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Sunday, January 23, 2022
Speaking of Which
I thought maybe I should do one of these columns last week. I had several pieces piled up in open tabs, but couldn't get started. Back when I started doing this things, I aimed for Fridays, but didn't get started this week until Friday afternoon, and then it just started sprawling. I will say that one incentive has been the cascade of reports on how Biden and the Congressional Democrats are losing the faith of the American people, and how Republicans are poised to make major gains in 2022. (I won't bother looking up the link, as I haven't actually read the piece, but Henry Olsen has something on how Republicans are gaining "majority party" status.) I think this is all bullshit, but it wouldn't hurt Democrats to be a bit paranoid, as the consequences of failure in 2022 and (especially) 2024 are dire. Meanwhile, here's what I did come up with.
One open tab I didn't write about below, but don't want to lose, is William Horne's Twitter thread on the Jan. 6 anniversary.
Here's the latest coronavirus map: looks like new cases have peaked, although the 14-day change is still up 11%, and hospitalized and deaths (which lag new cases) are up 30% and 44% respectively, the latter to 2,162 per day (864,182) total, which is higher than the September 2021 peak, a bit less than April 2020. The map is pretty uniform everywhere (except Maine). The unvaccinated death rate is back up to 20x the vaccinated rate.
Jedediah Britton-Purdy: The Republican Party Is Succeeding Because We Are Not a True Democracy: I came to this piece after writing most of the below, and could have filed it under any of several entries, but the point is worth underlining (and alphabetic order by author helps, too). For one example: "Trump could have tied Biden and forced the election into the House of Representatives by flipping just 43,000 votes in three states," which would have disqualified 7 million Biden voters for living in the wrong states. That's just one of many undemocratic advantages the party of wealth and privilege enjoys, so it shouldn't be surprising how harshly they've turned against democracy: their very success depends on upending or preventing it. Conclusion: "The way to save democracy is to make it more real." Article includes links to a number of articles collectively titled The Uncomfortable Lessons of Jan. 6. In particular, see Rebecca Solnit: Why Republicans Keep Falling for Trump's Lies.
Neel Dhanesha: Texas went big on oil. Earthquakes followed. "Thousands of earthquakes are shaking Texas. What the frack is going on?" Well, it's wastewater injection. The wastewater is pumped up with oil, especially from mature wells where much of the oil has already been pumped out. This isn't exactly caused by fracking, but fracking is used to increase yields in old wells, so they tend to go hand in hand. (Fracking is also used to break up shale to extract gas, and that's more problematical, in large part because the fracking compounds are more toxic, and more likely to leak into the water supply.) I wasn't aware of Texas having this problem, but it's no surprise. Oklahoma has experienced thousands of earthquakes, up to around 5.5, in the last decade, and we've had a few dozens in south-central Kansas (or maybe hundreds, depends on where you draw the line -- I get USGS reports on everything over 4.0, but there are many more closer to 3.0).
Jacob S Hacker: What does Jan. 6 say about American democracy -- and the prospects for war? Reviews two books: Mark Bowden/Matthew Teague: The Steal: The Attempt to Overturn the 2020 Election and the People Who Stopped It (Atlantic Monthly Press), and Barbara P. Walter: How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them (Viking). The former is detailed reporting which provides the broader (and critical) context behind the January 6 riot/insurrection. In focusing on the storming of the Capitol, we run the risk of turning that singular, inept, bumbling event into camouflage for the far more ominous Trump team schemes to steal the election via "legal" means, through the courts (which have been systematically packed with Republican loyalists) and ultimately by simply rejecting the certified electors from selected states (e.g., ones with gerrymandered Republican control of state offices). Trump's attempt to steal the election was always a multi-pronged effort, of which the mob was just one tool, a rather desperately employed one. (I've seen Peter Diamond grouching that the mob was counterproductive, disrupting the "real plan" of getting Pence and the Senate Republican majority to reject the electoral votes.) But one should bear in mind that the Republican assault on democracy has always been a multi-pronged affair, and has mostly been achieved through legally-sanctified means -- gerrymanders and voting restrictions get the most press, but the initial and paramount affront to democracy has been the overwhelming of politics by money (which Democrats of means, like Obama and the Clintons, even more blatantly Bloomberg, have contributed to).
