Pur Autre Vie

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

Monday, July 31, 2017

Everything Turns to... Culture War?

Just a quick observation. A bizarre thing that has happened in recent years is that seemingly ideological or interest-group issues have been fought as though they are part of the culture war. I suppose this is because conservatives believe that they benefit by "extending the domain of the struggle" (apologies to... wow, Michel Houellebecq!). In other words, conservatives have succeeded by convincing voters that politics is a struggle between "the elites" and regular people, and so they apply that framework to everything. The particular example I am thinking of is climate change—you would think it would be a technical issue and the politics would be driven by interest groups (coal, oil, renewables) and to a lesser extent by ideologues (e.g. libertarians who don't believe fighting climate change is within the legitimate scope of government action). Of course interest groups and ideologues are in the arena, but to a surprising degree the issue is being fought like a battle in the culture wars. And I think this is true of all kinds of issues (for instance, I suspect a large share of the remaining opposition to the Affordable Care Act falls into the same framework). It is bizarre and oppressive.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

To Become Depressed, Read This Post

I just had a sobering thought. Even when Trump is gone from the political stage—even when he's gone from the world—Republicans from many states will have to speak of him reverentially so as not to antagonize his devoted followers. His impact is going to resonate in U.S. politics for years. (I really hope I'm wrong.)

Lizza and the Mooch

[Updated to add: Always trust content from purautrevie. The story is up and it's a doozy.

Update to the update: I am pretty pleased with my early sense that this story was going to be "bonkers," but it's safe to say the story exceeded my wildest expectations.]

There will probably be a Ryan Lizza piece in the New Yorker soon spelling it all out, but in the meantime I will point out a very funny thing that happened last night. First, Anthony Scaramucci tweeted this (it has since been deleted, so I'm posting a tweet that includes an image of it):
Tim O'Brien points out one hilarious aspect of the tweet. Scaramucci apparently thought his financial disclosure had been leaked—in fact it had been obtained through ordinary channels because it is a publicly available document. In light of this, tweeting his accusation to the FBI was hilarious.

But notice who else was named in that tweet: Reince Priebus. Why? Well, Ryan Lizza tweeted this:
So Scaramucci demanded that the FBI investigate Reince Priebus for leaking a document that not only wasn't leaked, but was publicly available by law. It's pretty easy to see why he deleted the tweet.
And there's this:
So long story short, it appears Lizza has the goods on Scaramucci and I have every expectation that his New Yorker piece will be bonkers.

Are the Wheels Coming Off?

There has been a cascade of embarrassing news for President Trump and his administration in the last few days. As usual, most of it was generated by the administration itself. Anthony Scaramucci, the new head of communications (and a graduate of the Harvard Law School), accused administration officials of committing a felony(!) by leaking his personal financial disclosure, but then discovered that it is publicly available by law. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke threatened to take revenge on Alaska for Senator Murkowski's "no" vote on the motion to proceed to debate on the Republicans' healthcare bill. Trump threatened to veto a veto-proof bill (this is not necessarily stupid—sometimes forcing Congress to override a veto has a strategic purpose—but in this case it appears the administration can't do basic math). And of course, Trump has launched a Twitter attack on Jeff Sessions!

I could go on, but the point is that the administration is screwing up in ways that demonstrate a shocking degree of ineptitude. But I suspect all of this is invisible to the vast majority of U.S. voters, and in particular to Trump supporters. (The Sessions drama may be an exception.) As a result, while "elites" view the administration as an embarrassing disaster that could implode any day now, I suspect a lot of people think everything is humming along normally.

Probably the truth is somewhere in between! Certainly the administration is staggeringly incompetent, but it is also drama-loving and unconcerned with basic decorum. This can make it look worse than it really is, because normal organizations go to great lengths to keep up appearances, while the administration either doesn't know or doesn't care how ridiculous it looks. And in fairness, if most people aren't paying attention, then it really doesn't matter!

