Wednesday, October 19, 2016

You Say You Want a Revolution

"Hold my beer, I'm going in"
As we watch the good ship Trump slip beneath the waves in the last weeks before his ultimate resounding humiliation, we are seeing just how foul and grotesque his behavior can be. By claiming that the election is somehow 'rigged', he is calling into question the basic functioning of democratic governance - the peaceful transfer of legitimate political power. American politicians have always been careful to observe the niceties of our democratic electoral system, conceding their loss and congratulating the winner as the legitimate choice of the citizens. Even Richard Nixon, in resigning the presidency, was careful to remark on how the system functioned even in extremis. And Al Gore - up by a million votes and apparently leading the Florida recount - stood down when the supreme court inserted itself into the race and chose a winner.

But not this year. Not this cycle. Not this candidate. When your most energized supporters are fueled by what should be easily debunked falsehoods piled one on top of the next, the idea that they would be willing to accept a loss that Trump himself is not willing to concede is clearly a non-starter. Some will merely shriek their anger at their country, their democratic system and their new president, while others can be expected to make increasingly violent threats to overturn the 'tyranny' they're sure they're seeing but somehow can't quite describe. When you couple this particular movement's butthurt with the decades-long process of stoking a particularly unique kind of spittle flecked hatred of all things Clinton and an ideological attachment to firearms, well, the fear of a violent response seems well justified.

And sure enough, we are seeing more and more Trumpist voters promising to take up arms, to go to war, to rebel against a system that was so corrupt and so co-opted that their candidate somehow didn't win an election in which he has never had a polling lead. But we need to think this through a bit before we give in to our darkest fears of Aleppo come to Peoria. Did you ever notice that when a person makes a death threat, that person virtually never follows through? It's as if the point of the exercise was NOT actually murder after all, but merely to shriek one's anger and frighten and intimidate one's foes. Conversely, when someone DOES actually commit a violent act, they usually did what they could to prevent their plans from being discovered before they acted. These people making these threats? Like Ted Nugent's famous promise to end up 'dead or in jail' if Barack Obama was reelected, we can safely discount them as the 'all talk and no gunpowder' end of the spectrum.

Beyond that, it is informative to look at the level of desperation that has historically driven citizens to take up arms in rebellion against their government. It is hunger, disease, extreme poverty, brutal oppression - the precise things we are NOT seeing in America in the early 21st century, despite the vague claims of 'tyranny' invoked by people, most often shirtless tattooed drunk white men in trailer parks. But that's the thing - even in trailer parks, Americans have jobs and televisions and families and barbeques and beer. That's a lot to give up to go to war against the most powerful military in the world over various tyrannical acts you can't quite describe, but are certain are taking place. None of your friends or family have been killed, imprisoned or tortured. Your children are in school. Your neighborhoods are intact, with clean water and well stocked grocery stores. When the time comes to actually load the magazines and start the killing, these things are going to seem even more important, and Americans will decide, once again, to call the president foul names (oddly still legal in the face of his tyranny) and open another beer.

Now, don't get me wrong. There are some who will do awful things. The Oklahoma Federal Building bombing in the spring of 1995 (unsurprisingly during the last Clinton administration) was a real mass-casualty act of terrorism, and we can't pretend there won't be more like it in upcoming years. The rhetoric HAS gotten hotter, and the hatred has been growing for decades. But those kinds of events are always a possibility - the strident calls to violent rebellion we're hearing from the white nationalist right during (and after) this particuarly ugly presidential campaign can safely be ignored. The one you never hear shrieking his hatred at the administration is the one you need to worry about...

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Surely You Can't Be Serious

The voices in his head are very, very serious
Back in the early years of the odious GW Bush administration, one of the complaints the American Political Right had about liberals in the post 9/11 era was that they were 'unserious'. The term was quickly adopted by the media, and politicians, policies and pundits were suddenly judged by how 'serious' they were. Of course, seriousness isn't something that can be objectively measured, so it was really just a term used to call out policies you disagreed with. Don't want to invade Iraq? You're not serious. Don't want to cut government spending? Deeply unserious on economic policy. Don't want to invest billions in a new generation of nuclear weapons? You're just not serious about strategic deterrence.

