Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Sunday Reading

Deadly Serious — John Cassidy on Robert Mueller’s mission.

On Friday night, CNN reported that a grand jury in Washington, D.C., has approved the first charges arising from the special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible collusion between Donald Trump’s Presidential campaign and the Russian government. Citing “sources briefed on the matter,” the network said that a judge had ordered the charges kept under seal, but that at least one arrest could take place as early as Monday.

Details were scant. The CNN report didn’t specify what the charges were or whom they had been brought against. But the news created an immediate furor, as other news organizations sought to follow up the story, and people on television and social media began speculating about the nature of the charges. Shortly before midnight, the Wall Street Journalconfirmed CNN’s scoop, without providing any additional details.

Speaking on CNN, Michael Zeldin, a lawyer who served as a special assistant to Mueller when he was director of the F.B.I., suggested that Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, might be the person charged. Zeldin imagined Mueller taking such a step to pressure Manafort to coöperate. “There is a lot of pressure on people who are under investigation to coöperate with Mueller after this indictment,” Zeldin said. Well before Mueller was appointed special counsel, the F.B.I. had been investigating Manafort’s financial ties to a pro-Russia party in the Ukraine. Mueller took over that investigation after he was appointed, in May. In July, F.B.I. agents staged a pre-dawn raid on Manafort’s home in Alexandria, Virginia.

Manafort isn’t the only name being speculated about. Other commentators suggested that Carter Page, a former adviser to the Trump campaign who had his own extensive Russian ties, or Michael Flynn, the former national-security adviser who was ousted from the White House over his post-election contact with Russia, might be subjects of the charges. It has been reported that the former F.B.I. director James Comey, when he was leading the Russia investigation, secured permission from a secret court operating under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to tap the communications of Page and Manafort. It has also been reported that Mueller’s team demanded White House documents about Flynn.

A key political question is whether these charges are related to things that happened as part of the Trump campaign, or whether they relate to alleged wrongdoings that occurred before it began or separate from it. If there are direct ties between the charges and the campaign, that will obviously have huge ramifications on Capitol Hill and elsewhere. But if the charges concern alleged actions on the part of Manafort or others that were unrelated to the 2016 campaign, the White House may well accuse Mueller of moving beyond his remit. That allegation wouldn’t be accurate—the terms of Mueller’s appointment gave him license to investigate “any matters that arose or may arise directly” from the Russia probe—but accuracy has never concerned Trump much.

One thing we can say for sure is that the news of the charges has moved the Mueller investigation firmly into the media spotlight, where it is likely to stay. Since Mueller’s appointment, his team of prosecutors and investigators has operated largely out of the public eye. One of the few known facts was that it had convened a grand jury in Washington. Friday night’s CNN report said that earlier in the day, “top lawyers who are helping to lead the Mueller probe, including veteran prosecutor Andrew Weissmann, were seen entering the court room at the D.C. federal court where the grand jury meets to hear testimony in the Russia investigation.”

There was no immediate comment from the White House about the CNN story. But it was published less than twelve hours after Donald Trump tweeted, “It is now commonly agreed, after many months of COSTLY looking, that there was NO collusion between Russia and Trump. Was collusion with HC!”

For days, the White House and conservative media organizations have been touting a Washington Poststory that revealed that Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee helped to pay for the controversial Russia dossier written by Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence officer. “I think this further proves if there was anyone that was colluding with the Russians to influence the election, look no further than the Clintons, look no further than the D.N.C.,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House spokeswoman, told Fox News on Thursday. “Everything that the Clinton campaign and the D.N.C. were falsely accusing this President of doing over the past year, they were actually doing themselves.”

After CNN published its story on Friday night, some Democrats and commentators suggested that the Trump Administration may have known the Mueller indictments were coming and leaked the Steele story to create a smokescreen. “So clearly target is in crosshairs, alerted Trumpsville, right wing media & Trump engineered mass diversion &main stream media fell for it,” Neera Tanden, a former adviser to Hillary Clinton who is the president of the Center for American Progress, tweeted.

Plausible as that theory sounds, it, too, is conjecture. What isn’t speculation is the fact that, five months into his investigation, Mueller has brought a first set of criminal charges. By the standards of recent special prosecutors, that is fast work, and it confirms Mueller’s reputation as someone who doesn’t like to dally. Now that he has started arresting people, there is no reason to suppose he will stop. And that is precisely the message he wants to send.

Hurricane Recovery — Nathalie Baptiste and Mark Helenowski on how nature is reclaiming itself five years after Sandy.

Five years ago, Superstorm Sandy—a monstrous post-tropical cyclone with hurricane force winds—struck New York, bringing record-breaking wind gusts and deadly flooding. In New York City, 53 people diednearly half of them were from Staten Island. The Ocean Breeze, Midland Beach, and Dongan Hills communities were especially hard hit, with 11 fatalities.  A few months after the storm, WNYC reporter Matthew Schuerman described the square mile that makes up parts of these communities as “the most dangerous place to be in New York City” during Sandy.

