Monday, November 14, 2016

The Rocky Road Ahead

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I guess we're stuck with him
So. Hearts are broken, people are frightened, and dire predictions of the end of American constitutional democracy abound. It’s time to take a deep breath and think about what we’re truly facing. It’s not going to be pretty - even if we try to think about it realistically, setting aside the Trump bombast and madness, we’re going to lose a great deal of the progress that has been so painstakingly achieved in the last hundred years.

There will be many bad outcomes in the coming years, and few, if any good ones. But we need to abandon the tearful vague terrors and start trying to see the contours of the road ahead. Here’s my first pass.


Healthcare

Obamacare is toast. The Republicans have placed far too much emphasis on its repeal to back away now, regardless of who it harms or how much. Certainly the subsidies are doomed, and the Medicaid expansion (in fact, Medicaid as we know it is dead - see below). There will be some amusing arguments as Republicans struggle to keep the ‘good’ parts of Obamacare - guaranteed coverage and community rating - while scrapping the ‘bad’ subsidies, mandates and exchanges. But eventually they will have to kill off the whole thing, and we will go back to a worse version of the bad old days when insurance companies can sell worthless policies and then cancel them when a claim is filed. Worse, they will allow interstate competition, which will allow insurance companies to base themselves in the friendliest of states (Arizona, for example) and then follow those ridiculously loose regulations all around the country. A classic ‘race to the bottom’.


Budget

The greatest nightmare of modern Republican control over the US government is the Paul Ryan budget. We know what it looks like, because the House of Representatives has passed it numerous times. They will pass it again, and President Trump will sign it. We know it will include huge deficit - financed tax cuts for the wealthy, and that it will include deep cuts to social welfare programs. Medicare and social security may be safe - Trump likes them, but still might bargain them away - but Medicaid will be block-granted to the states, and we know what happens then.

Two points worth noting immediately. First, the rising deficit along with whatever infrastructure program Trump can convince the Congress to accept will provide the kind of fiscal stimulus the Republicans have been obstructing for years, and the economy should benefit in at least the short run. Second, offsetting that, the financial deregulation we can be certain is coming will put the economy on course for another catastrophic failure.

We know that Trump will want higher spending on Defense, Infrastructure and the VA. Congress will give him a free hand on Defense, and will probably go along with increases to the Veterans budget, but he’s liable to get serious pushback on Infrastructure. At some point in the next four years we can expect dramatic changes to the Tax Code.


Foreign Policy

Iran
Trump may - or may not - specifically abrogate the Iran nuclear treaty, but it doesn’t really matter. Congress will want to pass new sanctions legislation, and that will put the United States in violation of the treaty, not Iran. The rest of the P5+1 nations will be furious, and will work with Iran to shield them from the new American sanctions. The isolation of the US in Europe will be deep and dark.


NATO
Was Trump serious when he talked about limiting the US commitment to NATO? Will he insist that other states take more responsibility for their own defence? (We need to think about Korea and Japan in this context too, even though they are not actually part of the NATO alliance). American participation in longstanding security alliances around the world is one of the places where a President Trump can do the most global harm. Once those nations begin to doubt the American commitment, they are going to have to do what they feel they must for their own safety and survival. In many cases, this would mean establishing security agreements with China or Russia, which will change the balance of power radically. In some cases, particularly South Korea, it might mean yet another nuclear state.


Afghanistan
It’s anybody’s guess what Trump will do in Afghanistan. If his rhetoric is to be believed, one would think he would withdraw our troops and mission - it costs a lot and there’s nothing there in America’s interest. But it will provide a key test case - how much influence will the generals and the warhawk advisers around him have? If he leave the US mission in Afghanistan in place - or even enlarges it - it will be a clear signal that he’ll let his advisers make most of the less interesting decisions, and that will only make things that much worse.

Of course, he’ll be confronted with the same political considerations - if you pull the US troops and funds out of Afghanistan, the government will fall, Pakistan will be in a position to control the Taliban government and India will have a bigger problem with their Muslim neighbors.


