Sunday, June 10, 2018

Weekend Roundup

Big news this coming week will be the Singapore summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un. No one I've read has any idea what the Koreans (either North or South) are thinking going into the summit, nor do they seem to have any grasp on the Trump administration -- not just because Trump has been even cagier than usual (by which I mean his peculiar habit of masking ignorance with uncertainty and whimsy and passing it all off as unpredictability). Still, one piece I tried to read was Alex Ward: Trump just made 3 shocking statements about North Korea. I've cited Ward's pieces on Korea before, and expect something more or less sensible from him, but this isn't that. First problem here is that I can't find any statements, much less "shocking" ones, by Trump here. Actually, the most ignorant statements appear to be coming from Ward, such as: "Presidents don't habitually welcome murderous dictators to the White House"; and "Experts I spoke to said that's [a "normal" relationship with the US] something North has wanted for years because it would legitimize the Kim regime in the eyes of the world." Isn't it a little late to think that meeting with Donald Trump will legitimize anyone? Having been shunned by the Philadelphia Eagles and the Golden State Warriors, isn't Trump the one left with a desperate craving for legitimization?

The most shocking statement in the article is a subhed: "Kim has given little away. Trump has offered a lot." What exactly has Trump offered, other than his passive-aggressive willingness to meet, most recently couched in a vow to walk out of the meeting within ten minutes if he doesn't like the vibe? Ward cites an Ankit Panda tweet as "on table for June 12 should things go well, as of Trump's recent remarks":

  • declaration on end of Korean War
  • move toward normalization
  • agreement on moving toward a peace treaty
  • invitation for Kim Jong Un to the US
  • no sanctions relief until denuclearization (per Abe)

The first point is really a no-brainer. The War effectively ended 65 years ago, and nobody wants to restart it. Normalization should also be, and should move directly into some degree of sanctions relief -- certainly for trade of non-military goods. The US had diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union long before it broke up, and with China long before they adopted any market reforms, and it's certain that even the constrained degree of normalization there helped bring about reform. The US hasn't been willing to engage with North Korea because Americans bear grudges over the 1950-53 war they couldn't win, because North Korea is a useful enemy to bolster defense spending, and because (unlike China, to pick an obvious example) businesses don't forsee a lot of profit opportunity there. In short, it has, thus far, cost the US very little to perpetuate a state of hostility, and until North Korea developed ICBMs with nuclear warheads, there never seemed to be any risk.

There really isn't much risk even now: Kim certainly understands that any offensive use of his new weapons will only result in the obliteration of his country. It's become abundantly clear that the only value anyone has ever gained with nuclear weapons is deterrence against foreign attack. Still, no one likes being tested, let alone intimidated, and dread makes a fragile foundation for peace. Closed, hostile relations are lose-lose. Open, equitable relations can be win-win: most obviously by opening up free trade. What's happened over the past two years is that North Korea first put on a show of force to get US attention, then followed that up with a series of conciliatory gestures opening up the prospect of normal relations and mutual economic growth. If the US had sensible people in charge of foreign policy, this whole process would be straightforward. Unfortunately, we have Trump, and Trump has Bolton, but even people who should know better (like Ward) keep falling back into unhelpful habits.

The big question this summit faces is whether Trump and Kim can figure out a way to sequence steps they ultimately seem to be willing to agree to: ending the official state of hostilities, normalizing relations (which both includes ending sanctions and deescalating military threats). The Bolton position insists on North Korea giving up everything before the US gives in on anything, and Bolton is ideally positioned to whisper in Trump's gullible ear.

I could write something about what I think should happen, but it won't. As Trump says, "we'll see."

Still not doing full website updates, although I've been making plodding progress fixing the massive breakage from the crash. One thing of particular note is that I lost various passwords for my wife's media accounts. I've restored a couple, but not all of them, and I'm getting annoying complaints for lack of the rest. Thus far a more conspicuous problem is that I'm running Firefox without an ad blocker, so for the first time in years I'm experiencing the entire torrent of hideousness that supposedly keeps the internet free. I guess I'll chalk it up to experience, but the irritation factor is immense, and I'm not sure how long before I break down and try to defend myself. Still, I can imagine some sort of add-on short of a blocker that would make it more tolerable: some way to point at an object and either delete or cover it up.

Keyboard still giving me aggravation, but I have a replacement ready to plug in: a mechanical (brown) switch gaming thing with red LED backlighting. Certainly the most expensive keyboard I've bought since my typesetting days, or maybe my old IBM Selectric.

