Category Archives: Articles

The Brazen Cynicism of the Tax-Reform Vote


Without even the appearance of doing something good for the country, the Senate plunged ahead.


I admit it: Senate Republicans surprised me this week.

I know, it shouldn’t be shocking that Republicans would give a big windfall to corporations and the very rich. It’s what they do. Just last summer, they came within one vote of taking healthcare away from 20-some million Americans so that the wealthy could pay less tax.

Usually, though, they do a better job of giving themselves cover. The fringe of the party includes people like Susan Collins and John McCain, who try to retain at least the appearance of a conscience. It also includes clever apologists, whose arguments often obscure what’s really going on and make it possible to claim some noble purpose.

But by early Saturday morning, when the Senate passed its tax reform proposal on a nearly party-line vote, those justifications were all gone. This bill was about paying off the big donors and enriching the Trump family, and everybody knew it. Some senators continued mouthing words like growth and middle-class families, but they weren’t arguing any more, they were just lying. They weren’t fooling anybody, and they didn’t seem to care.

In the end, 51 Republicans voted for the bill, with only Bob Corker opposed. All 48 Democrats voted against it. (Remember that, the next time someone claims there’s no difference between the parties.) One by one, the last holdouts had tossed away their fig leaves and jumped into the mire.

  • John McCain, who gave such a moving speech about returning to regular order before he cast the deciding vote against ObamaCare repeal in July, was unperturbed by a very similar process this time, in which the 479-page bill was not available for inspection until a few hours before the vote.
  • Susan Collins, who in the summer seemed to worry deeply about people losing their health insurance, stopped worrying and accepted the Senate leadership’s promises about future legislation that I will be very surprised to see pass the House (unless it’s paired with a whole bunch of really bad things).
  • Jeff Flake, who (like just about all Republicans) seemed to believe during the Obama years that the deficit was a looming catastrophe, and who supposedly had achieved his independence by choosing not to run for re-election, decided that an extra trillion or two of debt really wasn’t worth getting excited about.

So this is where we are: A similar-but-not-identical bill passed the House in mid-November, so a conference committee will have to work out a compromise bill that both houses can pass. In other words, there is still room for something to go wrong, but some bill of this form is increasingly likely to become law by the end of the year.

The numbers. All along, independent analyses from the Tax Policy Center, the Penn-Wharton Budget Model, and even Congress’ own CBO had been telling a very consistent story: The bill would lead to major increases in the deficit with little-to-no long-term benefits for anybody but the wealthy.

This conclusion was supported by anecdotal evidence. The centerpiece of the bill — lowering the corporate tax rate from 35% to 20% — was supposed to generate massive new investments in production, creating so many jobs that workers would have bargaining power again, raising wages for everybody. But whenever actual corporate CEOs were consulted, they said they would pass the money on to shareholders through dividends or stock buy-backs rather than build new factories or pay workers more. Bloomberg reported:

That money is also unlikely to spur hiring because companies are already well-capitalized and can bring on as many employees as they need, said John Shin, a foreign-exchange strategist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

“Companies are sitting on large amounts of cash. They’re not really financially constrained,” Shin, who conducted a survey of more than 300 companies asking their plans for a tax overhaul, said in an interview. “They’re still working for their shareholders, primarily.”

Right up until Thursday, though, Republicans were hoping more favorable numbers would appear. Congress’ Joint Committee on Taxation hadn’t weighed in yet, and they were known to use the dynamic-scoring model conservatives favor, the one that figures in the effects of tax-cut-induced growth. The Treasury Department supposedly had over 100 people churning out analyses; presumably Secretary Mnuchin had seen their preliminary results when he claimed that the proposal wouldn’t just be deficit neutral, it would “pay down debt” by generating more new revenue than the tax cuts gave up.

The JCT analysis came out Thursday, just hours before the Senate was scheduled to vote. Its most favorable dynamic scoring said that increased economic growth would restore about 1/3 of the revenue lost, so that the deficit would only increase by $1 trillion rather than the nominal $1.5 trillion. A third is better than nothing, but even if you allowed for growth, the deficit was going up.

Would this guy lie to you?

But what about Mnuchin and the Treasury? It turned out that they had no analysis, or at least none they were willing to make public.

Those inside Treasury’s Office of Tax Policy, which Mr. Mnuchin has credited with running the models, say they have been largely shut out of the process and are not working on the type of detailed analysis that he has mentioned. An economist at the Office of Tax Analysis, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to jeopardize his job, said Treasury had not released a “dynamic” analysis showing that the tax plan would be paid for with economic growth because one did not exist.

So Mnuchin’s many public statements about tax reform had been airy nonsense, grounded in nothing. Meanwhile, here’s what the JCT projected for American families:

(Here’s the same information as a series of charts.) In other words: More than 1/3 of U.S. households will never get anything out of this bill, not even in the first few years. That situation gets progressively worse until nearly all the individual cuts expire in 2027, at which point about 1 in 4 are paying higher taxes, while only 16% still see a tax cut of more than $100.

Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn dealt with this convergence of expert analysis by saying, “I think it’s pretty clear they’re wrong.” Just because.

Full speed ahead. The original plan had been for the Senate to vote on Thursday. But the surprising (to some) revelation that the JCT analysis agreed in principle with all the other analyses, that nothing to the contrary would being coming out of the Treasury, and so the claims they were making had literally no basis — it threw a wrench into the process.

Many options were possible at that point. The bill could have gone back to committee to be scaled down into a defensible form. Maybe 20% was a bridge too far, and corporations would have to be satisfied with a 25% tax rate. That would create some room to fulfill the original stated purpose of the bill: cutting middle-class taxes for real this time.

Maybe the deficit didn’t have to go up, either. Back in 2012, President Obama had proposed a 28% rate that he claimed would produce more revenue than the 35% rate, without any analytic sleight-of-hand. Both parties have acknowledged for years that our high-rates-with-many-loopholes corporate tax system is inefficient. With a little genuine give-and-take, leaders on both sides might assemble a bipartisan coalition of  60 votes or more, avoiding the reconciliation process entirely.

Or, Mitch McConnell could scrawl a few last-minute changes in the margins to assuage the doubts the last few Republican hold-outs, and the Senate could shamelessly go forward with a bill to borrow an extra trillion dollars or more so that the GOP could give a big Christmas present to the very rich. But if they were going to do it, they’d better do it fast, before the public was able to organize against this already very unpopular bill.

By now, you know which choice they made.

The people they betrayed. One way the Senate got its bill to fit onto the procrustean bed of the $1.5 trillion-over-ten-years price tag authorized by the FY2018 budget resolution was to make of a now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t gimmick Paul Krugman refers to as Schroedinger’s tax hike. The budget numbers work because only the corporate tax cuts are permanent; the individual cuts mostly phase out, resulting in this graph from the JCT.

(These numbers refer to an earlier version of the bill, but I believe a similar graph could be drawn for the current version.)

Republicans are arguing that those tax breaks [for individuals] won’t actually be temporary, that future Congresses will extend them. But they also need to assume that those tax breaks really will expire in order to meet their budget numbers. So the temporary tax breaks need, for political purposes, to be both alive and dead.

So either individual taxes will turn sharply upwards in 2025, or the tax-reform bill costs a whole lot more than $1.5 trillion. It’s one or the other. Ezra Klein points out the “pure fraud” in the deficit arguments Republicans have been making for years.

The GOP spent the Obama years in a frenzy over debt and deficits. Now they are passing a tax bill that will add trillions to the national debt, complete with budget gimmicks that, if they play out the way Republicans are publicly hoping they will play out, will lead to an even higher price tag.

When a Democrat is in the White House, the national debt is an existential crisis that threatens to bring down the Republic. But that threat magically vanishes when a Republican takes office.

So if you believed what Republicans told you about the deficit then, they’ve betrayed you now. But they’ve also betrayed you if you believed the populist side of Trump’s 2016 message. Because here’s where we are, prior to this bill becoming law: The national debt is around $20 trillion, and is already projected to increase to $30 trillion over the next ten years. Rather than do anything about that, Congress is in the act of tossing another trillion or two on top it. (BTW: In the speech where he announced his candidacy, Trump said: “$24 trillion— we’re very close— that’s the point of no return. $24 trillion. We will be there soon. That’s when we become Greece. That’s when we become a country that’s unsalvageable. And we’re gonna be there very soon.”)

