Sunday, March 5, 2017

Sunday Reading

Another Episode — Charles P. Pierce on the latest from Mar-A-Lago.

At some point, I guess, you just have to walk away. Not forever, and not for long. But, sooner or later, you have to arrange one morning where you wake up and deliberately decide not to find out how the country has lost its mind overnight. I’m getting to that point, I have to tell you.

Around 5:30—in the freaking A.M. morning!— the president*, or someone like him, got on the official Donald Trump electric Twitter account and threw the ongoing controversy over Russian influence on his campaign and on the 2016 presidential election deep into the red zone. In short, he is now accusing his predecessor of using the powers of the intelligence community and of the national law-enforcement apparatus to spy on his campaign. Kudos to The Washington Post for the “citing no evidence” disclaimer.

Trump offered no citations nor did he point to any credible news report to back up his accusation, but he may have been referring to commentary on Breitbart and conservative talk radio suggesting that Obama and his administration used “police state” tactics last fall to monitor the Trump team. The Breitbart story, published Friday, has been circulating among Trump’s senior staff, according to a White House official who described it as a useful catalogue of the Obama administration’s activities.

Gee, I wonder if the “White House official” possibly could be the guy who used to run that particular information SuperFund site and, anyway, it’s nice to know that the president* of the United States goes dumpster diving for his political news.

I think the whole thing started percolating to draw attention away from Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III’s unfortunate collision with his own confirmation testimony this week. But I think the real match tossed into the powder magazine was an interview that Senator Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware, gave to Andrea Mitchell on MSNBC Friday afternoon.

In that interview, Coons as much as said that he believes that transcripts of conversations between Trump campaign officials and Russian officials exist. In my opinion, if those transcripts exist, and the Trump people know it, and know what’s in them, it is in the interest of the administration to flip the script pre-emptively to how the transcripts were obtained as opposed to what they might contain. If administration officials are in contact with the Breitbart people—which isn’t exactly a leap in the dark—then they slip the possibility of wiretaps to those people and then the president* reacts to news that some of his own people may have planted. (Think Dick Cheney, Judy Miller, and the aluminum tubes.) In any case, the stakes in this matter just became mortal.

“It’s highly unlikely there was a wiretap,” said one former senior intelligence official familiar with surveillance law who spoke candidly on the condition of anonymity. The former official continued: “It seems unthinkable. If that were the case by some chance, that means that a federal judge would have found that there was either probable cause that he had committed a crime or was an agent of a foreign power.”

“Unthinkable” is one of those Washington CYA words that does a lot of work until a lot of people start thinking about something seriously. (The president ordered a cover-up of a burglary? The president signed off on sending missiles to Iran? The president was doing the help? Unthinkable!) Let us assume for the moment that, if there’s a shred of truth to what the president* is saying, then the previous occupant of the White House didn’t do it without availing himself of the legal requirements.

If he requested a FISA warrant and got it, then there’s something out there that troubled not only the previous administration, but also some federal judges on a secret court. If that happened, then what President Obama did was not in any way “illegal.” You can argue that it might be improperly political during an presidential election season, but then you get hung up on why Lyndon Johnson didn’t blow the whistle on how Richard Nixon jacked around with the Paris Peace Talks. It’s impossible to conclude in retrospect that the country was well-served by LBJ’s uncharacteristic delicacy in that matter. If this keeps up, the demand for complete transparency is going to become overwhelming.

A spokesman for Barack Obama issued a statement early Saturday afternoon refuting President Trump’s claims:

A cardinal rule of the Obama Administration was that no White House official ever interfered with any independent investigation led by the Department of Justice. As part of the practice neither President Obama nor any White House official ever ordered surveillance on any U.S. citizen. Any suggestion otherwise is simply false.

There is a critical mass building quickly concerning the connections between the president*, his administration, his aides, and the Putin regime. There’s just too much of it right now for the administration to contain. Given that, it probably would have been helpful if the president* hadn’t had another episode on Saturday morning. Of course, once the episode passed, he was back to serious business again – tweeting about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s performance on Celebrity Apprentice. I guess the time for trivial fights really is over.

