Sunday, December 10, 2017

Weekend Roundup

The Democrats in Congress, especially the leadership, have had a really bad week, and I fear they've inflicted grave wounds on themselves. John Conyers and Al Franken have resigned after enormous pressure from the party leadership, leaving the party with fewer votes, summarily ending two notable careers. I especially blame Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Shumer. Back in 2016 Hillary Clinton like to posit a "Commander-in-Chief Test," figuring she'd compare favorably to Donald Trump by emphasizing her own fondness for military adventures -- I think her hawkishness was a big part of why she lost, but my point isn't to rehash her delusions. Rather, what we saw last week was a "Shop Steward" test, which Pelosi and Shumer utterly failed. They let a little media pressure blow them over. More importantly, they failed to insist on due process, on the most basic principles of traditional American justice, and in doing so they sacrificed political standing and insulted and demeaned the voters who had elected Conyers and Franken.

Supposedly, one thing the Democrats hope to achieve in sacking Conyers and Franken is "the moral high ground" -- demonstrating their superior sensitivity to and concern for victims of sexual misconduct (pretty broadly defined). In theory, this will pay off in defeating Roy Moore in next week's Alabama Senate race and/or in putting pressure on Donald Trump to resign. In fact, Trump was elected president after 19 women accused him of various shades of assault, and after he bragged about as much. While Moore is facing a closer election than Alabama Republicans are used to, he remains the favorite to win Tuesday. And while some Democrats imagine that if Moore wins the Senate will refuse to seat him, I can't imagine the Republicans sacrificing power like that. Nor, quite frankly, should they. (The only duly elected member I can recall either branch of Congress refusing to seat was Adam Clayton Powell, in a shameful travesty -- although, come to think of it, they did take months before allowing Al Franken to enter.)

Some scattered links this week:

  • Matthew Yglesias: 4 stories that mattered in politics this week: The tax reform hit some snags ("Senate Republicans appear to have written a corporate AMT provision that they intended to raise a little bit of revenue in a sloppy way that actually raises a ton of revenue and alienates the businesses who were supposed to benefit from a big tax cut"); President Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital; Al Franken announced he'll resign; The government will stay open for a couple of weeks. Other Yglesias pieces:

    • We have a trial date: March 19, "the beginning of the trial at which the Justice Department will seek to block the merger of AT&T and Time Warner." There is no shortage of good reasons for blocking this merger, and indeed for untangling all of the past mergers between data transit and content companies, although it's surprising to see Trump's DOJ lifting a finger to prevent the further concentration of predatory corporate power.

    • Apple could get a staggering $47 billion windfall from the tax bill:

      What's particularly striking about this windfall is that though Apple has been a fierce advocate for corporate tax reform -- $47 billion is a lot of money after all -- Apple CEO Tim Cook has explained over and over again that shoveling billions into his corporate treasury won't boost his investment spending.

      He already has plenty of cash, but beyond that, when Cook wants Apple to invest more, he borrows the money.

    • Tomorrow's financial crisis today: Points out that less than ten years after the worst recession since the 1930s Trump's administration is working to undermine the Treasury's Office of Financial Research and "let banks take on more risky debt:

      The nature of a banking crisis is you probably won't have one in any given year, regardless of how shoddy your regulatory framework is. As long as asset prices are trending upward, it just doesn't matter. In fact, as long as asset prices are trending upward, a poorly regulated banking sector will be more profitable than a well-regulated one.

      It's all good. Unless things blow up. But if your bad policymaking takes us from a one-in-500 chance of a blow-up in any given year to a one-in-20 chance, you're still in a world where things will probably be fine across even an entire eight-year span in office. Probably.

      Trump has taken a lot of risky bets in his life. And though he's often lost, he's usually been insulated by his inherited wealth and by his very real skill at structuring deals so other people end up holding a lot of the downside. Any presidency inherently has that kind of structure with or without skill. Presidents suffer when they make mistakes, but other people suffer more.