Joe Herrnkind, a middle-aged man who moved to Ocean Breeze in 2000, remembers those days, as he walks through the deserted streets of his once tight-knit beach community. Most of the homes have been torn down, and a few are boarded up waiting to be demolished. The homes that do remain are surrounded by empty plots of land where wild turkeys wander. Unlike many other New York victims of Sandy who have rebuilt their communities, those from these neighborhoods knew that rebuilding was not the best option. Some sold their land to developers, and a few others, like Herrnkind and his neighbors, sold their land to the governor’s office so it can be returned to its natural state.

“We’re a low-lying community,” he says. “We had constant flooding and wildfires. You hear all this and you’re saying, ‘Why would you want to live there?’”

Recent hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria have all raised the same question: What is to be done with the dozens of towns and cities in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico that have developed infrastructure on vulnerable flood-prone land that routinely requires massive cleanup and rebuilding efforts after each disastrous storm? Altogether, the recent storms could costup to nearly $400 billion in damages. But some communities and local leaders are starting to realize that this model won’t break the cycle. In Ocean Breeze, instead of rebuilding on vulnerable flood plains, some residents have chosen to leave old neighborhoods behind and let nature take its course.

In 2012, when Sandy approached New York, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered evacuations of nearly 375,000 people in low-lying communities ahead of the storm. Herrnkind gathered his two dogs and left to stay with a friend in New Jersey. Most of his neighbors followed the evacuation orders, but eight or nine families stayed behind. Two of his neighbors died.

Sandy’s peak winds were recorded at 115 miles per hour and Staten Island saw wind gusts of up to 80 miles per hour. Father Cappodano Boulevard, the main road separating Ocean Breeze from the Atlantic, rises several feet above the side streets. Sandy’s unprecedented 16-foot surge overtopped the roads and poured into homes. A few days later, when Herrnkind was able to return, he had no idea if his home was going to be standing. The city estimated that more than 300,000 homes were damaged by the storm’s flood.

“An officer told me, ‘You can’t go down there,’” Herrnkind recalls. When he finally arrived the water was still nearly waist deep. “It’s still there,” he remembers thinking when he first saw his house. “I have something to work with.” The watermark on a lamp post today shows that the storm surge reached far above his head, which explains why his furniture and all his personal belongings were gone.

Local leaders struggled to respond to the crisis. New York City created Build It Back, a program for rebuilding destroyed and damaged homes. There are more than 8,000 participants and by 2017, the mayor’s office estimates 87 percent of those who enrolled have received compensation, completed construction, or had their homes acquired by the city. But the program has come under criticism. Many homeowners dropped out due to delays. City Controller Scott Stringer and City Councilman Mark Treyger who represents parts of Brooklyn have been fierce critics of the program. In a letter to Build It Back director Amy Peterson, the two wrote that the number of dropouts “raises serious questions about our City’s ability to mount an efficient and effective recovery operation in the event of a future disaster.” Herrnkind jokingly refers to it as “Build It Wrong.”

After six months of living in his car, which he had parked in front of his abandoned house, and disappointed by the city’s program, Hernnkind realized “the land itself should never have been built on.” Much of the region was a salt marsh, particularly vulnerable to storm surge and floods. “It was a very low, natural, spongy salt marsh, and it was filled to create homes,” Robert Brauman, a project manager for the New York City Department of Environmental Protection told Curbed New York in 2016, “and that was where the problems started.”

Another option for some homeowners was a program from the Governor’s Office for Sandy Recovery, which has been buying houses that were destroyed or substantially damaged and transforming them to open space and wetlands. The goal is to create a natural coastal buffer that can protect communities from future storms. In late 2013, more than a year after the storm Gov. Cuomo announced that Ocean Breeze would join Oakwood Beach as a town eligible for state buyouts, and Hernnkind’s entire block was included. Reluctant to “put someone else in harm’s way,” Hernnkind concluded that he and his neighbors should take advantage of the state buyout program. He was able to sell his home to the state at pre-storm value and move elsewhere on the island.

So far, more than 600 homes have been purchased through the buyout program. Once the sale goes through, the state government demolishes the home and lets nature reclaim the land. Today, Ocean Breeze is mostly empty, but complicating matters are the residents who refuse to leave. In Oakwood Beach where most of the land is going back to nature, remaining residents struggle with lack of trash pick-up and crumbling roads. One of Herrnkind’s former neighbors who stayed behind is an elderly woman who feared her children would put her in a nursing home if she left. Some opted out of the program because they didn’t have the proper paperwork required to sell their homes. Others didn’t want to give up their homes in a community they loved.

