Archive for the ‘Brooks’ Category

Brooks, Cohen, and Krugman

May 19, 2017

Bobo has a question in “The Trump Administration Talent Vacuum:”  Would you go to work for this president?  No, Bobo.  I might, however, go TO work on him if I could find my 9 iron.  Mr. Cohen, in “L’État C’est Trump!,” says many of the president’s actions have been right out of Despotism 101. But the law is catching up with him.  We can but pray, Roger.  Prof. Krugman asks “What’s the Matter With Republicans?” and says we need to understand what made Trump possible.  Here’s Bobo:

After an eruption, volcanoes sometimes collapse at the center. The magma chamber empties out and the volcano falls in on itself, leaving a caldera and a fractured ring of stone around the void, covered by deadening ash.

That’s about the shape of Washington after the last stunning fortnight. The White House at the center just collapsed in on itself and the nation’s policy apparatus is covered in ash.

I don’t say that because I think the Comey-Russia scandal will necessarily lead to impeachment. I have no idea where the investigations will go.

I say it because White Houses, like all organizations, run on talent, and the Trump White House has just become a Human Resources disaster area.

We have seen White Houses engulfed by scandal before. But we have never seen a White House implode before it had the time to staff up. The Nixon, Reagan and Clinton White Houses had hired quality teams by the time their scandals came. They could continue to function, sort of, even when engulfed.

The Trump administration, on the other hand, has hundreds of senior and midlevel positions to fill, and few people of quality or experience are going to want to take them.

Few people of any quality or experience are going to want to join a team that is already toxic. Nobody is going to want to become the next H. R. McMaster, a formerly respected figure who is now permanently tainted because he threw his lot in with Donald Trump. Nobody is going to want to join a self-cannibalizing piranha squad whose main activity is lawyering up.

That means even if the Trump presidency survives, it will be staffed by the sort of C- and D-List flora and fauna who will make more mistakes, commit more scandals and lead to more dysfunction.

Running a White House is insanely hard. It requires a few thousand extremely smart and savvy people who are willing to work crazy hours and strain their family lives because they fundamentally believe in the mission and because they truly admire the president.

Even on its best early days, the Trump White House never had that.

Trump was able to recruit some talented people, mostly on the foreign policy side, but organizational cultures are set from the top, and a culture of selfishness has always marked this administration.

Even before Inauguration Day, the level of leaking out of this White House was unprecedented, as officials sought to curry favor with the press corps and as factions vied with one another.

But over the past 10 days the atmosphere has become extraordinary. Senior members of the White House staff have trained their sights on the man they serve. Every day now there are stories in The Times, The Washington Post and elsewhere in which unnamed White House officials express disdain, exasperation, anger and disrespect for their boss.

As the British say, the staff is jumping ship so fast they are leaving the rats gaping and applauding.

Trump, for his part, is resentfully returning fire, blaming his underlings for his own mistakes, complaining that McMaster is a pain, speculating about firing and demoting people. This is a White House in which the internal nickname for the chief of staff is Rancid.

The organizational culture is about to get worse. People who have served in administrations under investigation speak eloquently about how miserable it is. You never know which of your friends is about to rat you out. No personal communication is really secure. You never know which of your colleagues is going to break ranks and write the tell-all memoir, and you think that maybe it should be you.

Even people not involved in the original scandal can find themselves caught up in the maelstrom and see their careers ruined. Legal costs soar. The investigations can veer off in wildly unexpected directions, so no White House nook or cranny is safe.

As current staff leaves or gets pushed out, look for Trump to try to fill the jobs with business colleagues who also have no experience in government. It’s striking that the only person who this week seems excited to take a Trump administration job is Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke, who made his name as a TV performance artist calling the Black Lives Matter movement “black slime,” and who now claims he has been hired to serve in the Department of Homeland Security.

Congressional Republicans seem to think they can carry on and legislate despite the scandal, but since 1933 we have no record of significant legislation without strong presidential leadership. Members of this Congress are not going to be judged by where they set the corporate tax rate. They will be defined by where they stood on Donald Trump’s threat to civic integrity. That issue is bound to overshadow all else.

The implosion at the center is going to affect everything around it. The Trump administration may survive politically, but any hopes that it will become an effective governing organization are dashed.

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

Louis XIV of France summed up his view of power with the phrase “L’État, c’est moi,” or “I am the State.” Donald Trump became president four months ago with roughly the same idea. In the Trump universe, he had been judge, jury and executioner. He saw no reason why that would change.

Trump had no knowledge of, or interest in, the checks and balances enshrined in the Constitution. Circumscribed power was for losers, a category of humanity for which he reserves his greatest disdain. Just this week, after passing along classified information about the Islamic State to Russia, and so jeopardizing an ally’s intelligence asset, Trump tweeted that he had the “absolute right” to do so.

Absolutism is Trump’s thing. He’s installed his family in senior White House posts where influence and business intersect. His aides are terrified. His press secretary hides “among the bushes.” The family knows everything; nobody else knows anything. He demanded loyalty of the F.B.I. director he subsequently fired for lèse-majesté. All this is right out of Despotism 101.

Absolutism is not, however, America’s thing. In fact it is what the United States was created to escape from. The Declaration of Independence excoriates the “absolute Tyranny over these States,” exercised by King George III. Among the British king’s usurpations: “He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.”

No wonder the Constitution ratified a dozen years later has this to say about the judicial branch: “The Judges, both of the supreme and inferior Courts, shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour, and shall, at stated Times, receive for their Services a Compensation, which shall not be diminished.”

But Trump came into office with what Stephen Burbank, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, described to me as “little regard for the law.” Nor would a man so ahistorical have had any notion that the Constitution diffuses power between three branches of government because it reflects the experience of dealing with a king. The clash between an autocratic president and the institutions of American freedom that intensified this week with the appointment of a special prosecutor, Robert S. Mueller III, was inevitable.

The president can declassify information if he wishes but that’s not an open invitation to recklessness. Giving sensitive intelligence to Russia, a rival power that of late has resembled an enemy, could raise legal issues. For Trump to then use the word “absolute” in his defense recalls Lord Acton: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Trump did not need much corrupting. He was already well schooled. He has poured scorn on an independent judiciary (dismissing as “so-called” a federal judge who ruled against him) and called the press “the enemy of the American people.”

The president’s contempt for the Constitution was signaled in his inaugural speech when he invoked his “oath of allegiance to all Americans.” No, the president’s oath is to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” His allegiance is to the law. We know where allegiance to the “volk” can lead.

In firing James B. Comey, the F.B.I. director, Trump used a letter from Rod J. Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, as justification, before finding other reasons. Rosenstein got played. He knows it. Trump’s contempt for the judiciary, in the person of this United States attorney with a 27-year career in the Justice Department, was evident.

Rosenstein has now done the right thing by appointing Mueller to look into possible ties between Trump campaign associates and Russia. The former F.B.I. director is a man of undisputed integrity. He will give backbone to the post-Comey F.B.I.

Mueller’s investigation must be complemented by congressional inquiries into the Trump campaign’s Russian connections that are likely to move faster and more openly. The one must not preclude the other; they are complementary. It is past time for the Republican firewall of support for Trump to crumble. Mueller, whose work will take many months at least, is investigating violations of criminal law, but “high crimes and misdemeanors,” the grounds for impeachment, are not confined to that.

“Something that violates criminal law is likely to be a high crime and misdemeanor, but not necessarily vice-versa,” Burbank said.

It is against this confrontational domestic backdrop that Trump will be consorting with autocrats and democrats on his first foreign trip (to Saudi Arabia, Israel, Belgium, the Vatican and Italy), without the world knowing which he favors. He can only blame himself for the turmoil. Trump’s White House is a valueless place that has already neutered the American idea. That this shallow, shifting president now sees himself as a possible advocate of global religious tolerance is a measure of how far ego can induce blindness.

Richard Nixon once said that, “When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.” But the state was not Nixon, as he learned, and nor is it Trump, whose education in the coming months will be harsh. Trump calls it a “witch hunt.” No, Mr. President, it’s called the law.

And now here’s Prof. Krugman:

On Wednesday, Paul Ryan held a press conference just after the revelation that Donald Trump had pushed James Comey to kill the investigation into Michael Flynn — you know, the guy Trump appointed as national security adviser even though his team knew that Flynn’s highly suspicious foreign ties were under investigation.

Faced with questions about the Flynn scandal and the Comey firing, Ryan waved them away: “I don’t worry about things that are outside my control.”

This might sound like a reasonable philosophy — unless you realize that Ryan is speaker of the House of Representatives, a legislative body with the power to issue subpoenas, compel testimony and, yes, impeach the president. In fact, under the Constitution, Ryan and his congressional colleagues are effectively the only check on a rogue chief executive.

