Wednesday, June 28, 2017

A Partial Defense of Obama's Mideast Policy

So having criticized Donald Trump's Mideast policy as making no sense whatever, and adding that it makes even less sense that the Obama and/or Blob policy, let me defend Obama at least somewhat against the Blob.

The Blob's basic criticism of Obama was that his policy was too timid and not interventionist enough. It is certainly not true that Obama was so hands-off as they claim.  He dropped plenty of bombs.  The Blob's particular criticism of Obama is for not intervening in Syria's civil war but he intervened plenty -- against ISIS.  What the Blob really wanted was for him to intervene to remove President Assad.  If only he had intervened earlier, more forcefully, left a residual force in Iraq, etc. he could have removed Assad and the ghastly civil war could have been avoided.

Look pardon my cynicism, but it's amazing.  Even though every intervention the U.S. has made in the Middle East has gone badly, every one we didn't make would have gone just great if only we had made it.  The overall assumption is that a little military intervention never hurt anyone and couldn't possibly go wrong.  And if it does go wrong -- well, we can always escalate.

Consider the if only's.

If only we had left a small residual force in Iraq, it would have prevented Iraq from again degenerating into civil war.  Yet our earlier force of 100,000 failed to prevent Iraq from degenerating into civil war.  And since the Iraqi government made clear that it did not want our forces to be present, they would have been staying against the wishes of the Iraqi government and once again become the target of insurgents.  Again, it is cynical to say, but only the experience of ISIS could actually make Iraqis welcome us as liberators.

If only we had moved faster and more forcefully to train the rebel forces, they would have overthrown Assad early before they became radicalized and all would have gone well.  This underestimates just how difficult it is to build an effective fighting force (as evidenced by our notably unsuccessful attempts to do just that in Syria and in many other countries).

The same applies to any other assumption that if only we had moved more forcefully to get rid of Assad all would have been well.  We might, indeed have gotten rid of Assad if we had intervened more forcefully.*   But to believe that removing Assad would have meant that all was well is  uncommonly naive about what actually happens in civil wars.  If we had successfully removed Assad, chances are the rival factions would promptly have gone to war with each other, with the most ruthless ultimately winning out. (That is, after all, exactly what happened when we got rid of Saddam Hussein in Iraq).

But above all else, but Blob focuses on Obama's failure to uphold the Red Line, i.e., to retaliate when Bashir Assad used chemical weapons against US warnings.  If only the US has retaliated then -- well, as a matter of fact, the Blob is somewhat vague about what it would have achieved.  Does anyone seriously think that dropping a few bombs on the Assad regime would have seriously changed the outcome of the war?  The usual response by the Blob is that it would have demonstrated "toughness" and "resolve."  So maybe it wouldn't have affected events on the ground much in Syria, but it would have deterred Russia from invading the Ukraine.  Does this make any sense at all?  If dropping a few bombs on Syria probably would not make all that much difference in the Syrian civil war, why on earth should it deter Russia from invading Ukraine -- an area Russians have long considered part of their bailiwick, and one where direct intervention is clearly out of the question and just might lead to WWIII?

I strongly recommend accounts of that event by Derek Chollet, a military planner in the Pentagon at the time of the strikes.  He gets into the weeds about the military efficacy of such strikes, a detail that does not seem to interest the Blob much.  At the time, they planned to hit multiple sites (Trump's bombing hit only one) in order to take out as much of Assad's chemical arsenal as possible.  But they were also aware that they did not know where all the arsenal was, or what would become of it.  And what if Assad fell?  Parts of his arsenal would still be there and might have ended up in the hands of who-knows-who.  Under these circumstances, a diplomatic resolution getting rid of the chemical arsenal -- some 1300 tons -- is hard to see as anything other than a stroke of genius.  It achieved the Administrations real military objective -- getting chemical weapons out of Syria -- without a shot being fired.  Certainly the Israelis were relieved at not having a large chemical stockpile next door that might fall into the hands any sort of madman.  As for the damage to American credibility -- does anyone believe the Russians and Syrians would have removed the chemical weapons if they hadn't  found US threats credible?  And Iran agreed to major constraints on its nuclear program, a thing it presumably would not have agreed to if it had not found the US "credible."**

And, it should be added, the agreement was highly successful at its limited objective.  Assad's arsenal of sarin gas was effectively removed.  The use of chemical weapons did not cease.  Assad continued to use primitive barrel bombs of chlorine gas, but these were vastly less effective.  Prior to the 2013 agreement to remove chemical weapons, there were over 1,300 killed and 10,000 injured in chemical attacks.  Afterward the number injured (by chemical weapons, mostly chlorine) fell to 1,300 or less and the number killed became very low indeed.

To which one might say, so what.  Even at its worst, the total casualties from chemical weapons were a tiny fraction of the total.  And no one even pretends that Obama did a thing to prevent that.  It is a fair point. Of course, bombing all Assad's known chemical depots would not have prevented that either, let alone Trump's action in destroying a single air base.  Obama's actions in diplomatically removing Assad's chemical weapons, though they had little effect on the overall course of the war, at least took those weapons out of the picture and kept them from falling into the hands of -- well, maybe it's best not even to think about it.  Trump's bombing achieved nothing whatever except to blow off some steam.  Or, as this article puts it:
I suspect it [the Blob] endorses Thursday’s strikes because it is simply fatigued by watching the suffering of civilians in Syria and war crimes committed by all sides to the conflict (although only government war crimes are ever discussed). The community feels a need to make a statement of opposition that is demonstrable and visual, to “do something.” . . . The dilemma with using bombs to satisfy this humanitarian impulse is that it will not be the last kinetic “something” that Trump authorizes. . . . Unfortunately, while the cruise missile strikes may make American officials and policymakers feel better about having “sent a message” that Assad will “pay a price,” the effects will be temporary. The internationalized civil war will continue. All of the external powers with keep training and arming their allies within Syria, while conducting their own airstrikes on behalf of them. . . . Assad will defend his regime with more war crimes — with the full backing of Russia and Iran — and Trump will face the choice of perceived acquiescence or further escalation of more intensive military strikes against more and more regime assets. 
Indeed.  Is it too much to suspect that the real reason the Blob was so angry at Obama for not bombing Syria in 2013 was that he denied them their hook for further escalation, and ultimate regime change?  Well, Trump seems well on the way toward just that -- escalation of the conflict with Assad, with Iran, and possibly even with Russia.

One last thought.  It is not quite true that we have never had a successful military intervention in the Middle East.  We did have one -- the first one.  The senior Bush was highly successful in freeing Kuwait from Iraqi forces.***  One major reason for his success was that he was not intervening in a civil war, but merely repelling an invasion, a much easier matter.  Another reason for his success was that he stuck to a limited objective -- repelling the Iraqis from Kuwait, not invading and conquering Iraq.  But this does not mean that the intervention was perfect.  Although Bush trusted that losing the war would cause Saddam to be overthrown, he held onto power.  Bush responded with the absurd claim that Saddam was equally dangerous whether he had an army or not and maintained a policy of regime change long after Saddam was effectively defanged.  This led to a prolonged, pointless standoff and to claims that not invading and finishing him off was a mistake.  The assumption that we should have finished Saddam off and that not doing so was our critical mistake became conventional wisdom among the Blob.  Only when Bush Junior tried to make up for Bush Senior's alleged mistake did we learn that Senior had been right all along.

Sometimes there is no ideal option.  To assume that the road not taken would always have led somewhere better is a dangerous delusion.  Bush Junior showed us how wise his father was for not invading Iraq to finish off Saddam -- and how wrong the Blob was in its conventional wisdom.  Beyond any doubt, the current situation in Syria is horrible.  Conventional wisdom of the Blob is that all would have been well if only Obama had intervened.  Trump may just prove them wrong.

