Category Archives: Citizen

Phil Klay’s Resistance Reading

Mother Jones

Courtesy of Phil Klay

We asked a range of authors, artists, and poets to name books that bring solace or understanding in this age of rancor. Two dozen or so responded. Here are picks from author Phil Klay, who served in Iraq prior to landing on the New York Times bestseller list for his riveting fictional stories of war and the experience of coming home.

Latest book: Redeployment
Reading recommendations: I’ve been reading A. Scott Berg’s anthology World War I and America, a fascinating collection of essays, articles, diary entries, and speeches from 1914 to 1921. Among the riches there are several articles by W.E.B. Du Bois and James Wheldon Johnson, showing first-rate minds grappling with which political course to advocate in a world gripped by a massive war abroad while black Americans routinely faced horrific acts of domestic terrorism.

I’ve also been thinking increasingly about Teddy Roosevelt’s 1883 speechThe Duties of American Citizenship.” Though some of his positions are dated—”the ideal citizen must be the father of many healthy children”—so much of it holds up as solid, practical advice in how to go about creating political change. Roosevelt continually stresses the hard work of building up organizations and institutions as the key component of American political life. “A great many of our men in business,” he says, “rather plume themselves upon being good citizens if they even vote; yet voting is the very least of their duties.” (Sadly, he has little to say on the possibility of tweeting your way to a greater democracy.)

Few things make me happier than reading Sandra Boynton’s Muu, Bee, Así Fue to my 14-month-old son. I don’t know if there’s any direct link between that book, which is mostly an excuse to make animal noises, and our current moment of political rancor, but I’d like to believe that the process of reading to my child is slowly teaching me to be a kinder person.
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So far in this series: Kwame Alexander, Margaret Atwood, W. Kamau Bell, Jeff Chang, T Cooper, Dave Eggers, Reza Farazmand, Piper Kerman, Phil Klay, Bill McKibben, Rabbi Jack Moline, Karen Russell, Tracy K. Smith, Gene Luen Yang. (New posts daily.)

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Phil Klay’s Resistance Reading

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State Department Pulls Post Gushing About Mar-a-Lago

Mother Jones

After drawing sharp criticism on Monday, the State Department deleted a web article that showcased the President’s Mar-a-Lago estate and private club. The post, which had been available on the department’s ShareAmerica site since April 4, highlighted the compound’s “style and taste” while noting the central role the oceanside property has played in Trump’s presidency, having hosted state visits by Chinese president Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

The post‘s tone was questioned after it gained wide notice on social media. “This reads almost as if it’s an advertisement for the private club,” says Jordan Libowitz, Communications Director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW). “This makes you question whether there were ulterior motives in mind.”

ShareAmerica, a State Department public diplomacy project that creates social media friendly stories about US politics, culture, and places, characterizes itself as a “platform for sharing compelling stories and images that spark discussion and debate on important topics like democracy, freedom of expression, innovation, entrepreneurship, education, and the role of civil society.” The Mar-a-Lago article was shared by the U.S. Embassy in London’s website, and promoted by the Facebook page of the State Department’s Bureau of Economic & Business Affairs.

The post drew the ire of Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon):

“It’s somewhat out of the ordinary for government websites to be talking about current businesses of the sitting president. That’s not a situation we’ve really seen before,” says Libowitz.

A State Department official provided Mother Jones a short statement after deleting the post late on Monday: “The intention of the article was to inform the public about where the President has been hosting world leaders. We regret any misperception and have removed the post.”

Since his inauguration, Trump has spent 25 days at the club at a hefty cost to taxpayers and local residents. Mar-a-Lago’s initiation fee jumped to $200,000 around the same time that Trump entered office.

The ShareAmerica article included an outline of the estate’s history, noting that the original owner—the cereal titan Marjorie Merriweather Post—willed her Palm Beach, Florida compound to the US government, hoping it would be used as a presidential retreat. At the time, the 114-room mansion was rejected as being unsuitable. In 1985, Trump purchased the residence, refurbished it, and reopened it as a private club in 1995. The now-deleted ShareAmerica post frames Trump’s 2016 election victory as fulfilling the original owner’s plan: “Post’s dream of a winter White House came true with Trump’s election in 2016.”

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State Department Pulls Post Gushing About Mar-a-Lago

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Obama Lays Out Plans in His First Post-Presidency Public Appearance

Mother Jones

In his first public appearance since leaving the White House, former President Barack Obama said that empowering young people to take on leadership roles would be the “single most important” issue in his post-presidency life.

“What I’m convinced of is that although there are all kinds of issues I care about, and all kinds of issues I can work on, the single most important thing I can do is to help prepare the next generation of leadership to take up the baton and to take their own crack at changing the world,” Obama said at a panel discussion on civic engagement that he led at the University of Chicago on Monday.

