Sunday, September 17, 2023

Speaking of Which

Started this on Friday, not with much enthusiasm, so many of the early links I collected are just that. The comment on Levitz under "Legal matters" is probably where I got started, after which I found the Current Affairs interview.

I've tried of late to articulate moderate positions that one might build a viable political consensus around, but lately I'm despairing, not so much of the popular political potential as of the probability that nothing possible will come close to what is actually needed.

Back when I was a teenage schizophrenic, I was able to pursue the two paths -- on the one hand I poured over political stats as nerdishly as Kevin Phillips, on the other I immersed myself in utopian fantasy writing -- without ever trying to reconcile them. As an old man, I find once boundless time closing in, and shutting down.

Just a few years ago, I was thinking that the worst failures in American politics were opportunity costs: wasting time and resources that could be used on big problems while doing stupid things instead (like $800B/year on useless "defense" spending). But it's looking more and more like the problem is one of cognitive dysfunction, where there is little to no hope of convincing enough of a majority that problems are problems, and that their fantasies aren't.

Top story threads:

Trump: He was having a slow week, until NBC offered him a free infomercial (see Berman, below). He is now virtually assured of the Republican nomination, but also of a margin of free publicity even exceeding his bounty in 2016 and 2020.

DeSantis, and other Republicans: The Florida governor has done little to justify being singled out, but Steve M [09-17] assures us: Ron DeSantis is still first runner-up, based on a recent straw poll. He also argues, "I'd like DeSantis to be the nominee, because he appears to be a much weaker general election candidate than Trump," and has some charts that seem to support his case.

  • Olivia Alafriz: [09-16] Texas Senate acquits AG Ken Paxton on all corruption charges: His impeachment moved me to ask the question, "when was the last time an office holder was deemed too corrupt for the Texas lege?" Since I never got an answer, I don't know whether they lowered the bar, or never had one in the first place. But this was the only opportunity since Nixon for Republicans to discipline one of their own, and they've failed spectacularly.

  • Jonathan Chait: [09-13] Mitt Romney and the doomed nobility of Republican moderation: "The party's last antiauthoritarian walks away." It's silly to get all bleary-eyed here. He isn't that moderate, noble, and/or antiauthoritarian. Chait quotes Geoffrey Kabaservice, totally ignoring the face that Romney ran hard right from day one of his 2012 (or for that matter his 2008) campaign, going so far as to pick Koch favorite Paul Ryan as his VP. And he's old enough to make his age concerns credible. And he's rich enough he doesn't need the usual post-Senate sinecure on K Street. That he also took the opportunity to chide Biden and Trump is also typical of his considerable self-esteem. But it also saves him the trouble of having to run not on his name but on his record -- much as he did after one term as governor of Massachusetts. Also on Romney:

  • Sarah Jones: [09-13] The enemies of America's children. This could be more partisan, not that Joe Manchin doesn't deserve to be called out, but he's only effective as a right-wing jerk because he's backed up by a solid block of 49-50 Republicans. Relevant here:

    • Paul Krugman: [09-14] America betrays its children again: "child poverty more than doubled between 2021 and 2022." That's almost exclusively because "Republicans and a handful of conservative Democrats blocked the extension of federal programs that had drastically reduced child poverty over the previous two years." "Handful" seems a generous counting of two Senators.

  • Nikki McCann Ramirez: [09-14] DeSantis lived large on undisclosed private flights and lavish trips: What is it about Republican politicians that makes them think that just because they cater to every whim of their billionaire masters, they're entitled to live like them?

  • Bill Scher: [09-14] A shutdown will be the GOP's fault, and everyone in Washington knows it.

  • Matt Stieb: [09-15] New, gentler Lauren Boebert booted from Beetlejuice musical: Another reminder that the most clueless thing a politician can say to a cop is: "do you know who I am?" [PS: Later updated: "New, gentler Lauren Boebert apologizes for Beetlejuice fracas."]