But staying behind comes with a cost. According to the New York Timesflood insurance premiums could rise up to 25 percent for homes that were damaged by Sandy.

On Hernnkind’s section of the street, only one home remains out of eight. “Around here, 90 percent of each block went,” he says, “and only one or two people stayed.” Just down the street from where Herrnkind used to live, more turkeys mill about on empty lots where homes used to be.

Hernnkind’s former neighbor Frank Moszczynski, a tall man with a large presence, took the state buyout and moved to another neighborhood on Staten Island. He doesn’t have much sympathy for someone who willingly stays in a vulnerable area. “Why should someone emergency workers have to go out and risk their lives for someone who chose to stay in harm’s way?” he asks pointedly. Today, the only thing protecting the Ocean Breeze from another storm is a four-foot hill of sand.

Across the street from the vacant lot he used to call home, Hernnkind stands on the beach looking at the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and Brooklyn’s Coney Island, a view he used to be able to see from his bedroom window. “If it weren’t for Sandy,” he says, “I’d still be here.”

How Twitter Killed the First Amendment — Tim Wu in the New York Times.

You need not be a media historian to notice that we live in a golden age of press harassment, domestic propaganda and coercive efforts to control political debate. The Trump White House repeatedly seeks to discredit the press, threatens to strip broadcasters of their licenses and calls for the firing of journalists and football players for speaking their minds. A foreign government tries to hack our elections, and journalists and public speakers are regularly attacked by vicious, online troll armies whose aim is to silence opponents.

In this age of “new” censorship and blunt manipulation of political speech, where is the First Amendment? Americans like to think of it as the great protector of the press and of public debate. Yet it seems to have become a bit player, confined to a narrow and often irrelevant role. It is time to ask: Is the First Amendment obsolete? If so, what can be done?

These questions arise because the jurisprudence of the First Amendment was written for a different set of problems in a very different world. The First Amendment was ignored for much of American history, coming to life only in the 1920s thanks to the courage of judges like Learned Hand, Louis Brandeis and Oliver Wendell Holmes. Courts and civil libertarians used the amendment to protect speakers from government prosecution and censorship as it was practiced in the 20th century, such as the arrest of pamphleteers and the seizure of anarchist newspapers by the Postal Service.

But in the 21st century, censorship works differently, as the writer and academic Zeynep Tufekci has illustrated. The complete suppression of dissenting speech isn’t feasible in our “cheap speech” era. Instead, the world’s most sophisticated censors, including Russia and China, have spent a decade pioneering tools and techniques that are better suited to the internet age. Unfortunately, those new censorship tools have become unwelcome imports in the United States, with catastrophic results for our democracy.

The Russian government was among the first to recognize that speech itself could be used as a tool of suppression and control. The agents of its “web brigade,” often called the “troll army,” disseminate pro-government news, generate false stories and coordinate swarm attacks on critics of the government. The Chinese government has perfected “reverse censorship,” whereby disfavored speech is drowned out by “floods” of distraction or pro-government sentiment. As the journalist Peter Pomerantsev writes, these techniques employ information “in weaponized terms, as a tool to confuse, blackmail, demoralize, subvert and paralyze.”

Our distressing state of public discourse stems from the widespread use of these new tools of censorship and speech control, including by the White House. The administration habitually crosses the line between fact and propaganda. Instead of taking action itself, it demands that others punish its supposed enemies. To add to the mess, it is apparent that the Russian government and possibly others hope to manipulate American political debate, as its exploitation of Facebook and Twitter in the last election shows.

What can be done? It is time to recognize that the American political process and marketplace for ideas are under attack, and that reinvigorating the First Amendment is vital. First, it is an imperative that law enforcement and lawmakers do more to protect journalists and other public speakers from harassment and threats. Cyberstalking is a crime. And as the Supreme Court has made clear, threats of violence are not protected speech. A country where speaking one’s mind always results in death threats is not a country that can be said to be truly free.

Second, too little is being done to protect American politics from foreign attack. The Russian efforts to use Facebook, YouTube and other social media to influence American politics should compel Congress to act. Social media has as much impact as broadcasting on elections, yet unlike broadcasting it is unregulated and has proved easy to manipulate. At a minimum, new rules should bar social media companies from accepting money for political advertising by foreign governments or their agents. And more aggressive anti-bot laws are needed to fight impersonation of humans for propaganda purposes.

Finally, the White House needs to be held accountable when it tries to use private parties to circumvent First Amendment protections. When it encourages others to punish its critics — as when it demanded that the N.F.L., on pain of tax penalties, censor players — it is wielding state power to punish disfavored speech. There is precedent for such abuses to be challenged in court.