ISIS/Syria
Trump has vowed to ‘destroy’ ISIS, and he has said he would do so quickly. Nobody believes for a moment that’s even possible, but it does raise the question: What actions will he take to differentiate his administration from the Obama policies? Any increase in US operations in Syria will risk coming into conflict with Russian combat operations, so some new coordination with the Russian military will be necessary. But that seems more than likely - Trump will likely overturn the US position that Bashar al-Assad must go, and rather work Russia and the Syrian regime to roll back ISIS. That will mean - at a minimum - withdrawing aid to the rebels (and perhaps the Kurds), and possibly supporting attacks against them.


Russia
The number one issue with Russia as Trump takes office is the sanctions that the US and Europe imposed after the Russians annexed Crimea. The sanctions regime is written to expire - and therefore needs to be renewed - every six months. Under Obama’s leadership, sanctions will be renewed in December, but in June we can expect President Trump to lead a push (with Eastern European nations) to end them. The Putin government will be friendly to the Trump administration until then at least, but a major part of Putin's popularity is his strong anti-American stance, and he's going to have to rattle his saber every now and then. And yes, the American response under Trump might be quite stupid and dangerous.


Immigration

At this point we’ve got to take him at his word. We know he doesn’t have the funding, personnel or infrastructure to find, detain and deport millions of undocumented Latinos, but he can cancel DACA and crank up the current enforcement mechanism to eleven. That will mean LOTS of people leaving, many on their own to avoid being deported, many others in ICE enforcement activities. At some point, the lettuce is going to rot in the fields and the construction projects are going to stall for lack of labor. Actions have consequences, and when you use a blunt instrument in the public policy arena the consequences usually come in the form of a blunt instrument of their own.

He’s spent too much time talking about building a wall on the southern border to not take action, but getting funding, right-of-way and dealing with lawsuits will take a very long time. It will be mostly talk for years, and whatever money is spent will NOT be recouped from the Mexican government.


Education

Sweeping changes are coming to federal education policy. Common Core is gone. Some kind of universal school voucher program is on the way. The tea party lunatics probably won’t be able to actually eliminate the Department of Education, but they will succeed in crippling it, and the damage will be slow, relentless, long-term and possibly irreversible.

Homeland Security

Here’s where things begin to get problematic. We’re going to see an avowed authoritarian defining the security state in terms we could never imagine. In addition to aggressive immigration enforcement, we’ll see aggressive domestic law enforcement policies including stop & frisk and much less federal oversight of local police agencies in human rights and brutality cases. Eventually we’ll see a terrorist attack on US soil, and then what happens is  anybody’s guess. When he’s actually in the White House, in power, he will be in a position to overreact to a San Bernardino or an Orlando. And make no mistake, ISIS knows he WILL overreact, and they can finally get what they want if they push him hard enough. And we’ve been far too accepting of the American domestic surveillance state, but hold onto your pixels, because it’s about to get a whole lot worse.

Environment

There’s no doubt that Trump will be a disaster for Environmental policy. From violating or outright abrogating the Paris agreement to increased coal production to drilling for oil and gas on Federal lands like ANWR and offshore to elimination of environmental regulations, we’re going to see a catastrophe unfold. On the upside, demand for fossil fuels is soft - you can’t increase production without an increase in demand - and many states have more stringent environmental regulations than the Federal Government, so things in those places won’t change at all. But many nations won’t participate in intensive carbon pollution reduction if the United States does not do its part, so we are facing a delay in Climate Change mitigation we cannot afford.

Judiciary

Donald Trump is so unstable, so corrupt and so incoherent that the Trump Presidency will likely last only four years, and the Senate Majority may only last for two. But his judicial appointments (which will almost certainly be outsourced to Republican legislators) will be with us for decades to come, and we can expect them to be worst kind of ideologue hacks. Long after the country has regained its senses and sent a an honest Liberal back to the White House, progressive legislation will be constrained by a Federal judiciary full of right-wing cranks.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Checks & Balances & Then What?

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Whew. I need a vacation
I have written extensively about the problems associated with the antiquated, obsolete and remarkably fragile American system of democratic governance. And certainly, to the extent that any ideologically based group, organization or party can exploit that kind of fragility simply by refusing to accept the norms of behavior that are necessary to make such a system functional, the Tea Party wing of the Republican party has repeatedly exploited that system. But in a way, I thought, there are limits to how far they could ultimately push that process.

