Sunday, April 16, 2023

Speaking of Which

While writing this, I threw out the following tweet:

Thinking about major patterns in American history: one is that progressive change often leads to reaction, which in turn inevitably falls into dysfunction and catastrophe, necessitating further progressive change.

First pass omitted "often" and "inevitably," but I had more characters to work with. I was thinking about adding a clause to the effect that the trick will be to sell progressive change so broadly and deeply that reaction won't be able to take root. Past progressive periods have had lasting impact, even once power shifted to opposing forces. Often, as in FDR's successful switch of focus to WWII or in LBJ's Vietnam War debacle, power shifted mostly due to other factors. Republicans have often been granted grace periods on the assumption that they wouldn't really do the awful things they campaigned for -- at least that they wouldn't do them to their own voters. On the other hand, reactionaries are directly responsible for their disastrous turns, because the stratified societies and repressive governments they favor are inherently destabilizing and suicidal.

This meme showed up in my Facebook feed, forwarded by a dear friend who's not known for lefty politics. Title is: "Shocking Things Liberals Believe." The list:

  • People working 40 hours a week should not live in poverty.
  • CEOs should not receive 3,000 times the pay of their workers.
  • Wall Street gangsters should go to prison when they steal.
  • No child should ever have to worry about being shot at school.
  • No one, especially veterans, should be homeless.
  • There should not be subsidies for profitable corporations.
  • Equal rights and equal pay should be the benchmark for all Americans.
  • Politicians should not dictate medical decisions for women.
  • Lobbyists should not be allowed to bribe our representatives.
  • Companies should not be permitted to trash the earth for profit.
  • Healthcare should be given to all, not be a luxury for rich people.
  • Everyone should have access to higher education.

That's certainly not an exhaustive list, but nothing there I'd nitpick much less argue against. I'm not sure I'd describe liberals thusly, but if liberals are serious about protecting their idea of individual liberty, they need to get behind an agenda that does a much better job of securing basic rights, including Roosevelt's "freedom from want" and "freedom from fear," than America does now.

Top story threads:


Other Republicans:

  • Ryan Cooper: [04-13] Republicans' Self-Inflicted Budget Impasse: "The GOP discovers that shouting lies on television is not a good way to figure out how to tax and spend." Further down: "It turns out to be quite difficult to operate a political party made up of 75 percent crack-brained yahoo attention hounds, whose voters are 'egged on by a media apparatus that has trained its audience to demand the impossible and punish the sell-outs who can't deliver,' in the words of Alex Pareene." Pareene also wrote (back in 2017): "Donald Trump today is a cruel dolt turned into a raving madman by cable news and" Yeah, but four years later he's much further gone.

  • Gabriella Ferrigne: [04-14] New docs reveal racist messages by man Abbott wants to pardon in BLM protester killing: "Daniel Perry repeatedly made racist comments and discussed plans to kill people."

  • David French: [04-13] How Tennessee Illustrates the Three Rules of MAGA: I hadn't seen this formulation before: "First, that before Trump the G.O.P. was a political doormat, helplessly walked over by Democrats time and again. Second, that we live in a state of cultural emergency where the right has lost everywhere and must turn to politics to reverse this cultural momentum. And third, that in this state of emergency, all conservatives must rally together. There can be no enemies to the right." Like so much Republican drivel, it's hard to pick which thread to unravel first. But sure, I suppose you can divide the public sphere into economics and culture. The focus on culture is convenient for many Republicans because it distracts from the main thrust of Republican policy going back to Reagan, which has been economic: to shift power and wealth from labor and customers to business, leading to a massive increase in inequality. It's easy to understand why Republicans don't want people thinking about economics, except insofar as they can fob blame off on Democrats (gas prices works for this, even though most of the executives who profit from higher prices skew hard Republican). Culture change, on the other hand, happens irrespective of politics, which feeds into both their victimization complex and their sense of desperation.

  • Gabrielle Gurley: [04-13] Tennessee Republicans Step Up Attacks on Democratic Cities: "States rights" supposedly tries to bring government closer to the people, but Republicans only want to decentralize power when the net flow is in their favor. That's led to many cases of Republican-controlled states limiting what mostly Democratic cities can do. Tennessee got a reminder of that when the state legislature expelled representatives from Memphis and Nashville, only to have them returned to office.

  • Josh Kovensky: [04-16] Texas GOP Struggles Over What Crisis to Manufacture at Border. The state legislature is pushing a bill that would declare that Texas is being invaded from Mexico, authorizing a "state-run Border Patrol Unit, empowered to deputize and train citizens, and to 'repel' and 'return' undocumented migrants seen crossing the border" (or, as critics dubbed it, a "vigilante death squads policy").

