Sunday, July 16, 2023

Speaking of Which

Too late for an introduction.

Top story threads:

Trump, DeSantis, and other Republicans: Seems like a relatively tame week for evil, but there are always examples.

Biden and/or the Democrats: Necessarily a grab bag, but we're probably stuck with it.

  • Eric Levitz: He's one of the better writers at New York Magazine, but I find a lot to quibble with this week:

    • [07-11] Biden's unpopularity is more mysterious than it looks. Returns to the subject of his previous piece: [07-06] It makes sense that Bidenomics is unpopular (so far), admitting that "the unpopularity of both Biden and his economy are stranger than I'd previously allowed." I find both arguments unconvincing, but I'm not sure I got them right. One problem is that lots of things are only explicable with statistics, but they don't carry the same weight as experience. And even experience is subject to interpretation. By all objective measures, the 1980s were a great decade for me, but I didn't credit Reagan with any of that, and in fact I blamed him for a lot of problems that hadn't really materialized yet, but which seemed all but inevitable given his policies. If you expect the economy to go to hell when a Democrat or Republican takes over, it isn't hard to find evidence that you're right -- especially given that both have primarily given us more inequality.

    • [07-08] The 'greedflation' debate is deeply confused: Sure, he scores easy points against straw men or hacks -- Robert Reich is an example -- not least by pointing out cases where profits all but automatically rise when external events impact supply. (If you're as old as I am, you may remember the "windfall profits tax" passed in 1973, when OPEC forced oil prices way up, inadvertently making American oil men suddenly much richer.) On the other hand, I don't buy the argument that monopoly couldn't be raising prices now because if it existed, it would have raised prices previously. There are lots of reasons for monopolists not to fully exploit their power the moment they get it, but to do so when others give them cover for rising prices (as well as the incentive kick of raising costs). But also, "greedflation" provides an alternative to the cruel notion that inflation should be fought by taking away people's jobs.

    • [07-12] The case for Cornel West 2024 is extremely weak. But the case would be stronger if Levitz hadn't made a wrong turn in his first sentence: Cornel West recently decided that the best way for him to advance economic and social justice in the United States . . . thereby marginally increasing the odds of a second Trump presidency." I'm not interested in debating the last part, which as Levitz admits is a very marginal concern. The mistake is in thinking that West's campaign is only about "economic and social justice," and only in the US. If that's all that's at dispute, I'd happily concede that Biden is already making progress in that direction, and that West, no matter how much more he wants to achieve, isn't likely to do much better. If that's all he wants, he, like Bernie Sanders, would be better off working with Biden. But West has another major plank in his campaign, one that is diametrically opposed to both Republican and Democratic leaders, and that is foreign policy, and the almost certainty that current policies will lead to more wars that will eventually prove disastrous both for America and for the world. [E.g., see this interview; also another interview by Chris Hedges.] Not many people understand that, but that's all the more reason for West to stand up and argue the case. My biggest worry for 2024 is that some Biden miscalculation will throw us into a war, that will trigger a rebound for Trump, who is already arguing that only he can save us from world war. The rest of the article consists of minor arguments with a pro-West piece by Lily Sánchez, which pale in importance to this issue.

    • [07-13] A new order blocking Manchin's pipeline could hurt the climate: "Restricting Congress's authority to exempt energy projects from judicial review would undermine the green transition."

    • [07-15] Can extremely reflective white paint save the planet? If anyone does come up with a plausible geoengineering scheme for cooling the atmosphere, Democrats (in particular) will happily throw a lot of money at it. This is an example of a small hack that's unlikely to scale significantly, but at least it involves spending more to avoid simply cutting back on energy use -- one solution that no one serious considers plausible.

  • Nicole Narea: [07-14] Biden's new plan to forgive $39 billion in student loans, explained: "More than 800,000 borrowers are now eligible for student loan forgiveness." Something else for Republicans to try to ruin.

