June 4, 2018 in 5,102 words

A Trade War Primer

Pictured above: Aluminium rolls at a factory in Biesheim, France.

At the moment, the Trumpian trade war appears to be on. And I’ve been getting some questions from readers about how this is possible. Congress, after all, hasn’t voted to back out of our trade agreements, and one suspects that it wouldn’t even if Trump asked for such legislation: to all appearances, a lot of Republicans are pretty much OK with the near-certainty that he colluded with a hostile foreign power and is currently obstructing justice, but policy actions that might strand and devalue a lot of corporate assets are something else entirely.

So how does Trump have the authority to do this? And what are the consequences for the world? It seems to me that this might be a good time to write down a brief, non-scholarly primer on how the trading system – and U.S. trade policy within that system – work.

The key thing you need to understand about trade policy is that the Econ 101 case for free trade plays very little role in actual policy, certainly in trade negotiations. That’s not because policymakers either reject that case or fail to understand it; some do, some don’t, but either way it doesn’t make that much difference. (In fairness, there’s an academic literature arguing that the underlying economics matter more than I’m suggesting, work that I consider admirable but unpersuasive.)

True, for the past 80 years the U.S. has sought to make trade gradually freer; this reflected in part the (very) indirect influence of economic theory, in part the belief that closer economic integration was good for peace and the free world alliance. But the process by which trade liberalization was sought was all about political realism rather than abstract ideals.

Just Say It’s Racist

The American press is caught between describing Trumpism accurately and avoiding the wrath of the president and his supporters.

It was a framing that might have worked with any other two presidents. On Friday, The New York Times published a comparison of how Donald Trump and his predecessor, Barack Obama, approached controversies over racism. “Obama offered balm. Trump drops verbal bombs. But both were accused, in a polarized country, of making racial tensions worse,” the paper tweeted. That bland equivalence between the first black president and his white successor, who rode to the White House on a racist conspiracy theory denying Obama was born in the United States, provoked a firestorm of criticism on social media.

That fact alone shows how impossible it is to approach the Trump presidency the way the media might approach any other administration—indeed, bafflingly, the article briefly references birtherism without acknowledging Trump’s embrace of the conspiracy theory, and how it affected his political fortunes. The relationship between Trump and Obama is historically unique in that the former was elected by a racial backlash to the latter, another point the piece declines to acknowledge, whether to refute or affirm.

Instead, the piece is constructed around the juxtaposition of the criticism that Obama encountered for acknowledging the racism black Americans still face with the fact that Trump is often accused of racism. The piece notes that after Obama spoke at a funeral for nine black people murdered by a white supremacist, “some people, mostly white, accused him of dividing the country when he spoke empathetically about the racism faced by black Americans.” By contrast, in the Trump era, “People often debate whether what the president did or did not say was a sign that he was racist.”

The president’s overtly prejudiced remarks about religious and ethnic minorities, in a country where the accusation of racism is often regarded as morally equivalent to racial discrimination, poses a challenge for media outlets seeking to accurately represent the views of the president and his supporters without enraging either of them. That task is largely impossible, which is why the media have developed a ludicrous and expanding menu of complex euphemisms for describing racist behavior, and why a piece purporting to contrast two presidents’ approaches to racism dances so elaborately around the obvious.

A moral crisis grips the US border. Yet the religious right is shamefully silent.

The Christian right is allowing Trump to escape responsibility for the immoral policy of separating children from their parents. Have they no shame?

Silvana Bermudez hugs her children outside a bus station in Houston, Texas, on 16 March. She and her kids were caught by Ice and sent to separate facilities after leaving El Salvador.

As a matter of recent policy, agents of the American government take children from their parents’ arms at our southern border. They are kept at separate facilities for indeterminate periods of time. The parents are jailed and the children are put in the care of non-governmental agencies, sometimes in other states. It is hard to imagine that the higher rate of incarceration and the new system of calculated injury to children would not soon overwhelm existing arrangements no matter how many shelters and beds are provided for a frightened, heartbroken population of the very young, whose miseries are intended as a disincentive to future potential border-crossers.