  • Eric Levitz: [04-13] Why the GOP Can't Moderate on Abortion Pill Bans: A big part of this is tactics: they decided to equate abortion with murder, which created a strong force dragging the law toward conception. And they threw in a few more axioms which, again, couldn't be compromised. And they billed themselves as the champion of the fetus, building up what is essentially a single-issue voting bloc, one they cannot afford to lose. They did pretty much the same thing with guns, so again they're incapable of compromise. Any time you adopt a moral absolute, you can only move toward that pure point. Any deviation is seen as a sign of weakness, and Republicans can't bear to show that. Their whole self-image is built up around resolute strength, no matter how stupid that gets.

  • Jason Linkins: [04-15] It's Really Quite Simple: Republicans Hate Young People. Scott Walker blames "liberal indoctrination," but it's conservatives who are legislating curricula and banning books. And banning abortion: "Everywhere you look, Republicans are finding it very difficult to actually run on the post-Roe dystopia they've engineered -- so much so that they're now trying to get people to just stop talking about it."

  • Nicole Narea: [04-11] Why these Democrats are defecting to the GOP: "Three Democratic lawmakers in Louisiana and North Carolina switched parties recently."

  • Heather Digby Parton: [04-14] Republicans, facing devastating fallout from "Dobbs effect," refuse to quit abortion bans.

  • Bill Scher: [04-14] Why DeSantis Should Take a Pass on the 2024 Presidential Election: "The idea that the Florida governor could cinch the GOP nomination by running as a competent, no-drama Donald Trump is fundamentally flawed." [For a counter argument, see: Ross Douthat: [04-15] Why DeSantis Has to Run.] I wouldn't presume to offer advice, but I do think that last week's Frank Luntz argument that Republicans want Trumpy policies without Trump's personality, which is DeSantis in a nutshell, is exactly wrong -- something which I think DeSantis realizes, which is why he keeps trying to fabricate media outrages like attacking Disney perks and trafficking refugees from Texas to Martha's Vineyard. I doubt he'll succeed, but if he has the money lined up, he might as well run. (Not that he needs to rush it, as he's already getting the sort of press few candidates other than Trump get.) If Trump beats him then loses, he'll have a case that it should have been him. If DeSantis gets the nomination, 2024 against Biden is probably his best timing.

  • Dylan Scott: [04-13] Republicans want to force doctors to mislead patients about reversing abortions: Kansas, in particular, though why anyone would go to the trouble of taking a dose of mifepristone then change their mind and try to get the effect reversed is hard to imagine. The much more likely explanation is that Republicans just want to make the lives of women seeking abortions as miserable as possible. By the way, there's more evil brewing in the KS legislature, despite the fact that voters overwhelmingly rejected their anti-abortion constitutional amendment.

  • Kyle Swenson: [04-16] Iowa to spend millions kicking families off food stamps. More states may follow.

  • Michael Wines: [04-14] If Tennessee's Legislature Looks Broken, It's Not Alone.

  • Li Zhou: [04-12] The return of two expelled Tennessee Democrats is a powerful rebuke to Republicans.

Matters of (in)justice: The long-brewing Clarence Thomas scandal got so big last week I moved it out into its own section. And, of course, other stories that could be filed here got slotted under Trump or Other Republicans. Still much to report:

Clarence Thomas:

Matters of economy:

  • Dean Baker: [04-13] Can Jerome Powell Pivot on Interest Rates, Again? Reminds us of why Baker thought Powell deserved a second term, and offers hope that as inflation abates he will "buck the conventional wisdom" and lower interest rates to keep the economy strong. I felt that Biden made a mistake -- as did Obama and Clinton in renominating the Republican Fed chairmen they inherited -- in not picking a more reliable ally, and so far I feel vindicated in my position.

  • Miles Bryan: [04-14] The real reason prices aren't coming down: "Excuseflation"; another new word here is "greedflation." Let me try: for many years now, at least since the Bork reformulation of antitrust rules in the 1980s and the mania of mergers and leveraged buyouts, markets have been becoming less competitive, which means companies could demand higher monopoly rents. But it didn't always happen, because price gouging ticks people off, and threatens a backlash. However, the pandemic produced a lot of supply-side glitches, which eventually coalesced into a plausible excuse for raising prices. When the expectation of higher prices sat in, the companies that could raise them without losing significant market share did so. To the extent this is true, the Fed isn't tackling the real causes of inflation. They're just trying to beat it with their stick.

  • Meg Jacobs: [04-13] The Forgotten Left Economics Tradition: "In the Progressive and New Deal eras, there was a markedly different response to rising prices, and a different usage of economic theory." I missed this one in last week's batch of American Prospect economics articles (under Stiglitz).