So what about that big infrastructure project Trump talked about? (“So we have to rebuild our infrastructure, our bridges, our roadways, our airports. You come into La Guardia Airport, it’s like we’re in a third world country.”) Where’s the money for that going to come from? How’s he going to keep his promise not to cut Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, once the trillion-a-year deficits start happening? (“Save Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security without cuts. Have to do it.”)

He won’t keep that promise. He’s already breaking it.

If this passes, there will be no money left for populism, and no money left to save the programs the middle class depends on. They’ll have given it all to the rich.

They’re doing it as you read this, and they’re being totally brazen about it.

The Looming End of Net Neutrality (and why you should care)

Should the economy be organized to benefit producers and consumers, or a few big middlemen? We’ve been answering that question wrong since Ronald Reagan, and we’re about to do it again.


The FCC, with its new Republican majority, is proposing to end the era of net neutrality. If you’re some kind of internet nerd, you probably already know exactly what that means and have had a strong opinion about it for a long time. If not, though, it probably sounds like one of those intense debates nerds often have about mysterious topics like databases or user interfaces: You have no idea what they’re talking about, you don’t bother to find out, and whatever results from the argument, it never seems to bite you.

This one is going to bite you. When the bite comes, it might arrive in a form you won’t easily connect back to this decision. But it is going to bite you. It’s going to bite the whole economy.

To explain how and why, let me detour through a subject you probably do care about: economic inequality. Here’s a graph I keep posting in one form or another, because I think it points to the most significant fact in American politics: Up until around 1980, median income closely tracked productivity. And then something happened to disconnect them. Productivity kept increasing, but median income stagnated.

Unsurprisingly, this has led to a concentration of income at the top: The people who make wages have lost ground, while the people who pay wages have gained.

And the greatest concentration has been at the very tip-top: The share of wealth held by the top tenth of a percent has reached levels not seen since the Great Depression.

So what happened in 1980? The facile answer is that Ronald Reagan was elected president. But that explanation is too simple, because a president doesn’t deal out national wealth like a deck of cards. What did Reagan do, if anything, that touched off this new Gilded Age of concentrated wealth?

Again, there’s a too-simple answer: He cut taxes on the rich, and he broke unions. Those actions certainly did help the wealthy and harm the middle class, but they’re not enough to explain what happened. If that were all he did, subsequent presidents should have been able to undo it.

To really understand the Reagan impact, you need to apply David Graeber’s definition of a successful revolution: Reagan changed the political common sense of his era in a way that has stuck ever since. Since Reagan, one of the basic debates in American politics has been framed as Freedom vs. Regulation, with a corollary debate of Productivity vs. Regulation. In each case, Regulation was framed as the wrong side to be on: It limits our freedom and strangles our productivity.

The result has been a completely reshuffled economy, which I first started discussing in a 2012 post “Monopoly’s Role in Inequality“.

[M]arkets are created by rules, and the rules can be structured to favor either the ends (producers and consumers) or the middle. Producers and consumers benefit from transparent markets, where the rules force middlemen to treat everyone more-or-less the same.

But markets can also be structured to give middlemen as much freedom as possible. The most profitable way to use that freedom is to create choke-points where a toll can be extracted or one producer can be played off against another. In an opaque market, the way to get rich is not to produce things, but to build middleman power that allows you to dictate terms up and down the supply chain.

What we have today, after nearly 40 years of freedom-for-the-middleman de-regulation, is an economy full of choke points. The path to vast wealth is not to make something people want (as Henry Ford made cheap automobiles) or to discover something people need (as J. Paul Getty and H. L. Hunt found oil), but to insinuate yourself between producers and consumers, create a monopolistic choke point, and charge tolls.

WalMart and Amazon, for example, are choke points; if you want to sell a product to the general public, you have to deal with them on their terms. Visa and MasterCard are choke points; retailers need them, and have to pay whatever fees they set. Cable companies are choke points; creators of TV shows can’t reach viewers without them. Google is a choke point; if you’re hoping to get around WalMart and Amazon by selling over the internet, your website needs to show up when people search for your type of product. [1]

The upshot is that post-Reagan America is no longer a place where you can build a better mousetrap and expect the world to beat a path to your door. Instead, you build the mousetrap, and then you pay off the owners of the choke points between yourself and the mousetrap-buying public. Maybe some small profit will be left for you and maybe it won’t, but the choke-point owners will do well. [2]

There are a few things worth noticing about this situation:

  • In the short run, the choke-point owners often look like the good guys. Amazon has low prices; Visa gives you cash back. Middlemen often temporarily align with consumers in order to gain more power over producers. But the pattern of all monopolists remains: Once power is consolidated, it will encroach in both directions.
  • We all need producers. You’re not just a consumer who spends money, you need to make money too. And since ordinary people have no chance of owning their own choke points, most of us have to make money by finding a place on the productive side of the economy, by participating in the delivery of some good or service. Choke points stop middle-class people from moving up by starting their own businesses, and they siphon money away from the kinds of productive businesses that hire people.
  • “Freedom” can be anti-productivity. Given the prevailing post-Reagan political common sense, that sounds like a contradiction, but it really isn’t. If middlemen have freedom to play producers off against each other and keep the lion’s share of profits for themselves, then more of the economy’s investment will be in middlemen, and less in producers. Conversely, regulations that limit the power of middlemen are pro-productivity.

Now let’s get back to net neutrality: The point of net neutrality regulations is to control middlemen who own a major chunk of our economic infrastructure: the internet service providers like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T. Once they’re freed from regulation, you can expect them to set up choke points and charge tolls. (This is how it works in Portugal.)

If you provide some service over the internet, for example, you will find yourself competing for the favor of ISPs rather than consumers. Maybe Netflix will pay Verizon so that its streaming service comes in faster and with higher quality than Amazon Prime; or maybe Amazon will outbid it. [3] In either case, the new revenue stream for Verizon either means higher prices for consumers or less spent by Amazon or Netflix on new content. It’s basically just a wound through which Verizon can suck blood out of the productive economy.

Wired suggests that we guess how the ISPs will use this power by looking at what they already do in data-limited plans:

When AT&T customers access its DirecTV Now video-streaming service, the data doesn’t count against their plan’s data limits. Verizon, likewise, exempts its Go90 service from its customers’ data plans. T-Mobile allows multiple video and music streaming services to bypass its data limits, essentially allowing it to pick winners and losers in those categories.

Consumers will likely see more arrangements like these, granting or blocking access to specific content … Net neutrality advocates have long worried that these sorts of preferential offerings harm competition, and by extension, consumers, by making it harder for smaller providers to compete. A company like Netflix or Amazon can likely shell out to sponsor data, but smaller companies don’t necessarily have the budget. … the future internet, then, could look a more extreme version of today’s mobile plans, with different pricing tiers for different levels of video quality for different apps. That means more customer choice, but perhaps not in the way anyone actually wants.

In the conservative fantasy world, the toll collectors will use some fraction of their windfall profits to improve their broadband networks (just as corporations in general will generously use their Trump tax cuts to hire more workers and pay them higher wages). In reality, though, it will be one more opportunity for parasites to latch on to the productive economy. The parasites will do well; ordinary people, not so much.


[1] Apple is an interesting hybrid. It makes things people want, like iPhones. But it too sees how the post-Reagan economy works and wants to evolve into a choke-point company. Already, its App Store is a choke point for software builders, iTunes is a choke point for music producers, and it would like ApplePay to become a choke point upstream from Visa and MasterCard.

[2] A choke point I face on this blog is Facebook. Three years ago, Facebook’s algorithms allowed posts on no-name blogs to go viral. (2014’s “Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party” got more than half a million hits.) Now that’s much harder. (2017’s most popular Sift post has less than 4,000 hits.) Meanwhile, I’m constantly bombarded with suggestions that I should pay Facebook to get more visibility. I suspect Google does something similar to video bloggers on YouTube.

The analogy isn’t quite perfect, because I’m not trying to make money off my readers. But Josh Marshall at TPM is trying to make money, in an environment he described recently as a “digital media crash“. The situation was tough to begin with, and then …

Then came the platform monopolies: Google, Facebook and a few others. Over the last five years or so but accelerating rapidly in the last 24 months, they’ve gobbled up almost all of the growth in advertising revenue and begun to engross a substantial amount of the existing advertising revenue as well.

That increased flow of money to the platform monopolies takes it away from the actual journalists who find out things and explain them to you.

[3] One article endorsing the FCC proposal points to the ambiguous role of choke-point giants like Amazon and Google.

