Sunday, November 19, 2017

Weekend Roundup

I've often heard that "politics is the art of the possible" -- the quote is most often attributed to Otto von Bismarck, who continued: "the attainable -- the art of the next best." Bismarck is best known now as the architect of the modern welfare state, something he achieved with autocratic Prussian efficiency, his generally satisfactory answer to the threat of proletarian revolution. But the earlier generations he was better known as the founder of German militarism, a bequest which less pragmatic followers parlayed into two disastrous world wars. Then, as now, the "possible" was always limited by preconceptions -- in Bismarck's case, allegiance to the Prussian nobility, which kept his innovations free of concessions to equality and democracy.

After immersing myself into the arcana of mainstream politics in the 1960s -- I used to trek to the library to read Congressional Quarterly's Weekly Reports, I subscribed to the Congressional Record, and I drew up electoral maps much like Kevin Phillips -- I pivoted and dove into the literature of the politically impossible, reading about utopian notions from Thomas More to Ignatius Donnelly to Paul Goodman (whose Utopian Essays & Practical Proposals is a title I still fancy recapitulating). But I never really lost my bearings in reality. In college I worked on the philosophy journal Telos, which taught one to always look toward ends (or goals) no matter the immediate terrain, and I studied neo-Kantians with a knack for making logic work to bridge the chasm. Later I turned into an engineer, and eventually had the epiphany that we could rationally think our way through complex political and economic problems to not necessarily ideal but much more viable solutions.

From the start I was aware of the standard and many other objections to "social engineering." No time to go into them now, but my background in engineering taught me that I have to work within the bounds of the possible, subject to the hard limits of physics and the slightly messier lessons I had learned from my major in sociology. Without really losing my early ideals -- my telos is equality, because that's the only social arrangement that is mutually agreeable, the only one that precludes scheming, strife, and needless harm -- I came to focus on little steps that nudge us in the right direction, and to reject ideas that couldn't possibly work. Thinking about this has made me a much more moderate person, without leading me to centrism or the notion that compromise is everything.

A good example of a political agenda that cannot be implemented -- indeed, one that offers nothing constructive -- was provided a while back by Alan Keys, a Republican presidential candidate whose entire world view revolved around teenagers having sex and how society needs to stop them. Maybe his analysis has some valid points, and maybe there are some paternalistic nudges that can trim back some of the statistical effects (like the rate of teen pregnancy), but nothing -- certainly no tolerable level of coercion -- can keep teenagers from being interested in sex. Of course, Keys was an outlier, even among Republican evangelicals. Only slightly more moderate is Roy Moore, who's evidently willing to carve out an exception for teens willing to have sex with himself. You might chalk that up to hypocrisy, which is common among all Americans, but is especially rife among conservatives (who regard it as a privilege of the virtuous rich) and evangelicals (who expect personal salvation for the fervor with which they damn all of you). But Moore's own agenda for making his peculiar take on Christianity the law of the land is every bit as dangerous and hopeless as Keys' obsession with teen sex.

The most chilling thing I've read in the last week was a column by Cal Thomas, Faith in Politics, where he urges conservative evangelicals to put aside their frivolous defenses of Roy Moore and go back to such fundamentals as Martin Luther's 95 Theses, where "Luther believed governments were ordained by God to restrain sinners and little else." The striking thing about this phrasing is how cleverly it forges an alliance with the libertarian right, who you'd expect to be extremely wary of God-ordained governmental restraint. But sin has always been viewed through the eyes of tyrants and their pet clergy, a "holy alliance" that has been the source of so much suffering and injustice throughout world history.

