Sunday, September 18, 2016

Weekend Roundup

Mostly writing this today because I have various tabs opened to possibly interesting articles, and it's only a matter of time before my antiquated browser crashes. Better, I think, to note them briefly than to lose them forever.

I wrote some on the campaign horserace a couple days ago (see Looks Like She Blew It), and nothing much has changed on that front -- TPM still has Trump ahead by 0.1%, but 538 shows Clinton with slightly better chance of winning (61.3%, up from 60.0%). So she may still pull this out, but if she does she'll still wind up with the lowest share of popular vote since 1992, when someone else named Clinton won.

Some scattered links this week:

  • David Dayen: How Democrats Can Overcome Their Self-Defeating Cynicism: By "pushing actual policies"? Dayen proposes adding a "public option" to Obamacare as a good place to start. That's actually fairly non-controversial, at least with mainstream Democrats. It was part of the original ACA, and was dropped mostly because the bill couldn't be passed without 60 votes in the Senate, and a couple of them were willing to wreck the whole thing to spare private insurance companies from competition. He notes that Sen. Jeff Merkley (Oregon) has a resolution backed by 27 other senators, and that Obama and Clinton favor it. As for "cynicism" the more apposite term Dayen uses is "defensive crouch" (although if you want an example of cynicism, there's the attempt to bundle gun control on top of the rather arbitrary, putatively anti-terror, "no fly list").

    In their defensive crouch, Democrats have forgotten to explain why they consider it important that "no family have the American dream ripped out from under them because they can't afford medical care," as Merkley said on the call. They forget to explain why health care ought to be a right for every American, not a privilege only available to those who can buy it at a high price.

    This was actually the logic of the Sanders campaign, and a reason for its unlikely success. Contrary to the political science pros, it was his ideas, and more to the point his willingness to say them, that animated his candidacy. It also pushed Clinton to outline a bolder agenda than she might have been comfortable with in Sanders's absence. When the Democratic primary pitted ideas against one another, rather than amplifying criticisms, it let Americans know what Democrats stand for.

    The bloodless technocracy that has ruled the Democratic Party has forgotten how to inspire the body politic. After riding a wave of enthusiasm to power in 2008, the last couple midterms and even Obama's 2012 campaign were nervy exercises in protecting the tentative gains Democrats had made -- and seemed half-embarrassed by. Democrats too often define themselves by who they oppose rather than their own principles. Not only is this self-defeating for a party that promises activist government, it makes governing itself harder down the road.

    Of course, it's not just the emergence of a bit of political backbone that's bringing the public option back into play. It's also that the insurance companies have been conspiring to prevent the competition that the ACA promised from eating into their profits -- most egregiously by trying to merge the four largest private health insurers into two companies (the first mergers I'm aware of the Obama administration actually opposing). Even short of that they're cutting back on plan availability, so many Americans will have no choices.

  • Eric Lichtblau: Hate Crimes Against American Muslims Most Since Post-9/11 Era: "up 78 percent over the course of 2015. Attacks on those perceived as Arab rose even more sharply. . . . That was the most since the record 481 documented hate crimes against Muslims in 2001, when the Sept. 11 attacks set off waves of crimes targeting Muslims and Middle Easterners, Mr. Levin said. The huge increase last year was also the biggest annual rise since 2001, he said." It's tempting to blame this on Trump, whose anti-Muslim positions are based on and seem to legitimize more blatant threats: "A number of experts in hate crimes said they were concerned that Mr. Trump's vitriol may have legitimized threatening or even violent conduct by a small fringe of his supporters. In a few cases, people accused of hate crimes against Muslims and others have even cited Mr. Trump." On the other hand, it's impossible to go to war against a people for fifteen years and not engender hatred -- something Bush and Obama have worked hard to cap because it so subverts their war aims, although Obama had a big disadvantage in that those most inclined to hate Muslims started off by hating him.

  • Derek Thompson: America's Monopoly Problem: As I noted above, the Obama administration has done a remarkably poor record of maintaining competitiveness within supposedly free markets, scarcely even bothering to use the rather antiquated antitrust laws that are still on the books. Those laws, dating to the 1880s, targeted absolute monopolies where a single company sought to gain complete control of a market. While such combines are still a threat, the bigger problem now is what we might call consensual monopoly blocks, where two or three large companies effectively divvy up a market, crowding out competitors and focusing more on growing their profit margins than cutting into one another's market share. The net effect looks like this:

    In the past few decades, however, the economy has come to resemble something more like a stagnant pool. Entrepreneurship, as measured by the rate of new-business formation, has declined in each decade since the 1970s, and adults under 35 (a/k/a Millennials) are on track to be the least entrepreneurial generation on record.