The Next Step — Kristina Rizga in Mother Jones on the Trump-DeVos plan to send money to religious schools.  Florida is the model.

During his address before a joint session of Congress earlier this week, President Donald Trump paused to introduce Denisha Merriweather, a graduate student from Florida sitting with first lady Melania Trump. Merriweather “failed third grade twice” in Florida’s public schools, Trump said. “But then she was able to enroll in a private center for learning, great learning center, with the help of a tax credit,” he continued, referring to Florida’s tax credit scholarship program that allows students attend private schools. Because of this opportunity, Denisha became the first member of her family to graduate from high school and college.

Trump used Denisha’s story to call for his favorite education policy, school choice, asking lawmakers to “pass an education bill that funds school choice for disadvantaged youth, including millions of African American and Latino children. These families should be free to choose the public, private, charter, magnet, religious, or home school that is right for them.”

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has also been pointing to Denisha and Florida in the past two weeks as a way to promote school choice. “Florida is a good and growing example of what can happen when you have a robust array of choices,” DeVos told a conservative radio host on February 15. DeVos brought up the state’s school choice model again during her speech to the leaders of historically black colleges earlier this week.

So what is it about Florida? For starters, the state offers many different types of school choice, including charter schools, vouchers for low-income students and those with disabilities, and tax credit scholarships. Charter schools, found in 43 states and Washington, DC, represent the most common type of school choice. Vouchers are a little more complicated: They essentially operate like a state-issued coupon that parents can use to send their child to private or religious schools. The amount is typically what the state would use to send a kid to a public school. But vouchers are difficult to implement, because many state constitutions, like those in Michigan and Florida, have what are called Blaine Amendments, which prohibit spending public dollars on religious schools. And notably, only 31 percent of Americans support vouchers.

Tax credit scholarships provide a crafty mechanism to get around these obstacles. Tax credits are given to individuals and corporations that donate money to scholarship-granting institutions; if parents end up using those scholarships to send their kids to religious schools—and 79 percent of students in private schools are taught by institutions affiliated with churches—the government technically is not transferring taxpayer money directly to religious organizations.

While DeVos is best known as an advocate of vouchers, most veteran Beltway insiders told me that a federal voucher program is very unlikely. “Democrats don’t like vouchers. Republicans don’t like federal programs, and would rather leave major school reform decisions up to states and local communities,” Rick Hess, a veteran education policy expert with the conservative American Enterprise Institute said. “Realistically, nobody thinks they’ve got the votes to do a federal school choice law, especially in the Senate.”

This political reality is perhaps why Trump and DeVos are singling out Florida’s tax credit programs as a way to expand private schooling options. While Trump and DeVos have not specified what shape this policy might take at the federal level, most of these changes will come from the state legislators. Republicans have full control of the executive and legislative branches in 25 states, and control the governor’s house or the state legislature in 44 states. At least 14 states have already proposed bills in this legislative session that would expand some form of vouchers or tax credit scholarships, according to a Center for American Progress analysis. (And 17 states already provide some form of tax credit scholarships, according to EdChoice.)

This perfect storm for pushing through various voucher schemes comes at a time when the results on the outcomes of these programs “are the worst in the history of the field,” according to New America researcher Kevin Carey, who analyzed the results in a recent New York Timesarticle. Until about two years ago, most studies on vouchers produced mixed results, with some showing slight increases in test scores or graduation rates for students using them. But the most recent research has not been good, according to Carey: A 2016 study, funded by the pro-voucher Walton Family Foundation and conducted by the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute, found that students who used vouchers in a large Ohio program “have fared worse academically compared to their closely matched peers attending public schools.”

Then there is the issue of state oversight and transparency. Many states, including Florida, have little to no jurisdiction over private schools and don’t make student achievement data public, save for attendance. A 2011 award-winning investigation by Gus Garcia-Roberts of the Miami New Times described the resulting system as a “cottage industry of fraud and chaos.” Schools could qualify to educate voucher and tax credit scholarship students even though they had no accreditation or curriculum. Some staffers in these schools were convicted criminals for drug dealing, kidnapping, and burglary. “In one school’s ‘business management’ class, students shook cans for coins on the streets,” Garcia-Roberts found.

