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Taking Hostages

In one setting after another — DACA, Iran, ObamaCare — Trump has set a clock ticking towards disaster in hopes of getting concessions from Congress.


During the Obama years, I frequently found it necessary to explain the difference between negotiating and hostage-taking. If we’re negotiating, I push for what I want, you push for what you want, and we hope to meet somewhere in the middle. But if I demand that you give me what I want, under the threat that otherwise I’ll send us into a scenario that NO ONE wants, that’s hostage-taking. The defining mark of a hostage-taker is that the demand for cooperation unaccompanied by any positive offer: My proposed “compromise” isn’t that you’ll get some of what you want, but that I’ll remove a threat of my own making. “Do what I say and nobody gets hurt.”

The clearest examples of hostage-taking in recent American politics have been the debt-ceiling confrontations of 2011 and 2013, as well as the occasional posturing over the debt ceiling we still see from time to time. If Congress ever actually does refuse to raise the ceiling on the national debt, the country will be thrown into both a constitutional and an economic crisis that will benefit no one (possibly not even our enemies, who might get caught in the global economic downturn likely to follow the market’s loss of faith in U.S. bonds). In 2011 and 2013, Republicans wanted President Obama to agree to deep spending cuts and the end of ObamaCare. What they offered in exchange was nothing, beyond dropping their threat to set off a global crisis.

Recently, the Trump administration has brought us something I don’t think the U.S. has ever seen before: presidential hostage taking. American presidents usually assume that they’ll be blamed for whatever goes wrong, so they have nothing to gain from taking hostages; any catastrophe that spins out of the confrontation will ultimately be charged against them. But Trump has an unfortunate combination of character flaws that we’ve never seen in a president before:

  • He seems not to feel empathy for the people his policies might hurt.
  • He is convinced that no bad outcome can ever be his fault. If he sets up a confrontation that results in disaster, that just demonstrates that his enemies should have given in to him.

The failure of brute force. In the first half-year or so of his administration, Trump believed he didn’t need Democratic cooperation. With Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, he thought he could ignore Democratic resistance and win by brute force. In his first confrontation, that strategy worked: Nominating Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court gave Trump’s base what it wanted without offering Democrats any hint of compromise. A Democratic filibuster was defeated not by convincing any Democrats to support Gorsuch, but by eliminating the filibuster on Supreme Court nominations. Take that, Democrats!

But from spring into summer, right up to the September 30 reconciliation deadline, repeated attempts to win a brute-force victory on healthcare failed. Offered nothing, Democrats stayed united. But Republicans didn’t, so the small Republican majorities in both houses weren’t enough to push a bill through.

Trump’s current policy push, a tax-reform package centered on a major cut in corporate taxes, seems headed for a similar outcome. A proposal that reduces government revenue mainly by cutting taxes on corporations and the rich contains no provisions that a Democrat can take to his or her voters and say, “We got what we could out of the deal.” So Democrats will stay united. Republicans — each of whom represents a somewhat different configuration of interests — probably won’t.

Each of those efforts assumed the once-a-year reconciliation process that circumvents the filibuster in the Senate. Trump has urged the Senate to do away with the filibuster altogether, but there are enough traditionalists in the Republican Senate caucus to defeat that effort. For every other piece of legislation, Trump needs 60 votes in the Senate and only has 52 Republicans.

In short, Trump has already reached the limits of brute force in Congress. This is unlikely to change as the 2018 elections get closer, and if Republican majorities shrink (as seems likely, at least in the House), brute force is even less like to succeed in 2019 and beyond. So if Trump wants to get anything through Congress, he needs at least a small amount of Democratic cooperation. How to get it?

Start the time-bombs ticking. In the last couple of months we’ve seen a new tactic from Trump: Rather than propose even a framework of a policy and seek congressional approval, Trump unilaterally sets a clock ticking towards some outcome that hardly anybody wants. Congress is expected to do something to avert the looming disaster, though precisely what Trump wants it to do is usually unclear. This sets up the following possibilities.

  • If Congress does something popular, Trump can claim credit.
  • If Congress does something unpopular, Trump can save the country from it with a veto and/or a clock reset.
  • If Congress does nothing, he can denounce Congress for obstructing the “agenda” that he never actually proposed.

We’ve seen this set-up three times already in a fairly short time-period: DACA, ObamaCare, and Iran.

DACA. It’s not true that no one wants to deport the so-called Dreamers (the name derives from the DREAM Act — Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors, which Congress never passed; that’s what motivated Obama’s DACA — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — executive order), but they are the most popular of America’s undocumented immigrants. A poll in September found that 58% of Americans want Dreamers to have a path to citizenship. Another 18% would let them be permanent residents without citizenship. Only 15% want them deported.

In the face of that public opinion, even Republicans say nice things about the Dreamers. Orrin Hatch, for example:

I’ve long advocated for tougher enforcement of our existing immigration laws. But we also need a workable, permanent solution for individuals who entered our country unlawfully as children through no fault of their own and who have built their lives here.

But on September 5, Trump started a clock running.

Under the plan, announced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the Trump administration will stop considering new applications for legal status dated after Tuesday, but will allow any DACA recipients with a permit set to expire before March 5, 2018, the opportunity to apply for a two-year renewal if they apply by October 5.

So after March 5, Dreamers will start becoming subject to deportation. And they’ll be easy to find, because the DACA program required them to register with the government.

At first, Trump himself seemed to share the public’s sympathy for the Dreamers, tweeting “Does anybody really want to throw out good, educated and accomplished young people who have jobs, some serving in the military?” His problem seemed to be mainly that DACA was established by executive order rather than by an act of Congress. Democrats briefly thought they had reached a deal with him to fix that. Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer released a joint statement after a meeting with Trump:

We agreed to enshrine the protections of DACA into law quickly, and to work out a package of border security, excluding the wall, that’s acceptable to both sides.

At the time, Trump seemed to endorse the Democrats’ version:

“DACA now, and the wall very soon,” Trump told reporters on the south lawn of the White House in mid-September. “But the wall will happen.”

But this week he disavowed any such deal, and issued his ransom note of 70 demands. Not only did it include funding for his border wall, but it also had one giant poison pill: It criminalizes millions of immigrants who (under current law) have only committed the civil infraction of overstaying their visas.

Of the 11 million unauthorized aliens in the country, about two million are DREAMers [1] and 4.5 million are visa overstays who entered the country legally but whose visas expired (the rest entered the country without proper papers). Currently, these latter folks are guilty of a civil infraction akin to an unpaid parking ticket. They can be deported for it but can’t be thrown in jail.

Many of them are eligible for a visa renewal or for refugee status, but haven’t been able to navigate our byzantine process. [2]

But Trump’s proposals (according to the Cato Institute)

would create a new misdemeanor offense for overstaying a visa. Immigration fraud is already a crime. This would criminalize the technical violation, regardless of the reason.

If, for example, your application gets lost in the mail, or vanishes into some bureaucrat’s files, you become a criminal. But there’s more:

It would also create new criminal penalties for filing “baseless” asylum applications and increase penalties for those who recross the border after a deportation.

So if you are in danger in your home country, be sure you thoroughly document your situation and bring the paperwork with you when you run for your life. Otherwise you may go to jail in the U.S. for filing a baseless asylum application.

In short, Trump’s price for giving the Dreamers legal status (he still hasn’t said what kind) isn’t just to build a wall, but to criminalize at least twice as many people as he legalizes. “Does anybody really want to throw out good, educated and accomplished young people who have jobs, some serving in the military?” he asks. But he’ll start doing it on March 5 unless his demands are met.

ObamaCare. The Constitution says that a primary duty of the President is to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed”. It doesn’t say “unless they were passed under your predecessor and you don’t like them”. But that’s the spin Trump has been putting on the Affordable Care Act since he took office.

The initial sabotage was low-level and seemed like the grousing of teen-agers who complain about going to school as they go to school. For example, HHS took some of the money appropriated to publicize the program and used it to create videos that criticized ObamaCare instead. Somewhat more seriously, the Trump administration has also made it harder to sign up by cutting the open enrollment period.

But this week he made two direct attempts at sabotage: He ordered HHS to expand the role of interstate association healthcare plans, which provides a way to siphon off healthier, younger people into cheaper plans, leaving older, sicker people behind in a more expensive risk pool that is in greater danger of collapsing. And he announced that he will cut off the cost-sharing-reduction payments that help people just above the poverty line cover their deductibles and make co-payments.

It’s important to realize that this is not the main ObamaCare subsidy, the one that helps people pay their premiums. (If people get the impression that all ObamaCare subsidies have been eliminated, that will sabotage sign-ups beyond what the actual situation implies.) Eliminating it will actually not help anybody.

If the payments are stopped, insurers would still be required to give low-income consumers plans with small deductibles and co-payments. But insurers would no longer be able to get financial help for the costs they are bearing.

Some insurance companies would likely decide that it was no longer worth selling health plans on the marketplaces. Others might conclude that they have to raise premiums across-the-board to cover the additional losses.

Insurance regulators predict that premiums nationwide will go up an average of 12% to 15% because of Trump’s decision. But the increase in some areas could be much larger.

Many of the people hurt worst will be Trump voters.

An estimated 4 million people were benefiting from the cost-sharing payments in the 30 states Trump carried, according to an analysis of 2017 enrollment data from the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Of the 10 states with the highest percentage of consumers benefiting from cost-sharing, all but one — Massachusetts — went for Trump.

It won’t even save the government money. Increasing premiums increases the primary ObamaCare subsidies, which will cost the government money.The point of all this, then, isn’t to improve anything for anybody. (It’s worth pointing out that Trump still hasn’t put forward any healthcare plan at all. The Republican plans Congress has rejected were all constructed in Congress. So far, there is no reason to believe that Trump has any ideas for improving healthcare.) It’s to fulfill his promise to “let ObamaCare implode” so that Democrats will have to give in to a repeal-and-replace plan that throws millions of people out of the health-insurance system.

In other words: Agree to hurt a bunch of people, or I’ll hurt even more people.

Iran. The people in the Trump administration who are supposed to understand such things tell us that Iran is fulfilling the terms of the 2015 deal that keeps them from pursuing nuclear weapons. But Friday, Trump “decertified” the agreement.

When you first hear that, it sounds like the deal is kaput. But actually decertification just starts another clock running. Presidential certification actually isn’t part of the international agreement, it’s just part of an American law, the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act.

The immediate consequence of this is not that sanctions snap back into effect. Rather, it’s that the issue gets kicked back to Congress — giving them a 60-day window to reimpose Iran sanctions suspended by the deal using a special, extremely fast process.

The sanctions are part of the agreement, so if they go back into effect, we are in violation, even though Iran is not. So Congress has a special opportunity (again avoiding the Senate filibuster) to kill the deal.

Trump’s stated reasons for decertifying are that Iran continues to do bad things the deal doesn’t cover, like aiding Hezbollah and propping up the Assad regime in Syria. (Russia is also propping up the Assad regime, but Trump can’t criticize Russia.) Also, they are developing ballistic missiles (which the deal doesn’t cover). So they are violating “the spirit” of the agreement.

Trump wants Congress to do something (it’s not clear exactly what) that will re-open negotiations on the deal, not just with Iran, but with the United Kingdom, Russia, France, China, and Germany, who are also part of the agreement.  None of the other countries have expressed an interest in renegotiating, or in reimposing the sanctions that pushed Iran to make concessions. But

in the event we are not able to reach a solution working with Congress and our allies, then the agreement will be terminated. It is under continuous review, and our participation can be cancelled by me, as President, at any time.