  • Robert Kuttner: [04-12] Will the Fed Wreck an Improving Economy? Fed chairman Jerome Powell says he's trying to control inflation, but sometimes he gives the impression that the statistic he's tracking to decide when to let up isn't inflation itself but unemployment. Kuttner also wrote: [04-13] A Revolution in Cost-Benefit Rules: "How Biden's new team at the Office of Management and Budget is reversing several decades of pseudo-technical right-wing mischief."

Ukraine War: As far as I can tell, the leaks don't amount to much. Granted, there are details they'd rather you not know, or not talk about, and there are things they should find embarrassing, but they don't amount to much.

  • Blaise Malley: [04-14] Diplomacy Watch: Biden administration in 'damage control' after intel leaks: "Leaders in Kyiv 'suspicious' of Washington's commitment to Ukrainian counteroffensive." Little diplomacy to report, other than that Pope Francis and Lula da Silva came out in favor, while Charles Kupchan and Richard Haass have "laid out a plan" to get to negotiations later while escalating now. It amazes me that serious people can make such arguments. The only question on negotiation is figuring out what each side really needs and what they can reasonably give up. The big points -- that Putin's invasion failed, that neither side can prevail on the battlefield, that the US and NATO will resist any further Russian expansionism, and that sanctions aren't a very effective deterrent -- should be pretty clear by now. The only real stickler is territory, and there the offer has been obvious from the start: let people in each disputed territory vote to decide on their fate. There are a lot of technical problems with this: chiefly, what are the boundaries of the territories in dispute, how refugees from those territories can vote, timing, etc. But fair-minded people can solve technical problems. Granted, neither side qualifies yet, and that's something each needs to work on. But what won't work is thinking that if only "we" (and this applies to either "we") can grab a bit more leverage, we'll be able to bend the other side to our will. Even unconditional surrender only works when the winning side tries to do the right thing (as the US mostly did after WWII, but as France/UK didn't do after WWI).

  • Chas Danner: [04-14] What Secrets Are in the Leaked Pentagon Documents -- and Who Leaked Them?

  • Robyn Dixon: [04-15] Breaking up with Russia is hard for many Western firms, despite war: "Only a small percentage of the hundreds of companies that promised to leave Russia after its invasion of Ukraine have exited." The Kyiv School of Economics "follows 3,141 foreign companies through its Leave Russia project, reports that only 211 companies have exited -- fewer than 7 percent."

  • Marc Fisher: [04-15] A new kind of leaker: Spilling state secrets to impress online buddies.

  • Anatol Lieven: [04-10] Pentagon leak reinforces what we already know: US-NATO in it to win: "But revelations about American and European boots on the ground are new, and could prove a dangerous and so far unexplained wrinkle."

  • Ashleigh Subramanian-Montgomery: [04-10] Even the Treasury Department admits sanctions don't work. As the last section puts it: "Time for a sanctions rethink."

Elsewhere around the world:

Other stories:

Dean Baker: [04-15] Quick Thoughts on AI and Intellectual Property: I haven't sorted through all of this, but I'll add a few more thoughts. A lot of what passes as creativity is really just the ability to pull disparate ideas out of the ether and reconfigure them in pleasing ways. AI may be hard pressed to come up with anything truly original, but it could swamp the market for "creative" recombination: all it needs to do is scan a lot of source material, then apply a few rules for sorting out what works and what doesn't. If you gave AI copyright standing, you could wind up with an automated trolling machine that would tie up honest work in endless litigation. If you don't, well, humans could use AI to vastly increase their production of copyrightable works, and they could become just as litigious. Either way, it's a mess, but the whole realm of "intellectual property" is a big legal mess even before you add AI to the mix. And as Baker knows, the whole system of enforcement is dead weight on the creative process.

David Dayen: [04-14] The Feinstein Affair: Senate Gerontocracy Reaches Absurd Heights: "Old senators, old rules, and old traditions all are cutting against what should be a simple task of confirming judges."

EJ Dionne Jr: [04-16] Gun absolutists don't trust democracy because they know they're losing: The NRA held another convention last week, attended virtually or physically by a phalanx of Republican presidential hopefuls (Pence, Trump, and Asa Hutchinson in person; DeSantis, Nikki Haley, and Tim Scott on video). "The nonsense floated in Indianapolis -- based on the idea that our national addiction to high-powered weaponry has nothing to do with America's unique mass shooting problem -- speaks to a deep ailment in our democracy." Oh, by the way:

Karen Greenberg: [04-11] The Wars to End All Wars? In his introduction, editor Tom Engelhardt reminds us that he started TomDispatch in 2002 to protest the "unnerving decision of President George W. Bush to respond to the disastrous terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon by invading Afghanistan," adding "even then, it seemed to me like a distinctly mad act." What's strange is that even though most observers admit that twenty-plus years of "war on terror" have hurt America more than they've helped, we seem to be further away than ever from a world where demilitarized peace is possible. Greenberg, who first got drawn into the legal morass of Guantanamo (I read her 2009 book, The Least Worst Place: Guantanamo's First 100 Days), has a 2021 book, Subtle Tools: The Dismantling of American Democracy From the War on Terror to Donald Trump, which connects the dots between 9/11 and such Trump abuses his Muslim ban, border policing, his killing of Iranian General Soleimani, his reaction to BLM protests, and his post-election insanity.

