Why Flynn matters

You know, if I could only read one person these days, I think it would be David Frum. He’s been so good.  Here is on why Flynn is a big deal:

Nobody would care if an incoming national security adviser had confidential conversations with an ambassador of a hostile foreign government before Inauguration Day, if it were believed that the conversations served a legitimate and disinterested public purpose.

But that is exactly what is doubted in this case.

To put the story in simplest terms:

1) Russian spies hacked Democratic Party communications in order to help elect Donald Trump.

2) Donald Trump welcomed the help, used it, publicly solicited more of it—and was then elected president of the United States.

3) President Obama sanctioned Russia for its pro-Trump espionage.

4) While Russia considered its response, its ambassador spoke with the national security adviser-designate about the sanctions

5) The adviser, Flynn, reportedly asked Russia not to overreact, signaling that the new administration would review the sanctions; Russia did not respond.

6) As president-elect and then president, Donald Trump has indicated that he seeks to lift precisely those sanctions caused by Russia’s espionage work on his behalf.

All of this takes place against the background of Donald Trump’s seeming determination to align U.S. foreign policy ever closer to Russia’s: endorsing the annexation of Crimea, supporting Russia’s war aims in Syria, casting doubt on the U.S. guarantee to NATO allies, cheering on the breakup of the European Union…

The question is whether a senior American official was compromised by his relationship with a foreign government. And, even more troublingly: Are there others? And even more urgently: How high up the chain of command does Russia’s influence go?

Oh, I think we know the answer to that last question.  Just need the smoking gun.

Is repeal dead?

No, maybe not on life support.  But you could make a good case it’s in intensive care.  The Freedom Caucus seriously just upped the stakes– and the likelihood of total failure on repeal (these are the members of Congress who’s parents never taught them “half a loaf…”).  From HuffPo:

Conservatives in the House Freedom Caucus voted among themselves Monday night to band together and support only an Obamacare repeal that is at least as aggressive as a bill the House and Senate passed in 2015, putting GOP leaders in a bind with their conference and perhaps even threatening the possibility of passing a repeal.

The group of roughly 35 to 40 House conservatives voted to take this official position ― meaning it received the support of at least 80 percent of the members and is therefore supposed to be the position of all lawmakers in the group ― amid some GOP consternation that Republicans ought to focus more on repairing the law rather than repealing it, as well as amid heavy voter pressure in many districts to leave the law intact.

“If it’s less than the 2015 [bill], we will oppose it,” Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) told a small group of reporters Monday night…

The 2015 repeal bill removed the Medicaid expansion that is popular in many red states ― including among many Republican governors ― and repealed the individual and employer mandates. The bill also removed the law’s subsidies and the taxes that helped to pay for them. In short, it would disassemble Obamacare.

By insisting that the repeal bill be as forceful as that 2015 measure ― which technically got to President Barack Obama’s desk at the beginning of 2016 ― conservatives have staked out a hard line that some GOP moderates may now have a problem following. [emphasis mine]

Ummmm, yep.  For “moderates” (a misnomer, more like “non-extreme conservatives”) that don’t actually want millions of people stripped of health care and dying in the streets, a full-on repeal with no replacement is a no-go.  I would imagine there’s not close to 50 Senate votes for this in the real world.

Alas, here’s the thing, the Freedom Caucus is not in the real world:

They noted Monday night that Republicans had already voted on the 2015 repeal ― at least the ones who were here last Congress ― and they believe it would be hypocritical for Republicans to balk at the plan they supported a year ago.

“They voted for it already, so, be consistent,” Freedom Caucus member Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) said.

WTF??!!  Are these guys in third grade?  They might as well be.  It’s really not a hard concept to separate “symbolism” from “actual legislation.”  With Obama as president, a repeal vote is symbolism, and nothing more.  Stupid symbolism catering to the worst elements of the Republican base, but clearly just sybolism.  And, now, to pretend, heaven forbid legislators should think differently when their votes are actually making policy, as they surely are under a Republican president?  Gimme a break.