*Russia intervened to prop up Assad when it looked like he was in real danger of being defeated.  But it is certainly possible that a stronger US presence would have kept the Russians out of Syria, just as they stayed out of Libya and Iraq.
**And, the same author points out, this is hardly the only time a US President has made a threat and not kept it.
***And also successful at stopping Saddam's slaughter of the Kurds.  I am inclined to believe that was because Saddam's forces had become, for all intents and purposes, a foreign army of occupation in Kurdish areas and therefore easy to dislodge.  It should also be noted that the intervention was a mixed bag.  The first thing the liberated Kurds did was have a civil war between rival factions.  One faction even asked Saddam for help!  But the factions ended up dividing Kurdistan and after that things went reasonably well.  No doubt one reason things quieted down in Kurdistan was that it did not become a theater of great power rivalry ever escalating the situation.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Donald Trump's Flying Circus, 6/24/17

If Republicans want to be known as the Party of Personal Responsibility, could they please choose a leader who has some grasp of that concept?  Donald Trump's unwillingness to take personal responsibility for anything at all is a wonder to behold.

The Washington Post has now run a story  revealing just how much Obama knew in advance about Russian meddling with the election and his failure to do anything about it.  And while Donald Trump may not have known the full extent of what was going in, he was certainly eager to benefit from it.  He denied in the face of all evidence that Russia was behind the hacking, encouraged Russia to hack  more, dismissed the fact of the hacking as insignificant compared to what it revealed and regularly quoted hacked material on Wikileaks and stories from Russian propaganda.  And up till now, he has continued in the light of all evidence to deny that Russia was pulling for him.

Until the story came out.  Then he cheerfully accepted that Russia had been meddling in the election on his behalf -- but it was all Obama's fault.  He tweeted out, "Since the Obama Administration was told way before the 2016 Election that the Russians were meddling, why no action? Focus on them, not T!"  And also, "Just out: The Obama Administration knew far in advance of November 8th about election meddling by Russia. Did nothing about it. WHY?"  And then, of course, his storm:
The reason that President Obama did NOTHING about Russia after being notified by the CIA of meddling is that he expected Clinton would win.....and did not want to "rock the boat." He didn't "choke," he colluded or obstructed, and it did the Dems and Crooked Hillary no good. The real story is that President Obama did NOTHING after being informed in August about Russian meddling. With 4 months looking at Russia.....under a magnifying glass, they have zero "tapes" of T people colluding. There is no collusion & no obstruction. I should be given apology!
 Look, there is certainly room to criticize Obama for not acting more forcefully.*  But failing to stop the hacks was one thing.  Eagerly accepting and seeking to benefit from them is quite another.  Dude, you were more than happy to use this to your advantage.  Eagerly using Russian hacks and leaks as the centerpiece of your campaign and then saying it was Obama's fault for not stopping them is chutzpah up there with killing your parents and then throwing yourself on the mercy of the court because you are an orphan.

And, just for what it is worth, this is a pattern with Trump.  Trump spouted ridiculous conspiracy theories about Ted Cruz's father being involved in the Kennedy assassination.  When called on it, he said that he was just quoting what he read in the National Inquirer and should not be held responsible for what they say.  When Marco Rubio mocked him for having small hands, Trump felt the need to deny that his hands were small in televised debate -- and also that anything else was small, either.  When asked whether this was prudent, Trump's response was that he was criticized for his hands and had no choice but to issue a public denial.  His overall response to just about anything has been to tweet out why it is not his fault.

Honestly sometimes I think that if he really did shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue, he would tweet out that he wasn't his fault that the other guy stepped in the way of the bullet and besides, his bodyguards saw him point the gun, so why didn't they wrest it from his hands.

But maybe at least he would accept personal responsibility if he were ever determined to have committed the most heinous offense possible.  Sending state Department e-mails from a private server.

*And also some basis to defend him.  More on that later.

Trump's Mideastern Policy Makes No Sense Whatever

Donald Trump’s Mideastern policy makes no sense whatever.  In all fairness to Trump, his predecessor’s policy and the Blob’s policy (a lot closer than either cares to admit) didn’t make a lot of sense either.  But Trump’s policy makes even less sense.  That is quite an achievement (of a bad kind). 

What is basically happening in the Middle East is that local conflicts are being exacerbated by great power meddling, the Great Powers of the Middle East being Iran and Saudi Arabia.  This is not to suggest that the great powers are creating local conflicts.  The local conflicts would exist without great power meddling.  But the great powers escalate the conflicts and make them much longer and bloodier than they otherwise would be, all the while justifying their actions by saying that they are only helping out an ally in trouble.*

We are on the side of Saudi Arabia in this great power conflict.  It is not clear that this makes any sense.  The usual reasons given for this are that the Iranian government is repressive, violates human rights, destabilizes governments that act against its interests, and sponsors terrorism.  All these accusations are true.  Then again, the Saudi government is repressive, violates human rights, destabilizes governments that act against its interests, and sponsors terrorism.  Of course, in the Middle East there are no good guys.  The choice is not between good guys and bad guys, but which set of bad guys you prefer.  Why do we prefer Saudi Arabia?  Would it make more sense to favor Iran?

In terms of repressiveness and human rights violations, although both governments deserve our condemnation, the Iranian government at least maintains the outward forms of democracy, holds contested elections (though closely controlled by the clergy and Revolutionary Guards who hold the real power), and allows limited dissent.  Saudi Arabia makes no such pretense and allows no dissent whatever.  So, advantage Iran.

Iran exercises tight control over its terrorists.  Whenever there is an outbreak of Shiite terrorism, one may be sure that it was done under the direction of the Iranian intelligence service at the direction of the Iranian state.  In 1994, Hezbollah, under Iranian direction, blew up a Jewish cultural center in Argentina and killed 85 innocent people, wounding hundreds.  Certainly the Saudi state has never sponsored such an attack against a western target.  Nonetheless, Iranian proxies do not target us, and since 1994 have confined their terrorist attacks to the Middle East.  It is genuinely and strongly opposed to the really dangerous terrorist organizations in the Middle East, such as the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and ISIS.  Currently the Iranians are backing the murderous Assad regime in Syria and strongly fighting ISIS.

Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, does not have a tightly controlled terrorist network and is also opposed to Taliban, Al-Qaeda and ISIS.  Nonetheless, whenever there is an outbreak of Sunni terrorism, it almost always turns out that, although not under the control or direction of the Saudi state, it was committed by individuals who were radicalized at Saudi-established madrassahs and financed with Saudi money.  Terrorists of this kind operate the world over and can target anyone.  Saudi Arabia does nothing to command or control them, but keeps promoting the ideology that inspires them and permits the money flow that finance them.  Of the 19 hijackers on 9-11, 15 were from Saudi Arabia. The Saudis regard Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula as an enemy, yet their intervention in Yemen's civil war, with a focus on on defeating the Iranian-backed Houthis has had the effect of creating a power vacuum that AQAP is filling.  The Saudis apparently consider AQAP, which was behind the Charlie Hebdo shooting and has attempted to down US airliners, as the lesser evil compared to the Houthis, who have never bother us at all.  In Syria, wealthy private citizens (presumably condoned by the government) indiscriminately loaned money to any rebels who showed up, including Al-Qaeda affiliates and ISIS.  

In short, Iran is an enemy of our chief enemies in the Middle East -- but it also commands a vast terrorist network that it could unleash against us, even though it currently keeps leashed.  Saudi Arabia is also an enemy of our chief enemies in the Middle East -- but keeps pursuing policies that have the effect of empowering them.  Saudi military interventions tend to have the indirect result of empowering anti-western militants, while Iranian military interventions have the direct result of empowering the Iranian state.

The Blob (and Obama, who did the Blob’s bidding in most cases, though with conspicuous disagreement directly seeking the overthrow of the Assad government) has decided that we should treat Iran as an enemy and Saudi Arabia as an ally.  It is far from clear to me that the Blob is right.  This is not to say that we should reverse ourselves and align with Iran against Saudi Arabia.  To me, it means that we should not get too involved in their great power rivalry and do all we can to lower tensions between the two.

