Sunday, October 1, 2017

Weekend Roundup

Hard to get psyched up for this week, what with my website woes, having sunk a lot of time into yesterday's Streamnotes, and various other malaises. Two pieces of relative good news this week: the Graham-Cassidy bill to repeal-and-decimate Obamacare failed to advance to a vote; and HHS Secretary Tom Price, one of the Cabinet's most obnoxious secretaries, was forced to resign. Hurricane Marie is much reduced and well out to sea, heading toward Ireland, and no new Atlantic hurricanes have been named. On the other hand, that just leaves the destruction Marie wrought in Puerto Rico in the media spotlight, with the Trump administration all but cursing the Spanish-American War (wasn't that the first great MAGA crusade?). Meanwhile, Republicans are pushing "tax reform" with no evident ability to make their numbers add up.

Some scattered links this week:

  • Karen DeYoung, et al: Trump signed presidential directive ordering actions to pressure North Korea: This included extensive cyberwarfare operations against North Korea. Not clear on exact chronology, but this suggests that much of the confrontation with North Korea was precipitated by Trump's direction.

  • Anne Gearan: The swamp rises around an administration that promised to drain it:

    Candidate Trump would have been appalled.

    "A vote for Hillary is a vote to surrender our government to public corruption, graft and cronyism that threatens the very foundations of our constitutional system," Trump said during an Oct. 29 speech.

    He went on to describe his broader belief that public corruption and cronyism were eating away at voters' faith in government -- a situation he would remedy.

    "I want the entire corrupt Washington establishment to hear and to heed the words I am about to say," Trump said. "When we win on Nov. 8, we are going to Washington, D.C., and we are going to drain the swamp." . . .

    Trump's critics say no one should be surprised that he hasn't followed through on his campaign promise. They argue that the mere idea of a flamboyantly rich New York real estate mogul as the champion of workaday lunch buckets in Middle America was silly.

    "The tone on this stuff gets set at the top," said Brian Fallon, spokesman for Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign and a former Justice Department official in the Obama administration.

    "Tom Price's wasteful jet-setting is not causing Trump embarrassment because it violates any kind of reform mind-set within the Trump administration. No such mind-set exists," Fallon said. "It is simply because Price got caught and is reminding everyone of how Trump has turned Washington into an even bigger swamp than it was in the first place."

    Of course, it was ridiculous to ever think that Trump, let alone a Congress run by Republicans, would so much as lift a finger to try to curtail the influence of money in Washington or more generally in politics. It was easy to tar Hillary on this account, given how much she seemed to prefer courting donors to voters, given how brazenly the Clintons had cultivated influence peddling (going back to Arkansas, when he was Governor and she sat on the WalMart board), and given how they had risen from bankruptcy to considerable wealth cashing in their chips after he left office in 2001. But while Democrats from Grover Cleveland to Barack Obama provided a measure of background corruption in government, it was the self-styled "party of greed" that hosted our most notorious corruption scandals: Grant's Credit Mobilier, Harding's Teapot Dome, Reagan's HUD scandals and Iran-Contra, and too many squalid affairs under Bush-Cheney to name. But never before have the Republicans nominated someone as rapacious and as shameless as Trump. Tom Price ran into trouble not by offending Trump's ethics but his ego, by acting like he's entitled to the same perks as the boss. If anyone ever doubted that "public corruption, graft and cronyism that threatens the very foundations of our constitutional system," Trump will show them.

  • David A Graham: Why Does Trump Keep Praising the Emergency Response in Puerto Rico? "The president's insistence that he's doing a great job sits uneasily with stories of desperation in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria."

    Part of this seems to be Trump's struggle to project empathy, which he displayed in the early days after Hurricane Harvey, where he excelled at the inspirational, rah-rah, we will rebuild aspects of presidential response, but found it very hard to show he felt the pain of Gulf Coast residents. (By contrast, he has expressed caution about what to do in Puerto Rico, tweeting, "The fact is that Puerto Rico has been destroyed by two hurricanes. Big decisions will have to be made as to the cost of its rebuilding!") Another part is Trump's tendency toward puffery: In all situations, for his entire career, his impulse has been to magnify and celebrate his own prowess and success, and so he's doing that here too. But that fake-it-till-you-make-it approach understandably rankles people like Yulín.

