Monday, July 25, 2016

A Very Quick Personal Note

Both this blog and my other blog Obscure But Superficial are experiencing an unprecedented boom in traffic, apparently coming from Russia, of all places.  Who are these Russian fans of mine?

The Perils of Populism

Bernie Sanders fans may just have handed the general election to Trump.  Granted, it is a bit early to tell.  I say and maintain that there is nothing quite like the sight of a political party committing ceremonial self-disembowelment on the national stage to convince most people not to vote for it. The question is whether this week's Democratic Convention count.  After reading articles and watching video clips, I personally thought expressions like "massive internal strife," "chaos," and "tensions . . . hit a fever pitch" somewhat exaggerated compared to the video clips.  The clips showed booing in parts of speeches -- and cheers in other parts by the same speaker.  It will depend, I suppose, how persistent they are, and how rowdy the demonstrators outside get.  And how it is spun in media reports.  And how shocking it seems by the very stayed standards of nominating conventions for the last 30-plus years.

All of which leads me to the Atlantic article I have been wanting to comment on for some time, How American Politics Went Insane.  The author is tiresomely even-handed, blaming it all on the process and the breakdown of the procedural mechanisms for negotiation, compromise, and getting things done.  He tries not to place the blame on one side or the other, yet somehow all his actual, real-world examples of extremism getting out of hand were on the Republican side.  Well, Sanders followers are working to catch up.

The account of procedural problems is dull and ultimately not very helpful because it ignores the real problems in outlook that underlie the procedural problems.  The most valuable part is the one that actually gets to the real underlying problem:
[B]etween 25 and 40 percent of Americans (depending on how one measures) have a severely distorted view of how government and politics are supposed to work. I think of these people as “politiphobes,” because they see the contentious give-and-take of politics as unnecessary and distasteful. Specifically, they believe that obvious, commonsense solutions to the country’s problems are out there for the plucking. The reason these obvious solutions are not enacted is that politicians are corrupt, or self-interested, or addicted to unnecessary partisan feuding. Not surprisingly, politiphobes think the obvious, commonsense solutions are the sorts of solutions that they themselves prefer. But the more important point is that they do not acknowledge that meaningful policy disagreement even exists. From that premise, they conclude that all the arguing and partisanship and horse-trading that go on in American politics are entirely unnecessary. Politicians could easily solve all our problems if they would only set aside their craven personal agendas.
Clearly, Donald Trump is the classic politiphobe candidate.  But Bernie Sanders has been stirring the same pot, insisting that he will launch a political "revolution" that will sweep away resistance to his agenda.  Sanders, it should be added, is no Trump.  But comparisons to Ted Cruz are not altogether unreasonable.

Cruz's game has been to stake out a position that he knows is not politically possible to pass, make a highly conspicuous show of standing up for it, do everything in his power to prevent any sort of constructive deal and then, when Republicans are forced to cave and seek an alliance with Democrats, proclaim his ideological purity and denounce his colleagues for not joining him.  Cruz differs from Trump in having actual principles and genuinely believing in what he stands up for.  But it is also clear that his goal is not to win the legislative battle, but to be defeated and gain applause from the base.

If Donald Trump wins in November, and especially if revulsion against Trump leads to Democrats taking at least one house of Congress in 2018, would Sanders play a similar game?  Certainly it was the game he played when pitching to his followers in the primaries. But, as he is making clear now, he never actually meant to carry it all the way into the general election.  But now Sanders is  learning, as have so many Republican leaders, that he who rides the tiger fears to dismount.  Once you stir up people's ugly passions, they are not so easy to un-stir.  

All of which makes the point as to why populism, despite its exaltation of the common people and claim to champion popular interests, is profoundly dangerous to democracy.  I outsource to Jonathan Chait:
Populism can . . . be defined as a certain kind of political style. Populists believe the government has been captured by evil and/or corrupt interests, and that it can be recaptured by a unified effort by the people (or, at least, their people).  . . . . Populists make their case in plain terms, and often argue that the problems themselves are simple, which explains why only corruption has prevented their easy resolution. . . . When you are arguing that there are no simple solutions, and that the non-simple solutions you favor will take a long time to work, you’re proving that you’re the opposite of a populist. 
In other words, populism is the ideology of "politiphobes."  It denies that meaningful policy disagreement exists and sees the only obstacle to implementing simple, common sense solutions (i.e., their personal preferences) is the corruption of underhanded politicians.  It rejects the difficult decisions and complex tradeoffs that are part of the ugly reality of policy making.  It demands what is not doable and then rages at politicians when they inevitably fall short.  And it rejects the essential skills needed to make democracy work, "accepting disagreement and dissent as normal, and learning to be a gracious loser (or winner)."*

And, in the final paradox, both Trump and Sanders demonstrate the dangers of corrosive cynicism and how close extreme cynicism can be to dangerous naivity.  Republicans who believe our current system is so corrupt that Trump would be an improvement over what we have now have reached well past a healthy skepticism of our current leadership to a mindless cynicism, coupled with an extraordinary willful blindness as to just how bad Trump can be.  And Sanders supporters  who really can't tell the difference between Clinton and Trump may give us the opportunity to find out.

*I should add that I believe this is a lot of the appeal of conspiracy theories as well.  Conspiracy theories allow believers to avoid having to deal with the difficult choices and complex trade-offs that are necessary to real world policy and instead believe that if only those evil conspirators would stop what they were doing, all our problems would disappear.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

The Lure of Despotism and Its Failure

Look, I understand to some degree Donald Trump's appeal, which is to say, the appeal of setting aside democratic norms in favor of an elective despotism.  Democracy is hard.  It requires habits and discipline that are difficult to learn and easy to forget such as acceptance of dissent as normal, recognition of the need for that seeming oxymoron, a loyal opposition, and a willingness to be gracious both in victory and defeat.  Democracy is best seen, not as something people desire for itself, but as an uneasy compromise, not as good as a dictatorship by Us, but infinitely preferable to a dictatorship by Them.

But that isn't all.  Democracy is ugly.  It airs out its dirty linen in the most distasteful manner that tends to undermine respect. New scandals always seem to be breaking out.  As the saying goes, two things you never want to see made are laws and sausages.  When lawmaking takes place in public, you get to see all the petty, spiteful, self-serving activity that goes into it, all the actors who seem more interested in advancing their partisan interests -- or, worse, their personal egos -- than the public good.  Factions,  petty squabbles, procedural tricks, and countless other distasteful matters are carried on in full public sight.  And, worse, when things take place in private, the public can only assume that politicians are hiding something worse than the ugliness on full display.  Besides, the democratic process is demonstrably inefficient.  Important goals get tied up in petty procedural squabbles and important work remains undone.  In times of deep ideological divide (as we have been experiencing) the inefficiency becomes much worse.

In times like this, people tend to lose faith in democratic institutions like Congress or their state legislature and admire authoritarian institutions like the military or the police, which are presumed to be disinterested patriots above petty, personal motive.  Or they long for a nice dictator to cut through the red tape and get things done.  Dictators, its is assumed, by eschewing the cumbersome democratic process, can exercise real efficiency and make the trains run on time.

There is just one little problem with this theory.  It isn't true. Dictatorships, as well as armies, police forces, and other inherently authoritarian institutions in a democracy, are just as petty, just as given to self-serving motives, and just as prone to factions and self-serving behavior as any democratic legislature.  The difference is that these things take place in private so the public doesn't see them.

I seem to recall a quote from one of the Founding Fathers to the effect that he was not concerned about efficiency in government because all the efficient governments he knew were despotic, but if so, he was wrong.  Free governments vary greatly, from grossly inefficient and incompetent to as good as can be expected in an imperfect world,*  but despotic government are always grossly incompetent and inefficient.  Any account of the Soviet Union is staggering in the degree of incompetence an inefficiency on display.  The Czars were also notorious in that regard, as were the Turkish sultans.  Nazi Germany is likewise proving to have been wildly inefficient.  After the conquest of Saddam Hussein's government, the US was able to lay bare the nature of his regime by studying the documents of his government and the pathology and incompetence is staggering.**

There are reasons why despotism always leads to inefficiency.  A leading one is that when institutions are kept from any outside scrutiny, they invariably become corrupt, sclerotic, and incompetent.  The only way to make government efficient is to subject it to openness and accountability.  Another is that under despotism, people invariably fear giving their leaders unwelcome news.  The result is that leaders live in a fantasy world.***  Yet another is that despotic leaders tend to fear and distrust any person or institution that is too competent as a possible threat and therefore deliberately set out to undermine any show of competence.  And finally, despots have serious internal security problems and are always setting up countless rival internal security organizations, each designed to infiltrate and undermine the others.  Indeed, I was quite intrigued by a blogpost I saw (no longer linkable) which postulated that bureaucratic orderliness is synonymous with the rule of law, and that snarling of the bureaucracy is the inevitable result of despotism.

