Sunday, March 11, 2018

Weekend Roundup

Didn't mean to write much this weekend. Just figured I'd go through the motions, starting with the usual Yglesias links, to have something for future reference, and to check how the update mechanism works on the transplanted website. Guess I got a little carried away.

Some scattered links this week:

  • Matthew Yglesias: 4 stories that really mattered this week: Trump slapped tariffs on steel and aluminum; Gary Cohn says he's quitting: the top White House economic adviser, formerly of Goldman Sachs; Trump will (maybe) do a summit with Kim Jong Un; Red-state teachers are getting angry: in West Virginia, most obviously, with Oklahoma and Arizona in the wings. Other Yglesias pieces:

    • Globalists, explained: Evidently, some people view "globalist" as an anti-semitic term. Today's example: Trump describing the departing Gary Cohn as a "globalist." An older term is "cosmopolitan," although I've found the German more interesting: "weltbürgerlich" -- citizen of the world. Such allusions seem to be endemic with the alt-right, even more so with Trump, but I'm not sure that it's useful at all to dwell on them. Nearly everything that Trump and his ilk say that can be read as anti-semitic is also wrong for other reasons, and people miss that when they get hung up on anti-semitic stereotypes. One word that doesn't appear here is "neoliberal," which is actually a better description of Cohn -- including Cohn's differences from the Trumpian nationalists -- but doesn't seem to be part of their vocabulary.

    • The real danger to the US economy in Trump's trade policy: "It's not the tariffs; it's what happens next.".

    • The DCCC should chill out and do less to try to pick Democrats' nominees: "There's very little evidence that "electable" moderates do better."

    • Trump's trade demand to China is pathetically small: "The US-China trade deficit rose $28 billion last year. Trump is asking for a $1 billion cut." Actually, that understates the plan, as The actual trade deficit is $375.2 billion -- "a drop in the bucket." Moreover, the plan is just an ask: "Trump is asking the Chinese to find a way to cut it by less than 0.27 percent but acting like he's a tough guy."

    • Cory Booker's new Workers Dividend Act, explained: "A Bloomberg analysis shows that of America's $54 billion corporate tax windfall, so far $21.1 billion has been kicked to shareholders in the form of 'buybacks,' almost twice as much as has gone to employees in higher compensation and far more than has been spent on capital investments or research and development." Booker's bill seeks to rebalance that by giving people who work for companies that do stock buybacks a piece of the profit. That's nice for them, but doesn't help anyone else. It is, at best, a tiny step toward equality, piggybacked on a larger step in the opposite direction.

    • The 17 Democrats selling out on bank regulation is worse than it looks. I don't see a list or a vote total, so I'm not sure just who he's blaming, but the bill in question is the Republicans' gift to the industry that sunk the economy in 2008, a more/less significant rollback of the relatively feeble reform package known as Dodd-Frank. For more on the bill, see: Emily Stewart: The bank deregulation bill in the Senate, explained; also Ross Barkan: The rich and the right want to dynamite Dodd-Frank -- and Democrats are helping them do it:

      It's worth considering when bipartisanship can still exist in this deeply polarizing moment. It cannot live where there is a growing national consensus, as over the severity of climate change or the scourge of mass shootings.

      It cannot live in any kind of economic matter that benefits the working class or the poor, even after Donald Trump managed to shred rightwing economic orthodoxies on his way to the presidency -- never mind that he's governing like a Koch brothers pawn.

      Democrats and Republicans can only come together to feather the nests of the rich and powerful. Weakening Dodd-Frank confirms the worst suspicions of any cynical voter -- that the political class really is colluding to screw them over.

    • Trump's tariffs are a scary look at what happens when he actually tries to govern: Good point, but I certainly wouldn't go this far:

      The Trump era has, so far, gone better than anyone had any right to expect. It's true that as problems arise -- flu, drug overdoses, Hurricane Maria, school shootings -- Trump invariably fails to rise to the occasion. And, from time to time, he for no good reason opts to pour salt in America's racial wounds. His immigration policies are making us poorer and meaner, while his health care and tax policies make our economy more unequal.

