The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Two Constitutional amendments I'd like to see

Hyper-partisanship is not only bad in itself, but it's causing a long-term erosion of our civic institutions. When people suspect that judges are partisans, it reduces respect for the judicial system in general, which causes people to lose faith in the rule of law itself.

Lifetime appointments to the Federal judiciary were supposed to solve this problem. By holding their offices "during good behaviour", Federal judges are supposed to keep above the political fray, and let their consciences guide them.

Well, organizations like the Heritage Foundation have long been recommending people for the Federal bench strictly based on ideology, rather than jurisprudence. This problem isn't going away. And neither are the judges, some of whom could wind up serving for 50 years.

So the first Article of Amendment I would propose is this:

Section 1. Judges of the Supreme Court shall hold their offices for a term of 19 years. Judges of the inferior courts shall hold their offices for a term of 15 years.

Section 2. This Article shall apply to all persons appointed after its ratification, and to all other persons five years after its ratification.

This still means someone could serve as a Federal judge for life, because they could get appointed to different courts at 15-year intervals. But every 15 years, they'd need to be reappointed, and re-confirmed by the Senate. Yes, it would be a political process, but we wouldn't be stuck with incompetent or rabidly ideological judges forever.

If this Amendment were ratified today, Justices Bryer, Ginsburg, Thomas, and Kennedy would be forced out in 2022, leaving Alito, Sotomayor, Kagan, Gorsuch, and Chief Justice Roberts—who would be the next to go, in 2024. (Alito would be out in 2025.)

Appointing four Justices to 19-year terms could fall to Trump in that case, but unlikely as the amendment would not be ratified soon.

Even less likely to be ratified, but I think no less helpful in these partisan times, would be to get some turnover in the legislature. Now, I'd hate to lose my most senior legislators, Senator Dick Durbin and Representative Jan Schakowsky. But I'd really like to be done with Orrin Hatch, Mitch McConnell, and even Nancy Pelosi, believe it or not.

So here's my second proposed Article of Amendment:

Section 1. No person shall be elected to the House of Representatives more than eight times, nor serve in the House more than 17 years.

Section 2. No person shall be elected to the Senate more than three times, nor serve in the Senate more than 19 years.

Section 3. No person elected to either House and later to the other House shall serve in Congress for more than 24 years in his or her lifetime.

Section 4. This article shall not apply to any person serving in either House when this article was proposed by the Congress, until the next election of Representatives shall have intervened.

That would clean out the House and most of the Senate. It would be disruptive. But we would no longer have as many cranky old white men making policy for a younger, more colorful generation.

I'd like to hear from readers about this. What do you think?

No more daily PE in Illinois

For my entire school life, from Kindergarten to 12th grade, I had daily gym class. In 1957, Illinois became the first state to require all kids to have daily PE. This was the case until this school year:

The law cuts daily PE to a minimum of three days per week and, starting in seventh grade, students involved in interscholastic or extracurricular athletic programs could skip PE. Those moves and more were touted as a way to save money, but some fear the changes will push PE to the back burner of the curriculum lineup, even as physical education has been supported by public officials, including former first lady Michelle Obama, as a way to combat childhood obesity.

In the Illinois Report Card data released each year, the Illinois State Board of Education notes that 60 minutes of physical activity per day can improve academics and prevent childhood obesity, diabetes and heart disease. “For students of all ages, physical education provides opportunities to learn motor skills, develop fitness, build team skills, strengthen problem solving abilities, and learn about healthy lifestyles,” ISBE said.

In fact, there has been confusion in various districts about aspects of the new law and whether districts are pursuing waivers correctly.

This fall, Champaign Community Unit School District 4 was moving to get a new five-year waiver to allow ninth- and 10th-graders to skip PE during the time they were involved in an interscholastic sport.

The waiver was withdrawn because it was no longer necessary based on a new provision in the PE law: Now, seventh- through 12th-graders may be excused from PE if they participate in interscholastic or extracurricular athletic programs. The law previously allowed only high school juniors and seniors to be excused under those circumstances.

Meanwhile, administrators in several high school districts told the Tribune they don’t plan to reduce their usual five days of PE, in part because of the complicated scheduling of high school classes as well as the potential difficulties of eliminating full-time PE teachers.

It seems like this change to the law wasn't well thought-out, wasn't well publicized, and wasn't particularly effective. Welcome to Illinois. I'm going to try to find out how my state rep and senator voted on this thing.

Holidays, weather, and Fitbit numbers

Yesterday I spent almost the whole day cooking and eating, while outside the temperature barely got above -10°C. So despite averaging better than 15,000 steps for the entire week preceding, I only managed 7,292 steps yesterday, my 3rd poorest showing of 2017.

The problem is, when I'm working from home, I get most of my steps by taking Parker on long walks. Below about -10°C, even his two thick fur coats aren't enough to keep him warm for more than 10-15 minutes, tops. And below -18°C, forget it; even with boots, his paws get dangerously cold in just a couple of minutes.