It has become painfully clear, however, that Republicans have no intention of exercising any real oversight over a president who is obviously emotionally unstable, seems to have cognitive issues and is doing a very good imitation of being an agent of a hostile foreign power.

They may make a few gestures toward accountability in the face of bad poll numbers, but there is not a hint that any important figures in the party care enough about the Constitution or the national interest to take a stand.

And the big question we should be asking is how that happened. At this point we know who and what Trump is, and have a pretty good idea of what he has been doing. If we had two patriotic parties in the country, impeachment proceedings would already be underway. But we don’t. What’s the matter with Republicans?

Obviously I can’t offer a full theory here, but there’s a lot we do know about the larger picture.

First, Republicans are professional politicians. Yes, so are most Democrats. But the parties are not the same.

The Democratic Party is a coalition of interest groups, with some shared views but also a lot of conflicts, and politicians get ahead through their success in striking compromises and finding acceptable solutions.

The G.O.P., by contrast, is one branch of a monolithic structure, movement conservatism, with a rigid ideology — tax cuts for the rich above all else. Other branches of the structure include a captive media that parrots the party line every step of the way. Compare the coverage of recent political developments on Fox News with almost everywhere else; we’re talking North Korea levels of alternative reality.

And this monolithic structure — lavishly supported by a small number of very, very wealthy families — rewards, indeed insists on, absolute fealty. Furthermore, the structure has been in place for a long time: It has been 36 years since Reagan was elected, 22 years since the Gingrich takeover of Congress. What this means is that nearly all Republicans in today’s Congress are apparatchiks, political creatures with no higher principle beyond party loyalty.

The fact that the G.O.P. is a party of apparatchiks was one crucial factor in last year’s election. Why did Marine Le Pen, often portrayed as the French equivalent of Trump, lose by a huge margin? Because France’s conservatives were only willing to go so far; they simply would not support a candidate whose motives and qualifications they distrusted. Republicans, however, went all in behind Trump, knowing full well that he was totally unqualified, strongly suspecting that he was corrupt and even speculating that he might be in Russian pay, simply because there was an “R” after his name on the ballot.

And even now, with the Trump/Flynn/Comey story getting worse by the hour, there has been no significant breaking of ranks. If you’re waiting to find the modern version of Howard Baker, the Republican senator who asked “What did the president know, and when did he know it?” you’re wasting your time. Men like that left the G.O.P. a long time ago.

Does this mean that Trump will be able to hold on despite his multiple scandals and abuses of power? Actually, yes, he might. The answer probably hinges on the next few special elections: Republicans won’t turn on Trump unless he has become such a political liability that he must be dumped.

And even if Trump goes, one way or another, the threat to the Republic will be far from over.

In a perverse way, we should count ourselves lucky that Trump is as terrible as he is. Think of what it has taken to get us to this point — his Twitter addiction, his bizarre loyalty to Flynn and affection for Putin, the raw exploitation of his office to enrich his family, the business dealings, whatever they were, he’s evidently trying to cover up by refusing to release his taxes.

The point is that given the character of the Republican Party, we’d be well on the way to autocracy if the man in the White House had even slightly more self-control. Trump may have done himself in; but it can still happen here.

And yet again I thank God that I’m as old as I am and won’t have to live to see much more of what the Republicans have in store for our country.

Bobo, solo

May 16, 2017

Presented without comment are Bobo’s musings on “When the World Is Led by a Child,” in which he not only maligns children by the comparison, but moans that reports that President Trump betrayed an intelligence source reveal the dangerousness of an immature man.  I can’t even…  Here he is:

At certain times Donald Trump has seemed like a budding authoritarian, a corrupt Nixon, a rabble-rousing populist or a big business corporatist.

But as Trump has settled into his White House role, he has given a series of long interviews, and when you study the transcripts it becomes clear that fundamentally he is none of these things.

At base, Trump is an infantalist. There are three tasks that most mature adults have sort of figured out by the time they hit 25. Trump has mastered none of them. Immaturity is becoming the dominant note of his presidency, lack of self-control his leitmotif.

First, most adults have learned to sit still. But mentally, Trump is still a 7-year-old boy who is bouncing around the classroom. Trump’s answers in these interviews are not very long — 200 words at the high end — but he will typically flit through four or five topics before ending up with how unfair the press is to him.

His inability to focus his attention makes it hard for him to learn and master facts. He is ill informed about his own policies and tramples his own talking points. It makes it hard to control his mouth. On an impulse, he will promise a tax reform when his staff has done little of the actual work.

Second, most people of drinking age have achieved some accurate sense of themselves, some internal criteria to measure their own merits and demerits. But Trump seems to need perpetual outside approval to stabilize his sense of self, so he is perpetually desperate for approval, telling heroic fabulist tales about himself.

“In a short period of time I understood everything there was to know about health care,” he told Time. “A lot of the people have said that, some people said it was the single best speech ever made in that chamber,” he told The Associated Press, referring to his joint session speech.

By Trump’s own account, he knows more about aircraft carrier technology than the Navy. According to his interview with The Economist, he invented the phrase “priming the pump” (even though it was famous by 1933). Trump is not only trying to deceive others. His falsehoods are attempts to build a world in which he can feel good for an instant and comfortably deceive himself.

He is thus the all-time record-holder of the Dunning-Kruger effect, the phenomenon in which the incompetent person is too incompetent to understand his own incompetence. Trump thought he’d be celebrated for firing James Comey. He thought his press coverage would grow wildly positive once he won the nomination. He is perpetually surprised because reality does not comport with his fantasies.

Third, by adulthood most people can perceive how others are thinking. For example, they learn subtle arts such as false modesty so they won’t be perceived as obnoxious.

But Trump seems to have not yet developed a theory of mind. Other people are black boxes that supply either affirmation or disapproval. As a result, he is weirdly transparent. He wants people to love him, so he is constantly telling interviewers that he is widely loved. In Trump’s telling, every meeting was scheduled for 15 minutes but his guests stayed two hours because they liked him so much.

Which brings us to the reports that Trump betrayed an intelligence source and leaked secrets to his Russian visitors. From all we know so far, Trump didn’t do it because he is a Russian agent, or for any malevolent intent. He did it because he is sloppy, because he lacks all impulse control, and above all because he is a 7-year-old boy desperate for the approval of those he admires.

The Russian leak story reveals one other thing, the dangerousness of a hollow man.

Our institutions depend on people who have enough engraved character traits to fulfill their assigned duties. But there is perpetually less to Trump than it appears. When we analyze a president’s utterances we tend to assume that there is some substantive process behind the words, that it’s part of some strategic intent.

But Trump’s statements don’t necessarily come from anywhere, lead anywhere or have a permanent reality beyond his wish to be liked at any given instant.

We’ve got this perverse situation in which the vast analytic powers of the entire world are being spent trying to understand a guy whose thoughts are often just six fireflies beeping randomly in a jar.

“We badly want to understand Trump, to grasp him,” David Roberts writes in Vox. “It might give us some sense of control, or at least an ability to predict what he will do next. But what if there’s nothing to understand? What if there is no there there?”

And out of that void comes a carelessness that quite possibly betrayed an intelligence source, and endangered a country.

I forgot to mention above that he also maligns fireflies…

Brooks and Krugman”

April 28, 2017

In “The Pond-Skater Presidency” Bobo tries to convince us that Trump is like one of those creatures that skim on the surface, having little effect.  “Gemli” from Boston will have words about that.  Prof. Krugman, in “Living in the Trump Zone,” says we’re in a place and time where childish petulance drives policy.  Here’s Bobo:

You’ve got to give him credit — Donald Trump is a lot more adaptable than many of his critics.

Many of them reacted to Trump’s shocking election victory in the fall with the view, which was justified at the time, that Trump represented a unique and unprecedented threat to the republic. He was a populist ethnic nationalist aiming to drag this country to a very ugly place. He was a crypto fascist, aiming to undermine every norm and institution of our democracy.

Many of us Trump critics set our outrage level at 11. The Trump threat was virulent, and therefore the response had to be virulent as well.

The side benefit was we got to luxuriate in that rarest of political circumstance: a pure contest between right versus wrong. Everything seemed to be in such stark polarities: pluralism versus bigotry, democracy versus fascism, love trumps hate.

Trump’s totalistic menace allowed us to stand deliciously on the side of pure righteousness.

The problem is that Trump has now changed and many of his critics refuse to recognize the change. He’s not gotten brighter or humbler, but he’s gotten smaller and more conventional. Many of his critics still react to him every single day at Outrage Level 11, but the Trump threat is at Level 3 or 4.

