Sunday, February 12, 2023

Speaking of Which

Started Friday, but various things distracted me along the way, and this feels exceptionally jumbled at the moment. For what it's worth, I started with the Jonathan Chait pieces, and only decided to include the bit on the Turkey/Syria earthquake very late. Also appearing late was the Thomas Friedman Biden-to-Israel column. You'd have to look back at past weeks to get the context.

Top story threads:

Biden's State-of-the-Union Address: I never watch speeches like this (or like anything, actually), but I've seen bits since, and for once the coverage helped. The Sanders quotes in the Kilgore piece are especially jaw-dropping.

  • Bill Scher: [02-08] Biden Concedes Nothing in His State of the Union Address: "A deft, defiant Democratic president outfoxes the Republicans in front of the nation and smartly stresses antitrust and consumer rights." Scher contrasts this with Clinton in 1995 and Obama in 2011, who proposed spending cuts to placate new Republican majorities in the House. Part of the reason may be that the Republicans' narrow win has been widely spun as a failure, so Biden feels less need to triangulate. But also Democrats are sick and tired of the imperious demands of the right, and have resolved to fight back, not least because they have started to have confidence in their own plans, rather than thinking all they have to do is offer something slightly more palatable than what the nihilist Republicans are demanding.

  • Jonathan Chait: [02-10] Joe Biden Is a Mediocre Liberal: "But he's proved to be a successful president anyway." This is kind of a silly article, but at least is less pretentious than another one that I can imagine: that someone slipped Biden a book on the New Deal, and he decided to adopt FDR's penchant for just trying things, going whichever direction seemed to work best. Of course, his options have been limited, given lack of majority support in Congress. The fault there is in thinking that he's acting according to some plan. Nothing in his history suggests anything but opportunism, but that's left him flexible enough to adapt to the times.

  • David Dayen: [02-10] The Twilight of the Deficit Hawks: "Democrats have stopped being the willing partner in a great conspiracy to slash social insurance." Looks at a deficit hawk group called Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, where the board is amply stacked with has-been Democrats who've long been willing pawns in schemes to cut social welfare. "The problem for Republicans is that they have always wanted Democrats as willing partners, in no small part because then they could try to pin the blame on Democrats. In terms of actual principles, of course, the GOP doesn't care about deficits; under every Republican president for the last 40 years, it has happily supported giant deficit-busting tax cuts. Democratic rejection of deficit politics leaves Republicans politically exposed."

  • Ed Kilgore: [02-08] Sarah Huckabee Sanders Showed That the GOP Is Truly Not 'Normal'. The quotes from Sanders' rebuttal speech are so disconnected from reality it's hard to decipher them as anything but a catechism: words repeated from memory as a testimony to a faith that is way beyond experience or perception. She says "the dividing line in America is no longer between left and right. The choice is between normal or crazy." She came down clearly on the side of crazy.

  • Paul Krugman: [02-09] War Is Peace, Freedom Is Slavery, Democrats Are Radicals: "Delivering the Republican response, Sarah Huckabee Sanders claimed that the United States is divided between two parties, one of which is mainly focused on bread-and-butter issues that matter to regular people, while the other is obsessed with waging culture war. This is also true. But she got her parties mixed up."

  • Frank Bruni: [02-07] Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the Queen of Having It Both Ways.

  • Paul Waldman/Greg Sargent: [02-08] Sarah Huckabee Sanders's strange "woke" rant reveals a big GOP problem: Republicans like to rant about "woke," but how many people have any idea what it means? (I mean, other than bad people? Ones true patriots should fear and loathe?)

  • Eric Levitz: [02-08] The GOP's Heckles Were a Gift to Biden's Reelection Campaign.

  • Harold Meyerson: [02-08] Biden Forges a New Democratic Paradigm: "The president repudiates the neoliberal ideologies of the past and puts the party on solid economic and political ground."

  • Timothy Noah: [02-09] And Now, the Republicans Are the Party of Defending Businesses That Rip People Off: "Biden was right to talk about junk fees in his SOTU. And Republicans are playing into his hand." Nor is it just junk fees. Once Republicans disposed of the idea of there even being such a thing as a public interest, they opened the door to all kinds of profit-seeking, even fraud. Their push to deregulation basically encourages companies to take all sorts of profitable liberties. And their efforts to cripple enforcement, not least by the IRS, appear designed to promote financial crime even in cases they're not able to explicitly legitimize.

