Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Tuesday, December 20, 2016 1:55 pm

“When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.”

Former President Richard Nixon made the argument above in an interview with David Frost. He tried to elaborate by saying that a president has to balance concerns of national security with the law, but honestly, all he did was repeat himself.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has gone even further, using the specious claim that we’ve never had a president like Donald Trump before to argue that Trump should simply pardon advisers (including his kids) who do wrong and, further, that Congress should change conflict-of-interest laws to benefit him:

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich suggested that Donald Trump could pardon members of his administration who break the law.

Referring to a law that could prevent Trump from hiring his daughter and son-in-law to serve in his administration, Gingrich said on “The Diane Rehm Show” Monday morning: “In the case of the president, he has a broad ability to organize the White House the way he wants to. He also has, frankly, the power of the pardon.”

“It is a totally open power, and he could simply say, ‘Look, I want them to be my advisers. I pardon them if anyone finds them to have behaved against the rules. Period.’ Technically, under the Constitution, he has that level of authority,” he said, according to Politico.

Gingrich also suggested that Congress change ethics laws so Trump can avoid any conflicts of interest that his global business empire may pose.

“We’ve never seen this kind of wealth in the White House, and so traditional rules don’t work,” he said.

What’s the technical term for this? Oh, yeah, horseshit.

“We’ve never seen this kind of wealth in the White House”?? Objection, Your Honor; assumes facts not in evidence.

For starters, we don’t know that Trump is all that wealthy. Indeed, as Josh Marshall has said, there are some very good reasons to think he’s not a billionaire at all.

Moreover, even if he is as wealthy as he says, there is no obviously good reason to change ethics laws on his behalf, and plenty of good reasons — indeed, reasons in the national interest, such as keeping the President of the United States free from any potential pressure from foreign debt holders — not to change them.

Moreover, changing an ethics statute wouldn’t change the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, which basically forbids the president from receiving anything of value (or certain things of intangible value, such as appointments to the nobility) from foreign countries. The Framers had very good reason for inserting that provision; they had seen how nobles in Europe sometimes enriched themselves in endeavors and arrangements of questionable, or less, benefit to their own countries. They wanted the president to be both able and obliged to act in the national interest, not his own.

Gingrich, having been a history professor (as he loudly and frequently reminds us), knows all this, and yet he doesn’t even pretend to offer any kind of factual or logical basis for his notion that because Trump is supposedly so rich, he should get a pass on ethics requirements that were imposed post-Watergate for very good reasons.

That’s bad enough. What’s markedly worse is his insistence that Trump should simply allow his advisers, including his children, to do as they like and then pardon them if they run afoul of ethics laws. That, folks, is how we transition from a republic under the rule of law to a dictatorship, because history is (ahem) replete with examples of folks who got get-out-of-jail-free cards and then went on to live selfless lives of duty and sacrifice for the greater good.

Gingrich’s notion is, quite simply, appalling to anyone who believes in the rule of law. Moreover, it clearly sets Gingrich apart as someone who does not, which is pretty fucking funny coming from the guy who impeached Bill Clinton. Gingrich’s new role in the Trump administration appears to be as a cheerleader for kleptocracy. The guy who used to brag about his patriotism has become the cheerleader for its destruction and the destruction of the rule of law in this country.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012 8:45 pm

A statement, a challenge, a prophecy

Even with the most basic scientific caveat — it’s just one study — this probably seems intuitive to a lot of people:

The rich really are different from the rest of us, scientists have found — they are more apt to commit unethical acts because they are more motivated by greed.

People driving expensive cars were more likely than other motorists to cut off drivers and pedestrians at a four-way-stop intersection in the San Francisco Bay Area, UC Berkeley researchers observed. Those findings led to a series of experiments that revealed that people of higher socioeconomic status were also more likely to cheat to win a prize, take candy from children and say they would pocket extra change handed to them in error rather than give it back.

Because rich people have more financial resources, they’re less dependent on social bonds for survival, the Berkeley researchers reported Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. As a result, their self-interest reigns and they have fewer qualms about breaking the rules.

“If you occupy a more insular world, you’re less likely to be sensitive to the needs of others,” said study lead author Paul Piff, who is studying for a doctorate in psychology.

But before those in the so-called 99% start feeling ethically superior, consider this: Piff and his colleagues also discovered that anyone’s ethical standards could be prone to slip if they suddenly won the lottery and joined the top 1%.

“There is a strong notion that when people don’t have much, they’re really looking out for themselves and they might act unethically,” said Scott Wiltermuth, who researches social status at USC’s Marshall School of Business and wasn’t involved in the study. “But actually, it’s the upper-class people that are less likely to see that people around them need help — and therefore act unethically.”

Some of the comments unintentionally reinforce the researchers’ arguments, too, such as this one time-stamped 8:41 a.m. today:

Unlike the illegal Mexicans who sell oranges on street corners rich people actually have somewhere to go. There’s a sense of urgency in their lives, a plan, some sort of schedule. I find that the people with the slowest brains are generally the slowest drivers and walkers. Doing the California roll at a stop sign usually happens when the less motivated, lazier drivers can’t decide what to do.

