The Phantom City

Notes from our travels across a mysterious world.

Author: Shane (page 1 of 70)

What’s the benefit?

I hate to say it, but I’m starting to think the President’s recent actions mostly make sense if you see them as rapid payoffs for previous or future favors before having to step down, either in 2021 or sooner. In just the last few months, we’ve seen:

  • Trying to prove a conspiracy theory about Ukrainian election meddling that would give cover to both pardoning Paul Manafort and reducing/removing sanctions on Russian oligarchs.
  • Pointedly pushing a peace accord between Ukraine and Russia that essentially gives Russia what it wants.
  • Removing the US troops serving as a tripwire between Turkey and the Syrian Kurds right when the Turks started their invasion, in the name of stopping “endless war.”
  • Sending 2000 more troops to Saudi Arabia to get mixed up in the war in Yemen two days later.

The only part that fits a normal narrative is trying to dig up dirt on a political opponent for the 2020 race. The last two items happened so rapidly I’m not sure what’s going to happen next, but keep an eye out on actions involving Russia/Ukraine, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. (Given current tensions, I didn’t think it was possible to give in to Turkey and Saudi Arabia at the same time.)

A “firehose of falsehood”

The report from the Senate Intelligence Committee on Russian disinformation campaigns surrounding the 2016 U.S. Presidential election and beyond is really interesting reading.

Why Ukraine?

The stories around President Trump and his colleagues’ activities in Ukraine have settled down into a pattern, so as an enthusiastic amateur I’ll try to tie some threads together.

At this point it is fairly obvious that the President and his staff have asked for two favors from Ukraine, possibly in exchange for much-needed American aid and recognition. (That “possibly” is the crux of the impeachment hearings.) First, they want Ukrainian authorities to cooperate in an investigation into interference in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. Second, they want Ukraine authorities to open investigations into Hunter Biden’s involvement with Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian energy company that was previously under investigation, and whether former Vice President Joe Biden encouraged the previous investigation to end.

The strange part is that we pretty much know what happened in both of those circumstances. The Russian government interfered in our election both through a disinformation campaign and hacking into the DNC email server. That was half of the Mueller Report. Russians were indicted. It was a whole thing! Hunter Biden, in the annoying kind of low-level shadiness that pervades politics, was likely on the board of Burisma for PR and lobbying purposes, but the Ukrainians have already stated that the previous investigation of Burisma ended with no findings. If anything, Joe Biden’s pressure to get a corrupt chief prosecutor out of office made it more likely someone would take the Burisma case seriously.

So why are we encouraging the newly elected Ukrainian President to reopen closed cases, through public, diplomatic, and Rudy Giuliani means? What’s the motivation?

To understand, you have to drop into a world of half-thought-out conspiracy theories pushed by Giuliani and how they play to our current President. You also need to think about piles of money just sitting around, waiting to be invested in Miami condos.

In the case of Russian election interference, it’s clear that President Trump is not overly concerned with Russian involvement. There was a recent report that he told the Russian ambassador that he didn’t care about the election interference, because the United States did things just as bad. Even if that isn’t true, his reluctance to address it verbally or legally shows where he stands. (And why would he care? It coincided with what he wanted.)

However, Russian election interference has done two things: It has cast a pall over the President’s election, and it has hurt relations between the United States and Russia. Russia and its oligarchs are currently under sanction for that and several other sins, meaning they can’t launder money as easily in the US.

It has to gall President Trump to hear that his election wasn’t “legitimate.” (For the record, I don’t buy that argument. There are a lot of reasons elections are won and lost, and he won it as fairly as most.) No one wants to think they would have lost without help, particularly not a narcissist who has spent a lifetime building an “I am great” narrative. He casts himself as the underdog most times, rising up and defeating an entrenched political establishment. There isn’t room for election interference in that story.

It must be very seductive to hear Giuliani telling you all about the latest Infowars/Russian disinfo campaign that blames election interference on Ukraine and sets that interference squarely against Donald Trump’s campaign. I mean, they are responsible for your former campaign manager Paul Manafort being in jail after revealing evidence he was paid millions by the corrupt, pro-Russian former regime. Plus, they might have “The Server” from the DNC, according to conspiracy theories I’ve never been able to make sense of. What if the Mueller Report was completely wrong? What if the Ukrainians were interfering against you? You could pardon Manafort! You would have won against the odds! You’re a winner!

