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What kind of justice would Brett Kavanaugh be?

Monday night, Trump named his second Supreme Court nominee: Brett Kavanaugh.

Immediately, legal and political pundits began speculating on how Kavanaugh’s appointment, if the Senate approves it, would affect abortion rights. Will Kavanaugh be the fifth vote to reverse Roe v Wade, allowing either states or the federal government to make abortion illegal? Or could he perhaps gut Roe while leaving it technically valid, perhaps by letting states regulate abortion in ways that make it practically unavailable, even if still theoretically legal? Or does he really believe in the principal of stare decisis, in which the Court leaves a precedent in place unless it proves unworkable?

Important as that issue is, it would be a shame if it sucked all the oxygen out of the room, leaving no space for discussion of the other implications of Kavanaugh joining the Court. Let’s look at a few of those issues.

Partisanship. One of the worst developments for the Supreme Court as an institution over the last two decades is the loss of its non-partisan image. Beginning with Bush v Gore in 2000, and going on through Citizens United (which destroyed campaign finance controls) and Shelby County (which gutted the Voting Rights Act), the public has gotten used to the idea that judges represent the party that appointed them. What the laws or the Constitution says is less important than which party a decision would benefit.

Kavanaugh is not going to improve that image. He first came to public attention as a main author of the Starr Report. While ostensibly non-partisan, the investigation into President Clinton lead by Kenneth Starr was transparently political. (Anyone who thinks the Mueller investigation is a “partisan witch hunt” has amnesia. Unlike the Mueller probe, Starr’s investigators regularly leaked damaging information to the press and timed their official announcements for maximum political effect. The Starr Report was written to be as sexually scurrilous as possible. Impeachment was a dim fantasy at that point, but at least the report could do political damage to the Clinton administration and embarrass Clinton personally.)

He subsequently was a lawyer for the Bush campaign during Bush v Gore, and then worked for Bush’s White House Counsel Alberto Gonzalez. His wife has worked for the George W. Bush Library Foundation.

If you wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt, you could imagine that he was sprinkled with non-partisan fairy dust when he became a judge. However, you have to wonder about one of the first things out of his mouth after Trump appointed him.

No president has ever consulted more widely, or talked with more people from more backgrounds, to seek input about a Supreme Court nomination

This claim is transparently, outrageously false: Trump limited himself to a list of judges given to him by Federalist Society Executive-Vice-President-on-leave Leonard Leo. By some accounts, appointing Kavanaugh was part of the deal that got Justice Kennedy to retire. There’s no reason to believe that anyone other than Leo, Kennedy, and Trump had anything to do with this decision. Quite likely, then, no president has ever consulted so narrowly or sought less input from fewer people about a Supreme Court nomination.

So Kavanaugh’s very first claim after being nominated was a pants-on-fire lie to flatter the president who appointed him. Former Senator Al Franken was blunt:

It’s just a totally made-up assertion that is exactly the opposite of the truth, flowing out of the mouth of a committed partisan who doesn’t care that it’s false…. [I]t’s critical to recognize that the very first thing he did as a Supreme Court nominee was to parrot a false, partisan talking point. Of course that’s what he did. Advancing the goals of the Republican Party and the conservative movement is what he’s there to do.

Workers and corporations. In the Confined Space blog, Jordan Barab examines Kavanaugh’s cavalier approach to worker safety, citing his dissent in a case in which OSHA fined Sea World for neglecting safety issues in a way that led to a trainer’s dismemberment by a killer whale.

Kavanaugh’s dissent drips with hostility toward OSHA and a basic misunderstanding of the act and the principles — and law — behind it. … Kavanaugh’s idea of making America great again apparently hearkens back to a time before the Workers Compensation laws and the Occupational Safety and Health Act were passed. Back then employers who maimed or killed workers often escaped legal responsibility by arguing that the employee had “assumed” the risk when he or she took the job and the employer therefore had no responsibility to make the job safer.

The Atlantic’s Ronald Brownstein focuses on Kavanaugh’s pro-corporate views.

While Kavanaugh’s record offers few clues about his view on the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationwide, he has demonstrated an unequivocal skepticism about federal regulation of business. Jennifer Mascott, a former Kavanaugh law clerk and an assistant professor at George Mason University’s law school, recently wrote that, “Even during this era of generous judicial deference to administrative agencies, Judge Kavanaugh has written 40 opinions finding agency action to be unlawful and joined majority opinions reversing agency action in at least 35 additional cases.”

Brownstein pictures a return to the Lochner Era, when the Court routinely invalidated state and federal laws that tried to establish a minimum wage or a limited work-week or workplace-safety rules. (A sharper name might be the Triangle Shirtwaist Era.)

Executive power. From his attitude towards regulation, you might imagine that Kavanaugh has a libertarian streak and is likely to oppose government power across the board. But not so: He takes a very expansive view of presidential war powers. Remember, he was part of the Bush administration when it claimed the power to jail American citizens without charges and torture prisoners. (I don’t know of any point where he publicly expressed an opinion about those issues, but he clearly had no problem continuing to serve.)

Steven Vladeck of the Just Security blog writes in The Washington Post about Kavanaugh’s deference to presidential power:

Kavanaugh’s many opinions concerning Guantanamo and related matters make it crystal clear that his confirmation would make the court far more deferential to the president’s exercise of aggressive war powers, would diminish the long – standing role of international law as a means of shaping executive authority and understanding congressional authorizations , and would more generally weaken the role of the courts as a check on the political branches in this profoundly important area of law.

Like Bush, Kavanaugh believes in the unitary executive theory, that all executive functions of the government should be under direct presidential control. In particular, Congress should not be able to establish semi-independent entities like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, whose director can only be fired for cause. If Congress would attempt to insulate Special Counsel Robert Mueller from Trump’s interference, Kavanaugh would probably find that unconstitutional.

Legal theory. The Mascott’s blog post Brownstein quoted is worth reading in full, as it spells out what a Kavanaugh protege admires about him. She talks a great deal about Kavanaugh’s “deeply rooted interpretive philosophy built on interpreting law in accordance with the statutory text and the meaning of the text of the Constitution”, a position which she traces back to Justice Scalia.

I usually dismiss this kind of talk as meaningless rhetoric, because it’s based on a straw man fallacy: Who exactly are these judges who advocate ignoring the text of the laws and the Constitution? I have never heard a judge at any level say “The law says X but I believe Y, so I’m going to rule Y.” The dispute is never about whether to read the text of the law, but how.

(For contrast, look at Justice Souter’s 2010 Harvard commencement speech. Mere textual interpretation is insufficient, Souter said, because the Constitution’s “language grants and guarantees many good things, and good things that compete with each other and can never all be realized, all together, all at once.” Cases where the text is clear and just needs to be applied “do not usually come to court, or at least the Supreme Court.” Moreover, often concepts from other centuries can only be applied today by doing some kind of interpretation-after-the-fact: How, for example, should the word “arms” in the Second Amendment be applied to weapons radically different from anything that existed in the 18th century? James Madison surely was not picturing a shoulder-fired missile capable of taking down an airliner.)

But Mascott’s account does underline one thing for me: Like the Court’s other conservative justices, Kavanaugh will ignore precedent when it suits him, as, for example, Justice Scalia did when he invented an individual right to bear arms in his Heller decision. The process is simple, given Scalia’s (and Kavanaugh’s) text-interpretation method: You go back to the original text with a period-of-authorship dictionary, as if previous courts had never considered what the text-as-a-whole means. Decompose sentences into their constituent words, interpret them one-by-one, and then reassemble them into a meaning that no previous court has seen, and that the original authors quite possibly never imagined.

Unenumerated rights. Mascott quotes a Kavanaugh article (that none of her links go to and I haven’t been able to google up) agreeing with Justice Scalia’s interpretive theory:

In constitutional disputes, Justice Scalia recognized that the courts have an essential role in aggressively protecting the individual rights actually spelled out in the Constitution. … But on the flip side, courts have no legitimate role, Justice Scalia would say, in creating new rights not spelled out in the Constitution. On those issues, he believed in complete deference to the political branches and the states.

(Except for corporate rights, of course, which are not mentioned anywhere in the Constitution, but were consistently upheld by Scalia and presumably will be by Kavanaugh as well.)

In particular, Kavanaugh seems likely to demand a clear text stating any individual rights he doesn’t approve of, like the right to privacy that Roe is based on. In a speech to the American Enterprise Institute last September, he praised Justice Rehnquist’s dissent in Roe v Wade, and his attitude towards “unenumerated rights” in general:

Rehnquist’s dissenting opinion did not suggest that the Constitution protected no rights other than those enumerated in the text of the Bill of Rights. But he stated that under the Court’s precedents, any such unenumerated right had to be rooted in the traditions [and] conscience of our people. Given the prevalence of abortion regulations both historically and at the time, Rehnquist said he could not reach such a conclusion about abortion.

Given that view, it’s hard to see how Kavanaugh could not reverse Roe, or the Obergfell decision finding a right for same-sex couples to marry. If people at the time were not applying their principles to such issues, how can we apply them now, even if they clearly do apply?

You have to wonder how far back Kavanaugh is willing to take that objection. I doubt, for example, that most of the congressmen and state legislators who voted for the 14th Amendment believed that “the equal protection of the laws” mandated racially integrated schools, as the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Brown v Board of Education in 1954. Given the prevalence of segregated schools “both historically and at the time” of the 14th Amendment, Brown would be hard to justify.

Trump doesn’t want skilled immigrants either

Last week I pointed out the fallacy that Trump only objects to illegal immigration, and is just trying to uphold US laws. (Not only is he separating families that have legally applied for asylum, he’s also going after legal immigrants who are trying to gain citizenship by volunteering for the military, and looking for excuses to void the citizenship of naturalized citizens.)