  • Paul Waldman: [02-10] Sorry, Republicans, no one should trust your word on Social Security. Democrats have long accused Republicans of wanting to kill Social Security and Medicare, and they've always been able to produce evidence to support their case, but somehow the charge has rarely had much impact. The charges don't stick because most people doubt that Republicans would be so foolish as to dismantle such popular programs. But while there are cranks who want nothing less, serious Republican efforts aim to merely knick, cripple, and ultimately eviscerate the program. And often, as with Bush's 2005 privatization ploy, they are hyped as plans not to kill but to save the programs. That one failed not just because it was unpopular but because there was no way to make it work. But many other ploys have slipped into law: higher eligibility ages, reduced cost-of-living adjustments, increased co-payments on Medicare -- each designed to make the program less appealing, and therefore less popular. And no less ominous are the scams like Medicare Advantage, which add cost to the program, making it less efficient, and presumably untenable in the long run. What Democrats finally seem to be wising up to is that to protect Social Security and Medicare, they need to improve the benefits -- and watch Republicans squirm to resist, instead of just issuing denials and carrying on as usual.

    By the way, one thing that helps Republican denials of intent to destroy Social Security and Medicare is their ability to get the "liberal press" to editorialize on their behalf. See Dean Baker: [02-05] The Washington Post Wants to Cut Social Security and Medicare (Yeah, What Else Is New?).

  • Kelley Beaucar Vlahos: [02-07] Biden speeds through Ukraine, China in soaring State of the Union: "Just 200 words out of a 7300-word speech devoted to a war consuming our attention -- and $113 billion in resources -- for the last year." What's the opposite of "wag the dog"? Arthur Vandenberg's prescription was that in order to sell a massive military outlay, you first have to scare the hell out of the people. But for Washington today, it's so reflexive you scarcely have to mention it.

The Republican House: And elsewhere, basically anywhere they are given license to plunder and a voice to spew their nonsense.

Trump and DeSantis: We might as well combine their latest stunts and blunders, as the differences rarely matter.

Death to Flying Things: That was the nickname of a 19th century infielder, Bob Ferguson (1845-94), supposedly for his skill at catching pop ups and line drives, but before long Joe Biden will be laying claim to it. [PS: And then Biden and Justin Trudeau ordered a third object shot down over Canadian airspace.]

Ukraine War: Both sides appear to be planning offensives, confident enough they can ignore the dire need for ceasefire and a negotiated settlement. Meanwhile, big story was Seymour Hersh's article on the NordStream pipeline sabotage. Beyond the White House issuing the expected denial, I haven't seen much commentary, particularly from the Europeans most directly affected.

  • Connor Echols: [02-10] Diplomacy Watch: Lavrov shores up support for Russia in Africa.

  • Luke Cooper: [01-30] Ukraine's Neoliberal War Mobilization: "You can't fight wars with neoliberal economics," but austerity programs have led to fracturing and war elsewhere (e.g., Yugoslavia). While Ukraine is fighting for its independence from Russia, it is increasingly indebted to the US and Europe, whose future generosity is by no means assured: in fact, the economic regimes long pushed by the US and Germany have more often led to stagnation and impoverishment.

  • Dave DeCamp: [02-09] GOP Resolution to End Support for Ukraine War: Actually, it's just Matt Gaetz and ten of his cohort, so no one but Kevin McCarthy is likely to get bent out of shape over this threat. They call it "The Ukraine Fatigue Resolution," which should make for amusing op-ads. Blaise Malley [02-09] also has the story: Gaetz introduces 'Ukraine Fatigue' resolution.

  • Chris Hedges: [01-29] Ukraine: The War That Went Wrong. I'm merely noting this, not having read much by him recently. While his railing against US imperial hubris is well-founded, it's not clear to me that his detailed understanding of Ukraine is. I also glanced at Hedges' [02-05] Woke Imperialism, which reveals him to be a strange bedfellow in the anti-woke pile on. I'd say that the ability to recognize and the desire to oppose one form of discrimination (racial) would make one more likely to identify and oppose others (even class).

