The James Comey Show.

The F.B.I. has rules against interfering in politics and rules against being interfered with by politicians.  Recent events have shown how difficult it has become to maintain that rule when some politicians have wandered far from normal behavior.  Back in Fall 2016, President Barack Obama’s Attorney General, Loretta Lynch, had to investigate the handling of e-mail messages by former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton.[1]  Then AG Lynch got into the glue for having had a private meeting with former President Bill Clinton.  She announced that F.B.I. director James Comey would have a free hand to run the Clinton investigation.  In July 2016, at the end of the investigation, Comey held a press conference to announce that Clinton would not be prosecuted, although he condemned her careless handling of sensitive e-mails.  Democrats roundly abused Comey for making his less-than-positive remarks while an election loomed.  Then, in October 2016, Comey announced that the investigation had been re-opened when a bunch of Clinton e-mails were discovered on the lap-top that Clinton aide Huma Abedin shared with her husband.[2]

Shortly before the election, Rudy Giuliani, a Trump supporter, announced that a “pretty big surprise” was coming.  Later Giuliani said that his sources were former, not currently serving, FBI agents.[3]  Several days later, Comey announced that the newly-discovered e-mails were just duplicates of previously examined e-mails.  Again, Democrats roundly condemned Comey for meddling in an election.  Bitter partisan strife followed.

In late January 2017, at the request of Democrats in Congress, the Inspector General of the Department of Justice opened an investigation of how Comey had managed the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s sloppy handling of her e-mail while Secretary of State.[4]  The scope of the investigation included both Comey’s original press conference and his decision to announce the re-opening of the investigation less than two weeks before Election Day.

Early in March 2017, reports circulated of an F.B.I. investigation into allegations of contacts between members of the Trump entourage and various Russians.  White House chief-of-staff Reince Priebus asked Comey to tell the press that no such investigation existed.  The White House also solicited Rep. Devin Nunes, chairman of the House committee investigating the Russian involvement in the election, to tell reporters that the story was bunk.  Comey refused because a) there was an investigation going on and b) politicians—like Priebus—weren’t supposed to interfere.  Apparently, intelligence sources leaked word of the spat to the press.[5]

Three weeks after having refused to deny that there was an investigation, Comey said that “in unusual circumstances, it may be appropriate” for the F.B.I. to comment on an on-going investigation.  Then he confirmed, during public testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, that the F.B.I. is investigating contacts between the Russians and the Trump entourage.[6]  Democrats condemned Comey for having thrown Clinton “under the bus” in Fall 2016.

James Comey has been—repeatedly—thrown into an uncomfortable position by the actions of other people.  So far, none of the complaining gets us closer to the truth(es).

[1] See: “The Hacked Election.”  https://waroftheworldblog.com/2016/12/13/the-hacked-election/?iframe=true&theme_preview=true

[2] Habitually described as the “disgraced… Anthony Weiner.”

[3] So, do current FBI agents meet up with still serving colleagues at various Washington, DC watering-holes to talk about old times and…?

[4] “FBI’s Comey investigated over election conduct,” The Week, 27 January 2017, p. 5.

[5] “Russia investigation: A special prosecutor?” The Week, 10 March 2017, p. 16.

[6] “Comey reveals Trump-Russia probe,” The Week, 31 March 2017, p. 5.

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Memoirs of the Addams Administration 11.

This is out of sequence for reasons beyond my control.  I apologize to both my readers.

Wanting a swift and emphatic break with President Barack Obama’s administration, the Republicans introduced the American Health Care Act.[1]  One much noticed difference between the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and its proposed replacement (AHCA) came in the financial assistance offered by the government.  The ACA offered open-ended subsidies of premiums linked to income.  The AHCA offered tax-credits of $2,000-$4,000 a year linked to age.  The income ceiling for people to receive the tax credits would be $75,000 for an individual and $150,000 for couples.  The AHCA also would substantially reduce Medicaid spending after 2020.  The ACA barred insurance companies from charging older, sicker clients more than three times as much as they charged younger, healthier clients.  The AHCA would have allowed insurance companies to raise deductibles.  The ACA paid for the new entitlement for poor people by heavily taxing people who make more than $250,000 a year.[2]  To the tune of $600 billion.

