Sunday, September 10, 2017


Weekend Roundup

Back in 2001, I knew that most of my friends in New York didn't like Mayor Rudy Giuliani, but I couldn't tell you why. (Well, I had heard about his stop-and-frisk policies, but that hadn't really sunk in.) I was visiting a friend, Liz Fink, in Brooklyn on 9/11, so I wound up spending a lot of time over the next week watching Giuliani, and I noticed something interesting. At every press conference, Giuliani managed to convey the right tones: sympathy, concern, dedication, and competent management in the face of crisis. He was, in short, both a professional and a human being -- a stark contrast to most of the country's politicians (most memorably GW Bush and Hillary Clinton), who had nothing tangible to do so they spent all of their time posturing. Even Liz granted my point. Of course, Giuliani's spell didn't last. After the immediate crisis waned, he started reading his press. It swelled his head, and he turned (returned?) to being an asshole, but it was interesting to watch at the time.

Hurricanes Harvey and Irma have given some other Republicans the opportunity to put their vicious ideological programs aside and come out as human beings. Governors Greg Abbott and Rick Scott seem to have mostly passed that test. Donald Trump failed, painfully and pathetically. (If you doubt me, read Josh Marshall: He Can't Even Fake It.) But even he managed to have one decent moment this week: he negotiated a deal with the Democratic leadership in Congress to pass $15.3 billion in aid to rebuild after Harvey, and to extend the federal debt ceiling to allow that money to be spent. Of course, there never was any doubt that Democrats would vote to extend the debt ceiling or to fund disaster relief. Trump needed the deal to bypass the Republican right-flank, with ninety House Republicans opposed. I haven't looked at the vote list, so don't know how many of the curmudgeons hail from Texas or Florida. I didn't see enough of Ted Cruz this week to answer Is Ted Cruz Human? but I understand he no longer thinks the reasons he voted against Sandy aid should apply to Harvey. It might not matter if Trump or Cruz are sociopaths if their politics showed some empathy and concern, but it doesn't -- making their personality defects all the more glaring.

With the Republicans solidly in control of government all across the disaster zone, the one silver lining is that none of them are quoting Ronald Reagan this week, who famously said:

The most terrifying words in the English language are: I'm from the government and I'm here to help.

The fact is that when disaster strikes, no one can be heard saying "the markets are going to fix this in no time." Their first instinct is to look to the government for help, because deep down they understand that in a democratic republic, government belongs to, is accountable to, and works for the people and their general welfare. The old joke is that "there are no atheists in foxholes"; equally so, there are no libertarians in hurricanes. I'm not going to slam anyone for looking to socialize the costs of natural disasters. Rather, I'd argue that socialism would be a good thing, not just for such extraordinary events but for everyday life. And if you only come to realize that now, well, that's better than never.


Some scattered links this week:

  • Ross Barkan: Trump cut a deal with the Democrats. Is a new era upon us? Probably not. Trump takes his policy cues from Fox & Friends, plus whatever Paul Ryan throws his way. In theory he has some in-house experts, but they turn out to be guys like Nick Mulvaney, who lie and con him, then go out and brag about it to the media. Nothing any of them want can get any Democratic support at all -- which given how corrupt Democrats are regarded as being is a pretty astonishing statement -- so he has little option except to depend on the narrow Republican majority, and that is constantly endangered by a right-wing faction that doesn't care what they wreck so long as they can push the party to the right. The Harvey aid/debt ceiling deal worked because Democrats have no desire to do what Republicans did for eight years: sabotaging the government hoping folks would blame Obama. And Trump had to do it because Texas is his turf, because federal disaster aid mostly supports the business class that voted so heavily for him, because letting government spending halt in the middle of a disaster recovery would be insane, and because he couldn't trust Republicans to get the job done. There may be similar cases where sanity dictates that he offer something to get Democrats on board: if he really does want to legitimize DACA, that's a possibility, but it's going to be hard to do any broader immigration legislation without tripping over many red lines. Health care and taxes are other issues where the Republican desire to do something insanely destructive is too great to compromise. The other question is whether Democrats should make a habit of bailing Trump out of his own partisan chasms. Democrats have had a terrible track record with such "grand bargains" in the past, and they should be extra wary now.

