Don’t Make Mark Zuckerberg America’s Political Truth Czar

Politicians lie.

Not all of them. Not every time. But most of them, from both “major” political parties, lie. A lot.

It’s not always easy to tell when they’re lying. It’s not always easy to prove they’re lying. Often, it’s not even easy to tell if they’re just lying to us or to themselves as well.

Some politicians want Facebook to stop politicians from lying. They phrase that desire as a request for Facebook to “fact check” content posted by politicians, especially political advertising.

Perhaps I’m too cynical, but I’m not sure it’s  coincidence that the examples politicians offer tend to be drawn from content posted by their political opponents.

US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) is a notable exception. She asked Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg if Facebook would let her target Republican politicians by running ads falsely accusing them of voting for her “Green New Deal” proposal (Zuckerberg said he couldn’t answer “off the top of his head”).

On the other hand, AOC’s own take seems a bit naive.  “So you will take down lies or you won’t take down lies?” she asked Zuckerberg.  “I think this is a pretty simple yes or no.”

It isn’t.

Let’s use the Green New Deal as an example.

If a Facebook employee has to “fact check” an ad asserting that the proposal would “tank the American economy,” how should that employee evaluate the truth or falsehood of the claim?

What criteria should that employee use for deciding what “tank” means? Is slow economic growth “tanking?” Or would it take a recession or depression to meet the threshold?

Should that employee rely on analyses from the Heritage Foundation? Or perhaps from People for the American Way? Or the Congressional Budget Office? Or the Office of Management and Budget? Four sources, likely four wildly conflicting sets of claims and projections.

For a conflicting ad claiming the Green New Deal would “boost the American economy,” should that employee “fact check” the ad using the same sources as for the original ad, or different sources? Would 1% growth of GDP constitute a boost? If not, what number, applied to what metric, would?

What if both ads fail the “fact check?” Should the public just flip a coin and vote accordingly, since the two sides are forbidden to offer us their takes to  evaluate and decide between for ourselves?

Politics consists of conflicting narratives. No two opposing narratives can both be true. In fact, both could be false (Spoiler: Both are probably at least partially false, intentionally or not; personal biases affect politicians’ beliefs, and ours, at least as much as facts do).

The question is not whether politicians’ claims should be fact checked. The question is who should do the checking.

In an even remotely free society, the only answer is “all of us.”

Yes, some of us will  fail to accurately distinguish truth from falsehood. Some of us will get things wrong.

That’s better than one centralized “fact checking” operation getting them wrong for all of us.

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In Syria “Withdrawal,” Less is Probably More

When US president Donald Trump announced his plan to relocate a few dozen US soldiers in Syria — getting them out of the way of a pending Turkish invasion — the Washington establishment exploded in rage at what it mis-characterized as a US “withdrawal” from Syria.

Instead of fighting that mis-characterization, Trump embraced it, pretending that an actual withdrawal was in progress and announcing on October 9 that “we’re bringing our folks back home. ”

If he’s telling the truth, hooray! But so far as I can discern, no, he isn’t telling the truth.

Since taking office (after campaigning on getting the US out of military quagmires in the Middle East and Central Asia), Trump has boosted US troop levels in Syria from 500 or fewer under Barack Obama to at least 2,000 and possibly as many as 4,000.

Even at its most ambitious, the supposed US “withdrawal” from Syria consisted of moving a few hundred soldiers across the border into Iraq, from which they could launch operations in Syria at will.

The Iraqi government objected to hosting more US troops on its soil, so now the plan has changed to deploying elements  of an armored brigade combat team (“less than a battalion,” so call it “less than a thousand troops” depending on what kind of battalion) to protect Syrian oil fields from the Islamic State (and from Syria’s own government).

Exactly how many US soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines were in Syria prior to the supposed withdrawal? How many are there now? How many will be there by the end of the year?

That’s hard to say with any exactitude. Over the last several years (and not just on Trump’s watch), the US government’s troop level claims have become less specific and more general,  less matters of public record and more notional state secrets.

But so far, according to those claims, Trump has escalated US involvement in every conflict he inherited from Obama, even after promising to do the opposite and even while pretending to do the opposite.

If past performance is an indicator of future results, what’s going on in Syria isn’t a US withdrawal at all. Instead of US forces departing the country, more troops and heavier weapons seem to be flowing into the country (and the region, including B-1B bombers to Saudi Arabia).

Will Trump’s non-interventionist supporters finally notice or admit that, as usual, his rhetoric and his actions don’t match? Fat chance.

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Impeachment: Trump Has Already Confessed to “High Crimes”

Every time a witness testifies behind closed doors in the US House of Representatives’ methodical march toward the impeachment of President Donald Trump, Trump supporters scream “no quid pro quo” while Trump opponents breathlessly inform us that the “smoking gun” has turned up and that impeachment is now “inevitable.”

