All posts by Eric Schuler

Did the US Make ‘Ransom Payments’ to Iran? No, Of Course Not.

Just in time for Throwback Thursday, there is a fresh new Iran scandal dominating the news. And like most Iran scandals, the latest is much ado about nothing. It’s not even a new event; just new details on something that happened nearly seven months ago.

The long and short of it goes something like this: As the Iran Deal neared implementation this past January, two officially unrelated events occurred around the same time. The US paid Iran $400 million and Iran released four American prisoners. Based on this timing, and because many powerful Americans love to hate Iran, this is being framed as a kind of ransom payment.

Lost in the shuffle, however, is the seemingly important fact that this $400 million belonged to Iran in the first place. In fact, the reputed ransom payment was basically a matter of the US returning stolen property. As CNN notes, the pre-revolution Iranian government moved $400 million to the US to pay for an arms deal. After the Iranian Revolution in 1979, that deal fell through, the arms were not delivered, and the US government refused to return the money. Around the same time as the Iran Deal negotiations, however, the US agreed to return this money, as well as $1.3 billion in interest.

While some could quibble about the interest calculations, these broad facts aren’t really disputed. And it seems that no one could legitimately argue that the Iranian government’s transition from (American-backed) dictatorship to an independent quasi-representative theocracy justifies the transfer of all Iranian government property and assets to whatever country happened to have jurisdiction over them at the time.

This is an important distinction because it was one of the major talking points over the Iran Deal generally. Opponents of the deal criticized it for “giving” billions of dollars to Iran, which might then be used to sponsor terrorism (which in the present context, largely means backing Hezbollah against Al Qaeda in Syria, but I digress). In the same way, many of those critics call the $400 million a ransom payment. In both cases, the implication is that Iran is gaining resources it had no legitimate claim to beforehand; and in both cases, it is wrong. The US (and its partners, presumably) has impounded vast amounts of Iranian assets since the Iranian Revolution, and the deal was simply designed to restore Iran’s access to those resources.

To see why it is appropriate for Iran to get this money back, a quick thought experiment is in order. Imagine, as happened to me recently, that your car gets towed for (allegedly) being parked illegally. When you go to the towing lot and get the car back, you don’t thank the towing company for giving you a car. It was always your car, and it still is; they just took it for a while. To believe otherwise is patently absurd. And yet, it is exactly what many of the critics of the Iran Deal are essentially arguing–that impounding someone’s (or some country’s) assets nullifies their property rights to those assets.

Note that it doesn’t ultimately matter whether you actually parked illegally or just happen to live among vengeful neighbors with too much free time on their hands. If you did something illegal, you may be required to pay fines, but your underlying ownership of the car does not evaporate. So too, it doesn’t matter whether you think Iran has been a perfect member of the international community since 1979; any transgressions or treaty violations they may have committed could open them up for penalties, trade wars, etc., not wholesale confiscation of their assets in foreign countries.

Back to the story of alleged ransom payments, we now see how mundane and uncontroversial it ought to be. The US returned money to Iran that it wrongly confiscated after 1979; and Iran released prisoners that were wrongly imprisoned. On the surface, this appears to be perfectly desirable on both counts; indeed it may be that rare instance of actual diplomacy being used by the US government in the 21st century.

In modern political discourse, that constitutes a lurid scandal of the highest order. Launching wars without Congressional approval, torture, and a global assassination program can all be tolerated, but diplomacy is beyond the pale.

Libertarian Presidential Ticket Has Another Disappointing Primetime Town Hall

Libertarian political views can be called many things, some deserved and others not so much–bold, heartless, inspiring, naive, peaceful, unconventional, etc. “Boring” usually doesn’t make the list.

And yet, somehow at the latest Libertarian Town Hall, with Gary Johnson and Bill Weld at the helm, that was precisely the outcome.

True to form, Weld was coherent, but frequently wrong. Meanwhile, Johnson stumbled through slightly better positions, but was often wrong as well.

Last night, they were campaigning not primarily on the merits of libertarian ideas. Rather, they were campaigning on the alleged virtues of compromise and bipartisanship, and how their personal governing experience could bring those about.

While there were no major gaffes, they expressed many decidedly non-libertarian views.

How to solve the problem of domestic terrorism? They want to expand the FBI. Oh, and things like the Orlando Shooting wouldn’t have happened if we didn’t have so much due process left in this country (not a direct quote, but the necessary implication of their remarks).

What about terrorists overseas? Weld’s okay with drone assassinations, and they were both okay with violating Pakistan’s sovereignty to assassinate Osama bin Laden and with invading Afghanistan. Not mentioned–the fact that the Taliban were willing to extradite Osama bin Laden for prosecution, which could have obviated both decisions.

I confess it was around that time that I unplugged with the predicted level of disappointment.

