Weekend Links

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Gratuitous photo of me chilling with a friend’s dog during my visit home last month.

Today was the first day of classes at our English training school here in Dali, Yunnan Province. This semester I have three classes, each two hours. I am exhausted tonight. It usually takes me two weeks to get back into teaching shape. Teaching English as a foreign language to kids, you’re on your feet pretty much the entire class playing games, using the whiteboard, presenting new words and language patterns, and giving kids attention when they have group or individual tasks. That means I was on my feet and on mentally, switching between English and Chinese, for six hours. Cry me a river, I know, but wow do I feel like having a beer and watching some TV.

On American politics, where else can we start but with Donald Trump and what went down in Chicago? This BBC report has the story and raises some fair questions. It’s obviously not ideal that violence erupted yet again and that Trump felt compelled to cancel his rally. This just seems bad on both sides, though I haven’t gone through the reporting or footage in any depth. But, in true both-side-do-it fashion, there is an element of “why are you making us look like racists by protesting our racist rhetoric and making us get into fights with you” going on here.

I’m conflicted about the effectiveness of these Trump protests. For one thing, I doubt they have any influence over the direction of the Republican nomination contest at this point. Trump’s core supporters are locked in and every other candidate understands they need those voters to win the nomination outright or steal it from Trump at the convention and still have any chance in the general election. If anything, the protests probably encourage Trump supporters to close ranks and feel that Trump must be saying something right. After all, from their perspective, Trump’s speeches and his supporters’ behavior at his rallies are making all the right people angry. This Trump thing is more tribal than it is anything else.

For all we know, the clashes may be encouraging Republicans repulsed by Trump to default to their tribal allegiance. Still, I don’t mean to suggest that protesters should sit idly by and let Trump’s movement go unchallenged. Really, there are no good options here.

Some links:

  • It’d be nice if a gift for clairvoyance, or profound political acumen, explained my getting this Trump movement right back in August of last year. Alas, there was no secret. It was just understanding what motivates a large and enthusiastic plurality of Republican voters. This information’s been hiding in plain sight for decades, and has been lit up in neon since a certain president with a certain skin color took office in 2009. Also, I should credit professor of law Paul Campos, whom I read over at Lawyers, Guns & Money, for pointing out in July 2015 that Trump needed to be taken seriously, likening his candidacy to Ronald Reagan’s.
  • Campos again, writing at Salon about the bill of goods the Republican elite has been selling the base since Reagan. Read the whole thing after you pick your jaw up from the floor:

Here are the numbers: between 1945 and 1974, per capita GDP in the U.S. grew from $17,490 to $27,837.  That is an impressive improvement, but it pales in comparison to what has happened since: in 2014, per capita GDP was $55,185, i.e., almost exactly double what it was in 1974.  In terms of economic output, the country is twice as rich per person now as it was then.

Where has all this money gone?  The answer ought to shock anyone who cares about either economic opportunity or increasing inequality.  The average household income of the bottom 50% of American households was $25,475 in 1974, and $26,520  in 2014.  In other words, half the population has gotten essentially none of the extra $10 trillion dollars of national wealth that the American economy has generated over the past forty years.

  • Josh Marshall with a reliably useful take on the most recent Republican debate.
  • Also at Marshall’s site TPM, here’s an article reminding us that Trump has been encouraging his supporters to get violent. I don’t know how we would read his comments any other way, or why we would think his supporters would hear or read them any other way.
  • Hillary Clinton does make it hard sometimes. In trying to find something nice to say upon Nancy Reagan’s passing, she just completely made stuff up about Ronald and Nancy Reagan’s HIV/AIDS record. They basically couldn’t have had a worse record. Clinton has retracted and apologized, and it’s plausible that she misspoke, but this was bad. Read Dan Savage’s appropriately outraged take on this, and listen to the embedded audio if you can stomach listening to Reagan’s administration and the press laugh and joke about the burgeoning epidemic. And yes, it’s as bad as I just made it sound.
  • Ending on a somewhat lighter note, here’s Jonathan Chait on the top-notch advice Marco Rubio has received in the past several weeks. Hopefully Rubio’s admirers’ will start cursing Trump with their wisdom.

Enjoy the weekend. Time for that beer and some idiot box.

Someone Was Wrong on the Internet!

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James Stewart good. Filibusters bad. By Columbia Pictures [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
While navel-gazing today I found a significant error in my first post of consequence. Stop the presses! Someone was wrong on the internet!

