The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

John Irving on abortion

He buries the lede a bit, but he isn't wrong:

When “The Cider House Rules” was published, some of my younger friends and fellow feminists thought it was quaint that I’d written a historical novel about abortion. They meant: now that abortion rights were secure, now that Roe v. Wade was the law of the land. At the time, I tried to say this nicely: “If you think Roe v. Wade is safe, you’re one of the reasons it isn’t.” Not surprisingly, my older women friends — women who were old enough to have had sex before 1973 — knew better than to imagine that Roe v. Wade would ever be safe. Men and women have to keep making the case for women’s reproductive rights; women have been making the case for years, but more men need to speak up.

Of an unmarried woman or girl who got pregnant, people of my grandparents’ generation used to say: “She is paying the piper.” Meaning, she deserves what she gets — namely, to give birth to a child. That cruelty is the abiding impetus behind the dishonestly named right-to-life movement. Pro-life always was (and remains) a marketing term. Whatever the anti-abortion crusaders call themselves, they don’t care what happens to an unwanted child — not after the child is born — and they’ve never cared about the mother.

Which is why I'm not going to Georgia this year.

What about that new park in Atlanta?

I have a dilemma.

Under the rules I set up for the 30-Park Geas back in 2008, if a park got torn down before I completed the Geas, I would have to go to the replacement park in order to call it "done." Call it an acceptance criterion.

Two years ago, Atlanta repurposed Turner Field and opened SunTrust Park well outside their public transit service area.

Then, after Brian Kemp created a very real fear that his election may have been illegitimate, he signed an abortion law that clearly runs afoul of Roe v Wade and reminded us why it's hard to think of the state as a modern democracy.

So, I really don't want to give any money to Georgia, now or in the foreseeable future. Maybe if the white male establishment there accepts they're in the minority and stops trying to steal elections, kill women, and put baseball parks so far away from the cities they "serve" that only rich white people can even get to them.

Obviously none of this will matter to anyone in Georgia's white-supremacist government. They're not going to repeal onerous legislation because a blogger from Chicago doesn't want to go to their new ballpark.

But to me, I'm going to strike SunTrust from the Geas. Call it a moral exception to the rules of the Geas. This coming Friday, I'll go to my penultimate park in Toronto, and then at the end of September, I'll see the Cubs play the Cardinals in what was always going to be the last park on the tour.

Fundamental self-parody

A religious group has petitioned Netflix to cancel Amazon Prime's miniseries Good Omens:

The six-part series was released last month, starring David Tennant as the demon Crowley and Michael Sheen as the angel Aziraphale, who collaborate to prevent the coming of the antichrist and an imminent apocalypse. Pratchett’s last request to Gaiman before he died was that he adapt the novel they wrote together; Gaiman wrote the screenplay andworked as showrunner on the BBC/Amazon co-production, which the Radio Times called “a devilishly funny love letter to the book”.

But Christians marshalled by the Return to Order campaign, an offshoot of the US Foundation for a Christian Civilisation, disagree. More than 20,000 supporters have signed a petition in which they say that Good Omens is “another step to make satanism appear normal, light and acceptable”, and “mocks God’s wisdom”. God, they complain, is “voiced by a woman” – Frances McDormand – the antichrist is a “normal kid” and, most importantly, “this type of video makes light of Truth, Error, Good and Evil, and destroys the barriers of horror that society still has for the devil”. They are calling on Netflix to cancel the show.

Actually, McDormand is technically not God but the voice of God, otherwise known as the Metatron. Pity Alan Rickman wasn't around to reprise his role from Dogma.

Also a pity none of the religious nutters involved watched the show. On Amazon. Because it's a much better adaptation than I thought possible, probably because the novel's co-author Neil Gaiman wrote the screenplay and is one of the executive producers.

But the crazies will crazy, even if they haven't figured out how to stream video online.

Trump's Federal Guest Worker Program

An alarming number of executive agencies have no Senate-confirmed leadership right now:

The president’s nominees to lead federal agencies must be confirmed by the Senate before they can exercise the duties of the office. There’s an exception, however: The Federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998 (FVRA) gives the president a certain amount of leeway to install other top federal officials into posts on a temporary basis.

Perhaps the most glaring example of Trump circumventing the Senate’s constitutional duty came earlier this month. In May, White House officials confirmed that Trump intended to pick Ken Cuccinelli, the former Virginia attorney general, to lead U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). But the prospect quickly faced strong opposition from Senate Republicans, many of whom Cuccinelli targeted from the right as president of the Senate Conservatives Fund. Facing near-certain defeat, Trump didn’t formally nominate Cuccinelli, naming him to the post in an acting capacity instead.