These days a lot of the criticism seems over the top and credibility destroying. The “resistance movement” still reacts as if atavistic fascism were just at the door, when the real danger is everyday ineptitude. These critics hyperventilate at every whiff of scandal in a way that only arouses skepticism.

If you are losing a gravitas battle to Donald Trump, you are really in trouble.

The Trump threat has become smaller in three ways.

First, it is increasingly clear that everything about Trump is less substantial than it appears. Trump will be the last president who grew up entirely in the TV age, post-print but pre-internet. In the Trump mental framework, everything exists in segments and episodes. Ratings are the ultimate criteria of value.

This means he is the master of the pseudo-event, the artificial happening that exists to generate TV coverage but leaves no lasting mark. This means that everything can change in an instant. Nothing is more weighty or complicated than can be covered in a three-minute news summary. Every policy initiative is actually just pastillage, those brittle sugar sculptures that you see atop fancy desserts that crumble and dissolve at first contact with reality.

Trump’s tax plan is being treated as an actual plan, but it is just a sugar sculpture — 100 off-the-top-of-the-head words on a piece of paper, grappling with no hard issues and with no chance of passing in anything like the current form.

Second, Trump’s competency level has risen from catastrophic to merely inadequate. In the first few weeks, Trump was shooting himself in the foot on an hourly basis. But as time has gone by, he has hired better people and has shifted power within the White House to those who are trying to at least build a normal decision-making process.

His foreign policy moves have been, if anything, kind of normal. His administration has committed to NATO, backed off his China bashing, confirmed Iran’s compliance with its nuclear agreement obligations and exercised some restraint on North Korea.

Third, Trump has detached himself from the only truly revolutionary movement of our time. If the current world order is going to really be disrupted, it will be because a U.S. president taps into the anger seething among the globe’s rural working classes. It will be because the U.S. leads a coalition of the global populist strongmen.

Trump seemed inclined to do that a few months ago, but not today. Sure, he’ll send out a pro-Le Pen tweet, but Trump has mostly switched from being a subversive populist to being a conventional corporatist. His administration-defining motif now is being pro-business — lightening regulations, embracing the Export-Import Bank and offering to lower corporate taxes.

Parts of the Trump economic policy agenda are pretty good — corporate tax rates are indeed too high. Parts are pretty bad — threatening the Paris accords on global warming. But there’s nothing unusual. It looks like any Republican administration that is staffed by people whose prejudices were formed in 1984 and who haven’t had a new thought since.

Far from being a fighter, Trump tends to back off when his plans face resistance, like during this week’s budget showdown. He is the ultimate protean man. He’ll never be deep, because of his TV-shaped attention span, but the style of his superficiality is likely to change radically over the next few years.

Don’t get me wrong. I wish we had a president who had actual convictions and knowledge, and who was interested in delivering real good to real Americans. But it’s hard to maintain outrage at a man who is a political pond skater — one of those little creatures that flit across the surface, sort of fascinating to watch, but have little effect as they go.

And he still has the nuclear football…  Let’s see what kind of effect he will have when somebody really pisses him off.  Here’s what “gemli” in Boston has to say:

“We’re drowning in water metaphors. First he was draining the swamp, and now he’s skating on a pond. But the country is in the toilet, and we can’t flush until 2020.

So let’s not downplay the importance of outrage. The only reason the so-called president is not getting more of his fever dreams turned into reality is because the Republican majority in Congress is getting an earful from outraged constituents.

Young people are not having any of it. The unfair future-destroying plans of conservative speakers are not being given a fair hearing on college campuses, and conservatives are outraged. They want to tell the young folks that deporting families is good, abortion is murder and their gay friends are defective. Surprisingly, young people would rather demonstrate their outrage than send the message that those views are worth hearing.

Even the people who voted for this boob of a president are starting to squirm and squint when roving reporters visit the heartland ask them how they’re doing. Well, not great, as it turns out. He promised a bunch of things that aren’t materializing. He was going to pull Obamacare out from under many of them, but general outrage at Paul Ryan’s “plan” put an end to that.

We have a right to expect that our presidents are smart, capable and decent human beings. Mr. Brooks thinks that we should be content because the president’s competency level has gone from catastrophic to merely inadequate.

That’s outrageous.”

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Fans of old TV series may remember a classic “Twilight Zone” episode titled “It’s a Good Life.” It featured a small town terrorized by a 6-year-old who for some reason had monstrous superpowers, coupled with complete emotional immaturity. Everyone lived in constant fear, made worse by the need to pretend that everything was fine. After all, any hint of discontent could bring terrible retribution.

And now you know what it must be like working in the Trump administration. Actually, it feels a bit like that just living in Trump’s America.

What set me off on this chain of association? The answer may surprise you; it was the tax “plan” the administration released on Wednesday.

The reason I use scare quotes here is that the single-page document the White House circulated this week bore no resemblance to what people normally mean when they talk about a tax plan. True, a few tax rates were mentioned — but nothing was said about the income thresholds at which these rates apply.

Meanwhile, the document said something about eliminating tax breaks, but didn’t say which. For example, would the tax exemption for 401(k) retirement accounts be preserved? The answer, according to the White House, was yes, or maybe no, or then again yes, depending on whom you asked and when you asked.

So if you were looking for a document that you could use to estimate, even roughly, how much a given individual would end up paying, sorry.

It’s clear the White House is proposing huge tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy, with the breaks especially big for people who can bypass regular personal taxes by channeling their income into tax-privileged businesses — people, for example, named Donald Trump. So Trump plans to blow up the deficit bigly, largely to his own personal benefit; but that’s about all we know.

So why would the White House release such an embarrassing document? Why would the Treasury Department go along with this clown show?

Unfortunately, we know the answer. Every report from inside the White House conveys the impression that Trump is like a temperamental child, bored by details and easily frustrated when things don’t go his way; being an effective staffer seems to involve finding ways to make him feel good and take his mind off news that he feels makes him look bad.

If he says he wants something, no matter how ridiculous, you say, “Yes, Mr. President!”; at most, you try to minimize the damage.

Right now, by all accounts, the child-man in chief is in a snit over the prospect of news stories that review his first 100 days and conclude that he hasn’t achieved much if anything (because he hasn’t). So last week he announced the imminent release of something he could call a tax plan.

According to The Times, this left Treasury staff — who were nowhere near having a plan ready to go — “speechless.” But nobody dared tell him it couldn’t be done. Instead, they released … something, with nobody sure what it means.

And the absence of a real tax plan isn’t the only thing the inner circle apparently doesn’t dare tell him.

Obviously, nobody has yet dared to tell Trump that he did something both ludicrous and vile by accusing President Barack Obama of wiretapping his campaign; instead, administration officials spent weeks trying to come up with something, anything, that would lend substance to the charge.

Or consider health care. The attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare failed ignominiously, for very good reasons: After all that huffing and puffing, Republicans couldn’t come up with a better idea. On the contrary, all their proposals would lead to mass loss of coverage and soaring costs for the most vulnerable.

Clearly, Trump and company should just let it go and move on to something else. But that would require a certain level of maturity — which is a quality nowhere to be found in this White House. So they just keep at it, with proposals everyone I know calls zombie Trumpcare 2.0, 3.0, and so on.

And I don’t even want to think about foreign policy. On the domestic front, soothing the president’s fragile ego with forceful-sounding but incoherent proclamations can do only so much damage; on the international front it’s a good way to stumble into a diplomatic crisis, or even a war.

In any case, I’d like to make a plea to my colleagues in the news media: Don’t pretend that this is normal. Let’s not act as if that thing released on Wednesday, whatever it was, was something like, say, the 2001 Bush tax cut; I strongly disapproved of that cut, but at least it was comprehensible. Let’s not pretend that we’re having a real discussion of, say, the growth effects of changes in business tax rates.

No, what we’re looking at here isn’t policy; it’s pieces of paper whose goal is to soothe the big man’s temper tantrums. Unfortunately, we may all pay the price of his therapy.

Solo Bobo

April 25, 2017

In “The Jane Addams Model” Bobo gurgles that we should be learning to do good from the master.  And “gemli” from Boston will have something to say as well.  Here’s Bobo:

These days everything puts me in mind of Jane Addams. Many of the social problems we face today — the fraying social fabric, widening inequality, anxieties over immigration, concentrated poverty, the return of cartoonish hyper-masculinity — are the same problems she faced 130 years ago. And in many ways her responses were more sophisticated than ours.

