Category Archives: alo

Scott Pruitt is making nice with EPA employees, but big changes are to come.

In December, when Musk got stuck in traffic, instead of leaning on the horn or flipping off the other drivers, he decided to build a new transportation system. An hour later, Max Chafkin writes in Bloomberg Businessweek, “the project had a name and a marketing platform. ‘It shall be called The Boring Company,’” Musk wrote.

Musk told employees to grab some heavy machinery and they began digging a hole in the SpaceX parking lot. He bought one of those machines that bores out tunnels and lays down concrete walls as it goes. It’s named Nannie.

Musk is the grown-up version of the kid who decides to dig to China: He doesn’t pause to plan or ask what’s possible, he just grabs a stick and starts shoveling. Maybe that’s the approach we need. As Chafkin points out, “Tunnel technology is older than rockets, and boring speeds are pretty much what they were 50 years ago.” And Bent Flyvbjerg, an academic who studies why big projects cost so much, says that the tunneling industry is ripe for someone with new ideas to shake things up.

Musk is a technical genius. But the things that make tunnels expensive tend to be political — they have to do with endless hearings before local government councils and concessions to satisfy concerned neighbors and politicians. For that stultifying process, at least, Musk’s new company is aptly named. If Musk figures out how disrupt local land-use politics, it would mean he’s smarter than anyone thinks.

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Scott Pruitt is making nice with EPA employees, but big changes are to come.

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Anne Frank Center Unimpressed by Trump’s "Band-Aid on the Cancer of Anti-Semitism" Statement

Mother Jones

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Following a recent wave of anti-Semitic attacks, including more than a dozen bomb threats targeting Jewish community centers around the country on Monday alone, President Donald Trump condemned such acts as “horrible” and promised these kinds of actions would end soon.

“The anti-Semitic threats targeting our Jewish community and community centers are horrible and are painful, and a very sad reminder of the work that still must be done to root out hate and prejudice and evil,” Trump told reporters during a visit to the National Museum of African-American History on Tuesday.

The president’s comments come amid increased pressure for him to directly denounce anti-Semitic incidents, which have surged since he won the election. In addition to bomb threats on Monday, dozens of tombstones at a Jewish cemetery near St. Louis were pushed over in an apparent act of vandalism.

But Jewish groups, including the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect, which addresses civil rights issues in the US, called Trump’s brief remarks on Tuesday insufficient and are demanding the president do more than place a “Band-Aid on the cancer of anti-Semitism” that has affected his administration.

“When President Trump responds to anti-Semitism proactively and in real time, and without pleas and pressure, that’s when we’ll be able to say this President has turned a corner,” a statement from the center on Tuesday said. “This is not that moment.”

Trump’s statement on Tuesday comes less than a week after his chaotic press conference, in which he angrily dismissed a Jewish reporter’s question concerning the uptick in anti-Semitic attacks.

“Not a fair question,” Trump responded, before ordering the reporter from Ami Magazine, Jake Turx, to take his seat. He then defended himself as the “least anti-Semitic” and “least racist person.”

In addition to Trump’s unwillingness to speak out against anti-Semitism, the administration also came under fire last month for releasing a statement commemorating International Holocaust Remembrance Day that conspicuously failed to mention Jews. Critics, including Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), slammed the White House statement by comparing it to Holocaust denial.

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Anne Frank Center Unimpressed by Trump’s "Band-Aid on the Cancer of Anti-Semitism" Statement

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Does Donald Trump’s Supreme Court Nominee Believe the Constitution Is God’s Law?

Mother Jones

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During his confirmation hearings, scheduled to begin March 20, Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch will face a thorough grilling about his legal philosophy. Among the topics likely to come up are his views on “natural law” and his relationship with John Finnis, the Oxford University professor who advised Gorsuch on his Ph.D. thesis and one the world’s leading proponents of this arcane legal theory.

Natural law is a loosely defined term, but to many of its conservative US adherents it is essentially seen as God’s law—a set of moral absolutes underpinning society itself. In recent years, natural law believers have invoked this legal theory to defend a range of anti-gay policies.

