Richard Ford: ‘Who needs friends?’

April 23, 2017

Richard Ford

The American novelist Richard Ford, in a book excerpt published in The Guardian, says he doesn’t have any close friends and is happy to have it that way.

He wrote that he has a general sense of good will toward everybody, but doesn’t count on any individual very much.  That’s okay with him, because he doesn’t want anybody to count on anything from him, beyond basic decent behavior.

He criticized philosophers’ ideas of friendship and went on to write—

If I could have a better, more realistic and functioning model for friendship, what would it be?

I wouldn’t like it if it was that I had to be similar to my friend – in temperament, in wit and wits, in interests, experience, age and gender.

It could not be that I’d be willing freely to unpack in front of my friend all my life’s many shames and miscalculations (matters that can be outsourced with therapy or just stuffed).

It would not be that I’d have to always get along with my friend, or even always wish him well (just not wish him ill).  He need not think my shames weren’t shameful.

It would not be that my friend and I have to agree about what constitutes good and bad in the world. He need not feel required to do for me what I can’t do for myself.

I would not have to be willing to take a bullet for him, to have his back, to be there for him, or even renounce something I deeply desire so that he can have it.

I would not have to be always candid or capable of delivering hard truths. (Although I might do it anyway.)

And it could not be that I never complain to my friend, or about my friend – to his face or behind his back.

Friendship ought to be understood as always supplementary in nature. Thus our friends should be as easy to forgive as our enemies.

And as with all things, friendship need not promise to last forever, but only so long as it allows us the freedoms we would want to have without it.

Maybe it is that friendship should do for us what a great novel can (and a novel might of course do it better): reconcile us to life as it is, and make us more real to ourselves. 

In other words, friendship ought not short-circuit one’s faculties for critical thinking and personal preference.  Though to ask this of friendship might be to ask the impossible.

Source: Richard Ford | The Guardian

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Rev. Barber at the UUA General Assembly

April 20, 2017

The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), president of the interfaith Repairers of the Breach and president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, is a leader of a broad progressive coalition that is changing the balance of political power in his home state.   I think it is important to know who he is and the moral basis of his movement.

He is rooted in a specific religious tradition, the African-American church movement, but is able to unite a broad coalition of Americans of different races and religious backgrounds, including us Unitarian Universalists.

Click on 2016 Unitarian-Universalist General Assembly for a speech that outlines his thinking.  Click on The First Reconstruction, The Second Reconstruction, The Third Reconstruction and / or ‘Resist the One Moment Mentality’ for highlights of his speech.

Can the U.S. make credible threats or promises?

April 19, 2017

President Trump reportedly hopes that cruise missile attack Syria and the 11-ton MOAB bomb dropped on Afghanistan will make American threats more credible when he deals with North Korea and other hostile countries.

But it is not enough for a leader of a great nation to be able to make credible threats.  He also has to be able to make credible promises.

It is not enough for foreign heads of state to feel in danger if they oppose the United States.  They have to be able to feel safe from U.S. wrath if they cooperate with the United States.

Otherwise the threats will make them redouble their efforts to be able to strike back.

Saddam Hussein, Muammar Qaddafi and Bashar al-Assad all found that appeasing the United States was more dangerous than defiance.

Unfortunately for President Trump, he—for reasons not of his own making—is in a situation in which neither his threats nor his promises are credible.

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Official story of sarin attack debunked

April 19, 2017

Theodore A. Postol, professor emeritus of science, technology and national security as Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has written a series of reports that convincingly debunk the claim that the Syrian government attacked civilians with sarin two weeks ago.

He said, among other things, that—

The video evidence shows workers at the site roughly 30 hours after the alleged attack that were wearing clothing with the logo “Idlib Health Directorate.”

These individuals were photographed putting dead birds from a birdcage into plastic bags.  The implication of these actions was that the birds had died after being placed in the alleged sarin crater.

However, the video also shows the same workers inside and around the same crater with no protection of any kind against sarin poisoning. These individuals were wearing honeycomb face masks and medical exam gloves. They were otherwise dressed in normal streetwear and had no protective clothing of any kind.

