Sunday, June 19, 2022

Speaking of Which

Late Saturday start, with no aim other than to blow off some steam (starting with the Cineas piece below). This is a very troubling, very unpleasant time. While it's never been more clear how destructive the Republican Party from top to bottom has become, we're stuck with a Democratic Party which is increasingly conflicted and befuddled, where we're stuck with factions which not only don't get along but are often seen putting their own narrow interests ahead of everyone else. And at the top, well, as one headline put it: Biden Survives Bike Fall After Failed Backpedaling Attempt. The only thing I'm grateful there is that the headline is literal, and not some horrendous metaphor. I have no time or desire to try to draw up a list, but since I don't say any more about it below, the stupid dilly-dallying over the war in Ukraine is worth mentioning. Somewhere I read that Zelensky is unwilling to resume negotiations until August, when he hopes to be in a better position. Meanwhile, the NATO chief is projecting the gravy train (err, the war) will go on for years. Meanwhile, Biden is headed to Saudi Arabia hat-in-hand to beg for lower gas prices, rather than seeking relief from the countries (Iran and Venezuela) the US is sanctioning for disrespecting the empire. And the Senate (Graham and Menendez, of course) wants to shovel an extra $4.5 billion to Taiwan to piss off China. Nonetheless, even the worst Democrats are orders of magnitude less awful than the Republicans, so here we are, struggling to help Biden get back up on that bicycle (ok, that's a metaphor).

Kate Aronoff: [06-17] Biden Wrote a Stern Letter to Oil Refiners. His Government Should Take Over the Industry Instead. I've occasionally said that the biggest mistake America ever made was to allow the oil industry to be private. The profit motive led to a vast squandering of natural resources. (The Spindletop fiasco is a classic example, where the biggest find to date was pumped dry in three years, during which oil prices totally collapsed.) But also, that decision gave us oil millionaires/billionaires, who have been a political menace ever since. Still, Biden's letter doesn't inspire much faith in the greater wisdom of the public sector, as he's mostly looking for politically expedient price relief, without little if any concern for the longer term consequences. Recent price rises, which are still less than half what Europeans pay, are mostly due to a supply crunch caused by US sanctions against Russia, Venezuela, and Iran. One could argue that price increases (although not the foreign policy that's led to them) are a good thing, in that they will incentivize people and business to use less oil and gas. (Of course, the smart way to do this would be to plan tax increases well into the future, so the expectation of higher prices is set, without the immediate pinch, but Americans don't like planning, so you get movement through poorly understood panics instead.)

There is much more that could be said about nationalization, but it's an issue with no short-term chances, so no real urgency. Socialists have been overly fond of nationalization in the past, and overly reticent of late. I think there are cases where it would be a good idea, but I'm not sure what they are, or whether oil is one (regulatory and tax policy are other options, and there is a big question about stranded assets -- a lot of "wealth" is in the form of untapped oil reserves, which may turn out to be worth a lot less than current appraisals).

Christina Carrega: [06-15] The land of the free leads the world in incarceration. Why?

Sewell Chan/Eric Neugeboren: [06-19] Texas Republican Convention calls Biden win illegitimate and rebukes Cornyn over gun talks.

Fabiola Cineas: [06-15] There's no freedom without reparations. The article has problems even defining a reparations program, which should be a clue as to why it isn't a viable political agenda. If politics is the art of the possible, reparations is something else (perhaps a rhetorical device which promises to go away with suitable inducements?). But impossibility is only one of the problems with reparations. More importantly, it is simply the wrong answer to the problem -- even if you accept that the problem (the persistence of poverty and prejudice among descendants of victims of slavery and legal discrimination) is an important one that should be addressed seriously. It is wrong because it imagines the past can somehow be repaired. It is wrong because it compounds injustice, by assessing damages from people who weren't responsible to compensate people who weren't immediately affected. It is wrong because it assumes one can redress inequities without addressing inequality. A much better solution is to aim to bar discrimination and promote equality across the whole of society, regardless of past conditions, even if you have to proceed piecemeal. And it is wrong because it inevitably produces a backlash. The most obvious example is the reparations imposed on Germany after WWI, but the backlash against "affirmative action" in the 1970s should be cautionary enough. It wasn't a bad idea when the economy was booming for everyone, but as inequality increased and businesses turned against their workers, it became a wedge issue for separating the white working class (many of whom were descendants of immigrants who arrived in America well after the Civil War).

