Trump’s Provocation

Trump’s stonewalling of any House-led inquiry into his behavior is clearly an attempt to goad House Dems into impeaching him — an issue he sees as a winner with his base. He’s a lot rather go into the 2020 election ginning up the crazies at his rallies with conspiracy theories about the deep state trying to rip the presidency from him than talk about his meager accomplishments and the constant corruption in his administration.

Speaker Pelosi is still right that there’s no groundswell of public support for impeachment, no Republicans other than Justin Amash on board, and that Dems won the House in 2018 by talking about the issues, not about Trump’s behavior.

The counter argument is that Trump has always overshot the mark with his risky behavior, needing to be bailed out by his father, Deutsche Bank, the NJ state legislature who overlooked his mob connections to get casinos built in Atlantic City, and others. There’s plenty to suggest that he’s overshooting the mark here in terms of his dare to the Dems, and that there’s a lot of meat on the bone for impeachment hearings. The other argument is that there was not much public support for impeaching Nixon either; that support was built through the daily televised hearings. Even when Nixon resigned, something like 35% of Republicans still supported him.

Nixon did resign, and Trump never would. He’d take the country down in flames first. And there are no Barry Goldwater Republicans now in elected office to hold Trump to account.

Still a tricky call, and still Speaker Pelosi’s to make.

Seattle International Film Festival: QBall

California’s San Quentin prison is where all the state’s death row inmates are housed, but there are 4000+ other prisoners, mostly men of color, who will someday get out. As the prison superintendent asks, how do we want them to rejoin society — angry, embittered, without chances? Or having had some opportunity to develop better life skills, a way to use their gifts, and with some hope that they might yet have a future?

The San Quentin Warriors, the prison’s basketball team, draws men who, in another world, might have been NBA players. They are very good, great even. At the end of their season, they play men from the Golden State Warriors of the NBA — not the Kevin Durants, but a team made up of coaches and players on the developmental leagues for the NBA team. The game is important to everyone.

QBall profiles players on the prison team, showing them as human beings who’ve made grave errors. Some have killed. Some are in prison for life due to California’s “three strike” law. They struggle to forgive themselves, and with the realization that some of the victims of their crimes, or the families of their victims, will never forgive them, never want to see them paroled.

This is a powerful documentary. At the end, one of the QBall stars gets out after serving 12 years of his sentence. He’s 31. He has a loving family who greet him just outside the prison walls and take him to eat pancakes. He’s won a tryout for the Golden State Warriors D league. He has a daughter who doesn’t know him, a child he hopes to find so he can be a good father, a responsible father.

I was thinking, as I watched, how hard it is to go from the structure and support of the prison experience — the QBall players become family to each other — to the outside world. In the credits we find that the young man doesn’t make the cut for the Warriors developmental team, not because he isn’t good but likely because he’s too old at 31. As the film ends he hasn’t yet got a job, or a place to live other than with his mother. He can’t make a single misstep, or he’ll be back in prison. He doesn’t know where his daughter is, or how to go about locating her.

He has a lot going for him, more than the average formerly incarcerated young man, but his path to a decent future seems so very, very narrow.

The Poor Women and Children of Alabama

If Alabama legislators and Governor Kay Ivey were actually pro-life, they would do something about the miserable health, educational, and economic outcomes for the poor women and children of their state. Instead, the new bill criminalizing abortion and creating “personhood” for an implanted embryo  will make life in Alabama much, much harder.

Clearly you can’t appeal to these legislators on the basis of decency, or humanity. The only way I can think of is to introduce a raft of bills that will direct scarce state tax dollars to these newly-declared persons: health benefits. Child support. Passports. Social Security cards. Welfare and food stamps. Voter registration cards. The sky’s the limit.

The legislators and Governor Ivey will certainly swat such bills aside. But the hypocrisy will be all the more clear.

The problem is that organizing like that takes money, and volunteers, and effort. These are big asks in the lives of poor people. There was a constituency of young energetic people, during the 1960’s, to mobilize against the draft and the Viet Nam war. There was a constituency in the South for voting rights and to end lynching. There was a constituency, after Stonewall, for gay rights.

There’s no big, energetic constituency to advocate for the lives of poor women and children, not then, not now.

I’ve seen articles suggesting that young people flocking to cities of the “new South” because of the cheaper cost of living will no longer want to live there now that the South’s deeply ingrained racism and misogyny come roaring back to the surface, that corporations won’t be able to hire and attract young people as these ugly laws are enacted. That’s a pretty thin reed of hope for the poor.

Trump’s Essential Cruelty

What is the matter with this man, who has inexplicably won the uncritical fealty of religious conservatives? Trump has apparently involved himself in the minute details of the proposed wall, demanding that it be painted black so the metal slats will be too hot to climb, that it be 30 feet high so people will be more badly injured if they fall, that there be sharp spikes on top so the hands of those who reach the top will be sliced to ribbons.

