Monday, December 25, 2017

A Quick Note on Trump and Merry Christmas

Look, this should go without saying, but Donald Trump's claim that he has made it acceptable to say, "Merry Christmas" again probably his most ridiculous claim yet.  But his followers will probably believe it.

Look, it's really simple.  Some people say "Merry Christmas."  Others say "Happy Holidays."  I have no idea what the proportion is.  To the best of my knowledge, no serious research has ever been done on this subject.  But regardless, it seems most unlikely that it has changed in any way whatever since Trump was elected.  I suppose there may be somebody, somewhere may have felt intimidated from saying "Merry Christmas" and finally feels liberated.  And probably somebody, somewhere has probably gone from saying "Merry Christmas" to "Happy Holidays" just out of defiance.

But perceptions can be very selective.  If you feel that Christmas is under siege, you will notice every time someone says, "Happy Holidays" and feel affronted and overlook every time someone says, "Merry Christmas."  And if you are convinced that the culture wars are going your way, you will notice every time someone says, "Merry Christmas" and feel vindicated and overlook every time someone says, "Happy Holidays."

And it is perfectly silly that I am even writing about this.

The Deep State and Tocqueville

Aristotle appears to have been the one to introduce the distinction of dividing government into the few, the many, and the one. He is said to have further sub-divided government into good and bad forms. In the good form, the rulers (whether few, many or one) rule for the common good; in bad government, the rulers (whether few, many or one) think only of their own private good. By this standard, "good" governments have been decidedly rare and "bad" government very much the rule.

But he did make a more realistic distinction as well. Government is, if not good, at least acceptable if its rulers, whether few, many or one, respect the rule of law and not merely bad but unacceptably so if its rulers (few, many or one) do not respect the rule of law. The Baron de Montesquieu, the social philosopher who most influenced the Founding Fathers, divided government into three categories. Monarchy was government by a single ruler under law; despotism was government by a single ruler without the law; and republic was government by some or all of the citizens, either directly or by their representatives. The first distinction is a legitimate and important one -- does a single ruler rule by law or arbitrarily is an important distinction, as Aristotle would be quick to point out. And the third category lumps together way too many categories -- government by the many and by the few, direct and representative and, presumably, with and without the law. It has taken me time and patience to realize, but mere government by the many, elective government, or majority rule are not by themselves any promise of the rule of law. Majority rule without the law is simply mob rule.

Which leads me to the question of Donald Trump and the "deep state." David Frum had a pinned tweet (since replaced) that "deep state" simply means rule of law. It is a thought I have been turning over in my head since. Another major revelation to me was the concept that bureaucratic orderliness is really just another manifestation of the rule of law, and that despotism is always characterized by snarling of the bureaucratic order. Thus a government that is not democratic but nonetheless respects the rule of law ("liberal autocracy") would lack contested elections and meaningful legislatures, but would have a bureaucracy with clear and orderly chains of command, rules of conduct, and administrative rewards and punishments for breaking the rules. This is the "deep state," or at least one form of it. The “deep state” may also take forms that do not respect the rule of law, as with the Turkish generals who manipulated things behind the scenes and killed opponents.

So, can government can respect the rule of law without a "deep state" maintaining the rule of law through bureaucratic order?  It is not a thing I am sufficiently interested in at present to want to delve into in great detail, but one I will seek some guidance from Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America. In Tocqueville's time the U.S. federal "deep state" was minimal -- a very small army guarding the borders, a post office, a few customers inspectors, and not much more. Most government took place at the state level.  But even at the state level, administration was notably decentralized.  This is an issue that Tocqueville addresses at length because it was so different from the administration in his native France.

France is a country famous for its high degree of administrative centralism, and Tocqueville believed that it was taken a great deal too far, and that France was in need of greater local autonomy. As the alternative to France's administrative centralism, he offered Massachusetts -- not so much because Massachusetts was typical of the U.S. in Tocqueville’s day (it was not) but because the New England states offered the extreme example of administrative decentralism that he could contrast with France, i.e., it was as near as one could come to a functioning government without a "deep state."

Of course, in Tocqueville's day most New England towns were governed by their town meeting, the direct democracy of its active citizens,* which passed town ordinances, elected town officials, and elected and instructed representatives to the state legislature. The town meeting would make decisions such as where to build a school and had some power to pass ordinances, but most of the legislating would take place at the state level. However, the state lacked the administrative apparatus to enforce its laws. Instead, they would be carried out by elective town officials. The Board of Selectmen handled most day-to-day business, but there were other officials as well:
The assessors rate the township; the collectors receive the rate. A constable is appointed to keep the peace, to watch the streets, and to forward the execution of the laws; the town-clerk records all the town votes, orders, grants, births, deaths, and marriages; the treasurer keeps the funds; the overseer of the poor performs the difficult task of superintending the action of the poor-laws; committee-men are appointed to attend to the schools and to public instruction; and the road-surveyors, who take care of the greater and lesser thoroughfares of the township, complete the list of the principal functionaries. They are, however, still further subdivided; and amongst the municipal officers are to be found parish commissioners, who audit the expenses of public worship; different classes of inspectors, some of whom are to direct the citizens in case of fire; tithing-men, listers, haywards, chimney-viewers, fence-viewers to maintain the bounds of property, timber-measurers, and sealers of weights and measures.
Tocqueville reports that there were 19 such positions. All of these were elective positions. All served one-year terms. All adult male citizens were expected to hold some office over their lifetimes, All offices were paid, so that poorer citizens could afford to hold them. There was no formal hierarchy among them. Presumably there was an informal hierarchy, i.e., it was presumably more prestigious to be a selectman than a chimney viewer. But there was no formal chain of command. The selectman had no administrative authority over the chimney view and no authority to give him orders; but all were subordinate to one common superior – the people in their town meeting.  In short, there was plenty of government going on, but very little deep state.** 

This was in contrast to contemporary France, where there was a highly centralized bureaucracy and a formal chain of command. The rule of law was enforced by administrative sanctions, i.e., by promotions and demotions and, in extreme cases, by firing. How was the rule of law enforced in New England without such a hierarchy, where the only superior was the town meeting?  And it turns out that Massachusetts did, after all, have a deep state, albeit a rather skimpy one, and that deep state was called on to keep local elected officials within the rule of law.

Tocqueville points out that there are three ways that a public official can offend. He can do what the law forbids. He can fail to do what the law requires. Or he can comply with the letter of the law but just not do a good job. In Tocqueville’s France, no clear distinction was made among these three types of offense; all were punished by administrative sanctions such as demotion and possibly dismissal. In the United States, the distinction was essential. If a Massachusetts official did anything illegal, he was subject to criminal prosecution before the courts. (Both prosecutors and judges were part of the scanty “deep state.”) If he complied with all laws but just didn’t do a good job, he would lose the next election.

The problem was what would happen if an official did not commit any crimes, but failed to fulfill his legal duties. One might think he would lose the next election, but what if those duties were inherently unpopular? The assessor was a classic example, since his job was to assess the value of land for property taxes. An assessor who failed to assess land so that taxes would not be collected would probably be more popular than one who did his job with scrupulous honesty. But he would not be committing an actual crime that could be prosecuted. So justices of the peace, appointed by the governor(more "deep state"), were empowered to impose a fine on the town that failed to meet its obligations, or to replace delinquent officers with ones who were prepared to do their jobs. But how would justices of the peace know if assessors (or other unpopular functionaries) were failing to do their job? After all, the townspeople would have no incentive to tell them. Apparently this problem was resolved by creating an incentive – to offer informants a portion of any fines imposed as a result. Tocqueville regarded this as a form of corruption and a degradation of the people’s morals.*** He thought it could be better handled by a small extension of the deep state – the appointment of a public inspector who would see if officials were doing their duties and bring actions if they were not.

