The End Of The Castro Era

[ Posted Wednesday, April 18th, 2018 – 16:32 PDT ]

Cuba is about to go through only its second transfer of power since its revolution. For the first time in my lifetime, this will mean a Castro won't be running Cuba. For almost six full decades, Fidel Castro and his brother Raúl ran the island in what amounted to a communist cult of personality. For the first time since the 1950s, Cubans are about to have a government without a Castro in charge. It is the end of an era, in other words.

What this will mean for the island's residents and for Cuban-American relations is unsure, at the moment. Cuba's new leader is firmly entrenched in the communist hierarchy, so it's likely any changes won't be radical in nature, at least not to start with. But perhaps -- just perhaps, mind you -- without a Castro in charge, America will finally put the Cold War past behind it and fully normalize relations with Cuba.

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From The Archives -- Demand Full Media Disclosure: What's Your Tax Bracket?

[ Posted Tuesday, April 17th, 2018 – 20:42 PDT ]

Apologies for the lack of an original column today, and also happy Tax Day to everyone. Yes, those two are connected.

Snark aside, I thought the following article would be worth running again, what with the current debate over Sean Hannity and his lack of full disclosure on the Michael Cohen story. Since it's also tax day, I remembered the one time I devoted an entire article to the concept of journalistic full disclosure. It's from quite a few years ago, and (sadly) nothing has changed. Enjoy, and rest assured, new columns will resume tomorrow.


Originally published September 13, 2010

There's an upcoming debate on taxes and tax cuts which is likely going to define the rest of the 2010 midterm election season. This will be reported on and commented on by a wide array of people in the media, from all sides of the political landscape. But why is it that media "full disclosure" rules seem to be completely ignored during such debate by the punditry? Because by all rights, anyone in the media talking about raising income tax rates on the top two income brackets should have to disclose their possible conflict of interest in the debate. It wouldn't take much, just a simple declaration: "Full disclosure, I fall into the top tax bracket myself, so I would personally be affected by changing this rate."

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Assessing The Raid On Syria

[ Posted Monday, April 16th, 2018 – 18:01 PDT ]

This weekend, the United States, France, and Great Britain launched an airstrike on Syria which involved a little over 100 cruise missiles fired at three targets, all stated to be involved with Syria's chemical weapons program. This was a retaliatory strike, in reaction to a chemical weapons attack the United States claims was launched by Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad. Doing so crossed the American "red line" and thus had to be punished.

While there have been complaints about the raid from both sides of the political spectrum here at home, as well as denunciations of the raid from Syria, Russia, and Iran, it largely seems to have achieved its limited purposes. Some of the claims from the Pentagon may be a bit overstated (which isn't that unusual, really), but the purpose of the airstrike was to give Assad a bit of a bloody nose as a warning not to use chemical weapons again. In that respect, it seems to have worked as designed.


Military assessment

Before taking a look at the politics involved, though, we should first attempt to make a military assessment of the raid. This was the second such airstrike in retaliation for the use of chemical weapons, of course. The first happened almost exactly one year earlier, when President Trump targeted a Syrian airfield with 60 cruise missiles. The Pentagon reported that 59 of those hit their targets, and that one malfunctioned in flight in some way. The damage to the target wasn't all that extensive for such a massive attack, and the airfield was back in business within hours.

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Friday Talking Points [480] -- Unnecessary Immature Potshots

[ Posted Friday, April 13th, 2018 – 18:09 PDT ]

James Comey's long-awaited tell-all book is out (to reviewers) and Republicans from the Oval Office on down are already freaking out. So far, the winner of the "most hilariously ironic attempt at spin" award is unquestionably Kellyanne Conway. Conway, of course, absolutely personifies one of the lyrics from Trump's favorite Rolling Stones song ("You Can't Always Get What You Want"), as she easily could have been the inspiration for the line: "She was practiced at the art of deception." In an article about the White House's reaction to the book, Conway was quoted dismissing the book as "a revisionist view of history" and (even more hilariously) accused Comey of taking "unnecessary immature potshots." The ironic part? The very same article begins with: "President Trump lashed out Friday at former F.B.I. director James B. Comey on Twitter, calling him a 'weak and untruthful slime ball' who deserved to be fired 'for the terrible job he did.' " So Comey's book was full of "unnecessary immature potshots," but calling a former F.B.I. director a "weak and untruthful slime ball" is downright presidential. Got it, Kellyanne. Oh, and there's a bridge in New York City we'd like to sell you, too.

