An occasional blog about populist politics and popular music, not necessarily at the same time.
My Other Websites
Sunday, July 3, 2022
Speaking of Which
PS: Added the Demillo paragraph, which I had intended to include in this post.
I tried answering Crocodile Chuck's letter last week, but I focused on the big question of inflation, but skipped past his "We didn't vote for WWIII" line. He wrote back, ominously:
Chuck is a longtime reader and correspondent, an American familiar with my old St. Louis stomping ground, who sensing doom moved across the Pacific -- and not the only one I know who did that. I doubt I'd be identified as an optimist, but this is a bit too paranoid for me. I seriously doubt that there is any cloistered segment of the American deep state that has anything approaching a serious plan to dismantle China or the Russian Federation. And yeah, I believe there is some kind of "deep state," which ensures continuity of American imperial strategy regardless of changes in elected officials. I just don't think they're that smart or competent. They strike me as more like some bundle of conditioned reflexes, which always return to the old mantras of strength, control, dominance, and hegemony. That said, one of their core beliefs is any degradation of supposed enemies is a zero-sum win for America. So they always see prying former Soviet Republic into the American orbit as desirable, regardless of how Russia may react. They'd love to break Xinjiang and Tibet off China, too, but China doesn't seem to be as fragile as Russia, so for that they have to be contented with Taiwan and jockeying over South China Sea islands. Needless to say, such people are dangerous, and given a free hand they could well start WWIII. But, thus far at least, the system has constrained them. Is anything different now?
Well, a couple things are. The Cold War was built around Kennan's notion of containment, where the US never directly threatened the Soviet Union itself, and generally left it a free hand in dealing with recognized satellites. There were some disputes on the margins (Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, later Afghanistan), but both sides kept them to the margins. This worked partly because although Russia sympathized with anti-colonial liberation movement, they didn't control or depend on them; meanwhile, the US was primarily concerned with continuing the western exploitation of the colonial world (replacing the old powers with globalized companies and local cronies), and didn't need to get too greedy. (Indeed, western companies were quite delighted with the business deals China offered them.) But when the Soviet Union disbanded, America's Cold Warrior got even more greedy and arrogant, with Russia in particular getting the short end of the stick. And with every US effort to nibble a bit more on Russia's borders, the American threat to and contempt for Russia grows more existential. The administration is not completely unaware of this, and seems to be trying to draw a fine line between protecting Ukraine and provoking Russia, and the Americans monitoring that line aren't necessarily the most prudent people possible. Many things they've approved have crossed lines Russia has proclaimed. While none of them have yet led to a really catastrophic response (ranging from Russian attacks outside Ukraine -- e.g., Putin ally says Moscow could torpedo Dutch ports: 'Europe is not invincible' -- to nuclear weapons). On the other hand, other NATO countries, and Ukraine itself, seem less circumspect.
Another thing that I find especially disturbing is how conflict with Russia has become ideologized, especially among Democrats, who have become unusually hawkish. The tendency here is to treat Putin as an aggressively anti-democratic force, both within and beyond Russia, which puts a premium on stopping him sooner rather than later. There is some evidence for this -- the 2016 election interference looms especially large for Democrats -- but beyond ethnic Russians and a few allied groups (as in Transnistria and Abkhazia) it's hard to see Russian nationalism having much appeal. But by taking Putinism as ideology, you're imagining much higher stakes than there are, and that's dangerous.
Chuck wrote me again, making four points which I'll try to condense:
The third point is the most contentious one here. It's true that Biden and Blinken wanted to reëstablish the US as a world leader -- their slogan was "America's back" -- after Trump's "America first" agenda damaged relationships with Europe while surrendering large chunks of US foreign policy to Israel and Saudi Arabia. Defense of Ukraine was one way to do that, especially in Europe (though not so much elsewhere). I'm not totally clear on the facts, but suppose for the sake of argument the US and Zelensky goaded Putin into his invasion of Ukraine, and therefore deserves some share of blame for the war (although it was Putin who took the bait). How has the war blown up in America's face. Sure, it's cost America a lot of money -- both the state in terms of aid, and the private sector in various kinds of losses and inflation -- but why shouldn't Biden consider that a price worth paying for democracy in Ukraine? (Or for greatly increased US arms sales, and all the other dividends that accrue to America's increased stature among its "allies"?) Granted, it's cost other people and nations more, but since when has the US factored that sort of thing into its calculation? Maybe in the long run those costs will catch up and be regretted, but the zero-summers in the war departments think Russia's losing, so musn't the US be winning?
