The Dumbest Take Yet On the Whitefish Energy Scandal

I know I shouldn’t be picking on left-leaning goofballs (because they’re powerless these days, and all the damage is being done by the right) but Kate Aronoff at In These Times has written the dumbest thing I’ve seen yet about the Whitefish Energy scandal.

The article is titled “Repulsed by Whitefish Energy? Maybe You Also Hate Capitalism.” That sounds like it might be a defense of the Whitefish mess in the name of greed-is-good capitalism. Or it could be a snarky send-up of that kind of that argument. But what it turns out to be is an argument that if you hate the Whitefish scandal, you might also want to start hating capitalism.

…Whitefish Energy is to disaster capitalism as Martin Shkreli is to America’s for-profit healthcare system: the most obviously bad actors in industries that are full of bad actors by design.

As Myerson wrote, “Satisfying though it might be to adorn his face with a black eye … there are more worthy objects of our loathing. All of Shkreli’s appalling antics and characteristics are in fact emblematic of the real villain: capitalism. Shkreli is capitalism embodied, and if you hate him, you’d do well to take up hating capitalism with at least equal fervor.”

The same goes for the eminently punchable team at Whitefish Energy. […] They did enter into a $300 million contract with the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) to perform work that they are grossly unqualified to do, on a scale that dwarfs any of the contracts they’ve had thus far. Whitefish’s social media arm also got in a public spat with San Juan mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, at one point writing, “We’ve got 44 linemen rebuilding power lines in your city & 40 more men just arrived. Do you want us to send them back or keep working?”

To review what we know: Whitefish Energy, a small company owned by a guy who is friends with with U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, received a $300 million no-bid contract from the government-owned electricity provider of Puerto Rico. In other words, a government-run entity gave a very sweet contract to a guy with good contacts in high political offices. This is not — in any way, shape, or form — free-market capitalism.

Ironically, the Whitefish scandal could prime the pump to privatize PREPA entirely, a long-sought goal of corporate-friendly interests on the island. The federally-appointed fiscal oversight board that oversees Puerto Rico’s government recently announced that it would move to install a Flint-style emergency manager to oversee the utility with an eye toward selling off large chunks of it. Included in their official reasoning for the decision was PREPA’s contract with Whitefish.

Aside from the gratuitous reference to the awful mess in Flint, Michigan (also largely a failure of governmental entities) this sounds like maybe a step in the right direction. (Although if the privatization effort is overseen by the same corrupt people who ran the government entity, things are unlikely to improve much.)

There’s a general moral sickness to this that’s all-too-common, particularly when corporations and right-wing governments decide to profit off of disasters—financial, ecological or otherwise. Take the case of Jeffrey Chiesa, the lawyer appointed by his friend and ally Chris Christie, New Jersey’s governor, to put Atlantic City’s indebted fiscal house in order.

This is more of the same: The elected leaders of Atlantic City screwed up its finances, and the elected governor of New Jersey gave a sweetheart deal to one of his friends, and somehow that’s capitalism’s fault?

Look, just because a corporation is involved doesn’t mean it’s capitalism. The Whitefish Energy scandal looks like standard-issue government corruption: Somebody with influence got somebody with power to give them the public’s money. It’s insane to call that a problem with capitalism.

The Unknown Reason for the Vegas Shooting

Like everybody else, I’ve been trying to make sense of the Las Vegas shooting, in which a 64-year-old guy named Stephen Paddock apparently opened fire on a crowd of 22,000 country music festival attendees from his 32nd-floor room in the Mandalay Bay hotel, killing 59 people and injuring hundreds more.

One of the confusing things about this horrible incident is that from what we know about him so far, Paddock doesn’t seem like the kind of person who would do something like this. He went through a lot of trouble to kill as many people as he did, so you’d think he must have done something else on a smaller scale first to think this would be worth the effort, and yet according to reports he had no criminal record, no extremist political views, no trouble with his neighbors, and no obvious prior signs of mental illness. That’s strange because you don’t go from being a normal person to being a mass murderer overnight without a period of transition. The idea that people “just snap” is more myth than reality. It takes time to become the kind of person who would commit this kind of atrocity. So why weren’t there any signs?

