Sunday, August 16, 2020


Weekend Roundup

After what seemed like a very long deliberation, Joe Biden selected Kamala Harris as his running mate for vice president. The main takeaway is that he'll listen to whatever the left wing of the party has to say, but he's going to staff the government with people friendly with and acceptable to business interests. The New Democrat vision was to show that business is better served with Democrats in power. Clinton and Obama worked hard to make that case -- especially with trade deals like NAFTA and TTP that were injurious and opposed by critically important traditional union allies. While they were unable to convince most capitalists, they did manage to break off enough support to run well-funded campaigns. Biden fits neatly into their program -- if anything, he anticipated it, coming from a state which is famed mostly for its lax corporate laws. Against Donald Trump, he has the potential to raise a lot of big donor money -- as long as he is seen as a buffer against, rather than as a tool of, the insurgent left. The strongest VP candidate, based on her campaign skills, organizational ability, and command of the issues and policies, was Elizabeth Warren, but she's widely viewed in business circles as antagonistic to their interests. Harris is not viewed as hostile -- indeed, she's had tremendous success raising money in Silicon Valley -- making her the safe (and lucrative) bet.

Reassuring big money donors is one big thing Harris brings to the campaign. Her chuminess not only helps support Biden, it helps insulate the campaign from charges of being a vehicle for far-left radicals -- the main charge that Trump's Republicans have been making. In particular, Harris's reputation as a law-and-order hard case makes it clear that "defund the police" and "abolish ICE" are not part of the Biden agenda, quickly reducing a major thrust of Republican campaign fodder to the hysterical ravings of deranged paranoids.

Biden's primary success was based on a hunch shared by many Democrats, including some who policy-wise are more sympathetic to the left, that this year, running against this exceptionally odious president, it is important to risk as little as possible, to build a broad coalition around the single essential goal of denying Trump a second term. The early primary season turned on issues, with Sanders and Warren pulling the party to the left with their strong command of issues and policy; Buttigieg and Klobuchar countered as the most articulate candidates on the right, squeezing out potential compromisers like Harris and Booker. As Sanders emerged as the leader, the billionaires jumped in, and Michael Bloomberg spent the better part of a billion dollars to prove how virulently opposed to Sanders and Warren his class was. Bloomberg had no personal appeal, but served as a catalyst, aligning the party rank-and-file's deepest seated fears into a surge of support for Biden. Had she not dropped out, Harris might have become the middle-ground candidate that Biden turned into. But having dropped out, she returns to the campaign largely unscathed.

Biden committed to selecting a woman early on. Thus far, the only person who has found that decision controversial has been Donald Trump. There has been a good deal of discussion about race, which mostly struck me as misguided and/or irrelevant. I admit that I didn't see any advantage to Biden picking a black running mate. I figured doing so might cost him more white voters than it otherwise gained -- mostly because his own history on race and/or crime issues is rather tawdry, which may have helped him gain white votes, especially in Southern primaries. On the other hand, Harris is a brilliant solution to the question: she is the sort of black that iffy whites would find least stereotypical -- traits Obama shared, but her even more so -- yet she is black enough to provoke hideous reactions among more committed racists, who were solidly pro-Trump anyway. If anything has been made clear from first reactions, it's that Trump and his ilk are the ones trying to stir up America's race problem.

One reason Obama won was that he made it possible for many iffy whites to feel good about themselves for rising above their racist past. In picking Harris, Biden shows that he's better than that. In slandering Harris, Trump shows that he's not. That's hardly the only clear cut distinction between the two, but it sure is one of them.


Some background, referred or alluded to in the links that follow. Harris was born in 1964 in Oakland, California. Her parents were both immigrants, who came to UC Berkeley in 1960-61 as graduate students, received PhD's, and had distinguished careers. Her father is Donald J. Harris, from Jamaica, professor of economics at Stanford, now emeritus (age 81). Her mother was Shyamala Gopalan, from Tamil Nadu, India, studied endocrinology, and worked on breast cancer research in various universities and labs, including Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. She died in 2009 (70). They had two daughters, and divorced in 1971. The daughters lived with their mother, including several years in Montreal, Canada. Kamala graduated from high school in Quebec, then attended Howard University in DC, then UC Hastings College of Law. She was admitted to the Bar in 1990, working in the Alameda County DA office, then in San Francisco (DA and Mayor's Office). She was elected San Francisco District Attorney in 2003 and 2007, California Attorney General 2010 and 2014, and was elected to the US Senate in 2016.

