Thursday, January 11, 2018

Weekend Roundup

I've been reading David Frum's Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic, and generally finding it useful in its clear and principled critique of Trump's vanity, authoritarianism, and corruption, and how Frum's fellow conservatives have squandered whatever principles they may have had (probably not many) in becoming toadying enablers to such a public menace. Among other things, he's finally convinced me that the Russians had something to do with electing Trump, especially (not quite the same thing) by releasing the Podesta hack mere hours after the "Access Hollywood" tape. (By the way, what we need to really clarify the issue isn't a more complete record of Trump-Russia contacts, but a much better understanding of the various Trump/Republican cyber efforts, which seem to have had an outsized impact on election day. My guess is that expertise and data flowed both ways, not that I've seen any proof of that. We do have proof of high-level contacts, which suggests intent to collude, but how did that get turned into meaningful acts?)

The book is not without faults, such as his fawning over General H.R. McMaster (among other things a Vietnam War defeat denier), or his own background as a G.W. Bush speechwriter (reportedly the guy who coined the "axis of evil" phrase). Based on the intro, at some point I expected him to finally explain why Trumpism is bad for conservatives, and he finally takes a shot at that on pp. 206-207:

Maybe you do not much care about the future of the Republican Party. You should. Conservatives will always be with us. If conservatives become convinced that they cannot win democratically, they will not abandon conservatism. They will reject democracy. The stability of American society depends on conservatives' ability to find a way forward from the Trump dead end, toward a conservatism that can not only win elections but also govern responsibly, a conservatism that is culturally modern, economically inclusive, and environmentally responsible, that upholds markets at home and US leadership internationally.

He then spends another page expanding on what enlightened, principled conservatives believe in and should be doing -- none of which has any currency within the actual Republican Party, at least as constituted in the White House and Congress. He doesn't say this, but the closest match to his ideal conservative politician is Barack Obama. On the other hand, his beloved Republicans have already realized that they cannot win fair democratic elections, so grasp at every campaign trick and every tactical manoeuvre at their disposal: huge money, bald-faced lies, gerrymandering, filibusters, packing the courts. They know full well that their policies are extremely unpopular, but they persist in pushing them through, hoping that come election time they can turn the voters' ire against opponents who are often caught up in their own corruption and incompetence.

If you look back at how the Republicans formed their coalition -- one that has never been overwhelmingly popular, one that has often had to depend on low voter turnout to edge out narrow wins -- you'll find that they have repeatedly swapped away responsible establishmentarian (which is a form of conservative) positions to capture blocks willing to vote against their own economic interests. It wouldn't be difficult to imagine conservatives who didn't pander to racial or other prejudice, who accepted that abortion is a private matter, who favored sensible restrictions on guns, who favored a much lower profile for the military, who didn't feel threatened by immigration, who understood the need to protect and preserve the environment, who recognized that equal justice is essential for any sort of free and fair society. Republicans took those positions not out of ideological conviction but because they hoped to capture significant blocks of irrational voters. Indeed, it's not uncommon for conservatives in other countries to accept high progressive taxes and a robust social welfare net, because those policies have proven effective at building stable middle class nations. (For example, right-leaning parties in Switzerland and Taiwan were responsible for creating universal health care systems -- if only to take the issue away from left-leaning parties.)

But not only have Republicans undermined their traditional values by opportunistic demagoguery, they've surrendered control of the party to a very small cabal of extremely wealthy donors, who've imposed an extreme laissez-faire economic doctrine on top of all the bigotry and invective they've built the Party on. The problem there is not only does their ideology not work for the Party's base voters, it doesn't work as a governing philosophy. Thus far, Republican rule has blown up three times: under Nixon's skullduggery, under Bush I's corruption, and under Bush II's war and much more. And the prospects of Trump solving any of those problems are about as close to zero as you can get. The fact that Republicans keep bouncing back after each disaster is the chief political problem of our times, especially as it appears they've doubled down each time. Until they're totally repudiated, nothing in the party will get better.

