Monday, October 9, 2017

Weekend Roundup

Very little time to work on this, but here are a few things I noted. The big story of the week probably should be Puerto Rico, especially how poorly America's quasi-benevolent gloss on colonialism has wound up serving the people there, but that would take some depth to figure out -- much easier to make fun of Trump pitching paper towels. Aside from the Las Vegas massacre, the media's favorite story of the week was Tillerson calling Trump a "fucking moron," then quasi-denying it, followed by reports of his "suicide pact" with fellow embarrassed secretaries Mattis and Mnuchim. Meanwhile the Caribbean cooked up another hurricane, Nate, which landed midway between Harvey and Irma, reported almost cavalierly after the previous panic stories. How quickly even disaster becomes normalized these days!

Obviously, many more stories could have made the cut, if only I had time to sort them out. Still, this is enough bad news for a taste, especially since so much of it traces back to a single source.

Some scattered links this week:

  • Harry Enten: Trump's Popularity Has Dipped Most in Red States.

  • Thomas Frank: Are those my words coming out of Steve Bannon's mouth? "My critique of Washington is distinctly from the left, and it's astonishing to hear conservatives swiping it." I've long been bothered by how Frank's taunting of the right-wing base got them to demand more from their political heroes. It's also true that Frank's exposure of the neoliberal rot in the heart of Washington's beltway has played into Trump rhetoric. Indeed, it's probable that Frank's Listen, Liberal undercut Hillary much worse than anything Bernie Sanders ever said or did -- a distinction that Hillary's diehard fans don't make because most of Frank's readers supported Bernie. Frank points out that Republicans offer no real fixes for his critiques. So why don't Democrats pick up the same critique and flesh it out with real solutions? Probably because Hillary and company were so content with sucking up to their rich donors, but now that we know that doesn't work, why can't they learn?

  • Josh Marshall: More Thoughts on the Externalities of Mass Gun Ownership: This in turn cites David Frum: The Rules of Gun Debate, which points out a basic truth that hardly anyone wants to admit:

    Americans die from gunfire in proportions unparalleled in the civilized world because Americans own guns in proportions unparalleled in the civilized world. More guns mean more lethal accidents, more suicides, more everyday arguments escalated into murderous fusillades.

    Marshall goes on to point out that the sheer popularity of guns is making the problem worse for everyone -- he speaks of "externalities," although the game model is closer to an arms race. But Frum also notes:

    o in a limited sense, the gun advocates are right. The promise of "common sense gun safety" is a hoax, i.e. Americans probably will not be able to save the tens of thousands of lives lost every year to gun violence -- and the many more thousands maimed and traumatized -- while millions of Americans carry guns in their purses and glove compartments, store guns in their night tables and dressers. Until Americans change their minds about guns, Americans will die by guns in numbers resembling the casualty figures in Somalia and Honduras more than Britain or Germany.

    It's truly hard to imagine that this change will be led by law. . . . Gun safety begins, then, not with technical fixes, but with spreading the truthful information: people who bring guns into their homes are endangering themselves and their loved ones.

    Specifically on Las Vegas, note I'm not going to criticize Caleb Keeter -- the guitarist who "has had a change of heart on guns."

  • Dylan Matthews: Trump reignites NFL protest controversy by ordering Mike Pence to leave a Colts game: Pence showed up for a Colts game to stand for the national anthem, then left in protest of players who took a knee during the anthem. Pure PR stunt, and a huge insult to NFL fans, who pay good money to watch the game, even if that means enduring the pre-game pomp. Worse, Trump is so locked into his echo chamber he thinks he's making a winning point.

  • Jeremy W Peters/Maggie Haberman/Glenn Trush: Erik Prince, Blackwater Founder, Weighs Primary Challenge to Wyoming Republican: Billionaire brother of Betsy DeVos, like her made his money inheriting the Amway fortune but built a lucrative side business providing mercenaries for the Global War on Terror, most recently in the news lobbying the Trump administration to privatize the war in Afghanistan -- if you wanted to write a new James Bond novel about a megalomaniacal privateer, you wouldn't have to spruce his bio up much. He hails from Michigan, but isn't the first to think Wyoming might be a cost-effective springboard to the Senate and national politics (think Lynne Cheney). Behind the scenes here is Steve Bannon, who's looking for Trump-like candidates to disrupt the Republican Party. He's likely to come up with some pretty creepy ones, but Prince is setting the bar awful high.

