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. 

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy

Friday, November 24, 2017

Did Gary Johnson & Jill Stein Cost Hillary The Presidency?

There is a seemingly endless supply of think pieces and long reads about why Donald Trump is now our President. Most focus on the belief that Trump tapped into a vein of anger among white working class voters in the midwest and rust belt over … pick your poison … electing the first black president, veiled racism, economic insecurity, the opioid crisis and on and on. 

I am not a smart reporter or a political scientist, I cannot disaggregate voter turnout models or speak to the impact voter ID laws had on turn out, if Comey’s letter torpedoed Hillary (though I suspect it helped) or what impact Wikileaks or Facebook had when cable news was handing Trump in-kind contributions in the billions by simply airing his every move, but one thing that you never hear about is the impact third-party voting had on the 2016 election. 

Gary Johnson and Jill Stein. To me, this is the most underreported story of 2016. Both Stein and Johnson were candidates in 2012 AND 2016, which makes their vote totals particularly interesting to look at. In 2012, Johnson got .99% of the national vote and Stein got .36%, for a combined total of 1.35%. In 2016, Johnson got 3.28% of the vote and Stein got 1.07%. Johnson tripled his vote total and Stein nearly tripled hers. Combined, they received more than 4% of the vote. 

One would assume Johnson’s vote spiked from Republicans who refused to vote for Trump but could not bring themselves to vote for Hillary and Stein’s vote spiked for the opposite reason. I have not seen any studies done on who Johnson and Stein voters considered as a second option, but I have to wonder whether the media’s fixation on Hillary as untrustworthy caused voters who could not stomach Trump to go for Johnson (or Evan McMullen, who got about .4% of the vote) instead. The large third-party vote had enormous consequences in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, each of which Trump won by less than 1%. In all three states, Trump’s margin of victory was far less than the Johnson and Stein vote combined. In fact, it was less than the Stein vote alone, a vague redux of New Hampshire and Florida in 2000, where Bush’s margin was less than Nader’s vote total.

Iowa, Florida, and Ohio. Although much attention is rightly focused on Hillary’s loss of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, all of which had gone for the Democrats in every election since 1992, if I was a Democrat running in 2020, I would be even more concerned with Iowa, Florida, and Ohio. Trump carried Florida by 1.3 percent (the Johnson/Stein vote accounted for about 3 percent), Ohio by 8 percent, and Iowa by 10 percent. In Florida, while Clinton grew Obama’s vote total by about 260,000, Trump added more than 450,000 votes from what Romney got in 2012. Iowa is even more telling. Clinton underperformed Obama by almost 170,000 votes while Trump added just 70,000 votes from Romney. But, whereas third party candidates only got about 30,000 votes in 2012, they spiked to nearly 80,000 in 2016. Finally, in Ohio, Obama outperformed Hillary by more than 400,000 votes while Trump only added about 180,000 votes to Romney’s total. Again, the third party vote was huge compared to 2012. In 2016, Johnson and Stein got a combined 4 percent of the vote, but in 2012, they only got 1.2 percent. 

Of course, had Hillary won Florida and any one of Michigan, Wisconsin or Pennsylvania, she would be President today (this discounts the “faithless electors” who refused to vote for their state’s winner in the actual 2016 election, resulting in an official tally of 304-227, instead of 306-232). 

Trump’s Win Was Underwhelming. Not only did Trump lose the popular vote by nearly 3 million, but his percentage of the overall vote was barely 46 percent, the lowest total for a Presidential victor since 1992 when Bill Clinton won 43 percent of the vote with a well-funded third-party candidate (Ross Perot) in the race. In fact, Hillary basically matched Obama’s vote total from 2012 (she came up about 65,000 votes short of Obama) but the disbursement of those votes was different. She over performed Obama in states that may be trending purple like Arizona (+140,000) and Georgia (+105,000) and deep blue states like California (+1,000,000) but in addition to the states mentioned above, received fewer votes than Obama did in reliable Democratic strongholds like Minnesota (-180,000) and Connecticut (-7,000). In Minnesota, the third-party vote went from 1.64% to 5.1% and in Connecticut from .87% to 4.35% while Trump’s vote was basically flat from 2012. 