It's funny to see people now taking aim at Donald Trump's lack of seriousness. He's not a serious candidate. He isn't running a serious campaign. He doesn't have a serious policy agenda. And this is where I have to draw the line. We've totally lost contact with the meaning of a common three-syllable English language word. Let me correct the record here - Donald Trump is serious. He's as serious, as the old saying goes, as a heart attack.

Of course he's not a typical politician. He's a populist demagogue out of the Huey Long school. He's uninformed, incurious and unclear on even the most basic functions of 21st century governance. He doesn't KNOW anything - except what HE knows he knows - and when it comes to those voices and images bouncing around in his head, do not doubt for a moment that he is serious. If he says something and the rabble responds favorably, it becomes a part of the Trump policy agenda. Impossible, unconstitutional, illegal, it doesn't matter. He'll make the promises. And he'll believe them.

He's 'serious' in the sense that he is unable to differentiate between routine campaign promises and actual viable policy proposals. To him, strong-arming the Mexican government into paying for the wall is a very serious proposal. Sure, we might look at the real-world barriers to such a fantasy and smirk that he is utterly unserious, but that overlooks the madness that is Trumpism. He not only believes - nay, KNOWS - he can do these things, but his desperate, uninformed and fearful supporters believe it too. They know he is serious - and nothing that happens in the course of the campaign can convince them otherwise. We know enough about Trump that we can clearly see he'll be angry and frustrated with the legislative and judicial processes, particularly when he demands congress appropriate funds for his bizarre and dangerous initiatives.

But we also must not forget that, where he CAN act unilaterally he will - because of his own certainty around his actions. Will he really walk away from NATO? Abrogate the Iran Nuclear Weapons agreement? Demand tribute for continued US military presence in Japan and Korea? Impose trade sanctions on China? One can have no doubt - when he promises these things, and people respond positively, they become the hard core of his 'serious' policy agenda.  Trump - and Trumpism - is dangerous in a way we really haven't internalized yet. Not just for his authoritarian bent, his lack of democratic values or his inability to understand even the most basic second-order consequences of government action. Trump is dangerous because he actually believes what he says - what the world will perceive as a dangerous, impulsive recklessness is really just his inherent certainty of his own infallibility.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Today We Are All Corrupt Neoliberal Sellouts

Our long national nightmare is over
Just to note in passing that after all virulent, spittle-flecked rhetoric, after all the accusations and innuendo, after all the threats and tantrums and willful intransigence over the basic functions of a political party's nominating process, today Bernie Sanders announced that he is With Her.

The Sanders campaign devoted no little effort in the attempt to amplify and focus the incoherent right-wing Clinton Derangement Syndrome narrative among the more liberal denizens of the Democratic party - and had a disappointingly large affect on the political conversation. For months the Democratic primaries were argued, not in terms of what Sanders might be able to accomplish, or how a Sanders presidency might compare favorably to a Clinton term, but rather about the alleged corruption, criminality and neoliberal warhawk tendencies of the Clinton dynasty. From a strictly practical sense, this was probably a reasonable choice. Bernie ran a dumpster fire of a campaign, insisting on labeling himself a socialist, turning every question into an argument about inequality in America, and refusing to even offer the slightest suggestion of how he might make his liberal fever-dream of a policy agenda a reality. It was a campaign straight out of the underpants gnomes playbook, and even his supporters quickly learned not to talk about him at all - leaving them with nothing to say except to shriek in increasingly over-the-top terms how terrible Hillary was and how we'd all be doomed if she won the nomination.

So yeah, there's a little twitch of a smile of schadenfreude today. It's pretty amusing that all the Sanders supporters who swore they would NEVER vote for Hillary Clinton are now more radical Sanders voters than...well, than Sanders. And even with just the explicit statement about the Democratic position on capital punishment, yeah, the party's policy platform is a pretty good statement of values. But it never mattered a bit. Clinton could have told him to take a long walk on a short pier. With the Republican self-immolation candidate Donald Trump as the opposition, the Democrats never needed their far left wing to elect her - they suddenly find themselves with a far-right wing instead. But she took the smart path (note - this should not come as a surprise to anyone) and added the vast majority of the Sanders voters to what is becoming an overwhelming political coalition. We can even start looking beyond her inauguration on January 20 of next year, and begin to think about the looming constitutional crisis over the Supreme Court. Because that could be the next phase in the collapse of the barking mad American political right.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Trade Globalization Agreements - Less Than Meets the Eye?