Besides, if that’s the case, your friend Vladimir Putin and Russia are being unfairly maligned. There’s no reason for sanctions and freezing oligarchs’ ability to spend money in the US. And it turns out they have a lot of money that they need to move into investments outside of Russia. Largely in real estate, and you can understand that because real estate is how you make your own money. Maybe you can do business someday? (Or keep doing it?)

So, like a lot of folks, you see the equivalent of a Facebook share about how the Ukrainians were behind it all and believe it, but unlike a lot of folks, you’ve got Rudy Giuliani working as your private investigator and you can tell the Attorney General and Secretary of State to go out and find anything that will prove that Mueller was wrong, and you (and Russia) were framed, and your office has the power to “strongly suggest” that the new Ukrainian government help you find out the “truth.”

What about the second part? That seems pretty obvious. If Joe Biden is running against Trump, and there’s some good dirt on him, Trump wants it. That seems pretty clearcut, and it’s at the center of the current impeachment hearings.

However, listening to Rudy Giuliani’s ramblings, I suspect there’s a deeper purpose. Giuliani keeps talking about how the whole Obama Administration was corrupt and he’s the one who can bring them down. President Trump keeps throwing in asides about how former President Obama should be investigated over various deals he made after leaving the White House. I don’t think they want to stop with Biden. President Trump, for reasons of his own, has always hated President Obama. At times it almost seems pathological. It must be very attractive to hear Giuliani say he can get dirt on Biden, on Clinton, on other former Cabinet members, and maybe even President Obama.

That would make everything fall into place. His election was legitimate. His primary competition has to drop out of the race for reelection. He can do business with his friends again. He’s better than Obama. He’s a winner. And all for the low, low price of just putting a little pressure on a few countries to come back with the right results.

You ever wonder why Nixon cheated in 1972 when all indications were he’d win in a landslide? Part of it was that’s just the way he normally did business, and it’s hard to change it up. Part of it was that he wanted to beat Kennedy and LBJ’s margins. Pride is a powerful drug.

Unfortunately for Nixon, his crew wasn’t the most competent. Unfortunately for Trump, Rudy Giuliani is Inspector Clouseau in this movie.

The End of the Soviet Union

Pretty sure just the sight of the guy on synths lead to the tearing down of the Berlin Wall.

It’s a Blue Monday

People are ruining Google

“Hmmmm, car window is sticking. I wonder if there’s a way to fix it without taking the door panel off.”

Googles “car window sticking.”

Finds article titled “How to fix a car window without taking the door panel off.”

Clicks on link.

Third step: “Take the door panel off.”

I’m not sure how we expect Google to circumvent human deceit via algorithms. (After all, not only was content creator actually lying with the title of the article and page, it was part of a network of human-designed and machine-assisted sites linking to each other, pushing the page rank up.)

I’ve noticed recently that this is becoming an actual problem for some of the more obscure searches. Searching for an error message while coding results in dozens of sketchy sites copying all content from the one site that mentions the error, burying the original site. Why? Because computing power makes it trivial to set up those dozens of sites that obfuscate the useful one, and the added-up pennies from ad revenue matter when you’re talking about millions of pages. Linking from reputable sources doesn’t help as much if people aren’t linking to the search term in the first place.

The Tragedy of Humanity

I was not at all surprised to note that the author of The Tragedy of Liberalism also writes for The American Conservative. The well-written pessimism about modernity coupled with a shout-out to “intentional communities” at the end is as good as a fingerprint. (Check out Rod Dreher for the best example.)

Unfortunately, no matter how nicely written and generally correct in detail, these pieces usually stumble due to the implied foundation: That there was a time when it was not so (and, occasionally, that there will be a time when it will not be). Dr. Deneen writes about Liberalism as Anti-Culture — terminology that always makes me think of the Anti-Life Equation — due to the need to privilege individual freedom and state power over cultural norms. The lack of cultural norms as a governing factor results in social chaos and attempts by the state to replace that structure with rules and punishments of its own.

However, the reason humans engage in cultural and social change — and liberalism is a cultural change — is because the previous arrangements came to be viewed as undesirable. Of two examples he cites, one is about a system of mortgage lending that denied people of color the ability to live where they wanted, and the other is a social system of acceptable sexual behavior that removed women’s agency while winking at the indiscretions of men. It is true that the “know your neighbor” community bank did not run up billions of dollars in losses, and the pre-Sexual Revolution norms produced slightly more of a defense against the predation of men, but both were paired with consequences that produced a tipping point towards social change. (I shouldn’t give too much credit on the bank example. Capitalism produced a lot of the impetus towards growth, and lessening discrimination was sort of along for the ride as the state became more concerned about racial equity.)

