Sunday, October 23, 2022

Speaking of Which

In this month's Q&A column, Robert Christgau was asked a dumb political question ("Were you always a pablum-puking liberal or did you have to be brainwashed?"), and took the occasion to comment on the November election:

I was raised in a born-again Christian family in Queens, Republicans though never true conservatives who like most Americans came to think the Vietnam War was a mistake. I started moving away from Christianity in my early teens, explicitly espousing atheism at 17. Influenced by several women I cared for, prominently including the two referred to in the Canada question below, I became a leftist in the '60s and would now label myself a "left Democrat" because I believe the word "progressive" has lost most of its mojo. I thank you for giving me an excuse to remind And It Don't Stop readers that there are crucial elections taking place November 8, perhaps as crucial as any we've known, and to urge them to vote as soon as possible as well as donate to favored candidates, as I have to over a dozen since March or so. Never since World War II has democracy been in so much peril.

Substitute Wichita for Queens, and note that I'm eight years younger -- which still adds up to 72 this week -- and the first two (or with minor edits three) sentences also describe me fairly well. I endorse the rest of the paragraph as well, although as always I have minor quibbles. I've been a careful observers of party politics since the 1960s, but never been an activist, or even a donor. (My wife has made the occasional contribution, and continues to pay for it with volumes of spam.) This year, we have yard signs for Laura Kelly, Chris Mann, and Lacey Cruse, but that's it.

While it's true that "never since World War II has democracy been in so much peril," the word "peril" implies that the real damage has yet to happen. The biggest threat to democracy in America is the influence of money, and that battle is so far gone Democrats hardly ever even talk about it any more. (Democrats dropped the ball when they found that Obama and the Clintons could raise even more money than the Republicans, but their riches didn't trickle down to the rank and file candidates, and came at the cost of policies that made the rich even richer while screwing everyone else.) And campaign donations, which candidates are obliged to spend most of their time pursuing, is just the tip of the money iceberg: the real advantage money has is in lobbying (the number of registered lobbyists is over 11,000, roughly 20 for each member of Congress). Then there is major media, which is divided between propaganda organs like Fox and "balanced" sources, which are also owned by the very rich. Again, the game has been so far lost that hardly anyone talks about it.

The only "threats" that do raise eyebrows are the Republican scams to gerrymander districts and suppress voting, but those, too, are mostly locked into place, and protected by a court system that has been overwhelmingly captured by Republican Party operatives. As for the courts, each week I cite articles by Ian Millhiser. The lifetime appointment of judges was one of several severe limits on democracy enshrined in the Constitution -- another is the hugely malapportioned Senate -- which have long been open to abuse, and lately targeted by Republicans. Still, Republicans are so rigid in their contempt for democracy, and relentless in their assault on it, that it's hard to keep up with them. The only real solution is to revolt in such numbers that all their tricks prove insufficient.

It's gotten to be a cliché to say that this election is the most important in our lives. A better word for it might be desperate, as what we are struggling against isn't just what Republicans might do in the next 2 years, but the cumulative weight of what they've taken away from us over the last 40+. The 6-3 Republican domination of the Supreme Court goes back to GHW Bush's nomination of Clarence Thomas, who until GW Bush's nomination of Roberts and Alito was limited to an ominous and often bizarre minority of 2 (with Scalia, nominated by Reagan). Legislation that hurt unions and helped the rich goes back even further. That cumulative weight is ever harder to stop let alone reverse. And it also chews up time.

If Republicans win the House and/or the Senate this year, the immediate effect will be to derail any possibility of Democrats passing laws to protect and aid Americans. The resulting rancor will be unpleasant, and the inaction will hurt the most vulnerable -- which thanks to the Supreme Court and Republican mastery of most state legislatures now includes many more women, who are being denied access to reproductive care (one problem that a democratic majority in Congress could easily repair). But aside from its immediate effects, giving Republicans any measure of power to disrupt Congress will cost us opportunity, for a minimum of two years, to deal with problems that are festering while we do nothing. The most obvious is climate change, which would have been much easier to deal with 20-30 years ago, when the threat was clear to anyone willing to look at the evidence. But there is much more that we need to do sooner rather than later. Education, in particular, is always time sensitive.

I wish I could be more optimistic about Biden finding a path out of war, as the current path is potentially even worse than climate change. Every week I try to remind you all that the only way out of the Ukraine war is through negotiation, and that negotiation there shouldn't stop with the disputed territories but extend to a fundamental reëvaluation of how powerful countries behave beyond their own borders.