    This decline in dynamism has coincided with the rise of extraordinarily large and profitable firms that look discomfortingly like the monopolies and oligopolies of the 19th century. American strip malls and yellow pages used to brim with new small businesses. But today, in a lot where several mom-and-pop shops might once have opened, Walmart spawns another superstore. In almost every sector of the economy -- including manufacturing, construction, retail, and the entire service sector -- the big companies are getting bigger. The share of all businesses that are new firms, meanwhile, has fallen by 50 percent since 1978. According to the Roosevelt Institute, a liberal think tank dedicated to advancing the ideals of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, "markets are now more concentrated and less competitive than at any point since the Gilded Age."

    Even where there are entrepreneurs, as in high-tech, their typical business plans focus on building companies to the point where they be sold profitably to larger companies. For instance, have any of the biotech startups that were spun up in the 1990s not been sold off to pharmaceutical giants? Much of this is driven by financial firms, who can overpay for a startup knowing that it's worth more as part of a monopolistic conglommerate. Joseph Stiglitz cites monopoly rents as a major source of increasing inequality, and this is what he means. A big part of the reason inequality is spiraling out of control is that government, influenced (as you well know) by those profiting from monopoly rents, has abdicated its responsibility to ensure that markets are free, open, transparent, and therefore efficient. It is impossible to overstate the importance of this issue, so this piece is one you need to read.

  • Maggie Koerth-Baker: How the Oil and Gas Industry Awakened Oklahoma's Sleeping Fault Lines: The first recorded earthquake in Oklahoma occurred in 1882, before the first oil well was drilled in 1897. This piece has a map of the known fault lines crossing Oklahoma, and they are numerous, especially in the southeast corner of the state, home of what's left of the Ouchita Mountains (high point 2681 feet above sea level). Still, earthquakes remained rare until less than a decade ago, rising to more than 900 earthquakes (3.0 or stronger) in 2014 -- the most of any state in the nation. As another map shows, those earthquakes are located not where most of the faults are, but rather in the north-central part of the state: relatively flat prairie west of the Arkansas River, bisected by the Canadian River. This has been oil country since way before I was born -- indeed, the main tourist attractions in Ponca City are tours of the mansions of pioneering oil barons. The yields of those oil wells have long been declining -- a chart here shows that Oklahoma pumps up five barrels of wastewater for every barrel of oil (or equivalent natural gas, at this point 80% of Oklahoma's hydrocarbon production). That would have been uneconomical back when oil was cheap, but the high prices of the Bush years urged marginal producers to invest in injection wells -- there are now more than 4000 across the state -- as they seek to slurp up the last of their remaining oil. (By contrast, the water/fuel ratio in the newer fields of North Dakota is currently running just slightly above 1/1.) The injected wastewater, along with techniques like fracking, may help increase oil production, but it also lubricates often unseen faults, which then slip to produce earthquakes. The largest to date, a 5.8 centered between Pawnee and Ponca City, was felt as far away as Omaha and Austin. Here in Wichita, about 110 miles away, it woke us up as the house shook for nearly a minute. I've been following this story since it started to break -- oil geology is one of those subjects I read for pleasure -- and this is one of the better pieces on it. So now, in addition to anthropogenic climate change, the oil industry has brought us anthropogenic earthquakes. You'd think they'd be the least bit embarrassed, but even before they proved to be so ingenious at creating "natural" disasters, their sudden riches spawned many of America's most reactionary political entrepreneurs, from H.L. Hunt to the Kochs to Dick Cheney. The biggest mistake this country ever made was letting individuals own the nation's mineral resources.

  • Miscellaneous election links:

    • Charles V Bagli: A Trump Empire Built on Inside Connections and $885 Million in Tax Breaks: How to get ahead by starting there. Of course, Trump isn't the only businessman who taken advantage of "what he calls the pay-to-play culture of politics and a 'rigged' system of government." Pretty much everyone does it, a relationship so symbiotic neither side dares question it even though practically everyone else thinks it stinks to high hell. Long article with lots of details, mostly on New York real estate.

    • John Cassidy: Does Donald Trump Pay Any Income Taxes at All? Well, if he doesn't, that would be one reason he might have for withholding his tax returns. Cassidy quotes James Stewart: "No one should be surprised, though, if Donald J. Trump has paid far less -- perhaps even zero federal income tax in some years. Indeed, that's the expectation of numerous real estate and tax professionals I've interviewed in recent weeks." That just reflects the numerous loopholes that benefit real estate developers, just part of a crooked system. Also quotes David Cay Johnston, who "pointed out that Trump paid no income tax in 1978, 1979, 1992, and 1994" and "several times received a type of tax rebate that is restricted to property owners who report taxable income of less than half a million dollars."

      Also by Cassidy: Birtherism, Bombs, and Donald Trump's Weekend.