    Damning as this is, it's way too kind to Trump, already forgetting that he did a completely dreadful job of showing empathy in Texas -- although at least there he made a little effort to fake it. AT least he acknowledges that Texas is part of "his" America, something that he doesn't feel with Puerto Rico. A couple more sample pieces on how the Trump administration is handling the Puerto Rico crisis: Trump Attacks Critics of Puerto Rico Aid Effort: 'Politically Motivated Ingrates'; FEMA Administrator Swipes at San Juan Mayor, Those Who 'Spout Off' About Aid.

  • Sarah Kliff: Obamacare repeal isn't dead as long as Republicans control Congress: In fact, lots of horrible things will keep coming up as long as Republicans control Congress. A couple weeks ago my cousin asked me who I'd like to see the Democrats nominate in 2020, and my response was that it doesn't matter until Democrats can start winning state and local races, especially for Congress. One thing I continue to fault both Clinton and Obama on is their loss of Congress two years into their first terms, and their failure to build up effective coattails even when they won second terms. Hillary Clinton spent a ton of time raising money, but didn't build up any down-ticket strength to build her own candidacy on -- a big part of the reason she lost. Without Congressional support, neither Clinton nor Obama got more than a tiny percentage of their platforms implemented, and that failure in turn ate at the credibility of their promises -- something Hillary paid dearly for, which in turn is why we're suffering through Trump and the Republican Congress.

  • Paul Krugman: Shifts Get Real: Understanding the GOP's Policy Quagmire: I mentioned in the intro that Republican plans don't add up: they want big cuts in tax brackets, especially for corporations from 35% to 20%, and they want to eliminate the estate tax altogether, but even a few of those things would bust the budget. "Reforms" to simplify the code and eliminate current deductions could offset at least some of the cuts, but those all look like tax increases to those who currently benefit, and their lobbies are out in force to keep that from happening. Even busting the budget is a problem given the Senate's no-filibuster "reconciliation" path. So while everyone in the majority caucus is sworn to cut taxes, getting there may prove difficult.

    Right now it looks as if tax "reform" -- actually it's just cuts -- may go the way of Obamacare repeal. Initial assessments of the plan are brutal, and administration attempts to spin things in a positive direction will suffer from loss of credibility on multiple fronts, from obvious lies about the plan itself, to spreading corruption scandals, to the spectacle of the tweeter-in-chief golfing while Puerto Rico drowns. . . .

    One important goal of ACA repeal was to loosen those constraints, by repealing the high-end tax hikes that paid for Obamacare, hence giving a big break to the donor class. Having failed to do that, Rs are under even more pressure to deliver the goods to the wealthy through tax cuts.

    But deficits are a constraint, even if not a hard one. Now, Republicans have always claimed that they can cut tax rates without losing revenue by closing loopholes. But they've always avoided saying anything about which loopholes they'd close; they promised to shift the tax burden away from their donors onto [TK], some mystery group. It was magic asterisk city; it was "Don't tax you, don't tax me, tax that fellow behind the tree" on steroids. . . .

    So what were they thinking? My guess is that they weren't thinking. What we learned from health care was that after 8 years, Republicans had never bothered to learn anything about the issues. There's every reason to believe that the same is true for the distribution of tax changes, which Paul Ryan called a "ridiculous" issue and presumably nobody in his party ever tried to understand.

    So now the lies and willful ignorance are catching up with them -- again.

    An earlier Krugman post ( Unpopular Delusions and the Madness of Elites) notes some polling and adds:

    There really is no clamor, even among Republicans, for tax cuts on the wealthy and corporations. And overall public opinion is strongly against.

    Nor is there a technocratic case for these cuts. There is no evidence whatsoever that tax cuts produce great economic outcomes -- zero, zilch, nada. The "experts" who claim otherwise are all hired guns, and notably incompetent hired guns at that.

    Yet faith in and demands for tax cuts remains; it's the ultimate zombie idea. And it's obvious why: advocating tax cuts for the rich and inventing rationales for those cuts is very lucrative.

    also, in Voodoo Gets Even Voodooier:

    That said, Trumpcuts are an even worse idea than Reaganomics, and not just because we start from much higher debt, the legacy of the financial crisis, which cut deeply into revenue and temporarily boosted spending. It also matters that we start from a much lower top tax rate than Reagan did. . . . So even if you believed that voodoo economics worked under Reagan -- which it didn't -- it would take a lot more voodoo, in fact around 4 times as much, for it to work now.

