Sunday, January 21, 2018


Weekend Roundup

This week marks the first anniversary of Trump's inauguration as president, or as we're more inclined to note: one year down, three more to go. Supporters like to tout the economy, especially the record high stock market -- something which affects few Americans, but at least partially reflects things Trump has actually done, like turning a blind eye to corruption, and slashing corporate tax rates. Supporters also point to low unemployment and marginal wage growth, two trends that started before Trump but at least he hasn't wrecked yet. Also, Trump's approval ratings have seen a slight uptick over the last month, but he is still way under water, with by far the worst ratings of any first-year president since they've been measuring. I'm not sure where Herbert Hoover ranks: by the end of his first year the stock market had crashed and the Great Depression started, but even three years later, with conditions worsening, Hoover's vote share was higher than Trump's approval ratings.

Perhaps economic indicators are overrated? Or maybe it's just that most people aren't feeling part of the much touted growth? What little wage growth there has been most likely gets sucked up by higher prices -- oil, for instance, is up sharply, while help like food stamps is being cut back. But most likely most of us have yet to be hit with the full impact of Trump's regulatory and tax shifts. Moreover, much of what Trump's minions have done over the last year simply increase risk -- something you may not notice and won't have to pay for until it's too late. The most obvious risk is war with North Korea, which hasn't happened but could break out with shocking speed. Other risks, like withdrawal from the Paris Accords on global warming, will necessarily play out slower, but could be even harder to reverse. In between, it's a pretty sure bet that increasing inequality and deregulation will create financial bubbles which will burst and turn into recession. Other instances of risk increase include EPA changes which will increase pollution, changes to Obamacare which will reduce the number of people insured, and continued reduction of educational opportunities -- as the future becomes ever more dependent on people with technical skills, those skills will become rarer (well, except for immigrants, but Trump's working on curtailing them too).


Some scattered links this week:

  • Matthew Yglesias: The government is shutting down because Donald Trump doesn't know what he's doing: The basic argument is that Trump precipitated the government shutdown by rescinding Obama's DACA order, setting the enforcement clock at six months to provide pressure on Congress to do something. However, the Republicans who run Congress don't want to do anything, and their opposition makes it impossible for Democrats to advance any legislation, even when it has support of most Americans and enough Republicans to create a majority. There's little reason to think Democrats would choose to disrupt government simply to force action on DACA, but for twenty years now Republicans have routinely used the threat of shutdown to coerce concessions, and even now they have various schemes up their sleeves -- Trump, in particular, saw this as an opportunity to sneak funding for his Great Wall through. As Yglesias points out, Trump has made this worse by being totally unclear about his own goals and intentions.

    Other Yglesias pieces:

    • Trump's biggest weakness is on regular policy issues.

      And that's the reality of Trumpism. His immigration policies are contrary to the tangible interests of most Americans, and all the rest of his policies are too. Here are a few policy stories from January alone:

      • Trump is opening coastal waters to offshore drilling, even in states whose Republican governors don't want it (to say nothing of states whose Democratic governors don't).
      • Trump's Consumer Financial Protection Bureau announced plans to go easier on payday lenders with new, laxer rules down the road and generous waivers immediately.
      • Trump also offered waivers from full regulatory sanctions for a bunch of banks that have been convicted of crimes, including the German giant Deutsche Bank, to which he is personally in debt.
      • Three-quarters of the National Parks Advisory Board quit, citing Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's "inexcusable" stewardship of precious natural resources.
      • We learned that America has 3.2 million more uninsured people than it did a year ago despite a growing economy, as the Trump administration rolls out a broad suite of Medicaid cuts.

      It's a fallacy to think that Trump's various antics are a deliberate effort to distract attention from these policy issues. A president who was capable of planning and executing a political master plan wouldn't be looking at a 39 percent approval rating amid good economic conditions.

      It is true, however, that discussing Trump primarily as a personality, a media phenomenon, and a locus of culture war politics puts a kind of floor under his support. By contrast, there's basically no constituency at all for Trump's anti-Medicaid agenda, with only 22 percent of Republicans saying they want to see cuts to the program.

    • Donald Trump's terrifying plan to win the 2018 midterms.

    • Congressional Republicans think Donald Trump's sloth and ignorance is a feature, not a bug: "A weak, easy-to-manipulate president is what they want." A nice rundown here of recent cases where Trump started to zag off course only to have his Republican minders turn him around.

    Some other links on the shutdown:

    A couple more thoughts, which occurred to me while reading Krugman but nothing specific there. The constitutional system of checks and balances was set up before anyone had any inkling that there would be political parties, much less that party blocs could distort or even scam the system. The first such flaw was made obvious by the 1800 election, and was quickly patched over by amendment. But later flaws have been harder to fix, especially when becomes committed to exploiting a flaw -- e.g., the Republicans have elected four minority presidents since 1860, versus zero for the Democrats. Up into the 1980s there was a fair amount of bipartisan trading in Congress, mostly because both parties had overlapping minorities -- liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats. Since then, Republicans have captured nearly every right- (or center-) leaning Democratic constituency, and Republicans have adopted internal caucus rules that encourage block voting. After 2008, Republicans took advantage of every parliamentary trick Congress (especially the Senate) had to obstruct efforts by the Democrats -- getting their way almost all of the time. Now, with razor-thin majorities in Congress, they expect to get their way all of the time, even when they're trying to pass enormously unpopular programs -- something they have no qualms or inhibitions about. Those checks always favored inaction over change, which generally suited conservatives, but for the nonce seems about the only recourse Democrats have left, lest the Republicans complete their destruction of liberal democracy -- if the stakes were less you'd never see Democrats holding out anywhere near as tenaciously as Republicans did against Obama.

