Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Cruising the Web

Trump partisans are happy to attack Sally Yates and her testimony yesterday. But attacking her doesn't hide the fact that Mike Flynn was an incredibly bad choice for National Security Adviser and now they're reaping the consequences of that poor choice. Whatever you think of Yates and Clapper and their testimony, it's difficult to deny that Flynn should not have been chosen and that the Trump campaign seemed to ignore the warning signs, perhaps because he had supported Trump in the election.

Tom Rogan, no conservative mouthpiece for Trump, explains how to read between the lines of Yates' testimony.
Yates described two meetings with Trump's White House counsel. In those meetings she and another DOJ official expressed their belief that Flynn "was compromised" by the Russian government, had engaged in concerning "underlying conduct" and "really concerned" the DOJ.

"Was compromised" is the first intelligence alarm bell. Its definitive simplicity: "was" rather than "may have been" or "was likely" compromised suggests that the DOJ assessed with high confidence (the highest possible credibility attachment for intelligence assessments) that Flynn was compromised.

In turn, Yates' follow-on "underlying conduct" statement suggests that the DOJ had concerns on Flynn's conduct toward Russia reaching beyond the specific blackmail concern. Was Yates referencing Flynn's payments from Russia Today television? His dinner gala with Putin? Or something else? So far, we don't know. But it should raise eyebrows.

But when we combine these two elements with Yates' "really concerned" affirmation, it strongly suggests Flynn's ongoing conduct was serious rather than peripherally concerning. At the very least, it suggests that what we do know – that Mike Flynn spoke to Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak on the topic of sanctions – was the tip of the iceberg.

Still, there were other interesting intelligence hints from the testimony. For one, Clapper described "very sensitive" intelligence provided by Britain on meetings between Trump surrogates and Russian officials. Here, "very sensitive" suggests signal intelligence collection (bugged meetings, tapped calls, etc.) by Britain's NSA-equivalent, GCHQ, or human penetration of meetings by Britain's CIA-equivalent, SIS. "Very sensitive" suggests more than, for example, a U.K. intelligence service reporting that Trump folks and Russian folks had been seen together. Regardless, that Clapper confirmed U.K. intelligence sharing will greatly upset the British government (which is focused on winning Trump's trust).

Ultimately, today proved three things. Flynn has a problem (and was always a poor choice for national security adviser), Democrats smell blood, and the intelligence community knows a lot more than has yet been made public.

As the WSJ points out, Yates's testimony is also notable for what she, and Clapper, said in the rest of their testimony.
Yet the salient political fact is that President Trump then fired Mr. Flynn for misleading Vice President Mike Pence and the public. Moreover, Mr. Flynn was fired despite the lack of evidence that he conveyed any truly compromising information to the Russian ambassador.

All we know is that Mr. Flynn made a passing reference in his conversation with the ambassador to U.S. sanctions against Russia—a reference Mr. Flynn says he forgot. What was there to blackmail him over?

The important question is whether there was collusion between Russians and the Trump campaign, and on that score the Yates appearance turned up nothing new. For that matter, we’re still waiting for any such evidence from the House, Senate and FBI investigations. Maybe it exists, but no one has produced it.

So far the only crime we know about in this drama is the leak of Mr. Flynn’s name to the press as having been overheard when U.S. intelligence was eavesdropping on the Russian ambassador. Mr. Flynn’s name was leaked in violation of the law after he was “unmasked” by an Obama Administration official and his name was distributed widely across the government.

We don’t know who did the unmasking, but on Monday both Mrs. Yates and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper admitted that while in office they had personally reviewed classified reports about “Mr. Trump, his officials or members of Congress” who had been “unmasked.” Both also admitted that they had shared that information with others in government, though they did deny leaking to the press.

We thought readers might like to know those details in case they go unreported anywhere else in the press. The unmasking of the names of political opponents is a serious concern, and the American people need to know how and why that happened here.
Maybe she gave the Senate that information behind closed doors, or there is more, as Tom Rogan guessed above. But it still is troubling that Obama officials were unmasking the names of Trump associates and then spreading that information throughout the Obama administration, knowing that that would increase the likelihood of leaks to the press.