Addams was born to an affluent family in Cedarville, Ill., in 1860. She was a morally ambitious young woman who dreamed of some epic life of service without much idea about how it might come about. In her teenage years, she earnestly set to reading — “Pilgrim’s Progress,” Plutarch’s “Lives,” “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” — but in her twenties she was one of those young people who don’t get to themselves quickly. They spend years in study and in acquiring degrees with a vague sense they are preparing for something, without actually leaping into what it is they might want to do.

Addams took a Grand Tour of Europe and found herself in a vegetable market as the leftovers were being tossed to a crowd of paupers, who stood with their grasping hands upraised. The image had a powerful effect on her. Forever after, the sight of hands raised up, even in dance and calisthenics, caused her to feel the pain of poverty and want.

In London, she visited a place called Toynbee Hall, a settlement house where rich university men organized social gatherings with the poor in the same way they would organize them with one another. Addams returned to Chicago and set up Hull House, an American version of the settlement idea.

As today, it was a time when the social fabric was being torn by technological change. Addams moved her family possessions, including the paintings, books and heirloom silver, into a large mansion in a blighted district. The idea was to give the dispossessed the same sort of refined and cultivated home environment that she had known, and thus create a network of family and neighborly bonds. Before long, 2,000 a day were streaming through the place, taking and teaching courses, offering and receiving day care, doing the housekeeping, conducting sociological research.

This was not rich serving the poor (Addams hated paternalism). It was rich and poor, immigrant and old stock, living and working in reciprocity, and as a byproduct bridging social chasms and coming to understand one another. For example, Addams thought it was especially important to put immigrant adults into the role of teachers, because it affords “a pleasant change from the tutelage in which all Americans, including their own children, are so apt to hold them.”

There were classes in acting, weaving, carpentry, but especially in art history, philosophy, and music. Addams was convinced that everyone longs for beauty and knowledge. Everyone longs to serve some high ideal. She believed in character before intellect, that spiritual support is as important as material support. And yet “the soul of man in the commercial and industrial struggle is under siege.”

High culture was her way to elevate the desires and tastes of all who passed through. Residents were surrounded with copies of Rembrandts and presented with Greek tragedies and classical concerts. One new immigrant walked in and Addams handed him an Atlantic Monthly and recommended an essay he could barely understand. But it was a sign of respect and equality, and access to a different world. Even poor kids, she believed, should “share in the common inheritance of life’s best goods.”

Our antipoverty efforts tend to be systematized and bureaucratized, but Hull House was intensely personalistic. She sought to change the world by planting herself deeply in a particular neighborhood. She treated each person as a unique soul.

Addams had amazing capacity to work from the specific case to the general philosophy, and had the ability to apply an overall strategy to the particular incident. There are many philanthropists and caregivers today who dislike theory and just want to get practical. It is this sort of doer’s arrogance and intellectual laziness that explains why so many charities do no good or do positive harm. Addams, by contrast, was both theorist and practitioner.

In her day, like our own, public life was dominated by manly men who saw politics as a competition between warriors and who sought change through partisan chest thumping and impersonal legislative action.

Addams was certainly political, but she defended the primacy of the “woman’s” sphere. People are really shaped by dense intimate connections. People thrive in “familied contexts.” As Jean Bethke Elshtain wrote in her biography, “The world of women was, for her, a dense concoction of imperatives, yearnings, reflections, actions, joys, tragedies, laughter, tears — a complex way of knowing and being in the world.”

Tough, Addams believed that we only make our way in the world through discipline and self-control. Tender, she created an institution that was a lived-out version of humanist philosophy. In today’s terms, she was a moral and religious traditionalist and an economic leftist, and an incredible role model for our time.

Not surprisingly, “gemli” has some pointed things to say to Bobo:

“David Brooks is always looking for an excuse to let government off the hook when it comes to education and welfare. A while back he wrote an entire column on West Virginian volunteers who are taking care of the poor, and even providing amateur mental health counselling, dealing with childhood depression and unprocessed grief (“A Nation of Healers,” 6/21/2016).

Same column, different day. Once again, an individual stands up to take care of the poor, while the government is nowhere to be found. Brooks is enthralled by the idea that volunteers should be in the role of bringing education and culture to the masses. Addams gives the poverty-stricken respect and a moral grounding of religious traditionalism, while the government is busy doing other things.

Brooks says our antipoverty efforts tend to be systematized and bureaucratized. Duh. How else can we provide opportunity and financial support for the millions of people who fall through the large, engineered and ever-widening cracks that have been created by conservatives who are hostile to education, health care and a living wage?

This column is especially timely, given that our current president wants to cut funding for the arts and sciences, and when he’s put a complete inexperienced evangelical novice in charge of education. I don’t know Betsy DeVos personally, but I’ll wager she’s no Jane Addams. I suspect Morticia Addams knows more about education and moral philosophy.”

Brooks and Krugman

April 21, 2017

Bobo is wailing over “The Crisis of Western Civ.”  He moans that faith in the West has collapsed and, amazingly, people have been slow to rise to defend it.  There will be a response from “Dana” in Santa Monica.  Prof. Krugman, in “The Balloon, the Box, and Health Care,” says it’s not surprising Republican repeal-and-replace efforts keep getting nowhere.  Here’s Bobo:

Between 1935 and 1975, Will and Ariel Durant published a series of volumes that together were known as “The Story of Civilization.” They basically told human history (mostly Western history) as an accumulation of great ideas and innovations, from the Egyptians, through Athens, Magna Carta, the Age of Faith, the Renaissance and the Declaration of the Rights of Man. The series was phenomenally successful, selling over two million copies.

That series encapsulated the Western civilization narrative that people, at least in Europe and North America, used for most of the past few centuries to explain their place in the world and in time. This narrative was confidently progressive. There were certain great figures, like Socrates, Erasmus, Montesquieu and Rousseau, who helped fitfully propel the nations to higher reaches of the humanistic ideal.

This Western civ narrative came with certain values — about the importance of reasoned discourse, the importance of property rights, the need for a public square that was religiously informed but not theocratically dominated. It set a standard for what great statesmanship looked like. It gave diverse people a sense of shared mission and a common vocabulary, set a framework within which political argument could happen and most important provided a set of common goals.

Starting decades ago, many people, especially in the universities, lost faith in the Western civilization narrative. They stopped teaching it, and the great cultural transmission belt broke. Now many students, if they encounter it, are taught that Western civilization is a history of oppression.

It’s amazing what far-reaching effects this has had. It is as if a prevailing wind, which powered all the ships at sea, had suddenly ceased to blow. Now various scattered enemies of those Western values have emerged, and there is apparently nobody to defend them.

The first consequence has been the rise of the illiberals, authoritarians who not only don’t believe in the democratic values of the Western civilization narrative, but don’t even pretend to believe in them, as former dictators did.

Over the past few years especially, we have entered the age of strong men. We are leaving the age of Obama, Cameron and Merkel and entering the age of Putin, Erdogan, el-Sisi, Xi Jinping, Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump.

The events last week in Turkey were just another part of the trend. Recep Tayyip Erdogan dismantles democratic institutions and replaces them with majoritarian dictatorship. Turkey seems to have lost its desire to join the European idea, which no longer has magnetism and allure. Turkey seems to have lost its aspiration to join the community of democracies because that’s no longer the inevitable future.

More and more governments, including the Trump administration, begin to look like premodern mafia states, run by family-based commercial clans. Meanwhile, institutionalized, party-based authoritarian regimes, like in China or Russia, are turning into premodern cults of personality/Maximum Leader regimes, which are far more unstable and dangerous.

Then there has been the collapse of the center. For decades, center-left and center-right parties clustered around similar versions of democratic capitalism that Western civilization seemed to point to. But many of those centrist parties, like the British and Dutch Labour Parties, are in near collapse. Fringe parties rise.

In France, the hard-right Marine Le Pen and the hard-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon could be the final two candidates in the presidential runoff. Le Pen has antiliberal views about national purity. Mélenchon is a supposedly democratic politician who models himself on Hugo Chávez.

If those two end up in the finals, then the European Union and NATO, the two great liberal institutions of modern Europe, will go into immediate crisis.

Finally, there has been the collapse of liberal values at home. On American campuses, fragile thugs who call themselves students shout down and abuse speakers on a weekly basis. To read Heather MacDonald’s account of being pilloried at Claremont McKenna College is to enter a world of chilling intolerance.

In America, the basic fabric of civic self-government seems to be eroding following the loss of faith in democratic ideals. According to a study published in The Journal of Democracy, the share of young Americans who say it is absolutely important to live in a democratic country has dropped from 91 percent in the 1930s to 57 percent today.

While running for office, Donald Trump violated every norm of statesmanship built up over these many centuries, and it turned out many people didn’t notice or didn’t care.

