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Uncomfortably numb

[ 161 ] September 12, 2016 |


This morning Donald Trump went on the teevee and:

(a) Used an egregious racial slur to mock a current U.S. senator

(b) Told a big fat lie about the fact (warning: not actually a fact) that he doesn’t own any stock.

(c) Revealed that he doesn’t know the first thing about, well basically anything, but in this case monetary policy and the work of the Federal Reserve.

(d) Trotted out one of his minions to fulminate on CNN, the most trusted name in news, ™ against “this whole, you know, Trans-Pacific trade agreement with China.”


In a normal election cycle, a candidate making an offhand racist remark about a sitting US senator would be a big news story.

In a normal election cycle, a candidate making an offhanded lie about the state of his personal finances would be a big news story.

To be totally honest, even in a normal election cycle a candidate exhibiting total confusion about the mechanics and merits of monetary policy probably wouldn’t be that big of a news story but it would at least get some attention.

Seriously. Stop. Take a breath. Now imagine if Mitt Romney had run exactly Mitt Romney’s campaign but then suddenly in mid-September went on television and called Elizabeth Warren Pocahontas for no reason. It would have been huge.

This year, basically nothing. Trump being kinda racist is a dog-bites-man story. After all, just yesterday Donald Trump Jr. shared a white nationalist meme on Instagram. Trump lies all the time, so that’s not a big deal. In fact, he lies frequently about the essential core of his foreign policy, and his business dealings pose such obvious and flagrant conflicts of interest and ethics problems that lying about his stock holdings doesn’t seem like a big deal. And of course Trump doesn’t understand what he’s saying when it comes to monetary policy — monetary policy is complicated and obscure and Trump doesn’t know what he’s talking about on any other issue either. . .

Speaking of which:

The Trans-Pacific Partnership is not a trade agreement with China. It includes 12 countries and none of them is China.

The long term effects of this sort of desensitizing of the body politic are probably analogous to the long-term effects of drinking a quart of gin every day and finding that you don’t ever feel particularly intoxicated any more:

The truly scary thing is that Trump is redefining the concept of a gaffe out of existence. It turns out that if you just boldly repeat something often enough, it goes away as a story. We’ve become numb, as a society, to what Trump is doing. In the process we’ve normalized casual racism, intense personal insults as an approach to politics, and completely decentered the idea that elected officials should grapple with difficult policy questions. Half the crazy things Trump says or does barely merit a mention on Twitter, much less the front-page coverage they would have merited in previous campaigns.

More than anything else, the numbness that Trump creates frightens me.

We have a learned a lot this year about what you can get away with in politics if you are brazen enough. The answer is that you can get away with a lot. Whatever happens in November, that revelation won’t go away.

. . . Warren Terra notes in comments that Toronto Star DC correspondent Daniel Dale has a much longer list, and points out that even combining the two lists may well not be comprehensive, since each omits items from the other:

• Called Sen. Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas”
• Claimed with no evidence that Fed Chair Janet Yellen is manipulating monetary policy to help Obama, said she “should be ashamed of herself”
• Said the Fed, the FBI, and the Department of Justice are “obviously” no longer independent
• Alleged with no evidence that the Presidential debates will be “rigged” and said there should be no moderator
• Falsely claimed his schedule had been busier than Clinton’s: “There’s not a contest”
• Claimed with no evidence that Iranian sailors are making “crude gestures” at American sailors
• Claimed with no evidence that British people “call me Mr. Brexit”
• Said, “I’m the king of illegal immigration. I will stop it!”
• Falsely claimed Clinton wants “open borders”
• Said he would turn Air Force One around and fly home if top officials from a foreign country weren’t at the airport to greet him
• Said of North Korea: “We should get China to fix that problem”
• Falsely claimed he is leading in the polls
• Falsely claimed he has visited “numerous” black communities other than Philadelphia and Detroit


Where does the phrase “basket of deplorables” come from?

