Another Gold Star Feud

One of themes I keep returning to on Twitter is this:

Yes, the media has it in for Trump and will happily blow up even minor gaffes into major crises. Our entire media-political establishment has gotten twitchy and panicky about everything.

But, good Lord does Trump make it easy for them.

I have no idea what was said on the call between Trump and the family of La David Johnson. A Democratic Congresswoman says he said some dumb things and couldn’t remember the soldier’s name. The family has vaguely confirmed this; the Administration has vaguely denied it. I suspect that the family — like most Gold Star families — would rather keep politics away from their tragedy. If forced, I would guess that Trump tried to say something nice but bungled it — i.e., intended to commend Johnson’s bravery but it came out wrong. And now, being Trump, he’s refusing to let it go.

As I said in my post on empathy, part of the job of the President is to make them feel like their concerns are being listened to. Bill Clinton was probably the best I’ve ever seen at this but most Presidents have at least some ability to look people in the eye and make them feel like they care. Trump is able to speak to people’s fears and prejudices, which is probably why he won. But he can’t speak to their higher aspirations, their hopes, their dreams … or their very real sorrows.

This is who he is. We shouldn’t act surprised anymore.

LIGO Triumphs Again

Boom:

Some 130 million years ago, in a galaxy far away, the smoldering cores of two collapsed stars smashed into each other. The resulting explosion sent a burst of gamma rays streaming through space and rippled the very fabric of the universe.

On Aug. 17, those signals reached Earth — and sparked an astronomy revolution.

The distant collision created a “kilonova,” an astronomical marvel that scientists have never seen before. It was the first cosmic event in history to be witnessed via both traditional optical telescopes, which can observe electromagnetic radiation like gamma rays, and gravitational wave detectors, which sense the wrinkles in space-time produced by distant cataclysms. The detection, which involved thousands of researchers working at more than 70 laboratories and telescopes on every continent, heralds a new era in space research known as “multimessenger astrophysics.”

I was part of one of those 70 observatories. It was a very exciting week and represents one of the seminal discoveries in astrophysics. It’s a great day to be an astronomer.

Update: If you want to know what I sound like, here I am, talking to our local NPR station.

Trump Dumps On Iran

After weeks of hinting at it, Trump finally geeked:

President Donald Trump on Friday threatened to pull out of a deal freezing and reversing Iran’s nuclear program if Congress and US allies do not agree to strengthen it, as he unveiled a tough and comprehensive new policy toward the Islamic Republic.

“As I have said many times, the Iran deal was one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into,” Trump said in a major speech at the White House.

In effect, Trump put the agreement in limbo without killing it off entirely as some backers had feared. But his strategy risks setting off a chain of unpredictable consequences that could end up derailing the deal anyway and eventually raise the risk of war between the US and Iran.

By decertifying the deal, Trump has sent it back to Congress, who can decide to get rid of the deal, remake the deal or send it back to him, at which point he can break it.

A few things to get out of the way: Trump is completely full of shit when he says Iran is violating the deal. The IAEA and every partner in the deal — including the United States — has confirmed that they are in compliance. They had done things we don’t like, such as continuing their missile program. But none of that violates the deal. In fact, the EU has already rejected Trump’s assessment and said they will continue to comply with the deal (EU companies are already doing billions in business with Iran).

Seen in that light, decertifying it like this is pure stupidity. The Iran deal is far from perfect but if we abrogate the deal, that does not restore sanctions. It makes it more likely for Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon as they can now resume nuclear research, knowing it will have no effect on whether the US imposes sanctions or not. It also undermines our attempts to negotiate with North Korea (or any country that decides they want a nuke) because they now know that the US will simply back out of a deal even if they are in compliance. This is why almost everyone within Trump’s Administration opposed this move. But one of the running themes of Trump’s presidency is his hatred of Obama and his determination to undo anything Obama did, whether it was a good idea or a bad one. And so … the deal has to go, no matter what the consequences.

Part of this also goes back to Trump’s deluded belief that he’s a great deal-maker, a reputation that his career and the first nine months of his presidency show to be undeserved. As a businessman, his method of making deals was to stiff contractors and milk companies for money while driving them into bankruptcy. He thinks that’s how deals work: Trump does well; everyone else gets shafted. That’s why he sees NAFTA and TPP and Iran as bad deals; because the other side got something too. Real businessmen (and competent Presidents) know that good deals benefit both sides.