It's also wrong because it is rooted in a fundamental misconception about what justice can and cannot do, and that misconception seems to be increasingly rampant these days. Justice cannot change the past, It can (to some extent) exact revenge for recent past events, but revenge never heals, rarely soothes, and often misses its target completely. And while justice can be harsh on individuals (especially powerless ones), it is rarely up to dealing with larger groups, let alone corporations and political parties, or worst of all, national leaders who launched wars. Bill Clinton made headlines in his rush to put Ricky Ray Rector to death, but never had to face justice for his bombing of a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan, or his repeated bombing of Iraq, or his even more devastating sanctions to starve Iraqi children. And he's just one example, and certainly not the worst. The International Criminal Court might sound like a good idea, but what kind of justice do you have when you almost never bring the guilty parties. (Sure, they did prosecute Slobodan Milosevic over Kosovo, but it was Wesley Clark, under Bill Clinton (again!), who ran the bombing campaign against Serbia, killing up to 2,000.

I have no objection to impressing upon all Americans how despicable slavery was, and how systematically and often violently both officials and ad hoc groups terrorized "free" blacks after the Civil War. I'd go so far as to say that it's important to acknowledge all unsavory acts over centuries by American state(s) and people. While the arguments for reparations start with explaining this history, and should be applauded for that, the framework of reparations recasts history as political, inviting reaction. While it's true that reparations need not be a zero-sum game, but it is easily understood as such: a transfer of wealth from the public (which through taxes means everyone, in an economy where most people are vulnerable) to an arbitrarily selected few. The left's key political proposition is to help nearly everyone, fairly and equally, but reparations can easily be twisted into an argument for putting certain minorities ahead of an increasingly fragile and frightened majority.

Needless to say, reparations for any one issue raises questions about other past injustices, of which they are many. There has, for instance, been some reparations for Japanese-Americans interned during WWII. There is something to be said for the symbolic effect of admitting past wrongs, and that may be all some reparations advocates are working for. Similarly, I don't see much harm in suing police departments for wrongful deaths, especially where prosecution is impossible. Sometimes it even works to sue a corporation (as with Purdue Pharma), but such cases have to be pretty egregious, and they're no substitute for better regulation to prevent such disasters from happening. While the right to sue is one important safeguard for justice, I fear we've gone way overboard, resulting in a justice system which is arbitrary and inconsistent.

Elizabeth Dwoskin: [06-19] Peter Thiel helped build big tech. Now he wants to tear it all down. Another billionaire who thinks his money entitles him to run (or ruin) the world.

Chris Haberman: [06-18] Mark Shields, TV Pundit Known for His Sharp Wit, Dies at 85: I remember watching him on NPR square off against David Brooks, in the latter's Bush-toady phase. He didn't impress me much, but Brooks developed a reputation as slime that has stuck to him, even as he's tried to distance himself from more reptilian Republicans.

Roxana Hegeman: [06-17] Heat stress blamed for thousands of cattle deaths in Kansas. It wasn't extraordinarily hot, but the combination of heat and humidity killed over 2,000 cattle, in a preview of the sort of killing heat waves likely to be common as global temperatures rise. Probably not the first such example, but this one hit especially close to home.

Ian Millhiser: [05-15] Democracy in America is a rigged game.