In short, any sort of despotism is incompatible with efficiency.

But if despotism invariably breeds inefficiency, inefficiency also breeds despotism.  At the time the US was founded the Baron de Montesquieu, the political scientist who most influenced the Founding Fathers, had postulated that any government over a large territory was inherently despotic.  (This was one of the reasons many Americans so feared a strong federal government).  He acknowledged in exception in cases of a confederation, in which a large number of locally self-governing territories joined under a single partial government.  Montesquieu, it should be noted, distinguished between monarchy, meaning one-man government under the rule of law, and despotism, meaning one-man government run arbitrarily.  He considered liberty to be compatible with  monarchy, but not with despotism.  Perhaps one can see, then, why large territory and despotism went together.  Technology being what it was in the 18th century, there was a limit to how large a territory could be and still be efficiently administered.  In a confederation of self-governing sub-states, each local government is answerable to the population it governs and therefore prevented from being despotic.  In a monarchy of manageable size, local rulers are answerable to their bureaucratic superiors and can bound by laws and subject to administrative punishment for illegal or oppressive conduct.  In a territory under a single central government, but too large for efficient oversight, the central rulers have little choice but to appoint local official and leave them to their own devices.  These viceroys are accountable to neither the local population nor the central government and act as local, petty despots who are invariably despised.

A milder version of these factors can be seen even in democratic governments.  The rampant corruption in the Grant Administration, for instance, appears to have resulted at least partly from Grant's authoritarian, military style of administration and failure to abide the the normal bureaucratic division of labor, i.e., its snarling of the usual bureaucratic orderliness.  McCarthyism made State Department officials fear to give accurate reports to their superiors.  Although their fear was merely for their careers and not for life or liberty, the result was nonetheless to undermine the quality of information that made its way up the chain of command. And George W. Bush was notorious, both for cutting himself off from unwelcome news and for administrative incompetence.

Which leads to the subject of Donald Trump.  The article begins:
We’re all aware of the movie supervillain cliche, coldly murdering his top lieutenant while seething, “You have failed me for the  last time!” You see that, and you’ve got to wonder: Who are these stupid henchmen? Why would anyone work for that asshole? 
In real life, people don’t want to work for that asshole, particularly not when they have better options. 
Obviously, operating in the US, and without the power of the state, Trump is at the milder end of the despotism scale.  Barred from murdering his top lieutenant, he settles for strict non-disclosure statements and sues employees who break them.  He also promotes rivalries among employees on a "divide and conquer" theory, and tends to favor yes-men who tell him what he wants to hear.  In short, denied a the opportunity to be a true despot, Trump nonetheless rules in the most despotic style he has available, with the resulting -- and predictable -- distortions and inefficiencies.  He may very well win the election despite all that.  But, as I have commented countless times before, if he can't even run a campaign, what sort of job will he do running a government?  My answer would be, as despotically inefficient a job as our institutions permit.

*And, incidentally, despite libertarian theories of the perfectly efficient private sector driven by perfect markets, really "as good as can be expected in an imperfect world' is as good as can be expected from the private sector, either.
**To the extent that it made me think Hollywood understands evil overlords better than we give it credit for.  (Cue jokes about Hollywood having lots of evil overlords, known as "producers."
***Following the movie The Last Emperor, I read an abbreviated translation of the Last Emperor Pu Yi's autobiography, which contained an extraordinary example.  Under the despotic Dowager Empress Cuxi believed that Europeans had no knees!  (My father believes this was an excuse that exempted them from kneeling in the presence of the emperor).  As a result, when China's highest ranking officials were planning support for the Boxer Rebellion, someone suggested that if they pushed Europeans over with a stick, they would be unable to get up!  Needless to say, it did not work.

Trump: The Worst of All Possible Worlds

Sure enough, Donald Trump's fear-mongering speech is swinging public opinion in his favor.  The latest polls show him nearly pulling even with Clinton.  Nate Silver now shows his chances of winning at 42.3%, with the critical swing states of Ohio, Florida and Iowa all narrowly trending Trump and Nevada too close to call.  Whether this is merely a convention bounce or a permanent trend remains to be seen.  Panic may premature now, just as it was when Trump had his post-nomination bounce.  But we are getting into the home stretch when every little jiggle of the polls really does mean something.

But I will reiterate my view that even if the US really is in as much peril as Trump claims (which it is not), the last thing it would need would be to put Trump in charge, because Trump is utterly and absolutely unqualified to be President.  His complete unfitness for the office, whether in knowledge, temperament, or ethics, is what his opponents should be hammering on just as much as the Republicans focused on bashing Hillary.  Is our country in peril?  Then don't turn it over to a man who knows and cares nothing about any important issue facing it, who can't concentrate more than a few minutes on any subject except his own self-aggrandizement, and who hasn't shown himself competent to run a campaign, let alone a government.  Is our system rife with crony-ism?  The don't turn it over the the biggest crony of them all.  Is Hillary corrupt?  Then don't prefer instead a man whose corruption reaches unprecedented heights.  Is Hillary wrong?  Well, at least she is wrong within normal parameters.

Trump is not a normal candidate.  This was acknowledged in the primaries, but is largely forgotten now.  He is being treated as a perfectly normal candidate as the polls above show.

Sometimes Trump almost seems to be deliberately combining the capital flaws of all our previous Presidents.  Someone on a comments thread accused GW Bush of being:

  • More egotistical than Johnson
  • More vindictive than Nixon
  • Stupider than Ford
  • Less competent than Carter
  • Lazier than Reagan
  • Less honest than Clinton
(They probably had some unfavorable comparison to his father, but I don't remember what it was).  Well, in the clear light of hindsight, this is grossly unfair to Bush.  (Also to Ford, who was not stupid at all).  But it is a perfect description of Trump.  Consider:
  • More egotistical than Johnson.  Check.  Even his supporters would presumably not dispute this.
  • More vindictive than Nixon.  Again, check.  He has been openly threatening to use the power of the federal government against personal enemies if elected.
  • Stupider than Ford.  This one calls for some qualifications.  First of all, Ford got the unfair reputation of being stupid, but it was never true.  As for Trump, I certainly don't think he could have gotten so rich by being stupid.  But, as with Ben Carson, intelligence is not indivisible. Carson is literal brain surgeon, but that doesn't mean he knows anything about public policy, any more that than even our best any most brilliant President (choose for yourself which one) was qualified to perform brain surgery.  Trump is obviously highly intelligent in terms of exploiting all publicity to his advantage and capitalizing on name recognition.  In terms of parting fools from their money, he is a rare genius.  But in terms of his knowledge of public policy, he is a world-class ignoramus.  So, yeah, take whatever President was least conversant in public policy, and Trump is considerable less knowledgeable.
  • Less competent than Carter.  Let anyone who doubts this just look at the utter hash he has made of his campaign.  Granted, he easily coasted to victory in the primary despite his utter lack of a campaign structure, and my win the general election as well despite this deficiency.  But if he can't even manage a campaign, consider how well he will manage a government.
  • Lazier than Reagan.  This one, too, calls for some qualification, because it again raises the question of how Trump could have gotten so rich by being lazy.  Reagan was a notoriously disengaged, hands-off manager.  Trump certainly seems willing to work hard in terms of giving speeches, pressing the flesh, and the like.  But in terms of the nitty gritty work of actually learning about policy, Trump has made amply clear that he has no interest whatever in doing this.  In fact, he apparently intends to let his Vice President set all domestic and foreign policy while he works at "Making America great again," presumably by making speeches to adoring audiences.  There is a certain trade-off to be made in levels of engagement.  One reason for Carter's legendary incompetence appears to be that he failed to recognize just how much more difficult and complex the US government is than the government of Georgia.  As a result, he failed to delegate enough and took on more than he could handle.  Ronald Reagan, by contrast, delegated too much and let his advisers run out of control.  It led to a different kind of incompetence.
  • Less honest than Clinton.  Trump has taken lying to unheard-of heights.  Politifact rates his statements as 4% true, 10% mostly true, 15% half true, 16% mostly false, 37% false, and 17% pants on fire.  In other words, over half the things he says are completely and utterly false, and 70% are at least mostly false.
As for George W. Bush, in the clear light of hindsight, his capital flaw was his incuriosity or, if you prefer, his willingness to ignore the evidence and go with the gut.  He knew in his gut that Saddam Hussein just had to be involved with Al-Qaeda, just had to have a huge stockpile of weapons of mass destruction and just had to have re-started his nuclear program.  And he knew in his gut that we just had to be welcomed as liberators and that removing Saddam Hussein just had to work a democratic and US friendly transformation in the Middle East.  If there was no evidence to support any of these beliefs, that was simply the result of incompetence by our intelligence agencies or Saddam's skill in covering his tracks.  This certainty was matched by Bush's confidence that there just couldn't be an insurgency in Iraq when our intentions were so good.  Such confidence in his gut in the absence of any evidence proved disastrous.  But here again, Trump is more incurious, more fact-challenged, more confident that his gut instincts are superior to facts and evidence, whatever you want to call it, than GW Bush.

