Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Louder Than Bombs

I haven't spent a lot of time listening to The Smiths or the subsequent solo career of their front man, Morrissey. In general, I find their stuff is kinda, well, mopey. But in the wake of the terrorist attack in Manchester on Monday, Morrissey is now in the news because he didn't react properly:

I'd like to drop my trousers to the Queen

From what I can tell, we are allowed to think two things about Manchester, and Paris, and Nice, and all the other terrorist attacks. First, we really shouldn't spend a lot of time dwelling on the motivation of those who blow up young girls. And second, we need to carry on, whatever that means. As you can see from his note, mopey Morrissey is having none of that. And because he's calling the politicians out for their cheerleading, he's now a monster himself. I apologize for the profanity in the attached tweet, but there's worse at the link:

Don't hold back, tell us how you really feel
I don't think there's anything particularly controversial about what Morrissey is saying here. He's right, of course -- politicians and royals are largely immune from terror, other than ol' Mountbatten, but that was nearly 40 years ago now. The people who are subject to the ministrations of the prime minister, or the mayors of London or Manchester? Not so much. We have to call a thing what it is. The reason the British were able to endure the horrific bombing of the Nazis is because they had confidence that their wartime leaders were taking steps to bring the carnage to an end. Are we sure that the grandees are doing that now?

It's been a long time since Morrissey and his pal Johnny Marr wrote the song "This Night Has Opened My Eyes," but it seems pretty apt in this context:

Oh, he said he'd cure your ills
But he didn't and he never will
Oh, save your life
Because you've only got one

If you read the rest of the lyrics, the topic is most likely abortion, and you'll see Morrissey's trademark ambivalence throughout, but there's another reality that fits our current context as well:

So, please save your life
Because you've only got one
The dream has gone

But the baby is real
Oh, you did a good thing
She could have been a poet
Or, she could have been a fool

As long as we live, we have possibilities. The nihilists who blow up children under the banner of the Islamic State don't give a damn about any of those possibilities. I know poets and I know fools. Sometimes, they are one in the same. Morrissey might be an unlikely person to remind us of all that, but I'm glad he did.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Across the Atlantic Sea

All hell breaks lose in Manchester:
An explosion that appeared to be a suicide bombing killed at least 22 people on Monday night and wounded 59 others at an Ariana Grande concert filled with adoring adolescent fans, in what the police were treating as a terrorist attack.

Panic and mayhem seized the crowd at the Manchester Arena as the blast reverberated through the building, just as the show was ending and pink balloons were dropping from the rafters in a signature flourish by Ms. Grande, a 23-year-old American pop star on an international tour.

Traumatized concertgoers, including children separated from parents, screamed and fled what appeared to be the deadliest episode of terrorism in Britain since the 2005 London transit bombings.
Two thoughts:

  • Terrorism is always going to be an issue in a free society. Large gatherings of people, especially young people, make an inviting target, and even though there is no indication that security was lax in Manchester, it doesn't take a very big bomb to cause incredible carnage in an arena.
  • The performer in this case, Grande, is politically outspoken. That doesn't matter, though -- Grande's worldview doesn't have anything to do with the motivations of a terrorist. Her only role in this event was being popular enough to attract a large audience. For those suggesting that there's some sort of larger meaning, you're almost certainly wrong about that. This video has over 900,000,000 views on YouTube; unlike most pop songs of this era, I've actually heard it before. She clearly has an audience. That's all that really mattered.
Our friend Brad Carlson has more thoughts. You should read them.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Gino explains, yet again

