Sunday, May 22, 2022

Speaking of Which

No desire, or even special reason, for doing this again this week, but Sunday afternoon I decided to jot down a somewhat humorous link (I think it was the Nia Prater, below), and it just snowballed from there. I may have been predisposed to work on this, because I work up with the thought that if Zelensky is Churchill, would there be a Clement Attlee coming around to put Ukraine back together again -- assuming there's ever an end to the war, which doesn't seem to be on Zelensky's agenda (or Biden's, or Putin's). Actually, Attlee was part of Churchill's coalition government during WWII, and probably had more to do with holding the country together than Churchill's big speeches. When forced to choose between leaders in 1945, they overwhelmingly picked Attlee, and that's how they got the welfare state that Thatcher worked so hard to destroy.

I also woke up with some thoughts on inflation, but didn't find a framework to elaborate them. (I considered Robert Shapiro's The Truth About Inflation, and wanted to work in something Paul Krugman said dismissing the impact of monopolies -- I think the point went something like: if companies really had monopoly pricing power, they would have already used it, so that can't be causing new inflation; but isn't exploiting your pricing power to its limit inherently risky, given that customers will push back even if they don't have good alternatives? On the other hand, if everyone else is raising prices, monopolies get some camouflage, and therefore less blame.

[PS: Added a couple items after initially posting. In particular, I wanted to respond to Mitt Romney's apocalyptic op-ed piece.]

Chas Danner: [05-22] Welcome to the Next COVID Wave. For more stats, look here. New case counts have risen steadily since dropping under 30,000 on March 21. Two months later, they're up to 108,610 (+54% 14-day). The hospitalized count is +34% (to 24,681). Deaths are still down (-15% to 312), but the total US death count topped 1,000,000 a couple days ago (and as they note, "many cases go uncounted in official reports, the true toll is likely even higher than these figures suggest"). Danner also notes: "But this wave of new infections is also significantly larger than official case counts suggest, since many cases are either being detected using at-home tests that are never reported, or are asymptomatic and not being detected at all." Also on COVID-19:

Liza Featherstone: [05-21] There Was a Lot of Good News in This Week's Primaries. No mention of the Republican primaries that totally dominated national news.

Chip Gibbons: [05-21] It's Always the Right Time to Call George W Bush a War Criminal. Well, even he's doing it.

Paul Glastris: [05-13] Memo to Democrats: Bust the Credit Card Cartel. Visa and Mastercard control over 80% of the market. Limiting their "spiraling fees" is presented as a win for small merchants, and that's who the big winners would be, but the effects could trickle down. Democrats might also take a look at usury laws (if they can find any). It's easy to figure out that payment systems (and for that matter all forms of retail banking) can be made a lot less expensive than they currently are. The only loser would be the big bank monopolies, which sounds to me like a plus. As I recall, the most intensely lobbied bill in ages was one between banks and retailers over ATM purchase fees. Billions of dollars rode on that law, and none of it was offered to customers.

Ed Kilgore: [05-19] Oklahoma Outdoes Itself in Race to Wipe Out Abortion Rights: You can check the article for the details. The one point I want to add is that this shows what can and will happen if/when Republicans are allowed to govern/rule without checks and balances. I used to think that the only thing that kept Reagan popular was that when he said popular-but-stupid things (which he did all the time) was that they had no immediate impact, so seemed harmless at the time. (We are still paying for many things the Reagan administration did, from undermining labor unions to ending the "fairness doctrine" to subsidizing jihadis in Afghanistan. The seeds of today's inflation crisis were planted by Reagan and the early-1980s Fed.) Republicans are very adept at telling [some] people what they want to hear, but are clueless about the disastrous consequences of turning their rants and cant into policy. (At least one assumes ignorance, since the only alternative explanation is misanthropy.)

Anne Kim: [05-20] Don't Laugh Off Rick Scott's Nutty Plan for America. The Florida Senator is in charge of the GOP's Senate campaign slush fund, so he wrote up a manifesto on what a Republican majority would like to do to America -- he called it his "11 point plan to rescue America." I wrote about this at some length here, a piece worth reviewing, especially if you still think that Donald Trump (or Ron DeSantis or Matt Gaetz) is the most deranged Republican in Florida. The point most folk have seized on is Scott's proposal to raise income taxes on everyone below the current income threshold, to make sure they "have some skin in the game." Of course, nearly all of those people already pay payroll taxes (a form of income tax the rich are exempt from), but even those who don't, who merely live here, have plenty of bare skin exposed to the malfeasances of the state.