[ 217 ] September 11, 2016 |


I have spent days hours minutes using my weak google-fu trying to determine the answer to this question, and now, in the spirit of the contemporary entrepreneurial university, I am going to outsource it.

My guesses regarding its origin:

(1) Something from a Smiths song.

(2) A phrase from a Victorian novel.

(3) One of Shakespeare’s minor plays.

(4) Harry Potter?

If this wasn’t actually an allusion, and Hillary came up with the phrase herself, color me impressed.

If you laugh at this you’re going to Hell

[ 129 ] September 9, 2016 |

You’ve been warned.

Luckily nobody has over-reacted or anything:

SAN ANTONIO —Miracle Mattress will close “indefinitely” after the San Antonio store’s advertisement for a 9/11-themed “Twin Tower Sale” received heavy social media backlash and media attention, the company announced Friday.

The now-deleted video, posted on the store’s Facebook page earlier this week, shows manager Cherise Bonanno and two employees boasting the promotion in front of two stacks of mattresses.

RELATED: After national backlash, mattress store continues to apologize for 9/11 ‘Twin Tower’ sale ad

“Effective immediately, our Miracle Mattress store will be closed indefinitely,” owner Mike Bonanno said in a letter posted to the store’s doors on Friday. “We will be silent through the 9/11 anniversary to avoid any further distractions from a day of recognition and remembrance for the victims and their families. We take full responsibility for our actions and sincerely regret the hurt and pain caused by this disrespectful advertising campaign.”

The company, which has apologized for its actions, said it will lay out “plans to offer support for the 9/11 Memorial and victim funds” in a statement next week.

“There is very little we can do to take away the hurt we have caused but we can begin with silence through the anniversary and then do our best to follow up with actions that reflect the seriousness of our mistake,” Mike Bonanno said in the letter.

. . . obviously the ad is horribly tasteless (if it makes a difference it was a video posted on the store’s Facebook page, as opposed to something that ran in conventional advertising formats) and basically suicidal from a business point of view, but the whole subject of black humor is pretty interesting. What about this, which was broadcast three (not 15) years after 9/11?

This scene takes place in the context of an episode where, among other things, a Holocaust survivor and a contestant from the show Survivor get into a fight at a dinner party about who suffered more. Is the mattress commercial worse because it’s a mattress commercial? (Full disclosure: I love Curb Your Enthusiasm and this is one of my favorite episodes),

Star Trek: 50th anniversary thread

[ 405 ] September 8, 2016 |

star trek

I’m a very marginal Star Trek fan as such things go. My Trekkie credentials are weak at best, consisting of having seen at one time or another probably every episode of the original series, bits and pieces of a couple of the subsequent series, primarily STNG, and maybe four or five of the movies, although none since the one that had RoddyMalcolm McDowell in it.

Almost all of my Trek viewing consisted of seeing reruns in the 1970s of the original series, although I have a fragmentary memory of actually seeing the very first episode — the one with Captain Pike’s severely messed up face and creepy communication device — at the time it originally aired 50 years ago tonight (I was six, and it made quite an impression on me if I’m recalling this incident from my early childhood correctly, which I wouldn’t bet a lot of money on, but FWIW).

However I’ve actually been to a couple of conventions — Star Cons in the lingo I believe — in the company of some real fans. They have a big one in Denver every year, and indeed I think Denver is one of the original, if not the original, sites for these gatherings. So I’m a lukewarm fan at best, but I’ve seen the hardcore devotion to the series up close and personal, and I find it fascinating.

The original series is by conventional measures a pretty bad TV show in lots of ways: low budget, with over the top acting, particularly from the inimitable William Shatner, and many hackneyed, formulaic plots. There are some exceptions, such as City on the Edge of Forever — what a great title! — which I believe was written by Harlan Ellison. And it had awesome opening and closing credit sequences (The only competitor in the category of best opening sequence for a classic TV show is Hawaii 5-0. That was in re-runs when I was in college, airing at 11:30 PM on the local Detroit station, and I would sometimes make a point of catching the opening, in those primitive days before DVRs, let alone the Youtube and the Snapchat etc).

