Blow and Collins

June 15, 2017

Sorry I’m late, but here we go…  In “Rhetoric and Bullets” Mr. Blow says our talk should never promote violence, but it needn’t be timid.  Ms. Collins, in “Play Ball, and Then Gunfire,” says the shooting at the congressional baseball practice was awful, but every week we hear bloodier stories.  Well, Gail, this time white Republicans were victims.  But it’s never About Race or About Politics, because nothing is EVER About Race or About Politics.  (Well, unless it’s about the Democrats doing something reprehensible…)  Or rational gun laws…   Here’s Mr. Blow:

In 2011, after Representative Gabby Giffords of Arizona was gravely injured and six others were killed by a shooter in Tucson, I was moved to commit an entire column to condemning the left for linking the shooting so closely to political rhetoric.

Yes, Republican personalities and officials in the wake of Barack Obama’s election had spoken openly about “Second Amendment remedies” and being “armed and dangerous” and “revolution,” but it was not possible to connect the dots between that irresponsible talk and the Tucson shooter.

Now, here I am again, only this time extending the same condemnation to the right for doing the same after four people, including House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, were shot at an Alexandria, Va., baseball field where Republican members of Congress were practicing in advance of a charity game.

The shooter, identified as James T. Hodgkinson, appears to have had strong liberal, anti-Trump, anti-Republican views — among other things, he was a volunteer with the Bernie Sanders campaign — but at the time of this writing, authorities had not announced a motive for the shooting.

The very real possibility that the shooting was politically motivated was clearly on the minds of many, including Representative Rodney Davis, Republican of Illinois, who was at the baseball field during the shooting: “This could be the first political rhetorical terrorist attack, and that has to stop.”

Let me be clear: I don’t have a problem with viewing these incidents through a political lens. Not to do so is naïve and ridiculously self-blinding in a way that avoids reality.

As Katy Waldman wrote for Slate last June:

“Things that happen for political reasons, and have political consequences, demand that we scrutinize them through a political lens. Crying ‘politicization’ is itself politicization — a way to advance whatever slate of politics favors the status quo. Often people invoke policy goals in order to get things done; what’s at stake is whether these tragedies should be regarded as irreducible lightning strikes or problems with potential solutions.”

What I abhor is ideological exploitation that reduces these acts to a political sport and uses them as weapons to silence political opponents and their “rhetoric,” rather than viewing them as American tragedies that we can work together to prevent through honest appraisal and courageous action. Every shooting in this country is a tragedy, and they happen with disturbing frequency here.

As The Washington Post reported, Wednesday’s shooting was the 154th mass shooting so far this year in America. That’s 154 mass shootings in just 165 days. Violence, particularly gun violence, is the American fact, the American shame.

This country has a violent culture, is full of guns, and our federal lawmakers — mostly Republicans, it must be said, because there isn’t any real equivalency — are loath to even moderately regulate gun access.

Pretending that America’s gun violence is a function of collective political rhetoric rather than the nexus of personal mental defect and easy access to weapons is a way of dodging, well, the bullet.

So, here I must take a stand in defense of rhetoric. While rhetoric should never promote violence, it needn’t be timid.

I was impressed by the official responses from Washington. Even Trump’s response was sober and direct, not marred by his typical lack of tact, not like the way he tried to exploit the Pulse Nightclub shooting last year. House Speaker Paul Ryan delivered a stately speech from the House floor, and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi echoed his sentiments in a noble act of bipartisanship.

At the top, the responses were pitch perfect, but the political debate isn’t confined to the top. It trickles down into the cesspool of social media, which has grown exponentially since Giffords was shot. At that time, Facebook had only about a third of its current number of users, Twitter had about a fifth of its current users, Instagram was just three months old, and Snapchat didn’t exist.

On social media, where anonymity provides cover for vitriol, violent threats are a regular feature.

When Gabby Giffords wrote on Twitter, “My heart is with my former colleagues, their families & staff, and the US Capitol Police – public servants and heroes today and every day,” she was met with a sickening number of hateful responses, including one that said, “To bad it was not her.” (Yes, it should have been “too,” but grammar isn’t a major concern in a statement that grotesque.)

It is true that political rhetoric can set a tone that greases the skids for a small number of people who are prone to violence to act on those impulses. We have just gone through a political cycle where that was on full display.

But some rhetoric is necessary and real. I believe Donald Trump and the Republican-led Congress are attempting to do very serious harm to the country and its most vulnerable citizens, and I will never stop saying so in the strongest terms I can summon. For many people, this isn’t an abstract policy debate between partisans. For them, these debates — about repealing the Affordable Care Act, for example — are about life and death. But that has nothing to do with the promotion of physical violence; it has everything to do with protecting this country from administrative and legislative violence.

We have to object stridently to proposals that will hurt people, and not be chilled by a deranged man with a gun. Violence is abhorrent and self-defeating, but vociferous resistance to national damage has nothing to do with that violence and must continue unabated.

You can, as I do, have sympathy for the victims of yesterday’s shooting and condemn the shooter, while at the same time raging, nonviolently of course, against an agenda that places other Americans in very real danger.

And now here’s Ms. Collins:

When a gunman opened fire on a congressional baseball practice Wednesday, everyone in Washington looked for a positive message. There had to be a point to something so awful. The consensus was for Coming Together.

“For all the noise and all the fury, we are one family,” Speaker Paul Ryan told the House.

“You’re going to hear me say something you never heard me say before,” rejoined Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. “I identify myself with the remarks of the speaker.”

“We are strongest when we are unified and when we work together for the common good,” said Donald Trump.

This was regarded as one of Trump’s better presidential moments. He didn’t insult anyone, the way he did after the London terrorist attack. He didn’t suggest that in the future, all baseball players should be armed. And let’s hope it lasts. Since the gunman, James Hodgkinson, was known back home in Illinois as a vehement Trump critic, the president could definitely regress back into making the tragedy all about Donald.

But truthfully, American politics has been mean and verbally violent for a lot longer than Donald Trump’s been in the White House. Pelosi — who’s often depicted as the archvillain in Republican campaign ads — has been getting death threats for years. Back in 2010 a San Francisco man admitted to making more than 30 phone calls to Pelosi and her family, threatening to kill her or blow up her house if she voted for health care reform.

Ironically, the practice Hodgkinson’s bullets interrupted was for a ballgame that’s a lonely throwback to the good old days of political congeniality, when people from both parties would debate during the day and then go off to drink together after work. The drinking thing is pretty much over. But the representatives and senators do still get together every year to yell good-natured insults at each other and play ball, Democrats against Republicans.

Even better, there’s a bipartisan women’s softball team that has its own game every year: lawmakers versus reporters from the D.C. press corps.

“It’s really one of the best things we do,” said Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, one of the veteran players.

Gillibrand has a keen memory of the day all the team’s players signed a ball for her good friend Representative Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in the head in 2011 while holding a constituent meet-and-greet at a shopping center.

“I’m not shocked or surprised this happened. I lived through this once before,” Gillibrand said. “We’re in a violent time. We’ve seen Sandy Hook, we’ve seen such horrible gun violence in our communities for a very long time.”

The women’s game is next week. “We’ll play,” the senator said. “We’re meant to carry on our lives.”

Creating more comity in Washington is a good goal. (So, by the way, is getting more women in Congress.) But if we’re looking to the congressional shooting for lessons, we also have to talk about guns.

The baseball story was awful — Representative Steve Scalise and three other people were hit by gunfire. But every week in America we hear stories that are bloodier. There were 27 incidents of multiple fatal shootings in the week before Hodgkinson took out a rifle and handgun and started firing. A couple of hours after, an aggrieved UPS employee in San Francisco shot and killed three people and wounded two others before turning the gun on himself.

We’ll be spending the next few days trying to work through Hodgkinson’s history. How did this happen? Were there any warning signs separating him from the hordes of other people who post angry diatribes about politicians? What kind of guns did he use? Where did he buy them?

“I hope this doesn’t devolve into the usual situation where you expect that any one tragedy is going to change the conversation,” said Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. He’s been through too much of that already, and it’s true — if 20 little children can be shot in their Connecticut school without triggering national gun law reform, it’s not likely that the wounding of several adults in Virginia will do the trick.

But we’ll keep trying. To start, we need to come together on a consensus that there’s something wrong with a country in which an average of 93 people are killed with guns every day, in which gun homicides are so common that news reports frequently don’t bother to mention how the murderer obtained his weapon, and in which even multiple shootings often don’t make the national news unless there’s some suggestion the crime might be related to terrorism.

Write a letter. Call your representative. Hold a meeting. You can demand laws to keep criminals from buying guns, or laws to keep greedy gun sellers from ignoring background checks, or laws to ban rifles that allow one person to take down several dozen victims without reloading. Even if your hopes aren’t high, keep fighting. This is a righteous cause.

Krugman’s blog, 6/13/17

June 14, 2017

There was one post yesterday, “Their Own Private Pyongyang:”

It was a weird scene: Trump cabinet members speaking up, one by one, to offer effusive, groveling praise to their boss. Even if the praise had been justified (in fact, Trump has achieved amazingly little), it was deeply un-American — the kind of thing you would expect to see in an authoritarian regime, not a republic where leaders are supposed to pretend to be humble servants of the people.

But it was of a piece with everything else we’ve been seeing, not just from Trump — who doesn’t have a democratic bone in his body — but from Republicans, who have so far showed themselves willing to accept any and all abuses of power, including almost comical levels of financial self-dealing. So this isn’t just a Trump story; it’s about what happened to the GOP.

I don’t have a full explanation. But surely a starting point is the realization that while America as a whole isn’t an authoritarian regime — yet — the modern Republican party in many ways is. That is, once you’ve made the decision to become Republican, you find yourself living in your own private Pyongyang.

I mean this in a couple of senses. One is that for the great majority of Congressional Republicans, loyalty to party is all that matters for their political futures. As this chart from Nate Silver shows, there are now very few swing districts, in which a Republican can lose short of a political earthquake;

This is true of Democrats too, but the Democratic party is a field of contending interest groups, while the GOP is monolithic. So if you’re a Republican politician, you care about following the party line — full stop.

