Chicago Nope

Two weeks ago, in Las Vegas, Stephen Paddock barricaded himself in his hotel room on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Hotel, and opened fire on a crowd of concert-goers below. He killed 58 people and wounded 489 more before ending his own life as police closed in.

This was the deadliest mass shooting in modern US history. Well, since the last one. Just a year ago. Which was the deadliest since just 9 years earlier. And so on.

And once again, firearms laws immediately became a major point of national debate. Or, more accurately, people who have received money, support, and threats from the NRA tell the world that “it’s inappropriate to politicize” an inherently political situation. That talking about gun laws so soon after gun crime is in poor taste. Oh yeah, and guns don’t kill people, all regulations are in violation of the 2nd Amendment, regulation is a slippery slope, and easier access to guns helps people defend themselves. That last one is particularly interesting, since it sounds oh so reasonable to think that armed concert goers would have dropped their beers, taken careful aim 400 feet up, and dropped Paddock with perfect shots, calmly saving the day with their handguns amid the tumult.

Yeah, something like that.

Anyway, this is not going to be a comprehensive post. I’m not going to turn this into a giant anti-gun treatise. I have gradually been putting together my firearms magnum opus (even I’m wincing at that one) for the last three years. It’s a multi-layered history of guns in America, the origins and (later interpretations) of the 2nd Amendment, how laws and policy have affected crime in America, and a comparison of American gun laws with those of other countries. It’s a behemoth piece, and has taken forever to complete. Eventually, I will be done with it. Maybe even by early 2018. Hopefully. It should cover pretty much every major argument (that I can think of) revolving around gun ownership and gun use in America.

This little piece is not that. This is simply a discussion of a single talking point that pops up whenever pundits decide there’s a reason to talk about guns… which of course, requires slaughter on a mass scale to get people engaged.

Chicago.

“If gun control is so great, explain Chicago, hurr hurr!”

Chicago, Illinois, for those who haven’t been paying attention, has – very publicly – been suffering through a significant increase in gun violence over the last couple years. It’s the third-largest city in the country, and contains several pockets of very high crime, including murder. And it happens to be in a state with solid Democratic majorities throughout the state government (as well as in national representation), and relatively strict gun laws. So, the argument goes, gun control doesn’t work, because there are a lot of murders in Commie Chicago.

I’m addressing this particular talking point because it’s one of the more common ones, and a lot of people with reasonable positions on firearms policy struggle to respond to it.

It should first be pointed out that no thoughtful person has argued gun control is a panacea, and that while there is a fairly direct correlation between access to guns and gun crime, society is messy, and not every public policy results in clean, easy to parse outcomes.

So let’s talk about Chicago.

Chicago, Illinois has seen a big spike in gun violence over the last two years. However, so has most of the country. But that stat alone is an oversimplification.

Gun violence in the US has dropped significantly over the years. Even now, in 2017, gun violence in America (per capita) is near 1950 levels, and has been decreasing constantly since the peaks of the early (and late) 1980s. 2013 and 2014 represented the lowest national gun murder rates in more than half a century. Then came upticks in major cities around the nation. There had been spikes before, but this was the first time the national trend showed gun murder increases in consecutive years.

Certainly this is a bit worrisome, but at the same time, American cities are still far safer now than they were 30 years ago. Chicago is no exception to any of this. It’s seen a jump in crime, while still remaining near historically low levels. And among the 100 largest cities, Chicago’s overall gun murder rate is almost on par with the average of those cities. As bad as the violence has been made out to be (and it isn’t good, of course), it still isn’t particularly unique among major American cities.

So we’ve covered crime. We’ll now shift gears a bit and talk about gun laws. Around the world, it’s been a pretty direct formula – the harder it is for individuals to access firearms, the lower the rates are for death-by-firearm. This holds true for both murder and suicides.

It should be mentioned that exceptions do occur, and sample size matters. The effects of restrictive gun laws are more pronounced on the national level than on the state level. And they tend to be more pronounced on the state level than at the city level. Indeed, in the United States, city laws are subordinate to state laws, which are in turn subordinate to federal laws. So while some cities have passed fairly restrictive gun laws, many of those are overruled by less restrictive state and federal laws. Since the Heller decision by the Supreme Court in 2008, Chicago has had more than one firearm restriction overturned… but it should be noted that those local changes occurred before the recent crime surge.

Illinois itself is somewhat restrictive in its gun laws, but not the most restrictive in the nation. And it’s important to observe that it is surrounded by states with very permissive gun laws. There has been more than one study which has indicated significant percentages of guns in the state of Illinois, including guns used in crimes, were acquired in neighboring states. 60% of guns used in crimes in Chicago by gangs were purchased out of state, and more than 30% used in non-gang crimes were acquired elsewhere. These numbers alone more than cover the difference in crime between Chicago and several other large cities.

But wait, there’s more!

At the state level, in the last couple decades, several states have had the opportunity to observe the effects of changes in gun laws. Connecticut enacted new rules regarding background checks and licensing for gun ownership, and crime plummeted, well beyond the overall national trend. Meanwhile, Missouri relaxed its restrictions, and suffered a big spike, while other states were continuing to improve.

At the city level, yes, Chicago has relatively restrictive laws. However, New York and Los Angeles both make it harder to own a gun than Chicago, AND both have larger populations. And in both cases, homicide rates are substantially lower.

Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, San Jose, and San Diego are all additional examples of minimal gun ownership and low gun crime, within cities.

New Orleans, Birmingham, St. Louis, and Richmond, are all examples of medium-to-large cities in pro-gun states that suffer higher gun murder rates than Chicago. And of course, going back to what I said earlier about outliers, there are plenty of examples of cities in more gun-friendly states with relatively low crime rates. As I mentioned earlier, the more local the scale, the more external factors have to be considered when searching for causation. It’s not the simplest formula by any means.

Heading back up to the state level, one can find plenty of studies that show on average, the more restrictive gun laws are within US states, the lower the rates of gun homicides and suicides. And again, there are outliers and exceptions. And at the national level, among wealthy industrialized nations, the evidence is even clearer that more guns equate to more gun crime. It’s when you get down to the local levels, where city laws are often overruled by those of the state, and where weapons are brought in from less restrictive places – that you see places like Chicago.

