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Archive for July, 2017

Reservoir Dogs in the White House2

NB: THIS IS AN UPDATE OF THE ARTICLE THAT MOVED EARLY MONDAY MORNING, TAKING ACCOUNT OF ANTHONY SCARAMUCCI’S DISMISSAL.

AS I MENTIONED IN THE EARLIER VERSION, SCARAMOUCHE OFTEN ENDS UP DECAPITATED.

Anthony Zurcher, the BBC’s North America correspondent, nailed it in a report on 27 July. “Where Abraham Lincoln had his famous ‘team of rivals’ in his administration, this is something different,” Zurcher wrote. “Trump White House seems more akin to the final scene in (Quentin Tarantino’s film) Reservoir Dogs, where everyone is yelling and pointing a gun at someone else, and there’s a good chance no one is going to come out unscathed.”

Several walking wounded have limped out of the White House since the shooting started – Sean Spicer, Michael Short, Reince Priebus – but nobody would call them unscathed. The latest to take a bullet is Anthony Scaramucci, the new communications director, who was appointed only ten days ago.

Scaramucci, who could be a Quentin Tarantino character himself – he seemed to be channeling Steve Buscemi’s role as Mr. Pink in Reservoir Dogs – topped all the other bizarre events in the White House last week by delivering an obscenity-laced rant that forced the resignation of Trump’s chief of staff, Reince Priebus.

And why has the new chief of staff, General John Kelly, now fired Scaramucci? Maybe for being a potty-mouth, but more likely because Scaramucci was insisting that he reported directly to Trump, not through Kelly.

Things are falling apart in the White House much faster than even the keenest observers of Donald Trump’s behaviour would have predicted, and the important part is not the dysfunction. The United States would work just fine – in fact, rather better – if Trump never managed to turn his tweets into reality. What matters is that he is cutting his links with the Republican Party.

Trump was never a real Republican. As a genuine populist, he is ideology-free. If Barack Obama had fallen under a bus and Trump had chosen to run for the presidency in 2008, he could just as easily have sought the Democratic nomination.

Senior Republicans knew this, and they tried quite hard to stop him from winning the Republican nomination last year. After that they were stuck with him, and he did win the White House for them, so they have been in an uncomfortable partnership ever since. That is now coming to an end.

Part of the unwritten deal was that establishment Republicans get senior roles in the Trump White House. Reince Priebus, dismissed last Friday, was the most important of those people. He followed deputy chief of staff Katie Walsh, communications director Mike Dubke, press secretary Sean Spicer and press aide Michael Short, all of whom had already been pushed out.

What’s left are alt-right white nationalists like Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, New Yorkers with Democratic leanings like Anthony Scaramucci, Jared Kushner, Dina Powell and Gary Cohn, Trump family members (Donald Jr and Ivanka), ex-businessmen like foreign secretary Rex Tillerson (who may be about to quit), and a triumvirate of generals in high civilian office.

This is a recipe for paralysis, but who cares? Did you really want a White House team that enabled Donald Trump to impose his will (or rather, his whims) on the United States and, to some extent, on the world? Well, no, and neither do senior Republicans – but they do care very much about controlling the White House.

Republicans who think long-term are well aware that the changing demography of the US population is eating away at their core vote. This may be their last chance, with control of both Houses of Congress and (at least in theory) of the presidency, to reshape their image and their policies in ways that will appeal to at least some of the emerging minorities.

They can’t do that if they don’t control the White House, and the only way they could regain control there is for Trump to go and Vice-President Mike Pence (a real Republican) to take over. A successful impeachment could accomplish that.

It would be very hard to engineer such a thing without splitting the Republican Party, even if the current FBI investigation comes up with damning evidence of Trump’s ties with Russia. Nevertheless, the likelihood of an impeachment is rising from almost zero to something quite a bit higher.

It would be a big gamble. The Republicans in Congress couldn’t really get Trump out before November 2018, and the turbulence of an impeachment might cost them their control of Congress in the mid-term elections. In an ideal outcome, however, it would give the Republicans time to go into the the 2020 election with President Pence in charge at the White House and some solid legislative achievements under their belts.

