Sunday, July 30, 2017

Weekend Roundup

I shot most of my war back on Thursday's Midweek Roundup, and have had limited time since then. But still I couldn't ignore these items:

Some scattered links:

  • Tariq Ali: Nawaz Sharif has gone. But Pakistan's high-level corruption survives:

    Sharif's party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, is fighting back, accusing the court of a vendetta -- which usually means that his billions could not buy a single judge. This is truly exceptional. Life in Pakistan has not been morally salutary for any of its citizens. The family politics represented by the Bhutto-Zardaris and their rivals, the Sharifs, is swathed in corruption. Each has learned from the other how best to conceal it, minimising paperwork and juggling accounts. Many years ago, when Benazir Bhutto was prime minister, she asked me what people were saying about her. "They're saying your husband is totally corrupt, but are not sure about how much you know . . ."

    She knew all right, and was not in the least embarrassed: "You're so prudish. Times have changed. This is the world we live in. They're all doing it. Politicians in every western country . . ." Her husband, the president-to-be Asif Ali Zardari, was imprisoned by Sharif, but no actual proof of corruption was discovered: Zardari's loyalty to his cronies was legendary, and they remained loyal in return. Sharif, it appears, has been less fortunate.

  • Dean Baker: How about a little accountability for economists when they mess up?

  • Robert A Blecker: Trump's "America first" strategy for NAFTA talks won't benefit US workers

  • Carole Cadwalladr: Al Gore: 'The rich have subverted all reason': Ten years after his documentary An Inconvenient Truth, Gore is back with a sequel and goes beyond simply remind us, "I told you so." One thing he's started looking at is the money:

    "I mean that those with access to large amounts of money and raw power," says Gore, "have been able to subvert all reason and fact in collective decision making. The Koch brothers are the largest funders of climate change denial. And ExxonMobil claims it has stopped, but it really hasn't. It has given a quarter of a billion dollars in donations to climate denial groups. It's clear they are trying to cripple our ability to respond to this existential threat."

    One of Trump's first acts after his inauguration was to remove all mentions of climate change from federal websites. More overlooked is that one of Theresa May's first actions on becoming prime minister -- within 24 hours of taking office -- was to close the Department for Energy and Climate Change; subsequently donations from oil and gas companies to the Conservative party continued to roll in. And what is increasingly apparent is that the same think tanks that operate in the States are also at work in Britain, and climate change denial operates as a bridgehead: uniting the right and providing an entry route for other tenets of Alt-Right belief. And, it's this network of power that Gore has had to try to understand, in order to find a way to combat it.

  • Alexia Fernandez Campbell: What McCain did was hard. What Murkowski and Collins did was much harder. I suppose McCain's vote to sink the so-called "skinny repeal" does qualify as "something useful for once" (a prospect I doubted when I cited Alex Pareene's I Don't Want to Hear Another Fucking Word About John McCain Unless He Dies or Actually Does Something Useful for Once). But McCain couldn't have cast the killing vote without Collins and Murkowski consistently voting against all of McConnell's ploys to repeal Obamacare -- in large part because they seem to be the only Republicans who actually care about the bottom-line assessments that the bills would deprive upwards of twenty million Americans of health insurance.

    Through all of this, the backlash against these two women senators was severe. Two House Republicans threatened them with violence.

    President Trump publicly shamed Murkowski on Twitter:

    Senator @lisamurkowski of the Great State of Alaska really let the Republicans, and our country, down yesterday. Too bad!

    Murkowski then got a call from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who reportedly threatened to punish Alaska's economy based on her health care vote, according to the Alaska Dispatch News.

    You might recall that Murkowski actually lost the Republican primary last time out to Tea Party fanatic Joe Miller, then beat Miller with a write-in campaign, so she's entitled to some independence (or maybe she's already written off the hardcore right). It will be interesting to see how much internecine blood is spilt over "repeal-and-replace" and other supposed Republican failures, but Reagan's so-called "eleventh commandment" has long vanished: it seems almost certain that each and every Republican who broke ranks even once will face right-wing primary challengers. Even more amusing is the pouting tantrum from John Daniel Davidson: I'm a conservative -- and I now see voting Republican is a waste of time: "The Obamacare fiasco reveals that once they are in power, Republicans in Washington refuse to deliver on their promises."