  • John Nichols: [07-14] Jesse Jackson's politics of peace: "His 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns called for ending military interventions, supported disarmament, and sought deep cuts in Pentagon spending." Not even Bernie Sanders has done that since, which is more evidence of how deeply rutted our thinking is on the military. I've long thought that Jackson would have won the Democratic Party nomination had he run in 1992, but he didn't, to avoid blame for losing a second term to GWH Bush. I also thought that Clinton owed him big time for not making the run, and I expected some kind of payoff for the favor, but never noticed one.

  • Timothy Noah: [07-12] You'll be very surprised who's benefiting most from Bidenomics: Not really. "Red states, not blue ones, are seeing the biggest income gains." Isn't it always like that? Poor states vote Republican, and better off states bail them out.

Climate and Environment:

Ukraine War: Conspicuous by absence is any news on how well Ukraine's "counteroffensive" is going, which suggests it isn't. On the other hand, NATO met, and continues to rack up milestones, which as usual mostly involve arms sales. Wake me when we see some diplomacy, because once again nothing else matters. The Gessen piece is historical, stuff you should know. It doesn't mean that Putin's invasion was in any way justifiable, or that sending arms to help Ukraine fend off that invasion is bad policy, but understanding America's deep culpability for the conflict would go a long way toward negotiating a way out of it. Conversely, not recognizing how this all went wrong prevents us from understanding the chief lessons of this war: that deterrence and sanctions are more likely to provoke war than to prevent it; and that not just the combatants but the world cannot afford for wars like this to go on and on.

Around the world: But mostly Israel, again.

Other stories:

Kai Bird: [07-07] Oppenheimer, nullified and vindicated: Co-author of the biography, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Bird explains the campaign to get the federal government to admit that they erred in 1954 in revoking Oppenheimer's security clearance, thus excluding the director of the Manhattan Project from any further role in atomic weapons planning. The vindication didn't come until December 18, 2022, and serves as another example of something Biden's administration has done that Obama's was too chickenshit to venture. I will quibble with the assertion that Oppenheimer was "the chief celebrity victim of the national trauma known as McCarthyism." Sure, he was the bigger celebrity, but the execution of the Rosenbergs was a graver miscarriage of justice. But Oppenheimer is a clearer example of how McCarthyism worked: it meant that anyone with a vaguely leftist past could be crucified as a traitor, and hardly anyone would dare come to their defense -- especially liberals who could themselves be tarred as "fellow travelers."

Jonathan Chait: [07-11] In defense of independent opinion journalism: "The 'hack gap' between right and left has been closing." I'm not convinced. I won't deny that there are hacks on the left, but they differ significantly from hacks on the right. For one thing, they're not all aligned against their partisan enemies. Take Chait, for instance, who only seems truly happy when he's attacking people to his left -- a considerable number, given his support for the Iraq war, his pimping for charter schools, and his "Why Liberals Should Support a Trump Republican Nomination." But even when leftists slip into hackdom, they still start with commitments to truth and justice that are utterly alien to the right. Then, by the way, there is the deeper problem of objectivity, which is impossible, making it a claim one should always be suspicious of.

Bob Harris/Jon Schwarz: [07-04] Carl Reiner's life should remind us: If you like laughing, thank FDR and the New Deal: "Their comedy descends directly from the Works Progress Administration." The WPA did a world of good for America, but much of what they did, especially in the arts, would be considered too frivolous, and in many cases too controversial, for "taxpayer" funding these days. Until that attitude changes, we're stuck with a government distinguished mostly by misery: how miserable its workers feel, and how miserable they make the rest of us.

Noasm Hassenfeld: [07-16] Even the scientists who build AI can't tell you how it works: Interview with Sam Bowman.

Oshan Jarow: [07-14] Poverty is a major public health crisis. Let's treat it like one. You'd think that such an argument would make people more inclined to support anti-poverty measures, but Republicans have aligned themselves pretty firmly against public health (or at least doing anything about it).