Some scattered links this week:

  • Matthew Yglesias: The 4 most important stories in politics this week: The government shut down for six hours; What the bill actually does: the budget deal that ended the shutdown; DREAMers in the balance: one of the most pressing problems not addressed in the bill; Another senior White House official resigned in disgrace: Rob Porter. The first three were all tangents of the shutdown/budget deal, so I expected more. Other Yglesias pieces this week:

  • Jeff Bezos' Quest to Find America's Stupidest Mayor: So Amazon is taking bids from cities/counties/states to host their "HQ2," offering some large number of office jobs to the winner, i.e., the taxpayers willing to offer them the biggest kickback. Businesses do this all the time, and the bigger the prize they can offer, the more saliva they have to wade through. Is this a good deal, even locally? Most likely not. Of course, it's even worse for the federal government, where the zero sum game adds up to zero. There should be a federal law to either outlaw tax allowances for developments or to tax them punitively. That wouldn't end all such bidding, but it would be a good start, and taxing other enticements could follow. As for the supposed paybacks:

    However, most research indicates that the cost to state and local governments for these subsidies typically outweighs the benefits in terms of employment and tax revenue, including in the cases of Amazon's growing network of fulfillment centers.

    A new analysis by the Economic Policy Institute looking at employment in counties that managed to land a fulfillment center in the last 15 years found no evidence that overall employment increased, and in some instances employment even fell relative to comparison counties. The implication was that the commitments made to win Amazon's facilities -- subsidies likely worth over $1 billion dollars in total -- usually were enough of a drag on the rest of the economy, either by imposing a higher tax burden or diverting resources, to more than offset any jobs and spending created by Amazon.

    One side note: Contrary to the article, Amazon has collected sales tax here in Kansas (one of the highest in the country) for many years now, but in our case at least that has little if any effect on whether we buy locally or through Amazon. Price, selection, and home delivery are our main reasons for buying on Amazon. I realize some people hate Amazon on principle, but I'm not one of them. Still, doesn't mean I'm not bothered about some of the shit they pull. For instance, the reason we pay sales tax is they opened a distribution center in southeast KS, with a lot of local perks for the jobs. They closed that as soon as the initial perks expired (but they still collect KS sales tax).

    Baker also wrote: Three Percent GDP Growth and Democrats' Irresponsible Opposition to Trump Tax Cuts. Note that he's not saying that opposition was irresponsible. Just that some of the reasons Democrats gave for opposing the bill were less than helpful: especially worries about increasing federal debt, and the argument that a 3% GDP growth rate was impossible -- although he does admit that nothing in the bill gets us anywhere near 3%. He should also acknowledge that an extra $1.5 trillion in debt will place downward pressure on public spending, and that would hurt the economy, as well as the people's valuation of government services. We would, for instance, be better off if the government left tax rates unchanged and simply spent an extra $1.5 trillion, especially on infrastructure but actually on pretty much anything. He goes into more nuts and bolts on GDP growth, but the bottom line there is that lowering taxes on the rich doesn't do a thing for GDP growth. The trick there -- what is needed to get past our current sluggish recovery -- is to pay workers more, creating more demand and luring more currently unemployed people into the workforce (standard unemployment rates are exceptionally low now, but labor participation rates are still well below 2007 levels, which helps explain why this recover doesn't feel as strong as previous ones.)

  • Dan Balz: White House under John Kelly is not so calm and competent after all: That's still mostly Trump, but people who thought Kelly himself was "calm and competent" have begun to have doubts -- and, really, this dates back before the Porter/Sorensen scandals. In particular, it's been pretty clear that Kelly was instrumental in getting Trump to back down from any bipartisan DACA deal, so he seems as much an ideology-driven activist as guys he's banished like Bannon and Gorka. I think he's still safe from external cries for his head (e.g., John Nichols: John Kelly Has Got to Go) but having embarrassed the petulant president, he's suddenly on thin ice. Another Kelly piece: Heather Digby Parton: John Kelly's True Self and ICE's Mission Creep: Tyranny Is Spreading.

  • David Dayen: Senate Republicans Kept Provision to Fight High Drug Prices Out of Spending Bill, Democrats Say.