The faith in the West collapsed from within. It’s amazing how slow people have been to rise to defend it.

There have been a few lonely voices. Andrew Michta laments the loss of Western confidence in an essay in The American Interest. Edward Luce offers a response in his forthcoming book “The Retreat of Western Liberalism.” But liberalism has been docile in defense of itself.

These days, the whole idea of Western civ is assumed to be reactionary and oppressive. All I can say is, if you think that was reactionary and oppressive, wait until you get a load of the world that comes after it.

And now here’s what “Dana” in Santa Monica has to say about that pile:

“So let me get this straight. Millions of Americans worship at the altar of Trump because of how they were taught western civilization? The premise is absurd. First – I doubt most trump voters could identify the “cradle of civilization” let alone tell you the two rivers that form it. Critical inquiry and a more broad historical analysis of western civilization are hardly to blame. The blames lies with decades of your fellow republicans gutting education so that most Americans have never taken a western civ class let alone a good old civics class. These same Americans love to shout how they are the true patriots without having a clue about how our democracy works. Just look no further than the current fool of a president. No – you own this Mr Brooks. Trump is in office due to the willful ignorance of the American populace. It’s precisely the outcome the GOP created from their decades long smear campaign against education, secularism, scientific inquiry and rational thinking.”

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Imagine a man who for some reason is determined to stuff a balloon into a box — a box that, aside from being the wrong shape, just isn’t big enough. He starts working at one corner, pushing the balloon into position. But then he realizes that the air he’s squeezed out at one end has caused the balloon to expand elsewhere. So he tries at the opposite corner, but this undoes his original work.

If he’s stupid or obsessive enough, he can spend a long time at this exercise, trying it from various different angles, and maybe even briefly convince himself that he’s making progress. But he’s kidding himself: No matter what he does, the balloon isn’t going to fit in that box.

Now you understand what’s happening to G.O.P. efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.

Republicans have spent many years denouncing Obamacare as a terrible, horrible, no good law and insisting that they can do much better. They successfully convinced many voters that they could preserve the good stuff — the dramatic expansion of coverage that has brought the percentage of Americans without health insurance to a record low — while reducing premiums, shrinking deductibles and, of course, doing away with the taxes on high incomes that pay for the program.

Those promises basically define the box into which they’re trying to stuff health care.

But health care costs money. In particular, if you want to make care available to Americans who have pre-existing medical conditions — including the condition of being not rich and being relatively old, but not yet eligible for Medicare — you have to find some way to subsidize them.

Obamacare provides those subsidies in part with direct public funding, in part with regulations that implicitly use premiums paid by the healthy to cover the cost of caring for the less healthy.

There are other possible ways to achieve the same goal, but the money has to come from somewhere. That basically says how much air there is in the balloon — and it makes the balloon too big for the box.

Now you understand why there’s a predictable, repetitive rhythm to the health care story.

Again and again, we read news reports to the effect that Republicans are closing in on a plan that will break the political deadlock. They’ll repeal the Obamacare taxes and block-grant Medicaid! No, they’ll make insurance cheaper by eliminating the coverage requirements! Or, the latest idea being floated, they’ll let insurance companies raise premiums on people with pre-existing conditions and compensate by creating special high-risk pools!

Solo Bobo

April 18, 2017

Bobo has decided to tell us all about “How to Leave a Mark on People.”  He ‘splains that some organizations are thick, and some are thin. Some leave a mark on you, and some you pass through with scarcely a memory.  There will be a brief but pithy response from “Jim Wallace” in Seattle.  Here’s Bobo:

Joe Toscano and I worked at Incarnation summer camp in Connecticut a few decades ago. Joe went on to become an extremely loving father of five and a fireman in Watertown, Mass. Joe was a community-building guy — serving his town, organizing events like fishing derbies for bevies of kids, radiating infectious and neighborly joy.

Joe collapsed and died while fighting a two-alarm fire last month. When Joe died, the Incarnation community reached out with a fierce urgency to support his family and each other. One of our number served as a eulogist at the funeral. Everybody started posting old photos of Joe on Facebook. Somebody posted a picture of 250 Incarnation alumni at a reunion, with the caption, “My Family.”

Some organizations are thick, and some are thin. Some leave a mark on you, and some you pass through with scarcely a memory. I haven’t worked at Incarnation for 30 years, but it remains one of the four or five thick institutions in my life, and in so many other lives.

Which raises two questions: What makes an institution thick? If you were setting out consciously to create a thick institution, what features would it include?

A thick institution is not one that people use instrumentally, to get a degree or to earn a salary. A thick institution becomes part of a person’s identity and engages the whole person: head, hands, heart and soul. So thick institutions have a physical location, often cramped, where members meet face to face on a regular basis, like a dinner table or a packed gym or assembly hall.

Such institutions have a set of collective rituals — fasting or reciting or standing in formation. They have shared tasks, which often involve members closely watching one another, the way hockey teammates have to observe everybody else on the ice. In such institutions people occasionally sleep overnight in the same retreat center or facility, so that everybody can see each other’s real self, before makeup and after dinner.

Such organizations often tell and retell a sacred origin story about themselves. Many experienced a moment when they nearly failed, and they celebrate the heroes who pulled them from the brink. They incorporate music into daily life, because it is hard not to become bonded with someone you have sung and danced with. They have a common ideal — encapsulated, for example, in the Semper Fi motto for the Marines.

It’s also important to have an idiosyncratic local culture. Too many colleges, for example, feel like one another. But the ones that really leave a mark on their students (St. John’s, Morehouse, Wheaton, the University of Chicago) have the courage to be distinct. You can love or hate such places. But when you meet a graduate you know it, and when they meet each other, even decades hence, they know they have something important in common.

As I was thinking about my list of traits, Angela Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania shared with me a similar list, titled, “What causes individuals to adopt the identity of their microculture?” She had a lot of my items but more, such as a shared goal, like winning the Super Bowl or saving the environment; initiation rituals, especially those that are difficult; a sacred guidebook or object passed down from generation to generation; distinct jargon and phrases that are spoken inside the culture but misunderstood outside it; a label, like being a KIPPster for a KIPP school student; and finally uniforms or other emblems, such as flags, rings, bracelets or even secret underwear.

Thick institutions have a different moral ecology. People tend to like the version of themselves that is called forth by such places. James Davison Hunter and Ryan Olson of the University of Virginia study thick and thin moral frameworks. They point to the fact that thin organizations look to take advantage of people’s strengths and treat people as resources to be marshaled. Thick organizations think in terms of virtue and vice. They take advantage of people’s desire to do good and arouse their higher longings.

In other words, thin institutions tend to see themselves horizontally. People are members for mutual benefit. Thick organizations often see themselves on a vertical axis. People are members so they can collectively serve the same higher good.

In the former, there’s an ever-present utilitarian calculus — Is this working for me? Am I getting more out than I’m putting in? — that creates a distance between people and the organization. In the latter, there’s an intimacy and identity borne out of common love. Think of a bunch of teachers watching a student shine onstage or a bunch of engineers adoring the same elegant solution.

I never got to see Joey T. fight a fire. But I watched him run a bunch of the camp reunion fishing derbies. If you’d asked him, are you doing this for the kids or for yourself, I’m not sure the question would have made sense. In a thick organization selfishness and selflessness marry. It fulfills your purpose to help others have a good day.

Now here’s what “Jim Wallace” has to say about that:

“Today, Brooks veers off on another one of his pop sociology “mansplaining” pieces touting individuality mixed with higher purpose sounding like religion. Meanwhile, Rome burns while Trump plays golf. Are we tired of winning yet?”

Brooks and Krugman

April 14, 2017

Bobo is all up in arms over “The Cuomo College Fiasco.”  He snarls that New York’s “free” tuition program is a truly bad attempt at improving higher ed.  And “gemli” from Boston will explain what a putz Bobo is.  Prof. Krugman has a question:  “Can Trump Take Health Care Hostage?”  He says the president has adopted a bargaining tactic that’s both nasty and stupid.  Here’s Bobo:

Donald Trump sets the bar very high, but the award for the worst public policy idea of the year goes to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Cuomo presides over a state with a rich diversity of educational institutions. But he also presides over a state, like all states, where many students don’t complete college and where many are unprepared for the information economy. For example, fewer than half of the African-American and Hispanic students in New York public colleges graduate within six years.

Cuomo could have done many things to improve New York’s higher ed system. He could have poured all available money into the Tuition Assistance Program, which is directed at poorer students. He could have spent more to help students become academically ready for college, which is the biggest barrier to graduation. He could have done more to help students pay room and board expenses. He could have massively improved overstretched mental health services. He could have massively improved career counseling.