    The other thing I've noticed is that the Republicans have really mastered the art of being the opposition party, obstructing and haranguing the Democrats and, given the public's deep cynicism about politicians, they've managed to avoid any responsibility for their role in Washington dysfunction. I suspect that one reason Trump won was that the American people wanted to spare themselves another four years of relentless Clinton-bashing. On the other hand, what's worked so well in opposition has done nothing to prepare the Republicans for ruling responsibly. Rather, they've kept up the same old demagoguery, the only difference being that as the party in power they find it more profitable to sell off favors. A year ago some significant number of voters evidently believed that Clinton would be more corrupt than Trump -- either because Trump had no track record in politics, or because the Clinton had faithfully served their donors for decades. What this past year has proven is that Trump has not only taken over the swamp, he's made it more fetid than ever.

  • Kate Aronoff: Stunning Special Election in Wisconsin Shows Scott Walker's Foxconn Deal Isn't the Political Winner It Was Sold As: A state senate district Trump won by 20 points just elected a Democrat.

  • Anna Maria Barry-Jester: There's Been a Massive Shift to the Right in the Immigration Debate: Headline's a bit overstated. What's happened is that between Trump and the anti-immigrant faction of the Republican Party, it's become much harder to get any sort of immigration reform passed. Meanwhile, the pro-immigration faction of the Democratic Party has been forced into a corner, fighting a rear-guard battle to salvage immigration hopes for the most broadly popular segment (the "Dreamers"), often at the expense of others. But underlying views haven't shifted so much, if at all -- indeed, it's possible that the public as a whole is moving slightly more pro-immigrant, in part in reaction to Trump and his racist outbursts.

  • Nathan Heller: Estonia, the Digital Republic: By far the most successful of the former SSRs. Evidently, a big part of their success is how extensively they've "gone digital," wiring the country together and making government open and accessible through those wires. Sample sentence: "Many ambitious techies I met in Tallinn, though, were leaving industry to go work for the state." -- Which is to say, for the public. A lot of this has long seemed possible, but isn't done in the US because the essential degree of trust is inevitably lacking in a system with predatory capitalism and a coercive police state. But a tiny country on the Baltic which twenty years ago was dirt poor can get it together. Interesting.

  • Elizabeth Kolbert: The Psychology of Inequality: Reports on various sociological and psychological studies into how people think about inequality, mostly as summarized by Keith Payne in his book The Broken Ladder: How Inequality Affects the Way We Think, Live, and Die. One thing I've noticed from extensive reading about increasing inequality is that it's easy to recite the numbers that show what's happening with money, but it's much harder to translate those numbers to changes to human lives -- and simply fleshing them out with examples still doesn't seem to work. These studies, in and of themselves, may not be convincing either, but (like the statistics) they help frame the problem. An important piece.

  • Mark Joseph Stern: An Awful Ruling From One of Trump's Worst Judicial Appointees: "John K Bush's opinion in Peffer v. Stephens will let the police ransack almost any suspect's home." Remember, Trump's judges will be around much longer than he will. Just another long-term consequence of a blind, ignorant, stupid decision last November.

  • Matt Taibbi: Forget the Memo -- Can We Worry About the Banks? Also on that memo, see Glenn Greenwald/Jon Schwarz: Republicans Have Four Easy Ways to #ReleaseTheMemo.

  • Robin Wright: One Year In, Trump's Middle East Policy Is Imploding: This makes it sound more coherent than it ever was:

    Trump had four goals in the Middle East when he came into office, beginning with energizing the peace process. The second was wrapping up the war against the Islamic State launched by his predecessor, in 2014. The third was checking Iran's influence in the region and wringing out new concessions on its nuclear program. The fourth was deepening support for a certain type of Arab leader, notably Egypt's President, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, and the Saudi royal family.

    Moreover, the people tasked with these jobs (e.g., Jared Kushner), show how little care or thought went into the plan. Actually, you could reduce these four ventures into a single directive: do whatever pro-Israeli donors tell you to do. Israel-Palestine peace prospects have been a complete bust, and Trump's vow to remember who voted against the US at the UN will further strain relationships. Even with Trump's full support, the Saudis' adventures are bogged down everywhere. Trump's sniping at Iran has provoked protests, but none of the other parties want to break or change the deal, and there is no evidence that Iran is in violation of it. The war against ISIS may seem like more of a success: the US has helped to drive ISIS out of Iraq and its major strongholds in Syria, but that just means that the conditions that allowed ISIS to emerge -- the power vacuum in Syria and the sectarian regime in Iraq -- have been reset. Maybe if Trump had negotiated a resolution to Syria's civil war the former ISIS area would stabilize, but Trump and Tillerson have failed to negotiate a single treaty -- indeed, they don't seem to have any desire, inclination or skill to do so. The result is that not just in the Middle East but everywhere US relations with world powers have become more strained and dangerous.

    For more on Yemen, see: Nicolas Niarchos: How the U.S. Is Making the War in Yemen Worse.