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A Travel Query for the Hive Mind

February 19, 2017 - 10:29am

Ben Cawthra/Rex Shutterstock via ZUMA

OK, hive mind, I have a question for you. My sister is heading to London later this year, and this time she has a shiny new iPhone to take with her. She's on T-Mobile, so allegedly she'll have access to calling, texting, and low-speed data without doing anything. So here's one plan:

  • Download the maps she needs before she leaves.
  • Rely on T-Mobile for calling and texting.
  • Use WiFi whenever she's at the hotel, in a coffee shop, etc.
  • Register for The Cloud, and use that when she's out and about.
  • When all else fails, use T-Mobile's low-speed data.

Alternatively:

  • Buy a SIM when she gets there and use local calling, texting, and high-speed internet.

Do I have any T-Mobile readers who have been to London lately? What's the dope? What do you think her best alternative is?

"Jane Roe" Has Died. Abortion Rights Might Not Be Far Behind.

February 18, 2017 - 9:09pm

Norma McCorvey, the "Jane Roe" plaintiff in the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court case that legalized abortion in the United States, died Saturday at at an assisted-living facility in Katy, Texas. She was 69.

McCorvey was a complicated symbol for the political fight over abortion rights. Following the high court's 1973 decision, she became the face of the pro-choice movement. At the time, she represented the struggles faced by ordinary women confronted with unwanted pregnancies. Abortion was illegal in Texas in almost all cases when she learned she was pregnant in 1969. Poor and with a ninth grade education, she didn't have the means to seek abortion across state lines. The legal battle dragged on for three years; by the time she won, she had long since carried the pregnancy to term. She gave the baby up for adoption.

But in 1995, McCorvey reversed her stance on abortion after discussing the Bible with Pastor Flip Benham, the director of Operation Rescue, an aggressive pro-life group that had moved in next door to the women's health clinic where McCorvey worked. She soon quit her job at the clinic and was baptized by Benham. She became a spokeswoman for the anti-abortion movement, penning a book about her ideological transformation and traveling the country giving speeches to religious groups.

Like McCorvey's own views on abortion, popular opinion about a woman's right to choose has been the subject of much conflict and debate since the landmark 1973 case. And while a strong majority of Americans still agrees with the Roe decision, dismantling the right to an abortion is now an explicit objective for both the new administration and the Republican-led congress.

In the month since President Donald Trump's inauguration, GOP lawmakers have put forward measures aimed at pulling federal family planning funds from Planned Parenthood and repealing the Affordable Care Act, including its requirement that insurance plans cover contraceptives. They have also introduced bills that would make abortion illegal after 20 weeks of pregnancy and would ban the standard abortion method used by doctors in the second trimester.

A Supreme Court majority that would be open to overturning Roe is becoming increasingly likely, as well. This is something Trump promised repeatedly during the campaign as part of his largely successful effort to win over skeptical evangelical voters. As a candidate, he made four promises to the anti-abortion community: He pledged to nominate anti-abortion justices; defund Planned Parenthood; sign the 20-week abortion ban; and permanently enshrine into law the Hyde Amendment—a 40-year old budget rider that Congress has repeatedly used to bar federal tax dollars from funding most abortions. Assuming that Judge Neil Gorsuch is confirmed this spring, it may only take the departure of one pro-abortion-rights justice to tip the balance on the court against Roe

During the campaign, the formerly pro-choice Trump brought on Mike Pence to shore up his anti-abortion bonafides. As governor of Indiana, Pence signed some of the country's strictest abortion restrictions into law, including a measure requiring burial or cremation of aborted fetus remains and a ban on abortions due to fetal anomaly. In a September 2016 speech, Pence told an evangelical conference in Washington, DC, "I want to live to see the day that we put the sanctity of life back at the center of American law, and we send Roe v. Wade to the ash heap of history, where it belongs."

Last month, Pence became the highest-ranking government official to ever address the annual March for Life in person. "Life is winning again in America," Pence said at the anti-abortion gathering, pointing to the "historic election of a president who stands for a stronger America, a more prosperous America, and a president who, I proudly say, stands for the right to life."

Roe has been seen by many as an imperfect decision. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, one of the foremost legal warriors for gender equality, has criticized the decision for changing too much, too quickly. After founding the ACLU's women's rights project in the 1970s, Ginsburg focused on fighting sex discrimination with an incremental strategy. She brought several cases to the Supreme Court, building up a body of court victories that together established a sweeping legal and moral understanding of sex discrimination as something that is both illegal and wrong. Roe, she said at a conference in 2014, "established a target" for abortion opponents because it ditched this incremental approach, instead imposing a drastic change on states across the country. She suggested that if the high court had moved a little more slowly, today the idea of reproductive choice wouldn't be so controversial. "A movement against access to abortion for women grew up, flourished, around a single target," Ginsburg said.

After her victory as Roe's main plaintiff, McCorvey joined the movement that sprung up to oppose Roe. Her death comes at a time when that movement, with help from the Trump White House, could achieve many of its long-held goals.

