Sunday, September 24, 2017


Weekend Roundup

Biggest news for me is that the server I use for TomHull.com is wedged, with no disk space available for uploading updates. I may (or may not) be able to insert this post into the blog software (which I've had problems with in the past, but evidently uses its own separate storage), but cannot update the "faux blog" (which I've been linking to for the last year-plus). The ISP, Addr.com, seems to be on auto-pilot, with all of their support tools broken and no one responding even to email. I know I've threatened this in the past, but I suppose I have to bite the bullet and move the site. That will be a pain for me, and disruptive for the world -- as if I don't have enough problems already.


Some fairly large topics I have nothing on below: Hurricane Maria and the mass destruction of Dominica and Puerto Rico; devastating earthquakes in Mexico; elections in Germany which gave the far-right AfD party seats in parliament; the never-ending Russia investigation (starring Paul Manafort and Facebook this week); Betsy DeVos' latest efforts to make college a safe haven for rapists; a revised anti-Muslim travel ban; the ongoing protests against police brutality and injustice in St. Louis (special hat tip to Greg Magarian and Bronwen Zwirner on the ground there); and, of course, the big deal of protesting the national anthem at NFL football games (and Trump's hate tweets against those who do) -- the latter is the subject of the first five articles at Slate, and evidently the top trending hashtag(s) at Twitter (Jeffrey Goldberg tweet: "The President of the United States is now in a war with Stephen Curry and LeBron James. This is not a war Trump will win").


Some more reviews of Hillary Clinton's What Happened and comments on the 2016 election:

  • Glenn Greenwald: The Clinton Book Tour Is Largely Ignoring the Vital Role of Endless War in the 2016 Election Result:

    Part of that is the discomfort of cognitive dissonance: the Democratic branding and self-glorification as enemies of privilege, racism, and violence are directly in conflict with the party's long-standing eagerness to ignore, or even actively support, policies which kill large numbers of innocent people from Pakistan, Libya, and Somalia to Yemen, Iraq, and Gaza, but which receive scant attention because of the nationality, ethnicity, poverty, distance, and general invisibility of their victims.

    Actually, Hillary gets hurt in several ways: because she always rose to support the wars, no one can identify with her as a war critic; because she was actually in office during much of this time (as senator and especially as secretary of state) she bears some responsibility for the failure of the wars to accomplish their proclaimed goals; and the simple fact is that after 15 years of continuous war Americans are poorer and meaner than they would have been otherwise, and Republicans feed on that.

  • Katherine Krueger: Hillary Clinton Will Never Understand What Happened:

    Those looking for mea culpas will get them, but only up to a point, and always closely followed by qualifications. . . . She then pivots to consider the "strong headwinds" her scrappy little $623 million campaign-that-couldn't was up against. . . .

    Most of all, Clinton can't understand why young voters were won over by Sen. Bernie Sanders. And it is here where the essential cynicism underlying her worldview -- and which ultimately played a key role in her doom -- comes most sharply into focus. For Clinton, politics are fundamentally about pragmatism, where strategic concessions and horse-trading with Republicans necessarily means sacrificing ideals for the ultimate good of Getting (Some) Things Done. To her, change within the system is needed and worthy, but the system itself can never change. . . .

    After a career built on steadfastly upholding the status quo, Clinton didn't share the anger of the people she sought to govern, because, to her, the state of the U.S. is not something to be angry about. Even as she criss-crossed the country talking with veterans and moms and immigrants, their problems were never her problems. As her fellow Americans continue to lose their jobs and homes and fall into medical debt and struggle with opioid addictions, the system Clinton has for years fought to keep intact is humming along just fine. The fact that racism, militarism, inequality, and religious fundamentalism pervade this country, or that poor people are being consumed by the gears of our economy and left exhausted in its dust, is not something to get "angry" about. In Clinton's words, "It's always been thus."

  • Jon Schwartz: Hillary Clinton doesn't understand why the corporate media is so bad:

    The New York Times, CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, et al., are gigantic corporations -- in most cases owned by even larger ones. And the job of giant corporations is not to inform American citizens about reality. It's not to play a hallowed role in the history of a self-governing republic. It's to make as much profit as possible. That in turn means the corporate media will never, ever be "liberal" in any genuine sense and will be hostile to all politicians who feint in that direction.

