Does Spain Really Tax the Sun?

In a recent Congressional debate, Missouri Congressman Jason Smith went on a trippy thought experiment that could have been right out of the movie Dazed and Confused:

You could tax a lot of different items if you want to stop behavior. I love ice cream. Ice cream’s probably not the most healthy thing to eat. Why is there not a tax on that? If you look at the number one cause of cancer, it’s not tanning beds. Do a Google search. It’s the sun. The people over here haven’t found too many taxes that they dislike, so why have they not proposed a tax on the sun instead of tanning beds?

If you haven’t seen the video clip, I highly recommend it.

In fact, the Representative from Missouri’s 8th District regularly and heavily relies on Google to cite the facts upon which he relies, also citing a “Google search” for a statistic establishing that women are disproportionately affected by a tax on tanning beds.  (Mind you, it’s troubling to use Google as a ‘source’, since Google isn’t actually a source of data.  I don’t doubt the general propositions for which Smith cites Google, but his citations are totally without value.  Don’t get me wrong:  It’s fine to use Google.  Google a question, find a credible source for the answer, and then cite that credible source.  To say “I found this answer on Google” is unclear, unreliable, and frankly lazy.)

But while this puzzling tirade about ice cream and sun taxes is weird, this wasn’t just some vague absurd hypothetical.  Smith actually appears to believe that, if we’re taxing ‘things that cause cancer’, the sun is as sensible a thing to tax as any.  When Sandy Levin called him out on the utter nonsense of it (“I’ll tell you why, because it’s a little hard to tax the sun”), Smith asserted that “Spain taxes the sun!”  Levin expressed his doubts about how (or if) that could be true, and Smith promised to send him an article.

Spain does, in fact, have a controversial tax referred to as a “sun tax”, but it has nothing to do with skin exposure or cancer risk.  On the contrary, it’s a tax on photovoltaic cells – solar panels – so as to bring in tax revenue based on electricity that is privately produced and consumed.  The wisdom of Spain’s ‘sun tax’ is dubious, but it neither seeks nor achieves analogous policy goals to the tax on tanning beds.

The Verdict

Jason Smith’s claim that Spain ‘taxes the sun’ is false in any relevant sense of the phrase, and it’s hard to see how he could have believed otherwise:  Either he knew that the ‘sun tax’ wasn’t actually analogous, and he was doing the Congressional equivalent of trolling, or he just saw the headline of a Spanish sun tax in a Google search, without actually reading about it.

In either event, I should point out to the good folk of Missouri’s 8th Congressional District, including Rolla, West Plains, Farmington, Perryville, Cape Girardeau, Sikeston, and Poplar Bluff…

…this is your Representative.

How Credible is the Congressional Budget Office?

In advance of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) releasing its report on the proposed health care reform bill, White House officials and Republican proponents of the bill have begun to preemptively question the credibility of the CBO.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer argued:  “If you’re looking at the CBO for accuracy, you’re looking in the wrong place.

Mick Mulvaney, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, pointed to the CBO’s assessment of Obamacare:  “If the CBO was right about Obamacare to begin with, there’d be 8 million more people on Obamacare today than there actually are“, and that “I love the folks at the CBO, they work really hard, they do, but sometimes we ask them to do stuff they’re not capable of doing, and estimating the impact of a bill of this size probably isn’t the – isn’t the best use of their time“.

They aren’t alone.  Gary Cohn and Paul Ryan have also made remarks minimizing the impact of the expected unfavourable CBO report, and the argument seems to be premised on the fact that the CBO overestimated the impact of Obamacare in the first place.  I’m not going to go into the mechanics of fact-checking the extent to which they’re right about the CBO getting Obamacare wrong – that has been fact-checked to death on other sites, with conclusions ranging from the claims being totally wrong, to assessments that claims like Mulvaney’s are literally correct, but not an accurate reflection of the circumstances of the CBO’s initial projections.

But the attacks on the CBO touch on the very heart of the Cult of Ignorance:  The CBO is a nonpartisan organization that has been providing expert assessments for over 40 years; they have a specific expertise in this field.  And yes, healthcare is complicated, and yes, projections are inherently limited, so we can’t reasonably expect the CBO to be 100% accurate.

But the CBO’s assessment is one of the most important sources of information available to policy makers:  They are non-partisan, they are objective, and they have relevant expertise to make these assessments.  So take their numbers with a grain of salt, but take everyone else’s assertions with a much larger grain of salt.