Are there flaws in the ACA that would have been changed by the AHCA?  Well, premiums began to rise sharply in the last year of the Obama administration, while some major insurance companies fled the markets.  Rising premiums would mean rising subsidies to freight the budget.  Shifting from subsidies to fixed sums could help contain this problem.  Then, the AHCA allowed insurance companies to charge older, sicker clients up to five times as much as they charged younger, healthier clients.  This more closely resembles the real cost to insurance companies.

Is the cure worse than the disease?  The media were full of adverse results.  Millions could be tossed off Medicaid; diluting or removing some of the services deemed “essential” by the ACA could harm a lot of vulnerable people; and the out-of-pocket costs could go through the roof, leaving millions no choice but to do without insurance at all.

You don’t have to take the Mainstream Media’s (MSM) word for it.[3]  The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projected that by 2026, premiums would fall by 10 percent.  The budget deficit would be reduced by $337 billion over a decade.  Ending the mandate would allow 14 million unwillingly-insured people to escape the clutches of the ACA.  After the limits on Medicaid spending cut in during 2020, another ten million would eventually drift—or be pushed–off the system.  Allowing insurance companies to charge older, sicker clients more would lead to those clients paying “substantially more” for health care.

The AHCA brought Republican factionalism into high relief.  The 20 members of the conservative House “Freedom Caucus” opposed the bill because it didn’t go far enough in liquidating the ACA.  A bunch of moderate Republican Senators opposed the bill because it went too far in liquidating the ACA.  Their differences appeared unlikely to be composed.  Then, Donald Trump won the nomination as spokesman for many discontented lower income voters.  These are just the people projected as the losers from the AHCA.  His support for the bill puzzled.

[1] “Ryancare: Who wins, who loses,” The Week, 24 March 2017, p. 16.

[2] This reality makes a mockery of the Democratic argument that the mandate is necessary because younger, healthier people have to be included in the “insurance market” so that their premiums can off-set the high costs of older, sicker Americans.  That is the same as arguing that low income, little property people have to subsidize higher income, more property people.  The reality looks like a few rich people have to subsidize many low income people.  The “$660 billion tax-cut” for the wealthy which the NYT decried is the flip side of a $600 billion tax increase imposed by the ACA.  That’s fine as social policy, but it should surprise no one that rich people fought back.

[3] “CBO report roils Ryancare debate,” The Week, 24 March 2017, p. 4.

Poor Lo.

“Work is the least disappointing relationship you can have.”[1]  Unless work dumps you for some rough-hewn Latino from South of the border, down Mexico way.  Off-shoring and automation have destroyed many American jobs over the last several decades.[2]  This has left the people who used to do those jobs on the beach (and not in a Micheneresque idyllic way either).

Here’s an ugly fact: men and women have responded differently to the job-losses.  More women have been displaced by the changes than have men, but women responded by going back to school to up-grade their skills.  Then they migrated into higher-skill jobs than they had before.  This has been the traditional story of disruptive technological innovation in America.

Except that this time, men have not behaved in the traditional fashion.  Instead of up-skilling, they’ve down-skilled into fast-food servers, low-end retail jobs, and long-term unemployment.  They also have migrated out of rural areas and small towns to cities in search of opportunity.  Women seem to have been more likely to stay behind, take some classes at the local community college, and find work.  What they don’t have is a reliable man in their lives.[3]

These trends have become a social fact.  Women now account for 56 percent of undergraduate college enrollment; men account for 44 percent.  Divorce is common (51 percent) for men who don’t go to college—and for the now more educated women they married.  Not all of this is recent.[4]

It seems to be agreed that these men are abusing drugs and alcohol along the roads to and from the divorce court.  Liberal and conservative commentators alike—almost all drawn from the prissy, unworldly modern American “intelligentsia” which has the moral views of a Nineteenth Century Academy for Young Ladies–sound almost delighted.  The economic losers can be morally condemned.  The “Gilded Age” rides again.