What’s with all this “smoking gun” stuff? The decision to impeach is political, but in terms of evidence, it’s already a lock. President Trump publicly confessed to multiple “high crimes” before House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) even announced the impeachment inquiry, then threw in a corroborating White House document.

Readers, meet Article VI of the US Constitution:

“This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land …”

And now let us consult a lesser-known document, the US government’s  Treaty With Ukraine on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters:

“Each Contracting State shall have a Central Authority to make and receive requests pursuant to this treaty. For the United States of America, the Central Authority shall be the  Attorney General or a person designated by the Attorney General. For Ukraine, the Central Authority shall be the Ministry of Justice and the Office of the Prosecutor General. … A request for assistance shall be in writing except that the Central Authority of the Requested State may accept a request in another form in urgent situations.”

Donald Trump is not the Attorney General of the United States, nor has the Attorney General publicly produced a document designating him the US government’s requesting authority under the treaty. Volodymyr Zelensky is the president of Ukraine, not a principal of its Ministry of Justice or Office of the Prosecutor General. A request by phone is not in writing, nor are matters years in the past and already subject to substantial investigation “urgent.”

Donald Trump made a request he had no authority to make, to a person he had no authority to make it of, in a form he had no authority to make it in. That’s at least three violations of the “Supreme Law of the Land.”

So, what’s a “high crime?” It may sound like a synonym for “serious crime” — espionage, treason, assassination, that kind of thing — but it’s actually a “term of art”  more concerned with the person committing the act than the act itself.

As Alexander Hamilton put it in Federalist #65, “high crimes”  for purposes of impeachment are “offences which proceed from the misconduct of public men, or, in other words, from the abuse or violation of some public trust.”

Donald Trump’s public trust, per the Constitution, includes “tak[ing] care that the laws be faithfully executed.” Instead, he violated “the supreme Law of the Land,” then publicly confessed to doing so, then corroborated his confession with evidence.

The “smoking gun” has been there the whole time. The rest is just details and politics.

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Coming Sooner or Later: Elizabeth Warren’s Mondale Moment

“Let’s tell the truth,” said Walter Mondale as he accepted the Democratic Party’s 1984 presidential nomination. “It must be done, it must be done. Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won’t tell you. I just did.”

That comment looms large in popular memory as the cause of Mondale’s crushing defeat that November. Of 50 states, he carried only one, his home state of Minnesota, polling only 40.6% of votes nationwide to Ronald Reagan’s 58.8%.

More than three decades later, Democratic presidential candidates continue to cower in fear of another “Mondale Moment.” They tiptoe around tax issues, generally promising to raise taxes only on “the rich” and sometimes even mulling tax cuts for important voter blocs (usually a vaguely defined “middle class”).

US Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) has spent the last few weeks running from her own Mondale Moment, refusing to answer the straight-up question from debate moderators and interviewers:

“Would funding your Medicare For All proposal require a middle class tax increase?”

She bobs. She weaves. She clinches. She tries to change the subject. There’s seemingly nothing she won’t do to avoid giving a straight answer.

Why? Because the only plausible straight answer is “yes.”

This is not an “anti-Medicare-For-All” column. I’m not a fan of the proposal for various reasons, but it is obviously on offer from two of the Democratic Party’s three presidential front-runners. Over the next 13 months, Democratic primary voters will be, and the American electorate may be, asked to accept or reject it.

Since it IS on the table, the candidates supporting and opposing it owe those voters clear explanations of what it entails not just in terms of benefits, but costs.

According to the Urban Institute (generally regarded as a moderately “left”-leaning think tank) what it entails is an increase in federal government spending of $32 trillion over ten years.

That’s an average of $3.2 trillion per year. In 2018, the federal government’s total revenues came to $3.3 trillion.

So what we’re talking about here is doubling the federal budget — which means either doubling tax revenues or quintupling government borrowing.

There aren’t enough “rich” people to cover that tab, even if Warren’s other plans didn’t already tap them as a significant revenue source.

Therefore, middle class and working class Americans are going to have to pay higher taxes if Medicare For All is going to happen.

Warren claims that those middle and working class Americans are going to save money anyway. Her logic is obvious: She believes that Americans’ healthcare bills will go down more than their taxes go up.

But she refuses, presumably in abject terror of facing her own Mondale Moment, to come right out and say it that way.

Sooner or later, she’s going to have to say it that way and find out if the voters believe her.

The longer she waits to do so, the worse for her presidential aspirations. American voters like straight answers. Heck, they’ll even make do with obvious lies dressed up as straight answers if necessary. But they loathe prevarication.