At the same time, backing Saudi Arabia against Iran makes sense in at least one way.  One could see this as part of Cold War II.  In other words, one could treat the great power rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran as part of a larger great power rivalry between the US and Russia.  Russia backs Iran; therefore we must back Saudi Arabia.**  This is dubious, but not crazy.

Trump, during the campaign, challenged this conventional wisdom and proposed that instead we treat ISIS and other such groups as our primary enemy and Russia as a useful ally against them.  That may or may not work, but it isn't altogether crazy either.

What is utterly crazy is to pursue a pro-Russian foreign policy while simultaneously doing everything to ramp up tensions with Iran and give Saudi Arabia a blank check.  If you attack Russia's ally, relations with Russia will suffer as a result.  Duh!  Nor is this limited to Trump, who might not know that Russia and Iran are allies.  The whole pro-Russia crowd appears to consist of strong Iran hawks.

Most notably, Michael Flynn was both strongly pro-Russia and anti-Iran to a deranged degree.  U.S. Representative Dana Rorschbacher is called Putin's favorite Congressman for his pro-Russian policies, but he is also so outrageously anti-Iran that he actually suggested an anti-Iranian alliance with ISIS.  And Flynn holdovers are apparently pushing for direct intervention in Syria to fight Iran, even though this greatly increases the risk of a showdown with Russia.

I truly don't get it.  I can't come up with any explanation for this, not even a cynical one.  How do you simultaneously seek improved relations with Russia and outright war with a Russian ally?  This is nuts!

*Read Thucydides on the Peloponnesian War for a brilliant account of how this dynamic played out in Ancient Greece.  It hasn’t changed since.
**That Iran and Russia have ended up as allies despite their traditionally tense border and the fact that Russia actually invaded Iran during WWII is a testament to the extraordinary incompetence of a whole series of US Presidents, from Eisenhower to Obama.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

If a Crisis Breaks Out in a Forest and No One is Around, Is It Still a Crisis?

One of the most horrifying things about a Trump presidency to me was the thought of The Donald managing a crisis.  The best outcome I could think of was for Trump’s staff to handcuff him, stuff something in his mouth, and lock him in the closet until it was over.   But now I am starting to wonder.

What if you held a crisis and no one showed up?

You see, whether to have a crisis or not is to a considerable extent a deliberate policy decision.  That was one thing that became clear to me reading Essence of Decision on the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Some rather disturbing things arise from it.  It is clear (see pages 187-194) that the decision to make the presence of missiles in Cuba a crisis was a conscious decision made by Kennedy for political reasons.  He was being accused of being soft on Communism for allowing the Bay of Pigs invasion to fail.  He had to do something to show strength, but he did not want an actual superpower showdown.  His plan, then, was to draw some sort of line in the sand, something the Soviets has not done, insist that this was the line we would not allow them to cross, and claim victory when the line held.  He decided on missiles because he believed there were no missiles in Cuba.  Well, it turned out that he had calculated wrong and that the Soviets did have missiles in Cuba after all, so failure to provoke a showdown would have been devastating to his political fortunes.  

Furthermore, there were signs in Washington that a crisis was brewing.  Limousines of important officials started appearing at the White House and State Department with remarkable frequency.  Certain officials stopped being reachable by phone.  Lights were burning late in parts of the State Department and Pentagon.   Staffers were bringing cots and staying overnight.  While Kennedy kept the general public distracted by continuing normal activities in the public eye, an astute observer could see signs that there was about to be a crisis.  By watching what sections had lights burning late, an astute observer could even guess that the crisis was about missiles in Cuba.   Such astute observers included the British intelligence and two sharp investigative reporters for the New York Times  and the Washington Post, but not the KGB.   The crisis brought the world closer to nuclear war than any other.  Yet it was entirely a choice on Kennedy’s part and ultimately dictated by political, rather than security, considerations.

Of course, in the Cuban Missile Crisis the initiative lay with us.  Sometimes the President really is ambushed by an unexpected development originated by someone else.  But even then, he has considerable latitude to decide whether to make it a crisis or not. 

Consider, for instance, what has happened so far since January 20.  North Korea has moved into a more confrontational mode and fired repeated missiles over the Sea of Japan, even as the South Korean government was paralyzed by an impeachment.  Saudi Arabia and its satellites have broken off diplomatic relations with Qatar and instituted a blockade, then issued an ultimatum making obviously unacceptable demands, including the closing of Al Jazeera.  Qatar has responded by seeking an alliance with Turkey, Iran, and possibly even Russia.  No shots have been fired, but a blockade is customarily considered an act of war.

Many Presidents would have treated either or both of these events as a crisis and acted accordingly.  Donald Trump, on the other hand, has made some half-hearted gestures such as sending in Rex Tillerson to negotiate and then either allowing him to proceed in the most ineffectual way possible (in North Korea) or actively undercutting him (in Qatar).  And, of course, he has continued spouting insane and inane tweets, either on the would-be crisis or on other topics. 

I should note that I am not one of those people who thing that Trump tweets as a deliberate ploy to distract us from the real issue at hand.  Nothing in his makeup suggests that he is either disciplined or devious enough to do that.  Rather, he just seems to be ranting and spewing whatever goes through his head at any particular time.  Or, as Saturday Night Live puts it, he tweets “[B]ecause my brain is bad.”  Trump’s tweeting does nonetheless have the tendency to distract from more important matters.  Meanwhile, the Pentagon goes right ahead selling arms to Qatar and using our base there to fight ISIS, despite Trump’s tweets of support for Saudi Arabia.  The Pentagon is thus metaphorically handcuffing Trump by limiting his freedom of action.  So far, alas, they have not been able to get him off Twitter, i.e., to metaphorically stuff something in his mouth.  Maybe they can lock him in a very large closet by convincing him to play golf full time.  In short, Trump may be too egocentric to deal with actual crises because they would take attention away from him.  And this may not be so bad because a lot of crises will blow over anyhow. 

But sometimes a crisis strikes so extreme that that doing nothing and letting it blow over is simply not an option. 9-11, for instance.  Or Hurricane Katrina.  Or the 2008 financial crisis.  The good news is that crises of this type are not very common.  Maybe GWB was simply unlucky in hitting the jackpot and getting three such crisis in eight years.  Then again, maybe incompetent management of smaller crises makes larger crises more likely down the road.  I honestly don’t know.

The bad news is that we will undoubtedly find out.

The good news is that at least Trump never sent State Department e-mails on a private server.

Why Republicans Won't Impeach Trump

Occasionally someone on my side asks why the Republicans don’t impeach Trump.  No one doubts that they would rather have Mike Pence in office.   Pence is just as committed to their agenda as Trump – probably more so, since to him it is a matter of real conviction, rather than naked opportunism.   He is infinitely more disciplined than Trump, free of any taint of corruption, irreproachable (to the point of prudishness) in his private life, capable of basic administrative competence, willing to put in the basic  work to get things done, and not prone to embarrassing outbursts.  But above all, in case of crisis, there is no need to handcuff him, stuff something in his mouth, and lock him in the closet until it is over.  Very important, that!

Some people have suggested that given how ideologically unreliable Trump his, Congressional Republicans may welcome his sleaziness.  It allows them to play a little blackmail game – stick to our ideological agenda and we won’t dig too deeply into your shady financial dealings and ties to Russia.  But I have to believe that they would prefer a leader who is ideologically reliable and not sleazy.*

The primary reason the Republicans won’t impeach is simple.  What is an impeachable offense?  The answer is simple – an impeachable offense is anything public opinion says is impeachable.  Try to impeach a President when public opinion does not support you, and you simply create a groundswell in favor of the target, by people who are angry that their judgment in electing him is being second guessed.**  This will probably require two things – public conviction that the President has done something really heinous, and the general sense that he isn’t doing a good job for the public. 