  • Tom Engelhardt: Bombing the Rubble: "Precision warfare? Don't make me laugh." Also: William D Hartung: The Hidden Costs of "National Security": "Ten ways your tax dollars pay for war -- past, present, and future>"

  • William G Gale: The Kansas tax cut experiment: Now that Sam Brownback's moving on to become Trump's Ambassador at Large for Religious Freedom, a position that will better fit his sanctimonious twaddle and hopefully is powerless enough to limit how much real damage (as opposed to mere embarrassment) he does, the Brookings Institute is finally getting around to looking at his late, great signature tax scam (blessed in the beginning by none other than Arthur Laffer, his paid consultant). Some of the bullet points:

    • Under his plan, the tax rate on pass-through business income fell to 0. The idea was to boost investment, raise employment, and jump-start the economy.
    • The Kansas economy did not grow faster than neighboring states, the country itself, or even Kansas' own growth in previous years.
    • The experiment with tax policy was such a failure that a Republican controlled legislature not only voted to raise taxes, but did so over the veto of the governor.
    • Second, a lowered business income tax can be manipulated. While Kansas cut the tax rate on pass-through income to 0 in hopes of promoting economic activity, the growth simply didn't happen. In reality, many people in Kansas re-characterized income from labor into business-form in order to take advantage of the 0 percent tax rate.
    • There are other, more general, takeaways from the tax cut experiment. When Kansas cut taxes, its bond rating went down, and it had to cut central services such as education and infrastructure. After seeing this, a majority of Kansans decided they would not prefer to keep the tax cuts.
    • Therefore, another implication is that tax reform is not just about taxes, rather what taxes pay for. Taxes and spending are linked.

    The tax cuts threw the state into a permanent budget crisis, forcing spending cuts (and other desperate measures which ultimately weakened the state's credit rating) at a time when courts consistently found the state to be violating the requirement (part of the state constitution) to adequately fund local schools. As Republicans try to pass federal "tax reform" they'll be recycling many of the same nostrums Brownback used in Kansas, so beware.

  • Jack Gross: The American Model: Book review of James Q Whitman: Hitler's American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law. "What appears to be still difficult, even as it gets told in ever finer detail, is the simple and immense situation that America and Nazi Germany are two instantiations of a single history of white supremacist rule." It's well known that South Africa based its Apartheid legal system on America's Jim Crow laws. The Nazi case is less clear, but Hitler admired America in several respects -- white supremacy is the one detailed here. As I recall, he also saw America's advance across the continent as a model for his own Eastern conquests -- what we proclaimed as Manifest Destiny he called Lebensraum.

  • Jim Hightower: Fight for your right to fix your own iPhone: I'm not surprised that Apple is in the forefront of companies seeking to maximize their profits and control of customers by "repair prevention." Actually, I was recently was looking at a Microsoft Surface computer and read that you can't get into it to repair it without destroying the case -- one, I suspected, of many traits they copied from Apple. We live in an age where is it often cheaper to replace something than to repair it, which may be good for various companies but as a society it is wasteful and degrading.

  • Mike Konczal: This Small Regulation Shows Us How the Economy Could Work for Everybody: Part of Dodd-Frank the Republicans want to get rid of, because all that regulation limits the ability of big banks to goose up their profits by price-gouging and other fraudulent means.

