Sunday, September 3, 2017


Weekend Roundup

At some point I need to write about the book I just finished, Rosa Brooks' How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales From the Pentagon (2016; paperback, 2017, Simon & Schuster). I didn't bother with this when it came out in hardcover last year, but I noticed the paperback about the time Gen. Kelly replaced Reince Priebus, which got me to wondering what is was people see in flag officers that makes them seem to be uniquely capable functionaries. This mindset seems to be especially widespread on the right, though perhaps by default as their more fundamental belief is that all other bureaucrats are incapable of doing anything worthwhile, or perhaps they mean just up to no good. Still, liberals have grown increasingly fond of brass, and politicians of all stripes trip all over themselves in prostrating themselves to America's sainted heroes.

Unfortunately, while Brooks sometimes gets caught up in such idolatry, she never offers much elucidation. The closest she comes is to point out that the military has increasingly tended to take over functions that previously belonged to the State Department because the military has so much more money to work with. Even that gets very little analysis beyond the "day everything changed" 9/11 cliché. But the disturbing thing about 9/11 wasn't what changed then but what had changed sometime earlier. The objective facts of 9/11 meant we should at least have considered the option of responding to crimes through law enforcement (FBI and Interpol, maybe drawing on "intelligence" from CIA and NSA) as opposed to declaring war and sending the military to invade distant countries. Clearly, Brooks' title described something real: in the mindsets of the Bush administration, and evidently with the Clintons before, and possibly much further back, the default worldview of America's politicians had become militarized. So how, and why, had that happened? Brooks doesn't tell us.

Well, she does provide a couple of hints, starting with a critique of "metaphorical wars" -- basically, political campaigns that attempted to recruit the sort of public unity and support, including self-sacrifice, that WWII had achieved: the "war on poverty" and "war on drugs" perhaps the most famous examples, with cancer, crime, AIDS, and terror getting various degrees of attention. Even going back to the 1950s, something as basic and benign as building interstate highways could only make it through Congress if rationalized as national defense. Brooks provides other examples where people (businesses and non-profits as well as politicians) tried selling us things by invoking the military -- e.g., we were told that obesity is bad because it reduces the recruitment pool of possible soldiers. What she doesn't seem to notice is that every one of these conceptualizations failed, often because they were laughably stupid, more so because they were inappropriate and misguided, and I suspect ultimately because, regardless of what you might think WWII proved, war never really accomplishes its original goals nor redeems its initial reasoning.

I've tried to formulate this before, and Brooks has only, albeit inadvertently, increase my conviction. The first thing to understand about war is that you lose the moment it begins. Arguably, you may cause the other side to lose more than you do, but the misfortune of others never compensates for your own losses, especially what the experience of war does to your own psyche. The second thing is that war isn't "an extension of politics by other means" but the abject failure of politics to resolve potential conflicts short of war.

Brooks spends much of her book delving into anthropology, trying to convince herself that war is a constant, inevitable feature of humanity, even though she'd like to subject it to a system of law to manage it better, to limit some of the atrocities that seem to mess up so many wars. Her big innovation here is to push the idea that war/peace represent a continuum with many intermediate "gray" areas as opposed to the dichotomy or negation we are used to thinking in terms of. Here's a sample quote (pp. 353-354):

What would it mean, in practice, to manage this churning, changing "space between" -- to develop laws, politics, and institutions premised on the assumption that we will forever remain unable to draw sharp boundaries between war and peace, and that we will frequently find ourselves in the space between?

This will be the work of many minds and many years. But the task is surely not impossible if we remind ourselves that we human beings can make and unmake categories and rules. And it is surely not inconsistent with the core principles enshrined both in America's founding documents and in human rights law: that life and liberty are unalienable rights, that no person should be arbitrarily deprived of these rights, and that no one -- no individual, no organization, no government, and no state -- should be permitted to exercise power without being held accountable for mistakes or abuses.

If we take these principles seriously, we might, for instance, develop better mechanisms to prevent arbitrariness, mistake, and abuse in targeted killings.

Thus she inches up to the edge of a chasm, then plunges in. Why isn't it obvious that "if we take these principles seriously" we wouldn't be doing any "targeted killings"? All you have to do is to reverse the case examples to see that the problem is the idea of targeted killing, not the likelihood of "arbitrariness, mistake, and abuse." In larger terms, the problem isn't that war is very probably compounded by all manner of mistake and abuse, but that war is practiced at all. After all, what is war but an elaborate moral charade meant to justify all sorts of slaughter and havoc? -- things that are sensibly prohibited under law in the domain of peace. And isn't Brooks' campaign to map out gray areas just a ruse for allowing war (and the military) to seep into civil society, spoiling peace?