Public opinion turned against Nixon, his approval rating falling to 24% in the general public and 50% or less among Republicans.  This was partly because his Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General resigned rather than fire the Special Prosecutor, something that telegraphed to the general public that his actions were truly heinous.  The fact that oil prices were soaring, lines were forming at gas stations, inflation was surging while the economy was soft, and crime rates were rising probably didn’t help. 

Bill Clinton, by contrast, concealed evidence of an extra-marital affair.  The American public generally saw this as an offence properly punished by laughter and ridicule, but hardly grounds for impeachment.  The fact the economy was growing at a rate not seen in 30 years, unemployment and inflation were at a 30 year low, real wages were rising faster than they had in 30 years, and crime rates were falling (and that the stock market was the best since 1928, as the Onion commented) probably contributed to this impression.  Under those conditions, it would be hard to be impeached for anything short of being caught in bed with a dead girl or a live boy.

So, Donald Trump.  Granted, the man is unpopular with the general public, but he remains highly popular with the party faithful.  And in today’s polarized environment, Republicans in Congress don’t care about public opinion in general.  Only Republican opinion matters.  That is because what the general public thinks makes no difference to a Republican incumbent if he or she does not survive a primary challenge.  And besides, residential segregation of partisan opinion has become so extreme that most Republicans represent districts where no Democrat would have a chance anyhow.  What that means is that right now Donald Trump could shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and Congressional Republicans would not dare to impeach for fear of a primary challenge.

Could anything change that?  The only think that might turn the party faithful against Trump appears to be if he harmed them personally.  It is possible to imagine such a thing.  Trumpcare could strip millions of Trump supporters of their health insurance or price essential care out of their reach.  Republican cuts to social programs could devastate a poor state like West Virginia.  Republican infighting could lead to a debt ceiling breach with unknown fallout and completely self-inflicted economic damage.  Or Trump could mismanage a crisis so egregiously that even the party faithful could not defend his actions.  But then again, in today’s polarized environment Trump will have the whole right-wing propaganda machine pulling for him in such a case and a lot of faithful followers prepared to accept just about anything so long as it pisses off the liberals.  So it may be that even if Trump strips millions of their health insurance, needlessly crashes the economy with a debt ceiling breach, stumbles into a pointless ground war in Syria, and then shoots someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue, all the while spewing deranged tweets that call his sanity into question, the party faithful will still stick with him.

Oh, yes, and there is one other reason Republicans are unlikely to impeach him, even if he does lose support with the party faithful.  They have an agenda to pass.  Essentially, they want to roll back as much of the New Deal as possible, in order to restore top tax rates as near as possible to pre-New Deal rates.  This agenda has next to no support outside the economic royalists of the Republican donor class, including among the party faithful.***   Republicans in Congress have a choice.  They can either pass their wildly unpopular economic royalist agenda, or they can engage in fratricidal strife.  But there is no way they can find time and energy to do both.  And if they do attempt both, the unprincipled and vindictive Trump will probably set out to improve his standing with the public by denouncing and vetoing their economic royalist agenda.  Given the options, it should hardly be a surprise that Republicans prefer to pass their wildly unpopular agenda to engaging in fratricidal strife.  Neither will do them any good at the polls.  But at least passing their agenda will give them something to show for it.

*It is true that Stalin is purported to have said that he would rather people follow him out of fear than conviction because conviction depends on the other person and fear on himself.  This is just another version of Machiavelli’s comment that it is better for a ruler to be feared by his subjects than loved because love depends on his subjects and fear on the ruler.   But people who obey out of fear are not reliable; they are always eager to look for ways to slip loose.  Real loyalty comes from conviction, and from real respect.
**And not just by people who voted for him.  Bill Clinton won by less than a majority in 1996, but his approval rating rose to 80% when Republicans were bringing impeachment proceedings against him.  Apparently a significant number of people who did not vote for Clinton nonetheless believed the Republicans should have respected the people’s choice.

***My guess is it will have the support of the right-wing propaganda apparatus, which is basically run by economic royalists who are merely exploiting the party faithful.  But I could be wrong here.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Gaming Out the Politics of Trump Care

I don't mean whether two Senators will defect and allow it to pass, or three will defect and defeat it, whether all the objections now are real or just for show.  I mean the electoral politics assuming it does pass.

This is a matter of timelines of elections and effects of the new legislation.

The electoral time table is clear enough.  There is a Congressional election coming up next year.  All House seats are up for election.  Because of a combination of gerrymandering and natural concentration of Democrats in a small geographic area, the outline of House seats innately favors the Republicans and it will take something strong to overcome that.  Of the 33 Senators up for election, 25 are Democrats, including some in vulnerable states, and only eight are Republicans, most of them in safe states.  That means that in the normal course of things Democrats would lose seats, it would take something fairly strong for them to hold their own, and something even stronger to take control of the Senate.  It also means that even in the highly unlikely event of Democrats winning every seat up for election, they would control only 56 seats in the Senate -- not enough to overcome a Republican filibuster, let alone override a Presidential veto or remove Trump from office.

Here is my understanding of the time table for the Senate bill.

Its changes in subsidies, changes in regulations, and repeal of the individual mandate will take effect next year.  The effects, however, will be felt at different times.

The change in subsidies will be felt immediately next year.  The maximum income for receiving a subsidy will go from 400% of the federal poverty line to 350%.  I don't know how many people are in the gap and will lose their subsidies, but presumably we will hear from them, a lot.  Also, under current guidelines older consumers who receive a subsidy cannot be required to pay more than 9.5% of their income for health insurance.  That amount will go up to 16.2%.  We should be hearing a lot from people who experience that as well.  All of this will take place in 2018 -- Congressional election year.

Regulatory changes allow insurance companies to charge older customers five times as much as younger customers instead of three times as much.  They will also allow states to allow insurance companies to opt out of offering the essential health benefits required by Obamacare and and to allow states to allow a return of lifetime payments caps.  As our side frequently points out (1) allowing insurance companies to limit the benefits they offer can allow them to offer cheaper, skimpier plans to healthy customers -- but also to charge prohibitive rates for essential care to sicker customers, (2) there will be strong financial pressure on states to allow insurance companies  to opt out.

Presumably these regulatory changes, though on the books next year, will not actually come into effect until 2019.  The reason for this is that companies have already prepared and submitted their plans for next year under the old regulations.  So, these changes will not be in effect at the time of the 2018 election.  But news of premium hikes for seniors will be starting to hit the news shortly before the elections (just as rate hikes hit the news shortly before the 2016 election).  Of course, younger customers will get lower rates.  But remember, you always hear more from losers than winners.  And losers (older consumers) are disproportionately Republican.

I have no idea how many states will opt out of the Obamacare regulations, but presumably the deep red states eager to do anything to spite Obama will do so.  In those states people with pre-existing conditions will see immense spikes in insurance that covers essential medical care.  Healthy people will have access to cheaper and skimpier plans.  Again, we will hear more from losers than winners.  Again, this will start to break just before the election (and continue to crescendo afterward).

People will not start having their insurance payments cut off when they reach lifetime limits until after the 2018 election.  Over time, the same phenomenon will spread to more and more state.

The individual mandate will end.  This will please people who don't think the expense of health insurance is worth paying although, again, keep in mind that you hear more from losers than winners. Over time, this will induce the death spiral that Republicans have been seeking from the start, but this sort of thing will take time.

Rollback of the Medicaid expansion begins after 2020, i.e., after the next Presidential election.  So people will not actually be kicked off Medicaid until after the 2020 election -- or will they? Apparently the states of Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Mexico and Washington accepted the Medicaid expansion on the condition that it would be rolled back if the federal government cut funding.  So those seven states will see people kicked of Medicaid before the 2020 election.

