Dividends on Putin’s Investment

For anyone who asks why Putin helped Trump get elected, take a look at this G-7 Summit.

Ben Rhodes

This week’s featured posts are “Who won the Masterpiece Cakeshop case?” and “Thoughts on Depression Sparked by Anthony Bourdain’s Suicide“. This morning, bad news broke on a voting rights case. I’ll have to cover that next week.

This week everybody was talking about summit meetings

For the G-7 meeting in Quebec, Trump arrived late and left early, skipping sessions on trivialities like climate change. After leaving, he tweeted a denunciation of the host, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and instructed the remaining US representatives not to sign the meeting-concluding joint communique that he had previously agreed to. (That is so Trump: For all his apparent bluster, he can’t handle face-to-face confrontation. He’ll leave and then tweet something nasty from the road.)

Trump described the US as “the piggy bank that everybody’s robbing”, and threatened to cut off trade with the other G-7 countries entirely:

It’s going to stop. Or we’ll stop trading with them. And that’s a very profitable answer, if we have to do it.

There is so much wrong with this. First, remember who we’re talking about here. These are our most trusted allies: Canada, Britain, Germany, France, Italy and Japan. If we want to solve any of our real trade problems (like getting China to respect our intellectual property), we’ll need them on our side.

And second, Trump continues to display a child’s understanding of international trade: If the US has a trade deficit with a country, he imagines that cutting off trade with them results in a “profit”, as if everything stays the same except that we now have back all the money we would have spent in the other country.

As economists will happily explain to you, this is pre-Adam-Smith economics, a long-debunked theory known as mercantilism. A more likely outcome than “profit” is that the world economy (and ours) simply shrink. Matt Ygelsias explains, using the example of oil:

According to [the theory espoused by Trump’s economic advisors], if the United States made it illegal to import oil, thus wiping $180 billion off the trade deficit, our GDP would rise by $180 billion. With labor constituting 44 percent of GDP, that would mean about $80 billion worth of higher wages for American workers. So why doesn’t Congress take this simple, easy step to boost growth and create jobs?

Well, because it’s ridiculous.

What would actually happen is that gasoline would become much more expensive, consumers would need to cut back spending on non-gasoline items, businesses would face a higher cost structure, and the overall economy would slow down with inflation-adjusted incomes falling.

Third, Trump has no power to cut off trade with other countries, and Congress isn’t going to give it to him. Foreign leaders know that he’s just blustering. To re-purpose a John Kelly insult: Empty barrels make the most noise.

John McCain tried to mitigate the damage:

To our allies: bipartisan majorities of Americans remain pro-free trade, pro-globalization & supportive of alliances based on 70 years of shared values. Americans stand with you, even if our president doesn’t.

And Paul Krugman said what we’re all thinking:

He didn’t put America first; Russia first would be a better description. And he didn’t demand drastic policy changes from our allies; he demanded that they stop doing bad things they aren’t doing. This wasn’t a tough stance on behalf of American interests, it was a declaration of ignorance and policy insanity.

… Was there any strategy behind Trump’s behavior? Well, it was pretty much exactly what he would have done if he really is Putin’s puppet: yelling at friendly nations about sins they aren’t committing won’t bring back American jobs, but it’s exactly what someone who does want to break up the Western alliance would like to see.

BTW: Trump’s proposal to let Putin back into the G-7 isn’t just servile, it makes no sense (as Krugman points out): The G-7 is an economic forum of democratic countries. Russia is an autocracy and its economy is tiny; it never belonged in this group. If the G-7 wants to expand, Brazil and India are much better candidates. And if nobody cares about democracy any more, China should be there.

In a different column, Krugman points out something important: The more Trump insults other democratic countries and acts like he has the whip hand over them, the less those countries’ leaders can offer him.

Real countries have real politics; they have pride; and their electorates really, really don’t like Trump. This means that even if their leaders might want to make concessions, their voters probably won’t allow it.

You can see this most clearly in Mexico: Trump is poison in Mexico. Any leader who refused to stand up to him would be committing political suicide.

Trump’s tough talk, then, is purely for the consumption of his base. If he were really trying to negotiate something that would help American workers, he’d “speak softly and carry a big stick” when he dealt with other democratic leaders.

Trump is also spreading joy and happiness in Germany, where his new ambassador has said that he wants to “empower other conservatives throughout Europe”. Diplomats typically do not visibly interfere in the politics of their host countries. The ambassador doubled down in the face of criticism: “I stand by my comments that we are experiencing an awakening from the silent majority – those who reject the elites & their bubble. Led by Trump.” In Germany, the “elites” include Angela Merkel and her government.

Trump is on to Singapore, where he is scheduled to meet with North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un tomorrow morning.

and immigrant children

Since May 7, the Trump administration has been routinely separating children from their parents when they arrive at our southern border. Vox has a good article describing what’s new about this and what isn’t. The big thing that’s new is that we’re not even trying to claim that we’re doing this for the children’s own good. The policy is purely punitive; it’s meant to discourage people from coming to America without a visa.

