Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Coronation Day; The Republicans' 1066 Problem

A few thoughts for those most pitiable of creatures, my readers.

First, here is a song that Buck Mulligan sings in Ulysses in a Cockney accent:
O, won't we have a merry time 
Drinking whisky, beer and wine,
On coronation,
Coronation day?
O, won't we have a merry time
On coronation day?
Presumably it is a traditional song. Anyway it occurs to me that this may provide the inspiration and the tune for the classic song sung in the north of England along the lines of:
We're going to have a party 
We're going to have a party
When Maggie Thatcher dies.
When Maggie Thatcher dies!
When Maggie Thatcher dies!
Perhaps the connection is not so direct. I wish I could find the tune of the coronation song.

Separately, I read a book about the Norman invasion of England (1066: The Year of the Conquest, by David Howarth). The basic deal is that William had assembled an army by promising a lot of people that he would give them land in England once he had conquered it. And that's exactly what he did. It worked. But of course it required the dispossession of the existing English, that was an unavoidable consequence of the way William had "paid" for his army. According to Howarth, William couldn't enjoy his kingdom because his people (the English) despised him, which perhaps they wouldn't have done if he had left their political structure intact (except for, you know, the kingship). But again, that was baked into the cake. He could have England, but it was essentially impossible for him to have it while enjoying any level of popularity with the English.

And this is the situation the Republicans find themselves in. Their dishonest and destructive tactics can win them office, but once in power they do not have a mandate to enact their shitty policies. I am using the term "mandate" in a very pragmatic sense—the popular support that helps carry through a controversial piece of legislation. The problem is that the Republican Party's agenda probably can't even command the support of a majority of Republican voters. Compounding this, the agenda is contrary to the party's stated platform. For instance, Trump promised that everyone would have health insurance and that the coverage would be better than ObamaCare. Fair enough, that's obviously a popular proposal, but it makes it virtually impossible to rally the public around the idea of savage cuts to health insurance. Now of course the Republicans could have run on that platform, but then they wouldn't have won. Like William, they could never have their cake and eat it too, and they made their deal to get what they could. (And of course they got a lot, legislation isn't everything. Control of the courts and the executive will let them do a lot of what they want.)

But when it comes to healthcare legislation, the Republicans have a distinct 1066 problem (or, if you like, a 1067 problem). Another kind of funny example is Trump's attempt to get money to build a wall on the border with Mexico. Because of his idiotic promise to make Mexico pay for the wall, Congress feels no pressure to allocate funds. ("I was under the distinct impression that Mexico was going to pay for it.") Of course that's just a small part of the politics of this issue, but it's an example of rhetoric that undermines the mandate to enact the policy. (In this case, the damage to Trump's mandate was entirely self-inflicted and gratuitous.)

Friday, April 07, 2017

More Pavlov

This is how it works:

Graham despises Trump. But Graham has learned (as have all intelligent people) that Trump is easily manipulated, and the key is to condition him and then to be the last person to talk to him before he makes a decision. Graham is a hawk who wants the U.S. to get into wars, and unlike David Frum he loves war more than he fears Trump's ability to handle one.

Incidentally, although the Democrats are well-served in the current environment by doing everything they can to frustrate Trump's domestic agenda, they should at least be preparing themselves for the possibility of deploying these tactics should the right circumstances arise. My belief is that Obama deftly manipulated Trump into keeping Obamacare around, for instance (obviously Trump tried to dismantle Obamacare, but only after rejecting the "repeal first" strategy favored by some Republicans).

But to keep our eyes on the ball: Graham's ass-kissing is scary and is part of the Pavlovian experiment I wrote about in my last post.

Our Strangelove Moment

The big picture lesson from yesterday's cruise missile strikes on Syria is that you don't elect someone like Donald Trump as your President.

Of course it's a little late to do anything about it now, and in any case it's not a lesson that most of us needed to be taught. The reason I bring it up is that while we never had great options on Syria, those options got a lot worse when Trump became President. Justice Jackson wrote: "our Constitution was designed to avoid these ends by avoiding these beginnings," and that is how I think about politics. Ideally you elect a good President. But if you don't, politics goes on, with worse choices. It is to avoid those tragic choices that you don't elect someone like Trump in the first place.