Presumably the threat of cuts to Medicaid and people being kicked off will be a major issue in the 2020 election.  Presumably also, even if Democrats win the triple crown, it will be too late to stop the rollback at least for that year -- and Republicans will attack Democrats for letting it happen.

All in all, I would be inclined to think that this would hurt Republicans at the ballot box in the next two elections.  Or will it?  Maybe Republican voters who aren't hurt by these changes will be just thrilled to see all that insurance taken away from the undeserving and eagerly vote Republican again. Maybe even ones who are hurt will consider loss of health insurance an acceptable sacrifice for pissing off liberals and will vote for people who passed this outrage rather than admit they made a mistake.

The four special elections, all won by Republicans, make me think that this just might be so.

And Again on the Healthcare Front

Needless to say, much of the reasoning in my previous post applies to healthcare as well.  Why are Republican so determine to pass a wildly unpopular bill that strips 20 million (or so) people of their health insurance; raises premiums for older consumers (a highly Republican constituency); allows insurance companies to offer skimpier plans, possibly pricing essential services out of the reach of people with pre-existing conditions; and allows the return of lifetime limits?  People on my side assume that it is so they can repeal the taxes that fund Obamacare and that stripping so many of their insurance is purely incidental.  I am not so sure.  I can see many motives similar to the ones I proposed for repealing measures that would allow regulators to keep a failed bank from setting off a general financial crisis.  So here we go again.

Economic royalism.  Republicans are convinced that the unregulated free market is perfect and that if we just get government out of healthcare (including regulating insurers) all will be well.

Ideological principle.  This is much the same thing.  Someone I read (don't remember who) commented that Republicans have opposed government paying for healthcare long before they became committed to tax cuts at the top.  They blocked Truman from creating a national health service along the British model.  They resisted Lyndon Johnson's creation of Medicare and Medicaid. They spiked the Clinton plan (Hillarycare, they called it).  It is not exactly a secret that Republicans see entitlements in general (Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security) as constitutionally and morally illegitimate and would like to get rid of them.  Up till now, any sort of rollback has not been politically feasible.  Republican, having excited so much outrage against Obamacare, now finally see the opportunity to roll part of the welfare state back.  They are taking it.  Not only does the plan take away insurance from people who gained it under Obamacare, it puts a serious squeeze on Medicaid. If they succeed and don't pay too high an electoral price, Medicare and Social Security just might be next.

Pure partisanship.  Obama was responsible for a program that extended health insurance to 20 million people.  That program must die because Obama originated it.  Real world consequences take a back seat to partisan spite and "winning."  (I am pretty sure this is Trump's motive).

A warning to future Democrats.  I always thought that part of the goal for Republicans in fighting Obamacare was to make the subject so toxic that Democrats would never touch it again.  Actually repealing it and stripping 20 million of their health insurance serves the same purpose even more strongly, and in at least three ways.  First of all, it may leave the Democrats too exhausted to go through the whole process of creating a healthcare system all over.   Second, it may create such a mess as to make such attempts futile.  And finally, it makes that point that even if Democrats are successful in cleaning up the mess Republicans make, it will be an exercise in futility, since Republicans will just take a wrecking ball to whatever Democrats create.  I confess to not being clear why having a large uninsured population is such an important principle to Republicans, but it is time to acknowledge that it is.

Winning future elections.  Finally, making total hash out of the healthcare system may cost Republicans the election in 2020, but fear not.  It seems most unlikely the Democrats will be able to clean up whatever mess the Republicans leave by 2022.  And then Republicans can make Democrats' failure to clean up their mess a big campaign issue.

Maybe this last is overly cynical, but just look how Republicans managed to crash the economy in 2008 and then run against the Democrats for not having fixed it yet in 2010.

Possible Reasons

So, let us return to Kevin Drum's question.  Why are Republican so determined, not just to loosen banking regulations, but to destroy the mechanism set up to ensure that a future bank failure does not set off a general financial crisis and tank the economy?  Do they want another financial crisis?

I can offer a number of possibilities, ranging from the least to the most cynical.  Here we go.

The Orderly Liquidation Authority hits a lot of red button issues for Republicans.  It gives vast power to regulatory agencies, encourages international cooperation with financial management, and was supported by the hated Obama.  This is the perfect combination of things Republicans most hate. They oppose the OLA for that reason.

Republicans are economic royalists.  By that I mean that they believe the unregulated workings of the free market are sacred and infallible and always (by definition) produce the optimum outcome, not only for society as a whole, but for all individual actors.  Capitalist, as agents of the free market, are answerable to the free market alone and no lesser mortal may ever question their actions.* Regulations on banks are bad because they restrict lending.  Restrictions on credit are holding back the economy.  And, in fairness to the Republicans, restricting lending probably is slowing growth somewhat.  On the other hand, when banks are allowed to lend without restrictions, the result is invariably overlending, a bunch of bad debts, and an financial crisis.  Republicans complain that financial regulations are inhibiting a potential boom, but it is only by inhibiting the booms that you can prevent the busts.  Which leads to the next possibility.

Republicans are "liquidationists."  The phrase comes from the alleged advice of Herbert Hoover's Secretary of the Treasury in response to the crash, "[L]iquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate farmers, liquidate real estate... it will purge the rottenness out of the system."  This was then and is now the conservative response to the bust that follows the boom.  During the boom, economic royalists inveigh against financial restrictions that inhibit it.  If financial restrictions are lifted and the boom grows greater, they tout it as success.  When the bust invariably follows, they see it as deserved punishment for all the excesses of the boom and warn against doing anything about it.  Such thinking takes several forms.  The simplest is that the sacred and infallible free market will quickly correct itself if you sit back and do nothing, and that any inference will necessarily make things worse. Another is that the bust is necessary to shake out all the distortions of the boom and purge "rottenness," generally defined as debt and moral hazard.  Many also believe that there is an inevitable bottom to be reached, and that the faster the economy hits the inevitable bottom, the sooner it will recover.  Thus encouraging the failure of large portions of the economy is healthy because it anything that fails is obviously weak and something better will inevitably arise to take its place.

Of course, this raises a slightly awkward question.  If the unregulated workings of the free market are so great, why to they lead to a boom-and-bust cycle in the first place?  The usual answer, so far as I can tell, is that the real reason for booms and busts is that government protects people from the consequences of their mistakes, which introduces moral hazard into the system and allows for booms and busts.  Each disaster averted only adds more moral hazard to the system and sets us up for an even worst bust down the line.  If only government would stop interfering and allow the crash to proceed, no matter how bad, it would finally shake the moral hazard out of the system, scare banks into their senses, and end the boom-and-bust cycle once and for all.**

We certainly see evidence of that in how outraged Republicans were following the 2008 crash at any attempt to save the economy, not only by the elective branches of government, but also by the Federal Reserve.  Of course, many people might suspect that Republicans' anger over attempts to save the economy has less to do with ideological dogma than with the party that controlled the White House. Which leads to my next theory.

The OLA allows regulators to wipe out shareholders and claw back bonuses to executives.  I assume this is why banks hate the OLA so much.  If it is why Republicans hate the OLA too, I suppose that might be considers a form of economic royalism -- just a particularly corrupt and cynical one.

Republicans are determined to destroy anything the Democrats may do, regardless of the consequences.  Republicans have worked themselves up into such a lather of hate toward Obama and the Democratic Congress that they have taken a root-and-branch approach to destroying everything they do, regardless of the consequences.  If repealing Obamacare strips 20 million people of their health insurance, if repealing Frank-Dodd leads to a new financial crisis, if tearing up the agreement with Iran leads to them getting a nuclear bomb, those are trivial concerns compared to obliterating the Obama legacy.  And another, closely related, but more cynical possibility.