I suppose one possible explanation is that Stephen Paddock was not the shooter: The real shooter lured him (and his guns) to the hotel, shot him, and then opened fire on the crowd, escaping before the police arrived to find a “convenient” murder-suicide scenario. I don’t actually believe this is what happened. It’s a movie plot, not real life, and unless the perpetrator is a Moriarty-level criminal mastermind, it would also leave a ton of evidence that would be easy for the police to discover. It’s even less likely than just snapping.

(Also, recent reporting about the incident rules it out.)

Another possibility is that Paddock had a brain tumor that caused a sudden, violent change of behavior. No doubt this crossed my mind because I’m familiar with the case of Charles Whitman, who similarly shot at a crowd from a high perch, at the University of Texas (Austin) in 1966, and was discovered at autopsy to have a brain tumor which some neurologists have speculated may have contributed to his behavior. Paddock’s behavior could also be explained by some other form of brain damage, perhaps from a stroke or a traumatic head injury or some other cause.

The truth is, the most likely explanation for the conflict between Paddock’s normal life and its violent end is probably much more prosaic. It’s most likely the same explanation as for every other murderer who is described by acquaintances as “quiet”: We’ve only heard from people who didn’t know him very well.

When something like this happens, it’s easy for the press to find the killer’s neighbors and colleagues, but few of them are likely to know anything relevant. As with most of us, a lot of people may have known him, but few people knew him really well. The media, and maybe the police, just haven’t found people who know, if they even exist.

Football Players and Legs

But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.

— Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XVII (source)

Jefferson was talking about freedom of religion, but truth be told, I feel the same way about whether professional athletes stand or kneel while the American national anthem is playing. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg. It doesn’t bother me either way.

Ethics of the Arpaio Pardon

After seeing what a professional dominatrix had to say about Trump pardoning former Mericopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, I decided to see what professional ethicist Jack Marshall had to say. I shouldn’t have been surprised.

Is the balance between profiling, which in such situations is a valuable law-enforcement tool, and the importance of equal treatment under the law a difficult one legally and ethically? Yes. Does a sheriff have the right and authority to ignore the way this balance is decided once legal authorities define it?

No.

Is the determination of this balance often polluted by ideological biases, in this case, against enforcement of immigration laws?

Yes.

“Ideological biases.” That’s what you call someone else’s principles when you don’t like them. Jack is fond of accusing people of bias.

Do Donald Trump, and his supporters, and those Americans who may not be his supporters but who agree that allowing foreign citizens to breach our borders at will without legal penalties is certifiably insane, believe that Arpaio’s position on illegal immigration is essentially correct and just?

Yes.

Does that have anything to do with the results of the trial that found him guilty of contempt of court?

No.

Nonetheless, did his ham-handed methods give ammunition to open-borders, pro-illegal immigration, race-baiting activists […]

Yes.

Is sending Arpaio to jail a political imprisonment?

Yes, although he made it easy to justify on non-political grounds.

Are political prisoners the ideal objects of Presidential pardons?

Yes.

Good God, it’s crazy to call Arpaio a political prisoner. A judge ordered him to stop doing something, and he went ahead and did it anyway, which bought him a contempt charge. It was pretty straightforward. Sure, there are people who didn’t like him for political reasons (I’m one of them), but that’s true of every elected official.  This is nonsense.

Also, just for the record, it’s misleading to call someone a “political prisoner” when they’re not, you know, in prison.

Would pardoning him send dangerous messages (it’s OK to violate judicial orders you think are wrong; the ends justifies the means; Presidents should meddle in local law enforcement, “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice”) as well as defensible ones (judges and elected official enabling illegal immigration are a threat to the rule of law; Joe is an old man with a long record of public service who deserves mercy even though he was wrong…)

Yes.

Invoking Arpaio’s record of public service is kind of laughable when it’s his failure to follow the rules of that service that got him his conviction. And it’s unreal that Jack would mention the rule of law without mentioning the awful damage that Arpaio’s pardon does to the rule of law. Arpaio is a thug, and Trump’s pardon sends a message to law enforcement thugs everywhere that the federal government is going to give them a pass. This is not even the first time Trump has sent that message, and it doesn’t get better with repetition.