Net neutrality’s dubious value is made obvious by the misleading way Democrats and many news outlets reported the decision. “F.C.C. plans net neutrality repeal in a victory for telecoms,” wrote the New York Times. Missing from the headline or lede was that the decision was a loss for Netflix, Amazon, Google, and other corporate giants that provide content.

The logic of this should be obvious: Amazon and Google are on the side of the general public on this issue, but for their own reasons: They don’t want new choke points to be constructed upstream from their choke points.

Roy Moore: Are we really having this conversation?

By now you know the basics: Thursday, the Republican senate candidate in Alabama got accused of drawing a 14-year-old girl into a sexual encounter when he was 32, back in 1979. As Josh Moon of Alabama Political Reporter put it:

For nearly 40-year-old allegations, the Post’s story was about as solid as it could be.

In other words: We’re not talking about rumors-backed-by-anonymous-sources. The Washington Post article that broke the story names and quotes the 14-year-old (Leigh Corfman, now 53). Three other women (also named) tell similar, if less extreme, stories about Moore:

Moore pursued them when they were between the ages of 16 and 18 and he was in his early 30s, episodes they say they found flattering at the time, but troubling as they got older.

The Post found these women; they didn’t come forward on their own. (The one detail I’d still like to hear is how the reporters found the women.)

Neither Corfman nor any of the other women sought out The Post. While reporting a story in Alabama about supporters of Moore’s Senate campaign, a Post reporter heard that Moore allegedly had sought relationships with teenage girls. Over the ensuing three weeks, two Post reporters contacted and interviewed the four women. All were initially reluctant to speak publicly but chose to do so after multiple interviews, saying they thought it was important for people to know about their interactions with Moore. The women say they don’t know one another.

Other details are corroborated: Corfman’s mother remembers the incident where her daughter met Moore, and recalls Corfman telling her about Moore’s advances in the 1990s, when they saw his picture in a newspaper. (Moore says he never met her.) Two of Corfman’s childhood friends (one of them named, the other anonymous) remember her talking about an older man at the time, and the named one recalls Corfman saying Moore’s name.

After the story came out, CNN found more corroboration from Teresa Jones, who was a deputy district attorney working in the same office as Moore at the time:

It was common knowledge that Roy dated high-school girls. Everyone we knew thought it was weird. We wondered why anyone his age would hang out at high school football games and the mall.

In other words, if the story is a smear, it would have to be a fairly large conspiracy, and there’s no way the Post’s reporters aren’t in on it. Is that really the most likely explanation?

Moore has called the accusations “outlandish“, “garbage”, and “politically motivated”, and he says he’ll sue the Post. (I’ll bet we never see that suit.) But there’s something a little off in his denials. In an interview with Sean Hannity, who surely was not trying to trip him up, he claims not to remember Corfman (“I never knew this woman.”), though he does remember two of the women who claimed he approached them when they were teens. (He “generally” didn’t date teen girls, he says.) He doesn’t remember going out on dates with them, or giving one of them alcohol even though she was under the drinking age (as she reports). He did date “a lot of young ladies” at that point in his life, but he doesn’t remember having a girlfriend in her late teens, and “I don’t remember ever dating any girl without the permission of her mother”.

I would guess that most 30-something men don’t remember dating any girl who needed the permission of her mother. But that phrase is suggestive of something else, as I’ll discuss in a few paragraphs.

The political situation. Moore is running in a special election for the remainder of Jeff Sessions’ term in the Senate, which lasts until 2020. The election will be held December 12. It’s already too late to replace Moore’s name on the ballot, though write-ins are possible. However, it’s hard to imagine a Republican write-in candidate succeeding without Moore stepping aside.

Other options are described in the NYT: The governor could delay the special election, which she says she won’t do. If Moore wins, the Senate could refuse to seat him. The Constitution addresses this possibility:

Each House shall be the Judge of the Elections, Returns and Qualifications of its own Members … Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings, punish its Members for disorderly Behaviour, and, with the Concurrence of two thirds, expel a Member.

Ironically, Moore quoted this same passage in 2006 as part of an argument that the House should not seat Rep. Keith Ellison because he’s a Muslim. In Moore’s case, two-thirds would mean all 48 Democratic senators and 19 of the 52 Republicans. Expulsion would set up another special-election situation.

Before the story broke, the RCP polling average on this race had Moore ahead of Democrat Doug Jones by 6 points, with one poll putting the margin at 11. I had been thinking that the polls understated Moore’s lead, because the Raven Republicans (“never Moore”) probably would have come around the same way most never-Trump Republicans did.

Maybe they still will, but there appears to be an initial reaction to the story: A Thursday-to-Saturday poll had Democrat Doug Jones ahead of Moore 46%-42%, or 48%-44% when Undecideds were pushed to make a choice. Another poll, however, shows Moore’s lead shrinking, but still at 10%.

Defense in depth. National Republicans are either partially or totally against Moore. The safe line is Mitch McConnell’s: Moore should get out of the race “if these allegations are true”. But a few national figures have gone further: John McCain left out the “if” and just said “He should immediately step aside.” Mitt Romney was even blunter:

Innocent until proven guilty is for criminal convictions, not elections. I believe Leigh Corfman. Her account is too serious to ignore. Moore is unfit for office and should step aside.

Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey said on “Meet the Press” Sunday that the accusations are more credible than the denials, and Moore should drop out.

But a number of Alabama Republicans have rallied around Moore. Many are simply repeating his charge that the whole thing is a political smear. A number of them, though, have gone further: Even if the allegations are true, they’re just not that bad, or at least not bad enough to allow another Democrat into the Senate.

State Auditor Jim Ziegler offered this as evidence that Moore’s intentions were honorable: He eventually married “one of the younger women”. Moore’s wife was 24 when he married her at age 38. (I had a similar thought — that Moore’s choice of wife proves that he has an eye for younger women — but I wasn’t planning to go there until I heard Ziegler do it.) Also, Joseph was much older than Mary when they married and raised Jesus. (If the sheer absurdity of this doesn’t faze him, I wonder why he doesn’t make an even stronger claim: Think how much older God was when He got Mary pregnant.)

The religious divide is bigger than you think. In general, American Christians tend to picture extreme Christians as like themselves, only moreso: They attend church more often, take the Bible more literally, are more offended by sinful behavior, and so forth. But the Moore controversy is uncovering a conservative Christian subculture that is totally outside the mainstream.

In particular, the claim that there’s nothing wrong with 30-something men pursuing just-out-of-puberty girls is related to a “traditional” view of marriage that most American Christians would find repellent: A 14-year-old girl isn’t going to be an equal partner with a 32-year-old man; but if a wife’s only purpose is to obey her husband and have a lot of babies, she can do that as well an adult woman. Maybe better.

That’s not middle-of-the-road Christianity only moreso, it’s a whole other worldview. Writing for The L.A. Times, Kathryn Brightbill describes growing up within that world, where Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson (whose son Willie spoke at the Republican Convention) advocates marrying 15-year-old girls. (His own wife was 16, and he started dating her when she was 14.) And speakers at conventions for Christian home-schoolers both advocated an exemplified such marriages.

We need to talk about the segment of American culture that probably doesn’t think the allegations against Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore are particularly damning, the segment that will blanch at only two accusations in the Washington Post expose: He pursued a 14-year-old-girl without first getting her parents’ permission, and he initiated sexual contact outside of marriage.

If anything bad happens, of course, it is the girl’s own fault.

Much of the sexual abuse that takes place in Independent Fundamentalist Baptist, or IFB, churches involves adult men targeting 14- to 16-year-old girls. If caught, the teenage victim may be forced to repent the “sin” of having seduced an adult man. Former IFB megachurch pastor Jack Schaap argued that he should be released from prison after being convicted of molesting a 16-year-old girl, asserting that the “aggressiveness” of his victim “inhibited [his] impulse control.”

Nancy French relates similar experiences in The Washington Post.

I was delighted when the preacher volunteered to drop me off. As we drove, I chatted incessantly, happy to have him all to myself without people trying to get his attention in the church parking lot. When we got to my house, I was shocked that he walked me inside my dark house, even more surprised when he lingered in conversation, and thunderstruck when he kissed me right on the lips.

At 12 years old, I swooned over my good luck. He picked me out of all the girls at church. But the relationship, especially after he moved on, reset my moral compass. If all the church conversation about morality and sexual purity was a lie, what else was fake? Now that the “family of God” felt incestuous, I rejected the church and myself. Didn’t I want the preacher’s attention? Didn’t I cause this?

