Sunday, June 4, 2023

Speaking of Which

Abbreviated this week, as I basically lost Friday and Saturday to a cooking project. Anyhow, enough for a placeholder. The non-story of the week is the debt deal. (Glad that's over.) The story that really looms large is the insurance industry debacle. Also note the problems in Kosovo, which should remind us that temporary hacks don't last where long-term stable solutions are needed.

Top story threads:

Trump, DeSantis, and other Republican sociopaths:

  • Kate Aronoff: [05-30] Ron DeSantis threatens to "Make America Florida": "The GOP hopeful's climate denial papers over a horrifying reality in his home state." I've been to Florida a couple times, and it's a nice enough place to visit (in March, anyway). But is this really a workable sales pitch? Even if you ignore the considerable damage he's already inflicted on Florida, which is really more to the point. A while back, Aronoff wrote: [2022-10-12] Florida and the insurance industry weren't build to withstand a flooded world.

  • Devlin Barrett/Josh Dawsey/Carol D Leonnig: [05-31] Prosecutors have recording of Trump discussing sensitive Iran document: "could undercut key defense claims that Trump declassified or didn't know about the documents."

  • Ben Brasch/Dan Rosenzweig-Ziff: [06-01] Candidate charged with shooting at Democrats' homes after election loss. Solomon Pena (R-NM), lost state House seat nearly 2-to-1, blamed fraud, hired two more guys to help him with shootings.

  • Fabiola Cineas: [06-02] Florida has launched an "unparalleled" assault on higher education: "Ron DeSantis is threatening academic freedom everywhere." Illustration here is a sign that gets to the point: "Support real education, not DeSantis indoctrination."

  • Margaret Hartmann: [05-30] It turns out 'Trump Bucks' aren't actually legal tender.

  • Ed Kilgore: [06-01] 2024 presidential candidates side with far right on debt deal: No responsibilities, no consequences.

  • Eric Levitz: [05-29] The contradiction at the heart of DeSantis 2024: On the one hand, he wants to be seen as more electable than Trump; on the other, he also wants to be seen as doing everything Trump would do and then some, suggesting he intends to be more extreme. But that's only a contradiction if you assume that everything balances off the center -- a view that only centrists have these days, I suppose because they insist on being wrong about everything. DeSantis embraces both sides of this equation not because he's a centrist but because he's a cynic. In the Republican primaries, he'll run not as the saner Trump but as the more effective model: the guy who delivers things that Trump can only promise. If he's nominated, he'll pivot back to the middle, not because he's changed one iota but because the gullible media wants any excuse to cozy up to a Republican. If he's elected, he'll pull the same kind of stunts he's been doing all along in Florida, which will come as a complete surprise to all the centrists who rushed to support him. It's not a bad plan, and if he wasn't such a jerkwad (or at least could fake it) it might work, but there are lots of possible pitfalls. The first is that Trump's base don't want a subtler, more efficient strongman. They want one who acts up, who gets in their supposed enemies' faces and heads.

  • Yvonne Wingett Sanchez: [06-01] After harassment, Arizona county official won't run for reelection: The unfortunately named Maricopa County Supervisor, Bill Gates.

  • Li Zhou: [06-01] Mike Pence is a man without a constituency: That's not really fair. Pence has a constituency, just a very small one. It's wonks who liked Trump's policies but were ultimately taken aback by his personality. Billmon referred to the GW Bush years as the Cheney Administration, because the personnel and all the policies seemed to emanate from the VP. (Curiously, Cheney lost most of his influence in Bush's second term, especially after he lost Scooter Libby to indictment.) Same thing with the Trump years, except that Trump claimed all the glory. But even though Pence was central to policy direction, most people realize that any Republican flunky would have done the same, and most could have presented the same pious supplication.

Biden, Democrats, and the end of the debt crisis: For the record, I'm not unhappy with Biden's debt ceiling deal. He gave McCarthy a little victory and a bit of respect, which he probably didn't need to do, but it didn't cost much. And what Biden gained was to kill the issue until 2025, or longer if Democrats recover and win Congress. Anything else would be litigated endlessly, and while he'd probably win, that would have made the Supreme Court look a bit less fanatical than they are. It might have been different had he been able to rally the media to his viewpoint, but he's not that kind of guy. I wish Democrats could do better, but there's not much evidence of them even trying.

Ukraine War:

  • Blaise Malley: [06-02] Diplomacy Watch: A peace summit without Russia.

  • Andrew Bacevich: [06-01] The compulsion to intervene: "Why Washington underwrites violence in Ukraine.