Yeah, Chicago has had a rough couple years. A lot of people have been senselessly slaughtered there, and it definitely needs to be tackled as soon as possible. But using Chicago’s current crime rate is a terrible argument against gun control.

Posted in Law Enforcement, Myths and misconceptions | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

False Equivalence

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I posted this on Facebook yesterday. After the riots and terror perpetrated by white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia over the weekend, a significant percentage of the right-leaning media bent over backward to shift focus, and claim that the Black Lives Matter movement is a moral equivalent to the racists and fascists that rioted in Charlottesville.

This post was a quick response to those reactions. I have lightly edited my original post for clarity:

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Black Lives Matter.

A movement. A philosophy. An idea.

Not really an organization, per se, in the way that the NAACP is.

It was originally formed in the wake of the murder of Trayvon Martin, and really started drawing national attention after the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

Since then, BLM has become a national movement, and a scapegoat for white Americans still uncomfortable with facing the American legacy of white supremacy.

And that leads into my point here. What I’m talking about is false equivalence. Already, the pundits are spinning the events in Charlottesville this weekend. Specifically, Fox News, and some of the other major right-wing media.

Yeah, they say, white supremacists are bad, but they’re just like Black Lives Matter.

No.

A thousand times no.

BLM started because African Americans became sick and tired of being profiled and targeted by law enforcement, the legal system, the political system, and even by business interests. Black lives simply haven’t mattered to white Americans over the past few hundred years, particularly by white Americans in positions of power.

For the last freaking time, Black Lives Matter doesn’t mean that other lives don’t. It means that black lives have been treated by American society as less valuable than white lives, and they’re not going to take that anymore.

It’s a movement. A philosophy. An idea.

What it is not is an equivalent to the white supremacists that committed acts of terror in Charlottesville. Those monsters preached supremacy, hatred, and violence. They flew the Confederate battle flag, and the Nazi swastika. They raged against equality. They equated the struggle for civil rights with violent action against white people. They are wrong in every possible way.

Nazis, the “alt-right,” the KKK, and Steve Bannon… these are not the white equivalent of Black Lives Matter. They aren’t fighting for civil rights or social justice. They’re fighting for superiority and dominance. These are the philosophical heirs to the people we beat in World War II and the American Civil War.

How dare anyone equate Black Lives Matter to these domestic terrorists!

The people who are part of the BLM movement are flawed and inconsistent. You know, human beings. But they are part of a movement who is standing up for an historically oppressed group of people. A movement whose relevance has become even more clear with the events of this past weekend. As long as there are thousands (likely millions) of angry white nationalists, determined to push back against the progress of people of color, women, and LGBT individuals… movements like BLM are necessary.

To everybody who is equating white supremacists with BLM… you’re full of shit

. You’re creating a false equivalence and fanning the flames of hatred. And even more than that, you are justifying the existence of movements like Black Lives Matter.

History will not be kind to those who claim neo-Nazis and BLM are two sides of the same coin.

Posted in Civil Rights, Media, Quick post, Rant, Social Justice | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Zero steps forward, and a bunch of steps back in Missouri

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Ah, Missouri. My home state. For years, the ultimate purple state, previously described as a “bellwether,” before we decided to color code our partisan leanings. Since the Tea Party revolution of 2010, Missouri has increasingly moved into solid red territory. Barack Obama narrowly lost the state in 2008 (by only 4,000 votes!), but lost it clearly in 2012, and Trump won it by double digits in 2016. Republicans have a huge majority in both houses of the legislature, and they just took back the governor’s mansion in the most recent election. Even before, when milquetoast Democrat Jay Nixon ran the state, all he was able to do was veto some of the most reactionary and irrational bills that arrived at his desk. He provided an important check on GOP inanity, but could do little else.

Now even those days are gone, and the Republicans run the state. The metropolitan areas of Kansas City, St Louis, and Columbia make up a near majority of the state population, and are solidly Democratic, but the Republicans enjoy disproportionate power and representation in the state capitol. They are seemingly on a mission to replicate most of their western neighbors’ mismanagement and transmogrify Missouri into East Kansas.

One such effort has been in the area of women’s rights, specifically their reproductive autonomy.

Senate Bill 5 is a bill advancing through the Missouri legislature, officially concerning restrictions and regulations on abortion. The bill had already been approved by the state Senate, and underwent some tweaks in the House.

There are several parts to this bill, but one aspect in particular has been troubling people who don’t hate women. Specifically, language in SB 5 allows employers to fire women who used birth control and who had received abortions. In addition, housing providers would be allowed to refuse housing to women for those same reasons. The language in the bill is designed to override a St. Louis city ordinance that prohibits employers and housing providers from using a woman’s personal body choices as a reason to discriminate against them.

Let me make this clear.

Punishing women for using birth control and for having made the decision to have an abortion is oppression. It’s state-sanctioned misogyny.

This is not hyperbole or partisan bias. A group of (mostly) men regulating what women are allowed to do with their own body is anti-woman, as well as targeted authoritarianism.

The flimsy justification used for this is a common one – “religious liberty.” But instead of the religious liberty guaranteed by the Constitution – where the government cannot make laws favoring one religion over any others – a different kind of religious liberty seems to be in mind. The freedom to use one’s religious beliefs as a justification to oppress or mistreat others is not one protected by the Constitution, but it appears to be what Missouri Republicans are thinking of with this bill. If a “Christian” knows a prospective tenant in their apartment building has an ortho tri-cyclen prescription for… well, any reason (hint, they aren’t always about birth control), then that landlord could turn her away, even if she has a good rental history and plenty of money. All in the name of “religious freedom.” Remember, this is the state that has legal anti-discrimination protections for people who consume alcohol. Legal protection for women is apparently where the line is drawn.

This bill represents the painful intersection of two enormous problems with Republican leadership in the state of Missouri, as well as nationwide.

