Saturday, April 29, 2017

What does it mean to be "pro-life"?

Sister Joan Chittister, a Roman Catholic nun, addresses the hypocrisy of those who claim to be pro-life but who focus only on wanting to stop abortions.   Here's her answer to what it means to be pro-life.
     "I do not believe that just because you're opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life.  In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed.
     "And why would I think that you don't?  Because you don't want any tax money to go there.  That's not pro-life.  That's pro-birth.  We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is."
Sister Chittister didn't include it here, but many Catholics include in their pro-life stance the opposition to capital punishment, as well.

Trump's one-page tax cut wish list

The Trump administration has released a one-page outline of what they want to do with "tax reform" -- which isn't reform at all, since it only deals with cuts in taxes.   Treasury Secretary Mnuchin insists it would pay for itself with "economic growth" and by closing loopholes -- a Republican talking point that has failed over and over again.

This outline lacks the details or the offsetting spending cuts that would allow serious analysis.  But some economists are saying it would increase the national debt by $7 trillion over 10 years -- that's $700 billion a year.

Here's one thing that is clear as a bell, however.  It eliminates the Alternative Minimal Tax.  The two page scrap of Donald Trump's 2005 tax return does show that, without the AMT, in that year alone, he would have saved $30,000,000 on his tax bill -- in one year!

So, we already know a partial answer to whether Trump's tax plan will benefit him personally.   And that's not all:   His plan slashes corporate taxes, eliminates estate taxes, and makes some very favorable changes for real estate developers.  All of which will benefit Trump and his family.


Friday, April 28, 2017

Why did senators go to the White House for a briefing on North Korea?

Why did nearly 100 senators get on a bus Wednesday afternoon to ride over to the White House for a briefing on North Korea, instead of having national security leaders come to Capitol Hill?

Here's why.  To make Donald Trump look like a strong Commander-in-Chief, ready to take on North Korea.   See, the 100 day mark is upon us, and Trump hasn't got much to show for it.   So let's put on a show.   Sen. Bernie Sanders, for one, did not go, telling Chris Hayes he "didn't want to be part of a photo-op for the White House's roadshow."

Don't get me wrong.  North Korea's nuclear ambitions make for a dangerous and urgent world crisis, especially as fueled by Trump's provocations.  So it should be taken very seriously.  But let's have true gravitas . . . not fake drama.

This trek, orchestrated by the White House, was an amateurish show of power on the part of Trump.  Capitol Hill is far better equipped to hold a large meeting with top security than this White House meeting room, which required hastily cobbled-together security protection.

They needn't have bothered.  One senator said he heard nothing new, nothing that couldn't be printed on the front page of the morning paper.  Others were "underwhelmed" and baffled by what purpose was served.  All agreed that it is good to have dialogue with the national security team.   But there was no announcement of a new threat or new strategy.   In fact, a joint statement from the security chiefs afterward simply stated that the plan is to continue pressuring North Korea "by tightening economic sanctions  and pursuing diplomatic measures."

So why all the drama?   Why not simply have the national security chiefs go to Capitol Hill for the briefing?    That's the key:   There would be no drama.  It would lack the image-enhancing optics of having this august body answer a summons by the Commander-in-Chief to a meeting -- wait for it -- in the Eisenhower Theater of the White House.    Perhaps Trump's image-makers were desperate for a little borrowed glory from a genuine war hero.

The true spirit of President Eisenhower, however, is better captured by his valedictory warning against the growing "military-industrial complex," as well as this quote:
"Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed."    Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Clarifying the "sanctuary cities" confusion

President Trump has, once again, created public confusion by misconstruing some issue about the law or the courts.   He has lashed out at the judge who put a hold on his executive order threatening cities that do not cooperate with the federal immigration authorities.

I did not have it quite right myself in the previous post, "More bad news for Trump."  First, the U.S. legal code does require that local governments cooperate in providing information to the federal law enforcement.   But Trump conflates that with providing detainees themselves when he cites that same code to falsely back up this statement put out by the Trump administration:

"Sanctuary cities, like San Francisco, block their jails from turning over criminal aliens to Federal authorities for deportation.   These cities are engaged in dangerous and unlawful nullification of Federal law in an attempt to erase our borders."    [Wrong.]