The other points I've made variants of myself, but I saved the last line for separate treatment: "We all would have been better off under Trump [under whom this never would have happened]." What wouldn't have happened? The invasion? Trump applauded Putin when he did it, so hard to see that as a deterrent. Maybe had Trump not promised support to Ukraine, Zelensky would have been more accommodating, and that might have satisfied Putin, but not according to the logic Putin has given for his decision. Then there's the scenario where Trump vacillates, suggesting Putin has a clear hand to invade, but the Deep State then bullies Trump into fighting, at which point Trump tries to show how tough he is, and blows everything up. Trump's entire foreign policy repertoire is a mix of the worst of Nixon ("mad man" theory) and Agnew ("bag man" corruption). You really don't know what you're going to get, but you can be sure it won't be thought out, and no one will have the slightest idea what the consequences will be.
Still, even if Trump had somehow avoided the war, a second term would have left us so much worse off in so many other areas, it's just mind-boggling to contemplate. By the way, I ran across this Trump quote, a response to Fox News asking him what he'd do differently from Biden in Ukraine:
If this isn't a simple endorsement of Biden's "amazing job," the only thing it suggests he'd do differently is to send US planes in to enforce some kind of "no-fly zone" -- something Biden has ruled out, because he realizes it doesn't just risk but amounts to direct war with Russia, with all the attendant risks of further escalation to nuclear war. Trump may have been personally inclined to let Putin roll over Ukraine, but when Putin invaded Trump's whole security team would have goaded him to action, and because he wants to be seen as a tough guy, he would have wussed out and went with the flow, projecting his contradictions ever more incoherently.
More on Ukraine, Russia, and Biden's foreign policy:
The Supreme Court term came to an end last week, with a stunning series of rulings as the Bush-Bush-Trump-appointed 6-3 majority is flexing its muscles. The January 6 Committee is demonstrating in increasing detail how Trump tried to end democracy by fraud and, failing that, by force, but these Court rulings finally prove that the poison was administered earlier, in the form of those three (and hundreds of lesser) Court appointments, even if the killing stretches out over the years. As bad as this year's rulings were, it's almost certain that worse are still to come.
How bad was this term? Mark Joseph Stern explains: [06-30] Why Today Felt Like the Most Hopeless Day of the SCOTUS Term gives us a quick rundown of what the Court ruled:
There is much more worth reading in this piece. For instance, he concedes that Roberts "split the baby" in Biden v. Texas, reversing an egregious lower court ruling that prevent Biden from rescinding Trump's executive order of his "Remain in Mexico" policy. This "looks like a victory for the President. And it is, but only in the sense that five justices took one small step back from the abyss of total judicial lawlessness." He goes on, noting that "texturalism" and "originalism" are guiding ideologies for the right-wing justices only when they can be twisted to support their political prejudices. He concludes:
More on the Supreme Court and its recent rulines, including abortion:
January 6 Committee: The surprise hearing with Cassidy Hutchinson, who was Mark Meadows' Chief of Staff, provided the best view yet into the White House on the day. The title that sums it up most succinctly is Walter Shapiro: [06-28] President Trump Was a Violent Maniac Behind Closed Doors. Other pieces of note:
Jonathan Chait: [07-01] The Democratic Party Needs Better Moderates: "The centrists have lot of complaints but no solution." Isn't that mostly because they're usually carrying water for business interests? I've said many times they have to move left, because that's where the solutions are. But it's not impossible to imagine moderate programs that make tangible progress on major problems but also respect established business interests and/or cultural concerns. There's little doubt that the left would support serious, practical compromises. (Medicare-for-All advocates in Congress all voted for ACA.) There's also a category that should be very popular among moderates, as it's especially strong among independents and laps into both political parties, but strangely gets no attention (at least among the elected, regardless of party): the political influence of money. Won't someone run with that? Chait cites a piece by Jason Zengerle: [06-29] The Vanishing Moderate Democrat, which argues "their positions are popular," but two 1990s presidential wins for Bill Clinton, while losing decades-long control of Congress, doesn't seem like much proof. For another take on Zengerle see: Ryan Cooper: [06-30] 'Moderate' Democrats Are Anything But.