While Health Secretary Tom Price has stated that he firmly believes that “nobody will be worse off financially” under the Republican plan, and Paul Ryan and Jason Chaffetz have argued that any reduction in coverage will be a result of Americans freely ‘choosing’ not to have health coverage, one must question of the basis of these beliefs:  While Republicans are minimizing the CBO’s pending assessment of the bill on the basis that the subject matter is complicated, and therefore projections are difficult to make, the subtext is that we should therefore accept optimistic ‘beliefs’ of politicians and political appointees such as Tom Price, over reasoned analyses by the experts.  It’s a classic case of “my ignorance is as good as your knowledge.”

When we compare Tom Price’s projections to those of the CBO, there are several differences that stand out that make the CBO’s pending forecasts objectively more credible than Tom Price’s.  The CBO is non-partisan, without a political agenda, and its forecasts are rooted in a careful expert analysis of relevant facts and principles.  Tom Price is partisan, has a political agenda, and his ‘firm belief’ appears to be more a matter of bald speculation than reasoned analysis.

The fact that the CBO’s numbers will ultimately be off to some extent or another doesn’t make them valueless, and certainly doesn’t reduce their value to be equal or less than Tom Price’s arbitrary assessment.  If the CBO ultimately projects that the new healthcare bill will increase premiums and force large numbers of people to lose their health coverage – as it’s widely anticipated that it will – then it’s worth taking that projection very seriously.

Did Obama Tap Trump’s Phones?

On Saturday morning, Trump tweeted that he had “[j]ust found out” that Obama had his “wires tapped” in Trump Tower before the election.  For a sitting president to accuse a previous president of such criminal scandalous behaviour is unprecedented.  If true, it would probably actually be the biggest presidential scandal since Nixon.  But, if false, the gravity of the allegation makes the claim scandalous in and of itself.

It’s not entirely clear where Trump’s information comes from – while we might typically expect that such an announcement would come after a top level intelligence briefing, it appears more likely in this case that his information came from a Breitbart piece published Friday evening, reporting on a radio show by Mark Levin, and claiming (among other things) that “the Obama administration sought, and eventually obtained, authorization to eavesdrop on the Trump campaign” – claiming that the Obama administration had made multiple FISA applications, and that it was politically-motivated wiretaps that have driven the ongoing series of Russia scandals plaguing the Trump administration.

We have known for months, with a reasonable degree of reliability, that various law enforcement and intelligence agencies were investigating the Trump campaign’s connections to the Russian government during the campaign.  To be clear, what Breitbart, Levin, and Trump are alleging is something more, that Obama was using the pretext of an investigation to surveil Trump’s people for political ends.  This is a cardinal distinction in this issue:  In the absence of direction or interference from the political levels of the Obama administration, this entire ‘controversy’ is a non-story.

To the extent that the mainstream media has picked up this story, their conclusion is that Trump’s tweet is a claim unsupported by evidence.  Breitbart published an indignant follow-up:

President Donald Trump originally tweeted about the alleged surveillance — which radio host Mark Levin called a “silent coup” by Obama staffers keen to undermine the new administration — on Saturday. Levin’s claims, reported at Breitbart News early Friday, were in turn based on information largely from mainstream outlets, including the New York Times and the Washington Post. Heat Street was one non-mainstream source, but the BBC also reported similar information in January. So, too, did the UK Guardian, which is a mainstream source (albeit with a decidedly left-wing slant, hardly favorable to Trump).

Strictly speaking, this passage is all true.  But highly misleading.  In the original reporting, the Washington Post was sourced only as reporting on Jeff Sessions’ meetings with the Russian Ambassador.  To later use (for example) the Washington Post’s presence in the notional bibliography to support the core controversial facts of the reporting is entirely disingenuous.

Indeed, none of the sources linked by Breitbart’s original article – not even Heat Street – actually suggest, imply, or claim that there was any political interference from the Obama administration in the investigations into the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia.  Where Heat Street states that “the FBI” sought and obtained warrants; Breitbart links that story as supporting a contention that “the Obama administration” sought and obtained the warrants.  Remember what I said above about the ‘cardinal distinction’ here:  Assuming it’s true that “the FBI” conducted surveillance activities, that alone wouldn’t be controversial; but going from there to Trump’s assertion that “Obama” tapped his phones…requires something further.

