Monday, March 19, 2018

Endless war in Syria

Patrick Cockburn was one of the best reporters on the Iraq War. If we can legitimately speak of it in the past tense. The trusty but staid Encyclopaedia Britannica's gives this definition (internal links omitted):
Iraq War, also called Second Persian Gulf War, (2003–11), conflict in Iraq that consisted of two phases. The first of these was a brief, conventionally fought war in March–April 2003, in which a combined force of troops from the United States and Great Britain (with smaller contingents from several other countries) invaded Iraq and rapidly defeated Iraqi military and paramilitary forces. It was followed by a longer second phase in which a U.S.-led occupation of Iraq was opposed by an insurgency. After violence began to decline in 2007, the United States gradually reduced its military presence in Iraq, formally completing its withdrawal in December 2011.
Cockburn gives us a grim update on the grim, ongoing Syria War, which is a civil war mixed with increasing foreign intervention, , The Syrian war could still be raging in four years' time unless the US and Russia agree to end it Independent 03/16/2018:

We must speak of multiple armed conflicts in Syria rather than a single war so that when one military confrontation gets close to its final chapter, it is swiftly replaced by another. Isis, the greatest threat of 2014 to 2017, is largely eliminated, but the new focus of violence is the escalating struggle between Turkey and the two or three million Syrian Kurds.

The Syrian Army is advancing into Eastern Ghouta and the likelihood is that President Bashar al-Assad will soon have almost complete control of the capital for the first time since 2012. One outcome could be for the rebel fighters to leave with light weapons for opposition or Turkish-held territory in southern and northern Syria, while the bulk of the civilian population would be amnestied and stay where they are. But the Syrian war is littered with compromise solutions which never quite came about because there were too many players to agree on a common course of action. [my emphasis]
Cockburn argues that a deal between the US and Russia is the best hope of putting the armed conflict to an end sooner rather than later. He describes the enhanced influence of Russia in Syria this way:
The Russians, for their part, know that it was their military intervention in Syria which in a single stroke restored their status as a superpower or something like it, a position they had lost when the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991. When the Syrian crisis first exploded in 2011, a senior Iraqi official asked an American general what was so different between the situation in Libya, where Gaddafi had just been ousted and killed, and that in Syria. The general replied in a short succinct sentence, saying that in Syria “Russia is back”. [my emphasis]
It's worth noting here that the US' enhanced influence in the US that has grown over the decades since the Carter Administration, and especially since the Persian Gulf War of 1991 has been anything but an unmixed blessing. To put it mildly. Anyone who wishes Russia ill might be celebrating their current role in the Middle East.

Cockburn's article is worth noting in connection with these reflections from Lawrence Wilkerson, The Most Important Hearings Of The Young Century LobeLog 03/16/2018. He reminds us that starting a war is a way for Trump to rally public support around him in the face of the staggering scandals now being investigated in relation to Trump, his businesses, and his 2016 campaign:
But the Syria conflict will most likely be the conduit through which this presidential team, linked at the hip with Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu’s team, pursues its first new and immediately most likely use of military power. However, even the unending war thus produced — for that is precisely what it will be — will not sufficiently satisfy the appetites of this team. Moreover, taking on Syria and Iran might well lead to Russia. Putin has said as much publicly.

Imagine this scenario for a frightening moment. While embroiled in Syria with Israel at our side, Russia and Iran confront the U.S. and no one backs down. Turkey leaps into the mix to finish off as many Kurds as possible as the inevitable major regional war begins. Meanwhile, in the South China Sea, China delivers and immediately acts upon an ultimatum to Taipei. This bellicose White House team led by Donald Trump challenges China and, in the process, immediately loses USS Carl Vinson, sunk in minutes by a combination of missiles, torpedoes, and precision-guided bombs, an aircraft carrier worth $14 billion with about 5,000 souls on board.

Mr. President, what do you and your team do now?

Frankly, I believe this bone-spur-afflicted warrior will run upstairs in the White House, close the door firmly, pick up his smart device, and commence tweeting that, among other things, it was not his fault.
One of the implications of Wilkerson's comment is that, even if the Trump Administration is trying to be friendly to Russia, bad decisions in the context of unpredictable day-to-day events in the Syrian context could escalate to a much more consequential clash for the United States.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Bank deregulation and the Democratic Party 2018

Congress just passed a new bank deregulation bill with the usual propaganda name, Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief and Consumer Protection Act. A more descriptive one would have been the Financial Destabilization Act.

David Dayen at The Intercept has been following the bill and writing about its effects. In Democrats Offer Last-Minute, Pretend Defense of Fair Lending Laws, As They Prepare to Weaken Them 03/12/2018, he gives a good example of how conservative Democrats construct alibis for voting for bad Republican laws.

In this case, the bill had to have Democratic support in the Senate to prevent a filibuster from stopping it. Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer opposed it. But 16 Senate Democrats voted for it, including Independent Angus King who caucuses with the Democrats, allowing it to pass. Here is the list from the Senate website:

Michael Bennet (D-CO)
Tom Carper (D-DE)
Chris Coons (D-DE)
Joe Donnelly (D-IN)
Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND)
Doug Jones (D-AL)
Tim Kaine (D-VA)
Angus King (I-ME)
Joe Manchin (D-WV)
Claire McCaskill (D-MO)
Ben Nelson (D-FL)
Gary Peters (D-MI)
Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH)
Debbie Stabenow (D-MI)
Jon Tester (D-MT)
Mark Warner (D-VA)

The list includes the Democratic Vice Presidential candidate for 2016, Tim Kaine and press favorites like Heidi Heitkamp, Joe Manchin, Debbie Stabenow, and Mark Warner. Heitkamp and Warner signed on as co-authors. It weakens regulations on mortgage lending for smaller banks and reduces reporting requirements aimed at detecting illegal discrimination in lending.

It won't be the last that the banking lobby will push (Zachary Warmbrodt, Senate passes deregulation bill scaling back Dodd-Frank Politico 03/14/2018):
While the bill is a huge victory for bank lobbyists who have been working to curb Dodd-Frank since it was first drafted, the industry will keep pushing lawmakers and regulators for carve-outs in the years to come.

"This is a first step," American Bankers Association President and CEO Rob Nichols said.
Jamellle Bouie explains why this is yet another kick in the face to the Democratic base (Democrats Back a Bank Bill That Could Hurt Black Homebuyers Slate 03/14/2018):
A provision in the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act would exempt the large majority of mortgage lenders from key disclosure requirements that help the government identify racial discrimination and enforce fair housing laws. The provision would facilitate redlining, allowing lenders to deny loans to black homebuyers, while also giving lenders carte blanche to overcharge black homebuyers or steer them into the same predatory loans that exploded during the financial crisis, pushing countless families into foreclosure.

Yet this bill, which would widen the already staggering racial wealth gap, won support from more than a dozen Democratic senators, including members such as Tim Kaine, Mark Warner, Claire McCaskill, and Doug Jones who rely on black and Hispanic voters to win elections. (The bill is also backed by one independent, Angus King of Maine, who caucuses with Democrats.)
I hope progressive Democrats won't overlook this Republican vote by Doug Jones. Strong bank regulation should be a no-brainer for Democrats. But Jones got elected in a tough race by running as an unapologetic Democrat with a strong Democratic turnout and enthusiastic support from black voters.

And then he turns around and kicks his voters in the teeth with this vote. This is not a good thing.

Drew Magary provides a good summary of why (The Democrats Can't Stop Using the Same Broken Playbook GQ 03/07/2018):
It makes no sense. Blessed with a touch of momentum going into the 2018 midterms, Chuck Schumer and his colleagues have decided that the best way to “win” is to build up their fundraising apparatus, reach out across party lines, and pass legislation that serves banks more than it serves people… legislation friendly enough to conservative folk that Senators like Tester (Montana) and McCaskill (Missouri) can sell it to their red state constituents and not have them get too mad.

This is the DNC's game plan, and it blows.

It’s an enraging time to be an American, and one of the most frustrating things about it is that the opposition party - the only one with the money and infrastructure to take on a Republican party that is now a de facto criminal enterprise - still leads and acts as if everything is Fine, and that we are not in a state of absolute crisis. I know Barack Obama is venerated for the speech he made at the DNC in 2004 that unofficially introduced him as a presidential contender, but he vastly overrated the value of bipartisanship that night. That Pollyanna mindset would continue haunt him through a great deal of his presidency, as Republicans openly schemed to destroy him at every turn. And, as a final insult, they’ve spent the past year feverishly, and hatefully, working to dismantle his legacy. Time and again, Democrats think the only way to win elections is to NOT fully be Democrats, and this bill is the toxic runoff of that discredited philosophy. Too many Democratic leaders and thinkers are beholden to a bullshit fever dream of civility that has led to staggering electoral losses and Republicans gleefully stripping lower income Americans of their rights and bodies.
Yes, it's a problem.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

A neo-Confederate moment in 2001

I came across this letter I wrote as a letter-to-the-editor in 2001, almost exactly 17 years ago, 04/24/2001. It was just after a now largely forgotten political moment in Mississippi, a special election whose only topic was whether Mississippi should keep its current state flag that features the Confederate battle flag, a symbol of treason and opposition to basic rights for African-Americans, in favor of a proposed alternative design that was, admittedly, bland and forgettable. The Confederate battle flag design won by a strong majority. The vote was heavily polarized along racial lines, as is often the case in Mississippi. The neo-Confederate Sons of Confederate Veterans group was the most visible proponent of keeping the Confederate version of the flag. As I allude in the letter to a slogan that the SCV used in the election that counts as a "thoughts and prayers" approach to white racism. Which at that time rightwing groups felt it necessary to pretend they did not condone.