Several administration officials say we want to remain in the deal. Just blowing it up sets Iran back on the path to nuclear weapons and the United States on the path to war. No one benefits. But Trump says he’ll blow it up if his demands aren’t met.

So far, no one is giving in. There’s no indication that Democrats will pay ransom for DACA or ObamaCare, or that Iran and the other signers of the Iran nuclear deal will pay ransom to preserve the agreement. Like any terrorist, Trump will have to shoot some hostages before his enemies start taking his threats seriously. What remains to be seen is what Trump supporters, both in Congress and in the general public, will do once they understand that the hostages include people they care about.


[1] You’ll see a fairly wide range of estimates of the number of Dreamers, with this one on the high end. The number of people who have registered for DACA is usually estimated between 700K and 800K. I’m assuming that two million represents a guess at the number of undocumented immigrants who qualify in the vaguest sense: They came to this country as children and so could apply for DACA. An undocumented family might have any number of reasons not to call attention to itself by registering its DACA-eligible child.

[2] The goal of the sanctuary movement in liberal American churches isn’t to shelter forever people who can’t legally stay in this country, but to prevent the government from deporting people who would be eligible to stay if some neutral court could examine their cases. Such people are given temporary sanctuary so that the bureaucratic process has time to work.

Just What We Needed: More Inequality, Bigger Deficits

Trump’s tax plan is designed to help the little people.

Congress still needs to fill in key details, but the general direction of the Republican tax-reform plan is so clear that no conceivable details can change it.


For decades now, Republicans have been dancing a two-step on taxes and spending:

  1. Cut taxes a little bit for most people and hugely for the very rich, promising that economic growth will make up the lost revenue.
  2. When the lost revenue stays lost, claim that the resulting deficits are an existential threat to the Republic, necessitating previously unthinkable spending cuts.

The result of the two-step is a set of policies that could never pass as a unit. Kansas, for example, would never have voted to cut schools and highways to make rich people richer, but that’s how Sam Brownback’s fiscal revolution worked out. When George W. Bush’s tax cuts turned Clinton’s record surpluses into record deficits, his proposed solution was not to admit the mistake and restore the Clinton rates, or even to say that we couldn’t afford the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan any more, but to propose “entitlement reform” — privatizing Social Security and reorganizing Medicare and Medicaid as defined-benefit programs.

Now, as Republicans try to shake off their ObamaCare-repeal failure and move on, the music is starting again. “A-one, a-two, cut rich people’s taxes …”

Trump promised it wouldn’t be that way this time. All his tax-reform rhetoric has been about jobs and middle-class families, and he often says or implies that people like him will have to sacrifice. Wednesday in Indianapolis, he said:

Our framework includes our explicit commitment that tax reform will protect low-income and middle-income households, not the wealthy and well-connected. They can call me all they want. It’s not going to help. I’m doing the right thing, and it’s not good for me. Believe me. [1]

A few weeks ago, when he began the tax-reform push by speaking at the Loran Cook Company in Springfield Missouri, he said:

Tax reform must dramatically simplify the tax code, eliminate special interest loopholes — and I’m speaking against myself when I do this, I have to tell you. And I might be speaking against Mr. Cook, and we’re both okay with it, is that right? It’s crazy. We’re speaking — maybe we shouldn’t be doing this, you know? (Laughter.) But we’re doing the right thing. (Applause.) True.

Not true, as it turns out. There are still a lot of details missing — so far all we have is a nine-page “framework” document (with not that many words on each page), not a bill that could be analyzed precisely or voted into law — but everything that has been nailed down points in the direction of big cuts for Trump himself and people like him. It’s hard to imagine any set of details that could reverse that course.

Here are some things already specified:

  • The corporate tax rate drops from 35% to 20%, and corporations get to write off their capital investments faster. That’s a big win for the people who own corporations.
  • “The committees also may consider methods to reduce the double taxation of corporate earnings.” In other words: either another write-off for corporations or a big tax cut for people whose income is mostly corporate dividends.
  • Multi-national corporations would no longer be taxed on overseas profits, and profits currently held overseas to escape U.S. taxes could be repatriated at a low rate.
  • The seven current individual tax brackets, running from 10% to 39.6%, become three brackets: 12%, 25%, and 35%. The bottom rate goes up and the top rate comes down.
  • The alternate minimum tax (which applies mainly to the wealthy, and is the main tax Trump himself paid in the one year we know anything about) and the estate tax (which no estate smaller than $5.5 million currently pays) go away.
  • Income from businesses organized as something other than corporations — sole proprietorships, partnerships, and S-corporations (collectively known as “pass-through entities”) — is currently taxed at the individual rates, which could be as high as 39.6%. That gets cut to 25%. Given the way Trump’s hotels are structured or could be structured, this also would be a big win for him. (You could imagine rich people dodging the 35% tax rate by re-organizing their finances so that all their income comes via pass-through entities, but the framework promises Congress will write rules to prevent that from happening. It doesn’t provide any notion of how such rules might work.)

Specifics are supposed to be filled in by “the tax-writing committees” of the House and Senate “through a transparent and inclusive committee process” that is supposed to produce a complete bill sometime in November. They are the Krampuses assigned to deliver all the lumps of coal now that Santa (the nine-page framework) has distributed the sugar plums. The tax-writing committees are supposed to find and eliminate enough special-interest deductions to keep the revenue loss manageable and make the final product “at least as progressive as the existing tax code” so that it “does not shift the tax burden from high-income to lower- and middle-income taxpayers.” They will do that in the face of what promises to be the most expensive lobbying effort ever by special interests intent on keeping their loopholes. Because that’s what tax-writing committees have historically been so good at: imposing pain on special interests whose lobbyists have vast sums of money to throw around. [2]

That’s the general drift of the framework: If you’re rich, your benefits have been spelled out. Benefits to the rest of us are promised in some feel-good rhetoric, but it’s hard to imagine exactly what they’ll be. After all, somebody has to pay taxes, don’t they?

Analysis. The pattern we saw during ObamaCare repeal was that Republicans in Congress wrote the bills without Democratic input and kept their details secret for as long as possible. When the details appeared, they fulfilled none of the feel-good rhetoric Trump and others had been dishing out to the public: All that stuff about more people getting better coverage with lower premiums was ancient history by the time the actual bills were available for inspection, as was the promise that people with preexisting conditions would still be protected.

In particular, the number-crunchers at the Congressional Budget Office were kept in the dark as long as possible. Graham-Cassidy was voted on without CBO analysis, and the bill the House passed was only analyzed later. When analysis did come out in time, and documented just how far the proposal in question was from the promises it was supposed to fulfill, McConnell and Ryan pushed to vote before the public had a chance to process the implications.

So far, tax reform is on that track. The lack of detail in the framework prevents any definitive analysis. We don’t, for example, know exactly when the 12%, 25%, and 35% rates apply. You could imagine a bill where the 25% rate doesn’t kick in until your income reaches $1 million, so middle-class people would all pay 12%. Or it could start applying at $10, and everybody would pay 25% or more on virtually all their income beyond the standard deduction. Those are the kinds of “details” we’re still missing.

The Tax Policy Center tried to analyze anyway, making reasonable assumptions about how the details will shake out. (Neither of the possibilities I described in the previous paragraph is at all reasonable.) When the 9-page document didn’t specify something, they consulted statements by Trump officials, or documents like Paul Ryan’s “A Better Way“. Given that kind of speculation, the numbers they came up with shouldn’t be taken as gospel, but TPC’s analysis does throw the burden of proof back on Trump and the Republicans: Don’t just dismiss it, tell me where it’s wrong. [3]

TPC’s analysis says that taxpayers in the top 1% would see their after-tax incomes rise by 8.4%, and the top .1% by 10.2%, while the benefit to other taxpayers would be on the order of 1%. [4] Some upper-middle-class/lower-upper-class taxpayers would actually pay more tax, and (due to inflation) the number of people facing a tax increase would rise each year, until by 2027, it wouldn’t just be a few exceptional cases: The 80-95% income percentiles would see a net tax increase as a group.

Deficits. During the Obama administration, Republicans and their allies in the right-wing media often claimed that our rapidly-increasing national debt would bring on some economic catastrophe in the near-to-medium future. That fear is all gone now. It’s as if Democrats had announced in 2009 that under Obama we could go back to burning all the fossil fuels we want.

They haven’t changed their tune because the debt problem has cleared up. For a while it looked like it might. The annual deficit did hit alarming levels in FY 2009 (the year of the budget Obama inherited from Bush), and then headed down for several years afterward.

In raw numbers, the deficit bottomed out in FY 2015 at $483 billion, nearly a trillion less than 2009’s $1.413 trillion. But then it started rising again, hitting $585 billion in FY 2016, and an estimated $693 billion in FY 2017, which ended Saturday. The current CBO projections, with no tax cuts, say that the annual deficit will pass $1 trillion again in FY 2022, and keep rising thereafter.

So if you think the deficit is a real problem — not everybody does — you ought to be seriously worried.

But Trump and the congressional Republicans aren’t worried, at least not now that the red ink is gushing from their own budgets. So why not cut taxes?

The original story was that the tax cut would be deficit-neutral, i.e., whatever revenue it lost by cutting rates, it would regain by eliminating loopholes. But deficit-neutral tax cuts are no fun; to really get the party started you need cuts that nobody pays for.

So Senate Republicans are now preparing a budget resolution (the first step in a reconciliation process that would allow the final bill to pass the Senate with 50 votes), that allows a $1.5 trillion loss of revenue over ten years. And that’s just the current state of the bidding. Why not make it higher? Why not fill the budget with accounting gimmicks that allow the real cuts to be even bigger? (TPC estimates the lost revenue at $2.4 trillion in the first decade, $3.2 trillion in the second. Again: Republicans shouldn’t just scoff, they should explain why TPC is wrong.)

The same budget proposal gets the timing wrong on the two-step: It proposes a $450 billion cut to Medicare now. Silly, Medicare cuts are supposed to wait until after the tax cuts are in place and growth falls short of your projections.

Can they pass it? ObamaCare repeal is a cautionary tale of how Republican legislative efforts can fail, despite their apparent control of both houses of Congress and the presidency. In the Senate, reconciliation is a narrow path that eliminates many of the features conservatives want, and Republicans can only afford two dissenters (unless they manage to attract some Democrats). In the House, the Freedom Caucus has the power to hold a bill hostage until it is loaded up with provisions guaranteed to alienate moderates. (They’ve already started maneuvering.)

On the policy side, the similarities should be ominous to anybody who wants this to pass: The rhetoric selling the idea of the program has been populist, but the actual bill will be elitist: The rich will profit, the middle class will get a pittance (probably only temporarily), and the deficit will skyrocket. That will set up new “emergency” proposals to slash benefits the middle class would never have agreed to sacrifice to the rich, if the tax cuts hadn’t created an artificial budget “emergency”.

Eventually, the details will have to come out, and there will be well-founded analyses that Republicans can’t just brush off. When that happens, the public will turn against the bill, as it turned against the various forms of ObamaCare repeal. Red-state Democrats who have seemed open to tax reform (Heitkamp, Donnelly) will have plenty of cover when they stand against the final bill: They supported the middle-class tax cut Trump talked about in the beginning, not the upper-class giveaway it turned into.

Then Republicans in Congress will face a familiar question: Are they willing to vote against their constituents in order to follow their ideology, keep a promise to their donors, please Trump, and avoid going into the 2018 election cycle with zero accomplishments? For most of them, the answer will be Yes. But maybe three senators will balk.


[1] I’m not the only person to notice that Trump has what poker players call a tell: When he says “Believe me”, he’s lying.

[2] You could tell I was being sarcastic, right?

