Sunday, May 13, 2018

Weekend Roundup

I finally finished reading Katy Tur's Unbelievable: My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History. That would be the Trump campaign, which she covered from May 2015 to election night, choosing the most value-neutral terms she can stomach ("craziest"?). Pretty short on analysis and critical insight, but she found herself the target of Trump's ire and bullying often enough to develop a real distaste for the man -- especially during rallies where Trump whipped up the frenzied masses and threatened to unleash them on the press section. Still, she witnessed enough of Trump's effect on his adoring crowds to take them seriously -- just not enough to tell us much about them. That's partly because a large slice of the book is about her art and craft; i.e., how trivial TV "news" reporting really is. The book is organized with chapters on the road intercut with as many bits on election day and night, as it dawns on everyone that the unthinkable has happened. One memorable line: "To actually watch Trump's miracle come in is a shock like missing the last stair or sugaring your coffee with what proves to be salt. It's not just an intellectual experience. The whole body responds." The following page (p. 279) includes a bit on Michael Cohen (no longer "best known for an appearance on CNN back in August") celebrating at the victory party.

This is the third (or fourth or fifth) book on the election season I've read, after Matt Taibbi: Insane Clown President: Dispatches From the 2016 Circus and Jonathan Allen/Amie Parnes: Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton's Doomed Campaign, and one might also add Bernie Sanders: Our Revolution: A Future to Believe In (first part a memoir of the campaign, followed by a platform statement) and/or David Frum: Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic (more on the campaign, especially the DNC hacks, but carries into a critique of the Trump administration). None of these are likely to stand as history -- Taibbi has the best instincts, but threw his book too fast from already dated pieces without sorting out or understanding the whiplash. Nor have I seen much that looks promising.

I suspect that when historians finally develop the stomach to relive the 2016 campaign, they'll recognize in Trump's campaign rallies some variant on the common theme of religious revivalism mixed in with a surprisingly adroit scam of both mass and highly-targeted media, with the Kochs, Mercers, and (yes) Russians lurking in the background. On the other hand, most Democrats couldn't see how brittle and lacklustre Clinton's path to the nomination was, and therefore how vulnerable she was to a shameless demagogue like Trump. Much of this is hinted at in various chronicles and broadsides, but thus far most observers have been so committed to their particular views that they've overshot the mark.

On the other hand, each new week offers more insights into the strange worldview of Donald Trump and the increasingly strange world he is plunging us into. The two major stories this past week are Trump's repudiation of the Iran nuclear deal (oddly juxtaposed with official optimism for a similar deal with North Korea) and much more information about Trump attorney Michael Cohen's efforts to cash in on his client's election.

Some scattered links this week:

  • Matthew Yglesias: The week's 4 biggest political stories, explained: President Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal; Trump set a date to negotiate a nuclear deal with Korea (June 12 in Singapore); Michael Cohen got caught with his hand in the cookie jar; Trump admitted he's not doing some stuff ("the White House admitted that despite those promises, there will be no 2018 infrastructure bill . . . Trump dropped promises to have Medicare negotiate cheaper rates"). Other Yglesias posts:

    • Drug company stocks really liked today's Trump speech on drug prices: Chart shows the SPDR S&P Pharmaceuticals index spiking after the speech (although note the momentary dip, as if it took a few minutes for the early tough talk to be discounted. "The president is very selective about which promises he keeps, with the "economic populist" ones seemingly always the ones to end up on the cutting room floor."

    • There's an easier way for California to build greener housing: just build more homes. Hard to read the chart here, but the states with 40+ tons or carbon dioxide per person are Wyoming, North Dakota, Alaska, and (I think) Louisiana. On the low end, with less than 10 tons, are District of Columbia, New York, California, Oregon, and (I think) Massachusetts.

    • Sheldon Adelson cuts $30 million check to help House Republicans win the midterms. "The $30 million the octogenarian casino billionaire is spending on the midterms may sound like a lot, but it's actually a drop in the bucket compared to what Adelson's heirs will gain thanks to the estate tax cut provisions of Trump tax bill alone. . . . The same goes for even richer people like the Koch brothers, who are planning to spend even larger sums in the midterms."

    • Michael Cohen's LLC got secret corporate payments. What about Trump's shell companies? More significant than the revelation that a crony like Cohen would seek to profit from his association with Trump is the revelation that a number of big name companies were eager to buy his "services."

