October 24, 2018

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The free market makes a harsh evaluation of the worth of Steve Bannon as a dining companion.

Bannon, the former CEO for the Trump campaign and erstwhile presidential advisor, is scheduled to speak on Friday at the the Hillsborough County Republican Party’s dinner in Tampa Bay, Florida. The event is a fundraiser, although, as the Tampa Bay Times reports, it won’t be raising much money from attendees.

The dinner originally hoped to raise money by charging $20,000 per seat for ten guests to sit at Bannon’s table. There were further VIP tickets going for $1000 a piece. General admission for the event was set at $125.

Ticket prices were dramatically cut last week, when you could pay $5,000 for proximity to Bannon, $300 for a VIP seat, and $50 for general admission. The bargain prices were offered, according to a Facebook post, because “We want to pack the house!!!”

On Monday, an email went out saying the entire event would be free. “The Trump Anniversary Dinner with Steve Bannon this Friday will be COMPLEMENTARY TO ALL,” one of the organizer of the event wrote in a mass email. “We have a donor who will cover our expenses.”

If this trajectory continues, it’s entirely possible that by Friday, Tampa Bay Republicans will be dragging people from the street and offering them money to attend the event.

On Tuesday, Bannon gave a speech at Staten Island and screened his movie Trump at War. According to The New York Daily News, thirty eight people attended the event.

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Trump hopes to prevaricate his way to victory with immigration hysteria.

The White House has scored a major propaganda coup by getting the story of the “caravan” of migrants supposedly heading towards the American border to dominate headlines. But as The Daily Beast reports, that story is based on on “mistruths and embellishment.”

One senior administration official told the website that, “It doesn’t matter if it’s 100 percent accurate.” The official justified the falsehoods by saying, “This is the play.”

A GOP operative took the same line, saying, “Soros is probably not masterminding these people coming to the border.” The operative added that, “When it comes to allowing segments of the base to believe what they want to believe, it happens on both sides. Republicans are no more guilty of it than Democrats.”

The appeal of the “caravan” story is that it riles up the Republican base, as did fear of mass migration from Latin American in other recent cycles. “It’s an issue that motivates Trump’s most ardent conservative base,” the operative told The Daily Beast. “If your worry was that we’re not going to be able to turn our base voters out, well—what’s the opposite of kryptonite?”

In a press gaggle on Tuesday as to whether there is proof of his earlier claim that there were “Middle Easterners” in the “caravan” President Donald Trump responded. “There could very well be.” Asked again if there was proof, he said, “There is no proof of anything.” It was unclear whether he was addressing the issue on hand or making a broader statement of epistemological nihilism.

October 23, 2018

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White nationalist Richard Spencer accused of assault by his wife.

BuzzFeed is reporting that in divorce filings Nina Koupriianova alleges that her husband Richard Spencer, a prominent white nationalist, was “physically, emotionally, verbally and financially abusive.” In the filings, Koupriianova describes incidents of “being hit, being grabbed, being dragged around by her hair, being held down in a manner causing bruising, and being prevented from calling for help.”

The filings also include copies of emails and transcripts of phone calls. In one phone call, Spencer allegedly asked Koupriianova, “Do you think your parents will attend your funeral?”

Koupriianova also describes an incident in 2011 where she was dragged down the stairs. “I was very sick with the stomach flu, could not keep food or water down, and wanted to stay in bed recovering. Mr. Spencer wanted to watch a movie downstairs and did not take ‘no’ for an answer,” Koupriianova writes. “He dragged me out of bed by my arms, legs, and hair, dragged me down the stairs, and threw me onto the couch. At that point he calmed down and turned on his movie. The incident resulted in bruises.”

Koupriianova and Spencer married in 2010 and have two children. The filings also claim Spencer was verbally abusive in front of the children.

In court filings, Spencer himself stated that, “I dispute many of her assertions” and that he, “denies each, every, and all allegations.”

Spencer was a widely discussed figure in during Donald Trump’s political rise in 2015 and 2016 because he articulated the ideals of the “alt-right” (a movement he claims to have named). More recently, Spencer’s political star has waned after losing his perch on social media outlets such as Facebook.

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White House Council of Economic Advisers denounces socialism, Marx, Lenin, Mao, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren.