The Constitution’s framers saw the danger in letting the president staff the executive branch without oversight and gave the Senate the power to advise and consent to nominations. But the FVRA short-circuits this process. Generally speaking, it allows the president to name an acting replacement if a Senate-confirmed official “dies, resigns, or is otherwise unable to perform the functions and duties of the office.” There are limits, including a restriction that an acting head can only serve for 210 days, but there are also exceptions that can extend that length of time.

Once again, a perfectly reasonable statute has allowed perfectly unreasonable results under this president. A law exists to solve a specific problem; this administration sees how to abuse it; they abuse it; a future Congress will have to curtail it.

Woe to thee, o land, when thy king is a child.

The Laffer-stock of real economists

In a move one can bet the President Trump himself doesn't really understand, he will later today confer the Presidential Medal of Freedom—our nation's highest civilian honor—on fraud economist Art Laffer:

Laffer's journey to this moment began 45 years ago with a round of drinks in a Washington cocktail lounge. At the time, Laffer was a young economist at the University of Chicago, trying to persuade President Ford's deputy chief of staff — a guy named Dick Cheney — that lowering taxes could actually boost government revenue.

"Art was trying to explain to Cheney how the Laffer Curve works," recalls Grace-Marie Turner, a journalist who later went to work on Ford's reelection campaign.

Cheney was struggling with the idea, so Laffer resorted to a visual aid.

"He sketched out this Laffer Curve on a paper cocktail napkin at the Hotel Washington, just across the street from the White House," Turner said.

Nobel laureate economist Paul Krugman has had a lot to say about Laffer over the years. For example:

Back in 1980 George H. W. Bush famously described supply-side economics — the claim that cutting taxes on rich people will conjure up an economic miracle, so much so that revenues will actually rise — as “voodoo economic policy.” Yet it soon became the official doctrine of the Republican Party, and still is. That shows an impressive level of commitment. But what makes this commitment even more impressive is that it’s a doctrine that has been tested again and again — and has failed every time.

Yes, the U.S. economy rebounded quickly from the slump of 1979-82. But was that the result of the Reagan tax cuts, or was it, as most economists think, the result of interest rate cuts by the Federal Reserve? Bill Clinton provided a clear test, by raising taxes on the rich. Republicans predicted disaster, but instead the economy boomed, creating more jobs than under Reagan.

Then George W. Bush cut taxes again, with the usual suspects predicting a “Bush boom”; what we actually got was lackluster growth followed by a severe financial crisis. Barack Obama reversed many of the Bush tax cuts and added new taxes to pay for Obamacare — and oversaw a far better jobs record, at least in the private sector, than his predecessor.

So history offers not a shred of support for faith in the pro-growth effects of tax cuts.

The recent history of Kansas also provides just the evidence you need to conclude the Laffer curve is laughable.

Essentially, then, the president is handing out a medal to a party stalwart, much as previous authoritarian rulers would have handed out the Order of Lenin. We can no doubt expect more of this over the next two years.

Between Iraq and a hard place

The Daily Parker will have a bit of activity today, so let me get the two political stories out of the way immediately.

First, Josh Marshall points out a yuge consequence of President Trump's constant lying: people have a hard time believing the administration's claim that Iran had anything to do with the attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman. He connects the dots:

[Y]ou don’t need to assume irrationality or perfidy on the part of the Iranians for them to be behind this. We had a deal with the Iranians backed by all the global powers. We broke the agreement and are now trying to strangle the Iranian economy with new sanctions. By historical standards those actions are reasonably understood to be acts of war. Low level attacks on commercial shipping just under the level that might trigger direct US retaliation has a clear logic to it.

On the other hand, pretty much every regional adversary has a strong incentive to mount some kind of false flag operation, or rush to blame the Iranians. At least a couple have recent histories of reckless, high-risk gambits to advance their perceived goals. The obvious player here is Saudi Arabia and its de facto ruler Mohammad bin Salman. Others seem possible as well.

US claims are further undermined by statements from the owner of the Japanese tanker. The President of the company didn’t dispute or validate the US accusations about who was at fault but contradicted how the US claims the attack happened. The US says it was a mine. The tanker owner said it was a flying object (presumably a missile or projectile of some sort) which had an impact entirely above the ship’s waterline. That doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence in the US version of events.

The truth is all the players involved have huge incentives to lie. And a few of them have very recent histories of the most flagrant falsehoods and dirty tricks on an international scale.

Second, the Atlantic's Adam Serwer bemoans the right wing trend to abandon democracy when they lose their arguments:

The tide of illiberalism sweeping over Western countries and the election of Donald Trump have since renewed hope among some on the religious right that it might revive its cultural control through the power of the state. Inspired by Viktor Orbán in Hungary and Vladimir Putin in Russia, a faction of the religious right now looks to sectarian ethno-nationalism to restore its beliefs to their rightful primacy, and to rescue a degraded and degenerate culture. All that stands in their way is democracy, and the fact that most Americans reject what they have to offer.

