Fastest to Ruin

The rate of profit does not, like rent and wages, rise with prosperity and fall with the declension of the society. On the contrary, it is naturally low in rich, and high in poor countries, and it is always highest in the countries which are going fastest to ruin.

– Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations

This week’s featured post is “Two Paths to Impeachment“.

This week everybody was talking about impeachment

In the featured post I discuss the Democrats’ internal debate on whether to start impeachment proceedings. On the Republican side, Michigan Congressman Justin Amash became the first Republican in Congress to call for Trump’s impeachment.

This move led a number of other Republicans to attack Amash, often dishonestly, as The Atlantic fact-checks. Until this moment, Amash has been a member in good standing of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, which is demonstrating that all its previous rhetoric about the Constitution has been opportunistic blather.

Mitt Romney also claims to have read the Mueller Report and come to a different conclusion than Amash, that Trump did not obstruct justice. finds Romney’s statement to be “astonishing nonsense”, and outlines the analysis technique used in the report. She challenges trained lawyers like Romney to show their work.

People like Sen. Romney who come to a different conclusion should show the public their analysis, and explain which of the three elements [of the definition of obstruction] haven’t been met and why. It would also be helpful if they explained which particular parts of Mueller’s analysis clear Trump and why.

Otherwise, we really have no choice but to conclude that they are telling a politically expedient lie.

and the President’s temper tantrum

Wednesday, Trump walked out of a meeting with House Speaker Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. The White House meeting was supposed to flesh out details of the $2 trillion infrastructure program the three had tentatively agreed to in a previous meeting, but Trump wasn’t having it.

According to a Democratic aide, Trump walked in, didn’t shake anyone’s hand or sit in his seat. He said he wants to do infrastructure, trade agreement, farm bill and other things, but that Pelosi “said something terrible today” when she accused him of a cover-up.

He then went to the Rose Garden, where a podium had already been decked with a “No Collusion, No Obstruction” sign detailing the expenses (but not the results) of the Mueller investigation, and said:

I walked into the room, and I told Senator Schumer, Speaker Pelosi, I want to do infrastructure, I want to do it more than you want to do it. I’d be really good at it, that’s what I do. But you know what? You can’t do it under these circumstances. So get these phony investigations over with.

In other words, he’s back to holding the government hostage: Do what I want, or the roads and bridges get it. Numerous pundits, like NPR’s Ron Elving, noted how unusual this was. During impeachment hearings, Presidents Nixon and Clinton both emphasized that they would not be distracted from doing the people’s business.

His move was widely described as a “temper tantrum”, an accusation that Trump responded to in a typically Trumpian way: He once again described himself as a “stable genius“, and called on his staff to verify one-by-one how calm and rational he had been in the three-minute meeting he walked out of.

It was one of those creepy scenes that Trump stages periodically, like the cabinet meeting where all the department secretaries were obliged to praise Trump and tell everyone what a privilege it was to serve him, or the meeting with black religious leaders where each minister was given an opportunity to thank Trump for all he’s done. Far from persuasive testimony, it was a demonstration of the soul-eating power Trump wields over his staff. (If Obama had ever tried to pull such a stunt, his people would have laughed at him. And once they started laughing, Obama would have laughed at himself.)

It’s important to keep pointing out how strange all this is. People who are actually intelligent, actually sane, and actually innocent don’t act anything like the way Trump does.

It seems like the only sane reaction was to go over the top.

Comedian Stephen Colbert quipped: “All told [the meeting] was over in three minutes. According to Stormy Daniels, that’s two bonus minutes.” Paul Krugman invoked a famous scene from The Caine Mutiny: “it was very clever of Nancy Pelosi to steal Donald Trump’s strawberries, pushing him over the edge into self-evident lunacy.”

Even Trump’s podium sign became a meme.