Within these bounds, however, Tocqueville was impressed by how much discretion New England officials were allowed in the exercise of their duties, comparable to the arbitrary power of officials under a despotism. As examples, he said that selectmen were given complete discretion to decide who to include in the jury pool, and who to identify as public drunkards forbidden to buy liquor. He proposed that such power was in no danger of abuse because the officials who held it were always up for reelection after just one year and therefore would not dare offend their fellow citizens.

In despotic States . . . [t]he sovereign, who has under his control the lives, the property, and sometimes the honor of the men whom he employs, does not scruple to allow them a great latitude of action, because he is convinced that they will not use it to his prejudice. In despotic States the sovereign is so attached to the exercise of his power, that he dislikes the constraint even of his own regulations; and he is well pleased that his agents should follow a somewhat fortuitous line of conduct, provided he be certain that their actions will never counteract his desires. 
In democracies, as the majority has every year the right of depriving the officers whom it has appointed of their power, it has no reason to fear any abuse of their authority. As the people is always able to signify its wishes to those who conduct the Government, it prefers leaving them to make their own exertions to prescribing an invariable rule of conduct which would at once fetter their activity and the popular authority. 
It may even be observed, on attentive consideration, that under the rule of a democracy the arbitrary power of the magistrate must be still greater than in despotic States. In the latter the sovereign has the power of punishing all the faults with which he becomes acquainted, but it would be vain for him to hope to become acquainted with all those which are committed. In the former the sovereign power is not only supreme, but it is universally present.
. . . . . . . 
It is only in limited monarchies that the law, which prescribes the sphere in which public officers are to act, superintends all their measures. The cause of this may be easily detected. In limited monarchies the power is divided between the King and the people, both of whom are interested in the stability of the magistrate. The King does not venture to place the public officers under the control of the people, lest they should be tempted to betray his interests; on the other hand, the people fears lest the magistrates should serve to oppress the liberties of the country, if they were entirely dependent upon the Crown; they cannot therefore be said to depend on either one or the other. . . . . They consequently agree as to the necessity of restricting the functionary to a line of conduct laid down beforehand, and they are interested in confining him by certain regulations which he cannot evade.
It would appear, then, that Tocqueville considered entrusting public officials with extreme latitude in their actions to be compatible with the rule of law because they could be counted on not to jeopardize their prospects of reelection by abusing those powers.

Several objections present themselves. One is what happens if a measure is unpopular but nonetheless necessary. Tocqueville discussed this at length (see above) and appears to agree that this is best handled by the intervention of the deep state.

Another is whether this rule would apply on any larger scale than a small New England town capable of the direct democracy of the town meeting. It was safe give the selectmen complete discretion in who to include in the jury pool or who to exclude from taverns in a small town. Would this same level of discretion be safe to exercise in a larger town like Boston? In a small township, any sort of abuse of power might soon become common knowledge. Can we count on every abuse of power becoming widely known in Boston? Let alone throughout the state of Massachusetts? (To say nothing of the whole United States). Certainly as we have moved away from small towns under direct democracy into a larger scale society, this rule has been found not to scale up. Arbitrary power in the hands of government functionaries, elective or appointed, is a formula for abuse. Clear, fixed rules have proven to be necessary in democracies as well.

Finally, there is the question of the majority oppressing the minority. Tocqueville, who gave us the expression "tyranny of the majority" is well aware of this danger. But his over-analyzed explanation of it does a poor job of conveying the real danger:
In America the majority raises very formidable barriers to the liberty of opinion: within these barriers an author may write whatever he pleases, but he will repent it if he ever step beyond them. Not that he is exposed to the terrors of an auto-da-fe, but he is tormented by the slights and persecutions of daily obloquy. His political career is closed forever, since he has offended the only authority which is able to promote his success. Every sort of compensation, even that of celebrity, is refused to him. Before he published his opinions he imagined that he held them in common with many others; but no sooner has he declared them openly than he is loudly censured by his overbearing opponents, whilst those who think without having the courage to speak, like him, abandon him in silence. He yields at length, oppressed by the daily efforts he has been making, and he subsides into silence, as if he was tormented by remorse for having spoken the truth.
Tocqueville goes at length on this subject, seeming to indicate that the tyranny of the majority operates by certainty rather than severity of punishment, that nothing worse is at stake than loss of career, reputation, or popularity. When offering concrete examples, what he describes is a good deal more alarming. He gives, for instance, a newspaper in Baltimore that criticized the War of 1812 when the war was widely popular in that city. An angry mob sacked the newspaper building and destroyed the presses. The militia refused to protect the editors, so they were placed in jail for their own protection. But the mob broke in, killed one of the editors and severely beat the others, and was acquitted by a jury. He also mentions that black people, though permitted by law to vote in free states, dared not do so for fear of the mob. It was also at this time that the abolitionist movement was in its very earliest infancy, and was the constant target of angry mobs.

Clearly, then something a good deal more serious was at stake than merely career and reputation. What Tocqueville called the tyranny of the majority might more accurately be called the tyranny of the mob. And who was on hand to fight the tyranny of the mob? To all appearances, the professionals in charge of impartial enforcement of the law, against the popular and the unpopular alike. In other words, the deep state.

Finally, Tocqueville also makes clear why the deep state by itself cannot be counted on to uphold the rule of law. In contemporary France, the deep state (the formal bureaucracy) made an orderly, rational administration within the rule of law. Adherence to the rules was enforced by administrative rewards and penalties – promotion and bonuses versus demotion and pay cuts or, in the worst cases, firing. These administrative penalties applied to all the offenses Tocqueville identified – lawful but inept administration, neglect of one’s duties, and actual illegality.

And that was the problem. Public officials who committed actual illegal acts were not subject to prosecution in the ordinary courts, but only to administrative penalties. What if a superior official ordered the illegal behavior? Presumably he would be subject to administrative penalties if caught, but what if the offense went all the way up the chain of command? France apparently had a Council of State that decided whether to subject public officials to prosecution in the ordinary courts for illegal acts committed in the course of their public duties. This Council was part of the bureaucracy (the “deep state,”) answerable to exactly the same officials who might order the illegality in the first place! The scope for corruption and illegality here is obvious. Tocqueville spoke with clear outrage about this arrangement and commented that whenever he attempted to explain it to Englishmen or Americans, they simply refused to believe that such an obvious and manifest injustice could be openly authorized.

Tocqueville praised the United States for making all public officials who committed illegal acts subject to prosecution in the ordinary courts. He also commented that making public offices elective and making the officials who held them subject to ordinary prosecution were necessarily related. Because elective officials were not subject to administrative penalties, criminal penalties were essential, even more so that in a formal civil service. And he made two warnings to any country enacting changes to its form of government but wanting to preserve the rule of law.