Premiere Episode of Trump Show Disappoints With Sluggish Pacing and Dated Material

February 18, 2017 - 7:04pm

Today's episode of the Trump Show was disappointing. It started late, it was only 30 minutes long, and much of it was read off a teleprompter. A few miscellaneous comments:

  • No tie! Truly, Trump is a man of the people.
  • The first five minutes is dedicated solely to trashing the media. He says he wants to speak directly to The People without the filter of fake news. "When the media lies, I won't let them get away with it."
  • This is all done in service of a speech carried live and commercial-free by all three cable news channels.
  • The White House is running "smoothly, very smoothly."
  • He wants to bring back mining jobs for "clean, very clean coal." I'm sensing a rhetorical trend here.
  • He reprises several of his greatest hits: His Obamacare replacement will provide much better health care at a much lower cost. No more jobs are going to be sent overseas. He's going to slap a 35 percent tax on goods sent back here. And he still wants a "trillion dollar" infrastructure plan.
  • Jobs are already "pouring back in" to the country.
  • "Not one network will show the crowd," he says at the exact moment the pool camera pulls back to show the crowd.
  • He says he got the price of Air Force One down by a billion dollars. When did that happen? Let's google a bit...ah. It's just your basic Trump bullshit. The CEO of Boeing has agreed to keep the price tag below $4 billion for a project that's currently estimated to cost between $3.2 billion and $3.7 billion. Nice work, Donald.
  • He also got the price of the F-35 down by "hundreds of billions" dollars. It's actually hundreds of millions, but who's counting? And it was a price reduction that was already in the works before Trump ever got involved.
  • He says Obama was letting immigrants into the country with "no vetting, no nothing." This is just a ridiculous lie.

Meh. I doubt this rally did much for him. Even his most fervent supporters are starting to figure out that Trump isn't accomplishing a whole lot. Besides, how often can he go back to this well? Is he going to hold a pep rally every month? If he does, he better start coming up with some new material.

Trump Just Held His First Campaign Rally for the 2020 Race

February 18, 2017 - 6:52pm

On Saturday, just one month into his presidency, President Donald Trump held the first rally of his 2020 presidential campaign.

Trump was introduced by several Florida congressmen before making a dramatic entrance. To the soundtrack of the movie Air Force One, the presidential aircraft pulled into the airplane hangar where the rally was being held. Earlier this week, the White House said in a statement that they would not use the plane in the background as a prop, something Trump did often during the campaign with his own airplane.

LIVE: Pres. Donald Trump holds campaign-style rally at the Orlando-Melbourne Airport https://t.co/03fmvuYY4l pic.twitter.com/BHZgQYBYKj

— ABC News Politics (@ABCPolitics) February 18, 2017

After Melania Trump recited the "Our Father" and said a few words, Donald Trump opened his rally with an attack on the media. "I also want to speak to you without the filter of the fake news," he said, accusing news outlets of writing false stories about him using made-up sources. "When the media lies to people, I will never, ever let them get away with it." For the next 45 minutes he returned to his familiar themes of the wall on the US-Mexico border, keeping out unvetted immigrants, the unreliable judiciary, and America's return to greatness.

In one particularly odd moment, Trump forced the Secret Service to let a man who had complimented his presidency during a pre-rally interview join him on stage. Trump instructed the man to climb over a fence to get to the stage and then briefly gave him the microphone to address the crowd. Trump acknowledged that the Secret Service was probably not pleased with this, but "we know our people," he said.

Trump also lashed out at the Ninth Circuit appeals court that overturned his executive order banning immigrants from seven Muslim nations, saying that thousands of immigrants have been allowed into the country with no vetting. "There was no way to vet those people. There was no documentation. Nothing," he saidIn fact, the immigration process for refugees and other immigrants requires extensive vetting and documentation. Trump also said he's ordered the Department of Justice to protect police and sheriffs "from crimes of violence," and reiterated his plans to cut taxes, while also promising to implement a trillion dollar infrastructure program around the country.

You can watch the full speech here:

Waiting For Trump

February 18, 2017 - 4:45pm

OMG OMG OMG!

Who Really Benefits From Repealing the Stream Protection Rule?

February 18, 2017 - 4:30pm

Behold the politics of Donald Trump in a nutshell:

Talking to Trump voters here, several have said that Trump "put the miners back to work." (They are referring to the stream rule rollback)

— Dave Weigel (@daveweigel) February 18, 2017

Weigel is in Florida, so the workers in question are mostly Appalachian miners. Here's a quick look at Appalachian coal mining employment:1

This chart shows two things. First, coal mining in Appalachia has been plummeting for a long time. Decades, actually. So it's pretty easy to see why Appalachian coal miners are in dire straits and eager to listen to someone, anyone, who sounds sympathetic to their plight.

Second, Trump is getting a lot of of attention for rolling back the Stream Protection Rule, but it's not going to put anyone back to work. I had to cheat to even get it to show up on the chart. It's responsible for maybe a hundred mining jobs out of a total decline of 30,000 between 2009 and 2020.

So who does benefit from rolling back this rule? Well, OSM figures that Appalachian mine owners will save about $24 million per year in compliance costs.3 So they're pretty happy. This is a dynamic that we're going to see over and over from Trump:

  • He puts on a big show about something or other. Workers cheer.
  • Offstage, it turns out the benefit to workers is minuscule.
  • Instead, the bulk of the benefits end up going to corporations and the rich.
  • Liberals will find out about this because the New York Times will probably write about it. Working-class Trump fans won't, because none of it will be reported by Fox News or Drudge or Limbaugh or Breitbart.

