Friday, June 25, 2021

Speaking of Which

Blog link.

In Tuesday's Music Week, I noted that I didn't have anything written for a links/comments post this week. But Wednesday's local newspaper was so depressing that I figured I should at least take a quick look around. A quick synopsis of news items from the Wichita Eagle (sorry, no links; the paper comes as download images):

  • Started with a page one piece on how Wichita and Sedgwick County agreed to merge their parks and recreation departments, to facilitate public-private ventures. That might be a theoretically defensible idea, but any time you hear "public" and "private" together, the public is getting fleeced by private interests. (Last week, there was an article on how Wichita paid $10 million for a Topgolf facility, while Oklahoma City got the same private investment for nothing.) There is something to be said for decentralizing and depoliticizing decision-making, especially about the arts, but the likely net effect will be that no new public projects will be undertaken, leaving us with only those options investors think they can make money from.

  • The Police Chief reported on "a busy weekend": nine people were shot, including an AR-15 attack on a police officer. They're joining a federal "crackdown" program, aimed at arresting more suspicious people. The jails are already full, but the Police Chief says that's not his problem.

  • The last grocery store in "Wichita's historically African-American neighborhood" is closing, adding to the city's "food deserts."

  • A privately owned zoo-plus-water-park (Tanganyika Wildlife Park) was closed when people who used the pool came down with diarrhea (later identified as shigella). Lawsuits ensue.

  • DC bridge collapses, injuring several. Photos and video. Then there was the Condo collapse near Miami.

  • "U.S. seizes Iranian news sites for unknown reasons." A second version of the article "alleges disinformation." They also blocked the sites of Palestine Today (linked to Hamas) and El-Masirah (linked to Houthi "rebels" in Yemen).

  • The paper reprinted a Bloomberg editorial calling for the federal gasoline tax to be replaced by a VMT (vehicle miles traveled tax), which is just wrong on so many levels. This is related to the Republican push for "use taxes" to fund infrastructure projects -- anything to avoid taxing the rich, although given that VMT also works as a subsidy for gas guzzlers and a penalty for electric cars, you can guess which business interests are involved.

  • "Australia's runaway mouse plague forces mass evacuation from prison." I started with local pieces, and didn't plan on going this far afield, but couldn't resist the title.

  • "A record buyout is just start as wealthy flee US tax hike." Something the wealthy are uniquely positioned to do, but doesn't selling out depend on finding greater fools to buy up? And aren't such fools equally rich?

  • Finally, I saw a piece on the Aston Martin Valkyrie, a cutting edge sports car that can accelerate 0-60 in 2.6 seconds, and sells for $3.5 million. There was a day when I was enchanted by high-end sports cars, but they were never this inaccessible or useless. (Cue the Buzzcocks: "Fast Cars.") I'm not sure which is worse: that they would build such a thing, or that some people are so filthy rich there's a market for it. (Admittedly, compared to the latest in boats and planes, or thanks to Bezos and Mus, space ships, it may still be viewed as a cheap trifle.)

There was also the usual bad political news, as Republican senators filibustered the voting rights bill, and the Supreme Court handed down various rulings, including a particularly nasty (6-3) one against unions (see Ian Millhiser's articles, below). Also severe drought news from the western US, and record-setting heat waves from Finland across Russia and into Washington/Oregon. But what's more depressing about the items listed above is how far we seem to be from making the mental adjustments to live in our very complex and possibly fragile world.

Bret Bachman: DeSantis signs bill requiring Florida students, professors to register political views with state. Title doesn't do a very good job of clarifying what the fuck is going on here, but you have to be in a rather peculiar frame of mind both to see what the problem is that the bill is trying to rectify, and how the bill is supposed to actually achieve its purpose. You have to understand that Republicans believe that any young person who doesn't share their beliefs has somehow been indoctrinated with left-wing anti-American propaganda, and that college professors are among the chief conduits of this evil scheme. But what leads them to such a conclusion is their own belief in the efficacy of propaganda, because that's how conservative ideology has become so deeply, irrationally maintained. And if you look closer, you'll discover that what really unnerves them about professors (and knowledgeable people in general) is that they encourage people to research issues and think for themselves. A telling phrase in this article is the characterization of Florida universities as "socialism factories."

Debbie Downer: : Trump wanted his Justice Department to stop 'SNL' from teasing him. For four year, about the only saving grace from the day-to-day news was to watch sharp and sometimes brutal takedowns of Trump and his mob night after night on late TV -- the icing on the cake, until the pandemic hit, was the live audiences cheering every jeer. It's not necessary, or even the point, but it's nice to know that they got under Trump's thin skin. His reaction was typically authoritarian, a fancy 14-letter word for asshole, and it's totally in character for a guy who campaigned in 2016 for a law which would allow rich folk to sue anyone who offends them. I never heard any more about that after the election, but the idea is true to his heart, brain, and pocketbook.