While the ‘administration’ might ultimately be responsible for the actions of the FBI in a Truman-esque ‘the buck stops here’ kind of sense, ascribing actions of the FBI to the ‘Obama administration’ simply on that basis is a fairly loose use of the term, and when the term is being used to imply or allege improper political interference in a matter that would otherwise be proper law enforcement activities, Breitbart’s phrasing becomes entirely disingenuous and misleading.  (Trump’s further extrapolation, alleging that Obama personally did it, is an impossible conclusion to support based on the Breitbart reporting and its own sources, and yet Breitbart claims that Trump’s tweet is well supported on the evidence.)

A spokesperson for Obama issued a denial of the claim:

A cardinal rule of the Obama Administration was that no White House official ever interfered with any independent investigation led by the Department of Justice. As part of that practice, neither President Obama nor any White House official ever ordered surveillance on any U.S. citizen. Any suggestion otherwise is simply false.

Breitbart’s follow-up calls this a “non-denial denial”, parsing it in a pseudolegalistic fashion to try to show ways that Obama might have acted badly without the denial even being strictly false:  For example, that Obama might have directly ordered surveillance on foreigners in communication with the Trump campaign, as a roundabout way of surveilling the Trump campaign.  (This, of course, would have been a particularly limited sort of surveillance on the Trump campaign.  If we’re listening in on the Russian Ambassador’s conversations, then we’ll only get information on the Trump campaign’s communications with the Russian Ambassador.  Given the strained relationship between the US and Russia, and the evidence that existed at the time that Russia was engaged in espionage activities against at least one major political candidate, it’s pretty strained to try to characterize surveillance warrants against Russians as a nefarious political plot.  There is absolutely a legitimate public interest in having an investigation into the connections between a political candidate and a foreign power that is believed to be sabotaging his political enemies.)

But one should look closely at the wording of the denial.  Firstly, bear in mind that, if there was surveillance conducted on the Trump campaign (and there may have been), it could only have been conducted by branches of the Department of Justice.  So saying that the White House didn’t interfere with DOJ investigations is a meaningful and substantive denial – not a denial that there was surveillance, not a denial that there was an investigation, but a denial of any White House role in it.  (Again, the cardinal distinction in play.)

More recently, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper issued a denial of any surveillance warrant for Trump Tower, as Trump had alleged, and it was likewise reported that FBI Director James Comey has asked the Justice Department to refute Trump’s wiretapping claim because it is false.

The Verdict

Ultimately, we don’t yet know the scope or nature of the investigations into the Trump campaign or its connections with Russia.  There is a sound basis to believe that such investigations are and were occurring, and a sound basis to believe that it was and remains appropriate for law enforcement and intelligence agencies to conduct such investigations.

But as to the contention of impropriety by President Obama in relation to these investigations, these appear to be totally unsupported by any evidence.  When Trump claims that “Obama had my “wires tapped” in Trump Tower”, that assertion appears to be one without any basis in fact or evidence, and in fact appears to be the result of a long game of telephone, where stories about the “FBI”‘s investigative activities gradually morph into stories about Obama conducting political espionage.

Update, March 16, 2017:

Yesterday, Trump was interviewed by Tucker Carlson, and was asked about where he ‘found out’ about the ‘wiretapping’.

I read in, I think it was January 20, a New York Times article where they were talking about wiretapping. There was an article, I think they used that exact term. I read other things. I watched your friend Brett Baier the day previous where he was talking about certain very complex sets of things happening, and wiretapping. I said, wait a minute, there’s a lot of wiretapping being talked about.

There indeed was a January 20 article from the New York Times, and – as Trump made a great deal out of in the interview – it did in fact use the word ‘wiretapping’.  However, it never alleged or implied any impropriety or political interference on the part of the Obama administration, and in fact the article stated quite expressly, “It is not clear whether the communications had anything to do with Donald J. Trump or his campaign.”

The Brett Baier citation appears to allude to an interview of Paul Ryan, where Baier asked Ryan about the possibility of the Obama administration having surveilled the Trump campaign, to which Ryan’s response was “I don’t think that’s the case.