I wanted to see what my writing was like four months ago when I started this thing, remind myself of the mission, and try to find instances where my writing could be clearer along with instances where my writing gets the job done. I’m fine with letting some typos and some clunky phrases go without edits or mentions. But this one mistake. Man, I’m glad nobody read that post!

The post, “A Good Place to Start,” was about the tendency of American media to view conflicts between our two major political parties through a “both-sides-do-it” frame. That is, whatever crazy and irresponsible thing we find happening in one party (Republican), there must be an equivalent happening in the other party (Democratic). So, that helps explain efforts earlier in the fall to equate Donald Trump’s candidacy on the Republican side with Bernie Sanders’s candidacy on the Democratic side. Never mind that Sanders was a distinguished mayor and congressman and is a sitting senator while Trump was, well, Trump. The important thing is both parties have their crazies. Bam! Send the column to the editor and let’s go for drinks.

This trope is lazy in the extreme. Somehow, it sounds plausible to a lot of otherwise smart and not lazy people. So the myth that both of our major political parties are equally responsible for dysfunction in Washington because both parties are full of equally unreasonable extremists rolls on.

My post in question was an effort to combat this argument. It was especially galling to see a writer I like and respect use “both-sides-do-it” to explain why Congress hasn’t passed any meaningful climate change legislation. If generally well-informed writers are getting this wrong and sharing this pernicious myth with their readers, then I have to spring into action. After all, it’s basically in my blog’s mission statement to do so.

I tried to explain how Republican use of the filibuster, an undemocratic device that a committed minority of (41 to 49) senators can wield to thwart the will of a majority of (51 to 59) senators, had grown out of control during Barack Obama’s presidency. In the case of climate change legislation, Republicans did indeed use the filibuster to block consideration of a good bill that had already passed the Democratic-controlled House. I really butchered this explanation in the post. I should have saved the garbled syntax version for comparison’s sake, but please find the cleaned up version below. Or, go read the whole thing. The post is still relevant to our politics, extremely so I would argue, and has not been superseded by any events over the last four months.

In 2009, the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives passed the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 (ACES). It was then “defeated” in the Senate, but here defeated means that it never came up for a vote because a minority of Republican senators wouldn’t allow it. Democrats held a majority in the Senate at the time, but the Republican minority was in the process of perfecting its unprecedented, total obstruction strategy. Simply put, Senate Republicans began serially abusing the filibuster to require 60 votes to move all legislation, a tactic previously used mostly in special circumstances. Soon after Obama’s inauguration, Republicans were filibustering routine legislation and executive branch appointments. In hindsight, whatever you think about the policy merits, it is practically a miracle that the Affordable Care Act ever passed.

There, that reads much better and is an accurate description. My previous version wasn’t even accurate! I need better editors.

Weekend Links

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Actual tortillas made by the author’s actual wife.
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Yum.

We invited one of the students in my adult class and her husband over for dinner tonight. This student, who goes by the English name Dana, is really impressive in her dedication to learning English. She teaches full time at a local high school. This year, Dana is the lead teacher for a class of high school seniors who are preparing for university. Since during this academic year the students focus relentlessly on the gaokao, China’s high-stakes university entrance exam, Dana often has to report to school on Saturdays and Sundays in order to help and coach her students as they prepare for the grueling exam. Faced with six and seven day work weeks, she still somehow makes the time to come to my class that meets from 7 to 9 pm on Mondays and Fridays. She always does her homework, and manages to study and practice her English nearly every day. Students like Dana really make teaching rewarding.

We ended up making a southwestern style pulled chicken in our slow cooker, served with flour tortillas, tortilla chips made from some of those tortillas, salsa, and a side salad. Our guests seemed to like the meal, though they probably wouldn’t have told me the chicken was a little overcooked even if they thought it (it was).

Anyway, this is a good excuse to link to the tortilla recipe we use. My wife made them this time, and they turned out very well as usual. This recipe is adapted from some other person’s recipe, which is a topic I wrote about here recently.

