Sunday, January 8, 2023

Speaking of Which

After hustling to get the 17th Annual Francis Davis Jazz Poll posted on Friday, including my essay at Arts Fuse, I was pretty uncertain as to what to do next. Making matters worse was that same day the dog we inherited from the late Elizabeth Fink breathed her last. I was, at the time, figuring it'd be at least a week before I'd bother with a Music Week, much less a Speaking of Which, column. But lacking any other inspiration, I sat down and started collecting this. I had very little news exposure over the last month, first coming down with a fairly mild but disconcerting case of Covid, then finding our internet connection increasingly flaky. The latter was finally cured by a new cable modem, so as I started collecting this, I was pleased to find the system as solid and even faster than ever.

Of course, even without my usual news sources, I was aware of the comedy/horror show in the US House, mostly through the late night shows, which emphasized the comedy side. Still, I didn't see any lasting value in citing articles while the votes were going on. Now, of course, we can not only look back on the debacle, we can look forward to the dysfunctional future.

Eric Alterman: [01-06] George Santos a Liar? Small-Time When Compared to His Fellow Republicans.

Bernard Avishai: [01-07] Netanyahu's government takes a turn toward theocracy. Religious parties have often been part of ruling coalitions, but they've never been so prominent before, or as demanding. One obvious flashpoint is Itamar Ben Gvir, who's often run afoul of Israeli law, yet now is in charge of (selectively) enforcing it. More on Israel:

Jonathan Chait: [01-04] 'Reactionary Centrism,' the Left's Hot New Insult for Liberals: "New jargon just dropped." I'm not much for jargon, let alone insults, but the definition offered here is a recognizable type: "someone who says they're politically neutral, but who usually punches left while sympathizing with the right." The first clause is pretty exactly how self-proclaimed centrists describe themselves. But centrism seems to extend to people who are not politically neutral -- who align with a major political party, which since the GOP purge mostly means Democrats these days -- but who recognize and try to balance multiple interests. If such people are honest, they should be arguing equally with both sides in favor of the other. In practice, though, a lot of them seem to relish fighting with the left, while letting all but the extreme right-wingers off the hook.

Hence there is a need to qualify centrist with some adjective other than fair or honest: reactionary might do the trick, but one should beware that it has two meanings. The root meaning is someone who reacts adversely (perhaps even violently) to change. That may apply to many centrists, especially those who worry that any change or challenge might rock the boat, leading to an even more vicious right-wing backlash. The other meaning, which is why the word is problematic, refers to that backlash itself.

Reactionaries are generally distinguished from conservatives because where the latter merely want to preserve their system and privileges, reactionaries want to radically change the system to restore their own expected privileges. On the left, we often refer to reactionaries as fascists, since that's the more vivid example. Chait is concerned, because he feels vulnerable as a centrist (albeit a Democratic one). I'd be inclined to cut him some slack, but the whole article seems like an excuse to kick the left for impolitic terminology, rather slight grounds that kind of make the point he's arguing against.

It seems to me that we would be better off trying to figure out real, viable solutions to problems, than simply mapping out who is left or right of whom. Not every left solution is ideal, but there are many to choose from, which isn't something you can say about a right that has drifted so far into its fantasies that centrists need to wake up and recognize that they're actually well left of center, and need to treat their comrades with more respect.

Neel Dhanesha: [01-06] California's deadly floods won't break the megadrought: "Atmospheric rivers are dumping rain on California. That's not a good thing." I'm pretty sure that the first time I ever heard "atmospheric river" was in Kim Stanley Robinson's The Ministry for the Future, which was "science fiction" two years ago. For more:

Connor Echols: [01-06] Diplomacy Watch: Russia takes aim at Western resolve: Aside from Russia announcing a 3-day ceasefire around the Orthodox Christmas -- a ploy that Ukraines were quick to dismiss -- very little to report here, devolving into the propaganda trope about "Western resolve." Little reason to fear there: American foreign policy seems largely under the thumb of the weapons cartel, who are having the time of their lives, feeding a voracious war without American casualties. While Ukraine still has dreams of regaining ground, Russia's war has largely become one of attrition, which despite inflicting real damage only intensifies Ukrainian resolve. (The German Battle of Britain is an example, although the hardship here may well be a bit worse.) More:

  • Connor Echols: [01-05] How Western tanks could change Ukraine's war effort. Recent arms promises to Ukraine have shifted toward tanks, both from France and the US. The thinking, at least on paper, is that tanks could lead a breakthrough in regaining occupied land. But a big tank advantage didn't help Russia much early in the war, and tanks have rarely been effective without sufficient air coverage, which Ukraine still lacks, so this may mostly be for show.