News recently has been dominated by a seemingly endless series of reports of sexual misconduct, harassment and/or assault, on all sides of the political spectrum (at least from Roy Moore to Al Franken), plus a number of entertainers and industry executives. Conservatives and liberals react to these stories differently -- aside from partisan considerations (which certainly play a part when a Senate seat is at stake), conservatives are hypocritically worked up about illicit sex, while liberals are more concerned with respecting the rights of women. Yet both sides (unless the complaint hits particularly close to home) seem to be demanding harsh punishment (see, e.g., Mark Joseph Stern: Al Franken Should Resign Immediately Michelle Goldberg and Nate Silver agree, mostly because they want to prove that Democrats are harsher and less hypocritical on sexual misconduct; indeed, instant banishment seems to have been the norm among entertainers, which Kevin Spacey, Louis CK, and Jeffrey Tambor having projects canceled, as well as more delayed firings of Roger Ailes, Bill O'Reilly, and Harvie Weinstein). This drive to punish, which has long been a feature of America's notion of justice, can wind up making things worse (and not just because it could trigger a backlash, as Isaac Chotiner and Rebecca Traister discuss).

I'm sure many women have many things to object to here -- the Weinstein testimonies seem especially damning, and I suspect the hushed up Ailes and O'Reilly legacies are comparable -- but I'm finding some aspects of the whole brouhaha troubling. Sex is a messy subject, often fraught and embarrassing to negotiate, subject to wildly exaggerated hopes and fears, but inevitably a part of human nature -- I keep flashing back on Brecht's chorus: "what keeps mankind alive? bestial acts." On the other hand, we might be better off looking at power disparities (inequality), which are clearly evident in all of these cases, perhaps even more so in entertainment than in politics. I can't help but think that in a more equitable society, one that valued mutual respect and eased up a bit on arbitrary punishment, would be bothered less by these problems.

Some scattered links this week:

  • Matthew Yglesias: The 4 biggest stories in politics this week: The House passed a major tax bill ("but the House bill, as written, doesn't conform to Senate rules and clearly can't pass"); Senate Republicans drafted a tax bill ("that does conform to Senate rules at the expense of creating an even starker set of financial tradeoffs"); Bob Menendez isn't guilty (I would have said something more like "dodged conviction via mistrial"); Things are looking worse for Roy Moore. Other Yglesias posts last week:

    • Senate Republicans' tax plan raises taxes on families earning less than $75,000. The chart, clearly demonstrating how regressive the plan is, is for 2027, without showing how one gets there. To satisfy the Senate's "budget reconciliation" rules many of the tax cuts have to expire in less than ten years, so this is the end state the bill aims for, probably with the expectation that some further cuts will be renewed before they run out (as happened with the Bush cuts). So on the one hand, this exaggerates the "worst case" scenario, it also clarifies the intent behind the whole scam.

    • Watch CEOs admit they won't actually invest more if tax reform passes: Gary Cohn feigns surprise that so few CEOs raised their hands.

      The reason few hands are raised is there's little reason to believe that the kind of broad corporate income tax cut Republicans are pushing for will induce much new investment. . . . The biggest immediate winners, in fact, would be big, established companies that are already highly profitable. Apple, for example, would get a huge tax cut even though the company's gargantuan cash balance is all the proof in the world that the its investments are limited by Tim Cook's beliefs about what Apple can usefully take on, not by a limited supply of cash or a lack of profitability.

    • Bill Clinton should have resigned: "What he did to Monica Lewinsky was wrong, and he should have paid the price." I've sympathized with versions of this argument -- Gary Wills has written much on how Clinton should have resigned, and I'm on record as having said that Had I been in the Senate I would have voted to convict him (less because I agreed with the actual charges than because I felt he should "pay the price" for other things he did that were wrong -- at the time I was most upset about Clinton's bombing of Iraq, something his Republican inquisitors applauded, prefiguring the 2003 Bush invasion). However, I was under the impression that whatever he did with Lewinsky was mutually consented to and should have remained private. Indeed, before Clinton (or more specifically, before the Scaife-funded investigation into Clinton) politicians' private affairs had hardly ever become objects of public concern. (I suppose Grover Cleveland, America's only bachelor president, is the exception.) Given that all US presidents have been male, you can argue that this public nonchalance is part of a longstanding patriarchal culture, but there's no reason to think that the right-wingers who went after Clinton were in any way interested in advancing feminism. Perhaps Clinton himself could have turned his resignation into a feminist talking point: Yglesias insists, "Had Clinton resigned in disgrace under pressure from his own party, that would have sent a strong, and useful, chilling signal to powerful men throughout the country." Still, I doubt that's the lesson the Republicans would have drawn. Rather, it would have shown to them that they had the power to drive a popular, charismatic president from office in disgrace using pretty flimsy evidence. While there's no reason to doubt he did it for purely selfish reasons, at the time many people were delighted that Clinton stood firm and didn't buckle under right-wing media shaming (e.g., that was the origin of the left-Democratic Move On organization). As for long-term impact, Yglesias seems to argue that had Clinton resigned, we wouldn't have found ourselves on the moral slope that led to Trump's election.