2020. Trump threaded a very small needle to scratch out an electoral victory that was the result of many things, one of which - the third-party vote - is rarely spoken about among the political chattering class but should be discussed more because I cannot believe anything Trump has done as President would get “never Trump” Republicans (or Independents) who did not vote for him (or Hillary) to change their minds while Stein voters who may have felt “safe” lodging a protest vote assuming Hillary was going to win have (hopefully?) learned their lesson. 

If you believe that the massive spike in third-party voting was attributable to voters thinking both candidates were equally flawed (a narrative driven in large part by a media elite who refuse to take any responsibility for their false equivalence), there is a major opportunity for a Democrat who does not engender the antipathy of the media and some voters to shift many of those third-party votes that would swamp Trump by an even greater raw vote total margin but with the added benefit of a convincing electoral college victory as well.  

While protest voters may have believed the polls and pundits that Hillary had things in the bag and therefore felt freer to cast a third party vote, the same will not be true in 2020. Indeed, there is good historical precedent - Ralph Nader’s share of the vote dropped from 2.74% in 2000 to .38% in 2004. While that did not result in a Kerry victory, it did not contribute to his defeat. 

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy 

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Book Review - Vanishing New York

Back in the late 80s, I was a college student and part-time touring Deadhead. At the end of an opening set in Landover, Maryland that apparently did not sit well with a woman sitting a few rows behind me, she screamed CASEY JONES!!!!! PLAY SOMETHING FOR THE OLD DEADHEADS!!!! My friends and I just rolled our eyes, old people, am I right? (and little did she know, but a few years later, her wish would be granted). 

I harkened back to that night at the old Capital Centre while wading through Jeremiah Moss’s polemic-cum-nostalgia-laden tome Vanishing New York. For years, Moss has maintained a blog of the same name, chronicling the demise of “old” New York and its increasing gentrification and homogenization. Moss is that aging hippie screaming for a performance of an old hit record,  the grimy old days of New York City epitomized on HBO’s The Deuce and iconic movies of the late 70s and early 80s like The Warriors and Escape From New York.

Moss is no neutral observer and he is unabashed in his criticism of what he sees as the suburbanization of a city he clearly loves and a way of life he has seen leach out with the opening of every new Starbucks (a jaw dropping 307 in Manhattan alone) and the shuttering of everything from mom-and-pop auto body shops to kosher delicatessens redolent with the aroma of sour pickles. 

Moss’s argument is well-researched (he cites everything from serious works on urban development to modern-day bloggers and the index runs nearly twenty pages) and his knowledge of the people and businesses he profiles borders on the encyclopedic. Lengthy discourses on the history of the Chelsea Hotel, the San Gennaro parade in Little Italy and the Bowery, among many others, put the reader in the beating heart of a city that is messy, loud, opinionated, and unwieldy but that, in Moss’s view, has largely been neutered of its attitude, replaced instead with an influx of wealthy foreigners, suburbanites, and others who have sanitized its streets and replaced people urinating on the streets in front of CBGB with a cascade of chain stores that would not look out of place in any random suburban shopping mall. 

At 400-plus pages, Vanishing New York is not bloated so much as exhausting. It is almost as if Moss feels the need to settle every score and pay his respects to every shuttered store front lost to gentrification. It may be cathartic, but it is not always compelling. There may be a twinge in Moss’s heart for the HoJo’s in Times Square, but is New York a lesser place because it no longer exists? It may not be great that 7-11 opened in the East Village, but is it any more right that vandals threw bricks through the store front windows or is that just a sign of New York’s don’t-give-a-fuck attitude? 

In venerating the good old days, Moss yadda yadda’s past the spiraling murder rate, hollowed out neighborhoods and mismanagement that led to New York’s near-bankruptcy in favor of a halcyon view of a renegade city where all of your artistic and carnal desires could be met, anonymously, and rarely with consequence (his passing references to, for example, the spiraling AIDS crisis of the early 80s does a disservice to that period of time. For a far fuller, and fairer accounting, I recommend Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City). And do not get me wrong - I am largely on his side when it comes to retaining neighborhood integrity, affordable housing, and all the rest, but to elide the fact that the city was teetering on the brink of complete collapse because you are upset that Starbucks has invaded every nook and cranny of Manhattan is unfair. 

