Quick hits (part II)

1) I hope EMG is reading this, because this story about how there are simply too many wild Mustangs in the American west and the solution is to allow mountain lions to eat them reminds me of one of my favorite student papers ever, “they shoot horses, don’t they?”

Nearly all wild horses live in the Great Basin of Nevada and surrounding states, in some of the most forbidding land in America. Congress began protecting the herds from slaughter in 1971. Ever since, the bureau has overseen them and has managed the population like an uber-rancher. The bureau rounds up thousands by helicopter each year, literally putting them out to pasture, on confined tracts to try to keep the wild numbers steady.

It doesn’t really work. Because the bureau has always seen the horses as livestock, not wildlife, it has never tried to understand the mustang’s place in the Western ecosystem, or tried to take advantage of the ancient relationship between the horse and its main predator, the mountain lion.

That’s a loss. There are valleys in the West where herds don’t increase because they are kept in check by the big cats. This natural management is not only free and sustainable, but also ensures that wild horses remain as they should — wild. Despite this evidence, the bureau has said repeatedly that wild horses have “no natural predators.”

2) Maybe America is too big to govern effectively (maybe, but I suspect other aspects of our system of government present larger problems):

In fact, large nations turn out to have what the political scientist Pippa Norris has called “democratic deficits”: They don’t fully satisfy their citizens’ demands for democracy. For one thing, citizens in large nations are generally less involved in politics and feel they have less of a voice. Voter turnout is lower. According to the political scientist Karen Remmer, smaller-scale political entities encourage voting in ways large ones can’t by “creating a sense of community” and “enforcing norms of citizenship responsibility.” In addition, small countries promote political involvement by leaning heavily on forms of direct democracy, like referendums or citizen assemblies.

A second problem is political responsiveness: The policies of large nations can be slow to change, even if change is needed and desired. In a book published last year, the sociologists John Campbell and John Hall compared the reactions to the 2007-2008 financial crisis in Denmark, Ireland and Switzerland. These three small countries didn’t cause the crisis; a homegrown Irish housing bubble notwithstanding, the shock wave they dealt with came from America. But though the countries were economically vulnerable, Mr. Campbell and Mr. Hall observed, this vulnerability fostered unexpected resilience and creativity, generating in each nation “a sense of solidarity or ‘we-ness’” that brought together politicians, regulators and bankers eager to do whatever was necessary to calm markets.

3) Like this Vox essay arguing that liberals need to get over Citizens United.  There’s plenty that we can do to improve finance, we just need to do it.

4) Really interesting idea that the breakdown of democracies is seeded within their constitutions:

But this erosion of democratic norms is ultimately driven by deeper factors. In many democracies, the roots of breakdown reside in democratic constitutions themselves.

Over two-thirds of countries that have transitioned to democracy since World War II have done so under constitutions written by the outgoing authoritarian regime. Prominent examples include Argentina, Chile, Kenya, Mexico, Nigeria, South Africa and South Korea. Even some of the world’s early democracies, such as the Netherlands and Sweden, were marred by deep authoritarian legacies. Democratic institutions are frequently designed by the outgoing authoritarian regime to safeguard incumbent elites from the rule of law and give them a leg up in politics and economic competition after democratization.

The constitutional tools that outgoing authoritarian elites use to accomplish these ends include factors like electoral system design, legislative appointments, federalism, legal immunities, the role of the military in politics and constitutional tribunal design. In short, with the allocation of power and privilege, and the lived experiences of citizens, democracy often does not restart the political game after displacing authoritarianism.

Furthermore, barriers to changing the social contract in countries that inherit constitutions from a previous authoritarian regime are steep. These constitutions often contain provisions requiring supermajority thresholds for change. And elites from the authoritarian past who benefit from these constitutions utilize their power to pass policies that further entrench their privileges.