  • Leo Gerard: Donald Trump's broken trade promises:

    The U.S. Commerce Department announced this week that the 2017 trade deficit rose to the highest level since 2008. . . . The Commerce Department reported the trade deficit rose 12 percent during Trump's first year in office, that the goods deficit with China jumped 8 percent to a record $375.2 billion, that the overall non-petroleum goods deficit shot up to an unprecedented high of $740.7 billion. Those terrible numbers testify to an administration dawdling, not performing for American workers who voted for Donald Trump based on campaign promises of quick and easy action to cure bad trade.

    I note this because I'm a bit surprised by the numbers, although most likely they're a continuation of past trends. Trade deficits dropped after 2008 because the economy crashed, resulting in less trade. If nothing else changed (and damn little did), it makes sense that trade deficits would have risen with the slow recovery. On the other hand, I've heard charges that Trump's treasury has been suppressing the dollar to improve exports, and I've noticed several instances of "punitive" tariffs (one that Boeing lobbied for would have added three times the cost of competing Canadian aircraft; it has since been struck down). I wouldn't go as far as the author in crediting "right thinking" to Trump officials like Wilbur Ross or Peter Navarro, nor would I whine about China "stealing trade secrets from American companies." Trump may be trying to renegotiate NAFTA, but he's finding that he's up not just against Canada and Mexico but many US businesses (including farmers) that have a stake in the status quo. Indeed, a big part of the rationale for his tax bill was that it would make it more attractive for foreigners to invest capital in the US. For that to happen, the US will need to run higher trade deficits, so foreigners will have more capital to return to the US. And what happens then is less that the new capital will generate jobs than that it will inflate asset prices, increasing inequality, while turning more and more American businesses into siphons for the rich abroad.

  • Thomas Gibbons-Neff: Trump Wants a Military Parade. But Not Everyone Is in Step. The official story is that Trump got the idea watching a Bastille Day parade in France. He assumed that if a second-rate power like France could put on a good show, a nation which spends more than ten times as much on soldiers and high-tech gadgetry could put on something really spectacular -- something he might cite as proof that he had "made America great again." Of course, it might have just been his fetish for large crowds and high ratings. But the first image that popped into my mind was stock footage of the parades of missiles and tanks the Soviet Union used to put on -- used by the American press to whip up Cold War fears, not least by reminding us that the Soviet system was close-minded, militaristic, and sinister. (Nowadays the same footage is most often used to represent North Korea.) The second image, of course, was of Nazi parades meant to psych up the Volk to launch WWII. The third was the military parade in Egypt where Sadat was assassinated. None of these images seem fitting for a peaceful democracy -- although you can appreciate Trump's confusion, as the America he seeks to "make great again" scarcely qualifies on either count. Indeed, one wonders why France march-steps: nostalgia for their former globe-spanning empire? some kind of complex over their having been reduced to a bit role in NATO? maybe they feel some need to intimidate their revolution-minded citizens? Colbert reacted to Trump: "He knows Bastille Day is about poor people chopping off rich people's heads, right?"

    Among the reactions to Trump's parade: Jonathan Freedland: Trump's desire for a military parade reveals him as a would-be despot; Alex Ward: Ex-Navy SEAL calls Trump's military parade idea "third world bullshit".

  • Umair Irfan: Puerto Rico's blackout, the largest in American history, explained.

  • Fred Kaplan: No Time to Talk: "Trump's foreign policy is all military, no diplomacy. We're starting to see the consequences." Trump's tilt toward the military reflects a belief that force (and only force) works -- that all America has to do is act like a Great Power (which Obama manifestly failed to do) and the world will fall in line. In such a world, adding to the military reinforces US primacy, while diplomacy (successful or not) undercuts it. Accordingly, Nikki Haley's job at the UN isn't to negotiate consensus; it's to bark out threats and orders. The problem is that the only way conflicts actually end is through agreement. Sometimes this can be very one-sided, as in the German and Japanese surrenders in WWII, but usually it's more complicated, involving more give-and-take. That's a worldview Trump cannot even conceive of, and that's not likely change, as it suits the neocons in his administration. They believe that it's actually good for conflicts to fester indeterminately, as long as the only response the president can conceive of is building up more power. Obama and Kerry (if not necessarily Clinton) could occasionally see another way out, but Trump cannot.