He relishes these details, with all of their inherent cruelty, thinking up new twists to cause pain wherever he can.

I hardly know where to begin.

The Dystopian Future of Reproductive Rights

Even Romania has stopped the dystopian approach to women’s reproductive health that has become so appealing to the newly emboldened red states under Trump.

In 1966, the leader of Romania, Nicolae Ceausescu, outlawed access to abortion and contraception in a bid to boost the country’s population. In the short term, it worked, and the year after it was enacted the average number of children born to Romanian women jumped from 1.9 to 3.7. But birthrates quickly fell again as women found ways around the ban. Wealthy, urban women were sometimes able to bribe doctors to perform abortions, or they had contraceptive IUDs smuggled in from Germany.

Yet Romania’s prohibition of the procedure was disproportionately felt by low-income women and disadvantaged groups, which abortion-rights advocates in the United States fear would happen if the Alabama law came into force. As a last resort, many Romanian women turned to home and back-alley abortions, and by 1989, an estimated 10,000 women had died as a result of unsafe procedures. The real number of deaths might have been much higher, as women who sought abortions and those who helped them faced years of imprisonment if caught. Maternal mortality skyrocketed, doubling between 1965 and 1989.”

No less tragic was the effect on the lives of Romanian children.

Another consequence of Romania’s abortion ban was that hundreds of thousands of children were turned over to state orphanages. When communism collapsed in Romania in 1989, an estimated 170,000 children were found warehoused in filthy orphanages. Having previously been hidden from the world, images emerged of stick-thin children, many of whom had been beaten and abused. Some were left shackled to metal bed frames.”

The notion that mostly white male Republican legislators who enact these things into law are “pro life” is belied by the fact that their states — Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Missouri, Utah, Kentucky, Arkansas, Ohio — already have higher maternal and child mortality rates than the rest of the country. These laws aren’t a statement about life. They’re a statement about controlling women’s health, women’s fertility, women’s right to make decisions about our own bodies.

Trump and his supporters represent a vicious backlash against progress in a number of areas: civil rights, voting rights, LGBTQ rights, women’s rights.

If young women have taken the progress of recent decades for granted, they can hardly do so any more.

Allocating Health Care Dollars

Tuberculosis kills more people worldwide than malaria and HIV combined, yet the funding for TB treatment and prevention is a fraction of that for the two more high profile diseases.

According to the CDC, we have up to 13M people in the U.S. with latent TB infections. In 2017, we had 27 people per million with active TB, some of those cases drug resistant and very hard to treat.

In one of those terribly difficult conundrums over how to allocate health care dollars, we’re spending a lot of money on very expensive treatments for rare diseases that afflict a vanishingly small number of people — money that could go to preventing and treating diseases that kill millions.

“The Food and Drug Administration is set to approve a second gene treatment for infants with spinal muscular atrophy that will cost $1.5 million to $5 million – it will be the costliest drug on the planet.

It’s only the second drug on the market for the rare disease after a gene treatment was first introduced in 2016, as our Post colleague Christopher Rowland reports. Biogen, the drugmaker behind the initial treatment, had already drawn criticism for the price tag of the drug Spinraza, which costs $750,000 for the first year and $375,000 for each subsequent year.

But the new drug is set to kick off a “new era of debates over cost and value as gene therapies are developed for growing numbers of rare diseases” and it has already set off a clash between the manufacturer of the new drug, Novartis, and Biogen. And the clash has already produced what independent communication experts describe as a coordinated effort featuring “op-ed columns by former Cabinet secretaries warning about the safety of the Novartis therapy.”

Clearly if you have a family member with a rare disease, no amount of money is too much in the attempt to save your loved one’s life.

Clearly if you’re a funder, or a health care policy maker, or a responsible government leader, you have the health of the total population in mind.

Are they mutually exclusive, increasing funding for common and longstanding diseases like TB v. finding new gene therapies for orphan diseases? We’re doing both now, without adequately funding either. I think they are, to a degree, mutually exclusive — simply because health care resources are limited.

With a dysfunctional government in Washington, we’re not even having a serious conversation about health care priorities, or making decisions that reflect a consensus of “we the people”.

I don’t know how I’d work my way through the decision of how to allocate funding, although I lean toward eradicating large scale diseases like TB rather than pushing costly drugs to treat terrible illnesses that affect only a few people. But maybe that’s because right now neither I nor  my loved ones are so afflicted.

Impeaching Trump

I’m really torn about the question facing House Democrats: whether to initiate impeachment proceedings against Trump. On the one hand, I have a lot of confidence in Speaker Pelosi’s political judgment. She wants to focus on issues that can defeat Trump in the 2020 election. She rightly points out that there is no bipartisan support for impeachment, and no great public outcry — although there wasn’t for impeaching Nixon either until the case was laid out for the public during the actual proceedings.