What is Obama's capital flaw?  Some might say when he first ran for President that it was his lack of experience, as he was only a freshman Senator.  Trump, by contrast, has no experience in government whatever, so he compares unfavorably to Obama in that regard.  

For a long time, many Republicans talked about Obama's teleprompter problem.  By this they meant that he was just an empty suit, reading lines from a teleprompter and not actually knowing what he was talking about.  Their main reason for this assumption was that Obama genuinely did stumble in debate and in more spontaneous formats.  But this was because Obama tended to over-think in those situations, rather than because he was uninformed.  With practice, he got a lot better at the more spontaneous give-and-take of debate. There was some truth in the accusation, though, that Obama was an empty suit who made people feel good about themselves without actually committing to anything, and that he thus let people project their aspirations onto him without actually standing for anything.  That necessarily meant that once in power he would disappoint.  Well, Trump has a teleprompter problem, but it is exactly the opposite.  He thrives in the spontaneous give-and-take of debate, but is not cut out for reading speeches from a teleprompter.  On the other hand, he really is uninformed.  Obama's opponents falsely accused him of reading speeches off the teleprompter without understanding them.  When Trump reads speeches off the teleprompter, he really doesn't understand them.  He has taken clear and definite, though not very practical, positions on immigration and trade.  As for other issues, he really doesn't have a position, but instead channels, not people's aspirations, but their resentments.  

So Trump is less experienced and more of an empty suit than Obama.

Clearly Trump has capitalized on corruption as Hillary Clinton's capital flaw.  But given the stories that have come out about his business practices, it is clear that Hillary is a babe in the woods by comparison.  Indeed, he seems to have no concept of the public interest as separate from his private interests.  Looking back for a point of comparison to the level of corruption Trump is promising, there is really none in US history.  Historically, our most corrupt administrations are considered to have been Warren G. Harding and Ulysses S. Grant.  But the corruption in the Harding Administration appears to have been limited to his Secretary of the Interior and not implicated the President or his appointees in general.  Grant, by contrast, ran an administration rife with corruption from top to bottom, but he personally was honest.  The only point of comparison I can think of for Trump is patrimonialism, i.e.,  "a type of rule in which the ruler does not distinguish between personal and public patrimony and treats matters and resources of state as his personal affair."  Those seem to be the terms in which Trump thinks, although I have some confidence in our institutions and their ability to prevent the worst abuses.

Throwing in other candidates in recent times, Trump seems to exceed all their flaws as well.  He is certainly less qualified for office than Sarah Palin.  I hearken back to when Paul Krugman said that anyone claiming to believe all the Republican doctrine would have to be either completely clueless or completely cynical.  He classified Romney as cynical with Bachman, Perry and Caine as clueless.  He ignored Trump's brief, ill-fated run.  At the time, I said Trump was cynical, but might manage a two-fer by being clueless as well.  Well, now we have our answer.  He is more cynical than Romney and more clueless than Bachman, Perry and Caine combined.  

The only recent candidate I have trouble comparing him unfavorably to is Ross Perot, with his insane, paranoid rantings about Republicans disrupting his daughter's wedding and circulating doctored photos of her.  The whole thing was so out there as to sound like true, clinical insanity.  And I am not yet ready to say that Trump is as clinically paranoid as Perot.  But, at the same time . . . Well, there is his flirtation with the birthers.  And with Alex Jones.  And his utterly bizarre stories about Ted Cruz's father having something to do with Lee Harvey Oswald (the main reason Cruz refused to endorse him).  So he might be giving even Perot a run for his money.

So there is my assessment of Donald Trump.  He combines all the worst features of our recent Presidents and candidates, and even of some harking back.  He is:
  • More egotistical than Johnson
  • More vindictive than Nixon
  • Stupider than Ford (who really wasn't stupid)
  • Less competent than Carter
  • Lazier than Reagan
  • Less honest than Clinton
  • More reality-challenged than G.W. Bush
  • More of an empty suit than Obama
  • More corrupt than Hillary (or Harding, or Grant . . . )
  • Less qualified than Palin
  • More clueless than Bachman, Perry or Caine
  • More cynical than Romney
  • And almost as paranoid, in the true clinical sense, as Ross Perot
And he stands almost a 50/50 chance of being our next President.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Three Biggest Stories From the Republican Convention

OK, I can't take it anymore.  I am giving in and making a new category of "Donald Trump."  So, what can I say about the Republican Convention.  I didn't watch it on TV, but read about it in blogs (anti-Trump).  So, what were the main stories of the convention.  I see three.

The dog that didn't bark.  To me, the biggest story about the convention was what didn't happen. There were no riots, no disturbances, no ugly showdowns between pro- and anti-Trump open carry advocates, no scary black guys, no scary biker dudes, nothing much to report outside the convention hall.  The drama took place within.

Be afraid.  Be very afraid.  Donald Trump's overall speech was an appeal to sheer, raw fear.  In my view, that is very dangerous for several reasons.

For one, fear is the most powerful of emotions because it grows directly out of the self-preservation instinct.  This causes fear to short-circuit reason and be very hard to counteract.

For another, it is my long-standing belief that fear is the greatest danger to democracy -- worse than power lust, although the combination of the followers' fear and the leader's ambition can be truly deadly.  And that looks very much like the Trump phenomenon.

Furthermore, although Trump's appeal to fear is vastly overblown, it has just enough reality to have appeal.  Crime has been falling for a quarter-century, but this last year it appears to have gone up again.  Granted, crime remains much lower that it was, but there is no way of knowing what we are seeing now is a mere uptick, or the beginning of a trend.  Besides, as with the economy, so too with security, it is not just the absolute numbers that matter; the trend line matters as much, sometimes more.  And now the Department of Justice is reporting that inner city gangs are planning to murder police.  If true, that is very scary indeed.  There have also been a disturbing number of terrorist attacks lately.  Certainly, none have been on the scale of 9-11, nor are any large-scale attacks likely, but lone-wolf terrorist are just about impossible to stop, and they are becoming more frequent.  Again, terrorist attacks are a miniscule portion of total crime, but they call it terrorism for a reason -- because of its power to terrify.

Finally, there is the very real chance that fear may drive voters to vote for a strongman (Trump) to keep them safe.  Whatever the real answers to the very real problems and dangers we face, I certainly do not believe that electing a megalomaniac with severe attention deficit disorder, no knowledge of or interest in policy, and minimal competence is going to help any of them.

On the other hand, Trump's message of fear, danger and chaos would have been a lot more potent if there had been actual disorders going on outside the convention hall.  Still, make no mistake, this appeal to fear will move the needle in his favor.  Whether that will be short-term swing or a real turning point I would not venture to guess.

