Saturday, May 04, 2019

The Great Negotiator

Donald Trump ran for U.S. President, among other things, as "the great negotiator."  His book, The Art of the Deal, was highly touted in evidence.  (He didn't write that book, and the ghost writer has had some pointed things to say about him.) 

He's now been in office for 2 years and some change, so we've had a chance to see him at it.  I was going to discuss his many failings as a negotiator, starting with the fact that he has only a limited understanding of how his opponents think; but I realized it would take a full volume, not just a blog post.  But for a blatant example of his ineptness, I refer you to an article in the April 25 Economist called America Wants to Challenge Rogue PetrostatesAs I read it, I found myself shaking my head. 

The incident which blew me away in its stupidity was related to the Iran oil ban.  He announced in May 2018, when he withdrew from the Iran nuclear agreement, that America would impose sanctions on Iran's oil industry, starting in November.  To support this, he dickered with OPEC to increase oil production, to help restrain oil prices.  Saudi Arabia did this, increasing production by 600,000 barrels a day from June to November.  This was quite generous of the Saudis, since they require an oil price of something like $80-$85 per barrel to balance the national budget.

Just before the sanctions were to take effect, he announced sanction waivers for 8 countries, including China and India (the biggest investors in Iran oil) - and he didn't warn the Saudis, who reduced production in December, along with the rest of OPEC, when oil prices fell to $51 a barrel.  And he considers MBS a good friend.

The rest of the Economist article, which I highly recommend, goes into detail on several other aspects of Trump's attempts to manipulate the oil market to support his policy positions, apparently with less idea of how the oil market works than I have.  Or for that matter, with less idea of how the international financial market works than I have. 

I didn't vote for him; I wouldn't vote for him for second assistant dog-catcher.  But we're stuck with him, at least until 2020 (I hope, no longer), and every so often I have to rant about him.  Thank you for reading.


Thursday, May 02, 2019

Another jewel from Art Hoppe

In December 2013,  I posted a link to a column by the late lamented Art Hoppe, reproduced on the San Francisco Chronicle's SFGate web site.  I have another one for you, assuming you can get past the paywall for sfchronicle.com, which is where the Chronicle Classic series is posted online. 

Today's column is called The Mightiest Nation, originally published on July 15, 1987.  Read it and weep - I hope you can get to it.  It sounds merely mildly sarcastic until you get to the last paragraph, which raised the hair on the back of my neck.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

No Collusion?

I haven't been posting much about 45 (I refuse to dignify him with his name), because I'm afraid I couldn't stop.  But I have something fairly succinct to say about the current flap over the summary of the Mueller report, which is all anyone but the attorney general has seen.

Mueller was quoted that he "did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government" during the campaign.  He also "did not draw a conclusion" about whether obstruction of justice occurred.  He did, however, say that the report did not exonerate the president on obstruction of justice.  45 has spent the week since the report was delivered, Tweeting madly about how he's been Wronged, and how it was all Fake News.

Nonetheless, it's clear that there was Russian interference in the 2016 election, via a brilliant cyber warfare campaign, not so much in favor of 45's election as against Hillary Clinton's.  Regardless of whether 45 chooses to believe Vladimir Putin on this, if every intelligence agency we have says that this happened (and they do), I believe them, and I thank them.

Consider that a direct connection with the Trump campaign was not necessary for Russia to attack our election using social media and cyber warfare.  Look at the history.  Putin has dealt with Hillary Clinton before, when she was Secretary of State; and he hates her guts.  I don't think he cared which of the 17 Republican candidates won the nomination; he would have launched that campaign regardless.  He didn't care who won, as long as it wasn't Hillary.  I'm sure he was delighted when the field narrowed down to a relatively stupid man, who happened to be a brilliant demagogue, and with whom the Russian oligarchy had done business for the last 30 years.  Putin knew all about 45, if he didn't know him personally.  My take is that 45 is what the Russian intelligence people call a "useful idiot."  Notice that the famous meeting at the Trump Tower with potential "dirt on Hillary" was initiated by the Russians, not the Trump campaign - the fact that they leaped at the bait says more about them than it does about the Russians.