One odd thing here is that while Brooks seems to be a big fan of international laws which prohibit many common practices of war and which promote broad notions of human rights, she doesn't seem to grasp that the intention behind those laws is to outlaw war. Moreover, that very point is obvious to the conservatives, nationalists, and militarists who instinctively reject such international law -- and at least in the former case, any notion of human rights based on equality. Way back in 1945 when the UN was founded, it was at least an aspirational goal of the liberals who then ran the US government to prevent future wars by establishing a mutually acceptable creed of equal rights for nations and for people within nations. Obviously, the real nations of the time had some work to do to achieve those aspirations, but at least they pretty much all recognized the need to avoid a repeat (or escalation) of the just-concluding world war. And they understood that by putting their best ideals forward, they could inspire one another to do better. However, since that date, many Americans, including virtual all working politicians, have discarded those ideals and instead embraced the US military -- its power to terrify and cower the rest of the world -- as the root of their security, and therefore their sense of justice.

I'm not really sure why that happened, but certainly the seeds were all present before the end of the Korean War (1953). Part of it was that many Americans found WWII to be exhilarating, the source both of community and prosperity. Part was the hatchet job done on the working class by the Red Scare and the Cold War. (Conveniently, many American workers were temporarily shielded by anti-communist unions, but we all know how that eventually turned out.) Part was the way we fought the Cold War, especially by embracing right-wing dictators against their own people. One thing America's emerging militarism cannot be blamed on was actual wartime successes by the US military: Korea was a bloody stalemate; Vietnam an unequivocal loss; Iraq an expensive, tainted and temporary technical win; Afghanistan not even that. Sure, the Soviet Union folded, but the nations we struggled hardest against have proven the most resistant to our hegemony -- notably including Russia. All the while, the US has sunk to the bottom of the list of "rich nations" in every measure of widespread prosperity -- something we should blame on extravagant military budgets and the right-wing political factions which benefit from continuous hostility and war.

It's probably unfair to blame all of this on Brooks and the liberal hawks of her generation -- the lawyers and policy wonks who felt so much shame over inaction in Rwanda and who counted Bosnia and Kosovo as big successes for a military juggernaut they idealized and came to love (Brooks actually marrying a Green Beret). It is especially sad that Brooks fell for this con, given that her mother (Barbara Ehrenreich) is one of the most incisive social and political critics of our time -- one who, among many other things, wrote her own insightful anthropology of war, the 1997 book Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War. The difference was that Ehrenreich strove to raise myths and primeval emotions to a level of consciousness, where we could rationally encounter them and consciously change. Brooks does the opposite, starting with reason and remythologizing it, turning war from a conscious option back into a quasi-religious belief.


Well, that's the gist of what I wanted to say. Someone should write a big book on how and why American political figures lost their faith and interest in international cooperation, law, justice, and peace. When I searched for "america turns against international law" the first piece that came up was from 2015: Alfred W McCoy: You Must Follow International Law (Unless You're American). It's not as if no one notices American contempt for international law, but it's so ensconced it's hardly even an issue for politicians here. At most it's a nuisance, an inconsequential way other people have of insulting us. The serious question of how this attitude limits our options in dealing with the world never seems to come up.

So I guess the best thing about Brooks' book is the title. Too bad she didn't write a better book on its subject.


Some scattered links this week:

  • Michael Arria: In Attacking Overtime Pay, Trump Is Hurting His Biggest Fans: In his campaign to make sure no good deed is allowed to stand, Trump continues to reverse Obama-era regulations, especially where they limit his favorite business interests:

    In 1975, Gerald Ford set the income threshold above which employees could be exempt from overtime to around $58,000 in today's dollars, but this number was never updated to reflect inflation or wage growth. That means the number is now $23,660. In May 2016 Obama announced that he was doubling the annual salary threshold to $47,476, effectively giving millions of salaried employees making less than that a raise. Obama's move was hardly radical. In fact, it wasn't even as progressive as Ford's. The new rule would have covered 34 percent of full-time salaried workers in the United States; in the 1970s, 50 percent of them were covered. Nonetheless, according to the Department of Labor (DOL), it was poised to raise wages for an estimated 4.2 million workers.