    From that perspective, the media's performance in 2016 was a shining, glorious success. As Les Moonves effused just as the primaries were starting, Donald Trump's campaign was "good for us economically. . . . Go Donald! Keep getting out there!" The entire Hieronymus Bosch-like nightmare, said Moonves, "may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS." CNN made $1 billion in profits during the election year, far more than ever before.

  • Matthew Yglesias: What really happened in 2016, in 7 charts: The key one is the monumental unpopularity of both candidates. Still, in that comparison, the odd thing is that Trump ranks much worse than Clinton, yet more people who disliked Trump voted for him than people who disliked Clinton voted for her. Why was that? My best guess is that having no real track record, people significantly underestimated how damaging Trump would be, whereas she was much more of a known, and one of the main things you knew was she would be dogged by and endless procession of (mostly) fake scandals as long as she was in the public eye. Trump exploited this by asking the question: "what have you got to lose?"

  • Joshua Holland: How Right-Wing Media Played the Mainstream Press in the 2016 Election: Not on Hillary's book, but this is the piece she should have read before writing up her excuses.


Some scattered links this week:

  • Andrew J Bacevich: Past All Reason: Review of the 18-hour Ken Burns-Lynn Novick documentary The Vietnam War and, to some extent, the war itself. The series remains focused on its American audience, going out of its way to stress the patriotism and idealism of American soldiers (though less so of America's political leaders and generals). But it shies away from war propaganda, mostly because they make extensive use of Vietnamese voices (from all sides) and video -- putting human faces on people long caricatured in American minds.

    Burns and Novick pay surprisingly little attention to why exactly the United States insisted on butting in and why it subsequently proved so difficult to get out. Their lack of interest in this central issue is all the more striking given the acute misgivings about a large-scale US intervention that Lyndon Johnson repeatedly expressed in the fateful months between late 1964 and early 1965.

    The anguished president doubted that the war could be won, didn't think it was worth fighting, and knew that further expansion of US involvement in Vietnam would put at risk his cherished Great Society domestic-reform program. . . . Despite his reservations, Johnson -- ostensibly the most powerful man in the world -- somehow felt compelled to go ahead anyway. Yet Burns and Novick choose not to explore why exactly Johnson felt obliged to do what he did not want to do.

    Our present situation makes the question all the more salient. The US war in Afghanistan, although smaller in scale than the war in Vietnam, has dragged on even longer. It too has turned out to be a misbegotten enterprise. When running for the presidency, Donald Trump said as much in no uncertain terms. But President Trump -- ostensibly the most powerful man in the world -- has not turned his skepticism into action, allowing America's longest war to continue. . . . As Trump has affirmed, even (or perhaps especially) presidents must bow to this pernicious bit of secular theology.

    According to Burns and Novick, the American war in Vietnam was "begun in good faith, by decent people." It comes closer to the truth to say that the war was begun -- and then prolonged past all reason -- by people who lacked wisdom and, when it was most needed, courage.

    Other reviews:

    Whereas I found the first four episodes valuable, the biases in the fifth (January-July 1967) started to get out of hand. It's not clear yet whether Burns-Novick will wind up adopting the position that the only reason the US lost in Vietnam was that the American people let the Vietnamese down -- the early episodes seemed to recognize that the American neo-colonial project never had a chance, but their take on the Tet Offensive suggests the opposite. Also, as is still the case in St. Louis today, their cameras love to seek out violence in antiwar protests, and their narrative goes out of its way to stress the that there was still much pro-war support -- what Nixon would come to call "the silent majority" (something I expect we'll hear much more about in later episodes).

  • Sarah Kliff: I've Covered the GOP repeal plans since day one. Graham-Cassidy is the most radical. It surely says something about rank-and-file Republicans these days that each and every time their "repeal-and-replace" bills fail to pass, they go back to the drawing board to come up with something even more damaging.

    While other Republican plans essentially create a poorly funded version of the Affordable Care Act, Graham-Cassidy blows it up. The bill offered by Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham and Bill Cassidy takes money from states that did a good job getting residents covered under Obamacare and gives it to states that did not. It eliminates an expansion of the Medicaid program that covers millions of Americans in favor of block grants. States aren't required to use the money to get people covered or to help subsidize low- and middle-income earners, as Obamacare does now.