    Which makes you wonder: how can they possibly sell this as a responsible plan? Oh, right: they'll just lie.

  • Peter O'Dowd: 18-Hour Vietnam Epic Is Lesson on Horror of 'Unleashing Gods of War': Actually, the interview isn't that interesting, except for a long quote on the Burns-Novick documentary from Daniel Ellsberg:

    I think there were some some major omissions that are quite fundamental that disturbed me quite a bit, although the overall thing is very impressive.

    First of all, the repeated statement that this was a civil war on which we were taking one side, I think it's profoundly misleading. It always was a war in which one side is entirely paid, equipped, armed, pressed forward by foreigners. Without the foreigners, no war. That's not a civil war. And that puts -- it very much undermines, I'd say, a fundamentally misleading statement at the very beginning in the first five minutes or so of the first session.

    I don't see anything in the Pentagon Papers, 7,000 pages, that could be called good faith by anybody, in terms of the American people, our values, our Constitution. This was a war, as I say initially, to keep Vietnam a French colony. And that was not admitted to the American people. It was well known inside. We preferred that they be at war, and there was never a year that there would have been a war at all without American money in the end. So I thought that was extremely misleading.

    I'll probably write some more about Vietnam later, but I do want to add one comment on the last episode, which features heavily the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC. The design suggests a gash in the earth, one side lined with black marble engraved with the names of 58,318 Americans who died perpetuating this war. I find it impossible to look at this wall and not imagine extending it upward to include the three million Vietnamese who also died. It seems extraordinarily conceited, even more so misleading, to omit those names. Of course, if you want to preserve the gash-in-the-earth visual effect, you could dig a deeper hole instead of building the wall up hundreds of feet.

  • Alex Pareene: You Are Jonathan Chait's Enemy: Chait is complaining "about the 'dangerous consequences' of the left's use of the label 'white supremacist' to describe Donald Trump, the alt-right, and American conservatism in general," in what Pareene describes as "just another paint-by-numbers 'the greatest threat to free speech in the nation today is college students heckling an asshole' column."

    Chait is policing the way the left does politics because he does not want the left-wing style of doing politics to gain prominence.

    Something that is well-known to people who've read Chait for years, but may not be apparent to those who just think of him as a standard-issue center-left pundit who is sort of clueless about race, is that he is engaged in a pretty specific political project: Ensuring that you and people like you don't gain control of his party.

    Pareene's getting a bit touchy here, but he's not the only one suspicious that so-called centrists relish attacking the left while offering the right undeserved respect and legitimacy -- which in the long run works in their favor. The problem with centrism is that the track record doesn't show that taking such a conciliatory stance delivers much in the way of tangible benefits -- indeed, if anything it shows retreats while the right grows stronger and more aggressive. It seems time to ask whether stronger leftist critiques might turn out to be more effective, especially with people who don't start out with a strong political stance. For instance, why not refer to people as white supremacists who may merely be garden variety racists? -- especially people like Trump who seem so comfortable aligned with undoubted white supremacists like the KKK?

  • David Rothkopf: The NSC is 70 this week -- and the first thing it ever did was meddle in a foreign election: In 1947, created by the National Security Act, its first paper ("NSC 1") approved by Truman to covertly meddle in elections in Italy, "trying to counter the effects of the Soviets to support the rise of the Italian Communist Party," no mention of the popularity the PCI gained by resisting Mussolini and the German occupation. Of course, the CIA went on to do much more than merely game foreign elections; e.g.: Vincent Bevins: In Indonesia, the 'fake news' that fueled a Cold War massacre is still potent five decades later:

    Gen. Suharto, then the head of the army's strategic reserve command and relying on support from the CIA, accused the powerful Communist Party of orchestrating a coup attempt and took over as the military's de facto leader. Over the next few months, his forces oversaw the systematic execution of at least 500,000 Indonesians, and historians say they may have killed up to 1 million. The massacre decimated the world's third-largest Communist Party (behind those of the Soviet Union and China), and untold numbers were tortured and killed simply for allegedly associating with communists.