Some might argue, based on the sophomoric premise that “more speech is always better,” that the current state of chaos is what the First Amendment intended. But no defensible free-speech tradition accepts harassment and threats as speech, treats foreign propaganda campaigns as legitimate debate or thinks that social-media bots ought to enjoy constitutional protection. A robust and unfiltered debate is one thing; corruption of debate itself is another. We have entered a far more dangerous place for the republic; its defense requires stronger protections for what we once called the public sphere.

Doonesbury — Walled off.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Short Takes

Half of Puerto Rico still without fresh water.

Japan parliament dissolved ahead of snap election.

Trump/GOP tax plan is revealed except how to pay for it.

Russia, U.S. discuss lunar base.

R.I.P. Hugh Hefner, 91, creator of Playboy.  (Oddly enough, I never understood the attraction, but hey…)

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Sunday Reading

Racial Demagoguery — David Remnick in The New Yorker on Trump’s attacks on black athletes.

Every day, and in countless and unexpected ways, Donald Trump, the President of the United States, finds new ways to divide and demoralize his country and undermine the national interest. On Thursday, he ranted from the lectern of the U.N. General Assembly about “Rocket Man” and the possibility of levelling North Korea. Now he has followed with an equally unhinged domestic performance at a rally, on Friday evening, in Huntsville, Alabama, where he set out to make African-American athletes the focus of national contempt.

In the midst of an eighty-minute speech intended to heighten the reëlection prospects of Senator Luther Johnson Strange III, Trump turned his attention to N.F.L. players, including the former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, and asked a mainly white crowd if “people like yourselves” agreed with his anger at “those people,” players who take a knee during the national anthem to protest racism.

“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these N.F.L. owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he’s fired!’ ” Trump continued. “You know, some owner is going to do that. He’s gonna say, ‘That guy disrespects our flag, he’s fired.’ And that owner, they don’t know it. They don’t know it. They’re friends of mine, many of them. They don’t know it. They’ll be the most popular person, for a week. They’ll be the most popular person in the country.”

“People like yourselves.” “Those people.” “Son of a bitch.” This was the same sort of racial signalling that followed the Fascist and white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. It is no longer a matter of “dog whistling.” This is a form of racial demagoguery broadcast at the volume of a klaxon. There is no need for Steve Bannon’s behind-the-scenes scriptwriting. Trump, who is desperate to distract his base from his myriad failures of policy, from health care to immigration, is perfectly capable of devising his racist rhetoric all on his own.

In these performances, Trump is making clear his moral priorities. He is infinitely more offended by the sight of a black ballplayer quietly, peacefully protesting racism in the United States than he is by racism itself. Which, at this point, should come as no surprise to any but the willfully obtuse. Trump, who began his real-estate career with a series of discriminatory housing deals in New York City, and his political career with a racist calumny against Barack Obama, has repeatedly defined his Presidency with a rhetoric that signals solidarity to resentful souls who see the Other as the singular cause of their troubles. Trump stokes a bilious disdain for every African-American who dares raise a voice to protest the injustices of this country.

And lest there be any doubt about his intentions or allegiances, Trump tweeted this afternoon, “If a player wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL, or other leagues, he or she should not be allowed to disrespect our Great American Flag (or Country) and should stand for the National Anthem. If not, YOU’RE FIRED. Find something else to do.”

In addition to urging the N.F.L.’s owners to fire any politically impertinent players, Trump also disinvited the N.B.A. champions, the Golden State Warriors, from visiting the White House after one of the team’s stars, Stephen Curry, voiced hesitation about meeting with the President.

Twitter was alight with players and others rushing to the support of those on the receiving end of Trump’s barbs.

“Going to the White House was a great honor until you showed up!” LeBron James said. Many professional athletes tweeted in the same spirit as James, and even the N.F.L. commissioner, Roger Goodell, who has hardly been stalwart in the interests of his players, issued a statement calling Trump’s comments “divisive” and showing an “unfortunate lack of respect” for the league and its players. Compared to the N.B.A. commissioner, Adam Silver, who has been consistently anti-racist and supportive of the players’ right to protest, Goodell is a distinctly corporate figure, whose instinct is nearly always to side with the owners. (At least six N.F.L. owners each contributed a million dollars, or more, to Trump’s Inauguration fund, including Woody Johnson, of the Jets, Robert Kraft, of the Patriots, and Daniel Snyder, of the Redskins.)

Trump has experience in professional sports––with boxing, as a casino operator; with football, as an owner. (And if professional wrestling counts, the man is practically a charter member of the W.W.F.) In the eighties, he was the owner of the New Jersey Generals, a team in the ill-fated United States Football League, which played its games in the spring. He was reportedly interested in buying the Buffalo Bills as recently as three years ago.

And yet his sympathy for the players is minimal. Not only does he try to isolate them as ungrateful anthem-defiling millionaires, he also could not care less about their health. No matter how many reports are issued making clear that the sport has left countless players suffering from all manner of neurological diseases, Trump is unimpressed. C.T.E. injuries in football seem to be no more a reality to him than climate change.

