Category Archives: Politics

Conservatism and health care

The Senate today held a vote on a procedural measure that would allow for debates and amendments on, well, something. No one is quite sure what measures will be debated and amended, This Vox explainer did a nice job of helping me understand what’s going on. The final vote was 50-50, with Vice-President Mike Pence performing his one constitutional duty by breaking the tie. There was also some high drama, as Senator John McCain, recently diagnosed with brain cancer, nonetheless showed up and voted. He then gave a powerful, stirring speech, in which he launched an all-out attack on the bill he had just voted for. “I will not vote for this bill,” he said in a powerful, if wavering voice. Uh, okay.

I’m hardly the first person to point this out, but Republicans currently control the House, the Senate, the White House, and likely hold a 5-4 advantage on most Supreme Court votes. And after voting to repeal Obamacare a jillion times when Obama was President, they can’t seem to pass a health care bill now. No Democrats will vote for a bill repealing the single most important legislative achievement of the Obama administration, though Democrats do have bills ready for a vote that would fix the problems the ACA undoubtedly has. But those bills will never be allowed on the floor for debate or votes. Republicans have made it clear that they have no interest in bi-partisan cooperation on health care. And they haven’t been able to get much done. Today’s vote in the Senate was procedural. Will it lead to a final bill? Probably not, but you never know. I certainly hope not; every bill out there, including the House bill that passed, the Senate bill that didn’t pass, and the various bills under current consideration, all of them are terrible bills. If the goal is to expand the numbers of Americans with adequate access to affordable health care, these bills all fail. In fact, they fail pretty spectacularly. They reduce the numbers of healthy people buying insurance through the ACA exchanges. They cut Medicaid. They will take health insurance from 20 to 25 to 35 million Americans. Which means, in all likelihood, that people will die.

As a loyal Democrat, it’s tempting to conclude that these bad bills exist because Republicans are bad people. These bills are variously described as ‘mean-spirited,’ ‘cruel,’ vicious’ and ‘lethal.’ The implication is that Republicans are uniquely indifferent to basic human suffering. Republicans want to cut taxes for rich people. (They always want to cut taxes, and rich people pay higher taxes than poor people). And in these debates, they always look terrible, like a party of nasty, uncaring Scrooges, out to hurt, or even kill poor people. Of course, they try to defend their various bills, insisting that CBO scores are wrong, that poor people won’t lose their insurance, that what they’re doing is allowing states more flexibility and providing people with more freedom. It never works. They look terrible in every instance. These are historically unpopular bills.

I don’t think, though, that Republicans are meaner than Democrats. I think that’s a dangerously hubristic way of looking at it. Preening about our moral superiority is a temptation most progressives have given into at least occasionally. But it isn’t true. There are philosophical differences between the parties, and we’re never going to get anything done if we insist that those differences are also moral. I know lots of Republicans. Good folks. They’re just real bad at health care policy.

And the reason isn’t hard-heartedness or indifference to suffering. It’s conservatism. Republicans tend to be conservatives, and a lot of Republicans are deeply committed, ideologically conservative. In fact, I believe that Republicans are far more committed to ideological conservatism than most Democrats are to ideological progressivism, which I don’t think is even a thing. You will often hear Republicans, talking about some policy or another, say things like ‘that policy is incompatible with the basic principles of conservatism.’ I’ve never heard a Democrat say the equivalent. Never once.

If you know enough conservatives, and you listen long enough, you’ll hear them admit to this: they don’t think health care is a right. They think health insurance is a commodity, like any other commodity. If you can afford it, great. If you can’t, well, then live without it. If you get seriously sick, and don’t have insurance, there are any number of charitable organizations that can help out. (And in my experience, Republicans give generously to those charities). When we talk about universal health care, conservatives don’t believe it’s something government can or should provide. Big government, the federal government, is inefficient, corrupt and overly expensive. Putting government in charge of health care is likely to hurt a health care system that generally works pretty well. And Obamacare doesn’t just expand health care, it mandates that private citizens purchase policies (sin number one), and provides federal funding to subsidize such purchases (sin number two).

That’s a hard philosophy to argue for, though. It sounds terrible. It makes it sound like rich people should get better health care than poor people should. It makes it sound, in fact, like the lives of rich folks are more valuable than the lives of poor people. I think the conservative stance on health care is actually a principled one. But it’s based on bad theory, and on bad research.

The fact is that government-provided health care programs–specifically Medicare and Medicaid–are more efficient and effective and cost-effective than the care private insurers provide. Medicare is so efficient, in fact, that doctors don’t much like it. It doesn’t compensate them all that generously.

As to the philosophical point; is health care a right? Do all Americans have a right to affordable, effective health care? Should every American citizen have government provided-or-mandated health insurance? The answer to that question is ‘sure, probably.’ Health care is a right if sufficient numbers of citizens believe it to be a right. Besides, if we have a right to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,’ that would seem to include a right to see a doctor without being bankrupted. The Framers wouldn’t have agreed, of course, because their health care sucked. The idea that going to a doctor was likely to make a sick person better is a reasonably recent one. But yes, health care is a right. How do I know that? Polling data says so. If 60% of Americans think health care is a right, then it’s a right.

Conservatism is on the wrong side of history on this question, which is hardly surprising, because conservatism is generally opposed to change. I mean, the most fundamental difference between liberalism and conservatism would seem to be ‘should things change, or should they not change.’ So, as change happens, conservatives tend, at least initially, to oppose it.

The other hallmark of conservatism is a commitment to free markets, a commitment which, of course, I share. I don’t want the government to regulate the prices of cell phones, or DVRs. I want the market to do that. But providing some commodities and services is generally beyond the capacities of markets. Roads should be built by the government, as should electric grids and sewage systems. And health care fits in that category. Health care is a service that is uniquely unresponsive to market ideology.

That’s why one consistent conservative answer to health care includes the expansion of health savings accounts. They’re not that terrible an idea. They’re also no panacea. You’d be able to put some of your money in a savings account, tax free, which you could then use to defray health care expenses. See, that way you would be incentivized to shop around, to ask several hospitals to quote you their best price for that MRI, for example.

Except very few people are ever going to do that. The relevant economic principle is ‘asymmetry of information.’ Doctors know more about our health than we do. If my doctor says ‘you need an MRI,’ I’m going to get one. Even if I ask for a second opinion, I’m not really reducing the asymmetry of relevant knowledge. i[‘m just seeing a second person who knows more about it than I do. That’s why insurance companies pay a lot of money to medical experts who determine if a proposed course of treatment is likely enough to work for it to be covered. And so does Medicare.

Does this reduce freedom? Yeah, some. We’re put our family’s health in the hands of these people, these doctor folks. It’s frustrating, and yes, we should (and do) inform ourselves, and research, and talk to people, and do whatever we can to take control of our own health. I agree with every effort to inform ourselves. But when the doc says ‘get an MRI,’ I’m getting one.

So what we’re currently seeing is conservatives trying to provide universal health care when they don’t believe in any part of it. Of course they look bad. Of course the results are bad. Barack Obama tried the most conservative, most market-oriented approach to increasing access to health care he could possible manage. The result is the ACA, and it’s not great. And all of its problems, all of them, stem from the fact that it’s a conservative, market-oriented approach to health care. We can and must do better. All Americans have a right to affordable health care. Time for us to do better.