At this point I want to emphasize how temperamentally unsuited to leadership Trump is. The best analysis, as always, was provided by Clickhole. Trump has a childish understanding of the world, is deeply lazy, and cares about almost nothing other than how he is portrayed on cable news at any given moment. This means that it's all too easy to picture a terrifying situation in which Trump gets in over his head and feels he has no option but to escalate a military conflict. And this becomes likelier the more humiliated and mocked that Trump feels, but it also becomes likelier if militarism gets him reliably good coverage. And this is the spear on which we have been impaled, squirming and thrashing about.

Turning back to the cruise missiles, consider our shitty options. Assume for a minute that your views will actually win the day and become the conventional wisdom on cable news (or, to be slightly more realistic, CNN). In the wake of Trump's attacks, what do you say?

You could say that Trump simply can't be trusted to conduct any military action, effectively meaning that the U.S. should dabble with pacifism for the next four years. This is unappealing for several reasons (though it is close to my actual view), perhaps most importantly because it is humiliating to Trump. And humiliating Trump is exactly the sort of thing that is likely to prompt him to lash out and escalate the conflict.

You can praise the proportionality of the response while refusing to glamorize it, and you can focus on the legal issues with Trump's use of force. This is less humiliating for Trump, and thus safer, and it has the advantage of laying out a roadmap for future military situations (which are bound to arise). It has the disadvantage that it lies by omission (since it casts Trump as a normal actor and ignores his dangerous about-face) and it elevates him in public perception. In the short run this has a calming effect, but in the long run it will teach him that militarism is a reliable source of good press.

You can embrace the second strategy above, but also point out what an untrustworthy, incompetent blowhard Trump is. This is more honest, and it somewhat resolves the encouragement problem (while exacerbating the "immediate escalation" problem), but as many have pointed out it can seem incoherent. (I think its incoherence is overstated though.)

Prominent Democrats have mostly gone with option 2, although some are closer to option 1. But needless to say, cable news is going with an entirely different option: effusive praise for any and all military action. (I don't actually watch cable news, so I am basing my assessment on what I see on Twitter, e.g. Fareed Zakaria apparently said that Donald Trump "became President" when he ordered the strikes.) Needless to say this is pretty close to the worst of all possible reactions.

We are now engaged in a national Pavlovian experiment on our President, trying to see if we can induce him to get into a nuclear war with Russia (or maybe China) by denying him praise until he orders military strikes, and then lavishing it on him. This is our Strangelove moment, in the sense that the system is proving itself to be war-mad. (In the movie, the President is actually reasonable and takes decisive action to stop nuclear war in the face of an idiotic system that has sent the nation careening toward it, and he would succeed but for a random fluke. In our case the President is the main source of risk, but the system is now revealing itself to be every bit as insane as the one depicted in the movie.) We are all going to die for CNN's bottom line.

Monday, April 03, 2017

The Politics of the Affordable Care Act

Under the Affordable Care Act, insurers must set rates for their plans well in advance. Furthermore, they have to make crucial decisions about what plans to offer in which markets.

Under these circumstances, the Trump administration can essentially cause the system to collapse without lifting a finger. It merely has to create enough policy uncertainty that insurance companies feel compelled to raise rates substantially or pull out of markets. Then Trump can claim that Obamacare has collapsed under its own weight and replace it with Trumpcare. Needless to say, the Trump administration has been extremely effective at creating policy uncertainty.

Now this is dirty, and we shouldn't let them get away with it. But taking a step back, this dynamic puts a rather heavy thumb on the scale in favor of left-wing policies such as single payer or the public option, since the public/private division of labor in the Affordable Care Act is too easy to sabotage. A healthcare system that only works so long as a Democrat is the President is not a good healthcare system.

In fairness to the drafters of the ACA, it doesn't seem as though it should be vulnerable to political maneuvers like the one I've suggested. After all, for the gambit to work, the saboteur has to be a saboteur! He or she has to cause big problems for millions of Americans, which would seemingly be political suicide.