This is your culprit right here
Between now and November, we're going to be hearing a great deal about 'trade', especially in terms of trade globalization and the impact on American manufacturing jobs. So it's a very good time to stop and think about international trade, how we got here and what it means today and in the future.

The first question, as always, needs to be about root causes. The conventional wisdom is that trade globalization agreements created trade globalization, by changing the rules and opening up low-cost manufacturing centers in poor countries. But is that the case? Once you think about it, it's actually the other way around - trade globalization led to the free trade agreements. In other words, the agreements were negotiated to address the changes that were already happening in global trade. But if that's the case, what caused the globalization of trade in the first place? The answer is the standardized inter-modal shipping container. Once you had a very cost effective way of transporting goods on ships, trains and trucks, there was no place on earth that wasn't available as a manufacturing hub. And once that infrastructure was in place, every corporation in the world was able to either create or participate in highly efficient large-scale global supply chains.

A second point to remember is that these are agreements between multiple parties. They are not supposed to be one-sided zero sum contests in power and advantage. America lost a lot of manufacturing jobs, but as the largest consumer market in the world we benefited hugely from the increased speed and efficiency of the global supply chain. We have our phones and tablets and laptops and televisions, sure, but we also have the tens of millions of servers, routers, switches, firewalls, load balancers, along with the millions of miles of optical network infrastructure what permits you to watch Netflix. Would any of that be affordable to all if it had to be manufactured here? Would the advances in technology have been deployed as rapidly? And along that same context, think about the millions of people around the globe who have been lifted out of the grinding poverty of subsistence farming, who now have houses with plumbing and health care and education for their children. For every $75/hr American manufacturing job that has been lost, a hundred desperately poor families have joined the modern middle class. All in the course of a single human lifespan. That is an unqualified good thing.

In the end, if you're an American worker these trade deals have not been a good deal. They have cost good jobs and empowered the worst instincts of corporations. But they are not the catastrophe they are often made out to be - rather they are the cudgel that populist politicians can use to drive hostility toward the parties in power. And if you look at the results of trade globalization over the last few decades from a global rather than an American nationalist viewpoint, they have done an awfully lot of good.

One final point to consider: manufacturing jobs will return to the US. That's not good news, however. Robotics and workforce automation have changed the capital/labor calculation. When all the costs of manufacturing are capital and none are labor, you can establish your manufacturing hubs anywhere you want - the only advantage is proximity to markets, and the US is still the largest consumer market on the planet. The jobs will return - they are returning - but workers will not benefit. Sooner than you think, the lions share of manufacturing will be automated, and both the advanced and the emerging economies will be confronted by huge numbers of desperately poor, unemployable people demanding solutions. At that point we'll look back on the days of trade globalization as a golden age.

And, just like that, Yglesias makes the final point crystal clear...


Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The 'No Fly List' is Atrocious - Let's Not Make it Worse

It would pretty much be all of us...
Start with an almost comically obvious premise: It would not be good to simply let terrorists buy guns legally. No rational society would allow such a thing - setting aside for a moment whether any rational society would allow broad unlimited access to modern firearms in the first place - and it shouldn't be terribly difficult to make certain such an obvious premise is enforced in day-to-day reality. Of course, we're not really saying what we mean here - if we know a specific individual is a terrorist, they are either in custody or the subject of a manhunt. Obviously what we mean here is 'suspected terrorist', or perhaps a better construct might be 'pre-terrorist', somebody who has come to the attention of law enforcement or Homeland Security but has not been arrested or tried for any crimes. And fortuitously, we have a 'list' of these exact subjects - it's called the 'No Fly List' and it is used to prevent terrorism suspects from boarding or traveling on commercial airliners.

