rather than giving another win to the Democrats. Schumer has given them more time but has made it clear he will not let them run out the clock.

Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) told reporters today that no Republican senators will vote to raise the nation’s debt ceiling when a deal cut two years ago to suspend the ceiling ends on July 31. McConnell wants to see spending cuts to bring down the deficit. (It is worth noting that the Republicans just demanded that funding to beef up the IRS to catch tax cheaters be stripped from the new infrastructure bill, although the commissioner of the IRS, Charles Rettig, estimates we lose $1 trillion a year in unpaid taxes.)

During the Trump administration, Congress voted at least three times to raise the debt ceiling. Under Trump, the nation added $7.8 trillion to the national debt, about $23,500 for every person in the country. The bulk of this debt came before the coronavirus pandemic. Trump’s 2017 tax cuts, which chopped the federal tax rate from 35% to 21%, hurt revenues at the same time that administration spending increased dramatically. And then the pandemic hit.

Under Trump, the deficit rose 5.2%. The only presidents to raise it faster in their terms were George W. Bush, under whom the deficit rose 11.7% as he cut taxes and started two wars, and Abraham Lincoln, under whom it rose 9.4% as he paid for the Civil War.

The Democrats are treating McConnell’s threat to shut down the government as political posturing. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said: “We expect Congress to act in a timely manner to raise or suspend the debt ceiling, as they did three times on a broad bipartisan basis during the last administration,” and Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI) tweeted: “We are not going to have a ‘big fight’ over the debt ceiling. We are just going to handle our business like grownups.” Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) added: “We don’t bargain over the debt ceiling. We just do our jobs. And if you choose not to do your job, then you answer for the consequences.”

The takeaway from today is that . . .

Continue reading for the conclusion — and take a look at the notes, particularly the video clip of Liz Cheney.

Written by Leisureguy

22 July 2021 at 10:16 am

Daniel Hale exposed the machinery of America’s clandestine warfare. Why did no one seem to care?

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Relevant to the story: Eye in the Sky, with Helen Mirrin and Alan Rickman—Alan Rickman’s last movie, in fact, and a terrific movie.

Kerry Howley writes in New York:

Daniel Everette Hale was the best dishwasher in Nashville. He was faster, more efficient, more knowledgeable about the machinery that makes a restaurant run. He could predict when the kitchen would need bowls and when small plates; he could take apart the dishwasher and deliver an impromptu lecture on the proper cleaning thereof. He was 31, slight, with a buzz cut and tattoos down his taut forearms, and while he thought himself the best, in the minds of the men for whom he worked he was a touch too invested. If something broke, such as a spray nozzle, he’d show up the next day with a new spray nozzle and tools to install it, having never checked with management at all, at which point management might say, “Daniel, we already had a backup spray nozzle.” Despite the excellence of his washing, he had been fired many times from many kitchens for generally being a pain in the ass. He was, for instance, persistently pressing the staff to demand higher wages and was repeatedly disappointed that the staff seemed uninterested.

There was only one restaurant that lived up to the standards of the best dishwasher in Nashville. This was Folk, which Daniel recalls as a “beautiful, just beautiful brand-new restaurant with, like, impeccable aesthetics and these big ceiling-high windows that let the light shine in during the midday and a beautiful marble bar and all these fresh, locally sourced ingredients.” The staff was disciplined and well trained and not given to the episodes of sexual harassment he had seen in other restaurants. In the open kitchen, he discovered “this really cool dish machine, a single-rack dish machine I hadn’t used before.” The staff was “like a family,” and the much-celebrated chef was “always, always there,” not at all like the “complete asshole dirtbag restaurant guys” he’d worked for before. But eventually, as he had in many other Nashville kitchens, Daniel became too difficult an employee to manage, too time-consuming in his ever-expanding list of ideas for improvement, and one evening in May 2019, the chef let him go.

Daniel got drunk, met a woman, went home with her, and immediately regretted it. In the night, he opened a condom but didn’t use it. He returned to his apartment early the next morning and called a close friend to whom he would lament the loss of his job. “I loved it there,” he was telling his friend, there on the porch on a wet May morning in Nashville. “I loved it. I loved every minute of it.”

Daniel heard a rustling in the leaves beside the porch and thought perhaps it was his roommates, though in retrospect they would not be up at 6 a.m. on a Thursday. He stopped speaking.

A man in black ran toward him with a drawn gun. Then two more men. Then six.

This is it, Daniel thought. Finally.

The FBI agents swarmed him, searched him. Last time this had happened, the agents had seemed to Daniel contemptuous, but these guys seemed slightly embarrassed, as if to acknowledge that it was all “a little excessive.” An FBI agent stuck his hand in Daniel’s pocket and pulled out the unwrapped condom.

“You couldn’t have warned me?” the agent said.

On the drive to work that morning, the chef turned on NPR, which is how he learned that the dishwasher he had just fired had been seized for stealing documents about the secret assassination program we have come to call the drone war.

Anyone can build a combat drone. If you build a drone for your little makeshift country, no one will be impressed. We may think of drones as indestructible, ironclad, and this is the impression defense companies attempt to impart with the hard names they give the machines they build — Predator drone, Reaper drone, Hunter drone — but in fact the original word, drone, is elegantly apt, and all of these are an attempt to mask the dumb delicacy it captures. Drones are flimsy, light little wisps of things, vulnerable to lost signals and sleepy pilots, vulnerable to gusts of wind and hard rain, lightning, ice. You will send a drone whirling into the sand should you turn too hard into a breeze or press the wrong button on your joystick; should you fly into an area of excessive electromagnetic noise or accidentally fly the drone upside down for a long while, oblivious. They slam into mountains, crash into other planes, fall into farms, sidewalks, and waterways. Sometimes they simply go silent and float away, never to be found again. Hundreds and hundreds of military drones we have lost this way, scattered across the globe. It’s okay. They’re cheap. We make new ones.

What is notable is not the drone but the network that keeps it aloft. This is where American power asserts itself: the satellites we rocket into the sky and the shallow-bowled receivers we nail to the ground. Concrete bases, trucks dragging satellites in their beds, the cables American soldiers lay in ditches they’ve dug into someone else’s desert. (“A fuck-ton of cables,” as one whistleblower explained it to me.)

Most of this hard and heavy infrastructure is maintained in a secrecy upheld by the CIA, which runs one drone program, the military, which runs another, the agencies that serve them, and the contractors that serve the agencies. In 2015, an insider leaked dozens of pages of documents about the inner workings of the American drone program, including information about the bureaucracy behind the “kill list” over which Barack Obama then presided. The Intercept published an eight-part series centered on these documents that became a book. “A ‘second Snowden’ Leaks to The Intercept,” announced CNN, an alliteration that would prove irresistible across media; “A Second Snowden Has Leaked a Mother Lode of Drone Docs,” read a headline in WiredAmnesty International called for a congressional investigation. First Snowden called it “an astonishing act of civil courage.”

Nearly no one knew who Second Snowden was then or for years afterward. After he was seized in the early-morning raid and released on bail and prosecuted through a pandemic, he stopped shaving and grew what a friend called “a ZZ Top beard.” He lost weight and began to wear clothes donated by concerned acquaintances; someone else’s large khakis hung off him, the waistband folded over, a belt yanked to the last loop. Friends pressed him to go public with the story of how and why, but Daniel maintained that in talking about himself, he would be taking the spotlight from victims of the drone war. He rarely left his room.

In November 2020, his housemate coaxed him out for a beer at a place called Moreland’s Tavern in Northwest D.C. When Daniel arrived, eight people he knew were seated at tables outside in the cold. The intervention had been arranged by the housemate and by one of Daniel’s closest friends, an activist named Noor Mir, who knew that Daniel was hesitant to impose on people and that he needed help. “I think it’s hard for men to understand that it’s okay to feel really, really scared,” Mir told me.

They went around the table, one by one, and told Daniel that he had to get his shit together. He needed to participate in his defense. He needed to prepare for the possibility of prison. He needed to consider the future care of his cat. He needed to tell his story, because if he failed to do that, the prosecution’s story would stand unchallenged. Daniel had his feet on a chair, his arms around his knees, supremely uncomfortable. Two hours in, the last person said what he had come to say. They waited for Daniel to respond.

