Sunday, February 4, 2018


Weekend Roundup

Can't say as I really felt any energy or appetite for doing a roundup this weekend. Still, practically wrote itself:


Some scattered links this week:

  • Matthew Yglesias: 4 big stories from a very weird week in Washington: It's a "new American moment" (Trump's "state of the union" speech); we talked a lot about a memo (the Nunes memo, accusing the FBI of picking on Trump for "deep state" political reasons); Trump has an infrastructure plan ("all that's missing, basically, are the details"); Amazon is (maybe) going to revolutionize health care (maybe) -- some kind of new joint venture between Amazon, Berkshire, and JP Morgan. Other Yglesias pieces:

    • The Steele dossier, explained, with Andrew Prokop.

    • Trump's new infrastructure "plan," explained: "No money, no details, and no explanation of how it works." Well, some numbers, but they're beyond ridiculous. The federal government would pony up $200 billion, but from spending cuts elsewhere (and presumably not military), not from new revenues (which the tax bill will shrink by $1.5 trillion), so the net stimulus effect will be negative. The expectation is that the federal money would then be matched at a 6.5/1 ratio by state and local governments, despite the fact that the latter have nowhere near that kind of borrowing power -- so the key idea is to nudge them into forming "public-private partnerships," which will put tollgates on everything they do, so the public will wind up paying much more for the infrastructure development than would be the case if government did it all itself. Why?

      A more cynical view would be that the main issue here is Trump likes to talk about the idea of a big infrastructure package, but Trump doesn't actually run the Trump administration. Neither congressional Republicans nor the veteran GOP politicians and operatives who do run the Trump administration want to see a big federal infrastructure package. If they wanted one, they would have done a deal with Barack Obama when he was president and called over and over again for one.

      What they actually want is cuts in the social safety net -- cuts that Democrats aren't going to agree to and that aren't especially popular.

      Now Trump has a thing that he can say is his plan, congressional conservatives can propose paying for it with safety net cuts that Democrats won't agree to, and Republicans can try to pass the whole thing off as an example of gridlock or obstruction rather than reflecting the fact that conservatives don't favor spending more money on federal infrastructure.

    • If Trump acted normal, he'd be an unpopular president with an unpopular agenda: actually, he is, but if he acted normal, we'd be talking about how unpopular that agenda is, instead of what a boor and moron he is.

      It's worth emphasizing that the Trump Show does have some real strategic benefits for Trump.

      For starters, it ensures that all but the very biggest policy stories are deprived of oxygen. The typical American has never been exposed to a robust news cycle about the administration's move to allow broadband internet providers to sell private user data, its various assaults on non-climate environmental policy, the dismantling of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, or budget proposals that starve the very job training and vocational education programs Trump touted in his State of the Union address.

      While some of Trump's antics and culture war battles are misfires that turn off even voters who might be sympathetic to his policy agenda, overall, he does better during the Trump Show. In moments when he manages to effectively fracture American society along racial lines, he regains the loyalty of the white voters who continue to make up a large majority of the electorate. Trump's actual execution of the politics of racial demagoguery is often not so deft, but the basic concept of elevating racial conflict and downplaying banal public policy debates makes perfect sense for him. . . .

      Whether his erratic behavior sinks him in the end, meanwhile, is likely to have less to do with political perceptions than with actual policy outcomes. During campaign 2016, I worried -- as did many observers -- that Trump's erratic, impulsive behavior would get the country ensnared in a disastrous war or crash the American economy. So far, he hasn't done either of those things.

      That's a low bar, to be sure. But it's not a given that a president will clear it; just ask George W. Bush.

    • In Kennedy's speech, Democrats rediscovered Barack Obama's compelling vision: "America is about equality, across all dimensions."

      Trump's game is to pit people against each other and get them so caught up in their internecine games that they don't notice the wholesale looting of America that's taking place under his administration.

    • Donald Trump as no solutions for America's big problems: Useful list here.

      The Puerto Rico saga is marginal to American politics because Puerto Rico itself is a marginal part of the country -- an island physically separated from the mainland, whose residents lack representation in Congress or the right to vote in presidential elections.

      But the sad state of that island is worth dwelling on, because the devastation of Hurricane Maria remains the one real crisis that Trump's dealt with that hasn't simply been self-inflicted. He's been inattentive, ill-informed, dishonest, and ineffective, capping it with tonight's solemn pledge of solidarity that's totally disconnected from the actual reality on the ground.

      Most of the problems Trump is ignoring are chronic rather than acute, and if the country needs to suffer through a few more years of neglect we'll make it. Puerto Rico is facing acute problems and the president is, likewise, doing nothing.

      If we're lucky, those of us on the mainland won't have to find out what it's like to live through that. But Trump makes it clear on a daily basis that if we ever do, there's no way he's going to rise to the occasion.