Back in 2007, Ron Paul managed to capture everyone’s attention and inspire a movement with a few brief minutes on a Republican debate stage. Johnson and Weld just had a second hour on cable news in Primetime to lay out the libertarian case, and I doubt very much whether anyone will remember it, fondly or otherwise, a few days hence.

Read Brian Doherty at Reason for the rest of the highlights from the town hall, if you can call them that.

August 2, 2016

US Celebrates Unprecedented Expansion of Global War on Terror
The US announced a new target country in the War on Terror, as airstrikes rained down on Sirte, Libya. The target was ISIS and heavy casualties were reported in the initial aftermath, though it’s not clear whether any were civilians.

It’s not the US’s first rebound with Libya after the 2011 US-led NATO intervention dramatically destabilized the country. It also won’t be the last, as Libya remains in abject chaos and ISIS has had a foothold for some time.

The problem of Libya has not been a major theme of the 2016 political cycle so far. Donald Trump has seemed reluctant to focus on it, perhaps for fear of appearing too “soft” on foreign policy. And given that Hillary Clinton was a major proponent of this clearly disastrous war, she would like to keep the conversation on just about anything else. The (limited) good news is that Hillary’s vulnerability on the issue may make President Obama exercise some restraint in Libya prior to the election, if only to avoid drawing any extra attention to the debacle.

For more on this story, check out this analysis from The Intercept.

US Prepares to Give Largest Aid Package in History to Country That Clearly Doesn’t Need It
It’s been reported that the US is about to seal the deal on $4.1 billion dollar annual aid package to the country of Israel, which would be the largest ever.

Whatever your thoughts on foreign aid generally, it ought to seem strange that the US would give so much money to a developed country that’s more prosperous than the US itself, by some measures. It also seems odd to give money to a country whose sitting prime minister won reelection by playing on racist sentiments towards Arabs in Israel and openly declaring that a two-state solution for the Israel-Palestine conflict–the US’s preferred solution, for better or worsewould never occur on his watch. Indeed, it would be difficult for Prime Minister Netanyahu to express his contempt for President Obama and the US government more clearly than that, and he has certainly tried his best.

No matter, all of that appears to be water under the bridge, however, and it’s back to business as usual on foreign aid. And for Israel, business as usual means being the largest recipient of US aid money, even though they have long been self-sufficient.

For more on this, check out this article, also from The Intercept.

Trump / Khizr Khan Controversy Continues
Trump’s rude remarks about Khizr Khan continued to dominate the news cycle yesterday.  Khan’s son was a Muslim US soldier who died in the Iraq War, and his father gave a speech at the Democratic National Convention to condemn Donald Trump.

The story is focusing overwhelmingly on Trump’s offensive rhetorical retaliation against the family, and many high-ranking politicians, including President Obama, have spoken out against him. However, the story ought to reflect poorly on Hillary Clinton as well, given that she supported the war and thereby helped get Khan’s son killed.

For more on this story, check out our own article on the latest developments.

DNC Wrap-up and Two Reasons Why Hillary Clinton Needs More Speech Reviewers

General John Allen; Source: Getty

Gratefully, both major party conventions are finally over. And like the Republicans, the Democrats emphasized nationalist themes on the final day in an effort to rally their supporters.

Captain Khan’s Needless Death
To this end, one speech was particularly noteworthy. Khizr Khan delivered an emotional speech about his son, Captain Khan, who was a Muslim US soldier who died in action in Iraq. The purpose of the speech was to (appropriately) criticize Donald Trump’s previous calls to ban immigration of Muslims. Captain Khan was just as American as anyone else, his father said. At one point in the speech, his father held up a copy of the US Constitution and encouraged Trump to read it. Khizr Khan said his son had made the ultimate sacrifice for this country, while Donald Trump had sacrificed nothing.

That’s true enough. But it’s worth asking why Captain Khan had to sacrifice at all. In one of the more powerful passages, his father made the following contrast:

Hillary Clinton was right when she called my son “the best of America.” 

If it was up to Donald Trump, he never would have been in America.

Again, that’s true. But remember, Captain Khan died in Iraq. That means, in some ways, Captain Khan’s fate really was up to Hillary Clinton. And when his fate–and that of thousands of other American soldiers and Iraqi civilians was in her hands–she was an indispensable supporting voice in the Senate that made the Iraq War possible.

Donald Trump’s rhetoric on Muslims and foreign policy is often appalling, but when it comes to actual, practical records on the topic, Hillary Clinton has few equals. And not in a good way.

General Allen, Or How Democrats Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Militarism
Of course, when sympathy might not be enough, there’s nothing quite like bombast to inspire nationalist unity. That need was fulfilled by retired 4-star General John Allen of the Marine Corps, who gave a speech that consisted of a series of shouted orders.