This week I want to expose another fallacy: Trump just wants a better class of immigrants, people with skills rather than the uneducated and desperate poor, who will just come here and go on welfare. In a speech to Congress a month after he took office, he said:

Nations around the world, like Canada, Australia and many others, have a merit-based immigration system. It’s a basic principle that those seeking to enter a country ought to be able to support themselves financially. Yet, in America, we do not enforce this rule, straining the very public resources that our poorest citizens rely upon. According to the National Academy of Sciences, our current immigration system costs American taxpayers many billions of dollars a year. [1]

But no, he doesn’t want skilled immigrants either, even if they are brought here by a company that wants to employ them. The RAISE Act, which the administration supported, would have favored immigrants its point system defined as meritorious, but would also have cut legal immigration in half. It’s arguable whether a high-merit immigrant is more or less likely to get in under those rules. But other rules are unambiguously negative for such people.

Jennifer Minear is a lawyer who consults with companies trying to bring in skilled workers on H-1B visas. In this interview, she describes how the US Citizenship and Immigration Services has changed its rules to harass and discourage such workers, as well as foreign students, whose tuition supports some of our top universities and who sometimes go on to found successful American companies that employ native-born citizens. According to new regulations, she says:

USCIS will issue a Notice to Appear on its own initiative and thereby place individuals in removal proceedings upon denial of an application or petition for immigration benefits if the person is deemed removable at the time of the denial. … Previously, if an application or petition for immigration benefits were to be denied, the foreign national might be able to depart the U.S. relatively quickly and either remain abroad or obtain approval for another visa that would enable him or her to return to the U.S. However, once an individual is issued a Notice to Appear, he or she is legally obligated to remain in the U.S. and appear before an immigration judge. … For most people, being placed in proceedings is a legal limbo where you are not lawfully present, yet not able to leave without triggering a bar on re-entry, and not able to work legally.

So suppose you’re a software designer from India who has an H-1B visa to work at, say, Google, and you apply for an extension. The backlog at USCIS might prevent the extension from going through before your visa expires. If your application is denied (more and more are, under Trump), you get an NTA. Now you’re in limbo until your deportation hearing: You can’t work, you can’t leave, and if you’re deported it will be harder for you to ever get a visa to come back.

If you’re a foreign student, your visa might get cancelled because your school screws up its paperwork. [2] An NTA might be your first notice that something is wrong. So you also wind up in limbo.

Minear concludes that many talented foreigners will hear horror stories like these and conclude that they don’t want to risk coming to the United States at all.

I think this policy memo represents another piece of a well-organized and systematic effort by the current administration to make the process of legal immigration to the United States as difficult as possible for both immigrants and the employers who sponsor them. … I fear that this policy, combined with others previously announced, will discourage the best and brightest minds from around the world from wanting to come to our country and contribute to our economy and culture. Indeed, that appears to be the intent of these policies – to frustrate and frighten people enough that they will not even attempt to navigate the process of coming here legally.

Other countries, especially developing countries, have long complained of a “brain drain” as their best minds pursue opportunities in the US. But under Trump, it appears we are planning to put a stopper in that drain ourselves. USCIS has also proposed

to rescind the final rule published in the Federal Register on January 17, 2017. The final rule established a program that would allow for consideration of parole into the United States, on case-by-case basis, of certain inventors, researchers, and entrepreneurs who had established a U.S. start-up entity, and who had been awarded substantial U.S. investor financing or otherwise hold the promise of innovation and job creation through the development of new technologies or the pursuit of cutting edge research.

So even if you are in the middle of starting a job-creating company here, you can’t come. The same document proposes a change that Stuart Anderson (who was the interviewer in the Minear article) describes like this:

Another more direct worry is the Trump administration has published its intention to restrict the ability of international students to work after graduation on Optional Practical Training (OPT), which allows for 12 months of work for students. OPT in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields allows for an additional 24 months of work. Educators say OPT makes a U.S. education more practical and “real world.”

Anderson notes that international students have already started to avoid the US. There was a 4% drop in international enrollment between 2016 and 2017, with a 6% drop in graduate students in science and engineering, and a 21% drop in graduate students in science and engineering from India. This is a problem for US students and universities, not just foreigners, because foreign students are often cash cows that allow universities to provide more services to Americans.

About 90% of U.S. universities have a majority of international students among full-time enrollees in graduate level computer science and electrical engineering. If the number of international students in those fields declines significantly, then there will be fewer such programs available for U.S. students. Moreover, professors who rely on graduate students to conduct research are likely to relinquish their positions and pursue employment at companies, reducing the role of U.S. universities as a center of basic research.

So economically, the new Trump policies are probably destroying more opportunities for native-born Americans than they create. What’s the point of them, then? Perhaps it has something to do with what Trump claimed about European immigration this week in an interview with the English newspaper The Sun:

I think what has happened to Europe is a shame. Allowing the immigration to take place in Europe is a shame. I think it changed the fabric of Europe and, unless you act very quickly, it’s never going to be what it was and I don’t mean that in a positive way. So I think allowing millions and millions of people to come into Europe is very, very sad. I think you are losing your culture. Look around. You go through certain areas that didn’t exist ten or 15 years ago.

WaPo’s Philip Bump points out that “culture” is white nationalist code for race.

That argument — that immigration changes existing “culture” for the worse — is a staple of white nationalist rhetoric in the United States. Trump has never explicitly argued that immigration is a threat to white Americans, but he’s made numerous comments in the past that tiptoe around that point.

I don’t usually use the same cartoon two weeks in a row, but this one is perhaps even more on-point this week than it was last week.


[1] The EconoFact web site disputes this claim:

The evidence does not suggest that current immigrant flows cost native-born taxpayers money over the long-run nor does it provide support for the notion that lowering immigration quotas or stepping up enforcement of existing immigration laws would generate savings to existing taxpayers.

NPR’s Joel Rose looked up the study that Trump seemed to be quoting, and noted that it doesn’t really support his claim either.

Trump appears to be referring to this study published last year by the National Academy of Sciences. It found that “the impact of immigration on the wages of native-born workers overall is very small.” The study also found that first-generation immigrants are more costly to state and local governments. But the children of immigrants, on the other hand, are among the “strongest economic and fiscal contributors in the U.S. population, contributing more in taxes than either their parents or the rest of the native-born population.”

[2] Former INS associate commission Paul Virtue explains:

The key difference between the new policy and that established in September 1997 [in a memo Virtue wrote] is that under the new policy the date on which a person begins to accrue unlawful presence is not tied to an official determination. Therefore, an individual may learn only after the fact that he or she has already accrued months of unlawful presence and is left with no recourse for avoiding the 3- and 10-year bars to admission.

“America First!” means China wins

China either is already the world’s largest economy or soon will be. In order to compete for world leadership in the coming decades, the US will need to represent a community of like-minded nations, not go it alone.


America First. The foreign policy Donald Trump ran on came down to two words: “America First!”

He never spelled out exactly what policy agenda that slogan entailed — Trump 2016 was never the kind of campaign that constructed 12-point plans or posted white papers on its web site — but the attitude it expressed was clear: Both economically and militarily, the United States is the world’s 800-pound gorilla, and we need to start acting like it.

According to Trump’s populist critique, past administrations of both parties worried too much about principles like free trade and human rights, and invested too much of their hopes in multinational organizations like the UN, the WTO, and NATO. The Bushes and Clintons and Obama — and basically every president since Truman — tried to create a world of rules and mutual commitments, and failed to recognize something Trump finds obvious: Rules protect the weak. A world without rules is governed by the Law of the Jungle, and under that law the 800-pound gorilla always wins. That’s why he felt confident promising us “so much winning“.

To Trump and his followers, it makes no sense that the US has been trying to lead the world by setting a good example, rather than dominate it by telling other countries how things are going to work. It’s been crazy to keep our markets open when other countries close theirs, respect their intellectual property when they don’t respect ours, or extend our military shield over allies who don’t invest in their own armed forces the way we do. Our strength ought to get us a better deal, but it doesn’t because we keep volunteering to take a worse one.

So if it meant anything, “America First!” meant that it was high time we stopped volunteering to take the short end of the stick. Stop trying to create a world of rules that apply equally to everyone and stop averting our eyes when other countries cut corners. Instead, deal with every country one-on-one, a situation where our superior power will let us tell them what’s what. And what we will tell them is: “You need us more than we need you. So we win, you lose.”

During the campaign, examples of how Trump pictured this working would occasionally pop out: If we were going to liberate the Iraqi people from Saddam Hussein’s tyranny, we should have taken their oil to make it worth our while. If our military is going to keep defending Europe, they should pay us. Shortly after taking office he told the CIA the principle we ought to live by: “To the victor belong the spoils.

Short-term and long-term. A year and a half into the Trump administration, we’re still waiting for those white papers and 12-point plans. (An anonymous staffer recently summed up the Trump Doctrine by expanding “America First!” from a two-word to a three-word slogan: “We’re America, bitch!“) But the outlines of a Trump foreign policy are starting to become clear: no TPP; no Paris Climate Accord; no Iran denuclearization deal; no UN Human Rights Council. We move our embassy to Jerusalem because we’ve taken Israel’s side, and aren’t trying to broker peace any more. We don’t accept other countries’ refugees. We insult our allies and leave them in the dark about our intentions. We can act like that because we’re America, bitch.

Once the Trump administration gets outside the restrictions of multinational agreements and into bilateral negotiations, it makes big demands and waits for other nations to back down, threatening terrible consequences if they don’t. Strangely, these tactics have yet to work anywhere. Mexico still isn’t paying for the wall and just elected a government more resistant to American pressure than ever. No one — not China, not Canada, not the EU — is knuckling under to our trade demands. North Korea gave us some pretty words, but doesn’t seem inclined to abandon its nukes.

Those problems, the administration assures us, are just short-term. As soon as other countries understand that we’re serious, they’ll realize who has the upper hand. Thursday night, Trump told a rally in Montana: “We’re going to win [the trade war with China] because we have all the cards.”