      In a normal presidency, it would be very difficult to make large, secret cash payments to the president of the United States as a means of currying favor with him. You could donate to his reelection campaign, but that would have to be disclosed. And you could hire people who you believe to have a relationship with him in hopes that they can peddle influence on your behalf (as AT&T and Novartis apparently did with Cohen), but it might not work.

      But there would be basically no way to directly pay the president in secret. Trump has changed that. It's completely unclear how Avenatti came to be in possession of the documents that reveal the payments to Essential Consultants, but it came about due to some kind of leak. Had they not leaked, we would still be in the dark. And since no financial documents related to any of the many LLCs that Trump controls personally have leaked, we have no idea who is paying him or why. . . .

      If Trump disclosed his tax returns, as is customary for presidential candidates, then those returns would contain fairly detailed statements regarding the incomes of these various entities. It would, of course, still be possible to conceal the true source of income through the use of further shell companies. A firm that wanted to pay Trump could, for example, create an indirectly controlled intermediary shell company, give money to that shell entity, and then have the shell entity hire DT Aerospace (Bermuda) LLC or whichever other Trump-owned firm it likes. But if we saw Trump's books, we would at least see clear evidence of him getting paid by mystery entities that could then be investigated by Congress or by journalists on their own terms.

      Without the tax returns, however, we know nothing.

      The tax return issue has long since fallen off the front burner of the political debate. It has come to be viewed in some circles as an esoteric or pathetic hang-up of Trump's opponents. But it's quite clear that the Trump Organization continues to be aggressively profit-seeking, quite clear that companies and individuals with interests in American politics openly seek to court Trump's favor by patronizing his hotel and clubs, and now clear that at least some companies with significant regulatory interests have also sought to advance their policy agenda via secret cash payments to an LLC controlled by a Trump associate.

      More Cohen links:

    • Republicans are deploying troll feminism to try to get Gina Haspel confirmed: "Bad-faith arguments about gender representation from people who don't believe in it."

    • Stormy Daniels is crowding out Democrats' 2018 message.

  • Barbara Ehrenreich: Patriarchy Deflated.

  • Henry Farrell: The "Intellectual Dark Web," explained: what Jordan Peterson has in common with the alt-right: In response to Bari Weiss: Meet the Renegades of the Intellectual Dark Web, a group of "thinkers" whose common thread seems to be an eagerness to rationalize various forms of bigotry. IDW, evidently taken from a website which follows and certifies them, strikes me as a silly name. Such people don't seem to be especially obscure -- the best known to me is Sam Harris, who promotes atheism by slandering Islam. (Chris Hedges featured him prominently in I Don't Believe in Atheists.) As Farrell points out, there is nothing new in their fancy for theories of racial and sexual superiority -- indeed, we're not far removed from a time when such pseudo-science was commonplace. For another reaction, see Michelle Goldberg: How the Online Left Fuels the Right, which doesn't really argue what the title suggests -- more like how hard it is for the left to be understood through the jaundiced views of the right.

    One suspects the same title writer had a hand in Gerard Alexander: Liberals, You're Not as Smart as You Think You Are. I'm not as touchy about petty slander of liberals as I am of the left, probably because as a teen, even though I had absorbed most of the liberal/progressive view of American history, I associated liberals with the Cold War and even more so the hot war in Vietnam, and I wound up devouring books like Robert Paul Wolff's The Poverty of Liberalism. I mellowed later, partly as most of the liberal hawks turned into neocons, and partly because middle class society I grew up in no longer looked so oppressive. Still, I've always maintained a basic distinction between liberals and leftists: the former focus on individuals and their freedom, emphasizing equal opportunities over results; the latter think more of classes and aggregates, of social relations, and aim for equal results (within some practicable limits). Conservatives rarely bother with such distinctions: their cardinal principle is to preserve inequality from birth onward, so they view liberals and leftists as interchangeable, and this has led to an uneasy alliance between defined by a common enemy. Still, my disquisition is beside the point here. Alexander is one of those who group anyone resisting the conservative onslaught as liberal. And his point is that liberals aren't as effective as they should be, because they're kind of annoying:

    Liberals dominate the entertainment industry, many of the most influential news sources and America's universities. This means that people with progressive leanings are everywhere in the public eye -- and are also on the college campuses attended by many people's children or grandkids. These platforms come with a lot of power to express values, confer credibility and celebrity and start national conversations that others really can't ignore.