Our friend Gino explains, yet again, the motivation:
Trump may go down, as the Press, the DNC and the GOP all plot against him... but these issues will still remain.
See, you keep thinking it's about Trump. And for for those who oppose him, it is.
But it's not.
We didn't vote for Trump, The Man.
Trump, The Man came to us... offering deliverance.
A deliverance that nobody else believed we deserved.
Why is that?
Click on the link to see the reason. His conclusion rings true:
We have ceased to be a democracy and have become a mobacracy.
The strongest mob runs the show.
Unfortunately, the ones who voted for Trump, we who drastically need the change in policy, are too busy working overtime while trying to provide for our families, to 'mob up' and cause trouble... until the day arrives, when we decide that there is nothing left to lose...
(when we decide to act like college students, you won't soon forget it.)
It's taken me a long time to understand what Gino is saying. My worldview comes from a half-century of living and a sense that I should aspire to get beyond the provincialism and paper mills of my hometown. That I should be a person of culture and learning, a person who has read the Great Books and grappled with the Big Ideas of western civilization. The joke's been on me, though -- the institutional keepers of those traditions have been gone for a long time. If you look to academe today, you see a bunch of shrieking harp seals who are more into intellectual parlor games and raw power mongering than in the life of the mind. It's been a thoroughgoing betrayal. It's been an ongoing project for nearly 100 years, but you have to stand apart from it to see it. We've gone from Julien Benda to Jacques Derrida and the applause has never ceased. You don't have to necessarily know who these two very different French philosophers are to understand the process, and I don't have enough time this morning to explicate it, but you've experienced it. And the ruin is everywhere.

Gino, and people who share the challenges that Gino faces, have had just about enough. We need to be listening.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Dangerous games

I'm going to assume that the latest round of leaks, the ones describing how Trump apparently told his Russian visitors that James Comey is a "nut job," are accurate. Based on what I have observed of Mr. Trump, that statement rings true. If Trump actually said these things, he made a major blunder. He can't just go around and assume he's bullshitting with guys in the cocktail lounge. The stakes are too high.

At the same time, at this point, it's become obvious to people in Washington that leaking is a cost-free offense, so we're going to see even more of it. It's the usual malice on the part of the Democrats who are doing it, but it's a sign of cowardice for the Republicans. It signals that Republicans are more concerned (and more comfortable) with licking the boots on their throats than they are for fighting for any of the principles they claim to have. And if any of the kabuki theater stage whisperers think they are doing the right thing, they ought to think again. Peggy Noonan makes the point well:
Mr. Trump’s longtime foes, especially Democrats and progressives, are in the throes of a kind of obsessive delight. Every new blunder, every suggestion of an illegality, gives them pleasure. “He’ll be gone by autumn.”

But he was duly and legally elected by tens of millions of Americans who had legitimate reasons to support him, who knew they were throwing the long ball, and who, polls suggest, continue to support him. They believe the press is trying to kill him. “He’s new, not a politician, give him a chance.” What would it do to them, what would it say to them, to have him brusquely removed by his enemies after so little time? Would it tell them democracy is a con, the swamp always wins, you nobodies can make your little choices but we’re in control? What will that do to their faith in our institutions, in democracy itself?
It will tell them the truth -- their faith was misplaced. This struggle isn't about governance, but rule. The permanent class of bureaucrats and their benefactors are in charge and those of us who aren't part of the equation should just shut the #@%! up and keep the tax money coming. It will tell them that the dystopian ideas behind the Hunger Games are a lot closer to reality than any of us would care to admit.

I don't have an answer. There's no easy way to solve these problems. It's not likely that Trump will learn to keep his mouth shut and listen more -- he's never had to do it in his life, and he's Leader of the Free World, so what the hell do I, or anyone else, have to say to him about it? And at the same time, Chuck Schumer and his pals are such thoroughgoing cynics and grifters that to ask them to look to their conscience is to suggest a metaphysical snipe hunt.

We're at a dangerous place. And it's not going to end well.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Sharks gotta shark

A judge makes a point that needs to be made:
The judge overseeing the bankruptcy of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis expressed concern Thursday over the legal fees being racked up in the case — about $15 million to date.

“It bothers me so much that all these attorney fees are being run up,” U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Robert Kressel said at a hearing Thursday, adding that legal fees are consuming funds that could be directed to survivors of archdiocese clergy sex abuse.

