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Breaking: Another Massive Explosion Rocks Industrial City in China

| Mon Aug. 31, 2015 3:19 PM EDT

Another huge explosion has erupted in China, this time in the eastern city of Dongying, according to the People's Daily, a Chinese state-run newspaper:

The cause of the blast is not yet known. Earlier in August, the city of Tianjin, one of China's largest industrial shipping centers, was rocked by massive explosions inside warehouses that reportedly stored hazardous chemicals and "explosive materials." The explosions killed at least 150 people.

This is a breaking news post. We will update as more information becomes available.

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It's Not the Economy, Stupid. The Spanish Language Is the Ur-Motive of Anti-Immigration Sentiment.

| Mon Aug. 31, 2015 3:17 PM EDT

Ed Kilgore on the conservative hostility toward illegal immigration:

This very weekend I was reading an advance copy of an upcoming book that includes the results of some intensive focus group work with what might be called the "angry wing" of the GOP base. The author notes that one thing that simply enrages grass-roots conservatives is the use of non-English languages by immigrants.

Yep. You can read all about it from one of Kilgore's predecessors, who wrote about it during our last big try at immigration reform in 2006. It's based on an excellent piece by Chris Hayes, written before he sold out to the bright lights and big paychecks of cable television.

I agree that language is probably the key original driver of anti-immigrant sentiment, though it's long since inspired further animus based around crime, gangs, social services, and other culture-related issues. The odd thing is that this is one of the few areas where I think the anti-immigrationists have a bit of a point. It's not a very big point, since (a) Spanish occupies no official role in the United States, and (b) Latin American immigrants all end up speaking English by the second and third generations anyway. Hell, the third-generation Latino who speaks lousy Spanish is practically a cliche.

That said, I've long believed that having multiple official languages makes it very hard to sustain a united polity. The Swiss manage, but the whole reason they're famous for it is because it's so unusual. Even the Belgians and Canadians have trouble with it, and they're pretty tolerant people.

Would a congressional declaration that English is the official language of the United States do anything to calm anti-immigrant fervor? At this point, probably not. But if it were written narrowly and carefully, I'd probably support it. I figure that if God considered a single common language such a boon that it threatened his dominion, it must be pretty powerful stuff.

The Conservative Tax Borg Has Finally Absorbed Donald Trump

| Mon Aug. 31, 2015 2:12 PM EDT

The New York Times reports that Republican leaders are alarmed at one particular aspect of Donald Trump's popularity:

In recent weeks, Mr. Trump has threatened to impose tariffs on American companies that put their factories in other countries. He has threatened to increase taxes on the compensation of hedge fund managers. And he has vowed to change laws that allow American companies to benefit from cheaper tax rates by using mergers to base their operations outside the United States.

Alarmed that those ideas might catch on with some of Mr. Trump’s Republican rivals — as his immigration policies have — the Club for Growth, an anti-tax think tank, is pulling together a team of economists to scrutinize his proposals and calculate the economic impact if he is elected.

First things first: Trump and the Club for Growth have been feuding ever since Trump entered the race. The Club says it's because Trump had previously supported universal health care and a one-time tax on individuals worth more than $10 million. Trump says it's because the Club tried to shake him down for a $1 million donation and he refused to give it to them. The truth is—oh, who cares what the truth is? It's just another Trump feud.

Anyway, Trump repudiated his wealth tax idea a long time ago, but he has supported (a) a progressive income tax, (b) closing loopholes for hedge fund managers, (c) tariffs on companies that move factories to Mexico, and (d) corporate inversions. But wait! In his interview with Sarah Palin, Trump inched closer to Republican orthodoxy on taxes:

We have to simplify our tax code. You have hedge fund guys that are paying virtually no tax and they're making a fortune....Now you can go to a fair tax or a flat tax, but the easiest way and the quickest way, at least on a temporary basis, is simplification of the code: get rid of deductions, reduce taxes.

OK. So Trump definitely wants to eliminate the carried-interest loophole that allows hedge fund managers to pay very little in federal income tax. But he's no longer opposed to a flat tax. It's just that on a "temporary" basis he wants to broaden the base and reduce rates. This is as orthodox as it gets.

As for the tariffs on companies that move to Mexico, that's just bluster not to be taken seriously. And reining in corporate inversions is a pretty bipartisan goal. It would presumably be part of a corporate tax overhaul that would end up being revenue neutral.

On taxes, then, Trump has all but caved in. The only serious part of his schtick that's no longer garden-variety Republican dogma is his desire to close the carried-interest loophole. And even this is small potatoes: it would raise one or two billion dollars per year, which could easily be offset by a tiny tax cut somewhere else. There's really nothing left for even Grover Norquist to dislike.