The honeycomb face masks would provide absolutely no protection against either sarin vapors or sarin aerosols. The masks are only designed to filter small particles from the air.  If there were sarin vapor, it would be inhaled without attenuation by these individuals.  If the sarin were in an aerosol form, the aerosol would have condensed into the pours in the masks, and would have evaporated into a highly lethal gas as the individuals inhaled through the mask.  It is difficult to believe that such health workers, if they were health workers, would be so ignorant of these basic facts.

In addition, other people dressed as health workers were standing around the crater without any protection at all.

I don’t know for sure what happened.  What Prof. Postol’s report proves is that President Trump committed an act of war against a sovereign nation for reasons not supported by evidence.  Although the attack resulted in relatively few casualties and little damage, it may well have destroyed the possibility of peace with Syria and Russia.

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Liquidity in the USA

April 19, 2017

Randall Munroe made this graphic on his XKCD site showing the relative amounts of liquids consumed by Americans.  Note that the circles in the top graphic are the tiny circles in the upper left corner of the bottom graphic.

I’m not trying to make any particular political point with this graphic.  I just thought it was interesting.  As a former reporter for Gannett newspapers, I’m a great believer in presenting quantitative information in graphic form

How to be antifragile

April 18, 2017

A recent history of U.S. taxes

April 17, 2017


sourcesoffederaltaxrevenue-1

ustaxratesmainsources2015

A larger version of these charts, plus explanations, are available by clicking on Average Federal Taxes on a Family of Four and Federal Revenue and Top Tax Rates on the Visualizing Economics blog.   Also of interest—

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The Easter bunny caper

April 16, 2017

Source: Medium Large.

Neoliberalism and Its Discontents (1)

April 13, 2017

What follows is notes for the first part of a talk for the Rochester Russell Forum scheduled at Writers & Books Literary Center, 740 University Ave., Rochester, NY, at 7 p.m. Thursday, April 13.

Neoliberalism is the philosophy that economic freedom is the primary freedom, economic growth is the primary goal of society and the for-profit corporation is the ideal form of organization.

It is the justification for privatization, deregulation and the economic austerity currently being imposed on governments by lenders.

Neoliberalism has its roots in classical liberalism, which arose in the 18th and 19th centuries.  Classic liberals said that the purpose of government is to protect human rights, including religious, intellectual, political and economic freedom.   They fought the absolute power of kings and the privileges of aristocrats and demanded the right of individuals to determine their own fates.

Classical liberalism came to be supplanted in the early 20th century by a belief that government regulation and welfare could, if well thought out, enhance human freedom by giving individuals more choices.   A graduate of a public school or university, for example, has more options than a person unable to afford an education, so taxing the public to pay for public schools and universities would be a form of liberation.

Neoliberalism is a backlash against social liberalism.  Neoliberalism affirms that freedom of enterprise is the only important freedom.   Its well-known adherents include Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises and Milton Friedman.

It came into widespread acceptance in the 1980s, as a reaction against the manifest failures of central economic planning and as a way to break the political gridlock of the welfare state.  Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were both strongly influenced by the neoliberals.

Neoliberalism’s strongest adherents are to be found among economists, journalists, financiers, Silicon Valley executives and right-of-center parties in the English-speaking world and western Europe, and in international institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and European Central Bank, which enforce neoliberal policies on debtor countries.

It is more of an implicit philosophy than a credo, a series of assumptions that has come to permeate our society.

What follows is my attempt to understand the logic behind these assumptions.

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Neoliberalism and its discontents (2)

April 13, 2017

What follows is notes for the second part of a talk for the Rochester Russell Forum scheduled at Writers & Books Literary Center, 740 University Ave., Rochester, NY, at 7 p.m. Thursday, April 13.

Neoliberalism has generated an antithesis—blood and soil nationalism, which holds that the supreme human value consists of the ties of loyalty and customs among people of common ancestry who live in the same place.

Blood and soil nationalism is not fascism, although it can fit very well with fascism.  It is not racism, although it can fit very well with racism.

The difference is that fascism and racism are international movements.  They are disconnected from the culture and heritage of any particular place.