The forecast for the rest of the week, unfortunately, calls for brutally cold temperatures every day. Parker and I just got back from his (5-minute) morning walk with -19°C showing on the thermometer. My goal today is just to get above 5,000 steps, which may involve a lot of pacing in my apartment.

That said, thanks to the long weekend and no other responsibilities, I'm actually getting enough sleep. So I have lots more focus and energy. I just can't walk it off very easily.

Understanding Vladimir Putin

Julia Ioffe knows more about Russia than just about any other American journalist. Writing in the current Atlantic magazine, she analyzes and explains what Putin really wants:

Putin had always been suspicious of democracy promotion, but two moments convinced him that America was coming for him under its guise. The first was the 2011 nato intervention in Libya, which led, ultimately, to the ousting and gruesome lynching of the Libyan dictator, Muammar Qaddafi. Afterward, many people who interacted with Putin noticed how deeply Qaddafi’s death troubled him. He is said to have watched the video of the killing over and over. “The way Qaddafi died made a profound impact on him,” says Jake Sullivan, a former senior State Department official who met repeatedly with senior Russian officials around that time. Another former senior Obama-administration official describes Putin as “obsessed” with Qaddafi’s death. (The official concedes, “I think we did overreach” in Libya.)

The second moment was in November 2013, when young Ukrainians came out onto the Maidan—Independence Square—in the capital, Kiev, to protest then-President Viktor Yanukovych pulling out of an economic agreement with the European Union under pressure from Putin. The demonstrators stayed all winter, until the police opened fire on them, killing some 100 people. The next day, February 21, 2014, Yanukovych signed a political-reconciliation plan, brokered by Russia, America, and the EU, but that night he fled the capital. To Putin, it was clear what had happened: America had toppled his closest ally, in a country he regarded as an extension of Russia itself. All that money America had spent on prodemocracy NGOs in Ukraine had paid off. The presence of Victoria Nuland, a State Department assistant secretary, handing out snacks on the Maidan during the protests, only cemented his worst fears.

Regime change in Libya and Ukraine led to Russia propping up Bashar al-Assad in Syria. “Not one more” is how Jon Finer, former Secretary of State John Kerry’s chief of staff, characterizes Putin’s approach in Syria. It also led inexorably to Russian meddling in the U.S. election: Russia would show the U.S. that there was more than one regime-change racket in town.

Fear of collapse is also why Russian propaganda is intent on highlighting the bloody aftermath of revolutions the world over. Things may not be great in Russia now—the country has struggled mightily since 2012—but, the country’s news programs suggest, things can always get worse.

It's a long article, but worth the read. And Ioffe is a delight to read.

Minor bit of Schadenfreude

It turns out, Carter Page PhD—who worked for the Trump campaign and is now suspected of being a Russian asset—failed his PhD thesis defense twice:

Page first submitted his thesis on central Asia’s transition from communism to capitalism in 2008. Two respected academics, Professor Gregory Andrusz, and Dr Peter Duncan, were asked to read his thesis and to examine him in a face-to-face interview known as a viva.

Andrusz said he had expected it would be “easy” to pass Page, a student at the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas). He said it actually took “days and days” to wade through Page’s work. Page “knew next to nothing” about social science and seemed “unfamiliar with basic concepts like Marxism or state capitalism,” the professor said.

The viva, held at University College, London, went badly. “Page seemed to think that if he talked enough, people would think he was well-informed. In fact it was the reverse,” Andrusz said. He added that Page was “dumbfounded” when the examiners told him he had failed.

Their subsequent report was withering. It said Page’s thesis was “characterised by considerable repetition, verbosity and vagueness of expression”, failed to meet the criteria required for a PhD, and needed “substantial revision”. He was given 18 months to produce another draft.

Page resubmitted in November 2010. Although this essay was a “substantial improvement” it still didn’t merit a PhD and wasn’t publishable in a “learned journal of international repute”, Andrusz noted. When after a four-hour interview, the examiners informed him he had failed again, Page grew “extremely agitated”.

I almost want to read the final, final, final draft. And I want to see him convicted of secretly meeting with foreign agents. Neither is likely.

Memphis finds a loophole to get rid of racist monuments

The city of Memphis petitioned the Tennessee Historical Commission to get permission to remove its statues to traitorous politician Jefferson Davis and Ku Klux Klan founder Nathan Bedford Forrest. The THC refused, so Memphis found a novel way to do it anyway:

In a surprise move Wednesday evening, Memphis’s city council voted to sell the two parks to a new private nonprofit corporation that will run them, on condition that they keep the parks public. Mayor Jim Strickland signed a contract with the nonprofit, Memphis Greenspace, on Friday, and the council ratified it. Soon afterward, Greenspace, which was incorporated in October, began removing the statues, with celebratory crowds gathering to watch, singing, “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye.” The statues have been removed to a place nobody can find, according to the city’s chief legal officer.

Its stealthy, sudden removal of the statues echoes the actions of leaders in other cities, including New Orleans and Baltimore, who opted to take down Confederate monuments with little warning for reasons of security. But the legal maneuver is a new one—the latest, and perhaps most unorthodox, strategy by local leaders to get rid of monuments that local communities detest but are forbidden by state law from removing.