    • Russel Berman: Hillary Clinton Has a Lot of Money: She raised $143 million in August, and seems to have been more concerned with raking in contributions than with winning over voters. The good news there is that $81 million goes to the DNC and state parties. How successful she is as president depends on how successful the Democratic Party is in state and local elections, especially for Congress -- a point that neither her husband nor Obama learned as president. Still, she lost ground in the polls while catering to wealthy donors. We'll see if she can use their money to turn the election around.

    • Amy Davidson: Clinton's Sick Days: At least she got some help to make up for her down time -- from Obama, his wife, Biden, her husband. Still, Davidson's best line was parenthetical: "(Why, at this stage, her schedule includes so many travel-intensive fund-raisers, when she is suffering from a shortage not of funds but of voter rapport, is one of many side questions that her illness raised.)"

    • David A Graham: Just Why Does Hillary Clinton Want to Be President? First thought on seeing this is that it reminded me of the unhealthy obsession the press in 2000 had with Gore's supposed obsession with running for president, suggesting that if he failed he might as well kill himself because his whole life would have been wasted. In point of fact, after he lost he got a job as a venture capitalist, he got rid of his wife, he wrote a book that wasn't about himself, he made a movie about global warming, he won an Oscar for the movie, he won a Nobel Prize. If he was so obsessed with becoming president, why did he never run again? He's 68 now, but he's still a few months younger than Hillary Clinton. So I don't have much interest in psychological speculation about "what makes Hillary run?" -- I would, however, find a credible explanation for Trump interesting. Or maybe just amusing.

      Then there's Clare Foran: The Curse of Hillary Clinton's Ambition. Foran catches a lot of flying innuendo in her net, and seems willing to give credence to all of it. She quotes one "man" as saying, "This has been her entire life's work, it seems like, has been building up to this moment, so she doesn't have any shots left." Just like Gore in 2000, except she's even more of a crone. Foran adds, "But some voters also seem to distrust Clinton because they believe she wants to win at any cost." This is a journalist? She wouldn't have to search very hard to find Trump supporters who see that very same trait in their man and admire him for it.

    • Harry Enten: Why Clinton's Electoral Map Isn't as Good as Obama's: Had Obama and Romney received the same number of votes (basically, by moving 3.9% from D to R in every state), Obama would still have been elected president by the electoral college. The map this year looks to me to be much the same, but Enten argues that it has shifted in such a way that Trump has "a better shot of winning the Electoral College while losing the popular vote (at 6.1 percent) than Clinton (1.5 percent)." Of course, there's a chart, showing that 11 of 14 battleground states have "moved right relative to the country" --Iowa and Nevada enough to switch sides. Part of this is that Clinton is leading Obama in some states she'll still lose (Enten mentions Oklahoma, Utah, and Wyoming). But I also suspect part of this is that they're comparing Clinton's current polls to Obama's actual votes, so they haven't yet factored in the intense battleground state "ground game."

    • Todd S Purdum: What's Really Ailing Hillary: "A long time ago, Clinton was far more transparent, emotional and open than she is today. Then the media began slamming her -- and didn't stop."

    • Matt Taibbi: Stop Whining About 'False Balance': Mostly this is a rant about the overwhelming banality (not to mention stupidity) of the mass media, arguing that those are worse problems than bias which knowledgeable people can see through anyway. Also points out:

      The irony is, the Clinton Foundation thing is a rare example of an important story that is getting anything like the requisite attention. The nexus of elite connections that sits behind tales like Bill Clinton taking $1.5 million in speaking fees from a Swiss bank (and foundation donor) while that same bank is seeking relief from Hillary Clinton's State Department is exactly the kind of thing that requires the scrutiny of reporters.

      Yeah, sort of, but those reporters are often so wrapped up in their preconceived notions they wind up shilling for campaign narratives that don't clarify anything.

    • Brian Mittendorf: Clinton charities 101: What do they actual do and where does their money go? Fair amount of detail here on the structure and organization of Clinton's various foundations/charities. Much less on the direct involvement of the Clintons: they put some money in at one end, but that's dwarfed by money raised from others; they put their name out, which is both used for raising money and for whatever "good works" the Foundation ultimately does. Clearly, they must benefit somehow, if only in good will. The benefits to other donors are unclear, which is perhaps inevitable, and certainly open to suspicion. I've never been a fan of foundations, which even at best seem like arbitrary penance for lives of avarice and shoddy providers of social goods, but given the inequities of the present I also doubt that any of this would be suspect but for Hillary running for president, once again making her the target of people much more greedy and careless than herself.

    • Heather Digby Parton: The general of gossip: Colin Powell's leaked emails depict a juvenile busybody rather than an elder statesman: how devious of him to talk Hillary into using that private email server!

