Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Gangland Diplomacy

As North Korea has rapidly advanced its nuclear weapons capability over the last year or more, I have often been reminded of a movie starring Kevin Kline and Danny Glover. Well, one scene anyway. 

That scene also sprung to mind last week after Donald Trump suddenly announced that he will have a face-to-face meeting with Kim Jong-un, following months of incendiary threats from both sides.  

In the meantime, there has been a lot of public chatter about the wisdom of Trump’s meeting and its possible outcome. Previously, Trump has called for North Korea to end its nuclear program, or even to give up its nuclear weapons completely. To me, it seems that nuclear genie is already out of the bottle. It ain't going to happen.

Many pundits have also pointed out how exceptional it is for a sitting president to agree to such a meeting as a first step in a high-stakes negotiation. Someone observed that, by agreeing to meet, Trump already conceded to Kim something he has long craved, a sign of respect, an acknowledgement of legitimacy. 

And this again made me think of Kevin Kline and Danny Glover in what is to me the most memorable scene in Lawrence Kasdan’s 1991 movie “Grand Canyon”. This is what happens:  

A man, Mack (played by Kline), leading a sheltered, affluent life in L.A. finds himself alone and stranded when his car breaks down after midnight in a dangerous, deserted part of town. He manages to call for a tow truck just before his phone dies. It doesn’t take long for a passing street gang to notice his predicament and take interest in Mack's luxury car. Just when he’s about to become a victim of robbery or worse, the tow truck arrives, driven by the street-smart Simon (Danny Glover), who quickly and coolly hooks up the car, despite the tense situation. 

The leader of the gang, Rocstar, now threatens Simon, pulls a gun on him. Simon tries to talk Rocstar down, asking him for the favor of leaving in peace with the car. After some back and forth, with the gun pointed the whole time at Simon, Rocstar says:  

“I’m gonna grant you that favor, and I’m gonna expect you to remember it if we ever meet again. But tell me this, are you asking me as a sign of respect, or are you asking because I’ve got the gun?” 

Simon replies. “Man, the world ain’t supposed to work like this. I mean, maybe you don’t know that yet. I’m supposed to be able to do my job without having to ask you if I can. That dude is supposed to be able to wait with his car without you ripping him off. Everything is supposed to be different than it is.” 

Rocstar demands, “So, what’s your answer?”  

With a world-weary matter-of-factness, Simon responds, “You ain’t got the gun, we ain’t having this conversation.” 

“That’s what I thought,” Rocstar says. “No gun, no respect. That’s why I always got the gun.”  

This is why I fear it’s unrealistic to expect North Korea to ever give up its nukes, no doubt having learned the lessons of what happened to Muammar Gaddafi and the nation of Ukraine, that is: "no nukes, no respect". 

It's also surely a message driven home by being granted an unprecedented meeting with a US president. I think it’s an ugly message, but maybe that’s the way gangland diplomacy works.

Friday, March 2, 2018

A Week in Trumpworld

Wow, in Trumpworld political news comes so thick and fast that it’s hard to keep up. But this past week or so has been even crazier.
  • Hope Hicks admits to telling “white lies” for Trump.
  • Hope Hicks resigns as Trump’s Communications Director, the fifth person to hold or be named to that post in the past 13 months.
  • Jared Kushner -- in charge of negotiating Middle East peace, improving relations with Mexico and China, reforming the criminal justice system, and streamlining the entire federal government -- has had his security clearance downgraded. 
  • Intelligence intercepts show that at least four foreign governments have discussed ways that Jared Kushner could be manipulated. 
  • Rick Gates pleads guilty to, among other things, lying to the FBI about a meeting with Paul Manafort and pro-Russian GOP congressman Dana Rohrabacher. 
  • Evidence has emerged that Roger Stone, a big Trump adviser and self-professed “ratfucker” back in his Nixon days, had direct contact with Wikileaks during the election campaign. 
  • Joseph Mifsud, the shady Maltese professor who promised the Trump campaign “dirt” on Hillary Clinton, has been missing since last October. 
  • Corporate American has started turning against the NRA. 
  • The state of Georgia threatens Delta Airlines for distancing itself from the NRA.
  • Trump tells lawmakers that it’s okay to sometimes go up against the NRA. 
  • Trump claims he would have happily faced certain death by intervening in a school shooting unarmed. 
  • Trump causally, and unexpectedly, announces tariffs on steel and aluminium, causes the Dow Jones to dive 500 points.   
Let's see what happens next week.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Immigration Word Games

A couple of weeks ago I saw a Facebook comment by someone (presumably a Trump supporter) sharing his thoughts on what he wants changed in US immigration policy. He listed four things: The Wall, an end to “chain migration”, an end to the “visa lottery”, and mandatory E-verify. (Notably, no mention of DACA or Dreamers). These four measures, he asserted, would greatly help in “solving the immigration problem”. 

Shortly after posting his comment, he edited it by adding “illegal” to the last part so it read “solving the illegal immigration problem”. In doing so he revealed something: 
  1. He must have realized that it’s not politically correct to see legal immigration as a “problem”. American is a nation of immigrants, of course, with the exception of Native Americans. Even most conservatives will take pains to stress they’re not against people coming to the country, as long as they do it legally. 

  2. So it’s clear he added the word “illegal” in order to appear that he has no issue with legal immigration itself. He just wants the illegal immigration to stop (or so he would have you believe).