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Welcome On Board, John Boehner!

[ Posted Thursday, April 12th, 2018 – 17:23 PDT ]

With just over a week to go before the annual "4/20" celebration of marijuana, former speaker of the House John Boehner just jumped on the legalization bandwagon. This is a rather extraordinary and stunning turn of events, since Boehner was pretty adamant about his opposition to any form of legalization while he was still in office (when he could have actually done some good), but he now says he has evolved on the issue. I, for one, am glad to take him at his word and welcome him on board the pro-legalization bandwagon. The more the merrier, as far as I'm concerned.

Of course, some who have been on this bandwagon for decades might scoff at Boehner's recent conversion to the cause. They'd point out -- rightly so -- that the earlier someone took a pro-marijuana stance, the better. Right-wing conservative pioneer Barry Goldwater, for instance, was always against marijuana being illegal, which (for the time) was a pretty radical, left-wing position for someone like Goldwater to take. Back in the 1960s, public approval of legalization was incredibly low. Now that it stands at over 60 percent (including over 50 percent of Republicans), Boehner's stand shouldn't be seen as quite as bold.

This is true, but marijuana has always really been a bipartisan issue, and I welcome any politician (or ex-politician) from any part of the political spectrum who agrees that legalization's time has come. I respect those who have stood for legalization for many years more than I do the latecomers, I will admit, but at the same time I sincerely welcome everyone to the cause who has seen the light.

More and more politicians are slowly figuring out that being pro-legalization isn't even all that radical a position to take anymore. With such strong public support, it could even now be said to be the most politically expedient position, in fact. Marijuana supporters can be found throughout the political spectrum, after all. Red-state ultraconservatives smoke weed, as do tree-hugging liberals in San Francisco -- and everyone in between, really. What politicians have mostly been missing is that not only is this issue one of the most bipartisan around, there are also a lot of single-issue voters on marijuana -- people who would normally never turn out to vote but do so when there's a legalization ballot initiative.

As mentioned, some politicians realized this years ago. Gavin Newsom, in California, was pro-legalization long before it became so popular -- back when he truly was taking a political risk (even in California) to support the idea. Remember, California held two voter referenda on the issue, because the first one failed. Newsom chaired the committee to get the second one passed, while fellow Golden State Democrat Dianne Feinstein chaired both of the "No" efforts.

This year might be seen by historians as the tipping point, when it became safer for politicians (left, right, and center) to be for legalization than against it. Actress Cynthia Nixon, who is challenging Andrew Cuomo for New York governor in the Democratic primary, has made it a key issue of hers -- because Cuomo is so weak and politically vulnerable on it. Nixon just released a campaign video on the issue, where she points out that 80 percent of New Yorkers who are arrested for marijuana are black or brown:

There are a lot of good reasons for legalizing marijuana, but for me, it comes down to this: We have to stop putting people of color in jail for something that white people do with impunity.... The simple truth is, for white people, the use of marijuana has effectively been legal for a long time. Isn't it time we legalize it for everybody else?

That's a pretty in-your-face way to put it, you have to admit. While Cuomo timidly and halfheartedly supports studying the issue (for a good long while) rather than doing anything about it, Nixon is forcing his feet to the fire. I fully expect to see more candidates taking such confrontational stances on the issue all across the country during this year's campaign season -- Democrats and Republicans alike.

To put it bluntly, being against marijuana legalization is no longer the safe political stance to take. It used to be, not too long ago. Less than 20 years ago, public support for legalization stood at just above 30 percent. It now stands at or over 60 percent. That is a monumental shift in public attitude, and politicians better realize this ground has moved in dramatic fashion.

As more and more authentic medical research is allowed to happen (rather than, in the past, only research which aimed to produce anti-marijuana propaganda), the federal government's long history of lies about the killer weed are being debunked, one by one. As more and more states legalize recreational use of cannabis -- and the sky does not fall -- more and more Americans are left wondering what the big deal was in the first place.

Of course, there are still reactionaries who insist on keeping their heads firmly planted in the sand. Jeff Sessions springs to mind. Or Scott Pruitt, who (it was recently revealed) wanted to redesign the Environmental Protection Agency's logo, because he thought "it looked like a marijuana leaf." So there's still a lot of idiocy left to fight, obviously.