So far, that hasn’t been true: We hit them, they hit back — as if we were equals or something. But who knows? Maybe in the medium term Trump’s strategy works out. Maybe over the next year or so Canada and Mexico will decide that they do need to renegotiate NAFTA so that it tilts more in our favor. Maybe China and the EU will drop their reprisal tariffs and be content to let us buy less from them. Maybe we’ll get a new Iran deal that restricts their nuclear program for longer than Obama’s deal did, or adds provisions about ballistic missiles or exporting terrorism. Maybe the North Korea denuclearization agreement will turn into more than a handshake and a photo op.

I’d be surprised, but what do I know? Stranger things have happened.

But now let’s expand our time horizon and recognize one obvious fact: In the long run, it’s China who will be the world’s 800-pound gorilla. If the world is running according to the Law of the Jungle in 2030 or 2050, they win, not us.

How the US and China stack up. At the moment, China has around 1.4 billion people, about 1/6th of the world’s population and four times America’s. Per capita, it’s still a much poorer country than we are, but the national totals are starting to even out.

Depending on how you measure, China either has already overtaken us as the world’s largest economy or soon will. [1] It’s more-or-less inevitable: As Japan and South Korea and Singapore have shown, it’s much easier to bring your people up to a standard that some other nation has already achieved than to create an entirely new standard of wealth. So China’s GDP grows over 6% in a bad year, while ours grows 3% in a good year. [2]Over time that adds up. If China ever manages to achieve a per capita income that is just half of ours, its total economy will be twice as large. That will give it a leading role on the world stage.

Already China is flexing its muscles in terms of soft power. Its Belt and Road Initiative is a multi-trillion-dollar plan to rebuild Eurasia’s infrastructure around China-centered trade routes and financial institutions.

Think about what this means diplomatically. China can approach Pakistan with its plan for a Pakistan-China Economic Corridor. What’s our vision for Pakistan? China foresees a high-speed-rail network that connects Shanghai to Singapore and Bangkok. What do we foresee?

It may not happen right away, but over time you have to expect China to exert the kind of world influence that comes with being the world’s largest economy. They will have the tax base to outstrip us in military spending eventually, if they choose to. Someday Shanghai or Hong Kong might replace New York as the world financial capital. Already, China can challenge us as a regional military power in Asia. Eventually it will have the resources, if it wants, to challenge us around world — at least if we are foolish enough to take them on by ourselves.

We need allies. We need institutions. In short, this is a uniquely bad time for the US to set up the world to be dominated by an 800-pound gorilla. Because before much longer, that gorilla won’t be us.

For the United States to continue to be the world’s most influential nation, we’re going to have to rely on two factors that Trump wants to turn his back on.

  • We represent values that the world admires, not just our own money and power.
  • We lead a community of nations who share those values.

If those two things are true, then America is the leading member of a coalition China won’t be able to bully for a very long time, or maybe ever: ourselves, the EU, Japan, the English-speaking parts of the British Commonwealth, South Korea, Taiwan, and maybe a few other countries. As India, Brazil, and other nations achieve relative economic equality with the countries in that coalition, there’s reason to hope that they will find it a club worth joining.

Whatever you may think of how the Trans-Pacific Partnership turned out in its final form, this was the geo-political vision that got it started: We would not negotiate trade with China by ourselves, but would get together with a large number of like-minded nations to write rules of the road. Long-term, we hoped that China might someday accept our rules in order to get the benefits of belonging to our club. There are many reasonable arguments against the TPP as it eventually was negotiated, but to scrap it and replace it with nothing will eventually prove to be a huge missed opportunity. (Pulling out of the WTO, which Trump is reported to be considering, would be even worse.)

Going forward, we want to live in a world of multinational institutions, because in a world of bilateral agreements, more and more it will be China who tells other nations how things are going to be.

The benefits of being a benign superpower. Since the end of World War II, the United States has been the chief promoter and protector of the international financial system. Trump and his followers see only the costs of this role and ignore all the ways that it has enhanced American power.

In the world today, the dollar is the international currency. National banks of almost all countries hold large reserves of dollars, and international trade is denominated in dollars. Just about any international transfer of money at some point passes through the US banking system.

What this means is that the market for dollars goes well beyond the needs of the US economy. The Federal Reserve creates dollars at zero cost, by entering numbers into its database. Many of those dollars go overseas eventually, and we get real goods in return: cars, iPhones, oil, steel, and Ivanka Trump’s fashion line. This is the seldom-discussed flip side of our trade deficit: We get away with running that deficit — consuming more than we produce — because the international economy needs a currency, and the dollar plays that role. The dollar is our chief export.

Similarly, US Treasury bills are the world’s default investment. This has allowed us to finance our budget deficit year after year, without suffering any of the ill effects that budget hawks are constantly predicting: Our national debt hasn’t caused inflation. The dollar’s value hasn’t collapsed. We don’t have to offer higher and higher interest rates to get investors to loan us money.

Short of military attack, the most potent weapon we can aim at an adversary is to cut them off from the US banking system. When fully enforced, that sanction can reduce another nation’s international trade to barter, and induce it to invent elaborate and expensive money-laundering schemes. The sanction that hurts Putin’s oligarchs most is the Magnitsky Act, which prevents sanctioned individuals from using the US banking system. The Atlantic explains:

What made Russian officialdom so mad about the Magnitsky Act is that it was the first time that there was some kind of roadblock to getting stolen money to safety. In Russia, after all, officers and bureaucrats could steal it again, the same way they had stolen it in the first place: a raid, an extortion racket, a crooked court case with forged documents—the possibilities are endless. Protecting the money meant getting it out of Russia. But what happens if you get it out of Russia and it’s frozen by Western authorities? What’s the point of stealing all that money if you can’t enjoy the Miami condo it bought you? What’s the point if you can’t use it to travel to the Côte d’Azur in luxury?

Once your wealth is expressed in dollars and recognized by the US banking system, you can take it anywhere and do anything you want with it. But otherwise, it’s barely money at all.

In a lot of ways, our banking power is better than military power. Unlike tanks or even nuclear missiles, our enemies have no answer for it. What are they going to threaten in return — to cut us off from the Russian or North Korean or Iranian banking system? Why would we care?

You might ask: How did we get power like this? Why do other nations let us keep it?

And the answer is that we have been entrusted with this kind of power because (for the most part) we have used it benignly. In theory, the other nations of the world could cut us out of the picture by deciding to use the yen or the Euro instead, or by getting together and creating a truly international currency and a truly international banking system to go with it. But the new currency would be like the Euro on a larger scale: negotiating and managing that new monetary system would be a huge headache, and who knows what holes and glitches it might develop? It’s just much more convenient for everybody to stick with the dollar and the US banking system, because our occasional abuses of that power have stayed within reasonable bounds.

In short, we have been fairly faithful stewards of other nations’ trust.

Or, translating the same idea into Trump-speak: We’ve been suckers. We haven’t put America first. We haven’t used every tool at our disposal to drive other nations to the wall and make them do what we want.

But that’s why other nations trusted us in the first place. And over time, we have benefited a great deal from that trust.

Bad timing. During this era, when we can see China gaining on us in the race for power (and in some areas already beginning to pass us), it’s tempting to try to squeeze all the juice we can out of our superpower status before we lose it. It’s also the worst strategic decision we could possibly make. At best, such a policy might produce a brief flare of American brilliance before our power winks out completely.

Now more than ever, the United States needs an international system based on principles and enforced by international institutions supported by multilateral agreements that all parties can live with and see benefit from. We need a system that isolates rogue nations and draws them into the rules-based community. We need to stand for universally attractive ideals like democracy, human rights, and opportunity for all. If China wants to compete with us for leadership, let it compete to lead the ideals-based coalition we have assembled. Let it compete to be a more admirable nation or a better steward of the world’s trust.

On the other hand, over the next five or ten years there might be some gains to cash in by becoming a rogue nation ourselves, flouting the principles we previously tried to establish, undercutting international cooperation on issues like global warming, and imposing win/lose agreements on weaker countries. The international institutions we helped design would likely wither, and to the extent they survived they would become alliances against our abuses of power. As we turned inward, other nations would as well, and the world as a whole would become a less prosperous place.

None of this would thwart China’s rise. And as the American Era ended, our legacy would not be an international system of mutually beneficial principles, rules, and institutions, but a Law-of-the-Jungle world, where the 800-pound gorilla always wins.

Unfortunately, that 800-pound gorilla would be China. China would owe us a great debt of gratitude for establishing a world system that allowed it to throw its weight around, dominating smaller nations (including us). However, I suspect China would never feel obligated to offer us anything to settle that debt. After all, gratitude is for suckers.


[1] If you google “countries ranked by GDP“, you’ll see lists from various international organizations that make it look like we still have a wide lead. For example: $19.4 trillion to $12.2 trillion in the World Bank list for 2017.

However lists like that are suspect for the following reason: They usually start by estimating a country’s annual GDP in the local currency, and then convert that estimate to dollars using the current exchange rates. But it’s widely suspected that China’s currency is undervalued; that’s what gives it such a big advantage in trade. Once you adjust for that undervaluation, you get very different numbers.

Economists argue about how to make that adjustment. One complex tool called “purchasing power index” says that the Chinese GDP really represents $21.4 trillion of purchasing power.

That’s calculation is hard for a non-economist to follow, but one quick-and-dirty (not to mention amusing) method for comparing the value of products across currencies is to use the Big Mac Index: Express all prices in units of locally produced Big Macs, which are assumed to be more-or-less identical around the world. (Example: If an iPhone 8 costs about $700 and a Big Mac sells for $3.50, an iPhone 8 costs 200 Big Macs.) At current exchange rates, you can buy 1.8 Chinese Big Macs for the price of 1 US Big Mac. So (adjusting everything by a factor of 1.8) annual Chinese GDP represents a number of Big Macs that would sell for around $22 trillion in the United States.

[2] In his 2012 campaign, Mitt Romney made the wildly optimistic prediction that his economic policies would lead to 4% growth. If Chinese growth got down to 4%, it would be a national emergency.

Giving up is a prerogative of privilege.

There’s no point trying to sugarcoat it: This was an ugly week.