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Excuses, Excuses: Now Hillary Clinton’s Attacking Her Own Party’s Candidates

“I’m not making any predictions, but I think [the Russians] have got their eye on somebody who is currently in the Democratic primary and are grooming her to be the third-party candidate,” said Hillary Clinton on her former campaign manager’s podcast.  “They know they can’t win without a third party candidate.”

Was Clinton referring to US Representative Tulsi Gabbard, CNN asked? “If the nesting doll fits” her spokesperson replied.

Nearly three years after losing the 2016 presidential election to Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton’s still trying to find someone other than Hillary Clinton to blame.

If it’s not women voting the way their husbands tell them to vote, it’s James Comey’s unconvincing job of “exonerating” her for her grossly negligent handling of classified information.

If it’s not the media taking too much notice of her scandals, her health problems, etc., it’s Bernie Sanders supporters staying home instead of going to the polls for a candidate who hated them as much as they hated her.

Whatever it is, it can never, ever, ever be the fact that she’s among the most disliked and distrusted politicians of the last century, or that she ran an incredibly inept campaign, or that she failed to pay sufficient attention to Rust Belt voters upon whom Donald Trump lavished attention and promises to “bring the jobs back.”

And sooner or later it always comes back around to !THEM RUSSIANS!

!THEM RUSSIANS! spent a miniscule amount of money (a fraction of a percent of what Clinton’s campaign spent, and far less than !THEM RUSSIANS! donated to Clinton’s family foundation) on cheesy Facebook ads.

Donald Trump made a secret deal with Vladimir Putin! He’s a Kremlin “asset!”

!THEM RUSSIANS! backed a third party candidate (Dr. Jill Stein of the Green Party), who “stole” enough votes from Clinton to throw the election to Trump.

And now !THEM RUSSIANS! are at it again. The long arm of the Kremlin is reaching into the very heart of the Democratic Party itself to once again wrest a  presidential election away from Hillary Clinton (or from someone, anyway).

There’s no obvious evidence that Tulsi Gabbard plans to defect from the Democratic Party and run for president as an independent or on another party’s ticket.

On the other hand, given her treatment by the Democratic National Committee — including gaming polls to try to keep her out of primary debates and out of the running — and now by Hillary Clinton, who could blame her if she did?

Furthermore, in what universe is an independent or third party presidential candidacy any less legitimate than a Democratic presidential nomination?

Votes belong to voters, not to parties. Democratic and Republican candidates aren’t magically entitled to your vote. Whether or not they’ve earned that vote is your call and no one else’s.

If Democrats are interested in winning next year, they might want to consider publicly dissociating themselves from Hillary Clinton, who’s gone in a mere three years from even whinier than Donald Trump to even loonier than Lyndon LaRouche.

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On Twitter, Some Animals Are More Equal Than Others

“There continues to be meaningful public conversation about how we think about Tweets from world leaders on our service,” begins a post at the micro-blogging service’s non-micro-blog.

In summary, certain Super Very Important Special People (“world leaders”) are exempt from Twitter’s rules, but henceforth Regular Normal Completely Unimportant People (like you and me) are subject to new rules. We can’t like, reply, share or retweet rules-violating tweets from Super Very Important Special People.

“We understand the desire for our decisions to be ‘yes/no’ binaries,” the blog post continues, “but it’s not that simple …. Our goal is to enforce our rules judiciously and impartially.”

Well, yes, it is that simple. Impartiality in rules is the exact opposite of  dividing Twitter users into two classes, one of  them subject to the rules, one of them not.

In their great and unmatched wisdom, Twitter’s owners have over time moved to police speech on their platform in various ways.

They don’t HAVE to do that, at least in the US — Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act protects them from legal liability for user-created content under most circumstances.

There’s not even any particularly good reason to police user content, since the service’s “block” option allows users to ignore (by not seeing) content from other users whose opinions or language offend.

But hey,  OK, fine — Twitter is a privately owned service, not a public square, and its owners are entitled to set any rules they care to set for its use.

On the other hand, it’s neither judicious nor impartial to make some rules, then announce exemptions from those rules for Super Very Important Special People while heaping new rules on Normal Completely Unimportant People to keep us from acting like Super Very Important Special People.

Not judicious. Not impartial. In fact, pretty [insert your preferred non-newspaper-safe expletive here] offensive.

The Super Very Important Special People already have their own bully pulpits from which to yell anything they like and be heard and obeyed. We Normal Completely Unimportant People don’t get to hold press conferences in front of news cameras on the White House lawn in Washington, or on the front stoop at 10 Downing Street in London, or on the steps of the Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi.

Twitter keeps making itself less useful to most of us in order to curry favor with a few. That’s not just injudicious and partial, it’s a bad business plan.

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