Next the nation was treated to a smearing of Nancy Pelosi. A video was altered to make her appear impaired, and Trump retweeted it. As usual, he was not embarrassed to be caught doing something dishonest, but claimed only that he didn’t know the video was altered — as if a President of the United States bears no responsibility to verify the truth of what he says before he says it.

and Theresa May’s resignation

Having repeatedly failed to do the one thing she became prime minister to do — pass a plan that would fulfilll the Brexit referendum by taking the United Kingdom out of the European Union — Theresa May resigned Friday morning. She will leave office on June 7, immediately after the ceremonies commemorating the 75th anniversary of D-Day.

Together with a small party representing Northern Ireland’s Protestants, the Conservative Party retains its majority in Parliament, so presumably May’s successor will be another Tory. (The Tories used to have a majority by themselves, but lost it in a 2017 election May had called.) But who that will be or what Brexit plan the new PM will propose remains up in the air. Boris Johnson, a Brexit hardliner, is considered the frontrunner.

I have frequently compared the Tories’ Brexit conundrum to US Republicans’ problems trying to “repeal and replace” ObamaCare, which they failed to do in the last Congress, despite controlling both houses and the presidency. In each case, the popularity of the slogan (“leave” or “repeal and replace”) hides the fact that no majority supports any particular plan.

Another analogy: It’s like being part of a family that unanimously wants to take a big vacation this year, but some of you want to ski in the Alps, some want a beach vacation in Bermuda, and the rest are holding out for an Alaska cruise. You all agree until it’s time to make a real plan.

The biggest problem of any Brexit plan is what to do with the Irish border. Like Trumpists in America, hardline Brexiters want the UK to control its own borders and keep out “undesirable” immigrants from poorer EU countries, as well as non-European refugees that other EU countries have let in. That would mean enforcing a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, where passports are checked and cargo rigorously examined.

Unfortunately, that would undo the Good Friday Agreement that ended “the Troubles“, an irregular civil war between Northern Ireland’s Protestants and Catholics that frequently spilled into the rest of the UK until peace was worked out in 1998. Catholics are a minority in Northern Ireland, but a majority in the Irish island as a whole; many would like to unite with the Republic of Ireland. Northern Ireland’s Protestants, meanwhile, hate the idea of becoming a minority in a united Ireland. Prior to 1998, a fairly large number of Northern Irish on both sides were willing to kill or die over this issue.

The current soft border allows Northern Ireland’s Catholics (and their relatives in the Republic of Ireland) to come and go as they please. They may not be part of a united Ireland, but they all belong to the EU. Largely for this reason, Northern Ireland had a substantial (56%-44%) Remain majority in the Brexit vote. For Northern Ireland’s Protestant party (the Democratic Unionist Party) to cast the decisive votes in a hard-border Brexit plan might push things over the edge.

Scotland had an even larger Remain majority than Northern Ireland: (62%-38%). Scottish independence has been a simmering issue since the Acts of Union turned England and Scotland into Great Britain in 1707. Scotland voted 55%-45% to stay with the UK in a 2014 referendum, but that was before Scots understood that staying in the UK meant leaving the EU. A messy exit plan from the EU will raise that issue again, as the cartoon below illustrates.

It would indeed be ironic if Brexit ultimately takes the Great out of Great Britain.

and Julian Assange’s indictment

The WikiLeaks guy has been indicted for violating the Espionage Act, from when he made public a trove of documents leaked by Chelsea Manning. In many ways this is a tough case to wrap my mind around, because the old ways of thinking about such things were based on categories that don’t necessarily make sense any more, like whether or not Assange is a journalist.

The NYT’s Charlie Savage (who knows a few things about investigative journalism) quotes a source who sees a dangerous precedent:

For the purposes of press freedoms, what matters is not who counts as a journalist, but whether journalistic activities — whether performed by a “journalist” or anyone else — can be crimes in America. The Trump administration’s move could establish a precedent used to criminalize future acts of national-security journalism, said Jameel Jaffer of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University.

“The charges rely almost entirely on conduct that investigative journalists engage in every day,” he said. “The indictment should be understood as a frontal attack on press freedom.”

Savage talked to “a Justice Department official who stayed behind to answer questions on the condition that he would not be named” who nonetheless wouldn’t answer the question of

how most of the basic actions the indictment deemed felonies by Mr. Assange differed in a legally meaningful way from ordinary national-security investigative journalism — encouraging sources to provide secret information of news value, obtaining it without the government’s permission and then publishing portions of it.