Indeed, Moss seems uninterested in acknowledging any of the value that tourism brings to New York or the flush city coffers that have afforded safer streets (if not a better functioning subway system). It is almost as if Moss wishes to have all the benefits of the hip, bohemian and artistic vibe that pervaded many parts of lower Manhattan but is blind to the cost of allowing that to happen. And what of the good that has come from redeveloping abandoned warehouses, buildings, and neighborhoods? Why is that a societal failing? Shouldn’t we be applauding things like the clean up of the area along the Gowanus Canal or the Chelsea piers that were once heroin shooting galleries and have been improved and made safe and appealing? 

Moss is not above setting up a straw man or two either - his chapter-long harangue against tourists drifts into the ad hominem and the idea that native New Yorkers ALWAYS follow the lock step rule of walking TO THE RIGHT and never EVER look at their phones while on the street seems, well, unrealistic. He can also be a bit overly dramatic, as when he wanders into a Target in East Harlem, describing the air as “synthetic, reeking of greasy, freezer-burned cookie dough” that left him “disoriented and dizzy.” It is only when he escapes back to the “real” part of East Harlem on 116th Street that he regains his equilibrium. 

Moss also ignores that fact that the people themselves chose the leaders he reviles. Giuliani was elected to two terms and Bloomberg three. Neither of these men could have implemented many of the changes Moss bemoans without the support not just of voters but Democratic council members who represent the very neighborhoods that Moss mourns. It is a completely fair criticism to say that Bloomberg gilded the lily to get that third term, but at the end of the day, people still chose to put him back in office. So too Giuliani. For Republicans to win in a city where they are outnumbered by a roughly 5:1 ratio says far more about the weakness of Democratic leaders than it does about either Giuliani or Bloomberg (who changed his party affiliation midway through his time in office). Again, I am not excusing their conduct, and in particular around policies like “stop and frisk,” but ultimately, both were elected in a city where credible Democratic candidates had built-in electoral advantages they were unable to capitalize on.

It is almost impossible to have a debate about the issues Moss raises because his argument is at its core, emotional and subjective. No one wants an 82-year-old woman who has lived in her apartment in Little Italy for 50 years to be evicted because the building has been sold to a greedy redeveloper or the family-owned business that dates back three generations to be bounced because the owner triples the rent, but the utopian city that Moss envisions, one that has the Goldilocks-blend of just enough social services thriving small businesses and a creative art scene but is hospitable enough for the economic growth and tax base necessary to pay for it seems far-fetched. 

Moss’s nostalgia for the authentic New York he yearns for is also one step removed. He arrived in New York in the early 1990s, just as the first waves of gentrification were lapping at the shores of Times Square but (in his view) had already crested in the artsy parts of SoHo and the Lower East Side. He did not live through the 70s and 80s, the “Bronx is Burning” years, the heyday of peep shops and porn theaters on 42nd Street, or the graffiti-riddled subway system that nearly brought the city to its knees, but he longs for that edgier time when trash piled up because of municipal strikes and tourists considered leaving the city without having been mugged a successful trip. I don’t get it. And ultimately that vision of the city, one that embraces chaos, and an anything-goes mentality is easy to conjure in your mind as idyllic if you did not live through it but is also impossible to argue against because nostalgia tends to sand away the ugly parts of the past, leaving behind a more favorable memory than lived experience. 

And while Moss chronicles seemingly every instance of rapacious real estate development and suffering by the small businesses they evict, he has nothing to say about the truly poor and needy neighborhoods, the gang-infested city blocks where much of what little violence that still occurs in New York happens and what can (or should) be done about it. Nor does he credit the work of city leaders or (gasp) the New York City Police Department in making the city a more welcoming, safer place. Moss wants none of it. In his telling, areas like Coney Island were doing just fine, thank you very much, before the churn of redevelopment swooped in and remade them. 