Ian Millhiser: [05-19] A wild new court decision would blow up much of the government's ability to operate: "The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit's decision in Jarkesy v. SEC would dismantle much of the system the federal government uses to enforce longstanding laws." As it happens, I spent a lot of time last week complaining about government not doing more to confront the rising tide of fraud[*] in America -- ranging from the constant harassment of unsolicited phone calls to friends who got scammed out of most of their retirement savings and virtually everything involving cryptocurrency. This ruling basically says the government can't do anything pro-active to stop fraud. Robert Kuttner also wrote about this ruling [05-20]: Another Sweeping Far-Right Court Ruling.

[*] I've been complaining about this since the Reagan 1980s, when I identified fraud as America's only boom industry.

Alex Pareene: [05-16] The Disastrous Legacy of the New Democrats: "Clintonites taught their party how to talk about helping people without actually doing it." Review of Lily Geismer's Left Behind: The Democrats' Failed Attempt to Solve Inequality. This is more up-to-date, but Thomas Frank hit most of the points in his 2016 book, Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People. Unfortunately, Frank's timing was off: appearing when it did, the book helped paint Hillary as crooked without considering the alternative. Frank's 2004 book (What's the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America) also backfired: he made a big deal about how Republicans talked up culture war issues but in the end only passed tax cuts and deregulation bills; the effect was that the culture war hawks started holding Republicans responsible for delivering, and they have (e.g., on abortion and guns).

We can now see that the New Democrats were intellectual captives of the Reagan right. They echoed the same free market/small government, which helped make them seem more sensible than they were. What Clinton, Gore, et al. thought they could do was run government in such a way that it would be more profitable for business, raising donations from the rich while making it seem benign enough they wouldn't lose too many of the people they depended on for votes. In many ways, what they did worked out exactly as planned. Economic growth was much stronger in the Clinton and Obama years than under any Republican president, and somewhat more widely distributed, but the rich did so well that inequality continued to spread. And Clinton and Obama managed to lose Congress after two years (while getting re-elected to a second term without regaining Congress), so they had excuses not to pass much-needed programs. And Republicans kept moving ever further right, not just economically but more ominously adopting culture war reaction, which helped to scare the Democratic base into staying loyal. Biden won the 2020 nomination on a tsunami of anti-Trump fear, but also because he was rooted in the Old Democrats, his flexibility made him acceptable beyond the still-powerful New Democrat elites.

Catherine Porter/Constant Méheut/Matt Apuzzo/Salam Gebrekidan: [05-21] The Ransom: The Roots of Haiti's Misery: Reparations to Enslavers: This goes some way to explaining why Haiti has remained one of the world's poorest countries.

Nia Prater: [05-18] Trump Wants Dr. Oz to Copy Him and Declare Victory Before the Race Is Called. Oz hasn't, at least so far, because he hasn't lost yet, and nothing says "loser" louder than emulating Trump's loss rant.

David Remnick: [05-20] Remembering Roger Angell, Hall of Famer: Author of many a New Yorker essay on opening baseball seasons, died at 101 on Friday. I read a couple of his books (long ago). Article includes select links.

Claudia Sahm: [05-22] Unemployment affects everybody too: "Inflation is high, and unemployment is low. What does that mean for Americans? If you listen to the talking heads, you'd think it's all about inflation. But that's wrong."

Alex Shephard: [05-20] Madison Cawthorn's Defeat Isn't Going to Change the GOP: Some people would like to think that even Republicans have enough sense of decency to turn on "an embarrassing extremist." Cawthorn easily qualified, but what did him in was that he ran up against other established power interests in the party. This reminds me of how Kansas Republicans turned on Tim Huelskamp. They didn't care when he emerged as a Tea Party firebrand, but he did cross a line when his libertarianism led him to vote against the subsidies that the farmers he represented. They replaced him with "moderate" Roger Marshall, who has since gone on to become one of the Trumpiest members of the US Senate. [PS: Charles P Pierce also understands this point [05-18]: Republicans in Disarray? Well, They Certainly Aren't Trying to Root Out the Crazy.]

Jeffrey St Clair: [05-20] Roaming Charges: Search, Destroy and Replace. Usual wealth of nuggets here, including a slam on Bernie Sanders for career-long support of the military-industrial complex. (Still, calling him a hawk is a bit unfair. Also unfair: "Biden was a pre-Clinton Clintonite without any of Bubba's political skills.") But this one is quote no one else seems to have noticed:

Alito: "the domestic supply of infants relinquished at birth or within the first month of life . . . had become virtually nonexistent."

So, he's trying to use his judicial power to create a more viable market for babies? And that's constitutional? Sounds more like trafficking.