The only nod to shared humanity in this policy is an obvious understanding that a child’s grief is a particularly wrenching experience for a parent, powerful enough – so the designers of the policy clearly believe – to weigh against the threats to that same child’s safety and health and prospects for a better life that bring parents and children to the American border. This effect would be much heightened by any parent’s knowing that the one sufficient comfort for any child in almost all circumstances, and especially one like this, is to be taken into his mother’s or his father’s arms.

I am sure that, among these non-governmental caregivers, good-hearted people can be found at more or less the same rate as in the general population. But the policy in question is new, and the demands it entails are special and grave. The child grief they try to deal with must include mourning, feelings of abandonment, a kind of visceral knowledge of loss that can be quieted sometimes but never dispelled. Especially in the case of the small children, their parents’ arms would have been home and comfort through the whole length of their journey to our border.

What have we become? America is not alone in struggling with the flow of refugees from actual and virtual wars. Desperation and destitution obscure the dignity and worthiness of people when they are dealt with in such numbers. Given the will, some can see them as alien in the most negative sense, and threatening. Nothing is excused by the fact that this is predictable, perhaps inevitable.

Trump and Giuliani Accidentally Make the Case for Impeachment

By invoking the specter of a self-pardon, the president and his defenders are implicitly suggesting that only Congress can constrain an executive’s lawless behavior.

President Trump isn’t much for giving apologies, but he’s becoming an aficionado of granting pardons. In a tweet Monday morning, the president asserted that he can pardon himself, though he hastened to add that he had “done nothing wrong”:

It is a remarkable statement of presidential power. Where Richard Nixon insisted to David Frost that “when the president does it, that means it is not illegal,” Trump is gesturing toward a different argument: When the president does it, it doesn’t really matter whether it’s legal or not because he can just pardon himself anyway.

There’s an inherent dissonance in Trump’s statement: If he has done nothing wrong, why is he eager to assert that he has the power to pardon himself? The White House has in the past denied that Trump was even considering pardoning himself, but Trump has lately been wielding his pardon power in an unusual and politically motivated fashion.

This is not the first time that the idea of a presidential self-pardon has come up. Last July, The Washington Post reported that Trump had asked about his ability to grant pardons to himself or family members. Then-White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci and Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow both insisted the report was untrue, though the president hedged in a tweet: “While all agree the U. S. President has the complete power to pardon, why think of that when only crime so far is LEAKS against us.FAKE NEWS.”

Project Blitz: the legislative assault by Christian nationalists to reshape America

Since Donald Trump became president, rightwing groups are helping flood state legislatures with bills that promote hardline Christian conservative views.

In Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Louisiana and Tennessee so-called ‘In God We Trust’ bills have become law since 2017.

The emboldened religious right has unleashed a wave of legislation across the United States since Donald Trump became president, as part of an organised bid to impose hardline Christian values across American society.

A playbook known as Project Blitz, developed by a collection of Christian groups, has provided state politicians with a set of off-the-shelf pro-Christian “model bills”.

Some legislation uses verbatim language from the “model bills” created by a group called the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation (CPCF), set up by a former Republican congressman which has a stated aim to “protect religious freedom, preserve America’s Judeo-Christian heritage and promote prayer”.

At least 75 bills have been brought forward in more than 20 states during 2017 and 2018 which appear to be modelled on or have similar objectives to the playbook, according to Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a campaign group which tracks legislation that undermines the principle of separation of church and state.

Opponents warn that the CPCF (which claims more than 600 politicians as members across state legislatures ) is using the banner of “religious freedom” to impose Christianity on American public, political and cultural life.

The Supreme Court’s Colorado baker decision contains a robust defense of gay rights


The US Supreme Court ruled 7-2 today in favor of a Colorado baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple.

But the narrowly-written opinion doesn’t grant business owners the broad exemptions based on personal views that religious groups had hoped for, and civil rights groups feared, and even defends the rights of gay Americans.