The harm is intentional, as a warning to future Democrats.  Seen this way, the damage is meant as a clear warning, both to voters who may be tempted to vote for the Democrats and to Democrats who may be tempted to pass legislation if they win.  It will be in vain.  Republicans will destroy whatever you did,  They don't care how much disruption they cause or how much harm they do.  If you care, if you want to spare the country the disruption caused by ripping out well-established policies, then never pass any legislation of consequence because as soon as Republicans return to power, the WILL destroy it.  If Democrats extend health insurance to 20 million people, Republicans will take it back.  If Democrats end lifetime caps, Republicans will restore them and cut of vital, life-saving treatment in mid-course.  If Democrats develop a plan to prevent financial crisis from spreading and crashing the economy, Republicans will make sure the next crisis does just that.  If Democrats put limits on Iran's nuclear program, Republicans will take those limits off.  And, I suppose, if the next time Democrats win the triple crown, they build a major infrastructure program, Republicans will take jackhammers to it when they return to power.

And then the most cynical explanation of all.

It is a clever bit of insurance if Republicans are relegated to the wilderness.  Republicans are doing the best to conceal the nature of the healthcare bill in order to get it passed.  But if it strips 10 to 20 million people of their health insurance, that just won't be possible to conceal.  Nor will it be possible to conceal older customers seeing their premiums skyrocket, or people with pre-existing conditions find themselves unable to afford insurance to cover the care they need, or people abruptly cut off life-saving care when their lifetime limits run out.  All of this could lead to a major backlash against Republicans and may lead to Democrats regaining at least one house of Congress in 2018 and the triple crown in 2020.  It may even lead to an extended time in the wilderness for Republicans, just as did the Great Depression.***  If so (and it is by no means certain), what better way could there be for Republicans to stage a comeback than to set the economy up for another financial crisis and make sure that this time there would be no way to save the economy from the full force of the crash.  Republicans would then blame the Democrats and ride a huge wave election to power.

Just for the record, I actually don't believe this last one.  I don't think Republicans are looking that far ahead.  And I do think they are economically royalist enough not to expect such an outcome.  But when I am feeling very cynical, sometimes I think such thoughts.

*This doesn't quite mean claiming that no capitalist has ever made a mistake, but sometimes it can look a lot like it. For instance, during the 2008 crisis, economic royalists showed a marked reluctance to acknowledge that the financial industry or auto industry could be facing crisis because of mistakes by management.  Instead, they blamed the financial crisis on loose monetary policy, Government Sponsored Entities (i.e, Fannie and Freddie), and the Community Reinvestment Act.  Problems in the auto industry were blamed on unions.
**Objection to any attempt by government to save the economy includes the view of tight money as a universal and timeless moral imperative to be maintained regardless of economic conditions.  I should add here the Austrian School of economists, who believe that central banking and paper money cause the boom-and-bust cycle and that it could be avoided by abolishing central banks and going on the gold standard.  Somewhat inconvenient to this viewpoint is that the US did, indeed, go without a central bank from 1836 to 1913 and was on a precious metal standard all that time -- gold and silver from 1836 to 1873 and gold only from 1873 to 1913.  And the boom-and-bust cycle persisted the whole time.  They are right, nonetheless, that a strict gold standard would prevent a boom-and-bust cycle.  It would do that by so constraining the money supply as to cause an endless bust.
***Then again, to judge from the results of special elections, many Republicans may rejoice in seeing so many of those people lose their insurance, or regard the loss of their own as preferable to letting liberals get the last laugh.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Republicans and the Orderly Liquidation Authority

Trump scandals are not an altogether bad thing for Congressional Republicans.  They do create a suitable distraction to allow Republicans to pass their legislative agenda, which would create a lot more resistance if anyone was actually paying attention.  Health care has attracted the most attention but just recently the House also voted on strict party lines to repeal the Frank-Dodd financial regulations enacted in the wake of the financial crisis. Because this is a regulatory, rather than a budgetary, matter, Democrats will filibuster it in the Senate and it will not become law.

Kevin Drum, in frustration, has asked why this is so important to Republicans.  Do they want another financial crisis?  What gives?  Reading their comments, the stated reason is clear enough.  They disapproval of all economic regulation as a matter of general principle and in particular see the regulations of Frank-Dodd as a burden on the general economy and in particular as giving the advantage to large banks that can better afford the costs of compliance than community banks.  But if that is the case, why not just pass a narrower bill giving financial relief to community banks and leave the regulations in place on big banks?  

Republicans' other argument is that regulations amount to "micromanagement" and that all that is really needed is adequate capital ratios for banks and regulations will no longer be necessary.  There may be something to their reasoning.  The trouble with financial safety regulations is the constant danger of fighting the last war -- safeguarding against the specific investment vehicle that caused the last crisis, only to miss the one that causes the next crisis.  But the underlying all financial crises is the matter of leverage -- the debt to equity ratio.  Keep banks from overleveraging, and there will be no need to keep them from making bad investments.  

But no system is fool-proof.  The repeal is called the CHOICE Act because it purports to give banks the choice between maintaining high capital ratios and complying with complex regulations.  What if banks choose the complex regulations, confident that a Republican administration won't enforce them anyhow?  What if they choose the regulations and the regulators do, indeed, miss the next upcoming bubble?  What if banks  choose the higher capital ratios but there is no enforcement mechanism?  In short, what if, despite the rules, there is a new financial crisis, or at least the failure of a major bank that could threaten a financial crisis?  (Recall that the last crisis occurred with the failure of Lehman Brothers).  Frank-Dodd has mechanisms in place to deal with such an eventuality.  Naturally the Republicans want to destroy those, too.

First, the Republican legislation weakens the "stress tests" that banks are subject to that allow us to catch problems early.  Next, it ends the Orderly Liquidation Authority (OLA), which allows regulators to shut down a failing bank in such a way as to minimize damage to the financial system as a whole.  The OLA was created as an alternative to bankruptcy because when Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy, it set off a general financial panic.  The goal is to keep that from happening again.  The OLA required banks to have advance plans for how they will be dismantled in such a case.  The Republican bill provides for failing banks to be disassembled in bankruptcy, but bankruptcy has problems.  

The goal is to act quickly, so as to prevent a panic.  Bankruptcy can freeze the bank's creditors for 48 hours to prevent a run, but an orderly restructuring must be in place within that time.  Hence the OLA's requirement that all such institutions plan ahead for such an event.  The Republican bill does not end such plans as they exist now, but prevents the regulators from requiring any new banks from drawing up such plans, even if they get big enough to endanger the financial system.  Bankruptcy courts cannot coordinate if multiple firms are failing at once (as happened in 2008).  They cannot coordinate with international regulators to prevent an international panic (as happened in 2008).  And bankruptcy courts can't lend money if needed to temporarily stabilize the financial system.  It is this last that Republicans seize on, calling all such lending a "bailout," to be avoided at all costs (such as, say, the crash of the financial system).  

Oh, yes, and the Republicans also split the monetary policy and financial regulation portions of the Federal Reserve to prevent it as far as possible from saving the economy in case of crisis. 

So, does this thing stand a chance of getting past a Democratic filibuster in the Senate?  Since it is a regulatory, rather than a budgetary, matter, the basic answer is no.  But since the OLA could potentially spend money, that part can be killed by reconciliation, i.e., by a simple majority.   Already Donald Trump has signed an executive order forbidding use of the OLA in case of crisis.  

So why the feud with the OLA, which could prevent a single failed bank from escalating into a general panic?  Stay tuned for the next installment.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

In Which I Shamelessly Use the Shooting of Scalise to Score Political Points

First of call, kudos to our nation's leaders for their statesmanlike reaction to the baseball park shooting of Congressman Steve Scalise and others.  All have behaved commendably. Democrats condemned violence absolutely and without reservation and expressing support for their Republican colleagues.  Republicans made clear that they blamed the shooter only and not their opponents.  The shooter was a Bernie Sanders volunteers, so Sanders made clear:
I am sickened by this despicable act. Let me be as clear as I can be: Violence of any kind is unacceptable in our society and I condemn this action in the strongest possible terms. Real change can only come about through nonviolent action, and anything else runs against our most deeply held American values.
Paul Ryan made as lofty and statesmanlike speech as anyone ask for:
[B]efore this House returns to its business, I want us to slow down and reflect, to think about how we are being tested right now. Because we are. I ask each of you to join me in resolving to come lift each other up...and to show the country—show the world—that we are one House. The people's House—united in our humanity.
Even Donald Trump made a fine, statesmanlike speech that expressed solidarity and refrained from finger-pointing.