In this critique is also an implicit acceptance of a certain level of societal dysfunction, of middling services, decaying infrastructure, and dilapidated buildings in favor of retaining a frisson of authenticity which, like the nostalgic past, is a subjective view of urban living that cannot be argued against because of its emotional appeal - you may not find the eccentric who cannot be evicted because his apartment is rent-controlled or mice in your building annoying, but Moss does not, both are totally defensible and you will never convince one that the other is correct. 

And Moss has nothing to say about larger economic questions. Bodegas will never be able to compete with big box retailers in selling goods because they lack the purchasing power to demand lower prices from manufacturers. But what about consumers? Is it a net good if someone can buy a tube of toothpaste or a can of soup at Target for less money than the corner store? Is Uber evil or has it given people living in the outer boroughs where taxi drivers would rarely venture a transportation option previously unavailable? And what of the taxi medallions that used to sell for more than one million dollars but are now essentially worthless? Is it good or bad that Uber and Lyft have reconfigured that market? I don’t know, I’m not an economist, but it seems to me there is a middle ground here that Moss refuses to consider. In painting in such stark terms, Moss also becomes an unreliable narrator. His tendency toward the binary, to the point where he suggests a walk of just one block can straddle the line between the “real” New York (eyes up, pedestrian tango, fill-in-the-blank desirable food aroma) and the “hyper-gentrified” New York (sanitized, glued to your iPhone, and hogging the sidewalk) undermines what are reasonable critiques of gentrification. 

For all Moss’s sturm und drang he does not get around to offering up any of his own solutions until the very end of the book and even then, his ideas are not fleshed out in a way that they can be critiqued meaningfully. Moreover, citing San Francisco, as Moss does for several of his 12 proposals, as a template for staunching gentrification seems curious as that city is probably one of the few that exceeds even New York’s rapid growth. Other suggestions, like an “insider benefits” program so New Yorkers can skip lines at museums reek of just the type of entitlement Moss spent the previous 400 pages railing against. Others, like restricting rent hikes and imposing vacancy taxes seem more reasonable, but at the end of the day, would any of it really matter? Moss’s thesis is that New York’s soul has been hollowed out and sold to the highest bidder, with Manhattan, most of Brooklyn, and increasing swaths of Queens and the Bronx felled by hyper-gentrification. Has the horse not already left the barn or is Staten Island our only hope? (just kidding, like a true New Yorker, Moss does not even acknowledge Staten Island.) 

Put me in the “if there is one thing that you can count on is change” camp that Moss hands a scant few pages of rebuttal at the end of his book. The boom and bust of the stock and real estate markets that provide much of the financial life blood of the city practically guarantee it. I do hope Moss gets some measure of return to the city he romanticizes and not just his cri de coeur of what it has become.

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy 

Sunday, October 15, 2017

I Am Tired Of Waiting For Next Year

On the evening of October 12, 2012, I went to bed early, knowing my hometown team, the Washington Nationals, had the decisive fifth game of their playoff series against the St. Louis Cardinals well in hand. Entering the fifth inning, the Nats led 6-1, having come back from a two games to one deficit and with 21-game winner Gio Gonzalez on the mound. So, I hit record on my DVR and hit the hay, eager to watch the rest of the game the following morning. Little did I know that night would begin a run of frustration, disappointment, and heartbreak that continued five years to the day later when the Nats lost another Game 5 at home, this time to the Chicago Cubs. 

On one level, you have to hand it to the Nats. They have set an impossibly high bar for futility in such a short period of time. They have lost games (and series) because of fluke plays (non-call after Wieters got popped in the head by Baez?), one-hit wonders (CURSE YOU PETE KOZMA), epic performances (Clayton Kershaw in relief anyone?), questionable managerial decisions (looking at you Matt Williams for pulling Zimmermann in Game 1 of the 2014 NLDS), and of course, the epic meltdown I watched on tape-delay. 

