Don’t Get To “Yes”

Fraudsters and scammers are wily pieces of crap who are basically the scum of the earth.  But you have to grudgingly give them credit:  you never know what they’re going to think of next, and when it comes to taking criminal advantage of the decency and kindheartedness of many people, they have no equal.

101386023-183418541-1910x1000Consider what police are saying about the latest scam.  You get a phone call out of the blue from a number that your phone identifies as from your area code, making you much more likely to answer it because it could be a friend or family member calling in an emergency from a strange local number.  The person on the other ends starts yakking, and early in the conversation the person says “Can you hear me?”  Most people, of course, will say “yes” — and that starts them on the road to perdition.

Why?  Because your “yes” answer is recorded, and then used to indicate your assent to some unwanted product or service.  And if you try to argue that you never agreed to get that magazine subscription or internet debugging service, the recording of your “yes” answer gets used as evidence that you in fact agreed.  In the worst case, the scammer has your credit card number and uses the “yes” with a third party to authorize charges for goods that the crook gets but you are billed for.

It’s tough, because many of us are trained to be polite, even in response to an unwanted call.  We listen to the pitch about the charitable opportunity or the policeman’s benevolent fund and look for an opportunity to say, “thanks, but no thanks.”  But now the advice from law enforcement is to not say anything — and if you’re asked “Can you hear me?,” hang up immediately.

In this case, you just don’t want to get to “yes.”

Looking To Fill The “Stolen Seat”

Last night President Trump nominated Neil Gorsuch, a judge on the federal 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, to fill the vacant seat on the United States Supreme Court.  His formal nomination triggers the start of what will undoubtedly be a bruising confirmation process, with some Democrats already promising to do everything they can to prevent seating Gorsuch on the high court.

US-POLITICS-COURT-NOMINATIONThere are three reasons for this.  First, the Supreme Court has assumed an increasingly important role in the American political process over the last 70 years, with people at all points on the political spectrum looking for the judiciary to recognize a new right, provide a remedy, issue an injunction, or overturn a statute or executive action.  The Supreme Court is the head of the judicial branch, and every year, the Court accepts and decides cases that require it to tackle difficult issues — some constitutional, some statutory, some procedural — that can have broad ramifications for people, businesses, the legal system, and how government works.

Second, as the importance of the Supreme Court has increased, the process for nominating, reviewing, and approving potential Supreme Court justices has changed.  Republicans blame Democrats for the growing politicization of the Supreme Court confirmation process, and Democrats blame Republicans, but no one doubts that we have moved into a new era of “extreme vetting.”  Nominees not only have their credentials, backgrounds, and prior opinions scrutinized for the tiniest kernel of a potential argument against nomination, but advocacy groups immediately declare sides and start their scorched-earth campaigns before the nomination speech is even completed.  Last night, only a few minutes after Gorsuch was nominated by President Trump, an anti-confirmation demonstration began on the Supreme Court steps, and opponents of the Gorsuch nomination appeared on the cable news shows, describing him in the darkest, most ominous terms imaginable.

And third, the atmosphere has become even more poisonous because the seat on the Supreme Court Gorsuch has been nominated to fill has been vacant for almost a full year, and the Republicans in the Senate refused to take any action on Merrick Garland, the jurist that President Obama nominated to fill that seat.  That’s why the New York Times, in an editorial today, calls the vacancy the “stolen seat” — reasoning that if the Senate had just acted properly last year, Garland would have been confirmed, and the balance of power on the Supreme Court would already be changed.  The Times editorial castigates the Senate Republicans for obstructionism and abuse of power in their treatment of the Garland nomination, but seems to also implicitly encourage — with a wink and a nod — Senate Democrats to respond to the Gorsuch nomination in kind.

So now we’ve got a Supreme Court nominee who has served on the federal appellate bench for 10 years, has all of the educational bona fides you would wish, and is classified by some as a “very conservative” judge.  I’m interested in seeing how the confirmation process plays out and what is brought out about Gorsuch’s background and judicial opinions — but that means the confirmation process has to actually start.  Here, too, as in other areas I’ve pointed out recently, Congress needs to do its job.  The Republicans need to shut up about the “nuclear option” that Harry Reid unwisely imposed, and the Democrats need to get over the Garland nomination inaction, and both sides need to acknowledge that the Supreme Court has nine seats that can only be filled if the Senate acts and start to address the Gorsuch nomination on its own merits.