But in 2016 Bernie Sanders made a big splash on the campaign trail with a plan to make college “free.” So Cuomo proposed and on Wednesday signed legislation to make tuition free at New York public colleges for anybody coming from a family making no more than $100,000 a year, with the cap rising to $125,000 in 2019.

If he runs for president, this will be an outstanding talking point. Unfortunately, the law will hurt actual New Yorkers.

First, the law is regressive. It does nothing to help students from families earning less than $50,000 a year. Their tuition is already covered by other programs. But it does pay for tuition for New Yorkers who make double the state’s median income. The higher up the income scale you go, until the ceiling, the more you benefit.

Second, it doesn’t make a dent in reducing the nontuition fees, like living expenses, textbooks and travel, which for many students are far more onerous than tuition.

Third, it doesn’t cover students who don’t go to school full time and don’t complete in four years. In 2017 this is the vast, vast majority of all students, especially poorer students.

Fourth, it demotivates students. Research has shown that students who have to work to pay some college costs, even if only small expenses, are more spurred to work hard and graduate. As Northwestern researcher Chenny Ng put it in a Washington Post essay, “as the cost of attending college drops to zero, so does the perceived cost of dropping out.”

Fifth, Cuomo’s law threatens to destroy some of New York’s private colleges. Cuomo could have championed a Pell-like program that subsidizes attendance at any accredited school. Instead, he pays for tuition only at state schools.

This means that suddenly the state’s 150 private colleges have to compete with “free.” Many of these schools are already struggling to survive. If upper-middle-class students are drawn away to public colleges, private ones may close. That hurts the state’s educational diversity, it destroys jobs and it hurts the state.

These private colleges tend to have smaller classes, they tend to do a better job of graduating their students and they tend to spend heavily to subsidize poorer students.

Sixth, the law may widen the gap between rich and poor. When state schools are “free,” more people will apply. As more apply, selectivity will increase, as administrators chase higher U.S. News & World Report rankings. That will exclude students with lower credentials, who tend to be from more disadvantaged homes. Even Georgia’s successful Hope Scholarship program had this unintended consequence, widening the college attendance gap between white and black and rich and poor.

Seventh, over the long term the law could hurt the quality of New York’s state system. Right now those schools rely on tuition to help fund programs. If New York moves more toward a purely publicly funded model, it may suffer from the slow decay that has hurt many state systems. State budgets are perpetually challenged by rising entitlement spending. Education gets squeezed. The universities will try to claw back the private money with dorm fees, activities fees and other charges that don’t officially count as tuition, but still quality suffers.

Even in Germany, where a generous welfare state is valued, per-pupil spending has dropped by 10 percent since universities became free. Germany is an extremely successful country, but lecture classes are huge and the country’s universities are not generally ranked among the world’s best.

Finally, the law will hurt its recipients’ future earnings. Students who receive free tuition for four years have to remain in New York State for four years after graduating, or pay the money back. This means they won’t be able to seize out-of-state opportunities during the crucial years when their career track is being formed. They’ll be trapped in a state with one really expensive city, and other regions where good jobs are scarce.

This is a really counterproductive law. We’re all focused on Trump, but one of the reasons Trump was elected was that many of the people who try to use government to do good just haven’t thought things through.

Now here’s what “gemli” had to say about this:

“You know Cuomo is on the right track when David Brooks starts worrying about poor people. Not that he doesn’t like to talk about their plight. He takes every opportunity to promote the idea of leaving government out of the people-helping business. Volunteers are supposed to help at the community level, according to Brooks, which frees up the government to help the rich.

In this example, poor people, who may never have a chance to get a college education under any circumstances, are hit with an eight-point Brooksian fusillade of reasons why free college would be a huge burden to them, and ruin their lives, along with the great state of New York.

Looking back, my education in New Orleans in the late 1960s was nearly free. I paid for six years of college as a student worker, and earned a B.S. and an M.S. degree in the process. Looking back a bit further, the government paid returning G.I.s to go to school, and the result was the biggest social and economic upsurge in living memory.

Today, graduates are saddled with so much debt from usurious student loans that it’s a national disgrace. Nobody fixes the problem because the financial industry loves it. It’s a cash cow that never stops giving milk.

All of Brooks’ bogus complaints are aimed at making sure the status quo doesn’t change. And if anyone hadn’t already noticed, the status quo is a lousy place for the poor to be. The only door that leads out is one that opens into a classroom.”

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Three weeks have passed since the Trumpcare debacle. After eight years spent denouncing the Affordable Care Act, the G.O.P. finally found itself in a position to do what it had promised, and deliver something better. But it couldn’t.

And Republicans, President Trump very much included, had nobody but themselves to blame. Basically, the party has been lying all this time, and the lies finally caught up with the liars. Mr. Trump promised health care that would be “far less expensive and far better”; in the event, all he and his allies had to offer were surging premiums, higher out-of-pocket expenses and mass loss of coverage.

But Mr. Trump, as you may have noticed, isn’t big on accepting responsibility for his failures. Instead, he has decided to blame Democrats for not cooperating in the destruction of their proudest achievement in decades. And on Wednesday, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, he openly threatened to sabotage health care for millions if the opposition party doesn’t give him what he wants.

In that interview, the president of the United States sounded just like a mobster trying to extort protection payments from a shopkeeper.

“Obamacare is dead next month if it doesn’t get that money,” he declared, referring to cost-sharing subsidies that reduce out-of-pocket expenses for low-income families, and are crucial even to higher-income families, because they help keep insurance companies in the system. “I don’t want people to get hurt.” (Nice shop you’ve got here, shame if something were to happen to it.) “What I think should happen and will happen is the Democrats will start calling me and negotiating.” (I’m making them an offer they can’t refuse.)

It’s a nasty political tactic. It’s also remarkably stupid.

The nastiness should be obvious, but let’s spell it out. Mr. Trump is trying to bully Democrats by threatening to hurt millions of innocent bystanders — ordinary American families who have gained coverage thanks to health reform. True, Democrats care about these families — but Republicans at least pretend to care about them, too.

Why does Mr. Trump even imagine that this threat might work? Implicitly, he’s saying that hurting innocent people doesn’t bother him as much as it bothers his opponents. Actually, this is probably true — remember, we’re talking about a man who once cut off health benefits to his nephew’s seriously ill 18-month-old son to gain the upper hand in a family dispute. But it’s not the kind of thing one expects to hear from the occupant of the White House.

What makes Mr. Trump’s tactic stupid as well as nasty is the reality that Democrats have no incentive whatsoever to give in.

For one thing, what is he offering by way of a deal? Obamacare increased coverage two ways, via Medicaid expansion and subsidized private insurance. Mr. Trump might be able to undermine the private markets, but Medicaid wouldn’t be affected. Why would Democrats ever agree to Republican plans, which would basically kill both?

Then there’s the political reality that by sabotaging Obamacare, the Trump administration would be handing Democrats a huge electoral gift. Bear in mind that the places that are already poorly served by private insurers, and would therefore be most hurt, are relatively poor, rural areas — places that overwhelmingly voted Trump last year.

Maybe Mr. Trump believes that he could somehow shift the blame for the devastation he has threatened to wreak onto Democrats. “See, there’s the death spiral I predicted!” But that probably wouldn’t work even if he hadn’t effectively proclaimed his own guilt in advance. Voters tend to blame whoever holds the White House for bad things, and in this case they’d be right: If there is a death spiral, it will have Mr. Trump’s name on it, and deservedly so.

Put it this way: There’s a reason an open letter to Mr. Trump urging that the cost-sharing subsidies be maintained was signed by a wide array of lobbying organizations, including very conservative groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. What they understand is that sabotaging Obamacare would be a disaster for their interests.

So the Trump health care threat is, as I said, stupid as well as nasty. And it’s hard to believe that it will be carried out.

But here’s the thing: Even if Mr. Trump wimps out, as he is doing on so many other issues, he may already have done much of the threatened damage. Insurers are deciding right now whether to participate in the 2018 Obamacare exchanges. Mr. Trump’s tough talk is creating a lot of uncertainty, which in itself may undermine coverage for many Americans.

There is, of course, a good chance that Mr. Trump doesn’t understand any of this. Unfortunately, when you’re in the White House, what you don’t know can hurt a lot of people.

Solo Bobo

April 11, 2017

Bobo is considering “This Age of Wonkery” and deeply ponders the life of the mind, then and now.  I’m running late, so no comment from anyone, but they’re classic.  Here he is:

If you were a certain sort of ideas-oriented young person coming of age in the 20th century, it was very likely you would give yourself a label and join some movement. You’d call yourself a Marxist, a neoconservative, a Freudian, an existentialist or a New Deal liberal.