After this most recent collapse, the natural question was whether the Nats are chokers. Some have said these losses are not choke jobs, that  instead, the Nats have simply been victim of an odd combination of bad luck, bad breaks, and bad calls. I don’t buy it. On paper, that is, by record, the Nats were better than all four teams they have lost to over the past five years. In each series they had home field advantage. Each Nats playoff team has been led by a man who won a World Series as a player and manager (Davey Johnson), as a player and managed in the World Series as a manager (Dusty Baker) or a guy who played for three World Series teams, winning one (Matt Williams). While the 2012 team was not that experienced, it was anchored by Jayson Werth, who had been signed the year before to provide precisely the type of “veteran leadership” that was needed in that brutal loss but every other playoff flameout had a roster full of players with plenty of playoff experience. 

The irony is that there is not really a lot that can be done. On paper, they have few flaws. The one major problem this season, the bullpen, was addressed before the trade deadline, but other than Werth’s departure, which will immediately be filled by either Michael Taylor or Adam Eaton, who missed most of the year with a knee injury, and maybe upgrading at catcher, the team has few moves to make. Switching managers? What is the point? They have had well-credentialed managers who wear World Series rings and two of whom had won more than 1,500 games each as managers and it did not matter. Plus, what kind of message would it send to have a fourth manager helming the team in the last six years? 

And that is what makes the Nats’ situation so frustrating. They are so good, the losses are that much more painful to watch. But going forward, the pain could be more acute and the good times could end. The team missed the playoffs the year after their division wins in 2012 and 2014 and player health is one of the great variables in sports (just ask this year’s New York Mets). More importantly, Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy will be free agents after next season and Anthony Rendon the year after. The Lerners may try to avoid the drama and sign Harper to a mammoth contract, or lock down Murphy or Rendon, but one (or all) of them may leave, creating huge voids in a roster that is right now one of the deepest in baseball. 

Occam’s Razor says that instead of looking for a complex answer, the simple one is usually true. With the Nats, the simple one is, they choke when the lights are brightest. 

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Book Review - Nomadland

It has been said that you can judge society by how it treats its young, its poor, and its elderly. If this is true, Jessica Bruder’s beautifully written, but thoroughly depressing book Nomadland suggests we are failing on at least two of these counts. Bruder, a freelance journalist, embedded herself with a niche group of (mostly) older Americans - van dwellers - people who are living on the margins of a society that has either discarded them or who have been the victims of capitalism’s twists of fate (the common thread among many is lost jobs and/or homes after the 2008 housing crash) and landed in mobile homes of all shapes, sizes, and functionality as they scrape together an existence through menial labor, modest Social Security checks, and the kindness of others. 

In its way, Nomadland is a modern mash-up of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. On the one hand, the book is a meditation on the forces shaping our economy. Two companies in particular - Amazon and Wal-Mart - loom large over the story. The former, as a temporary employer of senior citizens willing to work long hours for modest pay hoping their bodies can withstand the punishing toll walking concrete floors and the bitter cold nights they work in remote warehouses take on them. The latter is a one-stop shop for their daily (and emergency) needs as well as a sort-of benign temporary landlord that typically looks the other way at RV and van dwellers who utilize their parking lots as overnight shelters. 

On the other hand, as itinerants who must hustle across hundreds of miles from job site to job site, these vagabonds are very much living a life that would look familiar to the Depression-era families Steinbeck wrote about. In documenting the daily struggles of these decent people, Kruder finds far more compassion among them than society offers in return. Imagine yourself in your late sixties being asked to work a twelve-hour shift in a beet processing plant in North Dakota as winter bears down on the Plains, or living in a 100 square foot camper in Nevada while the temperature outside plunges below zero and your shift at a warehouse processing plant starts in just a few hours. 

These common deprivations (and depredations) litter Kruder’s narrative, but in sharing their stories, the people she speaks with do not ask for pity or even understanding. They are a prideful sort who have leveraged modern technology to jerry-rig their temporary homes into solar-powered power stations while frugality leads them across the Mexican border for lower-cost dental care. 

Of course, Bruder does not attempt to sugar coat the lifestyle. If anything, readers will be called to ask what Nomadland says about a society that has accepted that this is the way some people are living out their final years. What tradeoffs have we made in service of on-demand Amazon “prime” delivery? How is it that economic policy says we cannot afford a more robust safety net that might have rescued some of these people from living out of a van but can afford to hand people who already possess most of the nation’s wealth even more of it? These are not questions Bruder attempts to answer, but I do not think she has to - her narrative speaks for itself. 

