My Weekly Reader 6 May 2019.

Surveying the current “winter of our discontent,” one cannot but wonder what turned political differences into polarization.[1]  If we take the Sixties as the starting point, then the story might run something like the following.  John F. Kennedy beat Richard Nixon in the presidential election of 1960 by a razor thin majority.  However, the Kennedy Administration pursued no divisive polices.  Abroad it remained within the mainstream of Cold War foreign policy.  At home, it kept the Civil Rights movement at arm’s length and could not muster legislative support for any other major initiatives.

The assassination of Kennedy brought Lyndon Johnson to the White House.  Johnson seized the opportunity to shift government policy at home and abroad.  Formed by his youthful encounter with poverty and injustice, and a determined supporter of the New Deal, Johnson sought to “complete” the New Deal to address the needs of a different time.  Johnson won passage of the Civil Rights Act (1964), then crushed his Republican rival in the 1964 election.  Secure in victory and backed by a powerful shift to the left in Congress, Johnson’s legislative program created the “Great Society” structures.  Many of these are with us still.[2]

Catastrophically, however, to win election, Johnson had closed off Republican charges that Democrats were soft on Communism by using the Tonkin Gulf incident (or non-cident) to begin committing American ground troops to combat roles in South Vietnam.

Furthermore, no one in Washington foresaw the huge social upheaval when the “Baby Boom” passed through the Sixties.  “Sex and drugs and rock-and-roll,” demonstrations in the streets and on campuses, and the further development of the Civil Rights movement demanded a response.  Many Democrats embraced these causes, while many Republicans reacted against them.  (In California, the backlash made Ronald Reagan—a former Goldwater supporter—governor and a polarizing national political figure.)  The Vietnam War poured fuel on the fire.  Then the Pentagon Papers (1971) and Watergate (1972-1974) created a distrust of Washington.  That distrust fed a longing for “outsiders”: Carter, Reagan, Clinton, Obama, Trump.

These events set the pattern as policy issues have divided Americans.  Abortion, gun control, gay rights and marriage equality, forced busing for school integration and affirmative action, drug policy, taxation, and welfare all became embattled.[3]  There is something to be said on both sides of most of these issues, but now no one is listening to the other side.

What made each of these issues so bitterly divisive has been the conflict between federal and state power.  Most of the Bill of Rights was “incorporated” during the Sixties, while the Warren Court delivered a series of other decisions that rocked state preferences.  Republicans have opposed this universalizing of rights on the grounds that it amounts to an imposition of Democratic beliefs on Republicans by court decisions and executive actions.  The courts themselves are as embattled as the rest of us.  Except those who have checked out in disgust.

[1] For a contrary view to what follows, see: Kevin Kruse and Julian Zelizer, Fault Lines: A History of the United States since 1974 (2019).

[2] Julian Zelizer, “The Fierce Urgency of Now”: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society (2015).  Marvelous book.  Excellent scholarship, but written for the “intelligent general public.”

[3] The case of Roy Moore in Alabama is illustrative.  Allegations of sexual misconduct dogged Moore and caused many Republicans to sit out the election, but many other Republicans voted for Moore because his opponent supported “choice”—which is, in their minds, “baby murder.”

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Couple of Factual Points.

First, so far as I can tell at the moment, the first use of the term “collusion” came on “Meet the Press,” on 18 December 2016.  The person who used the term was John Podesta, a major figure in Hillary Clinton’s shambolic presidential campaign.  Did Podesta not want to use the term “conspiracy”?  Later that week, Senator Harry Reid (D-Nevada)—who may have been watching “Meet the Press”—also used the term “collusion.”[1]  From there it entered the lexicon of both Democrats and the media.  Then, apparently, it became the term of choice for the President and his supporters when asserting his innocence.  Then it became a term roundly denounced by Democrats and the media as meaningless and an obfuscation.

Second, firing James Comey as “obstruction of justice.”  On 14 February 2017, Trump reportedly told FBI Director James Comey that “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go.”  After all, “he’s a good guy.”  On 4 December 2018, a sentencing memorandum from Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller said Flynn “deserves credit for accepting responsibility in a timely fashion and substantially assisting the government.”  As a result, Flynn should receive little or no jail time.  What’s the diff?

Third, the Mueller Report “did not identify evidence that any U.S. persons knowingly or intentionally coordinated with the IRA’s interference operation.”  More emphatically, “the Special Counsel’s report did not find any evidence that members of the Trump campaign or anyone associated with the campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its hacking operations.”