Another danger of overly focusing on the riot/insurrection is that it suggests the Trump mob will turn increasingly violent if they don't get their way, plunging the nation into some kind of civil war. The Walter book provides a survey of civil wars around the world, like Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in their much-touted How Democracies Die. I'm more tempted to order Walters' book, because I'm more interested in general patterns than in the details of which Trump flunkies came up with which harebrained excuses to rationalize a 7-million-vote deficit, but I also have reservations (which is why I didn't bother with Levitsky/Ziblatt or several similar tomes -- I did read Timothy Snyder's The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America, which was time wasted enough). It's not that I don't see value in comparative histories, but they slight the differences unique in our situation, while often falling back on prejudices. No surprise that most of these examples are steeped in German and East European examples, allowing the authors to be uncritical of what passes for democracy in America. We flatter ourselves as the world's oldest democracy, which leads one to think of decrepitude, but it's more accurate to say that democracy was an ideal that was embraced early but never fulfilled -- in large part because real democracy has always had domestic enemies. Looking afar for ominous examples abroad tends to overlook obvious ones at home. It also misses how often new threats to democracy focus on past fractures.
One chapter in Waters' book that seems especially relevant is "The Dark Consequences of Losing Status." That seems to describe the Trump mob, even if there is little objective support for their fears. The fears, of course, exist because they're drummed into people by the Fox propaganda machine, which is the only way to motivate people to follow such a counterproductive agenda.
A few more civil war/eclipse of democracy links:
Jeff Hauser/Max Moran: What Biden's Message Should Be. I flagged this because I'm interested in messaging for the upcoming elections. I don't necessarily agree with everything here -- e.g., I doubt that political prosecutions against Facebook and Boeing would help much -- but I do think it's important to impress on people how much they have to lose if Republicans win. By the way, this is a little wonky, but is good messaging: Nathan Newman: How Dems Saved the Economy.
Michael Hudson: When Debts Become Unpayable, They Should Be Forgiven. Interview with the economist, pointing out that debt jubilees have been common throughout history. "Every economy that has interest-bearing debt has to restructure at some point, or else all of the economy will end up being owned by just a teeny group of people at the top, like you had in Rome." Or here and now. There's always been an element of pretense to debt. The rich get to pretend their money is working, protected by the promise of repayment which leaves them richer than ever, enjoying power over their debtors. Debtors, in turn, get to actually do something with money they don't own, but have to sacrifice to pay it back, and grovel along the way. As debt is a power relation, bankruptcy exacts a political as well as a financial reckoning.
Fred Kaplan: The End of the Afghanistan War Was Even Worse Than Anyone Realized: This summarizes a longer piece by Steve Coll/Adam Entous: The Secret History of the US Diplomatic Failure in Afghanistan, which I imagine will shortly turn into a book, following Coll's Directorate 5: The CIA and America's Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan (2018), and, much earlier but essential background, Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden (2004). I don't feel like writing about this in any depth, but the following quote from Kaplan sums up the war fairly well:
The line "pretended to think" belies a persistent problem which Obama suffered from even more than Biden: the belief that projecting confidence influences reality toward desired ends. Ron Suskind's book on Obama's handling of the recession was called Confidence Men, based on their belief that the recession could simply be wished away. Such magical thinking is even more prevalent among America's defense and foreign policy mandarins. For all his blunders, Biden at least deserves credit for breaking the cycle of self-delusion. It is sad and pathetic that his approval ratings started to crumble when the US departed Afghanistan. Leaving was the best thing he's done, and we should all applaud his resolution in doing that.
Ed Kilgore: Biden Didn't Have the power or Luck to Become FDR or LBJ: True on both counts. The Congressional margins in 1933 and 1965 are in the article (as are notes about recalcitrant Southern Democrats, but also Progressive Republicans who supported FDR and LBJ programs. In order for any significant legislative program to pass, the opposition party has to collapse, and that hasn't happened (yet). A big part of the problem is the persistence of Republicans in voting their party line regardless of how severely disgraced its candidates are. Kilgore also wrote a piece which tries to explain this: Never Mind the Facts. Trump Fans Feel Like a Majority. I get the sensation, but can't help but feel it's illusory. You're not seeing Democrats out marching in the streets or tearing their hair out on Facebook, because those aren't arenas where we need to be fighting right now.