After all, didn't we learn in school that the three branches of government are co-equal, and that there are 'checks and balances' available to each to prevent any other from acting arbitrarily or unilaterally running roughshod over the government as a whole? And certainly there are checks on that kind of action such as Presidential Vetoes, the so-called 'Power of the Purse' and Judicial oversight that are effective in limiting most kinds of excessive abuse.

But here's the nightmare that's just coming into focus. While the system at least gives the branches the power to prevent another branch from acting in dangerous, arbitrary or excessive manner, there is nothing to prevent a branch from simply not acting at all. And it is in these unforeseen acts of, well, INaction that we are sewing the seeds of the destruction of our own democratic system. Don't pass a funding bill? Government shuts down. Don't vote to raise the debt ceiling? Government defaults. Don't confirm judiciary appointments? Democracy collapses. And once again, to emphasize the scale of the problem, there is NOTHING in the system to prevent such tantrums of inaction. No rules. No sanctions. No arbitration. No recourse.

These are the kinds of activities of governance that were - and have always been - dependent upon the expected norms of behavior. Men of good will - statesmen if you will - would simply never subvert the system and harm the work of the people in order to advance their own partisan agenda. That wasn't something that anyone wanted to see attached to their own name, reputation and legacy. Then along came Newt Gingrich and the ultimate disintegration of the entire edifice was underway.

It's key to realize that this is all the Republicans. And it's the path they have adopted because, in their decline from a national political organization to a regional one, they have lost the ability to win national elections, and therefore, under the co-equal checks & balances system we have always had, they had no ability to implement their preferred policies. Of course, that's as it should be - the idea is that the people decide policy by placing in power the party whose agenda they prefer. But to the modern American political Right, none of this is about democracy. In fact, democratic norms are the primary impediment to their goals, so democratic norms are disregarded without compunction.

Would the Democratic party have acted (or NOT acted) in this way if the roles and power distribution were reversed? Who knows? We'd like to think we place a higher value on the beliefs and values of democracy than we do on winning, but if red meat accusations of treasonous perfidy and apocalyptic rhetoric drives the voting base into a spittle flecked rage, it's hard to control the kind of people they will send to Washington, and when anger and hate trump (heh) honor, all bets are off.
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Wednesday, October 19, 2016

You Say You Want a Revolution

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"Hold my beer, I'm going in"
As we watch the good ship Trump slip beneath the waves in the last weeks before his ultimate resounding humiliation, we are seeing just how foul and grotesque his behavior can be. By claiming that the election is somehow 'rigged', he is calling into question the basic functioning of democratic governance - the peaceful transfer of legitimate political power. American politicians have always been careful to observe the niceties of our democratic electoral system, conceding their loss and congratulating the winner as the legitimate choice of the citizens. Even Richard Nixon, in resigning the presidency, was careful to remark on how the system functioned even in extremis. And Al Gore - up by a million votes and apparently leading the Florida recount - stood down when the supreme court inserted itself into the race and chose a winner.

But not this year. Not this cycle. Not this candidate. When your most energized supporters are fueled by what should be easily debunked falsehoods piled one on top of the next, the idea that they would be willing to accept a loss that Trump himself is not willing to concede is clearly a non-starter. Some will merely shriek their anger at their country, their democratic system and their new president, while others can be expected to make increasingly violent threats to overturn the 'tyranny' they're sure they're seeing but somehow can't quite describe. When you couple this particular movement's butthurt with the decades-long process of stoking a particularly unique kind of spittle flecked hatred of all things Clinton and an ideological attachment to firearms, well, the fear of a violent response seems well justified.

And sure enough, we are seeing more and more Trumpist voters promising to take up arms, to go to war, to rebel against a system that was so corrupt and so co-opted that their candidate somehow didn't win an election in which he has never had a polling lead. But we need to think this through a bit before we give in to our darkest fears of Aleppo come to Peoria. Did you ever notice that when a person makes a death threat, that person virtually never follows through? It's as if the point of the exercise was NOT actually murder after all, but merely to shriek one's anger and frighten and intimidate one's foes. Conversely, when someone DOES actually commit a violent act, they usually did what they could to prevent their plans from being discovered before they acted. These people making these threats? Like Ted Nugent's famous promise to end up 'dead or in jail' if Barack Obama was reelected, we can safely discount them as the 'all talk and no gunpowder' end of the spectrum.