Some links for the weekend:

  • Charlie Pierce on Obama’s rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline. For an asinine take, go read the Washington Post editorial board’s piece. This opinion manages to hit all of the both-sides-do-it sweet spots while somehow managing to miss the real story: people of different political persuasions working together to kill a dumb, short-sighted project. The Post is too caught up in its Democrats-are-just-as-much-to-blame-as-are-Republicans narrative to see that the fight over this pipeline was not only about climate change, but also about midwestern farmers who didn’t want their lands seized under eminent domain or their water supply poisoned. Five minutes searching online and I’m better informed than the Washington Post editorial board.
  • I wrote about Ben Carson this week. Josh Marshall walks us through the latest developments in the Ben Carson-is-a-lying-liar saga with a series of posts here, here, and here. Marshall also links to a (subscription required) hit piece in the Wall Street Journal. The appearance of this article means that Carson’s rise to the top of the polls is inviting backlash from his opponents and the Republican establishment. It will be interesting to see if his poll numbers suffer. So far, similar oppo research pieces have not seemed to hurt Carson’s chief competitor for frontrunner status, Donald Trump.
  • My wife pointed me to her friend Daniel Denvir’s piece in Salon about Hillary Clinton’s past support for welfare reform. I guess this piece has generated a bit of backlash. Denvir argues that Clinton’s camp is accusing Bernie Sanders’ camp of sexism in order to deflect criticism of her own (bad) record. He raises good points about Clinton’s record and where she stands now, but he doesn’t do himself any favors by dismissing accusations of sexism out of hand, or by labelling Clinton’s past policy preferences “sexist” and “racist.” I honestly don’t know what to say here, since it’s true that Clinton’s past record is problematic, and it’s also true that Clinton is often the victim of sexist remarks. Both Clinton and Sanders, or Martin O’Malley for that matter, are infinitely preferable to any Republican on almost every issue. I’d prefer to see their campaigns and their surrogates refrain from mudslinging. But politics ain’t beanbag.

Enjoy the weekend!

Morning Coffee in China Links

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First blue sky and sun we’ve seen in three days here in Dali. We got our first taste of the cold season here these last few days, and it tasted bitter! While Dali’s winter climate is quite mild, it’s kind of a tough season because there are no central heating systems. We use (terribly inefficient) space heaters and electric blankets and layer up the clothing, but still, for three to four months of a year here you rarely feel warm. It’s usually clear in the winter, so going outside for sun breaks is key to health and well-being. Often, it’s much warmer outside in the sun than inside a building.

Some links from my morning internetting:

  • Talking Points Memo finds a poll with Ben Carson reaching 50% support as first or second choice among Republican primary voters.
  • TPM’s founder Josh Marshall wonders where the outrage is from media platforms and personalities that would be killing Democrats if they decided to boycott Fox News. Republicans are now boycotting NBC because of last week’s CNBC debate, which was awful, but not for the reasons Republicans think.
  • Via his post at Lawyers, Guns and Moneyhere’s Robert Farley’s piece on China’s new submarine capabilities.
  • LGM’s Erik Loomis writes about the mixed blessings of the return of some manufacturing jobs to the US. China is losing its competitive edge in some manufacturing sectors, in part because much of the US has decided through its policies to treat its workers like China treats its workers: bad hours, low wages, and few benefits.
  • Some (kind of) good news for once. Charlie Pierce’s old friend – the Keystone XL pipeline he refers to as “the continent spanning death funnel” – is going to hibernate and hopes to wake up to a Republican president in a year’s time.

Cheers!

Reality Has a Well-Known Liberal Bias, Paul Krugman Edition

Rob Corrdry once told Jon Stewart that “the facts themselves are biased.” By Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America (Rob Corddry Uploaded by maybeMaybeMaybe) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
“Reality has a well-known liberal bias.”  Stephen Colbert’s more famous version of the idea spoken at the 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner. By David Shankbone from USA (Stephen Colbert Uploaded by maybeMaybeMaybe) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Why don’t facts say what we want them to say? Paul Krugman has been on this beat for a long time, notably writing in 2014 about conservatives unable to deal with the fact that the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, was doing what it was designed to do.

Here, Krugman catches The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis compiling pesky facts that show private sector employment during Obama’s presidency has not been the nightmare of Republican fever dreams. In fact, the rate of private sector job growth since the recession hit bottom has been much better than anything we saw under George W. Bush.

Another inconvenient fact Krugman’s been tracking over the years is that inflation has remained extremely low in spite of constant warnings from the Right that hyperinflation is just about to break out or is already happening (to argue that it’s already happening, some have claimed that Obama’s minions at the Bureau of Labor Statistics manipulate its CPI measurement). I mean, we’ve all seen recent spikes in the prices of our Rembrandts and van Goghs, right? Clearly inflation is here!