Kansas City Star Editorial Board: Swamp 101: Joe Manchin asks billionaire donors to get Roy Blunt to do their bidding. Manchin was trying to push the January 6 Commission bill past a Republican filibuster, having already tied his shoelaces together by keeping the filibuster in force. That seems to matter to Manchin a lot because he thinks it would show bipartisan legislation is possible without ending the filibuster rule. Still, it's revelatory that he thinks a few donors could sway Blunt on a matter of partisan survival. Blunt isn't as far gone as his junior Senator Josh Hawley, but he's been reliably in lock step with McConnell all the way.

For what it's worth, Manchin doesn't bother me much. David A Graham (Joe Manchin was never a mystery) sums him up nicely: "It's always been pretty obvious who he is: a middle-of-the-road guy with good electoral instincts, decent intentions, and bad ideas." Democrats need politicians like him, especially in areas where Republicans tend to win. It's not so much that they counterbalance the left, as that they represent people the left can still talk to, and share values with. On the other hand, they do seem stuck in a lot of obsolete mental ruts. Manchin's plea for a bipartisan voting rights act failed because Republicans don't have any qualms about pursuing blatantly partisan advantage. A few years ago, Manchin tried to organize a bipartisan agreement for a very modest level of gun control, and again he failed as he found all Republicans in lock step with the NRA. His continuing support for the filibuster may be little more than an instinct not to rock the boat too hard, but sooner or later he'll have to realize that it's preventing him from accomplishing anything he or his precious "centrists" want. Even more than liberal/left Democrats need politicians like Manchin to reach out into Red States, he and they need more progressive Democrats to get their own modest interests represented. Because the Republicans for damn sure aren't going to help them at all.

Sarah Jones: It looks like Buffalo will have a socialist mayor: India Walton, who defeated incumbent mayor Byron Brown in the Democratic primary. Ever since my cousin moved to Buffalo around 1970, it's been one of my favorite travel destinations, and she's become such a booster that I've never come away with a bad impression of the city -- well, maybe that one Spring Break when it snowed every day -- although it has a reputation as a city in long decline. (I do remember the iron-red sunsets from 1971, but the plants that caused them are long gone.) So this feels personal in a way that, for instance, Milwaukee isn't. Haven't checked with my cousin yet, but good chance she knows, and supports, Walton.

Paul Krugman: Why won't Republicans rebuild America? After beating around the bush, he finally concludes: "The modern GOP just won't do public programs unless they offer vast opportunities for profiteering." The Reagan mantra was "greed was good," but even that was framed in such a way as to suggest that it would be good for more than just the greedy. Krugman cites the Bush-Rove Medicare D law, which required beneficiaries to buy private insurance for prescriptions, promising that the magic of competition would keep costs down, but it's mostly led to shady formulary manipulations meant to offload costs and increase profits, so now it's a prime example of how government creates markets for predatory companies. Infrastructure was one of Trump's most popular campaign planks, but all his Republican staff could come up with were private sector carve outs, because they've fully bought into the Reagan-era mantras about magic markets, incapable government, and the denial that there even a public interest.

Krugman also wrote Yellen's new alliance against leprechauns, about the proposal Biden pushed at the Group of 7 summit (and found a welcoming audience) to limit how companies use their international footprints to evade paying taxes. Back when I first read about such ideas in a 2019 book by Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, The Triumph of Injustice: How the Rich Dodge Taxes and How to Make Them Pay, they seemed unspeakable -- not just while Trump was president, but it was hard to imagine Obama or Clinton promoting them either. Indeed, the driving force behind globalization had much less to do with market efficiencies (which in a truly free and open market should net benefit customers) than with flipping the power dynamics between companies and states. Krugman's example is Apple, which conspicuously uses Ireland as a tax and asset haven (whence the titular leprechauns).

Damian Paletta/Yasmeen Abutaleb: Inside the extraordinary effort to save Trump from covid-19: Adapted from the authors' book, Nightmare Scenario: Inside the Trump Administration's Response to the Pandemic That Changed History. Several points here: one is that Trump was very ill, and his recovery depended on experimental medicines applied massively, under extraordinary intense medical care; another is that he didn't learn anything from the experience. I'd revise that: after surviving, his ego exploded, making him extraordinarily arrogant and dismissive. He gave no credit to how exceptional his care war, claiming all credit for his willpower and genes. When I first heard of his illness, I felt a pang of sympathy, but quite frankly we'd all be better off had he died. The rest of his campaign was built on his personal triumph over the disease. His message was to not let the pandemic tell us how to live, and his fans were moved by his ersatz bravery, even as more and more of them succumbed. Even today, he's the poster boy for those who refuse the vaccine. We're still a long way from herd immunity, and the main reason for that is he survived the virus. Of course, the book covers much more, as he and his administration failed every step of the way.