What this is all going to turn on is whether Alabama’s Christians, even those inclined to vote Republican, take a hard look at Roy Moore’s version of Christianity, and realize that they have very little in common with it. Ross Douthat might be a model:

One lesson is that any social order that vests particular forms of power in men needs to do more, not less, to hold the male of the species accountable.

Some cultural conservatives, in evangelical Christianity especially, combine a belief in male headship in churches and families with a “boys will be boys and girls shouldn’t tempt them” attitude toward sex. It’s a combination that’s self-contradictory and deeply toxic, handing men not just power but a permission slip to abuse it — which, predictably, they do.

What Did Virginia Teach Us?

For weeks on this blog, I’d been fretting about the Virginia governor’s race. If we were really in the midst of a Democratic surge that might turn 2018 into a wave election, Virginia shouldn’t have been this tense. Hillary had won there last year (by 5%, aided by a Virginian VP) and Democrats already held the governorship (thanks to Terry McAuliffe’s 2.6% win in 2013). Maybe that didn’t point to a landslide, but surely we couldn’t lose.

Or maybe we could, or at least it looked that way for a while. Polls were averaging out to a 3% Northam advantage, with some showing Gillespie ahead. And Gillespie had been closing with a disturbingly Trumpish message: Northam was going to let Hispanic criminal gangs run wild in Virginia, while Gillespie would protect the monuments celebrating all those heroic Confederate defenders of slavery. And kneeling athletes were relevant somehow.

If he pulled off the upset, Gillespie’s campaign seemed likely to become a model for Republican candidates to keep on Trumping in 2018: Count on fear and race-baiting to bring the base out to vote, and hope Democrats stay home.

It didn’t work out that way. Northam won by 9%. That’s a big enough win to keep the 2018-wave narrative intact: Northam didn’t just repeat Hillary’s showing, he nearly doubled her margin, and more than tripled McAuliffe’s.

But beyond the horse-race aspect, what did we learn?

White identity politics isn’t enough. The clearest lesson is for Republicans: In 2016, Trumpism had two pieces, not just one. Yes, white Christian identity politics was a big chunk of it, but economic populism was another big chunk.

It wasn’t all just building a wall and banning Muslims and winking at the alt-Right. Trump was also going to bring factory and mining jobs back to America’s small towns. He had a healthcare plan that was going to “take care of everybody … the government’s going to pay for it”. He was going to protect Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. He would get tough with China and Mexico — not because the Chinese and Mexicans aren’t white, but because they had perpetrated “the greatest jobs theft in the history of the world“.

Trump voters who were attracted to his white Christian identity politics should still be happy with him. He put Gorsuch on the Supreme Court, he’s got ICE out terrorizing Hispanic immigrants, and he never misses a chance to stand up to ungrateful blacks, defend the Confederacy, or blame Muslims or immigrants (or best of all, Muslim immigrants) for America’s problems.

But the economic-populist side of Trumpism hasn’t been seen since the election.

Health care bills he endorsed would cut billions in Medicaid funding over the years, his tax plan is a bonanza for the wealthy, the budget the GOP passed to facilitate that tax plan cuts Medicare by billions, and Trump’s own budget proposal included billions in Social Security cuts.

Buy American, hire American” has proven to be an empty slogan, and the executive order that supposedly implements it has no real substance. (Not even Trump’s own companies live by it.) Tough on China? Not so much. In April he broke his promise to label China a currency manipulator, and when he went there this week.

Mr. Trump projected an air of deference to China that was almost unheard-of for a visiting American president. Far from attacking Mr. Xi on trade, Mr. Trump saluted him for leading a country that he said had left the United States “so far behind.” He said he could not blame the Chinese for taking advantage of weak American trade policy.

This is, in part, a consequence of his saber-rattling against North Korea: He needs China’s cooperation there, so he’ll have to give in to them on trade.

And Mexico? Let’s just say that they’re not paying for the Wall. Renegotiating NAFTA is proving to be a lot more difficult than just “getting tough” and making bigger demands. If the agreement winds up getting scrapped, the big loser will be American farmers and precisely those rural communities that were counting on Trump for help.

Given that Trump himself has abandoned economic populism, the only “Trumpism” left for Gillespie to adopt was the white Christian identity part. And while that stuff is really powerful for some Americans, those people aren’t a majority. Not in Virginia and not in America as a whole.

I’m not sure how Republicans running in 2018 can deal with this problem. What the Republican majority in Congress has been all about (with Trump’s blessing, for the most part) is traditional Republican trickle-down economics. 2016 Trumpism was unified by an I’m-going-to-protect-you theme, protecting his voters on the one hand from a future where white Christians are a minority, and on the other from a convergence of foreign competition, corporations who have no loyalty to their workers, and economic trends moving against them. A 2018 of message of “I protected you from Mexicans and Muslims and transgender people in your bathroom, but I tried to take away your health insurance and gave your boss a big tax cut” doesn’t hang together nearly as well.

Unity, calmness, confidence. On the Democratic side, the lesson is fuzzier, but I think there’s still something to learn.

The progressive/centrist split in the national party tried to project itself onto the primary, but it never really took. Superficially, the Bernie-backed progressive (Tom Perrillo) lost to the establishment candidate (Northam), but the divide between them was never that large, and Perrillo supported Northam in the general election seemingly without reservations. Northam, in turn, endorsed a number of progressive causes: $15 minimum wage, free community college, restoring voting rights to felons who have served their time, and Medicaid expansion.

Northam took advantage of his comforting image as a pediatrician, and talked calmly about jobs, healthcare, and education. He appealed to traditional Virginia gentility, saying of Trump “We’re not letting him bring his hate into Virginia.”, and (on just about every issue) talking about all Virginians working together to find solutions. That, of course, is a traditional political bromide, but it contrasts nicely with scare-mongering about immigrants.

In part, Northam did that because he had to — it’s hard to picture him shouting and rabble-rousing. But I wonder if that isn’t the right approach: progressive positions on issues, expressed calmly in terms of traditional American values like justice and fairness, rather than in a way that makes them sound radical. Northam’s manner projected confidence that our problems are solvable if we work together — and not solvable if we let people take advantage of our worst instincts and turn us against each other.

Whatever approach Democratic candidates take in 2018, it needs to take advantage of the hole in the Republican message: The vague economic populism of 2016 was a mirage. Republicans have been telling white Christians who to blame for their problems, but not offering viable solutions.

Where it shows up, and where it doesn’t. The exit polls can be sliced and diced all sorts of ways, but here’s what jumped out at me: Gillespie slightly exceeded Trump’s totals among low-income households (under $50K annually) and high-income households (over $100K), but Northam clobbered him among middle-income households. In the $50-$100K bracket, Trump edged Clinton 49%-47% in 2016, but Northam beat Gillespie 57%-41% Tuesday. That’s what turned an overall 5% Clinton margin into a 9% Northam margin.

So I went back and looked at the 2013 exit polls: The Republican candidate won the $50K-$99K households 51%-43%, almost the exact mirror image of the 2017 result. So maybe this is a trend.

I could imagine a lot of reasons: Maybe the middle-income people who changed their minds have health insurance, but aren’t sure they can keep it. They value education, but have to depend on the public schools. They plan to send their kids to college, but aren’t sure they’ll be able afford it. They’re not angry and looking for someone to blame, but they are worried and looking for a reason to hope.

I don’t have a good explanation for why the low-income households haven’t shifted. Clinton carried them 53%-41%, and Northam’s margin was about the same: 56%-43%. Maybe a more dramatic message would have helped Northam here; I don’t know.

RCP’s Ross Baird found another interesting way to look at the results: He examined Virginia’s five “pivot counties”, counties that went Obama-Obama-Trump in the last three presidential elections: They were dead heats Tuesday. What most pivot counties have in common, he says, is that “more businesses have died there than have been born … despite a net increase in entrepreneurial activity across the country since the end of the Great Recession.”

That suggests that Democrats still haven’t completed the sale. Trump may have lost his shine, but there are still Obama voters Democrats aren’t reaching.

Rigged?

The relationship between the Clinton campaign and the DNC was more incestuous than we thought. Does it follow that the primaries were rigged and the nomination was stolen?