A government going from appointed to elective officials must also make them subject to prosecution in the ordinary courts. There tended (he commented) to be more pressure to make officials elective than to make them answerable to the courts, but both measures must be adopted together, or corruption would go unpunished so long as it was popular and democracy would degenerate into mob rule.**** And a government going from elective to appointive officials must limit their discretion and set rules to govern their conduct, or it would set up petty tyrants, and monarchy would degenerate into despotism.
*Property qualifications had been removed by this time, but women were not allowed to participate.
**It is a shame that Tocqeville did not make it to the South, where there was very little "deep state" and also a minimum of regulatory government.  Yet there were serious internal security issues (i.e., large numbers of slaves).  Slave patrols were not made up of professionals (i.e., deep state), but of ordinary citizens, whether volunteer or draftee.  It would be most interesting to know how such a system operated, and whether it preserved the rule of law.
***Parallels to Athens, another very diffuse democracy with minimal "deep state" are clear. Lacking public prosecutor, Athens was forced to rely on informants, many of whom were sleazy and malicious characters. Informants of this type are one of Aristophanes’ favorite targets.
****The case of Joe Arpaio (and many others) stands as proof that even if elective officials are subject to prosecution, they can be extremely difficult to hold within the law if they know how to demagogue well.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

The Virginia Election

I know it is a bit late to be commenting on the Virginia election, but I was approaching it with a good deal of trepidation.  Polls showed Republican Ed Gillespie catching up and within striking distance of Democrat Ralph Northam once he started serious anti-immigrant demagoguery.  Conventional wisdom held that the momentum was with him and he was probably going to win.  Another poll showed that, although polls of the general population showed a preference for Democrats in the upcoming 2018 election, once it was narrowed down to likely voters, the preference was dead even. 

I felt despairing.  It was a horrible thought.  What if Steven Bannon was winning?  What if he had achieved a successful coalition?  Bannonites would reluctantly concede the economic royalist agenda of the Republican donors in order to keep the money flowing.  Republican donors would reluctantly concede racial demagoguery to win votes.  And so Republican politicians would win elections by appealing to prejudice and demonizing minorities and, once elected, use their office to pass legislation to create a complete plutocracy. 

During the primary season, Republicans would choose the craziest candidate in the field.  The Republican Establishment would campaign against him in the primary, then line up behind him in the general election, confident that they would get their tax cuts and regulatory repeal.  Democrats would try to be pragmatic and elect Establishment candidates, but the party base would refuse to vote for them.  Between the innate advantage our district system gives to rural areas, the power to gerrymander, and Democratic voters’ low turnout in off-year elections, Republicans would lock up the system in their favor.  So the Republicans would rule forever. 

The Virginia election came as a great relief in showing that maybe Steve Bannon wouldn’t win out after all.

From Libertarian to Alt-Right

That being said, a number of people have noted a pattern.  That pattern is that the path from Ron Paul to Trump is not that long.  Nor is this new.  Ron Paul was an ally of Lew Rockwell and Murray Rothbard, who were remarkably well-disposed toward Pat Buchanan, and worse.  In fact, a lot of people have noticed an ongoing journey from libertarianism (particularly the Mises Institute wing) to the Alt Right.  This has been noticed, among others, by libertarians who have not made the journey.  A number of them have looked for explanations why this should be.

Some have seen this simply as people who are looking for a way to be against the status quo.  Libertarianism was one such opportunity, but when it did not prove crazy enough, they turned to the Alt Right instead.  There probably is some truth in that, particularly among young, hard-core Alt Right types, but there aren’t all that many of them.  Another is that racism has been so pervasive in our society for so long that it was, after all, a bit naïve of libertarians to think they would be spared.  Another suggestion, this one by a more mainstream libertarian, is that libertarians in general have been a bit naïve on the subject of race, assuming that all social ills will resolve if only government stays out, and that any government attempt to interfere can only make things worse.  This has led honest, non-racist libertarians (or semi-libertarians) like Milton Friedman or Barry Goldwater or William Rehnquist to oppose anti-racist legislation, not out of ill-will, but out of a mistaken understanding of society.  That may be true, too, among the more mainstream, more intellectual wing of libertarianism. 

But I don’t think either of them really explains a lot of Tea Party semi-libertarians who ended up as Trump supporters.  The answer there, I think, is one that should make libertarians uneasy, one that shows how easy it is to mistake what one commenter called the distinction between being anti-state and anti-other.  

So what is the “other”?  Well, we are getting into jargon here, but this is basically the view of wanting to protect the sovereignty and autonomy of one’s own group from any outside infringement.  Its attitude toward government is ambivalent.  It basically sees government as having one role only – to protect “us” from “them.”  Government is always too impersonal and too rule-bound to ever really be part of “us.”  And thus government is always to be opposed when it meddles in matters among “us.”  So to that extent it looks anti-state.  But the state should not be under any constraints in its dealings with “them.”

This kind of psychology can explain a lot.  It explains why right wing movements are so often fiercely nationalist, and so fearful of anything that smacks of international cooperation.  They are seeking to protect the autonomy and sovereignty of their nation from infringement from outside nations.  It also explains why in the context of US politics, the same people are often strong supporters of states’ rights.  Again, they are seeking to protect the sovereignty and autonomy of their states from outside influences, including the federal government, which deserves one’s support against foreign nations, but look foreign when it starts to infringe on one’s state.  

It explains Donald Trump’s appeal when he denounces immigrant crime, and talks about black crime in the most thinly-veiled code words.  This creates the impression that his followers don’t really care how high the crime right is, so long as only white, native-born people are the ones committing it.  And I suspect this is actually true.  Crime committed by white people is an internal problem among Us that can be dealt with among Us without the need to involve the state.  The state is needed only when We are menaced by Them. 

It explains, I think, some of the fierce opposition from Trump supporters to Black Lives Matter.  Black Lives Matter is an attack on the state’s only true, legitimate function – protecting Us from Them.  It explains an attitude I have seen in conservative comments sections, condemning white, liberal urbanites who support Black Lives Matter.  At best, they are inauthentic in pretending to care about people outside their own group when no one can possibly care about outsiders.  At worst, they are race traitors for taking sides against their own.  And there is a deep resentment implying that the only reason we need a police force at all is to protect people like them – white people intruding into the black realm of urban areas, and if only young white liberals would stay in the suburbs where they belong, there would (presumably) be no need for a police force, because white people could handle internal crime on their own, and black people are sub-human and not worthy of the state’s protection. 

And I would say it should be considered in all criticisms of Black Lives Matter that ask about internal black crime in black neighborhoods.  This isn’t just “whataboutism,” it is an accusation that black people just want the police, as outsiders, to withdraw and leave black neighborhoods’ internal crime problems as a matter to be handled among Us.  And, in fairness to these critics, I am guessing that a lot of white liberals may be naïve on this matter, and that a lot of Black Lives Matter members probably do see things in these terms.

The Un-Conservative Right

At Least It Pissed Off Liberals
Many conservatives, quite properly appalled by Donald Trump, insist that he is not a conservative, and I am fine with that.  Speaking as a liberal, it is not my place to define what a conservative is, but I can think of many definitions of conservative – cautious, prudent, distrustful of the state, distrustful of any excessive accumulation of power, adhering to traditional religion or traditional values, promoting moral restraint, believing in the rule of law, conscious of the danger of demagogic appeals to people’s basest instincts, etc. – that Trump clearly does not meet.  But it is absurd to conclude from that that since Trump is not a conservative, he must be a liberal, or that he is a phenomenon of the left rather than the right.  No, no and no!  His eagerness to enact the priorities of the Republican donor class, his appeal to so much of the traditional Republican coalition, his loud and aggressive feud with all things liberal are clear proof that, although Trump may not be a conservative, he is definitely right wing.