 

Trump fights back

Following the various ins and outs of the multiple scandals and misstatements and gross ineptitudes of the Trump administration is just exhausting. Every day there’s something new; if only a new Trump tweet. The President apparently spends his days watching cable news, and fuming. Every once in awhile, he vents. Most recently, he vented to the New York Times, where, among other absurdities, he claimed “I’ve given the farmers back their farms. I’ve given the builders back their land to build houses and to build other things.” None of which is remotely true, in any sense whatsoever.

Of course, the Russia scandal must seem like Chinese water torture to Trump, who is not known for his patience anyway. Drip, drip, drip; every day, new revelations. Right now the press is primarily focusing on the various, previously undisclosed meetings members of the Trump campaign and administration held with various Russian entities. The national media is good at that kind of story; who met with whom, for how long, when. For the most part, these meetings merely suggest possible collusion, but don’t prove that collusion took place. The meeting between Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner with a raftful of variously skeevy Russian figures comes closest to proving some kind of actual inappropriate or illegal interaction between Trump staff and Russians. Of course, we don’t know what they all talked about. Oh, yeah, adoption. That’s suspicious enough. Did the Trumpskies promise to consider reversing the Magnitsky act in exchange for dirt on Hillary? Hello, collusion.

But the ‘meetings with Russians’ angle, though certainly fascinating, has always seemed to me something of a sideshow. The real action, I think, is likely to be financial. The relevant questions, it seems to me, would include some version of these: how many deals did the Trump organization conclude with Russian oligarchs? How much Russian funding did the Trump organization receive? Did any of these transactions involve money laundering? Were there violations, by the Trump organization, of the Corrupt Foreign Practices Act? And finally this: does Vladimir Putin own Donald Trump?

Those kinds of questions are difficult for the national media, in large measure because very few such transactions are in the public record. To dig into those kinds of details requires someone with subpoena powers, and expertise in forensic accounting. These are the kinds of questions that Robert Mueller’s investigation is supremely well equipped to answer.  Mueller’s staff has precisely that kind of expertise. And Mueller himself has subpoena powers. It’s just impossible for me to imagine Mueller not asking for Trump’s tax returns.

And if he does, all hell could break loose.

Donald Trump is a fighter. Does anyone think he’ll just mildly turn over personal financial records? No. He may claim executive privilege. (A first step, and one he will lose). He could pressure the Justice department to fire Mueller. He could fire Jeff Sessions. He could pardon his family members. And he could pardon himself.

Does he have the authority to pardon himself? No one knows. It’s never been adjudicated. Probably not, but that doesn’t mean he won’t try.

And so, as has been the case since last November, the real question is this: if this President acts so egregiously, so nakedly in his own self-interest, if he behaves so far outside American political norms, what will Congress do? Will the Republican-controlled Congress act? Put another way, can we rely on the patriotism and integrity of Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell and the rest of the Republican caucuses in the House and Senate?

And the answer to that is also pretty clear. No. We can’t. They won’t act. Trump can abuse the pardon power of his office, and they will let him do it. A constitutional crisis only exists if the political will exists to force the issue. I see no sign of either integrity or patriotism among the current Republican leadership. Man, that’s scary.

Let’s talk about collusion

It’s been awhile. Our esteemed POTUS is back in the country, after zipping across various oceans, to the Middle East and Europe, where he hectored our closest allies about NATO ‘dues’ they don’t in fact actually owe, shoved the President of Montenegro, offended the Pope, and grabbed hold of a palantir orb with some of his Arab pals, in an apparent attempt to communicate with Sauron. (He does seem to like back channel communications). Meanwhile, the various investigations into the Trump/Russian connections keep trudging onward. Let’s catch up.

Have you had this experience? You’re talking to a Trump supporter, and you mention the Russian connection, and they look at you smugly and say ‘can you show me any evidence of actual collusion?’ And you can’t. And we still can’t; not quite yet. But we’re getting closer.

For example: this. In case you don’t want to click on the link, here’s the gist: the Wall Street Journal reported that, last summer, a Florida GOP operative named Aaron Nevins was in communication with a Russian hacker who goes by Guccifer 2.0. Guccifer had hacked into the DCCC computers, and provided Nevins with all kinds of information useful to the Trump campaign. Memos with self-oppo research (where you hire someone to look for dirt on your candidates, so they can be prepared for ads). Databases of voters in key districts. Nevins called it ‘a map to where all the troops were deployed.’ Also, internal details about congressional districts in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia, which were eventually used to create attack ads in those states. I’ll grant you that Nevins wasn’t involved in the national Trump campaign. But he shared his link to Guccifer 2.0 with Roger Stone, who was a highly placed advisor to the Trump campaign. Stone piously insists that he didn’t share that link with anyone else. We’ll see.

So, yes, there is absolutely evidence of collusion between members of the Trump campaign and Russia: Guccifer to Nevins to Stone. Of course, the Russians are offering pro-forma denials that Guccifer worked for them, but US intelligence sources know better. And there’s no evidence, so far, that Stone shared Nevins’ information with anyone else in the Trump national campaign. Still, this is collusion. This is what it looks like.

And here’s why it’s significant. Remember the second Obama Presidential campaign? Remember 2012? Well, the Democrats created what the Washington Post called “a high-tech political start-up whose main purpose was to put more people on the streets, armed with more information about the voters they were contacting, than any campaign had ever attempted.” They created a nonpareil voter database, allowing volunteers to contact undecided voters with better information than anyone had had before.

That database still exists, and has expanded. And in the waning days of the 2016 campaign, one of the advantages Hillary Clinton seemed to have was what pundits called ‘a strong ground game.’ She had more volunteers than Trump did, and they had this database to guide their efforts. So if polling showed a race as tied, it seemed likely that Hillary would outperform expectations, because she would working with better information.

But if that database was in the hands of the Republicans, that advantage could be lessened, or even eliminated. And look at what Nevins said he got from Guccifer: “sensitive information on voters in key Florida districts, breaking down how many people were considered dependable Democratic voters, undecided Democrats, Republican voters and the like.” Maybe not the entire database, but clearly at least some of it.

So, yes, there was collusion, and yes, it could easily have made a difference in the election.

What was the other major turning point in the election? Surely, it has to have been the Hillary Clinton email scandal, and the various twists and turns in that whole story. And a key moment in the election came when James Comey, the FBI director, announced that the FBI was not pursuing a criminal investigation into Hillary’s emails. He could have just let it go at that. But he didn’t. He chose to use that opportunity to give Secretary Clinton a real scolding. Remember?  “Although we did not find clear evidence that Secretary Clinton or her colleagues intended to violate laws governing the handling of classified information, there is evidence that they were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information.”

Why did he do that? Well, we know a lot more about it now. As Business Insider describes it, Comey received a document regarding the Clinton investigation, a purported memo between Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chair of the DNC, to a staffer for George Soros, saying that she had been assured by Loretta Lynch (Obama’s Attorney-General), that the Justice Department planned to go easy on Hillary. This memo is a fake. US intelligence has confirmed that its a  Russian creation. It’s not genuine. And Comey immediately mistrusted it. But it informed his decision-making nonetheless.

According to Business Insider, Comey “feared the document would be leaked and cast doubt on the credibility and independence of the FBI’s email-server probe — part of why he decided to bypass the Justice Department and announce the findings of the investigation in his impromptu press conference in July. CNN reported that sources close to Comey said he “felt it didn’t matter if the information was accurate, because his big fear was that if the Russians released the information publicly, there would be no way for law enforcement and intelligence officials to discredit it without burning intelligence sources and methods.”

