The BBC's Paul Wood writes today about the infamous "dossier" that claims a substantial connection between Russian officials and the Trump campaign team:

The BBC has learned that US officials "verified" a key claim in a report about Kremlin involvement in Donald Trump's election — that a Russian diplomat in Washington was in fact a spy.

....At one point [the dossier says]: "A leading Russian diplomat, Mikhail KULAGIN, had been withdrawn from Washington at short notice because Moscow feared his heavy involvement in the US presidential election operation... would be exposed in the media there."...Sources I know and trust have told me the US government identified Kalugin as a spy while he was still at the embassy.

....I understand — from former officials — that from 2013-16, Steele gave the US government extensive information on Russia and Ukraine....One former senior official who saw these reports told me: "It was found to be of value by the people whose job it was to look at Russia every day"....Another who dealt with this material in government said: "Sometimes he would get spun by somebody. [But] it was always 80% there."...In light of his earlier work, the US intelligence community saw him as "credible" (their highest praise).

....Members of the Obama administration believe, based on analysis they saw from the intelligence community, that the information exchange claimed by Steele continued into the election.

"This is a three-headed operation," said one former official, setting out the case, based on the intelligence: Firstly, hackers steal damaging emails from senior Democrats. Secondly, the stories based on this hacked information appear on Twitter and Facebook, posted by thousands of automated "bots", then on Russia's English-language outlets, RT and Sputnik, then right-wing US "news" sites such as Infowars and Breitbart, then Fox and the mainstream media. Thirdly, Russia downloads the online voter rolls.

The voter rolls are said to fit into this because of "microtargeting". Using email, Facebook and Twitter, political advertising can be tailored very precisely: individual messaging for individual voters....This would take co-operation with the Trump campaign, it is claimed.

Hmmm. Thousands of bots? Apparently so:

On Wednesday the Washington Post published a story about "Source D" in the dossier:

In June, a Belarusan American businessman who goes by the name Sergei Millian shared some tantalizing claims about Donald Trump....The allegations by Millian — whose role was first reported by the Wall Street Journal and has been confirmed by The Washington Post — were central to the dossier compiled by the former spy, Christopher Steele. While the dossier has not been verified and its claims have been denied by Trump, Steele’s document said that Millian’s assertions had been corroborated by other sources, including in the Russian government and former intelligence sources.

The most explosive allegation that the dossier says originally came from Millian is the claim that Trump had hired prostitutes at the Moscow Ritz-Carlton and that the Kremlin has kept evidence of the encounter.

Nobody knows for sure if Millian is genuinely plugged in at high levels, or if he's just a fast-talking huckster. But put all this together and it's easy to see why the Trump-Russia story won't go away. The FBI believes Steele to be credible. In the cases where it's been possible to check out the allegations in the dossier, they've turned out to be true. Other intelligence corroborates much of the alleged Russian activity. And Millian's claims are genuinely explosive.

This isn't going away anytime soon.

Mexico is threatening to use the power of corn to fight Donald Trump's tough talk on trade:

As President Trump threatens Mexico with drastic changes on trade, its leaders are wielding corn as a weapon. Mexico’s Senate is considering legislation calling for a boycott of U.S. corn, and the government has begun negotiating with Argentina and Brazil to import corn from those nations tax-free. The threat of a boycott is Mexico’s latest and perhaps cleverest attempt to fight back against Trump, whose threats to pull out of free trade agreements and slap a 20% import tax on Mexican products have shaken confidence in Mexico’s economy.

And apparently it's working:

The Trump administration is signaling to Congress it would seek mostly modest changes to the North American Free Trade Agreement in upcoming negotiations with Mexico and Canada, a deal President Donald Trump called a “disaster” during the campaign.

....The draft, reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, talks of seeking “to improve procedures to resolve disputes,” rather than eliminating the panels. The U.S. also wouldn’t use the Nafta negotiations to deal with disputes over foreign currency policies or to hit numerical targets for bilateral trade deficits, as some trade hawks have been urging.

....Jeffrey Schott, a trade scholar at the Peterson Institute for International Economics...noted that a number of the proposed negotiating objectives echo provisions in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation trade pact among Pacific Rim countries. Mr. Trump campaigned heavily against the TPP.

Do not underestimate the power of corn! Alternatively, maybe corn has nothing to do with it. Maybe Trump was just blathering all along and never really had any intention of getting tough with Mexico. In the end, he'll build a few more miles of fencing, make a few modest changes to NAFTA, and then call it the greatest boon to the working man since the Wagner Act. I've also read a few pieces recently about China, and apparently all those Goldman Sachs folks he hired have talked Trump into backing down on a trade war there too. I guess Goldman Sachs has to be good for something.

Anyway, having given up on Mexico and China, now Trump is going after the ultra-conservatives of the House Freedom Caucus:

I'll bet they're scared shitless. Trump is demonstrating that his talk may be big, but he can't make it stick. In his first two months, he's failed on his immigration order and his health care plan, has no chance of building his wall, and has backed down on Mexico and China. His bark is unquestionably worse than his bite.