The No Fly List contains about 47,000 names. It's unclear how many are American citizens or permanent residents, but that number is well under 1000 (it was 800 in 2013). Much of the actual intent of maintaining a No Fly List is to keep suspected international terrorists out of the US in the first place. So as a No Gun List, this compilation of names would be very close to useless, another case of 'security theater' writ large. But let me ask you a question: In light of what we know about the US National Security State, given this kind of new unilateral administrative authority to prevent gun purchases, do you think it's at least reasonable that the FBI might expand the scope of people on the No Fly List to more broadly include people in the US and people whose focus isn't necessarily on transportation targets?

And once we have surrendered yet another constitutional right to the whims of the DoJ bureaucracy, are you comfortable that it will all just stop there? What about Drivers Licenses? I mean, cars are little different from airplanes and truck bombs are the most common form of terrorist attack around the globe. And consider the attack on the soccer stadium in Paris. Perhaps the FBI should be able to deny the right to attend large-scale sporting events and concerts?

When you give up your due process rights and allow a government agency to determine whether and how to withhold rights and privileges you take for granted as a citizen - when you allow lists of names to be compiled by agency bureaucrats who can then restrict the rights of those on the list - you give up both any access to information about WHY your name is on that list, and you give up any opportunity to challenge that information, and have that challenge adjudicated fairly.  We've seen these excesses in the No Fly List from the very beginning. So much secrecy and ambiguity exists around the list that people have been denied access to airlines for years because their name was 'similar to the known alias of someone on the No Fly List'. Even after it was established that it was a different person on the list, it was still impossible for the unfortunately named individual to fly.

Look. Guns in America are a crisis. No one spends more time screaming about the gun violence crisis than I do. But children: THIS IS NOT THE WAY. If we're so desperate for a 'win' in the gun debate that we're willing to hand over another victory to the National Security State, then we've already lost the much larger debate. At the very moment when we should be fighting to radically reform or eliminate the No Fly List, instead we find ourselves enthusiastically doubling down on the premise of a society where our 'rights' are limited and controlled by government agencies.

Update: Just want to make sure we're thinking about this. This is what you get when you have a constitutional guarantee of the right to keep and bear arms. You can clearly have an American citizen who is the subject of multiple investigations, who has indicated a tendency to hate, violence and terror. But he's not chargeable, so he can walk into a gun store and buy a pistol, a rifle or a shotgun. This shouldn't be hard - no other country struggles with this challenge. But our toxic 2nd amendment saddles us with these horrific hobson's choices...

Monday, June 20, 2016

Orlando and ISIS - Does it Matter?

If it quacks like a duck...
Once again, in the wake of the Orlando atrocity, we see journalists endlessly pondering what seems to them to be an important question. If the killers were Muslims, and if there was an element of Islamic extremism driving their actions, were they actually ISIS operatives or were they merely influenced by ISIS' ideology? I wonder, however - does it even matter? Is this a distinction without a difference?

In the case of homegrown terrorists, particularly that very large fraction who do not survive their attack to be questioned, motivation is a difficult thread to unravel. Someone raised a Muslim, however, who at some point claims the attack is driven by Islamic fundamentalist or Muslim nationalist ideologies, must be taken at their word that their religious and ethnic indoctrination had some influence on their actions. In the case of the Orlando terrorist, for example, the attack was premised on his hatred for gay people, but it seems reasonable that the root of that hatred - whether for gay culture or self-loathing at his own sexual impulses - was the Islamic fundamentalist indoctrination via his father.

The fact is that, however you feel about the surveillance state and Homeland Security tactics, the US is a very difficult target for overseas terrorist organizations to get to. To move people, funds and weapons into the US, organize and coordinate them for a large scale attack is almost impossible to do without detection and interdiction. The only way to carry out an effective terror attack in the US today without an inordinate amount of luck is if the attacker(s) have NO communications with any known terrorist organization.

The lesson seems to be that people with a predisposition to mass killing will find some justification for doing it. The existence of Islamic terrorist ideology provides people who were raised in that faith (or converted out of some sympathetic feelings for the dogma) with a ready-made formula for both motivation and justification. And with the key factor determining whether someone carries out such an attack being a willingness/desire to die in the process, a motivation rooted in religious mythology that includes eternal life in paradise can be an important enabling factor. But it seems substantially less is important whether the attacker(s) were an active part of the terrorist organization or merely aware of their worldview and doctrine and sympathetic to their cause. Indeed, it is becoming increasingly obvious that the successful mass casualty attacks will have that specific factor in common - zero communication with any extant terrorist organization before the attack. That kind of operationally secure mission planning is the best way to avoid coming to the attention of law enforcement or Counter Terrorism personnel.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Someday, We'll Look Back on All This and...Be Grateful??