  • Tessa Stuart: [09-16] The GOP is coming after your birth control (even if they won't admit it).

  • Li Zhou: [09-13] Republicans' unfounded impeachment inquiry of Biden, explained: "House Speaker Kevin McCarthy backed an inquiry despite no evidence of Biden's wrongdoing." More on impeachment:

    • Jonathan Chait: [09-13] Republicans already told us impeachment is revenge for Trump: "They did it to us!"

    • Peter Baker: [09-14] White House strategy on impeachment: Fight politics with politics. Steve M comments: "Are House Republicans really trying to impeach President Biden, or do they just want him under a cloud of suspicion?" The only way impeachment succeeds is if the other party break ranks. For a brief moment, Clinton seemed to consider the possibility of resigning, then decided to rally his supporters, and came out ahead. (In American Crime Story, Hillary was the one who straightened out his spine.) That was never a possibility with Trump, but at least the Democrats had pretty compelling stories to tell -- whether that did them any good is an open question. Now, not only is there no chance that Biden and the Democrats will break, the only story Republicans have is one their sucker base is already convinced of. So "cloud of suspicion" seems to be about all they can hope for.

Biden and/or the Democrats: Big week for Democratic Party back-biting. I find this focus at the top of the ticket silly and distracting. True, Trump decided that "America is Great Again" the moment he took office, but Democrats surely know that inaugurating Biden was just the first step, and that lots of big problems were left over, things that couldn't be solved quickly, especially as Republicans still held significant levers of power and press, and were doing everything possible to cripple Democratic initiatives. So why do Democrats have to run on defending their economy, their immigration, their crime, their climate, etc.? They can point to good things they've done, better things they've wanted to do, and above all to the disastrous right shift in politics since 1980. Is that so hard to understand?

  • Liza Featherstone: [09-15] We need bigger feelings about Biden's biggest policies: "Anyone who doesn't want Trump to serve another term must learn to love the Inflation Reduction Act, and despise those who seek its destruction." This sentiment runs against every instinct I have, as I've spent all my life learning to deconstruct policies to find their intrinsic flaws and their secret (or more often not-so-secret) beneficiaries. IRA has a lot of tax credits and business subsidies for doing things that are only marginally better than what would happen without them. Even if I'm willing to acknowledge that's the way you have to operate in Washington to get anything done, I hate being told I need to be happy about it. But as a practical matter, none of these things -- and same is true of the two other big bills and dozens or hundreds of smaller things, many executive orders -- would have been done under any Republican administration, Trump or no Trump. And while what Biden and the Democrats have accomplished is still far short of what's needed, sure, they deserve some credit.

  • Eric Levitz: [09-13] The case for Biden to drop Kamala Harris: "The 80-year-old president probably shouldn't have an exceptionally unpopular heir apparent." What's unclear here is why she's so unpopular. The whole identity token thing may have helped her get picked, works against her being taken seriously, but probably makes her even harder than usual to dump. But before becoming Biden's VP pick, she was a pretty skilled politician, so why not put her out in public more, get her doing the "bully pulpit" thing Biden's not much good at anyway, give her a chance?

  • Andrew Prokop: [09-12] Why Biden isn't getting a credible primary challenger: "Many Democrats fear a challenge would pave the way to Trump's victory." Responds to a question raised by Jonathan Chait with my default answer, and pointing to four cases where incumbent presidents were challenged (Johnson in 1968, Ford in 1976, Carter in 1980, and Bush in 1992) that resulted in the other party winning. Chait, by the way, replies here: [09-15] Challenging Biden is risky. So is nominating him. Steve M comments here: [09-15] Do we really want to endure the 2028 Democratic primary campaign in 2024? Evidently, there's also a David Ignatius piece, but wrong about pretty much everything, so I haven't bothered.