Krugman reminds us that one proponent of inflation-is-here-to-eat-your-children nonsense is Marco Rubio’s new benefactor Paul Singer. Seriously, Singer believes his anecdotal evidence that real estate prices are up in Manhattan and London and that high-end art is more expensive these days means that the Consumer Price Index (CPI) must be understated. Yes, that’s right, clearly the CPI that measures the things we mere peasants consume, like food and gas, must be wrong because Paul Singer once saw an expensive apartment for sale in the Upper West Side.

(General explanation of the concept of liberal bias here. Corddry quote found here and Colbert quote here.)

Weekend Links

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Stopped for a bottle of water on my way to work this morning. That’s my bike in the foreground and Dali University at the foot of the mountains. The light is really striking between sunrise a little after 7 am and the time this photo was taken, about 7:45 am. This photo doesn’t really do it justice.

Teaching today and tomorrow, so I might not get around to another full post this week. Some links:

  • First, some self-promotion. Here’s a link to something I wrote this week. It’s my longest essay and I think my best one so far. I tried to explain the leadership crisis in the House and why it’s kind of a big deal, both historically and for the country’s current well-being.
  • Hillary Clinton testified yesterday and it was basically an unpaid advertisement for her presidential candidacy. Seriously, when is the GOP going to realize that angry old white men yelling at a woman who’s much smarter and more dignified than they are is not a good look?
  • Not sure how the author managed to write this piece with his lips so firmly attached to Paul Ryan’s ass, but it’s good to check in sometimes and see what narratives the Right constructs about its heroes.
  • Let’s check in on the state of the presidential primaries. Things are still looking bad for the Republican establishment. Click this link and marvel at the awfulness of Jeb Bush’s trend line. Somehow, JEB! is actually worse than his brother. If you don’t feel like looking at the polls, here’s a quick summary: non-establishment types (in order of support: Trump, Carson, Cruz, and Huckabee) combine for 60.4%. The leading establishment candidate is Rubio, sitting in third place overall with 9.2%, but that’s dwarfed by Trump’s 27.2% and Carson’s 21.4%. Bush’s 7.2% is good enough for fifth place overall.
  • No real reason to check in on the Democratic side, with Biden deciding not to run and Webb and Chafee dropping out. Most polls have included Biden even though he has never officially been in the race, and he has been polling around 15% or better recently. So that totally skews things. And polls coming out next week ought to take in the full impact of the Democrats’ debate. I’ll be very curious to see if Clinton pulls ahead in any significant way in the early states of Iowa (where she’s been leading most of the time) and New Hampshire (where she’s actually been running behind since the beginning of September). I expect Clinton to see bumps in her numbers across the board. Much of the mainstream media believed its own breathless reporting on Clinton’s pseudo-scandals, and they’ve been making up for it with “comeback” narratives in the wake of the debate.
  • Looking forward to the second part of this conversation between President Obama and author Marilynne Robinson.
  • Drew Magary on the perennial uselessness of rooting for the Washington Racial Slurs.
  • What did I do with the remainder of Steve’s Artisanal Reduced Carbon Footprint Pesto? See the photo below.

Have a great weekend!

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Pepperoni and Pesto Biscuits. Really, really good! Click the link for the biscuit recipe: http://allrecipes.com/recipe/7040/jps-big-daddy-biscuits/

How Not to Govern in America

Yes, John, I’m still the president. No, John, I won’t sign a bill repealing all of the Democratic Party’s achievements. (Pete Souza [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
John Boehner’s decision to resign as Speaker later next month can help explain why the Republican Party in its current state is incapable of governing. As Jonathan Chait points out, Boehner resigned/was ousted because of extremely unrealistic expectations that he would, or could, force Obama to cave to conservative demands.

The story here is quite simple. Obama won a decisive election in 2008 and enjoyed unified Democratic control of Congress when sworn in as President in January 2009. Obama and Democrats in the Senate and the House managed to pass several important laws, including the momentous Affordable Care Act, without any meaningful cooperation from the Republican minority. The Republican minority managed to stifle several other important bills by abusing the filibuster.

The midterm election of 2010 featured a much whiter and older electorate than that of 2008, and Republicans managed to take over the House. The 2010 election ushered in the era in which we currently live, where no meaningful legislation gets passed, and Republicans repeatedly threaten to shut down the government over whatever is their pet issue of the day.