Natural law has been a source of controversy for at least two previous Supreme Court nominees in recent decades—for dramatically different reasons. In 1991, Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe wrote a New York Times op-ed opposing the nomination of Justice Clarence Thomas because he would be the “first Supreme Court nominee in 50 years to maintain that natural law should be readily consulted in constitutional interpretation.” Reagan nominee Robert Bork, on the other hand, was criticized for not believing in natural law by then-Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.), no less. Biden told Bork at his confirmation hearing, “As a child of God, I believe my rights are not derived from the Constitution…They were given to me and each of my fellow citizens by our creator.”

Bork, who was ultimately rejected by the Senate, had scoffed at the idea that judges could know God’s law and implement it. Later, in a 1992 essay, he warned that if natural law proponents “persuade judges that natural law is their domain, the theorists will find that they have merely given judges rein to lay down their own moral and political predilections as the law of the Constitution. Once that happens, the moral reasoning of the rest of us is made irrelevant.”

Natural law theory dates back to Thomas Aquinas and the Greeks before him. It isn’t necessarily liberal or conservative. Lawyers from the natural-law legal camp helped formulate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, a seminal document in which 48 countries committed to pursuing progressive measures that would protect human rights and fundamental freedoms.

In the United States, natural law has taken on a variety of interpretations. One proponent was David Lane, a white supremacist implicated in the murder of Alan Berg, a Jewish radio talk show host in Gorsuch’s hometown of Denver. Lane’s followers gunned down Berg in his driveway in 1984. Lane, who died in 2007, claimed that natural law justified any act, however heinous, that preserved the perpetuation of a race—in his case, the white race.

American conservatives, including Justice Thomas, use the term “natural law” to suggest that the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence were divinely inspired. Former Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), now the president of the conservative Heritage Institute think tank, explained in an essay last summer, “Our rights as Americans are considered unalienable only because they were inherent in the natural order of life established by the laws of nature and nature’s God.”

Where does Gorsuch fit into all this? In the 1990s, he studied legal philosophy at Oxford under Finnis. Gorsuch, who received his doctorate in 2004, has remained close to his former mentor, whom he credits in the 2006 book that grew out of his Oxford thesis, The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia. In a 2011 speech at Notre Dame law school honoring the Australian-born academic, Gorsuch fondly recalled the “red ink he poured so carefully—and generously—over the papers we produced.” He declared, “I have encountered few such patient, kind and generous teachers in my life.” (Finnis did not respond for a request for comment. He has publicly declined to discuss Gorsuch, telling the Guardian earlier this month, “I have resolved not to say anything to anyone at all.”)

Finnis, who is 76, is considered a brilliant and influential legal philosopher. In 1980, he published a definitive text on natural-law legal theory, Natural Law and Natural Rights, in which he identified seven “basic goods” that are central to human well-being: life, knowledge, play, aesthetic experience, sociability of friendship, practical reasonableness, and religion. From there, he sought to outline an ethical framework for viewing law and justice. He believes all human life is innately valuable and intrinsically good, and not because it might be useful to others, as some utilitarian philosophers might argue.

Melissa Moschella, an assistant professor of philosophy at the Catholic University of America who knows Finnis, says natural law is “a theory about what’s right and wrong, and it’s based on what, through reason, we can know about what’s good and bad for human beings, so that we act in ways that are always respectful of the well being of ourselves and others.”

On many levels, Finnis’ philosophy is profoundly humane. It led him to oppose the death penalty and to become an outspoken advocate for nuclear disarmament in the 1980s. He believed that even threatening to use nuclear weapons was immoral because it indicated a willingness to kill innocent civilians indiscriminately. Natural law also made him a foe of abortion and assisted suicide. While his work doesn’t invoke the divine, as DeMint and others have, Finnis’ views square with his Catholic faith: He converted to Catholicism in 1962 and has advised the Vatican on Catholic social teaching.

Not long after his conversion, Finnis discovered Germain Grisez, a French American natural-law philosopher and a prominent defender of the Church’s opposition to contraception. Griesz and Finnis began to collaborate, and Finnis’ work grew both more conservative and more focused on sex, particularly gay sex.

