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The Gas Is a Go

Back when (Z) was an undergrad, one of his very favorite games was a gas and oil trading game called Oil Barons. Utilizing cutting-edge VGA graphics and the blazing-fast Pentium processor, the game made it seem very easy to lavish petroleum upon Americans, fulfilling all their gas and oil needs (well, assuming you weren't hit by an EPA investigation). If you want to try it, there's an emulator here.

In reality, of course, it's not so easy. No one person can dominate petroleum industry anymore, not even the President of the United States. Average gas prices are actually ticking downward a bit right now, but they are still high enough to put a damper on people's Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa/Festivus/Winter Solstice cheer, and on Joe Biden's approval ratings. So, as expected, the President has decided to move forward with releasing a bunch of oil from the United States' strategic reserve. The number that was bandied about on Monday was 30 million barrels (or so), but the actual number will be 50 million barrels.

That 50-million-barrel total includes about 20 million barrels that were scheduled to be released next year anyhow. Biden is just speeding that up, and then adding another 30 million barrels on top. Other countries, in coordination with the White House, are also releasing portions of their reserves. The effect won't be immediate, of course, but it should be noticeable (if somewhat modest). Eventually, much of the oil that Biden is releasing will be replenished in the U.S. strategic reserve, but that is a couple of years down the line.

On making the announcement, Biden was careful to point out that he was acting based on legislation passed during the Trump years, with Congress ordering the executive branch to sell 100 million barrels of oil by 2027 to help pay down the national debt. The President even went so far as to thank his predecessor. That, of course, did not stop Trump and other Republicans from savaging Biden. They complain about gas prices, and then they complain when Biden uses one of the few tools he has at his disposal to try to rectify the problem. Oh well, you can't please some people. Maybe they wanted him to put in a call to the cheap gas fairy.

Whether or not his gas maneuvering pays dividends, the good news for Biden is that there are preliminary signs that nationwide supply-chain issues are getting resolved, in part because of actions his administration has taken. To wit:

If the White House can put some of these economic issues in the rearview mirror by spring or summer of next year, that will surely help the Democrats a fair bit heading into next year's elections. If Biden is smart, he will emphasize that he inherited the problems from Trump, but through his masterful skill as Manager-of-the-Economy-in-Chief, he solved them. Of course, in reality he has almost no control over the economy, but the voters don't know that, so why not take credit? (Z)

MacDonough May Allow Immigration Provisions in Reconciliation Bill

This is an interesting, albeit very tentative, development. In 2020, the Democrats ran on immigration reform. There was a time that was a bipartisan issue, but not so much anymore. The Republican Party is the party of Donald Trump, and Donald Trump is virulently xenophobic, and even those Republican officeholders who are not virulently xenophobic dare not challenge the throne on this issue.

Given the existence of the Senate filibuster, Republican opposition means the Democrats' only real hope of delivering on this issue is to include something in the unfilibusterable reconciliation bill. And that, in turn, means that immigration reform has to have a substantive budgetary effect. The blue team tried to sell Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough on a plan to provide 8 million undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship, and she said "no way, José." Then they tried to pitch a proposal to update the national immigration registry and to grant green cards to millions of undocumented workers. That also got a negative response from the parliamentarian.

On Tuesday, Democratic staffers met with the Parliamentarian yet again. Their new plan is to issue work permits for millions of undocumented immigrants that would allow them to be paid above the table, and would also afford them protection from being deported. And it could be that the third time is the charm, because after the presentation, MacDonough did not say "no." She didn't say "yes," either, but given that the last two proposals didn't even get out of the starting gate, the Democrats see this as progress.

There is still much rigamarole left before the proposal can reach the finish line. The Democrats will put together a more formal presentation on the economic effects of their plan, and the Republicans will have an opportunity to weigh in with counterarguments. However, bringing millions of workers above-board will mean more taxes being collected, which is pretty clearly a substantive budgetary effect. And if the Democrats can deliver on this, then it will impress some of the Latino voters whose votes the Party craves. (Z)

A Bad Day for Right-Wing Wackos

Folks like the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, the Aryan Nation, etc. seem to be such unhappy and angry people that we are not sure they actually have good days. But they definitely have bad days, and a whole bunch of alt-righters definitely had one of those yesterday.