  • Jen Kirby: [06-06] Putin's so-called Christmas ceasefire, explained, or rationalized away, since Ukraine is unhappy to play along.

  • Paul Krugman: [01-06] What Ukraine Teaches Us About Power: I'm not sure I agree with his argument that there were no decisive battles in WWII -- what about Stalingrad? El Alamein? Midway? -- but he is quite right that in the end, it was economic power that prevailed. The key chart here is the one that compares GDP: while Russia towers over Ukraine, the Russian economy is but spare change compared to Europe and the US, which is what allows NATO to fund Ukraine without breaking a sweat.

  • Anatol Lieven: [01-06] Where the war in Ukraine could be headed in 2023.

  • Condoleezza Rice/Robert M Gates: [01-07] Time is not on Ukraine's side: Talk about people I have no interest in weighing in on anything! Title suggests a note of caution, that it would be good to negotiate sooner rather than later, but they're really urging escalation now to counter Putin: e.g., "For Putin, defeat is not an option. . . . Count on Putin to be patient to achieve his destiny." Perhaps they worry because they understand that Americans aren't very patient people. After all, they spent much of their public disservice prolonging wars most people had realized had gone sideways. What's missing is even the rudiments of a theory suggesting that their push for more weapons will do any good. Rather, they cite 1914, 1941, and 2001 as lessons that "unprovoked aggression and attacks on the rule of law and the international order cannot be ignored." And finally they resort to quoting Zelensky channeling Churchill: "Give us the tools, and we will finish the job." Surely they know that Churchill needed a lot more than tools (Lend-Lease) to defeat Nazi Germany. You'd also expect them to know that taking direct aim at a country with the "strategic depth" and nuclear arms of Russia is a fool's errand. But these two didn't get to the pinnacle of the US war machine by virtue of their grasp of reality (or history).

    And just to nitpick, why 1914 but not 1939, or 1941 but not 1917? And why 2001 instead of 2003? The latter was the war they wanted in 2001, but had to postpone until they could snow us. And while Iraq fits their "unprovoked aggression" line to a tee, note that no other nation raised the alarm and came to Iraq's defense, and the aggressors failed anyway.

  • Ishaan Tharoor: [12-14] Ukraine's resilience sets a global standard. Not that I'm unimpressed, but I thought the global standard was set by Vietnam from before 1954 to 1975. I can give you other examples, including Finland and Afghanistan against Russia (as well as Afghanistan against the UK and the US). I'd also like to note that Ukraine's resistance against invasion was most impressive in the early days, before the US offered any significant weaponry, back when the US wanted to offer Zelensky "a ride," so he could become a propaganda tool, like Juan Guaidó.

  • Kelley Beaucar Vlahos: [01-06] What foreign policy elites really think about you: "If public opinion doesn't match up with the Washington program then it must be wrong, misunderstood, or worse, irrelevant." US foreign policy has always been tightly controlled by special interests, and usually ignored by parties struggling over the domestic economy. That didn't change with WWII, but before it was mostly trading companies, with resource (especially oil) companies gaining ground after 1900. What did change with WWII was the creation of the military-industrial complex, which shifted focus away from peace and stability to war and chaos. Since 2001, hardly any of the self-organized elites bothers to pretend otherwise. Anyone who thinks otherwise is ridiculed or worse. One of the clearest measures of this is US support for Israel, which has significantly lessened among the public, but if anything has hardened and become more reflexive among the elites. For more on their thinking, see:

  • Gregory Foster: [01-02] The zombification of US national security: "Time to drive a stake through the heart of these establishmentarian ideas, which are super dysfunctional but never seem to die." Sub-heds: The Fetishization of .mil-ism; The Enduring Gluttony of Defense Spending; The Canonization of Military Essence; The Delusion of Military Autarky; "The Capabilities-Commitments Conundrum; The Great Power Competition Subterfuge.