“All right, everybody,” he said, half-smiling for the first time that evening. “Can we shut the fuck up now?”

Daniel told none of his friends he was ready to talk, but on April 4, he called me. He said he didn’t want to be called a whistleblower. He preferred the word traitor.

No one owns a secret state, and no one answers for it. There was a moment in 2012, 2013, when various people outside Yemen and Pakistan and Afghanistan began to notice that inside Yemen and Pakistan and Afghanistan, the U.S. was waging constant, secret war under a set of rules known to few. It was May 2013 when Obama finally felt it necessary to give his big drone speech, in which he acknowledged that drones were morally complicated, promised to “review proposals to extend oversight,” deemed them an unfortunate necessity for the safety of Americans, and generally gave the impression that he would make the program accountable. But everything of note that happens in this story happened after such gestures were forced, and made, and forgotten.

aniel did not come to the Air Force so much as he surrendered. He had grown up the son of a disapproving, Bible-quoting truck-driver father in Bristol, Virginia, which is just across the state line from Bristol, Tennessee. He is a descendant of Nathan Hale, hanged by the Brits in 1776 for attempting to pose as a Dutch schoolmaster and steal information on troop movements (according to Daniel, “not a very good spy”). Daniel’s parents were under constant stress: food pantries, endless dinners of rice and beans. The services he attended as a child were “fire and brimstone” — country music, his sister said, was sufficiently sinful to send you to hell. Among the various Appalachian churches was one, Emmanuel Baptist Church, where the pastor was revealed to be raping and torturing a young girl he and his wife had kidnapped. It was 1998, and Daniel was 11.

By the time he finished high school, Daniel trusted a single source of information, which was Democracy Now! Daniel’s father had, from a very young age, suggested the military as a way out of poverty, but Daniel was already on an intellectual journey in which he would come to see Edward Snowden as insufficiently extreme; he wanted nothing to do with it. He tried enrolling in a regional UVA campus and dropped out. He tried community college and dropped out. He met a friend on the internet playing World of Warcraft, moved to Vegas to look for work at a casino, could find no such work (“I was kind of a dipshit at the time,” he says), and moved back home. He answered a job ad that said it did not require experience and was given a bus ticket to Fayetteville, North Carolina, where he joined a bunch of kids he describes as “mostly runaways.” The company put them up, two to a room, in hotels, and had them selling magazines door-to-door. You could get rich, the managers said, if you kept at it. You could be like them. It would be hard to imagine a worse salesman than Daniel Hale, who once told me he has frequent nightmares because “any person of conscience in America builds up a sense of dread.” Humiliated, he asked his dad for a ride home. Now he was in Bristol again, 21, with no real prospects and a sense of how brutal the world could be to a man with no skills for which the world had asked. He and his father got into a fight that became physical. Daniel walked into a military-recruitment office in a strip mall near a Walmart. He took a test, aced it, and was told he could do anything he wanted.

It wasn’t so bad, the life he had accepted when no others made themselves known, under a new president who made promises in which it was tempting to believe: the closing of Guantánamo, an end to forever war. Daniel assumed it was impossible to be a president without becoming a war criminal, but he had attended an Obama rally in his hometown. At the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, he studied Mandarin for the greater glory of the state. He adored his classmate Michael, with whom he had long conversations about politics and indie rap. He thought a lot about ways to get dishonorably discharged, but he woke up in the morning and went to class.

Obama did not in fact close Guantánamo in his first 100 days. He did not end the drone program or usher in a new age of transparency. Not a week into office, he authorized two drone strikes that killed 14 people, many of whom were not the targets. Obama increased the tempo of attacks and would, two years later, introduce the novel element of killing American citizens. At first the strikes had been limited to “Al Qaeda and associated forces,” but gradually they were found useful for forces it was extremely hard to argue were associated with Al Qaeda. It was useful, Obama found, to employ drone strikes against the tribal enemies of various governments the U.S. was supporting. It was useful to target not just high-ranking members of various organizations but low-level members; useful to evolve the whole thing from an assassination program to a holistic counterinsurgency machine. In parts of Pakistan, locals had stopped drinking Lipton tea, out of fear that the tea bags were homing devices used by the CIA to attract drones.

In early 2001, the U.S. did not know how to launch a missile from a Predator drone without damaging the drone. In early 2001, one could not have run an assassination program based on geolocation, simply because terrorism was not yet run on cell phones. Fourteen years later, the Pentagon was planning to spend nearly $3 billion on unmanned aerial vehicles in a single year. The president had access to technologies available to no president before him, and he opted to use them.

Obama, Daniel concluded, was “a clown,” “just a complete fraud,” who would uphold the worst policies of his secretive predecessor. But now it was 2010, and the national security state’s ability to keep its secrets was beginning to break down. While at the Defense Language Institute, Daniel says, an officer came into his classroom and forbade them from searching for a term relatively new to the world: WikiLeaks. If they did so, they’d lose their security clearance. Julian Assange had packaged, edited, and dramatically unveiled leaked footage of American soldiers shooting a man holding a camera because they had thought the camera was a gun. On YouTube, one could watch the photographer die and one could watch a van pull up and a man jump out to help the photographer the Americans had shot. One could watch, on YouTube, as the Americans shot up the van, though if one were watching closely, one would already have seen that in the front of the van were two small children. One could hear a deep silence as the American soldiers watched the limp children being carried from the van.

“Well, it’s their fault,” one hears a soldier say, “for bringing their kids into battle.”

Daniel was sent to Fort Meade, which he describes as . . .

Continue reading. There’s much, much more.

Tennessee is worse even than I thought

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Heather Cox Richardson writes:

Yesterday, news broke that, under pressure from Republican leaders, Republican-dominated Tennessee will no longer conduct vaccine outreach for minors. Only 38% of people in Tennessee are vaccinated, and yet the state Department of Health will no longer reach out to urge minors to get vaccinated.

This change affects not only vaccines for the coronavirus, but also all other routine vaccines. On Monday, Tennessee’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Tim Jones sent an email to staff saying there should be “no proactive outreach regarding routine vaccines” and “no outreach whatsoever regarding the HPV vaccine.” The HPV vaccine protects against a common sexually transmitted infection that causes cervical cancer, among other cancers.

Staff were also told not to do any “pre-planning” for flu shots events at schools. Any information released about back-to-school vaccinations should come from the Tennessee Department of Education, not the Tennessee Department of Health, Jones wrote.

On Monday, Dr. Michelle Fiscus, Tennessee’s former top vaccine official, was fired without explanation, and Republicans have talked about getting rid of the Department of Health altogether, saying it has been undermining parents by going around them and straight to teens to promote vaccines.

Video editor J.M. Rieger of the Washington Post put together a series of videos of Republicans boosting the vaccine and thanking former president Donald Trump for it only to show the same people now spreading disinformation, calling vaccines one of the greatest scandals in our history, and even comparing vaccines to the horrors of the Nazis.

This begs the question: Why?

Former FBI special agent, lawyer, and professor Asha Rangappa put this question to Twitter. “Seriously: What is the [Republicans’] endgame in trying to convince their own voters not to get the vaccine?” The most insightful answer, I thought, was that the Republican’s best hope for winning in 2022—aside from voter suppression—is to keep the culture wars hot, even if it means causing illness and death.

The Republican Party continues to move to the right. During his time in office, the former president put his supporters into office at the level of the state parties, a move that is paying off as they purge from their midst those unwilling to follow Trump. Today, in Michigan, the Republican Party chair who had criticized Trump, Jason Cabel Roe, resigned.

Candidates who have thrown their hat into the ring for the 2022 midterm elections are trying to get attention by being more and more extreme. They vow to take on the establishment, support Trump and God, and strike terror into the “Liberals” who are bringing socialism to America. Forty QAnon supporters are running for Congress, 38 as Republicans, 2 as Independents.

And yet, there are cracks in this Republican rush to Trumpism.

Yesterday, on the Fox News Channel, House minority leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) admitted that “Joe Biden is the president of the United States. He legitimately got elected.” Trump supporters immediately attacked McCarthy, but the minority leader is only too aware that the House Select Committee on the Capitol Insurrection will start hearing witnesses on July 27, and the spotlight on that event is highly unlikely to make the former president—and possibly some of the Republican lawmakers—look good.