But for all its obvious limitations, Star Trek in its various manifestations has had a huge effect on an enormous number of people. This thread is intended to be a discussion of what Star Trek has meant to you, or people you know, or American or world or galactic culture.


Fair and balanced

[ 243 ] September 7, 2016 |


The normalization of Donald Trump — which requires treating Hillary Clinton’s minor lapses in judgment as equivalent to Trump’s ignorant authoritarian lunacy — continues apace:

I had not taken seriously the possibility that Donald Trump could win the presidency until I saw Matt Lauer host an hour-long interview with the two major party candidates. Lauer’s performance was not merely a failure, it was horrifying and shocking. The shock, for me, was the realization that most Americans inhabit a very different news environment than professional journalists. I not only consume a lot of news, since it’s my job, I also tend to focus on elite print news sources. Most voters, and all the more so undecided voters, subsist on a news diet supplied by the likes of Matt Lauer. And the reality transmitted to them from Lauer matches the reality of the polls, which is a world in which Clinton and Trump are equivalently flawed.

Lauer focused a third of his questioning time on Clinton’s private email server. Her decision to follow Colin Powell’s advice is a legitimate blot on her record. But Lauer did not move the ball forward on the question in any meaningful way . . .

Lauer followed up with four more email-related questions. The impression an uninformed or even moderately informed viewer would receive from this interview is that the email issue represents a sinister crime, perhaps completely disqualifying from office, rather than an unjustifiable but routine act of government non-transparency.

The email exchange would not by itself be so alarming except when viewed in juxtaposition with Lauer’s hapless interview of Trump. Trump began the interview by boldly insisting, “I was totally against the war in Iraq. You can look at Esquire magazine from 2004. You can look at before that.” This is a lie. Trump has been quoted supporting the invasion beforehand and even afterward. Nobody has produced any evidence of Trump contradicting his support for the war before it started. His line to Lauer was transparently ridiculous – how could a 2004 interview supply evidence of having opposed a war that began in 2003? But Lauer did not try even a single follow-up.

Trump went on to make a series of wild and dangerous statements. He praised Russian President Vladimir Putin as a strong, effective, and popular leader. Lauer did press him on this point, and when he did, Trump offered the astonishing rebuttal, saying President Obama had done equivalently brutish things. Lauer did not press Trump on his claim that the president of the United States behaves in a fundamentally similar way to a dictator who imprisons and kills political critics and journalists. Trump likewise reiterated his belief that “to the victor go the spoils” is the proper basis for American foreign policy, specifically with regard to his longstanding lament that the United States failed to steal Iraq’s oil after the 2003 invasion.

Lauer’s attempt to press Trump was the completely ineffectual technique of asking repeatedly if he is ready to serve as commander-in-chief. Lauer probably believes the answer is no, but nothing about this question would drive home Trump’s extraordinary lack of knowledge. Instead it allowed him to performatively demonstrate his confident, alpha-male reality show character as a prospective chief executive.

Both of these beliefs stun and appall foreign policy experts in both parties, as readers of the Washington Post or the New York Times know. But the average undecided voter isn’t reading those newspapers. The average undecided voter is getting snippets of news from television personalities like Lauer, who are failing to convey the fact that the election pits a normal politician with normal political failings against an ignorant, bigoted, pathologically dishonest authoritarian.

In sum, both sides do it, the truth lies somewhere in the middle, etc.

. . . As commenter McAllen points out, the Times isn’t exactly covering itself in glory tonight either.

Mmmm, pizza

[ 74 ] September 2, 2016 |


I hate it when this happens:

Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein was scheduled to speak at Capital University in Bexley at noon today but it looks like she’s running a little late.

That’s because instead of flying into Columbus, she accidentally went to Cincinnati instead, according to the Capital University Greens Student Organization who is sponsoring the event.

Yes. You read that correctly.