So there we have it. The Russians hacked into DCCC computers, and got enough information to negate the Clinton campaign’s ‘ground game’ advantage. And perhaps the biggest turning point in the campaign, Comey’s press conference chiding of Hillary Clinton over the email scandal was driven by the FBI’s possession of a fake document they didn’t think they could properly or effectively expose.

Would Hillary Clinton have won without Trump having these improper advantages? Did the Russians really win the election for the Donald?  I don’t know, and neither does anyone else. Was there collusion? Absolutely, but who know who high it went. These news stories are highly significant, but they don’t constitute proof of anything. Still, the investigation needs to continue. We need to know. A hostile foreign power may well have put their favored candidate in the White House. That’s got to concern every patriotic American.

Donald Trump and the oath of office

Jane Krakowski was on Colbert’s show last night, and as is obligatory when actresses appear on late night talk shows, Colbert complimented her on her appearance. “Thanks,” she said, and added that she was trying to lose her ‘Trump ten pounds.’ Everyone she knew was in the same fix: weight gain caused by binge eating, caused by Trump-caused anxiety.

This week has been especially bad, and it’s only Tuesday. Last night, the Washington Post dropped this bomb: Trump had provided two high ranking Russian officials with highly classified information, apparently just to brag. “I get great intel,” boasted Trump. “I have people brief me on great intel every day.” And then, to prove his point, he revealed code-word level information. And White House staff, panicked, began calling intelligence agencies to limit the damage.  At the same time, various Trump surrogates denounced the Post story as ‘fake news,’ with carefully parsed statements (Gen. McMaster’s was a gem) in which they take issue with things the Post story did not, in fact, say. Then, this morning, Trump cut them off at the knees, using Twitter to assert that he had the perfect right to share information with Russia. As a friend of mine put it on Facebook:

“[Media reports] Trump does staggeringly stupid thing

[Trump surrogates] he absolutely did not do the stupid thing

[Trump, tweeting the next day] I did the stupid thing

[Surrogates] …and that is why stupid thing is actually brilliant, and

[Trump, tweeting] I did it for the stupidest reason imaginable

[Surrogates] … the thing is now United States policy despite dishonest media reports on its stupidity, and also

(loop to beginning)”

As President of the United States, Donald Trump can declassify information any time he believes it to be in the national interest. He didn’t do anything illegal. I thought the best story on this was this one, on the Lawfare blog. Lawfare points to two crucial issues: first, that it matters why Trump did it: “what Trump thought he was doing might well inflect whether we should see this as an act of carelessness, an act of carelessness bordering on treachery, or an act of judgment (even if misjudgment) of the sort we elect presidents to make.” And second, that an act need not be criminal or illegal to be an impeachable offense:

Violating the oath of office does not require violating a criminal statute. If the President decided to write the nuclear codes on a sticky note on his desk and then took a photo of it and tweeted it, he would not technically have violated any criminal law–just as he hasn’t here. He has the constitutional authority to dictate that the safeguarding of nuclear materials shall be done through sticky notes in plain sight and tweeted, even the authority to declassify the codes outright. Yet, we would all understand this degree of negligence to be a gross violation of his oath of office.

This analogy gets to the heart of my main concern about Trump’s Presidency. I do not believe that Donald Trump takes his oath of office seriously. For the first time in US history, we cannot trust this President to set aside his own emotional predispositions and act in the best interests of the nation.

There have been Presidents in the past that I didn’t think were particularly effective Presidents. This is because I disagreed with them on matters of policy. I thought their political philosophy was likely to prove ineffectual; I thought they were wrong. But I never questioned their patriotism. I never questioned their commitment to the job. I never questioned that serving the nation was their highest and only priority. Of course, people make mistakes, and some policy choices work better than others; of course, we’re all only human. But the men (only men so far, alas) who have served in the White House have always understood that they are doing the most important and difficult job in the world. Early in the first season of The West Wing, John Spencer, playing White House Chief of Staff, talking to his wife, tells her “this is the most important thing I will ever do in my life.” And she responds, understandably hurt, “it’s not more important than your marriage.” “Right now,” says Leo, “it is more important than my marriage.” And he was just Chief of Staff.

The Oath of Office is deceptively simple. “I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” But its implications are profound. If you take that oath, then for the four or eight years you serve, it’s your first and only priority.

And I do not believe that that’s how Donald Trump understands his duties as President. I don’t think he considers that serving the nation and its people to be his first and highest obligation. I think he lets stuff get in his way. I do not believe him to be a serious person, taking a serious job seriously. I don’t know if he’s merely a particularly buffoonish clown, or if he’s actively mentally ill. He’s not . . . right.

That’s why his refusal to divest of his business interests is so disheartening. Every previous President has done this. President Carter sold his peanut farm; George W. Bush sold his baseball team. Trump has business interests all over the world. Are those businesses still important to him? Does he weigh their success as he conducts foreign policy; is profitability a factor in his decision-making? We have never asked that before about any former President. We find ourselves obliged to ask it about this one.

Far more important, though, is the raw emotionality with which Trump seems to make decisions. He gets angry, he gets frustrated, he gets his feelings hurt. So does everyone else. But most of us can set those emotions aside when we need to. Most of us can engage productively with that co-worker we dislike. Most of us can take a deep breath, set aside our resentments and fears and make important decisions.

i think it’s likely that Donald Trump is an immensely damaged human being. Of course, even mental health professionals balk at long range diagnoses. But Trump’s constant, incessant braggadocio has to some from somewhere. It’s not just that he seems to be a near-pathological liar. But have you noticed how his lies are pretty much always self-aggrandizing? He had the biggest crowds at his inauguration; he has the best temperment, he’s a phenomenal negotiator. He’s always the best; the smartest, the most aware. He doesn’t just get two scoops of ice cream, he deserves them. He’s such a good boy.

That has to be hiding some deeply seated inferiority complex, doesn’t it? And he can’t set it aside. And we don’t have time for him to work through it.

He gets the best intel, he tells the Russians. And then has to prove it. (Lavrov and Kislyak had to have been astounded. They didn’t think this would be so easy). By off-the-cuff declassifying highly sensitive intelligence, jeopardizing our relations with an ally, and quite possibly putting intel sources at risk. Let’s not forget this: Trump didn’t reveal classify information, he blurted it. To prove to his Russian comrades friends what good intel he gets. (To prove, yet again, once more, that he really is President, that he really did win). And people could die. Who did he compromise? How much at risk is our source?

It’s visceral, instinctive, our fear of him and of what he might do next. We sense it. This guy hasn’t put the nation first. He probably can’t. No wonder we’re all putting on ‘the Trump ten pounds.’ Every second this man spends in the Oval office is a continuing national emergency. Ending it will require impeachment and removal. Not much else matters politically.

 

Yes, the Comey firing is a big deal

Whenever a big news political event takes place, especially one that focuses on some peculiarly Republican bit of malfeasance, first, liberals react very strongly and publicly. Some conservatives rely on the officially approved spin. But there are always a few conservative intellectuals, affecting the diction, tone, and high Brahmin style of the late William F. Buckley, who carefully explain how unreasoning and hysterical we’re all being. More-in-sorrow-than-anger, you understanding. Publishing this sort of article is, I think the raison d’etre of the National Review. Think of the British conservative historian, Paul Johnson, saying that no Europeans ever understood why poor Nixon was so badly treated: Watergate was no big deal.