      But on a day-to-day basis, life goes on.

      Despite the frightening concentration of incompetence in the West Wing, many critical posts -- most of all at the Departments of Defense and Treasury and the Federal Reserve -- appear to be in the hands of basically capable people. Trump's habit of relentlessly deferring to GOP congressional leadership on policy issues is disappointing if you were a true believer in Trumpism, but sort of vaguely reassuring if you found the idea of installing a narcissistic rage-holic in the Oval Office alarming.

      I'd submit that there's a lot more on the negative side of the ledger, and little if anything on the positive. I'll also stipulate that most folks won't understand the negative side until it comes crashing down on them like a ton of bricks, but the number of people who this has happened to already is non-trivial (especially immigrants of various degrees, and most people in Puerto Rico). Policies by their very nature have slow triggers, but that doesn't mean that today's decisions won't catch up with us sooner or later. And while it's true that some of Trump's administrators don't seem to be competent enough to destroy departments they loathe -- Rich Perry, Ben Carson, Betsy De Vos -- others are more than capable -- Ryan Zinke at Interior, Scott Pruitt at EPA, Budget Director Mick Mulvaney. That Mattis and Mnuchin lack the same streak of nihilism has more to do with the usefulness of their departments to rich donors than relative sanity.

  • James K Galbraith: Trump's steel tariffs are mere political theater: Points out something I haven't seen noted elsewhere: similar tariffs have been implemented twice before, first under Reagan and again by GW Bush. Neither had any real effect, least of all on rebuilding the American steel industry. Nor did they generate much controversy, as they were mere "political theater" by politicians who were otherwise reliable neoliberals. If Trump's generating more controversy, that's probably because he's ideologically less trustworthy -- not that he actually understands or believes in anything.

  • Jeff Goodell: Welcome to the Age of Climate Migration: "Extreme weather due to climate change displaced more than a million people from their homes last year. It could soon reshape the nation." Key takeaway here: it's already happening, and it's measurable.

  • Jane Mayer: Christopher Steele, the Man Behind the Trump Dossier. Long piece, dovetails with and expands upon what I know about the various Russia scandals.

  • Heather Digby Parton: Running for the White House Exits: Who Would Want to Work for President Trump Anyway?

  • Matt Shuman: At Political Rally, Trump Repeats Call to Give Drug Dealers the Death Penalty: Disturbing on many levels, partly because his ego seems to require the periodic stoking, partly because he clearly figures that what would appeal most to his base is public blood-letting. Curious, too, that he actually cites China as his authority on how effective the death penalty is at stopping drug traffic. (Of course, he could just as well have cited the Philippines' Duterte, who like trump believes "act first, due process later.")

  • Matt Taibbi: Trump Is a Dangerous Idiot. So Why Are We Pushing Him Toward War? Provides many examples of people with serious foreign policy credentials (i.e., a track record of having been wrong many times in the past) doing just that: two that especially stick in my crawl are David Ignatius and Kenneth Pollack ("of the American Enterprise Institute").

    Meanwhile, in the States, the only thing about Donald Trump that any sane person ever had to be grateful for was that he entered the White House claiming to be isolationist and war-averse. That soon proved to be a lie like almost everything else about his campaign, but Jesus, do we have to help this clown down the road toward General Trump fantasies?

    We have the dumbest, least competent White House in history. Whatever else anyone in America has as a goal for Trump's remaining time in office, the single most important priority must to be keeping this guy away from the nuclear button. Almost anything else would be survivable.

    Which is why it makes no sense to be taunting Trump and basically calling him a wuss for negotiating with Kim Jong Un or being insufficiently aggressive in Syria.