      ?he key phrase here is "as long as asset prices are trending upward." The surest way to keep asset prices rising is to let rich people make and keep more money, which is what happened from the Bush tax cuts forward to 2007-08. What broke then turned out to be pretty simple: a big chunk of those assets were built on subprime mortgages, and the people who signed up for the mortgages weren't able to grow their incomes enough to cover their debts, so they defaulted; meanwhile, the banks had leveraged themselves so much they couldn't cover their losses, so they started to fail in a cascade that threatened to make the "domino theory" look like small potatoes. But the government, especially the Fed, stepped in and pumped several trillions of dollars into the banks to prop them up so they could unwind their losses more gracefully, while the government did very little to help the little people who suffered the brunt of the recession. (I was going to say "virtually nothing," but things like extended unemployment benefits did help keep the recession from matching the desolation caused by the Great Depression.) We're already seeing asset bubbles in things like the stock market. The whole point of Trump's tax cuts and deregulation is to feed this bubble, even though there is no clear way to sustain the trend or to appease the financier's appetite for ever greater profits. Coupled with a massive collapse of business ethics -- this has been growing since the "greed is good" Reagan era, but Trump is an even more shocking role model -- it's only a matter of time before the whole edifice collapses.

    • We need a healthier conversation about partisanship and sexual assault.

    • The tax bill is a tax cut, not a culture war: Pushes back against the idea that Republicans chose targets to "reform" by how much they would hurt "blue states" (the SALT deduction being the obvious example). Shows that the overriding reasoning behind the cuts/reforms is to favor the rich over the poor, regardless of where they may live or do business. Of course, the real cost to poor and working Americans won't appear in scoring the bill -- it will come later in the form of service cuts and the ever-widening chasm between "haves and have-nots."

    • Republicans need Roy Moore to pass their tax bill.

    • Groundbreaking empirical research shows where innovation really comes from.

    • Democrats need to get a grip about the budget deficit: "The tax bill is bad, the debt is fine." ARgues that "Bush's deficits were fine and Trump's will be too" and that "Obama's deficits were way too small."

    • Don't worry about the debt.

  • Matthew Cole/Jeremy Scahill: Trump White House Weighing Plans for Private Spies to Counter "Deep State" Enemies: Evidently one of Erik Prince's schemes, notably backed by Oliver North. One suspicious point is that the scheme would still report to CIA Director Mike Pompeo, figuring him more loyal to Trump than to the "Deep State" he nominally manages a big chunk of. Also see Aram Roston: Private War: Erik Prince Has H is Eye on Afghanistan's Rare Metals. Evidently the mercenary leader is trying to turn his private army into some sort of modern British East India Company colossus.

  • Juliet Eilperin: Uranium firm urged Trump officials to shrink Bears Ears National Monument: Helps explain why Trump and Zinke radically shrunk the borders of the National Monument (see maps). The land still belongs to the federal government, but will now be managed by the Bureau of Land Management. For info on what that means, see Adam Federman: This Is How the Trump Administration Gives Big Oil the Keys to Public Lands.

  • Tara Golsham: Rep. Trent Franks, who is resigning immediately, offered staffer $5 million to be his baby surrogate: One of the more bizarre stories of recent weeks: Arizona Republican, "a deeply conservative member of the House Freedom Caucus and one of the most pro-life members of Congress. Evidently he has that kind of money, and assumes it entitles him to run roughshod over others.

  • Jim Kirby: Hillary Clinton's emails got as much front-page coverage in 6 days as policy did in 69: An analysis of New York Times -- your newspaper or preferred media source may vary (with some never matching that 6-day email window), but for a supposedly sober and serious news source, that's pretty disgusting. One might argue that Hillary's email controversy speaks to her character, but no more so than hundreds or thousands of Donald Trump anecdotes. Even so, you'd think it sensible that news coverage of an election would focus more on likely policies and future scenarios than on past personal quirks. The only excuse I can think of is that today's campaigns are often as shallow as the media covering them -- or at least try to be.

  • Rashid Khalidi: After Jerusalem, the US Can No Longer Pretend to Be an Honest Broker of Peace: Actually, that was clear even before Trump ordered the US embassy moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, as Khalidi knows damn well -- he's even written a whole book about it: Brokers of Deceit: How the US Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East. What I've yet to see anyone comment on is why the US didn't move the embassy earlier. The basic reason is respect for international law, which as this week's announcement shows has sunken to new lows in Washington. The 1947 UN resolution proposing partition of the British Mandate in Palestine -- a resolution that David Ben-Gurion lobbied fervently for -- called for dividing the Mandate into two states, but keeping Jerusalem separate as an international area. Immediately on declaring independence in 1948, Israel launched a military offensive aimed at expanding on the borders the UN prescribed. The main target of that offensive was Jerusalem, which wound up divided between Israeli and Jordanian forces. In 1967 Israel launched another war and drove Jordan from East Jerusalem and the West Bank -- territories that the UN ordered Israel to return, despite Israel's almost immediate annexation of Jerusalem and environs. Israel's de facto control of Jerusalem has never been squared away with the rulings of international law, so no country with respect for international law has conceded Israel's claim. "Until now," you might say, but the US has increasingly shown contempt for international law, and this is just one more example.

    By the way, a headline in the Wichita Eagle today: "After US decision on Jerusalem, Gaza protests turn deadly." First line of article explains how: "Two Hamas militants were killed in an Israeli airstrike on Saturday after rocket fire from the enclave hit an Israeli town, as the death toll in violence linked to President Donald Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital rose to four." No damage was reported from the Gazan rockets. For info about the other two deaths, see: Peter Beaumont/Patrick Wintour: Two Palestinians shot dead and one critical in riots after Trump speech. Also: Raja Shehadeh: I have witnessed two intifadas. Trump's stance on Israel may ignite a third.

  • Sarah Kliff: Obamacare sign-ups defy Trump's sabotage campaign.

  • German Lopez: Roy Moore: America "was great at the time when families were united -- even though he had slavery." Anyone who thinks that the problem with Moore is his fondness for underaged girls clearly hasn't paid any attention to his politics or to his political legacy. More worrying is Moore's unwavering contempt for the law -- after all, Moore has been stripped of his position on the Alabama Supreme Court for failing to submit to federal law, specifically the First Amendment. When Donald Trump tries to tout Moore as the "law and order candidate" he does little more than expose his own flimsy and dicey relationship to the law. (Meanwhile, Moore's Democratic opponent, Doug Jones, has a distinguished record as a federal prosecutor, credentials that only someone as reality-challenged as Trump can readily dismiss.) I wish I could say that Moore's casual endorsement of slavery is even more shocking, but we've always known him to be a racist. After all, Alabama's given us George Wallace and Jeff Sessions, so how much worse can Moore be? Well, this statement is a pretty good example: "I think it [America] was great at the time when families were united -- even though we had slavery. They cared for one another. People were strong in the families. Our families were strong. Our country had a direction." The most obvious problem is that slavery was a system which denied family life and bonds, one that allowed slaveowners to prevent or break families by selling members. He could hardly be clearer that he doesn't regard blacks as people -- as Lopez notes, only one of many blind bigotries Moore espouses. Still, I detect another curious note in the quote: it's like he's trying to channel ideologues like George Fitzhugh who tried to defend slavery as anti-capitalist -- an alternative to the coarse materialism that Bible-thumpers like Moore so despise.

    More on Moore:

  • Andrew Prokop: Michael Flynn's involvement in a plan to build nuclear reactors in the Middle East is looking even shadier: More "Russia" scandal this past week, but one should recall that Russian schemes under Putin have nothing to do with fomenting world revolution or curtailing US imperial ambitions: they're founded on pure oligarchic greed, which isn't at all unlike the Trump approach to business. E.g., this piece summarizes a "whistleblower" report about a deal Flynn was working on:

    According to the whistleblower, [Alex] Copson flat-out said the following things:

    • That he "just got" a text message from Flynn saying the nuclear plant project was "good to go," and that his business colleagues should "put things in place"
    • That Flynn was making sure sanctions on Russia would be "ripped up," which would let the project go forward
    • That this was the "best day" of his life, and that the project would "make a lot of very wealthy people"
    • That the project would also provide a pretext for expanding a US military presence in the Middle East (the pretext of defending the nuclear plants)
    • That citizens of Middle Eastern countries would be better off "when we recolonize the Middle East"
  • David Roberts: A moment of truth arrives for Rick Perry's widely hated coal bailout: Long article, really should be a much bigger scandal than anything having to do with "sexual misconduct" -- with billions of dollars of benefits going to five coal companies, paid for by rate hikes from millions of consumers, and championed by a moron like Rick Perry, it wouldn't even take much of a stretch from the media to blow this up, but evidently they're too lazy to care.

  • Aja Romano: MSNBC won't cut ties to Sam Seder after all: succumbing to alt-right outrage was a "mistake": Another cautionary tale, showing you can't trust anything reported on right-wing media, and that the kneejerk "zero tolerance" reactions of "liberal" media combines are set up perfectly to be scammed. More: Ryan Grim: MSNBC Reverses Decision to Fire Contributor Sam Seder.

  • Mark Joseph Stern: The Trump Administration Just Declared War on Public Sector Unions.

  • Corey Williams/David Eggert: Conyers' Congressional Seat Won't Be Filled for Nearly a Year: So, Nancy Pelosi browbeat Conyers into resigning his seat, certain that a Democrat would replace him -- the current gerrymander of Michigan concedes that -- but evidently the Republican governor of Michigan can simply hold the seat open for a whole year?