The biggest disappointments came from the Supreme Court, where the conservative majority does not seem to grasp the challenge Trump — and the larger pattern of minority rule I described in the previous post — pose to American democracy. It also has more or less abandoned one of the core principles of American jurisprudence: stare decisis, the doctrine that the current Court must work within the precedents of past Courts, unless and until they prove to be unworkable. This Court will do whatever it wants, regardless of precedent.

The Court’s spring term always ends in late June with a flurry of decisions, which are usually a mixed bag of good and bad. This batch was uniformly bad. The Court ruled that:

  • Trump’s ban on accepting visitors or immigrants from certain Muslim-majority countries deserves the benefit of the Court’s doubt, and should not be interpreted in light of the unconstitutional Muslim Ban he campaigned on and sought to implement in two previous executive orders. Neither should the Court examine too closely the flimsy national-security justifications the administration offers. Justice Sotomayor’s dissent reviews Trump’s anti-Islam statements both before and after taking office, and concludes: “In sum, none of the features of the Proclamation high­lighted by the majority supports the Government’s claim that the Proclamation is genuinely and primarily rooted in a legitimate national-security interest. What the unrebutted evidence actually shows is that a reasonable observer would conclude, quite easily, that the primary purpose and function of the Proclamation is to disfavor Islam by ban­ning Muslims from entering our country.” She contrasts the Court’s unwillingness to consider Trump’s anti-Islam statements with the seriousness it ascribed to Colorado officials’ lack of respect for the baker’s Christian beliefs in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case. But those were Christians and these are Muslims. As I have pointed out many times in the past, this Court grants Christians special rights.
  • Public-sector unions (which account for nearly half of the total union membership in the US) can’t insist that the workers they represent pay dues, as had been ruled constitutional by the Supreme Court in 1977. A worker who wants the benefits of the union-negotiated contract without contributing anything to the union is now free to make that choice. How unions of teachers and firefighters will survive is now an open question. Justice Kagan’s dissent points out that nothing (other than the personal beliefs of the justices) has changed to make the 1977 decision unworkable. “The majority … has overruled Abood because it wanted to.” This decision follows another in May that sharply limits the ability of workers to file class-action suits against their employers.
  • The Texas legislature’s gerrymander to maximize white power will stand, except for one state-legislature district. Justice Sotomayor dissents: “This disregard of both precedent and fact comes at serious costs to our democracy. It means that, after years of litigation and undeniable proof of intentional discrimination, minority voters in Texas—despite constituting a majority of the population within the State—will continue to be underrepresented in the political process.” This decision follows a ruling earlier in June upholding Ohio’s voter-suppression scheme.
  • A California law requiring licensed family-planning centers to inform patients about their abortion options and unlicensed facilities to state clearly that they are unlicensed is likely unconstitutional, so an injunction against enforcing the law is warranted while court challenges proceed. The Court’s conservative majority finds that such a disclosure law violates the free-speech rights of centers that oppose abortion, but stands by previous opinions that centers performing abortions are obligated to inform patients about their adoption options. Justice Breyer’s dissent notes the implicit contradiction, and claims that the foggy reasoning necessary to justify it casts doubt on all public-disclosure laws.
  • The Court once again found a way not to defend the rights of same-sex couples against discrimination in the marketplace.

But that bad news was topped by the subsequent announcement that Justice Kennedy is retiring, allowing Trump to replace the swing vote on the Court. Many of us had hoped that Kennedy would look at Trump’s appointment of Neil Gorsuch and realize that retiring now would undermine his entire legal legacy. But apparently not. Adding another Gorsuch to the Court will undoubtedly lead to the reversal of Roe v Wade and undermine same-sex couples right to marry. But Kennedy appears not to care.

It was, of course, foolish to hope that Mitch McConnell would follow the principles he laid out in 2016 and refuse to hold hearings on such an important appointment without letting the voters weigh in. McConnell isn’t about principle, he’s about power. In 2016 he could claim power for his side by refusing to hold hearings or vote on Obama’s nominee; now he can claim power by approving Trump’s nominee as quickly as possible. He is, in this respect, perfectly consistent. Trump is expected to name his choice next Monday, and McConnell predicts approval in time for the Court to begin its fall term in October.

Quite likely, then, Trump is picking someone who will rule on his own legal issues: whether he can be subpoenaed or indicted, what payments the Constitution’s emolument clause forbids, whether he can pardon himself, when a pattern of self-serving pardons or other presidential prerogatives constitutes obstruction of justice, and so on.

And then, you know, we’re still holding children who we’ve taken away from their parents. Apparently, nobody thought about how to give them back.

So yeah, it was a bad week.

If you’re having a awfukkitt reaction, I hear you. This democracy thing just doesn’t seem to be working out. You vote, you demonstrate, you give money, you campaign, and what does it get you? Not only haven’t we made things better, we haven’t even stopped them from getting worse. Looking ahead, they’re likely to keep on getting worse at least until we get a new Congress, and who knows if we’ll even be able to do that? (See the previous post for more details.)

I don’t want to stop people who feel beaten down from taking care of themselves. If you need to take a step back to regain your sanity, if you feel your urge to engage coming from a shrill, wounded place that has never led you to do anything healthy or anything that turned out well, then by all means do what you need to do. Rest, re-center, get back in touch with your best self, and return to the fray stronger somewhere down the road.

But there’s also another awfukkitt reaction that I can see in myself and I want to speak out against: one that is rooted in my sense of privilege and seeks to protect my fragile sense of self-importance.

One of the speakers at the Keep-Families-Together rally I went to Saturday (in Nashua, NH, about a mile from where I live) was a minister who described himself as “the least discriminated-against person in America”. I could probably challenge him for that title: I’m white, male, educated, native-born, English-speaking, financially secure, straight, married, comfortable in the gender society assigned to me, free of any obvious disabilities, and so on.

People like me are not used to the idea of injustice. It isn’t something we run into every day. Life doesn’t force it on us. We volunteer for the fight against injustice, and we can’t help knowing at some level that we could always un-volunteer and go home to our un-discriminated-against lives.

Detective-novel fans know that there are two major types: the British detective novel (think Sherlock Holmes or Miss Marple) where a puzzle needs to be solved, but once the truth is known things will turn out right, and the American detective novel (think Phillip Marlowe or Sam Spade) where lots of people have known the truth for a long time, and the problem is getting them to do anything about it.

People like me live in a British-detective-novel world. We think that if we have a good case and tell enough people about it, of course the right thing will be done eventually. We are accustomed to being listened to. We expect our concerns to be taken seriously. It shocks us to confront the American-detective-novel world, where injustice has been around for a long time and could be around a lot longer. Making people see it isn’t the problem; making them do something about it is.

Our lives have not trained us for the situation we are in now. We usually don’t need moral stamina; we just need to understand what’s wrong and explain it to the right people. Then, taking care of it will be somebody’s else’s job. We’re weekend athletes. The first mile of the marathon was really energizing, but shouldn’t it be over by now? My side hurts. Can’t I quit?

And the scary thing is: Yes, yes I could. Nobody is going to break up my family. Nobody’s looking for some ancient infraction that will let them pull my green card. They’re not combing through my citizenship application from decades ago, looking for an error that will let them deport me. They’re not making it harder for me to vote. They’re not forcing a gender on me, or making me hide some important part of my identity. I don’t have to flinch when I see police. They don’t look at me like a criminal; they’re not going to be threatened if put my hand in my pocket; they’re not going to gun me down and ask questions later.

My health care might get more expensive, but I’ll manage. I don’t count on the minimum wage. Social security will be nice, but I won’t have to eat cat food if it goes away. Deregulation means I deal with more monopolies; corporations are more arrogant and probably their monopoly power costs me money, but I’m getting by. It’s a shame kids in Flint and a bunch of other places are getting lead poisoning, but I’m not.

I can’t un-know all that stuff. The temptation to be a “good German” and let the fascists do their thing will always be with me.

But I also can’t let myself rationalize what it means. There’s a moral death in that direction. Once you start not looking, not seeing, not worrying about things that don’t affect you, the part of the world you have to ignore keeps growing. Eventually, you have to start ignoring more or less everything.

So I don’t get to shrug and say, “Well, I tried. It just didn’t work.” The world is full of countries in much worse shape politically than the United States. The United States is full of people in much less hopeful positions than I am. Should they all give up too?

They can’t, because injustice doesn’t wait for them to notice it and decide they care about it. It gets in their faces and won’t leave them alone.

So OK: I explained the problem and nobody listened to me. I voted, I marched, I contributed, and things still got worse. That’s an unusual experience for me. My life hasn’t trained me for stamina. I’m used to races that are over by now. A voice in my head is saying, “This isn’t fair. I don’t want to play this game any more. Things shouldn’t be this way.”

But they are this way. I may not have trained for this race, but it’s the race I find myself in. I need to keep going.

Minority Rule Snowballs

When I did my annual end-of-the-year review in 2013, “the biggest single theme” I picked out was Minority Rule:

Republicans have given up on the idea of persuading a majority to agree with them. Instead, conservatives plan to rule from the minority.