    But this makes liberals feel more powerful than they are. Or, more accurately, this kind of power is double-edged. Liberals often don't realize how provocative or inflammatory they can be. In exercising their power, they regularly not only persuade and attract but also annoy and repel.

    In fact, liberals may be more effective at causing resentment than in getting people to come their way. I'm not talking about the possibility that jokes at the 2011 correspondents' association dinner may have pushed Mr. Trump to run for president to begin with. I mean that the "army of comedy" that Michael Moore thought would bring Mr. Trump down will instead be what builds him up in the minds of millions of voters.

    I rather doubt that even the premise is true here. There are a lot of conservatives in academia, and behind the scenes right-wing donors (like the Kochs) have inordinate influence. Media and entertainment companies (increasingly the same thing) are owned by rich megacorps, backed by even richer bankers. The media isn't divided between left and right. It is either blatantly right-partisan or equivocally mainstream, attempting to balance "legitimate" politician viewpoints while covering news only to the extent it fits within the conventional wisdom and is entertaining. Needless to say, this dynamic has been very helpful for the right -- not just by bottling much of their base up in a propaganda bubble, where they can dismiss inconvenient news as the work of liberal elites, but by demanding their "enemies" grant them a degree of legitimacy that never need be reciprocated.

    As for the "army of comedy," it's pretty certain that no Trump fans are tuning in, so whatever umbrage they take comes secondhand, usually with context removed (see, e.g., the right-wing reaction to the Michelle Wolf event). I've watched Stephen Colbert and Seth Myers -- thanks to DVR, just the opening parts -- ever since the election, and I must say that they have helped to make this stretch of time more tolerable. They offer a useful but not-very-reliable daily news recap -- mostly stories I've already read about -- but more important for me is the solidarity with the audience: I'm reminded every weekday night that I'm not alone, that there are a lot of people out there as appalled by Trump as I am. (Indeed, proof of audience numbers is that fact that staid corporations allow those shows to air.)

    Alexander goes on to fault liberals for attacking racism with "a wide brush," to harping on "microaggressions," to their "tremendous intellectual and moral self-confidence that smacks of superiority." Still, there's nothing pecularly liberal about these complaints. Conservatives hold almost identically opposite views -- what else can you make of their constant harping about "political correctness" and "liberal elites"? On the other hand, conservative umbrage is often about changing the subject -- e.g., try squaring the complaint that "liberal politicians portrayed conservative positions on immigration reform as presumptively racist" with Trump's "shithole countries" remark. Maybe it is possible to construct an anti-immigration platform that isn't racist, but it's damn hard to sell it to the American people on any other basis, and we have good evidence that many of the people who are pushing such a program are doing so for staunchly racist reasons. And consider this paragraph:

    Liberals are trapped in a self-reinforcing cycle. When they use their positions in American culture to lecture, judge and disdain, they push more people into an opposing coalition that liberals are increasingly prone to think of as deplorable. That only validates their own worst prejudices about the other America.

    Not only can you substitute "conservatives" for "liberals" there, doing so would make it even more true. Maybe the title should have been, "Conservatives, You're Not as Smart as You Think You Are"?

  • Conor Friedersdorf: It's Time for Trump Voters to Face the Bitter Truth: "Republicans elected a president who promised to take on D.C. -- instead, Trump has presided over an extraordinary auction of access and influence." It seems like it's only a matter of time before even Trump voters realize how extraordinarily corrupt Trump and his circle are, with Michael Cohen's influence peddling a prime example:

    Back in 2016, "established K Street firms were grabbing any Trump people they could find," Nick Confessore reported in "How to Get Rich in Trump's Washington," a feature for The New York Times Magazine. "Jim Murphy, Trump's former political director, joined the lobbying giant BakerHostetler, while another firm, Fidelis Government Relations, struck up a partnership with Bill Smith, Mike Pence's former chief of staff. All told, close to 20 ex-aides of Trump, friends, and hangers-on had made their way into Washington's influence business."

    Brian Ballard, a longtime Trump acquaintance, seems to have leveraged his relationship to the president most profitably. The Turkish government is among his firm's many clients. Politico says Turkey pays $125,000 per month. Why does it find that price worthwhile?