    • Trump's approval rating is below 50% in 38 states: Map is interesting. Note that he's below 50% here in Kansas, as well as Nebraska and Utah, Mississippi and South Carolina. He's only under 40% in one state that he actually carried, but it's a big one: Texas.

    • The truth about the Trump economy, explained: The low unemployment rates Trump touted in his SOTA, like most other growth statistics, are easily explained as extensions of trends established over the past 5-6 years, which is to say under Obama. Trump hasn't caused them, but he hasn't blown them up either. On the other hand, that growth partly masks a longer-term weakness in the economy, which is why workforce participation is still below 2000 levels: there may be a lot of jobs, but not very good ones. The one area where Trump has had a discernible effect is the stock market boom, which started under Obama but has been boosted further by Trump's deregulation agenda, and now by business tax cuts. Nonetheless, last week was a rough one for Wall Street, which has been blamed on fear of interest rate hikes, but like all bubbles is mostly a matter of the investor class having more money than it knows what to do with.

      It's largely forgotten now, but back during the mid-aughts (a time of more rapid wage growth than what we saw in 2017, incidentally), it was commonplace in conservative circles to proclaim that we were living through a "Bush Boom" touched off by his game-changing tax cuts and deregulation. That story, obviously, eventually ended in tears, as a poorly supervised financial system channeled inequitably shared growth into an unsustainable pyramid of debt that eventually collapsed.

      For another explanation of the current economy, see Dean Baker: It's Still the Yellen-Obama Economy. For a view of how it may end, see: Nomi Prins: Here Comes the Next Financial Crisis.

    • An immigration crackdown is a recipe for national decline.

    Yglesias also contributed to: The real state of the union in 2018, explained.

  • Glenn Greenwald: In a Major Free Speech Victory, a Federal Court Strikes Down a Law that Punishes Supporters of Israel Boycott: Story has a local angle, as it was a Kansas Mennonite who challenged the state law. Note that the governor who signed that law is the new US "ambassador at large for religious freedom."

  • Jacob Hacker: Trump's tax cuts are worse than fiercest critics claim: Introduces a term that's unlikely to mean anything to anyone:

    The problem isn't just that the cuts will make inequality worse -- if that were the case, then adding more tax cuts for the middle class and poor would fix things. Nor is the issue that driving up the debt will threaten popular social programs like Social Security and Medicare -- though it certainly will.

    The fundamental problem concerns not redistribution but predistribution: all the ways in which government rules and activities change how American capitalism distributes its rewards in the first place. Predistribution policies -- like public investments in infrastructure, education, research and development, and the regulation of labor and financial markets -- built the American middle class. And the collapse of such investment and regulations is the main reason that the middle class has experienced stagnant wages, plummeting bargaining power and a declining share of national income since the late 1970s. If we are going to tackle American inequality, we need to take seriously the imperative of changing how markets work. . . .

    Thus, the biggest defect of tax cuts -- any tax cuts -- is that they represent a huge lost opportunity to invest in our future. If the past generation has taught us anything, it's that tax cuts for investors and a soaring stock market do little or nothing to help most Americans. By contrast, we know that public investments in productive physical and human assets do help, and they disproportionately help the less well off. Rich people have plenty of private capital to invest. Those who aren't rich have their human capital (which rests on public investments) and the public capital that we all share as citizens: transportation and communication networks, shared scientific knowledge fostered by public R&D spending, civic institutions and so on.

    If we really want to boost growth, we need to return to the successful investment model that really made America great in the 20th century. And that requires more revenues, not less; a more effective IRS, not a weaker one; and, yes, new taxes, such as a levy on carbon emissions that threaten our planet and a surcharge on short-term financial speculation that threatens our economy.

    Two (possibly more) points here: the real sources of inequality lie outside of the tax code: the real engine of inequality is the drive for profit, which we tend to overlook by viewing it as the natural state of capitalism. In fact, inequality can be limited or even rolled back by political policies which: increase competition, which both reduces and spreads out profits; strengthen labor, which distributes gross margins more equitably to workers; and progressive taxation, which redistributes profits through public works and services. Conversely, inequality can be increased by opposite policies, as we've seen repeatedly over the past forty years. Hacker's "predistribution" policy point is important, but relatively minor -- effectively, a subset of the third point, that reducing government income is itself an intrinsic goal of the right's push for tax cuts. It's not just that the right doesn't want government to help people; the right doesn't want people to get in the habit of looking to government to help themselves. (On the other hand, they can get pretty agitated when they need help themselves.)