Robert Christgau: [06-29] The Big Lookback: Hillary Clinton. New introduction for a piece published on October 11, 2016, when it still looked like the nomination of Hillary Clinton for president might work out. It didn't, and that's probably the source of the moment's temptation to say "I told you so" (but for many of us it just underscores her failure). I never doubted that we would have been better off had Hillary won (although it's easy now to overlook that given how she most happily ran on her superior Commander-in-Chief cojones, she could have turned truly awful). Much of the piece focuses on excoriating third parties -- Democrats expect to own the left's votes without doing anything to earn them -- combined with a snide dismissal of Bernie Sanders that only comes up short of a vicious attack because he appreciates Sanders campaigning not just against Trump but for Clinton. Like Christgau, I soured on third parties after 2000, but that was less because I saw Gore's loss as a huge step back (which it turned out to be) than because I realized then that the only path to power for the left would be through the Democratic Party, if simply for the reason that's where the voters most interested in joining us are stuck. (That was clearest here in Kansas, where Gore got over 10 times as many votes as Nader [37.2% to 3.4%], despite the DP not raising a finger to help Gore.) Still, I've never felt the slightest temptation to blame anyone on the left for the Democratic Party's failures, especially when you have candidates like Gore, Kerry, and the Clintons veering to the right figuring that's where they'll find more votes (or at least more donor money). I understand the logic that says "lesser evils are still evil," even if I don't think that's a maxim to live by. (I don't doubt for a moment that Gore would have responded to 9/11 by unleashing the War on Terror, and I rather doubt that he would have stopped short of invading Iraq -- remember, he voted for the 1990-91 war on Iraq, supported Clinton's repeated bombing, and had überhawk Joe Lieberman as his VP. I also doubt he would have fared any better at war. On the other hand, he wouldn't have eviscerated FEMA before Katrina, and he wouldn't have appointed Alito or Roberts to the Supreme Court. In between, there's a lot of iffy policies, not least his sometimes principled, sometimes compromised concern about global warming.) More importantly, I know that when the Democrats sell out or go crazy -- which happened a lot under Clinton, and again under Obama -- the tiny fragment of the left that refused to vote for them will be among the first to stand up for what's right. Still, everyone mourns in their own way -- even those of us who foresaw the Supreme Court threat as far back as the Bork nomination.
Ryan Cooper: [07-01] Mitch McConell Once Again Takes Advantage of Democratic Fecklessness: Examples of how the Democrats are hamstrung by Senate rules and maneuvers, which they don't have the numbers to overcome (and in two particular cases don't seem to have any desire to get anything done). Meanwhile, McConnell can hold out offers of very limited bipartisan support for extortionate prices. And in the end, Democrats will get blamed (and in many cases will blame themselves) for such failures.
Dexter Filkins: [06-20] Can Ron DeSantis Displace Donald Trump as the G.O.P.'s Combatant-in-Chief? The Florida governor has gotten a lot of press, much touting him as the Trumpiest of all the contenders who could pick up the Republican torch should Trump himself falter. Sample:
Margaret Hartmann: [07-03] Read the Nastiest Lines From Trump's $75 Burn Book: It's called Our Journey Together, a bunch of pictures with captions evidently written by Trump himself (you can tell because they're stupid and nasty). By the way, Hartmann's The Drama-Lover's Guide to the New Trump Books has been updated [06-29].
Robert Hitt: [06-30] Robocallers Still Have Your Number: "The FCC has implemented new rules, but the decades-old problem requires stronger tactics." This seems like the sort of nuisance problem it should be relatively easy to solve. We get 30+ unwanted phone calls per day on the land line, or presumably unwanted as we don't pick up unrecognized caller ids. Why not automatically kick those calls to a monitoring service, and when a caller's count rises above some modest threshhold, kick off an investigation aimed at shutting them down? Sure, only some of those calls are clearly aimed at fraud, but solicitations for funds are every bit as intrusive, and can feel like harassment. I'd like to see a crackdown on all forms of intrusive advertising, but this is a good place to start (and unlike radio and TV, doesn't require a rethinking of how those industries can be financed). Advertising isn't free speech. Even when it isn't intended fraud, it's much more akin to assault. (Hacking is a similar problem, which isn't taken seriously by the people who could put a stop to it. My server has to fend off hundreds of attacks every day.)
