Monday, January 1, 2018

Weekend Roundup

As 2017 ends, I'm reminded of how sick to my stomach I was election night 2016 -- I normally stay up past 4AM, so pretty much the whole weight of the catastrophe was clear before I tried to sleep. At that point I could predict a whole series of unfortunate future events. In that regard, I haven't been especially surprised by what Trump and the Republicans have done in 2017. They've pretty much lived up to the threat they clearly posed -- the main surprises coming in the form of comic excess, like cabinet secretaries Betsy DeVos, Rick Perry, and Ben Carson. Trump himself has proven to be even more of a bloviating buffoon than he was during the campaign. And his scatterbrained reign is succeeding in one important respect where Hillary Clinton's campaign failed: through his own ineptness, he's making it clear that the real threat to most Americans these days comes from regular Republicans. One shouldn't get overoptimistic that Democrats will capitalize on that point with a resounding electoral win in 2018, but that's not as much of a fantasy as it was a year ago when Clinton et al. snatched defeat from what should have been a clearcut victory.

Some scattered links this week:

  • Umair Irlan/Brian Resnick: Megadisasters devastated America this year. They're going to get worse. The big ticket items were hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, but floods, droughts, tornadoes, wildfires, and other severe weather took their toll.

    Requests for federal disaster aid jumped tenfold compared to 2016, with 4.7 million people registering with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

    As of October, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had counted 15 disasters with damages topping $1 billion, tying 2017 with 2011 for the most billion-dollar disasters in a year to date. And that was before the California wildfires.

    Many people reflexively blame these disasters on climate change, and there is evidence that some of that is true -- the piece looks at several such arguments. But the price tag is also rising due to increasing development, and also due to infrastructure neglect -- the Puerto Rican power grid the most obvious example. The other big question (not really raised here) is what happens if/when government fails to cope with disaster costs. Unfortunately, we're bound to find out the hard way.

  • Fred Kaplan: The UN Vote on Jerusalem Was a Dramatic Rebuke to Trump That He Brought on Himself: The UN voted 128-9 (with 35 abstentions) to "declare null and void the United States' recent recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel." The US (Trump and Nikki Haley) responded by throwing a hissy fit:

    The rebuke is amplified by the fact that Trump had announced the day before that he would revoke financial aid for any country that voted for the resolution. "Let them vote against us," he said at a cabinet meeting on Wednesday. "We'll save a lot. We don't care. But this isn't like it used to be where they could vote against you and then you pay them hundreds of millions of dollars. We're not going to be taken advantage of any longer."

    Trump's U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, wrote a letter to other delegates, warning, "The U.S. will be taking names" during the roll call. "As you consider your vote," she elaborated, "I encourage you to know the president and the U.S. take this vote personally. She then tweeted, "At the UN we're always asked to do more and give more. So, when we make a decision, at the will of the American ppl, abt where to locate OUR embassy, we don't expect those we've helped to target us." . . .

    The countries that voted for the resolution -- or, as Trump sees it, against him -- include four of the five biggest recipients of U.S. aid: Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, and Jordan. They also include countries that Trump has courted since taking office -- Saudi Arabia, Russia, China, India, Pakistan, and Vietnam. They also include every country in Western Europe, though Trump might not care about that.

  • Ezra Klein: Incoherent, authoritarian, uninformed: Trump's New York Times interview is a scary read. Charles P Pierce has a similar take on the same interview: Trump's New York Times Interview Is a Portrait of a Man in Cognitive Decline. Trump's becoming so incoherent it's impossible to discern any method in his madness. That may seem alarming, but it's giving too much credit to the office, assuming the myth of leadership that hasn't been true for many years. Even highly competent presidents -- Obama, most clearly, or Clinton or Johnson, or for that matter Eisenhower -- are often prisoners of their administrations, alliances and choices. Having approved a series of astonishingly bad personnel picks, Trump's already handed his administration over to its fate, something which will be increasingly clear as he continues to lose his grip. The best we can do under these circumstances is to refocus on what his staff actually do, and recognize the corruption and moral rot it's shot through with.