Already, the books coming out about the former administration have been scathing, but tonight news broke of new revelations in a forthcoming book by Pulitzer Prize–winning Washington Post reporters Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker. Leonnig and Rucker interviewed more than 140 members of the former administration and say that Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark A. Milley was increasingly upset as he listened to Trump lie about having won the election, believing Trump was looking for an excuse to invoke the Insurrection Act and call out the military.

Milley compared the former president’s language to that of Hitler and was so worried Trump was going to seize power that Milley began to strategize with other military leaders to keep him from using the military in illegal ways, especially after Trump put his allies at the head of the Pentagon. “They may try, but they’re not going to f—ing succeed,” he allegedly said.

In addition to damaging stories coming out about the former president, news broke yesterday that Fitch Ratings, a credit rating company, is considering downgrading the AAA rating of the United States government bonds. The problem is not the economy. In fact, the Fitch Ratings report praises the economy, saying it “has recovered much more rapidly than expected, helped by policy stimulus and the roll-out of the vaccination program, which has allowed economic reopening…. [T]he scale and speed of the policy response [is] a positive reflection on the macroeconomic policy framework. Real economic output has overtaken its pre-pandemic level and is on track to exceed pre-pandemic projections….”

Although the report worries about the growing debt, we also learned yesterday that the deficit for June dropped a whopping 80% from the deficit a year ago, as tax receipts recover along with the economy. Year-to-date, the annual deficit is down 18% from last year.

The problem, the report says, is . . .

Continue reading. The US is in crisis. The infection is the GOP.

E.P.A. Approved Toxic Chemicals for Fracking a Decade Ago

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The panel above is from 50 years ago, and we have learned nothing in the meantime: we continue to trash the environment despite having to live in it. Hiroko Tabuchi reports in the NY Times:

For much of the past decade, oil companies engaged in drilling and fracking have been allowed to pump into the ground chemicals that, over time, can break down into toxic substances known as PFAS — a class of long-lasting compounds known to pose a threat to people and wildlife — according to internal documents from the Environmental Protection Agency.

The E.P.A. in 2011 [under President Barack Obama – LG] approved the use of these chemicals, used to ease the flow of oil from the ground, despite the agency’s own grave concerns about their toxicity, according to the documents, which were reviewed by The New York Times. The E.P.A.’s approval of the three chemicals wasn’t previously publicly known.

The records, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by a nonprofit group, Physicians for Social Responsibility, are among the first public indications that PFAS, long-lasting compounds also known as “forever chemicals,” may be present in the fluids used during drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

In a consent order issued for the three chemicals on Oct. 26, 2011, E.P.A. scientists pointed to preliminary evidence that, under some conditions, the chemicals could “degrade in the environment” into substances akin to PFOA, a kind of PFAS chemical, and could “persist in the environment” and “be toxic to people, wild mammals, and birds.” The E.P.A. scientists recommended additional testing. Those tests were not mandatory and there is no indication that they were carried out.

“The E.P.A. identified serious health risks associated with chemicals proposed for use in oil and gas extraction, and yet allowed those chemicals to be used commercially with very lax regulation,” said Dusty Horwitt, researcher at Physicians for Social Responsibility.

For fracking to work, the energy industry has an appetite for chemicals that, when pumped underground at high pressure, can coax oil out of the ground most efficiently. In 2008, a scientific paper published in an oil-industry journal and led by a DuPont researcher referred to the “exceptional” water-repelling and other characteristics of types of chemicals that include PFAS, and called the chemicals an “emerging technology” that showed promise for use in oil and gas extraction.

The E.P.A. documents describing the chemicals approved in 2011 date from the Obama administration and are heavily redacted because the agency allows companies to invoke trade-secret claims to keep basic information on new chemicals from public release. Even the name of the company that applied for approval is redacted, and the records give only a generic name for the chemicals: fluorinated acrylic alkylamino copolymer.

However, an identification number for one of the chemicals issued by the E.P.A. appears in separate E.P.A. data and identifies Chemours, previously DuPont, as the submitter. A separate E.P.A. document shows that a chemical with the same E.P.A.-issued number was first imported for commercial use in November 2011. (Chemours did not exist until 2015, though it would have had the responsibility to report chemicals on behalf of its predecessor, DuPont.)

There is no public data that details where the E.P.A.-approved chemicals have been used. But the FracFocus database, which tracks chemicals used in fracking, shows that about 120 companies used PFAS — or chemicals that can break down into PFAS, the most common of which was “nonionic fluorosurfactant” and various misspellings — in more than 1,000 wells between 2012 and 2020 in Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Wyoming. Because not all states require companies to report chemicals to the database, the number of wells could be higher.

Nine of those wells were in Carter County, Okla., within the boundaries of Chickasaw Nation. “This isn’t something I was aware of,” said Tony Choate, a Chickasaw Nation spokesman. [Fun fact: I was born and raised in Carter County, and my grandfather Ham, a surveyor, made the first official map of Carter County, for which he was paid 40 acres of land which turned out to be above the largest oil pool in Oklahoma, a discovery made some years after he traded the land for a buckboard and a team of mules. – LG]

Nick Conger, an E.P.A. spokesman, said that the chemicals in question were approved a decade ago, and that amendments to laws since then now required the agency to affirm the safety of new chemicals before they are allowed into the marketplace. He said the redactions in the documents were mandated by a statute protecting confidential business information. The Biden administration had made addressing PFAS a top priority, he added, for example by proposing a rule to require all manufacturers and importers of PFAS since 2011 to disclose more information on the chemicals, including their environmental and health effects.

Chemours, which has in the past agreed to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to settle injury claims related to PFOA pollution, declined to comment. In 2005, DuPont also agreed to pay $16 million to settle allegations by the E.P.A. that it had failed to report information about the health and environmental effects of PFAS, in the largest administrative penalty the agency had ever imposed at the time. But Chemours, which was spun off from DuPont in 2015, has not spoken publicly about the use of these chemicals in drilling and fracking. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Later in the report:

A class of man-made chemicals that are toxic even in minuscule concentrations, for decades PFAS were used to make products like nonstick pans, stain-resistant carpeting and firefighting foam. The substances have come under scrutiny in recent years for their tendency to persist in the environment, and to accumulate inside the human body, as well as for their links to health problems like cancer and birth defects. Both Congress and the Biden administration have moved to better regulate PFAS, which contaminate the drinking water of as many as 80 million Americans.

Industry researchers have long been aware of their toxicity. But it wasn’t until the early 2000s, when the environmental attorney Rob Bilott sued DuPont for pollution from its Teflon plant in Parkersburg, W.Va., that the dangers of PFAS started to be widely known. In settlements with the E.P.A. in the mid-2000s, DuPont acknowledged knowing of PFAS’s dangers, and it and several other chemical manufacturers subsequently committed to phase out the use of certain kinds of the chemical by 2015.

And it’s not just the effects of the poisoning of the ground (and, presumably, groundwater). As a consequence of injecting wastewater from oil production into the ground, Oklahoma has been wracked by earthquakes.

And of course we continue to pollute the ocean — and there’s the elephant farting in the room: massive dumping of CO2 into the atmosphere, causing global warming and climate change, which we see accelerating as heat builds up (and as we continue to burn fossil fuels).

Of course, there’s the money the companies have paid, but that really doesn’t do the job, does it?

Written by Leisureguy

12 July 2021 at 7:15 pm

Will America resume competition? Big corporations don’t like it, and they have power.

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Heather Cox Richardson writes:

On Friday, as President Joe Biden signed “An Executive Order Promoting Competition in the American Economy,” he echoed the language of his predecessors. “[C]ompetition keeps the economy moving and keeps it growing,” he said. “Fair competition is why capitalism has been the world’s greatest force for prosperity and growth…. But what we’ve seen over the past few decades is less competition and more concentration that holds our economy back.”