    George David Banks was a top energy aide to Donald Trump who came from the world of lobbying. But he quit his job in the White House when he couldn't get a security clearance. Here's what he told E&E News, an energy trade publication: "Going back to be a full-time swamp creature is certainly an attractive option." Then he rejoined his former post at the American Council for Capital Formation, a think tank and lobbying group. I guess he wasn't joking.

    Remember when Trump told you that he would release his tax returns and then never did? Remember when he said that if he won the election he would put his business interests aside? "Ever since Trump and his family arrived in Washington they have essentially hung a for-sale sign on the White House by refusing to meaningfully separate themselves from their own business interests," Bloomberg's Tim O'Brien notes. "That's certainly not lost on the companies that do business in or with Washington. They know that in Trump's swamp, you pay to play."

  • Tara Golshan: Trump may just blow up the farm bill over demanding food stamp work requirements. I've long seen the Agriculture bill as a compromise deal between rural politicians who want market supports for farmers and agribusiness and urban politicians who want to fund SNAP (the "food stamp" program). Both sides have been uneasy about such a deal -- stupidly, I think, especially when they resort to anti-welfare arguments. Some wish to cut back or kill off what they see as subsidies to corporate agribusiness, and I don't doubt that there are aspects of the bill that could be tightened up. But much of the business side of the bill is necessary to stabilize notoriously volatile markets, and that stability and solvency helps make food relatively affordable for everyone. Some libertarians oppose such efforts, but most conservatives are fine with business-as-usual, so the far-right has focused on blowing up SNAP, and their chosen vector is "work requirements" for recipients. In one sense that seems innocuous: most SNAP recipients do in fact work -- albeit for wages too low to feed their families. Actually, there are four key beneficiaries to SNAP: the recipients; their employers, as this helps to keep low-wage jobs viable; retailers, who cash food stamps at retail prices; and agribusiness (farmers but especially processed food companies), who benefit from the larger market. But while most Republicans approve of at least the last three, the "moral critique" of welfare has become such a reflex among the far-right -- not least because Democrats from Daniel Moynahan to Bill Clinton have lent credence to the chorus -- that all they can see is an opportunity to harass and hurt poor people. Not a big surprise that Trump should get caught up in their rhetoric. Among other things, there is probably no area of government that he understands less about than agricultural policy. (Not that there aren't other areas where zero applies, but given that rural areas voted so heavily for him, his lack of understanding and interest is especially glaring.)

    By the way, one of the most outspoken saboteurs of agriculture bills past was Tim Huelskamp, who represented the massive 1st District in west Kansas. He wound up upsetting farmers and businesses in the district so badly that they challenged him in the Republican primary and beat him -- the only case I know of where a right-winger has been purged by regular Republicans.

    For another comment on the agriculture bill and SNAP, see Paul Krugman: Let Them Eat Trump Steaks, where he notes:

    And yes, this means that some of the biggest victims of Trump's obsession with cutting "welfare" will be the very people who put him in office.

    Consider Owsley County, Ky., at the epicenter of Appalachia's regional crisis. More than half the county's population receives food stamps; 84 percent of its voters supported Trump in 2016. Did they know what they were voting for?

    In the end, I don't believe there's any policy justification for the attack on food stamps: It's not about the incentives, and it's not about the money. And even the racial animus that traditionally underlies attacks on U.S. social programs has receded partially into the background.

    No, this is about petty cruelty turned into a principle of government. It's about privileged people who look at the less fortunate and don't think, "There but for the grace of God go I"; they just see a bunch of losers. They don't want to help the less fortunate; in fact, they get angry at the very idea of public aid that makes those losers a bit less miserable.

  • Jen Kirby/Emily Stewart: The very long list of high-profile White House departures: Cheat sheet, in case you need a reminder. Actually, not nearly as long as it should be.