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We should be thankful every day that Flynn is out and General McMaster is in. However, according to Eli Lake at Bloomberg, things seem to be tense between Trump and McMaster these days.
On policy, the faction of the White House loyal to senior strategist Steve Bannon is convinced McMaster is trying to trick the president into the kind of nation building that Trump campaigned against. Meanwhile the White House chief of staff, Reince Priebus, is blocking McMaster on a key appointment.

McMaster's allies and adversaries inside the White House tell me that Trump is disillusioned with him. This professional military officer has failed to read the president -- by not giving him a chance to ask questions during briefings, at times even lecturing Trump.

Presented with the evidence of this buyer's remorse, the White House on Sunday evening issued a statement from Trump: "I couldn't be happier with H.R. He's doing a terrific job."

Other White House officials however tell me this is not the sentiment the president has expressed recently in private. Trump was livid, according to three White House officials, after reading in the Wall Street Journal that McMaster had called his South Korean counterpart to assure him that the president's threat to make that country pay for a new missile defense system was not official policy. These officials say Trump screamed at McMaster on a phone call, accusing him of undercutting efforts to get South Korea to pay its fair share.

This was not an isolated incident. Trump has complained in front of McMaster in intelligence briefings about "the general undermining my policy," according to two White House officials. The president has given McMaster less face time. McMaster's requests to brief the president before some press interviews have been declined. Over the weekend, McMaster did not accompany Trump to meet with Australia's prime minister; the outgoing deputy national security adviser, K.T. McFarland, attended instead.

Even McMaster's critics acknowledge that he has professionalized the national security policy process and is a formidable strategist in his own right. Trump credits McMaster with coming up with the plan to strike a Syrian air base last month, which won bipartisan support in Washington.

At the same time, White House officials tell me that in recent weeks, Trump has privately expressed regret for choosing McMaster.
You can decide how much you want to trust a report based on anonymous sources with various blocs within the White House staff. Whether all these leaks are true or not, it's not a pretty picture of the administration squabbling. I'd side with McMaster on all of the reported sources of conflict. Why should he have to settle for Flynn's holdovers and not pick his own people? And if these tensions are true, isn't it typical of Trump that he'd be disgruntled with one of the true masterstrokes of his choices to advise him.

On an interesting side note, my students took the AP US History exam on Friday. One of the short-answer questions used a quote from McMaster's book on the Vietnam War, Dereliction of Duty. The test was probably written at least a year ago so it probably is just a coincidence that he is now in the administration.

And H.R. McMaster was a question on Jeopardy last night and none of the contestants knew it. Tsk tsk. They're doing a tournament of teachers. That is one Jeopardy competition that I might have a good chance on.

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I wonder how many Millennials are aware of these statistics.
The cost of the American Dream is rising for the next generation. Most worrying is the gap between average income and average cost of living for America’s younger generations. Even with a current economy that seems to be in recovery and a stock market that continues to flourish, the future economy is in a crisis.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average American ages 20-to-24 is earning $27,456 per year; the average American ages 25-to-34 is earning $39,416 per year.

Here’s how that jives with the cost of living: the cost for a single person with no kids is $28,458; with one child, it is $47,324; and with two children, it’s $57,821. For a married couple, those numbers shift to $39,649, $56,176, and $65,597, respectively.

Do you now understand why many millennials can’t move out of their parents’ homes until they’re 30? Do you now understand why millennials want to stay on their parents’ health insurance plans until age 26? Do you now understand why millennials are waiting longer than ever before to have children?

And, signs are that costs of living will only increase, while wage trends for young Americans haven’t kept up.

The drivers of high costs of living for millennials are housing, college costs, and health insurance costs.

Housing might be the most ignored by the press. China, Mexico, and France have a higher percentage of millennial homeowners than the U.S. According to an HSBC survey, 46 percent of Mexican millennials, 41 percent of French millennials, and 70 percent of Chinese millennials own homes — while just 35 percent of American millennials have purchased homes. According to a recent ATTOM report, “Annual home price growth outpaced annual wage growth in 363 of 447 counties (81 percent) analyzed in the report.”

This is largely due to a housing shortage in areas with millennial employment centers. Local governments are restricting new building, causing costs to rise.