Here’s what makes this case difficult for me: When the First Amendment was written, “freedom of the press” was very literal. If you owned or otherwise got access to a press, you could print what you wanted, without seeking anyone’s prior approval. (Slander and libel rules applied after the fact, of course, and you might also be challenged to a duel if you defamed someone unfairly.) But in the 19th and 20th centuries, journalism became institutionalized and “journalist” became a profession with professional standards. In effect, journalists were a protected class under the First Amendment as it came to be construed.

With the advent of the internet, though, anyone can claim to be a journalist, so the rights of journalists and the rights of ordinary people have to come into some kind of convergence. An ordinary person who received hacked Top Secret documents and posted them to Facebook would probably be considered a spy. Charlie Savage — obtaining the same documents, applying principles of responsible journalism, and publishing only those parts where he judges that the public interest outweighs the harm — probably shouldn’t be. But the line is not so easy to draw now.

So for me the Assange case is more complicated than just picking a side. The question is how to reconstruct First Amendment protections for the current era.

and Bill Barr’s new powers

For years now, Trump has trying to delegitimize the Mueller investigation by concocting a conspiracy theory about how it started. Before Republicans lost their House majority in 2018, his main accomplice was House Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes. Who can forget the Nunes Memo, which was supposed to be an Earth-shaking expose’, until it was finally declassified and proved to amount to nothing?

Jeff Sessions never wanted to get involved in this attempt to slander the Justice Department he led, not to mention the US intelligence community. But Bill Barr is the unscrupulous attorney general Trump always wanted. Two weeks ago Barr named Connecticut US Attorney John Durham to lead the investigation into those who dared to investigate the Great Leader.

Thursday, Trump gave Barr the authority to review and possibly declassify any documents related to the origin of Russia investigation. This has produced two widespread fears, which I share:

  • Given the deceptive way he has spun the Mueller Report in Trump’s favor, Barr may do the same thing with the classified record: He might cherry-pick documents to find ones that can be spun to support Trump’s conspiracy theory, while leaving classified any documents that provide refuting context.
  • Along the way, valuable intelligence sources (for example, sources close to Putin) might be compromised. Not only will this allow Putin to clean house — yet another dividend from his support of Trump — but it will discourage future sources in all countries from trusting US intelligence services.

Trump has already announced the conclusion he wants this investigation to reach: FBI agents Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, FBI Director James Comey and Assistant Director Andrew McCabe, as well as “people probably higher than that”, have committed treason. People higher than the FBI director might be Obama’s Attorney General Loretta Lynch, or maybe President Obama himself.

The charge, by the way, is ridiculous from the outset. Treason is defined in Article III, section 3 of the Constitution:

Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort. No Person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open Court.

It’s outrageous to think that investigating the President, or a candidate for president, equates to “levying war against the United States”. To date the only evidence for the conspiracy theory are the tweets Strzok and Page sent each other, in which it is clear they didn’t want Trump to become president (perhaps because they feared he had been compromised by Russia).

Well, more than 65 million Americans didn’t want Trump to become president. Are we all traitors? Will Bill Barr be unleashed on us also?

One possibility we can’t lose sight of is that Barr’s investigation is supposed to be ridiculous. The point probably isn’t to prove anything, but to delegitimize the whole idea of finding truth through investigations. This is the reverse-cargo-cult propaganda technique pioneered by the Soviets and carried forward by Putin.

but we should talk more about legislation the House is passing

One of the charges against House Democrats pushing impeachment is that they’re investigating instead of legislating. But the problem isn’t a lack of legislation, it’s that the news media isn’t covering the bills the House passes. The real graveyard of legislation is Mitch McConnell’s Senate, which has devolved into a judge-confirming machine that shows no real interest in governing.

Vox produced a list of the 49 bills the House has passed since the Democrats took over.

House Democrats have passed a wide range of bills since they came to power in January, ranging from a sweeping anti-corruption and pro-democracy reform known as HR 1, to bills to save net neutrality, establish background checks for guns, and put the United States back in the Paris Climate Accord.

