Saturday, December 30, 2017

TV Review - House of Cards Season Five

Now that Kevin Spacey has been fired from House of Cards, reviewing the show's fifth season is much different. While the show will return for eight episodes before calling it a day, it has been tarnished by association and may limp to a finish without much more than a novelty’s level worth of curiosity of how it handles Spacey’s firing in the context of the overall storyline. 

Of course, Spacey’s downfall viz a viz the show is ironic. The fifth season saw his character, Frank Underwood, pushed to the side in favor of his wife Claire, who is now President after his resignation (don't ask). Indeed, the show's hiatus is a good opportunity for the show runners to think about where they want to go and what they want out of the final season because the fifth season was so bananas crazy (not in a good way) that a pause will be good regardless.

When House of Cards started, it balanced much of what makes DC intrigue interesting - political sabotage, deals cut behind closed doors, and just enough lurid titillation to pique without being prurient. But as the show has progressed, the machinations have become less believable and the suspension of disbelief required, far greater. This was never more true than in Season 5, which unfolded for the first half against a ridiculously convoluted electoral theft story that made Bush v. Gore look simple and then spent the second half fast forwarding past what could have been a season-long arc of Frank's undoing (at his own hand as it turns out, in a finale-aside that would have been missed if you blinked) and elevation of Claire surrounded by scheming aides eager to take advantage of her naivete and inexperience.

Sometimes, shows that start out strong lose their thread (looking at you, Homeland) and even before Spacey’s outing as a sexual predator, it was clear House of Cards had morphed from drama to parody. Spacey’s scene-chewing monologues became flabby, less Machiavelli and more dorm-room 101 philosophy, and while the body count piled up, it required a belief both in the fecklessness of law enforcement and every tinfoil-hat conspiracy about dark forces running the country to not be laughable. 

Looking back, it is clear that the early decisions to navigate Frank into the Oval Office so quickly ended up being too much to fast. The show jettisoned any pretense of being a “DC drama” that might have been based on legislative horse-trading or lower-level skirmishes in favor of more and more outlandish scheming and mendacity that ultimately involved state-sanctioned murder, false arrest and imprisonment, and manufactured terrorist attacks to spook the populace. On the other hand, we are asked to believe the Vice President of the United States could keep secret a live-in lover (who she kills in the penultimate episode) while also, hello, BEING MARRIED TO THE PRESIDENT. It is absurd, even for televised drama. 

There may be a small opportunity for redemption in Spacey’s exit. With Robin Wright’s Claire Underwood now unshackled from the yoke of her marriage to Frank, eight episodes is more than enough time to tell both a taut political story and consider the reckoning that all those who have done bad things deserve. 

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Saturday, December 23, 2017

2017 Year in Books

I'm too lazy to blurb all the books I read this year, so here's the list. My goal was to review every book I read, but as you'll see, I didn't quite make it. Of the books I did review, a couple I really liked are "Word by Word" (#18), "Nomadland" (#31) and "Fear City" (#33). A couple I liked but didn't review are "The Stranger in the Woods" (#14) and "The Lonely City" (#28), the latter was probably one of my two or three favorites of the year. I thought Grann's "Killers of the Flower Moon" (#17) which landed on a few best-of lists was a little disappointing and Perrotta's Mrs. Fletcher (#29) was WAY overrated. There is also a bit of fluff like "Make Trouble" (#27), which you can read in about 20 minutes and "The Asshole Survival Guide" (#34). The rest are a mixed bag of good ("A First Class Catastrophe" (#35)), bad ("The Road to Little Dribbling" (#5)) and ugly (in that early 70s facial hair is not good, but reading about the Swingin' A's was excellent "Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic" (#11)). 

I hope you got to read some good books this year too! 