In 1993, Finnis testified for the state of Colorado in a case challenging Amendment 2, a ballot initiative that would have banned local governments from passing human rights ordinances or other anti-discrimination laws that would protect LGBT people. State Solicitor General Timothy Tymkovich, who now serves alongside Gorsuch on the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, brought Finnis in to explain the allegedly classical roots of anti-gay prohibitions going back to Socrates. In his trial testimony, Finnis compared gay sex to bestiality “because it is divorced from the expressing of an intelligible common good,” according to part of his deposition published by The New Republic.

Martha Nussbaum, a prominent professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago, served as an expert for the other side, suggesting that Finnis was misinterpreting the Greeks, who clearly had some acceptance of homosexuality in their culture. Nussbaum’s side ultimately prevailed at trial and at the US Supreme Court in its landmark decision in Romer v. Evans.

Nussbaum says Finnis “is a very fine moral philosopher” and “author of important books that I admire.” But she notes that his work on sexual orientation has less going for it. “Finnis’s book Natural Law and Natural Rights is entirely different from the ‘new natural law’ work inspired by Germain Grisez that he got into later,” Nussbaum writes in an email. “The former is excellent philosophy, the latter arcane and strange conservative argument. In England Finnis on the whole focused on philosophy, and people were shocked by some of the things he published beginning in 1994.”

That year, he authored an article titled “Law, Morality, and ‘Sexual Orientation.'” In it, Finnis insisted that “homosexual orientation” was a “deliberate willingness to promote and engage in homosexual acts—a state of mind, will, and character whose self-interpretation came to be expressed in the deplorable but helpfully revealing name ‘gay.'”

Finnis’ students have deployed his legal theories to battle same-sex marriage in the United States. Among his best-known acolytes is Princeton professor Robert George, who co-founded the anti-gay National Organization for Marriage. George filed a brief in the 2013 Supreme Court case over the same-sex marriage ballot initiative in California, Proposition 8, and he also testified for the state of Colorado in the 1993 anti-discrimination case along with his former teacher.

Gorsuch’s long relationship with Finnis has put him in close company with George and other anti-gay figures. When Gorsuch spoke at Notre Dame in 2011, he shared the stage with anti-gay theorists including George and Germain Grisez. Gorsuch has also worked with George on academic projects, including his tome on assisted suicide, which was part of a series of books George edited at Princeton University Press. George recently wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post supporting Gorsuch’s Supreme Court nomination.

Whether Gorsuch adheres to the same natural law philosophy as George and Finnis about the alleged societal harm of homosexuality is hard to know. His book on assisted suicide mentions Supreme Court cases involving gay rights, but only as reference points for analyzing the court’s thinking, not his own, and its relevance to euthanasia. He’s hired openly gay clerks and attends a liberal Episcopal church in very liberal Boulder, Colorado, and gay friends attested to his openness in a recent New York Times story.

But he also voted in favor of Hobby Lobby, the craft store whose owners sued the Obama administration, alleging that the company’s religious freedom rights were violated by the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that employers provide health insurance that covers contraception. That decision might square with a natural-law view respecting the exercise of religion as a critical human right, but it also may have led to more persecution of LGBT people. The Supreme Court decision upholding that ruling has since been used to defend businesses that have discriminated against LGBT people—a view some lower courts have upheld. The Hobby Lobby case was brought by the Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty, a religious nonprofit law firm on whose board George serves.

Catholic University’s Moschella says Finnis makes a distinction in his work between morality and the law. He believes that what a judge does on the bench is not determined by natural law but rather by the laws of that nation. So if Gorsuch really does endorse Finnis’ philosophy, Moschella says, his moral views on abortion, gay rights, and other hot-button issues and what natural law says about them is irrelevant. She says, “What is relevant to his work as a judge is his commitment, which is also a moral commitment, to upholding the law of the land.”

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Does Donald Trump’s Supreme Court Nominee Believe the Constitution Is God’s Law?