To start with, the white nationalists who organized the 2017 Unite the Right rally—you know, of "very fine people, on both sides" fame—have been on trial this month, sued by residents of Charlottesville and by counter-protesters who were injured at the event. The poor jury in the case had to take a crash course in racist, right-wing wacko slang. Like, for example, "Did you see Kyle?" isn't a reference to Mr. Rittenhouse; it's a "clever" code for "Did you sieg heil?" It makes "Let's go Brandon" seem charming by comparison.

Anyhow, it would seem that the jury learned their lessons well enough to decide that Jason Kessler, Matthew Heimbach, Richard Spencer, Christopher Cantwell, and Alex Fields, among other alt-right figures, are liable for what took place in Charlottesville. And so, the jury slapped the instigators of the rally with a mega-sized $26 million judgment. Most of that will presumably never be paid off, since it's hard to earn that sort of coin while living in mom's basement (or in prison, in Fields' case). However, at least the jury made a statement.

That's not all, however. About 100 miles to the north, at about the same time the verdict was being announced, a different group of "upstanding" citizens was learning that they are about to be put under a very big microscope. Continuing with the parade of subpoenas, the 1/6 Committee unleashed the latest wave, this time targeting key members of the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, including Enrique Tarrio (leader of the former), Stewart Rhodes (leader of the latter), and Robert Patrick Lewis, who leads a "security" detachment called 1st Amendment Praetorian (think "security" in the sense of the Hells Angels at Altamont).

The subpoenas issued prior to this were targeted at the folks responsible for egging the insurrectionists on, all of them people in close orbit, or pretty close orbit, to Donald Trump. Tuesday's subpoenas, by contrast, are focused on the recipients of that messaging. And folks like Tarrio and Rhodes are not, shall we say, likely to be recruited for Mensa anytime soon. Nor are they particularly well heeled and so are not in a great position to retain high-powered legal counsel. All of this means that trying to do battle with Congress, Steve Bannon-style, might be a bridge too far for them. And if the 1/6 Committee can get a few insurrectionist on the stand to say something like "We were following Donald Trump's orders," that would be very bad for the former president, indeed. Saying that your group thinks of itself as paramilitary so it likes to take orders from the commander-in-chief is a pretty weak defense, but there aren't a lot of better options.

And finally, right-wing wacko Alex Jones already got his subpoena, on Monday. However, he decided to do some bloviating about the situation on Tuesday. Specifically, he said: "I'm probably going to declare the Fifth. Not because I've done anything wrong, but because these people are political criminals that have an ax to grind and have been bragging everywhere they want to put me in prison, okay?"

Whichever lawyer ends up representing Alex Jones in his dealings with the 1/6 Committee is not going to be happy with that. The Fifth Amendment, of course, allows one to remain silent in lieu of saying something incriminating. It does not allow one to remain silent as a means of protesting proceedings that one does not agree with. So if Jones tries to invoke the Fifth, the Committee now has custom-made evidence that he is acting in bad faith, and they can go after him for contempt, which carries—wait for it—a potential prison sentence. You would think that a guy who just got popped last week for running his mouth about Sandy Hook would be a little more careful, at least for a little while. But that's not his brand, and so he just digs the hole a little deeper. Maybe he and Steve Bannon can be roommates at FPC Alderson. (Z)

Arbery Trial Goes to Jury

The Kyle Rittenhouse trial soaked up much of the oxygen, nationally. That may have to do, at least in part, with the near obsessive coverage given to the story by a certain cable network. While that particular story might have the attention of white folks, however, Black folks' attention is much more directed to the trial of the men who killed Ahmaud Arbery, in which the jury began deliberations on Tuesday. Those deliberations will continue today, as the jury has yet to reach a verdict.