Beyond that, it is informative to look at the level of desperation that has historically driven citizens to take up arms in rebellion against their government. It is hunger, disease, extreme poverty, brutal oppression - the precise things we are NOT seeing in America in the early 21st century, despite the vague claims of 'tyranny' invoked by people, most often shirtless tattooed drunk white men in trailer parks. But that's the thing - even in trailer parks, Americans have jobs and televisions and families and barbeques and beer. That's a lot to give up to go to war against the most powerful military in the world over various tyrannical acts you can't quite describe, but are certain are taking place. None of your friends or family have been killed, imprisoned or tortured. Your children are in school. Your neighborhoods are intact, with clean water and well stocked grocery stores. When the time comes to actually load the magazines and start the killing, these things are going to seem even more important, and Americans will decide, once again, to call the president foul names (oddly still legal in the face of his tyranny) and open another beer.

Now, don't get me wrong. There are some who will do awful things. The Oklahoma Federal Building bombing in the spring of 1995 (unsurprisingly during the last Clinton administration) was a real mass-casualty act of terrorism, and we can't pretend there won't be more like it in upcoming years. The rhetoric HAS gotten hotter, and the hatred has been growing for decades. But those kinds of events are always a possibility - the strident calls to violent rebellion we're hearing from the white nationalist right during (and after) this particuarly ugly presidential campaign can safely be ignored. The one you never hear shrieking his hatred at the administration is the one you need to worry about...
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Sunday, July 31, 2016

Surely You Can't Be Serious

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The voices in his head are very, very serious
Back in the early years of the odious GW Bush administration, one of the complaints the American Political Right had about liberals in the post 9/11 era was that they were 'unserious'. The term was quickly adopted by the media, and politicians, policies and pundits were suddenly judged by how 'serious' they were. Of course, seriousness isn't something that can be objectively measured, so it was really just a term used to call out policies you disagreed with. Don't want to invade Iraq? You're not serious. Don't want to cut government spending? Deeply unserious on economic policy. Don't want to invest billions in a new generation of nuclear weapons? You're just not serious about strategic deterrence.

It's funny to see people now taking aim at Donald Trump's lack of seriousness. He's not a serious candidate. He isn't running a serious campaign. He doesn't have a serious policy agenda. And this is where I have to draw the line. We've totally lost contact with the meaning of a common three-syllable English language word. Let me correct the record here - Donald Trump is serious. He's as serious, as the old saying goes, as a heart attack.

Of course he's not a typical politician. He's a populist demagogue out of the Huey Long school. He's uninformed, incurious and unclear on even the most basic functions of 21st century governance. He doesn't KNOW anything - except what HE knows he knows - and when it comes to those voices and images bouncing around in his head, do not doubt for a moment that he is serious. If he says something and the rabble responds favorably, it becomes a part of the Trump policy agenda. Impossible, unconstitutional, illegal, it doesn't matter. He'll make the promises. And he'll believe them.

He's 'serious' in the sense that he is unable to differentiate between routine campaign promises and actual viable policy proposals. To him, strong-arming the Mexican government into paying for the wall is a very serious proposal. Sure, we might look at the real-world barriers to such a fantasy and smirk that he is utterly unserious, but that overlooks the madness that is Trumpism. He not only believes - nay, KNOWS - he can do these things, but his desperate, uninformed and fearful supporters believe it too. They know he is serious - and nothing that happens in the course of the campaign can convince them otherwise. We know enough about Trump that we can clearly see he'll be angry and frustrated with the legislative and judicial processes, particularly when he demands congress appropriate funds for his bizarre and dangerous initiatives.

But we also must not forget that, where he CAN act unilaterally he will - because of his own certainty around his actions. Will he really walk away from NATO? Abrogate the Iran Nuclear Weapons agreement? Demand tribute for continued US military presence in Japan and Korea? Impose trade sanctions on China? One can have no doubt - when he promises these things, and people respond positively, they become the hard core of his 'serious' policy agenda.  Trump - and Trumpism - is dangerous in a way we really haven't internalized yet. Not just for his authoritarian bent, his lack of democratic values or his inability to understand even the most basic second-order consequences of government action. Trump is dangerous because he actually believes what he says - what the world will perceive as a dangerous, impulsive recklessness is really just his inherent certainty of his own infallibility.
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Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Today We Are All Corrupt Neoliberal Sellouts

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Our long national nightmare is over
Just to note in passing that after all virulent, spittle-flecked rhetoric, after all the accusations and innuendo, after all the threats and tantrums and willful intransigence over the basic functions of a political party's nominating process, today Bernie Sanders announced that he is With Her.