It may have seemed strange to see precisely such an article in Vox.com. I know a lot of people consider Vox a liberal site. It really isn’t though. Their motto is ‘explain the news.’ Not comment on it (though they do sometimes offer a point of view), but inform people, let ’em know what the substance of some prominent news story is. They’re surely seen as an anti-Trump site, but it’s because they don’t pull punches; if someone is lying about something, they’ll point it out. I should say that I’m a big fan. But it isn’t at all out of character for Vox to publish a contrarian article saying ‘here’s what everyone is saying. And here’s why they’re wrong.’

And so, a couple of days ago, Vox published an article by Richard A. Epstein, entitled “Attention, liberals: Comey deserved to be fired, and the Constitution is just fine.” It’s a well-reasoned and thoughtful article, though, again, infused with that Buckley/George Will/Paul Johnson tone of injured intellectual superiority. Here it is.

Epstein begins by agreeing that the decision by Trump to fire James Comey was poorly timed, and a political miscalculation. He goes on: “There are of course many reasons why one might oppose Trump’s decision to fire Comey, but none of them remotely deserve the hyperbolic responses that Comey’s termination has elicited. There are two sides to every story, and in this case the other side has, at least for the moment, the better of the argument.”

Epstein argues, first, that Comey should have been fired long before, because of his mishandling of the Clinton email case. He treated her with kid gloves, says Epstein. He didn’t issue subpeonas to any Clinton aides, he allowed Cheryl Mills to represent herself, and he didn’t conduct any of the ambush interviews that are usual in criminal cases. He took it easy on her, kowtowing to his superiors in the Obama White House.

Second, Epstein says, “criticisms of Comey’s conduct in the Clinton investigation had nothing to do with the president’s decision, which was made, we are confidently told (on the basis of no firm evidence), because Comey was hot on the trail of information about possible ties between Trump, his supporters, and the Russians during the campaign.” Trump was, in Epstein’s view, perfectly justified in firing Comey over the mishandled Clinton email case, and there’s no reason to think Comey was fired for any more sinister reasons.

Finally, since Comey could legally be fired at any time by Trump, and given the ample reasons for dismissal detailed in the Rosenstein memo, it “requires contortions to convert an action that has independent justification into one that prompts talk of obstruction of justice and impeachment. In effect, one difficulty with that extravagant assertion is that it makes Comey de facto immovable from office so long as he continues to conduct this investigation.” Oh, and appointing a special prosecutor is also problematic. To whom would he report? Jeff Sessions? When there’s no smoke, there can’t be fire, says Epstein. And there’s no smoke.

Epstein also pushed back against the ‘Trump as incipient despot’ meme.

Nor is there anything to the claim that Trump has acted as a despot. Despots remove people in order to take over all the organs of government themselves. Cassidy seems to think the president has it within his power to appoint a successor to Comey entirely on his own, when the position requires confirmation by the Senate.

Allow me to respond.

First, Epstein seems to think that the case against Hillary Clinton ought to have been far more aggressively prosecuted, treated as the criminal investigation it was. But surely Epstein must acknowledge the political complexities of any case involving a major party Presidential candidate. I’m not saying that running for President is an excuse for all manner of criminal conduct. But at worst, Hillary Clinton was guilty of carelessness, possibly born of arrogance, and possibly reflecting her own discomfort with technology. And she was running for President; very likely to be elected President. (Sigh). Comey said, in a recent interview, that the difficulties of the Clinton case made him nauseous. I can well imagine it. Like it or not, the FBI is, if not a political organization, one that must of necessity sail on troubled political waters. Comey’s first loyalty had to be to the Constitution, of course (and no one has suggested he acted otherwise). But he had to think of protecting the Bureau itself, as an institution. I may disagree with some of the decisions he made. Some of those decisions do seem to have violated basic law enforcement protocols. But I don’t doubt that navigated those waters thoughtfully and carefully. He was in an impossible position.

And, while it’s not fair to call Epstein to account for actions that took place subsequent to the publication of his article, it really is true that the ‘Comey was fired because of his mishandling of the Clinton case’ narrative has been conclusively disproved. He really did fire Comey because, as Epstein puts it, “Comey was hot on the trail of information about possible ties between Trump, his supporters, and the Russians during the campaign.” Trump confirmed it Thursday night, in his interview with Lester Holt, when he didn’t so much admit as brag that he’d fired Comey because of his pursuit of the ‘fake news’ story about Trump campaign Russian collusion. That interview was an amazing piece of candor, not least because it threw so many members of his own communications staff under the bus, people who had been doggedly defending the Clinton email narrative, even when they sounded ridiculous doing so. Holt didn’t even seem to work very hard for it, considering that, in his interview, he got the President of the United States to admit to obstructing justice, an impeachable offense. Smoke enough for you, Mr. Epstein?

Epstein suggests that despots act despotically according to a plan. If Trump’s firing of Comey is in fact an egregious act of tyranny, well, what’s the next step? Replace Comey with Chris Christie? (Or Rudy Giuliani?) What reason do we have to assume the Senate will confirm someone like that?

But Trump isn’t that kind of tyrant. He seems to be more of an instinctual authoritarian, a guy who doesn’t so much act as react. News reports describe Trump as watching cable news incessantly, raging furiously whenever they focused on the ‘fake news’ of Trump’s Russian connections, and ignoring the (to him) much more consequential story of Obama’s bugging of Trump Tower. Never mind that that never happened. Trump seems to have convinced himself that it did happen, just as he convinced himself that his inaugural crowd was the biggest ever, or any of the other ludicrous things he apparently believes.

Trump isn’t the kind of incipient dictator who carefully plans every step of his way to the top. He’s not Frank Underwood (from House of Cards). He gets angry. No, he becomes incensed. And sometimes he’s able to blow off steam on Twitter. But sometimes, his choler leads him to act. And often enough, he gets away with it, frankly because it just never seems to have occurred to anyone to make certain Presidential actions illegal. Every previous President has been constrained by norms, by protocols, by traditions. But Trump isn’t constrained by anything. Except the Constitution. Which also infuriates him.

He fired Comey impulsively, unreasoningly, because he hates the Russia investigation (fake news!), and also, apparently, because Comey wouldn’t pledge loyalty to him, to Trump. And how will he deal with the aftermath? By bluffing, by lying, by counter-attacking. And by relying on the cowardice and hypocrisy and lack of patriotism of the Republican leadership.

So, yes, Mr. Epstein. There’s plenty of smoke. We’re not over-reacting; the ship of state really is on fire. What there isn’t, yet, is a fire department.

Donald Trump talks to The Economist

The Economist is one of the most respected popular journals in the world. It is, as one might expect, particularly informative and interesting on questions of economics. It recently published an interview with President Donald Trump. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and Gary Cohn, chair of the National Economic Council, sat in. As New York Magazine put it, “Donald Trump tries to explain economics to The Economist. Hilarity ensues.”

Because businessmen participate in economic activities, buying and selling, there’s a presumption that they know something about economics. I think it’s safe to say that Donald Trump knows quite a bit about the Manhattan real estate market, and perhaps a bit about marketing and branding. He doesn’t know anything about macroeconomics, despite graduating from the Wharton School of Finance. This is, I think, less surprising than you might suppose. In my experience, a lot of guys who graduate in Finance loathed their required economics classes. Too theoretical, too abstract, and quite often, post-Keynes, counter-intuitive.