Civil rights groups were concerned that the Supreme Court could rule broadly in Masterpiece Cakeshop vs. the Colorado Civil Rights Commission that making a cake amounted to free speech, opening the door for more small businesses to discriminate against gay couples under the First Amendment. Instead, the seven justices ruling in favor of Masterpiece focused on the specifics surrounding the Colorado baker’s complaint, and particularly how the state civil rights commission handled it.

Jack Phillips, the owner of Masterpiece, argued that baking—specifically, creating a custom wedding cake—is a form of self-expression, and that same-sex unions violate his faith. So, he argued, the state should exempt him from anti-discrimination laws because the constitution protects free speech and freedom of religion.

The logical flaw in the US Supreme Court’s Masterpiece Cakeshop decision, according to two dissenting justices


Cake sure can get controversial.

The US Supreme Court has issued a long-awaited decision in the controversial case Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission (pdf), finding for a baker who in 2012 denied his services to a same-sex couple seeking a wedding cake. Two justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor, disagreed with the seven-member majority and—in a dissent written by Ginsburg—argue that their colleagues’ reasoning falls flat.

Baker Jack Phillips had argued that cake-baking is constitutionally protected free speech and that sanctioning him for refusing to bake for a same-sex marriage violated his constitutional right to free exercise of religion. The majority did not completely agree with Phillips. It denied the free speech claim, finding that baking is not “communication.” But most of the justices did agree with the baker that his religious freedom was violated, and that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission was “hostile” to his faith.

The majority opinion argues that the state commission treated Phillips differently from other bakers who refused to bake cakes that offended them. Specifically, it referred to three cases in which bakers were asked to create a bible-shaped cake that explicitly states “homosexuality is a sin.” Those bakers would not bake the cake as requested and were not sanctioned by the state Civil Rights Commission.

In her dissent, Ginsburg points out that the cases offered as evidence of discrimination aren’t actually comparable to the Masterpiece Cakeshop case. Philips refused to bake any cake whatsoever for any same-sex marriage rather than a particular cake with a single offensive message.

5 Real Ethical Dilemmas That Sound Straight Out Of Movies

Everyone has their own personal set of ethics. Some folks are stricter than others, but generally speaking, most people at least try to act decently, even if they somehow twist the term “decent” to include texting in a movie theater. The world of professional ethics is a bit different. Ethicists have to take a hard look at how ever-shifting rules affect our entire culture. And boy have we thrown them some curveballs …

5. Doctors Are Unsure About What To Do With “Do Not Resuscitate” Tattoos

Do you have tattoos? Barbed wire on the bicep, little butterfly on the ankle, maybe “No ragrets” on the back of your head? Whatever it is, we’re betting that none of your ink has thrown the entire medical world into question. That’s what happens when doctors discover tattoos reading “Do Not Resuscitate” on a patient. This gives medical personnel the unenviable task of determining whether the tattoo is meant as a legally binding life and death order or simply as a bad joke. Don’t laugh — and not just because it’s not funny — joke DNR tattoos are an actual thing. One guy got the tattoo because he lost a bet, but fortunately, his paperwork confirmed that he did, in fact, want to live when he was hospitalized in 2012.

In 2017, a 70-year-old man was admitted to a hospital unconscious, in septic shock, and lacking any identification. The only thing he had was that pesky DNR tattoo. His doctors had to call in an ethics consultant, who determined that the tattoo could indeed be interpreted as the patient’s genuine wish. But the issue remains controversial in the exciting world of medical ethics.

A patient’s family could theoretically sue a physician who let their loved one die based on some bad ink, but then, a patient could theoretically wake up and sue once they found out their DNR was violated. Something to keep in mind before you take out hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical student loans: You could theoretically be ruined by a dumb joke tattoo.

Last Week Tonight enlists America’s most beloved senior citizens to protect against scammers, hippos

THANKS to HBO and Last Week Tonight for making this program available on YouTube.

John Oliver spent the bulk of his main story on Sunday’s Last Week Tonight hipping us all to yet another thoroughly, soul-crushingly unjust thing we didn’t realize was so hopelessly screwed up until he decided to tell us about it. This week, it was the almost entirely unregulated, scam-happy wonderland called guardianship. That’s when a judge decides an elderly person can no longer take care of him or herself and assigns a state-appointed guardian to take over that person’s financial and personal affairs. And if you think that sounds like an industry that should have at least as stringent an oversight process as, say, opening up a food truck or running a dog washing business, you are not wrong.