[3] Trump is also making assumptions and claiming specific outcomes for specific people. Wednesday he named a working couple in the audience and said they would save $1,000 next year under his plan. At this point, his opinion is just as speculative as TPC’s.

[4] Of course, that’s 1% of a much smaller number. If your income of $50 thousand goes up by 1%, that’s $500. If your income of $50 million goes up by 10.2%, that’s $5.1 million.

Why Republicans Can’t Stop Trying to Repeal ObamaCare

Despite the troubles Republicans are having finding 50 senators to back the Graham-Cassidy bill, and despite the apparent deadline of midnight Saturday, I still don’t think we’ve seen the end of ObamaCare repeal. There’s a reason they can’t let it go, and I think I’ve finally found the right metaphor to explain it.

For years they’ve been telling their voters that they can replace the ObamaCare plow-horse with a unicorn: a plan with fewer taxes, fewer mandates, less regulation, less spending, but coverage as good or better than ObamaCare provides.

That worked really well on the campaign trail, but once they captured the White House and the Senate, Republicans suddenly found themselves on the spot to produce the unicorn, which they can’t because unicorns don’t exist. Of course they can’t admit that they’ve been bullshitting their voters all these years with unicorn fantasies, so they go round and round.

You could see this in all the various repeal-and-replace efforts we’ve seen so far this year: No one could explain what they accomplished or what problem they solved. No one could defend them in terms of healthcare policy. The entire justification was that voters had been promised a unicorn, so Republicans had to give them something, even if it bore no resemblance to a unicorn.

All through the process, Republicans have been saying that the unicorn was still coming: the current bill was just a placeholder to keep things moving. So the last few votes in the House were garnered by telling wavering moderates that the Senate had a unicorn. When the Senate tried to pass its “skinny repeal” in July, several senators were embarrassed that there was still no unicorn, and would only agree to vote for the bill if Paul Ryan would guarantee them that the House would change it again. Now, Graham and Cassidy are making a last-ditch promise that the states will provide the unicorn, once the federal government has block-granted the money to them.

Unsurprisingly, Republican governors like Nevada’s Brian Sandoval are reluctant to take responsibility for producing a unicorn. Sandoval sees that the people in his state will have the same needs they do now, but less money to fulfill them. Graham-Cassidy may give him the flexibility to decide who should go without, but not the resources to provide the care needed.

Flexibility with reduced funding is a false choice. I will not pit seniors, children, families, the mentally ill, the critically ill, hospitals, care providers, or any other Nevadan against each other because of cuts to Nevada’s health-care delivery system proposed by the Graham-Cassidy amendment.

So for now it may look like Graham-Cassidy is failing, but you can count on it: There will be another attempt somehow. Republican voters were promised a unicorn, and there must be one out there somewhere.

Nationalism Reconsidered

For decades nationalism was a taboo term, but now it’s back. Why are so many people attracted to it, and why aren’t I one of them?


A few weeks after the election, in “Should I Have White Pride?“, I put forward the idea that we now needed to start answering questions we used to write off, and discussing issues we used to think were settled. OK then: Nationalism. What about it?

For decades the concept was in the doghouse, but the Trump administration has put nationalism back into the public conversation. In his 60 Minutes interview earlier this month, Steve Bannon talked glowingly about “Donald Trump’s populist, economic nationalist agenda” and claimed that “Economic nationalism is what this country was built on.”

Trump himself tends not to use the term, but often invokes the concept. “America First” is fundamentally a nationalist slogan. In his speech to the United Nations on Tuesday, he repeatedly invoked “sovereignty” and stated: “the nation-state remains the best vehicle for elevating the human condition.”

Now we are calling for a great reawakening of nations, for the revival of their spirits, their pride, their people, and their patriotism.

This is a big change. Between and after the world wars, books like All Quiet on the Western Front portrayed nationalism as a kind of collective insanity that induced millions of otherwise sensible Frenchmen and Germans to repeatedly try to kill each other. But in his UN speech, Trump draws a different lesson from the wars. He ignores the nationalism embodied in slogans like “Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer!” or enacted by Japanese kamikaze pilots crashing their planes into American ships, and focuses only on the “good” nationalism of the Allies:

In remembering the great victory that led to this body’s founding, we must never forget that those heroes who fought against evil also fought for the nations that they loved. Patriotism led the Poles to die to save Poland, the French to fight for a free France, and the Brits to stand strong for Britain.

For decades, a “national liberation movement” was at best a phase a Third World society — Vietnam, say, or Zimbabwe — might go through while escaping colonialism and finding its place in the world. But the whole point of international institutions like the UN was to help First Worlders rise above such atavistic motivations. Not any more. Trump’s vision of the UN seems less influenced by Star Trek‘s Federation of Planets than by Robert Frost’s often-misquoted maxim that “Good fences make good neighbors.”

Our success depends on a coalition of strong and independent nations that embrace their sovereignty to promote security, prosperity, and peace for themselves and for the world. … Strong, sovereign nations let diverse countries with different values, different cultures, and different dreams not just coexist, but work side by side on the basis of mutual respect.

(That quote invites a question: Can different values, cultures, and dreams respectfully coexist within a nation? Or is that a problem?) In the Trump administration, globalism is the dirty word. The nation-state is an end in itself, not something we should be trying to transcend.

Nationalism and essentialism. Before criticizing nationalism, it’s important to understand the attraction of it. The root idea of nationalism is that nations are, or should be, more than just lines on a map. Ideally, a nation represents a convergence of territory, culture, and government. A variety of factors — typically ethnicity, language, religion, and/or shared history — give a population a common identity as “a people”. That people occupies a territory, and expresses its common will through a government that is sovereign over that territory.

In this vision, being English or French or Japanese means far more than simply living inside the boundaries of England or France or Japan, or satisfying the legal conditions for citizenship. It means sharing the almost mystical essence that unites the English, French, or Japanese people.

At its best, this identity as a people gives a country a unity that makes it governable, and a common purpose that allows it to accomplish great things. We can easily see the lack of such a national essence in the failure of American “nation building” in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is comparatively easy to draw borders on a map, to write a document that defines a constitutional republic within those borders, and to establish a government by holding elections under that constitution. Whether or not that government actually takes hold, though, depends on whether it corresponds to something its citizens can identify with and feel loyal to. Constitutions and elections can be how the popular will expresses itself. If there is no national identity, though, and hence no popular will, elections simply become a way of deciding who will dominate who. Officials will be corrupt, and citizens will show them no loyalty beyond what the police can force out of them.

But nationalism also has a down side: It creates dissonance between the actual citizenry and the ideal citizenry. Some Frenchmen are just “more French” than others. Some U.S. citizens are real Americans, while others are not quite so real. Even if their ancestors had lived in Germany since before there was a Germany, even if they spoke perfect German and loyally paid their taxes, and even if they had fought for the Kaiser in World War I, Jews could never be part of the German Volk.

Nationalism also provokes a disruptive desire to get the boundaries right. Hitler’s initial expansions — Austria, the Sudeten region of Czechoslovakia, and the Danzig corridor of Poland — were justified by his ambition to unite the German Volk under a single Reich. Similarly today, Putin’s annexation of Crimea and the pressure he is putting on the eastern provinces of Ukraine are part of a vision that unites all the ethnic Russians in the nation of Russia.

And if boundaries won’t move, then people must. Ethnic cleansing and genocide are the ultimate expressions of nationalism. If you don’t fit the national identity and you aren’t willing to accept slavery or some other subordinate status, then you have to go.

Finally, national identity often comes packaged with a national mythology that justifies dominating others. It’s no coincidence that nationalists are also the Americans most likely to believe in American exceptionalism.

When nationalism and democracy were allies. One of the key ideas underlying President Wilson’s 14 Points for establishing peace in Europe after World War I was “self determination“. In the 19th century, the world had been dominated by big cosmopolitan empires like Austria-Hungary or the Ottomans. The Czars ruled far more than just the Russians, and the English governed both nearby Ireland and distant India. Even France, if you looked closely, was a polyglot of Normans, Bretons, Provencals, Burgundians, and many others who were only beginning to identify as a nation and speak a common language (for more than just government and trade).

In an era where democracy was only beginning to catch on in Great Britain, the United States, and a handful of other places, cosmopolitan empires seemed normal. Government wasn’t supposed to express the popular will, it was an organizing service offered by a central authority. If the ruling House established trade, promoted the arts, and kept the peace — what more did you want?

But when World War I left Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire in tatters, the victorious nations had to decide what to do with the pieces. Their internal squabbles had been the sparks the lit the war to begin with — the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and all that — so the victors weren’t inclined to just prop up new Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman emperors. So what, then?

Wilson’s solution was to identify natural ethnic boundaries and create new nations to match them.

National aspirations must be respected; people may now be dominated and governed only by their own consent. “Self determination” is not a mere phrase; it is an imperative principle of action.

Having been established around the peoples who lived there, Wilson expected the new nations to be fertile ground for government by the people. In this sense, nationalism and democracy would go hand in hand.

From self-determination to ethnic cleansing. In fact Wilson’s vision was not implemented all that well; the borders established by the Treaty of Versailles involved as much national score-settling as self-determination. But Wilson got perhaps more credit than he deserved for his idealism. (In retrospect, his support for nationalism abroad paralleled his racism at home. Wilson re-segregated government offices, and screened Birth of a Nation in the White House.)

On the ground, ethnic boundaries were never quite so natural as he had imagined, and many Romanians, Hungarians, Bulgarians, and others wound up on the wrong side of the borders defining the nations of their peoples. Many moved, while others stayed and were now oppressed by the local majority rather than by a distant emperor. Jews, Roma, and other dispersed peoples were often worse off than they had been in a cosmopolitan empire.

As the remaining empires dissolved in the subsequent decades, national self-determination was often associated with either ethnic cleansing or a semi-voluntary mass migration motivated by fear of the new majority. The British Raj, for example, split into Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan. But there had never been a clear territorial separation between the two religions, so millions moved or were moved, with much violence on both sides.

In the long run, does democracy require nationalism? It’s worth considering why the Versailles negotiators couldn’t have just declared a unified Republic of Austria-Hungary; written a modern constitution that defended the rights of all the Serbians, Jews, Maygars, and other ethnic groups inside it; and held elections for a new Parliament. For that matter, why couldn’t we do the same today with Earth?

The answer is that the inherent political discord of a democratic republic is only stable if it is an island floating on a broader sea of public consensus. Constitutional rights only matter if the public actually believes in them, so that whoever gains power will feel constrained to defend everybody’s rights, and not just the rights of a particular party or ethnic group. As the U.S. Senate has been finding out over the last decade or so, unwritten but broadly shared standards of fair play are as important — and perhaps more important — than constitutional guarantees.

In many countries, a disputed presidential election like the U.S. had in 2000 would have led to civil war. Instead, the Supreme Court ruled, Gore conceded, and subsequent elections were held on schedule in 2004 and 2008. When Bush’s chosen successor lost the 2008 election, we had a peaceful transfer of power.

That happened because all sides had confidence in American standards of fair play. If Gore’s supporters in 2000 (or the outgoing Bushies in 2008) had believed that they were all about to be rounded up and shot, civil war might have seemed like a more attractive option.

Confidence in the underlying consensus limits the stakes of an election, and allows the losers to retreat and regroup rather than panic. Because of that consensus, we argue vociferously over things like tax rates and health insurance, but we don’t consider killing off all the old people. Anti-gay bakers may or may not have to make cakes for same-sex weddings, but they won’t be sent off to re-education camps. Larger or smaller numbers of undocumented Hispanics may be deported, but Hispanic citizens will not be ethnically cleansed. We may or may not create hurdles to voting that many people will lack the will to jump, but we will not revoke the voting rights of entire races or religions. In some future progressive administration, billionaires may have a harder time multiplying their wealth and passing it on to their descendants, but they won’t become enemies of the people whose estates are confiscated and whose children are impoverished.