One of them is the obsession so many (usually older) straight white cisgender conservative men have with the reproductive systems of women. The other is the hypocrisy of “small government conservatives” lauding the advantages of local control taking precedence over state control, except when it comes to red state governments and blue city governments. Then they can’t dictate how the cities are run fast enough.

With that second point, there has already been a surge of Republicans from rural and suburban Missouri finding themselves very concerned with the inner workings of Kansas City and St. Louis in the last few years. Both of those cities are now required to put their local earnings taxes up for votes every five years, and if repealed, would not be allowed to ever reinstate them. Both Kansas City and St. Louis have had attempts at passing higher minimum wages shot down by the state. Same with stricter gun laws. Republicans rail about federal and state overreach only when it affects their personal ideological beliefs. They have no problem sticking it to the citizens of Democratic-leaning cities, regardless of the harm their policies might cause.

These issues are not simply matters of ideological difference. The bodily autonomy of more than half of population should not be a liberal or conservative issue. Birth control is legal for women to use in the United States. Abortion is also legal (and constitutionally-protected). Allowing discrimination against women for exercising their legal rights (and controlling their own bodies), is unconstitutional and un-American. We need to be better than this. Women face enough challenges in American society as it is. Saddling them with more burdens in Missouri is disgusting and hateful.

Meanwhile, Republican hypocrisy toward notions of local control should be embarrassing to them. It won’t be, because making the base happy, and ensuring re-election, is more important than dignity and honesty.

SB 5 has not yet become law. And, if it does, it could very well be shot down by the courts, who have already ruled against similar laws. The federal government has already overridden these sorts of state laws, and can do so again. However, regardless of the final result, the fact that representatives of Missouri citizens believe it’s necessary to override city laws in order to trample of the rights of women is a travesty. Any member of the Missouri legislature who supports this, supports treating women as something less than men.

Please read this, and let your fellow Missourians know what’s happening in Jefferson City,

The actual wording of the bill can be found here:

http://www.senate.mo.gov/17info/BTS_Web/Bill.aspx?SessionType=S2&BillID=69407391

Posted in Civil Rights, Governance, Healthcare, Kansas City, Politics, Social Justice | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Middle Finger to Our Grandchildren

Well, this is what happens when we hire an amateur.

Against the advice of his most reasonable advisors, against the knowledge provided by the world’s best scientists, against the requests by a multitude of corporate leaders, against the pleas of almost every government on Earth… Donald Trump officially pulled the United States out of the Paris Climate Accord.

What does that mean? Why is it a problem?

Well, let me start by providing some background information. The Paris Climate Agreement is pact signed by 195 out of 197 possible countries around the world, agreeing to take steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and attempt to limit the effects of global warming. The idea is to try to halt warming at 2 degrees Celsius over current levels.

The agreement specifically allows each country to set their own standards, their own timelines, and their own methods. It doesn’t set up sanctions or punishments. It’s not legally binding. It is a way for nations to help work together on tackling the very real issue of man-made climate change. It allows each nation to set its own goals, and then encourages them to create new goals as each one is (hopefully) met. It is a collaborative agreement designed to make it as easy as possible for every nation to participate in the mitigation of human-caused global warming. Not only does the agreement NOT cause economic harm to the US (or any other country), but it will likely be an economic benefit to everyone, especially as new technologies develop, and new industries grow and flourish. The only businesses that may suffer are those who refuse to adapt to necessary changes in the way we produce energy and the way we consume resources.

With all that said, US President Donald Trump decided to join just two other countries and step away from the Paris Agreement. 195 of 197 countries originally signed the agreement. The two holdouts were Syria, which is understandably a little busy these days, and Nicaragua, which decided the agreement wasn’t strict enough.

His reasons were covered in a speech delivered on June 1. His primary arguments were that other countries would be held to less-harsh standards than the United States, and that the changes necessary to our infrastructure, energy production, and businesses would hurt the American economy and cause people to lose jobs. You can read multiple fact-checks of his speech here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Suffice to say, almost everything Trump said about the Paris Climate Agreement is wrong. I’ve already explained some of what the agreement actually says and does. However, this bears repeating.

He repeatedly claimed the economy would be damaged by the accords. Other than one partisan study specifically commissioned for his argument, no serious economist believes that pursuing green technologies and reducing fossil fuel consumption will be a drain on jobs or the economy. Even now, in the early stages of the Paris accord, the US has far more jobs in solar power than in coal. Technologies change and markets adapt. If anything, developing new technologies will be a boon the economy. New jobs develop when new infrastructure is created.

Trump also continued his strange fixation/mispronunciation of China, and argued that, “China will be allowed to build hundreds of additional coal plants. So, we can’t build the plants, but they can, according to this agreement.”

Well, no. That’s not how this works. Actually, his entire speech contained statements that seemed to assume the Agreement was legally binding, with penalties for noncompliance.As I previously explained, the reality is that the agreement is completely voluntary. Each nation creates its own rules and its own goals. The nations have all voluntarily agreed to officially start pushing toward their goals in 2020, and as each goal is met, newer, more ambitious goals would be created. But failure to meet said goals is punishment to the warming planet, not to a nation’s budget or trade policies. Donald Trump doesn’t seem to understand the basic concept of the treaty. He positions it as a malevolent foreign other usurping American sovereignty.  I suppose it makes sense that a global warming denier would see things that way, but it’s just another way he’s wrong.

Speaking of Trump being wrong, China isn’t “allowed” to build more coal plants. China is still heavily reliant on coal, but they have actually pushed hard to scale back coal production, and are working harder than most countries in modernizing their energy production. Every statement Trump made referencing China seemed to treat it as though the Agreement gave it the freedom to ignore the treaty, while punishing American interests. This is a complete lie.

But wait, there’s more!

Trump also claimed, “Even if the Paris Agreement were implemented in full, with total compliance from all nations, it is estimated it would only produce a two-tenths of one degree — think of that; this much — Celsius reduction in global temperature by the year 2100. Tiny, tiny amount.”

