Memoirs of the Addams Administration 21.

There are drafts, then sketches, and then doodles.  President Donald Trump issued a doodle of a proposed budget for fiscal 2018.  The $4.1 trillion plan calls for $54 billion increase in defense spending; an $800 billion reduction in Medicaid spending spread over ten years, a $192 reduction in food stamps, and a $72 billion cut in disability payments.  The plan also called for substantial tax cuts.  Projecting economic growth of 3 percent, the plan projects a balanced budget in ten years.   Neither Social Security nor Medicare, the real engines pulling the budget train at high speed toward a washed-out bridge, received any attention in the budget plan or from Democratic critics of the plan.[1]

Meanwhile, the president made a densely-packed foreign trip.[2]  His first stop came in Saudi Arabia.  Here he played up the minor chord in his campaign rhetoric on Islam, while muting the major chord.  He said positive things about Islam-in-general (“one of the world’s great faiths”), but called on Middle Eastern countries to turn away from radical-Islamists-in-particular.  He promised another vain effort to settle the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.  He also made clear his concern (to put it mildly) about Iran.  Then he sold Saudi Arabia $110 billion in weapons and flew to Israel.  Here he met with both Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas.  Trump told Netanyahu that radical Islam and Iran were the common dangers to Israel and the Sunni Arab states, so maybe they could work something out?

Lost in the commentary was any sense of reality.  The Muslim world is torn by a Sunni-Shi’ite civil war.  President Obama could not afford to choose sides because an attack on nuclearizing Iran would have expanded America’s war in the Middle East at a moment when few Americans had any stomach for big wars.  The Iran agreement slowed down Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons while still leaving them bound by sanctions for other issues.[3]  However, Obama’s refusal to choose allowed the Russians to choose the Shi’ite side.  Now President Trump is taking the logical next step.[4]  As for peace between Palestine and Israel, it isn’t likely to happen.  Israel cannot afford to have a Palestinian state created on the West Bank.  It would just be taken over by Hamas, as happened in Gaza.  The West Bank is a lot closer to Israel’s population centers than is Gaza.  It’s well within flying range of the Hamas rockets.

At home, the appointment of one-time FBI director Robert Mueller as special counsel to investigate the whole Russian mess either made things worse for the president or made them better.[5]  It depends on whether actual “collusion” took place between the Trump campaign and the Russian “organs of state security.”  It is not much remarked that the names of the dominant figures in the Trump campaign, Steve Bannon and Kelly Ann Conway, never appear in rumors of collusion.  So far, it has been minor, peripheral figures—and Michael Flynn.  Even with Flynn, the abundant leaking of information about his communications with Russians never mentions the hacking.  The leaks do suggest that he has other grounds for taking the Fifth.[6]  All of them involve things he did not tell the White House.

[1] “Trump’s budget proposal raises bipartisan concerns,” The Week, 2 June 2017, p. 7.

[2] “Trump’s Middle East reset,” The Week, 2 June 2017, p. 6.

[3] In short, he earned the Nobel Peace Prize he had been awarded early in his first term by Europeans intervening in an American election after the fact.

[4] That’s certainly how it looked to Iran.  “How they see us: Uniting the Middle East against Iran,” The Week, 2 June 2017, p. 17.

[5] “Mueller: Trump’s worst nightmare?” The Week, 2 June 2017, p. 19.

[6] “Flynn: The center of multiple scandals,” The Week, 2 June 2017, p. 19.

My Weekly Reader 30 May 2017.

Ali Soufan was born in Lebanon in 1971, but ended up living in the United States and became an American citizen.[1]  “Education’s the thing, don’t you know.”[2]  In 1995 he got a BA in Political Science from Mansfield University.[3]  Later on he got an MA in International Relations from Vanillanova.  Then he went into the EffaBeeEye.