    Kaplan also wrote on nuclear strategy: Mattis Goes Nuclear: "Trump's secretary of defense has recently adopted some dubious and dangerous ideas about nuclear strategy." This piece fits in neatly with Matt Taibbi: Donald Trump's Thinking on Nukes Is Insane and Ignorant. It's certainly the case that Mattis isn't ignorant, and it's possible he's not insane either, but he's certainly deluded if he thinks he can see any strategic use for nuclear weapons. While Taibbi makes occasional reference to Trump's mental state, his article is actually more focused on the US military's latest strategizing on nuclear weapons, including the proliferation of "low-yield" warheads as part of a trillion dollar "modernization" program -- i.e., he's at least as troubled by what "adults" like Mattis are thinking as what Trump might foolishly do. One thing Taibbi and Kaplan don't do is explain why the nuclear bomb mandarins are pushing such an ambitious program now, and why it makes sense to people like Trump (aside from the obvious points about insanity and ignorance). What we're seeing is the convergence of two big ideas: the neocon notion that world order can only be enforced by a single global power, one that forces everyone else to tremble and pay tribute, and the conservative notion that the rich are rightful (and righteous) rulers. This trillion dollar nuclear "modernization" is the sort of thing big businesses do precisely because their smaller competitors cannot afford to. This actually fits well with the neocon hysteria over other countries' "nuclear ambitions" -- how dare anyone else try to compete with us?

    By the way, one other point occurs to me. Trump has long styled himself as the consummate dealmaker, so many people assumed he'd use his skills to negotiate (and in some cases re-negotiate) deals with America's adversaries. But actually, the deals Trump has done throughout his career are a very limited subset: alliances, based on mutual greed, to be satisfied at the expense of someone else (or, rather often it seems, his investors). About the only deal he's worked so far was with the Saudis: he sold them arms (and blanket support for their imperial ambitions in Yemen and elsewhere). But even that deal only worked because the Saudis were so eager to suck up to him -- a posture he's used to in the business world, but much rarer in world affairs. Of course, even that wasn't his own work. It was, at best, something others pitched to him in ways he could understand.

  • Patrick Lawrence: A major opening at the Pyeongchang Olympics -- but not from Mike Pence: "Kim Jong-un's sister and the South Korean president have lunch, while Mike Pence rattles the sabers ever louder." Lawrence makes several points:

    First, we can discard all assertions in the American press that Moon, the South Korean president, had suddenly turned hostile toward the North in conformity with U.S. policy after his election last May. . . .

    Second, there is as of now no evident intention in Washington to approach the negotiating table, as all other nations traditionally involved in the Korean crisis urge. This appears to hold true under any circumstances. . . .

    Third, in view of Pence's remarks in Tokyo and Seoul, we must conclude that there are no moderating voices on foreign policy left in the Trump administration -- to the extent, I mean, that there may have been any from the beginning. There had been intermittent suggestions that tempering perspectives in the executive were keeping things at least minimally civilized. Read Pence's remarks and imagine they were uttered by Mattis or H.R. McMaster, Trump's ever-belligerent national security adviser; either of the other two could have made those statements verbatim. By all appearances, these figures are now interchangeable. In short, the military runs the White House on the foreign policy side -- this without any inhibiting pressure one can detect from other quarters.

  • Dara Lind: Trump's draft plan to punish legal immigrants for sending US-born kids to Head Start: "Or getting insured through the Children's Health Insurance Program, or getting assistance to heat their homes."