    More: Helaine Olen: The Rollback of Pro-Worker Policies Since Trump Took Office Is Staggering.

  • Eric Holthaus: Harvey Is What Climate Change Looks Like:

    Houston has been sprawling out into the swamp for decades, largely unplanned and unzoned. Now, all that pavement has transformed the bayous into surging torrents and shunted Harvey's floodwaters toward homes and businesses. Individually, each of these subdivisions or strip malls might have seemed like a good idea at the time, but in aggregate, they've converted the metro area into a flood factory. Houston, as it was before Harvey, will never be the same again.

    Harvey is the third 500-year flood to hit the Houston area in the past three years, but Harvey is in a class by itself. By the time the storm leaves the region on Wednesday, an estimated 40 to 60 inches of rain will have fallen on parts of Houston. So much rain has fallen already that the National Weather Service had to add additional colors to its maps to account for the extreme totals. . . .

    Climate change is making rainstorms everywhere worse, but particularly on the Gulf Coast. Since the 1950s, Houston has seen a 167 percent increase in the frequency of the most intense downpours. Climate scientist Kevin Trenberth thinks that as much as 30 percent of the rainfall from Harvey is attributable to human-caused global warming. That means Harvey is a storm decades in the making.

    While Harvey's rains are unique in U.S. history, heavy rainstorms are increasing in frequency and intensity worldwide. One recent study showed that by mid-century, up to 450 million people worldwide will be exposed to a doubling of flood frequency. This isn't just a Houston problem. This is happening all over. A warmer atmosphere enhances evaporation rates and increases the carrying capacity of rainstorms. Harvey drew its energy from a warmer-than-usual Gulf of Mexico, which will only grow warmer in the decades to come.

    Other links on Texas, Hurricane Harvey, and related issues:

  • Hank Johnson: President Trump is giving police forces weapons of war. This is dangerous: "The president has signed an executive order that will reopen the floodgates of military-grade weaponry entering American streets." Again, Trump is reversing an Obama executive order from 2015 -- not sure when the surplus program began, but it had already caused a lot of problems. Coming shortly after a Trump speech encouraging local police to abuse prisoners, Trump's "many sides" reaction to Charlottesville, and his pardon of Arpaio, this looks to be a step toward creating some kind of fascist police state, more focused on controlling a disgruntled population than on serving and protecting against crime. A big part of the problem is that the military has been massively involved in setting up and training police in Iraq and Afghanistan along this very model. Add to that the fact that many police officers in the US have military backgrounds, that a large percentage of veterans have PTSD issues, and that lax gun laws have greatly increased the risks of police work in the US. For more, equally ominous, see: Attorney General Jeff Sessions: Hurricane Harvey Is Proof We Need to Militarize Our Police Forces. Also consider another of Trump's favorite sheriffs: John Nichols: Scandal-Plagued Sheriff David Clarke Would Make a Bad Trump Administration Even Worse.

  • Mike Konczal: Well-off "helicopter" parents are super annoying, but they didn't create economic inequality: Reviews Richard Reeves' book Dream Hoarders, which charges the upper 20 percent ("the professional class") as the main beneficiaries and perpetrators of increasing inequality in America, especially for how their zealous parenting practices seek to hoard opportunity for their own children, rather than allowing meritocracy to rebalance itself. Most critics, including Konczal, would rather discuss inequality in terms of the top 1% (or even 0.1%), because that's where the changes have been most dramatic -- Konczal provides a chart of "share of GDP by income level, 1979 to 2014" showing no visible change from 79-94 percentile, slanting up to about a 35% rise at 98 and 90% at 99. Beyond demolishing Reeves' arguments, Konczal offers some practical proposals:

    Here are more practical ideas: We know how to start draining the rents from the upper middle class. An aggressive public option and governmental price-setting in health care would deflate medical sector rents. Free college would force private schools to compete on price rather than continue to feed off people's desperation to climb illusory status ladders. Deeper transparency in financial markets, more comprehensive prudential regulations, and enforcement of financial crimes would make it harder for financiers to profit off the systemic risk they create. Enforcing antitrust and public utility rules more aggressively would open up bottlenecks in economic activity. Higher progressive taxation reduces the incentives to rent seek in the first place. . . .

    If you want to go after the upper-middle-class's 401(k) deductions, you're going to have to strengthen Social Security. If you want to go after employer provided health care, it matters greatly whether or not there will be Medicare for All or a serious "public option" as an alternative. And if you want to go after college savings accounts, you need to have broadly accessible free public colleges.

