May 14, 2019

Posted by orrinj at 7:20 PM


GIVING UP DARWIN (David Gelernter, May 1, 2019, Claremont Review of Books)

There's no reason to doubt that Darwin successfully explained the small adjustments by which an organism adapts to local circumstances: changes to fur density or wing style or beak shape. Yet there are many reasons to doubt whether he can answer the hard questions and explain the big picture--not the fine-tuning of existing species but the emergence of new ones. The origin of species is exactly what Darwin cannot explain.

Stephen Meyer's thoughtful and meticulous Darwin's Doubt (2013) convinced me that Darwin has failed. He cannot answer the big question. Two other books are also essential: The Deniable Darwin and Other Essays (2009), by David Berlinski, and Debating Darwin's Doubt (2015), an anthology edited by David Klinghoffer, which collects some of the arguments Meyer's book stirred up. These three form a fateful battle group that most people would rather ignore. Bringing to bear the work of many dozen scientists over many decades, Meyer, who after a stint as a geophysicist in Dallas earned a Ph.D. in History and Philosophy of Science from Cambridge and now directs the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture, disassembles the theory of evolution piece by piece. Darwin's Doubt is one of the most important books in a generation. Few open-minded people will finish it with their faith in Darwin intact.

Meyer doesn't only demolish Darwin; he defends a replacement theory, intelligent design (I.D.). Although I can't accept intelligent design as Meyer presents it, he does show that it is a plain case of the emperor's new clothes: it says aloud what anyone who ponders biology must think, at some point, while sifting possible answers to hard questions. Intelligent design as Meyer explains it never uses religious arguments, draws religious conclusions, or refers to religion in any way. It does underline an obvious but important truth: Darwin's mission was exactly to explain the flagrant appearance of design in nature.

The religion is all on the other side. Meyer and other proponents of I.D. are the dispassionate intellectuals making orderly scientific arguments. Some I.D.-haters have shown themselves willing to use any argument--fair or not, true or not, ad hominem or not--to keep this dangerous idea locked in a box forever. They remind us of the extent to which Darwinism is no longer just a scientific theory but the basis of a worldview, and an emergency replacement religion for the many troubled souls who need one.

As for Biblical religion, it forces its way into the discussion although Meyer didn't invite it, and neither did Darwin. Some have always been bothered by the harm Darwin is said to have done religion. His theory has been thought by some naïfs (fundamentalists as well as intellectuals) to have shown or alleged that the Bible is wrong, and Judeo-Christian religion bunk. But this view assumes a childishly primitive reading of Scripture. Anyone can see that there are two different creation stories in Genesis, one based on seven days, the other on the Garden of Eden. When the Bible gives us two different versions of one story, it stands to reason that the facts on which they disagree are without basic religious significance. The facts on which they agree are the ones that matter: God created the universe, and put man there for a reason. Darwin has nothing to say on these or any other key religious issues.

Fundamentalists and intellectuals might go on arguing these things forever. But normal people will want to come to grips with Meyer and the downfall of a beautiful idea. I will mention several of his arguments, one of them in (just a bit of) detail. This is one of the most important intellectual issues of modern times, and every thinking person has the right and duty to judge for himself.

Darwin deserves his due: he observed the way local farmers bred animals and thought that something similar might occur "naturally."  Of course, the limitations of this observation are obvious and have never been overcome.

Posted by orrinj at 4:34 AM


Anti-miscegenation activist calls out Likud MK over daughter dating Arab Israeli (JACOB MAGID, 5/14/19, Times of Israel)

The head of a far-right anti-coexistence organization sent an open letter to a prominent Likud lawmaker on Tuesday, urging him to break up his daughter's relationship with an Arab Israeli.

The letter from Lehava head Bentzi Gopstein came less than a day after the Maariv daily reported that MK Gideon Sa'ar's daughter Alona is dating actor Amir Khoury of the hit Israeli show "Fauda."

Posted by orrinj at 4:30 AM


It's clear why Trump likes autocrats. But why are American conservatives following him (Anne Applebaum, May 13, 2019, Washington Post)

On Monday, President Trump hosted one of these exotic foreign ideologues at the White House. Viktor Orban, prime minister of a country with just under 10 million inhabitants -- less than the population of North Carolina -- has set out to persuade British and American intellectuals to join his war against liberal democracy. At embassy dinners in London and at Washington events sponsored by Hungarian government foundations, elegantly dressed Hungarian officials expound the values of their corrupt, authoritarian state -- and now some U.S. conservatives, perhaps frustrated because they can't vanquish their own opponents so easily, have come to believe them. Mike Gonzalez of the Heritage Foundation imagines that other Europeans dislike Orban because Hungarians are "constantly reminding their neighbors not to be embarrassed by Europe's history." Christopher Caldwell, writing recently in the Claremont Review of Books, admires Orban's attack on "neutral social structures and a level playing field," presuming that the Hungarian leader derives these policies from some mystical need for organic community.

