George Washington's Comportment

George Washington carried himself a certain way. He tried to project formality, modesty, propriety and civic piety at all times. He rarely was known to break character. 

Washington did not do what was natural, he exerted himself greatly to conform to this pattern of public behavior. But he did not consider this persona inauthentic, in his mind he set out to *make* himself this way. It was the result of his labors, and thus he could claim more ownership over his character than those who exerted less discipline in steering their selves faithfully to their hopes for who they would become. 

Further, Washington saw the value of self-denial. He bristled at the idea of honorifics. He dressed in modest American-made attire. But Washington also expected his earned titles to be recognized in addressing him and and spent considerable funds on Mount Vernon, private investments, and his military gear. His choices were not affect and they were not just for show. 

Washington was a builder. He believed in building a life: mind, body, soul *and* property. He denied himself things that may provide brief satisfaction if they would slow or defer that great self-building project. A project he saw as existentially intertwined between himself and his country.  

 


Trump loyalists getting pushed out of NSC

It seems like some control is being exerted by the professionals with regard to the National Security Council. Longtime Trump sycophant Ezra Cohen-Watnick has been pushed out along with one or two other people whose qualifications for their jobs seemed to do with Trump loyalty rather than any knowledge of how to perform their tasks.  This is certainly a step in the right direction, but it will only mark a change in direction if the President makes more informed and more consistent decisions about setting and maintaining foreign relations.  


Bill Browder's Congressional Testimony

I missed this a couple of days ago, and in case that's something common I thought I'd better go back and pull it through for interested readers. First, some background.

Bill Browder was a prominent financier who uncovered corruption in Russia. His whistleblowing lead directly to the imprisonment and murder of his attorney, Sergei Magnitsky, by the Russian government. In response to what Browder uncovered and the resulting murder of Magnitsky by the state, the United States passed the Magnitsky Act, a round of sanctions targeting the assets of a select group of Russian elites. The Russian government tried to prevent the Magnitsky Act from becoming law by hook and by crook, including getting their claws into American surrogates. This effort was, according to Browder's testimony before the United States Senate, spearheaded by a Putin insider named Natalia Veselnitskya. The act passed anyway and the Russian government retaliated by preventing American families from adopting Russian children. 

 Donald Trump jr. initially claimed that his meeting on June 9, 2016 with Rob Goldstone, Paul Manafort, Jared Kushner, Natalia Veselnitskaya, Rinat Akhmetshin, Anatoli Samachornov, and Ike Kaveladze was about "Russian adoptions." Yesterday, the Washington Post reported that this initially explanation was actually dictated by President Trump personally

So, that's the context in which Browder provided his testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee.  I have linked to the entire video of the thing here in case you have an interest. 

 

What Mr. Browder testimony fills in, if fair and accurate, are the motives of the Russian government. Why does Russia care so much about these sanctions? Browder's got a story to tell. According to Browder, Vladimir Putin is taking 50% off the top of all the Russian Oligarchs earnings from heir companies. This means that Putin is quite possibly the world's richest person, and that most of his wealth is held in capital tied up in Western financial institutions in some way. This means that when the West freezes assets of Russian oligarchs in sanctions, they are also freezing a sizable portion of the enormous personal fortune of Vladimir Putin himself. Beyond this, Browder testified that Putin has people who are willing to commit heinous crimes to protect his wealth and power because Putin can give his henchmen two things: (1) a guarantee of protection from legal consequences and (2) money. Sanctioning Putin threatens to put his henchmen in the realm of legal consequences of they get swept up in investigations of international financial irregularities and reduces his ability to mollify them with money.

Browder's testimony provides a shockingly simple explanation for Russia's willing to risk so much to interfere in American elections. And while Browder was careful not to testify too much about the Trump campaign side of the story because he doesn't know anything more than he reads in the paper, he pointed out that the Russians clearly were able to get to former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in a similar way that it has been alleged that they got to Donald Trump. 

I'm not in a position to say that Browder's testimony represents the truth (though I think it definitely sounded convincing, and no Senator on the committee seemed to think otherwise), but what I think it does represent the first real sign that this whole thing could blow completely open. The Browder testimony moves us from the drip-drop of little hard to follow pieces of information to a coherent, easy to understand story of what happened based on facts that can be established. If it holds up to evidentiary scrutiny, the White House is in a lot of trouble. But it's worse than that. Russia's in a lot of trouble as well. We could wind up in a situation of mutual political destabilization. We are going to need careful decision-making with Russia when this blows up, and we will possibly going through an impeachment process ourselves at the moment we need to make those decisions. We have exposed ourselves to a lot of bad potential outcomes, and Browder's testimony is a reminder that they may be coming our way sooner rather than later.