 

Will such a pardon, especially as the news media is again spinning to make the case that Trump is sympathetic with xenophobes and white nationalists, further inflame an overly emotional debate that needs to be calmed, not exacerbated?

God, yes.

Or to put that a different way: Evidence that Trump is sympathetic to xenophobes and white nationalists tends to help make the case that Trump is sympathetic to xenophobes and white nationalists.

Sure enough, Democrats, Trump-haters like Senator John McCain and my echo-chamber Facebook friends are denouncing the pardon as if the President had loosed Hannibal Lector on the world.

The books area little vague, but I’m pretty sure Hannibal Lector didn’t kill anywhere near as many people as have died in Arpaio’s jails.

In doing so, they really look ridiculous, and might as well be wearing  “I hate Donald Trump and will scream bloody murder no matter what he does” in neon on their heads.

I don’t just hate Trump, I hate Arpaio too, and have for a long time. That Trump thinks Arpaio is a great example of American law enforcement is more than a little worrisome. Ditto for Arpaio’s brother-from-another-mother, Sheriff David Clarke.

Especially for Democrats, who have argued that non-violent criminals shouldn’t be imprisoned at all when they are young and black, the argument that an 85 year old man’s under-two year maximum sentence is an outrageous object of Presidential mercy and grace—that’s what a pardon is, you know–is the height of partisan hypocrisy.

Trump didn’t pardon Arpaio out of mercy for an old man. He as much as said he thinks Arpaio was convicted for “doing his job.” Trump pardoned Arpaio because he has no problem with a Sheriff who people’s rights and a court order to harass immigrants. Trump pardoned Arpaio because he likes “tough” cops.

The fact that Arpaio is 85 alone justifies a pardon by the standards Presidents have used since the beginning of the office.

Presidents don’t pardon every elderly prison inmate. They exercise discretion, and we can judge them on that discretion. Besides, if Trump was really concerned about Arpaio’s ability to survive prison, he could have commuted the sentence rather than granting a pardon.

Furthermore, the Federal Bureau of Prisons already has a compassionate release program to address situations like this. Prisoners who develop serious health problems are eligible, and prisoners over the age of 65 may request compassionate release after serving 50% of their sentence.

For that matter, we don’t even know what Arpaio’s sentence would have been. Judges take circumstances into account. He might not have gone to prison at all. But he would still have the conviction for contempt.

That his sentence is relatively short—many, many prisoners with far longer sentences have been pardoned by Trump’s predecessors–makes the pardon, if ill-considered, also de minimus, especially since there is no chance, literally none, that the old man, now out of office and retired, will have an opportunity to repeat the crime he was convicted of committing.

This is disingenuous. One of the purposes of punishment is to deter other people from committing the same crime. Pardoning Arpaio undermines this deterrence because it suggests to other people, including other chief law enforcement officers, that they can defy federal judges and federal law if President Trump likes them.

A pardon is an act of grace by which an offender is released from the consequences of his offense, according to the U.S. Justice Department’s website. It does not say that the offender was not guilty, or that the law that was violated can be breached at will.

But doesn’t it? If the President has stoked anti-immigrant fervor, and if he has championed Arpaio-style “tough” policing, then doesn’t pardoning Arpaio imply that Trump thinks it’s okay to break the law to do that?

They want him to be metaphorically hung up by his heels to appease their open-border, pro-illegal immigration base, making the fervor to punish him purely political, and having little to do with respect for the rule of law, which their own position on illegal immigration proves that they don’t respect themselves.

Rule of law is usually presented as being in contrast to rule by arbitrary exercise of power. Whether the government helps you or punishes you should depend on whether you follow a set of explicit rules, not on how much you are liked or disliked by the people wielding power. Thus the rule of law is undermined by the fact that Trump’s first and only Presidential pardon went to one of his most prominent campaign supporters.

(Jack used to talk a lot about the importance of avoiding the appearance of impropriety, even when there’s no actual impropriety, yet there’s no mention of that in anything he’s written about the pardon.)