After marching out with an entourage of military brass to a snare drum, General Allen’s speech was put together well; it just sounded like something one would typically hear at a Republican gathering. Here are a few quotes to give you an idea (our snark in parentheses):

The free people of the world look to America as the last best hope for peace and liberty for all human kind. (And the people that aren’t free are likely ruled by an American-backed dictatorship, so they’re probably looking somewhere else.)

We believe in her vision of an America as a just and strong leader, against the forces of hatred, the forces of chaos and darkness. 

With [Hillary] as commander-in-chief, we will continue to lead this volatile world. We will oppose and resist tyranny and we will defeat evil. (I really hope no one tells Saudi Arabia or Bahrain about this.)

But I also know, with her as our commander-in-chief, our international relations will not be reduced to business transactions. (Of course not. A business transaction is voluntary and both sides get something of value in exchange. That does beg the question though. If our international relations aren’t a business transaction, what are they exactly: charity or extortion?)

It is telling that in the course of General Allen’s speech, chants of “USA! USA!” broke out spontaneously at moments that made no sense. At first, it seems like they are just enthusiastic nationalists. But when you listen more closely, you here weaker chants of “No More War!” in the background just as happened to Leon Panetta the day before. The DNC got wise to this tactic, however, and thus instructed loyal Clinton delegates to chant the rhythmically similar “USA!” to drown it out. It was generally an effective strategy. It’s also a great metaphor for the Democratic Party’s nomination of Hillary Clinton.

A weaker, smaller contingent holding true to its principles calls for peace, only to be overcome by an establishment candidate whose views are every bit as hawkish as Donald Trump’s.

Hillary’s Big Speech
Hillary Clinton wrapped things up with a headline speech that was predictable and professional, yet decidedly unimpressive when compared to the performances earlier this week from Bernie, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama.

It’s not news that public speaking isn’t Hillary’s strongest suit, but it will be interesting to see how it affects poll numbers after the convention. If you were undecided at the beginning of this week, there’s a chance that Bernie or President Obama might have persuaded you to vote for the Democratic nominee in November–Hillary’s speech probably did not.

In essence, Hillary’s platform is the standard progressive agenda, minus the good parts. If you start with the ideas of Bernie Sanders and then remove his professed opposition to war, his occasional nod to the fact that Palestinians are humans too, his opposition to marijuana prohibition, and his general disdain for corporate welfare, then you end up with Hillary Clinton. From a libertarian perspective, that means there’s nothing left to support, unless you believe she’s serious about reforming the criminal justice system. But given that she was actually instrumental in helping to make the criminal justice system as bad as it is, that ought to be a tough sell.

There were no outright gaffes in the speech, but there were also parts that were so ready for mockery that one almost imagines there was a mole working to put them in. Or they’re just counting on Americans to be completely ignorant of both American history and news that happened last week. For example:

Well, a great Democratic President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, came up with the perfect rebuke to Trump more than eighty years ago, during a much more perilous time. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Yeah, about that. See, the trouble here is that among Trump’s most outlandish positions are rounding up illegal immigrants for deportation, rounding up Syrian refugees in particular, and banning Muslims from entering the country. While the first is a slightly separate issue, the others are clearly playing on the idea of divided loyalties, terrorism, and national security. So if that’s the problem with Trump, you could scarcely choose a worse figure from history to offer a rebuttal than FDR. After all, to my knowledge, FDR was the only President in the post-Civil War period who deliberately and systematically targeted a group, Japanese-Americans, based on its national origin and threw them in internment camps. The justification was the idea that they were disloyal and dangerous to the US–precisely the idea that Trump is playing on when he makes awful policy suggestions about Muslims.

Simply stated, FDR’s presidency doesn’t offer a rebuttal to Donald Trump, but it might have offered some inspiration. FDR is viewed as a hero. Maybe Trump just wants to earn the same acclaim from left-leaning historians of the future.

Another moment from Hillary’s speech ripe for ridicule related to playing the Woman Card:

And you know what, if fighting for affordable child care and paid family leave is playing the “woman card,” then Deal Me In!

From a purely political angle, I think emphasizing the Woman Card is probably going to be counterproductive. But whatever one thinks of that strategy in general, this is an exceedingly poor application of it. Why? Because, just one week ago at the RNC, Trump’s daughter Ivanka stressed that these exact same issues were part of Trump’s platform as well (emphasis added):

This has long been the philosophy at the Trump Organization. At my father’s company, there are more female than male executives. Women are paid equally for the work that we do and when a woman becomes a mother, she is supported, not shut out.

Women represent 46 percent of the total U.S. labor force, and 40 percent of American households have female primary breadwinners. In 2014, women made 83 cents for every dollar made by a man. Single women without children earn 94 cents for each dollar earned by a man, whereas married mothers made only 77 cents. As researchers have noted, gender is no longer the factor creating the greatest wage discrepancy in this country, motherhood is. 