I trust we will soon see the full Mueller report.  But the apparent fact that Mueller failed to establish conspiracy or coordination with  Russia does not mean that 45 is qualified for the office he now regrettably holds.  Because he isn't.  And if he actually closes the Mexican border to all traffic, which he now threatens to do, the impact on the American economy will be, let's say, visible.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Go Away, Juul

I dislike ads in general, and in fact I don't usually read them.  But these days you can't miss the full-page newspaper spreads from Juul, showing a big photo of some obviously adult person, praising Juul for freeing them from that awful tobacco smoke while still supporting their nicotine addiction.

Wait, what?  That's right. The people in the Juul commercials are publicly bragging about how easy it is now to support their addiction.  I don't think I've ever seen that advertised before.  On one level, if you are hooked on nicotine, it's probably better to vape than to smoke cigarettes.  I've heard no suggestion that vaping nicotine will kill you, although some people now worry about small children opening and drinking the little plastic capsules containing vape liquid.  But we know that smoking cigarettes has a very good chance of killing you.  Lung cancer has killed two of my cousins and a brother-in-law.  So far.

I've seen a number of articles and blog posts suggesting that vaping is much better for you than cigarettes - and every one of them so far has traced back to organizations that sell e-cigarettes.  This makes me suspicious.

Make no mistake, nicotine is addictive - smoking tobacco would probably not be addictive if the nicotine could somehow be removed.  (But then, why would you do it?  Cigarettes stink.)  A 1988 Surgeon General's report declared nicotine to be as addictive as cocaine or heroin.  The article Nicotine Addiction 101, from WhyQuit.com, has a pretty good description of how and why nicotine (and other drugs) causes addiction, and why it's so hard to quit.  There's good evidence that early Juul advertising, emphasizing sweet, fruity flavors, has addicted a lot of teenagers who shouldn't be using the stuff at all, as their brains are still developing.  That's why all the people in the ads now are adults, and Juul no longer brags about how nice its vapors taste.  They were forced to change their ads.

Nicotine is a poison.  It's been used as a pesticide for centuries.  A large enough dose of the stuff (30 - 60 mg) will kill you, according to the National Institutes of Health, although other articles indicate the dose varies.  And nicotine addicts, of course, require a much larger dose to kill them.  I'm a detective story fan, and I can recall at least one old novel where the victim is murdered by nicotine (obtained from an agricultural poison) in his drink.

So it's a good thing that both cigarettes and e-cigarettes give you a very small dose of nicotine.  Vape liquid contains somewhere between 3 and 24 mg/ml (that's milligrams per milliliter for the non-metric), and the amount you get when inhaling is a tiny fraction of that. So I'll agree that, on that level, vaping is probably less destructive than smoking, although you get more nicotine from vaping Juul than from smoking a cigarette.  One original Juul pod contains as much nicotine as a pack of cigarettes, so someone who inhales one pod a day is getting equivalent nicotine to a pack of cigarettes a day.  Juul recently said they're putting out lower nicotine options. 

Wouldn't it be better not to be addicted at all?? 


Thursday, September 13, 2018

Changing Names

There is a current trend that if a public monument or building is named after someone who we learn was actually a racist, that we should rename it after some more current "good" person.  San Francisco has renamed several streets and a couple of high schools on this basis, and it's related to the urge in parts of the southeastern U.S. to remove statues memorializing the Confederacy.

This is a mistake, and it's stupid.  Frankly, many of our ancestors (yes, I include mine) were racist, and bigoted.  This country was founded economically on racism - the rich economy of the Old South was based on the labor of African slaves, which was justified by a misreading of the Bible.  If you doubt me that it was based on the Bible, read the secession statements of several Confederate states, especially Texas, which make it brutally clear.  Further, this country was expanded on the backs of all the Native Americans we murdered, or gave syphilis or measles to (probably not deliberately); and the transcontinental railroad which tied the country together was built by immigrant Chinese laborers, whom we later prohibited from living here by the Chinese Exclusion Act.

