Sunday, March 25, 2018
With Rex Tillerson and H.R. McMaster recently purged, Mike Pompeo
promoted to Secretary of State, torture diva Gina Haspel taking over
the CIA, and veteran blowhard John Bolton given the laughable title
of National Security Adviser, the closest the administration can come
to a moderating voice of sanity in foreign affairs is the guy nicknamed
"Mad Dog." Trump continues to replace his first team of "yes men"
with even more sycophantic wannabes, doubling down on his search for
the least critical, least competent hacks in American politics. On
the other hand, it's not as if delegating policy to the Republican
Party apparatchiki was doing anything to accomplish his vision of
"making America great again." Over the last few weeks he's not only
made major strides at cleaning house, he's pushed out several of his
signature trade initiatives. He seems determined to double down until
he blows himself up -- and surely you realize by now the last thing
he cares about is how that affects anyone else.
I don't say much about trade below, although I've probably read a
dozen pieces complaining either about how ineffective his tariffs will
be or how they'll lead to trade wars and other mischief that will make
us poorer. The first thing to understand about trade is that business
has already adjusted to whatever the status quo is, so anything that
changes it is going to upset their apple cart, much faster than it's
going to help anyone else out. So all restrictions on trade seem bad
to someone prepared to shout out about it. On the other hand, business
is eager to promote expansions to trade that offer short-term benefits,
especially before anyone who's going to be hurt can get organized. So
I take most of what I read with a grain of salt: not just because the
dialogue is polluted by interested bodies but because it's kind of a
sideshow. The question that matters is not whether there's more trade
or less, but what is the power balance between capital and labor (and
consumers, sure, but they're often touted by capitalists as the real
beneficiaries of lower-priced imports, something capitalists wouldn't
bother us with if they didn't stand to be bigger winners). The problem
with TPP wasn't that it reduced trade barriers. It was that it reduced
the power of people to regulate corporations, and that it sought to
increase corporate rents through "intellectual property" claims.
Aside from raising tax revenues, the purpose of tariffs is to protect
investment by organizing a captive, non-competitive market. However, in
a world where there is already more steelmaking capacity than there is
market, American steel companies won't make the investments to increase
steel production. Rather, they'll reap excess profits while the tariffs
last -- which probably won't be for long. Of course, that's not even
what Trump's thinking. He thinks he's penalizing foreign misbehavior
(like subsidizing investment then dumping overproduction). Maybe the
real problem is that Americans aren't doing the same things? But there's
a reason for that: we do all our business through private corporations,
which workers and citizens have no stake in, so we don't even have the
concept of directing investment where it might yield broad benefits.
On the other hand, note that if China decides to impose tariffs on
American goods, they're likely to back those up with strategic investments
to build competitive industries, temporarily protected behind those tariffs.
For an example of the kind of piece I've been ignoring (but spurred some
of my thinking above), see
Eduardo Porter/Guilbert Gates: How Trump's Protectionism Could Backfire.
Somewhat more amusing is
Paul Krugman: Trump and Trade and Zombies. Also see
Paul Krugman Explains Trade and Tariffs.
Some scattered links this week:
Matthew Yglesias: The week's 4 most important political stories, explained:
John Bolton will be the national security adviser (replacing H.R. McMaster;
quote: "Bolton apparently promised Trump 'he wouldn't start any wars' as a
condition for getting the job, so maybe he won't"); Trump switched trade wars
(first, the steel tariffs got gutted by carving out exceptions for a bunch
of countries which make up a large majority of US steel imports; then Trump
announced new tariffs on Chinese goods); We have an omnibus ($1.3 trillion
in government spending, including a little for the wall and a lot for the
military); Facebook is in hot water over data leaks (above and beyond the
mischief they do of their own). Other Yglesias pieces this week:
The partisan gender gap among millennials is staggeringly large:
"Women born after 1980 favor Democrats 70-23."
The case against Facebook: actually, several cases, including that it
"makes people depressed and lonely," and that it's poisoning society:
Rumors, misinformation, and bad reporting can and do exist in any medium.
But Facebook created a medium that is optimized for fakeness, not as an
algorithmic quirk but due to the core conception of the platform. By
turning news consumption and news discovery into a performative social
process, Facebook turns itself into a confirmation bias machine -- a
machine that can best be fed through deliberate engineering.
In reputable newsrooms, that's engineering that focuses on graphic
selection, headlines, and story angles while maintaining a commitment
to accuracy and basic integrity. But relaxing the constraint that the
story has to be accurate is a big leg up -- it lets you generate stories
that are well-designed to be psychologically pleasing, like telling
Trump-friendly white Catholics that the pope endorsed their man, while
also guaranteeing that your outlet gets a scoop.
Everyone loves nurses and hates Mitch McConnell.
