Category Archives: Citizen

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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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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Quote of the Day: Donald Trump Saves the Coal Mines

Mother Jones

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Via the Washington Post:

“If he hadn’t gotten into office, 70,000 miners would have been put out of work,” Patricia Nana, a 42-year-old naturalized citizen from Cameroon. “I saw the ceremony where he signed that bill, giving them their jobs back, and he had miners with their hard hats and everything — you could see how happy they were.”

And those immigration raids last weeks ended up deporting 1.3 million undocumented workers. And Intel’s new factory will give good, high-paying jobs to 250,000 hardworking Americans. And Trump’s Muslim ban prevented 400 acts of terror on American soil.

Sigh. Among his supporters, Trump’s style of governance by TV spectacle is working out well.

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Quote of the Day: Donald Trump Saves the Coal Mines

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From Tech Workers to College Kids, Trump is Also Taking on Legal Immigrants

Mother Jones

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President Donald Trump’s opposition to illegal immigration is well known. But since his inauguration, he has also attempted to overhaul legal immigration, most notably with his executive order barring travel and immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries. Speculation about other ways the president could restrict legal immigration have been fueled by his statements as well as leaked draft memos. Additionally, there are concerns surrounding potential conflicts of interest between the president’s businesses and his immigration policy, since some of the Trump’s companies rely upon visas that he now controls.

Few people understand the United States’ notoriously labyrinthine immigration system. The confusion is understandable. The State Department lists 76 visa categories that fall under two umbrellas: non-immigrant visas, for those seeking to come to the country for a fixed period, and immigrant visas, for those seeking a path to citizenship.

Here are some of the visas issued by the US government and what we know about Trump’s plans for them:

EB-5: The “millionaire” or “investor” visa
EB-5 holders are required to make a minimum business investment of $1 million (or $500,000 in a “high unemployment” or rural area), creating at least 10 jobs. This visa is controversial: Some argue that it allows foreigners to buy citizenship. Others suggest that these visas are processed too quickly, potentially opening the door to money laundering and other security risks. Earlier this month, Sens. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) cosponsored a bill to end the program.

As Bloomberg reported, Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor, Jared Kushner, owns an apartment complex that has taken $50 million in EB-5 funds, mostly from Chinese investors. Trump has not commented on this visa program.

H-1B: Highly Skilled worker visa
H-1Bs allow foreigners who work in a “specialty occupation,” such as technology, engineering, mathematics, or business, to work in the country for three years. (They may renew their visas an additional three years so long as they remain employed.) The worker must have an employment agreement with an American company. The number of H-1Bs is capped at 85,000.

Trump’s stance on H-1Bs has varied. He used harsh language about them on his website, but then in a campaign debate said, “I’m softening the position on his website because we have to have talented people in this country.” He then hardened his position again in a press release, stating that “I will end forever the use of the H-1B as a cheap labor program, and institute an absolute requirement to hire American workers first for every visa and immigration program. No exceptions.” In his inauguration speech, Trump said, “We will follow two simple rules; buy American and hire American.” This has raised questions about how a “hire American” requirement might impact American businesses that rely on skilled foreign employees, particularly Silicon Valley.

According to a draft executive order obtained by Bloomberg, Trump has plans to overhaul this visa program. The draft order sparked a wave of panic in India’s technology sector, whose workers are the top recipients of H-1Bs. According to executive order drafts leaked to Vox, one of the ways Trump could alter this visa would be to stop the spouses of H-1B holders from working in the United States and restricting these visas to companies that are “the best and the brightest,” which presumably means only largest and most successful American companies.

H-1B3: The “model visa”
This visa is a subset of the “highly skilled workers” visa. When the immigration system was reformed in the 1990s, the modeling industry expressed concern that while supermodels were covered by the O-1 visa (see below), non-supermodels were left out. The “model visa” was created.

First Lady Melania Trump originally worked in the United States on such a visa, and has cited it as proof that she immigrated legally and that others should follow her example. Trump’s modeling agency, Trump Model Management, has benefited from hiring foreign models using this visa. However, as Mother Jones reported last year, some of the company’s models say they came to the United States on tourist visas, which did not allow them to work legally. A Trump Organization executive did not deny the claims.

H2: Seasonal worker visa
H2s allow companies to temporarily hire agricultural workers or other workers without advanced degrees, such as waiters and housekeepers, provided that employers prove that they could not fill these position with citizens.

According to the Washington Post, Trump’s vineyard in Charlottesville, Virginia, recently applied for six H-2A visas. As BuzzFeed reported last week, the vineyard applied for nearly two dozen more earlier this month. Similarly, Trump’s Palm Beach Mar-a-Lago resort requested 78 H2B visas for foreign servers, housekeepers, and cooks. When asked about this at a debate last March, Trump said, “It’s very, very hard to get people. But other hotels do the exact same thing…There’s nothing wrong with it. We have no choice.” Perhaps that was a signal that he’ll leave this visa alone.

F-1: Student visas
These visas allow students to travel to the United States to study at high schools, universities, seminaries, and other educational institutions.

Many students with F visas have been affected by the travel ban. As Mother Jones has reported, many college students were stranded by the ban while returning from winter break. Four thousand Iranian students will be affected should the ban remain in place. Fortune estimates that US colleges could lose $700 million annually if these students’ tuition money dries up. Though Trump hasn’t spoken specifically about changes to student visas, during his campaign, he has called for ending the J-1 visa program for visiting scholars and professors.

O-1: The “artist” or “genius” visa
This visa allows “individuals with extraordinary ability or achievement” to come to the United States to work in their field of expertise. This visa covers everyone from athletes and musicians to famous authors and Nobel Prize-winning scientists. (Athletes who are entering for a specific competition may enter on a P-1 “athlete’s visa.”)

If Trump’s travel ban is upheld, celebrities from the seven specified countries could be affected. International disapproval of the ban could affect major events, such as Los Angeles’ bid for the 2024 Olympics, which will be decided in September. According to ESPN, international soccer officials’ disapproval of the president’s travel ban could affect the United States’s chances of hosting the World Cup in 2026.

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From Tech Workers to College Kids, Trump is Also Taking on Legal Immigrants

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Racism was a big factor in the Flint water crisis, a new report explains.

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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Racism was a big factor in the Flint water crisis, a new report explains.

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