Thursday, former Democratic National Committee chair Donna Brazile rocked the Democratic Party when an excerpt from her upcoming book was released by Politico. It begins shortly after the 2016 Convention, with Brazile taking the DNC’s acting chairmanship and promising Bernie Sanders that she’ll “get to the bottom of whether Hillary Clinton’s team had rigged the nomination process”. Though the excerpt never again uses the word rigged (and Brazile herself denied Sunday that the primaries were rigged), her strong implication is that the answer is Yes:

By September 7, the day I called Bernie, I had found my proof and it broke my heart.

The basic story she tells is that in 2015 the DNC was deep in debt, the Clinton campaign bailed it out, and in return it got control over many DNC decisions, like who the communications director would be, and veto power over a few other appointments. The memo outlining this agreement has since come out. As Brazile says, it outlines a surprising and ethically questionable degree of incest between the DNC and the Clinton campaign. However, it also includes this paragraph, which Brazile didn’t mention:

Nothing in this agreement shall be construed to violate the DNC’s obligation of impartiality and neutrality through the Nominating process. All activities performed under this agreement will be focused exclusively on preparations for the General Election and not the Democratic Primary.

So the big questions are: In spite of that paragraph, did the DNC violate its obligation of impartiality and neutrality? If so, did it do so in ways that made a material difference? And does this validate the claims Sanders supporters have been making all along, that the nomination was stolen away from Bernie?

How it looked at the time. During the campaign, claims from Sanders supporters that Clinton was rigging the primaries would periodically show up in my social-media feeds, and I’d check them out as well as an ordinary person with access to the internet reasonably could. I never found anything that held up, or that went beyond what I considered normal politics, where candidates are always jockeying for some kind of advantage.

It was clear to me that people at the DNC were rooting for Hillary to win, but I didn’t consider that shocking. If you’re in politics, you have political opinions; nobody is neutral in their hearts. Folks at the RNC were obviously rooting against Trump, too, and would have been much happier nominating Bush or Rubio. (I’m sure if you bugged the umpire’s locker room at a baseball stadium, you’d occasionally hear them talking about players they like and don’t like, because they were all baseball fans before they became umpires.) The question isn’t what DNC officials thought, or even the opinions that they traded with each other in emails they didn’t expect anyone else to see. The question what they did.

Brazile comments on that:

I had tried to search out any other evidence of internal corruption that would show that the DNC was rigging the system to throw the primary to Hillary, but I could not find any in party affairs or among the staff. I had gone department by department, investigating individual conduct for evidence of skewed decisions, and I was happy to see that I had found none.

Most of the theories I kept seeing went far beyond what the DNC would be able to do, even if it was completely suborned. Anything to do with polling places and vote-counting, for example, was way outside their capabilities. State and local election boards run primaries, not party national committees. But any voting irregularity in the Democratic primaries — even if it seemed just as likely to target Clinton voters — became part of the Clinton-is-stealing-Bernie’s-votes lore.

The mainstream press went through the same process I did, which is why only two specific DNC-related actions are getting mentioned in the articles about Brazile’s book:

  • the schedule of Democratic debates seemed tilted toward the candidate who didn’t need debates to get voters’ attention,
  • Hillary’s campaign pushed the legal limits of its DNC  joint-fund-raising agreement, while Bernie’s campaign ignored theirs.

What’s new? Apparently, the Clinton campaign had more control over the DNC’s side of the joint-fund-raising money than we previously knew. That money was supposed to benefit the eventual nominee and the Party’s general-election effort as a whole. For the Clinton campaign to be in control of it was not right, but there are two very different possible levels of not-rightness here.

One possibility, the less toxic one, is that Clinton wanted the general-election machinery (data collection, polling, etc.) set up in a particular way, and didn’t want to wait until September to start doing it. This would be presumptuous, treating the nomination process as a foregone conclusion. But it would not have compromised the primary campaign. If Bernie had won, he would have found general-election machinery in place, ready for his use, but designed according to Hillary’s specifications.

The more toxic possibility is that the DNC’s money got funneled back into Clinton’s primary campaign, and was used against Bernie. If that’s true, that’s a very serious thing and heads should roll. Investigators should start looking for broken laws and start prosecuting people if they find any.

However, there was no evidence at the time that the second possibility was happening, and as far as I know there still isn’t. Brazile does not make that claim, and the documents she points to would seem to ban that, if they were followed. Anyone who wants to investigate that claim should have at it, and I’m willing to be convinced if any actual evidence shows up. But so far I haven’t seen any.

A spark in the gunpowder factory. People who write books often lead with something provocative and maybe a little overstated. It gets people talking about the book and makes it a must-read for anybody who wants to stay on top of the controversy. What Brazile has done in this excerpt, then, is not that unusual. (She does something similar elsewhere, telling a very unlikely story about the possibility of replacing Clinton with Biden after the convention. Throughout, Brazile portrays herself as being uniquely prescient about the coming debacle, despite the times when Clinton had double-digit leads in the polls.)

The problem is that her book isn’t coming out in a vacuum. In addition to debate schedules and other relatively minor things that appear to have actually happened, the pro-Bernie silo on the internet is still passing around charges of pro-Clinton vote-rigging and voter suppression that the evidence just does not support. It is an article of faith in certain circles that Bernie was the true choice of the voters, who had Clinton imposed on them by nefarious means.

It’s worth remembering the official vote totals. In the Democratic primaries as a whole, Clinton got 16.9 million votes, more than 55%. Her margin over Sanders was 3.7 million votes. Claiming that Sanders actually won requires believing in a fraud of the same scale as Trump’s claim that he actually won the popular vote in the general election.

In this environment, using the word rigged tells the conspiracy theorists that they were right all along. The claims Brazile is actually making may be fairly narrow, but the conclusions that people with prior opinions will draw from it are much broader.

The Trump parallel. It’s useful to compare Sanders’ situation on the Democratic side with Trump’s on the Republican side. Both were outsider candidates running against the party establishment, harnessing grass-roots discontent and anger. In each case, the party establishment believed it would be suicidal to nominate the outsider.

Going into the 2016 cycle, I think most observers would have claimed that the Republican establishment had more power than the Democratic. Democrats had a history of previously little-known candidates sweeping in: McGovern, Carter, Dukakis, Obama. On the Republican side, nominations more typically went to the next guy in line. The power brokers of the GOP are more obvious and more powerful. No Democratic donor, for example, plays as large a role as the Koch brothers do on the Republican side.

And yet, Trump got nominated and Sanders didn’t. Trump’s path, I think, shows the overall weakness of party establishments in this era. Nobody at the RNC was able to marginalize Trump, or to force out minor candidates who were splitting the establishment vote. Throughout Trump’s rise, we kept hearing about the theory from The Party Decides, in which “invisible primaries” of insiders pick the nominee, and then insiders signal the voters, who ratify the insiders’ choice in primaries.

In 2016 that theory held on the Democratic side but not on the Republican, for the simple reason, I think, that Trump got the votes and Sanders didn’t. You may or may not like the fact that Democratic voters ratified Clinton as the nominee, but they did.

What should happen? To start with, Hillary Clinton has already told us that she’s not running for anything again, so unless laws were broken — and not even Brazile claims that — there’s really nothing to be done regarding her personally.

Obviously, the DNC will need to be extra transparent in the next cycle, and hopefully beyond. No one enters the 2020 cycle in the same commanding position Clinton had four years ago, though, so it’s hard to see how the same mistakes would be made anyway. But there needs to be some process by which we can all assure ourselves that no candidate is getting an unfair advantage from the Party.

Beyond that, there’s a bigger problem that affects the Republicans as well as the Democrats: Parties are open to being dominated by candidates like Clinton, or bullied by large donors like the Kochs, because they are inherently weak in this era. Bernie Sanders represents a different side of this problem: The Democratic Party isn’t something he belongs to (he doesn’t), it’s just a structure for seeking office.

Democrats suffer for this at the local level more than Republicans, because Republicans are more likely to be funded by state-level power brokers like North Carolina’s Art Pope, or by corporations who understand the power state government has to dole out favors. Democrats are more reliant on the star-power of national candidates like Obama or Clinton or Sanders, and the local parties correspondingly get short-changed.

It could be that we are in a transitional period, and parties will eventually go away, or come to mean something completely different. I wish I had something more to say about the coming structure, and whether it will be better or worse.

The Real Reason Republicans Can’t Pass Major Legislation

It’s not Trump. It’s the fantasy-bubble that conservative voters live inside.