There would be certain sacred writers who would explain the world to you — from Jung to Camus, Dewey or Chesterton. There’d probably be a small magazine where the doctrines of your sect would be hammered out.

People today seem less likely to give themselves intellectual labels or join self-conscious philosophical movements. Young people today seem more likely to have their worldviews shaped by trips they have taken, or causes they have been involved in, or the racial or ethnic or gender identity group they identify with.

That’s changed the nature of the American intellectual scene, the way people approach the world and the lives they live.

In his book, “The Ideas Industry,” Daniel W. Drezner says we’ve shifted from a landscape dominated by public intellectuals to a world dominated by thought leaders. A public intellectual is someone like Isaiah Berlin, who is trained to comment on a wide array of public concerns from a specific moral stance. A thought leader champions one big idea to improve the world — think Al Gore’s work on global warming.

As Drezner puts it, intellectuals are critical, skeptical and tend to be pessimistic. Thought leaders are evangelists for their idea and tend to be optimistic. The world of Davos-like conferences, TED talks and PopTech rewards thought leaders, not intellectuals, Drezner argues.

Intellectual life has fallen out of favor for several reasons, he continues. In a low-trust era, people no longer have as much faith in grand intellectuals to serve as cultural arbiters. In a polarized era, ideologically minded funders like George Soros or the Koch bothers will only pay for certain styles of thought work. In an unequal era, rich people like to go to Big Idea conferences, and when they do they want to hear ideas that are going to have some immediate impact — Jeffrey Sachs’s latest plan to end world poverty or Amy Cuddy’s findings on how to adopt the right power stance.

Drezner doesn’t call this a decline, just a shift (let’s not underestimate how silly and wrong some of the grand, sweeping intellectuals could be). But I’m struck by how people’s relationship to ideas has changed.

In the first place, public thinkers now conceive of themselves as legislative advisers. Drezner writes a book called “The Ideas Industry,” but he is really writing about public policy. When George Orwell, Simone de Beauvoir or even Ralph Waldo Emerson were writing, they were hoping to radically change society, but nobody would confuse them with policy wonks.

Second, there was a greater sense then than now, I think, that the very nature of society was up for grabs. Call it a vestige from Marxism or maybe Christianity, but there was a sense that the current fallen order was fragile and that a more just mode of living was out there to be imagined.

Finally, intellectual life was just seen as more central to progress. Intellectuals establish the criteria by which things are measured and goals are set. Intellectuals create the frameworks within which politicians operate. How can you have a plan unless you are given a theory? Intellectuals create the age.

Doing that sort of work meant leading the sort of exceptional life that allowed you to emerge from the cave — to see truth squarely and to be fully committed to the cause. Creating a just society was the same thing as transforming yourself into a moral person.

For George Orwell, this meant being with the poor and the oppressed — living as a homeless tramp in England, a dishwasher in Paris, getting shot through the neck as a soldier in the Spanish Civil War. It meant teaching himself how to turn political writing into an art form.

For the Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci, it meant committing fully to ideas, even if it meant years in prison, and doing the rigorous mental work required for a life of hard thinking. He was as left as can be, but he believed in traditional school curriculums, the tough grinding of learning Latin and Greek grammar. “It will be necessary to resist the tendency to render easy that which cannot become easy without being distorted,” he wrote.

It also meant joining a tradition and a team. There were a whole set of moral tests involved with obedience to the movement, breaking ranks when necessary, facing unpleasant truths, pioneering a collective way of living, whether feminist, Marxist or libertarian.

The 20th century held up intellectuals like that, and then discredited them — too many were too wrong about communism and fascism. But we’ve probably over-adjusted, and deprived a generation of a vision of the heroic intellectual. It’s good to have people who think about North Korean disarmament. But politics is most real at a more essential level.

I wonder if any of us remember what he had to say about Al Gore and his stance on climate change…

Brooks and Krugman

April 7, 2017

Everyone has questions this morning.  Bobo’s, in “The Coming Incompetence Crisis,” is what if the Trump administration runs out of errors?  Oh, Bobo, I’m sure that can’t happen.  For them getting out of bed in the morning is an error.  And “Dana” from Santa Monica will have something to say.  Prof. Krugman, in “The Bad, the Worse and the Ugly,” asks the following:  What makes Trump different from the rest of his party?  Here’s Bobo:

I just read that the Trump administration has filled only 22 of the 553 key positions that require Senate confirmation. This makes me worry that the administration will not have enough manpower to produce the same volume and standard of incompetence that we’ve come to expect so far.

Granted, in its first few months the administration has produced an impressive amount of ineptitude with very few people.

On his worst days Sean Spicer can produce more errors than 10 normal men on their best days. Kellyanne Conway can flail her way through television confrontations 24/7 and still have the stamina to lose to the Teletubbies on Saturday morning.

The White House staffing system is successfully answering the question, How many scorpions can you fit in a bottle? And in general, the personnel process has been so rigorous in its selection of inexperience that those who were hired on the basis of mere nepotism look like Dean Acheson by comparison.

But still, I worry that at the current pace the Trump administration is going to run out of failure. So far, we’ve lived in a golden age of malfunction. Every major Trump initiative has been blocked or has collapsed, relationships with Congress are disastrous, the president’s approval ratings are at cataclysmic lows.

But can this last? By midsummer, during the high vacation and indictment season, we could see empty hallways in the West Wing and a disorienting incompetence shortage emanating from Washington.

The executive branch could simply go dark. CNN’s ratings will plummet. Columnists will wither and die. Liberals will have to go without the delicious current of schadenfreude and their daily ritual baths of moral superiority.

Now I’m not underestimating the president’s own capacity for carrying on in an incompetent manner almost indefinitely. I don’t think we’ve reached peak Trump.

The normal incompetent person flails and stammers and is embarrassed about it. But the true genius at incompetence like our president flails and founders and is too incompetent to recognize his own incompetence. He mistakes his catastrophes for successes and so accelerates his pace toward oblivion. Those who ignore history are condemned to retweet it.

Trump’s greatest achievements are in the field of ignorance. Up until this period I had always thought of ignorance as a void, as an absence of knowledge. But Trump’s ignorance is not just an absence; it is a rich, intricate and entirely separate universe of negative information, a sort of fertile intellectual antimatter with its own gravitational pull.

It’s not so much that he isn’t well informed; it’s that he is prodigiously learned in the sort of knowledge that doesn’t accord with the facts of our current dimension.

It is in its own way a privilege to be alive at the same time as a man who is the Albert Einstein of confirmation bias, a man whose most impressive wall is the one between himself and evidence, a man who doesn’t need to go off in search of enemies because he is already his own worst one.

But even Trump will eventually hit the limits of human endurance. I know what it is like to be profoundly incompetent, and it is exhausting.

Just to take a small example by way of illustration, in the days before GPS I was (and remain) profoundly incompetent at comprehending driving directions. I would ask for directions and all would start off normally: “Go down Fourth Street and take a right on Poplar.”

But then all would slide into a fog of incomprehensibility and I would keep nodding furiously to try to persuade the person that I could follow what was being said: “Then you toggle over that spur of the thruway that goes under the overpass before the six roundabouts of the gargle.”

By this time entire hemispheres of my brain had shut down, and as the person kept talking, my entire existence slipped into a catatonic mist: “After that it’s just six wheedles up the perplex and after a quick stop at the bolint it’s the 27th driveway on the right.”

The incompetent person in the Trump administration has to live in that stupor shroud every day.

So I hope the Trump team learns to delegate — carelessness in one office, backbiting in another. I hope the president continues to play golf (I don’t get those progressive critics who say Trump is ruining the world and then they complain because he takes time off). I hope his team continues to take advantage of the fact that it takes only one inexperienced stooge to undo the accomplishments of 100 normal workers.

And I hope it continues to negatively surpass all expectations. I remain a full-fledged member in the community of the agog.

One of the things I’ve learned about incompetence over the past few months is that it is radically nonlinear. Competent people go in one of a few directions. But incompetence is infinite.

The human imagination is not capacious enough to comprehend all the many ways the Trumpians can find to screw this thing up.