  • Bryan Bender: Trump review leans toward proposing mini-nuke: Back around 1950, Robert Oppenheimer was asked why he was opposed to developing "the super" (the hydrogen bomb). His answer was because the targets were too small. In the following decades, ever-larger hydrogen bombs became all the rage, until their wholesale use threatened to cause something called "nuclear winter." At the same time, the US and Russia worked hard on miniaturizing nuclear weapons, producing mini-nukes that could be lobbed by artillery (hoping, like WWI's poison gas, that the wind didn't shift to blow the radiation back on your own troops). The fear about small ("tactical") nuclear weapons has always been that we wouldn't fear them enough to not use them. Precisely this reasoning made them prime targets for arms talks, with Bush I agreeing to remove tactical nukes from Europe and Korea, for the time de-escalating the Cold War. This news is especially alarming because Trump has long seemed to be fascinated with using such weapons: indeed, this article is about a review "which Trump established by executive order his first week in office" -- as if he had nothing better to do.

  • Ta-Nehisi Coates: The First White President: Of course, many other presidents have happened to be white -- a streak that ran up to 41 until Barack Obama was elected in 2008 -- but what makes Trump unique isn't the color of his skin so much as his resolve to restore the office's racial identity, especially by obliterating any trace of Obama: "The fact of a black president seemed to insult Donald Trump personally. He has made the negation of Barack Obama's legacy the foundation of his own." Various things here I'd quibble with -- the paragraph on Mark Lilla's "The End of Identify Liberalism," followed by three on George Packer's "The Unconnected," could support a whole post -- but this is a view that deserves respect. For instance, his overly succinct summary of the last decade:

    When Barack Obama came into office, in 2009, he believed that he could work with "sensible" conservatives by embracing aspects of their policy as his own. Instead he found that his very imprimatur made that impossible. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell announced that the GOP's primary goal was not to find common ground but to make Obama a "one-term president." A health-care plan inspired by Romneycare was, when proposed by Obama, suddenly considered socialist and, not coincidentally, a form of reparations. The first black president found that he was personally toxic to the GOP base. An entire political party was organized around the explicit aim of negating one man. It was thought by Obama and some of his allies that this toxicity was the result of a relentless assault waged by Fox News and right-wing talk radio. Trump's genius was to see that it was something more, that it was a hunger for revanche so strong that a political novice and accused rapist could topple the leadership of one major party and throttle the heavily favored nominee of the other.

    I would add three notes to this: (1) conservatives were never serious about their wonk schemes, which were never more than red herrings meant to distract and derail real reforms; (2) the right-wing would have fought back against any white Democrat elected president in 2008 in much the same terms, although it may have resonated differently (oddly enough, the fact that Americans had elected a black president seemed to loosen some of the political inhibitions against overt racism, encouraging racists to come out into the open -- a trend Trump's election has only increased); (3) the "hunger for revanche" was real but not broad enough to elect Trump; that was only possible because the Democrat was so compromised and reviled, and Republicans were so united in their opportunism.

    Closing paragraph:

    It has long been an axiom among certain black writers and thinkers that while whiteness endangers the bodies of black people in the immediate sense, the larger threat is to white people themselves, the shared country, and even the whole world. There is an impulse to blanch at this sort of grandiosity. When W.E.B. Du Bois claims that slavery was "singularly disastrous for modern civilization" or James Baldwin claims that whites "have brought humanity to the edge of oblivion: because they think they are white," the instinct is to cry exaggeration. But there really is no other way to read the presidency of Donald Trump. The first white president in American history is also the most dangerous president -- and he is made more dangerous still by the fact that those charged with analyzing him cannot name his essential nature, because they too are implicated in it.

    The Atlantic's print magazine cover story is "The Trump Presidency: A Damage Report": Jeffrey Goldberg sets the tone: The Autocratic Element: Can America recover from the Trump administration?, interviews David Frum ("The thing I got most wrong is that I did not anticipate the sheer chaos and dysfunction and slovenliness of the Trump operation . . . We'd be in a lot worse shape if he were a more meticulous, serious-minded person."), and introduces pieces by Eliot A. Cohen, Jack Goldsmith, and Coates.

  • Sarah Kliff: This is the most brazen act of Obamacare sabotage yet:

    The Trump administration has let funding for Obamacare's $63 million in-person outreach program lapse, leading to layoffs and confusion among nonprofits that enroll vulnerable populations in coverage. . . .