Executive summary: workers get a pittance, the rich get rewarded, and streams and rivers will continue to be fouled by mine tailings. But Trump's supporters will be happy because they'll be kept in the dark by all the people supposedly looking out for them.

UPDATE: I've gotten several requests for a longer look at coal mining employment. Here it is.4 Please note two things: (1) this is for the entire US, not just Appalachia, and (2) it's for coal miners, not total coal mine employment. You can't compare it to the chart above.

1This is approximate. I counted coal mine employment from Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Alabama. The projection is based on a 50 percent loss of coal production and coal jobs between 2012 and 2020. The Office of Surface Mining figures that the Stream Protection Rule will cost about 260 mining jobs, and that Appalachia will bear 46 percent of compliance cost. (See this CRS report, p. 17.) So we can roughly figure that it will cost Appalachia a little over a hundred mining jobs.2

2The net job loss will be about zero, thanks to additional hires of engineers and biologists. However, that does nothing for miners.

3See here, p. 15. Total estimated compliance costs are $52 million per year, with Appalachia bearing 46 percent of the total.

4 Data for 1950-1985 from here. Data from 1985-2016 from FRED.

NSC Aide Fired, Now Owes Us Account of Trump Call to Mexico's President

February 18, 2017 - 1:44pm

Now is the winter of our discontent:

The White House abruptly dismissed a senior National Security Council aide on Friday....The aide, Craig Deare, was serving as the NSC's senior director for Western Hemisphere Affairs. Earlier in the week, at a private, off-the-record roundtable hosted by the Woodrow Wilson Center for a group of about two dozen scholars, Deare harshly criticized the president and his chief strategist Steve Bannon and railed against the dysfunction paralyzing the Trump White House, according to a source familiar with the situation.

He complained in particular that senior national security aides do not have access to the president — and gave a detailed and embarrassing readout of Trump's call with Mexican president Enrique Pena Nieto.

I can't fault Trump for firing Deare. Then again, I also can't fault Deare for going berserk. Sometimes a marriage just doesn't work.

However, now that Deare is out of a job, perhaps he'd like to share his detailed and embarrassing readout of that Mexico conversation? My email address is below.

Gossip of the Day: What's the Deal With KT McFarland?

February 18, 2017 - 1:25pm

It's a weekend. How about some gossip?

contact says, Just was told Trump told KT McFarland to pick her new boss. She named Bolton. see where this goes

— Laura Rozen (@lrozen) February 18, 2017

contact earlier said the personnel disagreement btw Adm. Harward & Trump was centered on McFarland. KT is very close to the Trump family

— Laura Rozen (@lrozen) February 18, 2017

Apparently David Petraeus has withdrawn his name for consideration over the same issue as Robert Harward. He wants control over NSC personnel, but Trump refuses to give up McFarland as deputy. Given the fact that McFarland hasn't held a government post in over 30 years and is wildly unqualified to be the #2 person on the National Security Council, there must be some strangely tight bond to account for Trump keeping her even though it's preventing him from appointing his preferred candidates to the #1 spot.

OTOH, we also know that Trump doesn't like John Bolton's walrus mustache. Would he demand that Bolton shave it off as a requirement of the job?

Arizona Suggests Forced Suicide For Death Row Inmates

February 18, 2017 - 11:30am

It's getting tougher and tougher to obtain the lethal cocktail used to execute prisoners convicted of capital crimes:

Now Arizona has responded with a new — and some say bizarre — solution to this quandary: Death row inmates can bring their own execution drugs. The state’s manual for execution procedures, which was revised last month, says attorneys of death row inmates, or others acting on their behalf, can obtain pentobarbital or sodium Pentothal and give them to the state to ensure a smooth execution.

Note to conservatives: sometimes you just have to give up. Do you really care that much about killing lots of bad guys as opposed to letting them rot in prison for the rest of their lives? It might be time to let go and save your energy for other battles. This one is getting absurd.

It's Pretty Sad That the President of the United States Needs to Watch Briefing Videos Like This

February 18, 2017 - 10:10am

On Thursday morning, Mother Jones fellow Ashley Dejean reported on a classified memo which revealed that Donald Trump's "daily briefing book typically contains reports on only three topics, typically no more than one page each."

On Thursday afternoon, American Urban Radio White House correspondent April Ryan asked the president a question about the Congressional Black Caucus that provoked a response suggesting Donald Trump thinks all black people know each other.

On Friday night, occasional Mother Jones contributor (and my brother) Harry Dreyfuss published a video neatly tying those two stories together.

Why Does a White Guy Always Have to Be the Hero?

February 18, 2017 - 5:00am

Chinese director Zhang Yimou, of Hero and House of Flying Daggers fame, made his English-language debut with The Great Wall, which opened Friday. But in a story set in ancient China, Matt Damon's character sticks out like a sore thumb. The presence of his pale mug in movie posters and trailers drew backlash even before the film's release. "We have to stop perpetuating the racist myth that only a white man can save the world," Fresh Off the Boat actress Constance Wu wrote in a Twitter tirade. "We don't need salvation." Damon and Yimou felt compelled to publicly defend the film, with Damon calling it "historical fantasy."