  • Paul Krugman: Fascism, American Style: Fascism in each country has its own style: while Mussolini looked back to Rome, Hitler used two previous German Reichs, while Franco was fond of the Inquisition. America doesn't have anything quite like those, but Trump's slogan implies a similar mythic past. Still, what makes fascism a coherent political ideology isn't aesthetics. It starts by denouncing groups of people, and uses the hatred it generates as a springboard to power, moving on to use state violence to attack supposed enemies, while its elite cadres help themselves to the spoils. I haven't seen a lot of value in describing Trump as a fascist, mostly because I still see more mainstream Republican conservatives as more dangerous, but no doubt that he colors himself fascist, even when he doesn't have the more expert Steve Bannon to touch up the details. One thing that helps Trump out is that conservatives have already done much of the intellectual work in creating a view of a fallen past greatness Trump can promise to restore: think of Scalia's "originalism," the distorted Founding Father images invoked by the Tea Party, and most effectively how the cult of the "lost cause" was used to reestablish white supremacy (although most Americans have grown weary of making a fetish out of slavery). Krugman doesn't work this out. What pushed him into using the F-word was Trump's Arpaio pardon:

    Let's call things by their proper names here. Arpaio is, of course, a white supremacist. But he's more than that. There's a word for political regimes that round up members of minority groups and send them to concentration camps, while rejecting the rule of law: What Arpaio brought to Maricopa, and what the president of the United States has just endorsed, was fascism, American style.

    Trump's motives are easy to understand. For one thing, Arpaio, with his racism and authoritarianism, really is his kind of guy. For another, the pardon is a signal to those who might be tempted to make deals with the special investigator as the Russia probe closes in on the White House: Don't worry, I'll protect you.

    Finally, standing up for white people who keep brown people down pleases Trump's base, whom he's going to need more than ever as the scandals creep closer and the big policy wins he promised keep not happening.

    I haven't been reading Krugman's columns lately, nor his blog (which he seemed to be abandoning as his attention span moved to Twitter), but here are some recent columns:

    • Trump and Pruitt, Making America Polluted Again (Aug. 25).

    • What Will Trump Do to American Workers?

    • Trump Makes Caligula Look Pretty Good (Aug. 18).

    • Who Ate Republicans' Brains? (July 31):

      The Republican health care debacle was the culmination of a process of intellectual and moral deterioration that began four decades ago, at the very dawn of modern movement conservatism -- that is, during the very era anti-Trump conservatives now point to as the golden age of conservative thought.

      A key moment came in the 1970s, when Irving Kristol, the godfather of neoconservatism, embraced supply-side economics -- the claim, refuted by all available evidence and experience, that tax cuts pay for themselves by boosting economic growth. Writing years later, he actually boasted about valuing political expediency over intellectual integrity: "I was not certain of its economic merits but quickly saw its political possibilities." In another essay, he cheerfully conceded to having had a "cavalier attitude toward the budget deficit," because it was all about creating a Republican majority -- so "political effectiveness was the priority, not the accounting deficiencies of government."

      The problem is that once you accept the principle that it's O.K. to lie if it helps you win elections, it gets ever harder to limit the extent of the lying -- or even to remember what it's like to seek the truth.

    • The Sanctimony and Sin of G.O.P. 'Moderates' (July 27).

    Meanwhile, Krugman's blog has a useful post on Monopoly Rents and Corporate Taxation (Wonkish); also How Bad Will It Be If We Hit the Debt Ceiling?, and the post-Bannon Whither Trumpism?:

    So if Bannon is out, what's left? It's just reverse Robin Hood with extra racism.

    On real policy, in other words, Trump is now bankrupt.

    But he does have the racism thing. And my prediction is that with Bannon and economic nationalism gone, he will eventually double down on that part even more. If anything, Trumpism is going to get even uglier, and Trump even less presidential (if such a thing is possible) now that he has fewer people pushing for trade wars.

  • Jim Lyons: The Rush to Develop Oil and Gas We Don't Need: The Trump administration is going apeshit in its eagerness to do favors for the oil and gas industry, even at a time when oversupply undercuts prices and companies are loathe to develop the properties they already have. Also see: Alison Rose Levy: Who's Behind Fossil Fuel Extraction? It's Not Just Republicans.