For those who have not followed the case, Arbery was a Black gentleman who was jogging through a mostly white neighborhood in the southeast Georgia town of Brunswick. He was accosted by the three defendants in the case—Travis McMichael, his father Gregory McMichael, and their neighbor William "Roddie" Bryan—all of whom were armed, and all of whom say that they suspected Arbery was responsible for a wave of burglaries that had recently taken place in the neighborhood. Arbery thought that three armed white guys versus one unarmed Black guy was not a great scene for him, so he ran for it. The defendants, ostensibly in service of a "citizen's arrest," which was then legal in Georgia but has since been eliminated from state law due to this very case, chased Arbery down in their pickup trucks. Cornered, Arbery charged at the younger McMichael in an effort to escape and was shot dead.

There are some pretty clear parallels between this and the Rittenhouse trial. There's an element of vigilantism, the use of very powerful guns, defendants who claim self defense, and a jury that is 11/12 white and 1/12 Black. That said, the defendants did not merely insert themselves into a situation that was not their business, as Rittenhouse did. They actively kept the situation going until it ended in violence. Also, the Wisconsin self-defense law gave Rittenhouse quite a bit of cover. The Georgia law—that, again, was deemed so problematic as exercised in this case that it's now off the books—would seem to give these three defendants considerably less cover. They had to have a good faith belief that they had witnessed a crime, and "an unarmed Black person is running through a white neighborhood" is thin evidence, indeed. In fact, you might say it's zero evidence.

You never know what a jury will do, of course, though the defense was clearly getting desperate near the end of the trial, with attorney Laura Hogue's closing arguments veering into personal attacks on Arbery, including his "long, dirty toenails." You won't find that particular technique in your copy of Persuading Juries for Dummies, we suspect. In any event, if there's an acquittal here, there will be much unhappiness and much anger in Black communities across the nation. (Z)

Dubious Polling, Dubious Journalism

There are good reasons to be concerned about polling right now. And it certainly does not help people's confidence if major media outlets badly botch their coverage of the subject. That's exactly what happened with Politico this week, as they ran an embarrassment of a piece by Marc Caputo under the headline "Trump poll tests his 2024 comeback map."

Caputo's report is about a poll that shows Trump leading Joe Biden in the five key swing states of Arizona (Trump +8), Georgia (+3), Michigan (+12), Pennsylvania (+6), and Wisconsin (+10) in a hypothetical 2024 matchup. It also shows the former president outpolling the current president on a wide variety of issues, including infrastructure. It certainly looks very bad for Biden.

The devil, however, is in the details. To Caputo's credit (we suppose), he does find time to mention that the poll was paid for by...Donald Trump, and was conducted by Trump pollster Tony Fabrizio. At the same time, Caputo offers a defense of Fabrizio, observing "Fabrizio's polls haven't always been favorable for Trump." That may be true, but that was back in 2020 when the pollster had many possible customers, not just one, and when he knew his numbers would be compared to the actual outcome of the election. It is much easier for him to cook the books now, since even if 2024 ends up being Trump vs. Biden, nobody is going to look back 3 years and say "you sure blew that poll!"

Meanwhile, Caputo neglects to mention some of the red flags that should give serious concern. To start, the results don't exactly pass the smell test. It seems improbable, for example, that Michigan has veered so strongly in the Trump direction in just 10 months. Further, Fabrizio has a middling reputation as a pollster, with a B/C grade from FiveThirtyEight. And if you read the poll, it's full of loaded language from the pollster. For example, one section is "Biden's Biggest Policy Initiatives are Flops with Voters, especially Build Back Better." That is not exactly a phrasing that inspires confidence in Fabrizio's dispassionate neutrality.

The Politico write-up also fails to provide much in the way of context for the poll. There are some serious problems here that should be obvious to veteran poll watchers, but maybe not to those who are less poll literate. For example, how can one really poll Build Back Better before the bill has even been passed, much less implemented? Similarly, polling a presidential election 3 years out? Really? You might as well throw darts at a dartboard.

Finally, Caputo also does not take notice of the methodology section. Fabrizio only talked to likely voters, which is a correct choice once an election is drawing near, but is a poor choice when "taking the pulse" this far out. The people who are confident, 3 years out, that they are going to vote are disproportionately zealous as compared to the general populace. Further, and consistent with that, Fabrizio's sample is disproportionately Republicam. For example, his Georgia sample was 37% Republican and 34% Democratic. However, Georgia is actually 43% Democratic and 42% Republican. The other state samples are also skewed to about the same extent.