Ted Cruz commits political suicide.  Seriously, what was the guy thinking?  It's not that I blame him for holding a grudge against Trump.  Trump did, after all, insult his wife and imply that is father was somehow involved in the Kennedy assassination (!).  So Cruz might quite understandably be unwilling to support Trump.  But he had two obvious options.  One was simply to stay home, as John Kasich did.  The other would be to make a concession speech sort of speech, saying that he had his differences with Trump in the past and expected to have them in the future, but the people have spoken, and the will of the people must be respected.  But to step out onto the convention floor and refuse to endorse him is a great way for a man hated by the Republican establishment but popular with the rank-and-file to unite both sides against him.

The general consensus appears to be that Cruz is betting that Trump will be a disaster for the Republicans in the 2016 election, so that Cruz can proclaim his prescience in opposing Trump and pick up the pieces.  It seems most unlikely to happen.  First of all, it is by no means clear that Trump will be an electoral disaster for the Republicans.  (Fear sells.  See above).  But assuming that he is, instead of becoming the party's savior, Cruz is more likely to be the party scapegoat.  Republicans will blame their failure on the party's failure to unite behind its candidate, and Cruz's public rejection of Trump will be the most obvious example of that failure.  Besides, party leaders are eager to dump Cruz, and this looks like their great chance to persuade the rank-and-file to do the same, and perhaps to show the rank-and-file why they hate the man so much.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Why the Latest Terrorist Attacks Don't Seem to be Helping Trump

So, in the last few weeks there has been an ISIS-loving Muslim who shot up a gay night club in Orlando Florida, an ISIS-loving Muslim in France who drove his truck into a crowd on Bastille Day, and an ISIS-loving Muslim in Germany who stabbed several passengers on a train.  There has also been the murder of five Dallas police by a radical black sniper, the murder of three Baton Rouge police by a radical black semi-anarchist, and several simple criminal killings of police.  This sort of thing is supposed to rebound to the advantage of the tough-guy candidate.  But none of it seems to be making much difference now.  Why not?

I can only assume, because the way the US media operate these days, in the last few months before an election, the election sucks all the oxygen out of the news cycle, so nothing else gets any sustained attention.  The only exception I remember is 2008, when we suffered the worst financial crisis since 1929 less than two months before the election.  But that was obviously an exceptional case.*

*In 1956, which was before my time, the Soviet Union invaded Hungary, Israel invaded Egypt with British and French backing, and the Secretary of State had emergency surgery for cancer, all in the immediate lead-up to the election.  Needless to day, all of this grabbed headlines.  What I don't know is whether presidential elections were such all-deadening events then as they are now.

Donald Trump's Vice President

And for the latest scoop on Donald Trump.  This article has been quite revealing and attracted a great deal of attention.  Apparently Trump asked John Kasich to be his Vice President, promising to put him in charge of "domestic and foreign policy" while Trump handled "making America great again."

I suppose it should be encouraging that Trump recognizes that he is utterly unqualified to handle "domestic and foreign policy."  Or, more likely, he simply doesn't much care about domestic or foreign policy, but at least recognizes that someone will have to handle them.  Presumably the plan would be for Kasich to actually run things, while Trump served as a figurehead who ran around shooting his mouth off.  Presumably Pence will now hold the same role.

It might seem almost reasonable -- someone competent will actually run things, while Trump's more rabid fans will never notice the difference.  But I can't see it quite working.  A Trump who simply basks in glamour and makes speeches will no doubt promise a lot of things that simply are not doable in the real world.  And, most likely, he will promise any number of mutually exclusive and contradictory things.  And when he fails to deliver, guess who will get the blame.  No wonder Kasich declined the role of administration scapegoat!

And presumably Trump will want to make the big, general decisions, including what to do in a crisis. I suppose there are things that can be done about that.  One would be to let Trump blather incoherently while his Vice President makes the actual decision.  A less subtle version of the same would be to handcuff Trump, stuff something in his mouth and lock him up in the closet until the crisis passes.  Or put him on Air Force One and have it take off somewhere out of radio range.  A more subtle version would be to let Trump spout several mutual exclusive answers and then manipulate him into doing whatever makes actual sense.

Then there is the account by Trump's ghostwriter breaking the shocking news about Trump that everyone who has been paying attention noticed a long time ago.  He has an extremely short attention span.  In fact, it is just about impossible to keep him focused on any topic other than his own self-aggrandizement for more than a few minutes.  “If he had to be briefed on a crisis in the Situation Room, it’s impossible to imagine him paying attention over a long period of time.”  How disastrous this would be, I suppose, would depend on how well his Vice President could distract, manipulate and usurp.  But if Trump ever caught on what was happening -- well, I wouldn't want to be on the receiving end of it.

And besides, even if Trump's Vice President could manipulate him out of making any actual policy decisions, presumably he would not be so easily distracted from two goals -- using the power of the Federal Government to punish his domestic critics and to advance his personal business interests. Some poor sucker would have to present legal caveats to him.  Presumably, that poor sucker would be his Vice President.  Once again, I can see why Kasich didn't want the job.  What is harder to understand is why anybody at all would accept it.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

How to Attack Trump's Vice Presidential Choice

So, Hillary Clinton has apparently decided to go with the conventional in attacking Trump's Vice Presidential choice, calling him an ideological extremists yada, yada, yada, that will all go in one ear and out the other.

I would have preferred a more trollish approach.  Hillary should have congratulated Trump on an excellent choice, said that Pence's many years of service in government, both in the House and as Governor of Indiana, show that he is well-qualified for the job, and noted with approval that Pence didn't let ideological dogma stand in the way of giving poor people access to health care when he approved the Medicaid expansion under Obamacare, taking care to use the word "Obamacare."

Anyone who hates Trump is not going to change their minds just because of his Vice Presidential pick.  But people who like his outsider status, he purity of any government service, will be distrustful upon being reminded that he has chosen a political insider as his running mate.  And as for choosing a candidate who has collaborated in the hated Obamacare -- well, that should be enough to put him on the defensive for a while and force him to do a good deal of explaining.  And in the world of politics, once you are on the defensive and explaining, you have lost the discussion.

Just What We Need! [Sarcasm]

Great!  Just what we need!  As if it wasn't enough to have white, right-wing paramilitaries and open carry advocates, now we have black, left-wing paramilitaries and open carry advocates.  It appears that the New Black Panther Party will be showing up openly armed at Trump protests.  This after black open carry advocates showed up at the Dallas Black Lives Matter rally and added to the confusion as a sniper fired on the crowd and the police (understandably) got confused and assumed the armed men present were in league with the sniper.  (And, it should be added, these good guys with guns were completely useless against the bad guy with the gun).

I suppose at least this will be a good test of my earlier question: Is the Second Amendment content neutral?  Do people who believe that the Second Amendment authorizes all law-abiding citizens to for private paramilitaries for the possible violent overthrow of government extend this right to everyone, regardless of religion or ideology, so long as they promise not to start shooting until their apocalypse-of-choice actually comes about?  It is true that a few Oath Keepers offered assistance to Black Lives Matter, but BLM turned them down, so the question remained moot.  With the New Black Panther Party, it is fast becoming relevant.

A quick glance at the right-wing press for their reactions showed them to be mostly neutral; they generally stuck to reporting the item without comment.  One did complain:
The news media has wall-to-wall coverage when conservatives carry firearms at protests, yet there has been no media coverage of this armed anti-Trump protest even with the Chicago riot Friday night over Trump and the arrest of a leftist agitator who stormed the stage during Trump’s Dayton rally.
So, mostly complaints about being unfairly singled out, but no opinions expressed on whether open carry by Trump protesters is appropriate.  Well, I trust they will grant the ideological consistency of the New York Times, which has condemned such displays.

I suppose general gun advocates have two possible responses here.  One is to say that when protesters and counter-protesters show up, the more heavily armed they are the better because it assures no violence because of the danger of retaliation.  To this I can only answer that anyone saying such a thing is living in a fantasy world.  Showing up armed at demonstrations is a form of escalation.  For both sides to show up armed is further escalation positively asking for trouble.  So radical an anti-government commentator as Justin Raimondo explained:
The whole point of even attending such a gathering, or, indeed, any sort of rational discussion about anything, is that we leave our guns—embodying the possibility of coercion—outside the door. We forsake force, and rely solely on our persuasive powers to get our point across.*
Two sides gearing up for possible armed showdown makes an actual showdown more likely, not less.