    The sudden funding halt comes at a critical time for the Affordable Care Act. Navigator groups were just beginning to ramp up outreach for the health law's open enrollment period, which begins November 1. Now, some have done an about-face: They've canceled outreach work and appointments with potential enrollees because they have no budget to cover those costs.

    No outreach should translate into fewer sign-ups, hence more adverse selection in the insured population, which threatens to cut into insurer profits, who will respond by raising prices, demanding more subsidies. Trump will argue that this proves Obamacare is imploding. Kliff also wrote Trump has found another way to undermine Obamacare. Kliff regularly includes links at the bottom to other health care pieces. Notable here is Elana Schor: Chris Murphy's stealthy single-payer pitch. Sen. Murphy is proposing that all individuals and business be able to buy Medicare through the Obamacare exchanges -- i.e., Medicare becomes the "public option," but more notable is that this allows an easy migration from business group plans.

  • Caitlin MacNeal: Haley Says North Korea 'Begging for War': Isn't this what psychologists like to call projection? That's when you attribute your own thoughts to someone else (projecting yourself onto the other person). This happens a lot, especially to people who lack self-awareness, even more so to those who lack respect, empathy, and concern for others, who can't be bothered with even trying to understand them. As a social trait, this sort of thing is annoying, but the misunderstandings it leads to rarely matter. Among the powerful, it can be dangerous, and in this case can lead to nuclear war. Of course, Haley is not the only one in Trump's administration spouting ignorant bluster. Mattis has promised to respond to "any threat" with "massive military response": the problem there is that "any threat" is a very low threshold, especially given that Trump's administration takes such umbrage over North Korea's missile and bomb tests, repeatedly describing them as threats. Most of all there's Trump, with his "hell and fury like never seen before" and "we'll see." Frankly, this is a crisis which wouldn't exist if the US simply ignored it, but having made such a big deal out of missile and bomb tests in the past, they see continued tests as an insult and challenge to their superpower egos -- again, they're projecting their own world-hegemonic ambitions onto another state, one that the US has tried to destroy for 67 years now (not so literally since 1953, more passive-aggressively, but while the conflict drifted in and out of American consciousness, it's always been a pressing fact-of-life in North Korea).

    Several other thoughts here: long ago American presidents generally appointed UN Ambassadors that reflected favorably on the country -- Adlai Stevenson and Andrew Young come to mind -- but at some point that changed, the result being a string of ambassadors whose job seemed to be to display contempt for the UN and the principles it was founded on (Madeline Albright, John Bolton, and Nikki Haley are examples). As this happened, American speeches at the UN ceased being honest attempts to engage with the world and were increasingly focused for domestic political consumption. Although several others have had notable politican careers, Haley is relatively unique in the baldness of her political ambitions -- indeed, one suspects that she came up with the idea of campaigning for the post by watching House of Cards, where First Lady Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) hopes to launch her own political career by getting her husband to nominate her for UN Ambassador.

    Some more pieces on North Korea:

    • Andrew J Bacevich: Seven Steps to a Saner US Policy Towards North Korea: A few quibbles, though. First, I don't see this, even with his later carve-out "apart from Fox and a handful of outliers": "The national media is obsessed with Trump and is determined to bring him down." Obsessed maybe: he's a buffoon and a public menace, which makes him news/entertainment-worthy, and they certainly love that, but I don't see the media pressuring or panicking Trump into starting a war. I also think he overestimates the value of deterrence and ignores the desperation induced by ever-tightening sanctions. The greatest risk is becoming too successful at boxing North Korea in, leaving them with no alternatives.

    • Robert Parry: How 'Regime Change' Wars Led to Korea Crisis: Specifically Iraq and Libya, which were wars the US felt safe to pursue because neither target had sufficient power -- atom bombs and the missiles to deliver them -- to deter US aggression. But more generally, from WWII on, the US goal in war has always been to unconditionally destroy its enemies and replace them with new states subverient to America.

    • Jacob G Hornberger: Sanctions Are an Act of War: I'd qualify this by saying that certain limited sanctions, like the BDS campaigns against South Africa and Israel, are a useful means of highlighting deplorable behavior without even suggesting the threat of war. On the other hand, US sanctions against North Korea, Cuba, Iran, and several others were clearly meant as low-intensity proxies of war, backed up by threat of destruction and designed in such a way that the targets may find no recourse. South Africa, for instance, was able to escape sanctions by allowing free and democratic elections, and lifting the sanctions did not depend on the result.