In the end, even if the poll were conducted by Ann Selzer, it still wouldn't tell us much. Everyone already knows that Joe Biden's popularity is not at a high point right now, and everyone knows what the key states will be if Trump and Biden face off again in 2024. What can we really learn beyond that, given how very long 3 years is in the world of politics?

Indeed, Politico was a little bit coy about how Caputo got the polling memo, billing it as an "exclusive." However, they do note that they did not get it from Fabrizio. Meanwhile, Donald Trump e-mailed out the poll to multiple dozens of outlets a few hours after Politico posted its write-up. In other words, it's not too hard to figure out who Caputo's source was (hint: He's white and white, and orange all over). And since the message of the (dubious) poll is "Trump is looking great, and Biden is looking horrible," what it means is that the outlet was used—apparently knowingly—to brodcast what is effectively pro-Trump propaganda, apparently in service of those all-important page views. Again, they should be embarrassed. (Z)

Why G.K. Butterfield Retired

When a member of Congress decides to step down, we sometimes get "the reason" they retired, or maybe we get "the official reason" and "the real reason." Last week, Rep. G.K Butterfield (D-NC) announced that he was retiring after 9 terms. The reason that was reported: gerrymandering.

On Tuesday, Slate published an interview with Butterfield that gives a much fuller picture of his decision. As it turns out, there were a number of factors:

Undoubtedly, these factors are not unique to Butterfield, and play a role in many politicians' retirement decisions. It's a useful reminder that while there may be one "main" explanation that is given at the time of such announcements, for most political retirees (and non-political retirees, for that matter) it is really an aggregation of factors that persuades them to throw in the towel. (Z)

Hooray for Hollywood: Readers' Favorite Films (Nos. 30-21)

Time to resume the countdown. Here are the five entries that have run so far:

And now, Nos. 30-21:

  1. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975; Milos Forman, dir.): Cuckoo's Nest is memorable to me because of the strong passions it made me feel: joy when McMurphy broke the inmates out and took them on that boat/joy ride, hatred for Nurse Ratched for what she did to Billy when they got back to the asylum, sadness at the lobotomy they did on McMurphy, and relief when the Chief "released" McMurphy. (J.C. in Rancho Mirage, CA)

  2. The Blues Brothers (1980; John Landis, dir.): Action, comedy, musical. What other film has all that? (W.V. in San Jacinto, CA )

  3. Rear Window (1954; Alfred Hitchcock, dir.): One of Hitch's best. (A.R. in Los Angeles)

  4. Apocalypse Now (1979; Francis Ford Coppola, dir.): "Ride of the Valkyries" was a brilliant choice. (C.S. in Duluth, MN)

  5. National Lampoon's Animal House (1978; John Landis, dir.): Fat, dumb, and stupid is no way to go through life, son. (F.B. in Los Angeles, CA)

  6. Jaws (1975; Steven Spielberg, dir.): All my reasoning tells me I shouldn't love Jaws, yet somehow I still do. The special effects, the music, the interactions between the characters Quint, Hooper and Chief Brody, and the way humor was used in the movie, cutting the terror we were being lead into or bringing us down after a scare. "You're gonna need a bigger boat" is not an easily forgotten line and very well placed. Why do I enjoy this movie so much? I love it because it's impossible not to. (D.W. in Arden, NC)

  7. The Wizard of Oz (1939; Victor Fleming, George Cukor, Mervyn LeRoy, dirs.): It was a technical wonder in 1939, and remains a visual spectacle even today. As a fantasy morality play it still fascinates children and adults. Plus, the acting is terrific and Judy Garland is simply perfect. (T.L. in College Station, TX)

  8. Singin' In the Rain (1952; Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly, dirs.): Dancing and singing and very funny. (L.R.H. in Oakland, CA)

  9. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001; Peter Jackson, dir.): Epic fantasy at its best. (P.R. in Kirksville, MO)

  10. Back to the Future (1985; Robert Zemeckis, dir.): The movie that made an icon out of a discontinued car that the Big Three really wished had been theirs. (J.I. in San Francisco, CA)

Tomorrow, we break into the Top 20. (V & Z)

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