Category: Politics and Government

There’s *ALWAYS* A Worse

I thought James Comey was fired in about the worst way imaginable – giving a speech at a remote office, he sees a TV with a banner announcing her termination and thinks it’s a joke. Which … I know a lot of people with that sense of humor. I remember putting an etc\hosts record to direct someone’s company home page to an internal sandbox web server, cloning over the internal home page project, and editing it to announce the company’s merger with some big competitor and the immediate closing of the HQ office. Screen grabbing CNN, throwing on a new banner, then playing the video back isn’t a stretch.

Then Rex Tillerson, who set out to prove experience negotiating mineral rights contracts is the same as negotiating international political situations where everyone isn’t getting what they want, read his boss’s tweet and learned he was terminated. This is what you get when 48% of voters want a guy whose fame, really, was firing people (in new and dramatic ways) on TV.

Alternative Fact: Trade Wars

Alternative Fact (from Trump’s Twitter @ dark-o-clock today): “When a country (USA) is losing many billions of dollars on trade with virtually every country it does business with, trade wars are good, and easy to win. Example, when we are down $100 billion with a certain country and they get cute, don’t trade anymore-we win big. It’s easy!”


Real fact: Not buying a billion dollars of stuff from country X does not mean said “stuff” will now be produced domestically (assuming the domestic capacity and raw materials to produce the “stuff” exist). It may well mean we’re paying for a few cents more (bad for people with limited income streams) to source the “stuff” from country Y (until Trump sufficiently offends them too and we have to move on to country Z at yet another slight cost increase).

Retaliatory actions significantly reduce American exports too (see: Bush 2’s steel tariff a year or so into his presidency). So maybe you’ve managed to reduce the trade deficit with country X. You’ve increased the overall trade deficit twofold: we’re paying more for our imported “stuff” AND the targeted countries (and possibly non-targeted countries) are buying less from us.

Now theoretically slapping wide-spread tariffs on everything sourced from everywhere would be an easy trade war to win – assuming you want to restrict your country to domestic markets (again, retaliatory action). I expect that means domestic corporations with international operations would spin off international divisions. An ugly mess … and probably why the stock market reacted so poorly yesterday.

Bonus real fact: China isn’t our biggest trading partner for steel or aluminium. That would be Canada. And the EU. Both of whom, I must assume, will object to the tariffs (again, see Bush 2 in 2002)

Let the war begin

One thing I respected about the first President Bush was that he didn’t attempt to secure re-election by re-invading Iraq. The 1990-1991 invasion of Iraq led to significant jumps in Bush’s approval rating — 15% at the onset and 20% when we “won”. And a surge of nationalism (and the “don’t change horses mid race” thinking that certainly helped his son’s re-election bid) that accompanies military action may well have allowed him to win in 1992.

George W didn’t have terrible approval ratings at the onset of his presidency – his approval number was over 50% just before 9/11. But his approval rating hit near 90% in the immediate aftermath.

Which brings me to Trump. Someone who loves glowing praise. And who kicked off a new round of trade wars with tariffs on steel and aluminium which may allow some increased domestic production, but is more apt to make everything that uses steel or aluminium more expensive. Or maybe it make more sense to make parts in Canada and truck the bits South. Or maybe finished products crossing the ocean become cost competitive. And that doesn’t even address adverse response from trading partners.

If the guy was sufficiently delusional to believe it was possible for any president to receive a surfeit of adoration, and by his own admission he’s not into fomenting new wars (+he has some existing wars in which to drop huge bombs +the general population has had more than enough warring to last a few lifetimes) … is it possible this is a self-aggrandizing trade war?

Live Fire Exercises

Arm the teachers, they say. The best way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun, they say. There’s some derision to this plan because of the logistical and financial challenges. Unless Glock, Sig, and H&K are donating handguns, are we really going to pay to arm teachers when we won’t pay for [tissues | pencils | paper | all of the other classroom supplies teachers are self-funding]? Are the local police ranges going to be open for these individuals? Are Cor-Bon donating thirty million rounds of ammo a month (Think I’m joking? That’s LOW. There are some 100,000 public schools in the US. One armed dude isn’t going to help – what if he’s sick that day? Three per school is a low average. Say hundred bullets a month [most people I know who regularly train with firearms shoot at least fifty rounds a week]. 100,000 * 3 * 100 = 30,000,000 bullets.) But that’s the least of my concerns.