As President, my father will change the labor laws that were put into place at a time when women were not a significant portion of the workforce. And he will focus on making quality childcare affordable and accessible for all.

Again, set aside whatever you may think of these ideas. Trump and Hillary are advocating for the exact same concepts. If doing so in Hillary’s case means playing the Woman Card, then does that make Trump a feminist? Awkward.

These similarities could be found throughout. Trump supports raising the minimum wage now, and so does Hillary. Hillary wants to say no to trade deals (now), and so does Trump. Hillary wants to expand government dramatically without solving the deficit or debt, and so does Trump. And so on down the line.

There are differences, to be sure–on immigration, Russia, and, if we’re charitable to Hillary, criminal justice reform to name a few. But the candidates agree on much more than is commonly supposed. As with past elections between Republicans and Democrats, the biggest difference is probably found in rhetoric, not policy. And if you want Hillary to win, that’s bad news.

Because while the Secretary may be many things, an engaging speaker is not one of them. She’s long on policy and political details, but short on clever rhetoric. Broadly speaking, that description also fit the one-time Republican favorite Jeb Bush. And I, for one, expect Hillary Clinton to meet the same fate–failure. Indeed, the most recent polls suggest it might already be happening.

*Standard Disclaimer: I don’t support Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump for President; I think the actions they take will be generally awful, but the unintended consequences of those actions will ultimately be beneficial. I probably prefer the unintended benefits of Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump, if forced to choose. Fortunately, just like everyone else I’m not forced to choose, and I will be voting for a third-party candidate instead.

July 28, 2016 – The Politics of Good Intentions, Heckling for Peace, and the Fed Holds Interest Rates Steady

Update on the DNC
President Obama was the headliner at Day 3 of the Democratic National Convention, and he didn’t disappoint. A solid speech as normal and, sadly, no memorable teleprompter interruptions. The message was one of optimism for the future and celebration of the accomplishments made already–not by him, but in typical Democratic fashion, by all of us. At one point, in a pointed rebuke to Donald Trump’s popular slogan, Obama remarked “America is already great.”

Obama’s speech highlighted the important tension Democrats have to wrestle with this season. They have to simultaneously acknowledge that things aren’t perfect while taking credit for some progress. That’s a difficult balancing act, particularly in an environment where many people clearly are not happy with the country’s current trend lines. If all was well, the Bernie and Trump movements would not have been more than a blip this year.

After the speech, it’s clearer than ever that Hillary is running as the continuation candidate, and Obama’s rhetorical effectiveness reminded us why she is inclined to be framed as his third-term.

It is far less clear that this will work, however.

If it was literally Obama’s third-term, he would probably win easily. But Obama has the ability to deliver effective speeches and isn’t widely disliked as a human being. Inexplicably high speaking fees notwithstanding, Hillary doesn’t have either of those qualities. That’s going to make the general election an uphill battle.

One other item evident from Obama’s appearance is that the Democratic Party is cementing its brand as the politics of good intentions. It does not matter whether something is right, or whether it might have disastrous long-term effects. What matters is what they meant to accomplish. Thus, in an introductory video, the auto bailout program was not presented for what it was–namely, massive corporate welfare for a company that did not deserve more resources. In the video though, this was an act of political courage because Obama did it to protect the workers.

President Obama also took the opportunity to spike the football on the Affordable Care Act, noting that health care is no longer a privilege but a right. It doesn’t matter that that system is already showing clear signs of breaking down, and is, as we suggested in a prior article, inherently unstable economically. No problem, the goal was to give people access to healthcare. The fact that in the long-run, it will work directly counter to this end does not matter. Only the intention counts.

The same analysis could be offered of many other points in the speech as well. Interestingly, the disastrous Libyan intervention–perhaps,the greatest example of good intentions gone awry in the Obama years–did not appear in the speech. This is intriguing since, to counter Donald Trump, Democrats have lately been making much ado about the importance of facts. The truth is that neither party has shown much interest in them–not in the ones that matter.

Heckling for Peace
Amid otherwise predictable proceedings at the DNC, there was one bright spot that the Bernie folks (and apparently Oregonians) most likely deserve the credit for. When former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta came to the podium to explain why Hillary Clinton is the best warmonger for the Oval Office, he was interrupted with chants for peace: “No More War!” It’s a nice reminder that, in spite of President Obama, at least some Democrats are still on the side of peace.

Federal Reserve Keeps Interest Rates Flat
The Federal Open Market Committee finished today, and Fed Chair Janet Yellen announced that the Fed will be keeping a key interest rate target stable. The Fed implied that the economy is clearly strengthening, which has many people expecting the next rate hike in September.