In one particularly egregious case, a guardian named April Parks was shown to have fleeced the over 100 senior citizens under her care for, among other things, some hundred dollar stretch pants, all while billing the state for more hours than there actually are in a day, and then ditching the cremated remains of her deceased wards in a storage unit. As one critic of the broken system put it, people placed under guardianship “lose more rights than somebody who goes to prison,” a chilling appraisal since Oliver notes that only 12 states have any certification process for guardians, there are no federal guidelines, and the local, elected judges in charge of determining whether your grandmother is placed in the hands of a thieving monster often have little understanding of the issue.

DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY: Listen to Cloris Leachman, people—hippos are fucking killing machines. Oh, and talk to a lawyer. … And Neil deGrasse Tyson Shows Up Just In Time To Ruin John Oliver’s Joke. “Shut up, Neil!”

Facebook Gave Device Makers Deep
Access to Data on Users and Friends

The company formed data-sharing partnerships with Apple, Samsung and
dozens of other device makers, raising new concerns about its privacy protections.

Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, at a Senate hearing in April. The company gave at least 60 phone and other device makers access to large amounts of user data.

As Facebook sought to become the world’s dominant social media service, it struck agreements allowing phone and other device makers access to vast amounts of its users’ personal information.

Facebook has reached data-sharing partnerships with at least 60 device makers — including Apple, Amazon, BlackBerry, Microsoft and Samsung — over the last decade, starting before Facebook apps were widely available on smartphones, company officials said. The deals allowed Facebook to expand its reach and let device makers offer customers popular features of the social network, such as messaging, “like” buttons and address books.

But the partnerships, whose scope has not previously been reported, raise concerns about the company’s privacy protections and compliance with a 2011 consent decree with the Federal Trade Commission. Facebook allowed the device companies access to the data of users’ friends without their explicit consent, even after declaring that it would no longer share such information with outsiders. Some device makers could retrieve personal information even from users’ friends who believed they had barred any sharing, The New York Times found.

Most of the partnerships remain in effect, though Facebook began winding them down in April. The company came under intensifying scrutiny by lawmakers and regulators after news reports in March that a political consulting firm, Cambridge Analytica, misused the private information of tens of millions of Facebook users.

How a Hacker Proved Cops Used a Secret Government Phone Tracker to Find Him

And how it might change what cops can do with our smartphones.

On a warm summer’s day in 2008, police spotted a man walking outside his apartment in Santa Clara, California, one of the many bedroom communities spread across Silicon Valley. Undercover FBI officers saw him outside the building and began following him on foot, radioing to their colleagues nearby. The man saw the agents, and so he began to walk quickly. They followed suit.

After months of tracking him via sting bank accounts and confidential informants, the officers had their man. He had told the apartment complex’s manager that he was Steven Travis Brawner, software engineer: a profile that fit right in with many other tenants in the area. But at the time of his arrest, officers didn’t know his real name: After watching his activities at a distance, they called him simply the “Hacker.” Between 2005 and 2008, federal investigators believed that the Hacker and two other men filed over 1,900 fake tax returns online, yielding $4 million sent to over 170 bank accounts.

The Hacker was found out through the warrantless use of a secretive surveillance technology known as a stingray, which snoops on cell phones. Stingrays, or cell-site simulators, act as false cell phone towers that trick phones into giving up their location. They have become yet another tool in many agencies’ toolbox, and their use has expanded with little oversight—and no public knowledge that they were even being used until the Hacker went on an obsessive quest to find out just how law enforcement tracked him that summer day. When he tugged on that thread, he found out something else: that police might be tracking a lot more than we even know on our phones, often without the warrants that are usually needed for comparable methods of invasive surveillance.

Rich people are buying up dinosaurs because museums are too poor to get them


Biting the hand that buys you.