Loyalty to a heritage and a way of life, to kindred who live in a particular place, is the most natural feeling in the world.   It is wrong to devalue this feeling.

The problem is that, for many people, local cultures and heritages have already been hollowed out by the consumer culture promoted by the mass media of entertainment and advertising.  What is left is a hollowed-out version of patriotism consisting of loyalty to your own group and hatred of some other group you see as a threat.

People embrace this hollow nationalism as a way of giving a meaning to their lives that the neoliberal consumer and advertising culture does not provide.

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He had two kidneys, so he gave away one

April 12, 2017

Dylan Matthews, a writer for Vox news, donated a kidney to someone he didn’t even know.  He’s unusual, but not unique.  He knows at least two other people who’ve done the same thing.

He said he was inspired by his Christian upbringing and the teaching of Jesus, that if you have two coats, you should give one to someone who has done.   He had two kidneys, so he decided to give one to someone who had none.

People who suffer renal failure have only a short time to live, and that involves a painful treatment called kidney dialysis.   A kidney transplant can extend their lives for 10 years or more.

He in fact helped save four people, not just one.   The person who received his kidney had a relative who was willing to donate his kidney, but was not a good match.   So the relative agreed that, if someone else donated a kidney, to donate their kidney to someone else.

The second recipient also had a relative who was willing to donate in an exchange, and so did the third.   So Matthews in all added 40 or more years to the lives of strangers.   That is, they were strangers at the time he made his decision.  Now they have a strong bond.

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An interview with Noam Chomsky

April 11, 2017

I missed this interview with Noam Chomsky when it was broadcast a week ago, but he has good insight into U.S. and world politics.   I respect him for his breadth of knowledge and independence of mind.  The broadcast is a little over an hour, which is a long time to watch something on a computer screen, but you don’t have to watch it all at once.

It took me many decades to appreciate Chomsky.  During the Cold War, I thought he was insufficiently aware of the evil and threat of the Soviet Union and of Communism generally, and overly quick to condemn the United States because our faults were aberrations whereas theirs were systemic.

I started to change my way of thinking in the 1990s when the Soviet threat ended, but the United States did not return to what I thought was normal.   I was shocked at how easily the Bush administration was able to wipe the Bill of Rights off the blackboard and commit the country to perpetual war.

But my real disillusionment was when the Obama administration, instead of offering hope and implementing change, simply filed some of the rough edges off the Bush policies to make them more acceptable.

Now comes Donald Trump who is, as Chomsky said, a kind of parody and exaggeration of what has gone before.

I can appreciate Chomsky, now that I have freed myself of the mental limitation of refusing to consider anything outside the range of the opinions expressed by Democrats and Republicans.   As Chomsky noted in the interview, what we should worry about are the policies on which self-described conservatives and self-described liberals agree.

Guantanamo ratio vs. public school ratios

April 10, 2017

Prison staff at Gitmo: 1,750

Prisoners at Gitmo: 41

Average teacher/student ratio in US public schools: 1 : 27

Source: Jeffrey St.Clair | Counterpunch

Fake news and critical thinking

April 8, 2017

Little of what I write about on this blog is based on first-hand knowledge.  It is what the philosopher Bertrand Russell called knowledge by description rather than knowledge by acquaintance.

I write about foreign countries I’ve never visited, whose language I do not speak and whose people I’ve never spoken to.   I write about politicians I’ve never interviewed.

I know from 40 years experience on newspapers that it is hard to be well-informed on a topic, even if you have time to study the subject, and in fact are being paid to be well-informed.

It is even, as now, I depend on second-hand information.  It is easy to be misled and hard to sift the real from the fake.  Here are filters I use to separate news from fake news.