Some links on the Harris pick:


Tweet of the week, from Chris Hayes:

Something I just keeping back to over and over is the tremendous continuity between the last two Republican presidents, both of whom left the country in ruins, amidst historic catastrophes. The entire party and movement are rotten to the core and unfit to govern.

To which Steve M. astutely replied:

And yet Democratic politcians never say this -- mainstream Dems don't want to insult Republican voters, while progressive Dems are so angry at mainstream Dems that they lose sight of the sheer godawfulness of Republicans.


Some scattered links this week:

Alexandra Alter: Michael Cohen releases details about his forthcoming memoir. Title is Disloyal. Publication date September 8. Annie Karni: has more: In tell-all foreword, Cohen promises sordid tales Trump 'does not want you to read': "In his memoir, Disloyal, Michael D. Cohen, President Trump's onetime lawyer and fixer, claims that he had unique access to Mr. Trump, a man with 'no true friends.'"

Kate Aronoff:

  • A novel way to fund a green economy: "Instead of bailing out Exxon and other fossil fuel companies, a National Investment Authority could democratize finance and help ordinary people and their governments fight climate change."

    The government has been pretty kind to fossil fuel companies these last few months. Recent disclosures from the Federal Reserve's secondary bond-buying program show that it has now bought $17 billion worth of ExxonMobil debt and $28.5 million from Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind the Dakota Access Pipeline. Private asset manager Blackrock oversees this purchasing program, among others.

    Blackrock, with friends in both parties, is on the verge of becoming a fourth branch of government. Despite its pledge in early 2020 to recalibrate investment practices with climate change in mind, so far on behalf of the Fed it has seemed to offer up nearly unlimited public funds to bail out the world's biggest polluters. These investments serve as a lifeline to a deeply troubled and increasingly unprofitable industry. Meanwhile, state and local governments -- and the millions of people who'll soon lose their unemployment insurance -- have found bailouts much harder to come by. And hopes for a green recovery (which an increasingly large swathe of the Democratic Party supports to stave off depression and climate catastrophe) look alarmingly scarce.

  • We can't fight climate change without China: "The Democratic Party's 2020 platform echoes President Trump's hawkishness on China. That's a mistake."

Ruth Ben-Ghiat: Co-opt & corrupt: How Trump bent and broke the GOP.

James Bruno: What are the chances Trump could actually go to jail?

Kyle Cheney: GAO finds Chad Wolf, Ken Cuccinelli are ineligible to serve in their top DHS roles.

Colin Dickey: The helpless outrage of the anti-Trump book: "The Trump era has birthed a distinct new genre of political writing: irate, forgettable, and strangely complacent." Review of Donald W Drezner: The Toddler in Chief: What Donald Trump Teaches Us About the Modern Presidency, and Jonathan Karl: Front Row at the Trump Show, with side glances elsewhere. I'm struck by a quote from long-time ABC White House correspondent Karl (previously known for his "reputation for pitching softballs to Bush Administration officials"): "I don't believe there has ever been a more exhausting, exhilarating, dangerous, maddening, frustrating, downright bizarre, or more important time to be a White House reporter." I'm sure that dealing with Trump on a daily basis can seem to be all of those things -- except important: nothing Trump says has any bearing on the stories journalists should be telling about his administration, and detracts from their ability to do so.

Jason Ditz: US push to extend Iran arms embargo fails at UN Security Council: 2 votes for (US and Dominican Republic, of 13 needed), 2 against (Russia and China), 11 abstentions. More:

  • Bob Dreyfuss: Could covert war with Iran become overt before November 3rd?. I doubt it, but the scenario I wouldn't put past Pompeo goes like this: Trump loses, but is still in office until January, and uses that period of time to launch various offenses against Iran. Iran, in turn, will be tempted to hold back until Biden takes office, hoping for restoration of US support for the nuclear agreement; Iran's failure to retalliate will be taken by Trump as license to escalate further. Note that some of the attacks could be facilitated by proxies, like the new UAE-Israel partnership.