  • Ezra Klein: American democracy as faced worse threats than Donald Trump. "We had a Civil War, after all." Point taken, but I have little confidence that, should Trump be deposed (even routinely in the 2020 election) that some/many of his supporters won't also elect "to exercise their Second Amendment rights." And after that, Klein's list starts to peter out. "We interned families of Japanese descent." Yeah, bad, but how is that really different from what INS is doing now? Or that we're currently running the largest and most intensive mass incarceration system in the world? "We pitched into the Iraq War based on lies." And Trump has recommitted us to the domain of truth? How can anyone write this the same week Trump tried to destroy the Iran nuclear deal? Or a year after Trump withdrew from the Paris Accords? I suppose Klein does us a service reminding us that "the era that we often hold up as the golden age of American democracy was far less democratic, far less liberal, far less decent, than [we think it was] today." Where he gets into trouble is in omitting those bracketed words, implying that today's political/economic/cultural order is more democratic, more liberal, and more decent than any time in America's past. One might credit some people with striving to make that true, but damn few of them hold any degree of power or even influence, and those people who do are pretty damn explicit about their campaign against democracy, liberalism, and decency (although they may prefer other words). The fact is nobody knows how bad it actually is, let alone how bad it's likely to get. The fact is that Trump has maintained the same 40% approval rate he was elected with, despite near-daily embarrassments. The Republicans hold structural advantages in Congress and the courts and all across the nation that they exploit ruthlessly and without shame. And the rich people who bankrolled them are only getting richer, with segment of the media in their pockets -- making sure that no serious changes are possible, regardless of how bad they screw things up.

    I don't mind that Klein is trying to put forth "the case for optimism about America." Nor do I doubt that he brings up things that could help to change the current course. And he's young enough to enjoy some hope that he'll live to see a change. But that's far from a lock, or even a good bet. Much of today's bad policy will only have incremental effect, slowly adding up until something serious breaks -- a causality that many won't notice even when it's too late. It was, after all, decisions early in the 1980s under Reagan that led to stagnant wages, inflated profits, and poisonous inequality. Al Qaeda and ISIS are direct descendants of the US decision in 1979 to back Islamic Jihad in Afghanistan, although that too can be traced back to American decisions from 1945 on to take a dominant role in Middle Eastern oil and, only slightly later, to turn against the Soviet Union and progressive movements everywhere. Alongside the Cold War, the late 1940s passage of Taft-Hartley started to turn the tide against labor unions, over time reducing them from a third to a twelfth of the private sector workforce. The failure to take climate change seriously is similarly rooted in the politics of oil, and in the corruption that the Reagan-era mantra "greed is good" promoted. Trump and virtually all Republicans have embraced this ideology and continue to promote it -- indeed, will so until it fails them, most probably catastrophically.

    I'm pretty suspicious of people like Yascha Mounk, interviewed by Klein in the audio accompanying this piece (and no, I didn't listen to the interview), but I do think Trump is "breaking norms" in ways that are simply treacherous. For instance, see Jen Kirby: Poll: most Republicans now think Trump is being framed by the FBI. Now personally, I'm pretty suspicious of the FBI, and I realize that they have a long history of abusing their power to hunt and hurt those they regard as enemies. Still, Trump is not the sort of guy who easily finds himself on the FBI enemies list. But more importantly, the source of this suspicion is clearly the Trump camp, in a cynical attempt to condition his followers to reject any actual evidence of wrong-doing. This is actually an old trick -- one Trump plied before the election when he argued that the system is rigged against him and vowed not to accept "fake news" reports of his loss.

  • Mark Landler: Clashing Views on Iran Reflect a New Balance of Power in the Cabinet: Article credits John Bolton as the decisive force behind Trump's abandonment of the agreement Obama and Kerry negotiated to resolve the supposed crisis of Iran's nuclear program (really just separating uranium isotopes), with Mike Pompeo the swing vote, and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis opposed ("but did not push the case as vocally toward the end"). More Iran links:

    • Peter Beinart: Abandoning Iran Deal, U.S. Joins Israel in Axis of Escalation, who sums up in a tweet: "There are now two Wests. One, led by the leaders of Germany, France + UK, which believes in liberal democracy and international law. And a second, headquartered in Washington + Jerusalem, which holds those values in contempt." By the way, Beinart previously wrote: Trump May Already Be Violating the Iran Deal.

    • Phyllis Bennis: Is Trump's Abandonment of the Iran Nuke Deal a Prelude to War? Given that Israel attacked alleged Iranian targets in Syria within hours of Trump's announcement, I'd have to say yes. Israel had spent the previous week warning about Iran's desire to attack Israel, so it seems likely that Netanyahu was hoping to provoke an attack. Had it come from Hezbollah in Lebanon, Israel could respond like they did in 2006. On the other hand, had it come from Iran itself, Israel would no doubt have appealed to Trump to do the honors -- given that US forces in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and the Persian Gulf were much closer to Iranian targets. I doubt that Trump actually wants to start a war with Iran, but subcontracting US foreign policy to Israel and the Saudis runs that risk. It was, after all, those countries which put all the pressure on Trump to break the Iran deal. Indeed, they put all the pressure on the US to address the so-called crisis of Iran's "nuclear program" in the first place, only to reject the only possible solution to their anxieties. For more on Israel, see Richard Silverman below. For more on the Saudis, see Ben Freeman/William D Hartung: How the Saudis Wooed Donald Trump.