Interpretations of these recently-discovered trends come in a bitter period of political strife.  Hence, people may suspect that they have been “weaponized.”  The “outlandishly male Donald Trump” resonated with voters amidst “a great spasm of cultural anxiety about masculine decline,” wrote one conservative.[5]  Similarly, one liberal writer opined that the administration’s new defense budget was a “Viagra budget” for Trump’s “insecure fanboys.”[6]  Andrew Sullivan[7] lifts a lonely voice to compare the agony of the disrupted small city and town/rural working class with the victims of the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s.[8]

Off-shoring and automation are going to destroy even more jobs.  One prediction says that a third of all men under 54 could be unemployed by 2050.  (So, those born from 1996 onward; so. today’s 21 year-olds.)  Does this mean that Donald Trump’s “America First” could become the brand of the 21st Century?

[1] Betty Davis, quoted in The Week, 31 March 2017, p. 17.

[2] “Social change: The decline of men,” The Week, 31 March 2017, p. 16.

[3] Although they may well have children.  There’s a whole genre of movies in this.  I can’t say that I’ve heard of any yet.

[4] Since 1981 single women have been buying houses at a faster clip than single men.   “The bottom line,” The Week, 10 February 2017, p. 32.

[5] It doesn’t invalidate this argument to point out that over half of women voters preferred Donald Trump (and “a special place in Hell”) to Hillary Clinton.  These women may also want traditional males back.

[6] “Trump budget: Hard power, not soft,” The Week, 31 March 2017, p. 16.  I suppose you can add this term to the lexicon of liberal vitriol, along with “Deplorables.”

[7] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrew_Sullivan

[8] “The invisible plague of rural America,” The Week, 31 March 2017, p. 12.

Memoirs of the Addams Administration 12.

President Donald Trump’s administration came into office determined to break with the policies of President Barack Obama’s administration wherever possible.  Last week witnessed more instances of this commitment.

First came the proposed budget.  The big drivers of government spending are defense, Social Security, and Medicare/Medicaid.  The Obama (old) and Trump (new) budget plans both came in at around $4 trillion of spending; both anticipated a deficit of $559 billion.

President Trump’s proposed budget moves the deck furniture around in ways that please some Republicans and enrages most Democrats.  It increases defense spending by 9 percent ($54 billion) and cuts spending in other areas (the Environmental Protection Agency, the State Department, a bunch of social and scientific programs).  National Public Radio, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the National Endowment for the Arts—essentially Meals-on-Wheels for the coastal elites—would be entirely eliminated.[1]

How sensible is the shift of resources from the State Department to the Defense Department?  Most of the cuts appear to come out of the foreign aid budget.  Some of that aid goes for humanitarian causes, essentially spending American money to take some of the rough edges off human catastrophes not directly of American causing.  Some of that aid goes to governments fighting one head or another of the Islamist world-hydra: Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, the Sahel countries fighting Boko Haram, and the East African states fighting al-Shabab.  One writer derided it as a “Viagra budget” for Trump’s “insecure fanboys.”[2]

From 2010 to 2016, the number of restrictions on trade (tariffs, subsidies to domestic industry) world-wide quadrupled.[3]  The Group of Twenty issued ritualistic denunciations of the rising barriers, but did nothing to reduce them.  So, following the path scouted by other nations, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin told other finance ministers at the annual G-20 meeting that many existing trade agreements were unfair to the United States and he raised the prospect of renegotiating them.  The U.S. also refused to accept a joint statement opposing protectionism.[4]

In 2012, the Obama administration issued regulations on future fuel-efficiency standards for automobiles.[5]  The standards required manufacturers to almost double fuel-efficiency to reach an average of 54.5 miles/gallon by 2025.  Under the Obama administration, the Environmental Protection Agency calculated that the costs for the auto industry would be $200 billion between 2012 and 2025, while the savings on gas costs to drivers would save $1.7 trillion.  Laudable as these goals may be from a climate change perspective, two points are worth making.  First, gasoline prices have fallen since 2012, so the savings by drivers will be less without the costs to manufacturers being reduced.  Since those costs would be passed on to drivers in car prices, the Common Man might take issue with the regulations.  Second, “average” fuel economy meant that less-efficient SUVs and pick-up trucks could be off-set by more-efficient mini-cars.  In short, car-makers would have to produce vehicles that nobody wants in exchange for making cars that people do want.  Put this way, some of the business hostility to government regulations is easy to understand.