    • The tax reform debate is stuck in the 1970s: "The '70s were a crazy time," but he could be clearer about what the Republican tax cut scheme was really about, and vaguer about the Democrat response -- worry about the deficit came more after the damage was done (until they Democrats were easily tarred as advocates of "tax-and-spend"). And even though he's right that the situations are so different now that allowing companies and rich investors to keep more after-tax income is even less likely to spur job growth now, the fact is it didn't really work even when it made more sense. Here's an inadvertently amusing line: "The politics of the 1970s, after all, would have been totally different if inflation, unemployment, interest rates, and labor force growth were all low while corporate profits were high." I'd hypothesize that if corporate profits were artificially raised through political means (which is pretty much what's happened starting with the Reagan tax cuts in 1981) all those other factors would have been reduced. Increasing corporate profits even more just adds to the burden the rich already impose on us all.

  • Sean Illing: "The fish rots from the head": a historian on the unique corruption of Trump's White House: An interview with Robert Dallek, who "estimates that historical examples of corruption, like that of the Warren G. Harding administration, don't hold a candle to how Trump and his people have conducted themselves in the White House." One thing I noticed here is how small famous scandals were in comparison to things that are happening every day under Trump: e.g., Teapot Dome ("in which Harding's secretary of the interior leased Navy petroleum reserves in Wyoming and California to private oil companies at incredibly low rates without a competitive bidding process"). Isn't that exactly what Zinke is trying to do with Alaska's oil reserves? Wasn't that Zinke's rationale behind reducing several National Monuments? And how does that stack up against the monetary value of various deregulation orders (especially those by the EPA and FCC)? To get a handle on corruption today, you have to look beyond first-order matters like Trump family business and direct payoffs to the windfalls industries claim from administration largess and beyond to corporate predation that will inevitably occur as it sinks in that the Trump administration is no longer enforcing regulations and laws that previously protected the public. Even short of changing laws to encourage further predation (as Bush did with his tax cuts and "tort reform"), the Trump administration is not just profiting from but breeding corruption. Curiously, Dallek doesn't even mention the closest relatives: the Reagan administration, with its embrace of "greed is good" leading to dozens of major scandals, and the second Bush, which imploded so utterly we wound up with the deepest recession since the 1930s.

  • Cristina Cabrera: Trump Puts on Hold Controversial Rollback of Elephant Trophy Ban: In the "could be worse" department:

    The U.S Fish & Wildlife Service announced on November 16 that it was rolling back an Obama-era ban preventing the import of hunted elephants in Zimbabwe. A similar ban had also been lifted for hunted elephants in Zambia.

    The decision was met with overwhelming backlash, with both liberals and conservatives slamming the move as needlessly cruel and inhumane. The notorious photos of the President's sons posing with a dead leopard and a dismembered tail of a elephant from their hunting expeditions didn't help.

    According to the Service, it can allow such imports "only when the killing of the animal will enhance the survival of the species." African elephants are protected as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act, and critics questioned the Interior Department's defense that allowing hunters to kill more of them would enhance their survival.

    To be fair to the Trump administration, "allowing hunters to kill more of them would enhance their survival" is also the common logic that binds together most key Republican initiatives, like their "repeal and replace Obamacare" and "tax cuts and jobs" acts. It's also basically why they made Betsy De Vos Secretary of Education. For more, see Tara Isabella Burton: Trump stalls controversial decision on big game hunting.