No chasing bank-robbers or goombas for him.  The harps had those jobs sewn up.[4]  He spoke Arabic and the Bureau only had eight Arabic speakers, so he went into counter-terrorism.  In 1999 he went to Jordan to liase with the Jordanian intelligence service, which had uncovered leads to what would be called the “Millennium bomb plot.”  Here began another theme in his career.  He found a box of files in the CIA station, allegedly ignored by the over-worked agents, containing maps of the targets.  The CIA seemed more vexed than grateful.  In 2000 he went to Yemen as part of the team investigating the bombing of the USS “Cole.”  Here he made important discoveries.  He went back to Yemen after 9/11 to pursue leads.  Here he figured out that the CIA had held back information from the FBI that might have allowed him to connect the “Cole” attack with the 9/11 plot.[5]  The CIA seemed more vexed than grateful.  Then he interrogated captured Al Qaeda terrorists.  Subsequently, some of his subjects were transferred to CIA control and were subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques.[6]

By 2005 Soufan had become fed-up or burned-out.  He resigned from the Bureau to start a consultancy.  In 2011 he published The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda.[7]  Here he tracked the campaign against Al Qaeda from 9/11 to the killing of Osama bin Laden.  Now Soufan has published Anatomy of Terror: From the Death of Bin Laden to the Rise of the Islamic State (2017).[8]  The American invasion of Iraq (2003) triggered a disaster.  Partisan observer—Soufan included–put too much emphasis on the botched occupation.  Iraq was a social IED waiting to be tripped.  The invasion itself lit the fuse.

Even before OBL died, Al Qaeda had transformed into something else, something worse.  It had become Zarqawi’s Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia.  The remnants of that group fell back to Syria and became the Islamic State (ISIS).  More importantly (unless you’re stuck inside the Caliphate), ISIS called for the “lone wolf” attacks that have wreaked havoc in Europe and the United States.  Boko Haram (Nigeria), Al Shabab (Somalia), Jumatul Mujahedeen (Bangladesh), and Abu Sayaf (Philippines) all align themselves with the ideology of Al Qaeda.  We live with the results.

[1] I conjecture that his parents fled the awful Lebanese civil war of 1975-1990.  See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lebanese_Civil_War  So, that’s one anecdotal argument against President Trump’s “Muslim ban.”  The recent suicide bombing in Manchester, England, offers an equally compelling anecdotal argument on the other side.  So, we probably shouldn’t rely upon anecdotal evidence.  “Well, d’uh,”–my sons.

[2] I think that’s from one volume of the trilogy U.S.A. by John Dos Passos, but I can’t find the exact reference.

[3] Mansfield is a former teachers college in the middle of nowhere in north-central Pennsylvania.   He got his BA when he was 24, so he lost some time somewhere doing something.

[4] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whitey_Bulger

[5][5] Before people start jumping all over the CIA, read the Report of the 9/11 Commission.  Not just the executive summary, but the whole thing.  Then look at the list of Commission members and run down their career tracks.

[6] Soufan subsequently made public comments on the results obtained by the different approaches.  The CIA seemed more vexed than grateful.

[7] In Western culture, black flags usually denote pirates.  Until the 18th Century, captured pirates rarely got a trial.  You just hanged them at the yard-arm or threw them overboard if there were some sharks handy.  This is a plea for cultural sensitivity on the part of radical Islamists.  Falls under the heading of “enlightened self-interest.”

[8] At least he didn’t call it Al Qaeda: Covenant or Al Qaeda: Dead Men Tell No Tales.

Memoirs of the Addams Administration 20.

Many people who did not want Donald Trump to become president have now swung around to the position that he is unfit to remain president.  Since President Trump has obeyed the courts when they contradicted some of his executive orders and most of the rhetorical violence has come from the left, his critics have abandoned the fascist/authoritarian-populist critique.  Instead, they have attacked on the line of his emotional immaturity/impulsiveness/need for adulation.[1]  Certainly, the president provides his critics with a lot of good stand-up material.