Mississippi still has the same official flag today:

And there has recently been some active discussion in the state legislature about changing it.

This was the letter I did in 2001
The Mississippi flag vote was a week ago today. With today's news cycles, that's enotgh to qualify it as part of the state's "heritage" now. Though I'm not quite sure it qualfies for the "judgment of history" just yet. Actually, I'm trying to forget about it.

But walking to my office this morning, I saw Mississippi staring at me again right on the front page of the "Los Angeles Times." The headline announced that the state would be pumping $500 million into predominantly black colleges. Three weeks ago, most people would have probably thought, "Oh, things are really different now in Mississippi than they used to be."

Then you read the secondary headline and see that it was in response to a court decision in a lawsuit. Now that Mississippi has branded itself (in the ranching as well as the marketing sense) with the Confederate flag, most people probably think, "Of course. Mississippi would never do something like that without being forced to." Unfair? Prejudiced? Maybe. But Mississippi's self-marketing pretty much insures responses like that.

This whole thing reminds me of one of Karl Marx's sayings that's still considered respectable, "History repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce."

The "first time" in this case would have been the segregation days, where Mississippians took resistance to the Constitution and the democratic standards of the country to an extreme in some ways beyond what even other Deep South states were willing to embrace.

Last week's flag vote was the farce. Mississippi succeeded in recreating the thrill of showing that it won't kowtow to the standards of the country, even to those of other Southern states. Someone remind me, just what is the thrill of that?

But 2001 just ain't 1961. The Confederate state flag's defenders pointed to the big Nissan factory being built there as evidence that things were fine. Mississippi still has the biggest number of African-American elected officials of any state - numerically, not just in proportion to the population. Japanese investors and black Mississippi elected officials were just not factors 40 years ago.

The NAACP will probably feel obliged to go through the motions of a boycott, because of their public stance in the South Carolina controversy. Ironically, the attitude of Mississippi's black elected officials will inevitably be a big consideration for them in making that decision.

But since the Sons of Confederate Veterans led the charge for the Confederate state flag saying that "racial reconciliation requires changing hearts, not the flag," I think it would be quite effective if the folks from the SCV were to meet with NAACP officials. They could explain to them all the good things they plan to do to improve race relations in the state, and see if they can avoid a boycott.

If they don't try something like that, people might suspect the Sons of Confederate Veterans of being just a bunch of gasbags.

Friday, March 16, 2018

How credible are the British government's claims in the Sergei Skripal assassination attempt?

I don't have any special insight on the assassination attempt in Britain against Sergei Skripal that became a prominent issue for Britain and NATO this week. there has been a pattern of untimely deaths of journalists and others that Vladimir Putin's government somehow found inconvenient. And the British government is expressing its confidence that Russia was involved. And if the former Russian diplomat Vyacheslav Matuzov's presentation in this Al Jazeera program is any measure, the responses coming from the Russian side don't sound especially convincing, How will a divided west tackle a resurgent Russia? Inside Story 03/15/2018:

So I'm considering at this point that the most likely explanation is the one endorsed by the British government. That doesn't mean I think it's been definitively demonstrated, only that I'm not hearing a more plausible explanation so far.

David Ignatius is on the bandwagon, too, in this Washington Post column, Putin has finally gone too far 03/16/2018. He displays the hawkish verbal posturing that is the default position of the Beltway pundits and most of the political establishment.

But let's give Ignatius a tiny bit of credit. This Morning Zoo segment has Joe Scarborough taking the Russian responsibility for the attempted murder as a given, and none of his panel is especially challenging it. And Ignatius joins in. But it does drop in a qualification missing in his column in his comments starting around 8:00: "it's way over the line, even for an ex-KGB officer to go out and do this kind of reprisal killing [sic] - again, we need to have more evidence to link this directly to Putin. But it's clear that this is a Soviet-era nerve agent. ..." (my emphasis). Special Counsel Robert Mueller Subpoenas Trump Organization For Russia Records Morning Joe/MSNBC 03/16/2018:

Not many Democratic politicians will be heard asking probing questions in public about this. Although that is part of the job of Members of Congress, regardless of party. They are too busy stressing the need to fully investigate and understand the Russian interference is the 2016 election and possibly compromising involvements by Trump and his closest associates to Russian entities. The more conscientious Democrats won't be eager to let Russia off the hook on this. But few of them will risk stepping on their public anti-Russia theme at this point.

For the rest of us, close reading and listening is usually in order. Despite the certainty in his column, Ignatius is already promoting the assassination attempt to an actual murder, even though the poor guy isn't dead yet. He does mention that we don't have the evidence to link the attack to Putin. Which, of course, is not the same as linking it to the Russian government. And when he says the toxin involved was a Soviet-era substance, he's referring to the USSR whose existence came to an end in 1991. So that's not at all the same as saying that it's a substance that is somehow distinct to the Russia of 2018.

I don't apologize for being cautious on claims like these, however plausible this one seems on its face. I remember when the British government of Tony Blair was declaring confidently that Saddam Hussein had operable chemical weapons that could be deployed on 45 minutes notice. (See: Vikram Dodd et al, 45-minute claim on Iraq was hearsay Guardian 08/15/218. Let's be very generous and say that governments do, uh, make mistakes about such things. Especially when they are pushing a phony story about "weapons of mass destruction" to justify a genuinely criminal war of aggression.

Another event that is also a constant reminder to me about the uncertainty of some intelligence assumptions. And that is the AMIA bombing, the deadly bomb attack on the main Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in 1994. This event is routinely referred to as an attack orchestrated by Iran through Hizbullah. But the case itself is still open. The Argentine government's official theory of the case has been, under both conservative and left governments, has been consistent with the common assumption, that it was orchestrated by Iran.

But even after 24 years, that is far from a certainty based on what is in the public record. Former President Cristina Fernández when she was a senator prior to becoming President had raised questions about the official theory, based on considerable indications that radical right Argentines may have been deeply involved. She took a strong interest in the case and actively pursued it as President - despite infamously dishonest arguments that she did not - and proceeded on the official theory of Iranian involvement and direction.

But the case has never been resolved. That means while there are reasons to believe based on information in the public record that Iran was behind it, that is by no means clearly established. And, we are likely to keep hearing about the AMIA attack as though it is a certainty that Iran pulled it off. Because the AMIA case is used as a primary example, by far the most dramatic, of how Iran has long had the ability to project terrorist attacks worldwide. One of the revelations from Wikileaks documented that Dark Lord Dick Cheney, not known for being scrupulous in honest use of intelligence findings, pressured the US Embassy in Argentina to try to get Argentine prosecutors from backing off a related case involving Carlos Menem, who was President in 1994, a case that might have called into question Iranian responsibility. Neither Cheney nor other advocates of war against Iran want to give up the AMIA case as a propaganda claim against Iran.

In the case of the nerve gas incident in Britain, former British diplomat Craig Murray offers some reasons for reservations about the official British case. (Russian to Judgement 03/13/2018) I don't find the alternative scenario he suggests in the linked post plausible. But some of the questions he raises are worth keeping in mind.
The same people who assured you that Saddam Hussein had WMD’s now assure you Russian “novochok” nerve agents are being wielded by Vladimir Putin to attack people on British soil. As with the Iraqi WMD dossier, it is essential to comb the evidence very finely. A vital missing word from Theresa May’s statement yesterday was “only”. She did not state that the nerve agent used was manufactured ONLY by Russia. She rather stated this group of nerve agents had been “developed by” Russia. Antibiotics were first developed by a Scotsman, but that is not evidence that all antibiotics are today administered by Scots.

The “novochok” group of nerve agents – a very loose term simply for a collection of new nerve agents the Soviet Union were developing fifty years ago – will almost certainly have been analysed and reproduced by Porton Down. That is entirely what Porton Down is there for. It used to make chemical and biological weapons as weapons, and today it still does make them in small quantities in order to research defences and antidotes. After the fall of the Soviet Union Russian chemists made a lot of information available on these nerve agents.
Porton Down Murray mentions is described by Rob Evans, "Porton Down, founded in 1916, is the oldest chemical warfare research installation in the world," with a somewhat ghoulish reputation. (The past Porton Down can't hide Guardian 05/06/2004)

Leaving aside our President's Twitter spasms and his impulsive public statements, for most countries of the world, paying attention to the exact phrasing of important foreign policy statements is usually important. And it does presumably mean something that Theresa May wasn't mentioning any specific links of the toxin to the Russia of 2018. That doesn't mean she doesn't have any. But it's a carefully worded claim.