Trump stresses that these are well trained individuals. Trained how?!? A gun for home defense is a fairly controlled situation with a small number of well known ‘good guys’. Make sure you know where the spouse & kids are taking cover, and teach them to STAY STILL. While it’s more difficult to hit a moving target than a stationary one, range time is good practice. In a school hallway, where the teacher knows maybe a quarter of the students well … which one is the short-ish guy in a gray hoodie? And what happens when, amid the chaos, some innocent (panicking) kid runs into the path of a teacher’s bullet? Or the local kid who shut down the High School a few days ago with a toy gun (bright orange tip and everything) gets terminated to ‘save’ the rest of the students (and, yeah, totally dumb move taking a toy gun into school … but probably not something for which anyone deserves to die). What happens when these good guys with guns realize it’s hard to shoot another human being.

Unless this training includes hours of live fire exercises every month, “training” not going to help. But it does let politicians claim to have done something. And it does provide a convenient scapegoat for future school shootings — because public discourse shall not say “well, obviously a good guy with a gun isn’t helpful” but rather “what flaw in these people had them fail in saving the day?”

Actual Data – On What Is SNAP Money Spent?

Turns out there is actual data (not complete, as it does not account for non-SNAP cash purchases … but how many people pay cash at the grocery store?) regarding what groceries people buy with SNAP and what groceries they buy otherwise. Here.

And I get the compassionate argument that I shouldn’t dictate what someone can and cannot purchase just because they happen to have fallen on hard times. That’s a bit like saying you cannot be irked when a friend asks to borrow a couple hundred bucks to make rent and you then encounter the same friend buying a new couture handbag / stereo system / whatever floats their boat. You can! And probably are. Because it’s one thing to blow your own money on whatever you want, it’s quite another to tell me you need help at the same time. So, yeah, I want food bought with SNAP funds to be better than that on which an average American spends their grocery money.

And … kind of surprising … it might be. Either way, #1 is meat/poultry/seafood (not a vegan’s view of healthy, but not guaranteed to be junk food). SNAP folks? #2 is veggies, 3 is cheese, 4 is fruits. Crap starts to show up as #5 (soda and stuff) and 6 (desserts). Frozen prepared foods, 8, are generally unhealthy. For the non-SNAP baskets: soda is #4, frozen prepared foods #4, and prepared desserts #5. Welfare queen stereotype aside, it turns out SNAP recipients do allocate more of their funds to non-junk categories than average American shoppers.

But there’s better and there’s well.  I don’t think it’s right for two billion dollars in tax money to go toward SNAP purchases of sweetened beverages. And another two billion for prepared desserts. That’s eight BILLION dollars in one YEAR toward obvious junk if we concede people believe bottled water, fruit juices, and coffee/tea are essentials. Up to 9.7 billion if those are included as well.

SNAP recipient purchases:

Rank Category $ in millions % of expenditures
1 Meat, Poultry and Seafood $5,016.30 15.92%
2 Vegetables $2,873.90 9.12%
3 High Fat Dairy/Cheese $2,483.20 7.88%
4 Fruits $2,271.20 7.21%
5 Sweetened Beverages $2,238.80 7.10%
6 Prepared Desserts $2,021.20 6.41%
7 Bread and Crackers $1,978.20 6.28%
8 Frozen Prepared Foods $1,592.30 5.05%
9 Milk $1,211.00 3.84%
10 Salty Snacks $969.70 3.08%


Non-SNAP purchases – Top 10:

Rank Category $ in millions % of expenditures
1 Meat, Poultry and Seafood $1,262.90 19.19%
2 Sweetened Beverages $608.70 9.25%
3 Vegetables $473.40 7.19%
4 Frozen Prepared Foods $455.20 6.92%
5 Prepared Desserts $453.80 6.90%
6 High Fat Dairy/Cheese $427.80 6.50%
7 Bread and Crackers $354.90 5.39%
8 Fruits $308.20 4.68%
9 Milk $232.70 3.54%
10 Salty Snacks $225.60 3.43%


Breaking into the data farther, either group’s #1 fruit expenditure? Orange juice. Sigh! #1 vegetable expenditure? Potatoes.