And to any anti-Trump conservative who takes offense that that statement, I would suggest that liberals might have something to offer there.  See, we have a history of having to deal with Communism.  And there is no need to lie or mince words.  Many liberals and radicals succumbed to its allure, took its promises at face value, and because fellow travelers or useful idiots.  But even from the start there were many who did not, who saw through the danger and denounced Communism as evil from the start. And with the onset of the Cold War, opposition to Communism became the clear dividing line between respectable liberals (and left-wingers) and people outside of any reasonable bounds.

So how was a liberal to deal with Communism?  It wasn’t liberal, not liberal was defined to mean favoring liberty, inclusion, universal human rights, rule of law, openness, tolerance, or the other terms liberals used to define themselves.  Yet it did appear to be left-wing.  Like liberals, it did challenge the status quo of power and purport to be a movement championing the oppressed.  In fact, it actually did champion the rights of the oppressed in countries where it had not yet seized power.  It was pointless to deny that really was left wing.  So what was a liberal to make of a movement that shared liberals’ own criticisms of the status quo of power and championship of society’s unfortunates, even as it wrote vast swaths of humanity out of its moral calculations altogether, and often seemed to be motivated more by hatred and appeals to base instinct more than anything else, to say nothing of its monstrous crimes against humanity.  Our answer, in the end, was that there was a hard left, by no means limited to the Communists, that shared many values and ultimate goals with liberals, but was utterly opposed to us in many others.  We called it the illiberal left.

Well, conservatives might was well admit that Donald Trump shares a lot of goals and values with them.  He wants to cut taxes and gut regulations.  He distrusts government in all its “mommy” functions and any special measures to promote the status of racial and ethnic minorities.  He is an instinctive hawk on foreign policy and a champion of law and order.  In all of this one might as well admit Trump is right wing.  But he differs from true conservatives in these other aspects.  So why not come out and acknowledge the existence of an un-conservative right.  Place Donald Trump in it, along with slave holders, classical fascists, and their modern heirs such as the LePens and the other rabid nationalist parties in Europe today.  

And, yes, liberals will no doubt continue to blur the lines, just as many conservatives blurred the lines between liberal and Communist.  But once you get the basic concept that there are unwholesome people on your side if the divide, and that people on your side of the divide have the first responsibility to police the distinction, we will be drawing closer to a reasonable dialogue on President Trump and how to deal with him.

Monday, December 11, 2017

One More Comment on the Tax Plan

At least we got a tax cut
Some people have noticed an interesting trait  in the Republican tax bill.  "Pass-through" income, i.e., income earned in a closely held corporation or partnership that passes directly to the members, is taxed as a lower rate than wages and salaries.  People doing identical work at identical pay may be taxed at very different rates depending on whether they are employees or independent contractors.  One commentator is quoted as saying that wage earners are being "substantially penalized."

This should not come as a surprise.  While Republicans in general, donors and voters alike, agree that government assistance is the worst kind of income (with some disagreement whether Social Security counts), the Republican donor class generally sees wages and salaries as the second-least worthy form of income.  Indications of this type were everywhere during the Obama Presidency, when reverence for business owners went hand-in-hand with contempt for their employees.  Underlying it all is the basic assumption that wealth is only created at the top, and only by investors, while the work force is simply a raw material applied by business owners to make things.  Often during the Obama Presidency Republicans would talk about business owners as if all or at least most Americans fit in that category.  If pressed, presumably Republicans would agree that most people at any given time were not business owners, but they tended to assume that everyone should at least aspire to own a business, and that anyone who did not was a loser and failure who probably didn't deserve to be taken into account.

This attitude reached its ultimate expression during the auto industry bailouts, when writers at the National Review and Wall Street Journal were outraged that banks and hedge funds were asked to take a loss while union members saved health insurance and pensions.  Bankers and hedge funds pours their life blood into the auto companies (the believe that wealth comes only from investors applies to passive investors as well as ones who actually run companies), while the auto workers never invested anything in the company (thirty years of work, repetitive stress injuries, etc. don't count as "investment" in the eyes of Republican donors) and were simply parasites draining it of resources and never giving anything in return.  The National Review and the Wall Street Journal  definitely wanted auto workers thrown out on the streets without their insurance or pensions as suitable punishment.  Neither went quite so far as to say that the loss of our auto industry was a small price to pay for ending the vile scourge of good-paying blue collar jobs, the the implication was never far below the surface.

This is not an attitude one would expect to be conducive toward a working class party.*  I don't think it too much of a stretch to believe that this attitude hurt Republicans with the white working class during the Romney campaign.  One of Trump's major advantages over the rest of the field was that he moved past that.  His talk about jobs and good paying jobs signaled loud and clear that he recognized most Americans would never operate a business, that many if not most did not want to operate a business, that millions are content to let someone else sign their paycheck and that that is fine.  Hell, he even played the class warrior denouncing Wall Street.

But this tax bills should show once and for all that the Republican donors are still in the driver's seat, and that their contempt for people who let someone else sign their paycheck hasn't gone away.  Now let's get the message out on that.

*I don't mean to suggest that the working class should treat employers as an enemy and the failure to do so is false consciousness, but here was have employers treating their workforce as an enemy or, at best, as a sort of raw material to be used an discarded, and worker rights as something no less absurd that giving "rights" to raw materials.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Now What?

At least we got a tax cut
OK, so apparently the Senate tax bill will have to be worked out in conference with the House bill instead of simply passed unchanged by the House.  The Senate Republicans apparently made a little mistake on corporate taxes. 

When Trump calls the U.S. the highest taxed nation in the world, he is clearly wrong, but he does have one point.  Our corporate tax rate of 35% really is high.  Of course, corporations take advantage of enough deductions that the actual rate they pay is less than that.  In order to prevent corporations from getting out of taxes altogether, our current tax code has a corporate Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) of 20%, so that if a corporation has enough deductions to pay less than a 20% tax, it pays 20% instead.  A major part of the tax bill was to lower the corporate tax rate to 20%.  The plan was also to eliminate the corporate AMT as well.  However, arcane Senate rules that I still don't understand limit how much revenue the Senate bill can cost and still pass by a simple majority.  In order to slip in under the ceiling, the Senate put the AMT back in the bill.  In their haste, however, they forgot to lower the rate below 20%, so that they accidentally enacted a 20% corporate flat tax.  Oops!

So now the conference committee is trying to come up with something that can pass the House, where the Freedom Caucus is a firm believer in letting the perfect be the enemy of the good (or bad, as your opinion may be), and the Senate where arcane rules limit what can by passed with a simple majority and three defections can sink the bill. 

I am of mixed feelings about the outcome.

On the one hand, there is no doubt to my mind that if this monstrosity passes it can cause serious and untold harm.

On the other hand, the only way in the end that we are going to harm Republicans' political fortunes is to allow them to harm their followers.  If only we could prevent collateral damage.

But in the end, the question is what long-lasting legacy this bill will have.  It looks to me very much like an attempt to starve the beast, i.e., to cause enough damage to the government's finances to ensure that when Democrats are next in power they won't be able to achieve anything. 