    To get a glimpse of what passes for thinking in Pollack's brain, take a look at his Learning From Israel's Political Assassination Program, a review of Ronen Bergman's huge (753 pp.) book, Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel's Targeted Assassinations. Israel has undertaken such "targeted killings" throughout its history, but the rate (and indifference to "collateral damage") increased dramatically after 2001. The US has followed suit:

    There have been many who have objected, claiming that the killings inspire more attacks on the United States, complicate our diplomacy and undermine our moral authority in the world. Yet the targeted killings drone on with no end in sight. Just counting the campaigns in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, the Bush administration conducted at least 47 targeted killings by drones, while under the Obama administration that number rose to 542.

    America's difficult relationship with targeted killing and the dilemmas we may face in the future are beautifully illuminated by the longer story of Israel's experiences with assassination in its own endless war against terrorism. Israel has always been just a bit farther down this slippery slope than the United States. If we're willing, we can learn where the bumps are along the way by watching the Israelis careening ahead of us.

    Pollack admits that "targeted killings" are a mere tactic in the larger effort to suppress terrorism, and that there's no reason to think they're particularly effective. He goes on to blather a lot about COIN theory, without recognizing that Israel has never been in the least interested in "winning hearts and minds." Israel's sole goal, at least since Independence and arguably a good deal earlier, has been to establish an ethnocracy and maintain it by overwhelming force. They understand that they cannot convince Palestinians to agree to a debased and subservient status, but they persist in believing that they can maintain their two-tier society by imposing domination and terror.

    Pollack does fault Israel for being unwilling to accept the "land-for-peace" option to actually resolve the conflict, but he fails to understand why. For "land-for-peace" to work, two things have to happen: the reason Israel might be willing to give up land is to rid itself of Palestinians, thus ensuring a stronger Jewish majority; having secured demographic dominance, Israel could then afford to offer its remaining Palestinians equal rights, ending the conflict. It is this latter point, equality, that Israelis cannot abide. They would rather endure perpetual conflict than to give up their superiority.

    I doubt Bergman's book reveals much "secret history." Israel has been bragging about their assassination program for many years, and now that the US is wrapped up in its own murderous program, they must feel little public relations risk. On the other hand, the US does at least go through the motions of presenting itself as "a beacon of freedom and justice" -- a stance which is instantly discredited by its murder program (not that many people outside America still believed it). For a better review of Rise and Kill First, see: "Rise and Kill First" Explores the Corrupting Effects of Israel's Assassination Program.

    Taibbi also wrote The New Blacklist: "Russiagate may have been aimed at Trump to start, but it's become a way of targeting all dissent." He notes the existence of an outfit named Hamilton 68, which tracks everything that seems to be approved by Russia's propagandists (especially through their bots), on the theory that whatever Russia promotes should be opposed. "In fact, unless you're a Hillary Clinton Democrat, you've probably been portrayed as having somehow been in on it, at one time or another."

  • Peter Van Buren: What critics of North Korea summit get wrong: Well, first he disposes of the idea that simply meeting confers legitimacy on North Korea. He also makes a plausible case for starting the diplomatic process with a photo-op of the leaders in general agreement. He doesn't delve into the fact that the shakier of the leaders is Trump, both due to his massive ignorance and his relatively weak grasp on America's military and security establishments -- the clearest evidence there is how cheerfully he concedes policy direction to the generals (e.g., in Afghanistan).

  • Alex Ward: The past 24 hours in Trump scandals, explained: Seems less like a headline than a feature column that could be rewritten each day. This particular one came out on Thursday, March 8, and covers Trump being sued by porn star Stormy Daniels, and Erik Prince lying about meeting Russians in the Seychelles to discuss setting up a back channel between Trump and Putin, and Trump attempting to influence people Mueller has interviewed in the Russia probe. Tomorrow, and next week, and next month, you'll get a slightly different list of scandals, but as long as the media limits them to things Trump actually knows and does, they'll most likely stay at this trivial level. The real scandals go much deeper, but unless Trump tweets about them, how will White House reporters know?