Thomas Geoghegan: [01-06] The Constitutional Case for Disarming the Debt Ceiling: "The Framers would have never tolerated debt-limit brinksmanship. It's time to put this terrible idea on trial. Related:

Luke Goldstein: [01-06] FTC Ban on Noncompetes Sets Up Huge Legal Fight. Having had my own bitter experience with a noncompete dictate, I'm very happy to see this rule. In my case it was a rare requirement only demanded of top management, and we were presumably compensated for our loss of freedom (though I'd argue I wasn't). It still left a great deal of bitterness, which probably capped any possibility I had of further advancement. Still, that's not what this is about. Rather, companies have since started demanding noncompete restrictions on even bottom-rung employees. Had that been in effect in my day, most of my job changes would have been prohibited. No surprise that groups like the Chamber of Commerce are up in arms over this rule. Employers are still nostalgic for the days when they had complete power over their workers.

Melissa Gira Grant: [01-03] Welcome to Ron DeSantis's 2024 Campaign Against "Wokes": One of the most important planks of Trump's 2016 campaign was the revolt he led against "political correctness." It worked because pretty much no one likes having their speech corrected, especially the object isn't a notorious slur and the substitute is awkward and tortured ("differently abled" is one I've been hit with). (Bill Maher, who may be a jerk but isn't a right-winger, made political incorrectness his calling card.) However, I'm not sure that attacking "wokes" (or even the more abstract "wokeness") is going to be such a winning strategy. The difference is that it's one thing to say that you have the right to be a bigot and to hold opinions many of us deem ignorant, and another to say that if you're not a bigot, and take offense at bigots, you're evil, and need to be throttled -- which is basically DeSantis's position. DeSantis doesn't stop at hitting liberal columnists for their "wokeness"; he's gone after big corporations that simply don't see the profit in racism.

Margaret Hartmann:

Ellen Ioanes: [01-07] North Korea's nuclear escalation, explained: The author seems more puzzled, but the right-wing turn in South Korea -- after the attempted thaw was largely sabotaged by Trump lieutenants like Bolton -- and also by the Biden administration's indifference to the issue. Despite occasional bouts of panic, North Korea's nuclear arsenal has never been, and will never be, a serious threat to the US (not that it couldn't annihilate South Korea and cause a lot of damage to Japan). From a military standpoint, nuclear weapons have never been worth a hill of beans, as the US has repeatedly found out in the series of military blunders that actually started in Korea. What is dangerous is trying to keep North Korea bottled up, when its leader have been trying so frantically for decades now to signal that they just want to be respected and treated decently.

Ben Jacobs: [01-07] How Kevin McCarthy (finally) became speaker of the House: "McCarthy was able to sway several far-right members of his party by agreeing to extraordinary concessions that will rewrite the politics of the House." Of course, there was never a chance that he wouldn't cave in to the far right, because he's not fundamentally opposed to them. While it was fun watching Republicans make fools of themselves, McCarthy's own demeanor during the ordeal suggests he was in on the scheme, which allowed him to shift effective power to the nihilists -- at this point, even "far right" doesn't do them justice, and "MAGA" isn't quite fair to Trump (not that he deserves any better) -- and also blame, when it all blows up. Jacobs has been covering this story in real time, so his older pieces are already dated: e.g., [01-03] Kevin McCarthy's once-in-a-century House speakership failure.

David Cay Johnston: [12-31] Trump's Taxes Are the Best Case Yet for Putting Him in Prison. Author also wrote [12-27] Trump's Brazen Tax Cheating Revealed.

Whizy Kim: [01-04] The ultrarich are getting cozy in America's tax havens at everyone else's expense. One serious problem that hardly anyone talks about is how having multiple state and local tax jurisdictions creates intense competition to carve out tax loopholes, which are now so widespread and so lucrative that they drive many business decisions. Every carve-out is ultimately compensated by taxpayers with less leverage, either in higher taxes or in reduced services. I don't know how you could go about doing this, but a single national taxation system, when they distributes money down to state and local governments (which, if they have nothing better to spend it on, could ultimately rebate it to citizens), would wring the incentive for this out of the system, and in doing so would end much of the system's inherent corruption. As I recall, Nixon made a start back around 1970 with his "revenue sharing" program. It's strange that no one talks about this, even though a lot of federal money is routinely transferred to states and on down the line.