No, seriously, I love this guy
Not to go all Slate-Pitchy on you here, but I can't help but think that it's at least possible that the success Donald Trump enjoyed in this election cycle might turn out to be something we can be somewhat grateful for. Obviously, it exposed some deep flaws in our electoral system, and demonstrated that there is a path to political power in the US for an ignorant, narcissistic demagogue. But he has no real-world chance of actually winning the general election in November, so instead it gives us a chance to examine this bullet dodged, and think about how it might reshape much of the political narrative in the US in the future.

So what beneficial trends might we see come out of the Donald Trump phenomenon? Well, first think about the media reaction to him. It's quite different than what you see from more typical Republican politicians, even liars like Paul Ryan or madmen like James Inhofe. The media has always maintained a frustrating stance of considering both sides of the public policy discussion as equally valid, even when one side has gone very badly off the rails. "Shape of the earth - both sides disagree" we smile and say. It's a real problem - they are so terrified of being accused of bias that they won't just be honest about reality. But with Trump - he's lied so blatantly, said stupid things on camera and then denied he said them, taken both sides of an argument in a single speech and been so hostile to the media that they don't feel like they owe him any of this protection, or that they might be considered biased for calling him out for these laughable positions. And it's worth noting that we've mostly only seen primary campaign coverage so far. After the conventions, the heat on Trump to speak coherently and justify his statements is going to be turned up substantially. And media outlets are going to discover that people have an appetite for honest reporting.

On top of that, Trump has ripped the scab off the Republican party's coalition problem. The party leadership has long known they have a serious demographic problem that prevents them from building a national coalition of voters that support their policies. The leadership had one agenda - the upward transfer of wealth through reduced taxes on the wealthy and reduced regulation on business and the reduction of government transfers to the poor and middle class. But the Republican voting base didn't really care about this policy agenda, and to whatever extent they did they tended to oppose it. They cared about tribal and social issues. White Christian supremacy, immigration, gay rights, gun ownership - these were the empty promises the Republican party has been making them for decades to ensure their votes. Trump simply dropped much of the economic policy plans and concentrated on the issues important to white Middle-American Christianists. Now, while 70% of the non-college white American vote isn't enough to elect a president, the party is going to have to confront a base electorate that wants Trump's policies, not Paul Ryan's. The Republican party is going to have to find a way to build a larger coalition or risk becoming irrelevant. Post Trump, the path to that coalition is unclear, and the American conservative constituency may find itself splintered.

Next, think about money in politics. Despite the massive influx of wealthy donors since the Citizens United decision, it's hard to see what the Koch and Adelson millions have bought. The Republicans have been successful at the congressional district and statehouse levels due to population distribution, gerrymandering and voter suppression. The money from the billionaires doesn't seem to have bought much. And now we have Trump, who has run a campaign based on rallies, social media and free nightly cable news coverage, easily defeated Bush and Rubio and Cruz despite their tens of millions in campaign contributions. It's true that the Clinton campaign will spend a lot of money defeating Trump, but in a sense that's just accomplishing the outcome that would happen anyway. It's beginning to become clear that money - even unlimited money - isn't a guarantor of electoral success.

Last, there is a larger ideological benefit to America - not just as a result of Trumpism, but as represented by the excesses of Trumpism. The conventional wisdom - very likely true - has been that there have been hard political limitations on the Democratic party embracing more liberal public policies. The Democrats have had to adopt an 'assume the left to keep the center' approach to the electorate. But now Trump has put away the dog whistles and exposed the core conservative voter for the racist reactionary he is. The center will accept more liberal policies before it will accept a shift to that kind of tribal identity politics. In other words, the Democrats will be able to keep their larger, broad coalition even as the Democratic leadership moves left on social and economic populist policies.

In the end, Trump represents the end of a long, frustrating political era in the US. The voters have finally stood up and forced the parties to show what they really stand for, and what they truly believe. Between Trump and Sanders, the state of American political and economic policy making is better than it has been in a long time.