    Plus, the bill includes other drastic changes that appeared in some previous bills. Insurers in the private marketplace would be allowed to discriminate against people with preexisting conditions, for example. And it would eliminate the individual mandate as other bills would have, but this time there is no replacement. Most analysts agree that would inject chaos into the individual market.

    The right has employed the back-to-the-states scam before, but it strikes me as especially explosive here: whereas now we have a unified national debate about health care policy, this bill will turn health care info a burning issue for fifty state political contests -- an area where Republicans have gained considerable power recently not least due to the widespread perception that states don't matter much. That strikes me as a big political risk: both to their own control in competitive states, and because at least some blue states will use those block grants to implement single-payer schemes (not that they won't be inhibited by cutbacks and other regulations).

    More on the Graham-Cassidy health care bill:

  • Fred Kaplan: Trump's Reasons for Scrapping the Iran Deal Are the Definition of Self-Destructive. Also see the Trita Parsi pieces below.

  • John Nichols: Bernie Sanders Just Gave One of the Finest Speeches of His Career: "Outlining a vision of an America on the side of peace and justice, the senator shredded Trump's brutish foreign policies." Sanders gave his speech at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri -- the site of several famous world affairs speeches, including the one in 1946 when Winston Churchill coined the term "iron curtain," to some extent starting the Cold War. This is especially noteworthy because Sanders has long shied away from challenging the precepts of American foreign policy. Some more links:

    Sanders' speech stands in especially stark contrast to Trump's UN speech. For more on that, see:

  • Evan Osnos: The Risk of Nuclear War With North Korea: A long "letter from Pyongyang," which Osnos recently visited for a tightly guided tour. While he wasn't able to meet many people, or see many things, that first-person experience gives him a leg up on Trump, his generals, Nikki Haley, or pretty much anyone else in the administration. The portrait he paints of Kim Jong Un is actually pretty scary, but the balance of terror is firmly if cavalierly dominated by Washington.

    There is also scattered support for a less confrontational option, a short-term deal known as a "freeze for freeze." North Korea would stop weapons development in exchange for a halt or a reduction in U.S.-South Korean military exercises. Proponents say that a freeze, which could be revoked if either side cheats, is hardly perfect, but the alternatives are worse. Critics say that versions of it have been tried, without success, and that it will damage America's alliance with the South. Thus far the Trump Administration has no interest. "The idea that some have suggested, of a so-called 'freeze for freeze,' is insulting," Nikki Haley, the U.N. Ambassador, said before the Security Council on September 4th. "When a rogue regime has a nuclear weapon and an ICBM pointed at you, you do not take steps to lower your guard."

    Outside the Administration, the more people I talked to, the more I heard a strong case for some level of diplomatic contact. When Obama dispatched James Clapper to Pyongyang, in 2014, to negotiate the release of two prisoners, Clapper discovered that North Korea had misread the purpose of the trip. The government had presumed that he was coming in part to open a new phase in the relationship. "They were bitterly disappointed," he said. Clapper's visit convinced him that the absence of diplomatic contact is creating a dangerous gulf of misperception. "I was blown away by the siege mentality -- the paranoia -- that prevails among the leadership of North Korea. When we sabre-rattle, when we fly B-1s accompanied by jet escorts from the Republic of Korea and Japan, it makes us feel good, it reassures the allies, but what we don't factor in is the impact on the North Koreans."

    The striking thing about the Haley quote is how easily North Korea could justify taking the same stance. North Koreans surely recall that prominent US generals advocating nuking Korea during the 1950-53 war. And while it's only been since the 1960s that the US has had ICBMs capable of hitting Korea, the US has had conventional bombers within striking distance since that war. So what gives us the right to insist that North Korea lower its guard? If it's that the US should be trusted, that isn't a very convincing argument. Another quote:

    Our grasp of North Korea's beliefs and expectations is not much better than its grasp of ours. To go between Washington and Pyongyang at this nuclear moment is to be struck, most of all, by how little the two understand each other. In eighteen years of reporting, I've never felt as much uncertainty at the end of a project, a feeling that nobody -- not the diplomats, the strategists, or the scholars who have devoted their lives to the subject -- is able to describe with confidence how the other side thinks. We simply don't know how Kim Jong Un really regards the use of his country's nuclear arsenal, or how much North Korea's seclusion and mythology has distorted its understanding of American resolve. We don't know whether Kim Jong Un is taking ever-greater risks because he is determined to fulfill his family's dream of retaking South Korea, or because he is afraid of ending up like Qaddafi.