The health care bill would have flamed out in the Senate anyway. The HFC did everyone a favor by getting it off the agenda quickly so Congress could move on to important matters like cutting taxes for the rich.

Donald Trump appears not to care about science. CAN THIS REALLY BE TRUE???

On the fourth floor of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, the staff of the White House chief technology officer has been virtually deleted, down from 24 members before the election to, by Friday, only one.

....Mr. Trump has not yet named his top advisers on technology or science, and so far, has made just one hire: Michael Kratsios, the former chief of staff for Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley investor and one of the president’s wealthiest supporters, as the deputy chief technology officer.

Neither Mr. Kratsios, who has a bachelor’s degree in political science from Princeton, nor anyone else still working in the science and technology office regularly participates in Mr. Trump’s daily briefings, as they did for President Barack Obama. “The impression this leaves is that Trump isn’t interested in science and that scientific matters are a low priority at the White House,” said Vinton G. Cerf, a computer scientist, vice president of Google and one of the chief architects of the internet.

The problem with science is (a) it's bo-o-o-o-o-ring, (b) it's depressing, and (c) it often clashes with stuff you want to do. Really, it's just a bummer all around. Why on earth would anyone want to staff the egghead department, anyway?

Jordan Weissmann writes this today:

One of Tom Price’s go-to criticisms of the Affordable Care Act is that it does not, in fact, provide people much in the way of care. The law has helped many Americans obtain insurance, sure. But because the policies have such high deductibles, he argues, patients still can’t afford medical help. "People have coverage, but they don’t have care," the Health and Human Services secretary likes to say.

We can all agree that high deductibles are a problem. Weissman, however, describes a new study which shows that actual medical care, not just insurance coverage, has increased under Obamacare. This is true of both people covered by the Medicaid expansion and people covered by the exchanges.

But did we really need a lot of fancy statistics to figure this out? Focusing only on the exchanges (since Medicaid has no deductibles):

  • CBO estimates that total federal subsidies this year will amount to $31 billion.
  • Add another third or so paid out of pocket, and we get to $40 billion in total premiums paid to insurance companies.
  • Insurance companies are required to spend 80 percent of premiums on actual medical care, which comes to $32 billion.
  • Finally, the exchanges cover about 10 million people, which means the average Obamacare recipient will receive about $3,200 in medical care this year.

My arithmetic might be off a bit here and there, but not by a lot. One way or another, the average person insured through the Obamacare exchanges receives $3-4,000 in medical care. There's no way around that.

High deductibles may be a problem, but they aren't preventing people from getting a pretty considerable amount of medical care that they weren't getting before. Where do Republicans get this stuff, anyway?

I Am Still Not A Lawyer, and I don't want to go too far down this rabbit hole, but I've gotten a fair amount of pushback to my post last night suggesting that the folks who did the undercover Planned Parenthood videos shouldn't be prosecuted. The pushback takes two forms. First, they're horrible people who did horrible things. Second, California law requires consent from both parties for any kind of recording, and they broke that law. They should pay for this.

As to the first, I agree that they did horrible things and endangered people. But that's not what they're charged with. As to the second, California law (link here) is not as clear-cut as you might think:

If a real live California attorney with specific experience in this area wants to chime in, I'm all ears. For now, though, no matter how much I loathe what they did, I don't like the idea of prosecuting people for political activities unless their violation of the law is very serious and very clear. This is neither.

Criminal prosecution of secret recordings is rare in California, and I'd just as soon keep it that way. There's a huge amount of prosecutorial discretion involved in this case, and that's a recipe for political retaliation against ideas we don't like. That's where I get off the train.

UPDATE: Then again, we have this:

The penal code is stricter than the civil code, "but excludes a communication made in a public gathering." I don't know if this refers only to public meetings (town halls, protests, etc.) or to any public place, like a restaurant. Probably the former.

This is all kind of strange. Why would there be an "investigatory" exception for lawsuits but not for criminal prosecutions?

Ross Douthat raised a common conservative talking point in his column this weekend:

It’s worth raising once again the most counterintuitive and frequently scoffed-at point that conservatives have made about Obamacare:

It probably isn’t saving many lives.

One of the most powerful arguments in the litany that turned moderate Republican lawmakers to jelly was that they were voting to “make America sick again,” to effectively kill people who relied on the Affordable Care Act for drugs and surgery and treatment....So far the evidence is conspicuously missing.

The words probably and many are doing a heavy lift here, but let's set that aside. Douthat is almost certainly right. Here's why:

People in the US don't die much before age 65, so health insurance for working-age folks has never been likely to have much effect on death rates.1 Below age 55, it's even less likely: the death rate is so minuscule that it would take a miracle to invent any kind of health-related practice that had a measurable effect on life expectancy. If the crude death rate is already below 0.5 percent, there's just no way to reduce it much more.