Perhaps the state will reconsider other requests to remove statues and monuments to the war to preserve slavery. Perhaps.

Who will the Republican tax law help or hurt next November?

Both the WaPo's James Hohmann and TPM's John Judis believe the Republican Party won't suffer as much as people hope after passing their massive giveaway to big corporations. Judis:

I am not a fan of the new tax bill that the Republican Congress passed. It will widen the gap between the wealthy and everyone else and increase the likelihood over a decade or so of another crash. And it contains all kinds of unpleasant ancillary provisions, such as the one killing the Affordable Care Act’s mandate. But I don’t buy the argument – voiced by Democratic pundits, political consultants, and even a few economists – that the bill will doom the Republicans to defeat in 2018 and even 2020. Like many things I read or hear these days from liberals, it’s wish fulfillment disguised as analysis. 

Democrats argue that the bill will be unpopular because it increases inequality by giving huge tax breaks to the rich and corporations. But most American voters don’t object to inequality and to the rich per se. (I wrote a long essay for TPM arguing this two years ago, and it was borne out in the 2016 election.) They object to inequality when a policy is so skewed that everything goes to the rich – when there is nothing in it for them. And they object to inequality when, as in 1932 or 2008, they see it conveying favor on a group that is responsible for wrecking the economy. But neither condition is likely to hold in this case.

Hohmann, yesterday:

THE BIG IDEA: The best thing going for Republicans right now is low expectations.

[H]ere’s the truth: 8 in 10 Americans will pay lower taxes next year, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center’s analysis of the final bill. Only 5 percent of people will pay more next year. Mostly, those are folks who earn six figures and own expensive houses in places with high local taxes, such as New York and California.

Bottom line: Nancy Pelosi says, “This is Armageddon.” But the sky will not fall. At least not next year.

To be sure, over the long-term, this bill may set in motion a fiscal disaster a la Kansas by exploding the national debt and forcing painful cuts to popular programs, including entitlements. The rich and corporations do get the vast majority of the benefits. The new code will cause confusion and uncertainty. It will also worsen income inequality. And there’s a chance that it gives the economy a sugar high that forces the Federal Reserve to raise rates faster than planned and hastens a recession.

Overnight, though, Hohmann got a lot of pushback from Democrats:

In the two-and-a-half years I’ve been writing the 202, I’ve never received so much pushback. Top operatives at all the relevant Democratic committees and outside groups, as well as the most prominent progressive pollsters in town and campaign managers in the states, argued passionately that the tax bill is not going to become a winner for the GOP. They shared a battery of private polling and reports on focus groups to make their case.

“Calling this thing a win because Republicans finally got something done is like saying the captain of the Titanic won when he successfully found that reclusive iceberg,” said Jesse Ferguson, the former director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s independent expenditure arm. 

1. Most folks who pay lower taxes will not save enough to care.

I noted yesterday that 8 in 10 Americans will pay lower taxes next year, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center’s analysis of the final legislation. Only 5 percent of people will pay more next year, and mostly those are folks who earn six figures and own expensive houses in places with high local taxes.

Democratic pollster Geoff Garin of Hart Research replied that 80 percent of taxpayers will see an increase of less than 2 percent in their after-tax income, and it is not until you get to the 95th percentile that the after-tax income benefits are much greater. “There is no history of voters being grateful for tax cuts that small,” he said.

One thing is certain: Nobody knows nothing. But I'm pretty optimistic about November 6th.

My project in the news

The Washington Post is reporting tonight something that I've known for several weeks. My current project's customer, USMEPCOM, recently promulgated a directive to begin accepting transgender applicants into the U.S. armed forces:

The military distributed its guidance throughout the force Dec. 8. Lawyers challenging President Trump’s proposed ban on transgender military service, which he announced on Twitter in July, have since included the document in their lawsuits. The memorandum states the Pentagon will comply with federal court orders, now under appeal, that direct the military to begin accepting transgender recruits Jan. 1.

The policy paper was issued by the U.S. Military Entrance Processing Command in Chicago, “and shall remain in effect until expressly revoked,” the memorandum said. It states that allowing transgender military service is “mandatory” and repeats a previous directive from Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who has said all people will be “treated with dignity and respect.”

Military recruiting personnel are responsible for inputting into databases recruits’ personal information. They should do so while using a copy of a recruit’s birth certificate, court order or U.S. passport “reflecting preferred gender,” according to the Pentagon’s new guidance.

“For the purposes of military entrance processing, the applicant’s preferred gender will be used on all forms asking for the ‘sex’ of an applicant,” the guidance said.

So, it turns out, we're writing the database mentioned in the article. In fact, our Scrum board has this story: "As a user, I can enter the preferred gender of a applicant, so that I can enroll them into the military." And the USMEPCOM directive from December 8th is attached to the card.

Months of policy disputes between the President and the Federal courts, news articles, marches, protests, lawsuits, and committee meetings has produced...one database field.

This is our crazy country right now.

If you're curious, here's the policy memo. Don't worry, you can read it: it's unclassified.