    More on Korea this week:

    A recent poll shows that Trump is especially untrusted by Americans to deal with North Korea (see Trump seen by 66 percent in US as doing more to divide than united country): the "trust to act responsibly handling North Korea" is 37% favorable, 62% negative, compared to which US military leaders score 72-27% favorable. The notion that military leaders are both competent and trustworthy is widely held, though I'd be hard pressed to cite any evidence showing it should be. One cautionary piece is: Stephen Kinzer: America's Slow-Motion Military Coup. He notes that "given the president's ignorance of world affairs, the emergence of a military junta in Washington may seem like welcome relief," then goes on to offer some reasons to worry. There's been much talk of a coup since Trump took office, but that seems unlikely as long as Trump lets the junta do whatever they want. The only time I've actually worried that the military brass might move against civilian government was when Clinton was elected in 1992, but his surrender to the chiefs was so complete they didn't have to flex a muscle. Obama proved to be every bit as supine, not even bothering to replace Bush's Secretary of Defense (although after Gates quit, he went through a series of safe names: Leon Panetta, Chuck Hagel, and Ash Carter).

  • Gary Rivlin/Michael Hudson: Government by Goldman: "Gary Cohn is giving Goldman Sachs everything it ever wanted from the Trump administration." Important, in-depth article, goes well beyond explaining why Cohn hasn't resigned in disgust, which he certainly felt after Trump's embrace of the Nazis in Charlottesville.

    There's Ultimately no great mystery why Donald Trump selected Gary Cohn for a top post in his administration, despite his angry rhetoric about Goldman Sachs. There's the high regard the president holds for anyone who is rich -- and the instant legitimacy Cohn conferred upon the administration within business circles. Cohn's appointment reassured bond markets about the unpredictable new president and lent his administration credibility it lacked among Fortune 100 CEOs, none of whom had donated to his campaign. Ego may also have played a role. Goldman Sachs would never do business with Trump, the developer who resorted to foreign banks and second-tier lenders to bankroll his projects. Now Goldman's president would be among those serving in his royal court.

    Who can say precisely why Cohn, a Democrat, said yes when Trump asked him to be his top economic aide? No doubt Cohn has been asking himself that question in recent weeks. But he'd hit a ceiling at Goldman Sachs. In September 2015, Goldman announced that Blankfein had lymphoma, ramping up speculation that Cohn would take over the firm. Yet four months later, after undergoing chemotherapy, Blankfein was back in his office and plainly not going anywhere. Cohn was 56 years old when he was invited to Trump Tower. An influential job inside the White House meant a face-saving exit -- and one offering a huge financial advantage. . . .

    The details of the president's "$1 trillion" infrastructure plan are similarly favorable to Goldman. As laid out in the administration's 2018 budget, the government would spend only $200 billion on infrastructure over the coming decade. By structuring "that funding to incentivize additional non-Federal funding" -- tax breaks and deals that privatize roads, bridges, and airports -- the government could take credit for "at least $1 trillion in total infrastructure spending," the budget reads.

    It was as if Cohn were still channeling his role as a leader of Goldman Sachs when, at the White House in May, he offered this advice to executives: "We say, 'Hey, take a project you have right now, sell it off, privatize it, we know it will get maintained, and we'll reward you for privatizing it.'" "The bigger the thing you privatize, the more money we'll give you," continued Cohn. By "we," he clearly meant the federal government; by "you," he appeared to be speaking, at least in part, about Goldman Sachs, whose Public Sector and Infrastructure group arranges the financing on large-scale public sector deals.

  • Jon Schwartz: The History Channel is finally telling the stunning secret story of the War on Drugs: A four-part documentary. Much of it seems to involve the CIA, which has repeatedly forged alliances with drug traffickers -- in Laos, Nicaragua, and most recently in Afghanistan.