In short, we can vote about the things that divide us, and live with the outcome, because we share a broad consensus on the graver issues that large numbers of people would be willing to kill or die for. (When the consensus ruptured on slavery, we did have a civil war.) A country that doesn’t have such a consensus won’t be a stable democracy, no matter what its constitution says.

A nationalist believes that such a consensus can only come from a shared identity as a people, which is based on shared culture, language, religion, and history. Anything that dilutes that identity — say, by bringing in a bunch of immigrants who don’t fit the national identity — undermines the national consensus that democracy depends on.

National identity in America. Trump/Bannon American nationalism has a nuanced relationship with racism. Both will deny that they are racist, and in one sense they are justified. Bannon put it like this:

We look after our own. We look after our citizen, we look after our manufacturing base, and guess what? This country’s gonna be greater, more united, more powerful than it’s ever been. And it’s not– this is not astrophysics. OK? And by the way, that’s every nationality, every race, every religion, every sexual preference. As long as you’re a citizen of our country. As long as you’re an American citizen, you’re part of this populist, economic nationalist movement

But last summer he told Mother Jones that he had made Breitbart “the platform for the alt-Right“, which clearly is racist. Both Bannon and Trump appeal to the racist leanings of their base voters, sometimes pretty explicitly.

Here’s how I interpret the nuance: The national identity Bannon/Trump are trying to defend against dilution is white, Christian, straight, English-speaking, and perhaps a few other things. That’s why Bannon can correct Charlie Rose’s statement about “the Trump base” with “the American people”. To the extent that Americans are “a people”, Bannon sees them as the Trump white Christian base.

But that’s a description of an ideal. Few Americans fit the ideal perfectly; most of us are only “real Americans” up to a point. So Trumpists don’t have to be against any individual Hispanics or Muslims purely because of their race or religion. It’s only when large numbers of people differ significantly from the ideal that dilution becomes an issue. If America stopped being a white country or stopped being a Christian country, that would be a problem for them.

So whether they’re bigots depends on what you mean: They don’t necessarily hate individuals based on their race or religion. But all races and religions are not created equal, at least not if you want to fit in with the American people.

Why I’m not a nationalist. If you look back at American history, our national identity has always been an issue, and in retrospect it is obvious that the people who wanted to defend it have always defined it too narrowly. The Founding generation seriously debated whether Catholics could be good Americans, and most doubted that they could. The flood of German immigrants in the early 1800s (my ancestors) threatened the nation’s English heritage. The subsequent waves of Irish, Italian, Jewish, Polish, and Slavic immigrants were also controversial in their day. How could we possibly assimilate so many of them all at once?

One reason the South hung onto slavery so desperately was that Southern whites didn’t believe that whites and blacks could share a society, certainly not as citizens with equal rights. If blacks became the majority (as they already were in South Carolina and Mississippi) and had equal rights, then they’d define a black society, and whites would be the slaves. Or else there would be a race war, and one would wipe out the other. That’s what Jefferson was talking about when he described slavery as having “a wolf by the ear. We can neither hold him nor safely let him go.” The choice was slavery or genocidal race war, because the national identity had to be either white or black.

In retrospect, the national identity has changed a lot over the years, and the broad consensus underlying our democracy has shifted from one era to the next. Even using the most generous estimates, English-Americans are only 1 out of every 4, and may be less than 1 out of 10. (John Adams, I’m sure, would be horrified.) Whites are less than half of the population of California, and yet democratic institutions continue to function there. White protestants are less than half of the population nationwide, but blacks, Catholics, Jews, and even atheists and agnostics seem to have caught on to being Americans.

These changes can be disturbing if you are part of a declining majority. (I still get edgy when I am surrounded on public transit by people speaking a language I don’t understand.) But it’s important not to confuse personal discomfort with a danger to the Republic.

In short, I see a wide gap between a white/Christian/English-speaking identity and the national consensus that keeps democracy functioning. The idea of America has always been more flexible and resilient than the Americans of any given era have imagined. People come here because they find the idea of America attractive, and not because they want to tear it down. But they have also always tried to hang onto part of the heritage of the old country, wherever it was.

I have much more faith in the American people than I have in our ability to define what makes us a people, or to determine what kind of people we should be in the future. We will evolve, and in another 250 years we’ll be as unrecognizable as today’s America would be to a young Ben Franklin. That is as it should be.

Single Payer Joins the Debate

The U.S. spends far more on healthcare than any other country.

Bernie Sanders’ Medicare-for-All bill gets a different response this time.


The most frustrating thing about the national discussion prior to passing the Affordable Care Act in 2010 was that single-payer was out of the picture from the beginning. Some Democrats (I remember hearing presidential candidate John Edwards make this case explicitly during the 2008 campaign; at the time he and Obama and Clinton had very similar healthcare proposals) held out the hope that a public option would out-compete all the private plans in the exchanges, and so would evolve into a de facto single-payer program. But then the final version of the ACA didn’t include a public option, so even that straw of hope was gone.

Leaving single-payer out of the debate is particularly bizarre when you consider that most of the rest of the industrialized world organizes its healthcare that way, and gets better results than we do (i.e., longer life expectancy at lower per-capita cost — it’s hard to make out, but that tall bar at the far left of the graph at the top of the page represents the U.S.). When you find yourself struggling to keep up with the Joneses, you ought to at least consider doing what the Joneses do. We didn’t.

The Sanders bill. For years, Bernie Sanders has been a voice-in-the-wilderness on single payer. He introduced a single-payer bill in the Senate in 2009, and it got zero cosponsors. Again in 2011, he got zero cosponsors in the Senate, but a companion bill in the House had 12 sponsors. Both of Sanders’ bills died in committee and never reached the Senate floor.

This time it’s different. The New Yorker‘s John Cassidy explains:

In the end, there were sixteen co-sponsors. They included Tammy Baldwin, of Wisconsin; Cory Booker, of New Jersey; Al Franken, of Minnesota; Kirsten Gillibrand, of New York; Kamala Harris, of California; Jeff Merkley, of Oregon; Brian Schatz, of Hawaii; and Elizabeth Warren, of Massachusetts.

One thing all these politicians have in common is that they have been mentioned, with varying degrees of plausibility, as possible Presidential candidates in 2020. (So has Sanders himself.)

Six years ago, single-payer was something an ambitious Democrat wouldn’t want to be associated with. Now, an ambitious Democrat can’t afford not to be associated with it. But Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer and House leader Nancy Pelosi have been more cautious, neither endorsing or opposing it. The WaPo’s Aaron Blake quotes Pelosi:

“I don’t think it’s a litmus test,” she said. “I think to support the idea that it captures is that we want to have as many people as possible, everybody, covered, and I think that’s something that we all embrace.” She said she’s focused on protecting the Affordable Care Act.

He also explains her motives: She wants to be Speaker again, not President. That focuses her on a different audience.

If Democrats are going to retake the House (or even the Senate), they need to win in red territory where government-funded health care is a much, much tougher sell than in a Democratic presidential primary.

Gerrymandering is a factor in Pelosi’s thinking. Democrats can’t win control of the House just by getting the most votes. (They did that in 2012, and it didn’t work.) House districts have been drawn so that the majority of them lean Republican. So if Democrats can’t win in red districts, Paul Ryan keeps the Speakership.

What the Medicare for All Act of 2017 does and doesn’t do. Over a four-year phase-in period, the bill would extend something resembling Medicare to everybody: Children would be covered immediately, and the eligibility age for Medicare would drop each year: from 65 to 55 to 45 to 35 and then 0. During the transition, the ineligible could buy into Medicare as a public option on the ObamaCare exchanges.

But the plan would be more than just Medicare as we currently know it: Premiums and co-pays would be gone, and its coverage would be far more complete. It would, for example, pay for dental care, glasses, and hearing aids. The Secretary of HHS would have the option of including whatever “alternative and complementary medicine” seemed appropriate.

How serious is it? That depends on what you mean by serious. It is a real bill, and if it somehow got through the Republican-controlled Congress and President Trump signed it, it would be a real law. Four years later, everyone would be covered by something sort of like Medicare.

At the same time, the bill leaves out a lot of essential details. How it slims down to 96 pages (compared to the thousands in the Affordable Care Act) is that vast numbers of decisions are delegated to the Secretary of Health and Human Services and the Administrator of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid. The phrase “the Secretary” appears 88 times, in contexts like:

the Secretary shall establish a national health budget, which specifies the total expenditures to be made for covered health care services under this Act.

The Administrator (ten times) determines more-or-less everything about the buy-in provision, such as how much it costs.

The biggest hole, though, is how it would all be paid for. If you total up Medicare, Medicaid, the Veterans Administration, ObamaCare, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and health insurance for federal employees — all of which would be subsumed — the government already spends well over a trillion dollars each year on healthcare, maybe as much as a two trillion. But that’s still not nearly as much money as would be needed.

There would undoubtedly be some cost savings: Medicare already has far lower overhead than private insurance, the enlarged Medicare would have enormous leverage for negotiating drug prices, and so on. There are, after all, reasons that other countries can spend less than we do without compromising care. But one important cost difference is that doctors in the U.S. make far more money than doctors in other countries. Nobody is proposing a Physician Pay Cut Act of 2017, so that probably won’t change. Other savings would take years to kick in. (Countries with a universal healthcare system do a better job of preventive care, and public health in general. In the long run that pays off, but maybe not in the short run.)

But there would also be cost increases: more people covered for more procedures with no co-pays. Also: What happens to the money states currently spend on Medicaid? The federal government can’t automatically sweep it into the new program, but there will be no reason for states to keep spending it once the federal government takes responsibility for all healthcare.

So even if you’re optimistic, you still need to come up with a large amount of new federal revenue, which would happen in a separate bill. Sanders admitted as much to the WaPo’s David Weigel.

Rather than give a detailed proposal about how we’re going to raise $3 trillion a year, we’d rather give the American people options. The truth is, embarrassingly, that on this enormously important issue, there has not been the kind of research and study that we need. You’ve got think tanks, in many cases funded by the drug companies and the insurance companies, telling us how terribly expensive it’s going to be. We have economists looking at it who are coming up with different numbers.

So in that sense, Sanders’ bill isn’t serious: He doesn’t have a proposal to raise the money to pay for it, or even a precise estimate of how much needs to be raised. Democrats are actually counting on Republicans not to pass this, because they’re not actually ready to implement it.

Given that it won’t pass, it’s not clear how seriously Sanders’ cosponsors are taking the bill. Senator Franken of Minnesota described it like this:

Establishing a single-payer system would be one way to achieve universal coverage, and Senator Sanders’ “Medicare for All” bill lays down an important marker to help us reach that goal. This bill is aspirational, and I’m hopeful that it can serve as a starting point for where we need to go as a country.

That’s a long way from “This is what we’re going to do.”

Revenue options. What Sanders does have are some suggestions about revenue: an increased payroll tax, paid either by employers or employees; eliminating the now-obsolete business deduction for employee health insurance (which the bill makes illegal: “Beginning on the effective date described in section 106(a), it shall be unlawful for a private health insurer to sell health insurance coverage that duplicates the benefits provided under this Act.”); significantly higher tax rates for people making more than $250K per year; dividends and capital gains taxed at the same rate as other income; limited tax deductions in the upper-income brackets; a higher estate tax; a wealth tax on households worth more than $21 million; taxes on corporate profits held offshore; a fee charged to large financial institutions; and a few others.