Obama made no direct mention of President Donald Trump or the 2016 presidential election, but he pointed to the divisive nature of US politics as the most significant barrier to progress on a host of problems, from flaws in the criminal justice system to climate change.

Obama’s return to Chicago marked his reemergence in public life following a three-month vacation. His remarks echoed previous statements in which he’s hinted at focusing on community organizing efforts as a private citizen.

The free-form panel discussion featured several moments of levity from the former president, including an acknowledgement that panel members were given questions ahead of the event—a subtle reference to Trump’s complaints that Hillary Clinton had an unfair advantage during the presidential debates.

Aside from a brief statement in support of protesters against Trump’s proposed Muslim ban, Obama has avoided publicly criticizing his successor. Trump, on the other hand, has frequently lashed out at his predecessor. Most notably, in March, he accused Obama of ordering illegal surveillance of him and his associates.

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Obama Lays Out Plans in His First Post-Presidency Public Appearance

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Let’s Talk About Bubbles and James Comey

Mother Jones

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I have frequently made the case that Donald Trump is president because of FBI director James Comey. On October 28, Comey wrote a letter to Congress telling them that the FBI was investigating a new cache of Clinton emails that it found on the laptop of Huma Abedin’s estranged husband, Anthony Weiner. That was the turning point. Clinton’s electoral fortunes went downhill from there and never recovered.

As shocking as this may sound, not everyone agrees with me. A new book, Shattered, makes the case that Clinton was an epically bad candidate and her campaign was epically badly run. That’s why she lost. Yesterday, Shadi Hamid took aim at me for my continued Comey obsession in the face of the story told in Shattered:

Let’s talk. There’s a reason I blame Comey, and it’s not because I live in a bubble. It’s because a massive amount of evidence points that way. Today I want to put the whole case in one l-o-o-o-o-ng post so everyone understands why I think Comey was the deciding factor in the election. If you still disagree, that’s fine, but this is the evidence you need to argue with.

NOTE: I want to make clear that I’m talking solely about Hillary Clinton and the presidency here. Democrats have been badly pummeled at the state level over the past six years, and that obviously has nothing to do with Comey. It’s something that Democrats need to do some soul searching about.

Ready? Let’s start with some throat-clearing.

First: Keep in mind that Clinton was running for a third Democratic term during a period when (a) the economy was OK but not great and (b) Barack Obama’s popularity was OK but not great. Models based on fundamentals therefore rated the election as something of a tossup. Clinton was not running as a sure winner.

Second: For the sake of argument, let’s assume that Hillary Clinton was an epically bad, unpopular candidate who ran a terrible campaign. She foolishly used a private email server while she was Secretary of State. She gave millions of dollars in speeches after leaving the State Department. She was a boring speaker with a mushy agenda. She was a hawkish Wall Street shill who failed to appeal to millennials. She lost the support of the white working class. Her campaign was a cespool of ego, power-mongering, and bad strategy. Let’s just assume all that.

If this is true, it was true for the entire year. Maybe longer. And yet, despite this epic horribleness, Clinton had a solid, steady lead over Trump the entire time. The only exception was a brief dip in July when Comey held his first presser to call Clinton “extremely careless” in her handling of emails. Whatever else you can say about Hillary Clinton, everyone knew about her speeches and her emails and her centrism and everything else all along. And yet, the public still preferred her by a steady 3-7 percentage points over Trump for the entire year.

Third: Every campaign has problems. If you win, they get swept under the rug. If you lose, bitter staffers bend the ears of anyone who will listen about the campaign’s unprecedented dysfunction and poor strategy. This is all normal. Both the Clinton and Trump campaigns had all the usual problems, and in a close election you can blame any of them for a loss. But two things set the Comey letter apart. First, it had a big effect right at the end of the race. Second, it was decidedly not a normal thing. It came out of the blue for no good reason from the chief law enforcement officer of the United States. There is nothing Clinton could have done about it.

With that out of the way, let’s take a look at the final two months of the campaign. All of the poll estimates look pretty similar, but I’m going to use Sam Wang’s EV estimator because it gives a pretty sharp day-to-day look at the race. Wang’s final estimate was wrong, of course, like pretty much everyone else’s, but don’t worry about that. What we’re interested in is the ups and downs. What Wang’s estimate tells us is that, with the brief exception of the July Comey presser, the race was amazingly stable. From January through August, he has Clinton at 330-340 electoral votes. Let’s pick up the story in September:

At the beginning of September, Clinton slumps after her “deplorables” comment and her stumble at the 9/11 memorial. After Trump’s shockingly bad performance at the first debate she starts to regain ground, and continues to gain ground when the Access Hollywood tape is released. By the end of October she’s back to where she started, with a big lead over Trump. THIS IS IMPORTANT: despite everything — weak fundamentals, the “deplorables” comment, her personal unpopularity, her mushy centrism, her allegedly terrible campaign — by the end of October she’s well ahead of Trump, just as she had been all year.