Attempts to strip 20 to 30 million people of their health insurance with the repeal of Obamacare will certainly be unpopular and will lead to major Republican electoral losses.  But stripping 20 to 30  million people of their health insurance will also create a big enough mess to have at least three big advantages for Republicans:

  1. Wrecking things is much easier than building them.  Because stripping 20 to 30 million people of their health insurance is easier than creating a system to insure them, Republicans can be confident that they will have raised the number of uninsured for a very long time.
  2. Democrats' inability to clean up the mess fast enough will be great fodder for a campaign against them and will return Republicans to power.
  3. Democrats are now on warning.  If by some miracle they actually do succeed in building a new system for insuring millions, Republicans will just blow it up as soon as they are back in power.  That should act as a significant deterrent.
And that was just Obamacare.  This starve-the-beast tax cut looks like an attempt to do the same hting on a much larger scale.  Which is more than enough to convince me to oppose it.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Don't Blame This One on Trump

At least we got a tax cut
Look, I know some people are blaming Jeff Flake and other Republican moderates for being hypocrites because they say they oppose Trump and then vote for this monstrous Republican tax bill, but I think this is one it Trump is simply a generic Republican.  They all want a huge tax cut to reward their donors and starve the beast to force future spending cuts (especially to Medicaid/Medicare/ Social Security).  Grover Norquist famously said that his qualifications in a Republican President were a working set of digits to sign whatever legislation the Republican Congress could pass.  Well, anyone looking at Trump's tweets can see it meets that standard.  It would be the same with any other Republican President with a working set of digits.

The is the Republicans core central mission since Ronald Reagan, who said, "[I]f you've got a kid that's extravagant, you can lecture him all you want to about his extravagance. Or you can cut his allowance and achieve the same end much quicker."  Admittedly both Reagan and Bush, Senior flinched when they ran into a groundswell of opposition to cutting Social Security.  Bush Junior forgot about it altogether.  But under Obama, Republican donors and the politicians they owned convinced themselves that the only reason Bush, Junior's popularity fell was that he didn't seriously take an ax to the New Deal and resolved not to make the same mistake twice.  From the safety of controlling only the House (2011-2012), they kept voting not only to repeal Obamacare, but to privatize Medicare as well.  In the 2012 election, Democrats didn't run against their plans for a simple reason.  Focus groups revealed that no on believed it.  Ending Medicaid and phasing out Medicare to make room for a big tax cut for their donors was so extravagantly unpopular that no one believed a political party would commit suicide by doing it.  Donald Trump ran in 2016 specifically on a promise not to undermine Social Security or Medicare (despite favoring even bigger tax cuts than anyone else).

Well, now they are at it again, giving donors major tax breaks in order to get funding for their campaigns and starve the beast.  How do we know it?  Because Republicans have actually said so.  In the Senate, Lindsey Graham has warned that if the Republicans don't pass this, "the financial contributions will stop."  In the House, Chris Collins says. My donors are basically saying, ‘Get it done or don’t ever call me again.”  Marco Rubio has openly come out in favor of using the resulting deficits as an excuse to cut Social Security and Medicare, as have others.

They would be doing the same thing if a Republican other than Trump were in office.  Suppose instead of Trump we had a President Marco Rubio.  What would be different?  Well, he wouldn't be distracting us with outrageous tweets.*  There would not be any need to investigate him for possible collusion with Russia.  Mike Flynn, Steve Bannon and Steve Miller would be obscure consultants.  So there would be some advantages.  His appointees would be just as committed to destroying their departments, but they would not be so nakedly offensive in their behavior as to do things like fly a private jet at taxpayer expense to see the eclipse.  We might very well be just as close to war with North Korea and/or Iran and closer to war with Russia, but in a more seemly manner.  The President would take an actual interest in the content of the tax bill and not just having a signing ceremony.  He would push for some pet projects and tell less blatant lies about it.  But the payoffs to donors and the starve the beast strategy would be exactly the same.

*I don't mean by this that the tweets are a deliberate distraction ploy, just that they are having that practical effect.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Saluting George Washington on Veteran's Day

And, on the subject of Veteran's Day and the role the military does and does not have in maintaining freedom, let us consider George Washington and his Continental Army, and how we honor them.

We do not honor Washington and his Continental Army in the way that we honor Robert E. Lee or Ulysses S. Grant.  We don't marvel at his military genius, as we do for Lee or Grant, or thrill to the battles that he won.  While we have Civil War reenactments that recreate the battles in every detail except for the killing.  The Revolutionary War just doesn't inspire that sort of devotion.  Part of it, I assume, is that no one wants the play the British.  But the other reason is that it would be embarrassing.  Washington's Continental Army lost most of the battles it fought.  Yes, granted, it won the Battle of Trenton and inspired the famous patriotic painting above.  But the Battle of Trenton is not exactly one that bears reenacting.  Instead of facing off in a fair fight, Washington's army sneaked up on the Hessians while they were holding a Christmas party, which seems like rather dirty pool.  He contributed much of he planning to the turning point Battle of Saratoga, but was not present to command.  And although he was, of course, present for the decisive (for some reason) Battle of Yorktown, but the French played a major role in that.

So what do we honor Washington and his Continental Army for?  The place name most people think of when it comes to Washington and his army is Valley Forge, which was not a battle at all, but a winter encampment.  We remember and honor Washington and his army for enduring cold, hunger and disease and sticking together.  It is entirely appropriate that we should honor them in that way.  In every war before the 20th Century, more soldiers died of disease from squalid conditions than were killed in battle.  And besides, battle takes up only a small part of any army's time.  Procuring food and shelter are much more of their ongoing existence.  And, although there were many desertions, for an army to be barefoot in the winter and not know where its next meal was coming from, but not to desert en masse, or to mutiny, or take to uncontrollable looting really is an important achievement.

But we honor George Washington not just for holding together a starving and freezing army.  We honor him having an army often unpaid and desperate for supplies and an incompetent government seemingly incapable of providing them and still respected civilian control of the military.  He never marched his army against the Continental Congress to oust these blunderers and get things done.  And when his army, angry over still not being paid, finally did mutiny, Washington sympathized with their grievances, but talked them down anyhow. 

And, of course, he was honored not only in the U.S., but throughout Europe for not using the prestige that accompanied him as military hero to become a military dictator, but retired to Mount Vernon and returned to politics only as an elective civilian rule, and only for two terms.  George III is quoted as saying, "If that is true, he's the greatest man of our age."  Reading over the notes from the Constitutional Convention and the ratification debates, it has become clear to me that, contrary to what I was taught in school, no one at the time was the least bit worried about a hereditary monarchy.  What they feared was a military dictatorship.  One need look no further than France just a few years later to see that such fears were well justified.

So yes, by all means, let's honor our veterans.  But let's not turn honor into idolatry.  And let's remember that in the end, our army can protect freedom only by deferring to civilian leadership, however unworthy it may seem.

A Very Politically Incorrect Comment this Veteran's Day

I have been wanting to do this post since the NFL protests, with one side saying that football players kneeling during the Star Spangled Banner insults our troops overseas and the other saying that our troops overseas are fighting for the players' right to protest.

It also harkens back to a song my school sang on the Bicentennial, "Freedom is a word often heard today/But if you want to keep it there's a price to pay/Each generation has to win anew/Cause it's not something handed down to you.  Freedom isn't free."  In fact, it is inspired by every time I hear that "freedom isn't free," taken to imply that the more wars we fight, the freer we are.

It is also inspired by a poem I saw long ago in the Washington Times generally denigrating democratic (small-d) politicians ("who would betray a fellow man") as self-seeking, squalid and sordid compared to soldiers who are models of pure, unselfish patriotism.  "It's not the politicians with their compromising ploys/That have given us the freedom that our country now enjoys."