Some scattered links this week:

  • Matthew Yglesias didn't flag any important stories last week, but he did post some:

  • Zeeshan Aleem: The G7 summit looked like it was going okay. Then Trump got mad on Twitter. Note photo of Trump sitting meekly with his arms crossed and hands tucked away, while Angela Merkel gets in his face, with Shinzo Abe and John Bolton looking shifty in the background. [PS: Saw a tweet with this picture, captioned: 'The Persuasion of the Imbecile' by Caravaggio.] As everyone knows, Trump is a world class asshole, but he's not the sort who'll pick a fight in person. One recalls that back during the campaign he made a publicity trip to Mexico to confront the president there over his wall idea but was so polite he didn't dare ruffle any feathers, only to return to a rally in Phoenix that night where he delivered one of his most racist and xenophobic speeches. So I guess it's no surprise that he waited until he was back in his comfort zone -- tweeting from the plane as he flew away -- to trash the G7 conference and his fellow leaders' lukewarm efforts to make nice. Or maybe it just took some private time with Bolton to buck the president up. For what happened next, see: Matt Shuham: G7 Nations Respond to Trump's Rejection of Joint Statement: 'Let's Be Serious'. Given that the former G8 kicked Russia out to show their disapproval of Russia's annexation of Crimea, maybe they'll soon become the G6. Actually, I think Trump is right here: Trump wants Russia invited back into the G7. This notion that nations are entitled to shun and shame other countries because it plays well in domestic polling is hacking the world up into hostile camps, at a time when cooperation is more important than ever. And right now the biggest divider is none other than Donald Trump, although he actually gets way too much help from many Democrats. For instance here's a tweet that got forwarded to my feed:

    Popular vote winner Hillary Clinton warned everyone that Russia was interfering in the election and that, if elected, Trump would serve as Putin's Puppet.

    Trump just ruined the G7 summit and pissed off our allies . . . She was right about everything.

    Actually, she's not even right about this: the G7/8 isn't necessarily a meeting of "our allies" -- the members are supposedly the world's major economies -- and more inclusive would be better than less. On the other hand, she wouldn't have withdrawn from Paris, or from the Iran agreement, nor would she have levied steel and aluminum tariffs, which Trump turned into points of contention, not just with "allies" but with everyone. For more on this, see: Susan B Glasser: Under Trump, "America First" Really Is Turning Out to Be America Alone. You might also note this data point: a poll of Germans reveals that only 14% "consider the US a reliable partner"; the figure for Russia is 36%, China 43%.

  • Katie Annand: I work with children separated from caregivers at the border. What happens is unforgivable.

    In addition to the nearly incomprehensible suffering the United States is imposing on these children, the administration's new policy, which separates children from parents, makes it much harder for the child to make a claim for US protection. As of last month, all parents are being referred for prosecution because they crossed into the United States without documentation. The parents are placed into US Marshals custody in an adult detention facility, while the child is rendered "unaccompanied" and deportation proceedings are initiated against the child alone. Their case is completely separated from their parents and little to no communication is facilitated between the parent and child.

    Parents don't know what's happening to their children, and vice versa. This has significant implications for the child's ability to make their case for US protection. Often, adult family members have information and documents that are vital to making their case. We see children who may not know why they came to the United States -- parents and caregivers often do not tell their children the full story, lest they be scared or traumatized.

    Also see: Ryan Devereaux: 1,358 Children and Counting -- Trump's "Zero Tolerance" aBorder Policy Is Separating Families at Staggering Rates.

  • Nicholas Bagley: Trump's legal attack on the ACA isn't about health care. It's a war on the rule of law. Also: Dylan Scott: The Trump Administration believes Obamacare's preexisting conditions protections are now unconstitutional.

  • Fiona Harvey: 'Carbon bubble' could spark global financial crisis, study warns: A "bubble," here as elsewhere, is an excessively high valuation of an asset, making it likely to rapidly deflate in the future, probably damaging the global financial system. There is good reason to think that oil and gas reserves are overvalued, mostly because demand is likely to decline in favor of non-carbon energy sources (especially solar). Harvey also wrote What is the carbon bubble and what will happen if it bursts?