In January 2017, when embroiled in a controversy about Russian meddling in the presidential election in which American intelligence agencies appeared to be the source of leaks of classified information intended to discredit the Trump presidency, President Donald Trump asked James Comey, the Director of the EffaBeeEye, for his “loyalty.”  Later, but still early in the Trump administration, the National Security Adviser-designate, General Michael Flynn (ret.), misled Vice President Michael Pence about the nature of his contacts with Russkie government officials.[2]  Then, members of the intelligence agencies, ones with access to state secrets, leaked evidence of Flynn’s contact with the Russkies.  Flynn then had to resign.  The newly-elected and politically-inexperienced president expressed to Comey the hope that his disgraced former National Security Advisor would not be pursued.  “He’s a good guy,” said the president, “I hope you can let this go.”[3]  Director Comey returned to his office, wrote a Memorandum of Conversation (MemCon), and showed it to his chief subordinates.

After President Trump dismissed Director Comey, one of Comey’s subordinates—or more likely one of their sluggers—then leaked selected bits of the MemCon to the press.  The ensuing fire-storm led Ron Rosenstein, the acting Attorney General for Russian matters, to appoint Robert Mueller as Special Something to investigate Russian meddling in the election of 2016.  “And all that implies.”[4]

Soon afterward, it was revealed that President Trump had shared intelligence information about the Islamic State (ISIS) with the Russkie foreign minister and the ambassador.[5]  The intelligence purportedly came from Israel.[6]  One alleged concern arose from the possibility that the Russians would reveal this information to ISIS (with whom they are at war) or use it to blackmail the original source to provide information for Russian attacks on ISIS.  The dependence of American intelligence agencies on foreign service liaisons for much “human intelligence” (actual spies) means that endangering those sources is a really serious matter.  Our “friends” could decide to pull down the blinds.  Who could blame them?

[1] “Trump: Is he unfit for office?” The Week, 26 May 2017, p. 8.  On the other hand, the firing of F.B.I. Director James Comey led to much discussion of the prospect that the president could be forced out of office over a criminal matter.  “Comey: Trump’s ‘Saturday Night Massacre’?” The Week, 26 May 2017, p. 18.  A situationally-helpful comic effect can be achieved by reading these criticisms of the president in conjunction with reviews of Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes, Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign (2017).

[2] “Comey memo triggers new Trump crisis,” The Week, 26 May 2017, p. 6.

[3] If you cannot imagine expressing the same hope to the authorities on behalf of one of your friends, then the federal government is the place for you.

[4] It is possible that the investigations by both Mueller and by House and Senate committees will lead to the leaking of other Comey MemCons, perhaps regarding his investigation of Hillary Clinton.

[5] “Trump’s intelligence sharing with Russia,” The Week, 26 May 2017, p. 7.

[6] The intelligence budget is—purportedly—linked to the defense budget.  When military spending fell after the collapse of the Soviet Union, so did spending on intelligence.  Thereafter, the United States relied ever more heavily upon liaison relationships with foreign intelligence agencies to fill the gaps.  That’s fine so long as foreign intelligence agencies are pursuing the American agenda, rather than the agenda of their own governments.

The Buckle on the Rust Belt.

From the 1890s to the 1970, you could travel from Rochester to Buffalo to Pittsburgh to Cleveland to Dayton to Gary to Chicago to Milwaukee to Detroit, and see the beating heart of American industrial power.  It helped win two World Wars and helped keep the Cold War cold.  It provided lots of jobs at increasingly good wages to millions of workers.  American manufactured goods dominated world markets.

Then things went sour.[1]  Between 1979 and 1994, the U.S. lost half of its manufacturing jobs.  Improved technology and automation are part of the explanation.  The growth of international competition as foreign industry revived or started fresh after the Second World War offers another part of the explanation.  The domestic competition from new “mini-mills” in steel and other disruptive industries that targeted the low end of the market offers another part of the explanation.  JMO, and I come in peace, but the arthritic nature of much heavy industry offered another part of the explanation.  Bloated industrial bureaucracies and rigid work rules imposed by unions alike made American manufacturing slow to respond to challenges.