But mightn’t even Republican voters turn on you if you seem too slavish to an obviously corrupt leadership? Well, where would those voters get such an idea? For all practical purposes, Republican primary voters get their news from wholly partisan media, which quite simply present a picture of the world that bears no resemblance to what independent sources are saying. Even though most Republicans in DC probably know better, their self-interest says to pretend to believe the official line.

So if you’re Representative Bomfog from a red state, your entire career depends on being an apparatchik willing to do and say anything the regime demands. Suggestions that the president’s men, and maybe the man himself, is in collusion with a foreign power? Fake news! Firing the FBI director in an obvious obstruction of justice? Let’s make excuses! Analyses suggesting that your bill will cause mass suffering? Never mind. Party loyalty is all — even if it demands humiliating displays of obsequious deference.

This is why I don’t trust claims that firing Mueller would cross some kind of red line. All indications are that there is no line.

The one thing that might cause Rs to turn on Trump would be the more or less certain prospect of a wave election so massive that even very safe seats get lost. And at the rate things are going, that could happen. But if it does, it will be nothing like a normal political process; it will be more like a revolution within the GOP, a regime change that would shatter the party establishment.

Here’s hoping.

 

Friedman and Bruni

June 14, 2017

The Moustache of Wisdom, in “Solving the Korea Crisis by Teaching a Horse to Sing,” says America is the odd man out in the drama on the Korean Peninsula.  In “The Mortification of Jeff Sessions” Mr. Bruni invites us to behold the wages of drawing too close to Donald Trump.  Here’s TMOW, writing from Seoul:

Some stories have to be experienced to fully grasp — the Korea crisis is one of them. I arrived in Seoul on the evening of May 28. As I was dressing for breakfast the next morning, I was jarred by a news alert ringing on my phone: North Korea had just fired a short-range ballistic missile that had landed in the sea off its east coast.

I waited for the sirens to tell us to go to the hotel shelter, as happened when I was in Israel during a Hamas rocket attack. But there were no sirens. Nothing. The breakfast buffet was packed. The mood was: Another North Korean missile test? Oh, pay no attention to our crazy cousins. Could you pass the kimchi, please?

I was immediately reminded of my favorite quote from when I lived in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war, where people also became inured to the constant threat of violence. It was from a Beirut hostess who asked her dinner guests, “Would you like to eat now or wait for the cease-fire?”

A few hours after the missile test, two U.S. B-1B Lancer strategic bombers out of Guam flew right up to the North’s border on what North Korea called “a nuclear bomb dropping drill.” No matter. The South Korean stock market didn’t flinch.

In fact, one of the most popular housing markets for young Koreans today is Musan, located just south of the DMZ, the demilitarized zone separating the South from the North. It’s an easy commute to Seoul, and young people have gamed out that if the North launched rockets or artillery shells, they would likely go over their heads because they are so close to the border! Human beings! God love ’em. Their ability to adapt never ceases to amaze me.

I interviewed a group of South Korean college students at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, and here’s what some said: “The fear has been diluted — as time goes by you just get used to it.” “We don’t really believe that North Korea can harm us or launch war, because we think we are stronger than them economically and militarily.” “We heard the G.D.P. gap between us and North Korea is 20 times, and we don’t want to pay more taxes to fix them up.” “When I went to the U.S. I freaked out [over] why people there care more about North Korea than me.”

After a couple of days of such discussions, I realized that America is now the odd man out in this drama. Why? Because China and South Korea have one thing in common: The thing they fear most is not a North Korean nuclear missile blowing them up. It’s North Korea either blowing itself up — economically collapsing under the weight of sanctions — or being blown up by America.

That would spill refugees and fissile material into China and South Korea, presenting both with a huge cleanup bill and China with a possible united Korea with a nuclear weapon next door.

The U.S. — by contrast — now fears North Korea blowing us up, or at least Los Angeles. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Washington fears North Korea more than ever, while China and South Korea fear a unilateral U.S. strike on North Korea more than ever.

Or, as Rob Litwak, the Wilson Center Korea arms control expert, described it: Seoul’s fear that Donald Trump could draw it into a catastrophic conflict on the Korean Peninsula “brings to mind Charles de Gaulle’s admonition during the Cuban missile crisis that being a U.S. ally ran the risk of ‘annihilation without representation.’”

And that’s why the U.S. has dispatched to South Korea Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) antimissile batteries. But the new South Korean president is delaying their full deployment, fearing it will provoke the North or alienate China — which doesn’t like a U.S. antimissile system near its border that can also cover its airspace; China has imposed a partial economic boycott on Seoul to make that clear.

Chaibong Hahm, president of the Asan Institute, explained, “When North Korea started to develop weapons of mass destruction that threatened us, the U.S. tried to assure us and Japan that ‘we will protect you.’” Hahm said: “And the big question then was: ‘Is the U.S. deterrence real? Will it really protect us?’”

But when North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un also started threatening the U.S. by building a long-range nuclear missile, the story shifted for America. “It was not about reassuring us anymore but its own people,” added Hahm, “which means that Washington does not have to consult us. It can do what it needs to do.” And Trump’s America-first rhetoric only amplifies the worry here that he will. Some people “are more scared of [Trump] than Kim Jong-un,” concluded Hahm. “Kim Jong-un they understand.”

North Korea gets 95 percent of its oil from China. Beijing could shut down the North’s economy overnight by shutting off that oil. But it hasn’t. It has suspended purchases of North Korean coal, hurting Pyongyang financially, but not enough to stop missile testing. For now, it appears that China will do just enough to keep Trump at bay — by keeping North Korea from putting the last screws on a nuclear missile that can hit the U.S. — but never enough to collapse the regime or definitively end its nuclear program.

What about diplomacy? For now, North Korea shows no willingness to trade its nuclear arsenal for guarantees that the U.S. will not pursue regime change, and Trump is not going to give such guarantees without total denuclearization.

In sum, China and South Korea don’t dare starve the North for fear it could collapse. They don’t dare shoot it for fear it could shoot back. They and the Americans don’t dare negotiate with Kim for fear that they will end up blessing his nukes — and because they don’t trust him to keep any deal. And they don’t dare ignore him, because he keeps getting stronger.

So we all wait — for something.

Indeed, the whole situation reminds me of the medieval fable of the criminal hauled before the king to plead for his life and successfully does so by promising that if the king spared his life for a year he could teach the king’s favorite horse to sing.

When the criminal got back to his cell, his cellmate scoffed at him: You could never teach the king’s horse to sing if you had a lifetime. And the man said: “No matter. I have a year now that I didn’t have before. And a lot of things can happen in a year. The king might die. The horse might die. I might die. And, who knows? Maybe the horse will sing.”

And that is our North Korea policy. Waiting for something to solve this insoluble problem. Waiting for a horse to sing.

Now here’s Mr. Bruni:

The appearance of Jeff Sessions before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday didn’t bring us much closer to understanding what did or didn’t happen between Donald Trump and the Russians, or what the president has or hasn’t done to cover it up. Sessions batted away many questions. His answers to others were gauzy and useless.

But as I watched him, a flustered Gump in the headlights, I saw a broader story, a dark parable of bets misplaced and souls under siege. This is what happens when you draw too close to Trump.

You’re diminished at best, mortified at worst. You’ve either done work dirtier than you meant to or told fibs bigger than you ought to or been sullied by contact or been thrown to the wolves.

One day, you’re riding high on the myth of Trump as a transformative figure and reasoning that some tweaking of norms and maybe even breaking of rules are an inevitable part of the unconventional equation.

The next, you’re ensnared in his recklessness, at the mercy of his tempestuousness and quite possibly the butt of his rage: the case with Sessions, who sank low enough that he felt compelled last month to offer Trump his resignation.

“It’s just like through the looking glass: What is this?” Sessions said during his Senate testimony, and while he was alluding to the suggestion that he and the Russian ambassador had plotted together to steal a presidential election, he could just as easily have been referring to the warped topography of Trumplandia.

It’s a reputation-savaging place. Ask Rod Rosenstein for sure. Herbert McMaster, too. Also James Mattis. Sean Spicer. Reince Priebus. Rex Tillerson. Dan Coats. All have been under pressure, undercut or contradicted. They’ve been asked to pledge their fidelity to — even proclaim their adoration for — a man who adores only himself.

My God, that video, the one of the cabinet in full session at long last. I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s the most chilling measure yet of Trump’s narcissism, and it’s a breathtaking glimpse into what that means for the people around him.

They don’t volunteer purplish flattery like that because it’s their wont. He wants it so badly that they cough it up. To buoy his ego, they debase themselves, and what you heard them doing in that meeting wasn’t just swallowing their pride but choking on it. They looked like hostages — hostages in need of the Heimlich.

Well, most of them. Mike Pence has discovered a freaky talent for such freakish sycophancy, and called it “the greatest privilege of my life” to assist “the president who’s keeping his word to the American people.” (Which word is that?) He sounded like he believed it. The mysteries of faith, indeed.

A few others in the meeting summoned less ardor. “It’s an honor,” Mattis said, but then continued, “to represent the men and women of the Department of Defense.” Trump turned away just then, as if the absence of his name equaled the loss of his interest.

Mattis has suffered the humiliation of assuring allies of our commitment to NATO just before Trump, without warning him, sowed doubts about precisely that. McMaster, whose book “Dereliction of Duty” is expressly about talking truth to power, found himself at a lectern doing damage control for his damage-prone boss. He vouched that Trump’s divulgence of classified information to Russian officials at the White House was no big deal.

No one in Trump’s administration was forced into this service and its compromises. Some hungered for power, in whatever bastard package delivered it. At least a few, like Sessions, had poisoned reputations already.

But there were those with higher motives, too, and they find themselves in a White House governed by dread. Who’s next to be shamed? What tweet or tantrum awaits? They thought that they’d be bolstering a leader. They see now that they’re holding a grenade.

You could sense the stress of that in Sessions, who endorsed Trump before any other senator did, won the prize of attorney general but on Tuesday was the prosecuted, not the prosecutor.

At times he had a hurt, helpless air. He cried foul at the “secret innuendo being leaked out there about me.”

He called the suggestion that he’d conspired with Russia “an appalling and detestable lie.”

“I did not recuse myself from defending my honor against scurrilous and false allegations,” he declared. No, but he made it a hell of a lot harder the moment he took Trump’s hand.