What would Trump do if he faced impeachment? Maybe he would do a kind of plea bargain and resign, but that would be quite out of character. His instinct would be to fight, and he fights mainly by creating diversions. The best diversion is a war, but against whom?

Even Trump would have trouble selling a war against Iran to the American public. Despite all the propaganda, they don’t really feel threatened by Iran. Whereas North Korea says and does things provocative enough to let Trump make a (flimsy) case for attacking it.

If he thought his presidency was at stake, he certainly would.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 3, 4 and 10. (“Scaramucci…Kelly”; and “This…House”)

Reservoir Dogs in the White House

Anthony Zurcher, the BBC’s North America correspondent, nailed it in a report on 27 July. “Where Abraham Lincoln had his famous ‘team of rivals’ in his administration, this is something different,” Zurcher wrote. “Trump White House seems more akin to the final scene in Reservoir Dogs, where everyone is yelling and pointing a gun at someone else, and there’s a good chance no one is going to come out unscathed.”

Several walking wounded have limped out of the White House since then, including ex-Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, but nobody would call them unscathed. And in has come Anthony Scaramucci, the new communications director, who appears to have escaped from the same Quentin Tarantino movie. Maybe Steve Buscemi as Mr. Pink.

Fun fact: Scaramuccia (literally “little skirmisher”), also known as Scaramouche, is a stock character of the Italian commedia dell’arte. He combines the roles of a clownish servant and a masked assassin carrying out his master’s will. He often ends up decapitated.

Things are falling apart in the White House much faster than even the keenest observers of Donald Trump’s behaviour would have predicted, and the important part is not the dysfunction. The United States would work just fine – in fact, rather better – if Trump never managed to turn his tweets into reality. What matters is that he is cutting his links with the Republican Party.

Trump was never a real Republican. As a genuine populist, he is ideology-free. If Barack Obama had fallen under a bus and Trump had chosen to run for the presidency in 2008, he could just as easily have sought the Democratic nomination.

Senior Republicans knew this, and they tried quite hard to stop him from winning the Republican nomination last year. After that they were stuck with him, and he did win the White House for them, so they have been in an uncomfortable partnership ever since. That is now coming to an end.

Part of the unwritten deal was that establishment Republicans get senior roles in the Trump White House. Reince Priebus, dismissed last Friday, was the most important of those people. He followed deputy chief of staff Katie Walsh, communications director Mike Dubke, press secretary Sean Spicer and press aide Michael Short, all of whom had already been pushed out.

What’s left are alt-right white nationalists like Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, New Yorkers with Democratic leanings like Anthony Scaramucci, Jared Kushner, Dina Powell and Gary Cohn, Trump family members (Donald Jr and Ivanka), ex-businessmen like foreign secretary Rex Tillerson (who may be about to quit), and a triumvirate of generals in high civilian office.

This is a recipe for paralysis, but who cares? Did you really want a White House team that enabled Donald Trump to impose his will (or rather, his whims) on the United States and, to some extent, on the world? Well, no, and neither do senior Republicans – but they do care very much about controlling the White House.

Republicans who think long-term are well aware that the changing demography of the US population is eating away at their core vote. This may be their last chance, with control of both Houses of Congress and (at least in theory) of the presidency, to reshape their image and their policies in ways that will appeal to at least some of the emerging minorities.

They can’t do that if they don’t control the White House, and the only way they could regain control there is for Trump to go and Vice-President Mike Pence (a real Republican) to take over. A successful impeachment could accomplish that.

It would be very hard to engineer such a thing without splitting the Republican Party, even if the current FBI investigation comes up with damning evidence of Trump’s ties with Russia. Nevertheless, the likelihood of an impeachment is rising from almost zero to something quite a bit higher.

It would be a big gamble. The Republicans in Congress couldn’t really get Trump out before November 2018, and the turbulence of an impeachment might cost them their control of Congress in the mid-term elections. In an ideal outcome, however, it would give the Republicans time to go into the the 2020 election with President Pence in charge at the White House and some solid legislative achievements under their belts.