Both sentences in that statement are false.  What cities are doing, as discussed on NPR by the mayor of Austin, TX, is this:  They will of course respond to the federal request to turn over detainees if the federal law enforcement has obtained a warrant for that person.   But what they refuse to do, and do not have the resources to do, is to act as a collecting/warehousing station for possible deportees simply because they are undocumented foreigners.

Another important factor for the cities' police forces is that routinely screening for documents or detaining people they would otherwise release is not only unaffordable, it harms police-community relations by making immigrants afraid to go to the police for help or to cooperate with police efforts to keep peace.  In addition, as affirmed by the judge, it is unconstitutional to detain someone beyond a limited time period without charges or a warrant.

Another clarification:   there have been three small grants made to some cities (not San Francisco) that have a clause requiring cooperation with federal immigration requests.   It is only those three grants that the feds have any right to threaten withholding funds for non-compliance;  and they already have enforcement authority written into those grants.  The total for those three grants is less than $3 million.  The judge's ruling says they can't withhold funds for other, unrelated programs that did not have this prior stipulation.

As with the ruling on Trump's immigration bans, this judge also referred to public statements as germane in interpreting the intended extent of executive orders.   This is from Judge Orrick's ruling:
   ". . . . [I]f there was doubt about the scope of the Order, the President and Attorney General have erased it with their public comments.   The President has called it a 'a weapon' to use against jurisdictions that disagree with his preferred policies of immigration . . . ."

Trump's predictable reaction to being thwarted is to demean the judge and threaten to "break up" the 9th Circuit Court.   Donald Trump still doesn't get it.  He can disagree with a court decision;   but we have three co-equal branches to our government.  He gets to nominate federal judges.   But he does not get to dictate their decisions, nor does he get to retaliate if they don't go his way.


Wednesday, April 26, 2017

More bad news for Trump administration, but good news for democracy

The bad news continues for President Trump and his administration.   Breaking stories on Tuesday alone:

1.  After a classified meeting, the top leaders of the House Intelligence Committee spoke to reporters to express their concern over what they had just learned from intelligence officials.   This concerns retired Gen. Mike Flynn, who was Trump's National Security Adviser for about 24 days until he had to be fired, which had to do with his lying about his communications with Russians.   The current news has to do with his having received payments from foreign governments, and having failed to disclose them in his forms he had to sign when he took the DSA job.

It is illegal for a former general to accept payments from a foreign government.  Flynn received $45,000 for a speech he gave in Russia to celebrate an anniversary of RT, the English language, Russian state-sponsored television network.   Some call it a propaganda outlet.   Flynn has also revealed that he was a lobbyist for the Turkish government, during the time he was closely involved with the Trump campaign as an adviser.  He has been paid over $600,000 by the Turkish government.  Both of these are illegal for him to accept, without having gotten prior permission.  It is also illegal for him to have failed to declare both of these in the forms he filled out for clearance to take the NSA job.

But here's what is new and of great concern.   The committee had asked the White House for its records pertaining to the vetting and then subsequent firing of Gen. Flynn.    They have written back and said that they have no records prior to January 19th (meaning no records were kept of any vetting at all, apparently -- or else they were destroyed), and that any records since January 20th (the inauguration) would "be irrelevant."

In other words, either there were no records, or they were destroyed, or they are stonewalling an official Congressional investigative committee.  Because he had not been on active duty for more than two years, Flynn would have to have applied and been investigated for a security clearance.   There must be records of that, at least.  This could blow up into a constitutional crisis of the separation of powers, if the White House continues to stonewall.

Think about all the times Trump ranted about "extreme vetting" he will require of refugees -- and realize that he appointed a man, who was on the payroll of a foreign country that was growing increasingly authoritative, without vetting him at all, apparently.  And then had him sitting in with him on intelligence briefings by the CIA during the transition period and in those few weeks as NSA.    The same man (Flynn) who led chants of "lock her up!" at the Republican National Convention.