In fact, European anger at Orban has nothing do with being reminded of history, and everything to do with Orban's all-out assault on his country's legal and judicial institutions, on independent media, on academia and on culture. And the purpose of this assault has nothing to do with mystical organic communities: The reason the ruling party has undermined judicial independence and expelled the country's leading university is because it wants to maintain its monopoly on power and continue accumulating wealth. No large business can operate in Hungary without ruling-party approval; many in Orban's inner circle have mysteriously managed to make fortunes; independent businesspeople who do not toe the line are quietly threatened until they leave the country.

It's not hard, of course, to see why this might appeal to an amoral operator such as Trump, who openly admires the leaders of Russia and Saudi Arabia. As Trump's ambassador to Hungary recently put it, in an overly honest interview in the Atlantic, Trump "would love to have the situation that Viktor Orban has, but he doesn't."

But how does it appeal to conservative intellectuals?  [...]

To be absolutely clear: We are talking about a European leader who uses overt racism and covert anti-Semitism in his election propaganda, speaking of fighting an unnamed "enemy" who is "crafty" and "international" and "speculates with money." We are talking about a European leader who has thumbed his nose at the United States, bent over backwards to welcome a Russian bank that is thought to have espionage links and undermined U.S. policy in Ukraine.

We are talking about a European leader who inspired one Hungarian academic to write, in a tragic, elegiac article, that his country had "committed suicide in plain sight." The educated young are leaving Hungary, if they aren't already gone; the prospects for anyone who rejects the public festivals of hatred and prejudice are dire. But because they don't actually have to live in Hungary, a certain kind of American conservative, just like a certain kind of American leftist long ago, will continue admiring this leader, because they can.

He's Donald without a Deep State.

Posted by orrinj at 4:08 AM


Supreme Court president invokes Nazi era in implicit swipe at Netanyahu: Esther Hayut says judicial institutions can't 'withstand every attack'; PM said to be seeking legislation that would shatter judicial oversight (MICHAEL BACHNER, 5/14/19, Times of Israel)

The chief justice of Israel's Supreme Court on Tuesday made a speech in Nuremberg, Germany, that expressed implied criticism of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's planned judicial reforms and invoked the Nazi takeover of Germany in the 1930s.

"History is not repeating itself," Esther Hayut clarified at an event hosted by the Israeli German Lawyers Association, "but it gives us the opportunity to learn from it and enables us to see patterns and judge for ourselves." [...]

Hayut, referring to the 1935 Nuremberg Laws, said that, in the very city where she was speaking, "law and justice reached one of the lowest points in human history," in the country that had "one of the most progressive constitutions protecting human rights and liberties -- the Weimar Constitution."

As proof that institutions protecting democracy could not "withstand every attack," Hayut cited a 1933 editorial in a German Jewish newspaper that argued that Adolf Hitler and his newly elected Nazi party wouldn't be able to carry out their stated plans due to the country's checks and balances on government power.

"One of the universal lessons we should learn from the historical events I mentioned is that judicial independence, on the institutional and personal level, is one of the most important guarantees that the individual has an address to turn to to protect their rights," she said.

"The safeguarding of that principle and judges' independence is therefore one of the cornerstones of every democratic regime," Hayut continued.

She mentioned the quasi-constitutional 1992 Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty, the main legislation protecting human rights in Israel.

"In order for the provisions of this Basic Law to be fulfilled in practice and receive adequate protection, judicial review is needed. And for 25 years, the Supreme Court of Israel has indeed been conducting judicial review of the validity of laws, out of the view that human dignity is the primary right, from which most human rights are derived," Hayut said.

One of the objectives of the proposed legislation in coalition talks is thought to be a possible Knesset decision to grant Netanyahu retroactive immunity from a series of criminal cases in which he is facing an indictment.

Posted by orrinj at 3:57 AM


Despite Missteps, High-Speed Rail Lines in Three States Point to Progress  (DANIEL C. VOCK | MAY 14, 2019, Governing)

The projects in California, Florida and Texas differ quite a bit from one another in size, scope and funding sources. But each one of those projects seems to be moving forward despite significant obstacles, something many rail proponents see as as a promising sign.

"This seems to be the convergence of a lot of things, all bubbling up at the same time," says Andy Kunz, the CEO of the U.S. High Speed Rail Association. People are increasingly worried about the effect driving carbon dioxide-emitting cars has on climate change, while road congestion seems to have "reached epic levels," he says. Meanwhile, private investors see the potential of making money from passenger rail service between city pairs that are too far away to drive between, but too close to fly between.