For all Trump’s career and all his campaign, he played the part of Midas, claiming that everything he touched turned to gold. That was never true. This is: Almost everyone who touches him is tarnished, whether testifying or not.

Krugman’s blog, 6/11/17 and 6/12/17

June 13, 2017

Prof. Krugman may have taken some time off from his column, but he’s been busy on his blog.  There was one post on Sunday, and two yesterday.  Sunday’s post was “They Don’t Need No Information:”

I’m as riveted by Trump/Russia as everyone else. But meanwhile Trumpcare — which really has very little to do with Trump, except that he’ll sign it — appears to be marching on despite the terrible CBO score on the House version and the near-certainty that if the Senate passes anything it will be barely if at all better.

This tells you a lot about the values of the modern GOP, which will happily trade off health care for ~20 million people for tax cuts that deliver almost half their benefits to people with incomes over $1 million — fewer than 800,000 tax units.

But aside from the priorities, think about the process. The AHCA was deliberately rushed through before CBO could weigh in; the Senate GOP is working completely in secret, with no hearings, and anything it passes will surely also try to preempt the CBO.

You might think that this in part reflects conservative analyses that reach a different conclusion. But there aren’t any such analyses. Remember, OMB works for Trump; it has offered nothing. Even the Heritage Foundation, which used to be the go-to source for conservative creative accounting, hasn’t produced some implausible account of how the magic of markets will make it all work.

This is new. You might say that just as the GOP has decided to shrug off conventional concerns about ethics, it has also decided to shrug off conventional concerns about whether policies actually, you know, work.

To be sure, Republicans gave up evidence-based policymaking a long time ago. Back when Paul Ryan was pretending to be a serious policy wonk, he always started from the answer, then invented some assumptions and magic asterisks to justify that answer. Heritage has been a hack operation for many years.

But they used to at least pretend; people like Ryan weren’t actual policy experts, but they played them on TV, and gullible centrists were happy to help them maintain that pretense. Now they’re not even bothering to fake it.

And it’s hard to say with any assurance that they’ll pay a political price. After all, Obamacare was in fact the product of hard thinking — and it did a tremendous amount of good in places like, say, West Virginia, where Medicaid expansion (mainly) cut the number of uninsured by half. And in reward for this achievement, the good people of WV went Trump by 40 points.

Maybe massive losses in the midterms will convince Republicans that thinking about policy consequences is a good idea. Or maybe there will be more Kansas-type situations where even Republicans are so horrified by policy disaster that they change course. But even if these things happen eventually, what we’re seeing now is horrifying.

The first post yesterday was “We’re Not Even In Kansas Any More:”

Will the end of the Kansas tax-cut experiment — hey, that’s what Brownback himself called it, although he refused to accept the crystal-clear results of that experiment — mark a turning point in U.S. politics? Michael Tomasky thinks it might: not because it refuted supply-side fantasies, which have been refuted by experience and events again and again, but because Republicans themselves (sans Brownback) decided that enough was enough, and returned to fiscal sanity.

But I have my doubts. When I look at events in Washington, it seems to be that Republicans have moved on in ways that may eventually cause us to think about the Kansas experience almost fondly, as a relic of a better time when conservatives at least pretended to have intellectual justifications for their policies and proved, in practice, to care at least a bit about results.

For there was an idea, a theory, behind the Kansas tax cuts: the claim that cutting taxes on the wealthy would produce explosive economic growth. It was a foolish theory, belied by decades of experience: remember the economic collapse that was supposed to follow the Clinton tax hikes, or the boom that was supposed to follow the Bush tax cuts? And it was a theory that always survived mainly because of the Upton Sinclair principle that it’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.

But still, it was a theory, and eventually the theory’s failure was too much even for Republican legislators.

Now consider the AHCA, aka Trumpcare. What’s the theory of the case behind this legislation?

When Obamacare was enacted, Republicans had some claims, almost a theory, about why it was a terrible idea. It would, they claimed, fail to improve coverage. It would be a massive “job-killer”. It would cost far more than predicted, and blow up the budget deficit.

In reality, the percentage of Americans under 65 without insurance fell from 18 percent in 2010, the year Obamacare was enacted, to 10 percent in 2016 (and less than 8 percent in Medicaid expansion states). Unemployment was 9.9 percent when the ACA was passed, 6.6 when it went into full effect, 4.8 by January 2017. Costs have come in well below expectations.

There have been some disappointments: fewer people than expected signing up for the exchanges, although this has been offset by the surprising durability of employment-based coverage and stronger than expected Medicaid. But the point is that none of the things Republicans cited as their reason for opposing the bill have come true.

So what’s the theory behind their proposed replacement? Where’s their analysis showing that it will be better? There’s no hint of anything on either topic. You might have expected some kind of appeal to the magic of the market, some claim that radical deregulation will produce wonderful results. It would have been silly, but at least would have shown some respect for the basic idea of analyzing policies and evaluating them by results.

But what we’re getting instead is a raw exercise of political power: the GOP is trying to take away health care from millions and hand the savings to the wealthy simply because it can, without even a fig leaf of intellectual justification.

The point is that what we’re seeing now is so bad, so cynical, that it makes the Kansas experiment looks like a model of idealism and honesty by comparison.

I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore. We’re now in someplace much, much worse.

Yesterday’s second post was “Macroeconomics: The Simple and the Fancy:”

Noah Smith has a nice summation of his critique of macroeconomics, which mainly comes down, as I read it, as an appeal for researchers to stay close to the ground. That’s definitely good advice for young researchers.

But what about economists trying to provide useful advice, directly or indirectly, to policy makers, who need to make decisions based on educated guesses about the whole system? Smith says, “go slow, allow central bankers to use judgment and simple models in the meantime.” That would be better than a lot of what academic macroeconomists do in practice, which is to castigate central bankers and other policymakers for not using elaborate models that don’t work. But is there really no role for smart academics to help out in this process? And if so, what does this say about the utility of what the profession does?

The thing is, those simple models have done pretty darn well since 2008 — and central bankers who used them, like Bernanke, did a lot better than central bankers like Trichet who based their judgements on something else. So surely at least part of the training of macroeconomists should prepare them to be helpful in applying simple models, maybe even in making those simple models better.

Reading Smith, I found myself remembering an old line from Robert Solow in defense of “fancy” economic theorizing:

In economics I like a man to have mastered the fancy theory before I trust him with simple theory … because high-powered economics seems to be such an excellent school for the skillful use of low-powered economics.

OK, can anyone make that case about modern macroeconomics? With a straight face? In practice, it has often seemed that expertise in high-powered macroeconomics — mainly meaning DSGE — positively incapacitates its possessors from the use of low-powered macroeconomics, largely IS-LM and its derivatives.

I don’t want to make a crude functional argument here: research that advances knowledge doesn’t have to provide an immediate practical payoff. But the experience since 2008 has strongly suggested that the research program that dominated macro for the previous generation actually impaired the ability of economists to provide useful advice in the moment. Mastering the fancy stuff made economists useless at the simple stuff.

A more modest program would, in part, help diminish this harm. But it would also be really helpful if macroeconomists relearned the idea that simple aggregate models can, in fact, be useful.

 

Brooks and Cohen

June 13, 2017

Bobo has decided to pose a question:  “Is Radicalism Possible Today?”  He gurgles that the best change is not hasty, as dreamed by the last century’s idealists, but a gradual, grinding conversation.  “Jack Mahoney” from Brunswick, Maine will have things to say to him.  Mr. Cohen, in “Theresa May’s Weak and Wobbly Outfit,” says a feeble hand means a soft Brexit, if one can be negotiated at all.  Here’s Bobo:

Are you feeling radical? Do you think that the status quo is fundamentally broken and we have to start thinking about radical change? If so, I’d like to go back a century so that we might learn how radicalism is done.

The years around 1917 were a great period of radical ferment. Folks at The New Republic magazine were championing progressivism, which would transform how the economy is regulated and how democracy works. At The Masses, left-wing activists were fomenting a global socialist revolution. Outside the White House radical suffragists were protesting for the right to vote and creating modern feminism.

People in those days had one thing we have in abundance: an urge to rebel against the current reality — in their case against the brutalities of industrialization, the rigidities of Victorianism, the stale formulas of academic thinking.

But they also had a whole series of mechanisms they thought they could use to implement change. If you were searching for a new consciousness, there was a neighborhood to go to: Greenwich Village. If you were searching for a dissident lifestyle, there was one — Bohemianism, with its artistic rejection of commercial life.

People had faith in small magazines as the best lever to change the culture and the world. People had faith in the state, in central planning as an effective tool to reorganize the economy and liberate the oppressed. Radicals had faith in the working class, to ally with the intellectuals and form a common movement against concentrated wealth.

There were many people then who had a genius for creating ideals, and for betting their whole lives on an effort to live out these ideals. I’ve just been reading Jeremy McCarter’s inspiring and entertaining new book “Young Radicals,” which is a group portrait of five of those radicals: Walter Lippmann, Randolph Bourne, Max Eastman, Alice Paul and John Reed.

All of them had a youthful and exuberant faith that transformational change was imminently possible. Reed was the romantic adventurer — the one who left Harvard and ventured to be at the center of wherever the action might be — union strikes, the Russian Revolution. Paul was the dogged one — the diminutive activist who gave up sleep, gave up leisure, braved rancid prisons to serve the suffragist movement.

But the two true geniuses were Lippmann and Bourne, who offer lessons on different styles of radicalism. With his magisterial, organized mind, Lippmann threw his lot in with social science, with rule by experts. He believed in centralizing and nationalizing, and letting the best minds weigh the evidence and run the country. He lived his creed, going from socialist journalism to the halls of Woodrow Wilson’s administration.

Bourne was more visionary and vulnerable. He’d grown up in a stiflingly dull WASP town. It was only when he met the cosmopolitan stew of different ethnicities in New York that he got the chance to “breathe a larger air.” At a time of surging immigration, and fierce debate over it, Bourne celebrated that “America is coming to be, not a nationality but a trans-nationality, a weaving back and forth, with the other lands, of many threads of all sizes and colors.”