Anyway, Trump gets off to a splendid start.

What is Trumponomics and how does it differ from standard Republican economics?
Well it’s an interesting question. I don’t think it’s ever been asked quite that way. But it really has to do with self-respect as a nation. It has to do with trade deals that have to be fair, and somewhat reciprocal, if not fully reciprocal. And I think that’s a word that you’re going to see a lot of, because we need reciprocality in terms of our trade deals. We have nations where… they’ll get as much as 100% of a tax or a tariff for a certain product and for the same product we get nothing, OK? It’s very unfair.

A few points. Reciprocality is not a word. Also, no, the United States has no trade deals in which our goods have a 100% tariff with a 0% tariff for their goods coming to the US. That’s just silly; hyperbolic posturing. Also “National Self Respect” is not an economic principle. Reciprocity is.

And the very interesting thing about that is that, if I said I’m going to put a tax on of 10%, the free-traders, they’ll say “Oh, he’s not a free-trader”, which I am, I’m absolutely a free-trader. I’m for open trade, free trade, but I also want smart trade and fair trade. But they’ll say, “He’s not a free-trader,” at 10%. But if I say we’re putting a reciprocal tax on, it may be 62% or it may be 47%, I mean massive numbers, and nobody can complain about it. It’s really sort of an amazing thing.

Yes, as wholly imaginary scenarios go, it is quite amazing. I love the idea of reciprocal taxes of 62% passing some fantasy muster with free-traders. Trump based his entire campaign on protectionism, on tariffs, on ‘making America great’ by engaging in trade wars with everyone. If he’s a free trader, I’m a sword-swallower.

We have so many bad trade deals. To a point where I’m not sure that we have any good trade deals. I don’t know who the people are that would put us into a NAFTA, which was so one-sided. Both from the Canada standpoint and from the Mexico standpoint. So one-sided. Wilbur [Ross, the secretary of commerce] will tell you that, you know, like, at the court in Canada, we always lose. Well, the judges are three Canadians and two Americans. We always lose. But we’re not going to lose any more. And so it’s very, very unfair.

I think he’s talking about NAFTA Investor/State Arbitrations. And no, Canada doesn’t always win and America doesn’t always lose. That’s nonsense. Sometimes American companies win, sometimes Canadian tariffs win.

Time for an anecdote:

Now at the same time I have a very good relationship with Justin [Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister] and a very good relationship with the president of Mexico. And I was going to terminate NAFTA last week, I was all set, meaning the six-month termination. But the word got out, they called and they said, we would really love to… they called separately but it was an amazing thing. They called separately ten minutes apart. I just put down the phone with the president of Mexico when the prime minister of Canada called. And they both asked almost identical questions. “We would like to know if it would be possible to negotiate as opposed to a termination.” And I said, “Yes, it is. Absolutely.” So, so we did that and we’ll start.

Ah, the big-hearted sentimental lug! What a wunnerful guy. See, the United States is getting royally screwed by NAFTA (we’re not), and he was going to pull us out of NAFTA, but a tearful (implied) appeal by his good pals Justin and that Mexican guy (the President of Mexico is Enrique Nieto) led him to change his mind.

What does this story really say? That Trump is desperate to be liked. That he didn’t act in the national interest (as he conceives it) because two world leaders weepingly (extrapolating) begged him not to. In short, that Trump can be manipulated. He ran, remember, on his skills as a negotiator. We’ve seen no sign of any such skill set. And, you know: good. NAFTA’s a good deal. Hey, Justin and Enrique. Keep it up guys.

The Economist asks him four separate times what a fair NAFTA would look like, and all Trump can do is recite various synonyms for ‘big.’ It would be ‘huge,’ ‘Massive.’ He clearly doesn’t have any idea.

He thinks our trade deficit with Mexico is 70 billion dollars. It’s not. He thinks our trade deficit with Canada is 15 billion. It’s not. Also, who cares? My economist son likes to point out that he, personally, has a trade deficit with his local grocery store. He does in there all the time and buys food. They give him food, he gives them money. Never once has he so much as offered them a single avocado. And yet the Republic prospers.

Later, he invents a narrative in which he denounces Chinese currency manipulation on the campaign trail, and immediately after he wins, China stops doing it. He is right about one thing; China did stop currency manipulation. In 2014.

Now comes my favorite exchange of the entire interview:

Another part of your overall plan, the tax reform plan. Is it OK if that tax plan increases the deficit?
It’s called priming the pump. You know, if you don’t do that, you’re never going to bring your taxes down. Now, if we get the health-care [bill through Congress], this is why, you know a lot of people said, “Why isn’t he going with taxes first, that’s his wheelhouse?” Well, hey look, I convinced many people over the last two weeks, believe me, many Congressmen, to go with it. And they’re great people, but one of the great things about getting health care is that we will be saving, I mean anywhere from $400bn to $900bn.

Mr Mnuchin: Correct.

President Trump: That all goes into tax reduction. Tremendous savings.

But beyond that it’s OK if the tax plan increases the deficit?
It is OK, because it won’t increase it for long. You may have two years where you’ll… you understand the expression “prime the pump”?

Yes.
We have to prime the pump.

It’s very Keynesian.
We’re the highest-taxed nation in the world. Have you heard that expression before, for this particular type of an event?

Priming the pump?
Yeah, have you heard it?

Yes.
Have you heard that expression used before? Because I haven’t heard it. I mean, I just… I came up with it a couple of days ago and I thought it was good. It’s what you have to do.

Everything about this is amazing. First of all, the US is not the highest-taxed nation in the world; we’re just about the lowest-taxed. Second, ‘prime the pump’ is an economic metaphor for a basic Keynesian concept: when unemployment is high, governments borrow money short-term to provide an economic stimulus to increase demand. That metaphor has been around since the early 1930s. The US has very low unemployment right now. A tax cut will have no stimulative value. It won’t ‘prime the pump.’

And Trump did not invent that metaphor. As New York put it:

Telling The Economist you invented the phrase “priming the pump,” to describe a plan that does not prime the pump, is a bit like sitting down with Car and Driver, pointing to the steering wheel on your car and asking if they have ever heard of a little word you just came up with called “hubcap.”

Once again, in full view of the international community, Donald Trump has demonstrated his own unique blend of arrogance and ignorance. He’s the loud-mouth in the bar, sitting on the bar stool next to Bill Belichek’s, haranguing the coach about what the Patriots should do on offense. He should play a guy named Tom Brady.

 

The Comey firing

On June 17, 1972, five men were caught in an attempted robbery of the Democratic National Committee headquarters, a rented room in the Watergate hotel. They had previously broken into the DNC rooms on May 28th, had rifled through some filing cabinets and bugged a couple of phones. Although that operation had gone smoothly, the bugs had begun to malfunction. The second break-in was needed to repair the phones, and also to continue to look for damaging intelligence that could be used against the Democratic presidential campaign. The Watergate burglars had been hired by G. Gordon Liddy, finance counsel for the Nixon campaign, the break-in authorized by CRP (Committee to Re-elect the President) chair, Jeb Magruder, White House counsel, John Dean, and Attorney-General John Mitchell. It’s possible that President Nixon did not know of or approve the initial burglary. But he aggressively participated in the subsequent cover-up.