Rick Harnish, the executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, says the progress on the new rail projects stands in sharp contrast to the slow processes used by Amtrak and individual states in improving rail service.

"The states have always looked at very small steps. They'll add one train and see how it does, and then add another and see how it does," he says. "The problem is that there's a tipping point, because the train has to be frequent enough that you can ride it. You've got to be able to take the capital costs [for new construction and trains] and spread them out over a larger number of trains. That has been the biggest error, particularly in the Midwest, is these tiny little steps."

In Florida, where the newly christened Virgin Trains have been running between Miami and West Palm Beach for a year, the private owners were able to prove their concept with frequent service on a short route, Harnish notes. "The strategy is incredibly different. Frankly, it's hard to imagine a state taking that type of leap of faith. And that's the problem," he says. "It's difficult to imagine, but that's what has to happen."

Of course, there's no bigger leap of faith with new rail service than the state-led project in California, which eventually promises to connect Los Angeles and San Francisco with trains traveling at more than 200 mph. Gov. Gavin Newsom, shortly after he was inaugurated this year, tried to tamp down expectations about the project even as the state continues to build it. Many observers interpreted his remarks as cancelling the project altogether, and soon President Trump was demanding that California return the federal stimulus money it has used to help build the new line.

But in fact, the California project has not been cancelled. "Some have suggested the state should walk away from the more than a decade of collaboration and progress that Republican and Democratic administrations and a generation of legislative leaders have made to bring the project this far," the California High-Speed Rail Authority wrote in a report issued last week. "Such a path would leave California, having spent $5 billion, with nothing but lawsuits, job losses and billions of IOUs with nothing to show for our debts.

"Given those two options, the path forward is clear," the authority added. "The California High-Speed Rail Authority will continue its efforts toward getting a working section completed in a responsible and transparent way."

The California, Florida and Texas projects all share the goal of connecting big cities with fast passenger rail service.

Posted by orrinj at 3:52 AM


Brazil and US hit restart button on trade relations (Andres Schipani in Brasília and James Politi in Washington, 5/14/19, Fimnancial Times)

Bilateral trade between Brazil and the US is just $100bn a year. This is just a sixth of Mexico-US trade, even though Brazil's $2tn economy is nearly twice as big as Mexico's. In the Americas, Robert Lighthizer, the US trade representative, has been focused on pushing the revised Nafta deal with Canada and Mexico through Congress. Beyond that, Mr Lighthizer's attention has been dominated by the denouement of trade talks with China, and the possible launch of new ones with Japan and the EU.

Optimism prevailed among US officials and business executives during Mr Bolsonaro's visit, but this was largely because trade relations have been so testy that the bar for improvement was very low. "The Bolsonaro government views the US as a strategic partner and wants to reset the relationship on more positive terms -- and the US government appears to be on board," said Cassia Carvalho, executive director of the Brazil-US business council.

There were some advances. Both countries reached a deal to support US space launches from the Alcântara base in northern Brazil through a series of technological safeguards; Brazil dropped its visa requirements for US citizens; and the US said it would back Brazil's membership of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD, in exchange for Brazil abandoning preferential treatment at the World Trade Organization.

"For Brazil it is important to enter the OECD and, in fact, the US was blocking its entrance there, so giving up the preferential treatment was reasonable," said Pedro da Motta Veiga, director of the Brazilian Center for Integration and Development Studies.

Meanwhile, some steps were taken to reduce tensions around access to the agricultural markets in both countries. Brazil showed a willingness to allow more pork from the US into the country alongside tariff-free wheat imports, and the US is exploring options to reopen imports of fresh Brazilian beef.

A big opportunity for the next president in a neoliberal Brazil.

Posted by orrinj at 12:02 AM


Fed's Williams says policymakers need to better prepare for lower interest rate world (Reuters, 5/14/19) 

Lower birthrates are keeping population growth down in the world's wealthier economies and technological advancement has shifted down to more normal levels. Each trend is capping how much economies can grow, Williams said.

The lower growth leads to less investment and aging populations in those advanced economies increases saving. Lower demand for and a higher supply of savings has reduced the "neutral" level of interest rates around the world that would, in theory, not restrict or heat up the economy.

Those factors keep rates close to zero, where they lose their potency to respond to a recession, the economist argued, adding that there is no sign that "neutral" rates will go back to previously normal levels absent a change in demographics or a scientific or technological breakthrough. The Fed has set rates in the United States between 2.25-2.50%, but they are lower and in some cases even negative in places, such as Japan and Europe.

Williams, who earlier in his career was a researcher at the San Francisco Fed, is known for helping develop estimates of what the "neutral" interest rate might be. Now, he is pushing to encode some of that thinking in how the Fed approaches inflation from now on.