Murray also makes this observation about the circumstances:
From Putin’s point of view, to assassinate Skripal now seems to have very little motivation. If the Russians have waited eight years to do this, they could have waited until after their World Cup. The Russians have never killed a swapped spy before. Just as diplomats, British and otherwise, are the most ardent upholders of the principle of diplomatic immunity, so security service personnel everywhere are the least likely to wish to destroy a system which can be a key aspect of their own personal security; quite literally spy swaps are their “Get Out of Jail Free” card. You don’t undermine that system – probably terminally – without very good reason.

It is worth noting that the “wicked” Russians gave Skripal a far lighter jail sentence than an American equivalent would have received. If a member of US Military Intelligence had sold, for cash to the Russians, the names of hundreds of US agents and officers operating abroad, the Americans would at the very least jail the person for life, and I strongly suspect would execute them. Skripal just received a jail sentence of 18 years, which is hard to square with the narrative of implacable vindictiveness against him. If the Russians had wanted to make an example, that was the time. [my emphasis]
Now this doesn't mean that the Russians aren't changing their approach. But such considerations are important to consider in evaluating such claims.

Murray also states his broader perspective:
I am alarmed by the security, spying and armaments industries’ frenetic efforts to stoke Russophobia and heat up the new cold war. I am especially alarmed at the stream of cold war warrior “experts” dominating the news cycles. I write as someone who believes that agents of the Russian state did assassinate Litvinenko, and that the Russian security services carried out at least some of the apartment bombings that provided the pretext for the brutal assault on Chechnya. I believe the Russian occupation of Crimea and parts of Georgia is illegal. On the other hand, in Syria Russia has saved the Middle East from domination by a new wave of US and Saudi sponsored extreme jihadists.

The naive view of the world as “goodies” and “baddies”, with our own ruling class as the good guys, is for the birds. I witnessed personally in Uzbekistan [where Murray was British Ambassador 2002-2004] the willingness of the UK and US security services to accept and validate intelligence they knew to be false in order to pursue their policy objectives. We should be extremely sceptical of their current anti-Russian narrative. There are many possible suspects in this attack.
It's helpful in this things to keep some basic things in mind. Governments lie. Intelligence claims are often based on incomplete information. Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not after you. Threat inflation is a chronic problem for US foreign policy.

In subsequent posts, Murray reacts to critics of his position and to additional information.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

"Thoughts and prayers" for social problems

Christopher Stroop takes a look at the image of Billy Graham the Moderate in (appropriately? ironically?) Playboy, In Billy We Trust? How "America's Pastor" Birthed Our New Theocratic Wave 02/23/2018. Stroop describes himself in this article as part of the "the ex-evangelical community." His article has a tone of a convert away from a cause that he experienced as harmful. But he has real insight into fundamentalist culture, and is careful with facts.

He reminds us of what a large role Graham played in building the conservative version of the Cold War outlook, which had a heavy religious component. Although distinguishing the conservative from the liberal version would be a challenging undertaking. The liberal Cold Warriors had their own Christian theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, who actually had some important practical perspectives in his foreign policy vision known as Christian realism. Although Niebuhr own view of Soviet Communism was highly ideological, too.

Stroop also talks about how Billy Graham's public religiosity affected the contemporary versions of his son Franklin and of former alleged moderate Rick Warren. And he argues, "Radically conservative, mostly white evangelicals like Rick Warren and Franklin Graham are largely responsible for America being stuck with a thrice-married brash billionaire who brags about sexual assault as president."

I like Stroop's description of I've started to call the conservative evangelical "thoughts and prayers" position on social problems they don't want solved:
In a famous 1958 sermon, “What’s Wrong with the World?”, Billy Graham lamented that America had “rejected God’s simple program ... We’re not really living for Christ.” He insisted that “The race problem is a symptom. War is a symptom. Crime is a symptom.” A symptom of what? “Sin,” according to Graham, the “disease” inherent in “man’s nature.” In the same sermon, Graham decried the United Nations for not opening its meetings in prayer. His actions in respect to race were also in line with this way of thinking. While Graham did indeed bail Martin Luther King, Jr. out of jail, he also opposed King’s calls for civil disobedience.

Billy Graham never moved past this ideology. In 2012, for example, he wrote, “the farther we get from God, the more the world spirals out of control.” And how exactly had America moved away from God? Broadly, by embracing “the idolatry of worshiping false gods such as technology and sex,” and more specifically by limiting the ability of police chaplains in some locales to pray in Jesus’s name. Oh and, of course, abortion. Since the late 1970s, it’s always abortion.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Billy Graham, white evangelicalism now, and the history of slavery

Chris Ladd has a blog post about religious fundamentalism and cruelty which is interesting and, and the title indicates, provocative: The article removed from Forbes, “Why White Evangelicalism Is So Cruel” Political Orphans 03/12/2018.

Part of his post deals with Billy Graham and the moderate image he constructed and which became part of how he was remembered when he passed away:
White Evangelical Christians opposed desegregation tooth and nail. Where pressed, they made cheap, cosmetic compromises, like Billy Graham’s concession to allow black worshipers at his crusades. Graham never made any difficult statements on race, never appeared on stage with his “black friend” Martin Luther King after 1957, and he never marched with King. When King delivered his “I Have a Dream Speech,” Graham responded with this passive-aggressive gem of Southern theology, “Only when Christ comes again will the little white children of Alabama walk hand in hand with little black children.” For white Southern evangelicals, justice and compassion belong only to the dead.
When addressing problems that they don't want solved, i.e., that they don't actually view as problems, "thoughts and prayers" are all that can be done. When it comes to problems they want addressed or laws they want changed, they think being militantly and actively engaged is fine. And that it would be a sin to wait for the Second Coming to take action on those problems.

Ladd covers a lot of historical grounds in a short post. But his basic point is well-founded: that the fundamentalist variant of white evangelicalism was very heavily influenced by the very worldly influence of slavery and segregation. And that influence is still visible today:
What did Jesus say about abortion, the favorite subject of [Dallas First Baptist pastor and prominent Christian Right figure Robert] Jeffress and the rest of the evangelical movement? Nothing. What does the Bible say about abortion, a practice as old as civilization? Nothing. Not one word. The Bible’s exhortations to compassion for immigrants and the poor stretch long enough to comprise a sizeable book of their own, but no matter. White evangelicals will not let their political ambitions be constrained by something as pliable as scripture.

Why is the religious right obsessed with subjects like abortion while unmoved by the plight of immigrants, minorities, the poor, the uninsured, and those slaughtered in pointless gun violence? No white man has ever been denied an abortion. Few if any white men are affected by the deportation of migrants. White men are not kept from attending college by laws persecuting Dreamers. White evangelical Christianity has a bottomless well of compassion for the interests of straight white men, and not a drop to be spared for anyone else at their expense. The cruelty of white evangelical churches in politics, and in their treatment of their own gay or minority parishioners, is no accident. It is an institution born in slavery, tuned to serve the needs of Jim Crow, and entirely unwilling to confront either of those realities.
Ladd also observes, "Many Christian movements take the title 'evangelical,' including many African-American denominations. However, evangelicalism today has been coopted as a preferred description for Christians who were looking to shed an older, largely discredited title: Fundamentalist."

It is notable that some white Christians and most African-American Christians draw different lessons that the Christian Right does from conservative/"evangelical" theological beliefs. After all, unless there is a secret version of the Christian Bible that only Christian Rightists ever see - and I'm often tempted to think there is - their Bible, which fundamentalists claim to interpret literally. contains the story of the Exodus, the words of the prophets, the parables and sayings of Jesus that shows solidarity with the poor and extreme skepticism about the capability of the rich to lead godly lives. Their Old Testament contains many injunctions to be just and compassionate to immigrants, and their New Testament tells the story of the Good Samaritan, a foundational story for the Christian religion.

This current article by Bruce Hindmarsh in the conservative Protestant Christianity Today magazine give a useful sketch of the historical roots of what we call "evangelicalism" in the US, What Is Evangelicalism? 03/14/2018:
Seventeenth-century movements of devotion such as Pietism, Puritanism, and the Anglican “holy living” tradition fused to generate a general spiritual awakening first in central Europe and Germany, then throughout the Anglo-sphere. In the middle third of the eighteenth century a number of persons, who later would be drawn into evangelical preaching, passed through crises of personal conversion. The most famous of these in Britain were John and Charles Wesley and George Whitefield, but there were many others. Most were already baptized, highly observant Christians who nevertheless came to a crisis of conscience and spiritual insufficiency that seemed to demand new and more deeply personal experience of repentance and faith in Christ. They discovered in these conversions new impulses to preach, travel, organize, and campaign for widespread evangelical renewal within their own spheres, whether Anglicans, Methodists, Moravians, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, or Baptists.
Hindmarsh's article gives a broad, non-critical description of what he understands to be "evangelical" in the American sense.

But to understand white American evangelicalism and fundamentalism, the social, political, and ideological factors that Chris Ladd discusses also have to be taken fully into account.