Paul Krugman: Interesting but varied set of pieces here, some in response to books he's been reading:
Daniel Larison: [07-01] Another round of talks fail as the Iran nuclear deal appears to be slipping away: "JCPOA opponents planted political poison pills to prevent reentering the deal and Biden is letting them get away with it." You'd think that restoring JCPOA would be a no-brainer. It was a key diplomatic achievement for Obama. Trump violated it for no good reason. While Obama (wrongly, I think) took pains to provide a smooth continuity in foreign policy when taking over from Bush, there's no reason for Biden to follow suit. (He certainly hasn't with Ukraine and NATO.) Coming to an understanding with Iran would not only solve one problem, it would make America look more capable of reason elsewhere. Besides, with Russian oil off the world market, the easiest fix to drive prices back down would be to let Iran back in. On the other hand, Biden is heading off to Israel and Saudi Arabia, no doubt to supplicate like Trump did. Also see:
Rebecca Leber: [06-27] The biggest myths about gas prices: Six of them, generally useful but I'd quibble with "Myth 2: Oil companies are price-gouging American consumers." Oil companies are always greedy, always price-gouging, at least within the limits of competition (which is still healthier than it is in most industries). If they weren't, they'd lower their margins to cushion the price shocks, but if they can keep their margins as costs increase, their profits go way up, and that's what we're seeing. I also think that it's likely that there is a massive behind-the-scenes lobbying effort to get articles (like this one) to counter the intuitive idea that oil companies are making out like bandits. I've seen dozens of such articles, which given the push from Bernie Sanders and others for a "windfall profits tax" (as was implemented in the 1970s) is something they'd have a serious interest in promoting. By the way, for a broader review of the role of greed in capitalism, see Nathan J Robinson: [06-20] Is Capitalism Built on Greed? (Executive summary: yes.)
Andrew Marantz: [06-27] Does Hungary Offer a Glimpse of Our Authoritarian Future? Viktor Orbán is certainly popular among elements of the US right that are in any way aware of their fellow fascists around the world -- Steve Bannon and Tucker Carlson are obvious examples, but the author also mentions J.D. Vance and Rod Dreher as admirers, and Ron DeSantis as someone who could fit the bill. Orbán came to my attention quite a while ago, and what struck me most was how he used the power of a freak landslide election to consolidate long-term control of the nation, including passing an extensive legal framework that could only be undone by a super-majority: the use of such gimmicks to guarantee right-minority control struck me as very Republican -- although viewed as Orbánist it should seem even more un-American. Choice lines:
Elizabeth Nelson: [07-14] Difficult Man: 'Kitchen Confidential' and the Early Days of Anthony Bourdain's Legacy.
Tory Newmyer: [07-03] Bill to grant crypto firms access to Federal Reserve alarms experts: Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand is in on this graft (along with a Republican from Wyoming; looks like Wyoming already as some sweetheart deals with crypto grifters). I'm not sure what all the ramifications are, but making crypto "too big to fail" sounds like an awful idea, especially given that it's not actually good for anything (legal, anyway).
Andre Pagliarini: [07-01] Live From Brazil: A Clueless Tucker Carlson: "Fox News's chief wingnut has spent all week fawning over authoritarian President Jair Bolsonaro and making absurd, ignorant statements about the country." Worth remembering here that Carlson is also infatuated with Hungary's Viktor Orbán: see Viktória Serdült: [02-01] Tucker Carlson Has Become Obsessed With Hungary. Here's What He Doesn't Understand.
Annie Proulx: [06-27] Swamps Can Protect Against Climate Change, if We Only Let Them. "Wetlands absorb carbon dioxide and buffer the excesses of drought and flood, yet we've drained much of this land."
