The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Speculative fiction in the Economist

This week's Economist features a collection of "what-if" stories that attempt to present near-future events well within the realm of possibility. First up, what if an American destroyer were surrounded by small Chinese boats in the contested waters of the South China Sea...next October?

The official account of the crisis begins with a terse Pentagon statement, issued on October 9th, that the McCampbell, an Arleigh Burke class destroyer, had been forced to stop in international waters by vessels “answering to China’s military chain of command” while conducting a “routine, lawful transit in the vicinity of the Paracel Islands”.

The Pentagon demanded that China allow the McCampbel“and all its equipment” to continue its passage. The reference to equipment was clarified an hour later when Xinhua, China’s state news agency, released a video showing Chinese fishermen with boathooks grabbing at a half-submerged underwater drone fouled in a net, described as an American spy submarine. A second Xinhua video showed an inflatable speedboat, manned by armed American sailors, apparently adjacent to the drone but trapped by two dozen Chinese fishing boats organised into a ring formation.

Both countries agree on some of what happened next. After about 30 minutes the American inflatable broke through the circle of fishing boats as sailors fired shots with their small arms, and returned to the destroyer, where Ji-Hoon Kim, one of the speedboat’s crew, was reported missing. Soon afterwards a growing fleet of Chinese fishing trawlers, many of them flying large red flags, surrounded the McCampbell.

Could this happen? Absolutely. How would it end? I suppose that depends on the temperaments of the leaders in both countries...

Other speculations include the departure of Facebook from Europe, the failure of most antibiotics, America's withdrawal from NATO, and an historical one speculating on the Allies being more reasonable with the Central Powers in 1919.

Submitted without correction

This bit:

I mean:

Historians ⁠— at least the ones fact-checking the president on Twitter ⁠— were not impressed. One likened the speech to “an angry grandpa reading a fifth grader’s book report on American military history.”

On Friday, Trump confirmed he had problems with the teleprompter, telling journalists: “I guess the rain knocked out the teleprompter, so it’s not that, but I knew the speech very well, so I was able to do it without a teleprompter. But the teleprompter did go out. And it was actually hard to look at anyway because there was rain all over it.”

Right. Obama, maybe Clinton, could have given an extemporaneous speech about the Revolution. This guy? Well, we saw.

Trump's National Mall event is both better and worse than you think

That's what screenwriter Jeff Greenfield, writing for Politico, says:

Celebrations of the Fourth do not tend to benefit both parties equally, and here, Trump may well be demonstrating his instinctive grasp of which way a big event tends to nudge the populace. In 2011, two academics who studied the political effect of Fourth of July festivities concluded that: "Fourth of July celebrations in the United States shape the nation's political landscape by forming beliefs and increasing participation, primarily in favor of the Republican Party. … The political right has been more successful in appropriating American patriotism and its symbols during the 20th century, [so] there is a political congruence between the patriotism promoted on Fourth of July and the values associated with the Republican Party.”

For all that, history also suggests there's good reason that his plan is rubbing people the wrong way. For one, it really is rare; it's far more common for presidents to vacate Washington on the Fourth of July, or to remain at the White House, than to insert themselves into the proceedings.

Someone who can say of himself that he has been treated worse than any president in history—four of whom were assassinated—has an impressively unique understanding of his own role in the American story, to say the least.

NPR says the event will cost taxpayers millions. And Rick Atkinson takes a broader view, comparing us on our 243rd anniversary of independence from Britain to Britain of that time.

Ivanka Trump doesn't belong at the dinner, let alone the table

National security expert and Georgetown professor Carrie Cordero has about had it with the first daughter play-acting in government:

Ivanka Trump’s self-placement at the table with global heads of state is not an example of the ascension of a professional woman: She has, after all, not one merit-based qualification to be participating in the diplomatic meetings she is attending. There are professional women inside the executive branch and outside government who have spent a lifetime becoming expert in their fields, whether that’s economics, international relations, trade, international law or diplomacy. If the Trump administration’s goal is to give a woman a seat at the table, there is no shortage of women who have the requisite experience and training who have earned their seat. Indeed, there are, as Mitt Romney once quipped, binders (and, now, websites) full of them.

One interpretation of Ivanka Trump’s actions since her father took office has it that she is simply not self-aware of how these appearances come off. Don’t buy this. Videos she released purporting to be readout briefs of the president’s meetings, as well as the president’s introductions of her, appear orchestrated to present her as a credible participant in international affairs. Her participation, her photo placement, her video releases are not accidental byproducts of an inept White House adviser; they are part of her image-building. These activities should not merely be brushed off as the desires and encouragement of Donald Trump, her father and the president. She is not a child. She shoulders full responsibility for abusing her position of access.