At a rally in Lakeville, Florida, during the Presidential campaign, Trump aroused the crowd by insisting that the N.F.L., which has hardly gone to great lengths to protect its players, was “ruining the game” by inflicting penalties on players who, say, hit the quarterback too late. “See, we don’t go by these new and very much softer N.F.L. rules. Concussion? Oh! Oh! ‘Got a little ding in the head—no, no, you can’t play for the rest of the season.’ Our people are tough.”

What Trump is up to with this assault on athletes, particularly prominent black ones, is obvious; it is part of his larger culture war. Divide. Inflame. Confuse. Divert. And rule. He doesn’t care to grapple with complexity of any kind, whether it’s about the environment, or foreign affairs, or race, or the fact that a great American sport may, by its very nature, be irredeemable. Rather than embody any degree of dignity, knowledge, or unifying embrace, Trump is a man of ugliness, and the damage he does, speech after speech, tweet after tweet, deepens like a coastal shelf. Every day, his Presidency takes a toll on our national fabric. How is it possible to argue with the sentiment behind LeBron James’s concise tweet at Trump: “U Bum”? It isn’t.

The Slow Road to Recovery for The Caribbean — Julie Bosman in the New York Times.

First the hurricanes came, bringing rain, winds and ruin to St. Martin, a tiny island in the Caribbean. Then, said Corby George, a 41-year-old taxi driver there, there was a rush of residents leaving the island, possibly never to return.

“Their jobs are no more,” he said.

Two ferocious hurricanes in less than two weeks caused widespread devastation in the Caribbean this month, leaving dozens dead, millions without power or drinking water and countless homes destroyed.

The storms also ripped through the tourism industry in a region unusually dependent on well-heeled visitors, where a thriving network of hotels, souvenir shops, taxis, charter fishing boats and restaurants powers local economies.

In the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, cruise ports and airports throughout the Caribbean are closed, beachside bars are flooded and, on many islands, tourists are absent. And the risk of a far longer term ripple effect looms, threatening the region’s ability to rebuild: Without a steady influx of cash from tourists, businesses suffer, employers cut back and local residents lose jobs; workers on especially hurricane-stricken islands could move elsewhere for opportunity, denting the local economy further.

“Right now, the livelihood of tourism on a whole is in a coma,” said Jen Liebsack, 45, an events and sales manager at Zemi Beach House, a luxury hotel in Anguilla, a British overseas territory where about 90 percent of the electricity infrastructure was damaged and the hotel has canceled its bookings through the end of October.

Hillary Bonner, 36, a bartender on St. John on the United States Virgin Islands, said that most of her friends worked in boating or hospitality, and that nearly everything else was staked on the fates of those fields, too. “Without tourism, you don’t need 10 policemen, you need two,” said Ms. Bonner, who has been staying in New York, waiting to be allowed to return to the heavily battered island. “You don’t need three banks, you need one.”

In the Caribbean region, travel and tourism account for a higher share of the gross domestic product than they do in any other region of the world, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council, and officials say it is far too soon to know when the industry will fully recover.

At stake are some of the more than 2.3 million travel and tourism-related jobs in the region. According to the Caribbean Tourism Organization, almost 30 million tourists visited the area in 2016 and spent more than $35 billion. But as officials race to restore power and begin rebuilding basic services, the precise fallout to the tourism industry is uncertain.

Some islands, like St. Kitts, appeared to be barely touched; others, like Barbuda, part of the two-island state of Antigua and Barbuda, were nearly destroyed.

Maria Blackman, a spokeswoman for the Antigua and Barbuda Tourism Authority, said that many hotels were closed during the off-season in September anyway, a common time for annual renovations. The cruise ports and airport remain open.

“On Antigua, we opened back up pretty much the next day,” she said.

But in the United States Virgin Islands, the damage was so widespread that visitors were told to cancel any planned trips, Beverly Nicholson-Doty, the commissioner of tourism, said.

“We are encouraging travelers to postpone trips to the islands at this time and are sparing no effort to rebuild communities and restore essential services so we can welcome travelers back to our islands in the months ahead,” Ms. Nicholson-Doty said in an email.

For most British Virgin Islands, tourism workers — many of them expatriates from the Caribbean or other parts of the world — the only certainty now is uncertainty.

Trisha Paul, who works as a waitress at Treasure Isle Hotel in the capital of Road Town, said she was unsure what she would do to make a living until tourists return.

“I don’t know,” she shrugged. “Just waiting to get word from the boss as to what is going to happen now. But right now we don’t have any work for waitresses.”

A native of Grenada, she said she fell into the profession largely by chance when she moved to the B.V.I. last year after studying psychology in Cuba. Now she is considering returning home.

“But I’m kind of confused right now between two minds, waiting and watching,” she said. “The hurricane season is still on. I leave here and I go back home, the next hurricane could — bam!”