And yet, people like health care anyway. They like it so much that we're collectively willing to spend vast amounts of money on it. As you've probably heard many dozens of times, health care is one-sixth of the economy. On average, that means we all pay about one-sixth of our income to provide health care for ourselves.

Why? At the risk of repeating the obvious, most medical care isn't about lifespan. Before age 65, almost none of it is about lifespan. It's about feeling better. I'm taking a very expensive chemotherapy drug that probably won't delay my eventual death by much, but it will improve my life considerably in the meantime. Ditto for the antidepressant I take. And for the arthroscopic knee surgery I had a couple of decades ago.

The same is true for putting a leg in a cast; prescribing an asthma inhaler; replacing a hip; treating an infection; inserting an IUD; treating a hernia; removing a cataract; prescribing a statin; or a hundred other medical procedures. Only a small percentage of what doctors do is lifesaving.

It's a measure of our impoverished sense of empathy that we spend so much time focused on whether health care saves lives. Liberals do it because it's the only thing guaranteed to get a positive reaction. Even stone conservatives don't want people dying in the streets. If progressives focused instead on the fact that health coverage saves money and makes you feel better, there's a good chance that support for wider health coverage would suffer substantially. To an awful lot of people, just making others "feel better" doesn't seem worth paying taxes for.

So instead we end up in a proxy war about people dying. It's not the sign of a mature society, but then again, who ever said we were a mature society?

1The big exception is dying at birth or during the first year of life. The United States has an appallingly poor record on that score, especially among the poor and non-white.

Lunchtime Photo

It's wildflower season in the desert, and nearby Anza-Borrego was said to have a "superbloom" this year. I didn't feel like making the trek out there, especially since I'd have to wake up around 4 am to get there for sunrise, but a reader suggested that I check out Upper Newport Bay instead. That's a more civilized 6:30 am wakeup call. So that's where I was last Saturday.

The Wall Street Journal says that globalization is dead, killed on a rising tide of financial crisis, populism, and nationalist politics. Some threads of their evidence are more convincing than others, but a quick look at global trade shows that they have a point:

Since 2011, world trade (in both merchandise and services) has grown at a rate of about 0.8 percent per year. By 2014 it had barely recovered to its pre-recession high. That compares to a growth rate of over 17 percent per year in the first eight years of the century. Globalization may not be dead, but it's definitely taking a nap.

Over at the Intercept, Josh Begley has a story that's disturbing—but not in the usual Intercept way:

Five years ago, I made a simple iPhone app. It would send you a push notification every time a U.S. drone strike was reported in the news. Apple rejected the app three times, calling it “excessively objectionable or crude content.”

....In 2014, after five rejections, Apple accepted the app....But the following September, Apple decided to delete the app entirely. They claimed that the content, once again, was “excessively objectionable or crude.”...Well, Apple’s position has evolved. Today, after 12 attempts, the Metadata app is back in the App Store.

....Update: 2:32pm. Apple has removed Metadata from the App Store.

There is, needless to say, nothing objectionable or crude about this app. It merely aggregates news on a particular subject. Drone strikes themselves may be objectionable and crude—opinions differ, obviously—but reporting on them isn't.

This matters. Upwards of half of all Americans get some or most of their news from their mobile devices, and for all practical purposes there are only two options in the mobile device world: iOS and Android. If you can't get an app accepted on either platform, then no one will ever see your app. Apple and Google are the sole gateways to what we can and can't see.

Now, there are obviously other ways of getting the news. There may even be a website that aggregates drone news the same way Begley's app does. Still, there's no question that an app can do things a news site can't. It can make the news more immediate. It can make sure you don't miss anything. It can allow you to share more easily with fellow activists.

When Google and Apple are just keeping out porn sites, no one really cares. Even when they're nixing apps that happen to compete with Apple or Google, people mostly shrug. But when they start censoring apps based on their news content, we're in trouble. If there were dozens of mobile platforms, and none of them had a big market share, it might not matter too much. Competition would probably sort things out. But when there are only two, it matters a lot. There may still be plenty of news outlets, but in a real-world sense we're increasingly outsourcing our news to a tiny number of players—mostly Apple, Google, and Facebook. We may wake up some morning and be sorry we did that.

Prime Minister Theresa May submitted an official notice today the Great Britain will be exiting the European Union:

Now that Prime Minister May has officially given notice to Tusk, the next step is to begin negotiations about the negotiations. In about a month, the UK and EU will formally sit down to come to terms on how the negotiations will work.

“Most of the formal stuff that will be agreed upon in the big meetings has already been penciled in,” Tim Oliver, an expert on the EU at the London School of Economics, tells me....Ultimately, Oliver believes, “nothing substantive” will be agreed upon until after the French presidential election in April and the German parliamentary election in late September. That’s because the French and Germans are, by far, the two most important EU member states. Without a firm sense of who their leaders will be in the coming years, it will be impossible to know what terms the EU might agree to.

In other words, nothing really happens for the next six months. And that's totally OK because, hey, that still leaves 18 months to negotiate the biggest, messiest divorce in treaty history. Plenty of time. No need for any sense of urgency here.