The Phantom City

Notes from our travels across a mysterious world.

Category: Politics (page 1 of 16)

What’s the benefit?

I hate to say it, but I’m starting to think the President’s recent actions mostly make sense if you see them as rapid payoffs for previous or future favors before having to step down, either in 2021 or sooner. In just the last few months, we’ve seen:

  • Trying to prove a conspiracy theory about Ukrainian election meddling that would give cover to both pardoning Paul Manafort and reducing/removing sanctions on Russian oligarchs.
  • Pointedly pushing a peace accord between Ukraine and Russia that essentially gives Russia what it wants.
  • Removing the US troops serving as a tripwire between Turkey and the Syrian Kurds right when the Turks started their invasion, in the name of stopping “endless war.”
  • Sending 2000 more troops to Saudi Arabia to get mixed up in the war in Yemen two days later.

The only part that fits a normal narrative is trying to dig up dirt on a political opponent for the 2020 race. The last two items happened so rapidly I’m not sure what’s going to happen next, but keep an eye out on actions involving Russia/Ukraine, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. (Given current tensions, I didn’t think it was possible to give in to Turkey and Saudi Arabia at the same time.)

A “firehose of falsehood”

The report from the Senate Intelligence Committee on Russian disinformation campaigns surrounding the 2016 U.S. Presidential election and beyond is really interesting reading.

Why Ukraine?

The stories around President Trump and his colleagues’ activities in Ukraine have settled down into a pattern, so as an enthusiastic amateur I’ll try to tie some threads together.

At this point it is fairly obvious that the President and his staff have asked for two favors from Ukraine, possibly in exchange for much-needed American aid and recognition. (That “possibly” is the crux of the impeachment hearings.) First, they want Ukrainian authorities to cooperate in an investigation into interference in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. Second, they want Ukraine authorities to open investigations into Hunter Biden’s involvement with Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian energy company that was previously under investigation, and whether former Vice President Joe Biden encouraged the previous investigation to end.

The strange part is that we pretty much know what happened in both of those circumstances. The Russian government interfered in our election both through a disinformation campaign and hacking into the DNC email server. That was half of the Mueller Report. Russians were indicted. It was a whole thing! Hunter Biden, in the annoying kind of low-level shadiness that pervades politics, was likely on the board of Burisma for PR and lobbying purposes, but the Ukrainians have already stated that the previous investigation of Burisma ended with no findings. If anything, Joe Biden’s pressure to get a corrupt chief prosecutor out of office made it more likely someone would take the Burisma case seriously.

So why are we encouraging the newly elected Ukrainian President to reopen closed cases, through public, diplomatic, and Rudy Giuliani means? What’s the motivation?

To understand, you have to drop into a world of half-thought-out conspiracy theories pushed by Giuliani and how they play to our current President. You also need to think about piles of money just sitting around, waiting to be invested in Miami condos.

In the case of Russian election interference, it’s clear that President Trump is not overly concerned with Russian involvement. There was a recent report that he told the Russian ambassador that he didn’t care about the election interference, because the United States did things just as bad. Even if that isn’t true, his reluctance to address it verbally or legally shows where he stands. (And why would he care? It coincided with what he wanted.)

However, Russian election interference has done two things: It has cast a pall over the President’s election, and it has hurt relations between the United States and Russia. Russia and its oligarchs are currently under sanction for that and several other sins, meaning they can’t launder money as easily in the US.

It has to gall President Trump to hear that his election wasn’t “legitimate.” (For the record, I don’t buy that argument. There are a lot of reasons elections are won and lost, and he won it as fairly as most.) No one wants to think they would have lost without help, particularly not a narcissist who has spent a lifetime building an “I am great” narrative. He casts himself as the underdog most times, rising up and defeating an entrenched political establishment. There isn’t room for election interference in that story.

It must be very seductive to hear Giuliani telling you all about the latest Infowars/Russian disinfo campaign that blames election interference on Ukraine and sets that interference squarely against Donald Trump’s campaign. I mean, they are responsible for your former campaign manager Paul Manafort being in jail after revealing evidence he was paid millions by the corrupt, pro-Russian former regime. Plus, they might have “The Server” from the DNC, according to conspiracy theories I’ve never been able to make sense of. What if the Mueller Report was completely wrong? What if the Ukrainians were interfering against you? You could pardon Manafort! You would have won against the odds! You’re a winner!