But then, the administration is in fact glaringly incompetent. It's not merely inattentive to appearances, it is also strikingly bad at practically everything it does. (A major exception is enriching the Trump family.) So while the "elites" may get an exaggerated sense of the administration's slide into chaos, I think they also have a more accurate sense of the administration's actual capacity to do... pretty much anything.

I don't have much of a conclusion, but I'll have more to write about this. It is a dynamic that I believe lends itself to a weird kind of polarization and stratification.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Why the MTP Shouldn't Pass

Rand Paul has announced that he will vote for the "motion to proceed" (MTP) because the first bill (or amendment or whatever) would be the 2015 "full repeal" bill that he favors. (My understanding is that it is not a true "full repeal" bill, but that is a detail we can ignore for now.) John McCain has also announced that he will vote for the MTP.

People are now worried that McConnell will have enough votes for the MTP. I'm worried, but I also think it would be a big mistake for senators like Murkowski, Heller, Moran, Capito, et al. to vote for the MTP. In fact I think it would be a mistake for almost any senator to vote for the MTP unless it is necessary to fend off a primary challenge. So in my mind the question is just how smart or stupid the Republican Senate caucus is.

First, my understanding is that while a reconciliation vote only requires 50 votes to pass (with Pence's tie-breaking vote), the process allows for unlimited amendments. Possibly "unlimited" is an exaggeration, but certainly the Democrats will have the opportunity to propose several amendments, all of which will be designed to force Republicans to take hard votes. So the cost of passing the MTP is baked into the cake.

Second, the benefits of the MTP are far from obvious. It appears that Rand Paul's preferred 2015 bill is dead on arrival. So are all of the other known bills. Discussion has turned to "skinny" repeal, that is, getting rid of the mandate but leaving Medicaid untouched. However, Lindsey Graham has already announced he opposes such a bill, and I suspect he's not the only one.

Of course there is another benefit. Trump has made the vote on the MTP his focal point, insisting that anyone who opposes the MTP is allied with Obamacare. Senators are feeling intense pressure to avoid Trump's ire, since one of the few things Trump presumably still has is the ability to rile up his base.

And Rand Paul is probably hoping to get a lot of senators on the record opposing the 2015 "full repeal" bill for his own purposes. Other senators may also be hoping to embarrass their colleagues for various idiosyncratic reasons.

But the point is that it would be the height of stupidity to open that Pandora's box—which at best will lead to a bunch of embarrassing votes and then a sharply negative change in public policy—unless it serves some identifiable goal. So I get why some, even many Republicans would vote for it. (In fact, for most Republicans the best thing is to vote for it while it fails.) But I don't see how it gets the votes of the Republicans with safe seats who do not prefer the outcome that it entails.

And so I am now wondering about the intelligence of the Republican senators. We'll find out soon enough.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Policing Liberal Policing

Josh Barro recently wrote a piece on liberal moralizing and its counterproductive effects on liberals' political power. I will have much more to say about it, but I want to start with a few vague ideas about what is going on.

First I should note that public norms or "morals" are plastic and it is important for them to be good ones. Therefore to the extent that people can productively advance that goal, it may be worth paying a temporary political price. I don't think Barro would disagree. He would say that liberals are making a bad tradeoff between these goals. This is a topic for later, or maybe never.

Second I would observe that conservatives will amplify the most annoying, hectoring, threatening or idiotic liberals. This means that on some level it's a losing fight. Even if every single liberal who has ever heard of Barro decides to get on board with his "no moralizing" program, there will be plenty of prime examples for Fox News to choose from. Barro acknowledges this, but his solution is for liberals to call each other out—a recipe for disaster, in my opinion:
But anyway, put all that aside. An interesting question is what has gone wrong here. Because even though there is plenty to quibble with in Barro's fusillade, there is also clearly some truth to it.