Biden listed how prescription drugs, hearing aids, internet service, and agricultural supplies are all overpriced in the U.S. because of a lack of competition (RFD TV, the nation’s rural channel, has a long-running ad complaining of the cost of hearing aids). He also noted that noncompete clauses make it hard for workers to change jobs, another issue straight out of the late nineteenth century, when southern states tried to keep prices low by prohibiting employers from hiring Black workers away from their current jobs.

“I’m a proud capitalist,” Biden said. “I know America can’t succeed unless American business succeeds…. But let me be very clear: Capitalism without competition isn’t capitalism; it’s exploitation. Without healthy competition, big players can change and charge whatever they want and treat you however they want…. “[W]e know we’ve got a problem—a major problem.  But we also have an incredible opportunity. We can bring back more competition to more of the country, helping entrepreneurs and small businesses get in the game, helping workers get a better deal, helping families save money every month. The good news is: We’ve done it before.”

Biden reached into our history to reclaim our long tradition of opposing economic consolidation. Calling out both Roosevelt presidents—Republican Theodore Roosevelt, who oversaw part of the Progressive Era, and Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who oversaw the New Deal—Biden celebrated their attempt to rein in the power of big business, first by focusing on the abuses of those businesses, and then by championing competition.

Civil War era Republicans had organized around the idea that the American economy enjoyed what they called a “harmony of interest.” By that, they meant that everyone had the same economic interests. People at the bottom of the economy, people who drew value out of the products of nature—trees, or fish, or grain—produced value through their hard work. They created more value than they could consume, and this value, in the form of capital, employed people on the next level of the economy: shoemakers, dry goods merchants, cabinetmakers, and so on. They, in turn, produced more than they could consume, and their excess supported a few industrialists and financiers at the top of the pyramid who, in their turn, employed those just starting out. In this vision, the economy was a web in which every person shared a harmony of interest.

But by the 1880s, this idea that all Americans shared the same economic interest had changed into the idea that protecting American businesses would be good for everyone. American businessmen had begun to consolidate their enterprises into trusts, bringing a number of corporations under the same umbrella. The trusts stifled competition and colluded to raise the prices paid by consumers. Their power and funding gave them increasing power over lawmakers. As wealth migrated upward and working Americans felt like they had less and less control over their lives, they began to wonder what had happened to the equality for which they had fought the Civil War.

Labor leaders, newspapers, and Democratic lawmakers began to complain about the power of the wealthy in society and to claim the economic game was rigged, but their general critiques of the economy simply left them open to charges of being “socialists” who wanted to overturn society. Congress in 1890 finally gave in and passed an antitrust act, but it was so toothless that only one senator in the staunchly pro-business Senate voted against it, and no one in the House of Representatives voted no.

Then, around 1900, the so-called muckrakers hit their stride. Muckrakers were journalists who took on the political corruption and the concentration of wealth that plagued their era, but rather than making general moral statements, they did deep research into the workings of specific industries and political machines—Standard Oil, for example, and Minneapolis city government—and revealed the details behind the general outrage.

Their stories built pressure to regulate the robber barons, as they were called by then, but Congress, dominated by business interests, had no interest. Instead, President Theodore Roosevelt and his successor, William Howard Taft, tended to rein in the trusts through the executive branch of the government, especially by legal action undertaken by the Department of Justice.

On Friday, Biden promised to use the power of the executive branch to rein in corporations, much as Theodore Roosevelt did during his terms of office. But there was more to Biden’s statement than that. His emphasis on . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

12 July 2021 at 2:07 pm

Biden: “Capitalism without Competition is Exploitation”

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Matt Stoller has a good issue of BIG, in which he cover several topics in addition to Biden’s initiative against monopoly and oligopoly;

  • The FBI says big-rigging costs the Federal government $120 billion a year.
  • Another day, another hack, another private equity owned software firm.
  • FTC Chair Lina Khan takes on meatpackers on behalf of domestic cattle ranchers.
  • Chinese Fashion House Shein builds a $10 billion business on tariff loopholes.

The main article begins:

In 1938, Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave a speech to Congress on curbing monopolies. With the looming threat of of Nazi Germany’s growing power, Roosevelt warned Americans of the relationship between concentration and authoritarianism. “The liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself,” he said. Roosevelt called for the entire government to take on the problem of monopoly, encouraging stronger action on everything from antitrust to bank regulation to the misuse of patents.

And it worked – over the next few years, the Department of Justice brought more antitrust cases than had been brought from 1890 to that point. Congress passed laws regulating investment trusts, regulators cracked down on large banking houses, the Army and Navy kept contractors competitive and prevented price gouging in the build-up to war, and policymakers ended the misuse of patents that let monopolists dictate the roll-out of technology. With the Alcoa decision in 1945, the courts finally outlawed monopolies, and by the 1950s, powerful business leaders treated rivals, suppliers and workers reasonably, for fear of antitrust enforcement, setting the stage for the rise of Silicon Valley and the electronic century.

On Friday, Joe Biden reached back to that moment, and gave the most significant speech on monopolies by an American President since then. “Capitalism without competition isn’t capitalism,” he said. “It’s exploitation.” The speech very much paralleled how FDR framed his talk, emphasizing the importance of small business, workers, and consumers. Biden talked of the need to take on Big Tech, Big Pharma, and Big Ag, and even cited FDR’s call for an economic bill of rights, quoting Roosevelt’s goal of ensuring the “right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad.”

But far more important was Biden’s explicit criticism of the Chicago School, by name. “Forty years ago we chose the wrong path,” said Biden. “Following the misguided philosophy of people like Robert Bork, we pulled back on enforcing laws to promote competition. We are now forty years into the experiment of letting giant corporations accumulate more and more power.” The President of the United States does not typically wade into esoteric legal debates involving competition lawyers. But the policy he was introducing in this speech required it. Biden was giving a speech about an executive order mandating that the policy of the Federal government is to promote fair competition, not just through the antitrust laws, but through every agency with authority to structure markets.

Biden’s speech is as important an ideological turnaround as we see in politics, as big a deal as Ronald Reagan’s statement that “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” Biden explicitly called out lax controls on corporate power as the causal factor behind American stagnation. “What have we gotten from it?” Biden asked. “Less growth, weakened investment, fewer small businesses. Too many Americans who felt left behind, too many people who are poorer than our parents. I believe the experiment failed.”

Right after his speech, Biden signed the executive order, and handed the pen he used to new FTC Chair Lina Khan, who was standing behind him. The message, in other words, was clear. This order is a mandate for agencies across government to follow Khan’s lead on competition. And if it weren’t clear enough, White House chief of staff Ron Klain approvingly tweeted out headlines about the order: “Biden targets corporate power,” (WaPost), “Biden order targets big business,” (WSJ) and “Biden aims at cutting dominance of big business” (FT).

And as if to add symmetry to the moment, a few minutes after the event wrapped, news broke that Khan’s FTC just opened a lengthy probe into Amazon’s acquisition of MGM studios, moving antitrust staff from other parts of the commission to the investigation of one of the largest and most powerful firms in the world.

Well then.

What Does the Order Actually Do?

The executive order does a lot, but to put it simply, if there were a way to write an executive order just for readers of this newsletter, that’s what this order would be.

The order has three basic parts. The first is a policy statement, an assertion that the U.S. government is dedicated to fighting against corporate concentration. The second is that the White House is going to ride herd on government policymakers, setting up formal council with the heads of most cabinet agencies and regulators to meet about competition. And the third is a list of 72 specific items, as well as reports, that agencies are ordered or encouraged to enact according to their existing legal authority.

Many of these items will be familiar to readers of this newsletter. The first item Biden mentioned in his speech, for instance, is having the Food and Drug Administration make it possible to buy over the counter hearing aids, a monopoly I noted back in May. Hearing aids cost thousands of dollars apiece, for no other reason than there is a cartel established by government that prevents firms from selling hearing aids without a prescription. In 2017, Congress passed an Elizabeth Warren bill mandating that the FDA fix this situation. But the bureaucrats at the FDA just… refused. Now Biden is explicitly ordering them to act. This action item could help up to 40 million people affected by hearing loss.