Bourne believed in decentralized change — personal, spiritual, a revolution in consciousness. The “Beloved Community” he imagined was a bottom-up, Whitmanesque “spiritual welding,” a graceful coming together of unlike ethnicities.

The crucial decision point came as the United States approached entry into World War I. Lippmann supported the war, believing that it would demand more federal planning and therefore would accelerate social change. Bourne was appalled by such instrumentalist thinking, by the acceptance of war’s savagery. As McCarter puts it, “As Bourne has been arguing, no choice that supports a war will realize any ideal worth the name.”

The radicals split between pragmatists willing to work within the system and visionaries who raised larger possibilities from outside. Spreading their ideals, they pushed America forward. Living out their ideals, most were disillusioned. Reed lost faith in the Soviet Union. Lippmann lost faith in Wilson after Versailles. Bourne died marginalized and bitter during the flu epidemic of 1918.

Bourne was the least important radical a century ago, but with his fervent embrace of a decentralized, globalist, cosmopolitan world, he is the most relevant today. He is the best rebuttal to both Trumpian populism and the multicultural separatist movements on the left, who believe in separate graduation ceremonies by race, or that the normal exchange of ideas among people represents cultural appropriation.

Most of the 20th-century radicals were wrong to put their faith in a revolutionary vanguard, a small group who could see farther and know better. Bourne was right to understand that the best change is dialogical, the gradual, grinding conversation, pitting interest against interest, one group’s imperfections against another’s, but bound by common nationhood and humanity.

Are we really going to hand revolutionary power to the state, the intellectuals, the social scientists, the working class or any other class? No. This is not 1917. But can we recommit ourselves to the low but steady process of politics, bartering and exchanging, which is incremental about means but radical about ends? That’s a safer bet.

And now here’s what “Jack Mahoney” has to say about that:

“David, aren’t labels fun?

For example, for the last 40 years, a bloc of voters and politicians has done everything in its power to unravel GOP Pres. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s America that built superhighways and taxed the richest (and therefore those most beholden to the opportunities inherent in a land with so few highwaymen and home invaders) severely.

Somehow, under his Socialist lash, tearing up America to build an Interstate Highway system made up of “freeways,” meaning that drivers could make use of them without paying tolls, the country surged ahead. The GI Bill made going to college and buying a house easier for veterans. In New York City, college tuition was free. This country, which boasts that hard work and determination can make a poor kid into a rich adult, seemed to be coming through on that promise.

Then came the privatizers, waving Ayn Rand as if her prescriptions weren’t the equivalent of L. Ron Hubbard’s, arguing that mutual action denied each of us the opportunity to … what exactly? How does free college adversely impact individuals’ education and the national level of learning? How does allowing the country’s infrastructure to so grossly deteriorate celebrate individual achievement? How does privatizing our occupation forces in Asia make America stronger?

Almost mockingly, the dismantlers of America called themselves conservative, and somehow the supine press has gone along with the joke.

They have ripped out the guts of America. Healthcare’s next.”

Now here’s Mr. Cohen:

The British, sleepwalking into what Will Hutton of The Guardian has called “a national act of self-harm on an epic scale,” have voted to be near ungovernable – a condition in which the enfeebled Prime Minister Theresa May claims she can offer “certainty,” but that in fact constitutes, as she has conceded, a “mess.”

The epic self-harm is, of course, Britain’s planned exit by 2019 from the European Union, the foundation of its prosperity and strategic heft over more than four decades. The self-inflicted mess stems from the prime minister’s humiliation in an election last week: call it May-hem. She is set to limp, vulnerable to the whims of her Conservative Party and to any crisis, into a rickety government propped up by a bunch of rabid Ulster Unionists who are the ideological heirs of the firebrand preacher, Ian Paisley.

An inept campaign saw May promising “strong and stable” government so often it became a joke. Britain, on the eve of a momentous negotiation that will define the lives of the youth who never wanted “Brexit,” now has the opposite: weak and wobbly government. This will mean that May has to compromise more; hence a softer departure from the Union, if there’s enough political coherence even for that. Those who cling, as I do, to the faint hope that Brexit will collapse under the weight of its folly have been given a fillip; this is not over.

May has been repudiated for her arrogance, but above all for her utter vacuity. Almost single-handedly she revived the Labour Party of the leftist Jeremy Corbyn, who at least appeared to believe in something.

May was for remaining in the Union before she was against it; at which point all she could say was “Brexit means Brexit.” This tautology, combined with May’s laughable fantasy of taking Britain “global” by exiting a single market of more than a half-billion people, summed up the nothingness of a decision informed by lies, fueled by jingoism, and spearheaded by charlatans.

The Conservative Party through a double own-goal – first the needless Brexit referendum and then May’s needless snap election – has delivered the country to polarization. The political center has evaporated. The extremes, and The Daily Mail, have won. Economic downturn, fueled by uncertainty, is almost sure to follow.

Together, Britain and the United States have succumbed to a strange delusion of restored greatness, symbolized by May’s embrace of Donald Trump. It is the allies’ un-finest hour. They have turned inward; they have turned nasty. Trump’s planned visit to Britain later this year, a sop to his vainglory that revealed British desperation at the loss of Europe, is on hold – because a sitting American president is that unpopular in London! To sabotage British goodwill toward America to this degree is something, even for Trump.

There is a vacuum where Anglo-American liberalism once stood: Angela Merkel’s Germany and Emmanuel Macron’s France have stepped up to face down Vladimir Putin and his ilk. The postwar order had a good run: 1945-2017.

Fintan O’Toole offered a good summary of Brexit in The New York Review of Books: “Strip away the post-imperial make-believe and the Little England nostalgia, and there’s almost nothing there, no clear sense of how a middling European country with little native industry can hope to thrive by cutting itself off from its biggest trading partner and most important political alliance.”

Still, it’s what the people, or at least a narrow majority, wanted. That has to be respected, unless the people change their mind.

May’s other mantra was, “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal.” That’s off the table, unless Ireland along with British prosperity is to be sacrificed on the Brexit altar. The Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party, whose ten seats are now essential to May’s flimsy majority, are anti-abortion and anti-same-sex marriage, but even they are not so retrograde as to want a hard border with Ireland, an E.U. member, imposed as a result of a chaotic exit. Nor do they want the border controls that would accompany British withdrawal from the customs union. May’s D.U.P. dalliance does not come free.

The prime minister will also have to listen more to Conservatives, like Ken Clarke, who have opposed a hard Brexit. She will have to accept that the E.U. is going to exact a price for this decision: Britain cannot have its cake and eat it. If the country wants to remain in the single market, overwhelmingly in its interest, it will have to accept free movement of people, but then, as Hugo Dixon observed on Infacts.org, “Wouldn’t we be better off staying in the E.U., where we have lots of influence?”

Weak and wobbly means weak and wobbly. May could well fall within the next two years, possibly leading to another election. A parliament that is restive may reject any deal she does cobble together. Buyers’ regret was evident in the Labour surge. It is no longer wishful thinking to believe such regret could yet lead to a second referendum, based this time on real terms rather than wretched lies.

Solo Blow

June 12, 2017

In “The Resistance: Impeachment Anxiety” Mr. Blow says it’s important to face the very real possibility that Trump’s removal may not come.  (Prof. Krugman’s offerings will be sporadic for a bit — a combination of travel and a family emergency.)  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Last week, in highly anticipated Senate testimony, fired F.B.I. Director James Comey delivered a stinging rebuke and strong indictment of Donald Trump as an abuser of power, twister of arms and, above all, a spewer of lies.

No fewer than five times did Comey accuse Trump of lying.

The White House’s response as issued from the mouth of spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders: “I can definitely say the president is not a liar, and I think it’s, frankly, insulting that question would be asked.”

No, you saying he’s not a liar is a lie, and it is the American people who are insulted.

Trump took to Twitter on Friday morning, writing:

“Despite so many false statements and lies, total and complete vindication … and WOW, Comey is a leaker!”

That too was a lie.

During a Rose Garden press conference Friday afternoon with the president of Romania, Trump answered the question of why he felt “complete vindication” by speaking in a hodgepodge of hashtags:

“No collusion, no obstruction, he’s a leaker.”

If America is confronted with a he-said, he-said standoff between Trump and Comey, the former having a documented history as a pathological liar and the latter not, who one grants the benefit of the doubt to is easily answered: Comey.

And yet, there was something many seemed to find unsatisfying about Comey’s testimony: There was no knockout blow. It wasn’t the penultimate moment that guaranteed impeachment, but rather just another moment in what will likely be a plodding inquiry.

This becomes the critical and increasingly urgent question for many: Will Trump be impeached — or indicted — and when? The anticipation has produced a throbbing anxiety. There is so much emotional investment in Trump’s removal that I fear that it blinds people to the fact that it is a long shot and, in any case, a long way off.

As Adam Liptak wrote last month in The New York Times, about special counsel Robert S. Mueller’s investigation:

“Would the Constitution allow Mr. Mueller to indict Mr. Trump if he finds evidence of criminal conduct? The prevailing view among most legal experts is no. They say the president is immune from prosecution so long as he is in office.”

As to the point of impeachment, the founders made this difficult on purpose.

Only two American presidents — Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton — have ever been impeached by the House of Representatives. The Senate refused to convict in both cases, and both men remained in office.

Richard Nixon may well have been impeached, but resigned before the House could vote on his articles of impeachment.

Yes, there is a first time for everything, and this may well be the first time that a president is impeached by the House and convicted by the Senate, or that a president is successfully indicted, but think hard about how remote that possibility is.

At this moment both the House and Senate are led by Republicans who show no inclination to hold Trump accountable and who in fact are now making excuses for his aberrant behavior.

Last week House Speaker Paul Ryan excused Trump’s highly inappropriate contacts with Comey, making the silly argument that Trump is “just new to this.”

Republican Senator Susan Collins on Friday engaged in the outlandish speculation that Comey had set the precedent for one-on-one meetings with Trump when Comey pulled Trump aside to discuss the salacious “pee-tape” dossier.

Sorry folks, ignorance — even the towering ignorance of Trump — is no excuse.

A damning report from Mueller could change Republican reticence, but such a report is likely quite far off. (Fifteen months passed from the time a special prosecutor was appointed in the Watergate investigation and the time Nixon resigned.)

