Sunday, March 25, 2018


Weekend Roundup

With Rex Tillerson and H.R. McMaster recently purged, Mike Pompeo promoted to Secretary of State, torture diva Gina Haspel taking over the CIA, and veteran blowhard John Bolton given the laughable title of National Security Adviser, the closest the administration can come to a moderating voice of sanity in foreign affairs is the guy nicknamed "Mad Dog." Trump continues to replace his first team of "yes men" with even more sycophantic wannabes, doubling down on his search for the least critical, least competent hacks in American politics. On the other hand, it's not as if delegating policy to the Republican Party apparatchiki was doing anything to accomplish his vision of "making America great again." Over the last few weeks he's not only made major strides at cleaning house, he's pushed out several of his signature trade initiatives. He seems determined to double down until he blows himself up -- and surely you realize by now the last thing he cares about is how that affects anyone else.

I don't say much about trade below, although I've probably read a dozen pieces complaining either about how ineffective his tariffs will be or how they'll lead to trade wars and other mischief that will make us poorer. The first thing to understand about trade is that business has already adjusted to whatever the status quo is, so anything that changes it is going to upset their apple cart, much faster than it's going to help anyone else out. So all restrictions on trade seem bad to someone prepared to shout out about it. On the other hand, business is eager to promote expansions to trade that offer short-term benefits, especially before anyone who's going to be hurt can get organized. So I take most of what I read with a grain of salt: not just because the dialogue is polluted by interested bodies but because it's kind of a sideshow. The question that matters is not whether there's more trade or less, but what is the power balance between capital and labor (and consumers, sure, but they're often touted by capitalists as the real beneficiaries of lower-priced imports, something capitalists wouldn't bother us with if they didn't stand to be bigger winners). The problem with TPP wasn't that it reduced trade barriers. It was that it reduced the power of people to regulate corporations, and that it sought to increase corporate rents through "intellectual property" claims.

Aside from raising tax revenues, the purpose of tariffs is to protect investment by organizing a captive, non-competitive market. However, in a world where there is already more steelmaking capacity than there is market, American steel companies won't make the investments to increase steel production. Rather, they'll reap excess profits while the tariffs last -- which probably won't be for long. Of course, that's not even what Trump's thinking. He thinks he's penalizing foreign misbehavior (like subsidizing investment then dumping overproduction). Maybe the real problem is that Americans aren't doing the same things? But there's a reason for that: we do all our business through private corporations, which workers and citizens have no stake in, so we don't even have the concept of directing investment where it might yield broad benefits.

On the other hand, note that if China decides to impose tariffs on American goods, they're likely to back those up with strategic investments to build competitive industries, temporarily protected behind those tariffs. For an example of the kind of piece I've been ignoring (but spurred some of my thinking above), see Eduardo Porter/Guilbert Gates: How Trump's Protectionism Could Backfire. Somewhat more amusing is Paul Krugman: Trump and Trade and Zombies. Also see Paul Krugman Explains Trade and Tariffs.


Some scattered links this week:

  • Matthew Yglesias: The week's 4 most important political stories, explained: John Bolton will be the national security adviser (replacing H.R. McMaster; quote: "Bolton apparently promised Trump 'he wouldn't start any wars' as a condition for getting the job, so maybe he won't"); Trump switched trade wars (first, the steel tariffs got gutted by carving out exceptions for a bunch of countries which make up a large majority of US steel imports; then Trump announced new tariffs on Chinese goods); We have an omnibus ($1.3 trillion in government spending, including a little for the wall and a lot for the military); Facebook is in hot water over data leaks (above and beyond the mischief they do of their own). Other Yglesias pieces this week:

    • The partisan gender gap among millennials is staggeringly large: "Women born after 1980 favor Democrats 70-23."

    • The case against Facebook: actually, several cases, including that it "makes people depressed and lonely," and that it's poisoning society:

      Rumors, misinformation, and bad reporting can and do exist in any medium. But Facebook created a medium that is optimized for fakeness, not as an algorithmic quirk but due to the core conception of the platform. By turning news consumption and news discovery into a performative social process, Facebook turns itself into a confirmation bias machine -- a machine that can best be fed through deliberate engineering.

      In reputable newsrooms, that's engineering that focuses on graphic selection, headlines, and story angles while maintaining a commitment to accuracy and basic integrity. But relaxing the constraint that the story has to be accurate is a big leg up -- it lets you generate stories that are well-designed to be psychologically pleasing, like telling Trump-friendly white Catholics that the pope endorsed their man, while also guaranteeing that your outlet gets a scoop.

    • Everyone loves nurses and hates Mitch McConnell.

    • The myth of "forcing people out of their cars"

    • Donald Trump's threat to the rule of law is much bigger than Robert Mueller.

  • Fred Kaplan: It's Time to Panic Now: "John Bolton's appointment as national security adviser puts us on a path to war." Bolton may or may not be the most consistent, most inflexible of neocon warmongers, but where he has really distinguished himself is in obstructing any option other than war. If he can't bully the other side into submission, he'll launch an attack, convinced of American omnipotence and oblivious to any evidence to the contrary. The job of National Security Adviser is to offer the president a range of options. Bolton sees no range, and Trump must know that. If Trump's been frustrated by being surrounded by advisers who argued against launching a "preventive" war with North Korea, he won't have any problems with Bolton.

    For more background on Bolton, see David Bosco: The World According to Bolton [PDF, originally from 2005]. More Bolton pieces:

  • Jen Kirby: The March for Our Lives, explained: "Thousands turned out for rallies in Washington, DC, and hundreds of cities across the United States."

  • Nomi Prins: Jared Kushner, You're Fired: "A Political Obituary for the President's Son-in-Law."

  • Matt Taibbi: The Legacy of the Iraq War: Fifteen year anniversary piece of Bush's invasion of Iraq. I would put more stress on Bush's earlier invasion of Afghanistan, and indeed the whole premise that the overbloated US military should be trusted, if not to defend us from attacks like 9/11 at least to avenge them. On the other hand, Taibbi goes the extra step in showing how the misuse of the military in the Global War on Terror is rooted in the much older multi-faceted war the US fought against the workers and peasants of the world, the one we sanitize by calling it the Cold War. He also ends memorably on Trump:

    It was for sure a contributing factor in the election of Donald Trump, whose total ignorance and disrespect for both the law and the rights of people deviates not one iota from our official policies as they've evolved in the last fifteen years.

    Trump is just too stupid to use the antiseptic terminology we once thought we had to cook up to cloak our barbarism. He says "torture" instead of "enhanced interrogation" because he can't remember what the difference is supposed to be. Which is understandable. Fifteen years is a long time for a rotting brain to keep up a pretense.

    We flatter ourselves that Trump is an aberration. He isn't. He's a depraved, cowardly, above-the-law bully, just like the country we've allowed ourselves to become in the last fifteen years.

    Posted before Trump's Bolton pick, but the likeness is pretty glaring. Also looking back on America's recent wars: Andrew Bacevich: A Memo to the Publisher of the New York Times. One thing here is that I don't see how you can complain about the Times' contribution to "having tacitly accepted that, for the United States, war has become a permanent condition," without noting a single thing that the Times has published on Israel in the last, oh, sixty years.