Sunday, November 6, 2022

Speaking of Which

I started this relatively early in the week, with the extended comment on the Brad Luen piece, followed by the Timothy Noah piece on economicism, which I had set aside. I wrote the intro Saturday afternoon. I decided some weeks ago that not just lust for power but the assumption that one deserves power and the other side must be denied power is central to the Republican understanding of the world. That makes Nixon (and not Reagan or Goldwater) the godfather of the modern Republican Party. I could add more detail on how and why, but the key elements are here. After the election, I need to decide whether to write this analysis up as a short book. A recent spate of books on the fundamental rot at the heart of the Party (see Heilbrun below) should cover that part adequately, but they tend to focus on the fringe and neglect the center.

The rest of the book would be harder to get straight. Democrats face two problems: how to get more votes than Republicans, and how to deal with an increasing array of serious problems (many directly caused by Republicans), and others also caused by deep assumptions that both parties share. I have some ideas there, but they're rough and far from ready.

Not a lot below on major foreign elections in Brazil and Israel (see St Clair for both, but I didn't comment much). I suppose I should point out that the rise of the racist and possibly genocidal Kahanist party in Israel is a problem for Democrats in the US, who have hitherto automatically supported whatever Israel does but will find a huge disconnect between their pro-democracy, pro-equality posture here and in Israel, while Republicans will have no trouble accepting the new government -- not least because many Republicans admire Israeli repression and militarism, and would like to implement the same here.

Two days before the 2022 US elections, the so-called "mid-terms": a term I hate, because it suggests that only presidential elections really matter, and this is just a referendum on the last, a chance for disgruntled people to express their "buyer's remorse" without much consequence. But of course, there are consequences, the obvious one the chance to divide government to undermine any possibility of the party holding the presidency to get things done. Of course, that can be a good thing (as in 2006 or 2018) or a bad thing (1994 and 2010 were the worst), depending on which party is sabotaged. (Note though that 1994 and 2010 set up successful second term campaigns for Clinton and Obama, perhaps a source of hope if Republicans win in 2022, although the second terms of Clinton and Obama were mixed blessings, leading to defeats four years later.)

I continue to believe that reports of a "Republican surge" -- the title of a David Brooks column I haven't read and won't link to -- are pure gaslighting, with the added ominous overtone of convincing the right that their losses are stolen, which will help justify whatever post-election schemes they've spent the last two years putting into place. When actual votes start getting counted Tuesday evening, we will start to be able to see through the media fog, and possibly get some measure of how effective (or not) the last two years of election denialism and vote rigging have been. Still, I don't expect the mainstream media to be quick to learn from its errors -- especially its inability to recognize phony campaign issues, or to properly spotlight the corruption of money in politics least of all its own advertising windfall).

I'm not wild about Biden's characterization of this election as a test and defense of democracy. It's not that I dispute the point, but democracy in America has been crippled since well before Leonard Cohen wrote his hopeful song about it. The test of a democracy is not merely whether people get a chance to vote and have their ballots counted, but whether doing so produces a government that responds to and takes action on behalf of most people. Back in the 19th century, it's easy to find and quote elites bemoaning the prospect that extending suffrage would let the "mob" take over government and using it for popular causes (like those promised in the Preamble to the US Constitution). But as suffrage became more universal, elites had to fall back on treachery to convince the masses not to claim their rights. Money is a tool, both to buy propaganda and to train candidates, who inevitably spend more time chasing it than they devote to their constituents' needs and hopes. And the media, with its elite ownership, advertising funding, and crass competition for the passing attention of viewers, is the ecosystem in which this deception takes place.

It's often remarked that Republicans are better at playing the game of politics than Democrats. One theory is that Republicans simply care more about their policy goals than Democrats do -- if, indeed, Democrats, being hopelessly torn between their donors and their voters, actually have any (rather, their favorite trick is to try to work out compromises, like Obamacare, that ultimately satisfy neither camp). But Republicans are pretty careless about policy too: they mostly like wedge issues they can campaign on but don't have to do anything about once they're in power. A very good example is how much Reagan bashed Carter in 1980 over the plan to give the Panama Canal to Panama. After the election, he didn't lift a finger to rescind the transfer plan. Even when Bush I invaded Panama, no one suggested recovery of the Canal should be a war aim. Thomas Frank, in What's the Matter With Kansas?, went too far in chiding Republicans for never delivering on their promises to the religious right, but mostly because he riled up the suckers in the rank and file.

