Pur Autre Vie

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

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.