    • Michael Klare: The Road to Hell in the Middle East.

    • Trita Parsi: Who Ordered Black Cube's Dirty Tricks? Hired by the White House, the Israeli company was tasked to "find or fabricate incriminating information about former Obama administration officials, as well as people and organizations that had a part in securing the Iran nuclear deal."

    • Paul R Pillar: Hold the Deal-Killers Accountable.

    • Matt Shuham: Promising Chinese Jobs, Trump Commits to Backing Off Iran Sanctions Violator ZTE: At least Trump cares about someone's jobs.

    • Richard Silverman: Bibi Gins Up Another War to Save His Political Ass: Within hours of Trump's deal breaking, Israeli planes bombed Iranian targets within Syria. And, well, "Bibi's polling numbers have shot through the roof since the last attack on Syria."

    • Jon Swaine: US threatens European companies with sanctions after Iran deal pullout.

    • Stephen M Walt: The Art of the Regime Change: The assumption of the deal breakers is that when the Iranian people realize that they can no longer enjoy the fruits of friendship with the US, they'll revolt and overthrow their clerical masters and replace them with a new regime that will show sufficient deference to the US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. Either that, or they'll do so after the US blows up a sufficient swath of the country. Neither, well, seems very realistic, not that the US lacks the capability to show them what real nuclear powers can do.

      Otto von Bismarck once quipped that it was good to learn from one's mistakes but better to learn from someone else's. This latest episode shows that the United States is not really capable of learning from either. And it suggests that Winston Churchill's apocryphal comment about the United States always doing the right thing should now be revised. Under Trump, it appears, the United States will always do the wrong thing but only after first considering -- and rejecting -- all the obviously superior alternatives.

    • Philip Weiss: By wrecking Iran deal, Trump politicized Israel: Not that that hurts Trump, but virtually every Democrat in Washington supported the Iran nuke deal, and now it's going to be hard for them to deny that Israel was the driving force behind wrecking it.

      If there was one bright spot in the day, it was the almost universal anger and anguish that followed Trump's speech, and the determination to try and undo his action by any means the rest of us can. Even the neoconservatives who have pushed this action seemed afraid of what it meant. Even Chuck Schumer, who had opposed his own president on the Iran deal three years ago because of the "threat to Israel," was against Trump.

      On the other hand, just this week Sheldon Adelson wrote the Republicans a $30 million check. Sure suggests "pay to play" is still live and well in the new Trump swamp. Also that the US can be steered into war pretty damn cheap.

  • Dara Lind: Donald Trump is reportedly furious that the US can't shut down the border:

    Nielsen, as well as Attorney General Jeff Sessions, apparently tried to explain to the president that the federal government is constrained in what it can do by the law, but Trump reportedly wasn't having it. "We need to shut it down," he yelled at Nielsen at one point, per the Post report. "We're closed."

    Yelling at people is a management tactic for President Trump; sometimes his anger inspires long-held grudges, but sometimes it dissipates once he's gotten it off his chest. But he's spent the past month in an apparent panic about the border, and his outburst at Nielsen shows it isn't going away.

    The president's tantrum is totally divorced from policy reality: The government can't "shut it down," and Nielsen and Sessions appear to be working aggressively to do what they can to crack down at the border. But Trump's panic is the inevitable consequence of treating the current situation at the border as an unprecedented crisis -- which Nielsen's DHS, as well as the White House, has made a concerted effort to do.

  • Aja Romano: The fight to save net neutrality, explained: "Congress or the courts could still save net neutrality -- but don't get your hopes up." Important piece, originally written in December 2017 and newly updated.