Sanders presents this as a menu of choices. But if you add up his numbers, you get $16.192 trillion over ten years, so we might need to do all of them to come up with money needed. (During the primary campaign, the Urban Institute estimated that a similar Sanders proposal would require an additional $32 trillion over ten years, but Sanders’ supporters called that analysis “ridiculous“.)

I also don’t trust Sanders’ numbers. Not that he’s being dishonest, but when it comes to taxes, the rich are always a moving target. New proposals to tax them always inspire new methods of evasion. It’s not that plutocrats and multinational corporations are impossible to tax, but proposals seldom raise quite as much revenue as their authors expect.

Public opinion. Polling on Medicare for All is highly variable. The phrase itself is popular, but as you give people more details their support starts to waver. In particular, when you tell them that their own taxes will go up, they begin to have doubts. (Kaiser didn’t poll the objection that you’d have to give up the employer-based health insurance that more than half the country has now, but I’ll bet it changes minds also. If you’re satisfied with how your health insurance is working, you may look skeptically on a proposal to change it.)

Sanders’ counter-argument, which I believe, is that public health insurance is just more efficient than private health insurance, so most people would pay far less in new taxes than they currently pay to insurance companies. But that relies on trusting various experts to do some fairly sophisticated calculations. I’m skeptical that the public will maintain the needed level of trust when insurance and drug companies start funding massive doubt-raising advertising campaigns (like the one that killed HillaryCare in the 1990s), or Republicans start spreading outright lies (like the death panels supposedly established by the Affordable Care Act).

In general, I think many of us maintain a too-flattering image of swing voters: We picture them as judicious people who weigh their options and make up their minds slowly, rather than blindly following a party or an ideology. In reality, I believe most of them have no party or ideology because they just don’t think about politics or public issues very much or very deeply. Many are low-information voters whose choices can depend on a turn of phrase or who they talked to last. It’s not that hard for a slick campaign to scare them enough that they want to keep what they have rather than leap to something new.

The repeal-and-replace parallel. Several pundits (Josh Barro, for one) have noted the resemblance to Republican calls to repeal-and-replace ObamaCare. Like “Medicare for All”, the “repeal-and-replace” slogan is much more popular (especially within the base of one party) than any specific plan to carry it out. The Republican problem is that they let the phrase stay “aspirational”, to use Senator Franken’s word, for too long. When they suddenly had the power to implement it, they didn’t have an implementable plan.

Barro describes a more evolutionary approach to the goal of universal coverage, something closer to the public-option-wins-out vision of 2008: Medicare Available to All. Rather than one big change that asks Americans to pay higher taxes and trust that a big government program will meet their needs better than whatever they’re doing now, Barro pictures a more gradual change:

There is a version of “Medicare for All” that Democrats could operationalize effectively and popularly: opening a version of Medicare or Medicaid up to any individual who wants to buy coverage under it, and to any employer who wants to buy coverage for its employees under it.

Such a program could build on the existing system of subsidies and exchanges created by Obamacare, as well as the existing system of tax-preferred employer-provided health insurance. It could reduce costs for consumers by using the government’s bargaining power to bring down the prices paid for drugs and medical services.

… In practice, the cost advantage of the Medicare or Medicaid system might lead most individuals and most employers to decide they’d rather buy the public plan than a private one. But that would be a voluntary change — one that consumers would welcome because of the cost savings — not a mandatory one.

… The big political advantage of a public-option approach is it makes it possible to take on providers and drug companies directly, on the issue of costs, without simultaneously fighting on many other fronts. With a public option, you don’t need to simultaneously convince doctors to take a pay cut and convince workers and employers to accept a tax increase and convince consumers to give up their existing insurance plans.

In Barro’s vision, features like better subsidies to the less-well-off and a better benefit package could be added over time, ultimately resulting in a plan not that different from what Sanders pictures.

Complementarity. I think it would be a mistake if Democrats got into an either/or battle between better-coverage-for-more-people and great-coverage-for-everybody. It’s important to have goals well beyond the things that you know how to achieve today or tomorrow. But it’s also important to go into the battle you face today with a plan you can implement today. There is no inherent contradiction between those two ambitions.

Republicans seem to understand this. It’s totally within the Republican mainstream for a presidential candidate to announce that he’d like to eliminate the IRS or pay off the national debt, even if he has no credible plan to do so. In the meantime, just about everybody will be happy if he manages to cut taxes or propose a balanced budget. Republicans understand that having a big dream keeps you marching in the right direction, even if you don’t actually get wherever you say you’re going.

But Democrats responded to their landslide losses in 1972, 1980, 1984, and 1988 by cutting their dreams down to size. Smarting under the Reagan-era charge that they were too liberal, they played it cautious: I don’t want to turn America into Sweden, I just want to do this one little thing.

What the popularity of the Medicare-for-All slogan indicates is that it’s time for the one-little-thing era to be over. One-little-thing didn’t just limit Democrats’ horizons, it made us sound untrustworthy. If we wouldn’t say where we wanted to go in the long run, our enemies could say it for us.

A political party that actually means something has to want Big Things, things that might take decades to achieve, like racial justice, gender equality, an end to a constant state of war, the elimination of poverty, a sustainable relationship with the rest of the biosphere — and healthcare for everybody. At the same time, wanting Big Things someday can’t be enough. We need to be achieving something today that takes us closer to those Big Things.

There’s no contradiction between envisioning a journey of a thousand miles and taking a single step. They’re part of the same whole.

Trump has no agenda

Articles about the McConnell/Trump feud, or Paul Ryan’s occasional tut-tutting of something outrageous Trump has said or done, almost always get around to this point: Trump needs McConnell and Ryan to “pass his agenda“. And the root cause of the friction, we are told, is that “Trump’s agenda” is stalled in Congress. Similarly, whenever Trump goes off the rails on some topic he could just drop, we hear about how he’s “derailing his own agenda“.

Given how often we hear it, the phrase Trump’s agenda deserves a closer look. If you ask one of his supporters to explain it, you’ll get a list like this: repeal and replace ObamaCare, reform the tax code, rebuild America’s infrastructure, erect a wall on the Mexican border, renegotiate our trade deals, and maybe a few other things. It sounds like a full plate for a president.

It’s not, for one simple reason: None of those items is anything more than a few words on a list. We have little reason to believe that Trump actually cares about any of it.

Cynical observers suspected as much during the campaign, when Trump’s web site was noticeably lacking in the white papers and references to think-tank studies that candidate web sites usually provide if you click enough links. But supporters had an easy explanation: Trump himself isn’t a details guy. After all, he didn’t design Trump Tower, he hired architects. And Ronald Reagan wasn’t a details guy either, but stuff got done. Like Reagan, Trump would be a CEO-style president. He was promising to hire “the best people”, and they’d do all the wonky stuff for him.

So who are they and where is it?

The first Big Empty Spot was healthcare. Through the entire ugly process that culminated in John McCain’s dramatic thumbs-down, Trump and his people offered not a single idea for reforming American healthcare. He had promised to “repeal and replace ObamaCare” “immediately” after taking office, and he wanted to be able to say he’d fulfilled that promise. But he couldn’t be bothered to flesh that phrase out into an actual program.

So the plans that the House and Senate voted on didn’t come from Trump, from the White House staff, or from his Department of Health and Human Services. Paul Ryan put together the original House plan, which then got amended to get the last few votes he needed from the Freedom Caucus. The public hated that plan, and many of the Republicans who voted for it in the House only did so because they hoped the Senate would fix it somehow.

When it passed,Trump held a celebration in the Rose Garden. He was “winning”.

In the Senate, McConnell seemed determined to keep the pig in the sack as long as possible. If it were legal to pass a plan in a sealed envelope, he might well have done so. On the day before the final vote, it still wasn’t clear what would be voted on.

Trump himself seemed to know no more about any of these plans than the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders know about the plays Dak Prescott is calling in the huddle. The current plan — whatever it was — was “great” and “brilliant”, but he couldn’t raise the American people’s faith that the plan would actually work for them because he clearly had no idea. He lectured congressmen about how it important it was that they pass “this”, without appearing to know anything about what “this” was. He still doesn’t know.

Repeal and replace ObamaCare was just an item on Trump’s list. He wanted to put a checkmark next to it. That’s as deep as his thinking ever got.

Now we’re on to tax reform. Healthcare was never a major Trump interest, but as a businessman who has spent much of his career dodging taxes, he should have as deep a knowledge of the tax code as he does of anything. A month before the election he tweeted:

I know our complex tax laws better than anyone who has ever run for president and am the only one who can fix them.

So here if anywhere, you would expect him to have a real plan.

He doesn’t. Wednesday he went to Springfield, Missouri to introduce his “plan” (and to spend public funds campaigning against Senator Claire McCaskill). He gave exactly zero specifics, but stated four principles he wants tax reform to adhere to.

  1. “a tax code that is simple, fair, and easy to understand.”
  2. “a competitive tax code that creates more jobs and higher wages for Americans.” Competitive means lowering corporate taxes. This is the closest he came to a specific proposal “Ideally … we would like to bring our business tax rate down to 15 percent.” His tone of voice suggested he knew that whatever plan Congress ultimately voted on wouldn’t achieve this.
  3. “tax relief for middle-class families”. How much? By what means? He didn’t say.
  4. “bring back trillions of dollars in wealth that’s parked overseas” The money could have been brought back at any time, if corporations were willing to pay tax on it. So this also is about lowering corporate taxes.

So: businesses and families pay less. There’s no proposal for making anybody pay more, beyond a vague reference to unspecified “special interest loopholes”. No mention of either spending cuts or the deficit. The plan can be simple, because it’s not like clever people are trying to avoid paying taxes or anything, so we shouldn’t need any complicated definitions; and fair, because everybody agrees on what that word means.

You know what would fulfill all four principles? Eliminate all taxes on everybody. Congress, go work out the details on that.

If tax reform follows the pattern of ObamaCare repeal — and why shouldn’t it? — events will unfold like this:

  • Congressional Republican leadership will propose to do some of the feel-good stuff in Trump’s principles, and also some horrible things that are necessary to integrate those changes into the real world.
  • No matter what it ends up saying, Trump will promote it as a “beautiful” proposal that will make America great again.
  • The CBO will spell out the damage it would do: blow up the deficit, create no jobs, shift even more wealth to the top.
  • Once the details come out, the public will hate it.
  • It will include nothing that appeals to Democrats, so Pelosi and Schumer will have easy jobs keeping their caucuses together in opposition.
  • The Freedom Caucus in the House will block it until the horrible parts are made much worse.
  • Three Republican senators will flip, defeating the proposal.
  • Trump will blame Ryan and McConnell for not delivering what he wanted.

Next up? Supposedly there’s an infrastructure proposal coming, but again there are no details. We are promised “an infrastructure meeting on Wednesday to discuss the broad contours of the proposal”. But is there anything in particular that needs to be built, or any particular way to pay for it?

Tomorrow, Trump is expected to announce that he’s ending President Obama’s DACA program in six months. What will happen to the Dreamers then? Something that’s up to Congress to decide. I will be amazed if Trump suggests what it should be.

Supposedly NAFTA and other trade deals are being renegotiated now, but along what lines and for what purposes? Will Trump be happy just to say “I renegotiated NAFTA?” or will he care what the new agreement says?

It’s time for journalists and pundits to start being more skeptical before they repeat the phrase Trump’s agenda. So far, it has been nothing more than a list of vacuous phrases.

Houston, New Orleans, and the Long Descent

Houston will be rebuilt to withstand challenges of the past, not the future, because that’s what declining civilizations do.