What would Trump do if he faced impeachment? Maybe he would do a kind of plea bargain and resign, but that would be quite out of character. His instinct would be to fight, and he fights mainly by creating diversions. The best diversion is a war, but against whom?

Even Trump would have trouble selling a war against Iran to the American public. Despite all the propaganda, they don’t really feel threatened by Iran. Whereas North Korea says and does things provocative enough to let Trump make a (flimsy) case for attacking it.

If he thought his presidency was at stake, he certainly would.
______________________________________
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 9. (“Fun…decapitated”; and “This…House”)

Poland: A Pause on the March to Autocracy

Zofia Romaszewska, now in her 80s, was jailed during the years of martial law in Poland in the early 1980s. She is a national hero for her human rights activities in the 1980s and is now one of President Andrzej Duda’s advisers. Last week she persuaded him to veto the government’s new laws on the courts.

She told him: “Mr President, I lived in a state (under Communist rule) where the prosecutor general had an unbelievably powerful position and could practically do anything. I would not like to go back to such a state.” And President Duda actually listened to her.

This came as a complete surprise, because Duda was a member of the ruling Law and Justice Party and is widely seen as a puppet of its leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski. On Monday, however, he rejected new laws giving the justice minister the power to fire judges he doesn’t like – including, potentially, the entire Supreme Court – and choose the new judges who take their places.

“As president I don’t feel this law would strengthen a sense of justice,” Duda said in a statement – or rather, an under-statement – on national television. His action has greatly encouraged the hundreds of thousands of people who have been demonstrating in cities all over Poland against the new laws, but there are still many who doubt his sincerity.

Poland is sharply divided between the populists, socially conservative, deeply Catholic, and ultra-nationalist, who form the present government, and the opposition whom they label “the system” or “the elite”. This system allegedly includes both the liberals who led Solidarity’s resistance to Communist rule, and the crypto-Communists who supposedly still exist and are now in league with the liberals.

The whole thing is a paranoid fantasy, but it has a firm hold on many people’s minds in a national culture that wallows in victimhood and self-pity. The Law and Justice government, elected in late 2015 with an absolute majority in parliament, denounces the opposition parties as corrupt traitors under foreign influence, and they in turn mistrust everything the
government says and does – including President Duda’s change of heart.

He’s just playing for time, they think. He’ll get the demonstrators to go home and then he’ll sign some slightly altered version of the laws stripping the judges of their independence. And maybe they are right. Nobody will know for sure until they see the government’s response to his veto.

This is not just about Poland. It is about whether the EU will tolerate an undemocratic government in its midst, and the evidence isn’t in yet.

As soon as it won office twenty months ago, the Law and Justice Party turned the state-owned broadcaster, previously politically neutral, into the propaganda arm of the ruling party. It also destroyed the independence of the civil service, replacing the professionals with its own party loyalists. But when it turned on the courts it started for face real push-back from the EU.

The EU is probably the only reason that the former Communist-ruled states of Eastern Europe almost all became democracies. They desperately wanted to be members of the EU as a safeguard against renewed Russian interference in their affairs – and the EU insists that all its members be democratic.

Not only that, but it carefully defines how democratic states should behave, and a basic principle is the separation of powers: the courts must not be under government control. When the Law and Justice Party introduced laws started taking away the judges’ independence, it ran head-on into the EU’s rules for membership.

Senior EU officials were openly talking about stripping Poland of its voting rights in the Council of Ministers (the closest thing to an EU government) until Duda said he would veto the new laws. If it turns out that he is only playing for time and will soon sign quite similar laws, the confrontation will resume – and the EU might even resort to financial measures against Poland.

Poland is by far the biggest beneficiary of transfers from the EU budget to poorer member countries: in the budgetary period 2014-2020, it is scheduled to get $96 billion. Some or all of that money might stop coming if Poland were no longer a member in good standing.

The Polish government cannot plausibly threaten to quit the European Union: 75 percent of Poles see EU membership as a vital counter-balance to the looming presence of Russia to their east. The EU holds all the best cards in this game, if it chooses to play them.
But will it?