The myth of "forcing people out of their cars"
Donald Trump's threat to the rule of law is much bigger than Robert
Fred Kaplan: It's Time to Panic Now: "John Bolton's appointment as
national security adviser puts us on a path to war." Bolton may or may
not be the most consistent, most inflexible of neocon warmongers, but
where he has really distinguished himself is in obstructing any option
other than war. If he can't bully the other side into submission, he'll
launch an attack, convinced of American omnipotence and oblivious to
any evidence to the contrary. The job of National Security Adviser is
to offer the president a range of options. Bolton sees no range, and
Trump must know that. If Trump's been frustrated by being surrounded
by advisers who argued against launching a "preventive" war with North
Korea, he won't have any problems with Bolton.
For more background on Bolton, see
David Bosco: The World According to Bolton [PDF, originally from
2005]. More Bolton pieces:
Summer Concepcion: Bolton Set to 'Clean House' at NSC, Ousting Dozens of
Kary Lowe: If John Bolton Is Right, Pearl Harbor Was Perfectly Legal:
Based on Bolton's argument that a "preventive war" against North Korea
would be "legal." By the way, note that a peculiar thing about "preventive"
is that the adjective becomes meaningless the moment you apply it to nouns
like "war": "preventive war" == "war," plain and simple. The adjective hides
Gareth Porter: The Untold Story of John Bolton's Campaign for War With
Matt Purple: A Madman on the National Security Council.
Walter Shapiro: John Bolton is a hawk itching for war - and few are there
to stop him: Actually, a pretty awful piece, scoring reasonable points
against Bolton then squandering them by by focusing on "his Neville
Chamberlain moustache." Worst is this:
As for Bolton, he was the wild man in George W Bush's tragically misguided,
but sane, administration. Under Trump, though, he may end up as the sanest
man in the Land of the Crazy.
Trump may be crazy but it was Bush's people who lambasted "the reality-based
community" -- hardly a sane position. And doesn't "tragically" imply some
sort of noble intentions? Bush seized on 9/11 as an excuse for becoming a
"war president" mostly because he remembered war boosting his father's
approval polls (which sunk like a rock after the Gulf War ended, a mistake
GW never came close to repeating. As for Bolton being the sane one now,
that's based on what?
Philip Weiss: War-loving, Muslim-hating John Bolton wants to give 'pieces'
of Palestine to Jordan and Egypt: This, by the way, isn't necessarily
a bad idea, at least compared to indefinitely extending the status quo --
evidently the agenda of virtually every party in Israel. Of course, it
would depend on the sort of details you can't expect Bolton to support
or even imagine: equal rights for all Palestinians left in Israel; local
democracy for the Palestinian pieces (given that neither Egypt nor Jordan
are remotely democratic); a complete shift of security responsibilities
from Israel to Egypt/Jordan; some serious money for reconstruction and
Robin Wright: John ("Bomb Iran") Bolton, the New Warmonger in the White
Jen Kirby: The March for Our Lives, explained: "Thousands turned out
for rallies in Washington, DC, and hundreds of cities across the United
Nomi Prins: Jared Kushner, You're Fired: "A Political Obituary for
the President's Son-in-Law."
Matt Taibbi: The Legacy of the Iraq War: Fifteen year anniversary
piece of Bush's invasion of Iraq. I would put more stress on Bush's
earlier invasion of Afghanistan, and indeed the whole premise that
the overbloated US military should be trusted, if not to defend us
from attacks like 9/11 at least to avenge them. On the other hand,
Taibbi goes the extra step in showing how the misuse of the military
in the Global War on Terror is rooted in the much older multi-faceted
war the US fought against the workers and peasants of the world, the
one we sanitize by calling it the Cold War. He also ends memorably
It was for sure a contributing factor in the election of Donald Trump,
whose total ignorance and disrespect for both the law and the rights
of people deviates not one iota from our official policies as they've
evolved in the last fifteen years.
Trump is just too stupid to use the antiseptic terminology we once
thought we had to cook up to cloak our barbarism. He says "torture"
instead of "enhanced interrogation" because he can't remember what the
difference is supposed to be. Which is understandable. Fifteen years
is a long time for a rotting brain to keep up a pretense.
We flatter ourselves that Trump is an aberration. He isn't. He's a
depraved, cowardly, above-the-law bully, just like the country we've
allowed ourselves to become in the last fifteen years.
Posted before Trump's Bolton pick, but the likeness is pretty glaring.
Also looking back on America's recent wars:
Andrew Bacevich: A Memo to the Publisher of the New York Times.
One thing here is that I don't see how you can complain about the
Times' contribution to "having tacitly accepted that, for the
United States, war has become a permanent condition," without noting
a single thing that the Times has published on Israel in the
last, oh, sixty years.