On October 25, HHS announces that Obamacare premiums will go up substantially in the following year. This doesn’t appear to have any effect. Then, on October 28, Comey releases his letter. Clinton’s support plummets immediately, and there’s no time for it to recover. On November 8, Trump is elected president.

But how much did Comey’s letter cost Clinton? Let’s review the voluminous evidence:

Nate Silver estimates the Comey letter cost Clinton about 3 points.
A panel survey from the Institute for the Study of Citizens and Politics suggests the Comey letter produced a net swing of 4 points toward Trump.
Sam Wang estimates the Comey letter cost Clinton 4 points, though she may have made back some of that in the final days.
Engagement Labs tracks “what people are talking about.” Immediately after the Comey letter, they registered a 17-point drop in favorable sentiment toward Clinton.
Google searches for “Hillary’s email” spiked 300 percent after Comey’s letter.
The tone of news coverage flipped enormously against Clinton after the Comey letter.
A trio of researchers who looked at the evidence concluded that Comey’s letter was decisive, probably costing Clinton 3-4 points in the popular vote.
Trump’s own analysts think the Comey letter was decisive.
The Clinton campaign agrees that the Comey letter was decisive, and adds that Comey’s second letter hurt her too.1

I’m not sure how much clearer the evidence could be. Basically, Hillary Clinton was doing fine until October 28. Then the Comey letter cost her 2-4 percent of the popular vote. Without Comey she would have won comfortably — possibly by a landslide — even though the fundamentals predicted a close race.

That’s it. That’s the evidence. If you disagree that Comey was decisive, you need to account for two things. First, if the problem was something intrinsic to Clinton or her campaign, why was she so far ahead of Trump for the entire race? Second, if Comey wasn’t at fault, what plausibly accounts for Clinton’s huge and sudden change in fortune starting precisely on October 28?

One way or another, it appears that all the things that were under Hillary Clinton’s control were handled fairly well. They produced a steady lead throughout the campaign. The Comey letter exists on an entirely different plane. It was an unprecedented breach of protocol from the FBI; it was completely out of Clinton’s control; and it had a tremendous impact. That’s why I blame James Comey for Donald Trump’s victory.

1The second letter was the one that cleared her. However, merely by keeping the subject in the news, it hurt Clinton.

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Let’s Talk About Bubbles and James Comey

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Gerrymandering Is Headed Back to the Supreme Court

Mother Jones

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The New York Times reports that gerrymandering is headed to the Supreme Court again:

A bipartisan group of voting rights advocates says the lower house of the Wisconsin Legislature, the State Assembly, was gerrymandered by its Republican majority before the 2012 election — so artfully, in fact, that Democrats won a third fewer Assembly seats than Republicans despite prevailing in the popular vote. In November, in a 2-to-1 ruling, a panel of federal judges agreed.

….In Supreme Court cases in 1986, 2004 and 2006, justices variously called partisan gerrymanders illegitimate, seriously harmful, incompatible with democratic principles and “manipulation of the electorate.” But they have never struck one down….One participant in the 2004 decision, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, may prove the fulcrum in the court’s deliberations….“The ordered working of our Republic, and of the democratic process, depends on a sense of decorum and restraint in all branches of government, and in the citizenry itself,” he wrote then.

At a time of soaring concern over hyperpartisanship, those words could resonate. That sentence “is the most important line” in the court’s decision, said Edward B. Foley, director of the Election Law Project at the Ohio State University Moritz College of Law. “He’s going to look at what’s going on in North Carolina as the complete absence of that. I think that helps the plaintiffs in any of these cases.”

Today’s gerrymandering is not your grandfather’s gerrymandering. It’s a practice that’s been around for a long time, but back when it depended on humans it was necessarily limited. There were a few legislative geniuses who could wreak real havoc, and anyone could gerrymander well enough to gain a seat or two. But computers have changed the game fundamentally. Every legislature is now a supergenius at gerrymandering, which is why estimates of the number of congressional seats attributable to gerrymandering have been going up for years.

There’s a point, I think, where the Supreme Court has to recognize that quantitative changes over time have finally produced a qualitative change. Modern gerrymandering is just too good. The silver lining here is that if computers can revolutionize gerrymandering, they also hold out hope of revolutionizing the detection of gerrymandering. You can no longer say that there’s no possible standard for ruling that a particular district map is unconstitutional. In fact, there are several plausible candidates. Hopefully the court will finally recognize this.

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Gerrymandering Is Headed Back to the Supreme Court

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