Hindmarsh also does not touch on the very large influence of Christian Zionism on Christian fundamentalists today. Believers in the "Dispensationalist" tradition that has been heavily influenced by the British theology and leader of the Christian Brethren sect John Nelson Darby hold beliefs that are particularly congenial to militaristic and warmongering views of the world as well as an underlying anti-Semitic worldview. That also is a theological dividing point that is significant for their politics.

Aftermath of the Conor Lamb election

I wrote prior to Tuesday's special election in Pennsylvania about how establishment Democrats could be expected to draw the "lesson" from either a win or a loss there along the lines of, well, what corporate Democrats always want: candidates beholden to wealthy donors and who hold "Blue Dog" (i.e., Republcican) positions on guns proliferation, abortion rights, the military budget, and corporate deregulation.

One way to look at this is to use a metaphor along these lines: the progressive Dems are the left/center left party, corporate Dems are the conservative party, and the Republicans are the raging reactionary Trump party.

That's only a metaphor, though, because the American electoral system with winner-takes-all districts creates a very strong incentive for a two-party system, and that's what we have. Despite the dissonance within the Republican Party over Trump's erratic foreign policy style and his protectionist rhetoric, there is remarkable uniformity over major issues like the military budget, massive tax cuts for the wealthiest, and reckless disregard for international agreements and treaty commitments.

It's worth stressing here that people generally assume that Barack Obama was a "left" Democrat. Republicans, of course, generally profess to see no difference between Democrats, Bolsheviks, and tribes of cannibals in a Tarzan movie. But Obama also repeatedly called for cuts to Social Security and Medicare as part of a bipartisan "Grand Bargain" that he apparently wanted intensely. So Conor Lamb in his Pennsylvania race was to the left of Obama on Social Security and Medicare.

The two wings of the Democratic Party have more substantive differences. I'd have to bracket military policy here, though. The Democrats have spent so long trying to reassure everyone they are "tough on defense" that few of them are willing to criticize even a world-historical boondoggle like the "missile defense" corporate-welfare program. They mostly aren't willing to assert Congressional war powers under the Constitution in a meaningful way. There are exceptions. Sanders, Lee and Murphy Introduce Yemen War Powers Resolution 02/28/2018:

And even there, only one of those three Senators is elected as a Democrat! Although, of course, Bernie Sanders caucuses with the Democrats in the Senate.

Congresswoman Barbara Lee - who represents my Congressional district - has obviously been a leader in this regard, challenging bad war policies and criticizing intelligence agency abuses:

But Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, Joe Manchin, even Diane Feinstein are generally firmly in the Bipartisan consensus in favor of constantly supporting the military-industrial complex and pretty much anything the Intelligence Community wants to do.

Here is the corporate Democratic Chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) Tom Perez on the Conor Lamb election, DNC Chair: 'Republicans Are Understandably Quaking In Their Boots' Velshi & Ruhle/MSNBC. He gives the safe, poll-tested answers in this interview withStephanie Ruhle, the kind that are guaranteed to make the listeners eyes glaze over in 60 seconds time:

Perez says that Lamb was "talking about" various issues including "pension security." Is it really too much to expect the DNC chair to uses a moment like that to say that Lamb campaigned against the cuts that Republicans will make to Social Security and Medicare unless we stop them? Apparently, it would be. But he rolled along with Ruhle in chatting about the horse race. Also, Tom, it probably not the best choice to say that African-American voters in Doug Jones' Alabama Senate race were the "linchpin" of the Democrats' success. I'm just sayin'.

Ruhle also picks up the Republican/corporate Dem theme that ludicrously says that Conor Lamb ran as a Republican. Ed Kilgore takes down the Republican spin in No Clear Winner Yet in Pennsylvania Special Election, But the GOP Is the Clear Loser New York 03/14/2018:
Yes, this is a special election; some might imagine that in a regular election, such as the one in November, more Republican voters will show up. The problem with that hypothesis is that turnout today was at full midterm levels. There’s no reason to think turnout patterns in November will be more favorable for the GOP, particularly given the massive Trump administration attention that this district got during this contest.

Another Republican rationalization we have already heard from the Washington Examiner’s Salena Zito is that Conor Lamb is not a real Democrat (because he was nominated by a convention and didn’t have to win the votes of left-bent primary voters), and thus his performance does not show how real Democrats will do in November. But, by any standard, Saccone is a real Republican who ran more than ten points behind the normal GOP vote in PA-18. And Lamb was lifted to parity with Saccone by the very same labor movement — battered and diminished as it is — that will be fighting for Democrats in swing districts all over the country. Dismiss labor, dismiss energized rank-and-file Democrats, and dismiss the ability of the Donkey Party to find suitable candidates like Lamb, and you’re well on the way to underestimating the likelihood of a Democratic wave in November. [my emphasis]
Others suggested better lessons for the Democrats to draw from the experience:

Pierce expounded on the implications in his distinctive style (Conor Lamb's Victory Matters, and Paul Ryan Should Be Scared Esquire Politics Blog 03/14/2018):
There will be some attempt now to minimize what the voters in that district did on Tuesday night. Rick Saccone was a dullard of a candidate. (True.) Conor Lamb is personally going to run Nancy Pelosi out of national politics, so he’s not really a Democratic candidate. (Please to be giving me a break.) It’s a long way until November and Things Can Still Happen. (This theory depends vitally on the president* suddenly becoming Up To The Job. Yeah, right.) This is whistling very loudly past a very large graveyard. This was a Republican district. It was built to be a Republican district in perpetuity, which is why its days are numbered right now.

In the latter days of the campaign, the Republicans abandoned their economic pitch that was based on the president*’s ability to convince congressional Republicans to pass a massive plutocrat’s wet dream of a tax cut. This was supposed to be the magic bullet in this election. Instead, Saccone decided to let the traditional culture-war boogeypersons out of the closet.

On Monday, for example, Conor Lamb was a wild-eyed "libtard" who was going to let undocumented immigrant doctors perform abortions on your 10-year-old daughter in the middle of a mass gay wedding in Greene County. On Wednesday, according to those same Republicans, Conor Lamb was basically Mark Meadows in Democratic drag. Are the Republicans pretty well and truly fcked up as a party right now? Signs point to “Yes.”

Monday, March 12, 2018

What establishment Democrats will learn from Tuesday special Congressional election in Pennsylvania

Will Bunch worries that whether Trump wins or loses in the special Congressional election, the national Democratic Party leadership will draw the wrong lesson from it. (Yes, that's about as safe as predilections get, I know, but stay with me.)

In A Democratic win in Pa. Trump Country won't mean what you think it means Philadelphia Inquirer 03/11/2018, he doesn't call Democratic candidate Conor Lamb Republican Lite. But he takes a dim view of the conservative tone Lamb's campaign seems to be striking:
These are the voters who deliver special elections, and they may do so on Tuesday because of antipathy for Trump, not because of any love for Lamb. And there’s a lot for the Democratic base and voters on the left not to like about their special-election candidate. Although ostensibly pro-union, Lamb won’t support a $15 living wage. His attacks on fellow Democrat House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi are more than a tad awkward in this season of #MeToo politics. But then, Lamb goes out of his way to not mention that he’s a Democrat, or discuss any policy at all other than he’s for “working people.”

While there’s no dispute that Western Pennsylvania leans right on guns, Lamb’s passion for weaponry — he filmed a campaign spot firing an AR-15 — is shameful in a political moment dominated by the Parkland massacre. Hours after a teen gunman mowed down 17 people in the corridors of that Florida high school, Lamb (who mildly supports stronger background checks and thus sits a tad left of his fellow gun zealot [Rick] Saccone [the Republican candidate]) said, “I believe we have a pretty good law on the books.” Since Parkland, Florida’s NRA-backed Gov. Rick Scott has shown more gumption on guns than Lamb. Let that sink in. Sometimes firing an assault rifle for the camera isn’t a mark of political courage but cowardice.
Bunch talks about the shift the pollsters are finding nationally of suburban women being particularly disturbed about the Trump Orange Clown show. He thinks it's probably not a good strategy for Lamb to de-emphasize criticism of Trump.

On the other hand, for a candidate of either party to go hard on local problems in the campaign isn't unusual. And certainly not a bad idea in itself.

He concludes by stating what people who have been following the Democratic establishment's approach to the 2018 campaign will recognize as a sensible concern:
This [the Conor Lamb approach] isn’t the only way forward; another new study published in the Times last weekend urged the Democrats to push to regain a few million young and mostly nonwhite Obama voters who failed to show up at the pols in 2016; that wouldn’t mean so much in predominantly white PA-18, but it could sway key Senate races from Texas to Ohio. That, and tapping into the energy of angry, anti-Trump women. Playing for the God, guns and gold crowd that went ga-ga for Trump in 2016 seems a much lower priority — especially when it might drive away the first two groups.

But if the past is prologue, Beltway Democrats are going to get the wrong message from whatever happens on Tuesday. The worst plan for moving past the Trump nightmare would surely be to lead a flock of “Lambs” into November, some of whom will surely be slaughtered at the polls.
This is why ousting Trump, either by impeachment or election, depends on a sufficiently reinvigorated Democratic Party to actually stand for something in people's eyes besides not-being-Trump.