The lack of people of color in starring roles is a longstanding Hollywood problem, and things are especially bad for Asians. A 2016 study (PDF) by the Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism at the University of Southern California found that more than half of films and TV shows had no speaking roles for Asian characters—and it's exceedingly rare to see Asians in lead roles. Producers often claim there just aren't enough roles for Asian actors, which is true—or vice versa, which is not. Often, when the opportunity arises to cast Asian characters, Hollywood decision-makers hire white actors to portray them. Sometimes they simply rewrite nonwhite characters as white ones. These things are called whitewashing.

The Great Wall exemplifies a related Hollywood trend wherein white characters play a dominant role in a foreign situation, while nonwhite locals are reduced to sidekicks or people "to be killed or rescued—or to have sex with," as the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen put it recently. Vogue recently added to the outrage over cultural tone-deafness by presenting Karlie Kloss, an American model of German and Danish descent, as a geisha—for the magazine's diversity issue, no less. Vogue later removed the photographs from its website and Kloss apologized for her participation, but it was yet another episode in America's long history of whitewashing Asians. We'll leave you with this brief history of the same. Dig around and you're sure to find plenty more.

1926

The first Charlie Chan film is released, starring Japanese actor George Kuwa, but the films fail to win large audiences until Warner Oland, a Swedish actor, takes on the role. The Chan films become extremely popular, with more than 40 made, but are later criticized for racist stereotypes. 

Wikimedia Commons
1935

Merle Oberon, whose partial Indian ancestry she keeps a secret for most of her life, is nominated for a Best Actress Oscar. She is later credited as the first (and only) Asian-American ever nominated in that category.

1944

In Dragon Seed, Katharine Hepburn, plays Jade, a Chinese woman who stands up to Japanese invaders. Turhan Bey, who is of Turkish and Czech descent, co-stars as her husband.

Katharine Hepburn and Turhan Bey in Dragon Seed. Wikimedia Commons
1945

Rex Harrison portrays a Thai king in Anna and the King of Siam, the film adaptation of a semi-autobiographical novel of the same name. A 1951 remake continues to use non-Asian actors in the role—Russian-born Yul Brynner is the new king.

1956

Marlon Brando plays Sakini, a Japanese translator on the island of Okinawa after World War II, requiring hours of daily makeup work. "It was a horrible picture," he later writes, "and I was miscast."

1961

Mickey Rooney dons yellow-face, prosthetic teeth, and taped eyelids for his role as Audrey Hepburn's temperamental landlord in Breakfast at Tiffany's. (His "bucktoothed, myopic Japanese" is "broadly exotic," the New York Times writes.) Rooney is later taken aback to learn that his portrayal is considered racist. "It breaks my heart," he tells the Sacramento Bee in 2008, adding, jokingly, "Those that didn't like it, I forgive them."

Breakfast at Tiffany's Wikimedia Commons
1967

Sean Connery, 007, goes undercover Japanese in You Only Live Twice. (His makeup job would fool nobody, let alone a Bond villian.)

1972-75

In the TV series Kung Fu, David Carradine plays Kwai Chang Caine, a Buddhist monk versed in the martial arts. Bruce Lee had originally pitched the series and hoped to star in it, but the producers went with Carradine instead. Kung Fu became one of the most popular shows of its day.

David Carradine in Kung Fu. Wikimedia Commons
1981

Asian actors and artists in California protest Hollywood's attempt to revive Charlie Chan with Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen. "I don't think racism is funny any more," San Franciscan Eliza Chan tells the Washington Post. "We have been called "Charlie" for so many years. We have been made fun of—the way we speak, the way we act—people expect us to be like Charlie Chan, and we can't stand that any more."

1982

British actor Ben Kingsley, whose father is Indian, wins a Best Actor Oscar for Ghandi. He is the first—and as of 2017, the only—actor of Asian descent ever nominated in the category, much less win.

Director Richard Attenborough, left, and actor Ben Kingsley pose with their Ghandi Oscars. Reed Saxon/AP
1984

Japanese-American actor Gedde Watanabe portrays the (ostensibly) Chinese exchange student Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles. Mainstream audiences find the caricature hilarious, but many Asian-Americans cringe. "Because there were so few Asian actors onscreen at that time, people were looking for Kurosawa in a comedy," Watanabe recalls in a 30th anniversary interview. "Sixteen Candles wasn't that kind of movie."

Gedde Watanabe as Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles.
1990

A British theater production of Miss Saigon, a retelling of Madame Butterfly in the context of the Vietnam War, almost doesn't make it to Broadway after a union protests the casting of British actor Jonathan Pryce in a Eurasian role. Although Pryce, who wears eye prosthetics and bronzer for the performance, wins a Tony and the play goes on to become one of Broadway's longest-running hits, Miss Saigon continues to be criticized for its stereotypical portrayals.

2003

Edward Zwick's The Last Samurai features Tom Cruise as Capt. Nathan Algren, a guilt-wracked former Union Army soldier who gets to be the hero when he helps some rebel samurai fight a corrupt Japanese empire—it's all about Cruise, of course. Washington Post critic Stephen Hunter savages the film: "Basically what Zwick has done is to take Kevin Costner's Dances With Wolves and insert it into the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877, with a samurai clan in the role of an Indian tribe."

Warner Bros.
2006

Ang Lee is the first Asian director to win an Oscar, for Brokeback Mountain.