Florida’s Department of Education investigated 38 schools suspected of fraud and in 25 cases, the allegations were substantiated. “It’s like a perverse science experiment, using disabled school kids as lab rats and funded by nine figures in taxpayer cash,” Garcia-Roberts wrote. “Dole out millions to anybody calling himself as educator. Don’t regulate curriculum or even visit campuses to see where the money is going.”

But these on-the-ground realities in Florida won’t tame the enthusiasm of a voucher booster like DeVos. As I showed in my recent investigation, her philanthropic giving shows an overwhelming preference for promoting private, Christian schools, and conservative, free-market think tanks that work to shrink the public sector in every sphere, including education. These past choices suggest that the data—or the fact that there are many stories like Denisha Merriweather’s in America’s public schools—doesn’t matter.

Spring Hopes Eternal — Justin Verlander and the Tigers are back for more.

LAKELAND, Fla. — Justin Verlander gave up two home runs here on Thursday. One was hit well, and the other was carried away by a steady wind to center field.

“It got out,” Verlander said with a shrug by his locker in the Detroit Tigers’ clubhouse. “One of those days here in Lakeland.”

Verlander’s status in baseball has been so thoroughly restored that a rocky day in spring training means nothing. Last season, he was 16-9 with a 3.04 earned run average, leading the American League in strikeouts (254) and walks plus hits per inning (1.001). He had the most first-place votes for the Cy Young Award, but finished second over all to Boston’s Rick Porcello, a onetime teammate.

Verlander telegraphed his turnaround in late 2015, when he finally felt strong again after torn abdominal and adductor muscles — and the resulting physical weakness and compromised mechanics — had sapped his dominance. The Tigers were out of the race then, but his comeback may have saved their immediate future.

“That opened our eyes,” General Manager Al Avila said. “I even told him: ‘What you just did the last month and a half of the season has given our group, from ownership to us, new life. Maybe we do have another run in us.’ It was that kind of revival. That was him.”

A different A.L. Central team, the Cleveland Indians, rose to the World Series last year. But the Tigers hung in the playoff race until the final day of the regular season and kept their roster intact this winter. They would like to get younger, but Avila found no deals worth breaking up a group still striving to win a title.

Verlander has the longest tenure with the same team of any active major league pitcher. He joined the Tigers in July 2005 and has helped lead them to A.L. pennants in 2006 and 2012. They nearly won another, in 2013, with Verlander gritting through pain in October.

“Dying,” he said. “Everything hurt.”

For most observers, it was hard to tell: Verlander gave up one run in 23 postseason innings. But he tore the muscles while lifting weights after the 2013 season, the result of the wear and tear of an eight-season stretch in which only C. C. Sabathia pitched more innings.

Verlander had core-muscle surgery in Philadelphia in January 2014. His surgeon, Dr. Bill Meyers, called the area — from midthigh to midchest — the engine of the body.

“That’s really the harness for your power,” Meyers said. “It’s like if you’re riding a horse and you lose your bridle. It’s not only that you lose power, but you can’t really control it.”

Verlander, who was one year into a seven-year, $180 million contract extension, made it back for opening day. He made 32 starts and helped the Tigers back to the playoffs — but he also led the league in earned runs allowed and contemplated his career mortality.

“For the first time, I saw the end of the line,” said Verlander, who turned 34 last month. “I mean, I want to play ’til I’m 40 or 45. I’ve always wanted to play ’til the wheels fall off. I kind of saw that then: ‘If this is the way it’s going to feel, I can’t pitch like this.’”

Because he came back so soon, without proper rehabilitation, Verlander’s mechanics were a mess. Everything was off, he said, from his feet to his head. He could still direct the ball, generally, to its intended location. But a fastball that once crackled with life was often dead on arrival.