About 100 people are waiting at Schaaf Lawn on campus. It’s unclear if they will all hang around while Stein drives up from Cincinnati but pizza’s [c’mon I know it’s Ohio but srsly?] are being ordered to thank people for their patience.

It’s also unclear how and why she flew into the wrong airport.

“They just got on the road and will be two hours late. Things happen,” said Aaron Suarez, who is president of Capital University Greens Student Organization and sophomore political science major from Marion.

Too bad they don’t have a vaccine yet for incompetence. Or grandiosity. Or Domino’s.

Trump isn’t paying senior staff who thought they were on salary

[ 84 ] September 2, 2016 |


Nobody could have anticipated etc.

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has run an unusually cheap campaign in part by not paying at least 10 top staffers, consultants and advisers, some of whom are no longer with the campaign, according to a review of federal campaign finance filings. . .

Not compensating top people in a presidential campaign is a departure from campaign finance norms. Many of the positions involved might typically come with six-figure annual paychecks in other campaigns.

“It’s unprecedented for a presidential campaign to rely so heavily on volunteers for top management positions,” said Paul Ryan, an election lawyer with the campaign finance reform advocacy group Campaign Legal Center.

The Trump campaign said the Reuters’ reporting was “sloppy at best” but declined to elaborate.

One of the 10 who were unpaid, Michael Caputo, told a Buffalo radio station in June after he resigned from the campaign, that he was not volunteering. Rather, he said he just had not gotten paid. Caputo confirmed to Reuters on Thursday that the Trump campaign has still not paid his invoices.

I’m usually quite sympathetic to people who get scammed by grifters, but at this point people who voluntarily put themselves in a position where they can get ripped off by Donald Trump deserve to be robbed blind, as I’m sure he would agree enthusiastically.

Rudy can fail

[ 118 ] September 1, 2016 |


This isn’t photoshopped.

The unwilling suspension of disbelief necessary to understand the bad political novel we’re living in becomes more burdensome by the day.

Jerry Brown’s excellent adventure

[ 90 ] September 1, 2016 |


Earlier this week Jerry Brown vetoed a bill that would have required applicants to the California bar to complete 50 hours of supervised pro bono work (supervised by a lawyer or law professor) before they could be eligible for bar admission. In his veto message, Brown pointed out that California law students often pay exorbitant sums for degrees that don’t end in legal employment for them, and that it would make more sense to try to make legal education cheaper than to pile on yet more professional requirements onto aspiring lawyers. (Here’s an explanation of why mandatory pro bono for aspiring lawyers is a terrible idea).

Reading Brown’s message reminded me of a couple of things:

(1) Jerry Brown is governor of California; and, relatedly,

(2) His amazing political comeback — he was first elected governor of the nation’s largest state three months after Richard Nixon resigned the presidency — has gotten practically no attention in the national media.

Brown has had one of the most remarkable careers in American political history. It’s a unique and fascinating story in many ways, and I hope somebody writes a good book about it if they haven’t already.

What is Donald Trump doing in Mexico City?

[ 144 ] August 31, 2016 |


On its face, Donald Trump’s hastily-arranged visit with Mexican president Enrique Pena Nieto is a bizarre development, even given the extremely high bar established for that category by the Trump scampaign.

To say that Trump is reviled in Mexico all across the ideological spectrum is akin to saying that Mike Trout is a pretty good baseball player. It’s a bit of an understatement, in other words.

The natural suspicion is that Pena Nieto, who is at the moment extremely unpopular, is going to use what appears to be — on the part of both men — a last-minute seat of the pants stunt, to do something to help his own dire political situation. But what? To say that this isn’t going over well so far is like saying Erik Loomis isn’t particularly fond of ketchup:

The predominant feeling here in the Mexican capital is one of betrayal.

“It’s a historic error,” said Enrique Krauze, a well-known historian. “You confront tyrants, you don’t appease them.”

On Mexico’s most popular morning television show on Wednesday, a livid Mr. Krauze likened the president’s meeting with Mr. Trump to the decision by Neville Chamberlain, then the British prime minister, to sit down with Hitler in Munich in 1938.