    • Ariane Tabatabai: What the Iran Deal Can Teach America About North Korea: "If credibility depends in part on a country's willingness to follow through on military threats, surely it also depends on whether it abides by diplomatic commitments." It seems pretty obvious that Obama's Iran Deal could serve as a model for North Korea: both are countries long isolated, marginalized, and threatened by the US, and both decided to defend themselves by developing nuclear power and missile technology into a deterrent against American attack; in both cases the US responded with sanctions and even graver threats. With Iran, this was resolved diplomatically, and there seems little reason why the same couldn't be done with North Korea (in fact, the same dispute flared up in the 1990s and was resolved by Jimmy Carter, acting independent of the Clinton administration; Carter's agreement was accepted by Clinton, but broke down as the US, especially under GW Bush, failed to keep its end of the deal, resulting in North Korea restarting its nuclear program). Unfortunately, Trump seems committed to scuttling the Iran deal, learning nothing from it. If he does so, he will signal to North Korea that the US cannot be trusted to follow through with its diplomatic commitments. Indeed, the US decision to attack Libya after it had agreed to dismantle its own nuclear program has already been noted by North Korea's leaders.

  • Sophia A McClennen: A tale of two leaders of the left: New books by Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton emphasize their differences: Clinton finally finished her campaign memoir, What Happened; Sanders published his memoir Our Revolution: A Future to Believe In before 2016 expired, and now has a slimmed-down primer, Bernie Sanders' Guide to Political Revolution.

    The contrast between high priced VIP tickets to an event for a memoir about losing the election and a down-to-earth how-to guide for progressive politics aimed at young readers offers us clear evidence of the vastly different ways that Clinton and Sanders see their roles as national leaders.

    Sanders is looking forward and Clinton is looking back. Sanders is engaging the young and working to build momentum for his progressive agenda. Clinton is naming names, bristling at her unfair loss and cashing in. . . .

    And, while Clinton mocks Sanders for his idealistic desire to think big, Sanders starts his book reminding readers that his views are those of the bulk of Americans: "On major issue after major issue, the vast majority of Americans support a progressive agenda." For Clinton, though, the progressive agenda wanted by the majority is nothing more than the hocus pocus of magic abs or the dreams of those who want a pony. . . . She literally sees political vision as nothing but a fantasy. She has so thoroughly imbibed the corporatist, pro-status quo version of the Democratic party that she can't even notice how pathetically uninspiring her positions are for those young voters she referred to as basement dwellers on the campaign trail.

    Against the snarky, negative tone of Clinton's book, Sanders offers his readers a combination of political passion and practical advice. When it refers to him personally, it does so by quoting a Sanders tweet that links to the issue being covered. The tweets are used to show how Sanders has been standing up for these issues for years. It is a technique that privileges the cause, not the ego.

    This is one thing that separates Sanders from the political pack. I was talking to my cousin last week and she complained that with Elizabeth Warren it's always "I'll fight for you," somehow making the it all about her. She noted that Sanders wasn't like that, nor was Obama. None of us mentioned Clinton. Some things are too obvious to speak of.

  • Michael Paarlberg: Why Verrit, a pro-Clinton media platform, is doomed to fail: "The website has been blasted for its unsubtle propaganda. There is a reason it works for Republicans and not Democrats."

    Brainchild of Clinton hyper-loyalist Peter Daou, the "media venture for the 65.8 million" (referring to Clinton's popular vote tally) offers up treacly quotes and random factoids, readymade for social media and "verified" by the site, so that you can be sure Clinton really did say "America is once again at a moment of reckoning."

    Within days, it won the endorsement of Madame Secretary herself and the mockery of everyone else, due in part to its founder's fondness for all caps and getting in fights on Twitter. . . .

    Thus there's far less appetite among Democrats for the type of unsubtle propaganda that Verrit traffics. One can see it in the way Fox News trounces MSNBC in viewership: Republicans see Fox as the only news source they can trust in media landscape that does not align with their values. Democrats would rather just read the New York Times. . . .

    In theory, Democrats could be open to more ideological conflict, now that they are shut out of all three branches of government, the majority of statehouses, and have little to lose. And a smarter media outlet might be able to tap into that demand. But it would be one catering to a very different party than the Democrats currently are, one that sees itself as a social movement, with a broader vision for how the world should look, and a willingness to use media as a blunt instrument to get there. One that looks curiously like what Clinton's main rival for the nomination was pushing.