Elahe Izadi/Jeremy Barr/Sarah Ellison: [04-16] The Dominion vs. Fox defamation case is finally going to trial. As much as I hate defamation lawsuits in general, this one is exposing grievous malfeasance and public harm in a forums that will be hard to ignore. Key line here: "But First Amendment advocates aren't convinced that a Fox loss is bad for journalism -- and think Dominion has a much stronger case than most defamation plaintiffs." Also quotes Floyd Abrams: "The journalistic sins, which have already been exposed here, are so grievous and so indefensible that a victory for Fox will be hard to explain to the public." Also:

Paul Krugman: [04-11] Inequality Ahoy! On the Meaning of the Superyacht. Krugman used yachts as a measure of inequality in his book The Conscience of a Liberal (2007), contrasting how much yachts had shrunk during the "great compression" of the 1930-60s, compared to the Gilded Age extravagances of J.P. Morgan. Well, yachts are back now, bigger and gaudier than ever, including the one Clarence Thomas has enjoyed. Also on yachts:

Eric Levitz: [04-10] Blaming 'Capitalism' Is Not an Alternative to Solving Problems. Basically, a brief for social democratic reforms as opposed to the belief that only a revolution can root out the core problem that is capitalism. I've long felt that revolutions only occur the old system is too rigid and brittle to adjust to popular pressure, and therefore shatters. Russia in 1917, for instance, was less the "weak link of capitalism" than an autocratic regime locked into a disastrous war and incapable of reforming. A second point is that violence begets violence, and the more violence continues beyond revolution, the more doomed a revolution is to recapitulate the old regime. Levitz cites a bunch of statistics to show that very few Americans are disposed toward revolution, but the more relevant point is that the American political system is flexible enough to reform, if not to a point we can recognize as social democracy, than at least enough to preclude the violent rupture of revolution. (Of course, if you allow Trump and the Republicans sufficient power, all bets are off.)

On the other hand, while "blaming capitalism" isn't a practical political program, it does give one some clarity. Capitalism may tout free markets and free labor and maybe even freedom as an ideal, but it simply means that the profits go to the owners of capital -- a class who of necessity seek insatiably to maximize their returns, not least by manipulating the political system. Every word in that sentence is important, but "insatiable" (i.e., the felt need for infinite growth) is the crux of the problem, as it leads to two things that destabilize and destroy their world: a class system and environmental degradation. It is, of course, possible to limit those catastrophes through political reform, but doing so detracts from pure capitalism. This is why true capitalists regard anything that stands in the way of their quest for profits as socialism, a betrayal of all they believe in.

Adam Nagourney/Jeremy W Peters: [04-16] How a Campaign Against Transgender Rights Mobilized Conservatives: And elevated a political issue that could easily have been ignored into a defense of basic human rights. I've often wondered how many people we're talking about: "About 1.3 million adults and 300,000 children in the United States identify as transgender." That's about 0.5% of the US adult population, and 0.4% of 0-17 children (up to 1.4% of 15-17 children). That's not a lot of people to get so worked up about. But that's the point of the issue: it's a symbolic issue that a few Republicans seized on as a way to revitalize the cause of religious bigotry. And by the way, they've done more to publicize and promote acceptance of transgender people more quickly than any positive movement could.

By the way, if you'd like to meet some transgender people, take a look at: These 12 Transgender Americans Would Love You to Mind Your Own Business. This is part of a series I entered through What Happened to America? We Asked 12 People in Their 70s and 80s. The latter cohort was pretty evenly divided politically (although neither Donald Trump nor Diane Feinstein fared very well). But no Republicans in the transgender group.

Charles P Pierce: The Esquire columnist comments on a number of stories I've filed elsewhere:

Ben Schwartz: [04-14] How Woke Bob Hope Got Canceled by the Right: "The conservative comedian spoke out for gay rights and gun control, and got boycotted and ostracized by friends on the right, including Ronald Reagan." I'm a little surprised to see Hope labelled a conservative. Sure, he was of a generation when it was easy to get jingoistic about America, and I got tired of his USO shows, as he continued to associate with a military that had gone off the rails in Vietnam, but he always seemed like a decent-enough guy. And one thing was pretty unique about him, which is that nearly all of his characters were shameless cowards. He was, in this, the antithesis of John Wayne, who really was a conservative asshole.

Jeffrey St Clair: [04-14] Annals of the Covert World: The Secret Life of Shampoo: "The surveillance state is both more sinister and much sillier than most of us imagine."

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