    That core truth is: The war on drugs has always been a pointless sham. For decades the federal government has engaged in a shifting series of alliances of convenience with some of the world's largest drug cartels. So while the U.S. incarceration rate has quintupled since President Richard Nixon first declared the war on drugs in 1971, top narcotics dealers have simultaneously enjoyed protection at the highest levels of power in America.

    This might be a good place to mention Sheelah Kolhatkar: The Cost of the Opioid Crisis -- an awful piece which tries to quantify the economic costs of opioid overdoses by toting up lost hours worked and similar metrics. I don't doubt that these deaths add up to some kind of crisis, but you need to back up a bit and frame this issue in terms of two much larger, less acute crises: one is the "war on drugs," which has accomplished little other than to make people really stupid about what drugs do; the other is the for-profit health care system, which has veered inconsistently on pain management, doing first too little then too much and probably, if the crisis-mongers get their way, reverting to too little. The big money is in prescribing pills, not in monitoring treatment.

  • Matt Taibbi: The Madness of Donald Trump: Starts by noting that Trump's August 22 speech in Phoenix was "Trump's true coming-out party as an insane person." Goes on to try to draw fine distinctions between Campaign Trump, who was crazy in ways that seemed to work, and President Trump, whose craziness is becoming more and more dysfunctional. After considering the possibility that America deserves Trump, he pulls out the DSM and comes up with a diagnosis:

    Everyone with half a brain and a recent copy of the DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, used by shrinks everywhere) knew the diagnosis on Trump the instant he joined the race. Trump fits the clinical definition of a narcissistic personality so completely that it will be a shock if future psychiatrists don't rename the disorder after him.

    Grandiosity, a tendency to exaggerate achievements, a preoccupation with "fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty or ideal love," a belief in one's specialness (which can only be understood by other special people), a need for excessive admiration and a sense of entitlement -- sound like anyone you know?

    Trump's rapidly expanding list of things at which he's either a supreme expert or the Earth's best living practitioner would shame even great historical blowhards like Stalin or Mobutu Sese Seko.

    Taibbi's points on Trump's losing war with the English language are more to the point (though "he makes George W. Bush sound like Vladimir Nabokov" shows how quickly we forget). He tries to take some comfort by viewing Trump as just desserts for a country with so much blood and oppression staining its history, but Trump's too deranged to deliver a lesson on karma. For more on the madness, see: Alex Morris: Trump's Mental Health: Is Pathological Narcissism the Key to Trump's Behavior? One note here deserving caution is a study that "found that 18 of the first 37 presidents met criteria for having a psychiatric disorder," although some ailments, like depression, "do not typically lead to psychosis or risky decision-making." More interesting is this paragraph:

    When it comes to presidents, and perhaps all politicians, some level of narcissism is par for the course. Based on a 2013 study of U.S. presidents from Washington to George W. Bush, many of our chief executives with narcissistic traits shared what is called "emergent leadership," or a keen ability to get elected. They can be charming and charismatic. They dominate. They entertain. They project strength and confidence. They're good at convincing people, at least initially, that they actually are as awesome as they think they are. (Despite what a narcissist might believe, research shows they are usually no better-looking, more intelligent or talented than the average person -- though when they are, their narcissism is better tolerated.) In fact, a narcissist's brash leadership has been shown to be particularly attractive in times of perceived upheaval, which means that it benefits a narcissist to promote ideas of chaos and to identify a common enemy, or, if need be, create one.

    I've long noted something like this: the tendency of people in times of crisis to rally around whoever seemed to be the most self-confident. I figure that's something we learned in our early evolution, something that back in primitive times worked well enough it didn't get erased through natural selection. However, in modern times such "emergent leaders" rarely turn out to be wise choices.

    By the way, Taibbi has another piece out: Steve Bannon Splits From Trump: Hilarity Ensues. This is about the Republican Senatorial primary runoff between Luther Strange, who was appointed to fill Jeff Sessions' seat and is backed by Trump and McConnell, and Roy Moore, the former judge with the Moses complex who is backed by Bannon. In this contest, you'd have to say that Strange is the lesser evil, but the margin is so thin I find it hard to care. I'm even tempted to think that we might be better if they elect the greater embarrassment (Moore), although that's pretty much what happened with Trump.

    By the way, there are more Alabama races down ballot. See: Christina Cauterucci: Some of the US's Creepiest Anti-Abortion Men Are Running for Office in Alabama.