This is misleading at best. It’s a prime example not of a lie, but of bullshit. It’s a bullshit statement in that it misleads while providing some grains of truth as a cover. There was a report that stated the reductions in projected temperature increases were relatively light. This is true. However, it assumes every country maintains their initial goals for the next 83 years. But that’s not how the treaty works. The idea is that as each nation reaches their first set of goals, they set a new round of goals, designed to continue improvement.

As an aside, even a 0.2 degree reduction would be a major improvement over what might happen if we do literally nothing. Considering the drastic consequences of even small increases in average global temperature, every number improvement is better than nothing.

Maybe my favorite part of the speech was when Trump (rather haltingly) proclaimed, “I was elected to represent the citizens of… Pittsburgh, not Paris. I promised I would exit or renegotiate any deal which fails to serve America’s interests.”

The Mayor of Pittsburgh responded by issuing several statements proclaiming his support for the Paris treaty, and a full 75% of the people of Pittsburgh themselves voted for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. Pittsburgh is far closer to Paris on this issue than they are to Donald Trump. It’s true that Pittsburgh is surrounded by coal country, but it figures that Trump would manage to screw his rhetorical point up while gunning for easy alliteration.

Anthropogenic climate change is real. No matter how many times Donald Trump has denied it, the fact remains that humans are warming the planet. And there is little doubt that the warming we have already caused is creating problems right now for humanity. And further warming will create yet more problems. I wrote about this before. I encourage people to follow this link, and take a look at the evidence for man-made global warming.

Donald Trump thinks it’s a hoax concocted by foreign interests to harm the American economy. Many of his supporters concur. But 98% of climate experts disagree. 98% of the world’s governments disagree. More than a century of intensive research disagrees with Donald Trump.

Four facts:

The world is warming. Humans are the cause. That warming is a bad thing. And we can do something about it.

The Paris Climate Agreement is as moderate a treaty as one can get. It’s certainly imperfect. But it has almost no economic drawbacks, and sooooo many possible benefits. A good businessman would be in favor of it. Most actually are.

Unfortunately, the Electoral College put a lousy businessman in charge of the United States.

Fortunately, this country is full of intelligent and decent people. Many cities and states have proclaimed their support of the agreement, and will work toward meeting the original goals, in spite of the President. Many businesses will as well. Eventually, a new president will most likely re-enter the Agreement. But until then, we as Americans will have to be smarter than the man picked to be our leader, and carry on with sanity and intelligence despite his massive blunder.

Posted in Economics, environment, foreign policy, Governance, Politics | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Maybe he really could get away with murder…

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Back in January 2016, while on the campaign trail, Donald Trump boasted that he could shoot somebody without losing voters.

Obviously this was a bit of a morbid hyperbole. Trump, in his usual classy way, was simply bragging about his popularity. Like any number of stereotypical rich high school jocks, he’s asserting his dominance via what matters most to him – public acclaim. Well, that, and intimidation. Trump is to modern politics what William Zabka was to 80’s teen flicks.

Despite sweeping the injured leg of the American political system, Trump does still enjoy nearly universal support from elected officials in his own party. Mild clucking from Lindsey Graham and John McCain has been the strongest opposition Trump has faced from the GOP. It seems like no matter what Trump does, no matter how much corruption he demonstrates, no matter how many lies he tells, or mistakes he makes, Republicans will give him a pass. Not only will they give him a pass, but they will also fight Democratic efforts to hold him accountable.

On issue after issue, Trump has shown he can say and do whatever he wants. The media may correct him, comedians may mock him, and Democrats may scold him. But those in power (the Republican Congress) have done little to push back against his most egregious sins. And I want to talk about some of those now.

First of all, I want to stick with truly serious topics. A dishonest, unprofessional president is a problem, no doubt. In a sane world, Trump’s official campaign launch contained enough dishonesty, bigotry, and ignorance to immediately sink his campaign before it even got rolling. However, the twenty-something months since that moment have proven we do not live in a sane world. So, yes, Trump has been astoundingly bad as a candidate, and now as a president. But when there are issues that may actually be criminal, everything else sort of fades into the background. Well, unless one actually is Trump, and then there is an interest in keeping the lesser stuff on the surface. But let’s focus on some potentially impeachment-worthy topics for now.

Things that we know about Trump:

Tax returns

We know that Donald Trump has refused to release his tax returns. His official excuse was comically dishonest, but he stuck with it through the campaign, ignoring the fact checkers, tax experts, economists, and reality. After the election, he admitted he had no intention in sharing them anyway, and claimed that nobody cared.

There are two points to make here. For starters, Donald Trump is not legally obligated to release his tax returns. Yes, every major party nominee since Richard Nixon has made it a point to release at least some prior years of tax filings, and most have done so without much complaint. But neither tradition nor gestures toward open disclosure have been particularly interesting to Trump.

The second point is that his refusal to release his tax returns opens up the possibility of a number of problems. Tax returns won’t reveal every nuance of his financial dealings, but basics like his sources of income, taxes paid, and any sort of loopholes used, would all be visible. If Trump does have income from Russian sources, his tax returns may show that. Also, there has been some speculation that the President has been guilty of underpaying taxes, or even all-out tax evasion. This would be an impeachable offense, and releasing that information would provide the American people with some clarity. However, the Republican Congress has not shown any interest in forcing the President to release his taxes. There are some laws being considered by individual states that may require disclosure of taxes in order for a presidential candidate to appear on the ballot, but that wouldn’t even be an issue until 2020. For now, it would take Congressional action to push Trump toward openness. Until that happens, his taxes, no matter how suspicious they might be, are a dead end.

Russia!

There’s a ton of stuff to discuss here. I plan on covering this issue in greater depth, but suffice to say, we know a handful of things, and everything else is speculation.

We know that the Russian government, using their own resources (as well as assists from WikiLeaks), hacked the Democratic National Committee, and the Hillary Clinton campaign, during the 2016 election. They released stolen emails throughout the year to the American media. Most of the emails were themselves innocuous, but the fact that private memos were being shared with the public cast a shadow on the public perception of Hillary Clinton and her trustworthiness. Despite the lack of tangible evidence of any actual wrongdoing committed by Secretary Clinton, she suffered in popularity because of the Russian cyber attacks.