John Boehner is living proof, however, that even the hardest attitudes can eventually change. While Boehner was in office, he stated he was "unalterably opposed" to even decriminalizing marijuana, and was against "legalization of marijuana or any other F.D.A. Schedule I drug," because he was "concerned that legalization will result in increased abuse of all varieties of drugs, including alcohol." As recently as September 2015, Boehner hadn't changed his mind on the subject. Almost half a million people were arrested for marijuana offenses during Boehner's term as speaker, from 2011 to 2015. But that was then. This is now -- where John Boehner tweeted his news out in surprisingly detailed fashion:

I'm joining the board of #AcreageHoldings because my thinking on cannabis has evolved. I'm convinced de-scheduling the drug is needed so we can do research, help our veterans, and reverse the opioid epidemic ravaging our communities.

Of course, if he had bothered to listen to the same communities when he was in a position to do something about it, things might be better now -- Boehner cannot escape this fact. This is why, upon hearing the news, Erik Altieri, the executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), pointed out: "It would've been more helpful for him advocating for this 10 years ago." Altieri also reflected: "Think of the number of veterans who could've had relief sooner."

But Altieri isn't turning Boehner away or anything. NORML issued a press release on the Boehner news where Altieri personally echoes my position on the issue:

John Boehner's evolution on marijuana legalization mirrors that of both the American public in general and Republicans specifically.... Regardless of motive, former Speaker Boehner is still held in high regard by a large percentage of the GOP membership and voter base. We look forward to his voice joining the growing chorus calling for an end to cannabis criminalization. Anything that expedites the ability for patients to access this safe and reliable treatment alternative, and that facilitates an end to the practice of arresting otherwise law abiding citizens for the possession of a plant should be welcomed with open arms.

Exactly. So welcome to the marijuana legalization bandwagon, John Boehner! We're happy to have you on board. Anyone who evolves in similar fashion should know that there's plenty of room for everyone aboard this particular bandwagon, no matter how fast it is growing. Everyone's welcome, in fact, and that most definitely includes John Boehner.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


Après Ryan, Le Déluge

[ Posted Wednesday, April 11th, 2018 – 16:22 PDT ]

It's been a good week for quoting French kings, it seems -- and it's only mercredi! First there was Donald Trump's petulant response to his private lawyer (and reputed "fixer") getting raided by the feds: "It's an attack on our country, in a true sense." Many compared Trump's equation of his own personal legal troubles with an attack on the country at large to King Louis XIV's famous statement: "L'état, c'est moi." For Louis, this statement (essentially: "I am the state") was in large part true -- but not so much for Donald Trump. Trump (thankfully) is not an absolute monarch, so for him to say a federal investigation of his lawyer is "an attack on our country" is laughable, at best.

Today, however, the quote that sprang to mind was not from the Sun King, but from his great-grandson, Louis XV, who was known as "the Beloved" and ruled from the age of five years old until his death (which happened 15 years before the revolution that forever changed the whole "the king is the state" concept of French government). Louis XV (or possibly his mistress, reports vary) is said to have predicted: "Après moi, le déluge" ("After me, the flood"). Since his successor's head was forcibly removed from his body (by the device named for Dr. Guillotin), this turned out to be a pretty accurate prediction.

Nowadays, of course, not only is the state not Trump (not by a long shot), but political revolutions don't end with actual severed heads. Which brings us, in a roundabout way, to the news that Speaker of the House Paul Ryan will not be running for re-election. After Ryan, there will be no political "flood" (since political terminology has moved on a bit), but there may indeed be a "wave" -- or even (as the more optimistic Democrats are predicting) a "tsunami." Rather than be drowned by it, Ryan is paddling away as fast as he can. This, of course, also gives rise to another rather damp metaphor, that of rats fleeing a sinking ship.

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Getting Closer To Trump By The Day

[ Posted Tuesday, April 10th, 2018 – 16:23 PDT ]

Federal agents just searched the homes and offices of the personal lawyer of the president of the United States. That is an extraordinary thing to say, but then we live in extraordinary times. The search warrant would not have been granted unless probable cause existed that Michael Cohen had participated in a crime. Furthermore, that subpoenas would not be effective in securing proof of this crime or crimes, therefore a no-knock warrant was necessary (in other words, to prevent Cohen from destroying evidence). But make no mistake about it, the real target of this search was Donald Trump himself. Because the federal investigations (plural) are getting closer and closer to Trump by the day.