Simon Tisdall: [05-21] Apocalypse now? The alarming effects of the global food crisis. Supply and demand for food is delicately balanced in the best of times. War in Ukraine has disrupted this balance. Those with enough money can adjust by paying higher prices. All those without enough money can do is to do without (although historically war is another common response). Climate change is another vector of disruption -- potentially much more severe, intractable even. George Monbiot [05-19] wrote essentially the same article: The banks collapsed in 2008 -- and our food system is about to do the same.

Mary L Trump: ]05-20] Mark Esper's Fascinating Revelations Would Have Been Far More So in Real Time: Also notes similarly belated testimony by John Bolton and Bill Barr ("had [they] spoken up when it mattered, history could be different"). But their decision not to speak up then was strategic: each entered the Trump administration with personal agendas, which they were free to pursue only as long as they obsequiously catered to Trump's vanity. Crossing that line would have risked aborting their agenda -- easy to come up with another dozen names who got nixed for sharing instances of or comments about Trump's gross incompetence. What's lost in all this is how truly horrible the private agendas of Esper, Bolton, and Barr really were.

Zeynep Tufecki: [05-19] We Need to Take Back Our Privacy: If/when the Republican-packed Supreme Court takes away the individual right to terminate pregnancy, where does that leave the constitutional right to privacy that Roe v. Wade was based on?

Ukraine: I'm still pleased with every report of Russia getting knocked back, but in real terms, Russia has gained significant ground in the south (including Kherson and Mariupol, important seaports, leaving only Odesa under Ukrainian control), and they haven't lost any ground in Donetsk or Luhansk -- if anything they've picked up a bit -- while over 20% of the people have fled abroad, and the rest of the country has been bombed. It's hard to see how this will ever end except through some kind of negotiated treaty. While the war is certainly costing Putin, Russia can afford to continue much longer than Ukraine or even the US can.

  • Masha Gessen: [05-18] Inside Putin's Propaganda Machine.
  • Fred Kaplan: [05-16] Why Finland Joining NATO Is More Shocking Than Anyone Realizes.
  • Mitt Romney: [05-21] We Must Prepare for Putin's Worst Weapons: There is so much deranged thinking here you have to pinch yourself to remember that this is a guy who nearly half of America wanted to control the nuclear arsenal -- an option he is only too eager to employ given the slightest provocation. He opposes any restraint in arming Ukraine, arguing: "Failing to continue to support Ukraine would be like paying the cannibal to eat us last." He wants NATO to intervene directly in Ukraine, and he's willing to expand the conflict to World War: "Further, we could confront China and every other nation with a choice much like that George W. Bush gave the world after Sept. 11: You are either with us, or you are with Russia -- you cannot be with both." So who's the cannibal now? By the way, why does anyone think that Putin calling the collapse of the Soviet Union the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century" implies "his life's ambition" is to restore Russian power over the territories of the former Soviet Union? (And given his nationalism, isn't the Tsardom the more obvious goal?) Putin has done a lot of despicable, underhanded things in 20+ years of power, but if his goal was empire restoration, he's been awfully coy about it. Maybe the "catastrophe" was just an explanation of the adversity his predecessors left him with.
  • Tom Stevenson: [05-11] America and Its Allies Want to Bleed Russia. They Really Shouldn't. Details how the US has escalated its support for Ukraine, while shying away from negotiations, gambling that a longer war will weaken Russia, and that somehow that will be a good thing. This argument is basically what I was trying to say above, except that I think that boxing Russia into a corner is not just impractical, it's likely to blow up.
  • Lorenzo Tondo: [05-22] Ukraine rules out any ceasefire deal that involves ceding territory to Russia. I've long felt that loss of Russian-controlled territory in Donbas and Crimea would be a plus for the rest of Ukraine, both ending the conflict and giving them a free hand to reorient to Europe. In the best scenario, you could allow fair votes on alignment in each of the regions (possibly in more than Russia actually holds). The war, with all the refugees, makes such votes messier, but it's a small price to pay for ending a conflict which has hampered Ukraine since 2014. On the other hand, Putin has no need to cease fire without some face-saving concession. (Merely dealing on sanctions, which the US has little if any motivation to do, seems much less likely to work.) Zelensky (and his backers in Washington?) may feel like he's winning, but the war is destroying his country, while the sanctions are no more than inconveniences for most Russians.)
  • Edward Wong/Michael Crowley: [05-19] US Aims to Cripple Russian Oil Industry, Officials Say: The thing about this is that it's a pretty long-term project, suggesting that the US is looking to prolong the war, and to never really settle it, so that Russia (at least under Putin, or anyone else like him, which is to say any prospective Russian leader) can never hope for normal relations with the West. We should find that kind of thinking really disturbing. But then we should already be disturbed, as the article notes that Trump imposed sanctions on China, Vietnam, and UAE for purchasing or transporting Iranian oil.

Ask a question, or send a comment.