Besides, if that’s the case, your friend Vladimir Putin and Russia are being unfairly maligned. There’s no reason for sanctions and freezing oligarchs’ ability to spend money in the US. And it turns out they have a lot of money that they need to move into investments outside of Russia. Largely in real estate, and you can understand that because real estate is how you make your own money. Maybe you can do business someday? (Or keep doing it?)

So, like a lot of folks, you see the equivalent of a Facebook share about how the Ukrainians were behind it all and believe it, but unlike a lot of folks, you’ve got Rudy Giuliani working as your private investigator and you can tell the Attorney General and Secretary of State to go out and find anything that will prove that Mueller was wrong, and you (and Russia) were framed, and your office has the power to “strongly suggest” that the new Ukrainian government help you find out the “truth.”

What about the second part? That seems pretty obvious. If Joe Biden is running against Trump, and there’s some good dirt on him, Trump wants it. That seems pretty clearcut, and it’s at the center of the current impeachment hearings.

However, listening to Rudy Giuliani’s ramblings, I suspect there’s a deeper purpose. Giuliani keeps talking about how the whole Obama Administration was corrupt and he’s the one who can bring them down. President Trump keeps throwing in asides about how former President Obama should be investigated over various deals he made after leaving the White House. I don’t think they want to stop with Biden. President Trump, for reasons of his own, has always hated President Obama. At times it almost seems pathological. It must be very attractive to hear Giuliani say he can get dirt on Biden, on Clinton, on other former Cabinet members, and maybe even President Obama.

That would make everything fall into place. His election was legitimate. His primary competition has to drop out of the race for reelection. He can do business with his friends again. He’s better than Obama. He’s a winner. And all for the low, low price of just putting a little pressure on a few countries to come back with the right results.

You ever wonder why Nixon cheated in 1972 when all indications were he’d win in a landslide? Part of it was that’s just the way he normally did business, and it’s hard to change it up. Part of it was that he wanted to beat Kennedy and LBJ’s margins. Pride is a powerful drug.

Unfortunately for Nixon, his crew wasn’t the most competent. Unfortunately for Trump, Rudy Giuliani is Inspector Clouseau in this movie.

The End of the Soviet Union

Pretty sure just the sight of the guy on synths lead to the tearing down of the Berlin Wall.

The Tragedy of Humanity

I was not at all surprised to note that the author of The Tragedy of Liberalism also writes for The American Conservative. The well-written pessimism about modernity coupled with a shout-out to “intentional communities” at the end is as good as a fingerprint. (Check out Rod Dreher for the best example.)

Unfortunately, no matter how nicely written and generally correct in detail, these pieces usually stumble due to the implied foundation: That there was a time when it was not so (and, occasionally, that there will be a time when it will not be). Dr. Deneen writes about Liberalism as Anti-Culture — terminology that always makes me think of the Anti-Life Equation — due to the need to privilege individual freedom and state power over cultural norms. The lack of cultural norms as a governing factor results in social chaos and attempts by the state to replace that structure with rules and punishments of its own.

However, the reason humans engage in cultural and social change — and liberalism is a cultural change — is because the previous arrangements came to be viewed as undesirable. Of two examples he cites, one is about a system of mortgage lending that denied people of color the ability to live where they wanted, and the other is a social system of acceptable sexual behavior that removed women’s agency while winking at the indiscretions of men. It is true that the “know your neighbor” community bank did not run up billions of dollars in losses, and the pre-Sexual Revolution norms produced slightly more of a defense against the predation of men, but both were paired with consequences that produced a tipping point towards social change. (I shouldn’t give too much credit on the bank example. Capitalism produced a lot of the impetus towards growth, and lessening discrimination was sort of along for the ride as the state became more concerned about racial equity.)

That being said, I find it strange whenever I read a piece that talks about social change as fundamental, that “there was a time when it was not so.” The perceived sins of liberalism are there precisely because social change accretes. There is no fundamental break between now and then, whether you regard parts of “the past” as a Golden Age or Hell on Earth. Social change is normally based on enabling the “good” while minimizing the “bad,” but that doesn’t mean the bad goes away, replaced by some completely new bad. Nor does it mean the good is new. The pathways for both might be different, as well as the frequencies of particular kinds of behaviors.