As part of a broad policy review, Williams has been advocating for the Fed to systematically respond to periods of tepid inflation by keeping U.S. interest rates "lower for longer."

And technology and consumption taxes will just keep driving prices lower.

Posted by orrinj at 12:01 AM


Pompeo Fails to Sway Allies on Iran in Awkward Surprise Visit (Patrick Donahue , Jonathan Stearns , and Nick Wadhams, May 13, 2019, Bloomberg)

U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo made scant progress persuading European Union counterparts to take a harder line toward Iran during a quick visit to Brussels, with the EU standing behind the nuclear accord abandoned by Washington -- and warning of a potential military conflict.

Pompeo presented what the U.S. says is fresh intelligence on the threat posed by Iran in meetings with counterparts from the three EU nations that joined the landmark 2015 accord that President Donald Trump abandoned a year ago. The top U.S. diplomat received a cool initial response to the surprise visit as foreign ministers from the 28-member bloc convened in the Belgian capital.

What do our allies have to do with Donald?

Posted by orrinj at 12:01 AM


Is There a Connection Between Undocumented Immigrants and Crime?: It's a widely held perception, but a new analysis finds no evidence to support it. (Anna Flagg, May 13, 2019, NY Times)

A lot of research has shown that there's no causal connection between immigration and crime in the United States. But after one such study was reported on jointly by The Marshall Project and The Upshot last year, readers had one major complaint: Many argued it was unauthorized immigrants who increase crime, not immigrants over all.

An analysis derived from new data is now able to help address this question, suggesting that growth in illegal immigration does not lead to higher local crime rates.

In part because it's hard to collect data on them, undocumented immigrants have been the subjects of few studies, including those related to crime. But the Pew Research Center recently released estimates of undocumented populations sorted by metro area, which The Marshall Project has compared with local crime rates published by the F.B.I. For the first time, there is an opportunity for a broader analysis of how unauthorized immigration might have affected crime rates since 2007.

A large majority of the areas recorded decreases in both violent and property crime between 2007 and 2016, consistent with a quarter-century decline in crime across the United States. The analysis found that crime went down at similar rates regardless of whether the undocumented population rose or fell. Areas with more unauthorized migration appeared to have larger drops in crime, although the difference was small and uncertain.

Opposition to immigration is racist, not fact-based.

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


Judiciary chairman says Trump Jr. should plead the Fifth to Intelligence panel (Karoun Demirjian and Mike DeBonis May 13, 2019, Washington Post)

The head of the Senate Judiciary Committee encouraged Donald Trump Jr. to invoke his right against self-incrimination and refuse to answer questions from the Senate Intelligence Committee if he complies with the panel's subpoena for a second closed-door interview.

"You just show up and plead the Fifth and it's over with," Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters Monday, adding that Trump Jr.'s lawyer would "have to be an idiot" to let him testify again.

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


Before Trump's purge at DHS, top officials challenged plan for mass family arrests (Nick Miroff and Josh Dawsey May 13, 2019, Washington Post)
In the weeks before they were ousted last month, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and top immigration enforcement official Ronald Vitiello challenged a secret White House plan to arrest thousands of parents and children in a blitz operation against migrants in 10 major U.S. cities. [...]

But Vitiello and Nielsen halted it, concerned about a lack of preparation by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, the risk of public outrage and worries that it would divert resources from the border.

Senior Trump adviser Stephen Miller and ICE Deputy Director Matthew Albence were especially supportive of the plan, officials said, eager to execute dramatic, highly visible mass arrests that they argued would help deter the soaring influx of families.

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


Trump praises Hungary's Orban as 'tough' defender of Christians: President ignores calls from lawmakers of both parties to call out right-wing leader as anti-Semitic and anti-democratic (RON KAMPEAS, May 13, 2019, JTA) 

"Viktor Orban has done a tremendous job in so many different ways," Trump said Monday in greeting Orban at the White House. "Highly respected. Respected all over Europe. Probably, like me, a little bit controversial, but that's okay. That's okay. You've done a good job and you've kept your country safe."

Trump's expressed belief that Orban is "respected all over Europe" comes days after one of Trump's top aides noted that Orban's authoritarianism has been unpopular among other European leaders. [...]

When a reporter asked Trump about "democratic backsliding" in Hungary, where Orban has imposed restrictions on the press and on universities, Trump praised Orban as "tough."

Critics of Orban say he peddles anti-Semitic tropes in his attacks on George Soros, the Hungarian Jewish billionaire and liberal donor, and that his government has distorted Holocaust history by seeking to shift full blame for the fate of Hungarian Jews on Germany. is anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.