They have also put a large emphasis on health care, a defining issue of the 2018 election after Trump and Senate Republicans attempted to pass a bill to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Democrats have focused on bills to lower prescription drug costs, protect preexisting conditions, and condemning the Trump administration’s legal battle to strike down the ACA in the courts.

Much of this agenda is sitting in the Senate.

and you also might be interested in …

Another step towards autocracy happened Friday:

The Trump administration has declared an emergency to bypass Congress and expedite billions of dollars in arms sales to various countries — including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — citing the need to deter what it called “the malign influence” of Iran throughout the Middle East.

Presidents typically declare states of emergency in order to act quickly in situations that are moving too fast for legislation. Such actions go back at least as far as the Civil War, when President Lincoln defended the capital while Congress was in recess, and asked Congress for its after-the-fact approval later.

But Trump uses emergencies differently. He is not just getting ahead of a slow-moving Congress; he’s doing things that Congress has already disapproved. In the case of his border-wall emergency, he re-directed money to wall construction after Congress had already had the time to debate and turn down such an appropriation. This arms-sale “emergency” seems similar.

“President Trump is only using this loophole because he knows Congress would disapprove of this sale,” Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, said in a statement. “There is no new ’emergency’ reason to sell bombs to the Saudis to drop in Yemen, and doing so only perpetuates the humanitarian crisis there. This sets an incredibly dangerous precedent that future presidents can use to sell weapons without a check from Congress.”

Congress has already passed a ban on support for the Saudi war in Yemen, with bipartisan support. Trump vetoed that bill, and the Senate failed to override.

Speaking of the border wall, a federal judge temporarily blocked the administration from constructing the wall using the money Trump “reprogrammed” from the Pentagon budget via an emergency declaration. The judge wrote:

According to Defendants [i.e., the Trump administration]: “If Congress had wanted to deny DOD this specific use of that [reprogramming] authority, that’s something it needed to actually do in an explicit way in the appropriations process. And it didn’t.” But it is not Congress’s burden to prohibit the Executive from spending the Nation’s funds: it is the Executive’s burden to show that its desired use of those funds was “affirmatively approved by Congress.”

… Congress’s “absolute” control over federal expenditures—even when that control may frustrate the desires of the Executive Branch regarding initiatives it views as important—is not a bug in our constitutional system. It is a feature of that system, and an essential one. … In short, the position that when Congress declines the Executive’s request to appropriate funds, the Executive nonetheless may simply find a way to spend those funds “without Congress” does not square with fundamental separation of powers principles dating back to the earliest days of our Republic.

The Washington Post summarizes another point:

The law the administration invoked to shift funds allows transfers for “unforeseen” events. [Judge] Gilliam said the government’s claim that wall construction was “unforeseen” “cannot logically be squared” with Trump’s many demands for funding dating back to early 2018 and even in the campaign.

The injunction applies to $1 billion that has been reprogrammed so far. This is only part of the DoD money Trump has announced he is transferring, but is the only money to be specifically identified.

A March study by the Federal Reserve (summarized by MarketWatch) finds that wealth is continuing to concentrate at the top. The top 1% of Americans now control 32% of the nation’s wealth, up from 23% in 1989.

Deutsche Bank economist Torsten Sløk largely blames the Fed itself.

“The response to the financial crisis was for the Fed to lower interest rates which in turn pushed home prices and stock prices steadily higher over the past decade,” Slok said. “And another consequence of the financial crisis was a decline in homeownership and stock ownership among households,” he said.

A number of people in my social-media universe flagged the USA Today opinion piece “Rural Americans would be Serfs if we abolished the Electoral College“, but none of them really put their finger on what’s wrong with it.

The obvious problem, of course, is that the essay is essentially a guy explaining why his vote should count for more than other people’s. But the problem goes deeper than that if we decode his arguments:

This is why Hillary Clinton lost in 2016. Instead of winning over small-town Americans, she amassed a popular vote lead based on California and a few big cities. She won those places with huge margins but lost just about everywhere else. And the system worked. The Electoral College requires more than just the most raw votes to win — it requires geographic balance. This helps to protect rural and small-town Americans.