Ezra Klein: Steve Bannon Is Onto Something: Better title, provided by Paul Woodward, is: To protect democracy, Democrats have to win more elections. Klein's mostly talking about the need to recruit Democrats to run for small, unglamorous offices, because that's where the roots of political movements lie. At least that's what Republicans got real good at back in the 1990s, leading Jim Hightower to publish a book called If the Gods Had Meant Us to Vote, They'd Have Given Us Candidates. While they may still have an advantage, the gap's closed some in recent years, and the quality of Republican candidates is often ridiculous. This led me to another Klein article on political strategy: David Shor Is Telling Democrats What They Don't Want to Hear. I don't see Shor as much of an oracle, but he's pointing out things like: "Senate Democrats could win 51 percent of the two-party vote in the next two elections and end up with only 43 seats in the Senate." The obvious conclusion there is that Democrats have to win big, and they especially have to learn to win in Red States. Given where Republicans stand, it shouldn't be hard to craft a winning program. Selling it is another story. Shor's opinion is that trimming the left would help, and that's an opinion widely shared among Democratic Party functionaries, even among some nominally left-leaning, but the left also offer things that former New Democrats fail miserably at, like ideas and integrity.
Chris Lehman: How the Fed Supercharged Inequality: Review of Christopher Leonard's book, The Lords of Easy Money: How the Federal Reserve Broke the American Economy, which "follows the unintended consequences of quantitative easing." I'm not following this perfectly, but I'm not surprised that trying to pump up the economy by pushing vast sums of money out through the banks would result in numerous asset bubbles, since that's what you get when people with too much money try to park it in investments bought from other people with too much money. One might contrast this with offering to replace consumer debt, including school and home, with long-term 0% loans, which would significantly reduce debt overhang, increased spending, and (probably) reduce asset bubbles. Just an idea, and one that could be further tuned.
Eric Levitz: Give Manchin What He Wants Already: Sure, why the hell not? He's proven he can block anything he doesn't want. I think it's good to have passed the "bipartisan" infrastructure bill (which wasn't very bipartisan at all in the House). Unless you have some runaround to get Murkowski or Collins to cross the line, Manchin is the only game in town, so take what you can get. And run for more in 2022. And if, heaven forbid, you lose in 2022, at least you'll have however much this is in the bank. Manchin's wrong about a lot of things here, starting with inflation and the deficit. But you're not going to convince him of that. And before long he's not going to matter.
Anatol Lieven: Did this week's US-NATO-Russia meetings push us closer to war? Also recently wrote: Don't kick the can: two key US proposals for upcoming Russia talks, and: Ukrainian neutrality: a 'golden bridge' out of the current geopolitical trap. All three articles point out that the seemingly escalating tensions between Russia and the US over Ukraine could be negotiated away simply enough: by agreeing that Ukraine should remain neutral, with no prospect of membership in NATO (similar to the 1955 agreement where Austria was recognized as neutral in the Cold War division of Europe), and by implementing a 2015 agreement to provide some degree of autonomy for the Russian-aided separatist Donbass region. Both of these seem like painless deals for the US, and offer Putin with a degree of face-saving political cover. That matters mostly because Russia overreacted to the 2014 "Orange Revolution" in Ukraine by supporting separatist groups, and got away with it in Crimea, much less successfully in Donbass. I don't quite understand why this is a big deal for Putin, but backing down is never easy. On the other hand, the US is the one that's seriously overstretched and deluded in this conflict. NATO should have been phased out after the fall of the Soviet Union, but instead sought to perpetuate itself through expansion, eventually provoking the hostility it was meant to defend against. The key question is whether Ukraine (or any other state) is safer in or independent of NATO. During the 1950s, Austria and Finland chose to stay out of NATO, and their neutrality was respected by the Soviet Union. Most Eastern European countries signed up for NATO not because they feared Russia but because NATO was presented to them as a stepping stone to entry in the European Union. The problem is that as NATO expanded, the US became more negative and more militant toward Russia -- especially in the use of sanctions targeting not just the state but prominent individuals. Why is harder to explain as anything other than self-delusion: we lie to ourselves about our foreign policy aims and desires.
It's worth remembering why NATO was created in the first place. The "Allies" (principally the US and the Soviet Union) had defeated Nazi Germany in WWII, with American and Russian armies meeting in and dividing Germany, both intent on pacifying Europe and favoring their own interests. But occupation of Europe was expensive and potentially alienating. Under NATO, the US effectively took command of all of the military resources of western Europe, assuring that as they were rebuilt they would remain subservient to US foreign policy. But to make NATO attractive, the US had to posit an external threat. The "spectre of communism" sufficed, what with Russian armies still occupying central and eastern Europe, and labor movements in the west (especially in Italy and France) still feeling solidarity with the Soviets. The Soviet Union responded by organizing the Warsaw Pact and locking down the "Iron Curtain," although Yugoslavia and Albania, ruled by indigenous anti-Nazi resistance movements, resisted control from Moscow.