That is not clear. The EU is not famous for its willingness to take bold action, and it would have to overcome the opposition of Hungary, another ex-Communist EU member that also has an authoritarian government (though a less extreme one). But the EU’s own cohesion would suffer if it did not defend its fundamental values, so if Duda is only fooling there may be a real showdown in a month or two.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 13. (“As soon…EU”; and “Poland…standing”)

Counting Sperm

“I tried counting mine once, but I went blind with exhaustion,” tweeted one reader of the BBC website after it reported that sperm counts were down by half in the past 40 years all over the developed world. And it’s true: they are hard to count. The little buggers just won’t stay still.

The report, published by Human Reproduction Update on Tuesday, is the work of Israeli, American, Danish, Spanish and Brazilian researchers who reviewed almost 200 studies done in different places and times since 1973. It’s called “Temporal trends in sperm count: a systematic review and meta-regression analysis”, and the authors are working very hard to get the world’s attention.

Dr. Hagai Levine, the lead researcher, told the BBC that if the trend continued humans would become extinct. “If we will not change the ways that we are living and the environment and the chemicals that we are exposed to, I am very worried about what will happen in the future,” he said. “Eventually we may have a problem with reproduction in general, and it may be the extinction of the human species.”

I think I’ve seen this movie a few times already. There was “Children of Men”, and then “The Handmaid’s Tale”, and I was even in a sperm-count movie myself thirty years ago. (It was a would-be comedy called “”The Last Straw”, but happily it isn’t available online.)

Among the many varieties of end-of-the-world stories we like to tell ourselves, the infertility apocalypse is the least violent, and therefore (in good hands) the most interesting in human terms. But the sperm crisis really isn’t here yet, or even looming on the horizon.

What the scientists did in the meta-regression analysis was very useful from a general public health point of view. There have been many estimates of what is happening to sperm counts, but they are conducted under different circumstances, usually with fairly small groups of people, and often in clinics that are treating couples with infertility problems.

This big review of the existing research did no new work, but it did extract rather more reliable data from the many studies that have been conducted by other groups, and there definitely is something going on. Compared to 1970s, sperm counts now in the predominantly white developed countries (North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand) are between 50% and 60% down now.

It has been a fairly steady decline in those places, and and it is continuing in the present, but no such fall has been found in the sperm counts in South America, Africa and Asia. So maybe it’s just whites going extinct.

Probably not, though. Most people in South America are white, but there has been no fall in sperm counts there. And there’s no separate data in the survey about what’s happening in the heavily industrialised Asian consumer societies like Japan, Korea, China and Taiwan, but one suspects that there have been declines in sperm counts there. It’s almost certainly an environmental, dietary or lifestyle effect, and therefore probably reversible.

As to which of these possible causes it might be, the jury is still out, but a 2012 study by researchers at the Universities of Sheffield and Manchester concluded that smoking, drinking alcohol, recreational drug use and obesity had little or no effect on sperm counts. Other reports, however, have suggested that eating saturated fats, riding bicycles, watching too much television and wearing tight underpants do adversely effect sperm counts.

In any case, there’s no immediate cause for panic, because all of the studies showed that sperm counts, though lower than in the 1970s in some parts of the world, are not “sub-fertile” anywhere. They are still well within the normal range, just lower on average than they used to be. There’s no shortage of human beings at present, and there’s lots of time to sort this out.

It will almost certainly turn out, when more research has been done, that the main cause of reduced sperm counts is the presence of various man-made chemicals in the environment. Not just one or two chemicals, but more likely a cocktail of different ones that collectively impose a burden on the normal functioning of human metabolism.

We are breathing and ingesting a lot of toxins, and have been since shortly after the rise of civilisation (lead-lined water pipes, etc.). The sheer volume of visible pollutants (particulate matter, etc.) has probably peaked and begun to decline in the most developed countries, but the variety of new chemicals in the environment continues to rise. Further nasty surprises probably lie in wait for us.

Unfortunately, that’s the way human beings work: ignore the problem or put up with it until it becomes unbearable, and only then do something about it. It’s a strategy that has served us well enough in the past, but will do us increasing damage as the problems become more complex. It’s very unlikely, however, that falling sperm counts will be the one that finally gets us.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 10. (“What…problems”; and “As to…counts”)