Quick hits (part I)

1) Stupid and petty sum up so much of the Trump administration.  In this case, what they’ve done to the USDA, “The White House didn’t like my agency’s research. So it sent us to Missouri.: The administration claimed the move would cut costs. Now, two-thirds of our desks sit empty.”

I joined the Economic Research Service (ERS) in 2016. I wanted to use my academic training to do something in the public interest — I didn’t really expect to get involved in agriculture. Then I got absorbed in the subject: Humanity’s dependence on the environment is made explicit through our food systems; without the right combination of weather, soil and labor, nobody eats.

Most people don’t need to think frequently, or ever, about the economics of honeybee pollination routes or the cost of the Federal Crop Insurance Program. But if they eat almonds (which are pollinated by bees) or pay taxes (which subsidize farm insurance), they need experts to make sure that food systems work efficiently and public funds are spent effectively. At ERS, we studied all aspects of food production, occupying an obscure but important niche: Many of our research topics wouldn’t make for an exciting academic tenure file, but had huge implications for policy.

Out of the blue, in August 2018, agriculture secretary George “Sonny” Perdue announced that my agency and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture would relocate from Washington, D.C., to some yet-to-be-determined location. He claimed that this would lower costs and bring us closer to “stakeholders.” That stated justification was a fig leaf for the administration’s true intentions. We didn’t need to sit next to a corn field to analyze agricultural policy, and Perdue knew that. He wanted researchers to quit their jobs…

All the people who study genetically modified organisms left. The team that studies patent law and innovation is gone. Experts on trade and international development, farm finance and taxes all left. Many people transferred to other agencies in USDA, where they’ll help implement programs, but will no longer have a mandate to produce the essential research that’s needed for sound policymaking. Because the publishing staff all left, dozens of reports on subjects from veterans’ diets to organic foods are delayed. Projects that have been years in the making, studying issues from honeybees to potentially harmful herbicides, will never see the light of day…

The agency never has a perfectly smooth relationship with any White House: Its studies have contradicted rationales for policy ideas ranging from like biofuels to farm subsidies. But the Trump administration seems singularly, openly opposed to our basic existence. They can’t tolerate it when scientists present hard truths they don’t like. And now, if lawmakers want to know about, say, the effects of tariffs on the broiler chicken industry, or the impact of farm conservation payments on the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico — something obscure, but which can mean millions of dollars and thousands of jobs — they’ll be operating in the dark.

This is so stupid.  And harmful.  And Trumpian.

2) Meanwhile, when it comes to Russia and our elections, ”

Nearly six months later, and to almost no fanfare last week while Congress was in recess, the Senate Intelligence Committee released the second of two installments of its own bipartisan investigation into roughly the same topic. The slim, 85-page report reads like a Russian spy novel crossed with a sequel to Orwell’s most dystopian version of the future — right down to an interview with a paid Russian troll who said his experience in 2016, pitting American voters against each other with social media platforms of their own making, was like being “a character in the book ‘1984’ by George Orwell — a place where you have to write that white is black and black is white.”

Unlike Mueller, who seemed to take great pains not to point fingers and softened his recommendations, the Intelligence Committee, led by Chairman Richard Burr and Vice Chairman Mark Warner, put its warnings in the starkest possible terms. First, the Russians deliberately attacked American voters with an active measures campaign in 2016 to benefit Donald Trump and destroy Hillary Clinton. On the morning after Election Day, a former troll told the committee, exhausted hackers in St. Petersburg, Russia, uncorked tiny of champagne. They looked into each other’s eyes. “We uttered almost in unison: ‘We made America great.’”

Because of Russia’s success, the committee also warned that China, North Korea, Iran and other malicious actors are activiely studying what Americans fell for (nearly everything) in order to use even more sophisticated techniques in 2020 — including at this very moment. And finally, the committee made clear that Americans themselves need to both wake up and smarten up. Only by being more sophisticated and intelligent social media users will voters truly protect themselves and our elections in the years to come.

3) From a Canadian, this is good, “Democracy is threatened by the dictatorship of geography.”

There are two paths to political power in a democracy. You can go for demography – that is, appeal to the interests and beliefs of the largest group of people, and win their votes. Or you can win through geography – that is, by ignoring most of the population by focusing on securing the many constituencies that have hardly anyone living in them. If your ideas are offensive to the majority, you can still stake your victory on the swaths of land between the places where most people live.