So no worries! Trump is becoming fully absorbed by the Republican borg on taxes. Aside from the Mexico stuff, which is just campaign trail bombast, there's nothing left that would raise net taxes or offend conservative sensibilities in any way. Whew.

This Week's Great Showdown: Denali vs. McKinley

| Mon Aug. 31, 2015 12:51 PM EDT

So the big news this weekend was President Obama's decision to change the name of Mt. McKinley back to Denali. As near as I can tell, the only people who truly care about this are:

  • Alaskans
  • Ohioans
  • Mountain climbers
  • Trivia buffs

Of these, Alaskans are pro-Denali; Ohioans are proudly pro-McKinley; mountain climbers have been calling it Denali for years already; and trivia buffs are almost certainly pro-Denali since they love it whenever something changes that allows them to pedantically correct other people.

So far—to my pleasant surprise, I admit—there's been very little complaining about how Obama is—again!—bending to the forces of political correctness and identity politics by kowtowing to the icy cold branch of the native American community. But the week is young and the easily outraged are probably still rubbing the sleep out of their eyes. Give them time.

For the time being, though, the pro-McKinley side has only the Ohioans, who have been battling Alaskans over this for decades. Ohioans are mighty defenders of William McKinley, proud son of Niles, Ohio. So proud, in fact, that one of their own renamed Denali to Mt. McKinley in 1896 merely because McKinley had just been nominated for president. Alaskans probably had no idea this was even happening, and in any case they weren't yet a state and could do little about it. They finally tried to officially reverse this power grab in the 70s, but sneaky Ohioans took advantage of a loophole to prevent the US Board on Geographic Names from acting. That ended yesterday when Obama decided to rename America's highest peak himself.

The obvious solution to all this is to rename Ohio's tallest mountain. Unfortunately, Ohio is flat and has no mountains at all. Its highest point is Campbell Hill, topping out at a pedestrian 1,550 feet. They could rename it McKinley Hill—unless, of course, that would outrage the descendants of Charles D. Campbell—but that's quite a comedown from the majesty of Denali, as the pictures on the right show.

What to do? Nothing much, I suppose, except for Ohio's congressional delegation to rant and rave about Obama's unilateral power grab etc. That's fine. Hometown pride demands no less. Even at that, though, I have to give props to Rep. Bob Gibbs for this masterpiece of outrage:

I hope my colleagues will join with me in stopping this constitutional overreach. President Obama has decided to ignore an act of Congress in unilaterally renaming Mt. McKinley in order to promote his job-killing war on energy.

Constitutional overreach? Sure, whatever. That's garden variety stuff by now. But how does removing the name of America's 25th president advance Obama's job-killing war on energy? Inquiring minds want to know.

As for the political implications, all you need to know is this: Alaska has three electoral votes. Ohio has 18 and is routinely a critical swing state. You may draw your own conclusions from this.

Ohio Republicans Are Freaking Out About the Denali Name Change

| Mon Aug. 31, 2015 11:36 AM EDT

On Sunday, President Barack Obama announced that the official name for the highest peak in North America, Alaska's Mount McKinley, would formally be changed to its Athabascan name: Denali. This makes a lot of sense. The mountain was known as Denali long before a gold prospector dubbed it McKinley after reading a newspaper headline in 1896, and it has officially been known as "Denali" in Alaska for about a century, according to the state's board for geographic names. The state and its Republican legislature have been asking Washington to call the mountain Denali for decades. And for decades, the major obstacle to getting this done has been Ohio, McKinley's home state.

We need not spend much time discussing Ohio in this space, but suffice it to say that Ohioans are a very proud, if sometimes misinformed, people, and the birthplace of mediocre presidents won't just take the marginalization of those mediocre presidents lying down. It will fight! To wit, the state's congressional delegation has decided to show off that old Ohio fighting spirit by condemning the decision in sternly worded press releases and tweets. Here's GOP Sen. Rob Portman:

No it wasn't! McKinley was assassinated in 1901. The mountain was named McKinley in 1896, by a random gold prospector who had just returned from the Alaskan Range to find that the governor of Ohio had won the Republican presidential nomination. This is like naming the highest point in the continent after Mitt Romney. Is Portman suggesting that the fix was in as early as 1896? Did Czolgosz really act alone? Was Teddy Roosevelt in on it? My God! Congress did pass a law in 1917 formally recognizing McKinley as the mountain's name, but that was really just paperwork.