“California” is code for Hispanic/Asian voters and “a few big cities” is code for black voters. “The system worked” because “rural and small-town Americans” (i.e. white voters) got their candidate elected, even though he lost by 2.8 million votes. It’s impossible to imagine the author taking a similarly sanguine view if the candidate supported by white voters had lost in spite of getting more votes. (“Geographical balance” apparently is still satisfied if you can’t carry cities.)

The headline itself reprises a historic bit of rhetoric. Throughout American history, it has been non-whites who have been the “serfs”. But there’s a long history of whites expropriating the moral capital of their victims, and warning about their impending “slavery”. When John Calhoun gave the famous speech “Slavery a Positive Good” in 1837, he clearly meant to defend only African slavery. He begins by denouncing compromise with the abolitionists of the North in these terms.

I do not belong to the school which holds that aggression is to be met by concession. Mine is the opposite creed, which teaches that encroachments must be met at the beginning, and that those who act on the opposite principle are prepared to become slaves.

So in the first paragraph of the very speech where he extols the virtues of African slavery, he warns that white Southerners will become slaves if they fail to defend this principle.

Ditto here: Rural American whites are not and have never been serfs, slaves, or anything similar. Abolishing the Electoral College would eliminate their disproportionate influence and reduce their votes to the same value as everyone else’s. Horrors!

This is yet another example of the phenomenon I noted in “The Distress of the Privileged“: When you are accustomed to privilege, being treated like everyone else feels like oppression.

Treasury Secretary Mnuchin is postponing the Obama administration’s plan to replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill with Harriet Tubman. But artist Dano Wall has a work-around: a way to stamp Tubman’s picture over Jackson’s.


and let’s close with a nightcap

Travis Rupp and Patrick McGovern are “beer archeologists“. From the recipes in ancient documents, the residues embedded in ancient vessels, and a variety of other clues, they attempt to reproduce what our ancestors were drinking.

One of the weirder beverages they have each independently reproduced is chicha, which was brewed in Peru before the Inca.

The recipe for the Peruvian corn-based beer, cobbled together from bits of pre-Incan archaeological evidence, called for chewed corn partially fermented in spit.

McGovern’s version was eventually brewed by Dogfish Head Brewery in Delaware (one of the classiest brewers around). I’m intrigued, but would I drink it? Maybe instead I’ll order a Midas Touch, a drink from ancient Turkey combining “grape wine, barley beer and honey mead”, which might also have had grated cheese sprinkled on top.

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  • Creigh Gordon  On May 27, 2019 at 2:19 pm

    Deutsche Bank economist Torsten Sløk blames the Fed’s interest rate policy (for higher home prices and stock prices).

    Eh. What drove home prices was willfully bad underwriting by banks, who make increased profits from higher debt levels. What is driving stock prices is buybacks. The solution is not higher interest rates, it’s higher taxes on capital. Start taxing unearned income at least as much as earned income, if not more.

    • Janine Stinson  On May 28, 2019 at 3:03 pm

      Please to keep the gov’t’s mitts off my pension and disability insurance (both unearned income), which are what I live on.

  • Nancy Browning  On May 27, 2019 at 6:35 pm

    What about the fact that Assange is not a US citizen? Does that mean that if a US citizen publishes documents that are tied to the national security of any other country (not the US), they are guilty of espionage?

    • George Washington, Jr.  On May 27, 2019 at 8:43 pm

      By that thinking, the U.S. had no right to go after Osama bin Laden for 9/11, because he wasn’t a U.S. citizen, and he planned 9/11 while outside the U.S.

      Think of it this way – someone on the U.S. side of the Mexican border shoots an arrow into Mexico, and kills someone. Even though the action occurred wholly within the U.S., Mexico could charge him with a crime because the harm occurred in Mexico.

      The problem with Assange’s prosecution isn’t that the U.S. has no standing; his actions caused harm here and we’re entitled to mitigate that. The problem is that he didn’t do anything fundamentally different than what journalists do all the time.