This may ramp up the determination for an independent investigation, which is becoming increasingly necessary.   A new Deputy Attorney General has just been confirmed by the Senate last night and will now be overseeing the FBI investigation.  He could decide to appoint a special prosecutor.

2.  Over the weekend, the matter of records of donations to the Trump Inauguration Committee hit the news.   Reportedly $106,000,000 was donated.   But nobody has an accounting of how that money was spent.  Or who it came from.   What records they do have are a mess.   A big mess.   Repeatedly false donor names or missing or incorrect addresses are listed in the report forms.  Questions have been raised about the money, because they raised more than twice the amount as the Obama inauguration, but obviously didn't spend as much.  There were fewer balls, no big name talent performers, much smaller crowds, etc.   So where is the leftover money?   Reporting laws have been broken;  the question is:  Was it inept negligence or intentional misuse of funds?

3.  A federal judge in California has just ruled on Tuesday that President Trump's threat to cut off federal money to "sanctuary cities" is unconstitutional.   The decision, which will be appealed to higher courts, takes effect immediately and applies nationwide.   This involves the federal immigration service wanting local police to arrest and/or hold undocumented immigrants for them -- in other words, requiring cities to force their police departments to act as federal agents and to turn their jails into federal holding centers.

It also undermines the intent of those cities that have chosen to provide a safe haven rather than be part of the federal crackdown on undocumented immigrants.  That's what this judge says is unconstitutional:  the federal government cannot retaliate against local governments by withholding funding for unrelated programs in an effort to force cooperation with a completely different program, which the judge referred to as "coercive defunding."

These three news items are encouraging, because they show that our system of checks and balances is working.   Both the Congress and the Courts are reining in the Trump administration's tendency to edge toward a dictatorship.  That's the way it was meant to work.


Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Why we should keep the Iran nuclear deal

In his Sunday opinion column in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Jay Bookman explained very clearly why it is essential that we remain part of the Iran nuclear agreement.   He began with the jarring juxtaposition of:  (1) Secretary of State' Rex Tillerson's formal report to Congress, attesting to the fact that Iran is "fully honoring all of its commitments" in the deal;  and (2) Tillerson's press conference hours later in which he denounced this same deal as "a failure."

Yes, I know that's confusing.   But here's the thing.  From the Trump Team's point of view, anything that fails to achieve the objective of a non-nuclear Iran, both now and in the future, is a failure.    So, Iran may be fulfilling all its commitments required by the agreement;  but the agreement does not guarantee that Iran can never become a nuclear power.  It buys about ten years of time, at best.

We knew that at the time.   President Obama knew that.  Russia, China, Germany, the U.K., France and the other allied nations that were part of the multinational negotiating team, knew that.  But it was the best deal that could be obtained.  That's what grandstanding opponents, like Trump and most Republicans, fail to acknowledge.   Here's how Jay Bookman answers them:
"If we want to guarantee that Iran never seeks nuclear weapons . . . .  We have to go to war, topple their government, install a client ruler and then occupy a nation of 80 million angry people for decades.  If there is any other way of accomplishing those goals, the Trump administration has not yet articulated them."
Bookman likens the tactics of the opponents to attacks on the Affordable Care Act:
   1.  "You spend years attacking and belittling a policy as completely unacceptable, to the point that you have invested your entire credibility in its dismantling."
   2.  "However, when finally given the chance to undo the policy in question, you find yourself unable to propose a better alternative. . . ."
   3.  Unable to reverse the policy, but also unwilling to accept its continuance, you then engage in a less-than-subtle effort to undermine it. . . . even though . . . you still have no idea how to handle the fallout should your sabotage effort succeed."

What are the consequences, if we withdraw from the deal?   Listen to Bookman again:
"And if we break the deal with Iran, after it surrendered 98 percent of its low-enriched uranium and all of its medium-enriched uranium, and after it rendered its heavy-water reactor unusable for weapons work, what possible motive would North Korea have to negotiate the peaceful surrender of its own nuclear program?"
Add to that two more consequences:   (1)  The world would (rightly) blame us as the bad guys who scuttled the deterrence;  and (2)  We would have betrayed our allies, as well.  Why would they ever again trust us or participate in other globally necessary agreements?   The same can be said for the Paris Climate Agreement, if we pull out of that.