In an attempt to curb the spending, Kressel ordered that no expert witnesses be hired for the time being. He also ordered a tighter schedule for both parties to argue their legal objections to each other’s compensation plans.
Lawyers are expensive. And litigiousness is extremely expensive. Many moons ago, I worked for a law firm and I saw how bankruptcies are handled. You can rack up a lot of fees. Meanwhile, the victims wait.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Special counsel

We'll have to see how it goes. Chuck Schumer won't be satisfied unless he gets Trump's giant head on a pike. Can't control any of it, so for now we'll just keep watching.

Come out of the cold, Muffy

When I was in college, back in the 1980s, I had a classmate nicknamed Muffy (it was the 80s, after all) who would cut your hair for $5, about the same price as one would pay for a haircut in those days. Muffy did an outstanding job. She would cut your hair in the lounge in her dorm and she had a steady stream of customers, because she was outstanding and coincidentally drop-dead gorgeous.

Muffy got plenty of business, all word of mouth, from her classmates. One could argue that she was costing the barber shops of Beloit some business, but I don't recall any of them going out of business while she was on campus. She was breaking the law, though, because you are not supposed to cut hair for money unless you have a cosmetology license. She was from the San Diego area. It's possible she had a cosmetology license from California, but I never asked her and I doubt she did. Had someone reported her activities, she likely would have been in trouble. I am confident that the statute of limitations has run on her tonsorial crime wave, so I can tell the story.

Now, more than 30 years later, it appears that Wisconsin is looking at whether many licensing requirements are even necessary:
A new council would be created to review the necessity of every occupational licensing requirement in Wisconsin under a bill being circulated for co-sponsors.

The measure unveiled Wednesday would require the submission of a report by the end of 2018 that recommends elimination of licenses and other changes rules and requirements. The Legislature in 2019 would then consider approving the recommendations.
As Walter Russell Mead notes, these requirements are often less about professional standards and more about protecting a guild:
There is a virtual consensus among economists that state-enforced training requirements for a variety of low to mid-skill jobs, from catering to hair-braiding to interior decorating, have grown excessive, exerting a major drag on economic growth and employment—especially for people who don’t have the time or money to take thousands of hours of costly courses to practice a basic trade that isn’t particularly dangerous and whose skills can easily be judged by consumers.

Licensing requirements for low-skilled work have exploded over the past decades for no other reason than that professional guilds have been able to capture state legislatures and used them to help entrench their market positions. 
I don't object to paying extra for the services of someone with demonstrated expertise, but for most of us, the licensing requirements aren't relevant. Muffy wasn't running a full-fledged salon; she wasn't giving perms or doing complicated makeovers. She was just giving haircuts to her vaguely dissolute classmates and saving them a trip to town. I haven't seen Muffy in 30 years and have no idea what she's doing now, but I trust her life of crime is done.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Memo to file

If it is true that Donald Trump tried stop an FBI investigation, he's in a hell of a lot of trouble. At this point, we don't know that. The New York Times is reporting that James Comey wrote a memo about it, but the Times doesn't have the memo in question. We don't know if such a memo actually exists. We only have the following:
Mr. Comey shared the existence of the memo with senior F.B.I. officials and close associates. The New York Times has not viewed a copy of the memo, which is unclassified, but one of Mr. Comey’s associates read parts of it to a Times reporter.

“I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” Mr. Trump told Mr. Comey, according to the memo. “He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”
"One of Mr. Comey's associates read parts of it to a Times reporter." That's a pretty thin reed. If you were to read "Curious George Gets a Medal" to a Times reporter, would that prove Curious George was part of the space program?

What's been striking about almost all the reporting about Trump's great sins is how often the reporting is based on anonymous sources, which is almost all the time. The denials of the reporting, as we saw with H. R. McMaster yesterday, is always on the record. Does that matter? Of course. Writing for the Federalist, Mollie Hemingway makes the salient point:
Previous Washington Post stories sourced to anonymous “officials” have fallen apart, including Josh Rogin’s January 26 report claiming that “the State Department’s entire senior management team just resigned” as “part of an ongoing mass exodus of senior Foreign Service officers who don’t want to stick around for the Trump era.”