Conor Lamb's Congressional bid in tomorrow's Pennsylvania special election

I forced myself to listen to Trump's whole, long, rambling, narcissistic speech from Saturday, campaigning in Pennsylvania for Republican Congressional candidate Rick Saccone, who is running in a special election that takes place tomorrow. Trump unscripted and unleashed in Pennsylvania stump speech 03/10/2018:

TPM's Caitlin MacNeal notes of that race, "Republicans are unhappy with Saccone’s performance, and conservative groups have been forced to dump money into a race for a deep red district." (Report: Trump Criticizes ‘Weak’ Penn. House Candidate Behind Closed Doors 03/12/2018)

This is why the Democrats need to be regularly running a 50 state strategy. To build the strength of the party, it requires running campaigns in Republican-dominated districts even when a Democratic loss looks highly unlikely. Because at the very least, it will require Republicans "to dump money into a race for a deep red district." It also builds up the party's infrastructure, gets a positive version the Democratic message in front of more voters in the district, and gives actual electoral experience to potential candidates and party activists.

Here are Joe Scarborough and his panel on Morning Zoo talking about the speech, President Donald Trump's Worst Instincts In Display In Speech MSNBC 03/12/2018:

David Ignatius in a different Morning Joe segment talks about the Democratic candidate, Conor Lamb, as like a "Scoop Jackson Democrat," referring to the very hawkish Democratic Senator from Washington who played a big role in developing what we now call the neoconservative foreign policy perspective. Jonathan Swan in Axios observes, "Lamb is running effectively as Republican Lite. He's pro-gun and says he personally opposes to abortion (though he supports abortion rights)." (Trump privately trashes Rick Saccone 03/11/2018)

It's a good sign for abortion rights if the position of being personally opposed to abortion but supporive of women's choice is staring to be considered by the media as Republican Lite. That for decades was considered the "safe" Democratic liberal position. It was notable that Hillary Clinton straightforwardly defended abortion rights in her campaign for the 2016 Presidential election. For years, she used the slogan that she wanted abortion to be "safe, legal, and rare," her version of personally-opposed-but-want-it-kept-legal position.

Elaine Swensen in This Democrat Is Running for Congress — but Not Against Trump The Atlantic 03/05/2018 talks about how Conor is campaigning on local issues and not emphasizing attacking Trump.
Lamb calls himself a “Western Pennsylvania Democrat,” which seems to him to mean focusing on things like labor issues, the opioid crisis, and the need to protect entitlements such as Medicare and Social Security. Lamb’s emphasis on these particular items is an effort to endear him to the same voters who supported Trump—perhaps the same people Trump referred to in his 2016 victory speech as the “forgotten men and women of America.”

The congressional district has more than 87,000 union members, and Lamb is leaning heavily into labor issues. ...

The other issue on which Lamb appears laser-focused is the opioid crisis. More than 4,600 fatal overdoses occurred in Pennsylvania in 2016. The former federal prosecutor said his years spent working on heroin cases inspired him to run for office in the first place. He’s pushing for longer and more-affordable treatment programs. “It’s not easy, and it’s not cheap,” Lamb told me, “but we should expect enough from our government that they should be able to get that done.”
The danger in a 50 state strategy is that the current Democratic leadership will seek out Republican Lite candidates.

But I'm not at all sure that Conor Lamb's campaign can be called a Republican Lite campaign.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Italy and populist politics

Italy's election of March 4 left three parties that in one form or another are seen as populist parties. In Europe, notably Austria and Germany, "populist" is often used as more-or-less-synonymous with rightwing politics and demagoguery. It's too narrow a definition, which would exclude some of the most significant populist movements in history, including the Populist Party itself once led by William Jennings Bryan. That spin on what "populist" means is worth keeping in mind when reading commentaries on Italian politics of the moment.

The leading vote getter in March was the left populist Five Star Movement. Although they have in the past talked about anti-austerity economic policies in line with his own, Yanis Varoufakis is very cautious about finding hopeful results in their first place win. (LA STAMPA interview on the Italian election result (the original answers in English) 03/09/2018). Varoufakis describes himself and the DIEM25 group of which he is a leader as progressive Europeanist, i.e., pro-EU but anti-austerity.

"The Italian election yielded a sad impasse," he writes. "The only real beneficiaries are those who invested in xenophobia and fear." And he emphasizes the role of bad economic policies in the result: "Like every other European country in which the establishment pressed on with failed, austerity-based policies, pretending that they were the solution to our continent’s systemic crisis, the ballot box reinforced the forces of European disintegration."

He doesn't present Five Star in a very appealing light:
What’s your view of the Five Star? Do you categorise them as a populist movement or as a new left?

No party that invests in fear of the migrant, of the ‘other’, the refugee can pose as left-wing. The term ‘populist’, in my mind, has been widely abused of recent. In terms of domestic economic policies, Five Star is clearly trying to re-position itself as a centrist party that can be trusted by the establishment. It tries to maintain its perceived radicalism by targeting the old political class and it corrupt ways while refraining from challenging the ‘system’ itself. Of course, when a system is failing as obviously as Europe’s and Italy’s, the attempt to embrace the system while criticising its functionaries seems to me ill-fated.

What do you think of M5S’s proposal for a basic income? Is it radical? Is it progressive?

M5S are proposing a Guaranteed Minimum Income. This must not be confused with the Universal Basic Income, which would be paid to every citizen with no conditions attached. M5S’s proposal is for a minimum means-tested payment that is conditional also on registering at a job centre, demonstrating that you are looking for work, and not turning down job offers – even if they are low grade and demeaning. In essence, M5S is proposing a welfare net that is standard in most central and northern European countries. Many Italians need this payment and see it as a glimpse of hope – so we should not be quick to criticize it. Whether it will, in the end, be good for poorer Italians or not will depend on the implementation, and in particular what other benefits (e.g. disability or child benefits) are cut.
Angela Giuffrida in The Guardian describes also describes how the current Five Star position on immigration is on the same wavelength with reactionaries (From rebels to Italy's biggest single party: can the Five Star Movement govern? 03/05/2018):
The big question is with whom would the party ally in order to reach the 40% share of the vote required to govern Italy. Experts speculate that it could exploit the dismal performance of the Democratic party and attempt to split that party, or try to team up with the small leftwing group Free and Equal. Another scenario is a tie-up with the League, formerly known as the Northern League, a far-right party with whom it is more closely allied on issues such as immigration and Russia.

Di Maio has said he would stop sending the rescue boats that save migrants in the Mediterranean, which he has called a “sea taxi service”, while Matteo Salvini, the League’s leader, has pledged to deport thousands of illegal immigrants.
Maurizio Cotta looks at some of the "macro" factors at work in the Italian election (Italy: First European Country In The Hand Of Populists? Social Europe 03/09/2018):
According to the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s 2017 Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI) on Italy the economic recovery started to take off under the Democratic Party-based governments of Matteo Renzi and Paolo Gentiloni, but people’s perceptions didn’t change much and are still dominated by the effects of the deep recession of the past years – fear of unemployment, experiences of business failures, and the tightening of living conditions. Naturally, the main governing parties suffer under such conditions, whereas opposition parties that are perceived as being far distant from the government enjoy voters’ goodwill. Thus, first and foremost the Five Star Movement and the League grew rather than Forza Italia which had headed the government three times between 1994 and 2008.

A second reason for the success of these two parties is the growing resentment in large strata of the population against the policies of the EU. Many people feel damaged by economic austerity on the one hand and resent the scant solidarity shown to Italy’s problems with immigration on the other. The Five Star Movement and the League have both shown very critical attitudes towards the EU – to the point of even suggesting a referendum on the Euro.
John Weeks thinks the centrist parties are ignoring Biblical signs of skeptical and critical attitudes toward the real existing EU (EU Takes Beating In Italian Elections: When Will They Ever Learn*? Social Europe 03/07/2018):
The centrist parties in the European Parliament treated the growth of the far right as a fringe phenomenon requiring no amendment to their “ever closer union” agenda. The British vote to leave brought no more than a momentary shock. Shrugging off Brexit as a uniquely British phenomenon and no threat to the continent, the centre-right (European Peoples’ Party) and centre-left (Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats) pursued their top-down strategy of deepening through compromise.
Mario Pianta in Loathing And Poverty: Italy After The 2018 Elections Social Europe 03/06/2018 stresses economic issues in looking at the Italian election:
Ten years of severe economic and social crisis are the background to all these developments. Italy’s per capita income is now back to the levels of twenty years ago; behind this average there is a collapse – of about 30% – of the income of the 25% poorest Italians, living in the South or in the declining peripheries of the Center-North. Twenty years of stagnation and decline mean a generation with ever-lower expectations in terms of income, work and life. Impoverishment has become a reality for a very large swathe of Italians. The Five Star vote reflects the poverty of the South – their call for a general minimum income has been attractive in this regard. The vote for the League expresses the fear of impoverishment in the North. Only in the centres of major cities – where the richest and the highly educated live, and the economy is better – has the vote taken different directions, going to Forza Italia and the Democratic Party.
The particulars are different from country to country, of course. But people trying to understand this moment in politics in EU countries have to wrestle with the complex overlaps between economic situations and xeophobic sentiment:
Poverty is coupled with fear. The fear of worsening economic conditions and social status; the fear of having immigrants next door, other poor people competing for fewer low-skilled jobs and scarcer public services. In the elections the most prevalent fear was that of immigrants – the landings in Lampedusa, the inability to integrate them, the killing and shootings in Macerata. Salvini turned anti-immigration attitudes into his most effective political tool; Five Star expressed the same hostility – calling NGOs saving immigrants in the Mediterranean ‘water taxis’ for illegal aliens and refusing to vote for a bill granting citizenship to second generation Italians with migrant origins. [my emphasis]
So the left-leaning populist in Five Star did embrace the anti-immigrant rhetoric that rightly disgusts Yanis Varoufakis.

