Sunday, December 11, 2016

Weekend Roundup

I woke up yesterday morning thinking about how America, if little else, has become something of a consumer paradise over the last 30-40 years. I often wonder why it is that so many people are so uncritical of the established order, and that seems to be a big part of why. Sure, one can nitpick, and if you know much about how business, marketing in particular, works, you'll realize that the real gains still fall way short of what's possible or desirable. You may also may feel some qualms about what has actually been achieved by all this consumption. And, of course, like everything else the gains have not been equally distributed. But for those who can afford today's markets, life has never been better.

I count Trump's voters among them. Sure, many gripe about economic fears, some even about hardships, but somehow they overlook their own bosses and the businesses who take most of their money while perceiving others as threats. I'm aware of lots of reasons why they think that, but I can't say that any of them make real sense to me. What I am sure of is that the incoming Trump administration isn't going to solve any of their imaginary (let alone real) problems. Trump's cabinet is going to have more ultrarich (say, half-billionaires and up) than any other in history. In fact, this represents a new plateau in the history of American plutocracy: even as recently as the Shrub administration, titans of industry and finance were happy to stock the government with their lobbyists and retainers, but Trump is tapping "the doers, not the talkers" -- people who don't just take orders but who intimately know how to convert public influence into private gain. In the past, the most notoriously corrupt administrations (Grant, Harding, Reagan) combined indifferent leadership with underlings imbued in a culture of greed. Yet today, Trump not only hasn't divested himself of his business entanglements; he's actively continued to work his deals, nakedly using his newly acquired leverage. Unlike the others, he won't just turn a blind eye to corruption; he's ideally positioned to be the plunderer-in-chief.

One thing Trump's election has spared us was being plagued with four years of non-stop Clinton scandals -- sure, mostly likely as bogus and conflated as the ones she's endured for 24 years, but still catnip to the press. Instead, Trump promises to give us real scandals, huge scandals, the kind of scandals that expose the rotten core of American Greatness. One hardly knows where to begin, or when to stop, but this will necessarily be brief.

Some scattered links this week:

  • Peter Beinart: Trump Excuses the White Working Class From the Politics of Personal Responsibility: The author has been reading JB Vance's Hillbilly Elegy and detects some manner of irony:

    Under Reagan, Republicans demanded personal responsibility from African Americans and ignored the same cultural problems when displayed by whites. Under Trump, Republicans acknowledge that whites exhibit those same pathologies. Trump, for instance, spoke frequently during the campaign about drug addiction in white, rural states like New Hampshire. But instead of demanding personal responsibility, Trump's GOP promises state protection. Unlike Vance, who speaks about his poor white neighbors in the way Reagan-era conservatives spoke about poor blacks, Trump-era conservatives describe the white working class as the victims of political and economic forces beyond their control. Sounding a bit like Jesse Jackson defending the black underclass in the 1980s, Trump Republicans say that what the white underclass needs today is not moralistic sermonizing but government assistance and cultural respect.

    Of course, there is a simpler reason why Republicans would present different sets of standards and prescriptions for white and blacks: it's called racism. Such double standards are hardly novel. Nor was "separate but equal" merely ironic. But Beinart is also wrong when he thinks Trump intends to solve the problems of poor whites through state actions. Like all Republicans since Reagan, his solution is to reduce the political options of the state, reserving it for violence against any challenges to authority, while allowing the private sector to expand its power over workers, customers, and mere bystaders.