Jess Lander: [07-13] What led to Anchor Brewing's downfall? Sapporo, some workers say. America's oldest craft brewer is going out of business, supposedly a victim of Covid or maybe bad marketing, but I'm suspicious of two ownership changes: in 2010, owner Fritz Maytag, who had rescued the brewery after prohibition, sold to Griffin Group ("a local beverage consulting company," which smells a lot like private equity even if they're not a big name), and in 2017 Griffin pawned the carcass on to giant Japanese brewer Sapporo. It's easy enough to say that the latter didn't understand American craft brewers, and to illustrate this with various marketing blunders, but the deeper truth is that they simply didn't care, especially after the workforce unionized in 2019. After all, it's not unusual for big companies to buy up small ones only to shutter them, leaving the larger company with one fewer competitor (even if, as in this case, one that barely mattered).

Back when I worked for a high-tech startup, where most employees owned a small sliver of stock, I concluded that the world would be much better if employees owned a controlling share of stock, thus resolving conflict with management. (Unions, valuable as they are as a balance against management power, usually increase conflict, especially when they lack legal rights, as is often the case in the US; on the other hand, in Germany, where "co-determination" gives workers a stake in management, unions align more closely with management.) I'd like to see many policies that help facilitate employee ownership. One of the most obvious ones would be to allow employees to claim defunct businesses, wiping out the company's previous debt obligations, and providing funding for a fresh start. I have no doubt that a company like Anchor could be revived, if handed over to workers who care about the product and the customers, and about their own jobs.

Shira Ovide: [07-14] We must end the tyranny of printers in American life: "Printers cannot be reformed. They must be destroyed, once and for all." I had to include this because my latest printer purchase, a HP OfficeJet Pro 9010, is the biggest purchasing mistake I've ever made. They insisted that I use a wireless connection, and while it is recognized by my Linux computers, I'm not able to send any jobs from them to be printed. (At one point, this worked, but even then scans couldn't be uploaded, at least not using sane.) One main reason for the wireless connection is the need to reorder ink as part of a subscription program that was originally offered for $2.99/month, then immediately raised to $4.99/month. Of course, they haven't sent me any ink, because I haven't been able to print. I've owned several HP printers going back to their LaserJet II in the 1980s, but they've never pulled anything like this before. At last, as Ovide will be happy to hear, I'm learning to live without printing. Now I need to figure out how to stop paying for nothing.

Kelsey Piper: [07-12] Stop looking to Mother Nature for answers to resource questions: "The silly way we think about resource scarcity." Followed, sad to say, by an equally silly answer. While it's true that we haven't discovered every earthly resource we might eventually manage to exploit, that's mostly because people keep assuming that only very short terms matter: a "50 year" phosphorus find may be a big deal for 50 years, but 50 years is a pretty short time frame.

Sigal Samuel: [07-11] Scientists unveil the key site that shows we're in a new climate epoch: Title has it backwards: some scientists decided we are in a new climate epoch, then looked for a geologic site that could be used as a marker between the old Holocene epoch and the new Anthropocene. They found one, but it's not based on climate change. Rather, what it marks is the appearance of fallout from nuclear bombs testing, which increased significantly around 1950. On the other hand, human impact on the geostratigraphic record goes back hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, eventually becoming dramatic enough to justify the term Anthropocene (much like the Cambrian is sometimes called the age of trilobites).

Jeffrey St Clair: [07-14] Roaming Charges: Clusterfuck in Vilnius. He's in a bad mood, starting with cluster bombs for Ukraine.

Two subjects I didn't want to say anything about are No Labels and RFK Jr. -- among other things, do I file them under Republicans, who they effectively work for, or Democrats? -- but if you want some well-reasoned analysis, turn to No More Mister Nice Blog:

An old piece I ran across, still worth mentioning:

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