  • Emily Heiler: The New Yorker's Jane Mayer recommends 3 books about money and American politics: Jacob S Hacker/Paul Pierson: Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer -- and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class; F Scott Fitzgerald: The Diamond as Big as the Ritz; and Kim Phillips-Fein: Invisible Hands: The Businessmen's Crusade Against the New Deal. I've read two of those -- not hard to guess which -- and they're pretty good, but better still is Mayer's own Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, and I should also mention Max Blumenthal: Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement That Shattered the Party, and Thomas Frank: The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule. And while it's a bit dated -- as Michael Lewis later noted on his book on 1980s financial scandals, Liar's Poker: "how quaint" -- you can still learn things from Kevin Phillips: American Dynasty: Aristocracy, Fortune, and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush (2004). For my part, I've been aware of the pervasive influence of money in politics at least since c. 1970, when I read G. William Domhoff's Who Rules America? (1967) and the Ferdinand Lundberg's The Rich and the Super-Rich: A Study in the Power of Money Today (1968, revising his 1936 America's 60 Families) -- and that was back in the golden age of American equality (Paul Krugman dubbed it "the great compression"). But once you start noticing the role money plays in politics, you find it everywhere.

  • German Lopez: Trump wants to execute drug dealers. But he granteed commutation to one because Kim Kardashian asked.

  • Jay Rosen: Why Trump Is Winning and the Press Is Losing: Sure, Trump's pre-emptive war on "Fake News" is mostly a prophylactic between Trump's supporters and the possibility that honest media might expose some of his lies and distortions, and more importantly the real effects of Republican policies on people's lives. "Nixon seethed about the press in private. Trump seethes in public." And it's not just Trump: "At the bottom of the pyramid is an army of online trolls and alt-right activists who shout down stories critical of the president and project hatred at the journalists who report them. Between the president at thetop and the baseat the bottom are the mediating institutions: Breitbart, Drudge Report, The Daily Caller, Rush Limbaugh, and, especially, Fox News." Of course, you know all that. But what about this:

    There is a risk that journalists could do their job brilliantly, and it won't really matter, because Trump supporters categorically reject it, Trump opponents already believed it, and the neither-nors aren't paying close enough attention. In a different way, there is a risk that journalists could succeed at the production of great journalism and fail at its distribution, because the platforms created by the tech industry have so overtaken the task of organizing public attention.

    Actually, there isn't much chance of brilliant journalism, for lots of reasons -- institutional biases, of coruse, but also issue complexity, received frameworks, the neverending struggle between superficiality and depth, and the simple question of who cares about what. For example, "There is a risk that Republican elites will fail to push back against Trump's attacks on democratic institutions, including the press" -- but why assume they should push back when they're leading the charge? It's always been the case that one's interests colored one's views. What is relatively new is the insistence that only views matter, that there are no objective facts worth considering. In the old days, one tried to spin the news. Now you just run roughshod over your opposition. And it's really not Trump who started this. The first real articulation of the idea came during the Bush years, when someone (Karl Rove?) made fun of "the reality-based community." From there, it was only a short step before Republicans started wondering why we should encourage people to get a higher education. Trump simply bought into the prevailing party line. As I said during the campaign, Republicans have been adept at "dog whistling" racism for many years, but Trump doesn't do that. He's just the dog.

    On the other hand, maybe you can make a case for brilliant journalism: Jon Schwarz: Seymour Hersh's New Memoir Is a Fascinating, Flabbergasting Masterpiece. Matt Taibbi also wrote: Seymour Hersh's Memoir Is Full of Useful Reporting Secrets.

  • Jeremy Scahill: More Than Just Russia -- There's a Strong Case for the Trump Team Colluding With Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the UAE: Even before you get to the question of who got the most bang for their bucks.

  • Emily Stewart: Why there's so much speculation about Starbucks chair Howard Schultz's 2020 ambitions: Well, he's a rich Democrat, and as far back as the Kennedys the party has been jonesing for candidates rich enough to fund their own campaigns. Stewart mentions other rich and often famous rumored candidates like Mark Cuban, Bob Iger, Mark Zuckerberg, and Oprah Winfrey. Clearly, the media is smitten with the idea, especially those who saw Trump's election as a popular rebuke to the Washington establishment. But hasn't Trump utterly discredited the notion that America would be better off run like a corporation? I suppose you could counter that Trump wasn't actually much good at running his business, whereas other entrepreneurs are more competent, at least to the point of recognizing when they need to hire skilled help. But frankly the record for successful businessmen moving into the presidency isn't encouraging. Stewart offers some examples:

    To be sure, Trump isn't the only US president to have experience in business. George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, and Herbert Hoover also had significant private sector experience on their résumés, and none, arguably, performed spectacularly well.