What’s the point here? Republicans accept election results when they win, and ignore them when they lose. They refuse to compromise in any way whether they’ve won or lost an election. If they’ve won, they insist that their opponents accede to all of their demands. If they’ve lost, they refuse to negotiate, then whine like hell when Democrats actually manage to pass something without their help. This is no way to approach governance, especially in a country with our particular system of government.

The modern Republican Party, or at least its conservative base, does not seem to understand the structure of the American political system. There is a deliberate separation of powers when it comes to lawmaking. No bill becomes law without being passed by both houses of Congress and without receiving the president’s signature, unless, of course, both houses of Congress pass the law and can override the president’s veto with two-thirds majorities in both houses. So, a party that refuses to compromise with the other but wants to enact laws must either a) hold majorities in both houses of Congress and the presidency, or b) hold two-thirds majorities in both houses of Congress that are willing to override a president’s veto. There is no other way to enact laws in our system of government other than the two just mentioned.

At no point since Obama’s inauguration in 2009 has the Republican Party met either condition. Yet its members refuse to compromise. This is why Boehner repeatedly had to go to House Democrats, hat in hand, begging for the votes needed to pass routine spending legislation. Boehner, because he’s human, is tired of these repeated humiliations.

Well, what’s so crazy about a party winning a significant congressional majority in an election and then demanding a say in legislation? Nothing’s wrong with that, as long as the party is willing to compromise. Here’s what has happened instead.

The 2010 election-winning Republicans triumphantly declared themselves to have a mandate, because the people had spoken, and they claimed the people had said loudly and clearly that they wanted the Affordable Care Act (aka the ACA or Obamacare) repealed and the deficit reduced via spending cuts. Regarding the ACA, obviously, this was a maximal position. Republicans didn’t want to tweak the ACA, and they didn’t want to repeal it and replace it with a different version. They wanted to repeal it, period.

Imagine you are the president and your name is Obama and you are presented with a bill that repeals the law that has become known as Obamacare and you believe that this bill has helped a lot of people (full disclosure: my wife and I now have health insurance thanks to Obamacare). Would you ask, “Where do I sign?” Of course not. And to make matters worse, Democrats still controlled the Senate, and they sure as hell were not going to pass a bill repealing Obamacare.

The 2011 budget negotiations aimed at reducing the deficit is an even better example of Republican intransigence. Boehner had negotiated with Obama a budget leaning heavily on spending cuts to cherished Democratic programs. Obama insisted on including some measures that would raise revenue. Obama knew he couldn’t get the Senate, still under Democratic control, to pass this budget without at least some new revenue. But Republican hardliners refused to accept even this small compromise to their anti-tax agenda, essentially telling Obama that he would either have to accept the Republican budget agenda in its entirety (and in this fantasy land scenario somehow the Senate would accept this as well) or nothing would pass.

Obama said no thanks, and Boehner had to pass a very different budget with the help of Democratic votes. To be fair, this budget was still terrible from a Democrat’s point of view (as evidenced by only half of Democratic House members being willing to vote for it). In the end, though, conservative Republicans’ refusal to compromise backfired and robbed them of their one real opportunity to get a Democratic president to cover their asses and sign a bill cutting spending from Social Security and other important programs.

Now, back to the idea of a mandate. The Republicans did indeed win a landslide election in 2010 and took over the House. This was all the evidence they needed to claim the American people had spoken and that the Republican Party’s agenda should be adopted in its entirety. Again, though, imagine you were Obama or a Senate Democrat. Wait a minute, you would’ve thought, I’m still president and my party still controls the Senate. And wait another minute. Sure, Republicans just scored an impressive victory, but the America that came out to vote in 2010 looked a lot different from the one that swept us to power in 2008. (This is a long-standing phenomenon in which presidential election year electorates skew younger and towards more minority participation, while off presidential election years skew whiter and older). So if you were Obama or a Senate Democrat at this time, you would’ve been wondering why, exactly, you need to dismantle your own programs.

Of course, Obama won reelection overwhelmingly in 2012, giving the lie to Republican mandate claims. Actually, mandate claims by either party are always nonsense. Obama could’ve won every single state in 2012, claimed a mandate, and then still he would’ve confronted a Republican-controlled House with no intentions whatsoever of cooperating on his agenda.

This is why the Republican Party needs to change, or go the way of the Whigs. It is no longer a party interested in governing. Governing in the American political system means making compromises. Today’s Republican Party thinks compromise means “give us everything we want and you get nothing or we will shut down the government.” That’s not compromise. That’s this.