5) James Hohman on why McCain opposes Gina Haspel and why it’s important:

— What precisely are the “values” McCain is referring to? Whatever might have resembled a national consensus on that question has eroded these past few years. That’s why giving definition to something seemingly as anodyne as “American values” became a flash point during Haspel’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

“I believe very strongly in American values and America being an example to the rest of the world. That is why I support the fact that we have chosen to hold ourselves to a stricter moral standard,” Haspel said. “My moral compass is strong. … My parents raised me right. I know the difference between right and wrong. … I would not allow CIA to undertake activity that is immoral, even if it is technically legal.”

— But every time Haspel was asked to elaborate about the “stricter moral standard” she said she supports, the 33-year agency veteran leaned on the letter of the law like a crutch. Haspel promised she would not revive the CIA’s interrogation program, even if ordered by Trump, because she “fully” supports the current “standards for detainee treatment required by law.”

The Republican-controlled Congress passed an amendment to the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act, quarterbacked by McCain, which limited interrogation techniques to those contained in the Army Field Manual 2-22.3. That version explicitly rejected practices such as waterboarding, forcing detainees to pose in a sexual manner and placing hoods or sacks over the heads of detainees…

— One of the reasons America is great is her historic willingness to reckon with the sins of the past. In 2014, the Senate Intelligence Committee released a detailed report, much of which remains classified, that concluded the techniques used by the CIA were neither useful nor legitimate.

But most Republican members of the intelligence committee were eager to avoid any discussion about the appropriateness of the U.S. government’s conduct during the aughts. “We shouldn’t be talking about what happened 17 years ago,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). “We should be talking about what’s going to happen 17 weeks or 17 days from now.”

6) Really interesting take on the connection between sports and 9/11 has ultimately led to more political division on sports:

In my mind, though, all that cannot be decoupled from what Sept. 11 has done to sports. What was once ostensibly a unifying moment in the country has helped transform sports, with flags and flyovers, kneeling and protests — into the most divided public spectacle this side of Congress…

But it also changed how sports were sold, packaged, perceived and marketed. In ballparks across America, in every sport, sports was a healing balm for a broken country. Particularly in New York during those early years after Sept. 11, Americans could look at one another and feel everything was going to be all right, could mourn the 343 firemen killedduring the attacks, the 37 Port Authority personnel and the 23 New York City police officers, and thank the ones who survived — but also get angry, and demand revenge on their attackers and obedience from their countrymen…

The veterans said that they are grateful that it looks like Americans care about them. But they are also resentful of being used as shields to prevent any criticism of the country or the military. The soldiers know they serve so Americans can speak their minds, not be cowed into obedience.

They also don’t want to throw out the first pitch nearly as much as they want jobs and the Department of Veterans Affairs fixed.

7) Amazing tempest in a coffee in vegan muffin at Duke University.  Honestly, this has become a way overblown racial matter simply because the Duke VP who oversees dining establishments wants to make sure they are not playing profanity-laced music in Duke dining establishments.

8) Yglesias on how Stormy Daniels and Michael Cohen are crowding out the Democrats’ message:

In concrete terms, the problem with the Daniels issue for Democrats is it doesn’t really add anything to what everyone already thinks about Trump. People who stuck with a thrice-married birther who claimed Hillary Clinton literally founded ISIS through the “grab ’em by the pussy” controversy aren’t about to be suddenly scandalized by the news that he engaged in some legally questionable tactics to cover up an affair with a porn actress. It’s wrong to say that the carnival aspects of the Trump Show don’t do him any harm — his approval ratings remain underwater despite healthy economic conditions — but it’s hard for the circus to hurt him more at the margin given everything that’s already happened.

Democratic Party leaders, for exactly this reason, aren’t talking about Daniels; they’re talking about issues they think can cut into Trump’s base and/or improve their own image among voters. But they’re having a hard time breaking through.

9) Drum on the decline of Evangelicals and their political backlash:

The first decade of the 21st century was a tough one for evangelical Protestants. Their numbers fell, their political influence waned, their most popular leaders died off or retired, and they got badly crushed on the issue of gay rights and gay marriage. By 2012 the movement was in pretty sorry shape, and it only got worse after Obergefell.