  • Peggy Noonan: Trump Is Woody Allen Without the Humor: Unfair to Allen, of course -- I'd rather watch Interiors (possibly the most unfunny movie ever made, not merely the unfunniest by Allen) than a Trump rally speech -- but no one ever looked to Noonan for fair, or for that matter for insight. But as a piece of anti-Trump snark this rivals Maureen Dowd:

    He's not strong and self-controlled, not cool and tough, not low-key and determined; he's whiny, weepy and self-pitying. He throws himself, sobbing, on the body politic. He's a drama queen. It was once said, sarcastically, of George H.W. Bush that he reminded everyone of her first husband. Trump must remind people of their first wife. Actually his wife, Melania, is tougher than he is with her stoicism and grace, her self-discipline and desire to show the world respect by presenting herself with dignity.

    Half the president's tweets show utter weakness. They are plaintive, shrill little cries, usually just after dawn. "It's very sad that Republicans, even some that were carried over the line on my back, do very little to protect their president." The brutes. . . .

    His public brutalizing of Attorney General Jeff Sessions isn't strong, cool and deadly; it's limp, lame and blubbery. "Sessions has taken a VERY weak position on Hillary Clinton crimes," he tweeted this week. Talk about projection. . . .

    His inability -- not his refusal, but his inability -- to embrace the public and rhetorical role of the presidency consistently and constructively is weak.

    "It's so easy to act presidential but that's not gonna get it done," Mr. Trump said the other night at a rally in Youngstown, Ohio. That is the opposite of the truth. The truth, six months in, is that he is not presidential and is not getting it done. His mad, blubbery petulance isn't working for him but against him. . . .

    We close with the observation that it's all nonstop drama and queen-for-a-day inside this hothouse of a White House.

    Noonan closes with Anthony Scaramucci ("He seemed to think this diarrheic diatribe was professional"), without making the obvious point: that he's Trump's perfect "communications director" because he recapitulates Trump's own communications style -- just classed up a bit by extending Trump's third-grade vocabulary and grammar into puberty, as if that's all it's going to take to get the snooty sophisticates to stop laughing at him. Noonan cites historian Joshua Zeitz's comment: "It's Team of Rivals but for morons."

    Still, there is no reason to think that Noonan is transitioning into some kind of satirist. It's safe to say she's the same paid political hack she's been since Ronald Reagan signed her checks. What happened last week was that Trump, aided by Scaramucci, found a way to escape from his orthodox Republican chapperones and go out on a joyride. They did manage to ditch Reince Priebus, but while John Kelly will no doubt prove a sterner nanny, his job of containing Trump will likely prove taxing. Meanwhile, it's not just Noonan among the party hacks who are sounding alarms about Trump; e.g., Charles Krauthammer: Longing for a self-contained, impenetrable Trump:

    Transparency, thy name is Trump, Donald Trump. No filter, no governor, no editor lies between his impulses and his public actions. He tweets, therefore he is.

    Ronald Reagan was so self-contained and impenetrable that his official biographer was practically driven mad trying to figure him out. Donald Trump is penetrable, hourly.

    Wrong metaphor. Trump and Reagan were similar in one respect: neither had anything coherent going on between their ears, just chaos and bestial desires. The difference was that Reagan was an actor (and more importantly, a paid corporate spokesman) who could credibly read the scripts he was given, whereas Trump just improvises (often making shit up)-- not because he's any good at it but because all his life he's been a boss surrounded by ego-stroking sycophants. Krauthammer, like many conservatives, is upset over Trump's taunting of Jeff Sessions, who's been hard at work implementing the conservative agenda to undermine democracy and rig the justice system while Trump's been throwing his juvenile tantrums.

    Given how rare it is for such committed Republican cronies as Noonan and Krauthammer to break ranks, their attacks on Trump may mark the end of the honeymoon. Orthodox Republicans may not have liked Trump back in the primary season, but they figured he'd be manageable once he got the nomination, and they were suddenly delighted with him once he did the one thing they most coveted: winning. And indeed he has proven pliable in terms of policy and personnel, abandoning every shred of independent thinking he displayed during the campaign. As long as he was helping them get what they wanted, they could tolerate his idiosyncrasies. But evidently something has changed: not just that he's proving ineffective and unpopular -- the health care debacle is really more their fault than it is Trump's -- but that he's becoming needlessly dangerous and self-destructive.