  • Rosa Brooks: Don't Freak Out About Trump's Cabinet Full of Generals: I doubt I'd take Brooks seriously without knowing that her mother is the brilliant left journalist Barbara Ehrenreich, as Brooks' own resume paints her as an insider in Washington's foreign policy establishment, a perch from which she's observed the creeping hegemonic encroachment of military brass (her recent book is How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales From the Pentagon). So, yeah, she's uncommonly comfortable with generals and admirals running things, even respects and admires them. Still, she may be right that the problem with all Trump's generals isn't that they'll upset the intricate checks and balances the founding fathers devised, but she misses the real point: that Trump's generals consummates a steady drift that started back in WWII transforming the US military from a rarely-used last resort to an everyday implement of world-hegemonic imperial policy. And sure, all that (so far) happened before Trump, but in hiring those generals Trump is demonstrating that his own foreign policy thinking is nothing more than an echo of that long (and frankly disastrous) drift. Of course, that should come as no surprise to anyone who paid attention to him during the long campaign. They only thing that doesn't alarm me about the generals is the fact that I can think of even worse civilians to hand power over to. (Brooks herself contrasts State candidates Rudy Giuliani and David Petraeus, and she's got a point there, but I'm still drawing a blank on who Michael Flynn is saving us from.)

  • Martin Longman: Breitbart Does Not Like Trump's Labor Pick:

    So, if you go look at the Breitbart website right now, you'll see an anti-Trump headline that accuses him of nominating a Labor Secretary that prefers foreign labor to American workers. And if you actually go ahead and read the article, you'll see that it lashes out at Andy Puzder for standing "diametrically opposed to Trump's signature issues on trade and immigration."

    As an example, they cite his decision to "join forces with Michael Bloomberg, Bob Iger, and Rupert Murdoch's open borders lobbying firm, the Partnership for a New American Economy, to call for 'free-market solutions' to our immigration system." They also question Puzder's support for "amnesty" and overall view him as a poster-boy for what they oppose, which is bringing in low-wage immigrants that take jobs from white Americans and suppress their wages.

    The man Trump nominated to be Labor Secretary, Andrew Puzder, is CEO of a chain of fast food restaurants (Hardee's, Carl's Jr.), so his labor expertise is in how to hire minimum wage, no benefit workers. (His business experience includes taking his firm through a private equity deal valued at more than $1 billion. The company generates $1.4 billion in revenues, operating in the US and 40 foreign countries.) I'm not sure whether Puzder counts as one of Trump's billionaires, but he comes pretty close.

    One thing that worried me about the prospect of Sanders becoming president was that the Democratic Party regulars -- the people he'd have to draw on for appointments and support -- weren't ready to back his "revolution." I never believed that Trump would veer significantly from Republican Party orthodoxy, but I can see how those who did think he offered something different -- notably the Breitbart crowd, and as many "white populists" as you can count -- are likely to belatedly discover the same problem. Much as Trump went with impeccably demented Mike Pence as his VP, he's stocking his cabinet from the same stock of utter reactionaries.

  • Daniel Politi: Trump Explains Why He Rejects Daily Intelligence Briefings: "I'm, Like, a Smart Person": I saw Michael Moore on Seth Myers the other night making a big stink about how Trump has sloughed off going to CIA briefings, and for once I thought, "good for Trump." As far as I know, the first president to receive daily briefings was Shrub, and the chemical reaction of misinformation-meets-ignorance there didn't do anyone any good. Supposedly Obama tried to fix this by laying down a rule -- "don't do stupid shit" -- but his own daily briefings allowed all sorts of loopholes to that rule, backed by presidential authority. The fact is that the "war on terror" isn't important enough to require daily input and direction from the so-called Commander-in-Chief. A sane president would simply, quietly wind it down, mostly by not encouraging "stupid shit" to happen. The fact that Trump isn't a reasonable person, that he pretty much campaigned on doing "stupid shit" all the time, makes it even more important to steer him away from meetings about killing people and embarrassing the country.

  • Nomi Prins: The Magnitude of Trump's Cronyism Is Off the Charts -- Even for Washington: "The President-elect's incomplete cabinet is already the richest one ever."