The other is to say that the New Black Panther Party are obvious bad guys (witness the Dallas shooting), and thus the very sort of people good guys have to arm themselves against.  Now while I fully agree that the New Black Panthers are bad guys, it also remains true that Micah Johnson (the Dallas shooter) was not a member of any of their organizations, just as Timothy McVeigh, though he regularly swam in the same ideological waters as the militia movement, did not belong to any of their organizations either.  I still regard both groups as bad guys for promoting paranoia and militarism, but YMMV, I guess.  But is it too much to hope that the New Black Panthers might bring at least an acknowledgement in some circles that the mere act of openly carrying guns and forming a private paramilitary does not automatically qualify you as a good guy?

I was fascinated by David Frum's column saying that the whole idea of  a law-abiding private paramilitary originated in the 1960's with the Black Panthers.  The Black Panthers scared the hell out of white people, led to tougher gun control laws, and eventually degenerated into criminality and were forcibly suppressed, but their ideas of the law-abiding paramilitary formed to resist state tyranny migrated over onto the right and gave rise to the anti-government militia movement.  Thus far, the paramilitary movement has been a white, rural, right-wing phenomenon, made up of general allies, though with the potential for hostile factions never far below the surface.  Well now, it appears, we have come full circle and black, urban, left-wing paramilitaries, calling themselves Black Panthers, no less, are with us again.

God help us all!

*Admittedly, it is less clear whether he still believes that. 

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

And Some Criticisms of Brexit Cheer Leaders

Clearly, then, I am more sympathetic to the Brexit than most people on my side of the aisle.  But that does not mean that I am an unqualified cheerleader for it, or that I look with approval on other cheerleaders. Obviously, the anger over immigration and tendency to scapegoat immigrants bothers me.  What bothers me more (speaking as an American, and focusing mostly on my fellow Americans) is the way cheerleaders for the Brexit portray it as an uprising of regular folks against a handful of out-of-touch liberal elitists, almost at the 99% rising up against the 1%.  In particular, there is a sort of glee over the extent to which supporters of "Remain" misjudged the degree of support for "Leave" and how that shows just out out of touch those liberal elitists are.  Comparison is often made to Pauline Kael, who said she never knew foresaw that Nixon would win because everyone she knew was voting for McGovern.

Look, Nixon won by essentially a two-to-one margin, so anyone who didn't see that sort of landslide coming was seriously out of touch.  The Brexit vote, on the other hand, was closer to 52-48 -- decisive, yes, but hardly a landslide let alone an uprising by the 99%.  If only a handful of liberal elitists backed "Remain," then nearly half the British population consists of out-of-touch liberal elitists, which is an odd definition for either "out-of-touch" or "elite."

Yes, I know.  The margin was overwhelming if you count only authentic, real Englishmen.  In the case of the US, authentic real Americans are roughly speaking what might be described as the Greater Appalachian culture, with all other American sub-cultures being less than authentic and not quite really American.  In the case of Britain, it would appear that authentic, real Britons are first and foremost ethnically English, with immigrants not counting at all and Scots, Irish and even Welsh counting for less than Englishmen, and they live outside of London, which is hopelessly cosmopolitan.  So I suppose that if you count only voters who are ethnically English and live outside of London, the "Leave" really did win by a landslide.

But I am a liberal.  I value social breadth more than social depth.  And I am not willing to say, as do so many Brexit cheerleaders, that only authentic real Englishmen morally "count," and that other people's vote carries no moral weight, or at least less moral weight than the authentic voters.  So here, as in other cases, we are seeing a coalition of elites and ethnic minorities (including Scots and Irish) against the non-elite (and predominantly non-urban) dominant ethnic group.

Or, put differently, we may be seeing the clash between electoral democracy and liberal autocracy.  That clash is growing and spreading all across Europe.  With Donald Trump, we are seeing its return in the United States.  To plenty of right wing populists, the choice is an obvious no-brainer.  They prefer electoral democracy to liberal autocracy because ultimately they prefer electoral democracy to liberal democracy.  To those of us who favor liberal democracy, it is looking less and less like a viable option.  And in the end, we may have to choose between the electoral democracy and liberal autocracy.  I do not look forward to it.

A Few (More) Notes on the Brexit

This article annoyed me, mostly because I see it as an abuse of Venn diagrams, although it does say some interesting things about the Brexit.

See, this isn't a proper Venn diagram.  It would better be drawn as a triangle with one side saying "Won't crash UK economy," "Acceptable to EU 27 states" and "Acceptable to Leave voters" on the side and each point of the triangle showing where the two items (but never three) converge.  A proper Venn diagram should have something in the areas that don't overlap, as well as more than one option in areas that do.  And either areas that overlap with all categories or an explicit note that there is no such place.

Now this is a REAL Venn diagram:

Or, if that is too complicated, here is a simpler (and unrelated) example of how a Venn diagram should work.

The basic argument is that the remaining EU members are not going to be willing to negotiate an exit on favorable terms.  They either want Britain to cave and agree to remain, or they want to make leaving intentionally painful.  It was rather the same with Greece, except that Greece was a lot more vulnerable than Britain.  For Britain, as for Greece, the best way out of this dilemma ("trilemma?") is to drag out negotiations until it becomes obvious to all that the EU is trying to make an example of them to show the price for wanting out.  Once that becomes apparent, it should sufficiently fire up British nationalism that the Brits will be willing to accept the hardships that accompany exit.  In other words, what is called for is a top-notch demagogue, something the Brits do not usually excel at, but they are working on it.

In any event, I count myself among people who believe that the near-term consequences of the Brexit won't be all that ruinous.  Anxiety will cause the pound to fall, British exports and tourism will boom, and it will be a case of everyone being pinched but no one being really impoverished.  What concerns me is not whether some demagogue will be able to inflame enough nationalism to persuade people to endure whatever hardships accompany leaving the EU.

It is the kind of demagogue we are most likely to see come forward.  Alexis Tsipras was the sort of demagogue I could approve of, the kind who punches up rather than kicking down.  If Tsipras had had the guts to take the Grexit (and the skill to manage it well, a dubious proposition) he would have appealed to Greek nationalism by denouncing those Eurocrats (specifically German Eurocrats) who wanted to wreck the Greek economy as a lesson to anyone else who might try to stand up to their dictates, and offer Greece as an inspiration to debtors everywhere wanting to stand up to Eurocratic/German imperialism.  It would require a certain delicacy of touch not often seen among demagogues to get the Greeks fired up enough to be able to endure the (genuinely severe) hardships that leaving the euro would have entailed without firing them up to something stupid like trash the German embassy, let alone make mob attacks on German tourists.  But at least I could trust Tsipras not to scapegoat immigrants.

Boris Johnson, Britain's most promising demagogue
The problem in Britain is that anger over immigrants was probably the major factor driving the "Leave" vote.  That means that a really effective demagogue will not just be one who stokes British rage over being made an example of, but one who encourages treating immigrants as scapegoats and is willing to inflame resentment toward them.  In other words, in a land not noted for its demagogues, Britain appears to have one ready in the wings in the person of Boris Johnson, the new foreign minister, described as Donald Trump with his wig on backwards. 

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

A Few Notes on the Dallas Shooting

I have nothing very original to say about the terrible killing of five Dallas police and wounding of others.  First off, to state the bleeding obvious, this is a horrible, outrageous crime that should be condemned by everyone, everywhere.  Second, to state the only slightly less obvious, it was certainly not the wish of the protesters for a sniper to fire on their demonstration (two of them were wounded; all were terrified), nor did they have any way of preventing a sniper from hiding in the building and firing.

What happens at the street level, though, is a different matter.  I got a bad taste from a You Tube video that showed right-wing blogger Michael Strickland pulling a gun on a Black Lives Matter demonstration.  Supporters of the movement argued that the it showed the restraint of the movement's organizers as they held back the crowd and protected him.  I saw some very ugly rage and the movement's leaders (some of them masked) struggling to keep the angry crowd from degenerating into a mob.  The danger passed only when the riot police (in full paramilitary gear) positioned themselves between the demonstrators and the man with the gun.  Strickland justified his actions saying he felt menaced by the crowd and drew his gun in self-defense.  Demonstrators justified their anger by saying that he was a well-known provocateur and that they were angry that he drew a gun on them.  The whole episode really does credit to no one.