  • Katie Rogers: [09-11] 'It is evening, isn't it?' An 80-year-old President's whirlwind trip: Raises the question, will the New York Times ever again publish an article on Biden that doesn't mention his age? I don't know whether his trip to India and Vietnam was worthwhile, either for diplomatic or political reasons. I am not a fan of his efforts to reinvigorate American leadership after the chaotic nonsense of the Trump years: somehow, I rather doubt that "America's back" is the message the world has been clamoring for.

    I was taken aback by Heather Cox Richardson's tweet on this article (my comment here), but her write up on September 11, 2023 is exceptionally clear and straightforward, much better reporting than the NY Times seems capable of.

Legal matters and other crimes:

  • Josh Gerstein/Rebecca Kern: [09-14] Alito pauses order banning Biden officials from contacting tech platforms. The case has to do with whether the government can complain to social media companies about their dissemination of false information about the pandemic. One cherry-picked judge thinks doing so violated the free speech rights of the liars whose posts were challenged, so he issued a sweeping ban against the government. (That's what Alito paused, probably because the case is so shoddy he knows it won't stand.)

    For a laugh, see Jason Willick: [09-15] Worried about Trump? You should welcome these rulings against Biden. This is bullshit for two reasons. One is that rulings like this are deeply partisan, so there's no reason to expect that a restriction on a Democratically-run government would also be applied to a Republican-run one. And secondly, Republicans (especially Trump) would be promoting falsehoods, not trying to correct them. We already saw a perfect example of this in Trump's efforts to gag government officials to keep them from so much as mentioning climate change.

  • Eric Levitz: [09-12] Prisons and policing need to be radically reformed, not abolished. This is not a subject I want to dive into, especially as I pretty much agree with all nine of the issues he talks about (6 where abolitionists are right, 3 where they are wrong). One more point I want to emphasize: we use an adversarial system of prosecutors and defenders, each side strongly motivated to win, regardless of the truth. More often than not, what is decisive is the relative power of the adversaries (which is to say, the state beats individuals, but also the rich beat the poor, which gives rich defendants better chances than poor defendants). Some of this is so deeply embedded it's hard to imagine changing it, but we need a system that seeks the truth, and to understand it in its complexity (or simple messiness).

    Levitz properly questions the desire for retribution driving long sentences, but I also have to question the belief that long sentences and harsh punishments (which is part of the reason why jails are so cruel) deter others from committing crimes. Sure, they do, except when they don't (e.g., mass murder as a recipe for suicide by cop), but the higher the stakes, the less motive people have to admit the truth. Also, as in foreign policy, an emphasis on deterrence tends to make one too arrogant to seek mutually-beneficial alternatives. A lot of crimes are driven by conditions that can be avoided or treated.

    Finally, we need to recognize that excessive punishment is (or should be) itself criminal, that it turns us into the people we initially abhor, a point rarely lost on the punished. And one which only makes the punishers more callous. The big problem with capital punishment isn't that it's cruel or that it's so hard to apply it uniformly or that some people don't deserve it. The problem is that such deliberate killing is murder, and as done by the state is even colder and more deliberate than the murders being avenged.

  • Ian Millhiser:

  • Andrew Prokop: [09-14] The indictment of Hunter Biden isn't really about gun charges: "Prosecutors are moving aggressively because the plea deal fell apart. But why did it fall apart?" Also:

    By the way, no one's answered what seems to me the obvious question: has anyone else ever been prosecuted for these "crimes" before (standalone, as opposed to being extra charges tacked onto something else)? Also, doesn't the Fifth Amendment provide some degree of protection even if you don't explicitly invoke it?

  • Li Zhou: [09-15] The fate of hundreds of thousands of immigrants is caught in an endless court fight: "The high stakes of the latest DACA decision, explained."