    There is, in fact, some historical precedent for a president surrounding himself with such a group of self-interested power-grabbers, but you'd have to return to Warren G. Harding's administration in the early 1920s to find it. The "Roaring Twenties" that ended explosively in a stock market collapse in 1929 began, ominously enough, with a presidency filled with similar figures, as well as policies remarkably similar to those now being promised under Trump, including major tax cuts and giveaways for corporations and the deregulation of Wall Street. . . .

    Harding's other main contributions to American history involved two choices he made. He offered businessman Herbert Hoover the job of secretary of commerce and so put him in play to become president in the years just preceding the Great Depression. And in a fashion that now looks Trumpian, he also appointed one of the richest men on Earth, billionaire Andrew Mellon, as his treasury secretary. Mellon, a Pittsburgh industrialist-financier, was head of the Mellon National Bank; he founded both the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa), for which he'd be accused of unethical behavior while treasury secretary (as he still owned stock in the company and his brother was a close associate), and the Gulf Oil Company; and with Henry Clay Frick, he co-founded the Union Steel Company.

    He promptly set to work -- and this will sound familiar today -- cutting taxes on the wealthy and corporations. At the same time, he essentially left Wall Street free to concoct the shadowy "trusts" that would use borrowed money to purchase collections of shares in companies and real estate, igniting the 1929 stock market crash. After Mellon, who had served three presidents, left Herbert Hoover's administration, he fell under investigation for unpaid federal taxes and tax-related conflicts of interest.

    Prins goes on to run down the wealth and interest conflicts of several Trump picks, including Wilbur Ross ($2.9 billion, Commerce), Betsy DeVos ($5.1 billion, Education), and Steven Mnuchin (up to $1 billion, Treasury, from Goldman Sachs). If, as reported, Trump picks Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson to be Secretary of State, he's not going to lower the average much.

  • Theda Skocpol/Alexander Hertel-Fernandez/Caroline Tervo: Behind "Make America Great," the Koch Agenda Returns With a Vengeance: The Koch network spent about $750 million on the 2016 elections, mostly on down-ballot races that saved and shaped the Republican Congress, and that is rapidly becoming the framework that shapes the Trump presidency, even on issues where Trump publicly differed from the Kochs and their cronies (like Scott Walker and Mario Rubio).

    Publicly available numbers suggest that AFP's grassroots organizing made a real difference -- and indirectly helped Trump, who had little campaign capacity of his own. In Wisconsin, for instance, AFP claims that it reached over 2.5 million voters in phone banking and canvassing efforts. In North Carolina, AFP claimed over 1.2 million calls and 120,000 door-to-door efforts, or nearly the entire reported margin of victory for Trump. And in Pennsylvania, AFP claims it made over 2.4 million phone calls and knocked on over 135,000 doors, more than twice Trump's margin of victory in that state. AFP's grassroots efforts were especially pronounced in Florida, where AFP boasts that its people knocked on a record-breaking one million doors throughout the state to help re-elect Senator Marco Rubio. Hillary Clinton lost the state by just over 100,000 votes. In all four of these states AFP helped to re-elect the incumbent Republican Senator and make important down ballot gains. Obviously, given what we know about the decline of split ticking voting, most of the same citizens AFP mobilized for state and Congressional contests also cast ballots for Donald Trump.

Briefly noted:

One last note: I just finishing reading Peter Frase's Four Futures: Life After Capitalism (Verso). He sets up a 2x2 matrix, one axis determined by plenty/scarcity, the other inequality/equality. Needless to say, only one quadrant reads like something we're already in the midst of: scarcity/inequality, the one he calls "exterminism" -- not a very euphonious term, but one which underscores how the rich, as they increasingly automate labor come to view the workers they discharge as expendable, and ultimately as threats. (Frase never uses the term "useless eaters" but you may recall how that terminology paved the way for the Nazi genocide.) Needless to say, aside from branding, "exterminism" sounds more than a little like the Trump agenda. More blatantly, there's increasing inequality while progressively stripping the poor and marginal of any semblance of rights.