Archive

February 15th, 2017

Anti-Trump movement can learn from the 1960s

    Political theater, democracy "in the streets" -- it's supposed to feel like the 1960s again.

    The high so far was likely the impassioned but mostly orderly march in Washington the day after Donald Trump's inauguration. Drawing a half-million people, it included a broad range of participants. The low came not quite two weeks later, when 100 or so masked militants disrupted an appearance by the right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos at the University of California at Berkeley, forcing administrators to lock down the campus.

    The backlash began almost immediately. Trump threatened to cut off Berkeley's federal funding, and Republican legislators in as many as 10 states have introduced bills to curtail certain forms of protest.

    Some of those sympathetic to the anti-Trump movement cautioned that even the peaceful protests are futile and may backfire. "Your demonstrations are engineered to fail," wrote the journalist David Frum, an outspoken conservative critic of Trump's.

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$21.6 billion: Trump's wall would cost more than a year of the space program

    One of this week's 286,000 leaks from the executive branch of the government was a document from the Department of Homeland Security putting a price tag on a wall on the border with Mexico.

    You remember the wall! President Trump, then-candidate Trump, talked about the wall a lot on the campaign trail. His concerns about immigration from Mexico and Central America were among the first articulated in the speech announcing the candidacy, but his advocacy for a wall predates that by a wide margin. Here's a Trump tweet from before his candidacy on the subject.

    " 'We build too many walls and not enough bridges.' -- Isaac Newton"

    Oops. Wrong tweet. Meant this one.

    "SECURE THE BORDER! BUILD A WALL!"

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When the Fire Comes

    What will you do when terrorists attack, or U.S. friction with some foreign power turns into a military confrontation? I don’t mean in your personal life, where you should keep calm and carry on. I mean politically. Think about it carefully: The fate of the republic may depend on your answer.

    Of course, nobody knows whether there will be a shocking, 9/11-type event, or what form it might take. But surely there’s a pretty good chance that sometime during the next few years something nasty will happen — a terrorist attack on a public place, an exchange of fire in the South China Sea, something. Then what?

    After 9/11, the overwhelming public response was to rally around the commander in chief. Doubts about the legitimacy of a president who lost the popular vote and was installed by a bare majority on the Supreme Court were swept aside. Unquestioning support for the man in the White House was, many Americans believed, what patriotism demanded.

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Trump is his own worst enemy

    President Trump may believe his current worst enemies are all those protesters who spilled into the streets against him. But his own outsized ego and abysmal contempt for anyone trying to get in his way are doing much more damage to him.

    His huge self-assurance enables him to lie profusely about easily verifiable facts, from inflating his inaugural crowds to exaggerating crime in America. And it is matched by the audacity of his assaults on the integrity of federal judges holding him to the constitutional limits of his executive-branch power.

    A traditional chief executive, challenged by the judicial branch over that power, might be expected to respectfully await its legal judgment. Instead, Trump has gone on the attack in very personal terms. If new terrorism strikes America, he says, the federal judge who has questioned his ban on refugees and certain other Muslims will bear the blame.

    It's as if Trump is incapable of grasping that the political system that has governed the American democracy for 230 years can possibly take precedence over his inflated sense of his own importance.

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People actually use food stamps to buy more food

    For years, opponents of food stamps -- or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, as it's now called -- have claimed that the program is just a cash giveaway. Some worry that people will sell their food stamps for cash, and use that cash to buy alcohol, drugs or other things that the government doesn't want to subsidize. That's actually very rare. But there's an easier way to turn food stamps into cash -- just take the cash you otherwise would have spent on food, and use it for something else. No fraud involved.

    Economists refer to this as the fungibility of targeted benefits. In a standard, fully rational economic model, all of a person's income -- wages, government benefits, etc. -- goes into a single pot, and then they decide what to do with it. Since they can easily shift money from item to item, if you try to get them to buy more food you may end up actually paying for them to buy more alcohol. This is why even some on the left have urged the government to scrap SNAP and just give cash.