  • Seymour Hersh: [02-08] How America Took Out the Nord Stream Pipeline. Detective stories have drummed into us the critical trinity of means, opportunity, and motive. People were quick to point the finger at Russia, but they could have produced the same effect by closing the valve, without the enormous future cost of repairs, so that never made any sense. Ukraine probably had the most motive, but means? Only the US checks all three boxes (especially with Norway's collusion), but you'd think exposure would be awfully embarrassing, especially in Germany. Jeffrey St Clair addresses this in this week's "Roaming Charges" (link below).

  • Anatol Lieven: [02-10] Crimea Is a Powder Keg. I've been saying all along that there needs to be an honest referendum on where the people of Crimea want to align (with Russia or Ukraine). Same for other contested oblasts, although refugees complicate things, especially in areas which have seen the most intense fighting. (There are also border issues: do you hold a referendum over all of Donetsk, or just the portion -- either now or before the 2022 invasion -- controlled by Russia?) I've also been saying that Ukraine would be better off without the breakaway territories. That doesn't sit easily with those who want to inflict the maximum defeat on Russia, but haven't they been indulged enough already? Lieven's review of Crimean history just underscores my position.

  • Eve Ottenberg: [02-10] The Leopard's Tale: US Weapons Makers on a Marketing Spree.

  • Kelley Beaucar Vlahos: [02-10] Pentagon wants to revive top secret commando program in Ukraine. Much unexplained here, including the word "restart." It's hard to see how US control of missile targeting intelligence falls short of US direction of Ukrainian forces.

Other stories:

Dean Baker: [02-05] Ending the Cesspool in Pharmaceuticals by Taking Away Patent Monopolies, and [02-07] The NYT Tells Us that Drugs Are Cheap, Government-Granted Monopolies Make Them Expensive. Baker has been almost alone in flogging this horse, but it's an important point, and even more important than he seems to recognize. The problem with patents isn't just that they grant companies legal power to fleece the public. (One's tempted to say "tax," given the word's arbitrary overtones.) They also reflect a worldview where all wealth derives from property, as they create new classes of property the wealthy can exploit. But they also have the exact opposite effect of what their proponents claim: they stifle innovation, by hacking up public knowledge and assigning exclusive control to companies motivated by mere profit-seeking. The elect claim them, then exclude others from developing them further. In a patent-free world, anyone could take an idea, develop it, making it public for others to develop further, as the knowledge developed would be gratis everywhere. Perhaps nowhere do we see the corrosive effects of patents than in world trade talks, where rich countries insist others submit to their market discipline and pay tribute to their arbitrary property grants. Pharmaceuticals are simply one of the most morally hazardous products: patents give companies the power to demand: "your money or your life." The Covid-19 pandemic shows how short-sighted this is.

Jonathan Chait:

  • [02-06] Michael Lind, Case Study in the Perils of Discourse-Poisoning: "How an intellectual talks himself into believing the GOP is the left-wing party." What occasioned this was a piece by Lind called The Power-Mad Utopians, which argues "America needs a broad popular front to stop the revolution from above that is transforming the country." Chait summarizes Lind's complaints about what he calls "the 'Green Project' (support for clean energy), the 'Quota Project' (affirmative action), and the 'Androgyny Project' (transgender rights)." Chait points out that while there are factions on the left pushing such arguments, the actual policies Democrats push fall far short. And he wonders why Lind seems to have abandoned his earlier focus on class to embrace culture war reaction. Those of us who have followed Lind know that he occasionally has solid insights -- he pointed out that libertarianism has indeed been tried, as what we now call feudalism; his 2004 book on Bush, Made in Texas, was one of the period's sharpest critiques, building as it did on his disillusionment with neoconservatism -- he has also on occasion proved remarkably stupid (as in his 1999 book, Vietnam: The Necessary War). For what it's worth, I think there is some value in critiquing utopian tendencies on the left (as on the right). But I'd say that the way to do that is to elect sensible Democrats who focus on real problems and how to mitigate or even solve them, as opposed to naysayers and outrage merchants who have nothing to offer but force and collateral damage. And I have to point out that sometimes Lind's cleverness gets the better of him (e.g., what can "The Trump presidency was the Thermidorian Reaction to the radical Bush revolution" possibly mean?).