Biden next mentioned non-compete agreements, which I wrote about last January. The order directs the Federal Trade Commission to “curtail the unfair use of non-compete clauses and other clauses or agreements that may unfairly limit worker mobility.” Between 30-60 million Americans have signed contracts with their employers that prevent them from working for a rival. There are reasonable grounds for preventing the theft of trade secrets or customer relationships, but these non-competes are mostly designed to suppress wages and prevent potential rival employers from hiring. While labor questions are often partisan, this one isn’t – Senator Marco Rubio has attacked non-compete agreements for low-wage workers.

Biden also included a provision ordering the Agriculture Department to address consolidation in the meatpacking supply chain. When I interviewed cattle ranch advocate Bill Bullard, this is something he mentioned. There are provisions to addressing consolidation and overcharges in railroads and ocean shipping, which I noted when that big dumb ship got stuck in the Suez Canal. There are provisions on consumer protection for airlines, which I touched on last June.

The list is too long, so I’ll just mention a few more items. The order includes  . . .

Continue reading. There’s more, including:

I spent Friday calling around and tracking the reaction to this order. And what’s interesting is that the response, positive or negative, was not partisan. A lot of Democrats praised the order, which one would expect, as Biden is a Democrat. Elizabeth Warren, who in many ways brought the monopoly power problem into politics in 2016, was jubilant. Progressives Ro KhannaMondaire Jones, and Chuy Garcia came out in strong support, as did Senator Amy Klobuchar, the chair of the antitrust subcommittee in the Senate.

What’s far more interesting is the amount of praise from traditionally rightwing rural groups. The American Farm Bureau, which is quite Republican-leaning, tentatively praised Biden for the right-to-repair mandate letting farmers fix their own equipment, as well as his attempt to do something about consolidation in the food supply chain. The U.S. Cattlemen’s Association, yet another right-leaning group, came out in support, attacking the big four meatpackers and calling Biden’s order an “important step.”

The Montana Farmers Union was supportive, as was the National Corn Growers Association and Family Farm Action, and the National Grange, a traditional agricultural lobby group that has existed since the 19th century.

The reactions from big business were not so kind. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce was harsh, calling the order a “government knows best” approach. The Association of American Railroads, which is the trade association for the monopolistic rail industry, alleges the order threatens the very viability of our transportation system. Warren Buffett owns a large chunk of the American rail system, but his empire, as Dave Dayen noted, spans a number of monopolies across our economy. I suspect this order, if it is fully implemented, will hit Berkshire Hathaway fairly hard over time.

Libertarian mouthpieces were also upset by the order. Tyler Cowan, author of Big business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero, wrote in resigned frustration that the order benefits farmers. Meanwhile, Trump’s former FTC general counsel Aldon Abbott, a die-hard Chicago Schooler, echoed the Chamber of Commerce, and simply denied that corporate concentration is worth addressing. “The order commits the fundamental mistake of proposing intrusive regulatory solutions,” Abbott wrote, “for a largely nonexistent problem.”

The most interesting pushback was by . . .

And also this interesting observation:

Now, the biggest question with this executive order is not whether it’s a good idea, but whether Joe Biden can actually follow through on it. And there are multiple layers to this question. The first is something that makes liberals uncomfortable, which is that the stereotype of government bureaucrats is often true. Government staffers are deeply hostile to change. The deep state, in other words, is real.

Take the Food and Drug Administration, which handles large swaths of our medical regulatory system, and structures pricing across a host of markets. Congress passed a law telling the FDA to write new rules on hearing aids by 2020. The bureaucrats over there just refused to follow that law. Why would an agency like the FDA choose to flout Congress? I don’t know, but I suspect it’s because staffers at the FDA just don’t think competition is their job, and they want medical firms to make a lot of money because they believe that those firms will then be able to invest in more research.

The FDA’s refusal to follow the law isn’t an anomaly. For decades, the FTC has chosen not to enforce the Robinson-Patman Act against price discrimination, just as . . .

There’s much more on monopolies and Biden’s effort — and the resistance he will encounter within the government.

And, regarding big-rigging item:

FBI: Contractors Steal $120 Billion+ per year from the Federal GovernmentGovernment contracting in the U.S. is pretty corrupt. I’ve noted that the government pay scale for, say, McKinsey, is $3 million a year for one college graduate to work on a project. But it goes way beyond that. In 2019, the FBI put together a task force to look into bid-rigging in procurement, which is when bidders collude to rig an auction for government contracts.

The FBI noted that, “by some estimates, roughly 20% of government procurement spending is lost each year to bid rigging—a significant sum when the budget for discretionary spending on public procurement is more than $580 billion, as it was in 2019.”

The amount spent this year is $639 billion on procurement, and there’s no reason to assume the amount of bid-rigging has gone down. One fifth of that is stolen.

Written by Leisureguy

11 July 2021 at 8:50 am

How the US struggles toward political equality

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Heather Cox Richardson writes:

On July 9, 1868, Americans changed the U.S. Constitution for the fourteenth time, adapting our foundational document to construct a new nation without systematic Black enslavement.

In 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution had prohibited slavery on the basis of race, but it did not prevent the establishment of a system in which Black Americans continued to be unequal. Backed by President Andrew Johnson, who had taken over the presidency after an actor had murdered President Abraham Lincoln, white southern Democrats had done their best to push their Black neighbors back into subservience. So long as southern states had abolished enslavement, repudiated Confederate debts, and nullified the ordinances of secession, Johnson was happy to readmit them to full standing in the Union, still led by the very men who had organized the Confederacy and made war on the United States.

Northern Republican lawmakers refused. There was no way they were going to rebuild southern society on the same blueprint as existed before the Civil War, especially since the upcoming 1870 census would count Black Americans as whole persons for the first time in the nation’s history, giving southern states more power in Congress and the Electoral College after the war than they had had before it. Having just fought a war to destroy the South’s ideology, they were not going to let it regrow in peacetime.

Congress rejected Johnson’s plan for Reconstruction.

But then congressmen had to come up with their own plan. After months of hearings and debate, they proposed amending the Constitution to settle the outstanding questions of the war. Chief among these was how to protect the rights of Black Americans in states where they could neither vote nor testify in court or sit on a jury to protect their own interests.

Congress’s solution was the Fourteenth Amendment.

It took on the infamous 1857 Dred Scott decision declaring that Black men “are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word ‘citizens’ in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens.”

The Fourteenth Amendment provides that “All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.”

The amendment also addressed the Dred Scott decision in another profound way. In 1857, southerners and Democrats who were adamantly opposed to federal power controlled the Supreme Court. They backed states’ rights. So the Dred Scott decision did more than read Black Americans out of our history; it dramatically circumscribed Congress’s power.

The Dred Scott decision declared that democracy was created at the state level, by those people in a state who were allowed to vote. In 1857, this meant white men, almost exclusively. If those people voted to do something widely unpopular—like adopting human enslavement, for example—they had the right to do so and Congress could not stop them. People like Abraham Lincoln pointed out that such domination by states would eventually mean that an unpopular minority could take over the national government, forcing their ideas on everyone else, but defenders of states’ rights stood firm.

And so, the Fourteenth Amendment gave the federal government the power to protect individuals even if their state legislatures had passed discriminatory laws. “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws,” it said. And then it went on to say that “Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.”

The principles behind the Fourteenth Amendment were behind the 1870 creation of the Department of Justice, whose first job was to bring down the Ku Klux Klan terrorists in the South.

Those same principles took on profound national significance in the post–World War II era, when the Supreme Court began to use the equal protection clause and the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment aggressively to apply the protections in the Bill of Rights to the states. The civil rights decisions of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, including the Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawing segregation in public schools, and the Loving v Virginia decision permitting interracial marriage, come from this doctrine. Under it, the federal government took up the mantle of protecting the rights of individual Americans in the states from the whims of state legislatures.

Opponents of these new civil rights protections quickly began to object that such decisions were “legislating from the bench,” rather than permitting state legislatures to make their own laws. These opponents began to call for “originalism,” the idea that the Constitution should be interpreted only as the Framers had intended when they wrote it, an argument that focused on the creation of law at the state level. Famously, in 1987, President Ronald Reagan nominated Robert Bork, an originalist who had called for the rollback of the Supreme Court’s civil rights decisions, for a seat on that court.