On Tuesday, the Trump administration’s Council of Economic Advisers released a report on “The Opportunity Costs of Socialism.” Responding to the increased prominence of democratic socialism in American politics, the report warned that socialist policies would wreck the economy.

The report repeatedly conflated different forms of socialism, mixing together the autocratic policies of states like the Soviet Union and Maoist China with democratic socialism. “The socialist narrative names the oppressors of the vulnerable, such as the bourgeoisie (Marx), kulaks (Lenin), landlords (Mao), and giant corporations (Sanders and Warren),” the report argues.

The report does also discuss the democratic socialism practiced by some European countries. It argues that those countries are not really socialist and also that they are poorer than the United States. “In many respects, the Nordic countries’ policies now differ significantly from what economists have in mind when they think of socialism,” the report contends. “Living standards in the Nordic countries are at least 15 percent lower than in the United States.” The last claim seems dubious both factually (Norway has a substantially higher per capita income than the United States) and also irrelevant if the Nordic countries are not really socialist.

As Sarah Kliff of Vox notes, the report also accidentally makes the case for single-payer healthcare—while arguing against it. The document features a chart which, “compares wait times for seniors in countries like Canada, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, and the United States. It purports to show that seniors in single-payer countries wait much longer than those here in the United States.” But as Kliff observes, American seniors themselves have a form of socialized medicine: Medicare. So the chart merely confirms that Medicare is compatible with brief wait times.

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Climate change keeps wiping out Pacific islands.

The ocean has officially swallowed East Island, an 11-acre islet in the remote Eastern Pacific that served as a habitat for the critically endangered Hawaiian monk seal. Reported first by Honolulu Civil Beat and confirmed by HuffPost on Tuesday, East Island is the latest small landform in the Eastern and South Pacific to disappear due to extreme weather and sea-level-rise.

The second-largest islet in the French Frigate Shoals, East Island had long been threatened by rising seas. Its death blow, however, was Hurricane Wakala, a Category 3 storm that hit earlier this month. Storm surge effectively wiped out the sandy landmass, which was also a breeding ground for threatened Hawaiian green sea turtles.

Though Wakala’s path directly over East Island was simply bad luck, climate change likely played a role in the storm’s intensity. Wakala’s “strength and timing were consistent with the effects of a warming ocean and rising global temperatures that make storms more intense and frequent,” Honolulu Civil Beat noted. The storm was also a sucker-punch hurricane, rapidly intensifying from a 40 mile-per-hour tropical storm to a 120 mile-per-hour major hurricane in just 30 hours. Rapid intensification is a growing phenomenon associated with climate change.

East Island now joins a growing list of tiny Pacific islets swallowed by the sea. In Micronesia, two islands called Kepidau en Pehleng and Nahlapenlohd vanished in the last century, with six more going under between 2007 and 2014. Researchers have also documented the loss of five tiny land masses in the nearby Solomon Islands. Six more islands there have seen “large swaths of land washed into the sea,” The Guardian reported.

None of the lost islets so far have been inhabited by humans. But of the six partially-submerged land masses in the Solomon Islands, two contained villages where people were forced to relocate. The Marshall Islands are rapidly sinking as well. Fifteen percent of the population there has relocated to Arkansas.

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Jamal Khashoggi’s killing casts a shadow over Saudi conference.

The second annual Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh is turning out to be a somber affair as the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi continues to dominate headlines. The Turkish government continues to say that Khashoggi’s disappearance and death inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul was the result of a high-level Saudi plot.

Summarizing a report from CNN Turk, Reuters noted that “Crime scene investigators have found two suitcases and possessions believed to belong to slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi during a search of a Saudi consulate car in Istanbul.” In a disputed report which hasn’t been verified by other sources, Sky News claimed that Khashoggi’s body parts were found in the garden of the Saudi’s counsul’s house.

This made for a gloomy mood of the Future Investment Initiative. “Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, received a standing ovation as he made an unannounced appearance at a global investment conference here on Tuesday, further clouding an event that has been thrown into disarray after the killing of a dissident Saudi journalist,” The New York Times reports. The newspaper added that, “While the biggest American banks did not send their top leaders, institutions such as Citigroup and Morgan Stanley sent midlevel regional executives. Many bankers kept their name tags obscured behind their ties or decided that this was not the year to speak to the news media.”