It’s worth pointing out that people who come here seeking asylum are not breaking the law if they present themselves at an official border crossing. Trump has characterized our asylum laws, which require some kind of due process for asylum seekers, as a “loophole”.

To me, it’s the government that seems to be taking advantage of loopholes.

and about cake

I cover the legal side of the Supreme Court’s Masterpiece Cakeshop decision in a featured post.

I wanted that article to have a tone that is opinionated, but not abrasive. But here I want to get more argumentative: I think the media as a whole, and liberals in particular, have been way too soft on special-rights-seeking people who claim to be motivated by Christianity. We’ve been way too willing to grant their claims that their actions have something to do with Jesus, and are motivated by sincere religious faith rather than simple bigotry.

I want to assert a few things:

  • Wedding cakes do not have, and have never had, religious significance in the Christian tradition. For the wedding at Cana, Jesus did not turn water into cake. Or into flowers or photographs or catering. It is ridiculous to treat cakes for same-sex wedding receptions as if they were communion wafers for a Satanic black mass. (Gorsuch really does invoke a comparison to “sacramental bread”.)
  • From the beginning of the Republic, civil marriage has been a separate institution from religious marriage. If your Christian religion says that people the state regards as married are not married in the eyes of God, you have the freedom to believe and proclaim that view. But you don’t get to decide whether or not they’re married in the eyes of the state, because that has nothing to do with Christianity or any other religion. And if a couple wants to hold a party to celebrate becoming married in the eyes of the state, that also has nothing to do with Christianity or any other religion.
  • In the Bible, marriage is not “between one man and one woman”. Often it’s between one man and several women. Example: Jacob and Leah and Rachel and their two handmaidens. If you don’t support that kind of marriage today, then you don’t believe in “Biblical” marriage. You also don’t believe that an unchanging institution of marriage was established by God once and forever. (Justice Kennedy quotes the baker: “God’s intention for marriage from the beginning of history is that it is and should be the union of one man and one woman.” The baker should tell that to whoever wrote Genesis.)
  • Most of the self-described Christians who refuse to serve same-sex couples are not acting out of sincere religious conviction; they’re acting out of spite. Their side lost the same-sex marriage debate, they’re pissed about it, and they want to take it out on somebody. There is nothing Christ-like about this set of motives. The New Testament does not record any examples of Jesus being a sore loser.

and healthcare

If you’re an insurance company that doesn’t want to cover people with pre-existing conditions, the Trump administration has your back.

Led by Texas, twenty Republican-dominated states are participating in a lawsuit asserting that the individual mandate portion of the Affordable Care Act (i.e., ObamaCare) will become unconstitutional in 2019, when the tax penalty that enforces it goes away. (That was part of last year’s big tax cut bill.) That may sound harmless — who cares if the courts eliminate something that was unpopular to begin with and isn’t going to be enforced any more anyway? — but there’s a kicker: The suit claims that the whole ACA is inseparable from the individual mandate, so it all has to be struck down, including the popular parts like the guarantee of insurance to people with pre-existing conditions.

In other words: If you’re a cancer survivor (like my wife), or have something else in your medical history that makes you a bad risk, you may not be able to get health insurance at all, and if you do it will be exorbitantly expensive.

This suit has been considered a long shot, but its shot got a little less long Thursday when the Justice Department announced that it won’t defend the case in court. (Typically, the Justice Department defends the constitutionality of laws when they are challenged. But on rare occasions, an administration decides that a law is indefensible. That’s what’s happening here and what happened when the Obama Justice Department refused to defend the Defense of Marriage Act.) Democratic-controlled states like California are expected to step into the breech and lead the defense.

The brief filed by the Justice Department doesn’t agree with Texas that the whole ACA is unconstitutional, but it does agree that two other parts of the ACA are inseparable from the individual mandate and so have to be struck down: guaranteed issue (insurance companies that offer coverage in an area have to offer it to everybody) and community rating (which says that all individuals of the same age in the same community have to be offered the same rate). Those are exactly the parts that protect people with pre-existing conditions.

It’s worth pointing out the reason we’re in this situation: Back in 2012, the Supreme Court decided 5-4 that Congress did not have the power under the Commerce Clause of the Constitution to require individuals to buy health insurance. This would have sunk the ACA then and there, but Justice Roberts reinterpreted the individual mandate as a tax. That allowed him to flip and vote for the constitutionality of the ACA, which survived 5-4.

But here’s the interesting part: The idea that an individual mandate exceeded the range of the Commerce Clause was invented from whole cloth to create a pretext for striking down the ACA. Until it became part of the ACA, the mandate — which was originally the brainchild of the conservative Heritage Foundation in the 1990s — had never been considered constitutionally questionable.

So one conservative long-shot legal argument leads to another, and the upshot is that millions of Americans may lose their health insurance.

and leaks

The LA Times reports:

The former security director for the Senate Intelligence Committee was arrested Thursday on charges of lying to federal investigators probing a leak of information involving a former campaign aide to President Trump.