I listed a number of the tactics they had been using: voter suppression, gerrymandering, and judicial activism among them. I didn’t expect these tactics to work nearly so well as they have. Consider:

  • In 2016, Mitch McConnell led a Senate majority that represented far fewer Americans than the Democratic minority. [1]
  • He used that minority-rule majority to radically change the way the Senate considers presidential appointments, blocking President Obama (who had defeated Mitt Romney 51%-47% in the 2012 election) from appointing a new swing vote on the Supreme Court. Instead, McConnell delivered that appointment to Donald Trump (who, even with the assistance of a hostile foreign power, lost the popular vote in 2016 to Hillary Clinton 46%-48%).
  • Trump’s appointee, Neil Gorsuch, was approved by the Senate 53-46. The senators voting for him represented far fewer Americans than the senators voting against him. [2]
  • Thanks largely to gerrymandering, Republicans in the House have a larger majority of seats than they have of voters. In 2012, Republicans won a 33-seat majority even while losing the popular vote. This year, as Democrats run considerably ahead in generic-ballot polls, political scientists argue over how big the Democratic voting margin needs to be to take control of the House. Is 5% enough? Seven percent? Eleven? One very likely outcome from this fall’s elections is that Democrats win a clear majority of voters, while Republicans win a clear majority of seats.
  • At the state level, things are often worse. Last year in Virginia, Democrats failed to gain a majority in the House of Delegates, despite a landslide 53%-44% victory in the popular vote. In North Carolina, the population is split relatively evenly between the two parties; Trump won the state with just under 50% of the vote compared to Clinton’s 46%, but the Democratic candidate won the governor’s race 49.0%-48.8%, despite one of the country’s most outrageous attempts at voter suppression. Meanwhile, gerrymandering gives the Republicans a 74-46 supermajority in the General Assembly, making Governor Cooper (and hence, the voters who elected him) virtually powerless.
  • Since Gorsuch joined the Court, several partisan gerrymandering cases have come up. The Court has not taken a stand. Gorsuch apparently does not even have a problem with racial gerrymandering.
  • Gorsuch was also the deciding vote in a 5-4 decision allowing purges of the voting roles in a manner than is likely to disenfranchise many legitimate voters while preventing virtually zero illegal votes.

In summary, minority rulers in Congress, the White House, and state capitals keep changing the rules to make it possible to rule with ever-smaller minorities. And a minority-appointed Supreme Court is fine with that.

A certain amount of minority rule was built into the Constitution in institutions like the Senate and the Electoral College, but I don’t think the Founders envisioned even those mechanisms becoming as skewed as they are today. [3] The Founders hoped the United States could avoid splitting into political parties, so they certainly never envisioned the vicious cycle of minority-rule entrenchment we’re seeing now: A political party centered in the small states that the Constitution favors (and representing the interests of the very rich) has used that extra boost of power to make the system increasingly more anti-democratic, giving themselves legislative and executive sway well beyond their voting numbers, making it increasingly difficult for the majority to vote them out, disenfranchising many citizens who might vote against them in the future, tearing down any limits on the use of money in politics, and packing the courts with judges who will rubber-stamp their power-grab.

With Justice Kennedy’s retirement, the minority-rule president and minority-rule Senate have a chance to appoint another Supreme Court justice, tipping the Court’s balance further in their favor for many years to come.  Jonathan Chait notes:

Democrats have won the national vote in six of the last seven presidential elections, which, with the retirement of Anthony Kennedy, will have resulted in the appointment of eight of the Supreme Court’s nine justices. And yet four of those justices will have been appointed by presidents who took office despite having fewer votes than their opponent.

We can expect this new justice to make it virtually impossible for the Court to limit or mitigate the techniques of minority rule. [4]

Increasingly, that minority-appointed and minority-approved Court majority has become nakedly partisan. Justice Kennedy’s opinion-of-the-Court in Citizens United is a flight of fantasy in which unlimited corporate money improves the public debate prior to an election, because money (even money from profit-making corporations seeking government favors) is speech, and “There is no such thing as too much speech.” Chief Justice Roberts’ gutting of the Voting Right Act contains very little legal reasoning beyond his vague assertion that “things have changed dramatically” since the first version of the VRA in 1965.

It is no longer necessary to understand the laws or the Constitution to guess which side the Court will favor: Whatever improves Republican chances in the next election is good law. The Constitution’s guarantee of “a republican form of government” increasingly leans on the word form; if the formal process of an election is carried out, it doesn’t matter whether the sovereignty of the People is respected.

We know where this process can go: The end result is plainly apparent in Putin’s Russia, where Potemkin elections are held on a regular basis. The path is laid out by authoritarian “democracies” in Hungary and Poland, whose rulers have not yet achieved Putin’s level of security against the People, but are on their way.

None of that is inevitable, but it gets harder to turn things around the further we go. If the Supreme Court won’t protect democracy, then we will have to count on elected officials to do it. If it takes a 7% margin to control the House, we need to get that 7% margin. If winning the popular vote by three million votes isn’t enough to elect a president, then we need to win by four million votes. Gerrymander-ending laws that can’t get through gerrymandered legislatures need to be passed by referendum.

If a majority ever regains power, it shouldn’t be shy about using it: We need a constitutional amendment that controls corporate political spending. Voting rights need protection, and gerrymandering has to be stopped — by legislation if the Supreme Court will allow it, and by amendment if it won’t. The Electoral College has to be abolished. Citizens without representation in Congress need to get it: Puerto Rico needs to be offered statehood, and the District of Columbia needs representation. Breaking up the big states needs to be on the table.

The sovereignty of the People is a principle that runs deep in the DNA of American voters, even those who might favor conservative social policies. We need to make them understand the trade-off they’ve been making: An American Putin would do many things they’d like, but is it worth surrendering the Republic?

If we’re going to pull this out, we need to have all hands on deck. Apathetic citizens need to be convinced to care and to vote. The canards that “it doesn’t really matter” and “both sides are the same” need to be rejected. For the next few cycles, and maybe for the rest of our lifetimes, democracy itself is going to be the most important thing on the ballot. It’s going to be on the ballot in every election from president to school board. It needs to win.


[1] I couldn’t find a source to reference, so I calculated for myself. (You can check me if you want.) From a list of the senators by state, I determined that in 2016, 20 states had two Republican senators and 16 states had two Democratic senators (counting Bernie Sanders and Angus King as Democrats), accounting for an 8-seat Republican majority (54-46). I then went to the 2010 census and added up: The 20 two-Republican states had a total population of 99,576,045 and the 16 two-Democrat states totaled 126,215,202. I had not expected the margin to be quite so wide.

[2] By the same methods as above, 22 states had two senators voting for Gorsuch and one (Georgia) had one for and one not voting, so I’ll count Georgia’s population for Gorsuch. Those states total 108,613,347. Eighteen states totaling 135,574,383 people had two senators voting against Gorsuch. The other states had one senator for and one against, which I’ll regard as canceling out.

[3] The first census, in 1790, showed that the most populous state was Virginia, with 454,983 free inhabitants. The least populated state was Delaware, with 50,207, a ratio of about 9-to-1. In the 2010 census, California had over 37 million people and Wyoming 568,300, a 66-to-1 ratio. If you combine the populations of the seven states with less than a million people — Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming — you have 5.3 million people represented by 14 senators. That’s 1/7th the population of California with 7 times the senators.

The situation gets worse when you consider the Americans not represented in the Senate at all: 3.4 million in Puerto Rico and 700K in the District of Columbia. Puerto Rico’s population almost exactly matches that of Alaska, the Dakotas, Vermont, and Wyoming put together; those states have 10 senators.

The situation is somewhat better in the Electoral College, but still considerably less fair than in 1790. The first census gave Virginia 21 electoral votes and Delaware 3; 9 times the population produced 7 times the electoral votes. But today California has 55 electoral votes to Wyoming’s 3; 66 times the population produces 18 times the electoral votes.

It’s also clear what the Founders’ solution would be: Break up large states. In their time, Kentucky was created from land claimed by Virginia, and Vermont from land New Hampshire and New York were arguing over.

[4] Trump’s legal situation creates yet another problem: Probably, the Supreme Court is going to have to make some serious rulings about whether the president can be subpoenaed, when a corrupt pattern of pardons constitutes obstruction of justice, and even whether the president can pardon himself. Trump may well be deciding those issues himself right now, by choosing a justice who will rule in his favor.

You can’t compromise with bullshit

For the second straight week, I start with a Paul Krugman column. This time it’s “Return of the Blood Libel” from Thursday. The key observation concerns the Trump administration’s family-separation policy, the one that has obsessed the country for the least two weeks.

What’s almost equally remarkable about this plunge into barbarism is that it’s not a response to any actual problem. The mass influx of murderers and rapists that Trump talks about, the wave of crime committed by immigrants here (and, in his mind, refugees in Germany), are things that simply aren’t happening. They’re just sick fantasies being used to justify real atrocities.

This observation isn’t new, and Krugman isn’t the first to point it out. Trump started his campaign by talking about Mexican rapists. His acceptance speech at the Republican Convention warned that “illegal immigrant families … are being released by the tens of thousands into our communities with no regard for the impact on public safety or resources.” His inaugural address painted a picture of “American carnage” which he promised “stops right here and stops right now”. Yesterday he tweeted: “Strong Borders, No Crime!”, as if America had no indigenous criminals, but suffered only from rampaging gangsters that cross our borders.

And from the beginning, it’s all been bullshit. Violent crime is on a long-term downward trend in America, and very little of the remaining murder and mayhem is carried out by undocumented immigrants. If the US isn’t safe enough for you yet, neither the Muslim Ban nor the mistreatment of refugees from Central America going to make you safer. And if you ignore the nationwide stats and focus on a border town like Brownsville, Texas? “We’re doing fine,” says the mayor.

[Commenters have been confused by the “per 100,000 population”, so I’ll clarify. The question is: Is that per 100K of the state’s entire population, or per 100K of the named group? If it were the former, then the apparent pro-immigrant point is lost; there are more native-born people than immigrants, so of course they commit more crimes. But if you click through to the WaPo article I got the chart from, and then keep clicking until you get to their source, you wind up at a report from the Cato Institute, where the charts are labelled less ambiguously: “per 100,000 in each subpopulation”. So the chart is saying that immigrants commit fewer crimes per capita than native-born Americans.]

Lots of writers have making comparisons to the Nazis as they see the mindless cruelty of the family-separation policy, or the concentration camps that will be needed to hold all those waiting for immigration hearings, if they have to be held. (They don’t have to be held.) But Krugman points back to an even earlier era of anti-Semitism: the centuries of random riots and organized pogroms incited by the Blood Libel — the myth that secret Jewish Passover rituals required the sacrifice of Christian children. All it took was for a child to go missing at the wrong time, and mobs would descend on the local Jewish ghetto, seeking revenge for an imaginary horror.