Is the fact that Trump’s tweet came just after the publication of the Breitbart article a coincidence?  Or is he merely trying to cite the NYT article (which makes little sense as support for a “just found out” claim), instead of the Breitbart article that actually suggested impropriety, for optical reasons?  Either way, what the Carlson interview confirms is that, as was widely surmised, and despite Kellyanne Conway defending the tweet on Fox and Friends by stating that Trump “has information and intelligence that the rest of us do not”, Trump’s allegations in fact did not come from briefings from intelligence sources or the Justice Department.  (I highlight Conway playing the ‘Trump has inside information’ card, because it’s a dangerous card to play, particularly when it turns out not to be true of the matter in issue:  It undermines the credibility of the person and the office when Trump’s administration is suggesting that we should take him at face value because he’s ‘in the know’, and it turns out that he’s basing his allegations entirely on a newspaper article.)

The other important update today is that the Democratic and Republican leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which was investigating the claim, issued a joint statement dismissing the claim:

Based on the information available to us, we see no indications that Trump Tower was the subject of surveillance by any element of the United States government either before or after Election Day 2016.

All in all, the updates are a pretty sound basis on which to ground an unqualified dismissal of Trump’s claim.  While you can’t prove a negative, the fact that the Senate Intelligence Committee found no evidence and that Trump himself could provide no evidence, basing his belief on a New York Times article that actually doesn’t say what he cites it for, the ultimate conclusion is that there was never any basis for Trump’s allegations against Obama.  (That said, Sean Spicer indicated today that Trump stands by the claims, nonetheless.)

Did Jeff Sessions Mislead Congress?

The most recent controversy deals with Attorney General Jeff Sessions:  Was he part of the Trump campaign’s contact with Russian government officials?  Did he lie about it to the Senate Committee during his confirmation hearing?

You’ll recall that Michael Flynn lost his job last month as National Security Advisor after it was revealed that, during the Presidential transition, he spoke with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak about US sanctions against Russia.

Likewise, Trump’s campaign aide Paul Manafort left the campaign in August, shortly after a scandal broke relating to Manafort’s relationship with pro-Russian elements in Ukraine.

And various investigations are currently ongoing into both Russia’s apparent intervention in the presidential election, as well as the extent and nature of contacts between Trump’s campaign staff and Russian officials.  The Administration’s approach toward these investigations has raised red flags, from Attorney General Sessions’ earlier refusals to recuse himself from oversight of these investigations (notwithstanding his own involvement with the Trump campaign) to Trump’s Chief of Staff Reince Priebus leaning on the FBI in relation to these investigations.

The newest revelations, however, are that Jeff Sessions actually met with Kislyak twice while he was involved with the Trump campaign.  This surprised many, given that, during his testimony at his confirmation hearing, he denied contact with the Russians.

Sessions now claims that he was meeting with the Russian Ambassador in his capacity as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.  (Claire McCaskill, another long-time member of the Committee, expressed scepticism on Twitter by highlighting that she’s never met with the Russian Ambassador.  When it came to light that she *had* met the Russian Ambassador on occasion, she clarified that none were one-on-one.  Certain news stories have attempted to draw an equivalency between McCaskill’s omission of different types of meetings from her 140-character tweet, and Sessions’ own omission of meetings with the Russian Ambassador from his sworn testimony at his confirmation hearing.  Clearly, one of these things is not like the other.)

These new revelations have resulted in various calls for Sessions to not only recuse himself – which he finally did – but also to resign.  House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, saying that he “lied under oath”, argued that he is not fit for his office.  Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer held a press conference calling for Sessions to resign, coming short of accusing Sessions of actual perjury, but highlighting that Sessions should have disclosed and qualified his meetings with the Russian Ambassador when denying contact with the Russians, or alternative corrected and clarified the record afterward, as is normal for candidates upon receiving and reviewing the transcript of their confirmation hearing.  Schumer’s demand for resignation isn’t rooted in a contention that Sessions *necessarily* broke the law, but the omission is sufficient to cast a shadow over Sessions, to the point that his credibility falls short of that required for the office of the Attorney General.

If you looked at Breitbart’s website on Thursday, you would have seen their first five stories seeking to vindicate Sessions, including a California trial lawyer asserting that Sessions “absolutely” did not perjure himself.

What Sessions actually said, in response to a question from Senator Franken about what he would do in the event of investigations into the campaign’s contact with Russian officials, is this:

I’m not aware of any of those activities. I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians.

So what are the issues here?

Firstly, if there was any question before as to whether or not Sessions could impartially oversee an investigation into the Trump campaign’s communications with Russia during that time period, that has been put to rest.  To Sessions’ credit, he has now agreed to recuse himself – though it does raise some optical questions about his earlier refusals, in light of the fact that he himself had communicated directly with the Russian Ambassador during the timeframe under investigation.  It is likely that these communications would have come under investigative scrutiny, and even before the public was aware of this, he still would have known.