That being said, I find it strange whenever I read a piece that talks about social change as fundamental, that “there was a time when it was not so.” The perceived sins of liberalism are there precisely because social change accretes. There is no fundamental break between now and then, whether you regard parts of “the past” as a Golden Age or Hell on Earth. Social change is normally based on enabling the “good” while minimizing the “bad,” but that doesn’t mean the bad goes away, replaced by some completely new bad. Nor does it mean the good is new. The pathways for both might be different, as well as the frequencies of particular kinds of behaviors.

I guess the weirdest part to me is that I’m reading stuff that says things like “There is a Human Condition,” a view to which I am quite attracted, but the continuity that implies gets ignored. Culture provides direction and outlets, but the drivers aren’t new. Liberalism changed the details, not the desires. That means any writing about how things are generally bad today needs to address how one would change them in the context of thousands of years of recorded history of performing the same act to a different tune. And that looks like evolution, not revolution, which is unfortunately dissatisfying.

But, then again, cultural criticism has a long history. 🙂

Neo-feudalism

While we keep seeing new nation-states, I wonder how many primarily are facades for interfacing with the rest of the world? It wasn’t that long ago that dynastic families performed the same function.

H.R.861 – To terminate the Environmental Protection Agency

Obligatory caveat: I’m an employee of the EPA, and nothing I say here reflects any official governmental stance.

But the political science nerd in me feels the need to point out that getting rid of the agency wouldn’t do much about the regulatory environment. A substantial portion of the EPA’s work deals with implementing the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and TSCA, both through scientific and regulatory work. If the EPA is abolished, those duties move to another agency, such as HHS, CDC, Interior, USDA, etc. It’s the law. (The EPA was originally a consolidation of environmental protection duties fragmented among other agencies.)

So, if the text of this bill eventually involves changing the CAA, CWA, and TSCA, it might actually accomplish something besides making the sponsors look good for their base during the next campaign.

There are quite a few ways of changing regulations, within the framework of the laws that authorize them:

  1. Executive orders can do a lot.
  2. Change the agency’s priorities by changing the leadership.
  3. Sue on the basis of the regulation not being authorized by the law. (Congress and the Executive have made this harder over the last 4 decades or so, but the newest Supreme Court nominee is well known for not deferring to agency interpretations.)
  4. Reduce or direct funding.
  5. And, most importantly, change the law.

1, 2, and 4 can get the government sued for not following its own laws, and 3 is harder to do, so the ideal way to handle things is 5. Of course, that includes Representatives and Senators willing to vote on the record to change those laws. Talk to yours.

NPVIC and the popular vote

We’ve had two recent presidential elections — as far as current vote counts — where the winner won the Electoral College but lost the popular vote due to most states awarding all their electoral votes to the majority candidate, no matter what the margin. (Certain states use district-level results and other means to split votes.)

As a result, since certain states are “bound” to vote for a certain party each year, and margin of victory doesn’t matter, presidential races come down to a few swing states where each campaign expends the most effort.

There’s something wrong with a system that simultaneously invalidates the national vote while also ensuring certain large states hardly see a presidential candidate during the campaign. It should matter on a national level when people vote Republican in California or Democratic in Texas.

Getting rid of the Electoral College would require a Constitutional amendment, and I’m too inherently conservative to want to get rid of our last firewall between us and complete democracy. However, states are allowed to apportion their electors how they wish, so we had an interesting discussion tonight about what a truly proportional split would look like and some of the problems with that solution.

However, later I ran across the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, which is an interesting idea. It’s a compact of states (10 so far, plus DC) to award their electors to whichever candidate received the greater popular vote, if that award would change the winner of the election. If you look at the map at the link, this election is not affected. However, note the states where NPVIC is currently proposed in the legislature. If those states — Pennsylvania, Missouri, Arizona, and Michigan — had signed and honored the compact, 2016 would look a lot different.

Personally, I would prefer something more proportional, but the notion of needing to win the popular vote nationwide would likely cause candidates to have to pay more attention to their “safe” states. It’d be better than what we have now, at least. (Speaking as a person in a swing state, it’s fine if we don’t get a visit every week.)

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