In reality, it’s very unlikely the Fed will raise rates again before the election is over. The last time they tried this, the stock market quickly plummeted. Their cautious actions since suggest they understand just how fragile the economy is, even if they’re unwilling to say so publicly. That’s why they won’t raise rates and won’t risk throwing the election even more certainly to Donald Trump.

July 27, 2016


Bill Clinton Humanizes Hillary at the DNC
Day 2 of the Democratic National Convention proved to be a much smoother affair than Day 1. Hillary Clinton was officially declared the nominee, and the headliner of the evening, Bill Clinton, managed to make an effective case that Hillary is in fact a decent human being, breaking sharply with popular opinion on the matter.

Like Trump’s children at the DNC, Bill made his case for Hillary with a series of vivid anecdotes. He stayed on the subject, and his approach was sufficiently understated that it didn’t draw attention to himself. The crowd seemed to be with him as well–a courtesy not afforded to all of the previous speakers. Also, as with the stories about Trump, the details of Bill’s stories included many specific details (places, issues, etc.), that would seem to be readily falsifiable if they were in fact untrue. Thus, we should assume most of them were true, if perhaps embellished a bit.

And the picture they paint would surely be appealing to most of the American people–that of a headstrong woman and mother trying to make a difference in the lives around her. Her tool of choice was government action in most of the cases surveyed, so some skepticism is certainly warranted about the actual results. But if half of Bill’s stories are to be believed, her intentions wouldn’t be in question.

Then again, it’s not unheard of for people to start out idealistic and end up something else. And the Hillary Clinton of Bill’s speech is going to be difficult for many to reconcile with the consummate warmonger that she’s been in public life. How can one be deeply concerned about the disadvantaged in America that have been left behind, and then be utterly dismissive of the millions of disadvantaged people oppressed and/or killed by US policy and US-backed regimes throughout the Middle East? Perhaps the answer is simple Trumpian nationalism, as we suggested was true of Bernie Sanders. Or maybe it’s a misguided faith in the omnipotence of American foreign policy? Or maybe it’s just craven political ambition?

None of those avenues fit particularly well with the clever and caring portrait offered by Bill. And for consistent folks on the left who prioritize foreign policy, however many still exist after eight years of President Obama, it’s going to be a significant barrier to overcome. And for any libertarians fooled by the usefulness of lesser evil voting, her record on war should remain a nonstarter.

Finally, given that this was a Bill Clinton speech, I would be remiss not to mention the creep factor. Admittedly, he kept it in check pretty well. But with his scandalous sexual history–specifically the various rape allegations–I suspect there were a few phrases they might wish to have back. Personal favorites below:

When speaking of the time he first saw Hillary:

After the class I followed her out, intending to introduce myself. I got close enough to touch her back, but I couldn’t do it.

That’s definitely what I go for when I meet someone I’m attracted to. No handshakes needed, just start out with the back.

And later, this:

So like me, in a different context, he [Obama] had to keep asking.

I feel like, “If they say ‘No’, just keep asking,” isn’t exactly an acceptable practice. I mean, I know it was a different time, Bill, but still, you might want to keep these comments away from an open mic.

Granted, in context, he’s actually referring to asking her to marry him multiple times, which was discussed much earlier in the speech. Still probably not his best line.

Neither of those are on par with “You better get some ice on that,” which he allegedly said to one of his rape victims after assaulting her. But rest assured, the Bill Clinton creep factor is alive and well.

New Self-Sabotage at the Hillary Campaign – It Was the Russians!
I apologize for talking still more about the Presidential race, but it appears we’re going to need a recurring feature profiling all the terrible strategies deployed by the Hillary Campaign.

(Note that I’m not a Trump or Clinton supporter; that’s not my purpose here. Rather, I’m just fascinated by the unending string of bad decisions Team Hillary makes, in spite of the fact that they must employ the best experts money can buy. I view it as a hopeful reminder that the bar is always lower than we think. Or stated another way, the empress has no clothes.)

Needless preface aside, yesterday’s gem was immediately hiring the scandalized Debbie Wasserman-Schultz. Now they’re attempting some retroactive damage control on the DNC leaks themselves. The message: It was the Russians that hacked us to tilt the election towards Putin’s buddy, Donald Trump.

Technically, this is possible, but contrary to mainstream supposition, there’s no proof at all. There’s just official-sounding conjecture, echoed a hundred times over. There are any number of people that would take delight in taking down the DNC and Hillary Clinton, so jumping to blame Russia without any publicly released proof so far is a bit of a stretch. This is especially important in this case since cyber security breeches are notoriously difficult to prove.

