Sunday, March 5, 2023

Speaking of Which

I made some comments about a couple of these pieces back in Monday's Music Week, so I'm revisiting them below (Linker on DeSantis, Babbage on China, neither piece recommended but they expose thinking that needs to be shot down. One piece I do recommend you check out is Spencer Ackerman's.

So I got an early start, but still found myself running out of time and patience. Plus ça change, plus c'est le même chose.

Top story threads:

CPAC: Initials stand for Conservative Political Action Conference, which used to be an annual meeting of the luminaries of the political right, but is increasingly seen as a circus side show -- a transformation which suits Trump fine. But also note that the Koch network's Club for Growth is holding their own confab at the same time, and is easily the bigger draw for Republicans looking for big donor money.

DeSantis, Trump, etc.: Trump went to CPAC, so his speech there tends to land above, while his general inanity (much in evidence in the speech) belongs here.

Inflation: Fed chairman Jerome Powell may or may not be looking at the mixed bag of inflation stats, but seeing employment remain robust still believes we haven't suffered enough.

  • Dean Baker: [02-25] Is Inflation Out of Control, Again?

  • Mike Konczal: [02-28] How the US can stick the landing, beat inflation, and avoid a recession.

  • Paul Krugman: [03-03] Peering Through the Fog of Inflation: And not seeing very much, I'm afraid. He argues that the picture is so unsettled that all the Fed can do is keep raising interest rates. But short of inducing a recession (and causing widespread misery), how does raising interest rates lower inflation?

  • Seth Ackerman: [02-27] Why Joan Robinson Blamed Unions for Inflation While Milton Friedman Did Not: Interesting article on economic theory in a past world -- one where unions exerted significant power over wages and prices, in part because corporations were every bit as concentrated -- although the irony isn't especially important. The residue is that central bankers from Volcker to Powell are stuck in a mindset that blames wages for inflation. The real problem may be that everyone has their own distinct hammer: for unions it is the power to raise wages; for companies, to increase prices; and for bankers, the tool manipulates interest rates, allowing it to suppress employment. In this framework, it is impossible for workers to achieve real wage gains, because each step up will be undercut by the pricing power of firms and interest controls of the bankers.

Israel: Benjamin Netanyahu has presided over right-wing governments in the late 1990s and for most of the last 15 years, but we need a new term for this one, so how about ultra-right? (After the peculiarly Israeli ultra-orthodox, who provide much of the ultra-right's support.) Back during the height of the Sharon anti-intifada, someone asked me what I thought the likelihood of Israel committing genocide was. I thought chances were very small then, but they've obviously increased considerably in the last 20 years (let's say 2% then, more like 20% now, but those are the sort of numbers I'd assign to Germany in 1923 and 1932; and the word "genocide" is a very high bar: the atrocities of the last few weeks are roughly comparable to the first wave of Nazi assaults on Jews, so admitting that it's not genocide yet in no way excuses what's happening).

Of course, whatever Israel does will wind up being different from what Nazi Germany did, or from any of the other well known cases. It's become commonplace to liken Israel's caste system to Apartheid, but one difference stands out: both regimes brutally suppresses any sign of political dissent, but South Africa (like the "Jim Crow" South) still depended on cheap black labor, so there was an economic brake that kept state-sanctioned violence from escalating to genocide. On the other hand, Israel's doctrine of "Hebrew Labor" (which dates back to Ben Gurion in the 1930s) makes Palestinian labor dispensible. For an increasing number of Israelis, the final solution is to drive all Palestinians into exile (as many were in 1947-49, in 1967, and in smaller numbers ever since). A major focus of the new ultra-right government is to strip Israeli Arabs of their citizenship rights and force them into exile, so the mechanisms for massive "ethnic cleansing" are quickly being put into place.

The fundamental logic of expulsion and/or extermination has been baked into Zionism from the beginning, but it's always been tempered by the understanding that Israel is a small country, dependent on the US and Europe for good will and protection, so Israelis took pains to cushion and minimize their frequent atrocities and affronts to public opinion. However, a series of US administrations (you can start with Clinton, who was chummy with the Labor governments, or Bush, who gave it all up to Sharon) have abdicated any possible oversight role, leaving Israelis free to indulge their worst impulses. Ironically, Biden seems even more completely under Israel's thumb than Trump, even as many Democrats are horrified by the ultra-right regime. (Republicans were quicker to recognize Israel as racist, militarist, and fanatically fundamentalist, because those are traits they want America to embrace.)