Every few years some event makes me come back  to The Long Descent, John Michael Greer’s book about the end of civilization as we know it. This time, it was Hurricane Harvey and the destruction in Houston.

The Long Descent came out in 2008, and I reviewed it for the Sift in 2010 (long enough ago that I’ll assume you either hadn’t discovered the Sift yet or lack encyclopedic recall of everything that’s been in it since). TLD is both depressing and reassuring: depressing because Greer thinks our civilization is already on the way down, and reassuring because he believes that a civilization-wide decline takes a very long time to play out. (The peak of the Roman Empire was in the 2nd century, but the last Caesar didn’t fall until the Ottomans captured Constantinople in 1453. As Adam Smith is supposed to have remarked in 1778, when told that Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga marked the ruin of England: “There is a great deal of ruin in a nation.“) So Greer doesn’t predict a Mad Max future for our children, just an era of greater difficulty and more constraint, followed by an era of even more difficulty and constraint for their children.

Oversimplifying greatly, Greer sees civilization as a constant struggle between Construction and Destruction. Construction is happening all the time and is fairly gradual, while Destruction tends to concentrate in big disasters. In an ascending civilization, Construction is the long-term winner; every big disaster is just an excuse to rebuild bigger and better, as London (1666) and Chicago (1871) did after their Great Fires.

But during the descent, Destruction has the upper hand: A certain amount of rebuilding happens after each disaster, and sometimes it even briefly looks like things have turned up again, but you never quite get back to the previous peak before the next disaster sends you reeling. A constant shortfall of constructive energy means that maintenance is always getting deferred, which invites the next disaster sooner than it would otherwise show up.

New Orleans, for example, had about 450K people before Katrina. It shrunk by about half immediately afterward, and has “recovered” back to about 390K. Pre-Harvey Houston clocked in at 2.3 million. What does its future hold?

That’s not really a fair comparison, though, because New Orleans was already shrinking before Katrina, while Houston has been growing. Houston is a still full of oil money,  so maybe its recovery will look more like London or Chicago.

However, there’s one way in which New Orleans and Houston are similar: Both were disasters waiting to happen, but it was always easier to live in denial of that fact than to build the infrastructure necessary to mitigate the destruction. New Orleans’ vulnerability was pointed out in 2002 (three years before Katrina) by a five-part series in The Times-Picayune:

It’s only a matter of time before South Louisiana takes a direct hit from a major hurricane. Billions have been spent to protect us, but we grow more vulnerable every day.

Houston’s precarious situation was described last year by Pro Publica and The Texas Tribune in their “Boomtown, Flood Town” series.

Houston is the fourth-largest city in the country. It’s home to the nation’s largest refining and petrochemical complex, where billions of gallons of oil and dangerous chemicals are stored. And it’s a sitting duck for the next big hurricane.

When New Orleans rebuilt, it only kinda-sorta dealt with the risks that Katrina had exposed. In 2015, Scientific American asked: “Is New Orleans Safer Today Than When Katrina Hit Ten Years Ago?

It took state officials, scientists and engineers seven years to finally agree on a master recovery plan, released in 2012, and only then did work begin in earnest. The region had dodged an annual bullet because no big hurricane had returned. But several shortcomings in the plan, being discussed by experts, raise questions about whether the New Orleans area is safer now and whether it will be safer in the future.

The article’s conclusion is that the center of New Orleans is now safe against the mythical “100-year storm” (an insurance standard based on pre-climate-change statistics) as long as the newly rebuilt levees and floodwalls are properly maintained. (In addition to normal deterioration, New Orleans is still sinking, so levees and floodwalls will need to be raised periodically.) But this is exactly the kind of maintenance that doesn’t get done in Greer’s model of declining civilizations. There’s always a budget crisis, a more urgent problem, and various other reasons to defer the work until next year.

Communities outside the city center, where more people live than in New Orleans proper, are as exposed as ever. Various kinds of human activity have destroyed the vegetation in the Mississippi Delta’s marshlands, so nothing slows down a storm surge. There’s a restoration plan, but it is still unfunded. Maybe the resources will come from BP’s settlement for the Deepwater Horizon disaster, maybe the rest of the local oil industry can be convinced or compelled to cough up money, or maybe somebody (local? state? federal?) will be willing to pay higher taxes. But the more likely scenario is that everybody will just cross their fingers and prepare to blame somebody else when the next storm hits.

Houston is bigger and richer than New Orleans, and Texas is bigger and richer than Louisiana, so maybe things will be different this time. But probably not. The Northeast is also richer than Louisiana, and the rebuilding after Hurricane Sandy is not encouraging. Last October, WNYC reported:

At first, Sandy seemed to be the calamity that was finally big enough to rouse the country to the arrival of climate change’s many risks. … But even as the inevitability of rising seas and extreme storms settled in, a chasm opened between the actions necessary and what would actually get done.

… Every 30 years FEMA tries to update flood maps which determine two things: cost of insurance and guidelines for building standards. Property owners get lower premiums if they meet or exceed FEMA’s standards.

What is not commonly understood is FEMA’s limitations. It is not allowed to use predictive science. It is supposed to use the present and past as guidelines, but it has not included Sandy’s impact in drafting the most recent maps that the communities are using to rebuild.

Even if FEMA is required to give obsolete advice to local builders, President Obama had at least managed to include climate change in the federal government’s own building plans. But President Trump just reversed that policy.

A key element of the new executive order rolls back standards set by former President Barack Obama that required the federal government to account for climate change and sea-level rise when building infrastructure.

His justification:

This overregulated permitting process is a massive self-inflicted wound on our country — it’s disgraceful — denying our people much-needed investments in their community.

In other words: Realistic federal regulations are too onerous; they slow down the building process and make it more expensive. Projects can be built faster and bigger and grander if we let ourselves live in a fantasy world.

Texas, where state government is also dominated by climate-change deniers, is not likely to buck this trend. So when Houston is rebuilt, it will undoubtedly be built to withstand last year’s weather, but not next year’s weather, and certainly not the weather of 2030. For a time, it will look fabulous. And then it won’t.

Rising civilizations respond to challenges with visionary bursts of construction. At the height of the British Empire, for example, London responded to a series of cholera epidemics and the Great Stink of 1858 by building a citywide sewer system that is still in use today.

But declining civilizations are always a step behind. They congratulate themselves for how well their plans would deal with yesterday’s problems, while ignoring the predictable challenges they soon will have to face.

Watching up close the forces Greer describes, I come to realize that decline is as much a psychological condition as an objective situation. A civilization on the cusp of decline may still have enough constructive energy to deal with its real challenges, if it faces them. But if instead it indulges in magical thinking, and builds for a fantasy future in which those challenges simply go away, then it will miss all its opportunities to turn things around. Its wishful thinking about its own greatness will be precisely what keeps it from ever making itself great again.

The Message in Joe Arpaio’s Pardon

[Disclosure: I was part of a protest outside of Tent City in 2012. That’s the trip I wrote about in “I Was Undocumented in Arizona“. I had misplaced my driver’s license before leaving home. But being white, I had no problems.]

President Trump’s pardon of Joe Arpaio got a lot of attention this weekend, but no one seemed to be pulling together everything we know.

Who is Arpaio and why do people have such strong feelings about him? For background on Arpaio’s 24-year reign of terror against Arizona’s Latinos, I recommend Rolling Stone‘s “The Long, Lawless Ride of Sheriff Joe Arpaio” from 2012. Arpaio is best known for his Tent City

the infamous jail he set up 20 years ago, in which some 2,000 inmates live under canvas tarps in the desert, forced to wear pink underwear beneath their black-and-white-striped uniforms while cracking rocks in the stifling heat. … From the start, the jail was notorious for its minimalist living conditions, which Arpaio says have saved Maricopa County millions of dollars in building and operational costs. Arpaio fed prisoners two meals a day (valued at 30 cents each), banned cigarettes and coffee, and boasted that temperatures in the summer can hit 141 degrees.

Any savings, though, have been more than eaten up by legal settlements paid to abused prisoners or their heirs. Way back in 2007, Phoenix New Times calculated:

[T]he cost to insure for and defend against Arpaio lawsuits totals $41.4 million.

Francisco Chairez gives a first-person account of serving a year in Arpaio’s jails on a drunk-driving charge. Reading it makes sense of what PNT found regarding the death rate in Arpaio’s jails.

[P]eople hang themselves in the sheriff’s jail at a rate that dwarfs other county lockups. And many of the deaths are classified as having occurred in the county hospital or in a cell without further explanation. People die and no one asks how; no one asks why.

Asking Arpaio’s office for the number of dead prisoners proved useless, but the coroner documented 157 deaths: 39 by hanging. 34 prisoners were found dead in the jail with no cause of death given, and 39 other unexplained deaths came after prisoners were transferred to the county hospital.

That’s 73 deaths — nearly half of all deaths — that county authorities list as “who knows?”

A 2011 report from the Justice Department found “a chronic culture of disregard for basic legal and constitutional obligations.”

Based upon our extensive investigation, we find reasonable cause to believe that [Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office] … engages in racial profiling of Latinos; unlawfully stops, detains, and arrests Latinos; and unlawfully retaliates against individuals who complain about or criticize MCSO’s policies or practices.

MCSO also

routinely punishes Latino [limited English proficient] inmates for failing to understand commands given in English and denies them critical services provided to the other inmates, all in violation of Title VI and its implementing regulations.

… MCSO has implemented practices that treat Latinos as if they are all undocumented, regardless of whether a legitimate factual basis exists to suspect that a person is undocumented.

DoJ brought in “a leading expert on measuring racial profiling through statistical analysis” who

concluded that this case involves the most egregious racial profiling in the United States that he has ever personally seen in the course of his work, observed in litigation, or reviewed in professional literature.

DoJ also found “a pattern of retaliatory actions intended to silence MCSO’s critics”.

MCSO command staff and deputies have arrested individuals without cause, filed meritless complaints against the political adversaries of Sheriff Arpaio, and initiated unfounded civil lawsuits and investigations against individuals critical of MCSO policies and practices.

For example, the two founders of PNT received a $3.75 million settlement from the County to compensate for Arpaio arresting them in the middle of the night on bogus charges.

The opposite of law and order. The manpower and resources for Arpaio’s anti-Latino crusade seem to have been drawn away from investigations of crimes with actual victims, making a joke out of Trump’s claim that “He kept Arizona safe!” The DoJ report says:

The Sheriff’s office has acknowledged that 432 cases of sexual assault and child molestation were not properly investigated over a three-year period ending in 2007. These cases only came to light after a review by the El Mirage Police Department of a period in which MCSO was under contract to provide policing services to that community. It appears that many of the victims may have been Latino.

Phoenix’ local CBS station highlighted the case of Sabrina Morrison, who at age 13 was raped by her uncle. MCSO told her mother that there was no evidence of a rape. “So I thought she was lying the whole time.”

What the family did not know was the sheriff’s detective sent the rape kit to the state crime lab. Two weeks later, the crime lab sent a notice to the MCSO Special Victim’s Unit confirming the sample contained semen, and asking for a blood sample from the suspect, Patrick Morrison.

Instead of making an arrest, a detective filed the crime lab note and closed the case for four years. It was five years before they arrested Patrick Morrison.

Meanwhile, Patrick continued raping Sabrina, who became pregnant, had an abortion, and was sent to live in a group home for “acting out”. An internal MCSO memo “blames a high case load, says the special victims unit had gone from five detectives to just three, and the detectives left were often called off their cases to investigate special assignments.” The County had to pay $3.5 million on that one, though it’s hard to imagine how any amount of money could truly compensate.