But Trump's election has revealed a terrifying political math in which voters cannot be trusted to see through even the most transparent lies, much less to grasp something as complicated as the health insurance system. We can hope that political pressure forces the administration to behave responsibly, and we can work toward that outcome, but we cannot rely on that outcome.

Now admittedly this logic, taken to its extreme, is a counsel of despair. But I think there are still limits to what people will believe, and responsibility for administering basic public functions like publicly provided medical care (or publicly provided insurance) will probably still be assigned to the President. It is the interplay of government policy and private provision of insurance that makes the ACA particularly vulnerable.

By the way, I make this argument somewhat regretfully, because I usually don't like arguments about substantive policy that boil down to political process. ("We should be tougher on monopolies, it polls really well in Ohio!") But I believe that's the world we live in, and when you are opposed by cynical political forces that have proven themselves highly effective at exploiting a credulous electorate, you ignore political process at your peril.

[Edited to add: I've been thinking about this because apparently the Republicans are cooking up another attempt to repeal the ACA. These are horrible people and we must do everything we can to prevent them from succeeding.]

For England May Keep Faith

Just a random little thought.

The Liberals in the United Kingdom proposed Home Rule bills three times (four times if you count the legislation enacted in 1920 under a joint Liberal-Conservative government). The first one failed in the Commons, the second in the Lords. By the time of the third bill, the Lords could be bypassed if the Commons passed a bill three times, which they did, so Home Rule became the law of the land. But World War I broke out, the Act was suspended before it went into effect, and obviously by the time the war was over, the "facts on the ground" had changed quite a bit. The fourth bill became law, but by then Ireland was in open rebellion, and so it was largely a dead letter.

Anyway here's my thought. The Liberals took hard votes for Home Rule. The first one led directly to the dissolution of Parliament, and in the ensuing election of 1886 the Liberals lost over 100 seats and the Conservatives took over the government. The second one did not lead directly to the dissolution of Parliament, but Gladstone resigned the next year, and the Liberals suffered large losses in the election of 1895. I don't know the electoral consequences of the third one, which in any case presumably faded to the background as World War One took center stage.

But in any case, my point is basically (A) whatever the details of these bills, the Liberals were doing the right thing, and might have avoided a lot of bloodshed if they had succeeded, and (B) the Liberals paid a huge electoral price for their efforts on behalf of Home Rule. I'm sure there was some pragmatic calculation in these bills, but the votes were largely votes of principle. And the Liberal principles were right! And they paid a heavy price. This wasn't what killed them—that would be the rise of Labour, which in some distant recesses of time was a respectable and effective party. But I would cite those votes by the Liberals as remarkable acts of political courage, unrewarded except by our veneration of them.

As a side note, I wonder if that third bill, suspended for the duration of WWI, was what Yeats was referring to in these lines from "Easter 1916":

Was it needless death after all? 
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
Maybe! Although by the time Parliament passed a Home Rule bill, it was not enough for the Nationalists, and I'm not sure it would have been enough in 1914.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Infrastructure Posturing

I want to make a quick political/rhetorical point about the infrastructure bill that the Republicans are supposedly cooking up. My point is not substantive. I imagine the bill will be bad on the merits, but I obviously can't weigh in on that now.

Here's the point. Unions love big construction projects. The wedge that the Republicans are going to try to drive here is the same one that Trump used to get elected. Trump will continue to antagonize the Democratic base with his antics, including by smearing people on Twitter and (much more importantly) by continuing to hurt vulnerable people. The base will therefore feel driven to resist the infrastructure bill (and indeed any compromise with Trump). But the infrastructure bill will contain big construction projects that will be popular with the working class.

The Democrats will then be pushed into a difficult situation. They could try to compromise to get money for mass transit in big cities, but then the Republicans can strip that money out and accuse Democrats of favoring latte-sipping yuppies over "real America."

I'm just pointing this out to show that this isn't going to be like healthcare, where Republican rhetoric had been so disconnected from reality that the Democrats found it easy to embarrass them. Instead, this is going to be a classic political maneuver that will take a lot of skill to counteract. That's especially the case because the Republicans won't be nearly as divided as they were over healthcare, and they will be hungry for a win, and looking to do as much damage to the Democratic coalition as possible. Please think about this dynamic as you watch events unfold—Pelosi and Schumer are in a tough position, and it's not clear that they can accomplish anything with full-out resistance.