The single most important thing to understand about Republicans is that they are addicted to power, and will do anything, at least within their identity as the party of True Americans, to seize and protect it. That identity goes all the way back to the Civil War, when they rose to save their vision of a Free West and wound up having to destroy the Slave Power. That left them with a very WASP power base, against which the Democrats were derided as the party of "Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion." While "rebellion" originally referred to secessionists, the list of the others Republicans hated grew to include populists, progressives, labor unions, socialists, and communists, all the way up to the post-WWII Red Scare. Coming out of the McCarthy hysteria, Nixon made a few tweaks to Republican Party identity: following Kevin Phillips's The Emerging Republican Majority, Nixon welcomed white southerners and white suburban ethnics into the G.O.P., making them True Americans, giving up on the dwindling support of Blacks for the one-time Party of Lincoln.

Nixon is sometimes disparaged by conservative ideologues, who feel he never believed much in their principles (other than his own casual bigotry, which was almost universal among conservatives back then; even the rabid anti-communism he built his career on was something he was willing to compromise on). But he did obsessively believe in one thing: power, which was so important he was willing to do virtually anything to get and keep it. Republican contempt for democracy was all but inevitable given that they sought power by merging empowering the rich, boosting the military, and rallying (mostly religious) cultural reactionaries. Reagan was more successful at applying Nixon's strategy, partly because he avoided Nixon's deceitful smarminess, and partly because after McGovern, Carter gave up on unions as the backbone of the Democratic Party in favor of triangulating business interests -- a balancing act that proved difficult to pull off, although Clinton and Obama got some mileage out of it.

But as demographics and repeated doses of dysfunctional policy started to erode their credibility, Republicans have been stuck in a pattern of doubling down, a bluff that has kept their vote share close enough to win (sometimes without even a plurality). Trump's innovation here is that even when he has an indefensible record, he's always on the attack, and that's kept kept together a party that should have been banished for gross incompetence as well as indecency. Rational people, like myself, wonder how long they can keep this farce up. We'll get some idea after Tuesday.

Connor Echols: [11-04] Diplomacy Watch: Putin blinks, returns to Black Sea grain deal after just 4 days. I haven't put much effort into this regular section this week. The New York Times Updates headlines should give you a flavor:

  • Pentagon unveils new U.S. comand and more Ukraine aid
  • The Defense Department says it will support Ukraine for 'as long as it takes.'
  • Moscow is pouring new conscripts to the front line to try to halt Ukrainian advances.
  • Putin says 318,000 new soldiers have joined Russia's forces in his mobilization push.
  • G7 diplomats end their meeting in Germany with a plan to coordinate on rebuilding Ukraine's infrastructure.
  • China warns against using nuclear weapons in Ukraine, and Germany urges Beijing to do more to end the war. [Olaf Scholz visited Beijing.]
  • A top Biden aide assures Kyiv that the outcome of the U.S. midterm election won't impede military aid. [Jake Sullivan]
  • Amid a forest of Ukrainian flags, soldiers honor a fallen comrade with vodka.
  • With 4.5 million Ukrainians cut off from power, officials reiterate calls for energy conservation.
  • Southeast Asia is a case study in Russia's declining prospects as an arms exporter.
  • Here are 5 ways that sanctions are hitting Russia. [Finance, Trade, Technology, Energy, Elites]

The New York Times map page hasn't been updated since October 11, following Ukrainian ground gains in the two weeks before October 4, and widespread Russian missile attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure. The links I picked up are mostly on the lack of diplomacy:

Thomas Edsall: [11-02] 'Elites Are Making Choices That Are Not Good News': I was steered to this piece by Dean Baker, who agrees that "the basic point in the column is completely true," he adds that Edsall "hugely understates the extent to which the screwing of noncollege educated workers was the result of deliberate government policies." Sure, but why are we still litigating Clinton's stupid idea that the US can afford to lose blue collar jobs because cheaper trade will open up all those lucrative "symbolic manipulator" jobs his Labor Secretary Robert Reich touted? One can understand why workers who got shafted in that deal bear grudges against the Clintons, but who in their right mind thinks voting Republican is going to in any way fix their problem?

Shirin Ghaffary: [11-04] How Elon Musk is changing Twitter: Before the sale, Twitter was a middling company with a massive network of users, which gave it a huge market valuation, as investors figured capturing that many eyes could eventually be exploited to make a lot of money. But the business model didn't demand much from users, so few people felt burdened by signing up and joining in. Musk's purchase may or may not have political and/or cultural implications, which may or may not be ominous, but immediately what it means is that henceforward Twitter has to make enough money to pay off its new owner and the debt he has saddled the company with. So Musk is starting to do the same things that private equity firms do when they swallow up companies: asset stripping and cost reductions. The net effect will make Twitter a much nastier place to work, and very likely a much less satisfactory place for users -- who, we should remember, contribute virtually all of the content that attracts viewers in the first place.