  • Danielle Ofri: 'No Apparent Distress' Tackles the Distress of the Sick, Poor and Uninsured: Book review of Rachel Pearson: No Apparent Distress: A Doctor's Coming-of-Age on the Front Lines of American Medicine, about what happens to people who can't get (mostly because they can't afford) decent health insurance:

    This is the blossoming truth of No Apparent Distress -- that a segment of American society has been casually cast aside, left to scavenge on the meager scraps of volunteer health services, and failing that, left to die. Such abdication is no mere oversight, as Pearson outlines. The president of U.T.M.B. later publicly stated that care for those without means was no longer part of the school's "core mission." The same can be said for much of the United States.

    Pearson describes a homeless man whom the students diagnosed with throat cancer. (Texas chose not to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act so is now home to 25 percent of the adult Americans who fall into the coverage gap between private insurance and Medicaid.) It took eight cruel months until a hospital accepted the patient into its indigent program for treatment. To satisfy a requirement that the man live nearby, a relative was found who bought him a tiny trailer home. Just after the first scans were done, though, the hospital got wind of the trailer. This "asset" disqualified him as indigent and he was promptly kicked out of the program. The cancer was never removed or treated.

  • Matthew Rozsa: Missouri Republican: People who vandalize Confederate statues should be lynched: Well, that's certainly in the spirit of the people who put them up. I normally don't bother with stupid-things-stupid-people-say articles, otherwise I'd wind up linking to things like This pastor thinks that Houston deserved Hurricane Harvey because of its "pro-homosexual mayor".

  • Gershon Shafir: Why has the Occupation lasted this long? A slice from the author's new book: A Half Century of Occupation: Israel, Palestine, and the World's Most Intractable Conflict. Mostly stuff you should know by now, but it's worth recalling that settlements in the Occupied Territories were driven from two distinct movements, each operating from their own peculiar logic. The first was the LSM (Labor Settler Movement), driven by habit from the earliest days of Zionism but couched in terms of defense and security, and implemented by a state and military controlled by Labor until 1977. The other was led by Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful), a messianic cult led by Rabbi Kook, which was adopted by the Revisionist camp after Likud (Menachem Begin) came to power in 1977. The following quote sums up this change nicely, underscoring that the latter settler movement always intended to dominate the Palestinians, even though that formula precluded any possible peace. One should also note that because Labor was genetically disposed toward settlement, Labor politicians have never been able to check the expansion of the settlements, even if they realized how much they were an obstacle to peace and ultimately to the defense of Israel.

    In short, to gain national legitimation, Gush Emunim made the great legacy of colonization its own even as it reinterpreted it through a religious lens. After a conversation with Gush Emunim representatives in July 1974, Shimon Peres concluded: "We are living in two separate countries. You live in a country that needs to be settled, while I live in a country that needs to be defended." Porat rejected the assertion that the role of Zionism was to constitute a safe haven for Jews so they could hold their own in the world. Gush Emunim viewed Zionism differently, as "the process of redemption in its concrete sense -- the redemption of the people, and the redemption of the land -- and in its divine sense -- the redemption of the godhead, the redemption of the world." Just how far Gush Emunim had distanced itself from the idea of maintaining a "military frontier" may be seen from its rejection not only of the principle of security but also of the goal of peace. "A secular peace," said another founder of Gush Emunim, "is not our goal." Its starting point with regard to peace was religious and messianic, so it saw peace as attainable only in the end of days.

    Third, Gush Emunim colonization rejected demographic criteria for choosing the location of Jewish colonies. The odd "N"-shaped pattern of colonization during the Yishuv -- running from Upper Galilee down to the Bet Shean Valley and then diagonally across the Jezreel Valley (Marj Ibn-Amer) up to Haifa and Nahariya, and down again to Gedera -- followed the layout of the valleys and coastal areas, less secure during Ottoman times and consequently less densely inhabited by Palestinians. Gush Emunim colonization, in contrast, was aimed at the mountainous regions where the vast majority of Palestinians resided (see map 2). As Gush Emunim saw it, Jewish settlements up to the 1948 War had spread out over the "wrong" part of the Palestine, the coastal region that in antiquity was inhabited not by the Jews but by the Philistines. Gush Emunim wanted not only to correct this pattern and restore history by moving Jews into the lands they had held in biblical times but to join the ancient homeland to Israel within the Green Line. In the process, Gush Emunim tossed overboard the LSM's goal of creating an ethnically homogeneous colony. It advocated pushing settlement into the locations of ancient Jewish towns and villages that had a dense Palestinian population in order to undermine the possibility of territorial partition. It also raised the Israeli-Palestinian conflict's stakes by leaving little contiguous territory for a potential Palestinian state, increasing friction, and producing higher levels of violence in which the settlers themselves played the role of both vigilantes and soldiers drafted into regional military units that protected their settlements.