“It isn’t brave to meet in private with somebody who has insulted and denigrated” Mexicans, Mr. Krauze said. “It isn’t dignified to simply have a dialogue.”

Yes, many Mexicans say, it was Mr. Trump who offended the people of Mexico with his disparaging comments about migrants and his promises to build a border wall paid for by Mexico.

But for many Mexicans, the surprising invitation from Mr. Peña Nieto — who has likened Mr. Trump’s language to that of Hitler and Mussolini in the past — is even worse.

Newspapers, television stations, social media and all manner of national communication were awash in vitriol at the idea of a meeting between the two men.

The invitation has managed to do what has always been a herculean task in this fractious and economically divided nation: unite the masses.

Protests are lined up for the day. Invitations designed like party fliers were fired off through the night, heralding the visit with a handwritten message: “Trump, you are not welcome!”

On top of all this, Trump is flying straight from this meeting to Arizona, to give a major speech on immigration. So what is really going on here? Josh Marshall:

It’s a general rule of politics not to enter into unpredictable situations or cede control of an event or happening to someone who wants to hurt you. President Nieto definitely does not want Donald Trump to become President. He probably assumes he won’t become president, simply by reading the polls. President Nieto is himself quite unpopular at the moment. But no one is more unpopular than Donald Trump. Trump is reviled. Toadying to Trump would be extremely bad politics; standing up to him, good politics.

Put those factors together and Peña Nieto has massive and overlapping reasons to want to embarrass Trump. At a minimum since he’s probably not eager to create a true international incident, he has zero interest in appearing in any way accommodating or helpful. The calculus might be different if Trump seemed likely to be the next US President. Mexico is a minor power with the world colossus on its doorstep. But a Trump presidency seems unlikely. Far likelier, Peña Nieto will need to build a relationship with Hillary Clinton. These factors combined make for an inherently dangerous political situation for Donald Trump, especially since the atmospherics of this meeting will be the backdrop for Trump’s evening speech which is itself an incredibly important moment and one in which he has set for himself what is likely an impossible challenge. . .

Trump’s Razor helps here. It’s tempting to assume that there’s some angle Trump has here, some plan or understanding with Peña Nieto to make this not as silly a decision as it appears to be. I’m tempted because how could they think this was a good idea? Trump’s Razor tells us to resist this temptation. “The stupidest scenario possible that can be reconciled with the available facts.” I think that’s what we have here. It’s as stupid as it looks. Who knows? Maybe Trump will handle this deftly and it’ll be a huge success. But Trump’s Razor has yet to fail me. So I’m going to stick with it.

The future of self-driving cars

[ 391 ] August 30, 2016 |


The self-driving car appears to be sort of almost here.

A driverless future will obviously have enormous economic, social, and cultural consequences. To mention a relatively trivial one from my own piece of the pie: A large percentage of the work done by many small law firms and solo practice lawyers involves things — traffic accidents, drunk driving, etc. — that will pretty much disappear in a world without drivers.

A more consequential effect will involve the millions of people in the US alone who currently make their living by driving cars and trucks.

In short, driverless cars could be a major technological shock in all sorts of ways, both good and bad. Which raises the question (btw I hate it when people use the phrase “begs the question” to mean “raises;” also get off of my lawn) of how soon this harbinger of our robot overlord future will be upon us.

I have zero expertise or even vague lay knowledge on this subject, so I put it to you, quasi-omniscient LGM readership:

(1) When will your typical local car dealership first sell driverless cars?

(2) When will a significant percentage — say 10% — of all cars on the road be driverless?

(3) When will the majority of cars no longer have human drivers?

(4) When will the human-driven car be a freakishly rare site, causing wonder among the young, who will have lost this crucial skill set, even as their grip strength continues to decline in our increasingly machine-dominated and decadent age?

Obama administration essentially puts ITT Technical Institute out of business

[ 30 ] August 26, 2016 |


The Obama administration took steps Thursday that could effectively force the closure of one of the nation’s largest for-profit college chains, banning ITT Technical Institute from enrolling new students who receive federal aid.