Add that to what’s going on with student loan debt and other college costs. A recent Fitch Ratings press release said, “The cost of higher education in the U.S. has grown at an average of 5.4% annually since 2000, more than double the 2.2% average annual consumer price inflation rate. As the number of graduates with student debt and the average debt burden have grown, stagnant wages have also crimped millennials’ ability to save for a down payment.”

Then, there’s health insurance. Obamacare used price controls to increase the costs of insurance for young Americans to subsidize the high costs of the rest of the system. In some states, rates jumped more than 116 percent for millennials.
You can check out the data from earlier years.

George Will reviews a question by Don Boudreaux, who writes at Cafe Hayek, about whether we would prefer to be a billionaire like John D. Rockefeller back in 1916 or prefer to remain in 2017 with what you have. Rockefeller back in 1916 was one of the richest men alive with mansions and his own private island. But you'd have to endure conditions that existed in 1916.
If in 1916 you suffered from depression, bipolar disorder, a sexually transmitted disease or innumerable other ailments treatable in 2017, you also would not know that you were missing antibiotics and the rest of modern pharmacology. And don’t even think about getting a 1916 toothache. You can afford state-of-the-art 1916 dentures — and probably will need them. Your arthritic hips and knees? Hobble along until you cannot hobble any more, then buy a wheelchair. Birth control in 1916 will be primitive, unreliable and not conducive to pleasure.

You could enjoy a smattering of early jazz, but rock-and-roll is decades distant, and Netflix and Google even more so. Your pastimes would be limited, but you could measure the passage of time on the finest Swiss watch. It, however, would be less accurate than today’s Timex or smartphone.

As a 1916 billionaire, you would be materially worse off than a 2017 middle-class American; an unhealthy 1916 billionaire would be much worse off than an unhealthy 2017 American of any means. Intellectually, your 1916 range of cultural choices would be paltry compared with today’s. And your moral tranquility might be disturbed by the contrast between your billionaire’s life and that of the normal American.

Last year, a Bureau of Labor Statistics paper described the life of workers in 1915. More than half (52.4 percent) of the 100 million Americans were younger than 25, life expectancy at birth was 54.5 years (today, 78.8) and less than 5 percent of Americans were 65 or older. One in 10 babies died in the first year of life (today, 1 in 168). A large majority of births were not in hospitals (today, less than 1 percent)....

Less than one-third of homes had electric lights. Small electric motors — the first Hoover vacuum cleaner appeared in 1915 — were not yet lightening housework. Iceboxes, which were the norm until after World War II, were all that 1915 had: General Motors’ Frigidaire debuted in 1918.

So, thank Boudreaux for making you think about this: How large would your net worth have to be to get you to swap the life you are living in “hellhole” America for what that money could buy in 1916?
It's better to be middle-class today than a billionaire a century ago.

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FiveThirtyEight has an fun look at what people do who are thinking of running for president. They come up with seven signs such as making appearances in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. IN addition, they write a book or agree to write a book that will come out in the campaign for 2020. In the meantime, they agree to a big interview in the media. As a reward their names are included in early (meaningless) polls for 2020. Then using those criteria, they look at who did what before the 2016 election and it's pretty clear that those who were thinking of running for president were doing some or more of these activities. Then they take a look for who is doing what at this moment. And the one who is doing the most is Joe Biden. Next come Bernie Sanders, Martin O'Malley, and Al Franken. Interestingly, all that ELizabeth Warren has done is contract to write a book and gotten her name included in polls. Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey have done as much.

Kamala Harris, newly elected senator from California, is already making the moves, even though she denies that she is interested in making a run. She hasn't done that much, but when has that stopped someone with presidential aspirations? She's already being talked about as a "chosen one."

Charles Krauthammer expressed what I was thinking about Barack Obama's talk about the need for political courage to basically support Obamacare. But Krauthammer does it off the cuff and so much better than I ever could.
Would you allow me to make a comment on President Obama’s statement? It’s been a full 100 days, but it was nice to be reminded of why we should be grateful as a nation that he’s gone. There are a lot of arguments you can make on either side of the debate about Obamacare but notice how it was complete moral condescension. The other guys are cowards because I, and the people who support me and oppose this legislation, stand with the poor and afflicted and all that, and the others are on the side of the rich and the powerful. That’s nonsense. What the [Republicans] have done is practically commit political suicide to support a measure with 17 percent support in the population, that does what we know has to be done, which is to curtail entitlements, or starting to curtail, by doing a curtailment of Medicaid. It’s inevitable, it’s in the future. Obama had eight years. He didn’t want to touch it.

