Roundtable – July Grab Bag

The Roundtable is Torchlight staff’s discussion of news and events. The text has been lightly edited for clarity, and some links were added after the fact. This conversation happened on July 21, 2019.

Josh Kyu Saiewitz, Senior Managing Editor

Hello and welcome to today’s Roundtable, our regular discussion of political events with Torchlight staff. This week, with so much going on in the news, we’re going to cover a handful of different topics. Let’s start with what has definitely dominated the national political conversation for the past week, Trump’s statements telling four Congresswomen of color to go back to their countries. Responses to these comments have varied in a way that represents every ongoing aspect of national politics these days, from the House vote to condemn the remarks to Trump doubling and tripling down on them to the disturbing chant “send her back” at one of his rallies to the general silence from Republican politicians on the issue. Trump’s racism has caused this kind of furor before—“shithole countries”, for example—so does it matter or change anything for us to spend a week decrying it? Do we think these moments are good or bad for Trump or Democrats politically?

Christopher Dahlin, Politics Editor (aka Christo)

I think we have to denounce it. Yes, we’ve seen this before, but letting it be normalized (and expanded by having a crowd chant it) is extremely frightening. As someone who does not identify as Jewish, but is of Jewish descent, it chills me, and I have had conversations with some family I have literally never had or felt the need to have before. Even though talking about how racist the president is seems rote and mundane, the alternative is to let it pass uncommented on, and normalizing this behavior is unacceptable.

Ann Anderson, Contributing Writer

Does it matter to Republicans? Some, in that they seem to love it, according to recent polling. Does it matter to independent voters, who may swing the elections? Possibly, since according to the same polling, Trump’s recent behavior has driven them away. However, that only lasts as long as they chose to remember it matters. Another concern is that over this weekend, Trump has taken control of the narrative, spinning a web of lies about the four congresswomen to justify his words. The longer the narrative sits without a counter-narrative, the more likely it takes root and that has consequences for those women and for Democrats’ platforms and messaging.

All of that is on top of the fact that the President of the United States just went full echoes of George Wallace racist, and a significant block of the country has supported it or said nothing. When both EEOC guidelines and white nationalists say something is racist, it’s no longer a matter of opinion, but rather objective observation. We all need to stand up to this.

Josh

I thought it was interesting that the four of them decided to hold a press conference responding to Trump. Generally the targets of his racist rhetoric are not public figures in the same way—like the judge in the Trump University case. Do you think that was a smart decision on their part?

Christo

Well, for one thing, Trump is a Bully and a Coward, so there’s usually a reason why his targets aren’t as public. Judges stay out of the media for a lot of very good reasons, for example.  So yes, visibly resisting him is a great idea.

Also, I saw a piece that opined that this was worse than Wallace because a) Wallace at least had the decency to use dogwhistles, and b) Wallace at least recanted eventually.

Josh

“Segregation now, segregation forever” is a dogwhistle?

Christo

I mean in general. He obviously was a vile man, but he usually knew his limits. Trump goes beyond the limits of society, but the Republicans are either to cowardly or too racist to care.

Ann

I think they handled it well. At the time they seized back the narrative and then said they weren’t going to let it be a distraction, which I thought was an excellent tone to take. In the intervening days, we’ve had the weekend circuit of Trump cronies on various media sources controlling the narrative again, so I am waiting to see what, if anything, the congresswomen do in response.

David Spitzley, Senior Contributor

I think the one lesson that we’ve learned is that Trump being a bully means he folds against serious resistance. There is very little argument against how The Squad have responded to their time in Trump’s spotlight.

Ann

Did I mention that I have been hearing Republican messaging that they are nationalists, not white nationalists, apparently as the gearing up of a campaign theme? They are trying to redefine words again and tell us that what we see isn’t really what we see. I would say this is how it starts, but it has already started. 

Josh

There was a great line going around on Twitter that I think originated from one of the Squad quoting Toni Morrison—this idea that racism is a distraction, that it forces people of color to keep fighting to justify their existence, their freedom, their value, instead doing their work.  With that in mind, we’re going to switch topics, because we’ve given this racism enough of our time today.

David 

(Ironic, given that racism was created as a distraction for poor whites from their common interests with black slaves.)

Josh

(Indeed.)

Let’s talk now about the ACA lawsuit, currently awaiting a decision in the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. This is a lawsuit joined by many Republican-controlled state attorneys general against the Affordable Care Act, asking that the law be struck down in its entirety under the argument that the law is only Constitutional as a tax (according to a SCOTUS decision), and since the GOP rendered the tax down to $0.00, it is now not a tax and therefore NULL AND VOID or something. What we do we think of this argument, and especially the political impact of Republicans attacking the ACA this way (in a suit supported by the administration) or a potential decision against the law in the run-up to 2020?

Christo

It’s a bullshit argument.  Just because the penalty is 0, it doesn’t mean it is null and voided into nonexistence.

David

I’d think the courts would have an interest in not carrying Congress’ water for them.

Chriso

However, with the current judicial crowd… I can’t say.

David

“If you want this law gone, do it yourselves.”