At the moment, across large parts of the democratic world, the politics of geography are triumphing over the politics of demography.

This is happening most infamously in the United States, where both the presidency and the Senate can be won by securing a majority of the tracts of land rather than a majority of the people – a fact that the faction of the Republican Party now associated with U.S. President Donald Trump has manipulated like nobody before. A strong majority of the American people hold liberal, racially tolerant and international-minded views; this majority’s interests and voices have been silenced by the dictatorship of geography…

This is not just an American problem. In Europe, fringe parties of intolerance have gained a strong foothold – and in some cases a parliamentary majority – by turning into parties of geography. The strong showing in October’s national election by the extreme-right Alternative for Germany was largely a result of its appeal to the sparse and depopulated regions of former communist East Germany. Poland’s Law and Justice Party governs with a parliamentary majority after it turned nationalist and xenophobic in order to appeal more to rural areas. France’s National Front made it to the first round of presidential elections by working the politics of geography.

4) The Softbank/Wework stuff is really just crazy.  Softbank literally blew billions on this house of cards.  Just goes to show that even super-rich people with billions of dollars at their disposal can be really stupid.

5) “The long fight over using student IDs to vote in North Carolina.”

6) Marty Lederman and Ben Wittes on Trump and impeachment:

The boundaries of acceptable presidential behavior are defined by which actions the political system tolerates or condemns. Impeachment by the House and conviction in the Senate would be the most powerful congressional rejection of Trump’s conduct. Even if the House impeaches, however, the number of senators who are prepared to convict Trump is almost certainly fewer than 67—the number required to remove him from office. Rightly or wrongly, a good number of senators (and some House members, too) will likely argue that, with the campaign season already upon us, Trump’s fate should be left to the electorate.

That’s all the more reason to recognize that impeachment and removal aren’t the only momentous choices Congress now confronts. If a substantial group of members of Congress signals not merely that the president’s conduct does not warrant impeachment and removal but also that it does not even warrant branding as intolerable, such conduct will become normalized—at a great cost to previously unquestioned first principles of constitutional governance—even if the House impeaches Trump.

At a very minimum, the president of the United States urged the president of Ukraine to investigate whether Joe Biden—the person he believed most likely to be his opponent in next year’s election—engaged in misconduct when Biden engaged in diplomatic efforts on behalf of the United States during the Obama administration.

That single, uncontroverted fact—that the president exploited his power as the nation’s chief diplomat to enlist a foreign ally to help advance his own electoral prospects by developing potentially compromising information about a U.S. national—is straightforward, unequivocal, and stunning. In that alone, Trump deviated wildly from his constitutional role and abused his office…

his litany demonstrates beyond any doubt that, as David Kris has written, Trump “used the carrots and sticks of U.S. foreign policy and diplomacy, and at least attempted to use certain counterintelligence and law enforcement tools, to damage a political opponent. This represents a profoundly corrupt misuse of the machinery of government for personal gain.”

It’s important to stress, however, that even without these surrounding circumstances (or even if some of them depend on contested facts), what’s within the four corners of the White House account of the July 25 call, standing alone, reflects a gross abuse of office.

It also easily satisfies the constitutional standards for impeachment. Recent debates about whether Trump violated federal election law are misplaced and trivialize what’s really at stake here. The president’s derelictions are far more profound and more fundamental to the constitutional order than a mere violation of the criminal code.

7) Good stuff from Adam Jentleson, “Why Political Pundits Are Obsessed with Hidden Moderates”

It’s risky to conclude too much from a few polls, but a similar pattern occurred after the last debate. Joe Biden “delivered the kind of performance his supporters have been waiting for,” Dan Balz of the Washington Post wrote. “Moderates strike back on health care,” another analysis concluded. But after that debate, too, the FiveThirtyEight panel showed Warren the clear winner, and then events bore it out: Biden slid in the Economist’s average of polls while Warren surged and Bernie held steady. Biden’s fundraising collapsed, while Warren and Bernie posted massive hauls. Beyond Biden, no other moderates showed any meaningful upward trajectory in polls or fundraising.

So what are the pundits missing? And why do they keep trying to make moderates happen?