 

 


Russia Sanctions

Hot takes a-plenty on the new round of sanctions the United States has imposed on Russia and also on Russia's response to said sanctions. David Sanger of The New York Times writes that this whole episode has been a blow for Putin's hopes to get out of the American sanctions regime. Bloomberg interviewed former Defense Department official Evelyn Farkas, who seems skeptical that enough resources will be put into the new sanctions and also skeptical that they really change the state of play between the West and Russia. 

There's a broader question that I've been thinking about in reading these stories. It corresponds with a book by Richard Haass that I'm reading right now, so how much of this is recency bias, I don't know. The larger story is one about the global order. Russia's goals are to weaken it. One of the potential ways that Russia can weaken the global order is to get the United States to question its commitment to maintaining global order. Lately, collective opinion has been that Russia had given a helping push in creating EU and US ambivalence in defending the global order, which would give Russia wider reign to sell arms and oil  worldwide and to further bully the former Soviet republics into policies friendlier to Russian interests. 

What the sanctions passed by the United States might show to Putin is that the resolve in upholding the global order might be stronger than he had hoped for. He had been testing the fence, and he got zapped. The provision in the sanctions that takes rolling back sanctions out of the President's hands shows that the United States is committed to imposing penalties on Russian non-compliance in the global order. To be clear, from an American perspective, Russian non-compliance in the global order means trying to free ride on the benefits of the international order the West has fought for and won while not respecting any of the rules that order has established to maintain that order's stability and security in the future. 

Ideally, American policy towards Russia would shepherd them towards reaping the benefits of cooperating in the global order more regularly across a broader range of policy concerns. Russia's made it pretty clear that's not going to happen in the near term. Short of increased cooperating, the US and her allies need to show Russia they don't get to be bad actors without consequences. 

In short, I read the US Sanctions primary purpose not as "economically impactful," but as an act of signaling. We are signaling to Russia that we will incur costs to contain Russian interests when those interests aim to subvert the global order. Russia's response strikes me as an ineffectual and targeted at the domestic Russian audience more than at ourselves. It is at least possible that what we are seeing is that Russian foreign policy does not look nearly as threatening when they lose the initiative. 


Breaking Hot Take: General Kelly Appointed White House Chief of Staff

Not a minor news story, and a lot of ink's going to be spilled on it. I mentioned the other day that the unhinged behavior of the new White House Communications Director made me worry about the ability of the White House to respond competently to threats to the national interest. I am hopeful that the appointment of General Kelly will reduce some of the potential vulnerability our country was looking at from a completely disorganized White House. I don't know how hopeful to be, but I think it's a fair evaluation that Reince Preibus was not instilling discipline and that General Kelly is likely to be one of the best chances that could be hoped for in terms of bringing as much discipline as is possible to White House operations. 


Another NFL Player Retires Early to Save Brain

Baltimore Ravens Offensive Lineman John Urschel retired yesterday after a study revealed that of 111 brains of former NFL players studied by neuropathologists, all but one showed evidence of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or C.T.E. 

Urschel has other plans for his life, as he has a keen mathematical mind. It's nice to see this celebrated as more important than football. 

What about the football players who aren't math geniuses? With Urschel's retirement and also Chris Boralnd's before it, the media narrative played up that these were bright guys with much to lose if their brains got messed up. While this narrative is probably well intentioned, I worry that it implies if you aren't super smart it is okay to get your brain messed up for other people's amusement. I think that this is far from an obvious conclusion, because, at the risk of stating the obvious, your brain is central to a lot of who you are as a person.

I find it hard to square the principle that each human being is inviolable with watching professional football. There's a defense that can be made, that football players choose to damage their brains playing football and who am I to stop them? But there's a bunch of reasons this argument smells off. First, my decision to watch and support football does not impinge on anyone's right to play football. While it's true that if we could convince America to turn off the thing altogether, you couldn't play football for money, this is not an imposition on others as they are not entitled to our money unless we choose to give it. Second, I think it's a pretty obvious cover to say, "players knowingly choose." The football entertainment industry has been, lets say, hesitant to allow players access to information that would permit a fully informed choice. There's also so much money and cultural capital invested in football, that it is not simply a choice based on information but also a question of being aware enough to swim against the tide of what everyone else is doing and what everyone else expects from you. I think it is a cop out to put the responsibility completely on the athlete while we are the ones supplying the money and the cultural pressure for them to play.  