It seems clear that Jack is getting hung up in immigration issues, but there’s a lot more wrong with Sheriff Joe Arpaio than the immigration-related activities involved in the contempt charge.

  • Arpaio’s office has botched a lot of sex crime investigations, either doing a sloppy job or not working them at all.
  • Arpaio proudly treated his prisoners terribly, sometimes serving them spoiled food and offering substandard medical care.
  • Arpaio setup a temporary “tent city” outdoor jail that operated for something like 20 years in the sweltering Arizona sun, subjecting prisoners to unsafe temperatures, sometimes with lethal results.
  • Arpaio did very little to discipline guards who mistreated prisoners in his jails, which he himself referred to as “concentration camps.”
  • Arpaio used his police force to intimidate his enemies. He jailed reporters who were critical of him, and launched a corruption investigation against a judge who ruled against him.
  • Then there’s the whole fake assassination plot against him, which put an innocent man in jail for 4 years.
  • Or the puppy-burning incident.

That’s the guy Trump pardoned. That’s the guy Jack is defending.

Let me be clear. This isn’t a Rationalization #22 “it isn’t the worst thing” defense of the pardon. It is a “the attacks on this pardon are wildly disproportionate to its reality, and thus transparent political theater” indictment of the pardon’s critics. Almost every pardon can be called a rejection of the “rule of law,” if you don’t understand what the pardon power is, and politicians who have been undermining respect for the very laws that Arpaio went over-board enforcing are the last people on earth who should make that argument. They are ridiculous in their hypocrisy.

I’m not sure what that is, but if it isn’t “it isn’t the worst thing” or “everybody does it” then it’s an ad hominem attack. Whether Trump’s critics are right or wrong about the pardon has nothing to do with whether they are hypocrites. A murderer who declares that “murder is bad” is not wrong.

Joe Arpaio was an arrogant, grandstanding bully and thug, and unworthy of his badge. I wouldn’t have pardoned him despite his age, but there were some good reasons for Trump to do so. It was almost worth doing just to prompt Trump’s foes and pro illegal immigration hypocrites into embarrassing themselves.

That’s a terrible reason for pardoning someone.

The Dominatrix and the Sheriff

I’ve been watching the reaction on Twitter to President Trump’s pardoning of former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Arpaio is a despicable authoritarian bigot, who I’ve written about several times previously. He is famous, and famously proud, of how tough he was on the prisoners in his custody. He liked seeing them mistreated and humiliated, often in very unpleasant ways. I don’t know if he actually enjoyed it when his prisoners died, but a bunch of them have died, often under questionable circumstances, and Arpaio has never shown an ounce of human sorrow.

I was most struck by the reaction from Mistress Matisse:

Now, this next part is probably the sort of thing that only seems profound at 3:00 in the morning (when I started writing this), but bear with me… What really got me thinking is that Mistress Matisse and Joe Arpaio have something in common: They both like to hurt people.

As you might have guessed from the name, Mistress Matisse is a professional dominatrix. She literally hurts people for a living. And if you follow her Twitter feed (@mistressmatisse), you’ll see she enjoys her work. Oh, I’m sure there are days where she’s like “Oh God, I can’t wait to veg out in front of the TV once I finish sticking needles into this guy’s penis…”, but for the most part, she seems to have found satisfying employment. She hurts people, and she’s good at it.

Nevertheless, Mistress Matisse is pissed about Joe Arpaio, because of course, the difference between Mistress Matisse hurting people and Joe Arpaio hurting people is consent. And consent makes all the difference in the world.

Mistress Matisse posts descriptions and photos of the some of the things she does to her clients and, honestly, I couldn’t take that. If she tried to do some of those things to me without my consent, I would resist, violently if necessary. But her clients not only give their consent, they actually pay her to do those things.

Yet if I’m ever in Seattle and I happen to run into Mistress Matisse, I wouldn’t be the least bit concerned about her pain-causing skills. I don’t pretend to know or understand her very well, but I’ve read enough of her writings to know that she thinks very carefully about issues of consent. She doesn’t want to hurt people against their will.