The answer has two parts. First, many pundits have incorrectly convinced themselves that Democratic voters harbor a secret passion for a moderate nominee—let’s call it the Hidden Moderates Theory. Second, many are missing that the real distinction in the race is between candidates who are comfortable with wealth and its influence on politics, and those who are not. Those who oppose the influence of wealth on politics are much closer to both public opinion and the American historical mainstream.

8) Greg Sargent:

I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that the temporary closed-door nature of the hearings actually works in favor of Republicans, not against them. It’s the only thing they have left to cast doubt, however absurdly, on the damning information that’s already right there on the record.

And it allows them to convey to the Audience of One — and his followers — that they are fighting the good fight on his behalf, without their self-ascribed effectiveness actually being subject to outside scrutiny.

There’s another layer of absurdity here. Once the transcripts are released or once we get public hearings, it is highly likely that they will not actually show that Republicans have lacerated Taylor’s case.

But for Trump’s most ardent loyalists, this simply won’t matter. If and when publicly revealed testimony does not exonerate Trump, they’ll simply lie to the contrary, and treat the fact of public release as the hook to claim that the Democratic coverup has been exposed, counting on their massive propaganda apparatus to amplify that story line. This is exactly what happened with the Nunes memo — it was a total fiasco, yet Republicans widely pretended it was deeply revelatory.

The story we’ve seen in this whole scandal is that one after another, Trump’s levees are collapsing in the face of successive waves of factual revelations.

9) So, this was quite interesting (thanks EMG): “Most U.S. Dairy Cows Are Descended From Just 2 Bulls. That’s Not Good”

10) David Hopkins on the current impeachment politics:

Unsurprisingly, Republicans would rather discuss the behavior of the Democratic opposition. On Wednesday, a bloc of House conservatives led by Matt Gaetz of Florida disrupted the closed-door witness interviews organized by Democratic commitee chairs by crashing one of the meetings and occupying the hearing room for about five hours. This protest proceeded with the apparent approval of the president and the House Republican leadership; minority whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana was one of the participants. The following day, McConnell and Graham introduced a resolution co-sponsored by most Republican senators accusing House Democrats of violating Trump’s due process rights and granting House Republicans insufficient procedural privileges.

Shifting the subject of debate from Donald Trump to Adam Schiff solves some problems for Republicans. Rather than struggling to justify Trump’s Ukraine policy or to explain away the well-documented concerns of credible witnesses like Fiona Hill and Bill Taylor, Republican members can return to the safer ground of partisan grievance. It also promotes party unity: Republicans may differ considerably among themselves over what they think of Trump, but none of them is predisposed to sympathize with Schiff. And it’s simply more fun to be on offense than on defense, to be firing charges at others rather than trying to swat them away.

Yet there are costs as well. Some of the most common current complaints about the Democrats’ handling of impeachment might become moot as events move along. The two major lines of attack at the moment are that access to witness depositions is restricted to the membership of the relevant House committees and that the House has not voted to authorize an impeachment inquiry. But today’s private sessions will be succeeded by tomorrow’s public hearings, and the House may well vote eventually to formalize the inquiry. By the time that House members actually consider articles of impeachment weeks or months from now, these objections will have lost much of their potency.

And when Republicans focus their energies on making the procedural case against Schiff, they risk failing to invest in disputing the substantive case against Trump—which potentially surrenders a lot of valuable ground to the pro-impeachment side. As one Republican source told CNN, “We can’t defend the substance [so] all we do is talk about process.” But Americans usually don’t care much about process disputes, whatever the merits of these disputes might be. Trump is right to worry that if many of his fellow Republicans are unwilling to confidently assure the public of his innocence, the public may draw the natural conclusion that he must have done something seriously wrong.

11) Really interesting stuff from Yashca Mounk on Boris Johson and Brexit:

Now, Johnson is very much a product of the British establishment that has fallen out of favor. But like Jaroslaw Kaczynski in Poland and Donald Trump in the United States, he has made a name for himself in politics by assailing the pieties of left-liberal orthodoxy. And while the deal he presented to Parliament was little more than May’s hard-won package with copious lipstick smeared on top, the rhetoric he has employed since taking office has been radically different. By unabashedly leaning into populist language and loudly denouncing traditional institutions from Parliament to the Supreme Court, he has shown that he sees Brexit as the beginning, rather than the end, of Britain’s cultural revolution.

Johnson has remade himself—as well as the Conservatives, the oldest political party in the world—in the image of populism.