As outrageous as all that seems, county sheriff is an elected position, so as long as Arpaio had the support of the voters of Maricopa County — and vast quantities of outside money to convince those voters — there wasn’t much anybody else could do. Arpaio finally was defeated in 2016.

What he was convicted of. Crimes by law enforcement officers are notoriously hard to prove beyond a reasonable doubt, particularly when those crimes happen inside jails, where the perpetrators themselves control the crime scene. That’s why most of the cases against Arpaio have been tried in civil court, where the standard of proof is lower, but judgments are limited to monetary damages.

The crime Arpaio was pardoned for is criminal contempt of court, which carries a maximum sentence of six months in prison. Convicting him of contempt was somewhat like nailing Al Capone for tax evasion: It was far from the worst thing he did, but at least the evidence was clear. The satisfaction for Arpaio’s victims was mostly symbolic. Finally he had been recognized as a criminal.

That case has its origins in a 2007 civil suit about racial profiling. (Dan Magos, who joined the suit later and testified against Arpaio, describes what it’s like to be stopped and searched without any cause other than your ethnicity.) Vox tells how it became a criminal matter:

In 2011 … the judge in the racial profiling lawsuit issued an injunction preventing Arpaio from apprehending or detaining anyone purely on the basis of being a suspected unauthorized immigrant or turning such people over to federal agents.

In 2013, Arpaio officially lost the civil suit. But by that point, it had become clear that his department hadn’t actually been complying with Judge Murray Snow’s 2011 injunction. They’d continued to engage in immigration “sweeps,” turn people over to ICE (or, when ICE stopped accepting detainees from Arpaio’s deputies, Border Patrol), and hold suspected immigrants in jail after they’d otherwise be released for federal agents to pick them up.

After a series of hearings about the Maricopa Sheriff’s Office’s failure to comply with the 2011 order, Judge Snow cited Arpaio and a handful of his subordinates for civil contempt of court in 2015. Then, in 2016, he asked the US Attorney’s Office to charge Arpaio and three others with criminal contempt — which someone can only be convicted of if it’s shown they were willfully refusing to obey the court order, not just failing to make sure it was obeyed.

What job was he doing? During his recent rally in Phoenix, Trump asked the crowd “Was Sheriff Joe convicted for doing his job?” which strongly yelled its agreement that he was. Former Solicitor General Walter Dellinger tweeted:

Of bad pardons, this is the worst because it is an assault on law itself. Says Joe’s “job” was violating a federal court order.

And The Week ‘s Scott Lemieux commented:

To allow [Arpaio] to go unpunished is to celebrate the arbitrary use of state violence and to show contempt for the legal restraints public officials are supposed to be constrained by.

The best case for the just-doing-his-job point was made by Arizona Republic columnist Robert Robb. The court order didn’t just tell Arpaio to stop racial profiling — which would have been hard to enforce, since individual examples are easy to explain away. Instead, the judge ordered Arpaio to stay clear of the situations that led to abuses.

He ordered Arpaio to get out of the immigration enforcement business altogether. Even with a legal stop, Arpaio was to either charge people with a state crime or let them go. No detaining them or turning them over to federal officials for immigration violations. … Arpaio wasn’t criminally convicted for illegally using race in traffic stops. He was criminally convicted for turning illegal immigrants over to federal officials. And here things get messy.

To me, though, this is no more messy than getting convicted of violating a restraining order in a domestic violence case. Robb’s complaint (or Arpaio’s behalf) is like the guy who says, “They didn’t catch me hitting her again, they just arrested me for walking behind her on the street.”

Even Robb admits:

even if Snow’s order was an overreach, Arpaio’s duty was to obey it while appealing it.

“Constitutional” sheriffs. However, there’s another point of view at issue: Robb is assuming that federal judges have authority over county sheriffs. Not everybody, and not all sheriffs, agree.

One radical right-wing movement that gets little publicity has to do with so-called “constitutional sheriffs“. The idea is that the county sheriff is the only elected law enforcement officer, and so his authority is primary within his jurisdiction, superseding the authority of state and federal officials. So if agents of the FBI or IRS or BLM show up in your town, the county sheriff has the authority to tell them to go away. (So far as I know, no court recognizes this authority.)

If you have run into these folks before, it was probably during the standoff with the Bundy militia at Malheur National Forest last year. The constitutional sheriffs and the Bundies draw from the same well of crazy.

Like Nazis and Klansmen, constitutional sheriffs (and the people who support them) are part of a small radical fringe that Trump panders to and refuses to offend. Often he dog-whistles by using phrases that mean something special to them. The idea that Arpaio was “doing his job” rather than following federal court orders is right up their alley.

Sending a message. We have to wonder why the Arpaio pardon happened when it did, because the case was not in any sense ripe. Arpaio still had options to appeal his conviction. If the Supreme Court agreed with Robert Robb, that the order Arpaio disobeyed was an over-reach by the judge, they might have thrown the whole thing out. Even if the conviction stood, he hadn’t been sentenced yet, and might not have gotten jail time at all. (Since he isn’t sheriff any more, courts might not be motivated to teach him a lesson.)

So Trump might have gotten the result he wanted just by watching and doing nothing. If not, he could have intervened down the road, before Arpaio began serving his sentence. So why now?

One obvious implication is that the pardon is meant to send a message: to Trump’s base, obviously, but also to other law enforcement officers, to the courts, and to Trump associates who might be tempted to cut a deal with the Mueller investigation.

Law enforcement people have to see this as part of a package with other messages: Trump’s speech urging police to be “rough” with Hispanic gang suspects, his even-handed approach to Nazis and the people who protest against Nazis, and his unwillingness to speak out against the bombing of a Minneapolis mosque.  Put together, those all say: Violence is OK, as long as people Trump likes are doing it to people Trump doesn’t like. In particular, if you are in law enforcement and feel like violating the civil rights of non-whites or non-Christians, don’t worry; the President has your back.

Judges have to see the pardon as an attack on the independence of the judiciary. Contempt of court is the only real enforcement mechanism behind judicial injunctions. If a pardon is an option for local officials who follow the Trump agenda in defiance of court orders, that shakes up the balance of power between the judicial and executive branches of government.

Finally, it seems more and more apparent that the Mueller investigation is closing in on Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, and maybe some lesser figures associated with them. If this were an investigation into a Mafia family or a corrupt corporation, investigators would be expecting to flip one of these underlings against the guy at the top. In this case, however, the guy at the top wields the pardon power. Trump just reminded everybody that he isn’t afraid to take heat for using it.

Fascism as a Unifying Principle

Trump is scary when he tries to divide Americans against each other. But his vision of unity is even scarier.


The televised speech Donald Trump gave last Monday evening was billed as the introduction of a new military strategy for Afghanistan, but it began with a plea for national unity.

During the previous week, the President had been taking heat for his statements about the white supremacy rally in Charlottesville, which he said was attended by “very fine people” in addition to the obvious Nazis and Klansmen. The rally’s violence, which culminated in a white supremacist ramming his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others, was the fault of “both sides”.

Critics (like me) saw Trump siding with racists and bigots, and refusing to hold them to the same standards he applies so enthusiastically to Hispanics and Muslims. Across much of the mainstream liberal-to-conservative spectrum, pundits wondered: Couldn’t he at least try to be a little bit presidential and say something unifying rather than divisive?

In the Afghanistan speech, he tried. I don’t want to take him out of context, so I quote at length:

Since the founding of our republic, our country has produced a special class of heroes whose selflessness, courage, and resolve is unmatched in human history.

American patriots from every generation have given their last breath on the battlefield for our nation and for our freedom. Through their lives — and though their lives were cut short, in their deeds — they achieved total immortality.

By following the heroic example of those who fought to preserve our republic, we can find the inspiration our country needs to unify, to heal, and to remain one nation under God. The men and women of our military operate as one team, with one shared mission, and one shared sense of purpose.

They transcend every line of race, ethnicity, creed, and color to serve together — and sacrifice together — in absolutely perfect cohesion. That is because all servicemembers are brothers and sisters. They’re all part of the same family; it’s called the American family. They take the same oath, fight for the same flag, and live according to the same law. They are bound together by common purpose, mutual trust, and selfless devotion to our nation and to each other.

The soldier understands what we, as a nation, too often forget: that a wound inflicted upon a single member of our community is a wound inflicted upon us all. When one part of America hurts, we all hurt. And when one citizen suffers an injustice, we all suffer together.

Loyalty to our nation demands loyalty to one another. Love for America requires love for all of its people. When we open our hearts to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice, no place for bigotry, and no tolerance for hate.

The young men and women we send to fight our wars abroad deserve to return to a country that is not at war with itself at home. We cannot remain a force for peace in the world if we are not at peace with each other.

As we send our bravest to defeat our enemies overseas — and we will always win — let us find the courage to heal our divisions within. Let us make a simple promise to the men and women we ask to fight in our name that, when they return home from battle, they will find a country that has renewed the sacred bonds of love and loyalty that unite us together as one.

I got chills listening to that, but not in a good way.

Probably most Americans who heard the speech didn’t share my sense of ominous foreboding. If you’re a Trump supporter, you probably heard the kind of bold patriotic sentiments you wish our leaders would express more often. And even those who listen to Trump cynically probably heard only boilerplate rhetoric: Our country is good, our soldiers are brave, so let’s all wave our flags and try to get along.

But there’s something deeper going on in this passage. It expresses a vision deeply at odds with the traditions of the American Republic.

The vision of the Founders, which they embodied in the Constitution, is of a social contract: In order to secure our own rights, we recognize the rights of others. Because we want respect for ourselves, we grant respect to to our neighbors. “As I would not be a slave,” Abraham Lincoln said when he was running for the Senate not quite four-score years later, “so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy.”

Lincoln said nothing about “loving” the slaves, because in the American tradition that’s not where rights come from. America has never been about love, neither love for each other nor even love for the Nation as an abstract entity. (On the other side of the Mason-Dixon line, many were denying any emotional connection at all with the Nation. The States, they held, had merely formed a confederation, which had no claim whatsoever on the loyalty of individuals.)

What Trump is describing on the other hand, is a sort of emotional socialism. In economic socialism, the Nation collects money and redistributes it to make sure everybody gets a share. But in Trump’s vision the Nation is the focus of our love, which it then redistributes to all our fellow citizens. “When we open our hearts to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice, no place for bigotry, and no tolerance for hate.”

This is not a new idea for Trump; it was in his Inaugural Address:

At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other. When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice.

The basic pattern goes back much further, to a Masonic phrase that was taken up by many 19th-century Christians: “The brotherhood of Man under the fatherhood of God.” You should love other people, because you love God and God loves them.

But Trump’s formulation has one very significant twist: America is playing the role of God. In a nutshell, that’s what nationalism is: an idolatry in which the Nation becomes the central object of worship — God the Fatherland.

Now look at the other concepts Trump is presenting: total allegiance, loyalty, patriotism, heroes sacrificing themselves to become immortal, the obedient military as the ideal to which the rest of society should aspire, and our dead heroes as the symbol of the moral debt we owe to our country.

These are the emotional underpinnings of fascism.

You may not recognize them as such, because all our lives we’ve been told that fascism is ugly. These sentiments, though, don’t seem ugly at all, at least at first glance. On the contrary, they are moving and inspiring, noble and even beautiful in their own way. We all want to be immortal, we want see ourselves as selfless heroes, we want to love and be loved by those around us. Particularly at this cynical moment in history, we want to believe that something is worthy of our total allegiance.

We are like crusaders who have trained all our lives to battle a dark and hideous Devil, and so are completely unprepared when we encounter Lucifer, the Morning Star, the shining Angel of Light.