Edited to add: This is reminiscent of Trump's trip to Mexico in the late summer of 2016. Of course Trump's rhetoric had been ridiculously anti-Mexico, and it was commonly thought that the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico would be poisoned by a Trump presidency. But Enrique Peña Nieto made the foolhardy decision to invite both candidates to Mexico, and then his submissive behavior when Trump was there suggested that Trump could indeed pursue his policies without alienating countries he had targeted. It was a huge unforced error and it probably contributed to Trump's victory. (In fact it's fascinating to consider the possibility that Nieta swung the election.)

Now, unlike Nieto, the Democrats don't have the option of remaining silent. In fact I think there best move might be to get out in front of Trump. Set down some basic, reasonable requirements that his plan has to meet in order to get Democratic support, and then if his plan fits within those parameters, vote for it. But I admit, there are a lot of moving pieces here, and I could be wrong about the best approach.

Edited yet again to add: Krugman says that Trump's plan is not to do conventional infrastructure spending, but to hand out tax cuts for businesses that "build infrastructure." This would be in keeping with Trump's kleptocratic tendencies, and therefore there is good reason to expect it. This would also presumably pass muster with the House Freedom Caucus, although I don't have a good read on how much that group cares about deficits. In any case, that would be an easy bill to oppose, although it depends a bit on how credulous unions and unionized construction workers are.

I largely agree with Zed's points in the comments. My point is premised on a decent (but not necessarily great) infrastructure bill, which I think would be hard to oppose.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Breaking Up the Liberal City Part 1

Ross Douthat has written a column provocatively titled "Break Up the Liberal City." Douthat's actual proposals are comparatively modest, and basically involve moving certain institutions (universities, government bureaucracies) out of big cities. I want to make a few observations about this. I'll write a separate post about economics and culture, this post is meant to give a little context to frame the issue.

First, I think it's important to remember that on the whole cities on the east coast are crushingly poor. I think Douthat imagines New York City to be an elite place, but in fact New York City has fewer high school graduates per capita, a lower median household income, and a much higher poverty rate than the U.S. as a whole (20.6% vs. 13.5%). In fairness, per capita income is a bit higher in NYC than in the U.S. as a whole ($33,000 vs. $29,000), although still lower than in New York State as a whole. Boston is a bit richer and better-educated than New York City, but its poverty rate (21.5%) is even higher than New York's.

And these are probably the two big cities on the east coast with the best claim to be "elite" or "thriving" (setting aside the District of Columbia). Yale might be one of the elite institutions that Douthat has in mind, but New Haven is far poorer than the cities I've mentioned, with a per capita income more than $5,000 below the national average and a poverty rate of 26.6%. I would cite the abysmal numbers for Philadelphia and Baltimore, but I think even Douthat would hesitate to strip big employers out of those cities.

Second, our elite universities are actually widely dispersed, as Matt Yglesias observed:
The big exception, of course, is Boston, but as I've pointed out Boston has a painfully high poverty rate, and that would certainly not be improved by moving its universities out into the heartland. By the way, if you compare Boston to Seattle, you will find that Seattle is vastly richer and better-educated, and its poverty rate is far lower than Boston's (in fact, it is right at the national average of 13.5%).

So when you think of elite institutions that Douthat wants to move out of big cities, maybe you shouldn't be picturing Harvard or Yale, but rather the University of Washington. But maybe not, maybe Douthat is getting at something else, which will have to wait for a future post.

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Smart and Dumb Explanations

The Democrats have been putting pressure on the Trump administration, alleging that the Trump campaign in some way colluded with the Russians. Recently this has started to pay off as embarrassing revelations about cabinet members have come out. Trump then made a crazy allegation that Obama had his campaign wiretapped.

If the Trump administration were smart, here is how that move would make sense. Trump's people were smart enough not to email about their collusion with the Russians. But they did talk about it on the phone. Trump's allegation serves the following purposes:

1. It tests whether the Obama FBI actually was listening in while Trump's campaign staff discussed their collusion with Russia. A strong, immediate denial is a sign that the Trump campaign has pulled it off and people won't be indicted. A non-denial denial means they have to keep worrying.