Robertico Croes, associate director of the Dick Pope Sr. Institute for Tourism Studies at the University of Central Florida, said he did not expect that the Caribbean, over all, would lose tourists. Visitors will simply visit those islands that were untouched by the hurricanes and steer clear of those that were damaged, he said.

“I don’t imagine St. John for the next couple of years would be able to do anything with regard to tourism,” he said, noting that the damage was particularly crippling there. “For Puerto Rico, it’s less severe.”

It does not appear that way to residents there, though. Before the hurricanes, which severely damaged the power grid across the entire island, Puerto Rico was already in deep financial distress, impoverished and debt-laden. The island carries $74 billion in debt and declared a form of bankruptcy in May. Its finances are being overseen by a federal control board.

Alfredo Gómez, 42, the longtime owner of El Farol, a food kiosk in the popular beachside area just east of San Juan’s airport, said he had seen slumps over the last 20 years. But he had not seen the roof of his place blow off. That, he said, had left him wondering this time whether it was even worth giving it another go.

“I was tempted to not even come back here to make repairs,” Mr. Gómez said from the rooftop of his restaurant. “What if nobody comes?”

The restaurant was open on Friday making fritters, mostly feeding the employees who had come to clean up. “Tell the people, the tourists, to keep supporting us like they always have,” he said. “All of this area — Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico — lives off tourism. We can try to survive with business from the locals, but it’s with tourists that we live.”

Clarisa Jimenez, the president and chief executive of the Puerto Rico Hotel and Tourism Association, was supposed to be preparing for her industry’s biggest event beginning on Tuesday, its splashy annual convention and gala at the InterContinental San Juan, a luxury resort on a white sand beach.

Instead, she was sifting through the wreckage of her office in San Juan.

“My office was destroyed — I’m surprised the phone rang,” she said on Friday, describing the broken windows, strewn papers and soggy floors around her. The convention was hastily postponed to December. “It’s hard to even guess when things will get back to normal. But tourism is one of the industries that we need to help us overcome.”

High Security — Josh Marshall wants to know why the head of the EPA needs so many bodyguards.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt now has an 18 person, 24/7 security detail. The effort has become so elaborate that the EPA has now had to take agents off actual EPA criminal investigations to focus on protecting Pruitt.

This is offensive and ridiculous.

We had a member of Congress almost murdered a couple of months ago in what was clearly an ideologically motivated attack. People are also very upset about the Trump administration’s atrocious environmental policies. Pruitt is arguably the face of that. There are also very rare but real instances of violence committed by environmental extremists. So I don’t dispute the need for some security. But absent some very clear evidence of a specific, credible and on-going threat, this big of a security effort can only be explained by an attempt to create the impression of a threat for political reasons or the desire to avoid ever coming into contact with peaceful protestors, something we’ve seen throughout the Trump administration.

The Department of Education is paying the US Marshals service $1 million a month to provide extensive security to Secretary Betsy Devos – a move that appears to stem from an aggressive protestor yelling at her earlier this year. According to The Washington Post, the Marshals Service is hiring nearly two dozen people to guard DeVos. In other words, it sounds comparable to Pruitt’s detail, though we don’t know specifics about whether it’s around the clock protection or just how many people guard her at any one time.

According to the Post, before DeVos, the last cabinet secretary to be protected by the Marshals Service was the Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, commonly known as the drug czar (The drug czar no longer has cabinet rank). Federal judges and law enforcement officials facing direct and specific threats to their lives generally make due with far less security.

This is a delicate topic. We can’t know the particular threats these people face. Nor should we discount the fact that there is some real risk for prominent public officials during this fractious era in our politics. But given the Trump administration’s broader push to whip up fear of ‘left-wing violence’, the most plausible explanation for what seems like comical levels of security for relatively obscure cabinet secretaries seems to be what I described above: an effort to whip up fear of largely non-existent anti-Trump violence and to be spared the annoyance and mortification of coming into contact with peaceful protestors.

Doonesbury — Defining term.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Sunday Reading

Waiting Our Turn — Charles P. Pierce on the aftermath of Harvey.

CORPUS CHRISTI—The hotel had closed in anticipation of the storm from out of the sea. The storm had shifted north far enough that the city got brushed, but not hammered, the way Rockport and Port Aransas did. The hotel is still closed. There’s a note on the door and the lobby is empty except for some pumps that never were used. People who have reservations pull up to the door. They read the note, and look through the dusty windows at all the strange devices littering the floor, and then they drive down the access road a little further to one of the other hotels that are still open.