      Colin Powell has a long history of being in the middle of scandals and wriggling out of any responsibility for them. From his involvement in the My Lai massacre, to Iran Contra, to personally blocking President Bill Clinton's promise to allow gays to serve openly in the military, to his infamous testimony before the UN that led to the Iraq war, Powell's fingerprints are on the wrong side of history and the truth time and again and he's always got some excuse as to why it wasn't his fault.

Also, a few links for further study (briefly noted:

  • 'Hunting of Hillary' Author on Clinton Conspiracies and Conservative Attacks: Interview with Joe Conason, who has a new book on what Bill Clinton's been up to since leaving the White House: Man of the World: The Further Endeavors of Bill Clinton, following up on his 2001 book The Hunting of the President: The Ten-Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton. He's a reliable fan, eager to point out all the good the Clintons have done, as well as how shabbily they've been treated by that vast right-wing conspiracy thing.

  • Patrick Cockburn: The US and Russia Have Less Influence in Syria Than They Think: True, no doubt, as it's often the case that in what you think of as a proxy war the tail winds up wagging the dog. Russia can bring Assad a cease fire but getting his forces to stick with it has never been easy. And the US doesn't even have the luxury of backing a significant force on the ground. Rather, they have multiple enemies, making it possible to inadvertently help one at the expense of the other. Cockburn offers a good example here: the US misidentified a target as ISIS and bombed it, killing at least 62 Syrian soldiers, after which ISIS was able to capture the territory the US had cleared out.

  • Atul Gawande: Overkill: On how "an avalanche of unnecessary medical care is harming patients physically and financially." This is an old story, something whole books have been written on -- Shannon Brownlee's 2007 book Overtreated: Why Too Much Medicine Is Making Us Sicker and Poorer is probably the classic -- but the author adds his usual insights and nostrums. He could be more explicit that the core cause is the focus on profits that turns it all into such a tug of war.

  • Greg Grandin: The Free-Marketeers Take Over in Brazil -- and the US Applauds:

    The Obama administration was less confrontational than its predecessor, but no less ideological in its preference for Latin America's free-marketeers. . . . But with a new round of economic shock therapy being applied in Latin America, Washington is preparing for the inevitable "social explosions" the way it does best: According to the Washington Office on Latin America, the Pentagon has, since 2007, tripled its special-ops training in the region.

  • Fred Kaplan: China Won't Stop Kim Jong-un. The US Must Stand Up to Both of Them: "Sanctions won't work. We can't destroy his nukes. We can rattle a few sabers, however." Really, very disappointing piece. We should remind Kim that if the North invades the South, even having some sort of "nuclear umbrella," we'll come to South Korea's defense and annihilate North Korea. Really? You think he somehow doesn't understand that already? You think rattling sabers will make him less touchy? Less defensive? Less desperate? What should happen is that the US needs to focus less on muscling North Korea around and more on figuring out a sane posture which would allow both Koreas and the US to coexist without threats. Once the US is willing to live with North Korea -- to formally end the 1950 war, to normalize relations, to open trade, to proportionately dial back military readiness -- we can worry about getting China, Japan, the South, and everyone else to buy in.

  • Mike Konczal: These Policies Could Move America Toward a Universal Basic Income: Three "simple policies": children's allowance, $12-an-hour minimum wage, 12 weeks' paid medical leave and 2 weeks' paid annual leave.

  • Peter Van Buren: Class of 2017 -- So Sorry!: Subtitle: "Apologizing to My Daughter for the Last 15 Years of War."

    Terrorism is a nearly nonexistent danger for Americans. You have a greater chance of being hit by lightning, but fear doesn't work that way. There's no 24/7 coverage of global lightning strikes or "if you see something, say something" signs that encourage you to report thunderstorms. So I felt no need to apologize for lightning.

    But terrorism? I really wanted to tell my daughter just how sorry I was that she would have to live in what 9/11 transformed into the most frightened country on Earth.

    Want the numbers? Some 40% of Americans believe the country is more vulnerable to terrorism than it was just after September 11, 2001 -- the highest percentage ever.

    But there is one difference between terrorism and lightning, which is that much terrorism can be prevented by eliminating the motivations. Both before and after 9/11 the US became a target by targeting the Middle East with injustice and violence.

    I read the introduction to Ira Katznelson's big book on the 1930s, Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time, where he makes the point that FDR's famous line "we have nothing to fear but fear itself" was aimed to preserve democracy, which at the time was under attack from fearmongers who insisted we needed a strongman to run the country, Il Duce in Italy and Der Führer in Germany. Fear continues to be a potent cloak for the right. For example, see Daniel Politi: Trump Tells Crowd "Bomb" Went Off in New York, Proceeds to Brag About Polls. Trump quote: "We better get very tough, folks. We better get very, very tough."

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