[1] “Trump’s budget: Fulfilling his promises?” The Week, 31 March 2017, p. 6.

[2] “Trump budget: Hard power, not soft,” The Week, 31 March 2017, p. 16.  I suppose you can add this term to the lexicon of liberal vitriol, along with “Deplorables.”

[3] The timing suggests that these were responses to the financial crisis and slow-down in trade.

[4] “Trade: U.S. takes a hard line at G-20 meeting,” The Week, 31 March 2017, p. 32.

[5] “Issue of the week: Putting the brakes on fuel standards,” The Week, 31 March 2017, p. 34.

Erdogan.

Since 2003, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has dominated Turkish politics.  That isn’t to say that he has met no opposition.  In 2015, Erdogan’s party lost its majority in parliament.  Erdogan responded with an anti-Kurdish offensive that led to new elections in November 2015 that recovered the majority.   In July 2016, a bunch of soldiers tried to overthrow Erdogan.  They missed their punch, not least because a lot of Turks hold fast to the idea of democracy.  Erdogan responded with a state of emergency that allowed him to purge the military, the bureaucracy, and civil society.  Now he is campaigning to change the constitution to gain great new powers that might threaten the survival of Turkish democracy.  This challenges many Turks.[1]

It challenges others as well.  Since the time of Mustafa Kemal “Ataturk,” Turkey has sought to balance Westernization against its Turkish identity.  Membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and a desire to join the European Union (EU) formed hall-marks of this effort.  Erdogan has broken with that policy.  On the one hand, he took advantage of the Syrian crisis to deluge Europe with refugees in order to extract promises of aid and accelerated consideration of Turkish membership in the EU.[2]  On the other hand, Turkey has been tilting toward Russia in the latest phase of the Syrian struggle while NATO’s members have been agog at Russian behavior.  Then, Erdogan has been campaigning for support among the Turkish diaspora in Europe.  Germany and Holland blocked the attempts by Turkish officials to address Turkish voters in those countries.  Erdogan’s savage response pandered to Turkish nationalism.

Historians inevitably think in analogies.[3]  Among historians, Italy long has been a historical laughing-stock.  French armies won its independence.  It then paid shipping companies to take away Neapolitans and Sicilians to foreign lands.  It only granted the vote to all men the in 1907, then rigged the election results.  In The Sun Also Rises, Jake Barnes regrets having been grievously wounded on “a joke front” during the First World War.  Then it wound up with Benito Mussolini and a Fascist dictatorship that eventually got the country creamed in the Second World War.

There is a photograph of the Fascist Party headquarters building in Rome in 1934.  The four-story façade is covered in in propaganda: at the center of a black background is a silver image of Mussolini’s face (looking rather like a cat) surrounded by rows of “SI” (“Yes”).[4]

Without in any way wishing to suggest a parallel, the current referendum campaign on extending the powers of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan is marked by huge bill-boards bearing pictures of Erdogan and the message “Yes.”[5]  The “Or Else” part of the message comes from Erdogan’s surrogates who suggest than anyone who opposes Erdogan is a terrorist (read: Kurd) or traitor (read: Euro-Kurd).  Erdogan’s party (AKP) expects a landslide victory.

Will they get it?  That is—suddenly, surprisingly—less clear.  Erdogan needs the support of a right-wing party, but opinion polls suggest that its members are much less enthusiastic than are its leaders.  If Erdogan loses the vote in the referendum on 16 April 2017, how will he respond?  Observers think that “when faced with challenges to his authority,” Erdogan “escalates[s] crises and creates new ones.”  So, many things could go wrong after 16 April 2017.