Christo

If it is struck down, Roberts will probably have to save it again. If he doesn’t, then expect literally everything from that point on to be about Healthcare and the Medicare For All fight to become truly joined.

David

Yep

Christo

Also, Biden will be kinda screwed, because the ACA is only good as a baseline now. If that is gone, then Dems are going to want something better and more substantial, I think.

David

Yep.

Ann

Under the law, it is not a bullshit argument. If I recall correctly, the ACA only managed to get passed by tying it to taxes because of reconciliation and other voting rules in Congress, or maybe that was to help it defeat the Constitutional fight that was sure to follow. I can’t remember that clearly right now. However, the reason it was deemed Constitutional by the Supreme Court in the past was because of that tie to taxation, which made it federal and therefore could override the states rights issues. Without that provision, yes, it could very well get struck down, which was the intent when Republicans added that codicil to the tax law they passed in 2017.

However, having taken a beating in the 2018 elections in no small part due to health care, Republicans in Congress are right now a little gunshy of the White House’s efforts to kill the ACA, because it could seriously negatively impact their 2020 chances. That won’t necessarily stop the runaway train that is Trump, and I truly fear for the many that will be adversely affected if the ACA is struck down.

Christo

Eliminating the penalty, and setting the penalty to zero, are not actually the same thing from a legal standpoint. Unless the judge accepts the argument. Which is the problem right now.

David

Keep in mind, though, that the reason the classification of the cost as a tax was important was that otherwise it would be a penalty, which Congress didn’t technically have the power to levy. It seems likely to me that imposing a cost of $0 simply won’t count as either, and is thus legally meaningless. Unless “Congress wanted to set off a Constitutional proximity mine” qualifies as Legislative Intent which the Supremes must then follow.

Christo

The Supremes to do not have to follow that (in the past, the standard has essentially been “how do we respect the intent of the legislature”). But again, standards of the past do not apply.

David

But given that Roberts appears to care about what condition he’ll leave the Court in when he’s done with it, this time it might. Again, I don’t think he’s going to be copacetic with letting Congress intentionally write bad legislation so the Court can do cleanup.

Josh

The issue of severability is even stronger here, I think. The ACA is built on a three legged structure: pre-existing conditions are protected along with required minimum standards for insurance plans, the individual mandate forces healthy people to enter the market to shore up the pools, and subsidies help those who can’t afford it fulfill the mandate and gain access to health care. From a policy standpoint, yanking out one of the three legs might lead to a collapse—but from a legal standpoint, the three should be distinct, in that whether the mandate is a tax or a penalty doesn’t affect, say, subsidies or letting young people stay on their parents’ health care until they’re 26.

Moreover, if there was going to be a real two-legged collapse, it probably would have happened by now, since the mandate had been toothless since the tax was zeroed out in the 2017 GOP tax cuts. So even if the mandate is found to be no longer Constitutional, the rest of the ACA should remain intact—unless, as Christo reminds us, Republican judges and justices just feel like taking the whole thing down.

Christo

It will probably survive, but probably is not something you want to hear in matters of literal life and death.

Josh

On that note, let’s turn to a bit of a lighter subject. Lots of discussion this week surrounding the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. What would you like to us do in terms of space and space exploration in the next 50 years?

David

1) Asteroid mining (probably bringing them to Earth orbit via gravity tractor), both to expand our supply of natural resources and move mining outside the biosphere, 2) orbital habitats, as planetary surfaces are really inefficient for space work, and 3) solar-system scale telescope arrays (thanks, David Brin!) 

Christo

Humans on Mars, despite how unfeasible it is. Also perhaps a power generation thing, or something to assist with our climate crisis.

Ann

Honestly, there are a lot of avenues, and I see value to all of them, except a Space Force, which clearly popped into Trump’s head after he saw “Moonraker” during a James Bond marathon and once again could not tell fact from fiction. I just want us to keep doing something. Every time we do, we learn more about how everything works and develop technologies that have applications here on Earth too.

David

I think we’ve still got so much room for terrestrial renewable power that setting up microwave beamed power from orbit it just too much risk for redundant reward, but I’m not a renewable energy scientist…
(Nice Moonraker reference!)

Ann

(I call it like I see it.)

Josh

Why haven’t we done more in the past 50 years? Do Americans just not care about space?

Christo

I think it’s a “Capitalists only care about next quarter profits” kinda thing.

Plus Republicans not being fans of science kinda thing.

David

Historically Nixon ditched the space race after Apollo, and since that was authentically a nation-state level project and nobody else had the juice we’ve been adrift.  But keep in mind that while crewed spaceflight hasn’t gotten very far, what we’ve done with satellites and space probes is pretty astounding.

Now that computer tech has made a lot of the logistics more manageable, materials science has given us a lot more raw materials for keeping people alive, and there are many more countries lining up anatomy on the measuring table, it looks like we’ll be flinging hairless apes into space a lot more in the near future.

Ann

Actually, we have done a lot. Japan just landed a probe on an asteroid, which blows my mind. And the U.S. space program has continued to make valuable scientific studies and achievements in the last 50 years. But, for many, nothing is going to be as flashy or memorable as landing on the moon, except landing on Mars or something like that. It’s a big target, so it sticks in the mind, but a lot of value comes from the so-called lesser stuff to which the American public doesn’t pay as much attention. 