What we also know is that several advisors and confidantes of Donald Trump had close business ties with Russian companies and the Russian government. Paul Manafort, Carter Page, Roger Stone, Jeff Sessions, Mike Flynn, and even Trump himself were all in contact with Russian government officials throughout 2016. Many of these contacts have been covered in detail by better journalists than myself.

After the election, but before Trump took office, Flynn was in contact with the Russian ambassador, and promised a lifting of economic sanctions even before he held any sort of government position. The contact, and subsequent lies to the Trump team eventually led to Flynn’s ouster after just three weeks as National Security Advisor.

We know that Donald Trump has pursued business deals with Russia for decades. We know that his sons have claimed much of their development funding has come from Russia.

What we don’t know for certain is the degree that Trump associates aided or approved of Russian sabotage. We don’t know how much money (if any) exchanged hands between Trump and Russia. And we don’t know if Trump himself was aware of – or involved in – potential collusion.

And those unknown quantities are what is currently being investigated by the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the FBI, in ascending order of seriousness. Unfortunately, the House investigation is mired in partisan ostriching. The Republicans who hold a majority on all committees are far more interested in ignoring Trump’s ties to Russia, and instead prefer to discuss the source of White House leaks and… Hillary Clinton’s emails. Because “party over country” is sadly quite real in these polarizing times. The Senate is doing a little more, where there are a handful of Republicans that are at least slightly skeptical of Trump. And finally, that FBI investigation is directly related to the final issue on this list.

Sexual misconduct

In a sane world, this would have killed Trump’s campaign before he would have even made it through the primary. And then, if that didn’t do it, surely the leaked Access Hollywood tape should have dropped Trump’s vote share below thirty percent. Of course, that’s not what happened.

What did happen that we know?

Well, from Trump’s own words, we know that he walked into the changing rooms, uninvited, during both the Miss USA and the Teen USA pageants, in order to be able to see the young women (and girls) in states of undress. Not only have multiple contestants claimed this happened, but Trump himself bragged about walking into the changing rooms, while speaking on Howard Stern’s show.

Trump’s own words also include an admission of committing sexual assault in the now-infamous Access Hollywood recordings. In fact, more than an admission, he outright bragged that he assaults women at will. There was a fairly strong backlash from prominent Republicans immediately following these revelations, but the GOP outcry faded quickly. Within a couple weeks, nearly all of Trump’s lost support had returned to the fold.

Beyond Trump’s personal statements, he has been accused of sexual assault by several women over the years, including an allegation of raping a teenager. Despite a plethora of accusations, Trump’s support from his political base and from the GOP leadership has hardly wavered. As long as no damning evidence is brought to the public, his party will gladly turn a blind eye toward Trump’s sexual transgressions, both admitted and accused.

Conflicts of interest and the emoluments clause

This is another topic that I intend to expound on in greater detail in a future blog post, as there is so much going on here. What we can say is that Donald Trump was and still is the head of a large, privately-owned corporation, primarily invested in real estate, with interests in dozens of countries all over the world.

Article 1, Section 9, Clause 8 of the US Constitution reads, “No title of nobility shall be granted by the United States: and no person holding any office of profit or trust under them, shall, without the consent of the Congress, accept of any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state.

Modern interpretations of this clause (known as the emoluments clause), agree that Trump’s multiple business interests around the world frequently run squarely into this part of the document. Many of his businesses receive funding and tax incentives from foreign governments. As long as Trump continues to remain as owner of his enterprise (and earn profits from the business), his foreign investments are a direct violation of the emoluments clause.

As long as Trump earns money from a foreign government, no matter how indirectly, he is at risk of being influenced by that government. Indeed, foreign leaders have already expressed a desire to use Trump’s DC hotel for diplomatic visits, as a way to help grease the diplomatic wheels. This is blatant corruption, and if the Congress was interested in pursuing this issue, it is certainly an impeachable offense. There is a lawsuit being pushed which may eventually lead to some sort of legal action, but that could take years. In the meantime, the only thing that could force Trump to divest himself from his businesses is political will.

Obstruction of justice

When Donald Trump fired James Comey last week, he most assuredly did so in order to cripple the investigation into his ties with Russia. New leaks dripping out of the White House seem to have confirmed this. In fact, every time somebody in or near his administration has indicated they are looking into his potential misdeeds, Trump fires them. There’s a definite pattern.

This has taken me a few days to write, and when discussing this administration, a few days can amount to a metric crap-ton of new information. Not long after starting this piece, those leaks turned into a waterfall, many from the president himself. During an interview with Lester Holt, Trump admitted that he asked then-Director Comey if he was being investigated, and also stated (a bit more indirectly) that the firing was because of the Russian investigation.

Trump was enraged that Comey was continuing to… well, do his job. Unlike the House and Senate intelligence committees, FBI director Comey took the investigation into Trump’s ties with Russia quite seriously. Indeed, just a few days before being fired, Comey sought additional resources from the Justice Department in order to handle the rapidly growing investigation.

Further revelations from Comey have shown that Trump (allegedly) asked Comey directly to stop investigating Mike Flynn. He is also said to have asked for a pledge of loyalty from Comey, and requested that Comey consider jailing certain reporters. If true, this is all incredibly damning information.

So what does this all mean? Trump fired Comey because of the investigation of Trump ties to Russia? Then that would be obstruction of justice, and it would certainly be impeachable.

Problem is, even blatant obstruction of justice doesn’t seem to matter to GOP leadership. Not when the head of the Justice Department himself had a hand in the firing, despite having recused himself from the investigation over a month ago. Therefore, Attorney General Sessions is also guilty of obstruction of justice.