Fourth, “as the Special Counsel’s report acknowledges, there is substantial evidence to show that the President was frustrated and angered by a sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency, propelled by his political opponents, and fueled by illegal leaks.”[2]  His actions should be seen in this light.

Watching the “analysis” following Attorney General William Barr’s press conference this morning, I couldn’t help but be reminded of President Obama’s remark that he had to hold on “until the fever breaks.”[3]  Many people seem to have behaved badly in this mess.[4]  What to do?

I’m “concerned” (i.e. worried, frightened, angry) that Republicans will NOT let it go.  We don’t need a “reckoning” or a bloodbath or a counter-vailing “witch hunt.”  All of us—liberals, conservatives, and independents–would be lucky if the perpetrators of the “witch-hunt” calmly reflected on what went wrong.  The New York Times did so admirably after the Jayson Blair[5] and Judith Miller[6] events.

Calm reflection is difficult when the hounds are baying at your heels.  So, hounds, lay off.  Much as “they” need to be on the next thing smoking to Guantanamo, just lay off.  America’s democracy is at stake.

[1] See: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/02/opinion/collusion-meaning-trump-.html

[2] Quotes from https://www.politico.com/story/2019/04/18/transcript-barr-press-conference-1280949

[3] See his equally shrewd statements that “the Cambridge police were stupid”; that ISIS is “just the JV team”; and that “Russia is only a regional power.”

[4] See: “Ace in the Hole” (1951), “Absence of Malice” (1981); “Network” (1986); “Shattered Glass” (2003).  These are among the real origins of the belief in “fake news.”

[5] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jayson_Blair

[6] See: http://nymag.com/nymag/features/9226/

Mueller Report.

OK, this is a first-twitch response.  Probably have to eat it–and my hat–soon.

So far, and we’ll have to wait a while to b sure, Robert Mueller has not objected to Attorney General William Barr’s summary of his findings. The BBC’s Anthony Zurcher opines that the one sentence quote from the Mueller report on “conspiracy” is as close as lawyer-speak allows to a complete exoneration. Without an underlying crime, it is difficult to distinguish between simply defending oneself against a loose-cannon investigator and obstruction of justice.

Mueller reports that the Russians tried to “collude,” but the Trump campaign wouldn’t cooperate. This was clear a year ago in the testimony of Papodopoulos.  Also, there’s plenty of evidence that the Russkies tried to help Trump. Just no evidence that a) the Trump campaign cooperated or–so far as I know–b) it made any difference. Jane Mayer will disagree with that latter remark.

I think that we’re still waiting on a Department of Justice Inspector-General’s report on how the Trump investigation began. The same IG evaluated the work of James Comey on the HRC investigation, and then evaluated the behavior of Peter Strozk. So, we’ll know more then.

Bear in mind that the Russians could have identified Christopher Steele as an American government agent during 2015-2016.  At the behest of the Department of Justice, Steele took a pass at Oleg Deripaska.  Deripaska probably grassed to Putin.  I don’t recall seeing Steele’s expenses for things like massive payments to Russians in exchange for state secrets.  (I’m assuming that revealing state secrets when Vladimir Putin tends to kill–in gruesome fashion–anyone who  leaks information required monetary compensation.  But what do I know?  Perhaps there are many Russian government officials so deeply concerned that Donald Trump might become president that they were willing to get Putinium added to their tea.  Or perhaps Steele got his “dossier” under the Old Pals Act.)  Failing those alternative possibilities, anything Steele got from the Russians after that may have been a Russkie plant intended to mess with the 2016 election. Mueller did not investigate that possibility. I wish he had.

Curmudgeon Me 2.

Nancy Pelosi rules out impeachment as “not worth the trouble” unless Robert Mueller’s investigation found evidence of actual high crimes and misdemeanors.[1]  Mueller has not yet filed his report or possible final indictments.  He might report evidence of impeachable offensives by President Donald Trump, although Department of Justice opinion seems to hold that a sitting president cannot be indicted.  Attorney General William Barr might release the report or a summary of it, or he might not.  Not releasing it would make me suspect that Mueller reported impeachable offenses and Barr sought to cover for him.

On the other hand, Attorney General Barr is a long-time mainstream Republican, as are most of the Republican Senators.  What would damage the long-term interests of the Republican Party more, impeaching Trump and replacing him with Mike Pence or covering-up impeachable offenses and then having them revealed as soon as a Democrat becomes Attorney General?