Wow. Just … wow. The possibility that the California roller’s GPS might have just gone on the fritz doesn’t even occur to this commenter. [/irony]

This finding, if it holds up, has implications for the growing wealth and income inequality in the U.S., where the top 0.1% and .01% are putting distance between themselves and the rest of us at an accelerating rate. Even people who don’t believe that inequality is, in and of itself, bad suggest that growing inequality may mean that the rules are being enforced differently depending on how much money you make or political power you hold — an impression reinforced by the vast number of war criminals and fraud-committing economy-destroyers who haven’t seen so much as a subpoena, let alone the inside of a cell.

But these findings — again, subject to confirmation — suggest something even more insidious: Great wealth isn’t just a symptom, it may also be a cause. This research suggests that having more makes one want more still while blinding one to the needs of others. And that, in turn, undermines one of the greatest stories we Americans tell ourselves about ourselves: that all of us are created equal.

Although I thought the 2008 election presented Barack Obama with a Rooseveltian opportunity, I was not under the illusion that he would be another Roosevelt. I contented myself with the reality that he merely was not another George W. Bush or John McCain. That has helped, but it hasn’t been enough — and lately, at long last, Obama himself seems to be realizing it. Consider this speech he gave today to the United Auto Workers, one in which he gave the four remaining GOP presidential candidates a righteous hiding:

“You want to talk about values?” he asked. “Hard work — that’s a value. Looking out for one another — that’s a value. The idea that we’re all in it together — that I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper — that is a value.”

He continued: “But they’re still talking about you as if you’re some greedy special interest that needs to be beaten. Since when are hardworking men and women special interests? Since when is the idea that we look out for each other a bad thing?”

Memo to the wingnuts: There are many worse things in the world than the United Auto Workers, and in the past 30 years we’ve been confronted with them damn near daily. Jesus, in that book the Dominionists among you claim to love so much but instead have turned into just one more idol, said we’re to look after one another. He meant everyone, everywhere. I’d be happy if, in the actuarially remaining lifespan I have, we just started doing it consistently here in the U.S.A.

America: It was a really good idea. And it can be once again.

Thursday, February 23, 2012 8:00 pm

Religion enters the Republican primaries

Filed under: I want my religion back.,Sad — Lex @ 8:00 pm
Tags: , , , , ,

By Jeff Danziger

The late, great Doug Marlette, a Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist who started his career at The Charlotte Observer, once submitted a cartoon for Easter Sunday showing Christ in his crown of thorns,  lugging an electric chair on his back toward Golgotha. It was rejected, of course, but every year thereafter he would re-submit it and every year thereafter it would be rejected. Though this isn’t quite as graphic, it’s every bit as pointed. I don’t know who’s the best editorial cartoonist working today, but Danziger has to be a contender.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012 10:03 pm

Defining lunacy down

Almost 20 years ago, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then the senior senator from New York and then and now one of the smarter congresscritters ever to serve, published an essay in the journal American Scholar. In it, drawing on the work of Emile Durkheim and Kai Erikson, he suggests that social control is aimed not necessarily at eliminating things like crime, just keeping it within certain boundaries:

In both authors, Durkheim and Erikson, there is an undertone that suggests that, with deviancy, as with most social goods, there is the continuing problem of demand exceeding supply. Durkheim invites us to imagine a society of saints, a perfect cloister of exemplary individuals. Crimes, properly so called, will there be unknown; but faults which appear venial to the layman will create there the same scandal that the ordinary offense does in ordinary consciousness. If, then, this society has the power to judge and punish, it will define these acts as criminal and will treat them as such.

Recall Durkheim’s comment that there need be no cause for congratulations should the amount of crime drop “too noticeably below the normal level. It would not appear that Durkheim anywhere contemplates the possibility of too much crime. Clearly his theory would have required him to deplore such a development, but the possibility seems never to have occurred to him.

Erikson, writing much later in the twentieth century, contemplates both possibilities. “Deviant persons can be said to supply needed services to society.” There is no doubt a tendency for the supply of any needed thing to run short. But he is consistent. There can, he believes, be too much of a good thing. Hence “the number of deviant offenders a community can afford to recognize is likely to remain stable over time.” [Moynihan’s emphasis — Lex]

Social scientists are said to he on the lookout for poor fellows getting a bum rap. But here is a theory that clearly implies that there are circumstances in which society will choose not to notice behavior that would be otherwise controlled, or disapproved, or even punished.

It appears to me that this is in fact what we in the United States have been doing of late. I proffer the thesis that, over the past generation, since the time Erikson wrote, the amount of deviant behavior in American society has increased beyond the levels the community can “afford to recognize” and that, accordingly, we have been re-defining deviancy so as to exempt much conduct previously stigmatized, and also quietly raising the “normal” level in categories where behavior is now abnormal by any earlier standard.

From such “exempt[ing] much conduct previously stigmatized” came the title of Moynihan’s essay, “Defining Deviancy Down.”