The story went viral before the truth caught up. As per procedure, the Obama administration had, in coordination with the incoming Trump administration, asked for the resignations of all political appointees. While it would have been traditional to let them stay for a few months, the Trump team let them know that their services wouldn’t be necessary. The entire story was wrong.
So should you be skeptical of the reporting? I won't tell you what you should think, but you should look at the pattern Hemingway establishes in her article.

Back to the Comey memo. Let's assume it actually exists. If the narrative in this case is accurate, and Trump was actually trying to obstruct justice, what was Comey's responsibility? To write a memo to file, or to report the President's actions up through the chain of command? I would argue he'd be required to do both, about which more in a moment. His boss, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, was new in office and there were any number of deputies around who were Obama-era holdovers, so there wouldn't have been any political danger in reporting the actions. From what we know, Comey didn't do that.

Frankly, if Trump was trying to obstruct justice, Comey's responsibility would have been to go public immediately and resign his position. He didn't do that. Beyond that, you can argue that Comey was also guilty of obstructing justice by not reporting the incident at the time it happened. Writing for Fox News, Greg Jarrett, who is an attorney, points out the relevant statute:
Under the law, Comey is required to immediately inform the Department of Justice of any attempt to obstruct justice by any person, even the President of the United States.  Failure to do so would result in criminal charges against Comey.  (18 USC 4 and 28 USC 1361)  He would also, upon sufficient proof, lose his license to practice law.

So, if Comey believed Trump attempted to obstruct justice, did he comply with the law by reporting it to the DOJ?  If not, it calls into question whether the events occurred as the Times reported it. 
You can assume Jarrett is a partisan hack, his reading of the statutory language seems correct to me:
Whoever, having knowledge of the actual commission of a felony cognizable by a court of the United States, conceals and does not as soon as possible make known the same to some judge or other person in civil or military authority under the United States, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both.
(June 25, 1948, ch. 645, 62 Stat. 684; Pub. L. 103–322, title XXXIII, § 330016(1)(G), Sept. 13, 1994, 108 Stat. 2147.)
That's 18 USC 4. What does 28 USC 1361 say?
The district courts shall have original jurisdiction of any action in the nature of mandamus to compel an officer or employee of the United States or any agency thereof to perform a duty owed to the plaintiff.
(Added Pub. L. 87–748, § 1(a), Oct. 5, 1962, 76 Stat. 744.)
Comey was head of the FBI. He would know the relevant statutory language. Either his mens rea was working properly and he didn't think Trump committed a crime, or he's personally guilty of obstructing justice by not reporting immediately to his superiors what Trump did. I'll bet at least one person in Congress will be asking that question.

One last point -- you might remember that, when Comey was fired, he was in Los Angeles giving a speech and that he found out about his firing because of news reports that were running on television monitors behind him. Most of the commentary I've seen suggested that Trump was just being a jerk by firing Comey that way. Perhaps. I don't think so, however. I suspect the timing was quite intentional. Since Comey was across the country at the time of his firing, he would not have been able to secure his office and dispose of anything that might later be a problem for him. You can safely assume Jeff Sessions now has everything Comey had, including any memoranda he wrote in the immediate aftermath of the incident. Comey knows that, too.

Stay tuned.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Baseline

So we're clear -- apparently the claims of a current and former official, both anonymous, regarding what happened with Trump and the Russians last week, are more valuable than an on-the-record denial from H. R. McMaster, Trump's national security adviser, who was in the room when the conversation took place.

This is the world we live in.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Aw, that's a shame

OPEC has issues, and Walter Russell Mead and friends have noticed:
The oil cartel roped eleven other petrostates into an agreement to curtail production in 2017 and are currently working on extending that deal, but the output cut’s ultimate goal of eating away at the oil market’s glut of crude is being undermined by the actions of suppliers outside of OPEC—U.S. shale producers chief among them. Now, OPEC is revising upwards its estimates of how quickly supplies will grow outside of its membership this year by a whopping 64 percent. 
Why is this happening? Primarily because of the frackers:
By cutting costs and boosting efficiencies, U.S. shale has made itself capable of profitably producing $50 per barrel oil.
The only way cutting production makes sense for OPEC is if they can subsequently get $75 per barrel, or thereabouts, to make up for the lost amount of production. And meanwhile frackers are gearing up elsewhere:
Vaca Muerta, which is Spanish for Dead Cow, is a shale gas and oil formation the size of Belgium in the heart of the region of Patagonia and is essential to Argentina being able to become self sufficient in energy.