Sheriff Joe Arpaio, on the other hand, doesn’t give a shit about consent. He’s a thug, and he had an army of deputy thugs working for him. I would be very nervous running into him in a situation he controlled. If he could find a way, he wouldn’t hesitate to have a critic like me thrown in a cage in the 110 degree heat of the Arizona sun.

I don’t have any profound point here. And I certainly hope this is not coming across as “Joe Arpaio is even worse person than a professional dominatrix,” because that would be insulting to the pro dom community. The juxtaposition between Mistress Matisse and Joe Arpaio just struck me as a stark illustration of the importance of consent.

As a someone who leans libertarian, I place a lot of importance in the concept of consent. And I regard the absence of consent as a defining requirement for legitimately designating something as a crime: Sex without consent is rape, commerce without consent is theft, and inflicting pain without consent is torture.

Lack of consent alone is not enough to make something a crime, but if there is full consent, then it should never be a crime. As far as I’m concerned, Mistress Matisse is a successful and valued practitioner of an unusual art. Nothing to worry about.

Joe Arpaio, on the other hand, hurt a lot of people without their consent. Obviously, detaining and punishing criminals without their consent is a necessary part of criminal justice, but the lack of consent also makes it especially important that the criminal justice system is subject to strict requirements and oversight. Arpaio had little of that, and he and his deputies went way beyond what was necessary to keep the peace.

It’s particularly relevant to the contrast with Mistress Matisse that Arpaio jailed consensual sex workers and subjected them to harsh conditions, including one particularly gruesome case in which his guards tortured and killed a sex worker. Yet that’s just one of many deaths and many more prisoners subject to torturous conditions. Arpaio was one of the most monstrous figures in modern American law enforcement.

There’s something very wrong, some kind of complete inversion of the meaning of consent, when we have governments that want to throw people like Mistress Matisse in jails that are run by people like Joe Arpaio.

How Not to Change Your Employer’s Culture

I told myself I wouldn’t write about the Google memo. The situation followed a drearily predictable script — guy writes something arguably sexist, it goes public, outrage erupts, company fires him, he becomes a martyr for the MRA cause, etc. — and I didn’t want to have anything to do with it.

There’s something that bothered me though… As I understand it, the (now former) Google employee criticized the company’s diversity policy regarding women, using an argument based on statistical differences between the sexes. At least that’s what I’m hearing from people I consider reliable. I still haven’t read the whole memo, and I hope I don’t have to.

Honestly, I tried reading it, but I didn’t have the stamina to go on once I got to the part where he invokes evolutionary psychology. I’ve seen this before, and it’s never pretty. Evolutionary psychology is a branch of biology that tries to link psychological traits back to the conditions under which they evolved. It’s a legitimate science, but one in which firm conclusions are difficult to come by. Unfortunately, that hasn’t stopped a lot of people from invoking it to make some very questionable pronouncements about race and gender.

I haven’t read enough of the Google memo to know how far the author goes down that road, but here’s the thing: Given his stated purpose, evolutionary psychology is completely unnecessary. The author justifies his proposals based on supposedly innate differences between men and women. But if the evolutionary basis for those differences is backed by science, that science must necessarily make use of contemporary studies of men and women which demonstrate those differences, and those studies alone should be sufficient to support his proposals.

When your purpose is to propose changing the work environment to make it more accommodating to the differing preferences of women, all you need to know is what those preferences are. How women came to have those preferences may well be an interesting area of scientific inquiry, but it has nothing to do with workplace policy.

For example, suppose evolutionary psychologists conclude that women like the color pink because ancestral women were the primary caregivers of infants and attention to pink tones in skin coloration was important to maintaining infant health. If this was real science (instead of something I just made up), then the body of research supporting feminine color preferences must necessarily include studies that establish the statistical observation that women like the color pink. So if you want to propose painting Google meeting rooms pink to make women more comfortable, you need only refer to the studies showing that women like pink. There’s no need to bring up evolution.

More generally, for the ostensible purposes of the memo’s author, the reasons for differing preferences are beside the point. Perhaps they arise because of evolutionary pressures, or perhaps they are instilled in men and women by the expectations and restrictions of society, but when it comes to setting personnel policy, it just doesn’t matter. By the time men and women walk through the doors at Google for their first interview, they have whatever preferences they have, for whatever reasons they have them, and Google can’t do a thing about it. Google has to take its job applicants as it finds them.