  • Andrew Prokop: Trump's odd and ominous "calm before the storm" comment, not really explained: This followed Trump's dressing down of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson for trying to talk to North Korea (not to mention Tillerson's description of Trump as a "fucking moron"). As Prokop admits, there is no real explanation for Trump's elliptical remarks, but as I see it, he's doing a much more convincing act of Nixon's Madman Theory than the Trickster ever managed.

  • David Roberts: Friendly policies keep US oil and coal afloat far more than we thought.

  • Dylan Scott: How Trump is planning to gut Obamacare by executive order.

  • Matthew Yglesias: Puerto Rico is all our worst fears about Trump becoming real:

    To an extent, the United States of America held up surprisingly well from Inauguration Day until September 20 or so. The ongoing degradation of American civic institutions, at a minimum, did not have an immediate negative impact on the typical person's life.

    But the world is beginning to draw a straight line from the devastation in Puerto Rico to the White House. Trump's instinct so far is to turn the island's devastation into another front in culture war politics, a strategy that could help his own political career survive.

    One problem Trump has, even if it doesn't explain his administration as a whole, has been the relative shortfall of news on Puerto Rico -- especially from the Trump whisperers at Fox (see Druhmil Mehta: The Media Really Has Neglected Puerto Rico). A lot of people, and not just immigration-phobes like Trump, have is seeing Puerto Rico as part of the USA, even though everyone there has American citizenship and are free to pick up and move anywhere in the country. Also see: Harry Enten: Trump's Handling of Hurricane Maria Is Getting Really Bad Marks.

    The notion that Trump hasn't done a lot of damage to the country yet is mostly delayed perception. His regulatory efforts have allowed companies to pollute more and engage in other predatory practices, but it takes a while to companies to take advantage of their new license. The defunding of CHIP (the Children's Health Insurance Program) didn't immediately shot off insurance, but it will over several months. Those who lose their insurance may not get sick for months or years, but across the country these things add up. Trump's brinksmanship with North Korea hasn't blown up yet, but it's made a disaster much more likely. Some of these things will slowly degrade quality of life, but some may happen suddenly and irreversibly. That people don't notice them right away doesn't mean that they won't eventually. One thing politicians hope, of course, is that bad things happen they won't be traced back to responsible acts. Indeed, Republicans have been extraordinarily lucky so far, to no small extent because Democrats haven't been very adept as explaining causality. Yglesias returns to this theme in Trump's taste for flattery is a disaster for Puerto Rico -- and someday the world;

    The scary message of Puerto Rico -- like of the diplomatic row between Qatar and Saudi Arabia before it -- is that a man who often seemed like he wasn't up to the job of being president is, in fact, not up to the job of being president.

    At times, of course, his political opponents will find this comforting or even to be a blessing. His inability to involve himself constructively in the Affordable Care Act debate, for example, likely saved millions of people's Medicaid coverage relative to what a more competent president might have pulled off.

    But when bad luck strikes, the president's problems become everyone's problems. And in Puerto Rico we're seeing that the president's inability to listen to constructive criticism -- and his unwillingness to incentive people to give it to him -- transforms misfortune into catastrophe.

    This tendency to cut himself off from uncomfortable information rather than accept frank assessments and change course has impacted Trump's legislative agenda, peripheral aspects of his foreign policy, and now a part of the United States of America itself.

    If we're lucky, maybe the global economy will hold up, we won't have any more bad storms, foreign terrorists will leave us alone, and somehow we'll skate past this North Korea situation. Maybe. Because if not, we're going to be in trouble, and the president's going to be the last one to realize it.

    Yglesias says "we'd better hope Trump's luck holds up," but he doesn't sound very hopeful. I'm reminded of the famous Branch Rickey maxim, "luck is the residue of design." Rickey was talking about winning baseball games, but losing is the residue of its own kind of design. It was GW Bush's bad luck that the economy imploded on his watch, but his administration and his party deliberately did a lot of things that hastened that collapse, so it's not simply that they were unlucky.

    Other pieces by Yglesias last week: The 4 stories that defined the week: Dozens were massacred in Las Vegas; Trump flew to Puerto Rico; Tax reform is looking shaky; and Morongate rocked the Cabinet. One aspect of the latter story: "due to the structure of his compensation and certain quirks of tax law, [Tillerson will] be hit with a $71 million tax bill on the proceeds [of cashing out his Exxon stock] unless he stays with the government for at least a year." Other pieces: Meet Kevin Warsh, the man Trump may tap to wreck the American economy: to replace Janet Yellen as chair of the Federal Reserve; After Sandy Hook, Trump hailed Obama's call for gun control legislation; Trump's reverse Midas touch is making everything he hates popular; After a year of work, Republicans have decided nothing on corporate tax reform.