Timothy Noah: [06-17] Was Nixon's Guilt as Obvious as Trump's Is? Not much here on Trump, but then you already know about the Jan. 6 Committee's evidence. Focus is more on whether Nixon ordered the Watergate break in, as opposed to merely covering up the excessive zeal of his crew, and Noah presents a fairly strong case why we should think so, even with no one coming out and admitting it. For one thing, Nixon ordered similar break ins. For another, Nixon was directly involved in more crimes than you can shake a stick at -- Noah has several examples of campaign finance violations, and there was still the back channel promises to derail negotiations that might have ended the Vietnam War in 1968 (Nixon's prosecution of the war in Vietnam and extension to Cambodia will always remain in my mind his supreme crime, on a level with the worst monsters of the 20th century). One can go much deeper into the Nixon/Trump comparisons -- as Woodward and Bernstein tried to do last week -- but they will mostly show that however cunning and unscrupulous Nixon was in exceeding his authority and venturing beyond the law, he was conscious of what he was doing, and aware of what he was risking. Trump, on the other hand, aspired to do much worse, but lacked the managerial chops to pull it off. In the end, he was hoisted by his own words, as testified to by his ridiculous "advisers," and by the acts of his most outrageous fans. That the latter were (probably) disconnected and acting autonomously doesn't excuse him; it underscores how irresponsible and damaging his lies and cult had become. Noah ends with an indictment of the media, for letting Nixon fade gently once he resigned, instead of digging to get to the bottom of all the evil he had done. Their failure then has been compounded with Trump now. We should by now understand that Nixon and Trump are two types who should never be allowed even remotely near presidential power. Yet the media was so smitten with both, they not only failed to expose their crimes, they never admitted their own complicity in letting them fester until the crimes became impossible to ignore.

Gina Schouten: [05-24] Why We're Polarized, Part 1. The first of four notes on Ezra Klein's Why We're Polarized, by a Harvard philosophy professor. The others are [05-31] Part 2, [06-08] Part 3: Moving on to Institutions, and [06-15] Part 4: The Last one, about Party Differences. The latter focuses on how the Republicans have cultivated a monolithic identity, which is continually reaffirmed ever more starkly, while the Democrats are bound to be a loose coalition with divergent interests, united only by their fear of Republicans.

Samantha Schmidt: [06-19] Gustavo Petro, former guerrilla, will be Colombia's first leftist president.

Jeffrey St Clair: [06-17] Roaming Charges: A River Ran Through It: Title refers to Yellowstone, the first patch of America reserved as a National Park, a place where you can still observe relatively unsullied nature. Well, nature struck back, and now the Park is closed. "They called it a 1000-year flood. It will probably happen four more times in the next 50 years." In other stories, he notes that Republicans flipped a House seat (TX-34), in a district that is 84% Latino. (I see here that turnout was 7.34%, so you'd think there would be room for improvement in November, but that's pretty embarrassing. For more on this, see GOP Win Says More About Filemon Vela Than a South Texas 'Red Wave'.) That's the first of a number of incendiary lobs at the Democrats (especially the pathetic idolization of Liz Cheney and Mike Pence). There's also this little gem:

Uvalde police have hired a private law firm to fight requests to release the bodycam footage of the school shooting because they claim it could be used by other shooters to determine "weaknesses" in cop response to crimes.

Evidently they have no plans to examine the footage themselves to help figure out how to correct for the "weaknesses" it reveals.

Emily Stewart: [05-15] Stopping inflation is going to hurt: "The economy will feel worse before it feels better." Well, that's largely because the fight against inflation is being led by the Fed, and they see their job as helping bankers by turning the screws on borrowers and consumers. There are other possible approaches, especially given that a major driver of inflation is the Ukraine War, and that has nothing at all to do with interest rates. Same thing for monopoly rents and supply chain kinks, although slack demand will eventually reduce those pressures -- while further discouraging businesses from developing more capacity, which would help drive prices down. Also on inflation:

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