  • Mark Fitzpatrick: Pompeo set to double down on failure to extend Iran arms embargo.

Jesse Dorris: How DeForrest Brown, Jr, centers the black body in techno music: I don't usually put music links here, but have had trouble keeping track of them for Music Week. I reviewed several records by Brown last week, especially recommending his (i.e., Speaker Music's) Black Nationalist Sonic Weaponry (A-).

Robert Guffey: What is QAnon? A not-so-brief introduction to the conspiracy theory that's eating America: "Do millions of Americans really believe Donald Trump is saving children from underground demons? It seems that way." I admit that I never had any interest in even finding out what QAnon referred to. Still don't, even after often reading that Trump's most fervent supporters are psyched on whatever it is. Even if it weren't nuts, I doubt it would ever have a fraction of the ill-effects of believing in Atlas Shrugged. Or, for that matter, The Road to Serfdom. The old mental illnesses are still the direst.

Chris Hedges: America's death march: Whoever wins, this election won't save us: "Neither [Biden nor Trump] will stop hyper-nationalism, crisis cults and other signs of an empire in terminal decline." I hate coming off as an optimist, but Hedges has turned into a useless critic of modern life, like the existentialists around the time I stopped bothering with them. There are gross malaises that Hedges may still have some insight into, but there's also a lot of nuts-and-bolts dysfunction that even Biden can figure out and do something to keep utter chaos and collapse at bay -- like keeping the Post Office delivering mail. Halting global warming and unwinding America's worldwide "empire of bases" may be a bit harder, and Biden doesn't have the best of track records, but even there the election decision will surely have some bearing.

Rebecca Heilweil: The dystopian tech that companies are selling to help schools reopen sooner.

Mark Helenowski: Billionaires have made an absolute killing during the pandemic. The number is staggering.

Patrick Iber: How the GOP became the party of resentment: Review of Rick Perlstein's book Reaganland, the fourth volume in what promises to be an immense history of American conservatism from Goldwater on. (I've read the second volume, Nixonland. Been meaning to get to the others, but I'm daunted by their length -- over 3,000 pages to date.)

Ezra Klein:

  • Most candidates run to the center in the general election. Biden is moving left. Title is misleading, as the only criteria Klein is using is where the VP picks stands in relation to the Presidential candidate (Clinton-Kaine, Obama-Biden, Kerry-Edwards, Gore-Lieberman), and depend on making assumptions that may not be warranted. The first three VP's came from more centrist states, but if anything came off as more populist (especially Edwards). Lieberman came from a more liberal state, and was probably viewed as more liberal than Gore at the time, but he later discredited himself. Harris is from a more liberal state than Biden, but isn't all that liberal for California. On the other hand, the left-right spectrum has shifted this time, with Trump so extreme on the right it's nonsensical to even try to split the difference. I don't expect Biden to try to move left, but some left-aligned policies are so popular there's no reason not to go with them. If Harris looks to be a bit to his left, I don't see how that hurts him.

  • What would Keynes do? Podcast/interview with Zach Carter, author of The Price of Peace: Money, Democracy, and the Life of John Maynard Keynes.

    For Keynes, there's always something outside of consumer preferences that they need to align with. There's always a good life and a good society that we're trying to guide society towards. He believes there are objectively good things in the world, that not everything is relative, that not everybody's preferences are equal. That is a paternalistic approach, as you note.

    The way that his successors who take him seriously as a philosopher try to resolve this -- and I think [John Kenneth] Galbraith is the most successful in this -- is to say this is what democracy is for. We don't want to have big, bad, terrible monarch telling us what to do. But in a democracy people can express their preferences politically. And using the market as an alternative to democratic politics is signing us up for a particularly bad life. . . .

    [Keynes] could never really make up his mind about where he was on the question of socialism, but it was very clear to him by the end of his life that large sections of the economy had to be socialized if we were going to realize the type of good life that he wanted realized. In the States, we think of him as this guy who legitimizes deficit spending. In the UK, he has a very different legacy: his most significant policy achievement in the UK is socializing British medicine. He's the financial architect of the National Health Service.

Sheelah Kolhatkar: Trump's incoherent policy on TikTok and China.