One other thing:  as the current Supreme Court justices age, delay and inaction is not an option.  If we don’t get over this self-imposed roadblock to the proper functioning of our government, we might soon have another vacancy to fill, and another.  If the Republicans and Democrats don’t get over their political titting for tatting, we might end up with a gradually vanishing Supreme Court.

Our First “You’re Fired!”

Last night President Trump issued the first high-level “You’re fired!” of his new Administration.  It’s like The Apprentice all over again.

trump-scowlThe person being sacked was Sally Yates, who was serving as acting Attorney General prior to the confirmation of Trump’s selection, Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions.  An Obama appointee, Yates had issued an order to lawyers in the Justice Department instructing them not to make arguments defending Trump’s executive order on refugees and immigration.  Her order to the DOJ lawyers apparently was a unilateral decision, and it clearly wasn’t coordinated with the White House.  When the President learned of it he promptly dismissed Yates through a hand-delivered letter and replaced her with another acting AG, who immediately rescinded Yates’ decree and ordered DOJ lawyers to defend Trump’s immigration order.

In a letter, Yates stated that “[m]y responsibility is to ensure that the position of the Department of Justice is not only legally defensible, but is informed by our best view of what the law is after consideration of all the facts.”  The letter noted:  “In addition, I am responsible for ensuring that the positions we take in court remain consistent with this institution’s solemn obligation to always seek justice and stand for what is right,” and concluded “[a]t present, I am not convinced that the defense of the executive order is consistent with these responsibilities nor am I convinced that the executive order is lawful.”  The White House, for its part, said that Yates was sacked for “refusing to enforce a legal order designed to protect the citizens of the United States.”

We’re going to be seeing a lot of this, I’m afraid.  Trump is taking actions that are making significant changes and provoking significant opposition.  Yates is of course entitled to her opinion about his immigration order — but I think her appropriate course was not to unilaterally act to thwart the order, but rather to publicly and noisily resign rather than enforce the order.  That’s the course that Attorney General Elliott Richardson took when President Nixon fired Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox, and I think it is the right approach.

As for the President, I think he really had no choice but to fire Yates for her failure to follow the policy set by his Administration.  Trump clearly means to shake things up, and he’s going to encounter resistance in the sprawling federal bureaucracy.  If Trump hadn’t acted in the face of the first act of disobedience, he would have given a green light to the actions of other dissenters within the Executive Branch of the government and undercut his ability to make the changes he thinks voters elected him to make.

People serving in government have a right to their own views, and to act their conscience — but Presidents have a right to expect their policies to be followed and faithfully executed, unless and until other coordinate branches of government act to stop them, through court orders or new laws.  It’s how the checks and balances in our tripartite government is supposed to work.  We should all haul out our Civics textbooks — we’re going to be getting an ongoing refresher course with this new President.

Immigration Chaos

This weekend, we saw again what happens when the federal government acts on the basis of executive orders rather than statutes that proceed through Congress, are subject to hearings and debates before being approved by our elected representatives, and get signed into law by the President, as the Constitution contemplates.

ap-immigration-trump-cf-170126_12x5_1600Late Friday afternoon, President Trump issued an executive order on immigration.  Like many executive orders, this one features dense references to statutes and programs that makes it beyond the comprehension of normal Americans.  The order has multiple components, but the ones that had an immediate effect over the weekend indefinitely barred Syrian refugees from entering the United States, suspended all refugee admissions for 120 days to allow refugee vetting procedures to be reviewed, and blocked citizens of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen from entering the United States for 90 days.  (The last component has people talking about the Trump Administration imposing a “Muslim ban”; the Trump Administration denies that, noting that the seven countries listed were actually identified for special treatment by the Obama Administration and that many other Muslim-majority countries are not included on the list.)

The order was issued, and then . . . chaos reigned.  Were people with “green cards” — that is, permits that allow them to live and work permanently in the United States — subject, or not subject, to the bans?  First they apparently were, then the Trump Administration said they weren’t.  In the meantime, international airports and security officials struggled to figure out how they were supposed to implement the ban, unsuspecting travelers were left in limbo in airport concourses, lawyers filed lawsuits, different federal district courts issued different orders about different parts of the executive order, and now it’s not entirely clear who can or should be doing what, and for how long.  It’s to the point that, because a federal court ruling in Boston is different and perhaps broader than a federal court ruling in New York, immigration lawyers are encouraging international travelers to re-route through Boston’s Logan Airport, just in case.