That said, I’m with Walter Dellinger in thinking that the Mueller report shows Trump has grossly violated his oath of office, and is getting away with it.

Trump’s brazen strategy of rebuffing all Congressional oversight may eventually be shut down by the courts, but that prospect involves a long and winding process. Right now, Trump is succeeding in thumbing his nose at any and all Congressional review of his corrupt actions.

The biggest problem for me is that everything Trump has done since being elected is consistent with his pattern of shady behavior going all the way back to the 1970’s as a business man in New York, and his supporters don’t seem to care. There’s nothing about Trump’s behavior now that we didn’t see before the election.

I know that to a certain extent people are transactional, and that getting some of the big things you want allows you to overlook a lot. I know that a certain percentage of voters have personalities that lean toward autocratic leaders whose bluster makes them feel safe. I know that we live in a highly polarized political climate, where people vote party labels. Are those three factors enough to explain the support for this inherently cruel, deeply flawed, profoundly intellectually limited man with the attention span of a fruit fly? Maybe so.

Divergent Cultural Trends

Religious observance/affiliation is changing in the U.S. Those of us who fall under the label “none” are gaining ground.

But in the background, a growing number of Democrats — and Republicans — have decided not to associate with a specific church or traditional faith. As of 2017, religiously unaffiliated voters made up a third of all Democrats and 13 percent of all Republicans. Last year, religious “nones” became as numerous as evangelical Christians in the broader population. Catholics, evangelicals and those with no religion each made up 23 percent of the overall U.S. adult population, according to the General Social Survey.”

At the same time, the people who are affiliated, especially the religious right, are more zealous. Because they tend to track more closely with red state Republican majorities, they exercise — in my view — outsized influence in the wrong direction on the courts and in our political discourse.

It’s a bit like the NRA. Fewer people claim to be hunters or rural farmers who need shotguns to kill for food or to protect their livestock, but those who do own guns own a lot of them and are zealous in protecting their unfettered rights. In 2008, in the Heller decision, armed Americans got Justice Scalia and his conservative brethren to come down on their side, and now there are almost no restraints on gun ownership in our culture at all.

Just as the country is moving increasingly toward “none” for religious practice, the most unrelenting believers among us are turning the court system at all levels and Republican policy making in the opposite direction.

I don’t know what happens when the law of the land bears little resemblance with how the majority wants to live our lives. We “nones” are not the majority yet, but the trend is going our way. The laws of our country are not, as we can see from these cruel and overbearing anti-choice bills being passed in midwestern and southern states.

Something will have to give.

Unleashing Trump’s Darkest Impulses

With the Mueller investigation now over and seeing his policy of stonewalling Congress largely working, Trump is reported to feel “unleashed”. God help us.

According to the Washington Post, the Trump administration planned some sort of shock and awe mass arrests of migrant families with children, in as many as ten cities across the country. Up to 10,000 people would be targeted. The plan, not surprisingly, has the backing of Stephen Miller, anti-immigrant zealot who has Trump’s ear and panders to Trump’s worst racist impulses. Pending replacement of Homeland Secretary Nielson and immigration enforcement official Vitiello, the plan is still under consideration.

According to the New York Times, the five conservatives on the Supreme Court have, in their just issued decision in Franchise Tax Board of California v. Hyatt, gutted the concept of stare decisis — settled law that should not be overturned except under the most extreme circumstances — with the same kind of legal reasoning that can be used to overturn Roe v. Wade.

The White House is reviewing military plans against Iran, goaded by the same John Bolton who contributed to the disastrous rush to war in Iraq.

Trump is doubling down on his trade war with China, slapping higher tariffs on more Chinese products — despite the pain to the U.S. economy, U. S. workers, and the stock market.

How much terrible news emanating from Trump can we absorb at any given time?

The Shock-and-Awe Migrant Arrest Story

Of all the terrible news coming from the Trump administration, the one that affects me most deeply is the plan — still under consideration — to have armed ICE agents swoop into high profile U.S. cities and arrest migrant families in the most public and menacing and visible way possible. “A deterrent”, says the Trump administration. In their minds, creating terrified children is a legitimate deterrent.

Seattle would certainly be a target. I have Salvadoran friends who could be at risk in such a sweep, and the possibility breaks my heart. They have young children, who are U.S. citizens. No matter. That will not protect this family.

My mind goes back to what people must have felt like during the World War II policy of interning Japanese-American citizens — both those families ripped from the safety of their lives and those who had to look on, helpless to intervene. Although the episode was later judged to be one of the most shameful in U.S. history, and the government eventually paid reparations, the damage was done.

A few voices on both sides of the political aisle are bemoaning the polarization in our country, and calling for active ways to bring “we the people” back together. Our treatment of vulnerable migrant families is one of those dividing lines. I have nothing at all in common with those goading Trump to go forward with this cruel plan, and couldn’t even sit in the same room with them for a discussion of who’s right.