The most surprising thing about last summer’s many attempts to repeal ObamaCare wasn’t that they failed. It was the peculiar way that the legislation proceeded in both houses of Congress: without meaningful committee hearings, with minimal debate on the floor of either the House or Senate, sometimes without analysis from the CBO, and often without a even draft of a bill until the last possible moment. Again and again, Republicans were urged to vote Yes, not because the plan in front of them was good for American healthcare, but to “keep the process moving”. If McConnell and Ryan could have passed a healthcare bill in a sealed envelope, not to be opened until the White House signing ceremony, I think they would have.

The secret sauce that would make it all work was always going to be added later, by someone else: Moderates in the House supported the AHCA, believing the Senate would fix the aspects of it that President Trump later called “mean“. Senators offered to vote for the “skinny repeal” only if Paul Ryan could guarantee that the House would change it. Graham-Cassidy passed the buck to the states: Sure, it looked like less money that would give worse coverage to fewer people, but since all the details would be decided at the state level, senators could tell themselves the magic would happen there.

Republican governors, meanwhile, were mostly relieved the bill failed, because they had no magic either.

Gov. Brian Sandoval said Thursday that the flexibility fellow Republican Sen. Dean Heller promised will be good for Nevada in a health-care bill he’s sponsoring is a “false choice” because the legislation will also slash funding.

Because these efforts kept failing, Congress actually ended up spending a great deal of time on ObamaCare-repeal bills. The first one failed in the House in March, and Graham-Cassidy didn’t fail until the end of September. But it was more than half a year of breathless sprints, without any time to tell the public what they were doing.

All in all, it was no wonder the various ObamaCare-repeal bills polled badly. Literally no one was explaining to the people exactly what this particular bill did and why it would be good for them.

Go back, Jack, do it again. Now we’re on to tax reform, and the same strange process seems to be repeating. Republicans are absolutely in agreement that they are for tax reform. It’s going to cut corporate tax rates, but also give major benefits to the middle class. It will be “pro-growth”, and will avoid blowing up the deficit by “closing loopholes”, though no one can seem to agree on any particular loophole. Trump listed the “principles” tax reform will be based on, and then leaders from the House, Senate, and Trump administration agreed on a “framework“. Now the congressional leadership has even set a deadline: Thanksgiving.

But there’s no bill. It’s rumored a bill will appear in the House this week, maybe Wednesday, but no one seems to know what will be in it. They’re still announcing major changes (like property tax deductions), still negotiating on other significant details (401(k) deductions), and losing support over the few decisions they have announced (mortgage interest).

The framework says that individual income taxes will have three tax brackets (or maybe four), and names the rates for those brackets, but not the income levels where those rates kick in. 20% has been floated as a corporate tax rate, and maybe the deficit will be allowed to go up an additional $1.5 trillion over ten years, but that’s not set in stone either. Hardly anything is.

Thanksgiving is just a few weeks away, and the public is in the same situation it was with the various healthcare bills: Republicans can make lofty claims about what the tax-reform bill will ultimately deliver, but any hard analysis that refutes those claims can be hand-waved away, because the details aren’t set yet. [1]

Once again, Republicans are justifying their votes not on the content of what they’re voting for, but to move the process along. John McCain, for example, voted Yes on the Senate version of the budget resolution that sets up tax reform, but said: “At the end of the day, we all know that the Senate budget resolution will not impact final appropriations.” Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.) justified his Yes vote like this: “The budget that came back to us is a crap sandwich, but it happens to be the only thing on the menu.”

If the ObamaCare-repeal pattern continues to hold, the bill announced this week will debut to a hail of criticism and will go back into whatever secret negotiations produced it. This will happen as many times as is necessary to set up a last-minute, there’s-no-time-for-a-CBO-analysis vote. Wavering Republicans won’t be persuaded with facts and logic, they’ll be pressured with threats of mid-term disaster if the bill doesn’t pass. Whatever it actually says won’t be the point.

No one will claim this bill, but everyone will insist they have no choice but to pass it. Whether they do or not will come down to one or two votes.

Why does this keep happening? There’s no reason why Republicans couldn’t have introduced a tax-reform bill months ago, scheduled several weeks of hearings in all the appropriate committees, and tried to raise public support for their ideas in the usual way. They could argue that their bill is actually good, rather than claiming that they have no choice. They could have done the same on healthcare, and they could do the same on all the rest of their priorities: immigration, infrastructure, and so forth.

So why don’t they?

The answer is actually quite simple: Republican base voters live in a fantasy world that long predates Donald Trump. It has been carefully constructed over decades by politicians, Fox News, talk radio, and the rest of the conservative media establishment. Here are a few features of that fantasy world:

  • Tax cuts pay for themselves by creating economic growth.
  • Government spending is mostly waste, so it can be slashed without hurting anybody.
  • Climate change isn’t happening, or if it is, burning fossil fuels has nothing to do with it.
  • When the rich make money, everybody makes money.
  • The free market can solve all problems, including providing healthcare to the poor.
  • White Christians are the primary victims of discrimination.
  • The uninsured can get all the medical treatment they need in emergency rooms.
  • Elections at all levels are tainted by massive voter fraud, as millions of illegal immigrants cast ballots.
  • Big business wants what’s best for America, so there’s no need to stop them from polluting our air and water, or from making products that kill their workers or customers.

The fantasies are so extensive, and so divorced from reality, that there is literally no major issue that can be discussed in a rational way inside that bubble.

Any public debate Republican politicians participate in has to happen inside that bubble, because anyone who disputes any of those fantasies will be labeled a RINO and will likely face a primary opponent who sticks to the bubble orthodoxy.

That process worked great as long as they were out of power. The Ryans and McConnells and Cruzs and Gohmerts could have fantasy-world discussions that came to fantasy-world conclusions, and it was all fine, because none of it ever had to confront reality. They never accomplished what their voters wanted — nobody could have, since it’s impossible — but that was OK, because those horrible Democrats were blocking the way. It all would work, if only they were in charge.

So now they’re in power. All Republican public debate still has to happen inside the fantasy bubble, but now at some point the results of that debate have to transit over to the real world. There have to be actual pieces of legislation that do real things that can be analyzed by people who live in reality. And even if Republicans can discredit that analysis somehow, eventually there are still real events to deal with. Eventually, people pay taxes and drive on roads and send their kids to schools. They find (or don’t find) jobs and get (or lose) health insurance. The fantasies and rhetoric don’t help you then.

That’s what they found out in Kansas.

The strange process we keep seeing in Congress is an effort to stay inside the fantasy bubble until the last possible minute, then to sprint across the open ground between fantasy-world debates and real-world decisions as fast as possible.

So for a few more days, tax reform can be great and wonderful. It can give every worker a raise, set off an investment boom, and cut everybody’s taxes without losing revenue. Whatever tax break you’re worried about losing — don’t worry, the details aren’t set yet.

But soon they’ll have to publish a bill that the public can read. Then the sprint will start.


[1] For comparison, the first version of ObamaCare — the America’s Affordable Health Choices Act — was introduced in the House on July 14, 2009. The final version, the ACA, was passed on March 23, 2010, about 8 months later. Various things got changed during that time, but for every day of those 8 months, ObamaCare was a real proposal that could be authoritatively critiqued and analyzed.

Niger, the Condolence Controversy, and Why the Founders Feared a Professional Military

Would we have troops in dangerous places the American public has never heard of, if everyone’s child were at risk to be sent there? Would we respond the same way when some of those Americans died?


When I first heard that four American soldiers had died in Niger on October 4, I had to ask two embarrassing questions:

  • Where the hell is Niger?
  • Do we really have troops there?

So I’ll assume that at least a few of you are as ignorant as I was and start there. Niger (I’m hearing it pronounced either NAI-jer or nee-JAIR — sometimes both ways by the same TV anchor in one broadcast) is in the northern half of Africa, close to the center of the wide part. It’s landlocked, and sits just to the north of Nigeria [1], between the equally unknown (to me) countries of Mali and Chad. Here’s a map.

Apparently, we have about 800 troops in Niger. They are part of our attempt to deal with the region’s multi-faceted Islamic insurgency: Boko Haram in Nigeria; a number of groups in Mali that recently united under Al Qaeda; and ISIS in the Greater Sahara, which the Pentagon believes is responsible for this attack.

Since Islamic jihad is more of a global vision than a national one, it’s not surprising that the conflicts spill over into neighboring countries. So the governments in the region are all working together against these groups. They’re backed by France, which used to consider the whole area French West Africa (except for Nigeria, which was a British colony). So far, Americans play a secondary role, mainly training local troops and flying drones.