But what finally inspired me to write it today (on Veterans Day) was a tweet on Twitter:
It’s the soldier, not the reporter, who has given us freedom of press
It’s the soldier, not the speaker, who has given us freedom of speech
It‘s the soldier, not the organizer, who gave us freedom to assemble
We can‘t thank them enough, but we must try.
And this counter-tweet, "please PLEASE stop vomiting this nonsense all over social media every May and November."

So let's talk about how we achieved our freedom.  I do think it fair to say, by fighting against un-freedom.  But there are many kinds of un-freedom, some that soldiers can protect us against, and many they cannot.

The most obvious kind of un-freedom is foreign conquest.  If there is one definition of freedom recognized the world over and throughout all history, it is freedom from foreign conquest.  Our military does protect us from that kind of un-freedom, and for that we should be grateful.

Another kind of un-freedom is the un-freedom that is inevitable when a country lives under the shadow of constant menace.  Freedom and security are often spoken of as being opposed, but without a certain minimum of security, we cannot be free.  Our military protects us from any foreign menace that might force us to live in fear, or as an armed camp.  So, again, let us be grateful for that.*

But the military can only protect a country from external menaces and give the country the scope to create its own domestic institutions.  Whether the institutions that a country creates at home are free institutions or not is not something the military can control.  Or rather, when the military controls a country's domestic institutions, then that country by definition is not free.  It is a military dictatorship.  Once the military gives a country the scope to create its own institutions and agrees to step aside to allow civilians to create those institutions, it is the civilians who decide whether those institutions will be free or not. 

It isn't always easy.  In the countries that have free domestic institutions today, there are many heroic stories of how it was won, but the military plays a supporting role at most.  In other countries, it was the story of the majority rising up against a ruling elite.  In the U.S., the story has been one more of dissenting minorities standing up to the tyranny of the majority.  Freedom of the press was won, in many cases, as a struggle to resist wartime restrictions placed on what could be expressed.  It has its heroes, its villains, and even a few martyrs.  But it was not fought by soldiers on the battlefield, it could not be won on the battlefield, and it is most unlikely to be lost on the battlefield.  The same can be recounted any number of times, with freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and countless others.**

Nor are our soldiers overseas fighting for our domestic freedom at home.  Looking at the numerous wars we are fighting overseas, can anyone point to a single shred of evidence that we are any freer for fighting them, or that we would be any less free without them?  Or that fighting any more wars overseas would make us any freer at home?  Some may object that even if our wars abroad do not make us freer at home, they bring freedom to other people and therefore make our world more secure and allow liberty a better opportunity to flourish at home.  And it is true that we freed Europe from the Nazis and safeguarded them from the Communists and thereby allowed freedom and friendship to flourish.  It is also true that we freed Europe from the Kaiser, too, but Europe ultimately gave up its freedom between the wars and became a series of dictatorships. 

Korea is an even better example.  Our army saved South Korea from the Communists.  If we had not saved South Korea from the Communists, it would be just like North Korea today -- one of the least free countries the world over.  To this day our army (together with the South Korean army; must give credit where it is do) continues to protect South Korea from North Korea. But saving South Korea from the Communists did not, by itself, make South Korea free.  It merely made it possible for South Korea to be free.  For a long time, that country continued to be an unfree military dictatorship. 

And in the US today, the military contributes to our freedom somewhat by safeguarding it in places far from home, but mostly by staying out of domestic politics altogether and leaving it to the democratic process.  Our free government rests with politicians who concede defeat when they lose, or who win and make the sordid, squalid compromises that are necessary to get things done, instead of calling in the army to crush their opponents by brute force.  It rests with the whole brigade of volunteers and professionals who campaign for politicians but stay within proper bounds.  It rests with journalists who expose abuses by the powerful, and tipsters who give them leads.  It rests with lawyers who stand up for the little guy and judges who give them their day in court.  It rests with protesters who speak their minds and counter-protesters who speak theirs, and police who keep them apart.  It rests with the countless organizations, some political, some not, that make up a free society.  It rests with a public that understands the rules of democratic fair play, that accepts defeat when they lose and accepts that no win is final and absolute.

And the reason our democracy is starting to look imperiled today is not just that people are losing faith in our institutions.  It is because people are losing faith most of all in democratic institutions like Congress or their state legislature, and keeping most faith in the most authoritarian institutions, like the military.  Because democracy is government of the people, and if the people don't want it, it cannot endure. 

So let's give our honor to our veterans for defending national sovereignty.  And to the figures of the past who squeezed open old doors to give us the free institutions we have today.  And to the politicians, journalists and countless others who make the system work today.  And We, the People, who the whole system rests upon.  Because know that in the end, whether our freedom survives depends above all on us, and whether we maintain the habits and discipline that freedom and democracy require.

*Of course, there may be other factors at work here, too.  Like the wide oceans that lie between us and either Europe r Asia, and our being so much more powerful than either Canada or Mexico that neither could possibly threaten us.  And, yes, our military might is at least partly responsible for this fortunate situation.  But so is the attractiveness of this country that brought over enough people that made our population so vastly larger than our neighbors'.  So is their energy that much us so much wealthier than our neighbors. So is the wisdom of our political leadership that managed to pursue friendly relations with our neighbors instead of making them enemies.
**The obvious exception is slavery, which was defeated on the battlefield.  But if there is one thing that the failure of the Reconstruction should make clear, it is that freedom cannot be imposed at gunpoint on an unwilling population.  The Army could end slavery; it could not create freedom.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

If Trump Shot Someone in the Middle of Fifth Avenue, Continued

OK, the latest development show that I have missed part of what would most likely happen if Trump shot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue. 

I still believe that he would begin by denying it, insist that the tape of him doing it was "fake news," the witness were paid Hillary shills, and that the forensic evidence linking the bullets to his gun were a violation of the Second Amendment. Once the evidence got too strong to deny, he would lock himself in the bathroom and send out whiny, petulant tweets explaining that it wasn't his fault the other guy stepped in front of the bullet and besides, the Secret Service saw him point the gun, so why didn't the wrest it away from him.  Not to mention than any elitist who hangs out on Fifth Avenue deserves to die anyhow.

But somewhere along the line people with who are more disciplined than Trump would figure out that Trump's tweets just wouldn't quite cut it.  So the whole right wing media complex, the Fox News/Breitbart/talk radio/Murdoch axis would come out with a new argument.  Actually the guy Trump shot fired at him first, so Trump shot him in self defense.  Although Trump would be surrounded by the Secret Service and the victim's failure to hit anyone or anything on a crowded street might be a bit much even for the Right Wing Noise Machine, so they might have to settle on saying that he was pointing a gun and about to shoot. 

A minimum of research would no doubt soon reveal that the victim was a registered Democrat and probably donated to the Clinton campaign or at least wrote something favorable to her.  This would put the alternative facts machine into high gear that they would start spinning out all sorts of conspiracy theories about how this assassination attempt was actually engineers by Hillary Clinton and the Democrats.  (If right wing commentators were smart, or at least had smart lawyers, they would drop the subject of the victim as quickly as possible for fear of libel suits and instead focus on the imagined conspiracy, whose members would all be either public figures or figments of their imaginations).  The absence of a gun or any other evidence whatever to support this theory would simply be taken as proof of how well planned the conspiracy was, that the members were able to conceal all evidence of its existence.