    The military dictatorship that formed afterward, led by Suharto, made wildly inaccurate anti-communist propaganda a cornerstone of its legitimacy and ruled Indonesia with U.S. support until 1998.

  • Alex Thompson/Ryan Grim: Kansas Won't Expand Medicaid, Denying a Lifeline to Rural Hospitals and Patients: Well, some, like the one in Independence, are already dead. Gov. Brownback, who vetoed the bill to expand Medicaid, has been nominated to a State Department post to hector the world on God, but Lt. Gov. Colyer promises to veto future bills as well, so no relief in sight.

  • Zeynep Tufekci: Zuckerberg's Preposterous Defense of Facebook: It's become clear that Russia created hundreds of clandestine Facebook accounts and used them and Facebook's advertising system to spread misinformation about the 2016 election. People are upset about that because they don't like the idea of a foreign power attempting to tilt an American election, possibly as a general principle but often just because it's Russia attempting to undermine Hillary Clinton and/or to elect Trump. Still, doesn't the US do the same thing to other countries? And don't both parties and their donors do the same thing to each other? I have no doubt that Facebook makes the general problem much worse, mostly because it allows unprecedentely precise, even intimate, targeting by whoever's willing to put the money into it. Advertisers have been trying to refine targeting for decades, but they've mostly been concerned with efficiency -- getting the most cost-effective set of buyers to consider a standard product pitch. Political advertising is different because votes are different from purchases, and, given limited choices, negative advertising is often more effective. Until recently, we could limit this damage by requiring disclosure of whoever is buying the advertising. Facebook undermines this paradigm in several ways: it helps advertisers hide their identity, and thereby avoid responsibility for any damages; it allows messages to be very narrowly tailored; its effect is amplified by viral "sharing"; it precludes any systematic effort to recall or correct misinformation. Americans have long been lulled into the lure of advertising, which offers to pay for entertainment and news while only demanding a small (and initially distinct) slice of your time. And we've basically gone along with this scheme because we haven't noticed what it's doing to us -- much like a lobster doesn't notice heating water until it's much too late. It's going to be difficult to unravel all these levels of duplicity and to restore any measure of integrity to the democratic process. But two things should be clear by now: the fact that someone like Donald Trump got elected president shows that our system for informing ourselves about the world is badly broken; and that as long as powerful forces -- I'd start with virtually all corporations, most Republicans, and many Democrats, and throw in a few more special interest groups (not least the CIA and the post-KGB -- believe that they benefit from this system there will be much resistance to changing it. Indeed, it probably has to be defeated before it can be changed.

    By the way, Matt Taibbi has a relevant piece: Latest Fake News Panic Appears to Be Fake News, wherein he suggests:

    The irony here is that the solution to so much of this fake news panic is so simple. If we just spent more time outside, or read more books, or talked in person to real human beings more often, we'd be less susceptible to this sort of thing. But that would take effort, and who has time for that?

  • Matthew Yglesias: 4 stories that really mattered this week: i.e., more than Trump's spat with the NFL: Obamacare repeal died again; Puerto Rico is in crisis; Republicans rolled out a tax cut plan; Roy Moore won the GOP nomination in Alabama. Other recent Yglesias posts: Trump is proposing big tax hikes on vulnerable House Republicans' constituents (ending deductability of state and local taxes [SALT], a big deal in upscale suburban districts); A House Republican explains why deficits don't matter anymore: Mark Walker says "It's a great talking point when you have an administration that's Democrat-led" -- this just confirms what we've already observed, as when Nixon declared "we're all Keynesians now" when he wanted more deficit spending to prop up his re-election economy, or Cheney declared "deficits don't matter," yet Clinton and Obama were constantly pounded over deficit spending; Trump keeps saying Graham-Cassidy failed because a senator's in the hospital; Nobody wants Donald Trump's corporate tax cut plan: "Americans overwhelmingly want large businesses to pay more taxes rather than less"; The Jones Act, the obscure 1920 shipping regulation strangling Puerto Rico, explained; Trump's plan to sell tax cuts for the rich is to pretend they're not happening; Democrats ought to invest in Doug Jones's campaign against Roy Moore; Angela Merkel won in a landslide -- now comes the hard part; Donald Trump versus the NFL, explained.