Of course, the real problem with genocide as a final solution in Israel isn't that the world will object and recognize Israel as a pariah state (although there's a movement to do that), or that the Israelis themselves will develop a conscience (although some have), but that there are just too damn many Palestinians. That's always been the problem. Settler colonies have succeeded only in places where the numbers favored them (America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina). They failed where the settlers weren't able to muster majorities (South Africa, Algeria, lots more). Israel has always been the borderline test case, and while sometimes they appear to have won, their refusal to grant Palestinians rights to coinhabit their territory keeps their project in peril. In recent years, Palestinians have put their faith in mobilizing international sentiment to their cause, and as such have avoided returning to the violence of the second intifada. Israel, on the other hand, appears convinced that the best way to sway the world is to provoke an armed uprising. As the final solution approaches, that will surely happen. We should prepare ourselves for that eventuality, and make sure that blame is accorded properly.

Ukraine War: The St Clair piece, above, includes excerpts from the Biden and Putin war anniversary speech, which are highly revelatory.

  • Blaise Malley: [03-01] Diplomacy Watch: Is this India's moment on the world stage -- as mediator? Grasping at straws, as neither side feels they can admit they did anything wrong, or compromise in any way.

  • Ellen Ioanes: [02-26] Here's what arming Ukraine could look like in the future: "France, Germany, and the UK proposed a new defense plan -- that might be a subtle bid for peace negotiations." Russia's invasion of Ukraine has made it practically impossible to consider dismantling NATO. However, the NATO-backed defense of Ukraine suggests a reform posture that could be better than NATO: the Western nations promise to provide very substantial arms and economic support to repel a Russian invasion, as has happened in Ukraine, but don't require key elements of NATO membership that make the organization appear provocative: no NATO troops would be stationed in the client country (as is the case with Ukraine), the client's troops would not be deployed in other NATO members, and would not be obligated to come to the common defense. This isn't exactly what the troika are proposing, but represents an intermediate position between full NATO membership and neutrality.

  • Tamar Jacoby: [02-22] After Biden's Visit to Kyiv, Ukrainians Welcome US Aid but Plead for More: Zelensky's appetite for arms seems insatiable. After Russia's strategic retreats southeast of Kharkiv and around Kherson, Zelensky seems to have concluded that the only thing holding Ukraine back from driving Russia back to their pre-2014 borders is the need for more arms. At least that's an argument that appeals to Washington, but it's probably unrealistic. Russian defense is likely to become more committed (and desperate) as Ukrainian forces approach pre-2022 borders, where they'd be fighting on home ground (assuming Russian majorities in Crimea and Donbas haven't had a change of heart, which seems like a safe assumption). Moreover, while the supply of arms from the west can well continue indefinitely (assuming US/Europe are still interested in protracting the fight), Ukrainian soldiers are a finite resource, one likely to be depleted faster than the much larger Russia. Moreover, motivation, which was so critical in the defense of Kyiv and Kharkiv, shifts the closer the lines get to Russia. There is also a whole meta-level to the arms requests, not least the excuses they offer for failures. If Ukraine stalls, they can always blame the west for holding back. As failure is by far the most likely outcome of any war, one can view the interchanges as an elaborate blame-shifting operation. In the end, that's all there will be.

  • Christopher Mott: [03-03] Tell me how this ends: If recent history is a guide, not with a knockout blow: "Maximalists look at WWII and think the Ukraine war can take a similar path." It's hard to see how anyone can even imagine such a thing. The insistence on "unconditional surrender" was a consequence of fighting "total wars." The Ukraine War is devastating, but it is also contained within the pre-2014 border of Ukraine (aside from minor, deniable sabotage within Russia; I'm not aware of any similar sabotage in NATO countries). Total war became unthinkable with the advent of nuclear weapons. What I think the maximalists are aiming for here is more like the endings of WWI, when first Russia and then Germany capitulated not so much due to battlefield losses as to popular upheavals against the war governments. (The only similar case in WWII was in Italy, but Germany moved quickly to keep Italy from surrender.) There are certainly Americans who imagine the Russians removing Putin from office, then surrendering. That strikes me as unlikely, but I also have to caution against the lop-sided surrender terms of Russia and Germany in WWI, which may have seemed like a good deal at the time, but led fairly directly to further wars.