Secondly, the question of whether or not Sessions deliberately misled the Senate Committee is of critical importance.  There is some question as to the bona fides of his explanation that he was meeting with the Ambassador on behalf of the Committee, as distinct from in his capacity as a member of the Trump campaign, but – if true – it could be a legally acceptable clarification:  Yes, I met with the Russian Ambassador, but the question dealt with campaign issues, and I never “had communications with the Russians” about the subject matter of the question.  The law is nuanced, and the California trial lawyer cited by Breitbart is almost certainly correct that this contextual distinction (again, if true) would satisfactorily insulate him from perjury allegations.  (This is, in the main, separate from the high standard of proactive disclosure that Schumer suggests is necessary for an Attorney General, and Sessions himself admitted that in hindsight he should have made the clarifying remarks as Schumer contends.)

It is clear from the context of Sessions’ response that he was discussing the campaign’s communications with the Russians, and – so long as he never had any conversations with the Russians about the campaign or his role in the campaign – omitting such communications would not be inconsistent with the spirit of what he said.  However, if there was discussion of the campaign or his role in it, even as ancillary discussion to a meeting about Senate business, then the contextual nuance that he relies upon entirely loses its power, and the ‘spirit’ of what he said (in addition to the ‘letter’ of his language) becomes entirely false and misleading.

And there’s the rub:  When asked if he had discussed the election or Mr. Trump with Kislyak, he gave a Flynn-esque “I don’t recall” response, acknowledging that it was campaign season and that Ambassadors are “pretty gossipy”.  It also bears noting that one of the meetings occurred one day after a Trump rally in which Trump gave high praise to Vladimir Putin – it seems unlikely that the campaign would not have come up in a meeting between a member of Trump’s inner circle and the Russian Ambassador the very next day.

Which would have the result that, yes, he had a conversation about the political campaign with the Russian Ambassador, and then later expressly denied having done so, under oath.

Did Sessions perjure himself?  Maybe, but perjury is difficult to prove.  One would need to establish not only that what he said was, in its full context, factually untrue, but also that he intended to convey a falsehood.  Even if it can be proven that he discussed campaign issues (and, as we discovered in the Flynn saga, conversations the Russian Ambassador may not be private), “It slipped my mind at the time” could be an adequate defence to a perjury charge.

But did Sessions mislead?  That’s a different question.  Even while stating that he doesn’t “recall”, he acknowledges the plausibility that the election campaign came up as a topic in the conversation.  Even assuming that everything about his clarification and response is true, the fact that he doesn’t know if it came up actually detracts from the ‘innocent explanation’ he poses.  If someone asks me about communications with ‘John’ on the subject of ‘x’, and I know I talked to John about y, but don’t recall if x came up…then simply answering that I never “had communications with” John would be overtly dishonest and misleading.

Indeed, in its full context, other answers would have made far more sense:  The point Sessions was trying to make, when denying contact with the Russians, was that there probably wasn’t inappropriate contact between Russia and the campaign, because he likely would have been in on it if there were.  It would have been more persuasive, more compelling, and – assuming no impropriety in the discussion – more honest to say something to the effect of “I have been called a surrogate a time or two in that campaign, but I’m unaware of any improper communications between the campaign and the Russians, and I even met with the Russian Ambassador on Senate business in September, so one would think that I would be aware if there was any improper relationship there.”  The only reasons not to say something like that would be (a) that he is worried about follow-up inquiries into the content of the discussion (i.e. he wanted to conceal the subject matter of the conversation) and/or (b) that he is worried about the optics of having met with the Russian Ambassador at all (i.e. he wanted to conceal the fact of the meetings in the first place).

The Verdict

When certain Democrats are going so far as to accuse Sessions of perjury, they are probably overextending based on the facts currently on the record.  However, based on Sessions’ clarification and explanation, it is clear that his testimony before the Senate was, at minimum, misleading.  It was literally untrue, and even giving Sessions the benefit of every doubt, it amounts to an unqualified denial, even contextually, of facts which Sessions now claims uncertainty.

Accordingly, it is difficult at this juncture to contend that Sessions was forthright at his confirmation hearing, and Schumer, for his part, is relying on a sound factual basis when he calls for Sessions’ resignation.