Those who did attend the conference offered a pragmatic rationale for participation. Henry Biner, an executive at the Boston-based P/E Investments, felt that the “horrendous” killing was only a drop in the bucket to wider Middle Eastern violence. “One year from now, somebody is going to ask where the revenue is,” Biner told The New York Times. “We’re not going to put our relationships on the line for this.”

Michael Slater, who runs an investment business in Riyadh, agreed. “It’s just noise to me,” he said. “The people I need to see are here, and that’s what I care about.”

Separate from the conference, Mohammed bin Salman met with members of Khashoggi’s family, including Saleh Khashoggi, a son of the slain writer. Saleh Khashoggi is reportedly forbidden from leaving Saudi Arabia:

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White House Chief of Staff John Kelly really does seem to have a temper.

The New York Times is reporting another story of Kelly getting into a near brawl while serving as gatekeeper for President Trump. The newly reported story took place last February and involves Kelly having an altercation with Corey Lewandowski, the president’s erstwhile campaign manager and informal adviser. Lewandowski himself is a figure with some propensity for violence, having once notoriously manhandled a reporter.

Kelly and Lewandowski had been arguing in the Oval Office in the presence of the president. Kelly was critical of Lewandowski for profiting from an organization supporting Trump’s re-election and also for airing public criticism of Kelly’s management of the White House. The scuffle occurred after the two men left the Oval Office.

According to The New York Times account:

As Mr. Kelly walked toward a hallway leading back to his office, he called to someone to remove Mr. Lewandowski from the building. The two then began arguing, with Mr. Lewandowski speaking loudly. Mr. Kelly grabbed Mr. Lewandowski by his collar, trying to push him against a wall, according to a person with direct knowledge of the episode.

Mr. Lewandowski did not get physical in response, according to multiple people familiar with the episode. But Secret Service agents were called in. Ultimately, the two men agreed to move on, those briefed on the episode said.

Aside from the Lewandowski incident, Kelly also got into a shouting match with National Security Advisor John Bolton last week. Last November during Trump’s visit to China, Kelly reportedly was involved in a skirmish with Chinese officials, whom he believed were trying to steal the nuclear football away from American hands.

These incidences are not all entirely Kelly’s fault. In the case of the altercation in China, it seems that there was a failure of communication between Chinese officials and their American counterparts. The Chinese government apologized for the incident.

Still, Kelly’s tenure has been marked by more violent turmoil than is the norm, suggesting a hair-trigger temper and willingness to escalate. Kelly is often credited as being the grownup who has brought order to the White House.

October 22, 2018

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Here’s the hard truth about the air pollution report Trump tweeted.

On Monday afternoon, the president tweeted out a map from a United Nations report that was photoshopped to falsely claim that the United States has the cleanest air in the world.

The image in Trump’s tweet states that it is a “Global map of annual average ambient fine particulate matter,” updated in April 2018, and cites its source as the World Health Organization (WHO), a U.N. agency focused on international public health. The original source appears to be the similar-looking map below, from the summary of a April 2018 WHO report titled “Exposure to ambient air from particulate matter for 2016.The map is based on 2016 data from WHO’s Global Urban Ambient Air Pollution Database.

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This map does show that the U.S., on average and as a whole, has acceptable levels of particulate matter pollution every year. (Particulate matter is just one kind of air pollution, and refers to small dust particles that can infiltrate the lungs and circulatory system.) It does not, however, prove that the U.S. has the cleanest air “by far.” The map clearly shows Canada, Australia, and some European countries in the same light color as the U.S., meaning they too have acceptable levels of pollution.

Determining which country actually has the cleanest air requires a closer read of the WHO database. And based on my own analysis, Sweden has the lowest average concentration of smog pollution in the world, clocking in at about 6 micrograms of particulate matter per cubic meter of air. Second place goes to Finland, followed by Canada, Estonia, and Australia. The U.S. comes in eleventh place, with an average of 8.3 micrograms. This is still pretty good, since the WHO recommends no more than 10 micrograms. But it’s not the cleanest air “by far,” as Trump claimed.