Washington’s Meal Delivery

Not a particularly novel idea to source basic staples in bulk for gov’d nutritional benefits – although ‘government cheese’ was as much about propping up dairy industry prices as providing sustenance. It would be an interesting way to deal with food deserts if people were allowed to opt into the service because it suited their needs.

The reality of selecting “basic staples”: anything you pick is going to make someone irate. Remember Palin attacking Michelle Obama for saying she tells her kids dessert isn’t a right & planting a vegetable garden? Until 2010, I didn’t realize that saying eating dessert at every lunch and dinner wasn’t ideal or that eating some fresh vegetables was contentious. I know now. Sure, the whole thing was a political stunt; but anyone want to proclaim society has gotten more reasonable in the intervening near-a-decade?

The biggest problem I have with this “money saving” proposal is that I don’t see it saving any money. It’s not like everyone can get the same box. Delivering fresh vegetables and meats presupposes I have a refrigerator/freezer and am dropping cash on the electricity to run it. I imagine we’re talking about shelf-stable foods (otherwise shipping in the Winter becomes a huge challenge – I did a free meal-delivery trial. In the MidWest. In Winter. Got a box full of frozen-solid ‘fresh’ food.).

There will need to be some mechanism for excluding items based on medical necessity (and a simple online account may not be viable). There’s an uproar if 95% of people claim to be severely allergic to lima beans and spinach, or excluding a food takes a medical approval (which requires a trip to the doctor, which it itself a PITA). And like disability or injury law – there’ll be doctors who sign off on all sorts of dodgy stuff. Or at least the perception thereof.

Even with some mechanism to avoid dropping peanut butter and tinned tuna into houses with allergies, I’m vegetarian. Or Kosher Jewish (religious discrimination!). Or whatever other deeply held dietary beliefs someone may have.

Now they’re delivering vegan boxes (against the huge objection of meat industry groups) that comply with Halal, Kosher, etc restrictions or there are a dozen different boxes and there’s a database indicating who gets what. Either way, some percentage of the boxes still need to be one-off packed to avoid non-common allergens (or comply with the religious belief of the dude who founds the Church of the Carnivore and cannot eat that vegan junk).

And that’s just the packing challenges. Just sourcing and delivering this food every (week, month?) is a whole other logistical nightmare. Do they source locally or take money from the local economy and source the food from single suppliers?  And if they’re sourcing locally, can the gov’t really do so more efficiently than, say, the local supermarket chain?

The idea inevitably includes industry “lobbying” to have products included in the box. If Oprah cannot not like beef without getting sued, and the FDA food pyramid/plate/<geometric shape of the year> cannot be built without industry uproar … I doubt the box will fair any better. Plus the potential for free advertising. There are people at my daughter’s preschool who send rice krispy treats as a ‘healthy snack’ because, yeah, no idea. But would the government throw in crisps, candy, heavily processed anything … if the company offered it for free occasionally? And would people believe everything they get in their box to be healthy … because it’s coming in the gov’t healthy-food-for-your-family box?

Odd Anecdote

Trump included a really peculiar anecdote in tonight’s State of the Union address – a police officer encountering a pregnant illegal drug user, who hears God tell him to do it. And then garners his wife’s agreement to adopt the lady’s baby?!? Complete with video of the officer’s wife holding what I assume is the very young baby. Did this addict feel compelled to hand over her child to avoid prosecution? Was she provided addiction treatment or is she still out on the streets trying to score a hit?

I’m not sure what the point of the story was (Drug addiction is bad? That’s not news. Altruism helping others? The only one being helped here is the baby, and if the couple wanted more kids anyway … that’s hardly altruistic.), but I’m guessing there will be some journalist follow up and determine the fate of the mother and her feelings about the adoption.

Not Oprah!