There are plenty of rooms available, even though it’s a holiday weekend and the fleshpots of South Padre Island are just off the road. Up the coast, off Galveston, at night, you can see dozens of red lights out in the Gulf, tankers and freighters who are waiting to be cleared to come into the port, pausing out there like the tourists who roll up to the abandoned hotel. There’s an adrenaline feeling of unfulfilled dread. It’s not like waiting for the next shoe to drop. It’s more as though people are waiting for the previous shoe to rise again.

For a week now, we have been treated to wonderful images of people helping people. There is some great journalism being done on these stories, particularly by the television people. But there is a nagging sense of being anesthetized by all the great video of National Guardsmen carrying abandoned dogs, or dialysis patients being loaded onto helicopters, or the hundreds of boats plying what once were fashionable neighborhoods in Houston. Behind the scenes, there is serious politics being played and, while there’s nothing enobling about a lot of it, it would be perilous to allow the vast human tragedy of this place to obscure what is being done, because the politics really is the next shoe to drop.

[…]

On Friday, David Sirota and the people at International Business Times, in association with Newsweek, have been diving deeply into the politics that led directly to the explosion and fire at the now-iconic Arkema chemical complex near Houston. Almost simultaneously with the floods and the fires, a federal court gave a win to Donald Trump’s conception of an Environmental Protection Agency in its quest to keep companies like Arkema from having to tell the people who live near its plant from knowing much of anything about what goes on inside it.

Arkema is already benefiting from the rule’s delay: In a teleconference on the crisis Friday, the company refused to release a map of its facilities or an inventory of the potentially hazardous chemicals at the beleaguered plant, as would be required by the heightened safety standards. The company argued that disclosing such information to the public could put the company at risk of terrorism threats, the Houston Chronicle reported. Under both federal and state law, the firms can elect to disclose such information, or not to.

Less than four months ago, Arkema pressed the EPA to repeal the chemical plant safety rule, criticizing the rule’s provisions that require chemical companies to disclose more information to the public. In a May 15 letter to the EPA, Arkema’s legislative affairs director wrote that “new mandates that require the release to the public of facility-specific chemical information may create new security concerns if there are not sufficient safeguards to ensure that those requesting the information have a legitimate need for the information for the purposes of community emergency preparedness.”

Arkema had friends in Texas state government, too. From IBT:

The American Chemistry Council also lauded Texas Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton for co-authoring a letter slamming the chemical plant safety rule. The letter chastised the EPA for proposing to require chemical plants to more expansively disclose castatrophic releases of hazardous chemicals and berated regulators for requiring independent audits of facilities’ safety procedures. “To complicate matters further, EPA is demanding that the auditors have no relationship with the audited entity for three years prior to the audit and three years sullbsequent,” wrote Paxton and Louisiana Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry. “EPA is demanding that a professional engineer be part of the auditing team, that attorney client privilege cannot apply to the audits, and finding and reports be released to the public. It is difficult to fathom how this collection of burdensome, costly, bureaucratic regulatory requirements does anything to enhance accidental chemical release prevention…This unauthorized expansion of the program does not make facilities safer, but it does subject facilities to even more burdensome, duplicative and needless regulation.” Paxton received $106,000 from chemical industry donors during his 2014 run for attorney general.

This is how we got here. If we’re smart, we will learn from this and not do the same damn things allover again, but I think the odds are against that. Decades of propaganda pushing the message that government is some sort of alien entity—and that politics is its alien, beating heart—cannot be overcome that easily.

Katrina wasn’t enough to do it, so there’s no reason to expect that Harvey will be enough, either, not with virtually the entire Texas state government’s bone-deep commitment to that very message. The triumph of that message owes as much to its ability to create alienation and political apathy in the many as it does to its ability to create wealth for the very few.

We’ve forgotten what Pericles warned us about democracy when he looked around at the very first attempt at it. Just because you do not take an interest in politics, he warned, doesn’t mean politics doesn’t take an interest in you. We are those ships out in the dark now, waiting for somebody’s permission to come into port. Our politics, at the moment, is an empty hotel lobby with unused pumps.

The Missing Link — Josh Marshall on what Trump can’t do.

People with certain autism spectrum disorders have difficulty reading social cues which most people understand intuitively. Therapists have developed techniques which can help them learn through training what comes effortlessly to others. I can’t help thinking of this when I see President Trump touring Texas with his litany of jarring, tone-deaf or just plain weird comments. But the deficit in this case isn’t social cue cognition. It’s empathy.

There is, of course, a word for people who have an extreme inability to feel empathy: sociopath. It can also be certain diagnoses of what is called ‘malignant narcissism.’ But even that isn’t quite what gets my attention. Because many sociopaths are actually quite adept at demonstrations of empathy. They don’t feel it. But they can mimic the behavior. That’s what gets me. Trump can’t even pretend. Even your garden variety jerk politician can put on a show of hugs and supportive words. Trump can’t.