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Laughing all the way to autocracy

    The crisis of democracy is no laughing matter. While some dictatorships like Myanmar are finally opening up, some of the world's biggest powers appear to be shifting toward authoritarianism. Even the United States, home to a vibrant democracy and civil society, is in the headlines because of the autocratic rhetoric of its mercurial president. But what can we do to protect open societies from being drawn into the maelstrom of authoritarianism and closed ones from becoming more dictatorial?

    In a recent interview with PBS, Mel Brooks, one of America's oldest and greatest comedians and creator of the all-time classic movie The Producers, offered this opinion:

    "The great thing about dictators is, you have to know, if you get on a soapbox with them, you're gonna lose, because they have a way of spellbinding with their oratory. But if you can reduce them to ridicule, then you're way ahead."

    Brooks believes that political humor turns the table on dictators, placing them in a demeaning position by subjecting them to ridicule. This has a subversive effect that undermines their authority, and, therefore, strips them of their power.

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If Trump wants safe zones in Syria, there have to be boots on the ground

    President Donald Trump says he wants "safe zones" in Syria. His intent is to keep displaced people, who might otherwise be inclined to join the nearly 5 million Syrian refugees, within their country. What might he be able to achieve?

    The first thing a new president should know is that a safe zone must entail robust protection by both ground and air forces. This is what distinguishes it from a killing zone.

    Over the nearly six years of conflict in Syria, there have been many calls for no-fly zones. They have studiously avoided discussing who would defend the zone on the ground, as if civilians could be protected from 30,000 feet. Indeed, the ground protection question acted as a conversation-stopper in discussions of how to shield Syrian civilians from a homicidal regime.

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I'm a rabbi who was arrested protesting Trump's travel ban. It was a holy act.

    On Monday night, I was arrested along with 18 of my fellow rabbis in protest of the Trump administration's policies targeting refugees and immigrants - including the ban on travel from seven mostly Muslim nations. The Jewish tradition commands us to speak out against injustice, and Jewish history teaches us how imperative it is that those not targeted by hate stand up for those who are. It was, we believe, the largest mass arrest of rabbis in U.S. history.

    It was a profoundly holy experience for me, marching down Broadway and over to the Trump International Hotel and Tower singing with hundreds of my colleagues and community members, sitting in the street with my teachers and colleagues, and then the arrest itself - offering myself up to the state, fully vulnerable. But it was always abundantly clear to me what our action was, and what it wasn't.

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How Pope Francis can cleanse the far-right rot from the Catholic Church

    Pope Francis needs to take tougher action against the United States' most influential Catholic in Rome, Cardinal Raymond "Breitbart" Burke. The renegade cleric is not only undermining Francis' reformist, compassionate papacy, and gospel teaching as it applies to refugees and Muslims, but the rebel prince of the church is also using his position within the walls of the Vatican to legitimize extremist forces that want to bring down Western liberal democracy, Stephen Bannon-style. Simply put, the Vatican is facing a political war between the modernizing Pope Francis and a conservative wing that wants to reassert white Christian dominance.

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Don't let Britain's bar tab stall Brexit talks

    The issue of what Britain does or doesn't owe the European Union risks becoming a landmine in the Brexit negotiations. Britain should pay what it legitimately owes for EU services it signed up to. Divorce is never cheap. But by seeking to maximize payment, and by making payment a precondition for the rest of the talks, the EU risks getting less from Britain and hurting the chances of a productive negotiation.

    The potential amounts involved are not small. They stem from what's owed to EU civil servants for their pensions -- which are, staggeringly, funded on a pay-as-you-go basis -- budget commitments and structural funds already promised, and contingent liabilities (those that may arise in the future).

    A figure as high as $64 billion (60 billion euros) has been mentioned, although a paper published last week by the Centre for European Reform came up with scenarios that ranged from 24.5 billion euros to almost 73 billion euros. The divergence depends on whether the U.K. share is 12 percent (its average post-rebate budget contribution in recent years) or 15 percent (based on gross national income), whether contingent liabilities are paid up front, and how rebates are dealt with.

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