All of this is aside from the merits of the executive order, which has been widely viewed, in the Unites States and abroad, as a sign that the country that features the welcoming Statue of Liberty on its eastern shore is now in the hands of paranoid xenophobes.  And the confusion about the terms and implementation of the executive order just make the black eye America has absorbed a little larger and a little darker.

It was clear that the Trump Administration was going to do something about immigration; it was one of Trump’s principal campaign themes, and so far he has acted on things pretty much like he said he would.  But it’s also another example of why government by far-reaching executive order is just bad policy, period — whether the executive orders are issued by the Obama Administration, the Trump Administration, or any other Administration.  We need to stop government by executive edict and administrative thunderbolt.  It’s time that Congress started to do its job.

Sunday Sour Savor

It’s been a busy weekend, but now the chores are done, the groceries have been put away, and the car is refueled.  With a good book to enjoy — Echoes of Sherlock Holmes, a terrific collection of short stories inspired by the world’s first, and forever foremost, consulting detective — and only a few idle hours remaining before the work week begins again, it’s time to lean back and crack open a sour.  Today, it’s a Farmer’s Reserve Nectarine brewed by the Almanac Beer Company in Northern California.  Try it before California secedes from the Union and import duties make it crushingly expensive.  It’s light and tart and very fine, indeed.  (Thanks, Emily!)

Sunday afternoons are to be savored, even in a crazy world.

Smug And Annoying

There’s nothing more annoying than an annoying commercial pitchman.

That’s why I’m grinding my teeth at the commercial TV reappearance of the former Verizon “can you hear me now” guy — this time as a spokesman for Sprint.

0c9df173f01d6b91-822x512I didn’t particularly like the guy during his first 15 minutes of fame, because the constant “can you hear me now” questions became incredibly irritating.  But at least in that incarnation he was a uniformed blue-collar guy, apparently an engineer type, out there in the hinterlands, hiking around in remote areas and personally testing the geographic range of the Verizon network.  He was a working man just doing his job.  You got what he was doing and the message he was sending, and it made his irritating catch phrase a bit more bearable.

But he apparently lost the blue-collar, working man identity when he switched sides, and now he’s just a smug wise guy walking down the street and drinking lattes in a Christmas tree lot, trying to tell you that you’re a colossal idiot if you still use Verizon rather than paying less with Sprint.  And all the while, he’s got this insufferable I’m smarter-than-you smirk on his face — probably because his dormant commercial career has been resurrected due to his willingness to switch sides in the ever-present cell phone wars, and he’s now getting paid a boatload of cash that he wouldn’t be making otherwise.  His commercials are as unlikeable as the historically obnoxious “Jake from State Farm” ad.

Maybe I’m alone in this, but I normally wouldn’t take the unsolicited advice of some know-it-all buttinsky, on the street or in a Christmas tree lot, and I don’t exactly trust the lectures of people who’ve peddled their opinions to the company that pays the most cash. Wouldn’t you like to know whether this cell phone Benedict Arnold is moving the needle on Sprint subscriptions?  I’m betting that his ad campaign is a flop.

Goodbye, Mary

I was deeply saddened to learn of the death this week of Mary Tyler Moore, at age 80.  She was a television icon and, through The Mary Tyler Moore Show, an inspiration to a generation of young women who saw, through her example, that living and working as a single woman in a big city was a viable alternative to more traditional paths.

It’s not a coincidence that Mary Tyler Moore starred in two of the very best situation comedies the small screen has ever produced.  I loved her as Laura Petrie in the Dick Van Dyke Show; she was talented and funny and a perfect foil for Van Dyke’s classic brand of physical and facial comedy.  (“Oh, Rob!”)  But The Mary Tyler Moore Show was also a lasting, brilliant contribution to the medium of television, with one of the greatest ensemble casts ever assembled and some of the greatest comedy writing as well.

In my view, the “Chuckles Bites The Dust” episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show is arguably the funniest single episode of any network sitcom in the history of television, period, and its final scene, shown above, demonstrates Mary Tyler Moore’s enormous range as a comedic actor.  For those who haven’t seen the episode, a local TV personality named Chuckles the Clown is killed in a mishap — dressed as his character Peter Peanut, he is brutally shelled by a rogue elephant — and for most of the episode the characters make jokes about Chuckles’ demise while Mary Richards, the soul of rectitude, is offended by their cavalier attitude about Chuckles’ death.  In this final scene, though, Mary just can’t hold it in any longer, and the result is one of the great turns by any TV actor, anywhere.

Mary Tyler Moore was one of the giants.  She will be missed.