Federal prosecutors in general, and Robert Mueller in specific, play their cards pretty close to the vest. They're like icebergs -- you can only see ten percent of what is going on. A full ninety percent remains hidden, beneath the waves. This makes it tough to try to figure out what Mueller is up to, and that is by design. The only breadcrumbs we have are the public documents filed in courts. These may or may not indicate exactly what is going on -- and usually only do so in a tangential way (at least until the very end of the investigation, when all is usually revealed).

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You Are Not Facebook's Customer, You Are Their Product

[ Posted Monday, April 9th, 2018 – 16:19 PDT ]

There's an important distinction to make before Mark Zuckerberg sits down in front of Congress to answer questions about what Facebook is, what they do, and what they've been up to recently (that they really shouldn't have been). As more and more political scandals swirl around Facebook, and as Zuckerberg prepares to answer for his company's actions, both the congressmen who will be questioning him and the public at large need to understand something that has long been somewhat of a rule of thumb in Silicon Valley. Because anyone who uses an online service that is free should stop to consider this fact. You sign up for Facebook (or whatever other service or webpage) and you are not asked for any money. What this means is that you are not their customer, in the traditional sense, instead you are merely their product. You and your data are a commodity which the company monetizes and sells to whomever is willing to pony up some money to see it.

This is not an abstract issue -- it is Facebook's (and many other companies') basic business model. They lure you in with the promise of free stuff, and when they get enough takers then they bundle the data they've collected together and sell it to other companies. They don't own you, per se, but they do own your data. All of it. After all, you voluntarily gave it to them for free.

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Friday Talking Points [479] -- Welcome To The Trump Trade War

[ Posted Friday, April 6th, 2018 – 18:33 PDT ]

First, Donald Trump announced new tariffs on steel and aluminum. Then China reacted with $3 billion in tariffs on U.S. goods (mostly farm goods -- fruit, nuts, and pork). Trump hit back with the threat of tariffs on $50 billion in Chinese goods. The Chinese, not to be outdone, announced that if this happens they'll be slapping their own tariffs on $50 billion in American goods -- most notably, soybeans. Trump then tripled down, announcing further tariffs on $100 billion of Chinese goods. So begins the great Sino-American trade war of 2018. Or, as we like to call it, the Trump trade war. Why not give proper credit where it is due, after all?

The stock market reacted to the latest salvos by dropping over 750 points today. It clawed back some of this at the very end of the day, but it was yet another day of volatility. The markets were down for the whole first quarter of this year, for the first time in a long time. The Trump bump has given way to the Trump slump, in other words. Also, the March jobs report was pretty underwhelming, and wages still have yet to rise for millions of hardworking Americans.

Now, a quick historical quiz: what were Republicans saying just three short months ago about the economy? Back in January, before stocks took their first dive, the GOP was pleased as punch with the gigantic tax cut they had just passed for the wealthy and corporations, and they all were optimistically predicting that the economy would now "be unleashed" and thus soar to new heights. We would all, to use a memorable phrase, soon get tired of all the winning.

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Roseanne Continues Long Tradition

[ Posted Thursday, April 5th, 2018 – 17:46 PDT ]

This is going to be a rather strange column for me to write, because it centers on a few subjects that I don't normally write about. In fact, I usually studiously avoid writing about these subjects. But with all the hoo-hah over the reboot of the television sitcom Roseanne, I felt it was time to chime in on popular television culture and my own television viewing preferences. Again, two subjects that I normally strive to avoid, mostly because this just isn't that kind of blog. So if these subjects bore you to death, I'd just stop reading right now. Fair warning.

I have to begin an article about Roseanne with a personal admission. It's been a "guilty pleasure" television show of mine for a while now. I actually completely missed the first-run seasons, as I watched little-to-zero television during the 1980s and 1990s. For most of this time I didn't even own a television set. So I missed Roseanne in its heyday. I still haven't seen a complete episode of Cheers, either, which always seems to astonish people when I admit to it.

But after getting married, I did buy a television. At that point, I started paying attention to late-night television comedians, since a very large slice of the American public gets all its news and politics from such shows. But the shows didn't come on until 11:30, and there wasn't much on just before they aired. So I found myself watching Roseanne reruns.

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