  1.  Who says so?  How do they know?  Is a source of information given for every assertion?  Is the source of the information a person in a position to know?  Is the person trustworthy?  Is the source of the information anonymous?  If so, do they have a good reason for being anonymous?
  2.   Click on the links.  If the source of information is a link on the Internet, follow links as far as you can to the original source, and see whether it supports what is asserted.
  3.   Does the claim make sense?  Does the news item make sense as something somebody could do?  Does it make sense in terms of something somebody would do?  Is it consistent with what else you know?  Is it consistent with itself.
  4.   Does the writer engage in mind-reading?  Other people’s’ motives are unknowable.  You can know what somebody does.  You can’t really know why they do it, and the “why”
  5.   Compare and contrast diverse sources.  If you have time.
  6.   Carry on imaginary conversations in your head.   If you are a progressive, imagine a conservative making their best arguments (or vice versa).   How would you answer?  Could you answer?
  7.   Distrust emotion, but not too much.  Emotion can blind you to facts and logic, but the fact that somebody feels strongly about something doesn’t mean they’re wrong.   There’s nothing wrong with expressing anger, admiration, pity, gratitude or any other normal human emotion; what you should ask is whether the emotion is appropriate to the actual facts.
  8.   Use fact checkers, but skeptically.   Snopes.com and Factcheck.org are useful, but make up your own mind.
  9.   Arithmetic can be your friend.  If the news item is based on statistics, go to the original source, if you can.  Do the calculations yourself.  Always distrust any claim that is based on percentage differences or changes unless the underlying number also is given.  Don’t jump to conclusions about the significance of any number unless there is another number you can meaningfully compare it with.
  10.   Three things to watch out for.  Old news packaged to look like it’s current.  “Sponsored content” packaged to look like journalism.  Satire that isn’t labeled as satire.
  11.   Suspend judgment if you’re not sure.  Better to admit you don’t know something than to think you do when you don’t.
  12.   Admit mistakes, at least to yourself.  It just means you are wiser today than you were yesterday.

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Glenn Greenwald sums things up

April 8, 2017

Glenn Greenwald, on The Intercept, said pretty well everything that needs to be said about President Trump’s attack on Syria.

  1.  New wars will strengthen Trump: as they do for every leader.
  2.  Democrats’ jingoistic rhetoric has left them no ability — or desire — to oppose Trump’s wars.
  3.   In wartime, US television instantly converts into state media.
  4.   Trump’s bombing is illegal, but presidents are now omnipotent.
  5.   How can those who view Trump as an inept fascist now trust him to wage war?
  6.   Like all good conspiracy theories, no evidence can kill the Kremlin-controls-Trump tale.
  7.   The fraud of humanitarianism works every time for (and on) American elites.
  8.   Support for Trump’s bombing shows two toxic U.S. conceits:  “Do something” and “Look strong.”
  9.   Obama’s refusal to bomb Assad hovers over everything.
  10.   None of this disproves, obviously, that Hillary Clinton was also a dangerous hawk.

LINK

The Spoils of War: Trump Lavished With Media and Bipartisan Praise for Bombing Syria by Glenn Greenwald for The Intercept.   Hat tip to peteybee.

Can we have war theater without fighting?

April 8, 2017

Click to enlarge.

We Americans like the spectacle of war, but, since the Korean Conflict and the Vietnam Conflict, only a small minority of us has had an appetite for actual fighting.

President Donald Trump’s attack on Syria shows that he understands this.  It was a kind of minimalist attack.   The Syrian government was given a general notice that an attack was coming, and the Russian government a specific attack, so that casualties and damage were minimal.

Except for the unfortunate Syrian troops who were killed, this was war theater, not war.

Yet he got credit for acting decisively.    Deeply unpopular before, he has been applauded by the press, Congress and even Hillary Clinton, while even Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren equivocated.   All the speculative news about Trump conspiring with Putin has vanished from the front pages.

I fear Trump has learned a bad lesson.  When unpopular, rally Americans by attacking a designated foreign enemy.  But since these attacks won’t change anything, he’ll have do something each time that is more impressive than what he did the time before, which means a higher risk of sliding from token war into general war.

I don’t think that Trump scared Bashar al Assad, Hassan Rouhani, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping or Kim Jong-on.   I think they understand what is going on very well.  I don’t think they can be bluffed or intimidated.   As my father said, never start a fight you are not prepared to finish.

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Scott Adams on the Syrian gas attacks

April 7, 2017

[Correction 4/8/2017: Sarin, as peteybee of Spread an Idea pointed out, is a liquid, not a gas.]

Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert cartoon and a self-described expert on persuasion, thinks that the best way for President Trump to respond to fake news about Syrian gas attacks is by means of a fake response—

The reason the Assad government would bomb its own people with a nerve agent right now is obvious. Syrian President Assad – who has been fighting for his life for several years, and is only lately feeling safer – suddenly decided to commit suicide-by-Trump.

Scott Adams

Because the best way to make that happen is to commit a war crime against your own people in exactly the way that would force President Trump to respond or else suffer humiliation at the hands of the mainstream media.

And how about those pictures coming in about the tragedy.  Lots of visual imagery. Dead babies.

It is almost as if someone designed this “tragedy” to be camera-ready for President Trump’s consumption.  It pushed every one of his buttons.  Hard.  And right when things in Syria were heading in a positive direction.

  • Interesting timing.
  • Super-powerful visual persuasion designed for Trump in particular.
  • Suspiciously well-documented event for a place with no real press.
  • No motive for Assad to use gas to kill a few dozen people at the cost of his entire regime. It wouldn’t be a popular move with Putin either.
  • The type of attack no U.S. president can ignore and come away intact.
  • A setup that looks suspiciously similar to the false WMD stories that sparked the Iraq war.

I’m going to call bullshit on the gas attack.  It’s too “on-the-nose,” as Hollywood script-writers sometimes say, meaning a little too perfect to be natural.  This has the look of a manufactured event.

My guess is that President Trump knows this smells fishy, but he has to talk tough anyway.  However, keep in mind that he has made a brand out of not discussing military options.  He likes to keep people guessing.  He reminded us of that again yesterday, in case we forgot.

So how does a Master Persuader respond to a fake war crime?

He does it with a fake response, if he’s smart.

Source: Scott Adams’ Blog.

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Learning the lesson of Iraq (or not)

April 7, 2017

[Correction 4/8/2017: Sarin, as peteybee of Spread an Idea pointed out, is a liquid, not a gas.]

Back in 2003, I thought the U.S. invasion of Iraq might be a good idea.

I thought we Americans could atone for all the suffering we had caused the Iraqi people by the low-level war by the Clinton administration by overthrowing the evil tyrant Saddam—and, yes, he really was evil and a tyrant—and allowing the Iraqis to choose their own government.

The United States would then, so I thought, have a democratic ally in the Middle East whose people were genuinely pro-American, and would free ourselves from dependence on the Saudi monarchy.

The U.S. invasion made things worse, both from the standpoint of the Iraqi people and of us Americans.   Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were killed, hundreds of thousands became refugees.

Maybe there would have been a different result if the U.S. occupation authorities’ priorities had not been to get control of Iraqi oil and create money-making opportunities for American contractors.

We have to recognize that policy is going to be carried out by the government we’ve got, not the government we wish we had.

I think an invasion of Syria would have the same bad result as the invasion of Iraq.

I think a stepped-up bombing campaign in Syria would increase the suffering of the Syrian people, but would not punish the individuals responsible for the gas attacks—if such attacks occurred.

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Did Bashar al-Assad order poison gas attack?

April 6, 2017

[Correction 4/8/2017: Sarin, as peteybee of Spread an Idea pointed out, is a liquid, not a gas.]

U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley states as a fact that the Syrian government used poison gas (probably sarin) against civilians in its fight against rebels.  I question this because: —

  1.   It doesn’t make sense that Bashar al-Assad would risk turning the world against him and his regime when he and his Russian allies are on the verge of victory against ISIS and other jihadist rebels.
  2.   No news account that I have read states unequivocally that such attacks have occurred.  They all use words such as “allegedly” and “reportedly” and then go on as if the fact was proven.

Haley’s speech reminds me of Colin Powell’s speech to the United Nations back in 2003 that Saddam Hussein possessed chemical, biological and/or nuclear weapons.   We now know that this was just an excuse to invade Iraq, a nation that never threatened the United States but was feared by the leaders of Israel and Saudi Arabia.

The Iraq war united most of us Americans behind President George W. Bush, at least for a time, but in the end it helped create the backlash that led to the election of Barack Obama.