The proposal for "making people pay for blue check marks" sounds like a tax at first, which is bad enough, but the fine print is considerably more alarming. The idea is that a premium program would "include other benefits like fewer ads and more visibility for your Twitter replies to other people's threads." The first part is relatively benign -- damn near everyone seems to be moving to a model of paying-to-avoid-ads -- but the latter is the first step toward a pay-to-play scheme. Eventually premium user's tweets will all be ads, because the model that pays the most -- although "ads" suggests that they're selling things; very often it will just be well-heeled people hiring megaphones to hector you. I expect they will eventually drive most users away, turning into a death spiral. Musk and his credits will lose a lot of money, and make an ugly mess in the process.

More on Twitter:

Jonathan Guyer: [11-02] Netanyahu and the far right have triumphed. Here's what it means for Israel. Interview with Daniel Levy. I've followed Israel's slide to the far-right for 25+ years, but even still I'm shocked by how viciously racist Netanyahu's coalition partners are -- way beyond bigots in any other part of the world. More on Israel:

Benjamin Hart: [11-01] Of Course Trump Is All In on Paul Pelosi Conspiracy Theories. This sort of kneejerk deflection is one way to avoid a self-examination that might reveal that you're some kind of monster, or at least a major asshole.

Jacob Heilbrunn: [10-30] How the Republican Fringe Became the Mainstream. Review of Robert Draper's new book, Weapons of Mass Delusion: When the Republican Party Lost Its Mind, although it could easily be expanded to include Dana Milbank's The Destructionists: The Twenty-Five Year Crack-Up of the Republican Party and David Corn's American Psychosis: A Historical Investigation of How the Republican Party Went Crazy, or possibly others: now that the end-point is obvious, the debate is more about when the craziness started. I've been reading Corn, who looks back all the way back to McCarthy and the John Birch Society. One can even go further: Kim Phillips-Fein's Invisible Hands: The Making of the Conservative Movement from the New Deal to Reagan goes back to the DuPonts in the 1930s, and Heather Cox Richardson's To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party does a pretty good job of making Benjamin Harrison sound like a Bircher. But crazy is a dimension beyond promoting oligarchy with racism and demagoguery, something that runs deep in the Republican Party. The crazy really takes off with Obama's election in 2008, after which the chastised party pros fell behind the Fox-fanned Tea Party mania. John Amato and David Neiwert got it right in their short 2010 book: Over the Cliff: How Obama's Election Drove the American Right Insane. After the party pros nominated Mitt Romney and lost again to Obama, the rank-and-file was ready for someone as crude and vicious as Trump. And after Trump eeked out a win against Hillary Clinton, well, you don't need a book to explain how crazed the Republicans became.

It's gratifying that so many people have figured that much out. But the problem with focusing on how irrational Trump and his fans have become is that doing so often misses how bad Republican policy has become, and how little reporting gets done on how those policies harm the vast majority of Americans, and much of the world. Reagan and the Bushes were frontmen who were sent out to sugar-coat their administration's graft, while Romney and Ryan were forthright enough to come off as supervillains. With Trump, policy and performance are separated: he is a master at sucking up media attention, so no one bothers noticing what the goons in his administration actually do. With him, the transformation of the presidency to show business is complete, and that's mostly a bad thing, but hardly the worst. Similarly, his association with unsavory characters is bad, but nowhere near all of it.

By the way:

  • Robert Draper: [10-17] The Problem of Marjorie Taylor Greene. Long profile piece. I find her boring, but the press and the late night comics love her (or love to hate her, which for practical purposes is the same thing).

Ellen Ioanes: [11-05] An atmosphere of violence: Stochastic terror in American politics: Interview with Kurt Braddock, "about how rhetorical strategies can lead to violence."