  • [02-09] Columbia Journalism Review Had a Different Russiagate Story -- and Spiked It: Chait complains that Jeff Gerth's CJR essay "worked backward from the conclusion that Trump had been vindicated and used a parallel to the media's coverage of Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction. . . . Proceeding from the premise that Trump had been smeared by the press, Gerth attacked the media's coverage of the issue." He then impugns CJR's motives by citing "a very different Russia story" they "commissioned, and killed": one that looked into The Nation's "pro-Russian stance" (attributed largely to editor Katrina vanden Heuvel and her late husband, Stephen F. Cohen). I'll leave it to you to sort out the conflict in Chait's mind.

    But I will note that I've always been sympathetic to Cohen's opposition to efforts to gin up a new cold war against Russia, which was always central to his critique of the "Russiagate" hysteria. True, I thought he sometimes tried too hard to sympathize with Putin, who I've long regarded as a very repellant political figure -- my worries about regenerating cold war hysteria have more to do with the damage such attitudes cause to American domestic and foreign policy, not least the risk of prodding Russia into war, as has now happened. (While I blame Putin for intervening in Ukraine both in 2014 and invading in 2022, I seriously doubt that would have happened absent the long drum-roll of American arms propagandists.)

    What bothered me about Russiagate was never the truth or falsity of the charges -- a mixed record, as far as I can tell -- but the subtexts: the desire to reconstruct Russia as an enemy worthy of massive defense budgets (as noted above), and the lame excuse it provided for Hillary Clinton's 2016 political loss, to which we may now add the effective submission of the Democratic Party to the anti-Russia hawks (and in most cases to the anti-China hawks).

    On the other hand, I should note that I turned off the Russiagate hysteria almost as soon as it got cranked up. There was never any shortage of legitimate reasons to despise Trump, and even he soon got boring, as focus on his personal outrageousness distracted from the many horrible things his administration did (and the even worse things they clearly wanted to do). Perhaps if journalism was my profession, I might have felt more like Matt Taibbi (or maybe not, as he's always compensated for his independence with a veneer of both-sidesism). But on balance I'd say the media has been far more solicitous of and generous to Trump, and much less critical, than is objectively merited.

Thomas L Friedman: [02-12] In 46 Words, Biden Sends a Clear Message to Israel: I doubt the statement is either as clear or as weighty as Friedman thinks, but let's start with it:

The genius of American democracy and Israeli democracy is that they are both built on strong institutions, on checks and balances, on an independent judiciary. Building consensus for fundamental changes is really important to ensure that the people buy into them so they can be sustained.

This misses two key points to focus in on the narrow point of the value of having an independent judiciary (which is arguably the least democratic part of US government). The first is that the real genius of American democracy is that it trends toward equal rights for all people (imperfectly, fitfully, but each expansion is ultimately one that we are proud of). On the other hand, Israeli democracy is built on the systematic exclusion of a large class of people, who are denied political rights within Israel and human rights in general. And this has gone on for 75 years, with the full blessing of the "independent judiciary" Friedman and Biden are so concerned over.

Bob Hennelly: [02-08] "Cover-up": Workers "know the truth" about the derailment disaster -- why are they being ignored? In Ohio, a train with 150 cars (20 carrying "hazardous materials") derailed and caught fire.

John Herrman: [01-30] The Junkification of Amazon: "Why does it feel like the company is making itself worse?" It is. And it's not alone. It's tempting to attribute this to monopoly leverage, but it's working at smaller granularity with greater speed than ever before. Google is another example: they started out offering a fast, relatively high quality search engine. Now they're basically sucking you into a maze of insider deals of marginal utility. Amazon started out as a place where you could buy discounted books your local retailer couldn't bother stocking. Now it's, well, some kind of insidious racket.

Ed Kilgore: [02-12] What Would 2024 Look Like for Democrats If Biden Retired? Not a subject that particularly interests me, but since his SOTU address helped unify all factions of the Democratic Party behind his presidency, I suppose one could offer a few observations. Clearly, his age will be an issue. Health past 80 is always a worry, but also he's always been prone to gaffes, and from here on they'll all be attributed to his age. He's never been an especially persuasive speaker, but it would be nice if Democrats had one for that role. On the other hand, administrations are team efforts, and a charismatic leader is hardly needed to micromanage. The key question won't be who can run government better, but who can win in 2024.