Director Ang Lee accepts his Oscar from Tom Hanks. Chris Carlson/AP
2010

White actors play the leads in the live-action film adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender, previously an animated series with characters of Asian and Native American descent. Fans pan it and the movie flops.

Avatar: The Last Airbender series. Nickelodeon The Last Airbender movie. Paramount Pictures
2012

White actor Jim Sturgess dons yellowface and doctored eyes to play a Korean character in Cloud Atlas. Director Andy Wachowski defends the casting: "The intention is to talk about things that are beyond race. The character of this film is humanity." It's not Sturgess' first brush with whitewashing: In 21, a film based on the true story of college card-counters who gamed the casinos, he plays a student who in real life was Chinese-American.

2015

Emma Stone stars as a half-Asian character in Aloha, which flops at the box office. The role, she says later, opened her eyes to Hollywood's diversity problems and "flaws in the system." Director Cameron Crowe also apologizes, calling the casting "misguided."

Feb. 2016

In an otherwise spot-on monologue—"I'm here at the Academy Awards, otherwise known as the White People's Choice Awards"—Oscars host Chris Rock rips Hollywood's lack of diversity, yet manages to stereotype Asian Americans, who are all but invisible in American films

April 2016

The creators of Ghost in the Shell, adapted from a Japanese manga and anime film, face backlash after casting Scarlett Johansson as the Japanese main character. Tilda Swinton also gets hit with criticism for her role as the Ancient One, a Tibetan character, in Dr. Strange.

Ghost in the Shell, 1995.  Production IG Ghost in the Shell, 2017. Paramount Pictures
May 2016

Comedian Margaret Cho, Nerds of Color blogger Keith Chow, author Ellen Oh and other Asian Americans start a monthlong #WhiteWashedOut campaign that calls on Hollywood to stop whitewashing Asians and urging white actors to reject Asian roles.

#whitewashedOUT means the continued stereotype of the unattractive Asian male, the submissive Asian woman, the tiger mom, etc.

— ❄️Ellen Oh❄️ (@ElloEllenOh) May 3, 2016

Not a sidekick. Not a sidechick. #whitewashedOUT

— Margaret Cho (@margaretcho) May 3, 2016

There's a real problem with Asian representation in Hollywood, and we're #WhitewashedOUT. https://t.co/6ejm80GYYN pic.twitter.com/nZX1EZlzvJ

— Book Riot Comics (@BookRiotComics) May 3, 2016

#whitewashedOUT meant it took years for me to realize writing Asian protags was possible. I cast myself as the sidekick in my own stories.

— Sarah Kuhn (@sarahkuhn) May 3, 2016

I didn't think seeing Indian Americans mattered to me until @mindykaling. Until I cried seeing @azizansari on Netflix. #whitewashedOUT

— Amitha Knight (@amithaknight) May 3, 2016
Nov. 2016

Hong Kong actor and director Jackie Chan accepts an honorary Oscar at the Governors Awards in an emotional speech: "After 56 years in the film industry, making more than 200 films, breaking so many bones, finally this is mine." He is one of four filmmakers to receive the lifetime achievement award.

Jackie Chan at the Governors Awards. Chris Pizzello/AP
Feb. 2017

Matt Damon plays a European mercenary who saves China from monsters in The Great Wall. Actress Constance Wu takes issue: "We like our color and our culture and our strengths and our own stories," she writes. "Hollywood is supposed to be about making great stories. So make them."

Trump Decrees That the Economy Must Grow Twice as Fast

February 17, 2017 - 10:39pm

The Congressional Budget Office forecasts that the labor force will grow 0.5 percent annually over the next ten years and productivity will grow 1.4 percent. That's total economic growth of 1.9 percent per year. But the Trumpists are forecasting 3.5 percent growth over the next decade. Let's give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that they supercharge the economy, pulling everyone back into work and achieving labor force growth of 0.8 percent. They still need productivity growth of 2.7 percent. That's astronomically higher than anyone thinks possible. So how are Trump's economists justifying this?

The answer is simplicity itself. The Wall Street Journal explains:

What’s unusual about the administration’s forecasts isn’t just their relative optimism but also the process by which they were derived. Normally, the executive branch starts with a baseline forecast prepared by career staff of the CEA....Discussions for the Trump administration unfolded differently, with transition officials telling the CEA staff the growth targets that their budget would produce and asking them to backfill other estimates off those figures.

So...they're doing it by just telling their economists what growth will be. That's an interesting approach. But what's the point of this? Here's a pair of growth forecasts—one for 2 percent and one for 4 percent—that should illustrate things:

If you assume higher growth, you can cut taxes and still get the same revenue. Alternatively, you can spend more on the military or a border wall without increasing the deficit. Or a combination of both.

In other words, it's magic fairy dust. Sprinkle it around and you can do anything you want. Problems only arise if a bunch of snooty Ivy League economists insist that you're delusional, which explains why Trump hasn't bothered to hire anyone for his Council of Economic Advisors. They would just tell him stuff he doesn't want to hear. It also explains why Paul Ryan isn't playing this game too: his budget is vetted by the CBO, which has no intention of aiding and abetting fantasyland figures like these.