Among the related links, note Timothy Bella: Coronavirus outbreak killed two at Fla. office, official says. A vaccinated person was spared. Stories like this should have an effect, but won't. I'm getting increasingly upset with unvaccinated Americans. (Of course, elsewhere in the world few people have the opportunity to be vaccinated, but increasingly in the US it is only people who are selfishly ignorant who haven't availed themselves of their privilege.) In particular, I don't see how anyone can claim any understanding of patriotism and refuse to get vaccinated. I'm close to the least jingoistic person in the world on that score, but isn't the one thing that all patriots claim is their willingness to sacrifice themselves for the community? By the way, see Marion Renault: Being vaccinated isn't a private matter. It's everyone's business.

Assal Rad: Iran's presidential election demonstrates the limits of US pressure campaign. Iran just held elections to choose a new president. As has been widely reported, most "moderate candidates," including logical successors to President Hassan Rouhani, were denied a chance to run, leaving the field open for "right-wing" Ebrahim Raisi to win easily. I put these camps in quotes, because they're little more than relative tendencies within the permissible Iranian political spectrum, which is ultimately controlled by Ayatollah Khamenei. One might think that Rouhani would have been easier for Americans to deal with, and the JCPOA "nuclear deal" that Obama negotiated and Trump tore up seems to be evidence of that, but the fact is that American security wonks (and more importantly, their Israeli masters) hate both camps, and don't want to see anything reduce the level of antagonism between the Iran and the US (and Israel and Saudi Arabia, whose separate hatred for Iran is what binds then to the US). (Indeed, there is evidence that anti-Iran hawks prefer Raisi; see Ryan Costello: US hawks push hardline presidential candidate in Iran.) I've seen arguments that Supreme Leader Khamanei (81) is grooming Raisi as his successor (although Muhammad Sahimi, in The who's who of Iranian players behind the new president, see Raisi as a facilitator to allowing Khamenei to be succeeded by his son, Mojtaba Khamenei). That all suggests that re-opening the JCPOA negotiations is secondary to domestic political considerations -- no matter how central they may seem to the Biden administration. Indeed, Khamanei has always been calling the shots, and that's the one thing the election won't change. But isn't the US the real variable in this equation? Rad's point is that sanctions don't work to force countries like Iran to behave as the US wants, but relieving sanctions is something to negotiate over. The problem with the JCPOA treaty was that soon after it was signed, the US came up with a bunch of new sanctions to impose on Iran, making sure that the rapprochement wouldn't develop into anything more. Under Trump, there was no chance of peaceful coexistence. Under Biden there is a slim one, but his people are going to have to break out of the moribund mindset that has routinely failed since 2001 (or 1989, or 1948).

Also see: Trita Parsi: What to take away from new Iranian president's debut; and Gary Sick: What the election of Ebrahim Raisi tells us about the future of Iran.

Alexander Sammon: The Supreme Court is closer to a 9-0 corporatist supermajority than a 3-3-3 split: "No amount of regrouping can obviate the need for Supreme Court reform." Although I'd caution that it's impossible to reform the Supreme Court until you can build a strong political consensus on what needs to be reformed. That means that Democrats have to start winning landslide elections, which doesn't seem likely to happen any time soon (with or without voting tweaks, which despite all the rhetoric about saving or destroying democracy is all current legislative efforts will do). The 6-3 conservative/liberal split over "culture war" issues is the one that gets the most publicity, but this week's judgments have split variously. One common denominator: "The Roberts Court, including its 'liberals,' has been an outstanding ally of corporate power."

David Sirota makes the same point: Today's Supreme Court isn't moderate. It's pro-corporate and anti-worker. For last week's Supreme Court decisions, see Ian Millhiser:

Walter Shapiro: Why are Democrats acting like the sky is falling? "The Biden administration has already accomplished a lot -- and the party is in a better position than many on the left claim." I don't like everything they've done, especially in the foreign policy realm, but I am pleased with a lot of things, and pleasantly surprised on some. Biden certainly compares favorably to Obama at this point in his presidency, and has had to work without large Democratic majorities in Congress (like Obama had, and blew). I don't even mind this piece of news: Biden claims bipartisan win with deal on infrastructure. Sure, it's only half a loaf (well, more like a third), and even at that it's not a done deal. And sure, Republicans (and even now, only a handful) are only agreeing because they realize that infrastructure is overwhelmingly popular, and they figure this will give them a better campaign story than their usual die-hard obstruction. But I'd be happy to see this much get through and turned into work, and I'd also be happy to campaign in 2022 on the need for more infrastructure investment, and on the taxes to properly support it. On the other hand, I don't see a case for fretting about the left. That's where the ideas that are making Biden look good come from, and that's the energy base. We need to be smart about politics, as well as principled.

On the other hand, it doesn't hurt to check the fine print: e.g., Kate Aronoff: The bipartisan infrastructure bil is a gift to Wall Street, at the planet's expense.

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