The resulting "Cold War" served US business interests in several important ways. First, "red scares" in the US and elsewhere helped suppress and in some cases break labor movements. Second, it became clear after WWII that Britain and France could no longer afford their colonial empires -- especially with their militaries circumscribed by NATO -- plus there was the risk that continued colonial rule would fuel independence movements led by communists, much as communists had led anti-fascist resistance movements during (and even before) WWII. The result was that by 1960 nearly all European colonies had been handed over to pliable local oligarchies, bound to the US through business interests and arms deals. (There were, of course, variations along the way: the US encouraged Britain and France to fight against independence movements led by communists, especially in Malaya and Vietnam.)
One can debate whether NATO in 1949 was a good or bad idea -- I'd argue that it was profoundly bad, both for Americans and for everyone else -- but the more pertinent question is why NATO didn't close up shop when the Warsaw Pact disbanded and the Soviet Union split up. Aside from losing their pet enemy, by then decolonialism was complete, the whole world (except for a handful of "rogue states" -- ones that the US bore long-standing grudges against but that, unlike China, were small enough to ignore) was integrated into the neoliberal order, and Europe itself had lost all interest in militarism and empire, its many nation states melting into the EU. Nothing NATO did after 1991 had to be done by NATO -- the US-led coalition against Iraq in 1990 had been organized under the UN, with broad support, and that could just as well have been the model for subsequent NATO interventions in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, and/or Libya (if supportable cases had been made; with NATO the US was the only decider, so could get away with flimsier excuses and callous acts that ultimately made matters worse; NATO managed to stay out of Iraq, as Germany, France, and Turkey refused to cooperate, but that didn't stop Bush from proclaiming his "Coalition of the Willing"). And, in due course, NATO has managed to push Russia around enough to create the enemy it needs to justify itself. That's a consequence that was totally unnecessary, yet today threatens the world, as anti-Putin propaganda merges with Cold War propaganda into a kind of brain freeze that affects many Democrats as much as it does Republicans (who at least profit from selling arms, fomenting hate, and smashing the working class).
For an example of that "brain freeze," see Alexander Vindman/Dominic Cruz Bustillos: The Day After Russia Attacks: What War in Ukraine Would Look Like -- and How America Should Respond. The most telling line here is the summary dismissal of Lieven's arguments: "Presuming that diplomacy fails, there are three scenarios that could play out." All of the imagined scenarios start with more-or-less-limited Russian advances into Ukrainian territory (much of which isn't currently controlled by the Kiev regime). Some other references in the piece: "Kremlin's network of malign influence"; "marshal a unified response to Russian aggression"; "if Russian military action is a given"; "impose additional costs on Russian invaders and contribute to deterrence when paired with other actions"; "avoiding a one-on-one military confrontation with Russia while punishing Russia for creating this harsh new reality." By the latter, they mean that Ukrainians should bear the pain of America's demonization and isolation of Russia, which the US can continue at no risk to its own interests. Isn't is rather late to still believe that American intentions are always benign? Let alone that events always break favorably for the US?
Americans have been feeding off their own propaganda since the early days of the Cold War (or maybe since the Monroe Doctrine, but the quantity and quality took a huge leap in the 1950s, and became increasingly deranged through Nixon and Reagan and Clinton and Bush, to the point where US foreign policy gyrates between schizophrenia and dementia. (Obama was a believer who still tried to rationalize fringe cases, leading to half-hearted openings to Cuba and Iran, but never questioning something as sacrosanct as NATO, so he wound up promoting conflict with Russia and China. Trump was a cynic, but his only real interest was in graft, so he effectively changed nothing, other than to make "US interests" look even more selfish and cynical.) This needs to change, but Biden's team is reflexively locked into the mythology, and the left has deprioritized foreign affairs given the need to advance domestic goals and oppose Republicans. But also note that the ability of the US to dictate craziness to its "allies" has long been diminishing, and could collapse. It's one thing to blackball inconsequential countries like North Korea and Cuba; quite another to bite off one as large and connected as China, where sanctions may push nations to isolate the US instead. Russia is dangerous because no one knows the limits of possible US bullying, least of all Washington.