6. The African Svelte, Daniel Menaker
9. If Our Bodies Could Talk, Dr. James Hamblin
10. Arthur & Sherlock: Conan Doyle & the Creation of Holmes, Michael Mims
11. Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic, Jason Turbow
13. The One Cent Magenta: Inside the Quest to Own the Most Valuable Stamp in the World, James Barron
14. The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit, Michael Finkel
15. The Course of Love, Alain de Botton
16. The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge & Why It Matters, Tom Nichols
17. Killers of the Flower Moon, David Grann
20. The Descent of Man, Grayson Perry
22. Last Call, Daniel Okrent
23. Grocery, Michael Ruhlman
25. Paths to Happiness, Edward Hoffman
26. Caeser’s Last Breath, Sam Kean
27. Make Trouble, John Waters
28. The Lonely City, Olivia Laing
30. The Thousand Dollar Dinner, Becky Diamond
34. Get Capone, Jonathan Eig
35. The Asshole Survival Guide, Robert Sutton
36. A First Class Catastrophe, Diana Henriques

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Trump’s First Year Was A Huge Success

“It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” - Les   February 29, 2016

During an election year that seemed to move at the speed of light, the above quote from CBS chairman Les Moonves was barely a one day story. The context of Moonves’s quote related to the record ad revenue his company and other media outlets were collecting and of course, the needle moved even more when Donald Trump was on their air. His comments were echoed by CNN President Jeff Zucker, who called 2016 “the best year ever” for cable news, and it was not because they were doing deep dives on the fine points of tax policy. Showtime aired a series about the campaign dubbed The Circus and an after-action report conducted by the Columbia Journalism Review found that in a six day period near the end of the campaign, the New York Times filed as many stories about Hillary’s email as they did in the final sixty-nine days about her policy positions. 

With Trump’s victory last November, one would have hoped the media writ large would course correct. While The Washington Post boldly placed “Democracy Dies in Darkness” on its homepage and The New York Times brags about skyrocketing revenue from new subscribers drawn in by its purportedly aggressive coverage of Trump, 11 months into Trump’s first term in office, he has succeeded in waving many shiny objects in front of reporters’ faces even as the federal government, and its role in our daily life, has been radically altered.

For all the spinning on cable news that Trump has been a failure, I would argue that a week from now, when, in all likelihood, Trump has a splashy signing ceremony for the Republicans’ massive tax cut for corporations and the wealthy, he will have achieved as much in his first year in office as Barack Obama, and, over the long run, potentially much more. Here’s why:

Trump Is Reshaping The Federal Judiciary For The Next 20 Years: The top line here is the seating of Neil Gorsuch, a 50-year-old conservative jurist who may serve until the 2040s, on the U.S. Supreme Court, but it goes beyond that - Trump is one retirement (Anthony Kennedy) away from locking in that majority with a replacement who, like Gorsuch, may serve for 25-30 years. A worst case scenario where either Ruth Bader Ginsburg or Stephen Breyer (or both) retire before 2020, would be cataclysmic. 

But Trump’s influence extends well beyond the Supreme Court. After all, while it does render decisions of great consequence, it also issues fewer than 100 opinions a year. The real action is in the twelve circuit courts of appeal, and there, Mitch McConnell has used the Senate as a turnstile, approving more of Trump’s nominees (twelve) in his first year in office than any President in history. 

Republicans Are Dismantling Wide Swaths of the Regulatory State: Do you care about the environment? Sexual assault investigations on college campuses? Consumer protection against heavy-handed (or illegal) actions of major financial institutions? Having unfettered access to all corners of the Internet? I have bad news for you. All of those things are under assault, a two-pronged assault in fact, that has rarely been seen in Washington. 

The first prong was predictable - Trump installed many regulated-industry friendly leaders as Cabinet Secretaries and administrative agency heads to either reverse or stay implementation of Obama-era regulations in many of the areas (and others) mentioned above. The other, less so. Republicans in Congress have utilized something called the Congressional Review Act, which grants Congress power to overturn, by simple majority vote, any regulation passed in the last 6 months of a prior administration. In total, Congress overturned 12 Obama-era regulations, including an FCC rule on Internet privacy protections, an SEC regulation that required energy companies to disclose payments to foreign governments, and a Department of Interior stream-protection rule, which prevented coal companies from dumping waste into stream valleys. 