    In case you've wondered about Jared Kushner's "peace mission" to Israel-Palestine, note that he's actually showed up for work, then refused to do any. Richard Silverstein explains: Trump Trashes Two-States . . . and 30 Years of U.S. Policy on Israel-Palestine. By giving up on the "two state solution" Trump and Kushner are admitting they're not even going to go through the motions of pretending that they have any interest or intent on resolving the conflict peacefully. Maybe they imagine that Abbas will eventually surrender to an Israeli diktat, but I doubt the Israeli leadership can even come up with one. As we've seen from fifty years now, they'd much prefer the status quo -- and that's not about to change as long as the US continues to provide them unquestioning support and cover:

    It's vitally important to understand the broader implications: there will be no advances in the peace process as long as Trump is president. We knew this implicitly. But now we see it plain as day. . . .

    I hate to repeat myself, as I've written something like this before: we are in for a wicked few years of chaos and violence given this policy vacuüm caused by Trump's absconding from a meaningful role. A people with no hope has nothing to lose. If you think you've seen violence, it can and will get worse. And in ways we can't now foresee.

    Even Peter Beinart, who first noticed the import of the quotation in the Post article, calls the Trump position "absurd." The only thing I could add is to call it criminally absurd. That is because of this atrocious policy position tens of thousands are likely to die. Among them will be scores, if not hundreds of Israelis (this last statement is meant for the hasbarafia who will likely cheer this development in the comment threads).

    I'll add that the world -- and I don't just mean the "Arab world" or "Muslim world," although there's that too -- already sees the US as culpable for Israel's repression, cruelty, and violence, and the more evidence the world sees, the more resentment will build up. At the same time Trump is more directly engaged in murderous wars against ISIS and other Islamist groups from Afghanistan through Syria to Libya and Somalia, while US proxies are committing mass murder in Yemen -- and Trump has largely ceded direction of those wars to narrow-minded generals. Moreover, Trump is closely aligned to Islamophobes in the US and Europe, who would like nothing better than to impose their injustice and bigotry in the harshest terms possible.

  • Eileen Sullivan/Mark Landler: Trump Says US Is Paying 'Extortion Money' to North Korea: Nobody knows what he's talking about, possibly because they were more terrified by his next line: "Talking is not the answer!" Over recent months I've taken some solace when I've taken the "nothing is off the table" cliché as meaning that talks are still possible, but Trump seems determined to exclude the only thing that might actually work, even though he really doesn't have any other option. As for "extortion," from the start of his campaign he's been clear that other countries should be paying the US more -- including South Korea and Japan, whose "defense" has the US has long subsidized.

  • Kenneth P Vogel: Google Critic Ousted From Think Tank Funded by Tech Giant: Decades ago the right-wing laid the foundations of their power by funding so-called think tanks to give their agenda a bit of intellectual spit and polish. In the 1990s, liberals realized they needed to play that game too, founding a number of groups, including the "non-partisan" New America Foundation in 1999. Google's Eric Schmidt is chairman of a board which includes finance capitalists, some fairly well-known middle-of-the-road authors (James Fallows, Atul Gawande, Zachary Karabell, Daniel Yergin, Fareed Zakaria) and some token conservatives (David Brooks, Walter Russell Mead, Reihan Salam), with liberal hawk Anne-Marie Slaughter president. [By the way, Rosa Brooks is a fellow there. One of her articles cited there, published back in October, is: The Importance of Working in the Trump Administration.] The fired researcher is Barry C. Lynn, director of their Open Markets project, author of two important books: End of the Line: The Rise and Coming Fall of the Global Corporation (2005) and Cornered: The New Monopoly Capitalism and the Economics of Destruction. As his New America bio notes:

    Lynn's writings on the political and economic effects of the extreme consolidation of power in the United States have influenced the thinking of policymakers and antitrust professionals on both sides of the Atlantic.