I spent all last week working on yesterday's Book Roundup, which touches on at least some of these issues. So I didn't get a start here until this morning. There is certainly a lot more I could have written about, but this will have to do for now.

AP: [10-20] Military suicides drop as leaders push new programs: No mention of exiting the war in Afghanistan. Strange no one thought of that as having any bearing, what with the "personal issues, including finances and marital stress."

David Atkins: [10-21] Republicans Cannot and Will Not Reduce Gasoline Prices: Gas prices is one of their big talking points, along with inflation more generally, and that old standby "crime." It really amazes me that Republicans think people are so gullible they'll think that Republicans can solve any of these "problems," but then there's little in their spiel that does not regard a massive suspension of disbelief. But at least it's possible to believe that most Republicans do want to see less crime (not that that's what they mean by the term, and not at the expense of their gun fetishism). Same for inflation, as long as you define the term the way they do: as escalating wages, not commodity prices. But Republicans are joined at the hip to the oil industry, and the only thing they want to see is more profits, and the only easy way to get them is through higher prices.

I don't want to get caught in the weeds of individual races, but here are some more general election pieces:

Jonathan Chait: [10-21] How Vaccine Skeptics Took Over the Republican Party: "A case study in the party's dysfunction." Always carping about something, in the early days of the pandemic, as the severity of Covid-19 was so great that hospitals were being overwhelmed, the knee-jerk response was to insist that businesses should decide for themselves what precautions (with the market in its usual role as judge and jury), but most held out hope that future vaccines would render the question moot. Then they started shifting to promoting quack treatments. And when the vaccines finally did become available, they trumpeted individual choice and allowed for "religious" exemptions. I can see a case for allowing people to decide whether or not to get vaccinated, but I've never understood why anti-vaxxers would campaign for others not to get vaccinated. Certainly self-interest argues otherwise. So what it seems to come down to is that certain people (Republicans, mostly) just like to spout off and make sure everyone hear them. And in doing so, they've tapped into the conspiratorial mindset that runs through the Republican Party, enough so to intimidate more sensible members of their cohort. Of course, to the rest of us, that just makes them look stupid, vain, arrogant, and malign -- traits they'd happily wear as a badge of honor. This is the same dynamic that has worked for the "stop the steal" campaign. Hard to say which proposition is more ridiculous, but both are thriving in the mental sewers of the Republican Party.

Conor Echols: [10-21] Diplomacy Watch: Could Lula be a force for peace in Ukraine? Probably not unless/until he gets elected, but Brazil is a big country, and someone needs to cajole both the US/Europe and Russia into negotiation. From what I gather, the general feeling in the Global South is that the Ukraine war is an internecine squabble within the Global North that has become a major headache for the rest of the world -- driving up prices of food and fuel, forcing nations to take sides, etc. -- and so perhaps Brazil and Mexico (where AMLO has made his own proposals) could combine with other more/less neutral countries (South Africa, India, perhaps China) to form an effective lobby for peace. They could, for instance, threaten to sanction all belligerents. That would raise some eyebrows.

Jonathan Guyer: [10-21] The secret history of America's tactical nukes. A lot of thought has gone into the idea that if you could scale nuclear bombs down enough, it would blur the difference between escalating to nuclear weapons, weakening inhibitions against their use. Some of those "thinkers" were Russian, but most were American.

Ellen Ioanes: [10-20] Why Liz Truss was UK prime minister for only six weeks: This makes me jealous for a political system that doesn't restrict change to fixed terms, although the UK system is still deeply flawed: allowing even a completely hapless Parliament five years before having to call new elections has created a peculiar dynamic: the dominant party (in this case the Tories) has incentives for infighting and self-destruction with no immediate risks. Meanwhile, new Prime Ministers are selected in a very limited partisan process which the overwhelming majority of UK citizens have no say in. If the US had such a system, it would be easy to imagine Trump (and maybe even GW Bush and/or Bill Clinton) getting purged mid-term, especially if their replacements weren't limited to even less popular VPs (Pence maybe, Cheney for sure). On the other hand, in the American system, embattled Presidents can fight back and actually strengthen their control (as both Trump and Clinton did after impeachment). By the way, after much speculation, Boris Johnson Drops Bid to Return as UK Prime Minister.