  • Dylan Scott: The 6 most interesting parts of Trump's mostly disappointing drug price plan. I don't see anything here that fundamentally changes the pharmaceutical industry, with a couple things that could conceivably make their predation worse (e.g., "Allow certain Part D drugs to be priced differently based on different uses "). Most ominous is: "Undertake some vaguely defined changes to US trade policy to try to address the disparity between what the US pays for drugs and what other countries pay" -- i.e., get other countries to pay more for American drugs than current negotiated prices. This has actually been a long running trade agreement strategy, as US has always been willing to trade manufacturing jobs to coax other countries into paying more "intellectual property" rents. That's why the deals have often turned out to be lose-lose propositions for American workers.

    More on drug prices/profits:

    • Sarah Kliff: The true story of America's sky-high prescription drug prices. Well, mostly true. Kliff assumes that private pharmaceutical companies have to make profits in order to attract investments to develop new drugs. That's only sort of the way it works now: drug companies spend a lot more money on things like marketing than they do on r&d. Moreover, their r&d expenses are targeted on things with the highest return, not necessarily on the greatest need. For instance, an expensive continuing term treatment for a widespread problem like cholesterol or inflammation is better for business than a cure for a rare condition. On the other hand, a lot of medical research is already funded by government, and more would be even more effective -- not least because information can be shared, instead of hiding it in closed, competitive corporate labs. One can even negotiate a treaty whereby (virtually) all nations agree to invest a minimum amount to produce treatments that everyone can use. (That would answer Kliff's argument that US companies, motivated by undoubted greed, produce a disproportionate amount of the world's cures -- not that I'm sure that's even true.)

    • Paul Krugman: What's Good for Pharma Isn't Good for America (Wonkish).

    • Dylan Scott: The blockbuster fight over this obscure federal program explains America's drug prices: All about 340B.

  • Emily Stewart: Trump taps private equity billionaire for intelligence advisory role: Stephen Feinberg, co-CEO of Cerberus Capital, which owns shadowy defense contractor DynCorp -- one of their big cash cows was training the Afghan police force. Stephen Witt wrote a profile back last July: Stephen Feinberg, the private military contractor who has Trump's ear.

  • Todd VanDerWerff: The rise of the American news desert: "Predominantly white rural areas supported Trump. They also often lack robust local media." Sees local media as "a necessary counterbalance to national narratives," and notes that:

    The slow death of local media has contributed to the epistemic closure in conservative circles, especially in rural areas. That's led to the proliferation of so-called "fake news" stories, widely spread on Facebook, which are sometimes outright untrue and sometimes just a hugely misleading presentation of a true news story.

    No one has been sure how to puncture that conservative media bubble, to combat the narratives that lots of rural white voters have come to believe are true. It's impossible to contradict fake news with "real news" when the sources offering that real news aren't trusted.

    But local media outlets, which used to carry that sort of clout within their communities, are being economically strangled by an environment that increasingly requires turning to nationally syndicated programs and stories, rather than the sort of local focus that used to mark these outlets. . . .

    Conservatives have spent decades effectively discrediting the national media among their partisans. But that effort wouldn't have been as effective if there weren't space for it to flourish, in places where local news organizations have been strangled or cut to the bone.

    My first thought was that there is a national media desert as well, but then I thought of cable news and it started looking more like a jungle, where constant fear of snakes and spiders and the inability to see more than a few feet makes it impossible to grasp what's really going on.

  • Alex Ward: Pompeo: US and North Korea "in complete agreement" on goals of Trump-Kim summit: Of course, nobody know what he thinks he's talking about. The article posits a series of steps by North Korea (along with "robust verification," etc.), each to be followed by some sort of "reward" (mostly in the form of reduced sanctions) for their good behavior. That doesn't sound like a very fair deal to me, which matters because stable deals need to be based on mutual respect and fairness, not on who can apply the most pressure. Moreover, Ward buys into the company line that:

    North Korea has also historically been a very tough country to negotiate with, in large part because it routinely breaks the deals it agrees to. The US and other countries have been trying to come to a diplomatic, negotiated agreement with North Korea over its nuclear program since 1985. It's broken its commitments multiple times with the US, including walking out on a denuclearization deal in 2009.

    My impression is that the US is the one who has repeatedly sabotaged the various talks with North Korea (see, e.g., Six-party talks, which started in 2003 and ended without agreement in 2009). What's always been lacking has been American willingness to normalize relations with North Korea. Maybe Trump and Kim realize that's the only possible deal, and maybe they understand that neither country can afford to continue the impasse. Still, Trump's withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal should be proof that the US cannot be trusted to keep its promises.