The point I’m trying to make here is that this should have been obvious to the memo’s author. If he was sincerely trying to propose ways to accommodate women’s preferences, all he had to do was cite the research that backs up his arguments about differences between men and women. Bringing in evolutionary psychology was unnecessary, divisive, and distracting. If this was a sincere attempt to influence company culture, it was a stupid way to go about it.

The author’s other major mistake was to be disrespectful to the powers that be. The title alone, “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber,” implies that Google managers are closed-minded and therefore foolish. Even if the author is right and Google is managed by people with absurd liberal biases, this is not the way to make them see the light. In fact, if you begin your letter to your employer with the rhetorical equivalent of “Hey, dumb-asses!” you should not be surprised when they construe it as your resignation.

A Professional Ethicist Responds to Trump’s Remarks About Charlottesville

Over the weekend there were some public gatherings of white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia. These were met by counter-protesters, and some of the encounters between the groups got violent.  The worst violence came on Saturday, when someone identified with the white nationalist movement deliberately drove their car into a crowd of protesters, killing one and injuring many others.

Everyone was kind of wondering what, if anything, President Trump would say about this. As it turns out, he had something to say, and it was…telling. You can read the whole thing here, but this is arguably the key sentence:

We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides.

It was the “many sides” phrase that got people’s attention. Trump may not exactly have been wrong — given that some of the counter-protesters were antifa activists, it seems likely that both sides got violent — but it’s the seemingly deliberate obscuring of the fact that one of the sides consisted of virulent racists that’s so revealing. We’re talking about a guy who famously denounces anyone who angers him, from his own appointed Attorney General to a department store that stops carrying his daughter’s line of fashion accessories. Yet he had nothing bad to say about any of the white supremacists, not even when asked directly about it. Twice.

For more insight into this matter, let’s see what one of my most frequent sources of blogging material has to say about it. Here’s professional ethicist Jack Marshall writing about the president’s remarks:

In contrast to the President’s correct restraint, we have Virginia’s governor Terry McAuliffe, who used the power and influence of his office to declare that people holding views he does not approve of are not welcome in the Old Dominion. In the midst of some patriotic grandstanding, he said…

“You are not wanted in this great commonwealth. Shame on you….There is no place for you here. There is no place for you in America.”

This is leftist fascism, by definition. Who is Terry McAuliffe, or Virginia, or anyone, to say who can or should have a “place” in the United States of America? How is this statement applied to white nationalists any different legally or ethically from applying it to Muslims, or lesbians, or abortion advocates, or Catholics, Jews or libertarians?

I wasn’t expecting that. Damn, being a professional ethicist must be really hard. I never would have guessed that was the correct answer.

I Guess Racism Isn’t Quite Over…

Almost nine years ago, right after Barack Obama was elected President, I wrote:

[W]e now know how the story of American racism ends: The racists get their asses kicked. Racism won’t vanish in a week or a year or even a decade, but it will vanish. Barack Obama’s victory is a clear message to all the hardcore racists out there—the KKK, the Nazis, Stormfront: It’s over. You’ve lost. You are no longer important. There’s no place for you here in the future.

It appears I may have been mistaken.

This was going on at the University of Virginia in Charlotte tonight:

These people are basically white nationalists, or maybe white supremacists. Although given that stiff-armed salute and the reports of swastikas and their chants of “blood and soil,” I think we can probably call them straight-up Nazis without triggering Godwin’s law.

(They’re really more like Nazi Lite though: Those are Tiki torches.)

Obviously, this is not the first sign that something has gone wrong with our pluralistic society. The alt-right has been growing for years and developing into a movement, we’re seeing a rise in anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment, and now Britain is exiting the European Union and Donald Trump is in the White House.

Yet this rally somehow brought it home for me. I think it’s because many of them are so young. These aren’t just the bigots of the old society clinging to the past. These are newly-minted bigots. That’s not a good sign. I had kind of hoped we wouldn’t see much more of that.

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