Even Republican voters still seem largely unconcerned with the Comey affair. It’s going to take crashing approval ratings from Republican voters to convince Republican Congresspersons to jump off the Trump train, much less help derail it. On issue after issue, Republican leaders have refused to take Trump’s transgressions seriously, or they have changed the subject (leaks! emails! wiretaps!), or have occasionally admitted that partisanship prevents action. There have finally now been some rumblings of dissatisfaction, since the Comey memos came to light. A small handful of Republicans have begun acknowledging the need for further action. However, as of now, a majority still appear to stand with the President.

Since the Comey firing, attention toward Trump’s various misdeeds has ramped up. Yesterday, the DOJ took the surprising (and welcome) step in appointing a special counsel to head up the investigation. Robert Mueller, James Comey’s predecessor as head of the FBI, has a solid reputation for being impartial and bipartisan. Naturally, Trump was livid.

It’s possible that the turmoil of the past week, the appointment of the special counsel, and the slight deterioration in Trump’s support may start to mark the beginning of the end for the near-unanimous support he has received. It’s also possible that the same pattern that has followed will continue… there will be some quiet grumbling among Republican leaders, there will be thinkpieces on liberal-leaning blogs breathlessly reporting that the “Republicans are finally turning on Trump!” And then… a new issue develops, the current scandals die down, and the GOP closes ranks around Trump once again.

Either scenario is possible. Time will tell whether or not Republicans ever do actually “turn on Trump.” It should be remembered that in a supposedly less-partisan time, it still took two years for the GOP to turn on Nixon after the Watergate break-in was first reported. There’s little reason to think anything will change quickly now.

For the time being, Donald Trump is the president. And until the Republican Party determines they can no longer support him, he will remain in office. But I would like to address Republicans for a moment. I want to propose a hypothetical scenario…

Take every scandal, every whiff of wrongdoing, incompetence, dishonesty, and corruption that we’ve seen over the last hundred and something days… and make Hillary Clinton the president. Everything else is still the same. The GOP still has control of the House and Senate. But now Hillary is president. She has multiple associates and staffers with deep connections to Russia. She refused to divest from her business interests. She declined to release her tax returns. She’s making money from foreign investments, in clear violation of the Constitution. She fired the head of the FBI explicitly because he was investigating her connections to a hostile foreign power. She asked him personally to stop his investigations before she fired him. She asked him for his personal loyalty, and to imprison journalists.

Look at that scenario, and please consider whether or not the Republicans in the House and Senate would be currently pushing for impeachment, with the above evidence at their disposal. Please consider whether they would have already pushed for the appointment of a special independent counsel.

To any readers of this piece who might be Republicans, or at least sympathetic to Donald Trump, please consider this. Would the allegations, scandals, and misdeeds (both proven and alleged) of Trump be worth defending if they were from Hillary Clinton?

As always, others have said it better. So, in addition to the embedded links above, check out the information in the links below.

http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2017/03/jared_kushner_has_been_concealing_the_flynn_kislyak_meeting_for_months.html

http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2017/02/when_did_donald_trump_know_michael_flynn_lied_to_the_fbi.html

https://www.vox.com/world/2017/2/15/14620560/trump-flynn-russia-campaign

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/trump-must-be-impeached-heres-why/2017/05/13/82ce2ea4-374d-11e7-b4ee-434b6d506b37_story.html?tid=ss_tw&utm_term=.0c605ab0f6f2

https://www.vox.com/2017/5/10/15619098/flynn-subpoena-senate-trump-russia

https://www.vox.com/world/2017/5/12/15632894/trump-clapper-russia-hearing-no-evidence

http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/the_good_fight/2017/05/after_comey_s_firing_it_s_time_for_lawmakers_to_take_a_stand_for_the_rule.html

https://www.vox.com/2017/5/15/15644826/trump-ryan-mcconnell-congress-impeach-end-presidency

https://newrepublic.com/article/142712/trump-can-get-away-this-cant-get-away-with

https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/5/16/15648080/congressional-republicans-excuse-trump-scandals

https://www.vox.com/2017/5/16/15649718/nyt-comey-russia-trump

https://www.yahoo.com/news/comey-memo-also-trumps-request-arrest-reporters-journalists-call-crazy-scary-160122212.html

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On Secular Morality

This brief missive came about from indirectly observing the argument of… we’ll say a friend of a friend, on Facebook. This individual was discussing morality, specifically the need for morality to be centered around religious tenets. Between his initial post, and a comment concurring with him, the gist seemed to be that without the structure of religious belief, and in particular, the fear of holy wrath, there was little to stop humanity from dissolving into mindless anarchy.

This is hardly a unique perspective, and it’s particularly prevalent among those with a religious background.

This initial Facebook discussion inspired me to dive down the internet rabbit hole… first of discussions for the need of religion to govern morality. Then I refreshed my memory of the history of secular morality, and typed up a quick response to the Facebook thread. After some consideration, I decided not to dive into the thread, but I thought what I wrote could be a decent primer for those who believe that a higher power is needed for human morality. This was written as a response to a conversation, so forgive the occasional lapses in the second person.

I will also note this is a HUGE topic, and this little rant barely scratches the surface. So if any reader would like more depth, please click on some of the links I added, and feel free to dive down the rabbit hole, too.

Anyway, here goes my response to the argument “religion is necessary for morality:”


Part of the problem is that your mental framework is still built around the concept that morality is a set of absolute rules enforced by a higher power. Without being able to even consider alternatives, you’re limiting yourselves. Instead of starting from a more open and flexible position, you’re opening the discussion with the assumption that the religious point of view is the right one, and you need evidence to change your mind. The thing is, that evidence already exists, and has existed just as long as religious justifications for morality. You just need to do the reading.

There is a massive trove of literature on secular morality, much of it dating to well before Christianity, and even before Judaism. Ancient thinkers and philosophers in the East have pondered morality without any sort of deity for millennia. Even Greek and Roman philosophers have covered this topic. Plato and Socrates both had good stuff to say on the concept of secular morality. Socrates’ (as written by Plato) Euthyphro dilemma takes a stab at inquiring as to what makes commands by god inherently good. Even today, the Euthyphro dilemma vexes religious scholars. Thiruvalluvar, a Tamil philosopher, wrote on ethics at least a century before Christ. His works were entirely secular, and never assumed any sort of deity as the backbone of his ethics. That framework of requiring a boss to lay the ground rules simply wasn’t there. Chinese philosopher Mozi discussed an early form of consequentialism (more on that later) 400 years before Christ – and no gods to speak of were involved.