And lest anyone think Bruder was a mere “tourist,” she was quite the opposite. She not only spent months living in her own van, but worked the modern-day McJobs of warehouse employee and seasonal vegetable picker that taxed her (far younger) body in ways that made her appreciate how people twice her age were able to do it year in and year out. She traveled extensively with the subjects she writes about, documenting their ups and downs, their struggles, and hopes and dreams (by the end of the book, one of the main characters in the book has actually purchased undeveloped property deep in the Arizona desert with hopes of building a modest home and permanent place for her and her friends to live). Nomadland is a tour de force for the type of deeply reported, clear-eyed and thought-provoking reporting that stays with you long after you finish it. 

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Sunday, September 24, 2017

Book Review - Mrs. Fletcher

The “struggle” of upper middle class America is well plowed ground. From Revolutionary Road to American Dream white people love examining their own ennui. So too the author Tom Perrotta. The two books I have read by Perrotta, Little Children and his recent effort, Mrs. Fletcher have an element of the TV show Chopped about them - a basket of ingredients that must be mixed together with one rogue element complicating the effort. In the former, it was two unhappily married couples and a tag along friend with a random subplot involving a recently-released child molester moving back into the neighborhood. In the latter, it is a divorceé, her son, a hodge podge of supporting players and a random teenager with whom the eponymous Mrs. Fletcher has sex. 

If this sounds like so much navel gazing, you would be correct. At their core, each book is a meditation on the struggle we now call adulting™. Eve Fletcher is worn out from being a single mom with a kid who largely tunes her out and grapples with insecurities about aging, being sexually desirable, and dating. The adults™ she interacts with are similarly worn down from caring for their own ill parents and spouses or nursing regret over careers that have dead-ended - the suburban anomie pervades. 

So perhaps it is no wonder that Eve develops a same-sex crush on Amanda, who runs the events calendar at the senior center she leads or falls down a rabbit hole of MILF-porn once Brendan is ensconced at college, but so what? Eve feels shame at her porn consumption and is racked with guilt when she and Amanda have a clumsy non-date date that ends with Eve clumsily making a pass that is rebuffed. Here, it is Amanda, twenty years her junior, who acts like the adult, understanding what a bad idea it would be to get involved with her boss. Ultimately, Eve presses her luck, when she, Amanda, and Justin, a nineteen year-old who was her son’s classmate in high school and ends up in a community college class Eve enrolls in to help pass the time, have a drunken threesome. 

Meanwhile, her son Brendan is a paint-by-numbers “bro,” from his CrossFit obsession to his casual misogyny. That Brendan drifts on a cloud of white male privilege is a given, he bores easily, objectifies women like most of us breathe, and has no intellectual curiosity about the world. Perrotta’s dialogue here is almost a parody of what you expect from actual kids of Brendan’s ilk, but its insipidness, oddly, rings true. This is a deformed, underdeveloped young man whose inability to mature is no doubt due to poor parenting. 

Of course, Eve is not particularly interested in a forensic accounting of her shortcomings in that department. She is too busy in whatever drama swirl consumes someone at middle age who has a lot of time on their hands but not a lot of actual challenge in her life. Eve does what most people who live a comfortable lifestyle do - she fills her free time with a combination of social and intellectual stimulation that is not too rigorous - just enough wine to take the edge off, just enough engagement with the world to seem like you give a shit. Perhaps I would have enjoyed the book more if Eve was a sympathetic character, but most of the time I just shook my head at her, her poor decisions, obliviousness about her own parental shortcomings, and imperviousness to how easy she actually had it. 

Perrotta is also looking to check off as many boxes as possible about the social, cultural, and sexual politics of the day. Brendan leverages the fact that he has an autistic half-brother to make time with Amber, a student a year ahead of him who is active in an on-campus autism awareness group. Eve’s community college professor is transgendered, but when she and Amanda invite the woman to give a lecture at the senior center, the results are predictably bad, with the elderly attendees roundly recoiling at her presentation. When Brendan is publicly shamed by Amber’s friend, he seeks solace with Sanjay, a stereotypically hard-working, no-fun Indian-American who Brendan had previously dismissed as a buzz kill and loser. 