The Tax Cut Bill: The idea that we would borrow at least $1.5 trillion and hand that money to corporations and the wealthy at a time when income inequality is already at a level unseen since the 1920s is bizarre enough without considering several other things. 

First, the tax cut bill is more expensive than advertised because the personal income tax cuts in the bill have a sunset provision in 2025. The Bush tax cuts had a similar sunset provision and were (mostly) made permanent when they lapsed, adding trillions in long-term debt. So too here. Some future Congress and President (not Trump) will be put in the position of trying to raise taxes or borrow even more to make the tax cuts “permanent.” WONDER WHICH ONE THEY WILL CHOOSE?! Second, the tax cut bill will increase the deficit. We have seen this movie before - first under Reagan and then under Bush 43 - tax cuts do not pay for themselves and the growth of government will result in a deficit that is already nearing $700 billion a year, swelling even more. This crowds out our ability to invest in things like research and development, infrastructure, and other social goods. Ultimately, interest rates will also increase, making it harder (and more expensive) to buy a home, a car, or other goods and services. Finally, the tax cut bill includes a repeal of the individual mandate under Obamacare. This will result in fewer healthy Americans purchasing insurance, resulting in insurance companies raising premiums on the rest of us. The repeal, along with other, subtle tactics that have undermined the ACA (smaller enrollment window, no marketing to get people to enroll, etc.) is further eroding this salutary public good. 

What makes these changes so pernicious, is that they largely happen in the background, not all at once. Three or four years from now, politicians will fuzzy up the next economic crash or trillion-dollar budget deficit (remember, Republicans argued that Bill Clinton was somehow to blame for the 2008 market crash because he signed legislation that overturned the Glass-Steagall Act (which had largely been rendered moot anyway) and not the Bush Administration’s reckless tax and monetary policy and indifference to regulation.) Climate change is something that is felt over time, Miami is not going underwater tomorrow, and people will debate whether job growth or loss was due to policies enacted (or reversed) without a clear cut answer. 

Even more consequential is how difficult it will be to undo the damage. As noted, the Supreme Court is one retirement away from having a conservative majority locked in for years to come. Regulations take a long time to promulgate and become effective (and that is before legal challenges that can slow things down even longer). Corporations, already awash in trillions of dollars, now have a green light to further consolidate, which affects everything from what we watch on TV, read in the newspaper, and view on the Internet, while giving them even more money to lobby for laws and regulations that benefit them. Had you told a Republican politician that in Trump’s first year in office, all of the above would be accomplished, I suspect they would be quite happy.

Of course, what also helps is the media’s disinterest in focusing on these issues. It is far easier (and profitable) for them to gorge on controversy instead of considering whether allowing coal companies to dump run off into freshwater is good public policy or not. Media conglomerates are also not neutral referees. They must be responsive to shareholders, not the public interest, and the more money that is shoveled their way, the more “the circus” plays on in Washington, adding to their advertising revenue and ratings, the less their incentive to be fair-minded arbiters of the public good. And for those small corners of cable news or the print/web media that are reporting on these ills, left-wing outrage is just as profitable as the right-wing version even though little can be done to change things. 

Even if Trump resigned tomorrow or was impeached, even if Democrats take back one (or both) houses of Congress in 2018, the effect of the last 11 months will be felt for decades. It may not be good for America (or democracy), but hey, at least Les Moonves is happy. 

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy

Monday, December 11, 2017

Why 18 Days May Prove Trump Obstructed Justice

The latest in the Mueller investigation is that the Special Counsel is zeroing in on the 18 days between when then-Acting Attorney General Sally Yates warned White House Counsel Don McGahn that Michael Flynn had been compromised and Flynn’s resignation as National Security Adviser. 

Slowly but surely, the pieces are starting to fall into place as to what transpired not just in those 18 days, but more importantly, how they relate to what happened a month before, in late December when, we now know, Flynn had several conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak about dropping sanctions that President Obama had imposed after the election. 

