Insidious Undermining

Corruption and cronyism can undermine political stability and legitimacy as surely as violence can, albeit more insidiously.

– The Washington Post Editorial Board
The Pandora Papers gave us rare transparency: Is there hope for more?
(10-8-2021)

This week’s featured post is “What to Make of the Pandora Papers?

This week everybody was talking about Congress

Still no reconciliation infrastructure bill, but at least we won’t pointlessly wreck the world economy by hitting the debt ceiling, at least not until December.

I know I keep repeating this, but it needs saying: There is no reason to have a debt ceiling. Other countries don’t. The time to worry about the debt is during the regular budget process, when Congress is appropriating money and setting tax rates, not when the country is borrowing to cover money already committed. In practice, the debt ceiling functions as a self-destruct button that irresponsible legislators can threaten to push.

Mitch McConnell is facing criticism in his caucus for backing down on pushing the self-destruct button, and is pledging to be more irresponsible when it comes up again in December.


It continues to be hard to tell where the reconciliation-bill negotiations are, or to predict where (or when) they will wind up. I’m having trouble even finding a good article about where things stand. We’ll know when we know.

and the Trump coup

The Senate Judiciary Committee issued a 400-page report outlining what we know about Trump’s subversion of the Justice Department in service to his attempt to overturn the 2020 election. The story suffers from the problems of any slowly evolving narrative: We sort of knew all that already, but we didn’t know it in this detail or with this degree of certainty.

For example, stories that the NYT or WaPo published based on anonymous sources are repeated here, but based on testimony under oath. That’s actually new, but it doesn’t feel new.

The Republican minority’s defense of Trump is basically that he didn’t succeed this time. When DoJ officials threatened to resign en masse if he installed Jeffrey Clark as attorney general so he could push the Big Lie, for example, Trump backed down. So no harm, no foul.

Josh Marshall makes an analogy:

You’re in the bank, alarm goes off, cops surround the bank: then you say, okay, I’m not feeling it. I’m calling this off.


A number of Trump’s associates are defying subpoenas from the House January 6 Committee. Trump himself is urging this defiance, and justifying it based on a completely bogus interpretation of executive privilege.

Executive privilege belongs to the office of the presidency, not to the individual who holds that office. And it is exercised by the current president, not the one whose past actions are being investigated. Often presidents will protect past administrations, particularly when the information sought continues to have security implications. But Biden is not going to help Trump cover up his attempt to steal the election from Biden.

This is a point Trump has missed all along: He always treated his power as personal power, and not as the power of his office.

and Facebook

Former Facebook insider Frances Haugen testified to the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Consumer Protection Tuesday, following an appearance on 60 Minutes last week.

Her basic message is that Facebook’s profit motive conflicts with the public good — which is pretty much the definition of when regulation is necessary. In general, Facebook benefits by promoting engagement, and that usually means taking advantage of weaknesses. If you’re obsessed with something, Facebook gives you more of it. If something angers you to the point that you just have to respond, Facebook benefits.

That tendency is most obviously destructive and wrong when it comes to minors — teen girls, say. Haugen told 60 Minutes:

What’s super tragic, is Facebook’s own research says, as these young women begin to consume this eating disorder content, they get more and more depressed, and it actually makes them use the app more

Bad as Facebook (and its subsidiary Instagram) are, I hope they don’t become scapegoats for an entire industry that responds to the same market dynamics. As Shoshana Zuboff described in her book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, all the social-media companies have the same model: Provide a free service, learn things about people by watching them use the service, and then use that knowledge to manipulate their behavior.

It’s not that Facebook is uniquely evil. But this is a setting where the market rewards evil. Facebook is the current market leader, but the next market leader would be just as bad.

and the Texas abortion law

Now it’s blocked, and now it isn’t, as federal court rulings ping-ponged back and forth this week.

The state law, SB 8, which effectively eliminates abortions after six weeks of pregnancy by allowing private citizens to sue people (other than the pregnant woman herself) who are involved in an abortion after the presence of electrical activity that presages a fetal heartbeat after a heart eventually develops, took effect September 1 after the Supreme Court refused to block it.

The federal Justice Department filed suit against Texas on September 9. Wednesday, a federal judge granted DoJ’s request for an injunction to block enforcement of the law, denouncing the State of Texas for contriving an “unprecedented and transparent statutory scheme” to deprive citizens of their “right under the Constitution to choose to obtain an abortion prior to fetal viability”.

Friday, a federal appeals court put a temporary stay on that injunction, pending its consideration of a more permanent ruling.

Even if the injunction is eventually upheld, abortions in Texas may still be limited by the slippery nature of SB 8. The injunction prevented Texas courts from processing lawsuits filed under SB 8, but can’t eliminate abortion providers’ liability if the law is eventually upheld, which could take years to determine. (SB 8 allows lawsuits to be filed up to four years after the abortion.)