2. Regardless of whether the FBI was listening, it might lock the FBI in to one version of events or the other. If the FBI denies that it was listening, then it will look ridiculous if it later tries to introduce evidence that it obtained from a wiretap. On the other hand, if the FBI admits that it was wiretapping Trump's campaign, then it can be cited to support his ridiculous claims about the legitimacy of the popular vote etc. The point is to force the FBI to commit to one or another. Whichever way it goes, there are advantages for Trump.

Remember, I'm just pointing out how the move would make sense if the Trump people were smart. I'm not saying they are smart. For instance, here is an explanation assuming they are as stupid as they seem:

1. Trump knows that his campaign colluded with the Russians, but he thinks they were smart enough not to get caught.

2. But the Democrats and the media are pushing the question as if they know they will find something. (This is debatable, I'm just saying this might be how it appears to Trump.) It's like in The Wire, when the cops know exactly which car to pull over or which house to raid—something isn't right, the cops don't just get that lucky on accident.

3. Therefore the Democrats must have some unexpected source of intelligence. Trump's mind immediately leaps to a wire, and he impulsively tweets it out. "I've got you!" he thinks to himself. "You would never know this shit if you hadn't tapped my phones!" He is in full-on Avon Barksdale mode, if Barksdale were a moron.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Super Bowl

Oh, and I should mention. "Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil." Isaiah 5:20.

The Great Patriotic War

Everyone is disgusted that the team that consciously cast itself as the champion of racial hatred won the Super Bowl.

What this reminds me of more than anything is the novel Envy by Yuri Olesha. The protagonist/antihero of the novel is Nikolai Kavalerov, who envies the "new men" who epitomize Soviet virtue. His benefactor/patron Andrei Babichev is such a man—part of the ruling class of Soviet Russia, I seem to remember that Babichev runs a Soviet sausage factory. By contrast, Kavalerov is a man out of his time. Much the same can be said of Nikolay Krymov in Life and Fate. And in a sense, the same designation applies to Otto and Elise Hampel, whose hapless efforts against Nazism were fictionalized in the great novel Every Man Dies Alone. Or the White Rose.

I hope you're sensing a theme. For a brief time, fascism (or totalitarian Communism, which amounts to much the same thing) can seem like an irresistible wave, a force of history. When Hitler swept through France in a matter of months, it was an embarrassment, and also a symbol of fascism's superiority over decadent liberalism. Similarly, when Nazis came within view of Moscow, it seemed that Bolshevism had been defeated.

The Battle of Britain and Stalingrad. These are what I want you to remember. The RAF soundly defeating the Luftwaffe, and then hundreds of thousands of Nazis slowly starving to death, wracked with disease, easy prey for Soviet snipers. Even the ones who survived to be taken prisoner... well, let's just say very few of them ever set foot on German soil again. It's easy to be dismissive of the Hampels, or the White Rose, since they were rounded up and executed by the Third Reich without achieving their goals. But history is not over in a day, and retaining your conscience is not an empty victory. Soon enough, the Russians were on the offensive. It wasn't just their stunning victory at Stalingrad. They essentially never lost a battle after that. Kursk was a bloody stalemate, but in the middle of it the Allies landed on Sicily, and the Germans pulled back to try to preserve their homeland. That dream did not survive very long. Operation Bagration soon followed, and before long  the boom of artillery could be heard from within Berlin. And then Hitler committed suicide, and the triumph of fascism became a distant memory. Bolshevism held on longer, but its writing was on the wall.

The Patriots will forever be known as the team of racial animus. A Super Bowl is not worth that. They won today, a victory for Trumpism and all of the hatred that he stands for. And Trump won yesterday. But tomorrow does not belong to them, any more than it belonged to the blonde paragon of Nazism in Stalingrad, or to the new Soviet man. The Team of Trump has chalked up another victory, and the racists will be insufferable for the next few weeks. Just remember that there was plenty of celebration in the high ranks of the Nazi Party in the years from 1939 to 1942. It stopped abruptly in 1943. Our task is to make 2020 another 1943. And of course, we will never cheer for the Patriots (the "Team of Trump") for the rest of our lives.