I didn’t realize people were seriously hoping Oprah Winfrey would run for president. I don’t believe an inexperienced individual instantaneously makes a bad president – they could know their limitations and rely heavily on experts, then use their judgement to decide. I’d probably have inexperienced people with trusted judgement as cabinet heads with dual second-in-commands – a guy from Exxon and a guy from the Sierra Club can explain why we should / shouldn’t be drilling in the ANWR, then the department head decides.

The problem I have with Oprah is her judgement of an ‘expert’ – the source of wisdom used to determine policy. Maybe all of the Dr Oz miracle supplements and Dr Phil moments are just to make money. Maybe she’s totally aware that whatever the miracle anti-aging eye cream of the week is a scam and that injecting mass doses of plant-sourced estrogen doesn’t do anything to keep you young. But she’s either hawking snake oil or she actually believes this stuff. Neither is a particularly desirable attribute of a president.

The Fakies and Rushdie

I may not be a stable genius, but I know enough history to know an unpopular figure with a large counter-following is not going to reduce interest in a book or media outlet by condemning it. Great bit of showmanship for the 20% or so who actually enjoy the ‘burn it down’ approach to governing, but sending cease-and-desist letters trying to bar distribution of a book or identifying a media outlet / show / individual as the pinnacle of “fake news” is counter-productive. As evidenced by the publisher moving up the release date to hit shelves during the invented controversy.

Random curiosity makes people want to experience forbidden things. I sat in a radio station that had a little box with a button. Taped to the box was a sign that said “DO NOT PRESS THIS BUTTON”. Now there was a fairly large board in the studio, along with turntables, DAT players, and CD players. There were probably a good hundred buttons in that studio. I pressed a good number of them to play a specific song or switch to a specific input, but I was absolutely never inclined to randomly hit any of those buttons. Except the one with a sign. Every time I was in that studio, I had to resist the temptation to hit THAT button. Morbid curiosity – it quite evidently does something bad, but how bad? Personally, I just asked the station manager what the button did – it controlled the transmission to the tower. Turn it off, the station goes off the air. (Perfectly valid question: why in the hell is that button located in the studio? No one knew, but I assume there had to be some mechanism to drop broadcast in an emergency. Otherwise why wouldn’t the button be locked in the manager’s office?) Why not put a sign that says why the button needs to be left alone? Everyone in the studio has an interest in the station being on air, and maybe someone would think it a funny joke to turn the broadcast off at the end of their shift so the next guy is silent … but that’s an HR problem to me (i.e. cancel the miscreant’s show). I wouldn’t have been the least bit tempted to hit the button that said “BUTTON NEEDS TO REMAIN ON FOR STATION TO BROADCAST”.

In trying to explain my belief to the station manager, I cited Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. It wasn’t a bad book. Midnight’s Children was well received, and I had read it because it appeared on a list of Man Booker Prize for Fiction winning novels. Same reason I read Something to Answer For and Saville. Wasn’t interested enough in the author that I followed his works, and this was before database driven promotions where I could just supply my e-mail address and be notified whenever an author hosts an event or publishes a new book. There were a finite list of authors I found interesting enough to look for at the local book store. Until the uproar. Book burnings in the UK, although that was a little Fahrenheit 451 to me it wasn’t enough to prompt me to buy the book. Then came riots in Pakistan. And Ayatollah Khomeini issued the fatwa. I absolutely had to know what was so sacrilegious that it was worth rioting and killing a man over. The book, and its author, became generally recognizable based on the objection to his book (and somewhat who was objecting).

Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code is another example of popularizing a work through objection. Cardinal Bertone said not to buy the book. Father Cantalamessa, at an Easter service in St Peter’s basilica no less, spoke indirectly about the book “manipulat[ing] the figure of Christ under the cover of imaginary new discoveries”. Catholic groups organized boycotts of the movie. Now the movie itself was already a big-budget affair that would have been promoted by the studio … but how many non-Catholics had their interest piqued by the fact Catholics considered the story to be rotten food for the soul? When the Vatican banned Angels & Demons from entering the Holy See and any church in Rome, I wanted to see what made that book worse than Da Vinci Code.

So while I am looking forward to Trump’s Fake News Awards on Monday – especially as an exercise in trying to limit freedom of the press – I essentially consider the award ‘losers’ to be paragons of forthright reporting. Not exactly what Trump was going for.