What Speaker Pelosi may have been doing is trying to warn fellow Democrats that she doubts that Mueller will report either “collusion” between the Trump campaign and the Russkies or “obstruction of justice.”[2]  What Mueller has achieved so far has been to get the National Security Agency to tell him who were the Russian hackers, then to indict them; to convict George Papadopoulos for lying to FBI agents about his contacts with Russians; to convict Paul Manafort for financial crimes committed before he became Trump’s campaign manager and for tampering with witnesses to avoid subsequent prosecution; to indict Rick Gates, Manafort’s assistant in the financial crimes, and Roger Stone, and Michael Cohen; and to get Michael Flynn to co-operate.  So, it looks like we are waiting on what has been learned from Flynn and anything that Cohen said in secret that he did not say in public testimony.  I don’t know what that will be.

 

Brenton Tarrant, the accused New Zealand gun-man, was a fat boy child of divorced parents who lived with his father, didn’t like school, and acted out in non-violent ways.[3]  Apparently, he was bullied in school.  Also, “he was a heavy-metal fan.”[4]  In short, pretty run of the mill kind of victim-kid in any high school.  They rarely turn into mass murderers.  If they did, most of us would already be dead.  Then, he changed.  After escaping high-school, he remade himself physically.  He lost a lot of weight through changes in diet and exercise, and became a personal trainer at a local gym.  Again, nothing extraordinary here.  Men’s Health is full of stories of similar constructive transformations.[5]  No one recalls him as violent or white nationalist.  Then he went off to travel the world.  Yet again, nothing extraordinary.  British and European youth hostels are full of young Australians and New Zealanders come from the far side of the world.  Same is probably true of Asia.

It looks like he was “radicalized” during his travels.  This will take more digging than ordinary journalists can do.  Wait a year for the story in the New Yorker.

[1] Peter Baker and Emily Cochrane, “Ruling Out Impeachment May Set Far-Reaching Precedent,” NYT, 13 March 2019.

[2] JMO, but it would be hard to call defending yourself against James Comey “obstruction of justice” if there is no underlying crime.  I’m sure that I’m wrong, but there it is.

[3] Isabella Kwai, “Shock and Disgust in Christchurch Suspect’s Hometown,” NYT, 17 March 2019.

[4] Aha!

[5] Look at the “Belly Off” series for numerous examples.

Just the Facts, Ma’am 2 11 February 2019.

Second, three tax proposals have been offered to raise more revenue from the rich.[1]  Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has suggested raising the tax on incomes above $10 million from the current 37 percent to 60 or 70 percent.  This would return upper-income tax rates to the level that prevailed during the 1970s.  In the regime of the 1970s, many deductions and exemptions existed which do not exist today.  The effective tax rate on high incomes under the Ocasio-Cortez proposal would be much higher than the one of the 1970s.  However, the top rate in the 1970s applied to the contemporary equivalent of $800,000.

Senator Elizabeth Warren has proposed a “wealth tax,” not merely an income tax.[2]  People with a net worth between $50 million and $1 billion would pay 2 percent per year[3]; people worth more than $1 billion would pay 3 percent per year.[4]  According to the calculations underlying Senator Warren’s proposal, this tax would generate $2.75 trillion over ten years.

The Warren proposal may not be constitutional.  The 16th Amendment to the Constitution created a tax on income, not a tax on all assets.  Apparently, the courts have held that taxes on estates and gifts are excise taxes on the transfer of assets, rather than a tax on the assets themselves.  The tax also might be a logistical nightmare to apply.

Senator Bernie Sanders has proposed revising the estate tax.  Until 2009, the tax applied to estates of more than $3.5 million.  A 2017 tax change raised the threshold for individuals to about $11 million and the threshold for couples to about $22 million, with a standard tax rate of 40 percent.  Senator Sanders would return to the 2009 level of $3.5 million.  In addition, he replaces a single tax rate with multiple rates.  From $3.5 million to $10 million, the rate would be 45 percent; on estates of $1 billion or more, the rate would be 77 percent.

[1] Paul Sullivan, “Taxing the Rich Sounds Easy.  But It’s Not,” NYT, 2 February 2019; Sydney Ember, “Sanders Unveils a Plan To Increase Estate Taxes,” NYT, 1 February 2019.

[2] Senator Bernie Sanders also supports the idea of a wealth tax, if not necessarily Senator Warren’s version of such a tax.

[3] Apparently, there are 39,735 people worth between $50 million and $1 billion in the United States today.

[4] Apparently, there are 680 billionaires in the United States today.