On June 4, an auction house in Paris will put a highly coveted item on the block: A nearly complete skeleton of a carnivorous dinosaur, almost 9 meters (30 feet) long, believed to have lived during the late Jurassic era 154 million years ago. The world’s paleontologists would love to get their hands on the skeleton, which they suspect is a member of a previously undiscovered species. Instead, a private buyer is likely to snatch it up.

Museums and scientists increasingly lack the funds to buy dinosaur fossils, which can be auctioned off for enormous sums, an article in the scientific journal Nature yesterday (June 1) explains. This particular fossil, excavated in Wyoming between 2013 and 2015, is expected to go for €1.2 million–1.8 million (US$1.4 million–2.1 million).

David Polly, the president of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, tells Nature that such pricey dinosaur auctions are becoming more common. “Any auction likely to generate a high market value is of concern, because science generally operates on a low budget,” he said. “We don’t have money to pay people to collect fossils or to buy them on the open market.”

The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology is asking the auction house, Aguttes, to cancel the sale. “Fossil specimens that are sold into private hands are lost to science,” a May 17 letter explains, arguing that “scientifically important vertebrate fossils are part of our collective natural heritage and deserve to be held in public trust.”

DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY: In most cases, these sales are completely legal and impossible to stop.

Where does outer space start?

It all depends on who you ask.

Where does space actually start? Is it near where the Dragon capsule is re-entering the atmosphere in the center/left of this image? Is it closer to the ISS, where this picture was taken? Or is it somewhere else entirely?

Where’s the edge of space? What seems like a simple question has an answer with more layers than the Earth’s atmosphere. You might expect that space begins where the atmosphere ends, and that could be true. But, as it turns out, no one can tell exactly where that point is. And the majority of scientists look much closer to home, placing the edge of space well within the bounds of the atmosphere.

The most widely accepted definition of the “edge of space” is 100 kilometers above the Earth’s surface (approximately 62 miles, though the number is often rounded down to 60). That altitude is what’s known as the Kármán Line, named for Hungarian physicist and engineer Theodore von Kármán, who determined that aeronautics would no longer work at that altitude. That is to say, as Paul Newman, Chief Scientist for Earth Sciences at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, explains, “The Kármán line is defined as the altitude where you can’t fly fast enough to generate lift for an aircraft.” Aside from aeronautics, there’s another difference above and below the Kármán Line. “Below 100 kilometers, gases are well mixed by turbulent motions. Hence, nitrogen is about 78%, and oxygen is about 21%,” explains Newman. “Above 100 kilometers, the gases begin to diffusively separate because of gravity. We refer to this altitude of separation as the homopause, since everything below is homogeneously mixed.”

This 100 kilometer/62 mile altitude is what the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), the international governing body of air sports, which covers everything from ballooning to human spaceflight, officially lists as beginning of space. “The commercial space industry seems to be using this as the goal for their tourist flights, too,” notes Dr. Terry D. Oswalt, Chair of the Department of Physical Sciences at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. For instance, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin recently launched a test of its New Shepard capsule to 65.8 miles, and Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic promises to take its guests aboard SpaceShipTwo above 62 miles.

While the Kármán line might be closest to an official international designation of the beginning of space, it’s by no means the standard for everyone.

A debate over plant consciousness is forcing us to confront the limitations of the human mind


Acknowledging plant consciousness demands a more expansive view of the self.

The inner life of plants arouses the passions of even the mildest-mannered naturalists. A debate over plant consciousness and intelligence has raged in scientific circles for well over a century—at least since Charles Darwin observed in 1880 that stressed-out flora can’t rest.

There’s no doubt that plants are extremely complex. Biologists believe that plants communicate with one another, fungi, and animals by releasing chemicals via their roots, branches, and leaves. Plants also send seeds that supply information, working as data packets. They even sustain weak members of their own species by providing nutrients to their peers, which indicates a sense of kinship.

Plants have preferences—their roots move toward water, sensing its acoustic vibes—and defense mechanisms. They also have memories, and can learn from experience. One 2014 experiment, for example, involved dropping potted plants called Mimosa pudicas a short distance. At first, when the plants were dropped, they curled up their leaves defensively. But soon the plants learned that no harm would come to them, and they stopped protecting themselves.