It's hard to know what the point of this is. Most likely, Trump said on the campaign trail that he'd grow the economy at 4 percent, and by God he's going to stick with that. (Remember: 3.5 rounds up to 4, so his campaign promise is safe.) Besides, Trump probably really believes that he can get the economy growing that fast through the sheer force of his personality.

The real shock here isn't Trump—we already know he's divorced from reality—but the rest of his staff. Is there really not a single person in the White House who has both the gumption and the standing to tell Trump that the president can't peddle this kind of drivel in an official document? Is there no one who can tell him that Twitter is one thing, but the Budget of the United States of America is another?

I guess not.

Donald Trump Edits a Tweet

February 17, 2017 - 5:30pm

At 4:32 pm, President Trump put up this tweet:

It was quickly deleted and 16 minutes later it was replaced with this:

Fascinating! Here are the edits Trump made:

  1. Changed "and many more" to the more specific @ABC and @CBS.
  2. Eliminated the ugly extra spaces after the parentheses.
  3. Capitalized the P in "people."
  4. Removed "SICK!"

What can this mean? Did someone tell Trump that his tweet sounded like something Hitler might have written and he should probably revise it? No one has ever told him this before, so it seems unlikely this time too. Presumably he made these changes all on his own. Let's do a little Kremlinology here:

  1. It's obvious that Trump's real enemies are CNN, NBC, and the Times. Then, later, he tossed in CBS and ABC. Was this to cover his tracks? Nah. He doesn't care what us overeducated elitists think. More likely it's because he decided his fans1 wouldn't automatically fill in ABC and CBS, so he needed to be more explicit about it. After all, he wants his fans to distrust all the media they consume except for Fox, so it makes sense to be very clear about this.
  2. Eliminating the spaces is either because Trump has a love of neatness we've never seen before, or because they pushed his tweet over 140 characters. However, the tweet is only 123 characters long, so I guess it must have been a purely esthetic bit of editing.
  3. Hmmm. American people vs. American People. That's a tough one. The latter is more Germanic, which might have appealed to him. In English, though, it's also less literate. That might have appealed to him too. Or, maybe Trump just capitalizes stuff randomly and there's nothing to this.
  4. This is the real chin scratcher. Did he think that SICK! was going too far? I can't imagine why. And the one-word adjective at the end is standard Trump Twitter grammar. We do know that Trump is a germaphobe, so maybe he doesn't even like typing the word. However, a quick search shows that he's called several people sick in the past year (Karl Rove, Megyn Kelly, failing New York Times). So what is it? WHY DID DONALD TRUMP REMOVE THE WORD "SICK" FROM THIS TWEET???

Oh, and by the way, calling the press an enemy of the people really is pretty Hitleresque. Unfortunately, I have a feeling that an awful lot of Trump's supporters might not really consider that such a bad thing.

1As always, remember that his supporters are the audience for his tweets, not you or me.

Friday Cat Blogging - 17 February 2017

February 17, 2017 - 2:02pm

We have exciting news this week: Yale University has decided to rename one of its colleges after Hopper. It's a well-deserved honor for her contributions to this blog, and she will be replacing the odious John Calhoun, who spent the second half of his life defending states rights and slavery in uncompromising terms.

You will note, by the way, that Yale plans to keep up a pretense in public that Hopper College is actually named after an admiral who earned degrees from Yale in the 30s and went on to do some kind of computer stuff. But we all know better, don't we?

Violent Crime Peaked In Britain in 2006 Because....

February 17, 2017 - 1:51pm

I missed this when it was first written—probably because it was only a week after Donald Trump won the election—but Robert Waldmann decided to check out a few of his predictions:

In April 2008, I predicted that the UK violent crime rate would peak some time around 2008. I just googled and found that it peaked in around 2006 or 2007.

Here's the chart, courtesy of the Institute for Economics and Peace:

Note two things here. First, Britain's violent crime rate peaked about 15 years after it did in the US. Second, it dropped a lot faster than it did in the US. Why?

Because, first, Britain adopted unleaded gasoline about 13 years after the US (1988 vs. 1975). And second, because it phased out leaded gasoline a lot faster than the US. Within four years Britain had cut lead emissions by two-thirds, which means there was a very sharp break between infants born in high-lead and low-lead environments. Likewise, this means there was a sharp break between 18-year-olds with and without brain damage. In 2006, nearly all 18-year-olds had grown up with lead poisoned brains. By 2010, that had dropped substantially, which accounts for the stunning 40 percent drop in violent crime in such a short time.1

This is one of the reasons the lead-crime hypothesis is so persuasive. Not only does recorded crime fit the predictions of the theory—both in timing and slope—but it does so in many different countries. What other theory would predict a gradual drop in violent crime between 1991-2010 in the US and a sharp decline in violent crime between 2006-10 in Britain? Especially considering that the US and Britain have entirely different policing, poverty rates, race issues, etc.?

Anyway, I might as well take this opportunity to repeat my prediction that terrorism in the Middle East will begin to decline between 2020-30. You heard it here first.

1And it continued dropping for several years after that. There was a big increase last year, but it was almost entirely driven by changes in measurement, not changes in the actual crime rate.

Senate Confirms Trump's Controversial EPA Pick—Without Reading His Emails

February 17, 2017 - 1:27pm

Scott Pruitt was confirmed Friday as the nation's 14th administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, despite the fact that a trove of emails between Pruitt's office and fossil fuel interests have still not been made public. Democrats and environmental activists have strongly criticized Pruitt's record as attorney general of Oklahoma—a record that included a number of lawsuits aimed at blocking Obama-era EPA regulations concerning pollution and climate change.