One tentative theory I have is that liberals are bad at recognizing and respecting the (often arbitrary) boundaries between different spheres of life. It's perfectly appropriate, in my view, for a parent to lecture a child about unhealthy or immoral choices, or vice versa. But the bar for "calling out" a complete stranger should be set considerably higher, and this is where things go wrong. Social media in particular blurs these boundaries.

The other theory I'm sort of mulling over is that a lot of the modern liberal "virtuous" behaviors are essentially luxury goods. Buy organic! Live in NYC! If you must drive a car, drive an electric one! So liberals are both picking a self-serving subset of issues to moralize about, and picking ones that are particularly useful as wedges in the culture wars. (And remember, the conservatives get to pick which issues get amplified.)

More later, maybe.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

And For What?

I'll have more to say about the gratifying death of the latest Republican bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act. For now I just want to note that the entire exercise was remarkably fruitless for the Republicans.

Don't get me wrong, for some of them it might have been worth rolling the dice, even against daunting odds, given the importance that they attach to dismantling the welfare state (or, perhaps more accurately, to cutting taxes). But a lot of Republicans cast hard votes for a bill they didn't like, and that voters overwhelmingly hate. Their only consolation is that memories of the AHCA might fade by 2018, although I assume the Democrats are prepared to spend a lot of money reminding voters. "What did the Republicans do the moment they got power? They tried to get rid of your preexisting conditions protection! You can't trust them to stand up for you!"

Now quite possibly this was all baked into the cake after years of Republican lies about the ACA. Quite possibly this is one of the less bad outcomes that the Republicans could have suffered. But they have paid a remarkably high price for the questionable benefit of lancing the boil.

What is particularly interesting is the complicated dynamic that's playing out, in which Trump takes relatively little blame for the stalled Republican agenda. There's a certain kind of rough justice to this, since it's not even his agenda! It's Paul Ryan's! But anyway that's a topic for another post.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

The Afghan Robotics Team and Trump's Victory

When Trump's travel ban went into effect, one of the consequences was that a girls' robotics team from Afghanistan was unable to come to the U.S. to compete. This caused uproar, and eventually Trump made an exception for the team. Now he is trying to take credit for being large-hearted.

Of course this is obnoxious and disgusting. But I want to point out how it fits into the racial dynamic that got Trump elected in the first place.

The key here is the distinction between people asserting their rights, on the one hand, and begging for largesse, on the other. Racists don't mind when minorities benefit from the latter, but they can't stand the former. It grates on them like nails on a chalkboard.

So for instance, I believe that if a big-city police department announced that it would no longer engage in aggressive tactics like stop-and-frisk, racists would largely ignore it. They might even nod appreciatively and say something like, "See? The police department can be trusted to do what's best. We're not hateful, we just want to make everyone safe."

But if the change in policy were court-ordered, or if black people were out in the streets protesting against police brutality, then racists would be aghast. The word "uppity" is probably the most concise way to capture the sentiment. Once people are demanding to be treated fairly as of right, it robs white people of the feeling of munificence that a largesse-based system enables. It upsets the racial and social hierarchy that is so important to the racist worldview.

To give you an example of how stark the difference can be, consider this passage from Michael Ignatieff's review of Countrymen by Bo Lidegaard:

Such general support across Danish society seems to have empowered the Jews of Copenhagen. When the Gestapo came to search the Jewish community’s offices in September 1943, the community treasurer, Axel Hertz, did not hesitate to ask the intruders, “By what right do you come here?” The German in charge replied, quite candidly: “By the right of the stronger.” And Hertz retorted: “That is no good right.” Jews in Denmark behaved like rights-bearers, not like victims in search of compassion. And they were not wrong: their feeling of membership in the Danish polity had a basis in its political culture.
Of course, Denmark's Jewish community had a famously high survival rate, largely (I believe) because Danes didn't think of them as mendicants but rather as fellow Danes. It didn't occur to them to treat Jews as charity cases. (By the way, this adds a little complexity to the fact that Danish fishermen charged money to transport Jews to Sweden. Facially that seems greedy, but in a sense it may just reflect that the Jews were not regarded as charity cases. I'm not defending it, I'm just saying it's more complicated than it first appears.)

