Sunday, November 25, 2018

Weekend Roundup

Seems like it's been a slow news week, probably because the holiday both cut into the political world's capacity for misdeeds and my (and others') attention span. I'm also preoccupied with music poll matters. Still, figured I should at least briefly go through the motions, if only to keep the record reasonably intact.

Some scattered links this week:

  • Matthew Yglesias: House Democrats don't need a leader, they need someone to represent them on TV: I see two basic knocks on Pelosi as Speaker: one is the sense of failure with the 2010 and subsequent losses; another is that in many parts of the country Republicans have been able to use her (so-called radical agenda) to scare voters. (This was painfully clear in my own district, which voted solidly Republican, despite an exceptional Democratic candidate.) As far as I can tell, Pelosi is moderate-left by national standards, but her district in San Francisco could easily support someone further left. I suspect that most Democrats would prefer for her to step aside and let someone else (younger and more charismatic) take over, but as it is the only challengers are coming from the right -- not because the caucus wants to move right but because some winners in close districts pledged to vote against her. Yglesias finds a third knock against her: that she's not very effective on TV either representing her party or parrying against Trump. He suggests designating someone else to take the publicity role, limiting her to in-house strategizing (which she's arguably good at). I'm reminded here that in Britain they have an interesting system where the opposition party designates a "shadow cabinet" -- one member for each cabinet position, so there's always a recognized point person for whatever issues crop up. A big advantage there is that it would open up more prominent roles for more people. Might even be . . . more democratic. Other Yglesias pieces:

    • There's nothing "America First" about Trump's Saudi policy: Worth including not just the links but the linked-to titles in this quote:

      President Donald Trump must be giving thanks this morning for press coverage of his extraordinarily inappropriate statement on the murder of dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi [ Zack Beauchamp: Trump's Khashoggi statement is a green light for murder].

      Trump has secretive sources of income and murky financial ties to Saudi interests [ America deserves to know how much money Trump is getting from the Saudi government], and keeps touting entirely bogus statistics about the jobs impact of arms sales to Saudi Arabia [ Trump says selling weapons to Saudi Arabia will create a lot of jobs. That's not true.]. Nevertheless, much of the coverage of his statement simply takes at face value his assertions that his handling of this issue is driven by American interests -- rather than by his own self-interest or the interests of his donors in the defense contracting industry.

      Yglesias argues that "America has a strong interest in curtailing murder." I agree that America should have such an interest, but can't think of many examples of pre-Trump US governments doing anything like that. The US continued to support Pinochet when his agents gunned down a Chilean dissenter in the streets of Washington -- probably the most similar incident, but far from unique. The US has long and lavishly supported Israel's targeted assassination programs -- the model for America's even more extensive "drone warfare" program. More generally, the US supported "death squads" in Latin America and elsewhere, as well as providing intelligence, training, and weapons to "security forces" -- Indonesia's slaughter of 500,000 "communists" is one of the more striking examples. Then there are arms sales in support of aggressive wars, such as the one Saudi Arabia is waging in Yemen. Or you can point to the US refusal to support the International Criminal Court. You can argue that Trump is even worse than past US presidents in this regard -- both for his tasteless embrace of flagrant killers like Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte and for his slavish devotion to "allies" like Saudi Arabia and Israel -- but he's mostly just following past practices (even if he seems to be enjoying them too much).

      The more interesting question is why has the murder of Khashoggi different? I don't have time to trot my theories out there, but even if anti-Islam bigotry is part of the equation, the basic realization that governments shouldn't go around killing their dissidents is one more people should embrace more consistently.

    • The time Nancy Pelosi saved Social Security: Credits Pelosi with blocking the privatization scheme GW Bush claimed as his mandate after winning the 2004 election. I never thought the scheme had a chance, because I knew they could never afford to bridge the gap between pay-as-you-go and funded schemes (even a far-from-adequately funded one). But sure, give Pelosi credit for her blanket rejection of all Republican schemes. A big problem that Democrats had all through the Reagan-Bush-Bush years has been their callow willingness to accept (and legitimize) conservative talking points, so it's good to point to examples where they didn't, and saved themselves. Also on Pelosi: Ella Nilsen: Why House progressives have Nancy Pelosi's back.

    • The 2016 election really was dominated by a controversy over emails. Does a good job of summing up the view that media and ultimately voter perception of the 2016 election was decisively dominated by the "email scandal" -- the Gallup Daily Tracking word cloud shows this graphically, but there are many other telling details. Why is a question that remains unanswered. Is it really just as simple as the endless repetition -- by the partisan right-wing media, echoed by mainstream media that covered propaganda as news -- or was there such underlying dislike and distrust of Clinton that let such a trivial mistake (at worst) signify some kind of deeply disturbing character flaw? And if so, why didn't Trump's own obvious character flaws disqualify him? One thing well established by polling is that both candidates were viewed negatively by most people, yet when forced to choose, a decisive number of Americans opted to rid themselves of Clinton to tip the election to the equally (or more, but not more deeply) disliked Trump.

    • The Beto O'Rourke 2020 buzz, explained: "hey, losing a high-profile Senate race was good enough for Abraham Lincoln.".

  • Arthur C Brooks: How Loneliness Is Tearing America Apart: Head of American Enterprise Institute, pushing a Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE) book, Them: Why We Hate Each Other, blaming America's numerous woes on cultural factors. I think that may have some superficial validity, but only after taking a hard look at inequality, powerlessness, and perpetual war.