  • Alvin Chang: This simple chart debunks the conspiracy theory that Hillary Clinton sold uranium to Russia: The latest "lock her up" chorus, cheerleadered by Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX). I can't make any sense of his chart, but the simplified one is easy enough to follow (although it could use a dateline). Still, a couple of troubling points. One is why Russian state-owned Rosatom would buy a Canadian uranium country with operations in the US. Presumably it's just business, and Uranium One still sells (as well as produces) uranium in the US market. The other point is that the Clinton Foundation never has and never will cleanse itself of the stench of operating as an influence peddler with ties into the US government -- although it helps that Hillary is no longer Secretary of State or otherwise government-employed, and it will help more as Clinton's numerous political cronies move away from the family and its foundation.

  • Adam Federman: The Plot to Loot America's Wilderness: Meet Jim Cason, who "seems to be running the show" under Ryan Zinke at the Department of Interior, where he's actively cultivating what promises to be a hundred Teapot Dome scandals.

  • Brent D Griffiths: Trump on UCLA basketball players: 'I should have left them in jail': If run in The New Yorker, this article would have been filed under "Annals of Pettiness."

  • Gregory Hellman: House declares US military role in Yemen's civil war unauthorized: Vote was 366-30, declaring that intervention in Yemen is not authorized under previous "authorization of force" resolutions, including the sweeping "war on terror" resolution from 2001. The US has conducted drone attacks in Yemen well before the Saudi intervention in a civil war that grew out of Arab Spring demonstrations (although the Houthi revolt dates back even further). The US has supported the Saudi intervention verbally, with arms shipments, and with target intelligence, contributing to a major humanitarian disaster. Unfortunately, the new resolution seems to have little teeth.

  • Cameron Joseph: Norm Coleman: I'd Have Beaten Franken in '08 if Groping Photo Had Come Out: Probably. The final tally had Franken ahead by 312 votes, so Coleman isn't insisting on much of a swing. On the other hand, I don't live in Minnesota, so I don't have any real feel for how the actual 2008 campaign played out. Coleman won his seat in 2002 after Paul Wellstone died in a plane crash and was replaced by a shockingly tone-deaf Walter Mondale -- inactive in politics since 1984. Coleman's win was a fluke, and he was never very popular, but Franken had a very tough job unseating him in 2008 -- I suspect his real problem was Upton Sinclair Complex (the famous novelist ran for governor of California in 1934 and lost, in no small part because opponents could pick strange quotes from his novels and present them out of context). Franken's comedy career must have presented Coleman's handlers with a treasure trove of bad jokes and faux pas, so many that the "groping picture" might even have gotten lost in the noise. For his part, Franken bent over backwards to present himself as serious and sober, and six years later was reelected easily, by 10.4 points, an improvement suggesting many of the voters' doubts have been answered. I've never been much of a fan, either of his comedy or of how he cozied up to the military to gain a mainstream political perch. Still, I've reluctantly grown to admire his dedication and earnestness as a politician, a vocation that has lately become ever more precarious for honest folk. So I was shocked when the photo/story revealed, not so much by the content as by how eagerly the media gobbled it up. In particular, TPM, which I usually look at first when I get up for a quick summary of the latest political flaps, filed eight straight stories on Franken in their prioritized central column, to the exclusion of not just Roy Moore (who had the next three stories) but also of the House passing the Republican tax scam bill.

    A couple more links on Franken:

    In addition to Yglesias above, I'm running into more reconsiderations of Bill Clinton, basically showing that the atmosphere has changed between the 1990s and now, making Clinton look all the worse. For example:

  • Fred Kaplan: Trigger Warning: "A congressional hearing underlines the dangers posed by an unstable president with unchecked authority to launch nuclear weapons."

  • Azmat Khan/Anand Gopal: The Uncounted: Long and gruesome article on the air war against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, who and what got hit, paying some attention to the mistakes that are never expected but somehow always occur whenever the US goes to war.