    • weeklysift  On June 2, 2019 at 7:38 am

      The other country would think that they are spies. If they could arrest the American, they probably would.

  • George Washington, Jr.  On May 27, 2019 at 8:39 pm

    The flaw in the USA Today article about the Electoral College is the assumption that the only people who voted for Clinton were in California and New York City. In reality, there are many Republican voters in California, but their votes are essentially lost because they’re outnumbered. With a national popular vote, their votes would be combined with those of other Republicans across the country.

  • Michael Wells  On May 27, 2019 at 9:01 pm

    Your comment that the majority in Northern Ireland are Protestants requires a clarification. The latest figures are from a census reported in 2012. Those are the figures referred to in this comment from someone in Northern Ireland:
    “48% Protestant
    45% Catholic
    7% Others and None
    Many are expecting the Catholic percentage to overtake that of Protestants within the next couple of decades which is not to say there will be an overall majority.
    Historically the Catholic community has had higher birthrates (although they’ve been converging in recent decades) and immigration from Catholic-majority countries is also a factor.The fastest rise is in the “Others and None” group though.
    There is a tendency to exaggerate the political significance of these demographics. Not all Catholics would vote for a United Ireland (nor all Protestants against it) If Northern Ireland does eventually vote on whether to leave the UK, Brexit could be a bigger factor than sectarian head counts.”

    In other words, the UK Conservatives and the Northern Ireland DUP are doing something that could cause a result that each don’t want: A reunified Ireland and and an independent Scotland. This is in addition to the fact that a “hard border” is a violation of the Good Friday accords that very well may lead to a resurgence of violence in Northern Ireland.

    • Anonymous  On May 28, 2019 at 7:16 am

      “The fastest rise is in the “Others and None” group though.”

      Off topic for a discussion of Ireland and Brexit, but the U.S. is also seeing significant increase in the “None” category.

    • weeklysift  On June 2, 2019 at 7:39 am

      Thank you for the details, which I should have looked up.

  • Abby  On May 27, 2019 at 9:40 pm

    Is Romney a lawyer? I thought he was a venture capitalist. I never heard that he got a law degree.

    • Paul Bradford  On May 30, 2019 at 12:09 pm

      It also surprised me, but Wikipedia shows Romney got a law degree and passed the Michigan bar, but never practiced law.

  • tendollarwinesblog  On May 27, 2019 at 9:51 pm

    A more accurate simile for Brexit is one where the wished-for family vacation includes a sizable number who want to take a tour of Italy that specifies a lot of pasta eating, even though a whole bunch of people in the family have celiac disease and will get sick if they even try to go on that vacation. The pro-pasta people just don’t care that the celiac people will get sickened if they are forced to participate in this plan. This is like the Leavers in London, who did not care, or did not care enough, about the hardship that leaving would place on the Irish. (This echoes Anglo-Irish relations throughout the ages. The English didn’t worry about the Irish potato famine either.)

  • frankackerman0617  On May 30, 2019 at 12:55 pm

    I like Teri Kanefield’s piece on Romney’s interview comment that the Mueller Report does not establish that Trump obstructed justice. It is a carefully thought out and presented piece. Romney could, if he wished address her analysis without have to deal with any pejorative emotional comments. (As Teri points out, he has a law degree from Harvard.)

    But of course Romney is unlikely to take the bait. American politics is not about logic and reasoning. It’s about inflaming emotions with headlines, tweets, and off-the-cuff interviews. Romney’s comment as it stands contributes to the conservative cause. (Do a substantial percentage of American votes even care about lies?) A reasoned explanation from Romney would only distract from his motivation for making that comment (a personal presumption).

  • frankackerman0617  On May 31, 2019 at 1:52 pm

    Dave – you might be interested in this article (“Saving Democracy”) in the most recent UofC magazine.

  • frankackerman0617  On May 31, 2019 at 2:06 pm

    There is a good article in the most recent Bloomberg Businessweek (“Where the Money Is”). A well-researched effort by a professor at UC Berkley places the percentage of US wealth owned by the top 1% at 38%. The top 0.1% own 20%..

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