Let's see what else they've got:

The Spanish-American War hadn't happened yet in 1896—William Randolph Hearst wouldn't start that for another two years! Okay. Here's GOP Rep. Bob Gibbs, all but engraving his sternly worded response on obsidian:

Job-killing name change!

I haven't seen this much loathing directed at Denali since the last time I went on Yelp.

Waiting For Number 34

| Mon Aug. 31, 2015 11:34 AM EDT

President Obama has the support of 31 Democratic senators for his Iran nuclear deal. So naturally we're now beginning to ponder the truly important stuff:

It looks increasingly likely that the nuclear agreement will survive its congressional trial — even opponents are starting to accept that seeming inevitability.

Which leaves just one question: Who will be the deal-clinching senator No. 34?

Quite so. Who will be the history maker? Or, if you prefer, the final nail in the coffin of treachery? This is what truly matters.

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Black Employees at a Trump Casino Were Reportedly Removed Whenever the Donald Arrived

| Mon Aug. 31, 2015 11:03 AM EDT

It was only recently that Republican presidential candidate and front-runner Donald Trump said he'd be willing to physically fight Black Lives Matter activists if they interrupted him on stage. Now, a new report from the New Yorker relays an alarming account of how black employees at one of Donald Trump's Atlantic City properties were routinely kept from view when the real estate magnate came to town. From writer Nick Paumgarten:

I met a bus driver named Kip Brown, who worked the Port Authority route, up and back each morning, for Academy Bus Lines. He had been at Academy for fifteen years and was No. 3 in seniority, out of seventy drivers in the region. As ridership has fallen, Academy has been cutting back on its schedule. The number of visitors arriving by bus is an eighth of what it was a quarter century ago. In the spring, Brown, just forty-seven, retired.

Now he was looking for work as a livery driver. Brown also used to work in the casinos, at the Showboat, bussing tables, and at Trump’s Castle, stripping and waxing floors. "When Donald and Ivana came to the casino, the bosses would order all the black people off the floor," he said. "It was the eighties, I was a teen-ager, but I remember it: they put us all in the back."

For more on how Trump feels about "the blacks," head over to Gawker's decidedly nasty collection of quotes.

Robert Kagan Thinks America's Problem Is Too Little War

| Mon Aug. 31, 2015 11:00 AM EDT

Over the weekend1 Robert Kagan wrote an essay in the Wall Street Journal titled "America's Dangerous Aversion to Conflict." That seemed....wrong, somehow, so I read it. Mostly it turned out to be a tedious history lesson about the run-up to World War II, basically a long version of the "Munich!" argument that conservatives make every time we fail to go to war with somebody. But there was also this:

President George H.W. Bush and his national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, sent half a million American troops to fight thousands of miles away for no other reason than to thwart aggression and restore a desert kingdom that had been invaded by its tyrant neighbor.

....A little more than a decade later, however, the U.S. is a changed country. Because of the experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, to suggest sending even a few thousand troops to fight anywhere for any reason is almost unthinkable. The most hawkish members of Congress don't think it safe to argue for a ground attack on the Islamic State or for a NATO troop presence in Ukraine. There is no serious discussion of reversing the cuts in the defense budget, even though the strategic requirements of defending U.S. allies in Europe, Asia and the Middle East have rarely been more manifest while America's ability to do so has rarely been more in doubt.

This is one of the tropes that conservative hawks haul out with tiresome predictability, but it's flat wrong. Even now, when Americans have every reason to be skeptical of military action in the Mideast, poll after poll shows a surprising acceptance of it. Whether the subject is Iran, Syria, or ISIS, it's plain that many Americans are already primed for military action, and many more can be talked into it pretty easily. The United States has fought half a dozen major wars in the past quarter century, and the surprising thing isn't that we've gotten war weary. Quite the contrary: the surprising thing is that we're plainly ready to keep it up given the right incentive.

Kagan's argument is also dishonest in a couple of common ways. First, he argues that sending "even a few thousand troops" anywhere is now unthinkable. This is nonsense. Over the past few months we've already sent a few thousand troops to fight ISIS, and this has barely raised a peep even from liberals. There is an aversion to sending a hundred thousand ground troops to fight ISIS and starting up another full-scale war and occupation of Iraq. If Kagan objects to that, fine. But that's what we're talking about, and Kagan should own up to it.

Second, after spending several paragraphs singing the praises of our military response during the Cold War, Kagan bemoans our unwillingness to send troops to Ukraine. But again, that's nonsense. During the Cold War, we fought plenty of proxy wars but never, never, never sent troops to fight the Soviets directly. Not in Hungary. Not in Czechoslovakia. Not in Afghanistan. If Kagan wants us to be more belligerent toward Russia than we ever were toward the old Soviet Union, that's fine too. But he needs to say so, rather than subtly rewriting history.