Gosh, he’s a regular stand-up comic is our Bobo…  Here’s what “Dana” from Santa Monica had to say:

“This liberal takes no pleasure on Trumps grotesque ignorance. I have no schadenfreude toward the people who voted for him. What I am is outraged and disgusted that millions of people voted for an ignorant con man to be president. I am disgusted that we have a populace who find scholarship and learning suspect while viewing Trumps ignorant nonsense as credible. I am sad that we as a nation are so ignorant that millions think that experts in diplomacy and policy are merely government hacks who add no more value than Ivanka Trump. And worst of all, I am terrified by the fact that China, Russia and many other countries are well aware that we have a fool for president. Their leadership rely on policy experts and careful studying of issues to promulgate a well thought out agenda. Meanwhile, we are at the whim of a madman who has no thoughts deeper than his own vanity and no interest in relying on actual experts for guidance. That is the incompetence that should terrify us all”

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

This week’s New York Times interview with Donald Trump was horrifying, yet curiously unsurprising. Yes, the world’s most powerful man is lazy, ignorant, dishonest and vindictive. But we knew that already.

In fact, the most revealing thing in the interview may be Mr. Trump’s defense of Bill O’Reilly, accused of sexual predation and abuse of power: “He’s a good person.” This, I’d argue, tells us more about both the man from Mar-a-Lago and the motivations of his base than his ramblings about infrastructure and trade.

First, however, here’s a question: How much difference has it made, really, that Donald Trump rather than a conventional Republican sits in the White House?

The Trump administration is, by all accounts, a mess. The vast majority of key presidential appointments requiring Senate confirmation are unfilled; whatever people are in place are preoccupied with factional infighting. Decision-making sounds more like palace intrigues in a sultan’s seraglio than policy formulation in a republic. And then there are those tweets.

Yet Mr. Trump’s first great policy and political debacle — the ignominious collapse of the effort to kill Obamacare — owed almost nothing to executive dysfunction. Repeal-and-replace didn’t face-plant because of poor tactics; it failed because Republicans have been lying about health care for eight years. So when the time came to propose something real, all they could offer were various ways to package mass loss of coverage.

Similar considerations apply on other fronts. Tax reform looks like a bust, not because the Trump administration has no idea what it’s doing (although it doesn’t), but because nobody in the G.O.P. ever put in the hard work of figuring out what should change and how to sell those changes.

What about areas where Mr. Trump sometimes sounds very different from ordinary Republicans, like infrastructure?

A push for a genuine trillion-dollar construction plan (as opposed to tax credits and privatization), which would need Democratic support given the predictable opposition from conservatives, would be a departure. But given what we heard in the interview — basically incoherent word salad mixed with random remarks about transportation in Queens — it’s clear that the administration has no actual infrastructure plan, and probably never will.

True, there are some places where Mr. Trump does seem likely to have a big impact — most notably, in crippling environmental policy. But that’s what any Republican would have done; climate change denialism and the belief that our air and water are too clean are mainstream positions in the modern G.O.P.

So Trumpist governance in practice so far is turning out to be just Republican governance with (much) worse management. Which brings me back to the original question: Does the appalling character of the man on top matter?

I think it does. The substance of Trump policy may not be that distinctive in practice. But style matters, too, because it shapes the broader political climate. And what Trumpism has brought is a new sense of empowerment to the ugliest aspects of American politics.

By now there’s a whole genre of media portraits of working-class Trump supporters (there are even parody versions). You know what I mean: interviews with down-on-their-luck rural whites who are troubled to learn that all those liberals who warned them that they would be hurt by Trump policies were right, but still support Mr. Trump, because they believe that liberal elites look down on them and think they’re stupid. Hmm.

Anyway, one thing the interviewees often say is that Mr. Trump is honest, that he tells it like is, which may seem odd given how much he lies about almost everything, policy and personal. But what they probably mean is that Mr. Trump gives outright, unapologetic voice to racism, sexism, contempt for “losers” and so on — feelings that have always been an important source of conservative support, but have long been things you weren’t supposed to talk about openly.

In other words, Mr. Trump isn’t an honest man or a stand-up guy, but he is, arguably, less hypocritical about the darker motives underlying his worldview than conventional politicians are.

Hence the affinity for Mr. O’Reilly, and Mr. Trump’s apparent sense that news reports about the TV host’s actions are an indirect attack on him. One way to think about Fox News in general, and Mr. O’Reilly in particular, is that they provide a safe space for people who want an affirmation that their uglier impulses are, in fact, justified and perfectly O.K. And one way to think about the Trump White House is that it’s attempting to expand that safe space to include the nation as a whole.

And the big question about Trumpism — bigger, arguably, than the legislative agenda — is whether unapologetic ugliness is a winning political strategy.

Solo Bobo

April 4, 2017

Bobo says “Let’s Go for a Win on Opioids” and that this is the moment for a war on a problem that is getting worse.  There will be a reply from “Ralph Averill” of New Preston, CT.  Here’s Bobo:

The health care bill failed. The odds of successful tax reform are remote, and in any case an actual proposal is months away. If we lived in a normal country our president would use the current moment to try to get a win — to try to pass something that would help people, demonstrate that Washington can function and rebuild his brand.

If we lived in a normal country the Trump White House would launch a major initiative to combat opiate addiction. There are roughly two and a half million Americans addicted to opioids. Between 1999 and 2015, the number of those who died rose from 8,200 annually to 33,000. That means that over two years more Americans died of opiate addiction than died in the entire Vietnam War.

As Christopher Caldwell pointed out in a powerful essay called “American Carnage” in First Things, the opioid crisis is killing at a higher rate than crack or any other recent plague. At the peak of the crack epidemic there were about two deaths per 100,000 Americans. Today, the opioid epidemic is killing 10.3 per 100,000.

The national spotlight has been put on this crisis, but the situation is getting worse, not better. The Washington Post reported that in Stark County, Ohio, for example, the number of opioid-related deaths has increased by 20 percent in the past year. The county just asked the state to send over a cold storage trailer because the morgue is already full.

And the crisis is hitting exactly in those places where Trump voters live, especially struggling rural areas in Appalachia, the Upper Midwest, and the working-class areas of New England. That’s why Trump was so vocal about it during the campaign. He promised he would give every sufferer “access to the care and the help that he or she needs.” He told one Ohio town hall, “We’re going to spend the money, we’re going to get that habit broken.”

It’s a challenging problem. In 12 states there are more opioid prescriptions than people. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, those who are addicted to prescription painkillers are 40 times more likely to be addicted to heroin.

As Caldwell writes: “If you take too much heroin, your breathing slows until you die. Unfortunately, the drug sets an addictive trap that is sinister and subtle. It provides a euphoria — a feeling of contentment, simplification and release — which users swear has no equal. Users quickly develop a tolerance. …The dosage required to attain the feeling the user originally experienced rises until it is higher than the dosage that will kill him.”

The most dangerous day for an addict is the day he’s released from some sort of custody. On this day the dosage that he handled comfortably two weeks before could cause his death.

To its credit, the Trump administration has launched a commission to see how the federal government can tackle this crisis. Trump already appears to support Obama administration spending levels on opioid addiction. But Trump could propose legislation fully funding the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act. When that was passed, by overwhelming bipartisan majorities in 2016, the price tag was put at $1 billion. But only a portion of that has actually been appropriated.

Special focus could be put on adding treatment centers. According to a 2014 federal study, about 90 percent of those who met the criteria for a drug abuse disorder didn’t get treatment. Some live in counties where there are zero facilities.

Something like half of all sufferers drop out of treatment within a few months, so it might be worth thinking about involuntary commitment too. Sally Satel has been treating people addicted to heroin for a quarter century and writes for The Wall Street Journal:

“I speak from long experience when I say that few heavy users can simply take a medication and embark on a path to recovery. It often requires a healthy dose of benign paternalism and, in some cases, involuntary care through civil commitment. Many families see such legal action as the only way to interrupt the self-destructive cycle in which their loved ones are caught.”

This isn’t just about painkillers run amok. Instant and slow-motion suicide by alcohol and a range of other drugs are rising at the same time. And these addictions and deaths are happening in the most socially and economically barren parts of the country.

An anti-opioid effort won’t be effective unless it’s part of a broader effort at social and economic reweaving, a set of efforts to either help people move out of rural, blighted communities or to find jobs and social networks while there.

Trump could talk about many other approaches—medical marijuana as a substitute for pain relief, holding pharmaceutical companies more accountable—but ultimately this is a disease that grows in despair.

Trump was elected out of that despair, and a big anti-opioid push would be a first and politically viable step toward attacking it.

And now here’s what “Ralph Averill” has to say:

“When the addicts are white, they are victims and it is a medical-social problem requiring treatment centers. When the addicts are black, they are felons and it is a criminal justice problem requiring prison time and a lifetime denial of voting rights.

Drug addiction has been around a long time, but it is only when the addicts are white and dropping like flies does anyone, especially Republicans, pay it any attention.

Correct, Mr. Brooks; addiction is a public health issue. We’ve been putting the wrong people in jail. If you like, I could provide a list of some of the right people who should be in jail.”