I continue to wish that a blue state would concoct some similar civil-lawsuit scheme to ban gun sales — not in order to ban gun sales, but to see how fast the partisan Supreme Court would act to defend a constitutional right that Republican voters care about.

and the pandemic

Average new cases per day in the US have gone back below 100K, down from 175K in mid-September. Deaths have declined less sharply, from over 2000 per day to around 1750. But we’re still well above the mid-June lows, when new cases fell to around 12K per day, with daily deaths in the 200s.

In general, regional differences are evening out, with a few high-risk areas in Alaska, Appalachia, and counties along the northern border.

I’ll make a wild guess and predict that cases and deaths will continue to drop at least until Thanksgiving.


Merck has filed for FDA emergency use authorization of its new anti-Covid pill.


Right-wing politician and commentator Allen West, who is challenging Gov. Greg Abbott in the Republican primary, took hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin rather than get vaccinated. He’s going into the hospital with low oxygen levels after catching Covid.


Chris Hayes won’t let up on the Fox News hosts who challenge every vaccine mandate except the one that actually applies to them at Fox News. I think he’s enjoying himself.

and you also might be interested in …

Climate change destroyed 14% of the world’s coral reefs between 2009 and 2018. The root problem is that the increased carbon in the atmosphere gets absorbed into the ocean, making it more acidic.


September’s jobs report was positive, but still fell well short of economists’ expectations as the economy added 194K jobs rather than the predicted 500K. The unemployment rate dropped to 4.8%, indicating that the weakness was due more to people staying out of the job market than to a lack of jobs for them to find.

The theory that extended unemployment benefits were keeping people from looking for jobs — and so they would flood back into the market when those benefits ended in early September — failed, just as it failed when most red states cut benefits inJuly.

“Many people had Sept. 1 marked on their calendars as the day when things would go back to normal — when they would return to their offices, their kids would return to school and they’d head back to their favorite bars. But instead, the recovery sputtered,” said Julia Pollak, a labor economist with hiring site ZipRecruiter.

As has been true all along, the economic problem is the pandemic itself (which surged in September, but now is receding again) not government responses to it. Workers (particularly women) are reluctant to go back to high-risk, low-pay, public-facing jobs, or to return their unvaccinated small children to group daycare centers (which are having trouble staffing up anyway). And as far as “favorite bars”, I’m still only going to restaurants with outdoor seating. Apparently it’s not just me:

the recent surge in covid cases, which is slowly abating, spooked many diners who earlier this summer had embraced going to restaurants in record levels. Restaurant attendance has been inching down in August and September, according to the reservation app Open Table.

The overall number of restaurants has fallen 13% since the spring of 2020 and restaurant employment is about a million jobs short of pre-pandemic levels.


Speaking of childcare, and the portion of Biden’s proposed $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill that tries to improve it (and make us more like other first-world countries), the NYT describes the situation faced by a couple in Greensboro, North Carolina:

Until their elder son started kindergarten this fall, Jessica and Matt Lolley paid almost $2,000 a month for their two boys’ care — roughly a third of their income and far more than their payments on their three-bedroom house. But one of the teachers who watched the boys earns so little — $10 an hour — that she spends half her time working at Starbucks, where the pay is 50 percent higher and includes health insurance.

… The huge social policy bill being pushed by President Biden would cap families’ child care expenses at 7 percent of their income, offer large subsidies to child care centers, and require the centers to raise wages in hopes of improving teacher quality. A version before the House would cost $250 billion over a decade and raise annual spending fivefold or more within a few years. An additional $200 billion would provide universal prekindergarten.

One aspect of the child-care problem that doesn’t get enough attention is that it’s yet another poverty trap: If child care costs more than a couple’s second paycheck, the short-term economic incentive is for the lower-earning parent to stay home. But parents who can afford to stay in the job market anyway might improve their career prospects in ways that make long-term economic sense. This poverty-trapping effect hits even harder when one parent is investing in a career, either by going to school or working an internship, rather than earning an immediate paycheck.


Saturday, the NYT’s top-of-the-web-page article examined China’s potential military threat to Taiwan, and whether either the Taiwanese or the Americans are adequately prepared for it.

The article makes me wish I could trust the Pentagon (and the Times’ relationship to the Pentagon) more than I do. Maybe the concerns expressed there are completely legit and as worrisome as they sound. Or the article could be defense-budget propaganda: Maybe the Chinese military threat has to be emphasized now that the American people have lost interest in Afghanistan and the Islamic threat more generally.