Once it was learned that President Nixon routinely recorded conversations in the Oval Office, the Watergate investigators tried to subpoena the audio tapes. President Nixon claimed executive privilege; Archibald Cox, who had been appointed Special Prosecutor, kept insisting. On Saturday, October 20, 1973, Nixon ordered Attorney-General Elliott Richardson, to fired Cox. Richardson refused, and resigned in protest. his deputy, William Ruckelshaus was ordered to fired Cox; he also refused and resigned. Finally, Solicitor-General Robert Bork, third in command, was ordered to fire Cox, and after some soul-searching, did. This series of events has come to be known as the Saturday Night Massacre, and is seen as one of the more significant events in the scandal that led to Nixon’s eventual resignation.

What the Watergate burglars were looking for was damaging intelligence, stuff they could use to smear Democrats or foreknowledge of their strategies and tactics the Republicans could counter. They bugged phones, they rifled through files. During the recent election, Russian hackers did much the same thing. They hacked into the files of the DNC, looking for damaging intel. They didn’t actually find a lot, but they did find some snarky emails, in which Clinton campaign staff said nasty things about the Bernie Sanders campaigns, and they found other documents that suggested that the DNC did not treat the two Democratic candidates equally, but favored Hillary. When the hackers released this information on Wiki-leaks, it drove a wedge into the already-shaky relationship between Democratic voters who preferred Clinton and those who preferred Sanders. We do not know, and will never know, how significant a factor any of this was in Donald Trump’s eventual electoral win. We don’t know, in a close race, what effect the Wiki-leaks revelations had on voters’ behavior. What we do know is this; Russians hacked the election, because, for whatever reason, Vladimir Putin preferred Trump over Clinton.

We know, of course, a lot more about Watergate, the historical event, than we do about Russian electoral interference. With Watergate, we know who did what, and when. That’s not true so far with the current scandal. We do not know, for example, the extent to which the Trump campaign was aware of Russia’s electoral preferences, or to what degree, if at all, members of the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians prior to the election. We don’t know if Trump himself is guilty, at all, of anything. I expect that, in time, we’ll know a lot more.

Former acting Attorney-General Sally Yates’ testimony on Monday may have seemed somewhat mundane, and not really all that revelatory.  No ‘smoking gun,’ in other words. But that’s generally not how these things work. I remember Watergate vividly. I was in high school then, and every day after school, was glued to my TV watching the Watergate hearings. I remember listening to the drip drip drip of new information, and trying to put it all together. What Yates did was confirm a lot of facts that had previously been reported. We do know more today than we did last week.

Last week, preceding her testimony, FBI director Comey made a request of President Trump, for more funding to expand the FBI’s investigation into the Russian hacking and possible Trump campaign collusion. Yesterday, President Trump fired Comey. This means that the most significant three people conducting investigations into Trump/Russia when Trump took office 110 days ago were James Comey, Sally Yates, and Preet Bharara, New York US Attorney. Trump has now fired all three of them. Again, we don’t know if Trump or his campaign were guilty of, well, anything. It would, however, be easier to cut him some slack if he didn’t act so darn guilty.

Again, there’s no hard evidence of collusion. But we do know that Sergei Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the US, may also be a Russian spy. (US intelligence agencies, apparently, regard him as one). We know that vast numbers of high ranking Trump officials met with Kislyak and other Russian officials, many times, during the campaign. Michael Flynn, of course, was among them. Trump has repeatedly claimed he didn’t and doesn’t have any business dealings with Russians. We know that’s not true; in a recent story admitted that Russian money funded Trump golf courses, and there are many other Russian/Trump connections discovered by journalists, including, in a stunning story, a major investigation by USA Today.

Of course, Watergate was a major historical event, certainly one of the most consequential in our nation’s history. Right now, the investigation into Trump’s Russian connections is in its infancy. We don’t know, or at least, have not yet proved, collusion.

But if, as seems increasingly likely, Trump or his campaign staff did collude with Russian to influence a Presidential election, that seems to me much much more important than even Watergate. Whatever we may think of Richard Nixon, he didn’t collude with a hostile foreign power. Nixon was certainly devious, thin-skinned, and amoral. But he was no traitor. But that’s what we’re saying Trump committed: high treason. No evidence yet, but he just fired the guy investigating the case. It’s hard to come across as guiltier than that.

The American Health Care Act

Yesterday, the House of Representatives passed The American Health Care Act, by a margin of four votes. No Democrats voted for it, and not all Republicans, though most GOP members did. Enough, at least. Immediately after its passage, a group of Democratic Congresspeople mocked their Republican colleagues by singing “Na Na Na Na, Na Na Na Na, Hey Hey, Goodbye.” We’ll see.

The AHCA was not scored by the non-partisan CBO, a strange, well nigh unprecedented omission for a bill this consequential. The best estimates of its impact, in the exceedingly unlikely event that it becomes law, would be that up to 20 million Americans would lose their health insurance. The Affordable Care Act, (Obamacare), taxed the wealthiest Americans to pay for an expansion of Medicaid benefits; the AHCA would end those taxes. In short, this is a bill that would, in all likelihood, harm many many poor people, and enrich wealthy people. It’s a bill that will kill people.

The mocking chant from Democrats suggests one likely outcome of the debate over the AHCA and yesterday’s vote; it’s going to be a very difficult achievement to run on. The attack ads basically write themselves. Twenty Republican representatives are from districts where Donald Trump lost to Hillary Clinton. The Daily Kos announced the formation of a website where you can donate money now to whichever Democrat is the nominee in those districts. It’s already the case that many Republican congressmen have been hounded from meet-your-constituents opportunities in their districts. My own treasonous crook estimable Congressman, Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah 3rd) won’t hold town halls anymore, so vitriolic is the response to his appearances. Rachel Maddow managed to fill an entire show with interviews with people who had confronted their Congresspeople. I don’t know when I’ve seen this level of anger with elected officials. People are furious. I sure am. I could barely sleep last night from sheer outrage.

Why did they do it? Why would members of the House of Representatives (who have to face the voters every two years) pass a bill that confirms every cartoonishly evil stereotype people have about Republicans? After the vote, a large contingent gathered at the Rose Garden, to hear President Trump brag about how well he and Paul Ryan had done, and to tell some whoppers about what’s in the bill and what it’s intended to accomplish. Looks like they’re happy with it. Me, I’m trying to figure out the upside. For them. There is no upside for the American people.

I haven’t read the bill. Almost no one has; Speaker Paul Ryan kept its details pretty much secret. Seth Meyers had a lot of fun at Ryan’s expense on his show last night, showing clips from the 2009 debate over the Affordable Care Act, where Ryan condemned Democrats for doing essentially everything he just did times 1000.

So here’s what I don’t get. Why did they do it? This bill is a travesty. It’s horrific public policy. It’s never going to become law; the Senate won’t vote on it. The House bill is only the first step in a long, long process that may or may not result in a law being passed. So at least some of the righteous anger I’m feeling and my progressive friends are feeling is a trifle displaced. Still, a vote was held and votes were taken. And noted. Why did they pass this piece of garbage?

At least some of the answers are clear enough. President Trump really wanted a win. He doesn’t know anything about what it means to be President, and he doesn’t know anything about public policy. But he does know wins and losses. His Rose Garden speech described the AHCA as doing lots of wonderful things it won’t actually do, followed today by this amazing comment:

Of course the Australians have better health care than we do; everyone does. ObamaCare is dead! But our health care will soon be great!