Maybe there’s room for some sort of compromise somewhere among Republicans.  But if the Freedom Caucus keeps this up, we’ll be able to thank them for saving Obamacare.

American Pravda

Since I get most of my news from the NYT and WP, I sometimes like to see how big stories, like Flynn and broader Trump/Russia stories today, are getting played in other media.  Quite appropriately, CNN and USA Today have serious coverage of Flynn and Trump administration dysfunction on the matter.  Fox, not so much.  I went to their homepage and searched on Flynn.  Pretty much everything that came up (including that beyond the top scroll on my screen) was apologia or only the most mildly negative.


As much as the genuinely unfair and distorted coverage of the Obama administration was wrong and annoying, this is so much worse.  This is hardly different from Pravda under Stalin.  Fortunately, unlike the Soviets, we also get real news.  But damn!

The truth about ending “mass incarceration”

Yes, we have too many people in prisons.  Yes, we have too many non-violent drug offenders in prisons.  But, we cannot solve our mass incarceration problem simply by releasing all the non-violent drug offenders.  The simple truth is that we have to massively re-think how we deal with violent criminals if we want to make a serious dent (and we sure as hell need to).  Nice summary of the latest work from Criminologist John Pfaff in a recent Wonkblog post.

Consistent with Pfaff’s analysis, drug crime convictions account for the incarceration of fewer than 1 in 6 state prison inmates. Also, drug offenses don’t contribute to the appalling racial disparities in imprisonment. The white rate of being sentenced for drug crimes (15 percent) is actually slightly higher than that for blacks (14.9 percent) and Hispanics (14.6 percent). Reducing sentences for nonviolent drug criminals would thus not only have a small impact on mass incarceration, it could also worsen racial disparities in imprisonment rates.

 In contrast, and again consistent with Pfaff’s thesis, violent offenses explain the majority of mass imprisonment. They also drive racial disparities in imprisonment because the rate for whites (46.6 percent) is significantly lower than that for blacks (57.8 percent) and Hispanics (58.7 percent).

Given the outsize role of violent crime in mass imprisonment, what should be done about it?  Pfaff favors “cutting long sentences for people convicted of violence, even for those with extensive criminal histories, since almost everyone starts aging out of crime by their 30s.” He also advocates for relying less on prison altogether and expanding community-based anti-violence programs that have strong evidence of preventing violence in the first place.

Even better, is Pfaff’s own piece in the WSJ:

There is an obvious rejoinder, of course: Don’t we need to keep people convicted of violence locked up for long periods? Isn’t this how we have kept the crime rate down for so long?

The answer to both of those questions is, “No, not likely.” Simply put, long prison sentences provide neither the deterrence nor the incapacitation effects that their proponents suggest. (There may be moral arguments for long sentences, but that is a separate issue from public safety.)

Consider deterrence. It seems logical that long sentences would scare people away from committing crimes. But a long line of studies makes it clear that longer sentences don’t really deter would-be criminals. Those contemplating crime often don’t know how long sentences are, or even that sentences have gotten longer.

More important, those who are most likely to engage in violence and antisocial behavior tend to be very present-minded. They don’t think a lot about tomorrow. What really deters them, if anything does, is the risk of getting caught in the first place: policing and arrests, not prison sentences.

But our policies generally get this backward, emphasizing punishment over police work. Even as states have passed tougher and tougher sentencing laws, the rates for solving crimes have remained low, even for serious offenses. In 2015, around 60% of murders resulted in an arrest (down from over 80% in 1970). Police made arrests in only half of all serious assaults that year, and in about a third of all robberies and forcible rapes.

Even if longer sentences don’t deter, however, perhaps they are effective at incapacitating people who pose serious risks? At one level, this is inarguably true: As long as someone is in prison, he cannot hurt someone else (at least no one outside of prison).

But if incapacitation is the goal, our policies should detain someone only as long as necessary but no longer. The U.S. spends about $200 billion a year on criminal justice and about $80 billion just on corrections. There are real costs to keeping people locked up too long and admitting too many people to prison in the first place.