  • Dave DeCamp: [06-01] SpaceX lands Pentagon contract for Starlink terminals for Ukraine: Add Elon Musk to the list of war profiteers.

  • John Feffer: [05-31] How Russia's war in Ukraine threatens the planet.

  • Anatol Lieven/George Beebe: [05-31] Prigozhin erupts: Has a Russian succession struggle begun? No reason to get excited here. "And if the choice of a successor to Putin really becomes that between President Prigozhin and President Patrushev, would either of these be an improvement on Putin himself?"

  • Suzanne Loftus: Kazakhstan's view of Ukraine is complicated because it, too, is complicated.

  • Neil MacFarquhar/Milana Mazaeva: [06-03] In Russian schools, it's recite your ABC's and 'Love your army': "The curriculum for young Russians is increasingly emphasizing patriotism and the heroism of Moscow's army, while demonizing the West as 'gangsters.' One school features a 'sniper'-themed math class." This just poisons the future.

  • Nicole Narea: The potential fallout from drone attacks in Moscow.

  • Timothy Noah: [05-08] Putin can't afford to lose in Ukraine -- but he can't afford to win, either: When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, it represented 10.5 percent of the global economy; by April 2022, Russia's share had shrunk to 3.5 percent, and GDP has shrunk by a quarter since 2013. Capitalism doesn't seem like much of a blessing.

  • Jordan Michael Smith: [06-02] How Russia got the Ukraine War wrong: Review of two recent books on the war: Owen Matthews: Overreach: The Inside Story of Putin's War Against Ukraine, and Serhii Plokhy: The Russo-Ukrainian War: The Return of History. I've read Plokhy's 2021 The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine, which was pre-invasion but well into the 2014 division. No doubt he knows the history, but I have wonder how much inside scoop Matthews -- a British journalist based in Moscow in the late 1990s, and later in Istanbul -- actually has.

    Matthews offers three reasons behind Putin's decision to go to war. The first, that "Western influence was growing too powerful in a country vital to Russian influence," needs a lot more elaboration. It seems likely that Biden's administration took much more concern with Ukraine than Trump's had done, and that promise of support emboldened Zelensky to ditch the Minsk II accord and further threaten Russian separatists in Donbas. Why Putin should see Ukraine as a vital interest is deeply embedded in the history Plokhy explains, seeing it as a threat, and believing Russia could solve that threat with aggression, is a more complex problem.

    Matthew's second reason seems justified: Putin's belief that Russia could withstand sanctions has largely been vindicated, but like most conflict issues, it has a second side. It is just as possible that the US overestimated the sanctions threat. The third reason -- that the US was weakened by its clumsy retreat from Afghanistan -- makes the least sense. If anything, the US was more eager to confront Russia once it was no longer stuck in Afghanistan. If Putin thought otherwise, he was being foolish -- although it is just the sort of thing American hawks would say.

    I suspect much more research is needed to fill in the details, which is where the devil dwells. One pull quote deserves reiteration here: "A wounded Russia might be even more prone to extremism, paranoia, and aggression than it was before the war."

The rest of the world:

  • Ellen Ioanes: [05-30] Uganda's extreme anti-LGBTQ legislation, explained. Three other African states have similar laws (Kenya, Zambia, Ghana). But there is an argument that the driving force behind such laws is "American evangelicals through their local actors."

  • Marc Martorell Junyent: [06-01] Is the new Taliban reign less extreme than it was in 2001? Hassan Abbas has a new book on this, The Return of the Taliban: Afghanistan After the Americans Left, arguing that the question is open, but continued exclusion isn't helping.

  • Anatol Lieven: [06-02] Ethnic conflict in Kosovo: Cutting the Gordian Knot: This is yet another diplomatic failure, exacerbated by foreign powers picking sides in a local ethnic dispute. One might even argue that NATO's intervention in Kosovo was every bit as egregious as Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Other stories:

Christopher Flavelle/Jack Healy: [06-01] Arizona limits construction around Phoenix as its water supply dwindles.

Matthew Duss: [06-01] The bad thing Henry Kissinger did that you don't even know about: "the practice of turning vast global contacts into wealth has been horrible for American democracy." After leaving government, Kissinger set up shop and encouraged rich people to give him money. What he did for all that money was often unclear (and still is). But he turned GW Bush's invite to oversee a commission on 9/11 because he feared that taking the post would expose his business to public scrutiny. He wasn't the first person to do that sort of thing, and many more have followed in his footsteps.

Victoria Guida: [05-29] Historic gains: Low-income workers scored in the Covid economy. Something else for Republicans to try to destroy.