  • Trita Parsi: The Mask Is Off: Trump Is Seeking War With Iran:

    President Donald Trump has made it clear, in no uncertain terms and with no effort to disguise his duplicity, that he will claim that Tehran is cheating on the nuclear deal by October -- the facts be damned. In short, the fix is in. Trump will refuse to accept that Iran is in compliance and thereby set the stage for a military confrontation. His advisers have even been kind enough to explain how they will go about this. Rarely has a sinister plan to destroy an arms control agreement and pave the way for war been so openly telegraphed.

    The unmasking of Trump's plans to sabotage the nuclear deal began two weeks ago when he reluctantly had to certify that Iran indeed was in compliance. Both the US intelligence as well as the International Atomic Energy Agency had confirmed Tehran's fair play. But Trump threw a tantrum in the Oval Office and berated his national security team for not having found a way to claim Iran was cheating. According to Foreign Policy, the adults in the room -- Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, and National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster -- eventually calmed Trump down but only on the condition that they double down on finding a way for the president to blow up the deal by October.

  • Matt Shuham: Trump Calls for 'Rough' Policing, Gives Blessing to Law Enforcement Abuses: Probably one of the ten scariest articles of the Trump era. Sure, there have been many instances where Trump looked to be endorsing ad-hoc violence against protesters, foreigners, other minorities -- why not suspected criminals? Well, because abuses eat at and eventually destroy the very notion that we live under a fair and equitable system of law and justice. And has become very clear over the past few years, what we have now is already way too permissive of police abuses. Indeed, quite a few police superintendents have come to recognize that bringing their forces under control is a major public relations concern. So what Trump is saying undermines responsible police as well as the entire system of justice, and helps to make American civil society coarser and more hateful.

    On the same speech: Dara Lind: Trump just delivered the most chilling speech of his presidency. In reaction, see: Cleve R Wootson Jr/Mark Berman: US police chiefs blast Trump for endorsing 'police brutality'.

  • Matt Taibbi: The Anthony Scaramucci Era Will Be Freakish, Embarrassing and All Too Short:

    In the space of a week, Trump's new press expert demonstrated that he a) didn't know how to hold off-the-record conversations b) didn't understand that cameras and microphones keep rolling even when the red light is off and c) doesn't bother to check the other public statements made by administration officials before he makes statements of his own. An alien crashed on earth and given a two-minute tutorial on dealing with reporters would have done a better job. . . .

    The Communications Director job in the Trump administration is a no-win job, because the real Communications Director is Trump's Twitter feed. The job that Scaramucci technically occupies is a thankless and redundant position that involves standing before reporters and reconciling avalanches of already-circulated lies, contradictions, and insulting/ignorant statements.

    Even a genius of the highest order couldn't make this work. Of course, Trump hasn't had geniuses available to him. The fourth-rate minds he has instead had in his employ just started raging trash-fires whenever they tried to logically explain Trump's utterances.

    They gave us statements like Kellyanne Conway's "alternative facts," or Katrina Pierson's bit about how Trump wasn't changing his position on immigration, but rather "changing the words that he is saying."

  • Matthew Yglesias: The most important stories of the week, explained: The Senate rejected three versions of ACA repeal; Trump named a new Chief of Staff; Trump kind of banned transgender military service; Trump feuded with his attorney general.

  • Reuters: US flies B-1B bombers over Korean peninsula after missile test: Not clear from the article whether they actually flew into North Korean air space, which would be daring the Koreans to shoot a plane down, dramatically escalating America's snit fit over North Korea's missile tests. Also: Tom Phillips: China and Russia have 'responsibility' for North Korea nuclear threat, says US. Reminds me that Casey Stengel once said that the secret to successful managing was keeping the guys who hate you (like North Korea) away from the ones on the fence (like Russia and China) -- a lesson Rex Tillerson never learned. The odds of Trump (or one of those generals he gives carte blanche to) doing something profoundly stupid over Korea have been steadily increasing -- much as it has with Iran (see Trita Parsi, above).

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