Anyway this is the dynamic that was playing out in the run-up to the 2016 election with Black Lives Matter, Colin Kaepernick, etc. Trump's basic pitch was, "Put the white people back in charge, we have very big hearts, the best hearts, everyone wins." (An important point is that Trump would occasionally say something nice about Mexicans or black people or whatever. People would act as though this might alienate his base, but of course it wouldn't. It was a display of "generosity" that fit perfectly into the racial dynamic these voters were trying to restore.)

Clinton's pitch was, "It's time to reform our society as a matter of justice," that is, to give full recognition to the rights claims asserted by black people and others. Unfortunately in this case I believe Trump's message resonated with a larger audience (this is partly, but not predominantly in my view, a function of Clinton's poor communication skills). (I realize Clinton won the popular vote, but I think a lot of her supporters weren't responding to her message on race, whereas I believe a substantial number of Trump voters were responding to his.)

And so here we are. Trump has "put the Muslims in their place" by making it illegal for them to travel here, while giving dispensations to particularly photogenic or popular groups. This is exactly what the racists have been craving, not so much to keep Afghan girls out of the country, but to make them beg for it and to congratulate ourselves for letting them in.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

What Was the Veselnitskaya Meeting All About?

Today we learned a lot of details about Donald Trump Jr.'s meeting with Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Russian lawyer who had held herself out as a representative of the Russian government (or at least that's the way she was presented to Trump Jr. by my own favorite character in all of this, Rob Goldstone). The conservative line is going to be that Trump Jr. tried to collude with the Russians but failed—Veselnitskaya, the theory goes, didn't actually have anything useful for Trump, and was merely trying to get a meeting with the campaign to serve the interests of her clients (who are suffering under U.S. economic sanctions). How do we know that Veselnitskaya didn't have anything for the Trump campaign? Because that's what Donald Trump Jr. says! Why wouldn't you believe him? That is, aside from the fact that he has consistently lied about the meeting, changing his story several times as new facts have become public.

Clearly some reckless speculation is called for. After all, we have a bit of a puzzle on our hands. What would Veselnitskaya achieve by promising dirt on Clinton and then showing up with nothing? Yes, she got "face time" with Manafort, Kushner, and Trump Jr., but presumably pissing them off would not exactly endear her or her clients to them.

Of course, maybe she did give them dirt, and we just don't know about it for one reason or another. But note that even if Putin wanted Trump to win very badly, he wouldn't necessarily advance that goal by giving the campaign anything. At the time of the meeting, the DNC emails had already been hacked and released. John Podesta's emails had been hacked but not yet released—but when they were released in October and November, they were released by WikiLeaks, not directly by Russia or the Trump campaign. There was no urgent need to give them to the Trump campaign or to reveal their contents. Sure, the campaign might have derived some minor advantage by anticipating particularly embarrassing aspects of the emails, maybe even getting Clinton to contradict them during a debate or something like that. But that's a stretch, and it would also put the campaign at serious risk of being too clever by half and implicating itself.

Here's my answer to the puzzle. Veselnitskaya didn't give the campaign anything, but she told them Russia had the Podesta emails and would release them in good time. What did she accomplish by this? She made sure that Russia would get the credit! Of course Russia couldn't take credit publicly. And if it tried to take credit privately after the fact, then it might lack credibility. After all, anyone can take credit after the fact. Only the actual hacker is in a position to take credit before the emails are released, because only the hacker knows about them!

Was there a quid pro quo? It would make sense, but it's not absolutely necessary. Just earning Trump's general goodwill would be valuable enough. Anyway the timing of everything meant that the most obvious quid pro quo would involve a certain degree of trust—Russia could not wait until after the election to release the emails, or they would do no good, and Trump would obviously have no power to affect government policy before the inauguration.