Josh

Do we need another “moonshot” to inspire people or do we just keep plugging away?

David 

Again I say Yep.

To both of you.  And both options.

Christo

Agreed as well.

Ann

I would be good with both.

Christo

I guess I was specifically thinking about manned missions with my comment.

David

Although the question is what’s the goal of the “moonshot”? Making a big effort is justifiable against opportunity costs only for a suitable payoff. What are we trying to achieve as a nation or civilization with the putative “moonshot”?

I think that was why Nixon dropped out. It cost a lot, and all it was specifically intended to do was score the 10 VP bonus card for “first country to the moon”.  There were tons of payoffs, but seriously, if we’d divvied up those billions into thousands of pure research projects over the decade covered by Apollo, we might have actually come out ahead…

Josh

Hey, Victory Points are important, Dave. They’re how you win the game.

David

But without the moonshot we wouldn’t have spent the money on research, it would have gone into more military spending, or tax cuts, or something.  So the role of the moonshot is to tart up, as Mr. Harmon would say, public infrastructure investment in R&D. And that’s probably worthwhile regardless of the actual target set.

Christo

Apparently it jump started the demand for diminishing size in computers enough to help kickstart production to eventually make the process efficient enough for private consumption. Lead eventually and circuitously to Silicon Valley.

Also, Margaret Hamilton is a hero of mine.

David

Exactly. The helicopter drop of money into tech jumped us forward in a lot of ways. In theory you could arrange it more efficiently, but it probably wouldn’t happen without some of the inefficiency.

Christo

And you don’t know where the actual benefits in research come until after you’ve researched them.

David

“That isn’t wasteful spending, that’s kindling.”

Christo

Too much investment in science is better than trying to destroy some segments of USDA by moving them out of Washington on extremely short notice.

David

Similar criticisms sometimes get leveled at cancer and AIDS research getting a ton of money compared to deaths caused, but without those targets the money probably wouldn’t wind up in health research at all. Those diseases also both got us in deep with cellular mechanics and the like, so they have been good spinoff sources.

Josh

True enough. But there’s one thing we know for sure, and that’s that we’re doing nothing significant in space anytime soon (besides maybe militarizing it) unless the next president is a Democrat. So let’s turn to our final topic for today, the upcoming Democratic presidential primary debates, which will happen on July 30th and 31st on CNN. Which candidates are you keeping an eye on? What are you hoping or expecting to see from them, or from the debates as a whole?

Christo

Almost everyone is worried about their polling for the third debate, so expect some candidates to go in hard. Biden is probably not looking forward to a rematch with Harris.
I’m really hoping September will be one night.

Josh

I think it’s likely we’ll be down to single digits by then, so probably.

Ann

After the last debates, we saw some candidates begin to break away from the pack a bit more. I’d like to see if any new contenders emerge after this series of debates, since everyone has had a chance to adjust their approach after the last ones. I’d like to see if Biden shows any signs of being responsive to the current political environment, instead of the one he lived in before he became VP, or if he just acts as out of touch as last time. It could prove to be a deal-breaker or maker for his numbers, and with his early lead, now eroding, in polling, a poor performance could open the door to other emerging hopefuls. Or maybe I am being too optimistic. I’d like to see a nailing down on some policy specifics from some candidates and perhaps some discussion of foreign policy, especially in light of increasing tensions with Iran, which will not disappear once Trump is gone.

Christo

I am really glad there are no one word answers, and no hand-raising.

Josh

And no Chuck Todd, I believe.

Christo

Chuck Todd is NBC, yes.

David

Personally, I am hoping for a flameout of white guys so well-choreographed that the Blue Angels weep. I still have a bit of respect for Sanders’ role in catalyzing the Overton Window shift, but after the Washing Post published survey data that showed that negative bias towards women is strongly correlated with preference for Sanders over Warren, I’m willing to throw him out with the musk-scented bath water.

Josh

I imagine we will see a least a couple of campaigns end after the debates, as people see that they didn’t get a bump and likely won’t make the next one.

Christo

Yeah, I imagine some campaigns will at least realize that as ludicrous as our campaign process is, there’s a reason it works this way.

David

As silly as the initial debates felt at times, I think the Democrats came out better keeping the door open for a while than they did trying to fend of Sanders in 2016. I think we’ll be getting some of the best candidates we’ve had in decades.

Josh

The other thing I’m really hoping for is better questions. (Maybe not as excellent as Torchlight’s own debate questions, but still.) The last set of debates had a real problem of asking the candidates to answer questions that bought into Republican framing, like “would you confiscate guns”. I want to see Democrats answer questions that Democratic voters would ask. Hopefully we’ll see more of that this time and fewer of the push poll ones.

But it seems like for all of these things, we’ll just to have to wait and see—for how the debates shake up the primary race, whether the ACA will still exist in November of 2020, if we all end up living on Mars or if Trump learns how to not be racist (the Mars one seems more likely). Thanks all for a lively discussion today, and thank you all for reading!

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