Unfortunately American expectations are tuned to a Netflix sensibility in which we want to binge a complete season in a single sitting. A proper investigation will not indulge our impatience.

The best bet is for Democrats to win a majority in the House in 2018, which is possible and maybe even likely, but winning a majority in the Senate that year is a much steeper climb — not impossible, but improbable.

I know well that the very real obstacles to removal injures the psyche of those worn thin by the relentless onslaught of awfulness erupting from this White House. I know well that impeachment is one of the only rays of hope cutting through these dark times. I’m with you; I too crave some form of political comeuppance.

But, I believe that it’s important to face the very real possibility that removal may not come, and if it does, it won’t come swiftly. And even a Trump impeachment would leave America with a President Pence, a nightmare of a different stripe but no less a nightmare.

In the end, the Resistance must be bigger than impeachment; it must be about political realignment. It must be built upon solid rock of principle and not hang solely on the slender hope of expulsion. This is a long game and will not come to an abrupt conclusion. Perseverance must be the precept; lifelong commitment must be the motto.

Brooks, Cohen, and Krugman

June 10, 2017

Here they are, a day late (sorry about that!), but I guess better late than never.  In “It’s Not the Crime, It’s the Culture” Bobo tells us that the Trump presidency will probably not be brought down by outside forces. Instead, it will implode.  Mr. Cohen says “James Comey Moves the Pendulum,” and that Trump is vulnerable. He wanted the former F.B.I. director to “lift the cloud” but it has now enveloped him.  Prof. Krugman, in “Wrecking the Ship of State,” says Trump shows the damage a bad president can do.  Here’s Bobo:

The first important part of James Comey’s testimony was that he cast some doubt on reports that there was widespread communication between the Russians and the Trump campaign. That was the suspicion that set off this whole chain of events and the possibility that could have quickly brought about impeachment proceedings.

The second important implication of the hearings is that as far as we know, Donald Trump has not performed any criminal act that would merit removing him from office.

Sure, he cleared the room so he could lean on Comey to go easy on Michael Flynn. But he didn’t order Comey to shut down the investigation as a whole or do any of the things (like following up on the request) that would constitute real obstruction.

And sure, Trump did later fire Comey. But it’s likely that the Comey firing had little or nothing to do with the Flynn investigation.

Trump was, as always, thinking about himself. Comey had told Trump three times that he was not under investigation. Trump wanted Comey to repeat that fact publicly. When Comey didn’t, Trump took it as a sign that Comey was disloyal, an unforgivable sin. So he fired him, believing, insanely, that the move would be popular.

All of this would constitute a significant scandal in a normal administration, but it would not be grounds for impeachment.

The third important lesson of the hearing is that Donald Trump is characterologically at war with the norms and practices of good government. Comey emerged as a superb institutionalist, a man who believes we are a nation of laws. Trump emerged as a tribalist and a clannist, who simply cannot understand the way modern government works.

Trump is also plagued with a self-destructive form of selfishness. He is consumed by a hunger for affirmation, but, demented by his own obsessions, he can’t think more than one step ahead.

In search of praise he is continually doing things that will end up bringing him condemnation. He lies to people who have the power to publicly devastate him. He betrays people who have the power to damage him. Trump is most dangerous to the people who are closest to him and are in the best position to take their revenge.

The upshot is the Trump administration will probably not be brought down by outside forces. It will be incapacitated from within, by the bile, rage and back-stabbing that are already at record levels in the White House staff, by the dueling betrayals of the intimates Trump abuses so wretchedly.

Although there may be no serious collusion with the Russians, there is now certain to be a wide-ranging independent investigation into all things Trump.

These investigations will take a White House that is already acidic and turn it sulfuric. James Hohmann and Joanie Greve had a superb piece in the Daily 202 section of The Washington Post. They compiled the lessons people in the Clinton administration learned from the Whitewater scandal, and applied them to the Trump White House.

If past is prologue, this investigation will drag on for a while. The Clinton people thought the Whitewater investigation might last six months, but the inquiries lasted over seven years. The Trump investigation will lead in directions nobody can now anticipate. When the Whitewater investigation started, Monica Lewinsky was an unknown college student and nobody had any clue that an investigation into an Arkansas land deal would turn into an investigation about sex.

This investigation will ruin careers far and wide. Investigators go after anybody they think can yield information on the president. Before the Whitewater investigators got to Clinton they took down Arkansas Gov. Jim Guy Tucker, Webb Hubbell, Susan and Jim McDougal, and many others.

This investigation will swallow up day-to-day life. As Clinton alum Jennifer Palmieri wrote in an op-ed in the USA Today network of newspapers: “No one in a position of authority at the White House tells you what is happening. No one knows. Your closest colleague could be under investigation and you would not know. You could be under investigation and not know. It can be impossible to stay focused on your job.”

Everybody will be affected. Betty Currie, Bill Clinton’s personal secretary, finally refused to mention the names of young White House employees to the investigators because every time she mentioned a name, the kid would get a subpoena, which meant thousands of dollars of ruinous legal fees.

If anything, the Trump investigation will probably be more devastating than the Whitewater scandals. The Clinton team was a few shady characters surrounded by a large group of super-competent straight arrows. The Trump administration is shady characters through and through. Clinton himself was a savvy operator. Trump is a rage-prone obsessive who will be consumed by this.

The good news is the civic institutions are weathering the storm. The Senate Intelligence Committee put on a very good hearing. The F.B.I. is maintaining its integrity. This has, by and large, been a golden age for the American press corps. The bad news is that these institutions had better be. The Trump death march will be slow, grinding and ugly.

So, Bobo gurgles that what we’re seeing now will “probably” be worse than Whitewater.  Interesting…  James Clapper, the former Director of National Intelligence, has said that “Watergate pales in comparison.”  Who ya gonna believe — Bobo or Clapper?  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

Somebody’s lying. I think we know who it is. People have habits; to lie is one of Donald Trump’s.

On May 18 Trump was asked: “Did you, at any time, urge former F.B.I. Director James Comey, in any way, shape or form, to close or to back down the investigation into Michael Flynn?” The president’s response: “No. No. Next question.”

Comey, in his statement to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, says that in a Feb. 14 Oval Office meeting Trump did precisely what he denies. The president asked the attorney general and his son-in-law Jared Kushner (among others) to leave the room before — one on one — broaching a matter he should never have raised. Alluding to Flynn, Trump told Comey: “I hope you can see your way clear to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”

A meticulous man, Comey immediately wrote a memo recording this improper attempt by Trump to halt the F.B.I. investigation of the former national security adviser and his dealings with Russia. Alone in the Oval Office with a president who had already tried through a veiled threat to establish a “patronage relationship,” Comey, as he explained in testimony to the committee, interpreted the president’s words as “a direction.”

How could he not? The mob slides in the knife with a let’s-hope-for-the-best smile. Trump was “hoping” for Flynn’s absolution the way King Henry II was hoping for Thomas Becket’s elimination when he wondered aloud if nobody would rid him of this “turbulent priest.” Becket was duly murdered.

Trump had fired Flynn the previous day. He was worried; Flynn knows a lot. So much, in fact, that in Vladimir Putin’s Russia he’d be dead. Indeed if Trump, from Comey’s testimony, seems more than ready to cast aside “some of my satellites” for their Russian shenanigans — perhaps even Kushner — he’s obsessive about Flynn.

The president appointed him despite warnings from Barack Obama; stuck by him for 18 days after Sally Yates, the acting attorney general at the time, warned him that Flynn was compromised by the Russians; made his first insistent demands for “loyalty” from Comey the day after the Yates warning; fired Flynn only to ask Comey to “let this go”; and dismissed Comey for a cascade of contradictory reasons whose essence was that he’d resisted Trump’s attempts to alter the way the F.B.I.’s Russia investigation was being conducted.

Why Flynn? We will find out. My suggestion: follow the money. I’m sure that’s what Robert Mueller, the special counsel, is already doing. No doubt Mueller is also wondering what possible benign motive could lead Trump to clear the Oval Office before asking the F.B.I. director to spare Flynn.

You don’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to smell a rat. Russia is big; so is Trump’s problem with it. He never — never! — asked Comey what should be done to stop Russian interference in American democracy. Yet, as Comey said in his testimony: “There should be no fuzz on this whatsoever. The Russians interfered in our election during the 2016 cycle.” The effort was driven “from the top of that government;” it was “about as unfake as you can possibly get.” Trump’s silence on this subversion qualifies as sinister.

Trump called Comey “a showboat.” That’s funny. Comey, conscientious to a fault, is an American patriot who understands that the law and defense of the Constitution stand at the core of the nation’s being. Dispense with them, you dispense with America. “We remain that shining city on the hill,” he insisted. Trump, by contrast, has always skirted the law and since his inauguration has shown contempt for the Constitution. The only thing that interests the president about checks and balances is how to dispense with them.

As Stephen Burbank, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, put it to me: “Trump’s business is infecting the people around him. To show loyalty you have to engage in the corrupt or mendacious behavior he engages in. So he’s a form of contagion — and Comey did not want the investigation infected.”

That’s the sum of this sordid story. Trump wanted Comey to show “loyalty,’’ by which he meant pliant subservience; he wanted him to shelve the F.B.I. investigation of Flynn; he demanded that Comey “lift the cloud” of the Russian investigation by declaring that Trump was not being personally investigated; and then fired Comey for his refusal to obey the “boss.” The firing was a vain attempt to get the pressure of the Russia investigation relieved, as Trump subsequently boasted he had — to the Russians no less.

What was Trump’s motive? It’s hard to see an innocent one. His actions look like a corrupt attempt to interfere with the due administration of justice — that is, the independent F.B.I. investigation. Given Republican control of Congress, it’s very unlikely there’ll be any move to impeach until Mueller completes his inquiry. But if Mueller suggests the president could be indicted, impeachment proceedings will be hard to resist — and then, as Burbank put it, “what we might colloquially call ‘obstruction of justice’ might be deemed a high crime or misdemeanor even if it would not violate federal criminal law.”

Comey has moved the pendulum. Trump is vulnerable.

And now here’s Prof. Krugman:

After Donald Trump’s surprise election victory, many people on the right and even in the center tried to make the case that he wouldn’t really be that bad. Every time he showed a hint of self-restraint — even if it amounted to nothing more than reading his lines without ad-libbing and laying off Twitter for a day or two — pundits rushed to declare that he had just “become president.”