I guess the weirdest part to me is that I’m reading stuff that says things like “There is a Human Condition,” a view to which I am quite attracted, but the continuity that implies gets ignored. Culture provides direction and outlets, but the drivers aren’t new. Liberalism changed the details, not the desires. That means any writing about how things are generally bad today needs to address how one would change them in the context of thousands of years of recorded history of performing the same act to a different tune. And that looks like evolution, not revolution, which is unfortunately dissatisfying.

But, then again, cultural criticism has a long history. 🙂

NPVIC and the popular vote

We’ve had two recent presidential elections — as far as current vote counts — where the winner won the Electoral College but lost the popular vote due to most states awarding all their electoral votes to the majority candidate, no matter what the margin. (Certain states use district-level results and other means to split votes.)

As a result, since certain states are “bound” to vote for a certain party each year, and margin of victory doesn’t matter, presidential races come down to a few swing states where each campaign expends the most effort.

There’s something wrong with a system that simultaneously invalidates the national vote while also ensuring certain large states hardly see a presidential candidate during the campaign. It should matter on a national level when people vote Republican in California or Democratic in Texas.

Getting rid of the Electoral College would require a Constitutional amendment, and I’m too inherently conservative to want to get rid of our last firewall between us and complete democracy. However, states are allowed to apportion their electors how they wish, so we had an interesting discussion tonight about what a truly proportional split would look like and some of the problems with that solution.

However, later I ran across the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, which is an interesting idea. It’s a compact of states (10 so far, plus DC) to award their electors to whichever candidate received the greater popular vote, if that award would change the winner of the election. If you look at the map at the link, this election is not affected. However, note the states where NPVIC is currently proposed in the legislature. If those states — Pennsylvania, Missouri, Arizona, and Michigan — had signed and honored the compact, 2016 would look a lot different.

Personally, I would prefer something more proportional, but the notion of needing to win the popular vote nationwide would likely cause candidates to have to pay more attention to their “safe” states. It’d be better than what we have now, at least. (Speaking as a person in a swing state, it’s fine if we don’t get a visit every week.)

47% chance it’s you

So, I’m sure everyone has heard about Mitt Romney telling rich folks the election is running against him because 47% of people don’t pay taxes, expect handouts, etc. Not sure why anyone would be surprised. This has been a common conservative talking point this year, particularly in the primaries, and Rush Limbaugh uses it all the time.

Some things about the 47% who don’t pay taxes:

1. There is some percentage of genuinely poor people in there. Progressive tax rates are a good way of allowing the poor to take care of themselves as much as possible, without direct government aid. Need all of your money to survive? Keep your money. It’s simplicity itself. Now, we can argue about social welfare programs and benefits targeted at the poor, but that number isn’t 47%, and is only related to the 47% in that both include the poor.

2. Big contributor to the 47%: Seniors on Social Security. If you make below a certain amount in addition to your Social Security income, you don’t pay taxes on that Social Security income. How should we “fix” that so everyone is contributing equally and the 53% can feel better about life? Tax Social Security benefits? That would be just as idiotic as the current Social Security taxation scheme, where the federal government sends money to people and then turns around and has to collect that money back. Wouldn’t it be better to just cut the benefits the same amount and lose some of the bureaucracy?

3. Also a big contributor to the 47%: Families making below a certain amount who get the Earned Income Tax Credit. Not personally fond of this one, but I doubt too many people want to get rid of it. (Seriously, I get children are expensive, but why the heck is the federal government paying us to have them? Why not just give us a more progressive tax scheme and better-targeted social welfare, and let parents figure out how many children they can afford, as they did pre-1975?)

4. And, my personal favorite: Mortgage interest deductions. Don’t get me wrong, we claim them every year. But is it genuinely a federal interest to encourage buying houses instead of renting?

Who benefits from factor 2? Seniors! Who mostly benefits from factors 3 and 4? Middle-class white people! You know, the folks Mr. Romney wants to come out and vote for him in 2012. Which is why he keeps talking about defending Medicare, and Social Security, and keeping the expensive parts of Obamacare and Bushcare….