Reacting to that nomination, Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) recognized the importance of the Fourteenth Amendment to equality: “Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, Blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists could be censored at the whim of the Government, and the doors of the Federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens for whom the judiciary is—and is often the only—protector of the individual rights that are the heart of our democracy….”

It’s a funny thing to write about the Fourteenth Amendment in the twenty-first century. I am a scholar of Reconstruction, and for me the Fourteenth Amendment conjures up images of late-1860s Washington, D.C., a place still plagued by malaria carried on mosquitoes from the Washington City Canal, where generals and congressmen worried about how to protect the Black men who had died in extraordinary numbers to defend the government while an accidental president pardoned Confederate generals and plotted to destroy the national system Abraham Lincoln had created.

It should feel very distant. And yet, while a bipartisan group of senators rejected Bork’s nomination in 1987, in 2021 the Supreme Court is dominated by originalists, and the principles of the Fourteenth Amendment seem terribly current.

Written by Leisureguy

10 July 2021 at 9:40 am

The Tragedy of Polarization

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First, some interesting statistics from The Eldest:

June 2021 data

100% of COVID-19 deaths in Maryland occurred in people who were unvaccinated

95% of new COVID-19 cases in Maryland occurred in people who were unvaccinated (and that 5% includes people like my colleague, who is fully vaccinated but on immunosuppressive drugs as an organ transplant recipient: because she was vaccinated, she needed treatment for the COVID infection but was never in danger of death)

93% of new COVID-19 hospitalizations in Maryland occurred in people who were unvaccinated

Michael A. Cohen writes:

Over the weekend, I published my latest column at MSNBC, looking at the growing disparity in red and blue state America vaccination rates.

This chart, put together by Seth Masket and the Denver Post, tells an alarming tale.

If you live in a state that voted for Joe Biden, you are far more likely to be vaccinated than if you live in a state that voted for Donald Trump. Of the 18 states that have hit the 70 percent vaccination rate benchmark, all are states that went for Biden.

I am particularly fascinated by what’s happening in Missouri. Here’s a look at how the Show Me State voted in the 2020 election.

If you head over to the NYT’s interactive vaccine map and check out Missouri, you’ll notice that the two of the counties that voted for Biden, Boone County (in central Missouri) and St. Louis County (in eastern Missouri), have the highest vaccination rates in the state. The third Jackson County is among the state leaders.

Quite simply, going forward, Americans who supported Trump last November are more likely to get sick and die from COVID-19 than those who did not. If that doesn’t speak to the deadly consequences of political polarization, I don’t know what does.

As I note in the piece … what’s happening on vaccines is a part of a larger, disquieting trend:

Blue state Americans have far greater access to health care. Their political leaders invest more in education, day care, and other safety net programs. They strictly regulate handguns, which means fewer of their residents die from gun violence. Medicaid benefits are generous and are not tied to punitive regulations like work requirements.

Today, more than a decade after Obamacare became law, there are still 12 states that have refused to accept federal money to expand Medicaid … Not surprisingly, all 12 states have Republican-controlled state legislatures and the rationale for not accepting the federal government’s largesse is grounded in political polarization: They want to have nothing to do with a federal program associated with Barack Obama. That means nearly 4 million people are being deprived of access to health insurance for literally no good reason.

This gets to a significant phenomenon in American society that doesn’t get nearly enough attention. Blue state America is more democratic, has higher standards of living, better health outcomes, and more generous government benefits, while red state America is becoming more authoritarian, with lower standards of living, a more frayed social safety net, and worse health outcomes. As a result, an American’s potential for living a long and happy life is increasingly tied to where they live and how they vote.

When you combine these trends with greater levels of hostility between Democrats and Republicans, with members of both parties inclined to view the other party with outright hostility, and more residential segregation by partisan and political identity, you have a situation in which the United States is functionally a house divided. The very idea of a shared American identity is becoming an increasingly antiquated notion. I fear the fight over vaccines is merely the tip of the iceberg.

Don’t Forget

I highly recommend watching this extraordinary video assembled by the digital team at the New York Times of the January 6 insurrection. It captures, in vivid detail, the utter chaos and mayhem of that day, the extent to which the storming of the Capitol was organized and planned, how close we were to a mass casualty event, including the deaths of lawmakers, and how woefully unprepared the Capitol Police were for the violence that day. Watching this video puts to rest any doubt that this was an armed insurrection against the United States government, and, as citizens, we have a responsibility to bear witness to what happened that day – especially as the former president and his allies seek to whitewash the events of that day.

What’s Going On?

Written by Leisureguy

6 July 2021 at 3:23 pm

Conservative racists in Congress repeat old errors

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Heather Cox Richardson writes:

Today news broke that Anthony Aguero, who was in the Capitol on January 6 and who is close to Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), joined Republican members of the right-wing Republican Study Committee when they traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border Tuesday night.

Aguero interviewed, chatted with, translated for, and gave a ride to one of the lawmakers, there. Those included Representatives Lauren Boebert (R-CO), Madison Cawthorn (R-NC), Ronny Jackson (R-TX), Thomas Tiffany (R-WI), Chris Jacobs (R-NY), Michael Cloud (R-TX), John Rose (R-TN), and Mary Miller (R-IL). The Republican Study Committee’s deputy communications director, Buckley Carlson, who is Tucker Carlson’s son, said Aguero’s presence with the group was “purely incidental.”

The association of sitting Congress members with someone who was apparently part of an insurrection is particularly audacious at a moment when the House of Representatives is in the process of forming a select committee to investigate that series of events.

Once before, in 1879, a political party behaved in a similarly aggressive way, trying to destroy the government from within. Then, too, Congress members took an extremist position in order to try to steal the upcoming presidential election. They hoped to win that election by getting rid of Black voting.

Still angry after the votes of Black southerners tipped the contested election of 1876 to the Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, Democrats set out to stop government protection of Black voters before the next presidential election. In 1879, they attached to appropriations bills riders that prohibited the use of the army to guard southern polling places (it is a myth that federal troops abandoned the South in 1877) and eliminating federal supervision of elections. The punishment for holding federal troops at the polls was a fine of up to $5000 and imprisonment at hard labor for 3 months to 5 years, that is, an express ride into the convict labor system that was brutalizing formerly enslaved people.

Republicans refused to accept the terms of the appropriations bill, and Congress adjourned without passing it. Hayes immediately called the new Congress into special session. In this Congress, though, Democrats controlled both the House and the Senate, for the first time since before the Civil War. And, since the senior members of the party were southerners, former Confederates quickly took over the key leadership positions in Congress.

Once there, they ignored that voters had put them in office in a reaction against Republicans’ economic policies and Hayes’s contested election. Instead, they insisted that the American people wanted them to enact the extreme program they had advocated since the war, overturning the federal policies that defended Black rights and reinstating white supremacy, unchallenged. They took their fight to end Black voting directly to the president.

The House Minority leader was a Union veteran from Ohio, James A. Garfield. He explained to a friend the Democrats’ plan: if Hayes vetoed the bills and the Democrats were unable to pass them over his veto—“that is, if he does not consent or 2/3 of the two Houses do not vote on these measures as the Democratic caucus has framed them,” Garfield wrote—“[t]hey will let the government perish for want of supplies.” “If this is not revolution,” he concluded, “which if persisted in will destroy the government, [then] I am wholly wrong in my conception of both the word and the thing.”

Democrats tried to argue that they were fighting for free elections, for liberty from a tyrannical national government. But they also listed the virtues of Confederate president Jefferson Davis, whom they compared to George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and U.S. Grant, and celebrated the former Confederates who had been elected to make up their new majority. Just like Davis, they claimed, all they asked was to be left alone to run their states as they wished. One ex-Confederate told the New York Times that leaving Congress in 1861 had been “a great blunder.” Southerners were far more likely to win their goals by controlling Congress. Southern Democrats urged their constituents to “present a solid front to the enemy.”

With Garfield stiffening the spines of nervous Republicans, Hayes vetoed the bill with the riders five times, and as popular opinion swung behind him, the Democrats backed down. They had badly misjudged their power. The extended rider fight kept the story of their attack on the government firmly in front of voters, who despised their behavior and principles both. In the next presidential election, voters turned away from the Democratic candidate and to Garfield, now famous for his stand against the riders and for his wholehearted defense of Black voting.