As a commentary on white privilege, Perrotta is spot on. Eve suffers no consequences from her ill-advised threesome. Amanda doesn’t sue, she quickly finds work elsewhere (with an assist from Eve’s glowing recommendation) and Justin also keeps quiet, apparently, he is the one male teenager in the world who doesn’t share bawdy MILF photos or brag about sleeping with a woman more than twice his age. Within months of hitting a bottom that included ALMOST having a second fling with Justin, Eve has remarried, to an age appropriate “decent guy” who recently lost his wife to cancer. Similarly, Brendan, who starts out demeaning his high school girlfriend before pulling the same stunt on Amber, is not reported for date rape. Instead, he just moves back home, where, within months, he is under the wing of Eve’s betrothed, who is training him to be a plumber. At the wedding, Brendan is introduced to the man’s daughter, his eye refocused on predation that will inevitably start the circle all over again.

In one of my favorite scenes from Breaking Bad Jesse is unburdening himself at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. He is in pain and does not understand why he has suffered no consequences for his many bad decisions - he asks “if you do a bunch of stuff and nothing happens, what does it mean?” In Perrotta’s world it means you are a privileged white person. 

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Saturday, September 23, 2017

Movie Review - La La Land

From the movie’s title, it will come as no surprise that La La Land is a paean to Hollywood. But in director Damien Chazelle’s hands, the genres of musical, romance, and drama and mixed together and reimagined in bold technicolor. A movie meta (and self-aware) enough to tell a story of struggling artists starring huge celebrities and actual struggling artists hoping that this movie will be their big break provides Inception level brain knots. Mia, an actress, and Sebastian, a jazz musician, meet (sort of) cute (he blares his car horn at her in traffic, she reciprocates with a one-finger salute) and through subsequent chance encounters realize they are made for each other. 

But once the two become a couple, the trade offs each makes became a bit more acute, the stakes grow higher. Her talent also lies in playwriting, but it does not pay the bills and her acting career has hit a dead end. He wants to maintain his artistic purity but knows the sands are slipping through the hourglass to achieve his dream of opening his own club. He sacrifices that integrity to get a steady gig as a sideman with a jazz fusion group so she can write without the pressure of work but he sees in that a snuffing of his own hopes and becomes resentful toward her because of it. She gives up after one-too-many casting directors barely look up while she auditions and her one-woman show, which he no-shows, is sparsely attended. 

The movie owes much of its charm to the chemistry between its two lead actors. Stone and Gosling light up the screen and Chazelle wisely leans into the natural affinity they seem to have toward one another. Stone’s snarky devil-may-care attitude is on display them Mia tweaks Sebastian by requesting that his Eighties tribute band play “I Ran,” requiring him to dig deep into his keytar as she lip syncs the words with a maniacal grin on her face. Pure genius. And Gosling gives as good as he gets - there is a rakish charm in his flirtation with her, but beneath the reservations he has about his own ability to commit, you see goodness. After their inevitable break-up, it is he who tracks her down back home in Nevada to let her know that the one-woman, one-night only play — which she adjudged a failure — had been seen by a casting director who ends up launching her career. 

While Stone and Gosling carry the film, Chazelle sprinkles in supporting roles that round out the whole. John Legend plays Keith, Sebastian’s frenemy, a fellow musician not at all uncomfortable with exchanging the purity of jazz for commercial success. Rosemary DeWitt, who some may recognize as Don Draper’s first paramour Midge in Mad Men, is Laura, Sebastian’s sister, offering exposition on his background while goading him into climbing out of his hermetic shell to live in the world. While these roles are small, they provide needed context. You see Sebastian’s resignation when he agrees to join Keith’s band, the glum look of trading fidelity to his craft for a steady paycheck and the excitement of celebrating his sister’s engagement and marriage. 

And jazz is an appropriate musical genre for Chazelle to choose. His film, is, in its own way, a reflection of that improvisational form - hints of everything from Requiem For A Dream to Dick Tracy, Boogie Nights, Swingers, Fame, and Singin’ in the Rain are feathered throughout the movie and of course, the dance numbers, musical sequences,  and Art Deco fonts are all nods to the Golden Age of movie making. 