    Well, the Bushes were always hacks, who got set up in the Texas oil business thanks to political connections, and still didn't get much out of it. (G.W. Bush made most of his money as the front man "owner" of the Texas Rangers baseball franchise, where the money came from real oil men.) Unlike the Bushes (Jack Germond liked to refer to them as "empty suits"), Hoover and Carter were very smart, knowledgeable, dilligent, and earnest, and terrible presidents. I've been toying with the idea that American political history breaks down to four eras each with a dominant party, demarcated by elections in 1800, 1860, 1932, and 1980 (Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt, and [ugh!] Reagan). Hoover and Carter lost reëlection bids in two of those (James Buchanan ended the 1800-60 era, although he bears no other resemblance to Hoover or Carter). Trump will probably wind up sinking the Reagan era, but had it not been for the haplessness of the Democrats under Clinton and Obama, either Bush could have been the endpost. (The former lost to Clinton after a single term, and while the latter scratched out a second term, his final approval ratings were in the 20% range -- the worst since polling began.)

    I find it interesting that the richest US president before Trump, relative to his time of course, was George Washington -- a president Trump bears no other similarity to whatsoever. In particular, while Washington's "I cannot tell a lie" legend is apocryphal, he did go to great lengths to make certain that he was viewed as honest and "disinterested" -- that his statements and actions as president were virtuous and free of any hint of corruption. Trump is his polar opposite, a reflexive liar who scarcely ever bothers to conceal his financial interests in his power. Moreover, although several factors have conspired lately to thrust the wealthy into public office -- Mitt Romney, for instance, has a net worth close to Washington's (relatively speaking), and John McCain and John Kerry married rich heiresses. That atmosphere lends credibility to the moguls listed in the article. On the other hand, while almost anyone else on the Forbes 400 list could mount a campaign as "a better billionaire," one doubts the American people will feel like buying another. But given the DNC's crush on the rich and/or famous, they'd most likely welcome the idea.

  • Alexia Underwood: 5 Anthony Bourdain quotes that show why he was beloved around the world: Very much saddened at news of Bourdain's death. I read three of his books -- Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Cullinary Underbelly, A Cook's Tour: Global Adventures in Extreme Cuisine, and Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook. I recognized a kindred spirit not just in taste but more importantly in appreciating the work that goes into preparing good food. That isn't unusual among food writers, but time and again he surprised me with his take on people and history. I recall the Kissinger quote here from the book, or something very like it -- he wrote a lot about Vietnam and Cambodia in that book. The only one of the five quotes here that seems off is the one about North Korea, but that's because he didn't go there, didn't meet people and cook and eat with them, so all he's got is the newsreel. Maybe what he's been told is right, but elsewhere he took the bother to find out for himself. And as he's discovered repeatedly, people pretty much everywhere come up with ingenious ways of coping even with terrible hardships. No reason North Koreans should be that different. I doubt I've seen his shows more than five times, but liked them well enough to imagine watching more -- just never found the time. But the one thing I've repeatedly observed is that he's shown it's possible to appreciate good food without taking on snobbish airs. That's mostly because he respects everyone and everything that goes into a meal.

    I went back to the notebook to see what I had written about Bourdain over the years. Not as much as I thought I remembered, but there is his The Post-Election Interview. I also found a quote I had copied down, from Medium Raw, which has suddenly taken on a new chill:

    I was forty-four years old when Kitchen Confidential hit -- and if there was ever a lucky break or better timing, I don't know about it. At forty-four, I was, as all cooks too long on the line must be, already in decline. You're not getting any faster -- or smarter -- as a cook after age thirty-seven. The knees and back go first, of course. That you'd expect. But the hand-eye coordination starts to break up a little as well. And the vision thing. But it's the brain that sends you the most worrying indications of decay. After all those years of intense focus, multitasking, high stress, late nights, and alcohol, the brain stops responding the way you like. You miss things. You aren't as quick reading the board, prioritizing the dupes, grasping at a glance what food goes where, adding up totals of steaks on hold and steaks on the fire -- and cumulative donenesses. Your hangovers are more crippling and last longer. Your temper becomes shorter -- and you become more easily frustrated with yourself for fucking up little things (though less so with others). Despair -- always a sometime thing in the bipolar world of the kitchen -- becomes more frequent and longer-lasting as one grows more philosophical with age and has more to despair about.

    Some more scattered Bourdain links: