Sunday, December 25, 2016


Weekend Roundup

A day late from the usual Sunday, but having missed last week, I figured the exercise would be worthwhile. Like our trash collection, we're running a day late this week.

Growing up we always had a special dinner on Christmas Eve, then gathered around the tree in the living room and opened presents. I gave up on shopping and presents after my parents died in 2000 -- partly, I suppose, because we moved to Wichita in 1999 to be closer to my family, but after doing serious shopping I got sick and missed that last Christmas. We tried to keep the tradition going, but it fizzled out when my brother and his family moved away. The only thing I kept was the Christmas Eve dinner, which I've ever since subjected my sister and her son to. I rustled up a bit pot of paella last night, with a lobster, some shrimp and scallops instead of the usual clams. I figured I'd do some tapas on the side, but didn't come up with much: potatoes with tuna and egg, a white bean salad, a pisto (onions, zucchini, peppers, tomatoes, cooked down to a paste), sauteed mushrooms in garlic sauce, some olives, a loaf of "bake it yourself" garlic bread. Per a tradition that only started after we returned to Wichita, I made date pudding (topped with caramel sauce and whipped cream) for dessert. I was feeling pretty depressed, but the sensation vanished as soon as I started cooking. That's pretty much all I have to show for 2017, but it feels like I'm accomplishing something when I do it.

Biggest story from the last couple weeks were the Republican tax bill: a massive giveaway to corporations, proprietors who can take advantage of the "pass-through income" provisions, and to the growth and consolidation of aristocracy, and eventually a drain on the economy and an excuse for cutting back on actually useful services the government provides. But also very important are the end of FCC "net neutrality" rules and the latest round of sanctions against North Korea. Of course, the latter could instantly jump to the head of the list.


Some scattered links this week:

  • Matthew Yglesias: The 4 most important political stories of the week [Dec. 22]: Congress passed a major tax cut; The government won't shut down for Christmas; Affordable Care Act signups remained robust; Republicans turned on Robert Mueller; and The 4 biggest policy stories of the week, explained [Dec. 15]: A Democrat won a Senate election in Alabama: Doug Jones; Republicans wrote their tax bill; Sexual harassment accusations kept rolling Congress; Net neutrality. Other Yglesias pieces:

    • The real cost of the Republican tax bill: Argues that the models showing revenues down by $1-1.5 trillion will likely be proven low, not least because IRS enforcement under Trump is likely to be slack. I would add that actual revenues in Kansas have consistently fallen short of expectations, because the Brownback cuts allowed unanticipated scams.

    • The tax cut expectations game.

    • What "affordable housing" really means.

    • We're witnessing the wholesale looting of America:

      Throughout the 2016 campaign, the political class talked a lot about "norms" and how Donald Trump was violating them all. He brushed off fact-checkers, assailed the media, went on Twitter tirades against his critics, and dabbled in racism. Since taking office, his norm busting has spread. Members of Congress who under other circumstances might be constrained by shame, custom, or the will of their constituents have learned from Trump's election that you can get away with more than we used to think.

      Norm erosion is real, and it matters. . . . These scholars are all considering deep, long-lasting differences in cultural norms, but we also know from experience that norms can sometimes shift dramatically in unusual circumstances. Sometimes a blackout or other disaster prompts a few people who would ordinarily be too cautious to break store windows in broad daylight to become more brazen. And the normal course of ordinary life flips into reverse, as those with some inclination toward bad acts recognize a moment of impunity and grab what they can, while those who would ordinarily be invested in upholding order are afraid and stay inside. The sheer quantity of bad acts makes it impossible for anyone to hold anyone accountable. Soon, a whole neighborhood can be in ruins.

      Or a whole country. . . .

      It takes a lot more than Donald Trump to orchestrate the kind of feeding frenzy that's currently playing out in Washington. Nothing about this would work if not for the fact that hundreds of Republican Party members of Congress wake up each morning and decide anew that they are indifferent to the myriad financial conflicts of interest in which Trump and his family are enmeshed. Moral and political responsibility for the looting ultimately rests on the shoulders of the GOP members of Congress who decided that the appropriate reaction to Trump's inauguration was to start smashing and grabbing as much as possible for themselves and their donors rather than uphold their constitutional obligations.

    • Why Trump's tax cuts won't be repealed.

    • Republicans are on tilt with their super-unpopular tax bill.

    • Collective ownership of the means of production.

  • Dean Baker: Bubbles: Are They Back?

    Should we be concerned about a bubble now? Stock prices and housing prices are both high by historical standards. The ratio of stock prices-to-trend corporate earnings is more than 27-to-1; this compares to a long-term average of 15-to-1.

    House prices are also high by historic standards. Inflation-adjusted house prices are still well below their bubble peaks, but are about 40 percent above their long-term average.

    Baker also wrote: Diverting Class Warfare Into Generational Warfare: Round LVIII; e.g.:

    It is also important to understand that government action was at the center of this upward redistribution. Without government-granted patent monopolies for Windows and other Microsoft software, Bill Gates would probably still be working for a living.

    We spent over $450 billion on prescription drugs in 2017. Without government-granted patent monopolies we would probably have spent less than $80 billion. The difference of $370 billion is equal to an increase of a 5.0 percentage point increase in the Social Security payroll tax. But the generational warriors don't want anyone talking about how much money our children to pay drug companies with government-granted patent monopolies.

    Baker is a bit confused about Microsoft -- patents played at most a small role in building its monopoly -- the late 1990s antitrust case which Microsoft lost covered much of this -- but copyrights are essential for maintaining it.

  • Zack Beauchamp: We are sleepwalking toward war with North Korea.

  • Sean Illing: How the baby boomers -- not millennials -- screwed America: Interview with Bruce Gibney, author of A Generation of Sociopaths: How the Baby Boomers Betrayed America, which looks to be pretty awful. I don't doubt that various age cohorts grow up with different experiences, but there has always been more variation within a generation than change from one to the next. It's not that Gibney is unobservant -- he identifies Ronald Reagan's 1980 election as the turning point from which today's rot stemmed -- but he pairs his superficial groupings with clichéd analysis and bogus measures (especially the growth of debt). Gibney, like so many reactionaries from the 1950s on, blamed postwar affluence for breeding a generation of selfish ingrates who lack the social solidarity bred in their parents by depression and war. As Gibney puts it:

    I think the major factor is that the boomers grew up in a time of uninterrupted prosperity. And so they simply took it for granted. They assumed the economy would just grow three percent a year forever and that wages would go up every year and that there would always be a good job for everyone who wanted it.

    This was a fantasy and the result of a spoiled generation assuming things would be easy and that no sacrifices would have to be made in order to preserve prosperity for future generations.

    Gibney's argument might be more interesting if he focused on things that were truly new and widespread, like that "boomers" were the first cohort to grow up with television and its mass consumer advertising, with news presented more in images than in words, with world travel reduced from months or weeks to hours, with science promising greater control of nature but also raising the spectre of extinction. Maybe some people responded to such sweeping change by becoming sociopaths, but (for a while, at least) the opposite seemed to be happening: in the late '60s and early '70s, the "boomers" were in the forefront of movements for the environment, sexual equality, for consumer rights, for civil rights and against war. You can argue that the new left was too individualistic and too nonchalant about power, and that those weaknesses made it easier for conservative reaction to seize power -- and beset the country with all the ills Gibney decries. But the fact that Bill Clinton, GW Bush, and Donald Trump were all born in 1946 doesn't make them representative of a generation. Indeed, they were clearly exceptional, carefully selected by unrepresentative powers.

    Nothing actual in this piece about "millennials" -- one's political hopes for them (e.g., Steven Olikara: Here's one reason to be optimistic about politics: Millennials in office) lie not in generational change but in the fact that thanks to the conservative reaction they've been so severely screwed. But that only changes if they recognize the real culprits.

  • Ezra Klein: "An orgy of serious policy discussion" with Paul Krugman.

  • Mike Konczal: "Neoliberalism" isn't an empty epithet. It's a real, powerful set of ideas. Good explanation of the word, if you wind up stuck needing to use it.

  • Kevin M Kruse: The Second Klan: Review of Linda Gordon's book, The Second Coming of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan and the American Political Tradition.

  • German Lopez: The past year of research has made it very clear: Trump won because of racial resentment: Three charts here, mapping the tendencies of people "least satisfied" with economics, "most sexist," and "most denying of racism" to vote for Trump. The latter two are highly polarized, as well they should be: Trump was blatantly racist and sexist, especially compared to his opponent, and his campaign actively polarized people on those issues, so of course sexists and racists (not uncommonly the same people) voted for him overwhelmingly. Still, to say he won because he appealed to racism you have to quantify how large that voter share was. Given that racists were already highly aligned with the Republican Party it's hard to see a lot of movement on that score, not that were was none. "Economic dissatisfaction" is another story: that the "least satisfied" tilted toward Trump at all is the surprise -- really, a complete breakdown in the Democratic Party's messaging, all the more damning given how easy it should have been to depict Trump as the poster boy for exorbitant greed and privilege. The underlying facts have never been in doubt. That we keep rehashing them has more to do with politics. Sanders supporters were quick to identify the failed economic hopes of the white lower classes because that's one thing their program addressed and could convert into the additional votes necessary to beat Trump and the Republicans. Diehard Clinton supporters like the racism narrative, because it shifts blame from the candidate to the "deplorable" voters.

  • Premilla Nadasen: Extreme poverty returns to America.

  • Rebecca Solnit: Don't let the alt-right hijack #MeToo for their agenda.

  • Matt Stoller: What is net neutrality? It protects us from corporate power.

  • Matt Taibbi: Bob Corker Facing Ethics Questions? What a Surprise: "The Tennessee senator's financial success has been one of Washington's open questions for years." Corker flip-flopped on the tax bill, first voting against it because it would increase the deficit, then voting for it even though its impact on the deficit hasn't changed (but the joint committee added a break on real estate taxes that evidently saves Corker millions of dollars). More on Corker: Mary Papenfuss: #CorkerKickback Turns Up the Flame Under Senator for His Tax Vote Switch. Paul Krugman, in Passing Through to Corruption, also mentions Corker:

    Senator Bob Corker, citing concerns about the deficit, was the only Republican to vote against the Senate version of the tax bill. Now, however, he says he will vote for a final version that is no better when it comes to fiscal probity. What changed?

    Well, one thing that changed was the insertion of a provision that wasn't in the Senate bill: Real estate companies were added to the list of "pass-through" businesses whose owners will get sharply lower tax rates. These pass-through provisions are arguably the worst feature of the bill. They will open the tax system to a huge amount of gaming, of exploiting legal loopholes to avoid tax.

    But one thing they will also do, thanks to that last-minute addition, is give huge tax breaks to elected officials who own a lot of income-producing real estate -- officials like Donald Trump and, yes, Bob Corker.

  • Todd VanDerWerff: Disney acquiring Fox means big, scary things for film and TV: "Here are five reasons the deal is terrifying -- and only one of them is increased media consolidation."