Umair Irfan: [11-03] Your free pandemic health perks are on the way out: "The privatization of the Covid-19 response is well underway as federal funding runs out." I got a third Covid-19 booster shot last week. I had to go to Walgreens, and wait about 20 minutes until they squared away my insurance (which was Medicare + supplementals, good enough I almost never run into problems). I haven't been following this, but we're missing a big opportunity, not only to continue Covid-19 coverage but to start to build a universal foundation that can be incrementally extended toward universal health care. Most senior citizens are confused when people talk about Medicare-for-All, because they know that Medicare for them doesn't cover everything, and they have to get supplemental insurance to make up the gaps. So they think they still have private insurance, but have trouble understanding that it's so affordable because Medicare itself does all the heavy lifting. (Of course, like all private insurance, it gets ratcheted up every year, and unlike most they get to factor your age into the price, so "affordable" is a pretty relative term.) On the other hand, let's imagine a system where some things get covered automatically for everyone. That list could have started with the Covid-19 precautions and treatments, and be expanded going forward. Everything moved from individual/group policies to universal helps lower the cost of the policies, and can help manage overall costs, while getting us closer to the universal coverage we want and deserve.

Paul Krugman:

  • [10-31] The Truth About America's Economic Recovery. "Inflation is high, but a lot has gone right." I'm always wary of "truth" in titles, which implies not just that the author knows best but that you don't. Still a fairly balanced presentation of inflation, jobs, spending, etc.

  • [11-03] The G.O.P. Plot Against Medicare and Social Security: "let's note that the push to slash major benefit programs may be the ultimate exaple of an elite priority at odds with what ordinary Americans want." Such plots are as old as the bills they set to wreck, and they've never gotten any traction, so why worry now? I'd offer two reasons: the first is that such proposals reveal a moral bankruptcy that should warn you off everything else they want to do; second, they reveal profound ignorance about how the world works.

Brad Luen: [10-23] The Semipop Review of Catastrophic and Existential Risks: Starts by defining catastrophic risks ("things that could kill off a decent percentage of the world") and existential risks ("things that could result in the collapse of civilization"), then reviews a handful of books, opening with Will MacAskill's What We Owe the Future, then focusing on four such risks: AI (Martin Ford: Rule of the Robots, Nick Bostrom: Superintelligence), Climate Change (David Wallace-Wells: The Uninhabitable Earth), Bio-Risks (Michael T Osterholm/Mark Olshaker: Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer Germs), and War (Bear F Braumoeller: Only the Dead, Bruce G Blair: The Logic of Accidental Nuclear War, Fiona Hill/Clifford G Gaddy: Mr Putin: Operative in the Kremlin), before concluding with "The Intersection" -- the domino metaphor strikes me as more apt here, as various risks increase the likelihood of war, which in turn accelerates other risks. Luen is a professor of statistics and describes himself as "an unprincipled philosophical centrist."

The only one of these books I've read is the Wallace-Wells, which among the half-dozen similar tomes I've read (going back to McKibben's The End of Nature, which I read in the mid-1990s during a July trip to a very steamy Florida, which illustrated his points better than his prose did) is as good a place to start as any. I've read very little about AI: I had a serious interest in it back in the 1980s, about the time neural nets and fuzzy math were invented, but lost track after that, and these days most "practical applications" I see are better described as Artificial Stupidity. I wouldn't say that AI is "value-neutral," but like most things its usefulness or not is fundamentally a political question. But the rest of the risk, as well as items Luen didn't include (most obviously various resource limits, including water and air as well as minerals and productive land). Were I do redo this exercise, I would start with politics, and try to show that bad politics both increases risk and degrades one's ability to cope with disaster. (Bad politicians like to hide increasing risk by shifting it to individuals: see The Great Risk Shift, by Jacob S Hacker. Also by pretending it isn't real: see The Fifth Risk, by Michael Lewis.)

The thing I find most disturbing about the pandemic wasn't how vulnerable we were -- beyond the legitimate fear of a new disease, the economy collapsed as much from supply chain fragility as from politically-ordered lockdowns -- but how a sizable political bloc has grown determined to prevent governments from responding to any future pandemic (which we should now understand to be a certainty). It's easy enough to think of technical solutions to most problems -- not that it's technically easy to switch from a carbon-fueled train to a solar-driven train without slowing the former down (the two great bugbears of the climate change debate are the ideas that the crisis is in the future, and that the only acceptable solution is one that imposes no costs or changes to our way of life). But we lack the political will to make changes based on rational analysis, and even when the lessons are hard-earned, lots of people refuse to learn them. My touchstone here was Jane Jacobs' 2004 Dark Age Ahead, which foresaw increasing cognitive inability to deal with the problems inevitably produced by technological complexity. (Richard Florida reviews Jacobs' book from the perspective of 2016, late enough to claim she prophesied Trump, here: Even Late in Her Career, Jane Jacobs Made Predictions That Are Coming True Today.) I've read more books along these lines, and none of them make me very optimistic for this century -- not that I don't doubt that humanity and some measure of civilization will survive into the next century.