You can say that this is something necessary, something people are entitled to, but to pretend that you are the one who’s advocating a courageous position when it goes completely against what the public wants, it’s complete nonsense. Obama did that all through his presidency, always assuming he was on the side of the angels and always the one who was willing to go against public opinion, when it was completely the opposite. He reminded us, reminded me — it’s been a hundred days — but good riddance, Mr. President.

That is sort of the restrained version of my reaction to that condescension.
Obama is never going away. We'll be treated to his condescension for years and the media will swoon every time he opens his mouth. Nothing will change.

Michael Barone has some fun with the whole idea of cultural appropriation and notes that only some cultures are deemed worthy of protection from appropriation. For example, as someone of Italian descent, what if we were forbidden from "appropriating" some notable items of Italian culture?
But what if Italian Americans started objecting to cultural appropriation? What if, for example, Italian Americans began complaining that Americans of non-Italian descent are appropriating Italian culture by consuming pizza and pasta?

The logical corollary would be to stamp out this hijacking of cultural heritage. In school lunchrooms, pupils would be required to show proof of Italian ancestry before getting a pizza slice. Supermarket checkout counters would require similar proof from putative pasta purchasers. Similarly for paninis at Panera Bread, chicken Parmesan at Olive Garden, etc.

Fortunately, modern technology makes this possible. Schoolchildren and supermarket shoppers could display their Ancestry.com profiles on their smartphones as readily as they already brandish student IDs or credit cards. Others, however stereotypically Italianate in appearance, would have to be politely but firmly informed that their ancestry bars them from partaking of cuisine their ancestors had no part in concocting.

Admittedly, this would be tough on proprietors of Italian restaurants, whose potential customer pool would be reduced by 95 percent. It would be tough on parents trying to raise children without serving the pizza and pasta they see their Italian-American playmates enjoying.

But you can’t make a frittata without breaking eggs. If appropriation of one culture is wrong, then appropriation of any culture is wrong.

I will leave readers to imagine all the possible extensions of this principle. Irish pubs, franchised worldwide by the Guinness folks, would find their clientele shrinking. St. Patrick’s Day celebrations would be smaller — and possibly quieter. Greektown festivals would disappear.

Today’s stern enforcers of the ukase against cultural appropriation will not, I suppose, be amused by this modest proposal. (Oops, I forgot that “ukase” is a Russian word.) They miss the irony that many of the folks who assure us that race is just a social construct, with no genetic significance, also insist that your genetic ancestry should determine what you can eat and wear, and how you can exercise and style your hair.

Actually, American history is the story of one cultural appropriation after another, from English law to Thai cuisine, to our great mutual benefit. You shouldn’t have to submit a DNA sample to partake.
Amen. Let's have an end to all this silliness.

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Jay Nordlinger ponders the question
of what room is "the finest in the world." His first suggestion is exactly the one that I thought of - the Main Reading Room in the LIbrary of Congress. I had the honor of doing research in that room when I was writing my honors thesis in college. It was hard to concentrate since I was so overcome with the wonder that is that room and the thought that I could request virtually any source and it would be wheeled to me. It was a lot easier doing research there and at the National Archives than it is now, but it was a truly wonderful experience. Read the rest of Nordlinger's article - his readers sent in lots of good suggestions. I was surprised that no one sent in the Sistine Chapel. That would have been my other answer. It would be hard for me to pick one room in any one art museum, but there is so much beauty in the Sistine Chapel that I could have spent hours there. I had no idea when I was there back in the 1970s how much other art there was. If you can't get to ROme, you can take a 3D virtual tour that is a lovely way to spend some time.

Here is a lovely story of the time when Charles Barkley invited Scott Brooks, an unsigned NBA rookie, the opportunity to room with him. These are some great anecdotes of what Barkley was like during his time off. He likes to vacuum to make sure the lines are straight and was always sure to watch Oprah. And he bought groceries to distribute to the homeless.