Fascism in its original form wasn’t all book-burnings and death camps. It was also a good job building the autobahn, wholesome outings with the Hitler Youth, and a feeling that your country was moving again; France and Britain weren’t going to kick it around any more.

I’ve urged you before to watch Triumph of the Will, the classic propaganda film that recorded the pageantry surrounding the Nazi Party Congress of 1934. You will find nothing ugly in it, other than your own knowledge of what comes next. In one rally after another, different groups of Germans focus their love on Hitler, the symbol of the German Fatherland, who reflects it back to them.

It’s beautiful. Hitler talks not about himself, but only of Germany and the greatness of the German people. He calls for them to be unified as never before. A group of infrastructure workers march by, in uniform, each carrying a spade as a soldier would a rifle (because the military is the model all should aspire to). Hitler tells them:

The concept of labor will no longer be a dividing one but a uniting one, and no longer will there be anybody in Germany who will regard manual labor any less highly than any other form of labor.

To a group of children he says:

We want to be a united nation, and you, my youth, are to become this nation. In the future, we do not wish to see classes and castes, and you must not allow them to develop among you. One day, we want to see one nation.

Only in hindsight do we see the flaw in this system: If we focus our love on the Nation (and on the Leader who symbolizes the Nation), and the Nation reflects that love to its citizens, then the Nation can cut off the flow of love to anyone it decides no longer belongs to it. In Germany, the exclusion process started with Jews and Socialists, and then spread until it reached people like Martin Niemöller. The suffering of the excluded wasn’t worthy of compassion, because they were never respected for what was inherent in their humanity. Germans had only loved them because they thought (wrongly, as they were later informed) that such people belonged to their Nation.

You can already see a similar exclusion starting to happen in Trump’s speech. Did you catch that “one nation under God”? Where are America’s atheists and agnostics in that vision? When we love America, do we love them as well? Or have they already been cast out?

And how specific is Trump intending to be when he says “God”? Americans who worship Allah or Brahma or some larger pantheon — are they under God, as Trump and his evangelical base understand the term? What about Jews or Unitarians, who fail to recognize two-thirds of the Trinity? Or liberal Christians, who may have a more deistic, impersonal view of the Creator? When we unify as “one nation under God”, who are we intending to leave out?

Another (largely Catholic) group is so obviously excluded that it need not even be mentioned: immigrants from Hispanic or other not-recognized-as-white cultures. They are being cast out in a literal, physical sense. So when ICE knocks on their doors in the middle of the night, we can avert our eyes and feel nothing. We need not inquire where they are going or what will happen to them. No one should be held accountable for abusing or mistreating them. The Nation and its Leader does not love them, so neither should we.

A Few Points About Confederate Monuments

Confederate monuments and what they represent has been an issue I keep coming back to. In 2014’s “Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party” I made the case that these are “victory monuments” for the eventual triumph of white supremacy in the South after the overthrow of Reconstruction. After the Charleston massacre in 2015, I urged people to “Please Take Down Your Confederate Flag“, arguing that pro-Confederate symbols of all types are hopelessly entangled in racism, no matter what you may intend when you display them.

Those points have only been magnified by the recent Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. Undeniably, Nazi, KKK, and other alt-Right groups take inspiration from Confederate monuments, and regard Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson as heroes because they fought for white supremacy. All over the country, monuments are being toppled or moved or transformed-in-place by the addition of explanatory plaques or statues of civil rights heroes.

A number of white supremacists and people who claim they aren’t white supremacists, including President Trump, are defending the monuments. But the points they’re making are almost entirely bogus. Here are my responses.

The Confederacy can’t be separated from slavery. Claims to the contrary usually hinge on a few half-truths. Abraham Lincoln, for example, didn’t run for president on a platform of ending slavery, but only of preventing its expansion. Once the war started he was slow to embrace it as an abolitionist crusade, and sometimes explicitly denied that purpose. (The Emancipation Proclamation didn’t take effect until January 1, 1863, more than two years after the first southern state seceded. Congress didn’t pass the 13th Amendment until the war was nearly over.) Although Lincoln hoped for slavery’s eventual end, war-for-emancipation was not his method of choice.

But the Confederate states, on the other hand, had no similar ambivalence. South Carolina’s “Declaration of Immediate Causes” for its secession pointed to Lincoln’s opposition to slavery as the most immediate cause:

A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery.

A few weeks before war broke out, Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens gave his “Cornerstone Speech“, in which he found fault with Jefferson’s statement that “all men are created equal”.

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.

A long list of similar quotes could be produced. Slavery was the Confederacy’s reason to exist. The war to defend the Confederacy was seen at the time as a war to defend slavery; the two causes were identical. Only after the South’s defeat did the Lost Cause mythology postulate alternative causes for the war.

We should never forget our history, but not all of it deserves to be celebrated. In his speech just before the removal of a Lee statue, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said: “There is a difference between remembrance of history and reverence of it.”

To see that difference, contrast the Charlottesville statue of Robert E. Lee (particularly as it sat in Lee Park, before the city renamed it) to The Topography of Terror museum in Berlin, where the Gestapo’s headquarters used to stand. The Germans could have “remembered” that site by turning it into Himmler Park, and centering it on a triumphant statue of the Gestapo’s commander, but they chose not to.

Lee, of course, was not Himmler. A better German parallel would be Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, a brilliant military tactician whose genius was applied in the defense of an evil regime. Rommel actually deserves a somewhat better place in history than Lee, because of his suspected role in a plot against Hitler. Nonetheless, Germans don’t name their high schools after him. (According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, 109 American public schools are named for Lee, roughly twice as many as are named for Benjamin Franklin, a far greater American. What’s that about?)

Vox underlines this contrast:

But unlike in Germany, where memorials to the victims of the Holocaust are erected on the ruins of Nazi buildings as a way to teach future generations about the sins and horrors of the past, most Confederate statues were designed to glorify the sins and horrors of the past.

Present-day defenders of the Confederacy create a false choice between celebrating Confederate history and erasing it. No one wants America to forget slavery and the rebellion that sought to preserve it. Critics of Confederate monuments simply want to stop glorifying the Slave Empire, particularly in cities like New Orleans, where so many citizens are descended from slaves.

Many Confederate monuments were built to promote false history. Mayor Landrieu noted that the South’s monuments are at best a selective remembrance.

So when people say to me that the monuments in question are history, well what I just described is real history as well, and it is the searing truth. And it immediately begs the questions: why there are no slave ship monuments, no prominent markers on public land to remember the lynchings or the slave blocks; nothing to remember this long chapter of our lives; the pain, the sacrifice, the shame … all of it happening on the soil of New Orleans.

So for those self-appointed defenders of history and the monuments, they are eerily silent on what amounts to this historical malfeasance, a lie by omission.

Sometimes the lies aren’t by omission, but are direct Lost Cause propaganda. For example, the inscription on the Confederate monument in Decatur, Georgia tells a glorious story of the Confederacy that has nothing to do with slavery. It was erected in 1908, when Lost Cause mythology had become Southern dogma.

Reconstruction history has been similarly misrepresented. One of the most shameful episodes of the Reconstruction Era was the Colfax Massacre, where a disputed election led white Democrats to attack blacks defending a county courthouse and murder those who surrendered. Such violence was a key element in whites regaining control of southern state governments and ultimately disenfranchising blacks completely. The official marker describes it like this:

Many Confederate monuments were intentionally built to celebrate white supremacy and intimidate uppity blacks.  “Historical” monuments are rarely entirely about the era depicted; usually their builders are also trying to make a symbolic statement about their own era.

You can see that in the following graph of the creation of Confederate monuments. There are two peak periods: During (and just after) the establishment of Jim Crow early in the 20th century, and when Jim Crow is being disestablished during the Civil Rights era of the 1950s and 60s; this is also when the Confederate flag regained popularity.

Wikipedia:

Between 1890 and 1910, ten of the eleven former Confederate states, starting with Mississippi, passed new constitutions or amendments that effectively disenfranchised most blacks and tens of thousands of poor whites through a combination of poll taxes, literacy and comprehension tests, and residency and record-keeping requirements.

National Geographic:

Once the Dixiecrats got a hold of it as a matter of defiance against their Democratic colleagues in the north and the African Americans in their midst, then the Confederate battle flag took on a new life, or a second life. In the 1950s, as the Civil Rights Movement built up steam, you began to see more and more public displays of the Confederate battle flag, to the point where the state of Georgia in 1956 redesigned their state flag to include the Confederate battle flag.

The timing suggests that Confederate symbolism has less to do with remembering the Civil War than with reminding blacks that whites are in power.

There is no slippery slope from Robert E. Lee to George Washington. In his Tuesday new conference, Trump asked:

So this week, it is Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?

George Washington did indeed own slaves. Thomas Jefferson not only owned slaves, he fathered children with one of them and raised those children as his slaves. None of these facts should make Americans proud, and the monuments we build to Washington and Jefferson should acknowledge such failings. (Mount Vernon and Monticello do acknowledge them.)

In each case, our challenge is to see our Founders as people of their time and place, rather than as faultless gods. Slave-owning complicates our pictures of Washington and Jefferson, but doesn’t undo the positive roles they played in creating the United States, defining ideals we still struggle to live up to, and leading the nation through its difficult early decades.

The difference between the Founders and Confederate heroes like Lee, Jackson, and Davis is that the Confederacy is their only claim to historical significance. When we honor them, then, what we are honoring is their defense of slavery, because they have no positive accomplishments of comparable importance. You cannot, for example, separate the Charlottesville statue of a uniformed Lee on his horse from what he is doing on that horse: leading the defense of a government created to protect the right of whites to enslave blacks.

By contrast, I know of no monuments to Washington and Jefferson as slave owners — no statues showing Washington with a whip in his hand and blacks cowering before him, and none honoring Jefferson’s sexual abuse of Sally Hemmings. If there are any, they should come down; those are not the things we want to celebrate about Washington and Jefferson. But monuments to the Declaration of Independence, the Yorktown victory, and the early presidencies should stand.

What should be done with Confederate monuments? Each one should be judged separately according to

  1. what the purpose of the monument is, and
  2. how the local community feels about it.

Let me start by describing two monuments I think should stay. After the war, Robert E. Lee became president of Washington College, which is now Washington and Lee University. He is buried on campus beneath Lee Chapel, where there is a statue of him sleeping. The statue is clearly a remembrance of the man rather than a celebration of white supremacy. Similarly, Stonewall Jackson was a professor at the Virginia Military Institute before the war; it is entirely appropriate for VMI, a military school, to honor their most famous general.

Other remembrances should stay as well: Plaques and monuments enhance cemeteries and battlefields, as long as the inscriptions are accurate. And of course there should be museums that give a broader context to historical events.

No one really wants history forgotten, least of all the victims.

But a monument is suspect if it glorifies people or events that those who have to live with it find shameful or insulting. (To bring that point home to white Southerners, someone started a Facebook page proposing to erect a statue of General Sherman in Atlanta.) Some historical names are so offensive they could pass for inventions of The Onion, like the majority-black high school in Florida that until recently was named for KKK founder Nathan Bedford Forrest. (Forrest had no personal connection to the area. The name appears to have been chosen in the 1950s to protest court-mandated school desegregation.) If Arlington, Virginia wants to rename its segment of the Jefferson Davis Highway, it should be allowed to do so.

One hopes that local people can meet each other with empathy and work out compromises. Sometimes moving a statue to a more obscure park or to a museum would suffice. A critical plaque could be added, or the impact of a monument balanced by new competing monuments. What will not do is an attitude of “We like it, so deal with it.” That’s what supremacy is all about.