  3. But this is false. Two of the items on his wish list, “chain migration” (or to use the proper, and less sloganeering, term "Family-based Immigration") and “visa lottery” (again, officially the "Diversity Visa Program") are currently legal ways of coming to the country. They have nothing to do with illegal immigration. As a side note, Family-based Immigration is probably the reason Amalija and Viktor Knavs (Melania Trump's parents) now call the US home, rather than Slovenia. Just saying. 
The only problem solved by ending those two policies would the “problem” of TOO MUCH legal immigration. Or rather, too much immigration from some countries. 

Obviously, the commenter is a immigration restrictionist, unhappy with the thought of more foreigners coming to America, legally or otherwise. Moreover, he's possibly even a racist, mainly unhappy about dark-skinned foreigners coming to America, since it's hard to imagine what else would engender such strong feelings against legal new arrivals. With that small, last-minute edit, he showed his true colors.  

He was being honest at first, but then decided maybe that was too honest.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Hannity Dishonesty

One thing that I suppose helps Trump supporters sleep at night is the notion that, despite his rotten, ill-tempered, chaotic, ignorant, conniving, and dishonest nature, Trump has one saving grace – he is giving a tremendous boost to the economy. Or, at least, that’s what he never hesitates to claim he is doing. 

And, in some ways that Democrats may be reluctant to acknowledge, there might be something to some of these claims. Some economic indicators are looking better under Trump. But not necessarily all. 

One such indicator is GDP. During the campaign, Trump loved to blast Obama for the sluggish economy and highlighted the fact that annual GDP growth never rose above 3% in Obama’s eight years. Trump promised that, with him in charge of the economy, growth would go up to 4%, maybe even to 6%. This pie-in-the-sky promise was also touted by Trump’s number one bootlicker, Sean Hannity. Naturally.

So, it’s no wonder that when, back in November, the Atlanta Fed made an eye-watering prediction of 4.5% growth for the final quarter of last year, Hannity latched onto this bit of optimistic news like a dog on a bone, repeating it often on his radio show. (Hannity generally repeats the same talking points a lot, ad nauseum, in fact.) 

This prediction was just what Hannity wanted to hear. He effused:
“Yesterday, the Atlanta Fed projected that GDP growth for the fourth quarter will be 4.5%. Obama never once in his presidency for a year had 3% GDP growth. Not once. The only president in history.”
You can see how Hannity was parroting Trump’s line about Obama’s shoddy GDP track record. 

Now, the preliminary results for 2017 are in. The Atlanta Fed’s 4.5% growth rate for Q4 didn’t materialize. Instead, it came in at only a more down-to-earth 2.6%, forcing Hannity to create some positive spin by misleading his listeners. He does this all the time. Here’s what he said this week: 
“When you look at these economic statistics, they’re mind-blowing. Lowest unemployment rate we have had now in decades. The best economic growth. It could have been better for the final quarter of the year. The fourth quarter it was 2.6%. But the previous two quarters were better than Obama had in any two given years.” 
The last sentence is where Hannity’s supreme dishonesty is on full display. He’s trying to deflect from the disappointment of 2.6% growth by pointing to the Q2 and Q3 rates of 3.1% and 3.2%, respectively. 

As I’ve written before, he’s comparing apples to oranges. It’s true that Obama never had a year of 3.1% or 3.2% growth.  But neither has Trump. Not yet. Hannity is implying that Obama never saw the kind of quarterly growth that we've seen so far under Trump. That’s a lie. 

In fact, under Obama there was a quarter of 3.1% (Q3 2013), and a quarter of 3.2% (Q1 2015). Plus, two quarters of 3.9%, one quarter of 4.0%, two quarters of 4.6%, and one quarter of 5.2%. That’s eight quarters as good, or much better, than Trump as achieved thus far. 

Of course, Hannity also failed to mention the annual rate for 2017, which is preliminarily estimated to be 2.3%. That’s not quite the 3%, 4% or 6% Americans were promised. And he would be even less eager to mention that Obama had annual rates higher than 2.3% during three years of his presidency (2010, 2014, 2015). 

Now, 2.6% growth perhaps isn’t too bad. And perhaps this will turn out to be the nadir of the Trump economy. Perhaps 2018 will turn out much better, maybe even be tremendous. 

Maybe. But, still it always pisses me off when someone like Hannity so obviously twists the truth in order to gloss over unwelcome news that runs counter to his narrative – and most of his audience no doubt swallow it all without blinking.  And that is sad.  

Monday, January 29, 2018

Commonsense Voting in Finland

Yesterday, I voted in the Finnish presidential election for the first time. But it’s not the first time I’ve voted here. (Non-citizen permanent residents can vote in municipal elections.) And as always, I’m impressed with how simple it is.

I showed up at the polling place (our local school), stood in line for some minutes (the place was busy and overall turnout was almost 70% nationwide, 80% in my neighborhood), and presented my driver’s license. The poll worker ticked my name off the list of registered voters and gave me a blank ballot, which I took to the booth and marked with the number of my candidate (there were eight to choose from). Then I dropped it in the ballot box (an actual box) after another poll worker stamped it. 

If not for the long line, I would have been in and out in about three minutes. As it was, it took about 15.

I could have used my passport as my ID, as many folks were doing. That’s proof of identity and citizenship. But a driver’s license is enough, since it’s an official photo ID. What makes the whole thing even simpler is that I’ve never had to bother registering to vote. I’m registered automatically, based on where I live. If I ever moved somewhere else, I would automatically be registered to vote there. Also, election day always a Sunday, when most people aren't working. Seems like an obvious choice. And I'm even talking about advanced voting and arrangements made for people who can't easily make it to polling places.

If you ask me, compared to the way voting is done in the States, the system here is so much more sensible. It's clearly geared to making casting a ballot as easy as possible, which is the way it should be in a democracy.  Or, at least, so you would think.