And if his history as a businessman weren’t evidence of his lousy deal-making ability, his Presidency has cemented it. With a Republican Congress, it has been highlighted by a failure to fix or repeal Obamacare, a total cave-in to the Democrats on DACA, a failure to reform the budget and a pending failure on tax reform. I realize that his defenders will blame the establishment, the GOP Congress, “the Deep State” and the establishment. But Trump has shown, repeatedly, that he is unfamiliar with policy and has no desire to learn, which makes negotiation impossible. The Republican Party — like all parties — has factions. Uniting those factions requires leadership from the top, which Trump is unable to provide. He expects deals to just sort of … happen.

The result of this decision will not be a better deal. It will be either the resumption of Iran’s nuclear program or a war. Such is the price we are paying for electing this vacuous egotistical idiotic hamster.

And to think what we could have had.

Update: One key point: the Iran deal would have been much more secure had it been made into a treaty and sent through Congress. That may not have happened, of course. But this serves as yet another illustration of why Obama’s Law of the Phone and a Pen was such a terrible idea.

The Weinstein Affair

So last week, the story broke that Harvey Weinstein, one of Hollywood’s biggest hitters, has been sexually harassing and abusing women for decades:

An investigation by The New York Times found previously undisclosed allegations against Mr. Weinstein stretching over nearly three decades, documented through interviews with current and former employees and film industry workers, as well as legal records, emails and internal documents from the businesses he has run, Miramax and the Weinstein Company.

During that time, after being confronted with allegations including sexual harassment and unwanted physical contact, Mr. Weinstein has reached at least eight settlements with women, according to two company officials speaking on the condition of anonymity. Among the recipients, The Times found, were a young assistant in New York in 1990, an actress in 1997, an assistant in London in 1998, an Italian model in 2015 and Ms. O’Connor shortly after, according to records and those familiar with the agreements.

Since the story broke, Weinstein had made an unconvincing defense of his behavior, the Weinstein company has fired him and his lawyer has quit. Reactions are ranging from outrageous “everyone knew” to absurd “no on knew”. I can’t judge what other people knew or didn’t know. But it doesn’t surprise me in the slightest that Weinstein was not only a sexual predator but allowed to get away with it for decades. This is, after all, the industry that once gave child rapist Roman Polanski a standing ovation. This is, after all, the industry, that blacklisted Rose McGowan for speaking out on sexism. This is an industry that has made a chilling phrase — the casting couch — into a joke. I guarantee you that Weinstein is not unique or even that unusual. This is just the tip of a loathsome iceberg. And the reaction we are seeing from his company his co-workers is not a response to his behavior but a response to the revelation of his behavior.

Naturally, this being 2017, everyone is trying to find a political angle. Weinstein was a big donor to Democrats, so … something. I think that’s a bit rich coming from the party that nominated and elected Donald Trump to the White House. But in any case, Weinstein’s misbehavior means nothing as far as politics goes. There are plenty of rich people who donate to political parties and there may be three or four who don’t have some pattern of abusive behavior in their past. If you want to hit the Democrats for their hypocrisy on Trump, Weinstein should not be who you talk about. You should talk about Ted Kennedy. Or Chris Dodd. Or Bill Clinton. Or John Edwards. Or Mel Reynolds. People they have elected to public office and blindly supported through multiple allegations of misconduct. You should talk about the way they disparaged victims like Juanita Broaddrick and even willing partners like Monica Lewinsky. You should talk about their ties to Jeffrey Epstein.

The horrible truth is that … in his perverse way … Donald Trump was kinda right on the Pussy Tape. He was wrong that women let you grope them if you’re rich and famous; they merely bear it in silence. No, it’s everyone else who let’s you do it. It’s fellow politicians, it’s political followers, it’s fans, it’s producers, it’s actors, it’s the press, it’s the media. Until that changes, powerful men like Weinstein and Trump and Clinton will do whatever they are allowed to do.

Las Vegas

Jesus.

I won’t post observations until we have more facts. But this is just awful, no matter what. 50 dead, 400 injured. Lone gunman in a hotel shooting fish in a barrel at a concert.