President Trump, of course, has discarded many other norms; it’s tempting to wonder why we should spend time focusing on the activities of his daughter, which might seem benign, if embarrassing for our country. The reason is because those activities are not benign. They are part of the president and his administration’s deliberate effort to concentrate control of the executive branch within the White House and within his family, diluting important institutional mechanisms that provide accountability.

Meanwhile, the president yesterday appeared to suggest in an interview that sanctuary cities caused homelessness in the last two years. I don't even know how to comment on that.

A new taxonomy for the GOP

Michael Tomasky draws on Steven Levitsky to give us the best description yet of the modern Republican Party:

If you pay close attention to such things, you will recognize Mr. Levitsky’s name — he was a co-author, with Daniel Ziblatt, of last year’s book “How Democracies Die,” which sparked much discussion. “Competitive Authoritarianism” deserves to do the same.

What defines competitive authoritarian states? They are “civilian regimes in which formal democratic institutions exist and are widely viewed as the primary means of gaining power, but in which incumbents’ abuse of the state places them at a significant advantage vis-à-vis their opponents.” Sound like anyone you know?

Now, I should say that I don’t think we’re there yet. Neither does Mr. Levitsky. “For all of its unfairness and growing dysfunction, American democracy has not slid into competitive authoritarianism,” he told me. “The playing field between Democrats and Republicans remains reasonably level.”

So we’re not there right now. But we may well be on the way, and it’s abundantly clear who wants to take us there.

Read this back-to-back with yesterday's Op-Ed from political scientist Greg Weiner on "the Trump Fallacy" and have a great day.

New taxes in Illinois

Starting today, my state has some new laws:

  • The gasoline tax doubled to the still-too-low 10¢ per litre. Oh my stars. How could they. Ruination. (You will detect more ironic tone if you read my post from yesterday about how much gasoline I use.) For comparison with other OECD countries, the UK adds 57.95p (73.3¢) per litre, Australia gets 41.2¢ (28.6¢ US), and even Canada levies 45¢ (34¢ US). But hey, we doubled the tax, so now we can pay for our state pension deficit fixing our infrastructure.
  • Cigarette taxes went up to $2.98 a pack, and e-cigarettes now have a 15% excise. Also, we raised the legal age to buy tobacco to 21, though you can still have sex and get a drivers license at 17 and sign a contract at 18, so kids still have lots of ways to ruin their lives. (Former governor Bruce Rauner vetoed these measures last year.)
  • Schools now have to provide 5 clock-hours of instruction to count as a "school day." Having gone to Illinois schools as a kid that provided 6 to 7, it's hard for me to grasp that until today, schools only had to provide 4.
  • Finally, our $40 billion budget took effect today, the first time in 5 years that a state budget has taken effect on the first day of the fiscal year.

This is what happens when the party that wants to govern takes power from the party that wants to shower gifts on their rich friends. More on that in my next post.

Not enough time on my hands

I thought the weekend of Canada Day and the weekend before Independence Day wouldn't have much a lot of news. I was wrong:

  • Ontario Premier Doug Ford (the brother of Rob Ford) cancelled Canada Day celebrations in Toronto*. (Imagine the Governor of Virginia or the Mayor of DC canceling the 4th of July and you've about got it.) Fortunately for the city, the Ontario legislature reinstated them.
  • You know how I write about how urban planning can make people happier, healthier, and friendlier? Yah, this city in California is my idea of hell. I hope the developers lost all their money.
  • In contrast, I learned of the Lil Yellow House while in Toronto, and the rap video the real-estate agent created to sell it. (It sold quickly, for C$500,000.)
  • Apparently, my drinking gets me a B-. (80% of Americans drink 6.75 drinks per week or less; the top 10% drink 15.28 per week. This is the one B- I'm happy to have.)
  • My alma mater recently published new research linking your email address to your credit score.
  • Alabama prosecutors have brought charges for manslaughter against a woman who miscarried after getting shot. No, really. Because Alabama.
  • Former President Jimmy Carter called out President Trump on the (alleged) illegitimacy of his election.
  • The New Republic adds to the chorus of organizations surprised at what it actually took to get the Supreme Court to call bullshit.
  • Ever wonder how often two bags of Skittles candy have the same proportions of flavors? No, me neither. But this guy did.
  • Windows has a case-insensitive file system; Git is case-sensitive. Do the math.
  • Um. That's not a pet bird.