Then there is the downstream effects of professional football: college, high school and even youth football. What are we doing to kids so that our schools can become atheletic brands? What are we doing to the cultures of schools and communities?

The problem becomes clear in my view, that the entire thing ought to go. How much money makes it okay to destroy the seat of another person's being? How old do they have to be? How dumb do they have to be? There's no way to draw lines that adequately address these questions, because anything short of complete and utter rejection of scrambling brains for entertainment becomes morally repugnant. 


Breaking Hot Take: WH Communications Director on Interview Bender

Anthony Scaramucci, the newly minted White House Communications Director just gave an obsenity-filled interview to New Yorker's Ryan Lizza. The language he used is utterly inappropriate for someone whose job it is to communicate the actions of the nation's most powerful office to the people. Beyond that, Scaramucci's promise to wage holy war against the President's own personally chosen White House staff threatens to plunge the government into (deeper) chaos. Who's going to work at this White House after people get purged? It is unclear to me how White House staff and executive departments can be expected to do their jobs in this type of work environment.

Mexico City's sinking

The New York Times runs a story on the climate change disaster awaiting Mexico City. The city is sinking into the earth because climate change has caused water suppliers to drill deeper and deeper into the water supply beneath the city. According to government officials in the report, Mexico City will become more vulnerable to flooding and droughts that will decrease the water supply to serious humanitarian crisis levels.

The result of these changes could cause mass migration in the coming years out of Mexico City, leading to increased border security concerns, political and economic instability such that Mexico has not seen in decades as well as leaving millions of people displaced and vulnerable to be prayed upon by ambitious anti-refugee political figures in the US and other parts of Mexico as well as vulnerable to easy exploitation by organized crime.  

Approximately 9 million people live in Mexico City. The Untied States can, at best, only indirectly and surreptitiously prepare for the downstream consequeunces of the changes that are coming because of the political influence of climate change denialism. It certainly seems out of the question that the United States can take any large initiative to reduce the downside risk of Mexico City's impending climate crisis without acknowledging that climate change is real. When climate change deniers go beyond skepticism to outright obstructionism of such policy planning, it ought to be pointed out that even if the truth about climate science was difficult to understand, the size of the bet that American climate denialists are making with the welfare of the American people is completely out of proportion to the confidence they should have that they might be correct. 

 


On reconciliation and the flowering of other legislative gambits

"The oftener the measure is brought under examination, the greater the diversity in the situations of those who are to examine it, the less must be the danger of those errors which flow from want of due deliberation, or of those missteps which proceed from the contagion of some common passion or interest." - Alexander Hamilton, Federalist Number 73

Because the political commentary of the country remains obsessed with the packaging and appearance of politics and politicians rather than on the demands of our time that must be met with political skill, the attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act are couched almost entirely in terms of whether or not Republicans can or cannot pass a bill. But the attempted repeal of the Affordable Care Act carry stakes even greater than this. 

The lengths that Republicans have gone to avoid public deliberation on the repeal of the Affordable Care Act ought to be shocking, but it feels like such tricks are becoming increasingly common. It is the supposed purpose of the legislature to open the laws of the country to the examination and criticism of people from across the country by its representatives. The notion of a deliberative legislature is obviously an ideal that often has to give way to expediencies in the real world. I am not for a moment suggesting that the legislature can magically transform into an elnightened debate between the wisest, most well-meaning humans you could ever find. What I am suggesting is that public debate and deliberation in the legislature is meant to reduce the instances of bad laws and rip-offs of the American people on the idea that somewhere amidst those Senators and House Members it must be in someone's interests to speak loudly and clearly on behalf of those getting ripped off. 

There has, over the past couple of decades, emerged a pattern of rivalry between our political parties that has led to an arms race in finding creative ways to thwart and subvert deliberative lawmaking. The United States faces dire long-term consequences if it cannot arrest this trend. There are few policies, no matter what the consequences, that are worth trading away the rule-making procedures that hold the line against unwise lawmaking. Regardless of what one thinks of the Affordable Care Act, the surest way to guarantee that political and economic inequality becomes more pervasive in this country is to fundamentally destroy the rules meant to curb  factional-self interested rule-making by whichever political party happens to be in power.