The attack is being described as an ambush in an area where the Americans did not expect to run into trouble. (After all, they’re not supposed to be on a combat mission.) So far, our government has released very little about how this all happened, and the president has said nothing at all. This is bothering Senate Foreign Relations Chair John McCain to the point that he’s threatening a subpoena. [2]

This incident ought to raise another question in your mind: Where else does the U.S. have troops? Politico published this helpful map of U.S. military bases around the world.

Not all of those dots are danger zones, of course. (I don’t worry much about the one in Canada.) But a lot of them are near places where people are shooting at each other.

How many of those dots are in countries you could name? For how many of them could you explain why American troops are there, what local problems they are trying to solve, and what level of danger they face? How would you feel if you or your child or someone else you care about might be sent there at any moment?

The condolence distraction. When Americans are dying by the dozens week after week, as they did in Iraq, the President typically says little or nothing in public about individual deaths. But deaths of American troops or other government officials in a surprising place or manner usually calls for some public acknowledgment. For example: President Obama, flanked by Secretary Clinton, read a solemn five-minute statement in the Rose Garden the day after the Benghazi attack in Libya. (“No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation.”)

So the day after the Niger attack, the NSC staff drafted a statement for President Trump, but for unexplained reasons he didn’t use it, or say anything at all. Last Monday, nearly two weeks after the attack, at an event about something else entirely [3], a reporter asked him:

Why haven’t we heard anything from you so far about the soldiers that were killed in Niger? And what do you have to say about that?

That question was not at all about the soldiers’ families. Trump was asked why he hadn’t made any statement to the public about the soldiers, their sacrifice, or their mission. (“Why haven’t we heard … “) The second question “what do you have to say about that?” gave him an opening to fix his apparent oversight.

But instead, Trump started talking about his private communications with the families, and opened a can of worms by lying about how President Obama and other previous presidents had treated them.

if you look at President Obama and other Presidents, most of them didn’t make calls, a lot of them didn’t make calls.

When challenged on the truth of this, he said, “I don’t know. That’s what I was told.” It’s as if he had been gossiping over the back fence, rather than speaking on the record as the President of the United States.

That claim touched off the whole week-long media firestorm, which never would have happened if Trump had simply answered the question he was asked, rather than distract everyone with his hot-button lie about Obama. Is that what he meant to do? Hard to say, but it’s also hard to argue with the result: Rather than question why we’re in Niger, we’ve been rehashing the endless argument about whether Trump is a crappy human being.

Sgt. Johnson’s family and Congresswoman Wilson. Trump’s claim that he treats the families of fallen soldiers better than previous presidents pulled those families into a political controversy — something that to the best of my knowledge had never happened before. [4] Respect for the families’ grief had always been a shared value, not something to claim an advantage from.

The press, naturally, tried to determine whether Trump’s claim was true. In the course of that collective investigation, someone talked to Rep. Fredrica Wilson of Florida, who was a friend of the family of one of the four men killed in Niger, Sgt. LaDavid Johnson. Wilson had been in a car with Johnson’s widow and his mother when the President’s call came, and she heard it because the widow, Myeshia Johnson, put it on speaker phone. Wilson recalls Trump saying that Johnson “knew what he signed up for”, a statement that she found insensitive and claimed that the family was offended by.

Trump went ballistic about this, accusing Wilson of making it all up. Even after her account had been verified by Johnson’s mother, and indirectly verified by his own Chief of Staff John Kelly [5], Trump continued to label Wilson’s version a “total lie“. It would follow that the grieving mother is a liar too. (This morning the widow gave her own account, saying she was very angry at Trump “stumbling on trying to remember my husband’s name”. Trump immediately went to Twitter to argue with her. In her interview, Myeshia Johnson asked the obvious question: “Why would we fabricate something like that?”)

Kelly and Sanders. What Kelly said in Trump’s defense is interesting on its own. It starts with his own experience when his son was killed in Afghanistan in 2010.

Let me tell you what my best friend, Joe Dunford, told me — because he was my casualty officer. He said, Kel, he was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed. He knew what he was getting into by joining that 1 percent. He knew what the possibilities were because we’re at war. And when he died, in the four cases we’re talking about, Niger, and my son’s case in Afghanistan — when he died, he was surrounded by the best men on this Earth: his friends.

That’s what the President tried to say to four families the other day. [6] I was stunned when I came to work yesterday morning, and broken-hearted at what I saw a member of Congress doing. A member of Congress who listened in on a phone call from the President of the United States to a young wife, and in his way tried to express that opinion — that he’s a brave man, a fallen hero, he knew what he was getting himself into because he enlisted. There’s no reason to enlist; he enlisted. And he was where he wanted to be, exactly where he wanted to be, with exactly the people he wanted to be with when his life was taken.

Kelly then pressed his attack on Rep. Wilson by giving a false account of a speech she made in 2015, citing her as an example of the saying that “empty barrels make the most noise”. [7] He took a few questions, but only from reporters who “know a Gold Star parent or sibling”. Apparently, General Kelly believes he is not answerable to anyone else. As long as Trump hides behind Kelly, he’s not answerable to anyone else either.

When Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was confronted by the fact that Kelly had lied about Wilson [8], she at first tried to dodge, and then made this astounding claim:

If you want to go after General Kelly, that’s up to you. But I think that that—if you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general, I think that that’s something highly inappropriate.

Four-star Marine generals — even retired ones who are doing Reince Preibus’ old job — are not to be questioned on the lies they tell.

The professional military. It’s striking how many of this week’s events are related in one way or another to the post-Vietnam professionalization of the American military. The United States’ armed forces have always been centered on a small core of career military officers, and in times of crisis many Americans have volunteered to fight for their country. But from Lexington to Saigon, we have relied on involuntary citizen-soldiers in times of war. Early on, they formed the militias. [9] From the Civil War to Vietnam, they were draftees. Military service was not their career choice, a way to raise money for college, or part of any other personal strategy. It was their duty to the country. The country, in turn, had a duty to use their service wisely.

That all changed after Vietnam, where the government learned how difficult it was to fight an unpopular war with citizen-soldiers. “What are we doing in Vietnam?” is a much more immediate question if members of your own family — and members of everyone’s families — face the risk of dying there. The movement against the Vietnam War had a much greater urgency than the subsequent efforts to end the Iraq or Afghanistan Wars. Conversely, many fewer people had the luxury of being apathetic.

Consider how many facts about the Niger attack and its aftermath would be different if most of the soldiers stationed in those far-flung bases were draftees rather than volunteers.

  • Parents with draft-age children would know where American soldiers were being sent, and would have opinions about whether they should be there.
  • Before sending troops into a hotspot, presidents would feel a stronger obligation to make a case to the American people.
  • Voters would expect their representatives in Congress to be asking the hard questions, and would not tolerate Congress ducking its responsibility to authorize or not authorize military commitments.
  • Neither Trump nor Kelly nor any of the rest of us could comfort ourselves by saying that a fallen soldier “knew what he was getting himself into because he enlisted”. We would bear responsibility for interrupting people’s lives, making them soldiers, and sending them into danger. Even those who enlisted would have done so under the threat of being drafted.

And there is a fifth point that is more subtle: The country’s relationship to the military would be different. The all-volunteer Army has a relationship with fewer people, but that relationship is more intense. “Military family” has become a stronger identity.

The danger a professionalized military poses to democracy is that soldiers may come to think of themselves as a breed apart, with more loyalty to the Pentagon than to Congress or to the electorate (which has remained oblivious to them, no matter where they’ve been sent or what risks they’ve faced). Generals who commanded citizen-soldiers always had an ambiguous relationship with them; command, like the whole soldiering experience, was temporary. But generals leading professional soldiers may come to see them as their constituency and to count on their personal loyalty.

American voters have often looked favorably on successful generals, from Washington to Grant to Eisenhower. Political careers on both sides of the aisle — from John McCain to Tammy Duckworth — still arise out of military service. But in many other countries, soldiers develop a less healthy attitude towards government: They feel that their military service entitles them to rule. Such countries are often subject to military coups.