Ezra Klein: [01-08] The Dystopia We Fear Is Keeping Us From the Utopia We Deserve. Features a book of "reactionary futurism" by J Storrs Hall, Where Is My Flying Car?. The argument is that we got sidetracked in trying to conserve energy (or at least utilize it more efficiently), when we should have been figuring out how to create much more, enough to enable the wonders of a set of formerly futurist inventions like the flying car.

Robert Kuttner: [01-03] Who Will Talk Jay Powell off the Ledge? "He has committed the Fed to an interest rate course that will create a needless recession, and he refuses to admit that inflation is subsiding on its own." Again, Biden made a bad mistake appointing this Republican to a second term (much as Obama did with Bernanke, and Clinton with Greenspan). For what it's worth, I'm not terribly upset that he raised interest rates up off the floor: that's helped cool down house prices, and perhaps most important, it's slowed down speculative gambling on futures, which now seems to have been the main thing driving oil prices up. When several left-of-center economists were lobbying for Powell to get that second term, they pointed to his changed views. I can't tell you now what they thought he was thinking, but he seems to have clung to the hoariest of old views: that the only proof that inflation is declining is that unemployment is rising.

Ian Millhiser:

Charles P Pierce: [01-04] Given the Choice Between Free Money or Sicker Residents, Republicans Chose Sickness: "Their refusal to expand Medicaid is making it impossible for rural hospitals to stay in business." His examples are elsewhere, but this is particularly a problem here in Kansas -- where a significant majority want Medicaid expansion, but the Republicans they foolishly elect think it's smart politics to discredit Obamacare by turning away people who would benefit from it. Pierce, by the way, kicks out 2-3 useful posts every day.

Andrew Prokop: [11-02] Will 2023 be the year Donald Trump is indicted? I suspect, the less it matters, the more likely it becomes. Also on Trump:

Nathan J Robinson: [12-06] Let ChatGPT Convert You to Socialism. I got interested in AI back in the 1980s, but haven't followed it since. One idea I had back then was to write a program that could crank out weekly letters to my mother. I would feed it a couple bullet points if I had any actual news, and it would mix them in with semi-random swatches of boilerplate. I was quite certain that she would be delighted, and none the wiser. That sort of thing is probably much closer to reality today, but will more likely be used by spammers trying to defraud you. On the other hand, I can imagine smarter programs that read your mail for you, sort out the dangerous and the merely crappy. Still, any arms race is likely to ultimately blow up. The best solution is to refashion the world to make predatory behavior less likely.

I haven't rekindled my interest in AI, so I know very little about where it's gone and how it's being used (other than my impression of badly). My nephew is pretty seriously into AI image generation: he's a graphic artist, and wants to see if he can use it to generate his style of art more efficiently. Robinson has done some of that too, but has focused more on ChatGPT, which he reports on here.

Jeffrey St Clair: [01-06] Roaming Charges: No Speaker, No Cry. "There are 100 members of the 'Progressive Caucus,' who capitulated within seconds to nearly every demand Pelosi made, and 40 members of the Freedom Caucus who don't mind waterboarding their own leader in public to get their way & ditching him if they don't." Also: "The problem is McCarthy himself is endorsed by Trump and the neo-fascist Marjorie Taylor-Greene, along with Freedom Caucus hardliners Jim Jordan and Louis Gohmert. In the face of a MAGA raid on the Capitol, McCarthy still voted to overturn the 2020 elections and boasted: 'I want you to watch Nancy Pelosi hand me that gavel. It will be hard not to hit her with it.'"

Eric Topol: [01-08] The coronavirus is speaking. It's saying it's not done with us.

New York Times: [01-08] Live Updates: Brazilian Authorities Clear Government Offices of Rioters, Official Says: Right-wing Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro lost his re-election bid a couple months ago, so now as Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has taken office, Bolsonaro's mob has decided to throw their own January 6 riot. For more, see Ellen Ioanes: [01-08] Bolsonaro supporters storm Brazil's seat of power.

Ask a question, or send a comment.