At least we got a tax cut
Trump would learn about the whole thing from watching Fox and Friends and tweet out that he just learned that the guy he shot was was about to shoot him on behalf of the Democrats and call for an investigation.  House Republicans would say that they didn't think Trump shooting someone was important enough to call for an investigation, but would throw their energies into looking into the Democrat's dastardly plot to kill the President.  Eventually, toward the end of Trump's term, they would acknowledge that there was nothing to be found, but by then the effect would have been made and a sizable portion of the population would believe that Democrats attempted to assassinate Trump and only his sharp reflexes thwarted the plot.

And if anyone thinks this is an exaggeration, just look at what is happening now.

Monday, October 30, 2017

A Liberal's Difficulty Telling Conservatives from Authoritarians

At least we got a tax cut
Here is where a liberal like me has trouble telling conservatives from authoritarians.  Recall my definitions.  A liberal favors breadth in moral and social commitments, even if it leads to a loss of depth.  A conservative favors depth in moral and social commitments, even if it leads to a loss of breadth.  An authoritarian sees social commitment largely in terms of solidarity in opposition to outside threats.  A liberal seeks to engage outsiders, though the engagement is usually superficial, and the superficiality is repugnant to conservatives.  A conservative focuses on deepening commitments at home and is indifferent to outsiders in a way that strikes liberals as bigoted.  An authoritarian is actively hostile and punitive toward outsiders.

So, Donald Trump has been desultory in his response to the hurricane in Puerto Rico.  And he is gearing up for possible war on North Korea, a conflict that would have disastrous consequences for South Korea and possibly Japan.  And his supporters are fine with both of these.  Many of them did not know that Puerto Rico was part of the United States and that Puerto Ricans are US citizens.  They have somewhat softened upon learning this, but basically oppose expending government resources on Puerto Rico.  And they want to see any North Korean nuclear threat to us destroyed and don’t much care what happens to South Korea or Japan as a result.

I would go one step further and say that Trump supporters see it as immoral to expend resources on Puerto Rico, or to care what happens to South Korea or Japan as a result of our actions because any concern for Puerto Rico, South Korea, or Japan shows an insufficient commitment to our own.

So the question is, is such an attitude compatible with conservatism, or is it purely authoritarian?  I don’t know. 

While I have suggested that a conservative is indifferent to outsiders and an authoritarian hostile, I don’t mean by this that authoritarians seek out outsiders to be hostile toward.  Authoritarians are hostile toward outsiders only to the extent that they somehow intrude on us.  Indeed, everyone reacts with hostility toward intrusion; some people’s activation level is merely higher than others.  Authoritarians’ level is extremely low.

Presumably authoritarians are hostile toward Puerto Ricans anyhow because they move here, speak Spanish, and immediately qualify for citizenship.  Wanting the U.S. government to help out and spend taxpayer resources on them is another such intrusion.  And it seems safe to assume that following the hurricane a whole lot more Puerto Ricans will be moving here and amp up authoritarian hostility to them even more.

On the other hand, I doubt very much that even the most aggressive authoritarians have anything against Japan or South Korea.  Yes, there have been trade dispute in the past, but those are mostly forgotten, giving way to disputes with China or Mexico.  And yes, Trump is trying to ramp up trade disputes and hostility toward both countries, but both seem fairly how down on the authoritarian list of people to hate.

On the other hand, South Korea and Japan are now being asked to be included in our moral calculations.  They are asking us to take into account just how devastating the consequences will be to them if we start a war with North Korea.  And that in itself may be enough of an intrusion to activate authoritarian hostility toward them.  At the very least, Trump supporters (a) don’t care if Seoul or Tokyo is destroyed in a war with North Korea, and (b) consider it immoral for the President to care because it would mean insufficient resolve to protect the US.

So fair question.  I think conservatives consider charity beginning at home versus charity ending at home to be a distinction without a difference because it is the depth, not the breadth, of charity that matters, and there is always room for deeper charity among one’s own.  Conservatives also tend to oppose broadening of moral and social commitment for fear of undermining depth, and this liberals do often have trouble telling this from bigotry.  Conservatives do not go out of their way to help outsiders, but neither do they have any desire to harm outsiders.

So speaking as a liberal, I really need to understand.  Are conservatives equally indifferent to harm to outsiders when it is the result of our own activity?  Do they consider it immoral to care about the harm we inadvertently cause to people who have never done anything to us?  

Sunday, October 29, 2017

How I Imagine Trumpcare Might Go Down

At least we got tax cuts
Here is my imagined scenario of how Donald Trump’s healthcare policy would go.  With the defection of McCain, Corker and Flake, as well as the firm opposition of Collins and Murkowski, no plan to shut down Obamacare can muster even a majority in the Senate, so Trump continues his policy of sabotage.  It succeeds.  Every increase in premiums, every reduction in options, every county that loses all coverage he proclaims victory and announces as proof that Obamacare is failing.  Failure begets failure, reports of failure in one county discourage people in other counties, which cause insurers to flee the exchanges, which discourage sign-ups, and soon the whole system comes crashing down. 

Trump declares victory.  He announces that Obamacare has finally failed and the people are freed from its oppression.  He calls a party of Congressional Republicans and Republican donors to celebrate.  They dance for joy.  They throw confetti.  They shoot off fireworks.  All over the country, Trump supporters join in.  They proclaim freedom of this monstrous oppression.  They dance in the streets for joy.  They throw confetti.  They shoot off fireworks.  They rejoice in their liberation from this monstrosity.

Then reality hits home.  People all over the country who lost their health insurance when the exchanges collapsed can’t find it anywhere else.  Many have serious medical problems.   Without subsidies, people in rural areas and older people, no matter how healthy, find that their premiums skyrocket.   If Trump is also successful in rolling back Medicaid enrollment, many rural hospitals may shut down as economically unviable.  Trump supporters are disproportionately affected.  Perhaps healthy young men, especially in urban areas, and possibly healthy young women with no plans to have a baby any time soon benefit.  But if Congress is unable to repeal the Obamacare regulations, the collapse of the exchanges may bring down the individual insurance market outside the exchanges as well.  

Trump supporters ask where is the much better plan that Republicans assured us they had ready in their pocket.  Where is the plan that will deliver awesome health coverage at a fraction of the cost?  And then they will be shocked to learn what everyone else knew anyhow.  Republicans don’t have a plan.  Or, at most, their plan is to repeal the Obamacare regulations requiring an essential health benefit and forbidding discrimination based on pre-existing conditions, or allowing insurers to compete across state lines.  This will make coverage cheap for anyone who doesn’t need it, but prohibitive for anyone with actual medical problems.  And the Republican leadership overall just won’t see this as a problem.  They will have gotten rid of that evil monstrosity, Obamacare, and nothing further is needed.   Freed of the malign tyranny of the government, the free market will come up with an optimal solution any day now (checks watch).  And if that ultimately means people with pre-existing conditions can’t get coverage and are left to die, well if that is what the free market wants, it must be optimal.

And then things get interesting.  Some Trump supporters continue to support him.  These include ones on Medicare and ones who get coverage through their employers, which is, after all, a majority of the population.   Others lose their health insurance and blame it on Obama and don’t blame Republicans at all for failing to do anything about it.  But others lose their health insurance or have family members or friends who lose their insurance or see their rural hospitals shut down and respond with anger and betrayal. 