We are not there yet, but the signs are bad. The Trump administration devalues every non-military public institution: the civilian agencies (“bureaucrats!”), the press (“fake news!”), scientists, courts (“unelected judges”), Congress, and even the electorate, which it falsely portrays as corrupted by the fraudulent votes of non-citizens. The administration is full of generals, including in posts where generals are not supposed to serve, like Secretary of Defense. Trump’s own behavior has made the presidency so untrustworthy that liberals and conservatives alike are hoping that his generals (Kelly, Mattis, and McMaster) “manage” him. The New Republic‘s Jeet Heer was already discussing this in August:

Democracy does not work with a power vacuum for a president. As Trump makes a mockery of his office, he has left America to drift in two fundamentally anti-democratic directions, with the military exercising ever greater power as neo-Nazi street protesters form militias of their own. People of good faith around the country may be trying desperately to counter both, but this is fundamentally a political crisis that has to have a political solution. The president is unfit to serve, and until Congress comes to its senses and remembers its constitutional powers, this is what we can expect: a weakened president subservient to the military egging on armed fascists as they take to the streets.

The Founders worried about this. Both at the Constitutional Convention and in the First Congress (which wrote and passed the Bill of Rights), the Founders argued about how the new nation would defend itself. Having just fought a revolution, George Washington in particular recognized the importance of a well-drilled army that follows orders and isn’t tempted to head for home when the fields are ready to harvest.

But many others also feared such an army. An army that follows orders too easily can be sent places that a citizen militia would refuse to go. It might fight imperial wars rather than wars of national defense. “A standing army,” quipped Elbridge Gerry, “is like a standing member [i.e., penis] — an excellent assurance of domestic tranquility, but a dangerous temptation to foreign adventure.”

Worst of all, it might install its own leader as ruler of the country. The original point of the Second Amendment was not that armed citizens might overthrow a tyrannical central government (as the NRA has it now), but that through local and state militias, the People might defend themselves, obviating the need for a standing federal army under all but emergency circumstances. A well-regulated militia is “essential to the security of a free state” because a large standing army is a threat to that freedom. [10]

Ships have sailed. Few Americans want to go back to the Jefferson-era system of militias. We don’t want to be Minutemen, ready to grab our muskets and assemble on the Green in case of invasion or Indian raid or pirate attack. We don’t want to disband the U.S. Army or our local police departments. We are also happy to be able to plan our careers without worrying that our draft numbers might come up and send us to God-knows-where.

What’s more, nobody’s too sure how any other system would work in this era. You can’t just take random people off the street, train them for a few weeks, hand them 21st-century weapons, and expect good things to happen. Even if we could all agree that we wanted the United States to get out of its current role in the global balance of power, those commitments would need to be carefully unwound, not just abandoned. We would need to re-envision the global mission of the United States, or else we’ll lurch back and forth between “What are we doing in Africa?” when our troops get ambushed, but then “Why aren’t we doing anything?” the next time Boko Haram kidnaps a few hundred Nigerian girls.

So for now and possibly for a long time into the future, we have a professional military spread all over the world. That fact creates risks for our democracy, risks that have been recognized for hundreds of years. If we can’t change the fact — at least not immediately — we should at the very least keep our eyes on those risks.

That means:

  • Paying attention to where our troops go and why, even if we don’t know any of them.
  • Pushing back against efforts to demean civilian institutions of government, and demanding that the people in charge of those institutions do their jobs rather than yield to the military.
  • Refusing to be cowed by military authorities, or to let them off the hook when they behave dishonorably.

And in the long run, we need to look for ways out of this situation. The Rome of Cicero’s era tried to be a republic at home and a military empire abroad. They failed, and eventually we will too.


[1] Both countries get their names from the Niger River, which they share.

[2] When the government says little or nothing, other voices fill the silence. Thursday night, Rachel Maddow did some speculative-but-plausible dot-connecting:

  1. For reasons that don’t quite add up, Chad wound up on the Trump administration’s latest travel-ban list, which was announced on September 24.
  2. Chad has one of the more effective anti-terrorist forces in the area. Shortly after the travel-ban insult, Chad began withdrawing its troops from Niger.
  3. On October 4, four Americans were ambushed ISIS fighters in a region of Niger previously believed to be safe.

“If I were president,” she suggested, “I might not want to talk about this either.”

[3] He was making a joint appearance with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, in an effort to show that “We have the same agenda.”

[4] It also set off a race at the White House to get condolence letters out before the press could report their absence.

The full back-and-forth of this has been covered extensively elsewhere, so I’m not going to rehash it in detail. One the crazier stories, unrelated to any point I’m making here, concerns the $25,000 Trump promised to a soldier’s father in June, apparently forgot about, and then made good on after The Washington Post reported the story this week.

[5] Kelly explained why Trump might have said something like that and what he meant by it. He pointedly did not deny that Trump said it.

[6] It’s not clear why either Trump or Kelly thought that a pregnant widow would be comforted by the same thoughts that comforted a general about his son’s death, because some of the issues are very different. In addition to all the other reasons a young man or woman might enlist, a general’s son might be trying to follow in his father’s footsteps or win his father’s respect. In effect, Dunford was reassuring Kelly that his son’s death wasn’t his fault; it was the result of choices the son made for himself.

By contrast, I would expect a wife to want to believe that her husband’s last thoughts were of her, and not that his military comrades were “exactly the people he wanted to be with” as he died.

[7] It’s striking how many of Kelly’s criticisms of Wilson actually apply much better to Trump: He has politicized dead soldiers; he grandstands; he makes a lot of noise about things he doesn’t understand; instead of respecting those who deserve respect, he makes everything about himself and his own accomplishments. Obviously, Kelly doesn’t say any of that to Trump. So it’s no wonder he grabbed a chance to unleash those bottled-up feelings on a different target.

[8] A Kelly defender might say that he simply remembered the incident wrong. And that would be a valid defense if he had responded off-the-cuff to a question about something that happened two years ago. But it was Kelly who brought the incident up, in a setting where he had time to prepare. He had both the opportunity and the responsibility to get it right, but he chose not to.

[9] The militias of the early American Republic were not voluntary. All men of appropriate age and ability were required by law to arm themselves and show up periodically for training and drills.

[10] For a detailed account of this, see The Second Amendment, a biography by Michael Waldman. That’s also where I found the Gerry quote.

The Billie Jean Republicans

As I’ve been listening to prominent Republicans like Bob Corker try to distance themselves from the man they helped elect president, I’ve been hearing a beat in the background. It took a while to figure out where it was from: that ultimate song about the denial no one believes, Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean“. Once I realized that, I listened harder, and eventually I started hearing words.

I picture this as a production number, with a high-ranking congressional Republican backed by a dancing chorus of corporate donors. On the off-chance that somebody out there has the resources to make this happen, you have my permission in advance.

All I wanted was lower tax, regulation lax.
I didn’t mean to promote attacks on refugees.
If he does, it’s on him, not on me.
Putting down refugees — if he does, it’s on him, not on me.

I never minded some Chinese-made, if it’s from free trade.
 No sane man wants a foundation laid to build his wall.
If he does, that’s on him, not on me.

I was always rooting for Jeb or Lindsay Graham
Marco Rubio or even Cruz.
I never believed it would all come down to him.
But when it was time to choose
I couldn’t make myself refuse.

[with chorus]
Donald Trump is not our fault. (No!)
He’s just a guy who came to power in our name.
But the Party’s not to blame.
He’s in power in our name, but our Party’s not to blame.

I didn’t flinch when he let it fly, the Birther lie.
I heard the tape about migrant rape. I let it go.
What he says, it’s on him, not on me.
So whatever it means, just remember to keep your hands clean.
(They’re not clean. They’re not clean.)

I know he bragged about sex assault, it’s not my fault.
Will I have to keep them in a vault, my wife and girls?
But what he did, it’s on him, not on me.

In Charlottesville by tiki light, it was quite a sight.
All those fine people from the alt-Right chanting “Sieg Heil!”
What they do, it’s on them, not on me.

People used to tell me, be careful what you say.
Don’t go around raising young men’s hate.
But his crowds just eat it up
When there’s violence in the air.
And unless it’s about race,
Maybe we’re in second place.

[with chorus until the end]
Donald Trump is not our fault. (No!)
He’s just a guy who came to power in our name.
But the Party’s not to blame.
He’s in power in our name, but our Party’s not to blame.

Donald Trump is not our fault. (No!)
Donald Trump is not our fault. (No!)
Stevie Bannon’s not our fault. (No!)
David Duke is not our fault. (No!)
Judge Roy Moore is not our fault. (No!)
Richard Spencer’s not our fault. (No!)
Donald Trump is not our fault. (No!)

[repeat and fade]

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.