Kagan, like so many other hawks, is intent on pretending that the threats we face today are as dangerous as any in the past century. But that's simply not true. World War I, World War II, and the Cold War were almost unimaginably greater threats to the world than a few minor territorial grabs by Vladimir Putin, a civil war in Syria, and the takeover of a chunk of Iraq by a ragtag group of delusional jihadists. Pretending otherwise does Kagan's reputation no favors.

1Actually, Kagan wrote this over a weekend in 2014. I'm not really sure why it popped up during my perusal of the Journal last night. But I suppose it doesn't matter: Kagan would likely say the same thing today that he did a year ago.

Apple Hates Me. I Hate Them Right Back.

| Sun Aug. 30, 2015 10:08 PM EDT

Apple has never allowed ad-blocking software on the iPhone or iPad. This is one among many reasons that I ditched both. Not because I hate ads all that passionately, but because it's an example of the obsessive corporate control Apple maintains over its environment. But it's my iPad, dammit. If I want a different virtual keyboard, why can't I get one? If I want access to a file, why does Apple forbid it? If I want ad-blocking software, why should Apple be allowed to stop me?

Apple is still a serial offender on this front, but apparently they've decided to relent on ad-blocking software. As usual, though, there appears to be a deeper story here:

The next version of Apple’s mobile-operating system, due out as early as next month, will let users install apps that prevent ads from appearing in its Safari browser.

....Apple says it won’t allow ad blocking within apps, because ads inside apps don’t compromise performance as they do on the browser. That distinction serves Apple’s interests. It takes a 30% cut on money generated from apps, and has a business serving ads inside apps. What’s more, iOS 9 will include an Apple News app, which will host articles from major news publishers. Apple may receive a share of the revenue from ads that accompany those articles.

The basic lay of the land here—assuming the Wall Street Journal has this right—is that Apple's move is aimed at Google, which makes most of its revenue from browser ads. Conversely, it doesn't hurt companies like Facebook much, since they have dedicated apps. In the big picture, this motivates more and more companies to build Apple-specific apps, since those will become more lucrative over time. And it helps Apple's bottom line since it gets a cut of the revenue. Plus it annoys Google.

So here's the lesson: Apple is happy to allow users more control over their devices as long as it also happens to benefit Apple. If it doesn't, then tough.

This is why I generally loathe Apple. Obviously all companies are run in their own self-interest, but Apple carries this to absurd lengths. Say what you will about Microsoft, but they've never pulled this kind of crap on their customers. If I buy a Windows machine, I can do pretty much anything I want to it.

Needless to say, lots and lots of people couldn't care less about this, and Apple has made a ton of money catering to them. But I care. Whether it's because Steve Jobs insisted on the one perfect way of using a computer, or because Apple's accountants want to limit customers' choices in order to maximize corporate revenue, Apple has never cared much about allowing me to choose how I prefer to use a computer. That's not thinking different. It's how IBM operated half a century ago. And it sucks.

Hair Update: Short Wins By a Landslide

| Sun Aug. 30, 2015 11:25 AM EDT

So what does the commentariat think on the hair front? Here's a smattering of comments from folks who like my new, shorter hair:

DM: Makes you look quietly studly and stoic.

JS: The short look, with the T-shirt, is hot. You'll just have to get used to the idea that you're going to turn female heads when you walk into a restaurant.

EVC: Even without the tattoos, you look so much more hip and bad-ass. It's a good look.

CLD: It's like Johnny Depp in Black Mass, it's the new look.

SG: Clean, cool, contemporary. And it makes you look ten years younger.

RS: As a personal finance professor, I like that you can have your wife cut it with at home electric hair clipper package; it's easy at that length!

LD: It's more interesting, less like an insurance salesman from the '50's.

And here's a smattering of comment from the one person who likes my old, longer hair:

JD: Your old hair is so cute. And you might as well enjoy it while you can, because, face it, the day will come when it will all go away anyway. Dad did not have much hair at your age.

Well....but Dad didn't have much hair by the time he was 30, either. I plan to take after my maternal grandfather, who kept his hair into his 90s. In any case, the new hair wins by about 487 to 1. But let's face it: the vote was rigged from the start. Nobody was going to vote for that old hair. Besides, if I were sporting a polka-dot mohawk you guys would all vote for it. Don't lie. You know you would.

So that's that. Short hair wins. However, it turns out that none of your votes counted anyway. Marian voted for the new hair, and she outvoted all of you. Funny how that works.