    As for Mott's other examples, one fact that stands out in my mind is that neither the US nor the USSR felt they could allow client-state conflicts to fester (especially the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars, which were ended -- if not exactly resolved -- within 1-3 weeks). On the other hand, we don't have a superpower (even China) who can bully the US and/or Russia into seeing sense, so we're stuck waiting for Biden and Putin to chill out. That wait has already been a long one.

Other stories:

Spencer Ackerman: [03-05] The Iraq War Unleashed an Age of Grift. We're Still Living in It: "This month marks the 20th anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq, a giant con that heralded a thousand more." Jim Mattis and Elizabeth Holmes are threads in a broad mosaic:

Obviously, fraud in America didn't begin with the invasion of Iraq. The country that gave the world P.T. Barnum, Ivan Boesky, junk-bond king Michael Milken, and Trump (who pardoned Milken) is no innocent babe constantly committing well-meaning blunders. Iraq belongs in a lineage of wars, American and otherwise, waged on false pretexts, from President Polk's 1846 lie that "American blood has been shed on American soil" to invade Mexico . . . to the inciting Gulf of Tonkin non-event in Vietnam.

Ross Babbage: [02-27] A War With China Would Be Unlike Anything Americans Faced Before: Unfortunately, this article doesn't do a very good job of explaining why -- although he has some fanciful ideas of how China might fight, he misses lots of things, including basic strategy. Worse, he insists "building a stronger deterrence by addressing such weaknesses is the best means of averting war." Deterrence is a fine theory if neither side has any desire to fight the other, as was the case in the Cold War, but it's just daring otherwise, and mistake-prone. Israel, for instance, has used its nuclear deterrence as a shield for low-grade offensive operations against Syria and Iran, confident that isolated, infrequent acts of war won't be reciprocated. Deterrence has limited the war in Ukraine, but didn't keep Russia from invading, and won't force it to withdraw. And if deterrence has worked so poorly against Russia, what about a far stronger opponent like China, where the theory cuts both ways? That's unknown, unfathomable territory?

Liza Featherstone: [02-27] Here's Proof That Gas Stoves Are Overrated: "As the end of a study that gave people induction stoves to try, not a single person wanted their gas stove back." I grew up with a gas stove, but have lived in several places with electrics, and managed to cook some pretty good dinners on the latter -- including Chinese, which really demands the ability to raise and lower the heat dramatically (something electrics cannot do, although induction electrics are better in that regard). So when we remodeled the kitchen in 2008, I shopped around seriously. At the time there was a trend in high-end stoves for gas burners on top and an electric oven -- they were called "dual-fuel ranges." I also read a bit about induction ranges, which had just came out, but I gave them little consideration, partly because I understood that I'd have to buy new cookware (and I was very happy with what I had). So I wound up spending $5,000 on a 36-inch, 6-burner Capital, plus a couple thousand more on a range hood and a second oven (an LG electric -- I was originally considering a warming oven, but got a good deal on a full-size wall unit).

It turns out that I mostly use the electric oven, although the gas is good for large roasts, and the broiler is better. No complaints about the gas range top, other than that it takes a fair amount of work to keep it clean. If there's an air pollution problem, that's never been evident -- although since this controversy flared up, I'm more conscientious about running the hood fan. Since then, I've read good things about induction stoves, and can well see this article's claims being true. If I was redoing the kitchen now, I may wind up making the same choices, but I'd certainly consider induction. (That clean glass top is attractive.) If I were building new houses or apartments, I probably would go electric. But it's no big deal being a bit out of step with the world. Some years back, there was a big push to get people to switch from incandescent to compact fluorescent light bulbs, and there was an idiot backlash against the change. Still, it wasn't long before LED bulbs made compact fluorescents obsolete, and there was hardly any controversy about that. As it happens, we have all three types around the house. The world may change fast, but most of us tend to lag behind.