La La Land is a love letter to Hollywood, but Chazelle avoids the “Hollywood ending.” The movie’s coda flashes forward five years. Mia and Sebastian have both attained what they desired - she is now a successful actress who struts into the coffee shop where she once worked and he owns a capital J jazz club, filled with young people embracing the music in its unadulterated form. But their success has come at a cost - they are no longer together. As a spotlight frames the two, Chazelle offers an alternate take, a “what if” history where their fates are different, where the pettiness and struggle that pulled them apart is instead replaced with support and fidelity. That couple achieves a different kind of success - marriage, a child, grainy home videos of baby’s first steps and birthday parties. It is a haunting panorama, so pregnant with the basic human emotions of regret and love lost.

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Sunday, September 10, 2017

How A False Media Narrative Is Created

False political narratives are nothing new. In 2000, Al Gore, a passionate environmentalist and good government centrist was transformed into an earth-tone wearing beta male with a penchant for lying. His opponent was not an inexperienced figurehead governor trafficking on his family name, he was a home spun cowboy you wanted to sit down and have a bull session with. What the media did to Hillary Clinton during her career could fill a book, but in short, a woman who dedicated her adult life to advancing policies that improved the lives of women, children, and the less fortunate became a shrewish ladder climber and unscrupulous liar constantly trying to hide from the truth. 

These narrative typically take time to congeal - Reagan’s efforts to portray himself as an affable, jellybean-eating optimist who simultaneously stared down the Russians and lifted the country out of financial ruin took years and much spinning by his devotees to set in the public’s mind, but in 2017, the existence of social media allows us to see the creation of these falsities in real time. NYU Professor Jay Rosen captured the creation of the myth of Donald Trump as an independent deal maker bucking his party thusly:

Consider what triggered this setting of conventional wisdom. Trump agreed to a deal with the Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill that does three things: (1) raises the debt ceiling for three months so we can continue paying our bills and maintain the full faith and credit of our government; (2) funds the government for three months; and (3) puts a modest down payment of about $15 billion on hurricane recovery efforts that will reach well over $100 billion or even $200 billion (depending on the rest of the hurricane season). 

For doing what is essentially the bare minimum of operating the federal government - extending the credit line to keep paying the bills and keeping the lights on - and a small amount of hurricane relief funding, Peter Baker has characterized Trump as more independent than Teddy Roosevelt.

And this is the thing. If some random blogger like me wants to spout this type of pablum that’s one thing, but Peter Baker and Robert Costa are two of the premier reporters in the country who write for two of the most prominent (and cited) newspapers in the country. The Associated Press is an international wire service relied upon by local media around the globe for content and information. 

What they say matters. What they say “drives the conversation” as Politico is fond of saying. Stories like Costa’s and Baker’s get injected into the media mainstream where they are discussed and debated on the endless loop of cable TV political shows and pretty soon, become accepted fact even though the thesis is demonstrably false. All of it. Trump cut a deal to keep the lights on. So what. 

This supposed independent held a victory party with every member of the House Republican Caucus in the Rose Garden when they passed an Obamacare repeal bill. A narrower repeal failed to get through the Senate by one lousy vote. The Senate confirmed (largely on party line votes) Cabinet secretaries who were either unqualified for their job (Ben Carson) or affirmatively opposed to the core mission of the agency they were picked to lead (Jeff Sessions, Betsy DeVos, Scott Pruitt). 

When Trump nominated a lawyer named John Bush to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals and whose main qualification was linking to Obama birther conspiracies on his blog, every Republican, including supposed Trump bête noire Jeff Flake, voted to confirm him (McCain did not, but only because he was not present for the vote). And Trump is now turning his attention to massive corporate and personal income tax cuts which will garner widespread support by his fellow Republicans.

Far from triangulating, Trump and his allies in Congress are largely in lockstep. That Trump got bored figuring out how to raise the debt ceiling and fund the government for 90 days so he impulsively agreed to a deal with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer does not change any of that unless the media does Trump’s work for him, which it appears they are eager to do.

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