Of course, plenty of people who were not our nation's leaders started finger-pointing right away, and it didn't take long for plenty of people at the top to follow.  And, although it may be in bad taste, I can't resist doing a little finger pointing of my own -- in both directions.

Plenty of people on my side have gloated at the prospect of Rand Paul, a strong advocate of the Second Amendment as giving people the right to own guns to shoot at oppressive government hiding behind a pole from someone who took this advice a little too literally.  Bet you never thought that you'd be the target!

But in all seriousness yes, this is one of the reasons what is wrong with the whole insurrectionary theory of the Second Amendment.  The argument is that gun ownership is protected as an individual right so as to protect the collective right of revolution against unjust government.  There is an obvious mismatch here.  Insurrectionists insist that we have the Second Amendment to ensure that We, the People can engage in violent revolution against the government but give very little thought to when that right vests.  Well, they say, it is extremely remote and mostly hypothetical.  And yet plenty of people keep insinuating that it just might vest if Democrats win the next election.

And they never bother to figure out the mechanism of (1) how we will know the time for violent revolution is at and and (2) when that time comes, how it will be planned and coordinated.  The assumption appears to be that We, the People will all magically agree when the time is at hand and will all spontaneously turn out at the same time, just like we did in the battle of Lexington-Concord.  Here I think insurrectionists seriously underestimate the role of existing colonial government in directing the American Revolution or the role the Founding Fathers believed state governments  would play in any hypothetical revolution against the U.S. government.  It also assumes that We, the People are much more unanimous in our views than the evidence shows, and will not (1) have isolated individuals and small groups deciding it is time for violent revolution at unpredictable intervals, or (2) end up shooting at each other if a critical mass ever does decide that the time for revolution is at hand.

I am not suggesting that people like Rand Paul condone terrorism when it is directed at the other side. But I do think they tend to downplay the threat of the militia movement, or the Bundy Ranch standoff because they have some sympathy with the members' complaints, though not their methods.  So yes, I will admit to a certain satisfaction in seeing people who defend the Second Amendment as promoting political violence maybe having second thoughts when they are the targets.

At the same time, I think it is time for our side to acknowledge that we have a serious problem here. Yes, the shooter is an extreme and aberrant example and in no way typical.  But our side really does have a violent fringe that needs to be acknowledged and dealt with.  First of all are the mask-wearing black-clad "antifascist" ("antifa") anarchists looking for any opportunity to riot, smash things, and beat people.

Well, you may say, they aren't very numerous.  No, indeed they aren't.  But the rioting anarchists are the tip of the iceberg.  The iceberg are the people who condone their goals, if not their methods.  And by their "goals," I mean shutting down opposing viewpoints.  I mean the people who try to block entrance to Trump rallies, speeches by Alt-Right speakers etc., and forcibly prevent others from attending.  So you don't like their views.  Deal with it.  They have the complete constitutional right to express them, to hold rallies and speeches, and to attend.  But what about our rights?  We have exactly the same rights.  That means the right to hold our own events, or to hold counter-demonstrations and protests.  But not to shut down theirs.

I think the leadership of our side has been reasonably clear in condemning political violence.  Bernie Sanders condemned the shooting.  Hillary Clinton and LaRaza condemned anti-Trump riots.  But we haven't been clear enough in emphasizing that the place to draw the line in political action is not just with the use of violence.  It is with the attempt to shut down opposing viewpoints.  It means making absolutely clear to our side that blocking entrances and trying to physically prevent people from attending events by speakers they don't like, even if not done "violently," is resorting to force and therefore out of line.  It means making clear that opposing viewpoints, no matter how odious, are constitutionally protected, and that that protesting a safe distance away, not forcible attempts to shut them down, are the proper response.  We need to make clear to the hard core that extreme measures just make enemies.  This should belong to the department of "Duh!" but apparently it needs to be said.

And frankly, we need to move beyond mere exhortation to the more extreme elements on our side and start to support any Republicans, conservatives, police and prosecutors who throw the book and violent rioters (without condoning the prosecution of peaceful protesters who just happen to be there). Given the threat that violent riots pose who our whole system of government, I think a ten-year sentence is entirely appropriate.  My guess is, it would also give a lot of these black-clad, mask-wearing anarchists second thoughts.  I personally also favor increasing penalties for demonstrators who do not follow reasonable "time, place and manner" restrictions on demonstrations and do things like blocking traffic.  It is perfectly possible to draw attention to your cause while keeping to the terms of your permit.  (It certainly worked for the Tea Party).

So here is what I propose.  To the other side: Stop emphasizing stockpiling guns, showing up armed at rallies, and the threat of political violence and the best safeguards of liberty.  Don't forget that you, too, can be targets.  To our side: Make clear that going too far includes a lot more than outright violence and includes any attempt to shut down opposing viewpoints.  And stop blocking traffic.

Political violence is not simply liberty at its most exuberant.  It is a mortal threat to liberty.  Let's all start dialing back on anything that might be taken as condoning it.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Returning to the Kushner Meeting (If Anyone Remembers)

And in case anyone is still thinking about the Kushner-Kislyak meeting, it explains a lot, but one thing we still don't know is what they wanted to convey that was so sensitive that Kushner was prepared to send it from the Russian embassy over secure lines.

But there are some pretty educated guesses out there.  The main one is that it focused on what the Russians clearly want the most -- sanctions relief.  That combines with another data point.  About two weeks after the meeting, Kushner  met with Sergey Gorkov, a Russian banker who fairly clearly operates as an unofficial arm of the Russian state and is at least a former spy.  The Russians claimed the meeting was not political at all but strictly about Kushner's real estate business, while the Trump Administration said it the meeting was not about business at all, but a general diplomatic meeting.  The suspicion, then, is that the meeting was about both -- about getting finance for Kushner's troubled real estate empire in exchange for sanctions relief.

The discussions need not be expressed as quite so crude a bribe.  They may have discussed sanctions, the difficulties the sanctions were causing, potential sources of funding for Kushner, obstacles to such funding, the problems the sanctions were causing the bank, etc.  No quid pro quo need have been mentioned.  A quid pro quo could clearly have been implied.

Another straw in the wind.  All those reports that Trump's campaign was a garbage fire were false.  Granted, Trump himself was an utterly incompetent manager.  But quietly behind the scenes Jared Kushner was running the most sophisticated data analysis every used by any campaign in history. While Trump and his visible campaign were flailing about, Kushner was quietly analyzing date, micro-targeting messages, and manipulating the electorate with a hitherto unimagined skill.  His utterly un-tech father-in-law presumably knew nothing about it other than that Jared was running some sort fancy computer work for his campaign.  Hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer is known to fund both the program and Breitbart News.

The current assumption is that if there was any collusion (a matter that remains speculation), it was probably there.  If there was collusion, it would have consisted of Kushner's data analysis operation making use of materials provided by Russian hacks.  Such use could have been either knowing or unknowing.

Consider the implications here.  If this is true, then the Big Four -- Paul Manfort, Carter Page, Roger Stone and Michael Flynn -- were all secondary players.  The real, player all along was really Jared Kushner.  The Big Four are all now out of the Trump Administration, but Kushner is the one person (other than Pence or Ivanka) that there is no way to get rid of.*

This is still speculation, but a number of things make a lot more sense now than they did.

