Friday, April 2, 2021

Happy Friday

Not only is it Friday, it is Good Friday to observant Christians except the Orthodox, who do Holy Week a month later.  Some Quakers also observe the week, but this one does not (although I have been known to enjoy Easter candy).  Also, it’s getting close to the end of Passover.  So this weekend could be busy.

Meanwhile, the Washington press corpse is concerned about President Biden’s dog pinching a loaf in a hallway of the White House rather than the news that the GAO issued a damning report about Ivanka Trump’s business practices.

I’m still on Spring Break.

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Fixing A Hole

Under the previous regime, every week was Infrastructure Week, usually announced with fanfare to create a shiny object to distract attention from their newest cock-up.

President Biden has come up with a multi-level plan to actually do it.

President Biden will unveil an infrastructure plan on Wednesday whose $2 trillion price tag would translate into 20,000 miles of rebuilt roads, repairs to the 10 most economically important bridges in the country, the elimination of lead pipes and service lines from the nation’s water supplies and a long list of other projects intended to create millions of jobs in the short run and strengthen American competitiveness in the long run.

Biden administration officials said the proposal, which they detailed in a 25-page briefing paper and which Mr. Biden will discuss in an afternoon speech in Pittsburgh, would also accelerate the fight against climate change by hastening the shift to new, cleaner energy sources, and would help promote racial equity in the economy.

The spending in the plan would take place over eight years, officials said. Unlike the economic stimulus passed under President Barack Obama in 2009, when Mr. Biden was vice president, officials will not in every case prioritize so-called shovel ready projects that could quickly bolster growth.

But even spread over years, the scale of the proposal underscores how fully Mr. Biden has embraced the opportunity to use federal spending to address longstanding social and economic challenges in a way not seen in half a century. Officials said that, if approved, the spending in the plan would end decades of stagnation in federal investment in research and infrastructure — and would return government investment in those areas, as a share of the economy, to its highest levels since the 1960s.

It goes without saying that the Republicans will be opposed to it because of the exploding deficit.  Maybe in the next plan, Mr. Biden should include an investment in short-term memory care since the GOP whooped through all of Trump’s budget-busting tax cuts.

There’s no doubt among anyone that we need this kind of spending on the infrastructure.  Bridges are collapsing, water utilities are dissolving (vide Flint, Michigan), and we are lagging far behind other countries in broadband.  There’s plenty of catnip in it for the progressives — clean energy — and wolfsbane for the right — repealing Trump’s corporate tax hikes.

It’s going to go through a lot of sausage-making by the time it becomes law, and you can be certain that no Republican will vote for it.  But we need it.

Emulating His Mentor

Via the New York Times:

Representative Matt Gaetz, Republican of Florida and a close ally of former President Donald J. Trump, is being investigated by the Justice Department over whether he had a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old and paid for her to travel with him, according to three people briefed on the matter.

Investigators are examining whether Mr. Gaetz violated federal sex trafficking laws, the people said. A variety of federal statutes make it illegal to induce someone under 18 to travel over state lines to engage in sex in exchange for money or something of value. The Justice Department regularly prosecutes such cases, and offenders often receive severe sentences.

It was not clear how Mr. Gaetz met the girl, believed to be 17 at the time of encounters about two years ago that investigators are scrutinizing, according to two of the people.

The investigation was opened in the final months of the Trump administration under Attorney General William P. Barr, the two people said. Given Mr. Gaetz’s national profile, senior Justice Department officials in Washington — including some appointed by Mr. Trump — were notified of the investigation, the people said.

The three people said that the examination of Mr. Gaetz, 38, is part of a broader investigation into a political ally of his, a local official in Florida named Joel Greenberg, who was indicted last summer on an array of charges, including sex trafficking of a child and financially supporting people in exchange for sex, at least one of whom was an underage girl.

Mr. Greenberg, who has since resigned his post as tax collector in Seminole County, north of Orlando, visited the White House with Mr. Gaetz in 2019, according to a photograph that Mr. Greenberg posted on Twitter.

No charges have been brought against Mr. Gaetz, and the extent of his criminal exposure is unclear.

Mr. Gaetz said in an interview that his lawyers had been in touch with the Justice Department and that they were told he was the subject, not the target, of an investigation. “I only know that it has to do with women,” Mr. Gaetz said. “I have a suspicion that someone is trying to recategorize my generosity to ex-girlfriends as something more untoward.”

Interesting that he had to point out that “it has to do with women,” seeing as how the last time Gaetz was in the news concerned his “adoption” of a teenage Cuban boy.