Also, America’s air is not healthy everywhere. Contrary to Trump’s claim that “none in [the] U.S.” are affected by air pollution, 38 of the 372 U.S. cities and towns in the WHO database were shown to have particulate matter concentrations above the agency’s recommended level of 10 micrograms—including Fresco, California; Lancaster, Pennsylvania; and Chicago, Illinois.

Trump’s photoshopped U.N. map does correctly note one thing: 91 percent of the world’s population suffers from unhealthy air. The fact that the U.S. as a whole doesn’t suffer this fate is something to be celebrated. But Trump isn’t exaggerating America’s status as a clean-air king because he wants to be the best. It’s because he wants to justify his agenda of loosening the air pollution regulations that gave the country its relatively clean air in the first place.

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Bible museum acknowledges some of its prize holdings are forgeries.

When the Museum of the Bible opened in Washington, D.C. last November, it gave pride of place to fragments that were purportedly part of the Dead Sea Scrolls, documents that date back to the early Christian era. But even before the opening, some scholars advised caution. Most authentic Dead Sea Scroll fragments are held by the Israeli Antiquities Authority. Since 2002, a new cache of alleged ancient fragments started appearing in the international antiquities market but most of those have turned out to be fake. Most notoriously, an alleged 2nd-century fragment seeming to suggest that Jesus was married received global attention in 2012. Although vouched for by a Harvard scholar, it was ultimately ruled a fraud.

Now CNN is reporting that the Museum of the Bible, after submitting the fragments to testing by German scholars at the Bundesanstalt für Materialforschung und-prüfung, admits at least five of their Dead Sea Scrolls are frauds. According to CNN, the German scholars, the fragments “show characteristics inconsistent with ancient origin and therefore will no longer be displayed at the museum.”

The Museum of the Bible was financed by the Green family, evangelical Christians who own the the Hobby Lobby chain. The Greens spent a fortune on both the fragments and the museum (which cost half a billion dollars to build).

Modern forgers are quite sophisticated. Discussing the married Jesus forgery, Ariel Sabar wrote in The Atlantic that, “A determined forger could obtain a blank scrap of centuries-old papyrus (perhaps even on eBay, where old papyri are routinely auctioned), mix ink from ancient recipes, and fashion passable Coptic script, particularly if he or she had some scholarly training.” You’d have to imagine a fair amount of work went into the Bible museum’s fragments.

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By pulling out of the INF Treaty, Trump might be handing Putin another win.

On Saturday, President Donald Trump announced the United States would be pulling out of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, citing alleged Russian cheating since 2014 as the rationale. The Kremlin has responded by saying the move could ignite a new arms race.

“This is a question of strategic security. Such measures can make the world more dangerous,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Monday. “It means that the United States is not disguising, but is openly starting to develop these systems in the future, and if these systems are being developed, then actions are necessary from other countries, in this case Russia, to restore balance in this sphere.”

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who signed the treaty with the late American President Ronald Reagan in 1987, described Trump’s decision as “not the work of a great mind” and “very strange.”

Withdrawing from the treaty satisfies the long-held agenda of National Security Advisor John Bolton, who opposes arms control on principle. The move is also in keeping with the foreign policy instincts of President Trump, who distrusts international agreements and has previously withdrawn from the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal.

Although framed as a punishment of Russia, being unshackled from the INF treaty might also serve the agenda of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Writing in Slate, the journalist Fred Kaplan argues that “withdrawing would give the Russians exactly what they want. When George W. Bush was president, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov implored Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld several times to make a deal allowing both sides to get out of this treaty, which Russian officers had never liked. Rumsfeld ignored the request, knowing that there was no appetite in the U.S. or NATO for bringing back the ground-launched cruise missile or the Pershing II. In other words, a joint pullout would help only the Russians—and do nothing for the U.S. or the West. Trump is now about to commit the mistake that Rumsfeld avoided.”

If America is going to pursue an arms race in Europe to counter Russian medium-range missiles, it would need buy-in from European allies. But in point of fact, the very act of pulling out of the INF treaty is adding further stress to the already tense relations America and those allies. This morning the German Foreign Office tweeted:

Trump has torn up the treaty to punish Russia but there’s no evidence that the United States has a strategy to deal with a post-treaty world.