    Between April 2016 and June 2017, we visited the sites of nearly 150 airstrikes across northern Iraq, not long after ISIS was evicted from them. We toured the wreckage; we interviewed hundreds of witnesses, survivors, family members, intelligence informants and local officials; we photographed bomb fragments, scoured local news sources, identified ISIS targets in the vicinity and mapped the destruction through satellite imagery. We also visited the American air base in Qatar where the coalition directs the air campaign. There, we were given access to the main operations floor and interviewed senior commanders, intelligence officials, legal advisers and civilian-casualty assessment experts. We provided their analysts with the coordinates and date ranges of every airstrike -- 103 in all -- in three ISIS-controlled areas and examined their responses. The result is the first systematic, ground-based sample of airstrikes in Iraq since this latest military action began in 2014. . . .

    We found that one in five of the coalition strikes we identified resulted in civilian death, a rate more than 31 times that acknowledged by the coalition. It is at such a distance from official claims that, in terms of civilian deaths, this may be the least transparent war in recent American history. Our reporting, moreover, revealed a consistent failure by the coalition to investigate claims properly or to keep records that make it possible to investigate the claims at all. While some of the civilian deaths we documented were a result of proximity to a legitimate ISIS target, many others appear to be the result simply of flawed or outdated intelligence that conflated civilians with combatants. In this system, Iraqis are considered guilty until proved innocent. Those who survive the strikes, people like Basim Razzo, remain marked as possible ISIS sympathizers, with no discernible path to clear their names.

  • Mike Konczal: Republicans are weaponizing the tax code: Key fact here: "Corporations are flush with cash from large profits and aggressively low interest rates, yet they aren't investing." This belies any pretense that cutting corporate tax rates. Without any real growth prospects, the cuts not only favor the rich, the other changes are meant to penalize everyone else, moving into the realm of class war ("capital is eating the economy").

    The crucial thing to realize is that this tax reform effort reflects more than the normal conservative allergic reaction to progressive taxation -- going far beyond undoing the modest progressive grains achieved by Presidents Obama and Clinton. Three major changes stand out: These taxes are far more focused on owners than on workers, even by Republican standards. They take advantage of the ambiguity of what counts as income, weaponizing that vagueness to help their friends and hurt their enemies.

    And after years of pushing for a safety net that works through the tax code, in order to keep more social democratic reforms at bay, Republicans now reveal their willingness to demolish even those modest protections. Their actions make clear that a welfare state based on tax credits and refunds, rather than universal commitments, is all too vulnerable.

    More links on taxes:

  • Josh Marshall: There's a Digital Media Crush. But No One Will Say It: The key sentence here is "The move to video is driven entirely by advertiser demand." The reasoning behind this is left unexplained, but obviously it's because advertising embedded in videos is more intrusive than static space advertising. Part of this is that it's harder for users to block as well as ignore, for the same reason radio and television advertising are more intrusive than print advertising. They're also dumber, because they don't have to offer something useful like information to catch your attention. If past experience is any guide, it also leads to a dumbing down of content, which eventually will make the content close to worthless. This is all bad news for media companies hoping to make bucks off the Internet, and more so for writers trying to scratch out a living from those companies. But more than anything else, it calls into question the public value of an information system based on advertising. From the very beginning, media dependent on advertising have been corrupted by it, and that's only gotten worse as advertisers have gained leverage and targeting data. Concentration of media business only makes this worse, but even if we could reverse the latter -- breaking up effective monopolies and monopsonies and restoring "net neutrality" rules -- we should be questioning the very idea of public information systems built on advertising.

  • Dylan Matthews: Senate Republicans are making it easier to push through Trump's judge picks: Technically, this is about "blue slips," which is one of those undemocratic rules which allow individual Senators to flout their power, but few things in the Republican agenda are more precious to them (or their donors) than packing the courts with verified movement conservatives.