  • Paul Krugman: America Is Not Yet Lost: Still, it's been pretty bad:

    Many of us came into 2017 expecting the worst. And in many ways, the worst is what we got.

    Donald Trump has been every bit as horrible as one might have expected; he continues, day after day, to prove himself utterly unfit for office, morally and intellectually. And the Republican Party -- including so-called moderates -- turns out, if anything, to be even worse than one might have expected. At this point it's evidently composed entirely of cynical apparatchiks, willing to sell out every principle -- and every shred of their own dignity -- as long as their donors get big tax cuts.

    Meanwhile, conservative media have given up even the pretense of doing real reporting, and become blatant organs of ruling-party propaganda.

    Like Yglesias below, Krugman sees hope in the broad popular resistance that has risen up against Trump and the Republicans. Still:

    And even if voters rise up effectively against the awful people currently in power, we'll be a long way from restoring basic American values. Our democracy needs two decent parties, and at this point the G.O.P. seems to be irretrievably corrupt.

    Isn't that the rub? The Republicans have clawed their way back into power, after eight GW Bush years that by any objective standards should have been totally discrediting, precisely because most Americans (not just Republicans but many Democrats who supported Clinton) see avarice, greed, power, and corruption as the American value. That is what needs to be changed to restore decency to politics, to make democracy work for all. In that regard, I'd focus more on converting one party than both. The Republicans will change, as they always have, once the vast majority recoil against their corruption. But that won't happen until the people are presented with an honest alternative, which is what Hillary Clinton somehow failed to do in 2016.

    Krugman also wrote: Republicans Despise the Working Class and Republicans Despise the Working Class, Continued:

    Josh Barro argues that Republicans have forgotten how to talk about tax cuts. But I think it runs deeper: Republicans have developed a deep disdain for people who just work for a living, and this disdain shines through everything they do. This is true both on substance -- the tax bill heavily favors owners over workers -- and in the way they talk about it.

    I think one pretty obvious clue came when Ayn Rand groupie Paul Ryan gave a Labor Day speech extolling America's entrepreneurs ("job creators") without even mentioning the people who actually do the work. Such people regard jobs alternatively as charity or more often as a bottom line loss -- an expense best cut by automation or offshoring.

  • Sharon Lerner: Banned from the Banking Industry for Life, a Scott Pruitt Friend Finds a New Home at the EPA: Albert Kelly, head of the EPA's Superfund program -- a job he has no relevant experience for, unless fraud counts.

  • Maryam Saleh: One Year of Immigration Under Trump: My first thought a year ago was that of all the areas Trump could affect as president, the one he's likely to impact most directly, and most cruelly, is immigration. Plenty of competition, and some of his efforts have been partially stymied, but that fear has proven well grounded.

  • Mitch Smith: Fatal 'Swatting' Episode in Kansas Raises Quandry: Who Is to Blame? Big story here in Wichita also noted nationwide. A gamer in Los Angeles called police in Wichita reporting a murder and hostage situation. Police deployed a SWAT team to the prank address and shot and killed a resident.

  • Matthew Yglesias: The political lesson of 2017: resistance works: No week-in-review piece this week, but this is a fair note to strike to sum up the past year. Problem, of course, is that while resistance has halted or slowed down some very bad things, it hasn't won anything of note, while Trump and the Republicans have pushed lots of things through that will be hard if even possible to reverse. True, several attempts at "repeal and replace of Obamacare" failed, but Republicans still managed to sneak a repeal of the "individual mandate" -- never very popular but long touted as the cornerstone of any scheme to get to universal coverage through private insurance -- tacking it onto a bill that was already overwhelmingly unpopular. Where Democrats are easily cowed by any hint of unpopularity, Republicans just get more determined to use the power they have to enact the changes they want, always figuring they can con the public into giving them more power. That the electoral tide has shifted is a good sign, but in the short term will only make them more desperate. The tax bill is a prime example of taking what you can when you can, with no regard to public opinion. Indeed, the whole "smash and grab" operation known as the Trump administration is driven like that.