All over Europe, the phenomenon of the center-right Social Democratic parties collapsing after years of embracing Angela Merkel-style neoliberal economics is a major factor in the political picture.

Friday, March 09, 2018

Stumbling into tariffs and talks

Reymer Klüver comments in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on the Trump foreign policy and his new tariffs in particular, Trump greift die kooperative Weltordnung an 9. März 2018. It seems to be largely based on standard pundit wisdom about the value of free trade. But this was a striking section:
So wie seine Kampfparole "America first" ein Rückgriff auf einen Slogan ist, den amerikanische Faschisten in den 1930er Jahren benutzt haben, so ist seine Unterschrift unter die Stahlzölle ein Angriff auf die kooperative Weltordnung, wie sie erst nach dem Zweiten Weltkrieg auf Drängen und unter Führung der USA entstanden ist - und die Amerika und Europa beispiellosen Wohlstand verschafft hat.

Man könnte es fast eine Ironie der Geschichte nennen, dass ausgerechnet der Mann, der versprochen hat, Amerika wieder groß zu machen, daran geht, all das zu zerstören, was Amerika groß gemacht hat: den Glauben an die Überlegenheit demokratischer Institutionen und Strukturen. Das Vertrauen in die Vorzüge internationaler Kooperation. Die Überzeugung, ein Vorbild sein zu können für den Rest der Menschheit und damit verbunden die Einsicht, dass das ein besonderes Maß an Verantwortungsbewusstsein für die globale Gemeinschaft bedeutet. All das greift Trump mit seiner unüberlegten Unterschrift an.

[Just like his fighting slogan "America First" is reaches back to a slogan the American fascists in the 1930s used, so is his signature on the steel tariff an attack on the cooperative world order as it first took shape after the Second World War under the pressure and the leadership of the USA - and which has provided America and Europe unprecedented standard of living.

One could almost call an irony of history that precisely the man who promised to make America great again is on the way to destroying all that made America great: the faith in the survival of democratic institutions and structures. Trust in the merits of international cooperation. The conviction of being able to stand as a model for the rest of humanity and the insight that goes along with that it involves a certain amount of awareness of responsibility for the global community. Trump is attacking all that with his unreflective signature [on the tariffs].]
I haven't looked at enough material on the steel and aluminum tariffs to have a meaningful idea on what the effect may be. If it becomes the first of many new protectionist measures, then it will be one effect among others.

I'm not a member of the Church of Free Trade. Nor a devotee of Mont Pèlerin neoliberal economics. So I don't assume that protectionism is always and everywhere a bad thing, even for the United States and other developing countries. For developing countries like Argentina, protectionism is a necessary condition for healthy development and for protecting national independence.

I'm also not convinced that treaties like NAFTA facilitating free trade in goods is the primary reason for manufacturing jobs moving out of the US. And maybe not even a major one. My major concern about treaties like NAFTA and TTIP is that they are primarily corporate-deregulation treaties dressed up as trade treaties. Especially when they provide for business-controlled tribunals to litigate complaints about national laws protecting consumers and the environment. Deregulation of international financial trade has particularly dangerous effects by making financial crises more likely.

I would like to see a reindustrialization policy and strategy implemented in the US. But it's one things when manufacturing jobs are lost due to a temporary downturn. The physical facilities are still there, and the experienced labor that is idle at the moment. So if a downturn lasts a year, when the recovery begins companies have the ability to immediately expand production and have qualified workers available who can be put back to work or have their hours expanded.

It's a very different thing when large areas like the Rust Belt states have suffered massive losses of industry over decades. The factories that are still standing can be decades behind current standards for the industry. Experienced workers are scarce in a long-deindustrialized area. Once the existing factory infrastructure has become more valuable as nostalgic tourist attractions that as industrial facilities (Meet the latest tourist attractions: Abandoned factories Washington Post 03/09/2018), it requires large new investments to reindustrialize in that situation.

"Retraining" as a solution to deindustrialization may have sounded like a credible thing in 1993. But it's long since become the industrial-policy equivalent of "thoughts and prayers" in mass-shooting situations.

But a real industrial policy - even in the 1980s that was still a current term in the US political vocabulary - would have to involve a major increase in wages, especially minimum wages, in order to support new domestic markets for new industries. And there would have to be a major "retraining" component, although that word has become so discredited that a new label would need to be found. "Re-education" is probably not a good alternative. And even in the United States, a significant amount of protectionism might need to be involved. One thing is for sure. Reindustrialization would require some serious and sustained Keynesian/social-democratic economic policies.

Which brings me to Trump's first big stab at protectionism. Economic policy is complicated. By all appearances, this tariff decision was an impulsive (spastic?) decision by Trump. As impatient as I often am with lazy and bad assumptions of traditional diplomacy, these things still need to be done right. And a tariff like this will be regarded by most countries as a notable factor in a larger foreign policy context.

According to the Department of Commerce's December 2017 Global Steel Trade Monitor, the top five countries from which the US imports steel are, in order: Canada (16%), Brazil (13%), South Korea (10%), Mexico (9%), Russia (9%). That same report says, "In value terms, steel represented just 1 percent of the total goods imported into the United States in 2016." Trump exempted Canada and Mexico from this round of tariffs. And Trump said, "We're going to show great flexibility" in considering additional exemptions. So the immediate effects of the tariff on US prices could likely be limited, as the Trump Administration's flaks have been arguing. The Orange Clown is fixated on how things play on TV, not on the substance of such policies. (These figures are for steel imports only, not aluminum.)

But since Canada is exempt from the current round of tariffs, it means that South Korea is the country second most affected by the steel tariff. And, of course, another surprise announcement this past week was that Trump has agreed to meet with the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un for nuclear talks. Though, true to form, his people were frantically modifying Trump's initial announcement the next day. So this whole thing may be even more ill-considered than the steel and aluminum tariffs. South Korea is obviously a critical player in US relations with North Korea. So does it really make sense to be retaliating against South Korean steel imports at this moment?

As the tariffs and the spastic decisions on policy toward North Korea illustrate, Klüver is right in observing that Trump is throwing away many of the factors that have been sources of American power and security. And doing so without much careful consideration.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

So, Jeff the Elf, you want a culture war? Let's get it rolling!

The Kebler Elf's evil twin, Attorney General Jefferson Beuregard Sessions III, came to Sacramento on Wdnesday to insult and threaten them thar California cultural elite librul types.

He didn't bother making a courtesy call on the Governor of California. Who is not an enemy that either Jeff or Trump should really be inviting to challenge them on national news platforms.

Jeff the Evil Elf took his shot with a xenophobic show in Sacramento, Suing California, Sessions vows to ‘use every power’ to stop state laws on immigration enforcement PBS Newshour 03/07/2018.

Jerry Brown responded, CA governor and atty. gen. discuss sanctuary cities PBS Newshour 03/07/2018:

Among other things, he says in that press conference:
Look, this is completely unprecedented for the chief law enforcement of the United States to come out here and engage in a political stunt, make wild accustations, many of which are based on outright lies, that's unusual.

And particularly for a fellow from Alabama talking to us about secession and protecting human and civil rights.
He and state Attorney General Xavier Becerra also did an interview with Margaret Warner, Gov. Jerry Brown: Sessions 'sowing discord' instead of proposing immigration reform PBS Newshour 03/07/2018:

In his last year as Governor of California, Jerry Brown is still out there fighting for civil rights and the rights of immigrants, a major theme of his entire political career. In this interview we see Jerry the formidable debater and former Jesuit seminarian who has never had any problem about applying his religious values to politics. Trump and Jeff Sessions didn't really understand, I'm sure, what they were getting into with this latest stunt. Some of Jerry's comments in this interview (Gov. Jerry Brown: Sessions ‘sowing discord’ instead of proposing immigration reform transcript PBS Newshour 03/08/2018):
[Jeff Sessions is] going after men, women, and children, some who have worked 10 or 20 years picking our food, washing our dishes, building houses. And, yes, we need an immigration reform for the whole nation. We don’t need a Gestapo-kind of tactic with vitriol spewing out of Jeff Sessions’ mouth.
What we need, Jeff Sessions, propose an intelligent immigration reform, and we will work with you. But don’t come out with these kind of gutter tactics, bring some of your really discredited politics from your background here. It’s just not right. It’s not generous, and it’s not Christian."Sessions is in a cesspool of deception and mendacity. So, don’t believe him.
Sessions is in a cesspool of deception and mendacity. So, don’t believe him.
I call upon Mr. Sessions and Mr. Trump to act like Americans, act like the good Christians they claim to be, and work with us to get a good immigration law, and not to try to just hyperbolically scare the hell out of people ...
This face-off between California and Washington has some interesting historical echoes. Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III is a smirking prick who could have stepped right out of a White Citizens Council convention in 1961. Jerry Brown has been an active supporter of immigrant rights and farmworkers for pretty much his entire life.