Uh, Mr. President, you do know that the ACA was a step towards an Australian-type single-payer system? Which is what you just praised? And that the AHCA is a massive step away from it? Oh, also, that ObamaCare is not dead? That’s not what the House vote accomplished; not even close. Next step, a Senate bill, followed by a reconciliation conference, followed by two more votes? With every one of those steps fraught with difficulty?

No. He doesn’t know any of that. He doesn’t know anything. I don’t even think that his praise for the AHCA constitutes lying. It’s just another flamboyant display of incompetent ignorance.

Anyway. Trump wanted a win; now he can claim one. He got a nice party, with people saying nice things about him. Ego boost. And he’s a Republican (nominally) and President of the United States (illegitimately), so the House was motivated to give him what he wanted.

Also, I think, House members do feel some obligation to live up to their campaign promises. These guys pretty much all ran on a platform of ‘repeal and reform.’ Their constituents, their base, all hate Obamacare, largely because they’re all racists they disliked the person and policies of the President whose name was attached to it. Republican Congressman have been promising their voters for years that they would get rid of the Affordable Care Act. I suppose I’ll grant them this: they felt, as a matter of personal integrity, they had to actually do it.

To the extent, of course, that the Republican base is elderly, rural, and struggling economically, they’re exactly the people who the AHCA will hurt the most. Their opposition to Obamacare was at least somewhat irrational. They were (polling data concludes) largely ignorant of its provisions. I remember visiting an elderly woman in my ward, and how astonished, and how flummoxed, and eventually how grateful she was when Obamacare paid for the treatments that saved her daughter’s life. That’s one of the great ironies in this whole health care debate. Democrats are fighting for the ACA, which demonstrably improved the lives of Republican voters.

You’re welcome.

I’ll also grant that Obamacare was flawed legislation, that premiums and deductibles were rising, and that there was a lot of anger about those realities, which is a legitimate reason to dislike the bill. Obamacare is not failing, and its problems were fixable, but I do understand that elections have consequences, and that politicians who promise to kill a piece of legislation should probably work to accomplish that if they subsequently win.

It’s also worth pointing out that the ideological underpinnings of the AHCA are conservative, and that conservatives believe that the ACA insufficiently allowed market forces to lower costs. And the AHCA is meant to correct that. They’re wrong, of course. The ACA’s problems were caused by the invisible hand of market forces; the free market is what was driving costs up.  Still, people believe what they will believe; surely conservatism drove at least some in Congress to vote this way.

Still, there’s one very obvious reason for this vote. Republicans voted for this bill because they don’t think they will face electoral consequences for doing so. That mocking chant from the Democratic side of the aisle–“hey hey, goodbye”–must have seemed, to them, toothless. Republicans are good at winning elections. They can pass the most amazing legislation, incredibly displays of utter villainy, and pay no price for it. Their base will always turn out.

This is not because the Republican base is villainous. Republican voters are not stupid, and they’re not wicked. That’s my neighbors you’re talking about; they’re good folks. But simple policies are easier to understand and support than complicated ones. Republicans are awful at governing, because simple ideas don’t make for good legislation. But they’re good at painting their votes as beneficial, and Democratic bills as sinister. Democrats are much better at legislating, better at governing. Seems to me that people who believe in government are more likely to be good at it than people who don’t believe in it. I’m good at being Mormon; I think I’d be bad at being Presbyterian. Winning is the hard part.

Fingers crossed, but this might do it. Taking away people’s health insurance is easy to understand. And, my gosh, the anger. People really are getting woke.  If we progressives play our cards right, we might indeed be able to sing ‘hey hey, goodbye’ to the Republican House majority. But we have a ton of work to do first. Time to get on with it.

Oh, joy. A tax cut.

Pretty much every morning, I spend a couple of hours quickly reviewing 10-12 news sources: Vox, Salon, Slate, Politico, The National Review, Mother Jones, a few others. In the age of Trump, most stories, on most sites, are pretty scary. The presence of Donald Trump in the White House constitutes a continuing national emergency; we do all know that, right? But this morning, Vox had the scariest story of them all. I mean, it wasn’t Trump-with-the-nuclear-codes scary. But it was still pretty darn terrifying.

The Donald wants a Big Achievement before his first hundred days are up. And on his wish list: a big tax cut. Here’s the link; here’s the quotation:

On Wednesday, President Trump will unveil a new set of principles for what he calls “massive” tax cuts for businesses and individuals — a plan bigger “than any tax cut ever.” Those massive cuts will come with a massive problem for Trump’s economic team: how to pay for them. The White House doesn’t appear to have settled on a means of making up the trillions of dollars in lost federal revenue that economists predict will accompany Trump-size cuts. But administration officials are signaling they may be leaning away from hard choices to finance the cuts, and toward highly optimistic assumptions about economic growth.

Yikes.

I shouldn’t have to say this, but okay, getting back to basics. If the federal government wants to spend money for something, it has to calculate where that money’s going to come from. Tax cuts equal spending. This proposal means that, in the mind of the President, the highest possible priority for our government is to give a lot of money to really rich people. How much money? Oh, about a gazillion dollars. Okay, how much really? We don’t know yet; no specifics have been announced. In his last public budget proposal, Trump wanted to cut somewhere around five trillion dollars over the next ten years. Give or take half a trillion or so. And, yes, that would be the biggest tax cut in history.

How are we going to pay for it? See, that’s the nice thing about tax cuts. You don’t have to worry about how to pay for them. They pay for themselves! Yay! Tax cuts for businesses and rich folks stimulate the economy into the wildest kind of frenzied growth. We won’t know what to do with all the money. Unicorns will prance into our homes, dispensing diamonds and emeralds. Money will literally grow on trees. We’ll have so much winning, we’ll get tired of it. Hoo-fricking-ray.

“Highly optimistic assumptions about economic growth.” Magic, in other words. Miracles, bestowed on America, because we deserve it.

This is an example of what Paul Krugman calls ‘zombie ideas.’ Terrible ideas that somehow never die. Tax cuts for rich people do sometimes stimulate growth, a little, when the biggest problem in the economy is a lack of investment capital. (As in the Kennedy tax cuts of 1963). That is absolutely not the case today. We have lots of investment capital waiting on the sidelines. What’s hurting our economy is a lack of demand. Ordinary people are hurting for cash, in other words.

Coming out of a demand-side recession, tax cuts have essentially no stimulative effect. They make rich people richer. Those riches do not trickle down. We’ve seen it again and again, most recently with the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003. To be specific, we’re talking about the EGTRRA and the JGTRRA, the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act (2001) and the Job Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act (2003).

They did not pay for themselves. The CBO calculates that those two bills added 1.5 trillion dollars to the national debt, not counting interest. They greatly increased income inequality, which remains one of our most troubling economic indicators. Middle-class and lower-middle-class folks have lost ground over the last fifteen years. That trend accelerated due to EGTRRA and JGTRRA. President Bush, Vice-President Cheney, all made public statements about how great the tax cuts had been, how stimulative, how fair. They’re contradicted by, you know, the facts. All that pesky evidence, found in reports by the CBO, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the Tax Policy Center, and basically every professional economist who has studied the issue.

And now, President Trump wants to do it again, only four times bigger.