The past few weeks have witnessed a nasty internecine fight among religious conservatives about whether liberal democracy’s time has passed. Sohrab Ahmari, writing at First Things, attacked National Review’s David French for adhering to a traditional commitment to liberal democracy while “the overall balance of forces has tilted inexorably away from us.” Would the left have stood by liberal democracy in the face of such circumstances? In fact, the balance of forces tilted away from the left’s cultural priorities for most of my lifetime, and the left’s response was to win arguments—slowly, painfully, and at incalculable personal cost.

We've always known the right were crybabies. And we've always known that they are on the losing side of history. But they're not going quietly into the night; nor are they trying to convince anyone through logic. Same as always.

Getting away with it

President Trump's two biggest liars supporters made news today, one by quitting, and the other by refusing to.

First, the president announced yesterday that Press Secretary Sarah Sanders would leave at the end of the month. Though it remained unclear whether Sanders knew about this before the Tweet, she confirmed she will depart government service in two weeks, after successfully destroying the credibility of her office over the past two years:

The White House press secretary—the office, if not the person—is an outgrowth of the idea that, in a democracy, information matters, and facts matter, and while politicians and the press may tangle and tussle, they are ultimately on the same team. Sanders, who ascended to the press-secretary role in July of 2017, after the brief and peevish tenure of Sean Spicer, publicly rejected that idea. To watch a Sanders press conference, or to watch her representing the White House on cable news, was to be confronted with a vision of America that is guided by political Darwinism—an environment in which everything is a competition, with the winner determined by who can shout the loudest, who can distract the most effectively, who can get in the best insult before the time for questioning is over.

Here is some of the misinformation Sanders has spread on behalf of the White House: She has insisted that her boss never “promoted or encouraged violence,” although Donald Trump, among many other such promotions, said of a protester who’d been ejected from a 2016 rally, “I’d like to punch him in the face.” She has outright dismissed the stories of the multiple women who have accused Trump of sexual abuse as lies. She has told reporters that she’d heard from “countless” FBI agents who were happy that Trump had fired James Comey in 2017; she would later characterize that, to Robert Mueller, as a mere “slip of the tongue.”

Her broader legacy, though, is an acquiescence to the idea that facts themselves have a political bias. The agent of a president who has transformed “fake news” from an offhanded insult into a democratic anxiety, Sanders has used her powerful pulpit to promote the “Fake News Awards,” her boss’s carnivalesque attempt to institutionalize his mockery of the American media. She has accused reporters of “purposefully misleading the American people.” She has deflected; she has belittled; she has eye-rolled; she has condescended; she has obfuscated; she has misled; she has lied. And she has treated it all as a battle to be won. So many of the public interactions Sanders has conducted with reporters—whether Acosta or April Ryan or Jim Sciutto or Brian Karem or the many other members of the press who are charged with reporting on the daily doings of the White House—have been wars in miniature. And, day by day, the martial logic lurking in the way Americans talk about their politics—the campaign and the press corps, the war room—has been made ever more literal. What is true about the world we all navigate, together? That becomes a less important question than who is winning in it.

Margaret Sullivan calls Sanders "the disdainful Queen of Gaslighting."

Meanwhile, after years of obvious, repeated violations of the Hatch Act (prohibiting government employees from making public political statements), the Office of Special Counsel recommended that the White House fire Kellyanne Conway. The Trump-appointed OSC head made this recommendation. Conway's response? "Blah, blah, blah:"

It’s not that Conway is unaware of the rules. She’s openly thumbed her nose at them. In a May interview, when asked about overstepping the rules, she replied, “If you’re trying to silence me through the Hatch Act, it’s not going to work … Let me know when the jail sentence starts.”

Her cavalier attitude toward the law, while galling, is also probably safe. The Hatch Act is written with the understanding that the president would not want his aides flagrantly and wantonly violating the law, and only the president can fire a senior aide for violating the law. In the Trump administration, that has been revealed as a loophole, since this particular president has no inclination to punish violations that benefit him. (One of the most outspoken critics of Trump’s disrespect for laws and regulations has been the longtime Republican lawyer George Conway, who has used his Twitter feed to criticize the president. He also happens to be married to Kellyanne Conway. As of this writing, George Conway had not yet commented.)

We need to get these people out of office as soon as legally possible. Unfortunately, they can still do a lot of damage between now and January 2021.

Incomprehensible privacy policies

Kevin Litman-Navarro, writing for the Times, analyzed dozens of privacy policies online for readability and brevity. The situation is grim:

The vast majority of these privacy policies exceed the college reading level. And according to the most recent literacy survey conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, over half of Americans may struggle to comprehend dense, lengthy texts. That means a significant chunk of the data collection economy is based on consenting to complicated documents that many Americans can’t understand.