The Sanders campaign devoted no little effort in the attempt to amplify and focus the incoherent right-wing Clinton Derangement Syndrome narrative among the more liberal denizens of the Democratic party - and had a disappointingly large affect on the political conversation. For months the Democratic primaries were argued, not in terms of what Sanders might be able to accomplish, or how a Sanders presidency might compare favorably to a Clinton term, but rather about the alleged corruption, criminality and neoliberal warhawk tendencies of the Clinton dynasty. From a strictly practical sense, this was probably a reasonable choice. Bernie ran a dumpster fire of a campaign, insisting on labeling himself a socialist, turning every question into an argument about inequality in America, and refusing to even offer the slightest suggestion of how he might make his liberal fever-dream of a policy agenda a reality. It was a campaign straight out of the underpants gnomes playbook, and even his supporters quickly learned not to talk about him at all - leaving them with nothing to say except to shriek in increasingly over-the-top terms how terrible Hillary was and how we'd all be doomed if she won the nomination.

So yeah, there's a little twitch of a smile of schadenfreude today. It's pretty amusing that all the Sanders supporters who swore they would NEVER vote for Hillary Clinton are now more radical Sanders voters than...well, than Sanders. And even with just the explicit statement about the Democratic position on capital punishment, yeah, the party's policy platform is a pretty good statement of values. But it never mattered a bit. Clinton could have told him to take a long walk on a short pier. With the Republican self-immolation candidate Donald Trump as the opposition, the Democrats never needed their far left wing to elect her - they suddenly find themselves with a far-right wing instead. But she took the smart path (note - this should not come as a surprise to anyone) and added the vast majority of the Sanders voters to what is becoming an overwhelming political coalition. We can even start looking beyond her inauguration on January 20 of next year, and begin to think about the looming constitutional crisis over the Supreme Court. Because that could be the next phase in the collapse of the barking mad American political right.
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Saturday, July 9, 2016

Trade Globalization Agreements - Less Than Meets the Eye?

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This is your culprit right here
Between now and November, we're going to be hearing a great deal about 'trade', especially in terms of trade globalization and the impact on American manufacturing jobs. So it's a very good time to stop and think about international trade, how we got here and what it means today and in the future.

The first question, as always, needs to be about root causes. The conventional wisdom is that trade globalization agreements created trade globalization, by changing the rules and opening up low-cost manufacturing centers in poor countries. But is that the case? Once you think about it, it's actually the other way around - trade globalization led to the free trade agreements. In other words, the agreements were negotiated to address the changes that were already happening in global trade. But if that's the case, what caused the globalization of trade in the first place? The answer is the standardized inter-modal shipping container. Once you had a very cost effective way of transporting goods on ships, trains and trucks, there was no place on earth that wasn't available as a manufacturing hub. And once that infrastructure was in place, every corporation in the world was able to either create or participate in highly efficient large-scale global supply chains.

A second point to remember is that these are agreements between multiple parties. They are not supposed to be one-sided zero sum contests in power and advantage. America lost a lot of manufacturing jobs, but as the largest consumer market in the world we benefited hugely from the increased speed and efficiency of the global supply chain. We have our phones and tablets and laptops and televisions, sure, but we also have the tens of millions of servers, routers, switches, firewalls, load balancers, along with the millions of miles of optical network infrastructure what permits you to watch Netflix. Would any of that be affordable to all if it had to be manufactured here? Would the advances in technology have been deployed as rapidly? And along that same context, think about the millions of people around the globe who have been lifted out of the grinding poverty of subsistence farming, who now have houses with plumbing and health care and education for their children. For every $75/hr American manufacturing job that has been lost, a hundred desperately poor families have joined the modern middle class. All in the course of a single human lifespan. That is an unqualified good thing.