[1] See: “The Devil and the Deep, Blue Sea.”

[2] In the cases of Portugal, Spain, Greece, and all the post-Soviet Eastern European countries, the creation of democratic political systems was a prerequisite for membership.  It isn’t clear that Turkey could meet that standard.

[3] They are not alone.  See: Yuen Foong Khong, Analogies at War: Korea, Munich, Dien Bien Phu, and the Vietnam Decisions of 1965 (Princeton University Press, 1992).

[4] See: http://rarehistoricalphotos.com/headquarters-fascist-party-1934/

[5] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Stakes Are High in Turkish Referendum on Erdogan’s Power,” WSJ, 24 March 2017.

My Weekly Reader 21 March 2017.

During the Twenties, the Soviet-controlled Communist International (Comintern) adopted a policy called “class against class.”  The Communist Parties of Europe and America excoriated democratic Socialists and bourgeois liberal parties as “social fascists” with which there could be no co-operation.  Then Hitler came to power in Germany.  The Comintern soon espoused creation of “Popular Front” alliances to save democracy.   This change of course often aroused deep suspicion among more-than-once-burned Socialists and anti-Marxist bourgeois liberals.  “Progressive” western intellectuals were a different matter.   They rallied in droves to the idea of a “Popular Front.”

The Soviet intelligence services trolled these waters, recruiting agents and agents-of-influence.  Ernest Hemingway counted among those wiggling in the net.[1]  Like many other people, Hemingway became convinced that only the Soviet Union and the foreign communist parties in its service really opposed a Nazi take-over of Europe.  Hemingway joined a Communist front organization, the League of American Writers.  In 1936 he made the first of several trips to Spain to report on the Republican resistance to the right-wing military coup that had won the support of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.

On these reporting and material-gathering trips, Hemingway came to know Alexander Orlov, the Soviet secret intelligence service (NKVD) chief in Spain.   Orlov marked Hemingway for possible recruitment by the NKVD.  After the publication of “A Farewell to Arms” (1940), set in the Spanish Civil War, Hemingway began preparing for a trip to China to report on another preface to the Second World War.  Jacob Golos (1889-1943), a Soviet intelligence officer operating in the United States, recruited Hemingway.[2]  On that trip and afterward, Hemingway somehow always managed to miss connections with his assigned NKVD contacts.

American intelligence suffered a similarly un-productive relationship with the writer.  During the Second World War he filed reports with the F.B.I. on suspicious doings in Cuba, while rigging out his fishing boat as a sub-chaser.   During the Liberation of France, he crossed the line from war correspondent to combatant.   Less than a year later, the struggle against “fascism” ended with the complete victory of the “Grand Alliance.”  Most of the heavy lifting in that struggle had been done by the Red Army; the rest had been done by Western social fascists and bourgeois liberals.  This unpopular front died soon after victory.

Then the onset of the Cold War led to a hunt for Soviet agents in America.  Hemingway feared that his own sterile contacts would lead to his public disgrace, if not something worse.  He became paranoid about the F.B.I.  All the same, although a “premature anti-fascist,” Hemingway proved a laggard at dropping Communism even as its crimes became ever more obvious.   This reluctance is all the more remarkable because so many post-war events laid bare the realities Hemingway had chosen to ignore.  In 1948, Elizabeth Bentley, the lover of Jacob Golos and herself a Soviet agent, made spectacular revelations about Soviet espionage against the United States during the Second World War.  In 1953, Alexander Orlov, the senior NKVD officer he had met in Spain, published The Secret History of Stalin’s Crimes.  In 1956 the Soviet crushing of the Hungarian uprising caused many of the remaining Western Communist intellectuals to flee the party.   Nevertheless, Hemingway celebrated the initial victory of Fidel Castro’s revolution in Cuba.  A great writer, Hemingway was sometimes a fool.

[1] Nicholas Reynolds, Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy: Ernest Hemingway’s Secret Adventures, 1935-1961 (2017).  Reviewed by Harvey Klehr, WSJ, 14 March 2017, p. A15.