Picture for a moment the helplessness you would feel if you were either a Jew or a sympathetic Christian hoping to prevent the upcoming Passover from ending in tragedy. You can’t get the Jews to stop sacrificing Christian children, because they were never doing that in the first place. The underlying cause of the looming riot is in a mythological realm you can’t access.

Same thing here. Both Presidents Bush and Obama imagined that they might be able to compromise with anti-immigration hardliners by strengthening enforcement. And so over the last 20 years we’ve had more and more fence built, more and more agents manning the border, more and more deportations. And what they’ve gotten in exchange is exactly nothing, because the border that matters, the one that murderers and rapists and drug mules are streaming across at will, isn’t in the real world at all. When the problem that motivates someone is imaginary, there’s nothing anybody else can do about it.

Some people, Andrew Sullivan for example, appear not to have learned this lesson. Just one more real-world effort, they think, and Trump’s irrationally fearful supporters will be satisfied:

So give him his fucking wall. He won the election. He is owed this. It may never be completed; it may not work, as hoped. But it is now the only way to reassure a critical mass of Americans that mass immigration is under control, and the only way to make any progress under this president. And until the white working and middle classes are reassured, we will get nowhere.

But why will they be reassured by a wall that doesn’t get completed and won’t work? Why will they be reassured by anything that happens in the real world? Won’t there still be examples of whites who get killed by undocumented immigrants? Won’t there still be unemployed whites who blame Hispanics with jobs? Won’t demagogues still tell them that subhuman vermin are streaming by the millions across our open borders? Build the wall, open concentration camps, start shooting illegal immigrants on sight — what changes?

You can’t compromise with bullshit. It isn’t just that it’s not smart; it simply doesn’t work.

This is an across-the-board problem with the Trump administration. Take Canada, for example. How is it going to shrink its trade surplus with the US when it doesn’t have a trade surplus with the US? What could possibly be done to end discrimination against Christians in America when there is no discrimination against Christians in America? How do we end the War on Coal when there is no War on Coal?

When claims are based on nothing, they can go on being based on nothing, no matter what you do to mollify the people who make those claims.

You can sympathize with people, even if they vote against you. And when they point to actual problems in the real world, you can offer them solutions, or at least concessions.

But the Jews of Prague and Warsaw had nothing to offer Christian parents who worried about their children being sacrificed and their blood baked into matzah. Their fear was quite real, but their problem lived in a mythic realm beyond any Jew’s influence.

Similarly, there is nothing we can offer those who worry about “American carnage” or the persecution of Christians or unfair Canadian trade.

Real-world solutions can’t touch imaginary problems. You can’t compromise with bullshit.

Family Separations: Should we be horrified, relieved, or just confused?

It’s not clear what Trump’s executive order means, or what will happen in 20 days.


The national outrage against the Trump administration’s family-separation policy kept ramping up until Wednesday, when Trump seemed to back down. But the executive order he signed is confusing, and what exactly it means is still being hashed out.

The fundamental contradiction. The heart of the problem is that the order mandates two outcomes that look contradictory:

  • It apparently endorses the zero-tolerance policy of criminally charging everyone caught crossing the border somewhere other than an official entry point. “This Administration will initiate proceedings to enforce this and other criminal provisions of the [Immigration and Naturalization Act] until and unless Congress directs otherwise.”
  • But it also seems to end the family-separation policy that zero-tolerance has led to: “It is also the policy of this Administration to maintain family unity, including by detaining alien families together where appropriate and consistent with law and available resources. It is unfortunate that Congress’s failure to act and court orders have put the Administration in the position of separating alien families to effectively enforce the law.”

So:

  • We’re going to continue enforcing the law.
  • Enforcing the law required us to separate families.
  • But we’re going to stop separating families.

Imagine that you’re a Customs and Border Patrol officer trying to obey this order: What do you do?

Flores. The most obvious answer is to imprison the children along with the parents. However, once you get past 20 days that is illegal under what is called the Flores settlement, a series of consent decrees the government has signed going back to the Clinton administration. Vox explains:

The Flores settlement requires the federal government to do two things: to place children with a close relative or family friend “without unnecessary delay,” rather than keeping them in custody; and to keep immigrant children who are in custody in the “least restrictive conditions” possible.

No judge is going to believe that jail or a government internment camp is the least restrictive condition possible.

The administration can’t just back out of Flores on its own; a court has to let them out of it. The executive order instructs the attorney general to ask the court to modify Flores “in a manner that would permit the Secretary, under present resource constraints, to detain alien families together throughout the pendency of criminal proceedings for improper entry or any removal or other immigration proceedings.”

But there’s really no reason why a court should do that — and the judge in charge seems particularly unlikely to — because the original reasoning of Flores still applies: The kids have done nothing wrong and don’t deserve punishment. The threat that the government otherwise will mistreat them in an even worse way (by separating them from their parents) is simple extortion, as I think the judge will clearly see.

Congress. Congress could supersede Flores by writing a new law explicitly describing how the children of parents charged with illegal entry should be handled. But with the Republican majority deeply divided on how harshly to treat immigrants, and the leadership unwilling to turn its back on its anti-immigrant radicals (and on Trump) to craft a compromise bill that could get Democratic votes, that’s very unlikely to happen, especially in the next 20 days.

Thursday, a far-right immigration bill failed to pass the House by a wide margin, 193-231. That vote was supposed to be followed by a vote on a less draconian “compromise” bill. (The compromise was between moderate and conservative Republicans. No Democrats were consulted.) But that vote was postponed until next week, because supporters couldn’t round up enough votes. In a tweet Friday, Trump reversed course on his demands for a new law, and instead urged Congress to “stop wasting their time on Immigration” until after the November election.

What does he think should happen to the families between now and November? It’s a tweet; there’s no space to spell that out. At any rate, it’s quite likely that neither the courts nor Congress will resolve the executive order’s contradictory instructions. What then?

Confusion within the administration. Thursday, CBP and the Justice Department made contradictory statements. A CBP official said:

We’re suspending prosecutions of adults who are members of family units until ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) can accelerate resource capability to allow us to maintain custody.

But a DoJ spokesperson (coincidentally named Flores) said:

There has been no change to the Department’s zero tolerance policy to prosecute adults who cross our border illegally instead of claiming asylum at any port of entry at the border.

So it looks like the return to the previous procedures is temporary: Zero-tolerance prosecutions will resume as soon as CBP can find space to house the families, which will number in the thousands. Immigrant detention camps — there’s a debate about whether to call them “concentration camps”are being assembled on military bases. This also was envisioned in Trump’s executive order:

Heads of executive departments and agencies shall, to the extent consistent with law, make available to the Secretary, for the housing and care of alien families pending court proceedings for improper entry, any facilities that are appropriate for such purposes.

These camps will set up a conflict with the courts: Flores allows holding children in such settings for 20 days. Trump wants to hold them “throughout the pendency of criminal proceedings for improper entry or any removal or other immigration proceedings”, which could be years. (The current average wait time at the most overloaded immigration court, in Houston, is 1751 days, or more than four years.)

Changing the process. That time could be reduced under a proposal by Ted Cruz to hire more judges, open more courts, and make decisions in 14 days. (That raises its own problems: A family that runs for its life and arrives on our border with nothing can’t put its asylum case together in 14 days.) Another option is to abandon due process altogether, as Trump proposed Sunday, tweeting:

We cannot allow all of these people to invade our Country. When somebody comes in, we must immediately, with no Judges or Court Cases, bring them back from where they came.

I’ll repeat a point I used to make when the Bush administration was threatening habeas corpus: Any time people can be imprisoned, deported, or otherwise harmed without a hearing, there’s a hole in the legal system that all kinds abuses can slip through. Suppose you, an ordinary American citizen, get swept up in an ICE raid by mistake. If there’s no hearing, who will you explain the mistake to? Or suppose it’s not a mistake, and somebody in ICE just doesn’t like you? You may find yourself on a street corner in Juarez, telling your story about how unfair this is to anybody who will listen.

If all this sounds crazy, that’s because it is. There actually is no emergency that requires this kind of response. There is a problem of rising backlogs in immigration courts. Cruz’ additional judges would help with this, but there’s nothing wrong with a case taking, say, months to assemble and decide, rather than 14 days.

In the meantime, there are far less cruel (not to mention less expensive) ways to handle the families than to lock them up, either together or separately. Sonia Nazaro explained in Friday’s NYT:

The family case management program, a pilot started in January 2016, allowed families seeking asylum to be released together and monitored by caseworkers while their immigration court cases proceeded. Case managers provided asylum seekers with referrals for education, legal services and housing. They also helped sort out confusing orders about when to show up for immigration court and ICE check-ins. And they emphasized the importance of showing up to all court hearings, which can stretch over two or three years.

The pilot was implemented with around 700 families in five metropolitan areas, including New York and Los Angeles, and it was a huge success. About 99 percent of immigrants showed up for their hearings.

It also did something Republicans love: It cut government spending. The program cost $36 per day per family, compared with the more than $900 a day it costs to lock up an immigrant parent with two children, said Katharina Obser, a policy adviser at the Women’s Refugee Commission.

The pilot, scheduled to last five years, was abruptly canceled by the Trump administration almost exactly a year ago.

Other alternatives to prison have also excelled. ICE has two programs that use electronic ankle monitors, biometric voice-recognition software, unannounced home visits, telephone reporting and global positioning technologies to track people who have been released from detention while their cases are being heard, at a cost of 30 cents to $8.04 per person per day. In 2013, 96 percent of those enrolled appeared for their final court hearings, and 80 percent of those who did not qualify for asylum complied with their removal orders.

The Trump administration isn’t being driven to harshness and cruelty, it is seeking out ways to be harsh and cruel. As Jeff Sessions and several other administration officials have admitted, the point is deterrence. Families that are being terrorized by gangs in Guatemala or Honduras need to understand that if they come here, we’ll terrorize them too.