Update: The Daily Beast is detailing the victims. As I have said with previous incidents, I will not mention the perpetrator by name:

Willet for the Fifth

One of the few bright spots for the Trump Administration so far has been his nominations for the judiciary. Gorsuch has worked out well so far and other conservative justices are joining the ranks. To be fair, Trump is mainly working from a list produced by the Federalist Society. But that, in itself, shows a bit more wisdom than we’re used to seeing: he’s recognizing that he’s not a legal expert and should defer to those who are.

This week, he nominated Justice Don Willet, chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court, for the Fifth Circuit. It’s a great choice. While Willet’s court doesn’t deal with criminal matters, his decisions on civil matters have shown a libertarian bent. He’s also one of the more popular accounts on Twitter, where he stays away from hot button issues and mainly posts about history, the law and occasional humor. He has an inspiring
life story
, having been adopted, raised by a single mom and become the first college graduate in his family.

My only reservation is his lack of experience in criminal matters, which I think is something badly lacking in our judiciary. But hopefully he will bring the libertarian tendencies to that as well. We’ll see.

All the President’s Tweets

This weekend, Puerto Rico was whomped by Hurricane Maria. The entire island is without power and a humanitarian disaster is unfolding. By yesterday, the internet was aghast because Trump, while sending out numerous tweets about his ongoing feud with two sports leagues, hadn’t tweeted about Puerto Rico. They claimed he was ignoring the problem.

He wasn’t:

Large amounts of federal aid began moving into Puerto Rico on Saturday, welcomed by local officials who praised the Trump administration’s response but called for the emergency loosening of rules long blamed for condemning the U.S. territory to second-class status.

In northwest Puerto Rico, people began returning to their homes after a spillway eased pressure on a dam that cracked after more than a foot of rain fell in the wake of the hurricane.

The opening of the island’s main port in the capital allowed 11 ships to bring in 1.6 million gallons of water, 23,000 cots, dozens of generators and food. Dozens more shipments are expected in upcoming days.

Further reports detail that FEMA, the Coast Guard and they Navy are all on scene and helping as best they can. Congress needs to step up to the plate now by passing an aide package and waiving or repealing the Jones Act which drives up the price of goods on the island to benefit American shipbuilders.

So why was everyone on Trump about it? Because he hadn’t tweeted about it. Our political culture has become so engrossed in the 140-character emissions of our President while he is sitting on the can that we’ve lost the ability to look any further.

The President did eventually tweet about it, noting Puerto Rico’s bad infrastructure and debt problem. He got bashed for that too. I wouldn’t have said that but it crossed me less as “blaming Puerto Rico for their problems” and more of “explaining why the situation is so dire”. But I’m known to be generous in interpreting the words of Presidents because (a) I’m a bit outraged out and have been for about ten years; (b) I’m a bit of a contrarian at times.

Look, I don’t like the way the President tweets garbage. And I do think he should have used the medium to voice support for Puerto Rico and to call on people to donate to organizations helping out. But there’s a line to walk in how we respond to him. We can’t confuse Trump’s twitter feed with the government. Trump clearly sees Twitter, at least his personal account, as entertainment and a way to rile up his base (the official POTUS account tends to be more mundane and tweeted out support for Puerto Rico on the 20th). We’re going to exhaust ourselves if we continually flip out over what the President has tweeted about and what he hasn’t. And we really REALLY need to reign in this pathological need to assume the absolute worst about everything he says or does. There’s plenty of bad to go around. We don’t have to start inventing stuff.

I’ve been as bad as anyone about this. So I’m probably going to simply start ignoring Trump’s twitter feed. It is utterly devoid of substance and has no function beyond stirring up partisan bullshit. Knowing me, I probably won’t keep to that promise for very long. But this Twitter business is getting unhealthy.

The NFL and Politics

I’ve been a football fan for as long as I can remember, for both college and the pros. I grew up in Atlanta on Steve Bartkowski and Herschel Walker and having my heart broken (although this year’s Super Bowl was probably the biggest sports heartbreak of my life). But there’s something to fall weekends when you can just on turn on the TV and watch a game between two teams you don’t care about that is unique and special.

This year, we’re seeing a bit more controversy though. NFL ratings are down significantly. There’s a lot of blame being thrown around and a lot of it is being thrown at politics, particularly the recent trend of black players taking a knee during the national anthem to protest police misconduct.