The 1879 overreach of the Democratic extremists marked a sea change in the Democratic Party. Scorched by their 1880 defeat, Democratic leaders turned away from ex-Confederates and toward new urban leaders in the North. Eager to nail together a new constituency, those leaders talked of racial reconciliation and began to lay the groundwork for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was born in 1882, just two years before New York Democrat Grover Cleveland would win the White House on the party’s new platform.

The story of Garfield’s rise to power has been much on my mind today, partly because it is the anniversary of the day in 1881 when assassin Charles Guiteau shot the president, although he would live until September 19, when he finally succumbed to horrific infections caused by his doctor’s insistence on probing the bullet wound without washing his hands.

But I am also thinking of this story as I watch Senate Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) try to figure out how to respond to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s invitation to suggest five members for the new select committee to investigate the January 6 insurrection. Senate Republicans killed the bipartisan select committee on which Republicans would have had significant power to limit the investigation both in scope, by refusing to agree to certain subpoenas, and in time, because Congress had required that committee to report before the end of the year. Now, Republicans are facing a committee dominated by Democrats who have subpoena power and no time limit, all while Republican extremism is on increasingly public display.

Forcing the creation of this select committee, rather than taking the offer of an independent, bipartisan committee, was a curious decision.

In 1879, when voters spent several months watching extremists of one party try to suppress the vote and take over the country, they rejected that party so thoroughly that it had to reinvent itself.

Written by Leisureguy

3 July 2021 at 4:59 pm

Putting the puzzle pieces of the January 6 insurrection together

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CNN’s Reliable Sources had a good column this morning:

“Thank God for a free press — which is doing the investigating and reporting that Congress should have done way before now,” Asha Rangappa wrote Wednesday.

She was talking about this brand new New York Times video investigation titled “Day of Rage,” based on thousands of videos from the January 6 riot, plus radio dispatches, interviews with witnesses, and other material. The extraordinary Times production was widely praised by reporters on Wednesday.

But Rangappa could have also been talking about CNN’efforts in court to obtain riot footage; or ProPublica‘s recent investigation that indicated “Senior Trump Aides Knew Jan. 6 Rally Could Get Chaotic;” or Just Security’s new “clearinghouse” for riot research. Her broader point is spot on: Newsrooms have been putting the January 6 puzzle pieces together, creating a detailed rough draft of history, in spite of partisan efforts to bury that history.

Now the House is creating a select committee to investigate the deadly attack. The front page of Thursday’s Washington Post sums it up this way: “House, in partisan split, votes to create panel to probe Jan. 6.” Karoun Demirjian‘s lead focuses on the “political challenges that face Democrats” as they investigate the attack, acknowledging that the lopsided vote showed how “Republicans have rallied against scrutinizing an attack they once strongly condemned.”

“Just two Republicans joined with Democrats to support its formation — Reps. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois,” CNN’s story notes.

Multiple things are happening at the same time. Pro-Trump media outlets are becoming increasingly brazen about excusing the insurrectionists. Legit reporters are bringing new info about the attack to light. And government agents are locking more alleged rioters. “Prosecutors have also been targeting those who allegedly attacked members of the media or damaged their equipment,” WaPo’s Spencer S. Hsu and Rachel Weiner noted Wednesday…

Meet the “Sedition Hunters”

HuffPost senior justice reporter Ryan Reilly has spent much of the past six months covering the crowdsourced FBI manhunt for the rioters. On Wednesday he came out with a new story about the “anonymous online sleuths who tracked down the digital breadcrumbs that Capitol suspects had often unknowingly sprinkled across the internet.”

These sleuths call themselves “Sedition Hunters” – and they’ve been “generating leads, making connections, and keeping the feds on their toes.” Now Reilly is expanding his reporting to book form: Ben Adams at Public Affairs has acquired his work, tentatively titled “Sedition Hunters,” about both the online investigators and “the probe’s implications on civil liberties and 21st century policing.”

This is the first book deal I’ve seen that is specifically pegged to January 6 and the aftermath. Many of the upcoming books about Trump’s final year in office will contain new reporting about the riot, though…

PolitiFact’s angle

Why are reporters for a fact-checking website reviewing court filings about January 6? Because they want to document what role misinformation played in the attack. Bill McCarthy published “initial findings” on Wednesday and promised more to come.

Documents pertaining to about half of the 430 defendants arrested through June 1 “shed light on how misinformed beliefs influenced the defendants’ lives ahead of the riot,” McCarthy wrote, from a music teacher in DC “who amplified false conspiracy theories on his podcast and YouTube channel” to a “woman from Pennsylvania who suggested on Facebook that people who ‘start researching’ will find that Democrats ‘have been trafficking children for years'” to a “man from Ventura, Calif., who said in videos posted on YouTube and other platforms long before Jan. 6 that the Smithsonian Institution is hiding evidence of giants, and that we may be living in a simulation.” Read the full report here. It really was a riot of lies…

Fresh fears about August, all because of a loony theory

Speaking of misinfo, here’s . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by Leisureguy

1 July 2021 at 8:27 pm

Some interesting observations from Kevin Drum

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Kevin Drum has a good observation on when wheeled luggage moved — and why then? Post includesa link to the Guardian article giving the timeline of the adoption of the innovation..

In fact, Drum also has a good observation about why Kamala Harris (of all people) is ranked as the most liberal Democrat in national politics. Seems very odd, doesn’t it? But Drum explains.

And a good observation on the opaqueness of Democrat negotiating strategy.

Written by Leisureguy

24 June 2021 at 5:59 pm

Kyrsten Sinema’s Filibuster Defense Is Factually Untrue

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Incompetence quickly becomes tiresome — especially in elected officials. Jonathan Chait writes in New York:

Earlier this month, Senator Kyrsten Sinema, speaking to reporters, laid out a thoroughly ahistorical defense of the filibuster. To be fair to Sinema, her initial error, crediting the filibuster to the Founders (who in fact rejected it, only for it to emerge by mistake decades later) is a common one, and she was speaking extemporaneously.

Today, Sinema has a second shot to explain her thinking in a Washington Post op-ed. But her revised filibuster rationale, despite having the benefit of premeditated thought and editing, still relies on utterly false grounds.

Sinema’s central argument is captured in the headline “We have more to lose than gain by ending the filibuster.” She warns that a majority-rule Senate would allow Republicans to easily roll back any Democratic policy gains:

And, sometimes, the filibuster, as it’s been used in previous Congresses, is needed to protect against attacks on women’s health, clean air and water, or aid to children and families in need …

To those who want to eliminate the legislative filibuster to expand health-care access or retirement benefits: Would it be good for our country if we did, only to later see that legislation replaced by legislation dividing Medicaid into block grants, slashing earned Social Security and Medicare benefits, or defunding women’s reproductive health services?

To those who want to eliminate the legislative filibuster to empower federal agencies to better protect the environment or strengthen education: Would it be good for our country if we did, only to see federal agencies and programs shrunk, starved of resources, or abolished a few years from now?

Almost every specific example she cites here as a possible or actual grounds of defense by the filibuster cannot be protected by the filibuster.

The reason is that the Senate has work-arounds for the filibuster. One is for confirmation of judges or executive-branch appointments. The other is for bills that change taxes and spending. The latter, called budget reconciliation, can be passed with 51 votes.

Almost every program Sinema cites above is a spending program that can be defunded through budget reconciliation: women’s health, aid to children and families in need, health care, Medicaid, Medicare, women’s reproductive services, funding for federal agencies to protect the environment and education. Several of them have been targeted in budget reconciliation bills.

Budget reconciliation rules do exempt Social Security (an exemption that is itself yet another of the Senate’s arcane, idiosyncratic distinctions that serve no logical purpose — why should Social Security alone have a protection that, say, Medicare and Medicaid don’t?). Likewise, regulations (such as clean air and water) can’t be repealed through budget reconciliation, though their enforcement can be defunded, or simply curtailed through administrative neglect, neither of which is subject to filibustering.