First of all, it never seemed plausible that Trump was part of any sort of conspiracy.  The man couldn't keep his mouth shut if you sutured it!**  On the other hand, his often shady objectives and lax management style are a virtual invitation to his subordinates to engage in criminal activity and a promise to look the other way.  If Kushner was engaged in collusion, Flynn or one of the other Four might have served as a go-between.  And Trump may have been unaware of such collusion and be unaware to this day.  But his subordinates would presumably make him aware if they were in trouble.

It also explains his eagerness to protect Flynn.  Up till now, I have heard three possible explanations floated.  One was that Trump was being loyal to a friend.  That was what got Nixon into trouble covering up Watergate, but it seemed unlikely in the case of Trump.  Trump no doubt sees loyalty as the supreme virtue, but he also sees it as a one-way street -- something other people owe him, but that he does not owe anyone else.  So it seemed unlikely that he was protecting Flynn out of loyalty.  Another was fear that Flynn would spill the beans on him.  Most people on my side believed that explanation, but I was always skeptical.  I knew of nothing to indicate that Trump ever had the concept that he might do anything wrong, or that anything at all could get him into trouble.  So, applying Trump's Razor (the stupidest explanation is usually the right one), I could only assume that Trump had just taken an inexplicable liking for Flynn and was willing to stick out his neck for him.

But if Kushner and Flynn were co-conspirators, that would explain it much better.  Trump was afraid of Flynn spilling the beans, not on him, but on Jared.  Because Trump is not absolutely devoid of loyalty -- he has it toward his children.  Whether he thinks of Kushner as an honorary son, a cherished belonging of his beloved Ivanka, or simply an indispensable right-hand man, his zeal to protect Flynn makes sense if it is really a zeal to protect Jared.

Has Jared done anything that could expose him to prosecution?  I am not an expert in that field of law.

Congress is pushing for legislation forbidding the President from unilaterally lifting sanctions against Russia.  But such legislation is not in force yet and certainly was not in force at the time of the meetings.  As such, the President had/has considerable discretion to lift sanctions.  And there are virtually no restrictions on the President's (or his surrogates') authority to conduct diplomacy, short of entering into an actual treaty.  And I honestly don't know the law on foreign bribery.  Is it a bribe if you stand to benefit from something perfectly legal?  It should at least violate conflict of interest law.  But conflict of interest applies to actual government employees, and Kushner did not work for the government at the time.  And if Jared did use hacked Russian data in his analysis, I do not know whether the use of purloined data is a crime.  And if it is, the Russians could easily have laundered it in such a way as to give Kushner plausible deniability.

However, there is at least one crime that Kushner can clearly be charged with.  Failure to disclose foreign contacts on an application for security clearance is a federal crime carrying a sentence up to five years.  Kushner failed to disclose his Russian contacts.  He claims that it was an innocent oversight.  If it can be proven there was serious conspiring that the meetings, even if the conspiring was not technically a crime, then the claim that it was an innocent oversight becomes really hard to maintain.

Granted, if these suspicions about Kushner are true, prosecuting him for non-disclosure is sort of like prosecuting Al Capone for tax evasion.  But hey, it worked.

And at least we can rest assured that whatever else Kushner may have done, at least he never sent State Department e-mails on a private server.

*Honestly, this is starting to feel like one of those whodunnit mysteries, or something like The Godfather.  In all the treachery and intrigue swirling around the patriarch, who is colluding with a hostile power?  Manfort, Page, Stone and Flynn all seem to be involved, but the sinister going's on continue even after all are purged.  Bannon looks like the sinister genius while Ivanka and Jared seem to be the stabilizing and moderating influence.  But in the end -- tum tum tah! -- Bannon turns out to be an abrasive but innocent party warning of the danger, while Jared is unveiled at the end as the true villain.
**Now, maybe if you also handcuffed him. . . . 

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The Horrible Reality Starts to Come Into Focus

OK, no evidence so far of collusion between Trump and the Russians before the election, but events after the election have been taking shape since May 26.

Before that date we had some stray data points, but nothing solid.   We knew that Michael Flynn had been under investigation by the FBI for undisclosed Russian contacts during the transition.  We knew that Flynn urged the Russians not to retaliate for Obama measures and discussed sanctions relief. We knew that other Trump officials, had failed to disclose contacts with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak.  We knew that Congressional Republicans were up in arms that the Obama Administration had unmasked U.S. persons, and that without further details there was no way of knowing whether the unmasking was proper or not.  We knew that Kilsyak sneaked through the back door to hold a secret meeting in Trump Tower.  We knew that Acting Attorney General Andrea Yates darkly hinted that Flynn had done something worse than merely fail to disclose contacts with Ambassador Kislyak.  We knew that even after Trump was forced to fire Flynn as National Security Adviser, he seemed very solicitous toward him, encouraging him to "stay strong" and doing his best to stop the investigation. We knew that Trump fired Comey to stop the Russia investigation.  And we knew that Jared Kushner was one of the prime movers behind the firing.  Oh, yes, and we knew that even after Flynn was fired there was talk of current White House occupant who was still the target of investigation.  That person turned out to be Jared Kushner.

A person looking at these various facts could piece together a pattern here.  The problem is that there is lots of information out there and it is way too easy to impose a pattern where none exists.  That way lies paranoia, an occupational hazard for anyone who works finding patterns in seemingly disparate data.  (Flynn succumbed in a big way).

But with the big story (is it really almost two weeks ago?) everything is starting to take shape.  It had already been vaguely intimated that the secret meeting in Trump Tower took place between Kislyak, Kushner and Flynn and its purpose was to “establish a line of communication,” which is not necessarily improper.  What was utterly new was the Washington Post'revelation that Kushner and Flynn actually proposed to send messages from the Russian embassy, over their secure channel, to keep it out of US hands!*

Suddenly, everything falls into place.  The meeting apparently took place December 1 or 2, 2016, or less than a month after Trump won the election and over a month before his inauguration.  We can see why the parties were at such pains to keep it secret!  We can also see why the Obama Administration, learning that two US Persons had met in secret with the Russian ambassador asking to send messages from the Russian embassy over a secure channel would want their names unmasked, and appropriately so.  We now know what Andrea Yates was darkly hinting at when she said Flynn's "underlying conduct" was alarming. And we know why any further communications between Flynn and the Russians would be of great interest to the intelligence community.  We also know what Flynn had on Trump, or at least his son-in-law, that would make both men very eager to halt the investigation and why the intelligence community is still keeping an eye on Kushner.

Since Kislyak presumably relayed this message back home on the same secure channel that Kushner wanted to use, this story also revealed the most sensitive of sensitive information -- that the secure channel was not longer secure, which naturally means that the Russians will no longer use it.  The unknown officials who leaked this story considered it more important than even concealing this super-sensitive information.**

Of course, one little detail remains unknown.  What were Kushner and Flynn up to that was so alarming they were ready to send it over a secure Russian channel to hide it from U.S. intelligence?

You know, we are way, WAY past Hillary e-mails jokes by now.

*How shocking is this?  Well, I am a follower of John Schindler, a former NSA employee and ardent Trump hater, whose contacts in the intelligence community are firmly convinced that Trump is in cahoots with the Russians and will ultimately be impeached.  Schindler had a Twitter account in which he drops constant dark hints that the truth about Trump is much worse than anyone suspects.  But on hearing this revelation he was stunned and outraged.  He called it "quite literally, the most shocking #natsec story I've ever heard. If this were wartime, summary executions for ALL involved = SOP" and added, "If you tried this on Putin, he'd have everyone involved die horrible deaths. Can't say he'd be wrong on this one."  He ended up ranting, "Americans do not deal gently with traitors. Not in 1776, not in 1861. We will kill you all. This is our way. This is the glorious Republic," which alarmed many who supported him up till then.  
**Or else the Russians figured out on their own that their secure channel had been compromised and stopped using it, in which case it would be safe to leak.