Harold Meyerson writes about an even older historical echo in There Are Echoes of the Fugitive Slave Act in Today’s Immigration Debate The American Prospect 03/06/2018:
An 1842 court ruling absolved states of any duty to cooperate in the recapture of former slaves who'd freed themselves by fleeing to the North. In response, as part of the Compromise of 1850, the Congress passed and President Millard Fillmore signed the Fugitive Slave Act, which not only required state and local governmental officials to aid owners and their agents who'd come North to capture and re-enslave the runaways, but also required the same level of cooperation from all citizens. If a slaver was in the act of recapture, bystanders were required to help out.

Not surprisingly, the North greeted the new law with fury and resistance. Vermont, Maine, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Michigan, and Wisconsin all enacted “personal liberty laws”—the 1850s equivalent of California's sanctuary state law—forbidding public officials from cooperating with the slave owners or the federal forces sent to back them up, denying the use of their jails to house the captives, and requiring jury trials to decide if the owners could make off with their abductees. The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that the Fugitive Slave Act violated the Constitution's 10th Amendment, which gave states the power to enact laws not specifically preempted by federal authority. (The Southern-dominated U.S. Supreme Court overturned that ruling on the eve of the Civil War).

Opponents of the Fugitive Slave Act also took to the streets (and jury rooms, where verdicts were rendered that freed some of the captives). Crowds would form to oppose and resist, sometimes forcibly, the apprehensions of African Americans. [my emphasis]
After the Confederacy's defeat in the Civil War, unreconstructed white Southerners created a neo-Confederate narrative that, unfortunately, is very much a part of the white nationalist narrative currently dominant in the Republican Party. And a key element of it was the false claim that the Confederate states had seceded from the Union in 1860-61 over the abstract issue of States' Rights, and not, oh Lordy certainly not over slavery!

That's because slavery by 1865 had become so completely discredited in the whole country that the former Confederates wanted to try to distance themselves from it. The Fugitive Slave Act is one of the major reasons we know that postwar claim was nonsense. I mean, apart from the fact that the seceding states made it as clear and explicit as they could that they were seceding over slavery. Or, as Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens described it in his Cornerstone Speech in March of 1861:
Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea [from human equality]; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery -- subordination to the superior race -- is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.
For the decade prior to the election of Abraham Lincoln, the major conflicts between the slave and free states associated with events like the Compromise of 1950, the mini-civil war in Kansas, and the Dred Scott decision involved the Slave Power using its domination of the federal government to impose pro-slavery measures on unwilling free states.

The reliable if stodgy Encyclopaedia Britannica describes the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and its repercussions this way (Fugitive Slave Acts 01/17/2018):
The demand from the South for more effective legislation resulted in enactment of a second Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. Under this law fugitives could not testify on their own behalf, nor were they permitted a trial by jury. Heavy penalties were imposed upon federal marshals who refused to enforce the law or from whom a fugitive escaped; penalties were also imposed on individuals who helped slaves to escape. Finally, under the 1850 act, special commissioners were to have concurrent jurisdiction with the U.S. courts in enforcing the law. The severity of the 1850 measure led to abuses and defeated its purpose. The number of abolitionists increased, the operations of the Underground Railroad became more efficient, and new personal-liberty laws were enacted in many Northern states. These state laws were among the grievances officially referred to by South Carolina in December 1860 as justification for its secession from the Union. Attempts to carry into effect the law of 1850 aroused much bitterness and probably had as much to do with inciting sectional hostility as did the controversy over slavery in the territories. [my emphasis; internal hotlink omitted]
For the secessionists of South Carolina, the unwillingness of state governments to knuckle under to an atrocious proslavery federal law which really did encroach of the Tenth Amendment right of states was a grievance to be used as a justification for treason and secession.

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

A bried but well-done cartoon version of how Hitler became Chancellor of Germany 1933

How did Hitler rise to power? - Alex Gendler and Anthony Hazard TED-Ed 07/18/2016

For a five-minute video, this is remarkably good. It gets the Versailles Treaty, the Beer Hall Putsch of 1923 and the Great Depression into the story, frames anti-Semitism in an accurate way, and presents Hitler as a skilled politician, which he was - very much to the detriment of the whole world including Germany.

I'm particularly impressed that it avoids completely one of my pet peeves in the accounts of Hitler's rise to power, the claim that the hyperinflation of 1923-24 led to Hitler seizing power in 1933. That argument only works if you pretty much ignore the Great Depression, which hit Germany very hard, the actual voting results from 1924-32, and the issues on which the Nazi Party campaigned. The Nazis did use parliamentary methods supplemented by street violence to come to power.

But their biggest vote total in clean elections came in summer 1932, after several years of Herbert-Hooverish economic polices that made the Depression much worse. And their vote total dropped in a second parliamentary election in 1932. There was another vote just after Hitler became Chancellor in 1933 which was semi-free at best. And even then the Nazis failed to get a majority.

There's a history that is a classic from 1938 but is still a valuable sources on the politics of the Nazis takeover, Why Hitler Came Into Power by Theodore Abel.

Monday, March 05, 2018

Democrats gearing up to win ... by surrendering in advance?

Charlie Pierce has the Democrats' number. And he also knows very well how the Establishment press functions. In Trump Is Coming Apart as the World Comes Apart Around Him 03/02/2018 he writes:

You can almost taste the flopsweat from the elite political media. They’re warming things up in case there really is a Democratic wave in the fall. Experience tells us that, if that happens, the elite political media will immediately engage the dampers on anything a Democratic majority might want to do that is in anyway Democratic or (horrors!) liberal. Expeditions to the Trumpish hinterlands will depart immediately. Appeals to “bipartisanship” will deafen the gods. This is what happened in 2006, when the country revolted against George W. Bush and his many crimes and failures. This is what will happen next fall, too.

You’re seeing it with the hilarious contortions of [the New York Times'] James Bennet regarding how he’s putting together his Opinion staff, and this obvious ratings extravaganza is another indication that all the old tracks are being set down again. In 2006, this phenomenon helped with the efforts to toss the Avignon Presidency [Cheney-Bush] down the memory hole so that people wouldn’t notice how it was the logical end to 30 years of conservative politics. It’s going to take even more of an effort to do that with this disaster. No wonder they’re starting early. [my emphasis]

Michael Tomasky looks at the prospect of big Democratic gains in the 2018 elections (The Blue Wave Is Real, and It Looks Really Big—Provided Democrats Don’t Block It Daily Beast 02/28/2018) Tomasky is a good analyst and always worth paying attention to. And he gives a good description of why the prospects for a Democratic "wave" are good.

But at the very end, he puts in the ritual preliminary surrender mantra of the Thanatosis Democrats:
If national Democratic money doesn’t deliver for Lamb for these reasons, that’s stupid and short-sighted. You want the Democrats to win 50 seats? Great. You know how many of those 50 are going to have to run as squishy on guns and anti-Pelosi? Surely half of them if not more. It’s the only path to a majority.

Democrats have a lot going for them this year. They just can’t let ideological purity get in the way. The time for determining the party’s ideological direction will be the presidential nomination battle. For now, the tent needs to be as wide as possible.
Things are going our way. So let's surrender in advance!

And the Democrats think all they need to do to recover from the massive losses in 2016 is ... blame the Russians!

Nothing the Russians could do would disadvantage the Democrats as much as their own compulsion to roll over and play dead.

Speaking of which, once again here's Democrats Vs. The Republican Hand, aka, Animals Playing Dead Supercute 10/28/2012:

Sunday, March 04, 2018

Russiagate, again

"As it turns out, [Special Counsel Robert] Mueller can walk and chew gum at the same time," writes Digby Parton. (Beware, President Trump: Robert Mueller is just getting started Salon 03/01/2018)

All of us trying to pay attention to the Trump-Russia scandal by following the evidence are constantly challenged to be able to do the same thing. I wrote about this a month ago in Russia-Russia-Russia (again) 02/02/2018.

It's also very clear that establishment Democrats are now trying to smear progressives as Russian dupes. This might seem counter-intuive, since the Putin regime has the greatest ideological appeal to rightwing nationalists and white supremacists. But it's happening. Here's Hillary Clinton last fall: "And now that some of the potential 2020 candidates are starting to get public attention, they're getting hit, from both the left and the right, and sometimes, when it comes from the left, you're not sure if it's a Russian pretending to be an American on the left or not." (my emphasis) (Russia-gate, then and now 12/21/2017)

It was the Clinton campaign immediately after the election that took the position of blaming the results of the 2016 Presidential election on Russian interference. And, if anything, establishment Dems are even more insistent on that now. But if the Russian were not only determined to get Trump elected as President but succeeded in doing so, aren't the Hillaryites stepping on their own message by making the left particularly to blame for reflecting Russian propaganda?