All of which is a rather long way of saying that every time Black Lives Matter holds a rally, they are playing with highly combustible materials and in real danger of an explosion.  Demonstrations have degenerated into riots already in Ferguson and Baltimore.  Demonstrations in Minneapolis and Baton Rouge came within a hair-breadth of riots or, arguably, broke out in very small, localized riots.  This doesn't mean that be are back to the 1960's riots.  Those were incomparably worse.  All riots thus far have been short, low level, and contained.  Large portions of the movement are fighting to keep the lid on it.  Still, as I understand it, the '60's riots also started small and grew over time.  In 1977 we had a blackout in New York City, and a mad orgy of looting broke out.  In 2003 we had a blackout and all was quiet.  Would it still be quiet today?

The sight of heavily militarized police looking like an occupying army disturbs me.  But there is no denying that (with some notable exceptions) they have behaved with model professionalism in handling the demonstrations.  Indeed, this appears to be at least one major change for the better since the 1960's -- the police are much better at crowd control and at maintaining calm in public demonstrations than in the past.  That may end up being what saves us from sinking back into the 1960's.

So a few comments that no one will read.  To the police and their supporters:  Yes, there really is a problem.  Granted, when a black man is shot by police, even in circumstances that seem outrageous, closer investigation almost always reveals that things were more complex, that the victim was a dubious character, and that the shooting was perhaps understandable under the stress of the moment. But just because the use of lethal force by police is rare and usually ambiguous does not mean that all is well.  What is common is countless smaller uses of force, the endless insult of being treated as a criminal or at least criminal suspect.  The psychological toll adds up.  And if you doubt that this is true, consider what it is to be a cop.  Police being killed in the line of duty is rare.  But the endless stress of never knowing when someone might have it out for you is real.  It works both ways.  And there is a difference between saying that police are necessary, important, valuable -- heroes, even -- and saying that they should be unaccountable or above criticism.  Wanting police to be effective and winking at abuse are not the same.  Not all police departments are equal.  Dallas, where the shooting took place, apparently has a model police department -- a black chief, numerous black officers (as the shooting made clear), excellent training in de-escalation, one of the lowest rates of shooting of any major city.  The demonstration was completely peaceful before the shooting began.

To Black Lives Matter and supporters.  All will be lost, and very soon, if you don't learn to curb the mob.  There are people who there who know something about reigning in the mob that you can learn from.  My first impulse would be to offer the Civil Rights Movement, which before sending people into a possible confrontation trained them in self-control.  The problem here is that in the end, it did explode into uncontrollable rioting, so maybe that is not such a good example.  But consider some other unlikely role models:

Louis Farrakhan:  When he staged his Million Man March, he managed to keep well-behaved.  I quote Ta-Nehisi Coates, speaking in the context of the Tea Party, but equally applicable to Black Lives Matter as well:
[L]ike all the other prospective Marchers, I read the papers and was well-versed in notion of not embarrassing your people in front of white folks. The last thing any of us wanted to do was to march down to the Mall and have the next day's headline read, "Niggers Can't Even March Without Fighting." In the months leading up to the March, organizers toured the country speaking to black men in the community and pushing the essential conservative aspects of the March. . . . The concept of violence, or even boisterous anger, was counter to the March's goals, and so while there was much surprise at how solemn the event came off, if you'd been watching from the start, it would have made sense. I think had someone done something to embarrass us, there really would have been hell to pay. We thought that media was looking for trouble, but we also thought it was within our power not to give it to them. . . . When you lead a protest you lead it, you own it, and your opponents, and the media, will hold you responsible for whatever happens in the course of that protest. This isn't left- [or right] wing bias, it's the nature of the threat.
 The Tea Party:  The Tea Party's optics weren't always the greatest when it marched, but before long it moved off the streets and into other forms of activism.  Black Lives Matter has shown some capacity to do this with its Campaign Zero making serious policy proposals.  Granted, there are clear problems with moving from a grass roots movement of the streets into a lobbying group in the corridors of power.  And the Tea Party is a classic example in the problems of attempting both.  The street level Tea Party members and the ones in the corridors of power were pursuing very different agendas. Donald Trump is the outcome.  But if you don't move beyond anger and the streets, eventually the movement will burn itself out.

Crown Heights:  In 1991, the black residents of Crown Heights in New York City broke out in riots against Hassidic Jews.  It was a most alarming spectacle because, while the US has had a wide variety of race riots in our history, anti-Semitic riots in the US were unheard-of until then.  The Hassidic Jews were among the few white people who had not joined the general white flight from urban areas following the 1960's riots.  Black residents perhaps resented their continued presence and certainly resented their growth and the sense that they were encroaching.  They also saw the Hassids as being favored by the authorities.  What finally set off the riots was when a Jewish driver's car ran over two black children and the private ambulances from the local Jewish hospital were seen as privileging the driver over the children.  Al Sharpton made any number of anti-Semitic and inflammatory comments that no doubt contributed much to his reputation as a "race pimp."  Nasty, anti-Semitic riots ensued.  Nothing very edifying.  But what was edifying was the aftermath in which leaders from both communities made a concerted effort to improve community relations.  No doubt many conservatives disapproved, seeing the riots as so much lawlessness that should be met with punishment and not rewarded with outreach.  But what mattered in the end was that it worked.  The Hassidic community was not driven out, and ethnic relations improved over time.

Now the Million Man March was a one-time event and as such easier to control than numerous marches on numerous occasions all across the country.  The Crown Heights reconciliation proved that a concerted effort can improve ethnic relations between two communities on a particular occasion. Once again, it may not scale up.  But these (and, yes, the Civil Rights movement as well) do show that leadership matters, and that a strong message of restraint can pay off.  In other words, hope is not impossible.  But a whole lot more self-policing is called for.

Quick update:  Well, one bit of encouragement.  The New York subway went down on the anniversary of the great blackout with people getting hot, sweaty, impatient and irritable, but without any breakdown in order.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Obama, Trump, and the Debt Ceiling

All of which is just preliminary to my real point, that anyone who really thinks Obama has been acting like a renegade executive, let alone a dictator should consider his behavior during the debt ceiling showdown and consider what an actual dictator would have done.  We'll set aside truly dictatorial behavior like arresting the participants, dissolving Congress, or declaring martial law as something so far outside of acceptable American norms as to be unthinkable and assume that when Republicans accuse Obama of being a "dictator," they mean in relative terms.  And what would be a good point of comparison?  I don't know, how about Donald Trump.  Suppose it had not been Barrack Obama, but Donald Trump who was facing down a Congress that had already shut down the government and was threatening to default on the debt.  I will grant that arresting the participants, dissolving Congress, or declaring martial law would be as unthinkable for Trump as they were for Obama, but what about some of the more relatively dictatorial options Obama was offered?*

Consider some of the semi-dictatorial options that Obama's supporters seriously proposed, and what Trump might have done in his place, from most to least drastic.

Mint the coins:  Some people were actually urging Obama to mint platinum coins valued at $1 trillion to cover the gap.  This was based on some loophole in the law that allowed the President to mint platinum coins -- clearly intended to mean commemorative coins rather than legal tender, and definitely in the trillion dollar denominations, but it never actually said so.  I never much cared for this option because, although maybe Obama could have done it, and maybe it would have been technically legal, but it would have destroyed forever any US credibility as a serious country.  After all, if you mint one trillion dollar coin to prevent a debt ceiling breach, what is to prevent the US from minting more any time it needs the money.  So far as I was concerned, Obama might just as well have called a press conference to announce the US was now a banana republic.  As for Trump -- well, his natural response to any crisis is to escalate, and he is so ignorant of basic public policy that I could actually imagine him doing this.  I like to think, though, that one of his saner advisers would talk him down.  In short, refraining from this option is not proof that the President is not dictatorial; it is merely proof that he is not a crazy dictator.  I don't think even Obama's worst enemies claim that he is a crazy dictator.  Donald Trump might be, but I can still hope he would have at least one sane adviser.