  • Current Affairs: [09-15] Exposing the many layers of injustice in the US criminal punishment system: Interview with Stephen B Bright and James Kwak, authors of The Fear of Too Much Justice: Race, Poverty, and the Persistence of Inequality in the Criminal Courts. Particularly check out the section on privatized probation companies, which have come about due to the belief that "the private sector can do things better than the government," and that "there is a lot of legal corruption at all levels of government."

Climate and environment:

The UAW strike:

Ukraine War: I find it curious that despite all the "notable progress" the New York Times has claimed for Ukraine's counteroffensive (most recently, retaking the village of Andriivka), they haven't updated their maps page since June 9. Zelensky is coming to America next next week, to speak at the UN and to meet Biden in Washington.

Israel: This is 30 years after the Oslo Accords, which promised to implement a separate Palestinian state in (most of) the Occupied Territories, after an interval of "confidence building" which Israel repeatedly sabotaged, especially by continuing to cater to the settler movement. The agreements put the Intifada behind, while seeding the ground for the more violent second Intifada in 2000, brutally suppressed by a Sharon government which greatly expanded settlement activity. The PLO was partly legitimized by Oslo, then reduced to acting as Israeli agents, and finally discredited, but was kept in nominal power after being voted out by Hamas, ending democracy in Palestine. Middle East Eye has a whole series of articles on this anniversary, including Joseph Massad: From Oslo to the end of Israeli settler-colonialism.

Iran: One step forward (prisoner swap), one step back (more sanctions as the US tries to claim Iranian protests against police brutality and repression of women -- issues the US is not exactly a paragon of virtue on).

Around the world:

Other stories:

Ana Marie Cox: [09-14] We are not just polarized. We are traumatized.

Constance Grady: [09-13] The big Elon Musk biography asks all the wrong questions: "In Walter Isaacson's buzzy new biography, Elon Musk emerges as a callous, chaos-loving man without empathy." Proof positive that no one should be as rich and powerful as he is, and not just because he is who he is.

Sean Illing: [09-12] Democracy is the antidote to capitalism: Interview with Astra Taylor, who has a new book: The Age of Insecurity: Coming Together as Things Fall Apart.

Noel King: [09-15] 5 new books (and one very old one) to read in order to understand capitalism: A podcast discussion. The old one is The Wealth of Nations, by Adam Smith, which is somewhat more nuanced and sophisticated than is commonly remembered. (For one thing, the "invisible hand" is basically a joke.) The new ones:

  • Jennifer Burns: Milton Friedman: The Last Conservative (Nov. 2023)
  • David Gelles: The Man Who Broke Capitalism: How Jack Welch Gutted the Heartland and Crushed the Soul of Corporate America -- and How to Undo His Legacy (2022)
  • Martin Wolf: The Crisis of Democratic Capitalism (2023)
  • Jason Hickel: Less Is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World (2020)

I'm not sure what I'd recommend instead, but here are a couple ideas: George P Brockway's The End of Economic Man: Principles of Any Future Economics is my bible on economics, so I'd gladly swap it for Smith. Zachary D Carter's The Price of Peace: Money, Democracy, and the Life of John Maynard Keynes is all you need on Friedman, plus a lot more. There are lots of books on recent economic plunder. I'm not sure which one(s) to recommend, but Jeff Madrick's Age of Greed: The Triumph of Finance and the Decline of America, 1970s to the Present is good on the bankers, and the Jacob Hacker/Paul Pierson books, from The Great Risk Shift to Let Them Eat Tweets, are good on the politics (also Thomas Frank's The Wrecking Crew). Hope Jahren's The Story of More is an elegant if somewhat less political alternative to Hickel.

Dylan Matthews: [09-14] Lead poisoning could be killing more people than HIV, malaria, and car accidents combined.

Kim Messick: [09-09] The American crack-up: Why liberalism drives some people crazy.