  • Matthew Choi: Trump hits back at Chief Justice Roberts, escalating an extraordinary exchange: Roberts is no hero for a judicial system and sense of justice that transcends party and respects all people, but he reminds us that many conservatives (and, by the way, most liberals) at least go through the motions of wanting to be seen in that light. Trump clearly sees no point in looking beyond political tags -- in part, no doubt, because his grasp of actual issues is so shallow, but but mostly because he's convinced that naked, blatant partisanship gives him an out from any charges of malfeasance (just blame "fake news" and your fans will rally behind you). Trump took the same tack in attacking Admiral Bill McRaven after McRaven had the temerity to note that Trump's ravings about the "fake news" media constitute a threat to American democracy. Trump's first thought was that he could dismiss McRaven by calling him a "Hillary supporter." Clearly, he relishes another presidential campaign against Clinton -- probably figuring she's the only Democrat he can still whip.

  • Aaron Gell: The Unbearable Rightness of Seth Abramson: On a blogger who has deeply investigated the whole Trump-Russia thing, publishing the book: Proof of Collusion: How Trump Betrayed America.

  • William D Hartung: America's Post-9/11 Wars Have Cost $5.9 Trillion: "Not to mention 240,000 civilian deaths and 21 million displaced. And yet a congressional commission is urging yet more money for a bloated Pentagon." Also: Murtaza Hussain: It's Time for America to Reckon With the Staggering Death Toll of the Post-9/11 Wars, which puts the death toll twice as high ("at least 480,000 people").

  • Rebecca Jennings: The death of small businesses in big cities, explained: Interview with Jeremiah Moss.

  • Jen Kirby: Theresa May and the EU have a Brexit deal. What's next?

  • Andrew Kragie: Trump's New Kavanaugh for the US Court of Appeals: Meet Neomi Rao.

  • Mark Landler: In Extraordinary Statement, Trump Stands With Saudis Despite Khashoggi Killing. Also: Karoun Demirjian: More Republicans challenge Trump on defense of Saudi crown prince.

  • Dara Lind: Trump's reportedly cutting a deal to force asylum seekers to wait in Mexico.

  • Bill McKibben: How Extreme Weather Is Shrinking the Planet. Also: Robinson Meyer: A Grave Climate Warning, Buried on Black Friday; and David Sirota: Big Oil v the planet is the fight of our lives. Democrats must choose a side.

  • Anna North: How Trump helped inspire a wave of strict new abortion laws.

  • Daniel Politi: US Agents Fire Tear Gas at Migrants Approaching the Border From Mexico.

  • Robert Reich: Break up Facebook (and while we're at it, Google, Apple and Amazon): The sheer size of these four companies, each built to dominate major niches on the internet, certainly suggests some sort of antitrust remedy. (I'm less concerned here with physical products -- still most of what Apple produces, but tightly interwoven with their network products, even more so for Google, Amazon, and we might as well include Microsoft in this list.) On the other hand, given how important network effects are to each of these businesses, they're more than a little like natural monopolies, which occur in markets that are never able to support healthy competition. The difference is that utilities and such are most efficient with common infrastructure shared by all customers, the winning vendor for services like Facebook (and Amazon) is inevitably the first one with the widest network. The problem with such monopolies is less the usual problem of restricting competition than abuse of power. Moreover, where product monopolies tend to abuse power by extorting high prices and/or delivering poor service, services like Facebook and Google make their profits by exploiting their user base (by capturing and reselling private information). It may not have been obvious before Facebook that there was a public interest in social media, and indeed one might never have developed had customers directly had to bear the full development costs, but by now it's pretty clear that: a) people want social media; b) that the market will be captured by a single vendor; and c) that the profit motive will lead that vendor to take advantage of and harm users. There is an obvious solution to problems like this, and it isn't antitrust (not that there aren't cases here for antitrust and/or other forms of regulation). The solution is to build publicly funded non-profit utilities to provide web services that are not subject to profit-seeking exploitation.

  • Dylan Scott: Bernie Sanders's new plan to bring down drug prices, briefly explained: Better than nothing, I suppose, but this still assumes the necessity of patents to incentivize profit-seeking companies to develop new drugs. The main thing it does is to provide some limits on how much drug companies can extort from customers and their insurers, and even then depends on generics based on patent licensing to introduce a bit of competition. A more immediately effective scheme would allow importation of drugs from a much wider range of countries, ideally including ones not beholden to US patent laws. (A compromise might be to allow a fixed import tax to be claimed by the patent holder.) Better still would be to eliminate patents altogether, and do research and development through publicly-funded "open source" institutions around the world.

  • Dylan Scott: The Mississippi Senate runoff, Dems' last chance for one more 2018 upset, explained: "Mike Espy could become the first black senator from Mississippi since Reconstruction." We, and for that matter, the long-suffering people of Mississippi, should be so lucky. Cindy Hyde-Smith tweet: "Did you know extremists like Cory Booker are campaigning for Mike Espy here in MS?" Isn't Booker the guy with all the big bank money behind him? Who's the real extremist here?

  • Somini Sengupta: The World Needs to Quit Coal. Why Is It So Hard?

  • Emily Stewart: Ivanka Trump's personal email excuse shows she only wants to seem competent some of the time: "She violated the rule by using a personal email but wants you to believe she didn't know better."

  • Kaitlyn Tiffany: Wouldn't it be better if self-checkout just died? A personal pet peeve. I, for one, pretty much never use the systems, for lots of reasons, which start with I don't like machines lecturing me. But then I guess I've never been good with authority figures, let alone fascism.