Last summer, he announced that he had a son, Nestor Galban, 19, though Mr. Gaetz said he was not Mr. Galban’s biological father, nor had he adopted him. Mr. Galban had been 12 when they met and had come to the United States from Cuba; Mr. Gaetz was at the time dating Mr. Galban’s sister.

“He is a part of my family story,” Mr. Gaetz told People magazine in June. “My work with Nestor, our family, no element of my public service could compare to the joy that our family has brought me.”

Gaetz considers himself to be the next Trump. As far as associating himself with felons and acting like a creep, he’s doing fine.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Courtroom Drama

I watched the opening arguments in the case of the People of Minnesota vs. Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer on trial for the death of George Floyd last May.  Compared to the hours of drama you can watch in reruns of “Law & Order” or “Perry Mason” or “The Practice” or “Inherit the Wind” or any number of TV series and movies, it was pretty dull stuff.  No outbursts, no attorney jumping to his feet to holler “Objection!”, no tearful confessions from the witness stand.  Just a methodical presentation of each side of the case by the prosecution and the defense, followed by the first witnesses.  MSNBC was carrying it live, but I’m pretty sure that by the afternoon, most viewers switched over to watch a rerun of something else that was more dramatic.

Good.  That’s as it should be.  While a trial is drama at the core — a presentation of evidence in an adversarial setting in a setting that bespeaks a theatre and puts the fate of the defendant in the hands of a selected audience who will vote on the outcome — justice itself cannot be theatre, and the jury shouldn’t be swayed by the irrelevancy of dramatic effects.  That doesn’t serve the case of George Floyd or Derek Chauvin, and while we have made courtroom drama one of the basics of our entertainment, it can’t be how we arrive at a just resolution.

In a way, you have to laugh at how the papers and especially the cable channels are building up the tension and excitement for this trial (I’ve lost count as to how many “trials of the century” I’ve been through) only to find out that it is dull, plodding, methodical, and excruciating in its detail.  But in reality, the duller and more pedantic it is, the more it is likely to arrive at the truth.  And that is all that matters.

Monday, March 29, 2021

Spring Break

I’m off this week from my part-time jobs, so I’ll be catching up on some writing and stuff that I’ve been putting off…  Oh, who am I kidding?  I’ll be posting here, but maybe not with the same morning regularity.

I’ll break in with news as soon as they float the ship in the Suez Canal.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Sunday Reading

Better Press Conferences, Please — Susan B. Glasser in The New Yorker on the vapidity of the presidential press conference.

Sometimes the big moments in our politics meet the very low expectations we have for them. Joe Biden’s first Presidential press conference, on Thursday, was one of them. By the end of it, after an hour and two minutes that felt much longer, Biden had answered some two dozen questions. The majority of them were repetitive variants on one of two subjects: immigration and the Senate filibuster.

Biden had no actual news to offer on either subject. In case you missed it, he is really, totally, absolutely committed to fixing the terrible situation at the border, and also not yet ready—because he does not have the votes—to commit to blowing up the filibuster. There was not a single question, meanwhile, about the ongoing pandemic that for the past year has convulsed life as we know it and continues to claim an average of a thousand lives a day. How is this even possible during a once-in-a-century public-health crisis, the combating of which was the central theme of Biden’s campaign and remains the central promise of his Presidency? It’s hard not to see it as anything other than an epic and utterly avoidable press fail.

For weeks, Washington clamored for a Biden press conference. This was, after all, the longest a new President had gone without holding one since the Coolidge Administration. Republicans—and the state-run media in Russia—seized on Biden’s reticence as proof that he was somehow too old or incoherent to face the rigors of extended, unscripted questioning. With his critics having set such a low bar, it should surprise no one that Biden, who did, after all, win a national election by surviving almost a dozen debates with his Democratic-primary rivals and two with Donald Trump, cleared it. Republicans, it could be said, succeeded in one respect with their preshow spin: they wanted Biden to be on the defensive talking about immigration and the border, not the passage of his $1.9 trillion COVID-relief package and the success of his vaccine campaign. Reporters, based on the questions, agreed.

Sixty-five days into Biden’s tenure, there was plenty to ask him about, even in the absence of the Trump-manufactured dramas that fuelled the news in the past few years: horrific mass shootings, escalating tensions with China and Russia, missile tests by North Korea, and, oh, yes, the pandemic. The killings in Georgia and Colorado over the past week forced Biden to cancel part of his carefully planned “help is here” tour to tout the COVID-relief package—a reminder that, no matter how disciplined and organized his Administration is, no matter the contrast to Trumpian chaos, all leaders fall prey to the press of urgent and unanticipated crises. Biden opened the press conference by announcing a new plan to administer two hundred million vaccines by his hundredth day in office and a vow to get a majority of elementary and middle schools open by then. But that is where the big story of his Administration began and ended—as far as the journalists were concerned.

Biden’s policies on the pandemic have been popular with the public, including with Republican voters, but there are plenty of tough questions to be asked about them, given the huge uncertainties of when and how we are going to get out of the COVID mess. Instead, the press conference quickly reminded me why I never liked them much. What did we learn? That Biden agrees with Barack Obama that the Senate filibuster is a “relic of the Jim Crow era” but is not yet committing to a full-out attack against it. That he has not yet decided whether to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan by the May 1st deadline set by his predecessor. That he will “consult with allies” about the North Korean missile tests. That he plans to run for reëlection in 2024 but might not because, hey, it’s a long time from now and who knows if there will even be a Republican Party by then. His strongest words were reserved for the current Republican campaign in numerous states to restrict voting rights—which the President called “un-American” and “sick.” The funniest moment by far was when he was asked whether he would run in 2024, given that Trump had already announced he was doing so by this early point in his tenure. “My predecessor?” Biden said, and then he laughed. It was a short, derisive laugh. “Oh, God, I miss him,” he said.

Although Biden refused to endorse the effort by progressives to get rid of the Senate filibuster, he eventually seemed to lose enough patience with the press conference that he engaged in a little filibustering of his own. Late into the hour, I found myself tuning out a bit when Biden gave a long lecture on the twenty-first-century battle between autocracies and democracies. During his answer, I noticed that Zeke Miller, the Associated Press correspondent who had been given the first question at the press conference, was tweeting from inside the press room—about a different subject entirely, the Israeli elections. (In another rarity, Israel and the Mideast also did not come up at the press conference, I should note; perhaps American foreign policy is finally pivoting, after all?) Meanwhile, Biden had begun another stem-winder, on infrastructure. “There’s so much we can do that’s good stuff,” the President said. This, by the way, was in response to a question about gun control that he did not really answer. It’s not for nothing that Biden served for all those decades in the Senate.

I have spent years, as an editor and a reporter, hating on Presidential press conferences—the faux-gotcha questions, the pointless preening, the carefully calculated one-liners from the President made to seem like spontaneous witticisms. Print reporters like me are biased toward scoops and original reporting; we tend to dislike events that are staged for the cameras, featuring journalists as props.

Then came Donald Trump, and an entire Presidential term of watching press conferences with a renewed sense of urgency. No matter how hard they were to sit through, they were undoubtedly relevant: Trump regularly used them not only as a platform for his lies and cartoonish demagoguery but also for unexpected policy pronouncements that had significant real-world consequences. Trump’s performances required watching because his Presidency defied the norms of governance; he was the only one who could speak for his Administration of one, and thus we had no choice but to pay attention.

That was then. Today, no one watches a Biden press conference worrying that he is about to suggest that Americans drink bleach to cure their COVID or that he will declare war on Michigan because its governor wasn’t appreciative enough. Wondering whether Biden, a famously long-winded seventy-eight-year-old former senator, will stumble over an answer does not have the same consequences as watching a Presidential press conference to find out whether Trump is still threatening to rain down “fire and fury” on North Korea. This is an improvement, to be sure. But politics moves on, and, in this case, Trump’s exit from the White House means that we journalists have the space and time to consider once again the problem of how to insist on transparency and accountability in our government without relying so heavily on the empty spectacle of the televised Presidential press conference, a platform that arguably had its heyday in the early nineteen-sixties.

I am, of course, all for asking Biden hard, tough, and pointed questions—the more the better. But Thursday’s press conference reminded me of why I hated these staged events in the first place. It taught me nothing about Joe Biden, his Presidency, or his priorities. The problem was not that it was boring. It was that it was bad.

Rough Waters in Key West — Richard Morin in the Washington Post on the battle between the capital of the Conch Republic and the cruise ships.

It was another balmy day in paradise when Key West, Fla., voters decided they’d had enough of the thousands of here-today, gone-tonight tourists who regularly pour from giant cruise ships onto the streets of their iconic city.

By decisive, even overwhelming margins, the voters approved ballot measures to immediately slash the number of passengers who can disembark daily as well as ban the biggest ships. But several months later, in an end-around that has incensed locals, the cruise industry is fighting back. Two state lawmakers with broad industry backing are pushing bills to nullify the vote and prohibit Key West from regulating such activity in its own port.