*Those celebrations will be here, on the right, in this view from my hotel room yesterday:

Record heat in Europe

Significant changes in the northern jet stream has caused serious problems for Europe and South Asia:

Unusual jet stream behavior has been recorded every three to five years since 2000 — in 2003, 2006, 2010, 2015 and 2018 — turning what scientists initially thought could be an isolated abnormality into what appears to be a pattern, [Jeff Masters, co-founder and director of meteorology for Weather Underground] said.

What is surprising to scientists now is that the wavier-than-normal jet stream has returned for a second year in a row — the first time that has been observed, said Kai Kornhuber, a climate scientist at The Earth Institute at Columbia University in New York City.

“I wouldn’t have expected this situation to return so quickly after the extreme summer last year,” Kornhuber said. “It gives me the chills to see this evolving in real time again. It’s a really worrying development.”

This weather pattern brought temperatures over 45°C to France earlier this week:

The highest reliable June temperature previously recorded in France was 41.5°C on 21 June 2003. The country’s highest ever temperature, recorded at two separate locations in southern France on 12 August during the same 2003 heatwave, was 44.1°C.

“At our local Potsdam station, operating since 1893, we’re set to break the past June record by about 2C,” tweeted Stefan Rahmstorf, of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. Eastern parts of Germany, including Berlin, are already experiencing their hottest June on record.

“Weather data show that heatwaves and other weather extremes are on the rise in recent decades,” he said. “The hottest summers in Europe since the year AD1500 all occurred since the turn of the last century: 2018, 2010, 2003, 2016, 2002.”

Monthly records were now falling five times as often as they would in a stable climate, Rahmstorf said, adding this was “a consequence of global warming caused by the increasing greenhouse gases from burning coal, oil and gas”.

And the band played on...

Reactions to the Rucho decision

It turns out, I wasn't the only one to have a strong reaction to Rucho v Common Cause. We start with Justice Elena Kagan (citations removed):

The majority disputes none of what I have said (or will say) about how gerrymanders undermine democracy. Indeed, the majority concedes (really, how could it not?) that gerrymandering is “incompatible with democratic principles.” And therefore what? That recognition would seem to demand a response. The majority offers two ideas that might qualify as such. One is that the political process can deal with the problem—a proposition so dubious on its face that I feel secure in delaying my answer for some time. The other is that political gerrymanders have always been with us. To its credit, the majority does not frame that point as an originalist constitutional argument.

After all (as the majority rightly notes), racial and residential gerrymanders were also once with us, but the Court has done something about that fact. The majority’s idea instead seems to be that if wehave lived with partisan gerrymanders so long, we will survive.

That complacency has no cause. Yes, partisan gerrymandering goes back to the Republic’s earliest days. (As does vociferous opposition to it.) But big data and modern technology—of just the kind that the mapmakers in North Carolina and Maryland used—make today’s gerrymandering altogether different from the crude line drawing of the past. Old-time efforts, based on little more than guesses, sometimes led to so-called dummymanders—gerrymanders that went spectacularly wrong. Not likely in today’s world. Mapmakers now have access to more granular data about party preference and voting behavior than ever before. County-level voting data has given way to precinct-level or city-block-level data; and increasingly, mapmakers avail themselves of data sets providing wide-ranging information about even individual voters.

Crain's Chicago Business columnist Greg Hinz:

We’re all used to momentous U.S. Supreme Court rulings at the end of June. But rarely has the potential impact here in Chicago and Illinois been as great as it will be after a pair of key decisions today, in which the court upheld partisan gerrymandering and temporarily blocked a question about citizenship in the 2020 Census.

One decision likely removes much doubt that Illinois Democrats—led by Gov. J.B. Pritzker and state House Speaker Mike Madigan—will remain in power here and assure that allies do the same in the Illinois House and Senate and in the state’s congressional delegation. The other raises the odds that Illinois will lose one, not two, U.S. House seats in the upcoming decennial reapportionment—and keep hundreds of millions of federal dollars that are allotted on the basis of population.

Back in Illinois—unless Democrats were to somehow lose their majorities in the 2020 elections—that means that they'll draw the next set of legislative and congressional maps. There will be no court challenge, at least not one base on the new map's partisan tilt.

Gov. Pritzker has promised not to be partisan in the upcoming remap, and a reform group, Change Illinois, today called on him to honor that pledge, saying in a statement that "we deserve competitive elections and an equitable democracy in Illinois."

But if you really think Pritzker, who may have national political ambitions, is going to throw away the Democratic edge here while Republicans in states such as Indiana work to screw Democrats, you don't know politics. I'm not sure how he'll wiggle out of this one. But wiggle he will.