    Google was recently found guilty of violating EU antitrust law and fined 2.42 billion Euros ($2.7 billion) for rigging its search results in favor of its advertisers -- offhand, that sounds more like racketeering than antitrust, but it's their de facto search engine monopoly that makes such a racket possible. Lynn's statement on this appeared in a New America press release:

    The Open Markets Team congratulates European Commissioner for Competition Margrethe Vestager and the European competition authority for this important decision. Google's market power is one of the most critical challenges for competition policymakers in the world today. By requiring that Google give equal treatment to rival services instead of privileging its own, Vestager is protecting the free flow of information and commerce upon which all democracies depend. We call upon U.S. enforcers, including the Federal Trade Commission, the Department of Justice, and states attorneys general, to build upon this important precedent, both in respect to Google and to other dominant platform monopolists including Amazon. U.S. enforcers should apply the traditional American approach to network monopoly, which is to cleanly separate ownership of the network from ownership of the products and services sold on that network, as they did in the original Microsoft case of the late 1990s.

    Some more pieces on Google, New America, and Lynn's firing:

    Evidently Open Markets will be spun off as an independent outfit, Citizens Against Monopoly, so at least this gives them some much needed publicity. For more on Google, see Jonathan Taplin: Why is Google spending record sums on lobbying Washington?:

    Given the increased antitrust scrutiny that is coming from the Democrats' new "Better Deal" policy platform, Donald Trump's random tweets attacking Google's fellow tech giant Amazon for its connection to the Washington Post, and his adviser Steve Bannon's recent comments that Google and Facebook should be regulated as utilities, it is likely Google will only increase its lobbying expenditure in the next few months.

    The largest monopoly in America, Google controls five of the top six billion-user, universal web platforms -- search, video, mobile, maps and browser -- and leads in 13 of the top 14 commercial web functions, according to Scott Cleland at Precursor Consulting. . . .

    It is important to understand that Google is not politically neutral. Though its executives may signal liberal stances on gay rights and immigration, it is at heart a libertarian firm which believes above all that corporations should not be regulated by the government. Just as extreme lobbying by the bank industry led to a loosening of regulations, which then resulted in the great mortgage scam of 2008, Google's efforts to keep the government out of its business may have deep implications for the next 10 years. . . .

    But now, for the first time in their histories, the possibility of regulation may be on the horizon. Google's response will be to spend more of its $90bn in cash on politicians. K Street is lining up to help.

    It's probably dated by now, but the first taste that I got that Google was potentially dangerous came from Siva Vaidhyanathan's 2011 book, The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry). I'm still less bothered by Google than I was by Microsoft when I followed the antitrust case closely circa 1999, but their profits, power, and potential for abuse are comparable. Moreover, Schmidt's chuminess with Obama and the Clintons doesn't make any of them better public servants. Also, one of the most sobering facts I've run across lately is how Trump's massive buy of last-minute YouTube advertising probably tipped the election -- that's one of Google's platforms, an effective monopoly that he had no problem selling to the highest (or in many ways, the lowest) bidder. Real competition would save us from that kind of power.

  • Odd Arne Westad: The Cold War and America's Delusion of Victory: Excerpt from the author's book, The Cold War: A World History. a broad picture with many things I'd quibble with (e.g., he says "Stalin's policies" made conflict with the US inevitable, and he dismisses Mao's entire rule as "out of tune with its needs").

    America's post-Cold War triumphalism came in two versions. First was the Clinton version, which promoted a prosperity agenda of market values on a global scale. Its lack of purpose in international affairs was striking, but its domestic political instincts were probably right: Americans were tired of foreign entanglements and wanted to enjoy "the peace dividend."

    As a result, the 1990s was a lost opportunity for international cooperation, particularly to combat disease, poverty and inequality. The most glaring examples of these omissions were former Cold War battlefields like Afghanistan, Congo and Nicaragua, where the United States could not have cared less about what happened -- once the Cold War was over.

    The second was the Bush version. Where President Bill Clinton emphasized prosperity, President George W. Bush emphasized predominance. In between, of course, stood Sept. 11. . . .

    As America entered a new century, its main aim should have been to bring other nations into the fold of international norms and the rule of law, especially as its own power diminishes. Instead, the United States did what declining superpowers often do: engage in futile, needless wars far from its borders, in which short-term security is mistaken for long-term strategic goals. The consequence is an America less prepared than it could have been to deal with the big challenges of the future: the rise of China and India, the transfer of economic power from West to East, and systemic challenges like climate change and disease epidemics.