But can we now admit that he really is as bad as — or worse than — his harshest critics predicted he would be? And it’s not just his contempt for the rule of law, which came through so clearly in the James Comey testimony: As the legal scholar Jeffrey Toobin says, if this isn’t obstruction of justice, what is? There’s also the way Trump’s character, his combination of petty vindictiveness with sheer laziness, leaves him clearly not up to doing the job.

And that’s a huge problem. Think, for a minute, of just how much damage this man has done on multiple fronts in just five months.

Take health care. It’s still unclear whether Republicans will ever be able to pass a replacement for Obamacare (although it is clear that if they do, it will take coverage away from tens of millions). But whatever happens on the legislative front, there are big problems developing in the insurance markets as we speak: companies pulling out, leaving some parts of the country unserved, or asking for large increases in premiums.

Why? It’s not, whatever Republicans may say, because Obamacare is an unworkable system; insurance markets were clearly stabilizing last fall. Instead, as insurers themselves have been explaining, the problem is the uncertainty created by Trump and company, especially the failure to make clear whether crucial subsidies will be maintained. In North Carolina, for example, Blue Cross Blue Shield has filed for a 23 percent rise in premiums, but declared that it would have asked for only 9 percent if it were sure that cost-sharing subsidies would continue.

So why hasn’t it received that assurance? Is it because Trump believes his own assertions that he can cause Obamacare to collapse, then get voters to blame Democrats? Or is it because he’s too busy rage-tweeting and golfing to deal with the issue? It’s hard to tell, but either way, it’s no way to make policy.

Or take the remarkable decision to take Saudi Arabia’s side in its dispute with Qatar, a small nation that houses a huge U.S. military base. There are no good guys in this quarrel, but every reason for the U.S. to stay out of the middle.

So what was Trump doing? There’s no hint of a strategic vision; some sources suggest that he may not even have known about the large U.S. base in Qatar and its crucial role.

The most likely explanation of his actions, which have provoked a crisis in the region (and pushed Qatar into the arms of Iran) is that the Saudis flattered him — the Ritz-Carlton projected a five-story image of his face on the side of its Riyadh property — and their lobbyists spent large sums at the Trump Washington hotel.

Normally, we would consider it ridiculous to suggest that an American president could be so ignorant of crucial issues, and be led to take dangerous foreign policy moves with such crude inducements. But can we believe this about a man who can’t accept the truth about the size of his inauguration crowds, who boasts about his election victory in the most inappropriate circumstances? Yes.

And consider his refusal to endorse the central principle of NATO, the obligation to come to our allies’ defense — a refusal that came as a shock and surprise to his own foreign policy team. What was that about? Nobody knows, but it’s worth considering that Trump apparently ranted to European Union leaders about the difficulty of setting up golf courses in their nations. So maybe it was sheer petulance.

The point, again, is that everything suggests that Trump is neither up to the job of being president nor willing to step aside and let others do the work right. And this is already starting to have real consequences, from disrupted health coverage to ruined alliances to lost credibility on the world stage.

But, you say, stocks are up, so how bad can it be? And it’s true that while Wall Street has lost some of its initial enthusiasm for Trumponomics — the dollar is back down to pre-election levels — investors and businesses don’t seem to be pricing in the risk of really disastrous policy.

That risk is, however, all too real — and one suspects that the big money, which tends to equate wealth with virtue, will be the last to realize just how big that risk really is. The American presidency is, in many ways, sort of an elected monarchy, in which a temperamentally and intellectually unqualified leader can do immense damage.

That’s what’s happening now. And we’re barely one-tenth of the way through Trump’s first term. The worst, almost surely, is yet to come.

Welp, it’s time to head back under the bed…

Blow, Kristof, and Collins

June 8, 2017

In “James Comey Cometh” Mr. Blow says Comey’s statement makes Trump sound more like a mob boss than like the president of a democracy.  Mr. Kristof, in “James Comey and Our Own Tin-Pot Despot, Donald Trump,” says Trump’s contempt for the legal system is clear.  In “Guess What Week It Is?” Ms. Collins says it’s time to take a highway out to lunch.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

It is hard to calculate the grievousness of the wounds that James Comey’s testimony will inflict on Donald Trump.

On Wednesday, representatives of Comey, the consummate showman whose own flair for the dramatic rivals Trump’s, requested the release of his incredibly detailed opening statement in advance of his Thursday Senate testimony.

If you believe the Comey statement, you must take away from it that Trump is a liar, a bully and a criminal. You must take away from it that Trump has a consuming need to be surrounded not only by loyalists but also by lackeys. You must take away that Trump is brand obsessed — his own brand — and that anything that besmirches that brand must be blunted. You must take away that Trump knows nothing of decorum and propriety and boundaries. You must take away that this is the most comprehensive and compelling case thus far that Trump did indeed engage in obstruction of justice.

Trump’s comments as alleged in the Comey statement make Trump sound more like a mob boss than the president of a democracy.

Comey recounts that at a Jan. 27 dinner alone with Trump in the Green Room of the White House, Trump demanded, “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.” This was after Trump seemed to implicitly threaten Comey’s job:

“The President began by asking me whether I wanted to stay on as FBI Director, which I found strange because he had already told me twice in earlier conversations that he hoped I would stay, and I had assured him that I intended to. He said that lots of people wanted my job and, given the abuse I had taken during the previous year, he would understand if I wanted to walk away.”

Trump was also insistent that Comey publicly state that Trump — not necessarily members of his campaign — was not at that time under investigation, because “the cloud” the suspicion created was impeding his progress as president. As Comey recalls, Trump said he would do as Comey advised and have the White House counsel contact the leadership of the Department of Justice to make the request for a public statement, but then Trump added:

“‘Because I have been very loyal to you, very loyal; we had that thing you know.’ I did not reply or ask him what he meant by ‘that thing.’”

Comey writes that he didn’t want to issue a statement that Trump was not under investigation at that time because it by no means meant that Trump would not be under investigation later, after more was known. As Comey wrote about Trump following another phone call:

“He repeatedly told me, ‘We need to get that fact out.’ (I did not tell the President that the FBI and the Department of Justice had been reluctant to make public statements that we did not have an open case on President Trump for a number of reasons, most importantly because it would create a duty to correct, should that change.)”

Trump was obsessed with the salacious dossier of unsubstantiated claims compiled by a former British spy, including the explosive claim that Russian authorities believed they could successfully exploit Trump’s “personal obsessions and sexual perversion in order to obtain suitable ‘kompromat’ (compromising material) on him.”

The document continued:

“According to Source D, where s/he had been present, TRUMP’s (perverted) conduct in Moscow included hiring the presidential suite of the Ritz Carlton Hotel, where he knew President and Mrs. OBAMA (whom he hated) had stayed on one of their official trips to Russia, and defiling the bed where they had slept by employing a number of prostitutes to perform a ‘golden showers’ (urination) show in front of him.”

According to Comey’s statement, Trump was so upset by the details in the dossier that at a dinner in the Green Room of the White House, “he said he was considering ordering me to investigate the alleged incident to prove it didn’t happen.”

It demonstrates Trump’s inexplicable and incessant pleading on behalf of his fired national security adviser, Michael Flynn; Trump implored Comey to drop the investigation into Flynn. At one point, Comey quotes Trump as saying: “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy.”

Comey wrote of the exchange:

“I immediately prepared an unclassified memo of the conversation about Flynn and discussed the matter with FBI senior leadership. I had understood the President to be requesting that we drop any investigation of Flynn in connection with false statements about his conversations with the Russian ambassador in December. I did not understand the President to be talking about the broader investigation into Russia or possible links to his campaign. I could be wrong, but I took him to be focusing on what had just happened with Flynn’s departure and the controversy around his account of his phone calls. Regardless, it was very concerning, given the FBI’s role as an independent investigative agency.”

The supreme irony here is that Trump was apparently not under investigation at the time, but his reactions to the investigation itself and his raging narcissism may have put him at the center of an even more ominous investigation.

I don’t know if the president will ever be charged with a crime. I don’t know whether he will eventually be impeached. Prosecution and impeachment are both birds in the bush, ones that may never manifest.

But I am absolutely sure that the picture emerging of Trump’s predilections and peccadilloes reaffirms and strengthens my view of him: He is thoroughly unfit for the office and a stain on this nation and the world. Trump should not be in a mansion with white columns, but in a cell with black bars.

Next up we have Mr. Kristof:

In his prepared testimony before Congress, James Comey says he spoke alone with President Barack Obama on just two occasions — once simply for Obama to say a brief goodbye. In contrast, he adds, “I can recall nine one-on-one conversations with President Trump in four months.”

These were profoundly uncomfortable and in some cases “very concerning” and highly irregular, recounts Comey, who was fired as F.B.I. director last month. After one conversation, he says, “I took the opportunity to implore the attorney general to prevent any future direct communication between the president and me.

Trump sought a pledge of personal loyalty so as to turn the head of the F.B.I. into a political lackey. “I need loyalty,” Comey quotes Trump as telling him. “I expect loyalty.”

“I didn’t move, speak or change my facial expression in any way during the awkward silence that followed,” Comey adds. “We simply looked at each other in silence.”

Trump’s behavior is reminiscent of what tin-pot despots do. I know, for I’ve covered the overthrow of more than I can count.

So let’s not get mired in legal technicalities. Whether or not it was illegal for Trump to urge Comey to back off his investigation into Russia ties to Mike Flynn, who was fired as national security adviser, it was utterly inappropriate. What comes through is a persistent effort by Trump to interfere with the legal system. There’s a consistent pattern: Trump’s contempt for the system of laws that, incredibly, he now presides over.

All this is of course tied to Russia and its equally extraordinary attack on the American political system last year. The latest revelation is that Russian military intelligence executed a cyberattack on at least one supplier of American voting software and tried to compromise the computers of more than 100 local voting officials.

Comey specifies in his testimony, to be presented Thursday, that he told Trump that there was no personal investigation of him, but that this might change. Comey seems to have an open mind — a good lesson for all of us.