Andrew O'Hehir: [09-14] Naomi Klein on her "Doppelganger" -- the "other Naomi" -- and navigating the far-right mirror universe. Klein's new book is Doppelganger: A Trip Into the Mirror World, which starts by noting the tendency people have of confusing her with Naomi Wolf, then goes beyond that to show how much propaganda from the right picks up memes from the left and twists them for the opposite effect. Also:

  • Jacob Bacharach: [09-06] Is Naomi Klein's Doppelganger weird enough? Criticism that promises more than it delivers, perhaps tipped off by the by far most unflattering pics of the Naomis I've seen.

  • Laura Wagner: [09-11] In Naomi Klein's Doppelganger, Naomi Wolf is more than a gimmick.

  • Adrienne Westenfeld: [09-12] Naomi Klein's double trouble: An interview with the author.

  • Democracy Now: [09-14] Naomi Klein on her new book Doppelganger & how conspiracy culture benefits ruling elite: I watched this, which is a good but not great interview, but the reason I looked it up was a turn of phrase that struck me as peculiar. Klein notes that:

    When I would confess to people I knew that I was working on this book, sometimes I would get this strange reaction like, "Why would you give her attention?" There was this sense that because she was no longer visible in the pages of The New York Times or on MSNBC or wherever, and because she had been deplatformed on social media -- or on the social media that we're on -- that she just didn't exist. And there was this assumption that "we," whoever we are, are in control of the attention, and so if this bigot gets turned off then there's no more attention.

    Of course, the New York Times reference is the one that sticks in my craw, because I've never viewed them as "we," or even bothered to read the thing on my own dime (or whatever it costs these days, which is surely lots more). Klein's point is that there is a lucrative right-wing media universe that welcomes and supports people who lose their perch among the moderate elites. My complaint is that the Times excludes more viewpoints from the left than it does from the right, and those from the left are essential to understanding our world (whereas those from the right are mostly promoting misunderstanding).

Jeffrey St Clair: [09-15] Roaming Charges: Just write a check. First fourth of the column is devoted to outrageous police behavior: example after example, impossible to summarize more briefly. Then he moves on to the War on Terror.

Scott Wilson: [09-15] Outflanked by liberals, Oregon conservatives aim to become part of Idaho. There are several such secessionist movements, including rural parts of Washington and California, where the population is so sparse their reactionary leanings have little effect at the state level. I only mention this because Greg Magarian did, adding: "Huh -- living in a state where your political opponents get to impose their values on you. I wonder what the &@%$# that's like." Magarian lives in St. Louis, so he very well knows what that's like. One could imagine St. Louisans opting to join Illinois. If that happened, and especially if Kansas City also defected to Kansas (which is closer to tipping Democratic than Missouri would be without its two big cities, and would also save Kansas from trying to poach their teams), the rest of Missouri might as well be part of Arkansas. In states where Republicans hold power, they're constantly passing state laws to disempower local governments that may elect Democrats. Florida and Texas have gotten the most press on that front lately, but they've done that all over the map, a bunch of times even here in Kansas. I'm not aware of Democrats behaving like that.

I finished reading EJ Hobsbawm's brilliant and encyclopedic The Age of Revolution: 1789-1848. Only disappointment was that I expected more details on the 1848 revolutions, but Hobsbawm just tiptoes up to the brink, satisfied as he is with the "two revolutions" of his period (French and Industrial, or British). I still have Christopher Clark's Revolutionary Spring: Europe Aflame and the Fight for a New World, 1848-1849 on the proverbial bedstand, but I also have several more books I'd like to get to. I need to make a decision tonight.

Books post is still in progress, with 23 (of a typical 40) books in the draft main section, and 62 partials and 229 noted books. Looking back at the April 28, 2023 Book Roundup, I see that I was thinking of cutting the chunk size down, perhaps to 20, to get shorter and more posts, but also because the length of 40 has grown significantly with supplemental lists. I need to think about that. I certainly have much more research I can (and should) do. The current draft file runs 15,531 words, of which about 1/3 is in the finished section.

Ask a question, or send a comment.