    But if there's one group that Daou hates more than Republicans, it's Bernie Sanders supporters.

    I followed Daou's blog for a while, citing him once in 2006, then maybe a dozen times in 2010-12, but I wasn't aware that he worked for Clinton in 2008, and haven't noticed him since 2012. I wouldn't have expected him as a "Hillary superfan," but clearly she does have some kind of cult (cf. Abby Ohlheiser: Inside the huge, 'secret' Facebook group for Hillary Clinton's biggest fans; Ohlheiser also got stuck with investigating Verrit, here: What even is Verrit, the news source endorsed by Hillary Clinton?), and the timing here coincides with Clinton's campaign memoir, which evidently features a number of attempts to blame Bernie for her loss. All of this is happening at a time when there are literally hundreds of stories each week about how Trump and the Republicans are scheming and acting against the majority of Americans: you'd think that would be reason enough to bury the hatchet and unite Hillary and Bernie supporters, but Daou seems more intent on smearing Bernie than on resisting Trump (see Who's Paying Peter Daou to Smear Bernie Sanders and the Left?). I wouldn't discount the power of money here, but I'll also note that it's pretty much inevitable that centrists will spend more of their time attacking and distancing themselves from the left, because that's how they curry favor with their well-to-do patrons. For another view: Jack Shafer: This Pro-Hillary Website Looks Like North Korea Agitprop.

  • Matthew Yglesias: The 4 stories that defined the week, explained: Hurricane Irma battered the Caribbean; Donald Trump ended DACA; Donald Trump changed his tune on DACA; Democrats stuck a deal with the White House. Other Yglesias links: The debt ceiling deal is a template for how Trump can get things done; Trump is souring on his top economic aide for the worst possible reason ("Gary Cohn is too tough on Nazis"); 5 different things people mean when they say we need to revive antitrust -- more like different aspects of the general problem of concentrating corporate power; Stanley Fischer announces resignation, opening yet another Fed vacancy for Trump ("good news for people who like risky banking"); Trump's arguments on DACA contradict his position on the travel ban; Trump isn't delivering his own DACA policy because he's cowardly and weak; The looming fight over "tax reform," explained ("in the end, it's about a tax cut for the rich"); The case for immigration ("America's openness to people who want to move here and make a better life for themselves is fuel for that greatness" -- how ironical, or dumb, does that make a anti-immigrant politician so obsessed with the nation's greatness?); Seattle should make a pitch to be Amazon's 2nd headquarters -- this skirts the real issue of why Amazon needs a second corporate headquarters in these times when every company is looking to make management leaner (and meaner), though he does offer this:

    And from the company's point of view, the best part is that it will also set off an irresistible race to the bottom as cities compete to shower subsidies on the company in hopes of luring the proposed 50,000 jobs spread across 8 million square feet of offices at an average compensation of $100,000 a piece.

    I'd like to see federal legislation to make it illegal (or at least prohibitive) for states and local entities to bid for corporate favors. Boeing, in particular, has engaged in this peculiar combination of bribery and extortion so regularly you'd think they had decided that their "core competency" was political influence peddling, not airframes. This process damages losing states and cities without notably helping the winning bidders.

    The "Case for Immigration" piece is long and covers a lot of good points. I suspect one could construct a counter-argument, a "Case Against Immigration," but it couldn't argue for economic growth -- indeed, it would try to make a virtue out of conservation that can only be achieved with zero or negative growth -- and it certainly wouldn't bruit the word "greatness" anywhere. Indeed, it would call for dismantling America's world hegemony, which both pushes and pulls immigration.


Took a quick look at some Hurricane Irma news before posting. The storm is moving north at about 14 mph, so its crawl up Florida's Gulf Coast is pretty slow. I saw some live broadcasts while the eye was over Naples about 6PM EST, and I've seen some later video showing Naples pretty severely flooded. I suppose it's good that the eye has moved inland: almost straight north through Fort Myers to about 35 miles east of Sarasota at 10PM EST, but the current forecast track has it shifting northwest to pass straight through Tampa, then briefly out to sea before landing again west of Ocala. It should weaken faster over land, regenerate some over water, but the storm is so large it's producing storm surges and tropical-storm-force winds along the east coast as well as the west. Looks like it will move into Georgia around 2PM Monday, and Tennessee 2PM Tuesday, stalling there and dumping a lot of rain.