[2] Golos had been handling the cell centered on Julius Rosenberg.

Operation Iraqi Future.

Between 2011 and 2014, unanticipated events in the Middle East created problems that are now moving toward critical phases.  In 2011 a long, complicated civil war broke out in Syria.  By and large, the Obama administration evaded involvement.  Also in 2011, the Obama administration believed that it had escaped the Iraq quagmire.  The United States and Iraq could not agree on terms for the continued American presence in that troubled country.[1]  American troops pulled-out.  Various forms of Hell marched in.  In 2014, the troops of Islamic State (ISIS) drove east out of civil war-torn Syria.  They soon over-ran the Western (largely Sunni) areas of Iraq.  Iraq’s Shi’ites toughened-up; Iran sent arms and men; and the United States supplied air-power.  In 2014, Russia seized the chance created by a political crisis in Ukraine to re-take the Crimea and to sponsor rebel groups in two districts of eastern Ukraine.  International economic sanctions on Russia followed.

In 2016, Russia forged an alliance with Iran to defend the Assad regime in the Syrian civil war.  The joint intervention of the two powers now seems to have confirmed that the regime will remain in control of western Syria at least.  The 2016 Obama/Kerry agreement with Iraq[2] fended-off a war between the United States and Iran while facilitating an American-Iranian war against ISIS.  Victory over ISIS appears[3] to be at hand.

President Trump ran on a platform of opposing Iran.  Doubtless, Secretary of Defense James Mattis has done his best to rein-in the President until the CrISIS is over.  Still, the day will come when ISIS has been beaten and the Americans and Iranians can think anew about their relationship.  Iraq will find itself a pawn in that relationship.

What happens next in Iraq and Syria?  Iraqis are divided over which “friend” to support.[4]  Do they favor the United States or Iran?  Iran has real advantages: Iran is Shi’ite and the majority of Iraqis are Shi’ite; Iraq’s Iranian-armed militias have played a large role in the defeat of ISIS.  The government of Iraq is full of pro-Iranian Shi’ites.  The argument for keeping America engaged in Iraq after the defeat of ISIS springs from this same Iranian domination.  Keeping the Americans involved offers the best guarantee that Iran won’t just turn Iraq into a puppet.  Also, there will have to be some kind of reconciliation between Sunnis and Shi’ites of post-ISIS Iraq.  An American presence might limit Shi’ite oppression of their none-too-loyal Sunni countrymen.

Russia and Iran disagree on the final outcome in Syria.  Russia chose sides in the Sunni-Shi’ite civil war inside Islam, but wants to limit its involvement in the struggle.  To avoid becoming mired in the larger conflict, Russia favors a compromise in Syria that would meet the demands of some Sunnis (although not the Westernized young people beloved of Westerners).  Iran hopes to see Bashar al-Assad turn Syria (or his portion of it) into a Shi’ite bastion.[5]

Iran and Russia will stick together; America and Iran—and Russia—may fall out.  Still, room exists for pragmatic diplomacy.  People just have to seize the chance.  But what chance?

[1] Iraq’s Shi’ites wanted the Americans out so that they could go about the business of misgovernment unimpeded.  Iraq’s Sunnis wanted the Americans to stay as a check on the Shi’ites, rather than out of love for the country that had destroyed their country and their own place at the peak of that country.  The Americans were—and are—weary of war in the Middle East.  President Obama sought to meet this desire of the voters.

[2] Until the memoirs come out, when it may be renamed the Clinton-Kerry or Clinton-Obama deal with Iran.

[3] Count no man happy until he is dead.

[4] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Iraq Faces Balancing Act Between the U.S. and Iran,” WSJ, 17 March 2017; Yaroslav Trofimov, “Russia, Iran Need Each Other, Despite Differences,” WSJ, 17 February 2017.  .

[5] Over the long-run an Iranian client-state in Syria on the frontiers of Israel—a sort of super-Hezbollah—would challenge the security of Israel in a profound way.