Then, in 1994, came the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA); in 2001 China gained admission to the World Trade Organization (WTO).  Between 2000 and 2010, 5 million more manufacturing jobs disappeared.[2]

The human costs of successful business adaptation to changing conditions have been very high.  Old industrial cities and regions have lost jobs and incomes, and many of the businesses once supported by consumers.  Local and state governments have lost the tax revenues from these businesses, so they struggle to provide services to people in crisis.  Lots of people have lost hope.  Many younger people have moved away in search of a future that works.  Many of the displaced shifted into the ballooning service industries of health and education.  Not healing or teaching so much as filling out forms.  In some cases, however, the older people left behind with no future that works have turned to substance abuse.[3]  Much to the distress of the Democrats, the 2016 election demonstrated that these once-reliable voters could not be taken for granted.[4]

For reasons not immediately apparent to me, free trade, an open world economy, and “globalization” became the goat.  Free trade helps many American producers: 40 percent of corporate profits and 30 percent of agricultural revenue comes from foreign sales.  Also, the Gummint projects that 3.5 million jobs will be created in specialized manufacturing by 2025.  This means workers (presumably named Dave) who can run the robots.

There probably is no way of “saving” or “reviving” the “Rust Belt.”  Guys now in their 40s and 50s who walked off the high school graduation stage into a job at the plant aren’t likely to want to/be able to “retrain” as medical coders or McDonald’s imagineers.[5]  They’re close to the end of their working lives.  Soon enough, they’ll be on Social Security and Medicare.  Give them basic medical coverage and beer money.

That doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for improvement in the trade deals around the margins.  After an ugly early spat with Mexico, the NAFTA renegotiation has begun.  China is next, although there is the whole North Korea issue to tilt the scales.

[1] “Rescuing the Rust Belt,” The Week, 24 March 2017, p. 11.

[2] Economists estimate that 85 percent of these jobs were lost to automation of production.   It cuts labor costs: welders in the auto industry earn $25 an hour; spot-welding robots cost $8 an hour.  Take that coolies!

[3] Obviously, this latter issue is a much more complex story than is presented here.

[4] The recent passing of Norman Lear led to much revealing commentary in  the media.

[5] As in “imagine this is real food.”  Except, you know, those sausage biscuits (without egg) with a coffee and hash browns you get early on Sunday morning when you’re headed home?  Whole world feels fresh and new and clean.

Memoirs of the Addams Administration 19.

In late March 2017, House Republicans had to pull the American Health Care Act (AHCA) because they couldn’t cobble together a majority from the disparate Freedom Caucus and moderate factions of the party.  In early May they took another stab at it.  This time the bill passed the House of Representatives by a razor-thin (as the cliché goes) margin.  The new and improved AHCA ended the mandate[1], but allowed insurance companies to charge extra for people who let coverage lapse and then applied in a hurry once they got sick; granted the states the right apply for waivers if they wanted to allow insurance companies to offer plans with fewer “essential services” than mandated by the Affordable Care Act (ACA)[2]; “rolled-back” the expansion of Medicaid (which observers predicted would cut 25 percent/$880 billion in health-care spending over a decade); replaced the income-based subsidies of the ACA with age-based tax credits[3]; allowed  insurance companies to charge old people much more than young people[4]; and encouraged states—through a promised $138 billion in federal subsidies–to create high-risk pools for those with pre-existing conditions that insurance companies wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole.[5]  The right-to-life-but-not-to-medical-care-once-born crowd insisted on defunding Planned Parenthood.[6]

Republican Senators, who live in a radically different political environment than do Republican Congressmen, didn’t like the handiwork.  Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell set up a baker’s-dozen of Republican Senators to save the party from an electoral disaster in 2018.  They are expected to sketch a fig-leaf with regard to things like Medicaid spending, and coverage of the Emma Lazarus people: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, Your people with pre-existing conditions.”