Biden has one big advantage in that regard. He has proven willing to work with the democratic wing of the Party, but he is still acceptable to the neoliberals who, like the Gold Democrats of 1896 and the Democratic Hawks of 1972 would rather throw the election than see their party move toward the left. You no doubt recall that when Sanders took the lead in 2020, Bloomberg put $500 million into the primaries, making an ass of himself but stampeding Democrats away from Sanders and Warren to . . . well, Biden was their sensible compromise choice, one that despite his many weaknesses kept the party united enough to defeat Trump. If he can do that again (or whoever the Trump-wannabe du jour is), I'll be happy.

Of course, Democrats should be developing a deep bench of potential leaders. Republicans are able to do that because they are all interchangeable ciphers with agendas set by their donors. Democrats have a tougher time, because the money people who ran the Clinton-Obama period did such a poor job of delivering gains to the party base that the people revolted (Sanders was a catalyst, and by no means the only one, but he proved that small donations could compete with the PACs). Consequently, there is a great deal of unresolved distrust among Democrats, which tends to get papered over with the more pervasive fear of Republicans.

Kilgore is mostly responding to a piece by Michelle Goldberg: [02-06] Biden's a Great President. He Should Not Run Again.

David Lat/Zachary B Shemtob: [02-12] Trump's Supreme Court Picks Are Not Quite What You Think. Marginal distinctions, but they know better than anyone that they never have to answer to his sorry ass again. It's possible that what kept Scalia and Thomas so tightly bound to right-wing lobbies is keeping their kin on the payroll.

Louisa Loveluck: [02-10] In earthquake-battered Syria, a desperate wait for help that never came. The worst-hit part of Syria is in territory that isn't under control of the government in Damascus, and while the US and others have pumped arms into the area, it's not really stable enough for outside aide to get in, either. Nothing constructive can happen in a war zone. People need to realize that's a good reason to settle conflicts, even if not optimally. Also note that even in Turkey, which is much more stable, politics still gets in the way: see Jenna Krajeski: [02-09 Turkey's earthquake response is as political as the conditions that increased the devastation. [PS: Death toll from the 7.8 earthquake has topped 33,000.]

Stephen Prager: [02-09] Republicans Are Starting to Discuss Which Groups to Cast Out of Democratic Society. Sounds like something they'd do, but most of the article is still on voter suppression, which is not a surefire method (not least because it stinks).

Nathan J Robinson:

  • [02-06] AI Is About to Bring Us Into a Very Creepy New World: "The ability to defraud and deceive is about to massively escalate." I think that trust is going to become extremely important in future politics, and that it's going to be impossible to achieve in a world that puts the profit motive above all else.

  • [02-11] I Have Now Destroyed All of the Right-Wing Arguments at Once: Robinson has a new book out, Responding to the Right: Brief Replies to 25 Conservative Arguments. I probably know all of this already, but ordered a copy for future reference. Also ordered his 2018 essay collection, The Current Affairs Rules for Life: On Social Justice & Its Critics, which covers similar ground, calling out a number of right-wing intellectuals. I skipped over his Why You Should Be a Socialist, initially because Amazon didn't offer a paperback (they were too busy pushing Audible and Kindle). Turns out there is a paperback, for a couple bucks less than the hardcover, but I don't see much practical value in calling yourself a socialist, and I see lots of worthwhile things that can be done short of the label (although not short of getting called names by Republicans and other fascists).

    Robinson notes that right-wingers have their own primers on how to argue their talking points, like Gregg Jackson's Conservative Comebacks to Liberal Lies (2006), and Larry Schweikart's 48 Liberal Lies About American History (2008). Looking at the latter list, roughly one-third are certainly true (like "The Reagan Tax Cuts Caused Massive Deficits and the National Debt"), one-third are worded vaguely enough to be debatable (like "The Early Colonies Were Intolerant and Racist" -- well, they did execute women for witchcraft, and they did practice race-based slavery, but there were occasional exceptions), and one-third are things no liberal has seriously argued (like "John F. Kennedy Was Killed by LBJ and a Secret Team to Prevent Him from Getting Us Out of Vietnam").

Walter Shapiro: [02-09] The Democrats Lost the House by Just 6,675 Votes. What Went Wrong? Some case studies, if you want details.

Jeffrey St Clair: [02-10] Roaming Charges: Killing in the Name Of . . . : "The US is home to less than 5 percent of the world's population, but holds 20 percent of the planet's prisoners." Also: "Through the first week of February, police in the US had killed at least 133 people -- a 20% increase over the same period last year." Further notes on ICE border jails, and an in-depth review of the Seymour Hersh article and reservations.

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