Dehumanization. The main thing that has gone wrong for the administration these last two weeks is that the American people have been seeing asylum-seeking families as human beings. The recording of crying children at a toddler jail was effective because it brought home the point that these are just children, like your kids or anybody else’s. (This was precisely the point Fox & Friends host Brian Kilmeade needed to deny: “Like it or not, these aren’t our kids.“)

Trump has responded to this outpouring of human sympathy by doubling down on his dehumanizing rhetoric and his effort to raise fear of an imaginary immigrant crime wave. In Trump’s version of reality, families aren’t coming here to escape danger or seek a better life, they “invade our Country“. They “pour into and infest” America. They don’t establish families like human beings, they “breed” like rats. He responded to the sympathy Americans have shown for migrant families by hosting a meeting of people who have had relatives killed by undocumented immigrants. Unlike the families Trump has separated by government policy, these families are “permanently separated” — implying that the latter injustice somehow justifies the former. [1]

Sarah Jones writes in The New Republic:

Trump did not invent this language from whole cloth. Modern history is full of examples of political regimes that has described certain populations as subhuman—often to justify treating them as such. In the most extreme cases, that rhetoric preceded mass killing.

Trump’s dehumanization of Hispanic immigrants doesn’t have to go that far, but we don’t actually know where it’s going, and this kind of thing never goes anywhere good. Once you start thinking of people as less than human, and you gather thousands of them together in camps, how do you argue against any form of cruelty someone wants to inflict on them? (Miniver Cheevy makes the case that the Nazis (or at least not all of them) didn’t set out with the intention of genocide. But their short-term solutions to “the Jewish problem” left them with camps that were expensive to run and filled with subhuman vermin. When the Final Solution of annihilation was proposed, the logic seemed inescapable.)

Reunification. Even if the prosecutions and separations are suspended, what happens to the kids the government has already taken? CBP claimed on Friday that the 500 or so kids it hadn’t yet turned over to other agencies would be reunited with their parents by Sunday. But that leaves another 2,300 or so. (Homeland Security claims 2,053.) Often the parents have no idea where their children are, and it’s not entirely clear that the government knows either. (DHS claims it does.) A public defender described the situation in The Washington Post:

In a typical meeting, the defendants in a federal criminal case ask the same questions: How much time am I looking at? What do these charges mean? Is my judge fair? Should I go to trial or plead guilty? But things are different in El Paso now. In the wake of the Trump administration’s policy to purposely separate parents and children at the U.S.-Mexico border, my clients now ask: Where is my little girl? Who’s taking care of her? … I have to explain to these parents that I might never be able to answer their questions.

… At another hearing before a different judge, as one of my colleagues asked the agent on the stand about the whereabouts of our client’s child, the prosecutor objected to the relevance of the questions. The judge turned on the prosecutor, demanding to know why this wasn’t relevant. At one point, he slammed his hand on the desk, sending a pen flying. This type of emotional display is unheard of in federal court. I can’t understand this, the judge said. If someone at the jail takes your wallet, they give you a receipt. They take your kids, and you get nothing? Not even a slip of paper?

But that’s only a problem if you picture these families as human. If “they’re not our kids”, if they represent an invasion or an infestation that’s going to come here and breed, then everything is going fine. Carry on.


[1] For what it’s worth, I’ve discussed this fallacy before: You can play the same trick on any large group of people. For example, take Americans whose first names begin with D, a group that includes both myself and Donald Trump, plus millions of other people. Undoubtedly, some of those millions are criminals or even murderers. You could host a meeting of their victims, who do indeed deserve sympathy. But would that really make a case for throwing Trump and me out of the country?

Even if you ignore the collective-guilt problem — what does a murder committed by David or Denise have to do with me? — you’d need more than just anecdotes to make any kind of case at all. Are D-named people statistically more likely to commit violent crimes? Immigrants — illegal or otherwise — aren’t.

Is Trumpism becoming a new religion?

His followers are certainly religious, but they’re not Christians any more.


When Jeff Sessions quoted Romans 13 (“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.) to justify the villainous policy of taking immigrant children away from their border-crossing parents, he touched off a flurry of Bible-quoting in the media. Not only did Christian writers dispute his interpretation of Romans 13, which, after all, has been used to justify everything from slavery to the Nazi death camps, but they also unleashed a flurry of verses defending the rights of immigrants, such as Matthew 25:41-45, in which Jesus envisions Judgment Day proceeding like this:

Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.”

They also will answer, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?”

He will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”

Or Leviticus 19:33-34, in the middle of the Laws of Moses.

When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt

But if those writers were expecting Sessions to slap his forehead and say “Oh, right, I get it now!”, they were disappointed. The policy continues, and Sessions still supports it.

That’s how it’s been since Trump descended the escalator to announce his candidacy in 2015. Trump has stood pretty much in direct opposition to the message of Jesus. Jesus advised his followers to “turn the other cheek” when attacked; but Trump always “fights back” — even against gold-star parents or military widows or men about to die. Jesus spoke out for “the least of these”; but Trump likes “winners” and despises “losers”. Jesus said that marriage was for life; but Trump is currently married to his third wife, and he has cheated on all of them. Jesus emphasized love and compassion, but Trump has so little compassion that needed to take notes (written by somebody else) into a meeting with shooting survivors so that he could remember to ask them about their experiences and to tell them he had heard them.

For laughs, take the Trump or Jesus quiz and see if you can identify which leader said which quote. (It’s pretty easy.)

It’s hard to find any line of the Sermon on the Mount that Trump would support: He’s not just anti-immigrant, but also anti-health-care, pro-weapon, anti-feeding-the-hungry, and just generally against the poor and the meek wherever they show their miserable faces. He’s a compulsive liar who brags that he can grab women “by the pussy” and get away with it.

And he got 81% of the votes of white evangelicals.

The evangelicals who didn’t back Trump are starting to feel like they don’t belong; some are dropping the evangelical label altogether. The largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptists, may become a battleground. It’s newly-elected president wants the denomination to become less political:

We believe that Jesus is the lord of the whole earth. He is the king of kings and he is the lord of lords. We believe that he, not any version of Caesar, is the Messiah. He is the Christ, the son of the living God, that salvation is found in him, not in the Republican platform or the Democratic platform, and that salvation did not come riding in on the wings of Air Force One. It came cradled in a manger.

And yet, the same convention that elected him featured a speech by Vice President Mike Pence, which climaxed with Trump’s campaign slogan:

I know that with your support and prayers, with the strong support of leaders at every level of government, with President Donald Trump in the White House, and with God’s help, we will make America safe again. We will make America prosperous again. And to borrow a phrase — (laughter) — we will make America great again.

When the Trump evangelicals explain the issues that cause them to support him, they bring up topics that don’t appear in the gospels at all: abortion and homosexuality. (With the new immigration policy, they can’t claim “family values” any more.) On immigration, white evangelicals side with Trump against Jesus: 68% deny that America has a responsibility to take in refugees.

Whatever this is, it isn’t Christianity.

More and more, metaphors of religion are used to describe Trumpism. Bob Corker called it “cult-like“. Dana Milbank wrote: “This isn’t religion. It’s perversion. It is not the creed of a democratic government or political party but of an authoritarian cult.” Cal Thomas asks who evangelicals follow: Trump or Jesus? Elizabeth Bruening says that Sessions and Press Secretary Sarah Sanders are “inventing a faith” in which order is the highest good.

But what if it’s not just a metaphor? What if what we’re seeing is an actual schism in American Christianity? On one side will be a genuinely Christian Christianity, one that takes the words of Jesus seriously. On the other side will be a Trumpist religion that is nativist and supports all the traditional supremacies: white, male, heterosexual, and born to wealth. One side will concern itself with the poor and victims of injustice. The other will preach a prosperity gospel in which God wants you to be rich and has his own reasons to leave the poor in the gutter. One side will promote humility, the other will glorify men of large egos, who never apologize or admit their mistakes.

Something bigger than politics is going on here. It goes way beyond cutting or raising taxes or wanting a bigger or smaller military. A large segment of American Christianity has been drifting away from Jesus for many years. Now they have found their voice and their leader.

The corporate tax cut will never trickle down

The immediate benefits of the corporate tax cut have gone to stockholders and executives rather than workers. The long-term benefits will too.


Dropping the corporate tax rate from 35% to 21% was the centerpiece of the tax reform package Republicans passed (with no Democratic votes) and Trump signed late last year. They sold that cut with the argument that lower corporate taxes would stimulate investment: Rather than build that new factory in Indonesia or Vietnam, a corporation might site it in Iowa instead, creating new jobs and raising wages. So while it might look like the benefits would go entirely to wealthy shareholders, in the long run that money would flow to American workers. American households, Trump economic advisors claimed, would see their incomes go up by $4000 a year over the next 3-5 years.

For a few weeks, it looked like the trickle-down was happening: A number of companies responded to the tax cut by giving their workers a one-time $1000 bonus — small potatoes compared to what the companies themselves were set to rake in, but not bad if it represented a down payment on future wage increases.

But how long would it take those increases to show up? Well, not immediately, in spite of the well-publicized bonuses. And not in one quarter. CBS reported in April that the corporate windfall (financed by increasing the federal budget deficit) was mostly going into stock manipulations.

In the first quarter, corporate America committed $305 billion to cash takeovers and stock buybacks, more than double the $131 billion in pre-tax wage growth for both new and existing workers subject to income tax withholding, TrimTabs calculates.

Worse, the Bureau of Labor Statistics is reporting bad news for “production and nonsupervisory employees”.

From May 2017 to May 2018, real average hourly earnings decreased 0.1 percent

The Washington Post elaborates, saying that this category “accounts for about four-fifths of the privately employed workers in America”. It also provides this graph.

How long? But it terms of the tax cut, it’s still early days. Of course the process of building new factories and hiring new workers would take longer than just a few months. So when should we expect the corporate tax cut to trickle down? Two years? Five years? Ten?