I won't say the racism wasn't our ancestors' fault; I will say they came by it honestly.  Most of the original white settlers in the U.S. came from the British Isles - now the United Kingdom.  Before the 20th century (and for that matter during much of it), Europeans (including the British) honestly believed that people of color were generally inferior to the "white race;" there was a formal hierarchy of races, and some actually believed that they derived genetically from separate origins than white people (see Wikipedia on Scientific Racism, which says that scientific racism was only formally denounced, by UNESCO, after World War II).

So our bigoted ancestors were honored by naming things after them because during their time, bigotry was normal.  Why, then, is renaming buildings and taking down Confederate monuments a mistake?  The Confederate monuments, especially, represent the Old South's cry of victory in establishing the Jim Crow regime.  Why should we memorialize that?

All this renaming allows us to blind ourselves to where we came from.  It lets us pretend, as our schools largely do pretend to our children, that America is a wonderful place with opportunity for all, and that we wouldn't discriminate against anybody.

That is a lie.  America over its history has been a wonderful place with opportunity for some white men; in the beginning, only for white men who owned property.  Over the intervening two and a half centuries, we've gradually expanded the opportunities to other white men (poor men, Irish men, southern European men, Catholic men), to African slaves (Reconstruction tried to do that but was summarily squashed for another 50 years until the Civil Rights movement, see my comments about the Confederate monuments), eventually to the Chinese.  Oh, and to women, who slowly stopped being their husbands' property, and became able to own property themselves, but who couldn't vote until 1920.

If we let ourselves forget how nasty our forebears were, we risk falling back into the same ways.  If you don't know where you came from, how can you focus on where you want to go?  I've written before about tribalism (Hating the Other, Sept. 2010); I see racial bigotry as an outgrowth of tribal attitudes, where "the other" is a threat to the tribe's hunting grounds and other food sources, going back millennia, before agriculture.

We must remember that we have these tendencies, so we can fight to overcome them, especially in the midst of a major recurrence of bigotry and intolerance.  So we should leave Boalt Hall named after the man who backed the Chinese Exclusion Act, but also put up a plaque explaining about his racism.  (The linked article may be behind a paywall, but this one isn't.)  And we should leave up the Confederate monuments, but add a plaque explaining that they represent, not victory in the Civil War, but a successful movement to reduce the South's African-American residents to a state as close to actual slavery as possible.

If we are continually reminded of our bigoted past, we may some day be able to decide, collectively, that racism is a waste of time and energy.  Science tells us that there are no significant genetic differences among the races.  Do we really want to keep arguing about skin color??

Friday, August 24, 2018

Why Not?

I keep hearing and reading that the Justice Department policy is that they can't (won't?) indict a sitting president.  If you Google the subject, you see articles on all sides of the issue.  NPR, on All Things Considered, did a nice dispassionate summary of the situation on August 22.  If I read the interview correctly, there's nothing in the Constitution, and there are no laws, which say this.  It's a very interesting discussion and I recommend you read it before going on.

Ailsa Chang interviewed Philip Lacovara, a lawyer who was counsel to the special prosecutors who investigated Watergate. Yes, this issue was discussed at that time, and they concluded that there was no constitutional bar to indicting a sitting president; they just didn't do it. I was delighted to read that Mr. Lacovara agrees with my totally instinctive reaction to this position:  this is a huge load of baloney.

To assume that the President can't be indicted says that the President is - above the law.  What really bothers me is that Brent Kavanaugh, the current SCOTUS nominee, agrees with this position, which is called the "unitary executive theory."  Here's how Mr. Lacovara summarized it:
It's the notion that all law enforcement resides in the president and that everybody else in the executive branch, including prosecutors, is essentially irrelevant. And the president, therefore, would in effect be prosecuting himself. And they think that that's a bizarre conundrum which the Constitution shouldn't allow.
This theory says the President isn't subject to the laws.  King George III would probably have agreed with that.  I'm sure Donald Trump agrees with that.  But I think the faint screams you hear in the background are the Founding Fathers, ranting and raving from whatever afterlife they are in.  I don't think they agree with that.

I thought we were a nation of laws. I thought we had 3 branches of government so that each branch could act as a check on the other two (Congress, are you listening to me?).  Congress doesn't want to know; the Republican leadership has been turning their collective eyes so far away from the emerging evidence about Trump that their necks are about to break.