However, there were a few things the campaign could do before the election to show its willingness to play ball. In particular, it could intervene on Russia's behalf in drafting the Republican platform at the Republican National Convention. And that's exactly what it did with respect to the platform's language on Ukraine. Bear in mind, party platforms are nonbinding—I believe the official GOP platform contains all kinds of nonsense that Trump (like every Republican president before him) feels free to ignore. (By the way I'm not making a partisan point here, I'm sure the Democratic platform has plenty of nuttiness in it too.) The point is that it made no sense to intervene in the drafting process in a pro-Putin (and unpopular) way except as a kind of costly signaling mechanism.

So anyway that's my theory. Veselnitskaya showed up and told Manafort, Kushner, and Trump Jr. that if the Trump campaign/administration played ball, Russia would release the Podesta emails at an opportune time. The campaign went to bat for Russia during the platform drafting process, and the emails were duly released. Trump won, and ever since has sought to promote Putin's interests around the world regardless of whether they coincide with the interests of the United States. Everyone was happy until Kushner realized that evidence of the meeting existed and that lying about the meeting was apt to send him to prison, at which point he decided to update his disclosure forms and things started to unravel.

My theory explains Veselnitskaya's desire to have a meeting. It makes sense of Trump's otherwise inexplicable behavior with respect to the party platform. It is literally what Goldstone's email describes. I think it makes much more sense than the defense so far, which requires smart people (the Russians, or at the very least Veselnitskaya) to have behaved in irrational and/or self-defeating ways. All in all, I think it's the best explanation for the observed facts.


Hardly the most newsworthy thing today (for future readers: today Donald Trump Jr.'s emails were released, providing direct evidence that the Trump campaign knowingly sought assistance from the Russian government), but David Brooks has written a widely mocked column containing this passage:

Recently I took a friend with only a high school degree to lunch. Insensitively, I led her into a gourmet sandwich shop. Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named “Padrino” and “Pomodoro” and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.
I'm not going to defend Brooks exactly, but I'm also not interested in piling on. That's because while I think Brooks was probably making unfounded assumptions about what was going on in his friend's head, at the end of the day he was there and I wasn't. The whole thing sounds mortifying, but I wonder how many of his critics would have handled it better. For me what it hammers home is the importance of grace, an aspect of adulthood that is very important, but that is also very difficult to achieve, especially for socially awkward people like me (and, apparently, David Brooks).

Like everyone, I suppose, I know this firsthand. From time to time while I was growing up, children were asked to read Bible passages or other liturgy in front of the whole congregation during church services. One time I messed up and failed to prompt the congregation to recite something. I don't remember what it was, probably a prayer, but whatever it was it went unrecited. I walked back to my pew with my cheeks burning with embarrassment, having caught my mistake too late to fix it.

A lady came up to me after the service and told me that she was glad I had lost my place, because she had too, and she wouldn't have been ready to recite the prayer (or whatever it was) if I had played my part correctly. Even at the time I knew this wasn't especially plausible, but it was very graceful. If it was a lie, it was a generous one, told with aplomb, and it greatly eased my embarrassment. Whatever the literal truth of her words, she was telling me she felt my pain and she was on my side. It was a thousand times better than saying something like, "Everyone makes mistakes, it's no big deal," even though that would have been perfectly fine and probably truer.

It was such a small thing for her, but I remember it today, having forgotten almost everything else about those services, because it was both very kind and very skillfully done. She had a kind of Tolstoyan insight into what I must be feeling, and she went out of her way to ease my embarrassment. And she did it adroitly, like a healer relieving pain with a deft touch. It exemplified perfectly the way a Christian, or really anyone, ought to treat other people.

Anyway we should all aspire to that kind of grace, and when we try, but fall short, we probably shouldn't be mocked too mercilessly.