First of all, I don’t think that’s the reason for the NFL’s ratings drop. It is probably a reason, but not the reason. Ratings had been going up for a long time but weren’t going to rise forever. There is a growing concern about the damage the game does to players’ bodies and minds, particularly with regard to CTE. That is the one thing that really gives me pause. The dominance of certain teams — Alabama in the college ranks, New England in the pros — has turned some people off. The Falcons were the closest thing we’ve had to a Cinderella in recent year and, come on, even this lifelong Falcons fan has to admit they weren’t going to capture America’s hearts. Some people say the quality of play is down, but I’m not convinced.

But, second of all … I do think politics are a problem for the NFL. It’s very easy for the elites in our society to forget, but players kneeling during the national anthem bothers people. Politics being injected into the NFL bothers people. It may not seem like a big deal when you’re inside the political bubble. But, for most people in this country, sports is a place where we can be passionate, angry, elated, dejected or thrilled without having to worry about politics. While watching the Super Bowl last year, I shared my excitement and then my devastation with Falcons fans of all political stripes. That’s the beauty of the thing. As Doug Mataconis likes to post every year:

We’re tired of politics in everything. We’re tired of it in our movies — witness the drop in this year’s box office. We’re tired of it in awards shows — notice the plunging ratings. And we’re tired of it in our sports. Politics infests our lives in too many ways and many of us just wanted a damned break.

It’s not that I’m not sympathetic. I do think these players have a point. I will never understand how enraging it must be to see cops caught on video gunning down unarmed black people only to be acquitted. Yeah, some of those shootings turns out to be justified (e.g, Michael Brown). But not all of them. And every time it happens, the media starts going through the dead man’s past to find any black mark that can retroactively justify his death. It is a relentless and maddening rhythm. So … I’m not going to begrudge them their small non-violent protest. I’m not going to tell them to just shut up and play football.

But protest comes at a price. There is always a price to pay for social activism. And that price may be falling ratings and a lot less money. I suspect Kaepernick et al. are fine with the price being paid if it brings attention to the issue. But let’s not pretend there isn’t a price or be all surprised when the bill comes due.

Cassini Ends

In 1997, I was starting my third year of grad school. My girlfriend at the time watched the launch with me and we wondered where we would be in the seemingly endless six years between launch and arrival at Saturn. Here we are, 19 years later. I’m still friends with the ex-girlfriend. I’m plus a wife, two kids and minus a gallbladder. And Cassini was sent to plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere after one of the most successful missions in human history.

Fare thee well, Cassini. You did us all proud.

The Single Payer Con

So yesterday, Bernie Sanders introduced his “Medicare for All” proposal. Single payer has suddenly become chic in Democratic circles with all of the 2020 hopefuls jumping on board. Because, apparently, the lesson they learned from 2016 was that they weren’t socialist enough.

I’m not going to get into the debate over single payer … ah, who am I kidding? I’ve written about it many times. Years ago, I wrote a post detailing why the claims that single payer would be more efficient were nonsense. It’s actually gotten worse since then. Medicare has tried to institute quality controls which have imposed billions in compliance costs on hospitals. Meanwhile, Medicare and Medicaid pay 80 cents and 60 cents on the dollar of what private insurers do. Switching to that would mean a lot of providers leaving the field. Which means fewer services and longer waits. It would also slow the pace of innovation, which I’ve previously identified as my biggest fear with regard to socialized medicine. I worry about the cures and miracle treatments we won’t get because our government controls the purse strings.

It would also put Congress in charge of deciding which medical procedures get covered and which don’t. This would not be based on any scientific evaluation but on politics. We’ve seen this already. Research has repeatedly shown that the guideline used for mammograms — every year or two after age 40 — is outdated. The new recommendation is that women get them every other year after age 50. The main reason is that mammography for low-risk women is more likely to result in unnecessary surgery than finding a cancer that wouldn’t be detected by other means. Congress, however, under intense pressure from women’s groups and mammography providers, overrode that decision. And this is not the first time they’ve done that.

Anyway, I don’t want to get too far into the weeds here because, in those two paragraphs above, I’ve already invested more thought into this than the Democrats have. Suderman

To call it a plan is, in some sense, too generous: Although it envisions a sweeping and generous system that would make government the primary payer for nearly all health care in the United States and virtually wipe out employer health coverage in the space of just a few years, it is not really a plan. Instead, it is a legislative fantasy built on a combination of wild overconfidence in government and an almost comical refusal to grapple with costs or trade-offs.