Donald Trump was one who came to understand what big mistake it was to invade Iraq.   He also said it would be a big mistake to intervene in Syria in 2013.   He was right both times.   Those are two reasons I thought he might be less of a war hawk than Hillary Clinton.

Now he seems eager to go to war.   He now criticizes the Obama administration from holding back on going to war in 2013 in similar circumstances.

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The fruits of war in Syria

April 6, 2017

Source: Concern (2016)

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A culture of honor, violence and poverty

April 5, 2017

Ex-Senator James Webb wrote a book, Born Fighting, (which I haven’t read) about the Scots-Irish settlers of the Appalachia plateau.  If it hadn’t been taken, it would have made a good title for C.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: a Memoir of a Family and Culture in Trouble.

Appalachian mountaineers were the product of a culture of honor which also was a culture of violence.   They believed in standing by their word and by family friends and family; they believed in never showing fear, never backing down and always avenging in any insult or injury.

These values enabled them to survive in the lawless Kentucky wilderness frontier.   Vance in his book argues that this same heritage is inadequate to help them survive in a declining industrial America.

The book is worth reading because his experiences and family history show how patterns of behavior that can trap people in poverty and misery, and also ways of breaking out of of those patterns.

He grew up in Middletown, Ohio, but his family roots are in Jackson, Kentucky—in “bloody Breathitt” county, known for its feuds.  His maternal grandparents, Jim Vance, then aged 16, and Bonnie Blanton, then 13 and pregnant, fled Kentucky for Ohio in 1950, and eventually settled down in Middletown.

At the age of 12, his grandmother shot a cattle thief and would have finished him off if somebody hadn’t stopped her.

Once she told C.D.’s grandfather that if he ever came home drunk again, she’d kill him.  He did come home drunk once again, and, a woman of her word, she doused him with gasoline and set him on fire.  Remarkably he escaped with only minor injuries and this did not destroy their relationship.

She once warned C.D. that if he continued to hang out with a classmate who smoked marijuana, she would run over the classmate with her car.  He found that a credible threat.

His grandmother and her husband, who never went anywhere without loaded guns in their pockets or under their car seats, flouted conventions of middle-class behavior.  But they were honest, hard-working and self-reliant; they were able to look out for themselves and their loved ones.

Not so C.D.’s drug-addicted mother.  His life with her and a succession of men in her life was one of unremitting emotional violence.  Here’s what he said he learned at home about marital relationships:

Never speak in a reasonable volume when screaming will do.  If the fight gets a little too intense, it’s okay to slap and punch, so long as the man doesn’t hit first.  Always express your feelings in a way that’s insulting and hurtful to your partner.  If all else fails, take the kids and the dog to a motel, and don’t tell your spouse where to find you.

His childhood left him with permanent scars.  He said he still has to struggle to escape the conditioning to immediately retaliate for any affront, no matter what the consequences.   He reminds me of the black writer, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and his accounts of growing up in violent inner-city Baltimore.

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Poverty is hazardous to your health

April 5, 2017

Click to enlarge.

Mortality rate change, 1992-2006.  Click to enlarge.  Source: Daily Mail

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Doug Muder on Jared Kushner

April 4, 2017

If you want a symbol of this new aristocratic reality, you need look no further than Jared Kushner, who was born rich, married the boss’s daughter, and is now (at age 36) one of the most powerful people in the country.

Kushner’s title is Senior Adviser to the President, and his yuuuuge portfolio just keeps growing.  For example, he is the administration’s point man on bringing peace to the Middle East.  That project might totally absorb someone of lesser dynastic credentials, but he also has been Trump’s channel to China, a nation some distance from the Middle East.  [snip]

Apparently that still left him with a lot of free time, so … Ivanka’s Dad named him to head the new White House Office of American Innovation … [snip]

Yes, Kushner may have little in the way of personal accomplishments or evidence of expertise relevant to governing a republic.  But if merit is a matter of blood and breeding, and if it is enhanced by an alliance of great houses, then he has merit in spades.

Source: The Weekly Sift

Astronaut vandalism

April 3, 2017

Source: xkcd

Russian-Americans polled on Trump and Putin

April 1, 2017