Then Donald Trump came along and threw them a lifeline. Sure, he was a philanderer, a faker, a liar, an avatar of mammon, and very plainly not a religious man himself. But Trump made evangelicals the same offer he makes with everyone: he’d adopt their causes as his own and fight for them publicly, but only in return for unconditional public support. Maybe it was a devil’s bargain, but they took it. If you had lost 20 percent of your followers in the past decade and watched helplessly as modern culture steamrolled nearly everything you believe in, you might have too.

10) EJ Dionne, “We know a lot about Trump’s misdeeds. But most of all we know there’s more to come.”

Yes, there is much more to learn here, and we know by now never to assume that any development in this saga can be seen as the beginning of the end. We have no idea yet how this story will end or who, except perhaps for Mueller, will write its conclusion.

But we know enough to conclude that (1) the Russia connection to Trump World runs very deep, and Mueller is no doubt exploring its many tributaries; (2) if Trump is profoundly altering Washington, it is to make the most old-fashioned forms of influence-peddling more common and more blatant; (3) we need to figure out if any of the money sloshing around has found its way to Trump; and (4) Trump will play as fast and loose with fundamental changes in policy as he does with ethics and the truth.

 All four are worrying. The last is also scary.

11) A baby translator than can also help diagnose autism!

12) Bari Weiss‘ NYT piece on “The Intellectual Dark Web” was all the rage this week.  Saletan’s take.

13) Found this Politico take on liberal turned seemingly-endless Trump apologist, Alan Dershowitz, really interesting.  Whereas this piece helps Dershowitz come off as more than just an intellectual hired-gun looking to cash in, honestly, he has a huge intellectual blind-spot by failing to appreciate the context of his commentary as funneled through Fox News.

14) Hey fish, think you safe from birds under the water?  Not so much.  Awesome video here.

15) Ezra Klein with the case for optimism in today’s must-read piece:

The triumphant story we tell about American history can obscure both the extent of our progress and the fragility of our consensus. To see what we are, or what we may become, requires clarity about what we have been. And what we have been is violent, disordered, undemocratic, and illiberal on a scale far beyond anything the United States is undergoing today.

You do not need to go back to the country’s early years — when new arrivals from Europe drove out the Native Americans, brought over millions of enslaved Africans, and wrote laws making women second-class citizens — to see it.

Just a few decades ago, political assassinations were routine. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy was murdered on the streets of Dallas. In 1965, Malcolm X was shot to death in a crowded New York City ballroom. In 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, as was Robert F. Kennedy. In 1975, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, standing about arm’s length from President Gerald Ford, aimed her gun and fired; the bullet failed to discharge. Harvey Milk, the pioneering gay San Francisco city supervisor, was killed in 1978. President Ronald Reagan was shot in 1981; the bullet shattered a rib and punctured a lung.

For much of the 20th century, the right to vote was, for African Americans, no right at all. Lynchings were common. Freedom Riders were brutally beaten across the American South. National Guard members fired on, and killed, student protesters at Kent State. Police had to escort young African-American children into schools as jeering crowds shouted racial epithets and threatened to attack…

During this era, there were regions of America that arguably weren’t democratic at all. In his book Paths Out of Dixie, Robert Mickey argues convincingly that much of the American South was under one-party authoritarian rule until the mid-20th century. It was only “with the abolition of the whites-only Democratic primary in 1944 and continuing up through the national party reforms of the early 1970s” that the South — and thus America — actually democratized.

This is not a counterintuitive take on American history, by the way. Among experts, it is closer to the consensus. The Varieties of Democracy project, which has been surveying experts on the state of global democracies since 1900, gave the US political system a 48 on a 1-100 scale in 1945 and a 59 in 1965. It was only after the civil rights movement that America began scoring in the 70s and 80s, marking it as a largely successful democracy.

The era that we often hold up as the golden age of American democracy was far less democratic, far less liberal, far less decent, than today. Trump’s most intemperate outbursts, his most indecent musings, pale before opinions that were mainstream in living memory. And the institutions of American politics today are a vast improvement on the regimes that ruled well within living memory. [emphasis mine]

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