Secular morality has a long and rich history, as I’ve already shown. One of the more straightforward concepts of secular morality can be explained via consequentialism, which is itself derived from utilitarianism. There are plenty of other schools of thought regarding secular morality, but if one has a handle on consequentialism, then that provides a decent starting point. As Peter Singer has described, consequentialists don’t start with the rules themselves, already handed down by god. Instead, they start with goals. What do we want to be happy, healthy, and productive? What actions will we require to live good lives? And from there, we work backward. Killing each other, robbing, raping, lying, committing fraud – none of these acts make for peaceful or productive communities, much less peaceful or productive individuals. We’ve known this since we’ve had communities. We’ve known this since before we developed writing. There is even some paleontological evidence that our hominid ancestors figured this out, even if they couldn’t articulate it. No gods needed here.

What a consequentialist is concerned with is the outcome. They ask, what behavior produces the best outcomes? Stone tablets and fear of eternal damnation aren’t as important as not wanting to live in anarchy. Eventually, this concept leads to community rules, which leads to ever-evolving ideas of laws and governance. That’s the structure you guys feel you need. Laws created by humans, for humans. Considering there is no evidence for an actual magic sky daddy, it’s reasonable to argue that god-enforced laws are just as man-made as any secular government.

And of course, as noted earlier, consequentialism is just one aspect to secular morality. But that’s partly my point. Morality without god is still vast in scope. Maybe larger than morality with god, since it isn’t constrained by rigid doctrines.

Meanwhile, adherents to religious morality – always in fear of the potential anarchy of secularism – don’t have a great historical track record themselves. Do I really need to go over the enormous number of atrocities committed in the name of enforcing one group’s notions of religious morality? Is Socrates or Jeremy Bentham really more of a killer than Richard the Lionheart or Hernan Cortez?

Indeed, it can be argued that religious morality requires a rather extreme form of coercion to work. Demanding obedience in fear of endless suffering is just as authoritarian as the worst dictatorships. Indeed, many supposedly secular tyrannies have used religion as justification for the misery they beset on their fellow humans. It could be argued that concentrating on the real-world results of one’s actions produces better outcomes in the here and now.

Bernard Williams (despite his criticism of both utilitarianism and consequentialism, his thoughts are still valuable here) discussed the need for a divine framework for morality thusly, “Either one’s motives for following the moral word of God are moral motives, or they are not. If they are, then one is already equipped with moral motivations, and the introduction of God adds nothing extra. But if they are not moral motives, then they will be motives of such a kind that they cannot appropriately motivate morality at all … we reach the conclusion that any appeal to God in this connection either adds to nothing at all, or it adds the wrong sort of thing.”

It frightens me to think there are potentially billions of people who believe the only thing preventing civilization from dissolving into something out of George Miller’s nightmares is a potentially imaginary religious fantasy. Is that really what one needs to keep from murdering and looting? Is that the “solid framework” morality is built on?

The devil is in the details, but your point of view requires the devil to provide those details.

Your position assumes one of two things –

  1. There is definitely a god of some kind, and your particular interpretation of its edicts includes all the necessary values needed to live a good life now.
  2. Or, you don’t really know or care if there is a god, but you believe humanity is too simple and savage to be able to handle moral lessons without fear of divine punishment.

Now, I shouldn’t have to tell you what’s wrong with both assumptions, but because I likely still need to do so;

Number 1 assumes that an inherently unprovable assertion is fact, without the necessary evidence to back it up. Number 2 is cynical and easily disproven, as I have done in the preceding paragraphs. It assumes the world is becoming a more dangerous and chaotic place as it becomes more secular, despite the fact that the contrary is true.

I have some homework for you. So you have a better understanding of what you’re discussing here, please check out some of the works from the following writers:

For overviews of utilitarianism, start with some of those who inspired utilitarian thought. Let’s go back to Epicurus, then jump forward to David Hume and William Godwin. Then for the origins of utilitarianism itself, check out Jeremy Bentham, first and foremost. Then take a look at works by John Stuart Mill, Henry Sidgwick, Elizabeth AnscombeR. M. Hare and Peter Singer.

After that, for secular morality of a different order, you can delve into works by the aforementioned Bernard Williams, Julian Baggini, and Greg Epstein. Sam Harris is problematic, but his 2010 work The Moral Landscape, might be one of the best modern arguments for secular morality, and can be largely compartmentalized from some of his major flaws.

And for an idea what is actually happening to the world in regard to human progress over the last few decades and centuries, there are three books I like to recommend:

Atrocitology by Matthew White

The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker

The Progress Paradox by Gregg Easterbrook.

None of these works are philosophical in nature, but instead discuss the recent history of human civilization, and note the (admittedly slow and inconsistent) bias toward progress and higher standards of living for all of humanity.

Please do some research, and make sure you have an idea of the history behind a topic before discussing it with the assumption of authority. I myself am a dilettante in the area of philosophical morality, being self-taught, with no formal education. But it’s important to me to understand how the world works, and how societies function, so I still seek out that education, albeit in informal ways. I really know you guys can do the same, and I encourage you to do so. I can lend you some of the works I listed above, and can give you titles to check out for some of those I don’t have. There’s a lot of good stuff out there.


There’s much more to morality. So much more, what I wrote wouldn’t even amount to a decent introduction to any serious work of philosophy or ethics. Nonetheless, I would like people to consider that religion may not be the best starting point for morality. At least, it’s not the only one.

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A Skewed Perspective

When we look at another person of approximately equal height, we often perceive them to be a bit taller than we are. We’re often looking at their height as peaking at the top of their head, and our eyes will be a few inches shorter than this. So, we’re still looking up at them, especially if we find ourselves comparing them to us. It creates a perception of inequality, even when none exists.