What about never?In his Friday column, Paul Krugman explains why the tax-motivated new factories and jobs and higher wages aren’t coming, not immediately and probably not ever. He labels his argument as “wonkish”, meaning that ordinary people who aren’t economists may find it hard to follow. So let me interpret a little.

The vision of low corporate taxes creating new jobs with higher wages comes from the Industrial Era, the age of coal-powered textile mills and Henry Ford’s assembly lines. Business investment in those days was mostly big, heavy equipment that cost a lot of money and was meant to last for decades or even longer. (I live in an apartment in a converted textile mill. The mill was built in the 1820s.) Businesses were national (or more likely, local) in those days, so a company located in Akron or Dearborn paid taxes in Akron or Dearborn.

That’s not what the economy looks like any more.

Tax havens. The biggest corporations are multi-national, and they book their profits in whatever countries their accountants choose. One trick is to transfer a company’s intellectual property to a foreign subsidiary, and then pay massive royalties and licensing fees to that subsidiary.

The rights to Nike’s Swoosh trademark, Uber’s taxi-hailing app, Allergan’s Botox patents and Facebook’s social media technology have all resided in shell companies that listed as their headquarters Appleby offices in Bermuda and Grand Cayman, the records show.

When pieces of your product — an iPhone, say — are made all over the world, who’s to say what country the profit is made in? Your accountants say. And they all say the same things: You made your profits in a tax haven.

Indeed, a tiny handful of jurisdictions — mostly Bermuda, Ireland, Luxembourg and the Netherlands — now account for 63 percent of all profits that American multinational companies claim to earn overseas, according to an analysis by Gabriel Zucman, an assistant professor of economics at the University of California, Berkeley.

Think about it: When was the last time you bought something marked “Made in Luxembourg”? Multinationals don’t build factories and employ workers in low-tax countries, they just route their profits there.

Krugman looks at the profit-to-wage ratio of foreign firms and local firms in a variety of countries.

If places like Puerto Rico and Ireland were just massively more productive than the US or Germany — producing enormous profits with relatively low labor costs — that would apply to their local firms too. But it doesn’t. For local firms, the ratio of profits to wages stays pretty constant across the board. It’s only foreign firms that have managed to unlock the Irish productivity miracle — not with actual production that employs workers, but via accounting tricks that claim profits produced by workers in other countries.

In short, multinational corporations have benefited enormously from Ireland’s generous tax laws. Irish workers, not so much. And with time, the corporations get better and better at gaming the tax system.

So lower US corporate taxes may induce corporations to book more of their profits here, for what that’s worth. But that’s an accounting gimmick, not an actual change in economic activity.

But even with that illusion making the effect look bigger than it is, won’t lower taxes still motivate investment and create jobs? Why doesn’t that work? This is where Krugman gets wonkish.

What investment means now. In the Industrial Era, nothing was more solid than a factory. Henry Ford started building his massive River Rouge complex in Dearborn during World War I, and it’s still there. Once it made Model T’s; now it makes F-150 trucks. The US Steel complex in Gary is even older, going back to 1908. Firestone in Akron, Caterpillar in Peoria — the big Industrial Era companies were virtually synonymous with the towns where their factories were.

In the Industrial Era, corporate investment was long-haul investment. You bought land and erected massive buildings to house huge machines. You dug canals and built railroad spurs that came right up to the beginnings and ends of your production lines. The industrialists who made those investments were looking half a century into the future, or even longer.

But most corporate investment these days is far more ephemeral. Take Google, the second-most valuable company in the world. What does it make exactly? Where is its River Rouge or Gary Works? If it wants to create a new product, it may have to hire some extra designers and programmers. But what does it invest in? An office, some computers. The office could be rented, the computers will be obsolete in a few years. Ditto for Facebook. Amazon also needs some warehouses, and maybe some robots to move boxes around. In a few years the warehouses could be somewhere else and the robots will be replaced by better robots. It’s all short-term stuff.

Whenever a company makes an investment, it’s weighing its expected profits against two things: the cost of capital (for example, the interest rate it has to pay on the money it borrows) and the depreciation rate (how fast the investment becomes obsolete). In the Industrial Era, when a factory complex or a railroad might be around for half a century, depreciation was low. So the cost of capital really mattered. If interest rates dropped from 6% to 4%, all your calculations changed. Investments you’d been putting off suddenly made sense again.

But when the equipment you’re buying is going to be scrap in 3-5 years, the cost of capital doesn’t matter nearly so much. Cutting interest rates still motivates people to buy houses, because those are long-term investments. But it doesn’t motivate business investment much any more. Krugman looks at the huge interest rate spike of 1979-1982, when the Fed pushed rates up over 20%. Housing investment crashed. Business investment not so much.

If that was divergence was happening already in the early 80s, it’s even moreso now.

What’s that have to do with tax rates? Now comes the wonky part:

What does this have to do with taxes? One way to think about corporate taxes in a global economy is that they raise the effective cost of capital. Suppose global investors demand an after-tax rate of return r*. Then the pre-tax rate of return they’ll demand in your country – your cost of capital — is r*/(1-t), where t is the marginal tax rate on profits. So cutting the corporate tax rate reduces the effective cost of capital, which should encourage more investment.

Let’s work an example of that. Suppose global investors are looking for a 5% return on their investment after taxes. (That’s Krugman’s r*.) If the corporate tax rate is 35%, they’ll need to make a pre-tax return of 7.7%. (That’s 5%/(1 – .35).) So for every $1,000 you invest, you make $77, you pay 35% of your profit in taxes ($27), and you wind up with $50, or a 5% profit.

Now cut the tax rate to 21%. Now you only need to make 6.3% before taxes to wind up with 5% after taxes. For every $1,000 invested, you make $63, pay 21% in taxes ($13) and wind up with $50.

So in this example, the tax cut effectively reduces the cost of capital from 7.7% to 6.3%.

That would have been a big deal to Henry Ford or Andrew Carnegie. Jeff Bezos or Mark Zuckerberg prefer the lower rate, of course, but it doesn’t drive their decisions in the same way.

Hence Krugman’s conclusion: It’s not that cutting corporate taxes will have no effect on jobs or wages, but it’s going to work out to a huge loss of goverment revenue in exchange for a small number of jobs.

But the vision of a global market in which real capital moves a lot in response to tax rates is all wrong; most of what we see in response to tax rate differences is profit-shifting, not real investment. And there is no reason to believe that the kind of tax cut America just enacted will achieve much besides starving the government of revenue.

The end result. Krugman’s argument needs one more step, because he leaves one question unanswered: Why should you care if the government collects less tax revenue? OK, maybe the lost revenue flows mainly to rich shareholders and billionaire CEOs and only a few jobs are created. Maybe the overall effect on wages doesn’t amount to much. But if it’s something, isn’t that good? The taxman may bag a little less — or even a lot less — but why should American workers cry about that?

Over the last few decades, conservatives have done a good job of convincing many Americans that taxes just go down a rat hole and aren’t connected to the valued services government provides. (In states like Kansas and Louisiana, though, people are starting to see the relationship.) And for the moment, Republicans have stopped worrying about the budget deficits that they were so focused on during the Obama administration. Less revenue means bigger deficits, but, again, why should you care?

Because deficit phobia will be back someday. We are already looking at trillion-dollar deficits beginning in 2020, and that’s under the assumption that we aren’t in recession by then. (This economic cycle is already getting a little old; that’s why unemployment numbers are so low.) In any serious recession — and one always comes eventually — the deficit will top $2 trillion, which is much higher than the record Bush/Obama deficit of FY 2009.

There is only one pile of money big enough cover a shortfall like that: entitlements like Social Security and Medicare. (We could zero out the defense budget and still have a deficit.) When Republicans remember that they care about deficits, that’s where they’re going to look.

So American workers who cheer for the corporate tax cut are like Esau being grateful to Jacob for his porridge: In the long run, the tax cut they let the rich monopolize will cost them their birthright of Social Security and Medicare.

Thoughts on Depression Sparked by Anthony Bourdain’s Suicide

I imagine a lot of people have fantasized about being Anthony Bourdain, the star of CNN’s Peabody-winning “Parts Unknown” series, in which he traveled the world eating exotic food and meeting the people who made it. That was probably the most enviable job on television.

Friday, CNN announced that he had committed suicide. He was 61, my age. So I’m having a Richard Cory moment.

Bourdain’s suicide, coming so soon after that of fashion designer Kate Spade, has sparked a lot of discussion about depression. (I’m not sure we really know that either was depressed at the time, but it’s a plausible assumption.) Here’s my contribution to that conversation.

No one close to me has committed suicide, but I have watched both parents and at least one close friend deal with depression. I’ve also skirted the borderlands of depression myself on occasion. In my view, the most insidious thing about it is that it first attacks the faculties that you will need to fight it off. (That’s why all the “snap out of it” advice never works. The command center that could have received and acted on that message has already fallen.) You may not even notice what’s happening until the depression has you encircled.

That’s why I think everyone needs to set alarms at the border, so that you notice the slide while you still have the resources to turn things around. In my case, I’ve flagged two thought patterns. Whenever either of them shows up, I’m in danger and need to implement high standards of mental hygiene:

  • I can’t lean on my friends because they aren’t really my friends. Secretly, it would give them satisfaction to know that I’m doing badly.
  • I can still imagine things that would make me happy, but feel like they’re not worth the bother. Whether or not I enjoy my life is really not that important.

Those are mine; you may have other typical borderland thoughts. Try to identify them and notice when they start showing up.

So what are “high standards of mental hygiene”? Obvious stuff, mostly: Eat right, sleep well, get exercise, drop unrewarding responsibilities that cause unnecessary stress, indulge any creativity or playfulness you happen to notice in yourself (even if it seems silly), spend time with people who love you (and trust that they really do), expose yourself to whatever kind of beauty moves you. If you know any children who aren’t your responsibility, they tend to make good companions: They are naturally playful, and it’s hard to believe that they are devious enough to fake caring about you.

None of that cures a depression after you’re in it. But if you’re not quite there yet, maybe you don’t have to go.