    Gradually between the founding of the UN in 1945 and the mid-1990s American politicians lost all faith in international institutions and law, and that's ultimately a big story. The first stage was when the US started creating captive alliances to exclude the Soviet Union and launch the Cold War (Marshall Plan, NATO, etc.). The second was when the US formed alliances with imperial powers (like France in Vietnam) and local despots (like Iran's Shah and Indonesia's Suharto) against popular movements, democracy, and human rights. Along the way the US developed an instrumental view of the UN, trying to use it to advance exclusive interests and eventually finding it to be more of an obstacle than a subordinate. In this regard, Israel has been pivotal: the more Israel become ostracized in the UN, the more the US seeks to obstruct and marginalize the UN. By the 1990s, liberal hawks came to prefer US unilateral military action to international stalemate. The neocons brought all of these tendencies together, insisting that world order be dictated by the US as the "sole superpower." Early on US foreign policy was captured by globalized corporations and arms merchants, and while they didn't necessarily see eye-to-eye, their compromises turned the US into the dangerously conceited rogue state we see today. It's easy enough to see that anti-communism was at the root of all this, and that the contempt it held for workers has not only turned the US imperious abroad, it has flooded back into domestic politics, its promotion of inequality rendering government, business, and society ever more careless and cruel.

  • Matthew Yglesias: Four Stories That Actually Mattered This Week: Devastating floods hit Texas and Louisiana; Congress is facing a busy September; Trump is cutting Obamacare marketing to the bone; DACA is hanging in the balance. Other Yglesias posts: Mick Mulvaney brags that he tricked Trump into proposing Social Security cuts; Trump is looking to revive a discredited Bush-era tax gimmick; Paul Ryan's postcard tax return is really dumb; It's time for Democrats' wonk class to write some single-payer plans.

    The "postcard tax return" piece has some interesting points -- some gleaned from T.R. Reid's book A Fine Mess, a survey of how other nations run their tax collection systems. He points out that in Japan, for example, the government collects tax input information continuously and automatically adjusts withholding so that most people wind up paying exactly the right amount each year. At year end, the government sends out a notice of what it did, which taxpayers can amend, but otherwise they needn't file returns. Such a system is pretty easy for most wage earners, even with interest and other currently tracked earnings. I can imagine it being developed further to handle more complex cases, like small businesses. Yglesias points out that things like tax brackets have no real effect on form complexity. Virtually all of the complication in the income tax system comes from income determination, mostly deciding what expenses to allow in offsetting gross receipts. (Itemized deductions to personal income have largely been phased out in favor of a relatively generous "standard deduction," although it wouldn't be too hard to track them in real time either.) Moreover, the government could start an open source software project to implement all of this, adding accounting and personal finance features that would reduce the cost for businesses while collecting all the necessary inputs. Of course, politicians like Ryan don't want to do any of this: they want to keep taxation painful so it will be easy to rile people up against the tax system. And, of course, making sure the government doesn't do useful or helpful things for most people makes taxes look like expenses instead of investments.


The big breaking story as I was writing all of this is that North Korea has tested some sort of hydrogen-booster nuclear warhead, one reportedly small enough that it can be delivered by one of their recently tested ICBMs. This has resulted in a lot of typically unguarded and occasionally insane threats from Trump and company: e.g., Trump: North Korea Is a 'Rogue Nation' for Conducting a 'Major Nuclear Test'; After Reported H-Bomb Test, Trump Mulls Attacking North Korea; Trump: Maybe we'll end all trade with countries that trade with North Korea; Mnuchin Says He Will 'Draft a Sanctions Package' Against North Korea; Mattis: US Will Meet 'Any Threat' With 'Massive Military Response'; Trump Says He'll Meet With 'Military Leaders' to Discuss North Korea. Also note that Trump has lately become increasingly hostile to China and Russia, the most obvious diplomatic channels to Pyongyang -- e.g., US Plans More South China Sea Patrols to 'Challenge China'; Jim Mattis, in Ukraine, Says U.S. Is Thinking of Sending Weapons; US Seizes Russian Diplomatic Posts in San Francisco, Washington, New York; Russia to 'Respond Harshly' to Latest US Measures; Putin Warns US-North Korea Standoff Risks Starting Large-Scale Conflict. When asked whether he intends to attack North Korea, Trump's response was "we'll see." I've written enough about this I shouldn't have to rehash the risks and follies of US policy. Indeed, most knowledgeable people in Washington -- a group that excludes the president -- seem to grasp the basic issues, but their minds are stuck in the rut that sees the military as the only answer to every problem. So, I guess, we'll see.