    Hacker's leaning against the fact that the only time we tend to talk about inequality is when considering tax bills, and even there the right likes to muddy the waters by offering chump change to the masses. It is true that strongly progressive taxation (combined with direct income redistribution) could compensate for inequality built into the private sector economy, but hardly anyone on the left is pushing for rates that would effectively cap private wealth (or, beyond occasional mentions of a "basic income" for significant income support). Rather, both sides struggle to move the scrimmage line a bit (for marginal income rates between 33-39%, although the right has been more ambitious in their proposals to eliminate estate taxes and vastly reduce taxes on capital gains and business income -- matters of import to the very rich, but esoteric to most people). [PS: Just noticed this, pace my generalization: Hamilton Nolan: The Estate Tax Should Be 100 Percent. Nolan also wrote: The Entire Rationale for These Tax Cuts Is Bullshit. Found these links by following Alex Pareene: Tom Steyer Has Too Much Money.]

  • Ezra Klein: How democracies die, explained: Ruminations based on a new book by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die.

    Demagogues and authoritarians do not destroy democracies. It's established political parties, and the choices they make when faced with demagogues and authoritarians, that decide whether democracies survive.

    "2017 was the best year for conservatives in the 30 years that I've been here," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said this week. "The best year on all fronts. And a lot of people were shocked because we didn't know what we were getting with Donald Trump."

    The best year on all fronts. Think about that for a moment. If you want to know why congressional Republicans are opening an assault on the FBI in order to protect Trump, it can be found in that comment. This was a year in which Trump undermined the press, fired the director of the FBI, cozied up to Russia, baselessly alleged he was wiretapped, threatened to jail his political opponents, publicly humiliated his attorney general for recusing himself from an investigation, repeatedly claimed massive voter fraud against him, appointed a raft of unqualified and occasionally ridiculous candidates to key positions, mishandled the aftermath of the Puerto Rico hurricane, and threatened to use antitrust and libel laws against his enemies.

    And yet McConnell surveyed the tax cuts he passed and the regulations he repealed and called this not a mixed year for his political movement, not a good year for his political movement, but the best year he'd ever seen.

    Richard J Evans has written a couple of relevant book reviews on the the most exercised of analogies: A Warning From History and Rule by Fear -- the former on a new biography of Hitler, the latter a broader history of "the rise and fall of the Third Reich." Back during the Bush years I found the analogy tempting enough that I bought a copy of Evans' own book, The Coming of the Third Reich, but I never got around to reading it. (I read Cullen Murphy's more explicitly topical Are We Rome? instead, partly because at the time I knew considerably less about Rome. Most recently I've been reading Tony Judt's essays from the Bush years, When the Facts Change, which reminds me how awful Bush was, while at the same time bringing to mind Michael Lewis' intro to the 2010 reprint of Liar's Poker, his book about financial scandal in the 1980s, a tale he finally had to deem "how quaint.")

  • PR Lockhart: Trump's reaction to the NFL protests shows how he fights the culture war. Not sure this subject is worth this much reading, but I'll note that I think the reason many conservatives take a special delight in football is that they relate to the idea of the strong dominating the relatively weak through force and violence. That's a view peculiar to fans. The players, and observers who actually watch the play and not just the markers, know that what really matters is teamwork. And while most plays are intricately planned, there's also a fair amount of leeway for improvisation. You also see teamwork in baseball and basketball, but in no other sport is it so central as it is in football. That makes the players more like workers, and helps foster solidarity -- a point which more than any (other than opportunism, I guess) explains Trump's vituperation. He's bothered less by supposed disrespect for the flag than by his disgust that the owners can't control their workers.

  • Josh Marshall: First Take: The 'Nunes Memo' Is Even Weaker Than Expected. Also see: Zack Beauchamp/Alex Ward: The 9 biggest questions about the Nunes memo, answered; Alex Emmons: Nunes Memo Accidentally Confirms the Legitimacy of the FBI's Investigation.

  • Dylan Scott: Trump's abandoned promise to bring down drug prices, explained: Something Trump mentioned in the SOTA, then gestured to Democrats that now would be a good time for them to applaud.

  • Emily Stewart: The Trump administration's surprising idea to nationalize America's 5G network, explained: "Nobody thinks it's a good idea, including the FCC." Well, as their handling of the "net neutrality" matter shown, the FCC doesn't work for the public interest any more; it's been captured by the industry it was meant to regulate. I doubt Trump's people will pursue this further, because it's a non-starter with the corrupt cabal known as the Congressional Republicans, and the communications industry has been more bipartisan than most, so they have a fair number of Democrats in their pocket as well. But on the surface, sure, why not nationalize the 5G network? It would be easier (and cheaper) for the federal government to raise the investment. They wouldn't have to engineer all sorts of cutouts and paywalls to recoup their investment. And they could make it a point to provide inexpensive, reliable service everywhere instead of having private companies cherry-pick a few lucrative markets. This sort of thing hasn't happened often in the past because it's rare for Congress to interfere in a market private companies think they can make money. (The Post Office and the TVA are two such exceptions.)

    Stewart also wrote: Paul Ryan tweets -- then deletes -- brag about public school worker who saw $1.50 pay raise. Fact check: that's a weekly pay check, so the deduction change nets out to less than four cents per hour.