ITT, which has about 43,000 students nationwide, is facing accusations from its accreditor of chronic mismanagement of its finances and using questionable recruiting tactics. The company is also under investigation by state and federal authorities.

The Education Department said Thursday it had lost faith that ITT would survive the scrutiny and banned its schools from accepting new students that receive federal loans and grants to pay for the school’s tuition. Such aid provided 68% of the company’s $850 million in revenue last year.

While ITT can continue to collect aid from current students, without a future source of revenue the company would almost surely be forced to close many, if not all, of its campuses, analysts said. Private lenders have largely stopped making loans to students at for-profit schools since the recession. . . .

The move is part of a broader crackdown by the Obama administration on the for-profit college industry, which officials have accused of using deceptive marketing to enroll vulnerable students who go thousands of dollars into debt for low-quality educations.

Last year, Corinthian Colleges Inc., another major for-profit chain, liquidated in bankruptcy after the Education Department banned it from receiving federal aid amid allegations of inflating the career outcomes of graduates. Corinthian officials denied the allegations.

“Millions of dollars in taxpayer money and tens of thousands of students are in jeopardy,” Ted Mitchell, the Education Department’s undersecretary, said in a call with reporters about the move against ITT. “We have both a legal and ethical responsibility to strengthen safeguards in accordance with the public’s trust.”

The government would likely be forced to absorb losses on student loans if ITT closes under a federal law that relieves students of the obligation to repay their loans under such circumstances.

Many former ITT students have also applied to a federal program that forgives debt if they can prove their schools used illegal recruiting tactics, such as running advertisements with misleading statistics on the career success of graduates. The government has forgiven $171 million in student debt owed by former Corinthian students.

It’s also nice to see that Obama’s DOE has some appropriately cynically-minded regulators:

The Education Department also prohibited ITT from giving raises, bonuses or severance payments to its executives. Agency officials say that under federal law, it can impose executive-compensation limits on companies like ITT that enter contracts with the department to receive federal aid.

Oh the humanity! If the Free Enterprise System stands for anything, it’s for the principle that Emergency Golden Parachutes should be funded by the public. In fact I believe that’s actually in the Constitution, somewhere towards the back. (Leave to a socialist to trample on these sacred tenets).

Luckily this kind of thing obviously has nothing whatsoever to do with law schools:

It’s a mere formality. Every five years, the Department of Education renews the ABA’s power to accredit law schools. The June 2016 session before a DOE advisory committee (NACIQI) was supposed to be just another step in the rubber-stamping process. The NACIQI staff had recommended approval. The committee’s three-day session contemplated action on a dozen other accrediting bodies, ranging from the American Psychological Association to the American Theological Schools. Sandwiched between acupuncture and health education, the agenda contemplated an hour for the ABA.

What could go wrong?

For the next several hours, the ABA Section of Legal Education was much to its evident surprise subjected to the — well-deserved — regulatory equivalent of a root canal:

The ABA’s culture of self-interest and insularity has now created a bigger mess. Some NACIQI members favored the “nuclear” option: recommending denial of the ABA’s accrediting authority altogether. The committee opted to send a “clear message” through less draconian means.

The final recommendation was to give the ABA a 12-month period during which it would have no power to accredit new law schools. Thereafter, the ABA would report its progress in addressing the committee’s concerns, including the massive debt that students are incurring at law schools with poor JD-required placement rates.

As one member put it, “It is great to collect data, but they don’t have any standard on placement. What’s the point of collecting data if you can’t…use the data to help the students and protect the students…”

Another member summarized the committee’s view of the ABA: “This feels like an Agency that is out of step with a crisis in its profession, out of step with the changes in higher ed, and out of step with the plight of the students that are going through the law schools.”

The day of reckoning may not be at hand, but it’s getting closer.

See also Deborah Merritt, who provides a link to a complete transcript of the meeting for the S&M crowd.

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