“I am so furious that I can hardly see straight,” said Kate Miano, owner of the luxe Gardens Hotel, where century-old brick walkways wind past orchid-festooned trees. “We battled the big cruise ship companies, and now they’re taking away my vote? I can’t understand how they can possibly do that.”

Yes, they can, say legislators now meeting in Tallahassee. And there’s a good chance they will soon succeed.

“We can’t simply have a group of 10,000 people closing down the port of Key West and holding the state of Florida hostage,” Rep. Spencer Roach (R) said at a hearing this month, his number referring to the total votes cast in support of the three city charter changes.

The maneuvering in the state Capitol has at times been both blatant and blundering, marked by dueling statistics, charges of betrayal, threats of retribution and alternating predictions of economic or environmental doom. It has fueled editorial outrage in newspapers statewide — with Roach, one of the bills’ sponsors, accused with other Republicans of trampling on democracy.

Before the coronavirus pandemic idled fleets globally, cruise tourism in Key West had grown from a single ship that docked monthly in 1969 to a $73 million-a-year business. By 2018, more than a million passengers were arriving annually in ever-larger vessels that resembled floating communities; the biggest measured more than three football fields in length and carried more than 4,000 passengers and crew.

Collectively, it all had quite an impact on this island community of 25,000, a place made famous by the literary likes of Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams and Wallace Stevens.

On streets where art galleries, fine restaurants and specialty shops once flourished, vendors hawk bawdy T-shirts and stores advertise “Everything inside $5.” Part of downtown’s historic Duval Street, which runs from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean, is now a shopping pit that caters to the swarms of day-trippers, in Miano’s view.

“The lower end of Duval is crap,” she said.

The cultural transformation has been accompanied by environmental changes offshore. Fragile coral reefs have been threatened by the mile-long silt trails churned up as the megaships approach and depart. The vessels also roil the bottom of the six-mile channel to the port, damaging habitat and disrupting migration patterns of game fish. Local fishing guides say they were the first to sound the alarm.

“We saw it beginning maybe 15 years ago,” said Will Benson, a Key West native whose clients pay him $700 a day to chase bonefish, tarpon and permit in the shallow inshore waters. He’s seeing fewer fish, and those he finds have become more skittish, less likely to bite. Some have left their usual haunts.

The November vote limited the total number of cruise-ship tourists allowed to come ashore every day to 1,500 — fewer than half the daily average in February 2020. It also closed the port to ships with more than 1,300 passengers and crew — about half the size of most ships that docked before the pandemic. The final charter change gave docking priority to ships with the best environmental and health records.

Industry officials contend the result ultimately will cripple cruise tourism in Key West and endanger hundreds of local jobs that depend on the big ships. The city’s coffers will take a big hit, they predict. Cruise-related taxes brought in $21 million in 2018.

The new rules will be “the destruction of the port as we know it,” said John E. Wells, another native and chief executive of Caribe Nautical Services. His firm is the agent for every cruise ship that docks in Key West. “We have 287 port calls scheduled for 2022,” ships often making a stop as they loop through the Caribbean. “Only 18 will meet the size criteria.”

The Committee for Safer, Cleaner Ships, the local group fighting the state legislation, scoffs at those claims. Key West will do just fine without the megaships, said treasurer Arlo Haskell, a writer and poet. Citing the industry’s own figures, he pegs cruise revenue at about 7 percent of all tourist spending in Key West in a normal year. Ships will continue to dock, he notes, although only the smaller ones.

“The goal is to make Key West the premier small-ship destination,” Haskell said, while holding onto the overnight and extended-stay tourists who are the backbone of the city’s tourist trade, the ones filling hotels, B&Bs and restaurants.

To Wells, opponents’ arguments carry a whiff of elitism. The smaller ships cater to a moneyed crowd; the big ships bring the cost of a cruise within reach of middle-income and working-class people.

“I call it economic discrimination,” he said. “That’s not what Key West is about.”

He and others say seaport traffic benefits areas far from port communities and should be governed by the state or federal government. They would prefer one set of port regulations “instead of a patchwork of conflicting restrictions in each municipality,” according to a statement by the powerful Cruise Lines International Association.

The initial bills in Tallahassee indeed covered all 15 Florida seaports. They were greeted with vehement protest from legislators loath to see cities in their districts lose control of their ports.