In the course of the investigation, the government seized several years worth of emails belonging to the staffer’s girlfriend, who is a New York Times reporter. The case is making journalists nervous about how far the government is now willing to go to track down leaks.

and the NFL

Last Monday, the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles were disinvited from the White House visit scheduled for the next day, because not enough of them were going to show up to suit Trump. Instead he held a patriotic rally that seems to have been attended mainly by White House staffers and interns. During the ceremony, Trump appeared not to know the words to “God Bless America”.

Trump has decided that portraying black football players as unpatriotic is a winning issue for him, so he’s going to keep doing it. This has got to be a disappointment to the NFL owners, who changed their policy specifically to try to mollify the President. Under the new rules, players can stay in the locker room during the national anthem if they want, but if they come onto the field they have to stand at attention. Kneeling — no matter how silently and respectfully it is done — will result in a fine for the team, which may decide to pass that fine on to the player.

But Trump is not having that. “No escaping to locker rooms” he tweeted. Previously he had said:

You have to stand proudly for the national anthem. Or you shouldn’t be playing, you shouldn’t be there. Maybe you shouldn’t be in the country.

and you also might be interested in …

Anybody who decided that it didn’t matter whether Trump or Clinton won the presidency should take a look at the EPA. The headlines are all about Scott Pruitt’s flagrant corruption, but the real damage is deeper. Thursday, the NYT described a change in how the EPA will evaluate possibly toxic or carcinogenic chemicals:

the E.P.A. has in most cases decided to exclude from its calculations any potential exposure caused by the substances’ presence in the air, the ground or water, according to more than 1,500 pages of documents released last week by the agency.

Instead, the agency will focus on possible harm caused by direct contact with a chemical in the workplace or elsewhere. The approach means that the improper disposal of chemicals — leading to the contamination of drinking water, for instance — will often not be a factor in deciding whether to restrict or ban them.

The big winner here is the chemical industry. The big losers are anybody who breathes air or drinks water and was hoping not to get cancer.

Here’s an unforgettable exchange from Wednesday’s Anderson Cooper 360:

Former Fox News military analyst Lt. Colonel Ralph Peters (retired): As a former military officer of the United States, I took an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. And I saw, in my view, Fox — particularly their prime time hosts — attacking our constitutional order, the rule of law, the Justice Department, the FBI, Robert Mueller, and (oh, by the way) the intelligence agencies. And they’re doing it for ratings and profit, and they’re doing it knowingly — in my view, doing a grave, grave disservice to our country.

Anderson Cooper: Do you think, some of the hosts in prime time, do they believe the stuff they’re saying about the Deep State, what they’re saying about the Department of Justice, about the FBI?

Lt. Colonel Peters: I suspect Sean Hannity really believes it. The others are smarter. They know what they’re doing.

When somebody from the White House says some awful thing, it’s hard to know whether to take the bait. If we ignore it, we normalize it. (“Oh yeah, public officials say shit like that. It’s no big deal.”) If we pay attention, we’ve let ourselves be distracted from the ongoing destruction of the environment, the decay of the rule of law, the plight of the Puerto Ricans, the alienation of America’s allies, the mistreatment of families who come here looking for asylum under our laws, the opening of a misguided trade war, and lots of other more immediately consequential stuff.

But OK, Rudy Giuliani, I’m taking the bait this time.

In Israel, Giuliani went on to criticize Daniels’ credibility and allegation she had an affair with Trump because she is a porn star. “Look at his three wives. Beautiful women. Classy women. Women of great substance. Stormy Daniels?” Giuliani said while shaking his head. “I’m sorry I don’t respect a porn star the way I respect a career woman or a woman of substance or a woman who has great respect for herself as a woman and as a person and isn’t going to sell her body for sexual exploitation.” …

On Thursday, Giuliani was asked to explain his comments. “So the point I made about her industry is, it’s an industry in which you sell looks at your body for money. That’s demeaning to women, the way I was brought up and the way I always believed the feminist movement has,” Giuliani said.

During the campaign, I objected to Trump critics trying to make an issue of Melania’s nude photos, because they’re irrelevant to how America is governed and “because I believe all of us have the right to display or not display our bodies as we see fit”. But if the president’s lawyer is going to claim there’s some difference-of-kind between Melania and Stormy Daniels because Daniels sells looks at her body for money, I have to call him on it. (And point out that Trump himself has appeared in three porn films, though he was clothed at the time.)

And as for who is credible, based on their previous actions, let me point out a few things Stormy Daniels hasn’t done:

  1. created a fake university that defrauded its students;
  2. molested more than a dozen women;
  3. laundered money for Russian oligarchs;
  4. lied to the American people several times each day.

So if it comes down Trump’s word against a porn star’s, I’ll believe the porn star.

and let’s close with something fun

“Happy as a dog in a ball crawl” needs to become a standard English phrase.

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