Now, keep in mind that at the time Moynihan wrote this, violent crime had been rising steadily for 40 years. Almost 20 years later, it has fallen off dramatically, and the reasons may have less to do with any sociological factor than crime-and-punishment types want to believe. (Doctors who wrote in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1992 that violent crime was a “public health emergency” were more right than they knew.) Certainly, it has nothing to do with whether we still consider violent crime to be, well, violent crime. We unquestionably do, even if some other behaviors widely considered deviant a couple of generations ago (e.g., homosexuality) no longer are so widely considered.

But this phenomenon, as Erikson predicted, has played out in other areas, most notably in this election year what is considered sane, rational political discourse. Consider, if you will, what Gingrich said this past weekend about stem-cell research: He called such research “the use of science to desensitize society over the killing of babies.”

Did anyone blink? Did anyone in a position of responsibility in the Republican establishment suggest, publicly or privately, to Gingrich that if he was going to suggest that scientists were in the business of whipping up some baby-killing fervor as an end in itself, he might want to offer some, you know, evidence? If so, there’s been no sign of it.

Take it away, Charlie Pierce:

You could argue that stem-cell research represents hubristic overreach on the part of the scientists. You could argue that those scientists are fundamentally amoral and that they are only in it for the pot of gold that waits for whoever finds a way to use stem cells to cure some horrendous disease. You could argue that you have come to oppose such research after long and prayerful consideration once you were no longer governor of a state that depends so vitally on bio-tech dollars and have only to give long and prayerful consideration to the question, “How will this play among the rubes in Florida?” (That would be Willard Romney’s position.) You could argue that you are opposed to it simply because every fertilized embryo is sacred. Period. (Hi, Rick Santorum!) You could argue any one of those. I would not agree with you, but I would not feel compelled to call the Nervous Hospital and have you picked up, either.

But consider, for a moment, what Gingrich said. He accused these scientists not of hubris or cupidity, and he did not accuse them of idly casting aside the philosophical considerations of their work. He is saying that these scientists, and their work, are deliberately engaged in a campaign to make the “killing of babies” easier in American society, that their grand design is not fame and fortune, nor ridding the world of terrible illness, but, rather, that they are in service to a dark agenda to turn America into some kind of futuristic child-killing dystopia. I’m sorry, but this is just nuts. I mean, I’ve heard the argument that climate scientists have invented the “hoax” of global climate change in order to get rich, but that’s a nursery rhyme compared to what Gingrich is dealing out here.

Tell me again that Ron Paul is the crackpot in this race.

(Full disclosure: Both my brothers have Type 1 diabetes, and if stem-cell research offers them the hope of a cure, which it might, then I support it. For that matter, if scooping Gingrich’s guts out with a rusty spoon offered them the hope of a cure, I would at least strongly consider it.)

I’ve argued before that the GOP primary voting base responds most strongly to hippie-punching, and that people like Newt Gingrich succeed by punching hippies. But cui bono? Moynihan had a suspicion on that, too:

Our second, or opportunistic mode of redefinition, reveals at most a nominal intent to do good. The true object is to do well, a long-established motivation among mortals. In this pattern, a growth in deviancy makes possible a transfer of resources, including prestige, to those who control the deviant population. This control would be jeopardized if any serious effort were made to reduce the deviancy in question. This leads to assorted strategies for re-defining the behavior in question as not all that deviant, really.

Newt Gingrich has made it very clear that he wants to dismantle the New Deal and Great Society, and in this he is not alone in the GOP. Indeed, some of the party’s wealthiest, most powerful backers — corporatists, if not fascists, and people whose beliefs are inimical to American ideals — stand to get even wealthier and thus more powerful if Gingrich or anyone like him gains political power.

Does it matter that these candidates defy the laws of nature by pushing creationism, casting unfounded doubt on a proven means of reducing disease and dismissing climate science that might be essential to the survival of the species? Does it matter that these candidates make the grossest of moral accusations without evidence or accountability? Does it matter that these candidates’ proposals are plainly and simply unconstitutional as well as economic and social suicide?

It does not.

And so they define lunacy down. They hear the batshit and do not think, “How can I make this stop?” but, rather, “How can I make this work for me?” And so the nation bungee jumps into the Canyon of Crazy without a cord.

Moynihan, speaking in the context of violent crime and single-parent households (statistically associated with many social ills), concluded:

As noted earlier, Durkheim states that there is “nothing desirable” about pain. … Pain, even so, is an indispensable warning signal. But societies under stress, much like individuals, will turn to pain killers of various kinds that end up concealing real damage. There is surely nothing desirable about this. If our analysis wins general acceptance, if, for example, more of us came to share Judge [Edwin] Torres’s genuine alarm at “the trivialization of the lunatic crime rate” in his city (and mine) [New York — Lex], we might surprise ourselves how well we respond to the manifest decline of the American civic order. Might.

One large subset of the people who would govern us has taken leave of its senses. Our “liberal” news media treats this phenomenon as unremarkable. And those Americans who haven’t had to sell their TVs and gaming sets because their unemployment insurance has run out are, by and large, taking comfort in “Call of Duty” and “NCIS” instead of doing something about it.

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