Given that Republicans could roll back any of the vast array of federal programs cherished by Democrats with a majority in both chambers and the presidency, why didn’t they do it either of the last two times they enjoyed full control of government?

The answer points to the essential fallacy of Sinema’s reasoning. Nearly all those programs are popular — so popular that even Republican voters would blanch at attacks on them. Republicans suffered grievous political damage when they attempted to defund Obamacare. (That episode points to yet another asymmetry of the filibuster — a law that required 60 votes to enact could have been destroyed with a mere 51.)

The federal government is filled with functions that the modern version of the Republican Party would never agree to create. The 1970 Clean Air Act, creating the Environmental Protection Agency, passed both chambers by a cumulative vote of 447-1, an unimaginable outcome today. And yet those programs and agencies generally earn broad public support and prove impossible to uproot.

A system in which both parties can advance their popular beliefs when they have control of government therefore benefits Democrats disproportionately. Republicans may have some measures they could pass in the absence of a filibuster but not otherwise, yet over the long run, Democrats have far more. That is why, when they controlled government, Republicans frankly confessed that filibuster was “what’s prevented our country for decades from sliding toward liberalism.”

If Republicans have policies they can pass with majorities in both chambers, then they should pass them. If those policies attract broad public legitimacy, they will stay in place. If they are as repellent as Sinema fears, they will be repealed when Democrats have their turn in power. There’s simply no reason why preventing Republicans from trying out their preferred policies is so vital that it justifies handicapping Democrats in the same fashion.

The Republican argument for a filibuster is perfectly coherent. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

22 June 2021 at 2:17 pm

Will US democracy survive? It’s up to Joe Manchin.

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I am not hopeful. Heather Cox Richardson writes:

Lawmakers today are jockeying before tomorrow’s test vote in the Senate on S1, the For the People Act. This is a sweeping bill that protects the right to vote, ends partisan gerrymandering, limits the influence of money in politics, and establishes new ethics rules for presidents and other federal officeholders.

Passing election reform is a priority for Democrats, since Republican-dominated legislatures across the country have gerrymandered states to make it almost impossible for Democrats to win majorities and, since President Biden took office, have passed laws suppressing the vote and making it easier for Republican state officials to swing elections to their candidates no matter what voters want.

But it is not just Democrats who want our elections to be cleaner and fairer. S1 is so popular across the nation—among voters of both parties—that Republican operatives agreed in January that there was no point in trying to shift public opinion on it. Instead, they said, they would just kill it in Congress. This conversation, explored in The New Yorker by Jane Mayer, happened just after it became clear that Democrats had won a Senate majority and thus Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who had previously been Senate Majority Leader, would no longer be able to stop any legislation Republicans didn’t like.

Still, Republican senators can deploy the filibuster, which permits just 41 of the 50 Republican senators to stop the act from passing. It is possible for the Democrats to break a filibuster, but only if they are all willing. Until recently, it seemed they were not. Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV), a conservative Democrat in a Republican-dominated state, opposed some of the provisions in S1 and was adamant that he would not vote for an election reform bill on partisan lines. He wanted bipartisan support.

Last week, Manchin indicated which of the measures in the For the People Act—and in the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act—he will support. In a mixture of the priorities of the leadership of each party, he called for expanding access to voting, an end to partisan gerrymandering, voter ID, automatic registration at motor vehicle offices, making Election Day a holiday, and making it easier for state officials to purge voters from the rolls.

Democrats across the ideological spectrum immediately lined up behind Manchin’s compromise. Republican leadership immediately opposed it, across the board. They know that fair voting practices will wreck them. Today, McConnell used martial language when he said he would give the measure “no quarter.”

Tomorrow, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) will bring up for a vote not the measure itself, but whether to begin a debate on such a measure. “Tomorrow, the Senate will also take a crucial vote on whether to start debate on major voting rights legislation,” Schumer said today. “I want to say that again—tomorrow the Senate will take a vote on whether to start debate on legislation to protect Americans’ voting rights. It’s not a vote on any particular policy.”

Republicans can use the filibuster to stop a debate from going forward. Getting a debate underway will require 60 votes, and there is currently no reason to think any Republicans will agree. This will put them in the untenable spot of voting against talking about voting rights, even while Republicans at the state level are passing legislation restricting voting rights. So the vote to start a debate on the bill will fail but will highlight the hypocrisy of Republican lawmakers.

Perhaps more to the point in terms of passing legislation, it will test whether the work the Democrats did over the weekend incorporating Manchin’s requests to the measure have brought him on board.

If so, and if he gets frustrated with Republican refusal to compromise at all while the Democrats immediately accepted his watering down of their bill, it is possible he and Senator Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), who has also signaled support for the filibuster in its current form, will be willing to consider altering it. The Senate could, for example, turn it back into its traditional form—a talking filibuster—or carve out voting rights bills as they have carved out financial bills and judicial nominations.

There are signs that the Democrats are preparing for an epic battle over this bill. Today White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki indicated that  . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by Leisureguy

21 June 2021 at 7:46 pm

The decay of American democracy is real

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From a column by Fareed Zakahria in the Washington Post:

“America is back,” Joe Biden kept repeating on his first trip abroad as president. It’s a fair description of what he accomplished — a restoration of the United States’ role as the country that can set the global agenda, encourage cooperation and deter malign behavior. So, American diplomacy is back — but is America? That’s a more complicated question.

The United States’ influence has always been built on a combination of power and purpose. Biden went into this trip with two significant achievements under his belt. First, he ramped up vaccinations so far and so fast that the United States is the first major country to enter a post-pandemic world. Second, he passed a massive relief bill that will ensure that the U.S. economy has a roaring recovery.

But prosperity alone is not enough to lead. President Donald Trump presided over a booming economy before the pandemic, yet polls showed that most leading nations neither respected him nor the United States under his leadership. . .

The Biden team has led by focusing on the big issues on which U.S. allies agree: strengthening ties among free countries, combating climate change, deterring Russian aggression in various forms, stepping up to the challenge from China. It was a far cry from the behavior of Trump, who reveled in denigrating NATO and its members.

The meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin was not a “superpower summit,” as some in the media described it. Russia is not a superpower. Its economy doesn’t even crack the top 10 and is in decline on many key measures. But the country, spanning 11 time zones, has one of the world’s largest arsenals of nuclear weapons, a robust military and a United Nations veto. Under Putin, it has been eager to play the role of spoiler on the international stage — annexing territory in Europe for the first time since 1945, engaging in cyberattacks on a massive scale, and pursuing and assassinating dissidents even if they live abroad.

Biden handled the meeting with his Russian counterpart with professionalism and skill, prompting Putin to call Biden “a very experienced” statesman and “a balanced, professional man” (in contrast to his recent comments about Trump being a “colorful individual” who made “impulse-based” decisions). Despite Trump’s fawning behavior toward Putin, Putin might recognize that it is better to have a calm and rational U.S. president than a mercurial and unpredictable showman. For its part, Washington’s goal toward Russia should not be ceaseless hostility but rather some kind of stable relationship in which problems can be discussed, negotiated and managed.

The biggest news out of the Biden-Putin meeting involves cyberspace. The problem of cyberattacks, cybercrime and ransomware has grown exponentially. And yet governments have appeared either unable or unwilling to do much about it. When North Korea launched a devastating cyberattack on Sony Pictures in 2014 to punish it for a movie satirizing Kim Jong Un, destroying 70 percent of the company’s computers, the U.S. government did little in response.

Biden has moved policy in this realm significantly forward, for the first time signaling that the United States would be willing to use its considerable cyber capacities to retaliate against a Russian attack.

 . . . In one fundamental way, things look worse now than in prior periods of crisis. After Watergate, many were surprised that the world looked up to the United States for facing and fixing its democratic failures. It was a sign of the country’s capacity to course-correct. But imagine if after that scandal, the Republican Party, instead of condemning Nixon, had embraced him slavishly, insisted that he did absolutely nothing wrong, settled into denial and obstructionism and proposed new laws to endorse Nixon’s most egregious conduct? Imagine if the only people purged by the party had been those who criticized Nixon?

The decay of American democracy is real. . .

Continue reading.

And see the next post.

Written by Leisureguy

18 June 2021 at 2:43 pm

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