Personally, I don’t want to vote for a person who, when talking to rich donors, draws a vision of the entire population as producers and parasites — guess which role the donors get to play — but then turns around on his commercials and talks about how much he wants to defend all of the entitlements he so contemptuously dismissed in his rich donor speech.

On Saturday Night Live this weekend, Jay Pharoah — playing President Obama — said that though he might not have a lot going for him in this election, he’s always got Mitt Romney to help out. True words.

Update: How nice to be reminded of some of the folks in factor 1 — a substantial portion of our own enlisted soldiers — by a man who done lost his mind back during the Bush 43 Presidency. (And yes, trying out neoconservative foreign policy once doesn’t mean anything. Supporting it for the entire Bush 43 and Obama administrations, no matter what, means you’re an addict.)

Update, redux: Let’s all be reminded: Never corner a Carter. They fight mean.

Update, yet again: Reason has a good quote:

The price of public generosity is massive and, at the individual level, largely hidden. Far from thinking of themselves as victims, most net recipients think they’re the ones pushing the wagon. This is the misconception that needs to go away.

And yet another Update: This is how much a family of four, with one spouse working, would need to make to pay income taxes, thanks to tax breaks. Hmmm…only one parent working…tax breaks equaling lower effective tax rates…I thought this was supposed to be the Republican Dream. Instead, Mr. Romney gets his talking points mixed up and says you’re a parasite. Thanks, President Reagan, for the tax breaks and tax rates that make this person a parasite!

Et tu, T-Paw?

So, listening to the Republican National Convention, I just heard Tim Pawlenty trying out a line about the Presidency being Barack Obama’s first job. I thought this was odd, since he was obviously in public service for a while beforehand, but decided to examine the President’s career to see when he had worked in the for-profit private sector. (You know, the only real jobs at the RNC.) Turns out he was a lawyer for a civil-rights-oriented law firm before running for Illinois State Senate. He was also a professor at a private university, but that probably doesn’t count for the RNC.

I decided to look at Pawlenty’s record. After law school he worked as a labor lawyer, and then was vice president at a software company. Otherwise, just one political job after another. Seems familiar, somehow.

On the other hand, I’ve worked at three different for-profit companies in just the last few years. (It’s all been government contracts, though. I didn’t build that.) Does that make me more qualified for the Presidency than Tim Pawlenty? I know he didn’t get a lot more votes than I did in the Ames Straw Poll.

Do dogs own the house?

First, go read Mike Munger’s My Dog Does Not Own My House.

While the analogy is interesting, it isn’t complete. How about this?

The group of homeowners decided they needed 18 dogs to keep them safe. First, they provided food for 15-20 or so, depending on the generic food harvest. Then, they decided to provide food for 12 for the next ten years, no matter what the harvest.

When the dogs pointed out they needed food for six more, the homeowners said no. The dogs weren’t really interested in running off 6 of their own, and the homeowners insisted on 18 dogs’ worth of protection.

For some reason, in the past, the homeowners committed to letting the dogs incur debt for the group of homeowners, so the dogs did so to get the extra food. This caused great consternation among the homeowners, who did not like the debt. So one of the dogs says, however clumsily, that as long as they want 18-dog service, they’re either going to go into debt or need to give them more food.

This causes great debate between those who want 10 dogs, and those who want 20, both of whom want to pay for as little food as possible. (Oddly enough, it doesn’t seem to matter whether the homeowner lives near the edge of the community near the bandits and beasts or not. What matters is how convinced the homeowner is that they individually can whip those bandits and beasts, and whether or not they were down with the collective dog thing in the first place.)

As a natural result, the homeowners hold an election to see who’ll be Top Dog, and both of the candidates promise 18 dogs’ worth of protection for the low, low price of either 10 dogs’ worth of food or 13 dogs’ worth.

Not sure the coercion is all on the dogs’ side. We know most of the foolishness and responsibility isn’t.

Interesting link included to Nozick’s Why Do Intellectuals Oppose Capitalism? Pretty sure most people, like me, are fine with meritocracies as long as the merit system favors them and they = elite, and populist when that doesn’t happen.

Update: Our current system? It’s kind of like the dog analogy, except with the addition that some homeowners’ houses are considered more valuable for reasons spanning from collective valuation, to buying votes, to their willingness to contribute snacks to the Top Dog, and they get more dog attention.