What is far more interesting than the validity of these claims, is their political effect. As I see it, here are the ways this is likely to be interpreted by voters:

  • The Russians are our mortal enemy and now they’re even trying to take down our democracy.
    • This will play well to conservative / nationalist types. But the nationalist / tough guy vote is definitely going to Donald Trump, so that’s not really a helpful message Hillary.
  • It’s not that the Democrats were being careless with email; it’s just that the Russians are really smart and unstoppable.
    • Clearly, this is problematic. If you really do think the Russians are trying to hack us, are you going to vote for the party that they already proved they can compromise? No, that’s absurd.
  • Oh yeah, Putin likes Trump. I guess we haven’t heard that idea enough times yet, so here it is again.
    • For even moderately antiwar types, this is a feature of Trump, not a bug. Shouldn’t we want our president to have a good relationship with the leader of the other major nuclear power in the world? By now, that question should be rhetorical.
    • For everyone else, the idea seems to be that Trump is inexperienced, and the Russians want him so they can manipulate him. But again, Trump’s campaign and party isn’t the one that just had 20,000 emails stolen.
The only non-catastrophic takeaway is to strengthen voters’ connection between Trump and Putin, since the latter is unpopular among Americans. But every other implication of the Russians-hacked-us story is overwhelmingly negative for Hillary’s / Democrats’ appeal.
Another Terrorist Attack in France–And a Thing Not to Do
Yesterday, France suffered yet another terrorist attack from men who reportedly pledged allegiance to ISIS. They used a knife to execute an 86-year-old Catholic priest at a mass, and were killed by security forces shortly thereafter.
As is so often the case, one of the attackers in this case was known to police and was actually placed on house arrest because they suspected he was a threat. This sort of an event will lead many to conclude authorities should have just prosecuted or locked up the attacker when the initial suspicion arose to prevent things like this–thereby eroding whatever remains of due process in France today.
However, there is at least one better solution for this case and others like it. You see, in this case, the reason authorities got suspicious in the first place is because the attacker tried to travel to Syria, they believed, to join ISIS. This was also true for the Charlie Hebdo attackers (if you replace ISIS with Al Qaeda, that is).
This seems to beg an obvious question. If the authorities have reason to believe someone is trying to travel abroad to join a terrorist organization, why in the world would the solution be to prevent them from leaving? Wouldn’t it clearly be better to let them go, lest they decide to carry out their terrorist ambitions locally instead of joining the war? This is even more true in a US context, given that legally, the US isn’t at war with anything in the region right now.
Of course, there would be real challenges (legal and practical) related to trying to figure outwho left for the purpose of joining ISIS et al to prevent them from coming back later, without affecting aid workers with a nonviolent reason for being in Syria.
Still, it seems a good first step to reduce these events is to let suspected terrorists leave in some way. To do otherwise is madness.

July 26, 2016

Bernie Calls for Unity at the DNC
The first public day of the Democratic National Convention got off to a rough start as outgoing Democratic chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz was greeted with a round of boos at the morning breakfast. Wasserman-Schultz was at the heart of the DNC email leak scandal discussed yesterday, and, given her position, was also the person most directly responsible for tilting the playing field against Bernie in the Democratic Primary. Thus, the numerous and vocal Sanders delegates gave her a piece of their minds. She actually left without giving remarks, because she couldn’t overcome the heckling for long enough to complete a sentence.

This scene contrasts markedly with the message of Bernie himself. In his primetime address, Bernie called for unity and received enthusiastic applause.

His speech was pretty standard. He made the usual error of discussing inequality in terms of arbitrary statistical aggregates and talked about a lot of his other core issues as well–climate change, the minimum wage, student debt, Citizens United, and so on. It was a good speech, and it was delivered well. Still one couldn’t help a sense of cognitive dissonance throughout the proceedings. For example, here was Bernie:

But the struggle of the people to create a government which represents all of us and not just the 1 percent.

And yet, the candidate he’s endorsing is part and parcel of that 1 percent, and she has even raised more money than Donald Trump. You may be surprised to learn that many of Hillary’s donations were substantially higher than $27. Granted, one’s particular station in life should not really have any bearing on the merits of their ideas. But the Democratic Party, even more so than the Republicans, is all about identity. Thus, criticizing the 1 percent while nominating the 1 percent is a bit awkward.

Another interesting facet of Bernie’s speech is what wasn’t in there. There was no mention of legalizing marijuana (since Hillary’s not likely to support that), and there was also no mention of peace in the speech (since Hillary steadfastly opposes it). Rather, Bernie stuck to the domestic areas where Hillary had largely adopted his platform. It remains to be seen whether it will be enough to persuade his voters to stay in the Democratic Party.

Make a Mistake, Get a Promotion
Yesterday we also noted that the same DNC chair mentioned above, Wasserman-Schultz, was forced to resign for her fantastically unprofessional behavior towards the Sanders supporters. Now we know where she landed. The Hillary Clinton campaign created an executive chair position for Wasserman-Schultz, which she appears to have accepted.