Pruitt was approved 52-46 on a largely party-line vote. Two Democrats, Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.), voted to confirm Pruitt. Both represent deep-red states that are heavily dependent on fossil fuel extraction, and both are facing tough reelection battles in 2018. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine was the only Republican to vote against Pruitt.

That means Pruitt will be sworn in before the Center for Media and Democracy and the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma get their hands on his emails from his tenure as attorney general. The groups initially requested the release of email communications between Pruitt's office and fossil fuel interests more than two years ago, but Pruitt staffers didn't fulfill the request. Last week, following a lawsuit and a number of requests for additional emails, Pruitt's office released 411 of the more than 3,000 relevant emails.

On Thursday, an Oklahoma judge ruled in CMD and the ACLU's favor, ordering Pruitt's office to turn over the rest of the 2,500 emails—by next Tuesday. But with Pruitt's vote scheduled for today, that ruling provided little help for Democrats and green groups who hoped to use the information as part of the confirmation battle.

While it's unlikely there are any smoking guns in the emails that would have been enough to change Republicans' minds on Pruitt, Democratic senators called for another 248 hours of debate, which would have in effect delayed the confirmation vote until February 27, after the deadline for making the emails public. The Democrats' motion failed by a majority vote that fell strictly along party lines. In a twist, both Heitkamp and Manchin voted in favor of extending debate, though they ultimately ended up supporting Pruitt's confirmation. Collins, meanwhile, voted against extending the debate and then proceeded to vote against confirmation.

Manchin will vote to extend debate. Said he wants to see what's in Pruitt emails.

— Jack Fitzpatrick (@jackfitzdc) February 17, 2017

At a press conference Friday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was asked why he didn't postpone the vote until after Pruitt's emails became available. "Because I choose not to," he responded.

Once Pruitt is sworn in, the administration's efforts to shrink the EPA's staff, cripple its work on climate change, and undo Obama-era regulations will begin in earnest. With Pruitt at his side, President Donald Trump is expected to sign between two and five executive orders targeting the EPA next week.

Republicans Have No Good Options for Funding Their Obamacare Replacement

February 17, 2017 - 11:40am

Sarah Kliff reports on one way Republicans are thinking about paying for their Obamacare replacement:

Republican legislators need a way to pay for their eventual Obamacare replacement plan. One leading contender is capping the tax exclusion for employer-sponsored health insurance, which shows up in multiple replacement plans as well as recent interviews with legislators. It’s going to be a huge fight.

Right now, companies and their workers pay no taxes on health benefits. This means the federal government misses out on a lot of potential revenue — $260 billion in 2013, according to Congressional Budget Office data.

This is not just a huge fight, it's probably an unwinnable fight. As Kliff points out, Obamacare's Cadillac tax is a cousin of this proposal—it levies a fine on extremely expensive plans sometime in the future—and even at that it's already been delayed from 2018 to 2020 and most likely will never be allowed to take effect.

By contrast, the Republican plan would have to affect far more plans and it would have to affect them right away. If it doesn't, it won't raise any money. For example, here's a CBO estimate of revenue from a plan that taxes about half of the value of employer-based health plans:

That's a fair amount of revenue, but CBO also estimates that it would lead to about 6 million people losing their employer plans by Year 5. And even among the workers who didn't lose their coverage, they'd probably get hit with reduced benefits or increased deductibles.

Do you remember the fuss over "if you like your health plan, you can keep it"? That promise was actually true for all but about two percent of the insured population, but that two percent caused massive conservative outrage anyway. A Republican plan that affected 50 percent of the insured population would cause heads to explode. So naturally they'd try to phase it in, or back load it, or delay it for a few years, or something—anything—to keep it from biting too hard at first. But the more they do this, the less money it will raise. If you limit it to, say, the top ten percent and phase it in over five years, it would probably raise $10-15 billion in Year 10. That's hardly worth it.

Bottom line: if Republicans do this in a serious way, it will raise money but the entire country will go ballistic. If they try to play games, it might keep the outrage tamped down, but it won't raise enough money to be worth it. Economically it might be a good idea, but politically, I just don't see how they can pull this off.

Of course, they could raise the same amount of money just by levying a small tax on rich people. Obviously that's out of the question though.

Trump Administration Denies Considering Use of National Guard for Deportations

February 17, 2017 - 10:25am

The Department of Homeland Security on Friday denied reports that the Trump administration is considering using as many as 100,000 National Guard troops to detain undocumented immigrants living in the United States. "It's incorrect," department spokesman David Lapan said in an email. "The Department is not considering mobilizing the National Guard for immigration enforcement."

On Friday morning, the Associated Press reported that it had obtained a draft memo outlining the proposal:

The 11-page document calls for the unprecedented militarization of immigration enforcement as far north as Portland, Oregon, and as far east as New Orleans, Louisiana.

Four states that border on Mexico are included in the proposal—California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas—but it also encompasses seven states contiguous to those four—Oregon, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana.

According to the AP story, the White House and DHS ignored the news organization's requests for comment prior to publication. Nonetheless, once the story was released, the White House immediately insisted it had no plans to mobilize the National Guard to round up immigrants.