To frame the Comey testimony, consider the staggering comments this week of James Clapper, the director of national intelligence until early this year.

“Watergate pales really, in my view, compared to what we’re confronting now,” said Clapper, a former lieutenant general with a long career in intelligence under Republican and Democratic presidents alike. He added: “I am very concerned about the assault on our institutions coming from both an external source — read Russia — and an internal source — the president himself.”

As Clapper suggested, Trump has been undermining the institutions and mores that undergird our political process; whether or not his conduct was felonious, it has been profoundly subversive.

Apart from Comey and the Russia investigation, Trump has systematically attacked the institutions of American life that he sees as impediments. He denounced judges and the courts. He has attacked journalists as “the enemy of the people,” and urged that some be jailed for publishing classified information. He has publicly savaged Democrats and Republicans who stand up to him.

More broadly, Trump has ignored longstanding democratic norms, such as that a presidential candidate release tax returns and obey certain ethics rules. He flouts conventions against nepotism. And perhaps most fundamentally, he simply lies at every turn: Politicians often spin and exaggerate, they even lie in extremis to escape scandal. But Trump is different. He lies on autopilot, on something as banal as the size of inauguration crowds.

Obama was meticulous about ethics rules. He consulted lawyers before accepting the Nobel Peace Prize; aides were forced to give up Twitter accounts when they left office, to ensure they had not benefited improperly by gaining followers.

In contrast, the Trump family seems indifferent to optics — and determined to monetize the presidency. The latest ugliness is in a devastating exposé by Forbes about charity work by Eric Trump to raise money for children with cancer.

Eric raised some $16 million, which is wonderful. The Trump family had claimed to donate the use of its golf courses for these charity events, so that virtually all of the money raised was flowing to the sick children. Instead, Forbes says, the Trumps charged huge sums to hold the events — misleading the public, and profiting from donations intended for sick children.

Skimming money meant for kids with cancer? This is cartoonlike. (The family hasn’t responded in detail, although Eric did say that, to him, the critics are “not even people.” He lamented that “morality’s just gone.”)

President Trump sought office as a law-and-order campaigner, and he is overseeing a crackdown on refugees, immigrants, drug offenders and other vulnerable people. But he is also systematically undermining the rule of law as “those wise restraints that make men free,” in the words of the late law professor John Maguire.

So as we watch Comey testify, remember that the fundamental question is not just whether the president broke a particular law regarding obstruction of justice, but also whether he is systematically assaulting the rule of law that makes us free.

And now here’s Ms. Collins:

Happy Infrastructure Week!

O.K., I know some of you are distracted by competing current events. But the Trump administration would prefer that we all concentrate on the president’s plans for improving the nation’s roads and bridges.

Trump promised he’d be discussing infrastructure with all the major players “in great depth next week.” This was right before he went into a meeting with legislative leaders on Tuesday. You may be wondering why he didn’t discuss it with them in great depth right at that moment. Since this is, you know, Infrastructure Week.

One possible answer is that the president likes promising to discuss important policy matters in the future much more than he likes working on them in the present. But to be fair, one of the Republican leaders did report later that Trump had mentioned the wall along the Mexican border, which would definitely be a structure. The president revealed he wants to pay for it by putting solar panels along the top.

Wait a minute, I thought he hated renewable energy!

Where did you come from? No, he doesn’t hate renewable energy. Just wind power, and that’s just because the Scottish government put some turbines near one of his golf courses.

But let me tell you a little more about Infrastructure Week. While the whole world was talking about James Comey, Trump launched it with a plug for privatization of part of the Federal Aviation Administration. He sat down in front of the cameras and signed what might have looked, to the uninitiated, like a law, or a program, or at least a calendar of events. But it was really just a letter to Congress encouraging everyone to take up the F.A.A. idea. Which they have already made pretty clear they probably won’t.

Why would we want to privatize the F.A.A.? It’s not going to make flying safer. If they wanted to make it better, they could tell the airlines to put in more leg room.

I could use a little less interruption. But, yeah.

During the presidential campaign, Trump called for a $1 trillion program to rebuild the nation’s roads and bridges and waterways. It was a super popular idea, and once he was elected, one of the very few bright spots congressional Democrats saw on the horizon. They figured Republican fiscal conservatives would balk, but they could make a deal to deliver the needed extra votes.

“I told him — you know you’ll need our support,” a prominent Democrat happily told me last year. “And he said, ‘Yeah.’”

This is what conversation sounds like in Washington these days. Still, by Trumpian standards, that’s the Gettysburg Address.

But Trump’s people never reached out to the Democrats, who had reasonable reservations about the original plan, which made some very iffy presumptions about using tax credits to get private investment in the roads and bridges. Under the very best of circumstances, it would mean a lot of tolls. It would also require a lot of smart government oversight, and we are talking here about a White House that has yet to figure out how to nominate an ambassador to Great Britain.

Plus, the president’s budget actually cut $206 billion the government had already committed to infrastructure projects. So on Wednesday, when Trump was in Cincinnati standing by the mighty Ohio and extolling the glories of river transport, cynics gloomily recalled that he wants to slice a billion dollars from the Army Corps of Engineers, which fixes the dams and locks.

Did he brag about winning the election? He always does that in his speeches.

Yeah, there was a little mention of how Ohio “was supposed to be close. It wasn’t.” He spent much more time praising himself for approving the completion of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which required him to courageously stand up to environmental groups that had not supported him in the election. (“Nobody thought any politician would have the guts to approve that final leg. I just closed my eyes and I said: ‘Do it.’”)

What’s wrong with investing government money on roads? President Eisenhower did the biggest highway construction program ever, and he was a Republican.

If you’re going to try to imagine Donald Trump and Dwight Eisenhower in the same party, we can’t continue talking.

But Trump did bring up Eisenhower’s grand achievement in Cincinnati. “The Interstate Highway System — we don’t do that anymore. We don’t even fix them,” he complained. There was no explanation of how the fixing was going to be accomplished through private investors, who want new tolls, not less potholes.

He didn’t say anything at all about how his infrastructure plan would work, possibly because it doesn’t appear to exist at this point in time. The Democrats do have one, but Trump certainly hasn’t read it.

Because he can’t read, right?

Don’t be mean. He just doesn’t like to read at great length. But the president made it sound as if, at the first mention of the word “infrastructure,” the Democrats had thrown themselves upon the barricades. “I just don’t see them coming together. They’re obstructionist,” he claimed.

The emperor has no clothes.

Yeah, this one has been buck naked since the day he took office.

Friedman and Bruni

June 7, 2017

In “Trump Lies. China Thrives.” TMOW says the president is a serial liar, but he’s right that Beijing plays unfair on trade.  Mr. Bruni has a question in “Donald Trump Is Never to Blame:” What’s a president with such incompetent underlings to do?  Here’s TMOW:

One of the many dangers posed to our society by having a president who’s a serial liar — and who doesn’t behave like an adult, let alone a president — is that we more easily ignore him even if he happens to say something true.

Yes, some things are true even if Donald Trump believes them. I explored one of them in China last week — Trump’s charge that China is playing unfair on trade.

My visit to Beijing left me with two very strong responses. The first is that we underestimate China — and attribute all of its surge in growth to unfair trade practices — at our peril. The country has been fast and smart at adopting new technologies, particularly the mobile internet. For instance, China has moved so fast into a cashless society, where everyone pays for everything with a mobile phone, that Chinese newspapers report beggars in major cities have started to place a printout of a QR code in their begging bowls so any passer-by can scan it and use mobile payment apps like Alibaba’s Alipay or Tencent’s WeChat Wallet to contribute to the beggar’s mobile payment account.

Chinese men and women friends tell me they don’t carry purses or wallets anymore, only a mobile phone, which they use for everything — including for buying vegetables from street vendors.

“America has been dreaming of becoming a cashless society,” Ya-Qin Zhang, president of Baidu, China’s main search engine, remarked to me, “but China is already there.” It has “leapfrogged the rest of world” and is now going mobile-first in everything.

Wang Xing, the founder of Meituan.com — a Chinese mobile website that is a combination of Fandango, Yelp, OpenTable, Grubhub, TripAdvisor, Booking.com and Angie’s List — told me that he has around 300,000 people on electric bicycles who deliver takeout food and groceries to 10 million Chinese mobile internet users daily. “We are the largest food delivery company in the world,” said Xing.

And in an age when raw data from the internet of people and the internet of things is the new oil, the fact that China has 700 million people doing so many transactions daily on the mobile internet means it’s piling up massive amounts of information that can be harvested to identify trends and spur new artificial intelligence applications.

Moreover, while Trump is pulling out of the Paris climate deal, China is steadily pulling out of coal. Xin Guo, C.E.O. of Career International, told me two of his hottest job openings in China are in “software and new energy” — everyone is looking for engineers for electric cars, solar and wind. Walter Fang, a top executive at iSoftStone, which helps design China’s smart, sustainable cities, told me that “just two weeks ago I brought in about a dozen green energy start-up companies from Massachusetts” to show them opportunities in China.

And yet, as smart as China has been in adopting new technologies, Trump’s broad complaint that China is not playing fair on trade and has grown in some areas at the expense of U.S. and European workers has merit and needs to be addressed — now. Before going to Beijing I emailed the smartest person I know inside China on trade (who will have to go nameless) and asked if Trump had a point.

He answered: “Your note has arrived as I slide across the Chinese countryside at 300 kilometers per hour from Beijing to Shanghai. There are nearly 60 trains going from Beijing to Shanghai every day, typically with 16 cars able to carry nearly 1,300 people. … We glide past endless brand-new factories and immaculate apartment buildings in practically every city along the way, with many more still under construction. As you suspect, I have been sympathetic to many of Trump’s trade and industrial policy ideas. But if anything, Trump may be too late.”

Ouch.

The core problem, U.S. and European business leaders based in China explained, is that when the U.S. allowed China to join the World Trade Organization in 2001 and gain much less restricted access to our markets, we gave China the right to keep protecting parts of its market — because it was a “developing economy.” The assumption was that as China reformed and become more of our equal, its trade barriers and government aid to Chinese companies would melt away.

They did not. China grew in strength, became America’s equal in many fields and continued to protect its own companies from foreign competition, either by limiting access or demanding that foreign companies take on a Chinese partner and transfer their intellectual property to China as the price of access, or by funneling Chinese firms low-interest loans to grow and buy foreign competitors.