Just the facts, Ma’am 1 11 February 2019.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) reports that spending on people aged 65 and older[1] has increased as a share of federal spending from 35 percent (2005) to 40 percent (2018) and is projected to rise to 50 percent (2029).  The federal budget deficit is projected to exceed $1 trillion a year from 2022 to 2029.  Proposals recently offered by Democrats intending to run for President in 2020 or to shape the party’s policy for that race may have an effect on this situation.  None of the proposals claim to aim at deficit reduction.  Instead, they target reducing income inequality and/or financing expanded programs.

First, it is proposed to reform Social Security.[2]  As originally designed, Social Security enhanced private preparation for retirement by adding the resources from a tax on currently working people to individual savings and/or pensions.  Today, however, there appears to be a savings crisis among working people.

There is also a financing crisis for Social Security.  The actuaries at the Social Security Administration report that outlays (payments) will soon exceed income (withholding tax revenues).  Thereafter the payments will be paid from an accumulated surplus held in the form of U.S. treasury bonds.  When that trust fund is exhausted by 2034, benefits will have to be reduced.  Currently, about 63 million people receive Social Security benefits.  The number is expected to rise to 89 million by 2030.  The total current cost is about $1 trillion.  The maximum amount of income subject to Social Security tax is $132,900; the current withholding tax on payrolls is 12.4 percent.

Democrats propose to increase the minimum benefit to help lower-income people who have saved less than have higher income people; increase benefits by an average of about two percent; raise the annual cost-of-living adjustment to payments to respond to the reality that retirees consume goods and services in a different pattern than do still-working people; cut the tax on benefits for middle-income recipients while increasing them on upper-income recipients; and increase the payroll tax rate from the current to 14.8 percent by 2040, and the payroll tax would be imposed on incomes above $400,000 a year, while incomes between $132,900 a year and $400,000 a year would not be subject to taxation.

This proposal would permanently fix the financing problem.  It would also increase benefits paid out to some Social Security recipients.  An estimated three-quarters of the extra income would go to covering the looming deficit; the rest would go to increased benefits for lower-income recipients.

[1] Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid.

[2] Robert Pear, “Democrats Push First Major Social Security Expansion Since 1972,” NYT, 4 February 2019.

I’m Running for President in 2020–3.

The Global War on Terror is approaching a new stage.  The Islamic State (ISIS) has been driven out of Iraq and almost destroyed in Syria.  Recently, President Trump ordered a sudden withdrawal of American forces from Syria and announced a desire to do the same from Afghanistan.  Much expert and political opposition arise to slow him down.  Some people argued that the Islamic State had not yet been totally defeated or destroyed.  Parallels were drawn to President Obama’s withdrawal of forces from Iraq.  This had been followed by the rise of the Islamic State and its invasion of Iraq.

Peace talks between the Americans and the Taliban have been proceeding and may be approaching a settlement.   With regard to Afghanistan, two lines of criticism or concern arise.  First, a peace deal with the Taliban will be based up on some kind of compromise or power-sharing agreement between the Taliban and their indigenous Afghan opponents.  What assurance can be offered that the Taliban will honor their commitments?  The Taliban came to power in the first place through victory in a civil war.  Are they likely to pursue the same path again.  Second,  the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001 to overthrow the Taliban which had sheltered Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda.  Who is to say that they will not again become patrons of anti-Western jihad?

In both cases, critics of President Trump argue for a continued American role in what Dexter Filkins called “The Forever War.”  While these critics are experts–and I am not–and they make important points, it seems to me that they fail to address a key question.  “How does this thing end?”  We are at war with an idea–Islamic radicalism–and with global social conditions–the failed states and the failed societies in much of the developing world.  It seems likely that the “defeat” of ISIS will soon be followed by a wild fire of Islamic radical rebellions running from Bangladesh through Indonesia to the southern Philippines.   Islamist movements are on their heels in much of Africa, but the conditions that gave rise to them have not been addressed.

I ask my fellow candidates the following questions.  Are we going to keep military forces in every place an Islamist wild fire has broken, been contained, and burned out in case the embers catch light once again?  Are we going to send military forces to every new place an Islamist wild fire breaks out?  Of course, it will be argued that American military technology and special forces are effective force multipliers.  America can “lead from behind” and on the cheap by assembling” coalitions of the willing” to do much of the fighting.

It might be answered that even these forces are not infinite.  America is not on a real war-footing and has not been since 2001.  A small share of Americans bear the cost of battle.  We develop plans for Operations in each Theater of Operations as it arises, but I see no Strategy for winning the global and forever War.