  • Anna North: Trump's long history of employing -- and defending -- men accused of hurting women: Rob Porter, of course, but note the list also includes Andrew Puzder, Trump's Secretary of Labor nominee who was forced to withdraw due to assaulting his (now ex-) wife. Related: Jen Kirby: John Kelly has a history of believing men over women. And since these articles appeared, Kirby has also written about Trump speechwriter David Sorensen: A second White House aide resigns over domestic abuse allegations. Also see: David Remnick: A Reckoning With Women Awaits Trump: One reason the spousal abuse charges against Porter, Sorensen, and ultimately Kelly, blew up so fast is that they fit in perfectly with what we know and despise about Trump himself:

    Donald Trump is the least mysterious figure in the history of the American Presidency. His infantile character, duplicity, cold-heartedness, and self-dealing greed are evident not merely to the majority of the poll-answering electorate but, sooner or later, to those who make the decision to work at his side. . . . Sooner or later, Trump's satraps and lieutenants, present and former, come to betray a vivid sense of just how imperilled and imperilling this Presidency is. In their sotto-voce remarks to the White House press, these aides seem to compete in their synonyms for the President's modesty of intelligence ("moron," "idiot," "fool"); his colossal narcissism; his lack of human empathy. They admit to reporters how little he studies the basics of domestic policy and national security; how partial he is to autocrats like himself; how indifferent he is to allies. They are shocked, they proclaim, absolutely shocked. In the past few days, it has been Trump's misogyny, his heedless attitude toward women and issues of harassment and abuse, that has shocked them most. And those who know him best recognize the political consequences ahead.

  • Mark Schmitt: The Art of the Scam:

    Most American workers this month will see their take-home pay go up, some a little and a few quite a bit, as the new tax act takes effect and less money is withheld for federal income taxes.

    But for many, the gift will be short-lived. Because the law was rushed and written in a partisan frenzy, withholding may not be accurate and you might owe money to the I.R.S. next year. You might even be advised to file new forms so that more money is withheld -- and then the forms and withholding amounts are likely to change again later in the year and then again every year thereafter as the cuts for individuals head toward expiration. . . .

    It's the experience of the scam economy, where nothing is certain and anything gained might disappear without warning. It's an economy where risk is shifted onto individuals and families, financial predators lurk behind every robocall and pop-up ad, work schedules are changed without notice and Americans have endless choices about savings, education, health care and other needs but very little clear guidance about how to make those choices wisely or safely. . . .

    A proposal for paid family leave recently floated by Ivanka Trump and Senator Marco Rubio takes the policy of "give with one hand, take away with the other" to an absurd extreme: New parents could pay for leave from their future Social Security payments, trading a week of paid leave for a week of retirement benefits, as if people could make a rational, informed choice between needs that will typically fall 40 years apart in the life cycle.

    Finally, this administration has eagerly taken down the guardrails intended to protect individuals from the worst predators: the "fiduciary rule," which had required investment advisers to act in the interest of their clients; the hard-fought rules that protect students from worthless for-profit colleges and student loans they can't repay; and even the recent Labor Department rule requiring that employees receive the tips that are intended for them. Virtually every enforcement action of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has been put on hold or canceled -- even the investigation of the Equifax hack that disclosed the financial records of millions of people -- exposing all of us to even more scams and tricks.

    It bears noting that all this is happening at the same time people are encouraged to grab as much money as they can now because without it their future looks increasingly bleak -- a practice increasingly free of scruples, as certain political leaders attest.

  • Alex Ward: Israel just attacked Syria. That's scary, but nothing new. I've been reading that the US military's favorite option for dealing with North Korea is what they call a "bloody nose" attack: the US swoops in, blows some shit up, causes some hurt, but in a limited way that doesn't invite the escalation of a full-scale response. This is basically what Israel has been doing to Syria, repeatedly, since well before civil war broke out, and it's happened a half-dozen times or more during the war. Syria doesn't want to fight Israel, so they don't respond in kind, let alone escalate. The assumption is that North Korea doesn't really want to fight either, so would hold back and be humiliated rather than risk massive destruction. If you believe that, you have to ask yourself why you let North Korea's missiles and nuclear bombs worry you in the first place. Of course, introspection isn't a strong trait of anyone in the Trump administration, least of all the blowhard-in-chief.

    By the way, for more on what we're risking in Korea see: Yochi Dreazen: Here's what war with North Korea would look like. Also, a reminder of the last time the US made war on North Korea: David McNeill: Unknown to most Americans, the US 'totally destroyed' North Korea once before.