Is there any way to make a Republican plan work?  Yes, if you aren’t a 100 percent Democrat.  The ACA expanded entitlement programs to provide health care to the poorest Americans.  It had little effect for most Americans.  It did not create health-care insurance for most Americans, nor did it seek to rein-in the rising costs of health-care.  Most people receive their health care through their employers or through Medicare.  The Republican plan poses no serious threat to these people.  Republicans are betting that health care lite for the poor will be politically acceptable to most voters.  Are they correct?

One contested issue lies in the effect on taxes.  Democrats jeer that the AHCA will lead to a $1 trillion cut for the richest Americans over a decade.  However, the ACA imposed a $1 trillion additional tax on those same richest Americans.  This casts into doubt the claim that the mandate is necessary so that poorer young people will subsidize richer older people.[7]

[1] This is an acknowledgement that many young people don’t want or need insurance, or—if they do—resent being ordered around by the government as if they’re the hired help.  There probably are about 14 million of these timid fugitives currently on the rolls of Obamacare.  Millions more have not signed up because the Internal Revenue Service does not require that taxpayers actually submit proof of coverage.

[2] This is a concession to the people who were promised by President Obama that “if you like your insurance, you can keep it” and then had the rug pulled out from under them.  Sad to say, attention to detail proved not to be Obama’s strongest quality.  See: “Healthcare.gov roll-out.”  Lots of times “big picture” people aren’t good at this.

[3] So people in their 20s would get up to a $2,000 credits, while people in their 60s would get up to a $4,000 credit.

[4] Up to five times as much, compared to the ACA’s limit of three times as much.  However, old people consume far more health care than do young people, so the ACA appears to be a taxing of low income people to support higher income people.

[5] “Health-care reform heads to the Senate,” The Week, 19 May 2017, p. 5.

[6] Still, last time I checked, condoms were a dollar each at CVS.

[7] “American Health Care Act: The winners and the losers,” The Week, 19 May 2017, p. 6.

The Comey Effect.

Did F.B.I. Director James Comey’s public statements about the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s e-mail cost Clinton the election?

On 19 October 2017, Hillary Clinton debated Donald Trump for the final time.  In the immediate aftermath of the debate, polls showed Clinton with as much as a 12 point lead over Trump.  However, by the morning of 28 October 2016, before Comey’s surprise announcement about re-opening the investigation in light of newly-discovered e-mails, national polls showed Hillary Clinton leading Donald Trump by only 6 percent.

Then came Comey’s statement of 28 October 2016.  Polls showed a sharp drop in support for Clinton.  However, some confusion arose and persists.  The results of a number of polls taken before the Comey announcement of 28 October 2016 were not published until after the announcement.  These showed an even sharper drop in support for Clinton than more widely noticed polls revealed.  “In retrospect, there is virtually no evidence to support the view that Mrs. Clinton really had a six-point lead by Oct. 28,…”  Because the findings of the polls were published after the announcement, commentators lumped these results with other polls conducted after Comey made his announcement.[1]  This made it appear that Comey’s announcement had a greater effect on Clinton’s mushy support than was the case.

Obviously this analysis targets only Comey’s second intervention in the election.  The first came with his public announcement that no criminal charges would be pursued against Mrs. Clinton over her use of a private e-mail server.  He went on to excoriate her careless handling of security issues.  Doubtless this incident did Clinton far more harm than did the October announcement.[2]   However, one early account of the Clinton campaign by friendly observers indicts the campaign from first to last as fatally flawed by incompetence and arrogance.[3]  This carnival created the situation in which Comey’s  statements could have such effect.

In any event, James Comey now has time to work on his memoirs.