"That is 100 percent not true," said press secretary Sean Spicer, according to a pool report. "It is false. It is irresponsible to be saying this…There is no effort at all to round up, to utilize the National Guard to round up illegal immigrants.”

This is not true. DHS also confirms it is 100% false https://t.co/MFIJci7XaU

— Sean Spicer (@PressSec) February 17, 2017

Still, the pool report noted that Spicer "couldn't categorically state that this was never a subject of discussion somewhere in the administration." He added, "I don't know what could potentially be out there, but I know that there is no effort to do what is potentially suggested…It is not a White House document."

The alarming back-and-forth comes on the heels of widespread anxiety and confusion over the Immigration and Customs Enforcement's recent deportation actions. False rumors and misinformation, particularly on social media, have caused deep uncertainty over what the administration's enforcement plans actually are.

This is a breaking news story. We will update as more information becomes available.

AP: Trump Considering Using National Guard for Immigration Raids

February 17, 2017 - 10:01am

From the AP:

The Trump administration is considering a proposal to mobilize as many as 100,000 National Guard troops to round up unauthorized immigrants, including millions living nowhere near the Mexico border, according to a draft memo obtained by The Associated Press.

The 11-page document calls for the unprecedented militarization of immigration enforcement as far north as Portland, Oregon, and as far east as New Orleans, Louisiana....Governors in the 11 states would have a choice whether to have their guard troops participate, according to the memo, written by U.S. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, a retired four-star Marine general.

....Requests to the White House and the Department of Homeland Security for comment and a status report on the proposal were not answered.

The White House may not have commented when the AP called them, but now that the story has been published they're suddenly outraged:

This is not true. DHS also confirms it is 100% false https://t.co/MFIJci7XaU

— Sean Spicer (@PressSec) February 17, 2017

Hmmm. This is not true. But has it ever been true? Perhaps we wouldn't need to parse the verb tense so closely if it were any other press secretary, but I think we should with Sean Spicer. And if it's not true, what's up with the memo? Is it a forgery? Was it written by one of those scurrilous "Obama holdovers" who infest the federal government and are trying to make Trump look bad at every turn? Inquiring minds want to know.

We're Trashing the Arctic. Literally.

February 17, 2017 - 5:00am

This story was originally published by CityLab and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Humanity’s trash has near-universal dominion in the ocean. It swirls in the waves in immense “garbage patches,” drifts downward where it’s eaten by whales and turtles, and lands on the deepest sea floor to make it look like a landfill exploded on the moon.

Even the places one might assume are pristine, such as the ice-covered Arctic Ocean, are littered with the detritus of human activity, as proven by the growth of a sixth garbage patch in the freezing Barents Sea. The latest evidence of worldwide junk infiltration comes from an observatory west of the Norwegian archipelago Svalbard, called HAUSGARTEN, where scientists have constructed a multiyear log of marine debris. In this remote location, more and more litter is appearing on the seabed—almost double the amount was found at one monitoring station in 2011 compared to 2002, they write in Deep Sea Research Part 1. Not only that, but it’s appearing in greater concentrations to the north, possibly due to climate change.

The scientists used a towed camera rig to establish that the density of trash in these Arctic waters is equivalent to that off of Lisbon, Portugal, whose metropolitan area holds 2.8 million people. It’s hard to tell exactly where seaborne waste comes from. Garbage enters the ocean from rivers, polluted coastlines, ships that have accidents or are illegally dumping, and other sources. Once it’s there it can travel vast distances. But after doing some detective work, the scientists at Germany’s Alfred Wegener Institute ascribe guilt to local activities.

The extent of summer sea ice in the Arctic, one of the most rapidly warming places on earth, has declined by more than 30 percent in recent decades. This vast thawing has made the region more hospitable for ships. Reports of oceanic fishing near Svalbard have more than doubled in recent years, and the local port has seen a steady rise in visits from cruise liners, cargo ships, private yachts, and other vessels.

During their ocean survey the researchers found a surge in plastics, metals, fabric, rope, and other refuse lying below an extreme-north monitoring station. “The decreased ice cover could have allowed more maritime activities in the area, which may have played an indirect role in the increase of litter,” they write. Supporting this theory was the presence of glass debris, which they hadn’t spotted on the sea floor until recently. “Since glass can be assumed to sink quickly to the seafloor close to its entry point,” they say, “the high density of glass at the northern station in recent years proves increasing ship traffic in the marginal ice zone and indicates ships as sources.”

Which ships are doing the dirty deeds? Well, fishing vessels routinely lose nets, lines, and other gear overboard, items that can float around for a long time and fatally ensnare sea creatures. And though the researchers don’t definitively blame tourism companies, they do point out that “one cruise ship of 2,500 passengers and 800 crew can generate 1 [ton] of solid waste in a day and even though most of the vessels probably strictly abide with regulations, accidental loss of solid waste from such a quantity of garbage may be inevitable.”

They conclude that pollution in the Arctic is a growing problem, and one that will probably keep expanding geographically until presumably it’s under the North Pole. Have a look at some more of what they found lurking in the deep, including a plastic bag colonized by a sea anemone (top left) and a fabric scrap entangled by a living sponge (far right):

Sample images of litter. M. B. Tekman et al

 

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