Withhold funding from anyone who won't cooperate:  Other people suggested that Obama tell any member of Congress who refused to raise the debt ceiling that when the cuts hit, their district would be the one to suffer.  Not just pork, but no funding of any kind, quite possibly not even Social Security checks to people who lived there.  The goal, of course, would be to put the squeeze on the people and make them put pressure on their representative.  And I will admit, this approach has some attraction at the visceral level.  But it is the sort of thing that is so flagrant and outrageous an abuse of power that the affect is often to stiffen, rather than undermine, people's resolve.  It is a good general rule that when people see their suffering as random and meaningless, their morale and will to resist does often weaken.  But when they see their suffering as intentionally inflicted, most people respond with anger and a determination not to back down.

Obama offered another reason as well for not taking this approach.  He said the US Treasury was simply not set up to allow this.  Bills came in and had to be paid, with no way of making the distinction what to pay and what not to.  He made clear that bills would be paid on a first-come-first-serve basis with no attempt made to prioritize.  Indeed, he even questioned whether it would be possible to give priority to paying interest on the national debt and averting a worldwide financial crisis.  And presumably even if one could establish some system of priorities, anything so fine-tuned as figuring out which Congressional District each and every Social Security check was going to and paying or  not paying accordingly.  The first-come-first-serve approach, in addition to being the technically easiest for the Treasury to do, had the additional advantage of making any hardships that resulted truly random and meaningless, without any political design.

I suppose Republicans could argue that making the hardship random and meaningless was itself a kind of political ploy, a way of bringing pressure by ensuring that no one was safe, and that what Obama should have done was carefully calculate his cuts so as to cause the least possible damage. Certainly this argument has a strong moral appeal.  But I can also see a few faults with it.  One is the question of whether it was technically feasible the way the Treasury was set up.  But presumably it should have been possible to at least explore that possibility and make some attempt at harm mitigation, however poorly executed.  Another is that Obama's definition of "least possible damage" and Congressional Republicans' might very well have been different.  But the main problem is that there is no way to cut federal spending by a third overnight without inflicting a great deal of pain, and that criticizing how Obama intended to deal with the shortfall was simply a way of attempting to deflect responsibility and blame Obama for how he handled a debt ceiling breach, instead of placing responsibility where it belonged -- on the people who refused to raise the debt ceiling.

And, only a closely related note, if you truly believe that we have an out-of-control executive and a President acting like a dictator, demanding that he cut the federal budget by a third overnight but giving him complete discretion what to cut with no guidance whatever is not the way to reign him in. It is simply an attempt to avoid responsibility for the pain that will inevitably be involved.  And, it should be added, it shows an extraordinary degree of confidence in the man you claim is an out-of-control dictator that he will not abuse his power to make the cuts hurt you and yours.

In short, even if the setup of the Treasury made it impossible to prioritize what did and did not get paid, if Obama had truly had the sort of dictatorial inclinations his enemies claimed, he would have at least threatened to arrange the cuts so as to hurt his opponents the most.  Presumably many of his opponents would not have realized it was an empty bluff.  And he would have at least explored the possibility of finding a way to make it work.

Now imagine Trump in a similar position!  Can anyone doubt that he would have threatened to do just that?  Could anything be more in character?  And even if it had not been technically feasible, Trump is sufficiently ignorant of how our government works that he probably would not realize his threat was just an empty bluff.

Declare the debt ceiling unconstitutional:  This one might actually be defensible.  The reasoning would be as follows.  Congress made three contradictory sets of laws.  One set taxes and determined what national revenues would be.  One set spending levels and commanded the government to spend certain amounts on certain programs.  One set lending levels and limited what the government could borrow to meet its obligations.  Refusal to raise the debt ceiling put these three commandments in inexorable contradiction.  The President, in effect, was commanded to spend a certain amount, but forbidden to either raise taxes or borrow enough to actually spend was he was legally obligated to spend.  The result was to force him to disobey one of three laws. He could either (1) illegally raise taxes to cover mandated spending, (2) illegally fail to spend money the budget ordered him to spend, or (3) illegally borrow to meet mandatory spending goals.

We can rule out (1) right away.  It is a longstanding rule of our government dating back to Medieval England that the legislature alone may tax, and that this gives it the power of the purse strings.  The English Civil War (17th Century) was fought largely over the King's attempts to evade this restriction by seeking "voluntary gifts."  Parliament defeated the King and cut his head off a century before the French made such things fashionable.  The American Revolution was largely fought over whether the colonial legislature or an unaccountable British Parliament would control the purse strings.  To allow the President to unilaterally raise taxes would be manifestly unconstitutional.

But should the President illegally fail to spend what has been ordered, or illegally borrow what has been forbidden? The answer is less clear.  Republicans tended to believe that the President should refuse to spend what was budgeted, presumably because (1) much of the budget is mandatory spending on programs set decades ago by earlier Congresses, while the budget ceiling is immediate and; (2) the budget should be seen as a limitation in spending rather than a command to spend.  But their unwillingness to offer any sort of guidance on what to cut was such an extreme abdication of responsibility that the President might argue that for him to make those decisions was an unconstitutional usurpation of legislative power, and that continuing to borrow despite the prohibition was really the least arrogant and usurping decision he could make.

Can anyone doubt that Donald Trump, in such a position, would have done just that?  Or rather, lacking any real concept that the President is constrained by laws passed by Congress at all, he would probably just have proceeded to borrow, unaware that of the constitutional crisis he was causing.  In any event, Obama declined to do even that.  He made clear that, if his borrowing authority ran out, the Treasury would continue to pay as many bills as it could on a first-come-first-serve basis, falling ever further and further behind until Congress relented.  And, in the end, Congress did relent at the last minute.  (And prove that it can act quickly if it absolutely has to).

By refusing to take dictatorial options many advisers urged, or to assume dictatorial powers (to unilaterally cut spending) that many Republicans desperately wanted him to, Obama showed that he was no dictator.  Admittedly, there was a strong element of political calculation at work.  Obama kept his power constrained to ensure that if we did default on the debt, Congressional Republicans would be blamed.  But can anyone doubt that Trump would have assumed dictatorial powers (probably, the power of threatening to cut spending on specific political rivals) in his place?  One has only to imagine Trump in the debt ceiling showdown to understand just how much not a dictator Obama has been -- and how much of a dictator Trump would be.

*Here, I should add, many people will object and say such a showdown would never happen.  Republicans would fall in line once one of their own became President and lose all interest in debt and deficits, while Democrats would never do anything that crazy in the first place.  And I will admit, it is a stretch, but not unimaginable.  The Republicans' ability to force concessions by refusing to raise the debt ceiling was thwarted by what might be called the Madman Caucus, who refused to raise the debt ceiling no matter what concessions they might get in return.  We might imagine that caucus still refusing to raise the debt ceiling, even under Trump, and having seized the Speakership and therefore prevent putting it to vote with the support of Democrats.  Or maybe Trump's first two years prove so unpopular as to deliver at least one house back to the Democrats, who have developed their own madman caucus.  Or maybe Trump undertakes some anti-immigrant policy so brutal and inhumane that Democrats are prepared to resort to truly desperate measures to stop him.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Further Comment on Obama as Dictator

So, to bring up an old topic, what am I to say about Republican claims that Obama is an out of control executive behaving in a dictatorial manner?  And how does it compare with Democrats making similar claims about George Bush?

To start with Bush:  The usual opposition claims about Bush being dictatorial were about his theories of national security and the "unitary executive."  His theories amounted to a claim that the President had the power to do whatever he wanted so long as he said the words "national security" first.  This included authority to start wars, to name anyone he wanted as an enemy combatant, to indefinite detention without trial or to create military tribunals to trial, to torture or at least "coercive interrogation," and to wiretap.  Indefinite detention without trial, torture or as near as possible, and unauthorized surveillance are all clearly the stuff of dictators, but at the same time I must admit that our side seriously exaggerated the danger, fearing that Bush would turn these things against his political opponents, when he does not appear to have done so.  A lot of things that seemed alarming under his government were really just the way the system works.  (Which is even more alarming, in some ways).  The indefinite detention and abusive interrogation were limited to overseas use and not applied in a domestic context.  His wiretapping in violation of statute was done after informing party leaders and heads of the relevant committees in both houses of Congress and informing the FISA court, apparently without opposition.  There is nothing to suggest that he used his surveillance powers against political rivals as Nixon did.  None of this excuses Bush, but it does put him in context.