In the end, if you're an American worker these trade deals have not been a good deal. They have cost good jobs and empowered the worst instincts of corporations. But they are not the catastrophe they are often made out to be - rather they are the cudgel that populist politicians can use to drive hostility toward the parties in power. And if you look at the results of trade globalization over the last few decades from a global rather than an American nationalist viewpoint, they have done an awfully lot of good.

One final point to consider: manufacturing jobs will return to the US. That's not good news, however. Robotics and workforce automation have changed the capital/labor calculation. When all the costs of manufacturing are capital and none are labor, you can establish your manufacturing hubs anywhere you want - the only advantage is proximity to markets, and the US is still the largest consumer market on the planet. The jobs will return - they are returning - but workers will not benefit. Sooner than you think, the lions share of manufacturing will be automated, and both the advanced and the emerging economies will be confronted by huge numbers of desperately poor, unemployable people demanding solutions. At that point we'll look back on the days of trade globalization as a golden age.

UPDATE:
And, just like that, Yglesias makes the final point crystal clear...



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Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The 'No Fly List' is Atrocious - Let's Not Make it Worse

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It would pretty much be all of us...
Start with an almost comically obvious premise: It would not be good to simply let terrorists buy guns legally. No rational society would allow such a thing - setting aside for a moment whether any rational society would allow broad unlimited access to modern firearms in the first place - and it shouldn't be terribly difficult to make certain such an obvious premise is enforced in day-to-day reality. Of course, we're not really saying what we mean here - if we know a specific individual is a terrorist, they are either in custody or the subject of a manhunt. Obviously what we mean here is 'suspected terrorist', or perhaps a better construct might be 'pre-terrorist', somebody who has come to the attention of law enforcement or Homeland Security but has not been arrested or tried for any crimes. And fortuitously, we have a 'list' of these exact subjects - it's called the 'No Fly List' and it is used to prevent terrorism suspects from boarding or traveling on commercial airliners.

The No Fly List contains about 47,000 names. It's unclear how many are American citizens or permanent residents, but that number is well under 1000 (it was 800 in 2013). Much of the actual intent of maintaining a No Fly List is to keep suspected international terrorists out of the US in the first place. So as a No Gun List, this compilation of names would be very close to useless, another case of 'security theater' writ large. But let me ask you a question: In light of what we know about the US National Security State, given this kind of new unilateral administrative authority to prevent gun purchases, do you think it's at least reasonable that the FBI might expand the scope of people on the No Fly List to more broadly include people in the US and people whose focus isn't necessarily on transportation targets?

And once we have surrendered yet another constitutional right to the whims of the DoJ bureaucracy, are you comfortable that it will all just stop there? What about Drivers Licenses? I mean, cars are little different from airplanes and truck bombs are the most common form of terrorist attack around the globe. And consider the attack on the soccer stadium in Paris. Perhaps the FBI should be able to deny the right to attend large-scale sporting events and concerts?

When you give up your due process rights and allow a government agency to determine whether and how to withhold rights and privileges you take for granted as a citizen - when you allow lists of names to be compiled by agency bureaucrats who can then restrict the rights of those on the list - you give up both any access to information about WHY your name is on that list, and you give up any opportunity to challenge that information, and have that challenge adjudicated fairly.  We've seen these excesses in the No Fly List from the very beginning. So much secrecy and ambiguity exists around the list that people have been denied access to airlines for years because their name was 'similar to the known alias of someone on the No Fly List'. Even after it was established that it was a different person on the list, it was still impossible for the unfortunately named individual to fly.

Look. Guns in America are a crisis. No one spends more time screaming about the gun violence crisis than I do. But children: THIS IS NOT THE WAY. If we're so desperate for a 'win' in the gun debate that we're willing to hand over another victory to the National Security State, then we've already lost the much larger debate. At the very moment when we should be fighting to radically reform or eliminate the No Fly List, instead we find ourselves enthusiastically doubling down on the premise of a society where our 'rights' are limited and controlled by government agencies.

Update: Just want to make sure we're thinking about this. This is what you get when you have a constitutional guarantee of the right to keep and bear arms. You can clearly have an American citizen who is the subject of multiple investigations, who has indicated a tendency to hate, violence and terror. But he's not chargeable, so he can walk into a gun store and buy a pistol, a rifle or a shotgun. This shouldn't be hard - no other country struggles with this challenge. But our toxic 2nd amendment saddles us with these horrific hobson's choices...
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