In August 2014, he lasted just one inning in Pittsburgh, hammered for five runs with a fastball hovering around 85 miles per hour. Verlander has always been a student of pitching, highly attuned to his body and how it moves. He knew he was risking his future by pitching with bad mechanics, and he expected to pay a steep price.

“I’m very fortunate that I didn’t get hurt,” he said. “I remember after I came out of that game in Pittsburgh, they said I was going to go get an M.R.I. on my shoulder — and I thought I was done. I thought I was going to need shoulder surgery. That’s how bad it felt.”

It was just tendinitis, although Verlander still knocks on the wooden frame of his locker when telling the story. He worked intensely with a physical therapist before the 2015 season, hurt his latisimuss dorsi muscle that spring, but returned to make 20 starts with a 3.38 E.R.A.

He was ready to break out again in 2016, but not because he suddenly learned how to win with lesser stuff. Even at his very best, Verlander baffled hitters with a devastating pitch mix.

“He was always like that,” said Sabathia, the Yankees left-hander. “He was always a power pitcher, but he always knew how to pitch. I don’t think it’s going to be hard to transition from when he does lose the velocity on his fastball, because he came in with all the pitches.”

Verlander’s average fastball was 93.5 m.p.h. last season, according to Fangraphs, up a tick or two from 2014 and not far removed from his Most Valuable Player season of 2011. Then, his fastball averaged 95 m.p.h., a speed he hit consistently on Thursday.

“He throws his fastball a lot,” the Tigers’ Michael Fulmer said. “And to see him work both sides of the plate, up and down, it really works as eight different pitches — two-seam and four-seam to each quadrant — and he commands it. I’m trying to get to the point where I can at least think I’m doing that.”

Fulmer won the A.L. Rookie of the Year award last season, and he said Verlander encouraged him to pitch for weak contact early in counts and save his wipeout stuff for two strikes. It was counterintuitive advice from the league’s strikeout king, but it underscored Verlander’s intuition about the craft.

After a start in Cleveland last May 3, Verlander noticed that nothing good was happening with his slider: Hitters took it if he threw it for a ball, and crushed it if he threw it for a strike. He needed more deception, and he asked the pitching coach, Rich Dubee, about holding the ball a different way.

Verlander created the new slider by offsetting the grip on his four-seam fastball, moving his index and middle fingers to the right side of the ball. This is a common cutter grip, but Verlander’s pitch retained the slash of a slider with increased velocity.

Some pitchers take weeks, or even years, to master a new grip. Verlander tried it on flat ground, then in a bullpen session, then used it in his next start.

“It was instantaneously a go-to pitch,” Manager Brad Ausmus said. “It was a big factor. It wasn’t the factor, but it was a big factor.”

Verlander made 28 starts with the new slider, and opponents hit .193 against him. In his dream season of 2011, when he went 24-5, they batted .192.

Baseball is better when Verlander is good. The sport needs more crossover stars, and Verlander’s fiancée, the supermodel Kate Upton, is more famous than he is. He is back in a leading role and could stay there a while; Meyers said the recurrence rate of a core injury after proper repair was 1 percent.

With his body intact and his arm alive, Verlander is unafraid to say where he hopes this all leads: Cooperstown, N.Y.

“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think about that,” he said. “Of course I want to be in the Hall of Fame when I’m done playing. That’s kind of the end goal: win a World Series and be in the Hall of Fame. I think that’s what every kid wants growing up and I’ve never wavered on that. I will say, Baseball’s fun again.”

Doonesbury — Tweeting along with the twit.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Looking Back/Looking Forward

It’s time for my annual re-cap and prognostication for the past year and the year coming up.  Let’s see how I did a year ago.

  • Hillary Clinton will be the next President of the United States.  I have no idea who she will beat; I don’t think the Republicans know, either, but she will win, and I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that it will be a decisive win.  The GOP will blame everybody else and become even more cranky, self-injuring, and irresponsible.
  • The Democrats down-ticket will do better than expected by taking back the Senate and narrowing their gap in the House.  This will be achieved by the number of voters who will turn out to vote for them in order to hold off the GOP’s attempt to turn the country back over to the control of white Christian males.