I Can Haz Perspective?

So, apparently Breitbart.com (I’m not linking to it) Editor-at-large Ben Shapiro had this Twitter reaction to the Supreme Court ruling on the Affordable Care Act:

“This is the greatest destruction of individual liberty since Dred Scott. This is the end of America as we know it. No exaggeration.”

I do try to keep the perspective that everyone’s problems are big to them, and current problems seem larger than the ones we faced in the past, but this is a good example of the reason why I don’t read many of the bigger partisan political sites and ignore 90% of what I see on the ones I do. And that reason would be Idiots.

But let us let Popehat.com tell us more about why this particular statement is flawed:

Now, we didn’t attend Harvard Law (well, one of us did, but he’s a Stanford man at heart), and so we have no fancy book-larnin in the law, but we were motivated to learn by Shapiro’s subsequent challenge to find a case more awful than yesterday’s. Was National Federation of Independent Businesses v. Sebelius the greatest destruction of individual liberty (presumably at the hands of the United States Supreme Court, which allowed us to disregard extrajudicial and foreign tragedies such as the Great Leap Forward and GULAG) since Dred Scott?

And in our many seconds of study, we could only name six:

Korematsu v. United States, in which the Supreme Court affirmed the deportation of every Japanese American from California to a concentration camp;

Plessy v. Ferguson, in which the Supreme Court affirmed that states could segregate Dred Scott’s descendants, now American citizens, into separate facilities such as schools and buses, facilities which turned out not to be quite equal to those provided the descendants of Dred Scott’s master;

Schenck v. United States and its progeny Debs v. United States, which had something to do with imprisoning people and stripping their citizenship for expressing unpopular political opinions;

Herrera v. Collins, in which the Court held that executing prisoners whom post-trial evidence shows to be actually innocent of any crime is not a “cruel” or “unusual” punishment;

Bowers v. Hardwick, in which the Court held that it’s constitutional to jail two consenting, unrelated adults for the physical act of love; and

Kelo v. City of New London, in which the Court held that government may seize valuable private property for the purpose of giving it away to government cronies who intend nothing more than to flush it down the toilet.

I’d add to this that, if you’re crying now about ACA being upheld, but weren’t crying last week about:

  • The Patriot Act
  • Guantanamo
  • The lack of federal prosecutions for torture
  • Bush lying to America to start a war and kill thousands
  • Free Speech Zones
  • The criminalization of ever-larger percentages of our population (due to the drug wars)
  • RICO and other law-enforcement property seizures (no trial needed, as long as someone says the Magic Word: “Drugs”)
  • The militarization of police
  • Lack of accountability for prosecutors who hide evidence
  • Domestic surveillance programs
  • Executive power to start wars without Congressional approval
  • Assassination lists
  • Classification of anyone standing near an enemy combatant as a combatant (for instance, at a wedding)
  • The combination of the previous two with the pinpoint precision of air-to-ground missile warheads
  • The increasing need to carry identification at all times
  • Over-classification of government information, by a government that is “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”
  • Secret national security trials, if you are lucky enough to get one in the first place.
  • Our own knee-jerk reactions to anyone who exercises their freedoms in a way in which we do not personally agree

then you need to sit down, read some history for perspective, ponder what you think America is all about…and, quite frankly, how much you care about freedom as a universal ideal, rather than just caring about how government affects you directly. We’ve got ~99 problems, clauses in the ACA aren’t anywhere near the top of the list right now, and the two major parties aren’t offering any answers.

If you were already concerned about that sort of thing, however, then, as Ali G would say, “Respek.” 🙂

Update: I almost forgot. A special shout-out to the executive director of the Democratic National Committee, who tweeted after the Supreme Court decision: “it’s constitutional. Bitches.” Hahahaha…it’s so funny that he decided to be all hip and current by using a derogatory term normally used for women in serious political discourse. Wow, Patrick Gaspard, you are certainly a man to admire. (Really? REALLY?!? Mr. Gaspard, you’re the head of the DNC. Time to grow up.)

Update II: Added in the bit about over-classification and secret trials. We’re at a point right now where even the most innocuous information is often classified…not for security reasons, but because government action can’t be judged if we don’t know what to judge.

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