“Violent offender” is a common term in the criminal-justice debate, but it points to a deep problem in how we approach incapacitation. Calling someone convicted of a violent crime a “violent offender” suggests that this identity is who he is: He is a violent person. But, with very few exceptions, this is incorrect.

Violence is a phase, not a state. People age into violent behavior and age out of it: A 24-year-old is more violent than a 7-year-old or a 60-year-old. It’s true that some people are more prone to violence than their peers, but almost everyone exhibits some sort of bell-curved trajectory of violence over their lives. Young men are simply more prone to violence than any other demographic group.

It is almost impossible, however, to predict how violent a young person will be in the future. Imposing harsh sanctions for a first violent act needlessly detains many people who are not serious future risks. In addition — and somewhat counterintuitively — by the time a person in his 30s has generated a long criminal history suggesting that he poses a continuing risk, he is likely to have started “aging out” of crime, violent behavior in particular.

A prominent study of hundreds of at-risk men that tracked their behavior from ages 7 to 70, for example, found that most started to engage in crime in their late teens and began to stop in their mid to late 20s. Only about 10% continued to offend consistently into their 30s, and only about 3% did so at high rates.

My previous optimism about genuine progress in criminal justice reform is strongly tempered by having a couple of “law and order” morons like Trump and Sessions in charge, but, at least it’s pretty damn clear what we need to do.  Of course, it’s been clear we need to re-think the “war on drugs” for a long time and there’s been precious little progress on that.

“A lie ain’t a side of a story. It’s just a lie.”

This tweet from notorious xenophobe Chris Kobach has been earning a lot of appropriate derision:

No, no, no!  What Kobach is doing is make an appeal to the lowest-common-denominator form of “he said, she said” journalism.  The whole reason to watch CNN or read a newspaper is to get some meaningful grasp on objective reality.  And the objective reality could not be more clear– Kobach is being dishonest.  The CNN viewer does not have time to investigate Kobach’s (and Trump’s) claims.  They have jobs to do, kids to take care of, etc.  It is, in fact, CNN’s job to do this.   And they have investigated, and rightly determined that Trump and Kobach are lying.  And it’s their responsibility as journalists to report that to the public.

Or, as my favorite “The Wire” epigraph ever put it, “A lie ain’t a side of a story.  It’s just a lie.”

What are we fighting for?

What heroism really is.  Phil Klay wrote easily the best book about the Iraq War I’ve read (and I’ve read a lot), and easily the best story collection I’ve ever read (to  be clear, these are one in the same).  Not surprisingly, his NYT essay on the moral costs of war and the true meaning of heroism is terrific.  Trust me and read it.

From our founding we have made these kinds of moral demands of our soldiers. It starts with the oath they swear to support and defend the Constitution, an oath made not to a flag, or to a piece of ground, or to an ethnically distinct people, but to a set of principles established in our founding documents. An oath that demands a commitment to democracy, to liberty, to the rule of law and to the self-evident equality of all men. The Marines I knew fought, and some of them died, for these principles. [emphases mine]

That’s why those Marines were trained to care for their enemy. That’s why another Marine gave his own blood to an insurgent. Because America is an idea as much as a country, and so those acts defend America as surely as any act of violence, because they embody that idea. That nurse, in the quiet, alone with that insurgent, with no one looking as he cared for his patient. That was an act of war…

If we choose to believe in a morally diminished America, an America that pursues its narrow selfish interests and no more, we can take that course and see how far it gets us. But if we choose to believe that America is not just a set of borders, but a set of principles, we need to act accordingly. That is the only way we ensure that our founding document, and the principles embedded within, are alive enough, and honorable enough, to be worth fighting for.

Roe v. Wade reality

While Americans are relatively evenly split on ambiguous pro-life/pro-choice on abortion, there’s no question that solid majorities support and have supported Roe v. Wade and don’t want to see it overturned.  From Pew:

In fact, the only group that wants to overturn Roe is conservative Republicans:

Of course, the reality is, they are the ones picking the next Supreme Court justice.  If one of the current Roe majority needs to be replaced in the next few years, things get really, really interesting.

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