It appears things went down something like this: Flynn spoke with Kislyak around Christmas about the Obama-imposed sanctions and reported back on those conversations in real time to Trump’s team at Mar-A-Lago. Unbeknownst to Flynn, law enforcement was also listening in on his conversations with Kislyak. 

Flynn was interviewed by the FBI on January 24, 2017 and lied about his interactions with Kislyak. Two days later, Yates warned McGahn that Flynn had been compromised by the Russians. The next day, Trump invited Comey to a one-on-one dinner where Trump asked for Comey’s “loyalty.” 

About two weeks later, after the Washington Post reported on Flynn’s contacts with Kislyak, Flynn quit under fire, for (allegedly) lying to Mike Pence about his interactions with the Russians. The next day, Trump again had a one-on-one meeting with Comey (after kicking his other advisors out of the room) and asked Comey to drop the Flynn investigation now that he had resigned. Comey refused and was fired about three months later.

The most plausible explanation for all this is basically as follows: the Trump team, and probably Trump himself, knew about Flynn’s contacts with Kislyak and Flynn reported back in real time about what they talked about. Sometime after the new year, Flynn found out the FBI wanted to talk to him. Flynn told someone (or someones) about the interview and the decision was made that Flynn would lie to the FBI about his interactions with the Russians, assuming the lie would not be discovered. 

Two days after the interview, Yates warned McGahn, who may (or may not) have known about the Christmas week conversations. McGahn warned Trump, who DID know what Flynn was up to and decided to lean on Comey, who demurred. The story leaked to the press a few weeks later, Flynn quit, and Trump tried to get Comey to drop the investigation because he knew it would incriminate him or people close to him. 

And that is why Mueller is so focused on those 18 days between Yates’s White House briefing and Flynn’s resignation, because the most plausible explanation for all that went on is that Trump or people very close to him were either aware or told Flynn to lie about his discussions with Kislyak. In other words, Trump or people in his inner circle may have tried to obstruct the FBI’s investigation into Russia’s role in our election and/or to suborn perjury - in short, to break the law. But now, Flynn is a cooperating witness and the true answer will (hopefully) be told. 

Reporters sometimes get tripped up because they assume a level of sophistication or subterfuge that just does not exist in the Trump world. These are not smart conspirators, just arrogant ones who thought they would get away with it. 

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy 

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Book Review - Fear City

To walk the streets of Manhattan these days, neck craning at the luxury skyscrapers or dodging the tourists on the High Line, it is hard to imagine a city so conspicuous with wealth was once, not long ago, teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, with garbage being burned in the streets, subway cars blanketed in graffiti, and the police warning visitors not to be out after dark. In Kim Phillips-Fein’s outstanding history of New York’s 1970s fiscal crisis, Fear City, you can almost feel the polyester chafing at your thighs and the stale aroma of stubbed out cigarettes in overflowing ashtrays as the city elders scramble to avoid catastrophe. 

In Phillips-Fein’s deft hands, a story about municipal bond sales, city budgets, and financial bail outs is a page-turning political thriller with few heroes but ample room for soul searching about how government responds to the needs of its people. The set-up is fairly simple - the city of New York floated a budget deficit for many years by selling bonds they used to cover up the shortfall. As the 1970s began and the economy slowed, the amount the city needed to borrow became greater, the interest they paid to lenders increased, and at a point, the party came to a screeching halt when banks became concerned the city would be unable to pay them back. 

And in this story, we learn that the true power is not in Gracie Mansion, but on Wall Street, where the screws are turned on the overmatched mayor, Abe Beame, to cut public services and jobs, and raise taxes in order to meet the city’s financial obligations. For public policy nerds, there is much to commend, the on-the-fly decisions to create entire new agencies to manage city finances and issue bonds, and the back-and-forth with the Ford Administration as city and state leaders go hat-in-hand seeking a bail out, culminating in the iconic New York Daily News FORD TO CITY - DROP DEAD headline. 