Jay Caspian Kang: [10-21] What would a nation of sports gamblers look like? I don't like gambling of any sort, but the more sports gambling becomes legit -- our Democratic governor's big "bipartisan" deal this year was to legalize it -- the more irritated I get. It's not so much that I worry about the integrity of professional sports (which have been ruined by money already), but that on a personal level, I've never been able to see why people would throw money away to prove that they aren't really that smart. (As compared to pure games of luck, sports betting lures in people who think themselves experts, but the odds are balanced so they still lose more often than not.) By the way, what really bothered me about the Kansas legalization wasn't that it allowed people to legally lose money that many were illegally losing before, but that the revenues are being earmarked to lure the Kansas City Chiefs and Royals west of State Line Blvd., in yet another massive giveaway to whichever billionaires own them now (last I knew the Chiefs belonged to HL Hunt, and the Royals to one of the Wal-Mart heirs.)

More gambling:

  • Kathryn Schulz: [10-17] What we've lost playing the lottery: "The games are a bonanza for the companies that states hire to adminster them. But what about the rest of us?" The rationale, which I accept, is that gambling should be legal, and should be run by the state, because the state can run a cleaner, more honest game than the Mafia, and with much less onerous side-effects. And the state can pick up some profits along the way, which it can then use for other worthwhile things, but preferably not so much that officials feel the need to market (promote) the practice (beyond the bare minimum necessary to prevent a black market). That shouldn't be too hard to grasp, but in practice gambling has become legal because operators with few better scruples than the Mafia have lobbied to pass laws, giving them various levels of monopolies and incentives to rake in as much profit as possible. I know a guy who signs his email with "lottery: n., a tax on stupidity." He's not wrong, even if you replace "lottery" with more skilled games, each seeking its own level of stupidity. In this light, the operators in this article are basically just tax farmers.

Ian Millhiser:

  • [10-20] America's Trumpiest court just declared an entire federal agency unconstitutional: The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which was established by the banking reform bill that followed the 2008 meltdown, which followed massive fraud, especially in home mortgages (but extending way beyond there, such as to derivatives that were designed to lose investor money). The fine print doesn't go so far as to say that federal law cannot prosecute fraud, but by underming the agency that fights fraud, that seems to be what they're aiming for.

  • [10-23] What the Constitution actually says about race, explained: "There's a glaring flaw in the Supreme court lawsuits attacking affirmative action."

More pieces on legal issues:

Indigo Olivier: [10-20] "Cannibal Capitalism" Is Eroding Society's Basic Structures: Interview with Nancy Fraser, author of Cannibal Capitalism: How Our System Is Devouring Democracy, Care, and the Planet -- and What We Can Do About It. The best example I can think of capitalist cannibalism is private equity; see Jason Linkins: [10-15] The Industry Devouring the American Dream.

Areeba Shah: [10-19] Legal experts mock failed Durham probe: No other prosecutor "has ever posted such a dismal record": "One legal analyst noted Durham got 'two acquittals at trial in a system where the feds win 95% of their cases." Also: Ankush Khardori: [10-18] John Durham Almost Makes Ken Starr Look Good.

Alex Shephard: [10-20] The Spectacular Failure of Right-Wing Social Media Platforms: It's really just network effects: whoever gets in first with a service that appeals to virtually everyone gets a lock on the business, and can exploit that by collecting and selling data. There are a lot of right-wing jerks in America, but not enough to build their own niche ecosystem -- especially given that the insular echo chamber they crave is already available on mainstream platforms.

Jeffrey St Clair: [10-21] Roaming Charges: Vincent, Duck! Soup!

Emily Stewart: [10-20] How airlines squeeze you for every penny. Deregulation promised cheaper tickets, and that worked for a while. But in a grossly unequal society, with limited supply and far-from-perfect information, they created a game for predatory companies.

Bob Woodward: [10-23] The Trump Tapes: 20 interviews that show why he is in unparalleled danger. "I have decided to take the unusual step of releasing [tapes of my 20 interviews with Trump]. I was struck by how Trump pounded in my ears in a way the printed page cannot capture." The interviews cover many topics, but Woodward concludes: "I believe the tapes show that Trump's greatest failure was his handling of the coronavirus." Early interviews reveal how incapable he was of comprehending the problem, and how he resisted attempt to nudge him into a responsible position. Less clear is how he got worse over time. After he recovered from his case, he intuited how to play the pandemic politically, while the nation as a whole suffered its darkest days. Even today, most Republicans are following his lead, and working to dismantle any possibility of public health officials responding to future crises.

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