The likely outcome of such a transition would be massive, sustained chaos across the health care sector. Even if the chaos were somehow manageable, the easy access that Sanders promises would be swiftly undermined by service disruptions and other complications stemming from the changeover. In making his case, Sanders tends to ignore all of this. His plan exists in an imaginary world without economic tradeoffs or consequences.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in its promise of benefits. Sanders frequently argues that his preferred system would merely put the United States in line with other developed nations. On the contrary, it would go far beyond what other countries with single payer systems offer. The Sanders plan would offer a far greater array of benefits than Australia, the Netherlands, or Canada—a country that Sanders often uses as a comparison with the U.S., but where the majority of the population relies on supplementary private insurance to cover the gaps left by the government system. Many international single-payer systems also require some form of copayment from the individual seeking service; the Sanders plan would make all of its benefits available without any individual contribution.

Instead, it would be paid for entirely through tax increases. Which tax increases would those be? On who, and for how much? On these questions, the Sanders plan is silent.

This is the real tell in Sanders’ pitch. Although it is willing to imagine long lists of benefits in great detail, but it has essentially nothing to say about how to pay for them. It is a fantastical sales pitch for a luxury product with no price tag attached.

One can support universal healthcare. I’m somewhat neutral on it. But one has to acknowledge that it’s going to be expensive. You can not insure million of currently uninsured people and save money. We’ve been down this road before. For example, we were told that Obamacare would save money because people wouldn’t need to go the ER as often. But ER visits actually rose under Obamacare, as anyone with two brain cells to rub together could have predicted. When healthcare is cheap, people use more of it. As P.J. O’Rourke famously quipped, if you think healthcare is expensive now, just wait to see how much it costs when it’s free.

The Democratic “plan” doesn’t grapple with this at all. It says nothing about controlling costs or how to pay for all this. It’s just a collection of vague promises. In this sense, it’s way worse than the Trumpcare fiasco which, for all its massive flaws, at least acknowledged the tradeoffs.

To be fair to Sanders, specifically, he actually does have a plan to pay for this. He just couldn’t get any of his fellow Democrats to sign on if it was included. And it’s easy to see why. Here are the details on it. It includes an 11.5% payroll tax, the elimination of tax breaks for insurance, an income tax rate as high as 52%, capital gains taxed at income rates, a massive estate tax, a wealth tax, etc., etc. All told, the wealthiest Americans would be facing marginal tax rates of 82% — just for federal. With state and local taxes, marginal rates could exceed 100%.

Yeah, we once had 97% marginal tax rates. Very few, if any, people ever paid those rates. Bernie is almost certainly massively overestimating the revenue he’ll raise. Even with his rosy assumptions, analysts in 2016 estimated that he was many trillions of dollars short in paying for Medicare for all. In the end, as I’ve said many times, you can only pay for a welfare state with heavy taxes on the middle class. That’s how the European welfare states do it; that’s what we would have to do.

One last thing. The slogan of Bernie’s circus and of the Medicare-for-all movement is that healthcare is a “right”. This is straight garbage. You can not have a right to things. You can not have a right to people’s labor. Real rights — like freedom of speech — are unlimited. When I exercise my right to free speech, that does not preclude you from exercising yours. But if I exercise my right to healthcare, that may take it away from someone else. Doctors can only treat so many patients. There are only so many organs to go around. Yes, our healthcare system grows. But at any one moment, those resources are limited. If there’s only one heart available for transplant, which patient gets it? Who has the “right” to it?

That’s not necessarily an argument against universal healthcare. No one has a “right” to food, but we can make sure people don’t starve because we are a wealthy and generous nation. No one has a “right” to housing, but we can keep people off the streets because we are a wealthy and generous nation. That may sound like hair splitting, but it’s an important hair to split. Because the minute you decide people have a “right” to healthcare, you change the shape of the debate. It suddenly becomes a race to give away as much as possible and an effort to keep the hated evil rich from getting care that’s too good.

So apart from the Democrats having unveiled a comically incomplete plan that makes no hard choices and promises to plunge us into a bureaucratic nightmare and an orgy of spending while destroying a major industry … how did you like the play?