But does any of this qualify as consciousness? The answer to that question seems to depend largely on linguistics, rather than science—how humans choose to define our conceptions of the self and intelligence.

Ed. After today’s errant ramblings barely uninteresting at all things are cobbled up, I plan on inflicting pain on my lawn by decapitating all the grass. I’ll be wearing headphones to muffle the plants’ tiny screams of agony.


Today in History: June 4, 1855

Camels have been used as beasts of burden for millennia and the creature is, in many ways, vastly more suited to the task than even the sturdiest of equids. For example, a typical camel can carry in excess of 300 kilos (661 lbs) of supplies without issue, more than twice the weight an average horse or mule could carry with similar distances/speeds. In addition, camels are also largely indifferent to relatively extreme heat, can go for days without needing to take in additional water, and can happily chow down on many desert plants horses and mules wouldn’t eat if they were starving (meaning more of what they can carry can be cargo instead of food for the animals). When not under heavy load, camels can also run as fast as 40 mph in short bursts as well as sustain a speed of around 25 mph for even as much as an hour. They are also extremely sure footed and can travel in weather conditions that would make wagon use impractical.

For this reason a small, but nonetheless dedicated group within the American military in the mid 19th century was positively obsessed with the idea of using camels as pack animals, and even potentially as cavalry.

It’s noted that the largest proponent of camel power at the time was the then Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis- yes, THAT, Jefferson Davis. Davis particularly thought the camel would be useful in southern states where the army was having trouble transporting supplies owing to the desert-like conditions in some of the regions.

Video Goodnesses
and not-so-goodnesses

As part of the escalating wave of knife crime gripping London, young people have started awarding themselves “points” for rival stabbings. And social media, specifically Snapchat, only catalyzes the violence, those on the frontlines told VICE News.

England and Wales experienced a 22 percent increase in knife crime last year. And so far in London this year, knives caused 42 out of the 67 murders. Many believe that cuts to youth services and police budgets have contributed to violence. But online arguments — and the mindset that accompanies them — also bleed into the real world to create a tit-for-tat system that left over 2,000 Londoners under the age of 25 experiencing knife violence last year.

Travis was standing not far from his home when a group of children from an adjacent housing estate plunged a long blade deep into his stomach. The motive, he said, was retaliation for a fist fight.

THANKS to HBO and VICE News for making this program available on YouTube.

New York gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon discusses her campaign goals, including overhauling the New York City subway system and curbing racial and economic inequality.

THANKS to Comedy Central and The Daily Show with Trevor Noah for making this program available on YouTube.

Jordan is disgusted to discover that Harvard University introduced a gender-neutral policy for its glee clubs and that Starbucks now allows non-customers to use its bathrooms.

THANKS to Comedy Central and The Opposition with Jordan Klepper for making this program available on YouTube.

Max making his own music.


Fall asleep in seconds by listening to a soothing voice read the EU’s new GDPR legislation

‘New laws aren’t meant to be exciting — but this one could sedate a buffalo’

‘Once Upon a GDPR’ inside the Calm app.

Last month, the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) came into force, triggering a wave of panic among unprepared tech companies. This month, why not harness the power of that legislation to calm your own worries and get a good night’s sleep?

Meditation app Calm provides what it calls “bedtime stories for grown-ups” (an eclectic mix of lullabies, fairy tales, and short stories in audiobook form). But it’s now added highlights from the GDPR legislation to its roster, narrated aloud by former BBC radio announcer Peter Jefferson, who is famous in the UK for his readings of the Shipping Forecast — a nightly maritime weather report that’s cherished by non-maritime listeners for its repetitive and ritual qualities.

Jefferson doesn’t read the entire legislation (“which would take more than all night”), but he picks out more than half an hour of material, which is enough to send anyone to sleep. You can listen to an excerpt for yourself below, or download the app from Google Play or the App Store. Unfortunately, you have to pay to unlock the full GDPR reading (and a number of other Calm features), but you can test them all with a seven-day free trial.

Ed. More tomorrow? Probably. Possibly. Maybe. Not?