Both of those were spot-on until sometime in the late evening of November 8.  And I’m not the only one who blew that one.

  • The economy will continue to improve; maybe this is the year the Dow will hit 19,000.  The limiting factor will be how the rest of the world, mainly China, deals with their economic bubble.  I think a lot of the economic news will be based on the outcome of the U.S. election and the reaction to it.  If by some horrifying chance Donald Trump wins, all bets are off.  Economists and world markets like stability and sanity, and turning the U.S. over to a guy who acts like a used car hustler crossed with a casino pit boss will not instill confidence.

I covered my ass on that one but I think it’s still true.  By the way, the Dow did hit 19,000 in 2016.

  • ISIS, which barely registered on the radar as an existential threat to the U.S. and the west a year ago, will be contained.  There will not be a large American troop presence in Syria and Iraq thanks in part to the response by the countries that themselves are being invaded by ISIS.  Finally.
  • Refugees will still be pouring out of the Middle East, putting the strain on countries that have taken them in.  It will be a test of both infrastructure and moral obligation, and some, such as Canada, will set the example of how to be humane.

I’ll give myself a gentleman’s C on the first one because ISIS is still in play and Syria is looking like the horror that war brings and we’re no closer to an end to it.  As for the refugees, I underestimated the venality and xenophobia of some of the countries — including our own — in taking in the refugees.

  • Maybe this will be the year that Fidel Castro finally takes a dirt nap.

Got that one right, finally.

  • The Supreme Court will narrowly uphold affirmative action but leave room for gutting it later on.  They will also narrowly rule against further restrictions on reproductive rights.  And I am going out on a limb by predicting that President Obama will get to choose at least one more new justice for the Court, an appointment that will languish in the Senate until after the election.

I got that one right, including my out-on-a-limb one about President Obama having to pick a new justice for the court and the GOP sitting on it.  I hate it when I’m right about something like that.

  • Violence against our fellow citizens such as mass shootings will continue.  The difference now is that we have become numb to them and in an election year expecting any meaningful change to the gun laws or the mindset is right up there with flying pigs over downtown Miami.
  • Marriage equality will gain acceptance as it fades from the headlines, but the LGBTQ community’s next front will be anti-discrimination battles for jobs and housing.  It’s not over yet, honey.
  • We’re going to see more wild weather patterns but none of it will convince the hard-core deniers that it’s either really happening or that there’s anything we can do about it.

I’m sorry that those were right.

  • The Tigers will not win the division in 2016.  (Caution: reverse psychology at play.)

But the Cubs won the World Series so that makes up for it.

  • On a personal level, this could be a break-out year for my writing and play production.  I don’t say that every year.

One of my plays won a playwriting contest and I actually got a cash prize for it.  It has been submitted for a full production at a theatre in Boca Raton in their 2017-2018 season.  So that worked out.

Okay, predictions for 2017.

  • I have no earthly idea what will happen with Trump in the White House.  But I can say that for the first time in my life — and I will hit 65 this year — I am frightened both for myself and my country.
  • At some point in 2017 elements of the electorate will realize that they got conned into voting for Trump and that they were played for fools.  The backlash will begin when they find out he can’t follow through on his bullshit promises, and reach a peak when they find out that repealing Obamacare and deporting 11 million people effects them personally.  When it happens, it will not be pretty.
  • There will be a downturn in the economy thanks to the cyclical nature of economics and the instability in the market by the Twitter-In-Chief.  He will, of course, blame it on Barack Obama.
  • A year from now the Syrian civil war will still be dragging on.  ISIS will still be a factor, and if Trump does what he says he will do with the Iran nuclear deal, expect to see them re-start their nuclear program.  “Dr. Strangelove” will be seen by historians as a documentary.
  • The refugee crisis will continue and fester once nativists and right-wing elements win majorities in western European countries.
  • Our diplomatic thaw with Cuba will freeze as the attempts to end the blockade will not get through Congress.  Only until Trump gets permission to open a casino in Varadero Beach will there be any progress.
  • Violence against our fellow citizens will continue and take on a more xenophobic tone as the white supremacists think they are now in control.  The attorney general will do nothing to put an end to it because, in his words, “they had it coming.”
  • We will lose the requisite number of celebrities and friends as life goes on. 2016 was an especially painful year.  As I always say, it’s important to cherish them while they are with us.
  • The Tigers will finish second in their division.
  • A year from today I will write this same post and review what I got right and what I didn’t.  But stick around and see how I do on a daily basis.