There are plenty of cases where Trump is cruel and awful. We’ve seen plenty of those. In those cases, his predatory, probably sociopathic nature is plainly evident. But everybody knows that during a natural disaster the President’s job is consoler-in-chief. You don’t have to be crazy cynical to realize that it’s often a chance for a chief executive to connect with people in a human way. It can gain them support. Trump also clearly realizes this and is actually trying. Maybe he doesn’t really care about supporting people. But he gets that he’s supposed to do this touring, hugging, saying the right thing thing. Since this was generally seen as a strong suit for President Obama, he probably wants to outdo Obama at it as well. But he can’t. He’s trying. But it is painfully obvious he doesn’t know how. It’s not just that he can’t outdo Obama. That’s no surprise. He can’t even go through the motions.

In addition to the basic body language he keeps saying things like “Have a Good Time!” to people stranded in a shelter. Or, ‘it’s going great‘ to people who’ve just lost everything. Or, look at this huge turnout to people who … well, you get the idea. When it comes to acting human or compassionate it’s like the part of his brain governing that species of behavior has been removed. It’s like watching a person who has profound social awkwardness in a meet and greet situation at a cocktail party. It’s painful. But again, with Trump it’s not social awkwardness. It’s a basic, seemingly fundamental inability not only to experience but even to fake the experience of empathy or human concern. That additional part is what is remarkable to me.

How Trump got this way I have no clue. But it’s the behavior of a very damaged or emotionally stunted person.

Let Them Stay — Noah Lanard in Mother Jones on Republicans who want to keep Dreamers in the country.  (How about paying them a living wage while you’re at it?)

On Tuesday, President Donald Trump will decide whether to keep in place Obama-era protections that allow nearly 800,000 undocumented young people, known as Dreamers, to work and study in the United States. As the controversial decision approaches, the policy—officially called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA—has received support from an unlikely group of people: prominent Republican politicians. They’re joined by Democrats, immigrant rights advocates, and the leaders of some of the country’s largest companies in calling on Trump to reject immigration hardliners’ demands to end the program.

DACA provides Dreamers with two-year, renewable permits that allow them to live the United States without being detained or deported. To qualify for the protection, Dreamers have to show, among other requirements, that they arrived in the United States before they turned 16 and have not committed serious crimes. The average Dreamer came to the United States at six years old and is now 25, according to a survey by University of California-San Diego professor Tom Wong.

Many Republicans have long argued that DACA, which is not a law but a 2012 executive action by President Barack Obama, is unconstitutional. During the campaign, Trump repeatedly criticized DACA, calling it one of Obama’s “illegal executive amnesties.” But Trump softened his position after winning the election. “The DACA situation is a very difficult thing for me, as I love these kids,” he said in February. In July, he repeated that it was a “very very hard” decision. Asked about the issue Friday, Trump said that “we love Dreamers”; he’s reportedly torn about whether to end DACA. Later on Friday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that a decision will be announced on Tuesday, ending weeks of speculation about when the decision would be made.

On Friday, House Speaker Paul Ryan became the most prominent Republican to pressure Trump not to end DACA, saying that the president should leave it up to Congress. “These are kids who know no other country, who were brought here by their parents and don’t know another home,” he said in a radio interview. “And so I really do believe there that there needs to be a legislative solution.” Ryan’s comments come one day after hundreds of CEOs and business leaders, including executives at Apple, Facebook, and General Motors, sent Trump an open letter calling on him to keep DACA in place.

Perhaps the most surprising statement in support of DACA has come from Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery III, a Republican. In June, Slatery, along with nine other state attorneys general, threatened to challenge DACA in court if the Trump administration didn’t end the program by September 5, which is Tuesday. The White House announcement may be intended to meet the AGs’ deadline, but on Friday afternoon, Slatery announced that he’s changed his mind. “There is a human element to this…that is not lost on me and should not be ignored,” Slatery wrote in a letter addressed to Tennessee Republican Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker. “Many of the DACA recipients, some of whose records I reviewed, have outstanding accomplishments and laudable ambitions, which if achieved, will be of great benefit and service to our country. They have an appreciation for the opportunities afforded them by our country.”

Instead, Slatery suggested that Congress should consider a bipartisan bill introduced by Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C) and Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) that would give Dreamers a path to citizenship. “It is my sincere hope,” Slatery wrote, “that the important issues raised by the States will be resolved by the people’s representatives in the halls of Congress, not in a courtroom.”

Doonesbury — More from the Twit.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Monday, July 24, 2017

Friday, July 21, 2017

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Monday, July 17, 2017

Short Takes

South Korea to North Korea: Let’s talk.

Flash flood kills swimmers in Arizona.

Gunfire at Venezuela protest vote kills one.

Iran jails U.S. national accused of spying.

R.I.P. Martin Landau, 89, star of “Mission: Impossible” and Oscar winner.

The Tigers got out of the cellar this week.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Monday, July 10, 2017

Tuesday, May 30, 2017