Phillips-Fein ably moves between the 30,000 foot view down to the tree tops where the decisions being hashed out were actually felt. Whether it was the rank smell of uncollected trash piling up in the summer sun or the working class neighborhoods that fought back against the shuttering of fire houses and satellite college campuses, the human toll is never far from the surface. Indeed, fully the final third of Fear City focuses on the aftermath of all the cuts and layoffs and the inexorable shift of New York from a city that venerated its middle class to one that made a Hobson’s choice of jumping into bed with its financial overlords. 

Fear City is non-fiction suspense at its best, but it is impossible to read this deeply researched account of New York’s flirtation with bankruptcy and not compare it to how financial crisis was handled when the shoe was on the other foot. For me, looming in the background of Wall Street’s heavy-handed treatment of city government in the 1970s is the disparate treatment of Wall Street by the federal government in the wake of the stock market crash of 2008. There, over the course of essentially one weekend, the federal government approved up to $700 billion in loans to major banks to shore up the economy. By contrast, New York City was left to twist in the wind for almost two years and was squeezed over and over - to cut police, firefighters and teachers, to charge tuition at the historically no-cost City College of New York, to raise subway tolls, and close public hospitals in order to get the cash they desperately needed. Elected officials were made to humble themselves and shamed for wanting to help the less fortunate and the less fortunate and middle class ultimately took it on the chin as opportunities for things like a college degree became more costly (or out of reach) and services they depended on were suddenly in short supply.  

You need not be a PhD in sociology or macroeconomics to understand the message sent when financial crisis hits. If you are deemed “too big to fail,” the bail out will be swift and complete. If you are a mere citizen struggling to make ends meet, punishment must be inflicted to teach you a lesson. 

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Sunday, December 3, 2017

Emancipation Day VII

Today used to matter. Today is the day my ex-wife moved out of our home, effectively ending our marriage. I used to think about this day a lot, I used to use it as a time for reflection and assessment of where I had been, where I was, and where I wanted to go. But after seven years, I almost forgot today was the day. I don’t give my ex-wife a moment’s thought anymore. I don’t miss her, I don’t wish she was here, or flagellate over the errors I made. It’s all baked into the cake at this point. 

What I didn’t realize then, and appreciate far more now that I have had 7 years of distance, is how profoundly she damaged me. How much of what I still struggle with, insecurity, low self- esteem, a feeling of unworthiness (of love, of professional accomplishment, of material comfort) redounds back to how she treated me. It was never good enough, *I* was never good enough - I did not earn enough money, or do enough to make her life easier, her drinking problem was not her fault it was *mine* because I was not sufficiently supportive (all lies). I did not know the term “gaslight” back then, I did not know how people who are emotionally abusive behave and how they flip the script on you, but once I did, it all made sense

I also did not appreciate how small my window would end up being for a fresh start. At 40 (when she moved out) it might have been realistic to think I could have a second life, a second wife, or at least a second serious relationship that was committed, mutually supportive, and healthy, but at 47, I feel like that window has closed. Having been on my own for so long now with no help, few friends and no family to provide the support most people take for granted, I have become far less patient with people who come into my life. On the one hand, I’d love to have that support, particularly since the last two years have been particularly tricky with health issues, job uncertainty, and more than one close (medical) call with my cats, but on the other, because I have overcome these challenges on my own, I have no time for people who show themselves unable (or unwilling) to help. I feel like I have a lot to offer but too often that generosity - of support, caring, and affection are taken advantage of - I sometimes wonder whether I have something stamped on my forehead saying “use me.” 

So now, I am focused solely on myself, Pumpkin, and Ghost. If I could will all my money to my two cats I would, but instead, I will leave it all to charity. I will work until I retire and then move to Arizona, spending my golden years taking photos of mesas, canyons, and sunsets, driving around in a convertible, reading books, and having as little to do with anyone as possible. Some people don’t get the happy ending they want, I have come to realize that includes me. 

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