He depicts the country’s politics as being defined by a clash between two basic forces: On the one hand is an out-of-touch elite that is so beholden to its left-liberal values that it would gladly override the will of British voters. On the other hand are the pure people, who have voted for Brexit in a heroic attempt to put a stop to the elite’s domination of the country. Johnson’s core promise is to help the pure people triumph over the corrupt elite.

12) I cannot remember who, but somebody I respect on twitter just raved about this piece, “This Experiment Has Some Great News for Our Democracy: The idea that our divisions are entrenched and unbridgeable is overstated.”  Consider me skeptical.  Yes, we could do so much better if citizens came together in an open-minded spirit of civil political discussion.  But that’s just not the real world.

The project America in One Room was a national experiment to find out. Over a long weekend in September, we had a scientific sample of 523 registered voters from around the country gather in Dallas. (The event was organized by Helena, a nonpartisan problem-solving institution, By the People Productions and the Center for Deliberative Democracy at Stanford University, and participants were recruited by NORC at the University of Chicago.)

The experiment produced some shocking results. After several days of diverse small group discussions facilitated by moderators and sessions featuring experts and presidential candidates from both parties who answered questions from participants, the percentage saying the system of American democracy w

13) Jonathan Cohn: What Medicare for All would actually mean for the middle class is complicated.

14) So, twice in the past few weeks I learned that Killer Whales are one of the few species other than humans to have menopause.  I cannot remember what podcast I heard this on, but this Smithsonian article from 2015 just popped up in my feed the other day, “After Menopause, Killer Whale Moms Become Pod Leaders: When their reproductive years are done, females take on new roles as wise survival guides.”

15) So this was interesting from Ross Douthat, “‘Watership Down’ and the Crisis of Liberalism.”  I watched the first episode of the Netflix series with my kids, but never felt strong enough about watching the subsequent ones.  Loved the animated film as a kid.  The book… not bad, not as great as many think.

16) Lee Drutman and friends, “Progressive Economic Agenda? Democrats Have Less to Fear on This Front Than They Think.”

Our analysis of data from the 2019 VOTER Survey (Views of the Electorate Research Survey) suggests that when it comes to voter preferences on economic policy, an intra-party debate might miss the point. Why? A progressive economic agenda is broadly popular across parties. This is the key takeaway from our Democracy Fund Voter Study Group Report, On the Money: How Americans’ economic views define — and defy — party lines.

The progressive policies with widespread support across parties include requiring employers to provide paid leave for parents and caretakers (64 percent support, 15 percent oppose); raising the minimum wage (61 percent support, 25 percent oppose); and raising taxes on families with incomes over $200,000 (59 percent support, 30 percent oppose).

Democratic voters’ support for these policies is consistently around 80 percent, regardless of income. In fact, Democrats making over $80,000 want to increase taxes on top-income earners even more so than those making under $40,000.

Perhaps more remarkable, we see that about one in five Republicans hold attitudes toward economic policy that more closely align with those of the average Democrat than Republican.

17) John McWhorter with the linguistic case against emoluments:

Impeachment is no nursery rhyme, and with a matter so pressing, it qualifies as a needless burden that a central term like emolument is so opaque to all but a sliver of us. A caller on Rush Limbaugh’s show asked, “Could you explain this emoluments thing? It sounds like a toothpaste.” No one would ask that if legal experts referred to a constitutional ban on the president accepting any kind of compensation or side benefit from a foreign power; it would seem less a “thing” than a simple concept.

Emolument is a kind of word that should be considered about as relevant to modern life as a flashcube. What matters is what it refers to, and for that discussion we have plenty of readily understandable words—that is, real language.

18) Yeah, I know I’m a white dude and I know there’s still a ton of racism out there, but it also quite possible that a community over-reacted to what was probably one stupid teenager painting a racial epithet on a rock.

19) Relatedly, I strongly agree with this law professor that it is pretty crazy to charge people for a crime for using racial epithets (short of obviously intentionally provocative actions).  “Those College Students Who Used the N-Word Shouldn’t Have Been Arrested: They were guilty of vulgarity and ignorance, but “ridicule” is not a crime.”

20) Somehow, I’m really late to the Schitt’s Creek game, but with Season 5 just coming out, I realized I’d heard enough the last few years that I really need to check it out.  Nine episodes in and so glad I have.  So funny.  Just love that each episode is a 21 minute comedic gem.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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