Trump will be enraged.  He will lock himself in the bathroom and tweet out petulant, self-pitying  tweets.  He will denounce all reports of people losing coverage as “FAKE NEWS!”  He will blame it on “FAILED OBAMACARE” and a Republican Congress that can’t pass decent legislation.  He will say that it isn’t his fault, how was he supposed to know that deliberately crashing that system that provides healthcare to 10 million people would cause problems.  And he will be utterly unable to imagine that it isn’t all about him.  And in this case, since he was the one who deliberately crashed the exchanges, he will have a point.

I should add that this is a fantasy.  Although this is the logical outcome of the course Donald Trump is on, I don’t think it is what will actually happen.  Why not?  Because the exchanges won’t be here today and gone tomorrow.  Before the exchanges fail altogether, they will start to seriously malfunction.  Premiums will skyrocket.  (That is already beginning).  Entire counties will find themselves without insurers, particularly in rural areas where the most Trump supporters reside.   Some rural hospitals will fail.  And all of this will get ample coverage.  Of course, Trump will denounce this as “FAKE NEWS” and many of his supporters will agree.  (Fox, Breitbart, etc. either won’t cover it or will blame it all on the failings of Obamacare).  But that will be sort of like telling the people of Puerto Rico not to believe the stories about hardship in their country.  Residents of pro-Trump rural counties losing their coverage and possibly seeing their hospitals close will be aware of what is happening.  They may blame it on innate failing of Obamacare rather than deliberate sabotage by Trump, but in the end they will want someone to do something about it.  The pressure on Congress to do something will grow. 

And therein will lie the problem.  Republicans will be ideologically opposed to doing anything about it and, even if forced to act by political reality, won’t have any realistic plan to improve the situation.  Democrats will have plenty of plans, but will be in the minority and unable to pass any of them.  If they retake one house of Congress, they will be unable pass it in the other.  Even if they take both, they won’t be able to get any plan past a Republican filibuster.*   And even if they somehow manage to pass something by budget reconciliation or get enough Republican defectors, Republican donors will probably convince Trump to veto it and there is no way Democrats will have the votes to override. 

In short, Republicans have learned that it is easier to destroy than to build.  They are currently hard at work on it, destroying Obamacare with possibly major collateral damage to the insurance system, wrecking regulatory agencies, causing possibly irreversible damage to the environment, and destroying the State Department and, with it, our ability to engage in diplomacy.  And this is best seen as a warning to voters and Democratic politicians alike – do not elect Democrats and, if you do, don’t even think of doing anything once in power.  Because Republicans WILL destroy whatever Democrats may achieve, and they don’t care about the damage they cause along the way.

*Democrats currently hold 48 seats in the Senate. Of the seats up for election in 2018, only eight belong to Republicans. That means that even if Democrats win every single seat up for election (a most unlikely outcome), they will only have 56 seats, and will therefore need four Republican votes to pass anything

What Do We Know So Far About Trump and Russia?

At least we got tax cuts
So, granting that so far no proof has emerged of any collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, what do we know?  

We know that Paul Manfort, who was Trump’s campaign manager from June to August, was an incredibly sleazy character who acted as a public relations consultant to dictators the world over, most recently to pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine, who he also served as an adviser.  We know that Michael Flynn, who one of Trump’s top foreign policy consultants and who he briefly considered as Vice President, was strongly pro-Russian and appeared on Russia Today (RT) and did a photo op with Vladimir Putin.  We know that Trump, who generally appears to have no concept of a mutually beneficial relationship or alliance, constantly made an exception for Russia.

We know that Trump’s campaign speeches often closely matched Russian publications such as RT and Sputnik, even to the point of repeating the same errors.  We know that these were open sources that anyone could cite, but most politicians do not.  

We know that the Russian government hacked the Democratic National Committee e-mails and Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager’s e-mails and turned them over to Wikileaks.  We know that Wikileaks published the e-mails in a manner calculated to do maximum damage to Hillary Clinton.  We also know that Trump regularly and enthusiastically quoted material published on Wikileaks and made them central to his campaign, even after the intelligence community warned that they were stolen by the Russian government.

We know that numerous members of Trump’s campaign had unreported meetings with Russian officials, both before and after the election.  We know that meetings of this type are not normal.

We know that Trump made a major campaign issue of some 30,000 Clinton e-mails that she had deleted and constantly taunted her about them, urging her to release them.  We know that in a public speech he called on Russia to hack these e-mails and release them.  Trump claimed he was joking at the time, and the claim was not completely implausible, but since then we have learned that members of the campaign have sought those e-mails from the Russians in all seriousness.   We first learned of such a conversation by a low-level Florida staffer who Trump’s inner circle presumably knew nothing about.  We next learned about similar attempts by Peter Smith, a mid-level operative with contacts in the inner circle, but not a member, also attempted to obtain the missing e-mails from an unknown source, knowing that it might be Russian.  We also know that those missing e-mails never saw the light of day.

We know that Donald Trump’s son, Donald, Jr. received an e-mail from an associate with Russian ties, saying that a Russian official from the “Crown Prosecutor’s office” had some dirt on Hillary Clinton that was "obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump," and that Junior responded with enthusiasm.  We know that e-mails circulated among the very inner circle of the campaign all bearing the caption "Russia - Clinton - private and confidential."  We know both these inflammatory remarks were initiated from the other side, but that Junior never protested.  We know that such a meeting took place with Trump’s son, his son-in-law (Jared Kushner) and his campaign manager (Paul Manafort) attending.  We know that they were disappointed in the dirt offered, and that the Russians were more interested in lifting sanctions than anything else.  

We now know that the "dirt" being offered dealt with accusations that one of Hillary's donors invested in funds in Russia managed by a Kremlin foe and evaded taxes on the profits, and that the Russian Prosecutor General (the "Crown Prosecutor") had made the same pitch, much of it verbatim, to pro-Russian members of the U.S. Congress.  Needless to say, Junior found this to be very weak tea.  No American is going to care if a candidate accepts money from a donor who evaded taxes in Russia.  We don't know what Junior expected to get out of the meeting, but it does not seem too far-fetched to guess that he was expecting the missing e-mails.

We now also know that the Russian government circulated anti-Clinton stories, many of them fabricated, on social media.  And we know that that they carefully targeted their audience with a degree of skill one would not expect from Russians.  And we are now learning some very interesting things about Cambridge Analytica, the tech firm that the Trump campaign and Trump PAC's hired to do their data analysis, though not to provide the raw data.  We now know that Alexander Nix, the head of Cambridge Analytica, asked Wikileaks for Hillary's missing e-mails, intending to release them.  We know that this happened in  late July, 2016, around the time Trump became the official Republican nominee, Cambridge Analytica began working for him, and Wikileaks began releasing Democratic e-mails.  We know that in August, Cambridge Analytica offered to help Wikileaks make the missing e-mails more accessible.  We know that no such exchange took place.  Julian Assange, head of Wikileaks, says that he refused.  More likely, he did not have them.

Reportedly an intern and Cambridge Analytica left some sensitive information of voter targeting on line from March, 2016 to February, 2017, along with their Twitter user name and password.  That would provide a plausible and innocent explanation of how the Russians were able to target Americans so effectively.  I suppose it is possible.  It is also possible that somewhere there is a dog that loves to feast on homework.  Or this just might be the link that shows not only hard evidence of furtive collusion, but evidence that it was systemic and sustained as well.

I can't wait to see what the indictments have to offer.