This is the latest initiative undertaken by the Hillary campaign to give a large metaphorical middle finger to former Bernie supporters.

It also portrays an interesting message to Americans in general. Wasserman-Schultz displayed terrible judgment in her use of email, and when revealed, she immediately found a powerful alternative job. It may even be a promotion if Hillary wins. It’s kind of like what Hillary’s trying to do with her whole campaign–she made terrible decisions with email (and many other things), and now she’s trying to get the biggest promotion of all.

Legal Pot Replaces Pain Medication
We’re recommending a remarkable new article from The Washington Post, which offers empirical evidence to support one of the long-assumed benefits of legalizing marijuana. Namely, medical marijuana gets prescribed as a substitute for more powerful (and thus more dangerous) conventional medicines that could treat similar things.

Specifically, the underlying study compared the number and types of prescriptions given by doctors in states without legal medical marijuana to prescription patterns in states with medical marijuana. The results are overwhelming, as indicated by the chart below:

But while this is impressive, the article points out the challenge these trends create. Since medical marijuana displaces traditional prescriptions, that means major pharmaceutical companies will fight as hard as they can to keep marijuana illegal in the remaining states. Medical marijuana is a cheaper, safer, and better alternative in many cases, and Big Pharma can’t compete legitimately. Instead, they have to try to get the government to outlaw the competition.

Hopefully, these efforts will prove unsuccessful. Here’s the link:

One striking chart shows why pharma companies are fighting legal marijuana

July 25, 2016

Democratic National Committee (DNC) Email Leaks Confirm What We Already Knew
It turns out that the Democrats’ email problems weren’t confined to Secretary Clinton. Last Friday, Wikileaks released roughly 20,000 emails that had been hacked from the DNC servers. The leaks were somewhat overshadowed by news of Clinton’s delightfully foolish Vice Presidential pick (we’ll get there).

Nevertheless, the story is an important one. In effect, the leaks confirmed long-held “conspiracy theories” of the Bernie Sanders supporters that the DNC working to undermine the Sanders campaign and support Clinton instead. This always seemed true, and now we know it was. Here are a few of the details:

The Bad
One email has the DNC considering trying to get Sanders to admit being an atheist in public to hurt him in more religious states. Another email has the thoroughly unpopular DNC chair, Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, calling Sanders’ campaign manager a “damn liar”; in another “an ASS”–with caps lock in the original.

Elsewhere, the DNC could be found trying to offer a counter-narrative for why Bernie failed. Instead of DNC favoritism towards Clinton (which we now know existed), an email proposed saying it was because the Bernie camp never got their act together.

And the emails also show the DNC pushing back on scheduling debates with Bernie, even those that had already been agreed to. This doesn’t really make sense if they were impartial; more Democratic meant more publicity for the party’s ideas. And given that Sanders was not attacking Clinton at all (to a fault), it’s not like either one was going to be bruised coming out of it. So what explains this? Why, their support for Hillary Clinton of course.

Clearly, the DNC understands that there’s a distinct inverse relationship between the amount of time Clinton spends in public and how much people like her. Postponing or eliminating debates was necessary to slow down the political decay function. And it worked.

All of these things make perfect sense if they came from the Hillary campaign itself. They would be trying to assassinate Sanders’ character by outing him as an atheist and they would be avoiding debates at all costs. The problem is that they’re coming from an institution that is, at least theoretically, supposed to be impartial in the primary process. When Sanders supporters accused the process of being rigged against them, this is what they had in mind. The leadership of the Democratic Party was loyal to the Clinton campaign and actively worked against Sanders.

The Aftermath
Understandably peeved, Bernie Sanders called for the chair to resign from her post based on this new evidence of unprofessionalism. And yesterday, she announced she would resign, in an apparent olive branch from the Democratic Party to former Bernie supporters.

That said, it’s worth noting here that none of this is illegal, nor should it be. The political parties have no obligation to have a fair or transparent nominating process, any more than a private company needs to consult its customers on its internal operations or product design decisions. The remedy to bad behavior is also the same in both cases. If you don’t like how a political party conducts itself, then stop supporting it.

Hillary Chooses Vice Presidential Candidate to Reassure Trump of Victory
Speaking of olive branches to Bernie supporters, Hillary’s vice presidential pick wasn’t one of them.

She chose current Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, who is known in Washington, DC for a record of bipartisanship. His most recent bipartisan foray was to expand the usage of the civil liberties black hole known as the terrorist watch list to exclude people from buying guns. (Fortunately, that effort failed.)