By the way, Lieven also wrote: America must stay away from Kazakhstan's troubles. He probably has the same article somewhere on Belarus, and I wouldn't be surprised to find one forthcoming on Turkmenistan, maybe even Moldova -- countries that Americans have no understanding of and negligible interests in, but plenty of conceited opinions about -- a conceit peculiar to people who think they rule the world, but who don't. Some other pieces on Russia/Ukraine (including one more by Lieven that appeared after I wrote the section above):
Jane Mayer: Is Ginni Thomas a threat to the Supreme Court? That's Justice Clarence Thomas's wife, who has long worked for right-wing think tanks and lobbying firms (currently one called Liberty Consulting). That not only provides her with untoward influence on the Court, it is an obvious vector for bribery and influence peddling. I've long thought that Thomas could and should be impeached for this relationship, but there's never been a political consensus behind doing so. (As I recall, Antonin Scalia had a similarly compromising spouse, and his son became a prominent member of the Bush and Trump administrations.)
Ian Millhiser: The Supreme Court can't get its story straight on vaccines: "The Court is barely even pretending to be engaged in legal reasoning." The Supreme Court overturned the Biden administration's OSHA rule requiring vaccination or testing for workers in covered businesses, but allowed another rule on health care workers. As a subhed put it: "The Court is fabricating legal doctrines that appear in neither statute nor Constitution." In other words, they're making this shit up as they go along, responding to a political agenda that that is rooted in nothing but their own presumed powers. When Trump packed the court, I thought it was premature to talk about rebalancing schemes. In order to be politically possible, people first have to be convinced that the current Court is out of control. That's what these rulings provide evidence of.
Millhiser also wrote: It was a great day in the Supreme Court for anyone who wants to bribe a lawmaker.
Rani Molla: A new era for the American worker: "American workers have power. That won't last forever." But it could last longer if Democrats got behind it. To some extent, they did: the first Covid-19 stimulus bill, which Trump was so desperate for he largely let Democrats craft it, was probably the most pro-worker legislation in this century (or well back into the last). The disease itself gave some workers leverage. Partial enactment of the $15 minimum wage also helped. But most important was the reluctance of workers to settle for the lowest paying jobs offered. That left many businesses moaning about labor shortages, but it also incentivized them to do what markets are supposed to do: adjust prices so supply can meet demand.
David Sirota: Voting Rights Alone Will Not Save the Democrats: One thing that Republicans and Democrats seem to agree on is that Democrats do better when the American voting public expands, while Republicans gain when the voting public contracts. That much is clearly expressed in myriad state bills Republicans have passed since 2020, and in the federal bill Democrats failed to pass last week. I doubt that's true. For one thing, increasing the voting share means that you get more ill-informed and even marginally interested voters, who are more likely to vote based on style than substance. We had an exceptionally high turnout in 2020, yet Democrats lost ground from 2018, and won the presidency by about half the expected margin, despite running against the most embarrassing fuckup imaginable. The key for Democratic wins is the same as it ever was: getting your people to come out en masse, which takes a combination of two fundamentals: making them fear the consequences of loss, and giving them some positive hope to vote for. Saving democracy offers something on both sides of that equation, but it would mean more if you can show that democracy is good for most people. Republicans are doing their part by showing that their corruption of democracy is pretty awful.
Michael Wines: Census Memo Cites 'Unprecedented' Meddling by Trump Administration: A fairly minor story, but another example of how obsessively thorough Republicans are when it comes to tilting the political playing field.
I saw this "Media Bias Chart" in a Facebook post. I don't know anything about its provenance, but it seems roughly plausible as far as it goes. (One common objection is that their center is farther to the right than they represent. Another is that what's blithely grouped together as "opinion pieces" divides between based on a deeper factual understanding of the world, common on the left, and opinions based on rank fallacies, so often found on the right. Even with so much effort at balancing, note that the right dips much further on the "News Value and Reliability" axis.)
I mention it mostly because I want to quote/preserve a comment by Peter Feldstein:
I've largely concluded that all sorts of countercultural interests -- like animal rights, dietary regimes like veganism, psychedelics, and various "spiritual" leanings -- have no bearing on the left-right axis, and trying to throw them into the mix just muddies the matter. There is no reason why people who believe in peace, justice, and equality should give up meat, just as there is no reason that people who relish hamburgers should fear the left. Right-wing propagandists, of course, try to have it both ways. I could add vaccination-phobia to the list: a lot of anti-vaxxers lean left politically, but it is the right that has sought to politicize the issue, further endangering public health.