Okay, your turn.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Short Takes

President Obama visits Berlin on his farewell tour.

Minnesota officer faces manslaughter charges in shooting of unarmed black man.

Terrorism possible in deaths of three U.S. soldiers in Jordan.

Thousands have donated to Planned Parenthood in Mike Pence’s “honor.”

Hillary Clinton speaks up: “Never ever give up.”

Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello — both former Tigers — win Cy Young award.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Short Takes

Iraqi special forces entered the outskirts of Mosul.

2016 early voting outpaces 2012.

Flood of guns from eastern Europe raises fears in the U.K.

Putin wants Microsoft out of Russia.

Another explosion at a gasoline pipeline in Alabama kills one, injures seven.

Game 6: The Cubs beat Cleveland 9-3 forcing a Game 7.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Monday, October 31, 2016

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Historical Perspective

The last time the Chicago Cubs won the World Series, Theodore Roosevelt was the President of the United States, King Edward VII was on the throne in Great Britain, Kaiser Wilhelm II ruled Germany, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary was very much alive as was Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, and my maternal grandmother was five years old.

HT to LGM.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Short Takes

Militants attack police academy in Pakistan; many killed.

Vatican to help mediate political situation in Venezuela.

Ex-attorney general of Pennsylvania sentenced to prison.

Pentagon trying to get back recruitment bonuses.

No kidding: Study says guns on campus won’t make them safer.

Game 1 of the World Series is tonight in Cleveland.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Friday, October 21, 2016

Short Takes

China and Philippines make nice, reopen talks on disputed territory.

Politics and in-fighting hamper offensive in Mosul.

President Obama takes on Marco Rubio in Miami.

Trump Foundation paid right-wing filmmaker James O’Keefe.

Trump bombs at Al Smith dinner.

Cubs beat the Dodgers to get close to the Series.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Monday, October 3, 2016

Short Takes

Now what? Colombian voters reject peace deal with FARC.

Hurricane Matthew on its way to Bahamas.

Aleppo hospitals “all but obliterated” by bombings.

Dozens killed in Ethiopia stampede.

Data recorder on N.J. train in wreck wasn’t working.

The Tigers lost to Atlanta and are now out of the wild card race.  Thanks, guys.  See you in February.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Short Takes

Tropical Update: It’s now Hurricane Matthew, a Cat 3 heading north but tracking east of the mainland towards the Bahamas.

Experts are trying to figure out why a commuter train crashed in Hoboken, killing 1 and injuring over 100.

Funeral for Shimon Peres draws world leaders to Israel.

Hackers target election systems in 20 states.

Kerry on verge of ending Russia-U.S. talks over Syria attacks.

The Tigers were rained out against Cleveland.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Short Takes

Miami Marlins ace pitcher Jose Fernandez was killed in a boating accident.

Charlotte shooting videos released.

Floodwaters could swamp parts of northeast Iowa this week.

UN takes no action in Syria amid arguments over Aleppo.

Debate prep continues.

R.I.P. Arnold Palmer, 87, legendary golfer.

The Tigers split with KC this weekend; the wild card spot is fading away.

Tropical Update: Invest 97L develops.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Short Takes

Charlotte police chief says the video of the shooting does not offer definitive evidence that the victim was holding a gun.

Police officer in Tulsa charged with first degree manslaughter in shooting of unarmed man.

Yahoo reports a vast e-mail breach by a “state-sponsored” hack dating to 2014.

President Obama honored some of the country’s top artists and filmmakers, including Mel Brooks.

The Tigers took Game 1 9-2 and Game 2 4-2 of the double header from Minnesota.