Kaine’s positions are pretty similar to Clinton’s as a moderate Democrat. For instance, he supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership originally, but now plans to vote against it. Another revealing sign is that Republican Senator Lindsey Graham likes him, which does not bode well for Kaine’s judgment. Perhaps Kaine’s most laudable position is that he called for President Obama to ask Congress for authorization of the now almost two-year-old illegal war against the Islamic State. It’s not clear whether he would vote in favor such an authorization if it were allowed to come up, however. (Probably yes.)

Most important, however, is what Tim Kaine is not. He is not a strong progressive that could bring the Bernie Sanders voters back into the Democratic fold. He’s mostly a copy of Clinton, except that broad swaths of the population don’t have a visceral dislike for him. That could play well if he were the actual Presidential candidate. In a VP pick, however, it’s going to be useless.

Independents who strongly dislike Hillary are still going to vote for Trump or possibly Gary Johnson; a more likable VP can’t sufficiently compensate for the unfavorability of the president. Neoconservatives who prioritize Israel or a hawkish foreign policy generally were already going to vote for Clinton because Trump is too much of a wildcard in this regard.

Only two sets of voters were really up for grabs in Hillary’s VP decision–undecided independents concerned about the status quo, and hardcore progressives. Her decision appeals to neither.

Undecided independents will find little to like in Kaine, who has been in politics a long time and holds very conventional opinions.

Hardcore progressives will be similarly disappointed. Mainstream Democratic politics is not enough–that was the emphatic message of the Bernie campaign. And yet, that is precisely what Hillary is going to offer. More of the status quo (and more war). Don’t be surprised if many Bernie supporters stay home. This is the one outcome that Clinton could not afford, but that’s the outcome she’ll get.

Thus, the Clinton campaign proves anew how surprisingly bad it is at politics, and Donald Trump is the likely beneficiary.

More recent emails from the DNC have not yet been leaked. But if they were, I’d expect Clinton’s explanation to read something like this: “Eh, I didn’t really want to win anyway.”

US-backed Allies in Syria Call for US to Stop Causing Instability
After recent US targeting mistakes killed scores of innocent civilians in Syria, the local US-backed faction called on the US to end the strikes. They said the strikes were being used as a recruiting tool by ISIS, which is likely true.

But the US has said that the strikes will continue anyways and it blamed ISIS for putting civilians in harm’s way. One wonders how convincing that message of sympathy will be to the victims’ families.

In any case, this might mark a new low point for the Syrian war. When the US’s own proxy armies are concerned about causing instability, that’s a pretty clear sign things aren’t going too well.

July 21, 2016

US Coalition Enters Civilian Body Count Competition With France Attacker, Wins Easily
Depending on who does the counting, it appears US-backed airstrikes in Syria have killed at least 76 and possibly as many as 200 civilians this week. After recent terrorism in Nice, France and then Berlin, Germany, many were asking the usual question: Why do ‘they’ hate us? In addition to targeting ISIS, the airstrikes were designed to give a decisive answer to this question and end any further speculation.

Surviving civilians in Syria initially demanded revenge after the incidents–with many assuming the Russian air force was behind the atrocities. The Syrian civilians were relieved to discover their loved ones were actually killed by a targeting mistake by US-led forces instead. One local man expressed the prevailing sentiment perfectly, in an interview that did not actually take place:

It may not bring my son back, but it’s good to know the Americans were trying to kill bad guys instead. My son always knew he was taking a risk by being an Arab in the Middle East.

Pivotal Melania Trump Plagiarism Scandal Draws to a Close
The scandal which shook America to its foundation came to an anticlimactic end yesterday. A random staffer, one Meredith McIver, took full responsibility for accidentally incorporating phrases from Mrs. Obama’s 2008 speech into Melania’s address, noting that Melania admired Mrs. Obama greatly.

In a letter that was released publicly, the staffer also said she tried to resign over the incident. However, Donald Trump refused the resignation, saying “that people make innocent mistakes and that we learn and grow from these experiences.”

Key takeaways:

  • This story still doesn’t matter, but hopefully it’s finally over.
  • If this episode has any effect at all, it will be to the benefit of Donald Trump. By mocking his wife, Trump’s opponents in the mainstream media achieved a feat that no number of sappy testimonials from his family could have. They turned an arrogant billionaire demagogue into more of a human being. And the Trump Campaign’s response capitalized perfectly.
Recommended Article for the Day
Check out this quick summary of the attempted coup in Turkey from the always reliable Patrick Cockburn. The situation has gotten considerably worse since this article was first published. Still, it’s a helpful primer. We’ll have more coverage of this crisis in the coming days.
As you can tell, I’m experimenting with the format of the blog again. Right now, I’m considering a daily sarcastic summary of some top stories on weekdays (roughly like the above), with long-form articles of my own a couple times a week. Let me know what you think of the format above in the comments below or on Facebook or Twitter.