As far as I'm concerned, the President is not above the law; and Mr. Lacovara agrees with me.  Here's how he concluded the interview:
The whole purpose of the Revolution and our Constitution was to treat officials of our government as different from the royal in England. And I think they would be astonished at the notion today that the president is somehow immune from criminal prosecution if he violates the norms that apply to everyone else.
If you haven't talked to your representative about opposing Kavanaugh's confirmation, do it now.  And remember all this when you vote in November.

Thursday, August 02, 2018

E Pluribus Unum

Out of many, one.  This was the original motto of the United States, and has appeared on the Great Seal since 1792.  Wikipedia says,
"Never codified by law, E pluribus unum was considered a de facto motto of the United States[5] until 1956 when the United States Congress passed an act (H. J. Resolution 396), adopting "In God We Trust" as the official motto.[6]
Or, as I would have put it, until the McCarthyites panicked about the godless Commies in the 1950s and replaced it with In God We Trust, to prove that We were different from Them.  But the original motto of this country was, Out of many, one.

We've heard a lot lately about Russian interference with the 2016 election, and potentially with the 2018 midterms.  I've been reading a lot about this, particularly in Clint Watts' excellent book, Messing with the Enemy - Surviving in a Social Media World of Hackers, Terrorists, Russians, and Fake News.  I recommend it.  It's clear that the Russians did hack the socks off the Democratic National Committee computers in 2016, and stole a whole load of emails.  The purpose of that was to leak the emails, via WikiLeaks, and to make the DNC, and Hillary Clinton, look bad.  It wasn't to directly affect anything the DNC was doing. 

The broader Russian propaganda effort, based on American-developed social media platforms including Twitter, Facebook, and Google, was not to damage any particular candidate.  It was to cause dissension around all candidates, and around the process itself. The purpose was to turn Americans against each other, and maybe against democracy itself.  Russian agents set up fake accounts on all the platforms, and had both humans and bots creating multiple propaganda posts, aimed at making Americans more angry with each other.  Some of these posts were adapted from existing posts - America has plenty of angry people. The Russians intended to intensify the polarization, and they played both sides of the aisle.  They posted white supremacist rants; and they posted rants which seemed to come from Black Lives Matter; anything to make somebody angry.

You may have read that Facebook just took down a bunch of pages they thought were run by Russian operatives.  The CNN article I linked notes that one of the pages was an organizing site for a "No Unite the Right 2" march planned for Washington.  This appears to have been a genuine rally, planned in opposition to a white supremacist rally (also planned for Washington), and partly supported by Black Lives Matter.  Since Black Lives Matter is a very decentralized organization, it's relatively easy to appear to be speaking for them.  What this means is that Facebook is still learning how to spot the genuine bad actors.  May they learn quickly.  I know from personal experience that it's much easier to create a "fake" account on Facebook than they want to admit. 

Out of Many, One.  In many ways, the various waves of immigration over the last 2 centuries have in fact created a single America out of families whose ancestors originated everywhere else in the world. How many Americans do you know whose ancestors were German?  Russian?  Italian?  Greek?  Mexican?  Chinese?  Japanese? Korean?  Haitian?  Nigerian?  And the descendants all now speak American English and eat American food, and vote in American elections.  But some of these Americans are now challenged by other Americans - "you don't belong here."

We've become extremely polarized, at least partly due to Russian propaganda.  How do we back off of that?  Can we?  E Pluribus Unum is one of those phrases, like the beginning of the Declaration of Independence, which was not totally true even when originally published, but which slowly became more true than it had been over time - a goal or aspiration, rather than a statement of fact.  (See my post, I Miss the America I Thought I Knew.)  In the 2 World Wars, America was pretty united; since then, perhaps less so; it's much easier to be united when you have a clear and present enemy to fear. 

The enemy we should fear right now is Russia and its propaganda.  We need to question extreme social media posts, especially if they appeal to us - not only, "is this true?", but "who is saying this?"  Russia is no longer a Communist state; but it's still an enemy.