Monday, April 24, 2017

Voter irregularitites only 0.01% in North Carolina; voter impersonation 0.00004%

[Data from Sam Levine's Huffington Post article.]

In the hotly contested race for governor of North Carolina last November, incumbent Republican Gov. Pat McCrory refused to concede defeat, claiming widespread voter fraud.   The official results however eventually gave the win to now Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat.

Meanwhile, a federal lawsuit over the state's 2013 voter ID law was overturned on appeal and is awaiting a decision as to whether SCOTUS will hear the case, which rests on the claim that the law is needed to prevent voter fraud.   The chances of that probably shrank a bit with the release Friday of an audit of the 2016 election results, carried out by the North Carolina State Board of Elections.

What this audit showed was that there were cases of voting irregularities, but all forms of irregularity, added together, accounted for only 0.01% of the nearly 4.8 million votes cast -- and would not have changed the results in any of the races, even if they had all been cases of voter fraud.

A breakdown of that number (0.01%) showed that the vast majority of irregularities investigated (441 out of 508) turned out to be suspected felons, who often do not know they are ineligible to vote or sometimes have been incorrectly listed as ineligible.  Non-citizens voting accounted for 41, and 24 were substantiated cases of double voting.   Other investigations have shown that these two categories usually have no fraudulent intent.

With all the campaigns' get-out-the-vote publicity, some non-citizens who have lived here a long time assume they can vote, especially if they have a green card.  Double voting most often occurs, not with any intent to do so, but with confusion about whether their absentee ballot was actually sent in;  so they go to the polls to check and records do not show it having been received;  so they vote again.

But here's the important finding -- and the only one relevant to voter ID requirement:   The North Carolina audit found only two cases of voter impersonation -- i.e. someone trying to vote using someone else's ID -- out of the 4,800,000 votes cast.

These findings are similar to what has been found in audits in other states, including Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada.   The NC evidence points to the fact that intentional voter fraud that would be detected by a photo ID was 0.00004% of votes cast.

Now that's hardly worth all the fireworks, is it?


Sunday, April 23, 2017

TrumpCare 2.0 -- even worse than first version

Some details of the revised TrumpCare bill that came out of negotiations between some of the Freedom Caucus and the Tuesday Group (moderate Republicans) are being revealed.   (See yesterday's ShrinkRap on the context for this DOA charade.)

Essentially, as I understand what's known, this bill has just put in some tricks that make it look like one thing, when actually it does something even worse.

1.  Unlike TrumpCare 1.0, this version requires that the "essential health benefts" in the Affordable Case Act (like hospitalization expenses, emergency care, maternity) be included.   BUT, then it says that states may obtain waivers to omit such services in their state.

2.  Children can stay on parents' policies until age 26 -- except, like essential services, states can get waivers to exempt policies in their state from that requirement.

3.  Also, like the ACA, TrumpCare 2.0 says that insurance companies cannot refuse to cover people with pre-existing conditions.   However, rather than being included in general coverage, they will get insurance as part of a "high risk pool."   Insurance companies can raise rates on that group to offset their greater use of insurance.   In other words, this undermines the whole concept of insurance -- covering a large pool to spread out the cost to patients and the risk to insurance companies.

So, this is no fix at all.  It's just some stage tricks -- like the magician's show.  Use distraction to keep people attention off what you're really doing.

There is no consideration for what health insurance is for.   Because, you see, the Ryan-Trump plan isn't a health care plan at all, although it tries to fly under that banner.   It's actually a tax cut plan (or rather it's the elimination of the tax in the ACA imposed on wealthier people to help pay for the plan).   But all this trickery is to maintain their getting rid of the tax -- and I think it's fair to call it a tax cut, because it is currently part of the law.   So their only offsetting option is to reduce services.