Had Garland been confirmed to the court, he quite possibly would have sided with the court's liberal justices and been a fifth vote to outlaw partisan gerrymandering. But he didn't get confirmed. As a result, states that already are blue (like Illinois) likely will get even bluer. And states that are red will turn redder.

Democratic presidential candidates:

“Today the Supreme Court refused to stop politicians rigging our democracy by writing election rules for their own benefit,” former vice president Joe Biden said on Twitter. “It couldn’t have happened without Justices put there by Donald Trump and Republicans — another reason why Democrats must take back the White House in 2020.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), another presidential candidate, called the decision an “abomination.”

“Five Republican-appointed justices gave the green light to partisan gerrymandering — which lets Republicans pursue their extreme agenda without accountability to the people,” Warren said in a tweet. “It’s bad for our democracy and we need to fight back.”

Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), another White House hopeful, said a ban on partisan gerrymandering would be “a top priority” for her if elected president.

“Politicians shouldn’t be able to pick their voters, voters should choose their representatives,” Harris said on Twitter. “The Supreme Court’s gerrymandering decision will have drastic consequences for the future of our nation.”

Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), another White House hopeful, called the court decision “misguided” and “an insult to our democracy.”

And Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) also weighed in on Twitter, quoting from the dissenting opinion of Justice Elena Kagan.

“Of all times to abandon the Court’s duty to declare the law, this was not the one,” Kagan said. “The practices challenged in these cases imperil our system of government.”

This isn't over, by the way. Kagan's dissent was sound; and 5-4 decisions by nakedly partisan courts tend not to live past the next appointment.

Still, it's a bad decision for the country, and a good one for the Republican Party. Those things usually go together, after all.

SCOTUS embraces partisanship

Remember when US Senator Mitch McConnell blocked the confirmation of Merrick Garland to the US Supreme Court because he could? And when I and lots of others warned that the election of 2016 would have far-reaching consequences? Good morning, it's the last day of the Supreme Court's term, and they are publishing their far-reaching consequences to the world.

In a decision that surprised no one but saddened a lot of people who believe the Court has drifted into naked partisanship, the five Republican-appointed justices voted against the minority parties of North Carolina and Maryland, deciding that gerrymandering was "a political question:"

The drafters of the Constitution, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for the majority, understood that politics would play a role in drawing election districts when they gave the task to state legislatures. Judges, the chief justice said, are not entitled to second-guess lawmakers’ judgments.

“We conclude that partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts,” the chief justice wrote.

When I was in law school, my constitutional law professor joked that "political question" means "we can't come up with anything logical that will pass a smell test." As Justice Elena Kagan wrote in her dissent, "For the first time ever, this Court refuses to remedy a constitutional violation because it thinks the task beyond judicial capabilities. And not just any constitutional violation. The partisan gerrymanders in these cases deprived citizens of the most fundamental of their constitutional rights: the rights to participate equally in the political process, to join with others to advance political beliefs, and to choose their political representatives. In so doing, the partisan gerrymanders here debased and dishonored our democracy, turning upside-down the core American idea that all governmental power derives from the people."

Let's not gloss over this: the Republican-appointed justices voted for their own party.

Maryland, like Illinois, California, New York, and Massachusetts, already have Democratic majorities. Sure, this decision means Republicans won't ever again have anything approaching real representation in those states. But Democratic voters already outnumber Republicans in North Carolina, Texas, Florida, and Pennsylvania. So this decision very much favors the Republican party, and will enable Republicans to hold on to power even as their numbers dwindle over time. Both of which, I don't need to point out, are happening.

So this decision makes explicit what everyone already knew: the Republican-appointed justices are Republicans first, justices second. This was a party-line vote, not a conservative vs. liberal vote, and it diminishes the Court.

The Court also decided today that the White House explanation for its proposed citizenship question was so much bullshit and sent the case back to the lower courts, meaning the Commerce Dept. probably won't put it on the forms they send out next spring. Chief Justice John Roberts' opinion for a unanimous court, however, held that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross lied about the rationale for putting the question on the 2020 form, but there was nothing wrong with the question itself. This decision resulted in five separate concurrences and dissents, with the Republican justices generally supporting the question and the other justices not.

In other words, the Republican justices couldn't come up with a rationale that supported their party that could pass the laugh test in this case either, but also couldn't call it a "political question," because Ross was just too incompetent at lying to help them. This isn't a victory for anyone; this is an own goal by the GOP.

That's right. We live in a country that still has the rule of law because the ruling party are too incompetent to do authoritarianism correctly. (It helps that authoritarians tend to incompetence by definition.) And the rope-a-dope strategy the Democratic Party are currently using just isn't working.