Okay, but all right, then, pal. Smarty-pants know-it-all. You say tax cuts don’t do much. Well, then, what about Reagan? Ronald Reagan took office when the economy was really struggling. He shoved a big tax cut through Congress. The 80s economy boomed. So, see? Tax cuts work! Post hoc ergo propter hoc.

Sorry, but no.

Reagan inherited an economy in the doldrums, due to rampant inflation. Remember President Ford, and those goofy Whip Inflation Now buttons we were all supposed to wear? Turns out that wearing buttons with a slogan doesn’t do much to slow inflation. Raising interest rates does. That’s the job of the Federal Reserve, and under Paul Volcker, that’s exactly what the Fed accomplished. Also, in ’82, Reagan, terrified by the budget numbers he was seeing, called for, and got, the biggest tax increase in history (at the time). Then, Volcker having squeezed the inflation out of the economy, cut interest rates, from 20% in ’81, to 9.6% in ’83, leading to an economic boom. And, so, yes, in the mid-80s, the economy grew. Didn’t do much to raise poor people out of poverty, though.

What most people remember is this: the economy stunk under Ford and Carter, and it boomed under Reagan. There’s not much use disputing that narrative. But it’s insane to give all the credit for that to Reagan. It had much more to do with Volcker than Ronnie. Hey, the economy nearly collapsed under Bush, and revived under Obama; Obama would be the first to admit that he didn’t do it all alone. His stimulus did help though; there’s no real disputing that.

Anyway. I think a strong case can be made for the Bush tax cuts being the worst public policy of the last forty years. Most policies have positives and negatives. Bush’s tax cuts accomplished nothing positive at all. Their impact was wholly negative. And now Trump wants to do it again. Only much much bigger.

And Congress is likely to go along with it. They want a win too. This is familiar Republican ground; belief in the efficacy of tax cuts is perhaps the single most foundational dogma in the entire Church of High Conservatism. The world rests on the back of a giant turtle, and this is what that turtle looks like.

A few Tea Party cranks, bless ’em, have expressed ‘concern’ for the impact of these cuts on the debt and deficit. (We’d been making such good progress on the deficit, even with the Great Recession dragging the numbers down!). They might join a unified Democratic Party and keep this from passing. That’s it, though. That’s our only hope. That’s who we’re counting on. The Tea Party.

So what will the negative consequences be, of this massive increase in our debt? If we’re lucky, if everything goes well, we’ll see a decrease in public investment. Infrastructure needs won’t be addressed, at a time when we desperately need repairs and upgrades in roads, bridges, the electrical grid, schools; we have all kinds of needs. Government debt will crowd out private investment. It’s likely to be inflationary.

What we’re absolutely not going to see is economic growth so robust that the tax cuts will pay for themselves. That’s a fantasy. Which is why this is so dangerous. This President loves to indulge in fantasy. Policy: not so much. And that’s a really bad combination.

Why Democrats lose

I’ve been reading a lot of polls lately. Presidential polls suggest that President Trump is historically unpopular; that doesn’t surprise me. They also suggest that his base still loves him. And I genuinely don’t get it.

I’m circling around an answer in my mind, and yet it’s one I’m uncomfortable with. I’m a liberal Democrat, but I live in possibly the most conservative state in the country, and I get along just fine with my neighbors. I don’t want to give a typical, Democratic-talking-point hyperpartisan answer. But, what the heck, let me toss this on the porch and see if the cat laps it up.

Democrats are good at policy, but pretty bad at winning elections. Republicans are good at winning elections, but lousy at policy. Democrats want to govern, and are generally pretty good about it. Republicans awful at governing. But they are great at messaging. Because Republicans are much less reluctant to lie.

I don’t mean to imply that all Democrats are uniformly pillars of integrity and rectitude, and Republicans are all lying hounds. Of course, both parties spin. Both parties shade the truth. Both parties’ politicians market pretty sketchy ideas aggressively, emphasizing the positive, downplaying negatives. That’s just politics.

But I do say that Republicans are more likely to say untrue things to win elections.

Let’s look at both parties’ ideas about the economy. Republicans had a lot of success in the last election by talking about the loss of jobs in mining and in manufacturing. “I’m going to bring those jobs back,” promised candidate Trump. Small towns across America are losing their job bases. The one factory that kept the town going shut down, and folks lost everything. Republicans are going to fix all that.

What was the Democratic response? As far as I can tell, it was this: “we have a program for that.” Job retraining programs, with targeted welfare to tide people over. That’s a lousy message for proud Americans, folks who want to stand on their own two feet, folks who aren’t looking for a handout.

But it’s honest. Those factory jobs are, for the most part, not coming back. Corporations have moved them overseas, because big corporations survive by staying profitable. Sure, politicians could enact some protectionist legislation, but that’s bad economics, bad foreign policy, and likely to, at best, delay the inevitable by a few years. Sadly, a good way to become unpopular is to be upfront with people.

Donald Trump won by telling people what they want to hear. But he’s not bringing those jobs back. And the best thing we could say to people who worked at those shuttered factories is the truth. “Sorry, but that job is gone. Figure out something else to do. Here’s some help while you retool.”

Mining is another example of the same dynamic. Trump promises to be the ‘coal President.’ The coal industry will revive, and all those Kentucky/West Virginia/Pennsylvania/Wyoming coal mines will reopen, and, like their fathers/grandfathers/great-grandfathers before them, men of courage and character will venture back down the mine shafts and wring a tough life out of hardscrabble circumstances. And what could prevent it? Pointy-headed environmentalists. So cut environmental regulations, and we’ll dig ourselves out of poverty and energy dependence.

Every single part of that previous paragraph is wrong. Mining is not a noble profession. It’s not ignoble, but it’s crippling work, with a short life span, an good chance of dying from black lung disease; with horrible working conditions. Meanwhile, the most vibrant sector of the American economy is in alternative energy. That’s where the jobs are, that’s where the future will be found.

There’s a tremendous mythology surrounding coal mining, I know. That mythology is part of what Trump plugged into. But it’s nonsense. Coal is increasing economically unviable. Not to mention how much burning fossil fuels hurts our planet and increases climate change.

And the biggest job losses in our economy, as it happens, are in retail. Nobel laureate Paul Krugman had a recent column (which I don’t seem to be able to link to, sorry), in which he pointed out how many jobs have been lost in malls and big box department stores. Walmart survives, but Sears is in big trouble, as is Target, Shopko, K-Mart and other retailers. And when one of those stores closes, the job losses are massive, and as devastating to those workers and their families as the loss of a GE plant, or local mine would be. Why is this happening? Because it’s easier and more convenient to shop on the internet. Is that likely to change? No, I don’t think it is.

So why is less attention paid when a small-town mall closes than when a factory closes. Could it possibly be because retail jobs are often held by women, and factory jobs, by white men?

And what can be done about those job losses. Very little. Change is hard, economic dislocations are always damaging, short-term. But we can tell people the truth about economics. And, as Krugman says:

While we can’t stop job losses from happening, we can limit the human damage when they do happen. We can guarantee health care and adequate retirement income for all. We can provide aid to the newly unemployed. And we can act to keep the overall economy strong — which means doing things like investing in infrastructure and education, not cutting taxes on rich people and hoping the benefits trickle down.

Above all, we can tell the truth to the American people. There are things government can do and things government can’t do. Bringing back factory jobs happens to be something government is kind of bad at. But helping people with their community college tuition? That’s easier.

Also, tax cuts for rich people won’t help at all. That money’s never going to trickle down. But that’s a topic for another day.