Kurt Hackbarth: [03-04] No, AMLO Is Not Undermining Mexican Democracy. The last couple weeks have seen a sudden propaganda tirade to scratch Mexico off the list of the world's democracies. Similar broadsides have occurred whenever America's self-appointed guardians of democracy have taken offense at a world leader who has proven insufficiently pliable for global business interests. So it's not easy to get some straight reporting on the subject. For another case where the propaganda got way ahead of the horse:

Richard Heinberg: [03-03] Why News of Population Decline and Economic Slowdown Isn't Necessarily a Bad Thing. Long ago, I read Paul Ehrlich's The Population Bomb, and it's had a long impact on my thinking, even as I came to realize that much of his argument was wrong. The thing he's most often faulted for is not realizing that technology (especially the "green revolution") would create resources that could support much more population. But a bigger error was in his assumption that resource usage would scale with population increase, or conversely that people would all get relatively equal shares of resources. Even then it should have been obvious that resource distribution was extremely inequal, so he was depending on a liberal political reform that never happened. But what brought this home to me was a chart that showed China's population approaching a plateau, while Chinese use of materials and energy continued a steep rise. What happened was that Chinese got richer, and that effect was all the more dramatic because they didn't have all those extra people to support. The most interesting part of this piece is that virtually every nation with a declining population "is seeing stable or rising wages and historic lows in unemployment." Brad DeLong's Slouching Towards Utopia makes this same point, even more globally. Heinberg sees this as a shift to a post-growth economy, and wonders whether China will handle it better than the rest of us.

Jake Johnson: [03-02] 'Time to End the Greed': Sanders Vows Bill to Cap Price of Insulin at $20 Per Vial: After having raised insulin prices "up by over 1000% since 1996," Eli Lilly got a lot of good press last week for pledging to "cut the list prices of its most commonly used insulin products by 70%." This explains why, and why that isn't enough.

Dylan Matthews: [03-01] Joe Biden is pretty good at being president. He should run again. Well, he's been better than I expected (although I'm not very happy with his foreign policy, where he seems to have married the blob, while gently applying the brakes against its worst excesses). He's supported generally progressive legislation. He's avoided appointing some of the Party's worst neoliberal hacks (especially economists who did so much damage to Obama's administration). Still, it doesn't automatically follow that he should run for a second term. Age is the obvious problem: he was gaffe-prone in his 30s, but past 80 every slip up is going to pounced on as a sign of dementia. The Democratic Party could use a leader who can articulate a vision, and he's not really up to that. On the other hand, the question isn't whether he can hang on for another 4-5 years -- that's what the VP and cabinet are for.

The real question is: can he win in 2024? I'm not particularly worried about the election itself -- any Republican will be a fat target that any Democrat should be able to overcome. The real problem is that an open primary will pit the progressives against the neoliberals, and the latter (e.g., Mike Bloomberg and whoever he tabs as his billion-dollar proxy) hate the left even more than they fear Republicans. Biden bridges that gap better than I imagined he could. Still, someone needs to solve his crisis-prone foreign policy. Democrats will be easily preferable on the economy, on rights, on freedom, but they can't afford to be viewed as the globalist war party. Biden needs to settle the Ukraine War, and to reach some accommodation with China. And fixing easily solvable standoffs with North Korea and Iran would be a plus. Some balance on Israel is probably too much to ask for, especially as the current regime seems to be intent on provoking a third intifada, confident that will provide a pretext for massive collective punishment.

Ian Millhiser:

Kim Phillips-Fein: [02-27] The Betrayal of Adam Smith: "How conservatives made him their icon and distorted his ideas." Review of Glory M Liu: Adam Smith's America: How a Scottish Philosopher Became an Icon of American Capitalism.

Brittany Shammas/Maham Javaid: [03-05] Another Norfolk Southern train details in Ohio.

Maxwell Strachan: [02-21] Companies Can't Ask You to Shut Up to Receive Severance, NLRB Rules: This is good news, but you have to wonder that companies ever thought they had the authority to enforce it. If "freedom of speech" is to mean anything, it has to cover the right to dis a company that did you wrong.

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