Humans are talented…

…at tricking ourselves. We can convince ourselves of things that aren’t true, even in the face of overwhelming evidence.

A similar phenomenon exists with a lot of white people, especially (but not exclusively) straight white cis men.

Imagine a footrace across an American football field. As a straight white cis male, I’m already at the 5 yard line, getting close to the end zone. The end zone can represent… really, anything culturally positive. Financial success, comfort, happiness, political power, influence, you name it. And I’m already pretty close. The only reason I’m not already there was because I wasn’t born into wealth.

I started at the 10 yardline, and thus far, I’ve only moved five yards. I look back and see genuine progress by people who don’t look like me. That black guy made it 40 yards in the same time I ran 5. What the hell? It’s uneven! From my perspective, I’ve barely moved, whereas there are all these programs, all these movements to help out those guys back there. And they’ve moved so much farther than I have!

Of course, with that perspective, I lost sight of the fact that I started at the ten yard line, and he started way back behind midfield. A century ago, his great grandfather wasn’t even allowed to leave the other end zone.

White people, I’m not telling you this to attack you. I’m saying you should be aware of the fact that you started out way ahead. Other people making progress, and wanting to fight for more, isn’t an attack on you. It’s not a way to beat you or to bring you down. It’s simply them trying to reach the same level of opportunity, to get the same shot at that end zone.

There’s a competition fallacy many have, even if they may arrive at it unconsciously. It stems, in part, from primitive tribalism. If another group is succeeding,  we often believe that success is in spite of us, or even directly harming us.

This is a harmful and outmoded viewpoint. We create a better world when we have a vested interest in everyone succeeding. I would much rather stand in the end zone with everyone than get there first and block it off when I arrive. Social imbalance is good for nobody.

When a protest turns violent, far too many people (who look like me) will accuse the people who protested of doing something wrong. We accuse them of wanting too much, or pushing superiority. Without having experienced the same kind of day-to-day struggle that people of color, LGBT people, and women face, privileged white guys like me end up feeling under attack.

I get it.

It’s easy to feel like its personal.

The thing is, my fellow white guys – it’s almost never personal. I’ve talked about this before, but it bears repeating. When people who have historically struggled in our society say that something is wrong – don’t dismiss it. Don’t argue, don’t act as though the complaint is about you. Just listen. Don’t try to pick at flaws or errors. Don’t change the subject. Did a window get broken, or someone get arrested? Maybe. But concentrating on that is an easy way to ignore the reason for the altercation in the first place.

The fact that straight white men feel this pressure is both proof that there are societal imbalances biased in our favor, and also proof that people are trying to do something about it. But it’s cool. We can be allies. We can acknowledge that we’re much closer to the end zone, and we were born that way.

That even goes for those of us who are financially depressed. A poor white guy is still less likely to be treated with suspicion by a cop than a rich black person. There are things that I can get away with that a person of color cannot, even if that person is in better financial shape than me.

I address my fellow straight white cis men quite often. Because we are the ones with all the advantages, even now. We run most of the corporations, and control most of the government. And yet, we are the ones who are often the most in denial about our advantages. I’ve spent quite a bit of time over the last few years debunking cherry picked crime stats and explaining how the United States, even post-slavery and post-Jim Crow, manages to make life harder for everyone who isn’t a straight white cis man. And when I do, I’m almost always arguing with another white man. It’s always someone who doesn’t know the struggle, and isn’t interesting in trying to learn about it.

The problem lies with us white dudes, and the society we put together 200 plus years ago. We designed it for ourselves. Even centuries later, with greater awareness of our initial inequality, there is still reflexive resistance to getting everyone else pulled up to social, economic, and political parity. Don’t believe me? Look at the White House. Yeah, there have been a million competing thinkpieces arguing for and against the role racism played in Trumps’ election. It certainly wasn’t the only reason. But a reflexive white backlash against the idea of increased diversity under President Obama WAS definitely a contributing factor.

White people, I’ve asked this of you before, and I need to do so again…

Don’t always trust your gut. Don’t look only at the surface and react to it. You see people of color have made progress? You see marriage equality become the law of the land? You see transgender people become more ubiquitous in our popular culture? Yeah, you see all of that. And you assume that means the struggle is over, or at least that it’s wrapping up. Well, that’s because we have a bias to see things from our own perspective, and not think about what the world looks like from the eyes of another tribe. That made sense when we were competing with the other cave for the next woolly mammoth. But we humans now number 7.5 BILLION. We are on every continent, and we are losing resources and room quickly. We have no choice but to drop the tribalism. Our perspective of others is skewed, and we have to start learning how to change that perspective.

Equality isn’t competition. However, equality does require those who have long been in the lead to slow down, and either help make the race even, or stop racing altogether.

Black Lives Matter is a great example of this. I saw a poll recently showing only 14% of white Americans held a favorable view of the BLM movement. That means a huge percentage of white people distrust the idea that black lives matter. Or they believe it to represent something different. Meanwhile, these black lives are literally struggling to prove their value to white Americans. And they shouldn’t have to. Black Lives Matter doesn’t mean that White Lives don’t. It means that white people have been ignoring or even actively hurting black lives, and black people are fed up with it. Who could blame them for that?

White people, please just shut up and listen for a change. Understand that by fighting against equality, and being defensive about your privilege, only leads to more struggle, more instability, and more demagogues stoking fear and hatred. We fall for con men, and then when they steal off with our money, wreck our environment, and destabilize our government, we blame everyone else, except ourselves.

I’m not perfect. I have biases and kneejerk reactions, too. But I’m doing my best to remember where I started. And I try to remember that I’m not going to improve my life if I ignore the struggles of others.

Others have said this stuff better. If you get a chance, take a look at this piece by Jason Pargin (writing under the name David Wong). He’s also addressing white people who may not be all-out racists, but have difficulty seeing things from someone else’s perspective. It’s a good article.

And think about my admittedly strained metaphor. We may all be racing to the same end zone, but white people, especially straight white men, have had a much easier run. It’s about time we use our advantages to actually help get everyone else to the end zone.

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