Umair Irfan:

  • [05-30] A big El Niņo is looming. Here's what it means for our weather. "How warm water in the Pacific shapes storms, droughts, and record heat around the world."

  • [06-02] Climate change is already making parts of America uninsurable: "We're steadily marching toward an uninsurable future." This is probably the biggest story of the week, and maybe the year. Two key problems with private insurance: the risk models haven't kept pace with increasing risks; and once you fix the risk models, the upshot is that few people can afford insurance. And if you can't insure property, how can you finance it? If we had understood this 20-30 years ago, maybe we could have done a realistic cost-benefit analysis on carbon reduction, but having ignored the real risks all this time, it's too late to catch up. I'm convinced that the solution will be for the federal government to provide insurance, either by backstopping the private companies or by offering some degree of insurance directly. If the latter seems hard to imagine, consider such current programs as flood insurance, crop insurance, FEMA disaster funding, and and too-big-to-fail banks. This will be a big political issue in the not-so-distant future, and needs to be thought about sooner rather than later.

Sarah Jones:

  • [05-30] The revolt of the other mothers: "Moms for Liberty learned motherhood is a potent force. So too have their opponents."

  • [05-30] A generation moves on: On a Washington Post feature about "Christina and Aaron Beall, parents who have abandoned the Christian homeschool movement." They themselves were home schooled, brought up to "discipline" their children as they had been "disciplined" (which is to say, beaten). As with all case studies, no way to tell how representative their stories are. Jones has a similar (though she suspects less extreme) background, which helps. By the way, I've kept Jones' [04-08] piece open, as it's one of the best I've seen all year: Children are not property. I find the notion that they are property, which is consistent with recent right-wing programming, horrifying. Even worse, I suppose, is the notion that your children should be their property too.

  • [05-29] The fantasies of Josh Hawley: "The senator's new book, Manhood, is an exercise in cowardice." I've cited several rejoinders to this book in recent weeks, less because we need to tear it down than because its its author is often taken as a serious Republican thinker-activist yet the book is such an easy target. By the way, on Facebook Greg Magarian noted: "Masculinity? That's a complicated idea, but I've never encountered any idea of manhood that looks like Josh Hawley."

Glenn Kessler: [05-16] And the president most to blame for the national debt problem is . . . Author cites one fairly arbitrary study to pin the blame on Lyndon Johnson, on the theory that "entitlements" like Medicare and Medicaid are the culprit, and ranks Nixon second for similar reasons, despite later admitting that "social programs, in fact, can provide more benefits than costs in the long run." Curiously, no mention here of the impact of war and defense spending on the balance sheet -- not even Johnson's (and Nixon's) largely unfunded Vietnam War, which was the source of most budget imbalances at the time.

Whizzy Kim: [05-26] What was Succession actually trying to tell us? The HBO series has been a rare unflattering portrait of the very rich, and the many ways their wealth warps their perceptions and actions. For its first three seasons, it managed to be watchable despite a total absence of sympathetic characters, but it finally got good in the fourth season, when Logan Roy's death raised the stakes. Kim also wrote [05-29] Succession ends exactly how it needed to. I'd say they did what they could after painting themselves into a corner. To say Tom Wambsgans came out the winner overlooks how totally hollow his new position will be. But I don't like Lukas Matsson's odds any better. He came out as a phony and bully way out of his league. Except that everyone involved comes out with unimaginable piles of money, conjured from rarefied bullshit. This is no way to run a world.

Ian Millhiser: [06-01] The Supreme Court deals another blow to labor unions.

Andrew Perez: [06-03] Right-wing dark money funded Kansas's failed anti-abortion campaign.

Jeffrey St Clair: [06-02] Roaming Charges: The shame of the game. Not happy with the debt deal: "The Democrats asked for nothing and got less. The Far Right demanded all they could think of, got it and now wants more."

Peter Turchin: [06-02] America is headed toward collapse: From the author's new book, End Times: Elites, Counter-Elites, and the Path of Political Disintegration. Section here is a very sketchy outline of two previous crises -- the Civil War and the Great Depression -- with similarities to the current period highlighted. Turchin has several previous books. His War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires, is summarized as follows:

Turchin argues that the key to the formation of an empire is a society's capacity for collective action. He demonstrates that high levels of cooperation are found where people have to band together to fight off a common enemy, and that this kind of cooperation led to the formation of the Roman and Russian empires, and the United States. But as empires grow, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, conflict replaces cooperation, and dissolution inevitably follows.

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