So amendments were tacked on that only prohibited cities from restricting cruise ships in their ports, excluding those ports controlled by a county or port authority. That left only Key West, Panama City, Pensacola and St. Petersburg subject to the proposed prohibitions. Of those four, only Key West is a cruise-ship destination. (The state constitution prohibits bills that target a single municipality, hence the need to create a “class” of city-controlled ports.)

Lawmakers may not be finished trying to punish Key West for its November vote. In a recent tweet, Roach urged his colleagues to oppose giving federal stimulus money to ports that ban cruise ships. “Yep, looking at you city of Key West,” he wrote.

The amended bills sailed through subcommittees. One anticipated hurdle fell several weeks ago when a Republican senator whose district includes Key West unexpectedly withdrew an amendment to exempt the city for environmental reasons. She provided no explanation.

The final legislation is expected to be delivered to Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) in the next few weeks.

DeSantis, mentioned as a potential GOP presidential contender in 2024, is the wild card in this game. While a prominent ally of Donald Trump and a pro-business conservative, he has embraced several issues dear to Florida environmentalists, including restoration of the Everglades. So far, the governor has not tipped his hand.

It’s been more than a year since cruise ships have docked in Key West. Locals say the offshore waters are cleaner and downtown streets less mobbed. Tourist-tax collections haven’t cratered, and Miano says business at her hotel is better than ever.

Even the fish seem friendlier, Benson says. “They are more relaxed, and the bite lasts longer.”

Doonesbury — Party preference.

Saturday, March 27, 2021

Friday, March 26, 2021

Happy Friday

Humor from Andy Borowitz:

WASHINGTON (The Borowitz Report)—Calling it a “scandal bigger than Watergate,” the Fox News host Tucker Carlson accused President Biden of “thoroughly faking mental sharpness” for more than an hour during his press conference on Thursday.

“Doing everything he could to give the appearance of mental acuity, he answered questions in detail, stayed on point, and uttered suspiciously complete sentences,” Carlson alleged. “I’ve seen some shameless stunts in my time, but this one takes the cake.”

Carlson said that Biden’s “desperate charade” extended to “accomplishing concrete things to make himself seem competent.”

“When he said that he would double the number of vaccinations in his first hundred days, my jaw dropped,” he said. “President Trump would never have tried to pull something like that.”

Friday Catblogging: Sombra shows off her retro tailfins.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Another Milestone

Via CNN:

The Senate on Wednesday confirmed Dr. Rachel Levine as assistant secretary of health at the Department of Health and Human Services, the first out transgender federal official to be confirmed by the chamber.

The vote was 52-48. GOP Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska joined all Democrats in voting yes.

Levine, a pediatrician, previously served as Pennsylvania’s secretary of health and as physician general — the state’s top health official and top doctor.

“The confirmation of Rachel Levine represents another important milestone for the American LGBTQ community,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said. “As transgender Americans suffer higher rates of abuse, homelessness and depression than almost every other group, it’s important to have national figures like Dr. Levine who by virtue of being in the public spotlight will help break down barriers of ignorance and fear.”

After her nomination, Levine said she was proud of the work she’s done to address the Covid pandemic and opioid epidemic, fight diseases like HIV, prevent diseases through childhood immunization and raise awareness of LGBTQ issues. She graduated from Harvard College and the Tulane University School of Medicine, and completed her training in pediatrics and adolescent medicine at the Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York City.

Levine’s gender identity came up during her nomination hearing when Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul began his questioning by saying, “Genital mutilation has been nearly universally condemned.” He then went on to ask, “Dr. Levine, do you believe that minors are capable of making such a life changing decision as changing one’s sex?” The question drew criticism from Democrats, who said the Republican senator had misrepresented gender confirmation surgery as genital mutilation.

“Transgender medicine is a very complex and nuanced field with robust research and standards of care that have been developed,” Levine responded to the senator’s question. “If I am fortunate enough to be confirmed as the assistant secretary of health, I will look forward to working with you and your office and coming to your office and discussing the particulars of the standards of care for transgender medicine.”

Most medical professionals disagree with Paul’s comparison, including Dr. Jason Rafferty, who authored the American Association of Pediatricians’ policy statement on transgender and gender diverse youth health care. The World Health Organization, which the Kentucky senator cited, also distinguishes between the two practices, outlining best practices for the gender-affirming health care in 2017 while opposing all forms of female genital mutilation.

I am old enough to remember when “Myra Breckinridge” created a stir and tennis player Renee Richards made headlines for being transgender. The fact that Dr. Levine was not only nominated but made it through the confirmation without more than the usual GOP opposition and ignorance says how far we’ve come. And Rand Paul shows us how far we still have to to.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021