[1] Nate Cohn, “An Election Review: There’s Reason to Be Skeptical of a Comey Effect,” NYT, 9 May 2017.

[2] On all this, see: https://waroftheworldblog.com/2016/12/13/the-hacked-election/ and https://waroftheworldblog.com/2017/03/31/the-james-comey-show/.

[3] See Michiko Kakutani, “Charting Hillary Clinton’s Course for the Iceberg,” NYT, 18 April 2017; and Barton Swaim, “Hillary the Unready,” WSJ, 18 April 2017.

Memoirs of the Addams Administration 18.

There is no longer a filibuster on judicial appointments, but there can be one on spending bills.  Since Republicans hold 52 Senate seats (rather than the 60 needed to stop a filibuster), they had to deal with the Democrats to pass a bill that covered government spending through September 2017.  What did the Republicans get out of the deal?  They got a big jump in defense spending ($12.5 billion) and in “securing the border” by non-wall means ($1.5 billion).  What did the Democrats get out of the deal?  Several of the federal agencies that President Trump wanted to put on short-rations came through relatively unscathed for the moment: the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Institutes of Health.  Federal aid to Planned Parenthood is preserved.  There is no money for “the wall.”  American generally benefitted from not having a “government shutdown,” although President Trump raised the possibility of a more serious confrontation in September.[1]

The flip side of spending is taxation.  The Trump administration released a bare outline of proposed tax change legislation.  The plan proposed to create three tax brackets (10, 25, and 35 percent); cut the corporate tax rate from the nominal 35 percent (with a ton of loop-holes) to a standard 15 percent (pretty much the international norm); and get rid of the Alternative Minimum Tax and the Estate Tax.[2]  The intellectual concept behind this plan is that lower taxation will lead to a surge in economic growth that will generate more revenue over time than it costs.  Many people on both the left and the right are deeply skeptical–to put it mildly–of this belief.  The Trump administration pointed to the slow growth of the first quarter of 2017 as proof to the harmful effects of heavy regulation and high taxation.[3]

In foreign affairs, the shock waves from the North Korea nuclear problem continued to rumble through America’s relationships in Asia.  China has supported and protected North Korea as a way of advancing its own agenda.  President Barack Obama’s policy of strategic patience put off action in hopes that “something will turn up.”  While a wise policy at the time (like the pursuit of a nuclear deal with Iran), North Korea’s gains in nuclear weapons and missiles have now made that policy obsolete.  There are tens of thousands of American troops stationed in both South Korea and Japan.  The United States has defensive alliance with both countries.  A North Korean attack on either one is likely to kill a lot of Americans and would require an American response.  Hillary Clinton would have faced the same difficult choices as does Donald Trump.  It will be necessary to give China something if it reins-in (or overthrows) the North Korean lunatic-in-office.  To off-set any concessions to an expansive China, the Trump administration has sought to rally America’s allies in Asia.  To this end, Trump invited the homicidal Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte to visit the White House, and ordered the Pentagon to move an anti-missile system to South Korea.[4]

A minor furor arose over President Trump’s question to an interviewer “Why was there a Civil War?  Why could that one not have been worked out?”  It’s a fair question that has pre-occupied academic historians for generations.  While heaping abuse on the historically-ignorant president, his critics seem to have missed reading Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address.

[1] “Congress agrees on spending deal,” The Week, 12 May 2017, p. 6.  Will President Trump be willing to force a shut-down in September as a way to shoulder his way back into a bargaining process in which mainstream Republicans are willing to ignore his priorities?

[2] “Trump’s tax plan: Who would benefit,” The Week, 12 May 2017, p. 8.

[3] “Issue of the week: Looking for a ‘Trump bump’,” The Week, 12 May 2017, p. 38.

[4] “Trump’s hand of friendship to Philippine strongman,” The Week, 12 May 2017, p. 7; “How they see us: Trump diplomacy rattles South Korea,” The Week, 12 May 2017, p. 17.