I should probably read the Braumoeller book, although at the moment I suspect some methodological problems. It's certainly one possible critique of Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature, but as I understand it -- I recall buying a copy but never got around to reading it -- the argument isn't just about the frequency of wars but also about the reasoning behind them. Up through WWII, most wars aimed at plunder, but that's become a much less popular rationale since, especially as the cost/benefit calculation has flipped, and the threat of nuclear annihilation looms. But I wouldn't be surprised if the frequency of war remains fairly steady: after all, I write about wars (and "lesser" but still violent conflicts) virtually every week.

By the way, I just bought a copy of Brian T Watson: Headed Into the Abyss: The Story of Our Time and the Future We'll Face, which greatly expands on the subject of Luen's review. It's notable that the first chapter is "Capitalism," which even more than politics is the rarely-examined (except by Marxists, who obsess over it) prime mover driving us into the future. I should also note that my latest Book Roundup has a long list of recent books on post-capitalism (aka "degrowth" or "post growth") thinking. Scant chance that any signifiant number of American politicians are going to even start talking about this -- Democrats have long seen growth as the magic elixir that allows them to be pro-business as well as helping everyone else; on the other hand, Republican economic scams often seem to be anti-growth, without giving us any degrowth benefits. Much more on war and the diminishing competency of politics there.

Ian Millhiser: [11-03] The nightmarish Supreme Court case that could gut Medicaid, explained: "Health and Hospital Corporation v. Talevski is the single greatest threat to America's social safety net since Paul Ryan."

Steven Lee Myers: [11-06] Russia Reactivates Its Trolls and Bots Ahead of Tuesday's Midterms: "Researchers have identified a series of Russian information operations to influence American elections and, perhaps, erode support for Ukraine." I wouldn't read much into this, but of course, that's what they do. I doubt it will have any effect, unless Democrats use it as some kind of excuse for losing (as Clinton's coterie did after 2016). More interesting is whether they can nudge Republicans into an anti-Ukraine stand, which is something they're tempted by. Also, note: [11-04] Twitter layoffs gutted election information teams days before midterms.

Timothy Noah: [10-25] May God Save Us From Economists: Economics "can be a useful tool for policymaking, but it's become the only tool. It's time for economics to back the hell off." As Noah points out: economists overvalue modeling; economists undervalue data; economists don't get societies; economists don't get irrationality; economists don't get people who aren't economists. Noah then looks at three domains: criminal justice; health care; and climate change. Central to this is the notion that every problem can be decided by a cost/benefit analysis (provided you can assume a value for human lives, which is kind of a problem; as with many math problems, the devil's not so much in the details as in the assumptions). Elizabeth Popp Berman's Thinking Like an Economist: How Efficiency Replaced Equality in US Public Policy is one of the books cited.

Jeffrey St Clair: [11-04] Roaming Charges: History Ain't Changed: Starts with elections in Brazil and Israel.

Elections: No horse races, and no post-mortems, but a few quick links on the election:

Mike Davis: More pieces on the late leftist scholar Mike Davis:

A couple closing tweets. The first is from Bill Kristol, who 20 years ago I would have put near the top of a list of top-ten public enemies:

Hey, don't want to interrupt my Democratic friends when they're engaged in their favorite sports of The Gnashing of Teeth and The Tearing of Garments, but it looks as if the Democratic Party will have the best midterm performance by a party in the White House in two decades.

So I don't regard his opinion as anything more than a random blip, but there it is. The second one is from someone named Benedict Evans:

Suggesting Mastodon as an alternative to Twitter is like suggesting Linux as an alternative to Windows.

I started using Linux around 1998, and I never regretted it, so this makes me more (not less) inclined to switch. Still, while the two comparisons aren't analogous. It doesn't make much difference to me whether you are also running Linux, or are saddled with Windows or MacOS (or whatever they call it these days). On the other hand, with Twitter-like software it does matter whether the people I want to follow are on the same service I'm on. For social media, network effects are the basis of effective monopolies, which is what Twitter, Facebook, etc., are. Mastodon doesn't come remotely close, and for various technical reasons -- it's designed to prevent monopolization -- it likely never will be. On the other hand, I could see setting up a server and migrating a fairly close-knit group (like, say, the Expert Witness group currently at Facebook) -- which would probably work better than it does on Facebook. But I haven't looked into it enough to make any decisions.

Ask a question, or send a comment.