As for Obama, Republicans' claim that he is an out of control executive and quasi-dictator tend to involve bombings without Congressional approval, alleged IRS audits of opposition groups, use of executive power to tweak problematic parts of Obamacare, use of the regulatory apparatus to enact various measures that could not pass Congress, entering into executive agreements with foreign powers instead of treaties subject to Senate approval, and his attempt to selectively not enforce immigration law against certain categories.  Some might add his stretching newly-acquired powers of surveillance beyond all reasonable interpretation.

Unauthorized bombings and extraordinary stretching of surveillance powers have excited by far the least conservative opposition because they fit under the heading of national security.  The most libertarian have objected, but plenty whose libertarianism stops at the water's edge don't mind.  And these types can even claim consistency.  Sure, they supported George Bush's unitary executive for the sake of national security, but they always insisted on the primacy of Congress in domestic policy because they don't really approve of domestic policy and would like to make it as difficult as possible.

So far as domestic policy goes, the whole IRS scandal amounted to nothing, although Republicans to this day do not admit it.  At issue was an IRS regulation known as 501(c)(4), which allows "social welfare organizations" to claim tax exempt status despite doing some political lobbying and advertising, although their income spent on such activities is taxable.  But such groups are not required to disclose their donors.  Things get complicated here since a wide variety of advocacy groups can claim, quite sincerely, that advancing their political agenda promotes social welfare.  So how does the IRS know if a political advocacy group is masquerading as a social welfare group? Confronted with a huge deluge of applicants for 501(c)(4) status, the IRS could not effectively process so many and instead applied special scrutiny to any that had a political-sounding name.  This included conservative names (like "Tea Party") and liberal names (like "Occupy.")  But although the IRS was not singling conservative organizations out for scrutiny beyond liberal organizations, far more conservative than liberal applicants were held up in the process for the simple reason that there were more conservative than liberal applicants in the first place.  But the folk memory of Nixon using IRS audits to harass political opponents remains strong enough that Republicans badly want to apply the same accusation to Obama.

As for the others -- I suppose it is all a question of how far it is appropriate for the President to go when the opposition party controls Congress and has made it clear that there will be no cooperation on anything, and that their goal is to destroy the administration.  The matter of Obamacare is easiest. It was duly passed when Democrats controlled Congress.  Republicans declared all-out war.  Unable to repeal it outright, they did everything in their power to sabotage the law, including refuse to repair the glitches and malfunctions that are inevitable in any major reform.  To quote Norm Ornstein:
When a law is enacted, representatives who opposed it have some choices (which are not mutually exclusive). They can try to repeal it, which is perfectly acceptable -- unless it becomes an effort at grandstanding so overdone that it detracts from other basic responsibilities of governing. They can try to amend it to make it work better -- not just perfectly acceptable but desirable, if the goal is to improve a cumbersome law to work better for the betterment of the society and its people. They can strive to make sure that the law does the most for Americans it is intended to serve, including their own constituents, while doing the least damage to the society and the economy. Or they can step aside and leave the burden of implementation to those who supported the law and got it enacted in the first place. 
But to do everything possible to undercut and destroy its implementation -- which in this case means finding ways to deny coverage to many who lack any health insurance; to keep millions who might be able to get better and cheaper coverage in the dark about their new options; to create disruption for the health providers who are trying to implement the law, including insurers, hospitals, and physicians; to threaten the even greater disruption via a government shutdown or breach of the debt limit in order to blackmail the president into abandoning the law; and to hope to benefit politically from all the resulting turmoil -- is simply unacceptable, even contemptible.
 In other cases, the question is a more difficult one.  To what extent is it reasonable for the President to use the regulatory apparatus to (partially) enact policies opposed by Congress, often for reasons of sincere ideological disagreement?  Likewise, to what extent is it reasonable for the President to make executive agreements instead of treaties, knowing that the proposed treaty would never pass the Senate?  (And keep in mind that to many Republicans, all treaties are suspect, by the libertarian wing because treaties have the force of law and libertarians oppose law unless absolutely necessary; and by the nationalist wing because treaties infringe on US sovereignty).

And at the same time consider to what extent a President may be forced to govern by decree when the opposition party is ready even to default on the national debt with untold economic consequences.  But, as I have said before, the whole showdown over the national debt is the ultimate proof that Obama was not the dictator his opponents alleged.  To recognize this, one need only consider what Trump might have done under similar circumstances.

More on this in the next post.

Wanted: A New Liberal Policy on Immigration and Trade

I don't like blog posts that are mostly just links and cites to other blog posts, but Donald Trump seems to bring out the worst in me as he does in so many others.  So here goes one that is mostly a cite to  this post and this one explaining why Bernie Sanders' trade policy is just a less honest version of Trump's.

Both Trump and Sanders are protectionist.  Both are protectionist for the same reason -- they see cheap imports as harmful to the US working class, eating away at out good-paying blue collar jobs and hollowing out our working class as its livelihood is undermined. And they are essentially right there.  I recall well being warned of this in my college course on international economics.  Complete global free trade has the effect of tending to equalize wages world-wide, to the great detriment of people in high wage countries.

But it benefits people in low wage countries.  And therein lies the unfortunate fact.  Wages that are abysmally low by US standards can still be the best around in Mexico or China.  Cutting off imports from China or Mexico would devastate these countries economically.

To Sanders the answer is simple.  Just insist that these countries pay wages comparable to the US as a precondition to trading with them.  But really, in cases like these calling for wages comparable to US wages is unrealistic.  It simply means calling on all the low-wage industries in these countries to shut down and throw millions out of work.

Many countries have pulled themselves out of poverty by the export of cheap goods made with low wage labor.  Japan led the way, followed the the foursome of Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore.  Other East Asian countries are following in their path, such as Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and, of course, China.  The pattern all have followed has been essentially the same.  They begin as exporters of cheap, low quality manufactured goods, trading on cheap labor as their advantage.  Over time, these countries move from cheap, low quality manufactured goods and low wages to high quality goods and high wages, and from production for export to production for domestic consumption.  But in all cases, their initial advantage is low wages and higher wages come with time and practice.

This is not to deny or dismiss the importance of very real labor abuses -- unpaid wages, extremely hazardous factories, outright enslavement, death squads killing labor organizers etc.  These should not be written off as inevitable side effects of progress.  These things should be recognized and strongly opposed.  But to insist on protecting our domestic industry by protectionism is to deny millions in poorer countries to opportunity to advance -- or to throw them catastrophically backward by shutting down whole industries overseas.

And here is the difference between Sanders and Trump.  (Or, if you will between a liberal and a conservative or authoritarian, or between favoring breadth and favoring depth).  To Trump and his supporters, the answer is to shrug and say so what.  As President of the US my job is to concern myself with the well-being of American workers.  What happens to the rest of the world is not my concern.  To Sanders and his supporters, such an answer is simply not morally acceptable.

Much the same applies to immigration.  A Trump supporter sees the interests of immigrants as a non-issue. A liberal or Sanders supporter cannot shut immigrants out of the moral calculus, yet the fact remains that we really can't admit everyone the world over who might want to come here.  And even if we would, it is not only the US that would be harmed, but the countries losing so much of their population to us.

Right-wing populists in the US and Europe alike show that a large portion of the population has had enough of immigration and trade and will be heard, whether through respectable voices or otherwise. Liberal principle do not allow us to treat immigrants or the global poor as scapegoats for our problems, and rightly so.  But neither does political or economic reality allow us to shoulder the entire burden of lifting the world up.  What is needed is something new -- a policy that takes the needs of immigrants and global poor into account, but rejects a simple "more is better" approach to immigration and trade.  This is at least a proposal in such a direction for trade.  We need one for immigration as well, preferably one focused on improving conditions in countries with large out-migration and rewarding people who chose to stay.

No plan yet, but something to turn around and think about.