Robert Kuttner: Falling upward: The surprising survival of Larry Summers: "He is once again a senior economic adviser to another prospective Democratic president."

Lyz Lenz: An inland hurricane tore through Iowa. You probably didn't hear about it. Gusts of up to 112 mph did considerable damage, leaving a quarter-million without power. There is some video from Chicago showing heavy rain, but no other mention of it. I've seen completely dry wind storms in Kansas, with winds in the vicinity of 80 mph. They are very rare. I've seen hurricanes from the Gulf of Mexico dump a lot of rain in Kansas, and I've read that the 1900 Galveston hurricane still produced hurricane-force winds as far inland as Chicago, but this wasn't one of those.

Martin Longman: Trump's bizarre obsession with Mount Rushmore.

German Lopez:

Louisa Loveluck/Chris Mooney: Baghdad's record heat offers glimpse of world's climate change future.

Ian Millhiser:

Samuel Moyn: The Never Trumpers have already won: "They're not trying to save the GOP from a demagogue. They're infiltrating the Democratic Party." Review of Robert P Saldin/Steven M Teles: Never Trump: The Revolt of the Conservative Elites.

Exceptionally close to the Never Trump insurgency, Saldin and Teles take a cozy approach to their study of this movement and its central characters, faithfully drawing on their accounts of the rise of Trump. They start with the national security experts -- figures such as former National Security Council staffers Peter Feaver and Philip Zelikow. Officially, this stalwart crew feared that Trump threatened the Cold War national security consensus that had once led conservatives beyond geopolitical "isolationism." Views once safely quarantined to the libertarian or racist fringes of their party were now getting a second look, they worried.

Their concern here was hardly disinterested: More important than anything else for them was that Trump was breaking the taboo within the Republican Party that forbade calling the Iraq War a gross error.

That Never Trumpers were more bothered by Trump's apostasy on Iraq than by his racism, self-dealing, and ignorance of the Constitution makes sense. However, it doesn't necessarily follow that their revolt against Trump has won them much influence in the Democratic Party -- where second thoughts on Iraq, for instance, is now the norm even among those who originally voted to authorize the war. It is true that they have reinforced the view among Democratic hawks that it is safest to attack Trump over foreign policy issues, especially when they can paint him as doing favors for Russia. But that's not because they've cultured any support among rank-and-file Democrats. All they did was to sway a few centrists into thinking that they might pick up support among nominal Republicans for impeachment and such if the issues were defined strictly in national security terms. That never worked, other than to sidetrack Democrats from pressing more popular charges, like corruption and gross negligence. By the way, Saldin and Teles wrote a reply to this review: Don't blame Never Trumpers for the left's defeat. They have a point, provided you don't count Michael Bloomberg among the Never Trumpers -- although you could argue that he was the biggest one of all, especially in a world where free speech is denominated in dollars.

Olivia Nuzzi: The most tremendous reelection campaign in American history ever: "Inside the chaotic, desperate, last-minute Trump 2020 reboot." I can't read this because "You've reached your monthly article limit." But I read the Kos synopsis: Trump's campaign IS the cesspool of corruption and incompetence we thought it was.

Osita Nwanevu: Trump's "blasphemous" attacks on Biden were torn from the Republican hymnal: "The president's pearl-clutching critics have forgotten how defaming Democrats' faith is a longstanding tradition for the GOP." Still, no examples here further back than 2012 -- I expected at least a reference to the Republicans' characterization of the Democratic Party in the 1880s: "The party of rum, Romanism, and rebellion." After all, charging your opponent with antipathy to religion just exposes your own bigotry and intolerance. Nwanevu quotes Ashley Parker: "Rather than look for campaign ammunition in the former vice president's long track record of politically vulnerable votes and policy proposals, Trump has instead chosen to describe Biden as a godless Marxist bent on destroying the country with a radical agenda that would make Che Guevara blanch." At least those are charges that require no work researching, or any measure of self-reflection.

Aaron Rupar:

Katherine Stewart: Betsy DeVos's plot to enrich private schools amid the pandemic: "The secretary of education wants religious schools to flourish at the public system's expense; and she's doing it under the cover of the coronavirus crisis."

Matt Taibbi: Big Pharma's Covid-19 profiteers.