  • Andrew Prokop/Jen Kirby: The Republican Party's Roy Moore catastrophe, explained. A couple impressions here. For one, their listing of Moore's "extremist views" seem pretty run-of-the-mill -- things that some 15-20% of Americans might if not agree with him at least find untroubling. I suspect this understates his extremism, especially on issues of religious freedom, where he has staked out his turf as a Christian nationalist. Second, I've been under the impression that his sexual misdeeds were in the range of harassment (compounded by the youth of his victims, as young as 14), but at least one of the complaints reads like attempted assault -- the girl in question was 16, and when Moore broke off the attack, he allegedly said to the girl: "You are a child. I am the Dictrict Attorney of Etowah County. If you tell anyone about this, no one will believe you." I reckon it as progress that such charges are highly credible now. As for the effect these revelations may have on the election, note: "A recent poll even showed that 29 percent of the state's voters say the allegations make them more likely to vote for Moore."

    Also on Moore:

  • Corey Robin: Trump's Fantasy Capitalism: "How the president undermines Republicans' traditional economic arguments." Robin, by the way, has a new edition of his The Reactionary Mind book out, the subtitle Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Donald Trump as opposed to the original Sarah Palin. For reviews, see John Holbro and Paul Rosenberg.

  • Grant Schulte/James Nord: Oil Leak Will Not Factor Into Decision to Expand Keystone Pipeline: Of course, because right after a 250,000 gallon oil leak time is no time to talk about how approving a pipeline could lead to more oil leaks. Also, note how the authors had to walk back one of their more outrageous claims:

    This version of the story corrects that there have been 17 leaks the same size or larger than the Keystone spill instead of 17 larger than this spill. One of the spills was the same size.

  • Matt Taibbi: RIP Edward Herman, Who Co-Wrote a Book That's Now More Important Than Ever: The book, co-authored by Noam Chomsky, is Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, originally published in 1988.

    The really sad part about the Herman/Chomsky thesis was that it didn't rely upon coercion or violence. Newspapers and TV channels portrayed the world in this America-centric way not because they were forced to. Mostly, they were just intellectually lazy and disinterested in the stated mission of their business, i.e., telling the truth.

    In fact, media outlets were simply vehicles for conveying ads, and a consistent and un-troubling view of the political universe was a prerequisite for selling cars, candy bars, detergent, etc. Upset people don't buy stuff. This is why Sunday afternoon broadcasts featured golf tournaments and not police beatings or reports from cancer wards near Superfund sites.

    The news business was about making money, and making money back then for big media was easy. So why make a fuss?

    It occurs to me that the big money isn't so easy any more, which helps explain the air of desperation that hangs over cable and internet news outlets these days -- their need to provoke fear and stoke fights, building up an air of loyalty. One even suspects that Fox gravitated to right-wing politics less because of its sponsorship than due to a psychological profile of a sizable audience that could be captured. As Taibbi concludes, "It's a shame [Herman] never wrote a sequel. Now more than ever, we could use another Manufacturing Consent."

    By the way, while Herman and Chomsky identified "anti-communism" as their "fifth filter," that should be generalized to denigrating anyone on the US list of bad countries or movements -- especially the routine characterization of Russia, Iran, and Venezuela as non-democracies, even though all three have elections that are arguably fairer and freer than America's 2016 election. One consequence of this is that American media has lost all credibility in many of these nations. For example, see Oleg Kashin: When Russians stopped believing in the Western media.

  • Zephyr Teachout: The Menendez trial revealed everything that's gone wrong with US bribery law: The corruption case against Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) ended in a hung jury mistrial, even short of the appeals process which has severely weakened most anti-corruption laws.

    I'm with the jury: Even after closely following the trial, I have no strong view on Menendez's guilt or innocence, given the laws they have to work with. I do have a view, however, that the Supreme Court has been playing a shell game with corruption laws. It has stripped anti-corruption legislation of its power in two areas: campaign finance laws and anti-bribery laws. The public is left with little recourse against a growing threat of corruption. Whatever happens with this particular case, this is no way to do corruption law. . . .

    It is fitting that the trial ended with a hung jury. The Court has struck down so many laws that would have made this case easier. If laws prohibiting Super PACs were still in place, we'd have no $600,000 donation. But in the very case enabling Super PACs, Citizens United, the Court suggested that bribery laws would be powerful tools to combat corruption threats -- and then went ahead and weakened those laws. . . .

    Was it friendship? Was it corrupt? Or was it our fault for creating a system that encourages "friendships" that blur the line?