Despite efforts like the General Data Protection Regulation to make policies more accessible, there seems to be an intractable tradeoff between a policy’s readability and length. Even policies that are shorter and easier to read can be impenetrable, given the amount of background knowledge required to understand how things like cookies and IP addresses play a role in data collection.

“You’re confused into thinking these are there to inform users, as opposed to protect companies,” said Albert Gidari, the consulting director of privacy at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society.

As data collection practices become more sophisticated (and invasive), it’s unlikely that privacy policies will become any easier to comprehend. And if states continue to draft their own data protection laws, as California is doing with its Consumer Privacy Act, privacy policies could balloon with location-specific addendums.

Litman-Navarro called out the BBC for its readable, short policy that explains to normal people exactly how the Beeb will use their data. He also called out AirBnB for the opposite: a lawyerly document of incredible length that tells users nothing.

Here at the Daily Parker, we only collect your personal information (specifically, your email address and name) if you give it to us through the Comment form, and we don't show your email address to anyone. Sometimes we will use it to get in touch with you directly about a comment you've left. Otherwise we treat it as we treat our own private information. Clear?

A fun rant to read

Not a lot new in David Roth's takedown of the president today, but he does have a few good bits:

The spectacle of expert analysts and thought leaders parsing the actions of a man with no expertise or capacity for analysis is the purest acid satire—but less because of how badly that expert analysis has failed than because of how sincerely misplaced it is. Trump represents an extraordinary challenge to political media precisely because there is nothing here to parse, no hidden meanings or tactical elisions or slow-rolled strategic campaign. Mainstream political media and Trump’s opponents in the Democratic Party conceive of politics as chess, a matter of feints and sacrifices and moves made so as to open the way for other moves. There’s an element of romance to this vision, which is a crucial tenet in a certain type of big-D Democratic thought and also something like the reason why anyone would need to employ a political analyst. But Trump is not playing chess. The man is playing Hungry Hungry Hippos.

And here at last we are beginning to circle around Trump’s true superpower, and are closer to identifying the small and stubborn thing that defines him. It’s what binds his deliriously incoherent politics, and helps him thread together his wildly far-flung grievances—Trump never forgets a slight, and pursues ancient grudges against bygone New York showbiz figures with the same tireless vigor that he brings to his campaigns against his various Deep State persecutors—into a single rancid system of being. There is nothing artful or concealed about Donald Trump, which is one of the secrets of his strange success as a politician. His lies are preposterous and glaring and never anything but the obvious opposite of what is actually true; his unquestioned desires and deeply held, deeply unreasoning bigotries and petty fixations are all absolutely untouched from the 1988 Rich Guy factory settings; the sheer mass of his annihilating selfishness leaves no room for anything like subtext. Trump is nothing but what he appears to be, and his superpower comes from this. His superpower is getting upset.

It's comforting that the latest polls show him losing to at least five of the Democratic candidates running against him, with Biden and Sanders mopping the floor with him. But it's also a long way to the election.

The mechanical voids that make billionaires' erections bigger

Developers have learned to game New York City's zoning laws to construct buildings far larger than the plain meaning of those laws should allow:

Now, in a Second Gilded Age with magnates looking to park their millions in Manhattan real estate, developers stop at little to deliver the high-status goods, which these days are calculated in height and views.

As a result, New York is facing the “mechanical void” problem. It may sound like an embarrassing medical condition, but the voids are actually just air above floors occupied by equipment (mainly heating, ventilating, and cooling systems). That air becomes extraordinarily valuable when it can boost apartments higher above view-blocking neighbors. Raising the ceiling of mechanical spaces (which usually need only 10- to 15-foot ceilings) to as high as 350 feet becomes not absurd but savvy.

New York City does not generally limit building heights, but instead controls bulk and density by what’s called the floor area ratio (FAR). This means that a residential developer can build nine times the square feet of the lot area in an R-9 district. Depending on how the building bulk is arranged, the usual result is a building of about 15 stories.

Ridiculously tall mechanical spaces, which are not counted toward FAR, are not the only abusive (though ostensibly legal) tactic developers use to push buildings to ever greater heights.

If you think this through, however, these developments still go through the zoning board. So yes, the legal interpretations twist the law into painful shapes for the sake of bragging rights, but also a city agency lets them do it.

This reminds me of one of Chicago's ugliest buildings, at 2314 N. Lincoln Park West, which juts out from the rest of the buildings on the block (some of them historic) and looks like someone measured wrong. I haven't confirmed this, but I think the error was measured in thousands of dollars, and involved an alderman or two.