Alex Ward:

Li Zhou: Why Democrats are holding out for more comprehensive stimulus: "They don't think Trump's executive actions come close to covering what's needed -- and they have the leverage to push for more." Besides: "Republicans are set to bear more of the political backlash, for now."


PS: Robert Christgau forwarded this string of tweets from John Ganz (@lionel_trolling). I couldn't follow it as presented, so wondered if copying it down might help. Christgau's comment:

Read the five-part thread, reread a few of your political tweets, and ask yourself whether he nailed you or not. If you find that question discomfiting, please try to err on the side of not being contrarian till the election is over.

Ganz's thread:

  • There's also a kind of anti-respectability politics, which views everything that appeals to conventional people as either hopelessly naive and dowdy or thoroughly hypocritical, and sometimes as both
  • Usually this attitude is fostered in bohemian milieus, where a shared commitment to 'epater les bourgeois' and cultivated anti-conformism mistakes itself for political principle, it's almost beneath mentioning that it becomes its own sort of conformism
  • You get an importation of the intellectual habits of art criticism and social appraisal into politics, in some ways a welcome new perspective for political judgment to consider, but have the unfortunate result of turning everything into a question of affect or pose
  • There is always a performative aspect of politics, it's a kind of theater, so the eye trained to either judge artistic or social performances is going to make very witty and sometimes penetrating observations about politics, but usually they have more wit than substance
  • Politics, or rather commentary on politics, is one of the last places where people can maintain the very 19th century pretension of being simultaneously totally ensconced in a tiny elite cult of decadence while convincing themselves they understand the feelings of "the people"

There are also some comments by Ganz:

  • Some of the points of the bohemian political commentators are undoubtedly correct: much of conventional society and its ruling class are hypocritical and stupid, and their vaunted norms both hide their misconduct and prevent them from thinking
  • But they don't really have much of substantial position beyond seeing through these things and flaunting their own superiority to it all
  • Very fond of armchair sociology, they can't raelly theorize their own sociological position vis a vis the squares and dupes and how they need them for their existence
  • It's histrionic in the old sense of the word: a kind of theater of poses and attitudes, which might provide worthwhile critique of the serious world that is actually just as full of pretense, if it could drop its own pretense to self-seriousness and authenticity

Well, no, I don't think he "nailed" me. I don't even think he struck a glancing blow. Although it's hard to tell what he was aiming at, due to the total lack of specific references. I don't doubt that there are strands of socio-political analysis that reflect one clique making fun of, belittling, and/or looking askance at a broader population, scoring points with their wit. At least since I started reading critical theory, I've always been critical of trying to understand, much less practice, politics as an aesthetic concern. In fact, I'm pretty skeptical of anyone who attempts to impose an arbitrary ethics on it.

I have no idea what kind of political analysis Christgau wants to counter, but I can make a guess given his time frame: from now to the November election. On a good day, you can imagine an infinite range of political possibilities, and that's what people like me prefer to talk about. I'd like to write about why patents are always bad, or why everyone should have free access to the internet, and advertising should be banned there (except when you specifically ask for its, and even then you need to ability to challenge it). However, between now (roughly speaking) and election day in November, the political universe we live in has radically constricted to the choices on the ballots, in particular the two dominant political parties here in the US). During that time, the only practical thing you can do is to compare A and B (or, realistically, R and D) -- or, at least, that's the position of people who are totally invested in the election to the exclusion of all else. I'm not generally disposed to do that. In particular, I want to reserve the option of saying when both sides are in the wrong -- and I swear to you, I'm not being contrarian; there is always some underlying principle at stake. And those principles are grounded in serious thought; they're not just things that strike my aesthetic fancy.

Of course, politics isn't just voting. If, between now and November, cops kill yet another unarmed black teenager for no reason, I'm not going to tell you not to go march, even if I suspect doing so might reflect poorly on the election. It might even be a good idea to put a march together in Washington for funding for the USPS, unemployment, to stop evictions, etc. (a good time might be during the so-called Republican Convention, but not at wherever it's supposed to be -- not to draw attention to them but to take away from their news cycle).

And sure, take it easy on the Democrats until November. If they win, you'll have plenty of occasion to critique them in the future, but at least you'll be starting in a better place. And if they lose, you'll need them more than ever.