Once those companies got big enough, they were unleashed on the world. China plans to use this strategy to implement its new plan — “Made in China 2025” — to make itself the world leader in electric vehicles, new materials, artificial intelligence, semiconductors, bio-pharmacy, 5G mobile communications and other industries.

The latest annual survey of the American Chamber of Commerce in China, released in January, found that 81 percent of its members felt “less welcome” in China than in the past and had little confidence any longer that China would carry through on promises to open its markets. APCO Worldwide’s James McGregor, one of the keenest observers of China trade, recently noted that China tells the world that its policy is “reform and opening,” but on the ground its policy “more resembles reform and closing.”

Today, Alibaba can set up its own cloud server in America, but Amazon or Microsoft can’t do the same in China. China just agreed to allow U.S. credit card giants, like Visa and MasterCard, access to its huge market — something it was required to do under W.T.O. rules but just dragged its feet on for years — but now domestic Chinese financial services companies, like UnionPay, so dominate the Chinese market that U.S. companies will be left to fight over the scraps. The world leader in industrial robots, the German company Kuka Robotics, was just bought by the Chinese company Midea; Beijing would never allow the U.S. to buy one of China’s industrial gems like that.

This is not fair. China needs to know that some people who disagree with everything else Trump stands for — and who value a strong U.S.-China relationship — might just support Trump’s idea for a border-adjustment tax on imports to level the playing field. Because our economic relationship with China is out of whack — and not just because China makes great products, but because we do, too, and it’s high time they are all allowed through China’s front door.

Now here’s Mr. Bruni:

Poor Donald Trump, so late to the lesson that so many plutocrats before him learned: You can’t find good help.

Jeff Sessions? What a bust. True, he was never the nimblest newt in the swamp and had all that racial muck in his past. But he mirrored his master’s irreverence and atavism, with slighter dimensions and a Southern accent: Donald in a Dixie cup. Surely Sessions and his Justice Department could be expected to accomplish something as straightforward as keeping the Muslims at bay.

Hah. More than four months since the inauguration, there’s meager, flickering hope for the travel ban that wasn’t a travel ban until it became a travel ban again. The fault for that cannot possibly lie with its foundation of bigotry, its shoddy conception or the president’s own sloppy and shifting characterizations of it over time. No, there must be a fall guy with less shimmering tresses. The buck stops anywhere but hair.

So does the pound, the euro and every last bit of spare change and pocket lint. If Trump is feuding with the London mayor, it’s the mayor who should be abashed. If Trump is at odds with Angela Merkel, she must have something to apologize for. Never mind his baseless tweets and boundless pique. He’s the American president, they’re not, and global hegemony means never having to say you’re sorry.

But back to the Potomac and his principal aides, unprincipled underlings and princeling of a son-in-law, each more incompetent than the next.

The buck stops with Sean Spicer, who kept wandering from the script like a toddler into traffic. All he had to do was stick to his lines: The president’s proposals are the wisest. The president’s ethics are the purest. The president’s crowds are the biggest. The president’s detractors fall into three camps: illegals, commies and Samantha Bee.

He couldn’t manage that much, or rather that little, and so Sarah Huckabee Sanders is claiming ever more podium time. She won’t last. No one will. The relevant sinkhole isn’t the one that opened up just outside Mar-a-Loco last month. It’s the one beneath the feet of anyone dippy, delusional or daring enough to think that Trumplandia is terrain on which to make a positive difference, let alone a career.

The buck stops with Jared Kushner, never mind that his grandiosity and shortcuts were emulations of dear old dad-in-law. He has lumbered onto investigators’ radar and thus teetered ever so slightly from favor — that’s Steve Bannon chortling in the background — though he reportedly tasted Trump’s rancor before, when he hid in Aspen during the health care debacle, skiing while Washington churned.

Where will the buck stop next? With the tiniest Trump, Barron? He has some nerve doing homework while tax reform is still being hammered out and infrastructure is just coming together.

Trump’s quickness to deflect blame, readiness to designate scapegoats, unpredictable tirades and stinginess with the loyalty that he demands from others aren’t just character flaws. They’re serious and quite possibly insurmountable obstacles to governing.

Those who serve him are forever fearful of being undercut, perpetually having to defend behavior from him that’s indefensible, and demoralized as a result. Consider Defense Secretary James Mattis, whose torments were summarized by James Hohmann this week in The Washington Post. How can the country get the best from him when he’s getting the worst from Trump?

Many of the country’s diplomats are in a funk, as my Times colleague Mark Landler just recounted, and the ludicrously large number of unfilled positions throughout the administration partly reflects the limited appeal of such a gloomy club. There was never any overflow of top-tier applicants, given how many Republicans swore off Trump and how many others were spurned by him for not being obsequious enough.

But now that the terms of working for him — ridicule by tweet, potentially stratospheric legal bills — are clear, the pool of available talent is a puddle too shallow to keep a newt afloat. Mike Allen reported in Axios on Tuesday morning that the creation of Trump’s “war room” — a battalion of lawyers and such who would do damage control during the Russia probe — is on hold, because he can’t find the soldiers to staff it.

By many accounts, the atmosphere in the White House is one part high school cafeteria, two parts “Lord of the Flies.” Aides who are jockeying for position and trying to safeguard their reputations ask operatives on the outside to whisper to the media that they’re up while their rivals are down, and so we’re subjected to a daily Dow Jones on the stock of various players, with special note of who has Oval Office “walk-in privileges.”

I suspect that the Trump era will flip that phrase, and the people walking out of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue will be seen as — and be — the privileged ones.

Solo Bobo

June 6, 2017

Bobo is dreaming about “Giving Away Your Billion.”  He asks himself:  What would I do if I had a billion bucks to use for good?  “James” from Portland will have a few things to say.  Here’s Bobo:

Recently I’ve been reading the Giving Pledge letters. These are the letters that rich people write when they join Warren Buffett’s Giving Pledge campaign. They take the pledge, promising to give away most of their wealth during their lifetime, and then they write letters describing their giving philosophy.

“I suppose I arrived at my charitable commitment largely through guilt,” writes George B. Kaiser, an oil and finance guy from Oklahoma, who is purported to be worth about $8 billion. “I recognized early on that my good fortune was not due to superior personal character or initiative so much as it was to dumb luck. I was blessed to be born in an advanced society with caring parents. So, I had the advantage of both genetics … and upbringing.”

Kaiser decided he was “morally bound to help those left behind by the accident of birth.” But he understood the complexities: “Though almost all of us grew up believing in the concept of equal opportunity, most of us simultaneously carried the unspoken and inconsistent ‘dirty little secret’ that genetics drove much of accomplishment so that equality was not achievable.”

His reading of modern brain research, however, led to the conclusion that genetic endowments can be modified by education, if you can get to kids early. Kaiser has directed much of his giving to early childhood education.

Most of the letter writers started poor or middle class. They don’t believe in family dynasties and sometimes argue that they would ruin their kids’ lives if they left them a mountain of money. Schools and universities are the most common recipients of their generosity, followed by medical research and Jewish cultural institutions. A ridiculously disproportionate percentage of the Giving Pledge philanthropists are Jewish.

Older letter writers have often found very specific niches for their giving — fighting childhood obesity in Georgia. Younger givers, especially the tech billionaires, are vague and less thoughtful.

A few letters burn with special fervor. These people generally try to solve a problem that touched them directly. Dan Gilbert, who founded Quicken Loans, had a son born with neurofibromatosis, a genetic condition that affects the brain. Gordon Gund went fully blind in 1970. Over the ensuing 43 years, he and his wife helped raise more than $600 million for blindness research.

The letters set off my own fantasies. What would I do if I had a billion bucks to use for good? I’d start with the premise that the most important task before us is to reweave the social fabric. People in disorganized neighborhoods need to grow up enmeshed in the loving relationships that will help them rise. The elites need to be reintegrated with their own countrymen.

Only loving relationships transform lives, and such relationships can be formed only in small groups. Thus, I’d use my imaginary billion to seed 25-person collectives around the country.

A collective would be a group of people who met once a week to share and discuss life. Members of these chosen families would go on retreats and celebrate life events together. There would be “clearness committees” for members facing key decisions.

The collectives would be set up for people at three life stages. First, poor kids between 16 and 22. They’d meet in the homes of adult hosts and help one another navigate the transition from high school to college.

Second, young adults across classes between 23 and 26. This is a vastly under-institutionalized time of life when many people suffer a Telos Crisis. They don’t know why they are here and what they are called to do. The idea would be to bring people across social lines together with hosts and mentors, so that they could find a purpose and a path.

Third, successful people between 36 and 40. We need a better establishment in this country. These collectives would identify the rising stars in local and national life, and would help build intimate bonds across parties and groups, creating a baseline of sympathy and understanding these people could carry as they rose to power.

The collectives would hit the four pressure points required for personal transformation:

Heart: By nurturing deep friendships, they would give people the secure emotional connections they need to make daring explorations.

Hands: Members would get in the habit of performing small tasks of service and self-control for one another, thus engraving the habits of citizenship and good character.

Head: Each collective would have a curriculum, a set of biographical and reflective readings, to help members come up with their own life philosophies, to help them master the intellectual virtues required for public debate.

Soul: In a busy world, members would discuss fundamental issues of life’s purpose, so that they might possess the spiritual true north that orients a life.

The insular elites already have collectives like this in the form of Skull and Bones and such organizations. My billion would support collectives across society, supporting the homes and retreats where these communities would happen, offering small slush funds they could use for members in crisis.

Now all I need is a hedge fund to get started.

Sod off, Bobo.  Here’s what “James” has to say about Bobo’s POS:

“You are laughable and sound like a starry eyed youth pastor. Until the disparity of wealth in this country is reduced to 1950-60 levels, until voter suppression is abolished along with its evil cousin Gerrymandering, all the talking, hand holding, and picnics will ever accomplish is another failed election between power hungry hopefuls.

I’d use my billion to try and change the tax codes so billionaires paid their fare share and inheritance were capped at 1 million dollars. Only by eradicating dynasties can America get back to the principles of our promise. –I know, I am dreaming.”