A New Yorker article from August raised that point in response to a different China hawk:

A smart liberal’s reply to Colby might be: Is this for real? Americans have spent much of the past two decades trying to find some way through the disastrous interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan that political hawks urged on them. Now that the full depth of the latter debacle has become so impossible to deny that the V.A. is issuing suicide-awareness bulletins for former soldiers suffering from “moral distress,” the hawks want to urge another generation-defining conflict on Americans?

A bunch of thoughts complicate my layman’s analysis (which is all you’re left with when you don’t trust the experts): As the article points out, the US already spends three times as much on defense as China does. However, given the inefficiencies and pork-barrel spending built into our defense budget, plus the fact that things are just cheaper in China, we probably don’t have a 3-to-1 advantage in real military resources.

And then there’s the fact that China hasn’t fought a war in a very long time. From generals down to privates, just about everybody involved in a hypothetical Taiwan invasion would be seeing their first combat. Would President Xi really trust the results of his war games that much?

And finally, if I were running China, I would see many long-term global trends running in my favor, and be worried about screwing them up. (This WaPo columnist disagrees: What if pro-China trends are about to turn, as its economy becomes more government-centered and its politics more tyrannical?) War is always a throw of the dice. So I hope Xi knows the story of King Croesus of Lydia and the Oracle of Delphi. “If Croesus attacks Persia,” the Oracle pronounced, “he will destroy a great empire.”

He did attack, and the empire he destroyed was his own.


Mike Pence is laying the groundwork for a 2024 presidential campaign. He truly does not seem to understand that January 6 ended his political career. He didn’t do everything he could to steal the election for Trump, so diehard Trumpists will always see him as disloyal. But at the same time, he will never be able to separate himself from his four years of enabling and defending Trump.

When it comes to replacing democracy with a fascist personality cult, you can’t be half committed.


Trump and his followers are rallying behind Max Miller’s primary campaign against Ohio Republican Congressman Anthony Gonzalez, who committed the unforgivable sin of voting for Trump’s second impeachment. The domestic violence charges made by Miller’s former girlfriend, Trump’s former White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham, don’t seem to be regarded as a big deal by comparison.

This kind of thing was inevitable once Republicans decided to ignore the Access Hollywood tape (where Trump bragged about a pattern of sexual assaults), as well as the corroborating testimony from dozens of his victims. In Republican circles, assaulting women is now just something that manly men do, and that women are understood to routinely lie about.


Here’s what one guy learned from working in a California gun shop.

Guns in America require a fix that isn’t written into law. It’s something deeper, something in society that causes men to turn to weapons as their last vestiges of manhood.

and let’s close with something sexy

If you think it’s hard to attract a human mate, watch what this puffer fish has to do.

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Comments

  • charlesroth2016  On October 11, 2021 at 3:04 pm

    Any useful speculations (if that’s not an oxymoron) about whether the debt-ceiling game-of-chicken might end up poking another hole in the Senate filibuster rules?

  • Creigh Gordon  On October 11, 2021 at 6:18 pm

    The time to worry about the debt is never. We’ve had a national debt since 1836. It has never harmed anyone’s children and grandchildren and it never will.

    Our children and grandchildren will produce so many houses and washing machines and cheeseburgers and blockbuster movies and a bunch of stuff we haven’t thought of yet and all that stuff will be distributed among people living at the time and none of it will be sent into the past for our debts.

    What we must do for our children and grandchildren is provide them with the skills and infrastructure (social as well as physical) that will enable them to create their own wealth and prosperity. Failing to do that is how we will impoverish them.

  • George Washington, Jr.  On October 11, 2021 at 8:42 pm

    I have a theory that trypanophobia (fear of needles) is at least partly responsible for the opposition to the COVID vaccine. Very few of these people are anti-vax in general, but they had MMR and DPT when they were children, and couldn’t refuse. Now that they’re adults, they will do anything to avoid being jabbed. The reason they like ivermectin is it’s oral – if it was an injection, they wouldn’t like it, either.

    The proof will be when the oral COVID pill becomes available and the people refusing the vaccine “because we don’t know what’s in it” suddenly won’t have a problem with a pill that was developed just as quickly.

  • David Goldfarb  On October 12, 2021 at 12:46 am

    Herodotus tells us some more about Croesus and the Oracle of Delphi. He relates that Croesus, who had bought access to the Oracle with really lavish gifts (not for nothing is “the riches of Croesus” still a byword thousands of years later) wrote to the Oracle later on asking, essentially, “Is that what you call value for money?” The Oracle replied (and again I’m paraphrasing) “Well, you should have asked the followup question of which empire would be overthrown. Anyway, you had a hereditary curse on you, and Apollo gave you seven years more than you would have had otherwise.”

    Herodotus says that Croesus was satisfied with this answer, which is to my mind the single least believable part of the whole thing.

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