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The Private Prison Industry Is Licking Its Chops Over Trump’s Deportation Plans

Mother Jones

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Immigration agents sparked panic across the country last week, when a series of high-profile operations made it clear that a new era of crackdowns on undocumented immigrants had begun. Coming on the heels of a couple of major executive orders on immigration, the arrests and deportations were a very public reminder of President Donald Trump’s promise to deport upwards of 2 million immigrants upon taking office.

But given that America’s detention system for immigrants has been running at full capacity for some time now, where is the president going to put all of these people before deporting them?

In new jails, for starters. In the same executive order that called for the construction of a southern border wall, Trump instructed Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to build out its sprawling network of immigration detention centers. Starting “immediately,” his order said, ICE should construct new facilities, lease space for immigrants alongside inmates in existing local jails, and sign new contracts—likely with private prison companies. The scale of that expansion became clearer on February 5, when the Los Angeles Times reported on a memo handed down in late January from White House immigration experts to top Homeland Security officials. The document called for raising the number of immigrants ICE incarcerates daily, nationwide, to 80,000 people.

Last year, ICE detained more than 352,000 people. The number of detainees held each day, typically between 31,000 and 34,000, reached a historic high of about 41,000 people in the fall, as Customs and Border Protection apprehended more people on the southwest border while seeing a simultaneous rise in asylum seekers. But doubling the daily capacity to 80,000 “would require ICE to sprint to add more capacity than the agency has ever added in its entire history,” says Carl Takei, staff attorney for the ACLU’s National Prison Project. It would also take an extra $2 billion in government funding per year, detention experts interviewed by Mother Jones estimated. And, Takei warned, “we don’t know if 80,000 is where he’ll stop.”

Yet even if ICE does not adopt an 80,000-person detention quota, other changes laid out in Trump’s executive orders suggest that vastly more people will be detained in the coming months and years. For example, Trump ordered ICE to prioritize deporting not only immigrants who been convicted or charged with crimes, but also those who had “committed acts that constitute a chargeable offense”—a category that could include entering the country illegally and driving without a license. Trump also ordered Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, who oversees ICE, to take “all appropriate actions” to detain undocumented immigrants while their cases are pending.

Beyond that, ICE could stop granting parole to asylum seekers, explains Margo Schlanger, a former Obama administration official who served as Homeland Security’s top authority on civil rights. With ICE taking enforcement action against more categories of immigration offenders and releasing fewer of them, Schlanger says, “we could get to a very large sum of people in detention very quickly.”

It’s not difficult to guess who profits. In an earnings call last week, the private prison giant CoreCivic (formerly known as the Corrections Corporation of America, or CCA) announced that it saw the ICE detention expansion as a business opportunity. “When coupled with the above average rate of crossings along the southwest border, these executive orders appear likely to significantly increase the need for safe, humane, and appropriate detention bed capacity that we have available,” CoreCivic President and CEO Damon Hininger said.

As of November, a whopping 65 percent of ICE detainees were held in facilities run by private prison companies, which typically earn a fee per detainee per night and whose business model depends upon minimizing costs to return profits to their shareholders. Since Trump’s election, private prison stocks have soared, and two new, for-profit detention centers are opening in Georgia and Texas.

Another private prison company, Management & Training Corp., is reportedly seeking a contract with ICE to reopen the Willacy County Correctional Institution, a troubled detention camp that held up to 2,000 ICE detainees in Kevlar tents between 2006 and 2011. “Historically, ICE has relied heavily on the private prison industry every time the detention system has expanded,” Takei says. “There’s little doubt in my mind that they will continue to rely on the private prison industry in what’s going to be the biggest expansion of the agency in history.”

The first new detention center contracts will likely take the form of arrangements between ICE and local governments to reopen empty prison facilities as detention centers or rent beds in existing local jails, Takei says. The arrangements, known intergovernmental service agreements, allow ICE to cut deals with local governments and private prison companies while avoiding a lengthy public bidding process. Occasionally, the local government agrees to hold ICE detainees alongside inmates in their publicly run jail—an arrangement a Department of Homeland Security subcommittee recently called “the most problematic” option for holding detainees. But most of the time, local governments simply act as middlemen in deals between ICE and private prison companies.