President Mauricio Macri hopes a pact he has negotiated with unions and provincial authorities will jumpstart investor interest in developing the field.
Argentina won't be in the game for a while yet, because labor and transportation costs are still obstacles to profitability, but it will be in the game eventually. The price of a barrel of oil was $115 as recently as 2014. It's been less than half that price for a long time now:


Frack you
OPEC cut production last year and while prices rose for a time, they have been essentially stable for over a year. I have paid as much as $4/gallon for gas around this time of year in the past; I have not paid more than $2.50 in a long time, except in places like Chicago where they tax the crap out of gasoline (and everything else). While we worry about bread and circuses in Washington, we don't have to cringe every time we approach a gas pump. I'm grateful for that.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Meanwhile, while you were Comeytose

While everyone in Washington is getting their Sam Ervin on, an inconvenient truth:
Aetna is saying goodbye to Obamacare.

The insurance giant announced Wednesday that it would not offer policies in Nebraska or Delaware next year, completing its exit from the exchanges. Earlier this year, Aetna (AET) said it would pull out of Iowa and Virginia in 2018.

The company said it expects to lose more than $200 million in its individual business line this year, on top of nearly $700 million in losses between 2014 and 2016. Aetna withdrew from 11 of its 15 markets for 2017. It has 255,000 Obamacare policyholders this year, down from 964,000 at the end of last year.

These customers, however, continue to be costlier than the company expected, Aetna said during its earnings call earlier this month. It had to set aside an additional $110 million to cover larger-than-projected losses for this year.
If you care to do that math, it means Aetna has lost over a billion dollars on the Obamacare exchange business. And other insurers face similar issues. Walter Russell Mead knows why:
American health care costs too much. Solving this problem isn’t just about litigating the merits of Obamacare or Trumpcare; it’s about ensuring that the American people have access to the health care they want and need while keeping the country solvent.

We can’t do this all at once by some mighty government fiat—or, for that matter, through a blind faith in private markets. It took two generations for us to work ourselves into our present mess, and it will take time to work our way back to a sane and sustainable system.
I would quibble with the term "blind faith," but we can set that aside. The Econ 101 issue of scarcity is not going away, but Mead has a few ideas that would help:
Some promising areas for future policy innovation include: regulatory reforms that encourage disruptive forms of health care delivery, tort reform that eliminates the distortions that “defensive medicine” imposes on the system, and efforts to “push competencies down”—with help from computer assisted diagnostics, for example, registered nurses (RNs) can do more things that only doctors could do well in the past, and licensed practical nurses (LPNs) can do things that used to require RNs.
To a large extent, this is already happening. A typical visit to a doctor's office usually means much more time spent with a nurse than with the doctor. My doctor spends more time in a typical visit with data entry than with conducting an actual examination, while the nurse does most of the heavy lifting. I'm supposed to be a human being, but for most of these transactions I'm just that, a transaction. If the majority of the work can be handled by an RN or LPN, that's how it will be handled. And documentation rules the terms of the transaction.

We can spend hours in the weeds on these issues. And we probably will.

Resistance

Out of the Memphis area:
A Weakely County woman was arrested after reportedly following Congressman David Kustoff Office: Representative (R-TN 8th District) and then threatening him.

Police say Wendi Wright followed a car down Highway 45 Monday afternoon.

Inside the car were Congressman Kustoff and aide Marianne Dunavant.

Wright reportedly followed the car after it left a town hall on the UT Martin campus.
The picture of the accused:


We're going to see more of this sort of thing. Count on it.