    Other Yglesias pieces:

    • How to Make Metro Great Again: Tinkering with the DC subway system.

    • The biggest surprise of Trump's first year is his hard-right economic policy: About the only "populist" move of Trump's early campaign was the scorn he heaped on big money donors, a luxury he enjoyed only so long as he could afford to self-finance his campaign. He eased off on that late in the campaign, secure that many voters would cut him some slack compared to the donor queen, Crooked Hillary. There never was any substance to his "economic populism" -- e.g., look at his tax cut proposals during the campaign -- and he wasted no time surrendering all the key economic positions to ultra-rich donors and their lackeys. Less successfully, he's let orthodox Republicans in Congress run his legislative agenda; in exchange, they haven't questioned his personal or political scandals, and more often than not tried to provide him cover. In the end, he lacks both the moral courage and intellectual depth to plot his own way. Hence he's turned himself into little more than a tool, a particularly rusty one at that.

    • The economy is normal again

  • Micah Zenko: How Donald Trump Learned to Love War in 2017: Well, seems to be an inescapable part of the job. In his first year, Obama may not have come to love war -- at least not as ardently as GW Bush in his first year -- but he was well on the way to becoming an enthusiastic participant. Hillary Clinton tried to convince us that she, and not Trump, the one truly prepared to be Commander-in-Chief, but all it takes is deference to the top brass to get passing marks in that test -- something she should have remembered as it was key to husband Bill's embrace of the military in his first war-loving year. The hope some had for Trump was that he would push his fondness for business deals ahead of the failed neocon agenda and realize that customary rivals like Iran, Russia, China, and even North Korea could be turned into business opportunities, benefiting American investors (if not workers).

    In reality, the Donald Trump administration has demonstrated no interest in reducing America's military commitments and interventions, nor committed itself in any meaningful way to preventing conflicts or resolving them. Moreover, as 2017 wraps up, the trend lines are actually running in the opposite direction, with no indication that the Trump administration has the right membership or motivation to turn things around.

    President Trump has maintained or expanded the wars that he inherited from his predecessor.

    As Jennifer Wilson and I pointed out in an appropriately titled column in August, "Donald Trump Is Dropping Bombs at Unprecedented Levels." Within eight months of assuming office, Trump -- with the announcement of six "precision aistrikes" in Libya -- had bombed every country that former President Barack Obama had in eight years. One month after that, the United States surpassed the 26,172 bombs that had been dropped in 2016. Through the end of December 2017, Trump had authorized more airstrikes in Somalia in one year (33), than George W. Bush and Obama had since the United States first began intervening there in early 2007 (30).

    The growth in airstrikes was accompanied by a more than proportional increase in civilian deaths, . . . But as the volume of airstrikes and deaths increased, the Trump administration has subsequently made no progress in winding down America's wars. Moreover, it doesn't even pretend that the United States should play any role in supporting diplomatic outcomes.

    While Obama was campaigning, he liked to say that he wants to change the way we think about war, but in remarkably short time it was he who changed his thinking. Trump scarcely had any thinking to change. His instinct to give the generals unstinting support locked him into Obama's failing wars. The Russia collusion scandal precludes any opening there. Obeisance to Israel and Saudi Arabia have reopened conflict with Iran. His own stupid bluster has turned North Korea into a potential nuclear confrontation. Meanwhile, he's tearing down the international institutions that offer the only path toward peace and stability.

  • TPM: 2017 Golden Dukes Winners Announced! Considering everything they had to choose from, a pretty lame selection: Scott Pruitt is guilty alone of more conspicuous corruption than anyone ranked here. Or maybe they didn't have that much to choose from? Maybe they only read TPM headlines? Rep. Duke Cunningham raked in millions and wound up in jail to get this award named.

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