But accusing opponents of being suckers for hostile foreign powers is a deeply-ingrained habit in American politics. In some cases, it's even been true. In the case of Russia, the accusation of collaboration and foreign sympathies usually fell onto the left and center-left. Jackson Lears in What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about Russian Hacking London Review of Books 40:4 01/04/2018 describes the current round this way:
A story that had circulated during the campaign without much effect resurfaced: it involved the charge that Russian operatives had hacked into the servers of the Democratic National Committee, revealing embarrassing emails that damaged Clinton’s chances. With stunning speed, a new centrist-liberal orthodoxy came into being, enveloping the major media and the bipartisan Washington establishment. This secular religion has attracted hordes of converts in the first year of the Trump presidency. In its capacity to exclude dissent, it is like no other formation of mass opinion in my adult life, though it recalls a few dim childhood memories of anti-communist hysteria during the early 1950s.
It seems pretty clear from what's in the public record so far that the Russian government or people working for it hacked the DNC. But the Lears' assertion that the Democrats have been making a clumsy effort effort to suppress criticism - especially "when it comes from the left" in Hilary's words - as being tainted by Russian deception and/or sympathy.

If the corporate Dems weren't so intent of fighting the Democratic left - about the only case in which they show a real willingness to fight - they were drop the Russia-determined-the-election bit and instead treat the Russian collaboration in which the Trump campaign indulged to some degree as one part of the mind-blowing brand of corruption and lawlessness on which the Trump Administration operates. The Trump-Russia collaboration is serious. The Russian direct meddling in the election is serious despite the invalidity of claiming it affected the outcome. Illegal Russian campaign funding is serious. Obstruction of justice is serious. the over-the-top corruption of running the White House as the holding company for the Trump family business.

How many of those serious issues turn out in (further) criminal charges remain to be seen. Nor is the scope of the problems. The point is the real story on all of those things needs to be told on a reliable basis for the public record.

Al Jazeera's Inside Story has an episode discussing the current level of corruption in the Trump Administration, Conflicts of interest in the White House? 03/04/2018. YouTube now dutifully notes below its videos that "Al Jazeera is funded in whole or in part by the Qatari government." Something I've known from the time I first started hearing about Al Jazeera. But if you're worried a 30-minute video will hypnotize you with subliminal programming that will turn you into a Qatari cutout, I would recommend skipping the video.

Miriam Elder and Charlie Warzel make an important point in Stop Blaming Russian Bots For Everything Buzzfeed 02/28/2018, specifically relating to the social media bots that the Democratic are gnashing their teeth over:
The thing is, nearly every time you see a story blaming Russian bots for something, you can be pretty sure that the story can be traced back to a single source: the Hamilton 68 dashboard, founded by a group of respected researchers, including Clint Watts and JM Berger, and currently run under the auspices of the German Marshall Fund. ...

The dashboard monitors 600 Twitter accounts “linked to Russian influence efforts online,” according to its own description, which means the accounts are not all directly traced back to Kremlin efforts, or even necessarily to Russia. “They are not all in Russia,” Watts said during a phone interview last week. “We don’t even think they’re all commanded in Russia — at all. We think some of them are legitimately passionate people that are just really into promoting Russia.” So, not bots.

We’ll likely never know the contents of the list for sure — because the researchers decline to divulge the identity of who they are monitoring. (The reasons they give for secrecy include worries that the accounts would then change their behavior and concerns over identifying accounts that are not, in fact, linked to Russian influence efforts, aka making a mistake.)
The action of bots - not just Russian ones = is also a legitimate concern. But for people trying to follow the evidence, retaining a critical perspective on the claims is important.

Jackson Lears takes an obviously different perspective that I'm using here. But he gives numerous reasons for a skeptical and critical approach to claims about Russian interference with reducing his point to a claim of a Deep State plot against Trump. I want to highlight one of his judgments here, "it is not only the Democratic establishment that is embracing the deep state. Some of the party’s base, believing Trump and Putin to be joined at the hip, has taken to ranting about ‘treason’ like a reconstituted John Birch Society." I worry that writing off the claims about Russian mischief and crimes around Trump and his Presidency campaign as a cynical power play by the "Deep State" risk validating the Republican/FOX News/Breitbart perspective that the whole thing is purely partisan politics. It's not. There are serious national security issues and concerns about the integrity of American elections involved. And those need to be clarified and adjudicated in the courts where appropriate.

The following section in Lears' piece feels to me uncomfortably close to saying that there is nothing especially heinous about the Trump Administration and his demagogic politics:
It’s hard for me to understand how the Democratic Party, which once felt scepticism towards the intelligence agencies, can now embrace the CIA and the FBI as sources of incontrovertible truth. One possible explanation is that Trump’s election has created a permanent emergency in the liberal imagination, based on the belief that the threat he poses is unique and unprecedented. It’s true that Trump’s menace is viscerally real. But the menace posed by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney was equally real. The damage done by Bush and Cheney – who ravaged the Middle East, legitimated torture and expanded unconstitutional executive power – was truly unprecedented, and probably permanent. Trump does pose an unprecedented threat to undocumented immigrants and Muslim travellers, whose protection is urgent and necessary. But on most issues he is a standard issue Republican. He is perfectly at home with Paul Ryan’s austerity agenda, which involves enormous transfers of wealth to the most privileged Americans. He is as committed as any other Republican to repealing Obama’s Affordable Care Act. During the campaign he posed as an apostate on free trade and an opponent of overseas military intervention, but now that he is in office his free trade views are shifting unpredictably and his foreign policy team is composed of generals with impeccable interventionist credentials. [my emphasis]
But I can't really argue with that particular comparison. The Cheney-Bush Administration practiced a horrifying degree of lawlessness, from the criminal invasion of Iraq, to the torture program, to the Valerie Plame exposure, and on and on and on. "Halliburton" became a political synonym for stunning levels of corruption. The Iraq Provisional Government, aka, Young Republicans Abroad, was a caricature of incompetence in government. Karl Rove became the poster boy for exceptionally sleazy authoritarian politics.

And the Obama Administration with its self-selected goal of creating Bipartisan harmony gave the Chenyites the one thing they couldn't give themselves: a subsequent Administration of the other party that would refuse to prosecute the most serious crimes of the previous Administration.

This is one point where I'm consciously out of step with the prevailing Democratic attitude, reflected also in the prevailing assumption of mainstream media, that legal action against former officeholders is inappropriate and inherently a symptom of authoritarianism. If people really did commit crimes, they should be prosecuted. The failure to prosecute the torture perpetrators of the Cheney-Bush Administration has always been my primary criticism of the Obama Administration. Purely political prosecutions are wrong and illegitimate. But where real and serious crimes were committed, the perpetrators should be held legally accountable. The idea, and too often the reality, of Presidential impunity before the law is a poisonous assumption, incomparable with democracy and the rule of law.

The foreign policy aspect of the anti-Russian rhetoric is also important. From a realist perspective, it should be possible for Russia and the United States to compete in some areas, even on an adversarial basis, and cooperate on others like nuclear arms control and climate change. Being able to walk and chew gum at the same time is also a very practical attitude in foreign policy.

The Democratic Party's position toward the Soviet Union suggests a concern that they are making similar mistakes to those the party made in the 1950s. John Kenneth Galbraith in his signature dry, ironic style describes that position in The Age of Uncertainty (1977). The Secretary of State under Eisenhower was John Foster Dulles. Galbraith recalls that Dulles successfully defined the Cold War as a semi-religious mission for the United States, "The Cold War was a moral crusade. It was also a religious crusade. And it came close to being a Christian crusade. There was more than a hint that a strong, even militant policy, so long as it avoided 'brute power,' would have the endorsement of Jesus." (This, by the way, is something to remember when anti-militarists point to Eisenhower as pragmatic advocate of peace.)

Galbraith proceeds to describe the Democratic opposition to Eisenhower's policies:
The nineteen-fifties in Washington were the years not of Eisenhower but of Dulles. The idea of the irrepressible conflict went virtually unchallenged. The questioning to which, in a democratic socie ty, every important action of the state should be subject was almost comple tely in abeyance. I saw this, in a minor way, at first hand. I was cochairman with Dean Acheson in the latter fifties of one of the subsidiary organs of the Democratic Party, the Democratic Advisory Council. Acheson was chairman for foreign policy, I for domestic policy. The Council was, by common agreement, the most liberal wing of the opposition - the leading edge. At our meetings [Truman's Secretary of State Dean] Acheson attacked Dulles lucidly, brilliantly and with resourceful invective for being too soft on the Soviets. The debate on his draft foreign policy resolutions consisted almost exclusively of efforts - by Adlai Stevenson, Averell Harriman, Herbert Lehman and other moderate members - to tone down his declarations of war. That was the opposition to Dulles. [my emphasis]
Establishment Democrats have already gone a long way down that same reckless road in the current situation.

They should be able to do better.