The opaque nature of the process allows all parties to avoid public outcry before the deals are signed, explains Silky Shah, co-director of the Detention Watch Network, an immigrant rights advocacy group. So far, immigration advocates haven’t gotten wind of many new contracts being negotiated or signed since Trump’s inauguration. “But that doesn’t mean contracting activity is not taking place,” Takei says. “I suspect there are closed-door meetings taking place across the country right now.”

Expanding detention quickly could have a high human cost. Schlanger is worried that conditions inside detention facilities could deteriorate without proper oversight from the Department of Homeland Security. “There are a lot of bad things that happen if the number of beds is ramped up fast, without appropriate controls, monitoring, supervision, and care,” she says, pointing to the potential overuse of solitary confinement, inadequate safety measures, poor nutrition, and insufficient medical care. “That means detainees could die.” Asylum seekers, she warns, will have a harder time fighting their immigration cases from inside detention centers, where it’s difficult to access lawyers and gather evidence. More could be coerced into voluntary deportation: “You’re vulnerable to the government saying to you, ‘Look, we’ll let you out from detention, but you have to give up your immigration case.'”

We don’t have to look far in the past to see the danger of rushing to open new detention facilities. Last year, as several thousand Haitian immigrants arrived on the southern border, fleeing natural disasters and poverty, the Department of Homeland Security began seeking contracts for new detention facilities to accommodate the surge. In their scramble to secure space for the new arrivals, ICE officials reportedly considered ignoring quality standards for the facilities—”scraping the bottom looking for beds,” as one official told the Wall Street Journal.

The bottom of the barrel, in this case, included a prison in Cibola County, New Mexico, owned by CoreCivic. Last summer, after an investigation by The Nation revealed a pattern of severe, longtime medical neglect in the 1,100-bed facility—which had gone months without a doctor—the US Bureau of Prisons decided to pull its inmates out and cancel its contract with CoreCivic. Yet less than a month after the last federal prisoner was transferred out, ICE was already negotiating an agreement with the county and CoreCivic to detain immigrants in the newly vacant facility. Four hundred immigrants are currently detained there. Takei notes that ICE contracted with the same company, for the same prison: “There weren’t any substantive changes.”

Shah expects to see familiar problems like poor medical care worsen as new deals for detention facilities are finalized. “One of the concerns we hear most often is that when people complain about ailments, officers will come back and just say, ‘Well, drink more water, or take an Advil and you’ll be fine,'” she says. “It’s a really harsh system already. If you’re going to expand at this level, it’s just going to become that much harsher.”

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The Private Prison Industry Is Licking Its Chops Over Trump’s Deportation Plans

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The Hero of Tal Afar Gets the Last Laugh

Mother Jones

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I can still remember a decade ago, when Col. H.R. McMaster, the hero of Tal Afar and genius of counterinsurgency, had been passed over for the second time for promotion to brigadier general. Did we ever find out who had it in for him? Probably not. In any case, he eventually got his star, and then another, and then another, and now he’s got an office in the White House:

President Trump appointed Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster as his new national security adviser on Monday, picking a widely respected military strategist known for challenging conventional thinking and helping to turn around the Iraq war in its darkest days.

….General McMaster had the aura of disruption that Mr. Trump has valued in several cabinet secretaries, said a senior administration official who insisted on anonymity to describe internal deliberations. Another candidate, Lt. Gen. Robert L. Caslen, the superintendent of West Point, impressed Mr. Trump as being “from central casting,” the official said. But the president wanted him to stay at West Point, which he reveres.

I see that Trump is using his usual keen management insights to choose the folks responsible for running our country. Luckily, he somehow decided that the guy from central casting ought to stay at West Point, and accidentally chose McMaster. This is probably a pretty good selection, so I guess we should all be grateful regardless of how we got there.

I wonder what McMaster thinks of K.T. McFarland? That seems to be a key prerequisite for NSA these days. I sure hope they get along, since I assume McFarland will have no problem using her personal connection with Trump to complain about McMaster behind his back if she doesn’t like what he’s doing.

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The Hero of Tal Afar Gets the Last Laugh

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