Nathan J Robinson: ]07-01] The Incredibly Disturbing Texas GOP Agenda Is a Vision for a Theocratic Dystopia. Too much here to even start getting into, but make sure to check out the contrasting pictures of car-free downtown Ljubljana, Slovenia, and "fucking Houston." And while most of the planks reduce to variants on complete-lawless-freedom-for-me and prohibition-on-you, sometimes it just gets weird, like "enshrining a right to cryptocurrency in the Texas Bill of Rights." Evidently, someone told them crypto is "a right-wing hypercapitalistic technology built primarily to amplify the wealth of its proponents through a combination of tax avoiance, diminished regulatory oversight and artificially enforced scarcity," and they said, "wow, give me some of that."
Walter Shapiro: [06-27] 1989-2001: America's Long Lost Weekend: "From the fall of the Berlin Wall to 9/11, we had relative peace and prosperity. It was an opportunity to salve some festering national wounds. We squandered it completely -- and helped give rise to the crises we're dealing with today." One nugget here is that in his speech accepting the 2000 Democratic presidential nomination, Al Gore spent all of one sentence talking about climate change -- a problem that Gore understood well enough to write a book about in 1992 (Earth in the Balance), but didn't seriously return to until 2006 (An Inconvenient Truth). Shapiro previously covered this territory in [2019-04-29] The Lasting Disappointment of the Clinton Presidency.
Alex Skopic: [04-20] Winston Churchill, Imperial Monstrosity: Not sure how I missed this before, but Tariq Ali has finally released a book we always knew he was uniquely qualified to write, Winston Churchill: His Times, His Crimes. Few people realize this, but Churchill was a uniquely malign force in 20th century politics (he actually got his start at the end of the 19th, his first taste of war -- which he relished -- in the Sudan at the most lop-sided massacre European imperialists ever engineered, followed by a tour of the Boer War in South Africa, where he learned to love concentration camps). During WWI he dreamed of starving all of Germany to death, while he was more directly responsible for the disastrous attack on Gallipoli. He was a diehard defender of the British Empire, yet largely responsible for the most tragic decisions of its retreat: the religious division of Ireland, Palestine, and India, creating conflicts that killed millions and more or less persist to this day. He can even claim credit for starting the Cold War (with his "iron curtain" speech -- he did have a knack for rhetoric). And that's just the broad outline. Ali adds more details, including Churchill's role in the Bengal Famine during WWII. Also a discussion of the mythbuilding that kept elevating Churchill from one disaster after another. By the way, Ali has another recent book: The Forty-Year War in Afghanistan: A Chronicle Foretold, compiled from concurrent writings and wrapped up with a new introduction (probably a well-deserved "I told you so").
Jeffrey St Clair: [07-01] Roaming Charges: Whatd'Ya Expect Us to Do About It? Argues that Democrats, given advance notice of Alito's ruling overturning Roe v. Wade, should have spent that time coming up with a coherent response, including executive orders, to fight back, but instead seem to have spent the time formulating fundraising letters. I've seen a lot of similar recriminations, especially against the "gerontocracy." Not entirely fair, but a predisposition to compromise with an opposite side that can never be satisfied does lead to a lot of backpedaling (and frequent falls on one's ass). Much more, of course, including a line suggesting that maybe the intent, which the Court couldn't discern, of the Clean Air Act was in its title. St Clair also reprinted a 2005 column co-written with Alexander Cockburn on the author of Roe v. Wade's demise: Holy Alito!
Jennifer Szalai: [06-29] 'Why We Did It' Is a Dark Ride on the 'Republican Road to Hell': Review of Republican political operator Tim Miller's book, about why Republicans more or less enthusiastically lined up behind Trump after his 2016 election win. Pretty much as I suspected: they were so desperate to win they abandoned all scruples. Reviewer suggests pairing this with another book by a Republican operative, Stuart Stevens: It Was All a Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump.
By the way, Covid new cases topped 100,000/day on May 17, and have remained at or above that level ever since, making the last six weeks the fourth highest peak period on record. The number of cases had dropped under 30,000 on March 21. Deaths are up 24% over 14 days ago.
Closing tweet, seems to be related to Jeff Bezos: "If the Biden administration is out of touch with Billionaires, imagine how the average American worker feels."